Monday, March 30, 2015

Life's Little Injustices (Take VI): The Customer Is Always...Last In Line

I remember poring over the images in my sixth-grade social studies textbook.  Our latest unit, "Life Under Communism," offered no lack of photos to distract a young boy like myself: the cardboard grey tract housing, the supermarket shelves looking so threadbare and empty, the never-ending lines to buy basic items created a pretty striking visual that suggested, "The Soviet Union? Not a cool place to visit, and you definitely don't want to live there."

The images of those serpentine lines piqued the most curiosity. If you grew up with a fully stocked refrigerator during the '70s, as most of us did, you couldn't imagine lining up to buy staples like bread, milk and eggs. If you wanted something, you asked Mom for it, and hoped that she'd remember to put it on the shopping list...that's how it seemed to work, anyway.  
So why, we asked our teacher, did our Soviet counterparts line up for hours to buy goods they couldn't afford, or wound up being unavailable? 

"Well, that's because..."  Our teacher ventured.  "Everyone knows there isn't enough to go around, and most folks don't make enough money, but they still need certain they line up for them, anyway."

My mind drifts back to the late '90s.  I'm cooling my heels in a pastel gray suburban Illinois DMV office, in an equally pastel gray suburb...where strip mall after strip mall after strip mall zips by your window, and the main streets run indefinitely, to little effect.

I have no choice, though. I'm taking the postal exam next week, and -- having moved from another state -- need a license with the Illinois seal on it. Otherwise, my chances of driving one of those blue and white postal trucks might look pretty iffy.

The line snakes out of the DMV office and onto the sidewalk outside. It's like those scenes I often witnessed in college, when folks camped outside the hip record store, hoping to snag a ticket for the tour of their choice...why did all the good shows seem to happen in the middle of winter?

By 10 a.m., we're finally inside, but the line barely moves an inch, because only three stations are open. But the employees don't allow us to cramp their style. We see them fill in for each other, so they can take their 15-minute breaks. Still, the line barely moves.

An older guy behind me starts making conversation. "I've just moved here from Iowa, and it doesn't take nearly  as shouldn't be this hard." He rolls his eyes, and so do I.

Around 11:30 a.m., I finally get my turn. Apparently, my old license is suspended over an unpaid ticket, but never got a notice. This is Chicagoland, after all, whose mail service is renowned for sucking like a wind tunnel.

The doors close behind me at noon. I have some detective work to do, it seems, but that'll have to wait till Monday. I catch a bus to the farthest available point, and end up walking the remaining mile or two home.

Unlike in Chicago, bus service is a more limited proposition here, because the suburbanites don't want to make it easy for the riff raff to show up. This means me, I suspect.

[Sorry: This Space Reserved...

...For Someone Standing In Line.]

Fast forward to last Saturday, in my old hometown.  I have to mail a payment to the IRS, and I need the postmark showing it's gotten out by the due date. It's the bureaucratic version of Willie Wonka's Golden Ticket...minus the chocolate.

I tell The Squawker to stay home. We're going out for lunch somewhere, but it's 11:45 a.m., and our local post office doesn't close until 12:30 p.m. Plenty of time to bound in and out, right?

No such luck. The scene looks eerily familiar as I walk inside, where just one postal clerk -- there's three windows here -- struggles to expeditiously tackle the needs of these dozen-odd customers, myself included. She's pretty efficient, but hard-pressed.

At one point, a woman struggles to lift an enormous box back onto the counter for processing to its destination.  "You can put it there," the clerk says, pointing at the second window. "I've almost thrown my back out once already."

Another woman exiting the line stops to rattle off a number at the bottom of her receipt: "Call this line and tell them to get more people in here on Saturday!"

Nobody bothers to scribble down a digit. We've all seen that movie before, haven't we? I tell myself. Their teeth click-click as they cluck in sympathy, but nothing ever seems to happen, so... 

I stand on tiptoes as the line inches closer. Normally, I can see the clock positioned behind the clerk...but not today, though. It's gone, taken down by the painters working inside the building. Damn! 

When my turn finally arrives, the clerk glances at the envelope that I've dutifully pre-stamped. "Next time," she says, "you can just walk up and hand it to me."

I flash a weak smile.  "Now I know, I guess."

I walk down the ramp outside, and pause to look at the bank clock across the street. It's now around 12:20 p.m. "Squawker will love this one, I'm sure," I mutter under my breath.

[Keep Calm...Hurry Up And Wait.]

Over and over again, government agencies and businesses remind us -- in the same crisp, solemn tones that Winston Churchill used to reassure a wear-weary British nation -- that the customer is always right, your satisfaction is the number one priority, and so on.

Of course, it all rings hollow when they pass the inconvenience to you in a heartbeat. How many times have you fidgeted at the automatic checkout in some chain grocery store, only to find yourself standing in line -- yet again -- when the machine's whistles and bells don't work as they should?

I never did get around to driving one of those blue and white postal vans. I wonder what it would have been's too late to find out now, of course.  Ah, well, I tell myself, at least we can still make our lunch date.

I switch on the ignition and try to push those grainy social studies textbook images out of my head. I've seen enough graying bureaucracy for one day.  --The Reckoner

[Congratulations....You've Just Finished This Post. And You Didn't Need To Stand In Line To Read It!]

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