Monday, May 25: Goodbye to all that

There’s no reason why the changes wrought by COVID-19 have to be punitive, nor temporary. For example, it turns out that car buyers like the new system so much that one major dealer chain in Syracuse wants to switch to it pemanently.

Imagine Driver’s Village — Central New York’s sprawling car megamall — on a sunny Saturday. Dozens of shoppers wander the lots, some trying to get the attention of a salesperson, some trying to avoid it. Pandemic-style shopping has none of that chaos. To talk to a salesperson, a shopper has to make an appointment, even if the appointment is in 10 minutes. Both sides get undivided attention when they want it. “I don’t want us to live in fear of the virus,” Driver’s Village President Roger Burdick said. “But if we could continue like this, customers like it. They get better attention. It’s efficient for staff.”

Is there a person on earth who really enjoyed the old car-buying process, other than the naturally aggressive, competitive and dominant? Most customers don’t enjoy it. It seems as if many car salesmen don’t enjoy it either. There was a reason why Saturn’s sales process in the ’90s was popular, even if the cars themselves weren’t. The car buying process — a holdover from the horse buying process — felt predatory and designed to confuse, and the aforementioned “chaos” of going to the dealership is a big part of manufacturing that confusion. Consumers are in a rare moment where they can actually seize the opportunity for some concessions.

The moment may disappear quickly, and predators, initially thrown off by the unprecedented restrictions, may soon be back. For a blessed couple months, robocalls just didn’t happen. This week, at least at my house, they’ve started trickling back in — and the pickings may be richer than ever for phone swindlers who can take advantage of the confusion created by the shoddier government responses to the crisis. (Think of all the newly unemployed people, and especially the scared and grieving seniors.)

But there is still a lot of junk to be thrown in the dumpster. How about primary care physicians’ office operations? That’s another thing that should die and not come back. Nobody needs to take three hours off from work for the privilege of waiting in a germy doctor’s office for 90 minutes, and then a cold exam room for another 30 minutes, so that a doctor who doesn’t even remember your name can see you for 15. These are the kinds of rituals in our society that chip away at our sanity and dignity every day. Pull the plug on them, and maybe we can get back to having doctor’s office appointments where they are actually ready for you when you get there.

These changes do not have to be one-size-fits-all, which was part of the problem with the old rituals in the first place (along with predatory aspects). Teachers are discovering that some of their “bad” students are actually pretty good ones, if you just give them a break from the aggressions and distractions of other students. Instead of testing these kids to death, how about assessing the children periodically to see if they should be allowed to do schoolwork from home, or even prescribed at-home schoolwork?

My dad, who was a smart man, didn’t hate learning — he was an avid and expansive reader. But he hated being in school. Somehow — back in the mid-1940s — he had a thoughtful teacher who recommended that he be removed from the spring semester of second grade for his attention problems and mental health, with assignments sent home to him, as if he were sick (it was not framed to his parents as a punitive measure). He was never told why he was being kept out of school (he only learned why many years later) and remembered being happy and relaxed. He wished that someone had told him why he was furloughed, because it might have made it easier for him to get through the next few years of school, where he continued to be disengaged and rebellious until he dropped out permanently after the eighth grade.

(I would caution that while the one-size-fits-all model is not good, an indifferently prescribed “track” model can also be disastrous. My sister, unfortunately, was one of the kids who got caught up in the ill-advised ITA system of teaching reading to first-graders in the late ’60s, and she did not have a good experience switching back to “regular” reading, which she thinks affected her throughout life.)

I suspect that hollow shells of ritual and convention that need to go — the things that nobody really wants any more — will go quickly and quietly. This collapse of the old may open up surprising new fronts that are more controversial, but may not be the same fault lines we’ve always talked about. It was always assumed that the personal automobile would go away because of increased urbanization and peak oil. Those things may still happen. However, nobody would have predicted that suddenly RV sales and rentals would go through the roof. The idea that many people would be interested in driving less, yet spending more time in personal vehicles for health, work, recreation and tasks of daily living, would have seemed almost freakish last year at this time — yet here we are.