Sticky fingers.

We’ve had a couple of these stories in Detroit lately. They usually attract my eye with the police mug shot of a thoroughly average middle-age soccer mom. What did this saucy minx do? I wonder, and then I find out:

She stole some money. She stole some money in a stupid, obvious way that nearly always gets you caught. She was the bookkeeper for some organization, paid all the bills. And then one day she figured out how to set up a fake supplier, send an invoice and pay it, only the supplier is guess-who. Depending on the organization, these schemes can go on for months or years, but someone with eyes finally figures out how to see. The recent cases were fairly spectacular, as these things go.

In one, a woman made off with $934,000 from a hockey non-profit in Ann Arbor. In the other a woman and her husband stole $1.8 million from the Palace of Auburn Hills. I think the takeaway lesson is clear: Non-profits sure can have a lot of money in the general fund, but for maximum theft possibilities, steal from an entertainment complex.

What depresses me about these cases is how numbly predictable the details are: The money gets frittered away on such tacky crap. People have such tiny little desires, it turns out — they want cars and clothes and jewelry. Oh, and cruises. The couple who stole from the Palace are like a walking billboard of bad taste:

The McDonalds allegedly bought themselves exotic weapons, expensive tools and high-tech electronics gear and took lavish getaways to the Bahamas and Las Vegas — where they treated themselves to $900-a-night suites, casinos, and “Ultimate Fighting Challenge” exhibitions.

What, no Barcalounger upholstered in fetal lambskin? The woman in Ann Arbor was cut from the same cloth:

“Instead of going to Meijer and Kroger, they purchased items from an actual meat market,” Grigal said. “Instead of going to J.C. Penney’s or Macy’s to buy clothes, it was Saks Fifth Avenue, Von Maur or Nordstrom. Sometimes the withdrawals were daily. Ten thousand (dollars), $8,000, $6,000, $17,000.”

(Yes, I noted the oddness of putting “an actual meat market” in the luxury tier, but maybe the cash-drunk tart had the butcher french her rack of lamb instead of doing it herself.)

Because this is Michigan, internal combustion was involved: The couple bought “three motorcycles, a John Deere riding mower (and) a utility trailer,” the single woman a Cadillac Escalade and a dump truck. For the family business, it’s explained. This is where the question of charging the spouse comes into play. “Honey, happy birthday. I bought you a dump truck.” Shouldn’t someone be arrested, just on general principles? For all-around cluelessness and willful stupidity?

Like everyone in the world, I entertain windfall fantasies — lotteries, inheritances from unknown rich relatives. I like to think that if I had access to a big pile of money, and the sufficient moral elasticity to talk myself into taking some, I’d not spend a penny on a “designer bracelet” sold on QVC. I’d buy a ticket to the Caymans or Switzerland, open an account and make like a squirrel. Half these cases fall apart when someone else in the office wonders how quiet Karen the bookkeeper could make even lease payments on a Mercedes, and where did that cocktail ring come from? My only other purchase would be an open one-way ticket departing out of someplace like Toronto, bound for a major city with lots of middle-aged white women, and the minute, I mean the minute I thought the heat was coming down, I’d be wheels-up for Johannesburg or Vladivostok faster than you can ask yourself what an extradition treaty is.

Just sayin’.

Right before I left Fort Wayne there was a really strange case like this, involving a man who worked for the city or county, only instead of stealing cash he stole heavy equipment, which he squirreled away on his acreage near Decatur. I never heard of its resolution, but I remember the guy had stolen everything from Bobcat loaders to a goddamn road grader, and no, I don’t know what he used them for. Maybe he was operating a road-building business out the back door. I’d just like to know how he did it.

(On the other hand, a member of my extended family dug a pond on his property using heavy equipment belonging to the Army Corps of Engineers, which he “borrowed” on the weekends. So maybe no one raises an eye when Bob drives off on Friday afternoon behind the wheel of a city-owned asphalt mixer.)

Thanks to all who carried the ball during my mini-break. It was a fairly productive day, capped by a trip to Ann Arbor in the evening, always a morale-booster. Or a knuckle-whitener, as you have to become aware, once again, of the odd habits of the college-town pedestrian, all of whom behave as though they walk in a force-field bubble, and if you hit them with your car, it’s the car that will explode into a million pieces, not them. One is tempted to take them up on the dare, but, well, one resists temptation.

Oh, and the winter cyclists. No lights, no bells, no manners. But a nice tradeoff for those walkable streets, those ten thousand restaurants, the energy of thousands of students. A banner on the Diag for the local Democratic students’ club: “We won, but we’re not done.” Ha.

So, bloggage? Not much:

Headlines I don’t want to know more about. But go ahead and explore, if you dare: Bible, handcuffs, diaper in abduction baffle Toledo police.

Michele Bachmann, the dope who keeps on giving.

There’s more — there’s always more — but you’ll have to find it yourself today. I’m outta here.

Posted at 8:30 am in Current events |
 

49 responses to “Sticky fingers.”

  1. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 18, 2009 at 8:44 am

    “Tiny little desires.”

    You’re gonna be preaching in no time.

    I’ve worked with Scouting all my life, and probably about half a dozen times when the unit (pack or troop) treasurer had spent the treasury; re: churches ditto. There’s dozens of these stories all around on a low level every year, and it’s why you should always be a cheerful pain in the butt at PTO and church group and community carnival meetings — check signing and treasurer should not be spouses, financial reports should be complete and at each meeting, and a friendly but thorough audit should be normal, not post-crisis behavior.

    Because not one situation i’ve worked with started as “i’m gonna steal from the kids,” it was a pile of cash, a check they wrote to simplify a deposit, then a “well, if i wait a few weeks, that’ll help with my . . .” and next thing you know they’ve spent all of what was there and are almost thankful they got caught, and stunned that they did it.

    When you’re a jerk at board/committee meetings, i guarantee you’re preventing someone great sorrow and pain, but they’ll never thank you because no one thinks they’d do it until lax enough procedure creates the opportunity. If it’s hard to do, it vanishes down to the few (but regular, i’ll admit) actively criminal thieves with accounting backgrounds. Those you can’t prevent, only prosecute.

  2. Dorothy said on February 18, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Hmph. And here, silly me, I thought only Kenyon students did that mindless walking-without-looking-to-see-if-any-cars-are-coming thing. It’s a new phenomenon to me. When one of them actually DOES look my way they get this look in their eyes that makes me think of the Bill Cosby: Himself special: THESE BRAIN-DAMAGED CHILDREN HAVE THE NERVE TO LOOK SURPRISED!!

  3. Julie Robinson said on February 18, 2009 at 9:20 am

    As it happens, the JG had a similar story just this morning: http://www.journalgazette.net/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090218/LOCAL03/302189985/1002/LOCAL
    Part time bank teller identifies low activity/high balance accounts and has an accomplice visit her line to make withdrawals. The take was $61,000, which she spent on “bills and personal items”. When caught, she admitted her guilt. No word on the accomplice.

    Our church has rotating teams of counters for the offering on Sundays. And, like many others, one person handles monies in, while a different one writes the checks. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but it’d be hard.

    I seem to remember that the Bobcat guy was listing the equipment on Ebay, the modern equivalent of the wild, wild, west.

  4. coozledad said on February 18, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I always wondered why they didn’t go ahead and cordon off Franklin Street in Chapel Hill to ensure that no motorist arrived home with a bunch of bodies mysteriously clinging to the chassis. The town where I went to college never had those problems. A good half of the “pedestrians” were already supine on the walkways and in the alcoves of stores, lying in their stomach contents. And this was before lunch.

  5. nancy said on February 18, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Churches are a big problem, as Jeff and Julie point out. When we first moved here, a single soccer mom brought a venerable Presbyterian church to the brink of extinction, something like a $750K theft, of which the church was able to recover…a fraction. Even designer jewelry loses value once it’s been worn.

    I’m also convinced this is the untold story that goes with legalized gambling. It’s astounding how many of these folks have serious slot-machine habits.

  6. whitebeard said on February 18, 2009 at 9:34 am

    It’s refreshing to read Congresswoman Bachmann spouting forth pure garbage about manipulating the census to redraw congressional district lines to keep Democrats in power for 40 years.
    Wait a minute, that is what the Republicans did with redrawing district lines with the same goal in mind, but guess what, whining, pathetic gals and guys, you lost big , , , twice.
    I don’t think upping Bachmann’s meds will help; she has a congenital defect in her hate genes.

  7. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 18, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Don’t know about California (our friends out there should be getting up and telling us shortly), but in Ohio and Indiana, we’re looking at local and state tax receipts coming in 10 to 20+% below expected amounts. That’s gonna leave a mark, stimulus or no stimulus.

    Churches around here are falling into two categories — stable, but nervous treasurers (when reporting “no decline, no increase” draws broad smiles around the table in the basement on a Monday night), or 30% declines starting with Jan. 4 even for congregations that weren’t losing income in the fall. Half of the latter, half of the former, in my anecdotal meandering/e-mailing. But denominational bodies (dioceses/regions/areas/synods) are looking at a sudden, sharp 15 to 30% drop along with loss of investment income, which many such bodies had become inexcusably dependent on over the last five years, having cut staff drastically in the decade previous. They went to their endowments and reserve capital saying “we just can’t cut any more and still function,” and now it’s gone and they have to make major cuts *immediately*.

    Then they get the assessment bill from the state that they’ve never seen before . . . it’s getting ugly out there in church/non-profit land. Really ugly.

  8. Kirk said on February 18, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Re: bold collegiate pedestrians. Don’t blame it on “these kids today.” As a college student in the Nixon era, I did exactly the same thing. It’s probably better to do it an actual college town, as I did, rather than a huge city where there happens to be a college.

  9. Dorothy said on February 18, 2009 at 10:38 am

    I’m not laying blame in either direction, Kirk. And I don’t think it’s better to “do it” anywhere, whether it’s a college town or not. It’s irresponsible behavior. I was taught to always look both ways before crossing and assume everyone else was, too. It always irks me and makes me think the youngsters feel it’s their privilege to cross whenever and wherever they want and to hell with anyone in a vehicle. It’s a different story when they cross within the cross walks. I’m always obey that rule – all vehicles must come to a stop for anyone in the cross walk. That’s what the painted lines are for.

  10. Gasman said on February 18, 2009 at 11:01 am

    It’s obvious that Rep. Bachman gets all of her talking points from rabid talk radio and Drudge. These are the exact same lies that they are all currently passing around.

    Here in Los Alamos, many of our senior citizens are in a lather regarding the lie concerning the “rationing board” for medical care. One senior in particular is panicking because he is scheduled to have surgery and is absolutely convinced that Obama will call his doctor while said patient is anesthetized and the Prez will cancel his surgery. The sad thing is that many of these folks are swallowing this crap. The elderly seem especially vulnerable to the willful lies propagated by the Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, O’Reilly, et al. crowd. I think they listen to the radio to stave off loneliness and unwisely believe everything that they hear.

    The lie in question regarding rationed healthcare took all of 10 minutes to debunk. It came from the mouth of BETSY MCCAUGHEY, a paid foot soldier working for the pharmaceutical industry. McCaughey states the initial lie on Fox, Limbaugh repeated it, then Drudge, then CNN, then back to Limbaugh. A circular self referential whirlpool of willfully manufactured bullshit. Unfortunately, for every such lie it takes a small mountain of evidence to make our local seniors even have the slightest doubt regarding their radio heroes, let alone make them aware that these same heroes are taking them to be moronic sheep.

  11. Gasman said on February 18, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Kirk & Dorothy,
    While I was in grad school, a fellow student and his wife went out to see a movie in Dallas. While she waited at the theater, John went across the street to an ATM. Coming back, John stepped off the curb without looking and was hit by a car and killed. There was nothing the driver could do; it simply happened too fast. John wasn’t cocky or arrogant, just careless for one inattentive moment. That’s all it took. He was in a hurry to get back to his wife and forgot to look before he crossed the street. He died instantly.

    In the thousands of times that I have crossed streets in the decade since John died, I have thought of him 99.9% of the time when I cross. We were not close, but he was a respected colleague and his life was very similar to mine. His death hit me hard. He was even closer than I was to finishing his doctorate and I think that they awarded it to him posthumously as a gesture to his wife. John was an extremely talented musician and would have had a stellar career. More than that, he was just a good guy.

    His death certainly made me more cautious when I prepare – and I do mean prepare – to cross a street.

  12. jeff borden said on February 18, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Gasman,

    What’s that old Mark Twain axiom? “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

    Older Americans are more prone to fall for these scare stories and why not? They make up a disproportionate percentage of talk radio and Fox News viewers. And consider the disparity in the size of the rightwing noise machine versus the leftwing. . .it’s no contest.

    I actually sent $100 to Michelle Bachman’s opponent in a vain hope this brainless moron would be defeated. I’d do it again to remove this tumor from Congress.

  13. ROgirl said on February 18, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Let’s face it, these people who embezzle from small businesses and municipalities, take funds from churches/scouts/the PTA, “borrow” freely from their employers, have nothing on the Bernie Madoffs et al of this world.

  14. Catherine said on February 18, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Yes, CA state and local tax receipts are down similar amounts. But, the state is holding on to citizens’ tax refunds so as to pay bills, so somehow the cash, it keeps flowing. People often say that CA is a tax hell, but I’ll bet my property taxes are lower than many of yours. Thanks to Prop 13, they’ve barely increased since we bought our house at the very bottom of the market, in 1996. Hell… handbasket… whatever.

    On the topic of windfall fantasies: The ex-wife of a good friend receives alimony in the mid-six figures. Where does it all go? Why, to Neiman Marcus. I always figured, a little to Switzerland, and a little to buy my way onto the acquisitions committees at my favorite museums.

  15. paddyo' said on February 18, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    I also wonder about the iceberg factor … how many embezzlers from the small outfits DON’T succumb to the jewelry-and-Vegas temptation but instead DO squirrel it away, and have yet to be detected/caught/tried/etc.

  16. mark said on February 18, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    In my travels I came to really love Vietnam. But no matter how often I visit, I can never get the hang of crossing the street in a busy city like Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city for the ardent progressives on the board). It’s terrifying at times and an act of absurd faith always.

    Walking into traffic is a necessity- it’s how it is done. The great sin and cause of catastrophic acidents is to vary your stride or react defensively to the mass of mobilized humanity streaming toward you. You simply have “faith” that the next lowest element on the food chain- bicyclists and cyclo drivers, will swerve, dart and brake as necessary to avoid you, based upon your calculated path derived from current speed and direction.

    The two wheeled act with a similar lack of concern for what dangers their gyrations pose for the four-wheeled. Cabbies and drivers entrusted with a vehicle adjust accordingly, with an almost constant beeping of the horn- used not to signal “Get out of the way” but “I’m here, I’m here. Don’t even think about swerving my direction.”

    One moment of hesitation by the overly large caucasian pedestrian and this symphony of high speed asian chaos comes to a limb tearing, metal twisting, produce scattering halt.

    As with much of Vietnam, when in doubt safety can be found by following the lead of old women.

  17. moe99 said on February 18, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    the one place that looking both ways before I cross does not work is in England (and Australia, so make it two). It’s just so ingrained that I look left and then right. I narrowly missed being hit by cars several times upon visits to each, because of the way traffic flows there.

  18. MichaelG said on February 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Thank you, Nancy for being so kind yesterday. We all know who the best writer around here is and we all know why we continue to come here.

    Right you are, Mark. Crossing streets in Saigon can be very scary — starting with that circle in front of the Binh Thanh market. Never been to Oz or GB, Moe, but I get the drift. I almost killed myself looking the wrong way before crossing in Singapore.

  19. Dorothy said on February 18, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    I know what you mean Moe. I’ve only been to the UK once but it was enough to put the fear of God in me when stepping into the street.

    Gasman I’m very sorry about your acquaintance. It’s those situations (car very near a person, not able to stop in time) that really concern me here. But the good thing is (1) I always keep my eyes peeled for pedestrians, and (2) the speed limit on campus is 25 MPH and I adhere to it religiously. The only thing I’ve ever hit with my car was a squirrel and that was about 12 years ago. It freaked me out big time.

  20. kayak woman said on February 18, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Stories about treasurers like the A2 hockey mom (my town) always just about give me a case of the hives. Throughout my kids’ school years (nursery through high school), I practically made a volunteer career out of managing school-org treasuries. No, I never stole a penny. I did it because I have an odd affinity for counting money, balancing accounts, and playing with Excel. I couldn’t care less about cocktail rings and I throw Cadillac brochures into the recycle along with the AARP stuff. All too often non-profit treasuries are a shambles of unbalanced books and un-filed tax reports and many volunteer treasurers don’t have the time and/or expertise to do a competent job.

    That “actual meat market” quote is hilarious!

  21. Peter said on February 18, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Didn’t this Bachman twit say something about Al Franken during the general election? Or was it something else that she had to apologize for?

    I really thought that Helen Chenoweth from Idaho set the gold standard for GOP Stupidity, and she’s gone to the elephant graveyard (I think, or I hope), so is Michele just picking up where Helen left off or are we seeing a new level of stupid?

  22. moe99 said on February 18, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    http://sports.espn.go.com/highschool/rise/basketball/boys/news/story?id=3914375&campaign=rss&source=ESPNHeadlines

    Some good news.

  23. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 18, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    (Moe, awesome story – i should check ESPN more often. Thanks!)

    I’ll see your Michele Bachman and raise you a Sheila Jackson Lee . . . We’ve all got our “ready, fire, aim” quotemeisters.

    As for us Ree-pubs and our lady candidates, didn’t you know: we clone them and keep a fresh supply out of the main offices in Stepford, Connecticut. Martha Stewart got loose from the main GOP-BIO facility thirty years ago and went waaaay off script, but we had a pre-programmed cover story about Nutley, New Jersey which amazingly no one ever questioned. She tried to spill the beans on us a ways back when some of her memories returned, and our friends at the SEC (the ones who triggered this financial situation which we’re all making bazillions off of, and positioning ourselves for 2010 dominance) pulled a few strings, got her convicted, and we got her into a rehab/re-education facility up in the West Virginia mountains — she’s still a bit squishy, but actually at this point having her be pro-Obama is part of The Plan.

  24. jeff borden said on February 18, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Dang, so it’s Martha Stewart who’s responsible, eh?

    Appropos of Republican women, it looks like Sarah Palin is going to have some real governing to do now that the price of oil has hammered the Alaskan economy. I read somewhere that revenues from oil are something like 80% of the state budget, so this downturn is extraordinarily painful up there. Good luck to her.

    Meanwhile, some rather interesting comments by Bristol Palin on the efficacy of abstinence only education. She sounds a lot more sensible than the adults, noting that abstinence is a fine ideal, but not likely to overcome the raging hormones that flow through your average teen.

    As a liberal, I remain puzzled as to why so many of those who fervently oppose abortion are often so very likely to oppose contraceptive measures. If you are truly dedicated to preventing abortion, shouldn’t birth control be part of the game plan? By opposing the use of condoms, the pill, IUDs, etc., it’s almost as if the anti-abortion backers also want to oppose sexual pleasure. Perhaps it’s the whole religion thing again.

  25. Michael said on February 18, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Redundancy is a simple safe-guard that even small organizations can put in place. Think about two sets of eyes on everything.

    1. All invoices go to one person to review and approve. A second person signs and mails the check.
    2. The bank statements (including canceled checks) is mailed to a person who is different from the “treasurer” and that person reconciles the account each month.

    We are often reluctant to suggest any of this as it’s an insult to the volunteer treasurer. But it can be framed as “let’s do this for your protection in the event there are any unforeseen problems”. If the volunteer treasurer balks they are not a good candidate for that job.

  26. moe99 said on February 18, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    The problem is, Jeff tmmo, there are so many more Michelle Bachmans than there are comparables that identify themselves as Democrats. A small sampling starting with Huckabee:

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0209/18668.html

    http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/02/steve_austria_r_oh_doesnt_know_when_the_depression_happened.php

    http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/stimulus-package/gop-leadership-response-video-depicting-afscme-members-as-goons/

    http://www.calitics.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=8089

    http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/02/18/us/AP-California-Budget.html?_r=1&hp

  27. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 18, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Michael, absolutely, especially your last statement. Red flags are red flags, even if the flagee doesn’t know they’re waving it.

  28. coozledad said on February 18, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Department of unsurprising events: Hitchens goes to rile up Lebanese. Goes drinking afterward. Steps out for piss, finds marker in pocket instead, defaces poster of radical group, with members of said group looking on. Gets ass handed to him on platter with pilaf and orange slices.
    http://abumuqawama.blogspot.com/

  29. jeff borden said on February 18, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Christopher Hitchens drinking? Nah. Couldn’t be.

  30. Jolene said on February 18, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    mark: Your description of the perils of crossing streets in Vietnam is terrific. It reminded me of a specific scene from a book that I mentioned once before, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. In the scene, the bicycle-riding protagonist is crossing a bridge as part of a slow-moving stream of humans, animals, and machines–motorized or not, two-wheeled or more. After several years, what’s stayed with me about the book is that sense of “teeming” and also the sense that Vietnam is a place permeated with the aroma of fish sauce.

  31. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 18, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Mmmmm . . . fish sauce.

  32. Deborah said on February 18, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Yuk… fish sauce. What do you folks who travel there do in Viet Nam? Do you go there on vacation or business? I have only been to Bangkok and Manila on business and did not like either one. Of course it was in July, hot as hell. I have never sweat so much in my life. Traffic was horrific, could hardly breathe from the exhaust fumes. In Bangkok I did get to go to the floating market and the royal palace so that was interesting. In Manila, I got sick when they served mayonaise laden sandwiches in a sweltering high rise during a business meeting. I promptly went back to my hotel, packed and headed to the airport for home sweet home.

  33. LA Mary said on February 18, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    I’m ok with VietNamese fish sauce. The Philippines variety is not a favorite. To me it smells like it should have been thrown out a week ago. I like pancit and lumpia and halo halo, but most Pilipino cuisine does nothing for me. VietNamese barbecued pork is wonderful stuff, as is most pho.

  34. alex said on February 18, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    My only Asian food gross-out was durian. It smells like a fetid human corpse. To me, anyway. Others groove on it. I wonder if it’s the presence/absence of certain enzymes in the body, the same thing that makes people either love or hate cilantro.

  35. Rana said on February 18, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Geh. Cilantro. That falls in the category of foods that just smell intrinsically un-food-like to me. (Green bell peppers are another; I have to avoid the aisle with them in the grocery store. Well-cooked red ones are fine, however.)

    I have learned to tolerate the flavor, so I guess my gene profile is slightly different than those of people who absolutely cannot stand the stuff. A little goes a very long way, though – I remember once being repulsed by some mashed potatoes simply because a sprig of cilantro had rested on them.

    Durian to me smells like a mixture of B.O. and white gas. Having once had the unpleasant experience of eating food (mashed potatoes again – what the heck?) that had been tainted with camping fuel, I see no reason to eat a fruit that promises a similar olfactory experience.

    Fish sauce and stinky cheese, on the other hand, are yummy!

    My weirdest I-don’t-think-I-need-to-experience-it-again Asian food? Natto. Stringy/gooey texture, weird taste, and very strange smell.

  36. MichaelG said on February 18, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    I’ve been to Vietnam three times. The first two times were during the war and we don’t need to go over that other than to say that on several occasions while there I was able to be alone in Saigon or elsewhere for a day or three enjoyed myself. The third time was in 2000 when I stayed almost three weeks. So that’s twice on business and once on vacation. The people then and now are warm and friendly. They work hard, smile and, unbelievably, like Americans. The people and the country are very clean. Saigon is an amazingly clean city. The smells. It is a sub-tropical place. You will smell the jungle and you will smell decay. Go to New Orleans. In Saigon you will smell the tropics, the decay, exhaust, the river, unfamiliar spices and cooking smells, people — life. It is different from where you live. Some folks don’t like it. I love it. The heat and the humidity. I spent 15 months there in my youth, and I live in Sacramento now. I am not unfamiliar with heat. Vietnam is hot and humid. You will sweat. Most people end up in loose clothes and no underwear which tends to bunch up and chafe. I love the hot and humid climate. It’s great for your skin. When you walk you feel as if your joints have been oiled. I love that feeling.

    What do you do there? That’s up to you. There are guide books that will tell you what sights to see. There are tours. I’m a city junky. I always figure it’s the local people’s city. I’m just a visitor so it’s up to me to adapt. I don’t expect American things or customs. I don’t compare things I see to American things. They are not going to be better or worse, they’re going to be different. I take them for what they’re worth. I get up early and walk for hours. When I’m hungry I eat. There are food stalls everywhere in Saigon and they have some of the most delicious food in town. I’ve never had trouble with eating things that are not on the menu at Mc Donald’s but by no stretch of the imagination am I Andrew Zimmern. Vietnamese food is a delight. It’s very light, gently handled and tasty. The national dinner is a sort of beef and noodle affair called Pho. Roughly pronounced “fuh”. It is accompanied by huge plates full of fresh greens that you pile into your bowl. There are web sites devoted to Pho. You can check it out. The Vietnamese make the most wonderful beef salad, prawn rolls etc. etc. The food is wonderful. There are plenty of excellent restaurants for evening eating. Try one where you live.

    So where does that leave us? I don’t know. Clearly Vietnam is a third world country at this time. Saigon does not have an NFL, NBA, NHL or even big time soccer team. Few theaters, not so many movies; not a lot of the stuff we are accustomed to in US cities. There is golf and tennis and there are beaches. The streets teem with life. It’s a big (seven mil or so) throbbing, river and port town with food and it’s own sophistication and charm. It is or was 10 years ago a window into the past, a peek at old French colonialization, an unspoiled place with a mixture of the old and the new. Think cell phone in a farmer’s hand while tilling his rice paddy with a water buffalo. I guess it’s not a place for everyone. I love it. I could live there. Mark loves it, Bourdain loves it. Many of you might not. It is my good fortune that Sacramento’s Little Saigon is just around the corner and a mile or so down Stockton Blvd.

  37. Rana said on February 18, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    MichaelG, that description makes me want to start packing my bags – and I’m one of those people who poorly tolerates high humidity combined with high temperatures.

  38. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 18, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Cilantro is soap with chlorophyll, but i can stomach it if the other flavors have enough heft.

  39. MichaelG said on February 18, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    Fish sauce is nowhere as nasty as some people would have others believe. It’s used in cooking and dips. You don’t drink it. Cilantro is hard to avoid in California since it is a staple in Mexican cooking. I think fresh cilantro is delicious. I’m not crazy about it cooked. I must admit I’m not crazy about durian either although I think its awfulness is exaggerated. My experiences with Pilipino cooking are about the same as Mary’s. There are not a lot of Pilipino restaurants. Probably for the same reason there aren’t a lot of Irish restaurants.

  40. Dexter said on February 19, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Exactly four days after I started my career job, the Michigan Lottery sold its first ticket. One lottery mule , an old retired railroader from Garrett would drive to Coldwater every week and buy $5,000 worth of tickets and make his rounds of the NE Indiana bars where the people gobbled them up. He was soon up to eight grand a week.
    I didn’t care anything about it; it seemed like a ridiculous waste of money.
    By the end of the decade, I was playing a little and riding my motorcycle to Coldwater every other week, soon every week. My first ticket I won $166 on a two dollar bet.
    Ohio got a lotto; I became the mule. We had a group that played $320 every week…in fifteen years we hit five of six numbers once, and thirty-two people split $860. We spent A QUARTER OF A MILLION DOLLARS and won only that $860 and a few prizes of around $65.
    We all knew we would lose almost every week, but we tried against all odds, and I still donate a dollar once or twice a week to the state via the lottery.
    I know I will lose ..why play? Why, so I can dream of tacky purchases!
    New vehicle, and mobility…when I want to go to England , I’ll go. Get cold here? Off to Oz to roast in their summer heat for a week. Maybe one of those old-time General Stores in Vermont for an investment I could visit on a whim. I can dream of riches for just a dollar. Silly, but comforting.

  41. MaryRC said on February 19, 2009 at 3:59 am

    I’m also convinced this is the untold story that goes with legalized gambling. It’s astounding how many of these folks have serious slot-machine habits.

    I think you’re absolutely right. Did you ever see Philip Seymour Hoffman in a movie called “Owning Mahoney”? True story of a bank employee who embezzled $10 million dollars from the bank and spent it all on gambling. He started off small, taking a few thousand to pay his bookie and apparently believed to the last that he could win it all back and re-pay the bank without anyone knowing.

  42. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 19, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Ah, the neurobiology of intermittent reward.

    State-sponsored gambling is actually a tax on stupidity (nothing personal, Dexter, i’m making a general statement) as much as a tax on poverty — the ecumenical church bodies in West Virginia and Ohio that i’ve worked with that fought off major expansions of gambling for supporting state revenue (video poker, keno, etc.) have had those two points in mind more than any “gambling is wrong morally for the gambler” belief.

    In lobbying against and arguing with legislative defenders, they have their auto-responses to “tax on the poor” ready and rolling, but asking them about the rationale behind “tax on stupidity” always got me a gratifying flailing incoherence. Legislators love that gambling money if the gaming crowd can give them adequate cover for their endless bullpuckey about “it’s for education” or “we’ll help our seniors.”

    It is, by the way, the most regressive tax we have out there, just ahead of the gas tax. Putting sales tax on groceries would barely nudge past gambling as a percentage hit on low income families, another fun point to make when they’re trying to push a new form of “gaming.”

  43. basset said on February 19, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Dexter… maybe this is one of the old-time Vermont country stores you’d invest in?

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29227410/

  44. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4royOLtvmQ

    (I’d also listen to the Kravitz 75 remix version . . .)

  45. mark said on February 19, 2009 at 9:33 am

    jolene-

    Thanks for the nice words.

    MichaelG caught well a lot of what I love about VN. Strange, my first trip there was in 2000. We might have passed on the street.

    I went for business (a failed one) and pleasure (might explain the business failure). I’ll share a few favorites another time. Don’t mean to always hijack the thread and carry it 12,000 miles away.

  46. Dorothy said on February 19, 2009 at 9:58 am

    I LOVE cilantro! Even if I’m not buying any, I stop by to catch a whiff of it in the produce department as I’m picking up apples or tomatoes. I have to buy some today as I’m making slow cooker chicken tortilla soup tomorrow. Cilantro + basil – two wonderful scents and flavors in my book.

    I forgot to mention, Nancy, how much I liked seeing the city Vladivostok mentioned in this entry yesterday. I’m not sure why but it delighted the hell out of me.

  47. Rana said on February 19, 2009 at 10:59 am

    *laughs* Dorothy, I actually twitched upon reading your first two sentences! What it did help me realize is that what I dislike about cilantro is its smell (ditto for the bell peppers). Unlike most cilantro-haters, who complain of its “soapy” taste, I never noticed that it had much of a taste at all. But the smell! *shudder*

    Basil, on the other hand, I adore. Great stuff.

  48. Dorothy said on February 19, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Well Rana we have something else in common besides basil. I can’t stand green bell peppers either!

  49. LA Mary said on February 19, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Dorothy, if you are feeling like pampering yourself, you should get some Kiehl’s Coriander lotion. It smells just like Cilantro and it’s good lotion too. I find myself craving Mexican food all day if I put it on in the morning.