Monday, May 25, 2015

deliver the letter the sooner the better

Email has cut considerably into the United States Postal Service's business. For goodness sake, the USPS lost two billion dollars in 2014.

Although I pay almost all of my bills online, I still mail a check or two over the course of a year. My wife and I, like most folks over forty, still mail actual, physical birthday cards to loved ones annually. So, there is still the need for the Postal Service. And just this morning, I attempted to put that need to use.

My train pulled in to Philadelphia's Suburban Station this morning around 8:15, like it does pretty much every morning. I exited the train and fumbled around in my bag for the birthday card my wife left — on my bureau next to my wallet — for me to mail. I climbed the stairs from the subterranean train platform up to the main floor of the train station, where, among the bustling coffee shops and newsstands, I would find a mailbox. I pass one every morning. It's right in front of one of four Dunkin Donuts I pass on my usual route to my office building. 

And — sure enough — there was the mailbox. But there was a guy standing right in front of it. Actually, leaning on it! He was a real corporate-type. Expensive-looking briefcase in his hand and an expensive-looking haircut on his head. He wore a tailored trench coat and was peering over the tops of his designer glasses, frowning as he thumbed through the contents of his iPhone. And he was blocking all access to the mailbox.

I approached him and the mailbox. "Excuse me, please." I said. I tried to force my lips into a smile.

He looked up from his phone with the most annoyed, the most evil scowl on his face. An expression that would be the result of someone asking if they could drop dog shit on your head or a doctor informing you of a surprise rectal exam. The disdain on his face was palpable. And he didn't seem to want to make an attempt at moving.

I raised the birthday card up so he could see I had something to deposit in the mailbox and I was not just asking him to vacate his staked parcel of linoleum tiled floor as a matter of aesthetics. Slowly — painfully slowly — he slunk over to the side of the mailbox, graciously allowing me to open the access door and drop in my card.

The train station is a huge building, three city blocks long and a city block wide. It is a transportation hub for 13 regional rail train lines, as well as the city's two subway routes. It handles approximately 25,000 passengers per day. Per day. PER FUCKING DAY! And the only place this guy could find to stand in the whole fucking building was right in front of a fucking mailbox?

I suppose this is what they mean by "going postal."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

sharp as a pistol

Taking up an area of a little under two square miles with a population of a little shy of ten thousand, you probably never heard of Bristol, Pennsylvania. Oh, wait. There's that song about Bristol — by The Dovells — that hit Number Two on the Billboard charts in 1961. And of course it was the county seat of Bucks County until... um... 1725, but I guess you weren't around for that. Sure, Bristol has its share of history, like any number of towns in one of the original thirteen colonies. I'm sure, at one time, George Washington stopped to ask directions in Bristol or Ben Franklin knocked back a couple of brews at one of the many "publick houses." Actually, Bristol, in all of its charming quaintness, looks a lot like Alexandria, Virginia or Cooperstown, New York or a movie set from a Revolutionary War documentary. It's got that small town, "everyone-knows-everyone-else" homeyness that made you love or hate The Andy Griffith Show. At any given time, it's a good bet that someone is baking a pie in Bristol.

My wife won a pair of tickets to see a production of the Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime at the Bristol Riverside Theatre. Although I am, admittedly, not a fan of stage productions (I love concerts and I love movies, but there's something about stage plays and musicals that rubs me the wrong way), there is very little that I will turn down if it's free. So, on the designated Thursday evening, we drove a mere forty minutes to the tiny burg on the Delaware River. 

Down by the riverside!
We easily found a place to park and made our way to the theater. I was quite surprised to find the place bustling with activity, including a charter bus idling out front, unloading a contingency of folks all dolled up in their weekday finest. The small lobby was alive with chatter, as patrons handed over their tickets and a team of young ushers guided them to their seats. I turned to Mrs. P and commented, "I never imaged it would be so busy." She replied, "Like there's anything else to do in Bristol on a Thursday." She looked at me with that "rolling-your-eyes-without-actually-rolling-your-eyes" look. I smiled in agreement.

We took our seats in the small, darkened theater. The few lights dimmed completely and a very "Aunt Bee" -sort of woman took center stage for some pre-show announcements, most likely to encourage participation in an upcoming bake sale or pancake breakfast to support the church building fund. The the orchestra readied their assorted instruments (a real live orchestra, not a borrowed tape player!) and began the lush overture. On the stage the silhouetted actors moved into position. The lights raised, a spotlight illuminated the group of actors tasked with delivering the opening song and we were off.

I have to confess. I did not have high expectations for this show. In reality, I wanted to hate this show. I mean I really wanted to hate it. In my head, I had already devised a bunch of smarmy lines to incorporate into a blog post (this blog post, as a matter of fact!). I was expecting a high school caliber production with cardboard cutout sets, thrown-together costumes and "amateur-hour" quality singing. I wanted to relish the embarrassment and failure paraded before me. I even hated the book upon which the show was based.*

Boy, was I surprised.

The opening number was fantastic — a word I do not often use. It was professional. It was commanding. It was on par with any Broadway production. Meticulous costumes. Clever, multi-purpose staging. Intricate choreography. Soaring voices. And it was flawless. At the conclusion of the first song, my bewildered eyes met Mrs. P's equally bewildered eyes in the darkness. We were both thinking the same thing — "Holy crap! That was awesome!"

And, so, for the next two hours, we were treated to a totally engaging, totally entertaining production. Staging and special effects were more elaborate as the show progressed, including simulated fireworks and a full-size, working Ford Model T. At the show's conclusion, the cast took many well-deserved curtain calls and the thunderous applause signified unanimous approval.

And this blog post — specifically the distinct reversal of sentiment — is the highest praise I could give.

In all fairness, I never actually finished the novel Ragtime. I got through the first two chapters and I didn't hold my interest,

Sunday, May 17, 2015

let's go trippin'

Oh what a fucking ordeal this turned out to be. (Wait a second. That sounds familiar. Didn't I just start a post like that? Are all subsequent blog posts gonna start like that? Well, only if they turn out to be a fucking ordeal... like this one.)

It began way back in 2009. That's right – this tale is six years in the making, However, I didn't become aware of it until a year later. But wait – I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 2010, I received a letter from an attorney informing me that this was my final warning. As far as I was concerned, it was also my first warning, as I had not received any previous correspondence from this particular lawyer. I quickly skimmed the letter and my attention was grabbed by such legal-jargon words as "negligence," "fault," and a few more fearsome-sounding Latin ones. Although the return address was in Philadelphia, I was not familiar with the particular law practice. The letter, upon closer scrutiny, recapped an incident that (allegedly) occurred on my property the previous winter. A seasonal employee of the United Parcel Service was (allegedly) attempting to make a delivery to my home. Because of the nature of my wife's business, she receives assorted sized packages of merchandise at our home on a regular basis. (Before you jump to a conclusion of an illegal operation, Mrs. P operates an eBay store and sells a variety of legitimate merchandise.) The UPS employee, who I'll call Miss Menteuse, was carrying a stack of boxes and (allegedly) tripped on my driveway. The letter went on to brandish the words "damages," "restitution" and several others that could all be punctuated by the greedy "cha-CHING" of a nuisance lawsuit.

I immediately called my insurance company. I explained about the letter to my agent's assistant*. She listened attentively, taking down details, asking a few questions including for a copy of the letter. I followed that call with one to my local police department. I asked if any reports of an accident had been filed about my address in the past year. Police records were checked and my answer was negative. So, I figured I'd just let my insurance company handle it. After all, that's what I pay insurance for, right?

So that was that. Wrong!

A little over a year later, I was contacted by mail by a new lawyer. This one was contracted by my insurance company to represent me. The letter explained that I would most likely have little or nothing to do regarding a pending lawsuit and that everything would be handled between my insurance company and their office. This letter was just informational. So, I filed it under a stack of papers on my nightstand and forgot about it.

Until I received the next letter, many, many months later. This one requested (demanded?) an appearance by my wife and me at a deposition. Mrs. P and I were to be questioned informally, but on the record, about the (alleged) incident. Furious, I arranged for a day off from work. My wife and I trekked out to a corporate campus in the western Philadelphia suburbs to "our" attorney's office. Here we got to meet the (allegedly) injured Miss Menteuse for the first time, nearly three years after her (alleged) "episode on our driveway. We also had the pleasure of meeting her legal representative – a shifty, slimy, hairy-knuckled shyster in an expensive-looking pin-striped suit. He looked like an extra in a B-movie Godfather rip-off and spoke like those slick ambulance-chasers you see on afternoon TV between The Price is Right and Judge Judy. A court reporter sat poised to document every word and the questions began. 

Miss Menteuse's attorney produced a wrinkled legal pad from his weather-beaten briefcase and kicked things off by calling me "Mr. Menteuse." 

I corrected him. "Pincus," I said.

"Huh?," he replied, as though he had never heard either name before. Realizing his error, he over-apologized and explained that, of course, his client's name was "Menteuse" and it was an honest mistake. 

Caution! May cause
irreparable damage!
And that's pretty much how it went. This distracted, fourth-rate Clarence Darrow hammered me with elaborately-phrased scenarios that evoked both confusion and impatience from me, my wife and my attorney. He often prefaced a question with "Now, I'm not trying to trick you.," accompanied by a leering, toothy grin. Each time, it was quite obvious that he was trying to trick me. Eventually, Miss Menteuse recounted, to the best of her apparently-rehearsed recollection, the events of December 2009. She told how the boxes she was carrying were piled way past her eyes, blocking her line of vision. She explained that she, indeed, walked all the way up to my front porch and decided not to scale the two steps, instead opting to seek alternate access to my front door. She then walked backwards to the sidewalk, and admittedly, without checking the path in front of her, crossed my narrow driveway and fell. As she rubbed her (alleged) injured ankle, she looked around and surmised that she had caught the heel of her work boot in a small, uneven piece of paving – a small, time-eroded imperfection that had been in that condition for the twenty-five years I have owned my house. Then, Miss Menteuse launched into a sob story, touching on (alleged) unemployment, being a single parent (allegedly), (alleged) constant pain and the (alleged) impaired ability to function properly as a productive member of the human race. All delivered with the gut-wrenching emotion of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. However, there was nothing wrong with her that an award of fifty thousand dollars wouldn't cure.

Several tedious hours later, we were dismissed from the proceedings. Our attorney confidently speculated that this whole matter would come to some kind of settlement before it would reach an actual court date. My wife, whose greatest concern was that we would be in jeopardy of losing our house, was assured that was an impossibility. This was more of a thorn in our insurance company's side. Relieved, we thanked him and headed home.

But it was far from over.

Another year has passed when we received a letter, once more, requesting our presence at a non-binding arbitration. I called our attorney for a translation of the "legalese" of the letter, of which his office was copied. He broke it down in layman's language. A panel of three impartial attorneys would hear both sides of the case and make a decision of either dismissal or a monetary award. The decision, however, could be appealed, in which case, another settlement could be attempted or it would go to trial. A case of this nature, according to our attorney's experience and speculation, would be dismissed by any sane judge.

We soon found ourselves in the sterile, corporate surroundings of municipal building in the county seat. Three gentlemen in dark suits introduced themselves as the arbitration committee and informed all parties that they were ready to proceed. The entire deposition was reenacted for the benefit of the committee, with Miss Menteuse's attorney, once again, showing off everything he learned from Perry Mason reruns. Miss Menteuse offered her testimony first, tinging her answers with sorrow. In addition to her belabored account of the (alleged) incident, she told an irrelevant anecdote about a family vacation to Niagara Falls that seemed to baffle all present. When it was my turn in the hot seat, I repeated my statements from a year ago nearly verbatim (it was the truth), as Mrs. P sat behind me with the most forlorn look on her face. And once again, we were dismissed.

Another year's passing brings us up to the present. It turns out that the three-person panel fell for Miss Menteuse's tale of woe and deemed me an uncaring slumlord who had neglected the upkeep of his property for twenty-five years until it fell into an unsafe state of disrepair. They felt that the sum of thirty-two thousand dollars would make everything all better. Miss Menteuse's attorney felt otherwise and filed an appeal one day after the committee's findings were tendered. It seems either he or his client were not satisfied with the amount of the reward. So, after many months, another arbitration was agreed upon. This one will (allegedly) be it – final! binding! winner take all!

Once again, we were to meet on neutral grounds – this time, an attorney's office in downtown Philadelphia. Mrs. P and I arrived at 8:30 in the morning – forty minutes early for our appointment – only to be informed that the schedule was changed and the session would take place in the afternoon. We left and I returned alone, after being told that Mrs. P would not need to be present. For the third or fourth time (I lost count), the story was told. The boxes, the neglect of my property, Miss Menteuse's carelessness, my disregard for human life, her pitiful, struggle-filled existence – all the drama and pathos for a brand new, singular audience. Miss Menteuse's weaselly little legal representative was blatantly disinterested. He never put down his cellphone, he shuffled through an unorganized stack of papers, he tripped over words and couldn't recall dates or events. He told everyone that over the course of the last year, Miss Menteuse had lost an adult daughter in a fire (it was irrelevant to the case and was only used as a sympathy ploy), then went on to compare her pain from the fall to that suffered by someone who had been in a fire. His closing statement rambled on and on, still trying to get me to admit that my driveway is a deathtrap. Finally, the proceedings ended and, after some deliberation, the solo arbitrator would give his decision withing the week.

I received an email from my attorney. It was a summation that read like the recap of a long round of Deal or No Deal:
In today’s mail I received the arbitrator’s written opinion. He found the plaintiff 49% negligent and you 51% negligent for this incident. He determined that her damages were worth $26,000. However. based upon the reduction for her 49% the net award to the plaintiff is $13,260.
She and her lawyer essentially fucked her out of thirteen thousand bucks.

So, after six grueling years of paperwork and (alleged) doctor visits and depositions and arbitration, Miss Menteuse will end up with (after her slime ball attorney takes his cut) approximately $8000. I hope she's happy. Now that this is all over, I know I am. 


*In over thirty years, I think I actually met my insurance agent only once.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

gigolo aunt

Aunt Clara and JPiC at the Philadelphia Zoo, August 1964.
When I was little, my Aunt Clara was a fixture in my life. She was very, very close with my mother, who was her little sister. So, she was regularly at our house for dinner, for holidays and, sometimes, for no reason at all. She would often accompany my family on short trips to Atlantic City. She came to birthday parties. She went along with us on visits to the zoo. She was around so much that I would refer to her as my "second Mommy." And, since she had no children of her own —boy! — did she love and relish that.

She did some strange, inexplicable and surprising things, too. One year, at Halloween, when I was too old to go trick-or-treating, I decided to don a costume and scary make-up to frighten to kids who came to our door. Aunt Clara was staying at our house that night. When I spotted a group of costumed kids approaching our front door, I'd hit the lights, cue the eerie music and open the door, letting them behold my horrible visage. Aunt Clara popped in and asked the kids, "Are you scared?" — totally breaking the illusion and ruining the moment. A few years later, at a party for me in lieu of a formal Bar Mitzvah, Aunt Clara made off with a copy of Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness' First Finale that was supposed to be a contest prize for one of my guests. I'm still not sure how she managed to sneak around a bunch of thirteen-year-olds and cop that album.

As I got older, I started to see things in my Aunt Clara that, perhaps, were always apparent, but I may have been too young to understand. For one thing, she treated my father like shit. Sure, my dad had his share of faults, but Aunt Clara took a "disgruntled mother" role towards her sister's husband. She criticized and belittled my father, perhaps in misplaced retaliation for her own failed marriage. After Aunt Clara divorced my Uncle Sal, she was romantically linked to a mystery man, referred to only as "Dee." For twenty-plus years, no one ever met him, although Aunt Clara talked about him often.

I believe that Aunt Clara had a difficult time accepting the fact that I grew up. She continued to treat and talk to me like I was a child well into my high school and early adult years. When I got married, I began to see behavior from Aunt Clara that I'm sure existed previously, but I guess I just ignored. She was invited, as a part of my family, to my new in-laws' house for dinner. My mother-in-law was serving buffet-style and Aunt Clara pulled a chair right up to the buffet table, tucked a napkin in her blouse and began eating. It was embarrassing, to say the least.

When my mother died, Aunt Clara gave an Oscar-worthy performance as the grief-stricken mourner. She dramatically sobbed and wept at the funeral, loudly proclaiming, "I'm all alone! My sister is gone!" This, in front of my father, my brother and me and after she had been living in Florida and not seeing her beloved sister for several years. When my father died, two years later, she asked my brother, via a late-night phone call, "Should I come up to Philadelphia for the funeral?" I stood next to my brother, as he answered that the decision was totally hers, that she should do what she felt was right for her. The next day, she called to tell me that she would not be coming in for my dad's funeral, explaining, "I wanted to come, but your brother insisted that I shouldn't make the trip." As she lied to me, I felt betrayed. I wondered what else in my life she had lied to me about.

I did, however, invite Aunt Clara to my son's Bar Mitzvah because (as I was told by my wife) it was the right thing to do. Although Aunt Clara did not attend, she once again surprised us by sending a gift.

Over the years, my brother remained in touch with Aunt Clara. I, however, did not. He and his family made annual visits to her retirement complex in Florida. I did not. Upon his return, my brother would give me a brief rundown of the trip and Aunt Clara's current status and day-to-day activities. I feigned interest.

At the end of December 2014, my brother returned from his most recent journey to Florida. It was to be his final one. Aunt Clara had passed away after months of declining health. My brother filled me in on details and I politely listened. Then, he told me the two of us were named as beneficiaries of an insurance policy Aunt Clara had purchased from her employer decades earlier. I was shocked that my name had not been purposely stricken from every piece of Aunt Clara's inheritance. After providing specific information and a month or so of processing, I received a check for a thousand bucks.

I have to hand it to Aunt Clara. She was full of surprises right to the end.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

...and through the wire

What a fucking ordeal this turned out to be.

My wife regularly parks her car in our driveway and I have claimed the spot in front of my house as mine. I remove my trash cans in the specified amount of time after collection. I shovel the snow off my sidewalk within the specified period after the last flake has fallen. I pay a lot of property taxes. So, I feel I am entitled to the small pleasure of having a space for my car on the street. One that is convenient to my house. I will openly admit that I am pretty protective of that space.

Since I take the train to work, my car sits in front of my house at least five days a week. Sometimes, my wife and I will go out in her car, so I don't even move it on weekends. When I do make a quick trip to the dry cleaners on a Saturday morning, nothing pisses me off more than when I return to find someone has taken my spot, especially if they have recklessly left their vehicle illegally close to the apron of my driveway. I have actually kept tabs on a car parked in "my spot" with periodic surveillance out my front window. As soon as the car pulls away, I run out to my car (parked up the street) and re-park in my rightful space.

A month or so ago, when the weather started getting nicer, I noticed some stains scattered across the sidewalk in front of my house. Upon closer inspection, I found large, oily streaks — long vertical drips, if you will — running the length of my car. My roof, windshield, hood and entire passenger's side were covered with this sticky, greasy, mystery substance. After a little procrastination, I took my car to a car wash, but ended up cleaning that crap off the car myself.  I looked around. There are no tree branches within striking distance of my car. I was baffled by a possible source. I did notice a cable or wire or something (I'm not an electrical contractor, so what do I know?) suspended from a utility line above my car and, obviously, stretching the entire length of my street. However, this particular cable was severed right above my car. Putting two and two together, it seemed that something was leaking from this cable and it was landing on my car. I decided to give the power company a call.

"Danger! Danger! High voltage!"
Coincidentally, we were having some work done in our basement (A pipe had broken inside a wall. Here's how that ended.) and the contractor smelled gas. In the Philadelphia suburbs, the gas and electricity are supplied and serviced by the same utility company. So, a call was made and when the gas worker came to check out the smell, my wife pointed out the cut cable, the stained sidewalk and the new drips on my car. He filled out a report and, later that day, several trucks were lining the street. Hard-hatted guys with strange equipment and clipboards were marching around, looking skyward, taking readings and calling headquarters. A cigar-chomping supervisor explained that someone had taken (read: stolen) the cable housing, as the removal was not authorized by the power company. He said that the material has a high lead content and it is valuable to thieves. The housing, which is now obsolete and no longer in service, was filled with mineral oil to keep the cable lubricated. When it was cut, and the weather got warmer, the oil leaked out all over the sidewalk and my car. He was, however, puzzled by the undetected theft, considering the height and awkward placement of the "spoils."

The workers paraded around my street for hours. About ten o'clock at night, a service truck was spanning my driveway and a worker was hoisted up in a cherry-picker. Armed with — what I can only assume was — heavy-duty, industrial-quality electrical tape, the worker bound each open end of the cut cable, taking extra care to secure a tight barrier of tape around any opening. When he was finished, the cable was twisted, but it would (hopefully) not leak anymore. My car was moved to the foot of my driveway to allow the trucks and workers access to the wires and their task at hand. I had full intention of moving my car back into "my spot" the next morning before I headed down to the train station.

"Not my car!"
Wouldn't you know it! Someone was parked in my goddamn parking space!