Our modern problems seem so complex to us. There’s lots of problems. Everyone has them. They’ve had then for as long as gravity, physics, biology, nature, governments, anarchy, and people have been able to complicate the lives of men . . . that’s been as long as men have been around.
Take the problems with modern communications, for example. Wisely choosing a cell phone carrier and plan can be as complicated as anything that ever existed, since by design, the service providers make it almost impossible to compare apples to apples. We shop around. We do “research” on the internet. We look at Angie’s List and other places that are designed to help us make smart shopping decisions. We arm ourselves with binders of information (not to be confused with Romney’s binders of women), labor over the minutiae of fine print in the service agreements, talk to representatives of the prospective companies, and ponder every caveat to ensure that what we are agreeing to in a two year contract is actually what we want; then, we make our decision. Of course, we want something for nothing if we can get it, which is a thing pursued by consumers as long as any man ever had something another one wanted, and we largely get what we pay for. After we buy in, we despair that the economy plan is not what we wanted because it turns out to be more expensive than the expensive plan we frugally decided against. We wanted something for nothing.
Nothing is most likely what we get for nothing, yet we are consistently surprised when nothing is delivered though it is nothing we are paying for. The danger is in the fine print.
After being on hold for over an hour, Bill Wilson finally got connected with a CellAmerica customer service representative. There were some overcharges on his monthly statement and he was glad he had persevered to get through to someone who could help him.
“My economy phone plan is supposed to be $39.95 per month,” Bill said to CellAmerica’s Customer Service Rep (CSR), who on answering had reminded Bill the smart-aleck Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, from NPR’s “Car Talk” radio show, “But the bill I am holding in my hand is for $195.77. Something is wrong.”
The CSR asked for Bill’s phone number and then pulled his account up on the computer screen. “What was your question about your bill, sir?”
“Why is it so high? I only made a few phone calls and received and sent a few texts during the past month, yet my bill is five times higher than it should be. This is not right.”
“Thank you, sir, for choosing CellAmerica,” said the CSR, “I am looking at the charges and see that you made several calls that were during our peak usage times which are not covered under your plan, and text and data service are not included at all with the recurring monthly charges.”
“Peak service time? What is that?” asked Bill, looking frantically at his bill.
“Sir, your plan allows unlimited calling for free during our off peak times which occur between 2:00AM and 3:00AM on weekends. Every other service we offer is listed under the a-la-carte section. Your plan only requires you to pay for the services you actually use, and only as you use them.”
“Well, if that’s the case, what does my $39.95 per month get me?” asked Bill, a bit sore at the answer he just got.
“Thank you, sir, for your question,” said the CSR, apparently reading from a script on the computer screen. “Your $39.95 monthly user fee, in addition to allowing you unlimited network access, allows you to make unlimited calls between 2:00AM and 3:00AM on weekends, and otherwise pay only for those services you actually use.”
“Harrumppphhhh!!,” snorted Bill. “I never would have signed up for this plan had I known that.”
“Thank you, sir. Please see the footnote at the bottom of page 121 of your Customer Agreement where the services you receive under the Economy plan are plainly spelled out. If this plan is not working out for you, you can upgrade to one of our more comprehensive plans for a small, one-time fee, of $149.95, plus the monthly cost of the plan that you choose that better fits your needs.”
“How about if I just cancel this crappy plan and switch carriers?” asked Bill.
“Thank you, sir,” said the CSR. “Would you like for me to cancel this plan for you? We can cancel it for a one-time fee of $149.95.”
“What??” cried Bill. “You mean it’ll cost me $149.95 just to quit doing business with you?”
“Yes, sir, and thank you, sir. Please refer to the footnote at the bottom of page 171 of your Customer Agreement where the early cancellation charges are plainly listed.”
“If all the details of your plan are listed in the footnotes, than what, may I ask, is listed in the plan, itself?” asked Bill.
“The footnotes are an integral part of the plan, sir,” said the CSR, “And they are plainly referred to throughout the agreement.”
Bill slammed the phone down in a fury, thinking, as he did so, that he could hear laughter in the background. He was livid. He had heard enough about footnotes to agreements that had nothing in the agreement and everything in the footnotes. He walked outside to make another call to a different cell phone company to see about switching his plan. He had heard of a company that would pay your cancellation fees if you switched to them. He googled up the company on his cell phone, incurring more charges on his Economy Plan, and in an instant had the number and pressed the hyperlink on his smart-phone screen and dialed them up. The company was ConsumerCellular, a wholly owned subsidiary of SmartCell International, LTD., which also owned and operated CellAmerica, though Bill did not suspect this.
Funny! The number he dialed this time had no automated attendant, but a real human answered on the first ring. The lady on the other end of the phone had a voice that sounded a lot like a young Judy Garland as Dorothy: sweet, believable, and forthright. “Ahhh!” thought Bill upon hearing the voice, “I can tell that this is going to be the company for me,” not knowing that the same girl also answered for CellAmerica, CellHost, UniCom, FreeCom, FreeCell, NobleCell, and AmericaCom, all wholly owned subsidiaries of SmartCell International, LTD., which, remarkably, was wholly owned by Mexican communications magnate Carlos Nogordo and the three major US cellphone companies. It never occurred to Bill that none of the companies cared who he did business with, since, ultimately, they all their hands in each other’s pockets, as well as his.
Bill was ensnared in the midst of a modern problem from which there was no escape, and this familiar scenario fits every definition of a modern problem. Previous generations had never envisioned problems like this.
In an earlier time, another Bill Wilson, tired and sore-footed, walked beside an even more sore-footed horse up to the door of one of the local liveries, The Equine Salon. He hitched his horse to the post and ambled inside aiming to have a word or two with the farrier who had shod his horse just yesterday. The horse had thrown a shoe just as Bill crossed the mountain ridge that separated Dry Gulch from the alkali flats beyond. It was about thirty miles, and Bill had not known the horse threw a shoe until it started limping. A sore-footed horse won’t get you very far.
The farrier seemed surprised to see Bill, since when he had paid his bill yesterday, Bill had said he was headed across alkali flats and then on to the town of Bitter Water. “I though you-uz gone off to other parts,” said the farrier to Bill.
“I was aiming to be, but my horse th’owed a shoe just into alkali flats and came up a bit lame. There weren’t no goin’ no further. I had to walk him all the way back. Me and him are a bit sore over that shoddy shoddin’ you put on him,” said a somber Bill to the farrier.
“I ain’t never done no shoddy shoddin’ in my life!” cried the farrier. “Everthang’s first-rate around here, including them economy horseshoes you had put on yesterday.”
“Well I reckon you’ll be a needin’ to fix ’em, jus’ the same,” said Bill, “And I ain’t expecting to pay nothing for it, neither.”
“There ain’t no guarantee on no horseshoe, ‘specially the economy job, and besides, I can’t even make no adjustment of no sort unless you brought the old shoe in with you. Got that old shoe?”
“Naw, the horse th’ew it somewhere along the way. It was gone before I knowed it,” said Bill, scratching his beard which was itching something fierce. He wondered if it was just lousy or whether his skin was dried out from the all the alkali dust he’d worn and eaten since yesterday.
“Well, iffen you want that shoe fixed, it’ll be three dollars, up front, and if I’uz you, I’d get me something besides them cheap shoes you bought yesterday. We’ve got some good, forged ones rather than them pot-metal ones I tried to talk you out of buying yesterday.”
“I thought you jus’ said everything ’round here is first-rate,” said Bill, the steam coming out of his ears just a bit.
“They’re first-rate for cheap shoes, as first-rate as a cheap shoe can be. They’s the ones you wanted. You had yore choice and you didn’t want the good shoes. I told’ja that them that you’uz a-buying was the cheap ones,” replied the farrier, still miffed that someone had dared to question the integrity of his work.
“Well, I’ll be a needin’ ’em fixed. All of ’em I suppose,” sighed Bill.
“That’ll be twenny dollars, up front, for the good shoes,” said the Farrier.
“Twenty dollars!! The good shoes wuz only fi’teen dollars yesterday!” cried Bill.
“That’uz yesterday. Today, they’re twenny.”
Bill knew he was stuck. He wasn’t about to get halfway across alkali flats and have his horse throw another shoe, but he couldn’t bring himself to give even more money to what he thought was a shoddy outfit doing shoddy shodding.
“Ain’t there another farrier in this pissaint town?” asked Bill.
“Yep. There’s old Smith just down the street. Iffen you want, youc’n’jus’ git on down there. He’ll charge you twenny-fi’e dollars,” said the farrier, now glad to be getting shed of a problem customer. No one could guarantee a shoe on a horse. They were horses, after all.
Bill turned without a word and started down the street to Smith’s Shop. When he walked up, old Smith said, “That horse’s done th’owed a shoe.”
“Yep, that’s why I’m here. Can you fix him up? Your competitor down the street shods shoddily, won’t stand behind his work, and I won’t have it.”
“I coulda told you that. He works cheap, but his work ain’t much good. He used to work here until he went and set up shop for hisself after I run him off,” said Smith, who disingenuously failed to mention to Bill that he also owned the property that The Equine Salon which its shoddy farrier rented from him, and his rent was twenty percent of the gross sales. Smith got paid whether you had your horse shod with him or the farrier down the street.
“Well, I need him shod. I’m skeered of them alkali flats with these cheap shoes,” sighed Bill.
“That’ll be thirty dollars, cash-on-the-barrelhead, up front,” said Smith, a big smile on his face, showing his brown teeth stained with tobacco juice. Smith spit out a cud onto the sidewalk, not even aiming for the street, just “splat” right on the boards.
“Thirty dollars?” Bill cried in despair. “That’s way too high!”
“But that gets you the new, forged steel shoes, not cast-iron or pot metal shoes,” said Smith, grinning even bigger. Iffen it’s cheap you’re a-lookin’ fer, youc’n’jus’ git on back to wher’ you come frum, but you see what cheap got you. There ain’t no cheap here . . . just quality.”
Bill knew he was stuck, and there wasn’t any use in complaining about it. “Just get ‘er shod and I’ll be back to pick her up after I’ve sent a telegram and maybe wet my whistle.”
“That’s thirty dollars, up front, please,” said Smith, still grinning, his empty hand held out, waiting to be filled. Bill peeled off three Greenback tens, but Smith moved his hand away.
“Don’t take no Greenbacks. Just silver or gold,” said Smith.
This was getting more difficult by the minute. Bill handed Smith two twenty dollar gold pieces. Smith stuck them in his pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar Greenback and handed it to Bill as change. “I reckon iffen you won’t take no Greenbacks as payment, I won’t be takin’ none as change neither, pardner,” said Bill, thinking he had ol’ Smith on this one.
“Ain’t got no gold to make no change with. Take it or leave it. Suit y’self,” said Smith, with a shrug of his shoulders and an angelic air that seemed rebuff anyone who might think Smith was anything less than honorable. Bill sighed, as he had done many times since yesterday, and took the Greenback ten and headed towards the telegraph office.”
He told the clerk, “Send a message to Mr. Tom Wilson, Fairmont Hotel, in Bitter Springs. Start- Brother -stop- Delayed by a thrown shoe -Stop- Will head out in the morning -Stop-Expect me in a couple of days -Stop- Signed Bill -End”
“Will do. That’ll be two dollars, up front,” said the clerk.
“This is about the up-frontest town a fellow is likely to encounter,” said Bill, handing the clerk the ten-dollar Greenback.
“No Greenbacks,” said the clerk, “Gold or silver, only.”
“This is about the goldest and siliverest town I ever seen, too,” said Bill, handing over a ten-dollar gold piece.
The clerk counted out his change in Greenbacks. Bill couldn’t believe it. “Well, that there’s twice today that I had to fork over gold only to get back Greenbacks as my change. I’ll be taking my change in gold or silver, I reckon.”
“Ain’t got no gold or silver to make no change with. You’ll have to take the Greenbacks or nothin’. Suit y’self,” said the clerk, “It ain’t no skin offa my nose, neither way.”
Bill took the Greenbacks and turned to go. Just as he reached the door, the clerk said, “By the way, the telegraph line’s down. I doubt it’ll be fixed before Friday.”
“Today’s Tuesday,” said Bill. “I’ll have been in Bitter Springs fer a full day before you even send that telegram. Why didn’t you say so?”
“You didn’t ask,” said the clerk, with sort of a smirk. Bill detested smirking clerks.
“Well, then, I’ll be getting’ a refund, and in gold, no Greenbacks,” said Bill, finally beginning to wise up to the urgency of the currency issue. The clerk said not a word and pointed to the sign over the door. In big bold letters it read, “NO REFUNDS FOR ANY REASON. THIS MEANS YOU.”
Bill just shook his head. “This town’s as hard on a feller as a cheap shoe is on a horse.” He turned and headed down the boardwalk to the saloon. The sign out front read, “The Friendly Saloon.” That sounded good to Bill. He was hot. He was more than a bit angry. And right now, he had a powerful thirst.
He walked up to the bar and the barkeep said, “What’ll it be?”
“Whiskey,” Bill replied.
“That’ll be a dollar, up front,” said the barkeep.
“Up front. Up front. I ain’t never seen so much up front as they went and got themselves in this town,” Bill thought to himself. He pulled out one of the Greenbacks and laid it on the bar. The barkeep reached under the counter producing an unmarked bottle of whiskey, and poured what appeared to Bill to be a rather skimpy shot. Bill gulped it down, thankful they had taken his Greenback dollar. As it hit him, he thought that he had just swallowed a mixture of kerosene and turpentine, not the whiskey he expected. He spat it out before he could reach the spitoon.
“Hey!’ said the barkeep. “Don’t be spittin’ on my floor.”
“Sorry, mister,” said Bill. “That stuff is awful. What kind of whiskey are y’all serving up in here anyway?”
“That’s the Greenback kind,” said the barkeep. “Iffen you want something else, it’ll be gold or silver.”
“And up front, too, I expect,” sighed Bill.
“Certainly!” said the barkeep, his shoulders thrown back, as proud as any peacock, Bill thought to himself.
He laid his last gold piece on the bar and the barkeep reached behind him to the shelves in front of the mirror, got a bottle of good whiskey, and poured Bill a shot. He took the goldpiece and started to make change, counting out the Greenbacks. By now, Bill knew the drill. “Just keep ’em coming,” he said pointing to the empty glass. “I don’t reckon I’ll be needin’ no change.”
As he sipped his whiskey, he considered earlier times: times far less complicated by the modern problems he was facing . . . had he only known what an ancient grandfather of his, Billio Wilsonius, endured in Roman occupied London trying to get a chariot wheel repaired, he might have thought their lots were not so different.
Now back to the modern modern times.
Our modern Bill Wilson was driving down to the office of Consumer Cellular to sign up on their service when one of his new tires blew out nearly causing him to lose control of his car. He muttered a few bad words and got out and surveyed the damage. Not only was the tire blown, but there were some serious scuffs on the wheel, and a piece of the rubber from the tire had put a pretty nasty dent in the fender well, damaging the fender itself. Bill called AAA on his CellAmerica phone, incurring enormous expenses in the process since he was on hold for about fifteen minutes during their peak usage time and the language he was thinking became coarser and coarser. AAA arrived in about a half-hour and towed him to the tire shop just before closing time. Everyone was in a hurry to close up shop as Bill stood there discussing his predicament with the tire shop manager.
“Looks like road hazard damage to me,” said the tire shop manager. “These tires you bought are covered for road hazards.”
“Whew! Thank goodness,” said Bill, thankful that something was going his way.
“Just show me your purchase receipt and we’ll take care of it,” said the tire shop manager.
“Receipt? I don’t have the receipt!” said Bill.
“Can’t do a thing without the receipt,” said the manager. “You’ll have to buy a new tire.”
“But, I just bought these less than a month ago. Can’t you look it up and see when I bought them?” asked Bill.
“Store policy is that you have to produce the receipt. No receipt, no road hazard warranty. Sorry.”
“Just get me a tire and put it on,” said the exasperated Bill, pulling out his wallet and producing his credit card to pay for it. The store manager frowned when he saw the card. He sort of felt sorry for Bill, but there wasn’t much he could do about it since he was as bound to store policy as Bill was.
“We don’t take credit cards any more, or checks,” he said. “Cash on the barrel-head, only.”
“But, I don’t have the cash!” cried Bill.
“Well, you could go and get it, or perhaps have someone bring it to you,” said the store manager. “Anyway, it looks like it’ll have to be tomorrow since it’s closing time. Do I need to call a cab for you, or can you get a ride?”
“I’ll call a friend to come get me,” sighed Bill. In the course of history, it seems that more Bills have sighed over circumstances beyond their control than just about anyone else. Maybe it’s good not to be named Bill. Bill dialed the number of one of his friends, incurring more of CellAmerica’s peak usage charges. He muttered under his breath when he got his friend’s voice mail, left a message and hoped he’d get a return call, soon. It was getting dark. He’d need to find a friend, and quickly now, else he’d get no cab in this area after dark. He began dialing differently numbers madly, but no one answered. He sat on the sidewalk at the tire shop, now deserted, as he watched the last wisps of the evening sun drop below the horizon.
A horse with a thrown shoe . . . a car with a bad tire . . . Greenback dollars . . . unwelcome credit cards . . . ineffective communications means.
Some things never change. Modern problems have always been modern, haven’t they?