Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Behold the Power of Chocolate

For those of you who know me from MySpace, sorry for the re-run.

For those of you who don’t, this is one of four blogs I salvaged from the two-hundred and something I posted on MySpace before they went down. Er, reinvented themselves.

It was plainly the sweetest moment I’ve ever enjoyed at work. It was my last day at J.C. Penney’s catalog desk, a job I had taken to put some much-needed legal tender in my wallet following a move to New Mexico.

It was a deceptively tough job, owing to the variety of services we offered. Each had its own highly-detailed set of procedures and processes that needed to be followed—and learned on the fly.

The department manager was a woman named Helga. She was in her late-fifties and clearly exhausted by the continual turnover in the department. Even the most earnest questions were answered in a weary and resigned monotone.

A few moments stand out.

The night a customer anxiously watched me wrap her wedding gift, distress written all over her face as she frantically searched for the politically correct words to get me to stop and let a woman take over. In a fiendish mood, I continued. I even suggested pairing a tartan plaid ribbon with the pink, satiny wrapping paper she had requested.

(I'll admit to being a bit put-off as I've been wrapping gifts since I was old-enough to give them and do a pretty fair job of it.)

Then there was the middle-aged Native American woman who wanted to return a comforter. In accordance with store policy, I removed the comforter from its heavy plastic storage bag for a quick inspection.

After unfolding it, I needed a moment to digest what I was looking at. The comforter looked as if she had given birth on it. Or murdered someone. It was covered with red stains and others the cast of CSI: Miami would have trouble identifying.

I looked at her in disbelief. “I can’t take this back, Ma’am.” Expressionless and unblinking, she asked why. “It’s used” I said. “No it’s not.” I wasn’t in the mood for a Monty Python skit just then and summoned the assistant manager.

She took one look at the comforter, then the woman and went blank. It was the only time I saw this wise-cracking New Jersey transplant speechless.

She went to the phone and called the store manager, who—unbelievably—gave the woman her money back. No questions asked. I don’t remember if the comforter went to the CDC in Atlanta or the Navajo police in Shiprock.

But I digress. This is about sweet moments, not comforters.

After a month at Penney’s, I had found a “real” job and given notice. My last day would be a Saturday. That morning, a new marketing promotion (miniature chocolate bars wrapped in coupons) was to be introduced.

I was chosen to hand them out, and positioned myself near an entrance. It didn’t take long for the mostly-female shoppers to figure out that chocolate, no free chocolate, was being handed out

Within minutes I was surrounded by women. Women with broad, beautiful smiles. Women who looked at me with something approaching adoration. If I wasn’t the fountain of youth guaranteeing eternally moist and youthful skin, I was at least handing out chocolate.

The circle surrounding me grew three and four deep. As best I could, I attempted to get a bar to each of them.

The eye contact was deep and lingering. And full of unspoken surrender.

God I loved this. Was this what it was like to be a rock star? Or Brad Pitt? Or George Clooney?

I didn’t want it to end.

“How’s it going, Randy?”

Then peals of laughter. The assistant manager had approached with another box of chocolate, and was taking in the success of Penney’s new marketing promotion.

But all too soon, the second box was empty as well.

The women? Gone. My fifteen-minutes were over. I was a has-been.

The truth emerged late one night, in one of those long, soul-baring internal conversations we sometimes have. And it was this: it could have been Charles Manson handing out the chocolate, and the results would have been the same.

I sighed and resigned myself to the fact that I had been a mere delivery system for a woman’s true love—chocolate.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tainted Love

Business loves me
This I know
For the advertising
Tells me so

(with apologies to Anna Warner)

I’m so happy. I woke up today and realized I am loved. I stretched my limbs languorously and reveled in the warmth of it. Okay, so it’s not the torrid stuff of tabloid magazines. It’s different than that. It’s subtle and understated—more resonant.

It’s the kind that makes you clutch your pillow and close your eyes in quiet contentment. It’s forever. Or as long as I possess a functioning credit card. Whichever comes first.

Kidding aside, ever heard the expression actions speak louder than words?

You might have heard it was inspired by Confucius. Or St. Francis of Assisi. Wrong. It was inspired by the business gap—the gulf that exists between a businesses marketing and its standard operating procedure.

Take the supermarket chain I work for. It has a big business gap. It spouts its love of customers like a lovesick fourteen-year-old girl writing in her diary. The only thing missing are the hearts drawn in strawberry-scented ink.

Too bad it isn’t true.

Grocery shopping is work. It’s repeated motions, done and undone many times. Put the food in the cart, take the food out of the cart. Put the food on the check-out counter, take the food off the check-out counter. Put the food in the car, take the food out of the car. And so on.

This doesn’t even take into account reading between the lines on coupons, discerning which flavor of frozen entrée is—and isn’t—on sale, hoping you’re in possession of the keychain with the rewards card on it and the reusable grocery bags and remembering the debit card's PIN.

Look! Your five-year-old just tore open a pack of Skittles and spilled them all over the floor.

The chain I work for began as a no-frills market, with the gimmick being that along with the warehouse-like environment were the lowest-possible prices. Along with the prices, grocery baggers were cut. Marketing experts determined that bagging your own groceries was just part of the fun.

But by 2011, any appeal that idea held has been thoroughly and irretrievably exhausted. In a world in which most women work (in addition to their traditional responsibilities), grocery shopping is just one more chore. Adding insult to injury, it is also one that must be paid for.

And my employer has adapted. We now have baggers. Technically.

We have baggers as long as they’re not cleaning bathrooms or retrieving shopping carts. Or returning unwanted items to store shelves. Or emptying garbage cans in far-flung corners of the building.

Because my employer is so stupendously and astonishingly efficient, when a bagger is idled for a minute or two because a credit card has been declined or a coupon is being disputed or because of the dreaded price check, they are whisked away.

Honesty compels me to admit that while it does lend an entertaining now-you-see-‘em, now-you-don’t aspect to the tedium of supermarket cashiering, customers with three-hundred dollars of groceries who chose your lane because there was a bagger at the end of it rarely see it this way.

So in addition to bearing the glowering rage of an upset customer, a cashier not only has to scan a massive order, but bag it as well. Which easily doubles the time it would take otherwise, and occurs roughly half the time a cashier is behind a register.

Even with glasses, I can’t find the customer service in this. Never mind the love.

It demands that the modest request of having your groceries bagged be the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. Your groceries will be bagged if the bathrooms have been cleaned and shopping carts brought in and garbage emptied and unwanted items placed back on shelves and if the customer ahead of you doesn’t encounter or present a problem.

In other words, your groceries will be bagged only if the sun, moon and stars have aligned in just the right way. Business may love us, but it loves a big, fat profit margin more.

And my employer isn’t the only example. There’s the jewelry supplier who cut call center agents to improve its bottom line—even if it means the customers it says it cherishes will have to wait longer.

And the telecommunications giant who punishes service consultants for poor sales—but not for hanging up on customers. And the retailer who leaves calls unanswered and customers unapproached because staffing must be kept to an absolute, bare-bones minimum.

With profit margins shrinking like a wool sweater in a dryer and middle and lower-class wages skyrocketing the way they are, well, gosh, what’s a poor business to do? Something’s got to give.

And that something would be you.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vicki Johnson

Two blogs in one day after one in all of February. Imagine. So it goes when the fire of outrage burns brightly.

It was confirmed today that Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature unearthed an obscure parliamentary procedure Wednesday night, allowing them to ratify a bill stripping public-sector unions of their right to collective bargaining despite the continued absence of Democrats.

This is just the first domino to fall in what will likely be a very long chain.

I hope those who voted for Scott Walker last November recall their reasoning and their faith when they find themselves at the mercy of their employer in ways they absolutely cannot imagine today.


Vicki Johnson is a woman in her mid-forties. She is the manager of a feed mill in central Wisconsin, and is someone I have never met. For all I know, she is a wonderful woman. A caring mother. A devoted daughter. A best friend.

But she is also dangerously naïve. Amazingly short-sighted. And just a little misinformed. And she (presumably) votes.

Her thoughts fascinate me because they are a glimpse into the middle-class Republican mind; the mind responsible for installing people like Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Mitch Daniels, John Kasich and Chris Christie into public office.

If you’re not fortunate-enough to live in the United States circa 2011, Walker, Snyder, Daniels, Kasich and Christie are governors waging war on those with the temerity to belong to public-sector unions, with the eventual goal of establishing a Republican (i.e. corporate) monopoly on governance in the United States.

Not that small government adherents like Johnson see the contradiction.

She likens the behavior of the fourteen Wisconsin state representatives who left the state capitol to prevent passage of Walker’s kill-collective-bargaining-or-else bill to “little children throwing a tantrum, and they should be spanked.”

(I can't imagine what she makes of the Boston Tea Party.)

I have a persistent and nagging suspicion that were the Wisconsin Fourteen Republican, she’d be calling them “wile” and “savvy”, saying “they’re just freedom-loving people standing up for what they believe in.”

When asked about unions, Johnson paused her Shirley Temple DVD and answered thusly:

“Up here, if you’re an honest, hard-working person, you take your lumps. I don’t believe in unions. They were good when they started. But now, the union protects the lazy man. I really think these days an honest, hard-working man doesn’t need protection.”

I can't help but feel like the deli customer in When Harry Met Sally, who after watching Meg Ryan seemingly experience an orgasm after biting into a sandwich, tells the waitress "I'll have what she's having."

For those of us who don't live in a Norman Rockwell painting, being honest and hard-working means that with a dollar, we can buy a weekday edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (which incidentally, costs one-dollar).

It would undoubtedly come as a shock to Ms. Johnson, but there are millions of honest and hard-working people who are fending off financial ruin and persistent unemployment because our elected representation (which, incidentally, is non-union) allowed Wall Street (which is also non-union) to gamble with our economy and our futures without fear of retribution or punishment or accountability.

Being ‘good’ employees or ‘bad’ employees had nothing to do with it. Being not rich and not powerful did.

Johnson’s is the conservative mind at work. It’s this or it’s that. It is or it isn’t. It’s up or it’s down. In the words of the execrable George W. Bush, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” There are no shades of grey.

It’s easy, quick, black and white thinking. Which incidentally, is characteristic of the adolescent brain.

Draw your own conclusions.

She is the triumph of conservative marketing; intoxicated by the nostalgia of traditional values even as those around her are sacrificed at the altar of executive compensation and insatiable corporate and conservative greed.

Ignorance is clearly bliss.

Our Serfin' Safari

From Morocco to Bahrain, citizens are demanding democracies in which everyone has an equal voice, and are overthrowing the authoritarian dictators who stand in their way.

In the United States, we are electing them.

One example comes from Wisconsin, where angry voters engorged by Republican fear-mongering elected Scott Walker as governor last fall.

Walker is a Reagan-worshipping conservative determined to enact the small government his corporate sponsors demand by doing things like “balancing the budget”. But balancing the budget is a Trojan Horse.

Balancing the budget is code for slashing programs that assist the poor and the elderly.

Balancing the budget is code for unplugging the middle class.

Balancing the budget is code for big, giant business unfettered by regulation or oversight.

Balancing the budget is code for fuck you.

But there are obstacles. Namely, Democrats and the people who fund them. Oh, and that irksome concept of democracy.

Democrats receive a majority of their campaign financing from unions. And it is clear to conservatives that in order to silence Democrats, unions must be crushed.

Big business has sought—and mostly succeeded—in eroding private sector union membership, either by relocating jobs to areas of the country where unions hold no sway or by exporting them.

But government doesn’t have that option.

Public sector unions must be snuffed out via big, ugly confrontations. It’s a risk conservatives are willing to take, because when coupled with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the elimination of unions paves the way for Republicans to run—for all intent and purposes— unopposed.

Eliminate a Democrat’s funding and you effectively eliminate the Democrat. And who doesn’t think that’s a great idea?

If you believe that history began with the Kennedy presidency or the civil rights movement, you need to know there was a time when the middle class didn’t exist. A time when workers didn’t have eight-hour days and weekends off, much less paid vacations, health insurance and maternity leave.

The world was a handful of rich folk, with nearly everyone else an indentured servant to a feudal lord. People (or serfs) were purposely kept ignorant and in fear of an angry, judgmental god lest they saw things for what they really were.

The world somehow managed to progress to the point where even people not considered royalty could read or own land. And to conservatives, this is where it all went to hell. This is where the idea of democracy flowered.

People with absolute power didn’t give it up without a fight. Installing democracy demanded fierce, bloody and prolonged fighting where people died. With extraordinarily rare exceptions, kings and queens didn’t just give it to us. We took it.

This was also the cost of providing workers with their current quality of life.

In the formation of unions, lives were lost. More were ruined. Businessmen didn’t recognize them because it was the right thing to do. They recognized them when they had no other choice. It was the unions, or sometimes the mere threat of them, that drove business owners to relent and give workers a fair share of the pie.

But as the U.S. curdles into a society consisting of either somnambulant, ossified sheep or snarling, amoral jackals, this is changing. The entitlement conservatives love to whine about when addressing social programs and unions has crept into their vocabulary as well.

In short, they feel that you have too much of everything. That you’re stealing from them. And that must stop. And we, by voting for Republicans like Scott Walker, inexplicably agree.

While not lemmings hurtling ourselves off the cliff in a literal sense, we absolutely, positively are in the figurative one. Is there a more pathetic sight in America than a teacher and a department manager screaming at each other while the wealthiest of us get tax breaks and enjoy actual congressional representation?

Like the party that supposedly represents us, the middle class are dupes for the oldest political ploy in the book: divide and conquer.

The enemy isn’t the sheet metal worker across the street, or the teacher across town. The enemy are those who run Wall Street, oil companies, corporate banks and big pharma, and the naked, bankrupt shills who spread their ass cheeks for them in exchange for campaign funding.

Do we know the difference?

I don’t hate the wealthy. Or the powerful. Hell, I believe some of them should even be allowed to live.

Where I become anti-social is with the idea of absolute rule. That the United States become a corporate oligarchy, serving only the interests of its richest and most-powerful clients. A country by, for and of the wealthy.

It is said a people have the government they deserve. And as a distracted, cynical citizenry who are too busy to pay attention to politics, we certainly have that.

Now that we know the conservative agenda, and their ruthlessness and their relentlessness, are we still too busy to pay attention?