You Get What You Pay For

by Flynn Washburne, August 9, 2017

I was on the yard yesterday morning, alternately running and walking laps — it's just too blasted hot for uninterrupted running, even at eight a.m. — and saw a chap of my acquaintance presenting a radically different facial aspect than he'd had the day previous and every day back to early 2015, when he'd stopped shaving and allowed the face-fungus free and unfettered access to everything south of the nose. It was a wild, wooly, free-range beard, constrained only by DNA instructions for hair growing which, at least in his case, seemed to be "full speed ahead and don't spare the material. It was a real bramble-bush and I, being perpetually smooth-shaven and no fan of beards on people not depicted on boxes of fish sticks or five-dollar bills, would rarely miss an opportunity to good-naturedly chaff him about it. "If you must walk around looking like a Paleolithic hobo, could you at least rake the congealed oatmeal out of that thing?" I'd say. Maybe not so good-natured.

The beard was completely gone and what remained was a baroquely curled and waxed mustache of the sort favored by modern types whose commitment to pretension is so thoroughgoing as to completely counter any considerations of propriety and reason. I immediately recognized my duty as an arbiter of taste and decency and elected to give him the business, firing off a salvo each time I passed during my half-speed laps.

"Hey, Ricky, you guys got an opening for a tenor? I have my own striped shirt!" I called out at first, receiving a perfunctory chuckle in response. Pretty clever, I thought to myself as I ran by next lap.

On the next circuit I said, "Yo, Ricky! Mr.Barnum wants to see you in his tent, and he says to bring your 250-pound three-dimensional trapezoid and leopard­print singlet." Zing!

Again, more restrained a response than I thought appropriate to such pointed wit. I thought I had better step it up a notch.

"Excuse me, sir, but I think I just saw Dudley Do-right racing toward the tracks to rescue Tess Trueheart. If you hurry you can get there first," I said.

Not so much as a smile, more of a quizzical look. Well, hell. One more try.

"Yo, Fingers! Reggie and Catfish want to know if you want to go get some hookers after the game!"

"What are you even talking about?" Ricky said.

"Your ’stache," I said. "I'm giving you the biz. You know, barbershop quartet, circus strongman…"

"What? I don't get it."

"Snidely Whiplash? Rollie Fingers? No? Nothing?"

Ricky shook his head and I realized that I'd neglected to consider both his age, less than 30, and his lack of worldliness, considerable, in my clever barrage and the full clip had whizzed harmlessly past his bemustached head, dissipating unappreciated into the ether. Granted, they weren't exactly deathless gems but they were decent enough. Sitcom-quality, anyway.

"Well, you look ridiculous, was my point, " I said.

"Really? I think it looks pretty cool. Like that guy in Mumford and Sons who plays the electric washboard."

"Exactly! You get it!"

Kids! What are you gonna do? Buy them books, send them to school, they eat the pages.

Given that I'm not about to stop employing scathing wit to highlight and correct the various offenses to decency I regularly encounter, it appears I must recalibrate the parameters of my jibes, dumbing them down and establishing temporal boundaries so as to nail my target audience — the callow knotheads I currently dwell amongst. That, or start hanging out with older, smarter, more experienced and sophisticated people. Probably not going to happen.

I am no stranger to pretentious affectation and its manifestation on the male lip, having been involved commercially in the business of getting people around outside of wine in Northern California, specifically Mendocino County, more specifically The Inn at— you know what, let's just leave it there and call it The Inn, this story being none too flattering to them.

Wine people — I believe the term is oenophile, though you'd never catch me using it, and I would hope that anyone within hearing of someone claiming to be one would take appropriate corrective action — not only have no shame in the matter of absurd affectation, as a moment in one's presence listening to them blather about the implausibly complex flavor profiles in fermented grape juice would immediately prove, but also subscribe to the probably spurious notion that a mustache somehow facilitates the appreciation of a wine's “nose.” I suspect this is just a way of masculinizing the process; although women are far and away the country's largest consumers of wine, it's primarily men who turn it into a competition to see who the biggest asshole is. Women use wine to access their better natures and approach its appreciation purely sensuously, while men just see another opportunity to be boring, analytical, and pedantic.

The proprietors of The Inn were pretty careful with a buck, almost pathologically so, and that's why I was so surprised when I was told they wanted to institute a free wine-and-olive-oil tasting afternoon once a week and have me, their oldest, surliest, most misanthropic and least photogenic employee, host the affair. Hey, I'm my own favorite person, but let's face facts — I'm definitely more of a back-of-the-house guy, and making me the public face of any aspect of the operation would seem counter to any kind of sensible or profitable business plan. I don't know, maybe it was some kind of community-service thing, or one of them lost a bet. Maybe they were vampires and needed to attract the kind of person who wouldn’t be missed. That last theory actually would have explained a lot.

Mine was not to question why, though, only to do or die, and I accepted the commission proudly. "You can count on me, sir," I said.

"Flynn, I want to make something very clear," said Sir Alastair Turnipseed­Delacroix, my boss (not his real name — I told you, I'm being circumspect about this Little River-adjacent place).

"Very clear," echoed Mr. Gerald McBoing-Boing, his partner in at least two senses of the word.

"We want to have a free wine-and-olive-oil tasting, but we don't want to actually give away any wine or olive oil. Do you follow?" said Sir Alastair.

Oh, I followed, all right. Things were starting to make sense. Not their motivation, but my selection. This was a scam of some type, and if he'd asked one of the other employees to pull off this seemingly impossible task he'd have been met with a bland look and a "I'm afraid I don't understand, m’lord."

Nope, they knew exactly what they were doing and I would not let them down.

"You're damn right I follow, sir," I said, winking as I clicked my heels smartly and left the office.

Every night for the next week I bussed the tables after the dinner service, saving all unconsumed wine and empty bottles. I had two large jugs in the kitchen, one for everything from blush to Pinot Noir, the other encompassing the Chardonnay-sauternes spectrum. By Tuesday, our planned debut, I had several gallons of “red” and “white,” which I poured into random bottles and corked.

For the olive oil, I scooped some dirty grease out of the fryer, ran it through a coffee filter, infused it with various flavorings and coloring agents and poured it into fancy crystal cruets. After slicing up and rehydrating a few stale baguettes, I was ready to go.

By three o'clock there were a lot more windowless vans with “hippie stickers” among the Lexuses and BMWs in the parking lot than usual, and the wine-bar section had more fringed leather, Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts, and feather earrings than most health-and-safety agencies feel is prudent to gather in a single room.

I, resplendent in a snowy tuxedo shirt and fizzing with good cheer, made possible by a tall iced Cafe Mexicali, which regular readers will recall is liberally infused with both tequila and meth, uncorked our first offering and distributed it among the waiting glasses.

"This is a 1984 Chateaubriand," I said, not even looking at the label. "As you probably remember, Ronald Reagan was president at the time, and Cyndi Lauper was topping the pop charts."

I'm pretty sure Chateaubriand is actually a cut of meat, but no one noticed. "The olive oil is imported Italian, infused with Tuscan sunberry and artisinal fenugreek."

Whew. They gulped their wine and munched their baguette rounds, murmuring appreciatively and grabbing with both hands for more.

Emboldened by the response, I continued my huckstering, even ramping it up a notch. "This next wine is called Les Manchots Tres Salé, from Tierra Del Fuego. I think you'll find it a cheeky little vintage.The olive oil is an Andalusian cold-pressed triple-virgin. Enjoy."

Enjoy it they did, getting louder and more obstreperous by the minute as they chugged my meticulously curated amalgams. My tip jar was filling up rapidly, although at one point Mr. McBoing-Boing slithered up and gaffled it. Attractive young people up from Marin walked by on their way to couples’ massage, wrinkling their little retroussé sniffers at the yokels whooping it up.

By four the party was showing no sign of slowing down, but my stock was nearly depleted. "Be right back, folks," I said, and got a rousing cheer in return.

I went back to the kitchen, mixed up a gallon of grape Kool-Aid, added a liter of vodka, a teaspoon of cream of tartar, a dash of sea salt, and some pickle juice. I bottled it up and took it back out to another hearty huzzah, and the patrons gulped it down lustily and asked for more.

Just then, a stranger approached, a tall, imperious-looking gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair, an extravagant mustache, and big Michael Caine glasses. He wore a corduroy sport coat with patched elbows and a tattersall vest with an actual watch fob sticking out of the pocket, and I thought, uh-oh. This guy's got wine asshole stamped all over him.

Sure enough, he elbowed his way in and nodded at the bottle in my hand. I poured him a glass and he swirled, sniffed, jerked his head back, sniffed again, and took a sip. "This is not a Cotes du Rhone," he snapped. "It's not even wine. Let me see that bottle."

"Whoopsie," I said, letting it slip through my fingers and crash to the floor. "Sorry, folks. Party's over."

A collective groan went up from the revelers, followed by some angry rabble-y noises. They surrounded the interloper and moved as a body outside, and he was presumably never heard from again.

I considered the day a smashing success and couldn't wait for the next one, but His Nibs differed and had been using it only as a trial balloon to see what sort of people turned up. Hell, I could've told him what happened if you offer something for free. You get people without jobs or income who are actively looking for free stuff all the time and exploit the hell out of it. whether it's hot dogs at the car dealership, coffee and donuts at the spa expo, or recycled vino at The Inn, the same greedy riffraff are going to show up and they are not going to buy anything. That's the way of the world and you cannot shelter yourself deep enough in the redwoods to escape it.

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