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Why We Are Doomed

I've seen the future, and it doesn't work

By Jack ScrantonPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 19 min read
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Note: these events are true. This was written in 2006, when it all took place, in Brooklyn, NYC. It was a time much further distant than numbers would suggest. Speakeasy, a wi-fi provider, is no more. The DSL connections they sold have likewise gone the way of 8-track tapes and SCSI connections. Sears is down for the count. Agencies and companies were still working out how to migrate their services to the internet. Customer service, such as it was, still entailed labrynthine sets of phone menus, and, occasionally, encounters with surly humans who resented your intrusion. But the underlying themes remain relevant, more so, if that's possible. Enjoy my tale of woe.

I. LIGHTING OUT FOR THE FRONTIER

From the beginning, our country has been populated by people who, for one reason or other, decided they'd had enough. They packed up their bags, said "See Ya!" and either boarded a ship or loaded up the wagons and took off down the trail for points west. It's part of our national heritage, our cultural DNA, the idea that you weren't stuck in one place, in one social or economic stratum, in one occupation, one category. You could change, you could seek your fortune on the frontier, redefine yourself... MOVE.

I recently was privileged to partake in this most fundamental of American rituals, and while I only relocated 30 blocks from my former neighborhood, in Brooklyn terms that's a journey to another land. Also, in the context of Brooklyn real estate, it's certainly the frontier; we'll see if the Yuppies catch up with us in a few years so I can sell to them again. But that's a different tale.

In this tale, we find our hero filled with the optimism of a fresh start, enthusiastically engaged in the process of dismantling one life and plugging in another. Several specific areas required attention, and I got down to cases a few weeks before the actual moving date. Accounts for the electric and gas companies needed to be closed, final readings scheduled, new accounts opened and startup readings also scheduled, hopefully in a way that would dovetail with the logistics of the actual move. The Post Office needed to be informed, of course, and a fowarding notice filed.

These tasks used to require cards to be filled out and mailed, or wading through often convoluted phone menus before getting results, but now much is online; with only minimal difficulty I was able to locate the salient pages for each organization and fill out the necessary forms right in my home office. But while I love technology and the fruits of the digital age, I'm a realist: follow-up phone calls confirmed that all arrangements were as they should be.

Speaking of the Web, I needed to arrange for my wi-fi connection to be installed at the new address. Speakeasy’s web site had a nice banner ad right there on the home page: MOVING? IT'S EASY. JUST CLICK HERE..." and so I did. By the end of the day I had confirmation notices that the arrangements were already in the pipeline. Gosh, maybe I wouldn't have to confront my internet addiction just yet.

There was also a satellite dish to move. Here, I was supremely confident. I'd seen the commercials for Dish Network—you know the ones, where the cool, confident service tech moves right along with the client, pops out of a box and has the game tuned in just as the moving van turns the corner. They offered to upgrade my service and equipment as well, so I was looking at a net win.

In our new home, as with our old, we are landlords with a third-floor rental unit. For our tenants we have a stackable washer/dryer unit and an air conditioner on service contract, as well as several appliances of our own, all purchased at the local Sears. Sears doesn't trust anyone else with their precious toys and so we made appointments for their service tech to first uninstall us from our old home, then come out when we had our new fixtures prepared and install the appliances in the new location. Frankly, I'd have been just as happy with Moe's Appliances down the street, but this is how Sears likes to do it, and that's okay by me.

Now, I say it's a new house, but that's only in the sense that we've never lived here before, so, yes, existentially you could call the entire experience "new." But it was built, like most houses in this area of Brooklyn, in or around 1900, and while it managed to remain in the same family for the entire span of its life, some things needed upgrading. Like the flattened lead water main coming into the house; like the ancient circuit breaker built by a company that went out of business because too many caught fire; like the dozens and dozens of things that all families typically endure and work around rather than repair, because it's easier that way. So we were looking at a bit of refurbishing, and scheduled the various crews necessary.

The bulk of the repairs we entrusted to a contractor with whom we were personally familiar and whose work has proven to be flawless. For the water main, we used someone on a recommendation. His price was right, timing was right, it would be a one-day job and we'd be all set.

And so, as moving day approached, we were brimming with hope, anticipation, and a sense that we'd taken care of all the things that could be taken care of. It was time to pack, and wait for the moving van.

II. THE DEATH OF OPTIMISM

Optimism is another gene woven into our cultural DNA. Americans' "can do" attitude has created the greatest nation on Earth and for generations returned success, prosperity and an ever-expanding standard of living as justification for that optimism. It's not too far a stretch to say that optimism is the cultural analogue to religious faith, a belief that certain things are so without a constant need to have them proven.

I guess what this means is that I'm in grave danger of losing my faith. I've certainly lost my optimism. This process started on the day we moved and has continued as a cumulative result of my confrontation with the various agencies and companies upon whom I depend for both my life style and my identity.

For the sake of clarity, I'll talk about each specific case, as though they comprised a separate and independent narrative arc in my life; in truth, they were all interwoven and happening simultaneously with disastrous results.

In the 1700s, during their occupation of Ireland, the British had a technique for getting a man to break and tell what he knew. They would tie him to a chair, put a metal bucket over his head and beat on it with heavy wooden mallets, non-stop, 24/7, until he was jabbering like a baboon and drooling like a baby. I'm about two mallet-strokes away from that state myself.

***

MOVING DAY

The movers arrived, on time, fully loaded and seemingly competent. I left my wife and daughter and set up camp at the new house to await the various deliveries and meter readers who'd been scheduled. Two hours later, when the movers arrived, I was still waiting. It was fun explaining to my wife that, yes, I could have stayed at the old place and helped with all the last minute crises because I had accomplished absolutely nothing at this end. Four scheduled appearances, four no shows, including UPS with our new satellite equipment.

Let's take things one at a time.

• DISH NETWORK: After several calls to their "customer service" number, they told me the driver reported that he found no one home. I yelled a lot and managed to pry loose the tracking number for the delivery, whereupon I determined that it had been shipped two days later than they had promised, which meant it was still lost somewhere in New Jersey. So, they lied from the outset. Okay, a pain, but the next day was Saturday, and unlike FED EX, UPS delivers on Saturday. All was assured.

Saturday came and went.

What happened this time?

Well gosh, sir, the driver said he couldn't gain access.

I politely informed her that the driver was a lying fool (I may have used a harsher descriptor) and asked her to make certain that the package was addressed to my new address, not the old address, since there was no one there any more. “Of course, sir,” came the indignant reply, “it's going to your new address.”

I had other reasons to wait around the house on Monday, so I took off from work and added UPS to my list of things to wait for.

Needless to say, nothing came that day either. The next morning I called and was told that the driver couldn't gain access and I told them they were morons and cancelled my account.

ME: 0; IDIOTS 2

(Note: scoring is totally arbitrary, means nothing and was abandoned once the futility of my situation became obvious.)

• SPEAKEASY: on the same day, that I'd taken off work for UPS, I had my first experience with the trials and tribulations of getting a new DSL line installed. Seems that the internet service provider doesn't really own any of the equipment that they use; they rent it from the local phone companies and have no control over them. So, while I was waiting for the UPS delivery that never materialized, I received another call, this one from my "Transition Manager" (doesn't that sound efficient?) telling me that the phone company tech couldn't gain access to our house. (I was beginning to see the dim form of a pattern taking shape).

Now, I don't know about you, but I have come to depend on the internet rather extensively; much more so than I'd realized. I had everything scheduled like pieces of a puzzle, and I needed all elements to fall into place at the right time, which plan was already starting to run seriously off-track. So I was emphatic that I was, indeed, home, waiting and willing to give him all the friggin' access he needed. I would even stand outside my house and wait.

Sure enough, five minutes later, standing outside my house on a seriously cold morning, I watched the phone company van turn the corner and pull up in the first open slot near my house.

I waited. He idled. I waited. Nothing happened. I was getting cold. His van was still idling. I went in to get a coat and when I came out, I saw a phone technician (recognizable by his Batmanesque utility belt) walking back to his van, open the back, toss his belt inside and get in. I called out. I called out loudly. I watched helplessly as he drove away.

Further calls to Speakeasy and many "Transition Managers" later, my order was still not right. No one could tell me why the phone company did what they did, other than to say "Oh yeah... they're notorious for that."

I spent the rest of the week trying to reschedule another appointment. As it happened, I took off from work that Friday to await another delivery. I still hadn't been able to confirm the new date, when, whaddaya know, the phone rings and I'm told the Service Tech couldn't gain access to my house.

!!!

I truly, honestly, regret both the things I said to that poor "Transition Manager", and the way that I said them, and all that was implied by the way I said what I said. But at that moment I wasn't in full control of my senses. I informed him that their relationship with the local phone company, such as it was, conspired to make liars out of the whole rotten bunch, and I was cancelling my account. Which I did.

M: 0; IDIOTS: 5

• THE WATER MAIN: These guys missed their first appointment, but came as expected on the second, and, by this time, I wasn't going to complain. It was a messy job. They had to tunnel beneath the street, run the new pipe into the house and then hook up to the city line. Two large holes in the street, another in the sidewalk and another in our front courtyard later, they delivered the good news. The connecting link was "... really old, mon; me no want to try to cut it. Got to get the city out here to do it."

Now, one could be forgiven for wondering why standard procedure isn't to get the city out there to open the line and verify the hook up before the digging starts. Actually that is standard procedure. But that takes extra paper-work and permits, and if they can snake a new line in without anyone knowing, everybody wins. Except when they can't. On this day, they couldn't.

They proposed to finish everything but the final hook up, come back at the beginning of the following week with the proper city participation and finish the job. With no other options, I agreed. By this time the sun was going down. Shortly after, it began to rain. Hard. That's when things turned bizarre.

They hit a power line and nearly killed themselves—the new pipe was copper, after all— and by eleven at night it was clear that they weren't going to be finished with even their partial solution. Only problem, they hadn't come prepared to leave a site open, so I was left with a large pit in the street with an electrified copper pipe at the bottom of it and no pylons, no caution tape, no covers—nothing. I'm pulling crap out of my basement to cover up the hole—boxes, pieces of plywood—anything to keep a kid from falling in on the way to school the next day. (I'm three days in the neighborhood and that would be an unfortunate way for folks to get to know me.) I slept badly that night, and woke up to what looked like a trailor park after a bad twister. It was truly frightening—mounds of dirt and piles of debris trying to cover large deep holes where people were walking. Visions of lawsuits danced in my head.

Against all odds, they came back that morning and did a reasonably professional job of filling in the holes and cleaning away the debris, so the circling attorneys were averted, but lead-laced water still flowed from my tap and a large copper phallus stuck out from my basement wall accomplishing nothing.

It took them two weeks to come back and finish the hook up, and another two weeks to finally pave over the holes.

This, for a one-day job.

M: .5; IDIOTS: 7

• CON-ED (Consolidated Edison, the electric company): The fun with these folks started even before the move. Our old house, like our new, had a third floor rental apartment with its own electric and gas meters. Our tenant moved out on September 1st and at that point the account transferred back to our name after the final meter reading. In the beginning of November I got an estimated bill for $260 telling me that the reader couldn't gain access to read the meter.

I called to inform them that the apartment had been empty since September 1st, and invited them to check their records to verify that. I offered to give them a meter reading over the phone, an accepted practice, and finally was assured I'd get an adjusted bill. I mentioned, at this point, that I had already made arrangements to close the accounts since I was moving.

Silence.

“Hello. Did you catch that?”

“Just a minute sir, I'm looking... no... I don't see anything about that.”

So I set things up again, to make sure all would happen as expected. She told me the adjusted bill that I received would be a FINAL BILL.

Instead, three days later I got a letter thanking me for the meter reading, but that, since it did not match with the expected usage, they couldn't accept it.

I won't bore you with pointless repetition; for the record, this whole process repeated itself once more, in full.

But it didn't end there. Three weeks after we were in our new house I called on an unrelated matter and they had no idea who I was, or that I was still in Brooklyn and still sucking power. No record of anything. I went through the whole process of setting up a new account but I have no faith that it will stick.

SCORE: By this time I knew I was losing irrevocably and stopped keeping score. Not only was I losing my optimism, I was turning into a hardened cynic. But the best was yet to come.

III. GOING POSTAL

SEARS: Before Home Depot, before Lowes Home Improvements Centers, before franchised hardware stores like Ace, there was Sears, the most trusted name in home appliances and tools as well. For years the Sears tool section made it possible for countless men to accompany their wive shopping, secure in the knowledge that there was a place for them to wait that would actually be useful. The Sears and Roebuck Catalogue clothed and furnished the pioneers on the Prairie. It was something that you could count on.

We have several appliances from them, all on service contracts, including a washer/dryer unit for our rental apartment; we are understandably desirous of adhering to the requirements and specifications of said contracts. They insist that their own technicians handle installations and unhooking existing units for a move. Okay, great. When were they coming out? I'd make arrangements for someone to be waiting for them.

If you really hate someone, find a way to make them call Sears. Their suffering (and your revenge) will be total. First of all, you never connect to a human, not without first wading through endless robotic voice menu options. It is possible to short-circuit the system with meaningless responses that eventually produce a real human, only to be soundly chastised for interrupting them when clearly they aren't the department you need. Then they hook you back to the voice menu.

But I persisted, and finally scheduled a maintenance call. My 20 year old daughter was home that day, and when the technician arrived, he took a quick look around at the the different units and said "I'm the wrong guy, I don't do this," and left.

Back into the world of endless robotic voices I ventured, this time emerging with a real phone number to real people who actually scheduled real visits from other real humans. Someone would pay dearly for letting such highly classified information fall into my hands, particularly since I used it and found someone who I could ask "What the heck happened?"

The lady with whom I spoke was horrified that the scheduled service call had gone so badly and was at a loss to explain, but, not to worry, we'd just go ahead and schedule another for next Saturday and everything will be fine. Worked for me.

Wednesday night I get a call from a robot: HELLO. THIS IS TO CONFIRM YOUR MAINTENANCE VISIT FOR TOMORROW, THURSDAY...

Now, I knew it was a robot. I knew it didn't hear me. I knew that yelling as loudly as I did would not only accomplish nothing, it would make me miss the rest of the message. But I didn't care. The message was already crap.

So, once more I dialed up the soothing robotic voices. The final result was that we had not one, but two visits scheduled, one for each of one appliance, on different days, with the third lost in the shuffle. It took two hours on the phone to reach the current solution: all scheduled calls cancelled, and yet another scheduled for the following Saturday.

Have a great day.

THE POST OFFICE: All you need is the heading to this section to know that things will go badly. But even I was unprapared for a screw-up of this magnitude.

After our move, we noticed quite soon that we weren't getting any forwarded mail. Several pieces with our new address arrived, but nothing with the official forwarding sticker from our old address.

As it happens, the guy who bought our old house isn't living in it; in the Spring he's going to tear it down and build apartments. He was quite amenable to us dropping by from time to time to see if we had mail. We did. Also, if you read pt. II of this saga, and recall the undelivered equipment from Dish Network, you'll appreciate my reaction when the first thing I noticed when I went back to the old house was several "We missed you!" notices from, you guessed it, UPS. Well. One mystery explained.

I opened the door and found a layer of mail approximately 3 inches thick on the floor beneath our door. Clearly, we'd gotten lost in yet another system.

So I waded through the various levels of telephone access until I at last found myself talking to a human, the manager of the Post Office in question, actually. She was very polite and even sympathetic, but, no, we weren't in their computer and there really wasn't anything she could do about it. We'd have to resubmit our change of address card. No, we couldn't do it over the phone, we'd have to come into the Post Office. No, she couldn't fast track it. It would take 5 - 10 business days. However, she would place a hold on any more mail for us until the forwarding notice took effect.

Annoying? Sure. But surprising? Not a chance. I took care of business and settled back to wait. Three days later I called to check if we had mail waiting for us to pick up, and, of course, no one knew anything about a hold order. So I went back to the old house and removed another layer of mail.

Around this time, I began to notice that we weren't getting any mail at all delivered to our new address. Not really a cause for concern, not that many people knew it yet, and the accounts that we'd updated probably didn't have bills for us. Yet.

Then we received our first forwarded mail. Interestingly enough, it all came with not one, but two stickers. One sticker was the forwarding address. The other was an interesting little sticker that said "No forwarding address. Unable to deliver. Return to Sender." These stickers were all dated three to ten days after the forwarding address. Then I noticed a couple of letters that had our new address, but also the "No forwarding address, return to sender," nonsense.

Could it be? Were we the victims of not one, but two Post Offices? Afraid so. We began to get phone calls from friends who'd sent Christmas cards, to the new address, that were returned. I shudder to think what bills might have gotten lost in the mess.

I won't bother detailing the difficulty I had in actually tracking down our carrier and asking what the hell he was thinking. Suffice it to say that his command of the English language made it impossible for me to understand what lame excuse he was offering.

Now... let's clarify this situation, shall we?

1. They don't forward my mail.

2. When they do forward it, they don't deliver to the new address.

3. When it's addressed to the right address, they send it back.

4. Competant carriers like Fed Ex or UPS are banned from delivering first-class mail.

5. No one is allowed to compete with this organization.

6. There are no avenues available for anyone seeking to report gross incompetance.

7. Thus, we must conclude that as a matter of normal State policy, we're screwed.

I confess, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the enormity of this SNAFU, and when I do, I'm going to make some noise. I don't know how yet, but trust me, someone's going to get real sick of hearing from me. Count on it.

________________

So what's it all mean? Is this just the raw material for a bad sitcom on one of the networks? Could be, but I don't have the stomach to write it.

There's a painful lesson here: we can't get it right any more. We've tinkered with our education system to the point that we're turning out functional idiots who can't master the simplest routines, or the most rudimentary social skills. To compensate, all the customer service departments are being farmed out to third-world nations where their operators are given a crash course in English idioms, a few talking points on a note cards and turned loose with names like "John," "Bob," and "Wendy," but with accents like Achmed, Chow Fung, or something unpronouncable. I don't begrudge them the work. I lament that we are incapable of providing even a crude imitation of what used to be high standards. In a nation of consumers, the idea that the consumer has rights has quietly been overturned. Simply put, we, as a nation, don't care. And if we do, we're not competent enough to do anything about it.

In fairness, I must say that not all aspects of this journey turned out badly. My new internet hook up costs me one-fifth of my old DSL line and is between 5 and 10 times faster. I can enthusiastically endorse Road Runner cable internet as the best tech deal going.

I have a satellite dish again, and a flashy new DVR which I'm having lots of fun with, and it's costing me about half what my old contract cost.

And not everyone I encountered was a slob, an idiot, or a sociopath. The moving crew was on time, worked their butts off and did a first rate job.

And the contractor that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece has proven worthy of all my trust. He and his workers have delivered unerringly on every point: good price, exceptional craftsmanship and on time.

Oh yeah: the movers... they're all from Ireland, just off the boat, judging from their accents.

And the contractor? He's from Bangla Desh, as are all of his workers, except the ones from Mexico. His electrician, a guy named Farouque, dropped by the other night with a gift basket from Starbucks and a Christmas card for us. Truth be told, he still wasn’t quite on top of this whole Christmas thing, but somehow he managed to get it exactly right anyway. In fact, I'd say he's got the right idea about the whole experience of living and working in this country.

I can think of a couple hundred million Americans who could learn a lot from him and his many cousins.

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About the Creator

Jack Scranton

Writer, image retoucher, musician/composer, 3D artist. Despite modest success in all those fields, Photoshop paid the bills.

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