After tearing a tendon in my wrist I found myself running up the 2,830-step natural stairmaster behind my house called the Grouse Grind. Though I’ve always disliked cardio, there’s something surprisingly pleasant in the hour-long vertical hike — what, between the trees and view and the beer at the end of it. Okay, well, to be honest the hike isn’t pleasant at all, but the beer at the end, that’s worth it. Those post-hike endorphins become a magical ingredient when mixed with the beer, a slow-earned brew that can only be enjoyed the hard way. (I tried taking the gondola once, and the beer was definitely mediocre without the endorphins — but with them, I’d rank their brew higher than the finest hop-houses in Prague, better than the best beerswills in Brussels.)
I drink it at the Bistro, outside, with its gorgeous views of Vancouver, while editing some piece of writing or other that I lug up the 2,830 stairs. Apparently for a 180-pound man taking one hour, the Grouse Grind burns 1,100 calories. For me, that translates into about 1,344 free beer calories (about seven pints).
Did I mention it was 2,830 steps? Anyway, I’ve been doing this regularly, until yesterday. Yesterday, I forgot my wallet at the bottom of the mountain. I discovered this as I was ordering my beer at the Bistro. My entire motivation, my reason for suffering, hadn’t made it up the hill with me.
I tried asking for a beer on the honour system. I thought of the Bistro as my neighbourhood pub, just a little higher up, and in a neighbourhood pub, I could have run a tab. I didn’t really expect it to work. We don’t live in a world of honour and neighbourhood pubs anymore, and the Bistro has too many tourists (and tourists are like acid to business-customer relationships when the business is “rational” enough to base its behaviour on even the most basic premises of game theory). And no, it didn’t work.
But since I had my bag with me, for lugging that manuscript, I started a search. I found four dollars. A pint cost six. Not enough. Then I had a brilliant idea inspired by my grade three math teacher. Six divided by two is three. Plus one for tip, minus one for tax, close enough. I asked for half a pint.
“We don’t serve half pints,” the bartender told me.
But a manager was right there. So I asked her.
“We don’t serve half pints,” she told me.
“Please, please, please, please, please,” I said.
“We don’t serve half pints.”
“Pour me whatever this will buy.” I put my cash on the bar, and added a 10,000 rupiah note that happened to be in the bag, for good measure. It was money. It was a joke. “And when I come back I’ll pay double.”
“We can’t do that. The computer doesn’t dispense beers in half pints. There’s no way to put it into the system.”
“But you throw out half a pint at a time when pouring. When there’s too much head, or the start of a keg, right?”
“Yes, we do that. But we don’t serve half pints.”
I explained my hiking methodology. I explained that I was there on a regular basis, sitting outside where few others wanted to sit and enjoying my beer and the cold view.
“I can’t help you. We’re not set up for half pints. The computer won’t let us punch it in that way. End of story.”
“Where’s the humanity?” I asked. Yes, I actually did.
“Humanity runs on cash these days,” she said. Yes, she actually did.
“But I have money for a half pint!”
“Can’t help you.” The place was empty, nearly no customers. I had the money, she had the beer, but we couldn’t make a deal because the computer said so. But, of course, she could have.
I recently wrote a post about the dangers of technology, of computers changing the way people thought. This seemed a perfect example. But it was more than that. In her eyes, I was a homeless person begging for a beer, someone looking to game the system, to break the rules.
I don’t look like a bum these days. Clean shaven, had my Blackberry Bold on me in its Otterbox case, yuppie MEC hiking clothes, etc., some of the waitresses recognized me as a regular (though I’d never met the manager or bartender before). But the act of trying to buy a beer on the honour system had already gotten me categorized.
But I’m getting off point. The real sad thing is the neighbourhood bar. Or the lack of it. Despite its cozy fireplace, there was a coldness to the Bistro and to its manager–at that particular moment, anyway–that was as opposite as one could find to the old idea of a neighbourhood bar. And yet that coldness is what we’re all moving towards. All our businesses are. And, increasingly, so are people.
The entire justification for capitalism was once that it was reactive, it responded to customer demand. But in the era of computers and consultants, cutting costs has a bigger impact on profits than customer satisfaction. Customers will still buy a beer, because of the location, and any customer happiness beyond that is just a form of consumer surplus. A waste for the company. Automation lowers costs, and if it automates the staff and managers in the process, perhaps that’s even better in the aggregate. You wouldn’t want to bartender giving an extra ounce to someone by accident of humanity.
(The irony is that I’ve had very good experiences with the people at the bottom of the mountain, the people who sell the passes and run the gondola and make everything run smoothly. The people whom you would expect to be bored and mechanized by running the Grouse machinery have been, well, extraordinarily human. I once forgot to bring my bike lock, and a very kind staff member offered to put my bike in storage for me while I hiked up and sat drinking my beer at the top. I remember being amazed, happy that I was in Vancouver rather than New York, where such flexibility is much more rare, where some lawyer would have forbidden such acts of kindness based on a stretched theory of legal liability for the bike. But I suspect that the people selling tickets and such are students, people in those jobs temporarily — these are the people who deserve a tip…)
At one point I was told, “You wouldn’t go into a McDonalds and try to buy half a Big Mac, would you?”
Well, no. But I was hoping that my pub wouldn’t be run like a McDonalds. Pubs used to be the most human of places, in all the richness of what that meant. Now too many have turned into these clean, coldly efficient lounges where the front looks like Soho and the back office thinks like McDonalds. Still, I can’t shut that voice of protest in my head nagging that pubs should be places for humans to meet first, hard businesses second.
ADDENDUM: I had a journalist housemate before I became one. While we were living together, the war in Kosovo broke out. She got a great story by following a group of American Kosovars who trained in the US for a month and then went “home” to fight — a chartered plane full of American Kosovars, and her. Many were more American than Kosovar. One of them became a friend, and when they arrived in Kosovo he invited her to accompany him to his village to meet his family. She was with him when he walked into his living room and found his father’s freshly severed head, his body in a different room. She was with him when he walked out of the house, found the first Serb — not anyone connected to his father’s death, just the first Serb he came across in the village — and executed him. It all made for a great story, a great book, and yet I couldn’t understand my friend. This Kosovar had become her friend. By writing about him, she was at the very least exiling her friend from the United States for life, and probably putting a target on his back. The story trumped her friendship. I asked her how she could do that and her answer was, “I’m a journalist.”
During our interview Damien Hirst told me, “You look for triggers.” Writers do the same thing, and the manager’s line that, “Humanity runs on cash” became a perfect trigger for a story that had nothing to do with her, nothing to do with Grouse Mountain. It was a perfect lede to a story about the loss of the neighbourhood pub, the encroachment of corporatism and consultants and computers onto what was once a central ganglion of human interaction. And in writing it, I did nothing to undo that “Empire” — I was replicating it.
The Kosovo story to me is first about friendship, and the manager here was not my friend. But there’s a secondary truth as well, about journalism, and human beings at the other side of a story. As one of the commentor’s said, my pride and prize is someone else’s punishment and shame. Someone whom I don’t know at all, but whose identity is clearly far more complex than one unfortunate “cash” comment.
I don’t know where the right line is. At the very least, I should not have used the manager’s name, so I’ve taken it out.