Safe Opening: Mexican Standoff in Chinatown

Ken Dunckel
Owner, Safecracker
Safe & Vault Service in the SF Bay Area and Northern California
CA License 1985 CA Contractor 553337
415-203-7298 Mobile

A man who ran a garment factory in a nineteenth century Chinatown building hired me to open a big double door safe. It had been trapped in the basement since before the 1906 Earthquake. Lots of big old safes downtown are trapped now with so many sidewalk freight lifts gone extinct.

At first there was a language problem, but we had common ground, since we were both fluent in Arabic numerals. I wrote down my price, he looked, said okay.

The price I'd given didn't warrant spending manipulation/dialing time on a lock as difficult as I know that type to be, so I drilled and used optics to open it. The main door swung as the owner watched. Inside were three heavyweight burglary resistive inner chests, two key-locked, one combination locked. This was a very deluxe setup, then or now. They filled the inside of the safe.

A new and twofold problem registered instantly in my mind. My open-repair price had been for the outer safe only. Opening more safes meant more money, and these were indeed separate safes, any one of which would have done its owner proud.

Reluctant as he'd been about the cost of my outer door work, I doubted my client would want to spend more. Hence the second part of the problem: Without making at least one inner chest useable, his safe remained useless. Why would he want to pay to end up with a useless safe?

To clarify, I kept it simple, pointing and saying "more money." Then I elaborated, writing a per door price on a sheet of paper and handing it to him. He understood, but I could tell he didn't like it much. I busied myself, removing the lock and dial from the door to prep it for after drilling repairs, and the owner scurried off.

He returned with a much younger lady who looked related. In flawless English she said, "There seems to have been a misunderstanding."

"And . . . ?" I asked.

"My father thinks you should not charge more for opening these inside doors."

"I gave him a price based on what I saw before starting. One safe. What you see are three more safes. Your father agreed to my price. He didn't say there were safes inside."

"He did not know. We cannot use this safe if the other doors aren't open. There is no reason to spend money if we cannot use it. You are in this business. You should have known about these doors."

"Should have known? Think," I told her. "If I could have seen inside, do you think I would have drilled a hole? Wouldn't I be smarter to just look through doors to find unknown combinations? And if I could do that, don't you think I would earn more money doing other work?"

I had her treed, but she hung tough on the money. "That is still too much; my father says it should be included. Otherwise we canot pay for this" She indicated the just-opened outer doors, now missing lock and dial.

"Opening the inside doors means I do a lot more work, and it means you pay more."

"But that is the misunderstanding. My father's English is not good. He thought you would do whatever it took to make it work."

"If he wasn't sufficiently competent in the language to hire me, where were you until now?" I was starting to lose it, but I figured by then there was no chance of pulling the initially agreed-upon outer door fee out of this.

I had her again, but as the saying goes, it didn't cut no ice. I took a different tack. "I've wasted my time here today. I'll stop now. There won't be any charge at all. Your lock parts are there. They need to be reinstalled after the drilling work is repaired. Why don't you get some bids for this work? If you hear a better price, take it."

"I feel bad for your having spent this time already," she said gravely.

In a matching tone, I said "Not bad enough to honor your debt, so imagine how I feel."

"What if we get a better price from someone else, but want you to do the work?"

"Then you pay my price. If you want to pay the better price, the person who gave the price does the work. You don't let your business competitors price your products, do you?"

Along with irritated, I was getting impatient. Gathering the last of my gear, I said, "This has already cost me enough. If you decide you want me to do the work, you know my price."
I wasn't as irked at them as I was at the dumb luck circumstances of the whole affair. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, though. When you get dealt an obvious loser, the smartest move is to fold and cut losses.

Sadder but wiser, I went about life. Lo and behold, the daughter called back after almost a year, wanting me to come, look, and give a quote for opening the same inner safes. I didn't know whether she remembered me or was starting afresh and shopping The City.

Being coy is tiresome, so instead I jogged her memory, with "I don't need to come and look. I remember. My price for opening them is same as it was the day you didn't pay for the work I already did."

She tried hammering the price, but in light of our first encounter there was no way I was ever going to accept less. She said she'd think it over, and I wished her a good life.

Almost another year passed, and there she was on the phone again, saying she and her father had decided to have me do the work. When could I be there? The time span by then was reminiscent of the Paris Peace Talks.

"Not so fast," I told her. "Let's go over this again." I recounted the door-by-door pricing, and got her acknowledgement. I totaled the prices out loud, and got her to acknowledge that number, and told her payment was due upon completion, no terms.

To her credit, she made one last play for a discount. I was ready, though, and hammered the return volley: "You'll be paying a two-year old price. At current pricingthis work would cost at least fifteen percent more than my original quote. And I'm mot charging interest on what you still owe from that first visit. That's already a discount, don't you think?"

It worked, because she next wanted to know when I could get there.

The work went fine and I got paid. My price. Probably the smartest thing I did on that job was getting out early on the first visit, while tempers and tongues were under control.


Note to readers: Please feel free to comment and post your thoughts about this and any of my posts. Don't worry, I'm pretty thick-skinned. Thanks.


Anonymous said…

Thank you for your wonderful posts! I enjoy your style of writing, and look forward to days when new posts appear in my acct.

Are you able to let us know about what was found in the other 3 chests? Inquiring minds want to know. :)

fish said…
You're a better man than I! I would have left them both swinging.

Of course after 5 years my temper might have cooled.

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