A Little Pissed

            I’d like to take the opportunity to share with you, my fine and constant reader who checks this blog out now once in a blue moon, one of my more harrowing work related experiences. You have been regaled to some degree about my glamorous international travel experiences from my field engineer days, so I’m going to leave off on that for now and go in another direction. I understand this is likely to leave you sniffing around about your bottom like a dog after you hide the ball, but we all understand there was little chance of that not happening anyway. Now that we are done with our customary into tête-à-tête, I can launch into the story of the PMR.

                PMR stands for program management review which consists, theoretically, of a quarterly meeting of the minds between a contractor and customer to exchange viewpoints, engage in lively discussions and reach consensus on what is going to be best for everyone. I imagine something like this has probably occurred at some point in the distant past, but I certainly have not been part of it. I’m going to be somewhat vague when it comes to company and program names, the personalities involved and whatnot because I have come to realize that the less attention received from this jaunty group of people the better.

                I started working on this particular program back in January of 2007 and even then when the first article had just been delivered there were already some articles of controversy. Actually said articles existed for years before all through development as the approach taken was new and original, something government functionaries tend to despise. Powerful detractors were in the midst from the get go attempting to spread poison and discord; Machiavellian attempts to get the project shit canned well before it reached the point of no return. We were the rebels fighting the empire of bloated government spending. I had no idea when I stepped into it.

                For those who don’t know me better, I have had a lifelong deep seated fear of having to get up and speak in front of people. Big deal, most people have that, but mine was a tad worse than most. Through my entire academic career, kindergarten through college graduation, I never once volunteered and answer or option to anything. Not once. Never raised the hand. Don’t even know what it feels like. If a teacher was determined to reduce me to a sweat covered, red faced stammering fool, all they needed to do was to call on me. Some were more sadistic than most.

                In spite of all this, I signed up for the MBA program at UB in order to further my education. I came to realize early on that presentations to the class were to be expected. Group ones as well as individual. I didn’t care to hear that at all but fortunately my competitive nature would not let me drop the program. For group projects it was easy. I was the guy who would write the whole paper so long as other people got up and did the presentation. If it was required that everyone get up there, I campaigned for and won the shortest segment. It was horrible, even though the class at large was sleepy and clearly uninterested in the trials and tribulations of the American Connector company. Eyes were far more on iPod and Crackberry’s than on me, but still, you couldn’t get me out of there fast enough. Oh, how Iittle I knew how hard it could truly be.

                The first I became aware of such things as PMRs I was one fine morning in May after I came into work. It was 5 months after I took the job and was still getting my feet wet. The phone rang and it was Mike, the business unit executive my program fell under.

“Yeah, Mike we are having the PMR over here at the other building and these guys want to talk about the support portion. Can you come on over?”

“Uh…. what? I didn’t prepare anything or anything.”

“That’s fine, that’s fine. Just print out some copies of that spreadsheet you keep and c’mon over. They just want to talk. It’ll be good. It’ll be good. But just so you know, they are a little pissed.”

                I printed out about 5 copies of my failure summary spreadsheet and made my way over to the other building. I came into the conference room where the meet and greets were still taking place. Just fucking great. The one day I didn’t think I had any meetings and came in casual in jeans and an old sweater, and now pulled into a room of about 60 people all in suits. A big believer of “dress better than the other guy in business situations”, I felt at an immediate disadvantage. Perhaps I just received at call from the wife that the sump pump was acting up again and I had to rush out. Before I could formulate the thought, Mike spied me and a flurry of introductions was made. I failed to retain a single name or title.

                I sat through the morning presentation feeling conspicuously out of place; the red dot on the cashmere sweater. I was an unknown to this group and I could tell they regarded me with suspicion. I was hoping that no one was really going to want to ask me anything and hoped for the best.

“Well, that about wraps up the production notes. Got Mike here from product support to field any questions you might have, so we’ll have him meet with anyone interested over in the side meeting room.”

                I was immediately grateful not to have to get up in front of the assemblage. I made my way into the side room and sat down at the table, my scraps of paper in front of me, ready to receive any interested parties. To my dismay about 40 people filed into the room. Additional tables were pulled over to adjoin the small one I sat at. Everyone sat down from the highest program manager on the government side to Air Force system users. All eyes turned to me expectantly; suddenly chair of a sizable meeting.

“Uh… I think we need more copies.”

                I was unable to use this as an excuse to break free as an admin suddenly appeared as if from nowhere, took one of my 5 copies and trundled off to make more. I was forced to get started with about 10 people to a copy as I stammered through the first of the issues. I immediately ran into trouble. One of the site representatives, a mid level functionary, whose team my team had been working with on a particular issue suddenly made the declaration that they were dead in the water waiting for us to get back to them with answers. The 80 eyes already on me narrowed as if to say, “Contractor slime, we know your game.” My sweating increased exponentially.

                The truth of the matter was that my team had been hounding his people mercilessly attempting to get the issues cleared. I declared I had email proof of this – proof! – but my word was disavowed. I was simply a weasel trying to slip free the stern hand of government vigilance. After the meeting, by the way, I forwarded every single one of the aforementioned emails to everyone present, but the effect was lost. “Oh sorry, I guess you were right” was the only response from this finger pointing bastard. The remainder of the meeting was similar. I turned at times to Joe, the big production program manager, but my silent entreaties to be rescued were met with silence.  At the end I slunk away with onerous action items and the credibility of a ring tailed lemur caught in a bear trap; questionable that I should even be there and assuredly screwed.

                I managed to turn thing around in the following months and fall finally came. I had established a rapport with the site users but still communicated little with the program office who actually had the power to make me miserable. Executive Mike called me into his office on fine October day.

“Yeah, the next PMR is coming up in 2 weeks and they said they want you there.”

                This was unwelcome news to say the least. This PMR was being held at the home base of the program office on the government side. Their pond in the mountains. It so happened that a large project for school was due at the same time and I attempted to utilize this as an excuse. No dice. I was coming along, hell or high water, and this time I was expected to make a formal presentation. Don’t bother coming for the production day Mike told me, just fly in for your part the following day.

                I did as I was told and flew out; arriving in the early afternoon at the same time Mike and Joe were having their asses handed to them. I arrived, but naturally my luggage did not, and yes, it contained the only suit I owned. I badgered the airlines but they refused to commit. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe never, who really knows? Oh, how I hate them. Dinner time rolled around and I finally broke down to locate a mall where I could purchase what I needed. Mike called to invite me to dinner with the rest of the crew, but I had to beg off. Too bad, he told me, important information to share, but meet for breakfast. I just purchased a suit, a shirt, new belt, new shoes, socks, and a new tie when Delta rang me up with the excellent news that my bag was sitting at the airport. I went to bed, my nerves shot already.

“Don’t worry; they’re just a little pissed.”

                Mike’s calm demeanor at breakfast did little to quell my nerves. My stomach roiled and the watery scrambled eggs didn’t help much.

“Wait, what?”

“They are a little pissed. Joe is behind on production and they really don’t like the number of field failures they have experienced, so be ready for that. Let’s see your slides. … Hm… Oh, I wouldn’t tell them that; then they would be really pissed.”

                This was really not the sort of thing I wanted to hear. There was nothing I could do to change the slides as my presentation was already loaded in the computer on base.

“Just try and talk around it. Don’t worry, Joe and I will be there.”

                We got to the meeting location and my sense of panic began to grow. About 60 people milling about, most of who had names I had forgotten. All eyes facing front where a large dais with a microphone. No podium to hide behind. Big screen behind, positioned just so that no matter where you stood, someone in the audience would be doing that head craning thing to try and look around you even though they have a paper copy in front of them. We received the agenda and I was pleased that nothing had changed. I would be going after lunch giving me enough time to look over my slides again so I wouldn’t appear too much the fool.

                The morning presentation went much faster than scheduled. I keep peering at my watch, willing the hand to move faster or for some long winded questions pop up in order to stall things just until lunch. Please God just give me until lunch!

“We seem to be ahead of schedule so why don’t we get started with Mike’s portion before we break for lunch.”

                Crap! Visibly shaking, I got up and made my way to the front. I next spent a very awkward and uncomfortable five minutes in front of everyone trying to figure out how to work the damn microphone until someone finally came up, wrestled it out of my hands and flicked it on with an expert snap of the thumb leaving me to look like the inept boob I felt like. In movies this would have been the time when the microphone would have screeched as I attempted introduction, thus breaking the tension and letting me giggle nervously. No such luck. Instead I led off with what I thought was a fairly humorous little joke, or pun if you will, that failed to garner even a chuckle.

                I looked through the faces in the crowd. Everyone from my side of the house was busy buried in their Crackberry’s, blithely typing away with their thumbs as I faced the slow death. As for the customer, a panoply of looks. Bored. Disinterested. Incredulous. Skeptical. Hostile! Angry! … Furious! I had no idea how to feel about that. No one ever looked angry as I stumbled through a presentation about how NASA stores old data. Never once did anyone look furious when I explained in great detail how soy farmers in India were using computers to check the weather. This was not good. I hadn’t even begun and I managed to not only soak through the pits of my undershirt, but the shirt itself and my coat.

                As with any public performance it always is easier once you get going and can lose focus on where you are. Not this time! Every piece of data I presented was cross examined as if by those old timey lawyers you see legal classics like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Inherit the Wind’ or ‘My Cousin Vinnie’.

“Well sir, I suppose you can tell me HOW a system that YOU report is meeting the contractually mandated mean time between failures specifications can POSSIBLY have experienced the event by which you describe? Sir that is ONE magic event!”

“Uh. What is the specification again?”

“Unacceptable!”

                They let nothing go, tearing into every disputable factoid with the zeal of a seagull on your unattended fries at Old Man River. These were the best experts the government had on twisting logic, verbal entrapment, cross examination and contractor doublespeak. At one point I somehow got pulled down a path where instead of charging them for something they would normally pay for, my company ended up agreeing to foot the bill. Joe looked up from his Crackberry just long enough to shoot me a glance and an eye roll that said, “You stepped in it good there, stupid.”

                We broke for lunch midway though so that I would be able to eat my chicken sandwich in total abject terror for the interrogation to begin again after lunch.

“Mike, I’m dying up there!”

“Nah, you’re doing fine. They’re just a little pissed and you are an easy target.”

                I felt a tiny bit better, but not really.

“What about that bit about us taking responsibility for all those repair costs. Isn’t our president going to be upset about that?

“Yeah, he’ll be pissed.”

                After lunch was more of the same, but it finally came to an end. I returned to my seat exhausted and full of strong intentions to update my resume. I made it though; the world didn’t come to an end, though once again I was saddled with dozens of onerous action items to report on at the next PMR coming round the mountain in February.

                Flash forward to now. Making travel plans to go out there again for PMR #10. This customer and I have gotten to know each other very well over the past few years and have a well defined relationship where I help them and get blamed for everything, but things are much more congenial for the most part. And yes, they are still a little pissed.

October Surprise!

            Every locale I have ever been do has a pithy homespun sounding saying regarding the local weather, “if you don’t like the weather in, I don’t know, Buttfuck MD, wait ten minutes!”. This is usually espoused by some old bastard who probably thinks he coined it. This is especially true here in Buffalo where the old Polish woman down the block, whatever block you happen to be on, will lob that old chestnut out following a, “was it you who ordered all this hot weather?” and perhaps an f-bomb or two. This isn’t Jersey, so we generally smile weakly and try to get away before being engaged in more inane conversation. Be that as it may, the saying is sometimes, or at least once, true.

            It was Thursday, October 12th 2006, and there arose some cries of surprise when a co-worker looked out the window and drew everyone’s attention to the fact that big wet flurries were coming down. I was immediately agitated by this for a number of reasons. For one, the morning had been unusually warm at the tail end of the Indian summer and I did not bring a jacket. Second, I had not yet armed my vehicle with the usual winter accoutrements meaning I’d have to clean off my windshield with my bare arm if this shit actually stuck. Finally, ever since my wife relocated here I’ve heard nothing but griping about the constant winter snowfall, that I still maintain is really contained between late December to early March, from the onset of fall until close to the 4th of July. This certainly didn’t help my case! I knew as well that my in-laws would sit back and say, “ah, typical Buffalo!” as they liked to express skepticism when calling mid August and being told that not only were we snow free, but roasting.

            I was annoyed to see it not only was sticking, but coming down harder by the time I decided to go home. As I feared I was stuck clearing the heavy fall with my arm. I made a slow way home and when coming down my street noticed that something about my property looked… off. Just not right. I couldn’t pin it down right away. Got it. I was reasonably sure I had not left the gigantic tree in the front leaning down upon the house when I left that morning! Well, this certainly wasn’t good. Not possessing a degree in architecture or anything useful, I had no idea if the weight of the humongous snow covered tree was enough to cause the house to collapse, so I decided to go in and make some phone calls, but smartly leaving my car back at the end of the driveway.

            I got a hold of Molly and suggested she might come home early from her internship and wisely left out any concerns of structural collapse. We did some calling around to see if we could find a tree guy willing to come out that day and ended up booking 4 different ones and figuring we would go with whoever came first. At the time, the whole issue seemed be really nothing more than a minor annoyance. Dave the tree guy came a couple hours later, and by that time the tree had leaned into the house even more and a few branches had broken off. The snow never abated. I took the precaution of parking both cars in the circle of the cul-de-sac where they would be mired in for several days more. Dave put my fears to rest and let me know that the house would hold up the tree nicely, and that if it did decide to uproot completely and fall, it would smash up our neighbor Wendy’s immaculately kept property. He’d come by in the morning to take it down and we decided to have an evening in.HPIM0179

            That evening, as anyone who experienced it, was surreal. We sat on the couch watching TV and listened to the gunshot cracking sounds of branches breaking and the reverberating thud as they hit the ground. We worried of the power going out, but figured it would have already if it was going to. Ha! Optimistic fools. Lightning flashed and the sky had a weird green glow to it. Molly worried of disaster but I found the whole experience kind of cool. Very apocalyptic and exciting; something different for a dreary October day. Around three o’clock in the morning we were awoken to the sound of the power going out. We went back to sleep, confident it would be back in the morning. Our 8 days of darkness had begun.

            We woke from daylight in a silent house, growing steadily chillier without the electric life that was usually breathed into it. The view out the front was almost overwhelming as we could not actually tell what we were looking at. It was an unbroken sea of snow, leaves, and wood at all angles making it impossible to get true perspective. Out the back we could at least tell that it was indeed our yard, but it as well had become a cacophony of branches and snow heaped together as if by the tirade of a mad god. There sure was going to be a lot of cleaning up to do! To our delight, we found the land line still worked and I set about making some phone calls. My first call to National Grid drained us of hope although we received nothing but lies. Our area was not expected to be back up until the following day! My mother lacked power as well, but my sister was still on the grid so we pumped her for news. Hundreds of thousands powerless! Worst natural disaster in WNY history! Abundant use of exclamation points! It was worse than we thought.View out Front Door 101306

            A few things were readily apparent. One, we had to come to terms with the fact that we would go the day and night with no power and must compensate. There was a possibility that tree Dave would not be coming by as not only was our street absolutely impassable, but Harlem road as well. No entry or exit, we were housebound as when they had that blizzard on Little House on the Prairie where Paw almost froze his ass to death on some fool errand. Third, my irritation with the fact that we had an electric stove increased exponentially. Lack of hot comfort food on a shit day is indeed a foul thing, especially after choking down a cold lox sandwich for breakfast; oily chilled fish on untoasted rolls being less appetizing when shivering than even expected. I made instant coffee with hot water from the tap and grimaced at every sip. Yard on 101306

            We spent the morning and part of the afternoon outdoors in the yard with the mistaken notion that we would have things cleaned up in no time. I with my bow saw and Maw with her loppers, we broke down and stacked an impressive 4 large branches that day accounting for a total of 0.3% of those fallen. I campaigned to buy a chainsaw when access to the open road was restored. It was foul sweaty work, rewarded with having to strip off soaked clothing in a cold house before jumping in the shower. Thankfully the hot water heater was gas powered! At lunch I remembered the grill and we dined on the first of many hamburger meals to make use of the huge amount of ground beef we had for some reason. The first was like heaven; the rest, not so much so.

            We felt completely cut off from the rest of the world. The fact that I avoid the neighbors, plus being the ‘that guy’ on the block what with my hole digging and front lawn vegetable garden, we didn’t feel the neighborhood solidarity as others seemed to be experiencing, although one kind woman gave us firewood, whom I still owe. No TV, no internet, just land line reports from Laura or the Jersey folk telling us how much worse the situation was than everyone thought. We wouldn’t hear it – the recorded message on the NaGrid line said we’d be back up tomorrow dammit, and since they never made another update, we could only assume it was gospel.

            As the day drew on the last remnants of heat left over vacated, I decided to make use of the glorious fireplace and heat the place up a bit. The one bit of fortune we had was that the nature of the problem provided as much fuel as one could shake a stick at, even if it was green wood and a good recipe for a chimney fire. Being without TV the first night was a nice experience. Molly tried to teach me how to play the piano and we finally settled into a long Boggle tournament by firelight. Little did we know that the tournament was to last the better part of a week and that I would not, even once, ever win a round despite my English background. My requests to sprinkle a few Trivial Pursuit games in the mix to liven things up were denied.

            Saturday morning came and we tried the tree service again now that it looked like the roads were finally clearing some. According to the receptionist, Tree Dave was AWOL and we may or may not see him. This was depressing and we beat the walls in anguish. We geared up for another day of darkness, cold, and expending massive amounts of energy to clear pathetically small patches of the back lawn while subsisting on tired old burgers and cold fare. Suddenly Molly called from the living room, “Something is happening! Something is happening!” A bucket truck had pulled up in front of the house. It was Dave, come through after all and accompanied by a grown up version of Scut Farkus from ‘Christmas Story’.

            Scut took to taking down our tree almost immediately and had the distinction of being the first and only decent contractor we encountered in the ensuing debacle, as well as one of the most unconventional. While Molly and I chopped away in the back, Scut swung his mighty chainsaw around, lopping tree limbs with a cigarette hanging from his lips and a beer in his free hand. Although I was fairly certain there were OSHA regulations of some sort against that kind of thing, I wasn’t about to say anything. He observed my pathetic sawing and when he took a break to go eat a sandwich and drink more beer, he loaned me his chainsaw with an admonition not to hit the dirt, without ever asking if I knew how to use it, which I did not.HPIM0254

            Later that afternoon, after clearing several more branches with Scut’s chainsaw before he had consumed enough beer to want it back, I was able to make it off the block for the first time. Armed with a clear order to bring back hot food, I ventured out. I found the Mickey D’s closest to us still powerless, as was Jubilee which is too shitty a store to carry hot food anyway. Making my way up Kensington into Williamsville, I encountered my first area where power was restored and pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot along with 100 other powerless people with a yen for a Big Mac. An hour later I returned home victorious with hot burgers and super salty fries. The taste of heaven, though I didn’t know it would be our standard fare for a full week on.House on 101506

            I’m going to decline going into the painful detail of each and every day, except to hit some highlights regarding how bad it sucked. Daytime wasn’t so bad. We had daylight, the house didn’t seem as cold, and for the most part I was trying to spend as much time at work as possible. Night time, however, blew monkey balls. We tried to spend as much time at Laura’s watching her precious TV, even though my brother-in-law usually had some tedious game on, but having to come home after made it almost not worth it. Nothing like leaving the light of civilization to turn down a dark and lifeless street resplendent with shattered corpses of the once fine trees that sold us on the street to begin with. Entering the front door, we would arm ourselves with flashlights and make our way though the frigid environs, change in the cold, and spark a fire to get just a smidgen of heat.

            The silence was broken only by the crackling of the damn fire that always needed tending, the roll of the fucking Boggle cube, and the tell tale hum of the lucky bastards peppered about the area with generators. One night when going to bed I made the galactically stupid mistake of drawing my wife’s attention to a noise in the room (she had been wearing ear plugs and took them out for this) and suggested that it might be a bug. This resulted in a protracted hunt by flashlight in a large messy room for something I had zero chance of finding. Good times, good times.

            Depression began to settle in as friends and co-workers got their power back while we continued to sit in darkness while Buffalo resumed normalcy for the most part. It began to look as if the situation were permanent, that Snyder was being consigned to a green initiative and reverting back to the… well, I guess the Victorian or maybe Edwardian age. The numbers without power dwindled from the hundreds of thousands, to tens of thousands, to simply the thousands. We began to expect to see our house alone displayed on the NaGrid website as the last pocket of Suckstobeyouville.  Then along came Dick. Wondrous Dick! Spewing with kindness Dick! Stop that; that isn’t how I mean it. Dick, a co-worker of mine, announced to me on the Wed morning after the storm that he knew of a generator we could borrow.

            I took off early from work that day and got the thing wired up. My first obstacle was that my damn drill lost its juice, so I was forced to fire up the generator and use it to charge the battery. The genny was a small model capable of putting out just a few amps and needed to be refilled every hour, but during that hour it was able to power the furnace, the sump, one lamp and the TV. Oh how sweet life was again! For the first time in a week we had both true warmth and the awesome glow of the ‘King of Queens’ big fat ass to delight us. The downside of course was that every hour I had to slog out into the rain and slush and refill the damn thing, but by the time we were ready to go to bed the house was toasty and we absorbed enough brain killing programming to lull us into complacency once again.

            Finally, late afternoon on the 8th day, I was in the downstairs bathroom getting my pee on when a miracle occurred. With a resounding thunk and chirp the house roared to life again. Lights came on; as did everything we had left on the week before. Glorious! The initial pain was over, and it was time to face the real music and deal with insurance agents and contractors. Little did we know we would be looking back on the days of darkness with true nostalgia.

            Under the reveling light of best possible kind, humming florescent, it was fairly evident that we would need to file an insurance claim and get a hold of some contractors. Our main roof was battered, the flat roof was punctured and the library beneath said flat roof was inundated with lots of moisture. Now we had planned to get the roof done anyway, but we kept that little nugget from the claims adjuster and let him think the storm was the reason it looked so old and shitty. By the way, State Farm… booya! They managed to find things to cover we didn’t even think of, and believe me, I itemized every little thing that could be linked to the storm by even the flimsiest of associations. This guy bought all that and a whole lot more! It was also the very last time I managed to gain any type of satisfaction in dealing with someone regarding this.

            First order of business was the roof. We had planned on getting it done anyway and had already contracted with the fabulous G Brothers. We went with these blokes who still humped around old timey wooden ladders because not only did they promise to do the roof, but that they could also drop in the solar tubes I bought and install an exhaust fan in the downstairs bathroom, all for only $200 more for the follow on items. A steal! They did quick work on the roof, showed up on time, and managed to raise the price after pulling the old, “Gee, I never saw anything like this before!” schtick regarding the flat roof. Like these assholes in business for 30 years could possibly be surprised by the way some other asshole slapped tar and shingles down in such a way as to warrant an extra days work. Fuckers.

            They finished the roof and immediately began badgering me for payment prior to performing the other two tasks. We withheld, but mainly because the bank was slow to release our funds. They finally showed up to do the tubes, spent an hour hemming and hawing before finally admitting they didn’t know how. The badgering began again and I badgered back about the fan. Their electrician showed up, took a quick look, pronounced the job impossible and left. They finally knocked the $200 off the final price (after raising it $300 for the flat roof) and I settled up. Since that time we have experienced 3 separate leaks in the flat roof, left dozens of messages, and have yet to see them return and honor their 10 year warranty.

            Worse was the crew we hired to do the library. The main outfit seemed to be pretty good at first. They swept in, got everything dried up, then left for several months. In the intervening time we got Slappy the carpenter and his crew of boneheads whom the main outfit contracted to do the actual repair work. Slappy was a real piece of work. Unreliable, slow, and overly reliant on scrounging what he needed from homeowners. Seriously, his first day in he asked to borrow both a hammer and a drop cloth. What kind of goddam carpenter doesn’t have a hammer? Another day I came come to find his crew found, used, broke and then hid my shop vac; another item I would think the idiot would have had. On top of it all, he had one needy schmuck working for him who drove us crazy. Every few minutes he needed something and would appear, looking sheepish, in the living room with another story. “Uh.. Mr. Wolf… I uh, cut myself. Do you have Band-Aids?” or  “Uh… Mrs. Wolf… Um.. can I  uh go to the bathroom?” It never ended with this dill hole. On top of it all, his work was shoddy. On the very last day he came in to replace the two strips of wood between the windows and used different type and color wood and didn’t understand why we had a problem.

            I got a little bit of payback on Slappy when he began harassing me for his money. He was so bold as to call me up and actually threatened to put a lien on my house if he didn’t get paid right away. My response, go ahead and try! I explain the most basic element of how contracts work with this fool who claimed to have been a contractor for decades. Basically, I didn’t have a contract with him, I had one with the drying company who subcontracted him, so really didn’t give a toss if he got paid or not. I only had to pay the drying company, who as near as I could figure, disappeared completely without ever billing me. Oh, the satisfaction of watching him slink away.

            The drying company finally came back in March, finished what they needed to do, and I settled up with them. Apparently they were also tired of Mr. Slappy and his shaggy horde of miscreants.

            The day finally came when there was just one last thing to take care of. Replacing the rug in the library, back hall, and we thought of doing the bathroom as well. We did some shopping around and considered doing the Kenny, Kenny carpet. We walked in and could not get anyone to talk to us, so we walked out and down the street to the venerable Max Pies where we were accosted by their sales douche Mike. A little more savvy in our negotiation skills by now, we wheeled and dealed, dropped a bogus quote from Kenny, and came down to a mutually agreeable price with Mike, or so we thought. Later that evening, we decided we didn’t want to do the bathroom at that time after all, so called Mike and asked for the price with the bathroom taken out and received an answer we could live with.

            Two weeks later the carpet people came on by and I had the old carpet ripped up as per the agreement to save on cost. Consummate professionals, they set to work, but sought me out after a bit. Here is what they showed me. Library, carpeted. Back hall, carpeted. Hallway between library and back hall… bare floor. Dude, they didn’t give us enough carpet to finish the job. I assumed there was an error and called up Max Pies and sought out Mike. This fine piece of work went on the defensive before I even opened my mouth. “You said you didn’t want to do the bathroom!” he whined at me, followed by a quote for $200 to finish up. I had had never done so before on a phone call, nor have I since, but I exploded.

            Ol’ Mike there was chock full of the flimsiest excuses I have heard. First it was that ‘I wanted it that way’, which didn’t hold up because what kind of frigging idiot wants two carpeted areas with a nice hall of dirty plywood connecting them? Second it was that in the carpeting world, that hall way was considered “part of the bathroom” and I should have known that. I got the installer, who was uncomfortably standing right there and asked if that was part of the fucking bathroom and got him to admit that made no sense. Finally, his excuse was that I “beat him up on price”. Don’t sell it to me for that then! I cried deliberate low balling, bad faith, breach, and every other pseudo-legal term I could think of and demanded the number for Max Pie himself. Mike blustered and desperately tried to avoid giving it to me, but I won the day.

            I called Max, who doesn’t actually exist, or whatever the owner’s name is and left a very polite, but quite blistering critique of his salesman’s business practices on his machine. He called me back shortly and arranged to give me the remainder of the carpet needed at cost with free installation. I had the pleasure of calling Mike back to make the arrangements and got to enjoy him getting very passive aggressive until I threatened to call Mr. Pie again, after which he shut up and took the arrangements.

            The install was scheduled for two weeks thence and I had to burn another vacation day to be there. Mike, in his P/A manner, managed to corn hole me one more time and sent the installer over with a close but decidedly different pattern of carpet. I immediately left another polite, yet brutal, message with Mr. Pie, whose number I kept handy. He gave me a blustering apology and offered to have the installed come any time I wanted as to not inconvenience me further. I picked Sunday evening, just to be a dick, but we did tip the fellow well. Over 6 months after the first flake fell, we were almost back to normal, you know, aside from cleaning up the wood, replanting the front lawn, repairing the light post, taking down the awnings, and several other odd jobs, many of which remain undone to this day.

Knaus and I

            Since drafting ‘Thies and I’, it became apparent to me that some of the characters found herein and such probably require similar tales to be told. Chances are that in the collected edition, the T&I story will follow this one and thus what I am writing about probably makes no sense at all, unless you are a clever enough monkey to skip about or perused the formidable table of contents. If not, I’m certain you are already confused and having made your way this far, you might as well continue, as my words, I am certain delight to you even more than fresh cherry cobbler.

            Though it is probably of little interest to the reader, I met Knaus the same way I met Psycho, at one of the Wargames meetings. He had somehow, and without my knowledge or consent, been brought in by Louis to help ‘run the day to day operations’; something I was perfectly capable of pretending to do. Although threatened by the intrusion, I discovered early on that he was mentally in the same magnitude of bizarre that I was; something that I found strangely comforting. We also found ourselves taking the same art class in sophomore year, which is where he picked up the long discarded moniker, Mouse. As each of us took to the comic book style of art, I introduced him to Collector’s Inn, pleasing Jim to no end, as Knaus always seemed to have a wallet full of cabbage every time he walked in.

            That year I also managed to create another connection by bringing Dave to the art show where Knaus and I were showing off our wares. Within 5 minutes of meeting each other the two were wrestling like dogs in heat in the parking lot. A beautiful bromance was born, and one frankly, that I sometimes became the third wheel in. This was my first and only successful attempt at integrating groups of friends from previous periods in my life with newcomers, probably because it is usually something I try to avoid.

            The first time I stayed over at the Knauses over night, I knew I had met my match in oddness. The kitchen table was covered with newspapers, atop which were a collection of batteries in various stages of disassembly. Knaus revealed that he was performing detailed dissections on them, and although I had abandoned my childhood attempts at alchemy, I resolved to put my chemist hat back on and see what forbidden substances I could take apart at home, resulting in many burns. Knaus also revealed that day his own particular brand of logic when making scrambled eggs. I witnessed him dumping in quantities of vanilla extract into the mix, and when I pressed him on why, he stated that vanilla made things taste better, end of story. It was a principle that could simply not be argued with, though I will say they were pretty sucky eggs.

            That first sleepover was also memorable as it revealed Knaus to be as daring an intrepid explorer as I was, perhaps even more so. We decided to walk over to the old Thruway Mall from his house, taking a back channel along some old abandoned rail road tracks, something Dave and I used to do ourselves. After screwing around there for a while, we headed back utilizing a “shortcut” Knaus claimed to have intimate knowledge of. Somehow we became lost in this area, readily observable by entering these coordinates (42.904482,-78.786821) into Google Maps. This delightful looking “park” area is in truth nothing of the kind; the area is actually an industrial dumping ground amidst a swamp treacherous with piles of corroding hulks of strange machinery and murky channels of slightly frozen over sludge and water filled ditches. Did I mention it was February?

            Knaus led us deep into this wasteland with was what I feel were deliberate intentions to cause me the maximum amount of discomfort possible. We scurried around the piles, snagging our jackets and flesh on the razor sharp edges of rusty metal and frequently plunged one or both legs into one of the horrendous bogs. A mixture of snow and drizzle started to come down, further obscuring our limited view and sense of direction. For several hours we wandered, forced back to the center by the presence of trains or some insurmountable obstacle. Eventually we found our way to one of the side streets and took the by ways back, ending up in Town Park on Harlem. There we were accosted by an angry gentleman we affectionately referred to as ‘Dickhead’ afterward. With our muddy disheveled appearances he mistook us for a pair of sophisticated second story men who had been doing some breaking and entering in the local area weeks prior. We managed to convince him otherwise, but he banished us from the premises anyway.

            Despite the horrendous trip through the bog of doom, I let him convince me to accompany him through the tunnel that runs beneath the Galleria mall shortly after it was built. We began the journey in the mall proper and had Jeff along in tow. We got some cheap flash lights at the Dollar Tree, the kind that you have to hold down the button to keep lit, and ventured to the start of the tunnel, resembling old timey Roman catacombs. Jeff freaked within the first few feet and pledged to meet us, if we emerged alive, around the other side. Creepy does not begin to describe it. Pitch black, sterile, with a slow creek running through. At some points you could look up through a grate and see the happy shoppers walking above in a very different world. Near the end we found a side tunnel and began to venture down. An indescribably horrific noise, however, led us to believe a cult of Satanists was looking for fresh sacrifices, so we bolted out of there post haste.

            We managed to maintain a tight friendship through high school even to the point where I hooked him up with my cousin Ann for the senior prom. He was actually supposed to return the favor hooking me up with his cousin Lin, but fate intervened and I ended up going with Ende’s girlfriend’s friend instead. Before high school ended and after we both got accepted to UB, we made arrangements to become dorm mates the following fall; a service UB was willing to provide as roommates with prior friendships were less likely to cause administrative headaches by requesting room changes mid-semester. We were assigned to Schoellkopf hall on the South Campus on the fourth floor reserved exclusively for freshmen men. Not an ideal choice by any means, but it was a start.

            Our living arrangement was an interesting one, defined by the contract we drew up on the first day that allowed for privacy with female visitors (never required) and the settling of disputes on the field of honor. The field of course turned out to be whatever manner Knaus chose to enact his insidious revenge. In order to shield myself from him better, I constructed an enormous wall from the top of my desk, almost to the ceiling that I referred to as my ‘fire hazard’ as it consisted of mostly paper. Knaus respected the wall to a minor degree, though would often tear pages out of the phone book to turn into paper airplanes and launch them over in miniature raids. Fortunately for me, he had not yet stumbled on the notion of lighting them afire just yet.

            At least once a week we would trundle down to Shirley’s O’Aces, with or without the Irish Club, and stumble back in the wee hours of the morning. It was a grand tradition that later moved to Anacone’s but always followed the same pattern of cheap beer, some sort of bar food, and a traditional playing of William Joel’s classic, ‘Only the Good Die Young’ on the juke. On the walks back we would wax into bizarre conversations, such as what we would do if we stumbled upon a patch of decapitated heads on stakes. Knaus, I recall, immediately concluded that he would take as many of them home as he could carry. Hmm… it occurs to me that this post, as well as some of the others, will probably be deposed as evidence against the defence argument that he is sweet and silent as a lamby-pie.

            As a gift that year, Knaus procured for me a small collection of mice, one male and two females. By April the collection had grown to 42 mice and stunk up the room with great aplomb and all too frequent defecation. One weekend, when we least expected it; they made a bid for freedom. I came back to the room Sunday night and immediately noticed something different. The large tank I kept them in now sported a hole where there had been none before and no mice where there had been 42 before. Looking over at my desk I bore witness to the one named ‘Stripe’ after the Gremlin’s character dive into the moldering water in my hot pot, swim across, and jump out the other side slick with putrid grease. Furious, I called Knaus’s house to get him to come help round them up, but no one picked up. By the time he returned that evening at 11, I was sweaty, disheveled and had managed to recapture 3 of the slowest; the rest defeating my best efforts with ridiculous ease.

            Knaus did manage to help me capture the rest in a comedic run about, John Hughes style, with head clonking, crashing falls, frequent collisions, and all manner of events that would indicate the mice were far cleverer than we. At the end it was Knaus and I against Stripe, the lone hold out, and we were hopelessly outgunned and maneuvered. At some point the little bastard made it into the hall and we happily bid good riddance, but he made a surprise return a millisecond before we shut the door. Finally, improbably, Knaus got the mouse and a day later the lot was taken to a pet store with the most likely final destination in a large reptile of some sort.

            Knaus at this point, and for years on forward, became the prime initiator of trips down to Alleghany to get lost, camp, or make every attempt to get injured in course of photographing wildlife and wee pretty flowers. Most of these trips simply involved a lot of hiking, though there were several traditions that had to be met each trip. One was a visit to Thunder Rocks where we would climb around and scale the impressive boulders. Second was the trip to the legendary beaver damn, the jumping off point where we all got lost that epic journey recounted in ‘How I Became a Horseman’. If this chapter precedes that, well, tough luck. Finally, no trip was complete without a stogie enjoyed usually on the trail leading down from Thunder Rocks to the stream that led to the dam. Due to our impoverished condition, these were usually Dutch Masters, but on one occasion toward the end, we enjoyed authentic Cubans.

            Despite the abuse suffered at his malicious hands, and in spite of the fact that he took to calling himself Malfeus for some reason, we decided to room together the following year rather than take chances on a devil unknown. Common adventures shared between all the roommates in that situation are recounted far too often elsewhere, so I will concentrate on a few items unique to point of this post. While it didn’t trouble us in the past, at least not me anyway, a point of contention came up regarding both my habit of snoring loudly and engaging in distracting sleep talking that made little to no sense. These things enraged Knaus and from time to time I would awaken to see him standing over me gritting his teeth in fury. At site to keep you awake at night assuredly.

On several occasions I did some sleep walking as well, always to his inconvenience. One happy night he was treated to being awakened by me piling the contents of his desk on his sleeping head as “they were about to start air brushing”. Another night I somehow found myself in the hall way, locked out, necessitating a furious pounding on the door until he unhappily let me in. His remedy was to play the same Nine Inch Nails CD on auto repeat each and every night; a condition that kept me from ever really falling asleep soundly and led to many missed classes after sleeping through them on the 5th floor of Lockwood.

Knaus also had an excellent habit of distracting me from schoolwork; something I heartily embraced. He’d look over at me from his desk, exclaim, “I have waaaay too much work to do”, then pull out the latest issue of ‘The Mask’ and commence to reading. This always resulting in me aping his behavior as Matter Eater Lad was far more engaging than BF Skinner. He also had a way of dragging me out to Anacone’s and such on nights before an early morning class. Always with the one-upmanship, if I had an important lecture, he would claim a critical final. He probably did as it was shortly after this that it was strongly suggested he change majors from aerospace engineering to something more his speed like basket weaving or photography.

Knowledge of fine and classical music was an area in which Knaus felt I was severely lacking and attempted to educate me in. Prior to knowing him, I was completely unaware of the iconic 90’s superstar band Transvision Vamp and how they rocked the air waves with such classics as Trash City. We had the opportunity to see them in concert once and to this day I contend that lead singer Wendy James was looking me dead on with the hairy eyeball, such was my magnetic presence in the crowd. I also learned of other enduring legends such as Savatage, Shriekback, and was treated often to the cat like wailings of a post-Blondie Debbie Harry. I’m sure it was musical ignorance that I often sought out knitting needles to end the agony.

When we finally all moved to Comstock, Knaus took on a more reclusive role especially once Aaron and I began our reindeer games and intimidation campaign. Still, on occasion, he would emerge from his oft locked sanctuary and announce he was on a quest for alcohol and trundle down to Anacone’s with or without anyone else in tow. Despite his apparent either shyness or unwillingness to speak in general, with a few beers in him a charismatic demagogue emerged who drew in the enfeebled masses. Often in such circumstances we would find him amidst a crowd of drooling hangers on, gulping up his every ill spoken word. If anyone thought to supply him with endless brandy the world could easily have another JFK or David Koresh, such was his inebriated cult of personality. 

In those heady days of yore he introduced us to one of my favorite summer festivals of all, Allentown. His enthusiasm for going downtown on the subway, slurping raw clams and beer, and looking at all the art we couldn’t afford was infectious! Since those days each trip back is a search to recapture the raw joy of Buffalo’s first summer festival of the season. We used to badger Knaus about entering his own photography as the camera apes down there were pulling down serious green for the same tired old shots of the Central Terminal and shit, but he was unwilling to lay down the cabbage to rent some space despite being able to command four digits a pop for abstract snaps of me eating dog food or Litter Box Jam. Even now I hope to run into him down there, but so far he has declined to compete.

As time progressed he emerged less and less unless it was to bang away on the worlds oldest word processor or not clean the cat box which had become an impressive tower of feces. Once, however, he emerged in a manner most unusual. I came home and was surprised to hear a small commotion and a female voice coming from behind Knaus’s door. As ¾ of the house, a demographic to which both Knaus and I belonged, were not currently being seen with female companionship, this stuck me odd. A bold enquiry led me to believe that Aaron and my cousin had ensconced themselves in there, apparently without Knaus’s knowledge or permission. I began to sweat at what he would do to them, or so I still contend, and when he came strolling through the side door like a thundercloud of death I gently broke the news to him in order to bear the brunt of his immediate wrath.

To my surprise he remained nonchalant about his sanctum sanctorum being so rudely violated. I could only imagine that he was saving his volcanic outburst for the soon to be damned. I threw myself in his path, but he simply stepped over me, the ashes from the cigarette dangling from his lips blinding me from making further pursuit. I managed to come up behind him just as he opened the door and prepared to bludgeon him before he could blast them with his eyes with a bolt of eldritch energy, but while I looked around for an appropriate tool, it became clear that the three of them were really in cahoots. The story, as I was led to believe, was that Knaus egged on by Aaron and Ann in their little exclusionary ka-tet, used a bed sheet tied to his handcuff ring above the bed to shimmy down the side of the house if for no other reason than to annoy me.

When the Comstock project wrapped up and Knaus moved back to his folks, much to their soul crushing dismay I’m certain, we worried he would become a fixture in our past; more of a relic than the hideous goat lamp we absconded with. In the final months we saw very little of him as he spent his time elsewhere and discouraged questions as only Knaus could. At times he would bring Malice, his familiar, along with him as they embarked on dark and mysterious deeds. Instead we were delighted to find that he now actually chose to spend more time in our vicinity, often making the long haul over to Princeton and joining us for our very frequent beer and movie nights. The newest recruits to the Whole Sick Crew, like Jenn with the tongue, Mary, Rob, Chet, and even Dave’s new interest Jennifer took a shine to him. It was the silver age of Knaus and we thought it would last forever.

When things at Princeton degenerated in the last year or so, Knaus, perhaps feeling the Discordia when mom and pops were on the outs (I’m pops by the way), kept his distance. Meetings with him became consigned to long evenings of coffee with myself, Dave and Jen or old school excursions to the forest where to my dismay, increasingly longer periods of time were being devoted to setting up complex equipment to photograph wild posies. When I broke the silence about my intended enlistment to him and Dave, I received open support, though some degree of skepticism as to my true intentions. Anyone who knows me well has difficulty pinning me as a ‘Yessir!’ style military man, except perhaps in the tradition of ‘Stripes’.

While in Basic training Knaus became my most frequent writer, a condition I was intensely grateful for. Basic was a dreary place in which I received frequent verbal comeuppances and days would pass without hint of a smile. Knaus, however, managed to coax out of me the very first laugh out loud with his long and convoluted tales of his wanderings with Dave in the land of UB looking to fulfill the Celestine prophecy. I attempted to share with the other folks, who could all use a giggle as well, but apparently I was the only one cracked enough to appreciate the mad ramblings of shellac headed penman.

Despite the distancing he displayed prior to my departure, he certainly made himself available on a near constant basis when I managed to make it home on leave. Although he had a full time job, not to mention achieving high year tenure at Work-n-Gear, he still managed to drag himself out each and every night until the wee hours. Not only that, but since I didn’t have a car at my disposal, he even drove. Fun nights of pool and beer were spent at old Anacone’s, Bullfeathers, old favorite Caputi’s, and of course our new favorite down on Franklin, the Sanctuary (or Spankuary as it was sometimes known) with its midget bar tender and gothic crowd who moved in from the now defunct Icon.

When I returned for good, Knaus came by to help move me in, although he conveniently showed up just as the very last box was removed from the truck, but had a bottle of SoCo in hand and was forgiven. I don’t recall much after that due to the illness, except that the annual Christmas exchange with Dave resumed and that a screening of our old classic ‘Eric the Viking’ was made to break in my new digs. Next thing I knew I was waking up in a hospital, bored from my near death experience only to have it relieved by a considerate Knaus shipping me a hefty load of books overnight.

In the year or two after my return, Knaus was around for a time, but gradually began to slip away into the night. He was a force to be counted on when Tiffany came to visit, once again eschewing work (since I couldn’t, new in my crap ass job at GP:50) in order to entertain her during the days. He was around often in those days and I think made one last epic trip to Allentown with us. He was also instrumental in decorating my pad with his home grown bonsai trees, necessitating me to line up someone to water them every time I went out of town.

Some Real Characters

            Those few of you not so yet enfeebled of mind as to have forgotten the golden poetry I flung your way back in “Land O’ Lakeland” may recall that I ended that delightful tale with a threat to acquaint you better with some of the characters therein. Well sir, I’m afraid that day has come around at last, so settle in for yet another unnecessarily long yarn spun to showcase the qualities of some ne’er-do-wells you would assuredly be better off remaining unaware of. With honeyed tongue and nimble fingers I shall take you through snapshots of some unimportant galoots, leading to the magnum opus of a character had he not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

            There is no doubt, my lazy forgetful friend, that you would wish me to reacquaint you with what Lakeland is and my connection to it, but I’m afraid I must extend a polite ‘screw you’. I have no time for fools who obviously should have memorized my past works like Koranic verse and misused them expeditiously likewise. Before you get sucked into this too deeply, for you a few brief sentences prior to being rendered catatonic with orgasmic delight at my penmanship, I demand you go back to the original tale and commit my austere passages to rote lest the phantasmagoric Nun of Literacy’s ruler find your worthless hide. In the mean time, I will work on talking like less of a douche.

            Welcome back! I applaud your acceding to my demands though I regret to say I have changed not at all; it was simply a carrot now discarded to the wolves. Obviously vegetarian wolves. Let’s get started then. One of the first characters I encountered at old Lakeland was Fat Paulie. The more clever of you might suspect that the name was a sarcastic moniker for some skin and bones twig, but please bear in mind where we are talking about and understand that aside from your favorite author, none who worked there were capable of that level of sophisticated humor. Fat Paulie was known as such because his ample frame tipped the scales at almost 500 lbs.

            Paulie was one of the drivers who worked for Billy and I’m sure one of those classified as “assholes and thieves” as Willie described the general work force. Paulie wasn’t much of an asshole so much as I can tell, and if he was thieving I was never able to figure out what. At one point we did a general inventory and actually found every single thing that was registered to belonging to the place, so obviously there was a broad conspiracy comprised of the workers, accountants, management, and even the computer system. Absolutely diabolical in every respect.

            Despite the obvious weight issue, Paulie painted a tragic figure as on top of things he was not the brightest star in Orion’s belt, hanging precipitously over the cosmic god’s nads, but still a good egg. His main problem, and one I was going to understand much better later on, was that he was in the classic substitute boyfriend situation, though a whole lot deeper than most of us get. The woman in question was his roommate, and someone he was very obviously infatuated with as he spoke of her incessantly. It was apparent to the rest of us that she was well aware of the situation and used it to her best advantage.

            The woman, who I only had the pleasure of meeting once, was a much less pretty version of Joy Hickey, though somewhat more trailer-trashy. Chain smoking Newport’s and sporting a baseball cap advertising the same, she ordered and derided and he obeyed like a well beaten puppy. Adding to the mix was the fact that she had an infant child who also occupied the small apartment with them, and according to Paulie, was quite colicky, meaning he, yes he, was up many nights trying to calm the little rascal while unemployed mama got her beauty sleep. Where baby daddy I’m sure your eager mind was is beginning to wonder? Attica! And for the crime of maiming some poor schmuck who he felt had designs on his old lady. Paulie drove her down there every weekend to get her conjugal visit in, he keeping his old Dodge Dart warm while she got her freak on.

            I don’t know whatever became of Paulie, he just sort of faded away, getting fewer and fewer shifts and finally disappearing from the schedule all together. My hope is that Attica Al didn’t get out of the joint and do him in for his obsession with her nibs, and thankfully I never heard reports of this. I was certain, however, that I spotted him in a video by the band 311 for a song called ‘Down’. The video features a very large man meditating and that large man is the spitting image of Paulie. Look it up. Seriously, go look it up you lazy piece of shit, before you go on to the next entry. God!

            Shaky Joe was a character I disliked from the get go. The origin of his moniker again was fairly straightforward; the dude shook like a leaf most of the time and while he offered numerous explanations of dubious medical causes, most of us suspected it was excessive drug and alcohol use. I first encountered this idiot at the MAWDI warehouse where I and drivers from other local outfits would be routed from time to time to pick up parts that we didn’t have on hand. A chair opened up and I took it to ease my tired dogs. Apparently the chair “belonged” to Shaky McGee there as he came striding over and stood before me. “Uh uh Lakeland, you got no seniority here, that is my chair.” Was this fool with his bad moustache and mullet actually trying to claim some right of seniority regarding a damn chair at a place that neither of us worked? We stared each other down for a few moments and then he was called that he part was ready. He sneered and walked away.

            I came to find out that this yutz actually worked at our other branch in Depew. That was just great. The next time I ran into him it was to deliver a whole truck full of quart boxes of oil to our sister store. He was assigned to help me unload and did so by picking up each box and hurling it, full force, out the back of the truck to me on the loading dock. I refused to acknowledge the intent or the discomfort growing in my hands and caught every one of them, stacking them before the next was whipped at my head. For some reason this seemed to impress this shaved ape and he was cordial ever after; a good thing because he eventually transferred to our branch.

            Getting to know him better, I found he was cut from the same cloth as Klausen to an alarming degree such that had they not looked completely different, I would have speculated that they were twins separated at birth. Often on Monday he would come in with a blackened eye or lumpy face and a tale of some dust up he had gotten into at a bar where the other fellow got the better of him. Greg enjoyed deriding him about this considerably. “Don’t you have any buddies? Or do they just enjoy watching you get the shit kicked out of you every weekend?” I had money on the latter. Joe eventually went the way of the careless driver. First, one Friday evening on a MAWDI run he managed to plow right into an oncoming buck and total the Ranger. The event was looked on with at least a little humor (not so much from Billy) and for a night he was known as ‘Crash’. Two days later he managed to total a second truck after running a stop sign. He resigned on the spot and we never heard from him again.

            Billy really liked to employ old retired guys as drivers as they were willing to work for the low wages he offered as they were basically in it for something to do. Nice old coots most of them, but the one worth mentioning was Voicebox Teddy. Teddy, who had been a chain smoker most of his life, contacted cancer of the larynx and had to have it removed leaving a large hole in his throat that he covered with a piece of mesh to keep the flies out. When agitated he would pull the mesh down and make you look at the opening like a festering evil eye that he would wheeze at you through. Like others in his condition, he was issued one of those electronic voice box things. Teddy apparently got the shittiest model they ever made because we could never tell what he was trying to say. Bud for some reason insisted on sending Teddy to the warehouse and have him call back. Having been present for both ends of these conversations, I recall them going something like this

 

B: Lakeland, Bud speaking.

T: Grrrrk….bzzz…akeszzz….zzt

B: Is that you Ted?

T: Zxzzt…tkkk..uk…zink….is?

B: Goddammit Teddy, speak the fuck up!

T: ..Zz…fu..grzzt…ant…me…kkkkt….go?

B: I can’t understand a goddamn word you are saying you old fuck!

T: Zzzzt….go….zz…go!

B: Go to hell you fucking prick! But stop at Precision Tune with those brakes on the way.

T: Xxxzzzt….uck….zzz…ou!

B: What?

           

            Despite the fact that this played out the same way every time, Bud still sent him there about 3 times a day, even though multiple phones were broken over violent hang ups and MAWDI Mary would call complaining that Teddy was flashing his hole at her every time she lit up. Teddy liked to serve as a living ghastly warning over the ill effects of tobacco and became quite enthusiastic in sticking things in the hole, drawing pictures (Teddy was only semi-literate and usually fucked up deliveries as a result), and performing incomprehensible skits. Except for Bud. For Bud he kept a lighter on hand and presented a lit flame every time Bud opened his pack. Bud, the devil himself and having no fear of hell, always accepted.

            Teddy was most interesting on Friday nights when Greg and I would man the place until close. Usually about an hour before, Teddy would come staggering in with a tall boy of Pabst Blue Ribbon and want to shoot the shit with us. He was generally quite schnockered by this point and as far as we could tell, he was portraying, quite poorly, with movement interspersed with electronic crackling, the various ways in which he intended on killing and disposing of Bud. Eventually, like many former hires, he gave everyone the finger and strode out the door never to be heard from again.

            I mentioned U.T. in my earlier post (I swear you better have gone back and read it or it’s your ass!) and feel the need to bring up another of Billy’s political hires, this one by the name of Chris; not to be confused by the other Chris who worked there who was actually pretty good and thereby not worth mentioning. If either Chris stumbles upon this entry, rest comfortably knowing you are probably the bad one. Bad Chris, the son of some tool who bought a lot of parts from us, started as a driver and within a week managed to fuck it all up royally and piss off a number of good customers.

            Those of you who are familiar with basic economics, which is probably not any of you, forcing me to explain, knows, or is about to know, that most businesses operate on the principle of acquiring labor and material for a certain cost and marking it up considerably to cover both the costs of doing business and securing some amount of profit. Believe it or not, this is something I have had to explain ad nauseum to both employees and street level inquisitors who buttonhook me randomly for answers. These dolts often cry “unfair” until I drill through adamantium skulls that doing otherwise is poor practice. In any case, B.C. strode right into the busy customer area of our largest customer with an armload of parts and exclaimed at full volume, “Wow, I never saw rotors for as cheap as $7 before!” The customer base, comprised largely of the great unwashed, were of the ilk unable to understand these basic economic principles and a small riot ensued when they understood the establishment intended to charge them more than the $7 it was paying. We, as well as they, lost considerable business that day due to that loose lipped schmuck. After several other similar incidents, a verbal altercation with another customer, B.C. finally plowed his truck into the back of a car in front of the mall and Billy gleefully cut him loose.

            Now that I think about it, Good Chris also had an incredibly bone headed adventure as well. He was yet another driver that Billy hired without asking if he could drive stick, so like Adrianna, we gave him a crash course and let him loose. His first time out he pulled in to Precision Tune Sheridan and in his eagerness to make good time, he left the vehicle running, which as you are aware in standard vehicles necessitates shifting to neutral. What Chris forgot was that it was necessary to engage the parking brake, which was unfortunate given that the parking lot had quite the pitch to it. While the grease monkey was signing for his parts, he casually let slip to Chris that the source of the commotion behind him was Ranger which had rolled back into traffic where it sat cutting off two full lanes. We liked Chris, so we let it go, though he was saddled with the tired old ‘Crash’ moniker for a few weeks after.

            The auto supply industry does not merely employ idiots and assholes, but delivers to them almost exclusively. My least favorite was a fellow up on Young St in Tonawanda who ran a garage and was affectionately known as ‘Assface’ by myself and the rest of the crew. Please be advised that he is not to be confused with popular ‘Preacher’ character ‘Arseface’, as he precedes him by years and was far less pleasant. We called him Assface for a number of reasons. For one, he always wore a sour, puckered expression like he just ate a Lemonhead, which for all I know, he did. In addition, he was a considerable prick to deal with. Every time I pulled into his tiny parking lot with the big white box, he would become almost hysterically angry and demand I move it before signing for his shit. Annoyed with his initial overreaction, I made it a point to forget each and every time and feigned sheepishness in moving the vehicle after each and every conniption. I was pleased to see him go out of business before my stint there was over.

            Other customers were full of stories, though I came to find that some liked to tell the same damn ones over and over, like Anal Bead Gary. Gary was one of the nicest customers we had and he’d often come in to shoot the breeze on Friday nights; a pleasant offset to Teddy’s mute rantings. One of the stories he liked to tell, and hence the name, was about the time he was in Vietnam and got a prostitute who like to shove thing up his ass. Making sure we understood he wasn’t gay, he would wax poetic on the pleasantries of having said items yanked out. By this point we would generally be concentrating more on Teddy’s exaggerated stabbing motions or stick figure drawings reminiscent of Knaus’s ‘Animal Divorce Court’.

            I know Munchkins that I promised to get to devoting more attention to a man already introduced but not yet given full substance, the honorable Mr Bud. Bud, whose full name will assuredly not be disclosed as I have no doubt that he would not hesitate for a moment to shoot me in the face, a threat he made even when I wasn’t pissing him off. I will begin; you worthless bastards who I know didn’t go back and read the old entries, by reminding you that Bud was the general manager of the place under Billy and had been a counter fixture there since before time began. Abusive, explosively temperamental, and usually the first impression customers gained of our little establishment. He was, by the by, the spitting image of Alex Trebek and even sounded like him when he wasn’t shouting.

            Like many angry men, Bud had a bit of a cop wannabe fetish going on. He was licensed to carry a concealed weapon, which he exercised at all times, and enjoyed flashing it around from time to time just so that the fact would come to mind when he was exploding on some matter or another. On top of that, he insisted on carrying handcuffs as well. Not the furry kind that probably would have been more explainable, but the standard cop issue chrome ones. He refused to explain why and insisted that they came in handy from time to time without elaborating. He would use this tidbit to flirt on the phone with MAWDI Mary and on more than one occasion I heard him remark, “Hey Mary, I’m fingering my handcuffs while I’m talking to you.” Having been at MAWDI when she was talking to Bud, I could see her blushing and giggling like a schoolgirl, a sickening sight.

            Customers and employees were not the only one’s Bud like to explode on, but his employers as well. Billy usually backed down when Bud went on one of his little tirades, but he and Will would get into some terrific rows. It says something about a place when you can threaten to shoot your bosses father in the face and still keep your job. Often times this would end with Bud quitting and storming out the door leaving his company supplied vehicle behind. On one occasion he called me five minutes later and I had to go pick him up from a phone booth down the Boulevard and drive him home. I asked if he really quit that time and he affirmed this. He then asked me to pick him up in the morning as he would need a ride. His returns were generally full of enormous amounts of tension around the place for many days on end.

            Although he didn’t often get physically violent, it happened from time to time. One cold Feb we received an entire semi full of cheap Chinese brake rotors Billy got some killer deal on. We were dismayed, however, to find that the load had shifted cracking open every crate and eliminating the possibility of unloading the truck with the fork lift. This of course meant unloading many thousands of heavy rotors by hand. To make matters worse, the driver, whom Bud accused of deliberately letting the load shift, refused to help us unload. It was a long day in the cold, and even Bud was out there with us in his shirt and tie pulling things out. His temper grew by the minute and when there was enough room to maneuver around; he picked up a large crow bar and went apeshit on the inside of the semi denting the hell out it to the point where the driver would undoubtedly have some serious explaining to do. The driver was actually nearby when Bud started, standing lackadaisically near the front of the truck smoking and was visibly startled when the clanging began. He initially came forward in angry alarm, but once he could hear the terrific cursing of the most threatening kind amidst the banging, he backed off fearfully and paced around very agitated for the rest of the day.

            In the end it was decided that managing the store and the drivers was simply too much stress and likely the prime contributor to the outbursts, never mind that this seemed to be his natural disposition. The only reason Bud continued to breath, we figured other than his armaments, was that he was actually very personable and charming the majority of the time. It was just that the other 10% was so memorable as to make us forget that. Billy acquired a little Geo Metro, probably a former B.O. Geo as they were still doing that back in those days, and had Bud ride around in it from customer to customer bullshitting with them and trying to sell parts. I ended up taking Bud’s old stand at the counter and it was universally agreed that it was a kinder, gentler auto parts store.

            I stopped back in to Lakeland a few years ago to have some keys made and Billy went ahead and comped me. Almost all of the old crew was long gone. Greg got his CDL and hit the open road and most of the drivers finally retired for good. As for Bud, well, Billy didn’t go into too much detail but apparently there was a row to end all rows and Bud departed there for good. Sleep easy though and know that he is out there, somewhere, just waiting to make good on his threat to shoot you in the face.

Land O’ Lakeland

            Once again, despite all promises made in the past to spare this readership further tales of those vainglorious and vermiscious days before my little jaunt into the Air Force, I am going to make a filthy liar of myself. I feel that in my haste to close out this era and move on to stories in which I alone of the editorship was the star, I left out some details worth telling in my post titled “Wild Blue Yonder”; specifically my days of employment at Lakeland.

            As per the original agreement that I saw fit to flagrantly disregard on so many occasions and thus invite all manner of justifiably angry responses, I am going to leave out details that would serve to direct the baleful eye of Google or other search engines this way. It is not so much that I worry for the delicate feelings of those sensitive souls who sob quietly to sleep at night because I described them as a low brow brutish nancy, or because one of the editors tends to spew a worrisome stream of Mountain Dew from his nose every time it happens, but because I have grown weary of the cumbersome task of apologizing, backpedaling, or trying to convince you that you aren’t as bad as you seem. This naturally does not apply to any current readers whom we have apologized to. You, my friend, are the lone exception in the dreary list of malcontents.

            Although I now am known to possess the gritty motivation of a fully fledged razorback boar with a yen for road apples, following college graduation I had no particular idea on how to go about gaining a professional position that had anything to do with my majors of choice. I closed out the year in food service at dear old Berts in Talbert, said my goodbyes to JT and Eileen, and was banned for life from the immaculate grill area on the simple account of losing my student status. Where most people would have used this as a springboard to make use of the career counseling services we all had access to, I chose, as usual, the road much less traveled (and for a good reason) and waited with grandiose expectations for the world to get around to beating a path to my door.

            In the mean time, I fell back on my old standby, the DPW. I figured working a long summer would keep me in beer and pretzels while word filtered around the job market that a brilliant young bull was about and available. The job paid the princely sum of $5.50 an hour, which even at 1995 wage rates, probably wasn’t really all that great. Given that I lived out most of the year making minimum wage food service wages supplemented with the $2 a week I took home from Collectors after paying for the 4 color monkey on my back, it seemed generous. To save on gas, as well as the expensive luxury of a personally owned vehicle, I pedaled my ass through the streets of Tonawanda every morning to spend the day dumping trash into the back of a packer or schlepping around killing time with old Bucko, occasionally tending to the one or two village owned patches of grass.

            With these lofty wages keeping most of my expenses met (supplemented with a Discover card I received after filling out an application to get free M&Ms), I lacked the motivation to really, really look for a job. Hell, I didn’t even have an up to date resume; the most current employment on the old document listed as my Pennysaver route and ‘bug collecting’ listed under hobbies. Now I knew that a lot of the ‘summer scum’ as they liked to call us got hired on full time when needed and my unmotivated noggin deeply considered the option of just continuing on past the summer and backdoor my way into a permanent gig. Some of the really senior guys there revealed that with side gigs they were clearing as much as $40K a year, and to my poor 4 digit annual income, that sounded pretty sweet.

            The shoe dropped of course at the end of the summer. The super came rambling up to me one Wed in early September and revealed that Friday was going to be my last day. “Budget’s all up for summer scum Wolfie! Nice havin’ you but don’t let the door hit yer ass on the way out! Haw!” Well that was just great. A college grad with gigantic loans looming and here I was about to face the ranks of the unemployed. I was filled with indignant fury! Since they had hired on less senior summer scum I was under the assumption that my marker was in play and good and now to betray me like this? I was the ideal government employee! Never missed a coffee break, never returned early from lunch, took frequent naps on the taxpayers’ nickel, and often showed up late, hung-over and disheveled… I was the very model of the extraneous man leaning wearily against a pristine shovel behind a relentless barricade of orange road cones assembled for no discernable reason but to irritate residents.

            I vented my outrage to Bucko who listened with great compassion and aplomb. “My old pal Willie could use a good man like you. Got nothing but assholes and thieves working for him!” This sounded at least somewhat promising. An environment full of lazy distempered thieves was one I felt I could thrive in and stand out over the rest of the pack. The friendships I had cultivated as described in the rest of this wordy blog prepared me well for dealing with assholes in a highly successful manner. Willie, happy to have a well recommended college boy like myself sent his way, sent me in to Lakeland to interview with his son who had taken over the family business.

            The interview process was quite informal. Billy kicked the tires a little bit and quizzed me on my knowledge of auto parts, which was nil having never owned a vehicle or even changed a tire. He smelled the potential of greatness, or perhaps the Brut I employed to smarten myself up a bit, and agreed to hire me at the same amazing wage as the DPW was paying me. Although he admitted my pedigree had senior management written all over it, Billy took the bottoms up approach and decided to start me as a driver hauling parts around town in order to get to know the customer base and the product since at that time I had not even been aware that cars had such things as cooling systems or alternators.

            I reported my first day, shiny and showered, and was given over to Greg, one of the counter guys. The other fellow at the counter, chain smoking and barking on the phone at the same time was identified as ‘Bud’. I was immediately warned of both his explosive temper and the fact that he carried a concealed weapon. Experience taught me over time that the latter was well justified as no less than three dozen people, most of them customers, one with known mob ties, personally and graphically threatened to end his ability to breath in ghastly, painful ways. Billy’s business model was somewhat counterintuitive in nature, but by the fact that he remains in place today against juggernaut NAPA, his acumen is unquestionable.

            Greg got me going with my first delivery run and a snag or two shook out almost immediately. The first being that not having a car, I didn’t know how to get anywhere that was not in walking distance. We worked through this, both initially and for the next 6 months by Greg taking me to the local map in back and tracing out my route with his finger as I hastily wrote down directions. Eventually I would take to spending much time at that map establishing ideal routes for any type of delivery run which led to my legend as the fastest driver in the history of the joint.

            The second problem manifested after I loaded up the back of the old Ford Ranger and got in the drivers seat where I was confronted by the fearsome stick shift. The worn black knob, like a gruesome eye with foreign symbols (the gear numbers of course) staring up at me, mocking me, daring me to try and fail. Of course I did; those of my kind are not partial to revealing weakness and would rather drive the thing off a cliff than admit the challenge was beyond the scope of experience. I couldn’t even manage to get it started. I stepped out and admitted defeat expecting to be sent home in disgrace. Instead, Billy surprised me and made available the only vehicle in his fleet with a standard transmission, a large white box truck in which I was to have plenty of adventures.

            Driving the box had its own challenges as I was to learn. First, backing up requires some deal of care and in one of my first runs out I managed to plow right into a parked car. Like a good employee and responsible citizen I left a note implicating my employer. As it turned out, that was the wrong thing to do. Billy made it a point to avoid company identification on the vehicles despite the guaranteed advertising value specifically because it allowed the possibility of his careless drivers to escape hit and runs, something that happened quite frequently, without implicating him. Otherwise he would have been out of business in but a few fortnights. Yes, I am using archaic time terminology simply to be a prick and make you think.

            I also learned early on that the box did not fit very well through the drive through at Arby’s on the Boulevard. Thinking I was clear after placing my order I ran right into the overhang. This necessitated a comedic episode in which the whole line of disgruntled drivers behind me had to back out, let me out, and then refigure their place in line to receive the correct order. Although Arby’s took down my information I declined to relate the incident back at the home office for obvious reasons.

            Since the box truck was my only possibility for the time, it became my responsibility to deliver all the 55 galleon drums of oil, washer fluid and anti-freeze around the area. This in itself posed some challenges. My first time out, Greg loaded the back with about 10 drums using the fork lift. I got to my first destination where the customer didn’t have a fork lift. We stood there looking at each other wondering how we were going to lift down a 900 lb drum of anti-freeze. Someone finally came up with the idea to stack up about 5 discarded old tires behind the truck and roll the barrel down onto them. This method worked splendidly for getting the item off the truck, but had the downside of almost squishing the fool mechanic who had the brilliant idea to stand in front and “catch” the falling item. Classic Wile E. Coyote. In time I gained such finesse at this operation that I could alone tip and roll the barrel down and flip it upright the moment it hit the tires; a class act according to the grease monkey community at large.

            I would also like to share my complaint regarding the day that this cavernous vehicle almost became my tomb. I was executing the much vaunted Kessel Run and trying to beat HS’s nonsensical time of 12 parsecs down the 400 from Holland. The back hold was filled with exotic merchandise: 2 huge pallets of oil spill cleaner (kitty litter), some barrels of oil and washer fluid, stacks of brake rotors, and up front in the passenger seat next to me was a whole pile of exhaust parts that a savvy customer was returning. I took a hard turn trying to make good time when I felt the load shift in back. I heard a vaguely familiar sound that almost reminded me of a plane taking off. In nanoseconds I concluded that the noise was generated by the tires lifting from the wet pavement. I could feel the tip just beginning and fountained effluvious chilled sweat staring down the tangled mess of rusty piping poised ready to impale me if gravity had say.

            Forget not to breathe gentle reader! I did indeed survive that day as evidenced by my only claimed supernatural telling of this tale. With ever so careful application of the brakes I managed to reverse the course of the tip and guide her home; albeit now going at a breakneck 15 MPH reaching base in great excess of the to my knowledge unbeatable 12 parsecs. To round out the day nicely, driving into my last stop I was forced to brake suddenly allowing for the sole remaining barrel of fluid, unwisely placed at the rear of the truck, to fly forward up through the crawl door and into the cab with me. Extracting it was a real bitch; a task made all the more difficult by well shot nerves.

            Over time with the assistance of the irascible Mr Walsh I learned to drive stick shift, but by that point my duties began to shift more managerial. My next feat of note occurred when I brought in my first new hire; a very poorly conceived idea that fortunately managed not to bite me in the ass. Adrianna was one of the many women I met in my teledate days and in one of our early conversations she revealed she was hard up for a job. We had lost Fat Paul and Billy was looking for someone new and reliable. So, without ever meeting her in person, and even after the Stanky Stalker incident, I gave my wholehearted recommendation. She interviewed and was hired and we had our first “date” as I was to train her how to drive stick, Billy having not yet learned to incorporate that most useful of questions into the interview process.

            The immediate upside to what could have been an awkward and disadvantageous situation was that we had a wonderful case of mutual unattraction that greatly facilitated us working together without too much hullabaloo. Our first foray out she beat the clutch on the old Ranger like Mike Tyson’s unfortunately named younger brother Bryson. We were cruising down the 290 approaching Sheridan with the intention on making a delivery to some now defunct garage near the country club when I smelled it go. The predictable black smoke visual soon followed and I was able to guide her down the Sheridan/ Harlem exit ramp. I had a dilemma on my hands here; our customer expected their delivery and this was the time before cell phones. I boldly made a decision of executive quality.

            Adrianna steered the old clunker while I pushed that son of a bitch all the way to the garage; a distance of almost 3 miles. It was a fantastic battle gaining momentum down slight inclines and straining with all my might on the tiny rises, but I got her there to the delight and amazement of the wrench heads waiting for their parts. The bonus for this customer is that they were guaranteed the work of making the repair and got to ogle Adrianna, generously endowed in an area pleasing to most men. We became the most favored supplier that day. Greg picked us up and drove us back to Lakeland where I received significant accolades for the accomplishment and was subsequently asked to repeat the story ad nauseum. Despite all I have accomplished since, including bringing in a $15 million dollar contract, I never once received such praise as I got for pushing that old goddam truck.

            After an incident in which our mob affiliated customer threatened to kill Bud, and Bud responded by threatening to not only kill Doug, but his whole extended family, it was decided that the best place for Bud was in sales and marketing and not managing the counter. I don’t know if Billy thought that Bud might make more effective threats in person than over the phone, but I never understood any of his logic anyway. In a brilliant move of emasculation, Billy gave him an adorable little Geo Metro to scoot around town in and gave the flagship purple S-10 over to me to take home every night. A sweet deal this; my own “company car”. This served to facilitate my tele-dating efforts considerably, even though I was on the honor system to simply drive the thing back and forth to work.

            In my new role as counter manager and directing the drivers and such, I finally had my first opportunity to push someone out the door. I’ve never been a believer in keeping around dead wood; a philosophy diametrically opposed to Billy’s penchant for bringing it in through the front door and angling just so that pushing it back out becomes an exercise in futility. The prize of the litter was a fellow Greg and I referred to as ‘U.T.’, a clever altering of his true name, ‘J.T.’ for the purpose of identifying him as a ‘Useless Tool”. U.T. was the son of a highly prominent customer in local government who had the wherewithal to allocate large amounts of budget our way by circumventing the fair bid process. U.T. was hired to sweep up and shit and I was saddled with the task of keeping him busy. Within hours I wanted him fired, though Billy would not capitulate.

            U.T. liked to find places in the store to hide and force me to go looking for him in order to find some bullshit task that didn’t need doing that he couldn’t fuck up too badly. It was a challenge. Since I couldn’t force him out, I decided to break him to provide motivation for him to look for an easier job. “C’mere J.T.! Got a little job for you!” his face would fall in misery upon hearing those words. “I’m going to need to go ahead and ask you to…” It was never anything pleasant. Tedious, dirty, even dangerous; no task was too shitty to assign U.T. We received in a half dozen pallets of anti-freeze, the heaviest shit on earth, stacked up to the ceiling and wedged back into our filthy cramped back storage area, comfortable only to the likes of a Gollum, and I had my backbreaker.

            “J.T… Got a little job for you. Yeah, you know all that anti-freeze in the back? Well, the other day I went back there myself and pulled out and counted every single bottle. Here is the thing…the count has to be balls on accurate, so I’m going to need you to do the same thing and let me know what number you come up with. I’ll come back here and there to see how you are doing.”

            In reality I did nothing of the kind, but it did force him to actually do the work in hopes of matching my number. Accomplishing the task meant moving everything by hand through cramped dirty narrow areas in stifling heat to boot. I made good and went back there every 20 minutes or so and tapped my watch each time. He worked all day; pulling, counting, putting everything back. He finally emerged well after his normal quitting time filthy, sweating, red faced and weary to the bone to produce his results.

            “Oh… hmm… that isn’t the number I came up with at all! Well, one of us is off, so I’m going to need you to go ahead and do the same thing tomorrow to see if you come up with your number, my number, or a different number all together. Just so you know, I’m real sure my number is right, so…”

            As expected, U.T. failed to show for his next shift and every one thereafter. A week later we discovered him sweeping sawdust at one of our customers who also knew his dad. Sweeney leaned over to me, “I never saw anyone take 4 goddam hours to sweep a floor before! And it wasn’t even clean when he was done!” If I had to make a guess where he is today, it would be holding up a shovel behind inexplicable orange cones, enjoying the effects of gravity and nothing else till 5 o’clock made its way around once more.

            Far more difficult to manage was Willie, the founder of the company and Billy’s father. Despite retiring 5 years prior, Willie insisted in coming into work for the full day, every single day. He spent the majority of his time poking around, telling Billy how he was doing things wrong, annoying the living shit out of Bud who would periodically quit and storm out in a cloud of fury to make a point, and needling the rest of us about everything under the sun. We affectionately referred to him O.B. or ‘Old Bastard’, based on an incident in which a former employee, tired of being told for an hour straight that he was hanging exhaust wrong, screamed “fuck off you old bastard!” and was thence ushered out the door. Once I was jammed behind the counter most of the time, he began to get under my skin as well.

            I found a way, however, to get him to leave us all alone. I discovered quite by accident that after he had one of his temperamental episodes, set off by some perceived slight or instance, he would take to Billy’s office for several hours to cool down. I began to look for ways to get him spun up at someone else’s expense. “Will, get this. I filled up the white box truck on Friday afternoon, and here it is Monday morning almost empty!” He looked at me with wide eyed horror, “Those sons of bitches!”; Willie was always convinced the world was out to pick his pocket. What I didn’t tell him as he exploded in fury was that I came in on Saturday and drove a load of oil down to Chestnut Ridge and never filled back up. He had his rant, hid with Billy well into the afternoon (poor Billy suffered from my technique) then spent the rest of the fuddling around trying to find a locking gas cap that would fit.

            I can probably fill up a whole separate entry about all of the characters I encountered there: Fat Paulie, Shaky Joe, ‘Crash’ McGee, MAWDI Mary, Assface, the Made Man, Anal Bead Gary, Rocky, the Businessman, the Bigot, and of course much more on the ineffable Bud, so I’m probably going to go ahead and do that at some point since the rest of these douche bags are letting this wondrous fruit languish like last weeks tomatoes. Pricks.

Atsa Matta For You!

            Those of you of Italian heritage may take offense at the title of this entry, but given the tremendously bad treatment I received by the continental boot dwellers who appropriately smell like feet, I’m not much inclined to care. In any event, it has been my experience that all personages of Italian descent have an overriding biological imperative to identify themselves as such at every opportunity, not matter how inappropriate, and no one has yet done so here. For example, “Hey, sorry I ran over your foot! It’s something I would know about though because I’m Italian”. I always thought the Jersey sub-species was the worst of the lot, that is until I got to sunny Taranto; a poorly named city no one heard of except to confuse with Toronto, and located on the inner heel.

            Similar in origin to my last travel story, this one also began with Dick Betz in need of a rube and me fitting the bill quite nicely. My successful trip to Geilenkirchen saddled me with the distinction of being the Amherst AMES guy; a distinction I’m sure no one else coveted. The result was that I found myself bee-bopping around the country and world 75% of the time addressing problems with poorly documented pieces of crap. In the time since that first trip Dick managed to first cultivate allies in Queens to get technical assistance and then proceeded to enrage and alienate them with unreasonable requests to such a degree that our whole department was forbidden at the vice-presidential level from even asking these delicate geniuses a question without receiving express written permission.

            This particular trip began with me being not so much asked, but informed.

 

“Hey, I just talked to Tim and he said you were going to go to Italy for me.”

 

“What? When? What’s the deal?”

 

“Oh, I think next week. We delivered a new system there a year ago and the thing hasn’t been able to even boot up. Been banging on it ever since with no luck, so they bought a trip to have you come fix it.”

 

“So wait, it never worked?”

 

“Yeah. They are plenty mad about it too. Better book a one way ticket!”

 

            This was just typical. Piss off the customer for a good long time until they threaten legal action, then fill them with unreasonable expectations and send me in and hope for the best. Fortune had smiled on me before this, so my cockitude remained unblemished. I’d show these greasy Guido’s how it’s done!

            I flew into Bari from Rome on a hot little turbo prop with no environmental control and people who were morally opposed to bathing and then had to fight for my baggage in a claim center the size of my dining room. It was decidedly unpleasant. The rental car agency stayed true to continental tradition of giving the American asshole the weirdest piece of shit car in inventory that will guarantee the most difficult drive possible. I ended up in this mini-van looking thing with a standard transmission that was located atop the dashboard, necessitating an uncomfortable lurch forward every time I needed to shift.

            Looking down at the directions my customer sent, one would expect and exceptionally easy commute to the hotel. Verbatim, “Take road to Taranto and keep going on it. You pass bridge and 2 castle looking things and Grand Hotel Delfino on the left by the sea.” Given that one would expect this place to be max 5 or 10 minutes away, not 100 miles in a completely different city. To make matters more exciting upon entering the highway, though no warning was posted, I found myself in a self serve toll plaza and forced to take a ticket. I had not yet changed any money over and wondered what I was going to do on the other end.

            The highway to Taranto was uneventful and during the ride I literally passed hundreds of bridges and “castle looking things”. The highway suddenly ended, branching off in 6 directions. At the toll plaza I had my only piece of good luck in the fact that I located some Euros in my laptop bag from a previous trip. It was just enough to cover. For lack of better options, I picked the fork that looked most right; why I don’t know, it just did, and was really, really wrong. Two hours later I was completely lost in the Italian countryside with no inclination where I came from or where I was going. The first two gas stations I stopped at were useless. No one spoke any English or had any knowledge of there being a Grand Hotel Delfino or Taranto for that matter.

            Finally the third one I stopped at was a lucky break. I launched into my spiel to the vacuous looking counter girl and received the same disinterested lack of comprehension I was accustomed to when an old man came out of the back. As it turns out, he was a field engineer himself back in the day and ran into the same situations. He patiently drew me a map to the hotel. I misinterpreted the map and a half hour later returned full circle to the same establishment where he happily corrected me.

            I was tired, hungry and pissed when I pulled into the tiny parking lot in front of the hotel. As I brought along tools and manuals and whatnot, it was a struggle getting my gear through the front door. The concierge watched my frustrated effort with a bemused expression, never stirring from his perch a mere 5 feet away holding down the podium with his chin cradled in the palm of his hand. This bastard was stepping on my last nerve and he hadn’t even said anything yet. I rolled up to him and after a moment of staring each other down; he cool as a cucumber and I flushed with sweltering rage. He said something in Italian, to which I gave my best American confused “huh?” To which he rolled his eyes and said, “Can I a help you?” Yes, they really do put that “a” in there.

            The check in process was as infuriating as the drive up. Although the place was billed as a 5 star joint with the luxurious trappings to match, their organizational system was right out of the 19th century and he spent a good half hour looking for the ratty piece of paper my reservation was on. To his obvious dismay, he found it, and I got the impression from his looking me up and down in my comfortable travel clothes that he preferred his guests to be in top hat and tails with a monocle thrown in for good measure. I inquired about food and he tersely indicated a room service menu could be found in the room. Being a 5 star establishment, I expected to be able to exchange money there as I had at every other foreign hotel (aside from the Geilenkirchen pub). He was further irritated by the request and after looking half assed through a drawer or two said he didn’t have any Euros.

            The smarmy fuck finally handed over my key, which was attached inextricably for some reason to a solid piece of brass the size of a door knob. The whole deal weighed at least 8 lbs and threatened to take my loose fitting shorts right down when placed in my pocket. Any larger and it could have passed as the key to the loo in a Kentucky gas station.

 

“Do you have a copy of this key that isn’t attached to one of these things?”

 

Long sputter of Italian, some of which I was sure was cursing, “Eh. No.”

 

            He resumed his bored stance as I struggled with my bags to the elevator while holding up my shorts against the oppressive weight of the big brass knocker. When I got to the room I decided it was time to make some calls. First order of business was to get some food. The promised menu did not exist but I found the extension to the kitchen. I called up, explained I didn’t know Italian and wanted to know what they served. This initiated a long string of loud arguing between the douche on the phone and the kitchen staff. After listening to these greaseballs yell in Italian at each other for a good 10 minutes, they finally just hung up the phone. I called back and only got an exact repeat of the same; a whole lot of yelling and no damn food. Looks like I was going to have to hit the streets to find some chow.

            My second call was to figure out how to get to work the next day. After the spectacular directions to the hotel I just didn’t feel comfortable that “go from hotel down the road to Grottaglie to the base and come inside” was as straightforward was one would think given the elegant simplicity of the language. I had the number to the shop I would be visiting and thought for certain that I had accidentally called the kitchen again. Puzzled doofus answering followed by loud arguing in the background and finally an unceremonious hang up. What the hell? I mean they knew I was coming the next day, so should they really be all that surprised that someone was calling and speaking English? Fed up I pulled up the number for the commander of the whole shebang – some Colonel or another and actually managed to get him on the phone. He gave me serviceable directions at least and I felt more comfortable for the next day.

            Before hitting the streets I decided to freshen up and found I was out of toothpaste. No big deal I thought, how hard should it be to get a tube of toothpaste? I approached lovable Luigi at the front desk again in the hopes of getting satisfaction in at least one area. Do you have any cash yet I can exchange? Maybe tomorrow, who knows? Is there a bank where I can do this? Yes, but a all closed for the day. Does the hotel have toothpaste? No, you gotta go a to the store? Finally, can I leave this giant key thing with him and pick it up when I came back as it had the uncomfortable tendency to clang against my balls as I walked?  No a, there’s a no a guarantee and a the liability blah blah blah. This asshole was just one big pile of go fuck yourself Charlie. I began to miss the Germans.

            It was hot as hell in Taranto that summer; Europe in general undergoing the worst heat wave in decades, and I moseyed around town sweating looking for food and toothpaste. The first piece of good news I found was that only tiny mom and pop groceries existed (that I was aware of at the time) and none of these took credit cards nor American money. After hitting up about 8 different places I decided to concentrate on dinner. I was close to the hotel and rather than look for a restaurant, I decided to try the one in the hotel that the concierge neglected to mention, but was advertised in the lobby.

            I entered the joint; pretty classy looking and was greeted by a flamboyantly enthusiastic maître d. “Bonjourno!” I replied with a good old American ‘hiya’ after which his facial expression transmuted from delight to bitter rage fueled disgust. Wordlessly he led me to a table facing the window, which I initially thought was nice until the sun set just a fraction more leaving me staring right into it slowly cooking as I ate. The menu for such a swanky place was decidedly underwhelming. Spaghetti and meat balls, steak, hamburger, chicken nuggets; it read like the children’s menu at Denny’s. I asked the waiter what there was to drink and he seemed thoroughly annoyed with my brash imposition.

 

“We gotta water…. Coke… I dunno.”

 

“You got beer?”

 

“Harrumph… Yes, fine, we got a beer.”

 

            He brought me one without asking further questions regarding brand or whatnot. I thought it was all they had. I decided to go with the burger, disappointed as I was hoping for something authentic like a frutti di Mari or osso bucco or something. Apparently the much vaunted reputation Italy had for food and drink was a carefully market myth created by the powers behind Olive Garden; German’s do doubt. The burger was overcooked and genuinely sucked. No wonder I was the only one in there!

            The following day I made my way to base and was brought to the commander in charge of the facility I was visiting; the subordinate to the guy who gave me the directions. The guy looked EXACTLY like James Gandolfini’s character in ‘The Last Castle’. I almost had to laugh as I had seen the movie just the week before. He expressed first irritation that I had called his boss for something as mundane as directions, and then happiness that I had come. He joked that he was going to keep me there until the system was fixed and I laughed. He replied in full seriousness that he was not joking and I was forced to take him at his word. He took me to the lab where I met Caputo and Fersini; both of whom now spoke great English leaving me wondering if it had been them on the phone the day previous.

            I came into the lab, took one look at the system and announced they had set the key radiofrequency generating modules up backwards which is why it didn’t work. This made me considerably more comfortable about leaving on time as I wanted to spend as little of my summer in this unfriendly town as possible. I will, however, categorize that by saying the guys on the base were actually very nice even after I pointed out what could only pass for incompetence in missing such an obvious problem for over a year. They simply didn’t care.

            As it turned out, my finding the problem at the get go turned out to be an even bigger help then I had first imagined. Despite the finding, there was still plenty of work to be done in verifying full operability; a task in no way enhanced by Frick and Frack here. For starter, they were on “summer hours” and only inclined to work from 9ish to 2ish; the former leaning toward the late side and the later the earlier. On top of that, they insisted on hourly coffee breaks. This didn’t sound like such an interruption until it was revealed that the only place to get espresso was clear across base. The morning became a swiss cheese of 10 AM go for coffee, 10:10 get to the coffee, 10:15 finish the coffee, 10:25 get back to the shop and work until… 11:00 AM go for coffee. Work time also included at least 1 smoke break and preparation talk about going for more coffee. By the end of the day I was wired.

            Lunch was also a serious affair. I found out the first day that we would leave for lunch promptly at 1:00, eat, and then return to the shop with just enough time to lock up and leave for the day. As I calculated it, perhaps 2 full hours of actual work were done each day, but potentially less. Lunch on base was better than the hotel fare and boasted something you don’t see in most American military cafeterias – a giant metal urn filled with wine; pretty decent wine to be honest. Probably better no one went back to work after.

            I asked the boys about my toothpaste/ cash dilemma the first day and Caputo promised to take my money the following day and have his banker brother exchange it if I had no luck. Good deal there. When I got back to the hotel I begged the surely concierge to exchange some money for me. He grew exasperated and claimed there wasn’t much. I begged just enough to buy toothpaste and he momentarily capitulated by hunting through the newspaper for the exchange rate. After an exhaustive search of almost 20 seconds he angrily threw down the paper and referred me to the bank.

            I hauled ass over to the bank, which was significantly father than I had been told and made my way in. After waiting in the long line I strode up to the counter with a wad of cash in my hand. The teller took one look and before I could ask, “No a exchange”. Son of a bitch! It had been 3 days now without brushing my teeth; the Paula special. I slunk back to the hotel in defeat; my plans to eat elsewhere foiled by the impression that most places preferred not to take my company issued AMEX. I looked forward to yet another uninspired burger or perhaps the fantastically exotic spaghetti. Instead, I was treated to a big plate of vitriolic rage coughed up from my own throat and bitter as the tears of a tight rope walker with the jimmy legs.

            I received the same rough treatment as the previous day, but this time there was one slight change; a couple at the restaurant seated fairly close by. Into my hands was thrust the poor quality menu, from which I decided to try the steak, ordered rare but served as shoe leather. As I munched away at crap, I began to take note of the treatment the couple was getting. Very attentive service, presented a whole cart with wine, different beers and liquors, and given menus that seem to differ considerably from mine. Before I finished their meals arrived – great steaming bowls of mussels and other seafood seated above fragrant strands of perfect pasta swimming in a delicate sauce. A basket of fresh baked bread and rolls was placed between them and giant goblets of evanescent white wine were refilled with every sip by the attendant sommelier. I gnashed my teeth in rage and retreated to my room.

            Caputo made good and got me my cash the day after next. At the same time he informed me of a nearby grocery store that was like the ones we have here in the states and take credit. Wonderful. In any event, brushing my teeth was just a little piece of heaven. Caputo also warned me about the hazards of getting back to the airport and revealed that even he had a hard time finding it. This was not good news; if the locals couldn’t find the dame place, what chance did I have? Unlike everywhere else in the world, the Italians didn’t see the need to put the little plane signs on the highway and relied on people just knowing where it was.

            I was ever so happy to finally check out and give my gigantic heavy key back to the smarmy ass behind the counter and lug my bags, unassisted as usual, out the door. I was able to find the airport though the airline was so kind as to lose my bags for almost a week, though fortunately on the right side of the trip. I took great pleasure in leaving a blisteringly bad review of Grand Hotel Delfino on several travel websites and was actually contacted by people who had considered staying there and changed their minds after reading my input. Heh. They say the best revenge is living well, but I’ve always found it more satisfying to make sure they don’t.

Lord, I Was Born a Travelin’ Man

            With the dreary end of my Air Force tales now safely behind us all, I feel almost compelled to pen a few more tales that may be a bit lighter in nature than the excruciating recounting of my pursuit of some chick I was fooling myself about. As my droll title suggests, this time I intend to ramble on about some of the amusing adventures I had while employed in the capacity of a Field Engineer for my company; or at least the first one for this telling. While my domestic forays are no doubt considerably exciting to all, I’ll spare everyone a 10 page yarn on how I got stuck next to some fat guy while flying to San Jose or the odiferous rug stain in my Comfort Inn room in Georgia. No, for a tale this big a passport is required.

            I had been with the company for almost a year and was quietly sitting at my desk in the shared office area right outside the big boss’s interior office. Dick Betz, a new hire into the department and brought on board to manage the support of a poorly documented and little understood product line we annexed from a Queen’s NY firm who used to be our main competitor, strolled behind me to go confront Tim. I heard some impassioned pleading, didn’t care, and concentrated on whatever I was doing that might pass for work. Moments later Dick and Tim came out, looked around and saw only me; the greenest fish in the bowl.

 

Tim sighed, “Wanna go to Germany?”

Me, “All right.”

Tim, “Very good then! Get a ticket and go there. Dick here will give you the details.”

 

            I followed Dick to his office and got the aforementioned details. My mission, as accepted before hearing the considerable number of downsides, was to travel to the tiny town of Geilenkirchen where a NATO facility existed. Once there I was to meet with the commander of the facility and proceed to troubleshoot and fix their system. They apparently had been yelling breach of contract for sometime and wanted immediate expert assistance to get it back up and running for some vital mission or another. Dick tried to get one of the residual Queen’s folks who hadn’t yet been laid off but they all told him to stick it.

 

“So, what exactly is this thing anyway and what’s wrong with it?”

 

“I dunno. It’s this one of a kind simulator or something that’s all digital and I guess it isn’t working right or something.”

 

“So… is there anyone who can tell me about this? Is there a manual? Drawings? Any engineering documents?”

 

“Well, Brendon in Queens might know something but all the documentation got thrown away by that pissed off CM manager who got tipped off she was being let go.”

 

“Will the customer be any help?”

 

“No, you can’t go there. They are really pissed off and need to think you are the resident hotshot. No pressure.”

 

“Uhhhh…… huh”.

 

            After some amount of pleading to Tim by Dick and myself, he finally authorized me to go to Queens for a day for “fact finding” and to try to pick this Brendon fellows brain and maybe scare up some documents that were laying around. So, I got my ass on a plane to Bethpage and made my way to the old ASD facility in hopes of getting a clue to what this immensely complicated supercomputer was. I found Brendon Reilly right away and was immediately sorry I came. Long reddish hair in a pony tail, tense wiry frame, and granny glasses. He looked like a hippy but responded like a Marine wearing underwear considerably too tight.

 

“I’m busy! ..[snarl]… I’ll try to look for something later. Out!”

 

            He then went back to his Solitaire game which was clearly and conspicuously visible to me. He reminded me of Knaus on beer Thursday’s. I wandered the dank basement facility and took on the looks of fear and hatred thrown at me by the resident population. My company and theirs had once been mighty rivals until both were acquired by a larger organization. A battle for control erupted with my company’s management winning out. As winners, they made a concentrated yet failed effort to kill off the old competitor’s product lines. When I entered the picture 80% of them had already been laid off and the rest awaited the axe. None were overly anxious to help.

            Having nothing to lose but perhaps my head, I bugged Brendon until he finally hurled a book across the room and got up angrily. I adopted defensive karate like stance before he strode past me with an aggravated motion to come on.

 

“Yer going to Geilenkirchen, eh? Ha! You’re fucked! System’s fucked! Last guy who went there helped build the goddam thing and he even fucked it up more! Ha!”

 

            I already had a bit of uneasiness about the trip and this certainly wasn’t helping. The only thing keeping me calm was the supreme amount of cockitude I held regarding my perceived ability to fix anything. I probed for some information.

 

“So, were you around when they built this thing?”

 

“Yeah. Motherfucker was a bitch to integrate. But we did it.”

 

“Can you uh, tell me anything about it then?”

 

“Nah.”

 

            Despite a half-assed search around the cluttered premises, we found nothing whatsoever about this thing, which was apparently a Digital AMES II and a bitch to work on. I boarded my flight back to Buffalo that Friday evening if anything less informed then when I came. My flight to Germany was scheduled for Monday morning. I had the weekend to brush up on my acting skills.

            I touched down in Cologne with plans to drive up to Geilenkirchen with my bullshit Mapquest directions that were likely based off of old WWI Allied invasion maps. I went to the German branch of Budget to pick up my car.

 

“Ah, ein Amerikaner! We have very good car for you I think!”

 

            I took the keys and made my way to the parking slip indicated on the form, but was able to tell from a distance which one was mine as the rear of it jutted out a good 5 feet past its neighbors, whom it crammed allowing about 6 inches to slip into the door. My eventual understanding was that the proprietor probably got a good laugh thinking of the American trying to maneuver around the old-timey streets in the most humongous boat in all of continental Europe. Indeed, I found at times that in order to get around cars parked in the street, I actually had to go up over the left hand curb. On one street I made it most of the way down before encountering cars parked on both sides necessitating an Austin Power’s style 98 point turn.

            I went to the base to check in with my customer before making my way to the hotel. Following the tradition of every security entry point, the gate guards acknowledged absolutely no foreknowledge that I was coming by despite following all visit request protocol so the commander, Major Wright, had to personally come down to escort me on, adding I’m sure to his irritation of us.

 

“You know, we’ve been really pissed off at you guys,” was his greeting as he shook my hand, “hope you are good!”

 

            With several of their engineers, I was escorted into a huge lab area dozens of pieces of very similar looking rack mounted equipment. I searched frantically for a familiar logo or something but was unable to discern on my own which piece of crap I was there to work. That would not be an acceptable disclosure to either the major nor the German engineers who seemed about as jolly and forgiving as whatever stereotype you have conjured up. Hell, even if I knew which one it was, I had no idea how to turn it on! I thought fast.

 

“All right, since I’m here, I want to take the opportunity to observe how you are bringing up and initializing the system. We’ve seen a lot of sites doing this incorrectly, so I’m documenting on a site by site basis.”

 

            They jumped over themselves eager to comply with my request and demonstrate their acumen to the alleged expert in the room. I still contend this was probably the smartest idea I ever had, and probably ever will. I was led to system comprised of 3 racks of circuit cards with dozens of cables feeding data from it to various other pieces of equipment and a crusty old VMS/VAX interface control computer. I never would have guessed this was it. I took careful note as to how the powered up, logged on and brought it to the start up menu.

 

“Excellent. No problems at this site! Nice to see operators who know what they are doing.”

 

            They beamed with pride, yet stayed close as I fumbled through the various menus under the guise of “getting the lay of the land as every system is different”. They bought it and gave me leeway. I asked them about the specific problem I was called out for and they gave me a top level description I did not understand, probably as I was still unclear as to what this thing was. I complained bitterly about the profound effect of jet lag on my ability to think clearly and all agreed that it was best to pick up in the morning. Ordinarily I would use the time to call back and get advice, but with jolly old Brendon being my only option, I decided to give it a pass and wing it the next day.

            I originally tried to book a room at the fabulous Hotel Geilenkirchen but found them closed for remodeling. That’s right, the whole damn place closed for remodeling. Idiots. Maj Wright was able to hook me up with a room at another hotel that for some reason didn’t come up in my on-line searches and graciously led me there. We parked, he in his peppy little Smart car and me in the behemoth, in front of a three story tavern. The sweat rolled down face as I struggled to pull my bag from the trunk. I was gussied up in a long sleeve shirt and tie during the worst heat wave this part of Germany had seen in decade; the temperature on the nearby bank reading 30C which translated to Fahrenheit, is damn fucking hot. I wondered where the hotel was.

            I found out soon enough as we entered the tavern and attempted to converse with the barmaid who naturally spoke no English. Apparently the bar rented out rooms up top. Classy! I somehow made clear, probably through the presence of my suitcase, that I wanted a room. Naturally they didn’t take my company issued AMEX leaving me to front the bill on my personal credit card. Before slogging up to my room, I enquired as to whether it was OK to leave my car parked out front and was delighted to discover that it certainly was not. 15 minute parking or they tow ya. I decided to dispose of my suitcase first and was instantly enamored with the closet sized room with no AC, a tiny window up against a brick wall and an ambient temperature in the upper ‘sweat-your-balls’ off range.

            As I had remembered northern Germany to be overcast and cool in the summer from my high school foray there, I packed up my carry on with nice warm long sleeve shirts and a pair of jeans. Thus bedecked, I made my way into the blistering heat to find a home for the whale that was already drawing attention. I asked the bar maid where I could park and she shrugged her shoulders in casual indifference, muttering something in German along the lines of ‘Amerikaner schweinhund’ or worse. I wove the monster in concentric circles drawing ever farther from the flophouse in search of free parking. I attempted to engage some of the locals, who contrary to the impression we all have that everyone learns English in school, effaced no knowledge of what I was saying while looking smug and superior the whole while. It was der Stadt das Thies.

            Eventually I found an apartment building with attached garage and ignored the menacing looking signs that indicated I was not allowed to park there. The spots didn’t have reservation markings and I detected no tell tale stickers on the vehicles that denoted membership to the exclusive club. I decided to risk it on the assumption that Germans were too anal to consider breaking rules and that the signs were enough to discourage locals. It was about a mile and half walk back to the saloon where the same group of sots at the bar raised their glasses to me in greeting, as they were to do every time I passed through, morning, noon or night.

            I was ravenous and went wandering about looking for food and drink; wishing not to give any more money to the “hotel” than I had to, having already given too much to the snide little hussy behind the counter who knew damn well what I was saying. I wandered up and down the block and discovered that I had forgotten to change any money before coming and that most of the mom and pop shop took neither dollars, AMEX or even Visa. I was getting seriously pissed. I was directed to a bank, which was closed by then, and found the one ATM in walking distance to be out of order. In defeat I slunk back to beg directions to anywhere that would take my card and feed me.

 

“Schteak haus.” she stated and pointed down the avenue.

 

            I assumed this was a steak house and made my merry way down the block only to find that it didn’t open for another half hour. What the hell was with this place anyway? Stores and banks close at 4 but restaurants don’t open till 7? Complete bullshit! I sat on the curb chain smoking and waiting for the door to open and the methodical host to hem and haw for 10 minutes where to sit me in the empty cavernous establishment. I assumed it was due to a heavy reservation schedule until the point came where I paid and left and only one couple had come in and gotten the same treatment. The food was terrible.

            The next few days were spent with me rising at the crack of dawn, showering in a closet, picking bits of meat and bread off of a room temperature tray of continental delights, the ‘breakfast buffet’ if you will, and making the long haul across town to get the damn car. Each day I was still unrecognized at the gate by the same simpletons who didn’t recognize me the previous days. Work was good, however, and through running a series of tests and noting that a circuit board wasn’t seated right, managed to not only fix their problem but convince them they needed a major upgrade. That will be a different story.

            The only other highlight of the trip was that I finished early and got to visit Aachen, Charlemagne’s original capitol, and looked at a lot of historical shit I’m not going to bore the rest of you with. More exciting foreign adventures to follow, some of which even eclipse the ridiculousness of this one in terms of local rudeness, though I will mention that I came back the following year to the same site. That time I got a tiny car and stayed in Maastrict; a fantastic Dutch city but a stone’s throw away but never considered as a recommendation by my hosts. The Germans, you see, find it unconscionable to reside more than 10 minutes from one’s place of business. Unbelievable.