Sunday, May 29, 2005

Potty Emergency (part 1)

An unfamiliar customer, fiftyish, greying, mustached, eyes full of madness, marches toward my counter. Frustration radiates from his pores; I can feel it from eight paces.

"What kind of gas station doesn't have a public restroom," he blurts, half plaintive whine, half veiled accusation. Yep, I designed the building, quite precociously, too, seeing as this decrepit shack predates my existence by at least ten years. My hostile friend might have read the prominent, eye-level sign on the door on his way in rather than blaming me for his troubles, but that, alas, is ostensibly too much to ask.

I want so very badly to think of something incisively, marvelously witty to say, something that will convince Mustache, and simultaneously the entire soft-drink gulping, lavoratory-dependent domestic population of the error of their ways. I yearn to drive a steak into his petulant vampire heart, banishing him and his malignant redirected aggression out into the waning sunlight, to burst ablaze, consumed in cruel conflagration.

"This kind doesn't...sir," comes my rejoinder, much to my disappointment. The pause before "sir" and my chirpily obsequious tone do make it readily apparent that I'm taunting Mustache, but it's far from my best work. I have lowered my ladel in to the well of genius, only to find that it's been a dry Spring in Tennessee. Ah well. Even the greats have off days.

Mustache pays for his gas and sulks away. I chuckle at the fact that he's going to have to stop again at the next business, and at the grief that's almost certainly causing him. He's obviously not a local, as indicated by his distance-implying potty emergency, so I'll never see him again and am unconcerned that he's leaving angry--not that there's much I could have done for him besides being properly sympathetic to his plight, which I obviously am not. Perhaps if he'd been nicer. But the establishment's decision not to feature a public restroom was made, I kid thee not, without consulting your humble author in any capacity at all. The nerve of it, I say.

As this is a postwar building, we have a restroom, of course. It's just on the far side of the office and hence accessible only to employees, which is important considering the drinking-on-shift bit from an earlier post. The girls I work with at night will sometimes even let children and the elderly use it. I might be bothered at the erosion of my desired united front, but in fact most of the people to whom they grant access are travellers passing through and hence won't be likely to cite precedent and demand this privilege in the future. Furthermore, Vicki and Shayla understand my adamantine rule on the matter: if someone makes a mess in there in abuse of their kindness, their abused kindness will be accountable for the cleanup.

I am nothing if not fair.

Potty Emergency (part 2)

Now, from any service industry employee's perspective, public restrooms are an iniquitous construct. Human beings, inherently being inconsiderate pieces of shit, will never treat anything of someone else's with the same caution or respect as their personal effects. If you want to know the end result of this, simply ask any bar or restaurant employee who has found a misdirected turd as the last thing standing between him or her and going home for the night (and plug your ears if you are sensitive to expletives). There seems to be a repressed pathology in a certain type of individual to redecorate interior spaces in an organic waste motif. The expense of constant remodeling, as well as the possible outbreak of cholera and such, deters these individuals from implementing their predilection at home, so they go at it with creative gusto all the more zealous when given an opportunity in public.

Restaurants and bars, to their perpetual dismay, have little recourse against this. They want people to stay and keep spending money, and the consumption of food and drink has certain incontrovertable efects on the human body. A+B=C: they are at an appreciable competetive disadvantage should they not choose to make toilet facilities available to the public. Gas stations run, on many levels, contrary to this principle. We, conversely, want you in and out as quickly as possible. Turnover, and not intensification of spending, is how we make our money. Besides, we are the mecca of service industry revenge, in that cheery and expansive customer service is almost irrelevant to our business. Everyone ready for an economics lesson? Gas stations attract patronage based upon: A) location; and B) fuel prices. Price your gas around the industry standard, and build your station on a busy road, in front of a large apartment complex, or both, and people will patronize it if you spit on them. Discerning people will travel for a nice meal, but gas doesn't come in flavors. Even if other factors like public restroom availability are dramatically unequal, people will pull their car up to whatever pump is closest when the low fuel light comes on. Adam Smith has nothing on me.

We are, in our own tiny way, a mere extension of the global oil market. Everyone likes to hate us, and yet we've successfully identified and isolated all eleven of you who are riding your bicycles to work in protest. You need to drive. Your car needs gas. QED, you need stores like mine to keep your vehicle happy and people like me to take your money. An offshoot of this is that folks with my job get to indulge in a fantasy that the rest of the service industry can only pine for in the deepest night: we get to say "no."

Serial accomodation is the mark of modern American service culture. Service employees are trained to say "yes" to nearly everything. This used to simply exist at the higher end of things, but has trickled down, like runoff from a manure field, to infect every level of the industry. The customer used to always be right, even when he was obviously wrong, because he was dropping four bills a night to stay at your hotel; the customer is now always right, even when he is wrong, everywhere, because if your business doesn't entertain his juvenile delusions of grandeur, your immediate competitor's just may. It's become a perverse game of one-downsmanship where each commercial entity contorts itself ever more painfully for the joy of the increasingly sadistic and inconsiderate patron. You say you want to order something, mid dinner-rush, not on the menu and entirely concocted in your freakish imagination? Coming right up. You want to explore every mathematical permutation by which you might have your Whopper? No problem. You want the hotel manager to clean your demolished room personally? We'll send her right up. You'd like your new car towed to your house by the salesmen, pulling it by a rope attached to a bit between his teeth a la World's Strongest Man competition? Why not? If this trend continues, in a few years you'll be able to make concubines of whatever unfortunate service staff has the splendid opportunity to meet you.

But no, you still can't use my bathroom. What a delicious word. No. no. NO. Nooooooooo. The mere feel of it about the mouth brings a shiver of glee to any service staffer beaten down by years of assenting to flatly ridiculous demands, so that they don't have to hear "no" in reply to their own somewhat more pressing questions: do I still have a job? No. Can I pay the rent this month? No. Do I have a snowball's chance in hell of climbing the corporate ladder in any competition-based U.S. service field? A resounding, unequivocal, echoing-through-the-fields NO. So instead service industry staff fill the role of the pushover significant others of the employment world, spinelessly acquiescing to the public's mercurial desires: we become, by this process, easy to like but impossible to respect.

But my job, and a few others (think any beauracracy), represent a line in the service sand, which you cross at your peril. You can't distill petroleum in your backyard, and you can't get your driver's license at Wal-Mart. So we can say "no" to you. It's a small man's power, you might suggest, and I'd agree. But I am content, at least in this regard, to be a small man. It's also a power that gets horrifically abused, especially in places like the post office and the BMV--I don't deny that for an instant. The authority to decline unreasonable requests and to discipline bad behavior is not to be taken lightly, and it has the ability to metamorphose into a monstrous intransiagence by which perfectly polite and reasonable customers are treated with a discourtesy not warranted. Since I obviously need to use these services myself, I'm not happy with this opposite pole either.

But at the end of the day, much of the reaon that "no" is such an affront to guys like Mustache is that they've been so completely spoiled by years of hearing nothing but "yes." If he'd stopped at my station thirty years earlier, he'd have had no reason to expect a public restroom. He'd have had to exercise better planning skills or just gone in the ditch like everybody else. Because people are accustomed to establishments bending over backwards to pleasure them, they've come to expect it, to the extent that they feel that business is bound by rules and laws regarding their convenience, imaginary rules that exist only in the precedent-innundated minds of guys like Mustache. Like children who come to see candy and cookies as their intrinsic right following a day at school, they mistake indulgence for obligation. I get to be one of the shrinking breed that is empowered to clarify the difference for them. And that's why I do what I do.

Diet Life.

So a fellow waddles in to my store the other evening--and I mean waddles. He's probably got a circumferance challenging his height. To make the spectacle more appealing, he's wearing hospital scrubs. I'm typically cordial, because, even though I'm a condescending asshole, I am religiously polite to all those who have yet to offend me .

"Good evening, my friend, how is your Friday?"

"I'm tired," he replies, clearly from the natural exhaustion of hauling 300 lbs of behavioral negligence around through a work shift. His tone is gentle, though, so I am compelled to be nice.

Tubby retrieves beer from the right end (where six and twelve packs are procured, rather than the 22's and 40's) and then heads to the 20oz soda cooler. He proceeds to the register with a six of Bud Light and a PVC bottle of Diet Coke in tow.

"I also need a pack of Winston Lights in a box," Tubby proclaims, but again, in a tone so much more civilized than my Philly-blunt demanding regulars that I can't much begrudge his request. But I am distraught, and full of an amalgamation of disdain and pity.

Tubby weighs what he weighs, risking hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, coronary failure, and likely premature death, all because he's incredibly fat. And yet somewhere along the line, he's been, willingly or not, duped into the proposition that drinking light beer and diet soda, and smoking light cigarettes will somehow redeem his sedentary lifestyle and grotesque exhorbitancies in terms of personal habit. He's going to die young in a rich country, and hasn't even the good sense to see it coming. It's a common scenario in which Americans equate behaviors which are not specifically harmful with actual healthy living, as if drinking Diet Coke and Bud Light mystically equates to jogging or avoiding saturated fat.

"Will there be anything else for you, sir?"


"That will be $10.23,'' I convey, as always seperating my work voice from my clandestine inner commentary. Tubby pulls out a ten, and then scrounges about his scrubs for the requisite coinage.

He knows when to just do enough, I think. Perhaps there's still hope for him.