Lean forward, children, and I will share with you a chilling tale, the story of a woman who just wanted to revel in our wonderful capitalistic system but was thwarted at every turn.
Last spring, Susannah Challis of Rockville wanted to take her 11-year-old daughter, Meah, to see a movie. They decided on "Touching the Void" (which you will recall is the gripping true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the side of a Peruvian mountain).
They went to the Landmark Theatre in Bethesda, parked in a pay lot and strolled over to the cinema with plenty of time to purchase two tickets by credit card for the 1:45 showing.
"The box office clerk swiped my card, checked the machine a couple of times and then announced that the credit card verification system was not working," Susannah wrote in a letter to me.
Susannah doesn't carry a lot of cash and didn't have enough that day to buy two tickets. She offered to write a check, but the clerk said no, suggesting instead that Susannah go to a nearby ATM. That's what she did, but when she got to the part where it said it would charge her account $2 for the honor of spitting out a little folding money, Susannah balked.
"The only reason I had come to this ATM was that the credit card verification system was down at the theater," she said. "And I knew that the theater would not take $2 off the price of our tickets."
Then began the sort of Kafkaesque scene upon which newspaper columnists depend. The movie was about to start. The theater's credit card system was still down. They wouldn't take a check. They wouldn't write down Susannah's credit card number and punch it in later. They wouldn't let her go into the theater, see the movie, then pay on the way out, when they expected the computer to be back up.
Susannah and Meah left the theater, paid for their parking and drove home in a funk (well, actually, a Honda).
I must say my first reaction upon hearing this story was rather hard-hearted, along the lines of "Who needs the ulcer? Pay the two bucks, lady. You'll live longer." But when I outlined the scenario to My Lovely Wife during our daily morning stroll, she convinced me of the error of my ways.
While it might not be true that the customer is always right, she said, this is clearly a case where the theater was wrong. And if we don't stick up for ourselves and protest these petty indignities, how are the fine people at Landmark Theatres ever to learn?
So I called up Landmark manager Tony Bond to hear his side of the story. Tony wasn't there the day Susannah had her little episode, but he knew the details, having read them in something called the manager's log (which apparently is similar to the Captain's Log in "Star Trek").
Tony said the real culprit was MCI, whose DSL line was on the fritz. Perhaps, I said, but that's slight consolation to Susannah. Couldn't the clerk have written down her credit card number?
"We're not just going to write the credit card number down and be responsible for it," Tony said, noting that an unscrupulous employee could use that information for his own evil ends.
Ah. Howzabout a check? "No, absolutely not. We have no way of verifying a check."
Okay. So why not let her go in and pay on the way out, or come out during the movie and pay, which she offered to do?
No dice. "We don't allow people to go into an auditorium and see a movie for free and hope that they'll pay afterwards."
I'm going to type this slowly in the hope that Tony will read it slowly: It doesn't matter if she doesn't pay. You're going to show the movie anyway. It is what economists call a sunk cost.
One might fear that a suburban mother and her preteen daughter are really the pointy tip of a ticket-scamming crime wave, and that letting them in without paying will open the floodgates of other mother-daughter scofflaws, but that probably isn't going to happen.
Besides, the goodwill that comes from being flexible in this case outweighs the badwill that comes from being called a rigid martinet in the pages of a major daily newspaper.
Tony said that since Susannah's last visit to the theater, an ATM has been installed in the lobby, and one of those manual, paper-based credit card machines that goes chunk-chunk has been purchased. And after my call, Tony spoke with Susannah and offered her two complimentary tickets. She feels the matter has been resolved satisfactorily.
Still, is it any wonder that many people these days would rather stay in and watch a DVD, read a book, steam clean the basement carpet or give the cat a suppository than go out to the movies?
A Verse Reaction
It's not every day I get mail from Portugal, so I eagerly ripped open the envelope bearing the exotic postmark "Murtosa." In it was a letter from Michael Bry. He explained that his sister lives in Bethesda and sends him The Post's crossword puzzle. "Sometimes their backs catch my attention, and so I could read part of your two-part cicada series," he wrote.
These were the poems that readers submitted in honor of Brood X. Michael was especially impressed by the sonnet composed by our winner, Conrad Berger. "Such noble form for such humble subject celebrates the aesthetic brotherhood of all living things," Michael wrote.
I couldn't have said it better myself.
I'm here for you. Not literally, of course, but in a figurative sense. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or write me at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.