Man giving money to teller at cash department window, closeup

The Stranger Who Changed My Life

By Gary Philips

I think everyone has people who have influenced their lives making them who they are. Certainly, my parents can be counted among those most influential in determining what I believed about myself. I believe my math ability, at a time when women were considered “not good” at math, is only a result of my parents telling me I was good in math “just like my father.” I believed them and never questioned how they came to that conclusion. It was just true; I was good at math. As a high school math teacher, I would cringe on parent nights when a parent would say their child was just like them. They were terrible at math, or so they thought, so naturally, it gave their child a reason and excuse not to try or be successful in a math class.

But this is not about family, friends, or teachers who influenced my behavior as an adult. It is about a perfect stranger.

During the summers of my college years, from 1964 to 1968, I worked as a replacement teller for those who went on vacation. It was a plumb job that paid more than most summer jobs. I was very lucky. It was expected that over the summers, I would earn money for the “incidentals” I would need in college. My parents worked hard to pay for my tuition, room, board, and books. However, I was expected to pay for everything else I needed, which included drug store needs, clothes, and spending money. No money was sent to me for “spending” once I left for the school year. And I was not allowed to “raid” home supplies, which could include something as incidental as a bar of soap. I banked my summer paychecks to purchase what I needed till the next summer.

I was fortunate to get a job as a teller. I worked at the first branch office of our main bank, which was built in a shopping center between two small towns, Seneca Falls and Waterloo, New York. These towns were rural towns made up of mostly farmers or blue-collar workers. There was a sauerkraut plant very close to the main center of Waterloo, which was the town I lived in. I can still see and smell the steam and fumes of cooking cabbage. In the fall, huge dump trucks would come through town loaded with cabbages from local farms.

The branch office, which was about five miles out of town, was a branch of The First National Bank of Waterloo. The main office was located on the corner of the main downtown streets. Like most banks of the time, the main office was the most impressive building among many small stores on the main streets.

I lived not far from the bank, so I walked to the bank in the morning, where the manager of the bank would give me a ride to work while he was in town to pick up money for the day’s operations. In front of everyone, canvas bags of cash and coins were loaded into his trunk for the day’s operations or to fill out what was kept at the bank. There was a safe at the branch, but it was small and certainly did not have the safe deposit boxes or impressive vault that the main office had. It never dawned on me that we would be vulnerable to theft.

A branch office of a bank was a new concept, and the drive-up teller’s window was a first for all. That was my usual assignment, as no one wanted to work at that “drawer”. From today’s viewpoint, my experiences were hysterical. At first, most parked and walked up to the window, which was situated at the outside wall of the bank and also the end of the shopping center. That, plus three other inside teller windows, were the complete bank. I remember one man drove up to the window and proceeded to empty a huge white ceramic piggy bank of coins into the drawer. The drawer became so heavy I could not pull the drawer back into the bank. He shoveled some coins out, and we repeated the dump for me, shoveling on my side three times. Then, of course, I had to count and roll the coins before giving him cash. Most did not realize their conversations with me could be heard all over the small bank. It was not unusual to be asked my age, and marital status, asked for a date, and even an occasional proposition. Flirting was seldomly subtle.

It was a stranger who came to my indoor window one summer that I shall never forget. Although I am now seventy-five, I can remember her as if it was yesterday. People who bought large items, from cars to appliances to televisions, almost always paid for them “over time”. If financed through our bank, the purchaser would be issued a coupon payment book with each page having a “tear out” piece and a stub left in. The teller would stamp the stub and the tear-out sheet with the date and take the money for the payment giving the book back to the purchaser. The tear-out piece would go into the teller’s drawer to log money that was taken in and used at the end of the day to “balance” their drawer.

Balancing one’s drawer was done by hand every day at opening and closing. To begin the day, one counted the money in the drawer to start the day. At the end of the day, cash and coins were counted, money taken in was totaled and added to the remaining cash, and checks cashed would be subtracted as that was money that went out. A time payment stub would be counted as money “in.” Cashed checks would be counted as money out. If no mistakes were made and the total money taken in was added and the total money given out was subtracted, the number should match the opening amount of cash that the day was started with. It was a simple system, and all done by hand with an adding machine with a crank handle. Money in were deposit slips and payment slips which represented the money taken in for the day, and checks cashed were summed and counted as money out. If the numbers did not match the teller made a mistake during the day. Almost always, a failure to “balance” was found as a simple computation or digit reversal on the paperwork. If the amount was off by a number divisible by nine, it was almost always a reversal of digits made when inputting numbers. It was common knowledge that a $50 shortage jeopardized your job. If a $50 shortage was found the very next shortage, no matter what the amount, even pennies, the teller would be fired.

Fridays, we were open till six, and that was a busy day since workers got paid on a Friday. Next door to the bank was a grocery store. Many, especially women, came in with their husband’s checks and went next door to grocery shop. Most purchases of the day were in cash. The “stranger” who changed my life was a lady who came in with three payment books and her husband’s paycheck. I stamped her books, took the money out of the paycheck, and gave her the remaining amount in cash, which she used to go to the grocery store next door. Sometime later, I saw her standing at my window and recognized her. She came to me and said: “You gave me too much money back. When I went to pay for my groceries, I had too much money in my wallet.” The manager closed my drawer, and we did a “balance,” and sure enough, I was $79 and change short. It was the exact amount of one of her payments. I had stamped her book as paid and took out the coupon but did not deduct it from the paycheck. The woman came back into the bank and GAVE ME BACK THE $79. It was obvious from the payments and paycheck that this family lived on a tight budget, yet she gave me back the money. She essentially saved my job. Wouldn’t most people who “found” extra money perhaps purchase steaks for the family that week? After many groveling statements of thank yous, I returned to my job as a teller for the remainder of the summer, paranoid about making another mistake. I wonder about this woman. That was about fifty years ago. What was her life like? Did she live a prosperous and loving life, which she most richly deserved? As a result, I have never kept “found” money given back to me by a cashier. One never knows whether the cashier’s job would be on the line if I received too much money. It made me the most honest person in the world. After that experience, I would pleasantly tease men who flirted with me when they came in to cash their paychecks if they would bring me back any extra money if I gave them too much. The answer would always be the same: “No (usually) sweetie, once it crosses the window, it is mine to keep.”

I’m sure if I “shorted them,” they would fly back in and most likely be angry.

As a result of those summers’ experiences as a teller, I have absolute respect for anyone whose job requires face-to-face interaction with the public. No one knows the shoes they walk in, and if I can be kind to even a grumpy cashier, it may make their day a little easier.


Gary Philips Head ShotGary Philips is a 77-year-old retired math teacher. He has been married to his wife, Sandy, for 52 years. Together, they have two sons and one granddaughter. He loves retirement. He continues to play basketball, tennis, softball, golf, and long-distance running. He is an accomplished bridge player and has taught that card game on cruise ships for years. He enjoys the theater as a performer and as a patron. He applied to be a “teacher in space” candidate for NASA. In addition to teaching, he coached several sports and umpired professionally for 12 years. During the Covid epidemic, he decided to write his first book-a story about his life. 

1 thought on “The Stranger Who Changed My Life”

  1. Rebecca Henderson

    What a great story! I worked as a teller for several years, and then trained tellers. I enjoyed it; I always go to meet interesting people.

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