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A Lesson In Cheap

It was like buying a $250 50cc ATV online only to get the thing and realize that the wheels aren’t in the box and the carburetor is in pieces.

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Despite knowing better, he gave into the siren’s call of the Mega-Mart when it came time to purchase a computer. He is now haunted by "Jessica."

Not good. "It’s $595 for the tower," my local computer guy said. The gleam in his eyes seemed all too familiar. Was it possible that he’d been killing me on the computer stuff all along? Perhaps he had been, and perhaps deep down, I was totally aware of it. But how would I know? Half of the work he did on site was stuff that I couldn’t pronounce, much less price-comparison shop. He could have been taking me to the cleaners for the past 10 years, and I’d be none the wiser.

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"You’ve got your old monitor, right? Because if you want a new one we can add an LCD for about two bills." Great, came the voice in my head, here we go. He knows damn well that your console-TV sized dinosaur-of-a-monitor is going out. He’s got you right where he wants you. This is where he starts adding other extras to the order, and before you know it, you’re gonna spend your kid’s entire college fund on one computer.

For months now I have been trying desperately to revive an old computer which had been retired from our parts department a couple of years back. We had replaced a total of 14 workstations, and of the old ones, I had salvaged 10 to donate to local schools. That was when I was politely told that they didn’t meet the minimum requirements needed — they were just too out-dated — so I’ve had a storage closet in the dealership stacked with dead towers ever since.

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My wife pointed out that my son could certainly benefit from one of the old computers. So I crawled beyond the dust-bunnies, and dug out one that I thought might be the better of the lot. After nearly $300 and several disappointing attempts at programming, I’d finally gone to the computer store to price a new system.

"Do you want to upgrade to the wireless mouse and keyboard? That’s another 60 bucks." His fingers were punching keys on his wireless keyboard like a woodpecker in a wood mill. In my mind, I could see the numbers on the monitor in front of him — a $200 LCD version no doubt — adding up like the lines on Bill Gate’s paystub. I remember thinking that we should take precautions to ensure that our customers didn’t feel this same pain in our F&I office.

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Computer Guy mumbled a few other things while I was lost in thought, thinking mostly about how many new units I’d have to sell to cover my kid’s computer. He seemed to ignore my non-response on each item and instead assumed the sale. Finally I was brought back to consciousness with the smelling salts of shock when he announced the total …

"Looks like we’re going to be in the neighborhood of nine hundred bucks," he said, so as-a-matter-of-factly that I nearly handed him my Master Card without thinking.

"I’m sorry … what?" was my reply. Even I couldn’t imagine that what my ears had heard was remotely correct.

"About nine hundred bucks," he repeated, starring from across the counter as though I was insane to question him.

"Nine hundr…" I broke-off. Feeling the numbers on my lips didn’t seem to shrink them any. "I want him to play Lightning McQueen’s Number Game, not launch a nuclear missile!" My reply seemed perfectly logical to me, but for some reason, Computer Guy looked concerned for my well being. He explained to me the importance of having a system that would grow with my child.

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I asked CG to save the quote — perhaps I’d kick it around a while. I left the computer store feeling as though I’d just been violated, but thankful that my wallet was still in my hip pocket.

Two weeks later, while picking up a ridiculous list of things that we didn’t need at the local Mega-Mart, (I won’t get into how much I hate "the list"), I happened upon a nice POP display of off-brand computer packages, nicely boxed, with a big smiley face sign boldly telling me that all of the contents were mine for a mere $498.

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Hmm. I stood with my shopping cart blocking half of the aisle and a blank stare on my face as my mind did some quick calculations … $900 versus $498. Certainly sounds like a good deal, let’s see here; compatibility with games, check; LCD monitor included, check; wireless keyboard, check; optical mouse, check; Windows Vista, whatever the hell that is, check — $900 minus $498 … uh … (using the handy calculator on the shopping cart’s handlebar), check. $402! Wow, that’s over a 55% savings! CHECK!

Without hesitation, I sprang to life. To anyone watching, (and aren’t they always watching you in the Mega-Mart?), I’m sure I looked like a robot that had run his batteries dry, then clicked on an emergency backup supply somewhere inside. I picked up the neatly packaged box and placed it into my cart. (My wife would later notice that the bread had been under the computer, rendering it back to dough — oops!).

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Happy to have saved so much money, I could hardly wait to extract the new computer from the box and set it up for my son. We noticed that the packages within the box seemed already to have been opened, but assumed that nothing was missing or broken during the hour-long assembly process. Plugging wires in, snapping bases into slot B, and then unplugging and re-plugging wires after actually reading the instructions finally brought us to the crescendo of our process. Turning the new machine on!

I could see the excitement on my young son’s face. While waiting for the new system to power up and run through it’s set-up cycle, he watched with huge bright eyes; the Lightning McQueen game CD already popped from it’s case and spinning on the finger of his left hand. Sheer suspense seemed to overwhelm him as the screen flickered through its first few displays, and finally, the Windows Vista logo bleeped out, and a login screen came up.

Wait … a login screen?

"Welcome back, Jessica. Please enter your password to continue," read the screen.

"Daddy, who is Jessica?" asked my son.

What the…? "Uh, I don’t know son." Someone has been here before, the voice in my head told me. Here you go, you did just what you preach against — buying some cheap piece of crap instead of going the route of the actual dealer, and now you’re on the verge of paying the price.

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Unfortunately, the voice in my head was right. How could I have been so stupid? It was like I had just bought a $250 50cc ATV online only to get the thing and realize that the wheels aren’t in the box and the carburetor is in pieces. I had given in to the demon of enticement; the low-priced Satan had come calling, and I had walked dazedly into his den without hesitation! I had dealt with the devil … his name is Jessica, and I had gotten burned!

Looking at the box, I found a myriad of brightly colored stickers proclaiming:

Trouble? Missing parts? Do not return to store! Contact us at (800) 555-5555.

Ah, they’ve had this problem before. Shocking. While my wife reached for the instructions, I decided to opt for the more masculine approach of attempting various ways to get around the login myself.

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Hmm, Jessica sounds like a young cheerleader’s name. I tried to crack the password to no avail. After a few dozen failed attempts to restart the machine, per my wife’s instruction, I picked up the phone and called Mega-Mart where an all-too-happy sounding voice greeted me on the other end of the line, "Thank you for calling Mega-Mart," she said.

"Is this Jessica?" I asked, my wife shooting me a look from the living room.

I explained the situation to the operator, and five minutes later I explained it to some girl with a thick accent in electronics; ten minutes after that I was again explaining to the store manager how the spirit of Jessica had possessed my new computer. He told me to bring it up and exchange it.

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A full 30 minutes later, I carried Jessica through the front doors of my local super center and made my way to the long line in front of the service counter. People before me, (20 minutes worth of people, as it turns out), were returning various items, and I found it somewhat entertaining to listen to the reasons given as each one stepped up for his or her turn to speak with the great and powerful Oz, (which in this case was a gray-haired old lady with a very weak hearing aid and a loud smoker’s cough).

When my turn came, I stepped up to the desk feeling a little ashamed at returning anything. After all, I know how it is when "those people" enter your store with the Mega-Center look on their faces and receipts in hand. Oz took one look at me, (I was now sweating from holding the weight of the computer box for 20 minutes), and asked in her loud, gruff voice, "That Jessica?" A rough, phlegm-filled laugh followed.

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"Yup, this is her," I replied with a fake chuckle. I remember thinking that small towns are wonderful. One phone call complaining about a dead cheerleader’s spirit haunting a computer, and the next thing you know, the whole damn community thinks you’re crazy.

A heavyset kid of about 19, (sweating more than I was), showed up wearing a blue vest with buttons on the front. He was carrying Jessica’s twin.

"You mind opening that?" I asked, looking doubtfully at the devilish carton containing what I feared was a further mistake. The kid shrugged his shoulders and displayed a box-cutter, the tip of which caught a slight gleam of light shining down from the overhead fluorescents, which might have blinded me had it been sunlight. As it was, however, the dim and discouraging twinkle of fluorescent light just seemed to suck a little more life out of me, lowering my IQ by about 20 points and making me wish I had never left Computer Guy two weeks ago.

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He sank the knife tip into the band of tape that held the big flaps together, and peeled back the lid to display a seemingly untouched, factory-packaged machine. It smiled back at me from its dark hibernation spot as though it was ready to play the Lightning McQueen game with my son. Looks can be deceiving, the voice in my head warned me. I ignored the voice, nodded my head and looked up at Oz behind the counter.

"This one’s name is Veronica," she said, followed with raspy laughter that triggered a vicious bout of the smoker’s cough that had plagued her continually.

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Yeah, hack it up grandma, the voice said. Everyone’s a damn comedian.

Granted, it’s not been that long since we brought the replacement computer home, but so far, so good. After the additional hour of setup, there has been no login screen for Jessica, Veronica or any of the other pep-squad members to slow the operation of my son’s new computer. But now that I’ve had the chance to put the numbers together, I really didn’t win after all. The $498 for the computer, the $300 I spent trying to salvage one from work before that, the three hours of my time setting up and returning computers … basically I’m right back at ole’ Computer Guy’s $900 mark.

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Aside from the money, I can also hear the loud ticking of the clock; the sound in my mind counting the seconds until Lightning McQueen and all of the other games either become stuck inside of a jammed CD tray or just stop working all together. I can foresee the disappointment and frustration on my son’s face when that day inevitably comes.

He’s likely to be discouraged and upset, not wanting to mess with stupid computers anymore. And when that happens, who will I call? Not Computer Guy for sure. Certainly not hack-a-lung Oz over at Mega-Mart, and I dread the thought of calling the 800-number on the stickers. Yep, I’m paying the price now in worry. Something that will haunt me every night, until the devil’s tail finally wags and Veronica breaks down.

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And why must we live through all of this turmoil? My mind’s voice taunts me. Because, son, your father danced with the devil and bought cheap … the same thing that he tells others not to do. Your dad is a hypocrite, and your computer is junk!

Perhaps it won’t always be that way, I tell that voice in my head. Perhaps now, things have changed. It seems that through this whole experience, I may have learned a valuable lesson. And to think, I cannot even thank the one person responsible for this great life lesson; the one to whom I owe a debt of gratitude so deep that I might never forget the penalties of buying el cheapo junk again. She’s out there, somewhere though … shaking her pom-poms and cheering for her boyfriend — probably the team’s quarterback at some Friday night game.

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Jessica, wherever you are … I love you.

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