Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Consulting Detective

Well, it’s happened once again: the comments have outshone the post. I wish to thank everyone for their very thoughtful and heartfelt responses to my previous post on homelessness. Everyone had something to offer on this issue and I enjoyed reading them all. How this blog has ever attracted such insightful people I’ll never know, but no one’s ever accused me of turning away a good thing. Glad to have you all aboard.

Of course, having just said that, I must post the following advisory per order of the editors of The Schprock Report:


Now the editors are probably taking their job a little too seriously making me do that, but, truth is, if you’re not in the mood for any foolishness right now, if your valuable time is too important to waste, then you might want to skip the following. No will blame you, trust me. As for the rest, read on at your own risk: you can’t say you weren’t warned.

I have mentioned before that I’ve been extremely busy at work. Ms. Smith has plied her whip without mercy. Layouts have come back with comments like “this looks weak and awful” and “the colors we’re looking for should be ‘fun’ and ‘vibrant,’ not ‘putrid’” (all true). It’s been a series of taking one step forward and two back — we just can’t get any momentum going. Consequently, I’ve been working longer and longer hours; satisfying her and the other clients (Ms. Smith, by the way, thinks she is our only client) has turned into a mad steeplechase with no finish line in sight. 12 and 14 hour days are becoming the norm. Suffice it to say, it’s really starting to not be very much fun anymore.

When you’re overwhelmed with work and things always have to be done in a hurry, the first thing to go out the window are good habits, simply because you can’t afford the time to have them. Conscientious preparatory work is bypassed, rules get broken, and planning ahead becomes something you hope to do one day. Often I’ve had to crudely split the job up three ways and parcel it out, trusting my colleagues to do this or that the right way, because I won’t have time to check their work until the following week. It’s become all about getting it done any way you can.

Last Tuesday I found myself alone in the office at 9:30 in the evening, still hard at it. My day had started at 6:30 that morning, so the old brain was feeling none too peppy. Quite frankly, I think the poor little guy was nothing more than a mushy mass of nerves at that point. I was working on a large document — the key document for the entire project, in fact — when I decided to take a bathroom break. Returning to my computer, I saw the file wasn’t up on my screen anymore. That’s odd, I thought. I clicked here and clicked there, but it soon became apparent I had accidentally quit out of it.

Wearily, I relaunched the program and navigated to the document’s folder. Another surprise: the file wasn’t there! That was very strange. I’ve been known to mistakenly save documents in the remotest and darkest places of the server, but this particular file shouldn’t have gone anywhere. A feeling of uneasiness, very mild at first, began to seep in. I remained calm and did the only logical thing: I used my computer’s finder to search everywhere — it’s own hard drive, the server, my personal external drive — for the missing file.

After five minutes, I succeeded in only locating a backed-up version of the file — from five days before. Remember me saying good habits go out the window when you’re constantly rushed? All my professional life I’ve been a zealot about backing up my work, but here, to my horror, was a prospect I’ve always feared: the only document I could find for a critical job was hopelessly obsolete. If I couldn’t locate the current file, there was no other word for it: I was screwed.

Of course, the next thing I did was spend a half an hour repeating the same steps over and over again, every time turning up the same result. When you can’t think of anything else to do, the only viable option seems to be just that — unless you happen to know a little voodoo. Finally I gave way to sheer panic — I didn’t bother to restrain myself in the slightest. I stood up, nearly tore out all my hair, and commenced to throw every small and handy object in sight. I blush now to think back on the stream of obscenities that came out of my mouth. Despite my mental exhaustion, the apprehension I had of my predicament was terribly and unforgivingly clear: I had single-handedly set the entire job back one week!

You can only be hysterical for so long. Eventually the delirium dissipates; you recognize after a while there are less things to throw and less bad words to shout without repeating yourself; then a cold resignation rolls in to fill the void, unannounced and unwelcome. I saw the futility of how I was carrying on and almost thought it funny. With exaggerated lassitude, like a melodramatic stage actor, I slumped back into my chair and, too tired to cry, rested my head in my arms on the desk.

I might have been like that for a few minutes or even longer, I don’t know, when I suddenly got the distinct feeling I wasn’t alone. Don’t ask me how I knew it, for I didn’t hear a sound, but I had an awareness there was someone else in my office observing me. Have you ever noticed that sensation? In a crowd you can be standing there and suddenly lock eyes with a stranger who had been idly staring at you, as if you knew? So it was with me. Slowly I rose my head. My eyes traveled up and then over the computer monitor in front of me. Above the monitor, I saw a tweed cap. Rising still further, I saw that the tweed cap was resting on a head. Now standing, I beheld, to my amazement, an entire man seated composedly before my desk.

I forget exactly what I said. I think it might have been something inane like, “Hello?” Even though he was seated, I could see he was tall and thin, wiry really, thinness with strength. The material of his suit exactly matched his cap — his whole outfit looked as if from a century other than this one or the 20th; he could have been an actor in costume for a play. It was difficult to guess how old he was — somewhere in his forties, perhaps. His face was relatively unlined and thin like the rest of him, sunken-cheeked perhaps, but not necessarily in an unhealthy way, set off by an aquiline nose and piercing blue eyes. You got the impression, without him saying a word, of a powerful intellect. And the strangest thing was this: without ever having met him, he seemed familiar to me somehow.

He withdrew from his coat pockets a briar pipe and a pouch of tobacco. “You’ll permit me, of course,” he said.

“I don’t think they allow you to in this building” I numbly said.

“Pish! Americans,” he said, then filled the pipe, tamped down the tobacco and lit up. Soon a great cloud of smoke began to fill my little office.

“I couldn’t help but notice you have a problem,” he addressed me mildly between puffs. “Some people think I’m good at solving them. Perhaps I may assist you.”

”I doubt it,” I said, thinking him as old-fashioned in manner as in dress. “It’s computer-related.”

“You refer to that machine on your desk of course,” he said, pointing to my computer with the stem of his pipe.


He chuckled. “You have some misgivings — perhaps you doubt my expertise. While that is understandable, I must remark that some say I’m a fairly quick study. How else would I know, for instance, that you played the saxophone in junior high school, you only learned to tie a necktie last year, your father was an alcoholic fishmonger and your mother a circus tumbler, you have ridden a horse only once in your life, you have a fondness for shellfish, you play tennis badly and golf even worse, you allow your wife to buy all your clothing for you, and you love baseball but think hockey a complete waste of time?”

“Why—! It—!” I spluttered. “This is witchcraft! How could you have possibly known all those things? You — you must be a demon of some kind!”

“Tut, tut, my dear fellow. Nonsense. What may seem wonderful to you are merely extrapolations and deductions my trained mind is in the habit of making. It’s really not much more than a parlor trick, I assure you. But to the matter at hand — you’ve lost something and you want it found, that much is plain. Please tell it all to me. Pray be as specific as you can. Even the smallest fact, however insignificant it may seem, can be of immense value.”

“But who are you?” I asked.

“You would want to know that, eh? Quite so. I am, so far as I can tell, the world’s only consulting detective. People bring me their problems, insoluble mysteries which have confounded the experts usually; they lay down before me all the facts, and through a rigorous mental process — largely deductive reasoning — I can, from my armchair, untangle the skein and make everything perfectly understandable.”

“And you think you can help me?”

“My dear fellow, if I were a gambler, I’d stake my entire fortune upon it.”

These were confident words indeed. And, in my desperation, I grasped at his claim like a drowning man would a thrown rope. I lost no time describing what had happened, but that wasn’t enough. The detective wanted to know at what time had I arrived for work that morning (he knew, somehow, that I rode a bicycle), what I had for breakfast, did I drink tea or coffee (“Suggestive!” he declared, when I told him tea), where did my wife shop for her groceries, could I sing on key, was I in the habit of filing things alphabetically or by date, and on and on. When he asked me to estimate, as near as I could, the number of steps it took to get to the convenience store where I bought a package of Twinkies that afternoon, I begged him to please focus more on the computer and my lost file. At this, he withdrew from inside his coat a large magnifying lens and meticulously went over my entire office with it. Stray fibers and bits of crumbs caught in the carpet elicited cries of delight (“Illuminating!”); trade publications and software user’s guides on my bookshelves intrigued him (“Hardly used,” he remarked); a hanging plant of swedish ivy held his attention for some two or three minutes (“It tells a story as if it could speak,” he said); and finally he seated himself before my computer.

“A keyboard arranged like an ordinary typewriter. And this is what you call a ‘mouse.’ Ah, yes, very good, I see how it works. Ingenious, I’m sure. Now let’s see — this operating system is apparent enough — one navigates this way — these icons represent programs, while, over here, these fellows are the documents created from them. Simplicity itself. Virus program has not been updated for a while — very bad of you, but my reasoning particularly does not point to a virus — ah! and this is what you mean by a ‘bug.’ We’ll work around it this way…” and on he went in this vein. Soon his speech became even less coherent to me as he picked up speed. His fingers flew over the keyboard and he clicked on the mouse as if tapping out Morse code. On the monitor’s screen, windows appeared and disappeared in rush; the computer made many sounds I never heard come from it before. His face was all concentration; you could feel a union between he and the computer, as if they were communicating with each other. “Ah, a diagnostic program!” he exclaimed at one point, and then, “a file recovery feature — did you know you had it? No, of course not,” and on he kept going, his hands never idle for a moment.

I watched all of this in amazement and with a growing hope that the consulting detective might find my precious file after all. Minutes ticked by while he clattered away at the keyboard. He clicked many buttons and ran this program and that; it was like watching a concert pianist attack a difficult Chopin etude with masterful facility and zest. Finally a window with a big button on it appeared on the screen and it stayed there. All movement stopped. The detective stared at it for a long moment. This, I could see, was important.

Suddenly he turned to me, his eyes blazing. “Tell me — and here you must be absolutely certain, for the wrong answer could be fatal!— when you put your socks on in the morning, with which foot do you start?”

“My — my socks?”

“Dash it all, man, your socks I said! Which foot do you start with? Come, come now, think! Everything depends upon it!”

Bemused, I acted out in my mind a ritual I’ve performed every morning of my life but had never taken the time to consider. The consulting detective impatiently looked at me, glanced at the computer screen, and back to me again.

“I — it’s — I put them on my right foot first. Yes, always on my right.”

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “Then I have it! Do you see this button here? I will tell you that never before has any living creature ever had the need to click this button. I will warrant that this button right here, sir, is the most dangerous button of all buttons. You can even see it written here: ‘Do not click this button’ it says. But why did they make such a button then, eh? To what end, you may ask? Because, my dear fellow, we have hit upon the only conceivable circumstance of which this button can be of any possible constructive value. Everything points to it! My reasoning is flawless. To recover your file, this button must be clicked!”

It was a very scary looking button indeed. “But are you absolutely sure? Things now are bad enough — I can’t afford to make them worse.”

“Where is your courage, man? Do you want that file back or don’t you? Authorize me to click that button, and I assure you, upon my honor, that all will be well.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that this was the most painful decision of my life. It was like putting the deed to your house down on red 22 at roulette. But this was no time to wring my hands. It was now or never. “Yes,” I said, “I authorize it. Click the button!”

The consulting detective smiled at me as if to show approval of my good sense. I marveled at this man whose constitution seemed to admit of no indecision. He turned back to the computer, took the mouse firmly in hand, and clicked.

First the only thing that happened was that the window went away. Then, slowly, the computer screen darkened. A faint noise began to issue from within the computer, which, after several seconds, began to pick up in volume. It seemed to be speech, a babble of many voices, shrill voices and deep bass voices, some singing, some merely chanting. Then my desk began to shake; the consulting detective reached over and grasped the monitor with both hands to keep it from tumbling off the desk. Lights started to flicker across the monitor’s screen, the vibration increased, the voices grew louder, and soon a sort of mist began to pour out from within the computer’s housing. “Steady!” the detective shouted to me. “Steady, old boy!” Now the floor began to shake and books started to fall from the shelves. I held onto to a nearby cabinet for support. The detective, with a quick movement, wrapped the whole computer in a tight bear hug; I saw his cap fly off his head. “Steady on!” he cried. The lights in my office flicked on and off; the voices grew to such a pitch my ears began to hurt. “Shut it off!” I cried. “We’ll be killed!”

But then it all stopped. The office lights stayed on, the floor quit shaking, and the hanging plant slowly ceased to rock back and forth. Whatever had happened, it was over.

The consulting detective reached down to pick up his hat and, with a theatrical flourish, offer to me my chair to sit down in. “Inspect the results, if you please,” he said. We stepped around each other and I seated myself. I hardly dared to look. But there, on the screen, was dearest sight I had ever beheld in my whole existence: the little icon that was my file!

I think I went out of my head for a while. The consulting detective appeared quite proud of himself as he watched me whoop and make other such exclamations of unbounded happiness. At last, I buried my face in my hands and wept tears of joy.

When I had done, I lifted my head up and at first noticed a very peculiar thing: my little office was put back in order. All the books that had fallen from the shelves were back in place. The hanging plant, which had lost some leaves during that apocalyptic scene, was as healthy and serene as ever. There were no paper clips strewn over the floor; my pencils and pens, which had gone flying everywhere, were back in their cup. This to me was disturbing. But here’s what upset me most: there was no sign of the consulting detective! Where did he go? And then the thought hit me at once: was all of this a dream?

After that came the most chilling moment of all: what about my file? Now I know very well that at this point in the story it would have been customary for me to see, on the monitor, the lost document. I would gasp, the reader would gasp, and question would hang there: was it a dream . . . or not? But here I’m afraid I must let the reader down. Sadly, my file was not there. Evidently, I had fallen asleep and dreamt it all.

I got home very late that night and slept fitfully. When I did fall into a shallow slumber, I dreamt of the consulting detective working away at my computer. It was really no good trying to sleep — I awoke for the final time a full hour before my alarm was set to go off.

I am what you may call a “worry wart.” Although I know perfectly well it makes no sense to to do it, I can’t stop myself from turning over and over in my mind whatever predicament I might be in. I have an unhealthy habit of replaying distressing events as if on a loop and examining each scene again and again, trying to find a silver lining or a solution that never reveals itself. Everything, as it inevitably always did, seemed hopeless.

Back in the office that morning, I informed my bosses of what happened and told them the only thing I could think of was to call the IT service we always turn to when our computers won’t behave themselves. I knew it would do no good, but I had to give it a try. As usual, when I called them, they said I would have to wait a couple of days; all their technicians were busy. I’m sorry, I said, it can’t wait, something will have to done to make one of them available now. Please excuse me, sir, that’s not possible, the voice on the other end said. We’ll pay extra, I pleaded, please do something. Someone will get back to you, I heard.

In the end, the IT service arranged for a technician to arrive at one o’clock that afternoon. When the hour arrived, he wasn’t there. 1:30 came and went, and still no IT guy. Finally, at 1:57, the elevator doors swished open and there he appeared.

Although it grieves me to say it, I must at this point once again disappoint the reader. We all know that when the technician shows up, he should look exactly like the consulting detective. And then, of course, I’m supposed to gasp and the reader, in his turn, should do likewise. But the technician, whose name was Seth, looked nothing like the consulting detective. Where the detective was tall and thin, Seth was short and fat. While the detective’s countenance had the eager features of a bird of prey, Seth’s was more like a Buddha who had stayed up too late the night before. The detective was rather nattily — if slightly out of fashion — dressed: Seth’s shirt tails were in a constant struggle to free themselves from the tops of his trousers. The detective moved quickly and decisively; Seth waddled and breathed hard from the strain.

Seth carried with him a special backpack that had everything he needed: a laptop, scores of CDs, and an array of tools only people like Seth would know how to use. I explained the problem to him and he assured me he could locate the file inside of 15 minutes. I couldn't believe it when he told me! Could I be saved that easily? Seth huffed and puffed around my desk and seated himself. My chair made a nasty little squeak when his entire bulk came to rest on it. From within his backpack he withdrew several CDs, a length of cable, and a tool or two that appeared to have more of a dental application than an electronic one. He also extracted a bag of Cheetos and a can of Mountain Dew.

At first his confidence was indestructible. He inserted one CD and then another. Like the consulting detective, he made this window and that rapidly appear and disappear on the screen. He clicked many buttons. 15 minutes passed, then 30. A whole hour came and went. At first he let me watch him and indulged me my innocent, yet stupid, questions. One thing didn’t work, then another and another still. At the hour and a half mark, the half-eaten bag of Cheetos and opened can of Mountain Dew were all but forgotten. His insouciance dissolved into puzzlement; from puzzlement there came annoyance. Large blotches of sweat began to appear on his shirt. When I made one suggestion, he turned to me very crossly and said, “Do you, like me, still go by the name you were born with?”

“Well, yes—”

“But does your name have little letters that come after it, like my name does?”


“Do you know what those little letters mean?” he asked.

“Well, I—”

“They mean I know what the hell I’m doing and you don’t. Now please go over there and don’t come back until you’re called.”

Meekly, I stepped out of my office.

Two hours passed, then three. Seth called his office for technical support; then he called the computer’s manufacturer — nothing they offered worked. He accused me of trashing the file or giving him the wrong name. He questioned its very existence. At last I could stand it no longer and reentered my office. I had to see what he was doing.

“This is it,’ he said, his shirt now completely saturated with sweat. “I’ve tried everything.” I saw one window flash by, then another and another. Finally there came a window I recognized instantly.

“Seth!” I cried. “That’s it!”

“What?” he asked irritably.

“Do you see that button right there?”

“Oh, I see it all right. Believe me, you don’t want anything to do with that button.”

“Seth,” I said hoarsely, for my emotion at this point was clearly getting the better of me, “you must click that button!”

Seth stopped what he was doing and turned to address me much like a schoolmaster would an errant child. “Are you insane? Do you know what that button is? We, in the trade, call it ‘the unclickable button.’ No one has ever dared click that button. There are theories of what would happen, all of them disastrous.” Here his countenance turned a little dreamy. “Not that I’ve never thought of clicking it. We all would like to. I tell you, the man who finally clicks that button will have a song written about him.”

“Seth,” I said, struggling to maintain my breathing, which was now coming in ragged gasps, “you are that man! I — I authorize you to click that button!”

“You’re mad!”

“Click it, I say!”

A look of terror stole over Seth’s face. All assurance was gone. The image of a frightened Moses staring at the burning bush came into my mind. He didn’t know what to do.

“Don’t think!” I directed him firmly. “Click the button!”

With infinite slowness he turned back to the computer. His shaking hand feebly took hold of the mouse. He hesitated.

“Everything depends upon it!” I cried. “Click the button!”

Seth clicked the button. First there was nothing; then the screen grew dark. Seth whimpered and slid in the chair back from the desk. Then came faint sounds emanating from within the computer; they grew louder and louder. Ancient tongues, Babylonian, Aramaic, Hebrew, joined in an unholy cacophony of sound. The computer began to vibrate; then the desk vibrated; presently the floor and the walls shook. Books flew off the shelves; Seth was struck on the head by a volume of Flash 5 for Dummies and dropped senseless to the ground. I reached for the computer and clung to it, keeping it on the desk. I tell you now I thought for sure the end had come!

And then it all stopped. I looked around and saw my office was in complete disarray. My hanging plant swayed back and forth, bereft of nearly half its leaves. Books and notebooks and every office supply you can think of were scattered everywhere. The handset of my telephone was knocked off its hook and I could hear the alert sound it made. Seth lay in one corner in a heap.

“Seth!” I said, shaking him. “Seth, are you OK?”

Seth’s eyelids fluttered open and he looked at me. “Am I — am I dead?”

I laughed. “No, you’re alive. You did it! You clicked the button and survived!”

“The file?” he asked.

Oh, yes, the file. Until then, I hadn’t thought to look for it. I picked up my chair, set it down and stumbled into it. After all of that, I think what I feared the most was confirming if my document had been restored. But a quick glance told me everything: the cherished icon was back where it should be. I was saved!

A half an hour later Seth was packed up and ready to go. I saw in his eyes something very nearly like respect for me. The solemn expression on his face when he shook my hand was priceless. Then the elevator doors swished open, he waddled through, and he left. He had a story to tell. Seth would soon be famous.

Well, it had been a long day and I was beat. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before and now, with the strain of all that happened, I was all done in. I wandered into the bathroom, gathered into my cupped hands cold water from the faucet, and splashed my face.

Looking up, I regarded myself in the mirror. I am nearly 50, but I suppose I could pass for 45. Perhaps it had to do with my thinness; all my life I could never put on weight. I inspected the features of my face: the slightly sunken cheeks, the piercing blue eyes, the aquiline nose—

Suddenly it came upon me like a thunderclap! The consulting detective! Why, he was none other than…

Instructions for the Reader

Step 1: Complete the sentence.
Step 2: Gasp as loudly as you can.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

My Half-Baked Solution for Homelessness

The homeless guy, Paul, whom I mentioned at the end of my last post, got me to thinking about a tactic I came up with years ago for dealing with the many panhandlers you run into in Boston. They are everywhere here in the city, especially near banks and convenience stores, places they think people might feel a bit more inclined to pull out their wallets. Some sit glumly with the standard “Homeless veteran — need money for food” sign scrawled on cardboard. The livelier ones work the shuffling sidewalk crowd, shaking paper cups partially filled with coins like a musical instrument. “Hey mister, spare some change?” is the question a woman always asks me from her customary perch directly in the path leading back to work from the Store 24. Some like to tell you stories: their wallet got stolen and they need money to make a phone call. They have children starving at home. I once saw a beggar try some refreshing honesty — his sign read, “Why lie? I’m spending it on beer.”

My response has always been to look straight ahead and pretend they’re not there, which is uncomfortable, because, if anything, I am all too acutely aware of their presence. I see them from a mile away and, as I approach, grow a little taut and move to the far side of the sidewalk, like a baseball player avoiding a tag. I always inwardly cringe when the wretch finally addresses me directly for a little spare change. I don’t feel like a very nice guy as I mock the poor guy’s existence by acting as if a question hadn’t been asked or I hadn’t noticed a hand outstretched in my direction. Feigning a consuming interest in a nearby street sign or a fire hydrant seems infantile. But here’s the thing: I know giving them money will do them no good. It’ll go to booze or drugs. They’ll use it to support a lifestyle that’s dragging them down. If they need help, there’s help to be got — government agencies and charities and the like. If I thought for a moment that giving one of them a dollar would go toward something constructive, I’d do it. But I have no faith that it will.

A very long time ago I gave this moral tussle some substantial thought and felt I came up with a pretty good plan — one that I gave up on after only two weeks of putting it into practice. Hearing about it, you’ll think I was hopelessly naive. But you see, I’m really not heartless; I’ve always recognized the indigent I see everyday as fellow human beings. They’ve always inspired more sympathy in me than scorn. There’s an undeniable “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect of their plight I’m not insensible to. I know each case must be a fascinating story, a cautionary tale if you will, the sort of thing you can use as instructive examples for children: “See what can happen to you? And he started off a decent little boy too!” It has always bothered me to completely disregard them.

So one Sunday I scanned the Help Wanted section of the newspaper (Sunday is the day the listings are really stocked) and I clipped out all the unskilled menial jobs I saw and pasted them onto two or three sheets of paper which I later photocopied at the local Staples. Then I went to the supermarket and bought small paper lunch bags, a quantity of pre-packaged brownies and a like number of tiny cans of fruit juice. Back home, I assembled what I thought would be roughly a week’s supply of packages to distribute to the homeless.

My thinking was obvious enough. I wouldn’t give them money, which they would only use to destroy themselves, but instead I would give them what they needed most: some crude nutrition and the means for bettering themselves through remunerative work. Consider me simpleminded if you must, but you have to admit it made some sense. I figured, at least now I wouldn’t blight my conscience by ignoring them.

So that Monday, instead of avoiding the street people, I actively sought them out with the intention of bestowing my little packets of mercy on those who it seemed might not take offense. But the strangest thing occurred: these people for whom I meant to play benefactor to suddenly became scarce. Maybe the weather that time took a turn for the worst and forced them to seek shelter. Or maybe something instinctual happened — they somehow knew a cotton-headed, self-appointed hero of the downtrodden was trolling for them and they kept clear of me. Often when there was an opportunity, it so happened I didn’t have the packets with me, as it was inconvenient to have them on my person all the time. However, I did hand out a few and and always took care to leave the scene quickly; the one thing I certainly wished to avoid was witnessing anyone’s reaction. To be honest, I felt very shy about it, and really needed to pluck up my courage before approaching a bedraggled, unstable-looking fellow with a gift that could be as easily interpreted an insult as it could a kindness.

The one week’s worth of packets turned out to be two week’s worth. During the second week, I didn’t bother to update the Help Wanted list. Finally I was down to my last packet and had it with me as I entered the subway station one night returning home from work.

Even as I descended the stairs I could hear the drunken song of a homeless man from within the station. Instantly I plunged my hand into my backpack and I extracted the package which might or might not put this wayward creature onto the path to self-improvement. The walls and ceilings in the cavernous place were all tile, so his singing reverberated wonderfully. Finally I turned a corner and he came into view: a big man, somewhere in midlife, with tousled black hair and beard, sitting with his back against the wall and his legs splayed forward, causing the stream of people to veer around him to avoid tripping. A single wooden crutch, old and dirty, was propped against the wall beside him. One of his enormous bear-paw hands was wrapped around a bottle concealed in a paper bag. He was in extremely fine spirits, a jovial Dionysus in rags.

I felt very timid approaching him and, quickly handing off the package, I said, “This is for you,” and kept moving along as I always did. But here my earnest desire to avoid a reaction to my altruism went unfulfilled, because I presently found myself mired in a line to buy a token and the acoustics of the place transmitted sound from every far corner with perfect clarity. So I heard this:

“Oh, look at this, a present! Haw, haw! Now what’s in here?” — a pause — “A brownie! And a little can of juice. Well isn’t that nice! Haw, haw, haw! And what’s this?” — another slight pause — “What the fuck? WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?”

I couldn’t have bought that token and skedaddled out of there fast enough. I prayed the crutch he had was there for a reason, just in case I needed to take to my heels for dear life. As I suspected, not every one of my well-intentioned gifts was received with gratitude. Now I knew.

Since then, I’ve returned to my accustomed way of walking right on by. Every now and again I’ll weaken and give someone a quarter or a dollar. But no more care packages. I’m done with them.

I’m curious to know how other people deal with these daily encounters with the homeless. What do you do? And what’s your reasoning? What should we, as individuals, do?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Fuzzy Recollections of Las Vegas and Beyond

Only just lately the cerebral and cunning Trina and the mysterious and enchanting Chloe visited Las Vegas, and their stories have brought to mind several impressions I have of the place. The family and I have been there twice, and during both visits I’ve strictly kept to the role of passive onlooker, never once gambling a nickel. It’s not that I’ve got anything against gambling — I can see the fun of it — it’s just that I can’t take in the immensity of Las Vegas, the “wretched excess” of it all, the staggering amount of concrete and steel and dancing fountains and lights that have gone into the casinos, or the innumerable gambling machines, with all their lights madly blinking and sending off a constant din, or the sheer expense of everything from the square miles of custom-made carpets to the beautifully wrought tables for craps and blackjack and poker, or the battalions of employees looking smart in their uniforms, all of them cool and professional in their manners, or the billions upon billions of kilowatt hours needed to keep the whole place running, without realizing that all of this is financed by people who have lost their money. I know some win; and I know there are many level-headed folks who go into it with the hope of winning but are sensibly reconciled to the prospect of losing — that it’s only the possibility of coming out ahead that makes it all exciting — but I feel spending even a quarter on a slot machine is like being suckered into a colossal confidence trick.

That being said, I enjoy Las Vegas. An inveterate people watcher, I enjoying looking at all the types you see there. I like the stores, I like the dry heat, and I like the shows. I especially like the buffets. I love watching people gamble as I drift through the various casinos. There are many architectural features to notice and admire. Everything is bigger than life; there’s a fantastic quality about the city — an artificiality, quite frankly — that reminds you a little of Disneyworld. I like staying in the hotels, exercising in the health clubs, and sitting in the saunas. I like the rides they have, especially the New York City cab roller coaster ride that takes you out onto the roof of the New York, New York casino and makes you feel as if you’re about to be flung away over the city. I like the Venetian, how they constructed an entire town indoors with sky and trees and a canal that runs through it all. I get a big kick out of the sea battle that takes place in front of Treasure Island. Everything’s done on a large scale; no expense is spared. It’s all magnificent and loud, impersonal yet beckoning. It’s not “real,” if you know what I mean, but I think unreality is a big part of its allure.

But what I really want to tell you about was what happened during the first time we went, when we set aside one day for a tour of the Hoover Dam and a plane ride over the Grand Canyon. The girls were small then and not very interested in that stuff — they much preferred the amusement park at the top of one of the casinos (it might have been Circus Circus). The price for all four of us wasn’t cheap, so I sternly instructed them to have a good time — and took care to refrain from using the word “educational.” We boarded a full-sized Grey Line bus and found ourselves the only passengers. The driver, a friendly, talkative fellow by the name of Larry, told us to sit up front so he wouldn’t need to use the microphone while he said his spiel. This was nearly ten years ago, but I can still remember many of the little facts he threw out. For instance, at one point we passed under an overpass with a snowplow laying in the grass near the base of the bridge. Not attached to any truck mind you, just a snowplow laying there. Larry told us there was some federal law or statute or mandate that called for all states to have one snowplow in working order for every so many square miles. It didn’t matter if the state in question actually had snowfall; there had to be a snowplow. I think if the state complied, good things would happen, probably in the way of money. So there was the snowplow, of no use to anyone, a monument to the inanity of bureaucracy. Another little factoid Larry threw out was every McDonald’s building the world over is different. If you’ve ever cared to notice, it’s true. There are God knows how many McDonald’s restaurants all carrying the exact same fare, but can you think of any two structures that exactly match? Larry was full of information like that.

I found the Hoover Dam fascinating. When you consider the time period it was built in, which if I recall right was the late-twenties, early-thirties, you wonder how the hell they were able do anything of that scale without the benefit of our modern technology. The mighty Egyptian pyramids come to mind. They had to split the course of a huge river into two spillways and build up a dam in the intervening space that could withstand more pressure than my little brain — even if you injected it with steroids and got all synapses firing at once —can ever possibly conceive. They had to fashion giant tools made especially for the project. An entire town was constructed to house the workers. And the project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. I have to repeat that: ahead of schedule and under budget. Folks, I live in the Land of the Big Dig. Considered the most expensive single highway project in American history, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project was behind schedule and over budget before shovelful one was dug. What they did way back then was truly extraordinary.

When we left Hoover Dam for the airfield, we acquired two new passengers, a middle-aged couple from Texas. The husband sounded exactly like Huckleberry Hound — I’m not kidding, he really did. I kept wanting to tell him to cut it out and talk right. He and Larry got along famously. Huckleberry was a talker too, and he had a special knack for augmenting Larry’s running commentary with obvious observations and commonplace remarks spoken as if they were penetrating and insightful. Very entertaining it was. After arriving at the airfield, we boarded a Piper Cub that might have been assembled the day I was born. I sat up front and noticed how closely the dashboard of the small plane resembled that of an old car. It even smelled like an old car. And the pilot was just a kid, probably no more than 21 or 22. I don’t even think he needed to shave yet.

We rattled down the runway and became airborne with the all the power and majesty of a sparrow taking to the air. Where the airstrip was everything for miles around was flat, and this unrelieved flatness and sameness during the first 20 minutes or so gave me the impression the plane was moving very, very slowly, almost at a standstill, making no progress at all. It vibrated from propeller to tail. I could imagine that agonizing tight shot you see in the movies of the frayed fan belt about to break or the loose lug nut seconds from popping off. Steadily the little craft gained altitude and, eventually, the first cracks and seams of the Grand Canyon came into view.

Those first cracks and seams are about all I remember, because right about then a very alarming thing came to my notice: I was about to hurl. The sensation of nausea absolutely could not be ignored. The combination of the little plane being buffeted by the winds and the constantly moving imagery below acted on me with an irresistible force. My throat went dry, I broke into a light sweat, and I did the only thing that seemed to help: stare straight ahead and breathe through my mouth. Meanwhile, the pilot from time to time pointed out this or that, Huckleberry Hound found ways to twist all he said into a joke, my wife remarked, “Oh, really?” to everything, and our two girls dropped off to sleep and stayed that way for the whole trip (to this day, Daughters Number One and Two’s little visit to slumberland is known in family lore as The Hundred Dollar Nap).

That trip took over an hour and a half and all I wanted was for it to be over. Directly in my line of vision was an airsickness bag, and I knew that if I so much as reached out for it, the entire contents of my MGM Grand’s buffet breakfast would leave my stomach. To take the bag was an admission of the need for its use. Oh, the weary minutes! Time merely shambled along, unmindful of my misery. It took forever for the little plane to make a wide half circle around and start its slow progress back to where the firm, solid, lovely ground was. In my mind ran this continual mantra: Don’t throw up! Don’t throw up! I believe I literally kissed the ground when we finally disembarked.

One lasting image I’ll never forget from that first trip to Vegas was rising early in the morning, dressing and stretching, and leaving the hotel through the lobby for my run. The lobby gave onto the casino, and you could see, even at 6:30 in the morning, that the activity in there hadn’t abated one bit. All the machines were still going ding! ding! ding! and you could see people working them with drinks in one hand and smoldering cigarettes hanging from their lips. It was like watching a factory night shift still in full swing. Everyone seemed very businesslike; frowns of concentration marked every face. They were hard at it and nothing silly like a circadian rhythm was going to slow them down. You can’t fail to be impressed by that.


I’m still putting in the nutty hours, arriving at work well before dawn. Yesterday I introduced myself to the homeless guy who sleeps at our door: his name is Paul. He says he won’t sleep there much longer because it’s getting colder. Can’t say I blame him.

I hope to visit everyone’s blogs real soon. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Our Ms. Smith

I’m still putting in the insane hours, folks — well, insane to me, anyway. I’ve heard tales of 80 hour work weeks and have been properly astonished by them, but the past week I recorded 60 hours on my timesheet and that, for me, is quite a row to hoe. One of the guys I work with tells me that back in the day he used to regularly put in 80 hour weeks. I can only comment that he’s rebounded nicely from his workaholic ways, as he nowadays is in the habit of scooting out of work at ten minutes to five. It seems he’s realized there’s more important things to life; his priorities are more in line with what really counts. I can only imagine one of those priorities is scooting out of work at ten minutes to five.

I’m nearly done with the not-for-profit agency’s annual report and am giving much more attention to the schoolbook publisher’s spring catalog. Our client, whom we shall call Ms. Smith, is a very interesting study. She’s young — only 31 or 32 — fit-looking and attractive in her way (she’s not exactly my type, but I can easily see how she can be others’ type). She has an oval face, nicely coifed blonde hair, large, intelligent blue eyes, and flawless porcelain skin. Her teeth are ruler straight and perfectly white. It’s easy to imagine her the subject of an old oil painting, a rich merchant’s wife perhaps, dressed in garments stiffened by a crinoline petticoat and wearing a frilly bonnet. Or maybe she could have been a contemporary of Madame X. When you meet her and sit down and talk with her, you find yourself in the presence of the most composed and placid creature on earth. Every sentence she utters is well-considered and spoken calmly and clearly. She never fails to look straight at you when she talks and you can’t help but notice that the whites of her eyes are untainted by even the smallest red capillary. She is sincerity personified. You know she can handle the most dire exigency with unruffled equanimity. Ms. Smith is the very portrait of order and cleanliness and rationality.

This same Ms. Smith has also quickly become the scourge of the graphic design industry. She’s acquired quite a reputation for being contrary-minded and particular to a fault. Two other design studios I know of have done catalogs and other creative work for her, and, after spending double the time estimated for the job and harassed nearly beyond endurance, have found, as a reward, the account wrested from their near lifeless fingers and given to the next victim. One design agency went so far as to sue her company and wouldn’t give us certain files we needed for a small job we were doing for her at the time until she settled with them. The polite word for her is that she’s “picky.”

We met Ms. Smith when she worked for Company A. She had us do two sales marketing kits for schoolbooks, one for kindergarten and the other for grades one through five. The kindergarten pack was of particular importance to her and we were instructed to make it fun and vibrant and colorful and other such adjectives. It just so happened that on this first job we hit the jackpot when the above mentioned 80 Hour Man designed exactly what she wished for — in fact, he even surpassed her expectations. Call it a fluke, call it what you will, but she was delighted with his concept and, since then, 80 Hour Man has been a great favorite of hers. (My bosses, not slow to pick up on her liking for him, always have 80 Hour Man be the spokesman for any project we do for her — as is the case now.)

During those heady days we could do no wrong, and, when she moved on to Company B, she gave us another project, this time marketing brochures (or mini-catalogs). Alas, here the magic failed — nothing worked. We tried and tried and tried. We put double and triple the usual energy into coming up with cover designs that would send other clients into throes of ecstacy, but for Ms. Smith — after having sniffed over them once or twice — it came down to the simple fact that none could be looked at and pronounced The Greatest Cover on Earth. The familiar phrase was, “I don’t love it.” Finally, on a Monday, we set an appointment for her to come to our office that Thursday. Then we rolled up our sleeves, boiled up some coffee, put our shoulders to the wheel, left no stone unturned, and pulled out all the stops (if I’ve forgotten a cliche, please supply your own). I hunched over my computer and hummed the theme from The Bridge Over the River Kwai as I worked, while, from across the way, 80 Hour Man opted for the theme from Rocky. I thought I heard Happy Days Are Here Again coming from the creative director’s office. The creative juices were flowing, baby. We were scaling Everest, we were going to plant our flag at the top. Ms. Smith wasn’t going to beat us.

On Thursday morning, we spread over the large, circular glass table in our bosses’ suite the finest collection of work my company has ever created at one time. That’s no lie. I looked at what we did — my contributions, 80 Hour Man’s contributions, the creative director’s contributions — and I could have shed tears of joy. We did ourselves proud. There must have been 15 layouts for Ms. Smith to choose from. The problem, as I saw it, wasn’t that she wouldn’t find anything she liked — the problem was choosing which one she’d like the most.

We collected the designs up into a neat stack and, after Ms. Smith arrived and pleasantries were exchanged, she seated herself and the president of the company went through each of the layouts one by one. Her face was inscrutable from beginning to end. She made noncommittal replies to all comments and questions and waited for the presentation to conclude. Finally, after giving only a cursory look at the last cover design, she gave her verdict without so much as a moment’s pause. “They just don’t work. I didn’t love any of them.”

The president of our company is, by nature, a fairly brusque man — or he is with us, anyway. He’s charming when in a good mood, but if things aren’t going well, it’s best to tread lightly. With clients, it’s usually fun to see him assume a bonhomie that very likely is not 100% sincere. You can hear him laugh heartily at a lame joke and know he’s thinking: what an asshole! Here his affability was put to its greatest test — the show of imperturbability he displayed at that moment surely drained nearly all his reserves of patience. His disappointment must have been immense, but he did his best to act as if he foresaw her reaction.

“So what is it you’re looking for?” he asked civilly. “Can you put it into words? Are there any designs here that might come close?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see any.”

“Surely out of all of these there must be two or three that can provide the basis for something. Here, let me spread them all out on the table.”

80 Hour Man and I jumped to our feet and we helped the president arrange them for her to review.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I understand this is all good work, but none of them do it for me.”

Here the president reseated himself and said in a reasonable tone of voice, “Look, say if someone held a gun to your head and told you to pick one, which one would it be?”

She paused a moment and then replied, “I think I’d rather get shot.”

The president smiled as if she just said a joke, while, for me, it took everything I had to restrain myself from standing up and walking out of the room. I mean that. I came within a hair’s breadth of walking right out. I knew Ms. Smith had gone to Harvard, I knew her income was quadruple mine, I knew she was in a whole other class, but at that moment I was sure I was looking at the silliest, most ignorant human being it was ever my misfortune to meet. It baffled me that someone who could do what she had just done — basically shit over what I considered top drawer creative work — should be entrusted with the position she had. It was irresponsible wasting people’s time this way. I was so angry I couldn’t trust myself to speak.

In the end, the president and creative director managed to drag out of her some vague direction that did us practically no good. We felt like a boxer who, after having gambled and expended all his energy trying to knock out his opponent out in one desperate round, finds himself obliged to answer the bell again with tapped out reserves. But this time we enlisted the aid of the studio’s young gun: Mr. Random Squeegee himself, John. And do you know what? He actually came up with a layout she liked! He cracked the Ms. Smith Code. We nearly hoisted him up on our shoulders and paraded him up and down the South End singing victory songs.

Now Ms. Smith works for Company C, and the job we have is daunting to say the least: a 200-some-odd page main catalog, several mini-catalogs, and an assortment of brochures and direct mail pieces. I’m in charge of the main catalog, but Ms. Smith keeps myopically sending comments about it to 80 Hour Man, so we’re letting her think 80 Hour Man is running the whole show. In fact, she was at the office last Friday with the idea of overseeing tweaks to the catalog’s first section, so we set 80 Hour Man up at the computer that’s just off the conference room. I briefed him on what he needed to know, and all day Ms. Smith sat next to 80 Hour Man and directed him while he worked on the computer. During this, I tackled the more troublesome spreads in the comfort and privacy of my office. Sweet deal.

So that’s where we stand, right in the thick of it. I’ve brought work home with me this weekend, so I’ll be slogging away in my slippers and jammies. I just hope there’ll be a bonus at the end of this.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Schprock Report

Note the title of the post. Now note the blog’s name. They match, don’t they? Yes, the other day I stole a few moments to creep into my Fortress of Solitude and rethink a few things in my life. Rejected were the aquamarine hair beads, Beatle boots and psychedelic, bell-bottomed pants, but accepted was a new blog name. You see, the clunky Musings of Great Import was thought up on the spur of the moment. I wanted to comment on Random Squeegee one day and the only way I could see to do it was to create a blog identity of my own. So, after devoting to this weighty matter a full two seconds, the name Musings of Great Import came into being. Little did I suspect that the moment my back was turned this blog would grow and multiple like fungi in a damp, dark place, and I’d be saddled with the name day in and day out.

Of course, it doesn't help that I’m not a good name thinker-upper. I nearly settled on this jazzy alternative: Ruminations of No Small Moment. It turns out a guy named Mr. Schpreck already took that one. That's okay — it didn't quite pass the smell test anyway. So finally, after hours of deliberation and reflection, I hit upon The Schprock Report. But nothing else has changed. It’s still the same softening, deteriorating brain that generates the content. My skewed perspective on the world remains wonderfully consistent. And I know you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sorry about my reticence of late. I’ve been busier than a — than a what? A “one-armed paperhanger with crabs”? Oh Henry, you slay me, you know that? I nearly choked on my bagel when I read that. It took three of my office-mates to figure out the Heimlich in time to save my life. But how true. As many of you know, I’m a graphic designer, and my bosses thought it might be fun to assign me two huge projects at once. Each one is a full time job in and of itself. Project number one is the spring 2006 catalog for a major publisher of schoolbooks. Project number two is an annual report for a well-connected not-for-profit agency. The annual report I work on exclusively, while the catalog I supervise and must know like the catechism, so when the client calls I can speak about it intelligently. Both have my signature, so to speak. The result is my brain has been cleft in twain. While the right hemisphere concocts snappy pie charts for the annual report’s financial page, the left hemisphere tries desperately to divine the vague direction the client has given for the catalog’s Emergent Readers’ Social Studies spread. Yeesh! The other day, while my right brain was designing an organizational chart, the left brain ran into the men’s room and hid in there for an hour and a half. We had to take the door off the hinges to get it out. Is this any way to do things?

I get into work so early I have to disturb the homeless guy who sleeps in front of our door at night. It’s still dark — not even 6am — when I roll in on my bike. Sometimes I can sneak by without bothering him, but often I need him to move over or he’ll get it on the coconut with the door. I always tell him it’s still early and go back to sleep. Poor bastard. — Or wait — who’s the poor bastard? The guy who’s sleeping or the mindless drone who gets in before the cock crows to go tap-tap on the keyboard and click-click with the mouse all day?

Pardon me while I take this moment to have an epiphany.

Anyway, here it is, Saturday, and where am I? At work! And what will I do tomorrow? Work! At least there’s this one blessing: no phones are ringing and the email is relatively silent. While I toil the client sleeps. O the injustice! O the humanity! O quit my complaining and get to work!