By Stewart Mandel
For as long as I can remember, “the DMV” (Department of Motor Vehicles) has been our nation’s most commonly referenced standard for misery, annoyance and stupefying incompetence. Nearly everyone has a driver’s license, which means nearly everyone has shared the same experience of waiting in three-hour lines only to be told by an indifferent civil servant behind a window that there’s something wrong with their paperwork.
“Ugh,” your friend says of sitting through an interminably bad movie. “That was worse than a trip to the DMV.”
“My mother-in-law is staying with us this weekend,” your co-worker complains. “I’d rather be stuck in line at the DMV.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to update our cultural lexicon. Something has managed to surpass the DMV on the spectrum of mind-numbing nuisances, and that something is the Verizon Store.
If you’re like me, you undoubtedly own a cell phone. If you’re like me, you’ve probably owned several different cell phones over the course of the past decade, and if you’re like me, it’s in part because most cell phones inevitably die.
There are few more helpless feelings than waking up one morning, pressing the power button on your phone — and getting no response. You check to see whether the battery became dislodged overnight. It did not. You press again. Still nothing. You try plugging in the phone charger and trying it that way. The blank screen keeps taunting you.
Finally, you accept your reality. You’re fucked.
Perhaps you have to be at work at a certain time. Perhaps you have a full day planned. None of that matters anymore. The clock is ticking. You may be missing important calls and texts at that very moment. You must drop everything at once and head straight to the Verizon Store.
The first time this happened to me, I didn’t have a clue the fate that awaited me. Certainly, I didn’t expect to stroll to the counter, casually toss my impotent phone to an employee, watch him toss me a replacement and be on my way. But I also didn’t expect to be stonewalled within seconds of walking through the front door.
“Hi there,” said Steve, the requisite greeter at the front of the store. “What brings you here today?”
As I’ve since learned, having encountered emergency cell-phone situations in three different states (most notably, the time I waded into the ocean in Ft. Lauderdale with my phone in the pocket of my swim trunks), there is a Steve in every Verizon Store. His official title — I swear, I’m not making this up — is Director of First Impressions.
My first impression of Steve, clad in his neatly-pressed white dress shirt and red tie, was that just above his polite, fake smile were the stone-cold eyes of a man who knew well his position of power in this particular transaction.
“I think my phone is dead,” I explained. “And if it is, I’d like to go ahead and buy a different one.”
He gestured toward a digital kiosk to his right. “Just enter your phone number, your first name and last initial in here.”
I’m pretty sure I could have told him just about anything — like, “My cousin is writhing in seizure outside on the sidewalk at this very moment” — and this still would have been his response. Verizon Store protocol is highly specific.
Once I’d entered my information, Steve asked for a quick refresher on my predicament.
“You said your phone is dead?”
“All right, no problem.” He punched a few buttons on the screen, and suddenly “Stewart M” appeared on one of three lists. “You’re entered in the queue for technical support. They’ll call you when they’re ready.”
A “queue?” Had I been magically transported to London without noticing? Apparently Steve’s job was to assess each incoming customer’s dilemma and assign it to one of three departments – sales, customer service or tech support. Mine fell into the latter.
As I sat down in a row of black leather chairs at the front of the store, I noticed for the first time the extent of the chaos around me. The store, not much bigger than a suburban two-car garage, was a dizzying whirl of fast-talking salesmen (all in those same white dress shirts), bewildered customers and assorted people aimlessly browsing the various models of phones lining the store walls. I looked up at one of the monitors displaying the current waiting list to see my name sitting fourth in the tech support “queue.”
While I waited, I figured I’d stroll the store myself to scout my potential replacement options. Being the furthest thing from a tech geek, I had no way of knowing whether a Samsung was better than a Motorola. Until recently I couldn’t have told you “Bluetooth” was something different than “Blu-Ray.” And seeing as I’m not a fictional character on the show Gossip Girl, I didn’t particularly care how many megapixels came with the camera.
Clearly, I was going to need the help of a trained professional, which is exactly what I would be getting just as soon as I … wait a second. During the 15 minutes I’d been browsing, I’d somehow slipped a spot to fifth on the list. What was this, American Top 40? Was Steve playing favorites? Even more troubling, the two customers standing at the tech support counter hadn’t changed. Was somebody building these people new phones on the spot?
I began to simmer with rage upon the realization I might be stuck here for the next several hours. Ironically, this process had already taken longer than that of the last time I renewed my driver’s license, which, while intimidating, was surprisingly efficient. I soon began to despise the Verizon Store and everyone associated with it.
At the counter to my left, a 40ish woman in a jogging suit haggled with a salesman over the complexities of her contract. “You told me if I added a second line for my son, I’d be able to carry over the minutes from the first one,” she said. “That’s right,” he replied unfettered. “But your new line has to include all the same features as your old line.”
Standing near the wall in front of me, a salesman talked excitedly about a promotion for the new “RAZR” phone to a Japanese couple that kept nodding their heads in agreement but clearly couldn’t understand a word he was speaking. Neither could I. “We’ll waive the activation fee, plus you’ll get a $50 rebate when you download the VCast app for your handheld.”
That’s when it hit me. These $15-an-hour sons-of-bitches had me by the balls.
Within the past few years, the number of cell-phone subscribers in this country (estimated to be upwards of 210 million) surpassed the number of registered drivers. Many of those registered drivers, like me, don’t even own a car.
On an average weekday, people use their car primarily to get to and from work, but many of them use their phone — be it for calling, texting or e-mailing — practically the entire day.
If you car breaks down, you’ll be inconvenienced for a few days, bumming rides from friends or spouses. But if your cell phone dies – and if, like me, you’re one of the 20 percent of Americans who no longer maintains a landline — you’re truly, royally screwed. (Do they even have pay phones anymore?)
We are slaves to these devices — which in turn means we are slaves to the people who work in their stores. And the people who work in these stores aren’t exactly required to graduate from the University of Verizon.
After about an hour, I was finally beckoned to the support desk, where I was once again asked for my cell-phone number (which I could have sworn I entered in their computer upon my arrival) and once again asked to describe the problem.
“So you need to replace your phone?” a visibly disinterested Tonya — relegated to the black, less formal Verizon polo shirt — repeated to me almost verbatim.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Have you picked out the phone you’re going to get?” she said.
“Well … no, not exactly. I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me first.”
“You’ll need to get in the sales queue to do that.”
… “Excuse me?”
Apparently Steve had incorrectly routed my query. Perhaps he’d tuned out before I got to the “new phone” part of my sentence. Or perhaps Verizon Store employees are simply incapable of multitasking. Either way, it was back to the end of the line for me. Care to wager a guess what happened when I got to the front of that one?
“So you already have a phone?” asked the salesman.
“Yes,” I said, “but like I told you, it’s broken.”
“Well … you need to go to tech support for that.”
Oh, for crying out loud.
If only this were as simple as renewing your driver’s license.