Dirty Boots: The Loss of Good Service

In the final paragraph of The New South, 1945 – 1980: The Story of the South’s Modernization, historian Numan V. Bartley wrote an epitaph for the well-intentioned post-Civil Rights Sunbelt South of the 1970s. The book was published in 1995, so Bartley could remark with the benefit of hindsight that the new service economy had resulted in mostly low-wage jobs that were picked up by women and blacks, while “corporate and professional people prospered.” What Bartley described at the end of his book was the South of my childhood, an urbanized, post-movement culture foraging around its crumbling foundations.

In the South of the 1980s, Bartley wrote, “social developments wreaked havoc on traditional southern folk culture.” By the time I began the first grade, in the fall of 1980, the shifts had already occurred. George Wallace had one more gubernatorial term in him, but with Reagan’s presidential victory, the days of the conservative “Solid South” Democrat were basically over. At the dawn of cable TV, our dads still had and used leather-working kits, but they were a novelty, not something we needed. Without fail, each fall and spring, us kids were taken to an array of folksy outdoor festivals where craftspeople sold their homemade wares, and in preparation for Sunday supper, we were dragged to the curb markets where our mothers and grandmothers bought homegrown vegetables. For us, it was the heyday of the Atari 2600 and Toys ‘R Us, yet we were expected to be excited about playing with wood-carved rubber-band guns and diligent about shelling a bag-full of blackeyed peas. The times, they had already a-changed.

Bartley was also right about the prosperity that came from working a service job for a corporation. My father worked a blue-collar job with the telephone company (AT&T/South Central Bell/BellSouth) from 1966 until 2008, and when my mother went to work in 1984, she became an office manager for Franklin Life Insurance, which later became part of now-infamous AIG— “too big to fail.” Those jobs allowed my parents to enjoy ascendant middle-class benefits like private school for their sons and a week at the beach every summer. What was lost, however, were the homespun ways of their youth, the ones they tried to share with us. We had a foot in two worlds: the old one that necessitated personal interaction and hands-on labor to overcome daily obstacles, and the new one whose conveniences allowed bouts of laziness, neglect, and indolence.

Just as the newly modernized South of the 1970s and ’80s confused our parents as to how daily life should work and where boundaries should be drawn, my generation is now struggling with new issues of the same sort. My parents never wondered whether to limit screen time or sugar intake. If my dad wanted to watch TV, the video games got turned off so he could. My mother went to the grocery store on Saturdays, and if we ate all of the Fruit Rollups in a day, they were gone until the next Saturday. If somebody was talking on the phone, anyone else who called got a busy signal and had to wait.  There were no questions of appropriateness and manners; those were already answered. By contrast, this world of options and availability, of scrolling and choosing, of swiping left and blocking and un-friending is less like the South of the past and more like existentialism gone wild!

Our children are growing up in a world where a person with access to technology doesn’t have to face, endure, or even experience anything that they find unappealing or inconvenient. As parents my age enjoy the privilege of ordering groceries and Christmas gifts online, downloading apps and movies and music, and making reservations and arrangements quickly, our children have “learned” that transactions occur conveniently and that human contact can be avoided. Talking to another person face-to-face has become a “folk culture” thing to do— which is a major problem in a place with that built its new incarnation on a corporate service economy.

These days, I regularly lament the loss of good service. For example, the other day, I called my neighborhood pizzeria to order dinner. The young man on the phone was pleasant enough, but at the end of our conversation, when I said, “Thank you,” he replied, “Mm-hmm.” And when I said,” Goodbye,” he hung up without a word. That’s not service. Service is more than writing down what I want and giving it to the kitchen. The food was the reason I came, but service should be the reason I’m glad I came.

If we’re going to have this service economy, catering to beach-goers passing through and tourists mulling over lynching sites and truckers carrying goods north out of New Orleans and Mobile, we need that classically Southern folk-culture know-how. A person can’t provide service if he only looks up from his cell phone long enough to tell customers, “Use the kiosk over there.” We need not to lose that “How y’all doin’?” and we darn sure need to get back to “Thank y’all for coming, and have a good day now.” It just makes a difference.

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