Sometime last year my son Isaiah came home and told me there was a “Purple People” sex cult in neighboring Lafayette, CA. Yep, he said, a racy private community with a guard who chased away prying outsiders. That was the buzz at high school anyway.
To earn greenbacks to support a purple lifestyle, Lafayette Morehouse offers courses to the public on topics its members purport to know well after boning up on them for many years: Communication, intimacy, sensuality, sexuality and group living. After all, this is the commune that lays claim to the first known public demonstration (1976) of a woman in a state of orgasm. For 3 hours! (“Honey, this is wonderful, but I’ve got to run some errands, go to the gym and play golf with the boys. Don’t stop. I’ll be back in plenty of time.”).
While all of this sounds like a stimulating ride toward nirvana, scattered news reports over the years paint Lafayette Morehouse—originally founded as More University—a very different color purple.
More’s founder was the late Vic Baranco, an Oakland native whose black jazz pianist father and white Jewish mother “had the world’s most miserable marriage,” according to Baranco himself in a bylined article posted on the Lafayette Morehouse website, which portrays him as a benevolent leader and wise educator in the ways of sensual pleasure.
Baranco is described rather less flatteringly in author David Felton’s 1972 book, Mindfuckers, which also profiles two other notorious cult leaders: Mel Lyman and Charles Manson (don’t you wish you shared a book cover with Chuck?). Felton called all three men “mindfuckers simply because they have made it their business to fuck men’s minds and to control them. They’ve succeeded by assuming godlike authority and using such mindfucking techniques as physical and verbal bullying and group humiliation.”
Various other accounts and lawsuits reference More University’s tent-living homeless people, drug use, trash, vagrancy, filth and, of course, sex, including a 1978 county health officials’ report that a 3-year-old girl contracted gonorrhea while on the property. In an example of dubious marketing, reporters in 1992 found that More received generous donations of underwear from Jockey.
Baranco eventually divorced his first wife, Suzanne, with whom he had two children and whose favorite color was purple. He later married a considerably younger blonde, Cindy, with whom he spent 27 years before his death in Hawaii, home to yet another Morehouse location, in 2002. He was 68. Cindy is now the communal leader.
I couldn’t find any recent reports about Lafayette Morehouse, which perhaps is tamer and a better neighbor since Baranco’s death. And I sure wasn’t going to try to penetrate the closely guarded community—I’d leave that to fearless, troublemaking local teens.
However, I figured I could go undercover and attend one of Morehouse’s public classes. Choices include Basic Sensuality, Advanced Sensuality, Saying Yes to Pleasure and Mutual Pleasurable Stimulation of the Human Nervous System. But those cost between $225 and $475 each, well beyond this blog’s budget.
Expansion of Sexual Potential sounded like a hands-on learning experience, but it runs a cool $12,500 and the course description says it has homework (sorry, I’m busy). If I’d had $35,000 burning a hole in my pants and had completed the prerequisites, I could have tried Qualification, which “will train you to experience and explore an intensity and duration of orgasm far beyond commonly held viewpoints in our society.”
Instead, I enrolled in Intimacy Revealed: An Introduction. Why? It cost only $40, involved a group Q&A session and there was no touching or clothing removal (I know, boring!). The class was held at yet another Morehouse site—a purple Victorian house in Oakland adorned on the front with an inverted, modified peace sign, the community’s symbol.
I got there a little late on a Friday night. Things started off kind of creepy.
To be continued…
On a gloriously warm and sunny New Year’s Day in Pasadena, my 15-year-old son and I attended this year’s Rose Bowl. Our special father-son bonding event was occasioned by the participation of the University of Wisconsin, my undergrad alma mater.
My beloved Badgers, ranked 4th in the nation with only one loss going into the Grandaddy bowl game of them all, were set to stomp Texas Christian University, a small, private college in Fort Worth. TCU was undefeated and ranked 3rd in the country, but clearly didn’t deserve to be in the Rose Bowl because of the wimpy teams they played during the year. Or so most Wisconsin fans thought.
As hell and torture would have it, TCU won 21-19, thwarting Wisconsin’s two-point conversion attempt—after a late fourth quarter touchdown—that would have tied the game, sent it into overtime and culminated in the Badgers winning on a spectacular 93-yard-drive. Oops, I’m daydreaming again.
Well, even if Wisconsin lost the game, we won the war, capturing all of the other awards tied to the Rose Bowl other than the game itself. TCU won none of them. Zip. Zero. A complete shutout. Total Badger domination. I should note that these are awards I made up. TCU wasn’t eligible to win any of them. Here they are:
Budweiser Fan of the Game
With 91,000 to choose from, you’d think selecting my Budweiser Fan of the Game would have been a long, agonizing process. But it was easy. The obvious winner turned out to sit just one row behind my 15-year-old son and me, just over my son’s left shoulder.
When we first spotted him, he was seated on the bleachers, motionless, eyes closed and an empty beer cup in his hand. Picture The Thinker holding a beer cup. He appeared to be in his mid 20s. Did I mention that vomit dripped from his mouth, filled half his cup and spilled onto his hands, pants, shirt, shoes and the concrete beneath his feet? Mind you, this was 20 minutes BEFORE the game began.
After what seemed an eternity, but before the opening kickoff, an older man—perhaps The (non) Thinker’s father—came over and, following an incoherent verbal tussle, convinced Our Man Vomit to get up and leave with him. Never saw either of them again. Expensive tickets for just a pre-game party.
The state of Wisconsin is tops in America at drinking, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised about what we saw. Repulsed, but not surprised. Anyway, The (non) Thinker’s proximity to our seats saved me from having to interact with thousands of fans throughout the stadium in order to find The One on which to bestow this prestigious honor.
Not surprisingly, beer also played a role in a Wisconsin fan capturing my Mr. Congeniality game honors. Outside the Rose Bowl prior to the game, several groups of sign-carrying Jesus Freaks, for lack of a better term, stood outside the stadium. They spread messages of warmth such as “Why do you love the devil? Repent Sinner. Serve Jesus.”
A tipsy but jovial Wisconsin fan, beer cup in hand, saddled up to one of the Jesus groups, apparently trying to find common ground. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I gathered he’d discovered a path to brotherhood when he turned, pointed to one of the sign carriers and exclaimed happily to nobody in particular, “He likes cheese! He likes cheese!” That’s music to the ears of Wisconsinites, who produce more cheese than any state in the nation.
Cheese, the tie that binds. Maybe U.S. and Iranian officials can sit down soon over a wedge of cheddar and find a way to resolve their differences. I recommend both sides bring crackers and share.
Wisconsin fans donning Bucky Badger foamheads finished a close second, but first place for Dapper Duds goes to the many fellow Badgers who wore “Teach Me How to Bucky” t-shirts. Thanks to my son, I didn’t have to spend the entire day wondering what the heck “Teach Me How to Bucky” means. Turns out it’s a play on “Teach Me How to Dougie,” the 2010 hit debut single by the hip hop group Cali Swag District (Right, you already knew that!).
The song revolves around the “Dougie” dance, which is similar to the jerkin’ movement (Ok, even I’m completely lost now!). Seems that a few months back some enterprising Wisconsin students wrote “Teach Me How to Bucky” and produced a music video for it that premiered on the Jumbotron at Wisconsin’s homecoming football game at Camp Randall in Madison.
The fans went crazy, the video went viral—1.3 million views on YouTube and counting—and the rest is t-shirt sales history.
Apologies to floats similarly honored in this year’s Rose Parade, but my President’s Trophy goes to any of several cars parading outside the Rose Bowl. My favorite was a sports car painted red and white, adorned with painted-on roses and Bucky Badger, and the driver blaring the Wisconsin fight song over his radio. That’s a classy ride.
I have to hand this one to the entire Wisconsin Rose Bowl crowd. Whenever the Jumbotron showed anyone wearing a TCU jersey, Badger fans booed. When it showed someone wearing Wisconsin gear, Badger fans cheered. Jimmy Kimmel milked the concept, appearing on the Jumbotron wearing a TCU t-shirt to a loud chorus of boos, peeling the shirt off over his head to unveil a Wisconsin t-shirt (cheers), peeling that off to reveal a another TCU t-shirt (boos) and finally peeling that off to yet again reveal a Wisconsin t-shirt (cheers).
Showcasing maturity as well as spirit, Wisconsin fans responded smartly whenever TCU fans completed a cheer that said something I couldn’t understand followed by T-C-U. As soon as they said “U,” thousands of Wisconsin fans pointed at them and shouted “suck.” And so it went all game: “Bla, bla, bla, TCU, suck!…Bla, bla, bla, TCU, suck!”
When I attended Wisconsin home football games as an undergrad, entire sections shouted at each other, too. Section P would point and scream “O sucks” at the neighboring section. There was no real purpose behind it; just Wisconsin fans badgering other Wisconsin fans. At least now, our section-to-section abuse is aimed at the opponent’s fans. Who says higher education isn’t improving?
The Jewmongous Among Us
Carimi is widely recognized for his football skills, capturing the 2010 Outland Trophy that recognizes the nation’s best interior lineman. But it’s more than football that has me, and I’m sure his parents, kvelling. Gabe is graduating with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, having been named Academic All-Big Ten for four straight years.
In seventh grade—I’m not making this up—he helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity as his Bar Mitzvah project (“Here Gabe, hold these walls so we can nail them together.”). Carimi even fasts annually on Yom Kippur, undoubtedly freeing up enough food to feed 25 homeless families. This young man is a mensch. My only bone to pick with his family: Carimi? Since when is that a Jewish name?
Gaffe of the Day
This dubious honor (a black rose?) goes to the Rose Bowl stadium announcer. Sometime in the first half, when Wisconsin had again made a sizable gain to move the chains, he announced to the crowd, “First down, Wolverines.” A huge chorus of boos erupted from the massive Wisconsin fan contingent.
We are Badgers, remember? The Wolverines are Michigan, a hated Big Ten rival. We wear red, they wear blue. Badgers are cute, Wolverines are not. Our costumed Badger mascot was on the sidelines; there wasn’t a Wolverine in sight.
Besides, as everybody knows—ok, everybody like me who looks up minutiae—though Badgers and Wolverines are both members of the weasel biological family, Mustelidae, Badgers grow to about 20 pounds and are extremely good at digging. Wolverines can reach 60 pounds and aren’t good at anything.
Run of the Day
Late in the game during a timeout, a Wisconsin fan ran onto the field with his arms raised, racing about 85 yards before turning around and angling toward the Badgers’ sideline. He outran a security officer who gave chase. Finally he disappeared among Wisconsin players and coaches, obscured from those of us on the far end of the field. Security officers brought him down, and I can only assume pleasantries were exchanged.
I last saw him hands cuffed behind his back, security officers leading him away from the field. I can only assume more pleasantries were exchanged in the bowels of the stadium. Like it or not, the Madtown Dasher’s open field jaunt was the longest of the day by either team, earning him my Run of the Day honors. Do you think beer played a part in his actions? Nah, I didn’t think so either.
Customer and employee names were changed to honor their privacy.
I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find Christmas spirit at all. The Santa at Macy’s Union Square in San Francisco for the past 20 years had just been fired for telling a naughty joke to an older couple that had paid him a visit at the department store. A 20-year-old Burger King employee in Detroit had just been accused of punching a combative 67-year-old customer who later died. Christmas spirit seemed in short supply.
Besides, what do I know about Christmas spirit? Though married to a Catholic, I was raised Jewish. I didn’t decorate a Christmas tree until I got invited to a tree trimming party in my 20s. As a cub reporter, I once went spent an afternoon as a mall Santa Claus for a story. Mostly I remember being uncomfortably hot in the red suit and beard. But I figured holiday spirit had to be lurking somewhere in Moraga, a Christian-heavy suburb where 55 percent identify themselves as Catholic and 80 percent report they adhere to some kind of church.
A logical place to try and rustle up some holiday spirit seemed to be Bob’s Xmas Trees, a temporary tree lot behind the Wells Fargo in the Moraga Shopping Center. It popped up the day after Thanksgiving and will be there until 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Turns out owner Bob Holland has set up shop there each Christmas season for the past 35 years. He orchestrates the business from inside a modest trailer, greeting customers and handling every transaction while perched on a stool positioned alongside a small open window. Outside, his staff helps customers select trees, wreaths, garland and mistletoe. Periodically, they head off for tree deliveries to homes, offices and churches.
Bob doesn’t just make sales. He renews old relationships, creates new ones, trades stories, poses riddles, takes and delivers good-natured ribbing, listens with patience, dispenses wisdom and negotiates deals that typically benefit his customers. He told me business was down a bit because of all the rain, but on a recent Saturday a proposed 15-minute interview took more than two hours because customers just kept on coming—and Bob had little conversations with them all. Some snippets:
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Johnson.”
“What time would you like it delivered? We’ll have it there for you.”
“Let me check my records. You bought an 8-foot last year.”
“Sure, we’ll hold it here for you.”
“What grade are you in now?”
“Here’s my cell phone number.”
“George will take your trees. If you want, you can tip him. He accepts tips. He only works here for food (hardy laugh).”
“Thank you very much. Merry Christmas to you.”
Some customers stayed for a long time. Three young women buying trees for their nearby workplaces engaged in jolly banter with Bob, perhaps seeking a discount. “Give me some more riddles, but not too hard,” he said. “Wait, I’ve got one for you. Why do fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing?”
A lengthy chat took place with a 96-year-old regular, who shared stories of meeting his wife of 66 years, serving in World War II and getting married at a courthouse for $5. Bob listened patiently and told his own stories: “I was a paratrooper in the 1960s. Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. We were going to jump into Cuba. I was this close to going into Cuba.”
A few customers were upset that a new Xmas tree competitor has popped up across from the other local shopping center. Bob told them he didn’t mind competition, but customers reassured him. “We haven’t even stopped in there,” one woman told him. “We’re loyal.”
Unexpectedly his accountant’s wife dropped by with shrimp tacos she’d prepared for him as a gift. “Every time I make it, I think I have to take some to Bob,” she told him. Equally unplanned, a young local man with a truck came by looking for work delivering trees. He works for his dad, but had some days off during the holidays. Bob initially said he had all the staff he needed, but about five minutes later—after learning more about the enterprising lad—the young man was told to report for work the next day.
“I hire all local kids,” he said. “I try to keep them straight—no drinking or cigarettes. And I teach them a business—how to react and deal with customers.”
Bob is 75, but looks at least a decade younger. He’s a retired motorcycle cop for the Oakland Police Department, his career shortened by a series of crashes. One foot is fused. Several customers asked him about his health. “I’m getting a new knee in February,” he explained, thanking them for asking.
He began selling Xmas trees as a moonlighting gig. “When I started doing this, I’d just do it for fun. My police buddies would come over.”
Though it’s now more of a business, he hasn’t forgotten the Men in Blue—or anybody else, really. “I always give cops a free (tree),” he said. Then there are the free trees he gives to the local Rotary Club. And the 12 trees he loaned to the local church. And the deal on tax here, the bargain on a tree there, the free delivery here, the deal on a tree stand there, and the free mistletoe for anybody. And don’t forget the free formula he’ll hand you to keep your tree moist, healthy and ostensibly fireproof.
When Bob isn’t selling Xmas trees, he spends time with his wife and dog at their home in nearby Walnut Creek. He also barnstorms the country as manager of a 70-and-over senior slow-pitch softball team. His damaged foot and knee prevent him from getting out on the field as a player, though you know he’d relish the opportunity. “I tried out with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1954. I could hit a curveball really well.”
At an age when most are long since retired, Bob isn’t ready to give up his Xmas tree venture. “Me, I’ll do this until I die,” he said. “I love this. I like people.”
And it’s safe to say his customers like him.
Isn’t that what Christmas spirit is all about anyway?
Bob’s Xmas Trees is located in Moraga at the corner of School St. and Moraga Way. Phone is 376-8274. Email is email@example.com. The tree lot is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. weekdays; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. Bob will even be open until 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve: “I’m always there on Christmas Eve.” Come on now, do you really think Bob wouldn’t be there for latecomers—or anybody else?
Holiday letters from friends can be nice—if they’re not five pages long! But some can be over the top. Ever get a letter like the one below?
What a year for our family! (Read: Better than yours!). It seems amazing that so much could happen in just 365 days (Unlike your pathetic little existence)!
Let’s start with our kids (Smarter, nicer looking and more talented than your three!).
Our youngest continues to get straight A’s (How goes the remedial tutoring for your perennial underachiever?). She set age-group records in swimming this summer and now busies herself with cross country, ballet, student council presidency, a book club and volunteer work (Does yours still play Xbox all night?).
Our eldest just finished his first semester at MIT, which began recruiting him for its chemical engineering honors program back in sophomore year of high school (What community college does yours attend again?).
Our middle one got married in April (No, you weren’t invited. Only close friends). The entire three-day affair was like a fairytale (I frankly recall little about your daughter’s B-List event). Her husband is a cardiologist (Did your son-in-law ever get his GED?). We helped them purchase their house as a wedding gift (I think you gave yours a casserole set).
Work has been fantastic (Tough luck about your layoff). Both of our companies posted substantial growth, and we each received generous bonuses (Are they extending your federal unemployment benefits?).
This fall, we decided it was time to replace all of our furniture (Do your bean bag chairs still leak?). A designer helped us with the myriad decisions (I know you shop IKEA). We rewarded ourselves for completing that project—gorgeous results by the way—with two dream vacations (No need for details—you’ll never be able to visit those places anyway).
Our new puppy is a beloved member of our family (Too bad your rental bans pets). This year we taught him to fetch slippers, play Frisbee and rescue people from fires (More accomplished than your kids).
Just for fun, I’ve enrolled in an advanced degree program in Spanish literature (Still grappling with your dyslexia?). My Better Half is busy sculpting and running marathons (How is Weight Watchers going for you guys?).
As 2010 draws to a close, our family has so much to be thankful for (Clearly a stretch for you). Enjoy the enclosed photos taken at our new winter ski cabin, and do let us know if you plan a visit (A safe annual gesture from us—you can’t afford it).
Peace on Earth (Our Earth, which we share with lesser ones like you. Makes us feel good this time of year).
I missed the psychic who came to town the other day. That’s a pretty major story for a local blogger like me to pass up in the suburbs, where very few other-worldly events take place.
The problem was that Irish psychic Sandra O’Hara, dubbed “Ireland’s most gifted and famous psychic medium,” wanted $75 from each (living) person to attend her chat with spirits at a theatre in Lafayette, Calif., a neighboring suburb to my ‘burb, Moraga.
Since I’ve yet to figure out a way to monetize my blog, $75 is pretty steep for a night of frolic—even if some of the frolickers might have included my late parents or Grandma. The only voice I heard when I initially entertained paying for the event was that of my late Mom: “Nu, you’ve got $75 burning a hole in your pocket? Why don’t you put it toward something useful like the kids’education.” So much for psychic awakening.
It’s probably best I didn’t go to O’Hara’s night of spirit-raising anyway since I’m not really a Believer. Mind you, I’ve had a few inexplicable things occur in my life that at least gave me pause to consider the possibility of connecting with The Other Side.
As a small child, I once sat on the floor rubbing two little toy cars between my hands in an effort to make them disappear. After several failed attempts, they did. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I actually became frightened. An hour later they showed up behind pillows on a couch about 10 feet away. I still can’t explain it in Earthly fashion.
A few months after my Mom died, I had a vivid dream that she was in her hospital bed and that it flipped up into the wall like a hideaway bed. I took it as The Spirits saying I wouldn’t be seeing her or talking with her in my dreams anymore. That’s pretty much been the case.
When my favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers, needed a last-ditch field goal or touchdown to win a game, I believed as a kid that if I left the room and didn’t watch the play, a Greater Power would intervene and the Packers would win. The Packers were NFL champs three straight times in the late ‘60s. Coincidence? Perhaps.
All the same, I’ve never had the kind of powerful or frequent occurrences that led me to believe in psychic phenomena. I’ve never seen a ghost. Or an outline of Jesus on a piece of toast. The only furniture I’ve seen move by itself was during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The closest I’ve come to spoon bending was watching Israeli paranormalist Uri Geller allegedly do it on TV.
Curious about the O’Hara event held appropriately on All Saints Day, I spoke with a friend who was there. She said the place was packed, mostly with middle-aged women. O’Hara, a big woman, sat behind a simple table. She tossed out names or descriptions of spirit presences she felt in the room. She told a widow that her husband’s spirit was in the theatre. He had committed suicide a month earlier and was saying his wife shouldn’t feel any guilt. She’d done nothing wrong. O’Hara also delivered other healing messages during the evening, according to my friend.
If a psychic’s healing messages are comforting to people and they can afford to attend these events, I guess I see no harm. Who am I to say the spirits aren’t out there eager to communicate with us. Maybe I just wasn’t blessed with a gift like Sandra O’Hara, who claims to have seen spirits since she was age 3 or 4.
I’ll tell you what would turn me into a believer in psychic phenomena real quickly, though: If you finish reading this blog post and feel compelled to send me $75. Go on. Cash or check. That’s the spirit.
My appliances have been haunting me lately. The dryer looks innocent enough, but I know it uses natural gas to dry our weekly mountain of clothes. The flat screen TV brings (too) many hours of enjoyment to my kids, but its dark side is that it needs electricity to air The Office. And our cars, while one is a Prius, don’t go very far without needing gas—gas refined from oil somewhere deep in the ground.
Make no mistake, I’m always concerned about energy use. Call me selfish, but I’d like Mother Earth to be habitable for my kids, say with daily temperatures below 175 degrees. However, recent headlines make me even more concerned—ok, angry—about the main sources of energy in our country and much of the world. I think the news should be a MAJOR wake-up call for everyone, though sadly I’m pretty sure it’s not.
I’m talking about these three headline-grabbing disasters: Trapped coal miners in Chile, exploding natural gas pipelines near San Francisco and the BP oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Coal, natural gas and oil. The fossil fuels that provide more than 85 percent of our nation’s energy, nearly two-thirds of our electricity and virtually all of our transportation fuels. Hmmm, are we on a highway to hell?
The three recent fossil fuel catastrophes killed 19 people. The Chilean coal mine collapse trapped 33 miners underground without daylight for 69 days. Like everyone, I can smile about the rescue of the coal miners. I can even smile about coal mining jokes: Man fell down a pit-shaft. Deputy: “Have you broken anything?” Man: “No, there’s not much to break down here.”
But I can’t smile about the fact that 50 percent of the electricity in the U.S. comes from burning coal. Or that in April, 29 miners died in a Massey Energy coal mine explosion in West Virginia. Or that nine more men have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months following the Massey Energy mine blast.
Coal burning doesn’t just threaten miners, either. It’s a dirty energy source, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming. It also creates acid rain, lung problems and a toxic sludge that can pollute waterways. And don’t forget the environmental scars left by mountain top removal strip mining.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil (though its extraction has become a dirty process), and I can smile at jokes about gas appliances: What did the first sock say to the second sock in the dryer? I’ll see you next time around.
But I can only feel pain for the eight people who died when a natural gas pipeline exploded last month in San Bruno, CA, just south of San Francisco, destroying 38 homes and wiping out an entire neighborhood. Isolated incident? Federal officials have recorded 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents since 1990, causing 291 deaths and almost a billion dollars in property damage.
Many more of us may be sitting on natural gas pipeline powder kegs. Nearly 70 million U.S. households and businesses use natural gas; federal law requires inspection of only 7 percent of our natural gas pipelines. Jumpin’ jack flash, it’s a gas, gas gas!
Oil causes so many problems that I can’t smile at jokes about it without feeling mad at the same time. Let me try David Letterman on you: “This oil spill in the Gulf is affecting everybody. In fact, when I went to lunch this weekend and ordered the sea bass, they asked if I wanted it regular or unleaded.” See what I mean?
Don’t think the impact of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf is remotely over. University researchers reported Sept. 30 that levels of chemicals including cancer-causing toxins in an area of the Gulf affected by the spill remained 40 times higher than before the incident.
Equally discomforting: The Gulf has 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells and more than 1,200 idle rigs and platforms. Many of the wells have been ignored for decades. Nobody knows if they leak.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough. The Big 3 fossil fuels have had their day. Shouldn’t we move on? Don’t we have to move on? It won’t be easy, but lots of smart people have workable ideas for a greener energy future.
Well, it’s getting late and I should go. First I need to shut down my computer, turn off the front porch lights and make sure the kids turned off the TV. Damn. I’m feeling haunted again. Maybe I’ll sleep under the bed tonight.
So you don’t think money grows on trees? Then you haven’t watched Dollar Tree, Inc. spread its branches lately.
The Fortune 500 discount variety store operator, which wants to open an outlet in my little suburb of Moraga, CA, is a Wall Street darling, its 2009 net income rising almost 40 percent to $321 million on record sales of $5.2 billion. As they say, a dollar here, a dollar there, and the next thing you know you’ve got $5.2 billion. For the quarter ended May 1, 2010, revenues jumped 13 percent from a year earlier and same-store sales climbed 6.5 percent. Investors took note, raising the value of company stock recently to an all-time high of more than $44 a share.
Dollar Tree stores—there are more than 3,800 in 48 states—each sell about 6,000 items, all priced for $1 or less.* In a non-nostalgic way, they’re a throwback to the old Five & Dime stores of yesteryear, though heavy on Chinese imports. (See my previous blog posting that takes you inside a Dollar Tree store).
“We’re selling stuff that you want but don’t really need,” co-founder, former CEO and current board chairman Macon Brock Jr. told Forbes magazine a few years ago.
Now that’s inspiring. But I have to admit it works. Yet what is the real price of Dollar Tree’s success?
First, it’s an apparent tolerance for product recalls:
Dollar Tree has had product recalls so regularly in the past five years, it’s a wonder company officials can recall when there wasn’t a recall. I know I can’t recall.
In 2006, Dollar Tree had to recall about 580,000 toy necklaces and rings because they contained high levels of lead, posing a serious risk of lead poisoning and adverse health effects to young children, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In 2007, Dollar Tree once again had to get the lead out, paying Vermont $100,000 to settle a lawsuit for selling jewelry items that contained high levels of cadmium and lead. The jewelry included a necklace, digital watch, earrings and pony tail holder.
In 2008, Dollar Tree came under heat for selling glue guns that could short circuit, start to smoke and potentially posed a fire hazard to consumers. The company had to recall about 470,000 glue guns.
In 2009, guns gave way to knives, with Dollar Tree recalling about 204,000 tool bench utility knives when it was found the knives’ blades could slide past the blade support during use and pose a laceration hazard to consumers.
This year, Dollar Tree along with CVS and Rite Aid stores recalled about 324,000 bamboo torches imported from China because the fuel canister holding the wick had a sharp edge that posed a laceration hazard. Five sliced fingers, including one requiring stitches, were reported.
If the products don’t get you, the rodents might:
City health inspectors closed a Dollar Tree store in Albuquerque for nearly a week this past June when mice were found “all over the store feeding on old food under shelving,” according to published reports.
A Philadelphia man sued a local Dollar Tree store last month, claiming that a rat latched onto his right index finger when he reached into a box for ribbon he was buying to wrap his granddaughter’s birthday present.
“Not only did he sustain a nasty bite, but the rat didn’t disengage right away,” Christian C. Thompson, the man’s attorney, told reporters. “He had to shake it off.” When a store manager and assistant came over to investigate the man’s screams during the rat attack, three more rats jumped out as the assistant tried to move another ribbon box on the shelf, according to the lawsuit. I’ll bet everyone was fit to be tied.
If the rodents don’t get you, your boss might:
The Internet is loaded with worker complaints and reports of labor lawsuits against Dollar Tree. The issues include verbal abuse, low pay, long hours, lost wages, limited break periods, understaffing, threats of dismissal and unwarranted firings.
“This is the worst place I have ever worked,” wrote one employee this March on a “job vent” website with many “Hate It” reviews by Dollar Tree employees across the country. “They have 900,000 petty rules that you have absolutely no control over, each of which will get you fired. You will be scolded in front of customers…accused of being a potential thief and…never…know when you really get to leave your shift everyday.”
“As a cashier, you have far more responsibilities to keep ‘yourself busy’ and make yourself tired,” wrote a now ex-employee who quit recently. “They give out this sheet with ridiculous amounts of things to do while you’re already busy at the register lifting heavy objects and hurting yourself. I am pretty short…so how they expect me to lift large packs of soda, water and other big boxes is beyond my comprehension. I (went) home with achy legs (and) arms, headaches, back pain, cuts and bruises every single time.”
The Dollar Tree’s latest quarterly financial report notes four labor actions facing the company—two class action lawsuits concerning the job classifications of managers who might otherwise have received overtime pay, and two other lawsuits alleging gender pay and promotion discrimination against female store managers.
Not to leave out the men, Dollar Tree is being sued by a former regional manager who claims he was fired in part for trying to protect shoppers from imported Chinese goods contaminated with lead and other heavy metals. The ex-manager, who supervised some 16 stores in New England, alleges Dollar Tree executives told him to remove warning signs about the contamination on items that included dinnerware, according to recent news reports.
To be sure, some employees—the top ones—do quite well at Dollar Tree:
While most employees’ salaries hover near minimum wage—some reports say they average $29,000 a year, well below the retail industry average—the top honchos at Dollar Tree are doing fine. CEO Bob Sasser, receives total annual compensation of $4.7 million, including salary, stocks and other incentives. Other top execs at the company’s Chesapeake, VA, headquarters also earn comfortable livings.
I suppose it should be no surprise:
Dollar Tree has found a business model that works. Sell cheap stuff cheaply. Buy surplus or outdated merchandise directly from manufacturers, often for pennies per item. Use its marketing muscle as a big chain. Rely on many vendors. Lease rather than own space in bargain areas like strip malls to minimize capital investment and maximize the potential to generate high operating margins and strong cash flows. Keep overhead and salaries low. Track inventory closely.
With such tending, the Dollar Tree grows. It was begun by toy store executives in 1986 with just one outlet in Dalton, GA. Through mergers and acquisitions, Dollar Tree grew to $2 billion in revenues and 2,000 stores by 2002. It passed $3 billion in revenues in 2004; $5 billion in 2009.
Last year alone Dollar Tree added 240 new stores. Over the longer term—analysts estimate in the next decade or so—the company believes it can operate at least 7,000 stores nationwide.
Some would call this the free marketplace at its finest. Sharp executives who have developed a business that works. And who have created successful strategies to attract low-income as well as cost-conscious consumers while competing against big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.
I find it a tree with troubling root rot. Even if everything costs a dollar. I guess you get what you pay for.
* The company’s 3,800-plus stores are mostly Dollar Tree stores, which sell everything at $1 or less. However, the company also operates about 150 Deal$ and Dollar Bills stores, which may sell items for more than $1.