Another icon is fading away…

Sad as it may seem, the pay phone – that great American symbol of convenient and economical communication – is slowly but surely disappearing from our landscape.Once a vital part of daily life from Wenatchee to Wapello, the old phones are being phased out by multinational telephone companies faced with costly pay-phone maintenance while just about everybody is packing inexpensive little cell phones that work pretty good most of the time in some places.

How I’m going to miss those venerable old phone booths and wall-mounted cubicles that at one time seemed to dot every street corner, public building and saloon in the nation.

As a young reporter (shortly after the Spanish-American War), I quickly learned that all I needed to keep the news moving was a pocketful of dimes – later quarters – and a handy pay phone.

In those days, hardworking news dogs all relied on pay phones to file stories, browbeat sources and order Chicken Delight.

We always knew where to find the best pay phones for the job, too. One of my favorites – this is on the level, amigos – was located in a grove of eucalyptus trees beside an abandoned rock quarry about 20 feet off Parrish Road near Cordelia. Apparently long forgotten, the dusty phone booth was always ready for service whenever I had to phone in a story about an overturned poultry truck or wrong-way driver ruining everyone’s daily commute along Interstate 680.

Another great phone was to be found in a smoky corner of the old Peanut Patch Saloon in downtown Fairfield. When the nearby newspaper office for which I worked was undergoing a major – and noisy – renovation, I simply moved my 80-pound manual typewriter to a battered cocktail table conveniently located beneath the tavern’s pay phone and set up my own news bureau. Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

During tense, breaking news situations, even the greenest rookies knew that he who controls the pay phone controls the news. Slower-moving competitors could send smoke signals if they didn’t like it.

This, unfortunately, led some of us to step over the line of journalistic cordiality by removing the speaker diaphragm from the receiver of first pay phone we located at a news scene. Pocketing that little speaker, we could then secure the scoop and stroll masterfully back to “our phone” to file whatever story we’d been chasing, leaving our frustrated competitors in the dust. (“Hey, dis phone’s all screwy. I can hear, but when I talk at the people what is listenin’ to me not say any’ting, the can’t hear. What gives, huh?”)

Those old pay phones were tough, too. If, for example, another reporter took offense at your monopolization of the only pay phone in six blocks, you could firmly smack the offending fellow one upside the head with the receiver and incur virtually no damage to the phone.

Try that with one of today’s flyweight cell phones. You’ll wind up with a handful of shattered plastic and some red-faced Chronicle reporter named Spud choking the life out of you…

Originally published April 23, 2006

Truth, justice and weirdness

It seems like only yesterday that I was lamenting the sadly mundane state of S’lano County’s day-to-day existence.

“Where has all the weirdness gone?” I asked plaintively time and again, only to be met with stony stares and silence.

Happily, the question was answered for me not long ago when I was transferred to the newspaper’s court beat.

Where had all the weirdness gone?

To the Hall of Justice, I soon discovered…

My opinion of the county’s overall weirdness level began improving almost immediately as I prepared to be swept away on a magic carpet ride through the county’s criminal justice system.

Standing patiently in line at the security checkpoint waiting to be screened by the Hall of Justice metal detector, I was met by a harbinger of weirdness-to-come that was not to be ignored.

The woman in front of me turned, poked her index finger repeatedly into my chest and announced in no uncertain terms “It ain’t going to do any good taking my shoes off for that thing. My feet set it off every time. It’s my feet, not my shoes. You’re gonna have to cut my feet off this time! Do what you’ve got to do! Go ahead, saw ’em right off! I’m going to jail anyway!”

Uh-huh.

“I hope that’s not your attorney, man…” commented a cheerful passer-by who’d overheard part of the conversation.

Yes, things were definitely looking up for the relative weirdness level in good ol’ downtown Fairfield.

And it only got better a short time later when I stepped gingerly out of Judge Kinnicutt’s courtroom to be met by an imposing fellow who seemed to be launching a one-man campaign against fly larvae.

“Maggots!” he proclaimed in thunderous breathlessness.

“Maggots! They’re allllll maggots! The Lord shall smite them and smite them again and again! Maaaaaaggots!” (Repeat 15 times without taking a breath to get the full impact of this encounter…)

A kindly court bailiff subsequently told me not to take the maggot man’s diatribe personally.

“He was down in from of Judge Harrison’s courtroom last week – really gets around this time of year,” the bailiff explained.

Better and better…

Then, just a few days ago, one man proudly marching through the Hall of Justice really turned up the excitement.

Rounding a corner, the musical fellow burst into a full-throated rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

For you younger readers, “My Boyfriend’s Back” was a girl group rock ballad from the mid-60s that told the story of a young woman done wrong by a teenage cad and the inevitable havoc her testosterone-fueled boyfriend would wreak upon the aforementioned cad when the boyfriend got back:

“My boyfriend’s back,

He’s gonna save my reputation!

Hey-la, hey-la

My boyfriend’s back!

If I were youI’d take a permanent vacation!”

No, it just doesn’t get any weirder than that, amigos…

Originally published November 02, 2003

Getting belted at the courthouse

Newspaper reporters who cover the courts are constantly bombarded with hundreds of felony cases – robberies, assaults, drug deals and a profusion of sex offenses that would make the Marquis de Sade blush – and that’s just in the parking lot…

It’s tough to decide which cases to cover immediately and which cases to put on the back burner for awhile.

The toughest decision courthouse reporters have to make on a daily basis, though, is which belt to wear.

You see, these days almost all courthouses in California are equipped with some type of electronic security system to scan visitors for knives, guns and the occasional Stinger missile.

They also warn of car keys, steel-toed boots, wristwatches and, more often than not, metal belt buckles. Not all metal belt buckles, mind you, just some of them.

And you never know which belt buckle is going to set off alarms until you’re halfway through the metal detector.

Let’s face it, there are few things more bothersome that becoming the center of attention because your belt buckle has triggered a terrorist alert.

Depending upon which courthouse you were foolish enough to enter, setting off the alarm usually necessitates a quick about-face for removal of the offending item of clothing as you desperately try to keep your trousers from falling to the floor.

And since everybody’s already staring at you, the last thing you need to do is step into the spotlight with your pants at half mast.

This entire procedure, of course, slows down the line for the metal detector and can seriously annoy your fellow courthouse visitors (particularly the big guy named Sledge who’s standing behind you in line with what appears to be a machete strapped to his waist).

Thus it stands to reason that we courthouse reporters – who may have to enter the building five or six times a day – spend a lot of our free time shopping for just the right belt to wear when we enter the hallowed halls of justice.

It’s a quest of sorts.

A newspaper colleague of mine from the strategically unimportant beer-brewing community of Fairfield recently told me he’s found one belt that never sets off the metal detector, but that he’s always looking for just one more for a little variety. Since he can’t take the courthouse metal detector to the mall with him, though, he’s found himself repeatedly purchasing belts that trigger security systems from Vallejo to Venice.

Being the understanding kind of guy I am, I initially wrote the poor fellow off as a hopeless nitwit.

No longer. I now own a dozen belts myself, of which only two have proven to be non-metallic enough to get past courthouse security. The rest of them I wear with giddy abandon on weekends, holidays and while visiting regional department stores to purchase more belts.

There is, of course, an upside to our dilemma. Eventually, all of the reporters who cover the courthouse on a daily basis will be able to band together and open their own “World O’ Belts” discount store in Cordelia. We should have an outstanding selection for discriminating Solano County belt buyers – as long as they’re not going to court anytime soon…

Originally published February 2, 2003

This just isn’t good business

I’ve got to admit that I was more than a little taken aback upon reading that a trio of Fairfield drug dealers had recently opened fire on a potential customer when he seemed reluctant to make a purchase.

A hard sell to be sure…

According to Fairfield police, the spirited sidewalk solicitors approached a Berkeley tourist on Phoenix Drive last month and offered to sell him drugs.

(Somehow I get the feeling that we’re not talking Extra Strength Tylenol here…)

The visitor declined and the eager entrepreneurs proceeded to chase him from Phoenix Drive to East Travis Boulevard and finally San Diego Street, apparently trying to convince him to purchase some illicit pharmaceuticals by repeatedly shooting at him.

The hapless tourist suffered a nonlethal flesh wound during the gunfire and later was treated at NorthBay Medical Center for his injuries.

Let’s face it, this is not the way to build a strong consumer base and it’s quite unlikely that this fellow will ever be a repeat customer. It’s also pretty obvious to me that these would-be business people have never bothered to attend a Fairfield-Suisun Chamber of Commerce sales seminar (nor an NRA firearms safety course).

Remember, the most successful business people follow the tried-and-true principle of sales that says, “The customer is always right.” There is no known corollary that says “If he isn’t, shoot him.”

It would make a lot more sense for these guys to, like, offer a free toaster or compact disc to every customer who buys at least a half-gram of product.

Free key chains, T-shirts or ballpoint pens – preferably engraved with one’s pager number – also make for satisfied customers and repeat business.

Offering samples also is a good idea. This time-honored practice says, “We like you and you’re going to like us.”

And remember to diversify. Not everybody wants to buy crack cocaine. Some customers may prefer marijuana, ecstasy, heroin or just a soupcon of methamphetamines. This is, after all, California. You never know when you’re going to encounter a picky customer who wants Lebanese hashish, only Lebanese hashish and nothing but Lebanese hashish.

Admittedly, good Lebanese hashish isn’t always that easy to obtain these days, but if you’ve got a gram or two stashed away, think how impressed your new customer will be when you produce it.

And if you don’t have that special item on hand, always be prepared to offer a reasonable substitute at a slightly discounted price. Or, if there’s no immediacy involved, offer to special order your customer’s request at your earliest opportunity. Being flexible always pays off in the long run.

The one thing you don’t want to do is start shooting at a new customer.

That’s like saying, “I’m armed, I’m whacked and I don’t belong to the Better Business Bureau.”

Read my lips: No return business – particularly if you manage to hit your would-be patron with one or more rounds…

Originally published May 5, 2002

Welcome to Fairfield – now please go away…

In its finite and stunningly misguided version of municipal wisdom, the city of Fairfield is trying to stamp out homelessness by ordinance.

And despite truly spectacular failures by such nearby cities as San Francisco (remember the – shudder! – Matrix Program?) Fairfield’s leaders seem to think that criminalizing homelessness will somehow make their community a better place to live.

Shocked by reports of panhandling, public urination and littering by the picturesque beer-brewing community’s less fortunate, city government earlier this month began trying to find a way to make homelessness more difficult while encouraging the needy to leave their temporary camps and “take advantage of social programs…”

The encouragement comes in the form of a proposed ordinance that would make it illegal for anyone to camp or store personal property on a public street, parking lot or in a public area. If approved by the City Council, the ordinance would carry a $100 fine for the first offense. A second violation could result in a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in county jail.

Hmmmmm, that’s encouraging…

The problem with this kind of simple-minded “C’mon, let’s make a law!” approach is that it rarely works.

Sure, the average citizen is appeased for two or three weeks because city government actually appears to be doing something, but it’s mostly smoke and rhetoric.

This kind of ordinance does nothing to get at the root causes of homelessness – unexpected economic hardship, lack of affordable housing, substance abuse, mental and-or physical disability. They provide neither food nor shelter nor educational guidance. Nor are they much good when it comes to preventing public urination. The latter activity comes pretty much naturally to most folks equipped with a bladder…

All such laws do is make it a little more difficult for the disadvantaged to survive.

They also give already overburdened law enforcement agencies plenty of relatively meaningless tasks to perform on their daily rounds – such as issuing $100 citations to people who might have as much as a dollar in their pockets on any given day.

Of course, if these homeless troublemakers can’t pay the fine, local law enforcement will also have the dubious pleasure of hauling them off to an already overcrowded jail.

County sheriff Rick Hulse is positively going to love this enlightened approach to helping the homeless…

What the city of Fairfield fails to recognize is that homelessness is an ever-present human condition that can’t be cured by simply drafting another painstakingly written piece of legalese.

This is like trying to enact an ordinance against hunger or despair. It may look good on paper but it won’t play on the pavement.

No, what this is all about is encouraging homeless people to take advantage of appropriate social programs…somewhere other than Fairfield.

If you don’t have a four-bedroom home and an SUV, maybe it’s time you took your act down the road where you’ll be less of an eyesore. And don’t even think about urinating in the park before you leave, pal..

Originally published April 22, 2001

A little on the heavy side? Learn how to spill and win!

Some of my less-than-tactful acquaintances (you know, the loud and witless kind) have accused me of being somewhat, er, clumsy at mealtime.

To be honest, if I sit down to a three-course meal, at least one of the courses will probably wind up on my shirt.

This doesn’t, however, necessarily mean I’m clumsy. Sometimes things just get carried away. Sometimes I bring a little too much boyish enthusiasm to the dinner table with me – such as when I’m demonstrating a Seattle Seahawks’ long bomb pass with a baked potato.

(Hey, cut me some slack here – I didn’t realize it was going to hit the gravy dish and my butter-fingered daughter should have been able to catch it, anyway …)

What the problem comes down to is the fact that I’m a little more rotund than I want to be and my “clumsiness” is actually the unconscious rejection of foodstuffs that might make me more rotund than I already am.

Really. A psychiatric technician-in-training once explained this to me during a Beer and Pepperoni Festival on the outskirts of Sebastopol after I’d inadvertently dumped a platter of marinated cocktail sausages onto a gap-toothed motorcycle enthusiast named, as I recall, Gnargh.

Boy, I lost a ton of weight that night …

I know it seems improbable, but this technique – conscious or unconscious – really works. I don’t weigh 350 pounds and part of the reason is that about a third of the food I cook winds up somewhere other than my mouth (tablecloths, carpeting, nearby walls or dinner guests are all eligible receivers).

Although it’s much easier to engage in this multidirectional dieting technique at home, it can be practiced at one’s favorite restaurants, too. How well I remember the night I was regaling dinner companions with the details of a zany liquor store holdup in Fairfield when our waiter stepped up behind me and discreetly shouted “I think some of your little friends are getting away …”

Sure enough, my animated narrative had unceremoniously jostled several small potatoes from my plate and onto the floor, where they were joyously rolling to freedom.

Needless to say, those potatoes never had a chance to expand my waistline.

Even though this unconscious dietary program has become a very personal part of my lifestyle, I’m sure that just about anyone can manage the tried-and-true weight loss technique with a little practice and determination.

For example, go to a fast food restaurant. Order a cheeseburger, fries and a milk shake. Drop the shake on the sidewalk. Or, if you’re taking a lunch break at work, toss that shake at the loudmouth bully on the forklift. Either way, you’re not gaining a single calorie or gram of fat from the milk shake (and you’ll get a lot of healthy exercise running away from the guy on the forklift …).

When you’re cooking at home, you might want to consider my late brother’s alternative to feeding your shirt, table or carpet – serve everything en flambe.

Pork roast? Whoooosh!

Fondue? Foooom!

Mince pie? Whoaaaa!

Plum pudding? Aieeeee!

You know the rule: No flame, you gain …

Originally published February 25, 2001