Saturday, September 28, 2013

They Shoot Magpies, Don’t They?

This last week, I was surprised to see a letter to the local newspaper from Maggie Magpie, denouncing capitalism, the free enterprise system, private property, and the designated hitter rule.  The topics weren't surprising---that the old bat is still alive is shocking.  I thought that, by now, she would have screamed herself to death.

I should probably change the name of this blog to “Apropos of Nothing Whatsoever”, since every time I start typing, I think of three other things I want to write about.  I just realized that when I think about Maggie Magpie, I mentally picture Marjorie Main playing Ma Kettle.  Not only is there a certain resemblance, and not only did Maggie have about the same mental acuity as Ma Kettle, but Marjorie Main just seemed to have a career that started during the Civil War and never ended.  I can remember seeing her in countless movies, and every time I saw her I had the same thought—Is she still alive?  So it is with Maggie Magpie.

I think I first met Maggie when Fred Dabney, a friend, introduced us.   (One of these days, I’m going to get even with Fred for this.  It will, however,  be difficult, since as I write this, Fred’s ashes are in a cardboard box on a shelf in my office.  This is, perhaps, why I have yet to decide where to sprinkle his ashes—I have it narrowed down to the third floor of Enema U’s library or Chernobyl.)  Fred brought this elderly… my computer store because she was looking to buy a new computer.  And for several months, that is all she did—look at them.  I spent approximately the same amount of time with Maggie that it would take for someone to learn Chinese.  If I had known that she was looking for a computer to use to send exasperating letters to the local paper for the next three decades, this story would have reached exactly the same conclusion, but several months earlier.

And when she finally picked a computer, she did it exactly the annoying way Maggie does everything.

Among other computers, my store sold Kaypro Computers.  This was the age of Portable Computers.  This meant that for a fairly large sum of money, you could buy a computer with a tiny screen that folded up into a large metal suitcase--a more accurate term for these computers would have been "Luggable Computers".  Laptops were not yet available, but every company was working on them.  Kaypro, realizing that the market was rapidly changing, decided to eliminate its back stock of old obsolete parts by designing what must have been the worst computer ever made:  the Kaypro Robie.

Now, if you are designing a new electric motor, your design does not include a bathtub just because you happen to have one handy--unless, of course, you were Kaypro Computers back then.  They must have had warehouses of old, obsolete parts.  The Kaypro Robie was horrible—as the sum of its bad parts, it was colossally bad—and Kaypro knew it.  The price was low, but dealers were warned that ALL sales were final.  The manufacturer would not accept the return of a Robie for any reason.  They certainly did not want any of those old obsolete parts back.  I took one look at the Robie and refused to sell them.

Maggie had other ideas.  She saw one of these monsters advertised in a magazine—they were nicknamed “Darth Vader’s Lunchbox”—and demanded one.  (I had never advertised the Robie, since I had refused to sell it in my store.)  I tried, really tried, to not sell her one.  I explained over and over that the machine was junk, I offered her a great deal on a better computer, I begged her not to buy one….but she insisted.  I think she believed that I was trying to either cheat her or keep her from buying her dream computer.  Finally, forced by my dealership agreement with Kaypro, I had to sell her the computer.  I wrote Maggie a registered letter explaining my reservations and spelling out exactly the terms of the sale—that the computer was non-returnable and she would have to pay for it in advance.  Maggie promptly paid and I ordered the monstrosity. 

It took Maggie less than a week to discover the machine was junk.  Maggie is crazy, but she ain’t stupid.  And of course she wanted to return the machine!  While I was sympathetic, there was nothing I could do:  Kaypro wouldn’t take it back, and I couldn’t and I wouldn't sell it to someone else.  Maggie yelled, then cried, and then screamed threats as she left my store.  I have to admit that the thought of losing Maggie Magpie as a customer was the only bright part of the sale.  (Besides the small profit, that is.)

About two weeks later, I got an official letter from the State of New Mexico, informing me that Ms. Magpie had filed charges against me with the State Attorney General--specifically, Maggie thought I was guilty of fraudulent advertising.  The common term for this crime is “Bait and Switch.”  Even though I was obviously cheating an elderly woman out of her life savings, the complaint was dropped as soon as I produced a copy of the letter.

Two months later, Maggie came in the store looking for a printer.  I gently—but firmly—took her by the shoulder and escorted her to the door.  Maggie Magpie was the only customer I ever threw out of my store. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Maintenance Wars

From my experience managing hotels, I can tell you that there is no such thing  as a decent maintenance man.  By that, I mean one worth a tinker's dam at fixing anything.  While I was running a hotel, I could have cared less if one was decent or not, as long as he could tell which end of a screwdriver to put in his hand.  Unfortunately, service guys with even that small level of competence were few and far between.

To be fair, I'm limiting the remarks above to the Continental United States only.  A friend of mine is a maintenance man at a nice hotel in Hawaii, so I will begrudgingly grant him the benefit of the doubt--at least if he doesn't take too long to invite me out for a visit.  (Albert?  Are you listening?)

A few of the maintenance men I have worked with have been spectacular trouble--real  "ruin your whole year" kind of trouble.  "Kevin" (I can no longer remember what the bastard's real name was) was a prime example.  Kevin wandered into the old Jack Tar Hotel one day and asked for a job in construction.  Looking back on it, I suspect that his car was out of gas and he couldn't figure out how to leave the island.  No matter--that hotel was always  in need of maintenance--that poor 'ol aging beachfront hotel had seen way too many years and hurricanes, and being located only about two hundred yards from salt water hadn't done her much good, either.  I could have hired Jesus Christ as a maintenance man and the place would have still needed more help.  One carpenter--even a miraculous one--couldn't have fixed all the troubles.

I hired Kevin on the spot, and gave him and his wife an aging room in the oldest section of the hotel to live in.  When suitably motivated, Kevin could work, but he turned out to be a much better magician than maintenance man.  Anytime there was a really nasty and dirty job Kevin could vanish for hours at a time. (For reference, the picture is me, after I finished cleaning the hotel's main boiler.)

As a matter of fact, Kevin was so good at vanishing that one day he did it completely.  I mean, he just flat disappeared.  The first I knew of it was when his wife came looking for him.  She had lunch waiting, and he hadn't shown up.  By that night, he still hadn't shown up.  We didn't think he had run off, since it was payday, and he hadn't collected his wages. 

After he was missing a whole day, I got the housecleaning staff together and we searched the whole hotel.  This was a long, two-story hotel, with multiple buildings, hundreds of rooms, two restaurants, three bars, basements, and tunnels connecting the buildings, so there were thousands of hiding places.  We looked all day long--I called in all the employees who had a day off.  No Kevin.  So we called the police and the next day, the police helped us search everywhere, again.  No Kevin.

After about a week, Kevin's parents got into the act.  After being threatened with a lawsuit, we searched that hotel a third time.  By now, we had spent a hell of a lot of man-hours, at considerable payroll cost, searching for a guy who we suspected just wasn't there.  His paycheck, his wife, his car, and his clothing were still there, but...No  Kevin.

Eventually, we gave up.  Kevin's wife moved out, we rented his former room, and I mostly forgot about Kevin.  Then one day, I picked up the newspaper and read a story about the unidentified remains of a man being found in the swamp at the east end of the island.  If you drew a line on a map between the hotel and Tuffy's Bar--a place on the far eastern tip of the island frequented only by the locals--it would pass right through that swamp.  Could it be Kevin?

I called up the police, who connected me with the coroner, and I described my missing man.

"He was over six feet, thin, with sandy blond hair and a beard, and wearing shorts, a khaki shirt, and boon-docker laced boots," I said.  I had given that description so many times, I could do it in my sleep.

"Yeah," the coroner said.  "This could be your man.  You better come view him."

Most people who know me would probably say that I'm not exactly the squeamish kind.  Quite a few might even be emphatic making this point.  Still, I did not  want to do this.  Kevin--if that was him--had lain in that swamp during the summer for months.  I will spare you the grisly details, but there are....critters....that live in a coastal swamp.

So I went down to the coroner's office and viewed the body--what was left of it.  Years later, I got a degree in Anthropology.  I have taken a few classes where you have to identify bones and determine the sex of a skull, etc.  But even then--without any formal training--I could immediately tell that the body I was viewing belonged to a short, stocky, black man, who had been in that swamp for only a few days.  Not Kevin.

Later, of course, I found out that the coroner was a sadistic bastard who had everyone come view every body, identified or not.  Evidently, it's lonely, being the only person alive in a large walk-in refrigerator.  Twisted evil troll!  I hope he ended up in his own cooler.

Eventually, about a year later, we did find out what had happened to Kevin.  His body was found 50 miles away in Houston, inside a stolen van, which had been abandoned inside a storage locker.  According to the police, a motorcycle gang had stolen a van load of leather jackets, and decided to hide all the evidence in a locker which had been prepaid for a year.  Only Kevin knew their connection, and he wasn't talking.  This will never be on an episode of "Storage Wars!"

Kevin wasn't the only problematic maintenance man: there was also Hobo Joe.  Hobo Joe was--and here you may be way ahead of me--a hobo.  He drifted in and out of town, usually working just long enough to qualify for some form of benefit, then reentering premature retirement.  Unfortunately, during one of his brief forays into gainful employment, I discovered him face down in the back of one of the hotel bars.  Although he was supposedly cleaning a drain, he had elected to clean out a case of hotel beer instead.

When I fired Hobo Joe, he was angry enough to file charges against the hotel with the local Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) people.  According to him, the hotel's basement was a dangerous working environment.  Specifically, in one corner of the vast, labyrinthine cellar, there was a pit, eight feet square and about six feet deep.  At the bottom of the pit were powerful pumps that would switch on automatically in the event of flooding.

According to both Hobo Joe and the people from the office of OSHA, it was a potential hazard that needed both protective rails and a covering grate.  I was notified that an inspector was coming.

Two weeks later, when the inspector finally arrived, I led him down into the basement and to a corner where the inspector could see about 200 square feet of fresh new paint on the floor.

"What happened to the sump pump pit?" the inspector asked.

"When I realized that it was a working hazard, I had it filled in." I answered.

Satisfied with our compliance, the OSHA inspector wrote out a warning and left, happy and content at having demonstrated his bureaucratic power.

I suspect that he would have been a little less happy if I had led him to the correct corner.  Paint is cheaper than railings.  Any good maintenance man will tell you that.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The South Forty Inches

My garden is pretty much a disaster this year.  The tomato plants started producing late because of the heat and have started dying early just to be perverse.  While the cherry tomatoes were abundant, the large tomatoes--all five of them--probably cost me $25 each. 

The only thing the garden has really successfully produced--besides weeds--is parsley.  While useful, it is hard to build a meal around a plant that is sort of like pubic hair: it's attractive, but you have to push it out of the way before you start to eat.

Even that is now seriously in question.  My parsley is alive with caterpillars, yellow-and-black-striped, big, fat caterpillars.  If it were left to me, I would just spray the plants with Raid and call it good.  (No, I wouldn't worry about pesticides on my food--personally, I think pesticides and cholesterol are probably what give food flavor.)  The Doc, however is about as excited as a boy with a new puppy.  According to her, these ugly worms on steroids will eventually turn into butterflies.  Specifically, Black Swallowtail Butterflies. 

Somehow, The Doc is under the impression that it is okay to sacrifice the parsley crop (you wouldn't believe how much these suckers can eat) so that we can produce a flock of butterflies.  While I admit the butterflies do sort of look like an insect version of the P-38 night interceptors with racing stripes, I can't imagine that they will stay in the back yard long enough for me to even see them after they hatch out.  It is not exactly like a butterfly is useful for anything.

But it has given me an idea.  What would grilled caterpillars taste like?   Think about it--the only thing these bugs have eaten is nice, fresh--and regrettably pesticide-free--parsley.  If you pan-fried them in butter with a lot of garlic and a few chopped scallions....I bet they would taste a little like bacon.  Probably better than escargot.  Linguine a la Lepidoptera. (And it would be an eye-catching dish, too!  Or as the Chinese say: Ho Wok Mei!)

The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds.  I've eaten fried worms in Mexico.  The Maguey plant--from which we get tequila and mescal--attracts the Tequila Giant Skipper butterfly.  The big red worms that hatch out are considered a delicacy.  While they are often fried and flavoried with lime juice, the best tasting ones can be found in the bottom of a bottle of mescal.

The Doc would never miss a few dozen culled from the herd.  (What is the correct collective noun for a stampede of caterpillars?  In the off chance that no one has yet come up with one--allow me the honor.  From now on, it is a squish of caterpillars.) 

Unfortunately, I would probably find out that pan-fried über worms just taste like chicken.  Lately, everything tastes like chicken--except for chicken and store-bought tomatoes (They both taste like cardboard).

But if the new menu works out as I hope, next year I may just forget all about planting tomatoes, lettuce, and chives, and just plant a few mini-pastures full of parsley for my livestock.  Just in case, I'm working with a pair of noodle-neese pliers and a paperclip to come up with an appropriate micro-branding iron.  Perhaps a flattened W--the Lazy Wiggle.

As a good ol' Texas boy, it is more in my nature to be a rancher than a farmer anyway.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Congress Is Not in Session

Last Saturday, President Obama surprised the world when he announced that he would "allow" Congress to debate and vote concerning military action against Syria.  As luck would have it, Congress is not currently in session and the only person who can call it back into session is the President.  And the President absolutely does not want to do that.  Why not?

In 1807, President Jefferson had a somewhat similar problem.  The British had long been at war with the French, and in an effort to keep their navy preeminent, had been violating American neutrality by stopping our ships on the high seas and forcibly removing sailors they claimed were "British deserters."  Actually, depending on their manpower shortages, they occasionally just seized Americans and "pressed" them into British service.

The combination of using force to stop American ships and the impressment of our sailors infuriated our infant country, but the fury turned to rage after the British ship, HMS Leopard, attacked the USS Chesapeake just off the coast of Virginia.   The British ship pursued the Chesapeake and fired broadsides into her, forcing the American vessel to lower its colors and allow the British to board her.  The British removed four sailors, one of whom was subsequently hanged.  

The country demanded war--literally screamed for war--and President Jefferson wanted to punish the British.  He didn't like England in the best of times, and this was clearly an act of war just off the American coast, but as president, Jefferson knew that this country was no match for the British.  During his administration, the readiness of the American navy and army had suffered:  put simply, our military was not capable of taking on the British.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war, and Congress was eager to do just that--but Congress was not in session.  Congressional leaders insisted that Jefferson call a special session, and when Jefferson refused, one newspaper called Jefferson a "dish of skim milk curdling at the head of our nation." 

Jefferson knew that by the time that Congress came back into session, the fury would have abated and the eagerness for war would have  passed---and he was right.   Congress eventually passed a few idiotic trade sanctions that had the net result of impoverishing America and doing almost nothing to the British.  All the economic progress since the revolution was wiped out by the misguided trade sanctions.  Unfortunately, five years later--under a different president--America did declare war on England and the fledgling country just barely survived.

If swift action were what President Obama really wanted, I think he would have called a special session of Congress for the first time in over sixty years.  But on September 9th, when Congress is already scheduled to reconvene, the heat of the moment will have cooled, and a vote for a military strike will be less likely.  What is also clear is that--no matter what happens--the fault will then be on Congress.