I heard through the grapevine that Tesco over the other side of town had a supply of one of my favourite cooking products - Mayan Gold potatoes. Enamoured by this window of opportunity to purchase potatoes that enrich and enhance meals rather than burden it with blandness as the current anodyne state of potatoes do.
So, I did something slightly sad. I phoned the shop and asked them if they did indeed have them in stock. I was asked by the lady who answered the phone if I could direct my enquiry through the Tesco Help Line or the website because she had no way of finding this information out for me... Now, this could be for a number of reasons, the most likely being there isn't someone at this specific store answering the phone and dealing with enquiries; this is some faceless, nameless autocrat answering the call in Cheshunt or Telford or Skelmersdale (going by the lady's accent).
So I went through the required rigamorale and sent the website a query. 24 hours later I was told that a) yes they were in stock and they were located in aisle 3 of the fruit and veg section and b) no they could not tell me if they were currently in store. I replied to this answer and asked them if they could possibly reserve me five bags - as they offer this service - and confirm in an email so that my trip to the store is not wasted. They could not do that with grocery products and they have no way of knowing if an item is in store/stock unless it is reordered or closed down. So my only option is to drive the five miles and hope they have what I want because in this fantastic age of modernity we can't employ people to tell us what is in stock, we employ general algorithms...
Now, the reason I mention this is because when this happened I was minded to recall two events involving supermarkets, which you have to say should make you realise that sometimes the humans in a store are actually human beings.
The first time was in 1985 and with about three weeks to go until Christmas the news was talking about a potential turkey shortage (ironically because of the number of poultry farmers who suffered from Thatcher's leaving them out of a EU subsidies request for agriculture) and even in those days a turkey dinner was still regarded as one of the best roast dinners of the year and the subsequent soups, sandwiches and cold cuts left usually kept us going for a few more days.
Faced with the threat of no turkey, I descended on Tesco (up at Weston Favell) and found the freezers bare - no turkeys, not even a selection of big chickens. The balding man in glasses attempting to calm the fears of the people around him was reiterating the point that they get deliveries every day and if people left their names he would ensure that every one of them had a turkey for Christmas. Having heard enough and not wishing to queue behind dozens of ageing domestic goddesses, I went home slightly annoyed at the idea of having to trudge there every bleedin' day until I snared a decent bird - fnarrr fnarrr.
On the walk home, I remembered something I'd read a few years earlier and wondered if it would work this time around. When I got home, I rang Tesco at Weston Favell and spoke to the receptionist - the one you used to see when you walked in there, answering the phone! Hello, I said, my name is #### #### and I work for the Blackthorn OAP's Club (there weren't drop-ins or projects or whatever they're called now) and we were hoping to be able to reserve a turkey to pick up later in the week, because we heard about the shortage and we didn't want the old folk to go without when we do them their Christmas dinner. Now there wasn't and there never has been a Blackthorn OAP's Club and what I did was a wee bit sneaky and naughty, but it wasn't at all until I arrived to collect the turkey...
I turned up as instructed to pick up a 15lb turkey. I had the money - it was about £7 (I bet it's about that a pound now!) and I walked up to the customer service counter, told them I'd come to get the turkey and I stood around, with my mate Colin, waiting for whatever we were waiting for. Suddenly a man who presumably was the manager or someone high up appeared with another member of staff carrying a box. Are you Mr ####, he asked and suddenly I got a little paranoid. Ye-e-es, I replied wondering if I could be done for fraud. Tesco's would like you to have this 20lb turkey, this extra large Christmas pudding and these mince pies for the OAP club. Panic crossed my eyes... I've only got ten pounds on me, I said. Oh no, this is compliments of Tesco Stores Mr ####, we hope the old folk have a great Christmas.
Realising what was happening and this being 1985, I thanked them and beat a hasty retreat. The only real downside was no one really likes Christmas pudding.
I've told this story before, but it is always worth telling again. My dear old, long-lost, pal Paul Smith was a seriously devoted born again Christian, except, you know, he wasn't really, his wife was and is and he was part of a local cult organisation - quite a high part of it despite being a real person and not an evangelist.
In 2004, he went to Morrisons in town and got their family Christmas shopping; his wife, a woman like my own mother, who liked to check receipts to ensure she hadn't been overcharged saw that there was only one of the two bottles of sherry she'd listed that had been paid for. She told Paul that after work the next day he had to go to Morrisons (just a three minute walk) and settle the bill or return the un-paid-for bottle, whatever was easiest. Doing as instructed, he walked up to the counter, explained to the slightly bemused woman what he was there for and she took the sherry off of him, asked him to wait and disappeared. Ten minutes later, the manager walked up to Paul and asked him if he was really just there to pay for a bottle of sherry that had slipped through the checkout? Paul confirmed this and was given a giant hamper of Christmas goodies by the store as a thank you for being such a good and honest customer. Paul was worldly enough to see the weirdness, good nature and slight irony in all of it, but he never used it as an example of God moves in mysterious ways, just as an example of how honesty often is the best policy.
The point is, whether it was me conning Tesco out of Christmas, inadvertently or Paul Smith just being a ridiculously honest Christian, the stores went out of their way to do something for a customer, a community and for the sake of Christmas. Now, in a world that has seemingly forgotten how to smile and be helpful, it is going to cost me more than just a wee bit of time to find out if something I want is in stock because there's no one available at that store to answer my question.
How is that progress?