The Customer Is Always Right

Give me liberty or give me death. That’s what the sign says. She stands in front of the Baskin Robbins, not a manager in sight, her roots growing out, her mouth open mid-rant when the shutter clicks. She has her weight canted forward, on the balls of her feet, and a small American flag in one hand.

A vintage troop transport pulls up to a corner downtown, filled with cosplay paramilitaries in masks and sunglasses and ball caps and body armor. Each carries his customized Armalite one handed, to keep the other free for high-fiving. This is even better than the titty bar.

A quad-cab faces off with a nurse in mask and scrubs, tired of this shit. Not pictured: the hospital, maxed out and running out of PPE. A woman hangs out the passenger side window, hollering. Her hair is bleached. Her shirt says USA. The truck gleams, freshly-washed, in the sun.

***

For most of my adult life, I worked in bars and restaurants. And while food and drink were what we charged the money for, that wasn’t all we were selling. Core to the transaction, if unspoken, was customer service: treating people like they’re important and like what they want matters. In due measure, it can be rewarding both ways. But one of our exceptionally American cultural pathologies is that we take it waaaaaaay too far. Here the customer is king, and always right, and we’ll be happy to comp the meal you didn’t like and bag up the leftovers so you can take it home with you for later. Have a nice day and like us on Yelp!

You see that same sense of entitlement on display at these astroturf ‘protests’ that keep popping up like cold sores on state capitol steps. Like cold sores, they look like a lot more than they are, especially with the camera zoomed in so the people fill the frame, and all the empty space around them disappears from the context. They carry signs that say things like ‘I need a haircut’ and ‘Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.’ Maybe one in ten has a sign that says ‘I need to work.’ The one in ten has a valid point, but what the other nine want is only going to make things worse. More people will get sick. More people will die. The economy will, in the long run, take a bigger hit.

Doesn’t much matter when you’re broke and hungry and the rent is due now.

Do you know what else has that kind of urgency? When an addict needs a fix. Because let me tell you something: for every alcoholic, functional or not, that I served a drink to, I served three people addicted to being served.

The nine in ten? Didn’t know they were customer service addicts. Didn’t realize how much they depended on that presumed (purchased) deference. They thought that was just how the world worked, how it ought to work. How God wanted it to work, with his hierarchied omnibenevolence and preference for white Christian Americans. Take that away — take away any addict’s fix — and all they have left is the hole they’re trying to fill, the damage they never healed, the emptiness, uncertainty, and dread. For half a month or a month, they’ve been drying out in quarantine, no one to treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters.

And they are freaking the fuck out right now. Their roots are showing in more ways than one.

But it makes for good TV. And the operation was successful. The record shows: people protested. Those governors looking for a reason to kick poor people off unemployment rolls and deny small businesses support have their cover story. Someone else will come along and open new gyms and nail salons and restaurants after all this is over. The economy will go on.

(Someone else’s) death is a fair price to pay for liberty. Anything else would be tyranny in the land of the free.

And the addicts? They get their fix. Everybody wins.

Except the people who die.

***

I tried to quit smoking the first time when I was nineteen. Don’t think I made it a day. It wasn’t til I was in my thirties that I managed to quit for more than a couple weeks here and there. Every time I tried it was like every negative emotion, every hurt and disappointment and anxiety and guilt I’d ever felt and repressed welled up in me all at once all the time no matter what was happening around me. It was like that because that’s what was happening. My addiction tamped all that shit down, so I could get through my day without screaming or hurting myself or, as too often happened anyway, someone else. Because what is anger but weaponized pain, and what does a weapon want but to be wielded?

It took a lot of years and a lot of tries before before this last time I quit. It took also a lot of hard looks in mirrors and calling spades spades and a lot of coming to terms with things and a lot of humility and work. I also lucked out in having a first date with my partner the day after I last quit. That probably has more to do with my success in staying quit for this long than anything else.

***

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the entitlement of the customer service addict, especially as someone who made a career of abetting them for three decades. Negotiating with someone who’s just waiting for a reason to ask for your manager — or being the manager who has to step in and grease the squeaky wheel — will erode your faith in humanity and leave a dirty taste in your mouth. Doing it for not enough money to live on sucks even worse.

Early in my career, I found a way to console myself when I encountered such a person. True, they might make my life hell for five minutes or an hour. But it was always like that inside their head. You’d be surprised how much that realization helped.

Anger is weaponized pain, and now, without service industry people to point their anger at, these pampered beasts are finding their pain again. How can they know they’re always right if they aren’t anyone’s customer? Who will treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters?

***

Once upon a time, some scientists addicted some rats to cocaine. They put it in the water, put regular water next to it, and watched the rats choose the cocaine water again and again. Who wouldn’t, living in a scientist’s cage?

Someone had the idea to put the rats in different circumstance. They put the rats in rat paradise: room to run, things to do, other rats to be friends with. They offered them cocaine again. They wanted it less.

***

The guns the boys are playing with are real. So is the virus that shut down the service industry. The one they’re protesting from their self-defaced cars so they don’t catch it. So are the people they’re willing — implicitly or ex- — to sacrifice the lives of so they can have their fix again. So they can feel like the always-right kings they’ve always known themselves to be.

No addict quits without wanting to. Because when you quit you have to deal with all the things the addiction tamped down for you. It hurts, and it takes a long time. To be honest, it’s more ongoing process than final result, journey and not destination. But like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.

But what the one-in-ten need (the ones whose signs say ‘I need to work’) is more like what the people the customer service addicts want to go back to work need. It is, funny enough, the same thing our economy in its present form needs: free money to keep the charade going until we can build our own robust paradise, free health care in case we get sick, a rent and mortgage and debt payment freeze, and a reason to believe we might come out of this in a better place.

This doesn’t serve the customer service addict, nor the governor who has interests and oligarchs to placate.

But I can’t help but wonder: if we build the paradise that the rest of us want, where everyone gets what they need and no one has to worry about problems we have the means to solve, maybe the rats in their self-imposed cages will stop wanting the cocaine water so much.

Probably not. But I think we should do it anyway.

The Least I Could Do

Yesterday, after buying a cup of tea and nine copies of Real Change, I cried in the grocery store.

It was cold out, below freezing. Snow fell off and on, some of it snow that had fallen the day before, stirred up and blown sideways by wind sharp enough it had teeth. The light was silver tarnished by winter clouds, though the sun’s generous nature would win out later and turn the day if not kind at least kinder. I’d got a good chill in my fingers and hands scraping the windshield — forgot to grab gloves on the way out the door. But by the time I had driven up the hill to the store I was warm all the way through.

Two days previous, I was swimming in an ocean warm as bath-water, jumping waves with my love and watching the sun set at the end of a week and a half in Costa Rica with Dr. Bae.

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Like this, only closer.

We’d been gone since before Christmas, so there was nothing to eat in the house. So I went to the grocery store. I didn’t bother to make a list. We needed, like, everything, all the stuff we usually have around, plus a couple of specific requests from Dr. Bae, which of course I’d remember. I was wearing four layers, wishing I’d put on more. Yeah I’d just come from paradise, where I’d lived in my bathing suit most of a week. But it was cold, man. Crossing the parking lot, I couldn’t wait to get inside.

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This is a pretty serious cold snap for the PNW.

Back when I was a bartender — back when I took most of my pay home in cash, and always had a wad of singles and fives in my pocket — I used to give money to just about every homeless person who asked. I got a buck for opening a beer; it was no big deal to kick down and help somebody out. I figured if they were bad off enough they needed to stand around outside and ask strangers for money, they needed it more than I did.

Since then, I don’t carry cash as much as I used to. Even if I was still a bartender, I probably wouldn’t: nowadays everybody pays with a card. Walking with all your tips is a thing of the past. Even if I do have cash, it’s usually in twenties, stuck away in my wallet just in case. Like yesterday.

I think it was because I was thinking about how cold I was that my eyes didn’t slide past the lady selling Real Change outside Safeway the way they so often do. Real Change is a fine publication, and as a card-carrying bleeding-heart liberal progressive social justice warrior I 100% approve of their undertaking and mission. But I also resent them, because I’ve already got more to read than I could possibly keep up with. So I’m basically buying a piece of recycling (or, depending on where you live, compost).

It’s a real conundrum, negotiating that particular intersectionality. Put simpler: life is complicated.

Except it wasn’t. I was freezing and I looked at the lady standing in the cold and decided I’d buy a paper and get her two dollars closer to wherever she was trying to get to. It seemed the least I could do.

“Can you break a twenty?”

“I don’t know. Let me see.”

She had to take off her gloves to count back the change. She had a hat on, and a jacket I might use as a mid-layer between my long underwear and my outer jackets.
She was shivering, the cold crept into her bones, it looked like. We talked a little while she counted change back. I let her get to sixteen and said I’d just make it easy on both of us and buy two. I asked her if I could get her anything inside: a bite of food or a hot drink. She asked for a hot tea and being a retired bartender I asked how she liked it.

“Just a hot tea with a little sugar in it.” Her hands were shaking so hard she had trouble putting her gloves back on. Continue reading “The Least I Could Do”