Saturday, January 24, 2009

Friday Night Blockbuster

When my son scurried through a tiny porthole in the bottom of the indoor slide at daycare excitedly repeating “hiding, hiding” instead of letting me help him with his hat and coat, I should have seen the signs and abandoned my plan to stop at Blockbuster to pick up a film for the evening. But like the captain who foolishly attempted to steer the Titanic through a minefield of floating ice, my trip to the movie store was doomed from the start.

The moment we entered the store, the boy was off like a blonde comet. His hair flowed straight back over his head as he shot down the nearest aisle chanting, “running, running”. When I finally caught up with him, he had stopped in front of a rack of animated films and was clutching the Kung-fu Panda 2-Pack with both hands. The promotional slogan on the DVD case read, “Pure Pandamoninum,” which quite accurately described the havoc the boy was about to wreak upon the store.

Faster than Po snatching a dumpling with his chopsticks, the boy was off and running again. He hit the brakes when he spotted the animated Pixar film Cars, but was back in high gear the second he had the DVD placeholder in hand. I used the mirror along the top of the wall to find him after he whipped around the corner and disappeared. A disciplined Army soldier in camouflage fatigues employed stood stoically by, avoiding engagement by ignoring the father-son tag game taking place around him. I grabbed the boy, returned the marker to the shelf and had just enough time to grab a copy of Wall-E before the boy began to squirm wildly. I set him down and, once again, he sped off.

This time when I caught up to the boy, he had reached the front of the store and was trying to carry a cardboard M&M’s candy display in his arms. He set it down when I approached and pointed to a graphic of a Christmas tree in a wagon and told me, “wagon! wagon!”. I straightened the display and picked the excited boy up and headed toward the foreign films section to find the English-subtitled film Amorres Perros

The boy managed to stay with me for about 30 seconds as I perused the various foreign titles. I barely had time to finish reading the first few rows when the boy got bored and raced off. I renewed the chase and found the boy showing off a copy of a Spiderman game made for Nintendo’s Wii to smiling woman. I was proud to hear the boy say “Spiderman” so enthusiastically.

I didn’t have time to stay and chat, the boy was dashing away at full speed again. I heard him say “choo-choo” from the next aisle. I sprinted around the corner and found a Thomas the Train DVD lying despondently on the floor and spotted the boy at the end of the aisle with a copy of a PowerRangers movie. He said “scary” when I approached. Scary, I thought? The only thing scary about the PowerRangers is their dorky costumes and lame storyline.

The boy knocked a couple more movies onto the floor and bolted around the corner. I passed the woman again and she said, “Looks like you’re doing a good job wearing him down, Dad.” I not-so-wittily replied, “Well, one of us will be worn down by the time we’re done. We’ll see.”

A hat? Where did the boy get a hat? I panned around the back of the store and spotted a pile of Indiana Jones ball caps on the floor. The boy must have pulled the hanging hat display down. I did my best to reattach the clip strip and rearrange the hats, but (does this sound familiar yet?) they boy was off running again.

I grabbed a copy of Max Payne as I swooped down and picked up my speedy son. I was determined to finish looking through the foreign films to find Amorres Perros. Of course, within 15 seconds or so, the boy was done being held and wandered off at a bit slower pace as if he knew he could slip away unnoticed if he took his time.

I wasn’t having any luck finding my movie, so I went looking for the boy. Just then, he came around the corner proudly showing me a baseball in his raised hands. I asked him where he had found a baseball and then noticed a chuckling man in a gray hooded sweatshirt with a baseball glove tucked under his arm. He overheard me tell the boy to give the ball back and said, “No, it’s his ball now. He wants to be a baseball player.” The boy tossed the ball lightly to the man, who then tossed it back in a failed attempt to get my son to catch it. While they played, I frantically searched the movie titles in front of me for a better option than Max Payne. The man’s teenage son approached with a puzzled look when he saw his baseball in my boy’s hands.

I saw the man and his son leave as we entered the line to check out. I had intended to give the ball back, but the two left the store without even a look back.

I was irritated to find a slow-moving line waiting on a single cashier. This was it. The ship had hit the iceberg the minute we entered the store; had taken on water with every chase down the aisles; and now that I was trapped in a glacially slow line surrounded by every type of tempting candy and novelty toy imaginable, the ship was now breaking in half and about to sink into the icy sea.

The boy couldn’t contain himself. He shook the Skittles. He threw SweetTarts on the floor. He pretended to drink the small candy soda bottles. I showed him how to press the button on some gizmo to make a helicopter’s rotors spin. That held his attention for about five seconds and elicited a “yay” before he cast it aside and grabbed something else.

I tried holding him, but anyone who has ever experienced the dreaded “arched back” temper tantrum precursor knows when to put a toddler down to avoid a major meltdown. I opted to simply pick up and replace everything the boy dropped. I noticed a second Blockbuster employee who seemed to be restocking shelves. It occurred to me that he fit the typical movie store worker stereotype: Late thirties, balding, overweight, unshaven, saggy, worn blue jeans barely held up by a tattered belt, and thick, dark-rimmed glasses. I watched him closely to see if he’d open the second register, but he didn’t even glance at the line of impatient customers.

Finally, we were next in line. I was grateful that we hadn’t had anything too embarrassing happen yet. But the boy became fixated on a large, plastic carton of Sour Gummi Worms and wouldn’t put them down. He slipped around the back of the display and out of my sight, so I went after him. The boy jammed the carton of chewy candy onto the rack from the back side, knocking a number of containers onto the floor in the process. We were so close to paying for our movies and sailing the life raft to safety! Instinctively, I dipped down and picked him up with one arm and tried to sneak through a small gap in the displays before I lost my spot in line. I made it through fine, but the boy’s legs swung around and sent an entire box of framed posters reeling. One by one, in slow motion, the posters pitched forward and crashed to the floor.

As I stared down at the Joker’s twisted, red smile, a cold sweat gathered on my forehead and I muttered in exasperation, “This is all pretty funny, eh?”

The cashier and the other previously unmotivated employee rushed over to pick up the frames. I took stock of the faces of the other customers in line, which ranged from amused to annoyed, to angry. The ship was vertical now and sinking fast.

And then, like a captain resigned to going down with his ship, with nothing left to lose, I lost my temper and called out in frustration, “Where’s the second cashier on a Friday night? Look at this line!”

The patient girl ignored my outburst and completed our checkout with a vexed smile. At last, the boy and I drifted through the exit, wet and cold, but still afloat. We had managed to cling to Wall-E and Max Payne just long enough to avoid the spinning vortex of the sinking ship and the icy depths below.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Move Over Joe

Now that Joe the Plumber has hung up his pipe wrench and flushed his dreams of owning his own business down the proverbial drain in favor of a journalism career, there is one less overpriced, inexperienced plumber to call when the shower faucet springs a leak. Faced with this particular challenge of home repair, I entrusted my leaking shower’s fate to the gods of the orange aprons – the friendly, yet hard-to-find Home Depot workers – my trusty multi-purpose tool, and my son’s Fisher-Price horse flashlight. (Yes, it neighs when the light switches on.)

Some people fear spiders and creepy crawlies. Others are scared to open their recent 401K statements. But my biggest fear is a home repair project. Nothing is more emasculating than being defeated by an inanimate object such as a plastic toilet flapper or a flammable, kinked dryer hose. As a renter for many years, I relied on numerous superintendents, property management companies, and handymen to fix my dilapidated dwellings. So when I noticed that my bathroom mat was still damp 24 hours after the last wet foot had stood upon it, I did what any inexperienced new homeowner with limited fix-it skills does: I prayed that the problem would go away.

About a week later, the floor mat had gone from damp to soaked, the baseboard trim had the waterlogged look of driftwood, and water squished up between the tiles when I applied pressure. So much for praying this problem away. Immediate action needed to be taken.

I realized the first step was to find the leak. I tried to mentally scroll through all the leaky kitchen and bathroom stories I’d heard from friends and family over the years. Apparently I hadn’t listened that well, because I realized that my pool of stories was about as shallow as a puddle of squirrel pee. So I decided to trust my eyes and ears to ferret out the leak. How hard could it be to find?

I started with the shower head, an obvious culprit. The limey green buildup around the steel rim turned seemed to be a clue, but it turned out to be a red herring. When I initially turned the head to examine it, a steady stream of leftover water trickled out. The liquid appeared to find its way to the drain without any excessive splashing onto the floor, and the trickle quickly slowed to drops and then stopped. This was a major setback in my investigation. Where else does water come from in a shower but out of the head? You have to understand, my understanding of a shower’s anatomy was about as limited as a 12-year-old’s knowledge of the female body.

A new drip caught my attention. Water was pooling and forming drops on the bottom of the faucet knob. Ah-ha! The handle is leaking! But my self-congratulations on finding the offending leak evaporated as the drips stopped. Staring in disbelief at the now dry knob, I sat back on the throne to contemplate my options.

Then, like the Goonies in the cave, I heard it – water! Where was it coming from? I couldn’t see any drips. I leaned forward and listened. The dripping sounded muffled, and that’s when I realized it was originating from somewhere from within the walls. Then the familiar home repair fear seized my stomach as it began to sink in that I was out my league, way out. Was this a job for a plumber? Did I need a contractor to come in and tear out my walls to reach the leak? My recent experience with the locksmith (see the Baron Classic post) made me hesitant to hire help. Although the locksmith had gained entrance into my home, he had done so in a rather crude fashion by way of a power drill. I really didn’t want to shell out the dough for a plumber to fix a part that I was capable of installing myself. Memories of the cable guy charging us $40 to turn off the SAP function on our TV so that we could hear the sound again were still fresh in my mind. But that’s another story…

No, this was a problem that I was committed to solving. I returned to the faucet knob for a closer inspection and noticed that the underside of the pipe stem to which the knob attached was wet. I flipped out the Phillips screwdriver on my Leatherman multi-tool and removed the knob and metal casing from the wall. With the knob off, the water dripped safely into the shower instead of following the pipe and falling behind the wall. With the problem identified, I came up with the genius solution to shut off the water to the entire townhouse in an effort to thwart the pesky leak until I could get to Home Depot.

After two days of having to turn the water back on every time someone needed to flush a toilet, take a bath, or wash a dish, I figured it was time to readdress the leaky shower. It’s amazing how fast we had adjusted to our new normal, though. My shower was shot, so I used my wife’s bathroom. Can’t pour a glass of water from the tap? No problem, drink the water in the thermos. We even found a new reason to apply the water-saving if hygienically lacking adage, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

My visit to the plumbing aisle at Home Depot began much like my initial investigation into the leaky shower, by staring hopelessly at fixtures. I stood and pondered the plethora of maddeningly similar yet completely different faucet fittings and fingered one package after another to compare them to a nearly worthless component I’d brought with me.

I must’ve appeared like the hapless water buffalo that stands by the crocodile’s watering hole for too long, because a promotional huntress approached me with a “special opportunity” to have a professional water-tester inspect my home’s water at no cost and with no obligation. I politely listened to the bubbly blonde, but her gold hoop earrings distracted me from hearing everything she said. I tuned back in when she mentioned something about setting up a time for the inspector to visit. I mumbled something about schedule conflicts and she said thanks for the time and wished me luck finding what I needed. I told her what I really needed was someone in an orange apron to come help me. Amazingly, she turned and pushed a call button that I had totally missed in my myopic search of faucet paraphernalia.

Shortly thereafter, I was joined by a stocky, white-haired employee who listened to my less-than-technical description of the part I thought I needed to replace. “What brand is your faucet, sir?’ I had no idea. “Sounds like you have a Moen.” And with that he grabbed a $13.97 Moen single handle faucet replacement and suggested a core puller – a special, fancy wrench that retailed for $12.97.

I have to admit that I was more than skeptical about his choice. I think I was just astounded at the speed at which he provided the answer to a problem that had baffled me for a week. Could I really fix the leak with one part and a fancy wrench and $28 bucks? The part he gave me didn’t look anything like the thing that I’d seen in my shower. (Of course, the business end of the fixture was hidden inside the faucet pipe.) I left knowing that Home Depot was very forgiving in their return policy. A certain screen door I brought back three times before I got the right size came to mind....

I finally attempted to replace the faucet cartridge after the other water users in the house had gone to bed. End-of-the-week fatigue and doubt in the Home Depot guy’s grasp of my poorly described problem was already working against me. By the light of my son’s toy horse flashlight, which neighed and whinnied each time I squeezed the tail, I looked for the brand name to confirm if I indeed had a Moen. No brand names were in sight, so I plunged ahead.

For the life of me, I couldn’t get the fancy puller wrench to grab the screw on the faulty faucet piece to yank it out. The picture in the instructions didn’t match what I was seeing. I desperately grabbed the tip of the old faucet cartridge with my multi-tool’s pliers. Then, as the tip moved to the shower’s on position, the old cartridge suddenly looked just like the illustration in the directions. I could smell the sweet aroma of success over the rank odor of the mildewy floor mat. The fancy puller now easily attached to the leaky cartridge and removed it with a slight tug. I inserted the new one, lined up the tabs and reinserted the locking clip. I raced downstairs to turn the water back on. When I returned, the shower was spraying water everywhere, but the new fixture was dry! Praise the orange apron God! Thank you neighing horsey flashlight! I’m sorry I doubted you, fancy, special wrench puller-thing!

So, I hope Joe the Plumber is enjoying his new role as Joe the No-Foreign-Affairs-Experience Journalist. Because I’ve faced my fear of home repair, conquered a leaky shower faucet, and am now considering switching to a career in plumbing. After all, there will always be ignorant suckers like me out there ready to drop $500 for someone to replace a $14 part.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Hardy Soul

Before I begin, I must include a caveat about the word cold, true bitter, arctic cold that is. Yes, it is 28 degrees here in Fairfax, VA today, which is only three degrees cooler than the mean temperature for January 14. However, in my hometown of Waterloo, IA, my friends and family are currently enduring the spit-freezing temperature of 1 degree with a wind chill of -19. Oh, and they’re also pushing the most recent 10 inches of snow off their driveways. For the record, they have 18 more inches of snow on the ground than at this time last year. So now that I’ve put cold into context, let me proceed with my warm tale of beef, bread and cheese.

The tips of my ears were stinging from the cold, ten-minute march from my office building to the sandwich shop. I had been salivating in front of my monitor only a short while ago; staring at steaming subs piled high with meats and vegetables. Cold weather had finally found us in Virginia and a hot sandwich and a cup of soup from Potbelly Sandwich Works never sounded better.

On a warm day, this Potbelly location’s outdoor seating area overflows with hungry business and county government employees - and forget about eating indoors in air-conditioned comfort. So when I burst through the double doors and saw that the line was manageable for once and that there were actually a number of empty tables, I was more than just pleasantly surprised.

The restaurant can be quite intimidating. Today a musician was playing his acoustic guitar on a stool in the corner. His song was lost in the din of dull, lunchtime conversations, barked sandwich orders and the clanging kitchen. The line, although fast moving, snakes the length of the dining hall in one big U-shaped headache. I quickly found the big menu board on the wall and began scanning for that hot, juicy roast beef and provolone stack-of-sandwich-wonder that I’d seen online. I knew from past experiences that I had to have my order ready by the time I reached the bend in the U or face the wrath of the seasoned sandwich makers and the annoyed regulars in line behind me.

Now, my one complaint with Potbelly is that all of their food is hidden behind the counter. Unlike Subway, for example, where all of their toppings are displayed behind the sneeze shield, at Potbelly one is forced to trust that the veggies are fresh and crispy. If I see rusty lettuce, soggy tomatoes, or limp green peppers at Subway, I’m choosing some different toppings or requesting some fresh-cut ones.

As I approached the bend in the U, I noticed that the lady at the counter was soliciting orders from people three-deep in line. I began to panic. Do I want the mayo? Mayo on a hot sandwich sounds nasty. What about the hot peppers? Hmm, the soup of the day is chicken noodle. Chili could be good. Garden soup served everyday? Maybe, I should go for the Italian like the two guys in front of me did. All that spicy, salty meat, though….

“Sir, what would you like to order? Sir, it’s your turn. SIR! What is your order?!”

I had reached the bend in the U unprepared to order. A sandwich fiasco began to unfold. No, I’ve been here before. I can do this. I practically spat out the words, “Roast beef and provolone on wheat.” The woman couldn’t hear me over the noise, so I repeated my order and shuffled to my right, totally forgetting to order my cup of soup.

At the second station, the secret toppings station, the anxiety of my soup order caused me to sweat. The lady asked me which toppings I wanted and I asked for chicken noodle soup.
Pointing to where I’d just been, she asked, “Soup? You didn’t order soup down there?” Exasperated with my lack of knowledge for the Potbelly ordering protocol, she stepped back and yelled to find if chicken soup was available. The first answer was no, but then someone else assured her that they indeed were selling chicken noodle soup. Hooray, for small victories.

I took my sandwich, which I had ordered “to stay” and moved toward the cashier and the soup ladler. What’s this? The empty tables were filling up fast! I saw two ladies drape their overcoats across their chairs to mark their territory. Two harried parents sat their children down and ordered them to hold their spots. A loose conglomeration of diners suddenly merged into one mass and alighted on a large booth like pigeons on an electric wire. This was unreal! I was the last one standing in a game of musical chairs, with my sandwich in hand and nowhere to sit.

I’m not patient enough or pushy enough to hang around waiting for a table, so I looked past the guitarist in the corner and through the windows to the outdoor seating. Ah, why not? I decided to go for it. I’m an Iowan, right?

I chose a small round table against the wall, sheltered from the wind, and tore into my quickly cooling roast beef sandwich. The first bite revealed that I hadn’t asked for onions or pickles as planned. My backside began to go numb from sitting on the frozen steel patio chair. Hot steam from my soup condensed on the tip of my nose in large droplets. As the soup warmed me, I slowed down from “starving barbarian” to “thawing caveman” speed.
It then occurred to me, as if someone had slapped me out of a daydream, that far more people were entering the restaurant than exiting. Where were they all? I then realized that there must be a hidden, unmarked staircase to a second-floor dining area. Apparently, much like the toppings, it was also top-secret.

As I slurped the remaining spoonfuls of soup, a group of three women, huddled together for warmth, scurried past me. One woman slowed and said, with warm amusement in her voice, “You’re a hearty soul!” A hearty soul, I thought? Nah, just a hungry jackass.

It may not have been -19 degrees, but I’d still have preferred to enjoy that sub indoors.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Baron Classic

I am the proud owner of a shiny, new Baron Classic residential lockset. This stylish brass five-pin doorknob was hand-delivered and installed in my front door just this evening. And how did such good fortune find me, you may ask? Well, rather than spoil the ending of this story, read on and have a laugh at my expense.

My commute home from work this afternoon was almost a carbon copy of yesterday’s joyless journey. My tired and worn windshield wipers fought the steady, cold rain in unison like two gritty soldiers standing against an advancing army. I hunched forward, gripping the wheel with anxious fists as I strained to make out the shapes of blurry vehicles and struggled to find the center line. Fourteen miles later and after a stop at daycare, my son and I were home and playing happily on the living room floor.

The boy's merciless cold and persistent cough had raised eyebrows at the school. When I reported their concerns to my wife, she immediately scheduled an appointment with our pediatrician. The time came to leave and our scramble to leave the house was less than orderly. Where was his hat? He won’t let me put his coat on. No, the new booster seat is only for when we eat. Where is that stinking hat? Is the juice packed?

The three of us seemed to be moving in opposite directions but somehow managed to exit the house simultaneously. With the chilly rain pouring down, we dashed for the protection of the dry Hyundai, more ark than car in the deluge.

Right about the time I buckled the boy into his car seat, my hands frantically went to my pockets and my mind reeled with the realization that my keys - keys to car and house - were twenty-five feet away, resting benignly on the rail behind my locked front door.

“Do you have your keys?” I asked my wife, already knowing the answer.

For a brief moment, and I mean brief like the time it takes to slam a car door shut, I found the situation quite humorous. But the kid had a doctor’s appointment, my wife is 30 weeks pregnant, the weather was putrid, and my keys were not in my hands. I cursed and stomped as I circled the house looking for an easy entry point. My yard was by now a network of cold pools of water and my suddenly moist feet reminded me that my leaky shoes needed replacing.

I gave the sliding glass door a good shake, but the wooden rod in the jam did its job and kept me out. I tested the screens on the front of the house, but they weren’t budging. Knowing the windows were locked, I didn’t want to damage the screens unnecessarily. My stomach knotted as my options dwindled and the predicament worsened. I hopped back into the car just as my wife reached a locksmith on her cell phone.

My wife is at her best in situations requiring quick action. While I was scanning our rock garden in search of a stone big enough to smash my kitchen windows, she was dialing for professional help. According to the voice on the other end of the line, our rescuers would arrive in 25 minutes.

The boy entertained himself by pretending to drive, by fiddling with the lights, by climbing back and forth from the front to the backseat. It got colder. My wet feet were losing feeling. We called after 30 minutes and were promised the guy would arrive in ten minutes.

The three of us began to get restless. The boy was done exploring the confines of our cell. My wife was checking the time every few minutes and craning her neck every time a pair of headlights approached. Our neighbor pulled in while I was out of the car waiting to flag down our locksmith. He politely asked if we’d like to come in and wait. Like the ridiculously daft imbecile that I am, I replied, “Thanks, but the locksmith should be here any minute. We’re having fun waiting for him.” Ha! Fun?

After yet another call, we were told he’d be there in 20 minutes. We sang some goofy songs, we played peek-a-boo around the headrest, we cuddled under the blanket, but still no one. Finally, the boy had had enough. He was clawing at the steamy windows and crying to get out. We sucked up our pride and decided to seek shelter with the neighbors. Our locksmith pulled up in a SUV shortly afterward and I stepped out to meet them.

I love locksmiths. They don’t show any I.D. and they don’t ask for any I.D. They just roll up with some tools and start working. These two were no different. With thick Middle-Eastern accents and the stale smell of cigarette smoke, Yoseph and his apprentice made quick work of my lock.

Yoseph attempted to unlock the door using two inflatable pads that the other guy had jammed into the door frame. That was the cheap option, I was told. Of course it didn’t work. Yoseph retrieved his power drill from the vehicle and pointed to a spot just above the keyhole. He pressed the trigger and the bit entered the metal easily, too easily I thought. Yoseph pointed out each pin as it popped under the drill bit’s spinning force. And with a final snap the door was open.

I chose to have a new doorknob installed rather than rely on just the deadbolt for the night. After seeing how easily a lock could be defeated, I wanted to have both locks in place.

So after over an hour trapped in a cold, dark car with wet feet, I signed my name to a $315.00 check and bid farewell to Yoseph, his partner and their nondescript vehicle. I even got a little advice with his exorbitant fee. “Try not to forget your keys next time.” Ah, wise words, wise words my friend.

At least I have a shiny, new Baron Classic residential lockset to remind me to check my pockets before pulling the door closed next time. Pray that you can be as lucky as me.