A Wendy's fast foodery near FBI headquarters is an unlikely place for a tiff. But one almost started there the other day. Combatants: Karen Stewart, of Southeast Washington, and a woman we'll call The Spoon Lady.

Karen had just bought her lunch. She was collecting napkins and a fork from the accessories stand. As she slipped them into her handy-dandy paper sack, she couldn't help but notice the woman next to her.

This greedy soul "grabbed a huge handful of plastic-wrapped spoons and stuffed them into her hamburger bag," Karen reports. "There had to have been 20 spoons in her fist." Obviously, the woman was stockpiling for the weeks and months to come. You don't need 20 spoons to eat a hamburger.

"Now, I'm not generally a defender of corporate America, but this really made me hot!" Karen says (the exclamation point is hers). "I don't think purchasing a $4.59 meal at Wendy's entitles you to restock your home utensil drawer, or supply your office ice cream social with free spoons.

"In the end, it costs all Wendy's customers."

I give Karen three points for being right about who pays for such theft. I give her three more for writing to me instead of causing a scene in the middle of Wendy's. Who would want to read this headline in the Metro section: "Woman Stabbed With Plastic Spoon After Downtown Fight"?

But I subtract two points from Karen for being naive. The fact is, Wendy's customers are already paying for the kind of petty larceny that Karen saw.

The company assumes that people will get light-fingered about utensils, napkins, packets of salt, anything that isn't nailed down. The company would rather live with that slightly uncomfortable fact than station a rent-a-cop beside the accessories bar, for instance. So pilferage and waste are built into the Wendy's price structure -- and the price structures of every place else.

Fooderies also know that they risk chasing away regular customers if they play it penny-wise-pound-foolish. The 20 spoons that woman took might have cost Wendy's two cents (more likely, less than one). If The Spoon Lady never comes back, Wendy's loses far more.

For all of you environmentalists, there's another factor to consider. At least The Spoon Lady will use those spoons. What about people (like Bob Levey) who take three packets of salt at the end of a buffet line and use only one?

Do they lovingly return the other two? I have to admit that I deep-six them in the trash can as I leave, just about every time. If the Salt Association of America ever tries to elect me to its hall of fame, I hereby decline. I have a hunch that I'm very, very typical.

The answer to Karen's concern is a sign. Something like, "Please Take Only As Many Utensils and Napkins As You Need."

That will at least slap a little guilt on freeloaders. And guilt, as our mothers taught us, is more powerful than salt, spoons or corporate profits.

Oh, so you think car salesmen have reformed, do you? You think they have learned not to treat each customer as a jockeyable piece of meat? Perhaps a recent story from Gaithersburg will change your mind.

The star is a Levey reader who says he hates buying cars. "I'd rather run a cheese grater along my face," he says, in one of the more memorable phrases I've seen recently.

Anyway, our guy put down his cheese grater long enough to venture into a dealership on Shady Grove Road. He had made his best deal (as the sales folks love to say) via the Internet. He arrived with a signed dealer's purchase order and a signed check in his hand.

He was told that he owed $600 more.

Before hitting the ceiling, my guy inquired why. He was told that the dealership mistakenly wrote up the purchase order by using Maryland sales tax figures. The dealership should have used D.C. figures, since that's where my guy lives.

You are free to believe that this was a mistake if you like. However, my reader had told the salesman "at least twice over the phone that I lived and worked in D.C. -- and he called me several times at my D.C. office." It's just a mite more likely that the dealership was trying to put a final dent in a customer whom they wouldn't see again for three more years, if ever.

Please note that this wasn't a situation where all dealings had been verbal. My guy had a written commitment from the dealership to buy a certain vehicle at a certain price. He thought the negotiating was done. But as that great car dealer Yogi Berra might have said, it's never over at car dealerships until it's over.

My guy exacted the best revenge. He refused to take delivery of the car he had ordered. He bought another (for less money) through a credit union's buying service. He's happy. And the dealership is probably wondering why it isn't making more money.

Thanks, Roy Bredder, for spotting yet another cute sign outside a local church. The sign was there for all to see in front of Chesterbrook United Methodist Church in McLean. It read:

Win a Free Trip to Heaven

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