Do you like bourbon? Then I have a story for you.
Some of you may remember The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist from back in 2013. Hundreds of bottles of the most expensive, most highly sought-after bourbon known to man, Pappy Van Winkle was reported stolen. Coming as it did amidst an unprecedented boom in the popularity of bourbon, it made national news. International news even.
In 2015, Franklin County, Kentucky Sheriff Pat Melton claimed to crack the case. A criminal syndicate was behind it, he said. Racketeering! Guns! Drugs! Serious, serious business. Over a half dozen arrested. A man named Toby Curtsinger the alleged kingpin. The assailants faced decades in prison under state RICO laws. It was a major, major deal and, once again, made news around the globe.
And then, three years later, it was no longer big news at all. It wasn't even all that big of a crime.
One person had charges dropped against them. Everyone else pleaded guilty, with all but one serving no jail time whatsoever. The alleged kingpin, Toby Curtsinger, was sentenced to 15 years. He served 30 days and was released on shock probation just this past weekend.
What made the case turn into almost nothing, with almost no jail time? The fact that there really was no Pappy Van Winkle Heist at all. At least not as it was portrayed.
I am the first and so far the only person I know of to speak to Toby Curtsinger about the case on the record. He invited me to Frankfort to interview him back in January. He told me everything. The reality is far more interesting than the coverage, even if it's nowhere close to being as sexy. I did a short writeup of it for it for Bloomberg-Business Week, which they illustrated into a fun little cartoony bit.
The short version: people in distilleries have been stealing bourbon forever. People have been stealing Pappy for years too. No one really paid it much mind. The alleged Heist was mostly a function of an overzealous employee noticing the inventory being off by 200 bottles and calling the police because he was worried he'd get in trouble. Note: the inventory was always off, usually by more than 200 bottles, and there is almost no chance anyone would've gotten in trouble for it, let alone noticed it. Buffalo Trace would almost certainly have done what they always did in such instances: written the missing bottles off as "breakage." Once the police were called, however, it was a big deal and it all spiraled from there.
In reality, the "Heist" was a snapshot in time, made possible by antiquated security and quality control at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, not uncommon at most distilleries until relatively recently. If not for a local sheriff (since voted out of office) trying to make himself look good and the Buffalo Trace Distillery realizing, after the fact, that it was the best free advertising Pappy Van Winkle ever got, none of this would've made even local news. In the end, of course, this was also all made possible by a crazy cocktail culture-fueled bourbon bubble characterized by marks paying thousands for a bottle of wheated bourbon that, 20 years ago, was being sold in novelty, collectable crocks with cartoon hillbillies on it. That sort of dynamic tends to incentivize a black market and tends to help pedestrian stories make the headlines.
Oh, and despite being portrayed as the "Pappy Van Winkle Bandit" none of the charges against Toby Curtsinger actually involved Pappy Van Winkle. He was popped for possessing five barrels of stolen Wild Turkey. It truly was the Pappy Van Winkle Heist that wasn't.
Finally: I actually did a much, much longer and in-depth writeup of all of this that, for various reasons, didn't work for Bloomberg, but I'm happy they ran with this at least. I may be writing up the longer version someplace, even if I only end up putting it on this blog.
I am just as intrigued by autonomous vehicles as the next guy. Everything I've read about them suggests that they'll relieve congestion and improve safety, and I both hope and believe that to be true. Our roads are clogged and anything to unclog them -- and to improve efficiency, confer environmental benefits and cost savings compared to the current shape of our car-obsessed culture -- would be a good thing.
But while it's one thing to view autonomous vehicles as replacements for non-autonomous vehicles on existing roadways, it's another thing altogether to say that we should literally rip up existing mass transit tracks and fill the tunnels with them.
Oh yes, someone is saying that. Peter Wayner in The Atlantic, writing about how, rather than fix New York's aging, overtaxed and increasingly unreliable subway system, we replace it with autonomous vehicles:
The New York City subway is a miracle, especially at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future . . .
I'm less interested in the specific pros and cons of such a plan -- hey, we put a man on the moon, so why not a driverless Uber underneath Sixth Avenue? -- than I am in the assumptions and preferences which underlie it.
The premise of this idea -- one which has been astoundingly popular across the political spectrum over the past several decades -- is that it's simply unreasonable to expect our society to build and maintain great public works. That taxes are inherently bad and that raising them to provide goods and services for the well being of people is simply out of the question. It assumes, more specifically, that we simply cannot or should not fix New York's subway system because it's too hard. Too expensive. Not sexy. "Yes, the subway has been one of the marvels of the industrialized world for over a century," the article basically argues, "but it'll cost money and require work to maintain it so let's go with Project: Jetsons."
It's so very sad to see such a mindset. One which doesn't even attempt to push back, not even a little, against the mindless "government bad, taxes bad, private sector good" dogma which has permeated public discourse since the 1980s. One that completely ignores not just the immediate and obvious benefits of public transit, but which doesn't even begin to comprehend the second, third and fourth-order impacts public transit has had, particularly in New York. The city, as we know it, would not exist without the subway system. One would think that grappling with that fact would be required before one talks about replacing it with a bunch of Teslas in a tube.
It's also worth noting that this cars-on-the-7-line idea is intended to be operated by private companies on a for-profit basis. The article talks about how such an idea would take New York back to its roots, noting that the subway system was once a patchwork of private companies (the IRT and BMT, etc.) and public entities (the city-run IND) running competing lines. It might be useful for the author to note, however, that that system ended in the 1940s, with the city taking over and eventually creating a public transit authority to run it all, because the private companies had little interest in cooperating or serving the public effectively. Put simply: private ownership of public transit simply didn't work.
Any transit idea, however fun and futuristic it sounds, that does not appreciate the shortcomings private sector solutions have historically had when attempting to confront large scale public needs is fatally flawed. Any plan which does not appreciate the negative social, economic and even democratic impacts of a private, profit-driven system organized around individually-tailored and custom-priced trips, as opposed to moving masses of people along common corridors, is either hopelessly naive or intentionally tailored to sew inequality.
Most countries treat mass transit systems as national assets. They openly acknowledge the fact that public works require public investment in the form of tax dollars in order to deliver goods people want and need. They do not apologize for it, fetishize private investment or bend over backwards to invent crazy new systems from whole cloth when a near-perfect model -- time-tested and, however worse for wear these days, historically reliable -- is already in place. They do not act like it is a bad thing for people, through governmental authority, to build things via collective action. They recognize that public works are not, first and foremost, aimed at profit-generation, and for that reason they cannot, by definition, be the responsibility of those in the business, first and foremost, of profit-creation. For that reason, their transit systems tend to be far more useful and far better run than ours do.
We should fix the existing subways and build new ones where they are needed. We should build on what has worked in the past and fix that which is not working now. We must dispense with the idea that we can somehow disrupt our way out of having to pay for, build and maintain the sorts of large-scale public works which benefit society via public means.
We must, above all else, acknowledge that when it comes to building a civilization, there are no shortcuts.
Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
My daughter participated in the student walkouts yesterday. I didn't prompt her to. In fact, we hardly talked about her doing so beforehand. I simply told her that, if there was a walkout, and if she chose to participate in it, that I would support her.
It was clear that the school didn't want her and her fellow eighth graders walking out. In the runup to it, parents received emails in which the principal talked about an assembly the school was holding and how kids were being encouraged to "walk up, not out." Meaning: "walk up to kids you may not know or who are loners or who are marginalized in the interests of forming some sort of connection that, I suppose, would prevent them from becoming murderous psychopaths one day rather than protest gun violence."
That idea pissed me off. Its message, like so many establishment political messages these days, is aimed at blunting genuinely sharp political statements, not supporting them. It's akin to "Black Lives Matter" becoming "All Lives Matter." Something that, superficially, sounds pleasant but which actually negates the original idea, by design.
This morning I wrote a letter to the school superintendent and the school board about it. It was an open letter which I shared on Facebook and Twitter:
An open letter to New Albany-Plain Local Schools.
I'm not sure if I'll get a response. I'm pretty sure that, either way, I'll have my name placed in the "pain in the ass" file for future reference. Kinda don't care.
I really enjoyed "Jessica Jones" season 1. Season 2 came out on Thursday and I continue to enjoy it. Beyond the characters and the plots, though, I am fascinated by Jessica's bourbon and whiskey choices.
If you don't know the show, Jessica is a private eye with a lot of past trauma and she drinks . . . a lot. Like, to crazy excess, usually to forget stuff or deal with stress. She often has hangovers but rarely seems drunk, even after drinking an entire bottle in an evening. They don't mention it, but I suspect that since she has super powers she has super tolerance too. Either way, getting the headache but not the buzz seems like a pretty shitty deal for her.
Her brands are what interest me most. Jessica is a brown liquor woman, but she was all over the map with her whiskey choices and I can't watch an episode without noticing what she's drinking and wondering why she, or, rather, the producers, chose it.
In season one she had a different brand every episode. Sometimes multiple brands an episode. Sometimes it was scotch, sometimes bourbon, sometimes Canadian. She occasionally drank some fictitious brands from the prop department. The real products came from multiple distillers. In light of all of that I don't suspect that any of those bottles were there by virtue of product placement.
If it was product placement it was pretty crappy product placement for the distilleries involved. For example, in one episode she asks a convenience store clerk for "the cheapest you got." He sells her Wild Turkey 101, which is not the cheapest he or anyone else has. I doubt Wild Turkey would like to have 101 portrayed as rotgut if it was paying to have its bottle featured. In the next episode she's drinking Old Grandad and earlier drank Beam, Teacher's and freakin' Cutty, so she obviously does know where to get cheaper stuff. She's a detective!
For the first two episodes of season two, she drinks only Tin Cup. Because the exclusivity and because the bottle and its label are shown so prominently, I suspected that Tin Cup had paid for exclusive rights for the much more anticipated Season 2. But . . . nah. In episode three she's back to Four Roses yellow label. Again, though, if Tin Cup did pay for that placement, they may not care for how it was used. Jessica drinks it like water -- at one point she literally fills a 10 ounce water class with the stuff, straight up and chugs -- and at another point she has a nightmare where she's hooked up to a Tin Cup IV, the bourbon flowing straight into her veins. There's no such thing as bad publicity I guess, but I feel like a distiller wouldn't want to have its brand being used explicitly to show how much of a problem drinker a character is. "Drink Tin Cup: the preferred brand for functioning alcoholics everywhere!"
If it isn't product placement, I don't understand all of the switching. Sure, a whiskey enthusiast may get a different bottle every time, but Jessica isn't someone you'd call a whiskey enthusiast. She's a drunk. Or at least a wannabe drunk. I've known some drunks in my time. If they're like Jessica and they are (a) functional; and (b) at least make a passable living, so that they don't have to take whatever they can get, they tend to have brand loyalty. Or at least price point loyalty. Even if they do change up brands, they don't bounce from bourbon to scotch to rye the way she does.
Last season some sites like Buzzfeed kept track of what she was drinking. I am only three episodes into season 2 -- it's a treadmill show for me, so it's a one a day thing, not something I, uh, binge -- but I'm gonna continue to keep track myself. I'm more fascinated in this than I am in the shady forces Jessica Jones is fighting. She'll beat them in the end. I have no idea what's gonna happen with the next bottle.
I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I'm not in the market to move. I'm not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It's a time-killer more than anything.
This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I'm somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.
I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:
That's about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It's San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place -- an 800 square foot one bedroom -- is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That's pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you're familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it's par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.
Normally at this point I'd click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at Hoodline.com from early 2015. In relevant part:
1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.
I don't know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.
I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?
I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.
If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.
After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward "home," but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.
And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.
The drive between New Albany and Granville, Ohio used to take you down a two-lane country road, but traffic eventually got heavy enough to where they needed to make it a freeway. They did that about six or seven years ago. As far as freeways go it's fine. It cuts through the country and, though it'll likely change the area sometime in the near future, there hasn't been too much in the way of development along the route just yet. It's still a nice country drive. The barn where my wife keeps her horse is out that way so we're on that freeway a lot.
There is one thing on the road that sticks out, though:
This house sits just east of the exit for Route 310, right up against the freeway. It's looked like that since about the time the freeway went through. "O.D.O.T.," stands for Ohio Department of Transportation.
I've always assumed it had to do with some dispute arising out of the condemnation of property to build the freeway, but I've wondered what the specific story was for years. Today I did a little searching and found this, written by a man who says that he spoke to the owner a few years back:
The owner's side of the story was that ODOT used eminent domain compelling him to sell the portion of the property they needed for the freeway, but that they refused to purchase the entire property, including the part on which the house sat. His problem, though, wasn't that he was stuck with a house right next to a freeway. That would be bad enough, but at least understandable. Rather his problem was that the portion of the property they compelled him to sell included the leach field for the house's septic system and the remaining parcel that the house sat on was too small to install a new leach field that would meet local code. So he wasn't just left with a house next to a freeway, he was left with an uninhabitable house next to a freeway.
It's been a while since I practiced law, but the foggy parts of my memory related to these kinds of cases suggest that there is likely a bit more to this story. Local juries determine land value when there is dispute, and they almost always tend to overpay landowners who challenge state valuation in condemnation cases. In light of that, the state usually comes in with high offers to begin with. Maybe he was screwed on the parcel with the house, but I suspect he came out fine overall after they bought the parcel they needed for the freeway. There's plenty of injustice in this country, but rural landowners tend to do OK financially speaking when the bulldozers come to plow places like Licking County into the 21st century, even if they are inconvenienced or displaced.
Regardless of the specifics, I've always been struck by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house. While I suppose most people who see it think of it as nothing but an eyesore, I'm amused by it. Both at its existence and by the fact that it's lasted in the state it's in for so long.
Some quick searching shows that the deed was redone in 2007, with the current owner conveying the house to himself, likely in connection with whatever it was ODOT did with respect to their other land. For tax purposes, the house is only worth $800, with annual taxes on it running around $13, which the owner has faithfully paid. While the house is uninhabited, a quick search of property records shows that the owner of the house lives in similar but slightly larger home two miles away. It's neat, tidy and inviting. It's also close enough to the old house that it's no inconvenience at all for him to go put a fresh coat of paint on his "O.D.O.T. Sucks" sign whenever necessary. Which he clearly has, by the way. The house faces south and the sun would've bleached those orange letters pretty badly by now if he had let it be. Today, however, they're as vibrant as the day they first went up. My wife took that photo when we drove past yesterday afternoon.
I wonder who will blink first. The owner could, if he wanted to, simply abandon the basically worthless property. If O.D.O.T. grows weary of the sign, it could restart negotiations with the owner to see how much it would take to get him to either give up the land or, at the very least, bulldoze the house or cover the sign. The county could maybe get involved too, perhaps creatively reassessing the value of the property -- it's right next to an exit, so might it be rezoned for a gas station? -- raising the owner's tax rates to the point where he's no longer able to cheaply maintain his sign. Given that an influential new neighbor is moving in just a couple of miles up the freeway soon, maybe someone else will come to the table too.
In the meantime, I'll continue to drive by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house a few times a week, acknowledging that, yes, it's an eyesore, but smiling that it's still there. Not because I take the landowner's side, necessarily. I don't know him and I don't know the specifics of his beef. No, I smile because we live in a world where powerful forces always seem to win, conformity always seems to reign and anything old, small, unique or just plain weird seems to get plowed over, literally or figuratively.
The fact that someone on the wrong end of the plow's blade has basically held his middle finger up like this for close to a decade gives me hope that the powerful forces' victory, even if inevitable, won't always be easy.
Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
The story of Nellie and Frank -- Nellie Kniffen Took An Axe -- is available as a Kindle eBook for $2.99.
In the past several years many have made a point -- a good point -- to gently remind people that Memorial Day is not the same thing as Veterans Day. To remind us that this day is not set aside to thank living military members or veterans for their service and it's certainly not a day for patriotic platitudes or displays to eclipse our commemoration of those who died in service to our country.
But while the "it's Memorial Day, not Veterans Day" correctives are worth acknowledging, I think there is something similar to how we tend to approach both holidays that is equally worth acknowledging.
Memorial Day is a holiday commemorating those who died in war. Indeed, it is rooted in literal visits to the graves of the fallen. Veterans Day, originally anyway, was a holiday intended to celebrate the ending of a war. While the former has informally morphed into something else and the latter was officially changed to encompass a different purpose, the fact remains that our nation, for whatever reason, has moved away from the notion that war is bad, that its byproducts are tragic and that its ending should be celebrated. It has, instead, filled those spaces with patriotism and, in some cases nationalism and militarism.
It says a lot about where we are as a country right now that we have pushed the bad parts of war out of our national consciousness and have wholly disposed with celebrating the endings of wars. Maybe it's because, these days, our wars do not end.
Whatever the case, I do not think that focusing and reflecting upon the tragedy of war and celebrating the ending of wars are bad things nor do they do a disservice to those who have fought and who have died. To the contrary, I can think of nothing that would honor and aid those men and women more.