Friday, April 29, 2011

Dinner With My Mother

Dinner With my Mother

When it came to going to dinner, my mother, after my dad died, was always about quantity and price over quality.  Since I was the one who was paying, I didn’t understand her viewpoint.

She and her friends would choose a cheap “soup to nuts” mediocre at best, dinner over one that actually tasted good.  They would eat everything in sight, more often than not taking home the “Equal”, and tip according to a strict 15% or less scale they got off a chart they carried in their purses.  They were typical of the retirees that frequented those restaurants that catered to that clientele.

The restaurants knew what they were getting into, and took to hiding the “equal” packets. The help would dole them out one at a time so as to minimize the loss.  The help had to put up with a lot of grief for the “tips” they received.   Some of the people even stuck to a “one dollar rule”, which I’m sure further added to the splendid service offered to them. 

Cheap price and quantity was the rule the restaurants lived or died by.

Every time I would offer to take my mother to dinner or lunch, she would try to steer me towards one of those establishments.  She would rave about the portions, the value and the great reviews given by the “restaurant critics” at the pool.

Inevitably, we would try it and find it wanting.  Another establishment crossed off the list of restaurants we would agree to go to.

Now there were some restaurants we liked.  A Deli and a particular Chinese Restaurant would often be agreed upon by all of us, but more often than not, we would take her out of the area so she wouldn’t know about the restaurant we were taking her to.  This would cut down on the complaining until we actually got there.

Once there, there would be complaints about the price, the fact it usually wasn’t a complete meal with soup, salad, main, dessert and coffee, and why everything was a la carte. 

It didn’t matter that the food was good, or better than good.  It didn’t fit the price/quantity criteria.

Things reached a head one day when I offered to take her to dinner.  It was just her and me during the week and she said she wanted to try a new Chinese Restaurant near her condo.   The Mavens (experts for those of you unfamiliar with the term) at the pool had passed judgment on it and declared it a wonderful place.

I should have ruled it out based on that review alone, but foolishly didn’t argue with her.

We arrived at the restaurant which was crowded for a Wednesday night.  The menu looked good and of course the pricing was economical.  I was happy it wasn’t an all you can eat buffet (not a pretty story about that one).

The waiter, who didn’t speak English very well, took our order.  The food arrived.

To say it was inedible would be giving it high praise.

It was awful, I couldn’t eat it.  I had ordered a chicken dish, what I got was rubber.  My mother of course was digging in.  I watched her in amazement.

“It’s terrible”, I said. “How can you eat this?”

“I’ve tasted worse” she responded. “But look at the portions; they give you a lot for your money”.

“If it’s inedible, it doesn’t matter how much they give you,” I answered.

“You’re just exaggerating,” she said.

She continued eating; happy in the knowledge the meal only cost $7.95.  When she had finished and we both had dessert (tasteless ice cream), I asked if she wanted to take the uneaten portion home.

“Nah,” she said, “it wasn’t very good.  But look at how much money we saved.”

Every once in a while she would try to get me to go back to that restaurant.  The reviews from the pool mavens continued to shine.  I refused each time.

I am waiting for one of them to die of food poisoning from their critically acclaimed restaurants.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

4th of July at the Condo

4th of July at the Condo

My mother’s birthday was on July 4th.  She was a true 4th of July birthday baby. Her personality reflected her birthday; she was convinced the fireworks, parades and parties were for her.

When she and my dad moved to their condo in Florida, they became very active in the condo association and the social club.  They attended every function and wouldn’t miss one if they could help it.  In fact, after my father died, my mother would often tell me I shouldn’t come up to see her if she had a social club function to attend or at least I should leave early so she wouldn’t be late.

The same held true for her birthday.  The condo party came first.  We could never see her for her actual birthday (none of us wanted to go to the condo party) and would see her either before or after.

This didn’t of course preclude us from getting her gift on time; that was not an option.

At these condo parties, the association would give her a cake and she would have to stand and claim to be 49, even when she was 90.  She really enjoyed the parties.

A few years ago, my cousin Rocky aka Carole, was down here visiting her mother who lived across the parking lot from my mother.  My aunt, Rocky’s mother, had bought tickets to the 4th of July party for herself, Rocky, Rocky’s husband aka Larry and Rocky’s daughter, Stacey.  Rocky had to go or her mother would kill her.

Desperate, Rocky called me and begged me to go to the 4th of July party at the condo so she wouldn’t be the only one under 75 at the party.  I hadn’t been to one of these parties in over 20 years, but felt sorry for Rocky.  I agreed to go.

My mother was thrilled and called my sister and insisted she and her husband also attend.  She told us what wonderful food and drink would be supplied as well as great entertainment.

The die was cast; we were going to the condo 4th of July party.

The day came.  My wife and I arrived at my mother’s condo’s clubhouse.  We entered.  My mother, aunt, and cousins were there.  My sister arrived shortly afterward.  My mother steered us to “her table” where we were all sitting.  Since my mother was in charge of the table arrangements and assigned seating, we had a “very good” table.

The food, hotdogs, potato chips, potato salad, coleslaw and soda were served buffet style.  We had brought a sheet cake for my mother’s birthday, and along with the little cake supplied by the condo, served all the guests.  Happy birthday was sung; everyone ate, and then came the entertainment.

In the past, the entertainment consisted of singers, comedians, dancers (they once booked a “Chippendale” dance troupe.  Some of the women hid their eyes while stuffing a dollar into the waistbands of the dancers) and former Catskill Hotel entertainers or faded TV stars.  There is a condo circuit much like the old vaudeville circuit of old who supply the condo’s with acts.

This year the person in charge of entertainment decided to go another way.  She booked a Karaoke act.  The performer set up a Karaoke machine that played the music while showing the words on a small TV screen.  The condo residents were expected to get up and participate.  That was the act.

The man set up his equipment and tried to get someone on stage to sing.

No-one moved.

He started getting desperate, going around to the tables cajoling people.  They stayed mute and seated.

Rocky suddenly stood up and volunteered to go on stage and sing.  There was a general sigh of relief from all present.  Not for her singing ability, which is less than ideal, but so they themselves wouldn’t be forced up.

As she moved towards the stage she grabbed my hand and insisted I accompany her.

“I won’t be the only one,” she shouted as she dragged me on stage.

What could I do, fight her?  And besides, I am my mother’s child and not so much reclusive and shy.

We mounted the stage.

All eyes upon us, we picked out a song and sang it while reading the words off the monitor.

People applauded and laughed.  We were actually a hit (by default if not for any other reason).  Now the crowd started asking for my mother to join us (I seem to remember hearing chanting: “Jean, Jean, Jean”, but I could be mistaken).  My mother being the wallflower she was came on stage.

We decided to sing YMCA and assigned my mother the task of forming the letters with her arms and hands.  People started copying her hand and arm movements.  They seemed to enjoy it.

We sang one other song and got off the stage.

The ice was broken.  Volunteers appeared.

One person gamely tried to sing along with the lyrics on the screen but couldn’t read them fast enough and sing at the same time.  One sang a few bars and then forgot the rest of the song.  One made it through the whole way and was pretty good.  Soon the volunteering stopped. 

The Karaoke man became desperate again.  He was booked for 4 hours and only 45 minutes had passed. 

Once more into the breach, Rocky strode to the stage with me in tow.

We sang some more songs (not too well I might add) and the audience seemed to appreciate it.  I left the stage, I had had enough and my wife and I were leaving.  Rocky continued on.

I’m not sure how long she stayed on the stage, she later told me the Karaoke man wouldn’t let her leave.

The next day, my mother started getting phone calls from the people who had been at the party.  They all thought Rocky was her daughter because of her performance on stage.  My mother fessed up to the fact that Rocky was her niece.

Oddly, no one mentioned her son.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Drug Smuggling Submarine Episode

The Drug Smuggling Submarine Episode

In 1997, we had started to place ATM machines in locations around the state.  The machines we were using had no cash in them.  They produced a receipt which the customer presented to the cashier and got money for.  We would split the ATM charge with the location owner.

We put them in convenience stores, gas stations, nightclubs and topless bars.  These locations seemed to have the most potential for people to use the ATM’s.

The owners of the locations liked the machines since there was no cash in them and we paid for the machines, repairs and supplies.  Their customers would have to come up to the register to get paid, and more than likely spend additional money at their location.   

It was also a source of income for them because we split the charge with them.  The charge varied by location, with topless bars charging the most.  The usual charge at a topless bar was $5.00 a swipe, but some charged up to $10.

They could get away with charging so much because:

1.       The patrons were often drunk and didn’t pay attention to what the cost was.

2.      The patrons were besotted with the girls and the girls would only be with them if they had money.  It was hard for the guys to say no to a near naked or naked girl sitting on their lap saying they would have to leave it he had no more money.

Because there was no cash in the ATM’s, there was less likelihood of someone stealing one.  In fact we would put a sign on the machine specifying that there was no cash in the machine.

Never the less, occasionally some idiot would steal the machine and quickly abandon it when they realized their mistake. 

Since topless bars were a great source of revenue for us, we tried very hard to place machines there.

One day I got a phone call from Porky’s, a topless bar near the Miami Airport.  They asked me to come down the next morning to meet with them.

I arrived at 10AM and waited for the manager to show up.

A man in a Mercedes arrived and got out of the car.  He was dressed in a suit and approached my car.

“Are you the ATM guy?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Good, good,” he said.  “I’m the lawyer for the business”. 

“You know about the Federal Indictment, right?”

“Nooo’” I answered, “what Federal Indictment?”

I immediately looked for the FBI surveillance I was sure was photographing me in the parking lot.  Visions of  me being hauled in for questioning or worse quickly occurred to me.

He explained that the owner, a guy who went by the name “Tarzan”, had been caught trying to sell a decommissioned Russian Submarine to undercover DEA agents.  The idea was they could use the submarine to smuggle in drugs underwater.  The lawyer also implied Russian Mafia connections were involved.

“But don’t worry, this won’t really effect you,” he said reassuringly.

“Really, how could it not,” I asked?

“You will still own the equipment, right?  You’re just placing the equipment in the location, so the Feds can’t confiscate it.  The worst that would happen is the Feds close the place down, confiscate everything and you just show them your contract with the business and they release your equipment.  Ok?”

“Sounds ok, can you draw me up something that says we are the owners of the equipment and not part of the corporation running the bar?”

“Sure, sure,” he answered.  “Here’s the manager now, let’s go inside”.

A pretty young woman got out of a car and opened the back door to the bar.  We followed her in.

Russian music was playing and there were 2 men speaking in Russian cleaning up the place.  A couple of girls came in and were going to the dressing area.

We went into the manager’s office and sat down.

There were photo’s all around of various girls in and “out of costume”.  As I looked around at the pictures one picture looked familiar to me.  Turns out it was the manager sitting in front of me who I saw in the picture. 

 I quickly found out she used to be one of the dancers. She became the owner’s girlfriend and now was in charge of the bar as well as taking care of the owner’s child while he was in Federal custody awaiting trial .

We got down to business. 

The manager, her name was Tanya and spoke with a Russian accent, liked the idea of the cashless ATM.  It seems they had had a Cash ATM machine and thieves had broken in and stolen it.  She felt this cashless ATM would preclude anyone being stupid enough to steal it. 

Turns out she was wrong. 

A year later some genius broke into the bar and stole the machine.  He abandoned it outside in the parking lot after seeing no cash inside.  He obviously didn’t believe the “NO CASH IN THE MACHINE” sign prominently displayed and taped to the machine.  Since the machine had no back all he had to do was turn it around to see it was empty of cash.

Maybe he was too stupid to read. 

Tanya showed me around the bar and we picked out a location where the machine could go.  We discussed the split of the ATM swipe fees and the lawyer and manager signed the placement agreement.  I was to return the next day and setup the machine.

The next day, I arrived at 10:30 AM and set up the machine.  I showed them how the machine operated.

I installed a neon light over the machine advertising the ATM, and left.

The next day I got a call from Tanya.

“Take the light out,” she said.

“”How come,” I asked?

“It’s too bright.  The men can see what the girls really look like,” she answered.

What could I say to that?

I agreed to come down that afternoon and take back the ATM sign.

I arrived about 2 PM and went inside.  I took back the sign and looked around.

Tanya was right, the girls looked much better in the dark.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Reagan , Col North, the Contras and Me

Reagan, Colonel North, the Contras and Me

It was 1984/5.  I was in the food business with my brother-in-law Bob.  We had started to import shrimp and lobster tails from Ecuador.

We never knew how much was coming.  The contact in Ecuador would ship us whatever the big boys didn’t take on a particular shipment (read “fell off the truck”).   It would be flown up on an airline that only operated 2 days a week from Guayaquil, Ecuador and it would take off early evening and arrive in Miami sometime after midnight.

We would get a call around 5 PM saying the shipment was coming that night and then it was up to us to figure out when to get it.  The problem was no-one was around at the airline office after 6PM who spoke English.  We would try to get an estimate from the person alerting us and then go down to Miami to pick up the order.

Bob and I would go in 2 station wagons.  We would stop at a topless bar where we knew the bartender.  This bar was owned by a guy in Fort Lauderdale who we delivered food to for his location in Fort Lauderdale.  We knew the bartender from the Fort Lauderdale location.  She had been transferred to the Miami location.

We would stop because it was right next to the Miami Airport; and with the bartender’s help, we could get someone who spoke Spanish and English, to call the airline and see if the plane had landed yet.   This would usually be at 2-4AM.

We really did go there for the plane and not the entertainment.

Once we got word the plane had landed we would proceed to the tarmac area where the plane was parked.  We would locate the forklift operator and give him $20 to take our shipment off first so we could get out of there.

These times were the height of the “Drug Wars” in Miami.  Miami Vice was the most popular program on TV.  We were caught up in the hysteria.

Customs routinely searched every shipment that came into Miami after 12 midnight for drugs.  They were particularly suspicious of us because:

1.         We arrived in station wagons with coolers instead of tractor trailers with refrigeration.
2.         We were getting relatively small quantities and the forklift guy was unloading us first
3.         We stuck out like sore thumbs.

We were routinely searched, both ourselves and the cartons.  

One time I thought this female agent was going to shoot us because we went on the tarmac before she had cleared the shipment. She had me braced against the wall and then ordered me off the tarmac.

 Fortunately no drugs were ever shipped with our stuff. 

Unfortunately we never saw the same customs agents twice so they went through the whole routine with us each time.

We did this about every three weeks for several months.

On one particular occasion, we arrived at the topless bar and had someone call the airline.  We were told the airport was shut down because of a hazardous chemical spill at the tarmac area adjoining where our shipment was.  The shipment had already been cleared by customs and was sitting on the tarmac melting.

It was July, 90 degrees and humid.

This was disastrous.

We got the guy to tell us there was another gate further down the road that we might try.  Bob and I proceeded to that gate.

That particular gate was a customs gate, manned by a customs agent.  We approached the gate and the agent came out to see what we were doing there, it was a restricted area.

We explained our problem to him and begged him to let us in to pick up our shipment before it melted all over the tarmac and was ruined.

Unbelievably he agreed to let us in.  We would have to exit via the same gate and we agreed to give him 10 lbs of frozen shrimp.

We entered the gate and turned down the wide road that led toward the tarmac we wanted. 

Planes were landing and turning onto the road we were on.  It was very disconcerting.  Why were they so close to us???

We were on a taxi way!

We managed to make it to the tarmac where our shrimp were waiting.  The whole plane had been unloaded and the cargo sitting on the tarmac melting.  The airline workers were amazed to see us.  The airport was supposed to be quarantined.  They were also somewhat surprised at the route we had gotten in by.  I don’t think cars are allowed on the taxi way.

We loaded our shrimp, turned back on the taxi way and made it back to the customs gate.  We paid our “toll” and left the airport.

We got a couple of more shipments after that and then they stopped.  We never found out why.

About 7 years ago, I read in the newspaper that some one had uncovered some CIA documents that talked about the CIA, Reagan and Colonel North shipping weapons to the Contras in South America.  They used an airline out of Miami to do so. 

They would make clandestine flights late at night.  The story went on to say how the CIA would shut down the area of the airport where they were loading the plane with arms so as to be undetected.  The airline they were using was right next to the tarmac area we used.  In fact it was the area that was shut down that July night for a “hazardous material” spill.

Coincidence, I think not.

Glad to know we did our part to fight the Godless Commie’s.