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It was a cold, wintry day in December 1997 – that awful week between Christmas and New Years. (You know how it is. Tons of work to get through the shop in a short week.)
It was about 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, and we were having one heck of a snowstorm. In fact, this particular winter was bringing us record snowfalls. We had a parking lot full of wrecks, a six-week backlog for appointments and all I could think about was goosing the clock to 5 p.m. so I could begin my hour-and-a-half ride home in the storm. I was exhausted, as was every one of my employees, and we just wanted out of there.
As the snow fell and the day wore on, my office began to fill with stranded motorists who’d been blessed with the wonders of Connecticut’s stretch of I-95. Overcrowded on the best of days, I-95 becomes a virtual parking lot during a snowstorm. There were five or six people waiting around for their loved ones (who were probably stranded themselves) to pick them up, or waiting for the local rental office to steal a couple cars because they’d run out days before. Five or six people may not sound like a crowd, but considering my waiting area is about the size of a McDonalds restroom, it was standing-room only.
I was sitting at my desk in an adjacent room to my waiting area pretending to do paperwork so I wouldn’t have to listen to the same accident stories over and over again. I’d done all I could do for these people for the time being – their claim processes were started and their phone calls were made. Let them entertain themselves, I thought, when suddenly the flash of a flatbed went by my window.
Another wreck. Great.
I dialed my home phone. “Don’t bother cooking dinner. I’ll call you just before I leave.”
Everyone in my waiting area jumped and looked toward the front door as it flew open, almost knocking over a customer and my big, plastic fig tree. I thought, “This guy must have jumped off the flatbed while it was still moving. What the hell is his hurry? He’s not going anywhere.”From my desk I could see this guy literally pushing everyone in the waiting area out of his way. Then he spotted me through the sliding window I have between my office and the waiting area. He wouldn’t dare! He wasn’t going to walk into my office? My sanctuary?
He did! Walked right in.
If eyes were weapons, my waiting area was an arsenal. I was worried the other people were going to maul this nut, who now stood over me in my office.
“I need my car fixed right away,” he said.
OK, so he’s rude and mentally challenged. And he had a nervous demeanor to him. Kind of like a junkie. Maybe it was just a hurried life or too much caffeine.
“It’s my girlfriend’s car, and I’ve got to have it fixed by Monday!”
I still haven’t said a word, mind you. I just sat there staring up at his unshaven face. He moved from the door by my right to my left side. Before my head could catch up with him, he was counting out loud, “One, two, three ” as he threw $100 bills on my desk. Five all together. This is a new one. The customer is usually trying to get $500 out of me.
“It’s all the money I have on me,” he said. “Get my car done by Monday morning and it’s yours.”
By this time, the wrecker driver was coming in with his bill. I asked him how bad the car was and he told me the whole right side was wiped out.
I turned to my new friend and said, “If I were God himself, I couldn’t have your car repaired by Monday. Forget that it’s Friday and we don’t work on the weekends. Forget that I couldn’t even order parts until Monday. Forget that there are about 50 cars ahead of yours. If we started on it right now and worked non-stop through the weekend, we still wouldn’t have it done.”
He didn’t hear a word I said. He starts counting again, “One, two ” and throws down another $500. “Will that help?” he asks.
Wait a minute. I thought the first $500 was all the money he had on him?
I never touched the neatly fanned-out display of $100 bills sitting on my desk. Ten of them! And what a nice pattern he’d made with them. You could tell he’d had lots of practice.
“No, that won’t help. You’re not listening to me,” I told him, my voice beginning to rise as the other customers looked on – and listened – intently.
He stood there – hovering over me – with a look of disbelief on his face. His pile of cash was powerless, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“As you can see,” I said, looking toward the people in the waiting room, “there have been a lot of accidents today. And we have a six-week backlog, so I can’t touch your car for at least six weeks. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it. You can try another shop, but they’ll all tell you the same thing. You’re welcome to use the phone to call for a ride or call your insurance company, but other than “
He interrupted me with “That can’t be!” – his voice rising with each passing sentence. “It’s not my car. It’s my girlfriend’s car, and she’s gonna kill me!” (She gets all the fun.) “I can’t believe you can’t help me!”
“I think you need to leave,” I said, as I pointed to the door. The wrecker driver smirked.”Fine. Where do I find your boss?”I pointed in the direction of the sales department. I knew the owner wasn’t around. Sent the boy on a wild goose chase, I did.
He wandered into the service department and started raising hell over there. The service manager threw him out after about one minute. Then he found the sales department, but there were only a couple of people left there. They’d all gone home early because of the snow. The two who were there ignored him. The service manager called me and asked me who the nut was. I hadn’t gotten his name, but we made up a couple and laughed.
A few minutes later, he came walking back into my waiting area, looking defeated. The other customers looked irritated. He could tell. He walked back into my office.
“Look, I gotta get to Boston. I’m supposed to meet my girlfriend up there. Is there a bus station or train station around?”
What, a new attitude?
I told him about the train station down the street, handed him a phone book and told him to call a taxi. He did. Then I asked him for his name, address, phone number and make and model of the car.
Without asking, he picked up my pen from my desk and started writing on one of those cheap pads the glass companies are always leaving. When he finished writing, he said, “I’m Ben Affleck. I’m from California. If you look out your door, you’ll see the car I was driving. A Saab convertible. Write me an estimate on Monday and call me with the amount. I’m paying cash.”
I looked at the pad he’d just written on. Ahhh, that explains it. Beverly Hills. He must be some rich producer’s spoiled brat.
As soon as he walked out, the other customers started to talk about how rude he was. One woman asked me if I get many like him. I told her, luckily, no.
The next week I called the number he gave me so I could talk to him about the estimate. He wasn’t around. A guy who sounded just a bit light in the loafers answered the phone.
“Ben isn’t here. This is Soren. I’m Ben’s personal assistant.” He pronounced assistant with a lisp. “I’ll be handling everything for him. If you can fax me the estimate, I’ll get back to you.”Fast forward about a month. I still hadn’t heard back from Ben or Soren. In another week, I’d be ready for his car, which was growing roots in the back lot. So I called Ben’s number again. My buddy Soren answers and tells me to go ahead and repair the car. They’d take care of the bill. “Wait,” I said. “Doesn’t the car belong to his girlfriend? His girlfriend is the only one who can authorize me to repair the car.”
Soren sounded perturbed and lisped, “Well, she’s not in the country right now. I’ll have to get in touch with her.”
“Great,” I said. “But I need something in writing from her.”
Another lisped sigh from Soren: “I’ll do what I can.”
Another two weeks go by.
Finally, I came in one morning to find a fax in the machine.
“Dear John, blah, blah, blah, I authorize you to repair my car. Ben Affleck and Soren will be paying for the damages. Thank you, Gwyneth Paltrow.”
This guy Soren only has one name! He’s one of those one-name people. Only in Beverly Hills.
So I made up a repair order, put together a parts list and dropped it off at my parts department. An hour later, I get a call from parts. The parts guy is giddy. “You don’t really have Gwyneth Paltrow’s car there, do you?”
“Uh. Yeah. Who the hell’s Gwyneth Paltrow?”
“You don’t know who she is?” he exclaims, horrified by my lack of celebrity knowledge. “She’s a gorgeous movie star! Did you meet her?”
“Nope, some [expletive] wrecked her car on the way to see her about a month and a half ago.”
“What was his name?” he asks.
“Umm let me check … Ben Affleck?”
Now the parts guy is way too excited. “Ben Affleck? Are you kidding? He’s in that new movie, Good Will Hunting! You met him?”
Good Will Hunting? What the hell does that mean? I’m a hunter and still couldn’t figure that one out. I really need to get out more.
“Yeah, I met him,” I say, explaining the whole story to him. In fact, I’ve told it way too many times.
That was more than four years ago, and now I know who both Ben and Gwyneth Paltrow are. In fact, I’ve even got Gwyneth’s fax pinned up on the wall of my waiting area. It’s quite the conversation piece.
Gwyneth, if you’re reading this, it’s time for a check up on your car. Stop by!
But leave Ben at home.*
Writer John Shortell is body shop manager at Secor’s Collision Technology in New London, Conn. He’s been in the collision industry for 20 years and has developed computer software for body shop scheduling called BodyShop Schedule Pro. For more information on the software, visit www.bodyshopsolutions.com.