The CompuDoc Will See You Now
The choking night fog crawls across San Francisco, rolling off the Pacific whitecaps and slowing city traffic to a crawl. A lone pedestrian looks up from the crosswalk and is startled by a ghostly apparition straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. An enormous three-ton steel behemoth glides through the intersection, emergency flashers blazing through the thickening soup. The 1972 Cadillac ambulance barrels over a hill and points its chromed nose in the direction of the Castro District, where, behind a Victorian window, a confused man stands over his crippled IBM-compatible PC.
Take a deep breath and relax, the CompuDoc is on his way.
The CompuDoc is 33-year-old John Fenton, who has spent the last two years roaring around the Bay Area fixing pesky computer problems on the fly. Since last September, his preferred mode of transportation has been the '72 Caddy, a respectful 21 feet of two-tone Omaha Orange and stock white, all original lights and sirens intact. An illuminated sign above the windshield reads, "We make house calls."
Indeed he does. Whether it's an office building or private residence, Fenton arrives at a typical call wearing hospital scrubs, doctor kit bag in hand, prepared to bandage a hemorrhaging hard drive or resuscitate an ailing piece of software.
"There's a lot of on-site service companies, they charge something like $95 an hour," explains Fenton. "My rate is 45 an hour. So basically, you're talking about the same rate that if somebody was to take their computer into a computer shop. Also it would take about a week," as opposed to the CompuDoc -- usually the same day and always within 24 hours.
Originally from New Jersey, Fenton is no stranger to the road. After years of whipping the wheel down Jersey turnpikes hauling everything from potato chips to Coors, he realized one day how little money he was making.
"Fuck it, I'm moving to California," he remembers saying, and parked himself at a computer school here in San Francisco. After checking out the expanding market for computer repair, he invented the CompuDoc persona, bought some surgical scrubs, spent $10 on an introductory fax campaign, and began establishing a fix-it reputation by night while toiling at Toshiba during the day.
The concept grew in stages. At first, it was just Fenton hopping the Muni in scrubs and paramedic bag, but after a stop at a rest area on I-280 near Black Mountain Road, he saw an old ambulance for sale by the caretaker, and leapt at the chance to supplement the CompuDoc picture.
"You can drive a Porsche, you can drive a Jaguar, you can drive a Maserati," says the self-confessed car buff, "but if I'm coming down the street, people are going to look at mine first. It sticks out. Hearses are a dime a dozen. They're easy to find."
As with most medical emergencies, there is no real pattern to CompuDoc calls; difficulties run across the board. Occasionally Fenton can talk the client through the problem on the phone, but nine out of 10 calls into the CompuDoc switchboard require an on-site visit, he says. And if you purchase a computer from him, you also receive installation, setup, and an official CompuDoc birth certificate.
Unlike the majority of physicians, however, the CompuDoc never takes a day off to work on that golf swing. Fenton is glued to a pager seven days a week, working out of an office on Polk Street. Overhead is low: an answering service, a garage, gas and oil, and the occasional rear axle seal.
The Cadillac presented a unique problem to the bloated bureaucracy of local parking authorities, who couldn't figure out exactly how to license commercial plates to an ambulance, since nobody ever does. After three hours of vigorous and pointless de-bate, Fenton convinced them that the vehicle should be classified as an ambulance and not a station wagon.
We go for an evening jaunt in the Compu-Doc mothership, its luxurious cockpit cluttered with maps, computer manuals, junk-food bags, and mysterious stray electrical wires. As expected, she rides like a battle-ready frigate, solid and deliberate, gulping gasoline (with leaded additives) at a forehead-slapping 9 mpg highway, 5 mpg city. According to the vehicle registration, she tips the scales at 6,900 pounds dry (that Honda Accord DX sedan in your driveway weighs 2,800 pounds). The dashboard has been preconfigured by the previous owner for a miniature television, radio, and scanner, all of which have been removed, leaving gaping holes in the plastic. Fenton assures a new dashboard is in the near future, as well as a new coat of paint.
He guns the engine and the Caddy lurches confidently around a corner. No noticeable sway whatsoever.
Like any successful business, CompuDoc fosters dreams of expansion. Fenton envisions teams of assistants zipping around the Bay, but "they gotta wear scrubs or they don't work for me." He plans to take the Caddy around to local street fairs, renting an extra booth to accommodate the size. Perhaps a sister operation on the East Coast. Anything to avoid working 9 to 5.
"There's a lot of places that make you dress up for work," says the CompuDoc. "I'm not going to do that. Every day is going to be casual for me. Just wear the surgical scrubs, keep the white sneakers clean, that's about it."
The assemblage of taillights and flashers recedes back into the swirling mist. The CompuDoc never sleeps.
CompuDoc can be reached at (415) 673-3674. Address all Slap Shots correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; fax: (415) 777-1839; e-mail: Slapshawtsaol.com