Monday, November 30, 2009

Big City vs. Small Town

The small town appeal of Humbug was a significant factor in my decision to open a little bistro there. I’ve never really liked the anonymity of big city living; it just leaves me feeling too alone on the planet. Humbug was that nice little place ‘where everybody knows your name’ even if they weren’t always glad you came. I just can’t express how comforting it was to walk into any store in town and have people say, “Hi, Heather!” As quirky as they were to do business with, Humbuggers were definitely wonderful people to live with.

The lack of vandalism was one of the most obvious signs of small town innocence. The first time I drove around Humbug, I made a point of going up and down some alley ways looking for graffiti. This had become quite a problem at my condo in Cuspidor so I was curious to see how much spray paint was being doled out in Humbug. As I drove up and down the first few alleys I didn’t see a single tag of graffiti. I actually drove back to look for telltale dark red patches on the dumpsters that would indicate graffiti had been freshly covered, but found none. I really couldn’t believe there was zero graffiti so I started checking more alleys. I burned up more than three hours that afternoon and couldn’t find a speck of spray paint anywhere.

Another thing that caught my eye was the sight of people leaving running vehicles to head into the convenience store. I made a point of looking for other occupants but most of the vehicles that were left running were completely unattended. This fascinated me. I just couldn’t believe that these people not only left their vehicles running but they didn’t even look over their shoulders while in the store. There seemed to be absolutely no fear whatsoever of auto theft.

On one of my trips I decided to try an experiment. As I walked down Main Street I selected one person on each block to bump into. I would pretend to be looking into a store window as I swerved over just enough to give them a knock. I apologized profusely while patting them down a bit and all they did was apologize back. As I walked away I watched their reflection in the store window and not one of these trusting souls checked their purse or wallet. I couldn’t help but think of how appetizing this town would be for a New York pick pocket. So great was the euphoria of walking amongst such trusting souls, that initially I didn’t even take notice of their bizarrely invasive questions.

Sometimes I would be driving behind a Humbugger who stopped in the middle of Main Street to roll down the window and talk to a friend who had been driving in the other direction; and I just laughed and lit up a cigarette while waiting for them to finish talking about whatever Humbuggers talked about. The pace of life just seemed so relaxing that it really gave me that feeling of ‘coming home’. If I found myself behind some octogenarian driver crawling along at 30 kilometers per hour, I just relaxed as I calculated that the most they could cost me was maybe three or four minutes – since the longest trip across town only took maybe eight minutes.

There are a lot of small town things about Humbug that I truly love. The convenience and friendly atmosphere of a good old fashioned downtown is something that you have to experience to understand. Walking from store to store and finding everything you need in such a small area just feels so cozy. Having people actually take the time to chat with you rather than just growl in response to any salutation really makes you feel like part of a community. Although it’s incredibly annoying when people can’t understand that I actually have to do work to keep my restaurant open, when I do have the time to chat with them it is really nice having them there. It’s hard to have much of a conversation with most Humbuggers – having no knowledge of who Janie Bauer is and thus not caring how much her father drinks – but there were always plenty of non-humbugged Humbuggers who could actually talk about things happening in the world outside of Humbug.

As frustrated as I found myself with the transient contractors that never seemed to finish their work; I have to say that the pre-opening preparations were really my honeymoon with the town. Even though I encountered a few strange people and quirks during this time, they were mostly easy to overlook in consideration of the peaceful, easy feeling of walking around a crime free Main Street – marked or unmarked.

The age of innocence I was experiencing, however, came to an abrupt stop on opening day. Humbuggers may have had a strong aversion to openly felonious behaviors but more than made up for it in ‘innocent little slips’ that could never result in more than a misdemeanor. By the end of the first day, even in my near catatonic stupor, I realized that a bunch of the high end packages of mints we were selling by the register had gone missing. I also noticed that the sales didn’t balance with the cash – but I just chocked that up to Jeffrey not being very experienced.

On the second day I began to notice a pattern of people handing Jeffrey a pile of quarters to pay for a latte, saying “That’s $3.25.” Jeffrey never counted the quarters, trusting soul that he was, but I couldn’t help but thinking the piles were short. For the most part I just didn’t have much chance to interrupt the transactions as I was still busy getting my plating perfected. I waited until Jeffrey was leaving to chat with him about it.

“Jeffrey,” I said, “the register didn’t balance yesterday. I need you to be more careful about counting change.”

“I am careful, boss – at least I think I am,” he replied.

“You aren’t careful enough when people give you exact change.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean if someone says that a stack of quarters is $3.25 then I want you to count it.”

“A few people did that today boss, but I remember them. They are from my church.”

“Count the quarters next time.”

“Ah, c’mon, boss. They wouldn’t short change me. I’m their youth pastor.”

“Count the quarters, Jeffrey.”

“Uh, well, that would be kind of uncomfortable. I mean I’m their pastor.”

“And you know that they never make mistakes?”

“Well they wouldn’t do it on purpose.”

“Count the quarters, Jeffrey.”

He didn’t like it, but he finally agreed that he was the one responsible for how much went into the drawer and therefore had to count the quarters. When he did count the quarters, every single person who tried to pay for a latte in change was short. Jeffrey was really tactful in dealing with this, and they would end up laughing about it – but NOT ONE of them had tried to overpay. Even when I pointed this out, Jeffrey still felt the oversights had to be honest mistakes but he agreed to continue carefully counting the money that went into the drawer.

These sorts of errors are not oversights, however. If they handed him the money and didn’t say, “That’s $3.25,” then I might be inclined to believe in the innocent nature of these little ‘oversights’. They DID say, “That’s $3.25,” however, and that is a very advanced neuro-linguistic programming technique used by some of the biggest big city scammers I have ever encountered.

I once knew a lowlife who could pick merchandise that would add up to exactly $20.00 and then joke about the round number at the register while paying the clerk with a piece of paper that wouldn’t pass for monopoly money. It was the right size and shape, and the colour wasn’t bad, but all he had to say was, “here’s twenty,” and almost every clerk would stick it straight into the drawer.

It’s not that these people can hypnotize the cashier – it’s just that they take advantage of a little attention span window that exists with almost every clerk working a busy register. There is a lot of repetitive patter when working a register, and most people get into an almost subconscious zone where gratuitous salutations and inane banter about the weather just gets tossed about like the cool side of a pillow on a hot night. Then, in the middle of it all, the clerk actually has to put money in the register and make change, and it is only during this window that the conscious brain comes into use. If, just as the clerk steps through this window, you ‘suggest’ the denomination of the currency you are handing over, the clerk sort of latches onto that for balance.

The magnitude of the suggestions that can be thrown at a person with neuro-linguistic programming are amazing. Although most people don’t know really know much about the technique, big city dwellers are always on the lookout for strangers who invade their space just for this reason. If you are walking down the street in Vancouver and some weird looking guy walks up and asks you to hold his cell phone while he ties his shoe – back away before you end up handing him your cell phone and walking away with his $2 calculator. This happens far more often than anyone ever admits.

Now passing off $2.25 in quarters for $3.25 while buying a latte is hardly the crime of the century, but I was really amazed to catch such an advanced technique in Humbug. Once I caught onto that, I found all sorts of people trying to change the denominations of bills while paying and others who would ask for change for a five dollar bill in the middle of a transaction. In the early days, when I was so incredibly sleep deprived, it was actually hard to keep on top of the till scams being thrown at me.

These people came into the store almost daily until they realized I would have none of it. The high-end packages of mints continued to disappear for quite some time, however. I wondered how other businesses dealt with the till scams, since Humbuggers seemed completely averse to any form of confrontation. I guessed that they just laughed these things off as innocent mistakes – but I was willing to bet a hefty sum that they were very careful about counting the money.

One little old lady was the most insidious, if not the least talented, of them all. I noticed her, a couple of times in the first week, sitting by herself near the entrance. She never bought anything, but just sort of slipped in with the lunch crowd and sat there doing nothing. I found it odd but didn’t really see any point in bothering some little old lady about taking up a chair while I still had a few left empty. She came in a couple of times in the second week as well, but changed her pattern to slipping in with the coffee row leeches. This was when I started working alone with Marty for the first time. I left him up front and headed to the kitchen to make lunch.

I was busy peeling apples in the kitchen when Marty burst through the corral doors looking terrified.

“We have a problem,” he said.

“What’s up?” I asked, following him back up front.

When I arrived at the front counter I saw the little old lady with a coffee in her hand, her purse on the counter, and an expression of rage on her face.

“This young hoodlum shortchanged me,” she barked.

“What happened, ma’am?” I asked.

“I bought a coffee and paid with a twenty dollar bill and he only gave me change for a five! I told him I gave him a twenty and he LIED to me and tried to tell me that I only gave him a five!”

“Did you see where he put your twenty dollar bill?” I asked.

“He put it in the till. I saw him put it in the till.”

“Are you absolutely sure about that ma’am?”

“Of course I’m sure. I may be old, but I know exactly what happened.”

I wanted to be absolutely certain that she was absolutely certain. Marty had just started and I really couldn’t vouch for his character but at the same time I really didn’t want to have to fire him. I was glad that she saw him put the money in the till because asking him to empty his pockets would have really made things difficult. I was also glad that she was so certain he had put it in the till because that could easily be passed off as an honest mistake. Furthermore, I never started the day with a twenty dollar bill in the drawer and this was the first day that I had seen a twenty dollar bill before lunch; it had come from Lyle Duerr and I remembered it perfectly because none of the coffee row leeches had ever handed me paper money before.

“Well, ma’am,” I said, “you are in luck. I know for a fact that when I walked away that the only twenty dollar bill in this drawer came from Lyle Duerr. He handed it to me at 8:30 this morning. If there are two twenty dollar bills in this drawer when I open it then we know that Marty made a mistake. If there is one, then we know that you made a mistake. Is that fair?”

The expression on her face turned to horror and she turned away, staring down into her coffee mug, as she whispered, “Yes.” I was very surprised by the extreme change in her behavior but then I realized three things: First – Lyle Duerr was a long time businessman in Humbug and his word would be considered unimpeachable by any and all Humbuggers. Second – Humbuggers can’t stomach confrontation at the best of times, and not only was I confronting her but I was also making Lyle Duerr a material witness. Third – She was a lying old cunt.

I pressed the no-sale key and the drawer rolled open. I reached to the slot with the twenty dollar bills and I found only one. I looked down at the old hag and she just stared away from me and down into her coffee mug. All I could see was the back of her shoulder as I said, “I’m sorry ma’am, there is only one twenty dollar bill in the drawer.”

She shook a little and then hunched over even more and I could barely hear her as she shook her head and said, “I must have made a mistake.” I never saw her again. There were others who tried similar schemes, some of them also suggesting that Marty had robbed them in one way or the other. Most of these scams were incredibly transparent and relied on the ruse of making a big scene in the hopes that I would just pay out to quiet things down.

The small town appeal of Humbug lost a lot of luster in my first few months of business. For all their small town charm, they were just as devious as any big city hustler. Fortunately the robbers in Humbug relied upon wit rather than weapons. Either way, they were unarmed.