When I moved to Berkeley in the 80s, the city — and the world — were very different places. You can tell this by my experience procuring a telephone.
Back then, there weren’t cell phones or even wireless ones. The phones had the curly cue wire, boasted various pretty colors, and were free at the local telephone company.
Here that was Pacific Bell; I still recall going up to North Berkeley and picking up my phone. I walked into the office, had a seat in the waiting area, and patiently awaited my turn. Once the rep got to me, he had me pick out a telephone number from several offered to me. Then I got to select the color of my new phone — it was burgundy — and I took it home and plugged it in. It worked.
There weren’t a myriad of choices of plans or providers; it was all easy breezy. And for the cost of the monthly service, everything was free — the phone, installation, and, if there were problems down the pike, a nice Pac Bell technician to come to your house and fix them. And if that pretty new burgundy phone malfunctioned? Just return to the storefront and pick up another one at no cost.
It was the same deal when it came to setting up electricity and water. Just a visit over to the local office, meet with a helpful employee, and, voila, there was light and H2O. Any problems, simply drive over and speak to the worker or call and get a live person.
This was a time before 800 numbers, endless voice mail systems, and interminable waits online. We even had real, 411 operators back then who would politely give you phone numbers — and make suggestions should you need to go to a local hospital. None of this was surprising or unexpected. The focus was on good customer service and doing it right the first time around. Products were made to last; quality and durability were the norm, as in that ad for the Maytag repairman, the loneliest man in the world, because the washer and dryer never broke down.
I suppose that was hyperbolic, since things did break down back then. But not often. I bought a Sony television when it was actually made in Japan. Sadly, I brought it over to the recycling center just a year ago. It finally went caput — after 34 years.
I bring this up not to take a dreamy trip down memory lane. The issue of phone service or electricity isn’t what is important. It’s what these encounters communicated to me, to all of us back then: we were important. We mattered. We weren’t alone to deal with things. People were eager to help — and easily available and accessible.
Fast forward several decades.
At the moment, I am dealing with several maddening situations with large companies, the kind that make you want to pull your hair out. The details aren’t important. You have your own as well, I imagine, with the interminable waits on hold for reps in foreign lands and the futile attempts to find someone, anyone, to help. And yet, no one knows how to do so — or is willing to take the extra time.
And all of these situations send the exact opposite message than I experienced when I moved to Berkeley in the 80s. Now: you don’t matter. No one cares. People are paid to give you as little help as possible, with the hope that you will get so frustrated, that you will drop the matter entirely.
But this blog is not just about the death of good customer service. It’s about something much more soul crushing: it’s the death of dignity. Because when you can make eye contact with another person who wants to help you, it enhances your sense of dignity — as well as that of the other person. Interminable waits and messages of indifference destroy that sense of dignity.
These frustrating situations are the great equalizer among all of us. No matter where we live or how much money we make or whether we have a flat in the city or acres of bucolic land in the country, we all have to deal with the same dehumanizing mess.
It’s no wonder that so many people are at the boiling point and people are demanding their “rights.” However, respect and dignity, just like love, cannot be demanded; dignity cannot be mandated by court decisions and executive orders. It has to be cultivated by a society that cares about human beings.
How have we come to this place? How, in a few short decades, have we de-evolved from a culture where people connected to each other to an alienated one?
I think that it goes back to the culture of death that has saturated the country since the 60s, where human life has slowly but surely become disposable and cheap. In a society where abortion clinics have long wait lists and doctor-assisted suicide is a hot topic, it is no wonder that we are all treated as insignificant objects.
This is what a pagan world looks like devoid of God. The environment, Mother Earth, is more important than human beings. People are now on the same level as animal, vegetable, and mineral — if not worse.
There’s only one cure for the problem that we deal with, and that is a restoration of our country’s basic values: love of God, country, community, family, each other. God is the connecting chain that links us all to each other, that reminds us to love each other as God loves us. Without that, we get what we have today: the death of dignity.
To end, here are some resonant lines from a Bob Dylan song, Dignity
Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel
Thin man lookin’ at his last meal
Hollow man lookin’ in a cotton field
Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass
Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass
Poor man lookin’ through painted glass
Somebody got murdered on New Year’s Eve
Somebody said dignity was the first to leave
I went into the city, went into the town
Went into the land of the midnight sun
Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity? . . .
Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered-up mirrors
Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years
For dignity. . .
Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed
I went into the red, went into the black
Into the valley of dry bone dreams
So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
–Bob Dylan, Dignity