What A Card

August 10, 2012

I carry a lot of cards. I have my driver’s license, I have an employee ID, I have a card for the place where I go swim, not to mention credit cards, voter registration, and a library card. My favorite burrito place gave me a card with pictures of little burritos on it. Every time I come in and order a burrito they stamp one of the pictures. After I’ve bought nine burritos they’ll give me the tenth one free. This isn’t unusual. There’s a sandwich place that has given me a similar card, except instead of stamping it they use a special punch that makes a little hole in the shape of a check mark. At least that’s what it looks like. I’m not sure what exactly it’s supposed to be, otherwise I’d be tempted to use an X-acto knife and earn free sandwiches that way, although I’m just unethical enough to only think of that without being willing to actually do it. Plus I wouldn’t want to cause the person who’s working behind the counter to lose their job, because, being the lowest ranking person there they’d probably be held responsible for my chicanery. And as far as I’m concerned in most cases the person working right behind the counter is the most important person in the place because they’re the ones making my burrito/sandwich/coffee/milkshake/burger/jet-engine backpack, which is why I always leave a tip.

For the benefit of foreigners and other aliens the term "tip", or "protection", means a gratuity given to a service person, theoretically to reward them for doing a good job but mainly to make up for the fact that long ago some bonehead got the bright idea that waiters, waitresses, and other people in the service industry were making too much money, so they should only receive about a third of the minimum wage and tips would make up the rest. And this might work if everyone remembered to leave a tip, and if professions like movie theater attendant weren’t also considered "service industry". When was the last time you tipped the person who gave you your movie ticket? And it also annoys me that, unlike restaurants, where you typically leave the tip wedged under your plate when you leave, or, increasingly, tack it on to your credit card bill, in coffee and burrito places you go up to a counter to place your order and there’s a box next to the register that says something like, "We [heart] tips!" or "Karma, dude". And I’m happy to toss in a dollar, as much as it annoys me to be called "dude", but it always seems like I put in my dollar when the workers all have their backs turned, so no one notices my generosity.

And even that isn’t what bothers me. I don’t expect a reward for doing the right thing, after all, but I always think they think I didn’t give them a tip and the reason it’s taking so long to get my latte is because they’re in the back stirring it with the dead mouse they found behind the freezer. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if others have tried carving punch marks into cards, and maybe that’s why more places are switching to plastic cards. The plastic cards are even more annoying. Yes, it is troublesome to hang onto the paper cards, but after you’ve purchased nine jet engine backpacks and gotten your tenth one free you throw away the card, or they throw it away for you, but at least it’s paper and biodegradable. In ten thousand years an alien will sift through the charred remains of our culture, pull out a plastic card, scan it, and say, "Wow, this guy sure ate a lot of cheese danish," and another alien will say, "Well, I hope he at least left a tip." And even though being able to reuse the plastic cards is an advantage I also never know when my next reward is coming. It seems to be random. There’s a coffee place where if I spend anywhere between ten and fifty bucks-I have no idea which it is-I’ll eventually earn a free pastry which would otherwise cost me a whopping ninety-nine cents. I have a movie theater card too. Every two or three movies or so I earn a free small popcorn, and every five or six or who knows how many movie tickets I purchase I earn a free ticket. But in both cases the awards aren’t cumulative-I have to take my free pastry, free popcorn, or free ticket because I won’t earn another one until I do no matter how much I spend. And they expire after a certain amount of time. Why is that? It’s not like they’re putting a bag of popcorn aside as soon as I earn one and I need to eat it before it gets stale or the mice behind the refrigerator eat it. Theoretically these are supposed to be rewards for customer loyalty, but I think it would be better to reward the prodigal customer who’s finally come back after six months of patronizing the competition. I also have a card for a local microbrewery, by the way, because if there’s one thing that my life was lacking it was an excuse to drink more beer, but that’s another story.

And they tell me I can track my rewards online, which just seems like a path to insanity. I have too many online accounts and too many passwords to remember as it is. I don’t need a dozen more to go with all the merchant cards I’m carrying, or some hacker examining my taste in movies. It’s a lucky thing I don’t fly more than once every two or three years or I’d probably be obsessed with tracking my frequent flyer miles and trying to take advantage of those double-your-miles-while-we’re-tripling-the-number-of-miles-you-need-to-earn-anything offers. Actually the only people I know who fly enough to worry about their frequent flyer miles are the ones who do it for work, which always makes me wonder. If you have to fly for your job and your company reimburses you for your travel costs who gets the free ticket you earn? Anyway, I say to all the companies that give out cards: don’t reward your customers by making them jump through hoops. Sometimes even the places that give out paper cards are guilty of this. Earlier this week I went to a sandwich place and handed over my card that had been punched nine times, and the guy behind the counter told me I couldn’t get a large sandwich, only a regular, even though I’d bought nine large sandwiches. And it doesn’t say anything about limitations, restrictions, provisos, quid pro quos, or my mileage varying on the card. So he called over a manager, and the manager said, "I’ll let it go this time," which is the kind of attitude you can afford to take if you’re a manager and not dependent on tips. And I’ll be honest and say that if that were the stated policy I wouldn’t try any chicanery, pettifogging, or knavery-I’d accept a slightly smaller sandwich, but I expect truth in advertising. So I wrote to the main office to ask them to make their policy clearer. I got back a very nice reply that their policy is your tenth sandwich can be whatever you like, although a jet engine is extra, and by way of an apology they’d be sending me a card with nine holes punched in it so I could get another free sandwich. Now I just feel bad for the guy in the main office who, at this moment, is preparing my card with an X-acto knife.

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