Volume 39, Issue
12, December 2004
by Lyle R. Hill
I’ve known him since we were teenagers back on the West Side. We played ball together and he was actually a pretty decent third baseman—not great, but decent. But what sets Johnny “The Mooch” Rago apart from all the other guys I grew up with are the dozens of schemes and “almost”-legal deals that he has tried to pull off over the past three decades. He’s always looking for the fast buck … the easy con. It’s as if he can’t help himself … as if he is simply preprogrammed to take advantage of anything and anybody that comes along. I’ve often thought that if he would put as much effort into a legitimate enterprise of some kind as he does into his wheeling and dealing, he could actually be relatively successful. But it’s simply not to be.
I picked up the phone on the third ring, but before I could utter a word, he started talking.
“Hill, old pal, what’s new?”
The fact that he started by calling me “old pal” was a bad sign. This was “Mooch talk” for “I gotta deal for ya.”
“Not much,” I replied, instantly recognizing his gravely voice. “How about with you?”
“Same old stuff as always, Hill, but can you believe it’s almost the New Year? I mean, can you believe how fast this last year went by? It’s incredible, don’t you think?”
Another bad sign, cause you see, Johnny “The Mooch” Rago is not known for his conversational abilities. I can guarantee you that he didn’t call to talk to me about the coming New Year or the weather or anything else other than some way for him to make an easy buck … or if necessary … steal one. So usually, it’s better to dispense with the phony pleasantries and get down to the heart of the matter … whatever it may be.
“Yeah, it’s incredible, but listen Mooch, I’m busy right now, and I know you too well to think that you called to chit chat, so let’s skip the small talk. What do you want?”
“Actually, I’ve got a foggy insulating unit that I want to talk to you about, but before we talk about my unit, I want to ask you two questions.
“Why?” I asked.
“Cause I need your advice on something. I respect your opinion.”
Now I’m starting to worry. I’m not surprised that he would want to talk to me about perhaps replacing a fogged unit, although I have no doubt whatsoever that he has no intention of paying for it. But this opinion and advice thing … with the word respect thrown in … where’s he going?
“Two questions, huh? OK, I can deal with two questions. Fire away, Mooch.”
“Thanks, Hill. To start with, did you see the article in the paper about the 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich that sold on e-bay for almost $30,000?”
I had seen the story and it was incredible. A lady from Florida claimed that after she took a bite out of a grilled cheese sandwich she had made for herself she saw a face staring back at her from the bread. It was the face of the Virgin Mary. She further claimed that this event took place more than ten years ago and that in the intervening years, not a trace of mold has developed on the sandwich. There was a fair amount of controversy about the whole e-bay auction thing, but the last time I looked, she was getting ready to exchange the sandwich for the money. I’d love to talk to this woman because I’ve got a couple questions of my own. Like … do you think the face was there before you bit the sandwich and you just didn’t notice it? Would the sandwich be worth even more if the bite hadn’t been taken? Also, what happened to the grill the sandwich was made on? Wouldn’t Mary have preferred that the $30,000 spent on this sandwich be used instead to feed grilled cheese to the poor?
“I saw the story,” I replied.
“So, what do you think? I mean, it was all legal and everything … right?”
“Yeah, it was legal, but kinda weird, Mooch. Of course, if somebody wants to pay a bunch of money for a 10-year-old, partially-eaten sandwich, I guess they have the right to do it. The lady selling it has a right to take that person’s money too. And while I can somehow understand the appeal that a rare, one-of-a-kind, almost divine item has, the whole thing just seems a little bizarre. But what’s this got to do with your foggy insulating unit anyway?”
“Well, Hill, the insulating unit in question is in my living room window. It didn’t fog up all at once. In fact, it took about three years to reach its current state. But here’s where it gets a little strange. You see, after the fogging stopped, it left a perfect image of Abraham Lincoln—top hat and all. Since the fogging stopped, this almost perfect image of old Abe has not changed in any way. It’s supernatural, as if Abe is trying to somehow communicate with us after all this time. By the way, my living room window faces South and I live on the corner of Gettysburg and Booth streets. This can’t be coincidental. Is this a great story or what?”
“You don’t live on the corner of Gettysburg and Booth streets, Mooch. You live on Windsor Drive.”
“Don’t mess with my story, Hill … I got a good thing going here.”
“This doesn’t smell right, Mooch.”
“But here’s the best part, Hill, I got another fogged unit that looks just like the Three Wise Men, and I’ll have a Joan of Arc ready by Tuesday.”
“Let me guess, Mooch, you’re going to claim that these were all mysteriously formed by some supernatural occurrence and auction them off on the Internet, right? Have you no scruples? Have you no decency? Have you not an ounce of honesty and integrity left in you? You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“Can I ask the other question now, Hill?”
“Well, you know how you’re always complaining about how hard you guys in the glass business work and how you never seem to get a fair return for all the risks you take and the problems you have to deal with … and how nobody wants to pay you on time and how it seems like everybody is always taking advantage of you?”
“Yeah, I’ve said those things. So what?”
“So, Hill, what kind of a year did you have this past year, and how good of a year do you think you’re gonna have next year?
“You know, Mooch, maybe you’re on to something after all … where can I see these units … and do you think you can fog up the Beatles? Now that would really sell.”
Lyle R. Hill is president of MTH Industries of Chicago.
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