Baby you can drive my car

Not all cab drivers are psychotic killers. Travis Bickel (Robert DeNiro) just gave us a bad name.

In this town, cab drivers were all something else – students, artists, writers, lawyers, or our next mayor. Driving cab was a vehicle to something greater. (link to a totally unrelated post by that title. It is great, and I didn’t write it.)

A fare would get in my cab and ask, “What do you do?” If I said, “I drive cab”, all conversation would stop. Clearly, I wasn’t one of Those People. Driving was not a noble profession by itself. If I said, “I’m driving cab to pay the bills while I organize a grocery co-op. When the store opens, I’ll quit this and that will become my full time job” – for some people, that would open up an interesting line of conversation. For others, the conversation would stop dead because it was clear that I was one of those people (not to be confused with Those People).

But one day, I hit on the right answer…Once a year, this college town was transformed. Between summer and fall semesters, when the town emptied out, we were host to The Graduate School of Banking. Bankers would come from far and wide to learn the latest ways to exploit us.

This was back in the dark ages – before streaming, before DVDs, before VHS. There were campus film societies showing 16 mm prints of all sorts of movies – 1930s and 40s screwball comedies, 40s and 50s film noir, foreign and art films, last year’s releases that were now released in 16 mm – but for two weeks all were transformed into porn promotors. Yes, those bankers had heard all about hippies and free love and hoped to come here to have sex with a nubile coed. Barring that, they’d watch porn films and then go patronize the massage parlors. And they took cabs everywhere. Many of them would ask me for tips – hoping I had a sideline as a pimp. If they got into my cab, I’m sorry to say their sex life was in their own hand(s).

So I was was driving a carload of bankers from the airport to their dorm and one asked, “So what do you do?” Without thinking, I said, “I’m a grad student in Poli Sci.” They quickly asked what I thought of President Nixon. I pontificated all the way to campus. Outside the dorm, I flipped the meter flag over to waiting time (where it charges by the minute and not by the mile) and continued to hold forth. They sat in rapt attention, asking more and more questions. I was a paid political pundit. They thanked me and tipped me as they got out. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

The conference ended and, early Saturday morning, I happened to drive by that dorm. I saw a couple guys standing out front. Now this is a town where you call a dispatcher who sends a cab; you don’t hail from the roadside. But they didn’t seem to know that and I pulled up and loaded my cab with bankers on their way to the airport. I dropped them and flew back to the dorm as fast as I thought I could get away with early on a Saturday morning. After three loads, another driver got wind of the situation and I had to share the wealth. For most of the summer, driving was a less-than-minimum-wage job, so I was gonna milk this for all I could.

Years later I took a course at City College called “Labor in Literature and the Arts”. There I was introduced to Sue Doro, who worked in an Allis Chalmers machine shop, building tractors and heavy equipment. She also wrote poetry – poetry for people who get their hands dirty. She published a collection of work poems called Blue Collar Goodbyes.

Poem too Tired for a Title

tired
as a
crumpled
lunch bag
home after work
the factory’s
sting
in my ears
i try
to smooth
myself
out
flatten
my wrinkles
and snap
myself
back into
life.

Sue Doro

I had to produce something for the course so I wrote one poem about each job I’d held. At least one has seen the light of day in these pages. I noticed there were a lot of cab driving poems out there, but I knew I had to write one. It was definitely the shortest of the bunch.

Obligatory Cab Driving Poem

People like me,
people who’ve worked a variety of
“interesting” jobs,
have all been cab drivers
at some time.

People like me,
people who write poems about their work,
all have to write about driving cab
at some time.

If you’ve heard
one cab driving story
you’ve heard ’em all.

Whew! One more poem
to cross off the list.

Who do they think they’re fooling?

Football metaphors at work. When we opened a new hospital, the new head honcho over there didn’t have a “business plan”, he had a “playbook”. This was supposed to tell us that he could relate to us because, of course, everyone in Wisconsin is a Packers fan.*

We no longer have “meetings”, we have “huddles”. First a huddle was differentiated from a meeting because it was supposed to be quick and at the start of a shift – plus it wasn’t held in a conference room, which required a reservation and for which (I think) our department had to pay rent to the corporation. But we don’t have a “department”, we have a “team”. We aren’t “employees”, we are “team members”. Now all meetings are called huddles.

And, of course, due to the pandemic, none of those huddles are held in person. Our computers lack cameras and microphones and the phones we are issued don’t work well enough to use for a meeting, so we use our personal phones. We can listen on a computer, but then we need to type our questions. We don’t use Zoom, but a different platform. Nonetheless, CR asked me to find a way to work this into a post, so here it is:

I just learned that I will soon no longer have an office (even one that I share with 10 – 20 pre-pandemic – others). I will have a “touchdown workstation”. A more apt metaphor would be touch and go landings for pilots in training. Or a deli where you take a number to see when you will be served. Or maybe a game of musical chairs. When the music stops, try to find a computer to do your documentation.

Since we’re using football metaphors, I’m going to call a couple of penalties. There were two fouls on the play: encroachment, by the clinic taking over our space; and unsportsmanlike conduct, by the $10 million donor and senior management. Neither penalty will be enforced.

I carried two boxes of stuff home from work Saturday, since I will soon have no place to put it. Walking out, I felt like someone being fired. Next, I’ll take down the family pictures and anything personal, as there will soon be no place to put them. Maybe I’ll remove the nametag above my desk and replace it with a 1980s-style generic sign that says

Remember these great 80s products? (Images from justbeerapp.com, stragegyonline.ca, cbc.ca) Consumer prices were rising rapidly so Loblaw, a Canadian company, introduced a line of generic products in generic packaging. Were they good? The point was they were cheap.

Football metaphors are the current fad. Several years ago we had “Colorful Communication”, a workshop in which we had to answer a questionnaire to determine our communication style: green for analytical, brown for authoritarian, blue for people-pleasing, red for anti-authoritarian. I came out striped.

*Though it is presumptuous to think everyone cares about American football, everyone in Wisconsin has at least one reason to be a Packers fan. The Green Bay Packers are unique in the professional sporting world. They are a community-owned team, with more than 360,000 shareholders. A billionaire owner will never move them to another state. Green Bay is a city of just over 100,000, by far the smallest city with a professional sports franchise in the US – and the team has been there for 100 years.

The right tool for the job

My father used to say “It is a poor workman who blames his tools”. (The saying, or variations, seems to date from the 13th century or before.) Maybe that’s how he justified using mostly a monkey wrench and a Vice Grips on nuts and bolts. I don’t recall him ever buying a tool. I was 18 before I realized that nails come from the hardware store. Before that I thought they came from the baby food jars in the garage. If the nail I needed wasn’t there, I went to the scrap lumber pile beside the garage, pounded a nail out of an old piece of wood, pounded it straight, and used that.

The flip side of that is “Use the right tool for the job.” I have favorite tools in all of my endeavors.

For cooking, it is the 8 inch French knife. Mine has a walnut handle that feels right in my hand. It is not the greatest of knives – it is stamped steel, which holds an edge well but doesn’t take an edge well. Forged steel is better, but this knife has been my companion for almost 50 years, since shortly after I no longer got paid for my knife skills, and my funds were limited (and I could get a massive discount on this particular brand due to my employer selling them). A KitchenAid stand mixer is probably my next favorite kitchen tool. Not used daily, like the knife, but pretty handy when I do use it.

Favorite plumbing tools include the Sawzall, which does what the name says. It will cut through framing, even with nails. It will cut pipe (better for removing old pipe than cutting new pipe, but it will cut copper, steel, cast iron, or plastic in a pinch). The ½ inch right angle drill will fit between studs and has enough torque to get through anything – mishandled, it can do damage – more to you than to the material. Add a Forstner bit (or the Plumber’s Self-feed Bit Kit) and you can make 2″ and larger holes in no time.

Pipe cutter image from Ridgid Tool (think of that as a 4″ diameter pipe to get an idea of scale), Drill image from Milwaukee Tool.

The hammer drill makes quick work of concrete when you could spend ridiculous amounts of time with a regular drill motor and a carbide bit, only to make a dent. The no-hub torque wrench is a simple and elegant tool – a T-handled wrench that tightens the couplings on cast iron pipe fittings and never overtightens. The cast iron pipe cutter beats the hell out of trying to saw through cast iron. It has a chain that wraps around the pipe, with cutting edges (vaguely similar to a chain saw) that bite into the iron. As you tighten it, the pipe suddenly snaps with a suitably straight end. (Torque wrench image from my toolbox.)

For winter biking I have written about favorites before (links to three different posts). The face deserves special consideration. Down to 20 degrees (F) I just use a tight-fitting, windproof cap that covers the ears and fits under a helmet. From 20 down to about 5 or 10 I add a silk balaclava that covers the chin and cheeks and can be pulled up to cover the nose and mouth if needed. From +5 to -20 it is a merino wool balaclava that covers the nose and has a breathing hole for the mouth (and if it is borderline too cold you can breathe inside of it to warm yourself instead of letting that heat escape). A pair of ski goggles gets added at this juncture. You can easily pay $200, $300, or more for ski goggles. Mine fit over glasses and currently sell for about $35 (Outdoor Master is the brand). I can’t find a justification for spending 10 times that much to get the brands the pro skiers wear. Colder than -20 degrees and I switch to a fleece balaclava that is otherwise way too warm. That seems to work to -30 and I haven’t ridden colder than that. I could probably fit the silk balaclava under the wool or fleece one to get colder. These temperature ranges may vary depending on the wind (and you – I see folks in goggles and balaclavas when it is barely freezing).

Ready to face -5 Fahrenheit (-20.5 C – you’ll have to convert the rest yourself)

Since we’re talking about serious cold, this is the weather to read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”. Full text is available here and it is a quick read. It is the story of a man, a dog, and a brutally cold day in Alaska.

Since this guy didn’t make it into the last post, I thought I’d add him today.

Now it’s your turn. What do you do and what is (are) your favorite tool(s) to do it with? Tell us in the comments.

Parasites

As a society we do not value working people or work. One of the most important economic measures is productivity – production per unit of labor. What does that mean? The fewer “units of labor” we invest in a product, the better.

The very idea of hard work is denigrated. My father used to tell me “Work smarter, not harder.” The point (originally) was industrial efficiency. (The phrase was coined by an industrial engineer in the 1930s. Industrial engineers are the guys who stand around with a clipboard watching you work and then tell you how to do a job that they’ve never done.) It was often heard as “You are more valuable if you sit behind a desk than if you get your hands dirty.”

You are not a person, you are a unit of labor and therefore a necessary evil until we can replace you with a robot. The very people who produce the goods are considered a drag on the economy.

But who are the real parasites? Who takes money from the economy without producing anything? High on my list is the insurance industry. There was once something called a “mutual aid society”. People realized that any one of us could be wiped out by a disaster and if we pooled our resources, we could take care of each other in times of trouble. That concept was bastardized by the insurance industry – a group of companies that take our money in good times so they can find ways to avoid giving it back in bad times: you contributed to your own loss; you had a pre-existing condition; we have this loophole that says your loss isn’t covered; maybe your loss should be covered but we’ll make you jump through enough hoops that you’ll give up. Even the hospitals have begun to recognize insurance as a parasite: https://www.hfma.org/topics/financial-sustainability/article/front-line-stories–how-today-s-prior-authorization-processes-cr.html

Advertising – an entire industry devoted to convincing you that you need something you don’t really need. Check out the movie The Joneses.

Once you buy it, you must of course buy the newer, bigger, better version. And “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is no accident. If a product lasts too long, you won’t buy the newer, bigger, shinier version. The clothes washer I bought used 27 years ago still works fine. If I’d bought a new one a few years ago when the new highly-efficient front loaders were all the rage, I would have learned only later that a load took more than twice as long, so the savings from less water used are offset by using twice as much electricity. Then I’d have found out that they have a tendency to grow mold. And when they fail, it’s often a motherboard failure and requires a new machine, not just a new part. Or that the new part cost almost as much as the machine – and isn’t in stock so I might as well buy the newer, shinier version instead of waiting for the part. Then maybe I’d get one that solved the mold problem – or not.

If The Joneses is not dark enough for you, try the earlier British film How to Get Ahead in Advertising.

Advertising only works if you continue to buy more stuff. And advertising doesn’t make stuff any better – just more expensive, since the stuff has to pay for the advertising. And we don’t call it “advertising” anymore – it’s “marketing” because that sounds more scientific. The”science” is the science of how to manipulate us more effectively. Parasites, all of ’em.

Real estate sales – another parasitic industry. Since we know that producing more land is rare, the entire industry is devoted to driving up the price of the land that already exists. The concept of private ownership of property results in speculative purchase of land – ownership of land specifically for the purpose of selling it to someone else later at a higher price. The epitome of capitalism: Making money by having money. If you can afford to buy land, you can get rich by doing nothing. Work is for suckers.

You can hire a real estate agent to help you buy a house. By state law (in Wisconsin) a real estate agent always represents the seller. It is in the agent’s best interest (and legal obligation) to get the highest possible price for the house. Since they get paid a percentage of the sale price, their income is directly tied to what you pay. So don’t think there is any such thing as a “buyer’s agent.” If you each hire an agent, they are on the same side – not yours, if you are buying.

Human Resources departments. Once upon a time, we found that companies had this unpleasant tendency to exploit their workers. Bosses just might sexually harass their underlings. We came up with the idea of a personnel department – a place to take your grievances and maybe not lose your job for voicing them. Over time this morphed into a “Human Resources” department – a department devoted to exploiting the “resource” represented by your labor, the way Peabody Coal exploits coal deposits. What is a “resource” other than a profit center? Now we lose benefits we used to have, or they find creative accounting and reporting practices so when you look at your pay stub you can’t really tell if you still have the same benefits you used to have. They can change sick leave, vacation, and holidays into “MTO”. You can have the “freedom” to take vacation OR get sick. And maybe that time off will expire if you don’t use it – so if you get really sick, you don’t have a bank of sick leave to draw on. And maybe, when they combine those into one “bank”, the total number of hours will mysteriously shrink – if you can ever figure out what that total is.

Management – talk about parasites. There is actually a service to be performed by management. There is work that needs to be done behind the scenes to support productive work. That’s management. A job in service to and in support of production. Today, the CEO who makes 320 times what the typical worker makes is the real parasite. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO made 21 times as much as the average worker in 1965 (21:1). By 1989 that had gone to 65:1. In 2018, 293:1. And in the single year from 2018 to 2019, that jumped to 320:1. Does the CEO provide 320 times the value of the worker? Does the CEO provide value? Does the CEO produce anything?

So if you are a production worker, you are not a parasite. It is your labor that produces everything we need (as well as everything we don’t but those noted above convince us we do). So, hats off to the parasites of the world – those who suck money and produce nothing. But when you take that hat off, make sure you hold onto it or they will steal it so they can sell you another.

In the interest of disclosure, I have worked as a manager (including management consultant), plumber, maintenance worker, grocery buyer and stocker (including produce manager), cashier, restaurant worker, occupational therapist, temp worker, and others if you count unpaid workand I do – but I won’t enumerate them here. I have served on the Board of Directors of a co-operative, a non-profit day care center, and a non-profit theatre company. I have been a member of two unions. My “careers” have been in co-operative management, plumbing, and health care. Nobody pays me to ride a bike.)