A rant on the death of civility

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, May 16, 1998

Let me begin with a few qualifying statements. This is a rant, not a meditation. This is not New Age. Nor does it make any particular claims for the author, who has never been known for his subtlety or diplomacy.

Nevertheless, this is a rant about the death of civility -- more particularly about the utter decline of service in American life.

Why is this important?

Because the decline of civility, which I here mean the courteous extension of service to the public, is a demonstration of the erosion of personal responsibility in the workplace. It has to do with the decline of respect for the truth and the loss of soul in our relationships. It is the shadow's conquest of individualism over collectivism.

Everyone, of course, has stories and I mean here to relay some of my own. When you begin to look at these stories, it is quite amazing to realize how much unpleasantness we encounter in ordinary life. A trip to the typical grocery store -- and most any other retail establishment -- is now a descent into the Hell of the Resentful and the Disgruntled.

Undoubtedly, it cannot be easy in 1998 to work for low wages, scanning pickles or jerking a Slurpee lever or wearing headphones at McDonald's, but why must the customer become the object of the employee's resentment about his own life? Of course, I'm only speculating. I just presume that it's the average retail clerk's resentment about her circumstances that gets translated into contempt for customers, since getting angry at her boss might mean losing the bad job she needs.

Now, I hasten to say, I can relate. After my junior year in high school, in the dark ages, I worked as a food and beverage vendor at Six Flags Over Georgia. Friends can hardly believe I wore a little straw hat and a pinstripe shirt and said, "May I help you, ma'am?" 2,500 times a day. The legions of unwashed funseekers, waving bills at me and screaming for their chili dogs like orphans in a famine-struck third-world country, drove me insane. Indeed, I got "written up" by Six Flags management for using a broom like a cattle prod one particularly awful day to press the crowd into an orderly line while my fellow chili-slatherers erupted into cheers and threw fries at the ravaging rednecks.

And then there was the awful year when I burned out after five years of newspapering and opened a flower and landscaping shop in Augusta. I need only recall that year to realize that there is no level of stupidity to which human beings aren't willing to stoop when they are about to part with their money. "Can I put this philodendron on layaway?" "Do I have to water this?" "Can you make a lit Christmas tree for my mama's grave?" "Do you have some plastic flowers to put on this plant after the blooms drop off?"

My solution? I gave plants and flowers to people -- just to get them out of the shop, out of my life. "Here, why don't you take this orchid. But you need to get it home right away. It needs water."

My business partner objected. "You can't give away the merchandise," he said. I threw a pizza at him (literally) and left, never to return.

So, believe me, I understand.

But it seems to be the fantasy of Generation X and the younger Generation Pierced that they, unique in history, have had to hold lousy low-paying jobs. The myth is that Boomers like me never held low-paying grunt jobs. Instead, the myth goes, we inherited prosperity, stubbed out our joints and left school for jobs as highly paid professionals. Now, the Gen X story continues, we have made their generation a new educated underclass. This myth is so pervasive -- and so completely untrue -- that I have no other explanation for the horrible manners and contempt with which one is routinely treated amid their landscape of rococo hairstyles, painted talons and perforated nostrils.

Is it hubris to say that my recollection of our own outbursts of rudeness to the public never included the sense that we were entitled to something more than the usual period of dues-paying? The sense of entitlement is what mystifies me. What is the origin of this? In education? Everyone in America became entitled to a college education. (And God spare you, gentle reader, the agony of visiting the typical freshman English class at a state school these days.) Then everyone also assumed they were entitled to be well-paid professionals. Of course, if you didn't go to college, it's just because you didn't want to and you are entitled to respect for your street smarts. If you don't believe this, you're an undemocratic classist.

This sense of entitlement, which seems to sanctify the individual no matter what, isn't just a generation issue, of course. Nowhere does the ethic of ignoring the public have a greater flowering than at the average U.S. Post Office. I know why post office employees go postal. If they didn't, we'd be killing them. I don't completely blame the employees themselves, though. At the Post Office we find employees enslaved to a corporate mind that is, how shall we put this, under the influence of Madison Avenue.

Imagine what it must be like to be a postal employee and have to explain to people all day that the "two-day priority mail" is just a marketing scheme. You pay more for service without any actual guarantee of two-day delivery. In fact, it's about the same delivery time as regular mail.

In the face of having to perpetrate such obscenities on the public, it's no wonder so many people who are part of large organizations seem totally out for themselves and completely unwilling to take responsibility for the collective of which they are a member. What does the corporate "conscience" tell its minions to say when it is "caught"? People are lost in huge organizations, they don't really have to take responsibility, they don't feel rewarded adequately when they do and, as I said, they can act out their anger with the consumer.


Two months ago, I paid an absurd amount of money to have a monitor delivered quickly by UPS. They lost it for nearly a week, despite the fact that I could allegedly log onto their on-line "tracking" system and learn exactly where it was. The web of explanations I heard for this -- my monitor was lost but not lost -- was completely macabre. People told me whatever was necessary to get me off their backs. One employee after another accused the other of being wrong or inaccurate or -- literally -- lying. The organization apparently is structured so that nobody has to take responsibility.

The airlines, of course, are near the Post Office for sheer indifference, except they can excuse their endless inconveniences as "safety" concerns. To protest is to invite midair death. But there are plenty of other occasions to be jerked around. Recently, I lost my return ticket to Atlanta from Santa Barbara. United charged me $75 to replace the piece of paper even though the flight turned out to be canceled and they had to put me on another airline. When I noted the irrationality of this, the clerk snapped at me: "I'd think you'd be grateful we're buying you a ticket." Then she handed me freshly printed United tickets over which she'd scrawled something illegible transferring them to America West.

Then, on the America West plane, the flight attendant insisted I check my roll-on bag. I explained to her twice that the tickets I had were wacky and she should be careful about which flight she checked them to. "Sir," she yelled in front of everyone, "I do this all the time. Please return to your seat!" You know the outcome. She checked the bag to the wrong flight. It didn't even get on the wrong flight. It was lost for two days. At one point, a man in the Atlanta baggage office quite literally referred me to a nonexistent national office.

But if you really want to see the world gone mad, pay a visit to the IRS. Something very peculiar has happened at the IRS, I think. Having come under such great criticism for their abuse of taxpayers, they have now learned ... to smile while they screw you. You understand? They aren't any less Machiavellian. They just have a more pleasant demeanor.

Now, honestly, having had many, many, many meetings with our public servants at the IRS, I have learned that the vast majority of employees are well-meaning people. But, my God, they are the minions of a bureaucracy that cannot be beaten. I have been on one of those convenient payment plans by which you may spend your lifetime paying the interest and penalty on the income you failed to report five years ago when you were working as a poet. Conveniently, the IRS has withdrawn money directly from my checking account every month for years. Isn't that nice of them?

But something happened and the payment agreement was suddenly terminated, I was flooded with collection and lien notices. Twice I visited our public servants. When I explained to the first one, after re-establishing the payment plan, that I also wanted to re-establish my direct debit payment, she was horrified. "You can't mean that you are going to give the IRS permission to go into your checking account!" she said. I explained that I was a trusting soul and preferred the convenience. "If you say so!" she said, rolling her eyes.

The checking deduction was not re-established. I guess she thought she was doing me a favor. Once again, I was flooded with mailed threats. I returned. A lovely lady who would not let me utter a word met with me the second time. "I understand your problem, sir, but you must be silent if you want me to figure this out." This is when you know you are in trouble: You know the person in charge won't listen, has no understanding of what the problem is, but insists that she is taking care of it, anyway. Fine. "This will take care of it," she said, handing me paperwork and giving me instructions that made no sense.

You know what happened. Once again, I received peculiar letters, these asking me to mail in a payment. So I called the office. An impatient employee told me that she was sure my payment agreement had been canceled because of some problem with my '96 taxes. "My agreement hasn't been canceled this time," I said for the 100th time to her. "I just can't get them to take the money out of my checking account."

Her solution? The simple one we all long to take when the IRS comes a' calling on us: She hung up on me.

Am I alone? My days are filled with these kinds of interactions. It's become a full-time job to make your wishes clear to the people you pay to execute them. Here is my prayer to service people everywhere: "O most underpaid and underappreciated wielders of power by sabotage and indifference, we beseech you! Give us our Slurpees without attitude, scan our groceries without popping gum in our faces and telling us 'It must be nice' when we buy a steak. Lead us not into the maze of your bureaucracy where you taketh away our dignity with transparent lies and ignore us when we say we do not understand. Teareth our movie tickets in half without looking us head to toe like homeless intruders at the Ritz. Selleth us postage without making us wait 15 minutes while you clean a sesame seed from your dentures. Giveth us a break, dammmmmit."

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