Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

10/19/2005

Potteryblog, redux: the Hollywood North edition

File under: 1000 Words, I Made It Out Of Clay, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:10 pm.

So, we’ve established that no one’s interested in my pottery. Tough crowd, but I’ve been spending nearly all of my time in the studio lately, so that’s all I’ve got. How about a story about my pottery and Al Pacino, then?

Gallery Show this week. Here’s my stuff. Those of my readers who follow the amateur pottery scene will note that the bulk of my work does not conform to the preferences of the consumer, who will pay good money for a turd dipped in blue glaze after rejecting every other colour of bowl, mug, vase, or plate, regardless of how skillfully made and well priced. I’m not kidding; every single one of my pieces that sold in the past two days was blue. Someone bought the fifth piece I made, ever. It was crap, but it was blue. Don Davis, author of one of my pottery bibles, once remarked that potters tend to focus on form, while non-potters pay closer attention to the surface of a pot. This certainly holds true in my experience, and it’s a shame, because glazing is my weak suit, and it shows. Throwing is my strength and my passion, but only other potters seem to recognize that.

But, Al Pacino. Sales were slow at the gallery yesterday morning, and the other studio member who was manning the tables with me decided to duck out for a few minutes to promote our show. A few minutes turned into half and hour, and when K returned, she explained that she had had trouble getting across campus, what with the movie being filmed around the science building (*), and what with every student and their dog trying to get a piece of the star, Al Pacino, who was six feet from her, and her without her camera!

I had my camera. K dispatched me to the scene, and I had no trouble finding it. Or, as it turns out, walking into it: I soon found myself six feet from Al Pacino while a handful of security guards idly looked on, but I convinced myself that it wasn’t actually him, because wouldn’t the security guards have held me back? As I turned a corner, a stagehand called out to me, “Hey! Get back! Only extras are allowed in here!”

“I’m an extra,” I lied, because, why not? I had nothing better to do yesterday than be in a movie.

The stagehand didn’t buy it. “No, you’re not,” he proclaimed with such conviction that I couldn’t help but feel hurt. What gave it away? I surveyed the actual extras across from me as I tried to assess what separated me so obviously from them. Was it my glasses? My aspherical breasts? My underwear-covering jeans?

The stagehand was forthcoming: “Our extras are not covered in dirt,” he sneered.

“Clay,” I corrected, self-consciously fingering the dried bits of slip in my hair. Nevertheless: point well taken.

I apologized for walking onto the scene, and explained that the security guards on the set had seen me and hadn’t tried to stop me, so I had assumed that the filming was taking place elsewhere. The stagehand sighed heavily. “Those are not security guards,” he explained slowly, “Those are actors playing security guards.”

I excused myself from the set. Off to the side, two female students were chatting up another assistant. The topic of conversation was something along the lines of Al Pacino is here? Like, right here? Can we see him? Can we get his autograph? I injected myself into the discussion long enough to ask what the movie was called, because on the off-chance that its editors suck, then they’ll leave in the scene that was filmed when I accidentally wandered onto the set. Look for the clay-covered girl, appearing soon in a theatre near you!

“It’s called 88 Minutes,” replied the assistant. “It’s about a guy who has 88 minutes to find three people .”

“What three people?” asked one of the girls.

And at this, the assistant gave a lopsided grin, and said, “If it were up to me”- here he pointed - “it would be you, you,” - eyes settling on me, and a huge wink - “and you.”

A few hours later, when I’d gotten myself to a computer, I looked for some more information about 88 minutes. Here’s a plot summary:

[88 Minutes is a] thriller about a college professor who, while moonlighting as a forensic psychiatrist for the FBI, receives a death threat telling him that he has only 88 minutes to live. In narrowing down possible suspects, he frantically seeks to communicate with a problem student, an ex-girlfriend, and a serial killer on death row. (**)

Which makes “and you” a contender for the worst pick-up line ever. Regardless, I have been really low on bloggable material lately, so I giggled and smiled back at the assistant, and handed him a promotional postcard for the gallery show. “You’ll have a lot longer than eighty-eight minutes to find us,” I said, and winked back at him.

I spent this morning in the studio attaching handles to mugs, and just after lunch I wandered up to our display to see how sales were going. “You sold some stuff,” the studio secretary informed me. “Some guy came in and asked for you specifically. He didn’t know your name, just told me what you looked like. It was weird. I told him where your stuff was.”

“Dude in his thirties or so, tanned, light brown hair?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the secretary.

Son of a gun. “Did he buy anything?” I asked, incredulous.

He did. He bought a mug.

It was blue.

——————-

(*) There have been many movies filmed on campus. The one that I remember best was this dreck, which is hands-down the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. I watched it only because I had heard that part of it was filmed in the very classroom where I had taught a first-year calculus class. The movie opened with a scene featuring high school students in that classroom writing their SATs, an acronym that the narrator informed us stood for “the Suck-Ass Tests”, and if you still think that this looks to be quality cinema after reading that, then you are not welcome here anymore.

(**) Does anyone else find it amusing that the problem student is apparently just as likely a suspect as the serial killer?

9/23/2005

Off the beaten path

File under: Home And Native Land, Talking To Strangers, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:04 pm.

I never got around to writing about my tour of the Gulf Islands last June.

* * *

The public transit system that serves the Gulf Islands is unreliable when you’re in a hurry, but it’s friendly and it’s free. During my forays onto Salt Spring and Pender, I quickly marked myself as an outsider by looking askance as would-be commuters faced me, their thumbs extended. I recognized that this was how Islanders got by, but I was raised in a city, where strangers were not to be trusted.

The three picnickers on Cortes Island were different, however, and I slowed down when I saw them. The oldest of the them thanked me for stopping, and told me that she wasn’t coming along for the ride, but that Megan and Katie appreciated not having to walk to the community hall on such a hot day. No problem, I replied; I was happy to help. But I wasn’t from around here; where, I asked, was the community hall? The woman pointed to a junction on my map - not far at all - and thanked me again. She paused before turning around, and then said to the other two, strapped into seatbelts in the backseat - careful the traffic when you cross the street.

I introduced myself to my passengers. They were sisters, as I’d suspected. Megan was nine, and Katie was seven, and they were going to the community hall to rehearse for a play.

* * *

I never met the host of the inn on Mayne Island where I spent a rainy night. I’d called the innkeeper a few nights before to reserve a room, and she’d told me that she probably wouldn’t be around when I arrived. But she’d leave me a note and a key in the mailbox, and I should make myself at home as soon as I got in.

When I got off the ferry, I headed right for the inn, but I didn’t see a sign. I stopped at a bakery to ask for directions, and the baker asked me my name. “Oh, she told me she was expecting you,” he said when I answered. “Inn’s right next door, behind the tree. It’s hard to see the sign from the road.”

I thanked him, and found the key. The $60 room I’d booked was larger than my apartment. It had huge windows on two sides, and I selected a bed adjacent to one of them. I awoke early the next morning; my host was nowhere to be found. I put some money and a thank-you note in an envelope, stuck the envelope under the door, and left.

There was a note posted on the front door. It was dated two days earlier; I’d obviously missed it when I arrived. In the same formal script that had appeared on my note was a message: I will be out of town all week. If you would like a room at the inn, please see the baker next door.

* * *

Denman Island is the flattest of the Gulf Islands, and as such, it is also one of the most cyclist-friendly. There are bikes everywhere on the island - in the many parks, in front of the community school, in the middle of driveways. Unlocked, all of them.

“You can’t leave your bike unattended for a minute where I live,” I remarked to the owner of the bed and breakfast. “I lock mine even when I’m just running in and out of a store; otherwise, someone would take it for sure. It’s amazing that you can trust that no one would do that here.”

She shrugged. “People take bikes here, too,” she said.

“And you still leave them like that?” I said, gesturing toward the trendy mountain bike that was propped up against a tree.

“They take them, but we always end up finding them sooner or later,” she said. “I know what my neighbour’s bike looks like, and so does everyone else. Someone finds a purple hybrid near the Hornby ferry, they know it’s his.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “It’s an island. How far could they go?”

8/15/2005

Adventures in Bureaucracy: An Appropriately Unwieldy Post

Or, How To (Hopefully) Get The Government Benefits You’re Entitled To In 100 Painful Steps.

First, a preamble, because reading this post will still be shorter than living it: When I was little, I was jealous of all of my friends whose parents had useful, easy-to-describe jobs, like doctor or teacher or dentist. One day in junior kindergarten, we had to draw pictures of what our mommies and daddies did at work, and our teachers then annotated the drawings as we dictated. I don’t remember what I drew for my dad (Mom, pregnant at the time, stayed at home with me) - I was four years old, so I assume that one picture of mine was more or less indistinguishable from the next - but the caption has been preserved in the family archives: “My daddy,” I explained, “plays on the computer and draws on the marker board.”

Umpteen years later, that’s still more or less the impression that I have of my father’s work, with one important modification: my daddy not only plays on the computer and draws on the marker board, he also meets with Important People in Employment Insurance. Which, at this point in my life, is a hell of a lot more useful than doctor or teacher or dentist. It means that my daddy, unlike yours, has inside dirt on the Employment Insurance department, such as “you fill everything out online but it’s all stored on paper”, “they don’t actually have a national system”, and “they tried to overhaul the system years ago, at a cost of six hundred million dollars, and it didn’t work. Now they’re trying to upgrade so they’re living somewhat less in the past.” Which, come to think of it, is not so useful, because anyone who’s ever dealt with EI could probably figure as much out themselves.

My mom, also not a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer, also has a job that has unexpectedly proven useful as of late. Mom’s job requires her to deal with disability and unemployment claims, and upon hearing that after two and a half months, I still hadn’t seen a dime, she knew exactly what I needed to do: “If you don’t get this one sorted out, call your MP,” she advised. “It’ll work. I don’t like to abuse that avenue, but it’s been long enough and you’ve tried everything else.”

I agreed to do it if it came to that, but I couldn’t imagine that being anything other than an exercise in frustration: I’d met said MP during the all-candidates debate last year, and he wowed me with his meticulously-honed ability to deflect every question directed at him by quoting irrelevancies from the Red Book. I figured a call to my MP would go something like this:

Me: Hi, I applied for EI eleven weeks ago. I haven’t seen any money yet, and my file has been frozen. Everyone I talk to tells me to talk to someone else, and as far as I can tell, there’s been no progress on my case.

The Honourable Mr. So-and-So: The Liberal Government is committed to streamlining the Employment Insurance application process. Under our initiative, the government has introduced computers to Employment Insurance offices across the country. By 2008, we will have invested $10,000,000 in hiring seven new staff who can program them to review your application instead of sending it into a black hole.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. What it did come to was this:

Claiming Employment Insurance Benefits: A Saga In N Parts, For N Large

April, 2005 - contract at Island U expires. Island U efficiently sends a Record of Employment to my permanent address. Permanent address is parents’ home, as I have moved ten times in as many years.

May, 2005 - I fill out massive online Employment Insurance form, putting my parents’ address as my permanent address. Upon finishing, the EI website tells me to spend the next four weeks waiting for my claim to be processed.

June, 2005 - Computer dies. Meanwhile, back East, letter from EI arrives at parents’ house, directing me to fill out my first three reports online. I fill out the first, at the local library. EI website thanks me for the report. I try to fill out the second, and this time, the EI website isn’t so happy about that state of affairs, and orders me to call their 1-800 number.

Dutifully, I call the 1-800 number, and get passed along to four different EI workers until I get someone who knows what’s going on. This EI worker is a computer-savvy one, who knows that the online report-filing system traces IPs and figured out that I was filing my reports from BC, not from out East. Bad Moebius Stripper! No benefits for you! I object, saying that I’ve been looking for work in BC for months. Helpful EI worker helpfully tells me that she will transfer my file to BC, and that I will be notified four weeks later, when the file has been successfully transferred. After receiving this notification, I should present myself to the local (BC) EI office with proof that I have been actively seeking employment in this province. “In other words,” she paraphrases, “for now you just need to hurry up and wait.”

July, 2005 - I hurry up and wait, all the while continuing to be available for suitable employment. Nothing happens. At the end of the month, I figure that even accounting for our notoriously slow postal service, it’s been too long since I’ve heard from the EI folks, so I present myself at the local office and explain my entire story to the woman at the counter, to the consternation of the half-dozen people standing behind me in line. The woman at the counter nods sympathetically, and at the end of my five-minute spiel, she takes action: she picks up a sheet of paper from the desk, highlights a 1-800 number on it, and instructs me to phone it.

August, 2005 - I phone the 1-800 number, and tell my entire story again, intending to add the part about how I stopped at the office to talk to a human being and was directed to the hotline. The operator looks up my file, putting me on hold twice in the process. “Ah,” she says finally. “There’s been a disentitlement placed on your file.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You were listed as living out East, but our records indicated that you were actually in BC, and hence not seeking employment out East, so we’ve put a block on your file.”

“I had my file transferred,” I explain, AGAIN, “because I was never actually living out East. The reason I had my file transferred was because I have been actively seeking employment in BC all along, JUST LIKE I AM SUPPOSED TO.”

Without missing a beat, the operator says, “Well, then, in that case you’ll have to visit your local office in person, and explain that to them.”

“I did,” I reply. “They told me to phone this number.”

At which point, the stars align, or something like that, because GLORY BE, the operator says, “I’m going to put you on hold and contact a senior manager about this.”

Muzak plays. A few minutes later, the operator, invigorated, declares, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I am going to send a notice to your local office instructing them to remove the disentitlement. This will take up to two days. I will also tell them that you will be visiting them in person. Bring with you a list of job applications you’ve sent out, interviews, and so forth. They will then review that, and when they see that the disentitlement has been removed, they will be able reactivate your file.”

I thank her.

Three days later (two days to remove the block + margin of error) I arrive back at the local office, and present myself, along with my list-o-job-apps to the woman at the counter, who’s the same woman who had told me to call the 1-800 number a few days earlier. I give her the page. She takes my SIN number, and sends me on my way.

“When should I expect to see some money?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that,” she chirps, and produces an info sheet from her desk. She highlights a 1-800 number. “You’ll have to call this number.”

“When?”

“You can call them now. There are phones by the back wall, with direct lines to the BC office.”

(Reread that part: There are phones in the local Employment Insurance office that connect you to the national Employment Insurance office. This is an institution that actively embraces its inefficiency.)

“They know stuff about my file that you don’t know, having just dealt with me in person?”

“Yes, they have that information. We just added an extra phone, for your convenience.”

I trot over to the convenient new phone, pick it up, request a human being, and tell my entire story AGAIN. The operator is confused. “I wouldn’t have that information. You’ll have to visit your local office -”

“Well, that’s convenient,” I reply. “I’m at my local office right now!”

Back to the counter, to the woman with the 1-800 fetish. “They sent me back here.”

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll put you in line to meet with someone. There’s a 20-minute wait.”

Fine.

Again the stars align, and exactly twenty minutes later I’m talking to this really patient man whom they surely hired by accident, because he’s so very good at his job that I am completely taken aback. For one, I don’t have to tell him my story, because he’s been spending the last ten minutes reading it. I ask him when I can expect to see some money.

“Well,” he says, “first we have to remove the disentitlement from your claim. From there it will be two business days.”

“The person I spoke to on the phone said that it would take two business days from the time I phoned to remove the disentitlement, and that I should hand in my list of job applications after that.”

He shakes his head. “Oh, no. We can’t remove a disentitlement until after you come in with your account of job applications. It will be two business days. Who told you otherwise?”

I provide a name.

He continues: “I see that you filed the original claim over ten weeks ago, so you’ll be wanting retroactive benefits. Did you already fill in that form? I couldn’t find it at the front desk.”

I reply that I didn’t know that there existed such a form, and that I thought that the retroactive benefits went without saying when I told Ms. 1-800 at the front desk that I’d filed the original claim ten weeks earlier.

“Hmm,” he says, “she should have given you the form to fill out. I’ll get one for you now.”

Translation: Ms. 1-800 is inept even by EI standards, and I’m grading on a VERY GENEROUS CURVE HERE, PEOPLE.

The guy returns with the form. I observe that I have half a page to explain why I haven’t filled out the biweekly reports for the last ten weeks. “Half a page?” I say. “You’ve seen my file.”

“You can use the back if you want,” he offers.

“Can I attach additional sheets?”

Five minutes later, having availed myself of the stapler on the desk, I complete the tome (”Please see my file for more details,” I conclude sadistically), and hand it to the fellow. He tells me that I should be seeing some money in two business days. I remark that I’ll believe that when I see it. I am not being rude, but I am obviously frustrated, and he responds in quiet, soothing tones - much as I do when dealing with those students of mine who are not being rude, but who are obviously frustrated. Amusingly, even though I know what he is doing, this technique works perfectly on me, and I calm down. I thank the fellow, and leave.

Two business days later, I call the 1-800 number, which I now have on speed dial. I listen to the automated service, which, disappointingly but not surprisingly, informs me that there has been no activity (none!) on my file in the past two weeks. I summon a human being, and go over my story, again, to be told that it will be three weeks before I see any money.

“I was told two business days,” I report.

“That’s incorrect. Who told you that?”

I provide a name.

The operator tells me that she’ll have someone phone me within the next two business days to discuss my situation. I reply that I’ve spent two and a half months discussing my situation, and while that’s certainly been lots of fun for all involved, at this point I’d really prefer to just get some money. She tells me they’re working on it.

Two business days pass. No one phones.

I present myself to the local EI office again, and tell an abridged version of my story to Ms. 1-800. I can tell it’s a whole new story to her, because her face registers no hint of recognition despite the fact that we have met three times before. I can’t really blame her, though; she probably meets a lot of disgruntled unemployed people with similar stories, and sooner or later they probably all blend together in one amorphous mass of disgrunt. “Hmm,” she muses sympathetically, and produces a sheet of paper. “You should call our 1-800 number. There are phones at the back…”

Because there’s no one waiting in line, I seize the opportunity to tell her the entire story, including detailed descriptions of my experiences with her, my experiences with the 1-800 number, and my experiences with her telling me to call the 1-800 number. I request an appointment with a human being. Request granted.

Twenty minutes later, I am sitting with a human being, who tells me that she doesn’t know what that other person was talking about, because it’s never two business days for the file to be processed, it’s one week. But, she tells me, it’s a good thing that I came into talk to that other person, because when you come talk to someone in person, they put your file on someone’s desk, whereas when you just drop off your materials at the front desk, they sit in someone’s outbox for two weeks before getting processed. She tells me this like it’s standard procedure. She dispatches me, telling me that it takes a week to process my file, no, really this time, and if it’s not processed then, to come back.

It’s not processed within a week. I come back and wait in line, and hear the teenaged girl directly in front of me explain that she has a Social Insurance Number, it’s just that she suspects that her mom has been using it illegally to get work. This is taking a long time, and the girl turns around at one point, sees the huge line behind her, and apologizes. I tell her that she’s not the one who should be apologizing, and that I hope she gets her stuff worked out, and that she should take as long as she needs to get this taken care of. She smiles.

When that’s done, I deal with - hallelujah - someone other than Ms. 1-800, who makes an appointment with a human being for me. The wait is short, because while the teenager was trying to get the SIN crap dealt with, the people in front of me got processed. I am called within two minutes, by a tanned woman with frizzy white-blond hair. I walk over to the desk, resolved to play the I’m going to call my MP about this card if my file doesn’t get processed right then and there.

But my resolve weakens when the blond woman gives me the most pained look I’ve ever seen from a government official. “I’ve been reading your file,” she tells me, “and reading and reading and reading it. Dear Lord. We’re going to get this resolved right now.” And then she explains that she is going to personally hunt down the person in charge of my file, and wait as he processes it. I am awestruck.

She phones the person in charge of my file. He does not answer. My heart sinks.

But, get this: the next few minutes consist of this woman, the patron saint of mismanaged EI files, running back and forth, physically hunting down this person. “He’s probably on coffee break,” she tells me. “His secretary tells me he’s in today.” She explains that this might take a few minutes, because she usually works in the call centre, not the local office, so she doesn’t know what this fellow looks like. She dashes off before I can tell her that I don’t mind waiting a few minutes to get my benefits.

Ten minutes later she announces, out of breath, that she found him, and that he’s in the process of looking at my file for the first time. I lean back in my chair and wait, because this can take awhile.

Shortly afterward he phones, and I hear one side of a conversation that goes something like Speaking…no, see, this needs to be dealt with NOW…this woman has been waiting almost three months…she’s filled in all of the relevant forms…yes, I KNOW, but this person keeps being told that it’s going to be taken care of soon, so please just take care of it now and get it over with…okay, thank you.

She hangs up. “It’s all taken care of,” she tells me. She doesn’t seem surprised that taking care of the thing that needed taking care of took all of five seconds once she got a hold of the person responsible. “You will have your money in two business days.” She then takes some information from me, and fills in the last ten weeks’ worth of reports. “Done,” she reports.

I thank her and thank her and thank her, because if she’s not sincere, then at least she’s just given an Oscar-worthy performance.

One business day later, I call the 1-800 number, and for the first time I’m told something other than the fact that there has been no activity on my file. Today, I check my account, and find that my balance has an extra digit to the left of the decimal place. It’s over.

My first purchase is going to be a bouquet of flowers for the last person from the EI office I spoke to.

8/11/2005

Moebius Stripper offers sales and marketing advice to a local entrepreneur

File under: Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:01 pm.

The other day, while I was unlocking my bike from outside a restaurant downtown, a scraggly-looking man with bloodshot eyes zigzagged over to me and asked me if I knew what time it was. I did, and provided it, even though the fellow didn’t look like the type who had a schedule to keep.

He thanked me, and then squinted at me. “C’Iaskyouaquesshun?” he slurred.

“Sure,” I replied. Why not.

He contorted his face and fixed his red eyes on me. There was a long pause before he took a deep breath, summonning the power to let his frantic query tumble out: “D’yousmokeweedPLEASESAYYES.” This last part was barked with an urgent clarity that almost made me feel like picking up the habit.

But, “Sorry,” I said, and I was.

His face fell. “Y’don’smokeweed?” he asked, surprised.

“No,” I repeated.

“You? Don’smoke weed?”

“Nope,” I confirmed, flattered that someone found it implausible that a square like me could possibly not smoke weed.

He shook his head, and then tilted it up at me. “No shit?”

“No shit.”

He thought for a minute. “Aw, fuck,” he said, and withdrew a crinkled baggie from his pocket. “Thisstuff’ere,” he explained, shoving it an inch from my face, “Triple A, twennybucks. Bespricentown.”

“That is a good price,” I said, because I had no reason to think otherwise.

He nodded. “AnnIdunnowhyIcange’ridovit.” He looked up, despondant.

Since I do not, as established earlier, smoke weed, I had the advantage of not being high on weed at that moment, and consequently I possessed a mental clarity that was conspicuously absent in my interlocutor and probably had been for some time. “Well,” I offered, “We’re in Chinatown. Chinatown isn’t known for its weed market. A lot of people here don’t speak English. And it’s a tightly-knit community, so people who do smoke weed probably buy it from people they already know.”

He paused. “Fuck,” he mumbled.

“But,” I said, “The Marijuana Party office is six blocks away from here, and there’s a shop nearby that sells…related merchandise.” I know this because I read the news.

He looked up. “Theresamarijuanaparty?”

“Based six blocks away.”

He thought about that. “They probably smoke weed there.”

“That’s my guess,” I replied. “Here’s what you should do. Stand about a block away from the Marijuana Party office, and offer your stuff to people who walk by. Someone in that area is going to want to pay twenty dollars for that triple-A stuff you’ve got there.”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice brightening. “Where’sissplace?”

I pulled out my map and showed him, and then I pointed him in the general direction.

“They’ll buy my weed,” he said optimistically, reenergized by this new strategy.

I hope they did.

6/13/2005

What your physics teacher never told you about electronics

File under: Sound And Fury, Meta-Meta, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:31 am.

The Gulf Islands were lovely, just lovely. And I have photos! Postcards! Tales of hitchhiking, prawn delivery, epic seasickness, and more! None of which you’ll get to see or read for a long, long time, because my computer is dead.

“Dead?” I said to the guy at Future Shop, in the way that one asks questions when coming to terms with that chasm between one’s formerly-held beliefs and reality. “I thought it was just the adapter. When I left for my vacation, it was working ok, but the battery was discharging even though it was plugged in. Mind you, when I came back, it sputtered for a bit and then just shut off.”

“Adapter’s fine,” said the technician. “It’s giving me nineteen and a half volts. And your computer won’t even turn on.”

“The hell? It’s only a few months old. And -”

“We’ve had a lot of power surges on the Island in the last few weeks,” the technician recited. “And brownouts. It’s the brownouts that’ll really fry ‘em. Lotta machines in in the last couple weeks, completely dead.”

“Dead,” I repeated.

“Is it still under warranty?” he asked me.

“Hell yeah,” I replied. “And the most important files on it are music, so that’s okay. But - a brownout will just kill a computer? Laptops only, or does this happen to desktops too?”

“We’ve had a lot of desktops in here, too.”

“Is there any way to predict brownouts, or power surges?”

He shook his head. “Nothing you could have done about it. This is not your fault.”

And from there, something about serial numbers and warranties and they’ll send you a box to ship it in and should have it or a reasonable facsimile thereof back to you in a few weeks. A few weeks. I’m going to cart the bloody thing down to the mom and pop computer shop at the north end of town - I still have this rental car for another day - for a second opinion, but barring that, a few weeks.

I’m at the library now, and I’ll be back, because my EI reports need to be filed electronically. Should pick up a few books, while I’m here. I hear people used to read those before there were computers.

4/4/2005

How psychic phone lines work, according to the brother of the brother-in-law of a woman who founded one

File under: Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:17 am.

Last weekend, while I was waiting for a ferry, I ducked into a small coffee shop/bookstore on the Vancouver Island side of the ferry trip. There, a middle-aged man who reeked of cigarette smoke sat down at the table across from me - small town, small coffee shop - and engaged me in conversation, most of which I’ve forgotten by now. It started predictably enough - obviously I wasn’t from around here; was I student at the college? No, I sighed, I was a teacher at the college. What did I teach? Math. Oh, math. Ah yes, math.

Somehow, from there, the conversation settled upon the detachment many students feel from the subject; they’ll pride themselves on their skills in “critical thinking”, I said, but toss a couple of numbers into the things they’re thinking critically about, and all of a sudden they shut down. For crying out loud, I said, the damned business students did not know how goddamned interest was compounded. Anyone with an agenda to push or a scam to pull can prey upon their ignorance, and if they don’t learn how to work with numbers, they will be screwed out of their money or fed a pack of lies couched in fancy-sounding statistical terms.

At this my interlocutor mentioned that oh, yes, he knew all about scams and screwing people out of their money. And I could tell that he was just looking for a time to tell me the particulars of that, because that was the end of the math/teaching part of the discussion, but it hardly mattered, because what he told me next was just so great.

Ten years or so ago, he told me, his brother married the sister of Josie the famous psychic from Quebec, a woman who so altered the historical landscape that I can’t for the life of me find a single mention of her on the internet. But I’d heard of her, and I’d seen her television ads in the early nineties: ordinary folks proclaiming that Josie and her psychic friends knew all about them within five minutes of their call - it was as though the psychics had known them all their lives! The psychic friends, just by interpreting their astrological charts, knew that they were dissatisfied with their jobs! and struggling with their love lives! and torn among family obligations! They’d been skeptics before, but a friend their uncle’s friends had raved about Josie, and now, they’re believers.

Did I know how those phone psychics worked? asked the man. Did I? Because man, was it something. Was. It. Ever. Something!

I thought I knew, I said; it seemed pretty obvious. The people in the commercials were actors, for one; that was obvious. And the phone lines stayed in business for as long as they did because they were staffed by people trained to say the most general and flattering things about their callers (”you try to project confidence, but inside, you are often insecure; however, you are well-respected even by people who you don’t know very well”) and patronized by desperate losers who are ready to eat it all up.

In the middle of this, the man leaned back and started chuckling. When I was done, he took a long drag of his cigarette and leaned in again, exhaled in my face, and said, “Uh-uh. A lot of ‘em, they’re very specific. They tell you you live in a blue house and you were just laid off from work in the textile factory by Highway 71 and that your kid broke his arm last week.”

“Do they now,” I said with the skepticism of someone listening to a man in the midst of boasting of his knowledge of scams.

“Uh-huh. And you know how they do that? It’s because,” he continued immediately, without waiting for a reply, “They know you. They live right across from your blue house and used to work in the same goddamn textile factory until they were laid off, too.

“The phone lines,” he told me, “They have a system, did you know that? There’s a, there’s a computer, it tells you where the called is from. Then the call is routed to the nearest phone psychic. And Bell telephone is in cahoots with this, did you know that? They get 30% of the revenue from this.”

“Do they know it’s a scam?” I asked.

He shook his head, uninterested in my questions. “Josie,” he went on, “she knew she had a thing going. And there are a lot of wannabe phone psychics out there, you know that? Helluva lot, and you know why? Because,” he said quickly, “it’s no-skill labour and there aren’t any goddamn jobs in small towns. So, someone from a small town applies to be a phone psychic, ten dollars and hour, and they’re from a small town, Josie and her goddamn friends hire them. They got one of those psychics in every goddamn shit town in Canada and in the United States, and someone calls in from one of ‘em, from say Arizona, calling a 1-900 number based in Montreal, they’re routed automatically to the phone psychic in Arizona they went to goddamn high school with, and everyone knows everybody in those towns, and it doesn’t take a goddamn psychic to know that someone who lives across the street from you’s kid broke his arm.”

“Goddamn,” I said, and meant it.

“Goddamn is right,” he repeated. “She made millions this way. I fix cars to feed my family, she makes millions getting her psychic friends to tell my customers their cars aren’t running.”

I grinned, but something was bothering me: “What if someone calls in from Ottawa? Or Vancouver, or Chicago? It’s not guaranteed that they’re going to know the local psychic if they’re from a big city.”

He tossed the end of his cigarette into the ashtray, and immediately withdrew another one from his pocket, and lit it. “Are you kidding?” he said. “People from big cities don’t call goddamn psychics. And if they do,” he continued, “they’re not exactly proud of it, they’re not about to go public about being scammed by a bunch of bullshit psychics whose goddamn ads say ‘for entertainment purposes only’ right in the corner of the screen, so all the network’s got is word of mouth from satisfied customers. So it kept going until ol’ Josie died in a car accident five years ago or whatever. My brother, you know what he said? He said, ‘Betcha she didn’t see that coming. Because she was a psychic, you know? Get it?”

“I get it,” I said, and smiled.

He didn’t smile. “Good,” he said, satisfied.

So, maybe I could make a living in a small town, after all. And I’d have great stories for this blog if I made that career change.

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