The following appeared in The Pitt News, 1999.
The photograph was taken near Louisa Street,
where I lived that summer. My building looked almost as lustrous.
“Here!” a young woman exclaims, thrusting a sheet of crumpled paper in my face.
I unfold it and see that it’s a class schedule for the Fall Term. I nod and scratch my head, then set it down in front of me. A long silence follows before she gives me a sour look.
“Well? I don’t have all day, you know.”
So begins another afternoon at The Book Center’s text department, where I have been working for the past four months. This customer, a nameless face in a crowd of impatient freshmen, has just made the all-too-common assumption that I have nothing better to do than track down her books for her.
“What a coincidence,” I reply. “I don’t have all day, either.” Then I draw my own sheet of paper—a photography my colleague has prepared for this exact occasion—and hand it to her along with her tattered schedule.
“What’s that?” she asks suspiciously.
“Directions. If you follow them, you should be able to find your books on the shelves.”
The freshwoman pouts and summons reinforcements. Her mother, a woman who could crush me between her biceps like an egg, tries the diplomatic approach.
“Isn’t serving the customer your job?”
Allow me (on behalf of the Book Center employees who are too modest to say it themselves) to inform everyone that it is not our job to teach students how to read. If kindergarten teachers failed, there is nothing we can do. The directions we distribute are explicit: Books that can’t be found on the shelves are probably hiding.
I can’t explain why, but certain customers seem to hate us. They try very hard to ignore what we say, no matter how often we repeat ourselves.
“Are you telling me the books aren’t here yet?”
“It depends on what course you’re taking. Some of the shipments are unusually large, numbering as many as 1,200 volumes, and many of the professors haven’t handed in their requisition forms, so for certain classes, we don’t know which books to order…”
“So what you’re telling me is that the books aren’t here yet.”
Sure, I think. Why not?
Something to keep in mind is that—alas!—books are expensive. We have no influence over the prices. If you want to blame somebody, start with Alan Greenspan and work your way down. If you’re a chemistry major, you have my condolences, but I’m powerless to save you from bankruptcy.
The worst customers are the parents who are shopping for their children. They telephone us and act as reluctant interpreters.
“What I’m going to need from you,” I advise, “is your department’s abbreviation and course number.”
“What? Department?” The hapless mother calls to her child, who is watching TV in the background. “Jimmy? JIMMY!! SHut that crap off and tell me what your course number is!” Minutes pass as I hear them arguing, their voices muffled as the mother tries to cover the receiver with her hand. Finally, she sighs and says, “The class is History of Modern Architecture.”
“Ma’am,” I answer through gritted teeth, “my computer doesn’t list the names of the courses, like I said. I need a course number. It’s the four digit code on your son’s schedule.”
“Oh, okay, it’s right here. It’s 43423.”
“That’s five digits, not four!” I want to shriek. “Can’t you count, for heaven’s sake?”
Most customers (including you, I imagine) are respectful of our limited time. The snags that aren’t obvious, such as cards that have been rearranged for the sake of shelf space, you tend to figure out on your own. For that, I offer you a most gargantuan “thank you.” As for the bad apples, this newspaper is too respectable to print what I’d like to say to them.
This is my first and last Fall Rush as a Book Center employee, but for several of my associates, it’s just one of many rushes they will take on as a means of paying that old tuition. Most of them are too nice to say so, but I am a lousy and irritable clerk, and I plan to resign because I can’t take the stress. But as a personal favor, please be kind to the people I’m leaving behind. And leave your mother at home.