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The Vacuum Issue 6 spacer Issue 6
The Customer Is Wrong
by Chris Magee
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I am a part of the service sector. I work as a sales assistant in a large Belfast retailer. This is another way of saying that I work the till in a supermarket. An up-market one, but a supermarket inspite of that. Explaining what I do carries with it no drama in or of itself. There is no, 'I work the black seam'. It simply helps pay the bills. It does not hurt, physically, and I go home and usually leave everything that belongs there, there. It also does not engage or enthuse me, it lacks any charm. I am never excited at the prospect of the start of another day, another week. I have never, ever enjoyed even a minute of it.
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Which is not to say that I am demanding your sympathy or your thirteen-point plan to save my life. It is a job. I don't expect anyone to enjoy their work. I am actively envious of the two people I know who do. It is a shit job, but it isn't the worst. In my locker is one of Sebastian Salgado's photographs of a Brazilian diamond mine. A hill has been transformed by miner's hands into an inverted, emptying cone. The miners are kept in near-slavery. Guards work through the swarm of miners, policing them. That... is a bad day at the office. I know that things could be worse.But sometimes you get caught up in it all and your work becomes the only thing that you see. Sometimes it's because your view is blocked by stupid customers, incoherent rules, implacable managers.
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Two minutes after I leave, after I come up for air and light I forget the causes of it all, forget how I and everyone else has reacted. Everything settles. Everyone is okay. Everyone gets out alive. Of course everyone does. This is a supermarket. We don't expect any drama when we queue for our small necessities and smaller luxuries. This is curious, in a way, because hundreds upon hundreds of people pass through the doors day in, day out. For most it is part of a daily routine. Because of that their actions become unconscious and impassive. They rarely, barely acknowledge us even though we have been encouraged to meet and greet all with smiles and fixed (but non-threatening) eye-contact. So they queue and step, step, step forward to the till. They expect a degree of service to go with the exquisite delicacies they have selected for purchase. However, in an unspoken accord, we know what we can and must not say. We all know what the lines and boundaries are.
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So, it's okay for them to queue for three minutes but not for four. We can briefly chat to them about the weather, their particular choice of granary roll, that weekend's results. They can ask us the most impertinent or rude questions but, obviously, we cannot ask, hint at or even think about anything approaching thesame. Therefore I can be quizzed about random pieces of jewellery I wear, the length of my hair, where exactly I come from, where exactly I am coming from, why I am not very bright. That is okay. It isn't okay for me to ask them what the fuck they think they are doing. Or why they haven't found a cure for cancer. Or why they didn't get Belfast that European City of Culture thing. Because, by and large, I get to service the great and the good of Belfast. Or those who think they are. Or those who would like to buy into the whole thing just for a day or at least a lunchtime.
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When I get a second's pause (when they disappear into their bags or pockets for pens or change) and I get to come up for an instant's relocation, I can look into the dull mass of business suits that is merged in front of me. Provided we haven't broken the agreement... haven't kept them too long... haven't ran out of anything too early... provided it is all okay, I can look up andexpect nothing in the way of acknowledgement from them. I can't expect anything else because anything else would be all about me forgetting my place. In my food chain, there's me and then there's the contract cleaners who work the worst shifts in the building andthen there's the absolute bottom. That's why bank tellers can look at me and smile smugly. So think how those great and good captainsof industry behave.
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All this is universally known and accepted. As much as I can try to kick against it and to try to keep some sense of awareness together when I'm in the middle of my third hour of processing transactions (raise an eyebrow, throw in an ambiguous reply) they canand do still walk away smugly thinking that I am the sad one. And they get better pay and Bank Holidays off. They love it. They get reasonable Italian food and the chance to think they are someone. Or for all our betters, those captains, the reminder that they really are someone. Even they, of course, they are getting fucked over too. Just not as much as we are. Yeh, we're the fleas on their backs. But they're the ravens feeding on carrion. As much as I hate the way that they are towards us, I hate even more being part of the whole system.
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I'm there, helping us all to slowly turn in on ourselves. Thrust those extra few bags upon them which I know are going to be landfill within the month. Stack the shelves with fish 'freshly-farmed' from New Zealand. Arrange the flowers which were picked yesterday for airfreight from East Africa. Explain the price of cherries which are not in season anywhere in this hemisphere. Excuse our sourcing of suppliers in Israel, Sri Lanka, and those special economic zones which exist on the fringes of nation states (thank you, Naomi Klein, for another sleepless night). Here I am and there is Ben Hamper, shouting for war in South East Asia to keep him on the auto line in Detroit.
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But perhaps that is too dramatic. After all, this is about groceries and people in queues and the people who serve them. Not about sorcerers untapping the power of the underworld and letting it loose, uncontrollably upon us. But in the middle of everything, when I do get that second to come up out of it all, these are amongst the million thoughts that collide around my head. That, while I smile and make comforting eye-contact, is what is really going on and on in my head. That hasn't ever changed.
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