This is a tale of two cultures. The first is that of the 1960’s Britain where I grew up. By and large, the taxpaying householder was still the unchallenged master of his domain. The phrase “An Englishman’s home is his castle” hadn’t yet been tainted by satire or irony, nor by any hint of spurious egalitarianism. If you engaged someone to sell you goods or services, with certain rare exceptions he did so strictly on your terms. Britons upheld the essential employer-employee contract because, in the later words of Mrs. Thatcher, there was no alternative.
Fifty years on, here in Seattle, the relationship between the homeowner and his suppliers has changed appreciably. The young men and women who periodically knock at my door to insist that I move my car or cut my trees, the better for their own state-funded intrusions on my property, do so without the least pretense of respect, let alone deference. Because I’m middle-aged and repressed, I call them “Mr.” or “Miss” Smith, as the case may be. They call me “Chris.” When a county employee recently called to discuss the troubled matter of my neighborhood’s drains, I found myself confronted by an adolescent coated in designer stubble, with several bits of metal puncturing his face, clad in tennis shoes, and reeking of cigarette smoke. A pleasant enough chap, no doubt, but not exactly a model of obeisance to those of us paying his wages. I suppose the relentlessly democratic times get us all in the end. Old ways of doing business start to fail you, and you have to accommodate yourself to new ones.
The conceit that today’s householder has never been better served, nor had more choices, has been put about for many years, largely by the home-technology sector, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. It’s a peculiar feature of our era that we should be constantly reminded how our “consumer experience” has so improved, and yet perceive it as having worsened. How can I illustrate this strange disconnect between what we’re told is the superbly efficient and customer-friendly culture of our age, and the reality? In two words: waste management.
I know. Working as a “community waste-transportation expert,” or whatever the current euphemism, is a perfectly respectable occupation. He or (increasingly) she at least provides a tangible service. But why is it I’m irresistibly drawn to the caricature of my youth, when that same profession was widely seen as the embodiment of an essentially cheerful but equally gormless working-class type? Certainly he (then, always male) was the subject of much good-natured satire in film, book, and song. All British schoolchildren, and many of their parents, thrilled to Lonnie Donegan’s seminal 1960 hit “My Old Man’s a Dustman,” whose eponymous hero “wears gorblimey trousers” and “lives in a council flat.” A few years later, there was an enjoyable Saturday-morning TV series called Quark, in which Richard Benjamin played a futuristic but gloriously inept operative of the United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol. And who could possibly forget Stanley Holloway’s award-winning turn as the all-singing cockney layabout Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a character given to scratching himself in inappropriate places and exuding an almost palpable aura of cheap gin?
Compare this with today’s ludicrously self-important “environmental refuse management specialist”—or, as I like to think of him, binman. Very rarely a week passes here without our being subjected to a variety of exhortations, appearing in either written or spoken form, about what refuse, precisely, to consign to which container. Clean Recyclables Only. Wash Your Bottles. Yard Waste Prohibited. No Foodstuffs. More often than not, the directives include dire (and laughably ungrammatical) threats of fines or other sanctions should we, the customers, fail to comply. Compare a snapshot of a typical American residential street of 50 years ago with the same scene today. Leaving aside our yards and our cars, and how much better dressed we were then, the most striking difference is the modern array of garish and hideously mismatched receptacles mandated for our rubbish in all its many subcategories. Sometimes they sit there festering for several weeks on end, as we await the outcome of the latest strike, or listen to the interminable recorded message telling us that, because of intemperate weather, services have been suspended “for the safety and convenience of our clients.” When I once asked a manager how, exactly, the noncollection of my garbage could be considered convenient for me, she said that these sorts of “difficult decisions” had to be taken “at a moment’s notice,” and in “terrifically pressurized conditions.”
Yes, I agree that a certain amount of prudent stewardship of the earth’s resources is in all our interests. But that’s not quite the same as endorsing the corrosively bullying tactics of at least some of those whom we pay to haul away our trash. Back in the dark ages, when I was young, characters of that sort were popularly known as “little Hitlers.” Good citizenship is one thing, if—as environmentalists tell us—it demonstrably helps conserve the planet for future generations. It’s quite another thing when a monolithic, profit-led organization like Waste Management seeks to browbeat the very people who pay for its services.
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