Several years ago, writing ESPN’s SportsCentury, I interviewed college football’s nonpareil Voice, then weighing retirement. I asked if he had tired of Touchdown Jesus and Happy Valley and Army’s long, gray line.
“Shucks, no,” said Keith Jackson, melodic lilt meeting country gabble. “It’s just that I travel a lot, and how customers are treated has become intolerable.”
“Late flights, crowded seats,” I said.
“Not just that. Go into any city — I can’t stand the lousy service.” Pausing, Jackson shook his head. “I don’t recognize my own country. We’ve forgotten that there’s pride in any kind of work.”
Look around. Review the ports of a normal week: restaurant, gas station, convenience or other store. Increasingly, “lousy service” seems contagious, like mold. Some employees go quietly about their business. Too many give us the business. Ask not for whom Keith Jackson speaks. He speaks for you and me.
America means, among other things, family, neighborhood, and labor. The Puritan Work Ethic helped open the frontier, cure Depression, and reach the moon. By contrast, today queues rival a conga line. Fast fooders are as likely to win the Lottery as be promptly served. Sit-down eateries seem to draw straws to avoid tending a customer. What explains our Sloth Ethic?
Condescending, some slack because culture disdains blue-collar work. Others, equally dumb, miss the dignity in every job: a wood-carver, electrician, repairman. The Work Ethic values sweat. The Sloth Ethic shuns it. Welcome to America 2007: Service with a Sneer.
I worked four jobs to pay for college: tables, paperboy, dishes, lawns. I did all the work George W. Bush, silver spooned and cosmically disconnected, says Americans “won’t do.” Most Americans have, and would. Others think manual work beneath them, blind to toil being its best reward.
Watch sneerers of a given day. See how they wait, huddle, and talk – not with a customer, but among themselves. Listen to the gossip: not Afghanistan, but Anna Nicole Smith; not An American In Paris, but Paris Hilton. “Incredible,” Keith Jackson was saying. “Our grandparents would be ashamed.”
Such conduct is bad enough. Worse is sneerers’ misconduct when a customer tires. Below, non-workers’ excuses for what they do – or don’t:
1) Shakespeare said, “The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Antipodally, Service with a Sneer’s fault lies with – us! Recently, I ordered coffee, soup, and sandwich. Ten minutes later I asked where the soup, let alone sandwich, was. “I don’t know!” brayed the waitress. “I have to wait on everyone!” Problem: There was almost no one in the joint.
I paid, left, then phoned the eatery, talking with a woman who claimed to be the manager. I detailed the event; at which point she called a man. “I’m the manager,” he said. “We all are.”
Perfect! If no one is responsible, no one is to blame. Actually, I was, said the manager, for expecting promptness! Regularly I pass his haunt, its parking lot empty. An inmate-run asylum soon becomes a customer-free zone.
2) A second slackers’ excuse is to pass the buck. The waitress blames the barkeep, who damns the bouncer, who scores chief cook and bottlewasher. Earth to fellas: I don’t care why it takes from here to the Twelfth of Never to repour coffee. You give me satisfaction: I give you moolah. No service, no dough.
3) Sneerers’ last response invites you to go elsewhere. I love this option, since it pleases me to comply. Slackers rarely see the light. A customer’s little traveling music helps them feel the heat. Give them the thumbed nose, Bronx cheer, I’m out of here! Check, please. Tip? Good luck.
If students do a bad job, they should get a bad grade. Service with a Sneer fails even graded on the curve. Next time a slacker stalks, recall film’s Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Then don’t. Keith Jackson retired in 2006. Daily, he warns us still.
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