Because I'm not a horrible person, I set a few ground rules for this project: I wouldn't lie, I wouldn't be rude, and I wouldn't tell anyone I was a journalist (or a lawyer). I've seen enough YouTube videos shaming people for whining to desperately fear invoking the wrath of the internet. Hell, there's even a "I'd like to speak to your manager" haircut.
In fact, newspapers and magazines delight in categorizing the entire generation of millennials (which technically I am, albeit barely) as a cadre of mopey, entitled infants. When we dare to gripe about not being able to afford a home or crushing student loan debt, we get slapped with a retrospective on participation ribbons and the self-esteem movement. Those who get caught complaining on camera end up carrying the burden of having their actions speak for the moral fortitude of an entire generation. No thanks.
So I started small. I texted my landlord to remind him that he still hadn't fixed my broken front-door buzzer. He said he'd get right on it. (He fixed it two weeks later.) I opened a fake Yelp account to grumble about a restaurant that claims to allow dogs but in practice does not (the restaurant didn’t do anything, but another Yelper found my comment useful). At a dentist appointment, my Eastern European hygienist got reckless with the tooth polish and I raised my hand to inform her that she was getting it all over my face.
"Better close your eyes then," she said.
So far, not so great. But then one morning I got up the balls to call my supermarket about their product selection. I waited until 11am because I thought 10 was too early for complaints. Then I had a mimosa.
"Excuse me," I said, "May I please speak to a manager?"
I detected a note of irritation. "I'm the manager. You can talk to me."
"Oh, um, well I go there a lot, and you guys don't have any chipotle mayo, which seems to be a bit of an oversight because a lot of people really like chipotle mayo."
"So I think you should sell chipotle mayo."
"Oh, sure, I can order chipotle mayo. Any particular brand?"
I was flabbergasted. So I did it again. I emailed GT's Kombucha to complain about the grittiness of the lavender flavor. And though that particular flavor is especially gritty, it was an absurd gripe -- show me a kombucha that doesn't have stuff floating in it and I'll show you a Snapple. As you'd expect, the first response was a dud. "We're happy to confirm that the 'floaties' (otherwise known as SCOBY) are edible," it said. There was a smiley face. It was clearly meant to scare off the less persistent. I responded that the lavender was even grainier than usual. I whined and cajoled. I invoked a comparison to poorly dissolved Kool-Aid. And then GT's offered me a voucher for a free kombucha.
It was like my big mouth was a Groupon.
The best day was the day I called AT&T. My bill had recently increased by $5 for no reason. This happens occasionally. I figure they raise the bill by minuscule amounts every six months or so because $5 seems too petty to complain about. So this time I complained about it.
"My bill appears to have gone up by $5," I said, over the phone.
"Yes, AT&T does this sometimes. Sometimes the prices go up."
"Yes, but why? I don't get anything more for it."
"I see here that you're on an unlimited data plan. They're probably increasing the price because they don't want people to have those anymore."
I appreciated the candor, but I also suspected she was reading from a script meant to mollify me. I was still on the hook for $5 a month. I actually cringed as I uttered the next sentence: "Yes, but what do I get for the extra money? Nothing?"
She hesitated. I wasn't going away like I was supposed to and she wasn't allowed to hang up. Our interaction began to play out like a low-speed car chase, her attempting each of the standard methods of casting me off while I remained relentlessly on the phone. With each explanation, I repeated my disappointment that I didn't get anything for my extra $5.
And then, without warning, she relented. "For your patience, ma'am, I'd like to offer you a $25 credit on your next bill."
The turnabout was breathtaking. Where a minute before I'd been powerless in the face of a corporation that would sell my voice to China if that were possible, now I could force it to give me gifts. I felt like I finally understood gambling addiction.
As the month wore on, success came more and more quickly. My total winnings included a free kombucha, a set of buttons for a coat that had lost a couple, chipotle mayo, a functional apartment buzzer, a $25 cellphone credit, a gas company appointment two weeks earlier than was "technically possible," a waived fee on a subpar box from a clothes-styling website, a free drink at a bar after I complained that my first was too minty, and two sincere apologies (one from a guy I'm seeing who'd inadvertently checked out a passing girl, and one from some friends who stood me up without texting first). I got to keep a joke I liked in a story after telling my editor that his edits made it less funny. And God bless the Ralph Lauren counter at Macy's, which let me return a purse for a full refund after two years just because it was missing a small piece of the handle. Even this story's editor, inspired by my success, complained bitterly to an airline after a bad flight, and got a $100 credit for it.
This is not to say that the experiment was all milk and honey. My dealings with ConEd (NYC power), National Grid (NYC gas), and the Metropolitan Transit Authority were all fruitless, but then those are all basically monopolies, which makes them immune to complaining -- however good I had gotten at it. But apart from the utility and infrastructure cartels, the experiment was paying off shockingly well.