Bones

Phone Bones

We have been out of town the past couple of weekends, once to Reno and once to visit my parents in the Central Valley.  From the vantage point of a New Yorker who transplanted himself to California 20 years ago, the distinguishing factor of the Golden State is that it has no distinguishing factor.

Even after two decades on the west coast, many notice a trace of a New York accent that lingers in my speech.  When I admit to my roots, I am typically asked where exactly in New York I am from.  It seems that I disappoint them when I don’t announce that I hail from Batavia, Binghamton or Buffalo.

“I was born in Manhattan,” I tell them, and they seem suitably impressed.  I don’t bother mentioning about starting out sharing a single bedroom with two sisters in a roach-infested walk-up in the Bronx.  Nor do I get into my parents’ flight to the leafy suburbs in the mid-sixties.

“Things must be really different back there,” is the usual reaction.  I disappoint once again when I say that, no, they’re not.  I’ve long resigned myself to the increasing homogeneity of America.  So much of California reminds me of New Jersey.  The grubby suburbs of Sacramento and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles are not that different than Passaic and Essex Counties in the Garden States.  Newark, California has a lot in common with Newark, New Jersey.

We travel the interstates, taking an exit periodically to fill the gas tank, fill our bellies, use the rest rooms.  Whether we’re in Oregon or Nevada or right here in northern California, the one thing that every convenience store, strip mall and restaurant seems to have in common is the bones.

I refer to the skeletal remains of the once ubiquitous pay phone.

I remember it well.  It was the summer before I went off to college, and my father and I were hitting balls on a tennis court at the local junior high.  I had never been away from home before, was quite immature at the age of 17 and began fretting about how I’d keep in touch.

“There are pay phones everywhere,” my father offered.

Oh, so true during the Carter administration.  In my freshman year, I lived in a dormitory that had one pay phone on each floor, in the elbow that separated the men’s wing from the women’s.  It was considered proper etiquette to answer it if you were nearby when it rang, and then to leave the receiver dangling while you went to bang on the door of whomever the caller requested.  I remember being tickled the day I heard it ring just as I walked by and it was actually for me!

Later, I transferred to a giant state university that was bursting at the seams with baby boomers.  Despite a veritable city of dormitories, there was no room at the inn and I ended up with a couple hundred other students in a decrepit single room occupancy hotel downtown.  There was an old cast iron black telephone in each room.  The phone had no dial (this was before the age of push button phones), as it received incoming calls only.  To place an outgoing call, one would use the pay phone in the lobby.  Alternatively, up on campus one could descend into the basement of the university library, where in a room near the huge bound volumes of obscure academic journals, was a bank of pay phones, complete with little stools on which to perch during one’s phone call.  For some reason, Sunday night seemed to be the time when everyone wanted to call home to Long Island.  After all, everyone was far too busy bar hopping on Friday and Saturday nights.

Somewhere in a dusty album there is a photo of my sister and her young ex-husband, newlyweds on their honeymoon, hugging each other while squeezed into the narrow doorway of a phone booth.

Phone booths!  Remember those?  Clark Kent relied on them to make his transformation into Superman.  The red ones I found throughout London when I visited in the mid-1980s were highly photogenic, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use them to make a phone call.  “You can dial that yourself,” one operator unhelpfully informed me.  HOW??!!

My parents typically spend their evenings watching television, a habit I have studiously avoided for years.  To make matters worse, they don’t have cable or a satellite dish.  Thus, they receive only a few over-the-air stations from a nearby city.  The trash that they serve up to the public makes me roll my eyes.

And so, on Saturday night, after sitting on folding chairs in the driveway to watch the stars for an hour, my wife and I found ourselves sitting on my parents’ couch, watching the first Terminator movie (1984) with my mother.  My father was in the office watching documentaries about murders on another TV.  As a Californian who endured a term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, I could not but guffaw at seeing him as a cyborg.  But it was his repeated visits to phone booths that really caused me to belly laugh.  Phone booths that not only had fully functioning phones in them, but also had phone books present (remember those?), so convenient for Arnold to look up the addresses of his next victims.

Pay phones went through slow stages of disrepair and dilapidation before they disappeared altogether.  There were a number of years during which the phone probably still worked, but nothing dangled at the end of the cord where a phone book was supposed to be.  Most pay phones seemed to be of the outdoor variety; where an actual booth still existed, the little shelf beneath the phone that was supposed to house the phone book was always empty.

When I worked as a manager in the court system, I remember making a sign and posting it on the wall of the courthouse lobby to inform visitors that the pay phone did not work and that no money should be inserted therein.  People tried anyway and lost their dimes and quarters.  I don’t know how long it had been since that particular pay phone had ceased functioning, but I do know that picking up the receiver yielded an incessant beeping and nothing more.  It took quite a lot of research, probing and pleading before I was finally able to get that pay phone removed and the empty hole in the wall plastered over.  The challenge was finding out who actually owned the phone.  None of the phone companies who I contacted were willing to take responsibility for it.  Little did I know that there were businesses that actually purchased and serviced pay phones.  I always had a vague idea that “the phone company” took care of it.  Perhaps this was true in the halcyon days before the breakup of Ma Bell.

The advent of the cell phone relegated pay phones to be just another remnant of American social history, along with the vinyl 33⅓ RPM record and the manual typewriter.

But still, like ghosts of the past, the bones remain.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

A question posted online recently captured my attention in a big way.  It went something like this:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

I was surprised when my guts began churning and a flood of emotions washed over me.  So many memories.  So many “what ifs.”  So many “if onlys.”

What would my ideal job be?  Oh, please don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else, but not that.  It’s just too embarrassing.

It sounds like a warped job interview question, something the production manager or the HR lady sadistically throws at the poor applicant in an attempt to throw him or her off kilter and assess “thinking on your feet” skills.

In fact, I was asked this question during a job interview once, many years ago.  The interviewer added “anything but the job you are applying for, that is.”  Of course.  There would be no point in enduring suck-ups who provide the obvious answer.

As a self-professed “word freak,” I told the interviewer that I have long been fascinated by etymology and would, in my dreams, be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What happened after that was not pretty.  Believing I had said “entomology,” the interviewer thought I was into insects.  As far as the OED, he told me that he had one of those on his desk.  I was sure he was lying, as I knew full well that the OED consists of 20 thick volumes.  (I had not yet heard of the compact edition.)  Then he admitted to me that he’s really like to be a rock star.

Oh.

Need I add that I did not get that job?  I’m probably better off, too.

The loaded question about “your ideal job” has been around just about forever, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.  When I was in college in the 1980s, pondering what the hell I was going to do after graduation with a degree in English and political science, the popular question (courtesy of the Richard Nelson Bolles book) was “what color is your parachute?”  Today, I suppose, we would say (courtesy of young crooner Kacey Musgraves) “follow your arrow wherever it points.”

Turn the dial on the ol’ Wayback Machine a few years earlier.  Everyone from my grandparents to my aunts and uncles to my parents’ friends and our next-door neighbors posed the same question to me at one time or another:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every kid gets asked that question.  I used to think it was a way of testing the kid’s mettle, to find out how big he or she can dream.  Or maybe it’s just a way of making small talk, an adult’s way to start a conversation with a child when the adult doesn’t really know how to relate to kids and has no idea of what else to say.  It’s the old tried-and-true.  It’s the question that’s expected.  Now that I’m an old guy, and more jaded than I like to admit, I suspect that many adults ask kids this question to get a good laugh at the outrageous response they might receive.

If a shy kid greets this question with silence, the follow-up may well be something like:  “Policeman, fireman or Indian chief?”  (In the upper middle class suburban world in which I was raised, the question would more likely have been:  “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?”)

Seriously, what is it with Indian chiefs?  I was born much too late to have heard of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, although I have vague, fuzzy memories of watching old westerns with my grandpa when I was four or five years old.

It seems like a humorous anachronism now.  Today, if you used the phrase “Indian chief,” the image that would come to my mind would be of a CEO in Mumbai.  Not a bad career choice, come to think of it.

Well, what I wanted to be when I grew up was really rather boring.  I wanted to be a librarian.

I was enamored with books and retain vivid memories of an embarrassing incident in which I walked right into the office of the director of the public library and asked him for a job.  I was ten years old.

To the guy’s credit, he quizzed me on the Dewey Decimal System, a test which I summarily failed.

“Being a librarian doesn’t mean you get to read books all day,” my mother patiently tried to explain.  Duh!  Everyone knows that.  Librarians get to push the little cart around and tell people where the periodical room is and shove library cards under that little machine with the bright light that makes a copy with the due date stamped on it.

I started telling people that I wanted to be a teacher like my Dad.  It was safer.  Also, it was less of a sissy answer.  Everyone knew librarians were old ladies with their hair put up in buns.

What I do for a living today is far more boring than being a librarian.  I am a manager in the government service.  Pass the white bread and the vanilla ice cream.

I’ve spent years as a supervisor and manager in both the public and private sectors, during which time I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect upon career paths, recruiting and the interview process.  On several occasions, I found myself in the position of reviewing stacks of job applications and then conducting dozens of interviews.  I learned to take good notes, because after a while it becomes difficult to remember one candidate from another.  Perhaps someone stands out because they tell me a funny joke, once worked as a lion tamer or show up at the interview with really big hair.  But mostly it’s just a chorus line.

These days, I consider myself reformed.  I am rarely involved with hiring anymore, and when I am, I don’t ask candidates what their ideal job would be.

For one thing, it’s too painful.  That is, the ridiculous answers you get are too painful to bear.  And you can’t even laugh!  You have to keep your serious supervisor’s face on, nod and say something profound like “Well, that’s different!”

Mostly, however, you just get boring answers about wanting to work “in the helping professions” (Query:  Is there such a thing as “the hurting professions?”) or wanting to give back to the community or to make a real difference in society.

Sigh.  My eyes grow misty as I recall the many times I’ve spewed out such chewed-over platitudes to prospective employers.  Even when it’s true, it always comes out sounding just a little bit insincere.

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s time to fess up.  My ideal job, what I’d really love to do more than anything else I can think of, is to be . . .

A customer loyalty team representative in Zappo’s call center.

Yep, you read that right.  I want to don a headset, surf the Net like a wild man in search of bargains and answers and make customers insanely happy all day/night.

And much as this is the object of my desires, I can unequivocally guarantee that I will never have this job.  More on that in a little while.

Now, why would I want such a job?  I’m glad you asked.  It’s not out of some goggle-eyed fantasy, I assure you.  I worked in a call center for years, so I know the drill.  Most of my coworkers hated it and got out as soon as they could.  I stuck around for nearly nine years.  It’s where I met my wife and it was one of the best times of my life.  I’d do it all again in a minute.

My niece works in a call center and often makes vague references to the difficult customers she is forced to deal with, the time constraints she faces on each call and the constant threat of Quality Assurance listening in with a critical ear.

Bring it on, I say!

Satisfying the customer at the other end of the phone line, even the one who has a beef with the company and decides to cuss me out, brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I am the weirdo who glories in turning the frown upside down.

But why Zappo’s?  Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  Sorry, I’ll try not to gush too profusely.

First, Zappo’s operates on a holacratic model, which basically means that it’s about the work, not about the person.  There are no titles; roles overlap and morph with business needs.  Employees get to use their skills in a variety of areas rather than being stuck doing just one thing until they get “a promotion.”  It’s about getting things done, not stroking egos.  The idea is entirely refreshing.  You can read more about holacracy here.

Then there are Zappo’s ten core values.  I will list them here so that you can get some idea of why I’ve gone a little bit gaga over selling shoes and apparel:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Be adventurous, creative and open-minded
  • Pursue growth and learning
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication
  • Build a positive team and family spirit
  • Do more with less
  • Be passionate and determined
  • Be humble

I’m told this is not for everyone, but I find it a bit difficult to imagine why anyone would not want to work for such a company.

Pursue growth and learning:  Yes!  I consider myself a lifelong student, I always want to obtain more schooling, I read omnivorously.

Be adventurous, creative and open-minded:  Yes!  No more being a square peg wedged into a round hole.  Try your latest idea without fear of failure!  Then try something else!

Be passionate and determined.  Be humble.  They’re talking about me!

There are other little things, too.  Zappo’s has a 24-hour call center, and I am an inherent night owl who enjoys working weird hours.  Switching shifts every so often to meet business needs doesn’t faze me.  I find it exciting!

The fact that the staff is always up to fun stuff like parades through the call center and silly games and contests — That’s what adds joy to one’s work life.  It’s what keeps people forever young.  That’s what builds the same kind of loyalty to an employer that the employees wish to instill in their customers.  It’s the WOW, it’s what makes their day.

So why haven’t I packed up and moved to Las Vegas yet?  There are a number of obstacles to doing that, but only one that I simply cannot overcome and will never be able to overcome.

I cannot survive on $11 per hour.

Even on $15 an hour, I simply couldn’t make ends meet.  I only wish Zappo’s had been around when I was fresh out of college, 21 years old and back home with my parents, wondering what on earth to do next.  No rent, no utilities, no food bills, nothing but putting gasoline in my rattletrap old car.  I started working for $5.50 an hour on the night shift, which even then was very little money.  If I could transport myself back to that time, and transport my parents’ home to the Nevada desert, I could happily indulge in the job of my dreams.

Those days are long gone, of course, decades in the past.  All that remains is the edges of a dream, a dream fueled by monthly “Zscoop” email reminders from Meli Gonzalez, social recruiting and engagement specialist at Zappo’s.  Like a junkie, I lap up these e-newsletters as a much desired fix.  And I try not to let it break my heart.  But it’s tough.

I know you don’t read this blog, Meli, but if you’re really out there, give an old guy a break and leave a comment telling me that a Zappo’s job paying a salary on which one can pay the bills just opened up and has my name written all over it.

Back in my day, there were all kinds of pop songs about unrequited love.  And this one is mine.

So good night, sweet Zappo’s. I’ll see you in my z’dreams.

The Little House

Little House

Home sweet home

A little over a month ago, we decided we were living a little too far away from my place of employment.  We were spending a little too much on gasoline each month and wasting a little too much time sitting in freeway traffic.  My wife was getting a little tired of spending a little less than four hours on the road each weekday.  In short, we were getting a little sick of wasting our lives commuting.

To be honest, we were also getting a little tired of living in a little parsonage next to a little church in a little town located a little north of nowhere.  Granted, we were more than a little grateful that we had the option of camping out at the parsonage at a time when we had little other choice.  That occurred a little less than two years ago when my former employer found itself a little short of funds and a little long on staff.  After the layoff, we moved a little more toward the northern part of California and were grateful to be a little closer to both my wife’s family and my own parents.  The timing was more than a little auspicious, as our niece had just popped out a little one and we wanted to be able to see a her a little more often than just on Christmas and her birthday.  It all worked out, except for the little fact that I didn’t have a job up here.  It took a little too long for me to remedy that situation, which involved a little too much travel to southern California for interviews as well as a little too much debiting of our little bank account.

When I was finally hired, it was for a temporary position that was slated to end in a little less than ten months and also paid a little less than I had been earning previously.  Nevertheless, I was more than a little relieved to be working again.  In a little while, I found myself promoted to a “permanent” position, although there is still the little matter of passing my probationary period, on which I have a little more than nine months to go.  As luck would have it, our governor gave state employees a little gift of a (very) little raise that will take effect next month.  We are more than a little appreciative of the many little blessings that have been bestowed upon us in the last little while.

Among those blessings is our new place of residence, which we have officially dubbed The Little House.  Originally built as in-law quarters, it sits behind the main house, which is occupied by the family to whom we pay rent on a monthly basis.  Our little corner of paradise consists of a bedroom and another room that serves as kitchen and living room.  There is also a little bathroom tucked a little inside the front doorway.  We have a little couch (courtesy of the owners) that affords my wife and I a little less room than we need to sit comfortably, particularly at time like, say, now, when we are each wailing away at our little laptop computers.  There is too little room for both of us to use a mouse, so we entered into a little compromise under which I sit a little to the left of my wife and use the little touchpad mouse on the keyboard.  Oh, and we also have a little patio just outside the back door that has just enough room for a little chair.

Abby Rufus

Abby and Rufus

Strawberry

Strawberry

Oreo

Oreo, our resident kitty

On the upside, our 600 square foot little piece of air conditioned heaven costs us a little less than an apartment in an urban complex filled with a little too many noisy neighbors.  Here we have peace and quiet, that is, except when the owner’s dogs decide to bark all night, an event which occurs a little too often.  He raises Yorkshire terriers and sells the puppies for a little less than three months of rent payments.  I think people are more than a little crazy to pay that kind of price for a dog when there are so many cute canines sitting in the city animal shelter and waiting to be taken home for the price of getting them vaccinated.  At any rate, we’ve become more than a little fond of the critters, even as we feel a little bad that they’re being treated like factories for creating more little ones.  But money makes the world go ‘round, does it not?

Chickens

Why did the chicken cross the road?  Damned if I know!

We live just a little outside of Sacramento in an area that looks a little like somewhere out in the country.  Across the street is a little flock of chickens that cluck and coo to their heart’s content while they are lorded over by a couple of roosters who are a little too sure (cocksure?) that they own the neighborhood and therefore needn’t be concerned about their little habit of cock-a-doodle-dooing any time they please, like say, a little before two in the morning.  Oh, and there is also a pair of peacocks a little way down the road who come a-visiting every now and then, often with their brood of little ones following behind.  As anyone who has ever visited Casa de Fruta on the Pacheco Pass Road between the Bay Area and the Central Valley knows, the male peacock loves to preen and show off its fancy feathers.  What we didn’t know, however, is that peacocks have quite a little set of vocal cords on them.  When they decide to screech, the blood-curdling yowl can only be described as a little like a call for help uttered by a cat being raped.

In our short time here, we have come to appreciate the many murals, sculptures and old signs that are found throughout Sacramento.  I present a few of our discoveries here for your amusement.

Nahl Satire

Probably my favorite downtown Sacramento mural.  This is a satire of a 19th century painting, “Sunday Morning in the Mines,” by Charles Christian Nahl.  The original, without benefit of the 3-D effect of people climbing out of (into?) the painting, is on display here in town at the Crocker Art Museum.  This mural is painted high on a building, with the man at the bottom (yellow jacket) appearing to stand on the top of a billboard.

Downtown Mural

So, yes, I am a fan of 3-D effects.  We drive by this mural every day and I still can’t get over how real it looks.  The cat is a nice touch!

Scarcity

William Leung mural in the run-down Del Paso Heights/Haginwood neighborhood of Sacramento.  For the text of the Tim Kahl poem above the center of the mural, click here.

Canada Dry Sign

Old Canada Dry sign, 16th Street in North Sacramento.

So, what comes next?  Reno, that’s what!  We have three trips to that ramblin’, gamblin’, broken-down town scheduled for this summer, one each in June, July and August.  The first of these little jaunts is scheduled for this Friday.  I can hardly wait to hit the video poker machines road!

Daffodils Howe Avenue

Daffodils, Howe Avenue, Sacramento