Did you Remember to activate your Idiot Warning System?

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”– “Howard Beele” played by actor Peter Finch, in the classic movie “Network”.

Do you have an idiot warning system? I’ll bet you do, but don’t realize it. Let me tell you how mine is set up, and how I use it, with this “purely hypothetical situation”. I go into a chain drug store on a typical Saturday afternoon. I just need a few things, such as razor blades, toothpaste, some over-the-counter painkillers, (I’m a Tylenol man) and perhaps the latest issue of MacAddict or Macworld. I approach the lines at the register. Very quickly, I scan the people waiting in line in front of me. Most of the customers are male, and most are buying the same stuff. They either have their cash out already, or wallets at the ready.

In this situation, no further action is needed. It’s my turn at the register now, The few guys in front of me have all paid for their items with cash, and left. I do the same. I got in, I got out, mission accomplished, quickly and efficiently.

But, this could have gone another way: I’m standing in line, the fourth person away from the register. The Three people in front of me consist of a woman with three kids who are pawing the candy, which has been carefully placed at child’s eye level. I predict she will pay with a debit card, or a personal check. She will be there for about five minutes, just “futzing” and yelling “No! you cannot have any candy!” to the kids. (The kids will get their candy, as the SUV queen will cave in) The next person down the line is a matronly (read, big and scary) woman with an entire shopping basket of various goodies, including numerous baby items, cough syrup, and several enormous bags of candy. In her other hand, she has the store’s most recent flyer at the ready. She is glaring at that flyer with great intensity. I predict she is preparing to argue with the register clerk over the price of at least two of the items in her basket. Her energy is reaching an explosive level, I can sense it.

I further predict that the argument could turn ugly, requiring the attention of a shift supervisor, or store manager, or perhaps even the SWAT team. The third person from the register is a teenaged male. He’s got on the teenaged uniform of the day, which seemingly consists of jeans and t-shirt, both of which are three sizes too large. He is wearing headphones, and is gyrating to something, lord knows what. I predict he will not have enough money to cover the cost of the large bottle of soda and candy bars and slim jims he is holding. (This is, in all likelihood, his meal for the day.) He will also attempt to buy cigarettes, thinking the register clerk will not card him. He cannot comprehend the large sign that says “No ID, no sale, no way”.

I size this scenario up quickly, and my idiot alarm starts sounding, loudly. I can perform one of three courses of action here:

1. I could simply leave the store, putting the items I had selected back on the way out. OR:

2. I could switch lines, if the “idiot factor” in any of the other lines is lower. OR:

3. I could spend about ten minutes wandering the store, just to see if I should buy anything else while I’m there. By the end of that time, the lines will hopefully have dispersed.

Now, before anyone says, “Why not just be patient, and wait in line?” let me say, with emphasis, that doing so is not an option.
Why is that? Because my patience is at an end. No really, it is. I have, at one time or another in the past few years, been trapped in all of the above scenarios, and I have had it. Why, oh why, is so wrong to get in, get what you need, pay cash, and get out?

There is simply no defense for writing a check for less than ten bucks in a store. Three is no reason for anyone to start a near-bloody argument with a cash register clerk over the advertised price of a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. If you have a problem with the price of something you see advertised in a circular, and the price on that item in the store, take it up with a management level employee before you approach the line. Understand? The register clerk does nothave decision-making authority. As for the rest of it, I envision a store that has a separate line for “People who pay cash”, and lines for “Everyone else”..

I use my idiot alarm system for other situations as well. Restaurants are a prime example. Now, I should say that I rarely eat in restaurants any more, opting instead for take out. But, if I enter a “Chili’s” for example, I quickly survey the situation. Do the employees at least look intelligent? Does it appear that the customers are getting fast, well-engineered service? Most importantly, are there people waiting to get a table, and is anyone griping about having been waiting for a long time, say more than thirty minutes? If, after weighing all these options, my alarm goes off, it’s out the door.

Banks are yet another place where an idiot alarm system is essential. Now, regular readers, will remember my columnon banks. I moved all my accounts and business to a small, community bank, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. But for those who don’t have this luxury, because all the banks in your area have been assimilated by a huge banking chain, well, you know the routine: Long lines, hidden fees up the wazoo, and :”customer service reps” who have the measured I.Q. of a bowling ball. If you enter a bank, take a quick count of the teller stations. Are there twenty stations, but are only three of them staffed? Is the line very, very long, and does everyone look very, very unhappy? Then your alarm should be sounding. The best advice is to turn around and leave. Move your business to another bank ASAP. Inconvenient? You bet it is, but somehow, it’s just less frustrating and painful than the alternative.

Recently, I had occasion to call my health plan. I spent several minutes on hold, and was passed from one customer representative to another, with the time on hold increasing each time. My idiot alarm went off big time. I decided to hang up, and try again another day. I was successful the second time, only spending six minutes on hold, listening to top forty tunes from the 70’s. (Hmm. Skewed toward aging baby boomers maybe?) The question of why all the confusion on my first call attempt still stands.

Some days, my idiot alarm system goes off a lot, and some days, it doesn’t go off at all. There are places out there, which are very well managed. To the managers and employees of those establishments, I say thank you. To people who pay cash when their purchases total less than twenty bucks, thank you. And to people who make it a point to be polite to register clerks, and who understand that people in these jobs don’t make policy and don’t have decision making authority, thank you. The world is a better place because of you. In a perfect world, a large trap door would suddenly open any time some zipperhead started arguing with a register clerk and violently pointing to a page in a store flyer, demanding that the register clerk change the price. Alas, we don’t live in that world. Too Bad.

You may be wondering what a personal idiot warning system sounds like.

Well, you can tailor yours to meet your individual needs. Mine sounds like the air raid horns, which were tested on a weekly basis back in the sixties. Pick whatever you like, be it a Navy style klaxon, boxing arena bell, coach whistle, or even European police sirens.

But make sure you have one, and keep it ready in your head at all times.

Bruce Black

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