I shook my head recently as I walked out of Wegmans grocery store. Earlier that morning, I forgot my lunch bag on the kitchen counter when I left for work and was forced to find something quick to eat before my next meeting. So despite my best laid plans, I walked out of Wegmans $15 poorer. I normally love the options Wegmans’ offers, but I was annoyed that my short little trip was so costly. I was at the mercy of the store and I ended up paying for it.
As I thought more about my situation, I remembered how some of my former newspaper coworkers used to have a name for places like Wegmans. We used to call them rackets and we used to harp and complain about people and institutions that we felt slighted common folks like us. The good reporters that we were, someone started to record them in a ripped-up 4 x 8 inch reporter’s notebook that we titled “The Book of Rackets.”
I happened to look through the book recently and I couldn’t help but laugh.
Some of the better listings:
- Hospital gift shops.
- PennDOT. Who hasn’t wondered where our traffic dollars go. A later entry got more specific, listing the name of the spokesperson we had to work through to get information on a major highway upgrade. He was a nice-enough guy, but we were never really sure of what role he played and was very worthy of inclusion.
- Elected officials who don’t list their home numbers in the phone book.
- Human Resources professionals.
- Public Relations experts.
- Appliance warranties.
- Local politicians who work the system to fight the Freedom of Information Act.
- F. Lee Bailey.
- Ed Rendell. Putting politics aside for a second, Ed “I never met a newspaper story I didn’t like” Rendell is the epitome of a racket. He’s his own PR machine. Lest someone try to paint reporters as biased or preferring one party over the other, the book also included Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, H. Ross Perot, and a more than a few local politicians.
- Newspaper weather react stories. We hated these stories, but being a local paper we had to write them. Fifteen inches of snow, go talk to the local hardware store to see how snow shovel sales are going. A month without rain, go talk to the local farmers to see how their crops have been managing. A crisp fall afternoon, check in with tourism officials to see if business has been on the up-tick. I’m not sure how weather is a racket, but nonetheless, we felt the need to rail against it.
- Juror #3 from the Hall Murder trial calling the newspaper three times in one hour to offer insight on the deliberation, each time making sure we “keep my name out of it.”
- Out of state car registrations.
- 50-50 drawings.
- University classes meeting in bars. I don’t know who listed this one, but I always wanted to know. I think that’s a class I would have liked.
Some of the listings made you go hmm:
- The 700 club.
- Barbra Streisand.
- Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner.
And finally others were just wrong, but you still had to laugh.
- Santa Claus. I’m not sure how the big guy made the list, but he does have a pretty good gig.
- The Amish. If I recall correctly, the writer who included them had a problem with frequently getting stuck behind Amish horse and buggies.
- The Popemobile.
- Grandmothers who load their grandchildren up with sugar and then hand them back to their parents.
- Apple pie, George Washington, and the Fourth of July.
- Fat-free Christmas cookies.
The book would be passed from reporter to reporter and more or less took on a life of its own. We later started adding interesting quotes, but they were less frequent. The funny thing about the notebook is that someone at one point must have been on the phone with a source and needed something to write on and started to take notes in the book. So right next to the OJ Trial, the State Police Commander leaving work at 3:30 p.m. , VW bugs, and early retirees are notes for a long forgotten, but hopefully scintillating story about flow control (sewage).
Now that many, many years have passed, I can admit that I made my way into the Book of Rackets on one or two occasions. The racket that seemed to draw the most ire: the fact that one February I took off from work on a Saturday, Sunday, and Monday , then worked two days, and then took off another four days. I personally viewed it as good vacation planning on my behalf, but my coworkers obviously didn’t see it the same way.
In any event, as I walked out Wegmans to get into my car, carrying my lunch purchase and already fifteen minutes late for my afternoon meetings, I thought about the Book of Rackets. I thought too about some of the great activists in history and how they stood up for what they believed. I may not have their pull or advocacy skills, but I made a note to start a new Book of Rackets.
And what will be my first entry? Wegmans, of course.