Thursday, June 14, 2012

“Flat Tire Encounter”

c. 2012 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: Friends of this newspaper have frequently heard me observe that the best columns seem to be inspired by everyday events. What follows here is a recent example of this phenomenon – an unexpected encounter that reminded me of the true value of human kindness.

On Monday, I paused in the vast parking lot of a local retail megacenter that operates in Chardon. My schedule had been full since morning, when a repairman visited to work on our home air conditioner. After running errands around the county, my cell phone was full of messages. So I decided to park somewhere out of the traffic stream, and catch up on personal business.

The day was seasonably comfortable and bright. Echoes of Ray Davies singing ‘Sunny Afternoon’ lingered in the air. After a few restful moments spent reading texts, my mood had mellowed. Worry over unfinished chores evaporated.

I paid little attention when a white Pontiac Sunfire pulled in next to my truck. It carried plates from the state of Michigan.

Surprise had me wide awake, when the driver circled to my open window. She was a young, brown-haired woman in colorful ‘hippie’ attire. Her plea broke the lazy silence. “Umm… could you help me change a tire?”

My eyes widened. “Well, of course. Just passing through town?”

She wore handmade jewelry around her neck, wrists, and feet. “I drove here to do wedding photos for a friend. But my front tire came apart. It makes no sense… usually there is a whump-whump-whump sound before that happens. But today, no whump.”

I tried not to laugh at her description.

“Metal string thingies were sticking out of the tire,” she continued. Her long hemp skirt billowed in the wind.

“Ah,” I said. “You broke the steel belt inside.”

“I went to the auto center to buy a new one,” she explained, gesturing toward the gigantic retailer. “They argued about what size I needed for this vehicle. Apparently one profile for the front, and a different one for the back. Finally, the mechanic mounted a new tire on my rim, but refused to put it on the car. Then, they made me leave. So here I am.”

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. “They… made you leave?”

“I even called my favorite shop back in Michigan, which is Discount Tire,” she said. “They confirmed that my purchase was correct. But the mechanic here refused to finish.”

“That doesn’t even sound possible,” I exclaimed.

“So there’s my story,” she repeated with fatigue. “Can you help?”

There were no tools in my truck. But she had already found the jack and lug wrench that came with her car. It would be a simple task.

“You are the only cool person I’ve met today,” she fretted, as I began to work.
Soon, my forehead was covered in sweat. But a gentle breeze offered comfort. I hoisted her car in the air, and pulled off the old rim.

“Did you tell the megacenter mechanic about being stranded, so far from home?” I wondered aloud.

“Yes,” she replied. “He didn’t seem to care.”

I shook my head. “This is funny, because I am actually a retail manager…”

She smiled with disbelief. “Really?”

“You just visited one of my main competitors,” I laughed.

Her lip curled. “Hmm. How ironic!”

“Customer service is the most important product that my store provides,” I reflected. “More important than bread, milk, or fresh produce. Every day brings new situations. My goal is always the same - to send shoppers out the door with a sense of satisfaction.”

The young woman twirled her plastic hubcap. “All I wanted was a soy latte. That’s why I stopped here in the middle of nowhere.”

Tire black covered my fingers as the new wheel went in place. “Well, I’m sorry that your welcome to town wasn’t so friendly.”

“But you have been good to help,” she said. “I appreciate it.”

“The treatment you received is still puzzling,” I mused. “Was the megacenter mechanic concerned about company liability?”

“No clue,” she responded.

“Mounting the tire on your rim would seem to make his store responsible in some way,” I said. “Why not just finish the repair? Or have someone help since you were in a desperate situation?”

“He wanted me to leave,” she observed. “After he took my money.”

“Service after the sale,” I exclaimed. “Another important component of doing business with the public. It’s not enough to see someone today… I want them back in my store, again and again and again.”

She nodded in agreement. “I like the way you think.”

Once the job had been finished, I picked up her old tire and the lug wrench.

“Did you want this back in your trunk?” I asked.

She giggled with guilt. “Nope. There’s no room. Getting it out was a chore. Just put it in the back seat.” Inside was an assortment of clothing, bags and boxes. Her tire ended up against the rear window.

Suddenly, she offered her hand.

“Your name?” she asked, directly.

“Rod,” I whispered.

“I’m Danielle,” she said with gratitude. “Thank you.”

“Good luck,” I grinned. “And welcome to Geauga County.”

After she drove away, I sat in silence.

Now it was time to go home to the Icehouse office… and write!

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