The palsied hand of the service industry

29 Jan

I used to like the elderly. Being an only child means being around adults for most of your early years so learning to relate to your peers becomes a forgone thought. Instead you spend time with people 20 to 50 years your senior listening to fascinating stories about how Betty died last month and the tumor, when it was removed was the shape and size of a Rhubarb.

Also they always had candy. I don’t know why… they almost seemed to excrete toffee.

But then something happened.

I entered the workforce.

I entered the workforce in the customer service industry. And I learned to be immediately wary and mistrustful.

Books’ N Yer’Face was my dream job when I was hired. I had nothing to speak of on my resume as far as work experience was concerned save for a stint as a grocery store florist, a job that I had made myself so unwelcome at that I didn’t put it on the resume anyway. Somehow, someway, I managed to bullshit my way into a position. I didn’t know that “The Point of Sale” was basically the cash register and I had never used ordering software before but by god I was on training the next day.

I wanted  to work as a bookseller very badly. If we were talking wage slave day job then this was the ideal. Reading was, and still is, one of the most important things in my life. The thought of spending eight hours a day surrounded by literature, helping thoughtful, learned individuals make their purchases, Discussing the finer points of the great American novel! Oh how delightful!

I was disabused of that notion real quick. There would be no reading on your shift, no matter how slow it was. That edict was almost always followed up with the frustratingly chipper little chestnut that was sung at us when caught breaking the rule: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean!” That rhyming couplet literally made me taste bile on the back of my tounge every time. There was no sitting down during your shift. The physical demands of standing and the constant bending down, kneeling and climbing were tearing down my chronicly sore muscles.

I know that sounds like a gang bang blowjob description but it was only the days worth of reshelving and stocking.

Another one of my romantic notions to take a brutal kick to the idealistic goolies was that people did not want unique new stories from unknown writers. They wanted Doctor Phil. And if they did not want Doctor Phil they wanted the new self help book of the month that would help them understand why Doctor Phil wasn’t helping. If not self help books then it was the new incendiary political screed that had just come out. Conservative views one month, liberal views the next.

Books N’ Yer Face also had the fine distinction of being located almost directly next door to an assisted living home. By god if there if there is something the elderly love more than toffee and the new Michael Savage book it was rattling the front door at 6 AM to get the Dayton Daily News with the coupon section. And god help you if the coupon section had fallen out in the truck on the way to the store.

Having money hurled at us cashiers was the norm. Quarters whizzed by our heads like ninja stars. You could have two people in front of you in line before an ancient man (who moved surprisingly fast for his age) would dash by, scream “DAYTON DAILY NEWS” hoarsely and then heave a shower of change at you. Worse were the fragile old ladies who would quiver under the flow of the air conditioner and quietly, almost desperately try pull a battered seniors card from their wallets while practically imploring in a voice that carries all of the weight of the worlds burdens: “I….I have a Golden Buckeye card…do you need me to take it out?”

Then they’d fix me with these enormous sorrowful eyes that say “I am so terribly, terribly old…won’t you give me some small crumb of pity and spare me the five minutes it will take for me to get the card out from the ID pocket. It’s just that I have so little time left…”

“No. No, Ma’m that’s all right.”

When Kathrine Hepburn died and her autobiography was released the bookstore was as a shark tank filled with chum. In they hobbled, blue haired and ready for juicy hollywood gossip from the 1940’s. The smell of Fixident was strong in the air or maybe that was the evaporating fear sweats of the cashiers who felt as if we would spend the day earning the disappointment of a thousand grandmommies.

She approached me towards the end of my shift as I stood running the the tape on the credit slip machine. Her finger were slender and knobbly at the joints and weighed down with jewels. The suit she wore was tailored and fire engine red topped off with a matching scarf tied around a skinny neck. She held her head at an angle that suggested she did not often bend down to see things at other folks eye level.

“Excuse me.”

I looked up with a ball point pen jammed between my teeth.


The lady held up our new hardcover of Hepburn’s book  “Me: Stories of My Life“. “I am purchasing this as a gift but I have a complaint…”

Oh, goodie gumdrops.

“Whats the problem. Ma’m?” I moved over to the counter where the woman flipped the book over to show me the side where the pages had been bound. It was a particular binding technique where the pages had been allowed to remain slightly off register instead of being guillotined into a uniform rectangle.

“It seems like you’ve done a very bad job.” She flipped through the pages with a manicured thumb. “They  all look like this. I want one that’s smooth.”

I stood for a moment marshaling the words I would be using. No matter what I said this wasn’t going to end well.

“Ma’m…It’s…It’s meant to look like that.”

“Like, what? Like garbage?”

“It’s called a bevel cut, Ma’m. It’s to give the book a more classic hand bound look and…”

She shook the book in my face.

“It looks like a RAG.

I blinked. “No, Ma’m…”

A RAAAAAAAAAAG!” She bellowed. She threw the book down on the counter and crossed her arms. “It’s a gift.” She repeated. “I can’t give her a gift that looks like a cheap piece of garbage. Make another one for me, please. I’ll wait.”

“What?” I said dumbly.

“Make me another one.” She flicked her finger dismissively at the cover. “But cut the pages correctly this time. I don’t want that bivvle thing this time.”

The realization was slow but come it did.

“Ma’m. We don’t print any books here at the store. We order from publishing houses who use their own printers. We have no control over how the printers bind their books for sale…”

“So you just order books that look like trash and sell them to people?” She had actually rested her hand on her chest as if she had become mortally offended by the our stock.

“I think that kind of binding looks quite nice as a matter of fact.” I said defensively.

The lady made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. Then she fixated on a pair of scissors over my shoulder that were resting in a stationary bin.

“Just take those scissors and cut it for me then.” She huffed.

And at that point I was all “fuck customer service.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

Her eyes snapped up to meet mine.

“Why? Is it too much time? Are you too busy?”

“Ma’m, let me put it to you this way. If I take a pair of scissors to that book then it really will be a rag.”

She bought the goddamned book after a few more minutes of arguing. This time I insisted that I had to see the Golden Buckeye card out of the wallet before I could offer the discount.

I had offered to wrap it but she opted to take a length of the wrapping paper home instead. She was dead set on the idea that she was going to cut those pages smooth on her own with a pair of kitchen shears.

I hope she did too. That way she could see what a “RAAAAAAG” really looked like.



5 Responses to “The palsied hand of the service industry”

  1. Kat January 29, 2011 at 2:33 am #

    Man you hated that job after awhile. Love this post. Older folks are among the bitchiest and most entitled customers, definitely, all the way across the board of the service industry. RAAAAAAAG!

  2. manyfur January 29, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    Haha, I remember when I worked at a grocery store for a few months right out of high school; I was a pretty good cashier, which meant my manager relentlessly scheduled me to work the express lane, which basically goes non-stop and is full of people exclusively with better things to do than stand in line. And the elderly. They’re just there for a pastry, the paper, and three cans of catfood at 7 am, but then…out comes the checkbook, which of course means I’ll have to verify the check. And the 10 office workers behind them, ALSO getting the paper and a yogurt smoothie on their way to work, begin to percolate. And it is all my fault, of course. But I think my least-favorite customer of all time was the military colonel who, when asked if he would like to donate a dollar to fund breast cancer research while in uniform, said “I think I’ve given enough already.”

  3. Dan D February 3, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    Wow, I’ve been reading you stuff for so long and only now I find out you had the job I’ve been doing for 4 years. Bookstore, no leaning allowed, old people throwing money, it’s all there!

  4. Tai February 6, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Ah bookstores. I was once screamed at by an old woman about how I didn’t know *anything* about Tolkien.

  5. Katie February 9, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    Ahahaha This definitely made me laugh. 6 evenings a week, I work at a luxury, high-end retirement community. At the front desk (and sometimes serving in the dining room.)I’ve been there for nearly three years. I think I’m becoming one of them (I’m 22. I FEEL 52.)That’s 200, give or take, old people. Luckily they love me. But sometimes…If thoughts could kill, I’d have been pt in jail a looong time ago.

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