The other day I wrote a thing (‘Remembering‘) that was, in an early-ish draft, a not even thinly disguised rant about the shipping/courier industry in general and one company in particular.
I changed that.
I changed it, not because the industry doesn’t richly deserve ridicule and abuse — I think it does — but rather because it sucked. No matter how I fiddled with it, I couldn’t make it work. (Whatever ‘work’ means in this context.)
In the process of rewriting it I dropped a couple of anecdotes on the floor, so to speak. I thought I’d write at least one of them down. Or, sticking to the ‘dropped-on-the-floor’ metaphor, I thought I’d pick it up and brush some of the cat hair off of it. (It’s a garnish — like parsley but not, you know, green.)
Shipping companies are largely giant, faceless corporations that desperately want to be thought of as efficient and… not faceless. They spend staggering amounts of money (the New York Times claims that the company formerly known as Federal Express spent $120 million on advertising in 2010) trying to convince people of these things.
(I almost said ‘these facts’ but of course they’re not.)
Here is where I have a ‘fork’ in the ‘road’. Down one path is a mercifully short route to the end of the story. Down another is a somewhat turgid rant about software followed by an awkward segue (you do NOT want to read what the urban dictionary has to say about that) to the end of the story. I’m okay (up to a point) with turgid but it’s also kind of shrill which I don’t like. I think I’ll try to take a middle road.
My first direct experience with Big Shipping came sometime after I bought my first computer. In those days computers typically came with a programming language; mine was no exception. I did a couple of modest programming projects using the language that came with the system but one in particular (it was a graphical character-generation application for an rpg called RuneQuest, because generating ‘balanced’ NPCs — a perpetual hobgoblin of mine — for RuneQuest could be a PITA) really taxed the limits of the software.
I had another project in mind and I was tired of (a) writing in BASIC (even though it was a pretty good BASIC) (b) coding around bugs — I had found, um, several and there were no bug fixes (‘Patches! We know how much fun those can be!) from the company that wrote it. I did some reading, pored over some reviews in a newsgroup and settled on a language and product. (Modula-2 if you care. Partially because it’s the work of a single very clever individual and I’m partial to the work of clever individuals and partially because his name is a three-language pun.)
The product that I decided on, inevitably, wasn’t available in any local stores (which meant shipping). Worse, it wasn’t available from a Canadian company at all(which meant cross-border shipping — which usually means doom).
I ordered it; they passed it off to Big Shipping for delivery. Big Shipping shuffled it around until approximately half a geological epoch had passed and they could rationalize charging approximately half the value of the product (which wasn’t cheap in the first place) to deliver it.
Which has coloured my opinion of Big Shipping ever since.
Fast forward a number of years.
One day I was sitting in my office, probably doing something anal like brooding over spam statistics or frowning at a broken mailing list or tsk-ing over a noncompliant mail server when the phone rang.
That’s nothing unusual — it rang all the time, often when something broke. This time, though, it wasn’t an irate user of some service or other that wasn’t happy with the way it was or wasn’t working. It was Big Shipping.
Phone calls from Big Shipping were/are often nothing if not… worrying: “I’m sorry sir, but we dropped an anvil on your box marked ‘Fragile.’ Hope it wasn’t. Have a nice day. Big Shipping cares.”
This time, though, it wasn’t that; in fact, at first blush it seemed positively benign: “Hello sir, we’d like to schedule a delivery.” That’s definitely not immediately scary, but it’s also a little weird. First of all, she called me ‘sir’ — that’s always a little disconcerting. And it’s a little odd for them to schedule a delivery. I mean, they’d never done it before. Normally they come whenever they damned well want, trying to arrive when you least expect them and/or when it’s maximally inconvenient. Heck, I had a package on a shelf that had arrived without warning, without notification and without being asked for — it was a SCSI controller that I didn’t order that they delivered to me for reasons unknown. (I never did find out whose it was. Big Shipping demonstrated an uncanny grasp of the concept of a tautology by saying that if my name was on the box it must be mine. The vendor was only slightly less unhelpful.)
What I’m saying is that Big Shipping never calls to schedule a delivery. It was unheard of. (In particular, they hadn’t called before shipping the box that was SITTING ON MY DESK. It had arrived the previous day and I hadn’t even opened it yet.) But I tried to avoid accusing her of weirding me:
“Umm, there’s someone in our general office during normal business hours so anytime is fine.”
But I couldn’t resist asking
“What can you tell me about this shipment?”
Well, it was a single package, she said. Not as big as a breadbox. She didn’t know what else she could tell me. Suddenly I had a bad feeling. (H’m. Elmore Leonard says that I should never use the word ‘suddenly’ but in this case I think it’s probably okay.)
“Can you read me the tracking number for that delivery?” She could. She did. I compared it to the tracking number of the package on my desk. They matched.
“Um, I already have that package.”
“No, you don’t.”
Pardon? I didn’t? I looked at the tracking number again. It still matched. But she seemed so sure. I had no explanation for the matching tracking numbers, but maybe she did have a package for me. I wondered what it might be. Maybe another SCSI controller? I could make bookends.
“Um, well, like I said, there’ll be someone in the general office during normal business hours. Deliver it whenever you want.”
They never did.