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The payback of follow-through

‘I’ll send you a postcard,’ I said to the phone store clerk.

Photo illustration by John Kehe

I don’t feel right at any cashier station or customer service counter unless I try to relate in some small way, however briefly, with the person charged with my efficient dispatch. The corporate urge to “Move ’em on, head ’em out” (an old refrain from the 1960s “Rawhide” western TV series featuring an impossibly young Clint Eastwood) always comes to mind in these settings. 

But there are exceptions. At smaller local food stores where customer, owner, and cashier have long known one another’s inventory, culinary preferences, and often even their moods, I may take some time to chat if lines are short. This may happen sometimes at my local oil change venue, where the receptionist and pit guys recognize my car and remember the old dog it once carried. It may also occur, oddly, at my local cellphone store, where I regularly take my iPhone to solve some conundrum or other. It is always a simple fix, and I realize anew I am probably targeted upon entry as one of The Clueless Ones. That’s just fine, as long as they keep cheerfully helping me with the whistles and bells and other settings I am slowly learning to manage.

Last spring I talked to a particularly patient and helpful fellow at this store about how to access international service, since I was headed to Zurich, Switzerland, in June. His eyebrows arched as he told me his grandfather hailed from Basel. 

“If I get there,” I promised, “I’ll send you a postcard.”

I’m not sure he knew what a postcard was, nor do I remember the last time I sent a postcard. The last one I received, I know, was a lonely straggler posted by friends visiting Africa a few years ago. They were back a good two months before their card fell into my mailbox, looking as if it might have walked and swum the distance on its own. 

Postcards were staples of my childhood and early adulthood. I sent legions of them home and to friends on my travels and collected scores from all corners of the globe. I had a full album of them as a kid. Places I’d been or hadn’t, it didn’t really matter. I bought them willy-nilly at dime stores with my allowance and imagined being in all of their exotic settings.

But who sends postcards anymore? And how do post offices safely deal with such insubstantial ephemera? What do postcards matter when you can conjure up anyplace with Google Earth?

Postcards are still out there, though, and I still find them alluring as a way to bridge the miles – not instantly, but slowly over time. 

By his expression, I knew my cellphone customer rep wasn’t expecting me to follow through. And I didn’t, the following June, for I failed to find a single postcard of Basel in Zurich. But then I returned to Europe in September and spent several days in Basel. At ridiculous expense, I selected and sent two postcards – one of the city’s cable ferry across the Rhine, and one of the ornate town hall – to the cellphone store, in care of my acquaintance there.

Over the next few months, I wondered if he’d gotten them, but I had no reason to visit the store until today, when I couldn’t manage some of my smartphone’s sound settings. 

And there he was. He didn’t recognize me at first, but once I realized it was him I casually asked, “Did you get the postcards from Basel?”

He looked at me with fresh and astonished eyes. “Oh, it’s you! I’ve got them posted in my room. My mom loved them, too. I never thought you were serious.”

Score one solid customer-relations bond (and friendship) to follow-through and to two slender postcards from a grandfather’s birthplace.

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