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Fair Play

I once worked as an auto mechanic at a family-owned service station. Our shop was located in a secluded section of a white-collar beach community strip mall that included a grocery store, a coffee shop, and four small businesses. We performed all the basic car repairs, such as tune-ups, oil changes, brakes, and wheel alignments. Most of the neighborhood families came to us for basic servicing and repairs because the major car dealerships and auto repair facilities were miles from our station. Over time, we gained the neighborhood’s trust and friendship.

We knew most of our customers on a first-name basis. Their children and grandchildren were like extended family members to us. During my tenure at the station, I learned that all families experience problems, and sometimes our customers shared their problems with us. In some ways, the small beach community was like Bedford Falls: neighbors and small business owners supporting each other in close community. But over time, I learned that some small communities like ours incorporated a Wisteria Lane.

One afternoon, a young woman named Janet who lived in the area drove her Volkswagen Scirocco into our shop to diagnose a rattling noise in her trunk. She stated that when she drove over a speed bump or drove into the driveway, she heard a metal-on-metal noise and was worried that something was loose in the back of her car.

“When did you start hearing the noise?” I asked.

“About two weeks ago, sometime after my divorce,” she said. “I took it into the dealership, and they told me that one of the rear shock absorbers was defective, and that it would cost me $300 to replace it. So I thought I’d bring it into you guys to see what you think.”

Now Sheree, the shop owner’s wife, was standing next to me listening to this conversation. She grabbed my arm and interrupted me before I had a chance to reply.

“We’ll get right on it,” stated Sheree, in an anxious tone. “Why don’t you walk next door and grab a cup of coffee and we’ll let you know when it’s done.”

“Sounds great,” said Janet.

As Janet walked out of the shop and headed towards the coffee shop next door, Sheree turned to me and said, “I want to know what you find before Janet comes back. OK?”

“OK,” I said.

I got into Janet’s car, started the engine, and drove her car around the block, listening for the noise. As I drove over a neighborhood speed bump, I heard the noise from the rear shock area: a metal-on-metal noise, sounding somewhat like a marble or golf ball bouncing around the trunk area. When I returned to the shop, I opened the rear hatch and poked around with a flash light, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Finally, I drove the car on to the alignment rack, hoisted the car above my head, and searched around the muffler area for any signs of trouble.

And that’s when I discovered the problem: something was hitting the muffler. It looked like two marbles tied to strings. Sam, a retired Navy captain who worked at the station, was standing alone at the gas pumps. I called him over and asked him to take a look. He looked up at the muffler, smiled, and said, “I know what those are. They’re Clackers!”

Clackers (or “click-clacks”) were a popular children’s toy that annoyed and terrified many unsuspecting parents. The toy consisted of two 2-inch hard acrylic plastic marbles attached to 12” strings that secured to a small ring. Holding the ring between your thumb and index finger, you would implement an up-and-down hand motion to bounce the balls against each other. Using a more aggressive hand motion, you could bounce the balls together both below and above their hand, making a clacking or “click-clack” noise that gave the toy its name. However, the toy was eventually discontinued because the acrylic balls would intermittently shatter during use, presenting a serious safety hazard.

Apparently, Janet’s ex-husband found this toy somewhere (probably at a neighborhood garage sale) and tied it to a component above the muffler, allowing the acrylic balls to bounce on the muffler when Janet drove over a speed bump. As I reached up to disconnect the strings from the muffler, I found a message taped to the undercarriage of the car with some derogatory statements about their dissolved marriage. As I removed the Clackers and message from the car and then stood beside the hydraulic lift, Sheree approached me from behind.

“So what did you find?” she asked.

I handed her the Clackers and the note. She read the note, and her face turned red. I backed away a few inches.

“Don’t you dare tell her what you found!” exclaimed Sheree, poking my chest with her right index finger. “Just tell her that you fixed the problem. OK? I don’t want to lose her and her ex-husband as customers, and this is none of our business.”

“OK Sheree,” I said.

I lowered the lift with Janet’s car to the ground, and then drove her car off the lift. After I parked the car behind our shop, Janet appeared.

“So…did you find the problem?” Janet asked.

“Yes,” I said. I hesitated for a moment, searching for the right words to say. Looking over Janet’s shoulder, I could see that Sheree was waiting to jump in and interrupt.

“One of the rubber muffler clamps was missing, causing the muffler to bounce around when you drove over a speed bump” I said. I felt guilty for not telling her the truth about the noise. We gained her business and trust a few months earlier after helping her understand and reject some unneeded repairs that were recommended to her by a local Volkswagen dealership. “I had an extra one in my toolbox, so I installed it on your muffler. It’s OK now.” Sheree gave me a big smile.

“Well thanks,” said Janet. “What do I owe you for the repairs?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It just took a minute to fix.”

I handed Janet the keys to her car, and she drove away. Later that day, she returned to our shop and handed me a dozen, freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

“Thanks again for all your help,” she said. “You guys are awesome!”

That day, Sheree taught me a valuable lesson: Don’t become a catalyst for anger. Instead, become a catalyst for change.

In his book entitled 9 Things You Simply Must Do, Dr. Henry Cloud states my lesson another way: Don’t play fair.

He explains:

What do we do when we get less than we deserve? Fair is giving good things to others as long as they give good things to us. Then if they fail us in some way, we respond ‘fairly.’ We give it right back to them, either at the moment or soon thereafter. Either our words or actions say, ‘That’s not fair. Therefore, I am not going to do good to you anymore. In fact, I am going to give you exactly what you are giving me. Then you can see how it feels.’

The problem is that operating by the principle of playing fair, all it takes for one relationship to go sour is for one person not to perform, then the other one will do the same. There is an interlocking dependency; the other person must be good so I can be good. In this kind of dynamic, we need the other person to be loving in order for us to love them, or to behave maturely in order for us to behave maturely toward them. Under the ‘play fair’ system, deterioration is inevitable.

I could have shared the truth with Janet, ensuing a fight with her ex-husband and ultimately losing both of them as customers. As a small shop with a dedicated clientele, losing two customers was a big deal. Thankfully, Sheree helped me take the high road and stop the anger in its tracks.

In the proceeding weeks and months, Janet returned to our shop for scheduled maintenance and gas. Her ex-husband continued to come in as well. We never lost their business.

And our shop was always stocked with chocolate chip cookies.

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