Friday, August 26, 2011

A sorbet affair

Each of us has an embarrassing incident in our past that haunts us forever. I have a list of them, and the memory of such events comes back at odd times with no apparent connection to current experiences.  The sorbet affair is a case in point.

When I was a college student I worked one summer as a waitress in a weekend resort outside Cleveland. It was a big sprawling place with several restaurants, a banquet hall, and multiple bars. The main dining room featured an extensive menu which was a challenge for new employees to master. One of the specials was a five course meal with choice of entree which included a palette cleanser course of grapefruit sorbet.

One night as fate would have it, the owner of the resort was seated in my section. I had been working for about two weeks, and was getting my rhythm, but when another server told me who the man was, it shook me up. I worked hard at keeping up with my other tables while lavishing special attention on this one.

A particular challenge in waitressing in those days was complying with the labor laws while insuring that you got good tips. Employees could only work for three hours straight after which they had to take a fifteen minute break. You may never have waited tables, but you have been a customer. Can you imagine being abandoned by your server for fifteen minutes, while you stared at an empty coffee cup or waited for your check? Of course, we punched out, kept right on serving our customers and punched back in so that our tip income was not placed in jeopardy. On busy nights, we sent one waitress to the time clock with several punch cards. This was against the rules and risky, but efficient. The time clock problem was compounded at this particular resort because the device was located at the far end of the complex for the convenience of the cleaning and maintenance staff. I guess this particular business owner was more of a hotel man than a restaurant man, because he was rather inconsiderate of his wait and kitchen staff. It was quite a sprint to the far side of the resort and back.

It was my turn to make the run. I was young and I made good time, but the trip disrupted my concentration on the five course meal I was serving to the big boss and his companion. I forgot his sorbet course.

When the man settled his check, he called me over and pointed out my error. I apologized profusely and asked him if he would like me to bring the sorbet, but he declined. What I really wanted to say was that if he hadn't placed the blasted time clock in the next county, he would have gotten his sorbet at the proper time, but it was an age when you didn't make excuses to your elders. I thought I was going to lose my job.

Perhaps it was remembering the impact the punch clock regulations had on me personally that has brought this incident to mind. We have been hearing a lot about regulations and their unintended consequences in the news lately.  Or perhaps it was the nature of my exchange with the restaurant owner. Several times in the past month I have been the victim of some sort of failure or mistake when I have bought a product or service. In each case there was no apology whatsoever. In one case, the error was a medication error. A pharmacy gave my mother a medication that was not the intended drug and had another person's name on the vial. Mother has macular degeneration, so I check all her medications. When I returned the package to the pharmacy, the drug was exchanged, but despite the fact that four people assisted me, including the chief pharmacist, there was no apology. I guess saying, "Sorry we almost killed your mom," is hard to wrap your mouth around. They all wanted to see whose employee number was on the receipt to learn who was in trouble.

Today as a consumer I feel like I am being treated as a three dimensional statistic rather than a human being. The idea that the pharmacy's mistake had inconvenienced me, since I had to drive across town needlessly, did not even register with the folks at the counter. They did get the part about the drug switch being life threatening, but only to their careers. There was no empathy for a person who might have lost her mother. Somewhere along the line, the relationship between the helper and the helped has evaporated. Is it the 'me' generation? I'm sure modern pharmacies have their version of the punch clock problem, but I still wish people would acknowledge mistakes and apologize. It would make for a better world.

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