Monday, July 26, 2010

Just Like New York, Only Better

Being removed, as I am, from the familiarity of friends and family, I tend to appreciate it when someone goes out of their way make me feel at home.  I would therefore like to thank the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) for an unexpectedly inspirational morning that left me nostalgic for the glory days of the Department of Motor Vehicles Office in Albany, NY.

Our DMV was so legendary for its awfulness and buffoonish officialdom and I never expected to see its like again, but the Brighton DVLA managed to leave them pale in comparison.

In general, people would rather have root canal than visit any government office, so making supplicants feel impotent, off-guard and a little bit frightened is the bread and butter of any civil servant, but to totally cow and humiliate people, well, that was a thing of beauty.

It didn’t start well; they opened on time and had a deli-style “take a number and wait” system that threatened to be efficient, but they cunningly overcame this challenge by having one of the three clerks inexplicably disappear while the “average wait” time displayed on the overhead viewing screen changed from 4 minutes to 13 minutes to 22 minutes in short succession.

If this had happened in New York, they might have felt their point was made and leave it at that, but this office went the extra mile by having the absent clerk return to her window but not serve any of the waiting people.  Instead, she fixed up her hair, spent a protracted amount of time laboriously opening a can of Coke with a letter opener and chatting with the clerk at the next window.  Then, and this was simply breathtaking, she took up a small pile of mail and began dealing with that while ignoring the people who had taken time off from work, and otherwise had to rearrange their lives, who were standing in front of her.  I was so overcome with admiration that I nearly wept; with those few simple gestures she conveyed to a room full of people, louder than if she had used a bull horn and more obviously than if she had spelled it out in red tape on the walls, that all the time, effort and money we had expended to be there was totally irrelevant.  She showed us all how a true civil servant remains insouciant before the inconvenience of the masses.

And insouciant she was, for she could afford to be.  In large, not-to-be-missed writing on the display board was a warning that they tolerated no abuse of any kind toward their staff.  This might include, one should suppose, suggestions about how people might like to be treated in order to keep them from being cranky enough to become shirty in the first place.  This promoted the fear that, unless you behaved meekly and obediently no matter how poorly they treated you, you would be deprived of, not merely your car, but your liberty as well.

While I applaud this masterstroke of crowd belittlement, it does take some of the fun out of it. I always enjoyed the occasional sparks at the Albany DMV.

Despite this disadvantage, she worked the room with such consummate perfection I could not help but be won over by her; I want to have her children.

But I mustn’t forget the Brighton Office as a whole.  Although this one clerk took the opportunity to shine, her performance would not have been as memorable had it not been for the supporting cast:

First, her two colleagues, who sent a disproportionate number of people away empty handed:

“But the man at the post office told me this is what I needed to do,” cried one distraught applicant.

“Well he doesn’t work here,” the clerk replied, and sent the dejected man on his way.

Another brilliant ploy was to have no toilets available.  If you felt the need, you had to leave the building, and the office complex, and walk to the top of the hill at the end of the street, elbow you way through the train station and make use of their lavatory.  And, of course, you had to take a new number when you returned.

Lastly, they kept the waiting room so hot sweat trickled down my back even though I was doing nothing more energetic than sitting and admiring their ability to reduce grown people to gibbering children.  There was a fan in the room, but it was not turned on, unlike the multiple fans on their side of the barrier, where they sat drinking cold soda and cups of tea while we looked in vain for a water fountain.

It was really quite exciting, and I could not imagine how the experience might be topped until I paid the parking fee: eight pounds for less than an hour and a half, or about ten pence a minute.  Way to go!

New York, you’re good, but you have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

10 Things to Be Happy About

While surfing the web the other day, I happened upon an article about sunspot activity. Namely, that there suddenly is none. Scientists have never seen anything like this before so the logical conclusion is, it’s the end of the world. (You have to extrapolate a bit to arrive at this conclusion, but just a bit.)

In any event, it hardly matters because, if you surf a little more you’ll find that we’re doomed to collide with a giant asteroid and that Yellowstone Park is scheduled to explode at any minute. Either of these events promises to plunge the world into uninhabitable cold and darkness, but just in case none of this actually happens, BP—as a sort of backup plan—is filling the oceans with oil.

Meanwhile, one half of the world’s population is trying to kill the other half because they don’t have the same imaginary friend as they do.

Add to this the government’s decision that you and I need to pay for the fiscal adventures the bankers went on a few years back and you begin to understand why some people, myself included, are looking a bit grim these days, and walk around as if they are carrying John Prescott on their shoulders. Frankly, I find it amazing that any of us have the strength to get out of bed in the morning.

But we do. We face the day, we fight the good fight and we try, against all odds, to look on the bright side. And that’s what this post is about—ten good things this modern and hectic life offers us that the harbingers of doom do their level best to cloud from our vision:

1. Indoor plumbing: Because an unfathomable amount of time has been saved, discomfort avoided and noisome smell eradicated due to the invention of the flush toilet. Just think about it; this is the only time in history where a man of modest means can rise up from the sofa when Midsommer Murders goes to commercial, have a dump, flush it away and still have time to make a cup of tea before the adverts are over.

2. Modern medicine: Because you would not believe the number of people who, in centuries past, died from simple things like paper cuts, catching a cold or even drinking the water because they didn’t have basic medicines. Once you scratch away the Jane Austin veneer you’ll find life back in the good old day was uncomfortable, brutal and short. And imagine having a hangover and not being able to pop a few aspirin to see you through the morning.

3. Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream: Because, well, seriously, what more do I need to say about that?

4. The smell of bacon (or fresh-cut grass, if you’re a vegetarian). Because, even though these were readily available prior to the technology boom, you would have had a hard time noticing them. (See Item 1)

5. Really small laptop computers: Because I’m writing on one now, and if Charles Dickens had tried to do this, he’d be spilling ink all over the seats and stabbing his pen through manuscript pages every time the bus hit a bump.

6. Decent instant coffee. Because when I was younger it, tasted like brown water. These days, it comes close to tasting like good coffee. And you don’t have to wait an age for it.

7. Electric kettles. Because they are the hallmark of a civilized society, as well as the perfect complement to Item 6.

8. iPods: Because when I was in high school, kids who wanted to be a nuisance to others lugged huge radios around and blared really crap music at a decibel level similar to that of an Apollo rocket during liftoff (and they always had a menacing look about them, as if they were hoping you might suggest they turn it down so they would have an excuse to rip your arm off and beat you to death with the bloody stump) but these days, the best they can do is crank up their iPods so that, even though they are six seats away on a crowded bus, the only thing you can hear is the hiss, chink and pops emanating from their ear buds. But whenever this happens you can smile inside, knowing that, by the time they are thirty-five, they will be stone deaf.

9. The Eurostar. Because the option of travelling to Europe in a metal tube skimming (more or less) safely over the ground is an eminently better option than shooting through the stratosphere in a metal tube at the speed of a bullet. A derailment trumps a fiery explosion every time.

10. Blogs: Because I can promise a list of ten items and, when I only come up with nine, I can ask other people to fill in the blank.

And they do.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

A while back, in a post peripherally about the recent and tragic World Cup, Steve from Yorkshire commented about that particular phase of the World Cup (this was during our brief period of optimism—remember that?) and its resemblance to WWII. The comment went, “The World Cup is like WWII because the …” But you’ve heard that already.

Sensing this was an ephemeral joke, I told it to as many people as I could, including a bus-buddy on my way to work that morning. When we met up at the bus stop in the evening, he said to me, “Remember that World Cup joke you told me? My wife called me and told it to me after I got to work, and three other people told it to me this afternoon. That Internet really moves fast!” (By the by, this was ironic coming, as it did, from a BT employee.)

But his point was well made: humor, in the age of instant communication, has an incredibly short shelf life.

This got me thinking. And, after my brain recovered from the shock of such an unusual event, it occurred to me that I don’t hear many jokes these days. Time was, if you were out with some friends at the pub, or at a house party, or even chatting on the bus, someone would say, “I’ve got a great joke; stop me if you’ve heard this. A frog hopped into a bank…” And a week later, when you found yourself at another gathering, you could pull that joke out and be relatively sure that most people hadn’t heard it. A good joke could last for months.

Now, people don’t bother; they know everyone has heard them all. In fact, the rarest of pleasures available in these digital days is getting an Internet joke I have not yet heard. But even that is a fleeting and bittersweet delight because I know, by the time I get to the pub (or even out to the kitchen to tell my wife) everyone else will have heard it, as well. And so will I—over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Internet is brilliant (after all, it was because of the Internet that I finally learned the real words to “Louie, Louie”) but I think the slow death of classic joke-telling is one of its unfortunate downsides; not only have I not heard a good, new joke in a long, long time, but venerable, old jokes are starting to resemble dead horses because they are being flogged around cyberspace so often. Information sharing is no bad thing, but we’re becoming like The Borg, practically reading each other’s thoughts in real time. And have you ever seen a Borg tell a joke? I think it’s clear that the lack of humor in their culture was what made them so cranky, like the Germans.

I wish I had an answer, I wish I could say the trend is reversing, but I fear we are entering a new era, an age where humor arrives via your IN box and is shared by use of your SEND TO ALL button (as an aside, please stop that, okay?). Perhaps this will lead to spam filters evolving to the point where they can divert any joke you have heard before (though this would make your incoming mail volume drop by about 97%) and filter out those recipients you have already sent it to.

I realize that’s a depressing note to leave you on, so here’s a good joke to cheer you up: A transvestite walks into a bowling alley wearing nothing but fish-net stockings and lederhosen and, as he’s requesting a pair of shoes, the clerk says to him…

Sorry, I see you’re heard this one already.