Friday, August 31, 2007

Hung Up On Time

#288 Hung Up on Time

The Frommeyer Apartments on E. 79th Street has finally come into the 21st century. As of now, every apartment has its very own telephone. This was forbidden until now. If you needed to speak with someone who lives in The Frommeyer, you had to dial the building and the lobby operator would plug you in and ring the phone upstairs.

They started that in 1907 when the place was built. And now, at age 100, they’ve finally given up.

The Frommeyer was said to be the last apartment house in all of New York that had that kind of privacy, though it was common in earlier times.

So was this: You wanted to know the time, you called MEridian 7-1212. The recorded voice would read you the time, followed by a beep-tone every ten seconds.

Haven’t thought of that in years, have you.

Well, apparently, not many others did, either. And state by state, the phone companies discontinued the service. The next-to-last was California with service stopping in September, 2007.

That means there’s only one state in the entire union that still has a call-up time service. The state is Nevada.

Now, there may be a good reason for this. After all, Nevada may have fewer clocks per capita than any other state. There are none, for example, in any of the casinos, where they have a big interest in your forgetting how long you’ve been at the table.

In a brilliant journalistic move, the Los Angeles Times asked the wing of ATT that serves Nevada how much longer they’d keep the service going there.

In an equally brilliant publicist-for-hire response, the company said “until we can no longer repair the equipment if it breaks down.”

Which is another way of saying that they’ve downsized so much that all the guys who know how that stuff works don’t work there anymore. And no one has the wiring diagram. And the woman who modeled the automated voice died 50 years ago. And besides, who can get parts for those old things.

Must be the service is still making money in the State of Few Clocks. Those calls weren’t free. And you could never worm a time-check out of anyone who’s calls ARE free, like the operator or the repair service or the billing office.

Back at the Frommeyer, you couldn’t make that call to MEridian 7 1212. You’d pick up the phone, the lobby operator would come on and you’d ask her (and during the late night hours, him,) for the time. The operator would look at the wall clock and tell you what it said. Those lobby operators also knew the weather report and the temperature. And they’d tell you THAT, too, if you wanted them to. All part of the service.

So, most of the residents now have computers, their own clocks, televisions with the Clock Channel pre-programmed into their HDTV “Favorites.” And they have their Rolexes.

As for the rest of us, we’ll have to face facts: we’ve been hung up on.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

(Parts of this item were first aired on my WBLF radio program.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Check This

#287 Check This

You know by now that if you don’t put your account number on the check, you can’t be sure the people on the receiving end will give you credit for the payment.

Oh, they might, if they’re in a good mood. The account number’s on the bill stub, after all. But you can never be sure. You can conjure up images of billing clerks gleefully throwing out checks that don’t have account numbers written on them.

Or maybe papering the walls of their cubicles with them.

But account numbers are getting so long, these days, that there isn’t room on the “memo” line of the check to fit the whole thing.

Credit cards mostly have 16 digit account numbers. 1234 5678 9012 3456. Unless you have a teeny tiny handwriting, that won’t fit on the line. So the first thing you do is start the first four numbers over the word “memo” instead of next to it.

You then have to wonder if they billing clerks will read that far to the left. Chances are they will, even if they don’t want to, since in reading English, our eyes tend to fall to the left-most part of a line.

This leaves you with 12 digits to fit on the line to the right of “memo.” If you cram them in, will those laugh-a-minute cubicle dwellers be able to read what you’ve written? Or will payment to your account go into someone else’s?

If you make the numbers big enough to read, you spill into the signature part of the check and have to make your signature teeny tiny or abbreviated. That’s probably okay, because no one ever looks at the signatures.

In fact, you could sign the thing Condoleezza Rice and no one would know the difference, even if you can’t spell Condoleezza and add an “l” where there isn’t one, or get rid of the second “z” which is silent, anyway.

The credit card folks have been using those lovely 16 digit account numbers for years. Not to be outdone, the utilities and telephone companies are starting to use still LONGER numbers. Twenty one digits in the electric bill, for example.

Along, of course, with the usual admonition to “write your account number on your check or money order.”

The chances of correctly copying a 21 digit number onto a check and getting it right and then having it read correctly are pretty small. How about if you write the number on a sticky note and stick the sticky note to the check. (The payment instructions tell you not to staple or clip anything to anything else, but don’t say anything about sticky notes.)

Checks aren’t the only things that don’t give you enough room to write a number that’s required.

Ever try to get the model and serial numbers on a rebate coupon or a warranty card?

Ever try to FIND the model and serial number on something like a cell phone or a computer, let alone copy it correctly and legibly?

Not likely.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Monday, August 27, 2007

Travelogue to Nowhere

#286 Travelogue to Nowhere

The country is full of industrial-revolution era towns and cities, most of them unmemorable and interchangeable. They’re tombstones to a bygone era that could be our ultimate un-doing.

Tall, red-brick buildings. Railroad tracks. Wide streets. No traffic, vehicular or pedestrian. No trees. Stores that have changed hands 90 times in 100 years, but still have the original engraved signs on the doorsteps or the tops of the facades.

This could be Springfield, Ohio, or Manchester, New Hampshire or Red Hook, New York. That it happens to be Tyrone, Pennsylvania is immaterial.

Nothing ever happened here, or at least nothing you’d know about unless you’re the town historian. Doesn’t matter. In combination, places like this once formed the second tier of industrial America.

Detroit, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh. These were the centers of industry. But in large measure, they depended on places like Springfield, Manchester, Red Hook and Tyrone. That’s where they made the things that were put together in the big centers and came out as paper and steel and coal and cars, trucks and battle tanks. Or they were the places that produced the clothing everyone wore or the shoes… or the blankets and bedspreads.

Some optimist re-opened an abandoned paper mill in Tyrone. Some optimist opened a grad school in Manchester. Maybe you can hold your breath long enough to see how well these operations survive.

Some of these places are quaintly run down. Others are just run down. You wander around places like this and you wonder “what do these people do for a living? How do they make ends meet?”

If it weren’t for the gas station/convenience stores, there’d be no commerce at all.

On a Saturday mid afternoon, the lone real estate office is closed. The guy who runs the aquarium store is sitting on the stoop, smoking. The woman who runs the dress boutique is in a rocking chair, talking with a non-customer.

There’s a bank on the corner. A VFW hall that could fall over at any moment. You have to wonder what war that was built after. A freight train rumbles through town. It looks empty.

Some of these places are more out of the way than others. You have to wonder why anyone goes there who doesn’t make a wrong turn somewhere during a trip to somewhere else.

In the meantime, in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, broad and well-paved streets – Denver-style wide. But unlike Denver, no safety worries crossing against the traffic light.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Friday, August 24, 2007

Benny The Shark

#285 Benny the Shark

It was a few years ago. Benny the Shark is sitting in the back of Moe & Flo’s Diner on Fordham Road and he’s got the Wall Street Journal on the table and he is scratching his head.

He’s thinking about business. He’s reading the business trade paper. He’s seeing that he’s been outclassed, outflanked and outranked.

Benny is in the business of making what he now thinks of as “sub-prime” loans. It’s a family business. He’s been at it for decades, as were his father and grandfather before him.

It used to be simple. All you had to do was find some guy who was down on his luck and lend him a few bucks when the banks wouldn’t. Then you’d collect the interest every week and eventually – sometimes, some infrequent times – the principal.

“The banks are putting the little guy out of business,” he complains to Rosario, who has just brought him a health salad and a glass of V-8.”

“Benny, chico, you can’t smoke in here no more. Put out that cigar the other customers are complaining.”

Life is unfair, thinks Benny and he puts out the cigar.

“If you can’t smoke in here, howcome you got ashtrays on the tables?”

“Not on the tables, only your table… so when I tell you for the 100th day in a row to put out the cigar, you put it out in the ash tray and not on my floor. Again.”

Life is unfair, thinks Benny and pushes the salad away. Used to be business was booming. Then, along come the banks and they’re practically giving away money. No one’s got gambling debts. No one’s got house payment debts. No one needs guys like this anymore.

Fast forward to today. Benny’s at the same table, eating what could be the same salad, with the same cigar crushed out in what’s probably the same ash tray. Rosario is still the queen of Moe & Flo’s and the banks are going out of business.

In fact, some of his best new customers are guys who worked for banks, made lousy loans and lost their jobs and are up to their eyeballs in debt of their own.

“Amateurs,” thinks Benny. “Dopes.”

“See what it is, is these guys did only half the job, these banks. They get a guy who needs some bucks, they don’t look at him too hard, they lend him the money, he can’t make the payments, and they take him to court. Court! That’s not how to stay in business. They’re finding that out the hard way. You don’t take the guy to court, you put the paper out for collection. And that’s something else they don’t do well. I should be a loan consultant to the banks. If there ARE any banks after all this court crap.”

Rosario has gone off the floor. Benny eyes the cigar and goes for his Zippo.

But right about then, this guy walks into the door. He’s wearing Armani. He’s got that dazed look men like that wear when they go into a place like Moe & Flo’s. Looking around.

“Ah,” Benny, that’s probably a guy who used to be from GreenPoint Mortgage. He’s my 4 o’clock, and he’s right on time.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hey, Rube!

#284 Hey, Rube!

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist, born in the 1880s, and whose popular drawings
were mostly based on a single premise... making a simple job complicated.

For this, he invented all kinds of implausible machines which gave many a laugh
and provoked many a a thought.

There's an annual contest to invent and actually BUILD a Rube Goldberg style
machine that works.

This year, the winner was the Purdue University Society of professional
engineers, who made a machine that turns on a flashlight in 125 interrelated

The contest requires only twenty steps in a machine designed to accomplish a
simple task, like swatting a fly or lighting a cigar.

Goldberg started his working life around 1900 as a designer of California

And he soon realized that technology (remember, this is 1900,) that technology
was making life much more complicated than it needed to be.

This was the message through much of the rest of his life.

We haven't been listening.

Of course, it's not ALL bad.

But check this out: a great many kids today don't know how to tell time on a
common (or as it's now known, "analog" clock.) They need the digital readout.

This is NOT progress.

The word processing and graphic and spread sheet and PowerPoint programs on
your computer can make any of us Walt Disney or Johann Gutenberg.

It can take the inflated prose or crooked scheme and make it look so "official,"
so attractive, so real that we accept it as being important...

This is not progress.

This is not a diatribe against technology... just silly technology.

We owe longer lives for ourselves and our car batteries to devices that turn on
when needed and off when not.

We have whole libraries of information at our fingertips and we don't have to be

And we have cameras on practically every street corner to make sure we behave
ourselves, something which we apparently aren't capable of without supervision.

But we also have incredible complexity. the simple act of leaving the house,
driving, shopping, or getting anything done at work has become so rube
goldbergrafibed that we accept it without question.

Thing of it is, Goldberg was tongue in cheek.

We have, as they say, taken it to the next level.

It still only takes one step to turn on a flashlight.

But you wait. they day will come when that expands to the Goldberg minimum of
20 and the Purdue engineering win at 125.

A note of thanks to those of you who read these blogs via the link from The Kingsland Report.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Rockefeller Technique

#283 The Rockefeller Technique

Ask Sam Walton, this works. John D. Rockefeller got a few bucks under his belt and started selling oil at a loss and putting everyone else out of business. Having done that, he raised his prices and made up the difference. It’s easier to do this now than it was back then. And it hits the bull’s eye every time.

A refinement came along when it looked like Japanese investors were buying up most of America’s best real estate. David Rockefeller, the head of the Chase Bank, figured out a way to give Mitsubishi Bank a royal screwing by dangling parts of a couple of realty dogs in front of them, and selling part interest which everyone thought was selling out, but was really selling nothing. Mitsubishi lost its shirt. Rockefeller walked away with enough money to buy Pluto and kept control of the real estate.

But the king of this technique had to be Nelson Rockefeller, and his caper didn’t even involve money. It only involved power.

Rockefeller was governor of New York. There was this guy, Robert Moses, whom everyone hated and feared and who seemed to run all the highways and the bridges and the parks and managed their planning and construction. He didn’t answer to anyone. He was the King. Governors, presidents, legislators, party leaders all kissed his ring and let him do what he wanted. Those who tried to get rid of him paid a heavy price, usually in a ruined career and near-homelessness.

Rocky was smarter. He took a look at the downstate transit systems and decided he could make one single agency that controls the New York City buses and subways, the suburban buses and commuter railroads and – oh, while we’re at it, let’s include the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was King Robert’s power base.

And that’s what he did. Moses would come to his office as always and issue orders. They wouldn’t necessarily be followed. He proposed building stuff. It hasn’t been built to this day. Nice office. Full staff. Good furniture. Fine salary. But Rockefeller shut that patronage mill down. Not that it hasn’t re-grown. But he offed the guy no one could touch.

And while he never admitted in so many words, we all pretty well knew what his object was, and that he’d accomplished it.

Now this was some decades ago and lately, people have forgotten how to do these things.

But there are a couple of pretty good potential cases awaiting. For example, the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania are thinking about selling off their namesake turnpikes, or leasing them for a quick buck.

New Jersey’s Corzine should know better. He’s spent most of his life in the real world, accomplishing real things. Pennsylvania’s Rendell is just a politician and can’t be expected to know about how things really work.

These guys really want to kill the patronage mills run by the people who run the various roads. And the way to do that is to make a new agency that includes those people. Then, all they have to do as put their own guys on the agency’s boards and that’s the end of the patronage factory. At least for a decade or so.

Both governors are honking madly about how their states need money to fix bad bridges. Selling highways is not the answer. Just take a look at those elephantine budgets and move some money around. The roads get fixed, the bridges get fixed and the entrenched fixers get unemployment comp.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Friday, August 17, 2007

Political Capitalists

#282 Political Capitalists

They had some kind of a farm fair around here the other day and you could hardly find any farm fare what with all the politicians crawling around, having learned, recently, to walk on their hind legs.

Two US Senators and a Governor. A bevy of beauties from counties and towns. (No, no, not the cows – the men in suits.) They were on hand to make hay. (No, no, not REAL hay, the kind that politicians whom you can’t get to see and touch when you need them show up so they can later say you were able to see them.)

The governor wants to go into the cement business. By which, he means to sell the state’s main road. He’s here to sell that idea to people who don’t care but should. The senators are on Summer Break, which is when non-students flock into a college town because there are no students. They have nothing else to do. They can’t work because their factory, Congress, is closed. So they come here to places like Stonewall County PA and campaign.

The Senators want to preen. When an event is big enough for Senators to come and preen, you have to figure the cows take a back seat. And the corn. By next year, they won’t have actual cows and actual corn, they’ll have virtual crops in a virtual field, and the political team can take the real field. The field of preens.

This is essentially harmless fun. It’s kind of like any other cheap campaign stop. And if you’re dumb enough, you can consider it some form of assurance that these semi-mythic creatures are real and therefore your government is in good shape and good hands (hands of cheap cologne that rubs off on you, but good hands, nonetheless.)

The guys that DON’T show up are far more interesting than the guys who DO.

Like the judge from the city of Scary, PA, who recently got himself indicted for money laundering and thievery, but hasn’t had the sense to step down while all of his (alleged) misdeeds are sorted out.

No biggie. Just scammed two insurance companies out of a cool half-mil, claimed he was a crippled insomniac. Bought a motorcycle, an interest in an airplane and a bunch of golfing trips to the tropics, while claiming he could barely walk from the bed to the toilet.

This is no ordinary judge. This is a judge who judges BIG cases. You want a guy like that on the bench when the money laundering, biker drug lords come before the bench. This judge and his 15 benchmen vote on the fates of people like this. And corporate stuff. And divorces. And sexual deviancy. So this ain’t traffic court. More than seven thousand cases a year. A couple of hundred murders, a couple of hundred rapes, a couple of hundred drug cases.

You want a guy who’s good with an airplane for things like this. And a Harley. Show’s he’s street smart.

Wonder if he’ll be at Farm Fest next year. Roar in on that bike. Or buzz the silo with that Cessna.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Going Postal - Again

#281 Going Postal -Again

It’s been awhile since we’ve been treated to the latest postal rate increase. But there are those of us who still have the older stamps, aplenty. And there’s no reason to stop using them just because they’re outdated and undervalued.

At first, using double stamps seemed like a good idea. But after awhile, as a brilliant mathematician and Wall Street gambler noted it doesn’t make economic sense to pay 78 cents for 41 cents of service. Over time, it costs a lot of extra money – money that could be used for other more important things. Like bananas. Or gasoline.

So, the obvious solution is buying the same number of two cent stamps as you have 39s.

But if you don’t know how many 39s you have and you are at the post office, and already near the front of the line you don’t want to go home to count stuff so you guess. And, of course, you don’t want to guess wrong and have too many, which would be useless. So you guess low. And you’re right.

After the twos run out, it’s time to buy more, but this time, you’re at the desk and count the remaining 39s. There are 25 of them.

And when you do this, it’s something like 8 PM and the post office is closed. So it’s off to Maul Mart where they have those machines that sell stamps at face value.

But this night, no two cent stamps. No matter. Fifty one cent stamps will do fine.

Ah, but this is a machine owned by the Postal Service and plunked in Maul Mart and with that combination, something will have to go wrong. And it does.

Put in a dollar and push the button for 50 one cent stamps. The vending machine grinds and pops and rejects the dollar, but takes it on the second or third try. Out come the stamps. And then there’s the little message. “This machine has no change. Please make another selection.” Oh, great. There’s only one item for 50 cents and why buy another 50? What to do? Walk away leaving the next customer a 50 cent leg up on a purchase?

That’s positively un-American. The only alternative is to buy another sheet of 50 one cent stamps.

So, what to do with the extra 50? There are no 39s anymore. Or at least not any you can get your hands on right away.

Okay, let’s waste some cents, here. Take a business size envelope. Write a return address in teeny-tiny letters. Write a send-to address in equally teeny tiny letters. And then fill the remaining space, front and back with one cent stamps. Forty one of them.

So let’s hope the Post office and the gas company like the custom design. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fast.

Ah, but the satisfaction!I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Monday, August 13, 2007

Punch Lines

#280 Punch Lines

Punch lines used to be for jokes. But they’ve become a tool of the Publicist Mafia.

The other day in Chicago, the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile was parked illegally. The people driving and riding in it wanted breakfast. So they stopped in a no-parking zone on Michigan Avenue. They shut the thing down, turned on the four-way flashers and went off to breakfast.

Along come the traffic enforcement guys and they call for a tow truck. They say this 27 foot Styrofoam or fiberglass hotdog is double parked and let’s get it out of here.

Before the tow truck arrives, the driver and crew return to the hot dog and talk the traffic brownie out of giving them a ticket. Probably bribed them with hotdogs.

The Kraft Company, which owns Oscar Meyer says “Parking the Weinermobile in a no-parking zone is a violation of company policy.

Of course. And we’re supposed to believe Kraft has a written policy on where to park the Weinermobile.

Probably, they never thought of it, but, yeah, parking a company vehicle in a no-parking zone probably is against some policy. Except who believes them?

This is the mildest recorded version of the insult-our-intelligence punch line now widely practiced by corporations and governments alike.

Example: here in Stonewall County, the D-A was about to bring a guy to trial for stealing someone’s identity and credit cards and such. Then, suddenly, the charges were dismissed.

Why? Because a key witness “…became unavailable.” What does that mean? Did the guy die? Did he disappear? Did he change his story? We’ll never know. But what we DO know is that he became unavailable. Pity. Would have been an open and shut case. Not any more. The guy is “unavailable.”

A guy, a local guy, wants to become a judge. He isn’t a lawyer, so he has to take a test. He flunks the test. Before it gets out that he’s flunked the test, he says “..I am a community leader and as a judge, I couldn’t remain one. So I’m withdrawing from the judge election.”

A punch line if there ever was one, except no one’s laughing.

“Things are getting better in Iraq,” says the general in charge. Translation: fewer people (on “our” side) were killed this week than last.”

How about the wheat gluten that killed all those dogs and cats and the peanut butter that or fast food tacos that made so many people sick?

“Trouble with our suppliers.”

And there’s the old saw “your call is very important to us.”

On Wall Street: “We don’t think the subprime loan difficulties are going to affect the market in general.”

“They quoted me out of context.”

These punch lines are lies, plain and simple.

You can play a fun game on your own by finding these things in news item after news item.

But, of course, I meant no harm, didn’t realize this game was addictive, and won’t do it again.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Friday, August 10, 2007

Waiter, There's a Fly In My Salad

#279 Waiter, There’s a Fly In My Salad

Feinstein and Rabinowitz are the last two Jewish waiters in New York. They’re sitting together at a table in back of Katz’ and relaxing after the lunch rush. Feinstein has a copy of the Daily News and a bottle of Sam Adams and Rabinowitz has a club soda and a headache.

Feinstein is leafing through the paper and sees this article about how all the boroughs are having minority majorities now and says “Shlomo, we may be the last two Jewish waiters in New York.” Rabinowitz looks up from his headache and says “Not true. There’s Solomon yet at the Carnegie.”

“No,” says Feinstein, “He’s half Iranian. That doesn’t count.”

Rabinowitz thinks about this for awhile and says “weren’t we all kicked out of Iran?”

“Yes,” says Feinstein, “that’s howcome Solomon got here. But he’s still not completely a Jew. Plus he’s too polite.”

“And no more Jewish cabbies, and no more Jews in the Garment District. How can you have a Garment District without Jews?” adds Feinstein.

Then, he taps his finger on the item in the paper and says “See this, right here in the ‘Mirror?’”

“Fifty years the Mirror’s been out of business, and you’re still talking about it. It’s the Daily News!”

“News, Mirror, what’s it matter (I have been wondering why I can’t find Winchell’s column anymore.) Anyway it says here 33 million what-do-we-have-to-call-them-this month—African Americans? And how many Jews? Maybe six, seven million all over the country. So who’s the minority?”

“We don’t count. So, what do you care. You have a nice family, you have a nice place, you have a good job?”

“That’s not the point. The point is, seven million to 33 million. And how many millions of Mexicans and PRs and DRs? I think it’s time we rose up as one and demanded to be counted in this minority thing.”

“Oh c’mon, we haven’t risen up as one since Moses in the desert.”

This is when the door opens and in walk Ted and Charlene Nicely of Pebble Plateau, Iowa. Tourists. Gawkers.

Feinstein folds up his paper, finishes his Sam Adams and says “I’ll take this one. You rest and take care of that headache.”

At the Nicely’s table, Feinstein hovers over Ted and says “So what can I get you.”

Ted wants a ham on rye. Feinstein launches into the soothing, diplomatic explanation of why there’s no ham on the menu, a smooth and polished presentation that only years of table service at a place like this can produce.

He says: “You want ham? Go to Blarney Stone. There’s one right down the block. I’ll point you when you leave.

Ted Nicely does not understand why there is no ham. But, true to his name he elects soup and a salad.

“What kinda soup you want?”

“What do you have?”

“We have chicken noodle, tomato, matzo ball and cream of celery.”

“What’s ‘matzo ball?’”

“Oy. It’s chicken soup but with a matzo ball instead of noodles.”

“What’s a matzo ball?”

Feinstein sighs heavily and says “you don’t want it. It’s not good today. Have the cream of celery.”

Charlene orders a salad.

“What kind of dressing you want with that?”


“French? You kidding? Those Arab-loving wimps? You want the ranch. Besides, it’s fresher.”

And I’ll bring you each a glass of tea.

The food arrives. Charlene says “Waiter, there’s a fly in my salad.”

“Oh,” says Feinstein. “So sorry, that belongs in his soup.”

And that’s where he puts it.

Now the Nicelys will have something to talk about back in Pebble Plateau.

Feinstein goes back to his table and reopens the Daily News and looks for Winchell.

Rabinowitz still hasn’t finished his coke. Or his headache.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Jackie Hotstuff

#278 Jackie Hotstuff

It’s about six and it’s still a million degrees with no clouds. Jackie Hotstuff is wheeling a skid of canned Pepsi up Madison. He’s chewing on an unlit Nat Sherman Special, got the shades and the straw hat he says he bought from an Indian in Ecuador, but really bought from an open air stall on Grand Street.

He’s got The Suit. He’s got The Shoes. He’s got The Shades. He’s late because he wants to make sure Tom the elevator starter is gone for the day. Otherwise there’s going to be another fight, because Tom doesn’t let delivery guys into the elevator during regular hours.

Now technically, Jackie Hotstuff is not a delivery guy. He’s got the hot and cold drink route here in the east 50s and this is the last stop of the day. He figures, he’ll drop the stuff off, load the machine and then head around the corner to Morgan’s for a nice Johnnie Walker Black. He used to drink Blue, but that got expensive. Same with he used to not make any of his own deliveries. But that’s getting expensive, too.

The truck’s in the parking garage at the Palace Hotel, where he’s slipped Benno the night shift guy a 20 to avoid maybe $35 in parking charges, including the time he’s going to spend inside Morgan’s.

That inside thing, by the way…. That’s going to be taken off the tax return next year because in a very real sense it will be a business visit. As in “you don’t need any cola or anything like that, do you?”

A lot of stops like that get written off as a business expense. Not the parking, though. The IRS won’t give an inch on that one. And $35 cash in hand minus the $20 to Benno is $15 bucks he’ll still have in his pocket at the end of the night.

But first things, first. Jackie Hotstuff’s gotta get the stuff up to Three and load the machine and that Johnnie Black is calling, calling, calling.

The coast is clear. Tom’s gone for the day. Sometimes he’s still there at 6 or 6:30 trading lies with some of the other building guys. And if he’s there, he’ll make a fuss about Jackie Hotstuff’s wheeled skid of canned Pepsi and there will go the $15 he just saved by bribing Benno.

Up to three in Elevataor #3, into the office, into the office cafeteria, unlock the Coke machine and get ready to load it.

Yeah, it’s a Coke machine. Coke wouldn’t like that he’s trying to load it with Pepsi, but who’s to know. A cola’s a cola, right? Plus he got a really good deal on a warehouse full of Pepsi that some supermarket decided it didn’t need.

Now, will the Pesi fit in the Coke slots? Sure looks like it. Of course, the hat looks like it came from an Indian guy in Ecuador, too. And the Nat Sherman Special looks like something Fidel would peddle. So better test the machine.

Guess what? A Coke machine will not dispense Pepsi cans.

It’s going to look funny walking into Morgan’s behind a wheeled skid of soda cans.

But going back to the Palace this early would be a bribe-in-vain.

And that Johnnie Black really needs attention.

Maybe Morgan’s really CAN use some Pepsi.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reverse English

#277 Reverse English

It’s always the real stuff that sounds made up and the made up stuff that sounds real. How’s this: delivering take-out food TO a Chinese restaurant.

Called for takeout. Arrived on schedule. Picked up the bag which was a bit pricier than the usual (we’re regulars at this joint.) But, whatever. Bag feels a bit heavier than usual too. But, whatever.

In the car. Halfway home. Cell phone rings. They gave me the wrong bag and asked for a return trip.

So, here’s the customer delivering Chinese takeout back to the restaurant. (Free delivery, at that.)

We exchange bags and they re-issue the receipt, which has gone from $30 to $14.

“Are you sure this is right? This stuff is usually around 20 bucks?”

“Oh. Yeah. It’s wrong.”

Guy goes for a third shot at the MasterCard machine, but let’s not do that, you’ll overtax their brains at Capital One. How about cash for the difference.

Blank stare.

And then, once home, they offer grief because “…you could have gotten away with a cheap meal…. Nobody does what you do.”

Should we send a bill for the extra gasoline?

This was funny. But something’s happening to that joint. Ever since they entered the contest to be one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in America, things have started going wrong for them.

Plus, now they have a blonde working the bar. Instead of the Anglo guy with all the piercings. At least he has dark hair.

And they don’t have “Mama.” One hundred year old woman who speaks almost no English and runs the kitchen and the counter and the table service with a hand that would make Mao quiver. Don’t believe that smile.

She is on “vacation.” She has been on “vacation” for the last eight months. “Papa” apparently didn’t go with her. Hundred year old guy who also speaks no English. In fact, he may not speak at all. He, too, could have single handedly stopped the “Great March.” He’s still around.

You never want to see the kitchen in one of these places. But they all have them right out there in the open. Martha Stewart would be appalled. So would the board of health. But nobody dies. The edibles are all grown in this country, not China, so, no worries about antifreeze in the wheat gluten.

The private stock delicacies in these joints are mostly chicken feet and octopus. Most of us can do without either.

But, generally, the food’s good and what passes for fresh. And the atmosphere? It’s the rural version of the New York sit-down deli, but instead of cranky Jewish waiters, you get sullen teenage Chinese waiters, most of whom appear to have been sent to “Mama and Papa” to get straightened out.

You can almost see what level they have reached in Straightened Out School.

Some of them even get the scowl off by graduation day. And learn to pick up their feet when they walk.

It’s likely that “Mama,” wherever she’s vacating, is proud.

Meantime, if you need a delivery boy, just drop a line.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Friday, August 03, 2007

Rupert The Pirate

#276 Rupert The Pirate’s Revenge

What if Murdoch doesn’t do anything to turn the Wall Street Journal into a radical right wing trade paper? That would be the ultimate revenge.

You can bet, now that the owners of the London Sun and the New York Post have become the owners of the WSJ, there will be the usual exit of the holier-than-thou that always accompanies a Murdoch buy.

Murray Kempton at the Post, Mike Royko at the Chicago Sun-Times. Countless anti-Fleet-Street-ers at the London Times. They go with great fanfare, falling on their swords all in tribute to the gods of journalistic purity.

The Journal’s purists will either form a government-in-exile or join one of the existing havens for disgruntled Dow Jones writers and editors at either Bloomberg News or Reuters.

Hard times have befallen the Journal, and none of it has been the doing of the Merry Pirate of Australia or his salty crew.

When the Barrons bought the thing in 1902, the idea was to make the paper into something the average investor could decipher, a way to democratize the monopoly of Wall Street insiders who had a lock on financial doings.

The Barrons did a pretty good job – exposing, for example, the original Ponzi scheme – the one that Ponzi himself concocted and ran in 1920s. Every once in awhile, they still scoop the real newspapers, but not often.

What they have become is a mouthpiece for the very professionals Clarence Barron was trying to circumvent. And a leading indicator (to borrow a biz term) of when the financial community’s thinking is headed.

But it is a trade paper. A big one, an important one, but still – a trade paper. Like Daily Variety, Women’s Wear Daily and Modern Grocer.

And as the Barron heirs, the Bancroft family must realize, it’s far less important than it used to be. After all, business news has become exciting, or at least interesting to general readers. And there are business pages or sections in every major and most minor “regular” papers in America, Europe and Asia.

There are magazines – some more reputable than others – that either report exclusively on business and finance, or feature regular departments with that stuff. There’s CNBC, Bloomberg radio and television, the soon-to-debut Fox Business Channel (also owned by Murdoch, but prohibited for now in using Journal reporters. (The Dow Jones contract with CNBC doesn’t expire until 2012 and there seems no movement at NBC to bail out.)

So while the Journal was once the most important publication of its kind, it’s now only the most self-important.

And there Bancroft family didn’t seem to know what to do with the thing – or didn’t have the will to make the kinds of changes Murdoch will make.

The paper’s editorial page already makes Murdoch’s Weekly Standard look like the Daily Worker. So there’ll be no fiddling there – unless you call un-stuffing the shirts, “fiddling.”

Rupert will have his hands full trying to wrest the right to populate the nation’s news agenda from its current duopoly, the New York Times and the ever-reactive Associated Press. It’s just not going to happen.

But what will happen is price reductions, expanded coverage, an infusion of cash, a whole bunch of new hires – some of them far more talented than the holy men and women who leave in protest.

And it will mean the paper will live to see another day, something under its family ownership, was never a sure bet.

In the meantime, the Bancrofts can sail away with about five billion dollars that came from the hold of Rupert’s pirate ship. Kind of a reverse plunder. So, which ship flies the Jolly Roger?

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

#275 Chet Currier

Chet Currier was the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he hid that – although not too well.

There was the shambling walk, the shock of unkempt hair always falling over his forehead, the soft, throaty “aw shucks” kind of speech, a little bit of confusion. Until he sat down behind a microphone or a computer keyboard. What came out was not only sheer brilliance, but sheer brilliance you could understand even if you didn’t know thing-one about his subject, mutual funds.

And behind that farm-boy facade, he was almost always right.

We’d kid each other, thus: he was the new Norman Vincent Peale, I was the emotional grandson of Dostoevsky. He was free marketer, I was the commie. And he liked to say that Marx would be shocked to learn that through mutual funds, American workers now own the means of production – and they did it without a single drop of blood being shed.

Good times. Fun journalism. We shared the microphone for five years. One day, out of the blue, and off the air, he said “…you know I’m a dead man.” Huh? Cancer. Not likely to survive.

And then he turned on the recording apparatus, spoke for the allotted 6 minutes and 19 seconds, about exchange traded funds. Got up, walked out, waved.

“Wait a minute. What about that dead man stuff?”

“Oh, things are more or less okay now. But I have maybe five or six years left.”

That was maybe in 2003. He was pretty close to right when he closed his eyes for the last time in that hospice in Southern California the other day.

He was almost right.

What do we make of all this, a 62 year old guy who knows he’s going, but keeps on going? That may have been the Norman Vincent Peale thing – get it done while you still can.

Two columns a week for Bloomberg News, which was less work than he had to do as a financial news grunt at the Associated Press – which made him write three a week, plus cover Wall Street. Probably for much less money.

In between all that, he wrote a bunch of books. And he wrote crossword puzzles. Wrote them. We mere mortals consider ourselves lucky and smart when we solve one. Chet made them up and sold them. If they hadn’t sold, he’d still make them up, he said.

The day after his death was announced, there were long obituaries on the Bloomberg website and the AP wire. They ran everywhere. The New York Times, Newsday, all the chain papers where his column appeared. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds.

The outpouring would have made him uncomfortable.

He wanted to call attention to the subject, not to himself. But, of course, he DID call attention to himself, if only because millions of readers and listeners knew that what went on the page or on the air was almost always right.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

4761 J-6

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