When the remote control to the television set stopped working, life got louder. Muting commercials got harder. Moreover, if you wanted to change channels you actually had to walk up to the television set and hit buttons, almost like the old days of black-and-white TV.
Obviously this was a problem of the highest priority, so I got right on the remote control repair. Later I learned that remote control repair is a thing of the past. Nowadays, you don't fix them, you buy a new one.
But when I started out on the remote control repair mission, I didn't know that.
I assumed all the device needed was some fresh batteries. So I bought the skinny batteries, AAA, and popped them in the back of the remote control. Nothing happened. Instead of springing to life, the TV set was deader than "The Chevy Chase Show."
After new batteries failed, I tried brains. I studied the front of the remote control, looking for buttons gone astray. I figured that since the device regularly traveled under the sofa cushions and through the springs of the easy chair, its buttons might have accidentally switched to different settings.
That had happened before. A button surreptitiously shifted from the "TV" to the "VCR" setting and the family room was in chaos for two days before the shift was corrected. This time, though, all the buttons were in the right positions.
After batteries and brains flopped, I tried blowing. Loosening a Phillips screw in the back of the remote control, I opened the cover, took a deep breath and sent a gust of air over the circuitry. This was an attempt to blow away any dust particles. I had seen computer repair guys and gals do this. They used a can of compressed air to clear the decks of dust, I used my lungs. After I put the cover back on, I slapped the device once or twice for good luck. I aimed it at the TV and fired. This time the tube turned on.
I felt very proud of myself -- for about two days. That was how long the device worked before dying. Once again I tried to revive it by huffing and puffing and slapping. But this time the remote control didn't respond.
I carried the corpse with me to the electronics store, where I had purchased it, along with the TV, two years or so ago. It is one of those big stores where the clerks, guys and gals in blazers, always seem to be scurrying to another department. I waved the dead remote control at a couple of clerks and said "I need one of these." They referred me to another clerk, who said the store didn't have this particular remote control, one for a Zenith TV, in stock. But the clerk said I could buy a "universal."
As I stood in line for 15 minutes waiting to buy a "universal," I began to understand why remote controls get stolen from nice hotels. The thieves are not hardened criminals who sell the stolen devices. Instead, my guess is that they are desperate viewers, who pilfer the remotes as a last-ditch attempt to get their household television sets working.
The "universal" turned out to be a remote control that worked on all the TV sets in the universe. To get it to work on my particular set, I had to simultaneously hold down buttons and punch in the code for Zenith televisions. This was not too complicated. I got it right about the fourth time I tried. The new "universal" remote turned on the TV. And sometimes it surprised me by turning on the nearby videocassette recorder as well.
Even though the remote was functioning, I still wanted to fix the old one. So I called up the Zenith Electronics Corp. outside Chicago and asked for expert advice on remote control repair. That is when I learned that as of January 1993, Zenith had stopped fixing them. Remote controls were now a "non-repairable item." The Chicago office put me in touch with Kevin Harris who, as manager of the South Baltimore store of Fairway Electronics of Maryland, was the authorized remote control man. According to Harris, the price of the replacement remote has been dropping. It now cost about $30. It has dropped about $10 to $20 lower than it was two or three years ago, he said.
Harris also told me I was not alone. He said that thanks to two constant household troublemakers, pesky dogs and failing memories, there was a steady stream of customers buying remote controls.
"The two things I hear all the time are they lost it or the dog ate it," Harris said of his customers. And when you have a "half-chewed remote control" it can't be fixed, he said. So you might as well buy a new one.