Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Travels in Siberia - The Ministry of A&I

© Boyd Norton
Travels in Siberia

The Ministry of A & I
            From my first visit in 1986, and through many subsequent trips in the 1990s, I became acutely aware that this vast country, under the Soviet system, was run by a labyrinth of ministries in Moscow. No matter where you lived, all these ministries controlled commerce and lives completely. There were some 37 of them, ranging from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ministry of Coal Industry, the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and more. There were ministries for Defense, Defense Industry, Geology, Information and Press, Shipbuilding, Oil and Gas, Metallurgy - well, it was an impressive list. And then, of course, there were agencies under these ministries, called Committees, the most noted of which was the Committee for State Security, Комитет государственной безопасности, better known by its Russian initials, KGB.
            I discovered in my travels that the most important and powerful of all these ministries was a well kept state secret for decades. It was called the Ministry of Aggravation and Irritation. Even today few people know that this agency held sway over every other ministry. Nothing could be built and no policy implemented until the Ministry of A&I had applied its rules.
            Here are some examples of the secret influence of the Ministry of A&I:
            Until the late 1990s, all Aeroflot planes were required to have carpeting that was not anchored firmly to the planes’ floors. The result? When stewardesses rolled the food service carts down the aisle, the carpeting would bunch up in front of the wheels. The resulting bumpiness caused food trays to bounce off the carts and into passengers’ laps or on the floor. Considering the quality of the food served, this actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
            It was decreed that no doorway entrance to any hotel or public building be larger than three feet wide. This made it impossible to enter a hotel while carrying a suitcase in each hand. (In fact, you could not enter even carrying one suitcase.) You had to stop, put the suitcases down, push one then the other through the doorway - and hope that no one was trying to exit at the same time. Regarding that last, it was also decreed that all entrances would be exits as well and that there was to be only one entrance/exit per building. On entering or leaving a hotel at busy times of day, you gained enormous respect for those NFL running backs who attempt to blast through a wall of massive defensive linemen.
            No restroom in any public building was allowed to have toilet seats. You either had to bring your own or do without or wait (if possible). And it was definitely forbidden to have any toilet paper in these public restrooms. For an extensive stay in the Soviet Union you had to bring one suitcase loaded with nothing but toilet paper. The shortage of bum wad all across the country was so great that you could often use a roll or two of TP as a bribe for certain services or goods. As a gift, a roll of toilet paper was on a par with a pack of Marlboros.
            All hotel elevators were required to hold no more than three small people - and with no luggage. If you had luggage, it was impossible to fit in with your bags. You then had to wait for an empty elevator, load the bags in it, push the floor button, escape before the doors closed, and then race up the stairs to your floor in order to rescue your bags when, and if, the elevator arrived. If your room happened to be on the 5th floor or above, you would be a prime candidate for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. If the elevator made a stop at some intermediate floor, your suitcases might be off loaded so that someone could enter. This, then, necessitated a floor by floor search for your bags. Checking into a hotel and getting to your room sometimes took the better part of a day. It would not have been so bad, but after the ordeal you needed a drink badly and the bar was always on the first floor. You had to use the stairs because the elevator was loaded with someone’s luggage.
            There were numerous other things that were a tribute to the success of this ministry in inflicting aggravation and irritation. For example, it was absolutely forbidden to have smooth sidewalks, especially those in the vicinity of airports, train stations or hotels. If you had a suitcase with roller wheels the irregular surface of the sidewalks made it impossible to tow it very far without it falling over.
            It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the Ministry of A&I began to lose its influence. Before that all Aeroflot planes had to have open overhead bins (the ministry did not allow overheads with closed and latched doors). Any turbulence during a flight resulted in some interesting items bouncing out of the overheads and landing in your lap or on your head - chickens, paper bags full of eggs, someone’s dirty laundry, a birthday cake, and - no lie, it actually happened to me - a box of live crayfish. In full disclosure, the owner of that box, perhaps fearful that it would fall, had taken it out of the overhead bin and set it in the aisle next to his seat. The vibration of the plane panicked the crayfish and, before the owner noticed it, a number of them escaped and dispersed under the seats - causing a mild panic among the passengers before most were rescued and returned to the box. I never learned why he had a box of live crayfish - perhaps some Siberian Étouffée recipe? Today in Russia the equivalent of our TSA now has crayfish detectors at each airport.
            Finally, the Ministry of A&I came up with a brilliant scheme to announce its existence and importance to anyone arriving in the Soviet Union: speed bumps the full length of all airport runways. On an Alaska Airlines flight in the early 1990s, we touched down on the brand new runway at Magadan and immediately the plane bounced and rattled so violently that passengers appeared to be on an amusement park ride. Heads bobbed up and down, eyes bulged wide with panic and knuckles whitened. The shaking and rattling continued until the plane had slowed considerably, at which time the pilot came on and, in a vibrating voice rich in sarcasm, said “Welcome to Russia.” The Ministry of A&I had notched yet another grand achievement.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Khabarovsk 1992

 © Boyd Norton
Khabarovsk 1992.
                I sat in the car, waiting for my companions who had gone into the train station to purchase tickets for the next leg of our journey. I had decided not to go in with them because, with my limited command of Russian, I would be of no help in the complex negotiations that it took to purchase train tickets. So I remained behind.
Trans-Siberian Railroad
Rain was coming down steadily, streaking the windshield and side windows. Occasionally I had to wipe the condensation from the interior of the glass so that I could watch the people coming and going. People watching in Russia, particularly Siberia, can be fascinating. We were parked near a covered stairway that led downward into the tunnels that went under the tracks and led to the various train platforms – and there were many. This is a major terminal for the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I had arrived here myself from Ulan Ude a few days earlier and nearly got lost getting from the train platform in the maze of tunnels.
People were streaming in and out, most with umbrellas. It was then that I noticed the young couple standing huddled out of the rain in the opening of this portal. They had no umbrella and seemed to be waiting for a bus or a vehicle to pick them up.
            They were both in their late teens, perhaps early twenties - university students, I guessed. She was slight of build, very delicate and thin and I imagined that she might be a student of the ballet. He was taller, also slender, but I didn’t picture him as a ballet or dance student. A musician, perhaps. Or maybe a mathematics major. He held his arm around her shoulders and they looked at each other often, speaking a few words. Then they looked expectantly out into the expanse of the asphalt covered parking lot. There were few vehicles. In typical Soviet fashion, the parking lot was not a smooth surface of asphalt but was dimpled with numerous irregularities so that rainwater quickly formed puddles all around. I watched as some people picked their way across this minefield of puddled water. Obviously this parking lot had been designed by that most powerful of all Soviet bureaucracies, The Ministry of A and I (see next essay).
            Many minutes passed. I was fascinated with the couple before me. At one point he said something that made her laugh. She covered her mouth and lowered her eyes as she giggled. Then they both seriously surveyed the parking lot again. I wondered if they had arrived by train and from where? Ulan Ude? Or Irkutsk? Maybe Moscow, some five or six days distant by train from here? Or maybe from one of the many small towns and villages along the Trans-Siberian. But it struck me that they didn’t seem to be from one of those little Siberian villages. Their clothing was more urban. Maybe Vladivostok in the other direction. Or maybe they were from Khabarovsk and were just seeing a friend off and got caught in this rain. The fact that they didn’t appear to have any luggage seemed to confirm my last theory.
            Mesmerized in my voyeurism I suddenly became aware of a large vehicle approaching from behind. It slowed as it came past the car, but then continued on across the watery parking lot sending spray into the air as it hit each puddle. It was one of those Soviet era buses, rather grimy and painted a dull yellow color. It came to a stop at the far end of the parking lot – about one hundred yards away. I turned and now saw the couple moving quickly. She slipped off her shoes and he reached down and clutched them to his chest. They paused, as though to map a route across the watery course. Then he nodded and they began to run in the direction of the far bus. She ran with delicate, mincing steps almost on tiptoe. It was like watching a ballet. And apparently she preferred to run barefoot rather than to spoil what looked like new shoes. I wondered if they had assessed the risk of stepping on one of those broken vodka bottles so prevalent all over Russia. They ran hand in hand, dodging, when they could, the puddles. It took a few moments for them to traverse the space to the parked bus. But as they neared the vehicle it suddenly started moving, picking up speed as they drew closer. And when they arrived at the spot where the bus had been it was well out of the parking lot and onto the boulevard heading toward the city center. The young man waved, but it passed unnoticed by the driver – if he ever cared.
            The couple stood in the rain, shoulders slumped in defeat. He reached and embraced her. They stood a moment, then slowly started walking back in my direction to the portal where they had stood for so long waiting. The rain had eased to a slight drizzle, but it was obvious that they were both soaking wet. As I watched them huddle in the portal once more, looking anxiously for another bus, I felt profoundly sad. Though young, they were old enough to have lived most of their lives in the old Soviet system. The year was 1992 and though the Soviet Union was no more, the new Russia was only a year old and little had changed in the old infrastructure. What had saddened me most about the plight of this young couple was their stoicism and resignation to their fate. I was reminded of a slogan related to me by an older Russian friend, a saying that everyone used, sardonically, about life during Soviet times: “Nothing works, everything breaks, nobody cares.” Everyone, he said, resigned themselves to a miserable life of one frustration after another. If you didn’t accept the way things were you would either drink yourself to death or end up in prison. Many Soviet citizens did both.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic

This is the first in a series of essays entitled Travels in Siberia. These are various journeys I made here, starting in 1986. © Boyd Norton

Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic
            The journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude is a trip backward in time. It takes two days, more or less, to travel between those two cities. For me it has the feeling of journeying back decades to the 1940s and 1950s of my childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
I’m not suggesting that Rhode Island has the climate of Siberia. Nor does it, today, resemble this part of Siberia at all. However, during and immediately after World War II there was a certain look and feeling to my childhood surroundings that are nearly replicated today in many Siberian towns and cities. I still remember in Pawtucket those abandoned textile mills with broken windows, woodlots, grassy meadows, dirt streets (the street I lived on was not paved until the early ‘50s), weedy vacant lots, old but charming houses in need of painting, rundown wooden fences, and victory gardens in everyone’s backyard. Horse drawn wagons were not at all unusual then. Once a week the Ragman used to drive his horse and wagon down our street yelling in a sing-song voice, “Raaaaags.” He bought old clothing from people. I never understood how anyone could make a living doing that. There were others that delivered ice for iceboxes, also with horse and wagon. We got our ice from a nearby icehouse, probably because it was cheaper. Refrigerator? What’s that?
The factories around Pawtucket that remained open were two or three story buildings made of brick darkened by age and pollution and with windows consisting of rectangular mosaics of many small panes whose glass was forever dirty and grimy and, occasionally, broken. Not at all unlike the Soviet era buildings found in Siberia. There were no shopping malls. There were no Safeways or Wal-Marts. Most people walked two or three blocks or more to small neighborhood groceries. Sidewalks, what few there were, had shaggy weeds growing up through the cracks. There were streetcars and electric buses that had spring loaded poles on the back to ride along the electrical wires overhead. There were trolleys that ran on rails imbedded in many of the main thoroughfares. Traffic jams were unheard of because very few people owned a car. Those that did kept and maintained them for many years. A brand new car was cause for gaping.
It was a simple time. And not unpleasant, though for adults I’m sure it was a worrisome period after a major economic depression and a world war. Today American towns have become too slick and neat. No weed is allowed to spring up in a vacant lot. In fact, there are no vacant lots – they’ve long since been developed and turned into condos. (In my Pawtucket of old, certain parts of the city had many streets lined with tenements. Condos today are just a modern day equivalent of tenements.) No sidewalks today have cracks for weeds to sprout up through. No street remains unpaved and no lawn remains uncut. There are no more vegetable gardens in the backyard. The trolley cars have been replaced by multitudes of shiny new cars jammed bumper to bumper on streets lined with sterile shopping malls. No one walks. There are no horse drawn wagons.
Street in Irkutsk
Except in Siberia. There’s a nostalgic simplicity here. I think it’s part of the reason that I’m drawn to this strange and wonderful land. In Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude and Irkutsk there are still trolleys running on rails set in the streets. There are electric buses with poles reaching up to draw power from overhead wires. There are weedy lots and sidewalks with grass poking up through cracks. Old buildings in these cities are reminiscent of those rundown textile mills of Pawtucket. (Like the designers of those American mills, Soviet architects had no sense of aesthetics.)
Gardens in Villages from the Trans-Siberian
In the countryside life is even simpler. Standing in the narrow hallway of the compartment car of the Trans-Siberian train, I stare out the open window for hours as we pass through lovely countryside. The train slows for small villages and towns. There I see old log homes and yards filled with lovingly tended gardens of potato plants and tomatoes and cabbages and carrots and beets. These are like our Victory Gardens of World War II years. For most people here those vegetables are vital for survival in long and bitter winters. There are rundown fences, houses in need of paint, dirt streets, and weedy lots. And yes, horse drawn wagons and carts.
I feel at home here.

            Ulan Ude is a city of 380,000 people lying more than 5000 kilometers (and five time zones) east of Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was founded as a Cossack outpost in 1666. The city sits astride the Selenga River whose origins are in Mongolia 200 kilometers to the south. The Selenga empties into Baikal about 100 kilometers west of the city.
Were they to return today, I’m afraid the Cossacks would be in for a bit of a shock. Strategically located on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Ulan Ude was transformed into one of those ugly Soviet industrial cities that sprang up in the Stalin era, from the 1930s through the 50s. With its belching factories and rows of sterile high rise apartments, the city could serve as poster child for the Ministry of Really Ugly Architecture in Moscow.
            Many of my trips to Lake Baikal have been through Ulan Ude because it gives easy access to some fascinating parts of the lake along the east shore.  On some of those excursions I’ve stayed at an Eastern medicine clinic in Ulan Ude. It’s kind of a combination hospital and hostel, run by a wonderful Buryat gentleman named Baer Balzhirov. The clinic is located in a forest, typical Siberian taiga, on the eastern outskirts of the city. It’s a place to relax, away from the noise and traffic of Ulan Ude.
Buryat Singers at Eastern Medicine Clinic
            On one of my first visits Baer made arrangements for some of us to have a medical diagnosis made by one of the Eastern medicine practioners. I must admit that I’m something of a skeptic about certain alternative forms of medicine and some modern day folk remedies. Perhaps it’s my scientific background, but when I read wild claims made for certain herbs and treatments I’m suspicious. Good scientific testing of the effectiveness of these medicines seems to be lacking. I’m equally suspicious of various alternative medical treatments.
On the other hand, I realize that in the natural world there are still some amazing substances awaiting discovery, complex derivatives from flora and fauna that may yield cures for many human maladies. On my many trips to Peru I discovered that the tea made from coca leaves actually does help acclimatization to high altitudes. So when Baer asked me, I agreed. What the hell, I thought. I’m game to give it a try and see if he diagnoses something interesting.
            The practitioner looked the part of a Buddhist monk, with shaven head and maroon robe. Rather than sandals he wore an ordinary pair of street shoes. The wingtips seemed to clash with the rest of his outfit, but I suppose this footware made more sense in the climate of Ulan Ude. His dark eyes had a piercing quality, giving the impression he could use his vision to penetrate skin and bone to root out sickness. He was introduced and we shook hands. He bowed slightly and I awkwardly bowed to him. With a sweep of his hand he asked me to be seated. I sat in a straight-backed chair and he seated himself opposite me on a sofa.
            I had been briefed on the procedure. The practitioner had been trained over many years to detect slight variations in the human pulse on each wrist and at different specific positions. According to the Eastern medicine theory there are something like twenty eight different pulse variations that can be detected by skilled practitioners. By understanding the meaning of changes in these pulses one can make diagnoses of certain illnesses or afflictions. I tried not to let my skepticism show.
            He leaned forward, grasped my forearms and rotated them so that my palms were facing upward. He placed his fingertips on my wrists in much the same way a doctor or nurse might when checking a pulse. However, rather than a fixed position, he moved his fingers to different spots and applied varying pressure. Also, he used both hands, one on each of my wrists. Sometimes his fingertips barely touched my skin, giving a tickling sensation. At other times the pressure was firm and hard. He spent several minutes doing this, moving his fingers from place to place on my wrists and forearms. All the time there was a look of intense concentration on his face and he cocked his head in such a way that it appeared he was listening for something as well.
            Suddenly he looked up at me and asked if I had any particular medical problems. The question took me by surprise – Hey, I thought, he was supposed to root out my problems on his own. I mulled over his question for a moment. I’m in pretty good health and, aside from an occasional cold or bout of the flu, I’ve had almost no medical – Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I explained to him, I do have one problem. You see, I went on, I’m a photographer and often I carry a lot of camera equipment, up to 15 kilos (over 30 pounds) - sometimes more. On days when I do a lot of walking while carrying that camera gear, well, at the end of the day my hip joints ache. Sometimes I cannot sleep well at night because of that pain.
            He nodded in understanding and once more grasped my wrists. Again he used his fingertips to probe my pulses. His brow was furrowed in concentration. Then he looked up at me about to speak.
            I must admit I got excited. Even though I was skeptical about this procedure, I recalled articles I had read about various new medicines derived from old, traditional herbs and remedies from ancient cultures worldwide. Maybe there is something to this. Siberia is noted for its ginseng and other herbal medicines. Surely he is about to prescribe some ointment or salve or tea made from the extract of leaves or bark or roots of a hitherto unknown but magical Siberian plant. And this would cure my aching joints. He cleared his throat and then spoke.
            “You’re getting old,” he said.
He didn’t even crack a smile.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another Excerpt from my Novel, "Perfect Money", Chapter 4

Sorry gang, but this is the last post until the novel is published. It gets better!
Wait 'til you see what the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, IRS, the Mafia and the KGB have in store for them.
 © 2012 Boyd Norton
            Before we could launch our scheme we had some work to do. First, Sam had to print more bills. We wanted to have a good supply on hand. But we also had to make sure that we could find a secure hiding place for all that money. In case we got caught and had our houses searched. You know, just to play it safe.
            For the latter problem we decided on safe deposit boxes. Not in the local bank, but in a bank in the Denver metro area. Sam opened one in a particular bank, and I did the same in another different bank. We figured that safe deposit boxes wouldn’t be traced easily, not like a bank account, and hiding a key to the boxes would be a lot easier than hiding bags of twenties.
            The printing went well and we spent an evening cutting the separate bills from the sheets. I had one of those rotary paper cutters I used for cutting photo prints. It was fast and precise. The only problem was, we ran out of paper. There were only 25 sheets in the box and we used two of those to get test prints. So with 23 sheets, at 18 bills to a sheet, we had a little over $8000 in twenties. Sam went online and ordered three more boxes of the paper. When he came back from the computer I was just finishing the cutting of the last few bills from a sheet.
            “Holy shit,” he said.
            “What? What’s wrong?
            “Do you know how much that paper costs? Thirty fucking dollars a sheet. A box of it goes for $750 bucks. I just spent $2100 bucks on my credit card, which is nearly maxed out, by the way. Fine art paper, it’s called. Christ, no wonder Epson does so well. They can give away their printers and make a ton of money on paper and ink. And, oh yeah, I just checked on it and a set of 12 ink cartridges, which is what this printer takes, is another six hundred bucks.”
            “That’s outrageous. Isn’t there anything cheaper?”
            He laughed. “Yeah, there is, but it’s not the quality of paper we need for this. This is one thing we can’t cut corners on, unfortunately.”
            I grabbed a pencil and paper and made some quick calculation. “Jeezuz, at that price each bill is costing us about a buck seventy for the paper alone.”
            “Don’t forget the ink. It’s probably close to two bucks it’s costing us to print a twenty dollar bill.”
            There went ten percent of our profit right there.
            “Maybe we ought to go for a bigger denomination. How about fifties?”
            “Are you outta your mind? Bigger bills get more scrutiny. Remember what Cat said. It would just increase the risk of getting caught. No, we gotta stay with twenties.”
            “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” This was not a good start and I began to have that awful feeling again about the whole scheme. Sam must have picked up on that.
            “Jake, we can still make this work. It’ll take a little more work on our part - maybe hitting a few extra stores.”
            I nodded but I still had a knot in my stomach.

            The next part of our preparation required some creative thinking. We needed to give the bills the look and feeling of having been in circulation. A crisp new bill attracts attention. I’ve noticed that whenever I’ve gotten one of those new bills. Even real ones cause you to think it’s gotta be phony so you look at it more closely.
            At first we tried just crumpling several of them repeatedly but that didn’t work. Most people don’t crumple their money. New bills eventually get folded and handled and passed around a multitude of times and eventually that newness is lost. But how do we duplicate that? Folding and refolding those bills was just too time consuming. Then I hit on an idea.
            “Hey Sam, you got any quarters? Like about twenty or so?”
            “Yeah, I’ve got a change jar where I toss odd coins from my pocket each night at bedtime. Why?”
             “I’ve got a way to age our money. We go to the laundromat and put a bunch of our bills in with some clothes and let them bounce around for a while. That should take away that crispness and make them look like they’ve been in circulation for a while. It’ll save us a lot of time and effort.”
            “You don’t mean washing them, do you?”
            “No no. Just put ‘em in a dryer and let them tumble around for a while.”
            “Well, okay. We can give it a try.”
            The only laundromat in Sprucehaven could, at certain times of day and certain days of the week, be a busy place. Weekends were especially crowded. Two guys stuffing money into a dryer might attract attention. So we chose a weeknight and very late in the evening. The place was supposed to close at midnight. We got there at eleven thirty.
            There was one older lady in there when we arrived. She seemed to be just finishing up, folding her clothing on one of the counters. We waited a little. She kept looking up at us, eyeing us with some suspicion. We had two garbage bags. One of them had half of our twenty dollar bills in it - about two hundred of them. We didn’t want to put all four hundred through this test until we were sure it would work. The other bag had some T shirts and underwear and a pair of Levis. I hadn’t intended to do a wash - I didn’t think there would be time and I usually do mine at home. All I wanted was some clothing to put in the dryer to cushion the bills and maybe help in the aging process by putting them in contact with clothing. I mean, a lot of paper money gets stuffed into and pulled out of pockets.
            To make it look like we were doing laundry, I went to one of the washers and opened the lid. It was full of clothes.
            “Those are mine.” The old lady came scurrying over and rescued her laundry from the presumed laundry robbers.
            “Sorry. I didn’t …”
            “This machine over here is empty,” she said pointing to another.
            Now I had to go through with it so I began piling some T shirts and underwear into the maw of the machine. She went back to folding. It was taking her forever. I was about to suggest to Sam, quietly, that we bail out and come back another evening, when the lady put all her clothing into a big basket and headed for the door. When she was gone, I turned to Sam.
            “Quick, let’s get this stuff into a dryer.”
            Three of the four dryers had “Out of Order” signs on them. I tossed the Levis into the working one and Sam began emptying the bills into it as well. A few went fluttering to the floor and I quickly rescued them and tossed them in with the pants.
            It took a few minutes before we closed the door, then we had to pull out enough quarters.
            “Let’s see. I think twenty minutes oughtta be enough. No, better yet, let’s try forty minutes. Let me have eight quarters.”
            “Uh Jake, we’ve only got about fifteen minutes.”
            “Oh yeah. Well let’s see. If we do it for that short a time, I’d better turn up the heat on this.”
            I turned a dial on the heat selection then dropped the coins into the slot one by one and pressed the start button. The pants and the twenties began whirling around inside. Through the glass door it looked bizarre, a storm of money and a pair of Levis in some kind of ballet. We went over and sat in one of the plastic chairs and grabbed some magazines.
            Just then the door opened and a cop walked in! He was one of the local sheriffs and he had a basket of damp laundry in his hands. He looked at us, then at the dryer.
            “Damn. They still haven’t fixed those other dryers.” Then he looked up at the clock. Quarter to twelve.
            “Guess you guys have got the only working dryer. Any chance you’re almost done?” He looked like he was going to walk over and look into that whirling dryer.
            “Uh, well, I think ours will run right up ‘til closing time.” My voice had suddenly gotten an octave higher in my fright.
            He shot me a quick glance and then headed for the door. “Guess I’ll have to try tomorrow night.” And he was gone.
            Talk about an adrenaline rush! As casually as I could I looked out the window and watched as he backed out and drove away.
            “Sam, I may need a pair of that underwear in the bag. The ones I’m wearing need changing.”
            Just then Sam looked up and said, “Hey, what’s that smell?”
            I laughed. “It’s not me, man. I was only kidding about shitting my pants.” And then I smelled it too. Something was burning!
            We both got to the dryer at the same time. I opened the door and we were hit by the smell of charred paper. The bills had turned a sickening brown color.
            “What the fuck.” And just then the front door opened and the little old lady returned.
            “Say, don’t you boys know how to run a dryer,” she said, sniffing the air. “You must have set the heat too high. What’s burning anyway?” She came closer. By now both Sam and I were scooping handfuls of crispy brown twenty dollar bills into the garbage bag.
            “Well no wonder. Didn’t you think to remove any money from your pockets before putting your pants in there? Say, you must carry around a lot of money.” That last was spoken when she stood in front of us, jaw agape as we piled those bills into the bag.
            “Uh, well, ma’am, we just got here from my store in Denver and the bank was closed so I couldn’t make a deposit before coming here to do laundry. When we put our clothes in the dryer I guess the bag with today’s take got tossed in accidentally. Sure is a mess. Hate to lose this money.” As Sam spoke he kept stuffing money into the black garbage bag.
            “Well, don’t you worry about it. My son works for the bank here. He’ll help you out. They can exchange that money for you. They do it all the time for folks when money gets burned or torn. Just so long as most of the bills are intact.” She turned and walked over to the countertop where she had left a batch of her folded laundry. She put it in her basket and then headed for the door. Just before leaving, she said, “You ask for my son at the bank. His name is Jason. I’ll tell him about your accident. I’m sure he can help you.”
            Then she was gone.

            Back at Sam’s house we were commiserating over a large bottle of Bombay gin. We sat at the bar in the rec room of his basement. I was on my third martini. My hands and clothes smelled of burnt paper. And my only pair of Levis had big scorches all over them.
            “Well, aside from burning up four thousand dollars and my best pair of Levis, I’d say things went pretty well today. On the bight side, we weren’t dumb enough to put the whole batch of money into that goddamned furnace.” I took another sip of martini.
            Sam sat with his chin cupped in his hands, elbows on the bar. When he spoke his head bobbed up and down. “Jake, I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in my former business, but I gotta tell ya, today takes the prize for all time downers.” He actually smiled when he said it. “Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh.” He took another sip of his own martini. “But not today.”
            By my fourth martini I was not in any shape to drive. I called Cat. I knew she was a night owl, often staying up to read. She agreed to pick me up and was there in twenty minutes.
            “Whew, you been burning garbage or something?” she said when I got in the car.
            “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
            Later, at her place, and after I scrubbed for an hour in the shower to rid myself of the eau d’ burnt twenty dollar bills, I told her everything after I climbed into bed with her. She laughed. And, eventually, so did I.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Another Post, Chapter 3 From My Novel "Perfect Money"

© 2012 Boyd Norton

Chapter Three

             For the next few weeks things were pretty quiet - and morose. It seems that Cat had to lay off one or more people and she was not alone. Most of the businesses on main street were having problems. In fact, some were on the verge of going under. The little hardware store was having the worst of it, ever since the big chain, Home-Mart, built a big store several miles away. The hardware owner told me that things like paint at wholesale prices he had to pay were more expensive than Home-Mart’s retail prices. Naturally, in these times, when people needed paint, they wanted the cheapest price and the local hardware lost out.
            This little hardware was great. They stocked everything you might need for home repair jobs, from nuts and bolts and nails to a small assortment of lumber. And the people that worked there were so helpful. You go in with a problem and one of these old timers - women as well as men - would purse their lips and say something like, “Well, what I think would work is …” And bingo! You walked out of there with whatever piece of hardware you needed to get the job done. I remember one time I had a leaky toilet. I found one of the old timers there, a clerk I knew, and told him I wanted a certain toilet repair kit. He said, “Nah, you don’t want one of those Jake. I’ve been to your place at a party once and I know the toilet you have. Here, use this one. It’ll work better.”  By god, he was right. And I remembered that he had brought a bag of some really great pot to the party.        
            You would think that local people would at least try to help local businesses. But the problem is, most people who’ve moved here in the last couple of decades work in Denver, eat in Denver and shop in Denver. Sprucehaven became a town full of strangers, aliens. They only live here because it’s a prestigious place to live and their million dollar houses are great for entertaining and impressing their rich colleagues from Denver. But they are killing the town.
It was a Saturday morning. We sat in a corner booth in the back of the Cat House. It was quiet. Too quiet. Saturdays were usually good for her business, with people dropping in for a casual breakfast and lingering over coffee with friends. But the place was empty except for the three of us and Cat’s employee behind the register.
Cat especially seemed kind of pensive, almost morose. And Sam, well he was pretty quiet. The whole scene, the ambiance made me a little uneasy. It was like I was an unwilling participant in an unpleasant event.
            “Uh, ‘scuse me guys, are we having fun yet?” I was trying to lighten things up a bit. Mainly because I was having some serious problems of my own. Just the day before I learned that a photo shoot I was scheduled to do for a local business for promotion was cancelled. The business owner was one of those that were struggling to hang on and just couldn’t afford my work, even though I was charging a minimal amount. I was counting on that money - not a lot, mind you - to help pay my mortgage. I was a month behind and this would have gotten me caught up.
            Sam looked up. He’d hardly said a word since we got there.
            “You guys follow the stock market at all?” he asked.
            I kinda chuckled. “Sheeit, man. That’s for rich folks to play around with. If I wanna lose my money quick, I’ll go to Las Vegas.”
            “Yeah, well, I didn’t go to Las Vegas and in the last three days I’ve lost just about everything I had in investments. The market has tanked. When I finally sold, it was rock bottom and what I got is just enough to pay my mortgage for the next two months. My broker kept telling me to stay in, but if I had I wouldn’t have gotten anything.” Sam drained the last of his coffee.
            What a shock. I mean, I knew he got screwed over when his company got bought out, but I thought he had said he cashed in some earlier stock he held. “What about the cash reserves you had,” I asked.
            Now it was his turn to chuckle in that sardonic way he has. “Well, my broker convinced me that I ought to put that money to work. I thought about it long and hard and decided to gamble. Besides, he told me about this hot-shot hi tech company and I knew some of the guys who started it. So I put it all into the market shares. God, what a mistake.” He sat for a moment, pensive, staring at the wall.
            Cat set her coffee cup down and pushed her chair back to stand up. “Well, I’ve got to deal with some real world problems of my own. I have to lay off one of my employees and damn, I don’t know how to deal with this. They’re all friends.” She was almost in tears when she said it. I knew her business was struggling, but it didn’t really sink in until just then.
            Suddenly Sam stands up. “Say Cat, do you still have some of those cigars behind the counter?”
            “Yes, but I didn’t know you smoked.”
            “I just feel the need for some nicotine,” he said as he walked over to the counter. Cat and I stayed seated and watched Sam. In a few moments he was back, holding a couple of cellophane-wrapped cigars.
            “You gonna smoke those in here?” I asked.
            “Actually, I’m not gonna smoke them at all.” Both Cat and I shot him a puzzled look. He laughed.
            “Cat, you once told me your employees would be pretty good at spotting phony money. Well, I just paid for these with my own, genuine Sam Carter published twenty dollar bill.”
            I didn’t believe it. Cat, shaking her head, got up and went over to the girl behind the counter. She reached over and opened the cash register and took out a handful of bills, then came back to the booth. Now there weren’t any customers in the café and the twenty dollar bill that Sam had just spent should have been on the top of the pile of twenties that Cat brought back. We looked at that top one carefully. Then the next one and the next until we had the pile of them spread out on the table top. I’ll be damned if I could see any difference among them – they all felt and looked real.
            Ever notice something about the feel of money? It has a kind of a subtle greasy feeling to it, while regular paper feels like, well, paper. Someone once told me that people who handle money all the time, clerks, bank tellers and the like, can often detect a counterfeit bill just by the feel of it. All of these bills felt the same. We held them up to the light, looking for any telltale signs. Everything – watermarks, serial numbers, portraits – looked authentic. “Bullshit,” I said. “You’re pulling our legs.”
            Sam had, by now, unwrapped one of the cigars and was twirling it around in his hand. He laughed.
            “Thank you Mr. Epson,” he said. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of twenty dollar bills. He spread them on the table. “You see,” he continued, “When I was pres of my own company, the Epson folks – they’re the ones who make those great printers – learned I was a techno-geek and they began sending me complimentary versions of their latest and greatest printers and scanners and all. It was good for their business because my company would buy the newest stuff. Anyway, they are still sending me the latest and greatest and just a few weeks ago I got their newest scanner and printer. What you see here is the outcome of all that new technology.”
            “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “I’ve been reading about how good these new printers are for years now. In fact, every once in a while I read about some high school kids printing some bogus bills and getting caught. It isn’t because the printing isn’t good. It’s the paper. What about the paper? That’s the key to it all. How did you get the right paper? From what I’ve read, the company that makes the paper for the U.S. Treasury for their printing is a super secret place and no one gets close to getting any of that paper or its formula.” I was practically whispering when I finished, even though there were no other customers in the café at the time. It just seemed like a topic that demanded whispering.
            “What’s the difference, you guys? You’re not planning on spending this stuff, are you?” Cat lifted her cup and drank the last of her coffee. Sam and I looked at each other. It was a strange moment because, up until this time we had all been joking about this – you know, one of those delicious daydreams about doing something illegal and beating the system. As I looked at Sam I could tell that at this moment something had changed. We both realized that we not only could, but would try it.
            “Nah,” I said. “It’s just one of those challenging tech things that’s kind of fun to play around with.”
            Sam laughed to assuage Cat as well. But at that moment we both knew that things had changed.
            Cat got up and left to make her dreaded phone call. Sam and I sat in silence for a long while. Finally I broke the quiet.
            “What about the paper, Sam?”
            He leaned forward, looking first around the room as though searching for spies. The restaurant was still empty. I was beginning to feel like I was part of some CIA plot planning the overthrow of a government. Actually, when I thought about it later, I was probably right. But at the moment I tried for a little levity.
            “Bond,” I said in my best imitation of Sean Connery. “James Bond.”
            “Listen,” Sam said. He had become very serious.  “I can’t begin to tell you what a stroke of luck it was with the paper. You see, when Father Epson used to send me complimentary printers and scanners and such, they always included samples of their newest printer papers. Now some of these papers are not your basic copying and printing papers. Some are designed for photography and art prints and are specially formulated for that purpose. I guess they have a special look and feel and surfaces that lend themselves to viewing in art exhibitions. Hell, being a photographer, you oughta know about these things.”
            I shook my head. “Look, I haven’t been able to afford to keep up with all this new stuff. You know more about it than I do.”
            “One night, a few weeks ago, I had finished off the better part of a bottle of a really nice cabernet and, for the hell of it, decided to try an experiment. With the new printer and scanner.” He paused and looked around again. “I scanned a brand new twenty. At the highest resolution possible on the scanner. Then I laid it out in a program so that I could print eighteen of them on a sheet of 17 by 22 inch paper. That was the size of the printer and paper they sent me.”
            “So what was special about the paper,” I asked.
            “That’s what’s so funny. They had sent me three different kinds and I just grabbed one box at random. Turns out it was the special artsy fartsy paper and the printing looked sensational. But I didn’t really look closely at it until the next morning.”
            “Yeah, the printing may be great, but how do you deal with the watermarks?”
            “That took some sleuthing. I remembered asking my ex-con employee that same question. It was about the time that the treasury department was starting to use watermarks in bills. But I couldn’t remember what he had told me. So the next night, after another bottle of a good cabernet, I got on the phone and was finally able to track him down. Turns out he’s teaching sociology at UC Santa Cruz and has a PhD. Anyway, I had to play it kind of cagey, but he figured out what I was up to and laughed. And he gave me the information.”
            “It’s a special ink, overprinted separately. Look, the whole idea of a watermark is that it is invisible when looked at with reflected light, but it shows up when you shine light through the bill. When they print real money they actually embed a watermark in the paper so it only shows up when you hold it up to the light. Now, this special ink has some really weird optical properties that I don’t fully understand. The result is, you print it on the surface and it doesn’t show unless you hold the bill up to the light. Instant watermark.”
            I sat there for a while, not saying anything but trying to absorb all this information. This was too good to be true. How come someone else hasn’t discovered this? What about his ex-con employee? And his cellmate that did the counterfeiting? If this was all true, there’s gotta be a shitpot full of bogus money floating around. I posed the question to Sam.
            “Yeah, I thought about that too. Makes you wonder if there’s any real money in circulation anymore. But I don’t think this is a well known secret. At least my friend didn’t think so.”
            “Okay, so what’s next?” I asked.
            “Well, in science you test the hypothesis. In this case, we try spending some.”
            “Yeah, and end up in jail,” I said.
            “Well, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Suppose - just suppose - you get caught. Who’s to say you didn’t get this bill from some other source - change from a grocery store, for example. You’re innocent and no one is going to prosecute you for innocently passing a bogus bill you got from somewhere else. Especially if you’re not carrying around more than one of those bills. And as long as you keep the original stash well hidden in case they search your house. Of course, you gotta make sure to never pass anymore of it. But in the meantime, before you actually get caught you could be spending shit loads of the money. My feeling is, with care and caution, you’d never get caught.”
            It made sense. But I still had an uneasy feeling about the scheme.
            “I’m not clear on how we can actually benefit by this. I mean, using twenty dollar bills, wouldn’t we have to pass a lot of it to get any real benefit? How would I buy a car, for example? I couldn’t just waltz into an auto agency with a suitcase full of twenties. And I sure as hell couldn’t deposit that in my checking account. Someone at the bank would wonder how I got all that cash and probably scrutinize it pretty carefully.”
            “No, no, no. It has to be laundered. Look, you go into a store like Walmart and buy something for $5. Give them one of our twenties and you get $15 back in real money. That’s our profit. Do that ten times a day in different stores and you get $150 profit in real money. With two of us - I don’t think Cat would go along with this - we net $300 a day. Do that five days a week - we shouldn’t work weekends - and the total is $1500 a week. That’s $6000 a month. Split two ways, I can handle my mortgage and buy groceries and have enough for a good bottle of wine from time to time. And so can you.”
            I mulled this over. Three thousand a month seemed like a fortune. And maybe some of the stuff bought could be useful - like food or beer. Five bucks would be about right for a six pack of good beer.
            “Yeah, but when some of those phony bills get spotted, this town will be crawling with feds. Then we’re out of business.” I didn’t want to keep coming on so negative, but I was still uneasy.
            “Hold on, we would not spend any of that money here in town. First, we can’t jeopardize some of our friends here with small businesses. We don’t want any of them to get caught with bogus money. And you’re right, it would be too concentrated an area and would draw suspicion when a lot of those bills showed up in this small an area. No, what we do is spread out across the greater Denver area. God, there must be a thousands of shopping malls down there with clerks making minimum wage and hassled and not caring about money passing through their hands. I think it’ll work. Especially with this good a printing job. It would be months, maybe years before any of these bills get spotted.” He paused for a moment. “Just think,” he said. “How many twenty dollar bills are passed in any given day in all the stores in the Denver area?  Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? It boggles the mind. And our meager spending wouldn’t draw any attention.”
            It did make sense. “Yeah,” I said, chuckling. “And in our own small way we’d be helping the economy.”
            I wish now I hadn’t said that. That concept would come back to haunt us.