Personal service a lost artPosted Wednesday, August 13, 2008, at 9:59 AM
Last week, as soon as the paper was done, my wife and I had to quickly pack the car and head out to the Oregon coast to deal with a family emergency.
It's been a long time since I'd actually driven through Oregon. Usually we just fly out to see my parents, who retired a little over 20 years ago in Salem.
In fact, the last time I'd driven through the Columbia Gorge I'd done so on Highway 30. The interstate, which made the very long drive a lot easier, hadn't been built yet.
There were some things along the way that surprised me, however.
First, the speed limit is a lot lower, 65 mph in Oregon versus 75 mph in Idaho. Ten miles per hour may not seem like much, but for a long trip it adds up fast (or slow, as the case may be). And I know that Oregon is notorious for a rigid enforcement of its speed limits, so I didn't push it. It's a pretty state, and if you're vacationing and enjoying the views, that's not a problem. When you're trying to get to the Salem hospital as fast as you can it's a little frustrating, however.
We stopped to get gas in La Grande and out of habit I got out to start pumping that liquid gold into my car. To my surprise, a young man came out, pumped the gas for me, wiped my windshields and checked my oil.
I thought I'd been transported back into the '50s. I was a kid the last time anybody did that for me at a gas station (and I'm no longer a kid by any stretch of the imagination).
I told my wife to remember that place on the way back. But then I learned it wasn't a business gimmick. It's actually against the law in Oregon to pump your own gas.
Apparently, it was explained to me, several years back some people got hurt pumping their own gas, and Oregon, which was taken over by the do-gooders years ago and has gone bonkers about safety (some school districts there won't let kids run on the playgrounds for fear they'll get hurt), decided only "trained professionals" should be allowed to pump gas.
Silly law, but it was kind of nice. Did it add to the price at the pump? Not as far as I could tell. Most gas prices were lower than those in Idaho.
It would be nice to see some businesses in Idaho voluntarily bring back that kind of service. For all we've grown and advanced as a nation, there are some things we've lost that I wish hadn't been discarded in our rush into the modern age. Personal service at the gas pump for one (and Green Stamps for another, but you've got to be really old to remember what those were).
But the personal service didn't end there. When we got to the hospital I discovered they had valet parking service. Not just for those headed to emergency rooms and ICUs, but for anybody visiting the hospital. You pulled up in front of the hospital, some young men came out and took your car to be parked, and brought it back to you when you got ready to leave. We avoided entirely the long walk to and from smelly fume-filled parking garages.
Lately, I've been spending way too much time in hospitals visiting friends and family members. I'd love to see St. Luke's and St. Al's do that. And considering what hospitals charge for a tube of toothpaste, they ought to be able to afford it.
Personal service is one of those things that has largely disappeared for all but the rich any more. Yet a long time ago, it was a major -- and common -- component of our economy.
As we became more "efficient" and enamored with gadgets, those jobs began to disappear (along with the "please" and "thank you" courtesy that went along with them).
So today, we deal with gadgets. You can't even dial an operator for information anymore without having to talk to a computer first (and then repeat everything once you get through to the operator).
In fact, it's not unusual anymore to make a phone call to a business and never be able to deal with a human no matter how much you want or need to. Complaining to a computer about a billing error doesn't get you very far but is guaranteed to send your blood pressure through the ceiling.
I don't know about you, but I would much rather deal with people than a computer.
I know I'm in for half an hour of aggravation the moment I make a call and the first thing I hear is "For English, press 1." For the next 30 minutes I know I'm going to be listening to menus and pressing buttons.
We've almost become lobotomized with our dependence on gadgets and technology. It's no wonder more and more people feel isolated in our society. Human contacts are slowly disappearing. I actually saw some kids in a restaurant recently texting each other with their cell phones from a distance of about two tables apart. Apparently, getting up, walking over and actually talking face to face with their friends didn't occur to them.
The trip reminded me that the great value of personal service is its emphasis on humanity. People dealing with people. What a novel concept.
Maybe some day, we can find a way to get back to that.
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