Monthly Archives: February 2016

Free Food; Strings Attached?

chickTo celebrate leap day – because leap day is certainly something worth celebrating, right? – a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania (about ten miles from Pittsburgh) is offering a free pack of nine chicken nuggets today to anyone who eats in its store.

No word on whether patrons will be required to sign a statement certifying that they are not gay to qualify for the free food.

Taking Care of Business (the final chapter)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.) 

“Take your seats, please. We’re going to begin in a minute.”

So spoke Rikki Johnston, the mayor’s press secretary. She was in the mayor’s reception room, and reporters were gathering, talking quietly among themselves and trying to guess what the subject of this hastily convened press conference might be. Only two of the four local television stations that broadcast news were present, and their camera operators were making one last check of the lighting.

“Okay, everyone,” Johnston announced from the podium, “here’s Mayor Norbert.”

Norbert strode purposefully into the room and approached the microphone.

“Good morning, everyone.”

He began speaking – without notes.

“As you all know, we’ve enjoyed tremendous success with the re-engineering of our streets department under the extraordinary leadership of Commissioner Shaniqua Watson. With her guidance, that department has reached an unprecedented, and some would say unimagined, level of performance. Commissioner Watson has demonstrated to us all what a tremendous difference one person can make.

“We have many city departments, though, but we haven’t been able to find any more Shaniqua Watsons, so I’ve concluded that she’s much too talented a public servant, administrator, and leader for us to limit her influence to just one city department.

“For this reason, I’m pleased to announce that effective immediately, I’m promoting Shaniqua to the new post of deputy mayor for productivity and performance. In this role, Shaniqua will work closely with managing director Wilma O’Neill to identify new and better ways for city government to deliver services to the people of Philadelphia. Deputy commissioner James Van Impe will step up and take over as the streets department’s commissioner.

“Do you have any questions?”

The Gazette’s city hall reporter, Gene Dowler, was the first reporter to leap to his feet.

“Mr. Mayor, are you making this change at this particular time for political reasons? I ask because there are reports that you’ve been under a great deal of political pressure to fire Commissioner Watson and that this pressure may account for the budget problems you’re having with council, Governor Clayton, and the state legislature.”

“There’s nothing to that, Gene. How could anyone have a problem with better public services?”

The next questioner was Rochelle Adams, a radio station reporter.

“Mayor Norbert, will new Commissioner Van Impe retain Commissioner Watson’s innovative programs, like her telephone and internet hotlines and her twenty-four-hour service guarantees?”

“That’ll be up to the new commissioner. I don’t tell our managers how to run their operations, so that’ll strictly be his call.”

Norbert looked down, and for a brief, fleeting moment, a look of sadness and disappointment crossed his face. He sensed this and quickly forced a smile and looked up in anticipation of the next question.

(And that’s the end of the story.  Thanks so much for reading.)

 

 

 

 

A New Kind of Warfare?

Last week the government of Brazil announced that it would deploy its army in the fight against the Zika virus.

The Curmudgeon wonders what weapons the Brazilian army will employ.

Surface-to-air missiles?

The mosquitos don't stand a chance against these babies.

The mosquitoes don’t stand a chance against these babies.

Rocket-propelled grenades?

Shoulder-mounted rocket launchers?

AK-47s?

Isn’t that kind of…overkill when you consider that the zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes?

Really, REALLY Bad Timing

One of the risks television networks of all kinds face when they air reruns is that they might broadcast something that was culturally, politically, or socially appropriate at the time it was created but is somehow outdated or, even worse, offensive by today’s standards.

Like the bug-eyed black cook sliding on the wet kitchen floor while eyeing the clock that spins backwards in an old Three Stooges short.

A reference to the “Nips” in a McHale’s Navy rerun.

companyA movie featuring O.J. Simpson.

Or the entire premise of Three’s Company.

While lying on his living room floor and stretching before work earlier this week The Curmudgeon caught two minutes of Rachael Ray making what appeared to be a not-very-appetizing soup on the Food Network. While never much of a Rachael Ray fan, he has come to appreciate her more as that network becomes more about entertainment and less about food.

At one point Rachael was describing the nutritional virtues of her soup and decided to draw an analogy based on a comedian’s explanation of nutrition to his children: something about how the ingredients in cake include milk and eggs.

The comedian?

Not Bob Hope.

Not Jerry Seinfeld.

Not even Amy Schumer.

Who?

cosbyBill Cosby.

Are we still allowed to speak of Cosby? Don’t we have to pretend he no longer exists, or that he’s no longer funny, or even that he never was funny?

F#$%k Flo: Shopping for Insurance

When The Curmudgeon’s auto insurance renewal package arrived and the proposed annual premium started with the number “2” he realized it was probably time to shop around and see if he might find a better deal.

And what he found, and learned, opened his eyes.

The Curmudgeon’s auto and home insurer since his third month or so living in New Jersey has been Liberty Mutual. As insurance companies go, Liberty Mutual is very customer-friendly: readily available staff, amenities like emergency road service and publications, and installment plans, which some companies don’t offer at all. The Curmudgeon counted himself a satisfied customer.

He stumbled upon Liberty Mutual accidentally. When he moved from Philadelphia to New Jersey he assumed his auto insurance would cost less since insurance for Philadelphians is notoriously expensive. He was surprised, then, to find that his premiums increased rather than decreased when he crossed the river. He also got the sense that whomever he spoke to with his previous insurer (AIG, he thinks) didn’t quite understand the concept of a condominium and that he might not have the insurance he really needed to protect his home.

This subject arose about a month after The Curmudgeon moved to New Jersey, at a family Christmas party. Those gatherings were unusual: The Curmudgeon’s brother is Jewish and his (now-ex) sister in-law is Catholic and the families spent all of their holidays together, but at the Christmas gatherings there were lots of stray Jews around. You know the type: they don’t bowl, eat Chinese food, or go to the movies, so they have nothing to do that day. As a result, the parties could have as many as two or three Jews for every Catholic (nary a Protestant in sight as far as The Curmudgeon could ever tell). The Curmudgeon always made a point of wearing a red shirt at such gatherings – not that The Curmudgeon ever needs a reason to wear red – to show his conviviality in an outward way that his naturally dour demeanor usually fails to reflect. Anyhow, when he mentioned his insurance dilemma several people at once told him to call a certain agent at Liberty Mutual and to mention that he’s “with the federation.” “The federation” is short for “the Jewish federation,” a local group that apparently had a discount relationship with Liberty Mutual. The Curmudgeon made the call, sat down with the (Italian/Catholic) agent, and saved nearly $1000 on his auto insurance and verified that his previous insurer had, in fact, failed to interpret condo needs appropriately. The new agent fixed that as well.

And so The Curmudgeon lived, a happy Liberty Mutual customer, until his renewal policy arrived with the annual premium that began with the number “2” and inspired him to do a little shopping to find out if he really needed to pay twice as much for auto insurance as he had a dozen years earlier.

Shopping for insurance is certainly a lot easier than it once was. Now, you do a lot of the work online and avoid talking to unctuous, aggressive sales people, and since The Curmudgeon has bought cars online, he was certainly comfortable shopping for insurance online.

But first he had to figure out if he had the right amount of coverage, so he turned to his brother, who works in the insurance industry. The Curmudgeonly Brother reviewed the current policies and gave them a thumbs up, freeing his brother to do his shopping, knowing first, that he had the right amount of coverage, and second, that he could get genuine apples-to-apples comparisons of premiums from different insurers.

floOf course The Curmudgeon started with Flo. You’ve all seen her: the ubiquitous and increasingly annoying in a running-out-of-ways-to-say-the-same-thing-yet-again Progressive shill dressed in white. Working through Progressive was an interesting experience because Progressive does sales backwards: while almost everyone who’s trying to sell you something is trying to sell you more of whatever you’re buying, Progressive is very happy to sell you less. Maybe even eager to sell you less. That’s what “name your own price” is all about: if you think what Progressive is selling costs too much, ask the same questions again and it’ll give you a lower price.

How? By selling you less insurance. Of course, if you’re asking for a certain amount of coverage and someone proposes selling it to you for less that may seem like a good thing, but it’s not: you’re voluntarily under-insuring yourself.

And that’s not good.

The Curmudgeon kept going to Progressive and got a bunch of quotes, all of them different, but when he insisted on getting what he wanted, as opposed to what Progressive wanted so it could sell it for less, he was quoted $748 a year for auto insurance.

Which was less than half of the $2000 Liberty Mutual wanted from him.

A pretty sweet deal.

But there was a problem with Progressive: its online rate generator couldn’t handle condo insurance at all. Based on the questions it asked it was clear that any quote The Curmudgeon received would be wrong, and too high, because when you own a condo, your condo association takes care of the building exterior coverage you need when you have a house. Progressive’s numbers clearly weren’t reflecting this.

So The Curmudgeon wasn’t finished.

Next he turned to GEICO, his very first insurer when he left his parents’ plan about a hundred years ago. GEICO quoted him $784 a year for auto and $718 for homeowners. Another time it quoted him $920 for auto.

Now let’s take a brief detour into those all-inclusive web sites that supposedly send you quotes from a bunch of different insurers.

They don’t.

Simply put, The Curmudgeon filled in all of the boxes and hit “enter” with the expectation that he would hear from a dozen or so insurers all eager to take his money. Much to his surprise, he heard from just one: Allstate. The quote was a strange one, though: more than $1000 a month for auto, which was high, but only $362 a year for homeowners, which was good. Since he had a good quote from Progressive on auto and now had a good quote from Allstate on homeowners, he thought he might pair the two and contacted an Allstate broker by email and then by phone. The person who answered his call said she’d put him directly through to a broker, but after 15 minutes on hold The Curmudgeon hung up the phone and sent an email saying they wouldn’t be doing business. He then received an apologetic email from Allstate offering to set up a time to talk.

In the evening, The Curmudgeon insisted.

Day and time were set, by mutual agreement.

And now, months later, he STILL hasn’t heart from that agent. (Which sort of reminds The Curmudgeon of the computer he ordered from the old CompUSA chain around 1992. He came to the store, placed the order, and now, 24 years later, still hasn’t heard from them and no longer expects that call because the company went out of business – deservedly so, in light of this experience – in 2007.)

But since the homeowners price was a good one, he decided to find another Allstate agent, who offered the same price for homeowners but did a little better on auto.

So The Curmudgeon ran the Allstate quote by his brother, the insurance industry professional, whose email reply was clear and to the point: “I’m not a fan of Allstate. They do not have a good reputation in the industry. If another company comes close in premium, including costing more, I would go with them.”

So The Curmudgeon scratched Allstate off his list and, at his brother’s suggestion, tried Hartford, another past insurer of The Curmudgeon. Not a good move: $650 for homeowners and nearly $1500 for auto. Very, very high.

The Curmudgeon was now pretty sure he’d go with GEICO for both, but he had one more call to make: he wanted to share what he had learned with Liberty Mutual. His agent has long since retired but he called the old agent’s phone number and was directed to a broker: not one in that office, which is less than ten minutes from The Curmudgeon’s home, but a national call center. He spent some time with a broker there and received two quotes: a homeowners quote that was the same as the one he had received from Liberty Mutual by mail and a new quote for auto insurance of $876 a year: less than half of the $2000 quote he had received by mail.

Huh?

Why the enormous difference?

(Surely you knew there was going to be a point to this tale beyond simply telling a story. Well, it’s finally arrived.)

The Liberty Mutual representative explained that Liberty Mutual only re-prices existing auto insurance policies when customers specifically ask for that auto insurance to be re-priced. Otherwise, it just tacks on an increase and sends you a bill.

Say what?

That’s right: you’re a customer, you’ve been paying premiums for years, but unless you specifically call and ask to have your policy re-priced, the only way it can go is up.

And since The Curmudgeon asked? Cut by more than half.

Was he supposed to be happy? Was he supposed to be grateful?

He was neither. What he was, in fact, was one seriously pissed-off Curmudgeon, realizing that in addition to the immediate savings he would realize, he also has probably spent thousands of unnecessary dollars in the past decade because of Liberty Mutual’s arguably unethical practices.

Someone who is far wiser than The Curmudgeon, upon hearing this story, told him that this is known as “the loyalty penalty,” in which someone you patronize takes your business for granted and takes advantage of you.

So there’s a lesson for The Curmudgeon – and for you, too, if you wish to take it: don’t trust you insurer. Get fresh quotes every year or two.

As for The Curmudgeon, he has one more piece of business with Liberty Mutual: he’s writing to the New Jersey state insurance department to ask whether what Liberty Mutual does is legal.

He already knows it’s unethical.

Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

And oh, yes: F#$%k Flo.

Bravo TV’s Introductions From the Trash Heap

Let us say, for the sake of discussion, that you met six women and they were all given seven seconds to introduce themselves to you: not by name but by telling you about their perspective on life.

And considering the vast realm of things they could possibly say, this is what they actually said:

Woman #1:

“The word on the street is that I’m the word on the street.”

Woman #2:

“In Potomac, it’s not about who you know, it’s about who you are – and I’m everything.”

Woman #3:

“I’m a fallen Valley girl. It’s my legacy and my calling.”

Woman #4:

I don’t have a cookie-cutter life and I’m not apologizing for it.

Woman #5:

“If I don’t know who you are then you are not worth knowing.”

Woman #6:

“Throw this spring chicken into the cougar’s den and let the games begin.”

housewivesWell, these aren’t characters from the pen of a creative writer. No, they’re the latest pieces of human waste around which the Bravo network has built its latest offensive offering: Real Housewives of Potomac.

As obnoxious as the “Real Housewives” premise and the women who star in such offerings are, you have to hand it to the folks at Bravo: they have that real trailer park touch, because these folks are straight off the trash heap of life.

Pennies, Etch a Sketch, and a Nephew

The November after the birth of The Prodigal Nephew, The Curmudgeon made his first visit to Toys R Us. It was pretty overwhelming: that place has an awful lot of stuff. He also saw that it was a bit of scam. After all, what do you buy for a nine-month-old boy? The Curmudgeon suspected that whatever he bought, the baby would shake the box, maybe try to put it in his mouth, and then turn his attention to something else or go back to doing the three things nine-month-olds do: eat, sleep, and, well, you know.

While wandering the aisles in search of inspiration, two things caught The Curmudgeon’s eye, and he returned in January, after the holiday crush was over, to get them.

etch a sketch

If you owned one, there were two things you surely tried: to write your name and to etch the entire screen.

But those two things were for him, not for his nephew.

The first thing he bought for himself was an Etch A Sketch. (And if you think it doesn’t bother The Curmudgeon – a LOT – that there are no hyphens in that toy’s name you haven’t been paying attention.) He’d had one as a kid and always enjoyed it, and he pictured himself playing with one now as an adult, while watching television. It was a good purchase: while he no longer has it, The Curmudgeon got plenty of play-time pleasure from his Etch a Sketch.

The second thing he bought for himself was a huge plastic crayon that’s a piggy bank. See its picture here.

Crayola on steroids

Crayola on steroids

Like many people, The Curmudgeon had containers of coins, mostly but not entirely pennies, all over his house. While on vacation just a few years earlier, though, he had noticed a pile of loose change growing in the corner of a dresser in his summer shore rental and started picking up some of those coins every time he went out and expected to spend money in the hope that he would use some of those coins when he did.

Thus a new mission was born: stop accumulating coins and start spending them. The nickels, dimes, and quarters would take care of themselves but the pennies were a different story. With this new mission came a new strategy: any time he was going out to run errands and expected to spend money, The Curmudgeon would pop about a dozen pennies into his pocket. Then, when he made his purchases, he would use those pennies to complete those purchases in a manner that left him with fewer pennies, not more.

So yes, that means that when you’ve been waiting in a slow line somewhere for ten minutes and the guy in front of you makes a purchase for $9.48, holds out a ten-dollar bill, and tells the clerk “Hold on, I think I have three pennies” while diving into his pocket and annoying the hell out of everyone in line behind him – well, if that’s happened to you in the greater Philadelphia area, the guy who annoyed the hell out of you that day may very well have been The Curmudgeon.

If you ever went to Atlantic City when you were a kid, chances are you ended up with one of these to hold your pennies.

If you ever went to Atlantic City when you were a kid, chances are you ended up with one of these for your pennies.

(And a bonus benefit: watching clerks try to figure out the change after he’s belatedly handed them those three pennies. Try it: it’s a hoot.)

So when The Curmudgeon brought his new crayon piggy bank home, he dumped all of his coins into it, nearly filling it, and estimated that he could empty the bank completely if he followed his new strategy and if he lived to be about 104 years old.

mug

Artsy-looking coffee mug, owned by a guy who doesn’t even drink coffee.

The Curmudgeon keeps his sub-batches of loose coins in an artsy-looking coffee mug on his dresser. As he depletes each mug-full he refills it from the crayon piggy bank. Recently he stopped to admire his work and evaluate his progress toward his anticipated completion date. Through diligent work, he believes he has hastened that anticipated completion date and that if he continues at his current rate the coins will be gone by the time he’s 96, not 104.

Progress. Eight years worth, baby.

As he made this last estimate he reflected on both his progress and how long he’s been engaging in this silly Mission: Improbable.

But that was no challenge to figure out because he easily recalled when he purchased the crayon piggy bank.

Which is a long and roundabout way of saying “Happy 21st birthday, Zach.”

 

 

“The people of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have spoken. And I really respect their decision”

These are Jeb Bush’s words, spoken Saturday night, when he lost the South Carolina primary. If he really believes he should end his run for the White House based on primary results in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, then Jeb Bush is too stupid to be president of the United States.

bushAnd if the rest of us are content to let a few people in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina get to decide who we will or won’t have a chance to consider in our own state’s primaries, and to let the political parties control who does and does not get a voice in something so important,then we deserve the selection of crap both parties have foisted on us this election year and in election years past.

Taking Care of Business (chapter 50)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.) 

 The following morning Mayor Norbert boarded a train for the state capital – his sixth visit to Harrisburg in as many weeks. There, he planned a single meeting with the city’s entire legislative delegation – all thirty-five members, with the likely exception of Michael Ianucci, who had not been seen in public in recent weeks. He intended to encourage, to rally, and to cajole, but if necessary, he was prepared to plead as well.

Much to the mayor’s surprise, everyone had gathered by the time he arrived. He took this as a positive sign: they knew what train he was taking, knew what time the train would pull into the station, and knew how long it would take him to walk from the train station to the Capitol. Clearly they had made a planned, concerted effort to greet him. He hoped this was a harbinger of good things to come.

The members greeted him cordially, although not warmly. He knew them all and was in the process of developing relationships with them all, but these were still relatively new relationships and he knew he had no business expecting more than cordiality. After shaking hands with everyone and pouring himself a cup of coffee, Norbert took an empty seat in the middle of the room, sitting among the legislators. He thanked them for meeting with him and said he looked forward to working with them.

Two people – a man and a woman – rose from their seats and walked to the front of the room. The man, state senator Frank Minor, spoke first.

“We understand why you’re here, Mr. Mayor. We appreciate that you’ve come to us here, and that you’ve been coming here almost every week now for the past two months.

“We also understand the extent of the challenge the city faces with the governor’s proposed budget. If we can’t get the money back, the city’s finances would be in bad shape and the school district would barely be able to function. Rest assured that we all understand, we all get it.”

Minor looked over to the other member of the delegation who was standing, state representative Cynthia Ruiz.

“We also understand that in the past, the people in this group could sit back and let Michael Ianucci fix problems like this for us,” Ruiz began. “No matter how big the challenge, he was always able to overcome it.

“But just because the rest of us haven’t done this before doesn’t mean we can’t do it now. We think we can. Between us, we have enough members on the two appropriations committees to swing some votes there. We also have an excellent relationship with the Pittsburgh delegation, and you may not be aware of this, but the governor’s pretty much doing to Pittsburgh the same thing he’s trying to do to Philadelphia. The minority leader of the Senate is from suburban Pittsburgh and the majority leader of the House is from Pittsburgh, and so are key members of the appropriations committees. Put it all together and, if we work hard and work smart and work cooperatively with them and one another, we think we can salvage this situation and come out of it with our money.”

Senator Minor resumed speaking, and for the next ten minutes he talked strategy: who they needed to work with, what they would need to offer in return for support, the private citizens, corporate leaders, and party operatives who could help, and more.

The more Minor spoke, the more encouraged Norbert felt. For the first time since he opened his morning newspaper and read the news about Michael Ianucci and the prostitution arrest, he felt he had cause for optimism.

Ruiz again took the floor.

“So you see, Mr. Mayor, there’s a way out of this dilemma, and this delegation is prepared to lead the way. Jack?”

In the back of the room, a large, heavy, white-haired man slowly rose from his chair: it was Jack Nelson, who at ninety-one was the dean of the city’s Harrisburg delegation. Old, hard of hearing, and troubled by heart problems and emphysema, he had spent most of the past decade as a virtual ghost legislator, rarely visiting Harrisburg; his colleagues cast his votes for him by jamming a bent paper clip into the voting switch on his seldom-used desk in the House chamber. He had been driven to the capital specifically for this meeting.

“Son, we can do all of this for you and the city. Or not. Personally, none of us care.”

Norbert just looked at him for a moment before speaking.

“You don’t care?” he asked.

“I certainly don’t give a damn, and I’m sure no one else in this room does, either. If we succeed, you’ll get the credit anyway.”

“And your constituents?” Norbert asked.

“Not a consideration,” Nelson replied.

“In exchange for our assistance,” Nelson continued, “we want just one thing from you.”

The mayor’s shoulders sagged.

“We want Shaniqua Watson, Mr. Mayor,” Nelson declared. “The choice is entirely yours.”

With that, and without even waiting for a response from the mayor, the members of the delegation rose as one and filed out of the room, leaving Norbert behind to consider their ultimatum.

(next Sunday:  the final chapter)

 

Remember These?

Smithsonian-bound?

Smithsonian-bound?

Off-hand, The Curmudgeon can’t recall the last time he noticed a public phone or phone booth. He ran into this one in a medical office building, probably there for elderly patients who don’t use cell phones and need to call someone to get their ride home. The Curmudgeon had to take this photo (using his cell phone, ha ha, for those of you who still believe he is a technophobe), if for no other reason than posterity.