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Below the Beltway

The very large men stood outside the very small basement door of my urban row house, holding a new washing machine, dubiously eyeing the aperture through which they'd have to pass. They had already removed the appliance from its bulky cardboard box, but there was still just a quarter-inch of clearance.

"Can't guarantee there won't be scratches," said the foreman.

"No problem!" I said. "We like scratches!"

"We love scratches!" amended my wife, the lawyer, who said she'd be happy to indemnify the delivery men in writing, individually and severally, in perpetuity, for any blemishes, large or small, whether incurred through scrape, dent, gouge or trough. Just get it in.

We had been rendered temporarily insane, having been without a home washing machine for two months and three days, trapped in the Catch-22 of having an "extended warranty." This meant that after the old washing machine broke, we couldn't buy a new one until we'd given the company essentially unlimited opportunities to repair the original. They kept sending over the same mechanic, who would arrive each time with a different part and a can-do attitude, only to emerge from the basement 40 minutes later, stammering and weasel-eyed. He'd never come right out and say he'd failed, but I'd know it, because he always began, "OK, here's where we're at. "

The third time this happened, I stopped him with a raised palm, met his eyes, man to man, pointed upstairs, and growl-whispered, like Clint Eastwood to the punk: "Do you hear that noise? That is my wife taking a shower. Judging from the length of time she has been in there, she'll be out in about one minute. I strongly advise you to not be in the house when I have to tell her the washing machine is still not fixed." I have not seen a big man move that fast since Jumbo Elliott was opening holes for the New York Giants.

I know what you are thinking: These are modern times, you are thinking. It's not as though we were going to have to go down to the creek to pound our clothes clean with rocks. And you are right. It was worse than that. We had to use the local laundromat.

This laundromat is not one of those brightly lighted, cheerful, modern suburban facilities with amenities such as jukeboxes, arcade games and children's play areas. This laundromat is frequented by persons who use it to wash the clothing they are currently wearing. The only amenity is a bathroom with a toilet that doesn't flush. There are two signs. One says "No Loitering"; the other, "No Beer." Half of the 20 small machines don't work, meaning that whenever we descended on it with a week's worth of laundry produced by three adult people, we needed all available machines. The first thing we did -- even before unpacking our clothes -- was to scurry from one machine to another, pouring a cupful of soap into each. We were like feral dogs, marking our territory before anyone else came in to challenge us.

One day, just moments after we arrived, a woman came in with a basket of clothes. Hunched protectively over machines we had not yet claimed, we stared up at her in such a way that she stopped in her tracks and slowly backed out.

After six weeks of failing to fix our old machine, the appliance company finally declared it dead. The fulfillment of the warranty, alas, fell to a second company, which took two more weeks to decide that it would offer us three-quarters of the price of a new machine. This deal was a bald-faced violation of our warranty, which guaranteed "full replacement." Plus, the offer didn't cover our aggravation or the more than $150 we had spent in quarters. It was deeply insulting, utterly outrageous, clearly tendered on the assumption that we had no dignity worth protecting.

We said yes immediately.