The flight attendant smiles. “Something to drink?”
“Water, please,” I say.
She asks the next guy over, then turns to me again. “Did you say orange juice?” she asks.
The ticket woman smiles.
“‘Men in Black,'” I say.
She nods. She goes to press a button.
“Did you say ‘The Avengers’?” she asks.
The Starbucks fellow smiles.
“How can I help you?”
“Medium coffee, room for cream.”
He fills a cup. He stares at it.
“Do you want room for cream?” he asks.
Is it just me? Or does no one in the service business listen the first time you speak? It seems that any transaction now requires at least one repeat. Sometimes two. Sometimes the person actually walks away, then comes back and says, “Did you say rye toast or sourdough?”
And you say, “Wheat.”
It is not occasional. It is not coincidental. And I know it’s not volume, because I have been accused of having a voice that can be heard across a football field. But I still get asked, “Medium or large?”
It’s as if people behind the counters are on some kind of autopilot. Their bodies move, their teeth smile, they recite the right lines.
But they are a thousand miles away.
“What size shoe do you wear?” he asks.
“A 9,” I say.
“You want to try those on?”
“Nine it is,” he says.
“That comes with salad or coleslaw,” she says.
“Coleslaw,” I say.
“And to drink?”
She looks at her pad.
“Did you say salad or coleslaw?”
“I need a repairman,” I say into the phone.
“OK,” says the voice. “We have Tuesday or Thursday.”
“Tuesday is better.”
“Before noon or after?”
“Before would be better.”
“All right. Before noon on Thursday.”
“You want Tuesday now?”
I blame TV. I blame video games. I blame the mindless blare that our kids have been weaned on, noise, explosions, blasting music, 100 images a minute. No wonder we can’t stay focused long enough to remember soup or salad.
But where is this going? If, as a nation, we cannot stay “on task,” what hope do we have?
Once, if you took a service job, you were told on the first day “the customer is always right.” I heard this as a fast-food cook, a janitor, a security guard and an ice cream scooper. Didn’t matter if the customers were unreasonable, impatient, rude or snarky. They were spending money. It was your job to make them happy.
Today, the customer is little more than an annoyance on the other side of the glass, or phone, or counter. You need only to spend an hour with your cable company to know that.
“Do you have extension cords?”
“How long do you want?”
“How long are they?”
“Ten feet, 20 feet and 50 feet.”
“I’ll take the 20 feet.”
“OK… here you go.”
“That’s the 50 feet.”
“Which one did you want?”
“I’m looking for a book. The author’s name is Cane.”
“OK,” she says. “Let me look.”
I wait. She types.
“Sorry, we have no books named ‘Cane.’ “
“But he’s a well-known author.”
“Wait…Cane is the author?”
“Large or small?”
“And how about fries?”
It is maddening. Frightening. And kind of sad. Our job concentration is waning, and our dedication is right behind it. Next time you are in a transaction, count how many times you have to repeat something. The best you can conclude is this: If the devil is in the details, then we have nothing to worry about.
Nobody remembers them.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/mitch.