The Homunculus

7 June 2018

He was too young for the Korean War and then too old for the one in Viet Nam so his warrior instincts couldn’t find outlet in the hurley-burley of armed struggle. Nevertheless, in the years between these two wars, young Chuck enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served a four-year hitch – who could say, with luck, Ike would start another war. A quick study, he rose to the rank of Staff Sargent and, at the end of his four years, was offered promotion to Gunnery Sargent if he would re-enlist.

As much as he liked the peace-time military, what with it’s pomp, ceremonies, uniforms, decorations and flags, he still hankered for some type of combat. Unable to foresee a time when he could actually thrust his bayonet into the belly of a foe, Chuck opted for combat’s civilian simulacrum, sales. A chum had given Chuck a book by Zig Zigler, that master of salesmanship and mumbo-jumbo, and before a hundred pages were read, Chuck was hooked. With his mustering out pay in hand, our intrepid young man went back to his parents home in Chicago. There, from that safe and secure base of operations, he would launch his new career.

Taking the El into the loop, Chuck shopped at several habidasheries, acquiring two three-button suits, a half-dozen white shirts with button-down collars, five pairs of calf-high black stockings, six ties and two pair of heavy wing-tip shoes (one in oxblood, the other in black). Broad-shouldered lad that he was, the suits and shirts had to be tailored to fit his manly form, a process that, according to the habidasher, would take a good week. “Pick `em up next Monday,” said the clerk, handing Chuck a numbered ticket.

The following day, Chuck drove his mother’s Valiant to the library and checked out several books dealing with the subjects of sales and motivation. These he poured over day and night, committing to memory the key principals and techniques of successful selling. Chuck even pressed his parents into service – he asked them to listen to various trial pitches and let him know which seemed to best fit his persona. “Don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear,” he admonished. “Be absolutely honest; my future depends on it!”

By Saturday, Chuck had become rather polished for an inexperienced young man. However, after listening to the latest incarnation of Chuck’s basic technique, his father sat back in his chair and stroked his chin. Finally the older man spoke, “Tell ya what, boy, ya got a real round face. Ya ought to grow it up some with a mustache.” That night, Chuck outlined a thin Fu Manchu that, by Monday morning, had started to fill in. Being the early 1960’s, it was still too early for facial hair to be readily accepted in business circles, but thanks to the Marine Corpse haircut which he still affected, Chuck pulled it off.

During the week, Chuck’s mother neatly typed a dozen copies of his resume and on Monday morning, he tucked these in a folio binder he bought at a stationary store, and hit the bricks. As it is for anyone making cold calls, Chuck got a lot of rejections but on Thursday, he struck pay dirt. At a place on the near south side called the House of Television, the sales manager, who was a veteran of the Korean War’s Inchon landing, truly appreciated the young ex-Marine’s pluck and verve. The fact that, without even realizing he was doing it, Chuck stood at Parade Rest throughout the interview, closed the deal.

“Ma custmers always feels theyz gonna get hosed when theyz goes out ta buy a TV `n such. Havin an upstanding youngin like you a-waitin on `emz gonna be powerful medicine. Oughtta put `em right at ease. …Cain’t tell ya the last time I had a guy workin for me what wore a suit `n tie!” With that, the owner had his clerk, Clarice, fill out the paperwork and make up a spiffy silver name tag that read, “Chuck – Sales Associate.”

Beaming with pride, Chuck phoned home with the good news, saying he was starting right then and there. “Ask Daddy if he can pick me up at the El station at quarter to ten. See you then. Love and kisses.”

Chuck did not disappoint. That very day he set a record for most units sold in a 24-hour period. By the end of the month, the boss’ head was swimming. “Ain’t seen nothing like `em,” he told Pauli Johnson over beers. Both Chuck and his boss made a wad and after the price of color TV came down to where the masses could afford them, were positively rolling in it.

It was a good life. Chuck bought new cars, new suits, ate out often, and to keep up his Marine Corps physique, took out a membership at Sly’s Gym where he became a legend in power lifting. Because he still lived with his parents (they insisted), Chuck was able to stash a lot of dough in mutual funds and gold futures.

But all good things come to an end. Ten years into their beautiful relationship, the boss stroked out. His widow wanted to head for the sun belt so the day after the funeral, she put the place on the market. Chuck made an offer, but though she liked him well enough, she got a better one from a chain of appliance stores. Due to his stellar performance, Chuck thought he’d be the logical choice to manage the place; after all, he knew the store, he knew the products, and (most importantly, in Chuck’s mind) he knew the customers. But it wasn’t to be. He got a letter from Human Resources telling him he could keep his job, but his commission rate would be reduced by thirty percent and his hours increased by ten each week. To add insult to injury, the new boss they sent in was some long-haired asshole with an MBA after his name and was a good ten years Chuck’s junior. The two did not get along.

Sensing the end was near, Chuck sent out resumes and retained a headhunter. In less than a week, the headhunter called with news of an interview with Western Union Telegraph Company: “They’re looking for a man with a good track record to serve as District Sales Manager.”

“Did he say manager?” Indeed he had. The job would be downtown in the company’s area headquarters. Chuck would manage a troop of seven sales reps and report to the Area Sales Manager, a fellow a scant three years from retirement. Chuck’s head swam with the possibilities. “When do they want to see me?” he asked.

“ASAP,” came the answer.

Feigning illness, Chuck took Wednesday off and had an interview with the Area Sales Manager and his boss, the Area Veep. The latter was drunk on his ass and contributed little to the meeting but insisted on running his mouth for effect. When at last the Area Veep lurched from the room and staggered back to his office, the Area Sales Manager turned to Chuck and announced “You’re hired, kid. Give your two weeks at that shithole, then see how things are done at a real company.”

Recalling his father’s advice to never put his pecker in the payroll, Chuck had been courting Clarice on the sly. But now that he was leaving the House of Television, there was n longer any reason to hide his passions from the world. As he walked to the El station, Chuck resolved that on that very night, he’d declare himself to Clarice and ask for her hand in marriage. Swerving off, he headed straight for Ace Fish’s Pawn and Loan where he bought a large diamond solitaire that had been hocked by an older woman who was outliving her money. Of course, Clarice said Yes and the happy couple set a date to wed.

When Chuck returned home that night, he told his folks the good news about his new job and fiancé and asked his mother to type up a letter of resignation. The next morning, Chuck strode into the long-haired asshole’s office and, unbidden, pulled up a chair and sat down. Tossing the resignation insolently across the desk, Chuck said, “Here’s my two weeks notice. I quit.”

Marital bliss, children and success at Western Union were Chucks. The Area Sales Manger quit suddenly and Chuck was offered the job – which he snapped up after being suitably coy for twenty-four hours. With total control over sales activities, he went about restructuring the department. He wasn’t totally satisfied with his subordinates (District Sales Managers) and cashiered two, replacing them with the fawning toadies, Joe Mucus and Martin Bormann (no relation to Hitler’s deputy). The other, a dark and handsome Scott, he retained.

In spring of 1972, Chuck took the family on three-week vacation to the Ozarks. In his absence, the flashy and often erratic J.J. O’Hair was left in charge. A fellow with whom J.J. had some past dealings, a young-ish telephone consultant named Hugh Paunchly, came by one day to talk about a job. Paunchly explained that his current employer was playing fast and loose with his company’s stock and he wanted out before Uncle Sam showed up. J.J. decided that Paunchly was just the right man to spearhead Western Union’s new thrust into the voice market and hired him on the spot, assigning him to work for the Scotsman.

When Chuck returned, he was miffed to find J.J. had actually exercised the authority with which Chuck had invested him; it is the way of all tyrants to begrudge any independent action of subordinates as it may be the first sally in an attempted putsch. As J.J. had important friends at headquarters, Chuck couldn’t take any retributive actions directly, so he decided to shit-can Paunchly – in this way, he could dis J.J. without actually crossing swords.

Unfortunately for Chuck, Paunchly had gotten off to a roaring start – he was a real rainmaker, that Paunchly. Well, Chuck couldn’t very well afford to get rid of someone who was making his numbers in so spectacular a fashion, so Chuck simply festered with dislike and resentment. To add insult to injury, Paunchly had a repertoire of hair-raising and utterly filthy stories with which he would regale his fellow salesmen and the office staff. When Chuck heard one of them for himself, his dislike and resentment of Paunchly hardened to implacable detestation – Chuck, you see, was a bible-thumping goody two-shoes who wouldn’t say “shit” if he had a mouthful.

In any case, the two settled into an uneasy dtente .

==================

The Scotsman was promoted to Area Sales Manager out in Seattle and Chuck transferred Paunchly to Bormann’s group where Paunchly made even more money for the company. “Well,” Chucked mused sourly, “At least he’s doing some good.”

Late one Friday afternoon, Chuck felt in an expansive mood and approached Paunchly’s desk. “Hugh,” he said affecting a broad smile, “each Friday afternoon, some of the boys and I gather in my office to study scripture, and worship Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Care to join?”

Paunchly looked up from the stack of orders he was writing and said, “Ahh, thanks, but no, Chuck. I’m a Jew, and I’m trying to get out of here before sundown so I can get to services. I appreciate the offer, though.”

Chuck recoiled as if he’d been shot: “A Jew. A Jew! A Christ-killer, right under my nose all these months . . .” The color drained from Chuck’s face; he stammered some words of apology and walked stiffly to his office, closing the door harder than necessary. At home that night, he whined to Clarice of the shocking development: “Can you image – a Jew. In my department.” Over a rare glass of wine, Chuck began to plot a way to can Paunchly without getting his own socks sued off.

Fate, though, had different ideas, for the next day, Paunchly got a call from the Scotsman, inviting Paunchly to Seattle where the Scott would invest him with the title of Manager – Special Systems & Services. Chuck was delirious at the news and almost broke his arm signing the transfer. Paunchly was gone within a week.

In 1974, the company went through a paroxysm of reorganization (something corporations always do when they begin to fail) and Chuck found himself promoted to Area Vice President – Seattle. He was thrilled to tears, but, gad, he would once again have that heathen, Paunchly, under his aegis. “Well, this time,” said Chuck vowed, it would be different: “One way or the other, I’m gonna get rid of that foul-mouthed Christ-killer – even if I have to make up something.”

Paunchly was not thrilled at the news of Chuck’s promotion and had his wife, Jo, help him polish his resume. “That bigoted cocksucker’s gonna find some way to get rid of me. You’ll see,” he told her.

And sure enough, Paunchly was right, though the denouement would take a few weeks. Chuck’s first order of business was to see the Scotsman off to a promotion and install his favorite old toady, Joe Mucus as Area Sales Manager. Two weeks later, the blow finally fell; Paunchly’s phone rang. It was Mucus: “Hugh,” came the high, nasal voice, “it’s Joe. Could you come up to my office, please?”

Hanging up the phone, Hugh Paunchly walked, with a rueful smile, into the office of his new, best, working buddy, Royal Andersson. “Well, this is it; Mucus wants to see me. I’ll call you tonight.”

Royal extended his hand in condolence. “Damned Chuck. Think that horse’s ass will give you enough time to clean out your desk?

“Not a problem,” Paunchly snorted with a dismissive waive, “I cleaned it out the day I heard that motherfucker was coming here. The only reason I didn’t quit right then is that I want my severance money – and I can only get it if the shithead cans me. It’s not going to be a lot, but it’ll give me a few month’s wiggle room.”

Hugh, rose, went into the hall and headed toward the Executive Wing on the north end. Brushing past Sally, the Executive Secretary, with a perfunctory “I’m here to see Joe,” he turned into Joe’s office.

Joe, his greasy hair set in place by a wide-toothed comb, sat behind his oversized desk. He rose to shake Hugh’s hand, then gestured to a single chair set in the middle of the floor. Seated in another chair off to the side along the wall, was Chuck.

Baring his whited teeth, Joe announced that he was making some changes. “I’ve got to reduce the emphasis on Special Systems and Services. The company wants to concentrate on MailGram. I’ve got to let you go.”

“Nothing like beating around the bush,” Paunchly thought.

Joe Mucus talked on for a while then threw the ball to Chuck, who chimed in with some flatulent BS about how Hugh’s talents could really shine in a better venue, yack, yack, yack.

While Chuck was going on, Paunchly’s attention was once again drawn to the man’s feet. Ever since he met Chuck, Paunchly thought the feet looked odd. To Hugh, Chuck’s heels looked weirdly long. The distance between where the Achilles tendons met the heel bones at the top of the shoes down to the bottom of the shoes was way, way too deep – as if Chuck’s heel-bones were malformed. Paunchly couldn’t take his eyes off those feet, especially as Chuck was sitting cross-legged making his right foot almost within touching distance. Besides, Hugh realized, this was the last time he’d ever see Chuck, so if he were to figure it out, it was now or never.

While Chuck continued to drone on, Paunchly scrutinized the feet . . . “Holy shit!” Hugh suddenly saw it, the toe of Chuck’s shoes had a layered look – Hugh could see a line of demarcation coming from the instep and going around the toe “The goddamned things are built up! The little asshole’s wearing elevated shoes. Chuck’s wearing stilts! Why, the goddamned homunculus!”

Hugh Paunchly’s stunned concentration was broken by Mucus’ voice calling his name. Returning his attention to the meeting, Hugh saw that both Chuck and Joe had finished talking and were waiting for some response. “Sounds good, guys, I’ll go clean out my desk,” he said as he stood and moved toward the door. Then he stopped and turned. “Oh, by the way,” Hugh said snapping his fingers as if in afterthought, “When may I expect my severance check?”

Joe and Chuck shot quick glances at each other. “I guess they thought I’d forgotten about that,” Hugh though with amusement.

Joe spoke first: “Give it two weeks, Hugh, then come in and I’ll have it ready for you.”

“Sounds like a plan, Joe.” The two shook hands. Hugh acknowledged the Area Vice President with a nod and “Chuck,” then left.

The revelation about Chuck’s elevated shoes was just too delicious to keep to himself. Before returning to his desk to retrieve his gittchie bag, Hugh walked into Royal Andersson’s office and told of his discovery. Royal smiled: “You didn’t know? Oh, hell, I spotted those things the first day.”

The two made amiable chit-chat for a mew minutes then Hugh said, “I’d better get out of here before I get you in trouble. Want to get together this weekend?”

Walking past Royal’s secretary, Paula, Hugh paused to say goodby and in doing so, mentioned Chuck’s stilts. Paula was surprised: “No,” she said, a broad smile appearing.

“Oh, for sure,” Hugh replied. “Look, here’s how you can tell,” he said. Hugh took his pen from his pocket and drew a shoe on Paula’s legal tablet. “You’ll see this line around the toe . . .” Paula had suddenly acquired a stricken look and had begun to fidget. Hugh looked around over his shoulder and, Jesus H. Christ, there stood Chuck.

Hugh Paunchly felt a knot tighten in his stomach. But just for second: “Wait a minute,” Hugh thought. “This shithead just gave me the axe. What am I worried about.”

“Chuck,” Paunchly stood and addressed his former superior, “I was just telling Paula about your elevated shoes. Come on around the desk so I can show her where the things are built-up.” So flummoxed by Paunchly’s disclosing the awful truth, Chuck actually complied and moved two steps closer.

Using his pen as a pointer, Paunchly bent toward Chuck’s feet and explained to Paula how she could spot the build-up – “Here, around the toe, then back here under the heel.” With that, Paunchly stood, faced the Area Vice President and said, “Thanks, Chuck. That’ll be all,” then turned his back on the good gentlemen. With that, Hugh extended his hand to Paula, who was looking studiously at the floor, and bid her adieu.

After dinner that night, the Paunchly’s phone rang. It was Royal: “What the fuck did you do the Chuck?” Royal asked with a laugh. Royal explained that within an hour of Hugh’s departure, Chuck was going up and down the hall, shoe in hand, stopping people and asking them to inspect the shoe. “There’s a rumor going around,” he’d say with bugged out eyes, “That I wear elevated shoes. I want you to take a good look at this shoe of mine and tell me; does it look like an elevated shoe to you?” Both Royal and Hugh had a good laugh.

On Friday afternoon, while Hugh was preparing to mail out some more resumes, Royal called again: “Guess what,” Royal said upon Hugh’s answering. “At this morning’s staff meeting, Chuck whipped off a shoe, passed it around the table, asking everyone to look it over and tell him that, No, it’s not elevated. Well, of course, everybody did and did.”

“Christ,” Paunchly replied, “I don’t mind tweaking Chuck’s nose a bit this sounds serious. Sounds like he’s coming unhinged”

“He was positively ranting,” said Royal in a worried tone. “You really destroyed the poor fucker.”

==================

The two week interval passed and Mucus called with news that Hugh’s final check had arrived: “Can you come in tomorrow? You have to sign a couple of forms.” Hugh agreed.

Pulling into the parking lot the next morning, Hugh Paunchly spotted Chuck’s blue Olds 98. “Didn’t think he want to be around when I came in. Maybe I should have brought my gun.”

In the foyer of the executive suite, Paunchly greeted the Executive Secretary in a low voice so as to not alert Chuck, who’s office door was open. The last thing Hugh wanted was an ugly confrontation – all he wanted was his money, to forget the whole business, and to move on. “Joe will see you now,” the executive secretary said in a half whisper as she hung up the phone.

Joe Mucus sat behind his desk, on top of which sat an envelope and two pieces of paper. Joe and Hugh shook hands and Joe explained that the check was in the envelope and the two sheets of paper were the releases; if Hugh would please sign them, things would be concluded.

Just then Chuck came rolling through the door like a wounded rhinoceros. “You and I need to talk, Paunchly.” said Chuck in his finest Marine Corps command voice. “Sit down.” Chuck’s face was beet-red.

Hugh and Chuck took the same chairs as they’d occupied two weeks before. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Paunchly.” Chuck whipped off his left shoe and, leaning forward, thrust it rudely in Hugh’s face. “Take a good look at it, Paunchly, and tell me, does it look like an elevated shoe to you?” This last was said with an earnest and hopeful voice.

Hugh Paunchly took the proffered shoe, hefted it, looked at it from the front, the side, the rear and from the sole beneath, then pondered it for a few moments more. Finally, having satisfied himself of the shoe’s construction, he handed it back to its waiting owner: “Sure does, Chuck.”

The Area Vice President’s red face took on a look of deep pain and sadness. As he leaned forward in his chair, he fixed Paunchly with a hurt look and asked a question straight from his heart: “But why did you have to tell everybody?” Chuck seemed near tears.

All humor gone now, Hugh Paunchly looked at Chuck directly and replied, “I didn’t tell everybody, Chuck; I only told Royal and Paula. You told everybody.”

As the truth of what Hugh Paunchly just said sane in Chuck looked as if he’d been poked with a pin. Giving a single, strangled bleat, Chuck bolted from his chair, tore his elevated shoe from Paunchly’s hand and ran limping from the room. A second later Mucus and Paunchly heard Chuck’s office door slam.

Hugh Paunchly and Joe Mucus looked at each other in silence. Hugh finally spoke: “Well, I guess I’ll take my check and go.” Standing, he shook Joe’s hand and said farewell.

======================

Paunchly went back to his former calling and put Wester Union behind him. Chuck didn’t last much longer either, thanks to the humiliation he’d suffered at Paunchly’s hand. He lit out for Texas where he opened a mens’ apparel shop that offered duds and shoes for the smaller man. To his credit, Chuck ditched the elevated shoes and, to the end of his days, walked the earth at his natural height, telling Clarice, “If that miserable Jew-bastard Paunchly could catch me out, I guess anyone could.”

-Merlin-

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The Augury

7 June 2018

Ever since I first pitched pennies with my chums, I have been unlucky at games of chance whenever money is involved; if I’m playing just to have something to do with my hands while we talk, I’d do OK. As time went on, I began to notice that when I played for money and did win, something unpleasant soon followed. I never kept records, you understand, but by the time I reached my twenties, I was satisfied there was enough of a correlation to where I avoided gambling.

Did this mean that a win caused the Bad Thing, or was the Bad Thing causing the win? –Well, whichever, I wasn’t having any of it.

Of course, once in a while I was inveigled into buying into a game with my chums and when I did, I was always relieved when I lost. And the sooner my stake was gone, the better I liked it.

In 1977, while living in Seattle, an old friend back in Minneapolis told me of his acquiring an MBA through a new and novel university in Minneapolis. This institution – which, by the way, was fully accredited by the various sanctioning boards – would grant credit towards a degree for your work experience. A guy could cut a 4-year program in half. Hey.

So I called the school and got all the information. Turned out the school would take the college credits I already had, add to that my numerous years in the telephone business, and place me at the Senior level. So I sold my poor wife on moving to Minneapolis and up I signed.

I went on ahead, got a job selling phones, rented a townhouse out in Wayzetta and completed my registration. A few weeks later, just before Halloween, my long-suffering wife joined me. Neither of us liked the town but, hey, I was going to get a degree. School was to start in the Winter Quarter, so we had a couple of months to squirrel away money for tuition, books, supplies and the like.

One Monday afternoon in December, the boss invited the whole crew over to his place for beer and pizza while we watched the football game. Jo didn’t mind, so I went directly from work. After saying hello to everyone and popping a beer, I noticed some of the fellows over at a corner table hooting and hollering as they played some kind of game.

After the pizza was gone and the Vikings lost fourteen zip, the dice game over in the corner resumed and, sure enough, I was invited to play. I begged off, but my comrades wouldn’t take No for an answer so despite my better judgement, I reached in my pocket for some change and went on over.

Sitting on the table was this little velvet-lined box across the top of which were a dozen or so toggles. As I recall, the object of the game was to roll a pair of dice, then turn the toggle corresponding to the number you rolled. You then rolled again and if the next number was higher, you got another roll. And so on until you either won, or rolled a lower number. Bets were, of course, placed after each roll.

Well wouldn’t you know, I won my very first game. “Beginner’s luck,” cried the assembly. “Try again,” they insisted. So I did. And I won again. And again, and again. Soon table grew quiet and a churlish comment about loaded dice was made.

A sense of dread began to settle on me: I was winning money.

To my sorrow, I won the next game and then I knew: I couldn’t lose.

By now only the hard cases were left to play against me, though almost everyone had gathered round to witness my streak of luck. With the certainty of the sun’s rising in the East, I turned to the fellow next to me, looked him square in the eye. Not taking my eyes from his, I picked up the dice: “Watch,” I said as I tossed them into the box and won again. “Save your money, Pete,” I said with a joyless voice as I rolled another winning number. “Because I can do this all night,” and I rolled yet another winner.

Followed by another.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Everyone was looking at me with strange expressions that were part wonder, part perplexity and part fear. “Hey, Sprague,” groused the company’s Installations Manager, “That ain’t natural!” (Didn’t I know. )

I had a knot in the pit of my stomach.

I reached into my pocket, hauled out my winnings and dropped them on the table; perhaps if I renounced the money I might avert the calamitous denouement that was surely in store. “I gotta go home, guys,” I said as I walked to the closet and got my coat. “See you tomorrow,” and I was out the door.

I was so disturbed I almost had an accident on the way home.

Two days later a letter arrived from the university’s registrar. It seems two of the sanctioning committees had become uncomfortable with the overly liberal use the university was making of those work experience credits. Until the university could revamp the program in a way that pleased these nabobs, the school couldn’t accept any more such students. “Your application for enrollment is hereby denied,” it said.

And there we were. Stuck. Two thousand miles away from home, we went through a winter of sub-zero temperatures, a storm-wracked spring and a sweltering, mosquito infested summer. Jo and I had to slog through six miserable months of Minneapolis before we could flee that awful place and return to our beloved Seattle.

I never did get a degree.

-Merlin-


Mr. Warmpth

7 June 2018

One of the things that’s sure to salve your self-respect, is finding some people who have also gone bust and examining their stories. It’ll be especially gratifying if these fellow indigents were pompous and bombastic swells who became indigent through their own venality and corruption.

Such was the case of Mister Warmth, a fellow telephone consultant I knew way back when. His real name was Stuart, but due to his almost sociopathic personality, we called him Mr. Warmth. Anyway, Mr. Warmth had a deep and abiding hunger for wampum plenty. As a telephone consultant, he did all right (especially when he absconded with money due his people) but he didn’t do spectacularly, and he desperately wanted to do spectacularly. Like some other people we won’t mention, he even bought a Mercedes-Benz.

Anyway, after many years toiling for what he considered insufficient gain, Mr. Warmth hit on idea. He would build a computer system – hardware and software – to help customers manage call centers (the places where your 900 calls are answered). He told me of the idea and I thought it excellent, if not outrightly brilliant. The next thing I knew, Mr. Warmth was working on a prototype and looking for an anchor customer. He soon had some gee-gaws assembled into something that looked like the original concept, and Mr. Warmth went a-looking for investors.

And he found them. This wasn’t a surprise, for Mr. Warmth had been born into some old money, and that money was well connected. Mr. Warmth found some New York venture capitalists and flummoxed them into sinking several million bucks in his outfit. The next thing you knew, Mr. Warmth had a new suite of offices, upgraded to a newer Benz, and hired at least fifty people. A mutual acquaintance told me Mr. Warmth even planned to erect a big, blue, sign atop his office building, a sign that could be seen from the livingroom of his oh-so-tastefully decorated mansion on the shores of Lake Washington.

A few years went by and one day my phone rang. It was Al, one of Mr. Warmth’s retinue of toadies, lick-spittles and hangers-on. He asked if I’d be willing to appear at Mr. Warmth’s offices Tuesday next, and explain the concepts and technologies behind Mr. Warmth’s prodigiousity. A group of “interested people” were coming in from the east coast and wanted to hear from an objective party. Sure, I told Al – for a hundred bucks. Al swallowed hard but agreed.

On my way over, I began to wonder what was up. Mr. Warmth and I weren’t exactly buddies, but I did know my shit and maybe . . . Ah, I’ll be there in a few minutes and find out.

I was shown into a conference room in which the air crackled with menace. A white board had been set up for me at the head of the room. Al accompanied me to a podium, introduced me, then took a seat in the first row, next to Mr. Warmth.

Immediately behind Al and Mr. Warmth, sat a good half dozen men in severely tailored suits. Their faces were angry and all had their arms folded tightly across their chests. One raised his chin and glared at me, almost challenging me to speak.

The previous day, Al and I had gone over my comments. Knowing it was the rascally Mr. Warmth with whom I was dealing, I wasn’t about to say anything I didn’t know to be absolutely rock solid. I think Al was hoping I might stretch things a bit but he agreed to my comments. I took the podium and began. I explained the concept, the theories and the technologies Mr. Warmth planned to use, and talked some about the size of the potential market (it was vast). At that point, one of the suits spoke up: “Mr. Sprague,” he growled, “Have you ever seen the contraption actually work?”

Oh, oh.

Mr. Warmth turned white.

“No.,” I said. “The last time I saw it was a couple of years back when it was in the very early stages – basically, a collection of unassembled components. Why?”

“That’s what I thought,” the suit nodded with narrowed eyes.

I had lunch with Al about a month later and got all the juicy details. It seems Mr. Warmth’s dohickey was nothing but an empty black box; it had a bunch of wires going in one end, another bunch coming out the other, and nothing in between but air. Mr. Warmth had taken these guy’s money and blown it on rent, office decorations, furniture, art, and those fifty-odd people who sat around picking their asses for lack of anything to do.

The New York types in my audience had gotten hosed but good. According to Al, they weren’t to be trifled with and were getting even; two days before our luncheon, a process server handed Mr. Warmth a summons, just as he was getting into his Mercedes. Fun and games.

===================

I’d forgotten about Mr. Warmth when, several years later, Jo had some business in an area not too far from Mr. Warmth’s exclusive community. I told Jo I’d pick her up in three hours, then headed for Mr. Warmth’s place; we could catch up on old times and I could drink some of his Scotch. Maybe he’d even tell me what happened with the New York boys.

I pulled up into the semi-circular drive, parked, went to the door and rang the bell. A woman who was not Mrs. Warmth answered. She was the new owner; Mr. Warmth, she said, had moved away quite some time before. I asked if she had the address. She hadn’t, so I drove to a payphone and looked it up. Heading over to what I assumed was an even more exclusive community, I drove around looking for Mr. Warmth, but the address I got from the phone book wasn’t turning up. I widened my search and finally threw in the towel; pulling along side a fellow washing his Mustang, I asked if he knew where I could find such-and-such an address.

“Yeah,” he said pointing to a shabby apartment complex down the hill. “It’ll be in there.”

Oh, joy! Oh. Bliss!

I drove to the apartment complex and, sure enough, there was a mailbox emblazoned with the address I sought, with Mr. Warmth’s name on a little slip of paper taped to the lid. I parked and walked to the staircase. The sign for Mr. Warmth’s address pointed down a concrete stairwell to a sub-surface garden apartment.

Could it really be? Sure could; for there, propped against the door jamb, was Mr. Warmth’s trademark – a golf umbrella in two shades of brown that matched the colors of his little Mercedes. Back against the retaining wall sat an old refrigerator and a couple of empty cases of Scotch. I rang the bell. When the door opened, Mr. Warmth acted like he’d seen a ghost. He was at a loss for words, but only for a few seconds. Then, with surprising grace and aplomb, he greeted me like a long lost brother an invited me in.

So! What Al had told me was true; Mr. Warmth got his socks sued off. He’d lost the lakeside mansion, the Mercedes, his business, and about everything except the shorts and clogs he was wearing. Only the Good Lord in His Heaven knows when Mr. Warmth will finally pay off the judgement.

Being below ground, the apartment was gloomy with a musty odor. As expected, Mr. Warmth offered a drink and we sat in the “livingroom,” an area with a sliding glass door overlooking a small patio with cars roaring back and forth on the road beyond.

Making Mr. Warmth as uncomfortable as I could, I began to quiz him about the last several years, though I mercifully omitted all reference to his former business and its legion of unhappy investors. Mrs. Warmth, his long-suffering wife, hid in the bedroom throughout my visit, steadfastly refusing to come out and say hello (probably didn’t want me to see any fat lips or black eyes.)

All too soon, the visit was over; it was time to fetch Jo. Draining the last of my Scotch, I stood, took another look around his bleak apartment and thanked Mr. Warmth again for his hospitality. He walked me to the door where we shook hands and agreed to “do lunch” one of these days. He closed the door hard behind me and threw the bolt. Mr. Warmth couldn’t get me out of there fast enough.

=========================

Whenever my indigence starts getting me down, I often think back on the Mr. Warmth episode, and I am consoled.

-Merlin=


Loving Flames – a Business Plan

7 June 2018

Even now, in early 2009, the entrepreneurs are still at it; confident that if they can just come up with the winning idea, they can hit it big. Just after the turn of the year, I received the proposal below. It came from one Bill Valentine, a rounder I knew in Minneapolis, back in the day. It came in an envelope with a sticky-gooey label so I know it was a mass mailing to everyone he could think of. Perhaps you’d like to invest?

Off-shoring, outsourcing, downsizing, and all the rest of the corporate gyrations we see today can only mean one thing; the end of remunerative work as we knew it. Consequently, I’ve been tossing and turning, trying to think of something I might do to better my situation without having to crawl into an office where I would earn my pay by kissing the fat, fleshy behinds of my superiors.

What follows is a business plan for a sure-fire enterprise that can neither be off-shored nor usurped by the H1-B crowd. What is it, you ask? This: A nation-wide chain of crematoria catering to the lower economic stratum – a cadre whose numbers, as the news attests, grows by the day. As the ranks of the baby boomers age and swell, and as their retirement funds are ravaged by the tanking economy, a burgeoning number will be unable to afford the traditional casket, embalming service and plot. What to do? What to do?

Why, incinerate the bodies, of course! Cremation at once does away with the traditional high priced funeral, with its garish trappings, dismal organ music and cloying floral stink. Under my plan, indigents, borderline paupers and the naturally thrifty will be able to dispose of their dearly departed with minimal expense – highly desirable in these uncertain times. As death is inevitable, and another Depression seems inevitable as well, there is a desperate need for cheap, reliable disposal of human bodies. With the plan outlined below, we have a way to fill that need.

Our company will be called Loving Flames and for only $399.95 (plus tax), we’ll pick up the cadaver, provide a tasteful shroud and a paper mache “casket” with the company logo pressed into the top, deliver it to our facilities, burn it up, grind the leftover hunks of burnt bone and ship off these cremains (i.e. “ashes”) by UPS Ground to any address in the USA.

Our initial plant (crematorium) will be sited in south Minneapolis, an area where land is cheap. And as poverty is chronic in those parts, it will not only providing us with a customer base that’s close at hand, but a labor supply as well.

How it works. To make this low-end business stunningly profitable, I propose Loving Flames use innovative, state-of-the-art technologies as well as a sophisticated marketing program, and plain old common sense. Let us examine each phase of Loving Flames’ funerary service.

First, the pick up and delivery. As for the hearse, I see no reason to blow a lot of money on a Caddie. A good low-end station wagon will do just fine, so long as it’s black. As most automobile designs remain unchanged for several years running, we can buy less-costly used vehicles and no one will ever know.

Freddy Farquart, MBA, our vice-president of marketing, says we’ll want people to know it’s Loving Flames that’s coming down the street so he plans to install a gas jet in lieu of the wagon’s hood ornament (the tank of propane resides in the passenger’s side foot well). When the Loving Flames driver turns onto the customer’s block, the jet is ignited and left burning until the body has been picked up and he or she has driven out of sight. Also, as rigor mortise can be a problem if the decedent expired with arms and legs akimbo, we’ll equip each wagon with stout straps and a come-along.

The crematorium. Because we anticipate a high volume of business, an old under-utilized warehouse would be an ideal site. Redecoration and revamping would include:

• A 2-oven retort (“retort” is the industry’s name for “oven”) employing fluidized-bed technology. With 2 retorts, production can be maintained at a P.01 grade of service, a demand that will be generated by our aggressive marketing campaigns (more on this later).

A fluidized bed is not only fast (ten minutes per cadaver) it’s highly economical. Once the “fluid” (a stream of ground-up cadaver tissue) has been ignited, forced air is all that’s required to keep things going. What’s more, our fluidized bed technology will prevent all the greasy black smoke produced by conventional retorts, smoke that must either be re-burnt in a thing similar to a catalytic converter (and at great cost in fuel!), or released to the atmosphere, causing enormous P.R. problems in the community. To ice the cake, a fluidized bed doesn’t need expensive natural gas, as do conventional retorts. Indeed, a fluidized bed retort can initiate the burn with inexpensive bunker oil and still not stink up the place.

Moreover, because the cadavers are being introduced to the retort as a “fluid” via a small nozzle, the combustion chamber is quite small – no larger than a Weber Bar-BQ grill. Thanks to this small size, the retort can be maintained at high standby temperatures, much the way a pizza oven is kept warm overnight. Not having to heat and cool the retort between cadavers will provide tremendous economies of scale in speed and fuel consumption.

• A cryogenic tank in which to immerse and solidify the bodies. We are in the process of conducting a cost/benefit analysis to see which cryogen is best for our purposes. So far, liquid nitrogen holds the edge but final results won’t be available for another week or so.

• A rotary crusher to reduce the frozen bodies to particles suitable for our fluidized bed retort. Our engineers say particles the size of Kitty-Litter granules should do just fine.

In operation, we must do our best to prevent co-mingling of cremains (a.k.a. “ashes”) as there are some legal problems if we don’t. But again, not a problem! The soft stuff will have already gone up the chimney during the burn, so all we really have to deal with are the calcified residues of the cadavers’ bones. To do this, we stop the retort’s air jets for a few seconds and the cremains will fall to the bottom as fine dust; their removal will be much like scraping clinkers out of a steam engine’s fire box.

After cooling for a few minutes, the cremains can be safely placed in a small paper mache box, again with Loving Flames’ logo watermarked on the lid and the decedent’s name burned in below it with a laser. A call to the UPS man, and the decadent is on his or her way back home.

I can say with confidence that, thanks to our revolutionary process, if Loving Flames can pickup the stiff before 10:00 A.M., we can ship out the cremains by the Post Office’s 5:00 P.M. closing time. That’s less than a one day turnaround; something unheard of in the funeral industry.

Marketing, marketing, marketing. What can I say; history is replete with junk that captured the market, thanks to overwhelming superiority in marketing strategies and tactics – just look at IBM. There are several facets to Loving Flames’ plan:

• Franchising. It worked like gangbusters for Mickey D’s, didn’t it? It sure did. And it also worked for Midas Mufflers, Snap-On Tools and a whole bunch of other American success stories. And don’t forget Amway!

To ensure a quality operation, we are retaining T. Jefferson Snodgrass, the whiz from Hamburger U, as principal architect. He is so confident of this plan that he has agreed to work for a fee of $1.00, plus expenses during startup. He does want, as you might expect, a good bite of the action once we start rolling.

• Contracts. The key to keeping our revenues rolling in on a reliable basis is keeping our retorts going full blast. Our base load of cadavers will come from the offices of municipal and county medical examiners. In a city the size of Minneapolis, the M.E. churns through a good six stiffs each day. These are bums who died in the gutters, indigents who shuffled off their mortal coils in the charity wards of city hospitals, unclaimed victims of traffic wrecks and other unwanted and unmourned souls. In addition, many jurisdictions mandate the proper cremation of excised and amputated body parts; hospitals are not free to simply toss them in the incinerator.

To make Loving Flames the crematorium of choice, our corporate business agents (salesmen) will take care of the whole licensing thing on behalf of our franchisees. Because corporate will have the deeper pockets, we can see to suitable emoluments for the city/county contracting officers are untraceable.

• Building the buzz. For this we plan to retain J. Walter Turdson & Co., the country’s foremost P.R. flack. Their initial thoughts are to make strategic postings in the chat rooms of selected church websites and get on local talk shoes. More detailed plans will be made once we put them on the clock.

• And let’s not forget the internet. JWT will build a dynamite website for Loving Flames that includes a price comparison sheet to help the bereaved make the proper decision. The website will also include an on-line order form through Pay-Pal.

• Late night TV ads. If you’ve ever had anyone close to you kick the bucket, you know sleep does not come easy those final days of a lingering illness – which is precisely the time funerary decisions are being made. Finding someone like the late Mel Jass, who can do live commercials and be simpatico with the lower echelons is crucial. We haven’t found this guy yet, but we’re looking.

• Networking. For example, cross marketing with Purple Cross. Also, making charitable donations to houses of worship in the depressed central cities and impoverished rural communities.

• Going upscale. Some people will always want to spend a fortune on funeral services, and we need to accommodate them. Once we pound the competition into the ground, we can cherry-pick the best ones from the bankruptcy court and roll their operations into the corporation. Car dealers and banks do this shit all the time.

Startup costs and finance. Walter T. Brownlick, JD, MBA, CPA, and alumnus of three Deepak Chopra seminars, has examined our plan and estimates the startup costs to run $2.6M, ± $500k. He agrees that once the Minneapolis pilot operation in underway and has proven itself, revenues will roll in:

• With only three cadavers/day, gross receipts will be $437,950/year. According to Dr. Brownlick, a Loving Flames operation breaks even at only two stiffs/day. Anything over this minimum will be gravy.

• As to franchising fees, we should easily suck fifteen percent out of our franchisees. Dr. Brownlick asserts that, at this percentage, it will take only six franchisees to make the operation a going concern. Again, anything over this minimum is gravy.

• The IPO. Once we start raking it in, the Street will be slavering for a bite and that will be the time to float some stock. (Hey, guys, it’s never too early to visit your local Mercedes dealer and take a squint at a new S-model.)

Though I seem to be in a minority here, I anticipate a lot of push-back from established crematoria and funeral parlors. If I’m right, we need to set up an ample slush fund going in. This fund will be used to bribe state regulators and legislators and will be far more generous (and therefor more effective) than those paid by our complacent competitors.

Summary. For the mere bagatelle of $2.6 million, the Loving Flames model provides a path to wealth beyond our wildest dreams of avarice. To find out more, call 612-688-1313 and ask for Mr. Valentine.

-Merlin-


On Flies

7 June 2018

You’ve heard the old saying: “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”? Well I’m here to tell you that shit works even better!

-Harland Ogrebreath –

Old Harland ran the parts warehouse out on Highway 55 in Plymouth Township. As you might imagine from a man expressing such sentiments, Harland was an MBA. He studied his craft in an airy academe somewhere out east and, in 1966, came west to torment the schleps. The company’s upper management, also infested with MBAs, had come to the conclusion that treating us parts-pickers with anything but contempt was simply coddling company enemies. Harland had been sent thither to crush the spirits of the recalcitrant yahoos and nose-pickers who, two years before, had the temerity to unionize.

Not long after the NLRB had certified the union’s election, the pashas were sitting in their private club. Belting back double shots of the world’s finest single-malt Scotches and dragging deeply on fat brown $12 cigars, they were working themselves into a righteous fury over the ingrates out in Plymouth. Imagine, they said, louts with nothing but highschool educations demanding – demanding I tell you – wages sufficient to obtain mortgages in a subdivision and new school shoes for their snot-nosed little urchins. Great gadfry, they wailed, that union contract could not only depress the price of the company stock, it could even affect year end bonuses. The fattest one in the group, the Chairman, no doubt, said that would screw up his plans to acquire a spiffy new solid gold Rolex for Christmas. He’d been drooling over one of those things for years and had earmarked his bonus for the purchase. And now those rotters in the warehouse were going to spoil it all.

Something had to be done.

That’s when they discovered Harland. On a rainy afternoon, one of the V.P.s happened to be passing by the mail room on his way to the garage when he heard angry bellows coming from the office. Peeking in, he saw a small young woman hunched in her chair and choking back tears while being viciously berated by her boss, a man who turned out to be none other than Harland Ogrebreath.

What a sight he was. Standing well over six feet, Harland had an enormous spherical head squashed down tightly onto broad, ape-like shoulders. He wore his hair in a quarter-inch stubble whose hairline descended almost to his brow. His face consisted of two pig like eyes set above a large rubbery mouth filled with large teeth. Spittle flew as Harland swung his thick arms around in expansive gesticulations while he shrieked and cursed the hapless woman: “I hear that elevator music coming out of that radio one more time and you are through. You understand me?” Harland roared. The woman’s quivering lower lip testified in assent. Satisfied at having completely cowed the poor thing, Harland swung his mass about and returned to his office.

“This is our boy,” the Veep said to himself. Within days, Harland had been promoted to Branch Manager and handed an airline ticket to Minneapolis. “Go get `em, son,” beamed the Chairman as he slapped his protege on the back and bid him bon voyage.

Settling into his new office, Harland summoned his staff. Among those presenting themselves for inspection was Jerry Daffer, the warehouse superintendent. Jerry had been with the company for over thirty years and was beloved by all. A slight man full of years, Jerry led his team of shleppermen with kind and considerate authority. There wasn’t anyone who could ever recall Jerry raising his voice in anger or even reproach. Indeed, Jerry’s admonitions were such that the recipient invariably did better out of chagrin at being reproached by such a good and decent boss. Under Jerry aegis, turnover was non-existent and production was among the best in the company.

Harland Ogrebreath saw this and was displeased. He saw Jerry Daffer as weak. He immediately called Jerry into his office and began to ream his ass for such sins as fraternizing with the troops and excessive softness that, in Harland’s mind, could only lead to sloth and slacking. “Jerry,” Harland said, “You use too much honey.” Jerry was demoted and replaced by a kiss-up/kick-down kind of fellow named Mel London who began to use shit.

The warehouse was a long, wide 2-story building with a flat metal roof. Were it not for the half-dozen or so skylights, which Jerry Daffer ordered to remain open unless it was raining, the place would be a killing oven in the dog days of August. Ah, but citing some bogus insurance requirement, Mel and Ogrebreath ordered them shut. This being the late 1960s, blue collar folks were not entitled to air conditioning so the gang simply sweltered. Other indignities soon followed as we “flies” were fed our diet of shit.

Sure enough, there were repercussions. Pilferage began. Sick calls increased. Turnover hit 30%. Orders were improperly filled. Petty retaliations took place (someone twice let all the air out of Ogrebreath’s tires) and eventually, the union began to file grievances. Within six months of Ogrebreath’s arrival, a union election was held and the rest, as they say, is history.

==================

A week ago last night, my buddy, Dale, and I were gabbing over some wine when I recalled Ogrebreath’s infamous dictum. Dale and I had a good laugh and recounted other unpleasant characters we have met.

But I began to wonder. Oh, we all know Harland was wide of the mark when it comes to human beings but just how accurate was he when it came to flies? I decided to find out. Early on Saturday morning, when the weather forecast promised warm, clear skies, the kind that brings out a profusion of flies, I set up a test.

On the lower deck, out of the way of direct sunlight, I set down two strips of waxed paper. On one I smeared a tablespoon of fireweed honey. On the other, I spread an equal mass cut from a fresh turd fetched from Kitty’s sand box. Between the two strips I set a small bowl of balsamic vinegar. Upwind of my experiment, I sat down with a cup of coffee and a clipboard and prepared to count the numbers and kinds of flies. (Man, I wish I’d thought of this back in Junior High. I could have won the state Science Bee.) I decided an hour’s observation would be enough to tell the tale.

Here are the results of the experiment.

Gross Count: The strip with the shit won hands-down. For every ten flies visiting the honey, fifteen visited the shit. The vinegar, of course, got zip.

Length of Stay: Here too the shit easily won. The average stay at the honey was 13 seconds; at the shit, it was 17.

Kinds of Visitors: A surprise came when this researcher noticed the population of honey-eating flies included flies of all description while the population of shit-eating flies contained a heavy preponderance of the big blue-assed kind. Why the lack of heterogeneity? The causes are unclear and need further study.

Conclusion: The Ogrebreath thesis is vindicated: You can indeed catch more flies with shit than you can with honey. We invite our peers to replicate our protocol and submit their results for peer review.

But wait! A thought occurs! I could use this study as the basis for a whole new line of consulting work! Why not travel the country, preaching the results of this study to CEOs as the new business paradigm? I could even open a retreat up in the hills where I sit the CEOs down at the training table and feed them shit – hose shit, dog shit, cat shit and even a helping of pudding-like shit from a milk-fed baby – and get them to love it. I’d be like those gurus who get these saps to fork over a wad so they can hunker down in the woods to spend a week living on weeds and nuts and sleeping in the rain.

After matriculation, my clients would then take this new shit-eating paradigm back to the office with them and put it to use. And why not? If Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil can pull off stunts like this, why not me? Why should some putz at Harvard cash in and not Merlin Sprague? After all, are not MBA programs based on comparing apples to oranges and extending to the general from the particular? Indeed they are. I‘m confident a whole new breed of management consultant will soon spring up and I’ll be the progenitor! Sure, we all know it won’t work but by the time these genuses catch on, I’ll have made my wad.

With lots of coin from my new consultancy and book deals, I’ll be able to stop driving school busses and start sleeping in `til noon once again. I can buy some new duds for the wife and, jezus, even get a new car. Hell, maybe I can build a cedar home out in Telluride just like that clown who predicts the future.

And just think: All this from a little piece of shit.

-Merlin-


The Day of the General

7 June 2018

It’s Thursday morning in the bay area and I’m doing booth duty at another trade show. Straw hat and bamboo cane in hand I’m down here to slap backs, press the flesh, and spout “Lemme show ya what this’ll do!” At least when somebody manages to come by and feign some interest.

Most of the time I just sit on my duff watching the bored and uninterested stroll by as they avoid, at all costs, eye-contact with those such as me. Just like you do when you see a Jesus-freak in the airport coming toward you hoping to sell some of his noxious tractates and screeds.

And this is just Day Two; there is one more to go. Then it’s back home to mow the lawn, pluck weeds and calk the bathtub in anticipation of our nephew’s arrival. Such is life for 20th-Century Man.

But a bit of cheer came into my life yesterday afternoon when I found out General Colin Powell, USA (Ret.), one of the few men in this world I honestly do admire, was going to speak this morning before the show got under way. Way cool. I like the General. I was among the folks who hoped he run for Prez. I hope he still will. He’ll get my vote.

According to the press, the General does a good job of articulating his thoughts and motivating his listeners to transcend – if even for a few moments – their own personal wretchednesses. He helps them focus their tired and bleary eyes upon The Shining City on the Hill. His presentation was to begin at 9:00AM.

(And who knows, this is a big industrial event so he might take a tour of the show. It’s possible he could come by my booth to see what all the fuss is about; I could even end up shaking the General’s hand and passing a few moments with him in conversation. Imagine that!)

So today, in anticipation of the General’s address, I got up a little earlier than I would have otherwise. I hit the shower, performed an extra-neat trim on my beard and donned my best duds.

With a spring in my step, I headed to the lobby for my complementary copy of usa today, then went into the restaurant for a plate of my usual greasy eggs and bacon. Keeping an eye on the time, I stopped by the local Starbucks for a double shot and got to the Moscone Center North by 7:45. I wasn’t going to miss out on this, no sireee.

Bounding down the escalator with my computer bag flapping in the wake, I went into the exhibition hall and headed for the booth to drop of my bag. I bid a cheery good morning to the guard, some old goof with a nightstick and a walkie-talkie.

But he stopped me cold. “Wrong kind of badge,” he told me.

“Say what? This worked fine all day yesterday.” Well, he told me mine had a green strip across the top and that to get on the exhibit floor before the opening gun, I needed one with a black strip.

Hummm. “OK.” I asked. “Where then do I get the correct model?” He peered at me through his bifocals: “Ya gotta go up ta` the registration desk,” he said. “They’ll help ya there” and pointed to the escalator. Back up at the main desk, the lady in charge accommodated me with no hesitation, and in less than half a minute I was on my way back down.

This business about the badge had been kind of like hitting an unexpected pot hole as you are cruising down the boulevard – jarring and a bit irritating, but harmless. Still, it had struck a discordant note.

Back down on the show floor, I was now one of the blessed. I was bid enter by another old fart with a nightstick.

After stowing my gear, I headed out to the auditorium where the General we to speak. Bringing my newspaper with me, I figured I’d get a prime front row seat, then read my paper as the crowd accumulated. Let all the dawdlers and slackers wait until the last minute, I was going to beat the rush. Bwahaaa!

Despite the old fart guarding the portals of knowledge, it could still be a good day. A minor irritation.

I strode confidently past a gaggle of spiffy young women gathered by the message center (“The little fools,” I said to myself. “They stand there like so many sheep. They don’t have enough moxie to go in and claim their seats.”) I breezed in through the open auditorium door, went to the front and found a chair dead-center in the front row.

As I beat the dust off with the front section of my usa today and prepared to take my seat, a homely Pithecanthropus with a face full of zits sauntered up and folded his arms across his chest: “Oh, sorry sir.” he sneered. “The doors won’t open until after eight o’clock. You’ll have to leave.”

What? I’m getting the bum’s rush from some nose-picker in a rented sport coat (and you could tell it was rented by the lingering smell of the flea-dip in which it steeped between gigs). Putting on the plastic smile I use when dealing with lesser lights I replied: “Oh. Hey, no problem. See you later” and walked back out. Out past the gaggle of young women, one of whom cast me a side-long glance.

Behind me, the door banged shut.

Well, now I’ve got an hour or so to kill. Damned if I’ll just hang around the door like some groupie at a grunge concert. I’ve got to at least appear as if I’m Doing Something Important.

Mustering my usual aplomb, I turned to the bank of computers constituting the Message Center and like a good technoid, went to check my E-mail. Aping the fellows on either side, I took my badge and thrust into the mag stripe reader to gain access. While waiting for the system to come back, I slyly spied on my companions to see what they were doing so I could do likewise.

After some few moments of quietly digesting the information on my badge’s mag stripe the computer made a loud honk, the screen turned red and a message began to flash saying: “Sorry, your card is not coded with these permissions. See the System Administrator.” My companions on both sides turned in my direction. One shook his head in dismay as if to say, “What an idiot.”

I felt my ears turn red. I tried clicking on every button, bar and toggle the screen had to offer but nothing worked. Flash, flash, flash. Honk, honk, honk. The damned thing had a life of its own. If I’d only had a hammer!

I was beginning to attract even more unwanted attention, so I ripped my badge out of the reader and slunk away as the computer continued its loathsome honking and flashing. One of the women in the gaggle twittered as I walked past.

It was time for some fresh air. I went back up the escalator to the ground floor. As I walked out the main door, I spotted a huge stretch-limo parked at the curb. Jutting up on both ends of its front bumper were two red flags, each emblazoned with four silver stars. Its liveried driver sat on the front fender sucking a toothpick and rubbernecking at the tall buildings. The engine was running. It appeared the General was set for a quick escape.

It didn’t look like the General would be coming by my little warren after all.

I took a different escalator back down to the exhibit hall so I wouldn’t have to pass by the gaggle of women and the fellows at the message desk.

Hiding behind an espresso stand, I buried my face in the newspaper. I would remain so until the General’s presentation was to begin. I felt I could resurrect the situation by keeping out of sight until , oh, say, eight-forty-five, then scuttling out just in time to beat the rush. After all, they had to open the damned door sometime.

Finally, the hour came. When I finally made my appearance in front of the auditorium door, it was firmly shut and guarded by another red sport coat who, when the clock struck nine, refused to open them. Instead, those in my group stood waiting for this twit to get the OK over his walkie-talkie. Meanwhile hundreds of milling fans were pouring through the other door; the one by which I had attempted my original inglorious entry.

Eventually the word came down and the red sport coat let us in.

Without being unseemly, I elbowed my way to the front of the pack and headed once again for front-row-center. But four rows from the front, I came up against the same Pithecanthropus in the red coat. His face cracked into a broad smile of contemptuous recognition: “I’m sorry sir,” said he as he placed his bulk athwart my path, “These first four rows are for VIPs only.” (With emphasis on “VIPs” and “only.) And sure enough, there was a rope cordoning off The Place of the Elect. And coming down the row from the other end were all sorts of suits. Good suits. The “VIPs”, no doubt.

The Pithecanthropus then turned his attention to a couple of the suits that had just come in and began to bow and scrape and fawn. It was futile; had I tried to assume a seat amongst the blessed, Ally-Oop here would have probably knocked me upside the head with his billy club.

Precious seconds had been lost. Behind me the seats were filling fast. By the time I (again) mumbled some inane apology to the Pithecanthropus and turned to the nether places where I still might obtain a seat, everything was filled back to row fifteen.

As I worked my way back toward my consolation prize, guess what should confront me? Right; the same gaggle of women as had been watching my humiliation since I was first ejected from the auditorium. The one in the lead looked at me with a start as if to say, “Holy shit, it’s him again!” She put her had to her mouth and turned to one of her gaggle-mates. The two exchanged knowing looks, then turned to a third member of their group and the three began to buzz like little bees.

My ears and now my cheeks were glowing red. If I’d been five years old, I’d have been bawling my head off in a fury and busting up the furniture. But I’m fifty-five, so . . . So grace, aplomb and the General be damned. I just wanted out. As quickly as I could, I fought my way back through the onrushing mass of humanity and stole back to my wee little booth.

Going in past the same old fart who originally stopped for the green-striped badge, I muttered about some pressing business: “Gotta send a FAX,” I said by way of explanation. As if he gave a runny crap.

And so here I sit in my little booth, listing to the booming martial music and thundering applause from the Auditorium that announce the General’s appearance. Some frigging blue suit is now sitting in my seat, whistling and clapping away like a fan at a baseball game. Nearby the loathsome Pithecanthropus surely hovers protectively.

The laconic guards still guard the hall, my face just one of the unremembered throng.

As for the gaggle, they’ve probably forgotten all about (I hope) the old fool who spent the last hour and a half trying to sneak in early.

They can all kiss my ass!


Prediction – China and the USA

20 May 2018

China will continue to eat Uncle SAM’s lunch. Through stupidity, avarice or treason, America gutted its industries via off-shoring to China and sat on its ass while our intellectual property was plundered by the People’s Army. Also, considering that for every one (1) American there are four (4) Chinese, the USA will end up sucking the hind tit. As the 20th Century was America’s, the 21st will be China’s.

The American experience failed the day the toadies on the Supreme Court placed Bush in the White House. Today, ignorance, religiosity and scurrility rule the land with an undreamed-of viciousness.

We will sink below the waves and become another has-been country ruled by an idiot.

-Merlin-