Customer Service

[today’s post is sponsored by my friend, neighbor, and loyal reader Alessia Petrucci; at a recent dinner gathering, she good-naturedly chided me for being “slack” in my recent postings. Embarrassed, I wrote this on an early Sunday morning. Enjoy, Alessia!]



I’ve traveled widely in the Far East, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union. As some of these countries have made the transition to a less centralized economy, one thing with which they’ve struggled is the basic idea of customer service. Employees often give the impression of doing you a favor even by looking half-interested in whatever question or problem you pose.

If you are dealing with government bureaucrats, however, you can multiply that effect by a factor of 2 or more.

Before we in the US of A get too smug, however, let’s not forget our own domestic experiences with any state’s DMV, cable TV conglomerates, the IRS, and cell phone companies. It seems that a lot of those who are supposed to be serving the public aren’t coming even close.

And that’s why an experience I had recently with a bureaucrat – albeit not one in the United States – was so unusual and noteworthy.

I hold dual US-Canadian citizenship, and when I’m traveling to offbeat and not-infrequently adversarial places around the globe – think mainland China or Russia – I often ‘go Canadian.’

[sidebar: sometime soon, I need to blog about my train trip several years ago from Riga to Moscow, a journey not for the faint at heart thanks to surly border guards]

Thus, I keep my northern passport up to date, and as instructed by the government in Ottawa, I register with the passport office when I am overseas.

[sidebar: Ottawa considers me overseas living here in the U.S., so I am current registered in case any civil unrest occurs in, say, my local Walmart and I might need to be evacuated along with other stranded Canucks]

A quick digression: I’ve had an AOL email account since the mid-1990s. It seemed relatively simple and utilitarian, until one day my daughter told me that, amongst her know-it-all teen generation, it was thought of as ‘,’ something only for old farts and nursing home residents. I pondered this for a while, and decided to shut down this stodgy reminder of the dial-up internet days and move to something more hip/ professional and 21st century. I selected Microsoft’s Outlook.

I knew I would need a mechanism by which to have non-spam forwarded to the Outlook account should something important arrive in the AOL dead letter box after I had stopped checking the latter. Then I learned that my undergraduate alma mater, William & Mary, offers free alumni email. So I created an AOL auto-reply that lists an otherwise unused ‘’ address as the one to which a sender should write in the future. Those auto-replies would be ignored by spam-computers, but would otherwise allow me to personally filter emails sent to me by actual humans before replying.

So I opened the WM account. I created the AOL auto-reply. And then I promptly forgot about them.

When taking quick breaks during the work day over the past several weeks, I’ve been registering my new Outlook email with a variety of websites and organizations that I have joined over the years. And one such recent update was at the website of the Canadian passport office.

Within ten minutes of submitting my contact information to Canada and having turned back to my desk, my cellphone showed an incoming call from area code (343). I didn’t recognize that area code, but I knew it wasn’t local, so I ignored it, assuming it was a mid-day telemarketer.

Five minutes later, the number called back. I answered. A heavily accented voice asked for me. I tried to reply, but the connection wasn’t good, and the caller had trouble hearing me. Now I was convinced of telemarketing, so I hung up.

Five minutes later, the number called back. I was getting a bit annoyed. I answered again. The connection was clear.

“Hello,” said the heavily accented voice. “I’m looking for John Carbone.”

I replied in the affirmative. My finger rested on the ‘end’ button for use as soon as the expected rote sales pitch began.

“This is the passport office.”


[sidebar: (343) is Ottawa’s area code]

“I just noticed the contact information change on your passport file,” the voice continued. “But when I sent a message to your old AOL account acknowledging the change, I rec’d an email back saying that the new address was actually and not Outlook. That didn’t match the information you had submitted, so I am calling to make sure that you are okay.”

You mean a bureaucrat was sitting at his desk 850 miles away monitoring my account’s information change from less than 15 minutes earlier, sent an email of acknowledgment, and then called to check on me given an apparent discrepancy?!?

I was able to prove my identity with some add’n questions, and I assured him that the Outlook address is correct, and that is only a forwarding address. Satisfied, he wished me a nice trip ‘overseas.’

God Bless the Canadians. And try THAT with any agency of the U.S. government!

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Der Zauberlehrling, or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

It is common practice for magazine publishers to send complimentary issues to doctors’ offices, where it is presumed the periodicals are kept in waiting rooms for patients to read until the practitioners are ready to see them. Free magazines for the office, entertainment for bored patients, and exposure for the publishers and advertisers. Everyone wins.

My father graduated medical school in 1936, practiced as a generalist until WWII, and then served as a flight surgeon with the 34th Bomb Squadron in the North African and the Mediterranean theatres. After discharge from the USAAF, he went back to residency and completed his training as an OB-GYN. He was in private practice from the late 1950s until 1965, at which time he went to work for the federal government as a medical disability reviewer, pouring through charts and other data, but with no hands-on duties. He maintained that professional role until he retired in 1996 (at the age of 85).

My point? The last time that dad had an office with a waiting room was in the mid-1960s, when I was a toddler. Though he worked for years after that, he didn’t see any patients.

All through my teens – starting more than a decade after dad had maintained his private practice – I recall women’s magazines arriving regularly in the mail at home. Vogue. Cosmo. Glamour. Ladies’ Home Journal. Whatever else was popular at the time. I knew that my mother, who was always sensible with a dollar, wasn’t subscribing. That’s when I found out about the complimentary subscriptions. Somehow the publishers still thought that dad was seeing patients, and that our home address was, in fact, his practice’s office address (even though, by then, we were living in a different state). I doubt dad had notified them of any address changes – he frankly couldn’t have cared less. I suspect it was just the publishers’ assumption, and we were too busy with our lives to worry about these unrequited deliveries.

Dad passed away in 2002, more than 35 years after his last office practice. Over that span, I can’t even imagine how many magazines had come to us. We’d recycle them. We’d give them away. We’d leave them in waiting rooms in which we ourselves were forced to wait. At last, I thought, the magazines will now come to an end. I don’t recall whether I phoned or wrote, but as his executor of his estate, I notified the publishers and distributors that my father was deceased, and there was no further need to send magazines.

Alas, this act merely sent them further into distribution agita.

More magazines started to come, but now to my address. Women I dated over the years found this amusing (and to their benefit… no need to buy their own subscriptions). I called them ‘Magazines from the Great Beyond.’ We laughed.

But the titles expanded. While once strictly magazines aimed at reproductive-aged females, I started to get Newsweek, Time, and the occasional National Geographic. Good Housekeeping and TV Guide were represented, as were Ebony and Jet. There were a few Spanish-language mailings. And Opera News. Cheerleading periodicals showed up. Once there was a fishing magazine, and some other unusual titles, such as Cigar & Spirits, Cigar Aficionado, Food & Wine, and Wine Enthusiast (I do not smoke, and my taste in wine is usually not very exotic).

I moved out of state. The magazines followed.

I moved again. They kept coming, and there were more of them.

I’ve moved three times since dad passed. They have always followed, and I’ve never once submitted a ‘change of address’ notification. They follow, and they’re not merely being forwarded by the post office, since they arrive at my door with the correct address on the label from Day #1.

The strangest part? They are still addressed to my dad (we do not share the same given name).

I feel sometimes like the modern Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the computer-generated mailing labels that stalk me being the 21st century equivalent of Goethe’s powerful spirits inadvertently unleashed.

This is proof positive that once a computer has you targeted, you can never really escape.

I am curious if, with my passing, my son will be similarly cursed?

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

They Are Different From You And Me

I was once of the mindset that paying for business class seats on an airline trip was frivolous lunacy. “The back of the plane arrives at the same time as the front of the plane!” I sniffed.

That was until a lost reservation and hurried apologies resulted in my last second upgrade from steerage to business class on a flight from Beijing to Shanghai in 2002. From that point forth, I was hooked. Money be damned, the front of the plane IS better, and I don’t care which end of the plane arrives first!

“My tastes are simple… I only desire the best.” ~Winston Churchill (attr.)

The same can apparently be said for all sorts of travel perks. Those of you who are already jet-setters, or who remember Geo Clooney’s 2009 film, ‘Up In The Air,’ will no doubt agree.

When my kids were younger and I would visit them in Texas, I stayed at the nearby Holiday Inn. It was inexpensive and conveniently located. While far from luxurious, it was predictable, much as is a McDonald’s hamburger when you’re really hungry and there are no other nearby options.

Over time, I accumulated a lot of Holiday Inn points. Unfortunately, those points earn me only an occasional free night at the hotel chain, and a lot of complimentary chocolate chip cookies and bottles of water at check-in.

Not so those who travel on a different strata.

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” ~Sophie Tucker

Take, for example, the missus. When she travels for work, her multinational company puts her in the better Marriott properties – definitely a grade above my mere Holiday Inn visits. She travels a lot, so while not at Clooney-grade, she racks up lots of points, rendering her Triple Platinum Status with added Diamond Clusters, or some other such moniker. And with her apotheosis to that exalted level comes more perks than my chocolate chip cookies.

The Paris Marriott

The Paris Marriott

Case in point: we were recently staying at the Marriott at 70 Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, using my better half’s points. It is a grand residence indeed, built behind the historic fin de siècle façade of the former Louis Vuitton headquarters, just a few minutes’ stroll from the Arc de Triomphe, and with a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower soaring above the rooftops less than 2km away. My Houston-area Holiday Inns just do not compare. Anyway, it was late on a Sunday evening, and we developed a hankering for a bottle of good Bordeaux, perhaps a 2010 Leoville Barton St Julien. Being in Paris, and not the American Bible Belt, we assumed this would not be a difficult item to locate after dark on a Sunday.

Alas, the concierge told us, the wine shops along the Champs all close Sundays at 7:00 p.m., and at that time it was almost 8:00 p.m.

But no Parisian concierge worth his Clefs D’Or leaves a platinum and diamond encrusted guest in the lurch.

Whipping out his cellphone, he made several hurried calls en Francais, and then informed us that the proprietor of the best wine shop in the area had agreed to reopen for us, in order to procure the bottle we desired. Directions were jotted, and we headed off. Although the main boulevard was crowded with café patrons, the side streets were quiet and subdued. A block off the Champs, we came to a darkened store front that read simply ‘Vin.’ There we no lights inside. But we had been given a special knock for the front door. As assured, once the knock was administered to the heavy oaken door, it creaked open and we were admitted to the sanctum, filled with bottles. In fractured English, the owner apologized for not turning on the lights so as not to draw customers (i.e., commoners) to the shop.

A modest handheld light was produced, the vintage was secured and wrapped, Euros were exchanged, and in just a few minutes, we were on the sidewalk with our libation securely under arm.

Back in our room, overlooking the madding crowds below, we toasted on the balcony having interloped into circles of Parisian privilege, if only for an evening.

“Let me tell you about the rich. They are different from you and me.” ~F.Scott Fitzgerald, 1926

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]