It was after 2 AM, and Aviva Kempner was on the phone with an America Online technician trying to get her e-mail to work. "I was in tears, and I told the guy, 'If this doesn't work, I'm going to kill myself,' " says Kempner, a Washington filmmaker who was trying to send invitations to a documentary screening.
Just as they finally fixed the problem, Kempner heard a pounding on her door. She threw on a coat over her nightgown and ran to answer it.
Outside were an ambulance, fire truck, police car, and eight worried- looking men demanding to know if someone was attempting suicide. "They went inside with me and had to verify that I was sitting at my computer," says Kempner, who assured them it was just a case of computer rage.
The AOL employee helping Kempner knew how crazy computers can make people, especially when you're self-employed and can't call in the office tech person.
I know that frustration. My aging computer recently froze just as I faced several big deadlines. I'm no techie, but I needed to save money. So I spent many billable hours either trying to fix it myself or on the phone trying in vain to get technical support.
Finally, I called Geeks on Call, only to have the computer miraculously boot up the minute the hired geek arrived. I should have been thrilled, but his presence meant I was out $60, so I was actually happy when he told me my problems weren't solved.
For a total of $165, he tweaked a few things and advised me to upgrade from Windows 98 to XP and to add memory. I followed his suggestion but still wanted to do it on the cheap, so I installed the extra memory myself and downloaded borrowed XP software.
Turns out you're not supposed to borrow XP software, and not only couldn't I install it completely, I couldn't uninstall it. Nothing worked. Then I learned that my geek had steered me wrong and I'd need a new processor to run the XP.
While I didn't want to kill myself, I wanted to have a go at that malicious machine. I was not alone. A University of Maryland study found that as many as one in ten computer users has abused his or her equipment out of frustration--most likely in the privacy of their own home offices.
That's been a boon for the rapidly multiplying computer technicians who make house calls. Most computer- and software-makers charge for support calls, which were once free.
Tom Zarei, who has owned the Computer Clinic in Northwest DC for 20 years, says sometimes he feels like he's working in a psych ward. "They treat you like the enemy, like you caused the problem," he says. Zarei says emotions run particularly high these days because there are lots more applications and more than 120,000 viruses, both of which make troubleshooting tougher. A lot of his customers come to him after experiences like mine, toiling away in their home offices trying to fix problems on their own.
The clinic quickly untangled my software problem, replaced my damaged hard drive, and sent me home, where I discovered my problems were far from over. The minute I booted up, a virus ambushed me. I lost at least another dozen hours hunting down the culprit--creepily called a Trojan horse--then trying to eliminate it before I surrendered and called the clinic back. The technicians explained that I'd been a sitting duck as I hadn't installed any protections on the new hard drive.
Now I was ready to tie my DSL cable into a noose. I'd lost about $400 on repairs and an untold number in billable hours--at least enough money for a new computer. The expenses had been so incremental that I felt I couldn't just trash the thing. The staff at the clinic took pity on me and fixed the new problem for free. They also talked me down off the ledge. I remembered that the friend who recommended the clinic was a psychotherapist.