The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

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The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

Greg used to come into my shop to sell tools
he’d just stolen from Home Depot.
“You in need of a monkey wrench?”
he’d ask, and dredge one from the sweatpants
he was wearing under his trousers,
the packaging still on it.
“No thanks.” I’d say.
“Is there anything you do need?”
“I don’t know,” I’d say.
“Does your supplier
carry diamond
blades for angle grinders?”
He’d scratch his head and brainstorm for a moment.
Confucius
couldn’t have looked deeper in thought.
“I’m pretty sure they do,” he’d say.
“I’ll have to check.
I’ll get back to you.”

He’d then exit the store and
I wouldn’t see him again
until he’d come back with something else,
something other
than what I needed,
and the cycle would repeat itself.

Then one day
Greg disappeared.
I don’t know what happened to him.
I figured he was either dead, in rehab or in jail,
and eventually
I forgot about him,
for the most part anyway.
I would sometimes
laugh thinking about how
he’d come into the shop,
his trousers stuffed
with tools
and me pretending everything was on the up and up.

It was like seeing a resurrected
god.

About a month ago,
when I was sitting in the shop, I glanced at the
surveillance
camera aimed toward NE 3rd St.
and saw in grainy black and white
a man
that looked exactly like Greg
pushing rapidly an empty
wheelchair
along the west side of the building.

At first, I thought it was just someone who bore
his resemblance.
But two nights later, as I was driving through
the parking lot of a shopping mall a few miles
from my shop,
I saw the same man sitting in the wheelchair
he had so rapidly been pushing,
a tin cup in his hand,
a down-in-the-mouth expression.

An old lady approached him. “Good evening,
ma’am,” he said. She dug in her purse,
something flashed
in the sunlight. “Thank you, thank you,” he said,
and complimented her
on her dress.
He peered into his cup.
“Yes,
yes, yes,” he went on.
“A lovely
dress
indeed.”

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The Proverbial Bad Penny

An eternally down-on-your-luck Polish-Italian New Jersey native, Bob Milktrout worked for me in the 90s as a part-time mechanic but never really had his heart into the job. He mostly just stood around smoking Marlboro lights and drinking Pepsi, lapsing into emotionally-charged stories about his high school football days, or other stories where he always seemed to come out the victim. He used to tell me he didn’t want to turn wrenches for a living. He was trying to establish himself as a remodeler of homes, but to do so he often had to borrow my tools. I let him use them for free because he worked for me, but then he quit, more or less, and still expected to get them for free, even though his having them would often cost me money because of the miles he’d put on them, or the fact that I wouldn’t be able to rent them to someone else because he was using them. Finally, after listening to several of his hard luck stories, lies and tales of persecution, we agreed that I’d rent my stuff to him for half price, but that never worked out. He racked up a tremendous bill, and it just kept growing, so I cut him off. Things got ugly after that, especially when it became apparent that he had no intention to pay me anything. I started having my alcoholic mechanic – his replacement – badger him drunkenly on the phone about the money, which infuriated him. After one call, my mechanic told me that Milktrout was so hot you could fry an egg on his skull.

He vanished for a long time after that, leaving the money unpaid and no trace of his whereabouts.

Then one day, a while back, he turned up again, like the proverbial bad penny.

It had probably been ten years since I’d last seen him and those years had not been kind to him. He used to be quite handsome. Now, his hair, though still without any gray in it, had become thin and sprouted from his head in long, disparate spikes, his eyes and cheeks had sunken into an emaciated skull and his complexion had gone bad – he looked like the after picture of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian politician who was poisoned by government agents at a dinner in 2004.

The reason he had turned up wasn’t to pay his old bill, but to pick up a bucket of driveway sealer his friend had ordered. After that, he started coming in regularly to pick up his friend’s sealer and would occasionally buy something for himself. The old bill and the old calls from my now-deceased drunken mechanic were never mentioned. Instead, he would stand around telling victim stories of an entirely new genre. In these, he wasn’t a victim of other people’s doing, but of nature herself. He had had two cancer scares in the last three years, he said. Also, he suffered from acid reflux, heartburn, migraines, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, low testosterone and erectile disfunction. And yet according to recent tests, his doctor told him he was the healthiest fifty-three-year-old he’d ever seen. This led me to believe there was some lying or severe hypochondria going on. It also led me to believe that the persecutors of his past were as imaginary as his physiological ones were now.

Milktrout came in the shop the other day to rent 100 feet of pressure washer hose.

I told him we didn’t normally rent hose, the reason being that it was a small, relatively inexpensive item that people would either not return, or not return for ages and expect to pay nothing for because they’d forgotten about it in their garage or some such. It was just easier not renting them, we preferred to sell them, but Milktrout somehow persuaded me to do him the favor, promising he’d bring it back on time. He didn’t of course. It was two weeks before we saw him again. He came in with the hose rolled up neatly and slung over his shoulder, but no money of course. His excuse? There were several, all of the same genre. He had been gravely ill; his girlfriend couldn’t return it for him because she had leukemia; his dad was in a Colorado hospital for something or other; and Jim, the fellow he would pick up driveway sealer for, couldn’t return it for him because he had just had an operation to remove a large hunk of flesh from the top of his skull. Skin cancer.

“You know Jim and his pale Irish skin,” said Milktrout, and made a circle with his hands to show the size of what had been taken. “They had to drill into his skull with a bit yeabig,” he said, spreading his hands about a foot apart. I envisioned a large, 4” diameter core drilling bit going into the top of the Irishman’s head. It seemed a bit much, but according to Milktrout’s way of thinking, the more extreme the story, the more valid his excuse for returning the hose late and not paying for it.

He promised to give us something when he got paid from his customer, but we knew what his promises added up to. In 20 years, nothing had changed.

You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, she’ll come back.” ~ Horace

He set the hoses neatly on the floor and tiptoed out of the shop, knowing that we were the victims of this deal, but telling himself that he was more of one – his victimhood was on a grand and universal scale, deeper and wider and more complex than ours could ever be – and for that we owed him. It was our birthright.

Ship of Fools

The strangest crew of misfits I ever had working for me at one time consisted of a six-foot-nine sixty-year-old redheaded Vietnam vet named Robert who rode a three-wheel bike with an American Flag sticking up out the back of it, smoked pungent, off-brand cigarettes and drank 10-15 tall cans of Natural Ice a day; Mason, a twenty-year-old blond boy who was handsome enough to be on the cover of any men’s fashion magazine, but was dim as night and lived in his car; and a husband and wife couple who tattooed each other’s names in cursive on their wrists. The husband was my chief mechanic. He also drank much beer during the day. Budweiser. He drank it warm, out of the can. He drank it while he worked on my equipment. I let him, I didn’t care. I was on the verge of going out of business anyway. I was so close that I struck a deal with my dad, who owned a patio furniture store nearby, to take care of the furniture his customers brought to him for restrapping. He paid me piece rate for the work – $10 per chaise lounge, $5 per chair – and this was how I paid the hourly salaries of Mason, Robert and the mechanic’s wife. They did the restrapping. They did it in the alley behind the shop. This was in 2001 when the shop still was in its original location, in a strip mall called The Villager. Other businesses in the strip mall included a barber shop, a headshop, an insurance agency, a vet, a shoe shop, a sandwich shop, a beauty parlor and two dive bars. Robert and my chief mechanic had met at one of the two dive bars, The Villager Pub, which was two doors down from the shop. There was an old drunk named Fred who lived in the bar. He slept on a sofa in the back of the place. The owners let him. They liked him. I liked him too. Fred was an electrician in a past life, married with one or two daughters, successful, well-respected by his peers – I always got the sense that he was highly intelligent – but there was some tragic break. No one knew exactly what happened. All we knew was that he’d been broken, and had since lost half his teeth, grown a long, Dostoyevskian beard to obscure the fact, and slept on the sofa of that old, smoky bar every night.

Well, one day, as my misfit crew was restrapping patio furniture in the alley behind my shop, Fred came out the back door of the bar and noticed them working. He lit a cigarette in his trembling hand and watched. There was Robert, six-foot-nine, standing in the July sun with his shirt off, a pungent cigarette dangling from his bottom lip as he talked about the stages he built at Woodstock and the little Southern Illinois town he grew up in; there was Mason, the young unusually dumb unusually handsome blond pulling strap over a chaise; there was the mechanic’s overfed wife destrapping a chair; there was the mechanic, drunk and babbling as he yanked the recoil of a chainsaw.

Fred saw all this as he was smoking his first cigarette of the morning and looked at me, the deranged P.T. Barnum who had hired them all. He smirked, shook his head, and kept smirking. Then he stubbed out his cigarette and went back inside.

He could now officially say he’d seen everything.

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.

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.

Death of a Painter

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I have been so consumed with my new Berlin novel lately, a rewrite of my old novel Fortuna Berlin, that I haven’t had any time for the blogosphere. I started rewriting the novel in about March. I say rewrite, it’s actually a complete overhaul – I’ve had to disassemble the engine, rebuild the chassis, replace the pistons, the piston rings, cylinder liners, clean all the nuts and bolts, and order new factory original parts. I finally got everything together last week and got it going with help of Sir Henry Bourbon and Alphonso Marijuana. The marijuana I bought at Görlitzer Park. The bourbon is some cheap knock-off brand I bought at the local supermarket. I would only drink bourbon at night, but the marijuana I would smoke in the garden in the morning while drinking coffee and listening to the woodpeckers and the thud of chestnuts on the tin roof. I don’t like to bring too much sobriety into my writing. I also don’t like to go too far the other way. The key is to find the perfect formula and flux – write sober, edit drunk or stoned, or vice versa. I’ve never been a big pot smoker, by the way. I’ll finish what I have and go back to just coffee during the day. In the meantime, it’s loosened something up and the bourbon too has jarred something. I normally just drink beer and wine and the occasional shot of mixed drink. Bourbon I drink on the rocks, usually only one glass if I want to be productive. Any more and it’s a write-off, but the temptation is always there. It’s in my DNA. My grandpa Powers (100% Irish) was a world-class bourbon drinker. He also had a great sense of humor. None of my other grandparents had one. He had to supply the whole lot for us grandkids and was also the first to go, in 1974. He was 71. Died of a heart attack in the bathroom. I remember my grandmother showing me the dent in the drywall his head made when he fell. It was always there and it fascinated me, probably as much as my son is fascinated by the subject.

And speaking of death, I got an email from my brother yesterday telling me one of our customers, a painter who had been coming into the shop for 20 years, had died. It happened almost two years ago, in December of 2016. He was 55 years-old, and no one bothered to write an obituary for him so we don’t know how it happened. My brother found out about it after Googling for him because he was curious about his absence from the shop.

Now this painter, his last name was Loudin, which was about as fitting as last names get. Whenever he came into the shop, his voice just carried. You could hear him from all the way in back of the place, over the lawnmowers engines and the bench grinder.

“I WANNA PICK UP A COUPLE FIVES OF THAT DRIVEWAY SEALER!” he’d shout, and then he’d start bragging about the job he was planning on doing, or business, or the house he’d just paid off, or how it was mini-lobster season and he was taking his boat down to the Keys for the weekend.

We had an issue when he first started coming into the shop. He’d parked his truck behind the place while my mechanic was working on a paintsprayer, and apparently the overspray got all over his hood and on the roof. You couldn’t see it, but could feel it with your hand, and now he had to get the thing detailed, and this, that and the other. He said he’d settle for $100. We offered to detail it ourselves. At first he balked – he really just wanted the money – but then he took us up on it. We cleaned it up. It must’ve made him feel guilty, or maybe it was the awkwardness of the issue, but a couple weeks later he brought in a cooler with two lobsters in it. That was Saturday morning. Monday morning he called to ask how they were.

“They were great,” I told him, and went into a whole spiel about it. I think I pulled it off. We hung up, I rushed to the back of the shop and opened the cooler. The lobsters were still in it, dead and rotting, the rancid stench blowing up into my nostrils. I’d forgotten all about them.

There was another painter who came into the shop, a tall, pot-bellied old man with a mop of messy gray hair. His last name was Tart and he knew Loudin. They hung out once. Loudin told me about it. He said he and his girlfriend were over at Tart’s house, and Tart and his girlfriend got in the jacuzzi with Loudin and his girlfriend and as the four of them were sitting there drinking and telling stories, a penis pump came bobbing up through the foam. Loudin said when he saw it he grabbed his girlfriend, leapt out of the tub and took off running. Well, that may be true. But he blamed Tart for it when I’m confident that he, Loudin, had brought the apparatus along. He’d probably been using it under the water and the grip slipped. Or something.

Loudin was one of those customers I neither liked nor disliked; I dealt with him, that’s all. His girlfriend probably felt the same. I don’t know if they were still together when he died. I imagine they were. They’d been going out for years and had no kids, just a dog and a parakeet. He had a savings. He used to talk about it all the time.

“I COULD RETIRE RIGHT NOW IF I REALLY WANTED TO!” he would say. “MY HOUSE IS PAID FOR, TRUCK’S PAID FOR. I’M SITTIN PRETTY.”

His online obituary reads thus:

Loudin

Age 55, of Boynton Beach, passed away Dec. 20, 2016. All County Funeral Home & Crematory, Lake Worth, FL.

Published in The Palm Beach Post from Jan. 6 to Jan. 7, 2017

Other than that, the only trace of him I can find of him online is his Voter Registration. He was a Republican, if that means anything.

The Illiterate Confidence Man

It was about fifteen years ago when John D’Agostino started coming into the shop. He was working at a tree trimming company at the time, and his bosses, two cousins from Haiti, would send him in to pick up a lift, or a chainsaw, or a stumpgrinder. I don’t remember everything they rented, I just remember John walking up to the counter with his straight, jet-black mop of hair and his irascible little rat’s eyes, and a green t-shirt tucked into blue jeans that were hiked halfway to his armpits. He always asked to borrow the phone. I told him he could use the one in the parts room, and he would go in there sometimes for twenty minutes or a half hour, claiming they were business calls.

Sometime after that, this seventy-something Jewish lady started chauffeuring him to the shop. It was his new girlfriend. He was in his forties, but she had money, enough for him to quit working for the Haitians and start his own business. He called it Johnnyboy’s Stumpgrinding and Tree Removal Service, and when I asked him about it years later, he said at the high point he had 104 men working for him, and 47 trucks on the road. I pretended to believe these outrageous numbers, but I had heard from one of the Haitians the most he ever had working for him were two illegals from Guatemala, and the only truck he ever had on the road was his pickup.

“The thing about John,” said the Haitian, “is he’s illiterate. He can’t read or write. But when it comes to laying on the con, he’s got a silver tongue.”

One day when John’s seventy-something girlfriend had chauffeured him to the shop, I looked out at her sitting in her Cadillac. She had dyed maroon hair and a wide mouth covered in cherry-red lipstick. She looked mean as a coral snake. Or maybe she was just pissed because she had to pay for the chainsaw John was renting. He was standing at the counter looking at my brother D. with eyes that had absolutely no lights on in them.

“You beat your wife?” he asked, just after he signed the contract.
“No,” said D, “I don’t.”
“How long you been married?” asked John.
“3 years,” said D.
John folded up the contract, put it in his pocket, grabbed the chainsaw and strode to the front door with those long tarantula legs. He turned around just before exiting. “Give it 4,” he said.

Not long after that I heard that John’s girlfriend’s son pulled a gun on one of the Haitian cousins. It had something to do with a loan of $10,000 she had given to John. The son was livid and blamed the Haitians for it. Something like that. I never really understood the story. I heard it third or fourth hand in broken English. But a few months after that the old lady served John his walking papers and I didn’t see him for a couple years.

Then, in 2009, I was delivering a forklift to a shopping mall in Lake Worth and as I was unloading it, John stepped out from the shade of the big white circus tent that was set up in the field. He looked terrible. He’d gained about thirty pounds in the maw, his hair was a mess, there was chickengrease all over his shirt and his trousers were twisted into corkscrews.

“Youse need a pumpkin?” he asked.
There were hundreds of them in all different sizes under the tent.
“No thanks, John.”
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “The rental guy.”
Then he started telling me all about the pumpkin business. “I figure with the right people, and the right amount of money injected in it, I should have no problem goin national in five-ten years. Thinkin about sellin Christmas trees too. Youse rent tents?”
“No.”
“What about portojohns?”
“No, just construction equipment.”
“Youse ever think about rentin tents or portojohns?”
“No.”
“It’s a cryin shame,” he said. “We coulda done a lot of business.”

About a year later, I was sitting at my desk in the shop when the front door flung open and a loud, grating voice shouted, “Got an SC252?” An SC252 is the model number of the stumpgrinder John liked to rent, and he’d hardly crossed the threshold of the door when he shouted across the vacant showroom for it.

I got out of my chair and greeted him the way I always did.
“Back in the tree business?” I asked.
“Just startin up again… gettin my feet wet… thirty years in the field, three years in arbor school… I kinda know trees. I can tell you every tree dere is in Florida – Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Florida holly, cabbage palms, queen palms, royal palms, etc etc. I can go into a whole spiel if you want. It’s like I tell my customers… if youse got the time, I got the answers…”

He said he only needed the stumpgrinder for a day, but ended up keeping it for a week and never paid the balance. He said he would when the customer paid him, but we never heard from him after that. The balance was $300.

Not long after that, I moved to Berlin, and have been coming back to Florida to work ever since. My last trip back I asked about John. My brother said he hadn’t heard a thing, so we looked him up online and found out his old business went under, but he’d just opened a new one in West Palm Beach called Eager Beaver Complete Tree Service and Landscape Design.

I called him up, disguised my voice as an old man named Feldbaum with a Brooklyn accent. “I need some tree work done at my property in Boca,” I said. “Do you people handle that?
We sure do, Sir. We do a wide variety of tree care, thinnin, take down, crownin, reducin, shapin, injections, reduction, fertilization, we do chipper work, stumpgrindin. We do a lot of stuff for new construction, lot clearance, land development. I been 30 years in the industry working for other companies, and had 3 years in school as an arborist. I kinda know what I’m doin. In fact, I know every tree in Florida. Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Florida holly, cabbage palms, queen palms, royal palms, etc etc. I can go into a whole speil. If youse got the time, ya know, I got the answers.

I told him I did have some questions but I was driving and would call him when I had a chance.

We hung up, and I forgot about the whole thing until that night at 7 when my phone started ringing off the hook. 13 calls came in, none of which I answered. Instead, I wrote him a text with the address of the place I wanted him to meet me at the next morning (I didn’t know he was illiterate at the time), and turned off my phone for the night.

The address was to an equipment rental shop in Boca, owned by a guy I’d known since I was 15. His name was Jan, and he was the one who gave me the idea to get into the rental business nearly 23 years ago.

“I’ve got a deadbeat coming by your shop,” I told him. Remember the guy I used to joke about? “You beat your wife? That guy. He thinks there’s an old man from Brooklyn that’s going to meet him there.”

A text from John (or whoever had written it for him) came in at 8:48 a.m. telling me he had just left his place and was on his way. He arrived at Jan’s place about a half hour later. Jan called me and put the speakerphone on so I could eavesdrop on their conversation.

“So what is it you do again?” Jan was asking him.
    We do a wide variety of tree care, thinnin, take down, crownin, reducin, shapin, injections, reduction, fertilization, we do chipper work, stumpgrindin….
   …I can go into a whole speil if you got the time… ya know, I got the answers.
All of this was said in the most soul-dead monotone imaginable. It was the voice of someone who’d just murdered his whole family and was fessing to it.

He started imparting his wisdom about how to deal with customers.

Always treat the customer fair, be nice to the customer, the customer is always right, let the customer do most of the talking, let them, let them tell you what they want, don’t be too pushy and you’ll be successful…
Jan’s other line rang. He picked it up, said a few words and hung up.
“That was my wife,” he said. “Man, she pisses me off.”
“I know what you mean,” said John. “Women..:”
“Yeah, but… she just makes me so fucking angry sometimes… I mean…”
“Trust me, I understand. It’s women…”
“Sometimes I just wanna kick her,” Jan went on. “You know what I mean? Not hard. Not hard at all. Just enough to get my message across. Do you do that? You beat your wife?”
“I can’t say I do that…”
“How long you been married?”
“Never been married,” said John. “Last girlfriend took me to da cleaners. She robbed me blind.”

I got a phone call then, so I don’t know how the rest of their conversation went. But about ten minutes later, Jan texted me a photo of John’s truck and his feet on the other side of it. This photo.

IMG9504281

He was in front of Jan’s shop waiting for me. And then he called me. “Is this Mister Feldbaum?”
“Yes, yes, it is,” I said, and apologized for not making it on time but told him I had footage of him standing at the agreed upon address. I texted the photo as proof, but he never replied or called back. He must’ve realized then that the deal was a sour one. Kind of like it was for me when he screwed me out of the $300.

The only difference – I’m still laughing. That’s worth $300 if you ask me.

Mr. Observant (Or, What a Man HAS Versus What a Man IS)…

IMG_5860

I’ve written a lot about the mechanics that have worked at the shop over the years, but have said very little about the delivery drivers. Right now, we have three drivers. One I’ve only met once because he works out of the Miami warehouse. The other two, Arturo and S, I see every day in the beginning and end of the day. S is about 40, hard-working, always shows up on time, never complains, hardly say anything come to think of it. I’ve known him for three years and I still barely know him. The only thing I know about him personally is that in his spare time he works on Volvos. He buys them as junk and fixes them up in his yard and drives them for a while and then resells them. Nothing but Volvos.

The other driver is Arturo. Arturo, unlike S, is a talker. Whenever you call him to reroute him or explain a delivery, he’s always on his phone talking to someone. It could be 7:15 a.m., noontime, 2 p.m., it doesn’t matter, he’s on the other line talking to someone, I don’t know who. Maybe it’s the same person every time, or maybe it’s a lot of different people, all of them as bored as him. Whatever the case, that’s what he does, and when he comes into the shop at the end of the day, he’s Mr. Observant. S doesn’t notice anything. Or if he does, he doesn’t say anything. He just sets his clipboard with the day’s deliveries on the counter and walks out of the shop quietly. Arturo, on the other hand, walks around the counter with his papers and comes right up to where your sitting. He will them explain what’s on the papers as though you couldn’t figure it out yourself, and while he’s doing that he’s noticing anything anyone in the office is wearing that’s new. Shoes, socks, jewelry, hat, shorts, any material item – if it’s new he will notice it on the very first day it’s worn and say something. If no one’s wearing anything new, he’s scanning the boxes and papers and packages around the room, or looking at your computer to see if you’re looking at something that doesn’t relate to the business. The other day when he came in I had the screen open to an article in German, and of course he had to say something, even though he couldn’t read a word of it. “What’s that, Mike?” A few days before, I had a book about drawing on my desk. The book was under some folders and a pair of sunglasses, but a portion of the title was sticking out, and I saw Arturo’s curious, razor-keen eyes stray over it. Strangely, he didn’t say anything that day, but the next day, sure enough, he got to talking about how his wife and son liked to draw and paint.

“Like you,” he said.
“Like me?” I asked. “How do you know I like that?”
He told me he saw the book on my desk.
So now I make sure everything’s hidden and all the tabs on my computer are closed before he comes into the office with that roving lynx eye.

The subtext to all his observations and remarks, by the way, is annoyingly obvious. It’s that the people in the office are just goofing off doing non-business things all day, and yet we’re getting paid more than him – a fact that’s revealed and reinforced every time we come in wearing something new. Not that Arturo can’t afford anything new. I’m not going to get into his pay, but judging by his house and a few other things he’s acquired since starting to work for us, he has little to complain about.

Anyway, when nothing’s there for him to notice – I’ve recently taken to closing all my computer tabs and covering my notebooks before he enters the room – we try to make friendly conversation. Mostly it’s just small talk. You can’t get into anything deep with Arturo. Philosophy, anthropology, psychology, history, fiction, poetry, politics – his flattish, oblong skull isn’t wired for any of it. It’s all about the phenomena on the surface. Material items. Shiny stuff that costs money. What a man HAS as opposed to what a man IS.

The biggest difference I have found between Germans and Americans (generally speaking) is that when a German walks into your house, he or she will gravitate to your bookshelf and look at the books you have been reading to figure out what’s going on in your mind. The American will gravitate to your bookshelf only if it looks like an expensive one. The books in it mean nothing. And this, if you ask me, is the number one reason why this country is in the abysmal state it’s in now. It’s something that had to happen.