Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Connery, Clients, Cinema & Cellphones

I knew I was in a good mood Sunday morning when I found myself doing a Sean Connery impression when I was putting on my makeup. “…we’ll listen to their rohckunrohll, while we perform misSILE druhls,” I burbled in a Scot-attempting-(badly)-a-Russian-accent, as I massaged concealer into the pores around my nose. (Yes, I have seen Hunt for Red October far too many times.) In the same spirit, I put on my coat with the giant fox fur cuffs, and my enormous Russian fox fur hat, and my black boots, and started for church, pausing to admire the neat row of outward bound kitty paw prints in the half inch of snow on one side of the steps, and the matching set of inbound prints on the other side—clearly, my friendly feline neighbor had been out to investigate, but was now comfortably situated at home. After church I invited myself over to Susan and Steven’s to cuddle Theo for an hour—I would post a picture, but when I showed it to Anita today she confirmed my own impression, that while Theo is a doll who looks like he’s trying to talk, I look a full thirty years older than I am, and fifty pounds heavier.

Seeing my unaccountable joy at dinner tonight, Anita says I may be punch-drunk, particularly given the trio of trying clients that have driven my boss, my colleagues and me almost to distraction over the last month, and sucked away any energy I might have had for blogging meantime. She may have a point. (Or it could be the “new-aunt buzz” I’m enjoying thanks to Theo.) We thought January’s sale was going to be a record event, something so full of treasure and exotic atmosphere that it would impart a glow of success to the rest of 2013. We’d talked it up for months, telling regular clients to come, that it would be an exceptional sale—we might even have a preview night, something we haven’t done in two years, since the estate in Georgetown with the 200 year history and eleven bedrooms. I was more than a little nonplussed when we actually got to the house. Where were the treasures foretold? Why were the owners still around? There were so many stacks of stuff the husband still had to go through. And the items that he pointed out as if they were really special…weren’t. Everything was filthy, and the wiring in the basement (where there was a lingering odor of gas) buzzed and flickered alarmingly. When my boss suggested sleeping at the house the night before the sale, I said it was a miracle the place hadn’t burnt down before, and I would take the train in if sale-day parking were the problem.

Extremely limited parking was only one of several problems that sank the sale. The weather was bitter, and it snowed irritatingly on Friday, and was gloomy Saturday. The owner didn’t let us lower prices at all on most of the big, interesting pieces that probably would have sold had we had some small leeway, and on whose selling we had counted when we had agreed to take the sale in the first place. So, when we totted the receipts this last week (actually, I did an Excel spreadsheet of the whole write-up book, just to make sure of the numbers), the sale earned only half of what we’d expected. And as I had worked the equivalent of more than 3 40-hour weeks in 2 ½, not to mention the hours all my colleagues contributed to cleanup and setup, doing it actually may have cost our company money.

We have been bedeviled by two other problem clients over the same period. One is the insane toilet-paper lady (“I’ve feel RAPED! I feel VIOLATED!” …after we used half a roll of her toilet tissue.) of last fall, who still hasn’t gotten over our selling her oak roll-top desk for $200, and her “Victorian” (covered in bile-colored crushed velvet) sofa for $100. [Incidentally, everything in her house was also dirty, and worthless, so that our company lost several thousand on that sale in revenue versus salaries.] She’s been sending my boss multi-paragraph emails from Florida, alleging that we swindled her. Never mind that we’ve steadily continued to put remaining items from her costume jewelry (which she’d considered worthless) collection in subsequent sales (all items carefully accounted for), and have sent her several nice checks following, which have more than compensated for any imagined losses in the furniture department! The second spanner-in-the-works person was ever only a consignor, for whom we never did an in-home sale. One of her adult children has a severe mental illness, and had trashed the house where she wanted us to do a sale, so my boss turned down the big job, but accepted a cluster of items on consignment from her out of sympathy. Truly, it’s been a lesson in how mental illnesses usually do not spring full-armored from the head of Zeus but are cultivated to an extent in previous generations. The stuff this woman gave us was mostly junk—chipped stemware, shell necklaces of the beach type, etc. We managed to sell quite a bit of it, though, in one of our last 2012 sales, and for a very nice sum. Yet, since Christmas, she has left my boss poisonous phone messages, and within the last week has gone from sugar sweet to raging beastly then back again, from slandering her and our business to unusual cordiality, all without discernible pattern or trigger. Thank God my boss is a diplomat, inclined to soothing rather than threatening when threatened. Still, I will be heartily grateful when these three unpredictable spirits fade from our awareness, having returned to curling protectively around their precious, dead possessions and muttering sweet nothings to them.

Honestly, I feel like our company letterhead should read, in capitals, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!!! Sheesh, it may not be tomorrow, it may not be for a decade. It might not even be for another fifty or sixty years, but we are all going to turn up our toes (bar the end of the world) and, (especially then), OUR STUFF WON’T MATTER. I do like stuff. I have a lot of it. I am a packrat. I like jewelry, and books, and handmade lovelies of all make and model. I like original art and handmade rugs and china and silver and fur and DVDs and electronic gadgets and so on and so forth. I would hope, however, that if it were all to be reduced to ashes in a catastrophe I would have the good sense and fortitude to remind myself, “It’s just stuff. It was nice while it lasted” and go on without excessive handwringing. In any case, I want to be righteous and give generously, and share my blessings, not be like the rich fool of the parable. In DC, so many people seem to think even the horse manure in their middle-sized barns is made out of gold. For insurance purposes, value it as such; for second-sale purposes, realize that we'll get what money we can for its worth as garden fertilizer.

After Anita and I dined this evening, it was still early, so I took myself to a movie. I hadn’t seen anything in the theater since Skyfall before Christmas, and I knew there were a couple of good ones out (my boss and I want to go see Zero Dark Thirty together sometime soon). I chose Argo, which has gotten several Oscar nominations. It was the first film in a long, long time to actually get my heartrate up—James Bond is fun, but most so-called “action” movies don’t really get my blood moving anymore, no matter how much I enjoy them, being as they are pretty formulaic and more about explosions than tension. I really liked Argo—I remember more about the Lawrence Welk show and the weather reports from 1979 than I do about the hostage crisis, and so didn’t already know the end of the story—and I thought Ben Affleck did a good job directing, and also admirably subdued himself onscreen. Mainly due to his earlier attention-hogging, he’s not been one of my favorite actors (in contrast to my appreciation of his buddy Matt Damon’s work), but I thought he did really nice work here. It was funny, though, to glimpse the picture of the real Tony Mendez shaking hands with President Carter and observe that the man is a medium-build somewhat swarthy Hispanic guy (probably why Affleck chose to sport a dark beard for the role, as otherwise he looks about as classically Hispanic as Ron Howard)—just what you’d hope for in an exfiltration expert: someone normal, even average-looking, who could blend comfortably into dozens of world cultures without attracting any special notice. The end credits said Mendez lives in retirement in Maryland; probably quietly and unremarked upon by his neighbors.

Around here, though, sometimes even when something is designed to attract attention, people seem to ignore it deliberately. I went to work yesterday at the house in upper-middle-class suburban Maryland where we’re doing our next sale. My colleague unlocked the front door, and the burglar alarm tripped. The husband and wife are still living there (they are moving to the same golfing/retirement community where my aunt and uncle live in North Carolina, but not until after the sale—they, in contrast to the Three Ghouls of Estate Sales Past, are nice, and non-possessive, but it’s still challenging to work around resident clients, since most people don’t live with all their possessions set out on counters with price stickers on them), and he had obviously been operating on auto-pilot when they’d left that morning, and turned on the security system. Alarm blaring around us, we called my boss. No answer. We texted. No response. After ten minutes, the alarm company hadn’t called, nor had the police shown, so we decided that it was too deafening to wait indoors for them, and returned to our cars to keep warm. We waited for an entire hour (my Yugoslavian colleague told a long, angry, non-linear story while I listened sympathetically and tried to follow the constantly-disappearing thread and figure out exactly what had pissed her off). The alarm sounded for a full 50 minutes. No one from the security company ever appeared, no police cruiser ever pulled up. A neighbor even walked past with her dog, deaf to the hubbub. I told my colleague that we had obviously missed our calling as daytime housebreakers, given the quiet in the bedlam. After the alarm had finally shut off, we decided to make a second attempt at getting to work. We opened the front door again. Beep, beep, BEEEEEEEP! At that point, we called it a day and drove off on separate errands.

I went directly to the Verizon store, since I’d noticed during the morning’s frantic telephoning that the speaker mechanism on my old-school phone had died, a major problem in DC and MD, which are legislated hands-free. I was the only customer, which was a pleasant first. To replace the old phone with a like model would have been fifty bucks after rebate (!), but getting an iPhone4 was free. Odd, but there it was. So, I now have an iPhone. It doesn’t have a Suri or whatshername on it (I always think of the Tom Cruise kid every time I hear of that function), but it’s very cool nonetheless. I bought the two-year replacement insurance, but balked at the $50 protective case, figuring I could get one cheaper online. Way, way cheaper, it turns out—six bucks on Amazon Prime. Even if the case falls apart and I have to get half a dozen replacements, it’ll still have been a savings. My plain red case should come tomorrow, but maybe I can eventually find one with fun Kdrama illustrations (the Russian-related options were all quite boring). I can hardly wait to get the DramaFever app!

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