July 24, 2015

Deep in the heart of Texas…


A  trip to San Antonio’s lovely Riverwalk area made me think about customer service in what we like to call “tourist traps”.  Admittedly I am not a stranger to this as for a couple of years I was the general manager of a restaurant in Boston’s Faneuil Hall area… the ultimate tourist trap.  No one who lives in Boston would go to Faneuil Hall to dine.

The Riverwalk in San Antonio is a meandering path to both sides of the San Antonio river that runs one level under street level through much of the central downtown.  The first night in town there we walked what seemed like three miles in search of a nice restaurant to have our first meal in Texas.  The walk takes a bit longer than you might expect, and after passing one casual theme chain restaurant after another it became clear finding an independent gem in this area was just not going to happen.

We ended our wandering on the third pass by a place called The Iron Cactus, and stopped mostly because the display menu listed a  “blood orange margarita” that sounded interesting. There was outside seating near the river, so we asked for a cafe table and were quoted a wait time of 20 minutes by the hostess. We went into the bar area to wait… and here the fun begins.

The bar had 2-3 open seats near the service station  (which is noisy and messy)  so we sat at a small bar table about four feet from the bar and in full view of two bartenders on duty. We sat… and sat… and sat.  No cocktail wait approached us, the bartenders who saw us take the seats never asked us for a drink order, or told us to come to the bar to order, or assure us someone would come by this week to take the order. After 15 minutes of this we left and resumed what now felt like a forced march back on the Riverwalk.

In a desperate attempt to get food into my  cranky spouse we tried Texas Land and Cattle,  who at least seated us immediately, but it became painfully clear very quickly the chances for anything resembling good food was very slim.  My own hopes were dashed when we asked the waitress for an IPA and she said “what is that?”.  After haggling with my famished wife for five minutes (Her: “I am hungry, my feet hurt, you do not like it anywhere”.  Me:  “I will eat here but there is no chance this place will not suck”) we returned to the Iron Cactus,  determined,  at the very least,   to drown the now certain  all out warfare hanging over our heads  with a couple of blood orange margaritas.

I asked the hostess for the outside table we had requested some 40 minutes earlier and explained about our less than desirable bar experience that caused us to leave.  She told us the wait was now 30 minutes for the cafe table. When it became clear to her I was not happy with that answer she offered to let me speak to the manager.  I agreed as my wife seethed.

After a five minute wait (and with a hungry and annoyed significant other reminding me every few seconds how very wrong it was of me to do this)  the manager approached and listened quietly to my sad story about the bar service and our not wanting to wait longer for a table.  At no point did I mention what I do for living, or that I had any experience in the restaurant industry at all.  To our surprise he then seated us at the next open outside table and bought us our first round of margaritas… which floored both of us. The male manager was  about 25,  6’2″, 195 pounds and likely does not have any problems getting dates.  Since he looked athletic I asked him what was his sport of choice and he explained he was a shortstop with the San Antonio AAA baseball team, was the property of the Seattle Mariners,  was currently injured and recovering from Tommy John surgery,  gave his name  (which I will not use here),  and said his uncle owned the place.

The blood orange margarita was better than imagined and the meals were actually respectable. While the manager never returned to the table, I wanted to make sure I let someone know in writing how well I thought he had handled the situation… and maybe to try to follow his baseball career. I composed the letter I would send that evening.

What I learned via the Internet the next day was that San Antonio does indeed have a minor league baseball team, but unlike what he told me , it is AA,  it is affiliated with the San Diego Padres, and this kid was not on the roster or the injured reserve list.   What is likely is that the kid’s baseball career was over but he was still living the dream and told  tourists an embellished story he would never try to tell a local. It was a lie that did not diminish what he did for getting two hungry people seated and fed. Well, maybe it diminished it a little.

The next day four of us returned to the Riverwalk for lunch and deliberately stopped back at The Iron Cactus because of the way the manager had handled the situation the night before.  This was a warm Saturday afternoon in a busy tourist area with a special Mardi Gras evening celebration planned for the entire Riverwalk in few hours.  At 3:30 we asked the hostess  (same one as the night before)  for a table for four and she quoted a wait time of 20 minutes. There were perhaps 30 unseated tables that we could see and no more than six seated tables at this time.

On a false wait.  On a warm Saturday afternoon.  In the biggest tourist area in the city. With an even larger event planned for a few hours later.  Was it worth asking to see a manager again, or easier just to figure we got lucky the night before and we should find somewhere else to eat? We ended up a BBQ joint that was not half bad.

I never sent the letter.

February 6, 2015

The Worst Cop I Ever Met


The scene is Somerville MA, 1997. Five days after my birthday I was driving in bumper to bumper traffic on Highland Street heading towards Davis Square. During this gridlock I noticed a police car coming down a hill to my left, about 1/4 mile in front of me, with his blue lights flashing, trying to get onto Highland also.

As I reached where he was trying to pull onto Highland, he pulled in behind me, blue lights still on… until he then shut them off. We crawled up Highland with him behind me now.

Suddenly the blue lights went on again. He was not trying to get by, and I questioned out loud if he even knew the lights had been on before and were on now. After crawling another quarter mile I heard a loudspeaker come on and demand that my car pull over… which I did after finding a business parking area that would take us out of the line of cars and not further impede traffic.

What happened next is the intersection of stupid and arrogant on both our parts. The officer approached and stood behind the front door (making me turn my neck over 90 degrees to see him) and looked and sounded really annoyed. He began rapid firing questions without waiting for an answer to any of them. “Do you know what it means when a police officer has the lights on behind you? Do you know what it means when the lights come in behind you? Why didn’t you pull over when I called on the loudspeaker? Why did I have to call twice to get your to pull over?”

I tried to answer each question politely “Well officer I thought you were trying to… Your lights were on before you got in back of me and I thought…” but never got beyond a few words before he kept repeating back the questions until he got the answer he craved and would establish the power structure here.

Finally, convinced I had done nothing wrong and this guy was an idiot, I just snapped “If you would stop talking for a second I will answer your first question”. This was, in retrospect, the wrong tact to take. He did not care to hear any of my explanation of why I had not immediately pulled over, or even admit his lights had been on well before he ever seen my vehicle or came in behind me. He then pulled his trump card… he had noticed the sticker on my license showed the registration to be out of date, and was about to prove that the license was also out of date by the five days since my birthday. As soon as he said it I knew it had to be true, because I had never received the mailing you used to get from the registry reminding you of these things.  So I had pissed off an agitated cop who had me on two counts.

The cop returned after running the plates and license, and triumphantly told me he had called for a tow truck, was impounding the car, and that I was in violation of two laws, and should have been much more deferential. What he had failed to tell me, and I would later learn, is that driving with an expired license in the great state of Massachusetts is a felony (and the state would try quite to get this conviction) and the cop was going to make sure no leniency would be considered.

While waiting for the tow truck to arrive, I was standing with the cop outside the car, and having calmed down (which only comes with the realization you have absolutely no control or power over a situation), I asked “What are you going to do with said vehicle?”. Why I used the phrase “said vehicle” I have no idea, but the cop immediately said “are you a lawyer?” and since I am not, I never gave him a direct answer to that question, but he clearly changed his tone in a hurry with the realization that I may be. Suddenly he offered to have the car towed to my home rather than the impound yard (which would be a savings of both time and money), and I accepted that offer. We shook hands. I told him he was doing what he had to and he said he did not have to do any of this (inferring my reactions to him were the reason he was doing it). Nice.

By 9:30 the following morning both license and registration were renewed. We later both met with the clerk of courts to try to settle this without a trial, but the cop, who was 20 minutes late for the scheduled date, did not like my attitude because I was not happy to see him when he finally showed up, so he met privately with the clerk before our group meeting. To no one’s surprise, the clerk said there was no leniency merited and I would go to trial for both a felony and misdemeanor charge.

The only happy ending is that the charges ended up being completely dropped because the Somerville court had to process the violation within a specific window of time, and the time stamp on the back of the summons showed they missed it by a day. A friend just out of Suffolk Law pointed this out and got the charges dismissed as a result, but the state told him they thought this was “a slam dunk” and wanted the felony conviction despite my having no record of any kind. Much like Elaine from a famous Seinfeld episode about her health file, whatever that cop had written in my file was in big red ink.

February 6, 2015

The Greatest Cop I Ever Met…

state Trooper hat

People who are really good at what they do have to practice constantly, yet have the ability to do make it look like it is all totally natural. There is a Massachusetts State Trooper out there who I have all the respect in the world for because he must be the best at one particular skill.

A few years ago I was tooling down route 95 south around Newburyport MA having left a brewpub in New Hampshire I was particularly fond of. I was driving in the left lane, with little other traffic, going about 70 MPH and listening to a Stanley Cup radio broadcast while talking on a cell phone. I ended the call when I noticed the blue lights in the rearview.

Having pulled over for the trooper, he approached the car and asked “do you know why I pulled you over?”. I said I was not sure but when told I was traveling too fast in the passing lane I responded with a true statement: “Officer I was listening to the Stanley Cup playoffs and just spaced”. He took the license and registration and went back to his vehicle. I expected a ticket and was pleasantly surprised when he returned to my car, handed me back the license and registration, and said “I am just going to give you a warning… slow down please. Have a good night”.

It is here you may conclude is why I consider him the best cop ever. You would be wrong.

What he did at this point was sheer genius. After passing back my papers and starting to walk away back to his cruiser, he stopped, came back to the window, and disarmingly said “Have you had anything to drink tonight James?”. Now think about this… he had already run the registration, let me know I was getting off with nothing more than a warning, and had basically become my best friend as a result. It was only at this time he asked a question that, with any answer other than “no”, is going to get you a field sobriety test, breathalyzer, loss of license, and having to make payments of large sums of money made out to the attorneys and the State of Massachusetts. My immediate reaction was to respond with the same respect and trust he appeared to have given to me, and likely what so many other drivers probably told him when asked this question in this manner: “well, I had a couple of beers but I am fine”. I mean, he had already let us go, right?

To this day I have no idea why my brain was still working well enough to realize the spider had laid out a perfect trap and had practiced and performed this little dance hundreds of times before (with what I am sure is a very high success rate). I did not bite… I said “God no officer, I would never do that”.

To his credit he used his best move, it had not worked, and so he moved on to the next car to pass his way. But to this day I am in awe over the cleverness and skill he used to try to get drivers to admit they may be driving impaired.

June 4, 2014

Random Restaurant Thoughts…

Random Shopper Thoughts

Never go out to eat on Sunday. 3rd string servers, 3rd string cooks, and 3rd string managers on duty. Product running out from a busy weekend and no deliveries until Monday. No one is ever happy to be working on Sunday.

Want great service? Ask the hostess who seats you “what was your name again?” and repeat it to your partner. Everyone will suspect you are a mystery shopper and be extra attentive. Works every time.

Biggest cause of bartender theft? A cash register system that only shows what was entered to the bartender and not to all the guests. It is an easy fix with different hardware, software, or just adding policies like returning a receipt with cash change and keeping a tissue copy check in front of all guests running one.

Working as a bartender, I could put a kid through college stealing draft beer, sodas, and coffee. And I would never get caught (and you would not see your costs go up) unless I was shopping me.

Why do great servers turn into total prima donnas when promoted to bartender? Keep a bartender/server combination schedule with no full time bartenders and alternate the positions.

The best bottom of the menu disclaimer I have ever seen: “Substitutions confuse the chef. It is always best not to confuse the chef”.

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to make reservations and he will eat for a lifetime (courtesy Legal Sea Foods).

Shop the employee you most trust; your daytime bartender. They are the ones you leave in charge when you are out of the building, and likely give office and liquor room keys to. They are often a superfecta of overpouring, free drinks to regulars in that 2-5 PM period, and stealing cash sales from the register while virtually ignoring every non-regular who comes in.

June 4, 2014

Stories from the Front…

Here are some of the interesting things I have seen in 24 years of hospitality mystery shopping with a phrase to remember them by. The stories may make you gasp, save you money, or just bring a smile.

“I did what you asked me to do”.

I once caught a bartender who was giving away a round of drinks to his regular guests every other round or so. It was easy to see because he served the drinks without taking cash or making a check update in the register at any time. When I reported these missing sales to the owners, rather than fire the bartender they approached him with the information and told him to stop doing what he was doing.

When I went back a few weeks later, the bartender had developed a whole new way to steal. He was placing upside down empty shot glasses in front of his regulars to signify someone had bought them a drink. He then served them a drink and removed the shot glass from in front of them, but later placed them down again in front of other guests he knew. The bartender realized whoever may be watching would just see he was serving “already paid for” drinks, but the truth was no guest had bought the drinks and they were not paid for by anyone. I had to smile at the ingenuity… he had stopped doing what he had been doing before, and that is what they were asking of him, wasn’t it?

“One from column A, two from column B”

A word of wisdom to owners using shopping reports. Make sure the reason you release someone based on a shopping report is the strongest possible reason. I once shopped a hotel bar where the bartender was not only stealing cash sales, but she was grossly over serving a guest who was unsteady on her feet, cursing loudly, and exhibiting some obvious signs of being intoxicated. I detailed both the over serving and all the missing drinks in the shop report, but the client, for whatever reason, decided to fire the employee for over serving rather than stealing. Can you guess what happened next? The employee fought the termination and the labor board ended up asking me lots of questions about how many drinks the guest was served, the signs of intoxication she was exhibiting, and what training I had in to determine this. Despite being TIPS certified it was my word vs. the employee’s and the labor board sided with the employee since there was no other proof other than what I saw. Had they fired the employee for stealing, where there was hard data on drinks served at specific times to specific guests that could be shown never were entered to the register, the client would not have lost the case and would have saved quite a bit of money.

“Hogs get slaughtered, pigs eat”.

I was once told this by a good friend in politics who was trying to explain the concept of graft to me. The message is to not get greedy and take it everything at once… take a little and take it over a long time.

Mario (not his real name) was working a downtown bar at night and was also the bar and night manager. Mario was very consistent with his register steps and sales entries; if you were running an open check or paying for an individual round with a credit card, he would enter the sale to the register for the proper amount each time. When ready to cash out your check he would accurately cash it out for either cash or credit for exactly what you were served. For these sales, Mario was very consistent and above board… but for anyone paying cash for the drinks at the time of service (what I call a pure cash sale as not check is ever created) he stole the round by quoting the price due, entering a No Sale in the register, and handing back change to the guest. Since the register was one of these horrible machines with no pole display or a screen that did not show the amounts entered clearly to the guests, few seemed to notice he was not actually entering the sale.

What Mario did that I have never seen anyone else do, was that Mario stole EVERY cash sale for the entire two hours I was at the bar. When I went back and shopped him again he was doing the exact same thing. There were at least 30 drinks each time I observed that were served and paid for that were not anywhere in the register receipts for the shifts I watched him.

Mario fought the termination and swore at a labor board hearing he has never stolen anything from the owner ever. I had to coach the attorney to make sure he asked me “how does what Mario did compare to other things you have seen during your shopping career?” so I could make the statement on the record I had never seen anyone steal every cash sale made in all the time I had been a manager of a restaurant or run a shopping service. The owner won, Mario lost. To this date, Mario was the biggest pure individual thief I have come across, but he was bold enough to still challenge the termination despite being caught red handed.

“No good deed goes unpunished”.

Once at an airport location I had to conduct a shop calling for two dining guests, but my date could not make it at the last second, so I did the shop alone. After sitting down at the table I told the server my wife was still checking our bags and ordered a glass of wine and a lunch entrée for her as well as for myself. When she (of course) never showed up to eat the meal I asked the waiter to pack the food up to go. To my utter astonishment he brought back the wine in a take out cup with lid along with the food. In Massachusetts, where this happened, this is against every law you can imagine. I believe he was fired before the shift ended.

“Know the answer to the question before you ask it”

Every courtroom attorney will tell you they never ask any question of a witness without knowing the answer beforehand. A good mystery shopper will do the same thing. A waitress once served me a stew that was supposed to contain several silver dollar size pieces of chorizo sausage in it. It is the best part of the stew that I had enjoyed many times before, but when she served it this time there was no sausage in it at all. As my job is to appear to be someone unfamiliar with the food, I asked her “didn’t the menu say there was sausage in this stew?”. Without batting an eye. she leaned close and said “it is in there, it is just chopped up very small”. Apparently she did not realize that even if the sausage had been pureed I would have been able to at least taste it. Why acknowledge and fix a problem when you can make something up and tell the guest they are wrong?

June 2, 2014

The Mentor needs Mentoring…

My little brother was eight years old when we were matched up. In some ways it is surprising how he made it to nine… if he was not trying to kill himself, I might have been tempted to try.

One of our first big events together was to see a circus at an indoor arena in Boston. We walked the concourse together, made friends with a nice young lady at one of the concession stands, and then took seats for a very athletic and interesting performance. After about 20 minutes my little was fidgeting in his seat, looking everywhere but at the stage, and clearly had checked out his attention and interest level back at the door.

At intermission we walked the circular concourse again, only this seemed to him to be the real treat, as he quickly ran like a horse at a racetrack. I kept him in view until I did not keep him in view… and thus begins my story. I could not find this kid anywhere… and after walking the perimeter twice I swallowed my pride and approached security with his photo on my cellphone and asked for help finding him. They readily assured me he could not leave the building, but I began thinking of how I was going to explain losing this kid to his mom and to the organization that was entrusting me with his safety.

After two more passes around the concourse, security said they did not see him and looked a lot less confident about finding him than when we had met some 10 minutes before. Trusting security a little less, I found the concession stand worker who remembered us, and told her if she saw my little brother to grab him like a $20.00 bill. After a fifth pass around, there he was, standing with the concession worker after she picked him out of the crowd, apparently looking for me.

We shared a kind of “teaching moment” where I explained while no one would blame an 8 year old for getting lost, everyone would fault the considerably older big brother for losing the little shit or God forbid, letting anything happen to him.

A few months later I was standing in line to check out at a Bed Bath and Beyond and realized I had left my wallet in the car. In what seemed a perfectly sound rationale to me, I asked my little if he knew where the car was (yes), did he know how to open the door (yes) and did he know where my wallet was (yes). I asked him to go out to the car and bring the wallet to me. Just writing this down, it is so painfully obvious how many things could go wrong here (kid in parking lot alone, kid with wallet he might lose, kid not telling me the truth of what he knew he could or might do) that I clearly might have no business mentoring anyone. But this was something I did often with my first little brother (who was 12 when we met) and in retrospect I clearly do not recognize or appreciate the differences between the capabilities of a 12 year old and an 8 year old. I never had a kid of my own to break in… sorry.

After a nearly 10 minute wait for my keys and wallet to return, I went out to the car to look for him. And I found him, standing outside the car, with the car door open, and the keys IN THE IGNITION of the car. The conversation went something like this:
“Why are you out here? Where is my wallet?”
“It is in the car”
“Where are my keys?”
“They are in the car”
“Why are my keys in the ignition?”
“I put them on the dashboard, and they must have slipped down and fell in the keyhole”.
“Why were you trying to start my car?” (asked three times)
No response (three times).

I do not recall all the details of the “teaching moment” we shared together, suffice to say my take away was 8 year olds do not always do what is asked and lie about it afterward. I am not sure my “teaching moment” lesson stuck for either of us.

That summer he decided he wanted to go swimming at a nearby public pool. The small detail I had to contend with was that he did not know how to swim. But the pool was kept very clean despite being very crowded, and every hour or so they throw everyone out of the pool so they can check the bottom for dead bodies. This is the result of an incident the previous summer where someone drowned in the pool and the body was not seen or noticed by anyone for some time. There were lots of lifeguards on duty and they all loved the 15 minute respite they get every hour to check for lifeless forms.

I let the kid frolic in the shallow end and showed him the line he could not go past as it would start getting too deep for him there. He was having a grand old time all by himself for an hour… then came over to the side of the pool (where I had stood watching him like a cat watches a baby chick) and asked me to come in. I agreed to, turned around and took of my T-shirt and glasses, and turned back to the pool 10 seconds later.

The kid was gone.

I began straining my nearsighted eyes for his curly hair and brown little body in sea of curly hair and brown little bodies… was I missing him because of no glasses? Did he get out of the water? Nah… he decided to go to deeper water. I found this out when I heard a muffled cry of my name, and then a lifeguard leaped from one end of the pool and picked him out of the water before the top of his head got wet. She handed him to me and gave me “the look” as I thanked her for grabbing him a full two seconds before I could have.

The teaching moment occurred when I realized the kid did not know what 3FT… 6 FT… and the like meant that were all painted around the circumference of the pool edge.

A couple of months later he asked to ride his bike in a nearby park after seeing a much smaller child ride their bike down a long steep sidewalk onto the grass field. I allowed the request, insisted he wear his bike helmet, and went to the field with him on foot. My instructions to him were to wear his helmet and stay off of the hilly areas.

After cleverly riding around on the flat baseball field for fifteen minutes and letting my attention wane a bit… he pushed the bike up on the hill overlooking the field. This is a popular winter sledding area, as it drops down, then levels out, drops down again, then levels out to the field level. Everyone stays away from one particular area, where there is a cement retaining wall that drops straight down four feet to the ground level. At one point a few years ago, I talked my yet-to-be wife into going sledding with her son and me, and on her first ride down she veered sharply left for a reason no one knows to this day and went off this retaining wall. She bruised an area above her knee so badly when she hit the ground that she later could not get her jeans off and the EMT’s had to be called to my house. They had to cut off her jeans and wheeled her through the front door to the ambulance on a gurney. We have named this area of the field “Corelli’s Corner” in her honor and I have always intended to spray paint that on the wall to make it seem more official.

When I next looked around for my little brother, I saw him 75 yards away at the top of the hill (perhaps 25 feet vertical from top to bottom) and his bike helmet on the ground (of course) only a few feet away from me. The next few seconds went by in slow motion… he started riding down the hill on his bike, quickly gained more speed than any 8 year old could handle, but did not fall off, which was unfortunate, since he was heading directly for the drop off at the retaining wall.

I cannot attest to the sound made when he landed on the ground directly on his head (having left the relatively safe confines of the bike a fraction of a second before) as I was sprinting across the field at a speed I did not know I possessed and screaming his name. When I reached him he had stood up and was looking around a little dazed but none the worse for wear. I asked him “Are you out of your mind? Are you trying to kill yourself?”, then went into a much more caring posture, checking his vision, his ability to move his arms and legs, and finally turn his head from side to side. Outside of a welt under one eye, the kid was proving to be indestructible, which might be a good thing when under my supervision.

March 14, 2014

How the Log paid three times to see one show

This happened in 1976, so excuse me if I have missed some salient details, but the moral of the story is, I know a guy who paid three times for one ticket to see one concert. The fact the show sucked is actually irrelevant.

Ron Hippert (aka “Log”, a nickname I can only guess the origins of)red-oak-log-2 had three tickets to see Aerosmith, Slade, and Mott the Hoople at the Providence Civic Center on the second night of a two night show. He bought his ticket (purchase #1) and sold us the others to go with him. We drove to Providence, parked the car, and went to the gate, only to be turned away because the tickets Log had bought (and also sold to us) were for the show the night before. The Box Office would not honor them for this second night’s show. How three supposedly bright college students failed to read the date on the ticket before actually traveling an hour or more to see a concert (whose only lasting effect on me would be to impair my hearing years later and offer this funny story), that is a question I cannot really answer other than to say “rock and roll”.

As disgruntled young fans might do, and before more strict latter day security was yet in place, we walked around the outside of the building and happened upon an enterprising individual who had opened a fire door and said “you want in? $10.00 each”. We all paid him the $10.00 (Log’s ticket purchase #2) and made our way inside the nearly empty theater, 60-90 minutes before the first act was to actually begin.

Log decided the best course of action was to hide in the men’s room with a large number of other scofflaws. Another friend and I decided it might be best to hide in plain sight, so we took seats in the right side loge near the stage next to two females in their late 20s dressed as gangsters. It turns out one of them claimed to be Joe Perry’s girlfriend… and perhaps she was, at least for that night, and they chatted with us for several minutes. We had high hopes for the post concert party invite that was never going to happen.

At this time the concourse doors burst open and 20 cops entered and immediately went around the building to all of the rest rooms, rousted out all the hoi polloi who had no tickets, and escorted them out of the building. We sat calmly with the lovely groupies and no one ever approached us to ask if we had tickets.

About 45 minutes later Log came over and sat down next to us. He had been tossed out, so he went back to the box office and bought a ticket (purchase #3) so he could get in… thus making Log the only person I know to pay three times for one ticket to one show.

For those of you who care to ask… the show was a loud mess. Aerosmith mailed it in, Slade was just noise, and Mott the Hoople… well, I remember one of the guys wore a funny hat and sang “all the way to Memphis”.

March 3, 2014

Tuukka and the Evil Plant Stand

This is the story about two naive puppy owners, the puppy they adore, and the evil plant stand. photo 1

Tuukka loves his crate because we put him in it as soon as we got him home the first day and never lock the crate door. He sleeps in it at night. It is his home… so when we leave the house for short periods, we put him in the crate with the door open, and close the bedroom door where the crate is located. The puppy has the entire room to roam… this is apparently not as good an idea as we originally thought.

Last Saturday we were out for two hours. When we got home we did not hear the barks or yelps we expected upon Tuukka’s hearing the back door open and close, or hearing our voices. When I went upstairs he was not just inside the bedroom door as usual… in fact, I did not see him at all in the room. As I walked around the bed I saw that the three plants in the plant stand were now on the floor surrounded by dirt. The plant stand was a few feet away, laying on it side. I figured the dog was under the bed… ashamed, or eating a pair of my shoes.

It turns out Tuukka was actually right there. He had somehow wedged his left rear leg in the iron swirl that is one of the feet of the plant stand. He and the plant stand were now… well… one. Kind of like a Vulcan mind meld. The amazing thing is this little dog was not yelping, or whining, or barking… he was just standing there completely still, realizing he could not move and that trying to do so HURT.

The next 10 minutes or so were interesting. I couldn’t get his leg out of the swirl without turning and twisting the entire awkward stand, and when I did move it he let me know that was painful. At this point I had no idea how injured he was. Or how long he had been in this condition (last five minutes? Whole two hours?) My wife Lisa was so upset she was visibly shaking and kept asking who we could call. We could not move him without hurting him, so taking him anywhere connected to a big stand was out of the question.

Enter the hacksaw.

At this point, since I was cradling the dog and trying not to move him while considering all options, I asked my wife to go downstairs to the workshop and get the vice grips and a hacksaw. She admitted she had no idea what either of those things looked like so the instructions were to bring back anything that looked like a saw or pliers. She returned with four options for each tool, and one of them was the hacksaw.

If you notice the picture, one leg is missing. After five minutes of slowly cutting the stand leg with one hand (while making sure to miss the puppy’s leg ), all the while cradling the puppy with the other hand, we could finally move him. It only took a moment to slowly spin the iron swirl off his leg just under the knee.

What we had now was a mildly traumatized puppy and a VERY traumatized Lisa (who simply adores this puppy to an extent not believed possible by the humans who have surrounded her for the past 12 years). We brought Tuukka some water and laid on the floor with him for 10 minutes or so. I kept gently squeezing his leg from hip to toe but he did not react in any way that showed pain.

We then had Lisa go downstairs and fill his food bowl so he could hear it. BOING. Up on all legs, right to the door, no limp, no problem. This dog, who gets love and attention 24/7, got even more that night.

He checked out fine today. He is doing much better than the plant stand , which has been exiled to the garage (Lisa would be happy if it never entered the house again) until I can get the leg welded. plantStand

December 31, 2013

My First Cardinal Adventure


The players:

Surrogate Father

The Nest

The Eggs

The Dog

The Squirrel

The Escape


The Nest

The Cardinal nest was not hard to find… just outside the bay windows over the kitchen sink, the windows looked out over a large holly bush just outside. The birds has built the nest in a crook of branches that was easy to see from the window but difficult to see when walking past the bush from the other side.,, Mom and Dad knew what they were doing when they built it.


The nest was an amazing construction project I had never taken notice of before. A combination of twigs thatched together perfectly so it held a circular form that  still stayed balanced in the crook of the branches regardless of wind, water, or how many occupants were in there.  What started out as small and cozy soon got rather crowded but the nest held up very well until… well, let’s get to that later.


I never noticed the nest in the construction phase… but one day when cleaning up around the sink I happened to look out the window and see three tiny eggs in a nest… and not soon afterwards the mama bird returned to the nest to warm them. Mama was a cardinal, but female cardinals do not portray the image of the bird we think of when that bird is mentioned. The female cardinal is a duller color than the male (who has the dramatic red feathers, black face, dark eyes and looks like it belongs on the front of the baseball uniform). The female has a little faded red, some orange, and if I had not seen Dad occasionally flying in to check on things I might not have known Mom was a cardinal at all.  In what foreshadowed my involvement to come, and love of baseball, I named the birds one day: the dad became Stan (after Stan Musial) and the mom was Gibby (after Bob Gibson).


The Eggs


It was mom’s diligence that was so amazing. She spent all day sitting on these eggs… occasionally flying off to get something to eat, but rarely leaving the eggs for very long before she returned. But when the weather started getting bad was when I not only started noticing Mom, but admiring her. The weather than spring had some periods of wet weather that lasted pretty long… 3-5 days of rain, all day, every day. Mom rarely left the eggs despite the weather, and watching her thru the window getting soaked for hours at a time left me with some serious respect infor how much the mama bird had to go through to get her eggs hatched.


It was around this time that my first idea to intercede happened… the poor mom was getting so wet (and it just seemed so miserable to have to endure days of rain) that I proposed to my neighbor Brian the idea that I put an umbrella  up ( stuck in the bushes  but high enough to allow mom and dad in and out ) to cover mom from the rain and save the nest from becoming waterlogged. I was told the umbrella might spook the birds and they may abandon the nest (there was no shortage of folks with Bird-Ideas) so I let the soaking continue. But every time I left the house I peeked in on Mom in the nest from the walkway, never getting too close but not exactly tip-toeing by either. After a day or two I found myself calling “hi Mom” to the nest each time I passed it.


A few days later I woke up and found the situation had changed. Mom no longer had three eggs but two  baby chicks and an egg in the nest. A day later there were three chicks and let the naming begin. We named the larger two Beanie and Cecil (named after an old TV cartoon sea serpent and his  companion) and the third, smaller bird Little Peep.


Mom’s duties changed a bit after this. She still kept the kids warm and safe most of the day, but she flew off for 5-10 minutes at a time and went for food or maybe just for exercise. Dad flew in with food, fed the boys, and flew out. What was remarkable was the way both birds visited the nest. Mom flew in from above from the front but left from the back towards our house. Dad approached from the Magnolia tree, watched the bush and nest for a minute, flew over to the Dogwood tree, scoped it out some more, then landed at the base of the bush and hopped up branch to branch to reach the nest. He  fed the boys, and then flew out from the back of the nest towards the house. Dad’s approaches were always the same, and once he hit the nest I had about 20 seconds to try to snap pictures of him with nothing blocking the view. I nearly always failed.


Watching the boys grow was like seeing a home movie of your own life sped up to fit the format. They start out with eyes closed and know nothing of the world,  outside of Mom keeping then warm, then Dad feeding them. They felt Dad arrive by the extra weight on the edge of the nest. As soon as he hopped on they all raised their necks and opened their mouths for a feeding. Just to test this one day I waited until Mom was away, put a finger’s pressure on the nest edge, and sure enough they all popped up, mouths agape, waiting for the worm treat.


I told most of the neighbors about the boys and watching them with any free time became my pastime.  Little Peep never seemed to get as much food as the other two and that was worrying me. The idea of feeding them worms on my own did  not escape me either… anything to help.


The Dog


The chicks still had their eyes closed and were spending a little more time every day alone in the nest while both mom and dad went out for food. On Memorial Day Weekend I had a small outdoor BBQ for some of the neighbors. After a couple of hours outside on the patio, only a few feet away from the nest, and all of us sneaking some peeks at them, I decided to play wiffleball with one of the neighbors in the driveway. It was during this game (everyone else was still on the patio) that I noticed my dog Jackson barking at the bush where the nest was. I yelled at him to be quiet, sure he was barking at a wiffleball that had landed nearby. A moment later he started climbing in the bush, then got on all fours and was swiping his paws at something UNDER the bush.


Why the red light did not go on sooner is not clear (or it was simply the slowing down of senses after a can of beer), but by the time I got over to the area I noticed that the dog was pawing at the baby birds… all three were on the ground under the bush next to what was left of their once sturdy nest.


The breath went out of me all at once. The birds, who could not see, and were totally helpless, fell roughly 3-4 feet to the ground and could not have had any idea what had just upended their entire being. After getting the dog back inside (and to this day I have non idea WHY the dog decided, after weeks of knowing the birds were there and completely ignoring them,  to take down the nest and either play with the birds or eat them depending on your point of view) I found all three birds were still alive but I had no idea if any of the three were injured. The nest was about ½ of the size it started out as and was no longer in the crook of the branches.


Part of bird lore that many espoused was ”don’t touch the birds with your hands or the parents will smell this and abandon them”… so I ran into the house and put on dish gloves (apparently cardinals and other birds have no issues with the smell of rubber) before carefully picking up the three birds, placing them back in their suddenly smaller home, and trying to figure out how to get the nest to STAY in the bush without causing it to tip over again, never mind stay secure while mom and dad were in it or on it. It became pretty clear pretty quick the nest was not going to stay in the bush on it’s own.


Solution #1:  I got a shoebox out of the closet, placed the nest in the box, and tried to set to box in the bush so it would be stable. The one good thing that happened was that mom came back to the nest to feed the guys and had no problem with the scent (or lack of) on them or the fact their organic home now said NIKE on the front and back. When she left a few minutes later I decided it was time for a better mousetrap. I took the box into the house with the birds in it (they were adorable) and considered how I could make a square box fit in a holly bush without falling out (or falling apart) and get the box back in the bush so Mom would not return and see them gone and possibly figure she had no reason to return again.


Solution #2 was to put was left of the nest in the shoebox, stuff the sides of the box with heavy paper that kept the nest centered in the box, then tie the box into the bush using heavy duty string. The resulting construction was not pretty,  but the box, while occasionally leaning a bit, would not fall out of the bush no matter how much we tried to get it to tip out. When Mom returned 30 minutes later and sat back in the nest everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but she left soon afterwards. A day later I went out with a knife and cut drainage holes in the bottom of the box so the cardboard would not rot and fall out causing another mini-drama.


In bed that night I remember crying like a baby over their plight… to be that helpless, blind, and totally dependent on Mom and Dad and then end up four feet below on the ground with no idea of what happened or why… it just seemed the cruelest thing imaginable. As much I love Jackson, I had a hard time looking at him the same way for a week or so.


The following morning was going to be a watershed moment; we needed to see if the birds were still alive from the fall, if the parents were sticking with them, and if the nest held up overnight and was something the parents could deal with.  I really could not wait, so I got up at 2AM, took a flashlight and quickly flashed it at the nest through the kitchen window. I was worried I would scare mom if she was there, but I had to know if she had come back to keep them warm through the night. The options if she did not return were not pleasant.


I took the flashlight, climbed atop the sink, and scanned the bush from left to right. When I thought I saw a glint of a flash back from an eyeball I aimed the light directly at where I thought the nest was. Mom was back! The moment was magical and I called my wife  down to show her. Everything was going to be OK.


Or so I thought. Monday morning we noticed only two baby birds in the nest. There was no sign of Little Peep.  The last thing I wanted to do was look around the  bush for a tiny body, but I did, and could not find one.  Little Peep was not in the nest and it appears that Mom or Dad must have taken Little Peep from the nest that night and left him somewhere to die.


Over the next several days Beanie and Cecil grew. They grew a lot. They grew to a point the two of them filled the small nest completely. Then their eyes opened. And they began getting feathers… and through it all they ate and ate and ate and when not eating they slept or cried for more food. Mom was at the nest less and less and Dad kept dropping in more and more (always scoping out the area from two trees, then climbing up the bush from the ground) to feed the guys. By the end of the week both parents were pulling molting feathers from the chicks after the feeding  and flying off with them (I surmised that they did not want to leave evidence of their existence by dropping them on the ground under the bush).


Since it was an unusually wet May when we were expecting more rain for a few days, and since I had a bond with the boys and with the parents, I covered the nest area with more holly branches to try to keep them dry so they would not be soaked. Beanie, then Cecil, would sometimes stretch up a bit out of the nest, but neither ever so much as stood up.


The Squirrel


The following Monday morning I was in the kitchen and staring at the nest as I did dozens of times a day to see the boys. The bush started shaking a bit, which usually indicates Dad is about to pop up into view with a small green worm for breakfast. Only this time I did not Dad, but a squirrel, who began to climb into the shoebox.


“GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE YOU FUCKING SQUIRREL” (or words to that effect).  I leaped at the window, pounded on it, screaming all the time at the squirrel to get lost. It did, but the secret hiding place was secret no more.


I spent the next four days on Squirrel Watch. I sat outside next to the bush for most of the daylight hours with a cell phone in one hand and club in the other. Since the rats with tails are most active in the early AM that was when I needed to be the most vigilant, but how can you watch the nest full time? What if one of the little bastards went to a nocturnal attack plan? I needed information fast.


Step one: THE INTERNET. I did searches on Cardinals, squirrels, and anything in between. Of course one site confirmed that in England squirrels will attack and eat baby birds and bird eggs. Wonderful. An American Squirrel would probably eat the birds and torch the nest.


Step Two: Professional help. I called any agency I could think of from the ASPCA to Mass Audubon to ask 1) Is there anything that will deter squirrels from an area 2) Can I bring the birds inside until they are ready to fly? 3) Can I do anything to keep them from being an entrée for an acorn pest. What I was told actually just made me angry; “this is nature… do not mess with it”.  There was NO WAY these birds were going to be a squirrel lunch if  had anything to say about it.  Not on my watch.


One web site mentioned that squirrels could be deterred from an attic with mothballs, so I bought a bag of them and placed them under the bush in the hope it would repel Rocky and his pals. The smell thru the kitchen window made me sick, but it may have helped. Another thought was if the little buggers have enough to eat they will not go after the boys, so I filled the bird feeders every morning and let the long tailed rats dine on bird seed. I ran the risk of attracting more squirrels to the area, but what else was there to do?


The Escape

The immediate squirrel threat was past but the issue not yet over when everything changed one Thursday around 4 PM. I had turned to glance out the window at the boys for the umpteenth time (and check for the evil squirrels) when I noticed both Mom and Dad at the side of the nest being, well, noisy. They were both chirping at Cecil  incessantly. I grapped my cell phone, which had a terrible little digital camera and video making capabilities, and slowly opened the window so I could get a clear shot of what I thought might be happening. Then Cecil  hopped up on the edge of the shoebox (the first time he ever had done so) and with mom and dad chirping at him non-stop he hopped off the box edge to a branch six inches away. He wavered but did not fall.


Now the chirping increased and after 5- 10 seconds (and he never looked back at the folks) he moved his wings once, pushed down off the branch, and flew for time first time in his young life…  three seconds later he was in the branch of the Dogwood tree about five yards away and looked quite pleased with himself, if somewhat tired as he stayed there for the next 10 minutes.


The short cell phone video captured his take off but not the flight or landing.


Now it was Beanie’ s turn to try out his wings. He did not get out of the nest for another several minutes (and at one point it seemed like he was not going to come out of there). He flew off to the fence that separates the yard from the driveway, then flew across the driveway to a large four foot hedge. He hit the hedge about a food too low but hung on to the branch and popped up to the top. Full of over confidence he then flew straight into the garage door window before heading back to the fence, where he stayed for the next 15 minutes, contemplating all he had just done.


I tried to follow the boys as they hopped around from tree to tree in my neighbor’s yard and took photos of them as they perched in branches there. I was calling everyone I knew to tell them what had just taken place and must have sounded like an excited 8 year old, but this was something I was truly seeing for the first time.


Where are they now? Neighbor Brian says he sees young full colored cardinals his yard all the time. I saw a beautiful young male and female in the Magnolia tree just yesterday and immediately assumed they could be Beanie and Cecil (Beanie is an androgynous sounding name, don’t you think?). What I want is for them both to come back, land in the holly bush, tap on the kitchen window glass and let me know everything turned out OK.








December 23, 2013

Name your own profit margin

I never tire of telling the story when Priceline charged me $5.00 over the walk in rate for a hotel room… but it turns out this is not an isolated incident.

I was in need of a hotel room in New Jersey and used my phone app for “Frugal Hotel Finder” to get nearby choices. Expedia and Booking.com showed me a Best Western across the street for $99.00 a night, $113.00 with tax, for a king size bed non smoking. Both said there was “Only one room left”, which was odd, because I had driven past the place 30 minutes before and the lot was empty.

I used Expedia to book the room for the $113.00, but the app would not finish the process and confirm the reservation. So unsure of the status, I drove over and asked the desk clerk if she had a reservation for me from Expedia. She said she did not, but called Expedia to double check so I would not be charged twice if I bought the room directly at the desk. The price, she stated was “$85.00 per night, but I do not know what Expedia was charging”.

SO… Expedia added $14.00 to the room charge for the privilege of booking the room, putting my credit card info input through my cell phone, and then not actually booking the room. I have never seen their business plan, but somehow I think adding a fee to the existing hotel room rate and telling people it is an off price deal was one that would not get excite investors.

I am done with them.


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