February 2007

Just a reminder

By David Feela

On the opening night for a new family movie at our local theater, we waited in line for our chance to purchase two tickets. We hoped for a good seat, close enough to the screen so we could judge how faithfully the storyline had been translated by the movie industry into a stream of flickering images. Our excitement, however, seemed contained compared to the 3- to 4-foot-tall children that swarmed all over the lobby. Towering at least 2 feet higher than the evening’s average movie-goer, we snickered into our sleeves, confident the theater posed only a small risk of leaving us stuck behind a panoramic cowboy hat or a hairdo that resembled cotton candy on a stick.

Everything seemed perfect until about 20 minutes into the film: Pam had to go to the bathroom. She stood up, hovered for an instant like (I’m just being poetic here) a bat abandoning its cave, then deftly navigated toward the back of the theater. The place teemed with children, all of them clutching 32- ounce soft drinks at the edge of their chairs, so I figured Pam wouldn’t return until the sequel got released.

Two minutes later she sat back down in her seat.

“Didn’t have to go after all?” I asked her.

“No, I went,” she whispered. We watched the rest of the film, but in the back of my mind I wondered what kind of enchantment she had used to keep from getting stalled in the theater’s restroom. When we went for a cup of coffee after the movie, I brought the bathroom business up.

“Did you wear an invisibility cloak to sneak in and out of that bathroom so quickly?”

“No,” she replied, “A gaggle of girls were having so much fun talking, I suspect they preferred standing in the lobby to watching the movie. They gave me cuts, so I thanked them and went in ahead of the crowd.”

“Maybe you interrupted a drug deal,” I speculated.

“No, they were being gracious, but it struck me as odd when they thanked me for thanking them.”

I thought about this uncharacteristically generous encounter between young people and (forgive me, Pam, but I am forced to use this word) an “older” person as we drove home, and it prompted me to recall a very different incident from the week before

while shopping at the Farmington Mall. I stood in a different line — a checkout line — holding my merchandise. As I approached the cashier, he glanced up, almost furtively, and then scanned the merchandise I had placed on the counter. On his computer screen the message Say Hello appeared. It sounded like a good idea, so I said, “Hello.”

He gave me a look, attempted a smile, took my money, and nearly counted out the correct change. As I gave the erroneous dollar back to him, I noticed his computer displayed a new message: Say Thank You. So I said it, and I headed out the store under the scrutiny of the security camera, aware that I had probably violated an unwritten shopper’s protocol by being more cheerful than someone who had stood too long in a checkout line ought to sound.

Not until I reached the parking lot, fumbling for my keys, did it occur to me that the messages on the computer appeared there as reminders for the cashier – not for me. No doubt a customer service policy required by the store’s management: Say “Hello” when you meet the customer and say “Thank You” once the transaction has been completed.

I felt like a fool for missing the point so much earlier, but I also felt a pang of indignation, that a computer had to be employed to prompt what ought to have passed between us naturally. Clearly, my cashier had failed to perform according to store’s standards, but then again, how often do I perform much better?

In the weeks since my visit to the Farmington Mall, all during the holiday shopping offensive and the sales blitz that followed, I’ve had the opportunity to say hello and thank you to literally dozens of checkout computers – the software is more common in retail businesses than I had ever previously suspected. At home I’ve tried to keep in practice by addressing our microwave when it beeps. It’s a good habit to cultivate: simple courtesy. After all, there may come a time when, say, your spouse will not talk to you for a few days, and just hearing yourself can make all the difference.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.