The Quiet American


The old fridge came with the house. The fact that it was a Kenmore endeared it to me. Just over a year ago, I arrived at house and commodious icebox after a dramatic move from London to Los Angeles. In London, I had left behind a blender made by someone called Ken Wood, whose brand became known as Kenwood. So I pictured Ken More busy in his workshop inventing butter compartments, deli drawers and vegetable crispers.

The fridge was secondhand, yes, but to someone who had, until that point, lived in one-bedroom apartments with half-sized fridges, a house complete with a 5-foot-plus Kenmore was a thrill.

However, on plugging the refrigerator in, I could hear why the previous owners had left it behind. It had a high-pitched whine that could clear a dinner party faster than a Captain Beefheart album.


In ordinary circumstances, it would have been on the street the next day. However, the house had needed too much already: rewiring, re-plumbing, redecorating. It wasn’t getting a new fridge.

Until, that is, the Kenmore did something inexcusable. The freezer department’s “self” defroster began routing a steady stream of moisture into the meat compartment of the refrigerator below. Green bacon floating in two inches of pink liquid was the last straw.

Mr. More’s fridge had to go.

My tentative budget for its replacement was $500. However, at the same time, I found myself cashing in an insurance policy that was ticking over in London. This put several thousand in hand.

My eye, I guiltily realized, had been wandering from my own plain class of fridge for some time. The lust had been sparked in 1990, by a visit to Harrods.

There, American refrigerators are considered great luxuries. On a mission to buy a toaster, I had spied an American fridge that opened with awe-inspiring theatricality. It didn’t have top and bottom flaps. Rather, it opened sideways, like French doors. It had the freezer to the left and cooler to the right. It had a night light, ice maker and water dispenser.

Such fine appliances are the preserve of millionaires in England. But in America, they suddenly seemed accessible. As friends saw me drifting toward a major purchase, they began pitching the all-around desirability of Sub Zeros. “They are,” said one, “the only refrigerators.”


However, I wasn’t in the market for an armored icebox. The price tags, too, struck me as very Defense Department. Thousands for a fridge; more thousands for a freezer; more thousands to rip up the kitchen to accommodate the twin tanks.

I was not about to do this. Oddly, the only thing the previous owners of my house seem to have done right was to tack in very pretty kitchen cabinets around their shrieking old Kenmore icebox. These wooden fittings were a key selling point. A fridge would be bought to fit them. The existing gap was 66 1/2 inches high and 33 inches wide.

Given a Kenmore-sized gap, I went in search of Mr. More’s shop. Amid much hilarity, I was told that, unlike Ken Wood, Ken More wasn’t a Ken, or a More, but a Sears, Roebuck & Co. brand.

Off to Sears, then. Here I found a cordial, elegant woman named Juanita Rodriguez. She is the “brand manager” of the refrigerator department of the Baldwin Hills branch. Part of her job is translating industry lingo.

There were things called an “AccuChill System,” “spill-proof shelves,” “beverage centers,” “dual-sensor filtration systems” and so on. Water from one of these babies wasn’t just filtered but “puri-clear.”

Rodriguez had a knack of cutting through the slickly worded specifications with her own simple assessments. “This is a nice box,” she would say, swinging open the door of a model that came with some sort of computer.

By aisle two, I had attained passable fluency in fridge-speak. “No good,” I’d say while scanning a “box’s” specs. “It’s not got quiet-package noise reduction.”

Yet with each fridge, some marvelous improvement would come to light. Someone had finally had the sense to make the vegetable bins clear, so one could see food rotting before smelling it.

Those slide-out shelves were too clever. That lip to catch spills: very nifty. And door racks capable of taking milk by the gallon. Had refrigeration really existed for a century before anyone thought of that?

As it turned out, the most deluxe models were denied to me. They were too big. The one with the special hatch to remove the milk without opening the door went right out.

Still, Rodriguez did find my fridge--top-of-the-line but suitably dainty. It was a Kenmore, and it had the works: moving shelves, spill control, lights, thermometers, humidity controls, filtered water and two types of ice.

Added to this, there was some kind of a merit badge for energy efficiency. But what really got me was, next to the “sound reduction package,” a message that Charlotte the spider could have weaved into a web just for me. It read: “America’s Quietest.”

Listed at 66 inches tall, it seemed that America’s Quietest Fridge would even fit my cabinets by half an inch.

Cost: $1,219.99.

I decided to remeasure the gap in my kitchen, then go to Best Buy to see if they had any deals.

At home, the gap was still the same size.

At Best Buy, a Whirlpool was loud, a Maytag too wide, a Tappan both things.

Then, there it was, a 21.7-cubic-foot General Electric model. It had everything the Kenmore had and a little more--sadly, too much more. The Kenmore was 66 inches tall; the GE was 66 5/8 inches tall and 33 1/2 inches wide. It was one-eighth of an inch too tall, one-half of an inch too wide and--worst of all--$280.07 cheaper.

Grrrrr. I thought about ripping out the cabinetry but walked away. The savings wouldn’t go far in paying a carpenter.

I returned to Sears. Here the total cost for America’s Quietest--including a last-minute decision costing $10 to get the fridge in black, plus delivery, installation, the plumbing of a water line, a spare filter and tax--was $1,515.63.

Evidently, I could get the “free” delivery fee back by paying it, then sending in for a refund.

Within three days, anxiety over the color set in. A black icebox would take me back to my 1970s hexagonal plate phase. In a sweat, I rang Sears. Rodriguez graciously changed it to white.

A week later, the deliverymen came. Moving out the old fridge, we were hit by a sudden bad smell. “Whoa, we’ve got some water here,” one of them said.

It was only getting the old Kenmore on a trolley, and tilting it, that freed gallons of bacon water that had been trapped in the back of the fridge. Though the deliverymen jumped gallantly to contain the spill, it now flowed steadily onto the living room carpet as the old fridge was wheeled out of the house.

Back in the kitchen, a second deliveryman realized that there already was a waterline. He attached it to the new fridge. Strangely, we could both hear running water. For some reason, the taps in the downstairs bathroom began to gush uncontrollably.

He unplumbed it. We decided to wait for the new waterline.

The new waterline guys came several days later. They replaced the old works with new and even offered a partial credit. But the fridge still wouldn’t dispense water without the bathroom taps flowing.

We turned it off again.

That night, I realized that the upstairs bathroom hot water tap had for some reason suddenly lost pressure.

I rang the man who re-plumbed the whole house and told him the fridge saga. “That shouldn’t affect the hot water,” he said.

It was nothing that he and $164 for newer new plumbing couldn’t fix.

One would think this would bring closure. However, the new fridge again pulled out for the plumber, my housemate took the opportunity to clean behind it.

“Look!” she cried, making a small jumping motion, as if on a trampoline.

Amazing how efficiently dry rot powders the hardest hardwood joist.

Ah, well. I had wanted to rip up the old flooring. Of course, this will also require ripping out the cabinet that I had just spent $280.07 to save.

But it won’t be happening any time soon. I am well and truly skint. I blew my wad on a dream fridge.

Which, I am delighted to report, is dispensing water and ice with such efficiency that it could pass as aplomb. This pristine machine is oblivious that it has fetched up in a wreck of a kitchen. Though strictly speaking it should be level, it works fine listing slightly into a rotting floor.

Again, I find that the Kenmore reminds me of a Kenwood blender. It used to be said that Ken Wood made these noisy so that all your neighbors would know that you had one.

Well, nobody’s going to miss my Kenmore. Its splendid French-style doors came with 1-inch high hinges. These raised its height to 67 inches, which meant it didn’t fit its gap and now stands proudly well into the kitchen.

To look on the bright side, were it neatly tucked away, nobody would ever know I had it. It is, I find, truly America’s Quietest refrigerator.