The Duane Reade at 79th and Amsterdam in New York City is a typical American drugstore, aisle after aisle stocked with items that have been cloned and tweaked to fit our list of ever-growing physical needs.
It’s no different from CVS in Stoughton, or Walgreens in Canton, or Rite-Aid in Sharon. They are all mega-stores packed full of things to eat, to read, to write with, cosmetics that are supposed to make us look better, and drugs that are supposed to make us feel better.
All good, right? The more the better? Choice, competition? Bring it on. It’s the American way.
But last week, as I was waiting three hours for a prescription to be filled, I was struck by how this big city store, with all of its bounty, lacked something basic. There was no polite someone greeting customers and asking, “May I help you?” “Don’t worry. We’ll get this straightened out.” There was no polite anyone helping an elderly man in line, a long line, so many people waiting. “Take a seat, sir. I’ll be right with you.”
There was none of this.
It was all “I can’t help you.” “You have to go back to your doctor.” “There’s nothing I can do about it.” “I don’t make the rules.” “Next.”
The people who had all their i’s dotted and t’s crossed moved through the process without issue, like commuters sliding their Charlie Cards through a turnstyle.
But the people with questions about insurance and copays and prescriptions that hadn’t been called in yet?
They were treated like gum on a shoe.
“Treat people with respect,” we tell our children. “Look them in the eye. Say, ‘Yes, please’ and “No thank you.’ When someone needs help, offer to help.” Isn’t this the American way, too?
Not in this store. One of the women ringing up sales tried being kind, but was chastised by her boss, the supervising pharmacist, who told her she talked too much. “You give them too much information,” he said.
The eye-care aisle was directly across from the chair where I waited and observed. It was stocked with bottles and tubes and sprays full of drops and salves and ointments. Visine alone offered an array of choices. Visine Original. Visine Long Lasting. Visine Advanced. Visine for Dry Eyes. Visine for Tired Eyes. Visine Maximum. Visine Totality. Visine A. Who knew there were so many ways to soothe eyes?
But it’s not our eyes that need soothing.
You see a lot in a store in three hours. I saw pens, Easy glide. Easy touch. Fine. Smooth. All different shapes and colors. Even pens made from recycled bottles. I saw hair products, hundreds of them. I saw an entire shelf full of products dedicated to cleaning a nose.
I saw what wasn’t in that store, too.
Before the big pharmacies put the small ones out of business, drugstores were small and there wasn’t much choice, and if your eyes were red, there was just plain old Visine to help. There wasn’t much variety in hair products, either.
But there was a friendliness in these places, a small-town feel even when the drugstore was smack in the middle of a city.
In Inman Square, clerks helped. Druggists smiled. Customers, even new ones, even strangers, felt welcome.
Some drugstores had soda fountains, too, like the Rexall Drug in Randolph, where you could sit and drink a lime rickey while the druggist mixed his magic potions. And when your prescription was ready, he would always appear and say something like, “This should do the trick.” Or, “I hope (whoever the medicine was for) is feeling better soon.’’
When I was handed my prescription, there was no “Thank you” or “I’m sorry about the wait.”
“There’s a $10 copay,” the cashier said. And that was that.
The druggist never said a word.
We had less when drug stores weren’t mega-stores, then there were fewer products and less choice. But we had more, too. We were welcomed. We were helped. And we were respected.
A shelf full of eye-care products and 100 different shades of hair color cannot trump this.