How To Be Good At Being Wealthy

When I was in my early twenties, I spent a good percentage of my winter nights at the Crimson Grill in Harvard Square. There was only one thing special about that bar; the beer was OK, the food mediocre, the prices right in line with everything else in town. But they’d play all of my alma mater’s basketball games, and as I was living in a town where I hadn’t gone to college and didn’t know that many people, hanging out with other alumni became important to me.

So every few days between November and March, I would get to the bar about ten minutes before game time, score a seat, order a pitcher and some fried food, and watch sports with people who eventually became, if not friends, friendly acquaintances. I did this for two years, with nothing much interesting to report. We won some games, lost some games, drank some beer.

Then one day in early 2000 Kevin showed up. He was seven or eight years older than me, and I knew him both through college and high school – he had attended the same as I for both. He had founded a company called Student Advantage back in the mid-’90s, a kind of proto – dot com firm that made student ID cards that gave the holder a discount at various businesses. To know what businesses gave the discount, you would either see a sticker on the door or – wonder of wonders – you could check a website and see what was in your town. In these days of location-aware smartphones and instant discounts, that’s not that big a deal, but back in the ’90s, it was a revelation. I’d heard through the grapevine that he’d sold his company to another firm that year, and had done quite well.

When he walked up to us, he was dressed in business casual clothes, tall, slender, with a big smile and an engaging way about him. He met the usual crowd, didn’t drink any beer, ate a burger, cheered our team, and took off early when it became apparent that we were going to win the day.

After the game, the bar started to clear out – it was perhaps a Tuesday night – and our waitress didn’t come over with the bill as she usually did. My friend Ernest eventually walked up to her and asked for the check. She walked back over to our table with him.

“Guys,’ she said. “Don’t worry about it. Your skinny friend – the guy who was here – he paid for all your stuff.”

Such a small thing, but…we were all one or two years out of college, with intro jobs and grad school classes and loans that were only getting larger. Kevin was ahead of us in life and success and wealth, and…he put his money to work in a small, nice way.

Kevin died a couple of years ago, far too young. But I’ll always remember his lesson to me.

That, I think, is how to be a good rich dude. Writ large and writ small, know that others have less, and if you can help out, do.

How To Be A Customer

(This is a sister post to How to Be An Awesome Counter Agent)

The customer is always right…unless the customer is a jerk.

I went to the Apple Store the other day. On New Year’s Eve day, at a little before lunchtime. The place was a disaster – a freewheeling, crowded space full of red-shirted employees going hither and yon, confused tourists playing with iPads, frustrated PowerBook users trying to learn operating system tricks on the computers they just got for Christmas. It was as hectic and stressful as you’d think it would be.

And I was adding to the stress, because I had a problem. A month ago, my iPhone 5 stopped being a smartphone. It would connect to a 3G signal, then go roaming, then go 3G, then roam. All within a ten second period. It wouldn’t get any Web pages, apps didn’t work, voicemails would show up three days late…my iPhone was an iPod crossed with a 1996-era flip-phone. I spent a few days going back and forth to a Sprint store, where they finally directed me to Apple. As far as we could tell, an Apple software update had broken my phone.

I was not looking forward to this; Apple does many great things, but their attention to customer service isn’t in the same league as, say, Zappos or LL Bean. I was nervous as I walked up the stairs to the Genius Bar, where I was intercepted by a young, bearded dude in a red Apple shirt.

“Hey,” he said. “How can I help you?”

“I’ve got an iPhone problem,” I said. “It won’t connect to 3G…it’s this Sprint thing, you see, and…”

He cut me off, gently. “OK, do you have an appointment?”

“I do,” I said. “I’m…there.” I pointed out my name on the appointment list on his iPad mini.

“Great,” he said. “We’ll get someone to look at that for you – can you have a seat here?” He pointed me to a row of stools and benches in front of the bar. Every Apple person at the bar was working with a customer, and most of the waiting-stools were taken. I sat, and watched the people, and thought about what I was doing and what I wanted.

Know what you want.  What are you, as a customer, hoping to walk away from your transaction with? If you know that, you’ve taken the first step. If you’re just hoping to vent, there are many places on the Internet where you can do that without repercussion or making people feel terrible.

I kept that in mind as I waited. I wanted to leave with a phone that connected to the Internet like a smartphone is supposed to. I didn’t want to pay a bunch of money. Those were my mantras.

Be patient.

I waited for about thirty minutes. I’m not ordinarily a particularly patient person, but I was really focused on staying calm. And kudos to the Apple store staff – the bearded guy came back to me a few times to make sure that I knew that my turn was coming. I could definitely have started to pull the “I’ve been here for x minutes…is there a manager?” card. I didn’t, because it was obvious that the place was a little nuts and doing so wouldn’t actually help, which leads to

Think “how will this action help me get to what I want?”

When I got to the bar, a young woman named Angel was ready to help me out. She had a nose ring and a tired look. I explained my situation, and all the steps that I had already taken. She looked at me suspiciously.

“Weird – my boyfriend has Sprint and his phone has been fine…”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “I just know what happened to mine, and what people have been saying on the Sprint boards.” I stopped talking there – she was skeptical of what I had to say, but shouting or saying you don’t believe me? was only going to make her day worse

She did a few things to my phone, reset it, and looked at me.

“Well, your phone is out of warranty, so we’d be looking at a full replacement here.”

That’s code for you’re going to pay a bunch of money, 

I breathed deep, and smiled.

Smile

“I think that’s going to be tough for me to swallow, because it was an Apple software update that did it…”

She looked at me, looked at the phone, then plugged it back into the laptop she was using. I kept smiling – not a creepy toothy San-Diego-mayor smile, but a mouth closed I’m not going to freak out on you smile.

“Well, let’s try to reset the firmware…”

As the phone reset, we chatted a bit about how the day was going, how late she was getting off of work, and what are the kind of people who come to the Apple Store at 9 pm on New Year’s Eve. I thought about how much days like this must suck for the person behind the counter, but didn’t say it. After the reset…nothing.

“Let me check this SIM card,” she said. She brought out another phone, put my card in it, and fired it up – it worked fine.

“Huh,” she said, swapping the card back to my phone. “This is a weird…hang on. Let me go talk to my manager.”

I smiled. “No problem.”

Be friendly

I was pretty proud of myself – even though it looked like I was going to get hit with a phone-change fee, I kept my cool and had definitely not ruined Angel’s day.

“OK,” she said after a few minutes away. “We’re going to take care of this for you. When I put the SIM card back in your phone, the thing stopped recognizing SIMs altogether, so…we’re going to set you up with something new.”

I was shocked. So shocked it took me a few seconds to react properly.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.

Say “thank you.”

Say that because the person is helping you, and that’s what you say to someone who helps.

Now, I have no idea if how I acted during these exchanges was why I ended up with a new refurbished phone. But it certainly didn’t hurt. I’d be willing to bet that if I’d blown up or been angry, Angel wouldn’t have tried the SIM card thing, and it wouldn’t have conked. Or if it had, I would have been charged. Or something. I don’t know.

I just know that by being a good customer, my day ended up a bit better. And hers, as well.

How to say “Gnocchi”

This is a short post. But here are the rules.

  1. Do not pronounce the “g.”
  2. The “ch” is not as it is in change.
  3. The “gn” does not sound like the “ng” at the end of “running.

Start by putting the back of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, so you get a sharp, long “n” sound. Kind of like an “ng”, but not quite. Pronounce the “o” like the one in “hello.” Think of “cch” as a double-“k”, and the “i” like the end of donkey.

That’s it. You’re good to go.

How to Be a Local

I live in a tourist city. Hell, I’ve always lived in tourist cities – Boston, Chicago, now San Francisco. In Boston, tourist season started in mid-May – the T stations would be busier in the middle of the day, stuffed with sandal-wearing backpack-toting, Fodors-guide reading people from all over.

“Excuse me,” they would say to me, while I was walking back to work from lunch or jogging along the Charles River. “Where is the Freedom Trail?”
“Which way is Bunker Hill?
“How do I get to the Swan Boats?”

It’s little different now, except that in San Francisco high tourist season is when our weather is famously at its worst. Tourists start off in sandals at Fisherman’s Wharf, and by the time they’ve made it up to my area in the Haight, they’re sporting leg warmers, Alcatraz Psycho Ward Inpatient knit hats, and enormous I Heart SF hoodies. Every few weeks I’ll be walking back home and see a couple of folks on the corner of Haight and Divisadero, looking quizzically from map to street to map again. Most of them stop and ask me where Haight and Ashbury is.

I always, always tell them. Sometimes even if they don’t ask. I walk right up and ask “hey, can I help you guys find something?”

Nine times out of ten, I get a relieved face, a smile, and a grateful question. The other time I get a “no, we’re OK.”

And then I get to feel great, happy, having made someone’s day a little less stressful. It’s a simple formula:

1) Ask if you can help
2) Be nice
3) Be honest

That’s it. If you see someone fumbling with a map, or intently looking at a phone, then street signs, then a phone again, ask if you can help find something. Be friendly. Smile.

If people are taking selfies with a landmark in the background, ask if you can photo them.

And when a sixty-five-year-old German ex-firefighter asks you for a good place nearby to get a beer, send him to your favorite spot – not something you think he might like because it’s quiet and inoffensive. I hate to say “keep it real.”

But keep it real.

How to Throw A Dinner Party

Sensitive topic, here. The very idea of a Dinner Party scares some people – it’s so scary it’s written here in capital letters! The phrase conjures up scenes from Downton Abbey: a bunch of stuffed shirts (and I mean that literally – the Edwardian-era English definitely put stuff in there) wait around sipping cocktails and nibbling on finger sandwiches until the bell rings. At the ring, they all adjourn to an enormous table and spend two hours scrupulously not offending each other.

Of course, modern people don’t have anything like that going on, but thematically it’s similar. You worry about having people over. You worry that those people will judge your window treatments, the absolute cleanliness of your floor, whether or not your kid has the correct organic cotton onesie…and so on. The stress is endless, and it boils down to OMG these people are IN MY HOUSE and I want to make sure they have the best time ever!!!! Naturally, your guests can feel your tension, and the whole thing ends up being as awkward as a Downton Abbey dinner, even though it’s summer and everyone is wearing flip-flops.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Think a bit beforehand. Here’s what you might want to think about:

Think About Who Is Coming
How big is your place? Can you have six people, or sixty? (if you’re doing the latter, hire a caterer unless you are one professionally, which probably means you can’t afford to be having sixty people over. Just sayin’) Where are they going to sit?

Think about Where They’ll Hang Out
Everyone always hangs out in the kitchen, especially if the host is in and out of there cooking and  heating things up. The food is in there, refills on ice are there, it smells good, and it’s where the action is happening. If you don’t have one of those fabulous kitchens that open up to a big ol’ room, plan accordingly. Even if you hate being in the kitchen, you’re going to have to plan accordingly. Nowhere to sit? Bring in some folding chairs, a yoga ball, or just clear some counter space.

Think About What You Are Cooking
Now is not the time to try out DIY molecular gastronomy gear. Make things with a minimum of ingredients, a maximum ability to be prepped early, or an incredibly quick cooking time. Winter stews are great for this. Grilling can be, unless it’s something that needs to be carved (flank steaks, racks of lamb). Why? Because by the time you’re done carving, the stuff you started with is cold. Keep in mind that you’re serving more people than usual, and cold food is frustrating. Think curries, salads, chili…nobody in their right mind is expecting pate and red wine reduction glazes.

Have Drinks Ready At the Start
Yep. Not just because booze is a good social lubricant and will help your guests get to know each other a bit. Also because having a drink is something to do with your hands. People like having something in hand; that’s part of the reason everyone’s always playing with their phones. The side corollary to this is that if everyone is playing with their phones at your dinner party, you’ve got a big problem.

Dessert = cookies and ice cream
Trust me on this one. Everyone will love it, and it’s low, low effort.

Smile
Perhaps the biggest one on this list. These people are your friends. You (hopefully) like them. Dinner with friends is good.

Actually, maybe that’s the biggest thing. You’re not throwing a dinner party. You’re having dinner with friends; it just happens to be at your place.

How To Run An Airport Waiting Room

WARNING: this is probably the least useful article on this website, as it’s only applicable to a few hundred people worldwide. However, if only one of those (overworked, probably underpaid, definitely under appreciated) people reads this, my job is well done.

Many years ago, I went to Honduras to visit a friend. This was during my grad school years, when my frequent-flyer-mile-to-money ratio was hundreds to one. When the time came I put my ticket on miles, and routing rules made things interesting: San Francisco-New York-Miami-Tegucigalpa (pause), then San Pedro Sula, then La Ceiba. Long day.

The only way to pull it off was to arrive late-night in New York, followed by an early morning flight to Miami. I would be spending the night in JFK airport. When I landed, the American Airlines terminal was the usual disaster – hundreds of rushed people rushing every which way, mostly out. I stopped a friendly-looking janitor and asked him if there was a place I could spend the night.

“Not here,” he said. “The terminal closes at midnight and they’ll throw you out. There’s a waiting area beyond security, though.”

I made my way there, which was a tile-floored area near a snack bar with an sliding door out to the street. Chairs were set up in pods of five. People were scattered about those pods, and the woman behind the counter at the snack bar was dozing. None of this was good, but it would be a manageable spot to crash for a while if I kept my wits about me. Unfortunately, one factor made this impossible: CNN Airport.Michael-Brutsch-screenshot

Playing on several televisions, loudly.

I don’t know who CNN-the-entity has fellated  in order to get itself running nonstop in every airport waiting area in the United States, but may I humbly suggest that the sex-for-placement arrangement stop? Being in an airport is already stressful – even if you are not looking for a place to sleep on the floor. Add in the cacophony of people-yelling-at-each-other that passes for cable news, and everyone’s heart rate goes up five beats per minute. We all sweat a little more.

Turn them off. Shut them down.  In this age of iPads, tablets, e-readers, magazines, and books, it’s highly unlikely that anyone at the airport is going to be happy to passively watch inane nontertainment. If you must have screens, put on silent weather maps – that’s the only news that is absolutely important to the audience.Imagine that world – slightly quieter airports. Slightly less-stressed passengers making the gate agents just a bit less crazy.

So, airport waiting room managers of the world – if you read this…please turn ’em off.

Oh, wait – you want to know how the story ends? I hightailed it right out of that loud, weird waiting room and took the train to the International Terminal, which never closes. At the end of one of the hallways, next to a wall of windows that faced out to the tarmac, I found my holy grail: a bank of pay phones. I rolled out a camping mattress behind them, put my head on my fleece for a pillow, and slept soundly for five hours.

After all, even in 2007, nobody was going to walk that far to use a pay phone.

How to Walk On A Sidewalk

Most of us don’t walk much. There’s that one scene in LA Story where Steve Martin is going to go somewhere, and he packs up to get going, goes down to his car, and drives to where he’s going. A block away.

That movie is over 20 years old, and was meant to illustrate the weirdness of Los Angeles – a place where nobody walks anywhere, where the car is king.

Funny thing is, that scene isn’t that amusing any more. Instead of pointing out the weirdness of LA, it illustrates how most of us live these days. Need groceries? Get in the car. Need to get to school? Car. Need to get out of the house and get some fresh air? Drive to somewhere where there’s a walking path.

I’m not going to opine on the ongoing health and societal disaster that is car culture (that’s what Streetsblog and Mr Money Mustache are for); instead, I’ll focus on one small result of that culture – people don’t’ know how to walk with each other any more.

I live in a city, and run often. Because it’s a city, and because there are cars and busses and the occasional riding mower (true story), I have to run on the sidewalks. On those sidewalks, inevitably, I run into someone who’s walking like this:

Sidewalk  Crossing Diagram

I try to go left. They veer left. I go back right, they lurch to the right. Inevitably, I end up in the street, hoping my running shorts is decent armor against the cars that whiz by.

This kind of thing isn’t only a problem for runners; a city sidewalk is a diverse place. Mothers push strollers, the young and busy crank along at Olympic speed walking speed, the elderly move slowly, sometimes helping themselves along with canes. It’s not like a freeway, where the top-level limit is set, and there are clearly defined ways to get around slower folks. Sidewalks are more like the roads in a developing country – move to where there’s space.

And as long as you follow one simple rule, you’ll be fine, and everyone else around you will figure it out.

Pick your line and follow it. Don’t waver.

Sidewalk Crossing Good Diagram

If you do want to stop and look at something in the air or in a window, stop first, then move towards what you want to see. If there is someone behind you, he won’t be directly behind you, because you’ve been keeping your line, and there won’t be one of those awkward collisions that never actually result in mildly amusing, redemptive romance.

You avoid being bumped into, and having someone swear at you. Others get the joy of getting to where they’re going, and not worrying about bumping into clueless you. Everybody wins!

How To Be An Awesome Counter Agent

Several years ago, my lovely wife (henceforth MLW) and I were headed to Burlington, Vermont to visit her sister. It was the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend. Flying to Burlington is always a dicey proposition – the airport is small, the weather is terrible, and all flights are terminating, which means that airlines are happy to cancel at any time. And, to fly there, you pretty much have to go through Chicago (weather, always), Cleveland (same) or Newark (yep, the same thing).

Our flight was at 6:10 in the morning from SFO;  we got there at five sharp. At 5:45, we hadn’t boarded and…delayed an hour. Not a problem – we were connecting in Chicago with a four hour layover. I checked the board again at 6:30 and….delayed to eight.

“I’m getting in line right now,” I said. “Rolling delays on a Chicago flight…”

I wasn’t the only one with this idea – about ten people were in front of me at the gate desk, clearly nervous, clutching tickets and rolling bags and children’s hands. We waited for twenty minutes, during which time our flight was delayed until 9:00. The airport CNN channel (someday I’m going to write a post about how to be an airport, and it will involve banning CNN) was showing a weather map of the midwest. A state-sized green and yellow mass was working its way across Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

“Crap,” I said to MLW, and pointed. “We’re not going to Chicago.”

“You’re not going to Chicago,” said the agent when we got to talk to him. “Maybe you can come back in a couple of days?” He clicked buttons. “Yeah, our first flight with availability is on Saturday.”

At this point, MLW started crying. When we first started traveling together, I was always embarrassed when she would do this. By this time, I understood their power – tears Get Stuff Done.

“This is the only time this year I get to see my sister and her kids,” she said softly.

“Is there any other routing you can do?” I asked. “Can you get us close?

“Well,” he said, a little frustrated at us not taking his come back in a few days offer. “We can fly you to Philadelphia, where you can connect on US Airways to…Manchester, New Hampshire after a three hour layover?”

“Do it,” I said. “We’ll rent a car or something there. We’ll be close enough. And we can have a cheesesteak and a beer in the airport!”

So he did his thing and I took out my laptop (note to airports: free wi-fi is very helpful during emergencies) and got us a one-way reservation in Manchester for only $150. Vacation saved.

But we’re not done here. Our flight to Philly had mechanical problems, so we sat on the tarmac for nearly two hours. When we reached the Delaware river we orbited for forty-five more minutes,. I was stewing in my own juices. By the time we landed, we had fifty minutes to run through the airport, out of Terminal D to Terminal B.  We had had fantasies of cheesesteaks and beer in the Philly airport…no chance.

We reached the gate for our manchester flight at 8:15, with forty minutes to spare. The flight was at gate B12. Which was right next to gate B11, where there was a flight to Burlington,  leaving at 8:45. Dammit. I asked if we could switch our tickets, given that Burlington was our original destination.

“No, said the (very nice) woman after checking our numbers. “United issued this ticket, so they have to change it. ”

“But this is a US Airways boarding pass,” I said. “And this flight isn’t full. Can you just switch them out?”

She shook her head, sadly. She wanted to help, but couldn’t.

I wasn’t beaten yet – I whipped out my cell phone and called United – maybe they could transfer us while we waited. I explained, was moved to another agent, moved again, and held, and talked, and.. the  United guy was transferring the tickets when they closed the door to Burlington. The plane took off, and I hung up the phone. We were going to Manchester, and then we would drive.

We landed at just after 10 pm, hungry and anxious. We were so close to getting to Vermont! Only one state away. Manchester airport was clearly at the end of the days’ business – cleaners buffing floors, quiet men closing down the eateries. We near-sprinted to the Hertz counter, which was empty.

All rentals in lot, read a small printed sign at the counter.

We ran  more, out the door and outside into the muggy New England night, to a small building with two desks, a line of over a dozen people, and one Hertz guy. He was tall with brown hair and skin bad enough to place him just out of his teens.

Crap, I thought. This is going to take forever.

All I wanted to do was get in some kind of car and get going, and I’d rented enough cars to now that a dozen people can mean an hour. There are documents to sign and questions to answer and line-jumpers to appease. I tried to resign myself. I got out my book.

And then…the Teenage Counter Guy became CounterSuperman.

“OK, we’ve got a big line here,” he near-shouted. “Anyone a Gold Club Member? If you are, I’ve got all of your paperwork already printed out, you can just come up and initial it and sign it, and I’ll get you going with this second computer. Everyone else who has a reservation, please have it out when you get to me – it’ll go that much faster.”

Four people got out of line and started filling out papers.

CounterSuperMan then got to work – he printed out rental agreements as he talked to new customers, taking information down while explaining clearly where cars were, where to scrawl letters, moving like a blur, all with a smile.

Fifteen minutes later, we were in a car, driving out of the airport.

“How did that happen?” asked MLW.

“That guy…he was just good,” I said.

We got to Burlington at one in the morning, after a stop for lunch at a 24 hour grocer in Lebanon. We saw a moose flit across the freeway. Our trip had taken seventeen hours. But I still remembered the Hertz guy. He was so, so good.

1) He communicated clearly in a tense situation. He told people what was going on, and how he was going to solve the problem. Everyone in that little Hertz room knew what to do.
2) He thought ahead. He’d looked at the crush of reservations (we weren’t the only people doing one-ways), knew the flight schedules, and prepped in advance. By doing this, he definitely got to go home earlier.
3) He took it as a challenge, a problem to be solved. Not as a pain in the ass.

Look, working behind a counter can really be terrible. Most of us have done it. But…it can be done well. I still think about that Hertz CounterSuperman. I bet he’s doing great things, still.

How To Write a Facebook Update That Doesn’t Make Your Friends Freak Out

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 6.26.21 PM

See that? Don’t do that. If you write an update on everyone’s favorite Blue Social Network from the hospital or a funeral home or the Black Hole of Doom, give a little context.

You see, we love you. The people who care enough to worry about you when you write something scary…we love you, and we really worry when we read things that sound like something awful is happening. And if you do post something like this…well, you’re looking for sympathy, right? Don’t disappear right after. Let us know if you’re there for a hangnail, or a brain tumor, or anything in between.

You get more sympathy. We don’t have heart attacks. Everything becomes better.