The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A MODERN FAIRY TALE: [Commercial break fades; dramatic TV news music, the kind of noise that’s supposed to make the usual gruel of crime, traffic accidents, sports, weather, and celebrity gossip sound much more important than they really are, swells up, and the main camera swoops in on the anchor desk. There are two anchors, of course, a middle-aged white male with more than a little gray in his hair, and a young and attractive female from an easily distinguishable ethnic or racial minority. The middle-aged white male is sitting there to lend some gravitas to the journalistic fast food the viewers at home are getting; for reasons best known to clinical psychologists and their Canadian lab rats, a great swath of the American television viewing public finds getting bad news from a middle-aged white guy with a deep voice easier on their collective nerves than getting the same bad news from almost any other flavor of anchorman you care to think of. The female anchor, who smiles a lot and is often anywhere between fifteen to twenty-five years younger than her male counterpart, is there to report the bad news regarding women and children, the happy news, if there is any, and to serve as a lightning rod for the sexual fantasies of the station’s no doubt large viewership of well-informed pervs.] White Guy Anchor: There was dramatic testimony today in front of the Senate Banking Committee, as B.B. Wolfe, president of the locally owned financial giant Acme Consolidated Bank, admitted under oath that the bank has used tough and possibly even illegal methods to collect on delinquent loans and mortgages. Erica. [Cut to female anchor, who makes a quarter turn to face the camera. She is not smiling now, but the quarter turn does subconsciously remind the viewers, especially the male ones, that she has one of the best racks money can buy.] Female Anchor: That’s right, Frank. We should warn parents that the testimony they are about to hear contains some graphic descriptions of financial dealings that might frighten younger children. We go now to our Washington affiliate, WBHO, and reporter George Smith, who is covering the story from the Capitol. George? [Cut to George, who clearly wants to be sitting in a nice air-conditioned studio reading the news than standing in front of the Capitol on a hot and humid summer night sweating like Mrs. Murphy’s prize pig, but he’s still about ten years too young to be the voice of experience that most people crave in an anchorman and so until then he’s got to do these stand-ups in front of places he wouldn’t get caught dead near any other way. Still, the Capitol building makes a nice background visual, no two ways about that, and it’s better than standing outside a kosher soup factory in Brooklyn trying to explain to tens of thousands of goyim who couldn’t care less one way or the other why a crowd of Hasidim torched the place after learning that their fish and tomato soup was, in fact, shrimp cocktail. People can be so strange about some things.] New White Guy Reporter: Thank you, Erica, and yes, today’s testimony was shocking in the extreme. The subprime mortgage meltdown and the subsequent banking crisis have sent shockwaves through the American financial sector, but no one thought that matters would come to this. Let’s take a look at a portion of the relevant testimony. [Cut to a Senate committee room. Sitting in the chairman’s seat is, appropriately enough, the chairman, a man who has sat in this chair for too long for any good he has been doing and whose chair sits directly under a cleverly disguised five ton containment bubble built to prevent the chairman’s ego from spilling over and causing an ecological disaster. Sitting at the witness table is Mr. Benjamin Butler Wolfe, president of Acme Consolidated Bank. A graduate of Phillips Exeter, Harvard, and the Harvard Business School, his friends have called him B.B. since childhood. Mr. Wolfe has been president of Acme Consolidated since 2008. To his left sits Mr. Thomas Nym, of the law firm of Goniff, Ladron, & Snaffler, LLC, and counsel of record for Mr. Wolfe.] The Chairman: Mr. Wolfe, I must turn now to what is, at least to me, the most disturbing part of our investigation. I am referring here to Acme’s use of what I can only describe as pretty strong-arm tactics to collect on loans from people who basically don’t have the money to give you. Mr. Wolfe: Mr. Chairman, I am sure that there might have been a few cases of collections officers going overboard in a few isolated cases, but I feel that if you step back and take a look at Acme’s collection practices as a whole, you will find them in line with what are fairly standard procedures throughout the banking industry. The Chairman: You will understand, I hope, Mr. Wolfe, that I find that statement very hard to believe, especially in light of your personal involvement in the Porco brothers matter. [Wolfe puts hand over microphone and confers with his attorney for a moment.] Mr. Wolfe: Mr. Chairman, my personal involvement in that matter has been greatly exaggerated in the media. The Porco brothers’ dispute was resolved in line with industry standards. As I’ve said here and in several other venues, the media has blown this one case way out of proportion. The Chairman: Well, Mr. Wolfe, this is your chance to set the record straight, if you choose to do so. What was Acme Consolidated’s relationship with the Porco brothers? Mr Wolfe: Mr. Chairman, the Porco brothers are, to me, a classic example of what got our industry into the mess we face today. All three brothers had no jobs, no income, no real assets, and their credit histories were nothing short of poisonous, and just for the record, I want to point out that they got their loans before I became president of the bank. Had I been president of the bank at the time frame, they would not have gotten a loan at all. I don’t have the figures in front of me right now, but if I remember this correctly, the Porco brothers’ combined credit score wouldn’t add up to the IQ of a none too intelligent gnat. The Chairman: I see. If, as you say, Mr. Wolfe, the Porco brothers were such bad risks, how then did they get their mortgages? I’ve seen in the documents we requested from Acme that not only did they get mortgages, but on more than one occasion they managed to get home equity loans from your bank. How was such a thing even possible, given the obvious risks in loaning them money? Mr. Wolfe: It was the bubble, Mr. Chairman. I must say that it affected us all, myself included. We found a way to make a lot of money very quickly and with securitization we believed we found a way of protecting the bank against the risks of default. As we all know now, we were wrong. The Chairman: I must admit, Mr. Wolfe, that it is a bit refreshing for those of us who’ve been on this committee for a while to hear any witness say they were wrong about anything. But let me ask you, sir, why did you go along with the practice of handing out these bad loans, knowing, as you must have deep down, that there was bound to be a down side to it? Mr. Wolfe: Mr. Chairman, I run a bank. Banks are in the business of making money and catching the upside of a bubble is a great time for making a lot of money. I think that too many of us in the industry let the huge sums we were making blind us to the economic reality of what we were doing. The Chairman: Which leads us ineluctably back to the matter of the Porco brothers, Mr. Wolfe. I see in the documents that all three brothers complained that Acme Consolidated used some very high pressure tactics trying to collect on their mortgages and outstanding loans. What do you say to those charges? [Wolfe confers with his lawyer, then shakes his head.] Mr. Nym: Mr. Chairman, I just want to say for the record that my client insists on answering your question against my advice. The Chairman: Duly noted, counselor. Mr. Wolfe, you were saying? Mr. Wolfe: Mr. Chairman, I must disagree with your assessment of Acme Consolidated’s collecting practices as high pressured. We are not loan sharks, sir. The Porco brothers fell into the chasm that separates a robust economy from a struggling one. They received loans they shouldn’t have gotten at all, and then when we asked them to repay at least some of what they owed they laughed at us and told us to sue them. The Chairman: Which you did. Mr. Wolfe: Which we did. We were able to foreclose on two of the brothers and finally managed to get them out of the homes they’d bought with our money. The Chairman: But then you continued to badger them, Mr. Wolfe, even in their new homes, demanding that they repay loans you knew they no way of repaying. Mr. Wolfe: That, Mr. Chairman, is the crux of the matter. The two brothers we are speaking of here, Donny and Lou, used the home equity loans to buy cars, jewelry, flat screen TVs, and other high end consumer goods. In essence, they were using their homes as ATM machines, and as long as times were flush, they were able to get away with it. But the wheel turned, Mr. Chairman, it’s as simple as that. Every party has to end and the Porcos did not want to admit it nor pay the bill that had come due. That attitude was at the heart of their difficulties with Acme Consolidated. The Chairman: Difficulties, sir?! You call what the events of last June difficulties? That is hardly the word I would use, sir. You personally went to Donny Porco’s house with a squad of private detectives and threatened to knock it down if he didn’t start to repay his loans. Do you deny that, sir? Mr. Wolfe: No, Mr. Chairman, I do not. We went to that house, and I should specify that Donny Porco was at that time still living in a house we had foreclosed on, unlike his brother, who had already moved out of his house, and then refused to move when we served him with an eviction order. That’s when I got a more heated than I should have and made that threat. But he was quite emphatic that he was not leaving. I believe the police report will bear me out on his refusing to leave the premises. The Chairman: Yes, it does, Mr. Wolfe. The police report states that Mr. Porco used a Sicilian phrase that translates roughly as “not by the hairs of my chinny chin chin.” At which point, sir, your squad of goons turned on an industrial strength wind machine, the kind used in Hollywood to mimic hurricanes and the like, and then used it to knock down the Porco home. You do not deny any of this, do you? Mr. Wolfe: No sir, I do not, although I do take issue with your characterization of the private detectives as company goons. The Chairman: Duly noted, sir. Now, please bear with me for a moment, Mr. Wolfe, because I do not understand what happened next and I do want to understand it. After successfully knocking down the Porco home, you and your cohort of private detectives then held a luau, a Hawaiian style luau, at which Mr. Porco served as the main course. What do you say to that, sir? Mr. Wolfe: He was delicious, Mr. Chairman. The Chairman: I beg your pardon? Mr. Wolfe: He was delicious. Especially his ribs. The Chairman: Mr. Wolfe, I hardly think the flavor of Mr. Porco’s ribs are the issue here, considering that the next day you went and did the same thing to his brother Lou. Mr. Wolfe: Your pardon, Mr. Chairman, but Mr. Porco’s brother, I’m speaking here of Lou Porco and not Tom Porco; in that instance there was no luau. He was roasted over an open pit fire. We did not do the same thing to him, as you put it. The Chairman: You are failing to see the point here, Mr. Wolfe. Is it the policy of Acme Consolidated Bank to eat customers who cannot meet their obligations? Mr. Wolfe: No sir, only the customers who taste good. And I should point out that Tom Porco immediately paid down a substantial part of his obligation the next day, so the events did have a net positive result for the bank and its shareholders. The Chairman: Mr. Wolfe, the American people could not give a tinker’s damn whether or not eating the Porco brothers had a positive result for your shareholders. They want some reassurance that they are not going to be next. Can you give them that reassurance, sir? Mr. Wolfe: At the moment, Mr. Chairman, no, I cannot. Acme Consolidated is doing what it can to protect honest creditors from dishonest ones, and if the occasional meal is the price that we have to incur to concentrate people’s minds then it is a price we will have to pay. [Cut back to George, who is tired of standing here in front of the Capitol and is wondering if he can get home in time to catch the ball game.] New White Guy Reporter: There you have it, Erica. I think it is safe to say that the banking crisis in this country has just gone into new and uncharted territory. Female Anchor: Yes, it has. Thank you, George. Frank? [Cut to male anchor.] White Guy Anchor: We’ll be right back after these messages.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

STRIKE A POSE: Well, everything old is new again, something I know is so because it’s the title of a catchy tune, and if you can’t trust the veracity of Tin Pan Alley then what’s the point of life, that’s what I want to know, but I think that the recent upsurge in the popularity of voguing in the nation’s capitol is a bit much, if you know what I mean. Ever since Al Gore did his version of the Macarena at the 1996 Democratic convention, there is an unseemly need amongst the political classes in this country to show how hip they are by adopting the newest dance crazes. The trouble here is, of course, that both the former junior Senator from Illinois and his Administration spend an inordinate amount of time striking poses on almost every issue you can think of some twenty years after Madonna first commanded her acolytes to do just that. I do not understand why the minions of the distinguished gentleman should want to show the world just how out of date they are, although they may be trying to resuscitate the Material Girl’s career. It can’t be easy for her nowadays, when all her old teenage wannabes are mothers themselves and their daughters couldn’t care less about their mothers’ pop idol obsessions—they all want to be Lady GaGa.

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

VACATIONS, OR HOW NOT TO ENJOY YOURSELF IN ONE EASY LESSON: Here’s the thing: I don’t do vacation well. This is a terrible thing to have to admit about yourself, and I realize that most people might find this particular form of anhedonia a bit mystifying. To the vast majority of people, vacation, especially paid vacation, is something one cherishes, plans for, and enjoys for every second it’s worth before the inevitable return to the quotidian world of work that makes those few precious weeks of vacation possible. Everyone loves vacations; people write books about where to go on vacation and what to do when you get there, the Go-Go’s sang a really catchy tune about vacations, there are entire countries, in fact, dedicated to getting you to spend your precious vacation dollars in their particular neck of the woods. And then there’s me.

I am not sure when my antipathy towards vacations began. I never liked summer vacations when I was a kid, a fact I kept to myself lest some vacation-worshipping bully decided to beat the crap out of me for being such a damn weirdo. Summer vacations meant the annual migration out of the mean streets of the city for the bucolic lanes of our happy little burg. In those days our happy little burg was much more bucolic than it is these days, when the prevailing mood is one of a small corner of the Rust Belt giving way to creeping suburbia. Back then you could still catch the occasional deer wandering up and down Main Street in the middle of the night like some nocturnal country cousin, stopping every so often to take a wide-eyed yokel’s look in some store window. That doesn’t happen much anymore. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I sat in the back seat of the car wishing I was dead; I was thinking about all the fun my friends were going to have pulling false alarms, shoplifting, and setting the winos in the park on fire, whereas I would spend my summer playing baseball, riding my bike, and being bored completely out of my mind. It was enough to make anyone wish that summer vacation only lasted a week and I often did. I even wished it upon a star once, just like in the Disney song, but the star must have been in his dressing room not taking calls or on strike for shorter light years or fighting with his agent because nothing ever came of the wish—summer was still two stultifying months long, whether I wanted it or not.

After I left school and entered the poison ivy clad halls of the civil service things were pretty much the same. I don’t see the point of taking a vacation when the whole point of having a civil service job is to do as little as possible most of the time for as long as possible; there does seem something counterintuitive, at least to me, about doing nothing on my own time. Some years I just skip vacation altogether, not, as I tell my colleagues, because I don’t have the money to go anywhere, but rather because I don’t want to be bothered thinking about vacationing; it’s just easier to go to work. This attitude invariably raises the hackles of the people I work with. They find the idea that anyone would willingly skip vacations more than a little disquieting and the annual end of the year recounting of just how much vacation time I am losing and my general indifference to the loss causes a general increase in hypertension, frustration, and personal aggravation amongst the confreres. They try to reason my dislike of vacations away, but, as I’ve mentioned above, I don’t see the point of going somewhere to do nothing when I can go to work and do nothing.

And so we come, at long last and after much literary preambling, to paraphrase Kerouac, to the point of the exercise, which is that for most of the past month and a half I have been on vacation whether I want to be or not, and, as you might imagine, I am definitely in the not category. The leadership of the egregious mold pit decided—I am not sure when, but then no one tells me anything—in its collective and near divine wisdom—yes, near divine, people; these clowns pay my salary and in return they expect a certain amount of doglike devotion from us drones—to renovate this mycological breeding pit from the floor on up. In order to implement this miraculous metamorphosis, the powers that be told the staff to get lost and stay lost until we got the call to come back. In a gaggle of carpenters, painters, carpet layers, and other technically competent people all rushing back and forth in the midst of their renovatory labors, the real employees are redundant, if not actually obstacles to that labor, and so we are now on a strange sort of vacation. The vacation does not count as a vacation in the strange calculus of our happy little burg’s civil service department, and yet here I am, on vacation and slowly going out of my mind.

The first few days were not so bad; they were sort of like a very long long weekend, but after the fourth or fifth day of this apparently endless weekend, I began to experience withdrawal symptoms. Since the beginning of this nightmare, I have gone to the great metropolis twice, there to document, in digital color and on black and white film, the strange customs of the indigenous inhabitants in their colorful native costumes, and I’ve driven up to the county seat on a similar mission, but left when I realized that most of the county seat’s inhabitants are lawyers and congenital idiots, who live near each other so that they can support each other’s campaigns for the county legislature, and therefore we should not, simply as a matter of good manners, exploit these poor wretches photographically. Trips to the great metropolis also give me an opportunity to indulge my love of dirty water dogs and huge pretzels with way too much salt on them, and to do so in a spirit of rebellion against the depredations of the nanny state. That’s right, Mr. Mayor, I read the obligatory health information on the hot dog stands, I can see how bad all of this stuff is for me, and guess what, I don’t give a rat’s ass! Take that, smart guy!

But man does not live by pretzels alone, and it is a good thing too, given the thirty or so bucks it takes to get from here to there, or else man would die of starvation or scurvy or something equally loathsome. So, with my finances barring a constant back and forth to Mencken’s second rate Babylon, I resolved to photograph nature in all of its splendor. This was vaulting ambition at its most revaulting, to be sure, especially since I do not vault nor do I have any ambition to do so; I was never a track and field kind of guy, and I don’t have much patience with nature, anyway. In my experience, nature is one of those phenomena that looks better on television than it does in real life, and is, therefore, something one should pass through as quickly as possible on one’s way to anyplace with central heating. But at the time I did not take counsel of my fears, however well thought out they were; instead, I invoked the words of that great American, Horace Greeley, to go west, young man, and grow up with the country.

With these stirring words in mind, I packed up my cameras and set forth for the wide open spaces of the American West. Just as an aside here, I did not grow up with the country and no, I am not young anymore—such, after all, is life—and after a right turn off the interstate, I wasn’t heading west anymore, either; I was heading north, north to Canada, north towards Alaska, the last frontier, north towards the Pole Star.

I did not reach Alaska, Canada, or the North Star, in that or any other order. I did reach, through traffic permutations too numerous and Byzantine to recount here, the Catskills, or a reasonably decent facsimile thereof. The Catskills are a mountain chain, for those of you who do not know, although I have heard that the Catskills are not really mountains at all, but rather a gigantic eroded plateau pretending to be a mountain chain in order to hide from an ex-wife and her process servers. Whatever the geological truth of the matter might be, the Catskills are sufficiently high to cause the empty Diet Pepsi bottles that carpet the back seat of my car to pop and crack like a nervous DWI suspect's knuckles as the dope sits pulling his fingers in the county jail’s drunk tank awaiting his turn before the judge.

I stopped at various places to admire the view and to listen to the truck drivers scream obscenities at me for stopping on such a narrow road. Ordinarily I would have agreed with them, but I was there to capture nature in the raw, which would make manipulating the images later on my computer that much easier, and so had no time for such petty concerns. Fortified by my belief in my photographic mission, I advanced to the guardrail, cameras around my neck, there to view the valley below from this commanding height and to document its beauty, and then promptly began to scream, sweat, feel my throat constrict as my gorge rose, and needed to perform an excretory function, all at the same time. Yes, there I stood, either on a mountain or the side of an incredibly eroded ancient plateau, take your pick, looking down on the verdant and sun-dappled valley below, with my morbid fear of heights more or less (more, actually) intact and completely oblivious to the geological category this particular Catskill belonged to. Now terrified out of my mind, I slunk away from the guardrail and crossed the road to get to the other side, there to relieve nature’s sudden summons and to wait for breakfast to return to my stomach.

Now completely aware that I WAS VERY HIGH UP, I made way down the mountain/plateau/whatever you want to call it as swiftly as the circumstances allowed, which, in retrospect, was not very swiftly at all. I did not want to destroy my brakes or pull the steering wheel off its column, despite the best efforts of that guy in the Wal-Mart truck to get me to do those things and hurry the hell up. Once I got down to the valley floor, I accommodated the lousy bum, after giving him the finger, but I must admit it was touch and go there for a while. Still, I was down at sea level where I belonged, needing gasoline in the quiet town of Kunisha Lake, a town whose existence I was completely unaware the day before. I was so unaware of the town’s existence that if you’d asked me about it the day before, I would have told you that Kanisha Lake was the name of a retro porn star. In Kunisha Lake, I am happy to report, people from the Indian subcontinent own all the gas stations, just as they do everywhere else in this our Great Republic, and that the Mexicans are perplexed most of the time; nothing in their much-thumbed copies of Ingles para dummies prepared them for the large numbers of signs in Yiddish.

So, having arrived in Kunisha Lake, I took in the local sights, or, to be truthful, the local sight: the eponymous lake. The town does, in fact, border a large body of fresh water completely surrounded by land. You have, I should point out here, just read everything of interest about Kunisha Lake. I stood on the shore of this not vast nor not terribly interesting body of water, my arms set akimbo, like mighty Caesar surveying Gaul, thrice divided into plain, sausage, and anchovy, and like mighty Caesar I proclaimed so that all of Rome could hear me, I came, I saw, I said what the hell am I doing here, for chrissakes, and promptly left. I am at home now, where I belong, wondering what am I going to do with myself until the mold pit reopens. The one thing I am sure of is this: Horace Greeley was a putz, no two ways about it. Go west, my ass, and tell Tchaikovsky the news. Vacations suck, no two ways about it, but you can go have one, if you want to. I’m not close-minded about other people’s enjoying them, you know.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010


To flush, or not to flash–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous flatulence
Or to take Rolaids against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To flush, to flash–
No more–and by a flush to say we end
The bellyache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flash is heir to, so don’t play with the damn strobe in the shower or when you still have the batteries in it.. ‘Tis a constipation
Devoutly to be wished away, and sooner rather than later, if you ask me.. To flush, to flash-
To flash–perchance to forget Cartier-Bresson’s warnings about flash and photography: ay, there’s the rub, and there will be no rubbing and flashing or flushing in public or the cops will show up muy pronto and you can take that to the bank, kids,
For in that flash of flush what dreams may flash of flushing, and make us wish we lived in SoHo or Tribeca or even Park Slope
When we have flushed off this mortal coil,
Must give us paws, which won’t do a damn thing if you’re stuck in the toilet bowl; just ask any rat who’s been caught in that situation. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long flash.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of Time, Newsweek, or even GQ, for that matter,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, or the photographer fiddling with his gear while you’re sitting there smiling in your very stiff Sunday best and feeling the sweat start to run down your back and your face begin to hurt because this doofus doesn’t know the difference between a f/stop and a cheese danish, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make, out of papier-mache and half-empty cans of Spam, no less,With a bare bodkin?
(Bodkins are often bare; it’s some sort of religious thing. The last sighting of a clothed bodkin was in 1778, when a unbare bodkin was seen serving in the Continental Army at the Battle of Monmouth). Who would fardels bear, the fardels bear being a particularly rare species of European brown bear, for those of you interested in zoology, once used by the Romans in gladiatorial games for comic relief-they were finicky eaters and disliked eating Christians, although they just loved Dacians, for reason best left to the imagination,
To flush and flash under a weary life, and look, and vanity fair
But that the dread of something after flush,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn ultimatum
Only the plumber returns, puzzles the will, especially when you see how much he’s charging you just for showing up and looking at your damn piping,
And makes us rather bear those hot flashes we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus incontinence does make flushers of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of Photoshop,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currants turn awry with pastrami and hot mustard, and some French fries on the side,
And lose the name of action, but not for very long, not if you insist on eating this kind of stuff on a regular basis. Crack out the antacids here, boys and girls!

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