Book Review: Detroit: An American Autopsy – Charlie LeDuff

 

 

Overview: Most people have heard that things in Detroit aren’t going so well. Most people really have no idea how bad it actually is. Charlie LeDuff grew up in Detroit. He understands the history, he has seen the rise and the fall. In his book he heads back to the town that he grew up in to see the state of things and try to get an understanding as to how it all happened while working as a reporter. What he finds is shocking. Utter poverty, people burning down houses for entertainment, non-responsive police departments, factories operating at 30% capacity, illiteracy, deserted buildings, corrupt politicians, and dozens of other things you wouldn’t expect to find in a once thriving American town. Through his writing for a local Detroit newspaper LeDuff attempts to play his part in helping the city he grew up in.

What he did was dangerous for both him and his family. But his experience has enabled him to open up readers to a new, sad and shocking American world.

Lesson: Thriving empires can turn into piles of shit in a relatively short amount of time. Other cities aren’t immune to becoming a modern day Detroit. With the right combination of corruption, greed, crime, you name it, any city is subject to losing a giant chunk of its population and becoming a deserted wasteland.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

It was a pretty good run. But wanderlust is like a pretty girl – you wake up one morning, find she’s grown old and decide that either you’re going to commit your life or you’re going to walk away.

We are not alone on this account. Across the country, the dead go unclaimed in the municipal morgues because people are too poor to bury their loved ones: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. It’s the same. Grandpa is on layaway while his family tries to scratch together a box and a plot.

At the end of the day, the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.

Losers. That was 80 percent of the country, and the new globalized economic structure was cranking out more. I could see it in my travels. I could see it when I went home to Detroit for the holidays. Hell, I could see it in the box stores on Sunset Boulevard and the FOR SALE signs in the Los Angeles foothills.

Detroit might be the epicenter, a funhouse mirror and future projection of America. An incredibly depressed city in its death swoon.

What our generation failed to learn was the nobility of work. An honest day’s labor. The worthiness of the man in the white socks who would pull out a picture of his grandkids from his wallet. For us, the factory would never do. And turning away from our birthright— our grandfather in the white socks— is the thing that ruined us.

And so Detroit has the ignominious distinction of being the only American city to have been occupied by the United States army three times. Michigan may geographically be one of America’s most northern states, but spiritually, it is one of its most southern.

Detroit reached a peak population of nearly 1.9 million people in the 1950s and was 83 percent white. Now Detroit has fewer than 700,000 people, is 83 percent black and is the only American city that has surpassed a million people only to contract below that threshold.

In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit, so fuck it. They burn the empty house next door and they sit on the fucking porch with a forty, and they’re barbecuing and laughing ’cause it’s fucking entertainment. It’s unbelievable.

Highland Park, the birthplace of the Model T, was an industrial hamlet wholly surrounded by Detroit. Today, little is there. It is poor, black, burned down and so tough that even the Nation of Islam moved its mosque away. The saying goes that suburbanites don’t go to Detroit and Detroiters don’t go to Highland Park.

Harry was a typical Detroiter: unemployed part time, full of God and finding hope anywhere he could get it. At least the car still works. Praise Him!

By 1958, 20 percent of the Detroit workforce was jobless . Not to worry, the city, rich with manufacturing revenue, had its own welfare system— a decade before Johnson’s Great Society. The city provided health care, fuel, and rent and gave $ 10 every week to adults for food; $ 5 to children. Word of the free milk and honey made its way down South and the poor “Negros” and “Hillbillies” flooded in by train. If it wasn’t for them, the city’s population would have sunk further than it did.

On December 15, President Bush, not wanting the collapse of the auto industry as another black mark on his legacy, extended a $ 17 billion bailout to GM and Chrysler.

Now Billy was living the nightmare of every suburban white guy—working in a hellhole, standing next to a retarded fellow who’s also making $ 8.50 an hour, counting and cleaning screws. The retard, it turns out, is better suited for the job because the retard can shut it down, turn off his mind.

This place called Detroit wasn’t interesting to me anymore. It was breaking my heart. It was driving me insane. A whole generation of people relegated to the garbage pile.

Christ, it didn’t seem to matter . Black or White. Liberal or Conservative. White collar or Blue. Nobody could run shit. And it wasn’t just Detroit. Sacramento, Washington, D.C., Wall Street. The entire country was being run into the ground by a generation infected with incompetence and greed.

Nevin and the boys from Engine 23 had told me it was bad, but what I was seeing was worse than the Baghdad fire department, which actually got more than $ 150 million from the United States government, while Detroit got zero.

He was everything wrong. He took no responsibility for the lives he ruined. He blamed others. He hid behind slogans and excuses. He was Kwame Kilpatrick. He was General Motors. He was Wall Street. He was modern America. He was a cheater.

“This bar changed six years ago,” Tyrone said. “They trying to put something nice up in this shit hole. Can’t say it’s working. But what you gonna do? You ain’t gonna be reincarnated, so you got to do the best you can with the moment you got. Do the best you can and try to be good. You dig?” I did. We are born to a time. What you do with it is on you. Do the best you can. Try to be good. And live.

 

Personal Finance for Everyone and Their Mom: Part 2 (net worth)

Do you have any idea what your total net worth is? The answer is probably no. For those of you who aren’t sure what net worth is, it is simply the calculation of subtracting your debts from your assets.

Examples of common assets:

  • Money of any financial accounts
  • Value of property (house, car, boat, etc)

Examples of common debts:

  • Credit Card debt
  • Mortgage balance
  • Car credit balance

In practice:

You own a house currently valued at $300,000. You have an outstanding loan balance of $216,000. Your approximate net worth on your home is $84,000. Mathematically it is a pretty simple calculation.

The calculation is the simple part, what is more difficult is tracking down all of your assets and debts to get an accurate picture of your true net worth. People have multiple bank accounts, IRAs, 401Ks, personal trading accounts, you name it. People also have several lines of revolving credit at any given time. Typically all of this information is not gathered in one place, thus the average person probably misses the mark when they sit down with a financial planner and gives them an approximation of their net worth.

Okay, but why is it important?

Everyone wants to build wealth. Most people want it to happen overnight. Unfortunately though, not many people are able to do that, so it is something that we have to work on over time. It is important for us to understand our assets vs. debts in order to see how far ahead we are in the green, or how much further we have to go before we escape from the red. If an emergency were to happen next month where you take on additional stress financially, how much room do you have to spare before the ship starts to sink?

The previous finance post was about budgeting. When you have a budget that appropriately reflects the money you are saving each month you can create realistic projections of net worth in the future.

Look at the table below for simple example of this, pretend that the “saved” and “debt paid” comes straight from an established budget:

As you can see, each month shows how much was saved and how much debt was paid off, and then it flows through to increase assets and decrease debt, thus increasing the total value of net worth.

Projections can be broken down into much more detail. You can use amortization tables for mortgages, apply approximate returns for investment accounts, subtract exact values for payments to remaining balances for lines of credit, et cetera.

Having an idea on what your net worth will be a year from now can help you meet savings goals and help you see whether you are building wealth as quickly as you hope. The asset projection is like an arm from your budget. Perhaps on your budget you are okay with the $150 a month spent at Starbucks. But then when you realize you could potentially increase your net worth by $1,800 a year, you might reconsider whether you want to keep Starbucks in your budget.

Interesting, but how difficult is this?

As was mentioned in the previous finance post, the website www.mint.com makes this task much easier. You can link all forms of bank accounts to mint. Mint then summarizes all of your assets and debts and allows you to export the data into Microsoft Excel, where you can pivot it or create projections of net worth. Mint essentially makes a traditionally complicated task much easier for the average person.

Statistics show those who spend time each month managing their finances will build more wealth than people who don’t. Understanding personal assets and debt is essential when it comes to wealth building.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or advice on getting set up to manage your own net worth.

Book Review: Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window – Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

Overview: This book is awesome. It should be required reading for anyone involved in education and I would highly recommend it to all parents as well. It is the story of a girl who is expelled from a ‘regular’ school and is sent to a less traditional school called Tomoe Gakuen. The school is composed of train cars and the headmaster has a laid back style of education, where he encourages students to do what they enjoy and organizes activities in attempt to prevent self-esteem and self-confidence issues as they grow older. The book is told from the perspective of a child. The students at Tomoe lead happy lives while learning important values about life, most importantly which is not to judge others because they are different.

The best part about it is that it is based on a school that really existed, and the author was once a student of the Tomoe school. The worst part is that the school was operating during WWII, and was eventually bombed and never rebuilt.

Lesson: There are better ways to structure education than what has been traditionally accepted. There is no reason that school cannot combine learning with fun, freedom, and love, instead of obedience, routine, and discipline (or whatever words you think fit into what your education experience was like). The number of copies that this book has sold says something about the message it contains.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

And at that moment Totto-Chan felt she had met someone she really liked for the very first time in her life. You see, up till then, no one had ever listened to her for so long. And all that time the headmaster hadn’t yawned once or looked bored, but seemed just as interested in what she had to say as she was.

And why did he let them swim in the nude? Because he thought it wasn’t right for boys and girls to be morbidly curious about the differences in their bodies , and he thought it was unnatural for people to take such pains to hide their bodies from each other.

Thus, the purpose of eurythmics was first to train both mind and body to be conscious of rhythm, thereby achieving harmony between the spirit and the flesh, and finally awakening the imagination and promoting creativity.

Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music ; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster.

What a difficult phrase to teach children, she marveled. But it proved how easily children learn once their interest is aroused.

There at Tomoe, the headmaster and one of his pupils were making a solemn promise about something that lay ten years or more in the future, when everyone was saying it was only a matter of time before American airplanes loaded with bombs appeared in the skies over Japan.

In the midst of it all, the headmaster stood in the road and watched Tomoe burn. He was dressed, as usual, in his rather shabby black three-piece suit. He stood with both hands in his jacket pockets. “What kind of school shall we build next?” he asked his university-student son Tomoe, who stood beside him. Tomoe listened to him dumbfounded. Mr. Kobayashi’s love for children and his passion for teaching were stronger than the flames now enveloping the school. The headmaster was cheerful.

He believed all children are born with an innate good nature, which can be easily damaged by their environment and the wrong adult influences. His aim was to uncover their “good nature” and develop it, so that the children would grow into people with individuality.

The DPS Chronicles: Part 2

Half of the fun in being a summer crew worker came from the vehicles that we got to use. The humor from the short bus is pretty self explanatory. The old white truck from the DPS Chronicles pt 1 was one of those vehicles that you just didn’t care whether the transmission dropped while you were on the road, thus you had no fear when it came to driving it like an asshole. I used to burn out at most stop lights and stop signs, take turns way too tightly, and try to shift without using the clutch. From experience I can confidently say that fancy new cars are vastly overrated.

Prior to working at DPS I was unaware that Ford made a model called the “F-550.” “Previously I figured that 250 or so was plenty powerful enough, but there are surprises in all areas of life. The F-550 was a giant diesel monster equipped with four wheels in the back and was barely able to fit between the painted lines on the road. The tailpipe hung out of the left side of the vehicle and when going from a standstill it would pump out a solid and thick cloud of black smoke. For whatever reason the DPS management allowed teenage kids to drive what was essentially a potential killing machine for anyone who didn’t have experience driving big trucks. It was one of those trucks that didn’t lose in a head on collision.

Even worse than letting just letting kids drive it, they let kids who didn’t have driver’s licenses take command of the wheel. My buddy mop-head stoner from part 1 begged his way into the driver’s seat of the 550 on numerous occasions. This meant that there were regular double wheeled curb checks, near wrecks due to improper lane placement, and the gassing out of several innocent people driving convertibles via the black smoke release from the tailpipe. For me it meant an extra layer of entertainment, and for the school district it meant an extra layer of liability.

Towards the middle of the summer the short bus crew was working a job at a school that involved cutting down dead trees and removing tree residue from the property. Since the F-550 was equipped with a tank-like truck bed it was a key component for the tree stump removal, as you could toss eighty pound logs in the back without worrying about causing damage to the bed. It was during a break from the tree removal that the crew chief felt bad for the mop-head stoner and decided to let him take the keys to the F-550 tank.

Watching two people who chain smoke participate in a wrestling match against one another is a type of show you can’t pay for in the mainstream, but it should be. For whatever reason, while we were on break the mop-head stoner started challenging everyone to a wrestling match in the grass, claiming that his skin-and-bones out of shape body possessed the talent to pin anyone in a few short minutes. For the most part no one felt inspired to accept his challenge, and the only guy who had any interest was a tree-cutting specialist who usually worked outside of the short bus crew. The guy was in his late thirties, going bald, and had teeth similar to those of an impoverished meth addict. Like mop-head stoner, he also was smoking a cigarette almost as much as he wasn’t smoking a cigarette. We will call the guy Hank. Hank had a slight advantage in height and in weight, but their lung capacity and strength were at similar levels.

The start of a match looked like the interaction between two close relatives who haven’t seen each other since the previous Christmas. Hank and mop-head stoner quickly moved toward one another and then they entered into an awkward embrace. It was a grown man hugging a teenager. They swayed together to the left and to the right as they tried to take their opponent to the ground. The heavy breathing started almost immediately. After a bit of slow dancing Hank was able to get mop-headed stoner to the ground, where they rolled around in an uncoordinated mess as they took turns trying to put their hands on the shoulders and hold the other person to the ground. The match lasted less than two minutes, and in the end Hank’s old man strength came through and he was able to prevail over the seventeen year old kid.

It took about five minutes before either one of them were able to talk. An outsider would have thought they just got done running a marathon. Periodically between the short deep breaths one of the two wrestlers would enter into a coughing fit. Watching them struggle after such a minimal amount of physical activity made me feel both grateful and intelligent for never taking up the hobby of smoking cigarettes. Once the mop-head stoner was back in a less stressed condition he spoke up about the loss, “You got lucky, I don’t have my wrestling suit or I would have smoked you.”

After a short banter between Hank and mop-head stoner, the crew chief with the tattoos on his arms brought up the idea of the mop-head stoner and I wrestling each other. I wasn’t very excited about the idea, but after a few minutes of resistance I finally decided that I would throw down with him in the grass. At the time I was hitting the gym five times a week after doing manual labor all day long. In simple terms, despite my lack of training in wrestling, my base layer of physical condition was vastly better than mop-head stoner’s.

I never had the best tackling form, but the form I did possess worked just fine for the situation. After two short strides I dropped my shoulder and drove it into the ribs of mop-head stoner and then wrapped my arms around his skin-and-bones body. I felt like a true man as I planted him into the ground and then continued to physically overpower him. It was the first time that all of my weight training and conditioning was put to use in combat with another human being. It didn’t matter that I had no technique, no experience, and no strategy. I simply had the strength and weight to pin him to his back with my arms. The entire match lasted less than thirty seconds. He didn’t even have the energy to work himself out of breath, and he didn’t have much to say after being embarrassed in front of the other short bus members. Our crew leader was laughing about the results, and to make up for embarrassing mop-head stoner he threw him the keys to the F-550, “Hey mop-head stoner, I’ll let you drive yourself to lunch to make you feel better.”

Almost instantly there was a visible shift in his mood. He jumped up from the ground and started walking to the truck, “Hey bitch, let’s go get Chipotle.” I almost tackled him again for calling me a bitch, but I decided to let it go since I was starving. Hunger comes before pride in the hierarchy of human needs. I am also not easily offended.

In the truck it was me, mop-head stoner, and one of the girls from the crew. We will call her Braces. I always got a little nervous being in the vehicle when he was driving. Not because I was concerned for my own well-being, but for whatever poor soul mop-head stoner might happen to collide with in the oversized trucks. I could only imagine the lawsuit that would unfold if a victim knew that a school district had an employee driving around without a driver’s license.

To get to Chipotle we had to take a winding road that went past a park and a little water fountain. The park was a popular hangout for geese, children, graduation parties, and the fountain was often used as a bath by homeless guys. As mop-head stoner was whipping around the winding road by the park there happened to be a handful of geese crossing the street. As you might know, when geese cross the street they typically do it at a slow, dumb pace. If you have a seventeen year old kid driving an F-550 he probably isn’t going to stop and watch the geese go past.

When mop-head stoner laid his eyes on the geese I heard an increase in the volume of the roaring engine. Braces started to scream, “Mop-head stoner! STOP! Don’t you see the geese?!” He ignored her while I started to laugh. The car to our left started to slow and then in a blink we were on the other side of where the geese were crossing. He crushed three geese in the quad rear-wheeled tank. He did it proudly with a grin on his face and a Denver Public Schools emblem printed on both of the outside doors. We didn’t even feel the birds die below us, the truck disconnected us from the loss of life now plastered into the street.

I was overwhelmed by an uncontrollable laughter as I thought about what just happened. A kid without a driver’s license ran over wildlife in a city owned vehicle in front of an audience. It was something you thought would only happen in a movie or a book. He may have been an idiot, but he earned my respect that day.

On our way back we saw the dead birds still lifeless in the street. Cars were switching lanes to avoid smashing them further into the pavement. Since he killed three in a staggered formation you couldn’t avoid them while remaining in the lane.

Luckily no one called him in and he was able to keep his job for the duration of the summer. The only bad thing was that we never heard the end of Braces complaining about his urban hunting spree. She found no humor in the slaying of a few dumb birds.

Personal Finance for Everyone and their Mom: Part 1 (Budget)

I am going to do a series of short posts that address some of the basics of personal finance, and the importance of being aware of spending habits, assets, and how to save some money. You overdrew on your bank last month but also spent $200 on cigarettes? Oh shit, maybe you should think about changing your lifestyle. You paid over $1,300 on cable last year? There are plenty of cheaper alternatives that will also help you waste less of your time.

The average person might think personal finance is boring or not worth thinking about. In reality though, it can be used as a gateway to healthy transformations in lifestyle and a route towards developing a more philosophical mind.

It could also be the first step in enabling yourself to follow your dreams.

##

Generally I don’t have a lot of great things to say about my college education. I probably should have studied something else or found a way to do something different than what everyone else was doing, or even more importantly I should have made better use of my free time, but one thing that has been useful that came from college was the background I got in personal finance. Not to say that I am any sort of expert, but relative to the average person I probably know a little more about the importance of planning/keeping track of spending. I would argue that doing something simple as creating a budget and then comparing actual data to it is a healthy way to get a more philosophical insight into what it is that you really need. The amount of money you spend on fast food might blow your mind, or you might finally come to terms that you really don’t need all of those shoes. You might realize you really don’t need to be living from paycheck to paycheck. You’ll know the bare minimum that you need to survive.

It doesn’t take as much time as people might think

Remember, the year is 2014. There are smart people who executed on good ideas, and now there are free services that can link to all of your bank accounts and keep record of everything that comes in and out of those accounts. I signed up for www.mint.com in 2009, and it has recorded every debit and credit on all linked bank accounts since I first joined. The website also allows me to pull data exports of all transactions, by date, by category, by receiving/giving parties. If you are still keeping a check book or trying to save your receipts so that you can keep track of your spending, you are wasting your time.

There are probably other services out there that do the same thing, but for me Mint has been sufficient in helping me keep track of my monthly expenses and to develop realistic budgets based on actual spending. It has also helped me realize that most of my shopping occurs on Amazon.com, I watched my alcohol tolerance decrease along with my drinking budget, and it has helped me get a broader perspective on how far money can go.

You are interested in getting started? Just go create an account at mint.com and link up all of the financial accounts you receive income/pay bills with. Wait a month and then pull out the data and sort if by category. Voila, if the month represents a typical month for you then you have your starting point. Pull the data again and another month and see how you did, then adjust your spending habits accordingly.

If you still don’t think it is as simple as that, take a look at one of my budgeting templates filled in with random numbers. It tracks the budget (planned), the actuals, and then compares the two by main categories:

  bud1

At a glance it is pretty easy to see where the budget/spending needs to be adjusted. Oh shit, I forgot I have a car, I should probably budget for fuel. Or, wow I ate too much Taco Bell in June, next month I’ll raise the budget but try to stay under $100. Also, if it were a typical month, the person would be able to realize that $1,600 is a decent estimate of their bare minimum. If they lost their job today would a temporary salary as a McDonald’s cashier still enable them to make ends meet? If that day comes at least they will have an idea where they can cut come of their costs.

Do I need any special skills to modify the data?

As I mentioned earlier, mint allows users to pull excel files that includes all of their spending history. Realistically it doesn’t take much training to be able to manipulate the data and categorize it in ways to match whatever budget format you want to use. An example of the modified data is below:

bud2

In this example the data is filtered to one month and then broken out into categories. Only debit (outflows) are included, which would quickly allow someone to throw their data into their budget spreadsheet and compare it with their actuals (by category).

Knowing how much you spend should be of importance to everyone. Trying to save money so that you can buy a motorcycle? The first step is finding where you can stop spending to make room for some saving. Thinking about starting your own business but need to know how much your bare minimum expenses will be without a stable income? Services like mint make this simple for anyone who is willing to spend a bit of time each month manipulating their spending data.

Many of us may hate the fact that much of our lives revolve around this meaningless thing that humans have given meaning to (money), but until we are able to remove the issue of money from the table entirely we might as well do our best to manage it.

If you have questions about setting up the framework for your own budget or would like more details on how to make the most of mint.com let me know.

Book Review: Drive – Daniel Pink

Overview: This is one of those books that you wish everyone would read. Or at the very least the people you regularly interact with would read. Daniel Pink separates the belief that human motivation comes from rewards (old school motivation) and the belief that motivation is a deeply human need which is derived from a desire to control our own lives, learn and create, and follow our interests. Pink uses extensive research and case studies to make the point that in order to improve satisfaction in all walks of life (work, school, home) there needs to be a focus on appealing to innate passions over arbitrary rewards. Pink looks at three elements of true motivation (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) and provides backup and techniques on how execute on bringing out what really motivates human beings.

This book itself provides a level of motivation, as it reminds us of the deeper roots that every human being has at birth.  The problem is that much of our society and our institutions try to take it away from us as we go through life.

Lesson: Human motivation is much deeper than what people have traditionally come to believe. The greatest achievements generally come when people are doing/working on things that they enjoy. It doesn’t happen because they think they are going to get a golden star sticker or a few extra bucks. You will perform at your highest levels when you are engaged in something you are passionate about.

Business lesson: Rewards may be appropriate for certain circumstances, but the best way to get people to perform at their highest levels is to remove the issue of money from the table, and let them be autonomous with their work while working on things with a purpose.

Important Passages (Per Sean):

Rewards can deliver a short-term boost – just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking a few more hours. But the effect wears off – and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer term motivation to continue the project.

“One who is interested in developing and enhancing intrinsic motivation in children, employees, students, etc ., should not concentrate on external-control systems such as monetary rewards,”

The second were “motivators”— things like enjoyment of the work itself, genuine achievement, and personal growth. These internal desires were what really boosted both satisfaction and performance and were where managers ought to focus their attention.

Routine, not-so-interesting jobs require direction; nonroutine, more interesting work depends on self-direction.

“that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

“When institutions— families, schools, businesses, and athletic teams, for example— focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior,” they do considerable long-term damage.

Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others— sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on— can sometimes have dangerous side effects.

For routine tasks, which aren’t very interesting and don’t demand much creative thinking , rewards can provide a small motivational booster shot without the harmful side effects.

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

The most successful people, the evidence shows, often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success. They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplish something that endures.

In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time— or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them.

Gallup’s extensive research on the subject shows that in the United States, more than 50 percent of employees are not engaged at work —and nearly 20 percent are actively disengaged. The cost of all this disengagement: about $ 300 billion a year in lost productivity— a sum larger than the GDP of Portugal, Singapore, or Israel.

Upon comprehending that they could have another twenty -five years , sixty-year-old boomers look back twenty-five years— to when they were thirty-five— and a sudden thought clonks them on the side of the head. “Wow. That sure happened fast,” they say. “Will the next twenty-five years race by like that? If so, when am I going to do something that matters? When am I going to live my best life? When am I going to make a difference in the world?”

One smart person couldn’t take it any longer and decided to bend the rules or play the game a slightly different way. She didn’t make a big announcement about it. Nor did she ask permission. She just took that initial— usually subversive— step. If things failed, she didn’t say a word. If things worked out, she told others. That’s how organizational change often begins— through strategic subversion by people frustrated with the status quo.

The DPS Chronicles: Part 1

On my first day I woke up bright and early and I threw on my oldest pair of jeans and an old workout shirt. I made it to the building before six in the morning and it was officially the earliest I had gotten out of bed in years. I struggled to sleep the night before as I was nervous about the big day ahead. I was thinking about the things I would buy with my first paycheck, I was worried about how hard the work was going to be, and I was hoping that I wouldn’t forget to bring something on the first day. When I stepped into the break room I was surprised to see that the table was already surrounded by people. Even more surprising was that it was roughly a fifty-fifty split. Half of the group looked to be around my age, and I would have guessed that the other half was over forty. An Asian guy with tattooed arms welcomed me with, “Swipe your card, it’s almost six!” Luckily I had remembered to bring my time card and I was able to start my first day the same as any other old pro. 

I took a seat in the only open chair at the table and did a quick glance around the area. The first person who caught my eye was a man who was sitting in the corner. He had large circular glasses perched on his nose and he was wearing a hat that a fly fisherman would wear. He had a childish smile smeared across his red face and from his awkward stare I concluded that he was probably still in the midst of the descent phase from his morning wood. His pot-belly was covered up by a plaid button-up shirt which was tucked into a pair of faded Levi’s jeans. When the so-called boss-man came into the room he tossed the red-faced pedophile a set of keys and said, “You are driving the bus.” I wasn’t sure whether I should laugh or be terrified.

As I continued my scan I couldn’t help but spend a few extra seconds on a pair of Hispanic women who were in the midst of conversation. “Hey cousin do you want some coffee?”  Was answered with, “Yeah cuz!! You know I can’t start out my day without my pick-me-up.” The first cousin had a voice that sounded as if it belonged to a man. Her hair and chest suggested otherwise, and it took a reluctant total body scan for me to come to a conclusion on her gender. The other cousin seemed to lack the ability to grow hair where most people have eyebrows, and it looked as if black sharpie had recently been applied. The smell in the air was a mixture of coffee, dirt, and ink. 

Since for most of the people in the room it was our first time interacting with one another, eventually the awkward introductions ensued. It was almost like the start of an AA meeting and instead of alcoholic, people classified themselves as either: a bus driver, a summer crew worker, or a regular maintenance employee. There was a kid with greased blonde hair wearing sunglasses (inside). There was a black kid who looked to be around my age who claimed to play wide receiver for a college football team. There was a short girl with braces who may have been under the influence of cocaine, as she was un-humanly bubbly for six in the morning. The short and fat blonde girl was wearing a soccer sweatshirt and there was another guy who had a mop-like mess of black hair and was trying to talk the boss-man into letting him drive his own truck. The issue was that the kid didn’t have a drivers license. 

##

During the summer of 2008 was when I officially removed bus driver from my priority list of potential future occupations. During the same summer I also reluctantly erased janitor and lawn mower. It was a hot, long, and sweaty summer where we were being paid $10 an hour for forty hours each week. The fifty-five year old was making the same as the twenty year old and the only common ground that could be found within our crew was that none of us had any real skills to offer. Some of us were better at weed-eating than others. The older people could maneuver a bus better than I could, and to use the chainsaw all you had to do was fit the chaps around your thighs and be stronger than when you were twelve. By title we were the Denver Public Schools Summer Grounds crew. However, more appropriately I just called us the short-bus of voluntary clown slaves. 

I accepted the gig without having to go through the process known as the job interview. To be honest the only requirements for the job was to have two legs capable of walking and arms that could carry a newborn child. Being fingerprinted was a pre-requisite for the first day of work, and that was only because it was a government position. A criminal would have been well suited for the job, but ethical practices resulted in them mostly hiring bus drivers and students who were on summer vacation.  

Even though in many senses being a member of the short-bus crew was miserable, there were quite a few experiences that were well worth the low wage and persistent idiotic atmosphere. So let’s get started. 

Mop Headed Mishap

The kid I earlier referred to as the guy with a mess of black mop-like hair turned out to be the main source of my personal entertainment. He was a stoner who chain smoked cigarettes and on more than one occasion consumed booze while on the job. He was still in high school and somehow he hadn’t yet received his driver’s license despite the fact he was older than sixteen. To put it simply, in my eyes he met the criteria for being the candidate for performing all of the dumb and hilarious shit that I came up with. I have a knack for identifying people who can easily be persuaded into living life outside of the societal norms. 

On the day of the mishap we were being supervised by the fellow who was given the keys to the bus on day one. His name was Michael Moore. His outer image screamed pedophile while his inner-self suggested that he was constantly on a different brainwave than the rest of the human race. When the two traits were combined it meant that the members of the short-bus crew had little to no supervision.

I had driven most of the tools over in an old white beat-up pickup truck that had a hole in the floorboard. In the truck bed we had enough stuff to mindlessly weed-eat entire fields, chop down dead or intruding trees, demolish bushes, and landscape any area into somewhat presentable shape. The school we happened to be working at had a sizable dirt lot out back and the old truck had a manual transmission. With no supervision, a fun truck to drive, and an open dirt field, it was quite obvious the opportunity that lay before us. After realizing the potential of the situation I approached the mop-head stoner with a proposition, “Hey Suave, think you can rip some doughnuts in this field?”

            “Oh shit yeah, I can do some dank doughnuts!”

            “Dank? You don’t have a driver’s license right?”

            “That doesn’t mean I can’t do doughnuts asshole. Give me the keys bitch.”

As a point of reference, the mop-head stoner actually had quite a few similarities with the character Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad. Of course I handed over the keys, hopped in the passenger seat and strapped on the safety belt. I should also mention some of the details of impressive plethora of tools that were in the back of the truck. There were two regular chainsaws, a pole chainsaw, two full canisters of mixed gas, a bucket full of bush trimming clippers, four weed-whackers, a spool of weed-whacker wire, and an axe.

For not having a drivers license I have to give it to the kid that he could drive a manual transmission better than the average grown adult. Within a matter of seconds the tail end of the truck was whipping to the side through the dirt and we were doing an above average job of tearing up the ground. “Hell yeah brah!! And you thought I couldn’t do it!” The roar of the V6 engine changed pitch as the mop-head stoner shifted back and forth between first and second gear. It truly was a fun truck to drive.

Throughout the course of the doughnut event I found myself laughing hysterically in the passenger seat as I watched all of the tools in the back of the truck toss from one side of the bed to the other. It was like a concentrated cluster-fuck of metal and plastic all bashing and mixing together, causing clanking and some nice visuals as chainsaw would collide with the bucket of clippers and the gas tank tipped over and slowly leaked gasoline all over everything in the back. If this doesn’t give you a good enough visual then go into the storage shed in your parent’s backyard and imagine all of the equipment inside mashing together inside of a large toilet. It is fucking hilarious. It should also be noted that Michael Moore was standing on the side of the dirt parking lot watching mop-head stoner’s dust storm with a giant moronic grin on his red face.

With each successful spin came a heightened level of confidence for the mop-head stoner. We gained a little speed, a redlined first gear replaced second, the wheel was cranked a little harder, and the objects in the back had more force in their collisions. It was just as he was verbally assaulting me that there was gigantic crash in the back of the truck. Since we happened to be mid doughnut neither one of us were looking out of the back so initially we missed the descent of the bouncing gas tank, the tumbling chainsaw, the pair of clippers lodged into the dirt, and the breaking in half of the pole chainsaw. The weed-whackers fell out one at a time at roughly ten foot intervals, the heads and handles took turns bouncing back and forth like a see-saw off of the ground. I forgot to mention earlier, but there was also a wheelbarrow in the mix, which was the item Michael Moore ended up running towards as soon as he saw the start of the chaos. There is something wonderful about watching an expensive item like a pole chainsaw break in half. There is harmony in watching an old pedophile wave his arms frantically in the air while running at slow motion pace towards a bouncing wheelbarrow. Prior to the doughnut run we weren’t aware that the truck had a broken tailgate, but I have to admit it was a pretty nice surprise. It was one of those features that money can’t buy you at the dealership.

As mop-head stoner accepted that he had managed to lose the thousands of dollars worth of everything that had previously been in the back of the truck a look of panic came over his face. “Ohh shiiiiit.” I couldn’t help but laugh. One of the gas tanks was still in motion rolling across the ground and Michael Moore was doing his version of running with a wheelbarrow in his hands. “Hey guys, you lost all of the tools!” No shit mike.

What happened next was as expected. The mop-head stoner reversed the truck closer to the trail of tools and then a frantic pickup ensued where he participated in more physical activity than he had since he was a young boy. I sat on the side clenching my stomach from laughing while he and Michael Moore collected the tools. “Good luck coming up with an explanation for that broken pole chainsaw” was answered with “I need a cigarette.”

While still panting he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket and proceeded to light one up. I haven’t spent too much time around smokers, but the mop-head stoner is the guy who made me realize that there is more than one way to smoke a cigarette. Due to the heightened level of anxiety it was like he was attempting to suck the inside of the tobacco stick straight into his mouth. Vigorous isn’t a strong enough word, but that is how I would categorize the newly discovered style of smoking.

As he was pacing back and forth and demolishing his cigarette Mike Moore tried to assist the tobacco in easing mop-head’s nerves.

With the same smile he used when the kids stepped onto his bus, “Accidents happen. As a witness I can say that you didn’t mean for that stuff to fall out. Maybe they need to put in a work order for the tailgate.”

The mop-head stoner only seemed more bothered by Mike Moore’s attempt at soothing. “Yeah, Mike Moore, but I am still going to be accountable for that pole chainsaw. That thing probably costs two weeks of my pay.”

I couldn’t stop laughing about the situation, and the mental image of Mike Moore chasing down the bouncing tools just kept running through my head. “Hey mop-head stoner. Do you want to try doing that again? This time I’ll record it on my phone so we can get it on video.”

“Are you fucking nuts? What if more of the tools break? What if boss-man comes out here?”

“Yeah but I think it would be worth it. You could be a YouTube hero. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. Mike Moore you aren’t going to see a thing, right?”

“Oh no, I’ll go start weed-eating around these bushes.”

Less than ten minutes later I was sitting in the passenger’s seat in the old truck and mop-head was getting ready to start whipping the vehicle in circles. My body was turned so that it was facing the back window and I hit the record button on my phone. “Go, let’s see what you got.”

I could have been imagining it, but it seemed like the cigarette had calmed him down a bit and he was driving less aggressively than I expected him to. With each doughnut I watched the tools in the back of the truck crash back and forth from one side to the other. Picture a concentrated snow globe where the snow is replaced with landscaping tools. With each doughnut I prayed to the tailgate god that back end would open up and everything would spill out into the dirt once again.

The praying was unsuccessful, and after each spin came feelings of disappointment that compounded with the previous disappointment. It was like a little kid of the nineties waking up one Saturday only to find their cartoons were permanently replaced with a catholic preacher. The video didn’t live up to the events that took place only fifteen minutes earlier, and the attempt was cut short when the crew chief (the Asian with tattoos) came cruising onto the premises while mop-head was still flinging dirt around. When mop-head realized he had company that happened to be authority he quickly pulled the truck up next to where Mike Moore was standing.

The crew leader was outside of his truck by the time we stopped moving, “What the hell Mike Moore, mop-head stoner isn’t supposed to be driving.”

“Oh sorry. We were taking a break and he wanted to learn how to drive.”

“I guess that’s the last time I leave you in charge. What the hell is this? What happened to this chain saw?”

Only a select few ever knew what really happened with the chainsaw. The expense was transferred to the taxpayers and it wasn’t the last time Mike Moore was left in charge. Life for the short-bus clown slaves was like running in place on a treadmill from twenty years ago. Nothing ever changed regardless of the actions of the people. Mike Moore could have crashed the short bus and still have been allowed to drive everyone around. 

DPS 2

The Crew

DPS1

Mike Moore