We were the only two waiting in the New Accounts section in the bank. For us gregarious Americans, this is a slightly awkward situation. In most waiting rooms, we would start a conversation. We start conversations with total strangers in doctors’ waiting rooms, in the halls of court houses, during intermission at the theater, and in any slow-moving line.
Banks present a special situation. They are quiet, but people are working all around, often in the same room. The standard opening question, “What brings you here?” may be embarrassing. Strangely, this doesn’t bother us in the doctors’ office. We’d rather tell a stranger that we have a sexually transmitted disease than that we need to refinance a loan.
In the bank we need a book to pretend to read. We had neither, and unlike doctors’ offices, they don’t provide magazines. From time to time, I looked down at my cell phone, as if something were happening. She apparently didn’t have a phone. We smiled awkwardly. Finally, she saw a lifeline. She pointed to my t-shirt. It read “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”
“I don’t know what that means. What’s an atheist?” I was surprised by the question and wondered if it was sincere. While many Americans don’t understand the word, almost all think they do. Misdefinitions vary from “Devil Worshipper” to “Evil.” (A few years back, I had to argue with the local newspaper about that one.)
“It means,” I said, “I don’t believe in any god.” She looked quizzical, so I continued. “I don’t believe in Zeus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Odin. … I don’t believe in any god.”
“Oh,” she said, satisfied with my answer. Just as they announced my name, a worrisome thought occurred to her. “But,” she called to my back, “you do believe in the ultimate god, don’t you?”
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