I’ve been buzzing about the country for the past three weeks, getting as far from our Washington, D.C.-based home as the northwestern tip of the other Washington in the Pacific Northwest. Over the next few posts, I’ll tell you about some places and things I encountered in this 11,000-km journey, and about the joys of long-distance automobile travel.
I’m kidding about the “joys” part.
As I travel, I read a lot of local newspapers as well as USA Today and, when I can get it, the New York Times. The real, tactile versions, not the “e-book” editions. With real newsprint, I can underline things, rip out articles, and stuff them in my travel bag, next to the shaving cream.
When I unpacked, the bag bulged with newspaper fragments, each telling an interesting, if not earth-shaking story. Here are a few that I set aside:
Been Burgled? Complete Form 0673-B
American cities and towns have plenty of crime to fight. Muggings, drug deals, gang violence, and worse.
But ordinary home burglaries, vandalism, and swindles are crimes, too, and they’re anything but routine to their victims. They’re usually not violent offenses, but they can cause great anguish, outrage, and financial distress. The victims want them solved and the crooks arrested.
But budget cuts and strains on resources brought on by the tight economy have forced both big cities such as Oakland, California, and small towns like Norton, Massachusetts, to tell victims of property crimes and theft, in so many words:
“Really sorry to hear about what happened. Here’s the URL of an online site where you can fill out a form and describe what took place. We’re kind of busy right now and won’t be stopping by. But rest assured: if we run across the evildoers, we’ll lock ’em up, lickety-split! Have a good day, and send a copy to your insurance company.”
As an Oakland police spokeswoman told USA Today, “If you come home to find your house burglarized and you call, we’re not coming,”
Don’t call us. And we won’t be calling you.
Police in cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma — which lost 13 percent of its 839 officers to budget slashes — are finding that a lot of citizens, who figure that the paperwork will end up in the bottom of some drawer, aren’t even bothering to fill out reports. In Norton, outside Boston, police told residents that there’s only a slight chance that anyone would show up to take reports on vandalism and other property crimes. So they shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the cruiser.
There’s a danger inherent in this cavalier attitude toward “petty” crime. It brings to mind a word for one possible reaction when people think the protection of their homes, vehicles, and themselves is up to them and them alone.
If citizens are told outright that crimes against their homes and property aren’t important enough to investigate, there’s a temptation to deal with the criminals themselves.
But rest assured: If you shoot a burglar or beat up a con man, the police will be right over.
When I was a kid, back when Americans actually saved for the future, banks gave out small, stiff, cardboard folders embedded with rows of coin-sized slots. Into them, we stuck nickels, dimes, and quarters that we had earned here and there. When the “book” of coins was full, we’d take it to the bank, stand in line among the adults, approach the teller in our turn, and proudly hand it over in for deposit into our very own savings accounts.
I don’t remember thinking that these coins would add up to enough to finance a college education or a trip to the South of France, not that I knew about the delights of the Riviera at the time. But we sure were proud to have our own money in the bank and to get our own account statements in the mail.
As we grew a little older, our humble “investments” expanded to include a few savings bonds. These are U.S. government certificates in multiples of $25. Parents and other relatives would give them as holiday, birthday, or baby presents. For a $25 bond, they’d pay $18.75. Over ten years or so, its value would mature to the full, redeemable $25.
Originally called “baby bonds” when the program started in 1935, they were patterned after “war bonds” sold during World War I, when Americans, including children, helped fund the fighting by purchasing bonds. The idea was repeated with even more enthusiasm during World War II.
For me, it was a matter of great pride to accumulate a drawer full of savings bonds. I felt tycoonlike, like the fat guy with the monocle on the Monopoly game board and the banker who mounted fancy stock certificates on his wall. (His wall. There weren’t many women bankers then.)
Since the bond stopped earning interest at maturity, there was a great temptation to redeem it and spend the money. Its value would only decrease thereafter, relative to inflation. So rather than hoarding my bonds as a down payment to Harvard, I think I cashed them to buy a slick electric-train set. I doubt that’s what Aunt Edna had in mind when she gave me some bonds, but kids will be kids.
I mention all this because this is the last month that federal employees — and there are millions of us — can have money deducted from our pay to buy real, paper U.S. Savings Bonds. Though other forms of investments often bring a higher return, millions of Americans kept on buying bonds because of their safety, their usefulness as gifts — even to kick some badly needed revenue into the deficit-riddled Treasury.
We’ll still be able to buy bonds electronically, online. But what’s the fun in that? What do I hand the grandkids? A computer print-out? Where’s the fancy script, the government seal, the signature of Treasury Secretary What’s-His-Name?
The U.S. Treasury Department says it’s phasing in all-electronic bonds — starting with us federal working stiffs and eventually spreading to everyone else — in order to save printing costs and reduce paper bonds’ “environmental footprint.” Please! Will a Montana forest be spared? Someone else will cut it down to make french-fry boxes.
First it was books and magazines, telephone directories, store coupons, and utility bills. Now savings bonds are going digital. What’s next? Computer-generated red ribbons at the county fair?
Meals on Wheels
The hottest segment of the food-service business isn’t some trendy restaurant fad but old-fashioned food carts.
Well, imaginative, upscale, and exotic versions of them.
My colleague June Soh recently produced a television story about one of the most successful— a roving cupcake operation here in Washington. The lawyer who quit his job to start “Curbside Cupcakes” has caught the wave of what must have been a pent-up craving for these fist-sized baked goodies topped with mounds of sugary goo. He sells 1,000 cupcakes a day at five stops throughout the city. Four stops, really, since the inventory is usually gone by the time he’s passed cupcakes out the window to the hordes at Stop #4. Alerted by tweets that the truck is en route, people who should be working literally line up around the block to get their hands on these sticky confections.
In Portland, Oregon, strolling gourmands can choose among Korean barbecue; G-bird, green-cheese, and pork confit sandwiches; Kao Khlook Kapi; all sorts of crepes; fish gordidas and every imaginable kind of taco.
What’s a G-bird sandwich? Chicken thigh meat topped with Gorgonzola and Monterey jack cheese. A fish gordida? A thick, deep-fried taco heaped with fresh-caught fish, sour cream, lettuce, and marinated red onions. Kao Khlook Kapi? Korean rice, sweet pork, fried egg, sliced green apple, shallots, chilis and lime — with some soup served on the side.
Pork confit? You got me on that one. “Confit” is one of those mysterious, snooty-sounding words that pops up on chi-chi menus. I’ve always translated it as “small portions,” possibly having something to do with sherbet.
There are countless other new and yummy food-cart offerings: In New Haven, Connecticut, the New York Times found bibimbap, boolgobi, injera, teppanyaki and miso soup. I haven’t the slightest idea what ANY of those is, but I doubt they come with mustard, chili, and onions.
Why are so many specialized “mobile commissaries,” as the Los Angeles Times calls them, springing up and succeeding, sometimes wildly?
Almost always a risky, low-profit-margin operation, brick-and-mortar restaurants are struggling during the nation’s long-running economic doldrums. According to the NPD Group, which tracks the food-and-beverage business, the number of U.S. restaurants has declined this year for the first time in ten years. Eating out at a sit-down restaurant is a discretionary decision — one of the first to go when family budgets are tight.
Investing in, and customizing, a fancy food truck is a whole lot less expensive and risky than leasing a big space, decorating and furnishing it, hiring and supervising employees, and preparing a complex array of menu items. On your food truck, you can bring one or a few simple products, fix ’em up, and serve them fast to your customers.
And, as the cupcake dude found out, they will find you as well. It’s no problem if the chef is a pompous jerk. You’re the chef. And the driver, server, and dish washer.
The quality of the new foods is often surprisingly high. And with sidewalk customers and food inspectors keeping a close eye on these rolling kitchens, standards of hygiene and cleanliness are pretty stiff, too. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a headline over a story about what seems like a whole new fleet of roaming catering trucks on the streets of L.A. — everything from the Fish Lips Sushi van to the Dosa East Indian crepe cart to the Coolhaus crew that serves up organic ice-cream sandwiches, “This Ain’t No Roach Coach.”
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Con man (or woman). Someone who tricks unsuspecting victims out of some of their money. “Con” is short for confidence; the swindler gains the victim’s confidence, then exploits it.
Confit. A piece of meat, often duck, cooked in its own fat.
Gourmand. A person who loves to eat, sometimes to gluttonous excess. Not to be confused with a gourmet, a more discriminating and less voracious eater.
Swindle. To cheat or defraud a person through deceit