Friday, July 29, 2011

Trapped in Indiana

I was trapped in Indiana. I couldn’t go forward or backward or even sidewise. It was 10:37 pm, and I had been driving for six hours. Following my workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, I had left Iowa City heading east; I had driven through Iowa, Illinois, and almost all of Indiana. My goal: my bed in Northeast Ohio – a lot of miles and a lot of hours away. I was not on a time schedule, but I knew that I only had so much energy left. The last Starbucks I had passed had been closed for the night (just when I so desperately needed caffeine – what is wrong with these people?), and I needed to keep moving.
But I wasn’t moving. I was stuck. I was jammed between a gate in front of me and a car behind me. All I wanted to do was pay my toll, have the bar rise up, and be released. Before that night, I had often wondered why so many states still used human beings to hand out cards when that task could so easily have been done by machines. Well, apparently my thoughts had resonated with the operators of the Indiana East-West Toll Road (What a great title for the directionally and financially challenged: “What direction does it go? Does it cost money? Hey, the answer is in the name. Wow.”) This road is no longer operated by the State of Indiana but by a private company whose parent companies are in Spain and Australia. In 2006, this company paid Indiana $3.8 billion for the rights to collect fees on the road for the next 75 years. Part of the plan to recoup that $3.8 billion must have been to replace human workers with automated toll booths.
Machines are great, aren’t they? They always show up to work on time. They don’t get sick. They don’t take lunch breaks. They don’t ask for raises. They are always there smoothly humming along 24/7/365. Just replace the Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs every six months, and these automated toll booths are just like Las Vegas slot machines only better. They keep taking in your money but never pay off.
I’ll be honest. I often prefer dealing with a computer or automated unit rather than trying to communicate with a human being. Amazon’s website was designed with me in mind. I would buy a lot fewer books if I had to drive to a bookstore or actually talk to someone. If I only have a few items, I prefer the unmanned check-out lanes at the grocery store. Pump my own gas? No problem. Online banking and ATM’s make me smile.
I was buying two coffees, a breakfast sandwich, and a pecan roll a few weeks ago, and the human being working the cash resister punched a few buttons, and my total bill appeared on the screen: $12,000. At least, he knew he made a mistake and corrected it. Some clerks would have held out their hands expecting me to produce 120 crisp hundred dollar bills. Let’s be honest. Human customer service is often lacking. That’s why I often prefer the computer. It usually has less of an attitude problem.
And it isn’t that I dislike people. I like Tiffany who sits behind the glass at the drive thru bank window. She is friendly enough, but she knows her place (behind the glass) and I know mine (in the car). So I am not anthropophobic. At least I have never had it diagnosed.
But that night on the Indiana border, the machine failed me. The automated unit into which I had fed my credit card to pay my $7.50 toll grabbed my card and refused to give it back. And it wouldn’t open the gate either. I am sure the driver of the car behind me was having choice words for me and was probably reaching for a weapon under his seat when I pushed the button that said “Need Help?” The voice that answered was every bit as clear as someone talking to me through a tin can connected to my speaker with a wire.
“Can I help you?” (An irritated voice that might have been human or machine.)
“Yes, my card is stuck and the gate won’t open.” (I didn’t swear or say how I really felt.)
“Did you put the card in the cash slot?” (An accusation.)
“No.” (I hoped that I was telling the truth.)
Then those threatening words: “Well, I’ll have to find a supervisor.”
It sounded like she had to issue an All Points Bulletin and launch a search covering the entire State of Indiana and parts of Northwest Ohio to find that elusive supervisor. I got the sense that she was not happy actually having to deliver on the “Need Help” invitation. A typical customer service response by a human being. But perhaps she had a right to her irritation. This kind of thing had probably never happened before. Maybe she would be summoned to appear before an emergency meeting of the Board of Directors in Australia to investigate this surely unprecedented incident:
“One of our machines failed in Indiana? Nonsense. Let’s arrest that Ohio driver and torture him by withholding Starbucks until he tells us what really happened.”
In a minute, the voice returned saying ominously: “The supervisor will be there soon.”
I had second thoughts about asking for human help. I tried to look at my surroundings with unemotional Zen like concentration. Maybe I would sense a new option. But the gate was still down in front of me blocking my way, the car was still behind me likely filled with terrorists armed with WMD’s, and my card was still stuck in the machine. I wasn’t sure if I could even open my car door wide enough to run away. And if I managed to get out and run, they would always find me. I couldn’t outrun them forever. I’ve seen those movies. I just hoped that if I sacrificed my own life, they would spare the lives of my family. Those human customer service supervisors just make me nervous.
About five minutes later, a car pulled up. I held my breath and knew it might be my last. I was shocked when a woman bounded out and skipped towards me. She seemed almost giddy. Instead of yelling at me or accusing me of hurting her machine she said:
“Hey, I’ve got the keys. I’ll help you. Machine ate your card, huh?” She inserted a key into the side, pulled out a panel, extracted my card, and handed it to me. “This happens sometimes. Try it again. But just let it pull in your card. Don’t push it.”
What, no accusation? No charges of machine abuse? I did as she instructed. The unit accepted my plastic offering, did whatever mysterious things it does with credit cards, and then shoved my card back at me. Feeling like I had won a prize by being allowed to pay $7.50, I took my card and receipt. But amazingly enough, that toll booth machine wasn’t done just yet. It casually raised up that bar that had been blocking my way as if it did that kind of thing all the time.
I was no longer trapped. The cell door had been opened. I was free to go wherever I wanted to go as long as it was in an eastward direction and away from Indiana.
Before I pulled away, the supervisor said: “Have a great night, sir.” And I think she meant it.
I was speechless. I had been saved by a human being, a friendly human being who acted like she was happy to help me, like it was her job to assist me. She didn’t yell at me or try to make me feel unworthy. A human being had actually been superior to a machine in customer service. I drove away into the night seeking Starbucks and the Ohio border. I had a lot to think about.

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