May and I are fairly omnivorous. We've never seriously flirted with any sort of self-imposed dietary restrictions. Between the two of us, we have one food allergy and it isn't anything common enough to put a cramp in our eating habits. (It's me and snails and the reaction is swift and nearly fatal. I know this because a meal at a French Algerian joint in the Village nearly left me dead and I took it upon myself to discover which of the meal's elements was the culprit. After nearly killing myself a second time, I narrowed the field down to the snails. Which is a shame, really, because the deadly little things were quite delicious both times.) Despite the recent Great Gustatory Awakening currently sweeping the American middle-class, we haven't become locavors or made any massive commitment to eating food that was raised in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, hand-fed by nuns who have made a vow to live solely of the nurturing strength of their faith, and taught in special Montessori programs that it could grow up to be anything it wanted before it was slaughtered and shipped off to our tables. There is a weekly Greenmarket located between us and our weekly trips to the library, so we end up buying a lot of fresh stuff there. Still, this is mostly a geographical accident and a byproduct of the marketer's wonderful customer service rather than ideological commitment.
If we have anything like a food credo, it's simply: "Eat it only if you really want it." If we go to a restaurant and we don't see anything fetching on the menu, we'll take a small salad. On the other hand, if we see some health-destroying concoction that was product of unnecessary Hostel-grade cruelty to not only the animal, but to the animal's family and closest friends, but we must have it, then we get it and don't spend much time thinking on it.
We do, however, get curious enthusiasms. We both cook – she's the more creative and adventurous one, I'm the more dependable and experienced one – and sometimes one of us will get on a kick. Maybe it will be some ingredient we're suddenly digging hard on or maybe one of us will realize that our lives will be incomplete unless we familiarize ourselves with Swedish-Ethiopian fusion cuisine. Though those are fairly normal. We've had color-themed fads and texture was the basis of a particularly monotonous period.
I bring this up not because I think we're some sort of model foodies. This is simply to provide context for the following anecdote.
After a particularly inspiring meal of roast duck, May caught the bug to host a dinner featuring only those foods whose names were also verbs.
For a few days she compiled possible dishes: flounder, squash, so on.
She set herself a rule that homonyms were out. No beets or wine counted, for example.
She also attempted to impose a more vague but no less important rule having to do with avoiding verbs-meal links that are inherent in the relationship between the food item and the verb. Examples might illuminate the idea better than further attempts at explanation. Milk, for example, is a verb and a drink. However, May felt that one milks to get milk, that why it's called milking. The link is too close. And too close links were, she decided, somehow just not as humorous.
That second rule made drinks a particular sticky issue. Milk was out. She felt juice was out as well, for the same reason. No wine, beer, or any hard liquor we could think of. Punch was about the only thing we could come up with.
Balancing the meal was proving difficult too. It seemed like one got more meat and fish than vegetables.
Eventually, these two things – the limitation of what she called "kiddie-booze" and the "all this meat and no potatoes" syndrome - undermined the scheme and she seems to have given up on the whole thing – at least temporarily.
Our local hardware store is a family establishment. The same family's been shilling nails, light bulbs, duct tape, and what-have-you for nearly eighty years now out of the same ol' corner shop. The current family manager is a friendly, chatty guy in his late 30s, early 40s.
I think he's great because he treats every question you give as if it were a proposal for the Mission Impossible team and not a fairly simple DIY house fix.
Yesterday I was looking for a little weather stripping and a small space heater. May's always been pretty sensitive to cold and these days she's doing more freelance work at home. The kitchen area, which also serves as our office, is pretty poorly insulated. I tend not to notice as my desk isn't next to the two poorly insulated windows; but May's desk is situated right next to one and it gets pretty damn cold if you're just sitting there.
Anyway, I came in, asked him to help me find what I thought I needed, and he starts spinning off alternate solutions. The best of these plans involved me wiring a second thermostat into the heating system between, as it were, the owners thermostat and the heater. He had this idea that the thermostat I wired in would basically override the owners' thermostat. He came up with this plan when I wondered allowed just how amenable the landlords would be to me just going ahead and weather-proofing the windows, and then just handing them the bill.
"You're telling me I should secretly rewire the heating system," I asked.
"It's not that hard."
"Is that legal?"
"Um. Sure. It isn't like your stealing, is it? I mean. The heater makes heat anyway. You're just letting more of it out, on top of what they were already letting out."
"Will you take the stand as my witness in court?"
"A court of law?"
"No, basketball. Yeah a court of law."
"You a lawyer?"
"Let's look at the weather strips."
As regular readers of this diary might recall, I've got a thing for books about con men. Perhaps I'd be better served by reading jeremiads about how America's working class supports the wrong party because they don't know really know what's good for them. But the righteous anger just doesn't seem to materialize. Suggest a work in which a "rogue economist" unravels the what marketing copy so uniquely calls "the riddles of everyday life" by applying some good old reductive logic to them – or, as the marketing copy puts it "through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, see through all the clutter," and you'll find me and Ms. Sleepy-Time in the far corner, getting better acquainted. On the other hand, tell me you've got a book about a two mall garage guards who managed to convince thousands of Americans to give them money to free imprisoned missionaries in the utterly fictional jungle kingdom of Pongo-Pongo and you have my complete attention.
I travel through life with blinders on, I know.
Still, I get my fill of schemers and frauds and I like to think, in some small way, it gives me, in a way, models of people who, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, see through all the clutter.
There is, however, a curious subset of con men who, though clearly engaged in some sort of profitable impossibility, might not be conning anybody in the strictest sense. That is to say: if they believe their shit, can they really be called a con man?
The case in point: rainmaker Charles Hatfield.
Depending on your point of view Hatfield is either a crank whose misunderstandings of science caught up the equally ignorant, a clever schemer who exploited a desperate community, or a "rogue" inventor responsible for one of the greatest natural disasters in the history of San Diego.
In 1915, the City Council of San Diego contacted Hatfield about making a little rain. San Diego, many southern California towns, had chronic water shortages. Water was a precious resource and towns were at the mercy of a handful of water barons. San Diego had built a reservoir and system of dams to supply the city, but a severe draught had left the new water system bone dry. Faced with shelling out a king's ransom to the water barons or taking a chance on the rainmaker, they figured they might as well take the long shot. Hatfield always worked on a "no rain, no pay" basis. If Hatfield didn't make the agreed upon inch-mark, then the city could send him packing without dropping a red cent his way. It was win-win: either they got the water a fraction of the cost the water barons would charge or they didn't lose a cent and paid what they would have had to pay the barons in the first place.
Before turning to professional rain wrangling, Hatfield had been a Singer sewing machine salesman. He was quite good at it – good enough that he could take regular periods off to dedicate himself to his passion: rainmaking. In 1902, after a long series of experiments conducted in his spare time, Hatfield settled on a "secret formula" of cloud agitating materials. At the time, it didn't seem so odd. The US government had previously funded an extensive and well-reported series of rainmaking experiments and Hatfield collected a small library of scientific and pseudo-scientific books on the subject. Hatfield's rainmaking scheme, either out of cynical design or out of a genuine desire to apply this knowledge, fit in with the then-current theories of meteorology he absorbed in those early days. It should also be pointed out that Hatfield was careful to never claim he was a rainmaker. "Moisture accelerator" was his preferred term The difference, he claimed, wasn't merely semantic. Rainmakers claimed to produce rain ex nihlo, which Hatfield considered impossible. Hatfield, in contrast, used his methods to coax moisture out of clouds. Besides seeming somewhat more scientific, this meant that Hatfield could excuse himself from taking jobs where the weather conditions didn't already look as if they might break into rain.
After a handful of successful jobs in the Midwest, Hatfield scored two separate gigs in LA. He completed both jobs satisfactorily – for the first job his was paid double to leave early, the ranchers had enough rain and didn't want to suffer through an unnecessarily prolonged storm.
These gigs made him internationally famous. The government of Canada almost employed him before a forward thinking minister worried that Hatfield might upset the delicate balance of nature with his weather experiments and create a mega-storm he couldn't stop. Did Canada really want to be responsible for the end of the world? The answer, apparently, was no because the government retracted its offer. South Africa and England also approached the rainmaker, though, again, the offers were retracted before he could get to work.
Still, these gigs (though apparently not a busted gig he couldn't make a go of in Alaska right after the LA gigs) caught the attention of the San Diego Council. Shortly before new years, they voted to pay Hatfield $1,000 per inch of rain. Hatfield, being a gentleman, told them every inch over the first 50 was on the house. Without further ado, Hatfield headed up into the mountains and started accelerating moisture.
What followed was the worst set of storms in San Diego history. The streets of the city turned to mud. Ships passed up the docks. Wind damaged homes. For a short time, San Diego residents started using "to Hatfield" instead of "to rain" and shops sold Hatfield coats and umbrellas guaranteed to protect the owner against Hatfield.
Five days into the new year, rain levels overflowed two of San Diego's new dams. Flood waters wiped out bridges, pulled down power lines and phone cables, and turned the city into a swamp. Miraculously, nobody was killed.
The rain continued for another 15 days. Then the rain broke for two days. Then it started hard and heavy again.
Local papers demanded that the council take Hatfield of the job. The council, loath to call their man off and face the water barons' monopoly, demurred. Damages aside, the city's attorney general announced that the city government would refuse to Hatfield. The city couldn't credit him with the rainfall. The objection wasn't based on any scientific argument. It was strictly legal: to pay Hatfield was to acknowledge that he caused the damage in the commission of a contract he had with the city and left the city open to potential lawsuits. The council and the attorney general squared off over the issue. One council member publicly worried what would happen if the rainmaker was pissed off. Might he just turn on the waterworks and leave them on until San Diego gave in or washed away?
All this time Hatfield was in the mountains, accelerating that moisture.
On the 27th, one of city's dams busted wide open. A 42-foot tall wall of water, 10 billion gallons of water, went tearing through the valley beneath the dam. It took 45 minutes to travel the to cover the 12 mile trip from the busted dam to the bay. It utterly destroyed the Otay Winery, killing an unknown number of Asian laborers who hadn't understood English well enough to comprehend the danger they were in. It punched through an 80-foot tall concrete and steel embankment in Palm City. Bridges were wiped out, trains were lifted off the tracks and deposited miles away. Glorietta Bay was choked with the corpses of dead horses. So much silt washed into the bay that it killed of tons of fish, which then piled up in long, small dune-like hills of rotting flesh all around the bay.
The body count is unknown – estimates range between 20 to 60, which is miraculously few considering.
Citizens threatened to lynch Hatfield, but he strode into town anyway and demanded his money. The attorney general stood pat and the rains were officially declared an act of God. Hatfield would fight the ruling for two decades, but he never saw a cent from the city coffers.
Hatfield would go on to fulfill 500 contracts (out of how many he never said) including an adventure in which he allegedly dowsed a jungle fire in Honduras with rain he accelerated. Eventually, the Depression ended his rainmaking days. There wasn't money to pay a rainmaker and he returned, forever, to selling sewing machines.
Hatfield died in 1958 taking his moisture accelerating secrets with him.
Whether he was a con man or deluded crank (or, in the interest of fairness, a genuine rainmaker), I couldn't tell you.
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