Category Archives: Business

A Great Customer Service Story

As much as I like the pursuit of a bad customer service issue, I’ve found that people overlook those times when I highly recommend a business or service.

Today, one of the owners of Oasis Property Maintenance personally reached out to ensure that he could answer my questions and make things right. It was a literal delight to hear someone directly address an issue and offer to make it fully right, even if it bit him in the pocketbook.

I reciprocated and told him to pay it forward instead and that I didn’t want any refund, credit, or compensation. Just knowing that he was willing to go to that length to ‘fix’ a mistake was enough for me. It would have been a costly fix for him. As a consumer, I should have caught the issue when I bought this house, but didn’t.

Oasis is mainly a lawn company, one which charges based on lot size. They do online billing, which is a massive benefit to those of us who are antisocial. I’ve used them since they started. They’re not perfect, but they listen if there is an issue. Taking cost and intangibles into consideration, they are almost unbeatable, unless you have a cadre of teenagers to force to do your yard work.

If you currently have a lawn service, you can look online and ‘see’ what they will charge you without any misdirection. Oasis Property Maintenance

Even though you might not see or hear me doing so, I try to thank, reward, and appreciate good businesses. Thanks, X

No Cashier For You

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“1) Will a cashier always be available at the local Neighborhood Markets?” The answer is “No,” if Walmart has its way.

By the way, this hasn’t been answered by any of the dozens of emails, tweets, or direct messages I’ve exchanged in the last few weeks. Luckily, the corporation is staffed by human beings, ones who exist in the real world – and who share our misgivings about achieving cost reduction by eliminating jobs (and people) at the expense of customer convenience. Despite my complaint regarding being coerced into using self-checkout, even for large volume grocery shopping, the bigger shadow will come from passive scanning technologies which are designed to eliminate almost all interaction between shoppers and employees.

To all those with physical limitations or who dislike being required to be their own cashiers for one of the largest corporations in the world, please accept my apologies. Walmart will imply that their “Store Pickup” system will address these concerns. They won’t, at least not in the immediate future. From listening to people I know who’ve tried the order ahead and “Store Pickup” system, they love the idea of it but have universal frustrations with the implementation. Most of the hiccups are from, you guessed it, human error and insufficient staffing to provide a worry-free grocery experience. Warm ice cream? Shorter expiration dates on your dairy? Less appealing merchandise compared to what you might choose? Scheduling and logistic issues? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

If you have a disability or limitation, I can only recommend that you insist that all retailers accommodate you. If you resent being less valued as a customer, I can only advise that you seek a retailer which honors your request.

Most of us will gladly embrace self-checkout for some situations. We’ll even use the ‘scan as you go’ apps in most cases. Equally true, though, is that we’re not going to accept a multi-billion dollar corporation’s insistence that we do a job better performed by an employee of its organization, a job for which we are already being charged. There are times when we want a cashier, especially when we’ve accumulated a few dozen items in our shopping carts.

As for the customer service reporting system, Walmart’s is broken. As it turns out, it is deliberately designed to function that way. In the last few weeks, I’ve exchanged hundreds of emails, direct messages and fruitless tweets and posts. None of them came from an identifiable person. With each promise of contact, I’d be sent back to the starting point of the broken carousel. I could almost hear the crackle of laughter behind some of the redirects. Walmart insulates itself from marketing glitches by pushing everything back out to the local branches, as if the store manager is the one wanting to reduce his or her staff. In a moment of candor, I had a store manager tell me directly that he/she blamed all of it on corporate’s sole focus on cost, even though the metrics of customer satisfaction skew away from cost as being the sole factor.

Officially, no one at Walmart had the courtesy or professionalism to answer any of my questions, even when I reduced it to the one question which starts this post. Their failure to answer me is a testament to their proven ability to ignore most pushback and to their own belief that they are too large to fail. I can’t blame them, not really. Arrogance of that magnitude is almost inescapable when scaled to their size.

One thing I found out for certain is that Walmart is slowly transitioning to self-kiosks while simultaneously avoiding any blanket statements about their future. A bigger part of their vision involves using scanning technology or customer-driven input, which either passively tracks what we pick up at every point in the store or requires our input to scan or tally the selected merchandise. We are the proverbial frog in the slowly heating pot of water and we won’t realize that we can’t turn back until we’re too boiled to hop out. Walmart is counting on our complacency to reach a point of no return.

Between initiatives like Project Kepler and Code Eight, Walmart is investing heavily in technology which reduces labor by removing Walmart employees from the process as much as possible. For cost reductions, it’s smart. For human relations, it is less than ideal.

If you don’t want to use a self-checkout kiosk, the best option is to politely say “No.” If you’re told something you don’t like, try to remember that employees are either badly trained, which is management’s fault, or they are only parroting the words and procedures given to them, which is also management’s fault. They are still people first and employees second. This is ironic when you stop to consider that these very people are the ones Walmart is eliminating to save you money. Truth be told, most managers don’t have any real ability to control these types of issues.

It is a certainty that many retailers will follow suit and use technology to push our shopping habits in a new direction. As I’ve said all along, such technology holds a place in our future but it shouldn’t be forced upon us for all situations.

I started all this weeks ago by saying that Walmart and its smaller food markets in particular is a business model I very much want to embrace. I love technology and welcome both self-checkout kiosks and “as you go” systems. I resent the idea, though, that I am becoming an involuntary employee of the organization I’m rewarding with my business. For those who are older or with physical issues, I am especially concerned.

Locally, most of us will have choices through smaller grocery stores and chains. They’ll face the same price pressures, though, at some point.

I realize that this isn’t the most well-written post but perfect is the enemy of the good. If a billion dollar company can wing it, I see no reason to hold myself to a higher standard.

P.S. If you write me, I’ll be sure to forward that to my compliance and correspondence officer. Or Tier 3. Or Reader Spark. Or that guy Jonathan sitting in the basement waiting to help you. Please give me at least 24 business days to ignore your message.

Walmart Neighborhood Market and the 7-Circles-of-Catch 22

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I originally planned on posting a picture of a vacuum hose; it, like Walmart’s customer service system, has a great deal of suck. Good people, terrible system. As a Walmart employee told me, a great portion of their job is to insulate management. It’s true in many places and it should be no surprise that large impersonal corporations would be the same. Everything about their complaint or issue system is designed to weed out the crazies. It also, unfortunately, weeds out the authentic questions and concerns. (I realize that in many cases I qualify in both columns.)

I forgot to mention something that a lot of people don’t know: I used to teach quality and customer service classes, in 2 languages, at another large, impersonal private corporation. Traditional methodology doesn’t work; people silently vote with their feet.

Corporate complaint systems are similar to Yossarian’s Catch-22 of circular logic and disinformation. Because I love Catch-22, perhaps it is why I occasionally enjoy a foray into the wonkiness of broken corporate structure, even when I fully realize that it’s like a symphony of interconnected voices, except in this case, everyone is screaming in medieval Italian.

“Men Are From Mars, Walmart is From Uranus” might also be a good meme theme to address the dismal communication channels.

People at the local level told me contradictory things, most of which can’t be verified, with each pointing fingers up the organizational chart. A couple were careful to imply I was lying, which was an additional bonus. I expect a call from Robert Mueller any day now.

A 5-minute call with someone in the corporate structure would have been the extent of the issue. A couple of emails with someone other than a drone would have also been perfectly adequate. A bucket of water thrown on me would have been unhelpful, but amusing.

Then, something curious happened.

I found out that Walmart had already read my post on social media and on my blog. They have staff who monitor these things for mentions. Much of it is automated, as with Google alerts. They don’t directly acknowledge this, even though it is an open secret that many companies do this. All of the large ones do.

Things like ” #Walmart ” help them find mentions much more easily.

It’s fun to think that someone from Walmart is reading these words in their head, probably with an increasingly strange look of realization dawning on his or her face. I hope that person’s name is Amy, Jake, or Alonso, for reasons I can’t disclose.

I remember when my Aunt Ardith, who worked for SW Bell/ AT&T at the time, did the monitoring for a short period back when newspapers were the most likely mining resource for mentions of a company or person. Later, after the death of a family member, I found out the hard way that banks often monitor public records, obituary notices, and other similar material and often take pre-emptive action, even if this behavior isn’t strictly proper. Not everyone can have a good degree: those people who don’t go to careers in Marketing. (Ha!)

So, I now know that several Walmart employees have read about my both my issue and the lack of followup from anyone willing to communicate about it.

Meanwhile, I exchanged a slew of emails. The promised ‘person’ who would be my salvation again turned out to be a generic and nameless email and contact phone number. I had been Rick-rolled.

Even though at this point the company acknowledged there were ADA-level implications, no one reached out or returned their calls as promised. I can only assume that this means that every person they know is 100% healthy and loves doing the jobs that were previously included in the price of the goods or services they buy. The circular emails and messages, however, continued, probably in hopes that I would put a large dirty shoe in my piehole and go away.

I found myself reading the entire tax code for fun, hoping to distract myself from Walmart’s inability to reply to a simple question.

Because people in the hierarchy have seen my posts, I assume they know that customers are watching what they do and how they address labor shortages and automation in their stores. A lot of us have a few basic questions we need to be answered before we make a decision to turn from apathetic toward resentful.

They’ll read this post, too, and know that I know that they know. I’m watching them as they watch me. (Think Rockwell, except without the creepy shower scene.)

As a reminder, this issue started because someone I know was mistreated by a local Neighborhood Market. Out of character, I went to find a manager and talk about it to try to get answers for all of us – and hopefully, help the company and its customers. Next time, I’m going to do what I know works: roll my hair in used cat litter and go to the store asking where they keep the duct tape.

Stupid me.

Jeesh, I certainly hope that #Harps is monitoring all this stupidity, too.

For the record, though, I’ve simplified the questions for Walmart executives:
1) Will a cashier always be available at the local Neighborhood Markets? 2) If not, would it be a burden for Walmart to clearly identify the hours and/or stores which will have no cashiers present? 3) Absent a cashier, does a person with an issue or disability need to disclose his or her private medical condition in order to get an employee to perform the job of cashier? 4) If you remove cashiers, do we get an additional discount? P.S. I’d rather pay a little more and keep more people employed and all of us happier. Otherwise, I’m going to forget to scan about 22 bags of cat litter as you force me to do the cashier job for your employees. You’ll get the cat litter back, though, one bad hair day at a time.

So, Amy, Jake, and Alonso, this post is finished. You can relax.

My ‘Ladder’ Problem at Walmart…

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A few people questioned the validity of the email screenshot I posted over the weekend. While I appreciate the idea that I love the ludicrous more than the next guy, it is 100% true that an actual human being from Walmart (Neighborhood Market) replied to my emails by inquiring about my ladder problem.

For anyone concerned, my ladder is in the garage, safe and sound.

I’m up to 84 interactions with Walmart help, customer care, and corporate.

It seems like it would just be cheaper (and smarter) for them to put me in contact with someone in Compliance, wouldn’t it? I’m not in charge of a multi-national corporation though, so it’s possible they know something I don’t. #walmart

P.S. Walmart really is the Cable TV of groceries, too. 2000 channels and nothing to watch. 2,000,000 associates and no one to listen.

Walmart Neighborhood Market Is The Cable TV of Groceries

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(This is a long one. Don’t attempt to casually read this if you have an actual life. 🙂  )

After work on March 9th, I stopped at the local Neighborhood Market to find a manager. I breathed, “Be nice, be nice” to myself before going in. The managers have a history of inattention to complaints or requests, no matter how professionally presented. I would be unable to manage one of these stores. The Neighborhood Market does a lot right, I’ll be the first to admit. Their worst issue is that they do much to complain about too, and when we come forward, the eye-rolling or stonewalling is epic. I ‘want’ to love Walmart Market.

My wife Dawn had a terrible experience earlier in the day. It was so bad that my phone translated her entire text message to read: “$%#&% $$$%%$ !” She’s very patient and kind in general but after her experience, I thought that Walmart had probably misjudged her building wrath. I decided to go in and see what the manager might say before Dawn opted to recreate a battle scene from The Avengers. Being a patient voice is not a role I often assume. There are times, however, when I approach an issue like I would a hobby just to see how bad it can go awry, even when I’m being polite and patient. (Dawn will tell you that most of these interactions culminate in a resemblance to any major Civil War battle scene.)

During Dawn’s earlier visit there were no checkers up front unless they had recently purchased invisibility cloaks. When Dawn asked for assistance, the girl she asked literally shrugged, said “I dunno,” and went back to ignoring her. Dawn’s cart had $200 of groceries in it. She wanted to just abandon it after piling it on the conveyor belt at the self-checkout, but she’s not wired that way. The person allegedly responsible for keeping an eye on the self-checkout of course magically materialized and intermittently was as minimally helpful as possible but did not do Dawn’s checking for her, as is supposed to happen. It was his job at that point to step up and use the self-checkout lane to cashier and handle the checkout for Dawn. (The managers have told me this more than once – before anyone asks or questions this. If this policy has changed, management needs to tell both the employees and the customers.) Dawn had to unload, scan, bag and reload the massive pile of stuff herself, while the gentleman who was monitoring jumped in and interfered instead of helping. Dawn had to run home to work, as her store trip had morphed into an epic misadventure. What should have taken 30 minutes dragged on to almost an hour.

Had I been there, you can be sure that the entire scenario would have played out differently. I’m sure it would have been entertaining to watch on replay through the security cameras as I creatively made my point. There’s a reason my driver’s license has a picture of a jackass on it.

This store recently upgraded to include many more self-check stations, as well as aligning the store to be an “order ahead” hub. The manager told me that they had asked corporate to put in fewer self-checkouts but were rebuffed, as they were out of touch with their customers and their own stores. (Her words, not mine.) Dawn’s had issues with this store before. The issues affecting it have only worsened. I’ve written about a few of them before, as some of the stories seem unlikely. Human behavior in impersonal organizations is staggeringly strange.

I went to the store and politely asked for a manager. The customer service person wasn’t thrilled with my minimalist request to wait to speak to a manager to voice my concerns. I waited several minutes. Finally, a woman with shoulder-length black hair came out and introduced herself as the manager-on-duty.

The purported manager I spoke with listened to me and I listened to her. She was less than pleased about hearing of the employee who had blown Dawn off, and about the gentleman watching the self-check who didn’t step in to assist. I told her that social media had been brutal to the store in question lately, and not only because of the remodel. She wasn’t as receptive to my criticism of the reliance on self-check, even as I acknowledged that I knew corporate was the villain in that equation. She was also dismissive of people’s complaints on social media. But I did my best to imperfectly express to her how bad the experience my wife had was. She did at least listen to me, regardless of whatever mental gymnastics might have been going on behind her eyes.

The woman I spoke with had trouble getting around the idea that there we no checkers, because “There always is at least one.” She was very adamant about this, despite our observations to the contrary. I told her that if the store advertised that it was ‘cashier-less,’ the negative reaction would be lesser, as we would either adjust or choose the competition. The purported manager also insisted that we should be very aggressive in demanding customer service and about demanding someone to speak with if things weren’t handled correctly. It’s a common expectation for businesses to hope that customers will somehow overcome the natural tendency to just ‘let it go,’ even as the employees of that business become belligerent or fail to do what they are supposed to. I was standing in the store that afternoon talking to her, precisely because the other methods of direct and indirect communication weren’t working.

I’m not “anti-self-checkout,” by the way, not at all. I know the demographics of preferences regarding technology and access. Self-checkout has its place but only as a component, not as a replacement. I love having the option. If Walmart stupidly wants to trust me to scan my groceries, woe unto them.

Of all criticisms regarding my interaction with the manager, I would have to say it might be the blindness toward the level of frustration and bad experiences people collectively have. This manager would have had no idea about how angry my wife was about her experience had I not walked in and waited. It takes a massive and ongoing problem for Dawn to get flustered. Managers focus on issues, day in and day out, but most of the problems that we have as customers never reach their eyes or ears. Part of the problem is that it is too difficult to talk to someone – and if we do, our words tend to slide through ears or onto forgotten paperwork. Everyone is busy and corporations have wrongly reduced labor by taking away people’s available time to engage with other human beings.

One critical issue which businesses seem to share as they grow is that they somehow begin to agree that customers bear most of the responsibility to come forward with complaints or criticism. Most don’t, however, because most of us don’t really want to complain. If we have the chance, we communicate with our feet and find a new way to do business. It’s exceedingly more expensive to find a new customer than it is to retain an old one, yet most businesses fall into the ‘more’ trap, failing to the see the pyramid scheme of available customers as the bottom falls away.

Walmart’s size and prices are responsible for people not walking away forever; they are the cable TV of groceries.

I sent out emails and tweets to Walmart and some of its tentacles, hoping to engage with someone high enough in the byzantine corporate structure to listen to me. They make it easy to ‘shout’ at them, but it is a miracle to find a connection who will respond with interest or in a timely manner. Our irritation is built into their cost of business. Walmart holds us mostly captive within its market share.

Before bed, I noticed that a social media friend had posted about this very topic, except the story she shared was one pushing us all to refuse to use the self-checkout whenever possible. It’s strange how small the world is. I hadn’t realized that so many people agreed with this sentiment. Some of their arguments are powerful and they are experimenting with several creative ways to force businesses like Walmart to take their concerns seriously. I’m curious about the details and can see that I’ll be doing a lot of further reading about it.

On this side of town, we have a Harp’s grocery, one which we wish were at the quality level of the Harp’s on Gutensohn but still has some endearing qualities. They don’t use self-checkout. We’ve had problems with this store too, but someone has always intervened and addressed them. They feel approachable. It’s their most marketable quality, even if they don’t use it appropriately in their marketing. We want to love it and we try. By the way, Harp’s bags your groceries and puts them in the cart. If you ask, they will always find someone to help you to your car and put the groceries in it for you.

Walmart says Harp’s has no self-checkout because they can’t afford to. The manager I spoke with told me this as if it had been repeated as truth. I know that to be untrue, though. Harp’s has a different focus on the customer and it’s a focus that might destabilize Walmart as it tries to compete with the likes of Amazon.

The manager also didn’t know how to address my point of Walmart needing cashiers to assist the disabled, especially those without a visible disability. How does an elderly or disabled person shop unless an employee is present to do their job? Walmart owes it to their customers to advertise the store so that those needing assistance will not go there.

I don’t need to wish any ill will on Walmart because from my point of view, it is its own worst enemy as the economy changes around it. Size creates deafness.

The fact that I stopped to talk to the manager helped diffuse Dawn’s frustration. I pity the fool, however, who ignores Dawn should she choose to give the Neighborhood Market another try.

P.S. I followed up on the twitter and emailed inquiries, but gave up after realizing that the people or bots I was dealing with had no interest in real communication. Anyone who knows me also knows that I enjoy this sort of tedious exchange, so it is a fact that the corporate side of customer interaction is built to protect the hierarchy rather than engage the customer.

P.P.S. For those who wonder, “What good does this sort of thing do?” I would respond by saying that you should imagine if I write this many words to get something out of my head, imagine what I do behind the scenes to get my point across. Saying nothing will guarantee that no one listens. It also tends to invalidate my right to expect change if I don’t ‘waste my time,’ even at ridiculous windmills like this one. I could be watching “The Bachelor,” instead.

YesOrNo.com

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Note: this is an older post. Seeing Netflix and a few other sites adopt an idea I’ve had forever makes me smile – as I recommended exactly this course of action several years ago in this blog post.

I’m going to start a website called “YesOrNo.” It will cover websites, restaurants, vehicles, tourists spots, movies, music and anything under the sun. It will be a testament to minimalism and focus in a world of too many options. If you are neutral to the website, movie, or restaurant, you don’t vote. No fence-sitting is allowed.

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Instead of being weighed down by too many details, there are only going to be 2 options: “yes” or “no.” No comments. No categories to obfuscate the response. No Yelp-like lawsuits alleging vote-fixing or reviews. Studies have shown that too many options reduces our happiness and satisfaction.

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Users will need to learn to be discerning with their votes. There will be neutral option. Either you vote or you don’t – but you’re going to need to decide between “yes” or “no.”

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There will be technical issues to address governing how to identify participants and/or lessen abuse of voting. That’s true of any website or business idea. Clever, motivated people combined with technology should eliminate all the major hurdles.

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With a social element, users can choose to add “trusted voters” to their logins so that they can refine their trusted opinions over time. This will allow you to ask the website to recommend a new place or experience to you, based on input from you and others who are similarly minded. In my scenario, however, the data will be limited to tallying without superfluous detail.

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Unlike Angie’s List, users won’t be expected to pay – as such services exclude much of the population. It does tend to cause an uptick in the “crazies” noticing your website, but again, technology can overcome most of the stupidity that will ensue.

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It’s so strange to see Tinder doing well. I’ve joked about yesorno.com for a long time, especially after an old-school website called “checkthegrid” died. On my old blog I had this idea designed, with screenshots and graphs. Like most people, though, my enthusiasm usually sputters at the implementation of an idea.

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At it’s heart, the website would be simple categories, with “green” indicating “yes,” and “red” equating to “no.”

 

Adventure In Marketing

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Adventure In Marketing

As many of you know, I often do work for other websites, usually satirical, and often hare-brained. Most of it I do without credit, which works out favorably for all concerned.

Recently, I had the chance to apply for an unpaid ‘think tank’ for an unnamed major U.S. pizza chain. When I first interviewed, I was certain I wouldn’t be chosen – as one of the hurdles was an IQ test. Since anyone who knows me knows that I find these things to be ridiculous and without merit, I finished mine in less than 4 minutes, using a system I call ‘random.’

When I slid it back across the oak table to the person conducting the IQ tests, she said, “Sir, you have 25 minutes to complete it all.” Without missing a beat, I replied that I already knew my IQ score.

“Really? What’s your score?” she sneered.

“Low oxygen level,” I replied, without daring to crack a smile.

I went home and almost forgot about the application process. Three weeks later, a welcome packet arrived in the mail, along with a website login and a credentialing packet. I had been accepted despite my interview antics.

By sheer coincidence, I had recently tried to treat myself by ordering home delivery pizza. I had eaten healthy for a week and thought that a celebration was needed to keep my motivation.

It was a disaster. The cardboard box tasted better than the pizza. I was hoping to throw up, just to get the taste of that pizza out of my mouth.

The next day, I logged in to the marketing website to start an assignment. Lo and behold, the subject was the very same company which had reminded me how low the bar could be set for edibles.

I weighed the pros and cons of each option: submit great work and possibly be rewarded OR write the best food review possible.

This is the result: the new logo and motto for Pizza Hurt. Look for it at a location hopefully very far from where you are.

And Now, A Word About Complaints

Among those frustrations we share in common as humans, perhaps none is as deeply pernicious as the specter of inaction in the face of a pattern of misbehavior. Each time the feeble question of “what could we have done” cuts deeper. It is difficult enough for an intelligent person to come forward at his or her own risk when silence is the easiest choice among glib options. In part, this is the major justification for pausing to listen attentively when someone steps forward with a complaint – even if no one else does. Silence, as we know, is just as likely to signify fear and distrust of the process as it is the absence of truth in the allegations. In the face of being ignored when speaking the truth, I am more surprised the table is not only pounded on with greater ferocity and frequency but also that the table is not overturned. Ignored complaints fester and make all of us lesser people.

While my post is personal and not born of any specific or recent event, I think it applies to current events as well. (P.S. Don’t ascribe motives or scenarios.)

Someone I am close to reluctantly got dragged into a lawsuit decades ago, one in which allegations against a prominent public figure were labeled as ridiculous. Those who came forward suffered a barrage of insults and distrust. As a result, the wrong side won and we will never know how much damage was done to other people.

Imagine the spectacle of that first person daring to come forward, knowing that her word was going to be questioned. Every scandal starts with an unsubstantiated allegation. Every truth starts as a heresy.

Springdale & Brinkley Hold Lessons

This post evolved from a simple comparison of my geographical past. It grew to encompass parts of me and as such, is very personal. If you will pardon my generalizations and laziness toward exact writing, you might find something interesting.

I didn’t come to Springdale until the early 70s. My dad dragged our recently reconstituted family up here for the promise of a steady job, away from the geography which took the blame for so much of my dad’s heartache. His time in prison in Indiana and his involvement in the death of one of my cousins (unrelated to prison) had broken him of some of his desperate need to remain in his hometown. My dad had a brother here, my Uncle Buck, as well as a few cousins. Our move was prior to the miracle of the interstate reaching its tentacles up to Northwest Arkansas, so all trips to NWA were long, winding escapades. It seemed like we drove for days to reach the mountains of Springdale. I didn’t understand what a ‘hillbilly’ was. All I knew were the fields of Monroe County and the places my grandma and grandpa called home. Being with my dad was the last thing on my wish list.

Years take on a different meaning when I stop to consider that soon enough I will be exactly halfway between 1970 and 2070. Springdale and I both have changed immeasurably since I was young. The area of the Delta from which I came has continued a generally languid, shuffled march toward annihilation while NWA has become a beacon for commerce and lifestyle. It was sheer luck that my dad’s terrible fortune planted my feet here. And while the Delta was once the powerhouse of agriculture but found no clear footing to advance, Springdale and surrounding areas used agriculture as a springboard from which to dive into a diversified future. So many of us here live in houses situated on plots once adorned with grapes, apples, strawberries and all manner of other foods.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that the interstate running through Brinkley wasn’t always there, a fact which should have been immediately obvious. In Brinkley’s case, though, the interstate seems to have provided a convenient escape for the younger generation, as they ventured out and realized that the state had more to offer in other places. In Arkansas’ early history, roads were intensely local, often built to connect small town agricultural markets. For the affluent parts of the state, the interstate gave people and commerce alike the way to merge interests. While lifelong residents of Brinkley might wish to disagree, it is obvious that good roads shone a beacon toward better opportunities in other parts of the state. Brinkley could have been one of the jewels of this state, given its location. Even as I sometimes forget that I once loved the flatlands there, I will admit to its austere beauty.

I also forget that many parts of my early life are inexplicably entwined with those people who I deeply loved and those who were violent caricatures of real people. Geography mixes in my head and sometimes paints an unfair picture of those places, simply because the people walking across my stage were broken people. As we all do, I carry pieces of these broken people in my head, as such slivers are difficult to excise. I can hold the image of standing near a rice field near Brinkley, up to my ankles in mud, laughing; I can also imagine walking alongside a pungent Tontitown grape vine in August, my fingers cleverly stealing unwashed grapes and eating them like candies. I’m not sure which place or memory is more valid, but I do know that being surrounded by people with love in their hearts can make any geography welcoming, while immersion in the minds of lesser people will reduce the world’s brilliance regardless of where one’s feet might be. It’s how City View might have been a place of low resort for many, and a welcome mat for others.

Because of the reduced crucible I survived as a kid, on the one hand, there was so much about this town which remained unknown to me. My life was incredibly small. I could sense that it was an interesting place, though. My family moved over twenty times by the time I had reached adulthood. So many places around Springdale became familiar to me. In many ways, I feel as if this was advantageous to me, giving me a different perspective than someone who was lucky enough to remain fairly rooted in the same place growing up. In my family’s case, our ongoing moves concealed the array of abuse and violence camouflaged inside each respective new residence.

When I was in 2nd grade, I remember asking Mom what it was like attending school with black children in Monroe County. She looked at me like I had been hit with a shovel and said, “I didn’t. We were segregated.” (It was probably a lucky thing for them, though.) I wondered why Springdale was segregated, too, given that there were no black kids in class with me. How was I supposed to know that there were so few minorities living here? I was so naive. Even trying to understand that one of schoolyard buddies Danny was actually from Chile was beyond my comprehension. That’s how reduced my life was without education. Had I been born 100 years ago and remained in Monroe County, I could easily see myself in the role of unapologetic racist. My family would have raised me to believe that it was a certainty.

It’s funny now, my ignorance. In my early youth, I had never heard the word “segregated” except as a muttered curse. For most of the whites in the Delta, segregation was a word equated with government distrust. When I started learning history, it astonished me that there was such a short jump between our Civil War and WWII.

My dad took us back to Brinkley for my 3rd-grade year, to attempt to run a gas station in the no-man’s land on Highway 49 outside of Brinkley. While my home life was a slow-moving mess, school was fascinating. Just as I got acclimated to flat lands again, Dad’s failed business drove us back to Northwest Arkansas.

I remember my Uncle ___ saying that he was jealous of my dad, Bobby Dean because Springdale didn’t have ‘the plague’ of so many blacks. Other family members said the same and I only share this memory reluctantly. Perhaps it’s not wise or fair to generalize about my recollections of prejudice. On the other hand, they are my stories and as a sage once reminded us, perhaps people would behave more appropriately if they knew an observant writer was living amongst them. Truth be told, racism took a back seat when contrasted to the casual violence of my dad. I had a couple of god-fearing aunts and uncles who remind me that we should never be surprised by the sheer hatred some racists harbor in their hearts. One of the prevailing lessons they taught me was that religion could easily be twisted to justify and condone all manner of hate, all the while sitting behind a pearly-white smile and opened Bible. When I was young, I endured many a comment from them regarding my views on homosexuality, race, and language. When I grew up and realized that they were simply unadorned racists, their arguments dried up. The revisionists in life will insist they were great people and in many ways, they were the product of their times; in another way, though, they deliberately refused to change their minds, even as they paid pretense to the societal demands that they keep their boring and unimaginative racism mostly closeted.

Even though so much became second-hand to me, Springdale itself began to break away from its parochial roots; languages and color slowly entered and once inside sufficiently, kicked the door in and changed the fundamental nature of everything here. Even as I learned the town’s geography, it was already changing rapidly around me. In 1970, Springdale’s population was around 17,000. In 2015, it was on the high end of 77,000. (My hometown lost 1/2 of its population in the same time period, by comparison.) No road escaped the necessity of bulging outside of its small borders, and many signs became incomprehensible to the earlier residents. I was lucky enough to be present during many fits and tirades from Springdale residents insisting that hating the presence of another language wasn’t a sign of prejudice. They seem ignorant to almost everyone now, but the angry spew of their spittle was a sight to behold back in the day.

Springdale was akin to a debutante sent away to school in some exotic location; upon her return, she was unrecognizable as the same person. But almost everyone could look upon her and admire the changes. It’s almost impossible to turn back once someone or somewhere has caught a glimpse of the vastness of the world.

I’ve heard many people refer to Springdale as once being a Sundown Town. I don’t remember seeing such signage. On the other hand, I didn’t need to. My family provided all the exclusionary language anyone would ever need. Their distrust for minorities was amplified by our move to a white community. As strange as it is, I remember when my mom started working for Southwestern Bell (AT&T) in Fayetteville as an operator. She often came home, angrily ranting about blacks in her workplace. It was the same language she used in Monroe County except now she had a home base to retreat to, one which seemed to encourage her racism. Mom was an angry person most of her life, so the language was a symptom of her defect more than any commentary on her surroundings. Both my mom and dad fled back to Monroe County in the late 80s, after a long succession of disappointments.

Before I forget to mention it, my mom’s last job was as a custodian for Brinkley schools. The person who treated her the most kindly there was one of the black teachers there, proving that truth is stranger than fiction. Like so many racists, Mom’s racism tended to intensely situational. She couldn’t understand why I, as a white person, would ever stoop so low as to learn another language, much less love its differences. Her life was reduced by her prejudices.

The differences between the racism of Springdale and Brinkley were striking. It wasn’t until I was much older I surmised that Springdale didn’t need to be overtly racist. The whiteness of the faces walking the streets communicated a clear message as to the population. Springdale was a town waiting to be changed both monumentally and one person at a time, whether it saw the tidal wave approaching or not. It confused me how two places in the same state could be so markedly different, yet both have residents generally fixated on differences based on skin color. I’m generalizing of course, but I know that you understand the distinction I’m drawing. Most of Springdale’s residents weren’t prejudiced, of course, just unsure as to how to accommodate the changes to their towns. Racism tends to discolor a disproportionate number of people around it, giving it a larger circle than reality warrants. This circle of influence sometimes gives the wrong impression of tolerance toward prejudice and many of those practicing it become adept at hiding under its umbrella.

It’s strange to me that both Springdale and Brinkley had so much to build upon. Frankly, Brinkley had the advantage when I was young, and if a few visionaries had the temerity to act upon it, it would be flourishing now. Instead, Northwest Arkansas seized these opportunities.

Against the backdrop of economy and money, Springdale acquired deep populations of Latinos, Marshallese, and other minorities. Most of us who were paying attention and curious were amazed at the changes brought to us by different cultures. Since I’m naturally curious, I loved the overlap of cultures and couldn’t wait for it to become entrenched. Others, though, peered at it through narrowly-turned blinds, wondering if the small town they grew up in was gone forever. Thankfully, the answer was ‘yes.’ Change brought a greater viability to our town. The overlaps of other culture became so large that in many cases people felt conflicted about which culture was their primary one. That is the ‘melting’ we claim to honor as a country. The melting works much better when it is in both directions, with those who were here first welcoming the inevitable changes brought by new faces.

The same didn’t happen for Brinkley, despite it attempting a few rebrandings. The remaining base shifted out from under when it lost its Wal-Mart. People continued to flee, even if meant they’d be exposed to a greater variety of cultures elsewhere. For those who left, many have an idealized memory of what it once was. The truth, though, is that it was never really that place. People voted with their feet and the results are the only conclusion which needs no clarification. One day, hopefully, Brinkley will discern a path toward revitalization but all such paths are dead ends without new faces and new opportunities.

Springdale, albeit with a few hiccups still to come, is a place which can be a foundation for everyone to look back upon and feel a sense of community. It defies an easy definition, precisely because other groups came here to stay.