Waiting for Mister Fix-It

The latest touchstone for social skills is not, can you get Jackie Onassis to come to your party but can you get a repairman to come to your house? Anym repairman.

You must not, of course, expect him to fix whatever he is supposed to repair. Some dreams are excessive, even for dreams.

The fact that he comes -- actually comes through your front door (at the usual entry fee of $20) -- puts you in an elite class, way ahead of the rest of us, who consider ourselves winners when we get a recorded voice from the plumber's answering service.

A few years ago the futurologists all told us we were leaving behind the Age of Production and entering the Age of Service -- which shows how much futurologists know.

With no social skills at all, you can go out and buy an automobile (with 10 options as standard), or a totally automatic television set that practically watches itself, or a multicycle dishwasher that will do everything except play "Annie Laurie." But can you get anybody to service them?

True. All the sales rooms have a sign that reads "Service Is Our Business." The salesman who sells you your appliance will also sell you a "service contract." And when you find that whatever goes wrong is not covered by the contract, there's this department back at headquarters called Customer Relations that will write you marvelous personal letters until its computer self-destructs. The idea is that, from the president of the company on down, nobody can sleep until your Lit- tle Problem is resolved.

You can get service from the public relations people 24 hours a day. But where's the repairman?

Well, we're all thumbs -- and besides, we just lost our only Phillips screwdriver. But what we can do is help put the Great Repair Crisis in a little perspective.

Once upon a time every townhad a shabby little hole-in-the-wall shop with a crudely lettered sign over the door: Mister Fix-It. You could barely get in the door because of all the unsorted spare parts for toasters, radios, and a couple of Model T Fords heaped there. What you did was to call up Mister Fix-It and let him crawl through all that useful debris to his phone. Mister Fix-It would ask you which of your veteran appliances had failed and "what seems to be the trouble."

No matter what your answer, he would show up on your doorstep within the hour with a pair of old pliers, a screwdriver with a gouged handle, and a small can of oil. He would disappear into your basement, or wherever. Within a half hour he would pop up to report that everything was "as good as new." He never knew what to charge -- that was clearly the tough part of the job. He would roll his eyes at the kitchen ceiling and say, "Oh, let's make it . . . ." A ridiculously small sum followed.

There are three quaint details to notice here:

1. Appliances tended to break down in the old days because of age and long usage.

2. It was a lot cheaper to repair them than to replace them.

3. When something was fixed, it was really fixed.

One hardly needs to emphasize that none of these rules applies today. It's not quite fair to say that the newer the equipment, the more likely it is to break down. But we do have some sad examples: the helicopters in the Iranian desert; the cracked-frame buses on the streets of New York.

Murphy's law of appliances reads that the more things there are to go wrong, the better the chance that somethingm will go wrong. And the repairman -- if he ever shows up -- will appear with an oscilloscope. Not to worry -- he'll have to take your whatchamacallit back to the diagnostic computer in the shop anyway.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Digital Equipment has an 800 number. A customer's ailing computer can dial in, and the home-office computer will ask, as it were, "What seems to be the trouble?" and then make a long-distance diagnosis. Obviously our best hope in this misnamed age of Service is that our ever more complex machines will be able to fix themselves.

In effect, the world will become one great self-repairing robot, and we can go back to reading science fiction or maybe one of those home-repair-made- easy manuals. And we ask you: Is there a difference?

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