Friday, November 23, 2001

TO SHOP OR NOT TO SHOP AT HOME?

I have a feeling that most of my fellow residents are not in Saratoga today. It's the day after Thanksgiving, and even though the nearest mall is over 200 miles away, and even though it's snowing heavily (for which I give thanks - it's about time I got to hit the ski trails!!), I'm pretty sure lots of people are out of town hitting those big sales.

It kind of drives me nuts, personally and professionally, the way this phenomenon gets everyone so bunged up. The shoppers themselves get defensive, for example, in a really entertaining way. There's nothing like strolling the aisles of the Super Wal-Mart in Laramie and watching people from our valley trying not to notice one another, or be noticed, unpatriotically spending their money in Albany County. Some get downright furtive, putting on huge pairs of sunglasses and donning headscarves in a move that is sure to draw more, not less, attention to themselves. Others don't mind being noticed, but make a point of only having things in their carts that they can't buy in Saratoga or Encampment, things like exotic vegetables (though really, the selection in our local grocer's produce section is getting damned good), conspicuously unusual kinds of furniture, household staples like toilet paper and laundry detergent...

Wait a minute TOILET PAPER and LAUNDRY DETERGENT? That's where we run into trouble. You can actually get most anything you want in Saratoga; if the local store doesn't have it, it can usually be ordered and there's usually not much of a wait to get it. It may seem to cost more, but that's because there is still the transportation of the item(s) to pay for - which is why pretty much everything else seems a little more expensive here than in Laramie or wherever.

But see, the cost of transporting that toilet paper or VCR or sack of froo-froo dog food is incorporated into that price. The same thing at Wal-Mart in Laramie has a few lower digits on the price tag because only the cost of transport to Laramie is included. But a shopper is going to pay the cost of getting it to Saratoga one way or another. Gasoline to get there and back, wear and tear on the car, the cost of a meal or two out (because is anyone really going to drive that far just to spend an hour in the store? Not a lot of people do that, and so make a day of it. Which means at some point one have to eat), etc. When one adds those on to the price tag, no one is really saving money.

Such is the local merchants' argument, and it's a valid one. But what the local merchants seem to miss in ranting this way is the intangible aspect of the equation.

Going out of town to shop is FUN! Even if the roads suck (as they do today) and there's a risk of being stranded (in a motel if you're lucky, in a community center or gymnasium if you're not, in your car 35 miles outside of, say, Medicine Bow if you've really pissed off your god(s)), the pleasure of an outing is undeniable. It's the draw of the novel: the chance to see people one doesn't see every day, in places that aren't quite as familiar as the 100-year-old hardware store and the feed store that's the only place in town that sells underwear and the grocery store where all of one's co-workers are wandering up and down the same aisles as he is. It's a change of scenery.

And the stuff that one would have to place an order for in Saratoga - that book he's wanted to read but the library still doesn't have yet (or for which the waiting list is ten names long), groovy chrome shelving he didn't even know existed but would look great in his den, that shampoo that was in the hotel on her last vacation that smelled so good and she never thought she'd find - is all right there! No waiting, no telling a personal friend or acquaintance all of the details of what is wanted and why. It's just there. Grab it, buy it with minimal chitchat with the blissfully unknown clerk at the cash register, and go.

And the need to eat out while shopping in a distant town is also a pleasure - again, it's something new, something different. Look, they have a Chinese restaurant here! Ooh, I hear that place is good. Hey - this coffee bar has 90 different varieties of coffee beans instead of just 40!

It's just a fact about small town life that store owners, gnashing their teeth as they watch carloads of Christmas shoppers heading out of town, will never be able to change.

Fortunately, there is a reverse trend, as manifested on this day last year while I was doing a sort of small-town version of the retail shopping trends stories one sees the Denver TV stations do on the day after Thanksgiving, as they eye the behavior of shoppers on this day as a means to gauge the whole economic future of an area.

As I went up and down Bridge and First and Spring Streets, chatting with store owners and restauranteurs, a pattern emerged that no one really should have found surprising.

No, not a lot of locals were shopping today, I was told in store after store. But LOTS of out-of-towners. And they're spending LOTS of money!

People from Denver, Laramie, Cheyenne, Rock Springs, even Rawlins (just 40 miles away, and with its larger, sexier grocery store and its movie theater, which Saratoga sadly lacks, a very popular shopping trip destination for valley residents - and thus a huge sore spot for these local retailers) had come down here to enjoy a nice, quiet holiday weekend in a small town. Others were here visiting grandparents and parents and wanted to bring back something unusual and, yes, usually quaint, for the kids or friends back home.

They wanted to be somewhere different, to see different people, to see friendly people who chat up strangers and old friends alike in the stores and who might even remember one from a previous year's visit. They wanted something unique and special.

And of course they weren't just spending money in the stores. They'd had to buy gasoline to get here and they would have to buy gasoline to get home. They'd perhaps needed a place to stay. They'd eaten in our restaurants. They'd availed themselves of the hot pool (and unlike most locals, they'd probably left a donation in the box there).

So I think really in the long run it's all right that not a lot of locals are downtown shopping today. Let them go to Denver, to Laramie, to Fort Collins.

People from there are returning the favor and coming here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

OK, there's not going to be much of a post tonight - it was a Council Meeting Tuesday, and most of my current readers know what that means - council meeting, followed by somewhat prolonged drinking at the Hotel Wolf. Tonight added an extra wrinkle because, due to tomorrow night's being Thanksgiving Eve (about which more in a moment), the Saratoga Community Choir (in which I am one of two female tenors) (yes, there are female tenors) bumped practice forward for a night. We're getting ready for our Christmas concert on Dec. 16 and working hard on many numbers, including some weirdass thing called "An African Noel" which entails a group of about 35 Presbyterians, Catholics, assorted evangelicals and one Manichaean (that would be me) striving with all our mights not to seem, for one number at least, quite as overwhelmingly WHITE as we really are. Should be amusing.

So to summarize: Council meeting (mercifully short because Mayor Hank had things to do, places to go, people to see to get ready for a holiday jaunt - and that man knows how to get through an agenda, lawd yes!), choir practice, THEN drinking bout, sans mayor but plus the Town of Sartoga's recreation director (the redoubtable Chilly, about which more anon, and anon, and anon)... So it's now well past eleven p.m. as I post. And I have a full day of Chamber business and lasagna making (for Kate's Annual Pre-Thanksgiving Lasagna Dinner and Movie Fest) tomorrow.

I'll rant more about our council business later, but for tonight I'll just offer these words of wisdom: A town council meeting followed by four or five Mandarin and Sodas (mandarin Absolut plus club soda) is better than a town council meeting alone.

Good night!

Monday, November 19, 2001

A NEW FORM OF HOBO POWAH?

The increasingly famous cartoon to be found at Laid Off Land gives a vision of life that could be called completely opposite of mine. Here's a guy, laid off from his dot-com job, living on unemployment and riffing on not being able to buy ice cream, get boobs in his face, or do anything much more productive than watch cartoons (strange loop there?).

I on the other hand think it's an incredible excuse to party if there's a night during which I don't have a meeting to go to, such as tonight. So here I sit, martini in hand, thinking about poor old Odd Todd and the future of work - or lack thereof.

A lot of people would probably want to tell him to quit whining and take what work is available - his neighborhood Starbucks might still be hiring, there are always motel rooms that need cleaned, put that pride away until you have something to be proud of, boy! (This mentality would definitely prevail in my little village, populated as it is overwhelmingly with members of the WWII and Korea generations, but not their children, who have mostly fled this valley to seek their fortunes in cities as perhaps Odd Todd did).

But I would point to what this guy is doing as an example of EXACTLY WHAT TO DO in his predicament. I'm not just talking about his ability to find irony and humor in his account of himself, his wry depiction of his qualifications (nice guy, able to answer phone, etc.), and his exquisite sense of timing (the way the laptop appears last on the screen as he discusses the way he followed King Missile's advice, wink wink), which he could have turned to many purposes (though I guess not towards "writing... a whole.. movay.") Sure, attitude matters, and it's great he can find his situation funny. But that's not the important thing.

The important thing is that this guy has found a niche for himself, created a one-man industry, a mini-brand that has to date earned him over $1800 in his tip jar, which allows admirers to give him a dollar via PayPal or Amazon (I only checked Amazon, where I have an account; there may be even more for him at PayPal). He's kind of got it made for as long as he continues to come up with vignettes that his peers and the public find funny enough to squeeze out a buck to keep seeing.

It's a prime example of what my peers at Secular Johnson like to call HOBO POWAH, and what Neal Stephenson's character Avi (see his novel Cryptonomicon) might consider an alternate version of "fuck-you money." What it's all about is discovering the pleasures and dangers of freedom, of reporting directly to no one and being one's own arbiter of his or her economic fate. It's liberating and dizzying and, if the person experiencing it has the right combination of balls, skills and imagination, it can lead to an enjoyable life, and even to a weird kind of noteriety.

HOBO POWAH can be seen in the weird insouciance of the man who founded or helped build a company from a little start-up to a bewildering giant and is just living comfortably off his stock options - yes, there are still a few of them, and I know one or two - and has now devoted himself to cultivating his skills on the theramin. It can be seen, more traditionally, in the footloose nomadism of the freelance travel writer, or in the old Depression-era freight-train riding tramps from which the phenomenon's name is derived.

Not everybody pulls it off. You do still have to have balls, skills and imagination.

I'd say that Odd Todd is on the verge of pulling it off. He may never have to file a W-4 again - unless he gets tired of making these cartoons.

I think there either already are or soon will be a lot more Odd Todds out there in the near future. The stubborn dream of telecommuting refuses to die, for one, and while the number of employers who are willing to accommodate it appears to be dwindling, the number of "employees" who want it does not. There is also, well, let's face it - LESS OF A NEED for a lot of the kind of jobs that characterized the "Old Economy" (I know using the new/old economy locution nowadays could get me lynched in some places but hey, come and get me, you mob. Just remember - I hired the cops in this town). As a society, we've invented ourselves out of a lot of factory and agricultural work, even a lot of office work. And as Robert Kaplan (see his excellent An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America’s Future) has pointed out, what work there is left is largely menial and unpleasant - the sort of work the average native-born American with any education or skills will be most unwilling to do, but lots of Latin American, Southeast Asian, Balkan and other immigrants would gladly take off our hands.

So what is there for the rest of us? Make up our own work, of couse. HOBO POWAH!

I myself had an exilhirating, but scary, HOBO SUMMAH after my former supervisor and I finally duked it out and I decided I didn't like my job enough to fight over it. This is a small town with a large service industry in the summertime, so I had four job offers within an hour of my storming out of my office - mostly retail and restaurant, but still with people I knew I'd at least get along with. I did eventually take one of these jobs on a severely part-time basis, just to make sure I kept the roof over my library (I own more books than many people do working hair follicles), but I knew right away what I wanted to do: FREELANCE WRITING! YES!

(That night, once word had spread, I found myself at the epicenter of a traveling HOBO PAHTY - any excuse for barhopping - but only amongst my immediate peers, those 30 and under [all seven of them] and a few of my creative, hip Libertarian friends who are a bit older [all two of them]. The tribal elders of the town were dismayed or angry or eager to know what I was going to do next, was I leaving town, etc? PLEASE! But HOBO PAHTY guests understood, of course. They knew about HOBO POWAH.)

I had sold a few articles in no time, because this is a small state in which it is easy to be famous and my columns had a certain following (plus I come from both a Wyoming press and a Wyoming law enforcement dynasty - contacts help a lot; indeed, they are absolutely indispensible to rural life. As one of my best friends puts it when he's had enough rum, "If yer not tribe you might as well feck off"). I wasn't making a lot of money yet, but I had plans, and every article that saw press seemed to bring me other people who were interested in giving me work, and without any effort on my point, my fees seem to be going up! Things were looking good.

But then, about two months after the initial high of quitting, while I didn't get scared, I got... bored. Bored with the kind of writing I was doing (still pretty much straight journalism), the subjects (after a fashion - I'll never get bored with Wyoming life or the people here, but I do get bored with things like school board policies under review AGAIN), and the process as a whole. Call subject. Interview subject. Extract 750 words in reverse pyramid form from interview notes. Verify quotes. Send off to editor. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. OH GOD I DON'T WANT TO KEEP DOING THIS.

So when the chamber of commerce job came open here, I took it. Now I can't say my life lacks variety, in the office or out. I'm usually busy as hell, multitasking in my head even in the middle of the night, running around from meeting to meeting to meeting... But I'm still kind of my own boss, reporting once a month to a board of nine people but otherwise free to structure my time pretty much as I please... So I still have time to wander around the web and find things like Odd Todd, wave of the future...

Sunday, November 18, 2001

There was a letter to the editor in this week's Saratoga Sun that is sure to bring people to our council meeting Tuesday. It always takes something that pisses people off to get them to come to public meetings where the big decisions are made.

I don't care why they'll be there; I'm just glad they will be. They'll see we're not ogres, idiots or dog-haters. We've hired a new police chief and he's read the ordinances and he's enforcing what he's been given. He's asked for a few changes, which we have made - the impound time for dogs impounded is now five days, down from eleven largely because 11 days crowds the facility. Where to put the new dogs when the "cells" are all full?

But that's not what's really got people pissed off; it's that the police report in the newspaper has gotten so very long, and is full of barking dog and dog at large complaints. The new chief decided when he got here that he wasn't going to maintain his predecessor's policy of selectively reporting his office's calls, hence the length, and, well, his predecessor only reported the animal calls that were in some way odd or entertaining - an escaped donkey, a dog that knocked his master's pickup into gear and caused it to back into a building, etc.

Every dog - or other - call makes the paper now, and so it LOOKS like our new chief and his largely hand-picked staff are picking on the dogs, or at least the barking or roaming ones...

As for the barking ones - these calls will keep being listed, citations issued, for as long as citizens of this town feel the need to call the police when their neighbors' dogs annoy them. I have to laugh at this a bit, and you all can laugh with me - you know it's a small town when people feel a 911 call to report a barking dog is a legitimate one.

As for the roaming ones - I can still remember back in my childhood, when the presence of strange, unaccompanied, unlicensed and possibly feral dogs was a common playground hazard. Kids got bitten all of the time; many of my schoolmates learned early how unpleasant the course of treatment for rabies is, with its fear, its vigilance and its painful shots in the belly. Do we want to go back to those days? No, we do not!

Nor are any of us on the Saratoga Town Council dog haters. One of my fellow council members has a Houdini dog of his very own, who has earned for his master a few mentions in the police report for dog at large. Another's wife is the proud owner of two champion-grade Bichon Friesze (sp?) dogs that are on frequent display at their business.

And as for dogs of business, my own office now plays host to a dog during normal hours: my secretary's very mixed blood two-year-old Hobbes, friendly, funny and strangely pretty with his blonde hair and yellow eyes. He's the official greeter at the Saratoga/Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce, of which I am the executive director (I got that job about a year after being elected to the town council, provoking many questions about whether there would be conflicts of interest. My answer to that is - who doesn't have conflicts of interest, living and working in a town of fewer than 2000 people and a valley of fewer than 4000? There are hundreds of jobs to be done, and only a few of us to do them. Quibble when there are enough bodies to go around. Until then, just be glad everyone here is so willing to juggle so many responsibilities), and he does his job with aplomb.

I'd have a dog if I could, but I live in an apartment with a no pets clause in the lease, and I'm not leaving this apartment, since it's within extremely easy (like 2 blocks) staggering distance from the bars, the stores and my office, plus it's the cheapest rent in town. I'll play with the dog at work, thank you.

Nor is my office the only place to enjoy canine company; 'most every business on Bridge Street (the heart of our little downtown business district) has a business dog, and there are also pickup dogs patiently waiting in the beds of trucks while their masters and mistresses shop, drink coffee, put out flags or just shoot the breeze. And I like it that way. So does the mayor, I think. And my fellow council members.

And my chamber membership definitely likes it - it makes our town seem all the more friendly and laid-back, to have so many easy-going dogs chilling out at the hardware store, the lumberyard, the souvenir shop, behind the hot dog stand, in the bars (but not the restaurants - BIG no-no!)...

It's part of what makes Saratoga Saratoga.

But my citizens (I can't really call them voters since our voter turn-out was pathetic even for a presidential election year, and we didn't even have a full slate of candidates for them to choose from anyway, so it wouldn't have mattered at the local level) don't really seem to think we, their elected officials, see things that way.

So I'm glad they're going to pack the meeting. If they pack the meeting. By Tuesday night, the paper will have been out for a whole week and many will have turned to other concerns. After all, there is a war on. And it's not against dogs.