Service with a Scowl
Dammit, have we completely left behind the days when you could go into a store and nicely ask for something and an employee would nicely answer? And they'd get it, or tell you where to find it? And when you handed the employee the money and the employee handed you the change, you both smiled and said "Thanks" or "Take care" or something crazy like that? Oh, I long for those days. They were very, very special.
But here in the sparkling new millennium, a cruel trick has been visited upon our planet. Maybe it's karmic payback for all those years of the-customer-is-always-right bullying by irate consumers. I don't know. But these days the people behind the counter--many, many counters, all over the world--seem to be the jerks and bullies who pushed us around the elementary school blacktop, the little ne'er-do-wells who made is eat paste, and held our heads in school toilets and flushed repeatedly.
Wherever I go now, just about every drive-through, boutique counter and restaurant, every Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins, the spirit of my blacktop nemesis, Robin, is there to taunt me. In my grade-school years, that bitch Robin was a constant, foreboding presence, threatening to kick my ass time and again. No exchange with her was ever easy or pleasant. If I saw her coming, I went the other way. When I graduated from grade school, I assumed I was done with Robin forever. But I was mistaken. Now, several times a month, she gives me the wrong change and refuses to go get the manager, and when she's not doing that, she's charging me for late fees I don't owe and telling me I didn't rewind the video when I did. And honestly, I'm not sure I can take much more.
Why, the spirit of Robin reared it's head just the other day at the Newark airport. It was midnight. I was waiting for my sister-in-law and niece to come in from Florida for my wedding shower. Their plane was two hours delayed. I'd just made the five-hour drive from D.C. I was weary. I was spent. I was so hungry my body had begun feeding on its own fat stores. Though I consider McDonald's a crime against nature, I was reduced to eating there because that was the only thing open in the airport's food court. But that was OK--I could handle it. I was in a good mood. After all, I was in town for a joyous occasion.
I approached McDonald's like any patron would. I walked up and stood at a register, gazed eagerly at the three girls behind the counter. They ignored me. I mean completely. They stood around, these girls. They talked to each other, they twisted their hair. And clearly they'd decided right away that I didn't exist.
I waited. Then I waited some more. Suddenly, the girls came alive. They moved toward me with vim and vigor, almost lunging. What? I wondered, Are they remote control-operated and their commander has just awakened? Were they blind but now can see? Is it a miracle?
I started off: "Hi. Can I get a . . ." But as the girls moved closer I saw that they weren't coming to serve me at all. They'd switched on because a handsome buck had arrived and was standing directly behind me. The young Adonis had returned to retrieve something he'd left behind, apparently. A bag of apple pies or something. The girls were very excited about this. They sashayed in close, they flirted with him. They laughed and giggled and leaned over on the counter in a way that showcased their cleavage. I was smack dab in the middle of it all. I was the meat in the buck-and-girl sandwich--and still they pretended I wasn't there. I was no more than an irritating piece of dookie smeared on their shoes.
After a few minutes, the strapping buck left and the girls dashed back to the fry cooker to huddle and talk about him. The line behind me was growing, swelling, but the so-called employees waited on no one. And all of us saps seemed too beaten down by general travel trauma to do anything about the devastating breakdown in customer service unfolding right in front of us.
I tried to stay numb like the others, but pretty soon I found I was deeply in touch with my anger. I looked around for a manager, but of course there was none. I contemplated going a little postal and yelping at the Trio of Apathy and Loathing, but I knew exactly what that would get me: a viscous loogie on my hamburger and maybe some urine in my Sprite.
My stomach filled with venom. I lost my appetite. I walked away, and into a news kiosk. I tried to get my mind off it all by focusing on the interior-decorating magazine in my hand and all its really cool photos--but I couldn't do it. Then and there, I succumbed to a small fit, akin to a panic attack. My chest was pounding, my thoughts swirling. Oh my god, oh my god, I didn't really even want a Big Mac, and I still couldn't get one. Oh, the powerlessness! Why is the world like this? What terrible karma is this planet trying to work off?
Next came involuntary visions of a post-apocalyptic landscape, one populated only by roaches and the Trio of Apathy and Loathing, and Robin riding her bike. Somehow, in this vision, I've survived too. I roll out of a sewer pipe and crawl over shallow gray craters. The sky is black. I see the Trio, and Robin. I crawl toward them. I lift a pitiful, scrawny hand to the girls, who have jurisdiction over a drink spigot. They stomp on me, all four of them. I die quickly, but painfully.
I tried to remember the soothing and empowering words from my relaxation tapes at home, the ones I hadn't listened to in years. Before too long, the directives flowed freely. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Feel the happy light in your head. Relax all muscles. Envision a field of yellow flowers. Envision the goddamn flowers!
Thus I managed to recover. Unfortunately, however, I had to go forth with the horrible knowledge that it wouldn't be long before this kind of thing happened again. And I was correct. It only took a few days. However, the next incident was not of the total-jerk variety, but rather of the screaming-incompetence variety.
My man Marty was on the cusp of a milestone birthday. I lied to him, told him we weren't doing much--just going out for a nice steak dinner. In reality, I was planning a big happy-hour celebration, with 45 pals and kin bellowing "Surprise!" and scaring him half out of his wits. I'd spent about an hour hammering out terms and details with a guy at the restaurant.
"OK, got it," Doug the Event Planner had assured me. "No need to call and confirm; this is all taken care of!"
But, being neurotic and compulsive, I decided to call anyway. Right before the shindig, I reached Doug's boss, Kathy. When I told her why I was calling, she became perplexed. Kathy looked at her calendar and told me there was no such event planned. And Doug had gone on vacation, leaving no instructions or paperwork.
"Bleh blick . . . puh?" was all I could say. And with that, I had another attack. My heart raced. My mouth got dry. I got shaky. I could just see it: 45 people arriving with gifts and appetites, and getting turned away to wander aimlessly in the downtown streets murmuring, "That Suz is an ass. I'll see to it that she reimburses me $14 for parking."
Hearing me start to blow a gasket, Kathy said she'd give me exactly the party Doug had promised--as soon as she found out what that was. She was a modern-day customer-service anomaly, that Kathy, what with her willingness to talk to me and consider accommodating me. But still, it wasn't enough. I wanted to hear that Doug's head was going to roll when he came back from Cancun. But no, Kathy didn't say that. And when I got off the phone, I had to pull out the relaxation techniques again. Breathe, breathe, breathe . . . dammit!
When did the world get so . . . sloppy? Where, I ask you, is the sense of responsibility? Has it burned off with the ozone? Has it evolved out of our culture? And what does the future hold? Just hard slaps and pokes in the eye from waiters and gas-station attendants? Has integrity simply been phased out? Along with the concept of "making a reservation"? Because they don't seem too keen on that in the rental-car industry anymore.
Marty and I learned that the hard way a few weekends ago when we flew to Buffalo for a wedding. We climbed off the plane, eager to get our Ford Taurus and use the day to check out Niagara Falls, an hour away. When we approached the counter, however, there was handwritten note propped upon it: no cars.
Surely that doesn't apply to us, we assumed, happy-go-lucky as ever. We made our reservation months ago. We're fine.
But we were wrong.
"There's . . . a . . . three . . . to . . . four . . . hour . . . wait . . . for . . . cars . . . reservation . . . or . . . not," the rental agent muttered in monotone, looking past us, not at us. Incredulous, we complained and yelped and demanded things for about 15 minutes. But the woman with dead eyes would only say that not enough people had returned their cars that day, and all we could do was get . . . on . . . the . . . list . . .
Next to us, an elderly woman began weeping. Her handicapped husband couldn't get on a bus, she told me; she needed a car. But the expressionless one behind the counter showed no emotion, just continued looking past everyone, offering nothing--no empathy, no apology, no kindness, no coupons. Consequently, the place was a hotbed of frustration and visceral anger, all the other rental-car places being sold out.
Marty and I called our hotel and they sent a shuttle for us. And by some wacky stroke of serendipity, the bride and groom's families had chartered a bus to take wedding guests to the falls. So we were set. Didn't need the car anyway, it turned out. But what about that little old lady?
Oh I know it sucks serving people for a living. I did it. I slung hash at a tourist-y Cajun restaurant in New Orleans for two years. And don't think I enjoyed explaining over and over again what "jambalaya" was, and "andouille," and constantly outlining the difference between "Cajun" and "Creole" food. Sometimes I had to fight that gritted-teeth feeling. Sometimes I had to battle throbbing neck veins. But I fought it, dammit. I fought it. You have to fight it--or get out of the service industry and into a factory where the only other beings you affect are spark plugs or rolls of tin foil.
That's what I say, but no one hears. The death rattle of customer service is too loud. So I must deal with my pharmacist laughing mockingly at me when I ask him to correct a large billing error. And I must endure cell-phone-service providers who send no bill then call up threatening late fees, and phone companies that continue charging me for a line I canceled nine months ago. And I have to suffer unreturned phone calls from, of all people, the minister who's supposed to marry Marty and I. A minister, not returning calls. So god's not down with customer service either? Jeez.
For now, I think I'd just like to stay inside and get all my goods and services over the Internet. Ah, the glorious Internet. It may be impersonal, but at least it doesn't sass you or ignore you. And it definitely doesn't twirl its hair and then spit in your food. I wonder if it can perform wedding ceremonies.
Nah, I'm guessing we'll have to wait for robots.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
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New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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