I just read a story about a man named Larry Freeman, a cosmetics executive who went to Moscow to judge the Mrs. USSR pageant. He got to his hotel room and found the phone dead, so he went to tell one of the clerks.
"The phone doesn't work," Freeman said to her.The clerk looked back and shrugged. "The hotel doesn't work," she responded.
Anyone who has stayed at a Soviet hotel knows this is a true story. The only part I found a bit unbelievable is that the clerk responded at all. Usually, they just shrug. Then they light a cigarette and blow smoke in your face.
Anyway, Larry Freeman's story got me thinking about something most Americans don't appreciate until they leave America: how well much of this country does work. I want to pause today to celebrate that.
I'd like to start by celebrating an item we probably take for granted more than any other: our phones.
In much of the world, phones serve the same function as table vases - ornamentation. I once spent a month in Africa. In every country, 30 tries were needed to make each call - even if you were only trying to reach someone across the street.
When I finally got back to Kennedy Airport in New York, I picked up a phone to call home. I heard a wonderful sound I hadn't heard since leaving. A dial tone.
I'd also like to celebrate our short airport lines. I know what you're thinking: the last time you flew you spent a half-hour steaming in line while the seconds to your departure ticked down. Do not complain. A half-hour wait is a luxury in much of the world.
In Moscow, the hotels demand you get to the airport two hours before takeoff. To be safe, I got there three hours early. Still, when I walked in, I almost began to cry. There was a mob stretched the length of a football field - at least 2,000 people backed up behind three slow-moving customs agents. After 21/2 hours, I was less than halfway through. I finally did what seemed the norm - snuck under the ropes and forced my way to the head of the line. With five minutes to go, I sprinted to my gate. Only then was I told the plane would leave four hours late.
I celebrate American supermarkets. In much of the world each item is sold out of separate, drab, understocked stores.
There is a joke they tell in East Europe that's not really a joke. A man waits in a long line to buy bread at the bread store. He gets to the front, finds the shelves empty and tells the clerk he can't believe they're out of bread. The clerk huffs. "This is not the shop without bread," he says, "this is the shop without milk. The shop without bread is down the block, next to the shop without vegetables and across from the shop without meat."
I celebrate America for salespeople that smile. A true story: When McDonald's opened its first outlet in Moscow, employees had to be trained to smile and say "May I help you." It was a foreign concept there.
I celebrate America for homegrown entertainment. I once checked into the nicest hotel in Sudan's capital of Khartoum. Americans were a rarity there. But when I looked at the selection of movies offered on TV, I found all were American, each available in several languages. I watched "Flashdance."
The same thing happened to me in Warsaw last winter. There, I watched "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." It was a strange experience. Instead of dubbing it or putting in subtitles, the translation was done with a single male voice that repeated in Polish each line of each character - even females - while the original English track played simultaneously.
And finally, money. The dollar may be weak, but if its buying power was akin to the the Russian ruble, the Ethiopian birr or the Romanian lei, we'd be forced to spend half our time sneaking up to foreigners and whispering two desperate words: "Change money?"
Of course, like most Americans, I'll soon get back to complaining to hotel clerks, phone operators, salespeople and airport ticket takers. But for this one moment, they should all know something: You do a much better job than most of the world.