I guess that it’s just the nature of things. (As my late Uncle Copernicus Cantrell would say: “Kid, if it’ ain’t one thing, it’s two or three of ‘em.”)
My current problem is musical. For the past few days, there has been a song rattling around inside my head–like a couple of loose marbles. I can’t seem to turn it off, at least not for very long. Good songs and sometimes even bad ones are like squatters, the common cold and a few of my relatives: they show up and stay until they decide it’s time to leave. This musical problem of mine is chronic and has been occasionally going on for more years than I care to think about. But I’ve come to accept it. I figure it’s the universe trying to tell me something.
I first heard the song, Johnny Cash is Dead and His House Burned Down, a few months back…
Well, Johnny Cash is dead and his house burned down, down, down.
There’s a whole lotta weepin’ and wailin’ in Nashville town, Nashville town.
Well the Man in black ain’t comin’ back and Waylon ain’t a gonna come around.
Johnny Cash is dead and his house burned down.
Written by Larry Gatlin, the song is a paean to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline and a few other dead country singers. And while I’m not typically a country music aficionado, a catchy tune is a catchy tune, no matter the genre.
I’d gone shopping at one of those big box stores in order to buy a greeting card for my cousin, Yoshi, for her upcoming birthday. Although her birthday shall not go unheralded –at least not by me – her exact age shall go unrevealed (On occasion, members of my family will take it upon themselves to read the stuff that I write here. “In order to see what you’re up to…” they say. If this be one of those occasions and I’d revealed Yoshi’s age, both you and I would be in trouble — me, because I told; you, because now you know. Believe me; neither of us wants any trouble with her. Old lady or not, the woman throws a mean left hook.)
After selecting and purchasing one of those new talking birthday cards, signing it and going outside to mail it across town, there was no mail drop box to be found. At one time, USPS drop boxes were as common as storefront Baptist churches and as ubiquitous as jackleg bar-be-que joints. Like soldiers, they stood sentry on most every street corner. Presently, they are as numerous as fast food restaurants on the Moon. Maybe they’ve been absconded by aliens or maybe by same thieves, who filch copper from church air conditioners or who appropriate man-hole covers from deserted city streets to fence at salvage yards. A more plausible explanation is that the scarcity is the result of budget and service cuts over the past few years, but whatever the reason I can find no U.S. mailboxes.
Dismayed, I went back inside and approached a nearby store clerk. “Ma’am, I bought this greeting card here a few minutes ago. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a U.S. mailbox around the shopping center. Can you put this card in your outgoing mail for me? The envelope is already stamped and everything.”
“Those kinds of requests are handled in Customer Service, sir”, the clerk says, all the while pointing to a sign that said “CUSTOMER SERVICE IS NOW ON THE FOURTH FLOOR’. Immediately to its right is a makeshift, hand lettered scrawl: “ELEVATOR OUT.”
“Yeah, but I see your outgoing mail right there on the shelf behind you. Can’t you just please…”
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s our policy at Bamboozler’s to…”
Not waiting for the clerk to finish, I trudge the three flights of stairs to Customer Service, where they are NOW SERVING number 37. I sit down and wait wait to be served. While waiting, I remind myself that had it been anyone else’s birthday besides Yoshi’s I would’ve and forgotten about the whole thing. I don’t, of course — I also remember my older cousin’s left hook.
Thirty minutes later, when my number –63– is called: “Listen, I’m kind of in a hurry. Can you put this greeting card in your outgoing mail? I bought it downstairs but I can’t seem to find a U.S. Mail drop box anywhere around here.
“Are you a member, sir?”
“Member? What do you mean?”
“Do you have one of our Bamboozler Cards? Do you have one of our green, non-biodegradable, wallet-sized plastic cards that just by flashing it in our faces, entitles you to a full two percent off the price as marked? We also have a key-chain version that you swipe as you speed through the check out line. Plus you get free e-mail notices about Bamboozler upcoming specials. ”
“Why…uh, er, no. I don’t have one of those…”
“Yeah, too bad!”
Are you sayin’ that because I’m not a member, you won’t …”
“If you were a member, I could mail that card for you.”
“Look, I need to get this card in the mail right away. It’s my cousin, Yoshi’s birthday in a few days and time’s a wastin’ By the way, I bought this card here, you know.”
“You can join Bamboozler’s for only $50.00. The membership is good for six months. It’s easy and you could have saved two percent. All of your better stores do it this way.”
“All I want to do is mail this card across town to my cousin. Can’t you please just put it in your outgoing mail?”
“Not unless you’re a member. Sorry.”
“But… but I buy stuff here all the time. I’m a regular customer,” I say pleadingly.
“If you’re gonna do business with Bamboozler’s, you need to be a member. We just don’t do business with just anybody. Fifty dollars, please.”
“What about the ideal of providing good customer service?”
“Customer Service costs extra. ‘Course, if you’re a member customer service is free.”
“Now wait just a darn minute. Aren’t you people supposed to be exceeding my expectations? It says so right there on your Mission Statement. It’s right there next to your Statement of Core Values in the front of the building.”
“That mission plaque was left by the previous owners of the building. Exceeding people’s expectations is the reason they went out of business in the first place. But for the price of a seventy five dollar gold membership, we will try to meet your needs … and as long as you speak Portuguese, of course.”
“Portuguese!?” You mean the language they speak in…”
“Portuguese is the new, official, international language of customer service. World wide. If you don’t speak Portuguese, we have Bamboozler Customer seminars that you can attend where you can learn it. ’’ The seminar costs a hundred dollars. In these sessions, we also teach customers how to do business with us…exact change and no bills larger than a twenty. You know; that kind of thing. Now, do you want the regular membership or the gold membership?”
“EXACT CHANGE…A HUNDRED DOLLAHS!!! Your merchandise is already overpriced as it is…”
“This is outrageous. I’m not paying you extra to get what you should be giving me for free. Now please, put this card in your outgoing mail.”
Exasperated, I threw up my hands, and said “no thanks, I’ll just go and find a post office. Maybe I’ll just deliver the darn thing to Yoshi in person.”
“Suit yourself fella. Our customer service computer system is down anyway. Won’t be back up for two days, if you want to know the truth. I’ll warn you though, I hear that they’re changing the voice mail menu options again.”
In the meantime, the endless song loop on the store’s music sound system had come around to the second verse of the Johnny Cash song :
“…Miss Patsy Cline was one of a kind, Lord knows oh, by the way…”
The playing of the Johnny Cash song coincidental with my troubles in Customer Service triggered the thought that maybe the universe – as well as the folks at Bamboozler’s — was trying to tell me something. It also triggered thoughts of my late, Great Uncle Copernicus, the smartest man that I’ve ever known. Uncle Coop spent much of his life trying to find meaning in a complex world. He used to say that things were not always as obvious as they might seem. It was he, who first told me that poems, stories and songs often had deeper meanings. “Underneath, kid” Copernicus said, “the poet or songwriter or author is often sending a veiled message…trying to teach us something. It’s up to you to figure out what it is.”
As I exited the store, on my way to deliver Yoshi’s talking birthday card in person and fuming to myself about my recent experience, the song’s deeper meaning suddenly hit me: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline and even Uncle Copernicus weren’t the only good things that were dead –gone for good—and “not comin’ back”. So were doctors that make house calls, post office drop boxes, chivalry, civility, customer service …and perhaps common sense.
“Better get used to it all. Ain’t none of it comin’ back,” I told myself.
And that’s when all the humming’ inside my head began.