NO ONE BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Posted in Rants on August 19th, 2009 by Ed

So I'm still figuring out where everything is here in my new hometown, and as a rat owner it can sometimes be challenging to find a pet store with the appropriate food. After being informed that the local branch of a chain pet store (PetLand) had the kind of food we need, I proceeded to have an experience which cost me some of whatever remaining faith in humanity I have.

Without going into all of the details, I had a significant problem with the way some of the animals were being treated in the store. I got a little riled up. Both Liz and, later, other people to whom I described the incident reminded me that yelling at the clerk in the pet store isn't productive. It's some stiff making $6.50/hr who probably hates her job. And of course the only response one can get out of such people is "It's not my problem / It's store policy." Going up the chain of non-command produces similar results; no one ever has the power to fix things, no one is responsible, no one has control.

Isn't that the real problem with this country? Now that we're one enormous, identical-looking strip mall from coast to coast, we feel absolutely no obligation toward one another's interests. If I was shopping in Jim's Pet Store I could probably talk to Jim, and since Jim and I are already neighbors he might actually care when I told him that I objected to his practices. But shopping in PetLand, Inc., which probably has a corporate office in some bland building in Kalamazoo? They don't particularly give a shit what you or I have to say. Nothing the chain does is accountable to a person; to the extent that they are accountable to anything it is an abstraction like "the market" or "the stockholders." It's yet another example of how efficient the market is as an arbiter of our relationships with one another.

Liz worked in a restaurant before we left Bloomington, and she remarked constantly about how children no longer say "please" or "thank you" to service industry employees. It felt a little Andy Rooney, but it's a valid point. Forget about kids – does anyone say please and thank you in the faceless monstronsity that is the American retail sector v.2009? Try an experiment. Go into a Wal-Mart or a Burger King and try your hardest to give a flying fuck about anyone or anything in the establishment. It's virtually impossible, like trying to feel sympathy for a cockroach. It's nothing but shoppers who don't know one another making identical purchases (but no eye contact) and interacting only with the interchangeable employees paid squat to listlessly ring up our purchases. Then we wander back to our cars among the giant asphalt seas of nothingness which surround the commercially-zoned stucco monstrosities on the outskirts of town and drive home, transaction completed in total anonymity. Whether it's a block from home or clear across the country, every Home Depot (and the drones who staff them) look exactly the same, thus we treat them exactly the same: as strangers.

Yes, I know the advantages, the endless choices and low prices made possible by the strip-mallification of the country and the standardization of the American retail experience. I am equally well aware of the downside: try to get someone to interact with you as one human being to another and you quickly discover that the whole thing is a big illusion. You're not in your neighborhood and you're not dealing with people. You're in an abstract world in which the things that look like people can't think for themselves and what appears to be a store near your home is really a corporate boardroom a thousand miles away bending to the whims of a master that exists only in the minds of the Investor Class.