Years ago, when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jack—the husband of my friend and co-worker Gladys—loved to write letters to the editor. Whenever he had an opinion about a local issue, he made sure that his thoughts were widely known. I remember him proudly showing his contribution to the latest edition of his local paper. From Jack, I learned to voice my opinion whenever something upset me enough that I felt compelled to take action. And that included writing complaint letters.
I don’t enjoy writing complaint letters. I would rather forget about slights and bad treatment than relive them again in print. But when bad treatment led to financial loss, I had to speak up for myself. Twenty years ago, I was forced to start complaining when my car caught on fire.
In September 1997, I had a red Hyundai Scoupe. It decided to break down as soon as the five-year warranty expired. First up was the transmission. Since I didn’t have the money to pay for the repairs, the car remained in the shop until I saved up the money. But the day that I picked up the car, I noticed other things wrong with it. I took the car to Pep Boys, who kept the car for several nights.
On the morning of September 28, I picked up the car and headed to downtown Sacramento to take part in a local book fair with my writing group. By the time I parked downtown ten minutes later, smoke was pouring from the hood. When I saw flames, I jumped out of the car. There was a fire truck nearby, but when I ran over to it, I was told that the area was not in their jurisdiction. Thankfully, a fireman called the closest fire station, and a fire engine arrived in minutes. By then, the hood of my car was black. After extinguishing the fire, the car towed to my home. It was totaled, as the fire had burned up most of the wiring under the hood. I took photos of the damage.
The Pep Boys receipt detailed the electrical work that had been done on my car. The fire department’s report indicated that faulty wiring had caused the fire. Simple, right? When I contacted Pep Boys the next day, they denied any connection between the receipt and the report and stated that I needed to contact my insurance company. But while I was saving to pay for my new transmission, I had let my car insurance lapse. Now I had no money, no car and no one to accept responsibility. I had just started a new position with the U.S. Census Bureau, a position that usually required a car. That day, I took six buses and two light rail trains to get to my assignments as a test proctor.
It was time to start complaining. I filed a complaint with Pep Boys Customer Service. I sent a letter to the District Manager. Still no action. Every day, I lugged a suitcase full of tests and forms to various offices and libraries throughout the city to administer exams to Census Bureau applicants. On October 10, the company sent someone out to take photos of my car. Nothing happened. I contacted the Pep Boys corporate office and sent a letter to the CEO and everyone else in executive management.
On October 21, I sent a letter to the Bureau of Consumer Affairs. Three days later, I got a call from a mediator, who said that she would expedite my complaint. On November 12, Pep Boys offered me $4,200. I refused, as it wasn’t enough to pay off my car. A week before Thanksgiving, they agreed to pay for a rental car, but they stressed that they were doing so as a courtesy while they conducted an investigation, not as an admission of liability. Two days later, they came to the conclusion that even though there was no definite proof that the electrical fire was caused by negligence on the part of an employee doing electrical work on the car, they would pay the remaining amount owed on the car plus an additional $3,700 for my inconvenience and suffering. I felt vindicated. All of my hard work and persistence had paid off.
When I was homeless in LA in 2012, I went to the Santa Monica Public Library to send a complaint letter to the local Whole Foods Market about the embarrassing treatment that I had received on several occasions. I got an apology and a $25 gift card from the Store Manager. Last year, the cashier at my local grocery store mentioned that I could get triple points if I purchased groceries in the next two days. But when I got home and looked at the ad, I discovered that the promotion had started that day, when I had spent $100 in groceries. I sent e-mail to the company and was rewarded the triple points on my previous purchase. A few weeks ago, when I took Lyft to the Sacramento Amtrak station a mile from my home, I was charged $33 for a $6 ride because the driver forgot to end the ride on his app. I immediately sent a complaint e-mail and the charge was promptly reduced.
But I don’t complain for monetary gain. When the bus driver passed me by even though I was standing at the bus stop in a bright purple shirt and waving my arms, I filled out a complaint form on the bus company’s website. Maybe next time, he will remember to look for passengers at all of the stops on his route. When I got on a hotel shuttle to return to the airport hotel after taking public transportation to and from San Francisco, the driver yelled at me, but not the other customers. I mentioned the incident in a letter to the hotel manager, asking that shuttle drivers be aware that not all customers drive into San Francisco when staying at the airport hotel. Sometimes I feel that I’m not just complaining for myself, but for others who did not or could not complain.
When I write my letters, I think of my friend Jack, a lovable curmudgeon who died in January 1996. I think he would have been proud.
Beatrice M. Hogg is a coal-miner’s daughter and freelance writer who was raised in Western Pennsylvania and has lived in Northern California for twenty-five years, where she wrote her novel, Three Chords One Song, and continues to write about music and life in general.