Monthly Archives: November 2009

The red mist descends

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – if you want to experience the pretence of peerless customer service, but an experience that’s as much fun as having your testicles scraped with a rusty razor blade, New York City is the only place for you. Despite having lived in the city for well over two years now, it still somehow comes as a surprise to me when I’m inevitably regarded as an irritant by somebody who makes their living from ensuring that I hand over cash to the business which they represent.

Take, for example, a discount department store that shall remain nameless. We’ll call it “Century 22”, which should be enough to confuse at least 75% of the staff that work there. I would normally avoid it like the plague, but had the recent misfortune of being dispatched to explore its dubiously stocked aisles for some curtains for our new home.

As an aside, I would like to make it clear that The Special One had rightly not trusted me with making an aesthetics-based selection on my own – asking me to pick out appropriate curtains would be akin to asking Joseph Goebbels to judge the prestigious Humanitarian of the Year contest. But even I couldn’t mess up picking up some pre-selected curtains.

Inevitably the course of true drapery never runs smooth, and having discovered that the store only had four of the aforementioned curtains, I looked around for somebody who could help me. I can only assume that nearby staff had seen me piling into the racks of carpets with befuddlement and frustration on my face, as by the time I glanced up, I could have been forgiven for believing that an announcement over the loudspeaker regarding an imminent outbreak of anthrax had caused all employees to scatter to the four winds.

Now, at this point, I should point out that the staff of “Century 22” all wear a badgebutton on their uniforms reading something along the lines of “I care – just ask me!”. So when I finally found somebody, I gave a winning smile and asked if she could check to see if they had any more curtains in stock. The response of “you’ll need to find somebody in drapery, I work in homeware” was almost certainly coquettish flirtation, although the fact that she turned on her heels and walked off would seem to be playing too hard to get, if you ask me.

After five minutes of wandering around, a manager finally and reluctantly disappeared off to a computer before returning to tell me triumphantly that they had fourteen more sets in stock, and introduced me to a colleague who would help me find them.

Which is when I met the true hero of the story. As long as the story we’re talking about is “How To Turn Customers Into Mortal Enemies”.

We’ll call our hero Marcus. Largely because that’s his name. When it came to ‘effectiveness’ being handed out, Marcus was infront of the mirror preening himself and making sure he could still fit into his skinny jeans. And let’s just say that he hasn’t exactly taken out a lifelong subscription to Enthusiasm Monthly, either.

After five minutes of sorting through the entire curtain stock of the store (something I had done myself in around three minutes flat), Marcus went back to the computer to check that a mistake hadn’t been made. On his puzzled return, he spent ten minutes repeating the entire process once more. And then he disappeared upstairs to check the stockroom.

By this point I’d already been in the store for half an hour, and there was a vague chance that the smoke coming out of my ears could have set off the sprinkler system. But safe in the knowledge that returning home with new curtains would bring a smile to The Special One’s face, I swallowed my impatience, and hung around pretending to be interested in pillowcases.

Twenty minutes later, and there was still no sign of Marcus. Store customers couldn’t get access to the kitchen appliance or luggage sections, such was the unbearable angry heat radiating from my cheeks and making it impossible to get within twenty feet of me.

And then I saw him. Marcus. Standing and laughing with some colleagues near the bathroom towels, about thirty yards away. My guess is that they weren’t discussing curtains. I’d go as far as to say that he would have struggled to tell you what a curtain was at that precise moment. As I approached with my face full of thunder, I began thinking of all the things I would say to him to make sure he never treated a customer like that again. I was almost looking forward to it.

Then I realised that I was English, and meekly asked him if he’d found anything. He told me that he’d have one last look through the stock on display. You know, just in case. And I let him. Fifteen minutes later – an hour or so after my arrival – I left emptyhanded, having thanked him for all his help.

I showed him who’s boss, I can tell you.

A long overdue Halloween missive

It’s pretty astonishing how being a father to a month old baby can change your perspective on the things that matter in life. Although, for the avoidance of doubt, I will never like peanut butter, no matter how much my daughter comes to believe it to be the lifeblood that keeps her in existence.

Nut spread issues aside, all other opinions and theories are now officially open to change. And that was never more evident than in my reaction to Halloween this year.

Now, bear in mind that I am the man that wrote this. I think it’s fair to say that I have never been the biggest fan of Halloween. Most Americans tend to take it more seriously than, say, breathing. In the same way that the likes of Hallmark have managed to persuade us that Administrative Professionals Day is a worthy use of our hard-earned cash, so costume manufacturers have managed to convince Americans that a pagan ritual is a good reason to provide extensive job creation for 7 year olds in Indonesia.

But then introduce a small child to the mix (one too young to even see a pumpkin two feet away from her, let alone participate herself) and everything changes. Suddenly when Halloween arrives, you’re focusing on whether you’ve got enough sweetscandy for everyone, and pondering whether you should probably go out and buy another three tons of mini Snickers bars just in case.

Of course, the presence this year of She Who Was Born To Worry probably helped foster the festive spirit. Particularly as after a couple of visits from local kids, she designated herself The Candy Witch, refusing to dole out more than one sweet per child, and giving venemous looks to anyone who failed to say thank you.

So while I resisted costume this year, and instead dressed merely as ‘confused new father operating on two hours sleep’ (a look that I pulled off with comparative ease, if I’m honest), I nonetheless entered into the spirit of the occasion. Fortunately enough questionable events occurred to ensure that I could maintain the healthy dose of overarching cynicism that you all have come to expect of me.

1. The little princess with dietary restrictions
The very first knock at the door came from a tiny princess, who could have been no older than six. She immediately endeared herself to us by pushing her nose up against the screen door to peer inside. Indeed, she was so sweet, I even managed to fight off the overwhelming need to get some spray cleaner and wipe off her smudgy little paw prints from the glass.

And the first thing she said as The Special One opened the door and proffered the bowl of many delights? “My mommy says that I’m not allowed any chocolate.” This came as a blow, given that the “many delights” in the bowl were solely chocolate-based. Thankfully The Special One managed to convince her that the Reese’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup (the root of all candy evil, by the way) actually contained no chocolate, and sent her on her way with a smile on her face. But what parents send their kids out with specific dietary restrictions? “Now, little Elsie, remember that high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavourings are fine, but chocolate and gelatin are out. And don’t ring number 87’s doorbell this year – you know your brother’s never been the same since the electric shock.”

2. The little brothers and sisters
The age range of the trick-or-treaters varied wildly, from the three year old who practically had to be dragged up the steps to the door, to the dubiously aged teens whose skirts were short enough that their parents felt the need to accompany them. As a side note, I’m all for the principle that Halloween is an opportunity for women to show some skin, but I live by the motto that says if your parents need to come with you, you’re not old enough to show some skin. And as a further side note, if my daughter is reading this in – say – 2025, the age at which you are old enough to show some skin at Halloween is approximately 35.

Anyway, I digress. Kids of all ages came round, and they all received candy for their efforts. Even the ones who had dressed as “a kid wanting candy”. But on at least six separate occasions, once they had received their bounty, a kid would proffer another bag and say “Candy for the little one – she’s too young to come.”

Now, I’m still new to this parenting lark, but I tend to believe that if you’re too young to trick or treat with your whole family in tow, you’re too young to be eating sugar snacks. Leading me to the inevitable conclusion that “the little one” is a Halloween scam, with kids taking advantage of doting parents who sigh wistfully at the thought of poor little Johnny in his Merlin outfit, crying at home on his own while the older children go out to forage for him.

Next year, “the little ones” will be getting a bag of raisins and somw dried apricots, mark my words.

3. The double dippers
I appreciate that I’m getting on a bit now, but I’ve still got all my own teeth, and most of my mental faculties are intact. Sure, I forget the occasional thing or two, but The Special One’s electro-shock punishments are having a positive impact on my will to remember, I can tell you.

Anyway, the point is, if you come and get candy from The Candy Witch while dressed as a purple fairy, and then you come back twenty minutes later to try to get some more, we will remember and we will send you away with a flea in your ear. If you come back as something completely different (say, a pink fairy), we will almost certainly not rhave any recollection of you whatsoever and will lavish you with as many Twizzlers as a girl can eat.

4. Commuting to Trickortreatsville
Despite my cynicism, I have to say that Halloween promotes a healthy sense of community, with all the residents of a neighbourhood interacting with each other on a level that’s more harmonious than “for the 837th time, can you sodding well turn that music down?”

But when you’ve got carloads of kids being shipped into an area by their parents because it looks like a place where you might get Toblerone rather then Tootsie Rolls, it’s suddenly less about community, and more about a 12 month campaign of reconnaisance and intensive evaluation of candy sales across the five boroughs. The kids probably sell their swag in their schools for the next year. Or save it for the next Halloween, to provide the gift of gastroenteritis to unsuspecting locals.

Still, I’m starting work on my Halloween costume for 2010. Like a born-again convert, I’m going to put some serious effort into getting it just right. I’m thinking ‘new-ish father operating on three hours sleep rather than two, but still as confused as ever’. Better start working on those bags under my eyes right away…

The red tape of parenthood (aka “I’m drowning, not waving”)

I promise that normal service will resume shortly, working on the assumption that all babies sleep for 12 continuous hours every single night after the age of 1 month, right?

Anyway, you’ll no doubt be delighted to know that things are calming down at Casa del Brit Out Of Water, although to be honest it would have been difficult for things to get any rockier. After all, there can’t be many newborns who have their first trip out of the house to move house, the second to be rushed to hospital, and the third to go to a funeral. But we always knew that she was going to be special, I guess.

What isn’t so special is the administrative black hole that you immediately fall into as soon as you have a child. Never (knowingly) having had a baby in the UK, I’m not sure what the red tape situation is over there. But frankly as I alluded to in the last post, the paperwork nightmare that is childbirth in the US is enough to convince anybody that one son or daughter is plenty enough, thank you very much. From trying to convince a pharmacy that your doctor didn’t write a prescription for a non-existent child, to persuading your healthcare providers to not send letters addressed to Newborn Child Jones, it’s far from easy to plot your way through the minefield of technicalities and odd requests.

That said, nothing can be as odd as the sheet that has to be filled in immediately after your child is born.

I have filled in some ridiculous forms in my time. And yes, Inland Revenue, I’m looking at you. But nothing can prepare you for the glorious majesty of the “mother’s worksheet” element of the New York birth registration form. It’s the document that is used to put together your child’s birth certificate, so in many ways, it’s pretty important. But when you’re handed the form by your midwife mere moments after the birth of your daughter, and you’re holding a glass of champagne in your hand, it’s kind of difficult to digest some of the questions you get asked.

Of course, there are the expected teasers such as child’s name, mother’s name, date of birth, social security number etc etc. But just after they’ve got you warmed up, they throw in a few corkers.

For a start, they want to know the mother’s ancestry – the nationality, lineage or country which the mother or her ancestors were born in prior to coming to the US. For clarity, even if your family has been in America for a couple of hundred years, you can only put down “American” if you are of native American extraction. Apparently the response should reflect what the mother considers herself to be, and is not based on the percentage of ancestry of any given parent or grandparent. Anyway, don’t tell The Special One, but I put down that she’s British. I mean, she’s been to Old Trafford and she’s been on the London Eye, so surely that’s enough?

Next they want the weight of the mother at birth, and the weight of the mother pre-pregnancy. Now, I’ve only been married for two years, but even I know that you never EVER even mutter the actual weight of your wife, let alone put it down on paper. I can only assume that this question has been placed on the form as a nasty little trick against men. Any unwitting new father who – in the adrenaline rush of the moments immediately post-birth – writes down any figure that is not at least 25% under the actual weight, will find himself sleeping on the sofa until their son or daughter is approaching university.

Somewhat easier, but still perplexing, is the question on whether any illicit drugs were taken by the mother during pregnancy. Among the options are heroin, cocaine, methadone, and methamphetamine. You’ve got to appreciate the effort, but do we really see anybody fessing up to a weekly freebase and the occasional snort of charlie?

Sadly on the question regarding whether the mother had swollen or bleeding gums during her pregnancy, there was no answer box marked “it’s none of your sodding business really, is it?” for me to tick. And on the question regarding whether the mother was at all depressed (‘a little depressed’, ‘moderately depressed’, ‘very depressed and did not receive help’ or ‘very depressed and did receive help’), can I make it clear that any mother who ticks ‘not depressed at all’ must surely have either high tolerance for discomfort, or else made full use of the narcotic options mentioned earlier.

One last question stood out, asking “Thinking back to just before you were pregnant, how did you feel about becoming pregnant.” The four options given are as follows (with my commentary in italics):

1. You wanted to be pregnant sooner (but my joke of a husband was firing blanks, and it took me a while to find a new tennis coach)
2. You wanted to be pregnant then (back THEN I wanted to be pregnant, but boy would I change my mind after the last nine months of hell)
3. You wanted to be pregnant later (what do you mean, condoms have only a 98% success rate?)
4. You didn’t want to be pregnant then or at any time in the future (if it hadn’t been for those 16 vodka cranberries and the glint in the fireman’s eyes, I wouldn’t be stuck with this thing or that stupid lump of a man…hold on, my children don’t get to read these comments in the future do they?)

Can someone tell me what use any of these statistics are? My guess is that the public relations industry lobbied hard to include them, simply so that it creates a much-needed job for a PR flunkey who gets to issue an annual press release saying that 27% of New York babies are unwanted accidents.

Oh, and one thing the form makes very clear is that the father is of no importance whatsoever in this process. All they want to know is his name, date and place of birth, and social security number. Essentially it’s a case of ‘who are you, and can you pay for this thing?’ No questions about depression, nothing about my ancestry, and not even a passing interest in the state of my gums.

To be fair, I’m kind of glad they didn’t ask about my pre- and post-pregnancy weight. It’s not easy eating for two, you know.