BY CARL PERRIN
Copyright is held by the author.
THEY HAD no choice. They had to fire him.
And it did my heart good to see them take him away.
Oscar was a greeter at the Weymouth Department Store in Manchester. It’s a job that my Uncle Frank used to have. Frank is 82 years old. He got the job at Weymouth after he retired from shelving groceries at Hannaford’s. He worked three afternoons a week greeting customers as they came into the big store. He loved it. It gave him something to do, and the small amount of cash he earned came in handy. He especially loved greeting the people who came in with little kids. Frank always had a joke for them.
“Yesterday I accidentally swallowed some food coloring. The doctor says I’m okay, but I feel like I’ve dyed a little inside.” The parents would groan, but the kids always thought it was hilarious.
Then someone at Weymouth headquarters got the brilliant idea that a robot could be the greeter and do it better. They also figured it would be cheaper. That’s the problem with those corporate types. They see where they can save a few dollars and lose sight of the big picture.
Losing that job almost did Uncle Frank in. He spent most of it time just moping around the house. He had no other interest to take up his time. I was afraid he was going to lose his will to live, so I decided to do something about it.
I teach American History at Manchester High School, and I have a great bunch of kids in my classes. I was telling them about my uncle, and one of them came up with a suggestion.
“Let me think about it,” I said. The next Saturday I went to Weymouth’s and sat on one of the benches in the entranceway to observe Oscar. As customers came in, he greeted them and asked if he could help them. He knew where everything was in the store and told them how to get to it.
Then a woman came in with a little red-headed boy about five years old. “Where’s Frank?” the boy asked.
I felt my heart in my throat when the little boy asked that.
“Frank doesn’t work here anymore,” the robot said, “I’m Oscar, and I can help you with whatever you need.”
“I don’t like you. I want Frank,” the boy said. Then he lay down and refused to get up. His mother picked him up and carried him out of the store.
The next Monday I told my students to go ahead with the plan.
Then on Saturday I went to Weymouth’s to see what was happening. A bunch of teenagers came through the door. I could see Oscar backing away from them and turning away when they got near. Soon they had him surrounded and began peppering him with questions. I couldn’t hear all of the queries, but here a few of the meaningless inquiries that I did hear:
“What is the square root of an elephant?”
“What is the past participle of encyclopedia?”
“Who is really buried in Grant’s tomb?”
“Who said, ‘Love is just another word for chocolate?’”
I could see the creature trying to break out of the blockade that surrounded him, but the kids were relentless. I almost felt sorry for the thing, but then I thought of Uncle Frank and what the store had done to him. I admit I enjoyed seeing the robot being tormented.
Next Oscar seemed to suffer the robotic version of a nervous breakdown. It started flailing around and hit one kid on the shoulder pretty hard. The rest of the kids backed away, but Oscar kept floundering around and backed into a bunch of customers who were entering the store. People were running away from the machine gone amok. Soon the store manager came running. It took him a couple of minutes to calm the robot down. Then he led him away.
I was not surprised when I heard a little later that Oscar was no longer employed by Weymouth.
Excuse me, I have to call my Uncle Frank and tell him that his job is available again.