Thursday, November 05, 2009

Latest Examiner Articles: Heywood Shepherd, Zeppelins, and The Great Peril

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"The Unfortunate Rake" and its many variants, including one of my own

Cab Calloway, here singing as Koko the Clown, performs a beautiful rendition of the "St. James Infirmary Blues," in Fleischer Studios' "Snow White," with Betty Boop in the title role.

My son James made a reference to the song on his Facebook page, and it got me thinking about the song and its song family. There are probably hundreds of songs in the family, and dozens of variations of each one. If we're to believe Wikipedia, the great granddaddy of the family was an eighteenth-century English ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," about a young man dying of venereal disease. Its lyrics recall the line, "A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury," though for the man in the song, it was too late even for this dubious cure:

"And had she but told me before she disordered me,/Had she but told me of it in time,/I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,/But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime."

In 1960, Folkways Records issued an album with twenty variants of the song. including the one most familiar to Americans, "The Streets of Laredo," or "The Cowboy's Lament."

Which is a long way of getting around to my take on the song. During the 1990s, when Amtrak had more money than it usually did, presidents Thomas Downs and especially George Warrington squandered huge sums of it in trying to remake Amtrak's image. Downs decided to use a General Electric model and split up the company into "strategic business units." It made sense for GE, which was extremely diversified; Amtrak was just split into geographical regions, all of which were offering the same product. Warrington was heavily into "branding." Warrington dropped the headless arrow logo and gave us the three wiggly lines, as well as the Acela brand for the high-speed service.

The reservation offices were subjected to endless analysis by outside companies, especially MCI and CMC (a Memphis-based training company, which is no longer with us). CMC came up with having call center agents answer, "May I make a reservation for you?" The company wanted agents to be plugged in 100 percent of the time--taking one call after another. But to do a good job as an agent, you need to be off the phone occasionally, if only to cough, clear your throat, or take a drink of water. Thankfully, that craziness is over with--at least I think it is.

Sometime around the year 2000 the late lamented Amtrak Chicago Call Center had a cowboy-themed end-of-fiscal year celebration and I expressed my frustrations with the following ballad. Now that George Warrington has been gone from Amtrak for quite some time, and present Amtrak management is focusing much more on real customer service and safety, here's "The Dying Agent."

A few glossary notes first:

Six buckets--You know when you call Amtrak or the airlines and get a fare quote, then call back the next day and the fare's higher? That's revenue management--a way to apply supply-and-demand to transportation. The available seats for a given train and date are divided into "buckets." For instance, the fare from Bloomington-Normal to Chicago could be $12, $16, $21, $27, or $34. On a 200-seat train there might be 50 seats in each bucket. Once the $12 seats are sold out, it goes to the $16 bucket, and so on. The revenue management gurus adjust the number of seats in each bucket based on demand. There will be fewer in the lowest-fare bucket around holidays; more on slow travel days. (Amtrak has four regular buckets plus two others for miscellaneous fares.)

Thirty-eighth floor--The Chicago call center was on the 38th floor of the 55 East Monroe building until 2000, when we moved down to the 20th.

AFREND--The Arrow Front-End system. It was an experimental program to make it the reservation system easier to use. I used it during its last days of experimentation, and thought was a very good program that needed some more work. I was on the beta test team for the front-end system we got, called RailRes. It's a good system, but I thought a modified AFREND would have been better.

Forty-five minutes--The basic lunch period, of which 15 minutes were paid. While you wouldn't be brought up on charges for being late once, a few times could get you in trouble.

The Dying Agent
(Sung to the tune of “Streets of Laredo”)
As I walked out in the streets of Chicago,
As I walked out in Chicago one day,
I spied a young agent all wrapped in timetables,
Wrapped in timetables, and cold as the clay.

“I see by your T-shirt that you’re a res agent.”
These words he did say as I slowly walked by.
“Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story.
I’m fried in the brains and I know I must die.

“It was once in the office I was a top seller.
Once I was pride of the thirty-eighth floor.
But then MCI came, and CMC trainers,
My dialogue’s broken; I’ll plug in no more.

“Those CMC trainers, they plied me with trinkets.
Made me and my friends play ridiculous games.
I had to say ‘May I make a reservation for you?’
Which was awkward, insulting, tongue-tying, and lame.

“My team leader told me I wasn’t productive,
That ninety percent was just not the right stuff.
I struggled, I labored, I sweated six buckets.
I reached ninety-seven; it wasn’t enough.

“My fingers are callused, my shoulders hunched over,
I’ve festering blisters upon my rear end.
My carpals are tunneled, my eyes are all frazzled,
My system is down and I’m without AFREND.

“Get six burly redcaps to handle my coffin,
Get six coach attendants to sing me a tune,
Take me down to the train yard and lay the ties o’er me,
As the Zephyr rolls by on a gray afternoon.”

I heard the young agent tell all his sad story
Of pressure, harassment, the stresses and lies.
His story took longer than forty-five minutes.
I’m brought up on charges; I think I will die.