CHOOSING CONTRACTORS: WHAT TO KNOW AND WHEN TO RUN

 

First of all, let me just say that ninety-nine per cent of contractors are brave, kind, thrifty, loyal and obedient and they help little old ladies cross the street…for a small fee. of course. Who knows? Some of them may even wash behind their ears, too. That said, let’s talk about the remaining one percent. These are the contractors I’ve worked with and I want you to learn from my mistakes.

I’m actually starting to think that some of these guys may be living in a parallel universe. They tell you they’re going to show up at ten o’clock in the morning and, in their world, they do. They just don’t live in the same world as we do. Just roll with the punches and please understand that in ex

From personal experience, I caution you to be beware of the landscaper who has a hard time distinguishing between a spade and a hoe. “Mr. Landscaper, can you tell me when a good time to plant Hydrangeas is?” The answer I was definitely not prepared for was, “Oh, right now. Don’t wait. I know it’s only twenty degrees outside but my mortgage is due. Let’s put those suckers in the ground.”

The red flag also needs to be raised when you see a guy who claims he can do it all. I know that in this economy, it’s important to wear several hats but I’m always leery of the guy whose truck reads, “Roofing, Siding, Plumbing, Snow Removal, Electrical, Excavating, Transmission work, Website design and Taxidermy. Please, for the love of God, pick one or two and, for the record, taxidermy and plumbing is not a recommended combination.

Don’t be afraid to ask your contractor some key questions. “Are you insured,” should be at the top of the list.  Do not settle for, “I’m pretty sure,” “Let me get back to you on that,” or “Can you spell that for me?” If you receive any of these answers, all you can do is thank them for their time and remind them that they’re drooling on their Got Brains? tee shirt.

Do you guarantee your work? It’s a great question to ask. The last time I asked that question of a contractor, his response was, “Hey, I guarantee that youse are gonna give me Five-Hundred big ones when I finish, Youse know what I’m talking?” Threatening the client hardly ever works. It did with me, but only because sleeping with the mackerel is not really how I envisioned going out. A simple answer of “Yes, of course I guarantee my work,” and the terms of the guarantee is all that’s really necessary.

You can’t make this stuff up and with that comes a story about the painter whom I should have been suspicious of right from the beginning when I noticed that he wasn’t wearing the requisite crisp, white painter pants. It’s the law, much like electricians must wear a tool belt with the black tape dangling off to the side. For whatever reason, this guy decided to paint AROUND the shrubbery in front of the house. This, you should know, made my house a tourist attraction for which I charged big bucks to see. If they wanted to just stop the car and gawk, it was fifty cents. If they felt the need to get out and take a closer look, it was a dollar.

Beware the contractor who wants to sell you the world. Some of them are notorious for wanting to sell you more than you need. “You’re going to need a new roof, Mr. Miller. There’s no doubt about that.” Some are exceptional at their little spiel. In fact, I’ve witnessed a few that were so good they almost had me convinced that not only did I need a roof but a helicopter pad as well. How good are they? Some of them must take lessons from these college kids who come by selling magazine subscriptions. Oh, the guilt! “Mr. if you don’t buy from me, then you, and you alone, will be responsible for me not winning the trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming with a stop to see the world’s Biggest Ball of Yarn in Ames, Iowa.” Most of us simply can’t handle that kind of pressure, which is why I currently have a two-year subscription to both Knitters Monthly as well as The Anvil (The only publication Blacksmiths need.)

So, tread lightly consumers. Times are tough. Don’t make any snap decisions. Take your time before signing on the dotted line and, most important, ask yourself, “Do I really need that helicopter pad?”

BIRTHDAYS: BAD FOR BUSINESS?

So, it looks like the days of having a glorious career and then collecting your gold watch at a special luncheon held in your honor in the break room are over. It all culminates with a few heartfelt slaps on the back after that delicacy known as delivered pizza is gone. Retirement has taken on a whole new meaning in the last decade. As a matter of fact, I checked Wikipedia and their definition of the word ‘retirement,’ now looks like this:  retirement (ri tir’ment) n. no longer applicable, outdated, antiquated. A nice idea once, but no more.

Economists and prognosticators say that people have to work well beyond typical retirement age just to be able to sustain themselves and their families. Then, the bigger question might be why on Earth do companies look to shelve people who are in their mid-fifties? Once you reach a certain age do you automatically become a liability? What’s the logic in that? Do they feel that you’re more prone to illness thus causing their insurance premiums to rise? Do they feel that the number of birthdays you have is inversely proportional to your productivity scale? Is it the infamous ‘Half/Half/Half’ syndrome where they bring in someone half your age to do half the job you’ve been doing for half the salary?

Let’s use the example of Jim. Now, of course, the name has been changed to protect his true identity, which is James. Jim has gotten up early every morning for the past thirty years to make donut holes. He was good at it, too, really good. Jim might have been the best donut hole maker in the entire state. He could make donut holes that would have you believing that you’re actually eating something good for you. It was with blissful delight that he hopped on that bus every morning. He loved the fact that he could eat while working and then rub these as yet scientifically unknown sugary substances on his apron without getting yelled at. Then, came the big mistake: Jim announced that he was turning fifty-five. With that one seemingly innocuous proclamation, his world would soon be turned upside down. A short time later, Jim was asked to remove his apron and turn in his key. He also had to sign a sworn, notarized statement that he would never, ever reveal the secret ingredient in donut holes. He then grabbed his autographed picture of Mickey Turdowski, Head Chef and owner of The Cows Udder End, and found himself being escorted from the premises.  Why? One too many birthdays.

Jim was replaced almost immediately by a young woman named Deshaniqua whose only experience with quasi food was a server for six weeks at Denny’s. She ended up leaving that job because as she so eloquently put it, “The people were mean and made me wash my hands.” By the way, this is something you might want to keep in mind before running off to World of Donut Holes.

Jim became bitter, angry, confused and lost without his apron. With each passing day, his spirits dimmed, his hopes faded and his disillusionment grew. We caught up with him in his modest half bedroom basement apartment where he told us that he still feels like he’s “at the top of his game.” He is confident that his skills have not eroded. He says with conviction that he could still add a few more Golden Blender Awards to his mantel if given the chance. For the purposes of full disclosure, we looked around and never saw a mantel. In fairness, perhaps he was talking about his card table.  He told us that birthdays should convey experience and pride and not something that anyone should have to hide from an employer. In the meantime, however, he has a message for managers everywhere:  “Don’t sell experience short. If these stupid jerks want to put out a good product, there is no substitute for knowledge and dependability.” Then we detected some slight agitation from Jim as he started throwing cans of Schaeffer beer. Protecting our heads, we made a bee line for the door but not before we heard him yell, “Santa’s old too, ya know, and he still gets it done. In fact, you invite him back every year to break into your house. What’s up? Hey, come on back. I’ll tell you the secret ingredient.”

COME ON IN, THE WATER’S…UM, FREEZING!

 

If you have been following the goings on of the Hudson Valley chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, you already know that every February brings another round of the Subzero Heroes Ice Jump at Berean Lake in Highland, NY. Why do we take the plunge into open waters in upstate New York in the middle of the winter?  Because we’re deeply disturbed individuals, but also because we hate Alzheimer’s.

During my radio career, I’ve been peed on by a circus elephant (which is only slightly preferable to being stepped on by a circus elephant), I’ve been body-slammed by a professional wrestler who called himself The Masked Assassin and I’ve had my head shaved in a bar following a stupid football bet. But, this thing is REALLY NUTS!  Count me in, however, because after witnessing firsthand how Alzheimer’s strips away one’s pride and sense of self and so whittles away at the brain that eventually one forgets how to eat or even in some cases  has no remembrance at all of the Chicago Cubs monumental collapse of 1969. I’m for anything that can raise awareness, even if that involves a little shrinkage.

When my father-in-law, Salvatore, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, he was given a clock by the technician and told to move the hands to show the Three O’clock position. Frustrated at not being able to do so, he felt the need to urinate in her flowerpot, thus effectively ending the life of four innocent African Violets who just happened to be in the wrong pot at the wrong time.

The date is Saturday, February 8th and all the information you’ll need is at http://www.subzeroheroes.org. This is the 10th year of the jump and it’s grown into a major fundraiser for The Alzheimer’s Association. Here’s an exclamation point as to the importance of all this: Every 67 seconds, someone in this country is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  I’m sure that Sal who passed from the ravages of this disease 12 years ago, will be viewing this spectacle from his luxury box in the sky saying, “Get some clothes on, you morons!”

I should mention that you don’t actually have to ‘take the leap,’ to assist. You may choose to stay nice and warm on the shore and volunteer. The word we use to describe this group of people is ’Sissies.” No, wait, I’m sorry…I meant ’Sidekicks.’ Yes, that’s it.  In the ice-jumping vernacular, “Heroes” are the jumpers and ’Sidekicks’ are the known as the sane ones.

To help me prepare for this jump every year, I enjoy speaking with a man named Nathan Numb, who happens to be a high ranking member of the Cook County, Illinois Polar Bear Club who run into Lake Michigan every New Year’s Day. He tells me that the second best way to prepare for this jump is too slather your entire body with Vaseline and the absolute best way to prepare is to consume mass quantities of Jack Daniel’s beforehand. Personally, I have been practicing by sleeping in the fridge on alternate nights. I also take an occasional cold shower and, of course, perform the obligatory Hanes Boxer snow shoveling, an event that I trust will soon be a part of every Winter Olympiad.

Psychologists have a term for people who do things like this and I think that term is: mentally unbalanced. Oh, sure, like they’ve never taken a butt naked leap off the pier at the stroke of midnight with champagne bottles in hand to celebrate Sigmund Freud’s birthday. Give me a break.

Remember the date: Saturday, February 8th at Berean Lake in Highland, NY. Again, get all the information on how you can help us find the 1st Alzheimer’s survivor at http://www.subzeroheroes.org. Salvatore gave me some sage advice before Alzheimer’s completely swallowed up his brain and that was, “If you’re going to do something, do it right and try not to screw it up. Now get a haircut!’ We love you, Sal. See you at the lake.

 

 

GENTLEMEN, LOCK UP YOUR UNDIES

 

I know we’ve discussed gym etiquette before in terms of prancing around in your birthday suit as if you were auditioning for a part on Glee, but this is different…and disturbing.

My friend, Ronnie, was just getting out of the shower at Biceps and Bulges, a local gym in Deerfield, Illinois. As he was making his way back to the locker to get dressed, he made a brief stop in front of his best friend, Mr. Mirror, no doubt to admire the results of yet another boot camp type workout, which I’m sure consisted of two minutes on the elliptical followed by fifteen rigorous minutes in the tanning booth. Satisfied with what he saw, he continued on his way. As he reached in his gym bag for his Fruit of The Loom briefs, they were nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, gym bags can look an awful lot alike and it was then that he made the horrible discovery: an elderly man, who was getting dressed next to him was wearing HIS UNDERWEAR! Forget the fact that he had his name written on them with a Sharpie (Ronnie was a Boy Scout and, well, some things stay with you forever).

Ronnie turned ashen and his knees felt weak.  He sat down on the bench to collect his thoughts. He had three options.

Option #1: Tell the old man that he was wearing the wrong underwear

Option #2:  Wear the other guy’s underwear

Option #3: Call it a loss and go home commando.

Ronnie chose option #3 and I applauded him for that choice

Complicating the issue was the fact that Ronnie considered this his (IT) lucky pair. Yes, you read correctly, Ronnie actually has a (IT) lucky pair of underwear. And he wonders why he can never get a date? He told me that he wore this particular pair of underwear when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, when the police officer told him he was free to go and, then last summer when he claimed to have grilled the world’s perfect hot dog. Yes, you would be correct: Ronnie is a nutjob.

My friend is totally beside himself. He feels lost with nowhere to turn. I tried to console him by telling him that if problems with his underwear are his biggest concerns in life, then he really has no problems at all. It didn’t help. When a child’s goldfish goes belly up, you, as a parent do the proper thing: You go to a carnival, try to knock down a stupid metal duck moving sixty miles per hour with a nerf ball, then finally give up and just hand the booth operator a twenty and tell him to give you a goldfish…or else.  I did the same thing here. I went to Kohl’s with my trusty coupon in hand and started underwear shopping. I was looking for something he would feel comfortable wearing, namely a waistband that would stand up after several washings as well as a pair that didn’t require a lot of room in front. Because underwear is packed much like gum, meaning you can’t buy just one piece, I settled on a three for ten-dollar deal, shipped them off to Illinois and am waiting to hear from Ron. Just for the record, this will be the ONLY time ever that I will have a conversation with another man about how his undergarments fit.

Complicating matters further, Ronnie is convinced that the old man, now in possession of his lucky pair of underwear, will suddenly have an incredible run of good luck himself like winning the lottery or waking up in the morning and discovering that his varicose veins have vanished.

Another concern, according to Ronnie, is whether or not he will be able to muster the courage to ever go back to the gym. He’s having nightmares about getting on a treadmill next to this guy and having him say, “Hey, young fella, sorry I took your skivvies by mistake, but they sure are comfy.”

So, men, take it from Ronnie. Lock up your gym bag at all times. Leaving it on the floor can only lead to trouble and embarrassment as well as that slight breezy feeling while leaving the building.

IF THERE’S ANYTHING I CAN DO…

 

It seems like almost the perfect sentence doesn’t it?  “If there’s anything I can do, just call.”  It shows the other person that you care enough to help, accompanied with the relative security that they will never take you up on it.  You look like a true friend, a hero, if you will, and you never have to left a single finger. It’s brilliant, actually.

Tread lightly, my friend.  I’m here to tell you that it will occasionally backfire and when it does, you’re, um, what’s the word I’m looking for?  Oh yeah, ‘SCREWED!

A close friend of mine, whom I no longer like, Benjamin called to say that he had to go to Florida on a family matter. I finished the conversation wishing him the best of luck.  A few hours later, (translation:  a few beers later) I called him back and left a message saying, “Hey Benjamin, if you need a ride to the airport, let me know.” See?  I was the hero and never thought I’d have to do anything but put my feet up on the stool and watch the game.  And just how many others do you think offered up their services?  Correct: Nobody!

The next day, after totally forgetting about my extremely shallow offer, guess who I got a call from?  That’s right: Benjamin. “Hey. Bob, thanks for the offer.” Oh crap! After a nervous gulp followed by heart palpitations and some rampant sweating about the forehead and nostrils,  I said,  “Um, no problem, Benjamin. You don’t really need me to do anything, do you?  “Actually, we could use a ride to the airport,” he told me.  Double Crap!  I asked, ‘Where are you leaving from?” “We’re going out of Newark, Bob.” Triple crap! Thoughts of possible excuses poured through my head, like:

  • I woke up with the measles.
  • I went bowling last night and got gangrene from the shoes.
  • I have a final exam in my basket-weaving class.

Newark’s a four hour round trip! I had big plans, damnit!  Laundry, clean litter boxes, watch games, drink beer. Now the whole day is shot!  But, hey, I’m the one with the BIG MOUTH! Let’s just suck it up and get this thing done.

So, you see what happens when you try to be a nice guy and make a thoroughly disingenuous offer?  Sometimes, you have to pay up.  Next time I’m going to be like that guy with the bumper sticker that reads, “YES, THIS IS MY TRUCK. NO, I WILL NOT HELP YOU MOVE.  But, of course I can’t do that. Why? Because I‘m as nice guy, if not somewhat naïve.  I’ll just simply say, “Hey, if you need anything, just let me know. But, if you DO call me, I’ll pretend I don’t know you and hang up. Good luck.

 

 

 

DOLLARS TO ASHES

 

As you may already know, sending loved ones off to their eternal sleep does not come without a heavenly price tag, a fact we sadly discovered when we buried my father in law, Salvatore’s ashes recently. Wow! After the last penny left our hands, we were left shaken and numb. I knew this was going to be an expensive proposition and tried to maintain some sense of decorum. I kept telling myself over and over, ‘It’s for Sal, It’s for Sal. It’ll be okay.’ I figured I’d just have to forego a beer and a hot dog at Yankee Stadium next season. No big deal.

Complicating matters was the fact that I had somehow managed to forget that my dear, sweet mother-in-law, Sylvia, was resting comfortably on the back shelf of our broom closet waiting for Sal to, um, join her four feet underground.

Sal bought a plot for his entire family several years ago. He was obsessed with it. He constantly needed to make sure that everything was fine and they someday they would all be sharing the same common ground (so to speak). It was every bit as important to him as it was to always carry an umbrella, flares and a bicycle pump in the trunk of his car. He said this would come in handy whenever he spotted a cyclist out in the pouring rain with a flat tire. For the man who would ride Metro North trains with the sole purpose of finding loose change on the seats, the cost of this entire process would have him rolling over in his urn.

At Sleepy Hollow, we met with a woman named Anne Schmidt.  From our observation, she was a prim and proper woman in her mid sixty’s who probably enjoyed a good Guinness from time to time, but would never publicly admit that.  She proceeded to inform us of the available various pricing schedules at Sleepy Hollow. As it turned out, there was an extra fee if we wanted to bury their ashes after eleven o’clock in the morning on Saturdays. Mondays, we were told, would be much less expensive. It’s all about volume and supply and demand, I guess. Actually, it’s kind of like happy hours in the bars. If they offered reduced prices between nine and noon every day, all we would have would be a bunch of drunk people walking around hammered before noon. This would bring our nationwide productivity to a screeching halt, much like our everyday congress.

“Now, as far as the cost of the two holes,” Ms. Schmidt said before taking a brief pause, presumably to allow me more time to grind my teeth a little harder and also to sink in my chair and dig my fingernails a tad deeper into my scalp. She continued, “The cost of Sal’s hole is $400.00 but we can give you a break on Sylvia’s hole.” “Why is that?”, I asked. “Is it because she’s been waiting patiently for seven years in the back of our closet for her husband to join her?”

Sensing that the price tag would continue to grow like a freshly watered Chia pet, I asked why Sal and Sylvia couldn’t be buried in the same hole? After all, they slept together in the same bed for years. “Oh no,” she said. “The Health Department would definitely frown on that.”  “Okay, so we’re doing a second hole, right? How much will that be?”  Anne told us the second hole would be $250.00. “The person who does the digging makes really nice holes. He’s been doing the same thing for twenty years. My goodness, you would be proud to crawl in there yourself,” she said emphatically. “Good, because the last thing we want to do is pay inflated prices for an inferior friggin’ hole,” I shot back. It was here, that Michele, ever the calm spouse, told me to please take a deep breath lest my eyeballs leap out of my head. If they had, I’m sure there would have been a special ‘clean up’ fee attached.

Michele mentioned that we would be getting a footstone for the plot as well. Mrs. Schmidt took a sip of her tea before informing us about the minor little detail called the ‘foundation fee.’ “What, pray tell, is a ‘foundation fee?”, I asked. “By the way, Mrs. Schmidt, you should know that my teeth are getting worn down to the nub with every second I sit here and if this takes much longer my gums will start spewing blood. Please hurry.”  The foundation fee of $300.00 is what they charge to place a stone on the actual plot. I asked why on Earth we would need to pay to lay a stone on the ground of a plot that was paid for years ago. “Because, sir, it says so right here on page four of our agreement.” Oh, well, it’s hard to argue with logic like that.

Let’s not forget about the cost of the actual stone itself ($400.00) And, c’mon, what good would a footstone be without the engraving ($400.00) and, seriously, how is the engraved footstone supposed to get to the cemetery plot? Can you say ‘transportation fee’? ($150.00). Yes, that poor, delicate, little stone would have to endure the arduous 2 mile trip all the way from Tarrytown to Sleepy Hollow!

Admittedly, we would have saved a few bucks if we had put a shovel in our trunk and dug the holes ourselves, maybe placed the remains in an old Folgers coffee can and held the ceremony at six o’clock in the morning on Monday, and Sal would have been fine with that. But, you know, for the man who worked, scrimped and saved for his family all his life, this seemed like an appropriate send off.

 

But, hey, good news, Sal: You’ll be very happy to know that the guy who did the engraving knew you as an Ossining cop. He was so grateful that you never arrested him for drag racing on Route 9 that he threw in all the vowels for free.

 

 

S

THE LEGEND OF ERNIE

During times of neighborhood trauma or emergency, such as flooding, as was the case here, equipment and generators are being put to use throughout the area. In some cases, you don’t get them back, not from any ill intent on the part of your neighborhood brethren, but just from the sheer volume of tools being shared and distributed. Sometimes this causes anal retentive men to throw tantrums, cry and scream uncontrollably and plot ways to burn houses down. Such was the case with my dear ol’ dad and neighbor Dick Schmidt. During my childhood, we had a major flood in the chicagoland area and the generators and the electrical cords were flying around like inhalers at Comic Con. The problem is trying to collect what is rightfully yours when the drama finally ends.

Six months later…

Mr. Schmidt was making a cabinet in his garage and motioned my father over to have a look. It is at that point that my father noticed HIS extension cord hanging neatly on the wall. You’re thinking all extension cords look alike. How could you tell the difference? Dad could tell because it had his initials stamped on it. This man labeled everything. He would buy underwear (from Sears Roebuck, of course) and race home and stencil little RDM’s (initialize) all over the crotch and the band. I assume he did this just in case he was ever approached by someone at gunpoint saying, “Okay, mister, off with the BVD’s…NOW!” Dad was also in the habit of naming his tools. This particular extension cord was named Ernie. Why? For Ernie Banks, of course, silly. Ernie was the Chicago Cubs hall of famer who was reliable, dependable and never broke down. Nevermind that Dick Schmidt was a carpenter and had almost as many extension cords as he had empty Old Style bottles, my dear father was incensed at seeing HIS extension cord hanging in Dick’s garage. But, rather than say, “Hey, Dick, look at that. This must have ended up with you after the flood,” he just stewed…and stewed. Like weeds to a garden, word spread quickly throughout the neighborhood that Schmidt was holding ‘Ernie’ hostage. My father became so enraged and let it fester to the point where we actually ended up moving. He claimed it was because my mother wanted a bigger backyard but we all know the real reason: that thieving, good for nothing, Dick Schmidt.

Twenty years later…

I’m in contact with Glenn Johnson, a boyhood friend, who still lives in the neighborhood. He called me to say that he was visiting his brother-in-law, in Portland, Oregon, and his eyeballs practically fell out of his head when he discovered my father’s extension cord at a garage sale! It was beat up, ratty and frayed AND it had the initials ‘RDM’ right there by the plug. Glenn wondered how it could have possibly ended up twenty five hundred miles away and how is could still even work? He bought it for fifty cents. I asked him to mail it to me and, after an extremely long pause, said, “No. I’m sorry. I can’t do that. It should really be displayed somewhere where all the dignitaries and important people can see it. I’m donating it to the Moose Lodge. If this thing could talk, imagine the stories it would tell, Bob.” “Then why did you even tell me you found Ernie if you’re not going to return him to me?”, I asked. With that, he reminded me that I just referred to an extension cord as a real, live person and that maybe I, like my dad, needed therapy. “This is the stuff legends are made of, man. To this day, realtors show both houses and bring up the big ‘Ernie’ feud. It’s incredible.”

So, after all these years, Ernie lives, so to speak, although the chances of my ever seeing him again are slim, unless I make a trip back to Illinois and visit the Moose Lodge on nickel beer night and steal it while everyone is captivated by Miss Sara doing her Karaoke rendition of Weekend in New England.

So, I caution all of you to take care of your stuff and lock it up, Stencil it if you must, but please try to resist the temptation to name it, lest you develop a reputation for being, um, weird. And, one other thing: Friends like Glenn you don’t need.