Slowly, my coats and sweatshirts began to collect around my room: on the backs of chairs, on bedposts, in corners. My belts crowded the small hook inside this wooden closet. My moist towel, meanwhile, lay on the edge of my bed, inevitably sliding off. This all signaled the pressing need for change, and the solution was as clear as the problem: I needed an over-the-door hook rack.
Reading reviews and comparing star ratings, I quickly found the perfect product on Amazon: the Spectrum 60510 Over-The-Door Multi-Hook Rack, in black. With free two-day shipping, the product arrived by midweek. But when I opened the package, to my surprise and horror, I discovered an unexpected addition: the “E-Z Shampoo Hair Wash Tray”, sheathed in thick, industrial plastic, itself only a piece of thick, white plastic, curved to hug the back of the neck and equipped with an elastic strap to hold its place. The only clue to its use—besides its name—was the blurry picture depicting long, wet hair covering the tray while a hose sprayed water from above.
Had I ordered it by mistake—or had someone hijacked my account? I found no record of purchasing the product on Amazon’s website. My bank statement proved I had not been charged for it. I verified that no relative had ordered the tray to the wrong address. Thrice I checked the labels on the box to confirm that the package was not intended for another: the sticker listed only my name. After exhausting all other possibilities, I accepted, somewhat reluctantly, that Amazon had made a mistake.
I resolved to call Amazon and deal with the matter, but I didn’t have time. For weeks, the box lay on the side of my wall, occupying the space recently freed by the over-the-door hook rack. I took solace in the rack’s success. But the anonymous package became an imposition, the hangnail, the fraying string in the tapestry of my tidiness.
A month passed. Packages continued to come, mostly from Amazon, my most frequented vendor. On one exciting Friday, I received a bevy of emails—five new bundled surprises awaited me in Frist. The goodies included a poster, a textbook I had neglected to order at the beginning of the year but could no longer function without, and boots. But my excitement quickly ended when I encountered another stranger: “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Repulsed, intrigued, I couldn’t help but wonder what insights this unordered book might offer. I discovered that the author, Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has had her work featured on PBS and the Oprah and Friends Radio Network. Her work’s goal is to enable readers to ignore media toxic to their self-esteem, and instead accept themselves with courage and boldness. The message, however saccharine, is a worthy one; had I more time, I might have considered reading it. But, like the “E-Z Shampoo Hair Wash Tray,” I decided immediately to return the product. I could not risk introducing more clutter into my already cramped room.
If receiving one package by accident from Amazon is a rarity, two, I figured, must represent some aberration in nature. I asked myself, what internal miscalculations caused these two trivial but perplexing mistakes? Were they errors of man or machine? Did some tired, or disinterested employee accidentally drop the tray into the package? Did he shrug his shoulders and listlessly watch the conveyer belt drag my package into another region of the warehouse?
Weeks dragged on. Finally, on a relatively calm afternoon, I designated time to resolve this problem for good. To contact Amazon, I first had to submit a written complaint, and then schedule a time for them to call me. Not surprisingly, their dropdown menu of complaints did not include receiving products I neither ordered nor paid for. The closest option was “I have a problem with my order.” Ten minutes after submitting my query online, I received a call and described, as succinctly as possible, what had happened, and asked how to return them. Like clockwork, she went through the routine I had performed myself. She looked through my order for a product that wasn’t there. I gave her the order number, which pointed back to the over-the-door hook rack, but nothing else. Ultimately, after checking the tracking number of the package, she found some indication of the misplaced item, and determined that the product was intended for someone else.
“Well,” I asked, “what should I do with them?” She reasoned through the process, clearly deviating from protocol to resolve an issue her training had not anticipated.
“Well Mr. Hanshaw,” her voice, laced with static, replied after a moment of contemplation, “Firstly, I would like to thank you for calling us, and I apologize for the inconvenience. I’m quite sorry for the trouble you went through. I can schedule a UPS truck to collect the objects at your home.” It took another few minutes of explanation for her to understand that my Spelman room would not accommodate personal pickup. “In that case, Mr. Hanshaw, I will email you a return label, and you can ship them at your local UPS store.” I hung up satisfied.
Unfortunately, she sent me a label with the wrong weight size; I knew I couldn’t send the tray back with a one-pound package label. I considered paying for the shipping myself but quickly abandoned that idea; after all, should I lose money for Amazon’s mistake? I called again, and again I explained my predicament along with the most recent developments.
“To be frank, Mr. Hanshaw,” she started, “shipping back the items will cost us almost as much as the items themselves. I thank you for the effort, though, but you can dispose or donate them as you see fit.”
I returned to my room, and laughed about the predicament with my roommates. I considered whom I might give the items to, and realized that there was no one. Disposal was my only recourse. But as I scoured the drawers and cupboards for a garbage bag, the previous phone call replayed in my mind. I realized that Amazon doesn’t have an infrastructure for accommodating its own errors. Employees didn’t quite understand my problem and lacked the tools to properly respond. Perhaps shipping mistakes are rare enough that Amazon doesn’t need a protocol. The mistake, in this way, became a sign of Amazon’s efficiency; like many similar companies, Amazon achieves remarkable accuracy despite the complexity of the task: sending products around the country to millions of strangers.
At last, I found a garbage bag. I clasped my fingers around the top of the bag, rubbed the bag open with a flick, and, and whipped it full with air. More striking, I felt, than Amazon’s mistake was the surprise of the employees I spoke to that I had bothered to call. Both times, the callers thanked me gratuitously, and remarked, seemingly to themselves, how impressed and thankful they were that I had called. Their incredulity raises a good point: why had I called? I told myself and my friends that, somewhere, some customer hadn’t received her (though possibly his) products. But that customer could have easily called Amazon, complained, and received swift compensation. That explanation just didn’t hold. Instinct, more likely, compelled me to save the packages. If a cashier had accidentally slipped an extra shirt in my bag in the mall, I wouldn’t have hesitated to give it back. Likewise, not seeking to return these items seemed rude, dishonest, even immoral.
As I stuffed the book and the tray into the garbage bag, I asked myself: what, if any, are the moral implications involved? To say I did the right thing seems excessively self-congratulatory, considering how trivial the entire interaction really was. And the employees’ “thanks” were more surprised than grateful. It’s difficult to introduce a moral element into the commercial relationship. Of course businesses have social obligations, but what does the customer owe to the enterprise, besides money? I figured Amazon’s complex bureaucratic structure, so complete, neither necessitates nor anticipates the kindness of its clients. Perhaps there is no protocol for acknowledging Amazon’s errors because the company doesn’t need it; the relationship of the consumer and the website is sufficiently removed. The error, perhaps, was mine in bothering to call. Suddenly the confusion of customer service seemed warranted; they understood, while I was just learning, how rational the system is.
But what’s lost from this rationalized experience?—is this remote coldness something to regret? Perhaps, but this assumes that commercial relationships were personable before the Internet. Morals have long had a tenuous relationship to commerce, from the usury laws of the Middle Ages to the environmental practices of the modern corporation. Before we bemoan the moral bankruptcy of business, let us consider the possibility that Amazon’s disinterest in acknowledging the potential honesty of its customers is, itself, an act of kindness and honesty. Broadly speaking, across time and history, haven’t expectations of morality often weighed heavily on people? By expunging the last trace of obligation, Amazon unburdens itself and its patrons. What we lose in familiarity, we gain in freedom. Trivial tasks remain just that—trivial.
I squeezed the excess air from the black bag, and tied a thick knot. I left my room and carried the bag to the receptacles outside. Amazon was right: this trivial obligation became clutter in its own right. In the digital marketplace, there’s no propriety to complicate things, only consumption. And when mistakes occur, we don’t fix them, we forget them. Satisfied, I lifted the heavy, plastic lid of the black, metal dumpster, and threw the bag into its cold shell.