Wednesday, February 11 2004
Some days ago I received a call from a prospective client who wanted to have networking done in his house. Gretchen was the one who answered the call and I could tell from the look on her face as she handed me the phone that she had already determined that he was a lunatic. There was a beep from some piece of equipment as I took the receiver and the first thing out of this guy's mouth was, "What, so you record your calls?" And I replied, "I'm just answering the phone, sir." The guy (let's call him Ted) had a gravely Bronx accent and must have been terribly out of shape because at one point he climbed the stairs to look for something and I could hear him breathing very heavily as a result. Ted's most obvious problem was a maddening communication handicap. I'd ask him some specific question about his computers or his internet provider and his response was always at least two minutes long, usually the same rambling story he'd given in answer to an earlier question. Occasionally there'd be new tangents, such as when Ted mentioned that he had a huge catalog of exclusive Bob Dylan and the Band video footage that he's looking to sell. For Ted, the main goal of conversation was to maintain a perpetual state of filibuster. Words for him didn't seem to have any special meaning per se, they were just handy things to utter so as to maintain the floor. I knew this guy would be trouble, so I quoted him a figure I thought his penny-pinching predilections would find excessive. But damned if he didn't book me anyway. I had the feeling from some of the things he said that I'd been more patient with him than other tradespeople had been, so I guess I'd sort of fucked up.
I went out to the Ted's place today. He lived off a small side street in downtown Woodstock. When I knocked on his door he was entering the end game in the preparation of his chicken dinner. The first words out of his mouth were "Better early than late" as he pointed at his watch. I was four minutes early.
As expected, he was an enormously fat man with grisled grey hair and a beard. Less expected was the presence of a pretty late-forty-something wife lurking like a ghost in the background. Even before she spoke I wondered if she'd been purchased on eBay.ru. Then she did speak. She was definitely a mailorder bride.
The house was full of the sort of clutter that comes from thirty years spent living in the same place. Half-full ashtrays were everywhere. (This was the first house I'd visited professionally where people obviously smoked indoors.)
The computers were all upstairs, starting with a Sony Vaio in a bedroom featuring a prominent television that was on but muted. Ted had told me that all his computers had wireless cards, but that wasn't true. He'd bought expensive equipment and, possibly due to his severe conversational handicaps, had assumed that they'd come with wireless technology. Imagining a guy like Ted trying to articulate his needs to a slick-tongued salesman at Best Buy sends shivers down my spine.
Actually, though, there were two wireless devices that had been left behind by RoadRunner in the aftermath of some aborted earlier installation. Neither of these worked with the Macintosh iBook, which Ted initially insisted had come equipped with AirPort (it hadn't). Not to worry, I decided to put the wireless hub (which I'd brought) beside the iBook and then connect to the other two computers wirelessly. The network seemed to be functioning just fine at first, but I noticed something was odd about the cable connection. It wasn't providing your standard TCP/IP internet connection. I couldn't just jack in and go to Google.com, as one can do with something like RoadRunner. No, to use this cable connection, you had to fire up AOL on your computer and log in with a valid AOL account. Only then do you get a proper TCP/IP connection. This is apparently what "AOL for Broadband" means. I've been seeing the annoying little icon cluttering up desktops for months now, and now I know it's just a more restrictive form of cable internet.
What screwed up this housecall was the discovery that the AOL for Broadband client program hasn't been released for Macintosh yet. Without it, the Macintosh couldn't use the shared internet resources provided by the wireless router. It had to either continue using dial-up, or else depend on some fancy proxy arrangement, a suggestion made by the tech support guy I finally had to talk to. (He was in India, though his phone link had surprisingly little latency, despite its choppy digital-compression artifacts.)
The experience of Ted intermediating the tech support calls would have been hilarious had I not been on my second headache-filled day of caffeine withdrawal and had my esophagus not been waltzing Matlida in my chest. Ted would call some 800 number from among an unlabeled list written on a scrap of paper and immediately start telling his whole life story without bothering to find out whom he'd actually called. One of these calls was to KOSCO, a local supplier of heating oil. I can't tell you how much time we wasted this way, but it was driving me mad. Eventually I started interrupting Ted early in his oratorical barrages just to obtain the facts important to me. Unlike Ted, I am capable of formulating a question comprised of a single sentence that contains no references to my medical problems. Here's an example: "Does AOL for Broadband work on Windows 98?"
After talking to the one guy who knew something, that tech support guy in India, I knew that setting up Ted's network would be impossible. There was no way in hell Ted was going to be able to support his own proxy network (I have enough trouble maintaining my own, and I'm an expert). What Ted really needed was AOL piggy-backing on top of a general RoadRunner account, but the problem with that setup is that it allows only one AOL client to be running at a time. Smart people, people who know how to double click on that blue e that contains the internet, are usually able to get by with such an arrangement, because there's no limit to the number of web browsers you can open on a proper RoadRunner connection. Ted didn't want to go that route because it was unfamiliar to him. For example, he had no idea how to examine his stock portfolio without firing up an AOL client. Worse yet, he had no interest in learning how. This is a form of infantilism I commonly find among AOL people. I've seen it demonstrated by old folks, fading middle-aged trophy wives, and spoiled teenagers alike.
Ted refused to believe me when I told him AOL for Broadband wasn't going to work on his Macintosh. Some days ago he'd talked to a tech support salesguy who had assured him that it would definitely work. Though Ted had misplaced the guy's name and number, he had a lot of faith in him, whoever he was. It sounded to me like that mystery tech support guy hailed from the same school as the person who had sold Ted his AirPort-free iBook. But nothing I said mattered. I was wrong and that the Indian guy we'd talked to today was wrong too.
By now my caffeine withdrawal and esophageal dance had been joined by a drastic dip in my blood sugar. I was getting cranky, and I had no desire to spend one more minute breathing the second hand smoke from Ted's (and Ted's wife's) ashtrays. I told Ted that his networking dreams were a lost cause, that he was asking for something that couldn't be done, and that now I had to go.
This was when the issue of how much I should be paid came up. At first (based on something he said) I got the feeling Ted wasn't going to pay me anything all, and I started tearing the cords off the installed equipment in disgust, saying that I couldn't leave equipment behind unless it was paid for. Ted suggested maybe I could come back some other time and try again, and I said something like, "Look, it can't be done. Get used to it! You're asking for a miracle and it cannot be done!"
In the end that asshole only wrote me a check for $35.
He did assure me that his check wouldn't bounce - but that sort of assurance is only made by the kind of people who immediately stop payment on checks after they write them.
What with his communication handicap and selective memory, Ted seemed to have misunderstood the price I'd quoted him as a firm price for a guaranteed job done. Since the job wasn't "done," he didn't really think I should be paid at all, but he was willing to "split the difference" in some way. His notion of the financial needs of tradespeople seemed antiquated; I ended up earning a salary of about ten dollars an hour for the time I was there. Suffice it to say, I didn't react well to this final indignity, but my cursing and bustling about was also tinged by the joy of finally being able to leave. All pretense of professionalism had vanished. I never wanted to see Ted again, and I didn't want him to recommend me to anyone who would be his friend.
Back at home, I told Gretchen about today's housecall, my most miserable so far. I was feeling philosophical about it. I've been pretty lucky; this was the first time I'd ever had the slightest bit of trouble with getting a client to pay. I'm so glad I didn't waste my caffeine withdrawal crankiness on anyone else.
Later, while we were watching teevee, the phone rang and the answering machine eventually answered. It was Ted's whiskey voice calling me to complain further about my unprofessional visit. That was the first of three calls, followed by an email. [I found corresponding with Ted via email to be an unexpectedly entertaining diversion. I've posted the exchange online.]
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