Saturday, January 24, 2015

"Can I Help You Find Anything Today?"

Customer service. Those words leave a bad taste in my mouth. They bring to mind those minutes wasted on the phone, waiting for the incompetent on the other end of the line to help you straighten out your cable bill. Or the young tattooed, gum-chewing hipster at Best Buy, who could care less about the reason you're returning the flat screen TV that is no longer flat. But I guess that the general meaning of the two words together is just the act of serving the customer. It's something I do every day at the bookstore. In fact, I am probably considered the best employee to help customers with their problems.

Being good at customer service, means more time with customers, duh. That means that during the busy season, I am up front at the cash registers more. It also means that the so-called tough customers are sent to me. There is still one cute little old French woman, who comes in regularly, but will only deal with me at the used book counter. She will even call ahead of time to see when I am working. She once tried dealing with one of the younger employees -- you know the one: ex-barista, lead singer in a indie band, with a sullen outlook on life -- and by the end of the transaction, the employee left in tears. It seems that the older French lady wasn't going to take any of her punk-ass attitude. Now she'll only deal with me apparently, because I treat others as I would want to be treated. Even the manager wanted to "86" this customer from the store, but he's also scared of her. Chalk one up for the bearded nice guy.

Last week I had an older customer, looking a bit befuddled in the mystery section. (Here's a hint: if you're ever looking for an old person, look in the mystery section of a bookstore.) I asked him if I could help, but he waved his hands, and politely refused. About three minutes later he got up the courage to ask me for a suggestion. I say the word courage, because I've noticed the reticence of older folks to ask for help. Part of the reason is their fierce sense of independence -- of course -- but the other factor is that they get tired of being given the brush off by impatient younger humans. And that's the funny part: we're all human, and if we're lucky we'll all get to be senior citizens. Let's hope that when we're a bit feeble and befuddled sometime in the future, we can find an empathetic human to help us find a book, or cross the street, or maybe even carry our grocery bags.

Young or old, we all need help at some point, whether we're the type to admit it or not. Men are notorious for being stubborn, not asking for directions and such. I see it in the bookstore. They'd rather try and find it themselves than appear ignorant. I have news for you buddy: your ignorance is still showing. Better tuck that in.

Some of us need more help than just finding a book. Some of us need a sympathetic ear. Some of us need a hug, and some understanding. Not advice necessarily, but a nodding head and a pat on the back. There is a book out now called The Trauma of Everyday Life, and I understand that title, as I'm sure most of us would if we took a moment. There are days when we all just want a mental health day. Some time and space for a nice long walk, letting those stressful thoughts drift off in the breeze. Our country has the highest use of anti-depressants by far. Last year, the Seattle area was out of Wellbutrin, and had to substitute an alternative until they were restocked. We also recently legalized marijuana, and I can tell you from personal use, that it's used by many of the population as stress relief, which is a darn sight healthier that a few glasses of scotch before bed every evening.

I recently saw a video of a man giving out free hugs (thank you internet.) He was standing street side in a country obviously not America, blindfolded with a sign offering free hugs. First passersby were hesitant, but eventually people came up to hug him, many at the same time. I was quite moved, and it's been crossing my mind to try that social experiment right here in my own backyard of Seattle, USA. What do you think? Would the people of this city stop and hug a blindfolded stranger? I can barely get people to reply to my greetings on the sidewalk when I'm walking to work. People direct their eyes to the sidewalk, and concentrate on the sounds coming from their iPod. I'm lucky if I can get a return smile.

So, one the one hand, I pride myself on being a misanthrope, but I also have a great sympathy for my fellow humans...even if they can be ignorant dolts sometimes (myself included.) No matter how I may try to ignore the feelings of those humans resonating with me, I have no choice. Here is a situation where I truly believe I have no free will. I have no choice but to offer my hand to those in need, at least when I am emotionally available to do that. Some days I'm the one who needs the shoulder to lean on, and the hug from a stranger. Hey barkeep! Another round of empathy for everyone! On me!

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