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The Alphabet Blues

The agony (and occasional ecstasy) of the letter Q.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Every month I get a prescription for a Lipitor generic filled at my local pharmacy. I also get a prescription for another medication, but I don’t want to go into that. Each month, when I report to the pharmacy to pick up my prescription, the person manning the counter asks my name, and I dutifully say “Queenan.” Then I watch in amusement as he or she goes looking for the “Qs.” They usually start rooting around down there around the “Cs,” work their way up to the “Js,” sometimes backtrack to the “Gs,” and then look kind of flummoxed.

the letter Q

I can tell from their hapless expressions that they hold it against me that I have such a quaint name, dispatching them on such a quixotic quest. In these instances, if I am feeling generous, I will say: “I think it’s down there. In the righthand corner. No, a little to the right. It probably got mixed in with the ‘Ps.’ ” But if I don’t care for their snippy attitude, I let them stew in their own greases. Then they have to ask somebody else on staff to help locate the prescription for them. Somebody who knows his way around the alphabet. Somebody with real smarts.

This is not just poorly paid clerks and cashiers I’m talking about here; last month it was the man working in the pharmacy—either a pharmacist himself or a pharmacist’s aide—who had trouble finding the “Qs.” And lest anyone think this is just another mean-spirited attack on immigrants who speak English as a second language, it is not. The people who work at my local pharmacy come in all shapes and sizes. Some are foreign-born, but most are not. They all speak English just fine. It doesn’t matter where they come from or what their cultural background is: A shockingly large number of them have trouble finding the letter “Q.”

I was a bit surprised when I first started noticing this phenomenon a couple of years ago. At the time I thought the decline of the letter “Q” into irrelevance and obscurity was kind of funny: Oh, how the mighty are fallen! But the more I reflected on the matter, the less amusing it seemed. If you work around powerful medications on a daily basis, and you don’t know where the “Qs” fall in relation to the “Fs” and the “Xs,” should you really be handling prescriptions? In any capacity?

Suppose I came in with a prescription for Oxycontin, a powerful painkiller and beloved party drug, and the pharmacist gave me omeprazole, a heartburn medicine, instead? Or suppose I turned up with a prescription for Claritin and the pharmacist sent me home with cyanide? I’m not saying this is likely to happen; I don’t even know if drugstores are still allowed to sell cyanide. But you never know. You can see where I’m headed with this. This thing could get really ugly. Because if the people working in the pharmacy have trouble with the letter “Q,” imagine how much trouble they might have with the letter “W.”

A couple of years ago my son had a clerical job that involved a lot of filing. One day he came home and told me that some of the people preceding him in the job literally didn’t understand how the alphabet works. They routinely filed things out of place—which could simply be a case of sloppiness—but they also filed things out of order. They certainly didn’t know how to file things in alphabetical order within a specific letter category. So if he went looking for a name that should have been filed under the letter “C,” he might find that “Catlin” had been filed after “Crane” and “Claymoor” because his predecessors neither knew nor cared that “A” comes before “R.” And you could just forget about expecting “McDonald” or “O’Faolin” or “Tse-tung” to be filed in the right place. Just forget it.

This is not merely a question of laziness. This is literally proof of a complete social breakdown, a descent into transcontinental collational chaos. True, for the most part, this isn’t going to be a problem: If you punch “Alabama” into your global positioning device when you really mean “Arkansas,” you’ll still head off in the same general direction, and wind up somewhere in the geographic ballpark once you get to Dixie. The results would be much less innocuous in other fields: brain surgery, car repair, macrobiotic dining.

Frankly, I think that the very last thing we need in this country is alphabetically challenged pharmacy employees. If a person can mistake a “Q” for a “G,” then it’s entirely possible that a customer like me (somebody who does not always carry his reading glasses on his person) could go to the drugstore seeking an unguent to deal with mosquito bites and end up with a four-hour erection because I swallowed somebody else’s Viagra.

That would be a bitter pill to swallow.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.

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