Friday, September 10, 2004

Ready, set ...

One of my employees fielded a call this morning from someone trying to figure out why their bank account had been debited. This person was obviously only semi-coherent based on the side of the conversation I could hear. Evidently the bank told them that the debit came from some company that started with the letters "AB" (not the real letters) and this guy had called Information and got the first company in the book that started with the letters "AB". That was us. Needless to say, we weren't much help to the guy.

But that incident reminded me of my retail days working for Marconi Hut (not the real name). Working retail, as anyone who has done so can attest, allows you to come into contact with all kinds. And I mean ALL kinds. Marconi Hut was one of those small narrow stores in the mall. Not real wide from side to side, but pretty deep front to back. Way in the back of the store we had a separate "computer department" that really operated as a store within a store. It had its own manager and did separate paperwork and even had its own phone line. If the computer manager was out, we were allowed to write up sales, but we had to make sure they were on the correct forms.

The computer manager was a guy named Jeff, but we mostly called him El Jefe (the boss) because he could come across as really arrogant at times. We were just retail drones, but HE was a Computer Guy and he Knew Things and he always made sure he was dressed to the nines, strutting around like a peacock. I liked him ok when he wasn't acting all condescending. ("That boy," we'd say in our best Italian accent, "He's a Madonna.") Jeff set his own hours and though we were in the mall and were open until 9 PM, things were usually pretty slow after 7 PM, and so he usually started his paperwork about 6:30 and tried to tear out of there by 7:00.

One Saturday night right about 7 PM this little short guy comes into the store and starts asking about computers. He had a really gravelly voice and had evidently been drinking pretty heavily before he came in because you could smell this guy before you saw him. Since Jeff hadn't left yet, I walked him to the back of the store and called Jeff out of his paperwork to tell him he had a customer. Jeff must've had plans because he wasn't real happy about sticking around, but he came and started talking to the guy.

Not only was this guy drunk, but he was dumber than a bag of rocks and belligerent to boot. Jeff talked to this guy for over an hour and every time he would suggest a computer to buy, the guy would balk and Jeff would have to back up and start over. It was pretty obvious by Jeff's body language that he was ticked-off, but after showing this guy every computer in the store, he FINALLY got the guy to buy the cheapest computer we sold ($39.95). It didn't have a screen and the keyboard was like a label maker keyboard is today. The whole thing was about 6" X 8" X 2". This was about 1984 or 1985. You couldn't get very much back then for $39.95. You hooked it up to your TV and could do some simple BASIC programming. If you wanted to save anything, you had to buy a cord, a cassette recorder and special cassettes to save it on (which more than doubled the price). This guy decided that he just wanted the computer and nothing else.

By this point Jeff was just wanting to get rid of the guy, so he got the guy's name and address, wrote up the sales slip, handed him a business card and practically shoved him out of the store. Of course by this time, the rest of us were laughing at Jeff's misery, and he had to vent a little about how belligerent and stupid and abrupt this guy was. He also ground his teeth when he got mad. Turns out the guy's name was Larry Bonk (I'm sure of the last name and reasonably sure of the first) and he was a trucker and he'd been hearing on the radio that computers were the Next Big Thing and decided he needed one so he wouldn't get left behind. Only he didn't see why they all had to cost so much and just what were they good for anyway?

We were closed on Sunday, but on Monday, Jeff got a call from Mr. Bonk and spent at least an hour talking to him on the phone. Gravelly voice, teeth grinding and all. Over the next few days Jeff had several more similar conversations with Mr. Bonk and it got to the point where he was scared to answer his phone for fear it might be him. Jeff swears that each time he called he was just as drunk and belligerent as that first night. He kept complaining that the computer Jeff sold him didn't work right, and no matter how much Jeff talked him through it, it was all to no avail.

Once Jeff started ducking his calls, Mr. Bonk started calling on our line. "This is Larry Bonk. I want to talk to Jeff...grind, grind, grind...ARE YOU GOING TO HANG UP ON ME!?" Pretty soon, Jeff wouldn't take transferred calls from us unless we swore to him it wasn't Larry Bonk. Of course, we lied. "Jeff! Line one. No, it's not him, it's some other guy."

Finally, Jeff told Mr. Bonk to just bring it back and they'd hook it up in the store and try it out to make sure it didn't work. The day Mr. Bonk came in, he was hammered to the gills. Being naturally curious, I kind of hung around close enough to hear what was going on, but far enough away not to get sucked in. Jeff did a good job keeping his cool and setting the thing up at one of the displays. Jeff typed in a simple two or three line program and the thing seemed to work just fine. He turned to Mr. Bonk and said, "It seems to work just fine, maybe it's something you were doing. Show me what you've been doing so I can figure out what's wrong." And Mr. Bonk walks up to the TV and says ...

"GO!"

Fully expecting the computer to work all sorts of miracles and signs and wonders of the modern age.

"See! It doesn't work. I can't get the *&^*&% thing to do anything!" Grind. Grind. Grind.

I had to literally run out of the store to keep Mr. Bonk from hearing me burst out laughing.

By the time I had regained my composure and came back, Jeff had written up a refund ticket and was handing Mr. Bonk his money back. "What'd you say?" I asked. "I basically told him he was too stupid to own a computer and if he promised never to come back, I'd give him his money back."

Of course story doesn't end there.

For the next couple of months, when the store got really slow, one of us would call the other line and when Jeff answered say, with as much gravel as we could, "This is Larry Bonk...ARE YOU GOING TO HANG UP ON ME!?" Of course, we'd all bust out laughing and then when Jeff would slam the phone down and start cussing, we'd laugh again.

Ah, those were the days...

(may they never return)

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