For a decade, from 1938 to 1948, the United States Secret Service conducted one of its most intensive searches for a counterfeiter. The elusive fraudster’s funny money appeared throughout New York City and across the United States but was concentrated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a small area centered on Broadway and 96th Street. Although the counterfeiter passed off thousands of bills in a relatively small area over a long time frame, the authorities could not catch the unknown subject. To make matters more embarrassing for the feds, the secretive mastermind who kept them at bay—the man they called Old 880 after his case file number—was counterfeiting one dollar bills. Poorly. Continue reading “Old 880”
(Another old essay, but not as old as some in the pile.)
I came across an old Polaroid in a box of photos and had to pause. I was scanning the pictures so that I could store the obviously comprehensible images in a format that only a machine can interpret. That’s just what one does with photographs in the twenty-first century, but it does give the more sepia-minded amongst us an opportunity to go through our old boxes of snapshots. Although each box holds hundreds of memories, a similar nature—here’s my brother and I here, here’s the front of the house there—makes the photos blur together. After all, my brother and I went everywhere together as kids, and I saw the house the same way thousands of times I drove up to it when we lived there. Once in a while, though, a single picture can trigger a cascade of unrelated memories. Continue reading “A Picture Holds 1000 Memories”
Here’s an essay so old that the return address on the manuscript was Honormoor, the Noggle estate in Casinoport. I guess I never got around to making the images it refers to.
I first worked a keyboard twenty some years ago, a Smith Corona portable typewriter. Qwerty confounded me with its elegant design created to keep mechanical type arms from clogging at the little crosshairs on the paper. I quickly moved onto the computers of the day, such as they were, with the same Qwerty layout, a keypad, and a couple of function keys on the Commodore 128 to keep me company. But sometime circa 1990, I got my first IBM clone—that’s what they called them in those days, when International Business Machines made actual machines of one sort and another—and its 104 key keyboard. Probably not a soft click, since the keyboards of the pre-Clinton era produced a mighty clack-clack-clack that served the old alarm-clock-for-a-puppy role of soothing typewriter users who were skittish with the new technology and the plethora of keys that lacked the end of the line ding or the buzz of an electronic carriage returning.
Because I got started with the keyboards early, I skipped through the whole high school typing experience and forsook the home-row based touch typing in favor of my own organically-developed claw-and-peck which allowed me to accelerate to 30-40 words a minute with only the occasional glance at the keyboard to orient myself. After taking a position in the computer industry, I began using the upper range of the 104 character keyboards, including the esoteric function keys as well as the Print Screen, Insert, Delete, Home, End, Page Up, and Page down keys as well as the number pad. Over the intervening years, I have become accustomed to the standard keyboard layout present on every keyboard that came standard with each Packard Bell I purchased new or, later, at garage sales for five dollars. I can easily jump to the end of the line in my word processor or to the end of the my e-mail inbox. I can easily take a screen shot to illustrate what I see or what the user should see. Aside from the whole glance every once in a whole to ensure that I’m typing my password correctly, I can manipulate the standard keyboard like a professional.
But within the last couple years, manufacturers have begun to conspire against me, possibly the only regular user of the extended key set. They’ve begun to move those keys into new configurations as some sort of practical joke shared by their engineers or usability experts.
I first noticed the shift at a previous employer. When I started, the company provided me with a fresh Dell computer, direct from the factory. That keyboard was almost standard. On a standard keyboard, the extended keys are laid out like this:
However, Dell added a handy set of keys designed to handle those pesky power-related functions of your PC: Power Off, Reset, Sleep. You know, functions previously reserved for the front of your computer case but lately (or at least since 1998) relegated to buttons on your operating system desktop. To make things exciting for its users and to accommodate these functions within the size of a regular keyboard, Dell put these keys into the position at the top of the keyboard, where the Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break keys go and simply pushed those keys down a row:
I couldn’t use the keyboard, as I often toggled the scroll lock setting when I meant to go to the top of the screen, so I brought in a stained, clicking keyboard from my personal collection. Fortunately, I avoided any catastrophic errors, unlike a couple of coworkers nearby who meant to do something and ended up resetting the machine in the middle of some standard, but given their salaries, costly operation. Thanks, Dell!
Of course, it’s not just desktop Windows machines that befuddle my fingertips, but also laptop keyboards. For reasons unknown to usability, laptop and notebook computer designers have intuited that notebooks and their keyboards must not exceed in size an eight by eleven sheet of actual notebook paper, no matter how many keys it needs to hold. Not only do they make the keys smaller, but they replace the CTRL, the ALT, or the Windows key with Fn keys whose esoteric multi-finger gymnastics don’t transfer to real computer use. I pride myself on the ability to use hotkeys to navigate through applications without the mouse, but I’m rendered dependent on the mouse by the understudy keys laptops. Of course, laptops don’t actually have a mouse, so I depend upon whatever unreasonable facsimile the laptop provides. Unfortunately, my Mesozoic IBM Thinkpad doesn’t offer a touchpad; instead, it has a small joystick to move the mouse pointer. A joystick located between the G, H, and B keys that helpfully prevents me from pressing those keys half of the time. Thanks, IBM!
The consternation of glyph constellation extends to Macintoshes, or Macintosha, or Macintoshi, or however you pluralize those cute iMac and eMac boxes with their USB keyboards. Their stock USB keyboards sport concave shapes where the normal keyboard feel convex. Instead of the ALT key, we have the open-Apple key. The keyboard comes with an extra four unfathomable function keys, and the corner of the keyboard most prone to walking cats or tumbling stacks of papers offers a sensitive eject key for the CD/DVD drive. As if the mere alien nature of the keyboard didn’t make me feel enough like a stranger in a strange land, Mac OS X conspires to make my normal shortcut keystrokes into ineffective fat-fingering. The standard CTRL+C keystroke, welded to my psyche through a decade’s use, doesn’t work on the Macintosh as Steve Jobs, in a fit of pique no doubt, decreed that the Control key do nothing and that the open-Apple key, placed conveniently where the Alt key belongs, should handle all common intra-window shortcuts. So not only do I not know where the keys are, but I do not know what they do. Thanks, Steve Jobs!
I know the frantic change within the computer world brings us abundant technological wonders which I’ll probably understand for another decade or two, but I wish that the computer makers could at least not rearrange the keys more frequently than a bored housewife. Would Beethoven have created his master works if the piano keyboards in Vienna all alternated or altered the shape and locations of the keys yielding a particular note? Of course not; he would have spent all of his time adjusting to the medium instead of directing the medium to his wishes. So if I never become centuries’ worth of famous in any keyboarding art, I’ve already assigned the blame.
The worst part about moving to the suburbs is that I don’t understand the social mores of the place, the traditions, norms, and unwritten laws of behavior that guide one’s relationship with one’s neighbors. I grew up in the rain-streaked city streets and later down dusty rural dirt roads, where your relationship with your neighbor was often simpler. In the city, if you messed with your neighbor or your neighbor’s, erm, stuff, the neighbor might well shoot you dead with his nine millimeter. In the country, if you messed with your neighbor or his livestock, the neighbor might well shoot you dead with his 12 gauge. This simplicity led to a certain respect for your neighbor as well as a certain distance from those you didn’t know.
Here in the suburbs, though, the rules of behavior differ, and that confuses me. For example, many of my neighbors don’t own nine millimeters or 12 gauges and think it’s odd that someone might. Territorial rights aren’t always marked by barbed wire; instead, we have things such as mutually understood (it’s assumed) borders noted by lines in plats in the county office or by the seasonal plantings. Fortunately, though, in most of my suburban domiciles, I’ve had something of a boundary marker, such as a privacy fence that trickles into chain link. Actually, I’ve had a number of privacy fence boundaries, including those erected after I’ve moved in, so the boundary line isn’t an issue.
However, incursions across those boundaries pose an ethical dilemma. Such as the beating conundrum I confronted recently when I stepped into my slightly overgrown (gone to seed) backyard and found a Wiffle® ball amid the lush suburban saw grass. What in Suburbia was I supposed to do about it?
The neighbors on one side, hidden behind a tall wooden fence, have children. The ball could belong to them. But I don’t know about the rear abutting yards; they, too, could hold children in those hours or seasons in which I am not in the back yard cutting the grass. The ball could as easily belong to families beyond those tree-high pike pylons separating the yards.
In the city, a Wiffle® ball never gets hit anywhere but common areas or the street; if it goes into a yard, the big dog or crazy person there eats it. In the country, no one can hit the ball far enough to go into someone else’s yard. This white plastic sphere at my feet was an unknown artifact for which the lessons of my youth provided no proper recourse.
I have a son for whom I could claim the ball under the particular possession/law equation that no lawyer ever wasted a retainer teaching. But that would be theft, pure and simple.
I could march up onto the front porch of the neighbor’s house with the ball in hand and ask if it belonged to the children there, but in my old neighborhoods, the frontal approach could be confrontational. City-dwellers might fear the polite home invader or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the country, someone on your porch could be the IRS or the jackbooted thugs from the ATF (now the BATFE). In either case, one wrong dingdong, and they greet you with a hail of lead (now, due to safety regulations, this is sometimes steel).
Besides, I’m unclear if the door knocking behavior is covered under the suburban code of conduct, or if this unelicited contact would mark one as a pariah amongst the decklocked crowd. Perhaps word would spread of the forward and slightly creepy fellow up the block who confronted neighbors with only the provocation of a Wiffle® ball, and our family would purposefully not get invited to block parties sponsored by the local real estate agent.
I could drop the ball over a fence surreptitiously. Of course, that would assume that the ball belonged in the yard where I know children live. If it did not, I could perhaps be charged with littering or perhaps trafficking in stolen goods depending upon the demeanor of the local five-oh. Or perhaps they would see me as conducting a sortie upon their pristine green backyard with some sort of secret Wifflepon.
Torn, I knew I could not keep the ball, I could not break the code of silence maintained by community, and I could not throw the ball over the fence into an unseen backyard. So I did what any self-respecting adult male born of country and city would do if he were me.
Carefully in the early morning hours, in that period between darkness and dawn, I looked up and down the street from beside my front porch. Assured I was unobserved by early dog walkers or the fabled milkman, I crouched low and crossed the broad, blackened expanse of my asphalt driveway and deposited the ball at the very edge of the neighbor’s front lawn where its presence would tempt the children from that yard to reclaim it or claim it, where the father would pick it up or kick it into my driveway or the street when it came time to mow the lawn, and where I could have plausible deniability about how the ball got there.
Then I scurried back into my house and bolted the strange and frightening world of suburbia out.
Here’s another old essay from the hard drives.
The Daddy Watch
A while ago, I dropped my old Timex, and the fall was apparently no mere lickin’. The watch stopped, so I guess this was the Bitin’ After Which There’s No Rightin’. I’d taken the watch off and stuffed it in my pocket before a rigorous game of office foosball. After delivering a vigorous thrashing to the ball if not our opponents, I reached into my pocket for the watch. It leapt from my grasp onto the floor and into the sweet thereafter. I was in the market for a new timepiece.
I’ve worn watches off and on since high school. I’d done some time before that with the obligatory Mickey Mouse watch whose hands worked almost long enough for me to learn how to tell time. Sometime the middle 1980s, when digital watches broke the barrier from technical marvel to status symbol for middle schoolers, I got my first watch as a gift. I wore a series of digital time pieces until college, where I got a real name brand watch for Christmas as a gift from my then-current sweetheart.
I remember that the watch had real hands on it; at some point in my midpoint generation, the anachronism of hands instead of LCD digits implied some status as a grown-up. This particular model offered an elapsed-time ring that fit around the edge of the watch. You could twist the ring so that the zero lined up with the big hand. Whenever you finished your activity, you could look to see where the big hand was to see how many minutes had elapsed. Unless, of course, the minutes exceeded a full hour, at which point the digital-dependents who didn’t know what the little hand was for would be lost. The elapsed time ring lasted only a few months, until a devastating encounter with a potato bin’s edge taught me to wear the watch on the inside of my wrist. I wore that watch longer than I remained with that particular soulmate. I can’t even remember the circumstances where that watch failed, nor can I remember what it looked like when I laced that band up onto my wrist. But those salad days of collegiate vigor end like inexpensive timepieces.
After college, I continued to wear the worn timepiece from those college days until a new novia wanted to help upgrade my wardrobe or lifestyle. She bought me a newer version of the same brand watch, also with hands. She was the daughter of an executive, I was a ne’er-do-well with an English degree and a retail job. Her parents didn’t care for me, but she liked me enough to get me watch for Christmas. The watch sported a Velcro-and-fabric band which I swapped out with a decent plastic band and buckle. The watch outlived the relationship (to the young lady’s parents’ relief) and a number of nothing jobs that transmogrified into an accidentally successful career.
Ten years after that relationship ended and a dozen years after the watch was new, it hit the floor at my workplace, a hip young marketing agency where I bore a pseudo-executive title of one of the unhip departments. I married a woman who will never buy me a watch, I’ve vowed, given the demise of the relationships in which I’ve received a watch. Also, I’ve become a father, starting a family with the aforementioned wife who cannot buy me a timepiece. I was in a different era within my life.
So although I fancied myself another watch along the lines of the preceding few, with dark bands and backgrounds, when I found myself at the counter at Target, I passed over the direct replacement for my old watch-—I could have replaced the fabric sport band with the band from my defunct watch—-and I passed over the other watches of similar styles. Of course, I wanted hands on the face so I could, in decades hence, use the knowledge on trivia nights. But I glanced over the watches on their display mounts and I lit upon a silver steel model with expansion bands.
I have never owned a watch with an expansion band before; I expected that the bands wouldn’t fit as securely or as comfortably. But my father wore expansion bands, with the steel spring-loaded links stretching over the thumb to allow him to snap it onto his wrist before going out to a day’s worth of construction and remodeling. On occasion, I would find the watch and play with it, stretching the expansion band to turn the watch inside out or rolling it over and over like a tank’s tread. I once found an extra band and imagined a metallic snake creeping along the sofa or the end table. Standing before the jewelry case, my previous preferences dissolved into a warm-and-fuzzy reminisce.
Needless to say, I bought the steel expansion band watch. Its shiny exterior proclaims that it is the watch of a man, not a boy. Unlike its Macy’s counterparts from Bvlgari or Hvngari or whatever former Soviet blocs provide the Citizens for sale beneath the red star, I won’t be afraid to wear this watch every day in case I bang it into a sawhorse or drop it after a foosball game. It’s shiny enough to proclaim some maturity and status. And maybe my own son will look on the band with his imagination and find something to remember.
I didn’t learn everything that I learned while I was at college in college. I went to Marquette University and got a B.A. in English and philosophy before I looked in the classified ads to see how many listings there were for ‘Philosopher Wanted.’
Fortunately I worked at a grocery store to put myself through college, an unremarkable feat alone. It did teach me several things that the university professors or the views outside the classroom windows did. I value what I learned in the hallowed halls of Marquette, but that’s not all there is to life. What I learned in Dave Straz 501 and Marquette Hall 301 is theory, and without wedding it to the practical it is worthless. Likewise what I learned in the back rooms of stores in Milwaukee and Missouri would seem a bit too specific to be of use anywhere else. Fortunately the two have gelled into a set of lessons to pass on:
- Always have something to fall back on.
The lights in the break room never seemed to all work at once, and it was dark one September evening at Gold’s Shop Rite. I had just started my freshman year at Marquette, and I was a three month veteran of the grocery industry. The new assistant manager, a portly man named Dean, convinced Mike Fredericks, store manager, to hold a meeting for the baggers. The summer short-timers had shaken out, and seated around the crumby table in front of me a small core of baggers that would last a while. Tim, a recent refuge from some other town, new to everyone in the city and somehow lonelier than all of us; Shawn, a flame-haired future high school dropout whose hobbies were heavy metal-music and piercing himself; Robert, a recently born-again Christian with energy that seemed barely contained in his small frame; Cortney, the largest of us, a high school athlete; Earl, a thin, bespectacled black young man that would follow his family into the Marine Corps as I had not; and me, a recent homecomer from Missouri with pretentions of “Poetry.”
“Take pride in your work. You guys do a good job, and we want you to know what you do is important.” Hard to convince seven guys at minimum wage that they were in a noble undertaking.
“It will always be something to fall back on.” Over the years, I have seen many retirees come back to the grocery industry to supplement whatever pensions and “old people” incomes they receive. I myself have returned to produce clerkdom to pull myself out of debt.
College never afforded us that luxury. With the intensity of the new curriculums, less time is spent on the liberal arts and more is spent focussing our graduates into one field, into one narrow path through life where deviation means confusion. Much of what passes for my personal “limbo” experiences and possibly for the rest of my generation is the feeling that if we don’t get a good job in one narrow bandwidth of life we have failed.
Like an Existentialist Jesuit told my class, “Most of life is plan B.” It helps to have a plan B, and if not specifically the grocery industry, then something to fall back on.
- Touch the product.
When I first became a produce clerk, Chris stood next to me, both of us clad in our green aprons. Mine was a symbol of pride; his was a uniform. We were “culling the rack,” checking each display of fruits and vegetables for bad merchandise. “Touch them all; touch them, feel them, become them,” he said with mock Bodhisatva wisdom and baring his teeth in the peculiar Michels smile. “Only then can you cull the rack effectively.”
Each morning I ran my fingers over all the waxy apple skins, among the tartly scented grapefruit, and over (and occasionally into) the dull tomatoes. When rotating the produce, I picked each peach and plum up individually and put them into place, insuring less damage than what a later produce manager would call the “dump and run.” When the deliveries of new product came in, I would wheel the skids-pallets-into the cooler and hand unload them, moving first the old product out of the way and then restacking them all by hand. It gave me a sense of knowing what the product was, what it looked like, and even a sense of accomplishment when it was done.
Too often I remember other, less manual jobs where I would deal with items and people I had never seen. It was far removed from me; I think sometimes other people feel the same way.
“Why so many?” A purchaser asked me at a later job. She gestured a lithe arm at the four oversized skids of foamboards. Our loading dock held six skids of product comfortably, with room to move carts and ourselves. I had left the other seven skids, one a double-size with four by eight foot sheets of foamboard on it, out on the concrete loading dock.
“That’s what you ordered.” I flipped pages on the purchase order and showed her the number of sheets she ordered. “Fourteen hundred. Four bins of three hundred and fifty.”
I’m sure it looked a lot simpler on the computer screen when she typed it in. Fourteen hundred is four keystrokes and a return. Fourteen hundred foamboards is one hundred and twenty eight cubic feet. Something she remembered for three months, until it was time to order it again. Something I and the others who sell it and move it every day take for granted.
I am not above it. The first produce order I wrote, several years ago, was a bit large. The produce manager took a week’s vacation, and I wrote the order for a Saturday load and was in the process of moving it around when I checked the order book. It was only ones and twos in the book, with an occasional four or ten, but when it was totaled, it was a two hundred piece load. Almost twice the necessary amount for an average summer weekend. Almost too much for a green green grocer to handle. But I managed, and I remembered that little ticks in the book add up to lots of cases in the cooler, lots of cases of perishables in the cooler.
- Remember the people.
William, third grade, liked to help me fill the rack whenever his mother shopped at the store. He told me in his many visits of his preference for comic books with Wolverine in them and his performance on recent math tests.
Val, a highly educated woman with a gravelly voice always shortened my name to “Bri,” her current husband’s name. She was a discriminating produce buyer and knew the seasons better than I do.
“Swivel-hips.” Someone in the store designated the red-haired lady that because she did not pivot at the waist. She always asked for help buying good grapes for her mother and lived her life on the sixty-seven bus line. I often saw her waiting for it going one way or the other.
There are more faces than names, the customers in the various stores I have worked in. Every one of them have different preferences and different experiences.
“Cut these down and put them on the floor. They’ll buy them.” One of the in absentia owners pointed at scraps of paper to be bundled and priced. I didn’t care to ask who “they” were or why “they” would want to by assortments of mismatched color papers. I doubted if he knew.
Too often this happens in the retail industry. Someone remembers they have a target audience, and the abstraction takes over for individuals. It happens in other circumstances, too, when we stereotype individuals by their occupations or positions in life. A certain amount is inevitable, given the small amount of attention and time we can give to any one person, place, or idea these days, but it helps to keep the individual in mind. Not for some strange esoteric “we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters” forced-fraternity, but because we might miss out on some interesting and personal contact. Something too often missing in the flurry of modern existence.
Besides, if you don’t know who “they” are, you might not know that they don’t need multi-colored trinkets.
- Don’t waste timing covering your arse.
There’s a lot to be done and very little time to do it in life. It’s not so bad when you’re in a store and you know when your shift is over. You can pace yourself to get everything you want to do and need to do done. Life doesn’t afford us that luxury. We need to make the most of time. Covering yourself and hiding or obfuscating your mistakes wastes precious time.
“Who threw all those greens out?” Number Two asked. My second produce manager blinked his expansive blue eyes at me from his low height.
“That’s a silly question. I did.” There were two of us working in the department.
“They were rotting in the cooler.” The smell had been driving me crazy for days. He proceeded to tell me how his gross profit margin would be affected and all the other good reasons I should not have thrown them out.
He did give me every opportunity to avoid it, though. I could have answered that I didn’t know, I could have made lengthier explanations and excuses. Either way I would have wasted time trying to avoid the consequences of my action. I leave the excuses and the innuendo dances to the people in the front office.
I don’t claim some sort of produce omniscience, either. I make mistakes, too. Like wetting leaf lettuces and cabbages from a water bottle where a ten percent bleach solution has replaced pure water. When I found out what happened, I pulled all the cabbage and leaf lettuce and threw them out. I rinsed the rack and filled it with fresh product. Time spent on making excuses, pleading innocence or ignorance, or bemoaning error could be better spent on fixing them or just going on. Some of us have to work for a living and live for a lifetime.
So there you have them. It’s not enough to write a snooty book prompted by the editor of Harper’s, but I got something from my years in the retail industry. Now, for only $10,000 per instance, I can come to your company and explain them.