AGRR Magazine

An Afternoon at the "Free Windshield Repair" Tent
by Debra Levy

Saturday afternoon of a long Fourth of July weekend means only one thing in Northern Virginia-traffic, and lots of it. As I crept in one of those you-could-walk-there-faster-than-this crawls toward the main intersection in town, the radio announcer happily passed along the stats: a humidity level in the 70s, making the 90-degree temperature feel like 106. It was a hot sticky mess out and the traffic made it worse.

My eyes came to rest on the empty building at the center of the crossroads. For years it had been a cycle of restaurants and vacancies: fast food restaurant, then vacant, then another fast food restaurant, then vacant. It its last incarnation it had been a bar-b-que place complete with an 8 foot-tall pig in front. But they had moved on months ago, and now the place was vacant again.

But not the parking lot; it was full of action. There were a number of vans pulled in front of the empty, downtrodden store. One big sign said "CRABS" and was selling them by the bushel (not an uncommon sight in Virginia) and another was selling something that appeared to be furniture. It was the third one that caught my eye. A 10 x 10 white tent was set up facing right out into traffic with a big banner spread across it that read: "FREE WINDSHIELD REPAIR."

We've been reading (and writing) a lot about the tent merchants in the windshield repair business. I decided to stop and see for myself how business was being done. As I approached the tent, I saw a large man sitting in a lawn chair, back to the main road, and two young girls-maybe 10 and 12-playing. The tent had a table that was covered with snacks and a cooler.

"Hi," I said, "I saw your sign and stopped because I have a cracked windshield in the family. It's a very, very tiny crack. I noticed you say free repair. You do it for free?"

"Yes, ma'am we do," he said. "As long as you have insurance we do it for free-any insurance at all will do, because we bill them and not you."

"So I don't pay for anything?" I asked. "That's right," he said.

"Great, I have State Farm and I'll …" I tried to continue.

"Oh, hold on, hold on," he said. "State Farm is the insurance company we can't do that way. Starting June 1, they stopped paying for repair. Who's your agent?" he asked. I told him. "Well you call your agent and tell him how upset you are about this. It's ridiculous. Every other insurance company will pay."

At no time during our discussion did the man get out of his chair. Nor did he ask to see the rock chip I had described, yet my car was only forty feet away. When the wind picked up the tent would blow. Each time, he would yell at his girls to hold it down so it didn't blow away.

"How come State Farm won't?" I asked.

"I am not sure what their problem is, they are just trying to save money I guess. But it's hurting their customers. I can do it for $55 otherwise"

"Well, if the problem is not you, then it's guys like you," I wanted to snap back. "There are tons of people, groups, organizations that have worked years and years to increase the professionalism of this industry, to do so ethically and with safety in mind. And here you sit in front of an abandoned building with trash all around leaving thousands of people to think that windshield repair is free, when it's not, and that, by the way, you can get it done while crabs steam over there."

I wanted to say all this, but I didn't. I was trying to think of how to phrase it when he must have picked up on my strange look.

"I had something really strange happen today," he said softly. "A bottle of resin exploded on my face. It's probably still red," he added wiping his face with a cloth.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, I cleaned my eyes out good. But I never had that happen before, it just exploded," he said.

"Maybe it's the heat," I offered, but by then, of course, I knew I would say nothing else. Because the reality of it was that this guy was sitting with his daughters in 100+ degree heat breathing little air through traffic fumes on Saturday afternoon of the long July fourth weekend, trying to make a living with resin stuck to his face. I just felt sad for him.

And I feel sad for our industry. We've got a lot of work to do.

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