Sunday, March 04, 2007

surrealism and customer service

One of the very kind and thoughtful gifts the SP and I received for our wedding was a gift certificate to a local martial arts supply store. On Saturday, since we were in the neighborhood and happened to think of it, we stopped by there.

I'd never been to the place before, although I'd heard horror stories. It's located in the front of an old house in a semi-residential, semi-commercial area. The windows have iron grids across them and there are two doors in front, one split top/bottom for UPS and Fed-X deliveries. NO PICK-UPS TODAY, said the sign.

There is a hand-lettered sign on the entry door, readable through the glass: "To enter, ring bell and push door open when you hear buzzer." We rang the bell. We heard the buzzer. We pushed the door open.

We entered into a claustrophobic, dark entry-way no wider than the door. To our right was a cedar-paneled wall hung with flyers and business cards; on the left were large pigeonhole shelves, crammed floor-to-ceiling with shoes, uniforms, sashes, and sparring pads.

The whole place was no bigger than my living room. It was divided into a U-shape by a hanging rack of uniforms at the front. The west wall was covered with practice weapons, mostly wooden; the east wall was full of books. The back wall had two doorways, the cash register, and many more pigeonholes full of colored ranking belts, neatly bundled. Occupying the back two-thirds of the showroom floor was a display case full of butterfly knives, pepper spray, boot knives, batons, shock guns, and all the other useless semi-dangerous paraphernalia that teenage boys like to collect. There was, in fact, a teenage boy sitting on a stool slinging around a butterfly knife in a way that suggested too much idle time for practicing such things. Finally he handed it back to the old lady behind the counter. "No thanks," he said politely. "I think I like the one I've got better."

The old lady, whom I'll call B, is the heroine of our story today. She was petite and slim, though with an uneven gait that suggested a bad hip. She wore a purple sweater, lavender lipstick, and long lavender nails. Her silver hair was a helmet, perfectly coiffed and frosted. She very plainly did not want to be there. I speculate she was the wife of the owner, or some other relative, press-ganged into service.

There was very little in the shop that the SP or I needed, seeing as how I make our uniforms and he makes our weapons, but he had been wanting a new set of hand-bags for us to practice punching on, so we found those, plus a little paperback, The Thirteen Chapters by Cheung Man Ch'ing, that Sit recommended, and a glossy magazine that looked good for a laugh. In the five or ten minutes that we spent making these selections, an old hippie-type guy came in the door and started giving the old lady a hard time. Not like he was trying to be mean or anything--far from it. On the contrary he was one of those guys who thinks he is absolutely charming and can't say anything without trying to make a joke. I find this type either sad or annoying, depending on the circumstances, but I generally ignore them or goad them on, depending on how mean I'm feeling and whether there are witnesses.

This old lady, B, was clearly both annoyed and flustered. She apparently did not recognize irony in conversation, so when the guy said, "I'm here to bother you again," or "I'm just here to cause trouble," or "You mean I got to pay for that?" she'd get all indignant and say, "What do you mean?". Also the guy was asking for things that she did not have in the shop and had apparently never heard of before. Three times she said, "Let me call Bob," and got on the phone: "Do we have such-and-such?" Each time the answer was no. The third time I think Bob hung up on her (I'm fairly sure Bob was sitting somewhere in the back of the house, in his underwear, watching TV). And B kept getting more nervous, shrill and jerky. "Close the door!" she shrieked twice, at new customers coming in. "Push it closed all the way! Please! Otherwise the wind pushes it open!"

This went on for a while, with us hanging around snickering at the old guy and the two punks who came in, and the old lady trying to cope with a return and the old guy's weird questions. I cracked open the magazine and starting reading bits to the SP about how chi influences facial shape and can tell you who your perfect mate is.

Suddenly the old lady screams, "PUSH! PUSH!!!" in the kind of panicked tones that one uses when the vampires are scrambling for the box car door and you're trying to shut it (heh heh--more on that tomorrow). I jumped about a foot in the air and looked across the room at her, wondering what the hell she was talking about. "Can't they READ?!?" she screamed at me, and I realized she was yelling at somebody trying to come in the front door. I hadn't even heard it buzz.

Two teenagers came in, sheepishly. "I was trying to turn the knob," one said.

"It doesn't say turn the knob, it says 'Push!'--Please close the door all the way! Push it closed! It's a windy day out and the wind will blow it open! All the way! Push!"

The SP and I looked at each other and it was all I could do not to fall down laughing in horror. The two kids came in and started messing with the weapons, B finished up with the old guy and got him out of there, and I said sweetly, "We're ready to check out now."

"Ok, honey, I'm sorry about that," she said.

"That's not a problem," I told her. "Actually we got this gift certificate from you as a wedding present, we got married last November...."

"Oh, isn't that wonderful," she said. "Congratulations!"

"Thank you."

"Look at this, I signed this myself."

"I thought you did," I told her. "You've got beautiful handwriting." (It was also signed in her favorite color, purple.)

"Oh, aren't you sweet. I took penmanship you know, way back years ago when they still taught it."

"Oh, you're not that old," I told her.

"Honey, I just had a birthday."

"And you're twenty-five," I guessed.

She laughed, and looked pathetically flattered instead of amused. "I just turned sixty-four."



I pulled back and looked at her hard, the incredulity in my expression not hard to fake because that close, I could see she was wearing false eyelashes and I found it incredible that anyone could be that superficial after menopause. Grooming is one thing; faux finishing is another. "You're making that up."

This went on for a while, with her getting more gooey and pliable, while I steered her toward the cash register. She tallied up our bill, which was the exact amount of our gift certificate. "And I just won't charge you tax," she said.

"Aren't you sweet!" I told her.

I got her to hang up a current flyer advertising Sit's class on their bulletin board, and we split. Once the door closed behind us, we doubled over in paroxysms of laughter and had to stumble to the car. "Don't you know how to charm the crazy old lady!" the SP said admiringly.

"Oh baby, she was easy," I said, wiping my eyes. But hey--why not? I felt sorry for her, and it got us out of there quicker.

The coda to all this was that we stopped by Sonic on our way home, for a quickie lunch, and the girl taking our order had the damnedest time pushing those little buttons.

"I want two bacon cheeseburgers, one with mustard, and one with mustard and mayonnaise," the SP said. "A small order of onion rings, and a small chocolate shake."

"Okay, that's two burgers, one with mustard and what else?"

"One with mayonnaise and mustard, and one with no mayonnaise."

"Two burgers with mayonnaise." (This was when I started giggling and put my head between my knees. After the previous encounter it was too much to bear.)

"No, one with mayonnaise and mustard, and one with JUST mustard."

Long pause. "Okay, that's two bacon burgers with mustard and mayonnaise."

The SP looked at me helplessly. "Yeah!" he said, and I fell over. "I know when I'm licked," he muttered.

Both burgers arrived with mustard, no mayo. We ate them anyway.

1 comment:

Shirley said...