Blogging From a Position of Power

Except for the scatter of strewn limbs still visible in almost every neighborhood, Columbus seems to be back to normal.  To me, the official milestone ending the blackout and all the insanity it caused came tonight: I ate dinner at the Blue Danube Restaurant.  It sat locked and dark beginning late Friday afternoon (along with many other businesses on that part of N. High St.).  I am not friends personally with any of the owners or wait staff, but I felt for the people who didn’t collect a paycheck all week, and I shudder at the thought of how much food they had to throw out.

The other simultaneous crisis in Columbus was the COTA bus strike.  It began at 3 a.m. on Monday, July 2. I was all ready for it.  I set my alarm considerably earlier than I usually do.  When it went off, I jumped out of bed like a shot, and damn near strangled myself on the hose of my CPAP machine.  Usually I ride in total oblivion of the time, so I wasn’t sure how much time to allow myself for the ride downtown.  I can walk from downtown to Baja Clintonville in about 90 minutes, so I allocated two hours for the bike ride.

My work day starts at 8 a.m., and it was a little after 6 when I left the house.  According to the U.S. Naval Observatory‘s Website, the sun rose at 6:08 on Monday morning.  I didn’t think to glance at my watch before my departure, but I do know it was light enough to see things without the aid of street lights.  (After Friday night, the street lights being off weren’t a good enough indication.)  I dodged and weaved around debris and fallen branches (and fallen trees!) as I headed south on Indianola.  That morning, I saw a huge tree still blocked E. Norwich Ave.  (Two young women who lived near the Indianola Church of Christ–which is at the corner of Indianola and Norwich–had written TREE BLOCKING STREET!! with chalk in big letters in the intersection, but I’m not sure whether anyone could see it.)  At Lane, I turned west and then went down High St. the rest of the way.  There was no way to tell who was affected by the lack of power and who wasn’t, although I remember seeing no delivery trucks anywhere on the route, and if you’re on High St. early on a weekday morning, there are usually trucks making deliveries to the restaurants, convenience stores, and bars.)

Once I arrived at the William Green Building, I saw that I had been overly cautious.  It took me only 38 minutes to get from Olde North to downtown, which meant I had an hour before work officially began.  Fortunately, I was able to find a berth for the trike in the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation garage, in a storeroom with a bike rack.  I ate a leisurely breakfast in the Nationwide cafeteria, and read until 7:55, and then headed into work.

After some false hopes that management and labor had settled the strike, I learned that there would be no bus service on Tuesday.  This time, I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping a little later, and leaving a little after 7.  I would still arrive early, but not as ridiculously early as I had on Monday.  And it was the ride home that I was dreading.

The worst part of COTA’s strike was that there would be no bus service for Red, White, and Boom.  I had no plans to attend it.  (I am the same way about patriotic holidays, especially the Fourth of July, that Ebeneezer Scrooge was about Christmas.)  My first thought was this would mean fewer people downtown for the fireworks, and thus less of a madhouse of an exodus once the festivities ended.  But I also worried that many people would come down anyway, and count on their skills to navigate their way home drunk.

On the Fourth itself, I rode around, occasionally stopping in fast food restaurants to use their Wi-Fi service.  Several times since Friday night, I had tried in vain to get online, or turn on the TV.  I didn’t realize how ridiculous the Wi-Fi situation was until I realized I had to call Steph in Florida, ask her to get on Channel 10’s  Website, and find out whether COTA was still on strike.  (She left me a voice mail message later that evening, telling me they had settled, and the buses would be rolling come morning.)

This news brought about mixed emotions in me.  I was glad to be riding the bus again, especially if it was air conditioned, but the two trips to and from downtown by bike had been fun.  A sign that you’re getting older is that sloth becomes your favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Sloth won out: If I took the bus, that meant I could sleep an additional hour.  So, on Thursday the fifth, I was at the bus stop looking up Summit St. waiting for the bus to come.

The whole area from Adams Ave. to High St. was still blacked out on Thursday evening, but this was an evening for paradoxes and contradiction.  As I was walking home, I saw a procession of seven or eight AEP trucks going north on Indianola.  Then, I walked past the Maynard Ave. United Methodist Church, and the sign on its door puzzled me:

Paradoxically, the next evening, with most of Columbus’ lights restored, the church was completely without power.

The sign reminded me of a neighbor in Marietta who said that he had once seen pouring rain on one side of a house, and sunshine on the other.  I thought this was a tall tale about how massive the house was, but I have seen rain on one side of a street and not the other, so I now believe he was telling the truth.

I live only a block or so from Maynard Ave. UMC, so I wondered whether I’d still have lights.  I was pleasantly surprised to see my porch light burning, and I was further surprised when I came in and saw that the green light on my cable box was no longer blinking, as it had been since the derecho first happened.  I grabbed the remote control and clicked it, and sure enough there was sound and a picture, rather than the black screen that I was used to seeing.  I clicked on the laptop and, while it was a little balky, soon enough I had access.

On Thursday, I came back from the Independence Day holiday and found that my workload was on the “famine” end, so I left at 11:30, and went to the OSU Library.  This was where I had one of those “face-palm” revelations.  (When I learned this, I almost reenacted the old “Wow!  I coulda had a V8!” ads from the 1980s.)  For years, I had debated whether or not to become a Friend of the Ohio State University Libraries, mainly so I could borrow.  As it turns out, as an employee of the State of Ohio, and the proud holder of a library card from the State Library of Ohio, I have been able–since 2004!–to borrow from the OSU Library!

I spent Friday evening with my Marietta High School classmate Robin, her husband Doug, and their son, as they were visiting Robin’s mother in Columbus.  We all ate dinner downtown, and then went to a double feature at the Ohio Theater, part of the CAPA Summer Series.  It was the first time in the last year or two I’d gone to the Summer Series–the last had been when I took Susie and her friend Sydney to “Cartoon Capers.”  (I first went to the Ohio Theater in the spring of 1980, when I took a young woman to see Vincent Price narrate King David.)

Even if I had been alone, there is no way I would have missed last night at the Ohio Theater.  Fritz the Nite Owl was hosting a double feature–two movies for $4, not bad!–of Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).  I missed the sarcastic comments and movie trivia that sandwiched the commercial breaks (there were no commercial breaks, unlike his shows at Studio 35 and The Grandview), but I enjoyed both pictures.  I had never seen Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and had not seen Dracula’s Daughter since I was 12 or 13.

So, life seems to have returned to normal.  Olympic Swim Club was open, which was a godsend as the day got hotter.  I biked up there in the early evening.  I can’t swim a stroke, but I luxuriated in the water, immersed myself several times, and tried all the while not to think of Altered States (1980).

I got dried off and dressed, and then headed to the Blue Danube.  It was good to see lights on and people sitting at the booths and bar.  I said to my waitress, “This is good to see!”  She felt the same way, undoubtedly because she lost wages during the time there was no electricity.

Can You Track My Bus Travels?

I am quite reluctant to blog about this topic, because whenever I think about it, I sound like I’ve joined the black helicopter and tin foil hat lunatics found both on the Left and the Right.  Yet, it’s something that comes to my mind almost every time I ride public transportation, which is at least twice daily.

You’ve gleaned from my moniker, aspergerspoet, that I have Asperger’s syndrome, which means I am on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum.  In the eyes of COTA, the Central Ohio Transit Authority, this qualifies me as handicapped.  One of the benefits I reap from this is that I am allowed to use a Key Card when travelling on the bus.  The Key Card allows me to pay half fare when riding the bus.  All I needed was for my physician to certify me, and then I went in, had the below card produced, and I was all set to ride the bus at half what I had been paying.

Using it is quite simple.  When I board the bus, I swipe this card through the slot, and follow it up with my monthly bus pass or, if I don’t have the pass with me, the right amount of currency.

I do wonder, however, if that means there is a record somewhere of every bus trip I take when I use my Key Card.  The average COTA rider pays his/her fare anonymously; there is no record of boarding or of exiting the bus.  Even someone with a bus pass can stay untracked, since you usually buy them at the COTA office or at the grocery store, pay cash, and get the next card in the stack.

But those of us with Key Cards swipe them each time we board, and the bus has to at least acknowledge that the card is valid.  It probably ends there, but there’s a part of me that wonders if having a Key Card is analogous to a gimmick Bil Keane uses in his Family Circus Sunday panels sometimes.  In those, he shows the roundabouts paths one or all of the kids in the story may take in the house, neighborhood, or school, by showing a black dotted line following the kid from point A to point B, with certain landmarks designated.

I have seen enough episodes of Law and Order to wonder if maybe I should be thankful for such a tracking system, if indeed it existed.  A staple of the original show was that Act I always featured a credible suspect who ended up being a complete red herring.  The detectives cleared more than one suspect by running a transit card and showing the person was clear in another borough, or on the other end of Manhattan, at the time a murder was happening.  So maybe such a tracking system could help me keep my freedom in some extreme situation in the future.

I’m typing this at the end of a long day.  The work is truly accumulating around me at the job, and I only came home an hour ago.  Susie had choir practice tonight at church, while I was at the monthly Bible study in another room.  So, it’s highly likely I will be asleep on this side of midnight.  I’m typing this while I’m listening to the first disk of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  I thought about listening to the entire album tonight, but I doubt I’ll make it through.  (I may save the other disk for work tomorrow.)

Good Customer Service Took a Hiatus Today

There are hundreds of sights where customers can complain about bad customer service they’ve received at different stores, Websites, or help lines.  Equally, there are just as many sites where employees who work with the public daily can vent about the stupidity of the customers they encounter during their shifts.  Usually, my experiences with customer service people have been positive, but today was an exception on more than one front.

One of the fringe benefits of my job is that the cost of my monthly bus pass is taken out, pre-tax, from my paycheck.  The next month’s bus pass usually arrives in the mail sometime between the 24th and 28th of the month.  No such bus pass arrived this month.  This morning, I called the Fringe Benefits Management Company, who oversees the commuter pass program, and the woman on the phone told me that–for whatever reason–the post office returned the card to them.  (Never mind that other mail, especially magazines and bills, have no trouble making it to us.)  The address was still valid, we’ve lived here a year and a half.  It would be 30 seconds out of their day to put the bus pass in a new envelope, and, just to be safe, mail it to my work address, right?  No, they couldn’t do that, because COTA, when the bus pass came back, credited my paycheck.  It apparently involved too much hard labor for someone at FBMC to dial my number to tell me that my pass had been returned, and to ask me did I want it mailed to an alternative address?)  A few keystrokes on their computer could have rectified that.  But no, I have to buy the bus pass myself this month.  And if the benefits administrator mailed me a bus pass anyway, COTA is out $22–their problem, not mine.  If COTA asked the benefits administrator, “Did you mail it back to us?”, all the benefits administrator would have to say is, “Why, yes.  You mean you didn’t get it?”  The FBMC people worked about as hard as the Unknown Soldier to fix this situation.
And it doesn’t end there.  Steph gave me a Visa gift card, and I decided to do something responsible with it, rather than go on a minor spending spree on Abebooks or Amazon.com.  I thought I’d pay my cell bill with it. I logged onto their Website and entered the Visa card number, expiration date, the works.  Three times I submitted, three times I got the message that there was a problem submitting this payment.  There was a sufficient balance on the card, I typed its number in correctly, I did nothing wrong.
Revol is my cell phone carrier, a small carrier out of Independence, Ohio (a Cleveland suburb), and what makes this glitch so galling is that they expect their customers to pay online or with plastic on the phone.  They go so far as to add a $3 surcharge for people who show up at their stores and pay the bills in cash, in person.  If they are going to penalize people who pay in cash, and in person, which is actually more convenient for them, their customers should expect nothing less than an online payment system that works the first time every time.
Certainly their phones don’t work first time, every time.  In Clintonville, the neighborhood I call home, I may or may not get a signal in my own house, depending on what room I am in, or even what corner of what room.  They wring their hands about other services not leasing them tower space, yet they don’t turn over one spade of dirt to build new towers.  I am counting down the days until a Revol phone drops or loses a 911 call in a life-and-death situation.  The lawsuit that will result from that would rival what B.P. is going to pay to clean up the spill.
The common denominator with bad customer service seems to be when companies know that you have no alternatives.  They have a bully’s sixth sense about when you’re totally at their mercy and beholden to them.  In 1989, when I dropped out of O.U. and moved to Cincinnati, my first apartment was a small room above a small appliance store in Elmwood Place, just north of the Nu-Maid Margarine plant.  I called Cincinnati Bell and arranged for phone service.  The technician would be there at 10 o’clock Saturday morning.
Ten o’clock came and went, and no installation.  The front door was not easy to hear, since my room was in the back of the building.  I even left a note for the man to knock loudly.  I kept my radio and TV off, did not use my typewriter, and kept my room door wide open so I could hear the knock.  I called Cincinnati Bell’s customer service people from the appliance store, and received a lot of noncommittal answers about when, or whether, the technician would come.  I finally resorted to calling at 10- or 15-minute intervals, and they dispatched the person, just to give their customer service reps some relief.
And the story doesn’t even end there!  When the man finally deigned to come, he ended up having to disconnect the jack that was in the wall by my desk.  I had some thin multicolored spaghetti hanging from my wall, and he hooked up my phone.  It was then we realized that they hadn’t bothered to turn on my line.  It was too late in the day Saturday, no one could take that nanosecond to flip that one switch, I’d have to wait until Monday.
Phone companies seem to think your life revolves around their convenience.  One reason I am happy about the imminent demise of the land line is that when you buy a cell phone, even a pre-paid throwaway phone at a corner bodega, you bypass having to deal with people like this.  When Steph and I were separated, I ordered a land line in the small apartment on W. 5th Ave. I was renting.  This time I was told the man would come at 10 a.m.
I was awakened by his arrival at 8:30.  And even then, I had no phone service that day, because he had brought the wrong jack for the type of phone wiring in my building.  This meant I had to schedule another day off from work, and put my entire day on hold until they elected to come.  Their person had come 90 minutes early.  I was glad I was home asleep that day.  What if I had other plans or commitments that morning before his arrival?  The customer service representative I spoke to had an “Oh, well!” attitude about this.
My worst face-to-face customer service experiences were both when I was living in Boston.  Topping the list was an incident I described in the LiveJournal blog.  Besides working at The Crimson, I typeset The Boston Phoenix during the summer.  (The Phoenix is Boston’s equivalent of The Village Voice, and is the largest weekly newspaper in New England.)  Around the corner from The Phoenix‘ offices on Mass. Ave. was Brigham’s Restaurant, a uniquely New England ice cream chain which featured delicious milk shakes (“frappes”), and excellent hamburgers.
On one particular afternoon, my waitress was an elderly woman named Mable.  She took my order, writing it down in pencil on her pad.  She returned with it very quickly, and I was quite pleased, because my lunch time was quite limited at The Phoenix.  Also, I was very hungry, having eaten nothing but M&Ms and Coke that morning.  She set down my cheeseburger, fries, and coleslaw.  I was like Pavlov’s dog when I saw it, and I bent down and reached for the plate.
At this moment, Mable came back to my booth and snatched the plate away from me.  Over her shoulder, she said that someone else ahead of me had ordered the identical thing, so it was theirs.  How did she know I hadn’t shed my whiskers into it, or coughed and/or sneezed in it?  The replacement burger was longer in coming, and I had to wolf it down in time to get back to work on time.  It was also the only time I ever walked out of a restaurant without paying for my meal.
The other shoddy customer service experience I had was at Wordsworth Two, a now-defunct bookstore on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, on the way to Central Square from Harvard Square.  I bought many books there, usually on my way home from work at The Crimson.  One night, there was a lone cashier, a guy about my age at the time (20), behind the cash register at a semicircular counter.  Bearing my purchase, I walked up to the counter, where he was punching away at a calculator.  He bustled around at finding receipts and notes, and he would have seen me if he had turned his body just a few degrees in my direction, all the while talking to two or three people, who did not have merchandise, on the other side of the U-shaped counter.  I finally got so exasperated that I leaned across the counter and waved the $20 bill I was holding in his face, less than a millimeter from his eyes.  He jumped back, startled, and then very frostily rang up my order.  (I had assumed that waving the bill in his face was the universally accepted symbol for “I’m trying to pay you.”)
My experiences today are all the more appalling when you consider that I had a very pleasant conversation with the customer service people at American Electric Power earlier this week.  I was going to be a day or two late with my bill, and they renegotiated a new payment plan, one that was even more generous than the one we had previously.  The woman on the line was chatty, sympathetic, and went the extra distance to make sure I had a plan I could afford.  And AEP is not one of those companies I can just say, “Screw you!  I’m going to your competitor!” to if I’m not happy.