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NUTS AND BOLTS

Now, Here's a Know-It-All Who Doesn't Act Like One

May 11, 1991|PATRICK MOTT

Everybody hates the amateur Mr. Fixit.

He's so insufferably cheerful as he jauntily untangles your snarled fishing reel, whistles as he turns your sputtering Pinto engine into a humming dynamo, sniffs with amusement as he makes the single simple adjustment to your refrigerator that keeps it chugging away for another decade when you were ready, after days of frustrated tool-banging, to hurl it into the sea.

He collects tools like other guys collect baseball cards. Where others prize a Sandy Koufax rookie card, the amateur Mr. Fixit rejoices in the possession of some tiny wrench made expressly to tighten some obsolete doohickey on a Nash Metropolitan. What's worse, he knows exactly where the wrench is at all times and will happily fish it out on a moment's notice to put the rotten little blot of a car back into apple-pie shape.

He builds Saturn boosters in his garage for fun, and the worst part of it is that he's so infuriatingly nonchalant about it all. He invariably has the same aw-shucks manner that Chuck Yeager parleyed into a fat paycheck as a pitchman for spark plugs and stealth bombers. He'll lash your Cray supercomputer back into fighting trim in minutes and allow as how it weren't nuthin', but he'll always make sure to cock an eyebrow your way, just to make sure you, you mechanical illiterate, know who's in charge here.

You want to push him out of an airplane, but you don't dare because you think you might need this guy sometime. When your garbage disposal backs up, you don't care what sort of humiliation you suffer. You just want to get the coffee grounds to go down the drain.

All of the above is null and void, however, if Mr. Fixit turns pro. This is a tacit acknowledgment that, yes, he really is a mechanical hotshot and he might as well get paid for it. It is also, not infrequently, a license to turn surly. Where Mr. Fixit might have gleefully repaired an F-14 as an amateur, he will, as a pro, grunt and shake his head if you bring him a broken toaster oven, dismissing it as a model he coincidentally doesn't work on.

But not Rick Rico. Rico is the manager of the Santa Ana branch of California Electric Service, and he's just a guy who can't say no.

California Electric probably shows up on more appliance brochures than the word "congratulations." It is the place that dozens of manufacturers recommend you take your broken portable appliance if you don't want to pack it up and ship it back to the factory for a lengthy stay.

California Electric is licensed by more than 100 appliance manufacturers, whom they bill for warranty service. They also sell appliances--everything from Cuisinarts to bun warmers--but repairs account for the great majority of their business.

"Our biggest competitor," says Rico, "is the trash can."

There are 18 California Electric stores in California, four of which are in Orange County (Los Alamitos, Fullerton, Santa Ana and a new store in Mission Viejo). All of them are likely to be able to put back together anything from an ancient kitchen mixer to a Nintendo game.

They do it, said Rico, by deciphering stacks of specification sheets provided by the individual manufacturers. Which, naturally, requires that the two technicians in Rico's shop--one for housewares, one for electronic items--be Mr. Fixits of the highest order. In fact, said Rico, one of the technicians has been slapping things back together since 1951.

California Electric has been doing the same thing for even longer than that. In previous incarnations and under prior names, the company--which is 120 years old--invented the first burglar alarm system, the central telephone switchboard and the stock ticker, and built and maintained the first long-distance telephone line. In the mid-1930s, the company was awarded a contract to service a manufacturer's electric clocks under warranty. This led to contracts from other clock manufacturers and, eventually, from builders of other appliances.

Nearly everything that spins, whirs, heats up, slices, dices, chops, cooks, blends and wipes out space aliens (Nintendo, remember?) comes through Rico's front door. Restaurants, he says, are frequent customers with broken bar blenders, and cordless telephones make regular appearances (not necessarily because they're broken, he says; people are always forgetting to replace the batteries).

On one recent morning, a customer came in with a square, metal, nondescript appliance that could have been anything from a big doorstop to a breeder reactor. He lugged it into the back shop and, within about five minutes, left with it again, fixed. Rico explained that the visit was probably related to the arrival of Cinco de Mayo: the device was a tortilla warmer from Del Taco.

So don't feel foolish going to these people with unusual appliance problems. They've probably seen it before, and they're not going to smirk at you. They've been at it for a long time, and the amateur Mr. Fixit braggadocio has undoubtedly worn off.

Still, I wouldn't blame them for a bit of smugness--bemused smugness--if they landed a new contract with Panasonic. It would allow them, said Rico, to repair that company's newest product: a portable bidet.

Do you own a tried-and-true appliance that you couldn't live without--from the hair dryer that survived use on five continents to the Stone Age blender that still mixes a perfect margarita? Let us know and we'll salute the best in a future Nuts & Bolts column.

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