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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Gripe Fest

This is going to be a gripe fest. If you don’t want to read any negativity, please turn the page.

My older brother long has said that he would cheerfully return to the simpler times of the 1950s and 1960s when we were kids. I disagree and remind him that because I was born female, I know that the fifties were not fair – and my friends who are racial minorities or gay or otherwise outcasts back then certainly do not want to return to those “happy days.”

But as I write this, I am inclined to agree with him. At this moment, I indeed would return to a time of lowered expectations and more stability. Lowered expectations would lower my frustration, disappointment, and smoldering anger with modern life.

Back then, our television was black-and-white and sometimes snowy in definition -- but once plugged in, it did turn on. We got only two reliable channels (perhaps a third on good days), but because that was all we expected, we were content. Now we can get hundreds of channels – or none. When the fiber-optic TV signals only “No Signal” tonight, I can’t simply change the channel: It’s all or zip, with no room for “good enough.” The phone on our bundled Bright House service also has been erratic, and now the internet, the third part of the package, has been down during the post-holiday weekend.

You know the drill. You wait a while and hope that the electronic gremlins will reorder themselves, but they don’t. Then you seek a number for repair sans internet. When you call, of course you get an automated menu that disconnects and hopes you’ll go away. I persisted and after several tries, got a live person. He and I fiddled with various codes that should have sent a message to the computers, but couldn’t solve it. No “Downtown Abbey” premier for me. The Bright House rep said it would be a couple of days before I could expect a repair guy. Nor can I get Netflix to launch anything beyond its menu. It sits there tantalizingly listing the new “Miss Fisher” mysteries -- two of which I watched just last night – but now it won’t move beyond the entry point.

When I called later to confirm repair’s arrival, they had lost my account – on a phone number that we have had for more than forty years! It took four more transfers to different supervisors, including one disconnect, before repair finally arrived. We had switched from Verizon to BH about a year ago because Verizon provided the same unreliable service, and I guess we’ll have to play this excessively competitive game and switch again. Bring back Ma Bell, I say.

This is particularly upsetting right now because all of our family members live out-of-state, and Hubby has been in ICU at the VA hospital since December 23. I can’t easily update them on his condition via e-mail -- and if they do get through by phone, they tell me it has rung busy when I know it wasn’t busy because I wasn’t here. Telephones used to work. If they didn’t, you could dial “operator” and some helpful woman would accept the problem as something that it was her duty to correct.

Not so anymore, is it? I haven’t told Hubby about these electronic failures because I don’t want to stress him – and because ever since his service in the Army Security Agency, he has boundless faith in computers and their artificial intelligence. I hope he will be out of the hospital (or at least ICU) by the time you read this, but I’m going to take this opportunity to vent about other “customer service” experiences – and a larger business pattern that encourages cynicism and even endangers democracy.

* * *

Knowing that he would not be able to lift the garage door after heart surgery, Hubby bought a new opener from Home Depot. The installer came on the 21st, and it stopped working on the 22nd. He collapsed while doing pre-op tests on the 23rd, and I decided to give these businesses a break by not complaining during the holidays. When I tried on January 2, the installer, Bankos Doors, blamed Home Depot and Home Depot blamed Bankos. Neither offered any helpful advice or even empathy. I hope you will join me in wishing a plague on both their houses.

But at least neither they nor Bright House/Verizon blamed the government, which is the business disposition that most offends me. Here are just two examples. We were expecting guests back in the fall, so I checked the web for carpet cleaners. I decided on Sears, an old family friend whose catalogs I carried home from the post office in Jasper, Minnesota. Brother and I especially loved the Christmas catalog, and my parents faithfully sent checks to Sears for mail orders. They even measured our feet according to Sears’ instructions, and our shoes came in the mail from Chicago. By the time I was an adult, Sears began dropping its big catalogs and opening retail stores, but my Arkansas mother-in-law continued to be a huge fan. Whether it was a birthday, anniversary, or Christmas, almost everything she sent us came from Sears. Her rationale was that if we didn’t like it, we could return it nationwide with no problem.

When my internet search for carpet cleaners included Sears, I thought of this reputation for reliability and called the local number. Its web page advertised $89.95 for three rooms -- but I volunteered that our rooms are big and that I also wanted some touch-up on two pieces of furniture. The guy with whom I spoke offered to do the job at $217, and I agreed. On the appointed day – soon before the guests were due to arrive – two men showed up only a little late. One was a shy Hispanic who probably would have done the actual work, but the other was a white salesman with a mouth. He was not at all service-oriented, but instead wanted to sell a bait-and-switch package. Presumably someone trained this con man to begin his spiel by insulting my housekeeping.

He alleged that he could smell mildew and therefore I had to buy an additional treatment. I knew his mildew allegation was not true, as we had new drywall and new carpets installed less than a year earlier. I hope my feminist friends won’t be shocked when I say that I was president of my high school’s chapter of Future Homemakers of America and consider myself a good housekeeper, even something of a neatnik. My house is clean enough that several years earlier, I was rejected from a USF Medical School allergy study because there wasn’t enough dust under the bed.

I was busy the day the Sears guys came and told them to go ahead with whatever they could do for the agreed-upon amount. The brash one, however, went on to say that the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not allow them to clean carpets without this additional treatment. I said I knew that wasn’t true and that Carol Browner, former national director of EPA, was an old friend. I again asked them to do the contracted job and went into my study. When I returned to the rooms where they should have been working, they had gone – without a fare-thee-well, let alone an apology for abandoning their promised work.

With a rented carpet cleaner from Publix, my teenage neighbor did the job for $40. As proof that I’m not a complete curmudgeon, let me add that I am so thankful for Publix! Indeed, when we lived in Europe, my daughter and I vowed that the first thing we would do on returning would be to kiss the ground at Publix. Another local business that I want to praise is the Automotive Center of Temple Terrace, just south of the river on 56th Street. Troubles come in multiples, you know, and the steering on Hubby’s van went out on his way to the hospital. Again, I decided not to bother them at the holidays, and the van sat in the VA parking garage – which, thank goodness, does not charge a fee. When the holidays were over, our daughter meet AAA, which towed it to the Automotive Center, and the van will sit in Temple Terrace until someone is ready to pick it up. Such businesses are our true Florida neighbors, and Sears is not.

* * *

The major point, though, is that this Sears representative told an outright lie about EPA regulations preventing him from cleaning the carpets. I had an even more egregious case of blaming the government a couple of years prior to this. I went to the dentist, the same one I had used for several years, with an appointment for a Wednesday. The receptionist and hygienist kept telling me that the dentist would be back from lunch soon, and although I waited, she never appeared. Their hushed conversations led me to believe that she routinely took Wednesday afternoons off, something that was not disclosed when I made the appointment. Even though I had no problems and expected merely a routine exam and cleaning, the hygienist filled the time taking x-rays. When I finally gave up on the dentist and checked out, the receptionist wanted $259 for the un-requested x-rays.

Worse, she had the temerity to tell me that Florida law required them to take these x-rays! Can you imagine our libertarian legislature imposing such a mandate? There’s no way in the world. And how would they enforce such a law? I’ll not even mention the exposure to radiation, something that really should not be imposed on patients unnecessarily. I don’t know if the staff really believed this “law” to be valid. Nor do I know if paraprofessionals are empowered to take x-rays on their own authority, – but I do know that I can’t get a mammogram without a prescription.

The important point, though, is that businesses seem increasingly likely to blame the government for what they do or fail to do. Watch for it. Call them on it. The bottom line is that government is not in business to make a profit, but business is.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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