On a certain afternoon in August, 1991, two burly men in blue uniforms came to our apartment carrying a small plastic bag with seven wooden pegs. They had been here before and when I let them in they knew just where to go. With a little glue and a large rubber mallet they tapped the pegs into the seven screw-holes that remained in one of my four chairs. On their way out the door I said to them "It's nothing personal but I hope I never see you guys again."
Our story begins seven weeks earlier. I had just arrived in Orange County from Montana and Betsy and I were beginning our life together in our very first apartment. All we wanted was a table and four chairs.
Entering the Sears furniture department in the Laguna Hills Mall is like stumbling into an abandoned mine. It's located in a dimly lit sub-basement, reachable only by a bizarre series of unmarked stairways. Upon completing his descent, the hapless shopper finds himself entangled in a vast maze of smoky mirrored partitions and countless recliner-clogged alcoves. This underground kingdom is as quiet as a dream, and its denizens, mole-like salespeople who rarely see the light of day, tend to scurry away from the approaching footsteps of a surface dweller.
On my first visit I did manage to sneak up on two mole-people who were deep in conversation. I asked where I might find a table and four chairs. The older of the two mole people looked up at me and barked "catalog." I found this response rather mystifying so I asked another question, and then a third. To each question the answer was the same. "Catalog." They made no secret of the fact that I was interrupting their analysis of some local sporting event, and so, feeling even more adrift than I was before, I continued my journey, burrowing ever deeper into the maze.
Just as I was about to abandon all hope, there it was: a simple table of pine wood with four ordinary wooden chairs. I smiled to myself. Buried treasure! Using my skills as a mazologist, I noted all the neighboring landmarks and charted a path back to the surface. It would be childsplay to find the table again.
The next night I returned with Betsy in tow. Much more confident now, I wound my way down all the twisty passages, through countless mock parlours and landed directly in front of the table. It was simple and relatively inexpensive. I liked it. Betsy liked it. So much so that she began calling for one of the mole people.
A young salesman was in clear sight, but ignored us until Betsy actually began to stamp her feet. At this, the pimply faced mole-boy contorted his mouth into something resembling a smile and scurried our way. Sensing an immanent purchase, he began to fawn over us. Yes, this was a fine table. How clever of us to pick it. Assembled? Yes, OF COURSE it comes assembled. A Sears man will deliver it and assemble it right before our eyes. Just say the word.
The long dark journey had made Betsy tired and we decided to return to the surface and discuss the purchase over dinner. It seemed a decent table, and the price was reasonable. We decided to go for it. I agreed to return the following afternoon and make a third and final journey into the underworld. I would be a modern day Orpheus, with a visa card as my lyre, calling up treasure from the deep.
Day followed night and for a third time I entered that dark kingdom. The mole people must have smelled my visa card, because now their behavior was radically altered. No longer timid, they circled like sharks. I had hardly set foot in their cavern when I was accosted by a hideous old mole woman. "A table? I know which one you mean. Let me guide you there!"
When we reached the table another mole woman, this one younger but even uglier, attempted to block our path. It seemed the old mole woman had lead me into the younger woman's "territory." The two sparred briefly but the old woman was determined and the younger one soon retired into the shadows, cursing us both with her eyes. The old woman grinned at me in triumph and her yellow teeth glimmered in the darkness.
"I wish to buy this table. It does come assembled, does it not?"
The mole woman became very solemn. "Absolutely! This table comes assembled!"
When I nodded my approval she scurried to a secret cabinet and retrieved four or five enormous leather books. She then picked up a phone and began pecking at the buttons. To my amazement, she did not stop after seven digits, or even ten, but kept pecking away. I soon gathered that she had dialed into a computer and was now entering numbers over the phone.
These huge books contained nothing but numbers, and she flipped feverishly from page to page entering more numbers, and still more numbers. The store had a number. The model of table had a number. The chair had a number. This transaction had a number. Our particular table would have its own number. The delivery organization had a number. The delivery man had a number. Even the delivery had a number. She herself had a number. Inevitably, she began asking me for MY numbers. My phone number. My social security number. My driver's license number. My apartment number.
Incredibly, she fed these numbers into the mouth of not just one computer, but three different computers. I could hear one computer dialing another, each computer asking for the number of the other. Finally, wiping a trail of sweat from her wrinkled brow, she fell into a chair and told me that we were now through the first phase of our transaction. My table would be delivered precisely on a certain date in August.
"August?" My heart sank. Seeing my bewilderment, she explained that the table we were sitting at was not, in effect, a real table, but was rather a kind of representation of what my table would look like when it was manufactured. My table, she explained with a barely concealed disdain for all surface dwellers, did not even exist yet. But now that the proper numbers had been entered into the various computers, it would soon begin to take shape. Vast factories in distant lands were already beginning to churn. Forces beyond my comprehension had been unleased and, in what was really a miraculously short amount of time when you considered all the complexities of construction and transportation, my table would arrive at my doorstep precisely on time. In any event, I had no choice. All furniture stores worked the same way. Was I from another planet or what?
I sighed and agreed to proceed with the next phase of the transaction: the payment. I pulled out my visa card and handed it to her. She frowned. "What is this?" "Surely you take Visa?" "This is SEARS! We only take SEARS cards. This is not a SEARS card!" I put my head in my hands and began to plot an escape route.
"But wait," she said, "we can get you a SEARS card. No really, it will be EASY! We can use the credit of your Visa card to get a SEARS card. It will just take a second and then everything will proceed smoothly! You won't regret it."
Reluctantly I agreed and now there were more enormous books full of numbers and more pecking at the phone. After fifteen minutes or so, I began to realize that the machinations involved in ordering my table were a mere nothing compared to getting a SEARS card. Again she asked for all my numbers, my driver's license, my visa card, and did I have a birth certificate by any chance? Her ancient fingers flew back and forth across the keypad. Beep beep beep beep beebity beep.
Just as I was starting to doze off, she thrust the phone into my hand and told me that the computer had a few more questions for me. I then found myself typing in even MORE numbers in response to an automated voice. Then there was a pause and a click and suddenly I was talking to an actual human being. Apparently we were now nearing a climax of some sort. The questions became more difficult. "Montana? Is that like a city or a country or what?"
At long last my unseen interrogator seemed satisfied and she paused for a moment to consult with her computer. Then, in a very pleasant voice, she said "I'm sorry but we cannot grant you a SEARS card at this time. In exactly three days we will mail you a letter which will explain why we have reached this decision." Click.
I stared at the phone, dumbstruck. "I can't believe it. They just turned me down. I've got a $5000 credit limit. I've got $3000 in the bank. I've never had a credit problem in my life. We've spent thirty minutes for nothing! I can't believe this."
"Oh, don't worry. Most applicants are turned down. It happens all the time."
I have never struck another human being in anger, but now, I began to think, was a good time to start. Instead I swallowed my rage and considered the situation. I knew better then to offer cash. Cash, I had learned, was a quaint nineteenth century notion that modern California stores were ill equiped to deal with. Besides, the bank had just closed and the ATM only doled out $200 a day. I had $80 in my wallet and the table and four chairs came to $300. No good. Of course I could have walked away, but by now I was determined to pry my table away from this witch!
"Will you take a check?"
The old crone squinted at me suspiciously. "It's not from an out of town bank, is it?"
"No. I have an account with a California bank."
At this her expression brightened visibly. "Yes, that will be acceptable." The only problem was that my checkbook was in the glove compartment of my car, a half mile away. But she agreed to wait while I went for it. And, feeling like the greatest fool of the decade, that's exactly what I did. I handed her a check and settled in for the inevitable barrage of phone pecking.
More questions. More numbers. For the third time she asked for my driver's license. "Wait just a second!" she crowed, "THIS is not a California Driver's License!"
"You stupid cow! You've been entering that license into your infernal machines all day long! It's a MONTANA license! Montana, Montana Montana!"
Actually, I did not call her a stupid cow. But I did glare at here with genuine menace. Our eyes locked, she frowned, and turned back to her phonepad. "Well, maybe we could overlook it just this once." Another ten minutes, a few more numbers, and then it was done. The transaction was complete. The old mole handed me a computer printout thick with numbers and a card. "Here is my number," she said, "And here is a number you can call if anything goes wrong." I had done it. The table was mine. Or at least it would be as soon as it was created.
For the rest of July, Betsy and I made do without a table. August came and then, at the appointed hour, a knock at our door. Two friendly Sears men entered and began dumping huge cardboard boxes on our floor. Then I was told to "sign here" and they turned to go.
"But aren't you going to assemble the table?" I protested.
The Sears man looked at me like I was crazy. "Are you crazy?" he asked. "Look at this list of deliveries I have to make today. Even without having to read the so-called instructions it would take a two man team with power tools HOURS to assemble this stuff. There's NO WAY we could assemble this table. Who told you this table came assembled? What was her number? I'm going to report her!"
And with that, the Sears men left me to ponder the "so-called instructions." I figured that maybe it was better just to try the assembly ourselves rather than risk further encounters with what was clearly a corrupt and wicked organization, but Betsy would have none of it. She got on the phone and demanded to speak to a manager. And, eventually, she was successful.
It seemed we had caught Sears with its corporate pants down. The table was not, in fact, supposed to come assembled, but official Sears documents distributed to the salespeople failed to mention this. Sears was aware of the problem but had not yet found a way to inform their salespeople. Apparently the channels of communication between the documentation division and the sales division were too complex and circuitous to handle this kind of correction. Therefore, a special Sears swat team, specially trained to assemble this particular table, would be dispatched between the hours of x and y on day z. And what was the number of the first delivery team? Rest assured they WILL be reported.
So we waited. And, only an hour or so after the specified time, they arrived. There were two of them, downright spiffy in their blue Sears jumpsuits holding their red Sears toolboxes. One was clearly a veteran of many table assemblies, the other his youthful assistant. I immediately dubbed them Batman and Robin.
Batman set to work immediately. The boxes flew open and bits of wood began to fly around the room. The two men tossed them back and forth like jugglers and then there was a "Zing! Zing!" as they fired up their power screwdrivers.
For the better part of an hour these two men toiled away. The number of screws and bolts involved was truly remarkable. And then, as suddenly as they began, they were done. Before me stood a table and four chairs. I was thrilled! At last our troubles were over.
"There's just one little problem," said Batman. "One of these chairs has a crack in it. And the cracked chair department just closed and won't be open again until Tuesday." And now, seeing my despair, Batman fixed me with his steely blue eyes and said "I PROMISE you that I will come back on Tuesday MYSELF and replace this defective chair. And this time I can promise you it WILL be assembled! Sign here."
I felt I could trust this man. And, after all, we now had a table and three chairs. Definite progress. Surely the final chair would arrive on Tuesday and then we would be done with Sears forever.
Tuesday came. And went. No Batman. On Wednesday we got a call from a Sears operator. Our replacement chair would be delivered in ten days. When I protested that the delivery man had promised to have it here yesterday the operator became indignant. That would be impossible! "What is his number? I will report him immediately!"
So, with the patience of Job, we waited. And then, after ten days, a familiar knock and another pair of Sears men. Once again they dumped their cargo of boxes on the floor and prepared to leave.
At this point I began to lose my self-control. I fell to my knees and begged them. "Please! Not again! They promised me this would be assembled! What? You want the number of the person who told me that? Here it is! And here's more numbers! Here's the number to call to receive the numbers of people who haven't even come yet! Now PLEASE, for the love of god, PLEASE assemble this chair."
The two men looked at each other. "Well...it IS against policy but I suppose...OK. Just this once."
And they assembled the final chair. I was so grateful I almost hugged them. Done with Sears at last! Just pound in the wooden screw covers and the job is done.
"Screw covers? That's odd. They must have forgot to enclose those at the factory."
All the blood drained out of my face. The men had a car phone and promised they'd get to the bottom of this. I was so numb at this point that I didn't even ask them for their numbers.
Thirty seconds after the truck pulled out of our parking lot the phone rang. "This is Sears. I understand there's a problem with your chair replacement."
I pulled out my bulging folder of Sears paperwork and began reading the appropriate numbers. With some difficulty I succeeded in describing the problem. The operator offered to send another Sears team with the ten missing wooden pegs, but I declined. I told her that I never wanted to see another Sears team for as long as I lived and could she just send the pegs in the mail. I would pound them in myself. She agreed and hung up.
Then, a few minutes later, the phone rang again. "This is Sears. I understand there's a problem with your chair replacement." When I explained that I already talked to one Sears operator, this one said "What was her number? If she doesn't put those pegs in the mail I'll report her."
More time passed. August was almost spent by now. We had a table and 3.9 chairs. And I felt sure I had seen my last Sears man. When the small packet of wooden pegs arrived in the mail, I cannot begin to describe the feeling of peace welling up in my heart. I opened the packet and prepared to complete my final chair.
Three of the ten pegs went in just fine. But the other seven were too small. I stared at the pegs in horror. It was diabolical. But there was no getting around it; the pegs simply wouldn't fit.
More phone calls. More negotiations. More delays. And, of course, more numbers. So it was that we set up yet another appointment and waited for yet another afternoon for a team of Sears men to arrive at our door. And THIS, gentle reader, is why two burly men drove their truck for miles to deliver a plastic baggie holding seven wooden pegs.