Wednesday, October 24, 2007


This is how a normal person turns into Andy Rooney.

I stop in to the same coffee shop in my dinner break just about every working day. I'm not totally a creature of habit, but when I find something that works for me, I stick with it. I order the same thing: A double espresso to go, no lid. The girls who work there all know me. The fire up the machine when they see me come through the door. We chat while it's dripping. They and I know to the penny how much it costs, with tax ($1.86).

One creative barrista and I used to amuse ourselves and baffle other customers by occasionally carrying out the entire transaction in an imaginary lively babble-language, complete with hand gestures and facial expressions. We could as easily have done it in complete silence.

Then the owners of the place bought a "computerized" cash register. What a coffee shop needs with that is beyond me, but I'm not a business owner, so maybe there's a point besides simply having new technology. What was clear at once is that it was set up and designed by someone who never worked in a coffee shop. None of the touch-screen entries quite corresponded to anything they sold there. There was no "double espresso" entry, for instance. It's not like that's an exotic drink or anything. I watched one veteran employee there fumble through it, re-start the transaction three times, eventually consult a cheat sheet (which was of no help) and eventually just push buttons till she came up with the combination that yielded the price we both knew was right.

And every time I ordered with a different server, that process was repeated. I'd stand on one side of the counter. She'd stand on the other. We both knew what I was going to get and what I was going to give her. Sometimes I'd have the exact change right on the counter. But we just stood there and nothing could happen till she had deciphered the arcane ritual of the computer cash register. Which, after all, is just a place to stash money, like the old mechanical one was.

How is this better?

Example two. I did something to my shoulder/upper back recently that left me with the feeling like there was an axe embedded in it, and the inability to turn my head 45 degrees. As usual, I did nothing but pop over-the-counter painkillers, complain a lot, and wait for it to heal itself. Because I know that when you go to the doctor, whatever is wrong with you, you end up with that problem plus a headache.

After two weeks, it showed no improvement, so I broke down and went to the doctor. He gave me a scrip for an X-ray and told me to go set it up. I called the hospital and spent much too long on the phone with a receptionist of some sort who couldn't set up my X-ray appointment because she couldn't decide which box to check on her list of "what body part to X-ray." It wasn't shoulder, exactly, but it wasn't lower back. It wasn't neck. It was a bit of all three. In the end, she told me to call the doctor back and try to get him to say something that fit into her list of possible boxes to check.

I could just walk into the X-ray room, reach over my shoulder (which would hurt) or point to an anatomy chart on the wall, and say, "here, this is where it hurts. Take a picture of that." But nooooooo, as Steve Martin would have said if this was 1977. Day two of this attempt begins tomorrow. Along with day two of my journey into Andyrooneyhood.

[And I can't help but note that some people think what's needed in American medical care is yet another layer of bureaucracy, yet another layer of badly designed computers and baffling forms, provided by the people who brought you the Post Office and the 1040. Everyone deserves to be treated if sick. I believe in a safety net. But I pray the gods keep me far from it. When I fall into it, I find the safety net feels like a malicious sticky spider's web.]