I am happy to report that the ill feeling between Susannah Challis and the Landmark Theatre in Bethesda has been smoothed over. However, the ill will countless readers seem to feel toward me shows no signs of abating.
Susannah is the Rockville mom who took her daughter to see a movie last spring at the Bethesda cinema only to find its credit card machine down. The theater would accept only cash, and Susannah didn't feel like paying an ATM fee to extract some folding money. I wrote that the theater should have figured out a way to keep a customer happy.
Well, you would have thought I had proposed mandatory puppy-drowning, so vehement was the criticism from readers. The complaints fell into a few different categories:
She should carry more cash. Arlington's Caryn Ginsberg wrote: "Although none of us wants to be a walking mugging target, is that very responsible for anyone, let alone someone with a youth? What if there had been some type of emergency? I usually even have money with me when I go jogging in case I get hurt and need to get a cab."
Ellen Turner of Alexandria asked: "Is it really that hard to carry 20 to 30 dollars in cash?"
I suppose that's the Boy Scout way: Be prepared. And while we're packing extra currency -- just in case -- maybe we also should carry a pop rivet tool, a cheese slicer and a bottle of antivenin. I mean, you never know when you're going to come across a piece of loose ductwork, a hunk of Jarlsberg or a Gabon viper.
Okay, I'm being ridiculous, but movie theaters seem to increasingly want us to use credit cards. Why else are they subjecting us to those irritating Fandango ads? If a movie theater -- or anyone else -- can't guarantee that the credit card system is going to work with regularity, they should publicize that fact. How about a poster in the window: "Credit cards often accepted; cash is better"?
Pay the two bucks, lady. The theater clerk suggested to Susannah that she find an ATM and get some cash. Susannah chafed at paying the $2 fee she'd be charged.
"This is not yet a cashless society, believe it or not," wrote Glen Burnie's David Haberstich.
"Why I should sympathize with someone who neglects to carry a few dollars on them -- and then is too stubborn to use an ATM to get cash -- is a little difficult to fathom," wrote Jeffrey Reddig of Silver Spring.
I confess I would have gone to the ATM. I would have cursed myself for my capitulation, but I would have done it because I would have figured the $2 was less of an irritation than missing the movie.
Not so Tom Hoffman of Pearisburg, Va. "I will not, repeat will not, use an ATM that charges me a fee," Tom wrote in an e-mail. "I'm currently living in a place that's 35 miles from my bank. I'd rather drive the 70 miles, and pay for the gas to do so, than give that fee to a bank. I'd have done the same thing that lady did."
The "sunk" cost. Most of the reader vitriol was concentrated on my remark that the theater wouldn't have been incurring a big risk by letting Susannah and her daughter in to see the movie, then letting her pay during the film or on the way out, since it was "going to show the movie anyway."
"Next time I don't think I should pay for the full Metro fare because the ticket dispenser that takes credit cards is down, I have your e-mail address," wrote Arlene Fletcher. "After all, those trains are going to run anyway."
Wrote Susan Milam of Glendale, Calif.: "I don't recall a newspaper ever offering to give me the Sunday edition for free because it was Sunday evening and there were still 20 copies on the newsstand."
Andy Moursund, who runs the Georgetown Book Shop not far from the theater, thinks Susannah should have carried more cash, but he still believes Landmark behaved poorly. In the 15 years he's run his store, he's had exactly two bad checks. Being accommodating is better for business.
But, he said, "I've yet to run into any chain which gives any of its local managers any discretion about 'policy' matters."
And that, really, is my point: This country wasn't made great by retreating to the safety of "policy." It was made great by people showing a little initiative. I don't think this situation required the wisdom of Solomon, and I don't expect us to go back to the halcyon days of smiling milkmen and endless credit at the General Store. All I'm asking for are service providers who are willing to meet customers halfway, especially when the service they typically provide has been diminished in some way, as when their credit card machines don't work.
Finally, Bill Price, who now lives in Rockville, said the column reminded him of something that happened many years ago at the Damascus Movie Theatre. His car wasn't running at the time, so he and his kids walked the few miles to the theater.
"When I went to pay for the tickets, I realized I had left my wallet at home," Bill wrote. "The movie would be half over if I tried to walk home to get it."
At the time, the theater was a family-run operation. "When the owner found out about my situation he said, 'Don't worry about it. You can pay me the next time you come in,' " said Bill. "And he lent me money to buy the kids popcorn and candy."
His wife, Mary, says, "Yeah, that's probably the reason why they went out of business."
My e-mail: email@example.com. My address: The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. My number: 202-334-5129.