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Friday, December 24, 2021

Merry Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. America, and All the Ships at Sea

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

I Looked Down, And There It Was (Redux)

[From 2007. Perhaps to be right too far in advance is the same as being wrong.]

It's a hoary old joke my friend tells. The man of few words, in a restaurant slightly more elegant than he's used to. The waiter asks: "How did you find your meal?" He answers: "I looked down, and there it was." 

Everything appears now, through a process so complex that no one can fully understand even a small portion of it. Persons that say they understand the machinations necessary to place the most mundane thing in front of a great many people well enough to regulate the whole affair, with an eye towards improving everything, are spouting nonsense. If a man walked up to you and confessed he didn't know your name, but claimed he could list all the atoms in your body, would you hand him your wallet? How about your skin? All day long, I hear the groundskeepers telling me they should be the quarterback. And I can't help noticing the grass has gone to seed, and the hash marks are crooked. 

You look down, and there it is, all day long. There is a large chance that if you're reading this, you have never participated in the actual making of anything in any meaningful way. And as the world gets more complex, we all get further and further removed from the ultimate source of all of our prosperity. How far removed? To the point where it gets obscure enough that it can be blithely strangled in its crib, on the supposition that it can be improved by infantile wishing, followed by fiat. 

See the man on the sleigh, bringing the sap back to the shed to boil? He knows the tree like a brother. He knows the woods like a mother. He knows fire like a caveman. He knows commerce like a loanshark. He knows cold like a gravedigger. He knows sap like you know the alphabet. And he doesn't have the slightest idea what you're about, because you labor in a vineyard far removed from his -- where the meaning of your efforts is likely always obscure, as all intellectual pursuits must be. Remember always what you don't know about him, lest one day, you look down, and there it ain't.

Friday, October 29, 2021

I Know That Smell Redux




[Editor's Note: First offered in 2006]
[Author's Note: Man, I was smart in 2006. Of course, like Cassandra, knowing what's going to happen and doing anything about it are two different things. And there is no editor.]

BY god, how I know that smell. Old plaster and dirt and corruption and mildew and rockwool insulation and nasty fibrous plaster; it's the smell of grandma's grandma's attic. The smell of grandma, too.

We walked past this doorway in Bristol, Rhode Island. It's the entrance to a vacant turn-of-the-twentieth century single-story retail business building. My wife commented on what a neat place it would be to sell my furniture. I've done that sort of mental arithmetic a million times, for myself and others, and I know anyplace cheap enough for me to buy is generally cheap for a reason. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.

That little padlock you see is to "keep the honest people out," as we used to say. It's probably there to protect the valuables of the people working on the building, not the building itself. Some sort of demolition had happened, and the woolly interior of the walls and ceilings was partially exposed, but there was no sign of anything but the most desultory activity. No Coming Soon sign. No building materials. No people.

Now, I told you I know that smell. I've worked on buildings and/or their furnishings for my whole life. And I've seen most everything at this point. I've seen wooden plumbing and DC electricity and steam piped in by the city for heat. I've seen vestigal carbide gas works and elevators with accordion doors,and secret rooms. I've seen ranks of identical rooms -- whole closed up floors of them-- one bed, one window, one dresser each, for the long dead live-in servants of the ghosts of the mansion's long dead original owners. I've seen the cubbyholes where settlers hid their children during King Philip's War. I've repaired houses sheathed with 24" wide oak planks 1-1/4" thick and as hard as a banker's heart. I've seen more lead paint than a Dutch Boy.

That smell used to be common thirty years ago. It was a building that had gone to seed, but with hard use, over a long time, and barely altered. It wasn't continuously fiddled with, with only a vestige of its original form showing through the years. It was old, and a wreck, and wonderful, and had potential -- and nobody wanted it.

Everybody wants everything now. I caution persons slightly younger than me that life was not always as rosy as it has been for the last 20 or 25 years, at least for the most part. There was a time when it was very difficult for a hardworking family to get by, and you jumped on any work situation that promised even a modicum of stability. With both feet. You'd accept work situations that would look like indentured servitude now, more or less. You never ever ever quit your job before you had another one. Never. And it took real nerve to buy a rundown building like this and turn it into something.

My elders warned me about the Depression. It led them to certain habits which seem like madness now -- overreaction and paranoia. When you hear about honest people hoarding cash outside of banks, saving newspaper and cardboard and scraps of this and that, never throwing anything away, always afraid that all prosperity is ephemeral -- that's the Depression talking.

Twice in my working life, unemployment in the construction business has exceeded 25% for a substantial stretch. That might be news to you civilians, but the reason you can't find anyone to do anything for you that involves heavy lifting, hammers, and speaking english, is that everyone but the hardiest souls and people with nothing but a strong back were driven out of the sector for sunnier economic climes. Everybody bailed out if they could manage it.

Well, I'm not going to warn you about the Depression. Preparing yourself for a cataclysm that never comes is a form of unpreparedness, really. But recently, I hear that certain ex-government officials have gotten the idea in their heads that 1970 was swell, and had just the right ratio of carbon dioxide and economic activity, and we need to return there, pronto.

I know that smell. It's the smell of the cake I'm going to be allowed to eat, when there is no bread.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Maine Is Totally Like This, Totally


Whoo boy, that's Maine.

I live in Maine, if you call that living, and I'm here to testify that Maine is just like you see in the video. Why, lighthouses are thick on the ground, I tell you what. We were thinking of just stringing the telephone wires from one to the next instead of using those dang poles, but we got so many trees we decided to go the redundant route. Maine's a redundant place. We got two of everything. We don't have three of anything, though.

All the trees are always turning color like that, too. All the time. Everywhere. Why, you can just walk up to any old maple tree and turn the handy spigot that Maine installs on them and syrup flows right out of it. They issue pancakes to travelers at the Hampton toll plaza on Route 95 instead of receipts. True story.

The entire state is oceanside, just like in the video. There are rumors of some vast, undiscovered bogs or swamps or mountains or something out west, but no one would ever go there and find out. LL Bean is in Freeport, hard by the Atlantic, and you're not allowed to be in Maine more than an hour's drive from there. If we had police, they'd check. Bean's used to have catalogs filled with shotguns and fishing poles, but now they only sell banana hammock bathing suits for Canadians that go to Old Orchard Beach and think it's the Riviera, and button-down men's shirts for ladies to wear.

The State of Maine has various slogans. They used to call it Vacationland, but Mainers couldn't help themselves, and got to reading the Vacationland billboards while driving to work in the office park in Westbrook, and forgot the signs were for people "From away."  That's the charming soubriquet Mainers use when they want to call someone a Masshole, but the guy hasn't paid his bill yet. Anyway, everyone in Maine went to Disneyworld at the same time, on the same bus, and there was no one left in Maine to direct the tourists from Massachusetts to the best places to icefish in June, or where to find all the huggable bull mooses in rutting season, or how to properly approach a black bear cub. Note: Always get between Mama bear and Baby bear. They love that.

"Maine: The Way Life Should Be," was another one. It was less of an overt threat than New Hampshire's motto, it's true, but it left too much room for rumination on its meaning. I haven't been to New Hampshire in a while, but if memory serves, their slogan is "Live Free, Or Else," or something to that effect. Maine's sounds friendlier, but its ambiguity rankles some. It's never wise to get the tourists thinking. It smacked a bit of "Your life is bad, and you should feel bad, and we're here to tell you so."

Well, I'm sorry, but your life is bad, and you should feel bad. You should totally move to Maine. The clouds here move, and the tide goes in an out, and we've got so many goddamn lighthouses we use them for traffic lights and fenceposts and fire hydrants, and when all else fails, we string clotheslines between 'em. Now if you flatlander Philistines will excuse me, my wife is almost done chipping the ice off the well, and coffee break generally follows soon after that. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Sippican's Greatest Hits: Hostile Workplace

In a previous life, I supervised the construction of commercial buildings -- filling stations, convenience stores, restaurants -- that sort of thing.

After a short while, I was in charge of most everyone. When you're in charge, all the ticklish things make it to your desk. The staff tries on their own for a while, and then it escalates to supervised trying, and finally at the end of the winnowing process, there's nothing left but really tough things that only a person with the keys to the kingdom can handle.

The worst stuff was what employees would hide for years at a time. Carrying uncollectable debt on Accounts Receivable forever, never quite completing a project until a place needs to be remodeled before it's officially finished, stuff like that. A couple of times project managers went into the hospital for short periods and a casual look over what was hidden under their desk blotter gave me an aneurysm. The passing of an employee out of the building was like the old business saying about the tide going out: It affects everyone the same amount, but you get to see who isn't wearing any swim trunks. It was at the tail end of one of those cathartic employee convulsions that I gazed upon the second most beautiful woman in the world. You don't forget people like that.

There was a convenience store/ gas station combo that had been built before I was even employed by the company, but was never really finished to the last jot and tittle, and there was some money left on the table and I had to go get it. The building was in the inner city of Boston. I arrived in the late afternoon after a long drive. The place looked as neat as a pin, like it was ten minutes old. I got out to look around a bit, then went inside.

The building was built in what we termed "the urban style." What was meant by that was that it had to be constructed to withstand a zombie apocalypse, a full-on riot, a nuclear strike, and World War III at the same time. The building was constructed of textured concrete block. The block was ribbed to make it harder to deface. A concrete block might seem substantial to a layman but it's hollow inside and won't stop a high-caliber round. While laying up the blocks, each cavity in the wall was specified to be filled completely with mortar instead of the insulation a regular wall might be filled with. Reinforcing steel bars were put vertically through the webs before the mortar, because it was common for hijacked cars and trucks to be rammed through the sides of such buildings for smash-and grabs. In addition to the wall reinforcement, bollards were set deeply into the ground in front of any part of the facade with any sort of penetration in it. The bollards were steel pipe that were filled with concrete.

The roof was flat with a short parapet wall, as is common with such structures. HVAC (Heating,Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning) and other mechanical contrivances were installed on the roof. In the "urban" environment, every opening that was required in the roof , some large, some very small, had to have a steel grate welded over it before the units were installed on them, to protect from entry to the building after removal of the machinery from their bases.

The front of the building had a lot of glass, centered in the facade. It was all bullet-proof glass, and not ordinary bullet proof glass, but a form of it the suppliers often referred to informally as "military." That was just to protect the building during the day when it was open; there was an enormous sort-of steel garage door that was lowered over the glass part of the facade after the business closed for the night.  The building became a short, squat metal and masonry bunker that showed no opening whatsoever. At one time, these sorts of buildings has a four-inch square window in the back door so that employees going out to the dumpster could look outside first, but a would-be robber had shot an employee in the face through the window at another building, and the architects changed to a blank, steel, bullet-proof door with a camera instead. There were cameras all over gas stations already, to allow the clerks to shut off dispensers if people were smoking and so forth; one more didn't cost that much more. That other employee at the other place died, by the way, and the robber couldn't reach the knob by reaching through the window hole, so he never did get inside.

All the money in such places was treated like radioactive waste, and we used to install safes that were welded onto a sort of steel sled, and the concrete floor was laid over and around them. There was a kind of slot with a slim rammer that you folded folding money over, and injected it into the safe. There was no way for any employee taken hostage to open the safe. 

I went through the front door to talk to someone about whatever needed attention before we got our money. It was a conventional convenience store, with all the usual stuff that's in one.  But instead of entering the store, you entered a sort of quiz-show booth, about the size of a roomy phone booth or a cramped handicapped bathroom, maybe. Nothing and no one in the store was accessible to a customer. Items were displayed on shelves facing the door. There was a stainless steel drawer, like maybe you'd find in a supermax prison, and everything going in or out went through it. I was in the noticing business, and noticed that the size and shape of the drawer was painstakingly designed to keep a robber from being able to put a hand holding a gun and turning the barrel up to the cashier when the drawer was half-opened; it would break your wrist to try it.

The glass inside was way, way more bulletproof than the bulletproof glass on the outside. It gave a hint of greenish parallax to the view inside, like everything was under water filled with algae. It was like a window on a submarine. You were expected to point to what you wanted, pay first, and the item would be placed in the drawer. There was no penetration of any kind, and I knew from blueprints that the glass went all the way to the underside of the roof deck, so you couldn't climb over it. You spoke to the attendants through an intercom only.

There was a young girl behind the counter. I am in the describing business, but I cannot do her justice by telling you how beautiful she was. It would be easier to build a time machine, go get Titian and DaVinci and bring them back and have them work in shifts trying to paint her picture. I'll bet the picture would never be completed because they'd be fighting over her with knives before fifteen minutes was up. She was so pretty that a normal person, which I sometimes am, would just look at her, slackjawed, and forget how to breathe or think or behave. If God has some plan for mankind it is surely inscrutable because no one else would put this daisy on the far side of Pluto like that.

She was very pleasant, but didn't speak English very well. I was expected, and even though she was barely an adult, she had been left in charge and given instructions on what to show me. She told me to go outside, and she appeared from around the back of the building and showed me some trifling problem I can't remember right now; a busted hinge on a dumpster corral, something like that.

There wasn't anything left to discuss. We'll fix it, you'll pay, case closed. I leaned on my car and was writing some notes about the meeting, and she put her hand on my arm. She was very worried, and told me that I must leave, right away, because the sun was going down, and very bad people would come out. She pointed to a park across the street and said it was very dangerous, and that after dark no one like me should ever show their face there. She wasn't frightened, exactly; she was frightened for me. I was born a few blocks from that place, and for all I know my parents took me to that park when I was an infant, but I didn't mention that. She lives here all the time now. That's seven no trumps. She went inside, and I left.

I'm told recently that if someone looks at you funny twice, or maybe if a guy with bad breath instead of Fabio pectorals asks you out on a date at your cubicle farm, you're working in a "hostile workplace."

I've been to a hostile workplace. I'll raise my hand when you're in one.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

I Looked Down, And There It Was (Again)

[Editor's note: This was originally offered in 2007. I'm pleased that these things make a certain amount of sense even though they are not new. Authors who are famously wrong need new material all the time, I guess.]
{Author's note: Being lazy, I tell the truth. Saves effort. Also, there is no editor.}

It's a hoary old joke my friend tells: There's a man of few words, in a restaurant slightly more elegant than he's used to. The waiter brings the check, and asks, "How did you find your meal?" He answers: "I looked down, and there it was."

Everything appears like that now, through a process so complex that no one can fully understand even a small portion of it. Persons that say they understand the machinations necessary to place the most mundane thing in front of a great many people well enough to regulate the whole affair, with an eye towards improving everything, are spouting nonsense. If a man walked up to you and confessed he didn't know your name, but claimed he could list all the atoms in your body, would you hand him your wallet? How about your skin? All day long, I hear the groundskeepers telling me they should be the quarterback. And I can't help noticing the grass has gone to seed, and the hash marks are crooked.

You look down, and there it is, all day long. There is a large chance that if you're reading this, you have never participated in the actual making of anything in any meaningful way. And as the world gets more complex, we all get further and further removed from the ultimate source of all of our prosperity. How far removed? To the point where it gets obscure enough that it can be blithely strangled in its crib, on the supposition that it can be improved by infantile wishing, followed by fiat.

See the man on the sleigh, bringing the sap back to the shed to boil? He knows the tree like a brother. He knows the woods like a mother. He knows fire like a caveman. He knows commerce like a loanshark. He knows cold like a wintertime gravedigger. He knows sap like you know the alphabet. But he doesn't have the slightest idea what you're about, because you labor in a vineyard far removed from his. A place where the meaning of your efforts is likely always obscure, as all intellectual pursuits must be.

Remember always what you don't know about the man on the sleigh, lest one day, you look down, and there it ain't.