The U.S. Postal Service should probably have dropped the word “service” from their name some years ago. Always on the edge of collapse, the Postal Service limps along with fewer and fewer clerks and more pressure to mail things oneself. Unfortunately, unless whatever you want to mail fits neatly into their set postage boxes and you want to send the package only to the U.S., you still need to visit an actual post office. You also need to stand in line. Usually a long line. Sadly, by the time you get to the front of the line, it is likely that you have erred in some way. The tape is wrong. You needed a form you didn’t supply. Your box is oddly shaped and doesn’t conform to the legal requirements(which you unfortunately didn’t know.)
To make matters worse, in my experience the unhappiness of post office workers is only exceeded by the misery of motor vehicle office clerks. Here it would be handy to have someone else mail things for you. Interestingly, people are still needed to mail things, so auxiliary places have sprouted up with names like “Your Post Office.” For an extra fee, these people will wrap and ship things for you. I still wrestle with the idea of paying someone else to send my package through the U.S. mail system. I somehow think I should do it myself. Surely it can’t be as awful an experience as I have made it out to be.
After visiting the Post Office and standing in line, I can report back to you. Yes, it actually is that awful!
I miss receptionists. I am not sure when the powers that be decided that having a person answer the phone and direct the caller to an appropriate department was “old fashioned.” Enter the incredibly annoying, terribly inefficient automated answering systems. They have replaced actual people at every turn.
It seems to me that what I want answered never fits into the categories offered. I sometimes have even taken up the system’s offer to “listen to the menu options again,” thinking that I might have missed the appropriate choice. But that hasn’t helped.
So many people have had such terrible times trying to get help that there are even web sites offering the “secret code words” to say that will get you through to an actual person. Unfortunately, I think the companies change their secret words as soon as too many people figure them out.
My most successful trick so far has been to remain silent through all the choices. Sometimes that actually gets me transferred to the magical “customer service representative.” Other times I repeat as an incantation, “representative, representative, representative.” Other times I just repeat “help.”
I wonder if the person who finally comes on the line wonders why my first words are “Thank God. Are you a real person?”
I started thinking about the dramatic changes in my grocery shopping over the years as the stores went from service centered to no service centered. I start back about 30 years with this post. At that time, I wheeled my cart up to a cashier. She would remove each item from the cart, enter its price into the cash register, weigh the produce, enter the code for the produce(which she had memorized) and set the items to the side. There another clerk would put the items into a brown paper bag. After I had written a check which required no i.d. since she recognized me, someone wheeled my cart to my car, unloaded it and thanked me for shopping at their store.
Next, the store introduced conveyor belts so that I could unload my own groceries. I had never particularly wanted to do this, since I had already loaded them, but I was offered no choice. The clerk also now wanted to see i.d. before accepting my check. The clerk I knew had been replaced by a part time worker. Someone still bagged my groceries and took them to my car for me.
Next I was expected to bag my own groceries and take them to my car. I was also expected to return the cart to the store. I often balked at this task, feeling a little rebellious as I left the cart in the parking lot. I wasn’t alone, and a clerk was assigned to round up those abandoned carts.
Finally, the store installed self-checkout lanes. To encourage use of these lanes, attended lanes were often reduced to one or two. Nevertheless, I drew the line at checking, bagging, purchasing and loading my own groceries. Pleading technological phobia(which I certainly don’t have) I resisted their constant encouragement to use those self-check lanes.
No wonder on-line groceries are becoming popular. If I am going to have to help myself, at least I can do it from the comfort of my couch. Those delivery people bring the bags of food right into my kitchen!
I am continuing my posts on jobs that are losing their people. In this case, I am reflecting on our local libraries. In Connecticut where each small town has its own library, a resident can use any local library to check out materials. This means that I have spent time in three nearby libraries lately and noticed the same mystery of the disappearing librarian.
Going to the library has always been a social experience for my husband and me. We always chat with the librarian as we check out books, catching up on each other’s lives. One time when a favorite worker left for another state, we brought dinner to the staff as a goodby thanks. Whenever I had been too alone at home, I could be sure of social interactions at the library. Retirement has its rewards, but it comes with increased social isolation.
But some eager salespeople have convinced each library that it would be better served by self-check machines. Each library bought a different kind of machine, but they all eliminated the librarian. Now the first greeting when I walk into my favorite one is a bank of self-checkout machines. It is accompanied by a self-pickup of books on hold, previously an opportunity to chat with someone about the latest and greatest new books.
I can only imagine that someone convinced the library director that money could be saved by using the machines. That director may have had little interaction with the public and may not have realized the cost in social relations that were incurred with the cost savings of the machines. At any rate, I no longer look forward to my library trips. Now I just go for the books.
I have been musing of late on the American obsession with self-service. Apparently someone’s idea of nirvana is being able to do all tasks alone, interacting only with a machine. In addition, the idea of the machine being able to do the task without a person also seems to be catching on. Now somewhere designs are on the table for self-driving long haul trucks. And robots are being planned to take over many jobs currently requiring people.
I became aware, while responding to a young writer who was bemoaning the lack of social interactions, of how many parts of my life are now “unpeopled.” I thought for the benefit of readers younger than I that I would reflect on some of the ways I used to interact with people as I went about my life.
Today I am remembering elevator operators who peopled all multi-storied buildings. In the photo above is a typical view of a department store bank of elevators with one woman there to direct shoppers to available cars and two ready to load their cars. The most common sentences would be “going up,” going down,” and “express to floors 10 and 12 only.”
In the elevator, the woman(always women in my town) would announce each floor just before arriving at it. I can still remember the phrase “Shoes, millinery, daytime dresses” from a frequent ride.The rider’s job was to state when she wanted to exit. Today elevators automatically stop even with the floor. Previously, the operator was responsible for neatly stopping the car even with the stop. This was quite challenging, and you could tell experienced from new operators by how often they had to jostle the car up and down until you could get off without tripping.
Once in high school I visited a very posh women’s clothing store for the first time. When I told the operator I needed the third floor, she sailed right by saying, “You do NOT want the third floor,” and deposited me on the fourth. Apparently the third floor was for women with money where the clothes were brought out one at a time for perusal. Clearly she could tell I was not the appropriate customer!
I miss them. I never had to worry about finding myself alone in an elevator with a strange(in both senses of the word) man. And what happened to the old line about the task? “It was a job with ups and downs.”
To accommodate relatives with conflicting plans, we have been having Thanksgiving dinner on Friday for several years. It’s actually a kind of peaceful way to do it, since there are things(like shopping) that people can do on that day while I cook. Yes, I cook. Some very organized, democratic households have various people bring things, but I enjoy having the kitchen to myself to prepare the food.
Split between vegetarians and meat eaters and Northerners and Southerners, our group requires much variety. For the North, mashed potatoes and green peas. For the South, rice and broccoli. For the vegetarians, Tofurky. For the meat eaters, roast turkey with giblet(yuck say the vegetarians)gravy. Whole berry cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries. Rolls for all. Butter for everything. For the adults, pumpkin pie. For the kids whipped cream!
I have eaten Thanksgiving dinner in many different places throughout my life. Growing up, we alternated between our house and a close friend’s home. As an adult, at our home, at a friend’s home, at church, at a colleague’s pot luck, at relatives’ houses. I think that by now I must enjoy eating at home. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but we have all the leftovers, a not insubstantial benefit!
Whether you already celebrated, or your country doesn’t observe the holiday, much love from our home to yours on this Friday.
One afternoon a very capable and diligent student asked to meet with me in my office. I thought he must be wanting to discuss the essay that was soon due. I frequently helped students put their rather scattered thoughts together into the thesis statement for a writing assignment.
However, this young man had a serious question for me. Did I think that he was going to Hell because he had slept with his girl friend. Whoa! What? “Back up,” I said to him. “What is going on?”
It turned out that he had been raised in a very conservative Christian home. Apparently, he had left home with the understanding that if he had sex before marriage he was going to go to Hell. I have no way of knowing if this was the actual theology of his denomination. I just know that he believed this. Knowing that I was a Christian, he wanted to know my view.
I asked him to tell me a little more about this situation. He told me that he loved the girl, that he had very much enjoyed sleeping with her and that he was totally confused. He had understood that he would feel condemned, but instead he felt wonderful. I told him that in my belief system no one was condemned to Hell for such behavior. That did not seem to reassure him, but seemed to confuse him further. He had been raised to believe that there was only one way to be a Christian. How could I have a different view on such a critical question?
He left our conversation telling me that he was going to continue his relationship and that he was going to give up on his faith. He felt he had to choose, and he was choosing the girl. I was deeply saddened by his decision. I never spoke about his faith again with him, though I learned from another student that he was now very angry at Christianity.
I hope that in later years he found his way to a faith that sustained him. It had once been at the center of his life, and I hated to think of him adrift and angry.