Soundings

Clark Whelton
Lost in Krappetown
The lonely battle for American-made appliances that work
Autumn 2011

Mr. Consumer’s five-year-old brand-name refrigerator has just stopped working. Mr. Consumer—a guy who looks a lot like me—is standing and staring in disbelief at the dead appliance. From his stunned appearance, one might easily assume that the poor fellow is in shock. What could have triggered such a reaction? Let’s go back in time and see if we can discover the cause of the problem.

It is seven years earlier, and Mr. Cee, as we’ll call him, is shopping for a vacuum cleaner. At a hefty price, he buys a major brand from a major retailer. He congratulates himself on strengthening the domestic economy by selecting an American-made product, something he always tries to do. The vacuum works reasonably well for six months. Then a plastic part shatters. The warranty remains in effect, however, and the company makes repairs. But then another part goes bad, and another. Accepting that he’s made an unfortunate choice, Mr. Cee buys a different American-made brand from another store.

Vacuum Two lasts a year. At this point, Mr. Cee is slowly coming to realize that today’s plastic vacuum cleaners have nothing in common with his grandmother’s indestructible Electrolux model—a.k.a. “the tank”—which was made of a miracle substance called “metal.”

However, Mr. Cee is too busy to brood about the decline of American enterprise. He’s hunting bigger game. Mrs. Cee wants a new refrigerator. Product ratings are reviewed, stores visited, salespeople consulted. Mrs. Cee’s choice is a bottom-freezer Big-A, which the Cees remember as a reliable brand made in America. It comes with bells, whistles, and—like every other fridge on the market—a one-year warranty. Mrs. Cee wants the extended warranty, too. Mr. Cee reminds her that consumer advocates don’t recommend such warranties because they can end up costing more than a replacement. Mrs. Cee replies: “If Big-A doesn’t think its products will last more than a year, why should we?” She gets the extended warranty. The Cees like their new fridge—so much that they buy the same brand, model, and warranty for their place in the country.

Mr. Cee now uses his shopping skills to search for a new laptop. After due diligence and selecting only from a list of what he believes to be American-made computers, Mr. Cee chooses a well-known brand. What makes this new computer especially attractive is that it doesn’t come with that old-fashioned, user-friendly, easy-to-operate Windows XP. It comes with the brand-new Windows Vista! Mr. Cee is delighted to be on the cutting edge of advanced technology.

The third time he turns the laptop on, it freezes and stays frozen for 20 minutes before booting up, slowly and grudgingly. Mr. Cee phones Sanjay in Mumbai, who takes remote control of Mr. Cee’s computer. Sanjay clicks and clicks again. The next time Mr. Cee boots his laptop, it freezes for 25 minutes. Eventually, thanks to hard work and expertise from charming techies, freeze time is once again reduced to 20 minutes.

Mr. Cee is miffed, but the freeze problem doesn’t hold a candle to the infuriating eccentricities of Windows Vista. Mr. Cee is consoled by fantasy: down in the cellars of Microsoft, Bill Gates is personally waterboarding the guy who dreamed up this operating system. Eventually, Mr. Cee gives his Vista laptop to his son-in-law, a computer whiz, who buys new parts and software. After many hours of tinkering, it still doesn’t work right.

No time to dwell on yesterday’s troubles, however. It’s a rainy New Year’s Eve, and not even inclement weather can dampen the spirits of Mr. and Mrs. Cee as they stroll east on 87th Street. Mr. Cee is glad he’s wearing his new walking shoes with comfy rubber soles and leather uppers, made by the folks at New Balance. As the Cees approach Third Avenue, Mr. Cee is not glad to feel moisture on his socks. Could that strange sensation be wet concrete? He looks down. Crumbs of comfy rubber dot the sidewalk. The soles of his shoes, which he has worn only three or four times, are disintegrating.

Sole-free shoes on New Year’s Eve? Mr. Cee doesn’t fret about such trifles. Besides, he’s now focused on a larger annoyance: the Big-A refrigerator in his apartment has stopped working. The extended warranty is invoked, and a repairman appears. “This thing is only three and a half years old,” Mr. Cee says, his voice perilously close to a whine.

“You need a new compressor,” the repairman replies.

Mr. Cee explains that his mother’s avocado-green GE ran for 25 years without losing its cool. Deep in the archives of American refrigeration, Mr. Cee believes, the mechanical wisdom of the ages surely survives. Somewhere, somebody must know how to make a reliable fridge.

“It’s krappe,” the repairman says. The word he actually uses is spelled differently.

“What is?”

“Everything. It’s all Krappetown. The stores are filled with junk. My underwear and socks used to last five years. Now, it’s a year. The elastic turns to mush. You know those curly lightbulbs that are supposed to last seven years? Two of them burned out last month. Didn’t last two years. Sign here. The compressor should arrive in a couple of weeks.”

Mr. Cee is the tiniest bit shaken by his unexpected trip to Krappetown. A month later, he shows definite signs of anger when the sliding rack on his new toaster oven stops sliding. However, he carries on shopping and buys a highly rated, major-brand desktop computer, which he likes so well that he buys a laptop of the same brand, too. All the while, he keeps a wary eye on his country Big-A, which continues to chill. Until May, that is, when the country fridge celebrates its fifth anniversary by quietly dying.

Extended warranty to the rescue! A repairman arrives in three days and replaces a burned-out circuit board. Mr. Cee resists mentioning his mother’s avocado-green GE and counts himself fortunate that the damage wasn’t worse, an act of hubris that apparently provokes his new desktop computer into flashing a warning: the hard drive needs replacing.

“I’ve only had it ten months!” Mr. Cee wails. The computer repair guy, who was born in India, sighs deeply and says, “At least it’s still under warranty.”

“What happened?”

“Well, these computers, they are all . . . krappe. They don’t last. I don’t know why, but they don’t. I am installing a new hard drive. You mustn’t blame yourself.”

Mr. Cee does blame himself. He’s afraid he lacks consumer smarts. He fears getting stuck in Krappetown, a fear that turns real when the screen on his new laptop goes dark. A call to Mumbai gets the screen relit, but it is then—when Mr. Cee is engaged in a desperate struggle against consumer shell shock—that the country refrigerator breaks down again.

And so, in the heat of August, we find Mr. Consumer staring numbly at his broken fridge. At long last, he has reached his limit. He cries on a neighbor’s shoulder. The neighbor tops Mr. Cee’s tale of woe with one of his own. His new washer-dryer combo lasted 11 months.

Mr. Cee gives up. He’s ready to live by Krappetown rules. He’s ready to do what the monarchs of Krappetown expect. He’s ready to buy a new refrigerator. Mrs. Cee, however, will have none of it. The extended warranty is still in effect. She is determined to wrestle the Big-A Corporation to the ground and make it fix the fridge. Mr. Cee cowers in the next room as Mrs. Cee dials Benton Harbor, Michigan, and angrily accuses a refrigerator executive of sabotaging the American economy.

Eventually, a repairman shows up. He diagnoses total system failure and confesses that this particular model is “seriously flawed.” It seems that a coolant line runs through the evaporator pan, which causes the line to corrode. It will take “a while” to get parts. Meantime, the Cees buy a red plastic picnic cooler and ice.

Days become weeks. Ice bills accumulate.

Not until mid-September does a repairman show up with $600 worth of replacement parts, made in Brazil. The Big-A stirs to life. Somewhere in central New York, an ice company lays off workers.

Mr. Cee’s appliance has recovered, but Mr. Cee has not. Marooned in Krappetown, he tiptoes through the kitchen, fearful of irritating his refrigerator. He wonders if he’s foolish for buying American. He wonders if extended warranties are a scam, a way of getting people to pay for repairs in advance. He is reluctant to trade in his old but reliable car, afraid the new models are krappe. He worries that turning his computers on will stress them to the breaking point. When he gingerly goes online, he cruises the endless list of product-complaint pages, where screams from swindled consumers echo across the Internet.

And he catches himself daydreaming about his grandmother’s American Beauty toaster. Wherever it is, he’s sure it’s still working.

Clark Whelton was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

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