Monday, August 29, 2011

Let's Turn It All Over To The Mafia

A couple of weeks ago, we ran a poll on the website.  The poll asked "Which are the biggest villains in the U.S.?"  The choices included "Banks," "Congress," "Health Care Industry," "Mafia," and "Oil Industry."
You want to hear the funny part?  "Mafia" was the only answer to receive zero votes.
Not surprisingly, "Congress" was the winner by a landslide.
In other words, people like the Mafia more than the four other "legitimate" entities.  Of course, that's fair, since the Mob is a lot more honest and steals a lot less than any of the other four.
I've come to the conclusion that what America really needs is a new Eliot Ness and his band of Untouchables, an incorruptible collection of crime fighters prepared to take on the biggest criminals of our time, namely the large collection of Senators, Congressmen, bankers and CEO's who are ruining the country.
Instead of Kevin Costner toting a Tommy gun, the new hero would more likely be the nebbishy accountant played by Charles Martin Smith, armed with a Toshiba laptop computer.
But even that might not work.
One of the problems would be the media.
Back in the most corrupt, dangerous days of gangland Chicago, the newspapers were courageous enough to print stories about the heinous crimes committed by the Windy City's mobsters.  Capone and Frank Nitty couldn't intimidate the Chicago Tribune into hiding the truth about their activities.  While the paper was often used to wrap fishes, the Trib wasn't afraid of "sleeping with the fishes."
Today, Capone and Nitty wouldn't need to "make the newspapers an offer they couldn't refuse."  They could simply take out an olive oil ad or two.
In the 21st century, if a newspaper even hinted about an upcoming expose' on the greed and corruption which permeates the oil and healthcare industries, you'd see Viagra and Shell ads disappear so fast from their pages it would make your head spin.  And da bosses at da media conglomerates wouldn't like dat.  Today's newspapers and TV news stations capitulate with nary a peep about the price gouging, Medicare fraud, and the wholesale purchase of politicians that take place every single day in America.  The Untouchables would become The Invisibles, because no advertisement-dependent news source would dare to report on them (and let's be honest, ALL major news sources today are ad-dependent).
Chicagoans in the 1930's didn't raise much of a squawk about the gangland corruption and blatant crime, believing it was an undeniable inevitability, something you didn't like but had to live with because "what are ya gunna do?"
Sound familiar?
We all know Congress is a collection of on-the-take crooks who don't give a damn about the American people, for sale to the highest bidder; and that banks, oil companies, and pharmaceutical companies always have plenty of cash available to pay whatever a politician demands.  Oh, it's all nice and legal with PACs and campaign contributions and "legitimate" junkets, but there's no denying the Payola.  We all know it, and accept it as "it is what it is" (which is the new age variation on "what are ya gunna do").
Best of all, like the Mob paying off cops with money earned from gambling, liquor, and prostitution in the 1930's, today's banks, oil companies, and pharmaceuticals are using the money they get from us, the citizens, to pay off politicos and game the system.  They're safe in the understanding that if they need more cash to make sure a Congressman stays bought, that increase is just one new penis pill/pretend oil shortage/rigged stock market transaction away.  In other words, we always get to pay for the privilege of having these mega moneymakers screw us harder.  And as soon as we try to get rid of one of Washington, D.C.'s ripoff artists, another one takes his place with his hand out and his toothy smile at the ready, like a boardwalk game of Whack A Mole.
Or maybe the answer is the Mafia itself.  Instead of letting the government pay other members of the government to do "investigations" and then pretend to prosecute the one or two "bad guys" (who never seem to be the really bad guys), let's hire the Mafia.
For starters, sometimes it takes a crook to catch a crook.  Second, it gives whatever yakking head happens to occupy the White House at the time "plausible deniability" (as opposed to the current approach of "undeniable stupidity").
When the mob figures out which one of those oil executives is responsible for charging Americans $3.75 a gallon when the actual cost is around 89 cents a gallon, the guy wakes up with Trigger's head in his bed.  If some button guys stumble upon a snitch who rats out the fact that thousands of people are dying each year because the medicine which could save their lives is being sold for $80 a pill, when it actually costs the pharmaceutical company 23 cents apiece to research and produce, a couple of heavies invite that CEO out for a nice ride on a boat.
As for the Congressmen and Senators, that's probably the easiest fix of all.  Nobody understands bribery and extortion like La Cosa Nostra.  In fact, that organization probably still owns a few politicians just out of nostalgia.  If we ask the mob to put a few hundred legislators on the payroll with the instruction that from now on they vote only to help Americans and the country, "or else," it's a pretty good bet that the bent-nose bunch would ensure that those purchased politicians would stay bought. 
Of course, the Mafia would have to get paid for these things, but I'm confident it would be cheaper than the current set up.  And maybe we could trade them these favors for a few extra guns the government has laying around now that we no longer have to supply the rebels in Libya, and we've stopped sending guns to the drug cartels in Mexico.
Also, we'd turn over the entire American banking system to the Mafia's shylocks.  For starters, the mob's vig is way lower than the interest rate on your average MasterCard.  The shys have also had a lot of success over the decades in lending without collateral, something that would be helpful here in this era of underwater mortgages and depressed property values.  And be honest, the mob is also much better at collections.
We'd also turn over the administration of Wall Street to the mob.  Most thinking people understand that the stock market is really nothing but a high stakes poker game, complete with card cheats from places like Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs.  If there's one thing the mob has perfected, it's gambling.  Doubt it?  Then just look at how corporations have wrecked Las Vegas and Atlantic City over the last decade.  Believe me, those two gambling meccas were much better and more successful when it was exclusively in the mob's hands.
Yes, this all sounds pretty outlandish.  But so does the notion that Americans today think the Mafia is more trustworthy than Congress, banks or industry. 
We've had enough of our current crop of crooks.  Let's see if some old school criminals can clean up the messes created by the Harvard and Wharton school criminals.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

City Hires Unlicensed Contractor

Mesquite's courthouse.

I've been trying to avoid local politics here in the Workman Chronicles, instead redirecting the focus of this weekly humor column to broader, more national appeal.
But I just couldn't resist a little tweak of the nose to my hometown government.
As some of you know, local governments across the country are cracking down on unlicensed contractors.
Back during the building boom of 2005-2008, most municipalities looked the other way because they were simply too busy trying to remember exactly where the next high-rise or major mall was being built in their town, much less bothering to check I.D. cards on the guys swinging the hammers.
Now all those projects have evaporated, along with the billions of dollars in building permit fees, which means city building inspectors have a lot more time on their hands.  In fact, one rumor claims that the guys responsible for knowing how to build sturdy structures have become "Angry Birds" experts, proficient at knocking down video game buildings with feathered kamikaze chickens.
On the other side of the equation is the homeowner, who is trying desperately to keep Wells Fargo and Bank Of America at bay by squeezing pennies wherever possible.  One way is to hire unlicensed contractors at a fraction of the cost of licensed, insured hammer swingers to make sure their spit-and-tissue dwelling remains standing long enough for Wells and BOA to remember where they stashed the foreclosure papers.  (I find it a satisfying irony that the shorthand name for the second bank is the same as a certain kind of snake, namely a "constrictor" known for squeezing its victims to death).
So municipalities have picked up some spare change by dropping their own "hammer," specifically in the form of fines and punishment whenever they discover a contractor licensed to do framing (putting up walls) illegally doing drywall (putting up walls) without a drywall license.  State, county, and city governments are swooping down on unlicensed contractors and shaking their accusatory fingers at the homeowners trying to save a few bucks by hiring them.
At Tuesday's Mesquite City Council meeting, the council had to vote in favor of rescinding a previous bid they had approved on one of their own renovation projects.
The reason?
It turns out that the city had approved a contractor from two states away who did not have a Nevada license.
I want you to hear this again:
The city had hired an unlicensed contractor to work on a city-owned building.
Oh, and the reason?
The unlicensed contractor was cheaper.
To be fair, acting City Manager Kurt Sawyer claimed that the city thought the contractor had the proper licenses. 
You know, "the city," the people responsible for issuing and checking licenses.
What makes a funny faux pas even funnier: Sawyer's regular full time gig?  Head of the building inspector department.
The icing on the cake is the fact that the building being worked on by the unlicensed contractor is the same building where a third kind of hammer falls, namely the city's courthouse, where other unlicensed contractors are regularly ruled "guilty" by a judge's gavel.
Once more, with flair: the city hired an unlicensed contractor to work on the courthouse where other unlicensed contractors are adjudicated.
There's a sideshow that makes all of this even more comical.
The renovations included several different contractors doing painting, carpeting, counters, and other work, but the actual bid approved by the city council two weeks ago was listed on the agenda as being submitted by Santa Fe Ceramics, a licensed tile contractor. 
Who owns Santa Fe Ceramics?  Marco Ruelas, a former Mesquite City Councilman.
One more time: the Mesquite City Councilmen approved an unlicensed contractor on a bid allegedly submitted by a former Mesquite City Councilman.
In his defense, Ruelas pointed out that the city made the mistake.  He didn't submit the whole bid, only the bid for the carpet work, and that the unlicensed contractor wasn't Santa Fe's subcontractor.  After all, Ruelas explained, the contractor couldn't work under Santa Fe Ceramics because while the former city councilman's company is licensed to do tile work, it isn't licensed as a general contractor. 
In other words, the city would have been hiring an unlicensed general contractor to supervise an unlicensed subcontractor to renovate the courthouse where unlicensed contractors get their fingers slapped.
My advice to the city?
Next time you want to renovate a city-owned building, make it simple and cut out the middle man.  Just have the judge sentence the next batch of unlicensed contractors to "community service" at whatever building the city needs fixed up next. 
And if that building happens to be the city jail?  Well, that's just Mesquite irony, hard at work.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

21st Century Pioneers

[NOTE: The column below was originally written in 2001, detailing the Workman family's move from Florida to Utah.  The column appeared in The Spectrum, the daily newspaper in St. George, Utah, in 2002, where Morris got his first experience as a monthly columnist.]

            Traveling from Florida to Utah gave me new respect for the Pioneers who settled this land.
            After selling our house last May, my wife and I filled our Conestoga wagon (a Budget rental van) with everything we couldn’t unload at our last yard sale.  Then we loaded my car onto a trailer behind the truck.  Finally, we packed my wife’s car with suitcases, 2 daughters, a dog, a rabbit, a guinea pig, and a cockatiel.
            For those of you shaking your heads and holding your noses, remember that the original wagon trains included smelly livestock.  Fortunately, my wife has bad sinuses, so the aroma wasn’t much of a burden.
            Our first catastrophe came when the kids snapped the antenna off of their battery-operated TV/VCR during a game of “Gimme That! It’s Mine!”.  This may not seem equivalent to a broken wagon axle, but then the pioneers never suffered 2 kids going through cartoon withdrawals.  We were rescued when we found a trading post (pronounced “Wal-Mart”) where we stocked up on videos.
            We passed through Mobile, Alabama.  My olfactorily-challenged wife called on the radio from her small SUV packed with the dog, rabbit, guinea pig, cockatiel, and 2 daughters and asked me what that smell was.  Enough said about Mobile.
            Like all pioneers, we marveled at the mighty Mississippi.  We asked an American Mart convenience store clerk about the river, but like the Paiutes in 1847, he didn’t speak English.
            We continued on through Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas, Texas… (it’s a big state).
            Eventually, we hit Utah.  The map showed we could take Route 9, drive through Zion National Park, and on into St. George.  Unfortunately, the map didn’t mention anything about a cover charge.
            We pulled up to the tollbooth at Zion.  (The Park Service calls them “Ranger Stations”.  That’s a lie.).  I rolled down the window of the van and informed the nice man that the blue SUV was with me.  He looked at the van, looked at the car on the trailer, and looked at my wife’s car.
            “Van and a car, $20 each, $10 for the trailer,” he calculated, “That’ll be $50” .
            I was stunned.  “You don’t understand.  We’re not visiting the park.  We’re just driving through on our way to St. George.”
            “Doesn’t matter,” he replied. 
            I fumed.  This was a National Park, which meant my tax dollars had already paid for it once.  Route 9 was a state road, which meant the nice people of Utah had paid for it again.  And people with tents were paying Ramada Inn prices for patches of dirt.  I realized that National Parks are not about preservation or wilderness, they are about money.
            “How about this,” I ventured.  “What if we promise not to look while we’re driving through?”
            The park ranger was not amused.  We paid.
Finally, our caravan arrived in St. George.  Like the pioneers before us, we were thankful to have survived the long journey, and to have only been scalped once.

Monday, August 15, 2011

McDonalds Music

I did something last week that I haven't done in a while, and I won't be repeating anytime soon.  I ate at a McDonald's.
Don't get me wrong.  When it comes to Mickey D's food, "Ba da bum ba da, I'm lovin' it."  Grease, salt, grease...what's not to love?
My mistake was opting to go inside and sit down for a meal instead of my normal practice of hitting the drive-thru.
Sometimes while sitting in a restaurant for a meal, you're treated to "mood music," which usually includes a Montovani-esque version of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" playing overhead through low-fidelity speakers.  (The jury is still out on whose version is more annoying).
Not at the Golden Arches.
Their "mood music" is the kind that inspires serial killers, probably because it sounds a lot like cat torture.
Here's a short excerpt of McDonald's Music's greatest hits:
"Beep - beep - beep - beep - beep - beep - beep..."  Now repeat that 283,000 times.
Another: "beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep..."
For those of you who haven't had the "pleasure" of a recent trip to fast food land, I'll fill you in - they're the warning sounds of the french fry machine, or the hamburger cooker, or the nose-picking timer.
These noises might be innocuous enough if played at a reasonable level; you know, maybe a half a decibel less than an Aerosmith concert.
Unfortunately, to ensure that the beeps can be heard by French fry technicians whose ears have been damaged by years of overexposure to iPods playing Limp Bizkit with the volume turned to 11, the sound is loud enough to land jet airplanes by.
I've heard backup warning signals beep-beep-beeped by tractor trailers hauling 8,300 gallons of gasoline that weren't this obnoxious.
If I was a Panamanian dictator surrounded by protective fences, dogs, and elite armed soldiers, and the American military started playing this sound through loudspeakers outside my villa, I'd surrender in less time than it takes to eat a Big Mac.
Ba da bum ba da, I'm hatin' it.
During my most recent (and probably final) visit to McDonald's, by the time I was down to my last McNugget, I wanted to hop over the McCounter and unplug the McFryer with a McChain Saw, since it was obvious none of the other McHobbits in the food prep area could be bothered to make it stop.
Ba da bum ba da, I'm losin' it.
Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe that monophonic "beep - beep - beep" is the 21st century version of "Hi Ho, Hi Ho" which keeps the McDwarfs happy in their work. 
But I doubt it.
How bad was it?
Bad enough that I was rooting for the untamed four-year-old escapees from the McHabitrail to drown out the sound with their incessant and last-nerve-grinding screams across the dining room because their mom-servants forgot the sprinkles on their McSundaes.
Do you know how far down the ear-grating rabbit hole you've gone when you start considering the unfiltered screams of amped-up sugar-wired children an improvement?
It wouldn't surprise me to learn that someone in the fast food industry had commissioned a scientific study which showed the "beep - beep - beep" noise at a certain frequency and volume helps improve turnover in the dining room, since few carnivores short of Labrador Retrievers can withstand that sound for more than five minutes.  The faster they can get the McFlurry eaters out of the room, the more seats become available for the next group of Pavlovian subjects.
It worked on me.
Instead of a nice, luxurious 15-minute lunch under the bright lights of an orange and yellow sky, you could have clocked my stay with an egg timer (preferably one that doesn't go "beep - beep - beep" when the three minutes is up).
The good news is that once outside, I reveled in the beautiful sounds of blaring horns, interstate traffic whizzing by, overhead jumbo jets, screeching tires, and the delighted screams from the next batch of McHabitrail dwellers pulling into the parking lot.
Ba da bum ba da, I'm leavin' it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Vegas Has Become Nothing But A Circus

Back when I was a kid, which according to my daughter was sometime in the Paleozoic Era, circuses were already on the decline.  You had the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, "The Greatest Show On Earth," which was usually held in civic centers and arenas instead of the traditional and much-beloved circus tent. 
Then you had a slew of also-rans like the one that occasionally came to my boyhood home in Maryland which featured an anemic elephant and a couple of hungover clowns.  As for the trapeze artists, I had seen greater aerial deeds of daring at the elementary school swingset, frequently introduced with "Hey mom, look at me" instead of "ladies and gentlemen, tonight under the bigtop..."
Even the sideshow was second rate.  I remember being so excited to see the "Spider-Boy."  It turned out to be someone inside of a papier mache' spider that didn't move, other than the occupant's eyes.  At nine and a student of Havre de Grace Elementary School in 1970, I was something of an expert on papier mache', so I recognized the medium immediately.  And even at nine, I had received enough schooling to know that two eyes was about six eyes short for an arachnid.
But it was the circus, and as a child I was required by law to enjoy it.
Through the years, circuses seemed to have pretty much vanished.  In my current hometown of Mesquite, a small circus will still roll through on occasion.  At least, I guess it's the circus.  The posters look very colorful and circus-esque, but they're all in Spanish, so it could just as easily be an invitation to a quinceanera.  (If you have any Hispanic friends, you know these traditional celebrations for a girl's 15th birthday have become far more elaborate than any mere circus.)
A small circus visited our town a couple of years ago.  How small?  It was held in a tent roughly the size and shape of a phone booth.  It was probably appropriate, since the highlight was an act that was about as exciting as making a long distance collect phone call with a Mercury dime.
So I figured the circus was passe', a relic relegated to a bygone age.
Then I drove through Las Vegas last week.
It turns out that the only entertainment you can find in Sin City, other than watching homeless guys on the sidewalk passing out brochures for hookers, is the circus.
Cirque du Soleil, O, Ka, Mystere, appears that if Elvis and Sinatra were alive today, the only way they would appear on a Las Vegas stage is if they could juggle.  According to comedienne Kathy Griffin, even the show at Caesars Palace should be called "Cirque du Celine."
I've never been to any of these shows personally because, well, I'm no longer nine.  But judging from the ads, somehow we've reached a place where topless showgirls are out and androgynous men in full body suits jumping on each other is in.
Personally, I'm not impressed.  If I wanted to watch a terrifying act where someone does death-defying feats high above the crowd, I'd stop in at the VooDoo Lounge atop the Rio at 2 a.m. (although with admission charges as high as $300 at the lounge, an evening at Cirque du Something-Or-Other would probably be a lot cheaper).
I'm also skeptical of the claims made at these three-ring copycats.  Let's be honest, it's Vegas.  People occasionally drink there.  After 14 or 15 Alabama Slammers, even the watered-down variety served at the slots, seeing pink elephants dancing on a miniature polka-dotted piano isn't much of a trick.  You could tell a well-oiled tourist from Philadelphia that the show he just saw had involved a purple monkey swallowing its own face while balancing on a drum swinging from a flaming trapeze.  Not only would he believe it, he'd be recounting the astounding details of the act to his buddies back home after 18 or 19 Rolling Rocks at the next Flyers game.  (Note to the Cirque people: if I see an ad next month on the big outdoor screen at Treasure Island featuring a purple monkey swallowing its own face while balancing on a drum swinging from a flaming trapeze, I want royalties.)
Someday, I'm hoping entertainment in Las Vegas will return to featuring big name, talented acts.  And no, Mirage, a guy from America's Got Talent with singing Muppets doesn't qualify.  Of course, by the time that happens, it will most likely be a septuagenarian Lady Gaga performing in a pair of Depends, oversized glittering blacked-out louvered tri-focals, and a sequined bra hanging somewhere around her knees.  (Wait...that's the outfit she wore on "Good Morning America" last month).
I guess I'm just a traditionalist, wishing Vegas would go back to the old ways of music, nudity and sleaze to be found somewhere other than the sidewalk.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Art of Political Procrastination

I used to think of myself as a pretty talented procrastinator.  I didn't invent the mantra "never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after," but I certainly subscribe to it.
Writers are usually great procrastinators, especially news writers who are cursed with deadlines.  Journalists are often the adult embodiment of their college alter egos, staying up all night to finish a term paper that is due tomorrow, one which was assigned two months ago.
In American history, the icon of procrastination has been Scarlett O'Hara of "Gone With The Wind" fame, who famously said "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."
Procrastinators now have a new hero in their struggle for societal legitimacy:
The 2011 United States Congress.
Congress (which watermelon-whomping comedian Gallagher once noted is the opposite of "Pro-gress") has been skirmishing with the President for months now over the looming debt ceiling. 
For those who don't exactly understand what all the fuss is, imagine you have a MasterCard you've been trying to melt every weekend at Neiman Marcus.  Like most credit cards, there is a credit limit, the maximum amount you're allowed to charge.  You're almost at that limit, but Neiman's is about to have a big sale on go-go boots, and you've just realized your closet is currently go-go bootless.
Unless you can convince the minimum-wage phone jockey on the other end of Chase Bank's customer service line that your very life depends on the acquisition of those $2,000 pink and purple zebra-striped thigh-highs you saw in the window last week, you're probably going to have naked knees next weekend.
In the name of equality, here's a scenario to which men might better relate.  It's your turn to host the annual "Super Bowl Party and Drunken Brawl" at your house this year.  You are out of beer because last weekend happened to include a Saturday night.  You have only $3 available on your credit card, and even less than that in your checking account. 
If you happen to have a Capital One card, issued by the company whose commercials feature the partying, room-smashing Vikings asking "what's in your wallet?", you might not have a problem getting a debt limit increase in time for kickoff.
Otherwise, your only hope is to persuade the MasterCard monkeys that you just got a promotion to Assistant Head French Fry Cook at the Burger King where you work, and can easily handle a $10,000 increase in your credit line (which should keep you and your buddies in beer until approximately next weekend).
That is the problem faced last weekend by Congress; that they had reached their MasterCard limit.  The difference is that real humans have to beg customer service reps sitting in a cubicle in Bombay for a credit limit boost, while the debt ceiling for the United States government is set by...the United States government.
How serious of a problem was it?  Serious enough that the members of the House and Senate chose to work through Saturday and Sunday instead of their normal weekend itinerary of taking golf junkets to Singapore (paid for by oil lobbyists), sleeping with women they're not married to (paid for by oil lobbyists), or an afternoon of toe-tapping in an airport bathroom stall.
The eyes of the financial world lasered in on Congress throughout the weekend to see how they would handle this critical decision, specifically what measures they would take to reduce their shopping sprees at Bridges-To-Nowhere-R-Us and which American pockets they would pick to increase government revenues. 
The answer from Congress?
They'll think about it tomorrow.  Or actually Nov. 30. 
Congress decided to go ahead and increase their credit limit by, oh, $1.5 trillion or so.  As part of the deal, they're also going to appoint a 12-member "super committee" to hammer out the details of where they're going to cut the budget and what taxes they're going to increase, and tender their plan by the end of November.
Yeah, right. 
They couldn't find that solution over the weekend, when the pressure was on.  The chance that they'll reach any kind of agreement on such weighty and politically charged matters four months from now (which is half a century in Congressional lapdog years) is roughly about the same as the likelihood Bank of America is going to increase the credit limit on my Visa by a mere $100 million.
Ordinarily, this kind of political fumbling by our elected officials would make me furious.
But I can't think about being mad today. If I do, I'll go crazy.  So I'll think about being mad tomorrow.
Or the day after Nov. 30.