Making the World a Better Place
The Trials of Appliance Repairmen
By Carl Hunt
MARCH 20, 2000: Every day they are out there saving people by the thousands. Without their quick diagnostic skills and specialized equipment, who knows how many thousands of us would have popped a blood vessel or crumpled to the ground with sharp pain shooting through our left arms.
Even now they are saving your friends, colleagues, neighbors and relatives from rogue magnetrons and evil refrigerators. Who are these paragons of patience and compassion? They are your appliance delivery and repairmen.
Don't laugh. Without them, the meat would go bad, the clothes wouldn't get washed and people would be knee-deep in filthy, grease-encrusted dishes. Without them, stoves wouldn't heat up and all the pathetic losers out there who don't know how to fix things would be eating cat food out of cans. Out on the road they put their lives on the line for you for the small cost of a service call, parts and labor. What do they get in return? Lots of abuse. Tons of abuse. People swear at them, children steal their tools and absent-minded nitwits nearly electrocute them. How do I know? Cuz I was one of them. Here are some of our stories:
In 1996 I was a 28-year-old appliance repairman. A rather large man at six feet tall, 230 pounds, I had been in the appliance repair business for several years. I liked to do my jobs quickly so I could get on to the next one. I had heard about calls like this one but had never experienced one. But on this day, I was face-to-face with ... a big distraction.
That day I was hoping to deliver this fridge and get out. I noticed that the front door was regular-sized and was glad to see that I would not have to take it off its hinges in order to get the fridge in the house. I hoped that the customer was ready for me. I knocked on the door. No answer. If this stop was a no-go it was going to put me way behind on my schedule for the day.
I knocked again.
"Who is it?" a woman's voice called out.
"Page's Appliances," I answered. "I'm here to deliver your refrigerator."
From inside the house, the woman unbolted the locks and opened the door. Standing before me was a gorgeous woman with dark brown hair and deep green eyes. She was wearing a towel, a short and thin one, a towel that -- to my eyes -- wasn't much bigger than a washcloth. I asked her where the fridge was supposed to go.
"Come on in. You caught me in the shower," she said. "The kitchen is over there." Pulling my eyes back into their sockets, and swallowing the enormous lump in my throat, I blurted out a manly "thanks" and headed into the house. It was hard to tell where she wanted the fridge. I waited a few minutes, being grateful that the show was over. It might sound like fun to have a half-naked woman meet you at the front door, but it really isn't, not if you want to actually install an appliance and get on to the next job. It's distracting.
"I think I want it on the north side," she said as she breezed into kitchen. When I turned to face her my tools dropped to the floor. She was no longer clad in a towel. Instead, she had graduated to a T-shirt -- only a T-shirt -- and a threadbare T-shirt at that.
I summoned all my moral strength and concentrated on the refrigerator. "Compressor fans, compressor fans, compressor fans," I said to myself over and over in an effort to keep a desire for undeliveryman-like conduct from slipping into my mind. We discussed her options for her new appliance. We talked space requirements, energy efficiency ratings, cubic footage and about whether she wanted the ice maker connected. It didn't work. I kept staring at her in that teeny-weeny T-shirt. I redoubled my efforts to concentrate on the fridge. I started saying the words "compressor fans" silently to myself, faster and faster and faster until they ran together like one giant, never-ending sentence. I wanted a seamless stream of "compressor fan" thoughts that would block out any others. "Compressor fans, compressor fans, compressor fans," I kept saying. Finally, I felt I had conquered the situation.
I stumbled out to the truck, got the fridge on my dolly and came in with it. She was fully clothed this time. I got the job done and thanked her for her business.
"No, thank you, I hope it wasn't too hard for you," she purred.
I shook my head, staggered to the truck and headed out to the next delivery.
In his more than 20 years in the appliance business there wasn't an appliance emergency story Tom Styer, of Page's Appliance, hadn't heard. A relatively small man at 5-foot-eight and 170 pounds, Styer had argued with professional wrestlers , met up with vicious dogs and endured the incessant questioning of busy-bodies who think that the lives of appliance repair guys are their business. In 1987, Styer heard this story from a repair guy in Santa Fe whose name he can't remember.
A call came in. A frantic lady explained that magnetrons were escaping out of her microwave. This can be a big problem; if there is a magnetron leak, your microwave leaks low-grade radiation into the room.
"Can you please get someone out here today?" she begged.
The tech got to the house and looked for leaks, but he didn't find any. In fact, the microwave was brand new and in perfect condition. He asked the lady how she had come to the conclusion that the microwave was leaking.
"I saw them," she insisted. "They got out last night, about 10 of them. They were walking around on my counter making a mess of it. When I got up this morning they were gone."
"Was that the first time you've seen them?" the tech asked.
"Oh no. They started coming out the first night I got the microwave. Can you do something? I don't want them coming out again."
The tech did some fast thinking. "Here is what we are going to do," he said. "Get a shoebox with a lid. Tonight before you go to bed, put it in the cupboard under the microwave. The magnetrons will climb into it, because they like little boxes. Tomorrow, get up a little before sunrise and put the top on the box. Give me a call when we open, and I will come pick them up."
The tech picked up his tools and left for the night. Next morning, the woman called. He went over, got the box and promised he would dispose of the pesky magnetrons at no charge. She was never heard from again.
Terry Page, owner of what was then Page's Outlet, has a lot of silver hair these days. The conventional wisdom is that what is left of his hair began turning silver real quick in the late 1970s when, as a strapping 6-foot-3, 230-pound 45-year-old guy, he went on this call in Albuquerque.
The woman on the phone was nearly hysterical. She told the salesman that she needed a washer delivered that day because she had just moved back to Albuquerque from California and her clothes were piling up. The salesman told her it was kind of late in the day (2 p.m.) but that he would see what he could do. He put her on hold and asked Terry, the owner of Page's Outlet, if they could deliver a washer that afternoon. Terry said he could deliver it right after work if the lady paid cash.
The salesman told the woman what Terry had said. But the woman said she wanted the new 90 days-same-as-cash plan. The salesman told her that wouldn't work because she would have to come down and fill out an application. There wasn't enough time to get it approved that day. The woman got angry. She said she was being treated unfairly. She wanted to get the washer that day and fill out the paperwork the next day. The salesman wouldn't budge. She needed cash, he said. Finally, she said she would have the cash. What time would the delivery guy be there? The salesman told her it would be delivered after the store closed at 6 p.m.
Six o'clock rolled around and Terry loaded the washer onto the delivery truck. The customer's house wasn't too far away from the store. Terry asked the woman where she wanted her washer.
"In the utility room off the garage please," she said.
Terry figured that the easiest way to the utility room was in through the garage past a closet and then up a short flight of stairs. He strapped the washer to his gray, two-wheeled appliance dolly and headed in. As he passed by the closet, he noticed a very strong odor of mothballs.
"Wow," he thought, "she must have a huge pile of laundry in there and she's covering the smell up with mothballs." He turned up the stairs and pulled the washer into the utility room. He installed the appliance with no problem and was ready to get his money and get out of there.
Rather than giving him the cash, the woman started screaming at him.
"I told the guy at the store I wanted the 90 days-same-as-cash," she shrieked. "I told him I would come in tomorrow and fill out the paperwork."
"I'm sorry ma'am. The deal was that you would give me cash when I delivered the washer," Terry told her.
"He asked the owner and he said it was OK," the woman sobbed.
"I am the owner. I was there when you were talking to the salesman and that was not the deal you made. I said I would deliver the washer if you had cash," Terry explained.
The woman got even more upset. "I don't have the cash on me," she cried.
"OK," Terry said as he started walking back up the stairs to the washer. He fished out his pliers and started disconnecting the appliance.
"What are you doing?" she screamed.
"Look, you made a deal. If you don't have the cash I have to take the washer back!" Terry said, raising his voice and getting agitated himself.
"You can't," she yelled frantically, "I've got to do laundry. Look, I have the money but it's in my car inside a big trunk. If you get the trunk out I can pay you."
Terry just wanted to get out of there. He went out to her car. She opened the trunk.
"If you bring it into the living room I will get the money out for you," she said.
Terry grabbed the trunk and gave it a jerk, but it didn't even budge. By this time he was really running late. Eventually, he managed to pull the trunk out of the car. He put it on a dolly and wheeled it into the woman's house.
"Thank you," she told him. "I would never have been able to get that out of there. Wait for me outside and I will get your money."
Terry grabbed his tools and went outside. He was loading up when she brought the money out.
Just as he was ready to drive away he was startled by someone banging on his window. The woman was standing at the side of the truck with cash in her hands.
"I'm sorry for acting so badly," she said. "My husband passed away and I had to come back here. I really don't like it here but this is where my daughter is. I really wanted to get the washer."
A couple weeks later Terry saw something on the TV news that stunned him.
"A woman was arrested today for the murder of her husband more than a year ago," the anchor said. "She had allegedly killed him and hung him in the closet in the garage. She used formaldehyde and mothballs to cover up the smell. Police have taken her into custody and are questioning her daughter about her involvement."
Lee Dumas has a scratchy, gruff voice and sort of grunts commands at people. It's no wonder he grunts. After spending 30 years hauling refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and dryers up stairs, you would grunt too. Dumas, say those who know him, can fix an appliance blindfolded. He retired two years ago, perhaps as a result of calls like this 1993 episode.
It was a custom-built home in Santa Fe. "I'm here to fix your washer," Lee, the repairman, said.
"There is something I need to tell you," the customer said. "My boa constrictor got loose this morning, and I haven't found him yet. He likes hiding in dark places, so if you see something moving behind the washer, don't panic. Just call me, and I'll come get him."
"I'll tell you what, you go find him," Lee said. "And when you do, call me. Then I'll come back and fix your washer."
"You don't have to worry. The snake won't hurt you," the guy said.
Lee didn't buy it. All snakes do is eat living things, he thought.
"I'm not going to fix your washer if your snake is going to pop up from behind it and bite my ass. Call me when you find it," Lee said.
A couple of days later the man called and said he had the snake back in its cage. Lee went back and fixed his washer.
Tye Page is Terry Page's son. At 6-foot-six and 230 pounds, he has a hard time squeezing behind ovens and washing machines. His job was made more difficult by this "Helpful Husband" he encountered on this 1998 call in Albuquerque.
The customer met Tye at the door and showed him to the kitchen. "There is the oven," she said. "It isn't doing anything. When you turn it on it just doesn't work."
"OK. Where is the circuit breaker box so I can shut off the electricity?" Tye asked.
"Oh, it's in the garage, and by the way, I have to go run a errand, it will only take 20 or 30 minutes. Will you still be here?"
"Yeah. It'll probably take me that long to figure out what's wrong, "Tye replied.
"My husband is here, " she said. Then she whispered: "Don't let him help."
Thinking she meant the old man was hurt or had a heart problem, Tye went out to the garage and turned off the electricity. While Tye was taking the oven out of the wall so he could get at the wires in the back, the woman's husband got up and walked out of the kitchen.
Tye took off the oven's back plate and began his inspection. As he turned his pliers he struck the oven's metal back plate with them. A loud, buzzing, popping noise erupted. Sparks flew, and his pliers grew hot. Tye jumped from the oven as the light and sound show subsided.
The husband appeared from the other room. "How are you supposed to use that oven, somebody turned the damn power off," he said as he walked away muttering and swearing to himself. Tye went back out and turned the power off. When he came back, he found his pliers arc-welded to the metal back plate.
After pounding his pliers with a hammer to get them off, he figured out the problem and fixed the oven. As he was putting it back into place, the woman returned home from her errands.
"It's all working again," Tye told her, "but your husband turned the power on while I was working on it."
"I told you not to let him help." she said. "He is kind of senile and does crazy stuff like that all the time."
As he left, Tye couldn't help but think that that information would have been helpful in the beginning.
This is Tom Styer again. You can understand from this 1989 incident why he might not be too fond of professional wrestlers. Styer, who is now 38, said that the crazy calls that appliance repair guys go on are few and far-between. "It's very seldom that you get crazy customers," he said. "It's not enough that you can train for it or practice for it. After 20 years in the business, you remember 5 percent of the craziness."
Tom picked up the phone. It was Lee on the other end.
"I got a guy coming down to see you," Lee said. "He said his fridge is too loud. The evaporator motor is bad; I ordered a new one, but he wanted it fixed today. I told him I didn't have one on the truck. He says he bought the fridge from you and he wants you to get him a new one. He's very large. I think he said he was a pro wrestler."
Tom let out a sigh. Waiting for an upset customer is not the favorite activity of people in the appliance industry. It's even worse when the upset customer happens to be the biggest human being you have ever seen. The gargantuan -- and at six-feet, seven inches this guy really was gargantuan -- walked through the front door, noticeably agitated, with veins bulging out of his neck and negativity spewing from his muscle-bound mouth.
"I want you to get me a new fridge," the wrestler said in a gruff and grumbling voice that boomed through the room.
"My repairman ordered the part for you," Tom said. "We can't just get you a new fridge if the one you have can be repaired under warranty."
"I don't want it fixed under warranty," the wrestler growled. "I want a new one."
"I'm sorry. I just can't do that without the manufacturer's authorization."
"Then how about I rip out your limbs from their sockets? I don't have to take this from you."
"Go right ahead," Tom said. "At least I know my family will be taken care of."
"That's right. I make more money than you will ever see, I could buy this place if I wanted too," the wrestler yelled.
"Why don't you?" Tom said. "It's for sale. Then you could fire me if you wanted to."
"What I want to do is punch you in the face," the wrestler said, slamming his giant fists, which resembled huge mechanical claws, down on the counter.
Tom stood his ground. "Go ahead, but when I wake up I'm going to own you!"
"You're not worth it," the wrestler snarled.
"Now that we got that straight, your part will be in in a week. Lee will fix it then," Tom said.
"He'd better," the wrestler exclaimed as he threw the door open on his way out of the store.
The part came in a week later, and Lee fixed the fridge without incident.
Day in and day out they put their lives on the line, enduring senile husbands, crazed wrestlers and naked ladies. Why? The smile on the customers' faces. When you get to put the world right for someone seven or eight times a day, it can put you in a good mood. The other things? They make for good storytelling sessions. So the next time your appliance goes wacko and the world seems to be crumbling down around you, just pick up that phone. Don't hesitate to call. The repairmen will be there for you. They ask only one thing of you: Keep your clothes on.
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