Rumination

October 22, 2010

Sometimes we get too busy to ask the why questions.  We just swallow all that’s in front of us, without digesting, and go on along with the whatever that we have to deal with at the time.

I like Chik-fil-A.  There’s a lot to be said for cows and they do make great chicken sandwich advocates. There might also be something in their digestive systems that’s worthy of investigation. Rumination . . . chewing the cud. Cow’s swallow it first, then chew it up later before finally digesting it.

“Gross” would be the response of my 14 year old daughter, Madeline; and she may well be right.  After the grass is consumed, why bring it back up for re-examination? Even if there’s something to be learned, the whole process seems just a little . . . ummmh, nauseating?

Nonetheless, here we go . . .

Poor Richard’s Printshop (formerly something like Gralphagraphics before the franchise became incensed at his blog) has been reasonably busy since late August. At least, it feels busy because there are only a few of us to get the work out the doors and we’re all working very hard. I’m very thankful for this and appreciative especially of the customers who have stuck with us through all of  the “recent unpleasantness.”

It’s a little hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something about the work we’re getting that’s just different.  As an example, we printed 50 football program books this week just in time for the last game of the regular season. Football programs used to be a big deal . . . large saddle stitched booklets with lots of ads printed in decent runs in time for the first game of the season. This one was thrown together as an afterthought, perhaps to keep the businesses who purchased ads from asking for their money back?

Two weeks ago, we printed a very nice invitation for a health care customer.  Expensive paper, process color, good press run, scored and folded, tabbed 3 times to meet USPS specs and mailed at the very last minute, probably a week later than optimum to reach the target audience.

We have an end of the fiscal year audit booklet in-house for a municipality whose fiscal year ended June 30. We thought the book was due by September 30. It’s been stuck in our hold bin for over 2 weeks, waiting on revisions from the customer.

And then there are the envelopes printed for a communications company in a hurry, that have been sitting on the shelf waiting for pickup since October 5; the business card design for the new company that had their grand opening scheduled for October 11; and the display board and banner stand that actually did get designed, proofed, completed and shipped in 5 working days, thanks to UPS Second Day Air and our very good tradeshow exhibit supplier.

Actually, it’s not hard to identify what’s happening at all. It’s busy, but it’s not normal and Poor Richard’s stomach is a little upset.  We are reacting to our customers’ lack of planning and in some cases we’re getting burned and in some cases they’re getting burned, which is worse. (It’s worse mainly because we might take the blame.)

Our customers are firing before they aim. This is probably better for us than when they don’t fire at all, but I think there might be a better way.  It’s something to ruminate about . . .

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Treading Carefully

March 21, 2010

Danger Minefield signPoor Richard has  never strolled through a minefield, but he can imagine what it must be like.  It seems a good analogy for the experience of hanging on to a printing business these last 18 months. There have been days and weeks when explosions were occurring all around and it seemed the end was near. On other days, the sun was shining and everything appeared almost normal until the detonation 20 feet away and flying shrapnel brought reality into sharp focus. The last couple of weeks have been like that.

Macon, Georgia is no business Mecca. It is a sleepy southern town that has had better days and hopefully will have better days again. Macon has been a good place for a business like the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to avoid the wrath of the franchise).  Over the last decade plus, we’ve enjoyed good customers, wonderful friends, and mostly amicable competition with the other printers in town.

For our company and for our competitors, business as usual ended abruptly in November of 2008. The stock market crashed, our customers contracted and folded, and sales plummeted.  Monthly newsletters went digital; nevermore to return. Businesses decided that they could do without printing. Our friendly bankers, once eager to finance new equipment purchases, now wouldn’t return phone calls. Yet we hung on and tried to do what we could, hoping and praying for better days.

An interview in the PrintCEO blog tells the sad story of the demise of Alonzo Printing, a midsized California operation that seemed to be doing everything right. The owner, Jim Duffy, describes the heady days of 2007 with new equipment investments, diversification into digital printing, and the difficulties of turning a marketing vision into reality.  Jim didn’t have to step on a mine.  His bank detonated it for him.

In our sleepy southern town, we were all holding on until just a couple of weeks ago. Sure, a couple of small printers have closed, but they were operating with 30 year old systems.  Two weeks ago, one of our better competitors announced that they were suspending their production operations and would continue as a print broker. Last week, a promising short run book printer literally disappear overnight.  The mines are exploding all around us.

Our little company is treading very carefully. Like Alonzo printing, we made new equipment purchases when times were better. Some of these have not played out well. Equipment vendors, banks and even the franchise, once seen as allies, now look more like the enemy. The path through the minefield is complicated and dangerous and there is no lack of diversions that could cause a misstep.

Poor Richard is convinced that one of these is the whole “marketing services” concept. In the PrintCEO interview, Jim Duffy makes the following comment:

We marketed Alonzo, and from a pure marketing perspective, it was just a dream. And yet, it was another issue of not having the right people to make it really come to life. Then we reached the point where we couldn’t hire the right people. That’s how you get caught in the spiral.

You do need to market yourself; you need to do it in a way that’s going to be meaningful for your clients.

The last sentence is telling. Printers are not viewed by our customers as “marketers.” That is the realm of advertising agencies. With due respect and apologies to our agency customers, printers are not “pie in the sky” folks. We don’t do well with concept. Coming up with concepts that work requires a lot of time and creativity that a short-staffed printing company doesn’t have.

Printing companies do a very good job with details, with implementation.  If “marketing service provider” means that we have to dream up the marketing concepts for our customers, we’re in trouble. If it means that we implement and measure marketing “campaigns” using the new tools that are available to us, then perhaps we can provide our customers with something that is of value, that is meaningful.

Poor Richard is not certain what it will take for some of us to make it out of the minefield, nor is he certain that the printshop on Poplar Street won’t be blown to smithereens during the debacle. I hold to the hope that there will be a need for companies like mine that “do stuff,” that are competent at producing and implementing.

There is a certain sense of desperation that naturally occurs when one strolls the path through a minefield. Traveling the path requires care, tenacity, and not a small bit of prayer. There is also the possibility that the trail will eventually lead to un-mined pastures that allow more flexibility to move around and maybe some better possibilities for small businesses like mine. Poor Richard is really looking forward to the other side of the minefield.


Opening Pandora’s box

January 3, 2010

It’s been a while since Poor Richard has written about proofing (see Just Do It . . . I Trust You!). At the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we generally follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1: Proof Everything. When we fail to follow Rule #1, it is usually because the owner decides to make an exception, allows one of our customers to convince him that they do not need a proof, and gets totally burned in the process because something goes awry or does not meet the customer’s expectations.

If the CIA was really intelligent, they would store all of their Top Secret, classified, very sensitive documents in the basements of printshops across this great nation. Because we see so much text come past our eyes, printers don’t really read much of it.  At Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), we used to do internal proofs of hard copy prints for much of what went through the shop. We were looking for low resolution graphics and the general composition of each piece ; whether it would fold correctly and if there were font errors.  Today, for much of what we print, preflight software will indicate many of the technical errors and our internal proofing process is focused more on how the piece will finish (through bindery) than the general composition. In short, we don’t read for context and we don’t always catch spelling errors.

The phone call of the month for December was from a customer that had discovered a typo in a brochure we had printed for them . . . in September. In fact, it was an exact repeat of the same job printed for them about a year before.  And that job was a redesign of a file that came to us in .pdf format sometimes shortly after Adobe Acrobat was invented, opening the possibility that the misspelling could potentially be over a decade old.  Naturally, the customer wanted the job reprinted . . . for free.

We checked the proofs. Sure enough, there was the typo buried plain as day right in the middle of a long paragraph in the center panel of the inside of the brochure. It stood out dramatically in 11 point Times New Roman; so evident that the customer missed it totally when they signed off on the proof.

Who has the responsibility? Proofs do place the onus of responsibility for the final appearance and accuracy of each printed piece on the customer. This is customary in the printing trade and spelled out clearly in the proof policy that our shop sends with every proof.  While some customers may see this as a catch, printers consider it a necessity. Even if we could completely check everything we print for absolute accuracy, this would not compensate for the vagaries of syntax, composition or customer taste. There have been many occasions where Poor Richard or one of my associates has corrected grammar or spelling only to have it uncorrected by the customer. Likewise, the design or composition of many of the projects we print may be more pleasing to our customer than to our unrefined tastes.  This really is the critical point for most printers: the project must meet the approval of the customer. The signed proof signifies that it does.

Back to the problem of the month. Another of Poor Richard’s rules that falls pretty near the top of the list (like #2 maybe) is this: Customers are important. These days, they’re also pretty darn hard to come by.  We understood the customer’s problem and offered to help them with the reprint.  Mind you, this is not customary practice among printers. Margins are very tight in our business and printing at cost is spinning the wheels at best and at worst a missed opportunity for profitable use of time and equipment. Nonetheless, customers are important. We offered to make the correction and reprint at a discount.

After the correction was made, the competent Gralpharaphics team followed Poor Richard’s Rule #1 and sent the customer a final proof for approval. At least, we thought that it was final. The proof was returned with a request for another change.  Technically, this request crossed the fine line between correction and revision, but the change requested was minor and we chose not to sweat it. That’s when we opened Pandora’s box. We made the revision and sent another proof.

The proof response came back with a Microsoft Word file attached. We were now well beyond correction and decidedly in the realm of revision.   Poor Richard tried not to reach the conclusion that the customer’s stated need — to correct a typo — might not have been their actual objective. Without questioning the customer’s motives, we explained that the discount had been offered to help with a correction. The scope of the revisions requested had essentially changed the project from a reprint to something like creating a new brochure.  We would have to charge for the additional layout and prepress time incurred for the changes.

There are times when Poor Richard is able to predict the future before it even happens. I could see this spinning out of control even without a crystal ball. The conversation was polite, the customer didn’t really understand, and the project was placed on (permanent) hold.  Chances are that we lost a customer. Bummer. Not good.

Because we’re a small business in a small market, we’ve never had the luxury of dealing only with professional “print buyers;” folks whose expectations are to some extent shaped by their understanding of and interest in the art of printing. We have had the privilege of working with some very nice folks, many of whom wanted to learn a little about print as we produced their projects. I think that there was a general appreciation among our customers of the value of the tangible product we created and of the work that went into it; but now this appreciation may be fading.

The last 18 months of struggle have brought a sea change to the printing industry and to local printers like the shop on Poplar Street.  While we continue to compete with one another for business, we also compete against a host of other choices for communication. Increasingly, our customers’ expectations are molded by the other choices. It’s no problem to correct a typo on a web page. It doesn’t require a reprint. The fact is that we have fewer customers who are interested in print and they are much less willing to deal with the complexities involved.  Price and speed have become more important and many customers are actually less concerned with quality than ever before. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, “they don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.”

This presents a real challenge to folks like Poor Richard. The old rules of printing (like proof policies) seem necessary to me. It is important to do things right and because almost all of the projects we produce are essentially custom made, there has to be some understanding between printers and our customers.  We can’t sell labels produced for Jim Bob’s BBQ Sauce to his competitor Billy Bob.  If Jim Bob doesn’t want the labels, they’re trash.

How do we adapt? As our customers become increasingly less patient with the print process, it is tempting to just bend the rules and take our chances.  Waive the proofs, forget the rules, just print it and hope it’s right. Throw Pandora’s box wide open.

If we do that, how long will it take for the snakes inside to bite us?


Very Cautiously Optimistic?

November 26, 2009

It’s Thanksgiving, and Poor Richard is thankful for a day off. It’s been over a month since I’ve written here. And it’s been a busy span of time. Poor Richard is very thankful for that and for the good customers who have provided work for all of us at the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to protect the very delicate sensibilities of the franchise).

Crossed FingersMy fingers would be crossed if I had time to cross them.  I’m thankful that our business has been able to survive through this so far, and if business doesn’t tank again in the first months of 2010, we’ll probably pull through OK. OK doesn’t mean unscathed, though. We’re operating with fewer employees that we had when the company first opened in 1998. There is little time to work on the business for working in the business. Because our bank essentially bailed out on us early in the year, there is no money for investment in new technology or new talent. Assuming that the recovery has begun, it’s still going to take a long while to make up the lost ground of the last 18 months.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s administration stealthily held a small business forum to discuss “small business financing issues.”  The forum was announced to the public on November 16, two days prior to the date of the session and received resounding condemnation from at least one group (American Small Business League) representing small business who were neither notified of the event nor invited to attend.  Hosted by Treasury Secretary Geithner, the forum did not generate much excitement or much in the way of reporting after the fact.

That’s because nothing happened. Poor Richard managed to find the agenda for the meeting on the Treasury Department web site.  There’s nothing new there. The efforts of the SBA to open up credit for small business have been lacking and the banks have not been cooperative.  A change in the tax code to allow a 5 year carryback of losses may inject some cash into small businesses next year; but for those who have already failed it is too little, too late. At least 7 small business owners (bios listed on the Treasury site) were invited to the forum and the transcript of Secretary Geithner’s remarks contained several weighty statements, like the following:

“We need banks to be working with us, not against recovery.”

Little was reported in the press or on the internet from the day-long forum. According to a New York Times blog, most of the discussion centered on the needs of banks and their reluctance to get involved with small business.  They also stated that the Treasury Secretary and the SBA Administrator took careful notes. A report from Small Business Trends concluded that, “many lenders contend that small-business loans are too time-consuming and too small to be worth their while.” Hmmm . . .

The small business sector has long been our country’s engine for job growth and for innovation. Guess what? Small businesses are where large businesses come from. Hewlett-Packard started in a Palo Alto, CA garage. Ford Motor Company was launched in a converted wagon shop with a $31,000 investment.  In typical years, small businesses create over 50% of the new jobs in our economy.  In years like the last one, we try to preserve jobs for the folks who depend on us. The economic engine has choked down.

Nonetheless, small business owners are a fairly optimistic group. We have to be. None of us  are really looking for a bailout. Nor do we place a lot of trust in the machinations of government. Our businesses are made or broken by the decisions we make and with the risk we assume.  We have to be optimistic, tenacious, and now cautious. Many of us will come out of this with a healthy distrust and dislike of the banks who were anxious to provide funding for growth in good times but not so willing to help us survive when times got tough.  We will be less inclined to assume debt to finance growth and we will be careful about how debt is assumed.  Many of us will need to repay debt generated during the recession before we expand again.  It may take some time for small businesses to re-start the engines that produce growth and new jobs.

I suppose that I shouldn’t find the administration’s dispassion toward the small business sector particularly surprising. It makes as much sense as taking over GM with the stated goal of restructuring the  company to produce economical and fuel efficient vehicles and then promptly shuttering the Saturn division (which made economical and fuel efficient vehicles). But perhaps the worst really is over and we’ll make it on our own.

Maybe I should find time to cross my fingers.


Relationships

May 30, 2009

relationshipsThe older gentleman was not seeking a relationship. He had called earlier for pricing on a book. 250 copies perfect bound with 160 pages. Finished size was 8.5 x 7, a little different, but not unheard of.  Like many of our customers these days, he had no real knowledge of paper . . . something nice but not too expensive. Brian provided an estimate for the job and felt good about it.

A couple of days later, the gentleman called back. “How much would it be just to do the binding?” he asked.

Now, in better days the answer to this question is “Sorry, we’ll pass.”  Binding someone else’s printing provides opportunities for all kinds of problems.  There is a need for setups and waste . . . meaning you have to explain that if the customer brings 250 book blocks and covers, the binding equipment is likely to eat a few. Covers have to be cut a certain way for perfect binding and space has to be allowed for the spine. There’s the problem of trim and margins and where the page numbers go . . . all things we look at when we print a book. All things that a customer who has never printed a book before doesn’t know.

But Brian liked the fellow and we certainly needed any kind of order, so he said “yes” and tried to explain all of the complexities that the old gentleman would need to know. Brian also asked why we wouldn’t be doing the printing.

“Office Despot beat your price on the printing,” was the reply. “But they couldn’t do the binding.” was the part he didn’t say.  Besides, when getting the lowest price is the object, the details don’t matter, do they?

We have been fortunate to have some really wonderful customers over the years.  For instance, the consultant, whose books we have shipped all over the US.  She works with government agencies and is really suffering from budget cuts now, but we’d do anything for her.  Or the school that seems to understand just how tight things are right now and sends checks almost instantaneously after jobs are complete. Or the construction company that is always in a hurry, but so very pleasant and easy to work with. Or so many more . . .

We’ve had a few customers that have strayed and come back; and lately, with the bad times, we’ve lost a few.  Some have disappeared altogether – out of business. We lost the educational establishment that was so devoted to the local community that they sent all of their printing to the low bidder in Atlanta. We’ve also lost a couple that have trimmed printing out of their budgets altogether.

The one that hurt the worst was a long-term account, a non-profit. We never did all of their printing, but for years we did the bulk of it and we supported them with fairly frequent donations.  I was worried a little when management changed a couple of years ago, but we continued along for awhile. One day, I received a request for pricing on all of the items we had printed for them.  I was led to believe that it was budget time and that numbers were needed to prepare for the next year.  I was naive . . . they were going out for bids and I missed it. We lost most of the business.  Shortly thereafter, Poor Richard received a request for donations for the following year.  They wanted a relationship, but not the kind that works for everyone involved.

Back to the gentleman and his book. Poor Richard grumbled and tried to make sure that the i’s were crossed and t’s were dotted. Both Brian and I had the same conversations with the customer.  First, we tried to convince him that it would be much better if we were allowed to do the whole job. He had already committed to Office Despot. All of their specs were the same, he said, but the price was cheaper.

Then, we tried to go over the details and repeatedly emphasized that we would not be responsible for waste or misprints. The old gentleman said that he understood.

When the job came to us, it was not a surprise. He delivered exactly 250 books. The quality of paper was poor and the quality of print was mediocre. Best of all, the book blocks had been miscut. Page sizes varied by about 3/8″ within each book. We pointed this out to the gentleman and did the best we could.  We did not put the finished product in Alphagraphics boxes.  The old gentleman did not complain, but he did not receive a good value for the money he spent on the project.

It’s difficult not to worry about the state of things  . . . of business in general, the printing business in particular and our business in specific. Poor Richard still maintains that printing does not make a good commodity. Too much detail is required and every project is different. The products of printing turn out best when printers and customers work together, when they have a relationship.

Poor Richard is decidedly old school . . . I like dealing with people. I prefer to buy things from salespeople and whenever possible from local businesses. It’s difficult to have a relationship with a website or WalMart.  I enjoy the relationships we maintain with our customers and I try to make sure that they are mutually beneficial. And I still believe that even in a depression, value trumps price every day.

But perhaps Poor Richard is idealistic . . . or naive. It’s tough turning 50.


Obsolete?

December 20, 2008

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little like the buggy manufacturer, who, annoyed at the loud and noxious belches of the new automobiles in the street, comments, “Those things’ll never make it . . . they scare the horses!”

The folks at the Alphagraphics franchise are going to be upset, but I’m going to say it anyway, “Printing on paper is  becoming obsolete.” Two items I encountered last week have led me to this conclusion:

First, I heard an article on NPR about the Detroit Free Press (Detroit Newspapers Cut Back Home Delivery). Citing cost and profit pressures, they’re phasing out print to and going to 3 days a week for their print publication. Their emphasis will be placed on their web presence.

Then, bumbling around online, I came upon the proceedings of an event called The Inbound Marketing Summit. This event was held in September in Cambridge, MA and was all about new marketing techniques — internet, social networking, and how businesses (even small businesses) can grow by attracting people who are interested in their products to their websites.  This, I guess, is opposed to old marketing that targets just about everyone and tries to drive them all into a place of business, even when they don’t want to go there (like Poor Richard at the mall at Christmastime).

I haven’t finished going through the site, yet, but videos of all of the breakout sessions are available.  The first video I watched was both exciting and frightening.   The title of the session was “R U Ready? Leveraging New Technologies to Propel Your Business,” presented by a gentleman named Greg Verdino.  I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of this post if you’d like to watch it.

With college aged kids, the fact that I’m no longer in the mainstream is brought home to me regularly. I just didn’t really understand how far out of the channel I really am.  At one point during the presentation, Verdino identifies the audience by their generation names. “I’m an ‘Xer’,” he states, “how many GenY’s are out there? Millennials?” He didn’t ask about my generation. I’m a Baby Boomer . . . ergo out of touch.

Sure, I’ve been blogging for a while. I’ve got a Facebook site and I’m playing with LinkedIn.  I’ve even tried advertising with AdWords . . . didn’t get very far. I’m really not even scratching the surface. But, until now,  it had simply never occurred to me that these forms of communication were really going to take the place of print on paper.

For my generation, it’s still natural to pick up a book or a magazine or a newspaper. I do like to look at the mail. As a printer, I enjoy the feel of paper. I feel more comfortable reading print on paper.  While my children read books, their information comes from the Internet.  Email was a major innovation for my generation. Verdino comments that email is not considered reliable by the new generation entering the workplace. They prefer to communicate through their personal network. And printers wonder why we’re not printing letterhead and envelopes any more!

Am I worried? You betcha.  It’s difficult to reinvent a small business whose livelihood is dependent upon a pretty significant capital investment in machines that print on paper;  especially in a recession that has reduced the volume of business (and consequently human and monetary resources) dramatically. Is print dead? Not yet, but it really is changing a lot.

I am certainly hopeful that there will be a place for the local printer . . . at least over the short to medium term. A lot of the commodity stuff has already been gobbled up by the online, gang run printers (See Poor Richard’s post Caveat Emptor!). Most good local print companies really enjoy working with our customers and much of our business comes from folks who either don’t have the time or the expertise to take their chances with the online print service providers. We have become, in essence, custom shops, specializing in projects that need to be handled correctly and quickly — projects that get lost in larger operations.

Many of us have expanded our range of services.  At our AlphaGraphics, we mail, we print signs, we put together packages and kits  and we fulfill orders for certain customers.  We also take on the occasional “crazy order.” That’s the one that we really don’t know how to do until we finish it, but figure that it’ll work out in the end.  These services are keeping us afloat, but we haven’t found the “next best thing” to replace print.

And yes, there will always be printing presses of some sort. We still use trains, too, but they aren’t the preponderant form of transportation that they were in the latter half of the 1800s. You can even find a horse and buggy for hire if you look around a bit.  What I really need to figure out is how to take this horse and buggy in a new and different direction without going broke in the process. Ideas anyone?

Here’s Greg Verdino’s Video:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Learn How to Leverage New Technologie…“, posted with vodpod

Crazy People

November 19, 2008

The screen on all of our phones is displaying 911 followed by my name. It’s a panic button feature. When 911 is dialed from any of the phones on the system, every phone in the place lights up and blinks with the extension from which the emergency number was dialed. This is so everyone in the place can go to the aid of the user dialing 911. Obviously my emergency wasn’t too dire . . . or nobody paid attention to it. Brian pointed the emergency feature out to me a day and a half later.

I had dialed 911 because of the crazy people in Poplar Street Park. They were fighting again. This time it was a man and a woman who began with a high volume shouting match, clearly audible to me across the street on the second floor of AlphaGraphics towers. I looked out the window to witness the development of a full fledged altercation: tearing of clothes, fighting, scratching and finally rolling around on the sidewalk.

The 911 operator didn’t seem at all disturbed when I called. “911, please state your emergency,” came the calm voice over the receiver.

“The crazy people are fighting again in Poplar Street Park,” I replied. I think I heard the faintest sigh from the other end of the receiver.

“We’ll send someone over,” the voice replied. The fight was over soon enough and I never saw a police car.

I don’t really have a great objection to the crazy people that inhabit the park, except when they’re drinking or fighting. We’ve never had much walk in traffic and most of my customers know to park on our side of Poplar Street to avoid the panhandling and the comments. I’ve never been threatened and by now they know that if they ask for money, I’ll offer to feed them. Most of them don’t really want food. I think that there should be a better place for them to stay than the park, but some of them don’t want that either.

We’ve gotten to know a few of them. There’s the lady who comes into the shop once or twice a week. She buys paper by the sheet to draw on and insists on paying for it. She’ll ask for a specific number of sheets and always wants a receipt for her purchase. She also likes plastic bags . . . two of them each time. She was fascinated by our display cabinet and helped herself to samples of our work until we discovered what she was doing. She liked the colors.

Then there’s Jeff. He’s a singer. He carries the names of all of the songs he knows on sheets of notepaper that once were bound together in a spiral pad. If you give him a dollar bill, he’ll sing you any of the songs. He’ll give you a sample verse for free. He can’t carry a tune in a bucket . . . but don’t tell him I said so.

Jeff came in for business cards the other day. He took about 20 minutes at the front counter to compose the content. The finished product had his name and the services he offered: DJ, lawn and garden work, weddings, auto cleaning, and short-term loans – zero interest. Jeff has no address or phone number. I pointed out that this might pose a problem for potential clients who wanted to get in touch. Jeff didn’t seem concerned about this. I also pointed out that there was little profit margin in a zero interest loan. This was a mistake on my part. Jeff took another 5 minutes to graphically illustrate (using long multiplication and division) how it was possible to turn $5 into $900 in a few simple transactions with no interest charged. He even offered to help me do it if I’d contribute $5 to the cause.

I also have to give homage due to Dr. H. I’m not sure exactly where the doctor earned his PhD, or exactly what his area of expertise is, but I am reasonably certain that at one time Dr. H did receive an education. He has a wonderful command of the English language and is even eloquent when he speaks. He has the bearing (if not the cleanliness, coiffure or wardrobe) of a college professor. His area of specialty is conspiracy theories. For a while, he came daily to copy tedious, hand-written complaints to city officials regarding all sorts of injustices that were perpetrated or planned. I understand that he has occasionally appeared at City Council meetings to read his discovered plots into the public record.

Dr. H is also an artist. In a moment of weakness I was convinced to actually scan and print one of his newsprint collages on signboard. He wanted me to deliver it for him to the Salvation Army, where he was staying that evening. When I told him that this didn’t really fit into our delivery plans, he became irritated with me. I haven’t seen him since. I’ve kept the print, though. Maybe it will be as valuable as a Howard Fenster one day.

homelessLike I said, I really don’t mind the crazy folks if they aren’t fighting, drunk or both. I’ve learned to be a little cautious, though. I don’t know what to do about them. I haven’t joined the church group that comes to feed them on Thursday nights. They feed them burgers and hotdogs and occasionally get them singing a little. I applaud their efforts, but the crazy folks are still left on the streets at night and I don’t think that the gospel message really sticks with most of them.

According to my Dad, the homeless folks have been there a long time. He speaks to them, but doesn’t really worry about them. I have to worry a little. The crazy folks certainly aren’t helping the effort to revitalize downtown and I can’t see that there’s much there to help them either. It’s obvious that most of them are not capable of or willing to help themselves. The police consider them a minor nuisance – they can’t afford to arrest them and couldn’t keep them if they did. The shelters offer a place to sleep in the cold or a meal, but little else.

I’m a little embarrassed at the call to 911. It’s difficult to look across the street without the thought that , “there but by the grace of God go I.” The strength of our republic has been the opportunity America has afforded for success along with the willingness of our people to care for those in need. Living in America has not been a zero sum game. Joe has not become wealthy or successful at John’s expense. We’ve succeeded or failed based upon our individual efforts and our efforts and intentions, for the most part, have been good. I hope that this isn’t changing, but I sense that it is.

We’re not doing so well right now. I mistrust our universal willingness to rely on government for solutions. I’m also embarrassed at my own ambivalence, but I’m not willing to adopt a crazy person either.

God is still in control. Here’s to better days . . .