It’s been a little over five months since my wife and I have moved to beautiful Salem MA and we have been enjoying it so much that it seems like we have been on vacation the entire time. I must admit, between all scenic Salem has to offer and the warm weather, it has been a struggle trying to decide between staying in the house to write and venturing out to explore. I love to write and reignite the dormant chambers of my littered mind but sometimes it does feel rather reclusive and I fear turning into a hermit of sorts, but not to the Henry David Thoreau extreme. I punch the keyboard one finger at a time and my mind is always so far ahead of my laboring digits that it always seems if I am running uphill with a weight-vest tied on my back. When my tired fingers struggle to hit the space button and I begin to type the same word three times in a row I know it’s time to take a well-deserved break and hit the streets for some air and to reassure myself that I am living in the real world.
A friendly hello to a passersby or two as I stroll around town is usually all it takes to make me feel like a member of society again. It’s when my mission turns into a quest for food or coffee that anxiety begins to set in. For example, it seems that it has become the norm for counter personnel to ask for your name instead of giving you a receipt with a number attached to it. Now, I understand the premise behind the concept. It’s a different warm friendly approach that fosters a sense of community and brotherhood. When your food or drink is ready, someone calls out your name and it’s “supposed” to make you feel good that you’re not being treated like a faceless number or statistic.
But I’m not comfortable giving out my name! To me, it’s a business transaction plain and simple. I’m not overly-shy or introverted, and thankfully I have many cherished personal relationships to get me through life. One can never have enough friends, after all. It’s just I have reservations regarding the sincerity of things. However, I’m in a new community, one I want to be a part of, so I obligingly gave out my name, Paul. That’s when the anxiety began to set in because my nickname is “Muzzy” and I always prefer to be addressed as “Muzzy.” Is this person ever really going to befriend me or not I began to wonder? Will someone else in the café or store [particularly those sitting down with an open laptop] hear my name and have instant access to some intrusive algorithm and deduce that there are 42 Paul’s living in Salem and the next thing you know they’ve obtained all my contact info, my SSN and my bank PIN number! I know there’s a bit of paranoia involved here but if I was given a number none of these thoughts would be astir in my head. At least it’s a number I don’t have to remember like my life depended on it. Between bank accounts, brokerage accounts, Expedia, Amazon, store and travel rewards and all the other online stuff we have to sign on to, we’re inundated with “secret” numbers. Case in point, it has been so long since I entered a post on this blog that I forgot both my ID number and password to open this up!
Anyway, I’m Paul and I brushed off my trepidations and honestly hoped that someday I would feel comfortable enough to use my “Muzzy” moniker and make new friends and/or acquaintances. Over a few weeks, I constantly frequented the same coffee shop, bakery and food emporium like clockwork. The same people waited on me over and over again, asking me my name time after time, even when there was no one in line behind me or any other customer in sight. I found it a bit peculiar and funny that no one remembered my name but in the spirit of community I kept chugging away, making conversation about the weather, how good my last sandwich was, any dialogue so my next visit would seem like a social event rather than a business exchange. Isn’t that what’s really behind the name-calling instead of handing out numbers like in the old days which I find myself pining for more and more? The local mom and pop store/shop owners want to distinguish themselves from the big cold corporate chains so the local consumer feels like they are sharing a warm experience and I get it! But when my coffee or food is ready and when my name “PAUL” is YELLED out I want to cringe because it’s never in a friendly tone and I equate it with my wife nagging me to do some boring chore. And God forbid if I was distracted by an email on my phone or daydreaming about being anywhere but where I am, that they have to shout my name out a second time, only louder with a hint of anger, which makes everyone look at you as you walk up to the counter. “Poor Paul got what he deserved for making me wait longer!” their discerning eyes seem to say. The only “warm” part of the experience is when my blood begins to boil and my embarrassed face turns fire-red!
Growing frustrated, I decided to change things up since I couldn’t be remembered as Paul. I mean, I’d like to think I have a distinct eye-catching look– large “Buddy Holly” glasses attached to a big nose and I usually wear a scally-cap backwards. On my walk to the sandwich shop I plotted my revenge [ok-I admit it was more a desperate effort to get noticed.] I had my contact lenses on and wore no hat. That day, my name was to be “Tony.” Emboldened by the idea, I pranced down the pedestrian walkway like John Travolta gliding on the sidewalk in a scene from “Saturday Night Fever.” As the movie soundtrack played in my mind I created a whole new persona. If anyone dared to ask, I was TONY and I was in town to scope a scene for an upcoming movie, and the sandwich shop would be the perfect spot! Maybe then I’d get their full attention!
I walked into sandwich shop and it was a bit crowded. When I got to the front of the line I ordered a sandwich I’d never had there before, mustard this time instead of mayo. After all, I was a different person. The young lady looked at me and smiled, no longer sporting her usual vapid expression. The moment of truth arrived. “TONY” I confidently stated when prompted for my name trying to sound convincing, mostly to myself. She nodded her head, this time with exaggeration, and I retreated to the back to and anxiously waited for my “new” name to get yelled out.
After a few minutes, the name “Paul” could be heard followed by a chuckle. I looked around for someone else to approach the counter. Another time before, there had been another Paul waiting, and we had almost gotten our respective sandwiches mixed up–something that would unlikely happen if we had been given a number by the way. No one approached! The lady yelled out “Paul” again. Only this time, her tone was friendly and a bit of a tease—like she was saying, “Come out-come out-wherever you are!”
I slowly stuck my head out from behind a shelf full of cookies. She was leaning over the counter with my sandwich bag in her hand motioning with her finger for me to step forward. Her lips were almost puckered! The people in front of me became amused by her over-zealousness. It was like she was re-enacting a romantic scene from some corny chick-flick. I didn’t know what to think, except that I had just gotten exposed as being an imposter, as I crept to the front. She handed me the bag with a wink as if to say “touché”—that she was on to me. Go figure! Did I have to resort to changing my name so she could remember my real name? Or was she playing with my head the whole time? Is the “what’s your name” mandate pounded into these worker’s heads so much that it renders them into spiteful robotic zombies? Could it be they feel just as uncomfortable as I do and their prompted attempt at cordialness falls short because of that? I’m curious what your thoughts are on this topic.
Just one more observation. Again, feel free to express your thoughts. A couple of months ago, right before I was going on a long trip, I was in dire need of a haircut but my regular stylist, Elizabeth, was completely booked for the next few days so I had to make alternative arrangements. I drove around Beverly until I saw a salon with a “walk-in’s welcome” sign. Let me digress, the previous time I had tried to get a haircut as a “walk-in” had been a real head-scratcher. It was in Middleton and the place was empty. The girl chomping on a wad of gum at the front desk told me they accepted “walk-in’s” just as the sign out front had read. Again, there wasn’t a customer in sight and there were two stylists hanging around an empty chair chatting, both wearing so much make-up I felt like I was at the cosmetics counter at Macy’s. I was informed they already had appointments coming shortly and they couldn’t “squeeze” me in for a few hours. They weren’t even apologetic about it which didn’t really bother me, because with vibe I got, I was glad that they couldn’t take me. I tried to feign disappointment as I headed for the exit. The girl at the desk said, almost in a reprimanding way, “Next time, call ahead to see if we can take you. We prefer if our walk-in’s call first.”
It was one of those situations where I felt I needed to get in the last word. So I replied, “Technically, if I called ahead then that would mean I now had an appointment so I would no longer be considered a walk-in. Wouldn’t that then be the case? If so, then you really don’t take “walk-in’s” DO YOU!” It felt so good seeing her blank face!
Anyway, I went into the tiny salon in Beverly and they took me right away. Everyone was very pleasant and the haircut was sufficient enough. When I was paying the bill, the owner asked if I had taken the day off work. When I informed her that I was a budding novelist she became all excited and wanted to know my work and where she could find me online. I gave her my website address and then she asked me for my email address and my birthday A red flag should have popped up but I was too consumed by my fleeting celebrity and without thinking, I complied to all her requests. Did I mention she was pretty?
By the time I got home, I had received an email from the salon asking me to fill out a questionnaire about my experience there. You know, what I liked and where they need to improve-that kind of stuff. Right away, I was taken aback. I mean, it’s a small place. There’s only a few stylists and you can hear every conversation around you. The owner can’t figure out where they need to improve. She can’t determine which stylist brings in the most revenue and which one doesn’t. Guess what, that’s where you need to improve. Why, as a customer, do I have to do your job for you? I have enough pressure on me without getting someone fired because I had stupidly forgotten to make an appointment with my regular stylist in the first place.
It doesn’t end there. You didn’t think it did, did you? Within five weeks, I got a reminder email that it was time to get a haircut. The next week I got the same reminder, and the next, and the next. Now, I can understand the dentist or the doctor sending out a reminder, but a hair salon? Do they think when I look in the mirror and I see my hair touching the Brillo-like hairs sticking out of my ears that I can’t recognize that I need a haircut? Am I an unkempt person who needs to be reminded to bathe daily also? Do they really think they’re doing me a favor? I find it a tad insulting. Their intent, which I understand is to get my repeat business, backfired in my case. Especially when my phone email beeps while I’m driving and I see it’s another annoying message from them. Note to self, I’ve got to unsubscribe to their list if possible before I get my “Happy Birthday” message, which most likely arrive while I’m driving down Route 128. You’ve been a great audience! Please stay in touch, Muzzy.