Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Sock tan

But here’s a new worry I have, which has NEVER been an issue before, NEVER. Never, never! It’s small, I know. It’s not earth-shattering. But it’s been bugging me.

All our married life, I’ve mocked Mr. D for his red neck and his “sock” tan. It’s a golfer’s issue, mostly. Shorts, shirt, golf socks. You look good on the 18th green with your 82 on the card, but pretty damn strange in the shower afterwards (not that we were really looking! Please! I have some important knitting to do!) White feet, brown calves. But your tan only goes two thirds of the way up your legs, to just over your knees at mid-thigh, and then it’s back to a white body and that crazy red neck. I imagine tennis pros and rugby players have similar problems, not that I’ve been watching any of THOSE guys in any locker rooms. (Sorry to say, and more’s the pity. I could use the variety. Any volunteers, boys? Come on, you know it’s tempting.)

The problem? Uneven melanin distribution. It’s an aesthetic issue. But, hey, I was an art major. I GET to have an opinion on beauty, or the lack thereof. What if Tiepolo’s cherubs had been all oddly and unevenly colored? With nappie/diaper tans? Or if St. Jerome in the Wilderness had had painfully sunburned forearms, holding that Bible out there in the blinding light in the desert? Or maybe, maybe, the Angel Gabriel appeared at the Annunciation, and his feet were brown, but his body. Hold on! Wait! Angels don't have bodies, do they? Never mind, it doesn’t bear thinking about. OK, we move on.

So. Now? WELL! The tables have turned.

I, the usually marvelously pale and bookish Danish/Norwegian-heritaged creature, have been playing too much tennis OUTSIDE. Really, I’ve only played tennis indoors, for EVER. Chicago: snow, ice; England: rain, rain, rain. What else could a sensible girl do? My favorite tennis coach in the UK used to try to get me to take the occasional lesson outside -- so HE could get a bit of fresh air, for once -- but that was mostly like pushing a rope. I had every excuse in the book. “Mike, my sweet, it’s too hot. It’s too windy. No, no, it’s too still, there’s no breeze. I don’t have my outdoor shoes. I forgot my sunglasses. Hey, babe, I can’t serve if I’m wearing a hat, let’s go back inside. My knees hurt.” Oi! Whot nonsense!

Fortunately, he was too much of a gentleman to tell me to stop my effin’ whinging. Ever the civilized Brit. Don’t you love ‘em? And how I miss him! So, so, SO much! Now I have no one, though perhaps I can talk Russell into coming over to my place for a bit of a hit? But it won’t be the same. Russell’s calves are so.. so... so scrawny, compared to Mike’s. Ah well, what can one do? One has to adjust, I suppose. Wonder what time Russell gets off school? Maybe I should ask his mom?

Ach, back to my problems. So here, well, all there IS, is “outside”! Not an enclosed tennis court in the whole of Gauteng province, I’m sure. As a result, my hair is bleaching out, going from a deep brunette toward strangely tawny tones. (Hey, it is NOT gray! NOT! Button your lip, smart arse!) My skin is getting more and more brown, and I’m sweating in the 30C degree heat (90’s for Americans on the Fahrenheit scale). And I’m getting a freakin’ SOCK TAN. My feet are white, my calves are brown. I look like ... a weirdo.

Please don’t tell me to lie in the sun to even things out. That’s just too much, even for lazy old me. I could read a book, out there in the lounge chair by my pool, but it’s so decadent. Someone recently said to me, “You’ll know you’ve become South African when you can actually concentrate on reading a book while the maid/houseman is working nearby.” I shivered in the sweltering sunshine, but it’s probably too true.

Most of us women (the women who “don’t work”-- and let’s not get going on THAT one) have to actually leave the house when someone’s there, cleaning. It’s just hard to watch someone else doing “our job”, doing what we’re supposed to be spending our time on. Never mind that we’re working from home, paying bills online, writing a newspaper column, organizing a charity drive, communicating with our children’s teachers... whatever. It’s not really the “work” we’re supposed to be doing. What we’re supposed to be doing is laundry and cleaning toilets and ironing and ....

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hallmark cards for you

Hey, guys, it’s not all bad news from here, not ALL horrible problems. Really. For example, good news! Albert, the waiter who had a gunshot wound in the very first installment of these South African stories, has made a full recovery. We met him the other day, back at work in the garden restaurant “Buitegeluk” (loosely translated Afrikaans, “outdoor happiness”). As good as new, he was, so he said. All smiles. The gunshot wound only hurts sometimes, a little. Yeah, you can hardly ask for a better report than that, hey?

In fact, I’ve even written some poetry to perk us all up. Or perhaps it’s a song. Hum along, now, everyone!

We can all be light hearted, and happy, and gay....
No one I know ‘as been shot at, today....

lah-dee-dah...! lah-dee-dah!
lah dee DAH da, dee DAH da, dee DAH!

See our house in the ‘burbs, by the pool, in the heat,
The electric fence snapping -- security’s sweet!
The gate is rolled shut, alarm’s set to “stay”
That ought to keep all those bad okes away.

So we’ll sing and we’ll dance and make music and merry,
‘Cuz life in South Africa isn’t SO hairy!
We’ll play the piano, all ten fingers flying
(’Course I started with twelve!) (......No, really, I’m lying!)

lah-dee-dah...! lah-dee-dah!
lah dee DAH da, dee DAH da, dee DAH!

(Supply a tune from any Gilbert and Sullivan musical of your choosing.)


Or maybe I should write something more like a Hallmark greeting card...

Here’s hoping when the bullets fly
You’re nowhere near the scene
And when you see police nearby
They’re not corrupt or mean.
Stay far away from jewelry stores
And cash-in-transit vans,
Just linger by the pool, and, Doll,
Keep working on your tan.

.... Wishing you a Lekker Day from South Africa!....
Love, ...

Whaddya think? Do I have a career ahead of me in show biz or in the commercial stationery industry?

Missing ring fingers

Richard called for another volunteer, and picked a lovely dark-haired woman whose son had been the robber in the previous scenario. She was the one who’d sat in the front row during the first half of the course. When Richard had asked, at one point, “What would you do, madam, if the police tried to pull you over on the highway, while you’re driving?”

“Shoot at them!”

“Madam,” Richard laughed, “You have a truly violent nature!”

So Mrs. Violent settled herself into the driving seat, and Richard closed her car door. He talked about the importance of making slow, obvious movements, because robbers are nervous and trigger-happy, and with any sudden fright, muscles contract, and if your hijacker’s finger is on the trigger of a gun, well... one can have some unfortunate and unexpected results.

Suddenly, “BLAM!”

“BLAM BLAM BLAM!” Mrs. V screamed, involuntarily, inside the BMW, as Richard slammed the flat of his palm against the driver’s side window.

“Makes a helluva noise, doesn’t it? When they hit your window with a spark plug, it sounds like an explosion when the glass shatters. Now, same thing. Hands up. Cross your right hand over to unbuckle, unlock the doors with the central locking.” Mrs. V was better than Blonde Girl with left and right.

“Now,” continued Richard, “you must get out of the car and away from it as quickly and smoothly as possible. Don’t look at your attackers. Don’t make eye contact. Get out, turn sideways, and scrunch your neck down into your shoulder blades as much as possible. Put your arm and hand up to shield your head and neck. Turning sideways gives them less to aim at, and you want to put more bones (like arm bones and ribs) between a bullet and your head or vital organs. Obviously, any bullet IS going to go through your arm or hand, but at least you’ve slowed it down a little before it hits your head or your heart.

We all looked a little pale at this point.

“And then, they may still rob you too. Hand over your wallet, anything they ask for. And for heaven’s sake, ladies, when they point at your rings, hand them over too. If you can’t get your ring off, DO NOT under ANY circumstances put your finger in your mouth, to spit on it so you can get it off more easily. That can give him the terrible idea... to put YOUR finger in
HIS mouth... and bite your finger off. Through flesh, through bone. Heckuva lot easier to take your ring off when your finger’s not attached to your body anymore.”

Apparently, the wife of an executive at ABSA bank here in South Africa has a missing ring finger. She, as well as six other wealthy women in Jo’burg who kept their rings on one day longer than they should have.

So, since I play the piano, albeit not brilliantly, I’ve given up wearing rings. A missing fourth finger on my left hand would make things difficult. Although Alex, my jazz piano teacher, could probably still have me playing the blues. I’d just have even more to be blue about.

As a postscript, we were talking with Mrs. Violent and Richard after the class was over, and it turned out her husband had himself been attacked. He was shot six times, and he’s completely lost the use of his left arm. That’s why SHE was there, with her son. I guess that would change your life.

Let’s hope we all stay out of harm’s way.

No, no, the OTHER "right"!

Finally it was time for the personal safety part of the course, and an actual physical demonstration. Richard led us into the BMW showroom, and asked for a volunteer. Of course, no one volunteered, but that’s life all over, eh? So he pointed to a pretty blonde girl, and asked her to get into the X5. She buckled up, shut the door.

He turned to a young guy, and handed him a gun.

(Oh fer Pete’s sake, y’all, not a REAL gun! It looked like one, though. Not a plastic water pistol....)

“Ok, hold up the car! You’re the hijacker. Point the gun at her and tell her to get out.”

The guy halfheartedly waved the gun toward the girl in the car. Obviously his skill-set was in something other than highway robbery. Hell, what ARE they teaching kids these days?

Blonde Girl, a bit embarrassed, reached down to unbuckle her seat belt.

“No no no! Stop!” Richard opened the door of the car. “You mustn’t do it that way, dropping down or making fast movements. This is how you do it. One. You hold up your hands. Two. You very obviously cross your right hand ACROSS your body to unbuckle your seat belt.” [Americans: cars in South Africa, as in England, are right-hand drive, so all the ‘lefts’ and ‘rights’ are opposite what they’d be for you.] “And then, three, you unlock all the car doors with the central unlocking button.”

“Let’s try it again. Hands up.... Cross with right hand..... Unlock..... No no NO! Your RIGHT hand!”

Oh oh! Blonde Girl, like me, had left/right impairment issues. Guess we both missed boot camp.

“Let’s do it again. Hands up. Cross with right hand. NO, RIGHT HAND! RIGHT! Hoo boy, any of you ladies know your right from your left hand?” We all shook our heads and hung our heads in shame.

“You don’t want to use your left hand to unbuckle, because then your right hand stays down at your side, and it could look to a hijacker like you were reaching into the door pocket to get your gun.”

Your GUN! Yeah, your gun! And I thought that was only in New Jersey that people had guns in their door pockets. Like in The Godfather, or The Sopranos.

Man, I just usually have a map and reading glasses. “Here, you vile car thief! Let me beat you nearly to death with my Surrey book of maps and then poke your eyes out with the pointy ends of my reading glasses! Then for good measure, I’ll garrote you with the curly-cord of my phone charger. Yeah, take that! Maybe even pistol-whip you with the latch end of my dog’s spare leash and.. and... and then I’ll spray some Holt’s De-Icer into your eyes for good measure!!!!”

Ooooh, I’m getting carried away! I haven’t felt this vicious since the kids were small.

Off with the wedding ring!

I took off my wedding ring.

I’m not wearing it anymore. Twenty-six years on that finger. It was so hard to get it off. Took soap and water, and about 10 minutes. But now, I’m free of worries. I don’t have to care about it anymore.

Of course, Mr. D had something to say about it all. He was not happy. He’s continuing to wear his ring, stubbornly. But I don’t care what he thinks, at least about this. It’s all about me, now. And from now on.

I can hear you asking, “Well, what the heck happened, E? Are you throwing in the towel? What’s wrong? Was it the move? The stress? Is it all over? What?”

Nawww... it was the rest of that crazy anti-hijacking course. Let me tell ya.

We came back from the tea break slightly restored, but maybe even a little jumpier, thanks to some caffeine and sugar. Richard started in on part 2 of the presentation.

“You’re half awake, half asleep, in the middle of the night. Lekker, that’s sweet. But you hear a noise. What do you do? Probably nothing. You wait for the same noise again, a second time. Maybe a third time, and then you say to your partner, ‘Babe, go check out that noise, hey?’”

Everyone cracked up.

Richard continued describing a scenario where thieves have actually broken into your home. And why didn’t your dog bark? Because he’s already been poisoned or worse. So suddenly, thieves are there in your bedroom, pointing guns at you. That’s what those noises were! They take your car keys, tie you both up, and leave with one of your cars, or two. All they need is fifteen minutes lead time, so they can get the car away from the property, and disable the tracking system.

Maybe you get free, after they leave, and you call the police. You can hardly remember your own name, and now you’ve got to remember your car registration number? Good luck. While you’re dealing with the trauma, the car heist is already over and done with. Your loss, the Porsche’s gone. So’s the Beemer. But at least you’re still alive!

There have been cases where the police showed up, discussed the crime with the victim, called it in.. then sat around smoking and waiting for “back-up” but it turned out, they were rotten police, paid off by the robbers, and were just delaying things to give the car thieves more getaway time. In another case, the “police” asked for the registration documents, which were duly handed over, making it even easier to transfer ownership of the car to some black market dealer. Yi yi yi. Very clever thieves, these days. And who knows who’s on their payroll?

The Coke bottle ploy

Richard carried on, giving us more tips on personal safety. He told us about how to stay safe in a car park garage. First, make sure you’re not being followed. (Is this all starting to sound really familiar?)

Walk all the way around your car, checking both sides, in case someone is hiding on the passenger side, waiting for you to unlock the doors so he can jump in. Check to make sure your license plates are still attached -- a classic ploy is for a thief to unscrew your front plate and leave it on the carpark floor in front of your car. You back out, and oops! You see that your plate has fallen off. You get out to pick it up, leaving the car door open and the keys in the ignition, probably, and oops! Your car is gone! Ha ha!

Or another trick. A thief puts an empty plastic Coke bottle just behind your wheel. You back up, and “pop!” You think you’re tyre has popped, and, yes, you get out to check, and yes, Oops! Your car is gone! Ha ha!

And then there were some safety tips for ATM machines. Obviously, cover the number pad when you enter your pin number. In fact, when you first approach the ATM, check to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. Insert your card, and then immediately press “Cancel”. Your card should pop right out again. Re-insert the card and complete your transaction. If the card doesn’t pop out upon cancellation, the ATM may have been rigged to keep your card. You would have entered your pin number numerous times, and finally called the help line phone. Meanwhile, the next “customer” would have surreptitiously fished out your card with sticky tape while you were on the phone, and has memorized your pin number already. Soon money is flying out of your bank account, to Nigeria.

Oh maaaa gawd. We all had to take a tea break. We all stood up on trembling legs and tried to look calm and relaxed.

The best was yet to come.

Pooot fooot! Floor it!

Seventy-six percent of carjackings take place in driveways. Not even necessarily YOUR driveway. Could be someone else’s, someone you’re visiting.

And now Richard launched into a whole riff about awareness, and paying attention.

“Ladies, use your mirrors! Not for your eyes and lips, girls, but for looking around you! Check to see if you’ve been followed home from the grocery store. If you see someone behind you, go around the block and try again. It’s just a few more minutes, but it’s important!”

“How many times have I heard, ‘Richard, they came from nowhere. Just knives, guns, everywhere! They came from the sky!’ What’s the problem here?No awareness, people! The guy was on his cell phone, talking to a friend, not paying attention, and he got hijacked. Bad news.”

“And”, Richard continued, “you’re to check up and down the street, too. A hijacker could be waiting, watching at the next corner, and in the time it takes for you to signal, look, and turn (3 seconds) and then the time it takes for your gate to open (15-22 seconds), they’re racing toward you and have you blocked in. Guns pointed. “Get out, get out!” Your car is gone. But hopefully, not your life too. And don’t do anything stupid, like throwing the keys into the bushes or something. You want them to take the car, and their knives and guns, and go away as quickly as possible. The longer you’re with the hijackers, the more dangerous it all becomes for you.”

So, you must leave yourself an escape route while waiting for the gate to open, make sure you haven’t been followed, and then once you go through the gate, stop immediately inside it while it closes, so no one can follow you in.

Sounds like REALLY defensive driving, doesn’t it? I don’t remember learning this back in driver’s ed in Wisconsin.

And then, what if you’re being followed home? Well, first of all, you’ve already, ALWAYS, locked your doors, and your windows are all closed. You check your rearview mirror, often. But someone is behind you. So reduce your speed, and force them to catch up. Put on your left indicator (blinker). Slow down to 20 kph, and force them to overtake you and hope they’ll go pick on someone else, I suppose.

But there’s another scenario, more threatening. There’s a car cruising along next to you on the expressway, it’s after nine pm, dark. There are four big okes (“blokes” in Brit-speak) inside the other car, and it looks like they’re trying to force you off the road.

Richard’s advice? If you’re lighter, you’re faster. With four guys in that car, you have an advantage. Don’t hit the brakes. “Poooot foooot”, as they say here. Floor it! Try to outrun them, to a police station, a hospital, a filling station, whatever. And stay inside the car until the bitter end.

Yet another situation. You’re at a light, in traffic. You’ve left ample space between you and the car in front of you, so you can see where their rear tyres touch the road’s surface. About a car length of space. You get bumped from behind. You must think, “Is this bump enough to worry about? And do I feel safe? No?” So put on your hazard blinkers and drive to the nearest hospital, police station or petrol station. If they don’t follow you, it’s no loss. No loss of your LIFE.

And, if you look behind you and see four big dudes storming out of the car behind you, while you’re waiting at that same light, turn the steering wheel, hard, to where you want to go (around the car in front of you) and slam on the gas. At the same time, drop your head and body completely down below the level of the windows and accelerate for as long as it takes to count “1001, 1002”. Then pop up again so you can see where you’re driving.

This tactic has multiple things going for it. First, by dropping down in your seat, you have more metal between you and bullets, and your internal organs are more protected. Not to even mention your brain. Secondly, I suppose if you end up crashing the car, they might not want it so much after all.

Did I tell you I plan to become a stunt driver when I return to the States? I’ll be an extra in the next “Fast and Furious” sequel.

Baby you can drive my car

So. Why do people decide to hijack a car? Your car?

For financial gain. For personal image. For power.

And the last reason is so much more dangerous, much MUCH more dangerous, than the first two.

Let’s look at some types of hijackings.

First up, the hot hijack. The syndicate (the SA “mob”) and a shady used car dealer are in cahoots. The dealer asks for the model and vehicle -- he already has a buyer in mind -- but the dealer will take whatever he gets from the hijacker, including bullet holes in the driver’s side door, blood on the seats, broken glass and shattered taillights.

Of course, these ... drawbacks.... will influence the selling price of the vehicle. Usually the hijacker gets between 17 and 32 percent of the used car value of the vehicle. For a BMW 330ci the hijacker can get R12000 - R25000 (that’s about £1000 - £2200, or $1800 - $ 3700 ).

So that’s for your bullet riddled car, your very own blood staining the driver’s seat, and you on the pavement, most probably dead. You, YOU! Your heart, your soul, your unique and exquisite mind are worth only R12000.... £1000.... $1800..... That’s it. Or more accurately, you, your heart, your soul, your unique and exquisite mind are worth nothing.

It’s only the car, Jack.

And the car is hot. Very hot. It has to “go away”, get sold, immediately.

Next up, the cold hijack. For this one, the buyer/dealer specifies the year, model, color, interiors. Almost like buying a car the regular way, but..... not quite. The method of choice is to bribe a person, preferably a woman, at the registry department. Give her a big bunch of money to start out, and she goes into her computer database, and changes the registration details on the car. The VIN number or whatever. Now a new registration number/license plate can be issued for this “new” car.

All is going along fine, but then, the next time the hijackers are going to make a payment to this woman, they call her up and note that they know where she lives, where her kids go to school, and maybe, maybe, if you want to see your kids again, you might not “need” so much money next time. A different kind of downward spiral for this amateur criminal. And now she’s stuck. Screwed, really. Too late to change her mind, now. She has to continue altering VIN numbers and assisting organized crime.

The reality of it is, there are 100,000 cars that have “disappeared” in Gauteng. But they’re all still driving around. With new, different VIN numbers in the system. Thanks to the people who slipped that once and gave into temptation. And then did it again and again and again.

Then, thirdly, there are the opportunistic car jackers. The house burglars who take the cars along with the household goods. In this case, the guy has the car, after the house burglary, but doesn’t know what to do with it, because it’s not his usual thing to fence. So he has a tougher time finding a market, and might sell your Mercedes for next to nothing.

But there’s also another kind of motivation. The simple desire for personal gain. A guy steals your car... because he likes your car. This one deals in firearms or drugs. And he’ll only trade for another hot car if people are talking.

He might also steal your car, your E class Mercedes or your 5 class BMW, because both of those models have a low center of gravity and can be used to knock over cash-in-transit vehicles (Brinks trucks, for American readers.) This is the big new popular pastime for criminals. A gang of guys in a Merc or Beemer sideswipes a cash-in-transit vehicle. With the low center of gravity, they can simply tip over the cash-in-transit truck, onto its side, and then they cut off the roof (using the Jaws of Life, or in this case I suppose, the Jaws of Money) when the truck is disabled. These heists are happening all the time, multiple times a week, all over Gauteng.

So what does this mean? It means if you have a Merc or a BMW, you have a desirable car to a hijacker, because your car can be used to create further ill-gotten gains. It’s not just your car’s value, it’s the value-add. The contents of those cash-in-transit vehicles that the gang is going to hit up.

And what’s the problem, though, for the hijacker, with stealing a Merc or a Beemer? Two problems, really. First, the thief has to get the keys. With all the new technology, immobilizers and so on, you can’t hot wire a car anymore, very often.

And so you, the driver/owner, have the keys. In your hand. He needs to get you to give him the keys. This is where things get dangerous.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hijacking 101

A good start, for a Saturday. We’re fresh, we’ve found our way there -- why, it’s a “family outing”! Who knew? What fun!

“Take a tea or coffee, sit down, make yourselves comfortable. And thank you for coming today.”

I really couldn’t believe it. Here, Saturday at 9 am. A crowd of what, 50, 60 people? All here to listen to a program on preventing carjackings. When they could have been out at breakfast, or at their kid’s football match, or sleeping in. So.... it must be a real problem, hey? A REAL problem. Aiiiii.

Our instructor introduced himself. Richard.

What a dynamite guy. Just a pistol! (So to speak.) He plunged right in, talking a mile a minute.

“What happens when a one year old baby gets shot in a hijacking? What’s that all about? Someone gets shot at 14 times, gets hit four times? It seems senseless, and it is. Most of these crimes are committed by 13-22 year olds. And you know what they’re thinking. Nothing.”

Thirteen year olds. And you think you’re peeved because your 13 year old son handed in his history project a day late? Things could be worse!

The first carjacking in South Africa, the first recorded one, was in 1976, on the 17th of April.... in Bloemfontein.

At this point, the audience completely cracked up! “Bloem! Maaaa Gawd! NOTHING happens in Bloemfontein!” Hysterical laughter. We three Americans were a bit lost, but figured it was probably like Peoria, Illinois (though speaking of which, Tarquin was the victim of an attempted robbery at gunpoint, on Main Street, in Peoria, Illinois... the most ordinary town in the world. Fortunately, the robbers spooked themselves as Tarq was fumbling for his wallet. “Sh-t, man, we’re on Main Street! Main Street! We can’t do this on Main! F---! F---!!!” And they floored it and sped off in their white car to rob someone else on... 7th Street, maybe? Tarq was stunned. “Mom, I was all ready to hand over my wallet and everything... it was so weird!”)

But the name, “carjacking” didn’t enter the official lingo until 1997. That was the first year the South African government started keeping statistics on carjackings. So in terms of analysis, the stats are only 10 years old.

In 2004, 10,981 cars were stolen in Gauteng (the province surrounding and including Jo’burg). Of those 10,981, 5-7% were actually insurance fraud. Someone calls up their insurance company: “Maaaa Gawd, my car was stolen in my front drive just this instant!” And then the person puts in a claim, and buys a boat or something. Nasty business.

But 10,981 cars. That’s out of 6.7 million cars registered in Gauteng. Not so bad. You do the math. Your odds are better than you thought.

Now other provinces, well, the statistics are slightly different. Only 1,021 cars stolen in the Western Cape, but that’s out of a total of 784,000 cars, so the percentages are about the same, really. Odds, percentage-wise, are similar that you’ll be carjacked in the Western Cape. It’s all in how you bend the numbers.
And then, in the North Cape. Well, there were 6 cars hijacked in the Northern Cape last year. So your odds look good over there. But, “there are only 7 cars registered there”, so.... percentages are TERRIBLE!!!! Again, mad laughter from the audience. Nothing, but NOTHING happens in the Northern Cape. Who knew?

21 gun salute upon my return


Just heard gunshots. Again.

Which reminds me of my first full weekend back and the anti-hijacking course.

I did get back to Jo’burg. Did my usual stuff. Nothing. Tennis. Pilates. Paperwork. Sounds so thrilling, doesn’t it? Wrote up my fantastic UK police escapades for y’all.

Then, on Saturday morning, we went to the BMW dealership to learn about hijacking prevention.

Now, this was the thing that initially put me OFF South Africa. The American School of Johannesburg, for one of its parents’ evenings, had a scheduled talk on “Preventing Hijackings”. I saw the notice on the web site, and thought, bl----dy freakin' heck, why would I want to move to a place where the parent nights are devoted to this stuff, instead of “Get your kid into an Ivy League school”? Furrr-get it!

But then. Surprise, here I am! In South Africa. At an anti-hijacking course. Oh well. Guess I don’t “hold firm” very well. At all. So much for being bossy and getting my way. Not.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Reader commentary

So, yeah. What’s up in the world?

Tricia wrote and said, “From America, to The Storyteller: ...I'm so jaded...
I need more sex and violence in these stories. Could you work on that? fact, fiction, who cares? love ;) T ....”

I told Tricia I’ve only been violently vacuuming up spiders. Will have to break my marriage vows and/or go on a shooting spree, I guess. God, some people are so HARD to satisfy!

Then Teri wrote, sending me a wonderful book... and... inside the book were PHOTOGRAPHS of one of “Matt the Plumber”’s trucks. Can you believe the timing?

And finally Raechel wrote, the actual Raechel of “Raechel and the Tradesmen”, and said, “What do you mean, I'm not that type of girl? Why do you think I needed so many repairs? Maybe it's having those buff guys around who do what you tell them to do, AND clean up after themselves. Or maybe it's those tool belts. (Oh, those tool belts!) One time, I spotted one of their tool belts slung over the porch railing, and I elbowed David to just go slip it on for a short time... just the tool belt. Oh, please....”

Now there’s a buncha girls, whot knows wha’ they likes....

But, this brings us, brilliantly, to the anti-hijacking course. I promised I’d tell you before, but frankly, it was so terrifying that I’ve had to let it all settle a bit. But, no sex,Tricia, only violence!

It was on Saturday morning, October 15th. I’m out of jail. (And who knew I’d get to say THAT, ever!) I’m back in South Africa (another type of jail, it feels like, at the moment -- out of the frying pan and into the fire!) And we’re off to the BMW dealership: Mr. D, Miss T, and I. Going there to ensure that, among other things, Mr. D’s new BMW X5 doesn’t get hijacked “to order” for some high level government official in Zimbabwe.

The death of the fax

But we did have a small tragedy here, this week. It related to electricity, in fact.

Johann was here, fixing the security cameras and setting up the tvs with the cable company.

“Here, fill out this application for DSTv and we can fax it in.” This was to sign up with satellite tv.

“Oooo. Fax. Hmmm. I’m not sure I can fax it, but let me go plug in the machine and we can try.”

I couldn’t get a line out of the house. Strange dial tone (another thing about a new country, you don’t know a normal dial tone from one that’s telling you to drop dead, piss off, and/or hang up... and that, in no particular order.)

“Ok, now I’ve got a dial tone. Plug in the machine,” said Johann.

I plugged it in. The keypad lit up, and then went out again. Suddenly, the machine was making a strange buzzing noise.

“Why’s it doing that? What’s wrong?” Johann scratched his head.

“I don’t know. It’s not how it usually sounds.”

A strange fried electronics smell began to be apparent....

“Oh my god. I blew it! I blew its brains out. I cooked the fax!”

Johann looked puzzled.

“110 volts in America? 220V here? Johann, I plugged it in to a 220 socket, but didn’t use a transformer! I forgot! It’s toast! I’ve killed it! Ai yi yi! So stupid!!”

Johann laughed. “Why do they make converter plugs like this?” He pointed to the plug adapter that had allowed me to plug my American appliance into a South African power point. “It’s dangerous and it doesn’t make sense!”

I said, “Well, sometimes it’s useful, for electronics things that can use either level of voltage.”

Johann grinned and said, “Ah well. You Americans! You’re so clever. We South Africans could never make sense of all that!”

“Such self-deprecatory humour, you South Africans have!” I replied, laughing.

It took me another full five minutes to realize that he was having me on. I’m so SLOW sometimes! After all, who was such the clever one today? Not the American. No, not really. Duhhhhh!

That Johann, what a smart arse!

(I think I’ll have him back again, sometime....)

Amateur electricians

Ok. Enough of that. Really. No more plumbing.

Because now we have to move on to electrical. And I’m not even going to discuss the electric security fence, which beeped and hummed all night long last night and nearly drove me mad. (Mad, mad, I tell you! And you know I don’t need any help in that department, do I?)

No, now we’re going to talk about wiring.

You know how, when you’re a kid, you get taught stuff and you think, “When am I EVER going to use this information?” Well....

When I was just a wee lass, my dad was always coming up with “Projects”. Projects, with a capital “P”. Building something out of wood, putting up a flag pole holder on the front of the house, repairing the screens on the back porch. He would always have me come along to help. To hold the screwdrivers, hammer some nails, measure the lumber. And he was great about explaining how to do things. “No, hold the hammer back here, at the end of the handle, so you can really whack that nail and get the full use out of the tool.” “Measure twice, cut once.” “If you make a little pilot hole with the drill, the screw will go in more easily, and straight.” “A bit of bar soap on the screw will let it slide straight into the wood.”

I learned so much, and he was so patient. So many fathers wouldn’t have bothered messing about with teaching their daughters these skills, but my dad... well, he loved passing on all those tips. When I went off to college, one of the best things he gave me was my own toolbox. Which has been a source of numerous arguments over the years with Mr. D, who always maintains that all the good tools are his, and I’ve stolen them and put them in my toolbox... but never mind, I’m sure Mr. D is right, yeah? (My point, by the way, is always that he’s not going to be NEEDING the vise grips on a flight to Barcelona, now, is he? Who’s USING the tools, eh? Oh, oh, I’d better quit arguing while I’m winning, don’t you think? But it’s so nice to get no back talk, just this once!)

ANYway. One of our projects one summer was rewiring a lamp. We’d brought back this ancient lamp from great-aunt Ruth’s Lake Michigan cottage. We found the lamp out back, in the studio, covered with cobwebs and smelling all mildewy, like the lakeside air that stayed trapped in the old studio, with its stored canvas canoes and all the old deck chairs.

The lamp was lovely, in a vintage 1930’s way. So we brought it home with us, frayed fabric-covered cord and all.

Do you remember fabric-covered electric cords? So thick and bulky. And then this massive conical plug at the end, half coming undone. Very hazardous looking.

So my dad decided we’d rewire the lamp. Off to the hardware store, for new plastic coated wiring and a new plug.

He fed the wire through the lamp’s base, and rewired the top part of the lamp. “See, just strip off some of the plastic, and then tighten down these tiny screws onto the bare copper wire you’ve exposed. Done. Now we do the same thing at the other end, and attach the plug. There, see? A new lamp. Good for another 50 years.”

We put in a light bulb, plugged the lamp into the wall, and voila! Light on the subject.

But honestly, how often do you come across a lamp that needs a new plug? In America? You have to look pretty hard, these days, to find that kind of a project.

Ah, but yes.... We’re not in Kansas, or even Illinois anymore, are we, Dorothy? Nope, England for a while, and then now, South Africa.

Not sure if you Americans actually know what British electrical plugs look like. They are massive. Massive! Probably three times the size of an American plug. They have three prongs, always, and they make American plugs look anemic and utterly frail. Of course, they do have to deal with much more power (220 volts, versus America’s 110v). So it makes sense, I suppose, that they are so robust. Anyway, British plugs are just gigantic, and have rectangular prongs. And South African plugs look just like British plugs, except that South African plugs have cylindrical prongs. You see where we’re headed, don’t you?

The rewiring project for 2005-2006. I may be exchanging plugs for the next several months. Unscrew all the screws. Take off the British plug. Re-strip the wire, trim it up, insert into South African plug, tighten screws again. Next please.

All the lamps. The iron. The computer plugs. The cd player. The stereo. The blender. The hair dryer(s). The amp. The coffee grinder. You get the picture. And so there I am, these evenings, at the dining room table, rewiring plugs and thinking of my dad.

Good for the soul, and for my fine motor skills. And happy birthday again, Dad! You’ve taught me and helped me, again and again and again. You deserve the happiest of days!

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Desperate Housewives, Chicago style

Well, what’s been the most popular response to the last e-mail?

“Jeez, E, why are you SO darned repetitive?”

Nawww, just kidding. Only my good buddy Tim pointed out that I’d sent him the same e-mail twice the other day (and also twice to so many of you! ). For that I blame my erratic internet connection, which sometimes comes back saying “The message could not be sent”.

Then I usually panic, thinking, “My goodness, these poor poor people will not be able to read my next fabulous installment! Deprived of my genius! What to do? What to do?” And in a frenzy, I push the send button five more times, or redo the thing entirely, with multiple mailing lists, only to find that .... yes, it did indeed go through the first time after all! Hmmmph. Makes me look like an idiot. I know.

(And no comments from the peanut gallery, please, as to whether appearances reflect reality, thank you VERY much....)

So, “howzit“ here in South Africa?

Fairly dull, I suppose, this week. I have been working on “moving in” issues, unpacking boxes, buying household supplies, trying to get the phones to work, supervising painters and electricians and security company reps and cable tv installers and ... and ... and... the list seems endless. And it’s Johann and Fred and Fernando and Calvin and Edouard and Piet and Derrick and Arthur and Jan and Kelsie and Sipho .... in and out of the house, all day long.

But in a way, it’s nice to have the male companionship. All those guys! As Mr. D is off in Europe again (Paris, Geneva, damn it! I’m so envious!) Eight days, just me and Miss T, in this huge house by ourselves. Soon I’ll be one of those women who break things, just so a handsome phone company guy will come by to do repairs. “Women who break stuff, and the men who service them”. What an excellent, saucy title!

Years ago, in Philadelphia, my friend Raechel seemed to have someone at her house, working there, every time I ever phoned her. I threatened to write a short story, titled “Raechel and the Tradesmen.” Never got any farther than that title though. I would sit down to write it, but I think I found my day dreams were always much too lurid to write down, so I couldn’t have marketed THAT story to anyone but Penthouse Forum, and Raechel wasn’t that kind of girl!

But then we moved on to Chicago, and I forgot about Raechel’s marvelous tradesmen. With four little kids, I couldn’t afford to hire out repairs, and I had mostly learned to fix stuff myself over the years, or live with it “as is”, somehow. But finally, in 1994, I had some kind of a serious plumbing issue. Something that I couldn’t fix myself. A backed up main drain, I think. It needed a power auger or a line snake. Out of my league, for sure. So, I looked in the yellow pages, and picked the nicest looking local advert I could find. “Precision Plumbing”. That sounded like a competent plumber.

The plumbing truck drove up, and out of the cab stepped the most gorgeous creature I’d ever clapped eyes on. Matt, the Plumber. Tall, dark and handsome. White T-shirt and pressed blue jeans.

“What’s the problem?” he asked.

I’m sure I was nearly speechless, a frumpy tongue-tied thirty-something housewife in a baggy tracksuit, with four little kids hanging all over her. And I was embarrassed at the same time to present such a smelly and terrible problem to someone who looked so ... sweet. And he was such a pleasant guy. He fixed the drain, no sweat. I soon after had him install the new garbage disposal. Then the ice maker on the new fridge. The sump pump. The new washer and dryer. A utility sink. Gas piping for an outdoor grill.

And the bathroom renovation. He hefted a new toilet up the staircase like it was nothing at all. And as he knelt on the tile floor and jiggled it into place and connected the fittings, no plumber’s arse either! This boy could really wear a tool belt!

It turned out, he was a really smart guy. He’d attended university for two years, but just wasn’t into it, so he apprenticed on with a licensed plumber and went to trade school. He was just branching out, starting his own plumbing business, when I hired him the first time in 1994.

So after that, when anyone ever asked me, “Do you know a good plumber?”

Well! Gosh, did I!

“Let me tell you... Precision Plumbing... but be sure to ask for Matt. He’s ... exquisite...”

Book groups, PTA meetings, church coffee hour. Soccer field sidelines, grocery store aisles. Whispers, scribbled notes.... “Ask for Matt. Sooo good!”

And now? In 2005? Well, Matt doesn’t actually come out on jobs any more. He’s now got a fleet of 25 fully fitted trucks. Probably a staff of 40. Secretary, computerized billing, you name it.


All the housewives of Glen Ellyn are suffering, still, a little bit. A little bit heartbroken, a little bit bereft, hoping that one day, the toilet will stop up, they’ll dial Precision Plumbing, and Matt will show up once again on the front step, with his dark eyes and his gorgeous smile.

I think Matt always knew how appealing he was. Fantasy object of all those desperate housewives. And do you know how I know that?

Because Teri told me this summer, she had some major news, MAJOR NEWS, about our fave plumber! He’s just had his logo redesigned, and had all his trucks redone!

And what’s on the trucks now?

Matt’s beautiful face, enlarged to 6 feet tall.

Now there’s a guy who can market himself. Selling the fantasy, the dream.

“Let me come over and check out your pipes, baby...” Mmmm....