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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 cloverleafs, 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 room 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 view, 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 A.T. &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 fireback, 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-to-one, 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.

Smoking, Skunk Oil, and Other Sensual Habits

   One time in Texarkana, a group of us wanted to be taken downtown from the airport. It was one of those cooler days, when a "Norther" has chilled the East Texas area, making it entirely out of the question to ride with all the cab windows rolled down.
   As the cab pulled to a stop, I noticed the driver pull one of the new, "silly millimeter longer" types out of his shirt pocket pack, and snap his lighter.
   I walked around to his side.
   "I'm sorry, but my wife and I both are nauseated by cigarette smoke — could you please refrain from smoking for this one trip?"
   There was no answer. He was struck dumb. It finally dawned on him that I was serious. He did a slow burn, carefully twisted the ember off the freshly lit extra-long cigarette, and placed it behind his ear.
   We rode into town in silence.
   I understood, though. For paying passengers to interfere with the sensual habits of cab drivers is just too much. How thankful we can all be that most cab drivers don't openly smoke hashish — or the spectacle of businessmen with briefcases reeling out of closed cabs with half-sick expressions, and then attempting to climb the nearest lamp post would be commonplace.
   Personal gratification of lustful, sensual habits always takes precedence over everything else. You would think people would understand, then, if I were to haul out of my pocket a vial of animal scent, heavily laced with skunk oil, and inhale it with gusto. I've threatened to try it, just as a test case of human nature in action.
   Can you imagine the scene?
   What if you were seated In a crowded airplane, alongside several people who were smoking, and you, the gagging non-smoker, pulled out a vial of skunk oil, and took a deep whiff.
   As the terribly penetrating stink reached their noses, they would no doubt quickly register expressions of amazement, disbelief, anger, and nausea in that order.
   They would, I am sure, demand that the vial be closed up and put away, and then begin making various and sundry remarks about the utter crassness of anyone who would dare stink up someone else's environment by indulging in such an incredibly obnoxious habit.
   The reply could be a beautiful squelch: "Look, man, you've got your habit, I've got mine!"

Two Kinds of Air Pollution

   I have attended many scientific meetings on ecology and changing environment. It was with amazement that I sat, nearly gagging, in a densely smoke-filled, tightly packed room during the "Governor's Conference on California's Changing Environment" at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
   I was there to obtain information for the radio and television programs.
   The conference room was labeled "Air." Simultaneously, there were meetings on "Water" and other areas of concern.
   The sign didn't mean anything.
   There we were, along with Governor Ronald Reagan, listening to serious discussions on the terrible smog problems of Los Angeles, and every other California city — and the majority of the concerned people in the room were dragging clouds of total pollution into their lungs with feverish intensity. They were decrying the factories, the automobiles, the forest fires and blowing dust that were contributing to the growing problem of air pollution in California.
   It seemed somehow ironic.
   And then there was the trip from the Americana hotel in Manhattan to the old Madison Square Garden for some finals in the national collegiate basketball tournament.
   It was snowing.
   There were four of us; we were in New York for the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We ate at a restaurant on 53rd Street and went outside into the frigid air to hail a cab.
   I went around to the right side, and entered the front. A little hesitation on who would enter where or sit in which seat momentarily occurred.
   "Shut the &&&***$$**&$ door!" the driver yelled.
   "Shut your foul mouth!" I replied.
   He simply scowled. I repeated my statement — even elaborated on it a little.
   He said, "All right, all right, so I didn't say nothin'."
   I suppose he worried that I might report his obscenities to the company — though I can't imagine why, in a society where even leading politicians, entertainers, and, sometimes, clergymen, are so free with profanity and obscenity.
   It was interesting from there on. He had heard the broadcast, and I found him to be a fairly decent human being. He even took us the long way around, at his own request, so he could have more time to ask questions and talk to me. We were a little late for the start of the ball game — but it was worth it.
   Speaking of New York City, have you noticed the change in 'attitude of even "civil" servants lately. It's most obvious in New York, but evident everywhere you look.

America's Paramilitary "Civil" Servants

   Last June, New York City lived through a week they would rather forget, and certainly not like to repeat — but chances are they will. On Monday, June 7, unionized bridgetenders blocked 27 of the city's 29 drawbridges, trapping hundreds of thousands of motorists in sweltering heat. One observer described this as "a pre-rush-hour coup executed with commando-like precision, stripping gears, blowing fuses and immobilizing drawbridge mechanisms like so many characters in an Alistair Maclean war movie,"
   Even the union leaders spoke of it as "hit and run" tactics, "anarchy" and "guerrilla warfare." "We'll have to study Mao — use hit-and-run tactics" said a Teamster lobbyist, as New York City suffered its worst traffic jam in history.
   Meanwhile, Consolidated Edison ordered the first electrical brownout of the season.
   The next day, the situation worsened — if that's conceivable. On Tuesday, June 8, the strike spread to all sewage-treatment plants, water-supply facilities, garbage disposal incinerators, park employees, and the food shipments to the schools. Over one billion gallons of raw sewage poured into the already contaminated rivers of New York.
   Why the furor? Municipal servants wanted much higher salaries and more fringe benefits (so that they could live 50 miles out in the suburbs, like all the other rich commuters). The key demand was a pension plan amounting to one half the final year's pay after a mere 20 years of service — or, if you can imagine it, a 38-year-old sanitation worker demanding to be sent to pasture at public expense. For that, the workings of city commerce were virtually closed down for two days.
   A compromise postponement of demands was reached on Wednesday, as Mayor Lindsay left for Albany to solicit money from the state budget. The remainder of the week was spent in some quite bitter exchanges between the Governor and the Mayor over how to placate these "servants" (the payroll of servants is well over half of the New York City budget).
   But America's un-civil civil servants aren't the main subject of this article. I'm primarily discussing the kind of people you meet every day — whether traveling, dining, or telecommunicating.
   Ever place long-distance telephone calls overseas?

Placing Telephone Calls An Ordeal

   Big city hotel telephone operators are notoriously short-tempered, and seem to hate their jobs. Of course, they could give you reasons why — guys like me who want to use the telephone, for instance.
   To telephone the operator and ask for a number is an unforgivable act. The acidic bitterness fairly drips over the lines as the distraught, overworked, tired, harried operator listens resignedly to the request of one more addle head who has the unmitigated gall to disturb her day by wanting to use the phone. This kind of telephone "assistance" doesn't happen only once in a while, by the way, but with monotonous regularity. I suppose it must be the combination of big city living, frequent drunken brawls labelled "conventions," and, perhaps, the very nature of the job itself, working for hours on end as a substitute for a piece of machinery, plugging jacks into little winking holes, and trying to keep all the buzzers and lights satisfied.

What Happened to an "Attitude of Service?"

   What's behind the change in attitude of our serving class? The very term "serving class" rankles the nerves of those who serve. To them, service connotes the lowest possible prestige, although service is one of the highest callings of man.
   The roots of this attitude are somewhat easy to pin down. Overpopulation and crowding into urban areas builds up a certain nervous tension which is expressed by increased belligerence — snarling, and sneering at those who invade your little world.
   Many are frustrated with their job; they really want to do something else entirely! Many employers claim they can only hire the mentally retarded and physically handicapped to do the "dirtiest" of service jobs — mopping up, emptying hospital bedpans, cleaning commodes. No one else will touch these jobs.
   In a greater sense, surly service represents a total repudiation of the "American way of life," the so-called "Protestant work ethic," and the weaknesses of fellow human beings. Lost baggage and harsh words reflect the rebelliousness of our age. We're learning NOT to care.
   I believe it was Elbert Hubbard who once said, "If I worked for a man, I would work for him. I would not work for him part of the time, and against him the rest of the time. I would either work for him all the time, or I would not work for him at all"
   Perhaps that's good advice for distraught serving personnel, or those who labor in jobs they hate. I have no exact statistics which indicate the degree of satisfaction people have with their jobs — but, judging from the unhappy faces, I would imagine those who find their jobs truly rewarding, exciting, challenging, and fulfilling are in a tiny minority.
   H. Wentworth Eldridge, the editor of a massive 1200-page volume entitled Taming Megalopolis wrote in his preface that "there are not going to be any new and shining cities without new and shining people in some as yet not entirely clear reciprocal relationship."
   That's the key — new and shining people. The "new" is a change of attitude, and the "shine" comes from crushing out that last cigarette, taking a good long bath, donning clean clothes, and putting on a happy face.
   Service with a smile.
   Let's bring it back.

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Plain Truth MagazineAugust 1971Vol XXXVI, No.8