Coffee heat rising

Estate Sales: The canary in the mine?

La Maya and I drove out to Scottsdale this morning, at the crack of proverbial dawn, to attend an estate sale that looked pretty enticing. Pictured on the organizer’s site was a bedroom set in the mode that M’hijito has described as desirable, plus various other interesting-looking loot.

When we got there, we found a half-renovated house in a (relatively!) downscale neighborhood of a ritzy part of town, the pool green and the pickin’s slim. The kitchen was devoid of valuable finds; the tools were old and worn; the bedstead was the wrong size and the bedroom set was cheaply made junk.

That notwithstanding, La Maya is not called the Queen of Estate Sales for nothing. Her discerning eye spotted a handsome loveseat, chair, and ottoman in butter-colored leather. After some study, we decided it probably was a quality product. She nailed all three pieces for $425, a fine 20 percent off the marked price. Not only that, but the estate sale organizer ate the tax.

Although we were numbers 24 and 25 in line to get in the door, no more than ten or twelve people were ahead of us. Evidently the ticket number they started with was higher than 1. It took two trips to haul the furniture. The second time we arrived out there, the furniture-lifting person had gone off for a break, and so we sat with the estate sale company’s owner for a while, helping to calculate tax and hand out bags to the few buyers.

And “few” was the operative word. Over the past several weeks, we’ve found ourselves at the head of the estate-sale line, even when we arrived after a sale was slated to open. This is in vast contrast to the normal experience, where you may arrive a half-hour or an hour early and still wait to get in the door through three or four rafts of people who got there first.

Gina, the estate sale proprietor, echoed other organizers in saying that business was very slow: plenty of sellers but few buyers. She was practically giving things away-name a price for a piece of loot and you could walk with it. Gina said people are not buying, and that times are tough in the estate sale biz. What she does is considered effectively wholesaling. “Retailers”-read dealers in antiques and used furniture-are really suffering. She said her biggest buyers, who indeed are dealers, are in deep trouble.

So, we might add, was her client. They evidently had purchased the house speculatively, figuring to fix it up and turn it around for a profit. Before they were done, though, they fell into bankruptcy. They had completed maybe half their renovation work on the unimpressive little tract house. In one bathroom, blue masking tape around the paint job was still in place, only half-pulled off. A sloppy plaster repair stood out on the ceiling where some defunct fixture had been removed to make way for recessed lighting. The pool water was green, slimy, and evaporated several inches below the tile line. Old dirty carpet remained on the floor.

Understand, an estate sale is a gold mine for two sets of people:

  1. those who are in the business of reselling “antiques” and used furniture (in general, one and the same thing); and
  2. frugalists, folks like you and me looking to furnish our homes and our lives with nearly new, upscale products at second-hand prices.

When neither of these are in evidence, well…it’s not a good sign. It means consumers are not buying. They’re not buying from businesses that sell second-hand goods and genuine antiques, and they’re not buying yard-sale items. When bargain-hunters quit looking for bargains, IMHO, it indicates people are either really hurting or really scared.

Well, at any rate, La Maya scored a lovely pair of luxurious leather seating pieces. They transform her family room, and she is very pleased.

Nevertheless, we worry. We worry.

Real Life: Funnier than the comic strips

Speaking of the vagaries of megalithic bureaucracies (as we were yesterday), get an eyeful of what visitors see when they park at the Great Desert University, self-styled “gold standard” of our state’s public education system.

The photographer reports that every “compagt” space in the parking garage is so marked. He has yet to discover whether this holds true in all the many newly cleaned and restriped parking garages on the campus.

What are they trying to say to us?

Photo by Todd Halvorsen

Stop the presses…literally

Word on the street has it that The Arizona Republic, the only daily metro newspaper serving the fifth-largest city in the nation, is laying off most of its photographers and much of its editing staff. A few unseasoned reporters will be retained. In the fall, we’re told, the Republic is slated to morph into a tabloid. Those who will staff this downsized entity, the ghost of our right-to-work state’s flagship newspaper, will have no health insurance and a pension plan that will be, shall we say, commensurately downsized. Thus saith the paper’s present owner, the Gannett Corporation.

The Republic, having abandoned journalism years ago, no longer has much of a readership. It’s losing readers even as the population of the Valley grows. There’s a reason for that: it doesn’t publish news.

This is no exaggeration. One year a mayoral campaign came and went with almost no mention of the candidates. Yesterday (we’ll give it this much), its print edition mentioned that unless Our Esteemed Legislators approve a budget within the next two weeks, the state budget will expire and state employees will not be paid on July 3. Having heard this from La Maya and having a vested interest in getting paid on July 3, I went to the Republic‘s online edition and found not…one…word about the possibility that Arizona’s largest employer may fail to pay its workers and that state government is, as we speak, preparing to shut down all nonessential services. The lead online story concerned the recent opening of a new ice cream store.

Turning this formerly major metropolitan newspaper into a throw-away tabloid will put it head-to-head with New Times, which succeeds because it has verve, sass, only the thinnest veneer of journalistic ethics, and lots of advertising. Lots and lots of advertising. New Times is entertaining but devoid of credibility. On the other hand, it does attempt to follow local politics. You can’t believe a word it publishes about local government, but at least it has some words!

Newspapers that abandon their mission to deliver the truth to the public and forget the importance of that mission have nothing to sell. For a long time the Republic has staggered along with dwindling advertising, but as readers lost interest in the paper’s content, advertisers lost interest in its ballooning space rates. Who reads the local newspaper’s classifieds when you can go to Craig’s List? What’s the point of pawing through page after page of irrelevant retail adds to clip a few coupons when you can download what you want from the Web? And why pay to advertise in a newspaper that nobody reads?

I canceled the Sunday Republic when I realized that the only things I was reading were the front page (part of it) and the funny strips; it felt ugly and irresponsible to throw away three or four pounds of advertising to read a half-dozen pages of ephemera. Just the thought of how many trees were pulped only to be tossed directly into the trash disgusted me, and I decided to stop abetting that kind of criminality. Not long after, I realized I’d rather pay to have The New York Times delivered to my house and so canceled the Republic altogether.

It’s a sad development. There’s a reason journalism is called the Fourth Estate. It’s an important part of the polity of a democratic republic. When we cannot get information about what’s going on down at City Hall or over at the State House, we as voters are in the dark. And our path through the darkness, as we have already seen over the past decade, is inexorably leading us toward tyranny.

Consumer Rant of the Day: Tomatoes

Argh!!!! Now we’re told that Basha’s, AJ’s, and Food City have removed all tomatoes from all their stores. Why? Because two people in Maricopa County have fallen ill from eating tomatoes with germs on them.

AJ’s is the only store in town that carries edible tomatoes. Every other store, Whole Paycheck included, sells cardboard and styrofoam imitation tomatoes, those fine hard balls that hold up well in transport and when gassed while green will turn bright red, faking out the consumer once again.

Look. I know salmonella will make you sick, and I appreciate that a retailer (under threat of potential lawsuits) is concerned enough to take potentially contaminated produce off its counters. But there’s an easy fix for this, something we all should be doing as a matter of course: WASH YOUR PRODUCE BEFORE YOU EAT IT!

Contaminated and impure processed foods pose a real problem and certainly should be removed from commerce as soon as they’re identified. That’s because the contaminants are mixed in and packaged with the product, so there’s no way for a consumer to get them out of a canned, bottled, or prepared food. Also, it’s reasonable to expect that something in a can, a bottle, or a package is clean and safe to eat.

Not so with produce. Folks. Tomatoes do not grow in sterile rooms. Neither do lettuce, strawberries, blueberries, apples, oranges, asparagus, potatoes, carrots, radishes, parsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme…. They grow in dirt. Dirt is called “dirt” because it’s dirty. If you eat a tomato (or anything else that grows on a farm) without washing it, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get sick.

Personally, I resent being treated like a child. Too much of America’s package designs and marketing policies treat consumers like they were children, and not too bright children at that. I’m tired of wrestling with child-proof caps-and then leaving cleansers and OTC medicaments uncapped or transferring them into other packages-and I’m tired of having to dig out a knife to peel off inner labels intended to keep maniacs from dripping a little strychnine into the cough medicine. Please. Let me take my chances. If I’m too dumb to put dangerous products out of my kids’ reach, maybe the collective gene pool would be better off without my offspring. If I’m the one-in-87-billion who happens to pick up a product contaminated by a lunatic, I won’t be happy, but let’s get real: I’m a lot more likely to be hit by a car as I cross the street outside my office than I am to swallow strychnine in my cough syrup. And take a chance, dear Leaders and Giants of Commerce, that I’ll have enough sense to wash my produce before I gulp it down.

Yes, dear readers. Wash all raw food before you eat it. Wash it even if you’re going to cook it. A few years ago, Consumer Reports published an article saying that when you wash most nonorganic produce, you remove almost all the pesticide and fertilizer residues. This rule is especially important in our splendid era of globalization, when so much of our produce comes from countries that have no rules governing the safe use of pesticides on farms, and where fields may be fertilized with substances that Americans would rather not think about.

Here’s how to do it:

Clean the kitchen sink. Fill it with water and add just a few drops (doesn’t have to be much) of dish detergent. Place the produce into the water and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Agitate the produce around gently. Then drain the sink and rinse each piece well.

With lettuce: break the head of lettuce into individual leaves and wash them, as above, in a sink of weak detergent water. Rinse well and allow the leaves to drain in your dish drainer. Then lay the leaves out on a clean kitchen towel, roll up the towel with the leaves inside, and place the roll inside a plastic bag to refrigerate. This will keep the lettuce fresh for a long time, and your salad is half-made when you’re ready to eat it. Avoid precut packaged lettuce: it costs too much and it’s too difficult to wash.

If contamination on the outside of fresh produce is a serious problem, do what we did when I was growing up in Saudi Arabia: fill a sink with weak detergent water and add a quarter-cup of Clorox. Alternatively, add several camper’s iodine tablets, made for decontaminating river and stream water. Place the produce in the treated water and soak for 15 minutes. Rinse well. Lettuce treated with Clorox must be eaten promptly, as the chlorine will cause it to wilt after you store it. Also, this method does not work on strawberries.

Or, with produce that has a rind, peel, or skin (such as oranges, apples, and tomatoes), wash it under running water using plain old bar soap.

None of this is very hard to comprehend or to do.

4 Comments left on iWeb site


With the California spinach scare last year, the problem (as explained by the media) was that the bacteria wasn’t merely on the surface of the plant.The spinach had taken it up through the roots, so the bacteria was inside the leaves, and no amount of washing would get rid of it.Cooking would probably destroy it, but apparently you can’t trust people to cook spinach.Is that what is happening with these tomatoes?

Wednesday, June 4, 200811:29 AM


N-n-n-o-o. Salmonella cannot get INSIDE the leaves of anything. The little fellas can’t get inside a tomato. They’re on the surface.

Ah, yes. The Great Spinach Scare. The little guys got on the spinach when the fields were irrigated with water contaminated with the…uhm, offal, shall we say politely…from a cattle feedlot, one of the filthiest environments this side of a commercial henhouse. Depending on the part of the country where the farm is located, a field can be flood-irrigated or irrigated by sprinklers. We used to irrigate our fields with mobile sprinklers that connected to untreated water piped in from the Hassayampa River. Whatever li’l critters were living in the river water (interesting, some of ’em, such as, oh, say, giardia) would be sprayed all over the crops.

Yesh. That meant the crops had, oh, say, giardia on them, so if you were to trot out there and pick off a piece of freshly watered greens, you would get very very sick, indeed.

Giardia is as nothing compared to the sewage dumped into the water from a feedlot.

Trust me. Wash your produce. Then stop worrying about it. I know whereof I speak.

Wednesday, June 4, 200803:27 PM


i’ve got some tomatoes in the backyard, a few are just ripening now.feel free to come over and pick some if you’d like.

Thursday, June 5, 200807:13 PM


M’hijito! Remember to eat those oranges on your tree! The ones that have survived in the shade of your house are very sweet and juicy.

Thursday, June 5, 200808:03 PM

SUV-mania persists

Gas was $3.57 a gallon at Costco yesterday afternoon, when I stopped by on the way home from work to pay our annual dues. Having heard during the morning commute that the average price is now $3.95, that sounded like a bargain, so I decided to top off the tank.

Lines were out to the street at every pump. Fifteen people were stacked up ahead of me, and I may have been the only person there who turned off the ignition while standing. Admittedly, it was a warm day and sitting in the car with no air conditioning was a little uncomfortable-far from unbearable, but not exactly brisk and cool. Most people let their engines idle, burning gas for the ten minutes or so it took to crawl up to a pump.

Directly in front of me was a brand-spanking-new, shiny Toyota Sequoia, dealer’s paper license still in the plate-holder. The thing is the size of a Sherman tank! Its 273-horsepower 4.7-liter V-8 must get all of ten gallons to the mile. Toyota must be giving the things away-surely the only reason anyone would buy such a behemoth would be a price tag somewhere near gratis. When it finally lumbered up to the pump, what should climb out of the passenger’s seat but a vast woman with Mma Ramotswe‘s “traditional build.” She must have weighed over 200 pounds…and her gentleman friend was proportionately well fed. Big car for big folks: the springs on a beast like that should hold up under their weight, anyway.

As I stood in line breathing exhaust fumes, I counted 10 SUVs and pickups and 5 regular passenger cars. Most of the SUVs were late models. None of the sedans were low-mileage vehicles.

Pickup trucks make some sense: they’re designed to carry cargo and most people who own them use them for exactly that. Being trucks, they ride like a truck, and so it’s unlikely that many folks choose to buy them for the around-town family ride. And I can understand how you would hang on to a gas guzzler despite high fuel prices-I sure can’t afford to trade in my 2000 Sienna yet. But to go out and buy a brand-new gigantic SUV that gets 13 to 19 miles a gallon, at a time when gas is headed north of $4.00 a gallon? Clearly, market forces are not discouraging Some People’s Kids from consuming large amounts of gas and pushing the prices up for the rest of us.

Less than a third of a tank cost me what a whole fill-up used to cost, just a few months ago.

IMHO, it’s time for some legislation, and not just in leading-edge California but nationwide. We need to do more than just “encourage” people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles by offering a few lagniappes such as small tax breaks and license plates that let you drive in the HOV lane. We need to make it against the law to sell a passenger vehicle that gets less than 30 miles per gallon. Period. Force manufacturers to take that junk off the market, and force used-car dealers to quit peddling the trade-ins.

And if you can’t fit into a Matrix or a Camry hybrid, folks, maybe it’s time to go on a diet.

What’s a thing worth?

When M’hijito and I were buying appliances for the Renovation House, we picked up a nice but not gaudy gas stove at Sears for about $800. It occurred to me to wonder what really, in human terms, an $800 stove costs. Based on what we know people in various trades and professions earn, here’s an estimate:

  • About 4 hours, plus an LL.D. and 40 years of legal experience, of practicing law at Prestigious Southwestern Law Firm
  • About two days of house painting and plaster or drywall repair
  • About 29 hours, plus a Ph.D. and 30 years’ editorial experience, of deciphering cryptic English written by Chinese mathematicians and training graduate students to spend their lives doing the same
  • About 29 hours, plus a contractor’s license, bonding, and 30 years of experience in the trades, of tiling bathroom stalls and counters, demolition work, installing cabinetry, repairing lath & plaster, rebuilding foundations, installing toilets, installing glass shower doors, hauling trash, and undoing some other guy’s mess
  • About 47½ hours of talking on the telephone to distressed, pained, and enraged Vast Nationwide Insurance Company policy-holders
  • About five 14-hour days (no overtime paid) at the Great Desert University of grading illiterate, plagiarized papers scribbled by the sons and daughters of the American middle class
  • About 66 hours of scrubbing floors, cleaning bathrooms, dusting furniture, scouring kitchens, polishing windows, changing catboxes, changing and laundering sheets, dusting miniblinds, vacuuming carpets, mopping tile, and sweeping the front porch
  • About 80 hours — two endless 40-hour weeks — of chasing other people’s children around, changing diapers, feeding children junk food, listening to children scream, cleaning up baby barf, and wiping toddler bottoms
  • About 114 hours — that’s almost 2½ six-day or almost 3 five-day weeks, plus two weeks of walking across the Sonoran desert in 110-degree heat — of mowing lawns, trimming thorny shrubbery, digging ditches, and hauling trash
  • About 155 hours — almost four 40-hour weeks, plus two weeks of walking across the Sonoran desert in 110-degree heat — of lifting demented, stinking old men and women, of steeling yourself to their wails, of stuffing food and medication down their throats, of changing their diapers, of parking them in wheelchairs and rolling them into the shower and washing the sh** and the sweat and the barf off them, of changing their sheets and changing their clothes

So it goes. Every thing that we own has a human cost. These are just the costs to you and me and our fellow workers of buying a thing. They don’t count the human cost of digging the raw materials out of the ground to mill the steel required to make its parts or the gas required to operate it; they don’t count the time and effort human beings had to put in to building it and installing the infrastructure to make it work.

Each time we decide we want to buy an object, we should think about what the privilege of owning that object really costs.


4 Comments left on iWeb site


I love it.

Friday, May 30, 200810:46 AM


This is fabulous!

Saturday, May 31, 200803:03 PM


You don’t sound very happy about, nor do you sound well-suited for, working at a nursing home, or wherever you “lift stinking old men and women” around.

Someday, you’ll be there, too. I hope you receive morecompassionate care.

Monday, June 2, 200806:50 AM


I don’t work in a nursing home, thank God. But I watched my mother die in one. It was a horrible place. I watched the women who worked there, from the nurses to the drudges who had to do the most awful scutwork. Nurses are paid well, but drudges are not. The work is just hideous.

My mother did stink. The smell of cancer is not pleasant. Nor are the screams and moans of the desperately demented and the truly anguished.The “compassion” you get when you’re in an HMO and your disease cuts into the profit margin is negligible.

It’s easy to be self-righteous…but the truth is, a nursing home can be a dreadful place to work, and the labor is difficult and unpleasant.

Monday, June 2, 200807:06 AM