My Friend Forever…the Rug Merchant

29 March 2015

He was the worst thief in the bazaar and would bump up the price of a three-legged dog, claiming all the best dogs have three legs.

He was a rug merchant, after all, who inspired the advice as far back as the Silk Road never to buy at retail from a man who smiles like a cherub. The full price, writ large on a price tag means nothing; the sale price, though written in red below it means nothing, either. The former was $10,000 for a rug I liked, but feigned no interest in; the sale price beneath was $4,000; the former was fiction, the latter was the best he thought he could get and that’s when he brewed more espresso, so talk for the rug, I didn’t want, could began. I told him up front I wasn’t buying, but wouldn’t mind some espresso.

Yes, yes, he said, I know you’re not interested. To needle him a bit, I pointed out a leashed four-legged dog walked by a lady in a tiara. She merely feigns royalty, he said. Were she truly royal, she’d have a three-legged dog. Au contraire, I said, a three-legged dog is a faulty dog, not its fault, but faulty. No, no he said, sipping thick coffee, it’s bred for kings…like this rug spread out before you that graced a sultan’s summer palace. And though you are not royalty, I want you to have it. Listen to me, he said, I am your friend. You come into my house…I treat you like a brother. It’s true. I want to be your friend forever. I swear it on my father’s ring…a precious ruby, set in gold. Here, I’d like you to have it.

I couldn’t…and with talk of three-legged dogs and ruby rings, we’re straying from talk of the rug. Oh, yes, he said, the Royal Kerman that you don’t want. By the way, I said, I noticed three tiny holes, where winged intruders must have indulged, as it graced the Sultan’s floor. His rejoinder, without breaking stride, I told you, it is made of the finest wool. Now because you are my friend, he said, I will sacrifice clothes for my daughter and take $100 off the price. It breaks my heart, but I want to see you happy. I, too, I said, would like to see your face radiant as a pasha’s blush, so in honor of all three-legged dogs, I’ll give you $2000.

Flatterer, he said, but on her deathbed, I promised my sainted mother, that never would I sell this rug for less than $3750. It was her favorite. Was that $2500, I just heard, I asked him. No, no, that was the sound of tears, falling into my cup…$3600 and I’ll put in my own money to bring it up to $3750. The bargaining for this rug that I claimed no interest in went on through four cups of espresso and sugar cubes. And the talk was of knots per square inch, the wildflowers the sheep grazed on, the royal vats that dyed the wool, the house where it was weaved and the aged weaver…this, his last rug…the money from which would have to last him until called to Paradise.

I have a check, I said, already made out for $3000, my last check until new ones come in next month. Although, as you know, I have no interest in this rug, I do want to show my gratitude for the coffee and your pledge of friendship. Well, he said, I will lose money on it, but better to make a friend happy. Here, he said, take my father’s ring, too. Ah, the guilt I have, showing him how a real pro gets bargaining done. I’ll have the ring appraised next week.

I did go into an oriental rug emporium last week, thus this blog. The folksy profession of friendship, the offer of espresso hasn’t changed, since I bought an oriental 40 years ago. But the rugs now are made in India and China.

Life in the Twilight Zone

7 February 2015

I’m beginning to believe there is a supernatural Conspiracy of Coincidence…a connectedness of random events…one random event influencing another random event. Seemingly disparate things happening in a reasoned way. Let me explain.

I bought an airline ticket to Florida to spend a few days with cousins and escape…well, you know…shiver and glove weather. I also engaged a spot at an off-airport parking lot, since I drive to the airport. Nothing odd, so far.

At that same time, the furnace in the house shut off. But I’m savvy enough to check the glass water gauge, finding the level was low and had turned off the automatic on-off switch. So I turned the water valve, water crept up the gauge and the furnace turned on. Strange, I thought, I’ve never had to do that before. Over the next month I had to fill it several times and began realizing I couldn’t go away, leaving a furnace that would run out of water and, thus, not heat the house.. Visions of burst water pipes danced in my head.

I called my oil supplier and asked for a solution and got a flip, “don’t go away”. I finally got hold of a plumber who looked at the now purring, but ancient, beast and proposed a new automatic, digital water feed. But time was close to my departure date and, indeed, the work was done the day before I was going to leave. Of course, I’d be uncomfortable leaving without vetting the new part to make sure it wouldn’t be rejected by the host furnace, especially with temperatures hovering between teens and twenties. So I postponed my trip for three weeks.

Next day, the day I would have left, I ran to the super market for coffee. It was 8:30 in the morning and 12 degrees. Back to the car with coffee, I clicked the remote key, but the lock wouldn’t open. I put the key in the lock to open it manually. It turned (not frozen), but wouldn’t open. Long story short, I walked a mile back home, got a second car key and called a friend to drive me back to the car. That remote key didn’t work either. But somehow, manually, (without popping the button back up) it opened. Quick as a spark I drove to Honda. They replaced the batteries in both keys and, like magic, both came to life. The furnace, knock wood, and the car keys now function.

Which brings me to the coincidence. If the furnace had not delayed my trip, I would have driven to the airport ready to travel, but with a battery-weak key. At some point the car would have locked…inadvertently at the entrance filling out paperwork or in its parking space or somewhere in between. And a then-dead key would been powerless to open it, start it and move it…a misery, either before my trip or coming back from it. The possibilities for inconvenience in the middle of Queens in winter at rush hour (the time of my return flight) seemed endless.

Don’t tell me the furnace and the car key weren’t somehow connected. There is some kind of “woo-woo” at work here.

To Shovel, Then Melt and Shovel Again

24 January 2015

Just as civility from all reports seems to be rusting away from the body politic, comes this story from…well, from the block where I live. A well-forecast snow storm over night dumped half a foot of snow…just as predicted…a heavy, wet, ready-to-turn-to-slush snow. I took a leisurely time over a latte, knowing the snow would be there for shoveling, when I licked the last of the latte from a spoon. Donning snow gear, I threw open the door to discover my next door neighbor, heaving the last shovelfuls of snow from my driveway.

He had just finished, when a kid with a snow-blower, who had just cleared my neighbor’s sidewalk, went by. The kid, who I had never seen before, started clearing mine as well, an endless seventy-five-foot stretch with a Ben-Gay chaser. I’m standing on my stoop, slack-jawed in disbelief, but the kid never looked up, likely too embarrassed to accept thanks. A man with a snow shovel, who I also had never seen before, came after, clearing bits of snow the snow-blower had missed. At that point I made my way down to the man to shake his hand and ask him what quadrant of heaven he had come from. His son, manning the snow-blower, by that time, had disappeared around the corner on an evident quest to do all the sidewalks of all the houses on our block. It turns out that this family of snow clearers lives around the corner…funny how insular we get in our houses…but we had never met.

My next door neighbors for the past two or three years, when snow has been heavy, both footage and weight, have been shoveling, first a little bit over the line from their house to mine and now ever more, afraid that at my age…though, I feel young…I should be cutting back on the shoveling. Last year I opened the door, after an overnight snow, to find their daughter polishing off my stoop and the sidewalk up to the house. Just in case we think we can make it in this life without the help of others, we should think again.,

As a speaker at one daughter’s sixth grade graduation said, We live in the shade of trees other people planted. How true is that.

A Night on the Town…New York, That Is

11 January 2015

A night in New York is not that simple. Going to a concert or a play or a restaurant is always magnified by chance encounters along the way. A ticket to a play isn’t just two hours in a theater, but a bazaar of unexpected encounters, getting there and back. And sometimes the little things add up to more than the main event.

A friend and I went to a play last weekend. I parked uptown, where parking is possible and subways run. The setting for this opening act was a parking space next to Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, with the spire of Riverside Cathedral a couple of blocks away. The elevated 125th Street subway platform overlooks an inspired new Columbia research, business and arts campus, Manhattanville, sprouting on once-scruffy acreage from Broadway to the Hudson on 125th Street. It was a raw New York late afternoon and we rode the subway to West 42nd Street and emerged from underground into a scrum of humanity.

Fading light at 125th Street became night by the time we got to 42nd and the earnestness of those New Yorkers with reservations and those just trying to find something to do, injected some drama and impatience into the scene. Saw horses funneled people into some venues: Madame Toussaud, Ripley’s, McDonalds as we walked west to pick up our tickets on Theater Row and then crossed the street to the West Bank Café for dinner. No tables were available, of course…you can’t be too casual in New York. But a few minutes wait at the bar and one man paid and left and another patron moved her stool for us, so we could fit in a second stool. And what is New York if not a cradle for casual conversations with strangers. She schooled us on the best offerings at the bar…she, a regular at West Bank, a house manager for Broadway shows and an Emmy voter. There had been a protest march nearby about the events in Ferguson, so grist for talk. On our way out after dinner, Lewis Black came in. I find it interesting, seeing someone up close, you’ve been entertained by. They’re ‘just folks’ for those who work around them, but I admire their courage to perform…so I’ll give a second look.

The play we saw was Wiesenthal about the Nazi hunter, a one-man show set in his office on the day he finally retired. It was written and performed by Tom Dugan, a 40-ish New Jersey Irishman, who played the 90-year-old Polish Jew, comfortably throwing around  bits of Yiddish. In a conversation with the audience afterwards, he introduced his two sons (it was Christmas vacation). One was thirteen and just had his bar mitzvah. Go figure. The evening was still young enough, so we traced steps back to the West Bank for dessert and then re-entered a still-vibrant scrum on 42nd Street, getting back to the subway. But the New York night wasn’t yet finished.

A laughing, boisterous group of kids got on our car with their ice skates, buzzing like fresh batteries. They bounced up and down, traded seats, laughed, spoke English and Spanish easily. Seated next to them was a seemingly sedate, older couple in tweeds and camel’s hair…he with a tie and a vest and a watch pocket with chain, she in an opera dress. No surprise if the posh couple had leaned away. But, no, the fobbed gentleman asked one of the girls about skating and a lively conversation started. There was probably a 60-year and 60-street difference between their worlds, one brash and one staid, but they laughed together. It’s New York.

25 December 2014

Short Take – Chinese Astrology

I wished my eye doctor a Happy Chanukah last week, as he dialed me into his five-letter-a-line wall chart. I went through the usual progression of squinting more at each successively smaller line, until eventual failure…the smallest lines are too small to see. After that, blinking through dilating drops, I made small talk…he’s a young guy, who’s been my eye doctor for a long time. He knows my story, as I know his. He had a daughter with his Chinese wife two years ago. He wanted another, but she was reticent and I asked if he had any success, trying to convince her to bring forth a sibling.

Matter of fact, he said, she’s about to ‘pop’ (his word not mine…’give birth’ would be my preference). How did you persuade her, I asked. Well, back in March of this year, The Year of the Horse, I finally badgered her until she said OK. The reason she relented?…this is the Year of the Horse and our daughter was born in the Year of the Dragon (2012)…Horse and Dragon is a beneficial combination. (I looked up the attributes of each astrological sign…The Horse is a ground animal, the Dragon’s of the air. Both are leaders with no direct conflict. In matters of love and money, the Horse will bring luck to the Dragon’s life. Dragon’s life will be happy and healthy. On the other hand, Dragon is energetic and fearless and will protect Horse.) The good doctor was, of course, elated at whatever omen would bring her around.

But said his wife, throwing a potential wrench in the gears, I have to get pregnant in two weeks for a baby to be born in this Year of the Horse. Otherwise we have to wait until the next Year of the Horse returns. You better get busy. Desire did generate the required life forces and before the April deadline, she was with child.

18 November2014

There was a long article in the New York Times Magazine recently about The Amazing Randi, an illusionist, who some claim is a mind reader, a psychic, a paranormalist, a supernaturalist, a diviner, etc. Randi, to his credit, claims only the illusionist part. All the other claims that hint of paranormal activity or extrasensory powers he, rubbing hands together with a skeptic’s certainty, set about debunking. But for those of us without knowing the illusionist’s craft, we can’t believe what we see, if not for the aid of divine intervention. So it was comforting, being told that all things are explainable, all mysteries solvable and that psychic surgery is, thank God, a fraud.

There was a time, many years ago, that my wife and I went with friends to the Magic Townhouse in New York in a blizzard that kept most of the night’s patrons away. It was dinner and close-up magic and only one of eight large round tables was filled. But the show did go on…one magician doing card tricks, another, sleight of hand. etc. The last one to perform came out with a manila envelope which he casually taped to an armoire next to our table. He was a ‘mentalist’, telling us he studied the ‘dark arts’ in Paris for a number of years, learning how to harness his paranormal energy. Evidently spiritual forces are easier to conjure with croissants close by.

He began asking questions. One person he asked for a favorite color, another he asked for a three-digit number, another the year he was born, etc. And finally he asked someone for the last four digits of her Social Security number. And all the while, all of us agnostics had our eyes riveted to the manila envelope…where he wanted our eyes to be. Only after the questions did he refer to the envelope taped to the armoire. “You saw me tape an envelope to the armoire”, he said, “when I came out. Would you sir”, pointing to my friend, “get it for me. Now, please open it and take out the cards inside.” There were two five-by-seven cards stapled to one another completely around the edges. The outsides of the cards were blank. “Now, please separate the two cards,’” which took time…there were staples enough to have protected nuclear launch codes on a submarine.

Finally separated he asked that the contents be read. The cards had been brought to a CPA in Brooklyn a week before, verified with a notary’s signature and the date. “Now please tell us if there is a color listed…and, if so, what it is.” There was a color and, of course, it was the color offered. And so on, down the line; the three-digit number, the date-of-birth…even the partial Social Security number. The jaws of all us unwashed (but recently-fed) greenhorns fell open. Who could explain such a thing without ESP or something extrasensory?

Well, Randi can and, reassuringly, related that in 1949 he had done the same ‘trick’, predicting the outcome of the World Series a week before it was played, which was then read after the fact, just as the results of our little séance were read that snowy night in New York…evidently with no ESP and nothing paranormal needed.

A Day at the Zoo…Ice Cream Dots and Gorillas

15 October 2014

Tagged along with grandchildren on a trip to the zoo…not like your father’s zoo, with iron bars, small cages, housing beasts of boredom…now natural settings…savannah, jungle, rocky crags, tree tops, river bottoms. First up, the giraffes, for us a gentle transition to the “wild” world. Never realized the resemblance of a giraffe to a camel, head-wise. Both have smallish heads with looks that betray little in common with intelligence. Next, bears, one turned his back on the onlookers, draped his bum at the edge of a moat, separating the bears from us…and pooped. A camel with an up-scoop neck like a sink drain, stretching horizontally, flat head, silly grin and half-lidded eyes with riders in a sedan chair on his back looped slowly around a corral…and pooped. And next to the camel ride is a plaza with tables and benches and concession stands, where we visitors can enjoy burgers, fries and ice cream dots, while camels chew on whatever distracts them from the endless slow-walk around the oval. A peacock roaming, pecking, covetously eyed a pretzel held by a child in a stroller…a rival for food smaller than he. The peacock backed off.

A silverback in a fashioned jungle habitat…with a misting machine to give the proper atmospherics…sat on a fallen tree trunk, back to us…we, imprisoned behind the looking glass…as he contemplated the affairs of his realm, scratching a bit, as gorillas do…small ears, some onlookers knocking on the glass to get his attention to turn around and accept the waves of us 10-minute anthropologists. He has seen our kind before and no doubt is plotting his escape to freedom in the lush flora of the Botanical Gardens across Pelham Parkway. Another monkey sits alone on a rocky ledge, wearing a look of great guilt and seemingly ostracized, the non-verbal ways species have to maintain social comity.

There is a monorail ride, Wild Asia, through expanses penned off for various creatures of the Asian plains which turns out to be 100 feet from the Bronx River Parkway and the in-your-face reality of urban density. Elephants, exercising the 40,000 muscles in their trunks…pachyderms in the “wild”…slow-chew 200 pounds of grasses a day. A lounging tiger, alone on his acre, lazy from eating 40 pounds of meat at a sitting (the equivalent of 160 hamburgers) we are told by the cheery, microphoned Mistress of the Monorail. There was a rhino on his open preserve out of his wallow, perhaps sniffing the air for poachers, but likely disoriented by the smell of nearby exhaust. The rhino weighs in at 3500 pounds and once they get legs churning can run 30 mph. Oddly, they could easily plow through the chicken wire fences that separate the species, but don’t.

This is obviously better than the old zoos, when elephants stuck their trunks beyond the heavy wrought-iron bars to vacuum up handfuls of peanuts offered by visitors. These are happier 10,000 pound beasts, mud-gray and an odd juxtaposition (along with the other animals), being in the Bronx next to the subway, Fordham University, Arthur Avenue (we humans have to eat, too) and swirling humanity.

Then, of course, there are the reptiles and thoughts of the cobra that escaped a few years ago and remained on the loose until its heralded recapture. Who are these zoo keepers, going out to wrangle an escaped cobra? My instincts differ slightly from theirs.

Treading Lightly…No Such Thing

3 October 2014

Ah, the tricks of the trade, or loosely translated…how can we shave time off what we do or how can we add questionable services to build the bill. It is the latter to look out for, on a trip to the car tire emporium, where the employees take on the mien of surgeons, breaking bad news about the dire status of the patient and recounting how much work is required to return your ‘baby’ to deep-treaded health.

Well Mr. Scher, (I’ve been there before, so my phone number brings up my name and tire history on their computer), how can we help you today? I need a couple of front tires. Ok, let me verify the size (which is on-screen) but…wanting to make a show of his professionalism…he went out to verify. Ok, then, for that size, we’ve got a 70,000-mile tire for just $99 each. I, too, have been through this drill, and letting a cloud of agony crease my face, I told him I was hoping for a good price on their best 30,000-mile tire. He tittered discreetly and, retreating slightly said, we have a 60,000-mile tire in your size for $89 each. I was grimacing still, like there was a nearby open sewer, so he did reveal that they had a 50,000-mile model at $79 each…the bottom of the line. Wow, he seemed to imply, how could you do that to your ‘baby’.

So, I asked, how much two of the 50,000-mile beauties would be with all of the fees, taxes, etc. The computer coughed up a scant $211.00. And we’ll still do an alignment check…free. With a nagging sense that there was a 30,000-mile tire he wasn’t telling me about, I agreed. I wasn’t going to dicker like he was a rug merchant in a bazaar halfway across the world. The car was finally pulled into the cavernous Great Hall where the tire changing occurs…cars in various stages of organ replacement, wheels off, brakes exposed, some airborne on lifts, others hooked up to computer screens, blinking vital signs.

Now, minutes into the process, having taken the tires off, is usually the time, when the tire man tells me that the tie rods are worn, the struts are iffy, the sway bars, the brakes…well, why should I depress you more?. (We just happened to be in the neighborhood, he’d explain, so that’s why we looked in on all the other stuff down there.) But he knew I wouldn’t be pleased by the recitation, so he kept quiet. There was one penultimate promotional gasp…the alignment test, a computer printout, showing how the front tires were pulling to the left and the rear tires to the right and tire wear-out would speed up. Let me understand, I said, you’re putting 50,000-mile tires on…more than 16 trips across the country. And you’re telling me I might only get 14 trips. Well I’ll just have to live with that.

Their last try at a brass ring was tire insurance at $8 a tire for road hazard damage. I was getting well-practiced at saying ‘no’. When the car was finished, I expected to hear strains of Verdi’s Requiem, as they slow-walked me to the car, serious as undertakers, telling me so much had yet to be done…try to stay safe, sir. They couldn’t believe I let common sense slip through my hands. Meanwhile on the way back home, I ran my own alignment test…hands off the wheel. It ran 100 yards as straight as a squirrel to an acorn, not wavering an inch. I’m sure I’ll get those 16 trips across country.

The Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow…Is Damn Heavy

25 August 2114

There are some things we can be moved to…tears, action, a new state, a better frame of mind.

But there are other things that we cannot move or be moved to at all. And one of those, as anyone with a hot tub knows, is the hot tub cover…the little vinyl and Styrofoam bauble that keeps the heat in and the pine needles out. New, it’s as light and feathery as whipped cream, folded over by an index finger, and light enough to be cast aside by the infant who once opened a Castro Convertible sofa with ease. But given time to absorb water and heat, then harden and then absorb more water and heat…a constant calcifying process, removing the resulting cover might be an event the knuckle-draggers in the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ contest could pop a forehead vein, trying to do. Who knew that wind-light Styrofoam could, over time, become as heavy as Olympic barbells?

I tried pushing up on the top’s handle like a bench press…it moved not a millimeter. With my back to the top, I, straight-armed, grasped the handle and using my legs, tried prying it up. It wouldn’t be moved.

An idea occurred that this misadventure might make a humorous blog, so I went online to get some heavy-hot-tub-cover anecdotes. For some reason, nobody wanted to tell heavy hot tub cover stories on themselves. ( Forgive me, Father, I’ve got a heavy hot tub cover.) So while there were no anecdotes, I happened on the web site of a manufacturer of hot tub covers that were priced a lot cheaper than the half-a-thou my hot tub dealer wanted. And so, unintended, I got sucked in deeper and deeper into the site…what are the dimensions of your top, what color vinyl, how thick the Styrofoam. Not idle questions, since, quick as IBM’s Watson, it shot back a price. Such clever fellows, how could I deny them a sale. (I assumed there were ‘fellows’ somewhere in the company.)

Two weeks later, a truck dropped off a cardboard box as big as a king-sized mattress. And the driver said ruefully, as he sped away…’good luck to ya.’ I couldn’t move the damn top before, now somehow I had to. Writing a blog at a desk is one thing, working in the hot sun, sweat pouring off me like a rock breaker on a Mississippi chain gang is another. But, hey, I let it happen, I ordered the cover, I’d have to deal with it.

I assembled an elegant array of tools…a boxcutter, a rip saw, a chisel, a hammer…I didn’t need a cattle prod, but it was that kind of delicate process. This was going to be long, tedious and messy…I went war with this top trying to expose, once more, the inside of the hot tub to the sun and air. Two days later, after stripping away an acre of vinyl, I cut the last of 18 squares of Styrofoam, each weighing about 20 pounds. I said it was heavy. But it got removed. The tub got cleaned. I performed the required chemistry. And the new top floated into place. Having done the work, I’ll be moved to use it.

By the way, my new caveat…Be careful what you start…you might have to finish it.

Stick Me Once, You Can’t Stick Me Twice

27 July 2014

I am in the process of bringing 3M Corp and Staples to their knees. They have pushed me an inch passed the limit I had set for myself. The petty, craw-sticking  annoyance they’ve caused me is like the first microscopic fissure in a Dutch dike…the one that goes undetected until it has spidered out through the massive concrete width that holds back the sea. And by the time they look up from their Four Seasons quinoa salad, salmon and dry Chardonnay lunches, water is pooling around Dutch feet…pardon the metaphor, all you friendly Dutch…but a well-worn allusion is sometimes better than breaking new descriptive ground.

The annoyance, that grinds me down, my billion-dollar corporate friends, is the price of tape. Tape, last time I looked, was not waterfront property. Prices rise because nature is not making any more real estate with water views. But tape…you can turn the machine on in the morning and at the end of the day, you’ve got tape galore and keep the price of tape steady. But 3M must turn off the machine, before it’s rolled tape galore, making just enough tape to keep prices high. No tape glut for them, Well, it seems there might have been a wink-wink of collusion between the two. For the both of them, 3M and Staples, have set a high price for this basic commodity. 3M in its friendly, penny-wise plaid box, has an avuncular, diverting clasp on your shoulder, while its subaltern picks your pocket.

I’m sure the conversation between the two corps was innocent enough to avoid raised NSA eyebrows…It seems all our competition has melted away, 3M might have said innocently. Just you and us. And we don’t mind, if your price for tape is 10% less than ours. You compete on price, we’ll compete on brand image. OK? Here’s our new price list with a few price increases. And what used to be six bucks for a five-roll pack is now twelve bucks.

But here’s how I make ‘em pay…being the first spreading spider vein in their corporate feet. I have found a way to scrimp on my tape usage by about 90%. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, but like moonshiners during Prohibition, they forced me to do it. And even if they reduce prices now, I’m sticking to my scrimping. Now I’ll have tape for a year, instead of a month. Of course, they’ll probably figure a way to make tape lose its stick after a month, but that’s a conspiracy for another day.