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Gary Younge
The home of service? It took seven months to get the cable guy round

For the belief from Europe is that America is the home of service culture and New York is its capital. As long as you can pay for it then anything you want is yours.

While stuffy Old Europe (regardless of what Donald Rumsfeld says, it all looks old from this side of the pond) remains too bound by tradition to give consumers what they want, Uncle Sam is supposed to be flexible, agile and ready to please.

When it comes to coffee, pizza and salad dressing, this is true. Those who demand that a waiter go light on the milk, heavy on the cheese or easy on the balsamic, are considered not fussy but blessed with self-knowledge.

But once you move on to things like gas, electricity and phones, where tipping is not included, it soon becomes apparent that this country's forte is not service but marketing. They can sell you anything.

But try to actually buy it or use it or God forbid, change it, and things fall apart. Try to question what is wrong and the people on the other end of the line - who come only when you have run out of touch-tone options - completely malfunction.

A few months ago my phone suddenly stopped making long distance calls. When I called to report the fault I was told everything was in order: having run up a $200 bill, I could no longer call unless I paid it off.

The fact that I had received no bill, and was not going to for another month or so, did not matter. When I asked the woman how I was supposed to know that I had reached my limit, or that the limit even existed, she said: "I'm telling you now."

When we tried to register the electricity in our name we were told our flat didn't exist. Our insistence otherwise caused nothing but irritation. Last week our existence was confirmed for the first time when the electricity company threatened to cut us off.

Which brings us back to cable. It has been seven months since we first called the people at Time Warner, who were similarly certain that our apartment was a figment of our imaginations.

For four months, not even our landlord could convince them otherwise. Ordinarily we would have simply looked elsewhere but in the home of global capital, Time Warner has the monopoly on cable rights.

Finally, it sent someone around and damn it if we weren't here in all our flesh, blood, bricks and mortar. It then took them two months to persuade their computer of our presence before they sent a man who left within five minutes because he couldn't get into our basement.

The next was scheduled to come between 2pm and 6pm last Tuesday. Six came and went as did seven phone calls from Time Warner to ask if he had arrived, followed by assurances that he was on his way.

At 7.30pm, he finally showed up, smiling, lanky, with an armful of drills and cord and so charming that it was all I could do to concentrate on being annoyed. As soon as he apologised for being late and explained that he had been given far too much work to do, my sulk dissolved into bonhomie and I offered him a beer.

"Why did they keep phoning and telling me you were on your way when you weren't?" I asked him.

"I think they think it will make you feel better," he said, and then guided me through the gizmos to Chandler's waifish days.

Next in our summer season of quotes from New York's judiciary, we go to Ms Verdell Bivins.

Bivins is not a judge but was selected as a delegate to elect a judge in Brooklyn. On paper, New York's judiciary is far more democratic than anything Britain can offer. Those charged with dispensing justice have to submit themselves to the popular vote. In practice, particularly in a Democrat- dominated city like Brooklyn, that means packing meetings and rigging the votes that you have not already bought.

Bivins was chosen, without her knowledge, as a delegate in a district she no longer lived in. "I mentioned to them that I was no longer in the district, and you know what?" she told the New York Times. "They told me to vote anyway. I guess it didn't matter. It was during lunch hour, and the whole thing was so short."

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Another Day in the Death of America
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