Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thumbs Up and Down

  I am dedicating this edition of the Broken Pawn to the memory of Roger Ebert, the well-known movie reviewer who passed away last week. In the classic George Orwell book ‘1984’, the government of Oceania attempts to condense the English language to ‘newspeak’ which consists of the single word ‘good’ which can be decorated by a limited amount of adornments (‘doubleplusungood’ or ‘goodthinkful’). Despite his erudite and thought provoking movie reviews, Ebert’s (and his first TV partner Gene Siskel) main contribution to society as we hurtle towards the totalitarian future that 1984 portends was to reduce hundreds and thousands of words of movie reviews to the simple phrases ‘Two Thumbs Up’(good) and ‘Two Thumbs Down’ (ungood):

“A Farewell To Cody” – 2 Thumbs Up
Cody the Jiffy night shift clerk has to deal with meth heads, winos cashing in their dirty cans for a six pack, drunks who go nuts because they can't get another 24 pack after 2am, and this crazy couple that takes their pet beagles out for beef stick treats at five in the morning, but Cody handles it all with a good humor and aplomb that makes most of the so-called professionals I've ever met suffer in comparison.
  Of all the clerks at the Jiffy convenience store I’ve met in many years of taking Queenie, Tuffy, Baxter, and Daisy there on early morning walks for beef stick treats, the current weekend clerk Cody is my favorite. My least favorite was Bob, a 50ish chain smoking bear of a guy. One Easter Sunday, I was getting my coffee and beef stick treats when a guy walked in with a hundred dollar bill that Bob couldn’t break and asked me if I could. I pulled 5 twenties out of my pocket and gave them to Bob, who proceeded to put a 20 in his pocket and tell me I only gave him 4 twenties!! He still had the hundred and I knew arguing wasn’t going to get me anywhere so I gave him another 20 and chalked it off to experience. I got my revenge when a few weeks later I only had a twenty and when I used it to pay my 1.79 coffee and beef stick bill. Bob moaned and groaned so much as he pulled each one, five, and ten out of his change drawer to make my change that I thought the act of counting out the change was causing him physical and psychic suffering. So every time after that when I took my dogs to the Jiffy, I made sure I had a twenty to give to Bob and every time he would moan and groan as he counted out my change. One time I pulled a dollar and some change out of my pocket and started counting but then put it all back and gave Bob another twenty. After six months of this, Bob asked me exasperatedly “How come you always give me a twenty?” and I answered “Because I know you love my twenties….ESPECIALLY AFTER YOU STOLE A TWENTY FROM ME ON EASTER!” Bob pretended he didn’t know what I was talking about and I kept giving twenties until he got emphysema and had to go to the nursing home (no I didn’t get him a get well card).

  After Bob ‘retired’, there were a few non-descript types that covered the weekend shift for a number of years. My favorite was Dot, the mom of a chess player who came to my club, but none of these clerks were able to make sure there was fresh coffee or an ample supply of beef sticks. Once Dot told me they were out of beef sticks and wouldn’t get any until the truck came, but when I stopped by after church for a cup of coffee the hopper of beef sticks was full. I asked the day clerk (the owner’s son) and he told me there were plenty of beef sticks but they were stored on the top shelf and the night clerks were too lazy to get the ladder out to get them. Last year an older guy who I nicknamed ‘Slappy’ came on the night shift. Slappy was on top of his game and always had fresh coffee and beef sticks, his only quirk being that he always had the bathroom locked with an ‘out of order’ sign. But other than that Slappy was a good guy who liked Daisy and Baxter and would give them some extra treats from time to time.

  After Slappy left, Cody took over the night shift. Cody is a young guy who has a fiancé and a couple of kids at home that he is working to support. He does roofing during the week and Jiffy on the weekends. He always has fresh coffee, an ample supply of beef sticks, and the bathroom is never out of order. He comes out for a cigarette when he can to pet Daisy and Baxter. I like Cody because not only is he a hard worker, he has a good humor about him. Lots of times I head into the Jiffy and there is some crack addict begging Cody to use his phone or borrow his coat or loan a dollar or two and Cody almost always does it because he is just a good guy. One time he loaned his coat to an addict to go have a smoke outside and she left and took his coat. Cody doesn’t have a car and had freeze his way home. Speaking of Easter, if that isn’t Christ-like to give your only coat away on a freezing cold day, I don’t know what is.

  Cody’s fiancé got a promotion at her job that is going to keep her working late on weekend nights so Cody is giving up his Jiffy job and going to try to get some handyman work on weekend days so he can be with the kids at night. I wish Cody the best of luck because he is too good of guy and too hard of a worker to be a weekend convenience store clerk, but I know I’m going to miss him a lot the first time I walk through a garbage-strewn Jiffy lot (Cody always has the lot swept up) to get a cold stale cup of coffee and have to give Daisy and Baxter some Slim Jims when the new clerk tells me they are out of beef stick treats.

“Economy Speak” - 2 Thumbs Down
  In case you think I was joking with the “hurtling towards the totalitarian future that 1984 portends” line let’s check out some of the recent news out of the government and how up becomes down and left becomes right and the stock market just keeps reaching new highs because all the talking heads say the economy is improving. On Friday, the monthly jobs report revealed that while the economy added 88,000 jobs (less than the 125,000 needs to keep up with population growth) the unemployment rate declined to 7.6% from 7.7%. The decline in the unemployment rate was attributed to HALF A MILLION PEOPLE deciding to stop looking for work. Now these people didn’t disappear, get jobs, or win the lottery: they just stopped looking for jobs and THAT brings the unemployment rate down. Also on Friday, President Obama unveiled a plan to reduce the deficit by 1.8 TRILLION DOLLARS over ten years by increasing taxes and reducing the growth in entitlement programs like Social Security by coming up with a new formula to calculate the annual cost of living adjustments. This is more government ‘newspeak’: Instead of saying benefits will be cut or raised at .75 or the normal adjustment, the formula will be ‘adjusted’. And it’s not really a deficit reduction: There just won’t be as much deficit as before. This is as much a reduction as your overweight co-worker cutting back to 6,000 calories a day from 8,000 and claiming to reduce their weight when in fact they will only be gaining an extra 30 pounds a year instead of 40. The President’s proposal would have a chance of passing the Republican House if he can find a way to call the tax increase something else like when Reagan called higher taxes ‘revenue enhancement’in the 1980’s.

“Coconuts (NO - NOT THE MARX BROTHERS MOVIE)” – 2 Thumbs up
Some of the many coconut and other juices available at the Asia Grocery Store on N Center St.
in Marshalltown, Iowa along with last Sunday's haul on the right.
  When I was a kid growing up in Hillside, New Jersey there were a lot of Irish and Italian mom and pop grocery stores that would make sandwiches and sell a few grocery items, fruits and vegetables that were in season, and soda and candy for the kids. The mom would run the counter and the pop would cut meat if needed and run numbers and the card game in the back. The supermarkets put all these mom and pop stores out of business by the late 1970s but over the last ten years in Marshalltown there’s been a resurgence of small ethnic grocery stores. They’re not Irish or Italian stores, they’re mostly Mexican and don’t seem to have card games in the back, but a few months ago an Asian grocery store (the owners are from Myanmar – formerly Burma) opened 4 blocks down the street from my house.

  After walking past the store a dozens of times on walks with Daisy and Baxter and seeing all the different kinds of 50 pound sacks of rice in the front of the store I noticed some coconut juice in the cooler by the register. I’ve written before about my positive experience with coconut water (with pulp) at the Big Money Blitz tournament in Ankeny in 2011 so a couple of months ago I walked in and got a 17.6 ounce can of coconut juice (with pulp).

  The coconut juice was much better than I remembered the coconut water being and I experimented with some of the other coconut juice varieties on sale. I didn’t care for the Roasted Coconut Juice at all and found the Young Coconut Juice too sweet so I’ve stuck with the plain old coconut juice. Once a week or so, I’ll stop by on our walk and pick up 3 cans at $1.29 each. One day I decided to explore around the store to see all the different vegetables and canned goods. I saw a bag of coconut candies and bought them. The candies are chock full of sugar (50 calories each!), but they have a great coconut taste and are almost as good as my favorite all time candy ‘ZotZ’. Now I’m buying coconut candies in addition to coconut juice and you could say I’m a coconut addict, but I’ll hold off on that judgment until I start loading up my car with coconut juice and candy and start selling them to support my habit.

“The Road to North Liberty” - 1 Thumb up/ 1 Thumb Down
  After spending 17 of the past 19 years commuting to Des Moines form Marshalltown (100 to 105 mile round trip), I have finally found the secret to making the drive seem short: get an assignment where you have to drive a 165 mile round trip. For the foreseeable future I am driving to far-away North Liberty IA a few days a week to perform an assignment on site for a customer. The reason I’m not giving this assignment two thumbs down is that I am paid for my travel time and also receive a generous mileage stipend from my company (when I commute to the office in Des Moines I receive no stipend nor get paid for my drive time). On the other hand, driving 83 miles into the sun is tortuous and after doing this drive Monday and Tuesday last week, I was exhausted and irritable the entire week. Since the company I work for has an office with programmers just a few miles from North Liberty, I may be the best programmer in the world…or I am getting a subtler kind of message.