Small Town Service

First place in 2018 non-fiction category of WWA’s Jade Ring Contest

Living in a small town is often romanticized, mostly by those who haven’t tried it. At first, newcomers are mesmerized by the peace and serenity. The sense of isolation comes later. Feelings of belonging take time to build and acceptance often arrives in unexpected ways. A memorable example for me involved an old TV and a rusty, battered microwave that was used in a most unusual way.

Our television, one of those old, box models, had to be played with a lot just to get it to turn on. My frugal husband wanted a full autopsy before dumping it. I agreed, reluctantly, to take one more shot at it.

I found a TV repair shop in the phone book. The only one listed. It was at the man’s home in a wooded area on the edge of town. On the phone, he gave me directions to his shop, saying to look for the microwave.

“You can’t miss it,” he’d said. And I didn’t. Actually I’m pretty sure the microwave doubled as both a mailbox and the sign advertising his business. A piece of cardboard with the fire number hand-printed in large letters filled its glass window.

An older man, he wore faded work pants, scratched up boots with tattered laces and a wrinkled baseball cap. He carried the TV in and placed it on the floor of his shop which was really a dark and musty garage. Looking it over, he perked up when he saw it was a Zenith.

“I’ve got some parts for those,” he said. That got my hopes up too.  He wrote my phone number on a crumpled notepad and placed it on top of a saw horse. After a week, assuming his sophisticated filing system had failed, I called.

He said he’d tried everything but the TV just wouldn’t respond. As though asking for permission, he said there were a couple of other things he wanted to try. He wondered if he could keep it a few more days. Who’d say no to that.

After another week, I called and got the grim news. Then he asked if I’d dispose of it myself since the local dump no longer let him bring in TV’s. I made my way once again to the microwave mailbox. With TV back in my car and ready to leave, I asked what I owed him.

“No, nothing,” he shook his head as he fumbled with indiscriminate metal parts scattered on his workbench. I was silent a minute, thinking that through.

“That doesn’t seem right to me,” I ventured.

“I don’t charge if I can’t fix it.” He sounded both matter-of-fact and certain.

“But I should at least pay for a service call. Don’t you think?”

“No. I don’t charge if I can’t fix it.”  We went back and forth a few more times. But his mind was made up. Not wanting to push any further, I said thanks and drove off to the dump where I paid a $5.00 disposal fee.

We went on with our life and bought a new 21st century TV. But my interaction with this man was still on my mind, still in my head.  I had to do something I reasoned, so I wrote a letter to the editor of the local once-a-week newspaper.

Letter to the Editor:
Last week I had an experience that may be common in small towns but, being a transplant from a big city, it made quite an impression on me. I’d taken my TV to a local repair shop. After trying very hard to fix it, the dealer said he couldn’t. I wasn’t surprised since it was a 1983 model. But what I didn’t expect was that he refused to let me pay him. I felt I should pay at least a service charge and told him so several times. But he was adamant. “I only charge if I fix it,” he said. So, let me pay him in another way. Thank you Howard D*** TV and Appliance Service of Eagle River. Thank you for your superior customer service and your work ethic, both which seem in shorter supply these days.

The day the paper was delivered, a co-worker came to my office. She thought my letter was neat and said the TV repair guy was her husband’s cousin.  He’s known as Butch, she informed me.

Later that day, my co-worker’s husband came by and commented on my letter. We had a nice time talking about his cousin, Butch. Butch and his dad shared the same first name, so that’s why the nickname. But Butch doesn’t like to be called that anymore, he added. After our conversation, Howard/Butch was someone I felt I knew pretty well.

Then a few days later, I saw an acquaintance at the grocery store; I’d never, ever gone to the grocery store without running into someone I knew.  She couldn’t say enough about how wonderful it was that I’d taken the time to write that letter about Howie.

“Howie is my uncle,” she said. “He was always good with electrical stuff, even as a kid. Vivian, his wife, she works here at the grocery. Yah, she usually does bagging. They are such nice people. And they had those three kids. Howie had a sister who had problems and they had it tough when he was growing up. So, that’s why it’s just so great you wrote that letter. He really deserves that and maybe this will bring him more business.”  Now I felt like I really knew Howard/Butch/Howie. But her final comment was the kicker.

“We don’t usually get that from city people.”  She cocked her head and gave me one of those knowing looks women give to women. Just for a moment I felt like I really belonged in this place where newcomers were treated with reserve and hesitation.

And that’s the thing about small towns. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody is related to everybody. And I know there’s an up-side and a down-side to that. But I also know it only takes a moment for a casual conversation to meander into a lengthy, historical record. And what you hear, as I did with Howie, is a lovingly told story of the meaningful and mundane details of someone’s life.

And these stories go on and on through time. So, years from now, maybe my name will come up over a cup of coffee at the local diner; perhaps someone will remember that nice woman who, though not from here, wrote that wonderful letter. And maybe they’ll begin to believe city people aren’t so bad after all.




2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Linda Dean
    Sep 23, 2018 @ 19:45:00

    Another great story of us small town people who aren’t so bad 😉



  2. Terri Walters
    Aug 03, 2019 @ 13:29:49

    Karin, I remember Patricia Lynn telling me that you won this award. It’s so great to be able to read your winning entry. Well-written and thoughtful, it brought me back to living and working in a hospital in a small town in Georgia many years ago. Not only was I from a “city”, I was a Yankee to boot. Everyone was pretty nice to me, considering. 🙂



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