There used to be a place to eat on campus called Greenfield’s. You went to the front, waited in line, placed your order with the kindly, white-haired lady at the cash register. Your food would be brought to your table.
One day I was in line with a friend and we talked. Somehow we got on to a common lament — the loss of personal touch in our lives. People in a hurry. Everything automated, electronic. No pleasant chitchat between storeowners and their customers. Big box stores with no help in sight, and certainly no one to spend much time with you, asking about your project, offering friendly advice. Cordiality limited to the lame, “Have a nice day.”
I remembered a time living in a neighborhood with tree-shaded sidewalks and small, tidy yards, and at the end of the street, down on the boulevard, was the Burger Dairy Store, a one-stop little place where the same nice old man greeted me every time I stopped in for milk or ice cream or Hostess cupcakes. We would actually visit, mostly about the weather. But in time he saw my kids and he would talk to them, ask them how old they were, their favorite TV show.
I was talking about all this while in line at Greenfield’s — how much I missed this kind of thing, the loss of personal interaction, even speaking to strangers, making life feel a little better, even in little, daily ways.
I was still talking about this when I noticed how slowly the line was moving, and how hungry I was getting, and how time was getting tight. I had someplace to be and needed to get lunch and be on my way.
As the line inched forward, I realized how long the woman at the cash register was taking. She was not only helping patrons — mostly international students and faculty because the eatery was at the building for international peace studies — but asking them about their workload and papers due and decisions on internships.
I gotta say, I was getting roundly aggravated. Impatient, hungry, aggrieved and bristly. Move it on, sister.
When I got to the front of the line, ready to blurt out my order like, well, like it was an order, she looked up and smiled and asked, “So, how are you today? I haven’t you in a while.” And I felt pretty bad about my grumpy attitude and relieved she hadn’t seemed to notice.
It wasn’t until I sat down to wait for my food that I saw the irony in the juxtaposition — my complaining about how impersonal our lives have become, then resenting a friendly person for making lunchtime better for those she served.
Still, despite my wish for the human touch, I do most of my shopping online. I did before the pandemic. I try to buy local when I can; I also know the evils of warehouse work and burgeoning consumer giants taking over the world. But damn, it is just so easy.
Even making returns is easy and convenient.
So a couple of months ago, as I too often do, when buying a t-shirt for my wife, I didn’t buy just one — I bought five. She kept one.
But there is a story here, too, along the themes I have raised.
One shirt that I had to send back came through the post office. Another came UPS. Return packing slips provided for each. And two other shirts, bought from the ONNO T-Shirt Company, had no self-return slip. In fact, there was no return address. Just a note that provided an email address offering customer service, with a message that we’re a little company, so thanks for your order.
The package that came via the U.S. Post Office wasn’t suitable for remailing so I put the t-shirt in a large envelope and took that and the return label to the counter. The return label was not adhesive. I asked the government worker if she could attach the label with clear packing tape and she said no. Can’t provide the packing tape. She showed me the packing tape dispensers they offered for sale. I looked at her and walked out.
At the UPS store I did two things. I sent the UPS package on its way and explained my predicament at the post office. And the UPS man, without hesitation, took the package and the label and attached the label with clear plastic and said, “Just drop it in a mailbox.” I thanked him; he didn’t have to do that. He said, “No reason to sweat the small stuff.” I was feeling good about humanity again.
It gets better.
I emailed ONNO about the other return and within minutes heard back from Elyse. She asked if I’d like to exchange the shirts for a different size or do a straight return. I said straight return — the t-shirts were very much liked (fabric and colors) but the cut wasn’t quite right.
Within an hour I got two emails back. One was notification that a refund had been applied to my credit card. The other was a note from Elyse. She wrote, “I’m sorry the shirts didn’t work out. I went ahead and processed a return so you should be good to go on that front.”
She added, “Because of how backed up both UPS and USPS are at the moment, we would rather not add to the chaos. If you wouldn’t mind donating the shirts to someone who could use them in these difficult times, it would mean a lot.”
I wrote back in disbelief, asked if it was too late to stop the refund — keep the money — and, if not, what could I do to help. I added, “It can be a bad world out there and something like this really cheers a heart.”
She wrote back, thanking me for my response, and added, “I did already process the refund but, if so inspired, maybe you could donate the money to one of your local shelters or food banks. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad out there but luckily I think the amount of good far outweighs it.”
Today at lunch, after these returns, I also picked up the traveling trophy for our fantasy league, having gotten it engraved for this past year’s winner as it now leaves my possession. When I did, I stayed a few minutes to visit with the woman at the trophy place. She was nice, grateful for my business, said to bring the trophy back next year.
I know it’s a cliché, but little moments of niceness really do make a difference in our lives. And it really doesn’t take much to spread a little cheer.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.