Time Capsule

TD Towers circa 1967.jpg
Believe it or not, I used to work on the seventh floor of this bank tower. Situated at King and Bay in Toronto, in the heart of the financial district, this iconic Mies van der Rowe structure was (and probably still is) home to the Toronto-Dominion Bank. I was nineteen, and a file clerk in the newly-established Green Machine department. This would have been 1978, and the Green Machine was TD's entry into the ATM market.

Those were simple times, as I was reminded today by the customers at my McJob, struggling to sort through all the cards in their wallets to find the right one. Back then, transactions were in cash, sometimes cheque, and most exotically, credit card. A machine that dispensed cash (pretty much all they could do then) was highly suspect from a consumer's point of view. Our office ran a help line, where customers having trouble with this strange new technology could pick up the handy phone located on each machine, and speak with one of our agents.

"The machine ate my card" was the most common situation. "Why can't you come out from behind the screen and help me in person?" asked one person. Customers regularly tried to take out more money than was in their accounts and would blame the machine. We ran campaigns to get people to sign up for a card, offering small house plants as a reward. (Green. Get it?) Once there was a big windstorm and the windows of the building popped out and papers blew everywhere. Identity theft was apparently not an issue at that point.

Soon enough, I left the smoke-filled offices (Mad Men did not exaggerate about how people smoked in those days) realizing that high finance was not for me, and went to art school. Umpteen McJobs later, I reflected on how far the seemingly gimmicky cash machine cards have come.

ATM's can perform most bank transactions and cards can be used to make most purchases, all over the world. I would never have believed it, back in the last century. We would receive occasional letters warning of the collapse of civilization if bank machines were allowed to proliferate, or pointing out the obvious threat of abuse of privacy if the banks took it a step further and allowed people to use their cards to buy groceries. Such concerns sounded far-fetched, but now, when our every movement can be tracked through our cards, maybe those letter-writers weren't being Cassandras after all.

I tell myself I did no great harm during my brief tenure as a cog in the system. I did get to work in a masterpiece of modern architecture, and visited the fabulous top-floor gallery of Inuit Art on many a lunch hour. (We actually got an hour for lunch! How quaint.) I floated oblivious through my days. If I actually knew where things would lead, I would have been horrified.

Good thing I went into art.