Monday, April 28, 2008

GPS: Rise of the Machines

© 2008 Leighann Lord

I bought my Husband a GPS (global positioning system) for his car. With all the driving we do for gigs, I thought it would make a great gift, and save him from the oft joked about male indignity of asking for directions when lost. I should have known better.

The mechanical female voice is loud and clear, but has a tendency to mispronounce the names of local streets. Foch Boulevard becomes Foesh, but we figure it’s because she’s not from around here. Overall her voice is vaguely pleasant and non committal, but only when you do what she says.

If you don’t turn left, when she says turn left, her tone changes. She sounds annoyed, judgmental and down right cranky. Surprisingly this happens a lot since my Husband doesn’t always listen. She may have the benefit of orbiting satellites, but he’s got his gut. Listening to them argue I wonder who’s married to whom:

"In 300 yards, turn left."

"I don’t think so."

"Turn left."


Ominous silence.


"Wow, do you two need a minute alone to work this out?" I ask. They both ignore me.

If you’re familiar with a GPS you’re probably wondering why my Husband just doesn’t turn it off. Well, first he’s never been one to shy away from a verbal joust no matter who it’s with. Second, I think he enjoys playing out the epic battle of man versus machine. Turning it off is the coward’s way out. He prefers the challenge.

When my husband gave me a GPS for my car, I protested saying one couple does not need two GPS units. But as he pointed out, we both travel a lot, and not always together. The voice on my unit is male. He has a calm, cool, confident delivery, no attitude, but that’s probably because I pretty much do what he says, until recently.

I was headed out to an appointment on Queens Boulevard. Queens Boulevard is a perfect example of why people hate Queens. The numbered street signs repeat ad nauseam. There’s 63rd, street, road, and avenue. As a bonus, the addresses don’t necessarily correspond with the street numbers. Although we natives don’t like to admit this, we too are perplexed by Queens Boulevard. It’s the Rubik’s cube of roadways.

This swiftly moving seven mile, 12 to 16 lane stretch has a strict 30 mph speed limit. It’s not NASCAR, but that’s a pretty brisk pace when you’re looking for an address. So, this seemed like a perfect job for the GPS; but sadly it just wasn’t up to the Queens Boulevard challenge. Instead of arriving at an office building, I ended up in front of a diner. You don’t need a GPS to find a diner in Queens.

I was angry and very disappointed with myself. Me of all people blindly put her faith in a machine like I’d never read Brian Herbert’s "Butlerian Jihad;" like I’d never heard the silky and yet decidedly menacing voice of HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey;" like I’d never seen "Terminator;" like my computer isn’t held hostage by Microsoft Windows. And I call myself a sci-fi fan? I may never be allowed into another "Star Trek" convention.

Naturally, my relationship with my GPS has changed. Now I’m not so trusting.

"Turn left."

"Really? Are you sure?"

Rather than argue or turn the machine completely off, I make liberal use of the mute button.

"GPS signal lost."

Yes, but I’m not.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Service With A Snarl, Ire

© 2008 Leighann Lord

I've been on the receiving end of poor customer many times but nowhere is it more consistently abysmal than in a Jamaican restaurant. I now suspect my maternal grandfather left the lovely isle in search of un-surly service.

I went to my Local Jamaican Bakery to buy a dozen beef patties for my monthly book club meeting. The club is called Chat & Chew and to facilitate the latter everybody brings a little something to nosh on.

When I ordered the patties the lady behind the counter proceeded to put them into a brown paper bag. I thought a dozen, at $1.50 a pop, rated a box. When I asked for one she said the box would be too big. Okay, how about a tinfoil pan? “No. Too small.” All the while, she's steady stuffing the patties into the bag. Finally I insist that I'd prefer a box as I was going to a function and wanted something presentable.

At last she stopped shoveling and sashayed off to get a bakery cake box, looking extremely put out. Yes friends, I had to talk her into giving me customer service and she acted like she was doing me a favor. I wish I could say this was a unique experience but alas there are a few certainties I've come to expect when patronizing a Jamaica restaurant.

One: There will be an item on the pre-printed menu that they will never have. “We ain’t got dat.”

Two: They will have just run out of the dish you most wanted to order. “It finished.”

Three: – And this is one you can take to the bank – your waitress/counter person will have an attitude. There will be eye rolling -- assuming you can catch her eye -- teeth sucking, and an overt hostility because your presence is taking her away from something very important, which in no way involves serving you.

Astoundingly, the economy of the island of Jamaica depends on tourism. You'd think their customer service skills would be on point. But either these skills are lost in translation, or tourists are too drunk or high to realize how poorly they're being treated.

Location is key so it may be no small coincidence that this bad service is almost always local; and by local I mean in The Hood. One time, while on line at my Local Soul Food Take Out Spot, the man on line in front of me said, "What comes with the fish sandwich?" The lady behind the counter said, "A napkin and a smile." And she wasn't smiling.

I ordered a breakfast sandwich from my Local Burger Joint. It came with cheese on it. I had specifically said no cheese. When I brought the error to cashier's attention she unabashedly said,
"What's the matter with cheese?"

This is not my experience alone. My Dad was in another Local Fast Food Purveyor and the cashier gave him the incorrect change. When my Dad pointed this out and asked for the proper change, the cashier said, “Man, you gonna sweat me for a penny?” Hmm, let’s see: a man who was raised during the depression? A man who intuitively knows where the cheapest gas station is and will drive out of his way to get there? A man who throws NOTHING away on the belief that it will one day come in handy? A man who knows the cheapest Dunkin Donuts within a five and a half mile radius, and even knows the fact that they all charge slightly different prices based on their respective rent and insurance costs, but combats this by only buying donuts when he has a coupon? Hell yes, that man is gonna sweat you for a penny.

We have since dubbed any retail employee who gives us bad service Mr. or Ms. Penny Sweater. The original Penny Sweater went on to become the restaurant’s manager.

This is the reason I go to Starbucks. My Dad has never stepped foot inside a Starbucks, and he never will. He can’t bring himself to pay more than fifty cents for a cup of coffee. But at Starbucks you’re not just paying for coffee. You’re paying for consistently good customer service.

One of my very good friends went to a no name coffee shop. She asked if she could order a cup of half coffee, half hot chocolate. The young man, a Penny Sweater in the making said, “No.” Granted it wasn’t on the menu, but she was willing to pay whatever price he wanted to charge. He still said, no. Under normal circumstances she would have taken her business elsewhere, but there was no where else to go. She resorted to buying one cup of coffee and one cup of hot chocolate and combining them herself.

When she shared the story with me we both agreed: if that had been Starbucks, not only would they have given her what she wanted without hesitation, they would have immediately began offering this concoction on their regular menu. Starbucks never says no, which is probably why you don’t see too many of them in The Hood. This may also explain why men go to prostitutes. When you pay, you don’t have to hear no; unless of course they’re Jamaican prostitutes and then there’s probably lots of no’s, eye rolling and attitude.

There are exceptions to every rule. Late one Saturday night, a man under the influence stumbled into my Local White Castle, looked at the menu and ordered, "A couple of glazed." Unless Glazed was the name of his girlfriend, the man walked into a burger joint looking for donuts. That's what I like about White Castle: you get dinner and a show. The cashier, who judging by her accent sounded African, seemed confused. She called over her manager who, judging by his accent sounded Haitian.

"What would you like, sir?"

Sir? Wow he must be new.

"A couple of glazed," High Guy said.
"Glazed?” said The Manager. “What is glazed? I don't know this
word. Is it slang for something?"

Now it was High Guy's turn to be confused. Someone was actually trying to help him? Usually at this juncture, high or not, he would have been asked to leave. I was impressed. Had it not been late and the restaurant short staffed I believe the manager would have personally escorted High Guy to a Dunkin Donuts. Easy enough to do. Here in New York, there are twice as many Dunkin Donuts in The Hood as there are Starbucks in Manhattan.

It used to be that urban areas of color were famous for their plethora of churches, liquor stores and funeral parlors, but the Double D is catching up. Had High Guy only walked another block, he would have been able to order himself a couple of glazed. He still may not have actually gotten them because we are, after all, in The Hood.

Overall I know I’m painting a poor picture of the urban food service industry. Not every place is like this, but it’s pervasive enough to make me grateful that I have a car and can eat where I want. But there are some things you can only get in The Hood, like beef patties.

I may have to start making make my own. Unless, Starbucks gets hip and adds them to the menu. Then, of course, they’ll be $5.00 each plus $2.00 for an injection of espresso; served without attitude in a box sporting the colors of the Jamaican flag. Yea, mon. Too rich for me. Service that good is not in the budget.


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Monday, April 14, 2008

Happy National Library Week!

I Love the Library But It Ain't What It Used To Be
© 2008 Leighann Lord

When I was three years old, my mom and I would walk to my local library every week for story time. I sat Indian style (that's what it was called then) in a sunlit circle with other little kids as the librarian read us a story. At the time the library seemed impossibly huge with multiple rows of wooden shelves lined with books. It was well lit, quiet and cool, and no one spoke above a whisper. It was a place of peace and learning. I imagined this is what heaven would be like. Heaven has changed.

I stopped by my local library one weekday afternoon and it was absolute pandemonium. School age children were running around yelling, screaming, swinging from the proverbial chandelier. The librarians looked on with helpless resignation. I was appauled. Acting up in the The Library is like misbehaving in church, and the library is the church of the literate.

I was reminded of a story about
The Maplewood Public Library in New Jersey where the conduct of visiting middle school children was so disruptive and outrageous that it was forced to close it's doors between the after school hours of 2:45pm to 5pm. The parents were outraged, not with the egregious, catalytic behavior of their little angels, but with the drastic response of the library. How can we expect children to learn to take responsibility for their actions, when their own parents seem so adverse to the very idea?

But in a very real sense parents' hands are tied. They're afraid they'll be reported to the authorities, their children removed and the family forever tied up in the system. Any teacher will tell you that looking at a child the wrong way will get them fired or at best reprimanded. Real repercussions only seem to come at the hands of law enforcement and by then it is too late. Modern society seems incapable of distinguishing between discipline and abuse, so we have abandoned the former.

I hear the apologists among you muttering, "All kids act up when their parents aren't around." Yes, but it used to be that the presence of an adult, parental or otherwise, was enough to keep a kid on the straight and narrow. But gone are the days when an icy stare would have a corrective effect. My mother had a look that was colder than liquid nitrogen and would freeze out any notion of devilment.

There was a time and a place to cut the fool, and it certainly wasn't the library. When I was a teenager the main branch was my after school hang out. While doing homework my friends and I spoke in hushed tones, passed notes and covertly (and quietly) scoped out the cute boys. We thought we were quite the bunch of bad asses. And we were: Dean's list, honor roll, marching band; Drum corp, baby! What?

The library was my after school refuge from the folks my age who were allergic to learning and passed by the building as if it were invisible. But now, the battlements have been breached. The miscreants run amok and the rest of us try to schedule our visits before school lets out. Sadly, I find myself in league with former New York City police commissioner Lee Brown. To paraphrase: beat them; beat them all and let God sort it out. Or something a little less drastic: bouncers and a guest list? But instead of having to know somebody, you’d just have to know how to act.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

The Pope Has High Standards, But What Would Jesus Do?

© 2008 Leighann Lord

Big doings. The Pope is visiting Gotham and good Catholics are all a glow. Lapsed as I am, I'm hoping he makes some time to visit the M.A.C. cosmetics counter. Some liberally applied concealer under eye will go a long way to making Pope Scary The First look less menacing.

Of course the Pope's schedule is tight and there's no way that he can see everybody but two lucky New York City kids have been selected to give him flowers. They were chosen based on their strong faith and good grades; although I'm sure that less than stellar grades in science, philosophy and sex education didn't hurt.

I am intrigued by the selection process. How does modernity measure faith? The jury may be out on water boarding, but most other Inquisition methods are firmly out of fashion. So how do you gage such an intangible quality? Regular church attendance? Volunteer work? A game of chicken on a busy highway? And it's not just plain old run of the mill faith. These kids demonstrated strong faith. Let's get ready to rumble! Did I miss Papal Smack Down '08!

In addition to strong faith, the kids had good grades. On the surface this makes sense. Catholic schools are renown for their high quality education. It is the gold standard. What accounts for it's success? Is it the small class size or the power of prayer? Perhaps, although founded on the tenets of the New Testament, it's the fact that Catholic school does not hesitate to rely on the Old Testament tactics of fear and shame.

If you fail you're not just letting yourself down but you are squandering your parents financial investment. Tuition ain't cheap. Parents also feel a social sting. It's hard to get loud at the PTA meeting when your kid has been labeled a dumb ass; and not in a good way.

If you get left back, the eighth deadly sin and the 11th commandment, rest assured that your friends who are promoted to the next grade will shun you like a leper. It's nothing personal, they just can't afford to be seen with you, lest your failure rub off on them.

The No Child Left Behind concept is alien to Catholic school culture. They'd rather leave a child behind as many times as it takes rather than promote a kid who can't cut it. This explains the 16-year-old man in my eighth grade class. The rest of us were battling acne, and he was shaving, driving and holding down a job.

Worst of all, academic failure in Catholic school means you have disappointed God. Jesus died to save us from our sins and you can't get it together in social studies? However, the Gospels are strangely quiet on his formal education. Even if Catholic school had existed, Jesus would not have gone. He was, after all, Jewish.

While it's important to set up some sort of criteria for Papal access, the Catholic Church is straying from it's roots and getting off message. Jesus didn't preach to the choir. He would not have met with the pious kids on the dean's list. He would have sought out the doubting Thomasi in need of tutoring. If Jesus liked a challenge, shouldn't the Pope?

The students who are struggling academically may benefit the most from divine intervention. An audience with His Eminence may be just the inspirational kick in the pants they need, and can even provide well needed insight into quadratic equations. I personally prayed a lot in college Calculus. When confronted with matrices I prayed, I cried, I shook my fist at the universe and then was divinely inspired to change my major. I think the Pope would approve.

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