Saturday, December 29, 2018

Business with a Face


(The following is an excerpt from the book I’m writing that I think I need to leave out. So I’m giving it a home here).

I fondly remember shopping with my mother at Sam and Andy’s Produce, where we exchanged news about each other alongside the money for the apples—and often a free treat thrown my way. I bought my comic books at Debby and Irv’s, got my haircut at Jack’s and occasionally dropped in at Burt’s (my classmate's father) Hardware. In the 1980’s, I brought my own kids to Heidi’s Bakery for both cookies and conversation, had coffee at Howard’s Café, got both records and record reviews with Don at The Magic Flute and got my car fixed at Jim’s. Business with a face.

Traveling, I loved going to countries where you had to bargain in the marketplace. It wasn’t a relationship on an equal footing—you trying to get the lowest price, the seller angling for the highest. But it was (and is) a fun game, both of you knowing you’d probably end up in the middle, but interacting with fake outrage, humor and the sense of enjoying a social encounter while shopping. Outside of the market, businesspeople in Europe and Asia negotiating a deal invariably begin with a cup of tea or coffee and the gestures of social grace and casual conversation before getting down to business. Such niceties, that can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours, drive American business folks crazy, but are part of the sensibility that relationships and business should be intertwined, both for the pleasure and the more refined and cultured way of approaching the making of deals.

As lived by people like Sam and Andy, Debby and Irv, Heidi and others, small businesses with a personal touch not only had their place in American towns, but in our collective imagination as well. As I write this in December, people are flocking to the theaters (or the video store or their Netflix accounts) to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. How they love to boo and hiss at the crooked, shady, heartless, arch-villain Potter who was only out to make a buck. How they cheer when George Bailey’s lifetime of forged relationships comes back to him in his moment of need and saves the day. They see George surrounded by love beyond the norm, imagine Potter dying as a bitter, lonely old man and are called upon to reflect a bit on their own life and consider who they helped out in their short time on Earth.

And then they switch the channel/ video to A Christmas Carol to watch Potter’s ancestor Scrooge pinching his pennies and turning out his neighbors with a “Bah, humbug!” It took his ex-partner Marley sternly reminding him that “mankind is his business” and the mirror the ghosts hold to his life to wake him up to his long neglected better self. These were the mythic tales, spiritual parables and moral lessons of a time when business was reminded to serve relationship.

No more. Some of the same people who boo Potter or Scrooge each year voted in their real-life version to run the country. How did that happen? Instead of a kindly face, business now has a robotic voice. The handshake deal has been replaced by the 10-page legal contract, with 6 places to sign initials after language that no one can understand. Back in my home town, Noah’s Bagels later replaced Heidi’s Bakery, but none of us knew who Noah was. Borders replaced 9th Ave. Books, Blockbuster competed with the neighborhood Le Video and suddenly the world had turned corporate and faceless, with pierced young people who had to look things up on computers to answer questions. Now ever more so with shopping online and robots answering phones with their fake amiability and their inability to answer your particular unique question that’s not in the script. And often when you do get a live person, they’re as mechanical and cold as the robot. The pleasure in the economic transaction gets lost and it’s a high price to pay.

So whether in school or out in the world, relationships bring color and life to the business of living. Getting to know the folks at the farmer’s market, who not only enjoy cultivating a relationship with you, but also have an intimate relationship with the food they grow and well, chatting with your travel agent before getting to the itinerary, greeting the mailman. This is how humans have lived for millennia before efficiency, profit, brand names, corporate amalgamation, huge mega-stores, robots and robotic-like workers began to take over the world. We may get our goods faster, cheaper and more conveniently, but what does this do to our quality of life? There simply is no comparison between the Costco run and the walk to the local market talking with the sellers and your neighbors and discussing which kind of apples are at their crispest and sweetest.  Creating this kind of friendly and family feeling in schools prepares kids to make smart choices about how they want to live and what’s really important in this life.

But are schools doing their part in preparing the children to say, now and in the future, “It’s a wonderful life?”

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