Good Customer Service Took a Hiatus Today

There are hundreds of sights where customers can complain about bad customer service they’ve received at different stores, Websites, or help lines.  Equally, there are just as many sites where employees who work with the public daily can vent about the stupidity of the customers they encounter during their shifts.  Usually, my experiences with customer service people have been positive, but today was an exception on more than one front.

One of the fringe benefits of my job is that the cost of my monthly bus pass is taken out, pre-tax, from my paycheck.  The next month’s bus pass usually arrives in the mail sometime between the 24th and 28th of the month.  No such bus pass arrived this month.  This morning, I called the Fringe Benefits Management Company, who oversees the commuter pass program, and the woman on the phone told me that–for whatever reason–the post office returned the card to them.  (Never mind that other mail, especially magazines and bills, have no trouble making it to us.)  The address was still valid, we’ve lived here a year and a half.  It would be 30 seconds out of their day to put the bus pass in a new envelope, and, just to be safe, mail it to my work address, right?  No, they couldn’t do that, because COTA, when the bus pass came back, credited my paycheck.  It apparently involved too much hard labor for someone at FBMC to dial my number to tell me that my pass had been returned, and to ask me did I want it mailed to an alternative address?)  A few keystrokes on their computer could have rectified that.  But no, I have to buy the bus pass myself this month.  And if the benefits administrator mailed me a bus pass anyway, COTA is out $22–their problem, not mine.  If COTA asked the benefits administrator, “Did you mail it back to us?”, all the benefits administrator would have to say is, “Why, yes.  You mean you didn’t get it?”  The FBMC people worked about as hard as the Unknown Soldier to fix this situation.
And it doesn’t end there.  Steph gave me a Visa gift card, and I decided to do something responsible with it, rather than go on a minor spending spree on Abebooks or Amazon.com.  I thought I’d pay my cell bill with it. I logged onto their Website and entered the Visa card number, expiration date, the works.  Three times I submitted, three times I got the message that there was a problem submitting this payment.  There was a sufficient balance on the card, I typed its number in correctly, I did nothing wrong.
Revol is my cell phone carrier, a small carrier out of Independence, Ohio (a Cleveland suburb), and what makes this glitch so galling is that they expect their customers to pay online or with plastic on the phone.  They go so far as to add a $3 surcharge for people who show up at their stores and pay the bills in cash, in person.  If they are going to penalize people who pay in cash, and in person, which is actually more convenient for them, their customers should expect nothing less than an online payment system that works the first time every time.
Certainly their phones don’t work first time, every time.  In Clintonville, the neighborhood I call home, I may or may not get a signal in my own house, depending on what room I am in, or even what corner of what room.  They wring their hands about other services not leasing them tower space, yet they don’t turn over one spade of dirt to build new towers.  I am counting down the days until a Revol phone drops or loses a 911 call in a life-and-death situation.  The lawsuit that will result from that would rival what B.P. is going to pay to clean up the spill.
The common denominator with bad customer service seems to be when companies know that you have no alternatives.  They have a bully’s sixth sense about when you’re totally at their mercy and beholden to them.  In 1989, when I dropped out of O.U. and moved to Cincinnati, my first apartment was a small room above a small appliance store in Elmwood Place, just north of the Nu-Maid Margarine plant.  I called Cincinnati Bell and arranged for phone service.  The technician would be there at 10 o’clock Saturday morning.
Ten o’clock came and went, and no installation.  The front door was not easy to hear, since my room was in the back of the building.  I even left a note for the man to knock loudly.  I kept my radio and TV off, did not use my typewriter, and kept my room door wide open so I could hear the knock.  I called Cincinnati Bell’s customer service people from the appliance store, and received a lot of noncommittal answers about when, or whether, the technician would come.  I finally resorted to calling at 10- or 15-minute intervals, and they dispatched the person, just to give their customer service reps some relief.
And the story doesn’t even end there!  When the man finally deigned to come, he ended up having to disconnect the jack that was in the wall by my desk.  I had some thin multicolored spaghetti hanging from my wall, and he hooked up my phone.  It was then we realized that they hadn’t bothered to turn on my line.  It was too late in the day Saturday, no one could take that nanosecond to flip that one switch, I’d have to wait until Monday.
Phone companies seem to think your life revolves around their convenience.  One reason I am happy about the imminent demise of the land line is that when you buy a cell phone, even a pre-paid throwaway phone at a corner bodega, you bypass having to deal with people like this.  When Steph and I were separated, I ordered a land line in the small apartment on W. 5th Ave. I was renting.  This time I was told the man would come at 10 a.m.
I was awakened by his arrival at 8:30.  And even then, I had no phone service that day, because he had brought the wrong jack for the type of phone wiring in my building.  This meant I had to schedule another day off from work, and put my entire day on hold until they elected to come.  Their person had come 90 minutes early.  I was glad I was home asleep that day.  What if I had other plans or commitments that morning before his arrival?  The customer service representative I spoke to had an “Oh, well!” attitude about this.
My worst face-to-face customer service experiences were both when I was living in Boston.  Topping the list was an incident I described in the LiveJournal blog.  Besides working at The Crimson, I typeset The Boston Phoenix during the summer.  (The Phoenix is Boston’s equivalent of The Village Voice, and is the largest weekly newspaper in New England.)  Around the corner from The Phoenix‘ offices on Mass. Ave. was Brigham’s Restaurant, a uniquely New England ice cream chain which featured delicious milk shakes (“frappes”), and excellent hamburgers.
On one particular afternoon, my waitress was an elderly woman named Mable.  She took my order, writing it down in pencil on her pad.  She returned with it very quickly, and I was quite pleased, because my lunch time was quite limited at The Phoenix.  Also, I was very hungry, having eaten nothing but M&Ms and Coke that morning.  She set down my cheeseburger, fries, and coleslaw.  I was like Pavlov’s dog when I saw it, and I bent down and reached for the plate.
At this moment, Mable came back to my booth and snatched the plate away from me.  Over her shoulder, she said that someone else ahead of me had ordered the identical thing, so it was theirs.  How did she know I hadn’t shed my whiskers into it, or coughed and/or sneezed in it?  The replacement burger was longer in coming, and I had to wolf it down in time to get back to work on time.  It was also the only time I ever walked out of a restaurant without paying for my meal.
The other shoddy customer service experience I had was at Wordsworth Two, a now-defunct bookstore on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, on the way to Central Square from Harvard Square.  I bought many books there, usually on my way home from work at The Crimson.  One night, there was a lone cashier, a guy about my age at the time (20), behind the cash register at a semicircular counter.  Bearing my purchase, I walked up to the counter, where he was punching away at a calculator.  He bustled around at finding receipts and notes, and he would have seen me if he had turned his body just a few degrees in my direction, all the while talking to two or three people, who did not have merchandise, on the other side of the U-shaped counter.  I finally got so exasperated that I leaned across the counter and waved the $20 bill I was holding in his face, less than a millimeter from his eyes.  He jumped back, startled, and then very frostily rang up my order.  (I had assumed that waving the bill in his face was the universally accepted symbol for “I’m trying to pay you.”)
My experiences today are all the more appalling when you consider that I had a very pleasant conversation with the customer service people at American Electric Power earlier this week.  I was going to be a day or two late with my bill, and they renegotiated a new payment plan, one that was even more generous than the one we had previously.  The woman on the line was chatty, sympathetic, and went the extra distance to make sure I had a plan I could afford.  And AEP is not one of those companies I can just say, “Screw you!  I’m going to your competitor!” to if I’m not happy.

Comfest 2010

Rumors abounded about how Comfest ’10–the annual “Party With a Purpose” in Goodale Park–would be different this year, or whether it would even happen at all.  During last year’s festival, an 18-year-old man stabbed himself to death (see Columbus Dispatch story posted here in the blog in a separate entry), and that cast a pall over the entire celebration.  It was the first fatality at the festival since the first one (in 1972), and the Internet was humming with rumors that it would be cancelled, that Goodale Park would be swarming with police officers, and that the police officers would more rigidly enforce laws than before.  (They’ve usually turned a blind eye, or issued friendly tsk-tsk-tsks, when they’ve encountered pot-smoking, in the past, but rumors abounded that police officers assigned to Goodale Park for the weekend were going to start kicking ass and taking names.)

I went Friday night, from about dusk until after midnight, and was in the park Saturday from early afternoon until the celebration officially ended at 10 p.m.  (That was one difference that was blatant: A set ending time for bands, vending, etc.  Even when these events ended in the past, there was usually something going on into the wee hours, including movies, where they’d show B movies–drive-in quality and below–on a bed sheet stretched between tree limbs.)

My friend Scott and I sampled the terrain Friday night.  Goodale Park was wall to wall with people when we arrived about 8:30, and police were visible everywhere.  They weren’t antagonistic toward the people at the festival, quite the opposite.  They’d say “hello,” were helpful with questions, and went with the flow of (pedestrian) traffic, trying to blend in as much as their uniforms would allow.

Dr. Lincoln Goodale gets his Comfest on,
and is more “stoned” than anyone there!

The beer lines were many people deep, and the smell of Cannabis sativa (intimately familiar to anyone who went to Ohio U.) was almost anywhere you turned.  The people were friendly, with “Happy Comfest!” greetings passing back and forth among strangers passing on walkways or on the grass.  It was a warm night, so the welcome sight of topless women, many of them sporting elaborately and painstakingly painted breasts, was everywhere.  I saw more topless women this weekend than at the Pride Festival last week.

The most memorable of these women would probably do quite well jumping out of a cake at an Ancient Order of Hibernians stag party.  Independence Day is just around the corner, but she was decked out in the garb of St. Patrick’s Day:

I know I used this line on Facebook, but I was proud
of it, so I’ll use it again: “I thought it was ‘Erin Go
Bragh,’ not ‘Erin, go bra-less!'”

When it was 11 p.m., Scott and I both wondered if there was going to be an announcement to “Proceed to the nearest exit in an orderly fashion, the park is now closed!” coming from the police.  There wasn’t.  The beer booths staggered (if you’ll pardon the expression) their closing times, so people would gradually leave, and so police and Comfest security could monitor fewer areas where people were leaving drunk.  (I don’t know what time they stopped selling beer tokens.)
Scott and I were never told to leave.  Both of us were sober, and not causing any trouble, so the police and Comfest personnel never said anything.  We walked around the park, talked to people, and stopped to rest at the stone tables and benches in the park.  Several groups of teenagers sat under trees in different sections of the park, most of them under the influence.  (Scott was pushing a two-wheel grocery cart, and one of the guys in the aforementioned groups was totally convinced he was pushing a stroller.)  I think if you were sober and not causing any problem, they weren’t in a hurry to shoo you out of the park.
Yesterday was sunny and warm, and the bands, poetry readings, vendors’ tables, and drum circles were in full swing.  One family played badminton, and I marveled at their ability to find enough square feet of vacant green space to accomplish this.  Unlike Pride Weekend, I saw no one foolhardy enough to swan dive into the pond, although many people (most of them teenagers) sat at the edge dangling their feet in the water.
One woman (who would only tell me her name was Z) would be quite upset if they ever pulled the plug on Comfest.  She is pregnant with her third child, and has plans for this one to be a Comfest habitué.  She advertised her intentions on her belly:
The little voice balloon pointing to the
baby says, “Party in the belly.”  The
face of Comfest Future.

There were minor emergencies all over the park all weekend.  An emergency squad truck stood by at all times, and a fully manned first-aid station was open for the duration.  The only time I saw anyone needing medical attention was when I saw a guy huddled on the ground with his girlfriend bending over him, looking very concerned.  My first thought was that he had just fallen asleep on the ground, like many other people did wherever they could find enough shade.  As it turned out, he had been chugging beer almost nonstop and hadn’t thought to keep himself hydrated.  When you have access to beer, who wants a no-fun liquid like water, right?  Two police officers managed to bring him around.  I don’t think they had the squad take him to the OSU Medical Center.  They probably told him to lay off the beer and start drinking lots of water (and maybe Gatorade to get his electrolytes where they belong).  He’s probably paying dearly for this today.
Most of the police were on foot, occasionally you saw one on a bicycle.  The Comfest safety personnel moved around the park on golf carts, many of them (especially after dark) with the care and respect for others’ safety exhibited by kamikaze pilots.  (I saw more than one person driving golf carts while holding cups of beer.  That makes me turn a jaundiced eye at the official statements about not driving home from Comfest if you’ve overindulged.)
Comfest after dark, Saturday night.
Soon after nightfall, I felt intermittent raindrops here and there, but no steady downpour.  The sky still looked relatively clear, even though the park was briefly illuminated by a lightning flash once in awhile, none of them followed by thunder.
Saturday’s activities officially ended at 10 p.m., and the bands (especially the Bozo Stage–the main one) ended their sets no later than 9:45.  This was fortunate, because they had turned off all their microphones and equipment by the time the thunderstorm and downpour hit, almost at the stroke of 10.  People first began to move under trees, but that meant risking a lightning strike.  The little shelters and makeshift canopies became very popular very quickly.  I waited with several others under several of them, waiting until a break came in the rain and then dashing to another shelter just ahead of the next cloudburst, until it was dry enough for me to make my way to High Street and catch a bus back to Clintonville and home.
Waiting for a break in the rain and thunder.

Two religious groups were quite prominent at Comfest this year, and they struck me as wonderful people.  One was Ekklesia, a small non-denominational house of worship whose main church is a small property on Buttles Ave.  Their beliefs are distinctly Trinitarian, but their mission is to those who have been ignored, vilified, or marginalized by more mainline evangelical denominations.  I have walked past their church several times, and knew they were good people when they hung a Lenny Bruce quotation in their front window: “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”  Recently, I stumbled on a YouTube video about their outreach to my erstwhile neighborhood, Franklinton.  The video, Bringing Faith to Franklinton, is linked here.  Ekklesia also generously gave away Frisbees, cold bottles of water, Sierra Mist, and Faygo, as well as bumper stickers.  I have no bumper, but I took home one that said, When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them, which my friend Jacques sports on the bumper of his car.  (I’ve wondered if the Gideons should be allowed to hand out New Testaments on military bases.  If the soldiers starting reading them, there’d be desertions en masse.)

The other group went around the festival, two young men and a woman, wearing cardboard signs around their necks that said “FREE HUGS–HFTR.”  After taking advantage of the free hugs, I asked what HFTR meant.  It stands for Hope for the Rejected, “a community of believers within the underground subculture.”  My initial thought is to admire what they claim to be doing–sharing faith “through our friendships and exemplified by our actions,” but many destructive and faith-destroying religious cults began with generous invitations and love-bombing.  Initial Googling hasn’t brought up any complaints or adverse anecdotes.  They have not cut the horrible swath through families, relationships, and careers that the University Bible Fellowship considers a sacrament, no one is signing over all their worldly goods to HFTR, and no family has tried to “deprogram” a loved one involved in it.  But all fringe religious groups will reach out especially to anyone who feels rejected, and a person who thinks he/she is drowning will reach for any rope extended, even if it’s going around his/her neck.

Here is the card they gave me:

The Comfest theme this year was “Live every day the Comfest way.”  That would be murder on many peoples’ livers, but I understand the applaud the overall idea of such a slogan.

I Wanna Take My Friends With Me

The Blogspot hosting for this journal is going strong–I will be posting about Comfest (with pictures) later this weekend.  However, the number of friends on it remains in the single digits.

I’m asking a favor here: All of you who friended me and hung on my every word here at LiveJournal, please go to the blog at its new home: aspergerspoet.blogspot.com and friend me there, so you’ll continue to get notices about my postings as they go up.

Thanks!

Demolition as Spectator Sport (Remembering Sander Hall)

When I was at Ohio University, I was fortunate to take two classes from Jack Matthews, Distinguished Professor of English, novelist, poet, and world-renowned authority on book collecting.  Midway through spring quarter 1987, I submitted a short story which I called “The Dynamite Raffle,” describing the imminent destruction of a college campus eyesore, and the main characters’ attempts to sell raffle tickets.  (The winner would be the one to press the button.)

It would be premature to call myself a prophet, but when I left Athens and moved to Clifton, the University of Cincinnati’s student ghetto, I found that what I described–fictionally–was coming to pass.  Looming over the eastern part of the campus was a 29-story eyesore known as Sander Hall, constructed in the 1970s as a dormitory, and vacant since the early to mid-1980s.  It was chock full of asbestos, fire alarms went off at all hours (forcing residents, not all of them 100% awake and not all of them 100% sober, to scramble down all those poorly lit flights of steps to the main floor), and elevators were erratic at best.  Skyscraper dorms were the ultimate in naiveté.  University officials honestly expected 17- and 18-year-old kids, away from home for the first time, free of all parental restraints, and learning how their hormones worked, to be cooped up in these monstrosities in close quarters and actually live like civilized human beings.

So, for most of the ’80s, Sander Hall stood empty, like a big glass and cement tombstone.  Occasionally a strong wind would blow out a windowpane, but miraculously no one was ever hit by one of them.  It was almost a textbook example of how not to design a building.  Complicating the mad scramble down the stairs during a fire alarm was the fact that no one could survive in those stairwells during a real fire.  If you open a door to the stairwells during a fire, the stairwell becomes one giant chimney, and the likelihood of dying of smoke inhalation increases a thousandfold.

In 1990, the University of Cincinnati came to its senses and decided to demolish the building.  I thought this would be done piecemeal, by cordoning off a radius x number of feet from the building and then using a wrecking ball.  But that would not be the case.  They would implode the building with dynamite–the eyesore would be eliminated in one fell swoop.

June 23, 1991–19 years ago today–was the day Sander Hall was to be demolished.  A general party atmosphere prevailed around Clifton the night before, about half because of the excitement of seeing something that big being blown up, and also because this blot on U.C.’s campus would be gone.  (The last is somewhat ironic, because the University of Cincinnati’s campus in the ’80s and ’90s was far from attractive.  Except for the green lawn area facing Clifton Ave., the campus looked like an industrial park gone amok.)

I had a small party/wake to mark the occasion.  Two friends came down from Columbus, and a Cincinnati friend and I did a reconnaissance mission after the bars closed to see where the best vantage point to Sander Hall would be.  Our final decision was to stake out the plaza in front of the College Conservatory of Music.

The sun rose at 5:12 that morning, and my Cincinnati and Columbus friends were staked out at the location by 6.  We weren’t alone for long.  The area in front of CCM provided an almost unobstructed view of Sander Hall in profile, so we camped out with bags of Cheetos, big cups of fountain drinks, and other assorted nutrients.

There was a raffle to push the button to demolish the building, I learned on the news that night.  However, it was the chance to push a dummy button at the same time the demolition engineer pushed the real one.  (The reason: By Ohio law, whoever pushes the button is civilly and criminally liable for any damage that may result.)

I was beginning to get a little impatient, and you could feel the current of impatience go from one person to another like a static electric charge.  Finally, about 8:35, someone shouted, “Here it goes!”  I bolted upright from the cement urn where I had been sitting, and my friends all jumped to their feet as well.

I expected a big, long, drawn-out, spectacular BOOM! and seeing the building fall gracefully.  Nothing close to that happened in real life.  There were three somewhat loud pop! sounds, like a truck backfiring or a cherry bomb.  I looked up and Sander Hall buckled a little, actually seemed to sway, and then there was a whoosh! sound you could almost feel, and the building was just… gone.  A huge cloud of concrete dust seemed to fly up out of the ground, and it seemed to swallow Sander Hall completely.  (I was videotaping the coverage from WCPO-TV, Channel 9, at the same time.  Their reporter, Jay Shatz, was on the roof of another dorm.  When the building fell, someone shouted, “One more time!” and another voice said, “I didn’t get that.  Can we do it again?”  There were a few obligatory shots of the tape moving backwards so you could watch this giant cloud of rubble and dust suddenly fly together and become a skyscraper once again.  Television viewers are quite easily amused.)

We stood there aghast as the cloud of concrete dust began to roll southward.  The crowd began to scatter, some of them with their noses and mouths buried in their shirts, as the dust rolled to Vine St., and I could see that it hit Calhoun St. and didn’t even begin to dissipate until it reached W. McMillan (my street).  (There was an invitation-only all-night party in progress on the roof of Dollar Bill’s Saloon on Short Vine, and I wonder if the debris managed to ruin the party atmosphere there.)

When I returned to my small railroad flat above the Christian Science Reading Room on W. McMillan, I realized that I should have closed my windows before we left to watch the building come down.  There was a thin layer of yellow concrete dust in my kitchen and bathroom, and I took out a broom and a dustpan and went to work sweeping.

Once it seemed like the dust had cleared, we made our way back toward Calhoun St., a little dazed, since the adrenalin rush was waning as quickly as it had come.  There was a thin layer of yellow concrete dust over everything–we saw people writing their names with their fingers on car hoods and roofs.  We heard rumors that something had gone wrong, and that part of the Shoemaker Center (where the U.C. Bearcats played basketball) had been damaged in the blast, but this was not the case.  (TANGENT ALERT: The Shoemaker Center was named for Myrl Shoemaker, a Democrat who died in office as Lieutenant Governor of Ohio in 1985, during the administration of Dick Celeste.  The place is now called the Fifth Third Arena, because the powers that be at Fifth Third Bank can write checks with more 0s on the end of them more easily than can a deceased politician.)

The layer of concrete dust reminded me of my two weeks in Maine in 1982, during the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly (TANGENT–G.A.’s opening celebration commences in a little over an hour in Minneapolis) and Common Ground II, the convocation to build a new national UU youth group.  Whenever a wind blew, you saw solid yellow clouds of pollen blowing out of trees and hanging in the air.  Pavements and cars were crusted with it.  The fact that I was not in constant agony–running nose, watery eyes, itchy palate–made me realize that I had indeed outgrown my allergies.

Sander Hall topped the list of subjects when I sent out tape-recorded or written letters for the following week.  (I labeled one cassette “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!”, since the LifeCall ads featuring an elderly woman lying prone on her bathroom floor were popular at the time.)  Therefore, I was quite happy when the University issued a post card immortalizing the event.  (I was such a stickler for accuracy that whenever I sent someone a post card of the U.C. campus, I’d draw a bar sinister–the red circle with the slash like you see on NO SMOKING signs–around Sander Hall.)  Here is one that I sent my dad:

It took them awhile, but the University finally posted a streaming video on its Website, and here it is.  The photographic record is, of course, more accurate than what my eyes and memory recorded, so it was a little disquieting to watch these film clips and think about how it contradicts what I remembered seeing that morning, even allowing for my lack of sleep and the generous amounts of beer I consumed the evening before.  Also, seeing the videos, especially in slow motion, made me understand the concept of imploding the building.  Several civil engineering majors I knew had explained to me that we didn’t need to worry about flying debris.  They were not blowing the building up, they were blowing it in.  We had witnessed over a thousand separate dynamite charges, and the building had come down incrementally–quickly, but not all at once.

I remember seeing a classified ad in The Cincinnati Enquirer the following day advertising that so many cubic feet of concrete rubble was available for sale.  I didn’t buy any, but I regret not going to the debris pile and taking a chunk of the building as a souvenir, much the way people did with the remains of the Berlin Wall.

Several years passed before I realized just how significant June 23, 1991 was to be in my life.  That morning, almost 700 miles away in Yonkers, N.Y., Steph’s first husband left her (on their first wedding anniversary!).  Indirectly, my life changed irrevocably that day.

Last Week, I Was–Quite Literally–A Bean-Counter

Last Monday was Flag Day, and it is not one of the Federal holidays that government workers enjoy while most of the private sector still has to show up and punch in.  I took a vacation day Monday and made one of my semi-regular journeys down to Feed My Sheep food pantry in Mineral to help out with packaging and distributing foodstuffs.

I came there with two rookies–my friend Steve Palm-Houser and his daughter Amelia.  We made the trip down to western Athens County with only one casualty along the way–Steve’s tire.  He managed to travel the rest of the way from Logan to Mineral (New Marshfield, according to the U.S. Postal Service) on a doughnut, but we arrived shortly after 1 p.m.

Bean counter is a pejorative term for an accountant (per The Urban Dictionary), but it’s been extended to all civil servants.  Last Monday, I literally became a bean counter briefly, although I was mostly a pasta counter.  We arrived too late to stock the boxes of food in the back room of Feed My Sheep (a room off the sanctuary of Faith Believers’ Ministry), so we went to work filling Ziploc bags with pasta.  Amelia jumped right into this task with no trouble at all, helping Jacques Angelino’s 96-year-old mother, while Steve and I needed a few moments to get organized and get a pattern going.  Soon enough, we were scooping up pasta, filling bags, and adding them to boxes, stopping only when we ran out of bags.

Steve (back to camera), pasta, and me, at Faith Believers’ Ministry.

Amelia and Jackie bag pasta.

Mineral, and the poverty in Athens County, is an ongoing crisis.  In many ways, I would think that a natural disaster–such as Hurricane Ike or Hurricane Katrina–would be preferable to a resident of these areas than the grueling poverty and unemployment.  When a natural disaster strikes, the experience is hellish, but they end.  You can look around and see what has been damaged or destroyed, you can see what needs to be done, and then set about either doing it or finding the resources to accomplish it.  This is an ongoing crisis, and you come away thinking that your time is well spent, even if the help provided will be necessary again next week.  Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, is fond of quoting Talmudic rabbi Tarfon’s words: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I have posted the address elsewhere in the blog (both here at Blogspot and on my erstwhile site, the LiveJournal account), but if you are moved to generosity, please send a check or money order to:
Feed My Sheep Food Pantry
c/o Faith Believers Ministry
8137 St. Rt. 356
New Marshfield, OH  45766
I am hoping to make another trip down to the pantry sometime in the summer, possibly with Susie in tow.  She has gone before, and was quite a productive worker.
Amelia made a new friend while she helped out at Mineral.
A look at Faith Believers Ministry, which houses
Feed My Sheep Food Pantry, and boasts the
only soda pop machine in Mineral ($.50 a can,
quite a bargain!)

Not Much Sleep, But Plenty of Pride

Another one of those weekends that is so crammed with activity that I almost feel like I’m going back to work to relax.  I spent much of the weekend in Goodale Park, taking in the sights and sounds of Pride Weekend.  It was almost an unofficial precursor to ComFest, which is next weekend at the same site.  (Until recently, these events coincided, but they now occur separate weekends.)

Scott and I went down Friday night, when the festivities were just starting.  We perused the food booths, the art booths, and the political ones (not just gay rights issues, but Stonewall Democrats, pro-choice groups, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Libertarian Party, etc.), and the many, many vendors.  I entered a raffle for a trip for two to Florida (unless you hear otherwise, readers, I did not win).  I did win a book, Kings in Their Castles, from TLA on Demand (“We put the HARD in hardcore VOD”) when I spun a prize wheel.

Spinning the wheel to win a copy of Kings in
Their Castles.
Progressive Insurance’s booth featured a unique way of attracting people.  They handed out small cards with the Progressive logo (Flo the Progressive Girl was not there in person, I’m sorry to say), and the women at the table wrote risqué slogans on them and laid them out on the table so you could pick out the one you liked, or you could make your own.  Two of my favorites are below:
Too much glare on the Progressive badge, but hers
reads YES, THEY’RE REAL.

No double entendre, no blatantly political message:
I LIKE EVERYONE.  She’s just keeping it simple.

And, lastly, my own.  I opted for safe.

The Pride theme this year was Family, and I had been lukewarm about whether or not to participate, until I received some email from volunteers at Find-A-Grave.  They provided me with a picture of the tombstone of my aunt, Mary Anne Evans, who died in 1980, aged 49, and is buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Wheeling.  Aunt Mary Anne was a lesbian, although the word was never used in our family.  She and her life partner, Lois, lived together in the small house on Third Street in Marietta that had been ours until I was six years old.  I did a Google search on Lois and found out she died this past New Year’s Eve in an assisted living facility in Wheeling.  I looked at her obituary online from The Wheeling News-Register, and there was no mention of Aunt Mary Anne preceding her in death.  They are buried in the same cemetery, but not together.
Aunt Mary Anne and Lois were happier together than a lot of heterosexual couples I knew, especially my parents.  Lois was, I believe, the first adult I was allowed to call by first name, rather than Mr. or Mrs. Someone, and that was a big deal to me as a kindergartener.  I never thought twice about the fact that they shared a bed.
The same was true of Owen Hawley, a longtime colleague of my dad’s at Marietta College.  My dad told me when I was very young that he lived with another man, the same way someone else would live with a wife or a husband.  His partner, Ralph Schroeder, died in 1976, and Owen Hawley died in 2006.  They are, like my dad and stepmother, buried in Mound Cemetery, along with many Revolutionary War soldiers and the early political and religious leaders of Marietta.  I am not sure, but they may be the first gay couple to be buried there:
They’re hard to see, but there are ankhs engraved
at the top of their tombstones.

I slept too late to march with First UU in the Pride Parade, although I scrambled downtown by bus in time to take some pictures of the parade as it turned off High Street onto Buttles and into the park itself.  I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, talking to people and taking pictures.  Around 5, I went back north on the bus so Susie and I could have dinner at Burger King and then head to Olympic Swim and Racquet to see Alice in Wonderland once the sun went down.  (It was the one with Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp, but Susie spent most of the time in the pool rather than watching it.)
The Weather Channel icon on my main menu was flashing “Heat Alert!” all weekend, and vendors were charging outrageous prices for bottled water.  Two women were so desperate to escape the heat that they stripped down to bras and panties and dove into Goodale Park’s pond, which is always green (and not from reflecting the grass’ color).  I saw several teenagers (boys and girls) do this at ComFest one year, and I shuddered at the thought of the algae, the trash, the broken glass, and the other objects that lie beneath its surface.  (The fact that the bottom isn’t clearly visible is a red flag that you shouldn’t be in there.)  Yet, they were undeterred:
She was prudent enough to dive in there with mouth closed.
After she gets dressed, her next stop should be the booth
where they were giving out free hepatitis shots.

A Weekend Quite Short on Sleep, But Who Had Time?

Saturday morning and afternoon was one of those days when I logged quite a few miles without ever leaving the Columbus city limits.  To a bank on High Street to cash a check, then on the long journey to the West Side to pay a bill, and then to the library.  I’m almost always thankful that I don’t drive, but never more than when I have to make these junkets to run different errands on far-away ends of town.  Susie had dinner with one of her godmothers on Saturday evening, and Steph pretty much stayed home for the entire weekend.  I took advantage of the long bus ride to begin Steve Thayer’s novel Moon Over Lake Elmo, which I’m sure will be good, since I enjoyed The Weatherman and Silent Snow so much.

Saturday night lasted well into Sunday morning, and my friend Scott and I were witnesses to a quasi-historic occasion in Columbus.  We were on hand at the first Columbus World Naked Bike Ride, an event that has happened annually in England, Canada, and more enlightened U.S. cities.  Neither of us rode, nor did we get totally naked, but we were there to support the protest against excess dependence on oil and to celebrate the human body in all its glory.

As opposed to the OSU/AXE Undie Run last month, this event did not receive any publicity at all.  Police were notified that there would be scantily clad (and possibly unclad) people on bicycles and other human-propelled vehicles headed from the Short North to downtown and around the Arena District and back north. However, I did not see a squad car, there were no TV mobile units, and E. 5th Ave. (where the Third-Hand Bicycle Cooperative‘s headquarters are) looked so deserted at first that Scott and I wondered if the event had been cancelled.

But it hadn’t been, even though a heavy rain was falling.  At first, the Co-Op’s garage was almost deserted, except for a few guys sharing tools, bicycle advice, and a bottomless supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon (Scott and I were one of the few teetotalers that night).  It looked just like a typical bike shop.

All that changed starting around 10:30-10:45 p.m.  Bike-riders (and riders of other vehicles) began arriving, and soon paintbrushes and tubes of acrylic paint were in demand as much as wrenches and calipers.  Although Scott and I were by far the oldest people there–the oldest of this crowd was probably 15 years younger than we were–we felt welcomed.  Some women just removed their shirts, and wore sports bras or halter tops, although several women rode topless, and men were mostly in tight briefs, jockstraps, or thongs.  Most of the topless women took advantage of the free body-painting, and the designs ranged in complexity from museum-quality work (executed in a very short time!) to simple line drawings.  I overheard one topless woman in the parking lot asking her friend how she should be painted, and I jokingly suggested she should have the BP logo painted on her.  When she emerged from the crowded, chaotic garage, I saw that she indeed have a shield painted above her breasts, with the big “BP” painted in the middle.

Several men did strip completely, which I am not sure is wise from a safety standpoint if you’re a bike-rider.  The only woman who shed all her clothes was a pixie-like woman of 20 who arrived wearing nothing but a porous white shawl and a black thong, both of which she took off for the ride, and which remained off for the rest of the night.  (She shouted, “I love you!” and blew kisses to each pedestrian she met en route to and from, I heard.)

I was astonished to see that the ride actually took off at 11:59 p.m., as planned.  Even at 11:50 p.m., there were many people crowded into the garage awaiting body paints, tools for last-minute adjustments to their bikes, etc., that I wondered how they were going to leave on time.  I wasn’t sure when they would return, because I knew this was a ride, and not a race.  Because of the falling rain and wet pavement, no one was encouraging speed.

Scott and I lingered in the Short North, after making a vain car trip southward to see if we could “catch ’em on the flip-flop”, as the CB radio enthusiasts used to say.  By the time we got back to E. 5th and Hamlet, the wet and exuberant naked riders had begun to arrive.  That was when they adjourned to a warehouse in the alley behind the Co-Op, a nondescript white building that looked like a small airplane hangar.  The warehouse now served as a clubhouse and impromptu dance hall.

We stayed until nearly 4 a.m., and spoke with many people, watched people in varying degrees of intoxication attempt the climbing wall, and made frequent trips outside for air.  The building was not well ventilated, and most of the people there smoked, so we went out into the alley, both to breathe and to be able to talk without having to scream over music.

The whole event was memorable and idyllic for me, but what stands out in my mind were one or two specific incidents.  Someone found hula hoops in a storage area, and one woman managed to maintain, without losing any momentum, her hoop around her waist for quite some time.  If I had the laptop with me, or a cell phone that accessed the Internet, I would have checked with The Guinness Book of World Records to see if there was a standing record for topless hula-hooping.

I had brought a camera along, but never took it out of Scott’s glove compartment, since I didn’t know any of the people at the gathering.  Around 3:30-3:45 a.m., there was a Kodak moment in the alley that I will regret never capturing.

Many of the people there tried out bikes they had never seen or ridden before.  One person had ridden a tall bike, and a woman at the party wanted to try it out by riding it back and forth in the alley.  (The bike reminded me of those penny-farthing bikes that were popular in the 1880s, minus the huge front wheel.)  After some difficulty, she was able to climb in the bike’s saddle (see picture, courtesy of Wikipedia) and make some initially shaky progress down the alley.

A car came down the alley, and there was a man in his late 50s or early 60s behind the wheel.  I wish I had captured the look on his face–the wide eyes and the perfect O of his mouth–when he looked out in front of him and there’s this gigantic bike in the beam of his headlights, and riding it is this rather well endowed woman wearing nothing but a smile and a pair of bike shorts.  He would have needed CPR if he had glanced inside the entrance of the warehouse to see the party going on there.

My friend Steve Palm-Houser writes a bicycling column for The Examiner.com.  He was unable to come to the ride, since he and his wife were in Chicago, but he pumped me for information on Monday, and here is his article:  Columbus Cyclists Join World Naked Bike Ride.  You can imagine how much arm-twisting it took on his part to get me to go and be his eyes and ears to this event!

I found out about the Naked Bike Ride when I saw
this card at the Weber Market one night.

Only in Clintonville can you have a schedule like this: Sat 10 p.m.-Sun. 4:30 a.m.–World Naked Bike Ride and party.  Sun 12:30 p.m.–Church Annual Meeting.  Sun 5:00 p.m.–Picnic at Whetstone Park with Susie’s youth group.

Listened to a Doctor and His Lunch Today

And no, despite the lateness of the hour, my fingers (the two I use for typing) did not stray when I typed the title.  I did a stack of ex parte orders and Statements of Facts today, but this morning I finished transcribing a doctor’s report that I left behind at the end of work yesterday.

This is not one of the doctors whose reports I dread.  This doctor (we’ll call him Dr. Kildare, after the hero of the movie and radio serials of the ’30s and ’40s–it’s better than typing “this doctor” over and over) dictated a 10-minute report, and I did not shudder when I clicked on it to type.

After nearly six years, I know what to anticipate when I see a physician’s name in the “To be Transcribed” queue.  A certain doctor always mumbles; another one mumbles and dictates too quickly; yet another one’s dictation varies on whether he records before or after Happy Hour; this one is very conscientious and will spell out the names of unusual drug names and ailments for you, etc.

Those of us on the receiving end–the ones doing the transcribing–have to hold up our end as well.  Most importantly, I have to listen to phrases and words in context, since many drug names and medical phrases sound similar, and remember lots of spelling rules that don’t make any sense at first.  (She was atraumatic, as opposed to It was a traumatic event.  The first C in cervical is pronounced like “Sam,” while the second one sounds like “cat.”  So far, the only real mistake I’ve made was when I was still quite green at the job: I typed fecal sac instead of thecal sac.)

I heard horror stories from other medical transcriptionists–including my mother–about doctors who cough in your ear, mumble, swear, run words together and then stop and gasp before continuing, but today was a unique experience.

About four minutes into his 10-minute dictation, I heard something while he was dictating.  (He was reading verbatim from an X ray report, and I had gone into our scanned documents, pulled up the document in a smaller Window onscreen, and was typing the words as I saw them and as he read them.)  At first, I thought the sound was paper rustling.  I’ve heard it many times, as the doctor reads one paper and searches for another one at the same time.

It was rustling, but not of paper.  “She had an MRI of the cervical spine on–” was interrupted by a loud crunch sound, and then the sound continued.  For the next few minutes, he averaged several crunches for every word that he dictated.  The guy was eating while he dictated, and apparently he was eating potato or corn chips!  I was glad to hear what sounded like his crumpling up the empty bag and throwing it away, and then he (I suppose, listening to the sounds) wiped his mouth with a napkin and gave the dictation his full attention.

Before his snack, I heard someone knock on his door, and I heard about 45 seconds of a conversation with a nurse.  It was about Mrs. So-and-So’s chart and did it need to be copied?

I wish I could find those kids’ telephone etiquette posters that used to hang in the hallways of my various elementary schools.  They featured animals showing how you shouldn’t be when you’re talking on the phone. I would send this doctor this poster, especially one of a goat with a phone receiver in his mouth, their way of saying that eating and talking at the same time is a no-no.

When Susie was younger, I used to dread having to call the houses of her friends.  Either the friend, or a younger sibling, answered.  After asking, “May I speak to your mom (or dad)?” I would then brace myself, holding the receiver a good five or six inches from my ear.  Almost immediately, the very high-decibel, “MOMMY!!  PHONE!!!” blasted out of the earpiece, because the kid inevitably would not cover the mouthpiece or turn his/her head away from it.

The long list of inconsiderate things cell phone users do is a subject that has been done to death in conversation, newspaper columns, letters to the editor, and blogs.  I haven’t witnessed much cell phone rudeness first-hand, although I hear complaints about how someone will be on their phone on a crowded bus, jabbering loudly about their genital warts or their spouses’ infidelities.

Wrong numbers are frequent with cell phones, since no one retains the same number for very long.  It changes when they buy a new phone, switch the service, etc.  Callers don’t seem to understand that the original owner of the phone will not come back if you just keep calling.  I have received calls from collection agencies asking for a particular woman almost from the day I started using the phone I have now, and no matter how many times I tell the collection agencies, they keep calling.  (Although I do admit it’s a relief to have a collection agency call and have it not be for me.)

I’m going to try and grab some sleep, since the day comes all too soon.  These next few days won’t be nearly as sleepless as last week (subject of an upcoming post), but I’m still a bit estranged from my bed.

One of Those Times When the Anticipation Far Exceeded the Actual Event

I should probably save that title for when I write about my 30th high school reunion next year (that’s assuming I go–which is a very big “if”), but it seemed to be a very appropriate heading for the padded book envelope which was in the mail when I came home from work this afternoon.

A trade paperback of A Place in the Sun: The Truth Behind Jay’s Journal, by Scott Barrett, was sitting on the table just inside the front door.  I had been searching– rather aggressively–for this book since before Steph and I were married, and it had been on my “want list” with AbeBooks for at least seven years.  I almost needed CPR when I opened my email late last week and saw that a copy had been located.  (I had just about forgotten about it.)  So, the next day, I mailed a money order to Frontier Book in American Fork, Utah.  And the product came today, wrapped neatly in the Sports section of the Daily Herald, the newspaper that covers Utah County, Utah.

From whence cometh the disappointment?  I haven’t begun to read it yet, so I probably should rein in all my initial deflation, but I am very displeased by the finished product.  In the first two pages alone typographical errors were jumping out at me like flares (one of the epigraphs was–I kid you not–“…turn… turn… turn…” by “The Birds”).  This was without even consciously looking for them!  I tried to remind myself that maybe my work as a typesetter and proofreader had made me hard-wired to look for mistakes like that on a subconscious level, but I don’t think so.

The front cover of A Place in the Sun, © 1996
by Where We Sat Publishing of Lehi, Utah

And the back cover.

And should I let that cloud the purpose of the book?  The author, Scott Barrett is the brother of the late Alden Barrett, who committed suicide in Pleasant Grove, Utah in 1971.  Alden’s family wanted to make some sense out of such a tragedy, and maybe in so doing save another family from such grief and horror by educating them about how to ward off suicide before it happened.

They turned to Beatrice Sparks, a teacher and therapist who had helped to bring out Go Ask Alice that year.  If you were in middle school from 1971 or 1972 onwards, you have encountered Go Ask Alice, which was by “Anonymous”.  “A Real Diary,” said the cover, and the book was supposed to be the actual journal of an unnamed 15-year-old never-named drug user.  (The titular Alice is based on the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and its line “Go ask Alice when she’s 10 feet tall.”)  My dad brought home a copy, which I read in one evening, and there was a very long waiting list for it at the Washington County Public Library, mostly requested  by girls.  (TANGENT ALERT: I just about fell through the floor when I went to AbeBook’s Website and saw that a first-edition Prentice-Hall hardcover with dust jacket is on sale for $1250!!)  The heroine is your typical adolescent girl–worried about popularity and her weight, feeling she can’t communicate with her family, etc., at battle with the queen bees at her new school, yadda, yadda, yadda.  She unknowingly drinks a Coca-Cola spiked with LSD at a party, and it’s downhill from there–more and more drugs, falling in love with drug peddlers, selling drugs on grade school playgrounds, running away, prostitution, etc.  She tries to kick the drug habit, is doped against her will, has a mental breakdown, and is confined to a psychiatric facility for a short period of time.  After her release, all seems bright for her future, except for the epilogue on the back page that she died of an overdose three weeks after discontinuing her diary, one of “thousands of drug deaths that year.”

So what did Beatrice Sparks do for Alden Barrett?  She eventually published his diary as Jay’s Journal.  Alden’s own story was tragic enough, but she rewrote it entirely as the writings of a slightly rebellious and acting-out teen who becomes immersed in the occult and Satanism, letting his body be taken over by a demon named Raul.  Alden seems to have been a faithful diarist, filling most of a spiral notebook (reproduced in A Place in the Sun), and Sparks used maybe 25 entries and completely rewrote them.  The closest thing to Satanism is Alden’s moving away from his family’s Mormon faith–he was nothing close to the sociopath who is the protagonist of Jay’s Journal.  (I did get a kick out of “Jay” making a New Year’s resolution to use the occult powers he’s learned to get better grades and do better in sports–kind of Aleister Crowley meets Lifespring.)  Sparks came away with a lot of money, and continues to crank out “real diary” books about teens, usually girls, who stray from the path of truth, justice, and the Mormon American way and come to an ugly end because of it (running away, AIDS, teen pregnancy, eating disorders).

I hope that the book, as sloppily produced and carelessly typeset as it is, puts to rest any belief that Jay’s Journal is authentic.  I first learned of the book at Ohio University, which has a reputation of being the most haunted campus in North America.  I knew some people there (I was dating one of them) who fancied themselves as witches, and insisted on secrecy about it.  (Their secrecy reminded me of Dennis the Menace’s clubhouses, where “SECRET ENTRANCE” was painted in giant letters above a big red arrow pointing to the door.)  Many of them handed Jay’s Journal and The Necronomicon around “clandestinely,” like 12-year-old boys with stolen Penthouses.  (I made one futile attempt to explain to them that The Necronomicon by “Simon” was based on–plagiarized from–the Cthulhu Mythos created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.)

TANGENT ALERT: I have never been involved in “the occult” (a too-broad-based term, since occult simply means “unknown”) as a practitioner of any particular system of beliefs, rituals, and rites, although I have attended drum circles and Wiccan rites that welcomed the turning of the seasons.  As a Universalist, a tenet of my belief is that of universal salvation, eloquently described by the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed here as a faith in a God Who “created both Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein, loves both Bush and bin Laden, and drags Hitler into Heaven as well,” so this means I have no belief in Satan or everlasting torment.

THE TANGENT CONTINUES: Shortly after I moved into my spacious bachelor apartment above Duttenhofer’s Map Store on W. McMillan St. in Cincinnati, I was cleaning out closets and hidey-holes, looking through what the previous tenant(s) had abandoned.  In the closet of the bedroom I would not occupy, I found a ouija board and planchette.  It was the commercially produced Parker Brothers edition, and it was hidden away behind some clothes and smut magazines the previous tenant didn’t take.  I left the ouija board there, but knowing it was in the apartment gave me the creeps, an uneasiness that I could not identify or put into words.  After about four days, I threw it in the trash can on the street.

TANGENT – 30 –

Likewise, Go Ask Alice is fiction, and all but true believers have accepted this.  Sparks still insists that it is based on an actual person, but she says she destroyed part of the original diary she used as a basis, and the undestroyed part is in her publisher’s safe.  Not one of the millions who have read this book has had an Aha! moment and said, “Wait!  I knew her!”  The Library of Congress seems to have the most respect for the truth, as their classification for Go Ask Alice is under PZ, which is “Fiction and juvenile belles lettres.”

“But look how many kids it’s kept off drugs!” I hear someone cry.  “Even if the story is fake…”  That reminds me of a Richard Pryor line, when his wife catches him in bed with another woman: “Who are you going to believe?  Me, or your lyin’ eyes?”  This is the same argument put forth by the fans of Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian whose first career was as a self-styled expert on Satanism and the occult.  His expertise rested on his bona fides as an ex-Satanic high priest who found Jesus while he was serving in the Navy after his coven tried to kill him with an overdose of heroin. This story was accepted without question, beginning with the publication of his “autobiography” The Satan Seller.  Finally, two writers for Cornerstone, a now-defunct Christian magazine published in Chicago, did enough checking and research to convincingly demonstrate that Warnke’s story was complete fiction from top to bottom.  Warnke’s “data” led to many police departments, journalists, and scholars spending most of the 1980s chasing their tails searching for nonexistent networks of Satanic covens that were abducting and murdering children, breeding babies for ritual cannibalism, and seducing teenagers with promises of unlimited drugs and sex.  The teenaged killers who made headlines as “Satanic killers,” such as Sean Sellers and Ricky Kasso, were too antisocial and sure of their own supremacy to cooperate with anyone in authority, whether it was a principal or a high priest.  (Warnke was even brushed off by Anton LaVey, the creator of the Church of Satan.  LaVey, I believe, is the love child of Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand.)

One question that has plagued me ever since I learned that A Place in the Sun existed is the choice of the title.  It is the title of one of my favorite movies, a 1951 Paramount Pictures feature that starred Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.  I had first seen it on Nite Owl Theater during my 13th summer, when I was “home alone” while Dad spent all his time (literally) at his wife’s apartment.  I had tuned in just in time to see Raymond Burr (as a D.A.) sitting in a rowboat in the middle of the courtroom, and stayed with it until the tragic conclusion.  It would be a year or more before I saw the movie in its entirety.

The movie is based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, one of those long books I know I should read, but which I will put off for a future long bus trip I take (it’s a save-for-long-bus-trip-or-prison-sentence book).  It figured humorously in my life when I went to my first Unitarian Universalist youth conference, at Camp Tippecanoe in Harrison County.  A young woman, the same age as I was then (16), were clicking well after sitting together at lunch, and I began to see… possibilities.  But she turned white as a sheet when I suggested that we get in one of the canoes and row out on Clendening Lake.  I was a little hurt, but relieved, since it took a lot of nerve for me to overcome my fear of water enough to make this suggestion.  At dinner, I saw a paperback copy of An American Tragedy protruding from the pocket of her knapsack when she came up to the lodge.

So I knew that it wasn’t me who had rattled her, and I felt better.  It’s one of those “we’ll look back on this and laugh” moments.