Saturday, December 08, 2007

Why can't American society be less 'efficient?

A few days ago I received a prescription in the mail from Kaiser Permanente pharmacy. Kaiser Permanente is the 'full service' health maintenance organization to which I belong. I ordered the prescription by dialing an 800 number and then keying in the prescription number, guided by an electronic voice. Contacting a human being at the pharmacy is difficult, but so long as there are no changes or problems, electronic renewal is sufficient.

As I opened the shrink wrapped package, I got to thinking about Greenfield Pharmacy in my home town, and the proprietor, “Doc” Tockman. My family traded at Greenfield’s from the time we moved to Port Washington, when I was about two years old, until after I was married. For a time, the Tockmans lived on the street behind ours. Their eldest daughter, Rochelle, was in my high school class and we were friends.

Greenfield’s was a full service operation, with a soda fountain and a few dining booths. The fountain manager, “Louie” was there almost as long as the Tockmans. When he was drafted and spent three years fighting World War II, the quality of service declined - we all celebrated when he returned to resume his duties behind the counter. When my father was away, my mother and I would sometimes have a “blue plate special” dinner at Greenfield’s. Getting an ice cream cone at Greenfield’s, sometimes from Louie, himself, was always a special treat. The cost was a nickel.

How different shopping experiences are today. There are still pharmacies staffed by human beings, but for the most part those behind the counter are sullen, minimum wage employees who could care less. The service is indifferent - or worse. I’m not angry at them. I empathize. Probably they are working two jobs to try and support their families and, though they are working for a pharmacy, run by a large corporation, have no health benefits. This is because the corporation is delivering, in addition to bloated salaries for executives and lobbyists, low prices. This is ‘efficiency”.

What efficiency seems to mean is an increasing number of commercial transactions that are entirely, or almost entirely, devoid of human contact. I believe that we yearn for human contact in all facets of our life but we may not be willing to pay the price for transactions that are more costly. Advertising has persuaded us that it is things - at the lowest price - are most important in our lives; that enough things will somehow fill the emptiness inside that many feel.

Happily my own circumstances are different. Yes, I do get my prescriptions from Kaiser’s mail order pharmacy. But in Anderson Hall, and at American University, I am immersed in human contact every day with people I know and who know me. I think of my Center for Teaching Excellence staff, many Anderson Hall Residents, and many AU staff and faculty as part of an extended family, with their talents, lovable qualities, foibles and shortcomings. It is a bit like Greenfield’s pharmacy and the town in which I grew up, writ just a little bit larger.

Why can’t more of our society be like that, even if it would be less “efficient?”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sentiments exactly! Thank you for your recollections ... I, too, lived in Port Washington -- on North Bayles Avenue (the street that met Main Street where Greenfield's was), as a matter of fact. What great memories I have of that place -- chatting with Louie over fresh, delicious sandwiches at the counter, meeting friends there after high school was out, buying Black Jack and Beeman's gum at the candy counter, and of course taking care of all our medicinal needs at the pharmacy counter run by "Doc." Today's impersonal transactions do, indeed, make us long for the days when, if we were addressed by name, it was because the merchants KNEW us, not because a supermarket clerk is trying to inject a "personal touch" by reading the customer's name from the printed receipt!

4:19 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home