New York City subway, May 1973.
The other day I noticed something for the first time. “Please allow all customers off the train,” said the recorded voice over the subway sound system. Customers. Not passengers, not riders: customers.
What did it mean? Something bureaucratic, obviously—but philosophically? Had the transaction at last been stripped of all artifice? Had the civic connotations of public transit been cast off in favor of naked commercialism? Or was this a simple acknowledgment that we’re paying for the ride—and that, in the way of all American customers, we are always right?
Of course, questions of nomenclature have been troubling retailers for years. At some point, someone in corporate clearly decided that the word customer smelled too much of filthy lucre, and thus began a search for ever more cumbersome substitutes. Now when you go into most chain stores it’s to hear a teenager bellowing “NEXT GUEST!” in a way unlikely to suggest hospitality.
Shopper has always seemed most appropriate for the mundanity of grocery stores, while the grandeur of patron is reserved, it seems, for top brass and other varieties of officialdom. I remember taking all sorts of cowardly cheats when I worked in retail, saying ungrammatical, self-abnegating things like, “Can I help who’s next?” or just looking at people hopefully like a sad puppy farm dog on a pile of shredded newspaper.
Personally, I have no problem with anyone who dodges the question of a noun: I’ll respond to a brusque “NEXT” or “NEXT ON LINE” or even a peremptory “WHO’S NEXT?” The best of all, though, is when one of the systems is down and clerks yell things like “PAYING WITH A CREDIT CARD?” or the glorious “CASH ONLY!” Ultimately, I’d like to get to a point where people just scream “MONEY.”
It does seem, though, as though public transit is one of the few cases where the solution was kind of built in. We may never be passengers again.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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