When my husband dropped and broke his cell phone last week, we rejoiced in the fact that we had taken out insurance that guaranteed him a replacement in the event of breakage.
But it turned out that the insurance company could not in fact replace his phone. Though he bought it less than two years ago, the model was no longer manufactured, so they could only offer him a “comparable” model. There was also a $25 deposit. We had been paying five bucks a month for eighteen months and were now spending $25 on a “replacement” phone that turned out to be a cheap piece of crap that we could have bought at Best Buy for fifty bucks. (As you may have noticed in previous columns, economics is not my strong suit.)
I tried calling the insurance company to remonstrate, since the policy was in my name, and spoke to two friendly, patient young women who assured me that they felt my pain, but unfortunately, they said, there was nothing they could do. I asked to speak to a supervisor and was handed over to a woman who had obviously received training in shutting down people with complaints. No matter what I said, she had a quick answer, and at times I could tell she was reading from a script. Unlike the lower echelon employees, she was neither friendly nor patient, and at one point in our conversation, I heard her press her mute button and I’m pretty sure it was because she was screaming.
Believe it or not, this was all somehow resolved more or less to our
satisfaction–thanks, T-Mobile–but it took endless phone calls and
perseverance that bordered on obsessive. In the end, what struck us
was that (1) our phone insurance was a total ripoff in which the
insurance company was happy to charge us but would do absolutely
nothing in return, and (2) there was no there there: the insurance
company is an amorphous entity staffed entirely by powerless underlings
who probably go home and drink themselves under the table each night,
or morning, after work. The longer I talked to these poor souls whose
jobs must be pure torture, the sorrier I felt for them, and I tried not
to yell at them.
But it was frustrating. “It’s like dealing
with Hal,” my husband said. He was referring, of course, to the robot
in Stanley Kubrick‘s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a robot
named Hal tries to take over the humans’ mission in space,
and–actually, I don’t remember much of the movie, since to be honest,
I slept through it. But the point is, although Hal is a computer (real
name HAL 9000) who is supposed to be helping the humans, he turns out
to have his own agenda, and even though he’s been manufactured and
programmed by humans, he’s actually working against them.
next day, we went to return some boots I had bought my husband for
Christmas. For years, Rockport shoes have been his preferred
footwear. (He has tall feet–not wide, just tall–and Rockports are
tall.) It turns out that Rockports are now made in China, and perhaps
that’s why the tongues of these boots lolled sideways in a way that
rubbed unpleasantly against his (tall) foot.
Note: I know, who
cares about boots and cell phones? The Democrats have just lost their
sixtieth Senate seat, and the Supreme Court has just made a decision
that will probably completely destroy our democracy.
Now, back to the boots:
the Rockport store, we were greeted by a wizened gentleman who would
not have looked out of place in a Dickens novel; I’m thinking Mr.
Venus, the taxidermist in Our Mutual Friend.
We told him we wanted to return the boots, as they were defective. “Do you have a receipt?” he asked in a bored voice.
We said we did, and produced a gift receipt.
Mr. Venus informed us that a gift receipt was only good for store credit.
“But we don’t want store credit,” my husband said. “There’s nothing in this store I want.”
“We’d like a refund,” I said.
Venus smiled slightly, as if thinking of a private joke, and said he
was sorry, but that to get a refund, we needed a real receipt.
want us to go home and find the receipt when I have a gift receipt and
the same credit card I used to buy them right here?” I asked.
Mr. Venus nodded.
“That’s crazy,” I said.
He did not reply. I’m guessing he went home and downed a fifth of scotch, then fell asleep watching The Tonight Show.
I rummaged through my house looking for the receipt, I thought about
Mr. Venus and the other lowly corporate employees whose primary job is
saying “no” to the public. With their scripts and their training in
customer relations where they’re taught that the customer is always
wrong, they were like–no, not robots, I thought. Zombies. A robot
has always been a machine, whereas a zombie was once a living person.
I found the receipt in the wilds of a desk drawer, I did a little
Wiki-ing and discovered that the Rockport shoe company was founded by
father and son Saul and Bruce Katz in Massachusetts in 1971. I can
just picture Saul and Bruce patchke-ing around their cute little shop
in charming downtown Marlborough, crafting and selling beautiful tall
footwear to their friends and neighbors. But in 1984, the Katzes sold
their company to Reebok, which was then swallowed up by Adidas.
Although Adidas started up as a tiny operation in Bavaria just after
World War I when Adolf Dassler began making shoes in his mother’s
kitchen, it is now a vast corporate entity.
Each of these big
companies whose merchandise is now mass-produced started out as
someone‘s artisanal family business which was then sold to a larger
company that was in turn swallowed up by an even larger company, which
merged or was taken over, hostilely or otherwise, until they were all
just one big giant ball of green slime. I’m beginning to think that
Dr. Seuss’s Bartholomew and the Oobleck was a prescient parable about
this; if you haven’t read it, you must.
When the Supreme Court
decided recently that corporations were people, they were not entirely
wrong: these vast corporate entities once were people. What are they
now? Zombies–and like their robot cousins, they’re on a mission, and
their agenda doesn’t mesh very well with ours. They want to expand
until the whole world is covered with Oobleck, and if humans get in
their way, they’ll just turn us into zombies, too.
How is that going? Just ask Mr. Venus.