Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Man Walks Into a Bookstore

When I was in the bookstore in Charleston, SC, I watched a man stride confidently up to the counter and announce "I'm an author." He proceeded to tell the clerk that he was there to sign copies of his book and he asked to see the manager. Intrigued, I followed him over to see what he'd written. Somehow, my conception of an author is not of someone so self-confident that he will stride into a bookstore and assume that he's doing them a favor. But once I saw his book, the way he presented himself made more sense to me.

The author was Prioleau Alexander, and the book he had written, You Want Fries with That? A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage, was with new releases, although he told the clerk that many stores are stocking it in the comedy section, despite the fact that it's more of a biography. It's one of several "I quit my white-collar job and tried these menial jobs instead" books that I'd been interested in for a while, although not enough to buy one or look it up at the library. Here was an opportunity, though. I got one of his books off the shelf and told him I wanted to buy it if he would sign it for me. He agreed, pleasantly, and even took the trouble to spell my name right (a man with a name like Prioleau might be expected to be sensitive to alternative name spellings, of course).

And then I took it outside to a bench and began leafing through it. What struck me immediately was the section on trade secrets of a pizza delivery person. Never again will I tip a driver less than $5. Here's part of the reason why:

"Let me explain why you never get much of a song and dance from your driver. You see, I figured I'd make a killing delivering pizzas, simply by going out of my way to be nice, and funny, and presentable. Sadly, it never made me much extra money, because ninety percent of the folks who order pizzas write a check with the tip included five seconds after they hang up the phone. With the check already written, a driver could be juggling chainsaws with bananas stuffed up his nose and the pizza balanced on his head and he ain't getting a revised (and bigger) tip. After several months of peppy interaction, most drivers just give up on being cute and focus on praying that you didn't stiff them for two bucks or less."

When I got home from vacation, I picked up the book again, and found that I couldn't quit reading it. It's well-written, it's funny, and it's absolutely riveting. Having just finished dealing with the best building contractor anyone could ever wish for, I loved the section on one homeowner dealing with Pat the contractor about getting her remodeling done by a certain date:

"The woman went off. After five minutes of making points--all of which were true--she stopped. And glared.
Pat shook his head, indicating his rejection of everything she said. It was contractor language for 'I'm rubber, you're glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.'
'Look,' he said. We're lucky to be where we are. With all the changes you've made to the plans, you should be happy.'
'Changes? What changes?'
'You've made lots of changes.'
'What changes?'
'Like when you added those two windows. It threw off the schedule for an entire week.'
'What other changes?'
'There have been lots. I knew I should have started documenting them.'
'This is insane.'
'Plus, the inspector has held us up for seven days.'
'I don't know. I called for the inspection, and he hasn't showed.'
'Have you called him back?'
'Look, this isn't a big deal,' Pat said. 'We'll make the move-in date.'
This defused the woman.
And I'll tell you why: most people have never conducted a business transaction where every single word the other guy says is a lie. As a result, they get tripped up by contractors. It would be like calling a family meeting, asking the kids if they want to go to Disney World or Hawaii for the family vacation, and the nine-year-old says, 'I want to stay home and be a crack whore.' There's no response, because it's too is dealing with a contractor who lies every time his lips move."

Later in the book, later in my afternoon, my kids came in and found me reading the section in which Alexander works as a hospital ER technician. "Why are you reading with that look of horror and disgust on your face?" they asked. Well, the descriptions are fairly graphic, and I'm not a person who could ever work in the healthcare field. Here's the part I liked best, in which Alexander's ER physician buddy works on the hand of a person who has been mauled by a dog. Alexander says

"Here's my response if I was the physician looking at his hand:
MAN: Is it bad, Doc?
ME: Let's take a look. Holy #&%ing %#$*!!! Someone get the %#@* camera! Dude, we can't fix that! I can see the white stuff and bones and shredded meat! Put a fork in your hand, dude, that thing is done! But hey, let's at least get a photo before we put you down. Wow. Sucks to be you.
My buddy? No biggie. He got out the suture kit and somehow put that mangled thing back together. It took an hour, but when it was done, it looked like a pretty respectable Frankenstein hand.
And the guy's reaction?
'Doc, I'm in landscaping. Can I work tomorrow?'"

The section in which he works on a wagon train as a cowboy is also quite amusing, and includes the advice to "never ride a horse while wearing boxer underwear." At the end of the book, he includes a list of "minimum-wage wise sayings," in case you want to cut right to the chase in using his book for merely educational value. Me, I liked the jokes along the way. But there are also a few serious sections, and they added to the humor by revealing some of what it is based on:

"So what in hell happens during someone's life that leads them to work at Burger World as a real-live, all-kidding-aside job?
Life happens.
Life happened to me in my early forties. No longer able to take the torture of my chosen career, I walked away. There are a zillion little things from that career that make my blood boil even to think about--the betrayals, the laziness, the crooked deals, the politics. It was a business no longer worthy of my time.
But...what if life had happened to me at age twelve? Or eighteen? Life had no chance to overwhelm me back then: my parents protected me from it. My parents who worked hard, and didn't do drugs, and didn't beat me, and helped with my homework, and demanded that I study, and monitored my whereabouts, and bailed me out of the drunk tank, and loved me with all their hearts. Life didn't have a chance.
But let's take all that away. Let's reverse everything about my parents...Let's ggive me a single, drunken mother, who disappears before my bedtime with her boyfriends, doesn't even know if I got to school, and doesn't have the money to post beail for me, which results in thirty days in the county slammer. What then? Am I still fated to be Mr. White Collar? Does my resume still say Auburn graduate and former Marine officer? Lots of people overcome horrifying adversity to succeed in life, so why shouldn't I?
Because I'm just a person--not an exceptional person."

Being an academic, I have friends who don't think much about the lives of the people who serve them as underlings in various capacities. Some of them tip well, others maybe not so much. One of the things Alexander points out along the way, though, is that it doesn't cost anything to say something pleasant to the people who do these jobs, whether they're pleasant to you or not. And as he puts it, "it may be those words that keep them from torching city hall at the end of their shift."

It's a southern attitude--as my mother always told me, everyone's passage through the whole wide world could be easier if they would just display some basic good manners.


Alison said...

The saying I always heard was "If a man is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, he isn't nice."

lemming said...

There used to be a sign above the tip jar at a great burito place here - something along the lines of topping is good karma and remember that you too might one day end up slinging burritos to make ends meet.

CSchu said...

Alison's puts me in mind of one of my standard practices in hiring. After candidates come to campus, I ask our administrative assistant (who manages all their travel, scheduling, etc.) how well the candidates treated her. Any candidate that has treated her badly and us nicely, I declare to be scum. From my point of view, it disqualifies him/her from the pool.

Anonymous said...

I saw Prioleau Alexander on C-SPAN's BookTV a little bit ago hawking that very book.

By the way, I keep forgetting that C-SPAN is an acronym for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network.

That is all.