It is a weekday and I want to fill a prescription. Within three blocks of my apartment, there are now three large chain drug stores in my neighborhood, part of an ever-growing national trend that has taken over the city. Of late, whenever a neighborhood store closes down, it seems like yet another chain drug store or yet another branch of a bank or clothing store opens up in its place, bringing an all too predictable uniformity to nearly every city block.
I stop off at a CVS drug store that is a block east of where I live.
“Can you fill this script?” I ask a clerk at a pharmacy counter, which is
located all the way in the back of the enormous store.
"Come back in three hours,” the put-upon clerk says.
"But why?” I ask. It is midday; it looks like there are about three
pharmacists working behind the drug counter; and there are no customers
“We have other orders to fill.”
“Can’t you fill it while I wait?” I ask, knowing full well that am already
too drained to return later or the next day. “I really need it right away,” I
plead with her.
“You have to ask the head pharmacist,” the clerk says indifferently. “She’s
on the phone.”
I wait for 15 minutes while the head pharmacist chats away on the phone
without acknowledging me. Then I decide to walk away. The modus operandi
of this new brand of pharmacy is inflexible: you wait, line or no line, offer
up your prescription, come pack for pick-up.
On my way out, I chance upon a young man who is stocking the shelves with
discounted laundry detergent.
“Where do you have Nivea lotion,” I ask him.
"I don’t know. I only stock shelves,” he tells me.
I am surprised at this employee who does not even seem to know the layout of
his own store.
I walk out perplexed at this new breed of pharmacy that can't fill a prescription
but offers laundry detergent at low cost. This particular store has even
replaced actual people with instant checkout, leaving you with absolutely no
one to help you.
I next consider going to the friendly neighborhood pharmacy about eight
blocks away, that has been there for more than 100 years, and where they will
fill your prescription promptly and efficiently, on the spot, and are even the
purveyors of exclusive beauty products, not to mention my favorite hair clips,
but right now I don’t feel quite up to making that 16-block round-trip trek in
this city, where everyone has to perambulate. Other such closer options in the
neighborhood have disappeared over the past five years, as small neighborhood
stores closed down, a casualty of rising city rents, expensive new high-rise
building developments, and the cutthroat competition of the much larger chain
drug stores, which have been expanding their lines of merchandise to include
groceries, candy, and even stockings, not to mention other offerings, to the
point where they are beginning to resemble a sort of mini-Wal-Mart -- where the
drug counter, relegated to the back of the store, functions merely as an
afterthought. In fact, in recent years, the city has been starting to look like
a veritable mall of Duane Reades, CVS’s, and Rite Aids and now, even a
Walgreens, that has moved in as of late and acquired the New York City-based
Duane Reade chain.. On Broadway, there is now one of those megastores on nearly
every block. Sadly, judging from the way things are going, it looks like
pharmacies, as we used to know them, will soon no longer exist, except in a
different incarnation as a small section of a megastore.
I feel a sense of anomie among all these nameless clerks and
pharmacies and stock boys, since no there one knows me, acknowledges me, or can
be bothered to help me. I feel helpless, isolated, and very alone. Here, the
unspoken rules or normal standards of customer service or decent human behavior
no longer seem to apply.
As familiar neighborhood stores are displaced by these megastores, much of
our daily interactions are increasingly with such strangers with whom we lack
any ongoing relationship. Such stores are not vested in forging relationships
in the way of the local neighborhood drug stores, where the friendly pharmacist
not only knows you, but also your medical history. With their emphasis on large
scale profits (and small salaries), these ubiquitous chain stores breed little
loyalty on the part of their ever-changing staff, who provide indifferent
service, and also contribute a humdrum uniformity to every block. When you ask for
help there, no one is available or accountable. Dealing with these places is an
exercise in frustration.
I waste at least 30 minutes there to no avail. I decide to go in search of
a more amenable place.
I briefly consider going to a different chain drug store, a Duane Reade,
about two blocks south. It is small and cramped, not to mention dirty, dingy
and depressing, with the harried pharmacist in charge there, courteous but
constantly in a rush, trying to run the entire counter by herself. What with
the ever-changing population of clueless young assistant pharmacists -- who
know little about the prescriptions they fill or about their customers, and the
indifferent clerks who simply pass the time until they clock out, not to
mention the endless, impatient and often rude line of customers, the place is a
madhouse, particularly near rush hour, when someone inevitably will announce
loudly and aggressively, “There’s a line waiting.” Getting a prescription
filled in this place reminds me of Godot’s absurdist drama, where one simply
waits, only to find out in the end that the store is out of stock or that one
has the improper insurance authorization and that one is inevitably condemned
to come back and wait in line again.
In resignation, I finally decide to check out a spanking new enormous
drugstore, part of the same chain that recently opened up two blocks north.
To my surprise, I find a pleasant young woman who greets me at the counter,
with a bright smile that lights up her face. “Hello, can I help you,” she says
in a friendly and cordial manner.
I am relieved to come across her in this city where no one ever seems to
smile and shopkeepers no longer say "Hello."
“Can you fill this prescription now?” is my inevitable query.
“Of course we can,” she says, noting my fatigue and distress, as she steps
away to consult with the pharmacist, and completes the process within a few
minutes. The simple courtesy of this gentle and slender young pharmacy clerk
makes me want to return.
Her name is Mariah.
"How are you doing?” she greets me in a dignified and respectful way the
next time I see her, actually addressing me by my name.
I looked up at her, amazed. In this era of indifferent service, she has won
my loyalty. I even ask her what her hours are, and jot them down, in order to
make my life in this city of strangers simpler. I am certainly hoping she stays
there for a while.
Sure enough, when I later look up this pharmacy online in “Yelp,” one
reviewer gives it 5 stars. “Pretty implausible,” the reviewer says sardonically
about giving a store of this particular chain -- that New Yorkers love to hate
-- a 5-star rating, “except that the staff (at the drugstore counter) is so
helpful and fantastic they make up for the ‘irritation’ of shopping there.”
I guess that goes to say that a small thing like a person doing his or her
job with courtesy and concern even at a counter now incongruously delegated to
the back of a megastore does indeed make a real difference.