Local Harvest

Customer service.

For many of us it was our first job, for many of us it is still our job. It’s flipping burgers, scooping popcorn, pouring coffee.

“Hi there welcome to —. What can I get for you?”

Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems delivers a full value menu of what it’s like to put on a nametag and punch orders into a POS day in and day out.

My first encounter with Nickerson was at the Mission Writers Festival in 2011. I was working for the siren slinging her coffee, steaming milk to scalding temperatures, and thank-you-have-a-nice-day-ing. I needed this collection. If you have ever worked in customer service, experienced all of its peculiarities, you need this collection.

Nickerson takes you through four tenants of a mission statement: quality, service, cleanliness, and value, and pulls back the curtain — or steps behind the counter — of each one. Characters come to life for both their uniqueness and their total familiarity. We’ve all met the exhausted mom who needs you to answer questions, not ask them. We’ve all raised an eyebrow at the customer who orders the non-fat drink and the full fat food, with extra sauce.

We all have a one-of-a-kind unicorn.

McPoems effectively captures both sides of customer service: the ridiculous and the rewarding.

In “Things People Have Asked You to Search for in Garbage Cans” the list ranges from plausible to outlandish, but one thing is for certain — each item begs a story.

Perhaps he put his wallet on his tray. He enjoyed his nuggets, watched his kid play in “The Ball Room” and then dumped everything into the trash. It was under the Happy Meal bag. He didn’t remember it was there until he tried to buy gas at the next stop.

Maybe she was taking her elderly neighbour out for a milkshake. He doesn’t get out much now that his wife died and his family lives far away. He wrapped his dentures in a napkin so she didn’t have to stare at his teeth while they sucked back on the triple thick shakes through “Wacky Straws” She cleaned up the garbage and with it went the denture filled napkin.

She tossed the pregnancy test, and then immediately regretted it.

Whatever the story, they all share in that they were tossed, and subsequently searched for by the narrator. Items with no connection to each other are equalized in the trash.

And then, as soon as we rally behind a quirky situation, or thankless encounter, ready to throw in the apron, Nickerson humbles us. He brings us back with “Gloria.” For every frustration behind the counter, there is a Gloria. There is a customer with story to tell, and you are the only person in her day who will listen.

McPoems is as much about the day-to-day of customer service, as it is about people. Underneath the mascots and minimum wage is a lens through which all become equal. There is no discrimination among the wedding in the parking lot, the 14 fish burgers ordered on Fridays for crop pickers, or the pickle sundae pregnancy reveal. There is no rule about who gets to order, or what, or why.

This collection is for anyone who works (or has worked) in customer service in any capacity, either grudgingly or enthusiastically. Pick it up the next time you want to laugh, when you’re looking for a fresh dose of nostalgia, or when you want a level view of the world — it’s all the same coming off the grill.