A STRANGE THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY
The battery to our $20 cordless phone
had been dead for a week, hopelessly unable to recharge, and my wife was
pissed about it. This was not a strange thing. She was always pissed about
something. And, though this was clearly a 'domestic operations' issue to me
(i.e. her domain), she managed to transmute it into an 'electrical thing'
(i.e. my domain, what with the electrical engineering degree and all), and
made me agree that it was terribly negligent of me not to have fixed the
phone already. (What if something happened to the baby and the cell phone
wasn't charged? And how could i abandon my family's needs and stain my karma
so?) So that chilly spring Saturday evening i packed up my 15-month old
daughter Riley, the phone itself, and the lifeless battery, and went to the
electronics store to get a replacement. (Okay, okay, i'll admit it. i had
already bought a replacement the night before, but i got the wrong kind so i
had to go back.)
The store was well lit, spacious, and huge, with separate sections for TVs,
home stereos, car stereos, DVDs, CDs, and, in the rear right corner,
cordless phones and their various accessories. i found a battery that looked
like a better candidate than the one i'd bought the night before, and then
looked for a salesclerk to verify my decision. Shortly before my daughter
started pulling AC adapters off the shelf, two store employees approached me
with intent to serve. After explaining myself, they asked to see the phone,
and while they were checking product numbers and manufacturer codes, my
daughter took off down the aisle. She's not terribly fleet of foot yet, but
she picks her spots well, and managed to reach the end of the aisle and make
a right before i caught up with her. She was grinning and cackling and
making cutesy faces at a tall, muscle-bound black man in his early twenties,
who was in the process of choosing the car stereo with the loudest bass of
any such stereo in North America. She got him to smile back and wave at her.
i couldn't help but be a little bit proud of the fact that she had no
apprehension about him whatsoever. She bridged a sub-cultural gap that that
man and i might not ever have been able to do on our own. It takes a child
to raise a village.
So we returned to our heroes, who had good news and bad news for us. The
good news was, i had chosen the right battery this time. The bad news was,
my punishment for getting it wrong the first time would be to wait in the
customer service line instead of the regular checkout. Customer service at
this store was a catchall, which meant i would be in line with folks seeking
repairs, screaming about deliveries, arguing about problems with their major
electronics and home appliances, and asking questions about the minutia of
complex products the school-age clerks couldn't possibly know the answers
Fortunately, there was only one person in line at customer service in front
of me. Unfortunately, there was only one clerk, and this particular customer
impeding my path to him was all of the above. He needed work done on his
computer, was upset that the clerk insisted on sending it to a separate
repair facility instead of taking care of it on the premises, and evidently
felt the need to either win the case against the teenage clerk, or seek an
appellate court ruling on whether somebody in the next room would be
replacing his hard drive that day. This process was much longer than a
fifteen month old can stay in her father's arms, so Riley repeatedly wiggled
out and ran to the nearest shiny object: a rack of recent release DVDs. i
repeatedly grabbed her and got back to my place in line, but it appeared
that Mr. "My receipt says you'll fix it HERE" was clearly only getting
warmed up, so i decided to appeal to the kindness of the regular checkout
On my way there, i noticed a man rummaging through his pockets walking
toward the customer service center. He was well-dressed, mid-40s-ish, and
either terribly anxious or terribly impatient. He struck me as being the
sort of rich man so absorbed with things like home entertainment centers and
fancy electronics that he missed out on purer joys, like, for instance, my
adorable 15-month-old. (i had, by this point, begun to sort the human race
into binary lots: those who smile at my daughter and those other poor
soulless infidels who just don't get it. This is the way of new parents.) He
blew past me while pulling out his cell phone and didn't even look at her.
(Ergo, he was a philistine.) In his hurry, he dropped his money clip, which
was comprised of more cash than i have ever carried on my person in my life.
It was a wad of hundreds, probably a couple thousand dollars total. i picked
it up and ran after the man, calling him "Sir", which was clashing in my
head with the less-than-respectful thoughts i'd been having a second before.
When i returned his money to him, his demeanor completely changed. His
gratitude was thick, sincere, and full of a humility that only moments
before i would have put way past him. Feeling i'd done my karmic duty, and
even hoping to have modeled a behavior i want to instill in Riley, i went to
the checkout lane.
No dice. Customer Service was the only place to do what i needed done. So we
went back to watch Mr. Disgruntled Computer Purchaser take on the corporate
giant, one clerk at a time. Of course, he was still there, and a small line
had formed behind him. There were now two clerks working, but the second was
a teenage boy deeply engaged in explaining, incorrectly, how each and every
resistor, capacitor, inductor, and transistor in a young woman's VCR worked.
She seemed to be enjoying the lesson, which only encouraged him. That line
was quickly filling up with little googly cartoon heart-shaped thought
balloons, which, as annoying as it was, was better than the storm cloud next
door. We were getting nowhere and my arms were getting tired.
So, in a last-ditch effort to escape from the store before bedtime, i
decided to let Riley attack the DVD rack. This is the parent's
may-I-help-you riff. i felt guilty about resorting to it. It fails the
Golden Rule, but at this point i was having no trouble rationalizing a
modicum of grief on this particular store. Sure enough, only two minutes and
approximately 7,000 floor-strewn DVDs later, a store representative
magically appeared. She offered to open another customer service window and
take care of me herself. Whew. i provided her with the requisite information
and paperwork, and she authorized the exchange and sent me back to the
checkout lane with receipts to document the whole deal. On the way, though,
we were intercepted by the man who'd dropped his money clip. He shook my
hand and thanked me again, surreptitiously sliding a twenty-dollar bill into
my palm with his right hand while closing my fingers around it with his
left. i told him that wasn't necessary but he was off before i could argue.
The checkout lane was mercifully quick, as Riley was now quite restless and
hungry, and probably tired, too. (7,000 DVDs can wear a girl out.) i opened
the door to see our benefactor beginning to drive out of the parking lot.
The man i had assumed to be rich drove a beat-up mid-1980's model station
wagon. There was an appliance box, probably a washer or dryer, bungeed to
the rear flap. His emergency lights were on, i think, but the right one
didn't work. Class hatred had led me to misjudge this man, even as to his
class, who was clearly nervous to be carrying large amounts of cash, but
perhaps not in good enough financial shape to have a credit or debit card.
Ouch. And i had let him give me money for doing what any person with a
sliver of a conscience would do. Double ouch. So much for karma.
So after my daughter was secured in her car seat, i opened the new battery
package and went to install it in my phone. Unlike the last one, this
battery gave no indication which way the two-pin connector was to be
oriented on the phone's two pins. Absent any markings, i went with the
orientation that produced the least mechanical wire strain. i guessed wrong.
i smelled smoke. My degree was powerless against my stupidity. My $20 phone
Then i felt the naked bill in my pocket. i looked back at my daughter, and
told her, "The way begets the way, Riley. The way begets the way." The new
phone would have to wait until Monday evening. My wife would not be pleased,
and that would just have to be OK. It was bedtime.
about the author
Phil Gatton lives in Louisville,
breaks things, writes things, plays music, and is not Noel Coward.