I worked at a bank with an air vent in the vault just in case employees got trapped inside for the weekend

Tracey Folly

*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events I experienced firsthand; used with permission.

I got my first proper job the year I turned eighteen. The bank manager at the local branch hired me after promising the head teller that he would hire someone smart instead of pretty. I wanted to quit when the head teller shared that information on my first day on the job, but I powered through it. I needed the money.

Prior to that, I'd volunteered at an animal shelter every Wednesday for two semesters in my senior year of high school and worked part-time as a grocery store cashier. I wouldn't consider either of those two positions "real jobs." They certainly didn't prepare me for working at the bank.

The most interesting physical feature of this bank branch was its vault. I'm not talking about the relatively tiny vault behind the line of teller windows where we kept approximately $100K at all times.

No, I'm talking about the vault in the back.

Through a locked glass door and down a short hallway lay the safe deposit box vault. It was large enough for every employee to fit uncomfortably inside and contained hundreds of locked safe deposit boxes of various sizes.

It took two of us to work the combination lock, and it took two of us to swing the thick heavy door open and lay out the metal ramp for customers and employees to enter the vault. The most troubling feature of the massive vault wasn't its size or its omnipresent smell. It was the air vent.

"If you get locked inside the vault," the head teller explained on my first day, "pull this lever so you can get fresh air until someone can open the vault and get you out."

It was a very old vault. From what I understand, the newer models have some kind of escape hatch, just in case. This one did not.

The vault worked on a timer. Once you locked the door, whether or not you had the combination, it remained locked for a specific length of time. If someone locked you inside, there was nothing to do except pull the lever that vented the air inside the vault and then wait.

You could conceivably remain trapped in the vault for the length of an entire weekend.

Getting locked inside the vault accidentally was one-hundred percent impossible. It was impossible to shut it down without seeing every inch of the interior, and by the time someone swung the metal ramp back up inside the interior, you'd notice they were locking up. And you'd get out.

What my new boss was talking about was something more sinister: what to do if someone intentionally locks you inside? She didn't even mention the most important thing after breathing. What if you had to go to the bathroom?

The thought terrified me. Being locked inside the safe deposit box vault by a bank robber was horrifying enough, but what if they locked my new coworkers inside with me? I couldn't stand my coworkers for the length of a regular workday, and now I might find myself locked inside a room the size of a handicapped-accessible bathroom stall with a group of people I didn't like for an undetermined amount of time?

I'd die. Not of asphyxiation, but I'd die. Perhaps of boredom. Perhaps from embarrassment. I get gassy in stressful situations.

As I asked above: what if I had to use the bathroom? Even worse: what if someone else had to use the bathroom? I tried to figure out the logistics of it all throughout the entire five years I worked there.

Fortunately, I never got locked inside the vault during my career as a bank teller. I never even came close.

That bank branch has since closed, and they moved its services across town to a new location that presumably has one of those newfangled vaults that allow unfortunate employees to escape should someone lock them inside. Our old vault had no such safeguards.

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