Rockin’ it in a hard place

Frustrated is how I felt. When you work in an industry where every tiny detail is an excuse not to get paid, you tend to pay attention to all those details. Not all industries follow those guidelines, however. In fact some insist that they get paid in advance, just in case.

Such was the situation on this particular morning. I had scheduled an appointment in advance, paid in advance and driven an hour to get there. It was only then that the service technician informed that the one-hour job was going to take three hours.

“You can bring it back tomorrow,” he said, as if driving round trip an extra two hours was reasonable.

In the end I opted to do the service anyhow, realizing that two hours now was better than two more hours of travel time, plus another hour of service, if in fact that is what it worked out to be.

With time to kill I went looking for something to eat. I had forgone breakfast so I wouldn’t be late for my scheduled appointment. In the customer service industry you often learn to think of others first — call it an industry trait. It was only then that I really noticed the neighborhood in which the auto shop stood.

Careful walking was called for because I was reasonably sure that those puddles on the sidewalk were not water, partly because of the yellowed bricks and partly because California is in the middle of a major drought. By the time I stopped in front of the little café I was less than impressed. It didn’t help that there was a pile of clothes on the street, including a pair of bright red pumps with severely worn-down heels.

I sure wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Sometimes people with no other options take out life’s frustrations on service people. Trouble with the post office? Yell at a waiter. Behind on your mortgage? Run around a waitress. Lost your job? Order a ridiculously complicated drink from a bartender, then send it back and storm out. It goes on and on.

I was going to do my best not to be one of those people.

“Hi there!” said the cheerful man behind the counter. I was immediately struck by the fact that in stark contrast to the building’s exterior, the interior was spotless.

A vibrant plant hung by the windows and everything was neat, neat, neat. It was a veritable oasis in a desert of urban shabbiness.

Often you can tell that a restaurant has thrown in the towel by how dirty it is. It doesn’t take long to keep things clean, it just takes the will to do so. And when a restaurant has lost its will, it is not worth going to anymore. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the evidence. What is the first thing John Taffer on “Bar Rescue” or Gordon Ramsay on “Kitchen Nightmares” do? That’s right, they clean.

Mr. Cheerful explained the many specials and took the time and effort to make me aware of all my options.

I really wanted to dislike him. I was frustrated, irritated and hungry, which is not a triple bill for happiness.

But I instead found myself liking him. In the service industry we call it “turning them around,” the ability to take a negative experience and turn it into a positive one.

The food was as delicious and as well thought out as was the service. I stayed in that little café twice as long as I had originally intended. In fact when my cellphone rang to inform me that my car was finished, I passive-aggressively waited 10 minutes in that tiny oasis. Gandhi I am not.

Back at the auto shop I got a perfunctory shrug when I picked up my car three hours later than expected. Leaving me with these thoughts:

• If you opt for cheerfulness not everyone will respond. But if you go the other route, the response will be universal.

• Don’t judge a book by its cover. I have had the best service in the least expensive of places. Consequently I have also had the worst in the most expensive.

• If you keep having bad experiences at restaurants and bars, it is possible that it might not be the fault of those restaurants and bars.

• “Habit” is what we fall into, “practice” is what we choose to do.

• Kansas ain’t all that.