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FEBRUARY 2005

> A STRANGE THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY | phil gatton

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 to.

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 person.

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 was fried.

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.

> BIOGRAPHY | about the author

Phil Gatton lives in Louisville, breaks things, writes things, plays music, and is not Noel Coward.