09 August 2013

Only One Small Mouse Click

By, F. Montforte D'Hubert...with kind thanks to Frederick Mann for permission to place this on his blog site.

I read this story in The New Yorker and wanted to share it with you:


Andy Borowitz is an intelligent and insightful journalist.  I am not making this up.  He has been writing for The New Yorker for some time now, and, I must say, I like both his style and his accuracy.

How do I know that Andy has it right this time, regarding the sale of the Washington Post?  Well, because I almost bought the State of California by accident not too long ago.

It happened on one of those evenings when it had been stormy.  This happens often in South Florida during the summer, so that was not unusual.  What was unusual was that I simply could not sleep.  It was disconcerting and downright inconvenient, because I needed to be up early for a meeting.  I was burning moonlight.

Rather than watch late night television, I decided to get on the computer and, perhaps, do some journal writing, or catch up on email.  One of my emails came from a friend who shared a picture of a new t-shirt that really looked spiffy.  I am all about collecting t-shirts with unusual slogans and small pictures, and the one my friend showed off was especially enticing.  It was a California t-shirt.

Now, I have a number of friends who live in California or have lived there sometime in their past.  I have been to California a number of times and am a fan of the U. Cal.-Berkeley Bears.  I like bears, and UC Berkeley has some nice t-shirts.

So, at 11:45pm on this rainy night, I went to the State of California website.  It was well laid out, and I navigated my way to the "Online Store" section of the menu bar.  Because California is a big state, it has lots of products and kitch that one can purchase for a nominal fee.  We all know that California has had its financial woes of late, so, even the kitch is a tad pricey.  Nonetheless, I hunted around a bit in the "apparel" area and, finally, Voila!  There was the t-shirt my friend had showed me.

This product came in several colors and sizes for both men and women.  It had the color I wanted and the size that fits well.  I was in luck!  But....I was also getting sleepy by now.  "Come On!" I said to myself..."you can do this, shut down and be in bed in five minutes."

So, I popped my knuckles, took a deep breath, focused and "bam" began hitting the choice and check out keys in rapid order.  Fingers humming away, I clicked each window, as it came up.  Within five minutes, I had placed the choice in my shopping cart, provided the information, signaled the purchase and confirmed my decision -- that last button.  Up popped the completion page...of which I made a copy and simply threw it on my desk, as I shut my system down.  Sleep came fast.

Next morning, after my meeting, I was tooling about our home town -- doing the usual errands -- when I got this call from my bank on my cell phone (unusual).  The lady on the other end seemed a bit frantic and halting in her tone and presentation.

"Sir, can you please verify that you are the owner of this account (name, address)?"  "Yes," I replied, a bit apprehensively.  She proceeded with the usual security questions, to which I gave spot-on answers.

When that was done, I preempted her with one of my own questions, "Excuse me, but you seem a bit distracted, and you don't usually call my cell phone.  Is there a problem I should know about?"

Her response came in a frame of hesitancy.  "Uh, yes, we seem to have a problem with your account.  There is a request for $2.5 million to be paid out through your account.  The requesting agency is, well, unusual."  Now was my time to be hesitant and frantic.

"I'm sorry, but did you say $2.5 million as in 2 million, five hundred thousand American dollars?"  The bank lady could tell I was suddenly edgy.  "Yes sir, $2 million, five-hundred thousand plus $21.45."

"So, what is the last little bit all about?" I queried...mouth getting drier by the second.

"Well, the itemized breakdown says that the final $21.45 is for a 'medium blue, xl, t-shirt' which includes the tax.  There is no tax on the seriously big amount."  Now we were both acting like people who had been hit up-side the head with a frying pan.  My ears were ringing.

"Tell me please, ma'am, how is it that I have a pending $2.5 million charge to my bank card.  I don't have that kind of cash anywhere."  I had, fortunately, stopped my car on the edge of a shopping center parking lot.  My hands were shaking.  How am I going to explain this to She Who Must Be Obeyed?

There was a moment of awkward silence.  Then, the bank lady said, in what seemed to be both a weary and wary voice, "The purchase order request for that large amount simply says, The State of California and All Not Privately Owned Properties and Businesses."  Yep, she said exactly that.  Me too, this had to be a joke.  I asked as much...mustering all the energy from my now very dry mouth and parched lungs.

"No sir, both our bank manager and the regional manager have checked the validity of the request.  You did, at 11:51pm last evening, check out of the State of California official website store with the purchase of the entire state of California and one t-shirt.  It is legitimate, and the Sacramento State House placed a call to our bank president...just as I began my call to you...wanting to know when to expect the transfer of funds.  It is why I seemed so distracted.  This is very unusual."

"Unusual?!!" I croaked.  "This is bloody impossible, outrageous and a joke!  It isn't even pay day!"  I added the last quip hoping to finally get her to laugh and admit that the bank was having a good time at my expense on this moist and hot morning.

It was no joke.  The manager came on the phone and gave me the routing number.  We ended the call with me, now all buzzed with nerves, heading home to take a look at the purchase confirmation sheet that was still laying on my desk, where I had casually tossed it before retiring for the night.  Seeming that some bizarre mix-up had occurred, the bank manager suggested I give a call to customer service at the State of California Online Store to see (and she said this), "What the hell this is all about."

To my utter horror and amazement, on the purchase confirmation sheet, on my study desk, were two purchases:  a t-shirt and The State of California sans private property and privately owned businesses.  That is a lot of land and infrastructure.  It is also a lot of overhead.  Owning California is like owning an old home.  Not only is there ongoing upkeep; there is also the neglect and renovation needed from the missteps of previous owners.  But, the State of California is the third largest state in the U.S.A.  It is worth gazillions...not just $2.5 million.  I don't have $2.5 million...never have, never will (unless I win the lottery).

The next couple of hours are blurred and too complex to transfer to text.  Ultimately, the customer service representative at the State of California website store (a nice, but firm, guy with an accent that made it hard for me to communicate well), who simply wanted the purchase order to be closed, called some office in Sacramento.  I could hear the "What the f...?" responses and on-hold buttons being pushed...as the customer service rep moved through a rather long chain of command.  Nobody wanted to handle this.  I was really nervous.  Stuff on this level gets real serious, and unusual people show up at one's doorstep driving black SUVs, with Sig-Sauers tucked under their jackets.

After about 14 expletive laden responses and on-hold sequences, there came a click and a smooth, mature and unusually calm voice.  "Is the customer on the line right now?"  The service rep answered in the affirmative with a crisp, "sir" at the end.  "I am connecting you now, sir."

"Good morning from Sacramento," said the voice, "I understand there is some kind of problem.  I am Jerry Brown, the Governor.  How can I help you?"  Now it was my turn, "What the f...?"  The actual governor of California?  "None other," came the reply.  There was a long pause.

I finally was able to more or less sputter the story to Gov. Brown.  I told him what I think happened on the website.  I was getting sleepy and assumed that all the buttons I clicked had to do with buying one simple, damned t-shirt.  I did not realize I was buying an entire state.  I don't want a state.  It's too big and too much responsibility.  Besides, I can't even afford a state.  How is it that the state puts itself on sale on its own website?

Gov. Brown sighed heavily and said, "Well, it is true.  We have had our problems, and we are not out of the woods yet to be sure.  I asked the State House for some creative ideas on how we could raise revenues for operations.  I have all my staff looking into this.  I want you to give me about 2 hours to see what we can do.  I will personally call you back."

At just after 4:00pm that afternoon...just as I poured my 11th cup of coffee (used up all my really good fresh ground stuff that day), my cellphone buzzed.  It was Gov. Brown...the governor...on the phone.  "Hey, Mr. D'Hubert, I am sorry to keep you waiting so long.  These things can be hard to track down.  We have a number of goofy state representatives.  No one wanted to chat...especially the ones from San Diego and Bakersfield.  Got a minute to let me explain?"

"Yes, sir, but first, what about that charge on my bank card?"  I was supremely nervous and was tired of staring out from behind the drapes of my living room for black SUVs.  "Oh, for crying out loud...I'm sorry...no, that charge has been cleared.  You aren't buying the state after all."  My release of tension was probably audible for blocks.  It seemed to distress the Governor a bit.

Composure regained, I asked -- rather meekly -- what had happened.

The Governor summed it up this way:  We did some tracking, and we found an article that you had written on 6 July 2012 about the 4th of July fireworks debacle in San Diego two days earlier.  You might remember that.  Well, my security staff have been doing some checking this afternoon.  We found that a group of state representatives may have hired a fellow to hack into our system and enable a sale of the public entities of the State of California....uh, on our own state website.  Using your article from last year, we have tried to trace the persons you interviewed but have not been successful.  The person of real interest is this computer nerd/agri-business person known only as "Weed."  Did you ever get to meet him?

It all came back to me.  A whole year later, and here it was again.  I scrambled to my computer, while still on the phone, and hunted my archived files.  Sure enough, published on 6 July 2012 was the article about the San Diego fireworks two days earlier.  All the characters came back vividly into memory.  Then, I remembered Gov. Brown, " Uh, oh, sorry, sir.  I have found the article.  The only person in that piece that I didn't meet was the one that Dr. Plank called 'Weed'."

Yep, he's the one.  Never met him, eh?  Okay.  You just happened to be the guy to get online and hit the buttons it seems.  It could have happened to any customer...maybe even a few saw it and simply thought it a joke.  This state has a reputation for being goofy on occasion.  You must have been really tired to hit that button.

"Yes, sir. My late night shopping days are over.  How are you going to find this Weed guy, if he is the one...if it is okay to ask," I was tentative in my request.

Well, the security folks are telling us that this guy is hugely crafty.  Knocked power out of half of California's coastal areas a few years back.   There is a whole legend about this guy emerging in back alley stories.  Several of the internal intelligence guys tell me that he pulls these capers and then hides under his bed for days on end....so they hear.  We just don't have the manpower to go to every home in California and look under beds.  Plus, he hasn't left any cyber footprints that we can yet find.  Rest assured, we are on it.
Then, the Governor asked me a strange question:   You wouldn't happen to be interested in owning the town of Bakersfield...and possibly all of Kern County...would you?  I know it's in the south central desert area of the state, but it might prove to be a good challenge for a retired guy like you.  Lots of goofy stuff to research there.

"No thanks!"

(Sigh), Okay, then.....

"Governor, I am grateful that I don't have to own California...much less govern it.  I am very grateful for not having a $2.5 million dollar purchase hanging on to my credit balance."

The governor and I finished our conversation with mutual pleasantries.  Now, I read every drop box and button upon which I am asked to click.  I certainly don't want to accidentally buy Washington, DC!

So, for Jeff Bezos:  If you pressed the wrong button to buy the Washington Post, my best advice is to call Gov. Jerry Brown in Sacramento.  Maybe the Grahams will understand.  It's a Washington thing anyway.

Have a great day!

F. Montforte D'Hubert

(Frederick Mann allows Mr. D'Hubert to occasionally blog on this site.  He is an old style Florida boy...born and raised in the swampy part of South Florida.  He has been several things...among them a good journalist.  He was capable of getting to the nub of unusual and complex events -- finding truths and getting interviews in ways that mystify his colleagues.  The earlier article mentioned here is posted on this blog site for the date 6 July 2012.  It has some real characters in it to be sure.)

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