Downtown View: DIY and Cry

Remember when “Do it yourself” meant getting out the wrench and fixing the faucet yourself instead of calling the plumber?

Now, we call the plumber.

That’s because we’re too busy doing it ourselves in every other realm of our lives.

I think it started with banks. It was a relief. Instead of standing in a long line to deposit money into an account at what was then the First National Bank of Boston, one learned how to punch a few buttons with a password at a thing called an Automatic Teller Machine. That name has now gone by the wayside. The ATM has become a word like radar, with the original meaning forgotten.

Some people complained about the loss of personal contact. But who wanted personal contact with tellers who changed every time you went to the bank? Saving time was worth that do-it-yourself activity.

No longer does do-it-yourself save time. Instead it mostly increases the time it takes to solve even basic problems or complete simple transactions.

Try addressing a problem with your phone bill. If you can find a telephone number to call (shouldn’t phone companies have telephone numbers?) the voice will tell you to visit their website. Shouting “agent” or “representative” into the phone, won’t get you a person. Neither will punching zero. In fact, the nice recorded lady will probably tell you, “Good-bye.” Then you’ll have to call them up again, etc. etc. etc. Maybe you will solve the problem, but you also may decide it’s worth a few extra dollars not have to go through the telephone tree. There is a probably a line item on Verizon’s income side for excess charges accepted by customers who can’t bear tackling the problem.

More chain stores than I can count now sell many items only online rather than in their brick and mortar shops, so you’re on your own making purchases too. Even if it would help them sell an item more quickly, those stores are hard to contact with questions. So you spend extra minutes searching the web site for an answer to a question that is almost never addressed in their “frequently asked questions” page.

Comcast wants you to install your television box yourself. Airline tickets, train tickets, even theatre tickets are now do-it-yourself, and if a website doesn’t work properly or it is complicated, it is easy to make a mistake. And even with hundreds of thousands of Delta miles, I couldn’t book tickets online from Boston to Rome without traveling through New York, Atlanta and Detroit. (Actually, once I got a person, it was the same route too. But that’s a different problem—the old airline scam.)

I recently filled out a form so that, in theory, I can go through a passport line more quickly, since I’m old, never cause trouble and follow all rules. But at the Miami airport last January, the signs said to scan your passport, and once it was cleared, go through the turnstile without having to stop before an agent.

I scanned my passport. It said the passport was not acceptable. The scanner told me to step into a long line and take everyone in my party with me. So we cooled our heels in a snaking line for about 45 minutes. When we got to the passport control officer, he looked us up and we sailed through. I still don’t know what was wrong with my do-it-yourself passport, except that it was do-it-yourself.

A couple of years ago my daughter was trying to move, electronically, a check from the U. S. State Department in Kazakhstan into her account. (It’s a long story, but the reason doesn’t matter.) Against my advice, she had established her account at a Very Big Bank run by a Very Big Boss from Massachusetts. It took her days, mostly because she had trouble reaching a person through the bank’s telephone tree. No options existed for the problem she needed to solve.

I’m not expecting to solve my do-it-yourself problems at all—except in the place where it all started. I changed banks. It’s a smallish bank, local, that never got into the bad mortgage, derivative-whatever mess. There are three tellers and I go to them because I like them. If I need a more complicated service I call the bank manager, who answers the phone himself.

Thank you for letting me get this off my chest.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at