An Excerpt from Monastery for Sale: A North Country Memoir.
(Available one of these days.)
Soft summer days, a Victorian house in the Adirondacks, a long deep porch, and a porch swing. Bliss. Trouble was, to enjoy it, I had to do battle with a billion dollar corporation. I hadn’t expected that.
Hardly anyone has a porch swing anymore. Most houses don’t have the kind of porch where you can hang a swing. My guess is millions of Americans have never sat in one, never felt the slowed-pulse contentment of gently moving back and forth in a summer breeze. But never mind that — the porch swing lives on. It has outlasted the arrival of air conditioning, television, Levittowns, and McMansions. Mostly in the mind, of course, but it’s no less real for that. Lots of very important things exist only in the mind. Or maybe the heart. Somewhere inside. Anger, envy, and greed, for example. But also peace, stillness, calm.
Those last are the essence of the porch swing. They are the reason the porch swing construct has endured, even as porches and swings themselves have become rare.
I actually do have a porch and a swing, and they are dear to me.
When Ann and I first saw the monastery in Saranac Lake, the front porch was encased in windows and added-on bedrooms, so I doubt we visualized in much detail the porch we have now — a deep, open, 70-foot-long sweep, furnished during the short Adirondack summer with wicker furniture and rocking chairs, the railing hung with boxes of snapdragons and geraniums, and down near the end by the honeysuckle and lilacs, a three-person swing. We didn’t see all that, but I have no doubt that it registered in some way. The house has proved to be strong and mysterious — easily capable of projecting a vision we were not immediately aware of.
I think porch swings have more power now that they are rare. There’s a good chance they went relatively unnoticed a hundred years ago when people lived lives that were quieter in almost every way. Maybe that’s a romantic reinvention of the past, but I don’t think so. Without traffic jams, TSA inspections, nuclear weapons, smartphones, hedge funds, the Tea Party, al Qaeda, the neighbor’s Sunday-afternoon chain saw, and extended colloquys with tech support in Mumbai, life must surely have been calmer, less angry, less scattered and threatening. In such a way of being, porch swings probably didn’t call attention to themselves the way they do now.
I’m grateful to have a porch swing, because in it — on a good day — I can more or less comply with the Psalmist’s useful suggestion to “be still and know that I am God.”
The trouble is, good days have been hard to come by; for several years, it was possible to realize the promise of my swing only before 7:00 a.m. That’s when a loudspeaker about 150 feet down the hill began bawling, “WELCOME TO BURGER KING. MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER, PLEASE?” Over and over, all day long, until past my bedtime. It kind of took the pleasure out of porch sitting.
Ann and I knew about the Burger King nuisance when we bought the house. The nuns had disclosed that occasionally they’d been moved to ask the manager to lower the volume. We too did that for a time. The hamburger people would turn it down, and then for some reason, after a few days or weeks, it would go loud again, and I’d head back down the hill. Still, we managed to live together in moderate comity.
But after a year or so of this only mildly inconvenient back and forth, the local human who owned the franchise sold it to Carrols Corporation, an outfit that owned or managed hundreds of fast-food establishments. That caused a lot of trouble. Before long, the speaker noise went from annoyance petty and sporadic to aural assault severe and frequent.
Early in the Carrols era — before the corporate version of the noise nuisance became both intolerable and deeply strange — I went down to ask for help on a different problem. The lights over their parking lot glared up onto the front of our house where the many-windowed master bedroom was situated. Going to bed was like facing a B-movie interrogation. I put up with it a long time before I dared seek relief. I figured they’d probably dismiss my complaint as anti-business oversensitivity, and I’d get mad, and we’d yell at each other. I’d about as soon contract Lyme disease. But one night when I couldn’t find my sleep mask and had to make do with a folded towel over my eyes, I snapped. Next morning down I went.
“Hi, I’m your neighbor up there in the former monastery,” I said, pointing to the house. Over the next few years, I would always approach them with that line. I thought it well-crafted in several ways.
“Neighbor” was disarming in that it suggested a community of interest (incorrectly, of course, but it was worth a try). Reminding them that the structure in question was the former monastery was another sneaky bit of cleverness. It was likely that some of the employees were Catholics, since a majority of the local population was. I was always running into men who had been altar boys at monastery Masses and women who had been special friends of the nuns. If my hamburger counterpart was one of them, the likelihood of cooperation was much increased. My use of the word “up” offered still another subliminal suggestion (correctly in this instance) that would work in our favor. Ann and I were above; hamburger hell was below.
Continuing to be crafty, I switched to a diffident, I’d-be-ever-so-grateful tone.
“Do you suppose you could change the angle of the lights in your parking lot so that they aren’t pointed up at my bedroom windows?”
“No problem,” the manager answered.
“No problem?” Jerk. He was obviously messing with me.
But he wasn’t. The corporate owners were at that very moment planning to install a new lighting system that would direct the light more down, less out.
Life was good.
But as it turned out, not all that good.
Stay with me now. I’m closing in on an enigma that is central to this tale of North Country conflict.
In due time, Carrols Corporation did change the parking lot lighting. While they were at it, they installed a new drive-through audio system — a loud one. Severely loud. It could be heard a block away. Maybe farther. Oh well, I’d just go down and ask these new neighbors to turn it down, like I’d done when the business was owned by a human.
The guy at the counter looked like he could be cooperative. Nothing about him suggested that he wanted to force us to sell the monastery and go back where we came from.
I made my well-crafted request.
The look on his face seemed apologetic. And more. Something hard to make out. Like he was about to say something that was simultaneously true and preposterous. He was.
“We can’t turn it down.”
I thought he meant he was not allowed to turn it down. That was not what he meant.
“It doesn’t have a volume control.”
I gave up on talking and stared at walls for a while. On one was a plastic sign that invited customers to take up any problems with Bob, the District Manager. Well I had a problem, so I wrote down District Manager Bob’s phone number and walked back up the little hill to my wonderful house with the grand porch that looks down on hamburger hell and the lake and across the lake to the distant mountains. On the way, I thought about what it must be like to work for a company that does not allow a local manager sufficient autonomy to be able to control speaker volume. But I didn’t get too worked up. At that point, I was still pretty sure that District Manager Bob and I could work it out.
District Manager Bob, whose office was 50 miles away in Plattsburgh, explained some things to me. When a car drove up, it tripped a sensor that set off a recorded greeting, the “WELCOME TO BURGER KING. MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER, PLEASE” that was beginning to go around in my head like the ringing of tinnitus. And the guy at the counter had told me the truth. The volume of the greeting could not be controlled at the local level. However, the words that followed the taped greeting, words such as, “you want fries with that?” were performed live, and from that point forward volume could be adjusted. That squared with my experience. It was usually just the greeting that tormented me on the porch. Or in my bed, if I hadn’t gotten up early. I didn’t often hear “What size?” or “What’s happening, dude?” or anything else the person inside said to the customer in the car.
I speculated that someone in command central had decided the ideal volume for the greeting. No doubt a lot of money had gone into research, and focus groups had been convened in order to arrive at it. Some assistant vice-president had probably been honored with a really swell framed document that designated him “Decibel Man of the Year.”
We have now arrived at the central mystery foretold a few paragraphs back. Once the perfect volume was ascertained and the greeter was anointed accordingly, it became impossible for anyone, not just local employees — anyone — to change it.
Being an obtuse person, I said to District Manager Bob, “Why?”
I can’t remember the precise wording of his answer. Probably because it was so strange. Something about the speaker being controlled by a computer. And there was a chip involved in some way. He seemed to suggest that the greeter therefore had a soul and a will and existed in the great beyond and was unreachable by ordinary mortals. Nevertheless, good-man Bob, District Manager, agreed to call in a technician from Albany, 150 miles away, to have a go at adding volume control. If I seem a little incredulous and judgmental about this, let me point out that Carrols Corporation at that time had annual revenues of around a billion dollars. Something about that level of commercial power and not being able to adjust the volume on a loudspeaker just didn’t match up.
As District Manager Bob expected, the techie from Albany was unable to bring the thing to heel. (I wondered if he knew the factory-trained inspector who had looked at the fifty-year-old boiler in our house and for $350 pointed out that it was old. He too was from Albany.)
I went back to District Manager Bob to discuss this unsatisfactory outcome. He gave me to understand that the company had at that point spent several hundred dollars in an effort to turn the volume down and be a good neighbor, and he implied that they had reached the limit of how much they would invest in it. Now, I’m neither a hamburger executive nor a techie, but I speedily figured out a cheap and easy solution. I offered it to District Manager Bob free of charge.
“Look, Bob. Since it’s a computer that’s causing this difficulty, here’s what you do. Just go up to the first person you see who has zits and offer the kid a week of burgers to bring the computerized greeter under human control. In less time than it takes to slap together a Whopper®, you’ll be able to move the volume from loud to soft and all points in between.”
District Manager Bob rejected my excellent solution. I could hear condescension in his voice. No matter what his actual words were, I heard, “Paul, you don’t understand the hamburger business. Leave this to the experts.”
My annoyance was piling up like a Saranac Lake snow drift. The Carrols Corporation had effectively kicked me off my own porch. Then, as I was musing about what Ghandi would have done if he’d gotten worked up about a tough problem such as the noise from hamburger hell rather than the relatively easy one of how to run the Brits out of India, a promising turn of events took place.
The corporation offered to sell the franchise to District Manager Bob. Bob was ready to retire, but the price was too good to turn down. He would move to Saranac Lake and spend his golden years there grilling burgers and frying fries within spitting distance of my house. But he said he wanted to be a good neighbor, and he would redouble his efforts to lower the volume.
One sunny morning a short time later, I discovered former District Manager Bob, now Franchisee Bob, and Mrs. Bob at my front door. They wanted to try out the swing and gauge for themselves how serious the problem was. After a few minutes of easy swinging, they looked at each other and nodded in silent agreement. “I wouldn’t want to have to listen to that either,” Franchisee Bob said, as Mrs. Bob continued nodding agreement. I thought their attitude surprisingly empathetic. To these two the squawking greeter must have sounded like the jingle of the cash register. I was grateful that they could imagine what it sounded like to me. So I offered up a sop of reasonableness.
“Look, Bob, our interests are not in conflict. The greeting can be loud enough for you to make a living and at the same time quiet enough so I don’t hear it.” I wanted to say, “You can turn that damned thing down to where I can’t hear it, and the morons who drive up there to order will still be able to poison themselves, and you’ll still be able to make a living in your chosen field of being an enemy of good health.” I rejected that approach as possibly provocative.
He promised to try to find a way to lower the volume. Mrs. Bob increased the pace of her nodding. And Bob expected that, as franchise owner, he would be more able to accomplish that extremely difficult — indeed, till now impossible — task. We shook hands, and I was filled with hope that one day before I died — actuarial tables gave me a good twenty years ─ the front porch of my beautiful old house in a sleepy Adirondack village would be free of burger torment.
Not long after that, I set about to make a strong gesture of good will to Franchisee Bob and Mrs. Bob. I would buy and eat a Whopper® with cheese. Maybe even a Double Whopper® Sandwich Meal. I was that grateful.
Mrs. Bob was behind the counter.
“Hi. Thank you again for working with me on this problem. It’s very neighborly of you.” I meant it, too.
“You’re welcome, but we’re not staying. We’ve sold the franchise back to the corporation.” I changed my mind about having a Whopper® and ordered a cup of coffee.
Good-man Bob and his wife had only owned it a few weeks, but that was all it took to realize that Saranac Lake was too far from their grandchildren, who lived two hours away. That seemed implausible to me. More likely, the reason had something to do with the speaker.
Anyway, they left, and Ann and I were still one with hamburger orders. (That probably bothered her even more than me; she had been a vegetarian for more than two decades.)
I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I thought it might be informative to investigate a little. I got in my car and drove up to the speaker like I was going to buy a burger, so I could see how loud it was to a customer. Too loud. I asked friends to go through the line. They agreed with me. It was loud enough to drive customers away. To me that didn’t seem like a smart sales tactic. It called into question the widespread belief that corporations are efficient and that they act in their self-interest.
Battle-weary though I was, I got in touch with the new guy, District Manager Pete, also working out of Plattsburgh. He suggested that we have a meeting. But he was often on the road, and I was frequently in New York City, so it was some time before we met. When we did, it was by chance.
I kept meaning to take my problem to some powerful and perhaps sympathetic person in corporate headquarters. But before I would get around to it, Ann and I would find ourselves back home in New York City. There, comfortably wrapped in the familiar sound of jackhammers, dump truck engine braking, car alarms and such, I didn’t have much stomach for simultaneously combating noise that was 300 miles away.
Anyway, while waiting for something to develop from my overtures to District Manager Pete, I tried to adjust my attitude. I was probably making too much of the problem. After all, in unadulterated form, “WELCOME TO BURGER KING. MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER, PLEASE?” effectively lasted only an hour or so. On a fine day, by around eight, it began to come and go in intensity, sometimes singing solo, sometimes accompanied by other racket, and sometimes completely covered up by a full chorus of more powerful rivals. The awful whole truth is the Burger King greeter was but one of many pernicious sounds that debased the quality of my porch life.
Ever-increasing numbers of personal water craft made an angry buzzing noise as they circled around and around on the lake just across the street from the Burger King.
On one festive weekend each year, hordes of Harley-Davidson riders swarmed through Saranac Lake en route to a hard-scrabble village thirty miles to the southwest, where they would enjoy nature and bump up the sales of Slim Jims and beer. Many of the hogs were altered to be super-rumbly in the sure and certain belief that the louder the sound, the longer the penis, a bodily feature many men will do just about anything to achieve, including broadcasting roaring and popping sound over county-size patches of America the otherwise beautiful.
The situation became even more unpleasant when the noise of those short-dick sons of bitches was joined by the tooth-rattling bass from boom cars lined up for burgers.
Oh yeah, and a seaplane occasionally made an ear-splitting landing and takeoff out among the jet skis. (It seemed to present a safety issue, but I was not especially concerned.)
A couple of years later, two über-loud airboats took up residence on the lake and retired the trophy.
In the context, burger noise was small beer. Still, it remained my primary source of irritation. I had done battle with the perpetrators and lost, and I hate losing.
Then one morning as I was walking across the Burger King parking lot, something most unexpected happened. Like being struck my lightning, only positive. As the first car of the day eased to a stop in the drive-through lane, a well-modulated, smiling voice wafted from the speaker . “May I take your order, please?” I hot-footed through the door like a gymnast approaching a vaulting horse.
The woman behind the counter didn’t know what was going on with the speaker, just that they were no longer using the automatic greeter. She couldn’t say whether it was broken or Carrols had changed its policy or if some other explanation applied. She did say she thought a human-to-human interaction made for a better hamburger experience. Channeling Mrs. Bob, I nodded enthusiastically in agreement. And without prompting and without knowing how much I had longed to hear the words that followed, she said, “we can control the volume now.”
I launched excitedly into a rapid-fire, spit-flinging recital of my history with the issue. I was hardly well started when she interrupted me. “Would you like to talk with the District Manager? He’s in the building.” I sure did.
District Manager Pete told me that after I had contacted him, he’d written a letter to Carrols Corporation suggesting that they get rid of the automatic greeter, since it disturbed the neighbors. Headquarters agreed, and he replaced it with one that had a volume control. Pete seemed like a better District Manager than Bob.
For the next year or two, the problem was less burdensome. We returned to the earlier pattern in which I asked them to lower the volume when it got too loud, and they’d accommodate me, and after a bit it would spike again, and so on.
Finally, the conflict went away altogether; Carrols Corporation closed up shop. The building sat empty for a time, then it was turned into a restaurant that did not include a drive-through lane and fiendish loudspeaker. The battle was over.
Even so, sometimes I still hear the raucous cry of hamburger commerce in the way that amputees feel pain in limbs they no longer have. If these phantom sounds ever stop tormenting me, I may take on the jet skis and those cursed airboats.