Monday, July 27, 2009

times a' passin.

In two more weeks I'm going to head for home. This is a good thing.
One of the day trips I've got planned is to take my wife and boy down to Woods Hole, MA, for the day. I used to live and work there, 12 years and a lifetime ago.

For those of you not in the know, Woods Hole is the Mecca of marine biology in the world. The Oceanographic Institute, owned by MIT, is the most prestigious center of marine sciences in the world. My dad worked for WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) for years before relocating to the Boston area, and I worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory as a marine biologist... well, as a basement troll, really, I guess. Technically, I guess I am still a marine biologist, when the money's right and all. Dreams of running away to sea aside, I'm still paying $700 a month for 6 years of a rather expensive lesson on what I ended up not doing when I grew up.
My career as a scientist was exactly like my career as a mariner; I am a generalist- a subject matter expert on nothing, but able to perform in a workmanlike fashion on many levels.

When I first started flying solo as a scientist, I performed research on the reproductive habits of the lowly green sea urchin Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis (I can still type that name fast!), an animal that suffered the most rapid decline from overfishing ever recorded, after becoming a popular item in sushi restaurants. I created a simple and fast way to measure the ability of sea urchins to repopulate in heavily fished areas, which could also be used by fishermen to help them target more lucrative fishing grounds themselves. I got to take my show on the road and talk at scientific conferences, and basically dined out on the popularity of uni, urchin eggs served over rice.

Much like the urchin population, there wasn't much of a future for me in the sushi-support industry, and I ended up spending 6 months living on beer and being rained on in Scotland, shortly thereafter, before writing a tortuous volume on the environmental impact of market globalization in Salmon farming. Unlike the sea urchin paper, my salmon study gathered dust rapidly- to date, I don't think even I have ever read the report cover-to-cover. When all was said and done, I ended up coming home from Scotland jobless, to catch some lobster with my old high school teacher, Mr. D.

God was good to me that summer, and I received a job offer almost immediately after gettting home. I was offered a position at a lab in Woods Hole's Marine Biological Laboratory...I suspect mostly for my incredible skill of being able to procure large quantities of lobster at below-market prices, but fuck it, I had a job. I continued to fish with D a couple of times a month, but I was working on something more cutting edge. Woods' Hole is only a little over an hour from my home, and I was able to find a place to stay by renting an incredibly expensive beach house along with a bunch of other junior scientists. More beer science, and fun followed, and it was a wonderful time.

My background as a lobsterman allowed me to get into a research study on lobsters' nervous systems. I had to have a crash course on neuroscience in general, and had to carry out a study without being an expert on the matter. I had a good academic advisor, who chained me to a basement laboratory, and made me spend the next 3 months studying and researching, whilst also living as the social coordinator of a bunch of brilliant (and mostly female) science geeks like myself. At the end of that time, my part of the research grant was broke, my study was complete, and I was able to go to conferences again, and get to know people. I was already getting tired of travelling so much with no job stability in sight. Really, it set the stage for me; I knew I wanted to catch lobster, but I also wanted to do something extraordinary, like being a marine biologist, or being a merchant mariner, like my dad. Being a biologist was just easier for me, so that was the route I took.


So, with all that baggage, I'm going to bring my family to see the public face of Marine Biology in the US. My old lab relocated to Boston a few years ago, so I can't bring my boy through the dank basements full of odd sea creatures, but there are still plenty of other labs that I can sneak a peek into. I figure with all the fuss of the past month, I could use a trip down memory lane.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

'taint that a lovely shade of blue!

Today was hot. I worked outside. There was fresh paint.

You might see where this is going. I sat down on a very heavily painted length of pipeline. International Paint's InterLac 665 Ocean Blue, to be exact. I didn't notice right away, which gave the paint time to soak through my pants and my underdrawers, as well. Now that the backside of my unmentionables is such a lovely shade of blue (and my backside, as well), I'm wondering if the Blue Man Group is hiring. I'm already part-way there, anyhow, might as well go all in.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pacem ('pach-em,' for you non-latin speakers)

One adventure ends, and the next begins: my wife called me about 20 minutes ago... from home. My family is back home safe. Thank God.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

clenchin' fabric

Today's an important day for yours truly. At 4am this morning, Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife and The Boy began their 2nd attempt at returning home to 'Assachusetts. As I write, the first leg of the trip is finished. My wife's cousin drove them 6 hours from Vitoria Da Conquista, a pretty little city on a mountain plateau, to Salvador, the capital of Bahia, Brazil's resort area, and also the closest major city. In this fashion they cut out the first plane ride, which was the proximal cause of their stranding last month. So, last I heard, they were all checked in. Now, it will take two more layovers and 18 hours of flight time for them to arrive in Boston. I am hoping for the best. In the meanwhile, if I had a lump of coal, I could probably clench it between my butt cheeks, and in the time between now and when they land in Boston, I could have a diamond.

Sorry for the imagery.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

old school

1- Tug Chesapeake, hanging on.

When we were in a modest chop crossing the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, this tub looked and felt every day of her 38 years. Do all single-skin tank vessels feel so wobbly? This is the only one I've ever been on. Aside from having a very visible flex in a seaway, she had a really odd heave to her, as well. The energy from the waves of motion traveling from bow to stern as she flexed felt very disconcerting... it felt just like it sounds- like we were standing on a waterbed, and someone was jumping up and down on the far side.
Double-hull tank vessels, for all their obvious shortcomings (impossible-to-maintain void spaces, brittle rigidity, etc.), at least feel sort of solid, or solid enough, anyhow. If I'm going to get thrown off my feet, so be it, but I don't want to get launched straight in the air like a watermelon seed between two wet fingers.

2) The galley. Very old school.
3) This is as close to being tan as I get. Dull red.

Short tow.

This is where I am living for this two-week hitch. On the left side is the quarters, where three of us reside. On the right is the generator room/laundry. It's not as noisy as you might think.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Under a bridge...

I just want to note for posterity, as I pass under the Chesapeake bridge for the first time ever in daylight...

Single-hulled tank barges flex waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy too much. I feel like I'm on a trampoline, and I can SEE the hull torquing. Feels... well, it feels kinda unnerving.

That is all. Pictures, maybe, another time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

City of Brotherly Love? My ass.

Thought you should know. Many thanks to Bitter End for the chart.

This is my new home away from home. Packed inside this little box is a bedroom, bathroom, office/living room and kitchen...And two human beings in constant battle to prevent mildew.

Abandoned collier dock... that's a coal-loading chute in the background.

At the same site. This skyscraper-sized monster is a coal loading derrick. When we dock under this rusty and rotten-looking bugger, I always wonder about the condition of the cables that hold the loading arm upright. I don't think anyone inspects abandoned collier rigs. For some reason, our bunkhouse is always directly under the loading arm. Kind of feels like I'm sleeping under a fire ax that's been duct-taped to the ceiling.

First off, this last week has seen some great traffic to my blog. Big thanks to everyone who posted a link, commented, and offered their support, prayers and well wishes.
See, this is why I believe in God. Now, an unusual number of people have been telling me that they're praying for me, for my family, or, barring that, they're being supportive with all the BS that happened. Now, I believe that God knows that I am not a man who wants charity or any sort of freebie. Here's how my own little wish list got granted.
Normally, in this new nearshore job of mine, I would be working 2 weeks on/2 weeks off. When I approached the crewing manager and asked for a little extra work, I knew that I was asking for some punishing hours. So it goes. The economy being what it is, there isn't a lot of extra work to be had in my company's fleet, and my position as the brandiest-newiest Tankerman PIC is a millstone. No seniority. BUT, I got lucky. My stars got aligned. God was looking out for me. My heart Chakra was aligned with... well, you get the idea. Anyhow, rather than going home and spenging money on beer and sundries, I'm working on an elderly barge for the next 2 weeks, until my regular rotation comes up again... my total time at work will be 6 weeks total. That's some long-ass work hours, and I'm sure that I'll be a little buggy when its' done, but it will allow me to close the door completely on the recent disasterous Bank of America debacle. The bad news is that I'm going to miss 3 MORE weeks with my family, and, as I haven't seen them in over a month already, that's a long friggin' time to be away.

Anyhow, my family is still stuck in Brazil, so I'd be home alone for a full week even if I did go home on time. Last time that happened, look at what was in my fridge! I am a total caveman.

Oh, and the title, if you're wondering? I discovered today that in Philadelpia, men's antiperspirant/deodorant comes with an extra sanitary seal. That is to say, there wasn't enough plastic wrap on regular new deodorant to prevent people from cracking open a new stick in the store, using it, and putting it back on the shelf. Ew. What the hell, man?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

where the flavor is

Self-unloading bulk carrier- close up of the gantry.

Today I return to maritime-themed blogging after taking a break to deal with the Bank of America issue.

In the pictures below, you'll see some stuff. And things happened. Just look. You'll see. Nothing too exciting today, because 1) I just got woken up, and 2) because my camera is only listed as intrinsically safe under certain conditions... there are certain places where I can take pictures, and places where I can't.

Not that most people would, but this is for anyone wondering how ships are fueled. Here, MGO (diesel) is pumped aboard. Diesel is used for starting the main engine and a few other odds and ends aboard. Most of the time, the main engine runs on heavy fuel oil, a black tarry oil.

Meeting people from all over the world is what this job is all about. 25% of the world's seafarers are from the Philippines. They are often a friendly, warm bunch of people, and when more than two of them stand together, it is unusual not to hear laughter at some point.

Friday, July 10, 2009

I suppose that it's inevitable; things have a way of working, but whether or not they work out well is another matter.

Let me explain.

When I was younger, dumber, and full of piss and vinegar, there was a period where I thought I'd try my hand at being a policy analyst in fisheries management. Why, I have no idea; I am a doer, not a talker. I forsook (is that a word?) my background as a marine scientist, and started playing catch up in such horrible subjects as international law and public policy. This is where I reached the terminal phase of my formal education. I was well into in my mid-20's.
Because I'm a spaz, I audited some classes in grad school. Since I was hanging out with all the policy wonks, and the 'show me' attitude of a scientist doesn't work with the wink wink nudge nudge say no more crowd, I also sat in on a labor relations class. I figured what the hell, it might come in handy when dealing with groups such as fishermen.

I learned a lot, but none of it seemed to apply to my life.

One of the most interesting things I took from that class was the constant reliance on concepts developed in game theory. This is, if you don't know it, the stuff that John Nash (the guy played by Russell Crowe in the movie 'a beautiful mind") worked on. One of the most important concepts in labor relations is the art of compomise. John Nash was the one who proved mathematically that in a compromise, no one wins, but, to maximize gain in a group setting, one must work towards the goal of purely minimizing loss to individual members of the group.

Now, that was cold comfort today, but it did help with some decision-making.

By now, you know about my battle with Bank of America. Today my local branch manager called, and begged me to make this go away. She was authorized to offer me a dollar amount that equates to about 30% of what I lost last week in terms of cash laid out. It didn't account for pain and suffering, or any sort of emotional factor. It didn't even cover the new tickets I had to buy for my family's airfare.

I took their offer, simply because I don't think that I could do more without a protracted fight, and what's the point? Every day I deal with this shit is a day closer to my death. I'm not talking big bucks, and I'm not a man who likes to beat his head against a wall simply because it feels good to stop at the end.

Anyhow, the little bit of money that they offered me is enough to keep my wife and boy comfortable for the duration of their wait in Brazil, with enough left over to pay back most of the money I borrowed to cover my shortfalls in the ticket price. So, all's well, sort of.

Sigh. Anyhow, done is done. I am reminded of the short version of the caution against compromise. In making compromise, no one gets what they really want.

So it goes. I minimized loss, anyhow.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

busy day

So, in between skimming the algae out of our drinking water tank, organizing the paint locker and, oh, yeah, delivering a cool million dollars' worth of oil today, I also did some pot-stirring regarding the Bank of Unmerica problem.

So far, my state senator's office has called me back (and promised to 'make phone calls if I so desire' (I said wait till Friday)), AAA has called back and said that they think that my story is an excellent cautionary tale for travel-planning tips for their fall "AAA Horizons newsletter," and has been an invaluable ally.

You know what I like the most about these groups? Even though I'm not one of their biggest customers, THEY ALL CALLED ME BACK! Unlike my bank, who apparently are all too busy picking their nose and foisting 'service fees' on struggling families to call back, say, one customer whose family got completely boned by their shameful version of customer service reps.
That is all. For now.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I see you!

According to my stats widget, someone from Bank Of America has visited me! I don't know who (damn vague widget), but there it is. I has arrived. I hope that my frustrated ramblings have separated me from the tides of humanity who probably call and complain that there isn't enough parking in the lot.

Anyhow, in case my visitor comes back, here's something for them to look at. The people involved.

This is my wife and son. These are the people you've left in harm's way, 5,215 miles from where they should be. This is why I keep calling, day after day. If you were responsible for these two, you'd do the same.

Now, thanks to Bank Of America's less-than-stellar customer support staff, what should have been a 15- minute inconvenience has turned into a 3 week trial across two continents. So, to my friendly visitor, I'm asking you to please take at look at their faces, and think of your own families. If your spouse and child were taken out of arm's reach, and your precious and VERY limited time together was lost forever, how would you react?

Better days. See? This is how it's supposed to be.

My wife's gonna kill me if she finds out I posted a picture of her without her makeup on. Shhh.


Is anyone else disturbed and disgusted with all the hiney-licking going on in the vicinity of a famous dead pedophile's casket? Honestly, the body should be sold to science (or science fiction!), and the proceeds used to pay down the medical bills of the kids that he molested.

Only proves one thing; if you're a celebrity, the law does not apply. You can murder or touch kids all you want.

Anyways, It's not nice to speak ill of the dead, so I'm going to think of something positive about Michael Jackson. He's friggin' dead, and I'm positive that for children, the world is a safer place without him.

I'm taking a 30 second break from reality to ask a philosophical question.

Anyone can buy a remarkable volume and diversity of fresh fruit at any grocery store. So, the deck watch on a fruit boat (a ship with refrigerated holds) throws down an ice-covered whole pineapple to me, by way of a thank you for the fuel oil I loaded on him today in the hot sun... and I feel like the guy just handed me a $100 dollar bill. Why does a $1 pineapple that came out of broken stowage become so valuable?

I have my answer. Anyone else care to venture?



THEY DID IT AGAIN! My wife's debit card just got blocked AGAIN!

Screw this. I'm through making polite phone calls.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Bank of America Debacle: Aftermath, but no conclusions...

On Wednesday I made it to to Philadelphia without falling on my sword, and also without incident. 3 energy drinks and 7 hours of driving, and I was off to work. I joined my assigned barge unit at 8am, and immediately unpacked my things and proceeded to get hideously sick, I think from the caffeine, sugar, and helpless dread.

It is now Sunday morning, July 5. Most of America is sleeping off hangovers, cleaning up backyards or enjoying one more day of our big weekend. My family is separated by 5,000+ miles, courtesy of a bank 'glitch,' and I am finally able to come to grips with my own emotional state.
I'm pissed.

You see, for the past four days, I've been running defense, or at the least, running. Running scared, maybe. I've been acting defensively, occasionally offensively, but whatever else, it's all been chaotic, and completely reaction-based. This morning, I've had time to mull, dwell, ruminate. And thus, the revelation. I am angry.
I am angry because I have to be patient, that the odds of absolutely anything positive happening are slim, that I am maybe a bad husband, because my bank caused such a disaster for my family. My son is going to have to start school in 'special' classes because he's going to miss his surgeries. My wife is going to lose at least half of her regular clientele for her business, so our finances are officially in the toilet. I've got to pay back the money I owe my dad, and since I spent our rent for July 1 on my wife's airfare, I have to find some way to get that to the soulless corporate entity who houses us. So I'm pissed, because it's a little hard to greet the day with a smile, because my family is not doing so hot.

One thing I am not here to do is whine. I'm doing what I always do when stressed. I put my head down and push ahead, and up my work output. This is how I deal. Yesterday I put in a marathon day out on deck. When our work was complete, I started doing some painting, which never fails to put my mind at ease. It did work well. When I knocked off for the day, after we tied up to the dock, I felt a little tingle on my skin. Sunburn. Today I'm a purple-red color. So it goes. In the meanwhile, I've re-found my chi or something. I'm thinking clearly, and making plans. Tomorrow we attack.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

So Yesterday Bank of America put my family in physical jeopardy (Part three)

Part 3- 4pm to 11pm.

Note: If you're just wandering on, this is the very true story of what happened to my family early in the week, and how Bank of America managed to cause my wife and son to be stranded penniless in Brazil... read on, it gets even more appalling.


4pm. I am in traffic, on my way into Somerville, MA, one of the outlying sections of metropolitan Boston. I have to pass through the infamous 'big dig' portion of the road system. Traffic is heavy, but thankfully not awful. I am driving very aggressively for a man in a 2-ton truck. I am still driving better and more carefully than the idiots in compacts who insist on cutting me off, blissfully unaware of the effects of momentum on teeny tiny car crumple zones.
My father calls me for an update. When my parents heard about what had happened, my dad told me to make up the difference between what I had and what I needed, using his credit card. An aside: my dad is a disabled vet; he and my mother live on his navy pension, which is to say that they should not be using a credit card, and the fact that I am using theirs weighs very heavy on me.

I am grinding my teeth as I drive into the city. I am not a fan of doing this. Using my jedi senses, and also an excellent city map, I get to the travel agency with a little time to spare.
I get a nice warm welcome as I walk into the agency. I am obviously not Brazilian, and I probably look worried, so everyone knows that I am the panicked American from the phone. I sit down and tell my story to the agent, a lovely girl who grows wide-eyed as I answer her questions.
It turns out that I can get tickets for less than the $6,000 that TAM, the Brazilian airline wanted. But the same problems apply; every airline that flies into Brazil is booked solid for return flights, up until July 21st, 22 days away! Well, my family is going to have to live with my mother-in-law for that time, which is not going to be easy; my MIL is an energetic, full-of-fun person, but she's elderly, blind, and apparently a little nuts. My wife tends to keep her in check; the two of us support her, so my wife sort of calls the shots from back home; now that she's in Brazil, though, all bets are off.
Thank God my wife didn't clean out her checking account- I took the bulk of the balance to help with the tickets, but I left enough for my family to buy food... but not much more.
So, the good news; tickets are available, even if they're three weeks away. I have the money and my dad's credit card- enough to pay for the tickets;
So, I give the girl my credit card, and my dad's credit card info. My dad's card goes through for the amount I needed... my card, however gets REJECTED.
It is now past closing time. 6pm. I am staring hard at my card, cursing silently. There's money in the account... what's wrong? The little 19-year old travel agent is reassuring; she has to go home, but she waits while I get on the phone.
Oh no they din'nt. This is exactly how my day started 10 hours ago. Not only did they erroneously block my wife's debit card this morning, the dirty fatherless bastards just shut down mine, too. I used the damn thing to buy gas not 2 hours before!

Oh yes they did. The computer tells me that they have detected 'suspicious activity on my card" I am asked to verify that my transaction from 3 minutes ago is legit by pushing a button. I push, and am told everything's good. I hang up.

No go. The card is still blocked.
I call again. The same message, the same button pushing, the same reassurance that everything is now good.
The card still doesn't work, and the girl is now with child to go home. The good news is that its' after hours- no one else on the east coast can reserve tickets on this flight, either... leaving 2/3 of the US able to trump me, but oh well.
I head home. Nothing else I can do- I can't pay for my damn tickets, anyhow. I am in INSANE traffic. So, with nothing else to do, I try to talk to a real person at Bank of America. Maybe one of those rude 'security' specialists. I call an even dozen times, each time unable to do anything but 'verify' the same transaction, then get disconnected. I can't get the option to talk to a real person. Inspired, I try to NOT enter my information on the computerized phone system. I get asked for my info, and this time, I press '0.' I immediately get placed on hold for TEN minutes, but I am waiting for a real person, and in the meanwhile, I get a mile closer to home. When the real live person answers, I explain succinctly what I need to do, and ask for a direct number to talk to a person if I am disconnected. I get the number, the person says "hold on' and promptly dumps me back to the automated voice that asks me to verify my recent transaction again.
I curse, warmly, and dial the number the woman on the phone gave me. It gives me the automated system again. I again verify that the transaction in question was valid. I am immediately thanked in a computerized voice, then hung up upon again.
OK, I am heading generally home, and I have time, I call AGAIN (this being now more than 25 times I've called today!), and start making friends with the '0' key again. I wait ten or fifteen minutes again, and some young guy answers the phone. I immediately let him know that if I am dumped into the automated phone queue again, I will light myself on fire. He looks at my account, 'says' 'Oh, gosh, that's odd. We DID block your account less than an hour ago. Wonder why?' Rather than debate, the kid tells me to write down a number, which he promises will get me to the desk of a real live human. I am in doubt, but I write. He then transfers me. Glory of glories, another guy picks up, and within a minute, my account is unblocked. I don't admit that due to stress I'm levitating about a quarter-inch off of my seat, but the kid takes care of me, all business. It occurs to me that if I had spoken to this guy this morning, my family would be in the air over the US now, and in my arms tonight, however briefly, before I head to sea for another voyage.
I am more disheartened than angry. I thank the kid profusely, and hang up, and creep home.
I get to my neighborhood at 9pm. I load my seabag into my truck, trundle my cooler full of groceries into the bed, and feed my fish one more time. By the time I get my clothes sorted, shut down the breakers to most of the electrical systems and get the water heater on standby, it is 11pm. In 90 minutes I have to wake up, take a tepid shower, and drive to Philadelphia to join my vessel. I have a full day ahead of me.
My wife calls to say goodnight. She's crying, and I'm trying not to.
I've said this before, but I'm 6 feet tall, 270+ lbs. I'm not prone to tears. I try to avoid being in touch with my emotions. This is a low moment.

Part 4: Conclusion... sort of. Next time, OK. I'm burnt out, I miss my family, and I really, really don't want to talk about this right now.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

So Yesterday Bank of America put my family in physical jeopardy (Part two)

UPDATE: Thursday PM: The ONE helpful person at B of A, my local branch's asst. manager, Linda, was quietly making phone calls today. A corporate staffer requested additional info from me. In the meanwhile, my wife has started burning up the phone lines, trying to save her business while she waits out the three weeks she's now been delayed before returning to the US.
Seriously. When you're broke, female, and responsible for a child, Brazil is just like any other Third-world nation: beauty and peace is a thin veneer over a vicious, dangerous underbelly.

Thanks again for all the well wishes. You guys are great.

If you haven't read part one yet, please scroll down to yesterday's post. This is a detailed summary of the events of Tuesday, June 30, When Bank of America caused my wife and son to be stranded in Brazil simply because no one wants to accept responsibility for a simple human error on their part.

PART TWO- Noon to 4PM

By noon, I am getting frantic. I feel completely powerless to do anything. I am cursing the fact that I completely cleaned out our savings to send my family to Brazil. I thought I was doing the right thing. I would normally never eliminate the 'cushion' money that I leave just in case I lose my job or break a leg or anything, that was pretty much how I made a surprise trip to Brazil even possible. That sort of trip is NOT cheap. And now I don't have a way to get my family home.

When I next talk to my wife, I am in my truck, heading to my parents' house. I have to say goodbye to them, as I'll be leaving for anywhere from 2-6 weeks in just a few hours. Done.

When I had spoken to the security specialist at B of A earlier, she told me that I had no recourse. Regardless of how the bank caused all this trouble, they had no interest in making things right. Without options, I go to my local branch bank.
The manager is out on vacation. The assistant manager is sympathetic. This is shocking! Someone is listening to me.
I am not normally blabby. I unload on this woman. I don't get personal, I just give her the details. She gets on the computer, on the phone, and starts looking for ways to help. She runs up against a wall in all cases. Someone on the phone is trying to help her help me, but it's not going anywhere. Along the way, in that chain of command, someone tells them to punt, and thus there is nowhere else to go. I leave, feeling not quite so alone, but nonetheless, still without a solution.

I spend the next two hours on and off the phone with my wife. They've gotten to her mothers' house, and they are safe. They are also 5,000+ miles away from home, and if I can scrape up the money for airfare, I also have to find money for their living expenses. My wife is self-employed here in the US. If she doesn't work, she doesn't get paid. She is going to lose her shirt by not being here, as well.

The reality is, they are safe, and they have food, clothing and shelter. The deadly danger is past. But I am livid, and when I do manage to get my family home, we are going to be living like church mice for a few months thanks to Bank of America.

My wife suggests that I call a Brazilian travel agency in Somerville, one of the outlying sections of Boston, to try to get a better price on tickets, and an earlier flight. I am using my best Portuguese now, which is awful, to be precise, but I get word that there really are no flights with two seats available for the next three weeks. They will call me back with info on the first available flights. They understand the urgency, too. The travel agent actually seems concerned about the safety of my wife and son, and for that I'm grateful.
It is now after 4pm, which is when I had planned to head to Philly for work. I have the nuclear option, which entails leaving at midnght and driving direct to the job, which also means no sleeping for 48 hours.
The travel agent calls me back. If I can get to their office in an hour (doubtful with 15 miles of heavy traffic between me and them), she can reserve tickets for the 21st of July. If I can't get those tickets, it might be a week before she can get another flight with two seats available.

(Really, if you're booked that heavy, why aren't the airlines adding a flight? There are 4 airlines that run between Brazil and the US. There's got to be more folks waiting for a ticket at peak summer travel time).

This is where I need to tell you a few things about my stepson, The Boy, and how hard this is going to make his life for the next year or so.
The boy speaks Portuguese as his primary language. This is because he has a deformity in his throat that makes speaking very difficult, and because my wife's command of english is only a recent acquisition. Before she and I met, my wife had only a very modest command of english. Now, skip ahead. Today, The Boy understands and writes english as well or better than any other 6-year old, but he can't speak it very well.
This past winter, The Boy developed a case of persistant tonsilistis, and the Ear, Nose and Throat doc took one look at his throat, down deep, and dropped a bomb- the speech problem is physical, and is very treatable, requiring two or more surgeries, but with an excellent long-term prognosis. So, while this is sobering news, it is also good news, as The Boy is going to be starting school in September, and if we can get his speech problems on the way to recovery, he can be in a normal class with other kids his age, which is what he wanted. We scheduled the first surgery for a week after my family got back from Brazil. The Boy was supposed to get his tonsils and adenoids removed, tubes placed in his ears, and then have his vocal cords reshaped slightly in preparation for the next surgery, which would take place in early August.

Well, all that's gone. He's in Brazil until no later than the 21st of July.
When my wife told The Boy that they were staying at Grandma's for an extra few weeks, his first response wasn't what you'd expect for a 6 year-old. He didn't think of the beach, playing with his 80+ cousins in town, and all the fun stuff that a 6-year old can do with summer vacation.
He burst into tears, because, he told my wife, that come September, he was going to have to either be in a special class or pretend to be mute, because the kids would make fun of his attempts to speak.


I left home at 4pm. The agency closes at 5, and there's the entirety of the world-famous Post Big-Dig Boston traffic between my destination and my home.

(End of Part 2).

Note: Part three is where something amazingly ridiculous happens, when Bank of America puts gasoline on my fire, so to speak. It does not end with my getting tickets for my wife. The bank actively prevented that from happening A SECOND TIME. There is resolution, however, and tickets are acquired, thanks in no way to Bank of America.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

So Yesterday Bank of America put my family in physical jeopardy (Part one)

If anyone's curious, there's a condensed version of the following being submitted for publication in print.

And I would like to say the following:


Part one: 7:30am to noon.

I'm not going to get flowery. I have banked with Bank of America for about 10 years. They're convenient for a well-traveled professional. Lots of branches.

Yesterday my wife and son were supposed to be coming home.

For those of you who are here for the first time, my wife and stepson have been in Brazil for the past three weeks, visiting family. I am an American of Irish Descent, like 50% of all Bostonians. My wife is Brazilian, a startlingly beautiful woman both inside and out. I have been fortunate enough to be married to Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife for a little over a year. We have a boy, my stepson, The Boy, aged six. For our first anniversary present, I sent my wife and The Boy down to Brazil to spend time with my mother-in-law, whom my wife hadn't seen in NINE years.

Yeah, I know, we spent our first anniversary apart. Look, I'm a sailor. This is our life. Can you imagine not seeing your mom for nine years? Yeah. I did a good thing, but I couldn't miss work with the new job and all. I'm just lucky to be working.

Yesterday my wife and son were supposed to be coming home.

At 7: 30am, my phone rings. My wife is freaking out. She reserved a ticket locally on a puddlejumper from the regional airport close to her mom's house, to the major airport where she'd begin her journey home. After 3 weeks of happily using her debit card from Bank of America, the card was being declined. No ticket.

I calm her down, and call Bank of America. No, the person says, there is no problem on our end.

I call my wife. She talks to the clerk at the reservation desk. Card is swiped again a few times. Nothing. It comes up "Not Authorized."

I go online. There's plenty of money- about $600 left in her account. Cheers to my wife for staying within our travel budget! The ticket is only about $150 US for she and our son.

Again, I calm her down, and call Bank of America. No, the person says, there is no problem on our end.

"Well" says I, "There's something wrong here." I call Bank of America a THIRD time. This person says that there was a 'block' placed on her account, and promptly transfers me to the wrong department.

I call back. This is my fourth call now. I get a security person. I explain that time is tight, that there's something going on. The woman explains that the access is being blocked for 'suspicious activity' on the card. Suspicious activity? A plane ticket? The third local flight purchased in as many weeks? No. Sorry. BS. For three weeks and two dozen transactions, there have been no problems. Now, when it matters, my wife is left to hang.

Now, I had called Bank of America a week before my family flew to Brazil. I explained what was happening, and the nice girl on the phone had assured me that there would be no problems.

I'm getting nowhere with the woman on the other end of the phone this time. Can I list some recent transactions? No, I can't. I'm not in Brazil, and my wife is at an airport that has a pay phone, by which I mean, you bribe someone to use their phone. She can't call.
Well, I'm told, she can call collect. No, says I, she can't. Our account is held jointly, and I can verify my identity and my wife's in a hundred ways, but considering that I don't know what the exchange rate is for US Dollars and Brazilian Reals, I can't tell the person how much the last attempted sales were for. My wife thought it would be about $200 US, and that, apparently, wasn't the right answer.

I ask to speak to a manager at the security office, and am rebuffed.
Panicked, I jump online again, and, armed with some old information, I proceed to talk my way past the next security specialists' defenses over the course of 30 minutes of back and forth. I explain that my wife is in a dangerous location, that she is not safe where she is, and I just want to make sure that she is safe. I offer to accept any unauthorized transactions. Finally this belligerent, uncaring, completely inhumane individual is convinced that although I don't have the amount of the latest transaction, the fact that I have every other transaction ever recorded is enough to get the block lifted. Now, the problem here is that my wife's flight has already left. It took me over 2 hours to get the block lifted.
It gets better. This was the only flight that day. The airport is now closed. My wife is hustled out onto the street by the airport staff, who proceed to go home and drink their lunch.

So, imagine that you're in the most dangerous subway station in New York at 2 am. Now make it twice that bad. This is the situation that my wife and son are in.

My wife gets on a payphone on a street, and she is in full hysterics. She is waiting for a policeman to keep her company while she gets in touch with family to come get her. She has to bribe the cop to not sexually harass her.

Imagine being in my shoes at this point. Completely helpless. It was a moment I will never forget. And of my family, I was the lucky one.

My wife is able to get back to her mother's house, thanks to a good Samaritan.

Now we have other problems. I have drained my resources to make this trip possible. TAM, the Brazilian airline, has a strict no-refund, no reschedule policy for missed flights (This makes me appreciate the domestic carriers again. Thanks, guys. You still need more legroom, but thanks).

I can't get my wife home. The next available flight for 2 passengers out of Brazil to the US on any carrier is on July 21st, three weeks from now. The cheapest airfare for July and August is about $3000. It is now noon. In four hours, I have to drive to Philadelphia to catch a boat for work. Options are narrowing. I am about $3000 short of what I need to buy that ticket... and my wife has enough money for food for a while, but that's about it, but either way, she and my son are trapped in Brazil. There is going to be no family reunion for a while.

Part 2 of 3 is next: noon- 4pm.


If you're curious, it is now 28 hours since this started. I drove from Boston to Philly during the overnight. I slept 90 minutes drove for 6 hours, and am now on a tug-and-barge unit tied to a dock. My wife is at her mother's house, trying to not lose her business here in the US because she's self-employed and is going to be in Brazil for at least 3 extra weeks, and is hemorrhaging clients. My son had throat surgery scheduled for next week, and I'm trying to reschedule for sometime later this year. The surgeon is booked solid. So my boy is going to miss the first of at least two surgeries necessary for him to speak fully-formed words. Yeah, he's got limited speaking ability, and he was supposed to get the surgery necessary for him to start school in September. Did I mention that? He's pretty pissed off himself. Imagine not being able to tell anyone that you're mad, because only your parents understand what you're saying.

This is the stuff that makes people lose control and do stupid things. Thanks to family and friends, I'm OK, and thanks in no way to Bank of America, my wife is in a safe place while we figure out what to do. Wait until you hear about what Bank of America did to us in the afternoon...