WHEN IN THE course of human events there comes to your table cold fettuccine and scallops full of sand, when the cork doesn’t pop and the waiter doesn’t wait, it’s time to take action. Air your grievances. Fret and fume. Begin rationally and, if necessary, deteriorate from there. Mutter, growl, grouse and grunt. Get it off your chest and put to use the art that patches all misunderstanding: Learn to complain.
Although some of us may have a knack for the simple bellyache, a bent for being a crab, effective complaining is not an inherited skill, but an acquired talent to be honed over a lifetime. The cadences in a phone call to a v.p. must be planned and practiced. Pointed letters and convincing arguments can always be improved. There is a posture of protest to be assumed and a galvanizing glare to be perfected.
But well before undertaking the practice of skilled complaining, one must believe deeply in its value. Incredibly, there are people who will not refuse to pay for the toughest steak or the shabbiest paint job. Such folk live as doormats to shoddy workmanship and are suckers for countless raw deals. Another group believes in the validity of complaint but pays no mind to technique. Those citizens prefer storm over strategic assault and decibels over carefully chosen words. Their successes don’t far outnumber those of the folk who never utter a peep of displeasure.
The paragon of complaint stands somewhere in between, patiently holding his ground, awaiting his just desserts. He knows that honest mistakes happen-toasters don’t always toast, and Mazdas don’t always hmmm-and he realizes that all that goes wrong in his life is not evidence of a Communist plot. But the model complainer makes sure he gets what’s coming to him. By using careful, measured tactics, he weathers no long winter of discontent. With apologies to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the successful complainer tries, and he tries, and he tries and he tries… and he can get some.. .Satisfaction.
What follows is a complainer’s handbook, our formula for your quest for redress. We’ll outline the general postulates of the successful complaint, advise you on how to handle specific problems and let you in on body language and stratagems used by world-class complainers. Before we hit the warpath, some all-purpose advice: First, polite confrontation is the best first step in any complaint. Don’t go over anyone’s head with a problem before those on the lowest rung refuse to mend their ways. Second, although we’ve listed the city departments that handle specific complaints, you may have quicker and better results if you first call the City Action Center (670-4014) with all complaints affecting city offices, city services and local violations of consumer protection codes (such problems are starred (*) in our glossary). Their computer routes complaints to the people with the clout it takes to get action and, best of all, lets you know in writing, if you like, what’s being done. The Federal Information Center (767-8585) can help if you’re in doubt as to which agency to call for help and the Community Relations Commission (748-5861) is a United Way agency that can advise you of your rights and help you negotiate your complaints. We hope our Guide for Crying Out Loud comes in handy the next time your ire is up. With it, we wish you many happy returns . . . and exchanges and apologies and refunds and . . .
* Advertising. If you fall for an old line like “Everything’s on Sale,” that’s your problem. But if you think an ad is intentionally misleading, write a letter to the company that placed the ad and ask the city consumer services office (670-4014) to investigate. If the claim appears in The Dallas Morning News, contact Jerry Coley or another assistant manager of advertising (745-8511). If you saw the ad in the Dallas Times Herald, call advertising operations manager Ron Burns (744-6338). Write the advertising agency that represents the company, and, as a last resort, call the Federal Trade Commission (767-7050). The FTC has the power to ask a firm to advertise contrary to false claims. They did that in 1975, when they found that Listerine wasn’t effective in helping to prevent and cure sore throats and colds.
* Air, bad.When the air looms too thick, callthe Dallas Health and Human Services Department (670-6283) or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (767-2746).
Airplanes.As always, your chances for success increase as you climb the ladder of authority. If the ticket agent just can’t seem to understand English, and a reasonable number of attempts to correct the situation fail, write the airline’s chief executive officer or president at its headquarters. The rights of airline passengers are quite detailed, but it pays to read up on the subject if you travel often. For instance, if you’re delayed four hours or more, it’s a good idea to ask to see the airline’s tariff book. Look under delayed flights, and you may find that you’re entitled to free meals and/or lodging. The Civil Aeronautics Board (574-2936) can help with major problems and can let you know exactly what rights you have.
Airport.If your problem is with Love Field, call the operations offices (670-6610). For gripes at D/FW, call 574-6701.
* Animals, dead.For removal, call 670-4888.
* Animals, barking, howling and/or stray. Call the Dallas Animal Control Department (670-7436 or 670-7441).
*Animals, lost. Call the lost pet hotline operated by the Dallas Health and Human Service Department (741-7387). This recording describes animals that have been picked up by the pound that day.
* Animals, party. If their good times rattle your rafters one too many nights, invite John Law to the soiree (744-4444).
*Appliances. Talk to the retailer, then the manufacturer. If you still need help, write the Major Appliance Consumer Action Panel, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, Illinois 60606. The City Action Center (670-4014) may help you with warranty problems.
Billing. Your admittedly ambitious goal is to communicate with the person behind the computer, Take heart in the knowledge that the Fair Credit Billing Act requires the creditor to respond to billing inquiries within 30 days and to rectify problems within 90 days. Otherwise, in Texas, the creditor loses the full amount of the bill as well as the finance charges (up to $50). If you think you need a strong-arm, call the regional office of the Federal Trade Commission (767-7050).
Bosses. If you want your office redecorated, or if you just want to hash out some beefs, consider the Dallas Dispute Mediation Service (see page93). If the problem is with overtime pay or wages, call the local office of the U.S. Department of Labor (767-6294). If you feel discriminated against on the basis of age, race, sex, religion or national origin, consider filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (767-7015). If you’d like advice about another problem with your employer, call the Texas State Department of Labor (638-0565).
*Boys, paper. To complain about delivery problems, call The Dallas Morning News (745-8383) or the Dallas Times Herald (748-2725).
*Buses. Call the Dallas Transit System (827-3400) first. If you still need help, call the Dallas Utility and Regulation Department (670-3157)
*Cable TV. The Dallas Office of Consumer Services (670-3158) is the official monitor of Warner Amex, but you might as well call the company first. They’ll probably tell you (as they finally told us after we’d listened to their Muzak for a while) that a phone call won’t do. You must write a letter in order to complain. The letter goes to 6465 Jim Miller Rd., Dallas 75228. If you still aren’t satisfied, call the Federal Communications Commission (767-0761)
Credit. It’s your legal right to know why you’ve been denied a loan and if you were turned down because of a report from a credit bureau. Contact that bureau and have someone read you your file. If what you hear isn’t true, say so. Then go home and write a letter to the credit bureau with a copy to the place that denied you credit. Under the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Fair Credit Report Act, the bureau must reinves-tigate your situation. If they find it true once more, you can write a personal statement to have placed in your file; it must be read when anyone wants information. The FTC (767-7050) can also help if you feel you’ve been denied credit because of marital status, age or race or if you’ve been misled about the cost of credit.
*Charities. The Dallas Consumer Services Department and the Better Business Bureau (747-8891) can check out the legitimacy of soliciting charities and can sometimes help you get your money back.
Checks. If you think that Checktronic has unfairly given you a questionable credit rating, call and complain (699-6233).
Children, flower. Street vendors are illegal in Dallas unless they are downtown and have their license posted. Those you see on corners in other parts of the city are violating city codes. Call City Services (670-4014).
*Cabs. As always, call the company first. Then contact the Dallas Utility and Transportation Regulation Department (670-3161).
Calls, prank. Dial the prefix of the number where you’re receiving the calls and then 3926, or call the police (744-4444).
Clothing. Forget it if a garment falls apart because you’ve ignored hangtag instructions, but if you’ve followed their advice to the letter and there’s still a problem, complain first to the store, then to the manufacturer and finally to the state consumer protection agency in the manufacturer’s home state. If it’s the dry cleaners that you feel has done you dirty, the International Fabricare Institute, 12251 Tech Rd., Silver Springs, Maryland 20904, can make them come clean. The institute will inspect a garment and render an opinion on who was at fault in damaging it. The item must be forwarded by the cleaners, the store, the Consumer Protection Agency or the BBB, and an analysis fee will be charged.
Cold soup (and other substandard delicacies).If a return trip to the kitchen doesn’t correct a problem with restaurant food, simply refuse to pay. If the manager objects, tell him you’ll be glad to wait while he calls the police. (It’s doubtful that he’ll want to risk a scene, but we’re not making any promises.) If the service is as bad as the food, and you can’t seem to flag down your check, you might just walk out. Leave a note expressing the problems you’ve encountered along with your name and address. Close it with something along the lines of, “If you expect me to pay for this kind of service and food, I’ll be glad to meet you in court.”
Commercials, obnoxious.If you’re tired of hearing about the “coffee achievers” or other such nonsense, write the station manager (see Television), give the time the commercial ran and ask for documented proof substantiating the claim. The Television Code of the National Association of Broadcasters says that broadcast advertisers must make proof available supporting the validity and truthfulness of claims, demonstrations and testimonials in commercials.
*Cars (on blocks next door). If thy neighbor’s heap is your own personal eyesore, call the Dallas Housing and Neighborhood Services Department (670-3615), or call the City Action Center (670-4014).
*Cars, towed. The city automobile pound (670-5116) probably has your car, but if your complaints to the towing company don’t get a response, call the Consumer Service Department at the Action Center number (670-4014).
D Magazine (and other publications).
You’d be surprised how much weight an intelligently written letter to the editor can pull. Other alternatives include canceling your subscription, papering your parakeet’s cage with the offending piece or calling Dennis Holder (823-1792), a locally based free-lance writer for the Washington Journalism Review.Kit Bauman (826-7661), editor of the Dallas Downtown News,is also good at fielding attacks on the media. He does press commentary for Reporter’s Roundupon Channel 8 and writes an occasional column, “Media.” Write to him at 3600 Commerce, Suite B, Dallas 75226. Or you can write Accuracy in Media Inc., 777 14th St. N.W., Suite 427, Washington, D.C. 20005 (202-783-4406).
*Dress Code (and other types of discrimination in public places of accommodation). After you’ve written to the manager of the establishment, ask the city Consumer Services Office (670-4014) to investigate. If you are unsure of your civil rights contact the Commission on Civil Rights, Room 606, 1121 Vermont Ave. N.W. Washington, D.C. 20425. (202-254-6697). See also Male Chauvinist Pigs.
Doctors. The Dallas County Medical Society (526-5090) and the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners (P.O. Box 13562, Capitol Station, Austin, 78711) can review complaints about conduct and treatment, but there are no legal limits on what a physician can charge. If your bill seems unreasonable, it’s a good idea to first call other doctors and ask what they charge for similar treatment. If what you’re being asked to pay still seems out of line, discuss your findings with your doctor and say you’ll pay the going rate. Most physicians will concur, but you might end up in small claims court. The best idea is to make it a point next time to ask for an estimate before you say “ahhhh.”
*DART. Call the office (748-DART) downtown.
* Delivery.If you’ve been promised that something would be delivered at a certain time and it wasn’t, try calling every 15 minutes and asking why. However, it may be more practical to settle for a comparable item, cancel your original order or buy elsewhere. Next time, get a written delivery commitment on the sales slip. The Better Business Bureau (747-8891) can help you enforce such agreements.
* Electricity. See Utilities.
*Elected officials. With this type of complaint, there is surprising power in the old “cc,” a carbon copy of the complaint letter sent to an elected official’s authorities and peers. For instance, if you have a gripe with a City Council member, write to him or her and the rest of the Council, the city manager, the city attorney and the mayor. Before you do all that, though, try a friendly phone call. You can reach the City Council offices at 670-4050. Your special advocates are the at-large members, Jerry Rucker and Annette Strauss. The Council’s address is 5FN, and the mayor’s office is 5EN, 1500 Marilla, City Hall, Dallas 75201. Or, if your gripes go higher, write your senator, congressman or the President, himself, at 1600 Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., 20500. Mr. Reagan’s number is (202) 456-1414.
* Encyclopedia salesmen (and other door-to-door pests). A Federal Trade Commission regulation says that if you give in to anuninvited salesman’s spiel in a moment ofweakness, you have a three-day cooling-offperiod during which payment must be refunded (provided that the sale exceeded$25). This also applies to selling parties thattake place in people’s homes. Have the Dallas Action Center (670-4014) investigate thecompany, and if you still feel mistreated,write “Cooling Off,” Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.
*Fines. Call the police department (670-4504) with questions about traffic fines. Call the Dallas Public Library (749-4467) if you’re long overdue.
Fruit. The Farmer’s Market (748-2082) can handle some complaints about vendors. If you think your produce man is tipping the scales in his favor, call the Dallas Weights and Measures Department (670-6414).
Ice (and other hazards brought on by bad weather). Call the Dallas Street and Sanitation Department (670-4888).
*Intersections. The Dallas Streets and Sanitation Department (670-3555) may be able to help with traffic signal problems, or you might call the sign and signal employees (670-3260).
In-laws.. Call Dr. Norma Barnes (960-0582), a family counselor in private practice who can also help you deal with step-parenting and divorce.
Jargon. See Verbiage, clumsy.
Karma, bad. You might call The Karma Co., but since they’re general contractors, they may not be able to eliminate your bad vibes. Instead, try dinner with your mantra at Kalachandji’s, 5430 Gurley (821-1048).
* Housing. The Dallas Housing and Neighborhood Services Department (670-3615) enforces more than 900 municipal ordinances and city codes dealing with all kinds of housing problems ranging from discrimination, fair housing and loan foul-ups to plumbing and wiring deficiencies and tenant-landlord disputes.
Landlords. If you want to move, sue or just get it off your chest, put your complaints in writing and send them to the Dallas Tenants’ Association (521-8860). See also Housing.
Lawyers. Complaints about attorneys may be filed in writing with the State Bar Association’s grievance committee, 1700 Mercantile, Dallas 75201. If you’d like to dispute an attorney’s fee, write the State Bar’s fee dispute committee, 2101 Ross, Dallas 75201.
Lemons (as in that $*@! automobile is a ’)? The nation’s No. 1 consumer complaint involves auto repair. As always, meticulous records are a must. If the car is under warranty, take your problem to the top dog at the dealership. If he won’t help you, write the president of the manufacturer and the consumer group AUTOCAPS, P.O. Drawer 1028, 1108 Lavaca, Austin 78767. The last step you can take before going to court is filing a complaint with the state consumer protection agency. If the car is not under warranty and you take it to be repaired, be sure that the shop is AAA-ap-proved and that before you leave your car, you have in hand a written estimate of the repairs to be made. If you have a problem, complain to the Better Business Bureau (747-8891). The AAA (526-7911) also has a team of arbitrators to help reconcile differences between customers and AAA member shops. Good reading on this subject is a book by Ralph Nader, What to Do with Your Bad Car: An Action Manual for Lemon Owners.
Lovers, lack of.Send a personal ad to the Dallas Observer,4216 Herschel.
Mail Order.The Better Business Bureau (747-8891) and the Federal Trade Commission (767-0312) are good watchdogs for the mail-order business. The Mail Order Action Line is sponsored by the Direct Mail Marketing Association Inc., 6 East 43rd St., New York, New York 10017 and is an organization much like the Better Business Bureau. The Inspection Service of the U.S. Postal Service (948-2774) can help if mail fraud is suspected.
Male Chauvinist Pigs. Call the National Organization for Women (742-6918). See also Bosses.
*Marcus, Neiman. If you’ve already complained to the store manager, call or write Ron Foppen, executive vice president, Nei-man-Marcus, 1618 Main, Dallas 75201 (741-6911).
*Movies. The local Motion Picture Classification Board (670-3158) makes judgments of only “suitable” or “unsuitable.” If you’d like to complain about a movie rating (G, PG, R, etc.) or register another sort of opinion, write the Motion Picture Association of America, 14144 Ventura, Sherman Oaks, California 91423 (213-995-3600).
* Noise. If you’re bothered by the racket from Love Field, call the Love Field Task Force (670-6610) and register a complaint. If other bumps in the night or mufflerless vehicles in the daytime disturb your peace, call the Dallas Environmental Assessment Office (670-6642) or the police (744-4444).
* Neighbor. Unless the Bekins men are coming to take you away, ha, ha, and your neighbor problems will soon be history, you’ll want to express these complaints very carefully. Polite confrontation and a plate of warm cookies is the best first step. After that, the Dallas Housing and Neighborhood Services Department (670-3615), the Dallas Dispute Mediation Service (see page 93) and the Dallas Police Department (744-4444) may take your side.
Nuts. If you have a problem with a local nut, it may have come from Hines Nut Co., the largest wholesaler in town (742-1657).
* Odometers. Talk to the weights and measurement people (670-6414) if you suspect a rollback.
Ozone. See Air, bad.
Oreos. If they left out the middle of your Oreo, or if you have a complaint about any packaged food, call 1-800-555-1212, the information line for toll-free numbers. Most large food manufacturers have a consumer service line. Call and give them your complaint, and they’ll probably send you coupons equivalent to a refund of your purchase. If a health hazard is involved, call the Food and Drug Administration (767-0312).
*Potholes. The Dallas Street and Sanitation, Services Department can help (670-4888).
*Police. Captain D. Milliken (670-4404) handles complaints about Dallas Police officers.
Postal Service, U.S.You’ve probably received a few pieces of damaged mail in plastic bags with a written apology and excuse from the Postal Service: “(We) handle more than five million pieces of mail daily.” But if an excuse won’t do, call the claims and inquiry section of the main post office (740-4732). Or, write Consumer Advocate, U.S. Postal Service, Washington, D.C., 20260. They want to know about delivery problems, rudeness or long lines.
* Repairs.Home repairs are second only to automobiles in the number of complaints filed. Those of us who consider these problems know in hindsight that the basic rules are: A) ask for a written estimate; B) never pay in advance; and C) check a contractor’s references and ask which professional organizations he belongs to. If he isn’t a member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (formerly the National Home Improvement Council of the Greater Metroplex) (492-3345), or the Better Business Bureau (747-8891), you’ll have a hard time pressuring him to correct any mistakes. In fact, your only legal recourse (provided you can locate him when a problem arises), is litigation. The city services office (670-4014) can enforce city ordinances. See also Housing.
Reservations.If you make reservations at a restaurant and arrive on time only to find you have no table, you can: be patient, go elsewhere, or check the establishment’s occupancy limit (it’s probably posted on the wall near the restaurant’s licenses). If you think the legal capacity is being exceeded, ask the maitre d’ if you can use the phone to call the fire marshal. We hear that this usually gets you a table right away.
Rangers, Texas. If you aren’t a long ball hitter or short reliever, don’t call anyone. You can’t help the problem. If your problem is tickets or difficulties at the stadium call 273-5222. If that doesn’t get satisfaction, get really mad and call owner Eddie Chiles (817-731-5100) or write P.O. Box 186, Fort Worth, Texas 76101.
Restrooms. Filthy facilities in a restaurant are a violation of the city health code. An owner must clean up or shut down. Call the Dallas Health and Human Services Department (670-6276) to complain.
Rummage. If your neighbor is selling it or just letting it clutter up his yard, call the Dallas Housing and Neighborhood Services Department (670-3615).
*Sewers. If a backup is making you crack up, call the Water Utilities Department (670-8543).
* Signs and stoplights.If there’s a malfunction, or if a street sign is incorrect or damaged, call the Dallas Department of Transportation (670-3277).
Television.Write or call Kit Bauman, commentator on Reporter’s Roundup on Channel 8 (c/o WFAA-Channel 8, Communications Center, Dallas 75202) if you want to debate the decline of television news or local programming. A letter to the station manager is better if you expect action.
-Channel 4, KDFW, 400 N. Griffin. 744-4000. Contact Bill Wilson.
-Channel 5, KXAS, 400 S. Houston. 745-5555. Contact Frank O’Neil.
-Channel 8, WFAA, Communications Center. 748-9321. Contact Terry Ford.
-Channel 11, KTVT, 1011 N. Central Expressway. 363-9321. Contact Jack Berning.
* Telephone. See Utilities.
*Smoking. Call the Fire Department (670-4319) if it’s violating an order of the fire marshal or if you think smoking in a particular area is such a fire hazard that the area should be designated as “No Smoking.” If someone is smoking in violation of a health code, call the smoking ordinance office (670-6642).
*Trash. Call the Dallas Street and SanitationDepartment (670-4888).
*Trees, dead. For removal, call 670-4888.
Teachers. If you have a problem with a pedagogue, it makes sense to confront him or her first, then take up the matter with the school principal. If it’s a Dallas public school, go to the school board next. Call or write Linus Wright at 3700 Ross, Dallas, 75204 (824-1620 Ext. 200). The National Committee for Citizens in Education has a hotline (1- 800-NET-WORK) to help if you aren’t sure how to handle a problem in a public school.
* Utilities. First, call the consumer services office of the specific utility. (Dallas Water Utilities Department, 670-8543; Dallas Power and Light, 698-7000; AT&T, 800-222-0300; Southwestern Bell, 800-492-6728; Lone Star Gas, billing 741-3001, emergency 741-2911, nights and weekends 421-0068.) If service is supplied by municipality, send copies to City Hall. For telephone problems, write Consumer Assistance Office, Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C. 20554. Another good source of help is the Public Utility Commission of Texas, 7800 Shoal Creek Blvd., Suite 4O0N, Austin.
* Unrest, Civil. If your life, limb and property are threatened or your pursuit of happiness impeded, call the police department (744-4444).
* Weeds. Call Dallas Housing and Neighborhood Services (670-3615).
Verbiage, Clumsy. Write to New York Times columnist William Safire, 1000 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036.
*Visibility. If yours is obstructed on a citystreet, call Don Rainey at the Dallas Department of Transportation (670-3266).
*Water, rising. If you have a broken waterline or other internal plumbing problems,call the Dallas Water Department (670-5555). If the flood is due to an act of God,call 744-4444.
Xerox. Call 556-0294 for service.
Zinfandel. It doesn’t take a snob to recognize a bad wine. It usually smells bad-like vinegar or caramel-and sometimes it’s cloudy. If you ordered it in a restaurant, send it back. If a wine steward or waiter recommended it, he is obliged to return it if you aren’t satisfied. A retailer should also offer a refund or an exchange. If you’d like additional advice, call the producer or, locally, call Vintage Productions, a wine consultation firm (559-2032).
Zwiebacks. Gerber makes baby’s favorite biscuits. If there’s a problem, call 238-9638.
*Yakking. See Noise.
* Zoning. The Dallas Housing and Neighborhood Services department can tell you how to complain (670-3261).
*Zealots. Contact Norman Lear’s group, People for the American Way, (512-472-7007). To complain about Norman Lear, call the Moral Majority (202-646-5063).
DON’T FIGHT, WRITE!
THIS IS A TEST. Which of the following opening lines packs a complaint letter with more punch?
(A) Dear Sirs: I have run into a fewdevious, lily-livered crooks in my day, butyou, gentlemen, take the [deleted] cake . . .
(B) Herein, I lodge a complaint againstyour company in concert with the followingagencies: The Better Business Bureau, theConsumer Complaining Board, Contact 8,Ralph Nader, The Society for ProtectionAgainst Consumer Fraud, Right On AverageAmerican Inc . , . . .
(C) Two years ago, your company sent ateam of demolition experts to dig a trench inmy front lawn, ostensibly to enable ourneighborhood to one day enjoy the multitudeof pleasures on cable TV . . .
The answer, dull and boring as it might be, is “C.” When writing a letter of complaint, Rule No. 1 is to stick to the facts. Rule No. 2 is to never use libelous language or expletives that require deletion.
The rest is easy. First, address your tome to the person of power. If you need to, call before you write. Find out the name of the individual who will have authority to effect whatever remedy you require. Don’t misspell the name or botch the title.
Launch immediately into a brief but detail-packed synopsis of your grievance, including dates and times, names of employees you dealt with and any specifics you can recount. Don’t pad the facts with emotional outbursts or tell your life story. Keep it to the point, since the real punch is in the paragraph to come.
Too many complaint letters fail to evoke action because no action is spelled out. A good letter does more than gripe; it spells out a demand. Let’s take the case of the front-yard trench diggers. A reasonable demand would be for a lawn repair crew to come and patch up the holes within, say, 30 days. When citing your demand, don’t ask for the moon. Don’t request that the entire grassy surface be resodded with new Bermuda, and that an underground sprinkler system be installed. Outline a concise, manageable solution, and make it clear that you expect to see it carried through.
Naturally, a good complaint letter includes copies of all support documents (never send an original). You should make a copy of your complaint letter as well. And while you’re at it, it may be effective to carbon-copy one or more outside interested parties to let them in on your gripe. A letter to Warner Amex might, for example, include a “cc” to Mayor Starke Taylor, who will be overseeing the cable company’s upcoming rate hike requests. Consumer protection agencies may also be included on your circulation list, but be careful not to spread yourself too thin. You want it to look like you intend to follow through-not like you consulted the library’s APL/CAT and are simply listing watchdogs for effect. Conclude your letter, if possible, within the confines of one letter-size page. Wait a week, then follow up by phone. Happy hunting.
Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons
DON’T GET MAD, GET A MEDIATOR!
THE DAY WAS bright and clear, and a young hen roasted on the grill of a new Hi-bachi. The picnic was the first the zealous young intern and his wife had been able to share in months. They laughed, sipped wine -and then cringed: Catastrophe came on the wings of a Frisbee. Their bird was struck broadside and lay ashen in the pit of the grill.
An altercation ensued. Young doctor confronted Rowdyman, thrower of the Frisbee. Voices were raised and park police summoned. How does one complain about disfigured poultry? How could restitution be made for so grievous a deed?
The young doctor suggested that their differences be settled in court, but an alternative and undoubtably more appropriate solution could have been reached through mediation. In the hands of an uninvolved third party, the argument might have been resolved peacefully and to the satisfaction of both parties. At the suggestion of a mediator, Rowdyman might have been persuaded to buy a bucket from the Colonel and save the day for the heated M.D.
The Dispute Mediation Service of Dallas Inc. has a staff trained to smooth ruffled feathers and work through seemingly irreconcilable differences. The state-funded, non-profit organization was established in 1980 to help untangle, on a sliding fee scale, similarly ridiculous and other very serious misunderstandings among the citizens of Dallas County. The 67 mediators in the service are for the most part professionals-lawyers, psychiatrists, professors-who agree to work with clients either over the phone or in person to resolve civil and domestic disputes.
While the arguments aren’t often about such trivial matters as spoiled picnics, the credo of W. Richard Evarts, director of the mediation center, is that “No dispute is too small.” People have been shot for less than the price of a roasting hen. Statistics reveal that certain classes of crime are almost always preceded by an unresolved civil dispute-the type of argument that mediation can best resolve. Criminal acts such as harassment, vandalism and malicious mischief often have their roots in neighborhood tiffs that didn’t appear to require litigation.
But fear of malicious mischief isn’t the only reason to seek help through a mediation service. Domestic problems and questions of child custody are often better handled through mediation than in a courtroom. When a couple chooses to iron out their differences before a mediator, they may find they can save their marriage by learning to accommodate one another on several points. At the very least they can usually save themselves a painful day in court by drawing up their own terms of divorce. In litigation, the goal of an attorney is not that the best solution for all involved be reached, but that the best solution for a particular client is arranged. “Mediation rests in a narrow crevice between arbitration and litigation,” Evarts says, “and is meant to help two parties find their own way out of a dispute. Mediators hope to obtain on a consensus basis what both parties need in order to be satisfied. They work not simply for a compromise but for accommodation.”
The best news about the Dispute Mediation Service is its speed. Evarts says that 86 percent of cases the service mediates are resolved within 21 days. Ninety-seven percent involve domestic relations, but other frequently negotiated areas of conflict include commercial relations, minor criminal matters, landlord-tenant disputes and consumer affairs. Most cases are referred by courts, district attorneys, police departments, justices of the peace, consumer services, public interest lobbies, individuals and community service agencies.
During 40 hours of training, mediators go before a series of verbal firing squads in order to shock-proof themselves before presiding over disputes. Their goal is to maintain calm, neutral control over an exchange while the problem is outlined and possible solutions are discussed. Either party may withdraw from mediation at any time.
When an individual requesting mediation calls, he or she is asked questions about the dispute. Unless insanity or a serious criminal matter is involved, the problem can be mediated. If a mediator can convince the two parties to speak to one another, Evarts says, the negotiating has begun. The quarrel will be resolved in one way or another. The only variables are how and when.
Once an agreement is written, a “Memorandum of Understanding” is sent to each party to sign and return. It’s valid in court as a contract and can be legally binding.
Whether mediation will satisfactorily resolve a complaint depends on what outcomeis desired and how far both parties are willing to budge. If the doctor we mentioned wasinterested in broad social change, such assweeping reforms of Frisbee regulation orthe introduction of a national picnic protection act, litigation would be his best resort.But if you need help on a civil complaint-if it’s a question of who mows the grass between your house and a neighbor’s or whopays the fine for the patch of unsightlyweeds-mediation is worth a try.
BUT WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, REVENGE!
OKAY. LET’S GET serious. We’ve shown you how to complain about dead animals and dead letters, how to stave off in-laws and remove the stains of Liquid Paper. But what about dead emotions and stains on your reputation? Yes, we’re talking about that far-from-magic moment when love turns to hate. You’ve been jilted. Dropped. Your heart is stomped flat, and you’re mad. What do you do? Opening this vein requires a sharp scalpel indeed, so we called on Dallas’ Vicar of Venom, Dallas Morning News columnist Bradley Miller. Miller, the twice-weekly scourge of Yuppies, Moral Majoritarians, do-gooders and Communists, believes strongly in the old-fashioned school of revenge, especially in affairs of the heart. Here are his views on the subject:
Q. What do you mean by revenge, anyway?
A. We’re not talking about crime and punishment or the vigilante justice favored by a Charles Bronson character. We mustn’t kill one another. We mustn’t set fire to cats. We must love one another (except on special occasions like Texas-OU weekend). Yet society is growing coarser all the time. We must find a way to fight back. The trite lies- “What goes around comes around,” “The best revenge is living well’-simply are not consoling.
Q. Somehow the idea of taking revenge on a former lover seems rather cold.
A. It is. But in a case of unrequited love, a realist has no consolation. “I didn’t want her anyway?” “If she undervalue me/What care I how fair she be?” Transparent rationalizations. She may indeed be the vilest swine beneath the moon, but what does that make you for pledging love to her? To do nothing but grin and bear it is pathetic.
Q. Well then, how do you do it? How do you take revenge?
A. Only a virtuoso can take revenge honorably and without self-destructing. I favor the Hate Letter, but I grant that its power to move the illiterates of the TV age pales next to, say, the pie contract. Donald Carroll, a Dallas native, has collected some classic hate letters in his book, Dear Sir: Drop Dead. Space, if not taste, precludes me from sharing some of my best shots in this genre. I plan a collection of my own to be called Boiling Points-or, perhaps, In My Craw would have a folksier touch. Anyway, Carroll illustrates the principle of revenge for lovers when he cites the last words of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Riddled with bullets, Villa lay dying in the arms of a comrade. “Don’t let it end like this,” Villa is said to have pleaded. “Say I said something.” Unless we learn how to artfully vent our spleen, the rest of us are as powerless to even the score as Villa was to save his life.
Q. You certainly place a high value on love. Can’t people just say that it didn’t work, out and remain friends ?
A. That’s ridiculous. If your love was at all strong, you’ll likely feel as Beethoven did: “Love demands all, and has a right to all.” My advice is to assume your rejector is an idiot and state your case in a Hate Letter.
Q But can’t you give us more specifics?
A. Not without sounding as if I still care for some of these creatures, which would satisfy them no end. Anyway, foolproof guidelines are out of the question; this is an art, not a science. I will say that no tactic can be dismissed out of hand, not even Christian charity.
The latest lovely to break my heart, for example, said that only two things stood between us and true love: my looks and my personality. In her eyes, I learned as she wanned to the subject, I had all the qualities of a pimp except sex appeal. But luckily, I had a comeback at the ready: “Doesn’t the pathetic spectacle of my loneliness move you?” I asked. She patted me on the shoulder, then whispered in my ear, “No.”
Again, I was ready. As she walked out the door, I burst into the rock classic 96 Tears. (“You’re gonna cry 96 tears, you’re gonna cry, cry, cry. . .”) I know she’ll always remember me as a “96 Tears” kind of guy, not just another somebody-done-me-wrong moper. And above all, I want it understood that I never truly loved the bimbo anyway.