Hey, Star Wanna-Bes! Are We Not Customers?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The way I figure it, it's all Madonna's fault. Certainly, when she sang to the world, "You're a superstar, yeah, that's what you are," she wasn't excluding salesclerks.

But I have to keep reminding myself of this. Just because an ordinary salesclerk hasn't been discovered yet doesn't mean that I have the right to treat him or her like . . . well, an ordinary salesclerk. After all, a clerk's mind is liable to be on more important things that might win that superstar recognition--things like what to say at "open mike" night at the Improv, or how to start that letter to Michael Ovitz.

Still, I keep screwing up. Consider this encounter a few weeks ago at a famous CD chain store where I tried to exchange Liszt's "Faust" Symphony--not because there was a technical flaw but because I didn't like the interpretation. A female clerk had told me by phone that they normally do not take "preferential" exchanges, but that "this one time, I guess it will be all right."

This is exactly what I told the bearded, bespectacled, intelligent-looking clerk at the store hours later when I went to make the exchange. Unfortunately for me, I didn't realize he was an undiscovered superstar.

"Well," he said with disinterest, eyes on the new merchandise he was stocking, "I don't know why she would have told you that."

"Well," I responded, "I don't know why, either, but she did. So may I exchange the CD?"

He continued lazily filing new CDs.

"Well," he said again, still not looking at me, "I don't know why she would have told you that."

I scratched my head. Hadn't he already said that? Oh, I got it. He was being antagonistic.

I smiled, told him he had made it "amply clear" that he was baffled by the woman's behavior and asked if he'd prefer that I deal directly with her. His response: Just don't know why she would have told you that.

I suddenly felt a little like Faust, the subject of my unwanted CD, bargaining with Mephistopheles in hell. "Maybe," I said, smiling, "she liked my perfume." He eyed me for the first time, and in a decidedly unfriendly fashion. "Well," he said, "My perfume is stronger than your perfume."

He actually said that--and in fact, it was. He didn't seem to have showered recently.

"Look," I went on, "I just want to know if I can exchange this CD. Now, do you think you can find the magnanimity to give me an answer to this question, or not?"

What happened next is absolutely true. He bristled, stood upright, and trembled--but not in fear. His eyes were afire, much like the Devil's. The man was poised to take a swing at me. A full 20 or 30 seconds passed as we stood there, staring at one another like pre-bout boxers. Then, abruptly, he relaxed, mumbled something like "OK," and walked to the register to make the exchange.

In my amazement, I thought I might have somehow caused the whole problem, and said, "Look, if I said something to upset you, my apologies." To which he responded:

"Nah I was just giving you (expletive, a noun.)"

Screaming headlines filled my brain. "Why?" they shouted -- "Why Was This Man 'Just Giving Me (expletive, a noun)?"

I finally understood. It was the Madonna Factor, of course. He was not just an ordinary clerk. He was undoubtedly an actor, artist--maybe even a cellist who had not yet been given his due fame. Exchanging CDs is just not something a man of his abilities should have to take seriously at all.

"Thanks a lot," I said apologetically as I left.

I made a similar error just a week ago, when I was dispatched to purchase a cosmetic for a female friend (because with each purchase you get a free gift of assorted other cosmetics.) I sauntered through a shiny, fragrant department store until I found a shiny, fragrant clerk. She advised me that she was out of the product, that I should return the next afternoon when she would have some in stock. Instead, I returned the next evening , and was advised by the same clerk that they were still out of the product.

As a bonus, I was given a little scolding because I had to come in the afternoon, "like I told you to." I nodded indulgently.

"So then, what should I do?" I asked.

She smiled a shiny, fragrant smile. "Well, I don't know!" she said airily, moving to another customer.

Obviously, making a sale was much less important to her than whatever else was on her mind--perhaps auditioning to be one of the Fly Girls on "In Living Color," or getting her publicity photos properly airbrushed. And who could blame her?

Then there was the time, on a recent warm evening, I went to my corner video store--where I am an embarrassingly regular customer--and waited in line to check out Preston Sturges's "Palm Beach Story" and a Laurel and Hardy short. When I got to the front, the computer scanner repeatedly refused to digest my card. This confounded the clerk, who eventually explained there was a "hold" on my account, then went to consult another clerk about the problem. They conferred briefly, eyeing the computer screen soberly. Then the second clerk looked up at me with concern. I figured they were going to revoke my card--maybe renting Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" more than three times a year was grounds for cancellation.

"There is," she said in a tone kindergarten teachers reserve for naughty children, "a hold on your account. You didn't rewind your last tape and we had a complaint."

Never mind the hundreds of dollars in business I give the store. I had broken the law. Quickly, my mind flashed to the old classic, "Island of Lost Souls," where Charles Laughton cracks the whip over his half-men, half-beasts and asks, "What is the law?" I heard Bela Lugosi, the head half-man, respond: "The law . . . is to rewind your tapes . . . Are we not men? "

My arms shot up over my head, and I bowed to the clerk, declaring, "Oohhhhh, for- give me! I won't ever do it again." She shot me a disgusted look, and said nothing. In retrospect, I can't blame her for the way she handled the situation, though. She was probably thinking about her screenplay, or imagining the day she might lunch at Ivy (maybe with Madonna).

Oh, and by the way, I bypassed that shiny, fragrant, cosmetics clerk and found a shiny, fragrant supervisor who not only arranged for the cosmetics to be shipped directly to my home, but apologized and said she would "teach" the clerk how to do her job properly.

I felt sorry for the supervisor, though. She seemed focused entirely on her job, and performing it with the utmost efficiency. She'll never achieve superstardom that way.

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