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Monday, December 27, 2010

Huffing Post


I was held up by a computer today at Home Depot.

Usually I get into the self-checkout line, because I can always convince myself it is quicker than going to a live cashier. It never is, though. Human cashiers are professionals and can resolve problems immediately. They have override power and can enter bar code numbers manually when the self-checkout scanners refuse to do so. The self-checkout stations draw in the mentally challenged, the illiterate, and as a special holiday treat, French Canadians, who generally fit into both categories.

I deceive myself into believing that the self-checkout is quicker because of the shorter lines. Let's say there are three people in line at self-checkout, and there are two self-checkout stations available, The shorter line should move faster than being behind six people in a living, breathing, single cashier line. I do try to pre-screen the people in front of me. If the person at station A is using in a Jazzy and buying 12-foot-lengths of lumber, and the person at station B is speaking rustic French to no one, it’s time to find another self-checkout line.

This time I was next in line at a self-checkout. At station A, there was a woman who apparently knew what she was doing and was scanning her hardware as a professional cashier would. At station B, there was a man who had four large, sewer-sized PVC fittings. One of them would scan; three wouldn’t. He was very frustrated and was actually screaming at the computer: “C’mon! I don’t have time for this shit!” Considering he probably had a septic tank emergency happening at his home, I believed him. He tried sliding the pipe; he tried rolling. He tried both bottom and side scanners. Nothing worked.

Meanwhile, the self-checkout monitor was ignoring all the problems of all the self-checker-outers. Eating a chicken wing and filing down her expensive acrylic nails while chatting on her Bluetooth, this multi-tasker had clearly selected the least customer friendly tasks.

The woman at Station A, meanwhile, was performing a deep cavity search on herself, in a feeble attempt to locate her debit card.

I was stuck there. Meanwhile the seventh person in the living, breathing, single cashier lane where I should have been had taken his receipt and handed it to the store security guard. This outsourced employee was an illiterate 9-year old dressed in an ill-fitting shirt with pseudo-police patches (which probably belonged to his alcoholic father/mother who was out on a holiday binge at the time). The child made a big, pink-highlighter X on the receipt, without even bothering to look at or count the customer’s items.

Over her Bluetooth, the self-checkout monitor finally heard the PVC man’s computer rage, toothpicked out the chicken residue from her teeth, blew the acrylic dust off her plastic nails and shuffled over to the screaming man, and guided him over to her place.

The checkout screen that was now mine informed me that, “Your order has been cancelled.” I waited and waited for the screen that asked me to pick the language I wanted, but, of course, that never happened. I touched the “call attendant” button, which only served to bring up on my screen four PVC fittings. Before I could respond, the angry man returned from the attendant’s station and said, “I just have to pay now. He pulled the credit card from his wallet and selected “Cash” as his method of payment.

I don’t need to go on, do I? By this time, the lady at Station A had moseyed off to the Outdoor Grilling department and had selected a pair of barbecue tongs and was using them to probe deeper, in a feeble attempt to find her payment method.

Hours later, and with much assistance, PVC man was finished, and lo and behold, the screen asked me for my preferred language. I thought of selecting Spanish just to piss off the person behind me, but then I remembered the Golden Rule. I scanned my one 97-cent item. The screen returned with a dialog box that read, “Please show attendant your photo ID.” Why, I wondered, did I have to show a photo ID? Clearly, the computer thought I was buying Home Depot crack, so I looked up and tried to get the attention of Miss Bluetooth Nails.

The “attendant” at that time was then with her supervisor, and they were sharing a dessert.

By luck, I saw another open station and rushed over to it. The “attendant” reached her station and was dabbing her lips with her Home Depot apron and screamed at me, “Sir, you just had to show ID because you were buying paint!” But she didn’t bother looking at my driver’s license, because I looked old enough to be her grandfather. I returned to Station B, scanned my credit card and left.

Who knew that you had to have a passport to buy a 97-cent can of spray paint? I assume that it’s all because of the huffing movement going on. The only people I know who have been punished for huffing are people my age and up to 20 years younger. What good does a driver’s license do? Acknowledge that you’re old enough to huff and drive? He’s old enough to drive, so he’s old enough to kill millions of brain cells via inhaling.

I remembered the many nights as a teenager, hanging outside the Liquorama, hoping to find a really cool adult who would have no problem buying me a quart of Jose Gaspar rum for $3.99 (which didn’t even include the coupon), and I thought of a new retirement enterprise. I can stand outside of Home Depot in a trenchcoat, looking for children with blue goatees to whom I can sell spray paint at a 1900% markup. On a good day, I could do the same thing at Office Depot to sell keyboard-cleaning compressedair at a higher markup to the better groomed.

I got home at sunset, spray painted the frame I had bought at the thrift store, and I am much calmer now and have put the whole annoying incident behind me. That incident is just a fading memory. But since the can is now empty, it’s time to go scrub the paint off my face. No one would believe a 54-year-old with a jet-black goatee. Next time I'll buy silver. From a living, breathing cashier.



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Friday, October 29, 2010

How to Age Prematurely




I’ve written before about how annoyed I get when people give me the senior discount without even asking me if I’m a senior. For the record, as of this writing, I am 12 years younger than being an official senior, and I have changed my tune about taking offense when people assume I have supplemental Medicare insurance and am reaping the fruits of my Social Security.

Since April, I’ve been hanging out every other weekend with my new best friend, a 98.5-year-old woman who is the only person on the planet (above ground) who knew my dad in the 1920’s. Perhaps this has made me feel young again and not take offense to the ageist opinions recently piled upon me.

But it is more likely that I just welcome any discounts offered to or insisted upon by me. My changed tune, which sounds like Big Band music, makes me want to assist younger people in achieving the same fraudulent status of which I am now taking advantage. Yes, kids, you too, can ruin your looks early by following my unique regimen of activities that will get you significant senior discounts when you are merely middle-aged.

1. Enjoy the sun. Just as I did, you should go to the beach as frequently as possible, and take tanning accelerator with you instead of sunblock, an umbrella, and a muumuu. Just as I did, spend all day there during peak ultraviolet exposure hours. Go even when it is overcast, because you will still get a nice ruby finish to your skin similar to that of a red snapper.

2. Not near the beach? If you find yourself summering in, say, Denver, take advantage of being a mile closer to the sun and bask in the sweat-free comfort of low humidity. Lie in your aunt’s back yard on a nice big towel, drenched in baby oil, Coppertone or Hawiian Tropic tanning lotion. Feel free to take naps there from eleven AM to one PM. Then eat lunch, flip over, and take another nap from 1:15 until dusk. The days will go by very quickly, and you will be the most envied person in middle school upon your return.

3. Spend some time in the Middle East. Nothing says, “quick-fried to a crackly-crunch” more than the year I spent in the Saudi Arabian desert, where highs in the summer were in the mid-to-high 130’s. Keep your car windows down and your air conditioner off. Feel the burn and enjoy the excitement of being able to get sun blisters by just walking from your car to your doorstep.

4. Pretend that moisturizer doesn’t exist.

5. Shower in hot water and use caustic deodorant soap applied with a loofa or, if you’re budget-conscious, a Brillo pad.

6. Take care of your oily skin and blackheads by rubbing isopropal into your pores with a washcloth.

7. This isn’t anything you have control over, but you can pray that both of your parents will age prematurely. My dad was gray in his 30’s, and my mother was as thin-skinned as your average Florida backyard lizard. Genetics play an important role. It’s especially advisable to have your mother’s brothers be thin haired or bald with psychiatric disorders. A history of cardiovascular or degenerative disk disease in the family wouldn’t hurt either.

8. Remember you can always vacation near the Equator. You can go anywhere around zero latitude year round and expect a heaping helping of 12 hours of sunshine. I’ve been to Seychelles, but I've never been to Kiritimati.

Follow those eight simple steps, and you, too could find yourself:
► getting an offer for early retirement
► being escorted across the street by an adorable, clean-cut Boy Scout
► receiving compliments on what nice teeth you have for someone your age
► qualifying for Meals on Wheels
► accepting a Jazzy at no cost to you

and receiving multiple other discounts for which your peers have to sit back and wait 20 years to receive.

Here’s the latest good news. Other Bill and I just returned from a vacation in San Francisco, which is a great place to be if you want to avoid the sun and foolishly maintain your youthful appearance. We are bolder these days and now brazenly ask for senior discounts. Two of the days we were there, it was raining non-stop, so we decided to take in a couple of movies. Instead of paying $10.50 for matinees, we demanded the senior discount and paid just six bucks a ticket, which was still not enough to wheedle us into paying $29.50 for a bag of popcorn.

Back at the hotel, where the lighting in the bathroom mirror was superior to our home furnishings, I rejoiced when I saw not one, not two, but six new wrinkles just outside my tragus on both ears. Looking good!

When the sun came out again, we were wandering around the city on a crowded bus. In the front third of the bus, there are stickers on the windows that read: “These seats must be vacated for the disabled and the elderly.”

Imagine my joy when a conscientious young woman in her thirties stood up and offered me her seat.

I really wanted to accept the gesture, but I guess I’m just not there yet. I’m happy to take advantage of corporations, but not quite at the point to do the same to generous individuals.

On the flip side, later in the week we were racing a couple who was probably 25 years our junior up Russian Hill, and got there easily a block and a half before they did.

I can’t wait to tell my cardiologist.


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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Stupid Old Man Tricks


There have been some goings-on under the Bill roof lately that have me a little bit disturbed. I don’t know if I am pre-Alzheimers, just old, or just not paying attention to things.

A few months ago I made reservations to go see Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, also known as dudes in tutus. It’s an all-male ballet troupe, and the ballerinas are men. I saw them about 30 years ago and thought it would be fun to see their hilarious rendition of “Swan Lake” once more.

So we got to the will-call window, and they couldn’t find tickets under my name. They checked the credit card. That didn’t help. Apparently when I bought the on-line tickets I neglected to click the “Buy” button. The show was one night only and sold out, so after miraculously getting our parking fee back, the Bills drove back home with their tails between their legs and ate ice cream and watched part of a DVD before falling asleep on the couch.

My next theatrical gaffe took place in Miami. This time I made sure I had actual tickets in my hand to take with me. We parked the car, got a bite to eat, and when the theater doors swung open, we waited in line to get our tickets’ barcodes validated. Somewhere, a buzzer sounded, and we were rejected. It turned out that our reservations for our seats were not good until the following night.

That may sound disappointing, but at least we were early instead of 24 hours too late. And even though the next day’s date was clearly printed on the ticket, in a bold font, no less, I hadn’t bothered to read it. My mind is such a steel trap these days. Not galvanized or stainless; more like corroded and rusty. Fortunately, a trip to the box office got us, for $20 more, seats for that night that were in a better location. So that was good, because in Miami, I know we wouldn’t have gotten our parking refunded. We enjoyed seeing Spring Awakening for the third time, because apparently it is the only show that we like. And we’ll probably go see it next year as well, hopefully on the right day. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but thinking before the curtain rose, “What the hell is wrong with me?”

And it’s not just harmless little boo-boos that are making me question my sanity. Some of these things are very costly.

For instance, our back lawn was being ravaged by sod webworms. Millions of little white moths flying around meant they had larvae digesting the roots of the grass. I sprayed them once, but they came back. So it was time to spray it again.

When I went to reach for the pump sprayer, there was about a quarter of a tank left of insecticide, or so I thought. I didn’t dump it out, but merely mixed the new bug killer with the old bug killer. In less than two days I discovered the quarter of the tank left in the sprayer was not pesticide, but instead, herbicide. So, okay, the good news is that the sod webworms are gone. The bad news is: so is the back lawn. The front yard is lush and green. The back yard looks and sounds, when you step on it, like shredded wheat. This will no doubt require tilling and re-sodding unless we decide that paving is more practical, which it is. You need a jackhammer to destroy cement, not just a garden sprayer. And that would take more effort than I have the strength to give.

Another costly mistake was made earlier this year. I purchased non-refundable airline tickets to San Francisco, and, oddly enough, made non-refundable hotel reservations for the week before we were to arrive. We got it straightened out, for a fee, of course. I have no explanation for this. I can’t even make up something that would make someone say, “Oh, well, that’s an easy mistake to make.” It’s not. It’s something a bald-headed Stooge would do. It was a stupid mistake that makes it look like I am content sabotaging my own well being.

It’s scary to think about what the future holds for me. Will I buy 40-pound bags of Jello, thinking they are pool salt? I can see me diving into a red-colored pool, only to bounce back onto the pavement. Will I get quick-drying cement mixed up with the Drano? Sometimes I feel like I’ve been dropped into the middle of a Road Runner cartoon. It’s a small wonder one of my many nicknames is “Wiley Coyote.”

Countless have been the times that I incur late fees just because I forget to pay a bill on time. I’ve even started racking up fines at the library for forgetting I checked out books that I didn’t have time to read. During times of drought, I’ve tossed the hose in the pool and left it running until the pool overflowed. I once nearly destroyed Other Bill’s car after failing to tighten the oil filter after I changed the oil.

A lot of people dread getting older and forgetful, and I am certainly a member of that club. But for my own physical safety and financial protection, assisted living can’t come soon enough.



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Pansy


I’ve been called a lot of names in my life, but the worst case happened recently.

In one of his lost columns, my dad wrote about the outrage he endured one morning, crossing the street at an intersection. He was crossing a crosswalk before a impatient right-turning driver who called out to him: “C’mon, grandpa. Move it along.”

My dad was in his late 30’s at the time. Ah, the curse of being prematurely gray.

It’s not unusual for school playmates to name-call in a group in order to feign superiority, nor is it remarkable when siblings do it to each other. I have always had an abnormally large head, and my sister, even today, likes to rib me about that.

When I was in junior high school and got my braces off my teeth, I was shocked at the yellow color of my teeth. This, as I found out years later, was not due to poor hygiene but was the result of large amounts of tetracycline I got shot into my butt during my wonder years.

I tried everything. Baking soda, expensive Pearl Drops tooth “polish,” and even sent away for this tooth paint that used to be in tiny ads in the backs of magazines. There was a picture of a grinning woman holding a Q-tip against her bright, shiny smile. I saved up my allowance and got a money order and sent away for a bottle of it. It turned out to be nothing more than Liquid Paper with a different label. Sure it made your teeth white, but it had a brush-marked matte finish that stuck to the inside of your lips. It also scraped off when you ate. Another failure. Thus, my sister continued to keep referring to me as Chief Yellowteef.

Last week after receiving the slander of a lifetime, I thought back and remembered the second worst name I was ever called. It happened, not surprisingly, in seventh grade.

There was a boy who entered my sixth grade class as The New Kid, a transplant from the hills of a southern state. For want of a better name, let’s call him Andy Taylor.

He turned out to be one of my best friends in sixth grade, and at the beginning of seventh grade I carpooled with him and his little brother to school, and I carpooled home with other friends when school let out.

Andy and I used to go to movies and ride the big toboggan slide that was set up in the Monkey Wards parking lot. One weekend a family friend rented a hotel on the beach, and Andy came with me to spend the day romping in the swimming pool and eating all the free junk food that we could stuff into ourselves. It had been a really fun day.

In junior high, life was hugely different than it had been in elementary school. You were taught by several teachers, not just one. You had to get naked in P.E. and discover that some boys were developing faster than others, and it only served to make those undeveloped, unmuscled, hairless boys without Adam’s apples feel even more inferior about our bodies. Those of us who had slower hormones prayed every night that God would light a fire under our testosterone, or whatever it was that made guys bigger, hairier, and more physically defined than we were.

Over the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I disappeared as I often did to Colorado to be with my favorite aunt. After I got back, it didn’t take long to realize that the entire social structure had changed. Girls, who used to be our enemies, were often given assignments. They asked their girlfriends to ask our friends to ask us if we liked them. This was done by telephone, sometimes from parties, or note-passing or whispering in class. Whenever a friend of mine told me that a girl wanted to know if I liked her, my standard response to deliver third-hand to the girl was, “Yes. As a friend.”

That was the kiss of death for a girl. It would have been an improvement if I had instead said, “Yes, I like her at least as much as I like Hitler.”

Boys were trying to act more grown up. At the one party I was invited to, I was shocked to see boys smoking stolen cigarettes from their parents’ stash. And racy girls carried embezzled alcohol in cleaned-out green squirt bottles of liquid acne soap that they buried in their purses. Couples went to dark corners and kissed!

I was having none of that. I didn’t feel grown up enough to be doing that. Furthermore, I didn’t want to do any of that. My testosterone was still incubating in the tundra of my body.
That kind of attitude got you nowhere in a hurry fast with the people who were drawn into the popularity race. Nothing pushed you to the bottom rung faster than not being interested in girls, or cigarettes or gin.

So it was inevitable that my nouveau-cool friends would turn on me. I was standing at a urinal in the boy’s bathroom at Wilson Junior High School when it happened. The feet-to-chest porcelain fixtures were bizarrely arranged in pairs, flush against each other at 90 degree angles. I was peeing at the one closest to the exit, and no one else was in the room.

Then Andy, who had established himself by then as a jock, walked into the bathroom and stood at the urinal farthest away from me. And he started chanting in a singsong way, “Bill is a pansy. BILL IS A PANSY.”

I couldn’t for the life of me understand the betrayal. He had nothing to gain by doing this, as there were no witnesses who could cheer him on or make note of his superiority. He was saying that because he meant it.

At that time I thought he was right. Maybe because I wasn’t like he was, I was a pansy. I looked down into the urinal while zipping up. I felt tears starting to well up in my eyes, and I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent it. I made a beeline for the door. And the next time I spoke to Andy was just chit-chat, fifteen years later, at our ten-year high school reunion.

I dropped out of both carpools. The school-to-home carpool got to be too much when everyone but I was dropped off at a rich kid’s house to swim and play pool and foosball, and I was left alone in a big station wagon with the driving mother. I never had another guy-friend until four years later. (Behold, little gay one: Meet the high school drama club!)

Yeah, yeah, boo-hoo, Bill. Send yourself some flowers. There probably isn’t a gay man of my generation who didn’t experience something similar to this, usually under worse circumstances with more severe damage. At least I never got beat up.

So THAT was the second-worst sticks-and-stones thing that ever happened to me. Up until last week, at least. If people call me a pansy or a faggot or a homo these days, I immediately grab Other Bill, dip him, and give him a big, sloppy, get-a-room kiss. Even if it’s in the middle of Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. And he is usually happy to play along.

So here’s what happened last week. We were in a thrift store. My back was misbehaving, so I sat down on a sofa for sale, and Other Bill, fresh out of knee surgery, went and stood in the checkout line. I was sitting still on the couch, becoming one with the fumes of used clothing, when a man walked in front of me. I moved my leg out of the way, and he jumped back, put his hand on his heart and had this frightened look on his face. I looked back at him quizzically, and then he said it.

“Mannequin!” he gasped. “I thought you were a mannequin!”

Bill is a mannequin. BILL IS A MANNEQUIN.

Since then I have been thinking and have decided that pansy, big-head, Chief Yellowteef and being called “grandpa” in your thirties by impatient drivers are small potatoes when compared with mannequin. At least the guy didn’t tell me he thought I was a corpse.

Now that would have been insulting.


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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Miracle of Laundry


I knew they were dying. It was just a matter of time. They had been faithfully serving me for almost 9 years, even though they were both 19. They were suffering, and from the noises they made, they were obviously in pain.

So they are dead now, but not yet buried. I disconnected Amana, the dryer, from life support, called it, cleaned out the vent hose, and replaced it with a scrappy 2-year-old named Maytag Neptune. I snagged it from a wealthy couple in a gated community for $250. Thank you, Craigslist. It purred and dried a load of towels in 40 minutes, something that took the late Amana close to four hours to do.

Meanwhile, the washer, Miss Whirlpool, had been bleeding small amounts of water, so I was thinking of calling the repairman to take a look at her. This need intensified once the “new” Maytag Neptune dryer started making the sound of several thousand bowling balls being dropped from the ceiling of the Republican national convention.

So the repairman came out, quickly fixed Maytag Neptune and felt up underneath Miss Whirlpool washer and proclaimed her terminal. She obviously heard that, because 48 hours later, she stopped spinning and dropped dead.

Forty-nine hours later, Bungee, in one of her vengeful PMS moods, jumped up on our bed, vomited and peed on the heavy, king-sized comforter. And the sheets. And the mattress pad. And the pillow top foam pad underneath that.

So there we sat with a pile of laundry stench and no way to clean it. Bungee, meanwhile, basked in a lounge chair by the pool, smoking her Terrytons using a long, Marlene Dietrich cigarette holder. At the same time she sipped from her pitcher full of Long Island iced teas, munched on cucumber sandwich points and pawed through centerfolds of back issues of Playbitch magazine.

When Saturday rolled around, neighbors started calling the police because there was an awful dead smell coming from our house, so we relented and threw the big soiled pile in the back of the truck and drove to a coin laundry.

I grew up in a laundromat and hated it. Once I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, laundry duties for our household were assigned to me. For two or three hours a week, I sat in a hot room and observed the public laundry behavior of Homo sapiens, if you want to call them that.

Sadly, the laundromat has not changed much in 40 years. The last time I used a public washer, it cost 75 cents to do a load. It is now $4.25. That’s the only difference. The aura of the inhabitants of the coin laundry is identical with the laundries of 40 years ago. Back then, there was always the prototypical single Mom with two toddlers and a Chevy Vega. These days she’s a single mom of two with a sputtering Saturn. Then and now, she smokes generic cigarettes while screaming things at her children, such as:

  • I’m gonna tear you up when we get home!
  • SIT THE FUCK DOWN, AND DIDN’T I JUST TELL YOU TO SHUT THE FUCK UP?
  • All right, but don’t you ask me to buy you anything else. Today or ever.
  • Don’t you touch that, or I’ll cut off your hand.
  • When we get home, you’re going to spend a two-hour timeout inside the locked Coleman cooler.
I decided then and there that I’ve worked hard all my life, and one of the things that comes with a steady paycheck is the option to decide if you want to spend your weekends witnessing child abuse. I decided that I didn’t care if I had to pay full price for a new washer, but I was not going back to a laundromat. I’d cart my laundry to a creek somewhere and beat shirts against a submerged rock before I would start collecting quarters again.

With clean bed coverings back in place and the bedroom door locked to prevent further doggie violations, we set out to find a new washer. So for the next week I used a nit comb on Craigslist, searching for the perfect affordable cleaning machine. I made an offer on a snazzy KitchenAid monster. In her return e-mail, and the seller told me she would call me on Saturday with directions so we could come for a pre-adoption interview. She did not give her phone number.

On Saturday, after three desperate e-mails from me, KitchenAid lady did not contact me. Laundry was piling up, so we actually had to leave the house and shop for a new one. The best we could find for a new washer at a store was $750.

After physically shopping, we came back home, and I did some virtual shopping. I didn’t find any better online deals, and the laundry was threatening to take over the house. So I finally let go of the rope. I unhooked Miss Whirlpool, and decided it would be wise to replace the faucets, which were also leaking. I attached and turned the pipe wrench, and the whole fixture snapped off, copper pipe and all.

I sent Other Bill back to Sears to buy the $750 Duet. I stayed home, seething, waiting for the plumber to show up. On a Sunday. $265 and a couple hours later, I had new faucets and a $750 receipt for the Duet.

“The bad news,” Other Bill announced, “is that they can’t deliver it for three weeks.”

I went into the garage to find something sharp. I needed to cut myself in several places.

“THREE WEEKS!” I, according to Other Bill, yelled. “Wasn’t the whole point of this to—”

“I don’t mind going to the domestic violence laundromat for three weeks,” he said.

Biting through my teeth and holding a bag of garbage that contained not even one rusty razor blade, I spun around and marched into the alley to dump the bag in the big can.

But then something strange happened. The gray clouds parted and a bright ray of light shined down across the alley. I heard Gregorian chants. The light pointed to—yes!—my neighbor’s Maytag washer. It had a sign on it that read: “Still Works.” Just like the “Eat Me” cake in Alice in Wonderland.

It was a miracle from God. I called Other Bill into the alley to witness it. We stood there with our jaws dropped and our eyeballs Marty Feldmanized.

I ran to the garage, jumped into the truck and drove it down the alley, where Other Bill, armed with semi-automatic weapons, guarded this new miracle, which we named Baby Jesus Maytag. True, it was still a top loader. But it was bigger than Miss Whirlpool, plus it had bleach and detergent dispensers. I hooked up Baby Jesus, washed a half load with minimal holy water, and he worked perfectly and quietly. He was, after all, Jesus; what else would you expect?

Other Bill called Sears and canceled the order for the $750 Duet.

Meanwhile, I was planning on starting to attend church.

The next day, lo and behold, KitchenAid Craigslist lady sent me an e-mail, apologizing for failing to call me back on Saturday. Translated into Craigslist-ese, this means: The person who offered more money was a no-show. She also asked if I was still interested in the washer.

I started to doubt my religious beliefs. True, Baby Jesus Maytag could wash a mini load of clothes, but he hadn’t yet been tested under tougher conditions. Could he handle the Super Capacity load? Could he turn rinse water into Moet? If he was so perfect, why was he was a water hog and not energy efficient? I e-mailed Craigslist lady back and told her I’d have an answer for her within a few hours.

I stuffed Baby Jesus to the gills with towels and anything dirty that I could find. I set the water level to the max. The agitator moved about as fast as the Fickle Finger of Fate Award, for those who can remember that far back. For those who don’t, let’s just say that with a full load, Jesus looked like a nose hair trimmer powered him. Jesus wasn’t washing. He was soaking in it. Once again, I was disappointed by religion.

He also leaked a bit. Fortunately, the puddle looked nothing like the Virgin Mary; otherwise I would have had to go find a theatrical agent for the machine.

Several hours later we found our way back from the rich side of town, toting a massive KitchenAid monster made of concrete, covered in stainless steel, and filled with an IBM mainframe computer and its own water heater.

At this time we had five (count ’em 5; V) laundry machines in our garage: Our original broken washer and dryer; the Maytag Neptune dryer, Baby Jesus Maytag, and the KitchenAid Hulk.
A neighbor walking her dog came by and inquired, “Are you guys opening a laundromat?”


After it got really dark and the neighborhood got quiet, we loaded the Baby Jesus and Miss Maytag into the truck and idled down the alley with just the parking lights on. When we got to Jerusalem, also known as the house across the alley, we lay Jesus back in the manger and then dumped Miss Whirlpool across from him, behind our fence.

Now we were down to a washer and dryer that worked, and a broken dryer, which would have to stay in the garage until the next bulk pickup in a month. The only place to put it blocked a door.

But the next day, I received my salvation. Sure enough, another alley miracle occurred. I heard a scavenger rattling around back there. He had a pickup truck full of scrap metal, broken fertilizer spreaders, and Baby Jesus. Once again the sunrays beamed down and Gregorian chants played in Dolby sound. He was one step ahead of the city’s garbage truck, and he was clearing a path in the bed of the truck for Miss Whirlpool. I went out and helped him make room for it. Any man whom can singlehandedly lift a washing machine into a truck usually is very well built, and he was no exception. The truck was packed tall and over the tailgate.

“Do you want a dryer?” I asked him.

“You have a dryer too?”

“Yeah, pull around front. If you think there’s room, I’ll pull it out for you.”

“Oh, there’s room,” said the muscular Fred Sanford.

So at last, peace, order, and cleanliness, next to Godliness, have at last been restored to Bill and Other Bill’s Obsess-O-Mat, and I’m thinking of taking communion on Sunday.



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The Magazine Drive


Whoever said that youth is the best time of our lives obviously skipped junior high school, or middle school, or puberty school, or whatever they’re calling age 12-to-15 schools now.

During my pimple years, I wore Woody Allen glasses, braces, and orthopedic. Give me a pocket protector and dispatch me from the A/V room to set up a filmstrip, and I would have gratefully accepted the nomination to run for president of the Global Association of Geeks (GAG).

It was during junior high when I failed to develop into someone “cool” and was left standing in the tattered residue of the socially inept.

And at the same time I learned my first lesson in deceptive business practices.

In order to raise money for the school to, I guess, replace the mysteriously disappearing supply of mimeograph fluid (hence called “huffing juice”), a fund raising company was brought in at the beginning of the school year, and multiple assemblies were held. These were pep-rally-style meetings during which we were passionately encouraged to go door-to-door after school, selling magazine subscriptions. If we were successful, we would prove to competing schools that we were the best salespeople, and therefore the best junior high in the city. For all our hard work, we would be rewarded with crappy little trinkets like key chains and cheesy stuffed animals called “Dream Pets,” which rivaled today’s collectible Facebook friends and cell phone ring tones. The top sellers would actually win cool, expensive stuff, like portable 8-track tape players, the Ipods of our time.

Every morning we would bring in our hard-earned cash and checks to homeroom, where the teacher collected, counted and recorded it. Our totals were converted to Dream Pet points, which would be redeemed at the Friday assemblies. Daily totals were announced by our homeroom teacher, and those who didn’t bother to sell anything were humiliated and branded as Communists for being unmotivated, non-contributing, freeloading leeches. I believe our homeroom teachers were schooled in humiliation by being forced to watch PBS during Pledge Week.

I believe there were four assemblies during the two week magazine drive. These pep-rally-style roundups were held by sleazy, leisure-suited vermin with too much false enthusiasm. These fast-talking hyenas were slicker than used car salesmen. Today they are most likely well-paid , bottom-feeding motivational speakers (“I made millions by taking advantage of adolescents, then drank to forget, but now I’ve completed rehab, and I’m back, and this time I’m taking YOUR money.”) They would scream like Pentecostal preachers and pit individuals against each other and warn us of the looming threat of Coleman Junior High School. The Coleman kids were our arch rivals who, the hyenas threatened, were right on our tail. At the third herding, in order to spur end-of-magazine-season sales, the emcee told us that Coleman had edged ahead, and he encouraged us to work extra hard the last week so we could be the junior high sales champions. Then they paraded the big prizes up and down the aisles, like well-fed Americans tempting starving children of the Congo with gourmet food. You can smell it, but no tasting, please.

The second Friday was the day everyone eagerly awaited, mainly because it was our last day of being periodical prostitutes. On the final Friday we’d find out if our last-minute rally to ward off the Coleman threat was successful, and we’d see the top salesman crowned and given the grand prize, which was, I don’t know, maybe a new car. Actually it was probably just a portable black and white tv, but it was just as unobtainable as a new car, because no one, when it came to magazine sales, could trump Ann Schmundt.

Everyone hated Ann Schmundt. While we were out pounding the pavement, striving for just one more three-dollar subscription so we could get the coveted autograph hound Dream Pet or the plastic Road Runner that quacked when you squeezed its head, Ann Schmundt never had to set one foot outside her air conditioned pool home. Her father was a successful cardiologist and each year spent two or three C-notes on magazines, which were nothing more than a pocket-change tax write-off for him. All three years of junior high, Ann won the big prize. In our final year, sales dropped because most of us had lost interest trying to compete with Ann. If someone was on her tail at the middle of week two, Dr. Dad would simply bump up her grant. Clearly, her family was rich enough to buy her anything she wanted. Her dad had the opportunity to teach her a life lesson in hard work, or at least humility, but each year he chose to ignore that opportunity. It was selfish of her, and despicable of her rich father to allow her to claim that prize every year, and not once let the award go to someone who actually wore out shoe leather to earn it.

My school, Wilson Junior High, was an odd demographic mixture of West Tampa dirt poor and the Palma Ceia/Davis Island A-listers. Both sides of the fence unilaterally despised Ann. Years later, in an unrelated incident, I egged her car. It was a pretty blue, bought-by-Daddy, speedy little sports car. After the crime was committed, I drove close to her house and saw a police officer taking a report. Fearing that jail time was imminent, I came up with an alibi, and I waited for the men with badges to show up at my door.

So the final Friday, the Bulldog Band played, the streamers were thrown, and the motivational dweebs were in top form. They announced that yes, Wilson had beaten Coleman in sales. Yippee! We’re number one! Then they gave out the Cadillac or whatever it was to Ann Schmundt, who in addition received a smattering of applause from some teachers, but it was drowned out by the boos and hisses of the resentful. When the emcee held a microphone in her face and asked her what her sales secret was, she said, “Well, I sold a lot to my Dad.” She was lucky we didn’t rush the stage and dismember her and dine on her limbs while the band played a motivational Sousa march.

As it turned out, the Communists who refused to put their dignity on the line by begging door to door were right. When I got into high school, I made friends with a girl who had gone to Coleman. One day the subject of the magazine drive came up, and Faith and I laughed about how silly the whole thing had been.

Faith said, “Yeah, and you almost beat us every year.”

“We did beat you.” I corrected.

“No, you didn’t,” she countered.

“Yes, we did,” I insisted.

We were 17 before we realized we really had been scammed. They apparently told every school that they were number one.

By that time, Ann Schmundt seduced a friend of mine, David, and convinced him that it should just be the two of them to run away to Miami to see a Bob Dylan concert. David and I had been planning for weeks to do that, but once again, Ann held the high cards. Her sports car had air conditioning, comfort, and speed. She also had her daddy’s Shell credit card, which eliminated the need for David to sweat or pay for half of the gas for the trip. Not to mention the fact that she was female and heterosexually active. This understandably triumphed over a hot, humid six-hour drive in a noisy, black vinyl upholstered VW bug being driven by an obsessive nerdboy who had a crush on you. They ran away to attend the show, and I, the little piggy who stayed home, plotted my revenge. The best I could come up with was making her shiny new car the recipient of the coveted windshield raw omelet. I would have cooked one up for David, too, but he didn’t have a car. He always relied on the kindness of strangers for rides.

She knew I had done it; I’m sure she named me as the perp, but I was never questioned by the police. I can’t help but wonder if the investigating officer didn’t pursue the case because he had a kid our age who had gone to our school and known of Ann’s periodical infamy.

I recently was reminded of Ann and David after receiving a Facebook e-mail from Ann (which I ignored, as I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for car egging.)

They never did apologize for leaving me for Bob Dylan, just as I never apologized for vandalizing Ann’s car, and for years I maintained that she had more than that coming to her. But we’re 35 years older and have lost all interest in Dream Pets. Because the world is less safe, magazine drives are now held on the Internet. We no longer run away from home to attend rock concerts, because we are no longer reckless and care-free. It would be the civil thing for me to apologize. It would be good for my karma and my physical well being. As we move through our fifties, our so-called mature years, we more carefully calculate our risks and take our health more seriously, so I am wondering: Would Egg Beaters mess up a car just as much as regular eggs?



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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Math Whiz




One of the biggest lies you are fed as a child is: “It may not be important now, but you’ll need math skills in order to get a job when you grow up.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, unless you’re applying for a job: a) at NASA; b) as a math teacher.

All you need to know about math is how to use a pocket calculator. And that doesn’t take years and years of study. It takes, if we’re talking about me, which we are, just nine months. Even then, to this day I don’t know how to use the Memory button. And 90% of the time, after I enter a column of numbers, I’ll press the Equal button, only to realize that I forgot to turn the machine on. It’s a good thing they’re all solar powered now. That whole battery thing perplexes me.

I never liked math and was never really good at it. Here’s a direct quote from my first grade report card: “I am pleased with Bill’s ability to work with numbers. He forms them correctly and he has a good understanding of their values to nine.” Yeah, but get me into those tough two-digit numbers, and I’m as lost as Pat Robertson in a gay bar.

Nevertheless, without any say-so from me, I got put on the math fast track beginning in eighth grade. They threw me in an Algebra I class, and I had a good teacher, Miss Eason. Everything went okay. I got it, for the most part. I could solve for X. I understood that if A=B and B=C, then A=C.

Then I got into Geometry. Plane Geometry. Back in those days there was no Peanut Geometry, as I assume there is today. No one ever told me how dangerous it was before I got in there. I received no warning of the migraines that deductive reasoning could trigger. I was never given safety training on the risk involved with cleaning your ears with the sharp end of a protractor. I just thought it was math with triangles. Furthermore, I was dismayed when I learned that Plane Geometry had nothing to do with propeller-driven flying machines.

It got complicated very quickly, and in no time I was lost when presented with something like this:

If M is the midpoint of AB, prove that AM = ½ AB, and MB = ½ AB.

Wiley’s Theorem of Geometry was: If a book tells you to prove it, that means it it’s provable, so why spend time bothering with it? The correct answer was always: just because. Wiley’s Sub-theorem of Geometry was: I wish someone would invent the Internet already, so I can order the teacher’s textbook with the answers in the back.

Our class was way overcrowded with a student-teacher ratio of about 60:1, whatever that means. All I knew was that in the first report period of Geometry, I was dangerously close to getting a Scholarship Warning. I don’t know if they still exist today, but back then, nothing labeled you as a loser more than going home with a Scholarship Warning. It was basically just a note sent home to your parents that said, “Your child is a loser.” They had to agree, sign it and send it back. Actually it just a form letter to notify the parents that you were getting close to flunking a class. I had a D average in Geometry, but I ended up getting a C for that report period. I think at the time the solution to overcrowding was, “give them a letter grade higher than they earn.” I don’t know what they did with people who earned an A. That was something I seldom had to worry about.

Once I realized that I could get a C with a D average, I relaxed and saw the class as my hour each day to join others in laughing at the thick southern drawl of our geometry teacher. “All rat,” she say, “cumda ohdah.” My friend Hank and I used to literally laugh at every sentence she spoke. Every time she spoke of the Hinge Theorem (which she called the “heeeenge throm”), our lunch milk from earlier in the day would shoot out of our noses.

Like many pubescents, I like to refer to the first year and a half of high school as my Dark Ages. Probably one of the scores of contributing factors was Algebra II. All I remember about it was that I passed. I was too busy during the day pining away for a straight boy and at night taking expensive, psychologically damaging courses in Transactional Analysis.

By the time I reached my junior year, my Algebra I class teacher from junior high had transferred to my high school and was now teaching Algebra III, which was a six-month class. I enrolled because all my friends did, too. And they enrolled mainly because Miss Eason had enormous breasts and wore tight, sleeveless shirts. In the middle of the semester, she sensed that something was wrong with me and phoned my mother to tell her that she thought I might be depressed. Although I appreciated her heightened awareness, what is more depressing than having your math teacher call your mother? Pondering that now, I guess it would be a worse scenario if your home economics teacher did the same thing. Bill is not weaving potholders with his usual enthusiasm.

I used that phone conversation to convince my mother to get me off the fast math track. Instead of telling her I had managed to convince myself I was the only homosexual on planet Earth and was doomed to the life of a Tennessee Williams character, I told her that math was killing me. All you needed to graduate was Algebra II, and that was already under my belt. I finished Algebra III but never took another math class. Most of my friends went on and took Trigonometry and Calculus and wore on their belts trig calculators that cost two hundred, 1974 dollars. I think that at the time they were called waist-side computers.

Math wasn’t completely unworthy of my time. I learned some valuable lessons that contributed significantly to my life, not necessarily in a good way:

  • Don’t waste your time signing up for anything that’s not mandatory; otherwise you’ll never make your dream of becoming a slacker come to fruition.
  • Realize that you’ll only use geometry if you want to be a handyman. Even then, you can bypass it altogether if you apprentice with someone who knows how to miter.
  • Trig and Calculus are necessary only if you want to wear taped up glasses and crash a billion dollar piece of equipment into the moon to see if ice comes out.
  • Obsessing over straight men can make your life much easier.


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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Code in the Head

If I’m going to get sick, I usually get sick in January. It tends to be the coldest month here in South Florida, and this month is no exception.

Apparently this is something that I have inherited from my Dad. To prove that, I am re-typing one of his “Matter of Opinion” columns which appeared for 12 years from the mid-forties to late fifties in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. They are now out of business, but they can probably still sue me for copyright infringement, so I thought I could at least acknowledge where it came from.

This is from (naturally, January) of 1949. So call me lazy for not writing today’s story. I openly admit to plagiarism. But I hope you realize it is a pain to re-type using Sick Dad dialect, verbatim. My spell checker is now on life support.


Aboud once a year, ad aboud dis tibe a year, I stard gedding a code id the head.

Ad when I ged a code in da head, dat’s all, brudder, dat’s all.

I cad eat. I cad sleeb.

Ad worst of all, I cad think.

I just sid here and look at the blank paper in the typewriter ad wish I was dead.

Thad’s the way I ab today. I got a code in the head.

Ad I wish I was dead.

All I can think aboud is the code in my head. Ad every tibe I dry to pull myself together and remember whad it was thad I was going to write here – all I cad think of is my code in the head and how miserable I am, and how I wish I was dead. Dead, dead, dead!

If I cud just disappear for the next day or so, if I cud just curl ub in bed I might get through this all right. But you can’t do that with a code in the head. If you say, “Well, I god a code in the head, and I think I’ll go home and go to bed,” everyone will say, “Ha, ai’d he the sissy – just a simple code in the head, and he goes home and goes to bed. Whad would he do if he was really sick?”

Thad’s the trouble with codes in the head. You’re neither sick enough to go to bed, nor well enough to acd like a human being. All you cad do is sid around and dry to act bright ad –

Wish you were dead – from a code in the head!

De biggest trouble wid a code in the head, is the fact thad everyone dries to cure you. Dis is a situation I’ve never bed able to understand.

If you dell someone you have naso-pharyngitis or a bilateral upper-respiratory infection, they’ll look ad you with amazement and say, “Great God, whad are you doing here. Ged to the hospital at once!”

But answer theb ad say, “Oh, I just god a code in the head, ad I’ll be all right in a couple of days,” ad dey will pud on their best bedside manner and say, “Well, what are you doing about id?”

(Plagiarist’s note: This “bedside manner” person was clearly my mother.)

Ad that does it!

If you dake the position (which you know is true) thad there is nothing thad will cure a code in the head, they’ll look at you with a patronizing smile and zay, “Well, why do’d you go over to the drugstore and get a box ob ‘Fifteeen-Way Cald Tablets,’ those will knock a code a-looping in one day.”

You explain dad you have daken “Fifteen-Way Cold Tablets” and all they did was to make your mouth dry and upset your stomach. And den they will look at you unbelievingly and say, “Well, I don’t know, but they’ll cure my cold in nothing flat. Never fail!”

You thank dem kindly for their interest, but you don’t go buy any code tablets, for you know that nothing will cure a code in the head but tibe –

Or death!

Ad then some jerk will come along and say, “Oh, you have a cold don’t you? Well I tell you what you do. Squeeze out a pitcher of grapefruit juice. Then you alternate. Drink a glass of grapefruit juice and then a glass of bicarbonate of soda.”

There are more cures for codes than there are people. Ad none of the cures are any good. I have daken everything for a code from abble juice to zemenol. I have drunk lemonade, rock-and-rye, Tom-and-Jerry and cascara. I have swallowed bromides, powders and cathartics. I have taken so many shots my hide looks like a sponge.

But nothing cures a code in the head–

Except tibe, or death.

But still there is something the world needs worse than a cure for a code in a head. It needs a cure for all the people who dry to dell you how to cure a code in the head.

I wish I was dead!



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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Twenty Rules for Home Contractors


I sometimes hire contractors to do work on our house. Usually I get them to do work that hurts my back or labor on tasks I am unqualified to perform. Most times, I just hire them because I’m too lazy to do the job. I get three or four estimates before making a decision on the bid award. I thought I’d pass along a few tips to the salesmen who make my dog crazy when they slam their truck doors.

1. Show up on time. If you can’t show up on time, call ten minutes before you were supposed to get here and tell me what time you can get here. I schedule appointments for ten minutes after I get home from work. Don’t make me sit around and watch Internet porn in the interim.

2. Take your time. Don’t try to speak to me as if you were an Evelyn Wood graduate. If I don’t understand something, take some time to explain it to me. I’m 53. I have a long attention span.

3. Stop being an asshole.

4. This should be number one, but I didn’t want to appear revolutionary. Do NOT assume I am straight. Don’t call to reschedule and ask if Mrs. Wiley might be home earlier to receive your pitch. Maybe I recently divorced Mrs. Wiley. Maybe Mrs. Wiley, committed suicide in 2001. Perhaps Mrs. Wiley is on a respirator. The only thing even close to a Mrs. Wiley is Other Bill, and he works later than I do, so stick to the schedule.

5. Continuing with number four, don’t assume I’ll laugh at your sexist jokes about how the man has to take out the garbage; the man’s got to please the little woman; the man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. In my case, the man has stopped listening and is doing everything he can to refrain from projectile vomiting all over you.

6. Don’t tell me if you fired your “office girl” three years ago because of the bad economy. That does not instill confidence.

7. Don’t give me a fistful of brochures and say, “I can get this.” I can get that too, probably cheaper, and do it myself. Show me pictures of the work you’ve done and give me the phone numbers of the last three people you’ve worked for, or at least the last three who speak English.

8. If your overhead is an ’87 Silverado and a cell phone, do your best to shield me from that. Or, better yet, cancel your appointment.

9. A comb-over? Are you kidding me?

10. If you have a 99-cent OfficeMax binder with an underbite and cheesy, draft-print pictures falling out of flimsy sheet protectors, here are a few words for you: lamination, laptop, PowerPoint presentation.

11. If you smell like alcohol and cigarettes, I’m usually able to detect that.

12. Don’t tell me I’ll have to hire another contractor to precede your work. Subcontract and don’t tell me about it. I won’t ask for employee ID cards. If I have to hire two companies to do what I consider one job, I’ll just live with things the way they are. Unless my roof is leaking. Then I’ll just put up a tarp.

13. If at all possible, do your best to look hot. Take advantage of my weaknesses. I have hired men because of their looks. One hottie’s work was shoddy and had to be redone a few months later. Stanley is in jail now, but he’s the only contractor whose name I remember. Although he both smoke and drank heavily, he worked shirtless and drove a Harley. I can’t say no to that, even if he did have his license revoked.

14. If you see the dated, worn-out Obama bumper sticker on my car, you also voted for him.

15. If by some chance you’re a gay contractor, sweet Jesus, don’t tell me about all the drama going on in your life and expect me to identify with you. We once made the mistake of having post-quote dinner with a gay house painter, and we both came this close to stabbing him in the eyes with forks to get him to shut up. We ended up tackling the job ourselves, and what he said he could do solo in two days ended up taking us six weeks to do right. He followed rule number 13, but in his case, we made an exception. Sure, we could overlook his being high on meth, but negotiations ended when he told us that business was slow and he was making ends meet by charging for sex. Ew.

16. Clean up and take your crap with you. My grandfather was a carpenter and never left without sweeping up. If you forget some tools and don’t call to inquire about them, they’re mine. And I’ll use them. How do you think I got this nice table saw?

17. Don’t steal my tools and tell me you never saw them. I literally handed you that crowbar, Stanley. When you get out of federal prison, I’d like to have it back and get a peek at those bowling-ball biceps of yours (wink, wink).

18. Don’t charge me for a five gallon bucket and then show up with two one-gallon buckets. I know this because you left them behind. See rule number 16.

19. I know how difficult it is to cut crown molding. You miter it upside down and backwards. That doesn’t necessitate a Master Craftsman fee of $20 a linear foot.

20. If by some remote chance you win the contract, remember there might be more work in the future here if you do a good job. I once hired a window replacement guy to also hang some siding, break out a window and replace it with a door, and build a deck around the pool.

God, he was hot.


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The Nose of the Jet (or, I'm So Sorry. It's Another Snot Story)


Not long ago, I witnessed an embarrassing situation. No, someone wasn’t walking across a restaurant, wearing a toilet paper trail on her heel, and it wasn’t a woman who accidentally tucked her skirt into her pantyhose or a man with an open fly. But you get the idea.

I never know what to do in these situations, and I haven’t really researched the proper behavior one should adopt when these incidents occur. Generally, I just take the denial route, turn my head, and pretend it isn’t happening. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone besides Other Bill, parading around with an open fly. I’m more than comfortable telling him to zip up, because we’ve been adjacent for almost two decades. You don’t live that long with someone without doing things you’d prefer never to do, and wouldn’t think of doing to strangers. And quite frankly, he has done things for me that I couldn’t do for him without throwing up. He had a summer job in a nursing home once, and for years worked with developmentally disabled citizens, so his tolerance level is high. Let’s just say that both of us have had post-surgical issues to deal with that have required more than two hands, and leave it at that. Blech.

Other Bill and I had tickets on a Southwest flight to come home, and it was open seating. We were lucky and got in the “A” line, quickly took our seats and began observing all the people boarding. Sometimes we play Who’s The Hottest Man on the Plane. Other times, even though we would never publicly admit it, we do our own secret profiling. “Does this guy look like he could be carrying explosives in his underpants?” I think. “Probably not, but I better keep my eye on him. Besides, he’s the hottest guy on the plane so far.” Don’t laugh. Remember that we got a conviction for a strong-arm robber who was so memorably cute.

Several rows in front of us, a flight attendant, who was kneeling sideways on a seat, was welcoming the passengers, telling them, “Good morning. Welcome aboard. Just take any seat.” We did hear him sneeze, and later looked up and saw a significant amount of post-sneeze by-product glistening colorfully across his upper lip. Actually, at first we didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a couple of runaway nose hairs, but Other Bill, upon looking closer, recognized that the flight attendant was indeed welcoming the passengers aboard the Booger Express.

“Should I get his attention and tell him?” Bill asked.

“God, no!” I replied, for two reasons. One, nothing embarrasses more than seeing people embarrassed. Two, because this created some great potential footage for me that might one day evolve into an essay.

Most oncoming passengers just looked at him and then diverted their eyes, as if they had just seen The Elephant Man (I am not an animal! I am sinus residue!) Some didn’t even look at him, because we are a nation of people who don’t make eye contact. Some I saw clenching their teeth, trying not to laugh. One boy, as he reached our row, turned around to his big brother, pointed to his own upper lip and said, “Did you see that?” His brother smiled and pushed him down the aisle towards the back.

By this time, Other Bill had had enough, and he was trying to get the boogieman to look at him by waving his hand and pointing to his own upper lip. This mortified me, and was trying to squirm down onto the floor, but we were in coach, so there was nowhere to go. I closed my eyes tightly and tried to go to a happy place. I just wanted it all to disappear. Finally another passenger told the snotooed flight attendant he had something on his lip, and Other Bill, after seeing him wipe it off with his hand, told me I could open my eyes again.

Later, when we reached cruising altitude, the same attendant came around and offered me peanuts and a soft drink.

I politely declined but was thinking: “Never in a million years. I know where that hand’s been.” And I wanted it washed with potable water.

What do you do when you encounter something like this? I know a mature adult would tell him, “You have something on your face” while pointing to the place on his own face to give the offender an idea of where to wipe. But by that time, there is an entire Airbus 300 watching your every move to see exactly where you’re going to deposit that mess.

So I’m looking forward to another Southwest flight. I expect to hear the following pre-boarding announcement, back inside at the gate:

Ladies and Gentlemen, before we begin boarding our flight, we’d like to ask all our passengers, as we have our flight crew, to check the contents of your nostrils, as some shifting or settling of the contents may have occurred during your walk to the gate. Thank you, and welcome aboard.


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Monday, January 11, 2010

Sentimental Old Fruit



When I lived up north in the mountains of Virginia, my mother would send me, for a late Christmas present, a heavy box of Minneola tangelos, the sweetest, most pulpless, practically seedless, thin-skinned balls of heaven on earth. They were as sweet as orange Kool-aid, only natural and nutritionally sound. They look like a big tangerine with an outy belly button.

I would eat as many as I could, and when they started to get too soft, I would juice them and freeze the juice for special breakfast occasions. They were big as a boxer’s fist, and there was enough juice from just one of them to fill a tumbler with nectar.

People in Virginia could barely tell the difference between a grapefruit and a tangerine, so only rarely did I offer to share my bounty of citrus with the uninitiated. If they weren’t stupendously impressed, I would never offer them another one. They were used to buying grocery store fruit or being sent that bred-for-beauty, cosmetically-perfect orbs from the Gift Fruit World in the Greater Disney Area.

Truth be told, the best citrus is seldom the prettiest, as tweaks made from geneticists and plastic surgeons are for visual perfection and extended shelf life. These alterations can sometimes make for a thick-skinned, dry piece of tasteless carnage. Sure, it’s pretty on the outside, but on the inside: soggy packing peanuts. In Florida no one with choices buys from those citrus hacks. If you’re lucky, you own or know someone with trees, or you go to a grower or fruit stand and watch someone slice up samples from the bin you’re buying from. You buy what you taste, not what they ship you.

My mother and stepfather lived on a lake in central Florida and had a rich bounty of maybe a dozen citrus trees, which they grew from infancy and fertilized, grafted, watered and inspected obsessively. The trees, along with my mother’s fish-head-fertilized rose bushes, were dotted all over the acreage.

The little off-square shack was previously used as a weekend getaway. When they bought it, there was no electricity and no running water. The place had been trashed by vandals, and we worked hard to replace the smashed windows, scrape off all the old dirt dobber nests, throw up a little molding, and eventually convince the electric and phone companies to run cable out to the ramshackle joint. That was during my memorable voice-changing years, and I hated going there and being forced to carry five-gallon buckets of hand-pumped water to every citrus tree on the property.

As I grew older and the modern conveniences of life were brought into this Cross-Creeky hovel, the five-gallon buckets were upgraded to a long hose. My mother and stepdad nurtured those trees as if they were the grandchildren my sister and I would never produce for them. Whatever they fed them or did to them, they knew how to coax each tree into creating the sweetest, juice-squirtingest fruit you could ever taste. People in town knew their reputation and would barter for paper bags of their annual crop.

Before a hard freeze would come, my mother would throw all their blankets, including the electric one from their bed, into the treetops to protect them. Since smudge pots were banned years before, they would stay up all night burning campfires near the trees to keep the ice and frost from forming and destroying their small grove. That’s why sometimes the fruit that arrived after Christmas was black with soot, but was nevertheless still the best money couldn’t buy. I would bring one into work each day, and I’d wipe off the soot with a paper towel, peel it, separate the tender sections (Floridians call them “plugs”), and drop them into my mouth. Using my tongue, I would press the plug against my palate, and a sweet spring shower rained down on my taste buds, making them dance with orgasmic delight. My countenance would rise up and my voice box hummed.

My Virginia colleagues would look at me as if I had just eaten a bucket of bait. It’s just an orange, pal.

Eventually, my stepfather died; my mother sold the shack and its perfect little grove, moved into assisted living, had a stroke, and died too. That took a lot of time, and by the time I moved back to Florida, the Minneolas were just a good memory.

I could never find Minneolas in the grocery stores or in local fruit stands down here for the longest time. When I asked for them, no one had ever heard of them.

Turns out the Gift Fruit World in the Greater Disney Area felt that “Minneola tangelos” was not a marketable moniker, so everyone on earth now calls them honeybells. I’m sure you have probably seen them advertised in Parade magazine and seen pictures of the perfectly wax-painted, bell-shaped fruit wrapped tenderly and placed just-so in sterile boxes insulated with fake Easter grass. They charge a couple of bucks apiece for them. In the fall, you pay up front for fruit that is immature, but it comes with the promise of being shipped in January as soon as they’re ripe.

I’ve tasted those beautiful looking bells, but the ones I've had can't hold a candle to Mom's. They do, however, look pretty. I have read some online reviews by people who have bought them from cable shopping channels. These reviewers are people I would ordinarily ridicule, but they frequently describe the fruit as tasteless, seedy, membraney, tough, juicy but bitter, not worth the money, and watery. This is further proof that pretty doesn’t always come with good taste.

Not far from our house, there’s a place called Spike’s Grove, where you can still select the fruit by touch and buy it by the quarter-bushel or more. The second weekend in January we always go there to buy our annual Minneola supply. This time we were lucky to buy them before the hard freezes destroyed the crops and skyrocketed the prices. Gift Fruit customers of the Greater Disney Area might pay forty dollars for prettier fruit than I brought home for $12. I can only assume ours is tastier.

I had my first one yesterday. It was a little on the small size, slightly green on top, but still ripe, and the juicy meat of the fruit had stressed the skin to tight thinness during its outward expansion. It was a little spotted and didn’t have the distinctive, perfect bell shape or much of a belly button. It looked, and tasted like, one of Mom’s.

Maybe my back is giving me problems these days because of the miles I schlepped, struggling with heavy water buckets held with both hands between my toothpick legs. But I’m not going to say it wasn’t worth it. I brought a couple Minneolas to eat at work today, but nobody cared. They’re just oranges, pal.

They have no idea what they’re missing.



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Thursday, January 7, 2010

What Means This Customer Service?


.

CSR Shiny Robert has entered the session.
BILL: Can you please provide me with a phone number for our sales agent, John Yadda-yadda?
CSR Shiny Robert: Hi bill.
BILL: Hi

CSR Shiny Robert: Thank you for contacting the Office Blah-blah
.
BILL: Can you please provide me with a phone number for our sales agent, John Yadda-yadda?
BILL: Are you still there?
CSR Shiny Robert: Yes.
CSR Shiny Robert: Please do contact your account manager YADDAYADDA,JOHNVINCENT at johnyaddayadda@officeblahblah.com . they will surely assist you in this regard.

CSR Shiny Robert: Is there anything else I can assist you?

BILL: I tried e-mailing him, but got no answer. I've been trying to get a credit from you guys for three weeks now. Do you have a phone number for him?

CSR Shiny Robert: I am sorry . there is no phone number.

BILL: What?

BILL: How can he not have a phone number?

CSR Shiny Robert: I am sorry please do contact him through email.

CSR Shiny Robert: Is there anything else I can assist you?

BILL: Yes, please. Put a manager on.

CSR Shiny Robert has exited the session.
You are the only user left in the session.
CSR Shiny Robert: Due to the inactivity this chat session will be terminated.
Thank you for choosing Office Blah-blah. This Service is available 8 am- 8 pm EST. Monday through Friday. Please don't hesitate to use this service again
Have a nice day..


And thus ended my first, and most likely, last experience with customer service online chat. This is a direct cut-and-paste, although last and business names and John's e-mail address have been altered But Shiny Robert is real. Too real. Even I couldn’t make that one up.

The most pressing question I have for now: Is Shiny a first name or merely an adjective?

Okay, all right, I admit my last two texts were a little belligerent. Some might construe them to be borderline abusive. And no, I didn’t really think that Shiny would let a manager start typing, but I was hoping that Shiny would start typing as if he/she were a manager. And perhaps improve the grammar to even make it believable.

Maybe the conversation would have continued like this:

MGR Glossy Bob has entered the session.
MGR Glossy Bob: How may I help you? I have read your transcript, and that is all that can be done.
BILL: I’m just trying to get a phone number.
MGR Glossy Bob: And I told you, I mean Shiny Robert told you, there is no phone number.
BILL: So how does John Yadda-yadda, the person who handles this multi-million dollar account, have no phone number? No cell phone?. Do you have a CB radio handle for him, or what?

MGR Glossy Bob: Explain to me, please CB Radio. What means this CB Radio?

BILL: C’mon, citizens band radio. You remember, back in the 70’s, before cell phones?

MGR Glossy Bob: I was born in 1991.

BILL: Really? You’re a manager at age 19?

MGR Glossy Bob: I will be in October.

BILL: What are you wearing?

MGR Glossy Bob: A powder blue leisure suit and tasseled loafers. Why do you ask?

Bill: Never mind. Wrong chat room. You really don’t know what a CB radio is? You never heard the song, “Convoy” by C.W. McCall? You know, the rubber duck?

Bill: You still there, Glossy?

MGR Glossy Bob: I know not of which you are talking of. I have helped you the best I could do.

BILL: You’re really Shiny Robert on the lamb, aren’t you?

MGR Glossy Bob: I am not Shiny Robert. I am Glossy Bob. I am on the lamb but off the cow.

BILL: Huh?

CSR Shiny Robert pretending to be MGR Glossy Bob has exited the session.
You are the only loser left in the session.
CSR Shiny Robert pretending to be MGR Glossy Bob: Due to the inactivity this chat session will be terminated, and so will your entire infidel country.

Thank you for choosing Office Blah-blah. This Service is available 8 am- 8 pm EST. It’s the middle of the night here in the Middle East, so cut off some slack for us. Please don't hesitate to use this service again.
Have a nice day.

Either way, the results would have been the same: hung up on by Shiny/Glossy. Apparently, outsourced customer service is on a timer. If they can’t answer the question in X seconds, they hang up on you. It reminds me of how my aunt would get you to eat your vegetables. She would set the timer on the stove and stand above you, wielding a fly swatter. You would have three minutes to eat your broccoli before Armageddon and fly guts were rained down upon you. No one was ever brave enough to actually test this threat.

I am told I should be grateful just to be given more than 144 characters to use in my chat box.

I’m not.

Following my dialog with Shiny Robert, I dialed Office Blah-blah’s customer service line on the telephone (channel 13 on your CB radio). I was given a number to a menu. I pressed zero to speak to an operator. The phone rang 38 times and was never answered. I did finally get John Yadda-yadda’s number through internal means, even though the written contract had to be pulled to find it. Almost 40 minutes after Shiny entered my life, I was able to speak to a human. John Yadda-yadda told me he was with a customer, had received my e-mail and would call me back at 1 PM.

With a customer? So he must be real!

It’s quitting time now, 3 PM, so I am going to go home. Never heard back from John Yadda-yadda.

I try hard not to get all Andy Rooney and say things like, “Remember when business used to be conducted in person, and you, as a paying customer, weren’t treated like stale bread being fed to ducks?” No one wants to hear that. They don’t even want to read it. It just makes me sad and tired (and, apparently old, ugly and boring too).

Oddly enough, it’s my birthday today. I’m hoping there’ll be cake. If not, I wonder if there’s an online chat I can enter to correct that. If not: Breaker one nine, good buddy of mine, this here’s The Tired Buyer on the lookout for some tasty pastry. Over.


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Monday, January 4, 2010

What are the Airlines Smoking?


Okay, that’s it. I’ve had it up to my nostrils with you airlines. I just made an online reservation for Other Bill. The flights were cheap enough, but before I completed the transaction, I was given the opportunity to purchase travel insurance ($12, no thanks), and presented with the option of staying at a $250 hotel (pass). Then I was asked how many bags at twenty bucks a pop Other Bill would check (None. It’s cheaper to go to a laundromat). But then, before I could complete the deal, I had to surrender a SEAT FEE. If Other Bill wanted extra leg room, it was $30 more (each way). To sit closer to the front, where he’d be more likely to die in a crash, it was $25 more. So he will be sitting in the next-to-the-last aisle seat, which was $10 more. Such a bargain.

So what’s next, airlines? Pay toilets? Honey-roasted peanut tolls? You already charge for those “pillows” which are only big Kotex pads, and “blankets” that are no bigger than a Kraft Single. So tell us, you bunch of rat-eating pigs in space, what’s next on the agenda? A mandatory in-flight magazine reading fee? Twenty dollars for a ballpoint pen to fill in the crossword puzzle, which has a fifty-cent per word application fee and a substantial penalty if we look at the answers or leave it incomplete?

Stop it. Just stop it. Just raise your damned fares already and stop ten and twentying us to death. Double your rates (triple first class) and give us service like we had in the sixties, when a box of four cigarettes and a pack of gum for both adults and children were placed on our fee-free seats before we even boarded. Bring back those washable head doilies so we don’t have to lean into previous passengers’ hair product. Provide us with a bland, unpleasant, half-warmed meal so we have something trivial to complain about. And who are you kidding with those “reclining” seats that push back half an angstrom? Bring back the ones that allow me to put my head in the lap of the passenger behind me. I’m happy to return to my original upright position if they need to get up to pee. And go get me a magazine: a real damn magazine, not the freakin’ Sky Mall. I am not interested in choosing from a variety of cordless, rechargeable ice tongs, beginning at $350. Plus shipping.

Or how about this: Chop up sections of the plane and charge more for seats based on something real. Have a no-screaming-babies section, a no-seat-kicking section. A no-coughing-or-virus-spreading section that is wiped down with bleach after each flight. Give us comfortable, non-ass-freezing temperature compartments. Partition off a no-alcohol zone so we don’t have to hear fat, blathering businessmen broadcast their make-believe sex lives or endure their flirting with the flight attendants. I’d pay more for all of those. On cross-country or trans-oceanic flights, offer a high dose Valium for ten bucks a pill to let the people who just want a little peace and quiet be guaranteed it. If you’re going to sock us for fees, give us something tangible. I’d also like the ability to choose a non-oxygen-container-carrying plane so I don’t end up as alligator food.

This is what happens with government deregulation. You don’t see buses or trains charging seat fees. Can you imagine hailing a cab and having the driver tell you, “If you want to sit down, that’ll be thirty bucks each, over and above the fare. Otherwise the back seat stays in the trunk, and you squat.” What if I refuse to pay this airline seat fee? I’d be happy to send Other Bill off with a folding chair.

On the now-defunct People Express Airlines, you used to pay for your ticket in the air. The flight attendant came down the aisle with the credit card imprinting machine, and then, if there was time, which there never was, they’d roll out the beverage cart. Imagine a plane in a dangerous situation, and the flight attendant making his way down the aisle (in full hazmat gear as the plane fills with smoke) and offering an oxygen mask for $50. Credit, (gasp) or debit, sir?

As I said, if you’re going to charge for something, at least let it be for something we will appreciate. Use your head. As long as you’ve got the credit card scanner out, you could charge us a Landing Fee. If everyone onboard doesn’t cough up ten bucks, the captain will circle the airport and hold his breath until the jet runs out of fuel or he passes out (whichever comes first) and then let gravity take over.

You could stick us with a Gate Sleeve User Fee. That would give us the option of boarding, for a fee, through the jetway or, for a lower charge, climbing a rickety ladder onto the wing and crawling in through the emergency exit. Attention, passengers: Don’t forget some rope and a winch so you can hoist up your carry-ons and disabled relatives. You may also need a plunger to get the heavier ones through the window.

How about charging us the Important Safety Information opt-out choice? Look, if you can’t figure out how to unbuckle your seatbelt without a live demo, you have no business being an airplane passenger. Go find space in the cargo area. You’ll have to fork over a surcharge, though, based on your weight. Should have skipped that 8000-calorie Cinnabon back at the terminal.

On our last flight, Other Bill asked the flight attendant nicely if he could have the whole can of ginger ale instead of just the standard plastic thimble. The flight attendant said, and I quote, “No.” So, there you go: another revenue opportunity, the Whole Can Tax. You might want to consider a per-cube Ice Tariff as well.

We are all sick to death of you airlines and your surprise fees and surcharges and miscellaneous intangible tariffs. Seat fees: are you kidding me? You airline execs need to have a meeting and agree to charge us $300 for any domestic round-trip flight ($3000 for first class), even if it’s just from Kennedy to LaGuardia. Let us check two bags for free. Get out the tape measures and put the tallest people in the exit rows. We surrender. You win. Just come back down to planet earth and let us enjoy flying the way we used to.

And don’t forget my gum and cigarettes.


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