Thursday, December 19, 2013


Occasionally, I think deep thoughts about mighty issues (though some might call it daydreaming).

Yesterday, I was in just such a state in Staples. I was idly wondering why most shop assistants today don’t seem to know anything—or to give incredibly bad advice when they do. Is training out of fashion in the American retail world—or what? Is intellectual curiosity dead? Don’t these people read?

Well, you get the idea. I wasn’t angry or anything—just mildly frustrated. I had just asked a technical question of someone who had professed expertise in the issue—and, as normal, had got the runaround.

Decades ago, when dragons roamed the streets—and I was a 16 year old university student—I got a Christmas job in Selfridges (a vast department store in London, UK) and was trained for all of a day and a half before being dispatched to the shirt department. Then I set to work to learn all about shirts because it seemed to me just commonsense to know about what I was selling. Besides, it was actually quite interesting, passed the time, and made me feel less like a blockhead when customers asked questions. And it helped me to sell a great deal  more product.

After Christmas, I was put into the shoe department—and repeated the process. I won’t say I became a world class shoe expert in a few weeks, but I learned a lot—and there was always the buyer to call on if necessary (and all the Selfridge buyers I encountered really did know their stuff).

And yet a half century later, though surrounded by all kinds of fascinating electronic gizmos, you are—more often than not—putting yourself at high risk if you ask for advice from the hired guns belonging to Radio Shack, Office Depot, Staples or the like. They are virtually all pleasant people and impressively polite, but they seem to know about as much about their products as your average dragon—and my money would be on the dragon.

I was thinking about all this, while still in Staples, when I noticed a woman approaching out of the corner of my eye. I then realized that my trolley was probably blocking her way—I was in one of the printer aisles. I muttered something like: “My apologies. I’ll just move this out of the way.”

I pulled at the trolley only to find it was a little heavier than I expected. I looked over it to see if a wheel had caught on something only to find a rather beautiful baby—still at the crawling stage--looking up at me indignantly. Evidently, he had been let loose to crawl and had decided my trolley would help him practice this two-legged thing.

The baby—eyes huge—and I looked at each other. His mouth turned down and his lip quivered. Tears were seconds away.

I felt in mild shock at nearly wrenching his arms from his sockets. I expected his mother to swoop him up and hug him.  Not a bit of it. This was a kid who was being trained to be self-reliant.

The tears never came. The lip stopped quivering.

She then smiled at me, picked him up, and moved on.

I was left thinking how fond I am of babies—albeit I’m not sure I feel the same way when they grow up. Just as well my heat melts when I’m around such small, vulnerable, things. I’m the eldest of twelve and the father of five.

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