I am sitting here on a sunny afternoon waiting for a $200 rebate check from Young America, a town of about 1,000 frozen souls in northern Minnesota.
It may not come in one amount but trickle in like ants under a doorway, check by check by check, or ant by ant, until the full amount is realized.
I have never before received money from a place called Young America, so I'm not sure how long it will take for the Young Americans to get it all together. But I'm not planning on the income to pay next month's rent, that's for sure.
It's this way. I bought a new computer from Best Buy electronics a few weeks ago for a lot more than I wanted to spend. A clerk convinced me that it was really a terrific deal because I would get a $200 refund. Use the extra money to buy something for the missus or stock up on Corona beer.
When I asked how I would receive the rebate, I was assured that I'd just have to send a simple proof of purchase to the friendly product manufacturer and he'd send me the money without delay.
I should have been suspicious when the checkout clerk handed me a whole packet of different receipts for the single purchase, but I wasn't. I trusted the offhand manner of an attitude that seemed to indicate that getting the rebate was about as easy as licking an envelope. But that would only be true, as it turned out, if the envelope came with the kind of licking instructions that would baffle an oral surgeon.
The computer was contained in three different boxes: the brains, the monitor and the printer. But when I got home, I realized that I had to fill out five different receipt forms and attach each one to a separate rebate receipt. Then I had to cut out a section of each box that indicated proof of purchase and mail everything to five different addresses. Four of them were in Young America, and one was in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Why I had to fill out five receipts for what was, at best, three items was only one of the mysteries that confronted me. In addition to that, the amounts on the receipts overlapped and the instructions were written in language that would challenge a PhD in Chaucerian literature. And to cut a square from a box built to ship computers around the world is an effort that requires physical abilities honed by years of pumping iron, which I do not, alas, possess.
I concluded that the reason for the five different receipts was that the rebate amount for at least one of the items was probably split among many companies. For instance, it seemed to me after reading everything that I would receive checks for $80, $30 and $20 for the monitor; $30 and $20 for the printer; and $50 for the tower.
The only problem with this conclusion was that the rebate would have amounted to $230, and I was reasonably certain that the manufacturer, however friendly he might be, would rather dance naked in hell than send me $30 more than he had to.
Patience is definitely not one of my virtues. I greet unnecessary complications with roars of protest couched in a variety of colorful terms. Part of what irritated me playing the rebate game was that I felt it was made deliberately confusing so that people who do not have six years at an established university will just say to hell with it. Not sending in the rebate forms would thereby benefit the manufacturers while screwing the little people.
By the time I finished the rebate process, I was not only trembling with rage but had elevated the decibels of my roar to a level that rattled windows. When my wife threatened to tie me to a tree in the backyard, I decided it was time to stop roaring and do something other than make noise. So I turned to the telephone.
I called Best Buy first, but the menu was so endless that I gave up. Then I telephoned the rebate center listed on one of the receipts. I spent 15 minutes complaining to a man who was probably eating lunch while I talked or playing one of those hand-held video games. His best response was "Uh-huh." I get better feedback from my dog.
As a last resort I called my congressman, Brad Sherman. He's the kind of guy who can soothe a rankled constituent with the empathetic manner of a father consoling a prom queen who's just discovered a pimple on her nose. I think he said, "There, there now," and made me feel pretty, but I'm not sure.
Beyond that, he shared my sense of indignation and suggested that overly complicated rebating might either be price discrimination or false advertising. "Why don't they just give you the $200 at the store?" he demanded rhetorically. "It's an inefficient way for retailing to be done!"
Then I discovered that he was sitting on a $35 rebate form himself and probably wouldn't send it in. I'm sure it's because he can't figure the thing out, even though he is a graduate of both UCLA and Harvard Law School. We ended our conversation with him saying it should be looked at by a Congressional Committee on Consumerism.
I'm not sure if it will be or not, but I hope so. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for all those scurrying Young Americans from Minnesota to send me my $200. It may not be a $60-million lottery win, but it will mean a triumph over the best efforts of greedy corporate hogs to keep the money for themselves.
Al Martinez's columns appear Mondays and Thursdays. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org.