Date of publication: December 25, 1999
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"Editors want everything to fall into a neat little box, and your stuff doesn't do that. You don't write merely about technology, you write about what technology means to us and how it has changed us. I like it." -- John Boxmeyer, St. Paul
Butch's boot nudged me from my nap. I was on my cot at the Ramsey County Workhouse in Saint Paul. Butch, a check-kiter and my cellmate, was finishing the O Henry! bar the jail gave every trustee as a Christmas treat.
"Hey," I said, "that's my O Henry!"
Butch eyed me hungrily. "That all you got?"
So OK, it wasn't the best Christmas, thanks to Burlington Coat Factory. It all began in early December, when I bought my son and me new winter coats at their Robert Street store in West Saint Paul. His, marked down from $129 to $49, was black. Mine, marked down from $239 to $79 was green. Problem was, when I put it on at home, a button sprang from its proper place and rolled across my kitchen floor.
So I returned with receipt, coat, and detached button.
"I'd like to return this coat," I told the woman at the counter.
"Just pick out one you like," she said, "and I'll ring it up."
"But I want to return it for a refund," I said. "I don't want another coat whose buttons will pop off."
"We don't issue refunds," the woman said. "Only exchanges."
I asked to meet the manager and in a moment he shuffled over. Though he was not old, he walked with a bent-over, trollish gait. "And how can I help you," he said, with an odd smile, as if he knew what was coming, and was looking forward to it.
His name badge said Mr. Krause. And I noticed something else, something very odd. When he spoke to me, he looked at the clerk behind the counter, as if they had a bet on the conversation's outcome.
"I bought this coat, and the button flew off. I want to return it for a refund."
Mr. Krause smiled a slow, pleasurable smile. "We don't issue refunds," he said.
I was nonplussed. "Why didn't you inform me of that when I bought it?"
He pointed behind me. Sure enough, a sign on the wall explained the store's no-refunds policy.
"But that sign is posted after the cash register," I said. "For it to be helpful to customers, you should post it on the door leading into the store. I had no idea you had this policy.
"And it's an awful policy," I added. "Everyone refunds money - Sam's Club, Kmart, the scum of the retail earth. Even they know you can't mess with customers and retain them."
"You are saying, in effect, 'Once we have your money, there's no way you can get it back.' It's a form of entrapment. How can you 'satisfy customers' when you deliberately force them over a barrel?"
"It's how we provide top quality apparel at low-cost," said Krause, his eyes jiggling with mirth.
"Baloney," I said. "You just mark up the price tags and then charge what you would have charged anyway. And what's so top quality about this button?" I asked, holding it up.
A small group of customers gathered to see what the commotion was. I turned to them. "Do you folks understand that if you don't like what you buy here, they won't give you a refund?" A few of them turned away from me, as if I was unclean, to be publicly protesting mistreatment.
"Sir," Krause said, "if you persist in bothering customers, I will call the police and have you removed. Is that what you want?"
Well, I was P-O'ed. "Yes, call the police," I said. "Have them resolve this. I'd love them to hear my side of the story, and show the shoppers here how you treat paying customers. You take their money, then you have them arrested. Class!"
"Very well," he said, and I knew I was in trouble when he called the dispatcher by his first name, "Eddy."
By the time the policeman, Officer Dale, a reasonable person, arrived, I had calmed down. But I was still screwed.
"Your complaint with the store is a civil case," Officer Dale explained. "But your being here without permission is trespassing, a criminal case. So you have to leave peacefully, or I have to take you in."
And that was how I wound up here, in the Ramsey County Workhouse on Christmas Day, with Butch, and the O Henry! Bars.
Just then the jailer came by, bobbing oddly, keys jangling. I recognized that bob.
"Hey, you," I called out, and he whirled round and revealed himself. Not just as Krause, store manager of the West Sant Paul Burlington Coat factory, but as the red-faced Lord of Darkness himself, flames licking the air around him, the smell of sulfur filling the corridor, and his devil's eyes lolling in that weird, pleased way.
"Spirit!" I cried - "say it isn't so!" And I threw myself on my bunk, and the room began to spun. I was tumbling headlong into some sort of spiraling vortex.
I heard a voice say, "So what's your decision?"
And when I looked up, it was Officer Dale. I was back in the Burlington Coat Factory, in Wedst Saint Paul. It was all a dream, or something. I wasn't Butch's bitch any more!
"I'll take an exchange!" I said, and shook the policeman's hand. I could have hugged him. "I'll get this huge orange parka! And I'll get these argyle socks. And some underwear. Lots and lots of underwear!"
I took out my checkbook and wrote the woman at the counter an even larger one than before.
The other shoppers looked at me as if I were mad. And who's to say I wasn't?
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Krause!" I cried, and saw him turn away and scowl. "Merry Christmas everybody!"
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