Rosenblatt Essay on Entrepreneurs and their Services

March 7, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers America’s service culture.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Can Americans do anything for themselves anymore? The question may seem unduly antagonistic, but it arises in the context of a recent news story. In Minnesota a few weeks ago a well-to-do dentist and his family hired a personal shoplifter to steal the following items for them: Baccarat crystal, a full-length white fox coat, and other stuff. A personal shoplifter–I concluded a people who will hire a personal shoplifter will do anything or not do anything, and a people who will not do anything are in trouble.

The phenomenon is widespread. In New York City a person who calls himself “Plate Man” will stand in line for you at the Division of Motor Vehicles. VIP Services in Houston, Texas, will stand in line to get you your passport. The National Association of Professional Organizers, 800 members nationwide, will organize anything for you. One member, Linda Rothchild, of Cross It Off Your List, will come to your home and reorganize your closets or your life, assuming, of course, that you ask her to. Corrine Tuque of Huntington, Long Island, will decorate your Christmas tree. Andersen At Your Service, the corporate concierges located in Chicago, will pick up baby and wedding gifts and wait in your home for appliance repair personnel. College application services will do that; term paper writing services will do that; dog walking services will do that. A concierge in Palm Beach, Florida, reports that a woman in his hotel requested that an English professor be sent to her room. He did not indicate the purpose.

There are people who will supply urine samples for other people. I can only guess what to call a professional urine supplier. Are you getting the picture? Caroline Gillis of Burbank, California, is a professional letter writer; Alan Epstein of Los Angeles, a professional match maker. Mr. Epstein interests me because his match-making work suggests this debilitating impulse may be sewn into the American grain. Wasn’t it the pilgrim Miles Standish who engaged John Smith in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to plead the case of his love sickness to Priscilla Alden a few hundred years ago? “Speak for yourself, John,” she said. I don’t think so. Match-making, pandering, it is all personal service. Mercenaries were hired to fight wars for other people.

Work ethic my foot. We were always a lazy lot. So diluted is the culture of personal service that people will hire anyone to do the most delicate task. One can’t pick up a newspaper these days without reading about some husband or wife paying $100 to the local God knows whom to knock off a mate. That nut case woman in New Hampshire who hired a high school kid to do her old man in–they never use professionals anymore–too lazy.

ACTOR: (Scene from Movie) I want you to get out of that bed and walk to the window. I want you to scream out in the street.

ACTRESS: I can’t walk, Henry. I’m confined.

ACTOR: Keep trying. Otherwise, you’ve only got three more minutes to live.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: It has all come to strangers on a train and “Sorry, Wrong Number,” idiots and blunderers engaged to do work that requires real skill and polish. Signs of a fading civilization. Can Americans do anything for themselves anymore?

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.