COLUMBIA -- It started innocently enough, my cable television ordeal, after 17 years of good service.
The past few months, tired of wasting my time flicking the remote from one old movie to another, I had switched to "Limited" service -- just using the cable for good reception to get the same channels available with an antenna. Since I live in Columbia, I can't have a rooftop antenna.
One recent night there was just snow.
One call to Comcast Cablevision later, nothing had changed. The next night, I called back and waited 30 minutes on "hold" before speaking with someone.
The next night, the picture returned and I could tell someone had taken action. The cable terminal at the end of our row of townhouses was left exposed, the cover next to it, wires splayed around the base.
Next night, no picture. This time, 38 minutes on "hold." The following morning, the picture was back -- partly. Another call. A repair person was coming that day, I was told.
That night, after 9 p.m., a frazzled young man knocked at the door, examined the fuzzy picture and, after complaining that he had other customers with no picture who were in greater need, he concluded the cable box was bad. He brought a new one and said he'd program it from the computer in his truck.
Next morning, MTV came through great. But we don't subscribe to MTV, and changing channels on the cable box did nothing to change what was on the screen. Another call to Comcast. The helpful employee did electronic things and asked me to change to Channel 2. No response.
"It must be your box," he said, suggesting I take it to Comcast's Ellicott City office on Plumtree Lane off Route 40 and exchange it for another.
So I stood fourth in line, watching a very casually dressed couple holding walkie-talkies shaped like professional wrestlers. The guy in front of me muttered to himself and turned in his Comcast equipment, complaining that he was home awaiting a Comcast service person but missed the appointment because he was in the bathroom and the person was gone by the time he got to the front door.
I turned in the box and the woman behind the glass window tested it and said it worked fine. The problem, she said, isn't the box.
"You have Limited service. You need a special box." She said a repair person could be there in 10 days to bring the box because they don't have any in Ellicott City, only in White Marsh, and that I must be home to let the person in.
I asked to see her boss. She refused, saying there was nothing she could do.
I called White Marsh and asked why a Limited box couldn't be sent from White Marsh to Ellicott City, that day, where I could pick it up. Again, the person on the telephone didn't know what was needed to fix the problem and said they couldn't send a box to Ellicott City because that's not the way they do things.
After I explained that I am the customer and they are in business to serve me -- not the other way around -- she agreed after some off-phone consultations to send a repair person between 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. the next day, while I'm was supposed to be at work.
After more hushed consultations, she agreed to my request to have the repair person call me at work, which is just 10 minutes from home, so I could meet the person.
Next day, I got a call from a woman who works for a Comcast subcontractor, Excalibur Cable of Elkridge, who canceled the appointment because, she said, they were out of Limited services switches. They wouldn't get any for six more days.
The next day, my curiosity was tweaked by the sight of a Comcast service truck backing into a space on my corner. The repairman was headed to my neighbor's, two doors down. He had lost his signal about the same time I lost mine.
After more than an hour's work digging up, cutting and re-splicing cables, this intelligent, good humored, helpful Comcast employee fixed service to three of the six homes on our row, including mine.
In the process, he determined that my problem wasn't with a switch but was in the faulty cable box the earlier repairman delivered the previous Wednesday night. He replaced it, and all was well.
It turns out a different crew had been out several weeks earlier to replace a cable in the ground for my neighbor. Comcast's service headquarters appears not to have realized that three service calls from one row of townhouses within a week could be related.
Larry Carson is a reporter with The Sun's Howard County Bureau.