Like many writers, I have had a lifelong love affair with office supplies. As a young boy who was not only writing but also acting as an earnest amateur publisher, I would save up my money to go to the mom-and-pop office-supply store in the nearest town, plunking down my money for onion-skin typing paper, Letraset, Liquid Paper, and even a new font style for my IBM Selectric II if I’d managed to save the eight bucks needed for a new font ball. The store was small with a limited selection, and the prices were dear, but I was glad to have it.
You can imagine, then, my delight when Office Depot arrived upon the scene. I loved Office Depot. The store was massive, the selection deep, and the hours long, meaning you could breeze in, get what you wanted, check out quickly, and be gone. And really, that’s all that I ask of any store: have what I want, and let me buy it. But that is only barely the Office Depot I’ve been encountering lately, and certainly not the one I witnessed today.
We’ve had a little home-office shuffle in my home, my having belatedly realized that I could never recapture access to the “office” in our house once it became the nesting place of the home computer fated to do nothing but host “League of Legends” tournaments commanded by rotating shifts of my three children. Morning, noon, night, breakfast, lunch and dinner, even during midnight snacks, the “office” and its computer is constantly engaged in battles between trolls and spacemen or something like that. Finally, two weeks ago, the question came to me: “If I’m the one paying the bills (with my wife), then why am I the one sitting outside writing in the cold and dark?” Then I realized that one of my offspring effectively had two rooms — he had his “room,” and he had the “guest room” that he’d moved into because it was larger and had better cable. So I gave him his choice: he could have his room, or he could have the “guest” room, but not both. He kept the latter, and I set about transforming the former into a new home office, one where there’d actually be office-like things happening in it.
Which, today, led me to Office Depot. I went there to secure three items: a new task chair, a new printer, and a ream of paper for said printer. I picked out a task chair with ease, securing one both firm enough and cheap enough for my tastes. The printer took a few minutes longer, as I dug around online via my phone to read sundry reviews, finally selecting a model from Brother that prints in color, scans, faxes (because that’s so important), will print on both sides of a sheet, is fully mobile- and wifi-enabled, and will butter my toast if I like. Plus, it was sixty-nine bucks. A bargain. We pull a boxed unit from the bottom shelf, my adolescent son hefts it and we head to the counter with it, and also with the purchase tag for the task chair, a ream of recycled paper, and a pack of inexpensive plastic mechanical pencils that said son insists on as some sort of recompense for his slight application of labor. There’s no one in line and we march right to the front, sure we’re soon to be on our way. We’re greeted by a cashier, a woman with unfortunate teeth and her hair pulled starkly behind her who looks to be in her early thirties, who scans the printer and the ream of paper and the packet of pencils. Then I hand her the pull slip for the task chair.
“Has anyone pulled this for you yet?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I just brought the slip here.” I suppose if anyone had been working the furniture department, I could have asked someone, but my son and I had been the only ones out there, nomads drifting through a sea of empty chairs.
She jumps onto a little microphone dangling from one ear. “Juan, I need a chair pulled from the back.”
A guy from halfway across the cavernous store yells, “We already got it!”
The cashier looks behind the register and sees another boxed and disassembled chair of a different model, pulled, I gather, for someone else. “Oh, they already got it!” she tells me.
“No, that’s not mine.”
“Oh, but it’s right here.”
“Yes, but that’s not mine.”
She gets back on the mic. “We need a chair.”
“It’s right behind you!” Juan yells. He’s otherwise engaged in standing around talking to another Office Depot employee, a young woman, at a printing station where no one is printing.
“That’s not the one,” the cashier says into the mic.
“That’s the one from the slip!” Juan yells.
“That’s a different one,” she replies.
“We checked the slip!” he yells back.
“It’s a different one!” I yell.
“We checked it!” he yells.
She gets back onto the mic. “I need a chair, a 532613.”
Juan is still standing there, off in the distance, glowering in our direction. But now I get the sense that something is happening. Maybe. In the meantime, the cashier wonders if I mind standing aside so that she can help the one other customer in the store that six people are assigned to not helping very much. I say sure. An attractive young Latina, so tiny I could tuck her under my arm and walk her out unnoticed, buys some highlighters. I envy her because she doesn’t need anything pulled from the back. She pays and leaves and I wonder where she’s off to and start daydreaming about all the other things I could be doing right now. Cigar? Drinks? Writing? Reading? Changing the seal on the upstairs toilet? It’s a long list.
Time goes by. We draw closer to Daylight Savings Time. Geese flying overhead shift direction. The oceans ebb and flow.
I finally say, “Is anything happening?”
“Oh, yes,” the casher says. “Someone’s getting it.”
More time goes by. My arteries harden. Finally, yes, by God, a different person, certainly not Juan, Juan who believes I have somehow made some mistake because goddammit there’s already a chair behind the counter and why don’t I take that one?!?!, a different man, strawberry blond and thickish with a ruddy face, makes his way up to the counter with a box carrying a disassembled chair all ready for my assembly.
“It comes in blue and in pink,” I say. “I just want to make sure that’s blue.”
“It’s blue,” this man says.
“Aww….” my son volunteers, for some reason.
On the far horizon, Juan turns away at the injustice of my getting the chair of my request, deciding, I’m sure, that he will never, ever, no matter what anyone says, put away the other one waiting forlornly behind the registers, because I just should have taken it.
The cashier pulls out her scanning wand and scans the chair and I hand her my Office Depot Store Purchasing Card.
Now, the Office Depot Store Purchasing Card is a card one uses to make purchases at Office Depot. This is implied by its name, emblazoned on the front, and verified in greater detail by the smaller print on the back. It is tied to my Business Development Account. I hand it over to the cashier and she looks at it quizzically. Figuring I’d head her off from seeking guidance from Juan or anyone else, I offer:
“That’s my Office Depot Store Purchasing Card. It’s tied to my Business Development Account.”
She slides it through the swiper at the register, and then says, “That’ll be $169.93.” And then waits pensively for payment.
“No, that’s my Store Purchasing Card,” I clarify, even though she’s holding it in her hand and, I believe, reading it. “I use that to purchase things, and Office Depot sends me a bill. And then I pay it. It works like a credit card.”
(I realize that in print this sounds mean. I wasn’t being mean. I was stating the obvious. Because the situation called for it. But when one states the obvious it frequently sounds mean or sarcastic. If anything, here it was just desperate. Because I was eager to go back to leading my life. Elsewhere.)
She’s puzzled. “Then why is it asking me for you to pay?” “It” means the register. She believes the register is instructing her to get cash (what’s that?) or a credit card from me.
“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t. Because I don’t work at Office Depot, and I’m starting to wonder if anyone else there does either. I’ve handled every conceivable aspect of customer service myself — selecting the task chair and the mechanical pencils and the ream of paper and the multifunction printer — without a hint of assistance from anyone, or even the offer of assistance or aid. Now what I’m trying to do is transact this deal, under terms that Office Depot previously suggested to me: “Here, use this Store Purchasing Card we’re mailing you.” Which I’ve done. For years.
I start to imagine leaving everything there at the counter, but then realize I want these things today, and if I head over to Staples I may be in for another situation like this (one never knows), and just then, after the cashier does some gabbling with the cashier stationed next to her (no customers over there either), and just before the scowling Juan can make his way to the register to set me and this co-worker of his straight, she says, “Oh, wait, I figured it out,” and hits some onscreen button that I see is blinking like the warning lights on a melting down Japanese reactor, a button that has so clearly been demanding for some minutes now that it be pressed that one would have to be completely shut down to outside stimuli in order to miss it, and she sighs with relief and gratitude at her own success in completing the transaction. She says something to the effect that I should come back again some time soon and I say “No problem,” which all of my children recognize from me as a sarcastic response, and we make our exit, weakened but alive.
Later it strikes me that I’ve seen this sort of customer service before. It was at a place called Radio Shack. Ah, yes, Radio Shack, where in order to purchase a D battery, one had to agree to volunteer one’s full name, address, zip code, phone number, blood type, and Mom’s favorite recipe, a place where no one actually knew how anything worked, including especially how to ring you up and get you out.
Yes, that place. Office Depot, at least the one near me, is now like that place.