I served in Peace Corps Albania between 1995-7. Here is an essay I wrote in December 1997 about returning home to Houston after being evacuated from Albania. I also wrote an essay, The English Expert about a quirky professor of English, Abydyli Vasjari in Vlore.
Flying Home to the US
The Peace Corps is a gargantuan organization prepared for just about anything. For them a mere helicopter evacuation was a piece of cake. Just perform procedure FPC-1201C and make everybody fill out forms 901EVb, Emergency K-18 forms, as well as a P-1414, P-1415 (with urine sample), PC–232 (for vegetarians only), and a M-212 disbursement form (in triplicate). In some administrative file, Peace Corps (or at least, the Department of State) must have contingency plans for extraterrestrial visitation, or attacks of the killer tomatoes. I’ll spare you the trivial details about how the military evacuation brought Albanian Peace Corps volunteers to Bucharest, Romania in 1997. Just imagine the logistical nightmare of having to process paperwork in the Bucharest hotel where of course there were no computers, copy machines or free telephones. Usually Peace Corps plans a week-long Close-of-Service (COS) conference for the completion of forms, medical exams and seminars on job-hunting and culture shock. Now imagine the differences: In less than a week Peace Corps had to dig up a couple hundred thousand dollars in cold hard cash to pay for tickets home and readjustment allowances. And instead of one group COSing, three groups had to COS simultaneously. Washington had to fly in 3 or 4 bureaucrats just to carry the forms. In various hotel rooms, volunteers were busy plotting assignment transfers. Kenya or Cape Verde? Morocco or New Guinea? Other volunteers were planning lavish trips with readjustment money to Egypt, India or England. As for me, well, I wanted just to go home.
Six other Peace Corps people and I embarked by plane for an exotic place called New York. To entertain us during the seven hour flight, the new “Romeo and Juliet” film (the MTV version) showing on the screens above us. I half-watched it while reading my Economist, occasionally distracted by the frenzy of images above me. The next airline film was a silly thing with Whoopi Goldberg, something I would never watch outside of captivity. Midway through the film, one of the characters mentioned “Albania,” and all the volunteers’ heads perked up. Albania was a small place, and all of us remembered the strange looks our friends gave us when we announced our destination. “Albania? Where is Albania–in Africa?” Albania’s role in popular American culture came from a drinking song on “Cheers,” a Simpsons episode where an Albanian foreign exchange student stays with the Simpsons, and the occasional Jay Leno joke.
Two volunteers on the plane were bringing Albanian wives home with them. Both couples had married during the last week and were evacuated with us. Both couples were clearly in love, and unfortunately the whole process of getting married had to be speeded up for the sake of the evacuation. One of the volunteers, Ben, even had a wedding video of the outdoor wedding ceremony near Vlore, full of raki, smiles and the occasional Kalashnikov gunfire in the background. It was a warm and simple ceremony that his wife, a pretty wide-eyed teenage Albanian named Sava, would never forget.
Pretty soon we were nearing America. Though we had mixed feelings about arriving, all of us were excited. We could see skyscrapers and perhaps even the Statue of Liberty. When I pointed this out to Sava, I noticed that something was bothering her. She had taken off shoes during the flight, and was unable to get them on again. (Later I learned that feet sometimes swell up during flights). She had hardly noticed the new continent now visible outside her window. She kept trying to put the shoe over her heel, but it hurt too much; tears were coming to her eyes. By that time, her husband Ben (the intense engineering type) was trying to assess the problem and speaking to her in Albanian (he’d gone native many months ago). Sava talked quickly, and the two tried frantically to fit the shoes on. They had to meet immigration people; perhaps Sava had to have an interview. This was not the time to be without shoes! Poor Sava! This journey was to be the start of a new and different life for her, and she could not even get her shoes on.
After stepping off the plane, we were corralled into Passport Control. It dawned on me that this antiseptic dungeon may very well be an immigrant’s first glance at America. I had left my camera on the plane, so I had to wait a few extra minutes before stepping to the control booth. The worker looked at me with irritation and said, “What’s taking you so long?” This was America, I thought. Home at last.
My uncle met me at the airport, and I excused myself to use the restroom. To my amazement, none of the faucets had knobs, but an electronic sensor turned them on automatically whenever hands came under them. A half hour later my uncle brought me to a clothing store. I had been living out of a suitcase for over a month and had no time to pack. Ecstatically I roamed the spacious aisles, grabbing at packages of socks and underwear, laughing to myself at the endless variety of socks. “Where do you want to eat?” my uncle asked. Where? Where? For a moment my mind raced with possibilities. Many a night in Vlore I’d dreamt about meals and Houston restaurants. Sometimes I would even make lists: Thai curry, shrimp creole, keylime pie at House of Pies, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Haagen Daz Rum Raisin ice cream, Big Macs, A Taste of Texas steak, cheese enchiladas, salmon steaks with broccoli and lemon juice, sesame seed bagels, sushi, spring rolls with peanut sauce at Kim Son, fajitas, Hershey’s Kisses, barbecue beef sandwiches, jelly bellies, a decent pepperoni pizza. I suggested seafood, and my uncle drove along highways and side roads to get to a favorite place. I tried to get used to the idea of being in a car again. Did it feel good or bad? I couldn’t decide.
Of course, for the next week or two, people treated me like royalty. I was gratified to learn that Albania was a big story in America, so I didn’t need to explain everything when I met people. I was glad to be in America again and didn’t really experience what they called ” culture shock.” But I couldn’t help asking, “what would my Albanian friends think if they saw this?” One day in Albania I remember arriving in an industrial city, Elbasan, and two high school girls offering to help me carry my bags. They were English students and awestruck that I came from America–not just America, but Texas…Texas!! America, one of the girls told me, is like a dream.
After two years in Albania, I knew what they meant. America was the land of Baywatch, Microsoft, Whitney Houston, Bill Clinton, Leaving Las Vegas, Michael Jordan and the Statue of Liberty. It was the land of answering machines (most Albanians didn’t even have phones), 20 lane grocery checkouts, eight lane highways (Albania was lucky to have 2), swimming pools and every modern amenity. This hit me in Albania while watching a 1991 news show about Albania. The footage was compellingly familiar, but nothing better illustrated the immense cultural gap between the two countries than a 15 second dishwasher detergent commercial. Animated dishes and glasses were dancing to a wizard’s direction, and suddenly everything is sparkling clean, just like…a dream, I guess. Really Albania isn’t all that primitive a place. The children watch MTV on their satellite TV, and they wash clothes in their fancy Italian washing machines. Telephones and computers still aren’t commonplace, but a lot of people know how to use them. But a dishwasher!! For me, an unkempt bachelor, it is one of the great labor-saving inventions and something unknown in Albania. What about garage door openers? How do I explain this gadget to my Albanian friends when they have neither 1)garages, nor 2)cars and sometimes not even 3)electricity? No wonder dozens of Albanian vendors sell copies of the American visa lottery outside the post office.
One of my first chores in Houston was getting new eyeglasses. I needed glasses for only two things: driving and going to plays or movies. I did none of that in Albania. Once on a lark, I wore my glasses to University of Vlore to the delight of my students, but that was all. But once in home territory, I had to see distances. I had to see films and plays: The English Patient, Men in Black, 42nd Street and Showboat. Even though I had no car of my own, I ended up driving many hours each week, either to work or the airport or a friend’s house across town. I am not particularly fond of driving, but it is necessary in Houston. You accelerate and stop and put on your turn signal, while fiddling with the radio and tape deck, wondering what you’ll do when you are home. There are Detours, U-Turns, Protected Left on Green Arrow and Slow Advances onto Oncoming Traffic. All the time, your brain is busy calculating the best way to avoid traffic, red lights and camouflaged police cars. Traveling in Albania was tedious and slow; between Lushnje and Rogozhine road, you had to wait for farmers and livestock to pass; the continuous twists and turns and accelerations and decelerations of the Tirana-Elbasan nightmare was the ultimate in barf tourism. Houston highways may be brighter and more modern, but were equally surreal. Half-completed ramps would often be visible along major highways, leaving the driver unsure about whether the next highway exit would plunge him to certain death. During my first few weeks in Texas, I drove on I-10 while bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes and buttercups were in bloom. Beautiful bright streaks of blue, red, pink, yellow and green flew past me at 70 miles an hour, a sight that had never seemed as crisp and clear until now. For some things glasses are essential.
It has been a while since I’ve owned a car, and I can’t really remember how it feels. It is a combination of pride and vulnerability. Pride that your car is so nice and strong, and the fear that something is wrong or will soon go wrong. What is that noise? Have you checked the oil? Why doesn’t this work? Somebody should check that out. In my final month in America before taking off overseas again, I made a small dent in the door to my dad’s car, costing $300. Most of my friends say I got away cheap.
In the car I listened to music mostly. A friend of mine listens to books on audio cassette during his drive, having listened to many a classic that way. That was too intellectually strenuous for me. Instead I listen to country, Sheryl Crow and Albanian music. Unfortunately, I left my Eli Fara cassette in Vlore, as well as almost all the others. On my last day in Albania I bought a replacement Eli Fara cassette which turned out to be defective—leave it to street vendors to adulterate one of Albania’s few national treasures. Driving across Houston I listened to Vjollca Luka’s Ty te kujtoj, a song that seems out of place on the faceless highway, lost among the nameless people in their pristine, dent-free cars. The song brought back an indistinct memory, not of a person or a time but of a place, a world that once seemed very real to me. But then again, this song was no more out-of-place than the “Macarena” or “Sex on the Phone” or Bob Marley songs which always seemed to be playing on the slow-moving, barf-buses in Albania. When I drive, the music helps me to forget that I am waiting; for that brief moment the music’s momentum sends me forth to new places; sometimes I feel that it would be enough to just keep moving forward; but in that car, I always feel so forsaken and yes, alone.
At Goode Company Barbecue, I ran into a man who served as a Volunteer in Micronesia twenty years ago. We talked enthusiastically about our experiences, and then I asked him how many times he’s gone back. “I never have,” he said. In a flash, I realize that my Peace Corps experience is no longer my present but my past. Unless I made a conscious effort to do so, Albania would recede from my world as effortlessly as the man’s Micronesia had done to him. When I traveled to the Ukraine for my new teaching position, I discovered to my dismay that I missed my Albania even more than before. Curiously, I’d already filed memories of my friends and Houston into my not-too-distant past. It was relatively easy to turn my back on them once again (does that sound strange? It is). But it’s harder to admit that my ties with Albania would never be the same. One sociologist said that big cities offer the advantage of anonymity and new beginnings. Nobody knows who you are or were. But I still wonder about my Albanian university, my friends, my students, my host family. It is like a second life that I no longer know how to live. The land of Eli Fara’s enigmatic and hypnotic voice.
I am not embarrassed by America’s abundance, simply amazed by it. In Houston, with its incredibly low real estate prices, this abundance was everywhere. After driving through Austin and trying unsuccessfully to find a U-turn on a highway feeder road, I’ve come to appreciate the intricate wonder of Houston’s perfectly interlocking highways, the contraflow lanes, Easy Pass toll booth lanes, overpasses arching towards heaven itself, and the incessant “Road Work Ahead—Slow” signs at all hours of the night. Even the parking lots have an ugly grandeur; Houston is replete with 9 story parking garages and underground parking caverns for the mechanical denizens of the city to wait while the humans go to the shopping mall or basketball game. Houston has bookstores the size of football fields and recently opened a 30 screen cinema, now billed as the largest cinema in the world. No single place can epitomize Houston’s abundance as “Wok Bo,” a gargantuan and magnificent Chinese buffet restaurant which promises “All You Can Eat–$4.99.” Unlike mainstream restaurants, with table service, courteous waiters and clever, carefully marketed dishes, Wok Bo presents the eater with nothing fancier than a row of 50+ Chinese dishes, soups, main courses, rice dishes, salads and desserts. Every time I visit, they seem to have added another anomaly to the menu: burritos, seafood gumbo, chocolate pudding, buffalo wings and cheese cake . Nobody would call the food fantastic, but the workers keep bringing in more trays onto the buffet line, and herds of people keep clambering for the amazing Kung Pao Chicken.
Futurists talk about the “cocooning” of America, and no city exemplifies this trend better than Houston, the ultimate commuter city. In the Albanian capital city of Tirana (population= 400,000) you could walk from one end of the city to the other in less than an hour, but in Houston people need a car just to get to the nearest supermarket. I often used to kid my father for his tendency to use the car to drive 3 blocks to the community swimming pool, but in Houston the car habit is so ingrained that it’s hard to remember how to use one’s own two legs. It’s futile to bemoan Houston’s urban sprawl, but Houston’s downtown lavish cultural amenities are practically inaccessible to the yokels in the suburbs. If it takes 45 minutes to drive to a cultural event, the typical Houston suburbanite would opt out and rent a video, go to a neighborhood Italian restaurant or (for the truly adventurous) visit the nearby gym.
Contrast this with Albania, where the arts were a major casualty of the communist regime. Albanian artists relied mainly on the destitute state for support. Concerts of popular Albanian singers were rare because the best singers were performing overseas. Although there were national festivals (and one well-regarded theatre festival in Vlore), tickets were cheap but hard to find; demand was overwhelming. Painters seemed to be everywhere; one artist had set up a small private gallery a few hundred feet from my ugly high-rise surrounded by ramshackle sheds, dirt paths and giant mud puddles. Meanwhile, the national art gallery, a dreary scarcely-attended place, housed a eccentric but intriguing collection of modern Albanian art. The state-supported palaces of culture staged amateur and professional performances too brief to justify the beautiful hand-painted advertisements hanging outside. Tickets were either so cheap that they sold out immediately or were distributed only to friends and family of the performers. Besides an annual song contest and beauty contest, city football matches provided a rowdy sort of entertainment for men only (tough luck for women). The typical football fan was the working man with his son or drinking buddies. Tickets were cheap and spirits free. Perhaps people brought in beer and cheap sunflower seeds they bought outside the stadium.
Although I am not a sports fan, last April I received two $50 tickets to a Houston Rockets basketball game. To anyone in Houston, Rocket tickets were a highly coveted item, and my brother Tom was eager to come along. The Houston Rockets has one of the best basketball teams, and recently the city united behind the team and especially its star Akeem Olajuwon after it won two consecutive championships. The beautiful air-conditioned indoor stadium, with its giant TV/scoreboard, spotlights for introducing players and ground level workers ready to wipe a slippery part of the floor at a moment’s notice, performed admirably, whether the Rockets won or not. Along the outer ring of the stadium a hungry fan could choose food offerings catered by local upscale restaurants. The actual basketball play was marvelous, and so were the seats. Akeem and his cohorts performed their leaps and dunks with a grace belying their strength and stature. Even if the Rockets lost (they didn’t), it was enough to watch the expert passes and lunges past the defensive player towards the basket. The unspoken thing about the event was that almost all the players were black, while an overwhelming majority of the audience was white. One could hardly call it exploitation since every black man on the court pulled in a cool million that year. Still, the whole event had a country club atmosphere, full of yuppie businessmen and a surprising number of women. Not only were tickets expensive, almost all of them were bought by companies and affluent fans before the season began, leaving nothing for fans without the right connections. Every minute of the event was carefully choreographed with music, buoyant cheerleaders, teenage free throw contests, T-shirts thrown into the audience and astonishing acrobatics by a masked gymnast named “Turbo” who would propel himself via trampoline towards the basket to make a slam dunk. It was less game than spectacle, certain to please those with no special love for the game but grateful at the opportunity to “join the club” for a night.
Houston lacks for nothing in culture. At the downtown international festival in April, a wonderful outdoor melange of music, dance, art booths, parades and other staged events, 9 or 10 music performances were taking place simultaneously within a five minute’s walk of one another. At various times the music was awful, bizarre and exhilarating. This year’s discovery for me was “Brave Combo,” a Texas band that combined disparate styles of music into crazy combinations (punk with polka; waltz with the Hokey Pokey). As enjoyable as these performance were, I often saw crowds of less than 50 people attending them. In Albania, live music was a rarity. Except for the concerts put on by political parties (which like it or not, was really the only way for most young people to hear modern Albanian bands), you really had no choice but to rely on television for entertainment. In my home city of Houston, people had the choice, but still preferred to stay home and watch television.
What was so special about TV anyway? American TV, I had to admit, did seem more interesting than I remembered. One channel, Nick at Night, dedicated to old television, provided a tireless fix of episodes of Lucy, Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore. My mother uses two VCR’s to record the shows she wants to watch (one is not enough). Dozens of videos with makeshift labels lie within arm’s reach of our family’s two TVs. Often, in fact, my mom has no time to watch what she records. As for me, I had several cassettes full of Seinfeld episodes, videostore rentals, and cassettes lent by neighbors and friends. At any given time, I had 40+ CD’s borrowed from friends and the library, stacks of Discover, Rolling Stone, New Yorker and other magazines, dozens of paperbacks began but never finished (wonder why) and library books never opened. If I needed highbrow news, I could watch PBS or listen to National Public Radio. Even daytime TV has gone highbrow, with court TV providing insight and analysis into American justice and Oprah browbeating viewers into reading Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. And then there’s MTV which, between commercials, provides stylish, surreal and exhilarating interpretations of youth and modern living. Of course, American commercialism creeps in every cranny. For a while I was bombarded by Batman, then Jewel, Lost World, Spice Girls, Father’s Day with Tiger Woods, the Lilith Tour and the first ripples of the tidal wave of the “Titanic” marketing machine soon to submerge America in December.
Overwhelmed by Triviality
In this land of abundance, value is underappreciated, underreported, underrepresented and yes, even undermined. Abundance is ultimately overwhelmed by triviality. One of my unpleasant jobs at my summer bookstore job was scanning each and every new book on the shelf with a computerized inventory gun. If the gun made a chirping noise, I would need to remainder (i.e. destroy) the book because it didn’t sell fast enough or didn’t justify the shelf space needed to stock extra copies of “More Chicken Soup for Idiots” or autobiographies “written” by half-literate basketball players. During the coup and massacre in Congo, the famine in North Korea, and the battles in Afghanistan, Americans were overwhelmed with the crises of Kelly Flinn, Clinton accuser Paula Jones and the “coming out” of lesbian Ellen DeGeneris on her TV show. On the day of crucial Albanian elections, the day that would determine if Albania would devolve into chaos or recover from its throwback into anarchy, the lead story on every news program in America and probably the world as well was (I kid you not!!) the biting off of a boxer’s ear in Los Vegas. The international media, which had given generous coverage to Albanian gangsters waving Kalashnikovs in the air, now provided around-the-clock analyses and reanalyses of this lost ear, followups and commentary, medical updates and on-the-scene reporting. Albanians may remember this day as a milestone for peace and democracy, but for the rest of the world, it was simply the Day of the Lost Ear.
In capitalism, prices are a relative and even subjective term. A 2 liter bottle of Coca Cola can be bought for 79, 99, 129, 159 or 189 cents, depending on where and when you buy it. A person seems to spend half his time chasing after sales advertisements or coupons or special discounts. The Consumer Reports ideology predominates: don’t get screwed and keep hunting for the best price. With one bookstore, you can get 10% off if you buy a little card. With another store, you can get 20% off only on Sunday if you have a coupon. With another store, you can get 50% if you’re lucky enough to find the book you want, and 75% off if you shop on a special sale day. American economists laugh at the communists’ futile attempt to set prices for consumer goods. But how much better are American merchandisers at setting prices? At a department store like Foley’s, everything is on sale, ranging from 10-75% off, but the “list price” was artificially high to begin with. Prices can easily be manipulated to make it appear that the consumer is getting a great deal. A coat that costs $100 is on the expensive side, but if the original price was $400, you somehow feel that you are beating the system. Ever since the day I saw the complete works of Shakespeare (discount price =$3) on the same bookstore shelf as “More Joys of Sex,” (discount price= $12), I realized the folly of hoping that modern society will place an appropriate value on goods. This hit me again in the Ukraine where pirated versions of American software sold for a fraction of their “list prices.” I don’t condone software piracy, but does anybody in the world consider the $200 “list price” of Microsoft Word, the most popular word processing program, to be fair and reasonable? No pricing system is more artificial than that of the airlines, where a one way trip from Houston to New York cost $800 ,$700, $600 , $500, $400 or even $250, depending on which travel agent you call, and sometimes even what time of day you call. When I booked an airline reservation to Ukraine, the travel agents recommended that I book a “phantom” return trip in October, and plead ignorance of reservation restrictions when trying to redeem my return ticket home in the spring. Why did the agent automatically assume I would lie for a better price?
While in Albania, I would recall with fondness the relative freedom of life in my native land. During my Peace Corps service, I slaved for two stubborn bureaucracies, the American government and the Albanian one. Rules, forms, paperwork, permits, signatures, delays………need I say more? Teachers in Albania had to turn in syllabuses and fill out attendance records and attend to lots of small little formalities that would surprise an American professor. Perhaps I am exaggerating; to a foreigner, many things seem peculiar. But why would the state require that all newspapers (even student newspapers) be registered with the state? Several people assured me that it was not for political reasons, but if this is true, why was the registration necessary? (Roman, a student journalist in Ukraine tells the same story; to register a student newspaper cost $300, an outlandish sum where a teacher’s salary hovers around $110 a month. The reason, he explained, had more to do with taxes than ideology. The state wanted to be sure that no companies profited without paying taxes). In Albania, like other communist countries, the word “control” did not have the negative meanings that it does in America. It was one of those word that meant many things: supervision, evaluation, oversight, regulation and of course, control. “Control” was viewed as a natural, necessary and almost beneficial part of living. Although Albanians were free to travel, police still maintained roadblocks to “control” the major roads. Cars and buses were frequently stopped so the policeman could check your registration papers and passport. For almost two years I lived with this nagging interference of state, and I was eager to escape.
Freedom and Paranoia in America
But how free am I in America? My first disillusionment came at a community swimming pool where a lifeguard told me I was not allowed to dive headfirst into the pool. I could jump in, but I could not dive. I couldn’t believe it. I had been swimming at the swimming pool for 15 years. I’d been a lifeguard there for one summer and a swim team coach for two summers. Diving was the natural way to enter the water; it was what everybody did at swim team practice. People of all ages had been doing it for over a decade. Why was it forbidden? You might get hurt, the lifeguard said. Might? It was for insurance reasons; the swimming pool did not want to pay for me if I got hurt. That was okay, I replied. I have health insurance. I would be happy to pay for whatever medical damages occur. That was not possible, she said. If she allowed me to dive in, other children would see me and want to do the same. Even supposing that were true, I said, why should I be penalized by other people’s negligence? These were the rules, she said, and she couldn’t change them. But the swim team is allowed to dive in, weren’t they? Yes, of course, but that was different, she said. They had a swim coach overseeing them. But I was a swim coach! But you are not swimming during swim team practice.
I plead guilty to overreacting. Later that evening I had a rather vigorous debate on the matter with my parents, an attorney and a former officer of the local homeowner’s association. Both vehemently defended this rule, saying that as homeowners they could not and should not assume the liability for my (or anyone’s) actions. In a litigious society, organizations and companies need to safeguard themselves against those who might claim grounds for damages. That was true, I said, but the possibility of harm needs to be more than a simple hypothetical to warrant a prohibition. This is a small matter, of course. I swam at the swimming pool many times that summer. It struck me how the mountain of individual freedom and responsibility can be eroded purely for the sake of financial security. A society which gives individuals the right to sue also gives companies and organizations a basis for reducing individual freedoms arbitrarily and often unnecessarily.
My next rude awakening came at Target, a national department store owned by Dayton Hudson, when I needed to buy a wallet. In the retail business, “loss prevention” was the key word, and retail stores were doing everything possible to reduce shoplifting. I learned about one such method while trying to leave the HEB supermarket. As soon as I walked toward the exit, the door alarms made a deafeningly loud beep, and a commanding computerized voices said, “Please return to the cashier so we may complete your transaction. Thank you.” I honestly couldn’t figure out what caused the alarm to beep. I had to remove articles of clothing and things in my pocket one at a time until we figured out that a newly-bought wallet was the problem. At many major department stores, items are tagged electronically and then demagnetized at the cashier, so I thought it was simply a matter of returning to Target to demagnetize it. Which I did. But the wallet still continued to beep, at the grocery store, bookstore, electronics stores, music store, and computer stores. By the time I returned to Target I was furious. One manager, after demagnetizing the wallet for a second time, explained that the wallet manufacturer sewed the tag in the inseam, and sometimes this tag would “remagnetize” of its own volition simply by passing through an anti-shoplifting electronic monitor. I demanded a new wallet, but the manager said no, it was not necessary because she had demagnetized it for good. Or so she thought. Four or five times a week I would be stopped at store exits by managers and security people. It got to the point where every worker at the supermarket knew about my notorious wallet. Whenever I set it off, I felt the eyes of every customer on me. Once, a few days before leaving for the Ukraine, I carried inside Target a bundle of items I’d already bought, intending to return about half. I had bought a few items at Target, and sure enough the alarms beeped when I tried to leave. The security guard, a stern older woman, ran toward me and demanded receipts for my purchases (this was the standard routine). But to my dismay I realized that some of the items in the bag were items without receipts that I tried unsuccessfully to return at Customer Service. I tried explaining, but I was stuck and I knew it: I had no proof that these items were not shoplifted. I showed her my wallet and offered to walk empty-handed through the alarm, but inexplicably the wallet didn’t set the alarm off this time. At this point, I was almost resigned to the possibility of getting arrested, but I convinced the woman to talk to the worker at Customer Service to verify my story. And after several times of passing through, the wallet finally set off the alarm, so I was finally released. What annoys me most about all this is that not once did a manager or security guard ever apologize for the mistake. I must be on the defensive because a national company claims the right to any kind of surveillance it wishes. All for the sake of “loss prevention.”
My paranoia continues. At a nearby Randall’s supermarket, cashiers were trying to persuade me to apply for the new Randall’s card. I have a special fondness for the store, having worked there for 7 years as a student and shopped there even longer. I’d always had a Randall’s card to cash checks and rent videos. But the Randall’s card now had changed; now a large number of items were discounted for “Randall’s card members.” So many that it was really illogical for anyone to shop at Randall’s without a special card. Why was Randalls so eager for me to sign up? By scanning the card at the beginning of the order (instead of the end, as was the case with the previous card), Randall’s then can record data about that purchase and even track my purchase habits. I assume that it wants to sell this information to marketing firms who could develop more individualized sales campaigns. Richard, a former boss with a background in marketing, said “so what?” to my suspicions. If Randall’s wants to track individual sales, he said, how will it hurt ? If anything, this information would be helpful. I don’t know. By now, I have already amassed a wealth of personal data in credit reports, medical records, academic records and government files. What I fear is that these disparate bundles of computerized information will somehow find one another and merge to form a composite sketch of me in excruciating detail. East Germany had its Stasi dossiers; I’m not sure if my cyberspace dossier will be any less insidious. Do I really want people to know my high school calculus grade or how many times a week I eat Reese’s candy bars? Some information shouldn’t become public knowledge. Do you know about those satellite cameras that supposedly take pictures so accurate that you can read license plates numbers on cars? Now, according to an Atlantic Monthly article, private individuals can, for a price, rent these cameras to spy on anyone or anything they wish. A recent BBC report says it is now possible for satellites to track the movement of private individuals wearing a certain electronic tag and even to recognize movements outside of a person’s regular routine. There are certainly laudable reasons for such a service (helping the elderly and handicapped is one). But how much do you want to bet that later some private security enterprise convinces you to permanently tag yourself “for your own protection?” The US Government recently required cryptographic software companies to give one part of the two-part “key” to a federal repository, enabling the federal government to break the code during an emergency. I don’t doubt my government’s good intentions, and I also don’t doubt that such a law is necessary to combat terrorists. But suddenly I find myself in a world potentially more intrusive than the worst communist regimes, where personal information and even telephone calls don’t seem particularly free from outside interference or control. When Americans read “1984” in high school, they were taught that “Big Brother is Watching You” and that “Big Brother” (of course) was the Soviet Union. But now American defense satellites have the power to eavesdrop and record any electronic data or messages in the world. The global “Echelon System”(that’s its official name, according to a 3 part BBC report) is programmed to record any faxes, telephone conversations, e-mail or Internet pages containing certain “keywords.” For example, one of these keywords is “echelon system.” By mentioning “echelon system” in this essay, I ensure that some satellite computer will store this message, and that later some low-level defense bureaucrat will examine it. As a writer once said, “sometimes even paranoid people have enemies.”
Bookmarkism: The New Ideology
People under communism in Eastern Europe and Russia had to “pay lip service” to the state ideology, while looking out for themselves as much as possible. They lived in a world where conformity in belief was expected, where people were afraid to speak their minds openly. Thank god America was different, I thought. Earlier this year I worked at a summer job for Walden Books, a mall bookstore chain. The job paid barely minimum wage (lower than workers at Mcdonald’s, I later learned), but it would keep me out of trouble until my Ukraine teaching job began later that year. My parents nodded their heads disapprovingly, with my mom warning me that retail managers of malls could be tyrants. No matter. I could put up with anything for two or three months.
Many people in Albania had a stereotype about Americans: they worked too hard. It’s true. Our hourly productivity is the highest in the world. And the bookstore seemed determined to wrench as much work out of me as humanly possible. No idle time was permitted. I was to be helping customers, straightening or putting new things on the shelves. Fair enough. And if ever I happened to be caught at the checkout counter waiting for customers to check out, the manager would chew me out. Also fair. And I had to accost every customer with a “Can I help you find something?” and answer the phone every time with “Thank you for calling Walden Books where you can find “Into the Storm” for 15% off, this is Robert, how may I help you?” Everything seemed excessive, especially the phone greeting. Probably it annoyed a few customers, but I could deal with that. But something about the whole thing seemed seriously wrong. You can’t impose friendly service on potential customers, especially if it seems robotic. And if the same clerk must ask the same question, “Can I help you find something?” for every single customer, the robot in a person tends to come out.
A crisis loomed at the bookstore. According to the regional office, sales figures were down. Sales clerks were not selling enough of the discount cards offered by the chain. That was the big thing; that was their creed. It was their method of guaranteeing repeat customers. Here was the sales pitch I was required to give to every single customer:
Do you know about our “Preferred Reader” card?
Well, if you join, you get 10% off all your books. Plus you get one point for every dollar you spend, and if you get 100 points, you get a free (!) $5 gift certificate mailed to you. And on the first purchase you make with your preferred reader card, you get double the points. Would you like to join?
Here was the slight bit of deception—to join meant paying an annual fee of $10. For $10 you get a 10% discount. In other words, if you spend $100 at the bookstore, you’ll come out even. Hardly a bargain, especially since our nearby competitors offered everyday discounts without a discount card. Okay, have you figured out yet I wasn’t too keen on the whole thing? The worst part was having to explain the convoluted rules of the program (No, magazine purchases are not included. No, you could not redeem the $5 for cash, etc.) As explained above, the program sounds easy to understand. But imagine that you are a customer waiting in line to buy a card or comic book and some fast-talking clerk is explaining something about “10 percent” “points for dollars” “double the points for the first purchase” and “$5 back.” The math was confusing, and most customers simply gave me a blank look at my explanation. Surely, the reader’s card was a good deal for some customers, especially if their first purchase was more than 30 or 40 dollars. But the details were so complicated that only an idiot would agree to it without understanding them fully. Then again there are many idiots in the world, and many of them would love to have “preferred idiot” cards, whether they needed one or not. But for every person that bought a card, 32 had to listen to the sales pitch and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” From the standpoint of the company, that was okay, but for the customer and clerk, it was one more needless hassle.
I mentioned my reservations to David, an old college friend, who once worked in management with the same bookstore, and he cringed. “No, you can’t knock the Preferred Reader program!” he told me. “That was the life and soul of the chain.” He went into all the reasons why the program was necessary, reasons I’m sure were justified by the market data. The store computers in every store tracked the number of discount cards every worker was selling. Apparently, the minimum quota was that 4% of all customers should buy discount cards, and I was selling them only to 2 or 3%. And besides, my average transaction was not particularly high–$16 compared to the $18 or $19 of the other workers. The national headquarters set regional goals, and the regions set district goals, and the districts set store goals, and the stores set goals for each worker. Albania was bad because it was a command economy; but what wasn’t this essentially the same thing?
The store manager had printouts of numbers about our weekly productivity and used them to evaluate our performances. How meaningful were these numbers? Did they take into account the different hours in which we worked? Were they statistically significant? Did some people figure out how to make their numbers look as good as possible? (I knew that old trick from working at Randall’s supermarket for seven years. By scanning each individual soup can, I could make my “scanning time” higher than anybody else’s and was later awarded the distinction of “superscanner” at my store).
According to these printouts, the bookstore was losing money. The earnings didn’t meet projections. And the data clearly showed that some people were not selling enough discount cards! (At this point in the employee meeting, the manager glared accusingly at us). All my coworkers listened in silence. By now we’d heard the same reproach a hundred times. Sell those discount cards!! We were used to it, but this time it really stung. We were the problem. Why could we not do better?
Several times I had tried to approach the manager about the discount card matter. After David stressed how important the discount card was to the company, I knew better than to challenge the concept itself to the manager. When I suggested that nearby competitors might have more to do with the inability to sell discount cards than our personal salesmanship, she dismissed the idea. . When I explained how difficult it was to explain the terms of the discount card, she said, “Well,Tom at Store #47 sells cards to 7% of customers, and he seems to have no problem.” (Was there another explanation here? Was #47 at a more affluent zone? Did it have less competition? These subtleties didn’t seem particularly important to her). At the employee meeting, my manager mentioned that without any prompting, her own father told her how much he loved the discount card. I don’t doubt this. But how many customers disliked the mandatory sales pitches? Of course, negative feedback from customers never showed up on weekly computer reports.
At the employee meeting, the district manager stopped by and stressed once again the dire consequences of not selling the requisite number of discount cards. Our bookstore was the lowest performer in the city, and until the sale of discount cards reached 4%, they couldn’t begin to train us on how to sell “Reader’s Choice Visa cards.” You guessed it, the company wanted us to sell Visa credit cards to customers while we were busy selling them Reader’s Choice cards. And then she unveiled the new corporate strategy (accompanied by bargraph illustration—clearly she had spent a lot of time preparing this presentation). This strategy could be summarized in 3 words—“Sell more bookmarks!!” Somebody at corporate headquarters had figured out that if every worker sold only 3 more bookmarks every day, average transactions would rise, and this low-performing branch of the company could make a miraculous turnaround. And if we started greeting customers by mentioning the Reader’s Choice card right off the bat, we’d have time to throw in the “would you like a bookmark with that?” right before hitting the total button. (The pitch for the “Visa card” could wait until a few seconds later). We sold these bookmarks for $1.99, and undoubtedly bought them for a tenth of that. Bookmarks, cards, and “cute posters” were crowded around the register already, so each of us had to choose our “favorites” to mention to customers. This was no joking matter. Our jobs were on the line, and the Garfield, Dilbert and cute baby bookmarks would really become our salvation. As cynical as I was about all this, the strategy had its own logic which we weren’t in a position to oppose. And the rally cry, “Sell more bookmarks!!” was one we had to adopt unquestioningly or risk unemployment.
I had been under no illusion about the retail industry. It was hard, low-paying work. At least 50% of my customers were mothers buying the latest romance to feed their dreams for another week. But I expected my extensive knowledge of books to come in handy and even to benefit the company. Perhaps it did. I am not a salesman, but enthusiasm for books always came naturally to me. I don’t know the genre stuff, but I can find value in books that might easily be overlooked. A woman came wanting to buy something for her 15 year old niece who is half Indian and lives in Nebraska. I threw out to her the titles, “My Antonia” by Willa Cather and “Love Medicine” by Louise Erdrich, and sure enough, she bought them. But these sort of feats don’t occur very often, and besides this did nothing to raise my numbers on the weekly scorecard. And really in the retail industry, knowledge of books wasn’t really essential. The manager and the district manager, by their own admission, had no special interest in books. As management consultant Peter Drucker once wrote about new bookstore chains, “any salesperson who wants to read anything besides the price tag is hopelessly overqualified.”
Much as I hated to admit it, the bookstore was being run well, almost too well. People overseas admired the American way of doing business, and my bookstore used all the newest tricks. Just-in-time delivery, anti-theft security alarms, special orders, worker empowerment, sales contests, fancy in-store displays, carefully controlled inventory by computerized data guns, in-store events, book-drives and a smooth-talking district manager sincerely committed to motivating employees. And although I preferred other bookstores, this one appealed to its niche market of housewives almost perfectly. Perhaps the bookstore would go out of business. Amazon.com’s online booksellers threatened to take away the lion’s share of the market, and other competitors in the city threatened to erode our market share. Our bookstore would do everything to put off that day, even if in the process it had to browbeat its employees. All the time during my three months of employment, I was struck by how little the employee’s opinion mattered and how essential it was for employees to subscribe to the corporate belief structure. Albanians had Stalinism; I had Bookmarkism. Yes, I could leave any day if I wanted (and I eventually did, though not because of anything the bookstore did), but practically speaking, people preferred the devil they knew to the devil they didn’t. Perhaps more sophisticated jobs involved less of a personal investment in the company’s philosophy, though I doubt it. The more the job pays, the more responsibilities you are given, the more difficult it is to say no, the more you are expected to jump as high as the boss tells you. One day in Albania, after a grueling day of lessons, I looked out the university window and saw two shepherds yawning and relaxing on the ground next to their sheep (they had probably lain there all day). I had to laugh. My dedication to work was pure folly. After my lessons, I would go home and crash in exhaustion on my apartment bed. Ahh, what price civilization!
COS— Peace Corps term, “Close of Service”
Ben and Sava. I am happy to report that Ben and Sava are happily married and I keep tabs about them on Facebook.
Titanic. It was summer 2007, and I already knew that the Titanic film was going to be gigantic! There were tie-in books in bookstores as much as 6 months before.
Echelon System Warning. I originally sent this essay by email to my friends in December 1997 and was amused by the idea that just mentioning the phrase “Echelon System” would guarantee that the essay would make it in the database. As it turns out, the Echelon System was related to the NSA electronic surveillance program that was exposed during the Bush Administration.
Bookmarkism, etc. Although I portrayed the bookstore as kind of a nightmare place to work, in fact, I should feel lucky to have worked in a bookstore back in the days when they still had them.