Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction

I wrote an essay a few weeks back on Fishbusterz, a fish house on Stock Island that also sells meals for consumption outside at tables on the docks, there where the fish themselves are landed. So naturally when we had some out of town visitors descend on us for lunch one Saturday we drove them out to Fishbusterz, and amazing to relate the restaurant end has got a new fancy name:We got a call from Mrs Sailorman saying they had dropped anchor in Key West on their way north to a consulting job and did we want to do lunch? This is a couple we had a passing aquaintance with when we lived briefly in Ft Myers on our boat. They call when they are in Key West and we have had a couple of lunches with them in the past and this year it seems the tradition was to be maintained. My wife and I don't have much of a world view in common with them but one listens and tries to learn. So there we were at the Shrimp Shack of a sunny winter afternoon ordering grouper sandwiches for us and shrimp and fries for them.I find these kinds of encounters instructive because I get to hear how the world works form a different point of view, even though the point of view itself frequently leaves my head spinning. Sailorman is one of those people I like to describe as having a bluff exterior masking a bluff interior. He pontificates on subjects with a no holds barred attitude that is refreshing and somewhat confusing as he expects me to share those opinions. The "ladies" were inside placing the orders and we were outside holding down a table in a crowded seating area, and lacking sports for common ground economic bailouts were the opening conversational gambit. There at least we could share some scepticism, as clearly our first modest $700 million "bailout" has done bugger all good for anybody, except the jerks pocketing the bonuses. Though I would cautiously welcome a recovery plan that might hope to do some good, Sailorman thinks government stinks in every way at every level. He is one of those people who believes that government can do nothing right. And the autoworkers...well, of course they want too much money to raise their families. A whole $27 an hour i was quick to point out the famously incorrect $80 figure includes costs that are paid out to former employees in pensions and health care benefits ( damn those benefits!).And the fact that I work for the government, in my albeit modest capacity gets overlooked in the smirking runt of the conversation that relegates government to a level of incompetence worthy only of disgust. This from a man living off a buy out from AT&T, his steady employer for decades, that gave him a large sum of money to quit which which he bought a home and took to a life of pottering about and sailing. Not exactly government but god knows government-like when one remembers American Telephone and Telegraph's monopoly that enabled him to work and retire on such generous terms. The irony of his fulminations against car workers seeking similar compensation packages was completely lost on him.
They are employed by West Marine the boating world's source for parts and equipment, a huge monopoly based in Watsonville, California where I used to live and where I worked for one delightful summer, and was paid a pittance. Sailorman and his wife are employed from time to time by West Marine to help out opening or closing stores as needed. So they travel by boat and have their docking fees paid by the corporation as part of their contract, and when they are done they are free to sail. It's a good life and well deserved I'm sure. But when they talk about the struggles the company is going through in a declining economy they find it amusing that managers work free overtime for the corporation, that employees work horribly understaffed and are lucky to have a job at all. I can only imagine what my state of mind would be (will be?) if the city told me I had to work extra hours for free to keep my job!
As part of his retirement Sailorman got free health care coverage from AT&T for a while but he grew too old while too young for government provided Medicare and private insurance cost the two of them almost $500 a month so they wondered what to do about this large bite out of their modest means (they have impecunious middle aged children to support, not exactly boot strap paragons). Sailorman served his country in Indochina decades ago and was eligible for Veterans Administration benefits. He spent a large part of the meal extolling this incredible organization, excellent facilities, caring staff, batteries of tests, no charges, no paperwork! Fabulous. "Ah yes," I said dryly. "Our government at work. So what do you think of socialized medicine?"My ironic tone was lost on him completely as he launched into another round of fulsome praise for those fine government funded medical services. How I asked myself, could he be so blind to his own ironies?

We dropped them off back at the dinghy dock and off they sailed to Jacksonville with their next job lined up and waiting. Sailorman will no doubt pound the inland waterway going north, provided for his convenience by the work of the Federal Army Corps of Engineers, fulminating all the way against the stupidity and inefficency of government bureaucrats. The fascination for me is that even faced with the evidence of the unsustainable nature of his contempt, Sailorman is too obtuse to consider changing his strongly held position. A fable for all of us when faced with incontrovertible evidence of the fallacy of our own beliefs. This one will be a tough one for me to apply to my own life and thoughts as we progress into 2009.