Interfacing with Real Faces

EVERY weekday at 4 a.m., when most residents of Chicago's affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood are still asleep, two former high-tech professionals start making the rounds of a very low-tech business: delivering milk. As owners of the brand-new Lincoln Park Dairy Service, Paul Yeh and Mark Kominkiewicz are banking - in every sense of the word - on a combination of convenience, nostalgia, and concern for the environment to attract up to 1,600 customers by the end of next year. ``These people will come to rely on me as their milkman,'' Mr. Kominkiewicz told an Associated Press reporter. ``They'll see the same face at the door every day. It won't be like it is at the supermarket, where they're only dealing with a name tag.''

Anyone who has ever come to rely on ``the same face at the door every day'' will understand the appeal of this charming new-old service. Yet it wasn't supposed to be like this. A decade or two ago, futurists confidently predicted that as the 21st century approached, people would happily bypass other people and interface with computers.

But buried in the blinking-screen efficiency of this computer world is a yearning for connection, continuity, familiarity - a sense of community - that won't go away. The electronic global village has arrived, but people still long for a real village at the core - a place where they can interface with a face.

Despite the round-the-clock convenience of automated teller machines, for instance, polls show that many customers prefer to do business with a bank teller now and then. Even before the computer age, the Automat was supposed to be the model of restaurant efficiency: Simply drop in your coins and take out your apple pie. Yet despite all our collective groaning about waiters who serve up clich'es - ``Have a nice day'' and ``Enjoy!'' - along with the food, most of us would still rather deal with a waiter than a vending machine.

This hunger for a human touch is evident in other ways as well. Police departments from New York to Los Angeles and from Oregon to Texas have begun putting patrol officers on foot, on horseback, and on bicycles. A robot cop patrolling in a squad car or a faceless voice answering 911 calls isn't enough, law enforcement experts now realize. By reinstating the neighborhood cop - a familiar face on a familiar beat - they hope to establish the sense of community that is one of the most effective deterrents to crime.

Such arrangements can be regarded as symbolic. But the daily texture of a community is created out of the dozens of gestures of dozens of residents behaving as if they were friends. Each becomes a supporting character in the life stories of all the others.

When I was growing up, the milkman was as much a daily presence in our middle-class neighborhood as the mailman. Every morning he would pull into the driveway, leave two quarts of milk in an insulated milk box by the back door, and collect our empty bottles. The clink of glass and the dull thud of the lid closing became reassuring sounds - a daily ritual as welcome as his friendly hello and wave.

Twice a week a pleasant farmer, Mr. Adamson, drove 25 miles to deliver eggs. We also had a butcher who brought meat to the house - Mr. Kjellstrom, a small, cheerful man with a Swedish accent and a smile that lighted up the kitchen.

There is an unwritten personal contract here that goes beyond business. These people could be relied on as if they were members of an extended family. Like the proverbial mailman making his appointed rounds through all kinds of weather, the milkman, the egg man, and the meat man always seemed to get through. Customers repaid that commitment with their own long-term loyalty.

In the name of efficiency, modern merchants analyze customers into a demographic abstract. They deliver service through a disembodied voice at the end of an 800 number, responding to catalog shoppers in need of just about everything - furniture, jewelry, clothing, or even cheese, if not quite milk. What the neo-milkmen in Chicago and all the others are discovering is that the marketplace is just an empty stage set without its characters, and no synthesizer-voiced robots saying ``Have a nice day'' will ever fill that void.

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