"Don Quixote," Hegel wrote, "though mentally ill, is very self-assured and sure of his mission; in other words, the only symptom of his madness is his level of self-assurance. Without his reckless self-assurance he wouldn't have been truly romantic; his self-assurance is so great that it makes him a genius."
Fred Craig, of Fulton, N.Y., is very self-assured. He has spent more than a year tilting at the Fashion Bug chain, after it refused to give him store credit for a $3 pair of lime-green panties that shredded in the wash before his wife could wear them, and he has no plans to back down.
In his 15-month quest for retribution, Craig, who has already been awarded $36.41 in Small Claims Court, has picketed the Fulton and (while visiting for a wedding) Haverhill, Mass., Fashion Bug stores. He has also picketed the headquarters of the Widewaters Group, which owns the shopping plaza where the Fulton Fashion Bug is located, and the home of one of its officials. He has distributed fliers. ("I know it's not illegal," he says. "I've seen the pizza guys do it.") He has bought a trailer, attached to it a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood reading "Fashion Bug will rip you off" and driven it around town.
He has been arrested, held a poorly attended protest rally, created a Web site and been asked by his mother to stop. He has demanded that Fashion Bug make charitable contributions to the Fulton Police Department for having made the police waste their time on him. But he still hasn't received an apology from Fashion Bug for calling him a panty fetishist. In the meantime, Craig would like to be allowed back into the shopping plaza (where the Kmart also is), as the shopping in Fulton is somewhat limited. He would also like very much to be booked on Howard Stern's show.
Is Craig a quixotic genius? He has, in the past, protested unfair late fees at his local video store, and recently, he had a little problem with a grill he bought at Kmart. According to one source, he once picketed a neighbor.
Whatever he is, he's not alone. Hundreds have shared his impossible dream online. Internet complaint sites have been flourishing for years, though Craig was unaware of them. In 1995, Jeremy Dorosin of Pinole, Calif., decided to dedicate his life to criticizing Starbucks after the company sold him two defective coffee makers and refused to upgrade one of the models or write him a letter of apology.
Dorosin retaliated by taking out several full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, hanging anti-Starbucks signs from the San Francisco Bay Bridge, creating a now-famous protest site, Starbucked, and writing a book about his experiences and the profound spiritual changes they brought about in his life.
It's estimated that at least half of all Fortune 500 companies have inspired complaint sites, many of them created by dissatisfied customers with a very personal bone to pick. Wal-MartSucks.com was created by toy collector Richard L. Hatch (no relation to the eponymous "Survivor" survivor) after a store in Bangor, Maine, banned him from buying his toys in bulk. David Felton of Hartford, Conn., was so incensed that his local Dunkin' Donuts store carried neither 1 percent milk nor a "decent" low-fat muffin that he created a site for "unhappy tales about coffee, crullers and cinnamon buns." It was later bought by Dunkin' Donuts, and Felton reportedly used the money to go to law school and study Internet law.
Of course, most consumer activism focuses on product safety, labor conditions and environment responsibility; but who, when it comes right down to it, has the courage -- or the time -- to avenge the petty grievances, the little disappointments, the little crappy things that break? It takes a special person to make a big deal out of a small gripe. Craig may claim that he's doing what he's doing for himself, but when he scares off a potential Fashion Bug customer with a wave of his decimated undergarment, he's doing it for anyone who has ever had to listen to a customer service representative ask, "How can I provide you with excellent service today?" after having spent the week on hold.
Craig, whose wife proudly stands behind his astonishing transformation into the lone panty avenger of Fulton, works as a DJ at a strip club. The women there are also sympathetic, having had panty problems of their own. He has even indirectly inspired local youths to scrawl "Fashion Bug Sucks" here and there about the city; and though he does not endorse this and regrets the choice of words (his sons are young), he's glad to have made a difference.
Craig probably won't be inspiring any Broadway musicals, but his obsession is a humble reminder of the days when we believed that there was such a thing as "your money's worth" and that the customer was always right. Don Quixote's unhinged idealism, after all, was just a holdover of values from a past era, mixed in with chivalric notions gleaned from stories -- stories in which good was good, evil was evil and God oversaw production. It was his zealotry in defending anachronistic beliefs that made him brave, pathetic and kind of heroic, in a weird way.
Plus, nobody messed with Don Quixote. He was nuts.