Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In which I take a customer to lunch and he gets way too personal so I slap him down

Back when I still had a job that paid money, as opposed to the bone-wearying labor I do now of keeping a house clean for two people and two cats and watching soap operas the rest of the time, just waiting for the moment that Primo goes on a business trip so my boyfriend can come over, I interacted with customers. I was the marketing manager for a corrugated box used for high-value produce, which might not sound very glamorous and that's because it wasn't, but I still liked it.

Not everything: there is nothing like going to a produce trade show in Orlando over the weekend because of course nobody would schedule such a show during the week because that would mean that people would miss work and we couldn't have that, could we?

But mostly. It really was fun and it dealt with food, one of my favorite subjects. I didn't travel that much, but when I did, it was to places like California and Florida and Chile to visit customers, who were grape or peach or pear growers and all of whom insisted that I sample their wares frequently. In Chile, even sent me off with a case of tree-ripe peaches (the peaches you get in the grocery store don't even begin to compare) that alas, I could not take back to the US with me, the USDA being the picky nitpickers that they are.

Oh yes I have a bone to pick with the USDA, who confiscated $100 of serrano ham from Primo and me upon our return from Madrid the first time. We declared it on our customs form and when the customs agent asked to see it, we were stupid enough to give him all four packages. We forgot about the sausage in our bag.

The sausage went unmolested because Memphis' sniffer dogs were looking for drugs, not meat. Our serrano ham?

Into the trash. Although we did tell the guy to please at least eat it so it wouldn't go to waste. But we could have given him a little decoy sausage and had the ham all for ourselves, except we were too honest. For dumb.

What made it worse? I called the USDA before our next trip to Spain to ask about the serrano ham rules and the very nice woman I spoke to said it was fine with the USDA if I brought serrano ham into the country. But Customs said no. I couldn't get anyone to come to consensus, so we just stuffed ourselves on serrano ham from El Museo de Jamon while we were there. We eat bacon while we're stateside now. It's easier. (Bacon-wrapped tater tots are on the menu for Superbowl Sunday. Don't you wish you were at our house, sitting in the cold basement with the big TV, eating bacon-wrapped tater tots, watching the Packers win?)

My other customers were the grocery store chains because they were the ones who could put the pressure on the produce growers to buy our very expensive box. The produce manager at the Albertson's a few miles from the office had been really helpful. We had shot some ads in his store. At 5 a.m. Oh that was a good time. He knew a lot about the industry and always answered my questions.

I wanted to talk to him in detail about some of the issues and asked if I could come by the store.

He suggested lunch.

Or maybe I did, thinking that if he was going to share his knowledge with me, I could at least buy him a hamburger. I had a corporate AmEx and wasn't afraid to use it.

I proposed meeting at the restaurant but he said I should come by the store. I said I could drive us, but he wanted to drive. Not unlike Primo, who is a complete control freak and who cannot stand to be a passenger, especially if I am behind the wheel. I am not a bad driver, but he thinks I am too cautious, which is probably true, as I am the one who always gets caught. He drove his car for seven years in Wisconsin without a front license plate as required by law. It wasn't until I was driving to my grandmother's funeral last summer that a cop noticed. I was the one who was stopped. Me. Always me. I am always the one who gets caught.

Back to customer (let's call him "Bert"). Bert wanted to drive?

Bert can drive.

I got into the car, which was one of those low-slung guy cars with only two seats. The kind I snicker at because I assume it is an attempt to compensate for a lack elsewhere, if you know what I mean.

Before I go any further, I should tell you more about Bert. He was a genuinely nice guy. Middle-aged, gray, balding, too thin, too much smoking, too worried. Recently divorced and recently moved to Memphis. Lonely.

Too lonely.

He radiated loneliness.

I had no interest in his loneliness. I wanted him for business purposes and nothing else. His loneliness was not my problem.

But after we got into his car, he put in a Kenny G CD and soft saxophone music wafted out of the speakers.

Then he mentioned his divorce. And his recent move to Memphis. And how he hadn't met many people yet.

I tried to steer the conversation back to plums and tomatoes.

Got him back on track for a little while until we had placed our orders and were waiting for our food.

He leaned over the table, looked at me earnestly, and asked, "How is it that you're not married?"

My eyes popped open in surprise. He was telling me all kinds of personal things - against my will, I might add - but I had not volunteered any such information to him other than my college and that was because his son was getting his PhD at the same place.

I had recently read a Miss Manners column on the etiquette of intrusive questions and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to put her advice into action. Actually, I had been dying to use her phrase.

"I beg your pardon?" I asked frostily.

He started to re-state his question, then my answer hit his brain and he realized I had understood him perfectly. He blushed and his words came to a mumbling end.

He got the point. My frosty haughtiness had put him in his place.

And I felt awful. He shouldn't have asked the question, but I was mean to him. I could have just laughed lightly and said, "Oh Bert we don't want to talk about such a boring thing! Now tell me some more about how you source your treefruit!" I could have re-directed the conversation just fine without shaming him. First, because I still needed his cooperation, but second and more importantly, there is no reason to be mean to someone who is just a bit bumbling. The response Miss Manners recommended was more ideally suited for someone who is obnoxiously pressing. Fight fire with fire. Frosty > obnoxious. But frosty is way overkill for nice bumbling.

We finished our meal. I asked him my questions and made notes in my spiral-bound notebook. We drove back to the store. No Kenny G this time. He understood.

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