Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shoein' For a Living -- The Whole Sordid Tale!

Anvil Magazine Archives [anvilmag.com]
Publisher: Mr. Rob Edwards
From a Series First Published in the 1980's
Anvil Magazine

A Parody on Perpetual-Motion Professions:
(And Coincidentally, Surviving Recessions)

     NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, August 12, 1982.
Nobody needs to tell you how hard it is to make a living during a recession.  As a reporter for The San Francisco Business News, my assignment had been to search the back roads of this country for the American Dream -- the entrepreneurial spirit that had always made this nation great.  I had heard about two Mississippi horseshoers (farriers), who got the idea of forming a business partnership that was not only recession-proof, but required no labor and no raw materials.

According to Harlan Ginder, the self-proclaimed brains of the outfit, this odd business arrangement allowed them to go fishing whenever they wanted, drink beer when they felt like it, and as Ginder told my editor, "to ponder the important things in life, like golf.  Soon as Natchez gets a golf course."  As such, my editor, Billy Bob Edwards sent me on down to Natchez, Mississippi (economy-class, with a layover in Fargo, North Dakota), to take a look at this unique segment of the American Dream.  Billy Bob also suggested that I make the story a New Journalism piece since nobody on staff knew what the hell that meant and that it might make us seem either liberal or smart.   

7:45 AM:  I wake up at the Three Fingers Motel about ten miles outside Natchez.  The air-conditioner is busted and a large cockroach stands between me and the bathroom.  Odd noises filter through the wall from the adjoining room:  a man and a woman arguing, a lot of howling, like a sick dog and the sound of some kind of machinery, maybe a diesel engine running.  I dress and head for my rental car.  A scrawled note stuck in the wiper says to meet Harlan at Smokey's Bar out on 41.  As I pull out of the motel, three State Police cars race in, screeching to a stop in front of the room with all the strange noises.  Shots ring out, followed by the sound of breaking glass.

8:15 AM:  I take a seat at the counter of Smokey's Bar.  A tattooed guy with a shaved head wanders down to my spot and opens a beer.  He stares intently at my Carpe Diem T-shirt, lights a Lucky Strike and belches.
"You from France or somethin'?"

"Uh, San Francisco."

"You a fag?"

"Uh, no.  Friend of Harlan Ginder, the horseshoer."

"Harlan ain't got no friends.  Not alive anyway.  You want the special?"

"What's the special?"

"Grits and bacon." 

"Got anything else?"

"Grits and sausage."

He lights another Lucky Strike, blowing the discharge into my face.  As the sleeve of his T-shirt creeps up, I see part of a knife tattoo and the word 'Kill.'  Kill what I wonder.  I order the grits with sausage.

Outside, heat waves are shimmering off the gravel parking lot.  A bead of sweat rolls down my temple.  August in Mississippi is a slow, uncomfortable dance with your underwear.  Even the flies suffer, willing to die for a chance to rest in somebody's grits.  As I peer out the front window, I spot Harlan next to a brand new Chevy Dually pickup, his lips surrounding a quart bottle of Bud Lite.  My grits arrive, all white and slippery, floating in a puddle of lard.  They smell like air that's stayed in a tire too long.  I slap five bucks down on the bar and scurry out into the heat.

9:00 AM:  As I get near Harlan, he sticks out a big wet hand.  "How ya doin' there," he smiles.  Around the corner of the truck, Emmet appears -- skinny, about twenty-something, in need of a shave and probably a few other things.  A large skinning-knife is strapped to his belt, a cottonmouth-skin affair decorated with beer openers and bits of human hair.  When I greet him, he just drops his eyes in the direction of his well-worn boots and mumbles.  Then he disappears in the cab of the truck.  Harlan slaps me on the back.  "Ah, don't worry about Emmet.  He's kinda shy, what with a club foot and all.  He'll warm up.  Just don't mention women.  He's real sensitive 'bout women, especially his mother, God bless her."


"Hop in, got an appointment to keep."

9:30 AM:  We head back down Highway 41, past the Three Fingers Motel.  Now there are six patrol cars and it appears my old room is on fire.  A woman in a black negligee is handcuffed to the mailbox.  Harlan waves and the woman gives him the finger.  Emmet is engrossed in a Victoria's Secret catalog.  I decide it's a good time to probe the secrets of his success as a horseshoer.

"How long you been shoen' Harlan?"

"Shoen'?  You mean actually nail'n 'em on?"

"Well, ya."

Emmet, who is riding in the middle, spits out my window.  The brown projectile almost makes it outside.

"I don't actually do the work -- I mean, the physical labor part.  You've probably noticed that it's a little warm 'round Natchez.  Emmet and I have found that doin' a lot of heavy work is quite uncomfortable.  That's why we got air-conditionin' -- see, if ya turn this dial toward the blue mark, even the flies get kinda friendly."

"But I see you have some tools in the back."  My curiosity was now fully piqued.

"We like to think of ourselves as consultants."  Harlan elbowed Emmet in the side.  "Right, Emmet?"  Emmet just grunted.

"But what about the tools, that anvil?"

Harlan sighed, a degree of frustration hanging on his words.  "I inherited that anvil and stuff from Puck Marshall.  Puck used to shoe in these parts until..."


"Well, Puck was a little hard on his wife.  What you guys in San Francisco call 'insensitive.'  'Bout ten years ago, the little woman got fed up with Puck and stuck a butcher knife in his neck.  He'd a probably survived if we hadn't a run outa gas on the way to the hospital."

"You ran out of gas?"

"Actually I didn't.  Emmet here was supposed to have gassed up the truck, right Emmet?"  Emmet's face turned bright red, his hand sliding down around the sheath of his knife.  "Well anyway," Harlan continued, "Puck left me his tools and a few other things.  I took Emmet here under my wing cause he was orphaned and all by these unfortunate circumstances, and what havin' a club foot and all, we went into business with Puck's old tools."

"Uh, what happened to Emmet's...uh, Mrs. Marshall?"

"Oh, I believe they hung her.  Puck was kinda popular hereabouts."

"You mean Puck was Emmet's..."

 "Now, yer catchin' on."  Harlan reached under the seat, producing a handful of Advil and another quart of beer.  I could feel Emmet starting to vibrate next to me.  He kept flipping the catalog pages back and forth.

"Nice butt," I said, pointing to a woman on page 12, sporting little more than a purple napkin.  I expected Emmet to nod in agreement, figuring that once we had bonded on some subject, he might warm up to me a bit.  Instead, he mumbled something about nose hair and dead chickens and tossed the catalog out the window.
10:23 AM:  "Well, here we are," Harlan shouted, as we pulled into the driveway of a small farm.  Tied next to the barn were a pair of brown mules.  A young man in weathered chaps was trying to hang on to one of the mule's hind legs.  After a couple of seconds, the man went flying through the air.
"Well, that's better than last time!"  Harlan shouted.

The man smiled in agreement as he rose stiffly to his feet.  Emmet set Puck Marshall's old anvil on the tailgate and place a hammer and a couple of shoes next to it.

"Listen, why don't we try shoe shapin' today, Bub?"  Harlan handed the hammer to Bub, whose eyes lit up as if he was about to receive the holy sceptre.  "Bang that shoe around a little and get 'feel of the metal.'  We professional farriers call that 'the feel.'  A man's got to get a good feel fer it.  I'm gonna check your trimming."

As Bub bent the old shoe, Harlan kneeled down next to one of the mules.  "I'm gonna check your medio-lateral balance, Bub."  Harlan pulled out a Finnegan Gauge, pointing it at the snortiest mule, a little like a sailor navigating with a sextant.  "Aha!  I thought so.  Too much medial imbalance, Bub.  You remember what I taught you about strokin' the rasp?"  Harlan crouched slightly, miming smooth strokes with an invisible rasp.  "Smooth, smooth, smooth."

"Smooooth," Bub mouthed back.  "Smoooth."

"You keep a workin' on those strokes, Bub.  I think a few more sessions and we can think about doin' some nipper work."

Bub grinned so wide I thought his face would bust.  We piled back in Harlan's pickup.  I was totally confused over what I had just seen.  I thought about asking Emmet, but he was back to fondling his skinning knife.

11:45 AM:  An hour later we were back at Smokey's Bar, a pitcher of beer sweating comfortably in front of us.

"Harlan," I started cautiously.  "I've been with you since nine o'clock this morning and I've yet to see you shoe a horse.  I don't understand what's going on."

Harlan took a long swallow from his glass.  "Okay, I'll tell ya what's goin' on, but this has got to be one of those off-the-record kind of things.  See, if this got out, I'd be in a world of hurt."  Emmet stood up and limped to the opposite end of the bar where he stood glaring at Harlan.

"God-dammit Emmet!  Ah, hell with him.  Ya see, when Puck Marshall got that knife in his neck he told me to take care of Winnie, his wife and Emmet there."

"But I thought his wife stuck him with the knife?"

"She did indeed, but this is Mississippi.  We let families work out their problems without a lot of meddlin.'  Some folks figure Puck had it comin.'  Course, then they hung Winnie anyhow and others figured she had it comin.'  Balanced out sort of.  So Emmet there ended up livin' on my back porch."

"So?  What's that got to do with horseshoeing?"

After the trial, I got Puck's tools.  Ya see, somebody had to feed Emmet, and what with those lawyer fees and all, and I just had the tools.  I saw this advertisin' fer a shoein' school -- one of those two-week jobs.  Figured I'd go up there with Puck's anvil and learn how to do it -- you know, become a professional farrier."

"Did you?"

"Well, not quite.  When I got there, there was a waitin' list.  Lot of guys from 'Bama, Arkansas -- hell, even places like Canada.  The boss of the place had a bunch of students from the previous class teachin' us new fellas trimmin' on these old slaughterhouse legs and what not.  It was pretty awful.  But the boss had this brand new Chevy Dually with chrome wheels and a cellular phone.  Everybody wanted that truck and they figured that shoein' horses was the way to get it."

"So you decided to become a real professional farrier?"

"Well, not quite.  You see, I figured there was a lot more money in teaching shoein' than actually doin' it, especially with the weather down here.  So I cashed in some bonds my momma left me and..."

"Bought Harlan's tools?"

"Nope.  Leased that Chevy Dually and went into the teachin' business.  Emmet and I cover 'bout fourteen counties -- sort of a correspondence course by truck.  Right now, we got about fifty guys we're teachin' how to shoe.  Bub is on his twelfth lesson and all he can think about is Chevy trucks.  They see my truck out there and go moon-blind.  Sometimes they work on their own stock, other times we sort of contract out for our stock.  You know, kinda get paid at both ends -- that sort of thing.

I took a long swallow from my beer.  "But how...I mean, it sounds like a pyramid scheme.  Did you graduate from the school?"

"Hell, no."  Harlan lowered his voice to a whisper.  "I couldn't shoe a horse if my life depended on it.  I got my tuition back and bought some of those fancy chrome-plated hoof knives.  Went down to Jackson and leased the truck.  From that point on it's been smooth sailin.'"

I wondered how a man could live like that.  Cheating people out of their dreams.  I finally asked him how he lived with himself.  He looked puzzled, like I had asked him what color air he liked to breathe.

"I live fine.  Ya see, as soon as these guys are finished with their lessons, I'm goin' to take all that money and open a Chevy dealership.  I'm goin' to lease 'em all trucks and tell 'em the real money is in California.  Ya see, this is Mississippi.  Like I said, we don't hold a grudge down here, especially if a fella is just tryin' to make a buck.  It's like me takin' care of Winnie even though ol' Winnie planted a butcher knife in Puck's neck and got hung.  I took care of her, Puck's old tools take care of me and I take care of Emmet.  If I gotta do all that work, then somebody's got to take care of me, so these guys I'm teachin' to shoe are really supportin' a dead widow and her orphan boy.  Once they get that new Dually and turn up the air-conditionin', all this will make perfect sense.  My God man, I got all these people dependin' on me.  Hell, let's have a beer!  You're not goin' to print any of this crap are you?"

Down at the other end of the bar, Emmet was still fondling his knife.

The End.......

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy...At the Sales

Spy versus...
Spy versus...
Spy versus...
Spy versus...
What horse?
CIA Has Nothin' Over These Spies

Thoroughbred sales are probably one of the most fascinating venues ever created for the sole purpose of selling an agricultural commodity.  Yeah, I'm afraid that $100,000 yearling you just bought is technically: livestock.  Sorry, but the USDA and The Jockey Club haven't quite settled on a nomenclature that fits every body's needs perfectly.  Especially when the wife asks, "Honey, do we own any cows?  The accountant called about it."

Given how really special Thoroughbreds are, and perhaps more importantly, how tricky the end-result of a purchase might be, the industry decided to nurture the development of so-called agents -- bloodstock agents to be completely correct.  This was both incredible foresight on the part of Thoroughbred sellers and of absolute necessity to insure any form of repeat business.  Yes, agents are a little like heat-shields on a space capsule.  They are designed to deflect a certain version of a rare, but sweet-scented wrath that shows up every year about tax time.  See, when $100,000 and "out run a Yugo" end up in the same sentence -- well, everybody should have a fall-guy.

Agents know this.  That's why every couple of years they change names, addresses, phone numbers, shaving habits, countries, wives, favorite restaurants -- DNA if they could figure out how.  But unhappy, financially destitute in-laws are only half the problem.  The real competition isn't over clients.  They recycle pretty fast.  The end-game -- the adrenaline-chili-powder-ragged-edge-tight-cheek-ultimate high:  out-flanking another agent.  And to be clear, it is not always about buying the better horse.

"Buyers engage in a form of subterfuge of their own and for a very good reason, or quite frankly, a whole collection of personality disorders.  Some trainers, owners or agents have a reputation for picking out winners on a somewhat regular basis.  Regular is a subjective term.  Irregular is an industry standard.  Either way, the divine chosen are subject to counter-intelligence operations of epic proportions.  People peek at them from under the shed-row, behind bushes, near Sani-Kans, or try to get them drunk at cheap bars and swipe their catalog  The object of all these mental manipulations is two-fold:  the first is to find out if one's own judgement is hopelessly corrupt, or at the least, shared by one other human on the planet.  The second depends on the first, because two people can't possibly own the same secret.  Then, the strategy is to either undermine the other potential buyer's confidence in a particular horse or undermine your own.  The latter is complicated.  It is like buying a used car from yourself.  You know the damn thing has a hopeless stain in the backseat and the engine knocks, but the price is...well, you get it.  If another guy actually wants to buy it, why are you selling it?"