Monday, January 22, 2024

Chocolate Evening.

I've spent most of the last 25 years of my career working on technology accounts. And I spend a lot of my time still today working on technology. 

I've read scores of books and articles about machines taking over. I've seen the movies, or at least heard about them, about the singularity and the coming technodystopia.

But the aspect of technology that scares me the most isn't some super-intelligence ruling earth and turning humans into vassals. It's that as a society we are so smitten with technology that we actually forget how to be human. We forget that Biblical cognate: humankindness.

On Thursday night after work, I met an ex-account guy, ex-client and current friend for dinner after work. 

As anyone who knows me knows, affability is not my strong suit and I socialize about as readily and often as Atilla the Hun would go ballroom dancing. But this was an old friend, a mensch and he had just started a new job. The time seemed right to bend an elbow.

We decided to meet in one of the few remaining great New York locations: The Oyster Bar at Grand Central, surrounded by one-hundred different kinds of mollusks and shrouded in early 20th Century Gustavino tiles, which after all these years, all that soot and decades and decades of underfunded homeless urine seem to be standing up quite well even after the city's 1970s near-bankruptcy and the near death of New York.

They've even resisted the inevitable incursions made by Private Equity, malefactors of great wealth and fast-food.

Grand Central itself is resplendent. In the Lexington Passage, there is a two-block-long stretch of high-end stores--enough to make you think you're on Madison Avenue in the 70s, not a 125-year-old train depot.

Having arrived early, I called my wife from the terminal.

"It's almost Valentine's Day," I jumped-the-gun, "Do you want me to get something for the girls at Jacques Torres?"

If you raise your kids in a passable degree of affluence in Manhattan you'll seldom catch them eating a Snickers or a Hershey bar. Jacques Torres chocolate is pretty high on the pantheon of affordable exorbitance. It's a pretty decent gift for a Hallmark holiday.

"Yes," my wife quicklied. "H would like their hot chocolate mix. And you can get anything for S."

Armed with that specificity I made my way to the shop and within five or seven minutes had two piles of goodies, one pile for each daughter. I did not stint.

When the sales-help finally noticed a customer, me, was in the store, it was just another five or seven minutes until one of them allowed themselves to be interrupted and consented to take my money.

"Do you gift wrap?" I asked.

"We have tissue paper," he brusqued.

"OK. I'd like these in two separate bags. This stuff in one bag. This in another."

"I'm going to have to charge you an extra dollar for the extra bag," he dripped.

"You're kidding me," I said. "I'm about to spend $200 on chocolate and you're going to charge me a dollar for a shopping bag."

Now, the manager came over.

"It's corporate," she asserted. She handed me a business card. "You can send them an email to complain. But we can't do nothing about it. It's corporate."

"So," I pain-in-the-assed, "if I bought this bag, left the store and came back and bought the second bag, I'd be ok. You wouldn't charge me for the bag."

"I can't answer that," the salesman said.

"You can write to corporate," the manager said.

I could feel my temperature rising and my New York temper coming to bear. I thought better of storming out--I wanted the chocolate, after all, but it was all I could do not to throw something through their plate glass. In an instant I saw myself in a holding cell surrounded by cops in a nearby precinct house.

Somehow, this sort of treatment is everywhere now. It's the pennywise and pound-foolishness of treating customers like victims to get every incremental penny out of them. Of not training sales people to smile and say thank you, or can I help you, or did you find everything?

I remember back when I was at Ogilvy the first time and we were wresting every last marketing dollar we could from a large tech client. I uttered a near-famous Georgeism that, 30-years-later seems perspicacious if not prescient. "We spend eleven-cents getting the last dime out of the client."

That seems much the way of the world today. There are few interactions, human-to-human, human-to-machine, or human-to-corporate where you don't feel bled white and wrung out. You can't really win anymore. You just hope to end your day with your faculties somewhat intact. Not likely.

I blame, in part, technology and technocratic thinking for the way the staff acted in Jacques Torres. Everyone now seems guided by a mean equation that's about doing the least and charging the most for it. It's not "what can we do for you?" It's "what can we take from you?"

I'm already laughing because I see in my email this morning Advertising Age is running an article on the "best places to work in 2024." Though all places, yes, this is a blanket statement, are governed by the same mean and impecunious holding company math. There's no vig in kindness. Job happiness and humanity be damned,

That seems the way of the world.

Wring all humanity and decency and caring from every interaction.

Personally, I'm all for the singularity. 

Especially if I don't get charged for it.

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