THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Wait a minute, Mr... Roaches, Easton fans, Webb weigh in

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the canteen at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail ["CONsumer complaint: Jail canteen raises inmate's ire," October 4]. Noting that I did not have any personal experience with the canteen– or, for that matter, any operation like it– I asked readers who had to send their experiences or observations to me.

I received one, possibly two, replies.

A woman who has a relative who had been at the jail echoed many of the complaints aired in the column, particularly the alleged poor quality of many of the products for sale at the canteen. While acknowledging the practical difficulties involved in managing a commercial enterprise in a prison environment, she observed, "Inmates are serving their time and should not be additionally punished by having to pay extra for a substandard t-shirt or pair of socks."

Another inmate merely sent the Hook a dead cockroach without any further explanation. This may have been a comment on the jail, on the canteen, or on the column– or it may have been completely unrelated to any of these. (Or perhaps the real headline should be: "Gregor Samsa dies during attempted prison break.") 

But the last week brought two pieces of correspondence that added valuable texture and context to a pair of earlier columns, albeit for different reasons.

The first was from a reader (who asked that I not use his name) saying he was "amused" by the "Kellie O'Connor v. Bernie Easton squabble" ["Leg up: Chair squabble rocks new resident," October 25]. He provided some hearty color about the nature and longevity of Easton's business. 

"Bernie Easton has been a fixture in Charlottesville since forever," the email said. "He has always run a second-hand, scratch and dent, used furniture or bargain lot kind of enterprise. I was amazed to see your report that he offered repair and then a refund." The writer noted that such offers are unusual in the business. 

As a result, he found consumer O'Connor's expectations unrealistic, particularly in this case.

"If you need a working used appliance, you might be a customer. If you want to furnish on the cheap, you might be a customer. Bernie has helped a lot of poor people get their basic needs. If you knew this man and his business and his clientele, I'm not certain your report would have been written the same way. ... When I came to Charlottesville in 1964, I bought some starter stuff from Bernie when he was the Prince of Belmont. I never had any illusions that I was shopping at the Ritz."

As for Easton himself, he noted, "Most people in his business are pure hucksters. But Bernie... is a true character and part of a vanishing breed."

I also finally received a letter this week from Senator Jim Webb regarding my inquiry six weeks ago about his position on a law to restore the right of habeas corpus ["Sens. Warner, Webb: Can you hear me now?" September 27]. Actually, the letter appears to be not from Webb himself, but from his signature machine.

I can't be sure, but the letter's stilted language and lack of substance suggest that it's a form letter designed to be compatible with a mail merge program that can insert a reference to any issue. I'm tempted to call the Senator's office and ask his position on rutabagas just to see if I get a letter stating, "As the United States Senate continues to consider issues regarding rutabagas, I will keep your views in mind." 

On the one hand, the follow-up letter is a waste of money and effort, especially in light of the fact that my published commentary about Webb's office was that his staff provided me with inaccurate information in order to treat me in an impersonal, neutral, and non-confrontational way to get me off the phone, rather than engaging with me– as a constituent, not a columnist– on the substance of an important issue.

On the other hand, it's not every day I get a letter from a signature machine with such a highly developed sense of irony.