Yesterday was an interesting work day at your local home improvement store. Fairly typical for a weekend, actually: Extremely busy and well littered with interesting people.

I arrived to work at 10:00 am to discover that a) the opener in my department had called out late, b) his appointment was waiting for him, and c) I immediately became busy with another customer. I didn't know, immediately, that my coworker had called out late. I figured it out after a while; I'd noticed the couple hanging around and eventually, they asked me if he was coming in and after a bit of digging, I found out.

The customer I sat down with turned out to be somewhat challenged. Not his fault, of course, as most people don't spend all day measuring countertops. You wouldn't suspect it on face value, either: He was polite, apparently prosperous, well-spoken and seemingly quite intelligent. He and his wife wanted to special order a laminate countertop. A little discussion revealed that they wanted a beveled edge top. And yes, they had their measurements! He had a clipboard, even. He flipped up the top page (some sort of shopping list) and proudly showed me his drawing.

The second I clapped eyes on it, my stomach turned over. Now, I'm fighting off a cold -- and spent most of the day in that horrible state where you feel like the rest of the universe is several feet that-a-way -- but that had nothing to do with the stomach-turning action.

Laminate countertops are normally constructed via a drawing. (Sometimes they're templated, but that is much less common and carries added expense.) This means that countertop is made exactly as designated by the drawing, to a tolerance of 1/16 of an inch in the case of my particular fabricator. If the measurements are messed up, the countertop is messed up.

What I saw, when that piece of paper unfolded, was extremely worrisome. The measurements were odd-looking. It was a U-shaped countertop with a bar on one of the ends:

<-------- X --------------->
|                          |                          
| b   __________________   |
| a  |                 |   |
| r  |<----- Y ------->|___|
|____|                 < Z >
< A  >                 

(Other dimensions and details deleted for clarity.)

What he gave me were X, Y, and Z. When I did the math to figure out what A was, I realized the measurements were wrong. A turned out to be 24.25 inches. NOT GOOD!

Standard kitchen cabinets are 24 inches deep. You need to add on another 1 - 1.5 inches to cover the tops of the door(s) and/or drawer head(s), so standard countertop depths range from 25 to 25.5 inches (sometimes even 26). On a bar with no large overhang, you still need to have it hang over a little on the far side, so basic peninsula bars are typically 26 or 27 inches wide. At any rate, 24.25 inches is much too narrow.

So, I questioned the customer about it, and did my best to explain the issue. He gave me an extended description about how it was not a standard lazy susan in the corner and how he'd had to build the back on himself, and that his measurements were absolutely correct and this was what he wanted. This is patently garbage. The fact that he put paneling on the back indicated that it was not a peninsula lazy susan (which would have had a door on the back.) Non-custom, non-peninsula lazy susans never have a finished back on them, and typically the back corner is cut diagonally to help such a big cabinet fit through a standard doorway. Something so small as he was suggesting would have to have been completely custom-built. I asked for details and quickly realized that had not been the case -- it had to have been standard cabinetry. I took a deep breath, offered up a mental prayer, smiled and nodded politely and told him that I'd sell him whatever he wanted, but that custom laminate countertops are non-returnable and I was simply interested in his satisfaction in the non-returnable product he was about to purchase. He's all very nice about it, too, but also insistent that he's right. We're all smiling.

At about this point, my manager wanders up to my desk. She has a packet of shelf-rests from the hardware department in hand, and apparently had been helping my customer before I'd come on shift. She politely excuses herself to me for interrupting and has some converse with my customer about the shelf pegs. I wait till she's done interrupting me, then thank her for being there and explain my concern to her. She says we can sell him whatever he wants so long as he signs off on it, and goes on her way.

All while this is going on, the wife is apparently coming to realize that a) I'm developing a low opinion of her husband, b) nevertheless, I'm still trying very hard to be nice about it, and c) I'm trying to save them pain and suffering, not to mention some money. I exchanged very few words with her the whole time, but I liked her. She had a good embarassed smile, anyway, and seemed to be doing her part to smooth things over without making things any worse. (I hate it when spouses start arguing violently in front of me.)

Time passes, and we're still arguing oh so politely. I ask him five, six, seven times in a row: Does he understand what I am trying to tell him? He assures me he does. Sometime around the tenth or fourteenth repetition (I kid you not!), it develops that the measurement Y is NOT, after all, the measurement he wants between the two sides of the countertop. No indeedy, Batman, it is in fact the distance between the face frames of the cabinetry... which is something completely different.

What ensued after that is so completely confusing that I'm nearly at a loss to describe it. If the Y measurement is off, so is the X measurement... and it took quite a while to explain that to him. He also tried to convince me it was easier to give me the measurements HIS way and have me just figure it out. I explained that I could not be responsible for that, since the measurements were his responsibility. I could certainly make an arbitrary guess, but it would be just that -- arbitrary -- and the countertop would certainly come in wrong. If he wanted to pay a nominal fee for our company subcontractor to come out on his site and do a professional measurement (or a somewhat larger fee for a template) that was his option. Finally, he seemed to get it. I showed him again, five, six, seven times, exactly what measurements I needed... and that those measurements had to be for the countertop, not the cabinetry underneath. He agreed to go home, re-measure, and call me back with that information. Huge sigh of relief on my part.

The final straw: As they leave, he handed me a small pamphlet which encouraged me to join his specific brand of religion, gave me street directions, and tried to convince me to show up at the next meeting.

After he left, I priced out the top, since the potential differences in size were small enough not to affect pricing. He called me back tonight, just before I left for the day, with a set of measurements which I still distrust though they sound more reasonable. He's coming in tomorrow to pay for it. $1,350 or so. Not a huge sale, but still a chunk of change. I dearly hope it doesn't come back on me.

And that was the start of my day. It got worse after that. Truly. Highlights include, but are not limited to:

  1. My next appointment showed up: Mrs. Negative and Mr. Amiable. I'd done a kitchen design for them previously. They (i.e. she) couldn't decide on what they wanted so they'd come back in. Mrs. Negative is wearing a sweatshirt featuring the phrase "The power of pessimism." I kid you not. We make changes to the design. They (she) like it! I price it. Oops. They don't like the price, even though it's dirt cheap for decent cabinetry. I make a suggestion that would slash $1500 off the pricetag. Mrs. Negative doesn't like those cabinets, though. She whiiiiiiiiiines. Extensively. For proper effect, imagine bad hair, bad teeth, a truly horrible reek of cigarettes (which I am very allergic to), and that darling sweatshirt. Plus, she's snapping gum and loudly rapping some seriously gaudy fingernails on my desktop in a maddening rhythm. Finally, Mr. Amiable visibly takes pity on me and comments to Mrs. Negative that it's not that she doesn't have the money, it's just that she doesn't want to spend it. This produces a lovely argument in which she repeats to me, over and over in assorted permutations, that she just wants to make sure she doesn't go over budget. That is a perfectly rational concern, I say to her understandingly. They dither a while longer, then leave, saying they'll come back in a few days. I wave goodbye, suppressing the nausea from the stench with great effort, and manage to delay a terrible sneezing fit to after they get out of earshot. After that, my ribs hurt.

  2. I got another countertop customer. This one so unnerved me that I sent them to another proprietor. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

  3. While my coworkers were both gone on lunch, I got completely swamped. There were people standing around four deep (well, more like 10 deep, but there were probably 4 groups), and I was already busy with someone. I stood up, got everyone's attention, explained what was going on, apologized for the inconvenience, and asked if anyone wanted an appointment for later. Got one taker. One guy said he'd wait -- he disappeared later. I think he was a contractor, darnit. Another said she'd wait. But apparently she went and complained, because the next thing I knew, I had two assistant store managers breathing down my neck. Fortunately for me, I'd done nothing wrong. I'd already spoken to the woman, and both managers knew me and knew I was flying solo. They helped her as best they could for a short time, and then, thankfully, one coworker reappeared.

  4. Then, I got a couple who wanted to sit down and order cabinets on the spot. They were extremely nice, but we had major language barrier problems which caused the process to be far longer and more painful than it should have been. In the middle of that, who should appear but Mrs. Negative! I told her I was likely to be quite a while, and did she want to make an appointment for the next day? Oh, no, she could wait. Then she hung out right in the center of my field of vision and stared straight at me for what seemed forever. I hate it when people do that! Even more, I hate it when the people who do that radiate such horrid energy. She finally interrupted us (grr), agreed to come back another day, and left. I ended up making the sale to that couple, much to my amazement -- it took a long while for them to decide on a few things and so ran me overtime, but by then, I was so tired I just didn't care any more. Thay had an adorable newborn with them, as well as an absolutely beautiful little girl who kept herself entertained drawing with my secret stash of crayons. Thankfully for my sanity, she was very well behaved.

I was in the break room just before I headed home tonight, gathering my belongings rather exhaustedly. Someone I'll call Pete saw me and waved me over from where he sat with his styrofoam cup of joe. He's a squeaky-new transfer to floor sales in our department. Somewhere in the midst of the fray today, I'd noticed him struggling through one of his first special orders -- a spa tub, I think -- and he'd apparently overheard some of my fun and games. I don't know Pete well. My initial impression of him was that he was pleasant, though maybe not terribly devoted to his work. He's always making joking comments about "Why are you working so hard?" and so forth. To my surprise, though, tonight he went out of his way to shake my hand with surprising solemnity, and told me "I finally understand why you walk around with that expression on your face all the time."

Thank you, Pete, and welcome to the madhouse.