Sunday, October 27, 2019

On Con Artists and Modern Shell Games

By Doug Vehle
For The Daily Bosco

My best illustration of a con man, which I would guess is what I'm feeling sore about right now, is not from my career that brought so many of them into my life but a plumber I brought to do a simple job at my house. I suppose a lot of people will say 'Oh yeah, PLUMBERS!; as they roll their eyes, but I haven't had much trouble with them. In this case I called a certain "Smell Good" plumber, if we don't clear the draw it's free, etc. Well, they told the truth about THAT anyway. Meaning they didn't clear the drain.

My sewer main was a bit slow, what with that giant eucalyptus I've written of in the past getting roots in it. I have a clean out, I can monitor it and keep it going pretty well, but about 2 years ago I decided I should get the roots out of the way before a serious problem hit. Here this guy shows up and only ran his rooter in about 20 feet before he's announcing he's stuck and can't go any farther. He was not impressed when I pointed out to him I'd already run my hose 50 feet in to hit the problem and there's nothing there to stop him at 20 feet. But then he pulled it out and showed me that there was NOTHING at the end of his cutter, which proved. . . .

Well, I pointed out to him that it REALLY proved he wasn't trying and hadn't hit anything. Strangely enough, he just kept going. Said he wanted to do a 'Pressure clean' for $1,500. I pointed out I had old clay pipe and that wasn't a good idea. He went on about a video inspection of the line and $7,000 to reline it. l asked him: "Do you REALLY believe you can turn a simple thing into a $10,000 job?" He continued to seem oblivious to me until he's holding out paperwork trying to sell me on the scam and I just looked at him and wouldn't take it. I wonder if he ever even noticed that the line was actually pretty empty, not backed up with water, when he set out to dupe me into this. If it drains, why would I spend the $10,000? Because he WANTED IT. These people convince themselves of the screwiest things, then shut out thoughts that are too reasonable. Not a good thing to be dwelling on when working in my yard on Sunday, I'm supposed to be relaxing, right? But the thoughts keep coming, a real knock in the teeth. Not just figuratively.

I never asked to be a freelancer, over 150 employers and counting. I was really looking for the stable job they kept refusing to give me. I got my first serious warning when I was just out of college and looking for a job at KEZY 1190AM in Anaheim. On the air they'd talk about the engineer "Rock-O," here I was interviewing with him. The FCC used to have broadcast operator licenses, and I had one. People ask if having these things get you more money, I have to say they mostly get you more abuse. People start wanting you to show up unpaid and sign off on things or them. Then get real angry that you dare tell them no.

Rock-O was claiming to be talking to me about a full time job overnight, but I find myself covering shifts when people don't show up and he calls at the last minute. I made the point it him about WHERE IS THE REAL JOB WE WERE TALKING ABOUT? And suddenly he's calling again past midnight. I had much family coming to live with me at the time, Dad died just after I started college and Mom moved away, Guess who would come home to find yet another older sister with kids had moved in while I was working? Won't take a message or even look for me in the house during the day, but they'll wake me up in the middle of the night and refuse to go back to bed and just leave the phone off the hook.

Ah well, I really did want to yell at, maybe his name really WAS Rocco, I don't know. And I told him to forget it, we were talking about a full time job and I had said no to covering shifts as I already had too many of these popup jobs with the shady operators. Obviously all he'd been interested in was a way to string me along and keep me waiting for the full time job that would never come. Typical conman, only cares about what he wants that minute "Full time? Want to start tonight?"

"I want you to burn in hell and never call me again, Rock-O." At that time, one of my many popup jobs was in marketing communications at a small insurance job. Doing parttime what they might have several people doing full time at a bigger company. The founder and president had a speaking engagement I think weeks before I'm getting rid of this conman where he stressed the importance of 'Not burning your bridges' to college students. But what if it's the other party burning the bridge? What risks would YOU take to save the bridge and give them the chance to burn you again?

When I worked in local cable we'd be selling commercial airtime on channels such as CNN, ESPN, etc. And to the local businessmen our avails that had aired his commercials were not something we could come to his business and repossess, so there were problems with some of them paying. One booked a huge about of airtime on a number of cable systems then immediately declared bankruptcy. Much I could try to explain about the materials I wrote for the insurance company about the customer who tries to get out of making his payments on his insurance but demands to be paid off when he burns his business himself. Including one who was caught in the act. Ah, con men.

Some of the worst were city employees, who I remind you were often using a loophole to give themselves raises of perhaps $10,000 a year or more. And that was widespread. But then they wanted people coming in and putting together productions for their city cable channel unpaid. I remember the fool with the City of Burbank who came into a facility I worked at and offered $40 each for their productions, whether it cost that much or not. I told him I'd give him $50 each for all the city vehicles. The amazing thing is he left thinking he could continue discussing his fool offer with me, I heard more from him over several weeks. Why was the city even employing this nut?

Or the message on my answering machine from the City of West Covina maybe 16 years ago that some woman had told them I should be able to run their old, long out of date equipment. What little I learned from them made me think they'd shut down the city cable and were wanting to bring it back. They didn't say who the woman was, but I wanted to thank her, right? Wish I'd never bothered to drive up there.

You won't know what I mean when I say Sony Type 5 decks with parallel interfaces. Neither did college students. Type 5? Parallel interfaces? What's a 'Deck?' Long out of date. But I'm sure they tried to dupe college kids into working unpaid, that was the great fantasy of the cities in the days of those cable channels. The only people who could make use of these things were the veterans who had been around long enough to have used the equipment you see in the movie 'Tape Heads,' (They weren't making that equipment anymore when that movie came out) but who've been successful enough to stick around since then. People who were not going to work for the pocket change people at this city decided they wanted to pay. But they wanted it, that was all that mattered to them.

But city employees are mostly con artists. I arrived in the personnel office to a barrage of abuse, obviously they'd planned ahead about beating applicants into submission. But you're dealing with Doug, here. Not only had I not even applied yet, you see from my example with Rock-O I find no purpose in weathering fools that are trying to stand in the way of my making a living. And the City of West Covina was trying to browbeat me into taking a job not worth taking.

So the obnoxious woman ran off with her tail between her legs, for some reason I hadn't already just given up and left. I guess I just read a little more about the job out of curiosity. So when she got the even more obnoxious man over I was still there to not want to talk to him but feel a little stuck at trying to be polite to yet another one of them who was not. Then HE ran off with his tail between his legs. I mean the spaded tail like the devil has. And the woman started getting upset because I was leaving without the application. Yeah, they weren't going to be able to fill that job. They didn't deserve to.

But if I managed over 150 paying jobs they couldn't have ALL been crooked, right? Even some of the paying were unsavory lots, as well as I should be saying maybe 200 paying jobs if in fact they'd all paid off. When I was talking about freelance work and they started about not wanting to pay, (No explanation of why they thought THAT was going to work) I learned to start talking about them paying me on retainer, or paying in full in advance, before I'd even start. If you didn't want to do that, you shouldn't have convinced me you couldn't be trusted to pay me. They seem to expect that to be treated as some sort of valid negotiating ploy.

But when it's supposed to be a full time job, a normal payroll, it's so easy to lull yourself into believing it's going to be okay. The guy asks "If you DO work here, how will you live?" Seriously, I would come to realize it was time to get up and leave, don't even bother answering his question. But on this one day I simply responded with the obvious: On my paycheck. So his voice was instantly strained and trembling, his eyes looked desperate. Again, it's just time to leave before he even said "Not really, it's not that much."

And I reminded him: "You said 'If I work here.' And if I DO work here it WILL be that much." I've never seen eyes turn so red so quickly. l knew, I already knew this was a waste of time and should have just stood up and left, but there was a little more mundane talk before it was over and I went home expecting I'd never hear from him again. If you see a cat trying to stalk a mouse, that cat is not going to change it's mind and make the mouse his little buddy. Neither will the con artist change his mind about killing and eating you. That's all he cares about.

So it was a shock to have the job offer come. And I'm thinking I know better than to bother going up there again. Something will go bad, the sensible thing is to stay away no matter how bad I need the job at the moment. So it's the day we were told was going to be the first payday. We're working in a ramshackle studio like a number I've dealt with before but never on a GOOD job, knocking out a busy schedule of prerecorded talk shows for a wannabee cable network. The boss comes in suddenly wanting to talk. As I always say, a con artist is someone who has nothing to offer except for his/her 'Little story.' Now this guy who keeps trying to act messianic has a story for us. I didn't need to hear it to know it would be bad, and he delivered on expectations when he said "I decided you're all working unpaid until we get the network running. . . ." All I needed to hear before I start telling others goodbye.

Which gets the loser yelling that he's not done yet. I tell him he needs to shut up while we're bidding one another adieu. Like those business owners who thought they just didn't have to pay for the commercial airtime, this guy was just another of a long string of scammers who tell themselves that if they can just screw enough people he'll make it big. There was an exit from the building in the studio but the set was blocking it, so I went to the stairs which he attempted to block but of course, he was dealing with Doug at the moment and found himself moved out of the way. In the time it took for me to go up the stairs, down the hall, then exit the building from the room with the other set of stairs, the others had began to come through the studio door, after doing whatever damage to the set to get through. I could still hear that nut in there yelling, which was giving them a good laugh. I mentioned the one great relief was at least I didn't have to show up for work around HIM any more. (I would see no sign the new network ever got on 'The Bird.')

And I was the only one not laughing. They seemed to think it funny, my visible angst. Me, the only industry veteran in the group, the one with the history of doing the job just fine when I can get it. The rest were mostly 25-30 and never had much of a job, with a few older trying to make a career change. Less than 2 years of community college and literally no experience at this, living with their parents, supported by their spouses, whatever. Why were they so at ease when I was the only one going to my own house, driving a near new car and was highly stressed at the unfortunate turn of events? Maybe because I was the only one who realized just how inescapable these disasters were? Yet here again, I just stumbled right into one. How could anyone imagine there were any 'Bridges burned" in these situations?

How many more jobs did I turn down and then meet people who didn't turn them down and told me of it blowing up in their faces? So I at least got better at keeping myself away from such people as are setting me up. Never saw any one of those coworkers from the wannabee cable network on another job, I wonder if they got burned out by scammers quickly. Since I don't get to work full time, I just seem to stay in school. Beginning of this semester I had young students telling me of their summer internships, something I always warn them not to do if they're unpaid but they never listen. One wasn't where I expected him to be and his friends said he told them he "Reprioritized," which apparently meant these wonderful people who were taking advantage of him convinced him it was a waste of time and he quit school. A young lady told me of being the target for taking the rap for the boss who screwed something up that couldn't possibly be the interns fault, but she weathered the abuse as they all pretended to believe it. Too common. She started school but did not keep coming. They'd both been good students. Con artists bleed the life out of their victims, sometimes quickly.

And this was on my mind during some Sunday afternoon yard work. The drain was working better than 2 years earlier when the smell good plumber tried to scam me. Never did get it cleaned out. If I'd been ready to spend $10,000 on the house there were more important things to spend it on. And I do need to spend more than just $10,000 on it. There is much to remind me of scam artists when I might be leisurely working on my house.

So my dentist keeps trying to insist I grind my teeth at night. I tell him no, it's during the day. Such as when I'm dealing with scam artists. Or just thinking about them. I've learned to put something between my teeth when I know I'm going to clench so hard. Sometimes the frustration simply overwhelms me. But I knew something like a pen in my pocket could never be enough, not just because I've shattered so many. But finally the day I knew would come, I clenched so hard one of my front teeth snapped off. No, I take care of my teeth, it wasn't something that would have happened any way. It just gets so bad and I can't stop myself.

This from someone so well known for his calm under pressure when disaster strikes. I suppose I should think it good that's my only real meltdown during oh so many tales I could tell so much like what I already have. And I wonder why I stress so hard at my inability to get myself back in the middle of all that mess again.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

An Unexpected Flip In Auto Racing

By Doug Vehle, for the Daily Bosco 

With Indycar's first race over and Formula One is about to be, I just think of the chance to shock the world with the unexpected flip in a moribund series. Ten years ago the front row of the first Grand Prix was occupied by the brand new Brawn Team. Built on the leftovers of the none too successful effort Honda abandoned, Brawn collected eight wins and the championship; while it's closest competitor, Red Bull, collected their first six wins. With Brawn immediately becoming Mercedes, it was the beginning of ten years of domination by the former also rans. Pushing Ferrari to the middle and McLaren to the back of the pack. Another variation on 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'

So what brings such a sudden fall from grace in the racing world? Rarely has Williams contended in the Grand Prix for over a decade. The Roush and Childress teams win less in a decade than they used to in a year. It seems unthinkable to say it could happen to Penske in Indycar, but you never know.

Maybe we could ask Mario Andretti. He certainly endured a collapse of his Indycar career. Thanks to YouTube I was able to watch the beginning of the end of his heyday, the season opening race of 1970. So foreboding to have Al Unser starting alongside him. But Andretti was starting the season as he had the year before. The new car wasn't ready, so he was driving the old Hawk. That worked out well the previous year, Andretti's greatest Indycar season. He'd picked up his first win before finally getting the Lotus 64 'Wedge,' then stepped back into the Hawk when the Wedge was destroyed and won the Indy 500. By the end of the year Andretti had won half the 18 races. For the first race of 1970 the Hawk was renumbered '1' for the champion, who was the fastest qualifier.

And there was the '2' of Al Unser alongside him. The commentators were far more effusive of the winner of five events the previous year. Back then the race might air a week later, giving the television network the opportunity to have the announcers do their job AFTER the race. So 20/20 hindsight makes it possible that they successfully predicted the winner during the warmups. And after briefly leading the race early, the defending champion did give up the lead, but held close to the new leader for much of the race.

Then what happened? Well, you could say it all started some two years earlier. After two championships and a third lost in the last race of the season, the owner of Andretti's team decided to retire. Starting the season as his own owner, he soon gave it up to Andy Granatelli and STP. In that order. What must it have been like to work for Granatelli? You can see the 1969 Indy 500 on YouTube; there's Granatelli interfering with one of Andretti's pitstops and chief mechanic Clint Brawner intefering with Granatelli. All those wins didn't keep the situation from wearing thin. At the end of the season Brawner would depart the STP effort.

So for all the appearance of all is well with a fast qualifier in the season opener, there was trouble under the hood. That he fell out late in the race while running second might not seem like much of a warning. He did collect a pair of second place finishes in the next two races before getting into the new car for the Indy 500. And there is where many point the finger for the end of Andretti's spectacular five year reign.

It was certainly an odd matter that the defending champion found his way into the McNamara 500. In Germany an American exgreen beret was building Formula cars for the lesser classes, getting rave reviews as he did. Still a bit of a leap for Francis McNamara, a dillentante with a reportedly wealthy new wife, to be building the car for Indy's hottest driver. Many refer to the car as ugly.

I think if it as looking unfinished. Much like the under classes, the lower formula cars with much less detail to them, the initial McNamara design seems in need of some final parts installation. There was an extra late race pitstop, a fourth at a time when they were only making three stops in the Indy 500, so Andretti limped home sixth. And in the inaugural California 500 Andretti was gaining on Al Unser late in the race when the transmission failed. The expression 'Teething problems' has become attached to memories of the car. Thus is blame laid for Andretti failing after the previous five years to at least be in championship contention in the last race.

Not so fast. And I don't mean the car with that. Indeed, Andretti was the fast qualifier for the next race in Milwaukee driving the McNamara. This was followed by Andretti's only win for the season in Castle Rock and another fast qualifier in Indianapolis Raceway Park. We're now through more than half the six starts of the McNamara 500. By the time the McNamara was done for the year Andretti was still holding second in the points standings if I can recreate the old points system correctly. His seven starts in the venerable Hawk produced no wins and fewer points. Five starts in a Kingfish dirt car for that portion of the championship was similarly unproductive.

My own feelings go right back to the loss of Clint Brawner. The legendary mechanic made no bones that he'd had enough of Andy Granatelli and went off to build cars he called Scorpions. Art Pollard ran second in the California 500 with one and Roger McCluskey had three top three's. Anaheim Midget champion Jimmy Caruthers was ninth at Indy his rookie year. But it was a low budget effort.

Hard to say if Brawner could have made better progress with the McNamara cars. After the legendary "Thunk" Andretti went faster in the 1970 Indy 500. Could Brawner have knocked that part in place to begin with? In 1971 the McNamara 501 was also being called ugly. No idea why, I think it was great looking. The short lived Ford engine that emerged with the rear engined cars was being superseded by the resurging Offenhauser (But that's another story) and Andretti was left underpowered. He won his first Grand Prix start in a Ferrari early that year, Ferrari is said to have sent an engine mechanic to Indy to try to learn about putting a Ferrari Boxer engine into Andretti's Indycar, (Also another story) but that effort died off. As for what might have happened had Granatelli been willing to put an Offy in Andretti's McNamara, the world will never know.

What is known is that Andretti's career was never the same after the departure of Brawner and the alleged curse placed by Brawner's wife. In five years with Branwer, Andretti won 30 times, including 3 championships. He would win the USAC Silver Crown for the dirt track cars separated from Indycar racing, he would win the Grand Prix championship and the International Race of Champions series. He would even win another Indycar championship in his 15th year without Brawner. But he would never approach the domination he exerted for the stretch of 1965-69. In the remaining 25 years of Indycar racing without Brawner, Andretti would win fewer races than he did in five years with Brawner. It was as though in that early race pass, the torch was passed from Mario Andretti to Al Unser in that season opening Phoenix race of 1970.

For a time. Unser indeed won 15 races in a year and a half, twice at Indy. Imagine the excitement of being the manufacturer of the Johnny Lightning racing toys and your driver owns the biggest racing series in the world at the time. Even Unser's teammate picked up a win in his five starts in Johnny Lightning blue and yellow. But somewhere about the time that the sponsor Topper Toys was collapsing so was Unser's Indycar effort. Midseason. A huge point lead evaporated and he placed fourtth for the season. Was the Vel's Parnelli Jones team paid by the sponsor for the year?

A cloud hangs over Francis McNamara, wherever he is. He filed a lawsuit against STP and the ever popular Andy Granatelli. Nobody was paying for the cars. The wealthy wife died, in a manner the press called mysterious. And McNamara disappeared. Or did he? There are those who insist he returned to the U.S. and owned a concrete company in California. Perhaps it was a hoax, perpetrated by a certain someone who was never so popular anyway.

Andretti escaped STP and Granatelli, if not the curse, at the end of the winless 1971 season and became teammates with the similarly slumping Unser, who would shortly lose his own miracle working mechanic, George Bignotti. So they won occasionally, Unser even becoming 1 of 3 four time Indy winners. But combined, they couldn't win so many together as either won by himself for awhile there. 25 years is a long time to be remembering when. . .