On expectations. And government. And customer service. And more.

This is a story about expectations. Also about customer service. Also stereotypes. Also government. Also Jesse White. Stay tuned.
We start in New York City last July. While visiting my son, I lost my driver’s license in the subway about five hours before I was supposed to board a plane to O’Hare. New Yorkers have a stereotype of being selfish, distant, callous. I am not particularly well-traveled, but this is not my experience. My experience from several visits is the precise opposite. I have never been anywhere where I found people more generous or helpful to a stranger. This observation is reinforced at LaGuardia International Airport, where I present myself early at security in need of an airplane ride home but no state-issued identification. This is an inconvenience and I do not recommend it, but it is not the source of some Neil Simon tragicomedy you might expect. I am shuffled through a series of TSA agents. Each is understanding. Each is considerate. Each is helpful. Long story short, I show the ID I do have, go through a fair amount of questioning and get the full-service security pat-down, but I’m through security and at my gate in time to have a leisurely hamburger and fries before boarding and takeoff.
Is this what one would expect according to our stereotypes of New Yorkers? Of government employees? Of TSA?
I think not. But I can tell you it is more my experience with all these individuals than the opposite. This is also true in my experience with other agencies of which we are supposed to be skeptical — of utilities, the cable company, local and state government agencies. I am often regaled with horror stories from friends and acquaintances about encounters with these services. I can’t dismiss them, but this is not what I generally find. In moments of hubris, I ask, ”Is it me? Is there something about me that makes customer service people nice and helpful to me but mean and disinterested to everyone else?”
There’s not, of course. A greater mind than mine can psychoanalyze the masses to get to the source of our stereotypes. I will just say that I think we tend to vilify the representatives of authority in our lives more than is justified.
Which leads me to Jesse White. The secretary of state’s office has always held a special place in the bitterest recesses of the public mind. The branches, especially in heavily populated areas like ours, are constantly crowded, a seeming swarm of confusion. I was not eager to leap into this throng to get my replacement license, but I discovered that there is a limit to the selflessness of New Yorkers. No one mailed me my driver’s license as I secretly considered a possibility.
So on a day off work, I made plans for a visit to the Des Plaines secretary of state’s branch office. In 30 years in Cook County raising three children, I have had plenty of opportunities to experience secretary of state branches throughout the suburbs. All have been generally positive, especially in the 20 years since White took over the office and especially in Des Plaines. Once when I had to renew my license in person in Des Plaines, I joined the morning line that starts forming about a half-hour before the office opens at 8 a.m. and got entirely through the process in time to drive to Arlington Heights and arrive early for our 9 o’clock news meeting.
Last week, on a day off, I arrived at 8:15. The line still stretched out the door and 30 yards along the sidewalk. When I finally reached the welcome desk, the clerk was pleasant, though apologetic to note that I hadn’t brought all the documents I needed for a Real ID card. I had figured as long as I was going through the process, I’d take care of this necessary upgrade, but misread the number of pieces of mail I needed to bring. I had one. I needed two. Frustrating, but my mistake. I shrugged and moved on. She gave me advice for times and places to navigate more quickly next time. When my number was called to provide my documents and get my replacement, I was sheepish.
“I have everything I need here,” I offered a crooked smile. “I’d hoped to upgrade to a Real ID, but I have only one piece of mail instead of two.”
“How far away do you live?” the agent asked.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“How far away do you live? I can complete everything here and hold your place in line if it’s not too long.”
I told him I lived just a few miles away but could be back within 45 minutes.
“That’s when I take my break,” he said, “but that’s OK, I’ll watch for you.”
“That’s so kind,” I said. “But, no. This was my fault, I don’t want to mess up your break.”
“It’s not a problem,” he said. “Really. I can manage it.”
I hurried home, grabbed some additional mail and rushed back to Des Plaines. I stood where the agent had told me, and he noticed me after he finished helping a customer. He called me to his window, finished me up in less than five minutes and moved me along.
Throughout the morning, I marveled repeatedly at the culture Jesse White has nurtured in the secretary of state’s office. An atmosphere of great service, well-organized management of thousands of people with diverse and complex needs every day and compassionate interactions with the public does not materialize by accident. It takes root and grows in soil carefully tended by great leaders.
As I was considering writing about this experience, we received last week from Shaw Media an editorial the newspaper chain was offering to other news organizations calling for a day to honor Jesse White. The editorial was a glowing recitation of White’s record, both in public service and private life. We published it in place of our editorial on Tuesday. I hope you read it, or will read it. I hope government leaders who have the ability to establish a Jesse White Day read it or one of its many versions throughout the state.
We need to take more opportunities to dispel stereotypes. Of government officials. Of government workers. Of customer service reps. Yes, of utilities and cable companies and even New Yorkers, too. I don’t suppose Jesse White can do anything about those. But a day in his honor might help the rest of us reflect on all the good that can be done, that is done, by people we tend to reflexively disparage.
Won’t we then know something more constructive about expectations? And maybe about where stereotypes come from, too?

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