Friday, November 04, 2005

Respect Your Elders

People older than me have taught me many things. Just about every important thing I've ever learned, I think I learned from someone older than me, someone who'd already been there. Important things, I mean things like manners, patience, how to fold your slacks so that you get that nice crease in the middle. I've always been respectful of old people, until just recently.

I manage a specialty foods store, not like a supermarket, but more like an import store. We have a lot of things that you can't get anywhere else, and a lot of food that comes from small artisan type producers. If you're looking for a Hershey bar, we won't have it. If you want fine Belgium chocolate, we can help you. My store is located in a neighborhood that is very mixed, we have a lot of diplomats, we have some really wealthy people from Foxhall road, and we have a large population of elderly folks who have lived in the neighborhood for years. Our prices are not cheap, but our food is high end. The elderly population finds it easy to shop at my store because they can walk there with no problem. Many of them were probably upper middle income earners when they had jobs, but now have seen everything from toilet paper to prescription drugs rise in price, while the steady Social Security check remains the same. I can understand why they might be a little cranky. I mean here they have lived by the rules, worked hard all of their lives, and in retirement when everything is supposed to be easy, they are wrapping the remnants of meals, four green beans, a slice of turkey, half a dinner roll in tin foil to put in the freezer and save for the end of the month when the checking account gets empty and there's nothing to eat. I'd be cranky, wouldn't you?

My Mom saves everything that she leaves on her plate and wraps it in foil. When the family gets together, we have a pot luck sort of dinner. There are six of us offspring, and most of my sisters are straight, and they married these guys who eat a lot. When the foil packets come out of the oven, and we all grab for the food, I often eye my sibling's plates to see if they got more roasted potatoes than I did, because in my packet there are only two. We sometimes trade packets, I'm not very fond of green beans, and my sister Mary won't eat beef. We are always very appreciative of Mom's cooking, we eat everything on our plates in like two minutes. After Mom falls asleep, we hit the late night drive up window at Taco Bell.

So I'm not insensitive to the challenges that confront my elderly customers. But one of our customer service people, Norma, has cultivated this following of high maintenance old people. There are five or six not very mobile, really old women who have to have us shop for them, and then deliver the groceries. When these women call, I give them to Norma, and she spends hours on the phone taking the orders. Norma is about the kindest person I have ever worked with, she talks to the ladies about the chemotherapy they are having, what sort of drugs they are taking, side effects, yada yada. She is so good with these people, that the building could be on fire, and she would stay on the phone until someone yanked her physically from her desk. She knows what kind of ice cream they like. If kindness gets you anything in the afterlife, Norma will have everything. But in this life, Norma gets eight hour days of complaining women who have no one to talk to.

One morning at six am, I answered the phone and a woman rasped, "Can I ssspeak to Nooorma..aaaa?"

I said, "Norma isn't here, can I help you with something?"

There was silence on the other end. I hung up the phone and made myself an espresso.

The phone rang again. A frail voice clinging to life said,"Doctor Micheals?"

I got a little freaked out, and said, "One moment please." and then I put her on hold.

I ran over to Linda who was setting up the coffee bar. "Linda, I think it's Mrs. Wheeler, one of Norma's ladies. I think she's dying! She's asking for Doctor Micheals. Should I send an ambulance?"

"Well where does she live?" Linda looked at me like I was crazy.

"I don't know, down the street somewhere in one of those old lady apartment buildings."

"How you gonna send an ambulance if you don't know where she lives?"

I quickly ran back to the phone, and shouted, "Mrs. Wheeler? What's your address? Mrs. Wheeler! Hello?"

Mrs Wheeler was gone. I put her on hold as she took her last breath. I killed her.

For months after, I wouldn't answer the phone. The rest of Norma's ladies still call on a regular basis. Today Mrs. East called and ordered a slew of groceries to be delivered. Norma spent 40 minutes on the phone getting her order and listening to complaints about bodily functions and imminent death. Mrs. East is a little forgetful because her doctors are tired of her complaining, and so they have prescribed heavy doses of pain killers and narcotics. We delivered the groceries, and Mrs. East called back screaming that she hadn't ordered any groceries, why were they delivered? She had forgotten that she placed the order. I passed the call to Norma. I went into my office to answer some e-mails, and I heard Norma yelling into the phone, "You now, you're not the only person in the universe who's sick! How'd you like to live in Africa and die from a mosquito bite? You think you're sick? We had this lady die last month WHILE SHE WAS ON HOLD!"


The phone rang a second later. it rang and rang and rang, and finally, I had to pick it up. It was Mrs. East. She wanted to speak to the manager.

"Okay, I'll try to find her." I put her on hold.

I couldn't find Norma.

I picked up the phone, and in the best receptionist voice I could muster, I said, "She's in a meeting. Can I take your number and have her call you?"


The phone rang again. I let it ring like twenty times. I finally picked it up, and Mrs West shouted,

"I want to speak to the MANAGER!"

"One moment please."

I put her on hold for so long, that I'm sure she forgot who she was speaking to. She might still actually be sitting there now, at one in the morning, asleep with the phone dangling from her hand.

We're all gonna be there someday, old, maybe alone, maybe a little crazy. Maybe we'll have to save those four green beans and two roasted potatoes from the beginning of the month when we had money in the bank. My elders always taught me that kindness doesn't cost you anything. And it's true up to a point. I'm good to my mother, I don't call her as often as I should, but when I do, I make her laugh. I try to buy her dinner, but when she insists on cooking, I eat the packets of frozen food and thank her for making me dinner. I listen to her bitch about her ankle, and the ants in the kitchen. When she starts telling me that George Bush is a great president, I listen for a few minutes until I can't take it anymore.

And then I put her on hold.