Traveling Down the I35 Corridor

I’m not an MBA or would-be entrepreneur, but I have a few opinions: You can always tell when a business is hitting the skids.  That’s because, all of a sudden, its workers start treating you like a long-lost friend.  You! — the lost soul who could barely convince them to take your money the last time you’d darkened the premises.  You are important!

For a while, it was like that at Blockbuster.  Jeez, what were they injecting their employees with?  In the past, I’d thought the only criterion for being hired at Blockbuster was a complete absence of knowledge about movies made earlier than 5 minutes ago.  But, oh my god and voila, there they were, oozing with personality and aiming to please.

“Are you finding everything you need?  Got the movies you want?”

Yes, I said, I was.  I was just doing swell.  Thinking, initially, well, isn’t that nice.  Somebody at Blockbuster cares about me.

That was before I was accosted another 38 times in the course of a brief, 10-minute visit.  Was I sure I was doing just fine?  Didn’t I need any help?  Had anything happened in the past 15 seconds to make my Blockbuster experience less than sublime?  If so, what — oh, what? — could be done to make me happy?

I finally fled, without a movie, back into the parking lot.  I couldn’t bear all the insistent, smiling, caring faces, couldn’t stand to answer yet another time that yes, I was finding everything I needed, including universal peace and a cure for cancer, both of which were probably filed alphabetically and were a part of the new, wonderful, caring Blockbuster experience.

The next time I went into Blockbuster — months later — it was back to normal.  I was once again ignored.  Business must have been on the rebound.

But not at Starbucks.  Yesterday, I went into a Starbucks on the San Antonio River Walk, just thinking I’d order a drink and clumsily manage to set up my laptop without having a nervous breakdown and roam the internet.  Just a nice, quiet, connected time.  Forget it.

“Are you doing all right?” asked the young woman who seemed to be some kind of Starbucks “hostess” or personal welcome wagon, as far as I could tell.

Oh, yeah, fine.  I’d just managed to connect my computer.  I was witnessing a miracle.  I was very, very fine.

Minutes later: “I hate to interrupt you,” the same young woman said, interrupting me, “but would you like some water?”

No, I did not.  She wandered off to minister to other customers who, presumably, looked thirsty, all the time assuring me she hoped I was very happy.

Several minutes later, as I was immersed in an email, she was back.  “I just thought you’d like to know,” she said, “that our restrooms are located upstairs.  Sometimes, when customers have been drinking a lot of water, they like to know that.  Especially the ladies.”

Sometimes customers — especially this lady — like to be left alone, nursing their lattes.  I, for one, can hardly wait till Starbucks is once again in the green or the pink or whatever color they’re aiming for.  All I want is the drink I ordered with the proper belt of caffeine and then I’m really happy to be left alone.  Shalom and all that.


I’m in San Antonio because my husband’s at some kind of conference.  Like anybody who’s married, this is one of the times I’m playing The Supportive Spouse.  I hide in the hotel room, reading, or at Starbucks, fending off officious offers of help, then I have to show up and smile and listen to shop talk and indicate I am just, well, fascinated.

It’s not really that hard, this faculty spouse stuff.  For the fashion angle, all you have to do is climb out of the Birkenstocks and everybody thinks you’re chic.  (Truth is, as a faculty spouse, you’re not supposed to look too good — which has never been a problem for me, anyway.  This would indicate a lack of seriousness.)

You’re also supposed to be reasonably friendly, which isn’t hard, either.  Overall, these are very interesting people you meet.  I decided, at this conference, that I would adopt Cindy McCain as my supportive spouse role model.  I’d been so impressed recently that she’d actually opened her mouth and said something, instead of merely gazing adoringly and supportively and looking like an aging Barbie doll.  (What, for God’s sake, is up with her hair?)  When she finally spoke up, I was fully expecting her to say, “Math is hard!”  But, no.  She said she had always — always! — been proud of her country.  Wasn’t that sweet?

So I tried to look polished and inert and mute, just like Cindy, waiting for my opportunity to announce that I, too, had always been proud of my country.  But, dammit, that opening just never came up.  As it happened, something else did.  I was listening to a nearby group of non-Texans talk about the Alamo and what went on there.  Wasn’t that nice?  An interest in Texas history!

But then one of them mispronounced Jim Bowie’s last name. Good God.  It was like he had spat on one of the sacred shrines of Texas history.  BOH-ee, he pronounced it, like Jim was an ancient rock star.  I went into a swivet.  And, as I’m always too inclined to do, being a total and continuing failure as the mute, adoring Cindy-like spouse, I jumped in to correct him.

“It’s BOO-ee,” I said (and jeez, talk about officious.  Starbucks had nothing on me).

They all smiled at me and went on talking.  I realized then that it’s very fortunate my husband only shows up at conferences with me now and then, that I didn’t have to trail him campaigning from state to state, coast to coast.  Me and my big mouth.  No wonder so many of these political wives look drugged.  That’s probably the only thing that works to keep them smiling and agreeable.

So I remained quiet, trying to work into future conversations that I was very, very proud of my country, always.  But the opportunity just never quite came up.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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