Thursday, February 4, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 23


November Eighteenth

The neighborhoods around the hospital had been originally platted and settled first as truck farms, then as subdivisions, from around nineteen hundred through the sixties. By the time the hospital opened in the mid-sixties, the homes were ‘mature’ in the sense that many of the original owners had passed on or the homes had become rentals, opening up the neighborhood for transition. Transition meant three decades of medical offices and the occasional nursing home replacing the single-family homes, or poorly built apartments popping up on arterial streets.
In a post-Domino Spokane, very few of those buildings could be serviceable without full pre-Domino utilities. Many, if not most of the post nineteen-eighty construction, had simply collapsed as a result of the earthquake or the snow loads or the combination. Some had been salvaged for useable parts; most were abandoned heaps, the most notable being a three-story apartment complex south of the hospital.
We found about ten houses that just by ‘drive by’ told us they ‘could’ work if they weren’t damaged too badly. It was odd to see entire streets within the utility service area without a single occupied home. Nineteen-sixties all-electric architecture was to blame. You just can’t heat a rancher, all spread out, as efficiently as a ‘box’ house. Unless of course, you have a wood-fired furnace or the capital to build one.

On Sullivan Road, once a seven-lane arterial filled with strip shops and box stores, Alan directed me to what was once an old sports bar. I remembered that it had been built during my high-school years, and that it was something of a scandal when it opened. My mother in particular, was not impressed. I’d never darkened the doorway of the place. It looked, well, nasty. It also had developed a reputation as being one of the places where the steelworkers let off steam after going off-shift from Kaiser.

“Alan, you can’t be serious,” I said.

“I am. Don’t judge the book by the cover.”

“I’m not. I’m judging it by its reputation. This is a pretty rough place.”

“Used to be. Not anymore.”

“Where’s the sign? What is this place?” Karen asked.

“It’s called ‘Dad’s Place,’” Alan said. “And you’ll like it. Trust me.”

“This oughta be good,” I said a little under my breath.

There were a half-dozen ‘normal’ vehicles in the parking lot, thus making it a highly popular place. Not too many people could afford gas, and not much gas was available. I parked in what would have been a ‘second row’ of parking, if there had been more traffic.

Inside, there were probably forty people, seated at the bar (completely full) and at some scattered tables.  A waitress (!) seated us at a reserved table near a fireplace. Above the fireplace, a big-screen TV played a tape of last years Purdue at Notre Dame football game. There were a number of guys (and a few gals) cheering for the Irish, despite the already-determined outcome.

“Thought you might enjoy a trip back in time,” Alan said as a rotund, ruddy-faced older man with an apron made his way over.  His thinning red hair was almost outdone by his sizeable pork-chop sideburns. 

“Good day, everyone. I’m Danny O’Malley. Or, ‘Dad,’ as you prefer. “Alan, good to see you. Where’s that scoundrel Ron today?”

“Minding the kids and the farm,” Alan said, before introducing us all.

“Pleased to meet you all. Now, I know what Alan’s favorite poison is, but I’ll do my best for you all. Mary? What can I get you love?”

“It’s a little early in the day…”

“Nonsense. Sun’s over the yardarm. High time,” O’Malley said. I liked the guy right off.

“OK, then, a Lemon Drop.”

“And you my dear?” he asked of Karen.

“No question. Sex On The Beach.”

“And a fine day it is for that, ma’am,” O’Malley said without missing a beat. “And you sir?”

“I’m sure you won’t be able to fill this order, unless you’ve got a direct line to the ancestral homeland,” dropping a large hint of my favorite porter.

“Not Guinness by brand, but I’d bet a twenty-dollar gold piece that you can’t tell the difference.”

I thought about taking the bet, and then thought about it twice more.  “If I had a fresh Guinness to sample it against, I’d take that bet.”

“Then an O’Malley’s it is. Here are your menus, and I’ll be right back with your libations.”

“Quite a guy,” I said to Alan. “How’d you find this place?”

“See that big walk-in refrigerator in the back?” he said, pointing to the kitchen, “Three way trade got Danny that, and got us three wood-fired boilers. They’re heating two of the barter stores. Third one we haven’t put to use yet. He’s a regular at the Veradale store—supplier and buyer. He’s got lines on stuff nobody else has. Stand up guy.”

“Where’s he from? What’d he do before Domino?”

“You wouldn’t believe me,” Alan said.

“These days, yeah, I probably would.”

“Bank president. Chicago First Federal.”

“OK, maybe I was premature,” I said. “How in the heck did he end up here doing this?”

“Dan was on a pre-retirement ski vacation, RV’ing his way across the country.  He’d just spent a few days at Silver Mountain, had already hit Schweitzer, was going to try out Mount Spokane for something a little less intense. Bingo.”

“So why’d he stay? I don’t get it. Bank president, should’ve evac’d.”

“Forced-retirement bank president,” O’Malley said, bringing our drinks. “I was being shown the door, at the ripe age of fifty-five, after telling the Federal Reserve—or Feral Reserve as I called it---and the board of directors to go stuff themselves. That didn’t really endear me to them a whole helluva lot, especially since I’d been there for thirty-five years and was one of the last people that knew how to run an honest bank.  I had six weeks of vacation, so I took it. They were about to name a replacement for me when it hit the fan.” O’Malley pulled up a chair, spun it around and sat down, arms folded across the back.

“So, again, why’d you stay here?” I asked. I noticed that Mary was halfway through her drink. Karen wasn’t far behind.

“Why not? All my money was electronic, I’d sold my place on the Gold Coast in about three days, had a pile in the accounts, heard there was good snow out this way. I figured that I’d start new, then after the quake, maybe seize an opportunity. Just never figured that all my electronic money would vaporize before I had a chance to convert it to gold or silver or land or guns or whatever.  So I sold what I could, bought this place, and worked the deal for putting this place together.”

“So what’d you tell the board to get yourself canned?” I asked, probably prying a little too much.

“Let’s just say we had a philosophical difference in return on investment,” he said. “Ladies, how’re your drinks?”

“Perfect,” they both said in unison, and then both giggled.

“Fractional reserve overshoot…” I said.

O’Malley smiled at me, knowing what I thought. “Also known as, ‘leveraging’, back in the day. We had a nice, stable bank, regulated poorly by the Feds, and we could have gotten away with murder. We didn’t. Against my grain.  I was getting pressured from the board on behalf of the investment arm of the bank to step it up, you know, take it from ten to one to one-fifty to one like the big boys. Make the big money. Short good companies and destroy them in the process, but make a killing on the stock. Dive deep into the black holes that were the derivatives lottery.  Take the money from the Fed as part of all those bail outs—we didn’t need it though.  I went to the mat, and was shown the door.”

“Greed does funny things,” Karen said. She and I had had numerous talks about our own finances, and keeping a safe haven for most of them. Only my brother ended up saving our bacon in the end. I used to think that precious metals were too speculative.  Hard to believe I was that na├»ve back then.

“You in the business back then?” Danny asked us.

“No, only in the sense of seeing the potential for an avalanche and getting the heck out of the way,” I said.   “I never had a good feeling about the whole bubble economy. The Fed just made it worse.”

“Then you and I have something in common, Rick. Now, about lunch. You decide yet? Ladies, your second round is on the way,” Danny said as he waived to a young man behind the bar, who nodded and immediately went to work.

“We’ll end up pouring them into the car.”

“As long as they’re not driving…I’ll give you a minute more to look over the menu.”

“Thanks, Danny,” Alan said.  Danny made his way to another table and took an order. 

“Incredible,” I said as I looked over the menu, instantly deciding, and putting it down.

“Told ya you’d like the guy.”

“He’s got quite the place here, starting from scratch.”

“He does at that. His microbrewery is in the old grocery store across the street.  That’s also where he lives.”   The young barkeep arrived with the girls’ second round, yet they weren’t quite finished with their first.

“This oughta be an interesting afternoon with the wives,” I said.

“Yeah, if it was dinner instead of lunch, we might’ve gotten lucky,” Alan said.

“You might get lucky in the middle of the day,” Mary said with a smoky little glance.

Karen and I both ordered potato soup, with small loaves of rye on the side. Alan was apparently a regular, and had a corned beef sandwich on wheat, with a local cheese. Mary had an open faced chicken sandwich with a thick gravy. After their second rounds of drinks, a pitcher of water and two large glasses appeared.   By the end of the hour, we were all stuffed. Notre Dame had beaten Purdue, again, and the fans, some wearing their team colors, celebrated perhaps a bit too much.

It was well after noon when said our goodbyes to Dan and his staff, and got on about our day. I made a mental note to mention O’Malley to Tonya Lincoln. While I appreciated his public house, it seemed a shame to me to have that potential mental talent go to waste.

We headed north to Sprague, and crossed the Red Line, and headed back towards town and home. The weather had warmed up considerably, and rain was starting to fall.  It was depressing in any regard, driving down what had been one of the cities busiest streets, and seeing no other cars, and only a dozen or so pedestrians.  We did see though, numerous storefronts converted to home businesses. Wood smoke was thick in the air as we made the drive, mostly keeping quiet as the well-worn wipers smeared the rain around.  

Most of the more successful businesses were located within a half mile of the rail lines, and you could tell where ‘trouble’ was going to be by the distance between precinct houses along ‘the line.’ If there was a trouble spot, chances are it would be as far away from one precinct house as another, usually on the edge of the utility service area, and when the police or Guard responded, drugs or ‘shine or some other form of illegal entertainment were almost always found. None of the pre-Domino vices were encouraged, neither could much be done to stop them. Once raw materials for the synthetic drugs vanished, more dangerous chemistry found its’ way to light, with often fatal, sometimes tragic results.
Most of those involved in the uprising against--well, the rest of us--were in those fringe areas. Most of the ‘fringe areas’ that had participated in the October riots had lost a fair percentage of their population, either to neighbors protecting themselves, others deciding to ‘get even’, or Guard and Army units, who shot anything that fired at them. 

Before our lives were turned upside down, I’d almost always had some major pre-occupation with an upcoming far-flung business trip or assignment, sometimes to the point of losing sleep, wondering what I’d missed, forgotten, or would be blindsided by, once out of touch with ‘home’ or ‘backup’.
Now, at home and few days before Thanksgiving, I was at it again, wondering what I would find myself doing in a little over a week, once I would be assigned to Pacific Northwest Command.  Virtually no new information had been provided me since the initial commission request from Governor Hall. I had no idea what the State wanted me for.
Saturday afternoon was spent with Carl, Ron and Alan, over in the Valley General neighborhood, checking abandoned homes for refit. We’d dressed in our outdoor gear and rain shells, boots, flashlights and a couple of clipboards, as well as the obligatory sidearm, shotgun, and rifles.
The shotgun was really the weapon of choice for this type of work, assuming that we might run into close-quarters work. Through my friendship with Mike, I was able to procure ‘law enforcement’ loads for our twelve-gauges. They were pretty destructive to human or animal flesh. Once upon a time, we might have had various shells in a shotgun, from a number seven, to a number four, and then double-ought buck. The lighter, first shots might scare off someone who wasn’t really serious about killing you.  The heavier loads were for the more determined. Anymore though, the loads were set to kill from the get-go, if they were in range.
I’d once seen a shell called ‘Dragon’s Breath,’ used by an Army unit to both light up an area with an ‘objective target’ downrange, which also succeeded in creating a most impressive flame reminiscent of an artillery shell being fired. An unfortunate result of that type of round (for the objective) was night blindness and perhaps, being set on fire by the many-yards long fireball. I would expect that that type of shell, used indoors, would be a great way to burn down a building.
I’d called in to Dispatch to let them know what our objective for the day was, and had a brief talk with the Sheriff’s dispatcher, just in case someone didn’t like the looks of us.  The Sheriff’s office then let the local precinct and the Guard command structure know that we weren’t a threat. It’d be mighty embarrassing to get shot up while trying to find somebody a place to live.
Standard operation procedure for entering an abandoned house started with recon. Animal tracks into any entry in the home, whether the animal was two- or four-legged, automatically told us, ‘weapons out’ and ‘cover’, until the point man and his cover cleared the building. Once the building was cleared to enter, three of us would enter, one remaining on guard and concealed as much as possible.
I had naturally, a father’s trepidation about putting my son in harms way of any kind, even though I’d done it several times over the past year. It never made it easier though.
Each house, we had eleven to look at, had been ransacked after whatever salvage operations had taken place in the early days after the Domino. In three cases, it was plainly evident that the occupants had either been badly injured or killed in the quake, due to the black stains that were dried blood. Some houses had been merely stripped of copper wire and anything of any black market value. Others had been all but destroyed from the inside out.
Four houses, we deemed were worth repairing, having the required provisions for wood heat in a centrally located fireplace or chimney; having repairable quake damage; and having literally weathered the past eleven months without catastrophic results.
We’d redone enough houses to know what it would take to get the houses back in shape, even without the help of materials takeoffs and computerized spreadsheets. Work could begin within a few days, if we were willing to bust loose the capital—meaning real money—to expedite the purchase of salvaged materials and hired labor. We might be able to have the prospective tenants or owners of the homes contribute, but typically med staff was working twelve hours on and twelve off, six days a week. That didn’t leave much time for a life outside of the medical community.
Our pre-Domino savings, wisely converted to silver and gold by one of my older brothers, had been sparingly used to buy properties for back taxes adjusted for new currency values; to finance rebuilds; and to provide operating capital and ‘cash’ for our barter stores. So far, we hadn’t used a quarter of it. With that money, we owned most of the property on our own block, half of the property on two blocks on either side of ours, and more business relationships than we could shake a stick at. The barter stores by and large operated in the black, with any excess set aside for the opening of other stores or expansion.
This expansion of ‘our’ housing concerns wasn’t located near anything we owned, had control of or really, had any interest in except as a benefactor of some kind. Property in our home neighborhood had been acquired because it was contiguous, had a strategic position, or because it presented a good opportunity in some fashion or other. This was different. As a result, I was reluctant to really get into the speculative nature of the thing.
Alan suggested that we coordinate the work and the payment of the rehab work, and that we buy the properties. Essentially, we’d have a closely held corporation where we ‘owned’ the property, organized and coordinated the work, but didn’t have to pay for all of the remodeling. For those that wanted to perhaps invest in something without having to take on all the risk, this might be a good opportunity. I thought this was a good idea too, as did Ron. I don’t think any of us, especially me, were all that hot on taking on the whole thing ourselves. Since there was only a slight chance that I’d have any time at all to invest in it, I left the decision and the organization to the guys.

By the time we wrapped up, we had pretty steady rain coming down, making those streets that had had any traffic at all a sloppy mess or a sloppy mess on top of ice. Before we headed for home, we checked in again at the hospital, and found Grace sleeping soundly. The nurses said she’d had a pretty good afternoon, but could tell that she was in pretty healthy pain. We skidded and slipped all the way home, listening to the local news.  We heard on the way home, as had been rumored, that cell phone service would be available ‘soon’, for the first time since January fourteenth.   Instructions then followed for procedures expected to re-activate cell phones, which I thought would probably put a serious run on salvaged cell phones and chargers. I remembered that we had a garbage can full of them at our first barter store.

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