With the election over, thank God, I thought pesky telephone polls would subside. But if anything, they’ve increased. Not the “Who has your vote?” polls, or what I call “Slur Polls” — questions designed not to collect answers but to deliver attacks; polls that start out normal and then slide into insinuation: “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being most disgusted, and 1 being not as disgusted as you ought to be, how revolted were you to learn of the secret slush fund of Rep. Peckinsniff …”)
I try not to give much time to phone solicitors. I’ve learned to quickly set the receiver back down if the person on the other end doesn’t immediately reply to my tentative “Hello?” because that means it’s some automatic demon dialer in Mumbai that calls 10 numbers at a time and then connects with the first to answer. That takes 1.5 seconds, and by then I’ve hung up.
But with phone surveys, I play along in a kind of information judo, using callers’ momentum against them. While they try to pry information out of me, I learn from them.
For instance. Bank of America called this week. I am a preferred customer, which means I leave too much money sitting in accounts, drawing 0.03 percent interest, money that Bank of America then loans out at 3 percent. (That’s not “3 percent interest” they give , by the by. That’s three-hundredths of a percent. You wonder why anyone bothers at that point; the interest they pay hardly seems worth the paperwork to tally it).
So, the Bank of America phone pollster wants to know: Have I used their Northbrook branch bank in the past 30 days? Why yes, I have! Just the other day. Working at home, at lunchtime, I took a break to do “errands”— my excuse to stand up and step outside. I stroll to the library and the post office, the hardware store, the grocery store and the bank. While most suburbanites don’t visit their neighbors without getting in a car, I like that we live cheek-by-jowl to downtown, or to what passes for a downtown in Northbrook, and can walk everywhere. Doing so makes me feel like a character in a Richard Scarry story, if you remember those brightly colored children’s books where friendly animal characters are always going about quotidian tasks, bakers baking and police officers directing traffic and such. My self-image during these strolls is not precisely a bear in a fedora waving his paw at a pig in a white apron. But very close. (I won’t speculate on how I’m actually perceived, the likelihood of Northbrook mothers cautioning their naughty children with, “Now you behave, or I’ll turn you over to the Scary Wandering Man and he’ll put you in a pie and eat you for his dinner.”)
The greeter at the bank, the phone poll asked. Did I find her helpful?
Uh-oh, I thought, somebody’s job is in the crosshairs.
I went to bat for the bank greeter. Yes indeed, I said, I find them enormously helpful. Which is true; it’s helpful, after a morning staring at a computer screen by yourself, to actually have a human being smile and say hello and point you toward the tellers.
And then an even more ominous question: Was I willing to wait “any amount of time” to use the services of my bank?
“Any amount of time?” I replied, in a small voice. As in hours? No, I suppose not …
The next morning, in one of those coincidences that makes you wonder if the whole world is not one vast clockwork conspiracy, the Wall Street Journal published a story about the endangered bank teller. That banks, in their constant drive to hoover up more of your money while providing less in return, are using fewer tellers and paying them less. ATMs are vastly more economical than employees who, though they can greet customers, also draw salaries and take sick days and have babies. They want what employees they do have to be busy issuing second mortgages to people who need money because they haven’t had a raise in nine years, and not indulging eccentric coots who just want to keep their blood circulating.
Cash is going away someday, just as department stores, mail carriers and, yes, newspaper columnists and bank tellers, eventually. There’s no point keening over it. Society does fine without gas station attendants or telegraph operators.
But what about the people who are the cashiers and baggers and bank tellers? Where will their equivalent be in the new economy? Baristas and warehouse workers, I suppose. You know, Bank of America used to be LaSalle Bank, and LaSalle Bank had a full-time staff curator to keep track of its photo collection. In the end, when they sold it off, they made a fortune on the rare prints. There are many ways to make money, and firing people isn’t the only path to success.
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