Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An Open Letter to Spammers

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language.

An open letter to spammers

A natural way  to start this letter would be to rail against you spammers for being scumbags, but that’s really beside the point.  Everybody knows you’re scumbags, including you.  Perhaps you justify your behavior by feeling utter contempt for those who actually open your e-mails, and who even sometimes click on the link within, or (gasp) open the attachment.  It really does amaze me that there are people who fall for this, and I don’t exactly admire them either. 

What really bothers me, though, is that your methods—which you probably think of as “crude but effective”—are mostly crude and couldn’t possibly be very effective.  Frankly, “crude” doesn’t cover it:  your methods are monstrously stupid.  If you weren’t so stupid—that is to say, if you weren’t such absolute shit-for-brains types that it probably stinks when you think hard—there wouldn’t be so much collateral damage:  that is, we wouldn’t have the sheer volume of spam messages your non-victims nonetheless have to clear out on a daily basis.  If you had any brains at all, you could get the same results without clogging up the Internet nearly so badly.

It’s natural to be lured toward a grudging respect for the really cunning criminal, like the jewel thief who slips into a museum during the dark of night, outwits all the laser-beam motion detectors, and makes off with the big diamond.  Roald Dahl wrote a story that painted a pickpocket in a positive light.  The cool French movie “Diva” featured an attractive character who was, among other things, an expert shoplifter.  But, vile spammer, your methods are so grossly ineffective, the fitting criminal analogy would be the last guy who stole gas from my old Volvo, who was too lazy or stupid to pick the lock on the gas cap and instead did hundreds of dollars in damage prying it open, just for about $20 worth of gas.  Sure, H.L. Mencken was right when he said “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” but that doesn’t mean anyone can get rich doing a really stupid scam.

I’m going to detail here all the ways in which your methods are really lame.  In doing this I hope to help you understand that you are just barely smarter than that tiny fraction of a percent of your recipients who actually give you want you want.  Perhaps some people reading this will by miffed that I could be helping you improve your game, but a) real spammers are probably not reading this, and b) this post also serves as a way to help people see through spammers’ absurdly unsophisticated schemes and be better at evading them.

Stock tips

I got an e-mail recently titled “My Huge New Pick!!!”  At first I misread it and thought it said “My Huge New Prick!!!” and I assumed it was from a congressman showing off his new male enhancement.  But no, it was just another stock tip from a complete stranger.  (At least, I assume it was.  Needless to say I didn’t open it.)  In the last week I’ve also received “Huge Day For Our Latest Pick,” “This Stock in our new SUBPENNY,” “A Breaking Bull That's Ready To…” and “It Looks Strong on Solid News.”  My favorite?  “The Upside Potential is Unbelievable.”  That last example is almost certainly accurate:  the potential is truly not to be believed.

Look, just give it up guys.  Why would anybody accept a stock tip from a complete stranger, a tip which is obviously broadcast completely indiscriminately?  What could be the motive:  altruism?  Yeah, right … an altruistic spammer.  Surely it’s a way to get people to buy stock in a company just to boost that company’s stock.  But why would anybody invest in a company with such a pathetic strategy?

Yeah, yeah … “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  But how many of these suckers actually have the know-how to complete a stock purchase online?  If they fell for your e-mail, there’s a pretty good chance they’d spell the ticker wrong.

Sequential messages from the same sender

Often I get bursts of spam where the pretend name of the sender is the same several times in a row.  Look at this:

I can’t imagine these are from different senders.  Something is clearly wrong with this spamming system—it should detect duplicate “send to” addresses.

And how do you come up with the fake names?  Why not choose something more common?  I suppose it’s possible I could actually know somebody named Marina, or that I’d at least think it possible that there was a Marina in my past I’ve temporarily forgotten about, who has bubbled up on the Internet to reconnect.  But look at the putative addresses of these various senders.  Could I really forget a Marina whose e-mail address is "snugglebunny"?  Or could I actually believe I’ve forgotten about a Marina from Russia?

I’m tempted to take you to task for the transparency of having senders’ names not match their addresses (e.g., the Marina whose address starts “laura_c” or the Marina whose address starts “tjr), but I acknowledge that popular e-mail platforms like Gmail and Outlook mask the sender’s address.  Well, you’re not fooling me.  And anybody who finds an e-mail suspicious can look at the Internet headers in Outlook, as shown here.

Sequential messages with the same subject:

Here’s another burst of obvious spam I received recently:

I don’t have six different bank accounts, and I’m pretty sure it would take a major life event for all of them to be put at risk simultaneously.  Clearly this is another problem with a spam distribution mechanism. 

Transparent phishing

Taking another look at the snapshot above, there’s another obvious sign these messages are bogus:  since when do banks use an individual sender’s name when they contact you?  And even if they did, given that most of these customer service folks are probably in India, wouldn’t they pick more generic-sounding fake American names than “Bella Flowers”? 

Yes, there are some people out there who might actually believe a bank would contact them via e-mail due to an account problem.  But for every phishing success story there are probably thousands of would-be phishers coming up with an empty hook, every time.  Your success rate is probably dismal, and just remember:  the other, better phishers are probably laughing at you.

For those readers looking to avoid getting scammed, here’s an easy rule of thumb:  if an e-mail claims to have anything to do with any account you hold at any institution of any kind, delete it.  Banks and such don’t like your account to go away, and they’ll figure out how to reach you.  Believe me. 

I’ve only ever known of one false positive:  way back in 1999, I got an e-mail from some no-name outfit called PayPal titled, “Joe Blow has sent you money!”  Except it wasn’t Joe Blow, it was a guy I know who’d left Visa to help start PayPal.  They wanted me to enter my checking account information, and I’d get money right in my account.  Amazingly, this ended up being legit, but since I hadn’t heard about it through the guy I knew, I didn’t bite.  What am I, stupid?  Of course, had I accepted I’d have made a buck or two, plus the right to brag about being one of the first-ever users of PayPal.  But you know what?  Bragging about being wary of phishing before anybody had ever heard of phishing isn’t so bad either.

Errant capitalization

What do these subject lines have in common?

Huge Day For Our Latest Pick
My Huge New Pick!!!
It Just Issued More News Momen...
A Breaking Bull That's Ready T...
It Looks Strong on Solid News

Well, despite the title of this section, I’ll bet you didn’t get it, you moron, so I’m just going to tell you:  these phrases all have words that are unnecessarily capitalized.  Sure, this used to be standard, back in the 18th century.  But unless you’re pretending to be Ben Franklin e-mailing from beyond the grave, give it a rest.  Real humans don’t use capitals like that, and if my friends start doing it, they’ll just have to start phoning me because I’m not reading any more of their e-mails.

Nonsensical subject lines

Look at these e-mail subjects:

It Expected to Move Higher
my, (YOU) asked...
Be the women' h...

How could “it” have any expectations?  I think “It’s” was meant, but maybe the spammer couldn’t remember the “it’s” vs. “its” rule and just deleted the “s” entirely.  The second example … who knows where that went wrong.  Sure, there are people who don’t understand punctuation, but I hardly think most of them sprinkle around commas and parentheses like so much garnish.  And the apostrophe after “women” is completely bizarre.  A good many people might stumble when trying to remember whether an apostrophe goes before or after an “s,” but after an “n”?  Really?

This example of patently obvious spam needs no explanation:

Discount pharmacy and Viagra

The market in black-market Viagra has got to be well and truly saturated by now.  Keep in mind that it’s fairly widely known that Viagra isn’t an aphrodisiac, so by sending a man a Viagra offer you’re insulting his manhood.  This has always been a narrow market and very well served by the several offers per day everybody has been receiving for the last fifteen years.  Just stop.

I receive lots of other “online pharmacy” messages, of course; the most recent was from “Love” and was titled “Online pharmacy buy cheap disc…”  (Surely “discount” was the truncated word there, and the redundancy of “cheap” and “discount” surprises me not at all.)  Again, this has got to be a really tiny niche.  In my experience, the less educated Internet users tend to be the more paranoid ones.  How many would actually toss the dice on illicit prescription meds online?  After all, if they get ripped off they can’t exactly bring in the cops (nor will anyone cry for them).  How can they possibly establish the trustworthiness of the seller?  This is the online equivalent of the college roommate I had who kept getting shafted by dudes in People's Park selling him oregano they said was pot.


This isn’t quite as stupid, of course; I’m talking about outfits I once gave money to who now pester me relentlessly.  There are so many reasons quasi-spam is smarter than the Gatling-gun-shots-in-the-dark strategy your lowly ilk employs.  For one thing, these outfits know I have money, and for another, they know I know who they are.  But still, it’s annoying.

For example, I have set foot in The Walking Company exactly twice.  The first time was during Christmas shopping, and I bought some slippers that were half off and a couple of blankets that were 80% off.  Since then I’ve been getting an e-mail solicitation from them practically every day.  Most of them are totally pointless—“NEW Cork Sandals For Spring!”—but one offered some amazing blowout sale on a pair of shoes that I miraculously had actually already had my eye on.  (Miraculous because I’m a typical guy and buy a pair of shoes every few years.)  So I went there, found out the shoes were mail-order only, vowed on the spot to boycott The Walking Company for life on principle, and went to a competing shoe store in the same mall where I bought a nice pair of shoes and like 15 pairs of socks.  A spiteful purchase?  Possibly.

Then there’s the former Presidential candidate who continued to e-mail me asking for money for years after he’d wasted the money I already gave him (i.e., after he failed to get elected).  Pretty shameless.  Which brings us to the poster child for quasi-spam, “Ranger Rick” magazine, which keeps up a constant barrage:

Such lies.  “Limited Time Offer”—there’s always another offer.  “Last Chance!”—really?  If I don’t renew my subscription, they’ll never let me subscribe again?  Yeah, right.  The kicker here is that I would never, ever renew my subscription, for the simple reason that “Ranger Rick” punishes its loyal subscribers by giving them really crappy renewal rates.  I let the subscription expire and then signed up as if I were a totally new subscriber, for about half the price.  I thought they’d figure that out but I guess they haven’t.

Alternatives to spam

Of course, you could argue that the flip side to spam is targeted ads, like Google’s AdSense nonsense.  As I’ve explained at length, I’m no fan of that, either.  But it doesn’t clog up my Inbox, and at least there’s a very simple way to kill it.  More insidious is the way social networks are contriving to get people to essentially advertise things to their friends.  That makes me sick.  (It brings to mind the non-virtual pyramid schemes that have been around forever.  A friend of mine once tried to bring me in on a Super Blue Green Algae deal and I never talked to him again.)

But the real flip side to spamming is simply not spamming.  Has that ever occurred to you?  To just go find something more constructive to do?  Of course it hasn’t.  You scumbags.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tire Chains II - The Spawning


I am happy to announce that this is my 200th post on albertnet!  My first post was in February of 2009, over four years ago.  My 100th post was in March, 2011.  Odd … it doesn’t feel like I’ve been at it that long.


You may wonder what I mean by “The Spawning.”  Well, that’s just an extra phrase I like to add when giving the name of any sequel, because it just says “cheap retread.”  I got this phrase from “Piranha II – The Spawning,” which was James Cameron’s first full-length film, and a bad one—one reviewer called it a “near-total disaster” and “almost impossibly bad.” Oddly enough, “Piranha II” wasn’t actually a sequel to “Piranha.”  Its original title was “Flying Killers” and I guess making it look like a sequel was an attempt to cash in on the earlier (also terrible) movie.

This post isn’t exactly a sequel, either, though it has much in common with an earlier archival post, “Trouble with Tire Chains.”  What follows is another snow-packed tale of road trip woe, this one even more harrowing than the original.  I think the phrases “near-total disaster” and “almost impossibly bad” work pretty well in describing it.  (Of course it could have been worse, like if somebody had been injured, but then I wouldn’t be blogging so lightly about it.)

It started as a vacation

My family decided to spend the kids’ spring break in Colorado, where we have friends and family.  Five years ago we did this same trip and encountered a freak snowstorm on Vail Pass, where our 1984 Volvo had just enough traction to keep moving.  On the way home from that trip, we took I-80 through Wyoming to avoid Vail Pass, only to hit an icy section and slide right off the highway, as had more than a hundred other cars on that stretch that day (click here and search on “April 11, 2008” for details).  We figured the weather should be better this year; I mean, what are the odds we’d get such strange weather a second time?

Ha.  Ha ha ha ha ha.  This time the storm was far, far worse.  The weather in Nevada and Utah had been fine, but the closer to Vail Pass we got, heading east on I-70, the worse the reports were.  Vail Pass was eventually closed due to ice and multiple accidents.  A parking lot was set up to accommodate stranded motorists, but it was full by the time we got there.  We could have stayed the night somewhere to wait out the storm, but the weather forecast for the area was “endless snow for the rest of our miserable, frigid lives with absolutely no sign of respite.”  (I’m paraphrasing.)  I didn’t fancy living out the rest of my days in a little town like Eagle or Edwards (slogan:  “Home of the Kobe Bryant sex scandal!”).

So:  onward.  Electronic signs advised us to use “alternate routes,” of which there was only one:  taking Highway 24 south to Leadville, and coming back northeast on Highway 91, about a 45-mile detour.  We guessed that this is what the signs were suggesting (the lack of specificity perhaps being for liability reasons).  The gal at the Colorado Visitors Center in Eagle checked the conditions on these highways and said they should be okay.

Detour around Vail Pass

Much signage warned that commercial vehicles—i.e., semis—were not allowed on Highway 24, but that didn’t stop one trucker from trying, and jackknifing his vehicle in the process.  An indescribably masculine tow truck was hooking up to it when we came by.  I immediately thought of a Radiohead song:  “In the next world war/ In a jackknifed juggernaut/ … An airbag saved my life.”

Traction wasn’t bad on these twisty little highways.  Our car, a 2006 Volvo V70 wagon with front-wheel drive, has good tires on the front and new ones on the back, along with computerized Stability Traction Control (STC) and a winter-driving mode that rides the clutch while you start up from a stop.  So I figured we’d be okay, even though it was snowing increasingly hard and it was becoming difficult to keep ice off the windshield.

From bad to worse

When we got back on I-70 eastbound there wasn’t much traffic—only those cars that had taken the detour like us—but a number of drivers were going way, way too fast.  I’m not some craven poltroon when it comes to snow driving—I learned the craft as a teenager in Boulder, without the inhibition of a fully formed prefrontal cortex—but I have respect for icy conditions and the high stakes of highway driving.  (After being a passenger in a high-speed rollover back in 1984, I learned to appreciate that these kicky, fun vehicles—the heartbeat of America—can also be accurately described as killing machines.)  I crept along at about 30 mph while guys in 4WD pickup trucks sailed by at 50 or 60, with complete faith that 4WD means nothing bad can happen.  This blithe belief in pure fiction reminded me of something … but what?  Finally it hit me:  in their carefree ignorance these motorists are just like the teenage girls who believe they can’t get pregnant the first time they have sex.  Sure enough, we did see a few vehicles off the side (all of them 4WD, I hasten to add).

Everything was fine (other than increasingly poor visibility) until we hit a long uphill and the strangest thing happened.  The car just started to slow down, regardless of what I did with the gas pedal.  Moreover, the Stability Traction Control (STC) light on the dashboard, which lights up when this feature kicks in, went from an occasional flicker to being on practically all the time.  According to an online Volvo forum, when STC detects slippage it “retards the timing to keep the revs at an acceptable level to prevent slip.”  The problem was, there was so little traction, the transmission was putting power to the wheels less and less of the time.  After making sure nobody was behind me, I tried the left lane to see if it was less slick.  It wasn’t.  Eventually, to my utter horror, the car simply came to a stop!

I had thought that making it through this ordeal would depend mainly on my skill as a driver.  So long as I kept the speed down, used engine compression (not the brakes) to decelerate, and kept a cool head, I figured, everything would be fine.  But it turns out the enterprise was doomed from the outset.  A car this heavy, with these tires, on a road surface this slippery, could not possibly make it over a grade this steep, no matter who was driving.  It was all a matter of physics, with no room for negotiation.

Completely screwed!

In accordance with a corollary of Murphy’s Law, my car had come to a stop not far after a blind curve.  I immediately checked behind us—still nobody coming—and attempted to back up and steer right, to get the car onto the shoulder.  Actually, there wasn’t much of a shoulder, which is one of the reasons I hadn’t attempted to install my tire chains:  the chances of being run over by an overconfident driver had, up until now, seemed higher than the likelihood of chains being necessary.

Have you ever watched a propeller plane stunt pilot do a hammerhead stall?  The plane flies straight up until it stalls (or seems to stall), and then the nose comes around (whether due to pilot input or some by-product of the physics of the aircraft) and the pilot flies straight down until he gets enough speed to regain control.  Well, for some reason, as I rolled backward, my car attempted a hammerhead stall of its own.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to keep the front end from swinging around.  This is how I found myself pointing the wrong direction on I-70!  It was all I could do to steer into the snow bank beside the left lane.  I ended up stuck there, facing the oncoming traffic!

Keeping an eye on the road and honking my horn whenever a car approached, I dialed 911 from my cell phone.  When the dispatcher gathered that my car wasn’t damaged and there weren’t injuries, she transferred me to a DOT call center.  The person there said she’d try to get a tow truck out to me.  This of course seemed highly unlikely:  the only way to get to where I was, to my knowledge, was via that 45-mile detour near Leadville.  The cars I’d seen off the road looked to have been long abandoned.  My options seemed limited to sitting in my car and waiting for help, or installing my chains in the middle of the interstate just past a blind curve.  (My wife thought of a third plan—she offered to try pushing the car out—but I refused:  too dangerous, plus it wouldn’t address the greater problem, which was our ongoing lack of traction.  I could see my hammerhead stall scenario simply repeating.)

Tire chains and the law

Before too long a DOT truck pulled up.  The DOT guy parked in my lane about fifty feet back with his big yellow warning lights on, and came over to assess my situation.  He said a snowplow was on its way, that was spitting sand out the back.  Sure enough, it showed up, and stopped just ahead of my car (i.e., uphill from us).  The DOT guy pulled out a shovel and started taking loads of sand from the back of the snowplow truck and shoveling it under my tires.  He was oddly cheerful, like this was all just a grand adventure.  As I walked to the back of the car to get my tire chains, I realized the entire surface was nothing but ice.  Really:  no bare asphalt, no sand, no mere packed snow.  My feet were slipping all over the place.  The road was all ice, the whole damn thing.  With the right power tools we could have made enough Slurpees for everyone in Colorado.

A cop showed up.  He eyed my tires and said, “Those don’t look like very good snow tires.  You should think about getting something better.  Continental makes some nice ones.”  I replied, “Well, I’m from California.”  (Driving in snow as seldom as I do, I’m not about to buy snow tires.  Frankly, if I’d had any inkling the roads would be this bad, I’d have simply canceled the trip.)

I do wish, now, that I had some photos of all this.  A picture in this case would be worth about five hundred regular words and five hundred profanities, many of them from you.  But of course getting out the camera would have been ridiculous.  In the midst of a crisis, snapping photos is in very poor taste … just ask Lynndie England.

The cop asked what the plan was.  The DOT guy said, “I’m going to finish sanding behind his tires and then push him out, and then he can follow the snowplow the rest of the way.”  The cop told him, “Don’t try to push him out.  It’s too dangerous.  He could crush you with his car.”  I told the cop, “I was thinking of putting on my tire chains, now that the traffic is blocked behind me.”  I had the chains out now and was untangling them in preparation.

If you read my other tire chain post, you know how much I despise chains, but most of that is ideological:  whenever I’ve had to use them, it was because the DOT pointlessly mandated it, when the conditions were actually fine.  Sure, chains are a drag to install, especially when it’s only 20 degrees out and your hat and gloves are buried in your luggage, but when your car has become a two-ton paperweight stranded on the highway, you suck it up.  Or at least I do.

But the cop replied, “Don’t put on your chains.  They’re not going to help, not here.  Actually, I don’t think chains really belong on cars.  They work for semis and that’s about it.”  Surprised as I was to hear this, I wasn’t going to argue.  For one thing, I try never to argue with cops, and for another, his confidence in me, a California driver with three-season Yokohama tires, was infectious, especially when I had a sand-spewing snowplow to lead me.

The only problem was, the cop continued to argue with the DOT guy about the pushing-me-out strategy.  It got pretty heated.  Eventually the DOT guy said, “Hey, man, I’m just here to get a paycheck!”  Incongruous as this was, the cop either acquiesced, decided at this moment debate was pointless, or got sick of my ordeal—who knows which—and got back into his car.  Following this the DOT guy successfully pushed me out, the snowplow got rolling again, and as the DOT guy yelled “GO!  GO!  GO!” my car magically gripped the sand-enhanced road and we set off.  I don’t think we broke 10 mph, but I wasn’t complaining.  This went on until the Eisenhower Tunnel, at which point the snowplow pulled off and I was on my own.

Once more into the breach

While we were stopped, my wife had scraped clean the windshield, so visibility was a lot better for awhile, but I know we weren’t out of the woods yet.  It was snowing harder than ever and the road was still slicker than snot.  Still, I figured the closer we got to civilization and the car-worn roads, the better off we’d be, and I was actually starting to feel more optimistic when we made it past Georgetown (elevation 8,530, a couple thousand feet lower than Vail Pass).  Looking back, it seems impossible that this is a distance of only thirteen miles.  Covering it seemed to take forever.

And then, on an uphill that came out of nowhere, I felt that dreaded sensation of the car losing more and more speed.

When it became obvious we were grinding to a halt, I acted on a desperate hunch that the STC might be too conservative, cutting too much power to the wheels.  So I turned it off.  Whether due to the lack of STC or my having taking a hand off the wheel, or both, I immediately lost control of the car and we veered sharply to the right.  By this point we were out of momentum and traction anyway, and the car came to a halt.  Again, this was just past a blind curve.  What’s worse, traffic had picked up, and it was dusk (a terrible time for visibility). 

Prior to this trip, I wasn’t sure whether or not my two daughters knew any swear words; now I’m certain they do.  As my wife scrambled to find the DOT phone number I’d jotted down earlier, an old beater car passed us and pulled over.  I abandoned the phone call (what would I have said anyway?) and got out to talk to the car’s driver, a twenty- or thirty-something guy with the hip, sporty look of a rock climber and/or espresso aficionado.  He cautioned me that he’d seen a driver stuck in this spot before and it had caused chaos, with cars and big rigs having to change lanes very suddenly in the midst of the curve.  “I can park behind you, before the curve, with my hazards on,” he told me.  “Do you have chains?  If you’ll take care of me, I’ll put them on—I know how.” 

I could have installed the chains myself, with him merely stopping traffic behind me, but we were quickly running out of daylight so it made sense to tag-team it.  I must say I was happy to let somebody else lie down in the road to get the inboard side of the chains hooked up.  He had a snowsuit, at least.

Tire chains vindicated

The process didn’t go too badly, considering.  Sure, my hands got so numb I couldn’t even tell I was cutting them up on frayed steel cable strands, and it was hard to tell what we were doing in the dim light, and our feet were slipping on the ice road, but we got ‘er done.  We also troubleshot the windshield wipers, which had become less and less effective since the tunnel.  It turns out that so much ice had built up within the mechanism at the base of the wiper arms, the blades weren’t even contacting the windshield.  I dug the ice out of the passenger-side wiper while the Samaritan guy worked on the driver side.  Suddenly the wiper blade snapped off in his hand.  I held out some hope that it was just the one-size-fits-all adapter that had come unsnapped, vs. an actual breakage, and to my great relief this turned out to be the case.

I gave the guy all the cash I had, which was $60, and he looked totally stoked.  “That’s too much!” he protested.  I insisted he take it.  He offered to drive behind us until the top of the hill just in case anything went wrong.

Unbelievably, my car did manage to creep forward up the hill.  I couldn’t get much speed up—the STC light was still flashing continually—but the chains were doing the trick.  Alas, there was a very ominous thwack-thwack-thwack sound from one of the chains, so I had to stop again.  The Samaritan stopped again and came to help.  The loose end of the cable had come unclipped but the chain was still intact.  While he and I fixed this, a DOT truck saw us and pulled over.  It turned out to be the same guy who’d helped me earlier.  “You again?!” he said.  I told him I was basically okay this time and thanked him for stopping.  As he made his way back to his truck he said, “See you around!”  I replied, “Hey, no offense, but I really hope I never see you again!”

(By the way, as regards that heading above about tire chains being vindicated:  that applies only to ice-rink conditions such as you’ll sometimes find in Colorado.  I still stand behind my previous excoriations of pointless tire chain mandates for the occasionally cold, wet roads you’ll find in California.)

Final leg

With the chains on and the wipers working, our progress was more predictable (though still really slow).  It got dark.  The snow was blowing so hard, and my eyes were so tired, I was stunned again and again by a deeply disturbing optical illusion.  Have you ever been in a car wash, with your engine stopped and your parking brake on, and you suddenly thought the car was rolling forward because the big mop-like brushes came at you and shifted your frame of reference?  Something similar was going on here.  My windshield was once again icing up (despite my running the defroster full time), so I was watching the taillights of the car a couple hundred feet ahead of me, matching its speed exactly because the driver seemed to know what he or she was doing.  The combination of my low speed, my lockstep progress behind this other car, and the absence of any other visual cues indicating forward motion, along with the millions of snowflakes blowing by (like the stars when the Millenium Falcon reaches light-speed), gave the perception that my car was standing still.  This of course was frightening given that coming to an unplanned stop was my greatest concern.

Throughout this drive, my kids were chattering away merrily in the back seat, evidently completely oblivious of the danger we were in.  I guess I should be glad they have such complete faith in their parents, as opposed to thinking we’re totally lame (though I know this will come soon enough).  At times, though, it was oppressive trying to concentrate amidst all their giggling and (occasionally) their fighting.  And while I was wondering if we’d even make it at all, my younger daughter kept asking, “How long until we’re there?”  I’m proud to say I resisted the temptation to yell, “SHUT UP OR WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!”

Just as we reached Boulder, heading north on Highway 93, we saw a car that had gone off the road, pointing north but in the ditch on the left.  Either he’d been heading north and somehow slid across four lanes, or he’d been heading southbound and did a 180.  My wife phoned to report it as we continued on our way.  We were halfway across Boulder when the Samaritan passed us again, tooting his horn.  Finally we arrived at our friends’ house.  The 400-mile drive had taken over twelve hours. 


It snowed in Boulder again the next day, and the day after that.  It snowed again this past Monday, and yet again yesterday, but I don’t care anymore because we did manage to make it home last Friday without further incident.  I spent half of Sunday overhauling my poor bike, whose headset and bottom bracket bearings were completely black when I repacked them.

Needless to say, the whole time we were gone it was gloriously sunny and warm out here in California.  I think I’m done with spring break in Boulder.  Next year I think we’ll just stay home and hang out.  I can rent some movies for the kids … maybe “Alive” or “Death Race 2000.”  Hell, I might even check out “Piranha II – The Spawning.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

From the Archives - Freshmen Hoods

NOTE:  This post is rated R for pervasive strong language.


Below is a true story I wrote back in college about a road trip I took with some insufferable fellow students I met through the ride board.  For any readers who can’t remember a time before craigslist, the ride board was a physical bulletin board on campus where you’d tack non-virtual flyers saying “I have room for two passengers going to Los Angeles to share gas and help with the driving” or “I need a ride to Sacramento and will help with gas.”  One year I couldn’t find a ride to San Luis Obispo so I rented a car and offered to drive others.  Nobody else was going to San Luis Obispo but some dirtbags wanted to go to Santa Barbara for the big Halloween party there that was so big in those days they brought in a giant van of extra cops.  As you shall see, offering to drive partiers to that event turned out to be a really bad idea.

Freshmen Hoods – November 11, 1992

The Y’shua man is yelling when I pull up to the curb of Bancroft next to  Sproul Plaza.  As usual, he is pacing up and down, wearing his standard tight blue t-shirt with the simple “Y’shua” logo, glaring at a spot on the ground ahead  of him, his face lean, hard, and cross.  I can’t make out any of his doctrine,  but  to my amusement  he shouts out his chorus with frequent regularity, and  at tremendous volume:  “Y’SHUA!  Y’SHUA!” His cry sounds like that of a  wounded animal.  Shadowing him ruthlessly, matching his stride and hovering  less than a foot from his face, is an obviously homeless man, scraggly and  skinny, wearing a skirt of a pastel floral pattern, a ragged leather vest, and  a fake fruit hat.  This is Hate Man, and he heckles Y’shua Man ceaselessly to  the delight of student onlookers. 

“Hearken to our Master!” begins Y’shua Man.

“Masturbator!” yells Hate Man.  The students laugh.  A much younger,  collegiate looking boy in a polo shirt and jeans also matches Y’shua Man’s  pacing, and abuses him after his model in Hate Man.  This is one of the  several disciples of Hate Man.  Yes, disciples.  Does this youth aspire to one day be homeless  as well, and wear Salvation Army dresses?

Two freshman-looking boys shout at Y’shua Man.  “Give it up, man!  Get a  life!  Fuckin’ queer-bait!”  What makes these two freshman looking?  One has tremendously baggy jeans—parachutes, really—which sag so much the crotch is  around his knees like on a old man, and his torso looks twice as long as his  legs.  His face has that cultivated stubble look, like he’s gone without shaving for two weeks to achieve a two-day growth.  His tuff scowl needs a cigarette—but then I would feel compelled to say, “Get that thing out of your mouth,  son, it doesn’t make you cool.”  The other youth is in a baggy blank white t-shirt and has a moussed and blown dry hairdo:  hairs shoot straight up and  curve straight back like the top of a hoe.  I’d like to say, “Oh, wow, you  look like that guy on Beverly Hills 90210.”  And he would die of embarrassment.

He yells at Y’shua man, “Get lost, dude!  You’re not wanted here!  You hear me, man, yo! I’m  talking to you man, pack it up!  Fuckin’ jerk!”  He pronounces “dude” like “doad.”

Y’shua Man has a pretty strong conviction of some kind, I’m thinking.   As for Hate Man, he is homeless and has nothing to do.  But what excuse do these guys have for bothering to participate in this pointless menagerie?  A chartered bus behind me starts honking.  The driver, looming high above me behind his giant  flat steering wheel, is yelling and gesturing for me to move.  I roll forward  until he’s clear, and stop.  Suddenly a young woman appears at my passenger window.

“Are you Dana?” she asks. 

“Yeah, and you’re Ana?” I reply.  She nods her head.  This is one of my  passengers from the Associated Students Ride Board.  I got four other people to share the cost of a rental car  and gas.  Since none of them is twenty one yet, I have to do all the driving.   And since they’re all going to the Hallowe’en party in Isla Vista, the student  ghetto of the University of California at Santa Barbara, I have to drive them  all the way there, even though I’m only headed for San Luis Obispo to visit my  brother.

“Looks like we’re in for a long trip,” she says with a sigh, gesturing  with her chin over her shoulder.  The horror!  Approaching the car are the two  freshman punks—the sagging crotch guy and the skippy hairdo  guy—heading our way,  dragging canvas duffel bags.  With them is a zit-faced, unkempt girl with long, oily brown hair.  Her shirt looks like it was made of  a burlap sack. 

“Dude, yah!  Fucking rad ride, dude.  You Dana?”

“Yeah.  And you’re . . . Justin?”  I’d actually pictured Justin as a gang  member, a Crip or a Blood maybe, after our phone conversations.  I think he’d be thrilled that he sounded like a black guy over the phone, but he’s just as white as I am.

“Yeah, dude.”  He shakes my hand as tightly as possible.  “Yo, and dis is  Mark, man.  Dude.  And Tracy.” 

“Wait, what about Andrea?”

“Aw, dude, she fuckin’ flaked on me.  But yo, I filled her spot.  So  let’s hit the road an’ shit.”

I make sure Ana gets the front seat and we head out.  I experiment with  turning up the stereo to drown out the banter behind me, but the speakers  won’t go loud enough, and then an R.E.M. song comes on and I have to turn it  off.  So I listen to Justin for awhile.

“Yo, so like I was tellin’ that Andrea chick, ‘Yo, so like we gotta be on  da the road like 1:55, ‘cause we gotta fuckin’ get down there early, ya know,  to party up an’ shit.’  An’ then she’s all sayin’ like she might not be able  to get outta some fuckin’ class, an’ I’m like, ‘No, sorry, babe, you gotta  totally commit or dat’s it, man.  Now I’m gonna call my other homie, right,  and den I’m callin’ you back, an’ if you are one hundred percent sure on this,  you’re not fuckin’ comin’ ‘cause we gotta be sure.’  So den I call Mark and  he’s like, ‘Yah, man, I could use a fuckin’ trip down to see my brutha in L.A.  but I gotta see if he can come meet me.’  Ain’t dat what you were saying,  Mark?”


“Yeah, so like he fuckin’ calls his bro’ an’ shit, and so I’m like  thinkin’ fuck, man! I gotta get someone, and then he calls me back and says  like “Yoah, dude, let’s fuckin’ do it,’ and I’m all ‘Yeah!’  So I call back  Andrea an’ say, ‘Yo, sorry babe, you shouldda fuckin’ told me earlier, now ya  can’t come.’”

Justin keeps this up, mainly amusing himself but drawing a guffaw out of  Tracy every now and then.  I can’t tell if Mark is pouting, or just  antisocial, but he only grunts occasionally.  Finally he loosens up and starts to talk, and I dare to hope he might be less annoying than Justin. 

“Yah, so the fuckin’ punks thought they were all bad an’ shit, so I  fuckin’ straight up poured my Coke on ‘em, kinda flung it out the window an’  shit, and one of da fuckin’ guys is like, ‘hey, man, why’d you do that?’ an’  he’s like this little Mexican fuck, they all are, an’ I’m like, fuckin, ‘What,  do you wanna scrap or sometin’, you little shit!’  I’ll fuckin’ burn you,  man.’”

 Oh boy.

“Dude, it sounds to me like you were fuckin’ the one startin’ shit, an’  shit,” said Justin.

“No way not even, dude, ‘cause they fuckin’ all thought they were all bad  an’ shit, man.  Fuckin’ fuck ‘em up, man.  Shit.”  He pauses for a moment.   “Yo, uh . . . what’s his name?” Mark points towards me.

“Dana,” answers Justin.

“Uh, yeah, uh, Dana, like can we stop?  I gotta call an’ find out my  brother’s beeper number.”

Not “I have to make a call.”  No, he has to mention the beeper.  What a  stud.  “Yeah, okay,” I say.  I happen to know that beepers are the new rage in  the social scene in L.A., but perhaps he’s hoping I’ll think he deals drugs.   We stop at a gas station and he tries to get through.  After stretching our  legs, we all get back in the car, and Justin takes over the front seat.

My repulsion at these kids is deepened by my pride at having made it to UC Berkeley.  I'd assumed there wouldn't be any shit-for-brains dirtbags here.  To realize that there are erodes my feelings about my eventual alma mater.  Worse, I'd been denied admission to Cal as a freshman, and had to transfer in.  How the hell did these kids make it here on their first try?  A pact with Satan?

After another hour of excruciating wannabe-badass banter the kids either wear themselves out or run out of things to say.  The silence  is a relief.  For the first time since we started out, I can hear the car’s  engine running.  The sun is beginning to go down now, and within half an hour  everybody in the car is asleep.  As I flip up the rear view mirror to  nighttime mode, I catch a glimpse of a touching scene:  Tracy has slumped over  on Mark, her head cradled in his armpit.  As he snores loudly, his mouth  hanging open and his head tilted forward, a long strand of drool drips off his  lower lip and makes a glistening pool in her shiny hair.  This continues all  the way to Isla Vista.  I won’t bother to describe the endless chore of  dropping them all off at their various friends’ houses.  Then I drive a  hundred miles back to San Luis Obispo.

Sunday at 2:00, I’m back in Isla Vista, at the Chevron station where we  all agreed to meet.  The gas tank is on empty, so I have to wait in a long  line of cars, all college students preparing to head back up north.  Though it  was cool in the morning in San Luis Obispo, it’s already getting hot.  I hear  a string of familiar profanities, and sure enough  my three least favorite  passengers come loping up, eyes bloodshot and hair ravaged.  They’re all  wearing exactly the same clothes they had on two days before.  Ana had only  been with us for the trip down, so these three alone are to comprise my  company for the drive back.  I begin reminding myself of all the reasons why  Greyhound is a loathsome way to travel.

Gas is $1.49 a gallon at this Chevron.  I wonder if they raised the  prices for the Halloween weekend.  “Okay guys, I need gas money.  Four bucks  a person.”

“Sorry, dude.  I don’t have any money.  My fuckin’ friend stiffed me on  beers and I’m totally broke,” Mark says.  Does he tell the theater usher he  spent all his money on popcorn and Milk Duds? I wonder.

“Wait a second, dude,” says Justin.  “We shouldn’t have to fuckin’ pay  all that ‘cause you took all the gas driving back and forth between here and  SLO.”

“Now hold on.  You should be grateful I drove you guys all the way down  here and back.  It’s not like I enjoyed the extra four hours in the car.”

“Yeah, man, but wait a second.  Fuckin’ wait a second.  Just wait a  fuckin’ second.  You fuckin’ need us, man.  The rental wouldda been hella bank  without us.”

“No, I could just pay more.  None of you could rent a car without me.   You would have been stuck up in Berkeley.”

“No, dude, not even.  I couldda fuckin’ had any of my buddies drive me.   They’d have been stoked to drive down here an’ shit.”

I decide not to discuss it.  I finish pumping and go in to pay.  Then I  go to the restroom and change into some shorts, and walk back to the car.   Just behind the car, Justin is frisking Tracy playfully while Mark practises  his best scowl. 

“Dude, there’s no fuckin’ way driving to SLO and back takes that much  gas.  You must’ve driven all over the place with our gas,” Mark says.

“Just shut up and get in the car,” I snap, throwing my jeans in the trunk  and slamming the lid.  I slide in behind the wheel and hand Tracy my drink.   Reaching in my pocket for the car keys, I realize they’re still in the pocket  of my jeans.  In the trunk.

“Guys,” I snort, “We’re fucked.”  My foul epithet falls flat, rendered  impotent by its overuse throughout the trip.  “I locked the keys in the  trunk.”

“Aw, fuck dude.  What’r ya gonna do now?”

“Well, you’re all so street smart.  Break in there.  Jimmy the lock.”

Justin rolls his eyes.  “Aww, dude.”  Mark stares blankly at the back  seat, struck dumb.  The gears in his head grind to a halt.  He picks tentatively at the upholstery.  Finally he speaks.  “Uh, ya gotta cut out the  seat, dude.”

But Justin has a better idea.  “We’ll be at Jack in the Box,” he tells  me.  They trot off into the shopping center beyond the gas station.  I look  down the long line of cars waiting to fill up.  I glance towards the cashier.   How long will he wait before having my car towed?  The students behind me are  in no hurry  yet.  Good thing I’m not in Berkeley.  I’d have been lynched by  now. 

I sit down in the back seat and tug at the seatback.  No way.  Then I  spot the plastic casing from which the shoulder belt issues.  I easily pop it  away from the seatback, and slip my finger beneath the stiff carpet extending  horizontally from the top of the seatback to the rear window.  With a tug the  carpet is free of the seatback, and I can run my hand along the steel frame of  the car  with the trunk just beyond it.  A long cut out in the steel just  allows me to get my hand through.  If I had a light, I could see into the  trunk.  But I can’t get my arm through.  I pull my hand out and call to the  attractive blonde at the next car.  “Excuse me, could you come here?”

“What for?” she asks, walking over.

“I locked my keys in the trunk.  Can you fit your hand through this  hole?”  Her hand is nice and slim  her wrist too small for a man’s watch.  But  she shies away, giving up just after her fingertips entered the hole.   “Sorry,” she says. 

“Aw, that’s all right.”  Fishing for a stranger’s keys is above and  beyond the call of duty.  I stare at the exposed metal some more.  Suddenly I  notice that the stereo speaker comes right through the frame:  Aha.  If I  could remove the speaker, I’d have a large hole right into the trunk.  The  cut out I’d been putting my hand into might just be close enough to the  speaker to give me a shot at the speaker.  I slip my left hand through, and  grope for whatever simple clip I know must hold that speaker in place.  My  fingertips brush something.  I shove the hand farther in, scraping off a thin  layer of flesh.  (Even as I type, tonight, I can see the faint pink scar.)   Now, I can feel the little spring steel clip.  I try pushing it one way, then  the other.  Now it is disengaged, and I  wiggle the speaker back and forth.   Suddenly it pops out, and I let it drop.  Now I have a generous five inch hole  into the trunk.  I thrust in an arm and triumphantly haul out my jeans, like a  magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  In five seconds I’ve got the engine  running.  A miracle.  Where one minute ago I had a giant steel anchor to tow  away, now I’ve got twenty four valves allowing the proper mix of gasoline and  air into six huge cylinders, to power one hundred glorious explosions per  second, perfectly controlled to move the car forward that precious ten feet  that saves me getting towed, and stranded, and thoroughly distraught. 

Easing the car forward, my euphoria spikes again as a wonderful and  devilish thought seizes me.  I reach across the car and lock the two opposite doors, then those on my side.  I crack my window.  Slowly taxiing through the Jack in the Box parking lot,  I spy my freshmen hoods, talking and laughing at a window booth.  I honk the  horn loudly, three times, and slow to a halt.  They come running out, amazed  to see the car mobile.  As they come within six feet, I put the car in gear  and begin to slowly roll away.  Tracy reaches out for the door handle, and finds it useless. 

Justin, clinging to my door handle, yells at me through the cracked window.  “Yo, dude, what the FUCK?!  What the fuck you doin’?!”

I yell back:  “Justin, the freshman attrition rate at Cal is like 30 percent.  You’re not going to make it.”

He yells, “Dude, what the fuck does that have to do with anything?!”

I reply, loudly but matter-of-factly, “I’m going to start the attrition process a little early.”

I drive through the Drive Thru, the kids clinging to the car like leeches,  slapping the windows furiously.  I keep creeping along, laughing hysterically,  turning up the stereo to be deaf to their cries.  Justin sprawls out on the  hood, shouting and making obscene gestures.  I cannot hear his voice, but his  lips spell out those all too familiar words.  Then he slides off.

Now I’ve reached Hollister Avenue, where I signal a right turn and carefully  pull out of the parking lot.  Reaching  but not exceeding  the speed limit, I  easily outrun the three screaming teens.  Perhaps they can just see me getting  on the 101, headed north.  Twenty miles later, in Gaviota, I’m still grinning  from ear to ear.

Ah, but of course I couldn’t really bring myself to do it.  I guess I’ve  just become too soft over the years.  (I had driven over the Jack in the Box,  all right, but I had dutifully picked them all up like I was their damn chauffeur.)  As we pass  Gaviota, Justin breaks the silence following our second argument by slurping  loudly on his Coke, clearing the phlegm noisily out of his throat, and saying,  “Dude, I just cut a big greasy fart!  Haw, haw, haw!”

Never again, I vow.