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"Service" with a sneer

What's happening to the "service professions"?
Take a look at big city hotels, restaurants, cleaning establishments, cab lines,
custodial businesses and bus lines — a subtle new pattern becomes obvious.
Surly, disgruntled waiters; irritated, short-tempered clerks; careless,
impersonal people struggle with jobs that have become totally boring, tiresomely monotonous.
It's symptomatic of what's happening to us — we're learning not to care.


THE THIRD CAB squished suddenly by, its windshield wipers brushing ineffectually at the splattering rain, the driver barely visible, peering through rain-streaked windows to see if I had any baggage.

Standing outside a large domestic airline terminal at New York's Kennedy Airport, I was trying to catch my connecting flight overseas. The flight departed from another terminal, about a half-mile across the sprawling parking lots, winding clover-leafs, and double-level concrete. There wasn't time to wait for one of the packed, slowly-moving airport buses, which made stops at each of the dozen or so terminals between the one at which I stood, and the so-near-yet-so-far departure point.

I braved the puddles, splashed into the street, and, gesturing that I wanted to talk, succeeded in talking through a partially lowered window to the next cabbie.

"I've got to get to Pan Am in a hurry — can you take me?"

The answer was a sick look, a barely perceptible nod in the negative, and a hastily re-closed window.

Inspiration came with the next cab — I waved a crumpled fiver in the rain. Duck calls don't work any better in driving sleet to homesick mallards.

The cab sloshed to my curbside stance, the window was lowered, and the driver peered half-interestedly at the five.

"Can you take me to Pan Am for a five?" I asked, hopefully.

His jerk of the thumb indicated I was invited to try the sagging rear door. I sat down on dank, smelly vinyl, planted my feet on gritty, ash-covered floor, and sat gingerly back into the thick smoke, sticky humidity, mixed aroma of stale cigar fumes, damp clothes (I contributed that part), and body' odor (he contributed that part).

It was a silent ride.

The driver pulled up before Pan Am's terminal. I handed him the bill. Then I opened the door, and got out.

But I understood.

It wasn't fair to ask the poor man to do it for any less, even though taxicabs can become as scarce as smiling elevator operators when it's raining in New York. The cabbie had probably delivered some airline passengers to a nearby terminal from a downtown hotel, netting somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 15 dollars (depending on their foreign accents, clothing, the hotel they came from, or whether the cabbie was working for "flat rate" or meter), and was hopefully awaiting other arriving passengers for a return trip to downtown Manhattan for a similar charge.


Don't Misunderstand

Each time I mention on The WORLD TOMORROW broadcast, experiences with people in the serving professions, a smattering of "hate mail" arrives, roundly decrying the cussedness of "poor, poor ole Garner Ted" who used radio time to complain about waiting for loom service, failing to induce passengers in hotel elevators to smile, or trying to talk cab drivers into extinguishing cigars of doubtful age and origin.

My comments are not complaints. They're intended to educate more of us about more of us, to show, from the personal, everyday point of vial the changing attitude of life — the approach to one's job, home, family, and one's own self — that has become so symptomatic of our deeper moral and spiritual illnesses.

Who, me? Complain? What, pray tell, about? I've been to Bombay — and a few other equally "choice" places on this sick, sick earth. Waiting an hour for coffee in a New York hotel hardly compares with a Pakistani shrieking for rice under an air rescue helicopter in East Pakistan, or searching the garbage dumps of Rio's shanty towns for survival, or carrying "honey buckets" into the terraced paddies of China.

I don't complain, then — I know better.

But I do comment, I observe — I compare. I do so in the hopes change can be effected; that peoples' lives can become richer, fuller, more rewarding. Perhaps it's equally symptomatic of our sick age of discarded values that so many fail to understand motive, and are so quick to assign wrong motives to well-intentioned commentary.

Facts do not constitute "attacks" on professions as a whole, any more than noting the growing incidence of drug abuse among American soldiers discredits all the rest.

Facts are facts — they speak for themselves.

What I relate here really happens, happens continually to practically everyone who travels much — spiced with those wonderful exceptions: when servants serve, waiters wait, drivers drive, elevator operators smile, and busboys don't need hair nets to avoid contaminating your tossed green salad.


The Explosion of SERVICES

About two thirds of United States workers (and a similar percentage in most other industrialized countries) are now employed in performing services for others. Today, only one worker in three produces durable "hard" goods (cars, steel, minerals, etc) or nondurable "soft" goods (food, clothing, paper, etc). In 1900, the percentages were reversed.

Nearly half (44%) of consumer spending is now spent for services, not including the taxed income which goes mainly for services. (All state and local government expenditures, for instance, are services. They produce no real goods)

Services represent the major job market for the future. Even today, automation and the de-emphasis on technology have placed many "overqualified" production employees into the ranks of servants. Meanwhile, our whole education system has trained people for intense specialization, while ignoring the simple training of human relations, or HOW TO SERVE.


WHO Serves?

Ever notice who does the "serving" in many major hotels?

Very few are Americans, Britons, or any other English-language group.

As a matter of fact, it's getting rather difficult for Americans — visiting, say, New York — to communicate readily with floor maids, waiters from room service, valets, and coffee shop cashiers. There is a literal language barrier.

In Europe, and in Britain, a very large number of serving-class laborers are Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, and, rarely, French. Few seem to be British, and fewer still seem happy.

Like the time in the former Carlton Towers hotel grille room in London.

Six of us were seated in the well-known Prime Rib Room by a nattily attired Maitre d'hotel at a gaily-colored table with polished stainless steel plates and silverware. Approximately one dozen Italian waiters, bus boys, water boys, wine stewards, and conceivably passersby, studied us with an intent, level, unabashed stare.

It was like being on stage at the Metropolitan.

We were the greatest act since Barnum and Bailey.

One sneered; two leered; a couple grinned; and one dourly observed. Three others advanced to whisk away the steel plates. (We discovered they were only for decoration, and were promptly removed when they had accomplished their purpose of luring us into the black, red, and sparkling silver environment)

There were six of us — three couples. We ordered Prime Rib. That's all they had, but it was fine Prime Rib — I'll say that. Trouble was, when the waiters retreated, it was only to watch. I haven't felt so spectacular since the time I walked on stage in the first-grade play dressed as Samson and my lion skin fell to the floor.

The man who was serving water (I don't dare say "water boy," obviously, since he was full-grown — but apparently it was his singular occupation in life) had a really serious problem. His salary didn't allow the luxury of soap. Or cleaning bills.

It would seem superfluous to wonder whether managers of restaurants lecture their help on bathing at least once every day or so and changing clothes now and then. It has been my experience that they either do not, or that their well-intentioned instructions are ignored. It is not just "sour grapes" to say the rank, musky, obnoxious odor of stale sweat does not mix well with Yorkshire pudding and cranberry sauce. Or with horseradish, either.

Is it a spoiled, unreasonable attitude to expect that food handlers should not smell like warmed-over death, or that cab drivers and others who are continually coming into contact with the general public bathe every day, and maintain clean, inviting taxicabs, instead of the incredibly filthy interiors that are becoming commonplace?

I think not. After all, the passenger is expected to pay — and, in the case of New York, about double what he is used to paying. Presumably, that hike in cab rates was predicated solely upon the assumption that cab drivers were underpaid for their present performance, and did not represent to the public that it was now able to expect better service, cleaner cabs, or more pleasant drivers.


Service With a Smile — "Old-Fashioned"

It wasn't always this way. Back in the 1930's, for instance, a service job — ANY job for that matter — was a precious treasure to cling to. In The Invisible Scar, a study of the Great Depression, Caroline Bird described the services of the 1930's:

"Shopping was a pleasure . . . The salespeople knew the stock and enjoyed showing it . . . Barbers came to the house if desired . . . Mail and milk were delivered along with the newspaper in time for breakfast . . . Elevators were run by operators who said 'Good Morning'; reported the weather, and took in messages and parcels." What a contrast!

Of course, not very many people were able to afford such services during the Depression, but today even the rich can't buy a smile from an elevator operator, store clerk, taxi driver, hotel clerk, or telephone operator. Huge tips merely buy the minimum of service.

A vice president of AT&T echoed the words of Caroline Bird. Thirty years ago, he said, a young girl "with high-school diploma clutched in her hand came to us eager to conform to our standards of service. But today it's different," he explained. "At the first sign of pressure from a superior, or a customer fire-back, they quit." He said they don't subscribe any longer to the motto "the customer is always right."

Even the connotation of "service" has dramatically changed. In the early 1900's, when production-line factory employees outnumbered servants two-tone, it was deemed an honor to serve. Today the ratios are reversed, and the very term "service" is considered "old-fashioned" to many.

But I'll take the "old-fashioned" or "quaint" attitude of service any day. Regrettably, though, there is no choice available.

Take smoking.