Before I go, I have something to say

People Who Need People

NPR’s “Morning Edition” broadcast an interview with two women recently. I came late to the report, but it sounded like they both worked at the same place – I’m betting it was Wal-Mart – and had suffered major downsizing, if not layoffs. The reason was not their lack of skill or enthusiasm, but the introduction of self-checkout stations. The women had been replaced by technology.

Wal-Mart is a store I venture into only once or twice a year, usually to purchase something for my sister. It’s easy to find there the clothes she likes in the size that fit. I may have tried self-checkout once, but the only reason it worked was the expertise of my daughter, who never met a piece of technology she couldn’t arm-wrestle into submission.

She works in a place that also offers self-checkout. It’s not a store, but a place where you borrow things. Not rent, not buy, but borrow. It’s a library . . . a public library. I’ve used the self-checkout there, but half the time I do it wrong, setting off the library’s security alarm as I try to exit with an armload of cookbooks, travel guides, and new books by my favorite poets. Foiled again.

I’d rather take the extra time for human interaction. Whether it’s the high school student at Hy-Vee sending my Bing cherries and pork tenderloin down the conveyer belt, or the circulation assistant making sure my books are checked out and properly dis-armed, these are trained professionals; they know what they’re doing. It makes me extra happy to know that, in these still shaky economic times, I’m benefiting from the skills of People With Jobs. Even if they work part-time, receiving no health insurance or sick leave, at least they get a paycheck and something to put on their resume.

That same news report, about paid employees vs. cold-hearted machines, promised an upcoming story by a reporter making a cross-country car trip with as little human interaction as possible. Wow, doesn’t that sound like fun? I presume he was taking advantage of pay-at-the-pump gas stations, as well as kiosks at hotels offering non-human room check-in. Bellhops only seem to exist in big-city hotels, so I guess he didn’t have to worry about that.

As for how he obtained food, I’m not sure. The most basic hash house in the land has wait staff who take your order and hand your meal to you on a plate or in a bag. Did he plan to get by on vending machine fare? Or maybe he packed his own breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, eating at rest-stop picnic tables or inside his car, which must have gotten old pretty fast.

Telling my daughter about this endeavor, I felt compelled to describe to her how things used to go, back in the day. Pulling up at a gas station set into motion a whole dance of services, from pumping the petrol to washing the windshield to checking the oil and the air in the tires. It was lovely, and it was so much the norm that I don’t recall feeling guilty when it was sleeting out and I got to stay in my nice, warm car. No, the feeling I felt was gratitude.

Same for all the services that came right to our home. For these, I need to go way back, to when I was young enough to be at home with my mom as various salesmen made their calls. There was the milkman, spiriting away empty glass bottles and leaving our weekly order inside the insulated silver milk box beside the back door. There was the Fuller Brush man, selling brushes for cleaning and brushes for grooming our hair, as well as cleaning chemicals – the precursor of Endust – in ecologically incorrect pressurized spray cans. I miss the smell of that stuff. Finally, there was my favorite – the Omar Bread Man. I have no idea where the name “Omar” came from, but I remember as if it were yesterday (and it definitely was not) the three-tiered tray held out by the nice man in the white uniform, featuring not just bread, but donuts and sweet rolls, too. In my rosy memory, of course, Mom always bought me something sweet. For a while, we also had farm-fresh egg deliveries and, of course, an Avon lady.

There is one other interaction I remember, and that was the meter reader, a man who would knock on the back door, charge in, calling out “Meter Man!” as he galloped down the stairs. These days you’d have to be nuts to expect that kind of service – unwise, inefficient, perhaps unsafe. But back then, it was just the way things were done.

Now a machine on the outside of our house silently conveys meter readings, and we buy bread and milk, plus the occasional glazed donut, at a store. Self-checkout doesn’t seem to be catching on at my grocery store, thank goodness. I worry, though, about this trend, especially at libraries, since I’m a librarian myself. As a medical librarian, I feel my job is pretty essential, especially when I get a call from a surgeon in the physician’s lounge, needing some information STAT.

Too many hospitals have closed their libraries. “You can find it on the Internet” is the reason given. Sure, you can find something, but most of the time, it won’t be accurate, and if it is, it won’t be available for free. Computers are great, and robots can perform awesome things, but without a human programming, using, and fixing them, it’s a cold, uncaring world out there. As cheerless as a cross-country trip without even a “Good morning!” from the waitress in the diner.

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