IT'S GREAT to know that America is still the land of opportunity.
It used to be that boatloads of people -- most of them dirt poor -- showed up on our shores just itching to get to those streets of gold. Usually there was a detour -- laying railroad ties or blasting tunnels or shining shoes -- but often enough the journey ended with four walls, a roof and a bank account -- if not with a pot of gold.
There's been a lot of wailing lately that America's not what it used to be. Bunk! What's changed is the form that opportunity takes. These days you just have to be sharp enough to recognize it when it comes knocking.
Take the latest rung on the evolutionary ladder of capitalism -- the "automated checkout machine" unveiled by a supermarket chain recently in Greenbelt. Now, some old-fashioned types would say that running your own groceries through the scanner at the check-out counter amounts to doing someone else's work -- in this case, the cashier's. But these complainers wouldn't recognize opportunity if it clunked them on the head.
"We are anxious to see how our customers respond to the opportunity to scan their own groceries," said a supermarket official. The emphasis is mine.
Once upon a time you handed the grocer a list, and it was the grocer who ran around plucking the items from the shelves, bagged and boxed them, delivered them to your home, thanked you for your business and often gave you 30 days' credit to boot.
But now everyone -- not just the chosen few -- has the opportunity to shove a wire basket around these megamarts looking for the egg noodles. Everyone has the opportunity to stand in line and the opportunity to unload his or her own groceries. In lots of stores shoppers have the opportunity to bag their own purchases.
This latest innovation is only the latest in a string of opportunities that have opened up over the last couple of decades.
Americans now have the opportunity to pump their own gas and shove their money or credit card into an "automated teller." If they want the oil checked, they have the opportunity to pay more -- that's called full service. Americans have the opportunity to stand in line for hamburgers, carry their own food to tables, get their own napkins, straws, etc. And then they have the opportunity to clear their own tables.
We have furniture stores that give you the opportunity to haul your own furniture home (they'll loan you a cartop carrier) as well as the opportunity to put it together. And if a screw's missing, or a piece is broken, guess who has the opportunity to schlep back to the store for a replacement?
Not to mention the phone company. The know-how and parts needed to install a phone were once guarded like Coca Cola's secret formula; now phone users are inundated with opportunities to hook up their own.
Undoubtedly there are some fogeys who are so old they use words like "Hogwash!" This isn't opportunity, they say. It's getting someone else to do your work. These people are so old they probably read "Tom Sawyer" when they were kids and remember what happened when Aunt Polly made Tom whitewash the fence.
Tom Sawyer, after all, was an enterprising American, and in no time at all he had all the other kids in town paying for the opportunity to whitewash the fence.
Mikhail Gorbachev, take note: The problem in your country is that no one works. The trick to the American miracle is getting someone else to do the job. That's the secret of opportunity.