My Customers

There has been much debate about why so many bizarre stories come out of Florida. Some say it’s because the state is full of transient people, and the lack of roots has something to do with it; some say it’s the heat, insufferable humidity and eternal sunshine; others say it’s the combination of a huge, diverse population and easy access to public records. I say it’s all the above, and a million other less obvious reasons. I have been living here on and off since 1985, when my family packed up a station wagon and moved down from Aurora, Illinois. But it wasn’t until 10 years later, when I opened a tool rental business in Boynton Beach, that I got a firm, ground-level view of the insanity here. My shop, when I first opened, was in an 800 square foot space at the end of an ancient strip mall that had two dive bars in it, a shoe shop, a barber shop, a headshop, a hairdresser, a vet, and several other stores. My customers were mostly blue-collar workers – painters, pressure washers, grout cleaners, handymen – though I’d also get a fair share of weekend warriors, and vagabonds blown in off the street. They’d come into the shop in all their motley appearances, this one with a supercilious expression, that one with a Hollywood smile, another with no ass and hair growing out of his ears, a fourth with sunken eyes and a straggling dyed mustache – they would come in, sometimes only once or twice, but the impression they would leave on me would be forever. I’m what they call a super recognizer. I’m one of those people who almost never forgets a face. I see them, and they go into my soul. I can’t get them out of there. They go into the sediment. It’s more of a curse than it is a talent. I wish I could remember text like I can the stupid human face, but there are some benefits to it. For one, it makes drawing faces easy; secondly, I never forget my customers, even if they were only in the shop for a few minutes, years ago. When they come in for the second time, I usually pretend I don’t remember them. It would be too strange otherwise. But sometimes I’ll intentionally freak someone out, just to see their reaction. I once had a customer who came into the shop five years after the first time, when he rented a knee-kicker for doing carpeting. His name was Gregory Saks; he was completely, almost profoundly nondescript in appearance, and when he walked in I greeted him by his name, and remembered what he rented, which practically knocked him over. “That’s the strangest thing that’s happened to me all week,” he said. “Maybe all year.” But he was flattered too.

So like I say, people, even the most random, seemingly inconsequential ones, enter my soul and stay there forever. I now have 24 years of customers inside me; their faces, their words, their stories, somehow becoming a part of me. And sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night, or half-dreaming through my day, I will be revisited by them as if by ghosts.

Some of my customers have been long dead, some have moved away or simply disappeared, and others still, years later, come into the shop, old now, hands crabbed, faces disfigured by a lifetime hard work under the Florida sun, sealing driveways, painting roofs, digging trenches, cutting grass, laying tile, butting carpet against walls, plumbing, pulling wire through sweltering crawlspaces in midsummer.

Such is the life of the American blue-collar worker.

A life of thankless drudgework and little time off, of no benefits, no health insurance, no escape and no reason to complain because no one wants to hear it.
Which is why I’m never really surprised when a story comes back to me about how this customer was shot dead after getting high on bath salts, stripping naked and attacking a police officer; or that one hanging himself from a magnolia tree outside his girlfriend’s house so he would be discovered in the morning; or another pulling a plastic bag over his head and suffocating – all true stories. Or any of the other early deaths – cirrhosis of the liver, lung cancer, throat cancer, heart disease, freak, on-the-job accident, overdose; so many of my customers succumbing in their forties or fifties, leaving nothing behind but the debt that dogged them all their days and a fading little sediment of memory for a handful to share.

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Libro del picaro

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There was no repoman action at work this week. Mostly I just sat in the office answering phones and studying Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings on Wikipedia. I also did a couple of drawings (above and below), got in a brief political debate with my MAGA cultist mechanic (which went nowhere, as I’d predicted), and long conversations with two salesmen and a former part-time mechanic of mine, Robert Milktrout, a hypochondriac who presently does home renovations. I’ll do a blog later about Milktrout. For now, I wanted to talk about the two salesmen. The first is a rep for a scissor and boom lift company. His name is Mike. He’s lives in Daytona Beach, 55 years old, bald with a mustache, a wife, two twentysomething daughters, six grandkids (he showed me all the pictures).

Mike is a traveling salesman. His territory is the Southeastern US, and he’s on the road all week. The company pays for everything – meals, lodging – he doesn’t have to open his wallet during the week, he said, and he’s been working there for two years. He’s been working in equipment sales or rentals all his life.

There is something about the salesman that has always fascinated me.

A good salesman is like a good protagonist in an old picaresque novel – intelligent but usually lacking a college degree, or some lucky break; he must survive by his wits.

Charm, a warm smile, a gift of gab, a rapier sense of humor, an arsenal of clichés at your disposal (the more obscure the cliché the better the salesman), the ability to fake it and make someone think you admire them when every fiber in your being despises them – while these qualities aren’t essential, they always help. Age helps too. Nothing arouses more suspicion than an eager, wet-behind-the-ears, peddler of goods.

The Berlin novel I’m writing now, temporarily called The Initiate, fits all the requirements of a picaresque novel, but for a very long time I’ve had in mind to write one with a traveling salesman as the protagonist. I have a lot of material to cull from. I used to sell patio furniture for my father; I’m still something of a salesman in my current job, and there have been thousands of salesmen who have come into my shop over the years, selling everything from machinery to advertising to involvement in pyramid schemes to children’s toys and tin cans for putting your negative thoughts into. Most salesmen I would try to shoo from the shop as quickly as possible. But sometimes there was one who because of his dress, talk, attitude, humor, roguish qualities, etcetera, would pique my curiosity. I would wonder about his private life, his history, his interactions, what he was like when he wasn’t wearing the mask of the salesman.

Mike told he stays in various hotel rooms all week, alone. He only sees his wife on weekends, and he’s always – he told me – lived beyond his means. The reason: he likes toys, he likes “nice things.” Boats, motorcycles, fancy cars, big screen TVs, alligator skin shoes, steak and lobster, gifts for his children and grandchildren. He’s never been able to save any money in his life, as soon as he gets it he blows it. But he owes something to his wife for leaving her at home alone all week, and since he never goes on vacations, he was planning on taking a trip with her to Jamaica because that’s where she wants to go.

As I was talking to Mike, I got a visual of him sitting in some silent, dim-lit hotel room in some random southern town, fighting off his boredom and loneliness with a glass of bourbon or some mindless distraction. And then later, lying in the stiff bed that thousands of sad and misshapen couples had copulated on, their ghosts floating softly around him; lying there in the gathering darkness, starched sheets and a flower-print comforter pulled taut up to his armpits; he gazes at the ceiling thinking about the days of his life from the very beginning, or his woman, or his grandchildren, or new leaves to turn over, his toes twinkling with the thoughts.

The next salesman to come in the shop was one I have known for 15-20 years but hadn’t seen in about 10. He said he made a special trip down from Jacksonville because he had heard I was in town and we had a good catch-up.

He remembers my shop in the old days and the old mechanics; the late Frances Wagner, who used to drink warm Budweiser out of cans on the job and have a toxic alcoholic meltdown every few weeks; the late Walter Eustace Peabody, a 59-year-old bigot from North Carolina who with his greasy pompadour and inbred mind seemed stuck in the year 1962; the late Captain Kirk, a hoarder who lived in a dilapidated Winnebago on the property and would get high on crack and go dumpster-diving in the wee hours of the morning, in the seediest parts of the neighborhood. I was the only one running the shop in those days; I would go home at night and read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Meister Eckart and dream of moving to Germany, though I’d never even been there. My inner-compass was magnitzed in that direction for some reason, and the aforesaid writers gave something my soul was desperate for, and couldn’t get from the crazies at work, or my customers, most of whom were also crazy. I was half-insane too; half-drunk half the time and wholly drunk the rest. I had some customers who’d pay me in pills, some who’d give me beer or lines of coke. And then the salesmen would come, and I would tell them my stories; stories that weren’t necessarily meant to be funny but would have them in stitches because they were outrageous and true.

Even though it didn’t seem like it, and I found my fate abhorrent, I think I half-knew: I was living in a novel in those days. One that someone, somewhere – maybe even me – had written a very very long time ago.

All I had to do was find my place in it. Which would take some distance.

I want a HOT one

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He’s a 58-year-old house painter and a Christian and is always talking about how blessed he is; in other words, bragging. A year and a half ago I wrote a blog about him here. In the blog, I talk about how he prays before each job. He makes his employees do it too. They get down on their knees before starting each morning and he says a little prayer aloud that they’ll get paid for the work they do. I talked to a guy that worked for him once. He said when he was on his knees he was thinking, “Wait a second, we’re praying for money. You’re not supposed to do that. Also, if he, the boss, doesn’t get paid, does that mean I’m not going to get paid? What have I gotten myself into?”

The 58-year-old house painter who I previously demoted from Ron Ward (his real name) to Customer #47638 because he thinks he’s special (rather than just some random number born to consume resources and die) came into the shop the other day. I was shocked when I saw him. He’d lost about 25 lbs. from the last time I’d seen him, and with the loss of the weight, his skin sagged and wrinkled, adding about 10 years to his appearance.

“Wow,” I said. “You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you. What’s the secret? Jogging? Fasting? Crack?”

He understood I was joking about crack. Then he started talking about how he’d just cut one thing from his diet, which wasn’t much.

“I’m really blessed,” he went on. “The weight just falls right off me when I want to lose it.”

The reason he wanted to lose it, he said, was because he’d been single long enough, it was time for him to get a girlfriend.

“I want a HOT girlfriend,” he said. “I’m not willing to settle. I want someone who’s HOT. And if she’s as old as me, that’s too old. I want a young one.”

Because of all the weight he lost, the trousers Customer #47638 was wearing were grotesquely too big, and he had no belt on to hold them up. How they kept from sliding down to his ankles defied the laws of physics, especially now that they were heavy with dampness from pressure cleaning – the reason he’d come into the shop was to return a pressure cleaner he’d rented. I pictured him out on the job fighting with his trousers the whole time.

“I want a HOT one and a YOUNG one,” he went on, and got his phone out of his pocket. He scrolled through some photos. “You see this?” It was a photo of him on surfboard, riding a wave. The photo looked like it was from 1989. “This is how I used to look. I’m trying to get down to that weight.” He scrolled through some more photos and showed me a slightly out-of-focus one of a dark-haired woman. You could only see her from the neck up, and a portion of her head was cut off at the edge of the photo. “A Bolivian girl. She’s 41. She’s 17 years younger than me. I met her at my CHURCH. Isn’t she pretty? I’ve been seeing her for two months.”

He had been saying he WANTED a hot, young girlfriend, and now he suddenly had one, for 2 months? I didn’t understand. Was he lying?

He pulled up his damp, grotesquely too big trousers (that he was too cheap to buy a belt for), uttered a few other platitudes and, upon leaving, wished us all a blessed day.

It was only blessed because he’d given us something to talk about.

“I want a HOT girlfriend.” “She’s gotta be young, and churchgoing.” “I refuse to settle.” “Here I am surfing in 1989.”

According to B., who was in the office at the time, customer #47638 had a face that was a cross between a basset hound and an old shoe. And yet he was convinced he was the second-coming of Rudolph Valentino. With that kind of confidence maybe he was blessed.

Repoman Powers

We found out the other day that a customer of ours, whose been jerking us around with payment on a Bobcat (front-end loader) he rented, and was trying to purchase, has a track record of ripping people off in Woodstock, Georgia, Orlando, Clearwater, Tampa, South Florida and the Keys. We found a page devoted to him on a Facebook site called The Intl. Scam Alert, something else on Ripoff Report, and news channel 8 in Tampa did a feature on him after he got huge deposits from two homeowners in the area and never finished the work.

Here’s what one person said about him: unprincipled narcissist, deficient conscience; unscrupulous, amoral, disloyal, fraudulent, deceptive, arrogant, exploitative; a con artist and charlatan; dominating, contemptuous, vindictive.

And others:

“Lying dirtbag.”
“Poses as a professional athlete/entrepreneur in order to gain people’s confidence.”
“He has been posting again on Instagram about his amazing rock star life… His jet, exotic cars, etc. Of course, all lies, and very funny because of the absurdity of it all since he can’t even pay his bills.”
“His own mother says it’s in his nature to steal and scam.”
“STAY AWAY FROM THIS MAN!!! HE IS A SOCIOPATH AND DANGEROUS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”

So I offered to go to Hollywood and repo the machine. My brother was quite ready to go that far yet. He was still willing to work with the guy, but I convinced him otherwise. I needed something to do. A man can only sit around a shop drawing and answering phones for so long. I’d been doing it for 2 days.

“What if he doesn’t let you take it?” my brother asked.
“I’ll get it,” I said. “You don’t think I will?”
He laughed.

I got in the truck and headed down there. It was a 45-minute drive, and on the way, I was trying to imagine how everything would play out. The only way he was going to stop me was if he had a gun or a knife, that I knew. I was willing to fight to the death otherwise, not so much because I was angry at him – I’d never even met him before – and not because I desperate for the bobcat or the money. Like I said, I needed something to do. But it wasn’t just that. It was also about proving something to my brother and the other employees – the lengths I would go to fight injustice, etc., and proving something about courage to myself. And it was a question of fate. If I had the talent I could’ve been a musician, a boxer, a parkourist, a clown-juggler, an assassin, a baseball player, a stage-actor, a stand-up comedian, or some other job where all my emotion could be poured into and have a release. My emotion had no release in my current life; it only had it in my art, but that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t violent or final enough. It was all bottled up inside me, and now, after months trying to escape from me and failing, it had finally found a release-point.

The scumbag’s name was Larry S., but because he had screwed so many people over and it was all over the internet, he went by his middle name, Henry.

I met my driver around the corner from the jobsite and we headed over there together. We parked just up the street from it. My driver had been there many times before. The property was huge. It was a mansion on a canal, and Henry had had the Bobcat there for months, but every time my driver had gone there, it looked the same. The dirt pile was just in another place in the backyard. Henry was no doubt working his con on the owner of the place.

I walked with my driver up to the backyard and saw the Bobcat in the back corner, along the canal. In the front corner of the backyard there were four Haitians standing around with a shovel, but we didn’t seen Henry. We walked along the wall bordering the property. In the very back, near the Bobcat, there was an opening in the wall with a provisional plywood wall stacked against it. My driver and I moved the plywood wall to the side and I walked casually up to the bobcat and got in. I started it, flicked the hydraulics on. I drove through the opening in the wall and along the property, up the street. My driver and I then loaded it onto his rollback truck. We chained it down, looked back at the property and the opening in wall.

Nothing.
No one even noticed that we’d taken it, or if they had, they didn’t say anything.
It was strangely disappointing.
I had been hoping for some kind of conflict. Even a brief argument would’ve worked as I had some choice words prepared for our friend. h
My driver and I got into our respective trucks and drove off into the Florida sunshine.

About fifteen minutes later, Henry called the shop. He was livid, making all kinds of threats. He’s going to get the Bobcat back somehow, he’s going take us to court, he’s going to tell everyone what horrible monsters we were, etc., etc.

He then texted one of our drivers, not the one who I retrieved the Bobcat with, another one. He apparently had his number from a previous delivery.

“Thief!” he said. “You stole my Bobcat. I’m going to call the cops! Bring it the fuck back here you fucker. Thief!”

My driver’s response: “Why did you go back to Georgia?”

I think what he meant was “Why don’t you go back to Georgia?” But did was good enough. It meant we knew Henry’s true identity. We knew he was Larry S., the Intl. Scam Alert guy. Ever since he’d been renting from us he’d kept the fact hidden, but we’d found it out, and he never did answer my driver’s question.

Berlin – Newark – Ft. Lauderdale

I can never sleep very well the night before an early flight, but it’s especially bad whenever I take the long, connecting flight from Berlin to Miami or vice versa. It happened again this last trip. I was tired all evening, but the moment my head hit the pillow, it was as though I’d become electrified. I felt like what I imagine a bird must feel like when it’s molting. I stayed awake most of the night flapping my wings and ruffling my feathers. Then at 6 a.m. my alarm went off. I got ready, said goodbye to Erica, and headed to the train station just as the sun was coming up over the city. I was listening to Miles Davis, Kind of Blue on my headphones. I’ve been meaning to do a blog about this great album for ages, but in the meantime, I will only say that I know of no piece of music that goes better with the changing moods of a city than this. It’s especially good on a rainy day, or late at night, or in the very early morning. I thought of all the cities I’d listened to it in: Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Amsterdam, Dublin, Madrid, Lisbon, Cologne, Prague, Vienna, Leipzig, so on, so forth, and it’s never gotten old. Like all the best music it’s got a mysterious eternal quality in its melodies; people will be listening to it centuries from now.

The flight left Berlin and 9:45, and I was lucky enough to have gotten a row of three seats in the back of the plane to myself. After we took off I lifted the armrests, threw the blankets over me and, with the help of some Xanax, managed to get about a half hour sleep. The flight was pretty uneventful. I read some Dostoevsky, watched an excellent sports documentary called In Search of Greatness, and did a few sketches.

Later, I looked out the window and saw this drab patch of wasted landscape, melting snow, factory buildings, belching smokestacks, clumps of dead brown trees. It was Newark. I had two hours to kill there before my next flight. We landed, disembarked. I went through the security checkpoints and came out on the other side looking for something to eat. There were plenty of places to choose but the prices were outrageous, even by airport standards. I ended up paying $12.99 for a small, refrigerated chicken wrap, and sat at my gate watching the passersby, who looked a lot like the outside landscape.

There was a restaurant about twenty feet from me. There was top 40 music blaring from it, TV screens everywhere, and tablets lined up on every table, god forbid someone should be bored or alone with their thoughts while eating. Well, that wasn’t anything new or unique to the Newark airport. Everywhere you go it seems the powers that be are using whatever devices possible to keep you from going into yourself. Silent contemplation is an evil that the masses just can’t deal with and so they must be protected from it at all times with noise, flashing lights, graphics, buttons, song, subliminal text, boobs, phallic symbols, tickers, news-of-the-day, gossip, sports, bloodshed, applause, likes, shiny objects, etc. Without these they are lost; without these they would revert to their barbarian selves and torture, maim, disembowel, burn at the stake, rob, berate and attack each other, not to mention take their business elsewhere. The powers that be know this. They know you must keep the limbic system of the human animal assuaged with distractions to keep civilization in order. But for the artist, the poet and philosopher, ennui and silent contemplation is like music to the soul; it’s a kindly old friend who should be let in the door as often as possible, even when everyone and everything around you is telling you otherwise.

At times the world sees straight, but many times the world goes astray.” ~ Horace

I am now back in South Florida, and already have much to report about the clip artists and religious wingnuts that have come into the shop this week, but that’s for another blog. I’m still getting settled in here.