Why Some People Kill

by Paul D. Roasberry


This is a story about the life and premature death of an automatic dishwasher. Sort of. Let us call him "Jerry." I first met Jerry in November, 1999. It was right after my previous automatic dishwasher (let us call him "Fred") gave up the ghost. Fred had been a good, reliable machine. He had come with the house when I had it built twelve years previously. But alas, Fred, having done commendable duty on thousands of loads of greasy plates, dried salsa-encrusted bowls, forks coated with hardened egg yolk, and a bewildering myriad of other utensils and implements begrimed with the ugly varnish of week-old condiments and sauces, harkened to the call of his Maker and went wherever it is that the souls of good automatic dishwashers go. I was sad to see him uninstalled. Out the door he finally went, trailing sad streamers of lint and dust as his carcass was heaved onto the bed of a pickup truck.

After searching the papers for dishwasher ads, I'd selected Best Buy, a national retail chain, as a good place to look for Fred's replacement. I struck a deal on Jerry and made arrangements to have him delivered the following week. The day he was scheduled to arrive came and went, with nary a phone call from the big Best Buy warehouse. I called the store and complained. The next day, an installer phoned me and scheduled delivery and installation for the next afternoon. So far so good.

That following day, I watched as Jerry's hoses and wires were connected. The installer said some fascinating things as he struggled to shove Jerry into the small under-the-counter opening that had just been vacated by Fred. Grunting and swearing and sweating, the installer, a man whose name I have forgotten, finally heaved and shoved Jerry's bulk into place. Jerry gleamed. There was still the matter of leveling him and securing him into place, a task made daunting by the fact that there was very little room in which to maneuver an arm and a wrench under Jerry's bulk. The installer, who had arrived in a battered pickup truck, seemed to have a rather meager toolkit, and after nearly a half hour of belabored breathing and grunting, he hauled himself up from the hardwood floor and explained that this was the best he could do. There was a big gap between Jerry's top and the bottom of the overhanging counter. I pointed that out. The installer shrugged and began trying to fit the kick plate in place beneath Jerry's door. I am assuming it is called a kick plate because this is precisely what the installer finally did - he kicked and kicked and kicked until, with screeching and gnashing of metal on metal, the thin metal plate was wedged securely. Jerry had arrived.

Things went okay for a day or two, and then Jerry started listing to starboard, just a bit, every time his door was open, so that shutting it involved readjusting him a fraction of an inch to keep the door from catching on the cabinetry. Okay, I thought, I can probably live with that. Although already, I was starting to have a very bad feeling. At about the same time, the Best Buy warehouse called to schedule delivery and installation of a new dishwasher. Being the honest sort that I am, I explained politely that their installer had already done the job. Looking back, I regret not taking the free spare and saving it in the garage. In retrospect, I suppose I should have also sensed that something was starting out terribly wrong with my new acquisition, but I'm the kind of guy who is not only a little embarrassed at being bilked, but also wise enough to know what is involved in making complaints and trying to get matters set straight. As you read on, you will see that I was fully justified in my fears.

So, as winter turned to spring, Jerry grew sicker and sicker. His door started catching on the kick plate every time he was opened and shut, so that the kick plate would bend and spring loose on one side, and have to be hammered back into place with a fist every so often. My girlfriend began nagging me to do something about Jerry. Only she didn't call him "Jerry." She called him "your damned dishwasher." It was right before the Fourth of July that I was down in my basement and noticed that a stream of water was issuing from a heating vent that exited in the floor right in front of Jerry. Running upstairs, I turned Jerry off and examined the floor. There was no sign of water on top of the oak flooring, which meant that the water must be seeping underneath it. I stopped using Jerry and called Best Buy.

First of all, I was given an 800 number to phone. This was apparently a national customer service number. I spoke with a young lady who seemed sympathetic to my dilemma and said that "someone would call" to schedule an appointment to come look at Jerry, although she didn't refer to him by name. She called him "your dishwasher." I was out of town over the Fourth of July, but when I came home, I checked to see if there were any messages regarding poor Jerry, and there were none.

A week came and went, and no one called. Frustrated, I phoned the 800 number again. This time I got to listen to about fifteen minutes worth of Muzak on hold. Finally, I spoke to a human. I asked for a supervisor. None was available, but I could leave a message if I cared to. I left a message. The next day came and went, and no customer service supervisor ever called from Best Buy. Meanwhile, the hardwood floor in my kitchen started to look like colliding ice floes in Antarctica, with big sections heaving up in the middle and the edges of the boards curling up along their entire lengths. I called the Best Buy 800 number yet again, and this time I reached a sympathetic young man who said it sounded like I'd really been through some difficult times getting service and I agreed. "Someone who understands," I thought. He said that no repair order had ever been entered on Jerry and promised to take care of that right away, even giving me his direct phone number in case I experienced any more problems.

The following day, a Best Buy repairman called and set up a time to come out and look at Jerry. When he arrived, it only took him a few seconds to see that something was dreadfully wrong. "Who installed this?" he asked. "Best Buy," I replied. "Look here," he said, pointing underneath the machine. "It wasn't even secured in the back." He wobbled Jerry to show me. "Looks like the hoses are okay, so I'm guessing the machine was tilting too far forward - see this gap? - and that water was draining out the front of the machine." In five minutes, he'd reached under Jerry and with seemingly simple movements, jacked the legs up under Jerry's posterior. As Jerry rose into place, the gap between his roof and the cabinet top overhead narrowed noticeably. Finally, it disappeared altogether. The repairman tried the door, and it swung open and shut with effortless, fluid ease. He turned Jerry on. Water streamed out. "Oh oh" the repairman said. And then he found it. A hole in the bottom of Jerry, worn into his tank by six months of abrasion against the kickplate every time Jerry vibrated, which was every time he was doing his job.

"It'll take more to repair this than to replace it," he said. "Still have your receipt?" I did, and I fished it out. He made a couple of calls, scheduled a delivery of a brand spanking new dishwasher, wrote a synopsis of what he'd found on the repair order, and gave me a copy.

The day came when Jerry's replacement was due to arrive. The day ended. No calls. No installer. I phoned the store. They said they'd look into it. I called the warehouse (I still had their number scribbled on a scrap of paper). They said they'd look into it.

The following day, I went on some errands in the morning. When I got back home, I checked my messages. There were two of them from some guy named "Chris" who wanted to schedule a time to install my new dishwasher. "Better late than never," I thought, still the optimistic sap. I hastily jotted his number down and made the call. A woman answered, and as I began to explain why I was calling, she seemed perplexed. "No, this is a private cell phone number," she finally said. "And I don't know anyone named Chris."

Naturally, I reasoned that I'd either written Chris' number down incorrectly, or perhaps I'd misdialed. I replayed his messages. Both of them. Each time, the number he gave was exactly the one I'd written down. So I figured I'd misdialed. Calling the number again, I reached the same woman. I confirmed the number with her, thinking maybe the phone company had gotten some lines switched, but no, the number I'd written down and which Chris had given me was indeed her cell phone number, which she'd had for some time.

I called Best Buy. I asked for someone in the appliance department. A man named "Nick" came on the line, listened to my story, and when I got to the part about Chris, he interrupted, saying, "Oh, Chris. Now I understand. Shit, he lost us more money on dishwashers than we've made. Guy's a complete fuck-up. As a matter of fact, the number he gave me to reach him on is disconnected. Trouble is, he's the only installer we have between Fft. Collins and Colorado Springs (an area that includes Denver, a city with two million inhabitants). Tell you what," Nick said, "if Chris doesn't call or show up tomorrow, come on over to the store on Thursday. I'll be working on Thursday, and we can get this straightened out." I told him that I was reluctant, given the problems I'd had with Jerry (only I didn't call him "Jerry;" I called him "your first goddam fucking dishwasher") to have a man who couldn't even remember his own phone number perform something as complex as an installation. "Don't blame you a bit," Nick assured me, " so I'll tell you what. You come on in on Thursday, and we'll arrange for a new dishwasher to be delivered and we'll pick up the old one. Then you can have anybody you want do the installation, and just bring us the receipt and we'll reimburse you." A minor hassle, but it seemed fair, and I was so far into it now that I had little choice.

So I went to Best Buy that Thursday, and I found Nick and he walked me over to the customer service booth and personally tapped and hammered at the keyboard until the computer spit out the necessary paperwork insuring that I would get a new dishwasher the following Tuesday. Shortly after I got home, Chris called again. I told him to call Nick, that I didn't really want to get into details with him, but that I was going to have my dishwasher installed by someone else. "And besides," I added, "you were supposed to be here on Tuesday and the number you left on your messages wasn't even yours. So call Nick."

"Nick has my number," the idiot responded.

"Nick says the number you gave him is disconnected."

"Oh, no. It's a good number. Nick has my number."

"Look, slick, Nick says you are the biggest jerk off and fuck up he's ever had do installations, and he says to call him."

I hung up.

The next Tuesday, I was supposed to get my new dishwasher. On Friday, Allstate Insurance sent an adjustor out to look at my floor, and I had over nine hundred dollars worth of damage. A bout twice as much in dollars as the original dishwasher cost. On Sunday evening, Chris called again. "Did you talk to Nick?" I asked. He hadn't of course. "Nick has my number," he said.

"Look, you didn't hear a fucking thing I told you last time, did you? I told you to call Nick."

"I just want to know," he replied, "do you want your dishwasher delivered and installed or not?"

"I made other arrangements with Nick. Call Nick."

"Nick has my number."

I rang off.

Tuesday came and went. No dishwasher. On Wednesday, I called Best Buy again. I asked for Nick

"Nick's on vacation," the man in appliances said. "But my name's Curtis Maybe I can help you."

So, for about the twentieth time, I went through the whole, sad story again. Curtis was very sympathetic. I asked him if there was any way they could just refund my money. "Sure, no problem," he assured me. "Just come on over tomorrow between nine and one. I'll be working then."

I went over to Best Buy the following day at about ten thirty. After snooping around appliances, a store employee spotted me and asked if he could be of help. "I'm looking for Curtis," I explained.

"Curtis isn't working today. But Meghan over there can help you."

Meghan, of course, was with another customer. After ten minutes or so, she finally finished up and asked if she could help. I produced my receipts and other paperwork, now somewhat dog-eared, and explained the whole thing as best I could.

Meghan, too seemed sympathetic.

"Go on over to customer service," she said. "I'll call them up right now and explain what needs to be done."

Five minutes later, after talking to three different customer service people, I finally found the one who'd just spoken to Meghan. There was a quick huddle behind the counter, and a woman took my paperwork and started tapping at her computer keyboard. Other workers came over to watch. Word must have gotten out about the customer from hell. Trying to remain calm, I answered all their questions.

"I'll have to credit this back to your Visa card," the woman said. "Do you have the card?" I fished around in my wallet.

"You'll have to give me the card number," I said. "I can't remember which card I used last November.

'The last four digits are 2344," she said.

None of my cards ended in 2344. And then it dawned on me. In March, I'd lost a credit card. I reported it, and the lender had sent me a new card with a brand new account number. I explained this, and so the Best Buy folks processed my refund anyway, using the old number. I figured I'd fight it out with Visa later on. (By this time, even fighting with a bank looked attractive.)

"Now, there's just one more thing," one of the customer service people said. "We need to haul away the old dishwasher." They scheduled to do it on this coming Friday. No doubt I'll get another call from Chris, the only Best Buy dishwasher installer between Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs. I'll worry about that later. Right now, I'm trying to get up the courage to call Visa and tell them why a credit card that was reported lost four months ago is about to get a four hundred dollar credit, and to beg them to transfer that credit to my current account. Something in the back of my mind also tells me that tonight I will probably discover the missing old card, perhaps wedged between the pages of a book I was reading last spring, or maybe underneath the bed. But I'm straying.

When I began this narrative, I said that it was the story of the life and premature death of an automatic dishwasher. Sort of. You see, the problems with my dishwasher are not the only ones I've been having during the past thirty days. To begin with, twice the phone company has erroneously disconnected my business fax line. Excuse me. It was the failure of a computer card that resulted in my lines going out. Then I was summoned for jury duty and was so looking forward to telling the judge and prosecutor what I thought of the entire American legal system, but the night before I was to appear, I called the Jury Duty Hot Line and discovered that my number was not going to be called, so I was off the hook. And here I'd already printed out reams of stuff on the Fully Informed Jury Association from the Internet. I was primed and ready. Then there's the matter of two missing envelopes which were mailed to me weeks ago by two of my employees, neither of whom lives further than fifteen miles away. They are both utterly lost, and now I have to do a project for a client all over again, because one of the envelopes contained all the written results of our first effort. What do you want to bet the envelope shows up in my mailbox the day after I've completed doing the work all over again?

My phone lines did not exactly go out yesterday, but I did get a peculiar recorded message every time I tried to make a long distance phone call. It took all day to get that resolved. Meanwhile, my computer (which, shuddering to think of it, was purchased at Best Buy last fall, the same day I ordered Jerry) refuses to dial a "303" for local calls it makes to fax or to gain access to the Internet. I've been through the dialer program a zillion times, entered everything in correctly, and still the problem persists. I have decided, rather than take my computer in for examination, to simply enter "303" manually every time I need to get on the 'Net or fax anything locally. Maybe this is a little like jiggling Jerry back into alignment to get his door shut, but can you blame me?

Two months ago I got billed $7000 for three phone calls to Chad that I never made. The IRS sent me a $600 bill recently after I failed to fill out a "reason" for an exemption on one line of a corporate quarterly tax return. I'd gotten a warning notice and had responded already, but "the computer" did not catch my response in time, and a nasty letter was generated. Likewise, an MCI bill that I paid a few days late has already generated two letters threatening disconnected service, although MCI's customer service department will tell me, every time I call, that my payment was received two weeks ago - in the case of the second nasty dun letter, fully one week before it was generated.

I heard on the radio yesterday that thousands of pieces of certified and registered mail were discovered languishing in a warehouse somewhere on the east coast. The Postal Service attributes this lapse to a "software error," but am I the only one asking myself whether, if the government can misroute thousands of pieces of mail because of a software error, it cannot also misroute a Cruise missile to an orphanage?

Looking back over my difficulties with Best Buy, I see something entirely curious. With the sole exception of Chris, who is an idiot and needs no further commentary, all the people I dealt with were solicitous and concerned. And yet my problem seemed to grow like some festering cancer, every time someone tried to help. Examining the matter more closely, we find that computer programs are only equipped to handle a small range of typically encountered problems. But in real life, problems can sometimes be complex. And they grow in complexity, according to some natural law, as one tries to solve them. The poor computer only offers the well-wisher a tiny range of options as he struggles to enter all the data pertinent to the problem. Naturally, there's a great deal more pertinent data for which there is no information field to complete. Is it any wonder that when we encounter problems with large computer-run organizations, whether they be companies or governmental institutions, we are foredoomed to a spiraling series of compounded errors, until some real person intervenes between the computer and the problem to resolve it?

We are in way, way over our heads with this computer business. We have machines that will do exactly what they are told to do, and hardly a person who knows how to tell them what to do in those million-and-one unpredictable cases that will surely arise, each one requiring a solution. The most exasperating thing about a computer is that it does exactly what it's told to do, just like a good Nazi.

And therein lies the danger.

If only computers were creatively disobedient, functionally impertinent, and benevolently headstrong, as only a good person can be, we wouldn't have to worry. But of course, it is not the computer's fault. After all, we made them. Given time, I suppose these difficulties will get ironed out. At the risk of sounding like a complete hick, I will say this: as someone who grew up at the tail end of the Industrial age and is having to adapt to the Age of Information, I find all this bewildering. In a matter of months, or maybe even only weeks or days, I will open my newspaper to read, once again, about some human being who bent berserk and killed fifteen or twenty people with a gun. To me, such events are not astonishing at all. They seem to be the inevitable outcome in a society where there is no ultimate appeal beyond the computer's (pre-programmed) decision, and as more and more of us come to rely on the computer's (pre-programmed) judgement of what should or should not be done, and less likely to exercise our own human sensibilities, a small percentage of situations are bound to become explosive.

Somewhere, there ought to be a master switch that would simply shut everything off, globally, in case things ever get totally out of hand.