Out of necessity and a lack of babysitters, I became an expert on video stores in the 1980s. My husband and I were desperate then. We managed to get away by ourselves to go to a movie maybe once a year. Video stores were the only answer to our acute sense of cultural deprivation.
Early on, these stores catered to insecure new parents like us. It must have been obvious what sleep-deprived wrecks we were and how pathetically dependent we were on them, since they didn’t treat us especially well. Favorite movie not in? Tough. Come in earlier next time. Suggestions about what they should order? Forget it. Do I look like Santa Claus?
For a few months, my husband carried on a guerrilla war with a store in a nearby strip shopping center. Whenever he arrived to bring videos back, he liked to barrel in, deposit videos, and barrel out. Unfortunately, the video store in question had developed a rather unusual policy of requiring people to sign the register when they brought something back.
“I told them it was completely illogical, but I still signed their stupid form,” my husband said. (This is his usual way of handling what he considers a lack of logic: To patiently point out the other person’s lapse in reason. He is frequently surprised when his helpful little remarks aren’t taken well.)
Then he stopped signing the form. “The guy behind the counter was screaming at me to sign it,” he reported. “I just waved at him and walked out. It was really hilarious.”
I think we were kicked out of that video store eventually — or maybe I just got tired of explaining to the clerks that my husband was a civil libertarian, not a psychopath. It didn’t really matter, though. By that time, Blockbuster was taking over the video, then DVD, universe, running small video stores with crummy service out of business. This was so Blockbuster could become a behemoth operation, delivering its own crummy service on a massive scale. Capitalism!
Blockbuster! How many years did we put up with Blockbuster, its indifference to customers, its snotty clerks, its perennial late fees, its misspellings of Katharine Hepburn’s and Vivien Leigh’s names no matter how many times I pointed them out? The only time we got anything resembling service there was when one of our daughter’s bohemian high school friends worked there and refused to charge us for movies she, personally, approved of.
“Everybody else just checks out trash,” she would say, pausing to examine a fingernail. “I hate this dump. It’s a cultural wasteland.”
She graduated from high school or got fired or both, time kept passing, and the next thing I knew, change was in the air. Suddenly, every time I entered Blockbuster, I was practically tackled by overly helpful employees. “Hello! How are you? Good to see you! Do you need help?”
They greeted me fervently — every last one of them — grinning maniacally like they were auditioning to be in a toothpaste ad. Then, they followed me, checking up on me every few seconds. “Finding everything you need? You sure? Need any recommendations?” “You still OK! You sure?” I would wait, gearing myself up for my inevitable exit scene. It was like having the Von Trapp family serenade me every time I walked out. “Have a great day!” “Good to see you!” “Bye!”
They called it service, I called it stalking, but the point is, something was wrong, very wrong, in Blockbusterland. It lasted for another two or three years before it went kaput — but it left me with an indelible impression: Beware the business whose employees turn suddenly and aggressively friendly.
All of this came back to me yesterday, when I went to our downtown bank. I just needed to deposit three measly checks and hoof it. But the minute I walked in, it was like everybody was competing for Employee of the Week.
“Good to see you!” the young guy in the first section sang out. I kept moving. A woman in a cubicle waved at me. Then, the young guy came up and apologized I was having to wait in line to make my deposit.
I stood in line — hell, since I was the only person there, I was the line — for another minute. Then the young guy came hustling up and said he was bringing in another clerk to wait on me, since I was having to wait for so long.
The new clerk — also a young man — came rushing up and opened for business.
“You having a good day?” Yes, I was having a good day. “Is that lunch you’re carrying in your bag?”
No, if he really wanted to know, I was carrying pharmaceuticals. So, “No, I just had lunch,” I said.
He lit up like a firecracker. “Where did you eat?” I told him. “What did you have there?” Mumble, mumble, “pasta.” “Was it good?” Yes, it was fine.
Finally, reluctantly, he totaled my three checks, then began his loud and hearty farewells, which were echoed by the woman in the cubicle, the first young man, and, I believe, a security guard. I started to wonder if I needed a restraining order.
I went home, and forgot about it. Today, I read online, our bank has been charged $920 million in fines by the U.S. government for bungling a multi-billion dollar loss.
I am sure this is all purely coincidental. But it’s so nice to know we’re covered by the FDIC.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)