Archive | June, 2014

A minor indiscretion that went unnoticed

24 Jun

Hot tub blur

I live in a picture-postcard town with lots of shops on and off Main Street. The merchants come and go and recent openings include a waffle-and-ice cream emporium, two vap parlors and a store made up like a pharmacy that sells “medicinal” cold-pressed juice for $7 a bottle.

 

People around here keep up with the shops, but there’s one that everyone overlooks. Instead of being parallel to Main Street, it’s set at an angle. When you round the corner right before it, your line of sight is directed elsewhere.

 

No one ever looks in that window. I know because I sat in it with two blondes wearing bikinis.

 

That was years ago.

 

The story begins at the county courthouse in the center of town. I covered the government there as a reporter. The important offices were on the fifth floor and were guarded by two sentinels sitting at adjacent desks that formed a sort of barrier. The sentinels were young, blonde and attractive. They looked alike and both had the same first name.

 

For the sake of this story, let’s say it was Donna.

 

To secure information or to speak with the people running the county, reporters had to get past the two Donnas.

 

On a day when I needed something special, the two Donnas were in a good mood and complied. In exchange, they demanded something of me.

 

“Tomorrow, meet us on Main Street at noon. Bring cheese, crackers, pepperoni and your bathing suit. We’ll bring the wine.”

 

They would say no more. As I think about it now, I really didn’t need to know more.

 

The two Donnas showed up as promised and walked me to the store that sits at an angle. We made the little turn and they explained.

 

“Our friend is renting this now,” one of the Donnas said. “He asked if during lunch we could help with his new business. He wants us to sit in there,” and she pointed to a steaming, redwood hot tub in the window.

 

This was a government town and I was fairly well known by all the government officials. Most took lunch at the local restaurants and would be passing by. While there was great appeal to the idea of being immersed in hot water with two almost-identical women who had the same name, I worried about my reputation. This was a town where people talked. I didn’t want them to be talking about me, especially when my job was to talk about them.

 

“Oh, c’mon,” one Donna said.

 

“Oh, c’mon,” the other Donna said.

 

And so I went on.

 

They were relaxed but I was tense. I watched the window as people passed, waiting for that moment when some authority figure – maybe a judge — would pause, stop, turn, point and show utter disgust. After a glass of wine, the tension seemed to boil off.

 

We were having a good time and had forgotten the world. But after a while we grew concerned – perturbed – that not a single person had noticed us. How odd. In an effort to draw attention, we frolicked in a more pronounced way, and still nothing. We yelled and waved, but no one waved back.

 

Was it us?

 

No, it was the store.

 

Hot tubs were popular around this time, but the friend of the two Donnas went out of business in just a few months.

 

I learned a couple of important lessons from this. First, have fun while you can. Second, before you open a business, for god sakes do a little research.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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When the poor stop going to McDonald’s, we’re all in trouble

20 Jun

mcdonalds-meal

Businesses like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s haven’t been doing well.

 

People without a lot of money usually go to these places, but because they now have even less money, they’ve stopped going. When people who work at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s can no longer afford to shop and eat there, it’s a sure sign of a coming, broad-based financial decline.

 

It will affect us all, even the rich, who don’t amount to much if they can’t get the poor to give them money.

 

Reports show that the parade of U.S. customers into Wal-Mart fell 1.4 percent during the first quarter. That followed a decline of 1.8 percent in the prior year.

The discount retailer blamed the bad winter weather but also cited cuts in food stamps, higher payroll taxes and the increased cost of health care.

 

You know things are bad when Wal-Mart relies on the food stamp program to move product.

 

Walm-MartRecent U.S. sales at McDonald’s also have declined, by 1 percent. To lure back low-end customers, the burger behemoth increased its value menu, but that hurt profits even more.

 

What’s happening is the downward pressure on income is leading to downward pressure on sales.

 

Henry Ford used to pay his people well so they could buy cars. If Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have any sense, they and the other minimum-wage shops will copy this strategy. Not doing so will have consequences. It could turn the U.S. into another Japan – the bad one, not the good one.

 

Japan was once the globe’s supreme economic power. It made and sold great products while setting new standards for manufacturing. Flush with cash, Japanese investors bought up billions in prime New York real estate, and nearly everything else. During this period, in the mid-80s, I visited Hawaii, which seemed more like Japan. Japanese tourism and culture were so strong that hippie beach bums peddling sailing lessons had to learn Japanese.

 

Then came the bust, the swoon and massive disinflation. It began around 1990. People in the U.S. don’t understand disinflation. It’s when prices fall and fall and fall and still no one buys anything. The economy becomes comatose. Seems impossible, until you look at Japan, where disinflation has been a cruel fact of life for a couple decades.

 

 

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, one contributor to Japan’s disinflation is falling wages. The recent habit of businesses there, as in the United States, is to avoid hiring full-time workers and instead contract with temporary workers who earn less and have no job security. These temps now make up about 40 percent of the Japanese work force. They are paid about 38 percent less than full-time workers.

 

The financial and social divide between the two kinds of workers has grown and is causing multiple calamities. For example, no one wants to marry a temp. This depresses birthrates and is making Japan a nation of elderly people. Banks won’t give temps mortgages, which doesn’t encourage building. These and other negative trends cascade and the country stagnates.

 

In the current era, U.S. corporations have reaped huge profits from selling to the developing world. But those markets, at least to some degree, are cooling and maturing. The bread-and-butter American markets may have to be revived in order to maintain profits. That could require a higher minimum wage and more opportunity for the middle class. The government and the business community finally are waking up to this.

 

The Great Cure for so much – including crime and falling education standards — is to put money back in the hands of traditional spenders. For a time, greed will blind us to this reality. Then the cash register stops ringing and we see.

 

Wal-Mart and McDonald’s — and all the other places where you can work full-time and not earn a living — now see. Each is probably afraid to take the first big step. Sooner or later someone has to, otherwise that first big step will be involuntary and it will send us over a cliff.

 

Think about the return of the 25-cent McDonald’s hamburger. Think about taking the family out for one on a very special night, maybe once every couple of months. That disinflation, and it will make 15 percent inflation seem like good times.

 

Now, we wait.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Like Ben Stiller, he felt the pain of an unfortunate act. Unlike Ben, he couldn’t discuss it.

9 Jun

franks_and_beans

The Ben Stiller movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” was on the other night and it reminded me of Bill Foley.

 

Bill Foley was a reporter who always carried a notebook and pen. He needed them for work but also because he couldn’t talk. When you asked Bill a question, he’d pull out the notebook and write his answer. Often, it was only a word or two. Usually, it was funny.

 

Because of throat cancer, Bill had his voice box removed.

 

Everyone assumed he could not utter a sound. Through odd personal circumstance, however, I learned this was not true.

 

It happened while we both were in the men’s room at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. As we stood side-by-side at the urinals, I noticed Bill was in a hurry. Upon closing up, he – like Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” — caught the frank-N-beans between the teeth of his zipper. And just like Ben, but not as loud, he let out a sound of agony and helpless distress.

 

The Stiller character, comically, was unable to free himself. Bill quickly fixed things and exited.

 

And there I was, with a secret to share: Bill Foley can’t talk but when it’s necessary he can moan! I tried being discreet and limited in my telling of the tale, but the worst got the best of me and the story spread. I never heard back from Bill and don’t know if my disclosure ever made it to his ears, which worked just fine.

 

Bill was a wonderful, witty columnist. Some knew him before the operation. I didn’t. I knew him only from his column, his actions and his laconic, handwritten retorts.

 

For a quiet guy, he brought lots of personality to the newsroom. I remember the time when lunches were being stolen from the office refrigerator. Members of the Refrigerator Users Group – RUG – went on a tear, sending out threatening memos and edicts to all possible suspects and devising multiple strategies of defense. Bill’s running commentary on the crisis was hilarious and ultimately silenced RUG.

 

It was pleasant to think of him again.

 

He died in 2001 at age 62 after working in newspapers for 40 years. I left the Times-Union in 1993 and never read his obit. I looked it up today.

 

Among other things, it said that, “Mr. Foley had written columns about generations of visionaries, bootleggers, politicos and hapless saps whose exploits helped shape the city.”

 

It said, “His wry humor and precise, staccato language attracted a following of readers that ranged from schoolchildren to corporate executives.”

 

It mentioned that he had played catch with Hank Aaron and spent time in Cuba with Che Guevara.

 

It didn’t mention Ben Stiller, frank-N-beans or “There’s Something About Mary.” For that I am grateful. I’m also grateful that Mr. Stiller, via his one-of-a-kind performance, was able to bring back some nearly forgotten memories of a man who could say a whole lot with so very little.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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