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Jack Smith

From service-with-a-smile to 'Semper Fi,' it still beats toting barges and lifting bales

March 23, 1987|Jack Smith

My friend Jim Moore, who now lives in Cambridge, England, within sight of the college flags on the boathouses along the Cam, has sent me a packet of cuttings from British newspapers, ranging from the quaint to the provocative, and altogether rather yeasty.

Moore was chairman of the English literature department at Mt. San Antonio College before he returned to the source of his studies with his helpmate, Suzon, and took up lodgings in the working-class neighborhood of north London.

Oddly, they found cheaper quarters in Cambridge, in an 1887 house on Abbey Road 10 doors from the Cam. Here Moore sits among his 46 boxes of books from home, communing with the ancient poets and the contemporary press.

A cutting from the Cambridge Town Crier suggests the pace of life: "The Caldecote Friendship Club played darts, had a chat and enjoyed tea."

I am engaged by a column, evidently cut from the Guardian, by one Katharine Whitehorn, who seems to have the same anxieties I have about a future in which most of us will be employed in something vaguely called "the services."

Many times lately I have read that before long most of us will be either in "service" or in "the information services," neither of which is ever very well defined.

In a way, the prospect sounds nice. As Isaac Asimov notes in "The Roving Mind" (Prometheus Books), "In the pre-industrial world, 95% of the human race spent their short lives in digging, hauling, pushing, lifting--a way of life that was scarcely in any way different from that of the domestic animals they labored with."

That we will soon have escaped the last of this drudgery into a life of service and information sounds heavenly; yet, like Ms. Whitehorn, I have some doubts about what it will be like, exactly, being in "service."

Ms. Whitehorn takes note of the lowered standards of service: ". . . the decline in the deference of bus conductors, shopgirls who file their nails while you are banging on the counter, and the attempts . . . to preserve the last 200 extant railway porters."

To which I add the vanishing gas station serviceman.

She is not concerned, however, with whether service is bad or absent, but with the nature of service when it's good. She assumes that the routines are standard. You smile. You look cheerful. You talk.

"You are supposed to take the customer seriously, which might seem too obvious to mention if garages weren't so helpless at believing what women tell them the car has been doing."

Ms. Whitehorn wonders whether people really want all this amiability. "The queues at the automatic machines outside banks demonstrate that, far from aching for warm human contact, people half the time would do anything to avoid it; we didn't rush out on the family this morning just to have to interrelate to a lot of strange bank tellers."

I do see that most of the people we do business with are in service: the laundry people, the bank teller, the deliveryman at the door, the salesclerk, the waitress, the bartender, the tow truck man--even the doctor, the dentist and the lawyer, professionals though they may be.

As for the "information services," I assume they include not only all the people who write junk mail, compose TV commercials, tend data banks, write those incomprehensible instructions for electronic instruments, read news on TV and radio, write the messages on Corn Flakes boxes, write the President's speeches, preach sermons and write history books, but also those who channel messages from the dead.

When you look at it that way, it does become clear that almost everyone will be in one kind of service or the other.

Ms. Whitehorn imagines a more bizarre kind of person as being in service than the merely presentable and nice: for example, "the crusty characters who will forge you a passport by midnight," and the East Side dealer in magic and spells "to whom Bulldog Drummond always repaired for his disguises."

She says: "We need not only a 'nippy' or a dewy face under a McDonald's cap, but also the sort of immense woman you get in Westerns, banging a pan outside the hash house and saying, 'For them as don't like beans, supper's over!' "

Ms. Whitehorn worries that many of us will become nauseated from having to say "Have a nice day" to surly strangers, and will grumble, like the woman who refused a service job and went back to the assembly line, "I only hire out from the neck down."

But machines will do most of the assembly line work, and Ms. Haughty finally may have to go out and smile at the people to make a living.

There may be some borderline cases. Are airplane pilots in service? I think so--just as much as flight attendants. Are trash collectors in service? Of course. They provide a service we can ill afford to do without.

How about schoolteachers? Are they in service or in information? It depends on whether we think of them as baby sitters or teachers. In the first instance, they are only hired out from the neck down. How about police officers? Are they in service? Of course. What is the motto of the LAPD? "To Protect and to Serve." And the Marines? "Semper Fidelis."

The mayor is in service. Our senators are in service. The President is in service.

But we will still have laborers in the fields. Somebody will always have to push that barge, lift that bale.

Learn to smile. It's easier.

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