Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Price of Convenience

Every couple of years or so, I feel it incumbent to perform my duties as a citizen and warn my fellows against convenience stores.

Wait. Don’t stop reading. This will get more interesting shortly.

This time around, I am motivated by seeing an elderly woman belly-up to the counter at a 7-11 and fish out nickels, dimes and pennies to buy a lottery card. She emptied the pockets of a worn skirt and picked the coins from the gathering of lint, matchbooks, non-winning lotto cards, a ballpoint pen cap, a Bic lighter, and a keychain with one key on it. She used the key to scratch out the silver gunk covering the card’s collection of numbers. She didn’t win, which was not a surprise. 

Most lottery odds are astronomical. One in 175,223,510 for the $40,000,000 Powerball, with almost the same numbers for Mega Million.  Smaller scratch-off contests, such as the one the woman was playing, are somewhat better odds with much lower pay-offs.  So let’s admit it, convenient stores sell impossible dreams.

Lottery players are overwhelmingly lower income. They’re looking for the miracle that is unlikely to occur. The rational is that a dollar or so a day isn’t going to bankrupt anyone, but the people I see playing almost daily are spending a lot more than a buck. One convenience store near me recently hung a banner in its window proclaiming it had sold a $10,000-winning lottery ticket, and the man behind the counter laughed as he told me the winner had been buying five-dollar tickets there daily for more than a decade, so he may, or may not, have gotten back some of the money he spent. But probably not.

And all of this would be OK save that these very same establishments also sell addictive drugs--beer and wine, cigarettes, snuff and other tobacco products--crappy food either deep fried, full of sugar, or both; sodas sweetened with cancer-causing additives; nudie and gun magazines, and, in one case, a magazine full of nude women handling high-powered semi-automatic rifles (is this a great country or what?); pharmaceuticals in tiny, high-priced vials; the throw-away phones favored by drug dealers; and, of course, super high-calorie frozen drinks so sweet they’re guaranteed to make any child hyper.

But wait, there’s more. Almost all stores have an ATM, so if you don’t have the cash on hand to buy any of the above, you can punch in a withdrawal from your savings account. And let’s not forget these stores are basically designed for those among us who can’t or don’t plan ahead and are willing to buy four aspirins for two dollars because we ran out and now really need them.   

There are a couple of such stores in my immediate vicinity. I go there three or four times a week to buy a cup of coffee because I don’t necessarily want to pay Starbucks prices, and here’s something I’ve noticed: there are never any expensive cars in the stores’ parking lots.  No Mercedes or Caddies or Aston-Martins. Mostly there are trucks and vans, old beaters and Japanese rice-burners that have seen better days. In other words, the people who rely on the convenient stores are the ones who can least afford to shop there.

It is said that in the suburbs, convenience store owners, much like the folks who own fast food places, are almost all millionaires, and it makes sense. Many such places are family run. The overhead is relatively low, the markup extremely high, and salaries hover around minimum wage. Convenience stores, like liquor stores, seldom go bankrupt.

The other side of that coin is that such stores are at higher risk of robbery since they’re often open all night. In fact, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, convenience store robberies account for six percent of all robberies known to the police, and convenience store employees suffer from a workplace homicide rate second only to that of taxicab drivers.

Risky business, both for the employees and the customers.



Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Curse of the Weathermen

The story is one every Washingtonian knows: How at the turn of the 1900s, the British Foreign Office made serving in the American capital a hardship post. The city was frigid in the winter, fetid in summer, mosquito-ridden, swampy and unlivable. “Being assigned to the District of Columbia,” said one English diplomat, “is worse than serving in the Sudan.”

We do have interesting weather here. In fact, we have real seasons and summer has suddenly come upon us with a spate of storms, viragos, tornadoes, hail and thunder and lightning. Also, I should add here, weathermen.

Personally, I have nothing against weathermen though I often wonder if they consider themselves the equals of say, the crime reporters, or the guys who cover the White House and Supreme Court. Do they think of themselves as meteorological war correspondents? The ones we have, ever since the deadly tornado hit Oklahoma some weeks ago, have become very agitated. On three separate occasions in the last few days, national broadcasts have been interrupted by wild-eyed local young men with no regional accents at all, gesticulating and pacing like caged tigers in front of their weather maps. High winds, they clamor, waving a hand in the vague direction of a Virginia county I’ve never heard of before and which may not exist. Blackout!!! they scream. Get ready to be in the dark! The total, Stygian, abysmal dark!! Meanwhile, on the map, amoeba like clouds of something or other--dust? Sand?  Tiny frogs? are rushing in your direction!!! Get in your basement! Turn off your water! Your computers! Your phones!  But not your TV of course, since doing that would make the weathermen vanish a pretty much defeat the purpose of the panic broadcast.

There’s a run on bottled water, laundry detergent, and Wonder Bread. Lines form at the gas stations.  And then what happens, most of the time, is nothing. The killer storm on our doorstep dissipates. We get an inch or two of rain. The newscasters then tell us how miraculously we escaped destruction, and we all smile at the close call. Is this a great country or what?  

I don’t think there’s any doubt that weather patterns have changed, but part of the deal, I believe, is also that the media knows scare sells. Downed electrical wires, cars crushed by trees, roofless houses and demolished trailer courts are the staple of any newspaper’s local page. Two or three flattened fast-food places will make it from the local page to the front page, maybe even above the fold. On a slow news day, the weather is the last refuge of desperate editors.  

Personally, I think it’s all a plot managed by the dairy and toilet paper industry. As soon as seriously inclement weather is announced, every ounce of milk, Half and Half and non-dairy creamer vanishes from our grocery stores. I’ve seen people almost get violent over a 24-pack of Charmin’. The Scott and Cottonelle shelves empty quickly too, leaving only boxes of scented Kleenex for the truly desperate.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013


So, honestly, what did you think the National Security Agency did out there in the Washington suburbs?  Read and clip newspapers?

The recent furor amazes me. Of course they’re monitoring the phones, the emails, the text messages and all the other forms of communications we’ve invented to say less and less without having to be face to face. You’re surprised? What, you live under a rock?

And why would anyone care aside from the American Civil Liberties Union? Did you honestly think that this amazing wealth of information was not going to be used to further the basic aim of the nation, which is to protect itself?

I’m not sure how to react to all this dismay. The outrage over what has always been an open secret--that yes, the government monitors all sources of information--is amusing. The breast-beating and bemoaning is ridiculous.  The sudden attacks of conscience manifested by politicians are both hypocritical and ludicrous. Again: What do you think the NSA does?

Frankly, I’m not sure of the agency’s breadth of operations, but I can tell you what it does not do: It does not monitor your private phone or email accounts unless you’ve given them pretty good reason to do so. So the emails to Aunt Irma about her Brussels sprouts recipe are safe, as is your correspondence with the former King of Nigeria, who will soon be wiring a large amount of funds to your bank. Your online subscription to Teen Spanking Times will not raise an eyebrow. Your telephone conversations are safe as well, and technology will probably see to it that the clicking you hear is not a sign that you’re being tapped. Unless…

If you choose to spice up your emails or conversations with words like “jihad,” “fertilizer bomb,” “72 virgins,” or “destroy America,” then maybe, just maybe, a computer program designed to recognize those very words might kick in, and perhaps--but only perhaps--a small alarm bell deep within the confines of Ft. Meade, Md., might sound, and a junior officer might sit up and take notice.

If, later that week, you send or receive another message that reads something like, “Ahmed: The delivery of camels will take place on Times Square on September 11, so make sure to take shelter and Long Live Chechnya,” the same junior officer may kick this message upstairs to someone less junior, and you will become a person of minor interest.

What this comes down to is that the United States, for all its shortcomings, remains possibly the freest country in the world. As a nation, we have the bad habit of inviting our detractors not only to give us their best shots, but to come and live in garden apartments in New Jersey. Most of those who do just that become enamored of the freedom found here. They may rage and rant and criticize but eventually they’ll be won over by gainful employment, the ability to choose from among 48 kinds of ice cream, and cheap cable service with adult channels.  A tiny minority of naysayers will not be swayed and instead will bite the hand that feeds. These are the guys worth watching.

National security is a strange thing.  I remember the first hint I got that things were changing was when Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to traffic and giant concrete creations blocked motor vehicle access to the best known address in America.  Over time, downtown Washington DC buildings sprouted guard stations, ID card readers and secured entrances. Closed circuit video cameras sprouted everywhere. After some idiot tried to get on a plane with a bomb in his shoe, body scans appeared and we were all required to go through them in stockinged feet. I shudder to think of the discussions that must have followed after another cretin tried to smuggle a bomb aboard in his underwear.

I don’t care if people are listening in. I really don’t think I’ve had an interesting phone conversation in a couple of years and most of my emails are spam.  I don’t necessarily welcome scrutiny, but I’m willing to abide by it if it makes this nation safer. It’s a small priced to pay for living here.  I do wonder if using the words “jihad,” “fertilizer bomb,” “72 virgins,” or “destroy America,” in this blog might trip some secret switch and my readership will expand.

If so, NSA guys, I didn’t mean anything by it. Really.  





Thursday, June 13, 2013


I have a new companion, a black spot slightly larger than a pinhead that bounces around in the vision of my left eye. Sometimes it is accompanied by a crescent that flashes at the very edge of my peripheral vision.  The spot, which I have wittily dubbed Spot, is an eye floater, and it seems to drift aimlessly around, particularly when I’m looking at my computer screen. My research tells me that while annoying, my new buddy is a very common occurrence and not a cause for alarm.
These things typically appear when tiny pieces of the eye's gel-like vitreous come loose within the inner back portion of the eye. Another sign of aging: When we are born and throughout our youth, the vitreous has a gel-like consistency. But as we age, the vitreous begins to dissolve and liquefy to create a watery center. The result is that some still-solid gel particles occasionally will travel around in the more liquid center of the vitreous. Hence, floaters. Actually, I can't see these tiny bits of debris floating loose within my eye; I see their shadows, cast on my retina as light passes through my eye.

The flashes may be cause for concern, but I’m not going to take the time to worry about them now. My understanding of the phenomena is that ordinarily, light entering my eye stimulates the retina. This produces an electrical impulse, which the optic nerve transmits to the brain. The brain then interprets this impulse as light or some type of image. If the retina is mechanically stimulated (physically touched), a similar electrical impulse is sent to the brain. This impulse is then interpreted as a "flicker" of light.

When the retina is torn or detached from the back of the eye, it’s common to see a flash or flicker of light. Depending on the extent of the tear or detachment, these flashes of light might be short-lived or continue indefinitely until the retina is repaired. The technical name is photopsia, and it may also occur after a blow to the head. Then, it’s called "seeing stars." This happened to me only once, back when I practiced martial arts with a degree of fanaticism and my sensei, using an ultra-secret Zen Japanese fighting technique, launched me in a graceful arc across the room. I landed on my head.  The stars I saw were very pretty and multicolored but even I had good enough sense to realize this was not something you might want to repeat too often.

I find interesting both the aging process and the attendant small and large changes our bodies undergo. Floaters, flashes, alternating blood pressure, the small holes we develop in our random and near-term memory. It is fascinating to me how little we know of our own bodies’ and minds’ basic functions.  We are not furnished an operator’s manual at birth; we take care of ourselves in mostly haphazard fashion, and even the experts will admit that our knowledge base of what can go wrong is woefully inadequate.  We may know what an illness or disease is, and have a basic knowledge of its effects upon flesh and bones, but we don’t know how to cure. We can medicate, offer palliative advice, and treat symptoms without touching upon the core problem. We know how to cut and remove and have built massive industries to deal with pain, discomfort and, eventually, death, but an insider’s understanding of what really is going on continues to elude us. We have managed to lengthen life and eradicate many woes--chickenpox comes to mind--without a complete understanding of how we react to stress, pollution and other environmental factors. We seek to treat life without knowing how life came about, and there, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. Is it really possible to cure without knowing origins?

My floaters have been particularly active this morning though I’ve not had any flashes of light. In the grand scheme of things, they’re pretty small potatoes, adequately explainable and non-life-threatening.  Today my area is under a fairly rare tornado watch. Now that’s interesting.



Monday, June 10, 2013

WTF, Part II

Looking back, what is particularly galling are the wrong decisions made when no other options seemed worthwhile.  I had met my first wife while working for a well-known newspaper that frowned on married couples working together. Her career was farther along than mine, so she stayed and I quit--another decision of doubtful wisdom. At the end, our marriage turned disastrous. I was broke, unemployed and moved out to live in a rented room; it made perfect sense to give up my equity in a DC townhouse I had jointly purchased and helped rebuild from the ground up. Back then the only concern of any importance was to get my freedom back, and a four-story home in a doubtful part of town seemed a small sacrifice. That same house is now worth more $2.5 million dollars and in a sought after location. I’m not sure who owns it anymore but once every other year or so, I drive by. I forget how many minor injuries I sustained while rehabbing the place, but I do know I almost took a finger off while making baseboards on a router.  A bit of my blood will be there forever.

The past fades away, details lose clarity and get paler as time stagger by. For several years I traveled to faraway places that were both exotic and impoverished. Colors remain: I remember waking up in Nepal to a sky so blue it hurt the eye, while in Mali the horizon was washed and pale. In Bangladesh the road from Dhaka to Chittagong was a mosaic broken by floods and droughts. In Thailand, a man knocked on my hotel door and presented me a book full of photos of available women, all of whom, he said, were his sisters. I demurred, which I am pretty sure was the right choice.

When I quit the traveling job--in hindsight, perhaps another poor decision--I had just published a novel and was sure I was on my way to literary glory. A friend of mine and I spent an afternoon going from bookstore to bookstore and sneaking my oeuvre into the shops windows. The book got favorable reviews and was optioned for film by a director who, two years earlier, had won an Oscar. I thought of buying a white suit like Tom Wolfe, but luckily didn’t.  The deal never materialized and a month later I saw a bookstore employee tearing the covers of a stack of my novels. When I asked him what he was doing, he said this was standard operating procedure for books that didn’t sell. The covers were sent back to the publishers--less postage than the entire book--for refunds, and this way the books could not be resold. What the f---?

In the past few months I have felt as if a lot of the wrong decisions have come back not to haunt but to snicker. The pace of life slows but the days go by a lot faster, and choices made decades ago echo brightly. I occasionally have the sense that I am getting both transparent and immaterial, as if I could stand in traffic and it would go through me. I’m not tempted to test this newfound notion, and I don’t know if it’s a byproduct of cancerous facts or cancerous thoughts. I do know that I am tired of the drama that surrounds the disease, and that I am tired of being tired.

In light of this general weariness, it’s been important in the past few weeks to keep at least some facets of life on the lighter side.  I am rereading Wodehouse; at one in the morning of a sleepless night, nothing can best Jeeves shimmering in and rescuing the hapless Bertie.  I’ve been trying to write humorous stuff as well since my proximity to McLean, Virginia, is rife with possibilities.  This little town near the Potomac River has one of the highest per capita income in the country. There are 18-year-olds driving Aston Martins here, and a man with a terribly bad wig prances along in a half-a-million dollar Ferrari.  Beemers are poor-people cars and, not that long ago, an Asian couple tried to build a replica of Versailles about two miles from my house.  They went bankrupt and the place is now deeply discounted and for sale for $15 million. The funny thing is, someone, undoubtedly, will buy it.

Right now, I’m worried about the cicadas. They’ve waited 17 years to make an appearance in my neighborhood and they’re late; they should have been here a couple of weeks ago. The last time they came I was still married, still working for the UN, and taking care of my aging father.  It seems like a moment ago. What happened?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

WTF Part 1

Three or four times a day I stop moving, stand stock still and ask, “What happened?” It’s not a metaphorical question but a real expression of wonder. “What happened?” How did I end up living in the suburbs of Washington DC in a post-Korean War bungalow that originally sold for $22,000? How did I end up by myself in the United States of America after spending the first few years of my life quite contentedly in Paris, France?  How is it that none of the plans worked out as they were supposed to and that the immediate future, if not bleak, appears at best unpromising?

I’m not the only one asking questions. Many friends I’ve surveyed whose ages range from very early 40s to mid-60s seem to be struggling with this existential angst. The stuff that has happened in one brief lifetime is staggering, almost too much too handle for a lot of folks in my age range. I grew up without computers, with a single corded phone in the kitchen, with daily shopping for foodstuff. The apartment where I lived in Paris had no television or refrigerator. There was a small icebox that was replenished daily by a delivery from the iceman and there were times when we were hungry and ate soup made from yesterday’s bread.

When I first came to the US, my parents bought a house in nearby Maryland. There was no air conditioning; fans barely stirred the air in summer and in winter a central oil burning furnace tried to keep away the chill. Gasoline cost thirty-five cents a gallon and my first car was a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, a monster of an automobile with a giant visor over the windshield. The tiny refrigerator my mother was so proud of had two aluminum ice trays with levers to crack the ice and one of the bigger household sin was using the ice and not refilling the trays.

I’ve had the amazingly good fortune of living here. I’ve written books, had songs recorded, and played my music on stage. I’ve written for some of the nation’s best newspapers and magazines, interviewed a host of luminaries that have included Margaret Meade, Lou Reed and Jesse Owens. I’ve been almost killed three times, and am waging my second bout against cancer. I’ve been married and divorced twice and now live by myself with a cat in a house I will soon have to sell. What happened?

The career, not too meticulously planned, involved leaving a well-paying but increasingly stultifying job with a UN organization, and picking up my writing where I’d left it a few years before.  I’d published three books to pretty good reviews and anticipated little difficulties writing more. I was wrong. The proposals I sent out to my agent were met with less than enthusiastic response. The market had changed, and we were on the edge of the on-line publication phenomena. No one, it seemed, was particularly interested in the fiction I had to offer. Nor was there a great demand for an Addiction for Dummies book I was sure would find a home.  Other projects began with great excitement and either did not have the necessary legs or simply stagnated.

When the recession hit in 2008 I was caught unaware. Not the most brilliant businessmen--I have come to terms with the fact that my knowledge of finances rests on buying high and selling low--I had too many properties whose values dropped like stones into a bottomless pond. No one wanted to buy my lovely wooded lots in Southern Virginia, or the land I owned on the Chesapeake Bay, or the assisted-living apartment originally purchased as a hedge against inflation.  And still no books sales.

I went back to school, got a degree to become a substance abuse counselor, and spent an unpaid year as an intern in a rehab specializing in medical personnel who’d misused controlled substances. Five years later I was working in a methadone clinic. Mostly, I sat behind a sheet of bulletproof glass, handling soiled dollar bills passed through a thin slot, and buzzing methadone users into a nurse’s office. There was minimal counseling; this was first and foremost a money-making venture, and make money it did.  A dose of methadone bought wholesesale and in bulk costs approximately twenty-eight cents and sells for five dollars. There was little effort to free the clients of their methadone dependency. Some people had been coming to one clinic or another for more than a dozen year and had no desire to change habits. I met strippers, war heroes, roofers, prostitutes, housewives and bikers. I got severely depressed and, a year later, I was burned out and eventually fired.

Still no book sales.   What happened? Or, more succinctly, WTF?