Monday, January 20, 2014

Karen and the King of Twenty-Five Square Feet

I want to be a supporter of the "mom-and-pop" business. I want to lament the corporate takeover of everything in America. Then, I go to a "mom-and-pop" establishment and find myself wishing for the corporate treatment. Maybe the shift in America is a direct result of people getting fed up with sub-par treatment and questionable results.

For years, we have taken our cars to the big places for service: the dealership (while they were under warranty); the big-company chain that a friend of our works for. That kind of thing. You go to places like that, and you have an appointment. You are greeted by a pleasant (or semi-pleasant) person in khakis and a golf shirt with the company name on it. You check-in; you hand in the keys and they direct you so a sitting area with coffee and soft chairs and magazines and a TV. You sit for an hour or two and read. Your keys are handed back; you pay; you leave.

Did Gomer ever exist? 
Some say you pay more at these places. Perhaps. But do I know how much it should cost? Do I want to spend my time searching for "the fair price" for an oil change? Do I want to do the oil change myself? No. So where's the real harm to the flow of my life?

Well, a few days ago, my wife's car had a flat tire. I put on the temporary spare and we set out to figure out where we should take it for repair. Someone recommended a small shop a few towns away. Apparently, a few people we know have used the guy. So we went in quest of Dave's station. It is a Gulf station franchise, so, though it has corporate ties, it is still an owner-operated joint.

We were not quite sure where it was, so we just looked for a Gulf in this small town. We found one. When we pulled in, there was an Indian chap filling tanks and there was not a car on the lot. I asked him: "Is this Dave's Gulf?" He nodded a quick, almost imperceptible nod. I wasn't reassured. "Dave's Gulf? This is Dave's Gulf where they repair cars?" Another imperceptible nod.

No one was in the office. He didn't speak a great deal of English, this fellow. This was not Dave's Gulf.

I realize it must be frightening, intimidating and frustrating to be a stranger in a strange land, but, while learning the language, one should at least be sure to admit when one doesn't understand a question. I'm not a speak-English-or-get-out guy, but communication is all about honesty. The dude cost me a lot of time on my day off.

So, we head down the road and eventually find the real Dave's. From my car, in the midst of a compelling conversation with my twelve-year-old about the conundrums of quantum physics and their bearing on the scientific arguments against the existence of God, I watch my wife, Karen, pull up to the windowed garage doors and get out of the car and I watch a grey-haired mechanic walk up the door and gawk at her. She hesitates, trying to figure out what is next. Will he open the door? Will he motion her to the office? Will he pretend shoot her with a pneumatic tire gun? Nothing. She shrugs -- he points to the office, his face an expression that throws daggers of accusation: "Are you really that stupid that you didn't know to go there after I walked toward you and acted like I was going to address you and talk to right here? Women..."

She throws up her hands and walks away. He turns to his fellow mechanic and mocks her,
throwing up his hands and waggling his head. I laugh; not at her but at him. At him -- and his little parts-cluttered micro-culture in which he, the king of a cluttered garage, and his royal subject (the other mechanic) set out to confuse customers (especially women) and then laugh at them for not understanding the procedures that really don't exist.

Dave, himself, was in the office. He was nice enough, but the office was filthy, dark and it smelled like old metal and dust. He listened to my wife's concerns, nodding and asking questions. As I said, in all fairness, he was a pretty nice guy. But the conversation ended with: "I'll call you." And he walked away.

No coffee. No cozy waiting room. All we were really served was a healthy helping of undeserved ridicule, in the end. Will he overcharge us? How the hell do I know?

What I do know is that -- despite my ongoing quest to raise up the individual in a society that is assimilating him into the hive mentality -- I'll take the big, corporate repair shop or the dealership service center any day. At least there people are forced to treat customers with courtesy.

Am I feeding-in to the death of the individual? Or, is the individual committing business suicide? The standard picture of the "old days" is what we see when Marty McFly goes back to the 50s (in Back to the Future) and we see five guys in pristine, white overalls run out of a service station to clean, fill and polish a car. Was it ever that way? I don't know. But I have to imagine that there was at least some attention to "service with a smile." I can't imagine "filthy service with ridicule" was ever a standard business practice. If it was, then bring on the corporate facade with the comfy couches and the coffee machines. I can't help individuals who won't help themselves...

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