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.

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George Washington Silt, 911 Hijackers & The Man Without a Face

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When I was in my late teens and 20s, I worked for my dad selling and delivering patio furniture at his store. I did it during all my breaks in college, and for a year and a few months after I graduated. Then I got all the money I earned together and used a Home Depot card, a Sears card, and several credit cards to open the tool rental shop in Boynton Beach, Florida. The total cost was about $20,000, and the business just barely got by for the first ten years, so to make extra money I worked for my dad at his patio furniture store on Sundays. This meant I had no days off all year except holidays because my tool rental shop was open from 7-5:30 weekdays and 8-2 Saturdays, and I couldn’t afford to pay for any help, not regular help anyway. I couldn’t even afford a mechanic in those days. I used to send my equipment out to be repaired by a half-Japanese, half-American fellow named George Washington Silt, who worked out of his garage in Boca Raton. George reminded me a little of Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, except for the half-Japanese part. He stood about five-feet-eight, had thick mop of straight black hair, always seemed to have a shit-eating grin on his face, and wore his clothes slovenly, often with his shirt unbuttoned and his pale toad’s belly punching out. George was the first in a line of several insane mechanics I’d worked with. I’m not exaggerating when I say insane. I remember one night I called him to find out the status of a couple concrete cut-off saws he was supposed to be repairing for me. He spoke to me in tongue. I didn’t know what he was saying. Something about burning circles and the river’s voice and combustible leather sofas and an apple fairy. He hadn’t taken his medication and had been smoking crack all night with Lil’ Bit, a petite twenty-three year-old Jamaican who worked as stripper at the now defunct Porthole, a strip club in a strip mall in Pompano Beach. They ended up getting in a huge fight, and Lil’ Bit called the cops. When they showed up, he was chasing her around the house, but she managed to escape through an unlocked door with another roommate, and George barricaded himself inside. The standoff lasted almost fourteen hours, ending when he burst through a door like a Himalayan brown bear and began throwing Chinese stars at members of the Special Response Team. A beanbag bullet was then fired into his chest and a concussion grenade was thrown into the house. The officers, “armed high-powered weapons and wearing riot gear,”, according to an article in the Sun Sentinel, then stormed the house and arrested Mr. Silt, taking him to an area hospital and then the Palm Beach County Jail. I don’t know how much time he had to spend in jail, but he did at least nine months that year in a madhouse, and I never got my two concrete cut-off saws back. One was a customer’s and he still brings it up whenever he comes into the shop, even though I compensated him for it. He likes to pretend the saw had sentimental value, which makes him feel I’m indebted to him forever.

When I began this blog, I hadn’t planned on talking about George Washington Silt or the tool rental business. Something happened yesterday that got me thinking about my days selling and delivering patio furniture. The dead body of a man was found. It was found behind the patio store I used to work at, along the canal. An old man who lived at the apartment complex nearby came upon it, and I’m trying to imagine the shock he must’ve felt. Earlier in the week he said he saw that same dead man, presumably alive, sleeping somewhere. But it was a very cold night, so the old man went into his apartment and got a blanket and draped it over the sleeping man. Two or three days later, seeing him again, the old man approached the reposing body and beheld the gruesome spectacle. The man’s face was now gone. It had been picked away by turkey vultures or some other wild creature. My mother told me this story last night. She got it second-hand from a friend of hers at the patio store.

“To think that that man was once a little baby,” she said. “Lying in the arms of his mother who could’ve been kissing him and giving him all the love in the world… if she only knew he’d end up like that!”

Which brings me back to George Washington Silt. His mother owned, and maybe still owns The Manatee Inn, a hotel in Boynton Beach that a few of the 911 hijackers stayed at the summer before the attacks. I got this from a recent article in the Palm Beach Post.

Waleed Shehri checked into The Manatee Inn in June and paid his $260 a week rent and deposits with a Visa card, records show. Shehri had at least two associates who slept in Room B-308. The men gave the impression they spoke little or no English, housekeeper Valrie Williams of Lake Worth said in September 2001. She said one always would stay at the room, sitting in a chair partly in the walkway and partly in the threshold of the open front door.

“I would talk to them,” Williams said. “They made like they didn’t want to talk.”

My tool rental business was only a few miles from The Manatee Inn. My mechanic at the time, a drunkard named Kevin Wagner, lived just south of the Homing Inn, in a little efficiency behind Denny’s, where two other hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, were late-night regulars that summer.

Waitresses recalled serving two Middle Eastern men who complained about their bills and left meager tips. One was Atta.

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I guess because it gives me a strange kind of pride thinking about how the people responsible for the biggest, most world-shaking event of the 21st century – awful though it was – could’ve been anywhere on the planet, but were in my little no-event town, going to my haunts, dealing with people loosely associated with me and my tool rental shop, just weeks before it happened. What if I’d seen one or two of them out at a bar one night? What if I held the door for one of them at a 7-11? What if my mechanic, Kevin Wagner, had eaten at the next table over from them one late night at Denny’s? Maybe he did. Maybe he even heard their plans to crash into the World Trade Center but it was in an undertone and he was so drunk he forgot the next morning.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I’m sure it was the alcohol that did it. His organs probably just shut down. Kevin Wagner, who I write extensively about in the novel I have finished but have yet to do anything with, Ramblin’ Fever, died in 2010, at age 46. George Washington Silt died a few years before that. He was about 50. He was 41 when he got out of the madhouse, and you know what he did after that? He got a huge loan from his mother and opened a tool rental shop in Broward. It was successful from the outset, partly because he could buy whatever he wanted with his mother’s Manatee Inn money, and partly because he had a great location. Also, he was good to his customers so they kept coming back. But then, after about five or six years, I started hearing stories from wholesalers and mutual customers about how gaunt and pale and terrible George looked, and I thought it was because he was off his medication and on crack again. I’d call down there. He usually wasn’t around. He’d put some young Latino girl in charge of the place, and she was always vague about his whereabouts. Then one day in about 2008 I heard he was dead of AIDS. At first I didn’t believe it, but it turned out to be true. Did he get it from Lil’ Bit? Did he get it from someone before her? In the article I found on him in the Sun Sentinel, it says he was arrested 17 times between 1989 and 1997. Those arrests included solicitation for prostitution, drug charges and transporting of explosives. Could it possibly be true? Not the arrests, this: George Washington Silt, like the man without a face – a baby once – an infant, his mother holding him in her loving arms, kissing and coddling him, full of dreams for his future, completely oblivious to the tragedy she was nursing. I guess it always works out like that. One way or another we’re all tragedies.

Old Cantankerous

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It was a little before 7 when I got to the beach this morning, and the sky was just beginning to light up. On the horizon, there were clumps of purple clouds piled up, and behind them, the burnt glow of the rising sun.

I wasn’t the only one out there.

I could see the silhouettes of about fifteen or twenty people along the shoreline, most with cameras, some with cameras on tripods. I threw my chair in the sand next to the pier and sat down. I was in a black mood. I didn’t know why, but I suspected the people had something to do with it. I had expected to come there and be alone, at one with my thoughts, the ocean, the sun. Instead, my view was fouled by a mob of people who had come – not necessarily to see or experience the sunrise – but to provide evidence of it on some social media site later that day, accompanied (most likely) by some recycled life-coaching advice about how you should embrace beauty, or be a mindful, good person. It’s funny how the wisest sages I’ve ever encountered have been twentysomething bimbos on Instagram.

I sat there stewing.

I’m deleting all my social media accounts, I thought. I cursed myself for having wasted so much time on them over the years.

For nothing.

I’m deleting everything, I told myself. I can’t contribute to that plastic world anymore. It gets more plastic every time I look at it.

I dug my feet in the cool sand, listening to the wood pigeon cooing from the pier and watching the sky slowly change color. It was now a lighter, transparent blue, beams of sunlight bursting through the clouds, throwing crimson light on the waves, glittering in the foamy tidepools. A seagull sailed over the surf, its reflection mirrored in the sands. I could smell the salt and the strong odor of fish in the air and felt a cool breeze lifting the hairs on my arms. But my mood was still black. I couldn’t contemplate with so many people around. There’s nothing worse than being in public – whether it be the beach, the supermarket, the driver’s license bureau, the public transport system – and having to share a small space with a lot of people you want nothing to do with. I often liked individuals. It was large, protean, faceless masses of humanity I couldn’t stand. Listening to their babble, their dumb opinions, looking at the senseless backs of their necks, their hairlines, waistlines, thier unoriginal existences. Like I say, I was in a foul, cantankerous mood.

He came from the north.

A man of about fifty. He came loping along with his tripod, planted it in the sand about 10 feet in front of me, and stood there blocking my view of the sunrise. I waited for a moment for him turn around and notice me, but he never did. He was completely oblivious to everything behind him. Could he really be that self-absorbed? I thought about saying something. Then I had this fantasy about marching over there, wrestling his tripod from him and hurling it in the ocean. I got out of my chair, walked around him without saying anything. I stood on the shoreline directly where his camera was pointed. I squatted down and began talking my own photos.

When I turned around he was gone; my mood elevated after that.

I took my chair to the other side of the pier where it was less crowded; took a sea bath, floated on my back looking up at the sky, went underwater and stayed under for as long as I could hold my breath.

I liked it best underwater.

There were no people under there.

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.

A Hero of Our Time

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Who are the heroes of our time? I was thinking about this question the other day, and I’m sure for everyone it’s someone different. For me, it’s not a specific person. I don’t have any living heroes, unfortunately. But I do have an image of a hero. I am picturing a man of no particular race or age. He’s an artist of some sort – a poet, or a poet-painter, or a poet-musician, or some combo of the three. He’s also a minimalist. His needs are very few, and he’s learned to shut out most 21st century distractions. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of the other social media sites, although he may have a blog. In fact, he does have a blog – the peacock must show his feathers off somewhere.

This man tries to keep one foot in the unknown as much as possible but also has a structured routine. He wears the same outfit every day. Black trousers and a black t-shirt. His wardrobe used to have more colors in it, but in a world where a man is assailed by so many hundreds of choices so many times a day, to have one less wherever possible is the best choice. His diet too is very sparse. He drinks coffee in the morning and eats very little – fruit, eggs, nuts, a small piece of chocolate; for lunch, he has the same thing every day – a liverwurst sandwich; and dinner is homemade, although he might eat out one night a week. His only extravagance with what he ingests is alcohol. He drinks wine, beer, hard liquor, all to excess, not so much because he’s addicted to it, but for the sake of his art. His Muses demand it.

“Ever since Liber enlisted barely sane poets among the satyrs and fauns, the sweet Muses as a rule have smelled of wine in the morning.” ~ Horace

Being drunk or hungover also gives new eyes to his art. Sobriety only sees half the picture, and too much sobriety is fatal – it’s how you end up with a Donald Trump, a Hitler or the Islamic extremist. It’s his firm belief that the halls of poetry are closed to water-drinkers. He also holds in high esteem Rimbaud’s famous line that the poet makes himself a seer by the long, immense and rational derangement of the senses.

Other than Horace, our hero’s heroes include many of the ancient Greeks, the famous Russian novelists and short story writers of the 19th century, a handful of German philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries, and Meister Eckhart, William Blake, Beethoven, Bach, Delacroix, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. It’s books by these authors that he will read first thing in the morning as opposed to the latest news cycle. That’s not to say he doesn’t pay attention to current events. He does, but only in small doses, and from the most detached perspective possible, so as not to get too much mud in his hair. What fascinates him most in politics are the eternal qualities of human nature to be found in it, and where these go slack, so does attention.

He sees no need to try to save the world if it cannot be saved by art. And he is not tainted by greed. He might’ve been tainted in his youth due to immaturity and the culture he grew up in, but never to much of an extreme, and he has seen enough to know that the rich are often the most miserable, and there’s very little – if anything – that they have that’s worth envying. Their lives are almost certainly empty beneath the façade, and his art is what he loves. Bringing it out from the very center of him like a silkworm does its thread. He only needs as much money as it takes for him to do that as often as possible and has no machinations or plans to defraud anyone in any business.

Our hero could live anywhere – in a big city, in a small seaside town, in the mountains. Wherever it is, he can often be seen talking brisk 1-2-hour walks, usually in the afternoon or early evening or sometimes very late at night, after he’s done with his creations. He goes out in search of some beautiful thing he vaguely intuits. He doesn’t know what it is, but he knows it’s somewhere. He looks for it in the faces of the passing people, in the reflections of the mountain stream, in shop windows, in the changing shapes of the clouds. He feels he is getting closer to finding it every day. Every day he trembles on the edge of it and every day comes home empty handed. But art is his meditation, his silkworm’s thread, his mad, wall-eyed ecstasy, and sometimes he finds it in there.

“For whether we agree with the Greek poet that ‘Sometimes it is sweet to be mad,’ or with Plato that ‘A man sound in mind knocks in vain at the doors of poetry,’ or with Aristotle that ‘No great intellect has been without a touch of madness,’ only a mind that is deeply stirred can utter something that is beyond the power of others.” ~ Seneca

My Supersonic Trip to Innsbruck

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Last Tuesday, just after I woke up to start getting ready for my trip to Innsbruck, I saw that a comment had come into my blog about something I’d posted a little over a year ago. In the post, I had used the main character’s real name instead of giving him a pseudonym, and that’s how the person who had commented found the blog. She is the daughter of the main character, and her comment that morning led to an email correspondence between us which led to me anonymizing her long-deceased father, a former mechanic and business associate of mine, giving him the pseudonym George Washington Silt, which isn’t too far off from his real name, which I was hesitent to part with I love it so much. The blog I had written about him is here.

Anyway, when I woke up that morning and saw the comment, I didn’t read it all the way through at first. I scanned it and saw this: George Washington Silt, my father… Oh, shit, I thought. I didn’t realize George had a daughter, let alone one that would find my blog a year after I’d posted it, and ten years after his death. I put my phone down before reading the comment through. I figured it was too early to read what I was expecting to read; I needed to take a shower, get some coffee in me and finish packing before facing up to the hurt I caused. So that’s what I did and forty-five minutes later, when I read the comment through, I was relieved to find that George’s daughter took the post well. She understood that nothing I had written was malicious, and even said the story made her laugh, and that George would’ve gotten a kick out of it too. Still, there were some facts I got wrong – this is why I am a writer of poetry and fiction and not facts – and she clarified those, and also made clear that her father, though not perfect, wasn’t simply insane, or a drug-addict, he was a good man with a good heart, an infectious smile, a great sense of humor, and brought warmth into many people’s lives.

I couldn’t agree with her assessment more and knew it from when I first met George, in about 1995. As I said in the other post, he was one of my first mechanics, though he never worked in my shop. He worked out of the garage at his house, and I used to go there afterhours and bring him my equipment for repair. I remember it something like this: I’d come rumbling into his driveway in my rusted-out 1984 Isuzu Pup, get a couple chainsaws or cut-off saws out the back of the truck, and knock on the garage door. The door would then slowly open, and first I’d see George’s unlaced sneakers and his pant-legs sitting on them in little bundles. Then the door would pass a hand with a cigarette burning between the fingers, and then a little portion of his belly shoving through a button-down shirt whose buttons were invariably stuck in the wrong hole – they were in the hole either above or below the one they were supposed to be in, and the shirt would be off-kilter, sliding off one shoulder. Finally, the door would glide past George’s grinning face, the sun in his eyes, his jet-black bowl-cut glittering like a forest mushroom. He’d stand there looking at me, take a long, deep drag from his cigarette and, still smirking, say something derisive and hilarious about our two scumbag competitors, Tweedle-dee and Tweedledum.

So that was the image I had of George when I read her comment about his infectious smile, etcetera, and that was the image I took with me to Austria.

The easyJet flight we took from Berlin to Salzburg lasted an hour and cost €14. The train from Salzburg to Innsbruck cost €19; this is the great thing about living in this part of Europe. For under €40 you can go to Austria, Italy, England, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, etc., etc. In South Florida, where I’m from, €40 MIGHT get you to The Villages, the golf cart retirement town in the center of the state where 4/5 of the residents are Trump-zealots, drunk on firearms and Viagra.

The last time I was in Salzburg was in 2013, two months after my son was born. This was a rough time for me, to say the least. I hadn’t yet even seen my son, not in person. I’d seen pictures of him. To say I wasn’t getting along with his mother would be an understatement, but I wrote all about that in Fortuna Berlin. We’ve since fixed things to the point where they’re almost perfect now and I will soon be deleting the novel, replacing it with something that I can tell you, at 45,000 words in, is going to be 100x better.

So as I was saying, I wasn’t in a good place the last time I was in Salzburg, but I didn’t let it totally ruin the trip. Going through some old notes the other day, I came coincidentally across an entry I’d written when I was there. The entry was about how I was in the Festungsbahn, a traincar that takes you up the mountain to the Hohensalzburg Fortress. I was sitting in the Festungsbahn with a bunch of drunken Austrians. They were laughing and talking loudly, but their accent was so strong (& my German so bad then) that I didn’t understand anything they were saying. All their words sounded like one impossibly long German word strung together with Origami ribbon. Finally, when they got out, the old man who was reading the newspaper next to me said something about how they were so noisy he had to read the same passage “drei mal.’ I understood that and would’ve loved to have left it at that – understanding him – but he went on talking in his strong Austrian accent, and all I could do was smile and nod, pretending I not only understood him perfectly, but that what he was saying was too humorous and absurd to offer a reply. It might not have even been funny for all I knew, but he went on, and on, and I sat there with my ironic smile, saying nothing. By then it was too late to admit his paragraphs had fallen on deaf ears, but I think he finally realized it. He offered me a cough drop. We were dead silent after that.

That was the only thing I wrote down from that trip. I was only there for a day, enough time to see the fortress, visit the house Mozart grew up in, and go to some bars and coffeehouses.

This time we only had 6 hours there. We walked around the city, visited the Salzburg Dom, one of the biggest and most majestic cathedrals I’ve ever been to, and after that ate a light lunch with beers at a dark little restaurant in the Altstadt. Then it was off to Innsbruck by rail.

If you’ve never been to Innsbruck before, I recommend it. It’s one of the prettiest towns in Europe, and it survived WWII unscathed, so the old buildings are much as they have been for centuries. We stayed at the Maximilian Hotel in the Altstadt. The hotel is named after Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor (1508-1519) and former resident. He was also the subject of a few Albrecht Dürer paintings, and I couldn’t help making a few sketches of him too when I was there. Here’s one:

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So, after checking in and getting unpacked, we walked along the River Inn, through the Altstadt, checked out the Goldenes Dachl, the Stadtturm, and stumbled upon Hotel Golden Adler (aka Best Western Plus), where the likes of Mozart, Goethe, Paganini, Heine, Albert Camus & Jean Paul Sartre all stayed. Goethe came twice. The first time was in 1786 on his way to Italy. He only stayed the afternoon and spent most of it talking to the son of the landlord, according to an entry from his Italian Journey diary. The second time was in 1791 when he stayed two nights with the Duchess Amalie of Sachsen-Weimar. On the bottom floor of the place, there’s a room called the Goethestube which, according to the literature, was once a meeting place for Tyrolean poets, painters and musicians. When I was there it was closed for renovations, along with the restaurant. Only the Best Western Plus part was functioning. I walked through the entrance and poked my head in, just long enough to see the arrangements. I didn’t want it to be said that the doors of that sacred domicile were closed to me in a way they hadn’t been to the others.

We wanted to go skiing, but with the €14 airfare, we were already reaching the top of our budget, so we decided to skip it, but not without regret. I started skiing when I was six, and sometimes I wonder what it’d would’ve been like if in my 20s I’d moved to some little mountain town and became a ski bum instead of opening up a tool rental shop.

On our first full day, we breakfasted at the hotel and then took a long walk along the river, down some random streets, and ended up at the Ambras Castle (Schloss Ambras Innsbruck), which sits in the hills overlooking the city and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The castle, when it was first built in the 10th century, was a fortress. In the 16th century, Archduke Ferdinand II, converted it into a renaissance castle as a gift to his wife, a commoner who he’d married under conditions of secrecy, much to the disappointment of his father. There’s a little cave-like structure outside the castle called the Bacchus Grotto where Ferdinand II used to hold drinking parties where the guests were strapped to what looked like an electric chair and were not allowed out of it until they’d drained the leviathan bucket of wine set before them. Now that sounds like my kind of party. I was beginning to like this Ferdinand II. I liked him even more when I saw his collection of armories in the castle and the Chamber of Art and Wonders (Kunst- und Wunderkammer). Ferdinand II was one of history’s most prominent collectors of art, weapons, scientific and musical instruments, rarities, curiosities, natural objects and wonders of nature. Unfortunately, the Habsburger Porträtgalerie, which contains paintings by Hans Burgkmair, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez, and others is closed in the winter so we missed that. One of the best books I read last year was the Autobiography of Cellini, the 16th century Italian goldsmith and soldier. I was reminded of the book when I was looking at the collection of finely-wrought suits of armor in the castle, most of them worn by famous people of the time. “I wonder,” I said to Erica, “if Cellini had any connection to the stuff here.” I’d no sooner asked the question than I stumbled on a painting of Charles de Bourbon (1489-1527), a French military leader who in the conflict between Karl V and Pope Clemens VII de’Medici, was apparently killed by a bullet out of Cellini’s hand. He mentions the event in his autobiography.

“I pointed my arquebus toward the thickest and most closely packed part of the enemy, taking direct aim at someone I could see standing out from the rest.”

Some of the pettiest, most cowardly, self-serving, sniveling little shits I’ve ever encountered have been dabblers in the arts. The worst are the ones who do it not so much because they enjoy it, but so they can tell people they do it, to get them laid, or give themselves an identity. I’m never more suspicious than when I meet someone who calls him or herself a poet. I might admit I write poetry, but I would never call myself a poet. The name’s been hacked to bits my too many poseurs, mopes, vulgarians, chickenshits, also-rans, jellyfish & creampuffs-de-jour. Which is where Cellini comes in. He was a man’s man, hot-blooded, fiercely independent, mean as a Gila monster, but also tender and loving, honest-to-a-fault and a master of everything he touched, be it rock or gold, paints, ink, poetry, weaponry. If you’re sick of the Facebook/Instagram poetry coterie, I suggest Cellini’s Autobiography as antidote.

The next day, which was also the last day of our short trip, and Valentine’s Day, we went to the Tiroler Landesmuseum, the Dom zu St. Jakob, the Hofkirche, and ended up at a little restaurant across from the Goldenes Dachl where we ate Tyrolian specialties, drank beer and watched in amazement the only cook serving the place, a stoic, fat old man with hands quick as finches in a fruit tree that’s just beginning to blossom. The food was great, and the people were friendly. We had quite a different experience from what one recent jerkoff had posted on Trip Advisor. I was going to post just an excerpt of his diatribe, but it’s too good to delete anything. It needs to be read in whole, parsed, dissected and, if possible, immortalized in the Goethestube at the Best Western Plus.

Rude and racist staff. Wrong order and hair on food.

Look, the food wasn’t all that bad but it wasn’t the best I have had either. It is traditional Austrian cuisine but I am sure you can find the same type of food at any other city. The service was extremely appalling and staff were very rude and dismissive.

The staff had the audacity to offer us the “only” available seats for our family on the landing between two stairwells. To set the scene, when you enter into the restaurant, you arrive at a small narrow walkway which is adjacent to the open bar and kitchen. There is a small bar stool with some tables on the side for you to wait to be seated. There was no urgency for us to be seated as soon as practicable and staff did not advise the wait time to be seated at the actual restaurant on the second floor either. We took up the offer seeing as it was almost midday and we had only just arrived in Innsbruck. It was quite an awkward and out of place set up. To make matters a little more interesting to observe, many other incoming restaurant goers were offered seats up in the second level not too long after us after a very short wait time.

Now onto the food. We ordered four main dishes, alcohol and coffee. The wrong coffee order was made and it had alcohol, which was not to be consumed by a minor. When this was pointed out to the staff, they did not admit they were at fault and nor did they apologise for the error or provide a solution to the issue other than offer to “add whipped cream”?! I am sorry but adding whipped cream will not eliminate the alcohol that is present.

In addition to the wrong coffee order, we also found a piece of eyelash/eyebrow hair on our food and drinks – which in itself I am sure will speak a lot out the work health and safety environment within their kitchen.

He never elaborated on the racist accusation, but it should probably be noted that he was a white guy from Australia. Also, the eyelash/eyebrow must’ve been pretty long to span the food AND drinks.

Friday morning, we left Innsbruck on the train to Salzburg. It’s a two-hour trip, and to pass the time I’d brought along Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky has always been a great solace of mine, though I’m ashamed to say I haven’t some of his great tomes. I still haven’t gotten to The Demons or The Idiot. George Washington Silt read The Idiot. I remember talking about it with him in about 1998, shortly after he got out of the madhouse. He said the book was in the library when he was there, and he liked he liked how it was still relevant. He said it reminded him of South Florida in general, and the tool rental business in particular – everyone was screwing everyone else over. An honest man doesn’t have a chance.

I was only about 1/8 into Brothers Karamazov when I came the Schiller poem Dostoyevsky’s character Mitya quotes. He also quotes Goethe. Something about kissing the hem of the robe that God enwraps himself in. I looked out the window of the train at the lofty mountains and the landscape flying by. I thought about the marvels of modern transportation, and I thought about Goethe in 1786, in a horse-drawn carriage, passing through Innsbruck on his way to Italy. What would a Goethe be like today, in the world of high-speed trains, cryptocurrency, nuclear fission, oil drilling, bioplastic, data mining, self-reconfiguring modular robots, ultra-high-definition television, augmented reality, sneakers-with-lights-on-them, and so on, and so on? No wonder why polymaths don’t exist anymore. There are too many fields, and too much to know. But, it’s true – everything ends at the same place – with your lips on the hem that God enwraps himself in. Not that I believe in God. I don’t know what I believe in. I try not to think about it, and in meantime give the widest possible birth to the fire and brimstone crowd. Some of my least trustworthy customers when I was in the tool rental business were pastors, and I’m sure George Washington Silt would agree. He said it best. He said, “Ya gotta look out for them Holyroller types. They start talking about that God, and as soon as you look up into the sky to see what all the fuss is about – as soon as you let your guard down, that is – they’ve got your pants down at your ankles and are slippin’ you the big salami. It’s no good, I say. No good at all.”

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