Saturday, November 22, 2008

election day stunner

Election day was stunning in many ways.

I need not comment on our President-Elect: I went down to Castro and Market on election night and felt the buoyancy of the human spirit. What lies ahead—after the initial euphoria of having elected the intellectual, thoughtful, and sentient candidate wears off—remains to be seen.

In fact, I feel a little sorry for incoming POTUS 44, but I am relieved beyond measure to entrust the failing economy, the disintegrating environment, and several unnecessary wars to him. If anyone can take care of this mess, Barack Obama can. His will be a presidency consumed by repairing the rampant damage wrought by Dubya's eight-year-long frat party.

Dubya's one of those party boys who, instead of vacuuming the cigarette ashes out of the rug and cleaning the stalactites of pizza cheese out of the oven, burns down the house when he moves out.

Hey, if you're not going to get the deposit back, might as well do some real damage.

Party hearty, Dubya!

Nor need I comment on Prop 8. It is shocking that so many voted to incorporate blatant discrimination into California's constitution, but others have reminded us that this fight has just begun. We should never be cowed by this vertiginous blending of church and state, by sanctimonious homophobia.

And Sarah Palin? Her willful ignorance and wanton assault on the English language have been dispatched back to Alaska. Mooses, on your guard! Wolves, run and hide! I can only hope that she's as appealing in the rearview mirror as she was when she was in the news cycle's headlights. She will, at least, be well-dressed for her return.

But really the most stunning thing about election day was our refrigerator's reaction: the election killed our refrigerator.

I'm not sure whether it was exposure to CNN's feckless holography, the mildly unfunny Comedy Central election coverage, or the implicit threat of Ms. Palin at the helm that killed our largest of large appliances.

All I know is, the day before the election, our refrigerator kept things cold. The day after, not so much. Or at all. To cool down the refrigerator, you'd have to cool down the house and leave the refrigerator door open.

It's funny: I would've thought that I'd hardly miss the refrigerator. As cerealtarians, we really only need enough refrigeration to keep the milk cold. The average hotel mini-bar refrigerator would surely suffice for us. Just remove the Jack Daniels and Gordon's Gin miniatures, and it would be good to go. I thought I'd never miss that hulking Frigidaire Gallery Series Side-by-Side. Not me.

But I do miss the refrigerator. I miss it a lot.

Actually I don't miss it. And that's part of the problem. It's still in the kitchen. Big as day and twice as ugly as a Jagermeister hangover. A hulk of an appliance.

Damn you, Refrigerator! Damn you!

How did they even get that thing in the house? This Frigidaire Gallery Series Side-by-Side is BIG. And I have to admit, upon closer inspection, it's none-too-appealing either. I've left it uncleaned for too many years. There are bits of onion skin everywhere. Evidence of past condiment spills. Remnants of vegetables gone to liquid and soy milk turned solid. Traces of leftovers lubricate the removable—and presumably washable—shelves.

Okay. This is not the first refrigerator to give up the ghost. This is a problem that can be solved with the gleeful application of money. We're still working; we have money.

What kind of bait do you use to catch a large appliance? A fistful of major cards, that's what!

Last time I had to buy a refrigerator, the whole affair was reasonably simple. Refrigerators belonged to two species: the side-by-side kind that you bought if you were a breeder living in the suburbs or the kind everybody else had with the refrigerator compartment below and the freezer above. Because people had learned their lesson from the excesses of the 1970's color palette (Harvest Gold or Avocado Green, anyone?), the only appliance color that made sense in those days was white. Because Signature Gourmet Coffeemakers are offered in Black, I could extrapolate that now refrigerators must be available in black too. That was the extent of my refrigerator knowledge.

And where did you go to buy a major appliance in those simpler times? Sears. Anyone with a modicum of sense hauled their sorry butt down to Sears, plunked down their Sears Credit Card, and said, "I need a refrigerator right away. It's an emergency. That one will be fine."

Oh, sure, there'd be the usual delivery snafus, but unless you went wild and got a refrigerator with an automatic ice maker, there wasn't much to it. A couple of beefy dudes would haul an impossibly large white box up your staircase, around a corner, and into your kitchen. Some molding would be knocked off and some walls dinged. Then they'd plug it in. It'd get cold and that'd be that. Done and done.

Of course I've conveniently forgotten a past trauma or two.

Like the time that we discovered that the warmth of the old refrigerator's coils had attracted a nest of extra-large cockroaches (Texans call them water bugs). The brown bugs were numerous and athletic, even vigorous. This was in Pasadena in the mid-1980s, when Van Halen was Van Halen and roaches were roaches and you didn't have to pay to get rid of an old dead refrigerator. You'd just leave it on the sidewalk and little kids would come around and use the thing as a fort or something. You'd hope they had the great good sense not to close one of their number inside. If they did, well, it was Darwinian.

Anyway, we had lived for many months with a blissful lack of awareness of our roach roommates. They were quiet and by-and-large invisible during the daytime, comfortably ensconced in the back of our refrigerator. But then the fridge stopped working and we'd arranged to replace it. We were hefting the broken refrigerator down our narrow front staircase (actually Mark and a friend were hefting; I was watching and offering helpful comments) when, to our horror, a broad river of roaches came boiling out of the back of the refrigerator and up over the top of it.

Really. A literal river of roaches. They were big. They were brown. They were legion. And there's not much you can do about zillions of roaches climbing all over you when you're carrying something heavy down a steep flight of stairs.

I still shudder when I think about it.

But that was many years ago in a place far away.

Because we're more sophisticated now, and because there's no Sears in San Francisco, we actually started with the idea that we'd shop for the fridge locally. I can't recall how I found House of Louie, but I do remember that it sounded appealing, not at all like an appliance store, but rather like a cheap Chinese restaurant, the kind that still uses lots of MSG. A place that serves good wonton soup and pressed duck. The reviews in Yelp were comforting; they reassured me that even though House of Louie had a reputation for only serving Chinese-speaking customers, that reputation was wholly undeserved:

"I am an old white guy, and they took GREAT care of me. I will go back next time I need something. So there!"

Recommendations don't get much more convincing than that. To House of Louie we went.

House of Louie is just what you'd expect in San Francisco. A modest urine-soaked storefront South of Market, and a showroom packed with $8,000 Bosch, Viking, and SubZero refrigerators. A young Chinese couple conversed with the salesman in rapid Cantonese. We wandered, pulling open refrigerator doors and checking out specs and price tags. The salespeople ignored us.

The thing about refrigerators is that the price tags and specs are inside the things. So you investigate them one by one. There's some suspense. You pull open the heavy door—and—will it be an $800 refrigerator, a $2,500 refrigerator, or an $8,000 refrigerator? They all look the same inside except for the price.

I mean, how creative can you get when you design a refrigerator?

Nonetheless, after I had opened and closed every refrigerator door in the showroom several times, I was ill-convinced of House of Louie's ability to provide me with a satisfying refrigerator buying experience.

But now that I'd seen a large number of refrigerators in the flesh, I could retreat to the comfort of online shopping. No-one was stopping me from going to the virtual Sears that has set up shop in my very own living room.

And this is where trouble began.

We are in America, and what we have is choice. Choice! Lots of choice! A surfeit of choice! Did you know that Sears has more than 1135 kinds of refrigerators in 7 basic styles?

I moused here. Clicked there. Answered a questionnaire. Watched some videos. Did a couple of side-by-side comparisons. Checked specs.

French doors. Bottom freezers (is that like walking in an ice storm with your pants off?). Water dispensers on the outside. Water dispensers on the inside. Ice dispensers. Is that a skating rink I see in the lower compartment of that SubZero?

And yes: in the end I made a spreadsheet. One with prices, dimensions, makes, capacities, model numbers, and notes.

You learn a lot of things when you put refrigerators into spreadsheets. One is that it's still pretty hard to tell them apart. They're all almost the same. The more research I did, the more confused I became about what to buy.

Virtual Sears had defeated me. I returned once again to a local appliance store, ABC Appliance this time. Every Yelp reviewer loved this place. Loved it!

Good old Abe from ABC Appliance has been running this business for over 50 years! says Andrew W.

Good old Abe! I felt better already, much less overwhelmed. Here I could buy a refrigerator. It would be homey. They would invite me in for pie. I'd become a close personal friend. Good old Abe.

So I called them.

"Hi," I said, "I'm looking to buy a refrigerator. Mine's broken."

"What brand are you interested in?"

I didn't know. I'd seen an LG at House of Louie, and I liked the design of its handles. They were nice. Sleek. LG sounded modern. And cheap too. But House of Louie had only one LG refrigerator available, a floor model, pre-broken. So LG was the first brand that I asked after.

"We don't carry LG," the voice on the other end of the phone growled at me.

"Um. Okay. Why not?" I asked.

"Because they break down all the time. And when they break down, you wanna know where the parts come from?"

"Where?"

"Korea. That's where! It takes forever. That's why we don't carry LG."

"Well, what brands do you recommend then?" There was a slight tremor in my voice. I was daunted by this guy.

"GE is good. And KitchenAid."

I sorted my spreadsheet by make. GE. "Can you give me a price on a GE refrigerator?"

He sighed. "Which one. I gotta know which one, lady. There are a lot of them."

"Oh, I have a model number right here. P-F-S-S…"

"I don't have time for this right now. Call me back tomorrow," he said. And then hung up.

Even though I'd been rebuffed, I felt pleased: he'd let me in on a bit of arcane appliance knowledge. GE. I'd buy a GE refrigerator. And Mom had recommended GE too—both Abe and Mom thought GE refrigerators were reliable. You don't get much more authoritative recommendations than that. Consumer Reports, eat your Nader-esque heart out!

I was refortified. I'd call my local Sears and apply the Safeway wine buying algorithm (you buy the bottle with the largest discount whose original price is between $10 and $20. In other words, you'd buy the $13 bottle of wine with the $5.50 discount rather than the $10 bottle of wine with the $3 discount, even thought the second is cheaper than the first). It's an algorithm that sometimes results in bringing skunky bottle of wine to a dinner party, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you got a great deal on it.

Refrigerators aren't exactly like wine (for example, wine isn't available in stainless steel, and refrigerators don't have tiny bubbles). But it still seemed like a good strategy.

And using the Safeway wine algorithm, the choice was dead-simple. By my reckoning, I wanted the GE GFSL6KEXLS, a monster of a fridge. French doors. 25.8 cubic feet of refrigerated space. It was a GREAT deal. At $1,445 it was practically free.

I called the Sears at the Tanforan Mall and told the salesguy my story, how I was without a fridge, and how I needed one by Thanksgiving. It felt almost as compelling as that story that they tell on TV Xmas specials. You know, a holiday weekend is approaching. All the hotels are full, even the skanky Holiday Inn with bedbugs. This nice pregnant lady and her boyfriend need a place to stay. And it turns out all happy and stuff, with a certain amount of singing and incense burning.

"And I want the delivery guys to take away the old unit." I said after I’d procured the GFSL6KEXLS.

"Okay, ma'am. I've checked that box," said my new BFF.

Simple. As simple as that. You just check a box, and the old dead refrigerator just disappears.

"Is delivery next Wednesday all right?" he asked.

I assured him that it was, that it was more than all right: it was perfect. That'd I'd be home and waiting.

"You'll get an email that will act as your receipt. Anything else I can do for you today?"

"No thank you," I said. "You've been incredibly helpful. Really you have!"

"Thank you for shopping at Sears," he said. It even sounded sincere.

Ha-ha! I did it! Score! I gave myself an imaginary high-five. I bought a refrigerator. I navigated an unimaginably complicated purchasing process, one in which I had to choose among 1135 options. I bought a major appliance!

I was indeed pleased with myself.

That euphoria lasted more than 24 hours; it lasted until the email from "Support Representative" appeared . In fact, it even lasted a little bit longer than that.

I scanned the delivery order. "***PLEASE NOTE," I read aloud. "Sears is unable to install to LP (liquid propane.)"

"Ha!" I said to Mark. "Good thing we don't have liquid propane!"

My glee was short-lived. "Hey. Wait a minute. You know what it says here? The merchandise is scheduled to be delivered to the delivery address on 11/29/08. What's with that? 11/29 is a long time from now."

Mark goes, "You better call them then. Didn't you say it was coming next Wednesday?"

My mood darkened as I prepared to call my Support Representative. Her name was Pravina P. and her phone number was 1-800-349-4358. But Pravina P. didn’t say to call her if I had any questions; rather I was to call 1-800-732-7477 if I had any questions. And in the next paragraph, Pravina P. somewhat ominously added that if I had any questions about the scheduled installation, I was to call 1-800-326-8738 ext. 4389.

This soup of unrelated 800 numbers confused me. Which one should I call?

Surely there had been a mistake. Maybe they didn't like delivering large heavy appliances to San Francisco, a city of steep hills and switchback streets. Maybe I'd gotten a homophobe who had voted yes on Prop 8 and recognized my Castro zip code. Maybe I shouldn't have revealed the number of stairs from the street to the kitchen. Or said anything about Mr. Roper, our territorial neighbor who chases delivery trucks off of the easement we use as a driveway.

The 800 number that I’d chosen at random had a voice recognition system.

"Which department may I connect you with?" a preternaturally cheerful voice asked.

"LARGE APPLIANCES." I said, loud and clear. I don't think of myself as a mumbler, but in cases like this, I take out all of the stops.

"I hear that you said MEN'S JEANS. If you did not say MEN'S JEANS, please press 1 for more options."

I pressed 1.

"Which department may I connect you with?" the voice was forgiving. The voice was going to give me another chance.

"LARGE APPLIANCES." I said it a little bit louder and a little bit clearer this time.

"I hear that you said MATERNITY. If you did not say MATERNITY, please press 1 for more options."

I pressed 1.

"Which department may I connect you with?" the voice said pleasantly, as if our past interaction had never occurred.

"FUCK YOU." I said very distinctly.

"Connecting you with a customer service representative," the voice said, unperturbed.

And I told my whole sad story to a customer service representative. I said that I was certain there was a simple clerical error at the root of this misunderstanding, that I had been promised a delivery date of Wednesday the 19th of November.

The customer service representative was cooperative. We agreed that I certainly did need a refrigerator sooner rather than later, and that the 19th was a perfectly reasonable delivery date.
"I'll change the date, ma'am. Expect a call the night before to reconfirm your address and finalize the installation details," said my newest friend.

"That was easy," I said to Mark after I'd hung up. "No problem. It was evidently just a clerical error. Got it changed back to the 19th."

But on Tuesday, the Sears installation guy who called Mark told him he'd be out to plumb in our new refrigerator on the 18th. He said that he'd be out even though it looked like our refrigerator wouldn't be delivered until the 29th. It never hurts to be ready for the arrival of a new refrigerator.

Mark called me as soon as he’d hung up.

"The 29th?" I said. "The 29th? You heard me talking to the guy. I'm sure he said the 19th."

How much of our lives is spent in abject frustration while we navigate labyrinthine customer service systems? These Sears reps had learned to mumble their names so they never had to speak to the same frustrated customer twice in a row. Should it have surprised me that no-one was able to do anything about the revised delivery date? I went back and forth through cycles within cycles of transfers to among the three service departments; they tossed me among reps in an afternoon-long game of hot potato.

"The computer won't let me change it, ma'am" said one of the reps; this seemed to be the story they were converging on. Were they prison labor? I couldn't find it in my heart to abuse them or to ask for a manager. We were playing by Lord of the Flies rules: there were no managers at 1-800-349-4358. Eventually I gave up and called the Sears store I'd called in the first place.

This time I reached Brandy. I liked Brandy right away; Brandy was a sympathetic listener and a sensible girl.

Brandy, you're a fine girl/What a good wife you would be/But my life, my lover, my lady/Is the sea.

Brandy was not a nay-sayer, not by any means; Brandy was a woman of action. Brandy was not going to let me spend Thanksgiving without a new refrigerator in my kitchen.

She said, "You know what I recommend? I recommend you cancel this order and buy another refrigerator."

I was afraid it would come to that. "I don't know," I said pathetically.

"I can help you do that," she said.

"Aw, let me try to change the delivery date one more time," I said.

"I can transfer you. But you call me back if you need to buy a different refrigerator," my new friend Brandy told me. With that, she transferred my call.

"Which department may I connect you with?" the preternaturally cheerful voice asked.

"Arrrrggghhhh!" I hung up the phone. Hard. I couldn’t go through this again. I'd been on the phone all afternoon.

My mother is an expert in dealing with situations like this. I asked her what to do.

And so I found myself calling GE. "Is there anything you want to tell me about model GFSL6KEXLS?" I asked a cheerful GE consumer helpline representative. "Anything at all?"

Yes, in fact, there was. I had ordered an imaginary refrigerator. "It'll be a month or more before you get one of those," the rep told me. She agreed with Brandy; Brandy is a girl who knows her stuff. "I suggest you buy a different refrigerator," the GE rep said sunnily.

The next day I was talking with my neighbor Evert.

"Where did you buy your refrigerator, Evert?" I asked him.

"Cherin's." he said, "But that was ages ago."

"Well, we need a refrigerator. Like, right away."

"Everyone goes to Cherin's. Just don't let them talk you into a SubZero," he said.

Cherin's. Why didn't I think of that? I'd walked by that place countless times and although it never looked particularly inviting, appliance stores rarely appear to be the kind of place that you'd spend idle hours browsing.

I walked out of Cherin's several hours later and several thousand dollars poorer, with a delivery promised for Thursday. Done and done. I was afraid to congratulate myself this time.

Now I had three refrigerators. Big ones. Two new ones; one old one. Two hypothetical ones; one actual one that was beginning to smell pretty rank. I could weld them together and they’d be as large as the average graduate student apartment. Perhaps I could rent them out.

In case you're wondering, last Thursday I got my happy ending. I waved an unsentimental goodbye to the smelly old nonfunctioning refrigerator. A big snappy new stainless steel beast with a heart of ice is in place in our kitchen, just waiting for a midnight Safeway run. Soon I’ll have put the magnets and photos back on the non-stainless side panel; Alicia Tam will once again be the queen of my kitchen and American Express will be the official sponsor. Aging photos of Susie, Beth Ann, and Nephew Dave in his Boy Scout uniform with his pre-orthodonture teeth will go up too.

And come January, we'll have a guy in the White House who I wouldn't mind having a beer with.

Hey, he can even come over and drink it at my place. The new fridge has room for a couple of six packs of next to the bottles of Cristal. Maybe there'll be some weddings again by then.

2 Comments:

Blogger Susie said...

Oh boy. It looks like your fridge collection features a picture of me from the middle school era. I don't think I was even a sanctimonious vegetarian at that point; if I recall correctly, my principal preoccupations around the time that picture was taken were (1) lip gloss and (2) whether the members of *NSYNC were cuter than the Backstreet Boys.

It was great to see you at the taco party (though I'm sorry we sucked you into one of those annoying techie conversations). Mom just purchased a vintage-y looking Mexican beer tray. She plans to feature it prominently at future taco soirées. You'd like it, I think.

-Susie

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Alex Baldwin said...

Next time give me a call. I was former exec for NBC/GE Appliance product placement division. If you don't have my number, give Tina Fey a call and she'll relay the message

11:07 PM  

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