Archive for December 2008

Tele-professions #1

December 31, 2008

I share an office suite with a recruiter. She was having a problem with a special program on her computer so she called customer support. She waited on “hold” for thirty minutes before someone finally picked up the phone. But then they immediately hung up on her before she could even speak. She called again, was on hold for another thirty minutes, and again, someone picked up the phone and instantly hung up on her. This happened a third time. She was, of course, exasperated.

She and I discussed this and we arrived at a possible answer: the incoming call load at the call center must have been so heavy that the reps reduced the number of calls waiting by simply hangingup on callers. This implies irresponsibility on the part of the call center reps, but what other explanation is there?

She never did get through to customer support and wound up calling someone she knew who solved the problem for her.

Bad economy: attitude or reality?

December 23, 2008

You can’t make up stories like this one: The Bagel Bin, the place I just mentioned in my last post where I frequently enjoy fresh bagels and can blend my own cup of coffee, was shut down last week by the State of New York for failure to pay $47,000 in state sales taxes. They re-opened just this morning, Tuesday, December 23, at 6 A.M. Ironically, I was able to keep a lunch meeting there today – scheduled prior to the brief closing.

This is just one of several close-to-home signals that the bad economy is a reality, not simply a negative attitude. The Jiffy Lube across the street from my office building closed recently, along with the seven other Jiffy Lubes in the city owned by the same franchisee.

Even closer to home: my fellow business tenants and I have come to the realization that our landlord is not in good financial shape. This is tied directly to the mortgage failures; our landlord is in the mortgage business. I have become the unofficial designee to call Rochester Gas & Electric, monthly, to make sure he is paying the utilities for our building. If he isn’t, we may elect to pay them ourselves, versus pay our rent. That could prove to be a most interesting situation.

Back at my favorite diner, Gitsis, on Rochester’s southeast side, the owner, George, has put up thousands of Christmas lights, and is very much in business as usual.

Where does the money come from?

December 17, 2008

I am in the Bagel Bin, a sort of independent Starbucks located near my office. I’ve been stopping here for bagels (made from scratch on site) for fifteen years. In the beginning there were three workers: a bagel maker and two counter people. Now they’ve expanded their space and there are a dozen workers at any given time throughout the day. You’d think with the cost of everything going up that people would be looking to cut out unnecessary expenses…like a bagel and coffee for $4.00, when they could eat toast and coffee at home for a tenth that amount.

In fact, not only is the Bagel Bin doing a land office business, added to the adults who used to wait in line there are now children. Eleven- to-14-year-olds, buying bagels, bottled water, and juices. I can tell by the way they pull the folding money out of their pockets and handle it prior to giving it to the cashier that they didn’t earn it. They don’t have jobs or even paper routes. They barely know what money is, yet they’re packing enough to buy non-necessities alongside adults.

Where does the money come from?

Print versus electronic media

December 15, 2008

Rochester’s daily newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle,  recently announced it was laying off fifty staff. These aren’t the first folks to leave and likely won’t be the last. Downsizing at newspapers is a national trend. The D&C attributed the work force cut to a dwindling advertising base and a loss of younger readers to competitive electronic media.

Art, a once-a-week diner patron, is a part-time professor of journalism and communication at the local community college. I ask him his thoughts about the future of printed newspapers. His answer surprises me. He doesn’t have to talk complex economics or abstract media theory to make his point.

“My students don’t even read newspapers. They have other sources…TV, the internet. There’s been a paradigm shift in how we get information and in what we actually perceive as valuable information.”

Abandoning print media in favor of electronic information isn’t occurring just in Art’s classroom; it’s everywhere. In fact, as I speak there is a stack of new phone books in the front foyer of my apartment building. They’ve been there for a month. None of the tenants have claimed them. I can recall a time when the new phone books came out and people grabbed them up; took extras; flat out stole their neighbors’ copies. Now, there sits the new yellow and white pages, ignored and unwanted, just like, well, spam.

Caroline Kennedy – not!

December 12, 2008

There is talk of New York Governor Patterson appointing Caroline Kennedy to the US Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, who was named Secretary of State by President-elect Barack Obama.

The idea of this person from out of nowhere representing New Yorkers in the Senate is preposterous. What does the heiress of Camelot bring to the table? Caroline Kennedy has never worked a day in her life. That, in itself, is not a crime. But this is someone who has never had to negotiate, ask for, or demand something of someone – anyone.

And from this Upstate New Yorker’s perspective, Downstate-based Caroline Kennedy knows and cares no more about the concerns and welfare of we Western New Yorkers than a Chilean llama herder.

There are other more qualified people for the position, like, say, New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who has already been elected to a public office by the people of New York.

There is an even more important issue here: What is a New York State Senate seat, anyway? A gift? A reward? A perk, to be handed out to cool people?

Let the ‘cool’ people govern California; give New York a worker bee.

Big Oil – Big Three

December 11, 2008

Ralph, the tea-drinking car wholesaler at the end of the counter has one more idea to add: “Let the automakers borrow the billions they need from the big oil companies. The oil companies have made their fortunes powering these obsolete monsters for almost a century. Let Oil partner with Auto; the Oil-Big Three Synergy.”

He continues, “Notice Big Oil’s silence during all this commotion about a bailout? I find it significant. Where are the think tanks on this one?

“As a common US citizen, I am a mere sharecropper to Auto and Oil. We loan them billions, then we’re supposed to turn around and be good citizens and buy their cars. Give them more money for a car made with money from my unpaid loan.

“Is anyone listening?” he asks of the silent counter. “No? Oh, right, I forgot, Christmas is just around the corner!”

Joe, a Vietnam veteran, mumbles, his mouth still in his coffee cup, “They might break even on Hummer if the war in Iraq continues.”

Can you live on $40 an hour?

December 9, 2008

That’s $1,600 a week, or $83,200 a year. How about adding in full benefits worth another $34.00 per hour? Benefits and wages, then, total $153,920. Can you live on that?

A bigger question is: Can a company who pays its employees this much stay in business in today’s global economy? And the big question: Can US citizens afford to bail out companies whose employees average $40 an hour? Whose total annual “package” is more than a buck-fifty? The companies to which I refer are the Big Three Automakers.

I ask Jeannie, the waitress, “Why should taxpayers bail out companies who pay line workers more than many engineers or the presidents of many small companies earn? Line workers, in this case, who don’t seem to understand or appreciate the fact of their disproportionately high wages.”

Peter, an attorney and long-time counter patron, usually holds the newspaper in front of his face while reading and eating his eggs, and generally doesn’t say much. But he pipes up, now, turning toward me in his chair. “Did you know they can get furloughed for up to four years at 95% of their pay? Imagine that, being guaranteed your job, even if you get laid off, for up to four years. It’s unreal!”

Jeannie asks, “Don’t these people even care about their own country?”

Big Three Omelet

December 8, 2008

Ralph, way down there at the end of the counter by the cash register, reads newspapers from all over the U.S. This morning he looks up from his copy of Prime Time Cape Cod and his steaming hot tea, and continues his monologue on the Big Three’s quest for a government bailout:

“To add to the scandal,” he says, “the U.S. gave GM $2 billion two years ago to develop fuel-efficient cars…battery, hydrogen natural gas, electric-gasoline hybrids…”

No one else at the counter says anything. They are either too angry, themselves, or perhaps it’s still too early in the morning.

Ralph continues, “So they began work on the experimental cars, but they were just covering their tracks. They wound up deceiving taxpayers and bought Hummer, a gas-guzzling behemoth that returned $20-$30,000 profit per unit on a $1ook-plus model. The dealers were making unheard of gross profits. Feel sorry for them? Never!”

Bail out or jump ship?

December 5, 2008

I don’t think there are enough buckets in America to bail out a sinking ship the size of the country’s automobile industry.

If you know someone who works in a car dealership, ask them what business is like. You’ll likely get a sobering answer. For example, this past September, the largest Buick dealership here in Rochester sold only eight Buicks; about one-tenth the norm in a good market. That’s what Ralph says. He usually sits at the far end of the counter and is one of the few men I know who order tea at a restaurant. He’s an automobile wholesaler. He also says that a certain Dodge dealership sold only one car in July and had its franchise pulled by Daimler-Chrysler.

He goes on to say he feels the “Big Three” executives, rather than promising Congress more fuel efficient cars down the road, should immediately offer American car buyers 100,000-mile, bumper-to-bumper warranties on their vehicles, similar to what most of their Asian competitors offer.

“The Detroit ship is already taking on water,” Ralph reflects. “They’re already going out of business. There’s no land in sight. They’re still only making vague promises. Why are we going to give these people money?” he asks of anyone who will listen.

No one on either side of the counter offers an answer.

fcuk Charm School!

December 3, 2008

Visiting Montreal recently, I was taken aback by a sign on the front of a clothing store that said, simply, “fcuk.” It was a large sign with bold lettering and it faced up and down the street, visible in both directions. “fcuk” stands for French Connection United Kingdom, a British retailer, who has deliberately capitalized on the similarity between their business acronymn and the word “fuck.”

This past weekend, I happened to catch five minutes of a cable television show called “Charm School,” a moronic series featuring Sharon Osbourne. Half the spoken dialogue was bleeped out due to profanity on the part of all players.

Then there is the delightful book I ran across in the outdoor section of a bookstore, “How to Shit in the Woods.”

The book, the clothier, and the television show all seem to represent the tip of an iceberg of “vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake” lurking just below the surface of American culture, waiting for our nation’s moral standards to slacken, as they seem to be doing daily, until vulgar is “normal.” Until the book can be in the front window of the bookstore. Until they can spell it the right way. Or would that be the wrong way?