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Standing in the ‘hood with a pile of small bills

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As a friend recently put it, I get a little impatient with life’s hiccoughs. And sometimes my extra human efforts to smooth out the bumps in the road actually make them worse. Which explains how I ended up in a parking lot in East Palo Alto with $2,500 in small bills in my purse.

A few weeks back on a Saturday night I realized my refrigerator was broken. There has been a mini epidemic of refrigerator death among my neighbors and family recently, so this was not a wholly unanticipated event. But it is still just the kind of domestic chaos I abhor.

I knew from the friends and family that it takes about a week to get a new fridge. I was bound and determined to do better than that. I could compromise on the model a bit; I can be flexible about the delivery time since I work at home. But I’m not going to live eating out of an ice chest for 10 days. That’s practically camping! I don’t camp.

Along with Google and LinkedIn, Mountain View is blessed with a long-time local appliance dealer called Meyers. I think they have the specs for every house in the City on file – they certainly have mine. They know what will fit, they know what load your house can carry, and they know if you need a new circuit. Unfortunately, they aren’t open on Sunday, and my fridge gave out on a Saturday night.

To increase my odds of getting the new appliance in less than a week, I concluded that the best plan was to go to Home Depot first thing Sunday. I knew from the neighbor’s recent experience that a GE Profile or Café French door model is the largest counter-depth fridge that will fit in my cabinet. Home Depot’s helpful website said that it could be delivered the coming Wednesday. I was smug. Between my wine cooler cranked up to high and bits of space in my neighbor’s freezers, I could make it until Wednesday.

Home Depot is in East Palo Alto. If you aren’t from the Bay Area, you may think I mean the East side of Palo Alto. I don’t. East Palo Alto is a town across the freeway from Palo Alto that has considerably less charm and affluence than its namesake. It threatens to gentrify whenever housing prices peak, but it is still not a place where I would venture after dark.

Things did not go smoothly for me at the store. They didn’t have either of the models I was considering on the floor. The sales associate did not share my sense of urgency about spoiling food, and she made it clear she would rather be preparing for a customer appointment in 20 minutes than dealing with me. After some snarling from me, she grudgingly wrote the order to be delivered the coming Wednesday. But just as she is finishing up she says the computer is now offering a Tuesday delivery date.

Tuesday is better than Wednesday. I take heart that this is working out better than I hoped. She finalized the order with the Tuesday delivery and rushes me off to pay so she can move on to her appointment.

Back home I review the delivery instructions. The delivery date is Tuesday, but a Tuesday four weeks off. I’m livid. I’d ventured to a big box store in a seedy neighborhood with a surly sales associate, and now I have to wait a month! I call Home Depot – not that easy. After a few tries, and a few angry messages on ‘Gwen’s’ voicemail in customer service, I get through to Hector, the store manager.

Hector and I hem and haw about the sanctity of the delivery date (at every step of the process they were clear that the delivery date is set in stone at the time of purchase). We decide the solution is to cancel the sale and process a new purchase with the Wednesday delivery date. He sets customer service on this mission since I refused to deal with the sales associate again.

Monday morning I hear from Gwen in customer service. She is a real person who turns out to be patient and charming and does not hold angry voice mail messages against people. She sorted out the transaction in such a way that I did not have to return to the store – probably good for everyone. I would get a call Tuesday evening with a delivery window on Wednesday.

By 6:00 pm on Tuesday, I still haven’t heard from anyone. The delivery office is closed for the day. I call Gwen. She looks it up in the computer and says it’s on the schedule, but there is no time indicated, which she admits is bad.

First thing Wednesday, I call the delivery hotline. There is no delivery time because my fridge hadn’t arrived at their facility yet; they will let me know when it comes and then reschedule. The best case is Saturday. Gwen and Hector can’t help me now. I realize I’m at the mercy of a third party delivery service.

In utter despair and desperation, I call Meyers Appliance. They aren’t open yet, but a woman answers the phone and listens to my tale of woe. She offers that they have an extra GE Café French door counter-depth fridge in the store and can deliver it by Friday.

Hallelujah! I run down as soon as they are open, examine the fridge, pay for it, and come home to call Gwen to cancel the Home Depot purchase.

Back at the house the phone rings, I think it’s Gwen returning my call. But it’s Meyers’ delivery department. They ask if it would be okay if they delivered the fridge in the next hour or so rather than in Friday. Hell yes! The new fridge is in by noon.

Now all that’s left is to wrap up the cancellation with Home Depot and my new BFF Gwen.  She calls and reports that she had processed the cancellation, but the computer requires that I come in and swipe my card for the refund. No problem.

I get to the customer service counter and the clerk pulls up the cancellation. But the computer will only allow her to issue a refund via cash or by a check by mail within three weeks.

We call Gwen to the desk. Gwen arrives and realizes that when she reran the order to change the delivery date she processed it as a cash payment to save me from coming back to the store. A cash transaction can not be refunded to a credit card.

Gwen and I agree it would be tempting fate to request a refund by check. The clerk panics and says she only has $60 in the till. Gwen assures her there is more than $60 cash in the store and calls Hector the store manager.

Hector hesitates. He explains it not that they don’t have cash, but the largest bills they keep are twenties.

The reality sets in that I’m going to have to cope with over a hundred $20 bills. Hector sets off to the safe. Various cash accounting procedures ensue. The clerk counts out the bills there at the customer service counter under the watchful eye of Gwen and Hector. We try to keep them from blowing away when the front door opens and lets in a breeze.

And that’s how I ended up with a purse full of twenties in East Palo Alto on a Wednesday afternoon and a reminder that sometimes it’s easier to just deal with the bump in the road rather than trying to beat it down.