Keeping up with The Jones

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Lost and found

“You wanna go for a ride?”

Capt Steve was psyched to show me the next and (hopefully) final strategy for getting rid of all our dirty money. It turns out Commerce Bank has machines called Penny Arcades. They are like Coinstar only they don’t charge a percentage and they actually work (so I guess they’re nothing like Coinstar). Steve’s been bringing a little bit each day and assured me we could get through $100 in about 10 minutes. Sounds good to me.

When we first got there one of the two machines was occupied, so Steve showed me how to operate the available machine with his half of the money while I waited for the other one to open up. Eventually, the three teenage girls finished up with their buckets and were on their way.

I approached the machine and dumped in some of my coin. I pressed the GO button. And I heard nothing.

The machine asked me if I had more to count. I said yes. I dumped in a little more. And I heard nothing.

The machine again asked me if I had more to count. I said yes. I peered down the coin chute. And I heard nothing.

This time when the machine asked if I had more to count, I said no and asked for my receipt. The machine informed me that I hadn’t put any money in.


I prodded around a bit and discovered that the chute was removable. Beneath it sat all my money, still not having entered the counter mechanism. Strangely, I also noticed a high density of quarters, whereas our change has had a penny/ quarter ratio of about 100/1. Anyway, the machine was full or jammed, so I went for help.

While the teller was emptying the bags under the machine, Capt had counted all of his half and the rest of mine, all totaling about $80. When the teller had fixed the machine, it very quickly flew through the waiting coin; all $174.

Um, what?

We’re pretty sure most of that money belonged to the girls who used the machine before us. Since the machine doesn’t give you a running total, they probably didn’t notice that it stopped with money still to count and just printed their receipt.

It’s like when you walk up to a real arcade machine and find it already has a credit waiting to be played. Only multiplied by 696 and instead of excitement you just feel rotten.

There was nothing we could do. The girls were long gone, with no way of knowing they had been shortchanged and thus no reason to return. The process is completely anonymous: no account number to use the machine or any other way to track them. And we weren’t about to let the bank have a bonus.

At least the money is going to charity.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Expect something extra

Today I went down to CVS to drop off three rolls of film to be developed (yes, I am a bit tardy joining the digital age). Quite frankly, I have no idea what is on them, other than most recently pictures from Bermuda last May. Everything before that will be a surprise.

This happens to me a lot. For one thing, I take pictures so infrequently that one roll can span a period of over a year. For another, I’m the kind of procrastinator that often forgets or puts off getting rolls developed. This particular case was exacerbated by several months of unemployment when photos were not high enough on the list of priorities to crack the wallet.

As I was standing at the counter filling out a separate envelope for each roll, the photo woman waited on two or three customers, each time asking,

“Do you have a CVS card?”

Something you should know about me: I hate store savings cards. I hate that I have to remember to bring my card each time I go to qualify for $0.20 in savings. I hate searching for bargains and realizing the posted sale prices won’t apply to me, the lowly cardless. Most of all, I hate a policy that was created to increase store loyalty while simultaneously inconveniencing customers that is then presented as a benefit to those same customers.

How exactly is it beneficial to me to qualify for savings only if I have my card? How is this more practical for me than receiving the posted savings simply by shopping there?

I realize this is all a bit over the top. It is, after all a mild inconvenience: a brief form and then yet another card to carry in your wallet. But it’s the principle of the thing. For this reason, I generally strike back by patronizing stores that don’t have such policies. When I lived in Wellsville, I used to love Giant Food Mart, the chief competition of Topps, one of the early forerunners of this insidious trend. Giant used to have their registers tally your sales price savings and instruct their cashiers to say, “your cardless savings today is $X.” I loved that.

I had already submitted two of my rolls by the time I realized the battle of principle versus practicality I would have to wage: avoid paperwork, keep my wallet clutter free and fight the power, or potentially save some money on my photos.

My new card promises me that “ExtraCare pays you back.” I hope they realize I’m going to hold them to it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

While you were out

Our drop in center is just about completed. The murals are pretty much done, and all the new equipment has been purchased and installed. We’ll be reopening shortly, and hopefully we’ll be more effective than ever reaching the teens in our neighborhood.

One of the last items to be brought in was a replacement couch. Yesterday we went down to the ARC to pick one out. I’m a substance over style kind of guy, so my priorities in picking the couch went something like this:

1. Maximum seating
2. Minimal excess bulk
3. Ability to take a beating
4. Reasonable comfort
57. Aesthetically pleasing

Most of the couches were just too fancy for this venue. Many were either too bulky or offered too little seating. Then I saw one that was just right.

Seating for an uncommon four, efficiently sized, pleasant to sit on, and nothing we’d be scared to ruin. I’m just thankful there weren’t any women with us, or we never would have been allowed to get it out the door.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Penny for your thoughts on how to fix this mess

I may have hinted at this before, but it bears reiterating: hundreds of dollars in filthy change (90% pennies) is a logistical nightmare (a quick side note to all you turkeys who like to throw non-monetary debris – beads, paperclips, gum – into the fountain: I’m coming for you). Yesterday we set out to make it go away.

First Capt Steve decided to try and bathe it all in a large garbage can and then spread it all out on towels to dry. It became apparent after about half a bucket that this would be far too time and space consuming to be effective. We didn’t want to risk counting the money in our machine in its filthy state, to say nothing of our worries of drawing the ire of the bank during deposit. Then we had an idea:


Sure, they take a percentage but it would be worth it to transfer our problems to them. We loaded our buckets into the van (again) and set out for the nearest machine. When we got their, the genius of our idea began to fade.

For one thing, the machine counts money very slowly. The opening for the coins is very small. Its mechanism is self-described as “very sensitive.” It jams up frequently. After about an hour and $70 we had required store assistance twice and a line was forming behind us.

Still determined to make this work, we found another machine. Same problems. We got through another $30 before the machine’s temperamental nature sent us on our way again.

We’ll have to rethink our strategy, but I’ve got a beef with Coinstar. Okay, maybe you’re not intending to accommodate fourteen gallons of change, but we couldn’t even get through twenty bucks in a timely fashion without complications. And if not for fairly sizable amounts of money, what purpose do you serve. I certainly don’t need to pay you 8%, or whatever you take, to help me turn $5 in change back into bills. There are hundreds of other ways I could get rid of that small an amount on my own.

I could roll it and bring it to the bank. I could use it in vending machines. I could keep a bit in my pocket to pay the change portion of my bill at the store. I could keep it in the car for tolls.

I could throw it in the fountain at the mall.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Money laundering

Today Capt Steve, Aaron and I ran around town shopping for new furniture and equipment for the remodeled drop-in center. During the course of our errands we stopped by the mall to pick up a donation.

This was no ordinary donation. Local mall management had promised us all the money thrown into the fountain during the months of November and December (in part to help offset the loss caused by their corporate office refusing to let us stand kettles). They support a number of different charities with this money from month to month. But they don’t deposit the money and write a check. They keep all the change in four-gallon buckets in a closet until you come pick it up.

In case you’re wondering, a four gallon bucket most of the way full of loose change weighs about a million pounds. We picked up four. When we made our next stop we felt perfectly comfortable leaving what should amount to a couple thousand dollars just sitting in the van. We actually kind of hoped someone would try to steal it, just so we could emerge twenty minutes later and still watch them trying to waddle their escape.

Loose change pulled from a fountain is also filthy. I know money in general is very unsanitary, but this was the grungiest money I’ve ever seen, still wet and caked in grime. Better yet, when we got back to the corps, Capt Steve opened the van door and out fell two buckets. Several hundred dollars in change strewn about the ground looks a good deal less impressive than you might think. It’s actually quite depressing.

By the time we had swept and shoveled the money up it was certainly no less filthy than before. And now we have to count it. And carry it to the bank.

The next time I throw money in a fountain I know what I’m wishing.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Let it snow

Yesterday afternoon I saw my first Staten Island snowfall. It was rather modest really, but still put a hop in my step.

I’ve always loved snow. A good snowfall is unique in that it simultaneously carries the promise of more play and less work. If you don’t like playing in the snow, I feel for you. Sledding, skiing, snowboarding, snowball fights, snowman building, snow angels, snow football, snow forts; the possibilities are endless. And all the worries that would preclude such activities vanish with two little words: snow day.

There’s nothing quite like staring out a window as the flakes fly, rooting for them to mount. I remember school nights watching before bed, hoping that I could trust them to continue their work while I slept. I remember school days staring out classroom windows in unison, praying for the announcement that the day was truncated. And of course, I remember feeling the same way about work just last winter.

This long overdue snow didn’t amount to two snowball’s worth. But it was still worth those five minutes staring out the window.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The impossible dream

It’s certainly nothing new to say that people in our society take great pleasure from watching the misfortunes of others, particularly those that qualify as hilarious or embarrassing (if this is not redundant). So it is no surprise that every season of American Idol begins with several episodes highlighting painfully untalented "singers" trying to impress the judges.

It’s also no revelation to say that people in our society esteem the famous; we idolize them. So I suppose it should also be no surprise that the producers of this show are able to find so many who are willing (if not able) to put themselves on the line for their shot – however long – at glory.

And yet I can’t help but wonder: where do they find these people? And how can they possibly believe that they have a legitimate shot at a record deal? Some of them are incredibly bad.

Some will posit that these folks know they aren’t up to snuff and are merely looking for their fifteen minutes, content to live with William Hung inspired infamy. And for some, I buy it. But for most I listen to their pleas, and I look into their eyes.

They believe.

There’s one thing in particular that strikes me about all this. When asked why they should be the next American Idol, the most common reply of the hopeless is, “because I’m different.” Not, “because I’m incredibly talented musically and have the kind of beautiful voice that would inspire millions to pay to listen to it.”

“Because I’m different.”
(This reminds me of one of my favorite one-liners: Always remember that you are special and unique, just like everyone else.)

So here it is: I’m not looking to tear you down. You do have great worth as an individual. I’m not being insincere when I say that God loves you for you and so do I. But it’s going to take more than that to convince people to shell out fifteen bucks for a recording of your voice to play over and over again while they drive around. You’d have to be really good at singing (to say nothing of being very lucky to catch your break). And you’re not. There’s no shame in that. Be you.

Go ahead and believe you can fly if you want. Just don’t go jumping off any buildings.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I paid my rent today

I got a call on Sunday from my landlord’s wife looking for the rent. I explained that I couldn’t give it to her on the spot because the bank was closed and $X was the most I could take out from an ATM in a day. For this reason I would need to know a day in advance (only because I was paying two months’ rent, since X is an amount greater than one month's rent but less than two) so I could take out half that day and half the next. She agreed to come today to get the rent.

Sunday I withdrew half the money. I went back on Monday for the rest and was informed by the machine that this would put me over my limit. Hmm. Having withdrawn nothing yet that day, how could I have gone over my daily limit? Do holidays not count? Is not the point of an ATM that it is available when the human tellers are not?

I went back this morning and was again informed by the machine that I was attempting to surpass my daily withdrawal limit. I went inside to investigate, and the woman informed me that days when the bank is closed (weekends, holidays, any combination thereof) count as one day for ATM purposes. The best part was the rationale she offered: this is to protect me so that in the event someone steals my card they won’t get all my money before the next time the bank graces us by opening its doors.

Here’s the thing: banks are businesses. I understand that. It’s in their best interest to get as much of my money as they can and then make it as difficult as possible for me to take it back. Their entire business model is based on doing this, while simultaneously pretending they’re not. I understand all of that. Sometimes I just wish someone would say,

“Listen, I know this is less than convenient for you, but we have to remain financially viable. Measures such as this allow us to offer you the services we do while remaining profitable ourselves.”

No need to convince me you’re not self-interested, or that I’m always getting something for nothing from you. Let’s just talk turkey.

The best part of the whole ordeal was that I found out the $X (business)daily limit is $X per account. So all I had to do was withdraw half from the interest-bearing account I just set up (yield so far: $0.81) and then transfer the other half to my checking account and immediately withdraw it. All while standing at the same ATM. On the same day (business or otherwise).

I just hope the guy who steals my ATM card doesn’t think of that.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Not quite ready for primetime

Yesterday afternoon I helped one of our teens film a project for school. She wanted to do a short film about a hoodlum who turns his life around. The first several scenes involved our protagonist stealing and brawling and generally acting like a ne’er do well. I suggested enlisting the help of one of our neighborhood stores for a shoplifting scene. The teens were a bit skeptical, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

I went next door to negotiate with the Mexicans. I knew some shopkeepers would be nervous about having a camera in their store, and also might be concerned about interference with their normal business. What hadn’t occurred to me for some reason was perhaps the biggest roadblock: I was asking to bring in a couple of teenagers and “pretend” to shoplift. This was obviously a delicate situation that needed to be explained carefully. The nervous looks they gave me let me know the communication gap was too wide to bridge here.

Time to try the corner store. I explain what we want to do: purchase some small snack item in advance, put it back on the shelf, film someone pretending to shoplift it and running out, with the shopkeeper yelling at him to stop. I get the nervous look again. I’m ready to move on, but he explains,

“I don’t care if you film here. You can film here, I just don’t want to be filmed.”

Simple case of stage fright. No problem. I just recruited our cook to play the part of the shopkeeper instead. I overpay by a few dollars for the small bag of chips we'll use as a thank you for his help and we film our scene. After we were done filming the inside and outside portions, I went back inside to let the man know we were done and thank him one last time for his cooperation. It was only then that I noticed he had spent the entire time wedged in a corner standing on a stool hiding behind a sign.

Man, that guy really didn’t want to be on camera.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Those that can do

In a strange and unforeseen development, I’ve been getting several requests recently to teach people how to play guitar. Stranger still, these requests come from people who actually have heard me playing the guitar. But perhaps strangest of all, I’ve gotten a request to teach someone piano.

I really enjoy playing the guitar, despite my modest abilities. I consider it a gift; not in the sense that I consider myself gifted, but rather that I feel blessed to have this outlet of expression, particularly in worship. I play to make a joyful noise. And there’s also in some ways a sense of relief at having some small return on my mother’s years of investment in music lessons, to know that it wasn’t all wasted. Because while my guitar playing is quite basic, I can’t play the piano worth a lick.

I wish I could. I love the piano, more than the guitar, more than any other instrument. To sit down and have control over all that musical potential at my fingertips would be surreal. Every now and again I’ll sit down and hack through a hymn far more slowly than anyone could ever sing it (my old piano teacher used to say I had two speeds: slow and way too slow). I tell myself that someday I’ll commit to learning this beautiful instrument.

Despite all this, I have said yes to any and all requests for lessons, including the one for piano. My disclaimers of incompetence do nothing to dull the enthusiasm of the inquiring parties. I will do my best to pass on my limited knowledge of theory and technique. And above all I will pass on the same advice every instructor has given me, the one that matters most yet is rarely heeded:


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Way, way, way over the rainbow

Dark Secret
Riding Hood
Regatta Bay
Hot Pepper
That 70’s Color
Fiesta Orange *

I went back to the Home Depot today (the second time in 2 weeks; that meets my quota for the next decade) to pick up some more supplies for the teen drop-in center remodeling project. Specifically we were shopping for paint for some of our teens to add their artistic touch to the walls. It was quite an educational process.

First off, there are apparently few things in this world more pretentious than the naming of paint colors (the ones named above are just some of the ones we purchased; we also could have gone with Little Linda, Obsidian Glass, Sizzle, Theatre Lights, Quiet Storm, etc). Good luck finding your basic primaries and secondaries. I blame Crayola.

And every brand has their own original and extravagant name for virtually the exact same colors and shades. Each one has displayed its samples strategically and named them poetically to convince you that they alone have somehow unlocked the true secrets and beauty of the color wheel.

But the most educational portion of our shopping experience was watching the paint get mixed. Things have changed a bit since the last time I watched Mr. Rogers buy paint. It is no longer mixed by hand and judged by eye. Now they have a computer where they type in the code for the shade you have chosen, hold your corresponding brand’s can of white paint under a spigot that shoots out a precisely measured blend of coloring, then seal the whole thing up and put it in a special paint can centrifuge. Very cool.

But it got me thinking about what’s going on under that machine counter where the special coloring for five brands of paint is housed. One theory is that there are actually 5 different compartments of red, and five different of blue, and every other color that is exactly the same as the one next to it. Of course another theory is that there is just one large vat of each color to draw from, regardless of brand. And while the base may be qualitatively different, whether you are inspired by Treehouse or Lady Luck, you still just end up with a can of green paint.

*Otherwise known as: black, brown, red, blue, green, yellow, and um, orange.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Very, very, very rewarding

I have a strange landlord. Two of them actually. They are very nice guys, and they take care of any problems I have in a timely and thorough manner. They just don’t show up to collect my rent on time, and they don’t provide any way of paying other than them showing up to take it.

Right now I still haven’t paid my rent for December.

Not just January.


This isn’t really a problem for me. Luckily I’m not the kind of person who loses track of his funds or spends compulsively. Once I’ve earmarked the money for rent, it’s not going anywhere until my landlords decide they actually want it.

But it’s occurred to me that I’m basically given the equivalent of an interest free loan of several hundred dollars for several weeks at a time, with the one caveat being that any day I can be called to pay the balance in full. Being a bit of a pragmatist, I’ve decided this money can work slightly harder than sitting in my sock drawer.

It can’t work too hard. It has to be completely liquid and risk-free, for obvious reasons, meaning it’s tough to get much of a return. But it can get something.

So yesterday I went down to my bank to open some kind of interest bearing account to link with my current checking account. For some reason I was completely sure this would be a hassle free experience, despite my history to the contrary. Consider: when I opened said checking account in September, they would not allow me to open it at my current address because I had no proof of address (until my verizon bill finally arrived, as documented in a post in November). But they would let me open an account under an address that I freely admitted was not my actual address (my old address) and then change it later. All this is supposed to prevent terrorism somehow.

The bank representative had scanned my bank card and was all set to open the new account when he noticed the date on my original account. He then explained that any additional account opened within 6 months of the original account must be verified with ID like a new account. After 6 months you’re all good for some reason, even though the information you’re giving (particularly the address) would seem to become less reliable with the passing of time.

So even though I already had an account with them, I had to prove I was okay to open an account with two forms of ID and proof of address. Items that they already had copies of on file under my already opened account.

No problem. I hand the man my license. Apparently the debit card they saw fit to issue me is not acceptable as the second ID. They’d take a pay check, but not the insurance reimbursement check I had to deposit. They’d take a phone bill, but not the rebate check from the phone company I had to deposit. Both these checks bore my name and address.

“Do you have a bank statement?”

You mean the bank statement you sent me? The one you could bring up on your screen right now by scanning that card you won’t accept? The one you keep sending me emails about trying to convince me not to receive anymore (“less paper means safer banking”)?

As a matter of fact, no. I’m at the bank. Why would I bring my bank statement to the bank?

So I ran home and got the statement (along with my phone bill just in case) and went back and opened the account. All this for 2%.

I'd better be getting extra reward points.

Back again

We’ve been remodeling our teen center for the last couple weeks. This has caused me to be without internet access (and cable TV) for the last several days. (Special thanks to Steve Maxon for managing my fantasy basketball team while I was incapacitated. When we win the title, you will get a full share of the championship monies, as well as that elusive ring you've been chasing your whole career).

Saturday was a ridiculously beautiful day, so I went for a walk. During the course of this walk a truck passed me with its windows down and its radio up, and I heard, “Vinatieri makes the kick and the Colts are ahead 3 – 0.”

The playoffs! How could I have forgotten the playoffs?! I rushed home to watch. Again, I don’t have cable at home but I’ve had a $2 antenna since shortly after I moved in. One of the antennae recently snapped in half but it still gets the same two channels it always did: CBS and Fox. Otherwise known as the two channels on which most football broadcasts are televised.

No dice. I knew the game must be on NBC or ESPN. I decided it was time.

Time to call my cable provider? No way.

Time to call 1-800-directv? Not hardly.

It was time for a new antenna.

It’s a decision I’ve been considering for a while. I knew I could get more channels with a better antenna. Understand that when I moved here I was broker than broke, so a $2 antenna was quite a splurge at the time. But now I’m doing okay, so it was time to upgrade. Time to go top of the line.

Time for the RCA ANT401.

It’s a thing of beauty really: amplified with a six foot coaxial cable and it reaches almost all the way to the ceiling. And it only cost me twenty-some-odd dollars.

I brought it home and searched for the new channels. Numerous, including the two missing networks, most importantly NBC and a certain football game(s).

That night I sat in the comfort of my own home and watched the Dallas Cowboys go down in flames. It was a good night indeed.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Give a Hoot

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all that…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a chance to post. I tried to keep up during kettles, I really did. But that was one fight I was destined to lose. Then I spent a restful week with my family, much of it in New Hampshire with no internet access (or snow, unfortunately). I’ve been back for a few days, waiting for the inspiration to post. It came today in all too common form.

I was walking down Broad St. toward my apartment when I noticed a woman about twenty feet ahead of me drop something. I scooped up what appeared to be an airline luggage routing label, or something of the like. It seemed more than safe to simply throw it away, but that was not a chance I was willing to take.

Ma’am, you dropped something.

“Oh. Yeah, I meant to drop that.”


You meant to drop it.

As in, I’m sorry for the confusion sir, but lest you think otherwise that piece of trash did not slip from my bag without my knowledge or intent. Rather, I just put it on the sidewalk because I’m too ignorant and lazy to dispose of it properly.

As in, you meant to drop it.


I didn’t say anything. I just continued on my way carrying this one piece of trash through a neighborhood filled with it, where littering is quite literally a way of life, where people do not think twice about using the street as a garbage can. And when I got home, I threw it away. I’d love to look at this as an inspirational, starfish on the beach, “it makes a difference to this one” piece of trash kind of tale, but that’s a bit implausible. My only real hope is that this woman felt the slightest twinge of embarrassment, so that she will think twice, if only for a second, before she means to drop something else. Considering I’m up against a probable lifetime of counter-conditioning, this may be a bit ambitious.