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JOSEPH N. BELL

When Machines Gang Up on the Owner

March 24, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

I've never trusted machinery of any kind--the possible exception, I suppose, being the typewriter, which has served me well--and whenever we have come in close contact, the machine has proved me right. As a result, I've spent a lifetime dealing with machinery as little as possible. And machines, in turn, have made my life difficult in highly creative and pernicious ways.

One of the most pernicious is what I have come to know as the combined assault. This consists of collusion between various machines in my household so they all go out at the same time, thus causing me considerable emotional distress.

I'm going through such a period right now.

Within a week, we lost the services of our VCR, electric range, sweeper, TV set and cold water in our bathroom. All of this has severely taxed my emotional stability, staying power and pocketbook. But I see the end now, and I think I've learned a few lessons that possibly may be of help to you.

The VCR choked on a tape of "The Brady Bunch" that was inserted by my stepson. I can't say I blame the machine in this case for being unable to digest the Bradys. From brief contact, I've found them indigestible, too. At any rate, the Brady tape stuck in the VCR, which refused steadfastly to cough it up.

I disconnected it with what I thought was considerable skill and began calling on video repair stores. I would carry the VCR in expecting the service person to look at it, tell me what was wrong and give me a price for fixing it. Instead, I was repeatedly referred to a chart that showed VCR repairs ranged between $100 and $200, and then told I could leave it if I liked for an estimate but the minimum repair charge would be $100.

"But what," I asked in what must have seemed great innocence to the repair people, "if the problem is minor and easily fixed or so major that I don't want it repaired?"

They told me the minimum would still be $100, no matter how minor the repair, and that if I didn't want it repaired, they would keep the $45 I had to put down for an estimate. They also told me it would take several weeks for an estimate and another three to four weeks to get it repaired.

I got this story repeatedly from large video houses and was despairing when I happened to drive by a small electronics store on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. By that time, I was carrying the VCR around in my car, so I took it in. This was a one-man shop. The proprietor gave me an estimate (no charge) the next morning and fixed the VCR a day later--for less than the minimum I had been repeatedly quoted.

So the message here is clear: Look for the small operator who runs his own shop and does his own repairs.

When the TV set went out several days later, I knew what to do. This time it was a sneak attack by the machine. A few days after I got home with the VCR, the television set went blank. No garbled picture or ragged sound. Just nothing. So I took it to my newly discovered VCR man and he called the next day to say there was nothing wrong with the TV and to take it home and try it again. No charge. I did, and it worked. Clearly this was pure malice on the part of the machine.

The stove offered a similar problem, but I didn't get off quite as easily. We've had a bit of a problem with the oven for some time: It won't heat up. This has reduced us to using the toaster oven or microwave exclusively and somewhat restricted our menus. We have company coming soon, so my wife insisted that I get a serviceman out to repair the stove.

Turned out to be another plug problem. The oven heating unit plugs into an outlet in the back of the stove, and it had somehow got plugged out. The service call cost $65 and, of course, the serviceman found some other things wrong so he left me with several little glassine bags of dead parts and a bill well over $100. But at least I now know where that plug is.

The sweeper hadn't been picking up much of anything for several months, which I told my wife was the perverse nature of the beast. She finally put it in her car and took it to a man who repairs sweepers. He put in a new belt for $1.50. The machine apparently took pity on her. If I had taken it in, I'm sure it would have cost 10 times that amount.

The cold water in the bathroom was somewhat embarrassing, too. Although we had satisfactory pressure on the hot side, the cold water came out in a tiny trickle, forcing us to brush our teeth in hot water. I tried all sorts of things--kicking the pipe, adjusting the handle--but nothing helped.

Finally, we decided to take out an equity loan and call a plumber. But before we took that step, I called my woman neighbor who is a remarkably skilled plumber. I long ago gave up being embarrassed at seeking her help.

Well, she looked it over and said, "Are you sure the valve under the sink is full on?" I said, of course it was, did she think I wouldn't have checked that? But she looked anyway, and it was turned almost completely off. Now we have cold water, and I simply can't explain how that valve got turned off except by a clear campaign of intimidation that everything with moving parts has carried on against me ever since I can remember.

The lesson here is never trust a machine. Expect the worst. But before you call in a specialist, check all plugs and valves. And if you have to seek help, look for the little guy who runs his own shop and doesn't spend his winters in Hawaii.

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