THE WAY TO GET into this is to tell you that somewhere in the vast Department of Housing and Urban Development is a clerk who sent out 235 congratulatory mailgrams to reelected Democratic congressmen and addressed most of them to "The Honorable, Mr. or Mrs." - just as he had been told. He used no names and something like 220 of them went out just like that until the mistake was corrected and names put on the mailgrams. This clerk is probably in trouble. This clerk is my hero.
Now there is quite a lot you can say about this episode. You can wonder about whether the mailgram people read the mailgrams they send out and you ask a few questions about the clerk and how our government managed to find someone so brilliant and you may even wonder about whether HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris thinks this is a smart way to spend our tax money. You can do any of these things. As for me, I thought that finally I have come up with a man who sees things the way I do.
This all starts years ago when I worked in a skyscraper where Dupont had a regional office. Every morning the men from Dupont and I would crowd into the same elevator and I would listen in fascination as they spent nine floors saying absolutely nothing to one another. They looked more or less alike, dressed more or less alike and always asked about someone called "the wife" and people called "the children" and a period of time called "the weekend." They said "yah" a lot and they never seemed to care about what they asked or listened to what was said in response. No matter what was said, they said, "yah".
The boys from Dupont were the first to show me how to sound as if you care when in fact you don't - how to sound interested when in fact you don't give a damn. Later, I found that this is the way it is in the business world. No one says anything they mean, because no one means anything. No one really cares about you. No one takes anything personally and you learn this, at least I did when you come in late and find that no one will yell at you. They will not promote you or give you a raise, but they will not get angry, either. To get angry means you care.
Anyway, it is one thing to fill the air with the sounds of words, and quite another thing to use caring words to mean, in effect, that you don't care. This is the new verbal Muzak. An example that comes to mind is the young smiling waitress, all starchy in her uniform, who mugs you with warmth, usually telling you her name, sometimes even writing it on the tablecloth. I, for one, never know what to do. Do I give my name? Do I introduce the people in my party? This is what I was taught to do when I was younger. I mean, how do I say that I've come for a meal - not to make a friend for life?
Maybe this is me. I come from a background where words were taken seriously. People said something and you responded. Words communicated ideas, but more than that, they could be used as a weapon. In high school, we had something called "cutting." You did not use a knife, you used your mouth, and the idea, more er less, was to insult your opponent to death. No one ever died, but some girls cried and that was almost as good. Anyway, you came away with a respect for words, with the sense that they aways meant something. When you said something, you said something.
No more. Now the world is full of people like waitresses and stewardesses who never mean what they say. It's all something like Top 40 talk, dicso talk, oral Muzak. I do not act caring to people I don't care about and I don't like it when other people do. There's a touch of a lie in all that, a con job - taking professionalism to the point of farce.
I protest, but it's no use. I fight back when secretaries say "may I ask who's calling?" I say, "yes," but they never listen. When I'm asked my name and account number, I reverse them, but it dosen't matter. I get personal mail from computers and soon Christmas cards will be coming from people I hardly know. In the Roy Rogers Family Restaurant when I buy my family fried chicken, black and oriental girls call me "pardner" and at the airport, perfect strangers, over-dressed in smiles, tell me they care about me.
At the office, people ask me how I am and they don't wait for an answer and at a place where my friend works, it tells them in the manual when to visit an employe in the hospital and when to send flowers. On television, Jimmy Carter says he loves me when I'm quite sure we wouldn't get along at all, and everywhere you go, courtesy and care has been packaged. Every corporation has a slogan about helping people. No one's in business for a profit anymore.
So that clerk at HUD, that poor clerk who they think got it all wrong - I know they're after you, buddy, but hang in there. You got it right. You saw through them all. It wouldn't have mattered at all if the names were on the mailgram, the sentiment would have been the same. There wasn't any. Listen, buddy, let me be frank.
I love you.