Insulting Pirates Everywhere

Posted by jdg | Thursday, August 27, 2009

From across the room, while wrangling children I saw my wife flustered at the rental car counter, arguing with a goateed shaved head. “You don’t understand,” she was saying. “We don’t have a credit card because my husband doesn’t believe in debt, not because we have poor credit.”

“What do you mean he doesn’t believe in debt?”

“Some people don’t believe in God or the Loch Ness monster. My husband doesn’t believe in debt.” We were leaving town for a few days, and with our car on its last legs and smelling like the peaches my kids lost in it last summer, we pricelined a car for the trip. But it seems Alamo has a corporate policy that all Priceline renters need a valid credit card, even though walk-ins may use debit.

I can usually tell within the first few seconds of dealing with a customer-service professional whether they possess the ability or authority to compromise (and whether it’s even worth arguing). But this guy wore a certain air of inscrutability. Maybe it was the custom leather eyepatch that allowed me only one window to his soul, or perhaps I found myself so concerned that my daughter would impolitely ask about "the pirate" that I mistook something in his steel-hardened gaze for kindness.

I tried to negotiate a compromise: my mother-in-law’s credit card number and consent, perhaps, or a sizeable deposit. He just shook his shaved head, and it became clear that the office was short on cars and a policy was in effect to deny the lowest-paying customers a vehicle if possible, even if it meant stranding them at the airport without a car on the first day of their vacation. As we discussed the matter further, he started acting like a real dick.

I have a standard Hail Mary move, a last-ditch effort when such negotiations break down. I grab a pen and a piece of paper and I ask everyone for their full name so that when I write customer relations about the incident, all parties involved will be properly identified. This is a particularly nasty parting shot, and sometimes it works. If not, at least I leave them dreading that future meeting with some humorless regional corporate representative to discuss the incident. It's a real dick move.

In this case, the guy refused to give me his name, and proceeded to cover up his nametag. “I saw your name was Chris,” I said.

“No you didn’t.”

“Yes I did.”

“Fine,” Chris said and uncovered his badge.

“What’s your last name?” I asked him. He refused to tell me. “Let me speak to the manager again,” I said. Even the manager refused to give me the name or even an initial. “How am I supposed to refer to him?” I asked. “Can’t very well call him Chris the Pirate can I?”

The room when silent. All the other disgruntled customers stopped arguing and stared over at me in silence. I'd crossed a line. The corner of the young manager’s face twitched, and his lips compressed and folded together as if to stifle a grin. “That’s not funny,” he managed to spit out.

“I know it’s not funny. I’d prefer to call him by his actual name, but you’re not giving me that option.”

“We don’t have a policy for giving out our employee’s last names,” he said finally. Oh policy, what a cozy refuge. On the piece of paper in front of me, I slowly and legibly wrote. “CHRIS THE PIRATE,” and walked away. We left without a car and out the money kept by Priceline. But at least I had the satisfaction of calling some poor one-eyed wage earner a pirate simply for enforcing corporate policy.

* * * * *

UPDATE 8/31/2009

After wading through all the angry emails about this post, I just want to add that yes, I know I can be a real asshole. And if I do end up sending a letter to Alamo, it will be an apology for acting like one that day.

Routine

Posted by jdg | Thursday, August 20, 2009

When my wife works late we have a routine: After dinner we all pile on the bike and head down a tunnel of graffiti, under the streets, towards the 3+ miles of paved trails along the river. There is a 3-block section of no-man's land between the end of the sunken trail and the river itself, a former entertainment district leveled for casinos that were built elsewhere, then the proposed site of high-rise condominiums that stalled with the recession, now empty except for a few scattered ruins and machine shops.

We ride up a short hill paved with ancient bricks, intonations in front and behind me from kids who love the rumble of stones on their throats. A block and a half away sits the hulking ruin of the dry dock where seventeen-year-old Henry Ford took his first job as a machinist. We pass the latest homestead of a stubborn madman named Manuel who rebuilds his chaotic shelters and sculptural piles of junk on the same overgrown lot every time the city clears them away. We often pass him lugging bindles and murmuring after turning left and my daughter hushes her brother. This is where the pheasants live.

A male ring-necked pheasant came to our neighborhood this Spring, roosting itself in dense brush not far from our playground. We heard his call all day inside our house, every twenty minutes or so, for weeks. Hwok-hoo. Hwok-hoo. Every single time, my daughter turned to me and shouted, "Pheasant!" And my son would imitate the desperate cry. Then one day it stopped. The neighbors all waited, hopeful for his return, but speculating that he hadn't found enough females near, and moved on.

My daughter, from her perch on the back of the bike, always sees them first. We stop and watch "the jut of that odd, dark head/ pacing through the uncut grass." There is an empty lot among blocks of emptiness, down along the river, where water collects and it seems a dozen pheasants cross and recross like that impossible hill in Sylvia Plath's poem. Yesterday my wife came home early with a migraine, and by evening she was ready for fresh air, so she came with us, seeing this place for the first time. Four hens scurried away, followed by many babies, clucking and peeping into the protective brush. We stopped by a pothole you could hide several bodies in, watching these birds silent and amazed.

Every night, I read my daughter three poems. The first two are always my choice, but she always insists I end with Pheasant. I do not mind. There is that moment when you surprise a pheasant, or when you get too close for his comfort, and he stuns you with his departure. Plath writes, "It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud. . ." and that is perfect.

The sun sets on our empty lot early; it sits in the shadow of the city's tallest building, the slowly-emptying corporate headquarters of General Motors. All summer we have watched these multiplying birds on our way to the river and on our way home, but the sun sets earlier every night. Last night, on our way home, the sun was hiding behind the towers and the birds were already gone, in the dense shrubs: safe and warm, unhunted and unseen.

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, August 19, 2009 |

Thanks to everyone who attended this evening's talk. What an honor to speak to a packed house. If anyone had any thoughts or responses you didn't want to share in person, I'd love to hear from you via e-mail. I really do appreciate that so many of you came.

We've been at a cabin my mother-in-law rented on Lake Michigan all week. I've really been enjoying everyone's stories about the people and places that led them to the music they love. I am reminded of the mixtape my first girlfriend made for me, the tapes I went out and bought after hearing them played for the first time at camp, and the hours I spent in the record stores of my hometown trying to gauge what the employees thought was cool (except for that reggae guy).

There's a few more hours to enter the contest for the free Slotradio, I'll announce the random winner with an update to this post in the afternoon.

* * * * *Winner: Scott, 08.12.09 - 7:17 am ("But, now and then, if you take a more adventurous slant and flip the dial, click on an unfamiliar music blog link, or even just ask a friend what they're listening to these days, you can find a gem or two amongst an unfamiliar landscape of jazz, country, or even opera.") Congratulations Scott!

It has been well over a year since we did a music playlist on this site. At some point late in my wife's second pregnancy, I stopped listening to new music and started buying a lot of older records (remember the vinyl womb torture?). I had an amazing encounter with Jim Shaw at a record store in Hamtramck, where I followed him around as he pulled records out of the stacks and practically ordered me to buy them. From my casual mention of Sweetheart of the Rodeo he shared his vast knowledge of obscure roots music to help some guy that just wandered in off the street obtain a dozen records he would thoroughly enjoy and would lead to dozens more. Later, after Jim was stricken with a particularly ruthless cancer, I would read about how he had done this for countless others, especially musicians (including the Gories). Say what you want about the elitism of record stores: even with the glut of music available online, record stores are still places where records that should not be forgotten are placed directly in the hands of someone who will keep them turning.

So Jim Shaw handed me my cherished original issue of Jim Ford's Harlan County, Porter Wagoner's wonderfully insane What Ain't to be Just Might Happen, and Gene Clark's Echoes. And Matt at Underground Sounds handed me the reissued Death album, raving about it well before the New York Times ever did. And Brad at Peoples Records shares his amazing knowledge of Detroit music with anyone who walks into his new Woodward Ave. store. And there are also folks like the guys at The Rising Storm sharing their amazing record collections online. No one's musical taste evolves in a vacuum and I feel so thankful that there are people with such an amazing knowledge of old music sharing it instead of hoarding it.

For this mix, I wanted to share with you some of these cool older albums (in this case generally recorded between 1969 and 1972) that others have helped me discover. I don't have the ability to rip vinyl right now, so I chose songs that are generally available online elsewhere. Luckily they're still really good ones:

[streaming playlist]

1. Jim Ford: I'm Gonna Make Her Love Me, from Harlan County (1969)
2. Death: Keep on Knocking, from . . .For the Whole World To See (1974)
3. Diana Ross and the Supremes: Not Fade Away, unreleased (1964 cover of Buddy Holly song, based on the Rolling Stones' version)
4. Lonnie Mack: Asphalt Outlaw Hero, from The Hills of Indiana (1971) (I have many hundreds of trucker songs, but this is the only one that sounds like it was recorded for Motown).
5. Link Wray: Fire and Brimstone, from Wray's Three Track Shack (1971)
6. Gene Clark: Elevator Operator, from Echoes (1967) (there's this little chair in a 1920s elevator we frequent, and I laugh about this song every time we see it).
7. Paul & Linda McCartney: In the Heart of the Country, from Ram (1971)
8. Bob Martin: 3 Mill Town, from Midwest Farm Disaster (1972) (I don't have the vinyl for this amazing album (introduced by Jason@Risingstorm) but I was able to get the CD. Martin went on to become a high school economics teacher!)
9. Loudon Wainwright III: Motel Blues, from A Live One (1979) (I know he sings that douchey wedding song about daughters in the water, but I like this version way better than Alex Chilton's (which I heard first)).
10. Ernie Graham: So Lonely, from Ernie Graham (1971)
11. Karen Dalton: Something On Your Mind, from In My Own Time (1971) (I can't remember where I first heard Karen Dalton, but anyone who enjoys Joanna Newsom or Gillian Welch might be amazed by some of the songs Dalton recorded in the early 1970s)
12. Kim Fowley: Something New, from International Heroes (1973)
13. John Prine: Souvenirs, from Diamonds in the Rough (1972)
14. Bobby Charles: Small Town Talk, from Bobby Charles (1972)
15. Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson: My Rifle, Pony and Me from Rio Bravo Soundtrack (1959) (Okay, I know this doesn't really fit with the rest, but the Rio Bravo soundtrack was one of the records I was looking for when this whole thing started. I wanted to get a version of this song (one of my daughter's favorite lullabies) without the rascally old man in it. This song (and his performance in the movie) totally made me rethink Dean Martin and look up some great old songs by Ricky Nelson)
16. Porter Wagoner: Rubber Room, from What Ain't to be Just Might Happen (1972) (Jim Shaw's eyes widened when I told him I'd never heard this song. It is amazing. The lyrics are one thing, but consider also the reverb and echo effects. My daughter thinks this is a song about a bouncy castle)
17. Son Volt: Gramophone (live, 2005)

* * * * *

So, finding out about new music (or even old music) takes work (and help). We've got one last Sandisk Slot Radio player to give out (a $100 value). Sandisk is an advertiser on this site, and the little devices they're advertising are designed to take some of the work out of discovering new (and old) music. They come with 1000 preloaded songs and additional cards organized by genre can be purchased for $4o or so. Note: the playlist I created above is not affiliated with Sandisk or necessarily representative of any of the artists you will find on the SlotRadio.

We've had such an overwhelming response to these giveaways that I'm going to try to make this one a little bit harder to better the odds of those who participate. To enter the random drawing, tell us about some way you were exposed to new music that had a profound effect on you. It could be an old girlfriend, her cool older brother, a record store, a website, or a concert you just stumbled across. Anything. Or you could just say something about any of the songs I've posted above.

The contest ends at 3:00 p.m. EST on August 14, 2009. Good luck.

Posted by jdg | Monday, August 10, 2009 |

For any local readers who might be interested, on Tuesday, August 18 (at 6:00 p.m.) I am going to be showing some new photos and speaking for the Challenging Detroit: (Re)generating Urbanism series being conducted by Hamilton Anderson at the Johanson Charles Gallery in Eastern Market (1345 Division, Detroit). I'll be talking about Detroit's ruins, urban farming, Henry Ford, historic preservation, blogging, photography, tourism, the suburbs, the picturesque, Rosa Parks, Greenfield Village, and the aesthetics of abandoned places.

I am nervous no one is going to come and would love a chance to meet some local folks who read this website.

Details: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
@The Johanson Charles Gallery in Eastern Market (1345 Division, Detroit) [map]
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Minor Irritants

Posted by jdg | Friday, August 07, 2009

1. Toys at the drug store

Somewhere in China there are hundreds of smoking factories cranking out these pieces of shit that somebody keeps putting at my daughter's eye level at Rite-Aid. That's what really gets me: somewhere there are actually millions of smoking factory workers making this stuff: the droopy-looking dinosaurs that squeak mournfully when squeezed; the die-cast semi trucks that fall apart after 11 seconds of play; the PVC bags filled with drab, monochromatic GIs or farm animals that all look like bloated Siamese cats. I try to imagine a factory worker injecting Polyvinyl Chloride into a precision mold to produce thousands of rubber chicken keychains or whatever for his daily handful of yuan. Is there any purpose to the things he makes other than squeezing a few more dollars out of some undisciplined American parent who needs to get out of Walgreens without a ten minute conversation about why his daughter doesn't need that doll with skin the consistency of a milk jug and some other kid's thumbdents already in it?

At what point did the PRC's top commie brass realize that its factories already made everything the world needed, so it was necessary to begin making billions and billions of things that nobody in the world needs or even wants? Nobody except my daughter, apparently:

"That flashing LED starfish necklace is a piece of junk, honey. Half of the ones in the bin don't even work. . ."

"Sorry, it still smells a little like SARS. . ."

"We don't need it, baby. We need to have a long conversation about what the word 'need' means."


"There's no way I'm paying $2.99 for what would be just a buck at the Dollar General."

"Okay, okay, if you promise to shut up about it. . ."


2. Sugar

I've always thought that if a son of mine turned out to have some kind of mutant superpower, I would never reject him and send him off to live with that bald guy from Star Trek The Next Generation. I would nurture and celebrate his power, I thought. But I never imagined that my son's superpower would be the ability to analyze the sugar content of any foodstuff from twenty feet in order to reject or accept it. I could hire one of those people who make Taco Bell appear edible for television commercials to make a perfect-looking chocolate cake out of potted meat and my son would be able to tell it didn't contain sugar if he saw it on a low-res Youtube video. I can be struggling to get his attention to eat an edamame bean or avocado and someone in the next room will shift their weight and his mutant ears will hear the peppermint tic-tacs in their pocket. He calls all food worthy of consumption "cake." He calls everything else "yuck." Yesterday I told him a beautiful sliver of heirloom tomato was cake and the look he gave me said, Why would you lie to me, father? Don't you know I have a special power?

If he doesn't get over this phase pretty soon, I'm afraid we'll have a Little Chrissy on our hands:



(from John Waters' 1998 film Pecker).