American Times - Washington: How may I hinder you? Watchmender frozen in time

American Times WASHINGTON
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AS WITH almost everything in the United States, service comes in at least three varieties.

The first is service as in work performed with no expectation of reward (which is rare). The second (more common) is "service" as the acceptable face of personal ambition. It is the reason people give for standing for political office or engaging in voluntary work, when what they are really after is political power or points on their CV for admission to a good college. The third is "service" as in "economy", the dynamo of American prosperity that provides jobs for the young and unskilled and keeps America humming.

That it may do. But this sort of service is not all it is cracked up to be. It is not a completely alien concept: when my computer's innards were wiped clean by a virus, a local company collected it, restored it to health and returned it within 24 hours. But this is the world of high tech; low-tech service frequently falls short - which would not be so bad, were Americans not so utterly certain of their global superiority in this department.

The nub of my complaint is not the standard European's gripe that service people turn on their smiles only in the expectation of the tip. Nor is it the widespread inefficiency that stems from make-work jobs and a culture of extravagant choice: the queue at a restaurant for the "greeter"; the queue at the car park while an attendant fetches your car; the queue at the coffee shop while each customer agonises between the half-cream hazelnut latte and the medium semi-skimmed hazelnut.

No, the chief problem with low-tech service comes from inattention verging on incompetence. Maybe luck has deserted me recently, but I have two watches, three pictures and - until a couple of days ago - my car, stranded at various locations across Washington being worked on; work necessitated, or prolonged, by American "service".

The first watch needed a new battery, but the winder was yanked off during the installation process, so the shop sent the watch for repair. To Virginia, as it happens, where it spent two weeks before being returned, with winder, but not working. It is now on its third trip to Virginia, and this one, I am told, will take longer because the watchmaker has gone to a funeral in India.

So my "reserve" watch was mobilised for action, but its battery installation - at a different shop - went no better. They smashed the glass: it would have to go away for repair, where it still is.

The pictures went to a highly recommended establishment for framing, but first for an estimate. Abortive attempts to extract the estimate, and then a second, were long drawn-out and finally unsuccessful. The biggest picture remains unframed.

And the car? A punctured tyre was swiftly replaced with the temporary spare. But finding and having fitted a permanent replacementturned out to be a longer-term project. The requisite tyre type was "on back order"; One mechanic said, helpfully: "That means it has been discontinued." An equivalent was eventually tracked down and fitted. When I collected the car (having been upbraided by the garage for not collecting it sooner), the hub cap fell off within the first 20 yards. My travails are as nothing compared with the experience of a colleague with his semi-functioning air-conditioning - a whole saga of unfinished work and temporary fixes, which has just entered its second year.

If you thought the Great British builder was a high-charging procrastinator meet Washington Bob. He will offer you a new system any day, but repairing the almost-new? Don't bank on it. Forget all that hype about the "service economy". What really drives America is the buying that everyone has to do when - as so often - it fails.