“Is there a discount on that for wasting my time?” is what I expected George to say. While he wasn’t doing heel clicks and high fiving people the second time around, he also wasn’t looking for a fight, and that was an improvement. I’ve decided that George (not his real name) and I have something in common; he always expects the worst in a situation. The problem with that outlook is that a great deal of the time, you bring on that outcome. I expect the worst, but more in order to be pleasantly surprised. George on the other hand, expects it and brings that result on by being something of a cranky bastard.
“Why did you shake that customer’s hand when you saw him?” my coworker asked after George had left happy. Or George-happy at least, which meant he’d said thank you and didn’t look like he was going to punch me in the face.
“I helped him yesterday, I was taking care of something for him.”
“Yeah, but why did you shake his hand?”
At first I shrugged and laughed it off, “I went to private school, we shake everyone’s hand when we see them.” Which is true, by the way. Picking out private school boys is easy; the year after they graduate, they’re the guys with terrible facial hair, the patchy, awful beards grown because they finally wouldn’t get detention for having whiskers, ten years out you can still pick the private school boys out of crowd by their khakis and blue blazers (and usually a white shirt with red tie) just a little too tight because it’s the same blazer they wore in high school, but the easiest way to ever identify a private school boy is that you can introduce him to a crowd of a hundred and he’ll shake every damn hand there. It’s a thing. Reunions are tough, but thankfully few and far between, and holidays home are worse, but depending on the group the handshake can become the man-hug: handshake, one armed hug, two slaps on the back (preferably slapping harder then the other guy).
The truth is, it was partially the knee-jerk reaction of the, “Good to see you” handshake when meeting a familiar face even while thinking, “Who is this guy?” But ultimately, I’d made the decision the day before that should I see George again I’d shake his hand, call him Mr——, and take him up to the register to ring him up. It’s the same principle as when a customer stops you to ask a question. Whatever you’re doing you stop, you put down your stack of books, and you give them your undivided attention.
In high school, I had a crew coach who made us do sets of eleven when it came to push-ups, leg lifts or the other countless physical hells brought down by the wrath of a Jesuit priest who would follow us in his battered Chevy Corsica on our runs to shout… encouragement. The idea behind it was to train us for the sprint at the end of a race, to condition us to push for one more even when we thought we were done. If you can do eleven then why not push for fifteen, and if you’re at fifteen then twenty is within reach.
Before crew, I had a Tae Kwon Do instructor who would line us up against the wall during our Saturday morning class, tell us to plant our foot and do ten side-kicks while he yelled out the count. With each kick we would yell, a vocal manifestation of the energy behind the side-kick. He would walk the line, adjusting our stance, reminding us to keep our arm up, holding his hand high above our head to aim our kick at. When we reached ten he would yell, “One more! One more! One more!” The ‘one more’ would usually surpass the initial count, the exercise becoming a competition to see whether our legs or his voice would give out first. These two coaches, in vastly different sports, understood not only how to train us to set goals, but also to never be satisfied simply by achieving them. They wanted us to fight to blow those goals away, to be prepared physically and mentally for the sprint, to always be ready for one more. It was to prepare us to take that next step when anyone else would have said they’d gone far enough.
JoAnn Falletta may be partially to blame for this entire situation, as is dead Russian composer Reinhold Glière. The Buffalo News’ Gusto section, specifically their recent review of the of Falletta conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performing Glière’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Il’ya Muromets’ at Carnegie Hall, is also on my list.
The problem stemmed from my store carrying two recordings of this symphony, one featuring Falletta and the BPO and one by somebody else. The one by somebody else was put on hold for George when he called. And the one by the BPO? That one, the only copy we had, sold about an hour before he came into the store. That’s how I ended up on the receiving end of George’s rant involving how much money he spends in the store (I don’t care), how rude he found our music staff (no they’re not, and also, pot calling the kettle black?), and how he’d driven all the way to the store the day after a blizzard (so you drove here on a nice day).
“Now I want to know what can you do for me,” he finished.
I was a bit lost for words. He’d thrown a lot at me. What can I do for him? Usually, the customer asking that is holding out their hands so we can throw money or free items into them until they finally love us again. Nothing makes me feel less inclined to help a person then having them berate me and then expect to be rewarded for having done so. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, that’s how the situation is resolved, if not by me then one of my bosses who then berates me as well for not throwing a gift card at the customer myself. Money isn’t the answer, or at least it shouldn’t be our answer. A gift card doesn’t solve the problem, it pushes the problem down the line to someone else because now that customer knows were giving away free money every time they raise their voice.
“Not much,” he scoffed.
I agreed. There really wasn’t much I could do, and certainly nothing at all that would put that CD in his hand at that very moment. Underneath it all was realizing that it was our mistake–an honest mistake, I will stick by that, but our mistake nonetheless, and I wanted to make right even if George was a jerk. I called our only other store to have a copy of it, one about twenty miles away. After triple checking the product number, conductor and album name (loudly so that George could hear) I asked them to put it on hold under my name. I told him that I drive out to the other store and pick up the CD, but wouldn’t be able to get there until later that evening; I would call him when I was back at this store with the item on hold for him. He didn’t seem as though he believed me. He didn’t say thank you.
Round-trip from my house to the three stores and back is about forty miles. I spent most of it considering whether this was even worth it. Should I have just told him he was out of luck and let him yell at me a little more? What did it matter? His behavior certainly didn’t deserve the time I was taking out of my day to do this.
This wasn’t the first time I’d done something like this, but at least that time it was entirely my fault. A couple had shipped books out to their son, who was being held at a correctional facility. They were an early Christmas present for him, and at least they’d shipped out as early as they did, because I stuck the wrong address label on them. His books went to Pennsylvania and instead for Christmas he got a handful of body building magazines and Robert Greene’s “The Art of Seduction.” Why would you even—you know what? No, I don’t even care.
They were sweet and understanding, and I ended up going to two different stores in order to get the books shipped out by the next day. In that case I didn’t have a problem doing it, they just as concerned that I didn’t beat myself up over it as they were about the books themselves. At least they knew what happened to their son’s package and we could get everything straightened out. Most people aren’t as patient Mr. & Mrs. Wuhr. They didn’t want anything other than to know we could take care of it. I’d forgotten about that couple until after I’d picked up the CD. For that memory alone I’m glad I did this. It’s important to hold onto any bit of kindness you encounter. Some days they’re all you’ll have.
“What can you do for me,” he’d asked.
Not much. And initially, there wasn’t much I wanted to do. I was tired, my day was almost over. I didn’t have the energy or the patience for this garbage. He was a jerk. And that’s when it’s important to smile, when you have to smile. You have to take a deep breath and push yourself to eleven, and then to fifteen, to twenty. You have to find a way to go the extra mile, or go ‘above and beyond’ as we call it at the store. One more. There wasn’t much I could do. One more. I could do this much. One more.
I expected the worst when he came back. A demand for a discount or repeating his complaints from the day before. Instead, he remembered my name. He spotted me first and called out my name. His face was still blank, but his voice was softer this time around. So I set down the books I was putting away and went over to him. I smiled and shook his hand. I told him it was good to see him and that I’d checked on his CD as soon as I came in that morning to make sure it was right where I’d left it. I rang him up for ‘Il’ya Muromets’ and a few magazines he also had, and told him to ask for me if there was anything else he was looking for. George said thank you this time, and that he appreciated how quickly I was able to get it for him. He still didn’t smile though. Next time, next time he’ll smile. Unless he’s a robot that requires the sweet symphonic stylings of the BPO to recharge at night….