The customer isn’t always right

You’ve probably heard about Steven Slater, the flight attendant who allegedly cursed out a passenger over the loudspeaker, grabbed some beer and exited the plane via the emergency slide. Apparently, he was fed up after taking some abuse from a passenger. His story is all over the internet as I write this, and he’ll no doubt be the butt of Jay Leno’s monologue for at least the rest of the week. But while others are chuckling over Slater’s dramatic exit, I, for one, am hoisting an imaginary pilsner in his honor. I’ve been there, buddy.

I worked at a Kinko’s copy center for several years in the early 1990s, and it was hands-down the most stressful environment I’ve ever been in. That job would have made good training for hostage negotiators and Emergency Medical Technicians; I’ve endured oral surgeries and ugly break-ups that were nowhere near as traumatic as working on last-minute projects for spoiled college kids at 3 a.m. on a Sunday night.

During my six and a half years as a full-time employee at the now-defunct Carrollton Avenue branch, I was subjected to all kinds of unpleasantness from customers, from relatively harmless passive-aggressive comments to full-on tirades with veins bulging out from the aggrieved party’s neck. But those were usually less awful than the garden-variety condescension I endured on a regular basis.

One afternoon, the pastor of a large black church apparently didn’t like the preview copy I’d made of a program he was waiting on; he grabbed my elbow, leaned in like we were discussing a conspiracy and said, “Look here, I don’t care what kind of work you do for these other people—” (and here he nodded his head to indicate all the other customers in the store) “but you’re doing this for me. And when you’re doing something for me, you do it right!” He leaned back, then, and crossed his arms in front of his chest, as if to say, “Do we understand each other?” If I were a waiter, and not some twentysomething schmuck in an apron, I would have peed in his salad.

One afternoon, I was thrown into the worst job in the store: working the register during the shift change. Things usually ground to a halt as the key-operators (the guys running the machines, which was my primary gig) stopped what they were doing to explain the pending jobs and technical problems to their replacements, and to make matters worse, that seemed to be the exact time of day that most working people decided to descend on the store like a plague of locusts.

A pleasant-looking guy about my age handed me his resume and asked me how long it would take to get fifteen copies of it on a nice linen paper. I looked at the waiting orders ahead of his, evaluated the competence of the co-workers settling into their roles, allowed a small cushion for error, and said “Maybe twenty minutes?” The guy smiled pleasantly, gave me his name, paid in advance and went to sit down and wait.

Of course, his copies came up almost an hour later. It was an hour I spent in a non-stop blur of taking orders and ringing them up, punctuated with frequent queries from me to the key-op on duty as to when so-and-so’s order would be ready. When I finally managed to hand him his resume, he snatched it out of my hands, laid a withering gaze on me, curled his lips into a sneer and spat “Twenty minutes!” like a Dickensian bureaucrat snickering at a hungry orphan begging for crumbs.

You didn’t even have to be in the store to be patronizing, rude or ugly; you could mistreat co-workers right over the phone! “Can I check my e-mail at your store?” some snot-nosed college kid asked one morning. It was 1994 or ’95; the internet was still a bit of a novelty, and Kinko’s—or our backwater branch, anyway—hadn’t yet outfitted its rent-by-the-hour computers with the wonders of the worldwide web.

“No, sir,” I said as politely as I could. “I’m afraid we don’t have that capability yet.”

His voice went up an octave, into the “I can’t believe I have to put up with this” range.

“Well, then,” he sniffed, “do you know if any of your other stores do?”

“No, sir,” I replied. “I’m afraid they don’t.”

He let out an aggrieved sigh. “Do you know anywhere I could go to check my e-mail?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry,” I said.

“You’ve been no help,” he snarled, and slammed the phone into the receiver. Asshole.

The minor hissy fits could be annoying, too, but usually there were also some laughs to be mined from them. One Saturday night, I started my graveyard shift trying to help an elderly woman who couldn’t verbalize exactly what she was picturing in her head. She grew increasingly frustrated as I presented her different mock-ups, until she finally slammed her bony hand on the counter and wailed, “But I don’t want what I don’t want!

I just nodded in fake sympathy as I visualized all manner of unspeakable horrors befalling her frail form. I knew exactly how she felt.

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