Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"How was your day?"

My favorite author is Robert Benchley (1889-1945), he of the Algonquin Round Table and grandfather of the author of Jaws.

One of the wittiest writers of the pre-World War II era, then an improbable film star (he starred in Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent”, won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1935, and almost won a second in 1937), Benchley’s persona was that of an upscale Walter Mitty: thinking himself a regular joe, imaging glories missed or denied, a flaneur of the tonier commuter towns in Connecticut.

He was a book guy, too, disdaining books as decoration (“Open Books”), and fretting about posterity (“Why does nobody collect ME?”).

Sadly now forgotten, Benchley in his heyday delighted audiences with 48 short films chronicling his inability to do things very well (how to sleep, the training of dogs, voting, raising babies, going to the movies and how best to avoid indigestion, going on holiday, losing weight, how husbands feel about wives and how wives feel about their husbands) between 1935 and 1945.

Yesterday, Mr Benchley descended from the empyrean to act out a new short feature, “How to Get Your Wireless Installed" in the gaunt guise of me.

It all began simply enough. I got up, dressed, and sat down to work. The morning passed swiftly, as it tends to do when I have no good ideas and end up frittering time looking for some on the internets.

The AT&T guy showed up at 1 pm. Never mind I’d been told to block out the morning shift; it’s not like I had anywhere to be. We had six inches of rain Monday and Tuesday and there was no walking anywhere that’s not paved. Out here in farm-to-market-road land, that means the driveway and the streets, and the streets are to be avoided, as they are long and straight- along old farm section lines- and therefore beloved of cops, speeders and kids on stolen motorbikes and three or four-wheeled ATVs.

I opened the front door and introductions were effected. Cable Guy came in and appraised the situation.

I led him through to the back deck, leaving the door open behind me as I always do, to show him the cable box.

“Oh, that’s alright,” he told me. “I won’t need that. Time-Warner uses cable. AT&T uses fiber optic. I’ll need to go down the street a ways and run a line up here, then install a new box on the other side of the house, outside your office. I’ll be back in a while.”

Off he drove, down to the next subdivision, five houses down. AT&T wired that area some months ago but stopped (we thought they were coming our way but they faked us out).

Our end of the street- where, at 61, I am the young whippersnapper- was a dead end back when most of the houses were built in the 1960s and ‘70s (the ice cream trucks speed through our two blocks, too, en route to the more fecund tracts spread over what was once the lake our street was named for, where kids with spending money teem).

Those of us tribal elders who have cable, have cable that came in for the TV back when, as God intended. The computer got added to the line to make the kids happy after they got married and moved off to Muncie.

Or was it Fuquay-Varina?

More recently, AT&T has not endeared itself to we simple but happy folk, sending out teams of slovenly cable service missionaries twice a year at dinner time, hopped up on high-pressure recruiting tips worth of the most ardent door-to-door religionists.

But Housemate grew displeased with his phone plan and came home with a new phone, plan and AT&T wireless. My mother, a longtime exec with BB&T, used to call that the start of getting new customers “fully banked,” a practice Wells Fargo has carried to its logical conclusion if not to jail.

I returned to the deck to get back to work.

The door was shut.

Not ajar, as it tends to become if not doorstopped, and as I intended.



My keys were inside. Cable Guy followed me out and pulled the door shut behind him.

This cannot be, I thought, then realized I’d entered Kubler-Ross’ First Stage of Being Locked Out: Denial.

The kitchen door was locked and deadbolted, as no one had gone out it since Housemate- on vacation the last sixteen days- left at 7.30 for another three months hauling goods all over America.

The front door! I stopped hyperventilating and climbed the steps.

Of course I’d opened it from the INSIDE. Locked.

I have at my ready a wide array of expletives drawn from most of the Indo-European languages and I rolodexed my way through them all as I circumnavigated HQ Henry Bemis, checking all the windows I knew were locked.

Stage Two: Anger: check.

On to Stage Three-Bargaining: I can figure out how to get in.

In my trial lawyer days I did things so magically impossible no one could understand how I pulled them off (the clients I kept out of jail considered it actual magic, and since you never see or read of magicians presenting invoices, didn’t pay me), including me.

I considered my options while hoping it wouldn't start to rain.

Chimney? Too tight, too sooty, and probably asthma-inducing if not downright carcinogenic. Crawl space, then up an HVAC duct? I’d pull all the anchors to the floor joists out, and the vents- well, I could get an arm into my office, but not as far as the keyring.

Windows, as in the breaking of one? Easy, small, can be dealt with later- the key word- re: repair.

Housemate’s bathroom looked promising: small, back of the house.

I actually got the ladder up there, lugged up a mallet with an iron head, and tried. Several times.

It was like a scene in Billy Wilder’s film, Sabrina:

David Larrabee: What are you doing with that gun? Put that thing away, Linus! 

Linus Larrabee: Look at that. The greatest plastic ever made. Not a scratch. I wonder how this'd stand up against a bazooka. Miss McCardle, ask General Stanton if we can borrow a bazooka. 

Miss McCardle: Yes, Mr. Larrabee.

Double-paned polymer. The mallet head bounced with just shy of enough force to race me to the ground.

Enter Stage Four: Depression.

The worst thing about screwing up something simple is having to tell my parents. One types up the card for the catalogue (they organized by Roget, rather than Dewey: the doc has more synonyms for “You did what?” A discussion follows: “Obtuse- 499.12, Stupid, or 823.5, Apathetic”?), while the other begins reviewing the precedents.

Never mind they are both dead. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

But my bed was locked in the house.

The second worst thing about screwing up something simple is having to tell other people what I did.

My neighbors are all mid-seventies to nineties. They think me a feckless teenager on a good day.

And here came Doug, the retired telephone company lineman, ambling over.

Another neighbor, on the far side of Doug’s planetary system but not overlapping mine, had a tree blow down in the big rainstorm.

“I put in a word for you,” he said. “When things dry out we can take the lawn tractor over and haul it back.”

Doug knows the best prep for ice storms and power outages in March is a yuuge woodpile. He doesn’t have one, though. He and his wife just leg it over to whichever of the kids has electricity for the duration.

Me? The woodpile is a byproduct of the Sorting Out of Issues By Chopping Up Trees for me.

“Well, gosh, Doug, that’s awfully kind of you. And while you’re here….[pause]..uh… do you know anything about picking locks?”

“Not that much, but let’s have a look.” He puffed on his pipe and pulled out a huge keyring. “What kind of locks have you got?”

“I don’t know. My glasses are inside.”

“Sometimes, once you know what kind of lock it is, a key for another of that brand will do it.

“But not very often.” He inserted a key. “Hmm. Schlage. Nope, not this one.”

“Mildred’s got Schlage locks. Lemme go get her keyring.” Doug meandered across the street. He and Mildred have been neighbors for 37 years.

Even out of earshot, I was able to follow the conversation. Doug talked to Mildred. Mildred doubled over laughing. Doug followed Mildred inside, then came out bearing another keyring.

“Nope. Not these, either.”

Doug walked back over to Mildred’s. Even out of earshot, I was able to follow the conversation. Doug talked to Mildred. Mildred doubled over laughing. Doug beckoned me over as he turned toward home.

“Well,” he said, “You’re welcome to come over to use my phone book and phone and call the locksmith.”

Stage 5 is Acceptance:

"It's going to be okay."; "I can't fight it; I may as well prepare for it."

In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.

K├╝bler-Ross later expanded her model to include any form of personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or income, major rejection, the end of a relationship or divorce, drug addiction, incarceration, the onset of a disease or an infertility diagnosis, and even minor losses, such as a loss of insurance coverage. Even sports fans go through such a process if their favorite team loses an important game, and also supporters of a losing candidate in an election.

Or, come to that, locking yourself out of your house.

Kubler-Ross cautions that the process is not always linear, though:

Often, people experience several stages in a "roller coaster" effect—switching between two or more stages, returning to one or more several times before working through it.

On the way over to Doug’s, I stopped to see Cable Guy. He was up on a pole at the corner of the front yard. I explained the situation. He was the third person in on this imbroglio.

No probs, he said. I was bargaining in my head that he’d offer up one of those Amazing Above And Beyond Customer Experiences that would make me call Eyewitness News and he’d be on TV and the video would go viral.

Like him saying, “Happens all time. I carry a full set of lockpicks.” Or, “No worries, I can give the locksmith a year of Hyper-Premium Cable and enough data for his extended family for five years."

Actual response: “Wow, man, sorry that happened.”

So much for doubling back through Bargaining.

Doug handed me the phone book.

“Can you find someone close?” I asked. “My glasses are in the house.”

Doug went off to get his, coming back to tell me he’d been to the eye doctor already that morning. “She said I have very, very healthy eyes for a man my age. But things are pretty fuzzy from the drops. So let’s see what I can see. That's a joke.”

Locksmith 1 had a half-page ad with big print, but he was busy.

He gave me the number for Locksmith 2, who was closer. He said he’d call back in thirty seconds.

Ten minutes passed. Doug made a fresh pot of coffee and relit his pipe. I reached for the phone book and pointed at an ad, maybe three inches high and a column wide, in white. That made it stand out.

“That one,” I said. Doug read me the numbers. I punched it into the phone. I couldn’t really see the numbers but know the order of the buttons. When I finally irk God enough to strike me blind, I expect I will transition to life by touch pretty easy.

“I can be there in an hour. $70 cash, $73 on a card," Locksmith 3 said.

“Done,” I replied, weakly.

“Ride to the bank?” Doug asked. "I can see better now."

I walked over to brief Cable Guy. “Can you last that long to get inside? It’d be a bummer if you had to come back.”

“We can make it happen.”

At the bank, I invited the teller into the Circle of Those Struggling To Keep A Straight Face as I begged for $70 with no ID whatever ("My wallet's locked in the house").

She fell for it.

I didn’t ask how much was left.

That’s a Kubler-Ross Cycle for another day.

I was just sitting down to a second cuppa (“This’ll calm you down,” Doug said) when an unmarked Econoline pulled into my driveway.

I legged it over the yards. The guy pulled out a doubled length of half-inch strapping tape, slid it between door and frame, and pulled sharply upward.

The latchbolt popped. He pushed the door open. I gave him the $70.

As he drove off, I told Cable Guy, “Next life be a locksmith. He makes $70 bucks a minute.”

But at least now I know how to break into a house.

I was finishing my coffee on Doug’s deck when Mrs Doug returned from an errand. She kept a straight face as she became the Sixth Initiate.

Home, I let Cable Guy in to see where to drill the hole into my office.

“Is there a wall plug?” he asked.

“Somewhere behind that wall of bookshelves, I sighed.

I realized I’d just transcended Stage 5: I was dead, and I was in Hell.

“Let me pull a few books out and clear it for you.”

He went back outside. I located the plug. It was behind a cinder block. The bottom-most of four, supporting, say, 300 books.

Laugh if you must: by 3:00 pretty much everyone else for several blocks was (no, not the cinder ones).

When I joined the company, I saw the door-desks being built all the time. They hired people to build them. Back in 1998, a year after I left, Jeff told the Seattle Times:

"These desks serve as a symbol of frugality and a way of thinking. It's very important at to make sure that we're spending money on things that matter to customers," said Bezos, 34. "There is a culture of self-reliance. (With the low-tech desks) . . . we can save a lot of money."

The doors were expensive, built to an arbitrary height, heavy, difficult to move, and horrible for body health because of the bad ergonomics. That's when I started having to see an acupuncturist for carpal tunnel and related problems. And also note that these were exterior doors: moving an exterior door through an interior door frame with legs permanently attached is a tricky task. At the time, a slightly smaller desk (or even a sturdy banquet table) would have cost 1/3 to 1/2 the amount and worked far better.

The myth was in place: the door-desk was part of the story about Amazon's creation, and it was part of what every visitor to the company's headquarters saw. It spoke of a particular ethos about spending and intent. And I will note that Jeff and company were extremely, but not unreasonably, tight with spending. Money wasn't spent on stupid things, either by executives or staff.  (Later, the company probably wasted billions on setting up and closing down warehouses that weren't right for them until they figured out the formula for where they should be located and run.)

Jeff was and is a brilliant marketer. The marketing and perception of the door-desks was much more important than their actual savings to the company.

Soon I had book-mountains all over the office and down the hall. Even then the cinder block wouldn’t budge. There were four heavy shelves and six more blocks paying homage to gravity.

I went outside, returned with the mallet, and whacked it sideways, little by little, three inches.

I finished, just as Cable Guy returned to install the wireless gear. "Perfect," he said.

Just after Cable Guy helped me sign in to the wireless signal, Housemate appeared at my office door.

“Couldn’t get a trailer. I’m home for three more days. Why are all those books piled against my door?”

Screenshot 2017-04-26 at 13.47.57 - Edited.png
So much for getting my money back on a quick sale of my first edition.

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