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Dear Mr. Inc.


FIGHTING THE LOST CAUSE


George, in repose.

George, between battles.

By TOM SOTER

The envelope looked familiar yet unfamiliar. It was apparently something I had mailed that the post office was returning as undeliverable. Curious, I opened it to find that it was a letter with important information about my mother that I had sent to her nursing home – nearly a year ago. And it was being returned now?

Angry, I called the post office's customer service number. After wading through the various recorded keypad choices, I finally got a human. Human, yes, but not very humane. After I explained the situation, she said, in an impersonally sympathetic voice, "We're sorry for the inconvenience, sir." I exploded. "Inconvenience! It's outrageous!" Noting that the destination for my letter was only 50 blocks away, I exclaimed, in an attempt at wit, "I could have delivered my letter faster if I had crawled on my elbows."

My joke was as ridiculous as the whole situation – and I pursued it through two more equally frustrating phone calls with two more post office representatives. "Why do you waste your time?" a colleague at work asked me when I told her the story. Why indeed? Why take on these big, impersonal corporations and expect them to act any differently? Was it my inner Jimmy Stewart, challenging the powerful as his character, Jefferson Smith, did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where he famously said, "The lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for?"

Perhaps. But I think it had more to do with my father, George. He was a fabulous letter writer, and he was often at his most inspired when he took on chain stores, big corporations, and other faceless entities with which he was forced to deal.

A typical letter was one that he sent to the Eddie Bauer clothing store chain in 2002. "First off," he began, in his typically straightforward manner, "in my two conversations with your Eddie Bauer representatives (in my estimation, mistakenly labeled 'customer service') I made no inquiry regarding bank fees which your form letter suggests I did." He goes on to recount his tale of woe, as though he were Dickens writing about Pip in Great Expectations: "To trace the history of my having an account with your company ....[it] began when a business associate who was wearing a navy blue linen shirt that I admired directed me to your company where he had bought it. Alas, by the time in late August that I finally hit the Eddie Bauer store on Broadway and 68th, linen shirts were long gone. But, being a happy shopper, I looked around and found another handsome shirt – a sort of brushed denimy cotton, priced around $25. When I brought it to a salesperson, he asked if I had an Eddie Bauer charge [card] and then, when I said I would pay cash, suggested that, if I opened a charge [account] that day I would automatically receive a discount. I was hooked. The discount was relatively miniscule, but I liked the merchandise in the store and since I had three grown sons and any number of grown nephews for whom I purchased gifts, an Eddie Bauer Charge sounded like a good idea. Not so. I did the paperwork and went off with my lightly discounted denimy blue shirt."

He went on to explain that "shortly after the above, in mid-September, I moved – after forty years at one address and after a lucrative sale of a ten-room apartment on Riverside Drive – [and] as a result of that move experienced an unusual disruption of my mail delivery (I received no mail from September 6 through September 26 even though I had filed a change of address form in a timely manner).

".... among the many pieces of tardy mail I received was your first bill for that nice blue shirt and, that once I found it in the turmoil of the move, I immediately sent off a check even though the payment due date had passed by several days.... I was shocked to discover on my next bill from your company that my late payment for that slightly discounted handsome blue shirt was for more than the original cost of the shirt.

"It was then that I telephoned the customer service number with a request that my charge account be immediately canceled since I had no interest in being associated with a company engaged in such usurious fiscal practices. [The customer service representative], anxious to maintain a new (though albeit late-paying) charge customer suggested that the way to proceed was to immediately pay the minimum balance on the new bill and that she would, given the circumstances, convey my distress to the proper authorities and, though she made no concrete offer of reimbursement or even of review, she optimistically encouraged this line of action. So, I paid the $35, which, then, it turns out became a first installment on the purchase of my $25 shirt. And, I must admit, I half-expected that, soon, I would receive, at least, a form letter of apology from some Eddie Bauer representative. After all, Eddie Bauer was a Class Act not a Canal Street fly-by-nighter.

"After mailing a payment to you yesterday for my last bill from you ($54.93), I calculate that that nice blue denimy $25.00 shirt has now put me out for $115.55. If this is an example of your come-on discount, how would you identify a scalping operation?

"I hereby ask you to cancel my charge with your company and reqest that you send me no literature, catalogues, etc. Unfortunately, what you won’t be able to cancel is the word-of-mouth of this hapless former customer."

George  in his 80s.George in his 80s.

George often threatened these impersonal corporations in the only way he knew how, with the loss of his business and with his powerful word of mouth. (He never minced words: once, after spending over two-and-a-half hours sitting through Apocalypse Now when it opened, he walked down the long ticket-buyers' line, saying to people, "It's terrible, don't waste your money!")

His letter to Rite-Aid in 2004 followed this same pattern: "I am an 80-year-old man, principal caregiver for my wife Effie Soter who has Alzheimer's," he wrote. "For the past decade, I had been ordering my prescription drugs via the AARP mail service but, about a year ago, I found that it was more convenient to use your pharmacy at the above location since I would then no longer need to depend on mail delivery. I have since used this pharmacy for all our household drug needs, finding the telephone refill service particularly helpful.

"On Friday, November 18, I tried to use the call-in service for a refill on my wife’s 10 mg Ambien pills; the bottle indicated that there were two refills available. I repeatedly called from 8:00 am until I left my office around 3:00 pm and was unable to complete the call (I later was told that the phone service had been inoperative that day). Since the medication was extremely important – my wife is subject to uneasy sleep and nocturnal wandering – I had the refill bottle hand-carried to the pharmacy at 6:00 pm and was told it would be ready in an hour. Although, when our son went to pick it up at 10:00 pm and was told with a disdainful and unaccommodating manner that he would have to wait another hour, that is not the main purpose of this complaint. That follows.

"At 11:00 pm, I received a call from the on-duty clerk who announced that our prescription was 'unfillable' despite the Rite Aid-typed 'two refills' on the label. He went on to offer a surly explanation that Dr. Braun who had provided the original prescription had erroneously (and illegally?) prescribed 60 tablets, which the pharmacy had filled with 30 tablets on the original pick-up and one subsequent one (and about which substitution neither I nor the doctor had been informed) and as a result there 'were no refills left.' (On whose authority did a part-time night duty clerk countermand Dr. Braun’s prescription instructions?)

"This surprising and unclear arithmetical explanation was of no use to me for my immediate problem – how do I get along on the Saturday/Sunday week-end without the necessary Ambien?

"It seems to me," said George, still searching for humanity among the inhumane, "that a responsible professional pharmacist would have done the following: if Dr. Braun had, indeed, made an error, either he or I should have been informed at the time of the original prescription order; failing that, the clerk, on Friday the 18th, should have telephoned me, early in the evening, to report that the prescription 'was unfillable' so that I was prepared and could make some rectification (such as a 'borrowing' of two pills from another Alzheimer patient’s caregiver – which was not possible at midnight on short notice).

"Because of this compounding of failures by your pharmacy staff, I was faced with the drama and painful mental anxiety of two nights without the necessary medication and this, after a 12-hour day of continuous frustration in trying to place the refill order. When I asked the manager of the Broadway store the name of the pharmacy manager there so that I could direct this complaint, she told me the name was 'Stacy' and that she didn’t know her surname but 'that it was Chinese.'

"As a result of this exceedingly unhappy long-day experience, I will no longer be using your pharmacy – nor any other of the services of your stores. And, despite my age, I have a big mouth and a large group of acquaintances, to whom this tale of Rite Aid professional non-service will be a much-repeated anecdote."

But the exchange my father had with The New Yorker (yes, The New Yorker) was his most personal and heartfelt. As a decades-long fan of the publication, he was particularly upset by his impersonal treatment at the hands of the magazine, which he had always equated with class and style. Alas, even the most classy can take a fall.

"Dear, dear New Yorker," he began in a 2007 letter, as though he were writing to an old friend or wayward lover and not the subscription department, "I write this with mixed feelings – frustration, anger, disillusionment, annoyance, abandonment, shock.

"In early April, I ascribed the first absence of my New Yorker from my Monday mailbox to a probable postal error; then, for the second week's absence, to the possibility that the missed issue had been one of your periodic and periodically annoying 'double issues,' and that this accounted for no issue this week, again. By the third mailbox absence, I was having acute New Yorker-deprivation feelings – how would I know what was happening in the theater, at the movies, in Washington, in the world? (I bought a copy of the third absent issue at the local newsstand, having stolen the former week's copy from one of my sons – I have three, and for many years they each have been gifted by me with their own subscriptions.)

"So, I called the circulation department and spoke to a young woman about my missing copies. She coolly reported that my subscription had expired, citing an April date. When I complained that I had received no warning notice – card, letter, or e-mail–about the imminence of such expiration, she asked me to wait a moment while she consulted the record. Shortly after, she came back on the line to report that I was right, there had been no warning notice sent. She reported this failure coolly, without any explanation for such a lapse, nor even the suggestion of an apology. I asked her, testily, to renew my subscription

A New Yorker-style cartoon, done by George in the 1950s.A New Yorker-style cartoon, done by George in the 1950s.

"Don't you keep any sort of a file on your subscribers?" he asked, both irritated and plaintive, wanting some acknowledgment of his devotion and dedication to his much-beloved magazine. "[Isn't there] some kind of a data bank indicating the history of a multi-decade (such as my) subscribership? Nor some record of subscription gift-giving by subscribers? (My annual list has, for many years, included, in addition to my three sons, friends in such distant places as California, Greece, France, and England.) Is such data of no value to you?

"Of course, even if you had such records, they would hardly do more than imply my personal lifetime New Yorker relationship: being an enduring reader/fan starting in a 1930s Chicago high school English class; chasing after the armed forces mini-versions distributed to GIs in WW II; in the mid-40s, taking long weekly bus treks to Detroit's Book Cadillac Hotel newsstand, seemingly the only outlet in that culturally bereft city; once, at a flippant age, even toying with filling out some form, by writing 'New Yorker' in the space asking for 'religion'; still stubbornly continuing to subscribe during the odd Tina Brown years, though not as contentedly; and, in a four-decade career in the advertising business, using the New Yorker as the lead vehicle for advertisers, among them, Standard Oil, Renault, Air France, IBM, Tiffany, Shumacher, even, such unsophisticated ones, as Trump.

"A lifetime love affair doesn't have to be actively requited to last," he added, acknowledging the reality of his situation. "But it sure can piss you off when its tokens of adoration (continuous subscription, fervent gift giving) can seem irrelevant – even to the servants. There's not much you can say in answer to my rant; but perhaps it can prompt you to review your circulation department's standards and practices. (As you know, there's more to marketing than just blowing subscription-seeking cards into each issue.) And maybe you can thwart such dismaying similar occurrences in the future for other admirers and devotees some of whom may well be less loyal than I am."

I don't know if George expected a reply, but when he got one, it was hardly to his liking. "We do apologize for you not receiving any notice that your subscription was coming up on expiration," wrote someone named Mike, who impersonally referred to my dad as "Case id: 2609767," "but as there was no coding on your account to not receive renewal notices, we usually assume that the notices go out in the normal fashion. We currently show your subscription is restarting with the May 14, 2007 issue and is paid through May 18, 2009. Regarding your gift subscriptions, there are four of them that have expired as well, Jacques Decamps, Dr Savas Konstantoglou, Mr-Mrs Tom Menaugh, and Mr-Mrs T Theodorides. Did you wish to renew any of these subscriptions? All of your other gift subscriptions are good through at least the end of 2007." Not even acknowledging George's life-long devotion to the publication, Mike ended with the bland brush-off: "If you should need further assistance, please be sure to include all previous e-mail correspondence.'

Yes, The New Yorker.

My father's response was as chilly as a summer night in San Francisco: "Dear Sirs, Your annoying apology was not followed by a satisfactory, or even adequate, explanation. It was merely a description of what I was complaining about – your inexplicable failure to report in time that my subscription was about to expire. Your note further compounded my initial frustration and annoyance by, after the fact, informing me that a number of my gift subscriptions had also expired without my having received prior warning. Before I renew any of these relatively expensive, mostly foreign destination, subscriptions, I will, in this instance (normally I would have simply continued each of the subscriptions upon being notified of their imminent expiration), inquire of each of the recipients if they want to continue receiving your publication before I renew.


Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonMr. Smith Goes to Washington


"As I suggested earlier your subscription control standards and practices seem to need some review and/or overhauling. Adding sea salt to my wounds, your boiler plate 'welcome back...' salutation in your e-mail was offensive, heralding a warm re-admittance to a party that you had peremptorily shut me out of. A computer-savvy friend suggests that the fault lies in the fact that there may be no human input involved in this contretemps, that it's all part of a pre-programmed computer faultily programmed to do its job. (That might have passed as an explanation.) Is it time to welcome back a human into your customer service and fulfillment affairs? Or at least to seriously review your template options?"

Alas, poor George. He never did get satisfaction from his old flame, who had all the warmth of the talking computer in Colossus: The Forbin Project, as it brushed him off as nothing, nobody, "Not now, George, I have a headache": "We have received your e-mail inquiry. Your message has been submitted to a customer service representative who will respond to you as soon as possible. Please do not reply to this message. Thank you for contacting The New Yorker."

But my father continued on, never giving up the fight, not until his dying day. In fact, I believe that part of his satisfaction came in the battle itself, in protesting his status in the world outside as a cabbage in a row of cabbages. For in an impersonal world, George constantly sought out the personal, fighting the lost causes because, to him, it was important to stand up and say, "I count. I'm a person. Give me a little respect." Because, in the end, the lost causes are only lost if you say they are.

May 15, 2010