October 26, 2007

Do it yourself? Whose idea was that?

I guess I'm just an old-fashioned girl. While I am willing to concede some wonders of technology, in the customer-service arena, someone -- just about everyone who works for any entity, private or public -- has decided the customer deserves "care." Not "service." Not, "how may I help you?"

No, these days you speak or punch in your special number for whatever entity you are calling -- imagine an airline, if you will -- then the toneless voice inquires whether you are interested in type 1 (say or punch number now), type 2 (ditto), type 3 (more of the same), or whether you are a type 4 -- one who is more apt to punch O for Operator (pardon me, "representative").

If you are a type 4 person, you may or may not connect to a human voice, depending on whether the company can comply with a simple "help me. I'm the individual; you're Big Brother of the hour, and I have a few questions, none of which comply with the tone-free voice options."

Let us contrast the concept of procuring airline tickets using a travel agent versus directly interfacing (terrible word) with the computer to use frequent-flyer miles. In the first version, you pick up the phone, tell your travel agent of 25+ years where you and your mom need to go and what dates, and he procures the tickets and confirms your seats, and had the tickets in the mail months before we need to debate what to wear and how to entertain ourselves at our destination. One phone call, and you are ready to go.

In the second, more common, scenario, you are doomed from the start. To screw up the system, you want to book the same flight, different seats, for two people traveling together under separate frequent-flyer accounts. The computer lacks any comprehension of how this might be possible for the average traveler, following standard directions, to follow. Thus, we need not one, not two, but three human voices, because each is specialized in one department: the miles, the tickets, and finally, the reassurance that yes, you have achieved your goal.

Two tickets to Dothan. Alabama in January, the vacation spot of the see-and-be-seen, the once-and-again jet set. Sign us right up. It is the one place in the world you would swear no one in the world would choose to go, short of the occasion to celebrate your niece's one's first birthday. Apparently, you would be wrong. People are just clamouring to get on this little putt-putt Atlanta to Dothan plane. Seating is tight.

I hope they have left enough room to wind the rubber bands and that passenger weight is disbursed evenly. Otherwise, some of the overweight will have to get off the tiny craft and push downhill so we can get to the next stop. In Maine, as a child, I rode from point A to point B in a plane that required some of its passengers to do just that.

And that was before deregulation. In the days when the friendly skies bore some resemblance of being such. These days, not so much. Not at all, if you ask me. I suspect the airlines would be just as happy if I never showed my face, my pathetic Zip-Lock bag of miniature toiletries, and my shoeless, coatless, beltless, braless self again.

Not to mention the two checkpoints, 20 feet apart, to determine that my name hasn't changed and my boarding pass not been altered in the wilds of the airport corridor. If I didn't need a mode of transportation faster than a bus, I'd be happy to oblige.

However, this is the modern age, and the above is what is deemed a successful transaction between customer and airline. That is, assuming the planes leave at their appointed hours and the luggage is not lost in transit.

These days, we call that an overachieving act of transportation. Person A got from point A to point B in a close-to-timely fashion, with the help of bar codes, email messages, cell phones ringing at 2:52 am to confirm that the customer will rouse herself by 4;30 to make it to the airport.

For part II, try to call a computer company to figure out what quirks your machine has that the printed guide doesn't cover, and you are unable to get online to read the actual manual to try to troubleshoot the problem yourself.

For part III, try to conduct financial transactions on behalf of another person, over whom you have power of attorney and for whom the only financial transaction that matters is that her monthly check arrives on time, and try to comparison shop municipal bonds on her behalf.

Then, if you have any energy left over, attempt to change a halogen light bulb located where you will have to stand on the sink to gain access to the fixture.

After all this, eat some chocolate-covered pomegranate ice cream, have a cigarette, set three alarm clocks -- the TV, the radio, and the basic battery-operated travel clock -- and hope you make your plane. Then wonder how people with full-time jobs manage to get to pick up their groceries or dry cleaning. Be grateful that you are not among them. You wouldn't make it beyond the first day.

Do it yourself? Not if you can hire someone else to do it. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Labels: , , , , , ,

October 18, 2007

An 8-year-old walks into a bar...

While I'm on the theme of, how-old-do-you-have-to-be-to-walk-into-a-bar?, I thought of my brother as a child, in Haiti. His third-grade teacher had asked him to keep a diary/journal describing his days at the beach, as my parents had pulled us out of school to extend our? theirs? (you pick) vacation.

To be precise, this was a time and place when, as father's little dividends, we were taxable write-offs to the company business. So dad, at least, was doing some semblance of business (driving into town, Port-au-Prince, a couple of days to meet with the folks who populated our factory/assembly plant). We, on the other hand, were On The Beach, big time.

My brother's diary/journal read: "got up, went to the bar, had breakfast. Went swimming. Went to the bar and had a drink. Played backgammon. Went to the bar and had lunch. Spent the afternoon at the beach. Went to the bar, had a drink. Ate dinner. Stayed at the bar while my parents had a drink. Came back to the room. Slept." Next day, "got up, went to the bar, had breakfast...." and so on.

My parents had a good laugh after they read his teacher's comments on the saga of the 8-year-old who walked into a bar, early and often.

In Haiti, our lives revolved around the bar. Every meal was served there, under the open-air chacoon; every drink we ordered was noted on a scratchpad my dad would sign by kerosene light after dark. He signed off on sticks counted by five, under the titles rum, Coca-Cola, iced tea, and so forth. Who knows how many drinks, of whatever variety, anyone in my family consumed? We weren't much on keeping track. On The Beach, who cared?

In my late 20s, a room On The Beach, plus 3 meals a day (with Caribbean lobster for dinner), cost $50 U.S. This is why I have never understood the concept of paying real money in the Caribbean, much less the idea of asking for I.D. at the bar.

In Lake Placid, my summer home, two toddlers walked into a bar. In Haiti, one 8-year-old. Perhaps I was 12 at the time, or 11. In any case, when I wanted a drink, I, too, went to the bar. Made perfect sense to me, and to my parents. The only part of humanity that didn't belong in a bar, so far as we were concerned, was that bit that was crying and throwing a tantrum. In our book, the only tantrum throwing was permitted in events that involved adultery and the Other Woman.

Superman's fiancee, my father's cousin, excelled at the tantrum. She was ejected from The Stork Club for fisticuffs in the 1940s, a feat no other woman has achieved. And our society considers Paris Hilton's goings-on a big deal on You Tube? I don't think so.

Makes me long for the day when two toddlers walked into a bar....

Labels: , , , , ,

October 10, 2007

How Alice discovered Wonderland

Two toddlers walk into a bar, and one of their moms picks them up and seats them on the banquette. They place their standard order: two Shirley Temples, extra cherries, and could we please have some peanuts? We are treated like the princesses we are, the only two children in the entire hotel. There may be a joke in here, somewhere. Bartender, make mine a double.

I'm on the left, about a year older than my friend, the other bar-hopping child in the photo. Actually, we are in Lake Placid, and it's cocktail hour. Since the bar is in a hotel owned by a family member, legal drinking age is irrelevant. For all anyone knew, the concept might not have been conceived, much less reached the law books when it would have applied to us as three-year-olds. We weren't children; we were small adults, and expected to behave as such -- or, perhaps, better than the imitations around whom we grew.

In the Camelot years of the 1960s, two toddlers could have their own designated banquette, with excellent proximity to the bar, and we did. We two little girls of privilege wore our white lace ankle socks, black patent leather Mary Janes, and frilly Florence Eisman (famous designer of children's clothes -- the only designer of kids' cocktail dresses in the days before baby Dior) attire with smocking and hand embroidered detail. We knew how to order a drink, never forgetting our pleases and our thank-yous, or how to keep our legs crossed so our underpants weren't on display.

Two toddlers toasting: if the average picture is worth a thousand words, the one contained on this blog is worth infinitely more. It tells the story, in its entirety, of my first 18 years. As 12-year-olds, we graduated to whiskey sours, hold the whisky -- our adolescent lemonade resembling the ones to which we would graduate, when we learned how to get a buzz on.

When we were 13, Uncle Teddy fired the restaurant glass washer, and appointed we former toddler princesses to take his place. Apart from running the ancient switchboard when it was raining, this was my first job, one with actual responsibility. We took our tasks like a duck to the proverbial water. The bus boys returned trays with half-filled wine glasses to us. We drained them, loaded up the dishwasher, ran it off and emptied it, the last being our first lesson in wine. Taste was never the issue.

However, we could distinguish a Moselle stem from a Burgundy glass from a white wine glass from a brandy snifter -- and no matter how many glasses we swilled, our breakage record was better than our predecessor, the grown-up to whose job we had been assigned. We were greatly saddened to be relieved of our duties.

We had, however, learned lessons well beyond our years: neither of us, since the age of Shirley Temples, had seen an adult respond to reality after 6 o'clock. I don't know about my friend, with whom I have since lost touch, but this inability to distinguish sobriety from altered states may well be why I became Alice, for Wonderland is a place where reality is in the eyes of the beholder, and its bearing on truth has never been established.

I grew up in the fun house of alcoholic blackouts, came of age in a fun house filled with substances grown in a multitude of gardens. If the White Knight is walking backward, and the red queen's "off with her head," what other lead have I than to remember what the doormouse said and take those instructions to heart?

Labels: , , ,