April 16, 2008

Service With a Sneer

Maybe I love where I live too much to move; but, I am tired of the crassness, the rudeness, of the people in the area where I reside. Much of my travels have brought me up and down the eastern seaboard, as far north as New Hampshire, and as far south as Florida. The furthest east I’ve pushed has been to Pennsylvania into the Poconos. Outside the New York, metropolitan area, a strange transformation takes place: people become polite.

On Tuesday, I had a long day planned. Several errands needed to be attended to at the bank, the supermarket, the orthodontist (my daughter had her braces taken off) and then my wife and I took our kids to pick up the new car we bought. In the past two and a half years, I have not taken two days off in a row; so I used a vacation day to handle these matters. In my early day fogginess, I put my kids on their respective school buses and then set about my day.

My plan was to pick up my daughter from school at about ten thirty a.m. and bring her to her appointment. My first stop after that was to go to the bank where it was obvious that something devastating happened the night before. Crime scene tape was spread across the front, pieces the front-end of someone’s car were strewn across the parking lot along with sparkling, jagged shards of a windshield. Inside, I was told that the night before some drunken teenagers plowed their car head first through the front of the building at speeds upwards of ninety milers per hour. Thankfully, they were not severely hurt as the car’s airbags deployed; but, it was shocking to see such wreckage and think of what could have happened if they weren’t so lucky.

Then, I picked up my daughter from school and off to the dentist we went. After a much anticipated and exciting moment when the braces were finally removed, I decided to take her to a nearby pizza parlor for a mini-celebration. This restaurant makes some of the best pizza around, and I hate going there. Why? Because the staff there is so damned rude, that’s why. Yogi Berra is credited with a great line. When remarking about a particular nightspot he quipped “No wonder no one ever goes there anymore; it’s always so crowded.” The same can be said of this place, except that it’s busy because they sell tasty pizza; and, with that in mind, the owners do not feel it is necessary to be nice to the customers anymore. They have a product which is in great demand, and if anyone hates the service, tough. There are plenty more suckers in line, myself included. It’s a perfect Long Island tragedy and self fulfilling cultural phenomenon. No one likes impolite service, but we reward it with our patronage.

We ordered slices from a guy with a terse attitude and a waitress stepped behind the counter to ring up the sale. She blinked at me and merely said “Eleven ninety-five.” Then she held out her hand for me to fork over the cash. She did not say please, thank you, or anything else remotely gracious. The waitress merely announced the total and that was it. End of transaction. I’m used to this sort of behavior. On certain days, I am just as happy not to converse with the guy or gal behind the counter because this type of casual rudeness has been bred into me as well. But, the capper to my day happened when we left the pizza joint and went to a specialty supermarket to make a specific purchase.

My daughter is learning Italian in school; and, the Italian club is sponsoring a small event where they experience the culture of Italy; i.e. music, foods, art, etc. Each student is assigned to bring in one item for the event, and my daughter was to bring in Panettone. Served around Christmas time in Italian families, Panettone is a round, dome shaped cake which resembles pound cake in consistency; but, it can have chocolate chips, fruit, or creams added for flavor. My wife is 100% Italian (that makes my kids half Italian, and half of the rest of the world) and I am used to enjoying this cake along with holiday cookies and hot cocoa. The store we went to is a large supermarket catering to Italian culture. Knowing that we were way out of season, we took a chance, my daughter and I, and went straight to the bakery.

We'd been there before and the staff was pleasant and helpful on the few occasions we'd asked for assistance. Tuesday would erase some of that benevolence between me and this establishment.

Did you ever look at somebody and immediately think to yourself “Hey, this guy is a jerk?” Well, I had one of those moments when I saw the guy behind the counter whom fate guided me to in order for him to get me annoyed for the rest of the afternoon. At first, I chided myself for being judgmental as I had not even spoken to the man up to that point. Yet, my assessment of him turned out to be correct.

The employee in question was busy goofing off with a much older man while they brushed some yellowish fluid on what appeared to be unbaked bread. Right away, the guy saw me, and yelled to a young woman in the back room to come out and help me. He was too busy giggling with his buddy to assist some idiot customer.

The girl was nice enough, and I asked with the same confidence as if I inquired about purchasing a hamburger at McDonalds if they had any Panettone.

Pound Cake? Sure, we have some.” She said, and then she started to walk away.

No, no I need Panettone. Not pound cake.” I said. That stopped her in her tracks. By then I realized that she had no idea what I was talking about. She looked over her shoulder and deferred my request to the Jerk who already sized me up and eyed me as if I asked for something as out of place as communion wafers.

Panna-what?” He said with an “I can’t believe this moron” expression on his face. He squinted and raised an eyebrow and seemed almost amused by what he thought was my stupidity.

Panettone.” I repeated showing my impatience through clenched teeth.

There’s no such thing.” The guy stood defiant, with his balled up fists on his hips, glaring at me.

It should be noted that I do not suffer fools lightly. If I was in an ordinary supermarket and I asked for a specifically ethnic food and the guy behind the counter was unaware of it, jerk or not, I could live with that. But, this was an Italian store, with an Italian name, catering to Italians, and this man, a baker no less, not only never heard of Panettone, but he declared that it did not exist. The ensuing argument, which consisted of me marveling at the obvious, that he damned well better know what Panettone is because it is the same thing as walking into a Mexican restaurant and the waiters not knowing what a taco is. The conversation was futile.

Another employee came up to me from behind, on my side of the counter and said “Oh, you want Panettone? I have some over here.” This gentleman politely guided me five feet to my left and showed me two or three packaged loaves which had seen an awful lot of daylight since this past Christmas. We opted for the Italian cookies instead, and I made sure to say goodbye to the dumbfounded baker before we took our cookies to the register in order to purchase them.

The whole way home I fumed. I could see if the baker never heard of the cake, like I said, but he was arrogant, poorly trained, and resentful of the very people whom he needs to make a living, and they are customers. Like just about everyone I know, he and others like him feel they are owed a lot more in life. That no matter what they are doing for a living, it is not their dream job and they deserve to be rich and have an easy life of luxury and expensive travel. This thing that they are currently doing; serving pizza, baking at the supermarket, is only a means to an end, or, worse yet, what they are stuck doing until they win the lottery and get out of “this shit-hole.” Customers are to be dealt with, tolerated, and occasionally mocked.

Maybe I care too much about what I currently do and what I did in my former profession, and I am projecting my professionalism on others. But, I have a trip to Nashville coming up soon, my employer is sending me to a conference, and I know that I will be hard pressed to find someone as bad-mannered and nasty as some of the desultory malcontents I am forced to deal with here in my town.

Here's a quote which is appropriate for this article: “You know you’re a Long Islander when you don’t realize you love the place until you leave it.” Yes, that is true; but, there are plenty of strong reasons for wanting to leave in the first place. A longing for nice folks to interact with is at the top of that list.

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