Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I knew the names of many of the people my parents and I did business with. There were the grocers Sam and Andy, the corner store folks Debby and Irv,
the barbers Nick and Jack. When you went in for peaches, candy or a haircut, they delivered the goods plus more. You got a little slice of convivial conversation— sharing news back and forth, neighborhood gossip and of course, speculation about the weather. And it was that little bit more that made it such a pleasure to do business with them. Some were memorable characters, like Uncle Louie, the ice cream truck driver or Walter the mailman. But most importantly, they all had names and faces that we knew and they knew us.
Raising my children in San Francisco, we got off to a promising start. There was Heidi at the bakery, Bill at the corner store, Rex who took care of our Saab and my kids got to know their names as well. Yet later there was Janille who did our taxes, Walter who fixed our appliances, Greg who handled the plumbing and electricity. And even if we didn’t know everyone’s names, we recognized the folks working at Sunset Stationary and Le Video and the Post Office and the bank, knew some of the workers at the local book store and the local record/ later CD store and the waiters at Narai or Stoyanoff’s restaurants. And they recognized us.
But then that all began to change. Mom & Pop pushed out by the corporate bullies and now young sullen pierced employees who didn’t know the book inventory or great new jazz releases were the ones we did business with. On the phone, it was folks far away in India or robotic-like people who didn’t love their work just doing their job or actual robots talking to us. Business now was just business and often frustrating at that. Certainly less pleasurable.
But hope is not lost. Last night, I found out that Connie, my travel agent is retiring at 79-years old, but in a long and warm telephone conversation, she told me she was keeping a short-list of her long-term favorite clients to keep working with. And I was on the list!
I first “met” Connie some 10 or 12 years ago when an International School Music Conference in Asia suggested I use their travel agency. She negotiated some tricky flight itineraries for me and after that Conference, I asked if I could keep using her services. “Of course!” she said and there was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. I’ve travelled a lot since then to every continent and as I combine different workshop opportunities, the itineraries are never simple round-trip flights. Often I begin with Connie like this: “I need to go from London to Glasgow and then to Iceland and from there to Spain and then to Salzburg and a train to Budapest and then back to Munich and then home again.” And off she sets to work, like a grand chess master putting this intricate puzzle together and emerging with all flights intact—and good prices at that! Sometimes I begin, “Okay, this is the ultimate challenge! Work your magic!” and she does. Unfailingly.
The word “met” is in parenthesis above because though I feel great affection and appreciation for Connie, I’ve never actually met her. She lives in Utah and in fact, have never even seen a photo of her! But whether by e-mail or phone, our exchanges are always delightful. Yesterday I found out that she’s dealing with a cancer, but the treatment seems to be working well and is not debilitating and the walks 4 or 5 miles a day (at 79 years old!) and feels better amidst all of this than she has in a while. I have a noticed a senior moment here and there (like when she just sent me a booking for Shanghai when I actually needed to go to Singapore!), but we could laugh about it and she corrected it right away. She also reminded me that she is a musician and had taught music and so feels interested in and connected to the work that I’m doing when she flies me around the world. We ended yesterday’s conversation with a vow to actually meet someday!
So there you have it. Business with a face, with a person whose name you know, with a relationship, gives pleasure and character and happiness in the ways we need others to live our lives. And if their names are Sam or Heidi or Bill or Connie instead of the robot voice of the actual robot or the robot-like business person on the phone or the worker in the store who you don’t know and doesn’t know you, then life has a more lively color and pleasing shape to it.
And how about you? Who are the folks you do business with, past and present, that you know and enjoy?