Some Disassembly Required:

Backwards Business and Back Lot Tours.

Los Angeles, California, August 28, 1996. Well, yesterday, I got here, somehow. Wherever I am. After breaking down under the stress of work, and snapping complete, the victim was shipped to Los Angeles for an emergency transplant, and is now functioning normally. I refer, of course, to my laptop computer. I think.

About six days before getting ready to go on this trip, the fifty-cent hinge that holds the screen up on my laptop snapped. This is the second time that hinge has gone. Last time it did, I contacted Compaq, and they sent out a replacement, at no charge, no fuss, no muss. So I thought, no problem this time. Call Compaq, arrange to have the part shipped to the hotel I'll be at, and I can make a quickie repair as soon as I hit town. But it would seem that there have been some changes made in re customer policy. Maybe it's an example of all this downsizing and streamlining I've heard so much about. Or maybe I got entangled with a bunch of screw-ups who happened to be working the phones when I called.

This time it only took about eight phones and total of about three hours on the phone (from Brazil) to find out the following: Compaq had the part, but would refuse to let me buy it because my machine was out of warranty; that the first third-party vendor they suggested wouldn't ship to a hotel even if they had the part, which they didn't; that another department of Compaq didn't have the part, but would have sold it and shipped if they had had it (a cold comfort). At long last, someone at Compaq admitted that there was a company that specialized in selling spare parts for Compaq computers and actually told me the phone number. Five minutes later, I had two copies of the $35 unit that contains the 50-cent hinge ordered, and they were waiting for me at the hotel when I checked in yesterday. Apparently, the company that had the part and was willing to sell it and ship it doesn't have an infuriate-the-customer policy.

As evidenced by the fact that I am writing on the machine in question, it was duck soup to get the computer repaired once I had the part, and now I have a spare in case the hinge goes out for a third time. The computer itself, a Compaq Contura Aero 4/25, is terrific. But if Compaq thinks that the customer-service demonstration I just got is going to make me buy Compaq next time, they are wrong. I have no problem buying the part for myself. Fair enough. The machine is out of warranty. I don't even mind paying an awful lot for the part -- it costs money to stock lots of oddball parts. But why be so niggardly with the information I need to solve the problem for myself? And by the way -- when you're asked why things are done a certain way, explaining that it is corporate policy is of but little comfort. Why is it corporate policy to refuse to sell parts to customers, or to refuse to ship to hotels, or to refuse to give out clear information? Saying "corporate policy" is about up there with telling an annoying child "because" after the thirtieth time she asks "Why?" And few adult customers with ready money to spend enjoy being told "because."

Ah, well. I have spent much of the last year and a half down in Brazil, sputtering about Brazilian incompetence and the infuriating way Brazilians do business. I guess it's some sort of comfort that a business back in the good old U.S. of A won't take a back seat to anyone when it comes to punishing customers for buying its products.

Anyway. I got the machine taken apart and put back together, and I feel a little that way myself. There is a certain degree of culture shock whey you start a journey in airport in Brasilia, and wind up, twenty hours later, on the back lots of Universal Studio, getting a look at the Bates Motel. This might seem like a violent shift of gears here in the middle of the column, but that's only because it was for me in real life.

After a very long, but very smooth series of flights, an old buddy of mine collected me at the Los Angeles airport. As is required by Federal law out here, it turns out she had contacts at one of the studio. Two hours after my plane touched down, we were in her boyfriend's office at Universal. He works in one of the production companies there, and obligingly fired up a golf cart and zipped us around the simulated city streets and generic home towns that dot the landscape out there. There's a generalized European street than can be done up as Prague or Paris or Berlin of whatever period you like, a nonspecific American street that will do for Chicago or Los Angeles, and, around the corner, at the moment, is ancient Rome. There's an artificial lake with an artificial blue sky propped up against one side (providing a jarring contrast with the real-life brownish smog-sky visible all around it. There are sound stages being turned in jungles for The Lost World, and a generic hometown, USA containing the simulated residence of one Theodore Cleaver. (We couldn't get to that last, because, God help us all, they are shooting the Leave It To Beaver movie there. )

The oddest thing about it was that this Potemkin Village of phony backdrops had its own Potemkin Village. There was the reality of the production offices, the fantasy of the back lots and sound stages -- and the simulated fantasy of the sets that are rebuilt, and rides built from scratch, for the benefit of the studio tour customers. Much of the tour consists, not of places where they make movie fantasies, but places where they pretend they are making movie fantasies.

As I said, all of this was a bit much straight off the plane from Brasilia, which is a (quite literally) concrete fantasy in and of itself. Brasilia is pretending to be many things, but at least you don't go around to the other side of a building and discover the back half of it isn't there. At least most of the time. (There is a proud Brazilian tradition of starting a building project and then running out of money half way.)

Anyway, here I am, computer working, safely tucked away in the Anaheim Hilton, hard by Disneyland, resting up for the World Science Fiction Convention, which starts tomorrow. Fantasy within fantasy within fantasy, if you will. Probably nothing at all exists. Granted, that is a pretty sweeping statement, but if one were going to try and prove it, I can suggest a good locale for the experiment.

If you can get the parts.

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