Sunday, February 24, 2002


Sorry. I wouldn't say I have Olympic hockey fever exactly, but I am pretty worked up about the guy NBC has chosen to employ as a commentator for that event. (I believe he's a big-time hockey broadcaster of some sort, maybe on ESPN, but I don't know him well because I normally don't watch games that don't involve the Washington Capitals.)

"ON THE FIRESIDE!" this guy exclaims every five seconds or so. What he's trying to say is "far side," and it would be bad enough if he could successfully pronounce the phrase. The description is meaningless as a hockey term. All he's saying is that the action is occurring at the top of our TV screens. (We know that! We're looking at our TV screens!)

I guess it's too late to talk about firing (farring?) this pyromaniac Gary Larson wanna-be and hiring someone who doesn't refer to Adam Deadmarsh as "Dead-my-arsh."

MORE VISUAL STUFF. For amusement and general pretentiousness, I've added a photo to the blog logo. Sometimes it will be germane to the topic of the current post, but more often it will be random and senseless.

Saturday, February 23, 2002

SOMETHING VISUAL for a change. The idea of a My Capitol Hill site — a photographic tour of my neighborhood — came to mind as soon as I got my Canon Digital Elph, and before long I had come up with a snazzy logo for such a project. But I didn't want to just post pictures; I wanted a narrative and a map and a logic to the whole thing. So it sat, with so many other projects.

Then I noticed another blog with some nice, simple photo galleries, and I downloaded the software used to make those pages.

So here, if you choose to visit, is My Capitol Hill, some OK photographs of a great neighborhood. No narrative, no map, no logic. Snazzy logo, though.

Thursday, February 21, 2002

EVERY DAY'S AN ADVENTURE. I'll skip ahead, past the burglar-alarm mishap, to my before-work trip to Safeway. Just an express-lane trip to get a few things we forgot when we went shopping last night.

I picked up everything else before venturing into the liquor department, which, in the District of Columbia's granny square in this country's bizarre quilt of hootch legislation, keeps separate hours and has a separate cash register. As is the custom, I parked my shopping cart outside this walled city. Ever the wine snob, I chose a $4.99 bottle of Chilean red because I thought the Gato Negro label's black cat was cute. Liquor Lady complimented my taste; I mentioned my black cat and she countered with her two gatos negros, regaling me with the story of a recent trip to the vet.

I walked back into the family-friendly portion of the Safeway and my cart was gone. Liquor Lady turned on her microphone and announced that the cart outside the liquor department belonged to "another customer." I knew darn well it wasn't "another customer" who had taken it, and sure enough a store employee was arriving just as I found it parked, with additional items, in an unmanned lane.

"Oh, was this yours?"

"Yes. Did I do something wrong?"

No eye contact, a hint of a laugh.

"Am I not supposed to leave my cart there? I thought I wasn't supposed to bring it into the liquor department."

No eye contact, a hint of a laugh.

I didn't push it. The bitching, that is. I must have known I'd need my self-righteous indignation later. I did push the shopping cart, and I found an express lane that didn't put me in the mind of Space Mountain. Rare moment in history, that. Of course, the cashier was nowhere to be seen. After about a minute she returned from some errand she was doing for the one lady in line in front of me.

This was one of those impossibly cheery cashiers, and Lady in Front lingered to keep conversing as the cashier rang me up.

"Your Safeway card, sir?"

"I'm TRY-ing," I said, and eventually Lady in Front waddled out of the way so I could slide my invasion-of-privacy card through the reader to sell my soul in exchange for big discounts. I also slid my credit card. Meanwhile, the cashier was helping the man behind me cash in some rolled pennies. She asked the man to sign the roll, then asked me to sign my receipt.

I flashed her the "I'm TRY-ing" look and eyed the lane's single pen, which Mr. Hancock behind me was wielding carefully. The cashier took a moment to register this little problem before asking a colleague for an "ink pin," and eventually I was able to complete the simple transaction.

From Safeway, I headed for Mangialardo's, an excellent little Italian deli not far away on the iffy fringes of Capitol Hill. I got the usual: G-Man, hard roll, oil and vinegar only. The G-Man is a sub/hoagie/grinder/hero named for the FBI agents who frequent the place. There's no shortage of law-enforcement agencies in Washington, especially on the Hill. And as I returned to my car, parked on the street at a meter into which I'd fed a dime, an unmarked but unmistakably fuzz-y car from one of those law-enforcement agencies was double-parked and blocking my exit. Official police business? Of course not. The cop needed a sub.

About a minute later the lawman emerged. It wasn't a real D.C. cop; I couldn't tell what agency he worked for. He didn't say anything to me — no eye contact, a hint of a laugh.

"You know," I said, "there are parking spaces for law-abiding citizens."

Officer Friendly was startled. After a long pause during which he contemplated who-knows-what, his reply was a sarcastic "God bless you, too, sir."

I pressed my luck: "This here is a road. People drive in it."

"God bless you. Have a nice day."

"Give me back my dime!"

Wait: Did I say at some point that I thought the people this guy arrests were "probably guilty"?

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

"DO YOU BELIEVE that, because a person was arrested and charged, he is probably guilty?"

I didn't answer "yes" to that question on the voir dire questionnaire at first. But when the judge instructed me and my fellow prospective jurors to answer in the affirmative if we had any doubt about any of the questions, I went back to that one and did so.

The more I think about it, the more I think it was the right thing to do. And not just because it got me excused from jury duty. Probably guilty, as in 50.00000001 percent likely? Duh! I'm not rebelling against the principle of innocent until proven guilty (that was a different item on the questionnaire), and I'm not saying I couldn't judge a case fairly. But if you want my honest opinion, sure, I do believe that most defendants who get to this stage in the process are probably guilty. The iffy cases get thrown out or plea-bargained away. Do some bogus ones still make it to trial? Sure. But I think the justice system must be batting better than .500.

Polite society expects us to lie on questions like that, no matter what the judges say. When a jury is hopelessly deadlocked (I've been there), judges won't take that for an answer the first time or two. The jurors are urged to try really hard to come to a unanimous decision. We're supposed to believe that means something other than "Vote against your conscience to make things more convenient." Right.

AH, JURY DUTY in the District of Columbia. I've been put on a jury twice before, both times with depressing results, but I don't have the knee-jerk dread of the chore that a lot of people do. If it didn't mean some hardship for my co-workers, I'd be quite eager to serve. As a retiree, no doubt, I'll cherish those summonses.

Yesterday I had to be at the courthouse at 8 a.m. (after having worked till 11:30 the night before) to begin my day of waiting around. I can be quite impatient with waiting around, but this is a process where you know what's in store for you from the start, so why whine? I got put on a jury "panel" pretty quickly, but it was a very large jury panel and the parties in the case wanted to interview each potential juror individually. They didn't get around to me, so I have to return today (at the more humane hour of 11:30).

I'm forbidden by oath, of course, from discussing the specifics of the case, but I do have one observation: Something has changed in our society when it comes to the response to the "Does anybody have any questions?" question. It used to be that most everyone was like me: mum, even if we had questions. Today, however, the questions flow freely. Sometimes it's the teacher's-pet "Didn't you mean to assign us somework?" type of question, but more often it's a reflection of extreme stupidity.

The questionnaire asked something like "Have you ever been a [occupation deleted] in the District of Columbia or elsewhere?" "Your Honor," came the question. "Does that include in other cities?"

The questionnaire asked something like "Have you ever received training in [specialty deleted]?" "Your Honor," came the question. "How far back do you want to go on that?"

Later, the judge got interrupted, as judges do, while parceling out the come-back-tomorrow times for us panelists based on the rows we were sitting in. As he tried to get back to telling us when to come back, another interruption: "Your Honor? What time do the rest of us have to come back?"

Thursday, February 14, 2002

AS I SAID when I took the conservatives' side in the Sept. 11 brouhaha over Peter Jennings's anti-Bush comments, I don't watch enough TV news to worry too much about which networks are biased which way, if at all. But as with Jennings's striking lapse of objectivity on that day, snippets of coverage can be enlightening.

So now I'll score one for the liberals. I happened to be watching the Fox News Channel while on the treadmill at the gym the other day, and a blond woman (someone who, if employed by any other network, would have been christened an "anchor-bimbo" by Rush Limbaugh) promised a "fair and balanced" report on the flag controversy at the Olympics. After a few commercials, she was back with two men who indeed had opposing points of view on the International Olympic Committee's right to tell the hosts in Salt Lake City what they could and couldn't do with their flag.

This anchorwoman began her "We report, you decide" interview of these men with a question to which she added a postscript along the lines of "I think that's wrong. How about you?"

They decide, you listen!

Now, I understand how the underdog mentality can color one's perception of reality, and even of right and wrong. If handguns had been as readily available to schoolkids when I was in junior high school as they are now, I'd be in prison and the first idiot who chose to punch me in the hallway would be in a coffin. But I have a hard time believing that the conservatives are as stupid as they sound when they point to Fox News or The Washington Times as islands of fairness in a sea of liberal bias. The media's liberals have their problems, as Jennings illustrated, but there's a big difference between news organizations that try to be fair but fail at times and those that exist primarily as ideological organs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

I GOT YET ANOTHER "mistaken" medical bill on Monday, this one from the for-profit venture behind my very good primary-care physician. (Look, Charlie Brown, let's face it: We all know that health care is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big Eastern syndicate, you know.)

This time I started out pretty calm (if you call racing for the phone calm) but got progressively more wigged out as I kept reaching the same voice-mail greeting, like the Jon Favreau character in "Swingers." Between noon and 4 p.m. I probably placed 50 calls. I left two messages for the same person, whose greeting promised a call-back by 5. I finally figured out that if you I played dumb with the voice-mail menu and acted as if I didn't know my doctor's name I actually get to talk to a real person — who then sent me to the voice mail of a different customer-care representative. I left only one message for her.

Finally I caught the real person pre-transfer and said, "You know, the person you transfer me to doesn't answer her phone." Real Person was very nice and said she'd see what she could do about pulling up my record.

As much as I hate on-hold music — and, even worse, the "Your call is very important to us" recording — I do want some feedback while on hold. Otherwise, as I did on Monday, I'm sure I've been cut off and I brace for the "DO-DO-DOOO! If you'd LIKE to make a call, please hang up and try again. If you NEED help, hang up and then dial the operator."

But eventually Real Person came back on the line to say she hadn't forgotten about me. Then she went away for another good long time. When she came back, she said it appeared that the bill had been sent in error. I thanked her and hurried to get dressed, as it was past time to leave for work.

As I became really late for work, the phone rang. It was customer-care rep No. 2. Her reading of the situation was that my insurer had rejected a charge but failed to say why. She said she'd get back to me.

Amazingly, she got back to me. In a short, to-the-point voice-mail message, she said the bill had been sent in error.

Again it was a happy ending, but it provided more evidence for my suspicion that, especially in slow economic times, managed-care companies and their accomplices conveniently send out bills that might get challenged but might just as probably get paid. Spend 100 stamps on fraudulent 80-buck bills and you need only one sucker to turn a nice profit.

After the '80s boom, my insurer did this to me over and over. It was even sneakier, sending out things that looked like bills but really weren't. No fraud there! I've changed jobs a couple of times since then, and my new insurers didn't do that. Until now. Hmm.

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

THE BIG CITY jabs its more complacent residents periodically to remind them who's boss. We love our little corner of Capitol Hill, but it's easy to forget that this isn't Chevy Chase.

My wife got a one-two (three? four?) punch when she went to renew the validation stickers for the license plates of the car she rarely drives. First she tried to use the District of Columbia's Web site, but it kept insisting there was an error in the vehicle identification number. Then, with time running out, she mailed in a check. The check got cashed, but (you're probably ahead of me here) no tags were sent. The helpful customer-service representative on the phone could find no record of any check, and, of course, the burden of proof was on Jacqueline.

So Jacqueline paid the bank to fax and mail her a copy of the canceled check. The fax was illegible, and the mailed copy took its sweet time. She was past the deadline when she went to the DMV office (a treat of its own kind), but that document did the trick and she got the stickers.

The stickers were in place for four days when the Bad Guys came by with their tin snips and cut the corners off the plates to get them. Sticker theft is not a new problem, but this modus operandi apparently is. As recently as December, a victim of the metal-cutting approach wrote to Dr. Gridlock (a Washington Post columnist on driving and transit issues) and the Doctor said he had never before heard of such a thing. (He heard of it plenty right after that.)

So now it's a race against the cops. D.C. history would seem to indicate that the same police officers who let crimes like that happen will be much more diligent when it comes to harassing the victims.

We cursed a lot about all of the above, but all in all our D.C. crime record isn't bad. In addition to the sticker heist, Jacqueline's previous car was broken into outside my previous Hill apartment (stolen: cassette tapes with purely sentimental value) and my previous car was broken into twice, once outside that apartment (stolen: a very cheap car stereo) and once in the Washington Times parking lot in Northeast Washington (a failed theft attempt).

And the only bad guys I am currently battling, at least outside the medical community, are the assholes at my gym who don't seem to understand that locker rooms have lockers. While they shower and steam and Jacuzzi, they leave their clothes and shoes and other gear on the floor. The locker room is one big laundry hamper. This wasn't happening when I first joined, but suddenly everybody but me Got the Memo.

I'm well on the road to being beaten up. I've already tossed one pile in with the dirty towels and thrown my own dirty towels on top of another pile. (What? Oh — I just saw the pile there and figured that's where we're supposed to throw our shit!)

Friday, February 08, 2002

THE POST recently ran a story about how used cars have become more of a bargain. The anecdote my newspaper used to illustrate this point told of a couple who paid $31,000 for a two-year-old Lexus ES 300. Thirty-one thousand dollars for a used car. Not a new used car, but a two-year-old used car.

More to my point, not a spectacular and timeless used car -- a gull-wing Mercedes or a Porsche 911 of just about any vintage or even an early-'70s Pantera from the folks at Ford -- but an ugly, boring, mechanically solid but soulless hulk.

I do have some credentials as a car buff (the Pantera reference might have been a clue), but, believe me, I understand the reliability factor. For a kid who could name any car on the street at age 4 and dreamed of becoming a sculptor of Detroit sheet metal, I grew up to be a rather boring automotive consumer. The cars I've owned: Toyota, Honda, Toyota and Saturn. Only the Honda, a 1985 CRX, was new. I understand buying used.

But I don't get the Lexus thing -- at least not the plain-Lexus-sedan thing. I look at an ES, LS, whatever (they're too lazy to even give these things names) and I think of the utilitarian full-size Chevys of the early '60s as they must have looked in the early '60s. Today I look at a '62 or '63 or '64 or '65 Biscayne or Bel Air and I see something endearingly plain, with a Howard Roark-style dignity. (If I had the money and energy to collect classic cars I'd want the bare-bones Biscayne or maybe the standard-issue Bel Air. No fancy Impala for me. I want hub caps, not "wheel covers"; paint, not chrome.) At the time, though, there was no retro appeal. They would have struck me, I'm sure, as ugly, boring, mechanically solid but soulless hulks. At least the Biscayne and Bel Air. Maybe the Impala, with all that chrome, could have been worth some excitement worthy of the universally renowned '57 model or my favorites, the over-the-top finmobiles of '59 and '60.

I understand paying out the ass for a used vanilla Lexus even less than I understand buying a Rolex watch -- and I understand very little about the allure of Rolex watches. I do understand the snob appeal. When Jaz Paris was plastering magazines of the Details ilk with a simple ad depicting a striking brown-alligator-banded white-and-beige-faced, Roman-numeraled gold watch in the early '80s, I had to have that watch. It cost less than $200, but it looked better than anything Rolex has ever made. My current Fossil watch also looks like a million bucks to me, though it cost maybe $50. I like a little true value with my snob appeal, and if any snob appeal that I imagine is only in my head -- as it no doubt was with that relatively cheap Jaz watch -- so be it. The true value of a Rolex over a Timex or a Lexus over a Toyota is negligible; it's all about the snob appeal, the price tag, the envy.

If you want solid transportation at a decent-enough price, buy the Toyota. If you can afford it, buy the Ferrari. I can tolerate a lot of snobbery if it comes with a little taste. Me? I'm skipping over the Audi A4 I wanted three years ago and the Audi TT I wanted two years ago and making my first new car in 15-plus years the 2002 Mini Cooper S from BMW. Price tag? Not much, by today's standards. Snob appeal? I hope so, but whatever. True value? It's cute and fast and, as I understand it, handles like a dream. And British Racing Green goes nicely with the face of my Fossil watch.

Tuesday, February 05, 2002

I WAS READY for war.

Monday morning was my first chance to respond, beyond yelling and breaking things in my own home, to a bill I received Friday and opened early Saturday morning, after a long night at work.

It was the kind of bill I had seen many times before, though not recently. A medical test that is covered by my HMO is done by an extortionary, profiteering lab that double-bills, hoping to frighten the patient into paying something the insurance company also paid. These labs use language like LABORATORY CHARGES ARE SEPARATE FROM YOUR DOCTOR'S CHARGES and THIS BILL IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY and WE HAVE NEVER HEARD OF INSURANCE. AS YOU MAY HAVE GUESSED, OUR COLLECTION STAFF IS MUCH LARGER THAN OUR SCIENTIFIC STAFF. Stuff like that.

This bill ruined my weekend. I didn't want to return to the days when I was covered by one of the other HMO giants, which itself sent out scary, threatening faux bills with every doctor's appointment and didn't bother to pay its affiliated doctors on time, leaving me yelling at collection agents like a piece of "Jerry Springer" trash. I go the HMO route, with all the bullshit that entails, precisely because I don't want to deal with claims and submission forms and medical bills aside from that $5 or $10 (OK, now it's $15) deductible. I've never understood that "We pay 80 percent and you pay ONLY 20 percent" insurance that other people seem so fond of. Medical bills are insane, and 20 percent of a billion dollars is a lot of money.

Anyway, I was ready for war. On Saturday night my wife and I watched an excellent HBO documentary about the unpleasantness at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and afterward we said the usual things about how the Middle East is full of crazy motherfuckers. Then I stopped myself. No, I said, I sort of understand.

It was with this mind-set that I approached a series of phone calls aimed at straightening all this out. For, you see, straightening all this out was nothing but a utopian dream. No, I knew I was doomed. Surely the HMO fine print left me without recourse; at the very least I would have to petition to get my 67 bucks back. And so my real goal was to kick and scream as much as I could on the way to defeat.

I had calmed down quite a bit since early Saturday morning. I'd try my doctor and my insurance company first, to get some perpective on how the cretins at the lab might have erroneously come to the conclusion that I owed them money. But the advertised wait to talk to the insurance company was too long, and I could only leave a message for the doctor. So I'd be talking to the lab. Even there, I had engineered a kinder, gentler line of questioning, if only to keep from being hung up on.

"Look, I know you have this double-billing scam going. You make plenty of money off other people, so I tell you what: You leave me the fuck alone and I won't be on the phone with the attorney general and the Better Business Bureau."

"I'm sorry; I don't mean to yell at you. I know you're only an assistant criminal. Could I speak to the head criminal, please?"

I knew my jabs would be greeted with scolding or silence, if not "click." If it at least wasn't "click," I had Plan A ready. This was my Saturday-morning stuff, Vile, vile, all's-fair-in-war stuff. You might want to avert your eyes.

"Sir, you're saying I owe you 67 dollars? Do you mean to tell me that I fucked your wife and I don't even remember it?"

I have no shame when it comes to things like this, but I won't be committing to ASCII characters the female-operator version of that last remark.

I dialed up the lab and, indeed, got a female operator. I started on a polite note, asking why I was billed in the first place. She said the company had no record of any insurance for me.

"Jesus f—"

"What was that?"

"I spent three hours filling our your forms; how could you not have that information?"

"What's the insurance company and the policy number?"

Just like that. Efficient as hell, and she apologized and told me I could tear up the bill.


I told my wife that, before the happy ending, I hadn't been so mad since that incident at the Cincinnati airport.

"Huh?" she said. (It was the Columbus airport. I'm old enough for a lot of things at 40; I just didn't think senility would be one of them.)

At the Columbus airport last month, on our way back from Las Vegas, I was so amused at having to board the little plane back to Washington via tarmac and staircase that I pulled out my teensy little Canon Digital Elph and went to snap a picture of Jacqueline boarding.

The photo that almost got me machine-gunned.

"SIR? SIR!" I heard as I did this. I knew it was one of the machine-gun-toting fellows we had just walked past, and yet I endured seveal more "SIR"s as I calmly snapped the picture. For all my contempt for authority figures, I've lived my life as a pretty darn obedient guy. Maybe it was the juxtaposition with the picture-taking. I own that particular camera because I am so self-conscious, I would never be seen walking around with a camera. I was never the picture-taking type, not even close, until Canon invented a camera I could stick into just about any pocket. (It's the camera for the shy! I'm a shudderbug! How was I to know this was the official camera of Mohammed Atta?) There's something uniquely embarrassing and infuriating about being chastised for doing something you're making a psychological stretch to do in the first place, and that's the way Mr. Machine Gun registered with me. Jacqueline keeps saying the issue was that I strayed from the prescribed path on the tarmac, but I maintain that the guy was just a fuckhead.

"BITE me!" I opined after snapping the picture. Either the plane's engine noise drowned out that sentiment or the fuckhead was a merciful fuckhead, but I was ready to go, I think. I probably would have curled up like a chastened puppy if anything had happened, but I remember being all set to rain Ali-vs.-Cleveland Williams* punches on the heavily armed young turk. I remained that way through the flight.

On the night of the night of the phone call that didn't, as it turned out, escalate to the level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I talked to my wife about these recent episodes of surprising fury. She mentioned something about my needing to go to Reno for some anger-management classes. (If that allusion escaped you, you might want to check out the work of Matt Weatherford. The anger-management class has been a comedic touchstone for Matt, as hat blocking and string collecting were to the young, written-word Woody Allen.)

*Yes, his name was Cleveland. Not Columbus. I'm not that senile.

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