At the pharmacy I frequent the cashiers have begun to ask me a question as I place my purchases on the checkout counter. The question is this: "Is there anything else I could have helped you find today?" The fact that every cashier asks this question and phrases it in precisely the same way is proof that they have been directed to do so by management. The question is an odd one because it comes too late. By the time customers are asked if anything could have been done differently, we have already done what we came into the store to do. Mission accomplished. Or, if the mission is only partly accomplished--if, for instance, we could not, after five minutes of trying, locate the salsa--we have signaled our desire to end the search mission by joining the checkout line. (These days, drug stores really do sell salsa. I know, right? Weird.) The verb tense used by the pharmacy's cashiers is a clear signal that we have moved into the realm of alternate history. In fiction, the alternate-history genre is popular with some readers. Novelists create scenarios in which history as we know it is turned on its head--for example, the Axis powers, rather than the Allies, win World War II--and explore what the world would be like if the fake history were the real history. I am not a fan of alternate history. The real thing is interesting enough for me. I am also not a fan of being asked if something could have been done for me at some point in the past, something that was not done when I needed it and can't be done now. The cashiers in the pharmacy are doing what they are trained to do, and management may mean well, but it's too late. And there's this: By asking if there is anything else she could have helped me find, the cashier implies that she already helped me find something. In fact she did not. More alternate history. Where was the cashier ten minutes ago, when I needed help finding things? She was stuck behind the checkout counter, that's where. She was busy ringing up other customers after asking them if there was anything else she could have helped them find even though she could not have helped them find anything because she was behind the checkout counter ringing up customers...and so on into infinity. The cashiers themselves doubtless wish they did not have to ask such a silly question. What customers need is not nonsensical questions. What customers need are floorwalkers. Remember floorwalkers? As their job title implies, floor walkers were store employees who roamed the store, helping customers find things long before the customers reached the checkout stage. Floorwalkers seem to have vanished, a casualty of retail's bottom line. Too often these days I find myself leaving a store in frustration, unable to find what I am looking for and equally unable to find an employee to assist me. The next time a cashier asks me if there is anything else she could have helped me find, I just might say, "Yes. A floorwalker."
In her latest collection of newspaper columns, Mary Langton once again displays the wit and wisdom her readers have come to expect. By turns humorous and touching, "Since Last We Spoke" is Langton's long overdue new book.
About the Author
Mary Langton has been a teacher, a newspaper columnist, and a radio personality. Originally from Queens, she lives in Orange County, New York.