Friday, October 29, 2010

Don't Break the Wall

He looked like he could grace the label of an old bottle of Castor Oil, or someone who would be the owner of a vintage bicycle, the one with the huge front-wheel and the tiny wheel in the rear.  His handle-bar mustache was like something from a by-gone era, when men attended baseball games in suit, tie, and straw hat.  "Look at that," I said to Donna, "we haven't been in New Orleans even 15 minutes and already we're running into funky-looking characters."

We stood in line at the desk marked "Concierge", at one of the large chain-hotels in downtown New Orleans.  I won't say what hotel it was, because I'm not sure of the legal ramifications of verbally decimating a popular name on the Internet.  But nothing negative was going through my mind, yet, as we waited our turn to ask a couple of important questions of this quirky-looking uniformed gentleman behind the desk.

After spending the summer watching Treme on HBO, we both felt an urge to visit the Crescent City.  It had more than 20 years since I'd last seen New Orleans, in town for a convention, when I was a school administrator in Cleveland.  It had probably been as long for Donna, as well.  Coincidentally, the Browns were also playing the Saints, and since we really hadn't planned a vacation this year, we decided to make it a long weekend.  Donna had one requirement:  lots of beignets.  I had two:  consume authentic gumbo, and, of course, find some quality beer.  And we both wanted to see some of the damage that Katrina had left in her wake.

So, we waited in line to ask this concierge with the handle-bar mustache for some much-needed directions to a proper New Orleans eatery, preferably one with a generous beer-list.  Handle-Bar Mustache-Man, though, was not in a good mood.  He didn't look happy to be there.  In fact, he didn't look happy to be alive.  He tossed maps at people like he was dealing cards, with all the enthusiasm of someone handing over their co-pay during a doctor's visit.  As I peered down at the map, I recalled seeing, on the way in from the airport, what I thought was a Gordon Biersch brewery nearby.  "Are there any brewpubs around?", I asked.  He looked at me like I was Katrina.

"There's Gordon Biersch, right down on the next block," he replied.  His accent was decidedly un-Southern.

"Yeah, " I said, "I saw that coming in.  Have you ever been --"

"Don't know," he interrupted.  "I don't do chain-places."

I nodded.  "Yeah, me either," I said.  He glared at me again.  "Then why would you ask about it?"

Great.  A full-frontal display of Southern hospitality.  We picked up our map and headed down the street.  After waking up at the crack of dawn, sitting through an almost five-hour layover in Milwaukee, a traffic-snarled ride in from the New Orleans airport encased in a shuttle-van like illegal stowaways on a cargo ship, and now trading barbs with Louisiana's State Ambassador for Friendliness, I was ready for anything that even resembled fermented barley.

Our two-and-a-half days in New Orleans confirmed several things that I had already suspected:

1.  The boarded-up houses and destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward looked every bit as bad as it did on television.
2.  Gumbo is amazing pretty much wherever you get it.
3.  Being able to carry an open-container while walking down the street should be allowed in every city in the U.S., at least by the ones I visit.
4.  Being in a dome is really loud, until the visiting team gains 85 yards on a fake-punt.
5.  There are certain people who have absolutely no business working with the general public.

I would not hesitate to say that New Orleans, in many ways, is probably unlike any other city in the United States.  Whether it's the music, the cuisine, the quirky characters, the humidity, or a combination of them all, I don't know of another city that similarly celebrates gluttony and open public intoxication.  But there's one common thread that seems to be prevalent in just about every place I've lived or visited, and it was abundantly evident this past weekend:  some people simply dislike their jobs, and they're determined to foist their dismay, in copious amounts, on to any person with whom they come in to contact.

When I was involved in some community theater, back in the era when actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Debra Winger were drawing customers to the box-office, I was once a part of a play where we "broke the 4th wall".  I'm not sure of its origin, but this technique, for it's time, was quite revolutionary.  Instead of "forgetting" that the audience was there, the technique allowed the actors to address the crowd if need be, to include them in the production, acknowledge their existence in order to alleviate the normal, agreed-upon barriers that would otherwise separate them.

In "customer service", this "4th wall" is broken all the time.  And I hate it.

I've spent time working with the public.  My first job was at Lemmons Market, a family-owned grocery store down the street from where I was raised.  I was a bag-boy, a person who packed grocery bags and then carried those bags to customers' cars.  My primary boss at that time was Rick Miller, a short, somewhat-rotund man with flaming red hair and a high-pitched voice.  He walked quickly and loudly, usually while whistling, and you could easily detect him coming around the corner if you were stacking cans or filling the dairy-case.  He would routinely ask, "What's goin' on?", but he would say it quickly, not really interested in your answer, but more as a preamble for what he was about to ask you to do or to correct something you hadn't done properly.

Sometimes, while placing items into the paper sacks, the bag-boys would talk amongst each other, about what they were going to do that weekend, about the Browns, or about other bag-boys.  One Saturday afternoon, Bob Watts and I were doing this during a busy rush of customers, and a whistling Rick Miller came around the corner after having stocked some fresh lettuce in the produce-case.  He dropped his empty box near the pop-coolers, blurted "What's goin' on", and then said, "Matt....Bob....c'mere".  We stopped what we were doing and he led us around the corner, near the stacked bags of water-softener pellets. "Listen," he said, pointing a finger, "while you're in front of customers, I don't want to hear you jabbering with each other.  These fucking people don't care what you think, don't wanna know what you're going to do later.  They just want their fucking groceries put in their fucking bags.  If they talk to you, you answer them politely, and then get on with your fucking job.  Got it?"  Rick also liked using the word "fuck".  A lot.

In other word, quit breaking the fucking 4th wall.

Same thing later at Pancho's.  To supplement my meager teacher's wages, I became a bartender on nights and weekends at a local Mexican restaurant.  Trevor was the assistant manager, and was usually in-charge when I worked.  Most of the staff and waitresses didn't like him, but I did.  He was a former military veteran, very precise in his organizational skills.  He called everyone "buddy", even the women.  He moved quickly and smiled a great deal.  He would approach a busboy, for instance, face him, place his hands on his shoulders, and say, "Steve, I want you to go back to the kitchen and ask Carlos to get Gretchen two of the large silver serving platters.  We have an 8-top coming in and we need to be ready.  Do you understand?"  Steve would nod, sheepishly, and then Trevor would ask him, "How do you feel about that?"  Most new employees would look at Trevor as if he spoke to them in Urdu, but Steve knew to say, "I'm fine with that", or "Sure, good", to which Trevor would forcefully pat him on the shoulder and, almost screaming, respond, "Great!"

It was slow one weekday evening and few customers were at the bar.  I had a particularly grueling day in the classroom earlier, and didn't really want to be slinging frozen margaritas until 11 o'clock in the evening.  A man in a suit plopped down on a bar-stool, tossed his keys and wallet on the bar, and ordered a margarita, asking me, "How you doin' tonight?"  I was already filling his glass up. "I'll be better once I get out of here tonight!"

Trevor heard me.  "Hey, buddy," he whispers, pulling me in to a corner behind the bar.  "If you're not having a good day, don't let customers know that, ok?  They're here to escape their troubles, so they don't need to hear any more complaining from the bartender.  Right?"  I nodded, embarrassed.  He dropped his hands on top of my shoulders.  "How do you feel about that?"  I tried to avert his gaze, but couldn't.  "No, you're right," I replied.  "No problem."  He pounded the top of my shoulder. "Great!"

The "Trevors" and "Rick Millers" of the world must have been downsized.  "Breaking the 4th Wall" is rampant, out of control, and, sometimes, infuriating. And, like beads, was all over the place in New Orleans.

Two girls whined about their boss directly in front of us at a Starbucks in the French Quarter.  While retrieving Donna's hot chocolate, one girl even said, "He's effed-up if he thinks I'm working Sunday!".  The two bartenders at Crescent City Brewing, instead of welcoming tourists to their restaurant or reeling off the list of seasonal brews available, continually wandered over to the coffee-pot area, commiserating with a waiter about something that each was upset about, one frantically waving his arms as if guiding a jet-liner into its space at an airport-gate.  Later, while shopping for some aspirin, the woman running the register at the drug store on Canal St. wanted nothing to do with out-of-town northerners, especially somewhat-intoxicated ones looking for aspirin.  The guy behind me sensed her delight, as well, playfully chiding her when it was his turn to pay for his item.  "You having a good night, hon?", to which she replied, "Yep, as soon as I get out of here".

The worst examples, though, occurred at our hotel.  Donna made an interesting point, that many Saints fans and New Orleans residents seemed fairly appreciative of the fact that we'd come to visit their city.  Even after the Browns stomped all over Drew Brees and the world champions, Saints fans, outside of the Superdome, continued to smile and show their gratitude, saying things like, "Ya'all played a great game" and "Appreciate ya comin' down to visit us".  Aside from clerks and bartenders, the people of New Orleans were wonderful hosts.

The only people who were not wonderful hosts were the ones who operated and worked for the hotel.  They were awful.  The "4th Wall" was obliterated hourly. so it seemed.  My inquiry at the Front Desk about printing off a boarding pass for our return-flight elicited a kind of grunting noise from the gentleman behind the counter.  He didn't really respond, instead pointed at the computer-terminal as if to say "this machine will do everything for you, you piece-of-shit.  Now leave me the fuck alone".

But the worst display came at the Concierge desk, after the Browns-Saints game.  As we were entering the lobby to go up to our room, a woman in front of us, dressed completely in brown-and-orange and carrying at least 7 plastic cups, that once held Superdome beer, was giddy over our triumph.  So much so that she made up her own chant: "We 'dat, we 'dat, we 'dat team dat beat dose Saints!"  As we went through the doors, she walked past the Concierge desk and continued to chant, loudly, and then annoyingly cackled after each verse.  Well, Handle-Bar Mustache-Man was there, along with another female-assistant.  They did not take kindly to this chant.  Instead of nodding, smiling, and leaving the "4th Wall" intact, they both decided to take a sledge-hammer and pound the living shit out of it.  "Hey!," they both screamed, at the top of their lungs, angrily, as the woman dressed in brown-and-orange made her way towards the elevators.  "We wouldn't do that to you if your team had lost!", chirped Handle-Bar-Mustache-Man.  "You hear me!?"  His assistant followed his tirade up with a soft, "Bitch!".

I could not believe my ears and eyes.  Two employees of a world-class hotel-chain in a major metropolitan city just screamed an obscenity directly at a paying-guest, in front of other paying-guests.  Where was Rick Miller?  Where was Trevor?

Sure, I wrote the hotel later in the week, after I'd returned.  But it's a cry in the wilderness.  There's rarely a distinction between "customer" and "employee" anymore.  And no, I have no interest in lording my "customer-ness" over a poor, defenseless waiter or hotel clerk.  And certainly not over the arrogant, curt woman who looked at me after I'd ordered Cafe Du Mond beignets to-go like I'd just stolen her iPhone.  All I ask is that when I'm standing in front of you scanning my debit card to pay for my groceries or waiting for you to come around to refill my mug, stop breaking the wall.  I don't care about your feelings for your boss, how long you have to work over the weekend, or whether "Cindy" or "Stacy" is going to be there on-time to relieve you.  I'll break the wall if I feel like it.  Because I'm the customer.  OK?

And if you scream at me about a Browns win, I may scream back.  The Browns don't win that often, so cut me some slack.  OK, buddy?


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