Wanting Things To Work.

A Technology Society Ponders Bureaucracy
A wonderful metaphor of a frustrated technology society that keeps hitting it’s shin on bureaucracy. 

The fun part of this article is that you can replace “Trinidad and Tobago” with just about every country I have lived in or visited and have it be understood. It’s a global issue. 

It’s been a long week for me here in Trinidad and Tobago, yet along the way I met kindred spirits of all varieties.

When I went to one government office, I found that there were no numbers and that people were called as the security guard dictated. Fortunately, she dictated in a way that benefited me, but I do not know that it was fair.  I was done in record time, largely because of things I had done with the office in 2011 to turn the bureaucracy against itself in a loop, in a hope it would be fixed. It hasn’t been fixed, of course, but my prior work and explanation – and I daresay my sincerity – got me out of there in less than an hour.

The next day, I would take the form from that office to Yet Another Government Office after researching the appropriate website as to the requirements. I almost got it done that day – the office required 2 forms of ID, the website said ‘some form of ID’, and I was stalled for a day. The next day, I dutifully returned bearing two forms of ID and some other unrequired documentation to smooth things over. In less than an hour, a complicated process that stymies people for weeks was begun.

I know how those systems work and how they don’t. I have insight. And in both of those cases, I spoke with customer service representatives who were as frustrated with the process as I was and who made a crappy process work right. Whether it works out, I should know within a week.

That’s Not So Bad.

If this sounds like it was easy, it may seem that way on the surface – but it wasn’t as easy as it should be. It wasn’t as easy as it could be. Dealing with government offices, paying bills, visiting the bank – these things are unpredictable. People end up losing hours of work in government offices all over the country. The offices will argue that the people weren’t prepared, or didn’t listen, and some even treat them so. Some people are simply idiots – I found a few sitting around me here and there on their umpteenth time speaking with the same people over and over again but not actually listening.

There’s the way things probably should work, and then there’s the way things really work. It’s that thing that maybe should be called cognitive dissonance I am writing about.

The least stressful way of dealing with things is largely by understanding reality and dealing with it. And yet, decades of doing that here in Trinidad and Tobago have not given any improvement – I will argue that it enables it. I was heartened, though, that a new generation is entering these government offices and that they understand it – empathize – from their side of the desk as well. I thanked them for that.

We Want Things To Work.

We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, we can see things wrong faster than they can be fixed by the snaggle-toothed gears of bureaucracy. Many systems around the world are outdated by so much that it boggles the mind. For me at times, it’s a special kind of Hell where, as someone who has designed systems, I cringe inwardly even as I keep a smile on my face. Getting angry doesn’t make things better, allowing it to stay the same doesn’t make things better… but here and there some strategic poking might work.

Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can stand up to a system and stare it down with a smile. Most of us get frustrated, angry, depressed… either we are beaten, or we rage against the machine.

Neither works.

To fix the mechanisms of society, we need to not only understand how things work well beyond social-media (read: armchair) discussion, but be able to push things the way that we think they should go. A smile here, a joke there, standing up for yourself yet being flexible enough to get what you need out of the system.

That’s what made it a long week.

Those two offices alone, while I spent less than 2 hours altogether at them, required driving for 2 hours. It required researching things as best I could, it required roughly a decade’s worth of sorted documentation. It required patience that the world as it is pushed onto the shoulders of a once young and passionate man who raged against the machine… until he realized what he was doing wasn’t working.

Until he realized that he needed it to work now instead of when things were done ‘right’ at some point in an unforeseeable future.

Things get better, but it takes a moderate voice to make it happen. Yelling makes you hoarse and assures no one will listen to you. Allowing it to go on unchecked makes you an enabler. To affect change, a clear and human voice needs to be heard.

If only you could explain that to those that rage against the machine… or enable it by their silence.

And still, there’s that young man in me that wants to rage ineffectively against the machine.. which is why I wrote about it for me. Maybe you’ll benefit. 

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A Walk Down High Street.

It was a walk to see what had changed, to see if I could get a few things I needed. It was a walk to reconnect me with something that I felt I should reconnect with. My feet had pummeled there throughout the 1980s, when I often wore the Presentation College uniform. It was where I went into every business to try to sell advertising for my father’s ‘Trini Trader’ magazine, or to do things for the printery, or to desperately check for the latest computer magazines at Victor Manhin’s, long gone.

It was where I haunted when I ‘broke biche’, playing hookie in my last few years at Presentation College, hiding in an amazingly small coffee shop you would not know was there unless someone told you – to either meet with skirts of both shades of blue, or to read. It was where I hiked down to the old Muscle Connection Gym to work out and to later get my free Tandoori chicken meal at Tara’s Kitchen in Carlton Center. I paid for neither, having bartered for the first and earned the last through friendship.

Of course, most of it was gone, as the old dustbins that used to be were. I hadn’t walked down in that area for close to a decade. I was surprised to find it more clean than it had been, though it was still dirty. Library Corner no longer had the library. A facade in front of the old Library would have made me worry that it would suffer the same problems of the Red House, but on the way I had seen where it was relocated. A mental note to swing in there sometime.

A walk down the street saw me looking for the sports store that was no longer there, saw me heading down to look at shoes to replace the tired old running shoes I had – these were 10 years old, detritus from my last period of life in Trinidad, not looking worn but the bounce of the sole lost in time like the bounce of so many souls. I shopped around, toward the bottom of High Street, seeing all manner of shoes costing thousands of dollars that I would never be seen in public with. Gaudy. Eye catching colors. A culture I shunned in footwear and in most other things, preferring to remain as unnoticed as possible on the streets where I always stood out anyway. “The Professor”, as they called me back then on the Coffee and the Carib, liked to blend in but somehow always stood out. Damn it.

One store I was ushered into had me go down some stairs, into a basement that reeked of mold. Where there’s mold, there’s compromised inventory. To the credit of their honesty, they didn’t even try to cover the smell – maybe the product of having tried and failed over time. To their credit, they had their display shoes in clear plastic bags that had seen much reuse. But the scent. I have seen what mold does to shoes. To walls. How it secretes itself insidiously on everything. And then I remembered this plaza for the work my father had done on their electrical. I remembered the owner, who I am certain has not changed.

I was permitted an opening as the worker spoke with someone else very seriously about why their shoes were better priced than anything else in the area – but the price for the shoes I would put on my feet was still higher than what I saw in Detour. I went back to Detour, stood by the shoes and was attended briefly, they brought the shoes down and I purchased them without hesitation – 25% of the price of the majority of the shoes, 20% lower than comparable shoes where I saw them. The Syrian gentleman smiled slightly at this; he had seen me there 10 minutes earlier, he had seen what I did, and he also saw that I immediately put the new Nikes on and tossed the others, leaving them with box and bag.

Hands swinging.

I walked up further, finding new spaces where old ones were. The sidewalk was the same. The street smelled the same – that odor of dry season dust with the occasion of stale urine. No one talks about that pungent aroma in cities when they say that they love them. New York. Orlando. Dallas. Honolulu. Panama. Managua. Port of Spain. San Fernando. The list goes on about which brochures should have scratch and sniff photos.

Or the smell of the casual vagrant. That lurid smell of sweat upon layers of sweat, a topology on the sinuses not easily forgotten.

A new book store. A casual conversation revealed why there were only books marketed to women (read: romance) on the shelves, though it was spared 50 Shades of Bad Writing by the Muslim owner. Another bookstore I frequented with it’s meager selection poorly laid out so it seemed like they had more of a variety.

I stopped in one store, saw an old school friend who worked there and we chatted. Caught up.

I left High Street, striding home in new shoes and old memories, thinking as I kept an eye on the shadows near my own and the sound of footfalls behind me – a habit over the years. I thought about how big High Street had been for me in the 1980s, and how small it seemed now.

When I was younger, it was a window to the world. Thriving. Knowledge I craved was pooled in bookstores that no longer exist. The street had become smaller not because I had gotten larger, but because it was a window into what could sell in a country where the buying power of the average citizen limited choices of what businesses could bring in and make a profit from. The only local thing was a side stall of leather belts and sandals, a throwback to a forgotten age when Medford Gas Station was at the bottom of High Street.

The walk told me what I already knew. San Fernando had changed but not grown, just as the rest of Trinidad and Tobago. Perhaps it was the error of my younger eyes to have seen so much potential.