Note No. 57

March 17, 2010


I was reminded of the virtue, patience, yesterday.

Every month, I have to go to Cancun to pay for social security for our two employees. Now, I love these girls and after my first year spent struggling trying to find someone who would even show up, not to mention make cute little towel shapes for the guests’ beds and laugh at my jokes, well, I would do almost anything for them. Yesterday I nearly reached my limit, though.

The process to pay social security is antiquated, to put it lightly. My accountant sends me a file through e-mail. I then have to copy that file onto a 3-1/2 inch FLOPPY DISK. Remember those things? They were all the rage in about 1994. You probably used one to save your thesis about Popples in Mrs. Brown’s fifth grade class. You can see about how useful they are these days by clicking here.

So, just to find a computer that even has a working 3-1/2 inch floppy disk drive is a challenge. I normally go to an Internet cafe next to the bank in Cancun. There I can transfer the file AND photocopy the check (Yes, we are also still paying with CHECKS down here), before I walk over to the bank to settle my bill. Once in the bank, I have to first wait in one line, where I give them my disk and they print out the file. It is my understanding that the lords at the bank are the only mortals on Earth able to do this task. This might mean they are not mortals.

Once they hand me my printout, I throw away the disk, because it will not work EVER AGAIN (I know this from experience), and then I get a ticket to wait in ANOTHER line, where I have to write the equivalent of the U.S. Constitution onto the back of the eight-inch by three-inch check, before I can hand it to the teller and receive my official receipt that certifies that I am free for another 30 days, before it’s time to do the whole crappy obstacle course all over again.

Believe it or not, I have nearly streamlined this ordeal down to about 20 minutes— 30 minutes, if there are long the lines in the bank. Yesterday, though, it occurs to me that maybe I can do two of the steps here on the island: copy the file to the disk and photocopy the check. Then I’ll be able to go straight to the bank, once in Cancun, thus bypassing the trip to the Internet cafe. The fact that I would even think that I can streamline this process any more than I already have, however, is apparently a crazy, witless, ungrateful thought— and the Gods of Stupid Human Logic let me know this for the next two and a half hours.

I first go to two Internet places around the corner from the hotel on Isla. Neither have working diskette drives, of course, and the employees at both locations make sure to tell me that such technology is seriously old. I am at least able to photocopy the check, though, and then I make the usual crossing to Cancun.

Our bank is in Cancun and not on the island, by the way, because the bank on the island closed our account without warning one day. The reason? They were missing a piece of documentation that I had delivered to them five months before, when they had asked for it. Then they must have lost it and rather than tell me there was a problem, our account just no longer existed one day. It’s worth it then to take a 17-minute ferry ride just for the better customer service.

On this particular day, I carry with me two floppy disks, because you should always assume that one of them is going to inexplicably malfunction. Once in the usual Internet cafe next to the bank, I go about my usual method of opening the e-mail from the accountant and copying the file to the disk. That’s when the message to format the disk comes up. From past experiences, I know that this message is wrong. There should be no message at all. I should be able to click Save and then the disk drive should start making its clunky chewing sound, like a horse eating hay, and then I should see an icon on the screen of some papers floating from one file to another, and then the disk drive stops masticating and I know that all has gone according to plan. There should be NO messages.

I try the other disk. The same message comes up. I then decide to defy The Truth and format these disks. They will not format.

I enlist the help of the computer guy working the store. I insist that it is not normal to get this formatting message. He insists that it is normal. We play musical computers and try each and every one in the store. He then admits that none of this is normal and that there might be a virus in the system and that I might try doing this file transfer at another Internet place.

Have you ever been to Cancun? Have you ever seen the long, soul-sucking stretches of asphalt, sand and concrete that are the city? Have you ever been a minion walking those never-ending expanses, while looking for something that resembles a useful commercial enterprise, meanwhile passing window display after window display of knock-off Mexican pottery and pink palm tree shot glasses, while a cacophony of heavy bass Latin rap assaults you from crackling speakers positioned in every doorway, and buses with squeaking brakes pass you on all sides, spewing their stinky fumes in your hair and all over your clothes?


To hear that I am going to have to venture out THERE to try to find a place with Internet AND 3-1/2 inch floppy disk drives is not good news. In fact, it makes me want to curl up into a little ball and pull some heavy fabric around me in a cocoon-like fashion. Kind of like a Popple.

There does happen to be an Office Depot three doors down, however, so I walk over there, thinking that MAYBE they have computers I can use. They would also have a fresh supply of diskettes, because somewhere in the back of my wizened mind, I know that this is no virus. These two disks are tainted. Done. Useless. I am going to have to buy new diskettes. I just know it.

The line at Office Depot is silly long. They have computers with Internet and floppy disk drives, though, so I pull a number from the ticket machine and wander over to the CD aisle to get a pack of diskettes. Would you believe that they are sold out? My mission to wait in line is suddenly made moot. And it becomes clear then that I am going to have to change sides of town entirely.

All the taxis are passing me, full with fares, so I get on a bus to take me to a part of town that has an Internet cafe, another branch of my bank, and of course, a Walmart, where I am counting on finding a secret stash of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks, should that become necessary. The optimist in me is leaving Mr. Walton’s superstore as a last resort, though, and I go first to the Internet cafe, where she directs me to a computer and I insert one of the disks I have. The same formatting request comes up. I try to format. It fails. I try the other disk. Same story, so I go to the front and ask the girl if she sells floppy diskettes.

She does.

I almost fall to my knees and kiss her feet. No one EVER sells diskettes. I put the disk she gives me into the drive. I click the Save button. The magical folder appears. The file transfers successfully. And I hear angels singing.

My moment of glee is soon dampened across the street at the bank. The ticket machine is broken and it’s an ugly scene of long lines and people sprawled out, one man rubbing his spouse’s arm in what appears to be an attempt to soothe her, though it seems to be working better on him than on her. She just seems to be resenting being pet like a cat.

I wait in line behind them. And behind some other people. And some other people. And some other people. And the woman being served has a little boy who likes to hear himself make loud airplane crashing noises but she is too busy with the customer service attendant to discipline him, so we all suffer. For five then 10 then 15 minutes.

But out of this thick layer of gloom emerges a familiar face. It’s Nelly, the woman who helped me open my bank account more than a year ago at the other branch, where I would be now, had I not had to come to this side of town to seek out working floppy disks.

“What are you doing here?” I ask her.

“I work here now.”

And I realize that the empty desk where I have been standing all this time is hers. Then she asks why I am at this branch and not the other one, so I tell her my sad tale and she holds out her hand for me to give her the floppy disk, putting it in her computer, pulling up the file, printing it out and oh my God, saving me so much time.

“You have no idea how much you have helped me,” I tell her.

She shrugs. “We’re always here to serve you.”

And as I go wait in the other line, the one that will allow me to finally go pay this infernal bill, I realize that she has just been extraordinarily nice to me and that it didn’t have to go that way at all. You see, back when I was opening the account with her about a year ago, I found out that I could not do any Internet banking on my Mac computer, because you have to use Internet Explorer for the bank Web page and Macs typically do not use Internet Explorer. Thus, there were about three extremely frustrating weeks of going to the bank, uploading various Internet browers, uninstalling them again, spending hours on the phone with customer service agents in Mexico City and just trying to figure out what we could do to allow me to do Internet banking. It finally became clear that only by purchasing a PC computer with Internet Explorer, could I do Internet banking.

But during that time, I never lost my patience with Nelly, because it was not her fault. It was the fault of somebody higher up and she was doing all she could to help me, though even that was not good enough. It would have been easy to lose patience with her and I know there were times when I wanted to, because isn’t it easy to blame the person right in front of us, the messenger with the bad news?

But I am so glad I never did.

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