It’s Not You – Relationship Loss is Real!

I received a form email from my car insurer letting me know that my renewal was coming up. Apparently, I could do the whole thing online. No new stickers for the license plate, no broker cautioning me about trying to save money by lying over the principal driver or checking to make sure I wasn’t moonlighting as an Uber driver. This also means no relationship with an agent. I started to think about other relationships we’re losing – and does it matter?

Doing Business With People You Knew

An agent was your best ally if the big insurance company gave you a hard time over a minor technicality in your policy. They knew the people to talk to and could vouch for your character or even pull in a favour. The first thing I learned, from the old salty dog in one of the big offices at the agency where I started, was: “dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” Not doing so could cost your client – or the agency – a fortune. (Job #8 – Starting Over for the 22nd Time)

It’s all on you now though. So take old Herb’s advice!

Mall of Voodoo

What other relationships are being killed by the convenience of doing things “online”? Bankers – maybe not so much of a loss, unless you needed a small loan and they knew who you were. Advisors of all kinds – soon to be replaced by ChatGPT, anyway. Our public gathering spaces and neighbourhood “Mom and Pop” establishments are nearly gone, too – have you noticed?

When is the last time you spent time in a shopping mall? Remember meeting people there to socialize? Now most of the storefronts are boarded up and there are only a few gaudy displays hastily put up on broken, hollow-eyed manikins by disinterested employees. Maybe this is not such a bad thing. The malls were embarrassing displays of 80s excess materialism. For sure online ordering has killed them.

One trend in our town is that mall space is being rented by our health authorities so that older people can go in for their bloodwork, vaccinations, and what-not. From consumer of goods to consumer of healthcare! (70% of the US population takes at least one prescription drug every day. Canada is not far behind.) What an ode to a Western life trajectory! Hooha!

Even doctors and pharmacists are online now, though, and always in a hurry to get to the next “chat.”

Plastic Not So Fantastic

One loss has shocked me – the loss of the truck stop. Surely somebody realized how important these admittedly crappy restaurants were to society? Nope.

I did an obligatory stint as a waitress in a truck stop (Job #5) and remember that the place was filled with the same guys every day. They not only knew each other, they knew all of us waitresses as well and could ask after family members or remember even the smallest detail of someone’s life. And vice versa. If they were one of the long-haul guys, they knew people in coffee shops all the way across the country and beyond. They could tell you what people were saying three province’s over.

Most importantly, we provided a sense of belonging to these guys (they were all guys then). This is where the cliché of the waitress and truck driver came from – the relationships they forged in a truck stop.

Now it is tough to find a proper truck stop restaurant with real waitresses. They have all but disappeared out West, where I am. They’ve been replaced by impersonal plastic restaurants selling plastic food, staffed mostly by young men from another country whose first language is not English. The work hours are crap, the pay is minimal, and the job is not fulfilling. No white kid will work hard enough to keep a job like this anymore. They’ve all gone to university and expect “careers.” No way there’re going to “serve” you. (It should be noted that many of these guys from another country are students who are very hard workers making their way in this country. Be kind to them – they will soon be your bosses.)

Truckers Divide

It gets worse. Truckers have radio channels where they talk to each other, letting their fellow drivers know of road closures, accidents, or bad weather. Because they monitor this channel all day, they get to know who’s an idiot, who struggles with drugs or is getting divorced, or who is a horny pervert. Even the briefest of exchanges can reveal a ton of meaning to someone paying attention. The relationships truckers forge with each other and the dispatchers are also being lost.

A white trucker told me that another channel has been created for the brown-skinned drivers. There, they can speak in their own language, presumably talking about the same things that the white drivers talk about. He said that when one of these guys gets on the “white guy” channel and speaks a foreign language, they are told to get the hell off in no uncertain terms. I was mortified.

I know that truckers have a Code and if one of their fellow drivers is in trouble, they will go out of their way to ensure the driver is not stranded or abandoned. Truckers take pride in having big hearts and a longstanding tradition of helping out their fellow drivers. (Or even their fellow locked down countrymen: Rumble in the Belly: Freedom Convoy 2022)

So why would they leave these “new” guys out? Is it because they are racists, as Trudeau said on national TV?

Every Man For Himself

It isn’t so much their race as their perceived attitudes toward the traditions of the drivers, I was told. These new guys are all out for themselves, he said. They won’t stop to help or offer information and they don’t try to get to know the other drivers. When there is a language barrier, face-to-face conversations are crucial – I’ve learned this at work from our pitiful little lunch room. A common sense of purpose should bring diverse people together so they can learn from each other and forge a relationship of understanding. This is nearly impossible without a conducive environment like the restaurants of old.

This applies to all new drivers, too, not just the ones from another country. No one realized how important a restaurant could be for the relationships it fostered among patrons and staff.

Unfortunately, no one is able to “teach” the unwritten Code to the new drivers. It is something gleaned from having ordinary conversations with other drivers when you stop along the road every day. You can’t simply write a “policy” to cover all contingencies. The Code doesn’t work like that. It is a voluntary relationship with others that develops organically and naturally and cannot be forced.

The Code is slowly being lost as the old guys retire or die. The young brown drivers and the young white drivers are becoming homogenous – soon no one will stop to help anyone else out. Now that’s equality.

Missing the Bus

One of the things I want to do is to go across Canada in an Airstream. My plan is to stop at every small town’s coffee shop to get the gossip. I want to ask the people in those places what they like about living there. What kinds of things they look forward to…what is worth seeing….

It is likely I am too late.

Small coffee shops are a ton of work and really, running one is a way of life. Day in and day out, you show up early to cook, make the coffee, and serve. The work never ends and the margins are small. I know this. My friends and I once seriously contemplated opening up a place. Of course, I would handle “front of the house,” getting to know everyone and making people feel at home. But the friend who enjoys cooking and baking likes to travel for extended periods of time. Who would make the nourishing, filling soup when she left? The giant muffins filled with nuts, seeds, and raisins or chocolate chips? The PIE?! Plus there was all the shopping, chopping, bookkeeping, and so on and on and on.

Without these small, cozy establishments, how can you meet people?

Standing Room Only

The bakery in our town has no place to sit and doesn’t make coffee at all. Restaurants are loud with canned music and do not encourage relationship-building. Sitting alone for a meal in one of these places is to realize what loneliness feels like.

Local coffee shops used Covid as an excuse to get rid of most of their inside tables. They serve factory made pastries that taste like…factories. Yet they are almost always full. The same old guys are shooting the shit at the coveted corner table every time you go in. People crave even the barest connection wherever they can get it, even from a surly-faced barista who will quit as soon as they can find a “real” job. At least you recognize them.  

Like every coffee shop or small restaurant that serves homemade food all over the world, hardly anyone wants this way of life anymore.

If the government really cared about its citizens’ mental health, they would open small coffee shops all over Canada, staffed with formerly homeless or marginalized people – not pay for yet more prescription meds.

The smell of fresh muffins coming out of the oven, the roar of the coffee grinder, and the cadence of conversation and laughter is a balm to the soul.

Going, Going…

Business relationship with a broker or banker are one thing but the disappearance of all these relationships in such a short time might give a clue as to why so many people take drugs – both legal and not. (See: You Need Friends to Be Happy as You Get Older)

I now believe that the loss of simple relationships like these and the places to forge them is causing untold damage to our social fabric. Online relationships are difficult and unsatisfying, and no replacement, in my experience. I’m often left feeling worse after an exchange because the other person hasn’t answered me right away or has said something I am upset by. In person, we would clear this up right away, often with a laugh of relief and a shared moment of embarrassment.

Any loneliness or isolation we feel is justified. People that have a cocoon with another are able to weather these losses but for those of us who live alone, they are really tough. Going a whole day without a small exchange with another person means living way too much in your head than is comfortable. Once, during the height of the mandate-as-punishment, I asked myself, “Do I exist if no one sees or acknowledges me?”

Whenever I’m out, I try to make eye contact and have a brief conversation with anyone around. This could be in a bank or checkout line or while I’m on a walk. Sometimes I am all but ignored but at other times I have these little miracle exchanges where we both go on our ways feeling “seen” by another human being. These micro relationships are critical to my wellbeing. If I see the same person walking at the same time, a little relationship could form. I have met neighbours this way and both of us have felt more connected to the world.

So if anyone wants to open up a small coffee shop, let me know. We could call it the Lonely Lemon Café – home of the famous Sourpuss Lemon Bar!


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