Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Thief

(Inspired by a Facebook discussion about losing things)

I usually wear contact lenses, but I have a very good, very expensive pair of glasses, with Armani frames, and progressive lenses.  They cost maybe $600, but I have had them for ten years. I have one and only one place where I put the glasses when I am not wearing them - in my briefcase.

I was watching something on television and decided to use my glasses. I can see well enough without correction to watch TV, but for some reason one night I wanted my glasses.  I went to the one and only place where I keep them, and they weren't there. I was confused. I started looking for my glasses, but, as I say, there really was only one place for them to be and I really didn't know where to begin.

I searched everywhere that I could think of. No glasses.  Then I identified a suspect:

Mr. Innocent
This cat had stolen dozens of small items - cat toys, my wife's hair thingies, refrigerator magnets, and so forth. Usually they end up under the refrigerator, but sometimes they go into another dimension of space and time (cats are known for living in another dimension). So, we figured, Smilo had grabbed my glasses.  Now the search was renewed, focusing on 'under' various things. Under the bed, under the sofa, under the refrigerator, anyplace a cat might have smacked something.  No luck.

I had another pair of glasses, but they were a really old prescription. I was in the habit of putting my lenses in mid-morning, because right after I put them in, my vision in the dark is a little blurry, and it makes it hard to deal with headlights of cars and such. So, I had been using my glasses to drive to work in the morning, and this old backup pair worked okay for looking out the window, but not so well for looking at the dashboard. I struggled for several weeks, thinking I might have to go to the eye doctor, but also thinking - damn it! - those glasses are in the house somewhere.

After a few weeks, in the middle of our home office, on the floor right out in the open where they couldn't possibly have been missed, sat my glasses case, with the glasses inside. The case had been mutilated horribly - teeth and claw marks everywhere. A hockey puck would have had an easier life.

Smilo is a Maine Coon. He was tiny when we got him, although the animal shelter said he was a year or two old.

Smilo at the shelter
Maine Coons can become quite large, and this guy is no exception. The most recent time we took him to the vet, he weighed in at 21 pounds, and he's long. He can reach up on a desk and steal a pair of glasses out of a briefcase, easily. He also opens doors, as long as they have a latch style handle and not a doorknob.  He has not figured out deadbolts.

Smilo got his name partially from his prior name, at the shelter, which was Milo, and partially for a little smirk that he wears when things are going his way, such as when he's stolen something important.  

Smilo smiling
I now have a different kind of briefcase, with a pocket that snaps shut and requires quite a bit of force (and an opposable thumb) to open.  I replaced my eyeglass case, and my glasses are now secure.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Smoking causes more than cancer

My wife and I took our first trip to Ireland in September of 2000. Ireland did not ban smoking in the workplace until March of 2004, which had an impact on me, to be discussed later. We had a very rushed itinerary, not knowing any better, and spent much too much of the time driving. Driving in Ireland is not exactly relaxing!  Especially your first time. They drive on the left, and the roads are much narrower than in the States. This has improved since 2000 in the more built-up parts of Ireland, but not everywhere.

We spent a few days in Dublin, visiting museums, historic sites, and the Guinness plant. We stayed at the Arlington Hotel, really a pretty nice hotel with king sized beds and an awful breakfast. The hotel has a huge bar, perhaps the biggest in Ireland, and it was so large and open that smoke wasn't much of a problem for us.  And so we had our first Guinness there, making the usual stupid American mistake of failing to understand the Guinness ritual.

We rented a car in Dublin, and picked it up at a hotel. I don't know if you can do this any more - the company, called County Car Rental, now does not make cars available in the center of town. So, our first experience driving in Ireland was on O'Connell Street of all places, in the midst of heavy noontime traffic. We had to navigate to the road along the Liffey that leads out of town. The turn was counter-intuitive, but my wife helped me through it. Our first night was to be in a B&B outside Longford, which we chose for no particular reason except that my mother's grandparents came from that area. It was not far from Dublin but given that it was my first experience driving on the wrong side, I was glad not to be driving for very long.

We managed to find the B&B, and rested up for a while.

That afternoon, we went into a little tiny pub in Newtownforbes, and got our first exposure to full-on smokatarians. It absolutely reeked of smoke and we literally bounced out. There's no telling how long that pub had been there, but the interior definitely had not been cleaned in decades.

I made a point of having my wife take a turn at the wheel.

Driving on the left is something that I never quite get comfortable with, and consequently I find driving in Ireland to be much more fatiguing than driving at home, even on country roads with more sheep than cars in your way. It has gotten easier over the years, but it still takes more concentration.

Our week was fairly rushed. The last stop we had was in a town in southwest Ireland called Kenmare, a beautiful little town full of nice restaurants and cute little shops.

Unfortunately, our B&B was not within walking distance of Kenmare, it was nearly in the next county, at the end of a no-lane road where, of course, we encountered an oncoming vehicle. On our last night in Kenmare, we drove into town a little early for dinner. We found a place to park, and were just wandering around, killing time. Now, in 2012, or any time after March 2004, we would have been sitting on a stool in a pub drinking the black stuff. But we could not tolerate the smoke.

There is an old stone circle in Kenmare, thousands of years old, so we wandered back there to kill some time. I took a few photos, and it started to rain.

Moments later, I was walking down a moderate slope, putting my camera away to keep it out of the rain. My left foot slipped out from under me, and all of my weight came down on my right leg, which did not slip, but flexed past the point where it could flex, and I went down with a loud crack. I knew it was something bad, but not what it was. I could not get up.  I was not in pain; I do not have a high tolerance for pain - it just didn't hurt at all. I asked Jody to go get some help - we were alone in this stone circle and no one was around.

So she did, and while she was off accosting some unsuspecting Irishmen, I crawled over to some shelter, and pulled myself to my feet.  But I could not walk, only stand. Eventually they helped me into a car, and took me to the home/office of the local physician, who, as luck would have it, was on vacation. A substitute doctor was there, and he examined me in a cursory fashion, but he could not diagnose the injury.  He just said to keep it elevated and put ice on it. Where do you get ice?  In a pub!

We managed to get back to our B&B, and if I had something to lean on, I could walk, so I could do the stairs and hobble around our room. We spent a restless night - we never did get dinner - and the next day we had to go back to Dublin anyway to go home, so we did that. It's a considerable distance from Kenmare to Dublin, and in 2000 all the motorways that cross the country had not yet been completed, and we had to slog through every little town all the way. Of course, Jody had to drive the whole distance.

We stayed at an airport hotel, which was also the drop-off point for the rental. Our car was green down the passenger side, because we always dragged along the left side, trying to duck away from the oncoming traffic, and we were brushing against the shrubbery. But it was otherwise undamaged.  As it happened, or hotel room was set up for a disabled guest.  The next day we got the van to the terminal, and I had a hell of a time getting to our gate, but with Jody's help managed it. We had to have a wheelchair meet us in London, and I had to have a ride to the gate for the American flight back to DFW. Once on the plane, I was fine, in that I could hold on to a seat if necessary while walking (I hate when people do that to me, but I had no other option).  We'd requested a wheelchair on arrival at DFW, but none arrived. Our lead flight attendant got on the phone and got us some assistance, and she waited with us until it came. I didn't know then, but know now, the lady was not being paid by the airline any more once the door opened. She was a lifesaver.

We learned, after some difficulty finding an orthopedist, that I had completely torn my quadriceps tendon, without which you can't walk, at least not forward. Evidently you can walk backwards, but I didn't try it. The strangest thing is that there was just a little discomfort, but never any pain. The doctor was alarmed in that, in his opinion, this injury was a medical emergency and should have been treated within 48 hours. But the nearest hospital to Kenmare would have been back in Killarney, and our insurance would not have been good there, and so the best option was to limp on home.

But none of this would have happened, except for the smoke in the pubs.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

First Experience with a Union

This was during the summer of 1966.  I graduated from Xavier High School which was located on 16th Street in Manhattan. I had commuted to high school from our apartment in Jackson Heights. My summer job was in the central lost and found office of American Airlines, at LaGuardia Airport, in one of those classic old hangars that had been built a very long time ago.  This was a 10 or 15 minute walk from where we lived.

Not long after I started working there, we moved to Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Stuyvesant Town is a large apartment complex, developed originally by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. It was on the East Side, bordered on the south by 14th Street and on the North by 20th Street. On the west the border was at First Avenue, and on the east, Avenue C. So, it was a 15 minute walk to the high school I had just graduated from, after commuting there for four years from Queens.  Now I was doing virtually the same commute, but in the other direction.

My job was in the lost and found office for baggage. The airline routed any lost baggage to our office, if the local station couldn't return it to its owner within x number of days. We would try to figure out where it should go. Sometimes this was easy, in that the bag had a tag on it with a name and address. But in those days, passengers were not required to put name tags on their bags, so sometimes, maybe most of the time, all you had was the bag itself and whatever was inside.

We had a set of keys from each manufacturer and could, usually, open any bag with a key without damaging it. I learned, for example, that one key from Samsonite or American Tourister could open just about any other bag from Samsonite or American Tourister!  Sometimes the lost bag would be a duffel bag or sea bag from a soldier or sailor home on leave. They would just leave the duffel bag at the airport intentionally, figuring they could pick it up again on the way back. It didn't work out that way.

I worked directly for a woman named Trudy, whose last name I remember but won't report, and she was, I would guess, around 30.  She was very attractive, but since I was 17, she was completely out of my league. Basically, she was the expert on how to work with these bags, document their contents, try to figure out who the owner was, and put together a teletype message to send to a central exchange among all the airlines where a computer would try to match lost bags with claims. If we could positively ID the owner, which happened probably less than half the time, we would get help from one of the claims specialists in the other office, who would try to contact the owner by phone and arrange for return of the item.

The bags were often very heavy. In those days, few if any bags were lightweight material like they are now, and there was no particular weight limit that I recall. My job was to lift the bags on the table. And really, that's all it was.  But Trudy didn't like sitting down all day, so she had me sit behind the desk and take notes, while she lifted the bags, popped them open, and sifted through the contents. She was particularly fond of Asian porn in the duffel bags/sea bags, and made a point of hustling out to show it to one of the other ladies who worked there whenever she found some. No, she never showed it to me.

One day Trudy injured herself hauling one of those heavy bags that I had been hired to haul.

This got me a lecture from one of the (female) managers there. I was supposed to be doing the heavy lifting, not Trudy. The fact that Trudy didn't want me doing it didn't enter into the discussion at all.

So we had an uneasy truce. While Trudy's back was bothering her, I did the heavy lifting.

The bags came to us via a dumbwaiter from somewhere in the bowels of the building.  A fairly old guy used to bring the bags up, and put them on a cart. He would roll the cart to our office, and slowly unload them, one bag at a time, and I would pick them up and stick them in our shelves somewhere to be inventoried later. After I got chewed out for not helping Trudy, I felt like this old guy (he was probably in his late 50's or early 60's, but decrepit) should get some help too, so I started helping him unload the stuff.  He thanked me and I thought I had done okay.

The next day I was called into the director's office (his name was Alec Mercer), along with his right hand man (his name was Amos Kreiss). I had been the subject of an official union grievance. I was taking work away from the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the same union that represented the people who had put the New York subways out of operation while I was making the commute I talked about earlier, to high school. Why did I do that, I was asked.  I explained that I was just being polite. The guy was struggling with the weight of these bags, and it was taking him forever, and I had just gotten chewed out for not helping Trudy, so I helped him out.

The director explained that I couldn't touch the bag while it was on the cart. I could only touch it after it was off the cart and the guy had let go of it. Those were the rules. And so I learned.