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Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The other night I went back to one of my old haunts: a bar down the street from my office, where I spent many a happy hour and where, for a couple of years, I was on a first-name basis with the bartender (who would serve me "my regular" without asking and who comp'ed me at least one drink from each night's tab). They have redecorated the bar and, I think, tried to make it look like it could be a hipster destination. The bar stools and high tables have been replaced with a row of short booths that all face the center of the room, and where they used to hang goofy caricatures of the regular customers on the wall, there are now mirrors. I'm not too happy about the change in decor, but I had stopped hanging out there a few years ago anyway, when my bartender-friend moved on.

So when we walk in, nobody knows us now, but they greet us anyway -- not by name like they used to, but more like the sales clerks do when you're trying to shop at Banana Republic: too many times and with the forced smile that lets you know they're only acknowledging you because it's company policy and they'll be fired if they don't. I paid (since I was the only one who was drinking seriously), and I put it on a credit card. And when the server returns with the receipt for me to sign, he says, "Thank you, Mister Melican." I'm only momentarily disoriented because, first of all, I've never been introduced to this guy, and secondly, because no one calls me that. My father's name is Mr. Melican. Mine is Jay.

I guess they think this is classy and maybe I'll feel like a regular or like a VIP if they interact with me as if they know who I am. But I know they don't know me from Adam. And it's not like they know my name 'cause I had called ahead to book a table. This guy read my name off my credit card -- which doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy and familiar; it's just a little creepy.

For the past few months, I've been working with Christena Nippert-Eng on a study of the stuff that people carry with them in their wallets, so I have been thinking a lot about credit cards and about the nuances of the little exchange that takes place between a customer and a cashier when you hand over a credit card to pay for something. It's one of those great everyday interactions that are just packed with all sorts of subtexts and protocols and posturing and opportunities to be embarrassed. I love that stuff. There's so much more that goes on there than just the financial transaction. And it all revolves around that little piece of plastic.

I've also been working on a paper about the interactions you have with your neighbors, so I sort of felt like I'd struck gold when I read this morning in The New York Times about the parents of one of the Columbine killers -- who still live in the same town -- and how they are coping with the stigma of their son's crime.

"In general, Tom [Klebold] said, 'most people have been good-hearted.' Their friends rallied around. Their neighbors call to warn them if an unfamiliar car lurks in the neighborhood. There is a moment of discomfort when they hand over a credit card at a store, but there have been few bad scenes. One clerk looked at the name and remarked to Susan, 'Boy, you're a survivor, aren't you.'"

Talk about some spoiled identity.

May 15, 2004 in Private / Public | Permalink


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I don't find the customer-service "Mister" as jarring as the email "Mr." (or even worse "Dr." since I am no doctor!). Especially given the informality of email, to hear from a student as "Dear Mr. Portigal" is very weird.

But you actually teach so of course you'll have a different take on this.

Posted by: Steve Portigal | May 16, 2004 11:37:20 AM


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Updated: May 8, 2004
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