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A Yankee Notebook

March 26, 2012

EAST MONTPELIER, VT – About four years ago, a convergence of factors led to a fairly steep and deep recession in the United States. Since then, millions of citizens have suffered the pain resulting from too much debt, a collapse of the value of their equity, loss of jobs, and reduced demand for their goods and services. It’s become common, given the intensity of the pain, to nominate malefactors and scapegoats; and there are plenty to go around. Now, it appears, the gasping economy is catching its breath. I have no faith that such a thing won’t happen again; but at the same time, can’t help but wonder – much as Pollyanna might have – if these hard times for so many may, in a perverse sort of way, have been good for all of us.

Most of us, no doubt, remember 1973. It was not a great year. Richard Nixon was on his way down and out, nibbled to death on live television by the plodding, persistent deep-South tones of Senator Ervin of North Carolina. Foreign affairs were in a stew, as well. Attacked in a pincers movement by Syria and Egypt on the holy day of Yom Kippur, Israel had retaliated vigorously and pushed both aggressors well back into their own territories. The United States had openly supported Israel in the war. In retaliation, the Arab oil-producing states imposed an embargo on oil exports to the States. Long lines at filling stations resulted, and the price of gasoline jumped.

The results of all this turmoil were that many of us who previously had been only mildly interested began to follow national politics, which were now open to view on daily news programs; also that many of us began to think twice about the unrestrained use of our motor vehicles. As my sainted grandfather used to say, “Try never to go in any direction empty-handed.” We began to think about it; we had to. We cut back on our mileage, and raised the bar for what we considered priority travel. My own gasoline consumption dropped by 20 per cent, and has remained at least that low. Every year I’ve split and stacked big piles of firewood, and the thermostats in our houses have ever since been set at least five degrees lower. Small, high-mileage Japanese cars began, ever so slowly at first, to capture market share from the behemoths produced by Detroit during the 70s. And look where we are today.

What doesn’t kill you, it’s often said, makes you stronger. Our family has been through a few situations during the past fifty years testing the truth of that maxim, and have come to believe it firmly. We’ve noticed, for example, recent changes in the way American business conducts itself that we can attribute only to increased competition, greater transparency, instant communication and customer reviews, and an increased desire to maintain or gain market share. It’s all to the good.

Mother came home from the market today effusive about the way she’d been treated there. “I was standing in the dairy department looking at hundreds of choices and not seeing what I wanted , and a stock boy came over and asked me what I was looking for. ‘Half and half,’ I told him, and he ran right over and got me a carton. I’m not sure whether ot was because he thought I looked old, or if somebody’s been coaching the staff about being helpful. Anyway, it was great.”

She used to dread walking into stores in the South, because, as soon as she entered, she was greeted by a salesperson: “Good mawnin’! And how can we help yew this mawnin’?”

“They wouldn’t go away,” she complained. “I was used to New England stores, where, when you walk in, a clerk might look up to see if they knew you, and if you looked like a shoplifter. When you found what you wanted, you took it over to the counter to check out. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about helping you. They were just respecting your space.

“You could buy something or not; it didn’t seem to matter. Down South, though, I always felt I had to buy something or I’d personally offend the clerk.”

How times have changed here! It may be the human behavioral equivalent of the climate change that’s lately bringing migratory songbirds, violent storms, and ticks farther north than before. Or it may reflect a new interest in responding as creatively as possible to the newly diminished and jealously guarded supply of consumer resources. Almost everywhere you shop lately, people greet you pleasantly and ask how they can help. Teen-aged clerks whose cell phones lie tantalizingly close at hand actually stop texting as you enter (“GG” – Gotta go!), and act interested in what such an elderly person as yourself might want.

There are places where the service has always been pleasant, almost as if the staff had undergone some sort of Dale Carnegie training. L.L. Bean’s telephone order people, for instance, who’ve always identified themselves, known your name from caller ID, spoken Yankee English, and gotten into a conversation with you, if you wish, about the current weather in Maine, or why they’re working the second shift, or where you’re going fishing with the rod you’re ordering. About ten years ago or so (it’s rumored) Toyota learned that its service was generally not well regarded. The news apparently prompted it to embark on a quality-and-niceness campaign. We got followup calls to ask if we were happy with the results, the treatment, and the price. That sort of thing seems to be prevalent pretty much everywhere now; I’ve even begun declining to spend ten minutes answering e-mailed or phone surveys – unless I’ve got a beef.

We so-called 99-percenters may feel ourselves shut out of the bounty enjoyed by the folks at the tip of the pyramid; but at least, in these lean times, we’re being in some ways nicer to each other.

Photo by Willem lange