-by Joseph Figgiani
Anyone who has moved more than once knows the pain in the ass of changing your address, finding a new bank or filling a prescription. While growing up on Staten Island in the 1970’s, I remember standing at the hem of my mom’s coat as she filled a prescription for penicillin, bought some aspirin or cough medicine at our local drug store. The place had a certain smell, like a mix of talcum powder, rubbing alcohol and cough drops. We were always greeted by the one pharmacist who’d chat with my mom and catch up on things. Both my parents are native New Yorkers. And by the time they’d had their first of five kids in 1960, Staten Island had become their home. Wherever they shopped the enjoyed warm relationships with all the store clerks, doctors and milkmen who provided our necessities. Maybe because they were from families who ran stores of their own.
My mom was one of ten born to Italian immigrants with minimal education who moved to New York City in the early 1900’s and maintained a successful grocery store for three-quarters of a century. They eventually relocated to Staten Island, and on the same block, my dad ran his own butcher’s market; a few doors down my uncle had a soda fountain shop, and a cousin ran his small music store. The close relationship my family enjoyed with their pharmacist, dry cleaner or bank teller was always reciprocated when dealing with their own customers who kept them in business.
Yesterday I called my doctor’s office in Illinois to make sure I could fill a prescription while visiting my hometown back here on Staten Island. They said they’d call Walgreen’s and make sure I was in their computer. A few hours later I drove to one of the dozens of Walgreen’s now littered across Staten Island and got on line. When it was my turn, I smiled and said hello to the teenage clerk who was wearing a bored and lifeless expression. I told her my doctor’s office had called from out of state, so I could get a refill while I’m away. I also told her I should be in their system anyway, because I’d gotten my prescription there before. Immediately, she said “no one from Illinois called” and was pretty much done helping me. Politely, I answered her questions: “name, birth date, etc,” and she typed them in. With a half a dozen people waiting behind me, I started shuffling my feet, readjusted my stance at the counter and scrambled to say the right thing.
I wasn’t just buying gum or vitamins. Because I was refilling anxiety medication, my mental state was on the line. But the conversation ended with the female store clerk basically saying, “until you can reach the Illinois office: you’re fucked.” I squirmed more, trying to stay calm and told her the urgency of my situation. She then dully asked the slightly older guy seated behind a cubicle to the right what he can do. Without delay he also firmly conveyed my already-fucked status. Without even knowing who the young guy was or his credentials I desperately crammed to share my situation, but he didn’t budge. Even though I knew my situation, had a legal photo ID and was there in the flesh, according to the computer: I didn’t exist. The girl behind the counter then looked over my shoulder and said: “next?!”
To me it seemed simple; I just needed a clerk willing enough to help find a solution. I had money, some cash and some credit, and wanted to give it to a store whose whole purpose is based on customers spending money. No customers means: no money to pay for the building-that holds the stock-that brings the profit to the corporation owners-who pay the employees to sell the products. Without this chain of events, the store clerks playing gatekeeper would have no purpose behind the counter or refusing to help me in the first place. I got off the line and called the Illinois office right away. They were closed, but the digital answering service did give a fax number for patient’s to send their request. At least I knew I’d probably have my prescription by tomorrow and only miss a day.
Of course it’s wrong to make it too easy for customers to get whatever drug they ask for. But trying to buy a legally prescribed medicine shouldn’t feel like trying to shop-lift your own stuff. Dealing with impatient, uncooperative store clerks who are posing as pharmacists and making decisions on our health just seems totally wrong.
I asked the guy in his cubicle if he’d be willing to advise me what to do, and he still seemed baffled by my persistence. Calmly, I retold my story in more detail, and after a few minutes he made his own effort to “find me.” He asked my name again, birth date, typed them in, and I caught a glance of my name and home address at the bottom of his computer screen. It was as if I were walking him through the steps he should have learned in some training course for careless, lazy idiots. “Oh, is that you? There you are. Oh, okay. Yeah, you’re in; we can do this.”
A dizzying explanation of how much more it would cost followed, which meant I’d need to head home for more money. He then mentioned I could get a discount with the store’s discount club card. Because I only had a twenty-dollar bill on me, I swiped my debit card first, paid a twenty-dollar fee and became a “member.” Had I tried to pay for the club card first and my debit transaction didn’t go through, I wouldn’t have been able to get my prescription at the discounted price. My debit card went through; I got my discount, but because of big-city prices, I had to settle for only twenty-dollars worth of mediation.
Maybe we should thank modern pharmaceuticals for inventing a remedy we’re told can relieve debilitating anxiety. But when trying to stay healthy, the added stress of a cranky store clerk and society’s growing dependence on computers makes being anxious an even more stressful situation. So ironically, if the remedy really works it’s helping people like me deal with the process of getting the pill that’s helping them deal with the process of getting the pill that’s helping them…and so on. After years of therapy and seeking advice from counselors, physicians and psychiatrists I’ve been following professional advice and relying on a drug to hopefully balance me out. But every time I go to swallow a pill, I wonder if I’d just be better off without it.