Monday, December 29, 2008

Redneck: You Always Knew I Was

A joyous Christakwanzukkah to all. I hope everyone out there in etherland managed to spend time with family and/or friends, gain a few pounds, drink a little too much, and get away from the grind for a little while. I did about that, though my trip was a slightly complicated one as I shall recount here.

In Which Jamie Proves Conclusively You Can Take The Redneck Out Of Maine, But You Can't Take The Redneck Out Of The Mainer

Part of my trip last week involved getting back to DC with the 1980 Chevy Scottsdale pickup truck I kinda inherited from my late step grandfather. That is to say, while he didn't leave it to me, nobody else wanted it so I decided to add a third vehicle to my stable. What the hell I plan to do with it, I couldn't possibly say, but a 28-year old full-size pickup truck with a cap, and a mere 45,000 original miles on the odometer was just too good to pass up.

At left, a simulated image of my truck since I forgot to take a picture. But it looks strikingly like this one - brown, with a camper cap - but believe it or not, mine's in nearly mint condition.

A few weeks ago I had had the thing towed to a mechanic since I was told the brakes didn't work. $280 later, I had a new master cylinder. I spent a few more bucks having them give it a once-over and basic tune-up since I planned to drive the beast about 800 miles by the time I was back in DC. On Christmas Day my mother drove me the 80 miles from Boston to Stafford Springs, CT where I found the truck with keys under the floormat as promised by the very gracious folks at Monson Road Garage and I was on my way.

Can I tell you how unbelievably awesome this truck is? It's got the small block Chevy V8 - I'm guessing the 305 vs. the 350 since it doesn't seem especially overpowered. Which is probably a good thing, since I got awesome fuel economy, averaging 14 miles per gallon on my trip. You think that sucks, huh? Compare that to a brand-new 2009 Chevy Silverado, about the equivalent vehicle nearly 30 years later. Fuel economy for this marvel of modern engine design? 15 city/20 highway. Nearly three decades later, that's the best they could do, apparently. And the review I linked to lists fuel economy as a "pro", saying "good fuel economy for a full-sized truck!!" Pretty sad state of affairs if you ask me. I'll take the ever-reliable 305 with a caruberettor, thank you very much.

Anyway, moving on... while it's just a regular cab, I easily fit four adults across in the bench seat (another simulated image, right). That rocks. I could probably fit at least 12 day laborers in the back, too. On the down side, it does take up about half of my back yard, and parallel parking is a bitch. But it's the price we pay for hugeness.

The Journey

So, there were several goals for this absurd hayride to hell. I had to get to my sister's house in Boston on common carrier transportation so I could drive back. That meant flying out of National since I wouldn't be driving to the airport. I managed to get a flight less than a week before Christmas for 200 bucks, not bad, though it did invovle a layover at JFK. Three hours. Which is just as well since my first flight was delayed almost two hours.

This might have been my first time at JFK, and I have to say, I'm a pretty seasoned traveler, but that airport is designed specifically to baffle tourists. I'm fairly fluent in English and I still found myself staring at walls, signs, and arrows frequently trying to figure out where the hell I should be going. My odd flight was on two different airlines, so I had to go between terminals. Fair enough. Except there were absolutely zero signs in my landing terminal (Terminal 1) that gave any indication that there were even other terminals, much less how to get there. Finally I asked a nice man which way out of the twilight zone, and he directed me to a tiny passageway in a corner with no sign that even said "exit" which would apparently take me to the "Airtrain."

Once at the "airtrain," I marveled at this gem in the elevator to the platform. The sign outside had said "Airtrain, Level 2." Once in the elevator, I was confronted with this completely inexplicable set of button labels. As a non-blind person, I was able to correctly deduce that I should be pushing the center button to get to the "airtrain." But seriously. What the hell? Was the elevator installer smoking crack?

Once on the train, though, it was pretty cool, it felt very futuristic and monorailish as we swooshed around the airport high above the mayhem. Though the blinking red sign that kept saying something like "Pay Fare At Jamaica" was a little disconcerting. Luckily I saw the stop for my terminal before I ended up in Jamaica and made it to my next plane on time. Once in Boston, I met my brother and we enjoyed another hour on three different lines of the Boston "T," always a good time.

I had a lovely evening and day with my sister's family, including the three nephews who were remarkably well behaved on this visit. My sister's in the middle of expanding their Cape Cod-style house so I got to check out the work in progress. I still enjoy walking around unfinished construction sites, and I was intrigued by some of the modern techniques they were using for plumbing and wiring. I admit I am slightly skeptical of plastic plumbing, and as long as I'm not paying for labor there's no way I won't drop the extra bucks for copper in my own house, but it sure looked a lot easier to install than copper. I know it's becoming pretty common in new construction, I'm just a bit of a luddite... with a tendency towards overbuilding.

In Which We Place Absolute Faith In 28 Year Old Machines

Come Friday morning, the marathon begins. I departed boston at 6 AM in predawn darkness. The beast fired up right away despite the 16 degree temperature. Being scraper-less I had to let the frost melt off the windshield before I could go, but soon I was rolling along happily. My first stop was Maine. Another important factor in this mission was acquiring furniture and some vintage tools I'd also gotten from my grandfather's estate but hadn't been able to get back to Washington until I was up north in a car. So I hightailed it up there, and was on the way back south again about 3 hours later. I stopped off in Portland on the way back to say hello to Johnny Bigtime and his brood, then again in Boston to pick up an air conditioner my sister was donating to my cause (and I'd forgotten to get before). Then, it was on to DC.

My journey took me through West Cornwall, Connecticut, where I stopped over again to visit Aislinn. I had originally planned on spending the night with her family and finishing the trip in the morning. By the time I got there, it was 4:30 PM so I'd already been on the road for over ten hours, though with a few stops. But the weather report was ominous for the late night and morning: freezing rain, snow, sleet, brimstone, you name it. Now, while I'd already developed a strong trusting bond with the truck, I wasn't sure I trusted the rather crusty looking tires, and the vintage windshield cleaning system that did not involve a sprayer or an intermittent setting.

So, with great resolve I said goodbye and departed again around 7:30. There was a light rain for part of the trip, which was very annoying to say the least without an intermittent setting. The rest was kind of a blur. I learned a few thing, though.

1) When you are barreling down the road in a giant pickup truck, people get the hell out of your way.

2) Speedometer is off by 7 mph at 70. That is, I'm really going 77. After I kept blowing by people when I though I was doing only 70 or so (in a 65) I did a reality check using the GPS. Probably lucky I didn't get pulled over since I was doing what I thought was 70-75 most of the way.

3) Thank god gas was generally $1.50 a gallon

4) Factory 1980 radio (with two knobs and five buttons) sounds like ass, but creates perfect retro environment for reliving a simpler time.

5) It costs $6.35 to take the Jersey Turnpike from Exit 15 (GW Bridge) to Exit 7 (Route 295). WTF??? It was 2 bucks last time I did the drive!! At first I thought the toll attendant was messing with me. Maybe she thought my truck had three axles or something. But apparently, they had just raised the prices. Welcome to Recession '08, suckers!

I finally arrived in DC at 12:30 AM. It was a hell of a long trip but worth it. I will post actual pictures of The Beast soon. And I will be accepting offers, opening bid will be $3,000. You laugh, huh? Check this out!

OK, never mind, I want to play with my totally impractical new old toy for a while... but I will definitely be accepting ideas about what to do with this behemoth. Late night conversation has already gone to Inauguration Day Float. Be very afraid....

Monday, December 15, 2008

Madoff's Billions

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one left trying to make a buck the old fashioned way. Like Smith Barney. You know, "we earn it." Ummm... wait... $700 billion bailout... oh, never mind.

Anyway, while such things as a few poeple pilfering $50 million from under the noses of the DC government are fairly shocking, this guy has apparently disappeared $50 billion in assets over a number of years. The article states that the firm had from 11 to 25 clients, some of whom may be other fund managers. Great. So even those of us too insignificant to even consider investing in something super high-dollar and super sketchy are probably going to suffer because our mutual fund manager bought Mr. Madoff a new corporate jet.

Anyhoo, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the entire global economy is really just a sham designed to make fewer than 100 people fabulously wealthy while the rest of us will end up looking greedily at stray cats as a possible dinner option in short order. But in the event that there is, in fact, some shred of reality to our financial system, here is some advice for staying afloat in the upcoming New World Order:

  • Don't give millions of dollars to someone who inexplicably is able to give a return on investment that is better than anyone else, yet won't show you his books.

  • If you have no clue how your potential investment works, probably you shouldn't invest in it.

  • Avoid anyone who's name is a homonym for "made off."

The guy apparently is apparently facing up to 20 years in prison and a $5 million fine. How they come up with this stuff is baffling to me. Shouldn't the guy who swindled people out of the GNP of many small-to-medium sized nations be facing a fine a little bit more than $5 million? I mean, he'll probably have enough money left over to buy his way out of jail in 3 years! On the other hand, a first-time offender caught with 5 grams of crack is facing a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison. Chances are, Madoff will be back on his yacht in less time than that. What a system.

Anyway, the point of this post was really just to make a bad pun about Madoff's name. That being accomplished.... until next time.

Week o' Plumbing

I have been a landlord for exactly 15 days. And I must say my two tenants at Club Petworth have been more than accomodating, since in that time, the heat only half worked and the upstairs bathroom never worked. But since I wish to keep these tolerant tenants, I took decisive action this week.

Situation #1: No Heat The heat only worked on the radiators in the back of the house. I guessed it was a broken circulator pump, but wasn't entirely sure. Normally I would never bring in a "professional" before trying to fix something myself, but since these freezing kids are paying me rent and some parts of boiler operation are mysterious to me, I called Magnolia Plumbing. $700 later, the pump was fixed.

I am not going to knock Magnolia. The guy they sent was professional and knew what he was doing, so I have no complaints. But at the end of the day, I paid over $400 in labor to replace a part that was held on with four bolts. Of the 3+ hours in labor at $120/hour, at least one of that was spent going to the store to pick up the replacement parts, and another one was spent draining and refilling the system, bleeding radiators, and generally waiting around to make sure everything was OK. Like I said - not knocking Magnolia, it's not like they could have done it any faster or better... but I could easily have done it myself.

Although it pained me to see how easy this repair was, I'm not bitter, but rather reassured that my diagnostic skills were on point. Next time something screws up on the boiler, I'm going in.

Situation #2: No Water I became aware about a week ago that I really had to re-do all the plumbing in this house. This revelation took place when I was trying to hook up a clawfoot tub shower conversion kit to the showerless tub in the primary bathroom. This task was an utter failure as a result of the ancient steel pipes being ornery and too tight to the tub for any wiggle room at all. And besides, the water pressure sucked (shocker) since typically 100 year old steel pipes are so corroded that the inside looks like a bad medical condition.

So my hand was forced- I had to replumb the house. That began at 9:00 AM yesterday. It ended at 11:45 PM with several significant cuts but otherwise complete success. The irony. I paid a professional plumber $700 to do a repair on my boiler that makes changing the oil in my car look complicated. I retaliated by ripping out every inch of plumbing in the house and replacing it with over 120 feet of new copper pipe in a single day. Cost of materials: approx. $450. Something is wrong with this picture...

Anyway, everything's working now. There were a couple dicey moments - like when I was trying to put a new valve on at the service entrance and I realized the first pipe connected after the old shutoff valve was cracked and leaking. It had to go. But I couldn't shut off the old valve completely because it, like many 100 year old plumbing fixtures, didn't really work any more. It was impossible to unscrew the old pipe because it was basically fused to the fixture, and I was afraid if I worked it too hard I'd either break the fixture, or worse, crack the soft lead water main to which it was attached.

I ended up having to cut the cracked pipe out from inside the old valve with a titanium carbide cutting bit. But if I had damaged the threads on the valve while doing this, I'd have been competely screwed since I wouldn't be able to attach a new pipe to it then. Once you mess up the only thing standing between you and thousands of gallons of high pressure water, there's nothing left to do but cry, or simply run fast and far.

Anyway, overall it wasn't as bad as what I had to do at House #1. And when I turned on the water, for once, there were NO waterfalls! Every time I've done a plumbing project in the past I somehow failed to flux ONE joint, which means it doesn't hold under any sort of pressure. And it always seems to be the one in the really hard to reach area. This is incredibly depressing because you then have to drain the system again to fix it. But this time I finally got it right on the first try.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Comcast: You Can Blow Me

My last bill for the suite of services that I could almost certainly live just fine without - that is, cable television, internet, and my "land line," or IP phone, was $245.

That makes it officially the biggest single bill that I have ever received at my house, including gas in the dead of winter last year, despite having a house with windows that are older than Methuselah, a front door that seals so badly that I can clearly see the street when it's closed (and no, it has no windows), and no insulation.

Okay, technically it's three bills. But if you take out the phone ($40 a month, which I've been too lazy to cancel) and the internet ($35 a month, well worth it) we're still talking $170 a month for cable television.

ARE YOU F@&#($&*!ING INSANE?? I don't even have the full-on package! I've got HBO and Skinemax. That's all. Oh yeah, and I have such "services" as HDTV and DVR which used to be basically free. In six months there won't even be any non-HDTV, it's going the way of the dodo. The "teaser" price for this exact same set of services -- my first bill about 18 months ago -- was $105. In the intervening months, the price has gone up incrementally. I mutely accepted that, like a frog in a pot of water slowly coming to a boil. But last month, it went from the already outrageous $205 to $245. WTF? I haven't been paying the teaser rate for nearly a year now, so that's not it.

A regression analysis of the incredibly complex bill revealed that the rate for Skinemax and HBO was now $36 per month (up from $22) and the rate for my DVR service was $15.95 a month (up from $4.95 when this all began). The remainder I assume is bured among the various "screw you" fees.

Wow. That's a pretty big jump for one month. And frankly, no television is worth $170 a month. That's more than 5 bucks a day for Reno 911 and Alien versus Predator at 2 AM.

Comcast must have forgotten something very important.

YOU HAVE COMPETITION. Oh yeah, and it's a recession. When times get tough, ridiculously expensive luxuries like cable TV are the first things on the chopping block. Brilliant thinking - now that people are watching their spending, let's just jack the prices about 40 bucks for no good reason! Everyone else who didn't get their business degree from a cereal box is doing just the opposite- offering crazy deals to try to get their piece of the approximately seventeen dollars that the entire population the United States is willing to spend this year.

The resolution: DirectTV is being installed in two weeks. Their full-on package is $110 a month AFTER their teaser expires, and that includes about everything under the sun. Coincidentally, Verizon just mailed me an offer for their crappy DSL internet service for $9.99 a month for a year. So I'm going to get more channels and functional (if old-timey) internet service for exactly half the price of Comcast.

This Blog Is Not Dead

I'm just sayin'. Or at least, maybe if I keep sayin' it will be true. I've been busy as shit. But I think I will have a chance to come up for air soon. This time it's just work. I would honestly love nothing more than to be able to swing a hammer for a couple days and get some stuff done at one of the homesteads.

In the meantime, let us all rejoice at this news. For one week in January, as the first (openly) black man becomes the leader of the free world, the residents of Washington, DC will be able to booze at the bars until 5 AM.

Well, legally, anyway. Since most DC kids who enjoy savoring the wee hours have been doing that on the down low for decades at their favorite watering holes.

Just sayin'.