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JACK SMITH

Running on Empty : Could an Efficient, Automatic Dispenser Learn to Say 'Hello' Like a Bartender?

March 20, 1988|JACK SMITH

CAROL HUEBNER of Hacienda Heights is vaguely disturbed by an experience she had recently at a gas station. She filled her tank, paid, received her change and drove off without having exchanged a single word with another human being.

It was one of those self-service stations with the cashier in a glass booth. Ms. Huebner slid $20 under the window, filled her tank and came back for her change. "I scooped it up," she recalls, "briefly intending to say thanks, when he turned away . . . to another customer. Our transaction exemplified American speed and efficiency, but as I drove away, I felt a little empty."

She hadn't even said "Hello."

As the mechanization of trade spreads deeper into our society, we are all likely to feel a little empty. So far, I have resisted innovations, such as the automatic bank teller. For one thing, I am so inept with the mechanics of technology that I am afraid I would inadvertently set off alarm bells and wind up in jail.

Besides, I would miss the contact with the teller. Most tellers are efficient, pleasant and patient, and they usually send you off feeling a little better, if only by saying, "Have a nice day."

Sometimes I explain to the teller why I need to cash a $100 check. "My wife does all the bookkeeping," I will explain, "but she forgets to give me any money, so I have to cash a check now and then just to have walking-around money."

Sometimes they just smile; sometimes they cluck their tongues in mock sympathy. Sometimes, if they're saucy, they say, "Tough luck" or "It could be worse."

I leave the window realizing that things could be worse. At least my wife leaves enough money in the account for me to write a $100 check. Besides, I have had a pleasant if slight exchange with another human being.

How bleak life would be if we had automatic bartenders. What if you put your money in a machine, held your glass under a spout, punched the vodka-tonic button and filled it up?

No bartender to say, "What'll it be?" No bartender to shake his head solemnly when you tell him that your wife doesn't understand you. No bartender to listen to your complaints about the designated-hitter rule or foreign policy. No bartender to say, "You ain't just a-whistlin' Dixie" at your philosophical maunderings.

We also need bartenders to make judgment calls. How can an automatic dispenser tell whether the buyer is a juvenile or whether the buyer is too drunk to have another drink? What kind of automatic dispenser would have the patience of a psychiatrist, the knowledge of the World Almanac and the discretion of a priest?

Would an automatic dispenser even say "Hello"?

Ronald Dethlefson, professor of communications at Bakersfield College, has sent me a copy of Antique Phonograph Monthly with a story on the origin of that word hello.

It is astonishing to read that this common, jolly little word, which is so indispensable as an icebreaker in modern life, is hardly more than a century old and may have been coined by Thomas Edison.

A similar word, hullo , was in use in the middle 19th Century as an exclamation of surprise, especially in British novels. The hero comes upon a dead body and says, "Hullo! What have we here?"

In a letter dated Aug. 15, 1877, Edison suggested that the word hello could be used, instead of a bell, to summon people to a telephone. This evidently was a modification of halloo , which he had shouted into his first phonograph on July 18 of that year.

Hello spread with the speed of light. (Alexander Graham Bell oddly favored ahoy .) In 1880, delegates to the National Convention of Telephone Companies wore "Hello" badges, telephone operators became known as "hello girls" in America and England, and in 1901 the song "Hello Central, Give Me Heaven" swept the nation.

Today hello is the universal greeting--on the telephone or in person. It suffices to make contact when nothing else is said. If our technology deprives us of even this minimal password, we are lost and alienated for sure.

Poor Ms. Huebner not only couldn't say hello at her gas station; she couldn't even say goodby.

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