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Saturday, 5 April 2014

Earth and Water

The sharp pain in the achilles, just above the ankle is indication that there has been an infrigement of mine personage. I turn round and see that its just Pat. I have been barged into by Pat, so I am the bargee and Pat the barger. Her instrument of choice is a scuffed plastic trolley, the topmost layer of which contains, for want of a better description, "food" items, and it would appear,  to the uniformed,  that Pat has just jumped the queue at Pumpkin, Hull Paragons foremost refreshment stand,  and is now, like me,  waiting for a hot drink. But looks can be deceptive, because Pat, according to her name badge,  is a five star member  of the Pumpkin's customer service team and this morning, her job is to replenish the supply of 'hot and cold snacks, sandwiches and light refreshments'  which henceforth we'll refer to as hcsslr,  that repose on the countertop near the till.

"Thiei dont get out'tt'way do thiei?" she asks Lindsey, as she lifts large plastic lids off plates of hcsslr. The lids, ill matches for the plates they cover, look like they've been purchased secondhand from Bargain Village, having that post-apocalyptic sheen typical of old plastic,  and have condensation on the inside which rapidly starts pooling on the floor which is where Pat has placed them. Other customers in the queue start retreating form the growing pool, but, as the bargee, I feel duty bound to stand my ground, so I dont move. This doesnt bother Pat, she just leans in, like a roller derby queen on the final bend, and sweeps the old hcsslr in front of me into a plastic bag. She drops a few into the pool of spreading water, but picks them up and chucks them in the bag.

"Yeh cant get at them from t'other side" says Pat, and I  realize she's probably earned her stripes through implementation of  innovative resupply strategies. When the plates have been emptied, Pat reloads them with the new hcsslr form the top of her trolley, pausing only to place her hand firmly on each item of hcsslr "Them sausage baps're still 'ot" she tells Lindsey, who has ceased service completely to watch Pat at work.

Now there are   times when a cessation of service at the drinks counter of a busy railway station may cause problems and some stress. If one analysed timetables carefully, one could probably predict when these times and the causal chain behind the resulting stress. I conducted such an analysis one morning while glancing briefly at the departure board, and the results were astonishing. In early morn, between ten two and five past seven, the trains for all of the natural commuter destinations realistically achievable from Hull (Selby, Leeds, York), and the most popular  business and airport destinations (London and Manchester) all leave. The pattern is repeated about half an hour later, with the delayed 7.37 leading the charge. Thus, one might predict that at a refreshment stand, demand might peak slightly prior to these departures, perhaps tailing off after ten minutes. In terms of service, this may imply a logistical problem - a log jam, in effect around these departure times as hordes of thirsty commuters roll up at your counter baying for a 'latte', 'americano' or even a hcsslr and a beverage.

You can imagine the hcsslr service staff who've worked these shifts as battle scarred veterans: ,steel eyed, square jawed, hard bitten survivors of a battle where steam bilged from the expresso maker as orders came in thick and fast "Latte!", "Tea!", "Capuchino" and even the dreaded "Decaf Americano" as the crowd of  pre-stressed communters built to a peak, flyers and business people impatient, waiting, urgent. In this imagining,  the staff gave as good as they got, hurling themselves from coffee maker to  fridge to cup storage to till... "one latte!!", "expresso!!!" "two pounds fifty!" "next please" .. hot beverage orders flying off the counter top until they did it.... they stemmed the tide. Like Spartans at Thermopylae they knew their victory was temporary but like Spartans, they approached their fate phlegmatically "We'll serve hcsslr in the shade" indeed.

This is perhaps a romantic view, but having commuted in the UK and travelled abroad (as they say), hcsslr staff are increasing Spartan. Identikit uniforms, scripted dialogue, scrupulously clean, ruthlessly, inhumanly efficient, and utterly careless about your (the customer's) fate. That is what customer service is about. You are brushed aside in order to prove how much the company care about you by showing you they can get rid of you quickly and this is done while they convince you that this is what you want.  Rush hours are not a problem - there's just more product to shift, efficiently, ruthlessly, inhumanly. Buying a coffee in York, Leeds or London rail stations  is one of the most demoralising experiences I have....and if you notice the tense, you will realise that I repeat the experience, frequently.

There's only two places I have been which buck the trend. In Hull, Pat has solved the problem of the log jam by timing her replenishment of hcsslr so that it co-incides with the imminent departure of the busiest trains. No service happens while Pat is replenishing from the front of the counter and the enemy attack just withers away. Commuters who are really hoping for a last minute coffee abandon the queue in droves,  and scores more by-pass Pumpkin. You'll only get a drink if you time your run perfectly.

"What can I get you love?" asks Lindey, brightly after Pat's finished "Any hcsslr today?". The replaced plastic tops  of the resupplied hcsslr plates are condensing quite quickly. "No thanks" I say brightly "Not today! Just tea!". Lindsey delivers, I pay and she asks "Where you off to today then?" as to my right a newbie customer is jiggling his change and  jumping up and down, apopleptic, but clearly English and Yorkshire,  because he says nothing about his agitation. "Just York like normal" I tell her "See you tomorrow".

As a note on the progress of this blog, I realise that this most recent spate of wrting is supposed to be about my adventures as a CELTA trainee in York, yet it is still only 06:56 and we havent left Hull yet after two attempts! Forgive my indulgence reader! I find commuting from Hull a unique experience but probably one which will not last forever, given increasing homogeneity. I can think of only two places I have been in similarly industrialised countries where the railway station or airport refreshment stands equal Hull's in terms of quirkiness and those two other places are Liverpool, where the main barrier is understanding anything the staff say, and Halifax NS where you get the feeling that hclssr might be Government make-work training schemes.I wil try to get to York tomorrow!

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