Oh Mom, you’re (still) embarrassing me (50 + years later).
Oh Mom, do you have to make friends with every clerk, waiter, counter person, professional person who is employed to provide you a service of any kind?
I read an article recently about how much New Yorkers prefer their quick, no-nonsense eateries and other services, everything from dry cleaners to pizzerias. In, out, thank you very much. Done. Next? The article was espousing the value of our precious time, and how New York had this equation down to the minute, so to speak. No one suggested rudeness or frenzy, only business-like efficiency. Sounds great to me.
I’m not sure when this started for me, but I long ago abandoned any need to talk much to clerks, especially to people on the phone behind those 800 numbers. I much prefer this attitude when doing daily business: “This is my need, can you fill it? If so, let’s get it done, if not, let’s move on, the sooner the better for the both of us. Let’s make it quick and clean.” Better yet…never talk to anyone! I do almost anything to avoid calling a stranger on the phone to help me. Augh! I confess, I prefer Self Check-Out anytime I can grab it (I know that this is sensitive because of the “automation and jobs” issues floating around. Yes, I’m guilty. I’m guilty.) In fact, I’ll forgo the bargains at Trader Joe’s just to avoid having to make chat with the checkers. Maybe I’m just not a Nice Person?
Sigh. This is the opposite of my mom.
(and it was the opposite of my dad, too, who died less than a year ago, and with whom I had the almost unbearable chore of dealing with while we were out running errands)
I remember 30 + years ago when my grandmother’s daily trip to the grocery was her only social interaction for the day. The stop at the bank once a week was even more highly treasured. These clerks and tellers knew about her grandchildren, about her curtains too? I saw it way back then…would that phenomenon become a defining distinction between generations? Will my own children never have to talk to someone from a bank, or the IRS, or even the electric company? Will they be spared the misses in communication, the frustrations on both ends of the telephone wires (augh, “telephone wires?” will we have wires?)
Maybe I’m just less and less inclined to talk to people in general. Maybe this lies at the core of it, and it’s simply an idiosyncratic feature of my growing older? Is it my incessant need to be left alone, which is the subject of many other examinations of my life?
But my mom—she just can’t walk into the “store,” take care of business and get out of there.
We had an errand to run at the local Citibank. My mom had to get yet another ATM card, since she had failed to use the last one and thus, it was deactivated? (I posted here about her never having used one, so the wonders of 24/7 instant cash have still not come to fruition.) She insisted on calling in to make an appointment of sorts, to speak to someone at a desk. I reminded her that all we had to do was walk in the door. No, she insisted on a phone call. I guess it doesn’t bother her when it takes 10 minutes and some keypad guesswork to talk to someone. Finally, “might we come by and speak to you? What’s your name?”
We find “Moshen” at the bank.
“How do you pronounce your unusual name?” (I’m cringing already.)
“Mo – sen.”
“Oh that is such a nice name. What kind of name is it?”
Moshen smiles a toothy smile, “It’s Iranian.”
(I hope this is the end of the name discussion, as I focus on the business at hand…get in, get out, move on.)
My mom: “The Afghan people have a such a rich culture.” (I think, mom! The guy just said he was Iranian!)
She continues: “My ex-husband…well, he died last year…(my brow is furrowed, my shoulders coming higher and higher) and I collected rugs. We went to Afghanistan and…”
I lean over, “Mom, he is Iranian.”
She continues…”that was several years ago, before we got divorced, and…”
Moshen: “Let’s get this card set up for you.”
(Whew, let’s get down to it, mom.)
My mom: They have beautiful rugs in Afghanistan, we used to go to rug exhibits, the people there are…
Moshen: That’s nice.
( I want to crawl into the floor. )
My mom: “See, I don’t have my card because I fell down a year ago. I was with my dogs at the dog park, the one over on Calaroga Ave… I have two little dogs, they like to go to the dog park, their names are…”
I’m thinking, mom, this replacement card has nothing to do with your fall, or the dogs, or any of this…what are you talking about??
But I just say with a tight grin: Mom, let’s set up your pin now, okay?”
Moshen is being very patient. I’m about to explode.
My mom: You are being so nice to us, Moss en. (she’s butchering the pronunciation) Is that how you say your nice name? Can I have one of your cards? Rachel, you take one too, it’s good to have one, in case…
I sigh loudly, “Okay.” (Mom! Mom! We will unlikely see this guy ever again, let’s just …)
My mom is smiling, a little coy even. (Mom, what’s up with that?)
Thank you for being so helpful today. You are such a handsome young man, and we really appreciate your kindness and…
I try to meet Moshen’s eyes as if to apologize somehow… I’m so…so embarrassed?
He gently reminds my mom that all she has to do in the future is go online and do anything she wants, she is, after all, “a gold member.”
(are you fucking kidding? You think she can go online?)
He reads my mind? He says, ” you can call the number on the card and TALK to anyone on the line. 24/7. ”
Oh, you are so kind.
(Can we just get out of here?)
We have more errands – Costco, the eye doctor. My mom tells the teenage worker at the Costco Hearing center,
Oh, I haven’t met you before, I’m Audrey. This is my daughter, she works at the college, she teaches…
(Oh my god! Mom! Hearing aid batteries, hearing aid batteries, that’s all we need!)
My mom waves to “Jason” who is sitting 20 feet from the front counter, intensely focused on the phone.
“Hi Jason (to me) Jason helps me with my hearing aids, along with Jessica.”
He glances over, a (very) quick nod in her direction.
Mom, mom, let’s get to the doc.
Once there, it’s much the same, with one additional quality – my mom becomes a little girl, hoping for the doctor’s approval, for motherly praise perhaps.
I’m taking those drops just like you told me to.
She is not only completely deferential to her doctors, but she expects them to know her too, as though they will remember her dogs’ names and what her daughter – that would be me—does for a living.
You’re so nice to see me today.
She says this as though they had a playdate after school or something. (mom! that’s what they do. That’s their JOB.)
Why is she so ingratiating? This is all business, mom. This is commerce, this is the buying and selling of goods and services. You pay. They get paid. Done. This is business.
But for my parents, and grandparents too, of course, it’s so much more than that. They equate doing business with forming relationships somehow. I remind them: don’t mix business with pleasure, but they can’t hear me at all. I am reminded of Willy Loman’s reverence for charm and personality over transaction efficiency and Blanche DuBois’ reverie, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Augh, make me nauseated. These are tragic figures to me. But not to my parents?
I have friends in business who say, “business is all about building relationships.” Okay, duh…but I believe that these relationships serve one purpose, and not the purpose of human connection, human compassion. These relationships are cultivated for the nefarious purpose of increasing profits. That’s what they mean in business 101: “business is about building relationships.”
Some customer service folks still make small talk with their customers, I know this. The tellers at my bank ask me how my weekend went, and I look at them, wondering, “what the fuck do you know or care about my weekend?” what? Me, hostile? Why can’t I just be polite, why can’t I be business-like friends with these people?
Maybe I’ve forgotten how. Maybe I’ve worked too many hours serving the public myself? Maybe I think it has shady, underpinnings of privilege, class condescension? Maybe I want to call it out as the bullshit I think it is…Maybe I just don’t like to waste time.
But it’s not bullshit to my mom, and it’s not a waste of time. In fact, it may be one of the best uses of her time. This is how she participates in the world, how she connects; this is her social media. I doubt my mom will ever post a picture of her dinner on Facebook. But she’s yearning to tell the clerk at Walgreens that she tried a new Chinese restaurant down the street.
Good for her?
What’s my problem? Why the angst? Why this rant/blog today?
Is it so easy to fall out of step with the pace and manner of commerce in the world? Is it so easy to believe in things that just don’t work anymore, that just aren’t “true” anymore?
Perhaps it is. And perhaps… I’m just afraid.
Maybe it’s already happening. To me.