Willie, the helpful PC haberdasher: a cautionary tale

IF anything can replace the chaos of modern life with efficiency, it is computers. They have enabled me to balance a checkbook and, moreover, actually reconcile a bank statement. But I do feel the computer at Joe's Men's Shop has it in for me. When Joe purchased his computer I was quite happy for him. His one employee had retired. Joe needed an assistant. ``Newton maintains inventory,'' Joe boasted, ``keeps books, designs ads, mails statements, practically runs - ''

``Newton?'' I intruded. ``As in ... Sir Isaac?''

``That's what I named it. An Apple computer, see?'' said Joe, laughing at his own cleverness while beaming over his prodigy.

``Why not William Tell?'' I replied. Joe liked that even better. The name stuck. I suspect Willie, a.k.a. Newton, has resented me ever since. Without intending offense, I had neglected to consider that most anyone would prefer to be associated with a great scientist than with a guy whose claim to fame is that he shot an arrow through an apple. This is especially true if you happen to be an Apple computer.

Recently, Mr. Tell had his revenge.

Joe telephoned me at the office and suggested I stop by the store on my way home. His nephew, who is studying computer science at college, had written a new program for Willie.

Just inside the store entrance an exceptionally good-looking mannequin equally attired, a sort of Wall Street Adonis, pointed toward a podium atop the tie case where the enthroned Willie flashed, ``Hello, I am William Tell, your PC Haberdasher. Joe is busy with alterations right now. May I help outfit you? Press SPACE BAR.''

Glancing about to make certain no one was watching, I stepped forward and pressed the key. Willie scrolled a list of clothing from formal wear to pajamas and asked me to select a category. I requested ``9. Pajamas.''

``Before making a recommendation,'' stated Willie, ``may I ask a few personal questions? Is your hair: 1.Blond 2.Black 3.Brown 4.Red 5.Other.'' 3, I answered truthfully.

``Are you: 1.Tall 2.Medium 3.Short.'' That query deserved a 2 and, when a customer wandered into the store, gazing my direction, a P.S. typed surreptitiously on Willie's keyboard: ``How personal are you going to get?''

``Is your skin tone: 1.Dark 2.Light 3.Other.''

``Mildly freckled, if you must know,'' I typed, ``although when conversing with inquisitive computers it may gravitate between pale and ashen.''

Willie whirred his disk drives a moment, then replied: ``Invalid answer. Reenter, please.''

The customer wandered over. Willie flashed indignantly and demanded ``SKIN TONE, PLEASE.'' The customer looked me straight in the eye, mumbled, ``Joe's business will go to pot if he puts in arcade games; tell him I said so,'' and walked out.

Impatient by now, Willie spelled out SKIN TONE in Old English script. I hit ``3.Other.'' For a moment, the screen went blank. Then, Willie proudly flashed: ``Your PC Haberdasher has analyzed your data and is ready to make a recommendation.'' Willie spun his disks, impersonating a wizened bagpipe, then displayed: ``Your PC Haberdasher recommends the following fashions: 1.Yellow tie, case below. 2.Maroon shirt, shelves to your left. 3.Navy walking shorts, bargain table, rear of store. 4.White panama hat, window display - Thank you for allowing me to assist you with your shopping.''

``What!'' I shouted. ``You wouldn't catch me dead, much less in bed, in that regalia!'' I turned to leave with the full force of prideful indignation and, avoiding collision with a lady who had just entered the store, bumped right toes against left heel. I grabbed for something to forestall the effect of Newton's gravity, then lunged to the floor wrestling the handsome pin-striped mannequin.

The lady took one look at Cyclops Willie winking at her from the tie case, took one look at the debonair mannequin pinning me to the mat, and fled. The commotion brought Joe scurrying out of the alterations room in back calling, ``Something wrong?''

``My condolences, Joe,'' I said, righting Adonis, whose perfect plaster nose after our tussle resembled a hard-boiled egg at the bottom of a dropped lunch sack, ``but the consensus seems to be it's not too late for your nephew to major in archaeology, even phys. ed.''

Only desperation - namely, 13 holes in five pairs of socks - drove me back to Joe's Men's Shop a few weeks later. Willie was gone. So was the pin-striped wrestler. A woman behind the tie counter welcomed me with a smile and introduced herself as Joe's wife.

``If you're looking for William Tell, I've relegated it to the stockroom. I said that's where the thing belonged all along. It loves to work, but Joe wants to play with it. Great at numbers when it's properly programmed but lacking in feeling for the finer points of customer relations. What can I do for you?''

``Not a thing, ma'am, that you haven't had the good sense to do already,'' I was delighted to tell her. ``But you may show me socks, if you want.''

``Happy to,'' she said.

In this computerized world, nothing can replace common sense.

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