I recently spent two weeks in the States on business. A couple anecdotes have inspired the new blog series, This is America (TIA).
I arrived at night just as six inches of snow began to dump down on St. Louis. Whenever we gringos think about back home, it’s easy to forget how cold it is in the winter. I mean, we know it’s cold, but to actually feel it is another story. That’s what we forget. It’s so cold it burns your face.
I don’t even remember how to dress for it. Beyond a long-sleeve shirt and a fleece jacket, what else do you wear? But a long-sleeve shirt and fleece is not enough for freezing temperatures. You can’t stand outside for even a couple minutes wearing that. You constantly seek a way indoors, until you find it.
My first order of business is to make an international wire at my bank. The bank is empty in the morning, being a snow day and all. I take a seat to wait for the bank manager (tellers don’t do wires). A couple bankers who have known me over the years come out to say hello and ask stupid questions about Peru.
We’re making small talk when this big, round white dude comes barreling through the entrance shouting for help from the tellers. He starts roaming up and down the tellers’ counter, apparently in search of one who would give him immediate gratification. I make out that he’s angry the bank won’t perform some kind of operation.
“I been a customer for 20 years, and I tell ya US Bank needs to get their shit together!” he shouts en route to sitting down right next to … us.
The 280-pounder says upon taking a seat, “If y’all can’t tell, I’M NOT HAPPY.”
And he makes it very weird for all of us. Big-time douche chill. The women chatting me up quickly find their ways bank to their desks, leaving me alone with the freak show.
I’m careful not to make eye contact, desperate not to start a conversation, but I note what he’s wearing: a sweat shirt with verbiage for some obscure school under a poofy jacket, sweat pants and white sneakers. He looks like he’s going sledding.
I know the U.S. is more casual than Latin America. I know this. But I’m here to do business, from my business account, and Latin America gets inside you after a while, so I put a collar on. It’s not too hard, and people take you a little more seriously.
Not this geek. Even on a day he’s coming to create a big problem, to register a grave complaint. He’s going to teach a thing or two to the company that made over $6 billion in income on $22 billion in revenue last year … and he looks like he’s going sledding.
He has at least 10 years on me, so no excuse. I think about asking him, “Are you going sledding after this?”
That’s a lie. I didn’t ask think about asking him that, because I’m a big pussy.
The truth is I was deeply uncomfortable. When you spend a lot of time outside the United States, your perception of the States is more informed by the media than personal experience. And given I arrived less than 24 hours ago, I’m particularly susceptible to that.
I was thinking this guy is going to pull a gun and start shooting the place up. So instead of asking him if he was going sledding, I looked around and located the nearest fire exit. Then the manager called me over, and I slid out of there.
As I was driving home I thought about that guy. The problem is this suburban life, in which people live in big houses with yards, completely separated by a good distance from the nearest other people. And they drive cars to the other places in their lives, in which they’re shut inside the car, not interacting with others.
It’s an almost anti-social existence in which they’re all alone most of the time. As opposed to in a Latin city (or one of the few hyper-urban American cities like NYC, Chi, Frisco) where you’re constantly interacting with people, yelling at drivers or other pedestrians to release frustration, the suburban geeks just build it up inside. They harbor every slight and let it boil.
Combine that solitude with American service, inflated expectations due to “the customer is always right,” and that’s what you get. Freak-show customers.
Still driving home, I thought, “I’ve been behind the wheel for many many many minutes today, and it’s still morning. Man, driving sucks.”
So it was shaping up to be a no-good, very bad day until I got home and opened my email. American Airlines found my tablet, which I had left on the plane. The email included a link to pay for the courier to deliver it to my house. I hadn’t even realized I left it on the plane.
I immediately paid the fee and thought, somebody returned my $100 mobile device. Then the airline identified whose it was and got in touch. This is America!
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