Living In Fleecetown

Pagedale, Missouri is a suburb of St. Louis that covers about one square mile of area and has a population of 3,300 people. With a territory and population that small, how can a municipality generate sufficient revenue to provide city services?  According to a consent decree entered in federal court, Pagedale’s evident solution to the revenue problem was to fleece its own residents through a system of citations for claimed “nuisances” or code violations.

555fd681c467f-imageTo people other than the residents of Pagedale, the kinds of violations that were the subject of citations seem pretty comical.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there were prohibitions against sagging pants, walking on the left side of a crosswalk, walking in a roadway if a sidewalk is nearby, or barbecuing in your front yard (unless it’s a national holiday), as well as bans on dish antennas, basketball hoops, volleyball nets, swimming or wading pools or other recreational equipment in the front of a house.  Having mismatched curtains or a hole in a window screen also could be cited for code violations and produce fines.

But for the residents of Pagedale, it was no laughing matter.  In 2014, Pagedale handed out 2,555 citations for such offenses — a 500 percent increase from 2010.  In some years, proceeds from the fines assessed for the violations generated a quarter of the city budget.  And in the meantime, residents were saddled with debt trying to keep up with the citations and fines.

Why did Pagedale resort to fleecing its own residents?  According to the Post-Dispatch, what happened “was that Pagedale, along with some other municipalities, began raising money from non-traffic cases because of a Missouri law that caps the amount of revenue municipalities can collect from traffic fines.”  In short, towns that used to be speed traps looked inward and decided poor residents would have to make up the revenue shortfall.

What does it tell you about “public servants” that, rather than cutting municipal budgets or developing legitimate alternative sources of revenue, they would prey on the people they are supposed to be serving?  It tells you that, in some places at least, the concept of government has become perverted, and municipal employees are more interested in preserving their own jobs and paydays than in furthering the public good.

The Post-Dispatch gets it right when it says:  “Municipalities that cannot deliver services without preying on citizens should be dissolved.”   That seems like a rule that is so basic that it doesn’t need to be expressed — but evidently not.  Have we really reached the point where we need to set rules against predatory practices by local governments against their own citizens?

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Summa Cake Laude

Some stories are just too silly and delectable to ignore.

Take the story of the South Carolina family that wanted to celebrate their son’s graduation, summa cum laude, from a Christian-oriented home schooling program.  They ordered a cake from the local outlet of a large national grocery store chain to celebrate the feat, and wanted a sheet cake decorated with a mortarboard and faux diploma and icing to recognize that accomplishment.

publix-cakejpg-8caef864034a07fbAlas!  When the cake was retrieved and viewed at the party, the large national chain had edited out the Latin word variously translated as “with,” “along with,” or “together,” because it also is modern slang for a notorious bodily fluid.  So the cake came out saying “Congrats Jacob!  Summa — Laude Class of 2018” — even though the Mom who ordered the cake explained that the requested phrase was Latin and meant “with highest honors.”  Poor Jacob is quoted as saying, no doubt ruefully:  “The cake experience was kind of frustrating and humiliating because I had to explain to my friends and family like what that meant. And they were giggling uncontrollably. At least my friends were.”

Can it really be that a major grocery story chain that regularly bakes congratulatory cakes doesn’t know what “cum laude” means?  Maybe we all need to get our minds out of the gutter and onto a higher plane of baking.

Boxed Lunch Roulette

Yesterday I went to a professional event over the noon hour where every attendee got a boxed lunch.  At such events, the boxed lunches are grouped and stacked by the kind of sandwich printed on the outside, and you make your choice, take your box back to your seat, and hope for the best.

lunch_boxI say “hope for the best,” because when it comes to boxed lunches there’s a significant element of risk involved.  Sure, you can choose whether you want “roast beef” or “chicken salad” or “Italian” or “a wreck” (whatever that is), but of course the sandwich descriptions barely scratch the surface of the important information you’d like to know in deciding what to have for lunch.  At a restaurant, you’d be able to make choices about the bread to be used, find out what is put on the sandwich and add or subtract as you see fit, and pick your side dish, but in the boxed lunch scenario you’ve got none of those options.  You’ve got a mound of closed boxes in front of you, and it wouldn’t be seemly to start opening them up and pawing through the contents to determine which box is best suited to you.

Yesterday I went for the grilled chicken sandwich box. The grilled chicken came on a sub bun and — inevitably! — had lots of sliced tomato and shredded lettuce and other vegetable matter on top.  In the boxed lunch world, the prevailing assumption is that everyone will want every conceivable vegetable on their sandwich.  Call it the highest, or lowest, common denominator effect.  I despise both tomato and shredded lettuce, so I had to figure out how to remove them.  Since there was no utensil in the box, I removed the offending items by hand, which was a messy operation that created a small mound of unappetizing, limp vegetable matter in the box.  Add to that the fact that once shredded lettuce is added to a boxed sandwich it can never be fully removed because it tends to adhere to the bread and hide in cracks and crevices of the meat, and you’ve captured one aspect of boxed lunch roulette.

There’s more, of course.  With a standard boxed lunch, you get a side and a dessert.  Usually the side is a bag of potato chips or Doritos, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s a small fruit bowl or edible pasta salad.  Yesterday it was barbecue-flavored potato chips, which equates to a losing spin on the wheel.  I’ve not conducted a scientific study, but I have to believe that barbecue potato chips appeal to only a tiny, tastebud-challenged segment of the American population.  Lacking the ability to appreciate delicate and nuanced food flavors and spices, this poor group must opt for chips coated in heavy, dusty, quasi-sugary artificial flavoring that stains your fingers red as you eat them.  I therefore passed on the chips and found myself wondering — if you’re making boxed lunches, why not just opt for regular potato or kettle chips, rather than pushing the envelope with something like barbecue or ranch or vinegar flavoring?  But although the side was a dud, the dessert was a positive — an oatmeal cookie that I saved and brought home to share with Kish.

Ultimately I got a pretty good sandwich after the vegetable removal process was completed, skipped potato chips that I shouldn’t have eaten anyway, and brought home a good cookie.  All told, I’d say I broke even in yesterday’s exercise in lunch box roulette.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XIV)

Yesterday Dr. Science and I were supposed to have lunch at a restaurant on the south side of town.  When noon rolled around, however, the rain was absolutely pouring down, so we needed a central destination to minimize the downpour effect.  Let’s see — he’s just south of the Statehouse, and I’m just north of the Statehouse.  Hey, how about the Statehouse?  You can’t get more central than that!

Fortunately, there is in fact a place to eat at Ohio’s seat of government.  It’s located in the “basement” of the Statehouse, reachable through the Third Street entrance.  You walk past the map room and the shouts of schoolkids on a field trip, turn right at the main hallway, and then look for the place where the staffers are heading, tucked away in a few rooms on one side of the hallway.

The restaurant is a breakfast and lunch spot called GRAZE.  As the name suggests, GRAZE is all about farms and pastures — specifically, the “farm to table” concept in which Ohio eggs, dairy products, and proteins are featured.  The menu includes breakfast items, sandwiches, soups, salads, wraps, and bowls, and the goal is for customers to obtain “a protein packed and nutritious lunch for less than $10.”  You start in the room with the kitchen area, place your order at the counter, watch the food preparers go to work, move down to the cashier’s station, and settle up on your order, and by the time you get your tray and water cup your freshly made food has appeared.  You then head into one of the adjoining rooms to find a table and eat your lunch.

I went for the lamb gyro bowl — without the romaine, tomato, and cucumber, of course — and it was really quite good, with moist, shredded lamb, tasty pickled onions, brown rice, lots of feta cheese, and tzatziki sauce.  It definitely hit the spot, and at $9.50, it also met the “under $10” test.  I gladly consumed it all.

As I sat relishing my meal, I thought idly about the name “GRAZE,” its clear bovine connotations, and its suitability for a restaurant name — but then I realized that horses also graze, and I obviously needed fuel for the afternoon’s race.  I concluded that GRAZE was a pretty good place to tie on the old feedbag.

Email Tag Lines

Lately I’ve noticed an increase in email “tag lines.”  At least, that’s what I call them.  They are the little quotes that some people have added to their email communications.  They appear at the end of every email, as part of the writer’s signature stamp.  Like “An unexamined life is not worth living. — Socrates” or “All you need is love. — John Lennon and Paul McCartney” or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going. — Knute Rockne.

quote-live-fast-die-young-leave-a-good-looking-corpse-james-dean-47-99-73Email tag lines are kind of strange (not to mention pretentious and presumptuous) when you think about it.  It’s hard to imagine that one quote, no matter what it is, could provide an appropriate coda to every different kind of email that a person might send.  “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. — James Dean” might go well with an email planning a trip to Las Vegas, but it doesn’t really fit with an email expressing concern about a colleague’s illness or sorrow about the death of an aged relative.  Similarly, a tag line like “The truest wisdom is a resolute determination. — Napoleon Bonaparte” seems jarring when it appears at the end of a email passing along some bad jokes.

When I get emails from somebody who uses one of those tag lines, I always wonder about their motivation and how they came to add the quote to their email in the first place.  Did they just stumble across a quote from somebody that they thought was so true to the very core of their being that it just has to be included as a matter of course in every communication they send to people on any subject?  Or, did they first conclude that their email communications needed a little extra kick, and would be empty without some kind of concluding intellectual, political, or social statement from Descartes, John F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King?

The bottom line, though, is that an email tag line, even when it does fit with the subject of the communication, can’t save you from yourself or mask your true nature.  Intellectual quotes can’t salvage an email filled with typos, poor grammar, and incorrect word use, and tag lines about love and peace won’t change the tone of a message establishing that the writer is an angry, unprincipled jerk.

In the end, content speaks louder than tag lines.

Whirlybirds Accompaniment

I went to work this morning, and as I was working I kept hearing this great jazz music coming up from the street below during today’s Sunlight Market on Gay Street.  I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing a recording or a live band — but the music was terrific.  It was old-school jazz that had a kind of New Orleans feel to it.  It reminded me of Tuba Skinny, one of my favorite Big Easy jazz bands.

whirlybirds-facebook-picWhen I left the office and walked out onto Gay Street, I saw that the music was coming a live band.  They finished a number and took a break, and I walked up to throw a few dollars into their open guitar case and thank them for adding a little musical accompaniment to my Sunday work session.  They were a Columbus-based band called the Whirlybirds, and they were great.  You can check out their Facebook page here and hear one of their numbers here.

I’m going to keep an eye out for a chance to hear more from the Whirlybirds.

Under Lock And Key

Do you ever leave your house unlocked, even for only a few minutes?  How about your car?

I never do.  In fact — and you can call me obsessive-compulsive if you want — I make sure I always lock our house with the deadbolt and not just the automatic lock, and I try the door handle after I’m done to be certain.  I also hit the locking button on our car key and hear the little chirp twice and then pull on the door handle to make absolutely sure the lock is engaged.  I have keys in hand before I do either of these things to make sure that I’m not locking myself out, too.  These are habits I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

187098I mention this because of this article I ran across about crime statistics in one upper middle class midwestern suburb in a recent month.  All of the 25 cases of automobile theft in that month involved unlocked cars, and half of the house thefts involved unlocked homes.  That’s mind-boggling to me.  And the house break-in data is skewed, because of some unique circumstances — typically, according to the article, an astonishing 80 percent of such thefts involve unlocked cars and houses.  Why would so many people leave their cars and houses unlocked?  Are they worried about locking themselves out?  Do they think they would be inconvenienced by the few seconds it takes to fish a key out of pants pockets or purses and unlocking their car or house?  Do they think they’re going to be gone for only a few minutes and there’s no risk?  Or are they just trusting souls who are convinced their neighborhoods are totally safe at all times?

According to the article, too, the identity of the criminals has shifted.  Before, teenagers looking for a little pocket money were often the perpetrators of such petty theft; now it’s inevitably adult opiate addicts who are looking for money that will allow them to get a quick fix.  Check out the chilling video surveillance footage accompanying the article, of the guy quickly checking the doors on cars.  According to the article, the thieves try to minimize their risk — in cars, they’ll look for an unlocked car and when they find one they’ll steal loose change and whatever appears to be valuable and be out in a few seconds, and in houses they’ll head directly to the bedroom, steal any visible small electronics they see, take any jewelry and money from the bedroom, and get out of the house in a few minutes — so being away from your unlocked house or car for only a few minutes isn’t going to provide any protection.  And the article notes that having a dog isn’t a sure-fire thief deterrent, either.

Why take a needless risk?  As the title of the article states:  Lock your damn doors!  (And make sure your kids do, too!)