Monday, August 20, 2007

Moral Dilemma

Hypothetically, if I had the opportunity to make money freelancing, would plagiarizing my own last-year's blog entires constitute some form of dishonesty? Your insights, please.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Barking Mad; Archive

The first piece, if I recall correctly, where I didn't even try to hide my libertarian sympathies. The town eventually ruled against this poor lady, and she now faces the choice of either paying bankruptcy-inducing fines of nearly $200 per day, or getting rid of the dogs she calls her "family." But let's not forget what really matters: the town government made it abundantly clear who's boss round these-here parts.

Barking Mad
A Zoning Debate Over 22 Shih Tzus In One House Has West Hartford Going To The Dogs

By Jennifer Abel March 29, 2007

Does the law exist to serve people, or do people exist to serve the law? The question sounds like fodder for a college bull session among legal majors, but it’s more than academic for West Hartford resident and dog owner Faith Kilburn. “If the law is capricious and arbitrary, and I can show no harm is caused, then what’s it all about?” she asked.

Basically, it’s about a town ordinance limiting residents to ownership of no more than two adult dogs (three if the person has a kennel permit). The rule has the most rational of rationales: even if you think government should be hands-off regarding what people do with their property, you’d probably agree that a person in his own home shouldn’t have to listen to the constant barking (or smell the unpleasant odors) too many of a neighbor’s dogs can generate.

But Kilburn says her Shih Tzu lapdogs — all 22 of them — cause no problems for her neighbors and the neighbors agree, to such extent that two dozen of them signed a petition requesting that the town make an exception and let Kilburn keep her dogs (who are elderly by canine standards and not likely to be around much longer anyway). So far the zoning board has refused, and Kilburn took it to court after it denied her latest request for a special-use permit last December.

“I filed the court documents almost immediately,” she said. “I had to, because of the fines. They said they could fine me up to $5,000 per month.”

Nobody on the zoning board could or would comment, so only Kilburn’s side can be told. But the zoning board’s position is undeniably backed by the law.

It all started on a Monday morning in 2004 when Kilburn got a phone call from town officials. “[They] said, ‘Faith, someone said you have 16 dogs,’ and I said, ‘No, I have 22.’”

Answers like that make town officials ask to inspect a home. Kilburn says she invited them over that day, but not until Wednesday did officials from the boards of zoning and health come by.

“They came into the house and their eyes got wide as saucers, and they said, ‘How do you do it? Everything is so clean and wonderful!’ … they looked for cleanliness, which they found, and my vet wrote a letter saying all the dogs’ shots were up to date. The vet said nobody could take care of the dogs as well as Faith, and it would be cruel to break them up.”

So the dogs weren’t being mistreated, or living in squalor. What was the problem? Town Zoning Enforcement Officer Eva Espinosa could not be reached for comment and assistant officer Joseph Masi, citing pending litigation, referred questions to Joseph O’Brien, the corporation counsel for West Hartford.

“I believe it was a complaint from a neighbor,” O’Brien said, though he didn’t know the name of the complainant. Kilburn suspects it’s the one who discussed her Shih Tzus at a recent town meeting and said, “I just want the law enforced.” (The neighbor could not be reached for comment.)

All right: there’s at least one person who’s annoyed, if not by the dogs themselves then by the fact that their existence in Kilburn’s home flouts the law. But Kilburn’s immediate neighbors, whom the law presumably protects, signed a petition saying they don’t need its protection.

One of the petition signers was Elizabeth Mayo, whose backyard borders Kilburn’s. Has Mayo had problems with the dogs?

“No, we haven’t,” she said. “We directly back up on [Kilburn’s] property, and the dogs are not a problem.” But surely, 22 dogs must get noisy sometimes. “No, not at all. They’re very quiet. I can’t say that I ever hear them barking.” Emmet Whittlesey, whose signature also graces the petition, agrees.

“We’ve lived here 30 years or so, and I don’t ever know that [the dogs] are there.” And what does he think of the town’s attempts to evict them? “It’s absurd.”

It’s easy to argue for a law’s enforcement when breaking it harms someone. But when nobody’s being hurt, the arguments for enforcement get Kafkaesque. Kilburn describes the reasoning she’d heard from the zoning board when she was denied her special-use permit last December:

“They said it was because they’ve already given me enough time to get rid of the dogs … in 2004 they told me I had to get rid of all but three of them.”

So they won’t let her keep the dogs because she didn’t get rid of the dogs?

“Yes,” Kilburn said. “[Robert] Roach [of the zoning board] said to me, “We don’t want to see you back in this chamber again, because you’ll just ask for another special-use permit.” Roach did not return calls seeking comment.

So the only complaint about the breaking of this law is that the law’s being broken. Are laws upheld for the greater good, or only for their own sake? Faith Kilburn will soon find out.

Checkpoint Charlies: Archive

Still using this blog to archive my old articles. I wish I'd thought of this from the very beginning. Actually, I wish my paper kept old articles up indefinitely, so I didn't have to do this.

Checkpoint Charlies

West Hartford will be conducting drunk driving checkpoints on June 22 on New Britain Ave. So, you've been warned.

By Jennifer Abel June 21, 2007

You already know that you shouldn’t drive drunk, and you know the reasons why. But should you choose to ignore these reasons and drive drunk in West Hartford on June 22, make sure you avoid the lower end of New Britain Avenue. The cops are setting up a drunk checkpoint there, and you’ll totally get busted.

Wow – a newspaper advising its readers how to break public-safety laws without getting caught. Sounds edgy and rebellious, right? Nope. Actually, by helping drunks avoid the checkpoint we’re semi-cooperating with the police, who must make at least a token attempt to get the word out in order to qualify for DUI-enforcement grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Grant money from the [NHTSA] goes through the state Department of Transportation,” which then doles it out to cities and towns, according to Lieutenant David Dubiel, who handles traffic control for West Hartford. Of course there are restrictions on how these funds are spent. “We can’t buy equipment,” says Dubiel, but are limited to funding overtime pay for officers to either perform “roving patrols” (driving around with an eye out for trouble) or staff “sobriety checkpoints.”

And they can’t keep it secret. “[According to] parameters established in case law, [a checkpoint] has to be announced to the media,” said Dubiel. Though what the media then does with the announcement is up to them: “Say, I tell the Hartford Courant , but I can’t force them to print it.”

That’s okay — there’s no force necessary for the Advocate to do the right thing. So remember, everybody: if you’re drunk in West Hartford this June 22, or even if you’re sober and just don’t like the idea of innocent citizens having to pass through police checkpoints, stay the heck away from New Britain Avenue.

Before 1990, checkpoints in America were mostly seen on television, when low-rent stations aired old black-and-white movies about life under the Nazis or Communists. “Your papers, citizen.” Pre-1990 civics teachers bragged to their students that Americans are protected from that sort of thing by the fourth amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees: “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures … but upon probable cause.”

In other words: you can’t be stopped for searches or questioning unless the cops have a warrant or at least a very good reason to suspect you’re up to something. No “fishing expeditions” netting the innocent in hopes of catching a few guilty along with them are allowed.

Then, in the 1980s the Michigan State Police decided that drunk driving was too big a problem for the fourth amendment to cover it. The police started setting up random checkpoints, inspecting all drivers on a given road to ensure none had been drinking. Challenges to this went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1990 (by a 6-3 vote) that such checkpoints were indeed permissible.

Actually, when then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the Court opinion he agreed that “a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint.” But the Court decided this seizure without probable cause was only a “minimal intrusion of civil liberties,” and acceptable since reducing drunk driving is a legitimate concern of the government.

Ironically, Michigan’s Supreme Court later banned checkpoints within the state.

One of the arguments cited by the court were multiple studies showing checkpoints to be less effective than roving patrols in catching drunk drivers. (That the patrols avoided violating the fourth amendment was an added bonus.)

The Supreme Court ruling in favor of checkpoints had precedents: in 1976, for example, the Court said that checkpoints could be used within 100 miles of an international border, to determine drivers’ immigration status. Carving this exception to the Constitution was supposed to solve the illegal-immigration problem that plagued the country 31 years ago, the theory being that in exchange for a little fourth-amendment rollback, by 2007 or so illegal immigration would be a complete non-issue in America, border walls and INS crackdowns in New Haven notwithstanding.

Anyway, Dubiel thinks the purpose of the cops’ having to announce checkpoints to the media might be to keep constitutional bruising to a minimum. “Theoretically, the practical reason for the announcement [involves] the fourth-amendment rights against search and seizure,” he said.

When asked whether he found roving patrols or random checkpoints more effective in increasing the safety of the streets, Dubiel didn’t hesitate to answer.

“I find roving patrols more effective … our last roving patrol we found a stolen car. There are no checkpoints for that.”

West Hartford’s town council voted to accept the NHTSA grant at the last council meeting. When you look at the agenda for a meeting in West Hartford (or any other municipality in America) you’ll usually see one or two items that you know will be rubber-stamped into acceptance with no prior debate.

One of the acceptance no-brainers on the last agenda was this: “Resolution to appropriate funds awarded the Town of West Hartford under the Federal Highway Safety Program for the purpose of expanded DUI enforcement.” No councilmember will vote to turn down free federal money, especially not in the name of public safety and double-especially not when the town’s having budget problems.

“The grant request was processed some time ago,” said Mayor Scott Slifka. “It’s for work we’ve done throughout the year, with the exception of [the upcoming checkpoint].” Slifka also said that the town helps fulfill the grant’s prior-notice requirement by mentioning future checkpoints on its “list serve,” a free e-mail subscription service offered on the town website. So if you’re wont to drink and drive in West Hartford then shame on you, and don’t forget to add your e-mail address to that list.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Poker Buddies

The main reason I pitched this story to my editor was, I really, really wanted to call some government official and ask him the sex question. And so I did. I love my job.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Poker Buddies, Wink Wink
It's illegal to play poker for money, unless you're (on tribal land or) among "friends"

By Jennifer Abel

Here’s a riddle: how is playing cards like having sex? Answer: it’s legal for two (or more) consenting adults to do it together so long as nobody gains financially. But the second capitalism gets involved, then you are (according to the government) an officially Bad Person who deserves to go to jail.

Poker’s pretty popular these days, both in person and online, so the Division of Special Revenue is reminding everybody not to play for money. Paul Young, the division’s executive director, said in a press release last month that Connecticut law makes gambling illegal in most instances.

“Poker is clearly a prohibited form of gambling and soliciting others to partake in a form of prohibited gambling is a violation of the State’s criminal statutes,” Young wrote. “We also have the Tribal agreements to consider.”

These tribal agreements boil down to: it’s legal for the state’s Indian tribes to make money from poker games, and illegal for everybody else. That sounds straightforward, if unfair. But here’s a confusing wrinkle: playing poker for money is illegal outside of an Indian casino, unless it’s done among friends.

They say a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. How long does it take for a stranger to acquire legal friend status for poker-playing purposes in Connecticut?

Richard Blumenthal, the state attorney general, is the guy ultimately responsible for prosecuting and penalizing those who violate the poker laws. He told the Advocate, “The rule has always been: gambling is prohibited in state, but social games are permitted. Permissible forms include people who know each other, with a social connection.”

However, social connections made via the Internet don’t seem to apply. As Paul Young said, “The opportunity to wager over the Internet on a variety of activities, including casino games, is very attractive to many people; however, such activity is illegal in Connecticut.”

But why should the law distinguish between social activities that take place online versus in meat-space? “It’s an illegal activity,” Young explained. Before anybody can play Internet poker without going to jail, “there has to be a law on the books permitting it.”

And there isn’t. So the Advocate asked: where card games are concerned, would it be accurate to say that which is not allowed is prohibited? “It is prohibited,” Young agreed.

Unless it’s among friends. So how long does it take for two strangers to legally qualify? “We haven’t really traveled down that road … I think it’s something the courts would have to work on,” Young said.

The Advocate also wondered if sexual activity could form the foundation of a legal friendship. If you meet a stranger at six o’clock and have sex with him at six-fifteen, can you legally play poker in the afterglow?

There’s really no polite way to ask a government official such a question, so you really can’t blame the director of Connecticut’s Division of Special Revenue for adopting a rather frosty tone of voice when he answered, “I wouldn’t be able to judge that.”

Sincere advice: it’s not worth having sex with somebody just so you can play poker later. Instead, go to a teenage jewelry store like Claire’s or The Icing, where you and your poker buddy can buy matching necklaces declaring yourselves “B.F.F.” (Best Friends Forever). This jewelry will turn your skin green if you wear it too long, but green skin beats the heck out of a jail sentence.

Manscaping: Archive

Still using this to archive some old articles, since my paper, for some reason, only keeps them up for two months and then they vanish forever (apparently).

Thursday, July 12, 2007
The complete body hairlessness of Brazilian waxing may be coming to a regular guy near you
By Jennifer Abel

"Deep in the Brazillian jungle, where the sun never shines through the dense undergrowth onto the dark forest floor, bulldozers are clear-cutting the rain forest."

That's the family-friendly way to mention "Brazilian," "clear-cutting," "undergrowth" and "where the sun never shines" in the same sentence.

The naughtier alternative discusses Brazilian waxing, a depilatory procedure that clear-cuts a path through one's personal undergrowth down where the sun never shines (unless you tan in the nude).

Incidentally, when Brazilian rain forests are stripped away the denuded land is often used for farming. Thus, there exist both family-friendly and other ways to mention "threshing," "plowing," "cross-pollination" and "what often happens after Brazilian clear-cutting" together, too. But that's for another day.

Truth be told, Brazilian waxing doesn't actually "cut" a path through anything; neither blades nor bulldozers are used. Instead, molten wax is poured on the skin where unwanted hair grows, so that when the wax is ripped off the hair goes with it.

The name, by the way, refers not to Brazil's rain forests but its beaches, where thong bathing suits first became popular. The thing about a thong is, the only way to avoid having hair poke out from the bottom when you're wearing one is to avoid having hair at all.

Thus, Brazilian waxing as we know it today was born, and in 1987 seven sisters from Brazil introduced the technique to America when they opened their waxing salon in Manhattan.

Search online for celebrities who have bragged about their Brazilian waxes and you'll find a list of people ranging from fictional characters like Samantha from Sex and the City to allegedly non-fictional characters like Kirstie Alley and Jennifer Grey.

Note these are all women. Where men are concerned, paring the pubic patch is still rare enough to warrant its own cutesy gender-specific name: manscaping.

It's no surprise waxing is mostly a female activity. Women tend to fuss over their appearance more than men (except for bodybuilders and gay guys, uncoincidentally the two groups of males most likely to get their own yards manscaped). Even if there existed no gender primping differentials, the technique might remain a largely female preserve due to simple logistics. Women's naughty bits, due to their comparative smoothness and lack of squishiness, are much easier than men's to wax: just pour, rip and you're done.

Compare that to the experience of an anonymous writer for the salon-review Web site, after he went to the Danusias Day Spa in New Britain in search of a professional to go lumberjacking in his pelvic forest:

"I started in the area below the scrotum (between that and the anus). I held one leg up and stretched the area taut and Vicky applied the wax. She matted the strip down and Rrrrrrrrip! off it came. I have to say, the pain was not as bad as I had imagined. We did this with my other leg held up as well & the most embarrassing part was next to come. I did want the backside done, and that required turning over and getting on all fours & she asked if I could stretch myself taut again. The only way this was possible (picture this) is to balance on my head and spread my cheeks apart with my hands."

Throughout history, pubic hairstyles have changed almost as much as public ones. Ancient desert cultures, including the Egyptians, used waxing-like techniques to remove hair, more for reasons of hygiene than style: hair's a handicap where sand lice thrive. In Islam, which started in a desert region, hairlessness for the purpose of cleanliness became a religious requirement, since the Sunnah commands adults of both sexes to keep their armpit and pubic regions free of hair.

The first sexist-overtoned defoliation seems to have sprouted (sorry) in ancient Greece. Statues from the era show men looking as hairy as a mammal can get, whereas the women were expected to keep their labial lawns mowed. Two thousand years or so later, this dichotomy allegedly led to a catastrophic wedding night for the Victorian critic John Ruskin. Something — nobody knows for certain just what — about his first sight of a nude adult woman so traumatized him that he never consummated his marriage, nor any other relationship. One of his biographers speculated that, since his knowledge of the female body stemmed from Greek statues, it was the sight of his wife's pubic hair that so sprained his libido.

The Romans took a more gender-neutral stance toward the denuding of the naughty bits, with both genders getting theirs plucked in public bathhouses. When the philosopher Seneca the Younger lived above one of them he complained in a letter about the screams of the Empire's fashionistas keeping up with styles down below.

Actually, Seneca didn't complain so much as brag how the racket didn't disturb his philosopher's sense of inner tranquility. But Seneca's experience doesn't apply to modern times: Rome has long since fallen, and present-day zoning codes make it unlikely anyone would live above a modern salon where painful depilatory procedures take place.

Seneca presumably heard males and females yelping in equal numbers. Trendy places like New York are reclaiming this gender equality in pruning the curled branches, but in Connecticut, which is somewhat more provincial, it's still a largely female preserve. At Cromwell's Parisian Salon and Day Spa, "We'll get maybe 50 or 60 females a week," said manager Michelle Salafia. "For men, maybe one or two in the last few months. At least, we had one or two inquire about it."

Salafia couldn't quite remember whether they actually went through with it, but at least it sounds as though Parisian would sell its services to any male looking to buy them. By contrast, many Connecticut salons that do Brazilian waxes won't accept male customers at all.
"We don't do any men's waxing below the waist," said Michael Sokol, owner of Picasso's Salon and Day Spa in Enfield. "The girls don't feel comfortable doing men. We don't make the girls do anything they're not comfortable with."

The woman who answered the phone at the Lavender Fields Day Spa in Plainville said almost the same thing. "We don't offer [Brazilian waxes] to men because none of the girls are comfortable doing it."

In Seneca's time depilators didn't have the luxury to pick and choose who they'd pluck, since the task of intimate hair removal was left to slaves. Our modern free-will system is better both for the hair-removers and those on whom they work; if you're going to lose your basic mammalian attributes down below, the last thing you need is for the de-mammaling to be done by some resentful, underfed person happy for the chance to get away with inflicting pain on you.

No need for slaves, anyway. As more men show an interest in transforming their shrubbery into topiaries, more businesses like the Danusias Day Spa will find it profitable to offer the service. Vicky, the aesthetician mentioned in the earlier spa review, said when asked that about 20 percent of her Brazilian wax customers are men. She thought that might be a slight increase over years previous, though she had little time to talk to the Advocate, since she had another customer waiting.

That said, if Connecticut's ever going to enjoy a reputation as trendy and with-it as Manhattan's, Nutmeg menfolk are going to have to get on the ball and offer up theirs for manscaping. Simon Doonan recently reported in the New York Observer that the downsizing of the subwaist workforce, at least in Manhattan, is starting to make serious inroads with heterosexual non-bodybuilders.

Even in the big city, however, the bald-balled seem to prefer anonymity. As one nameless man said to Doonan, "I have no fucking idea why you gay guys are so into that God-awful Danish modern furniture. It's freaky and ugly. But I've totally gotta give it up to you on the ball-waxing."

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Phone Sex Story: Archive

Cut-and-pasted version of my phone-sex story, which is tragically unavailable online at my paper since it got victimized by our "let's take all the articles down after two months" policy. Luckily, I found the story in bootleg form on a sex-gazette site, next to photos which dishonestly suggest I'm a scantily-clad smoking-hot 18-year-old Asian chick. With truly enormous hooters.

For a Good Time, Call Jennifer
My Brief Career as a Phone-Sex Worker
April 5, 2007

By Jennifer Abel

"Oh yes," I sighed. "Yes. Right there. Please - oh! Oh, God. Harder. Please, oh God, Simon, don't stop. Oh yes Oh, yes ooooooh." My words melted into incoherent moans.

"You like that, don't you?" Simon's husky voice demanded.

"I love it," I gasped.

"You smell so good," he groaned. "Oh my God." He literally screamed upon reaching his finale, and I turned my head just enough to keep his loud cries out of my ear. "That was amazing," he finally said. "Thank you."

"No, thank you," I murmured.

"You have a great day, Jennifer," Simon said, and hung up the phone. I resumed normal breathing as I scrawled in my notebook: "Simon, hardcore sex call, came and went in eight minutes. Thanked me before hanging up, very nice of him." I would've written more but the phone rang again, so I picked up the receiver for another performance.


My phone sex career was (ahem) conceived the previous week, when I strolled into my boss's office and said "Good morning, Alistair. I saw a help-wanted ad for a phone sex line. No experience necessary! And I'm told I have a nice phone voice. Can I try it?"

Editors always smile when their writers say such things. "If you feel comfortable with that, go right ahead."

"I don't feel comfortable at all," I said cheerfully. "I expect I'll be quite awful. But won't it be fun to write about?"

With a fast Internet connection you can find a phone chat job in under a minute. I signed on with a company that runs psychic hotlines and straight and gay sex lines for men. After filling out the online application I got an e-mail telling me it was being processed, and meanwhile here's the pay scale, job requirements and password to a restricted Web site where I could print out an employee handbook.

Two words for anyone who wants to get rich giving phone sex: don't bother. In theory, you can make up to 40 cents a minute, but to get that you have to do at least 60 calls a week with an average call length of 10 minutes or more. If your calls average six minutes or less, you only make a nickel a minute and risk being fired. (And you're only paid for when you actually talk, not the time spent waiting for the phone to ring.)

But the deck's stacked so a high average is hard to get. For example, you have to hang up if you get a call from a minor, but that means a five-second call bringing down your average. There's no appeals process to say, "Yes, that was a short call but it doesn't count."

If, despite the low pay, you still want to work in phone sex, the other main requirements are a land-line phone connected by a wall cord (nothing cellular or cordless, lest a 10-year-old with a ham radio listen in) and a quiet place to work without interruptions.

The next morning Alistair looked quite interested as I explained how the pay scale worked, but when I mentioned the need for uninterrupted privacy he gave me an intent look.

"Are you sure you're up to this? Emotionally?"

"Oh, sure," I said airily. "It'll be -"

"Seriously," he said, so I changed tone too.

"Seriously? If I were looking for an actual second job, I wouldn't even consider this. But it'll be a funny story."

"All right. But you stop the minute you start feeling creepy. I'm serious."

"Of course I will," I promised.


Sex lines, psychics and other pay-per-call services started in 1980, when the FCC ruled that phone companies couldn't put limitations on the content or ownership of so-called Dial-It services, where customers could call phone numbers (usually in the 976 exchange) for weather forecasts, horoscopes and other oft-updated information and have a per-minute fee added to their phone bill.

Once businesses other than the phone company could run paid calls, there appeared almost immediately a service known as "dial-a-porn," where customers could hear recordings of women describing graphic sex acts. Naturally, dial-a-porn inspired laws to shut it down on obscenity grounds until 1983, when the Supreme Court deemed such content bans unconstitutional.

Now phone sex is a billion-dollar-a-year industry, and when the numbers come out for 2007 a couple hundred of those dollars will have been shelled out by guys talking to me.


While waiting for the chat line to process my application I implemented a half-assed training program: I watched the fake-orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally and read the sample scripts in my employee handbook.

Success in phone sex requires a good voice, salacious imagination and ability to talk drop-dead raunchy without embarrassment. The third one matters most in phone porn, where even Jenna Jameson's libido won't help you if superimposed over the vocabulary of a nun.

The third one worried me. I know how to flirt but that's all implication and innuendo - everything phone sex is not. Those sample scripts used nouns and verbs I don't even utter to the gentlemen who've applied them to me. However, English is a versatile language. Many of its rude words do double-time as syllables in terms so respectable even a nun can say them. So I practiced the full-length versions as a prelude to the vulgar abridgements.

"Cockamamie," I said. "Tittering pussy-willow dictator." I also bought a large bottle of chocolate liqueur.

On Sunday a woman from the chat line called to give me my extension, pass code and the toll-free number I'd call to log in.

To simplify matters I decided to use my real name and description (minus a few years off my age). The important part of the message dealt with my ideal man. The preferred answer was "breathing," but I had to be pickier. Though the handbook talked about many different types of callers I could expect, they basically fell into two categories: men who took the lead in calls, and men who expected the woman to.

A phone-sex call with me taking the lead? No. I needed an introduction that would enflame the take-charge guys while leaving the meek ones cold.

So I described myself as a hot 27-year-old and added "I like a strong man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. If that's you then pick me so I can give you what you want."


Alistair agreed next morning when I suggested I take the afternoon off to sit alone in my empty apartment and wait for obscene phone calls.

I went home at noon. Of course I had to eat lunch first, and the coffee table needed clearing, and hey, here's that barrette I was looking for, better put it away so I don't lose it. . .By 1:30 p.m. I stopped procrastinating.

But I better use the bathroom before I start. And I should really -

The phone rang. I answered and heard a recording from the Dispatch Center, saying they needed agents to work the lines now so stay on if I could.

Oh, hell! I grabbed a notebook and pen and downed the shot I'd poured. After a few seconds I heard, "Thank you, agent 5380. Please enter your four-digit passcode followed by the pound sign." I did. "Thank you. You are now logged out. Press one to log in."

Two o'clock. The phone rang at 2:01 p.m. and a recorded male voice said "Hardcore sex call. Press one for hardcore sex call." Here goes.

"Hey, it's Jennifer," I said softly. Complete silence. "What's your name?" More silence. I pressed one again, and hung up after hearing more nothing. I got three more silent calls, and at 2:08 I hung up to log out and in again. The phone rang before I could.

"You're 18 or 19 and hold nothing back. Press one for 18 or 19 and hold nothing back."

What happened to 27? I pressed one and said, "Hey, it's Jennifer," for the fifth time in eight minutes, doubting anyone would actually answer.

But a man's voice said hello! It was Jay, my first phone sex partner.

Phone sex is like the real thing, in that no woman's good her first time and if she says she was she's lying. Jay expected my clueless virgin self to take command of the situation and I had no idea how, so I asked "What do you want me to do for you, Jay?"

He wanted to hear me have a good time. With no assistance from him.

The handbook says phone performers do better if they get into a fantasy. Okay: I'm in a diner eating lunch with Billy Crystal. Moan. Gasp. A few soft-core phrases from the manual. I sounded a little stilted but Jay got the happy ending he sought and hung up just after I heard the telltale gasping on his end of the line.

A successful call from Jay's perspective but a failure from the company's viewpoint, lasting only three minutes.

The next two callers were jokers; I actually heard the third guy's friends snickering on the line. And between those two I picked up the phone to hear, "You are a mistress with a strap-on dildo."

Like hell I am. I hung up.

Discouraged, I logged out after the third caller and e-mailed an update to my editor: "I am very very bad at this, here."

Good editors always respond with prompt encouragement and guidance. "I'm sure it takes practice."

I logged back in.

Alistair was right: it does take practice. After an hour I could stretch calls out for eight to 12 minutes, though my average was still pretty low: I hung up on one kid so young his voice hadn't changed yet, and 30 seconds into "press one for a 15-minute credit card call" I heard a beep and a metallic voice: "You have one minute left."

By 4:30 my routine, when sanitized, boiled down to: "Let me unzip you. Wow, that's impressive. I'm inspired to do things to it - My shirt is off. Behold the grandeur of the twins. Oh, it must be cold in here - I'll remove my underwear too. What, you'll do it for me? Forsooth, that feels nice."

And the Foley artistry. The first time a caller wanted to hear me being spanked, all I could think to do was draw my knee up next to the receiver and slap it. It worked until I started laughing and failed to disguise that as passionate gasps.

For imitating Clintonian acts I filled a small bowl with water, to wet my fingers when I needed to start sucking on them. This technique also conveys helpful voice-muffling qualities. Some guys even like the occasional gagging sound, which proved useful when I swallowed water down the wrong pipe and had a coughing fit.

"You chokin' on me, baby?" the caller asked.

"Yes - cough - you're so big I - cough - don't know if I can - cough handle it - cough oh God - ha hamf humf."

But I couldn't rise to all challenges (or get the caller to, which is the same thing). One call went well until the man said he'd just used my mouth as a toilet and wanted to know how that tasted.

"Hell on a biscuit, honey, how should I know?" I wanted to say, but that would be unprofessional. So I guessed. "Uh, salty?"

Must've guessed wrong. He hung up.


Not counting the disconnects and kid hang-ups, I took around 24 calls that day. Most of the guys wanted a quick phone roll in the hay, but a few had an emotional component to their fantasy. Simon, the one who told me to have a great day before he hung up, acted like his first time with a woman he'd long loved.

But they were rare. Most of the guys liked name calling, with dirty bitch, nasty slut and filthy whore punctuating their chats. I don't know if that's standard for phone sex or the result of my "strong man" message (why strength should mean abuse is another question). And I could hardly interview the guys about their motivations when they were paying by the minute to chat with me.

By quarter after six I felt pretty jaded. "Press one for hardcore sex call."

"Hello, Jennifer," my caller said pleasantly. "My name is Nikolai and I'm a dominator. I'm looking for a pretty woman to be a submissive. Would you like to do that, Jennifer?"

You know how sometimes you don't notice your refrigerator running until it shuts off? His voice struck me like that. All my calls, even minus their X-rated content, shared a quality I hadn't noticed until Nikolai spoke without it: a pay-by-the-minute rather than conversational tone. He spoke in complete sentences with clear enunciation. None of my other callers sounded like they'd willingly read a book in their lives.

This man sounded like the men I know.

As for his request, all I knew about S&M were its pop culture handcuffs-and-black-leather stereotypes. His familiar tone made me slip out of character, so I answered with my normal voice instead of my breathy oh-yes one: "I don't know. What would that entail?" I quickly amended, "I mean, I've never done that before."

"Really? You haven't?" He sounded genuinely surprised.

Oops! Go in for the save. And don't use words like entail. "Maybe you could show me how." I paused. "You'd be nice to me, wouldn't you, Nikolai? You wouldn't hurt me?"

Bingo. "Oh, I'll hurt you, you stupid little slut. You deserve it. But I won't hurt you as badly if you do what you're told."

He sounded angry and the abrupt change surprised me, but I figured it part of his game. Spanky-spanky, I thought. Middle-class suburban vanilla S&M play. I've seen it in skits on Comedy Central.

"I'll do what I'm told," I said. This at first entailed my repeating the statement along with his name and various affirmations. He made me describe my appearance and then said, "I'm going to put a lot of bruises on that pretty white skin."

All day I'd heard fantasies I found repulsive, but Nikolai's were the first that would cause actual damage if played out. He wants to bruise me? Even as a fake-out that bothered me, and my real voice re-appeared when I said "No, I don't want you to do that."

And from his next response crawled the slimy fantasy that slithered through the stinking wasteland of his libido: he said he'd rape me, strangle me, and cut off body parts I'd much rather keep.

I let out my night's only genuine gasp, and almost hung up. But no - I wanted to see what these calls were like, right? Hell of a story. Besides, it's only a phone call with some distant stranger.

So I stayed on, and faked neither bewilderment nor horror when I asked, "Why - why would you want to do such a thing to me?"

"Because you deserve it, you stupid little bitch."

All right, I can see where this is going. I'm supposed to beg him not to. I did.

The storyline got worse. Three minutes into it he started threatening my (imaginary) little sister, too. Again I almost hung up, but suggested he do things to me instead. He agreed.

"Get down on all fours, you dirty bitch. I just kicked you in your side. I just smashed your pretty little face. How does that feel?"

He called me pretty dozens of times in the context of destruction: bruise my pretty skin, rip out my pretty hair, smash my pretty face. If the beating were real I'd've been dead six minutes into the call.

I've long known sadists existed, but only in the abstract; I'd never actually talked to one. Doing so was like feeling pain after a lifetime of only reading about it.

And this sadist who daydreamed of torture and murder was the only man all day who sounded like the ones I know.

I think I lost it. At some point the call became almost real: this man wants to do horrible things and I have to talk him out of it!

Fifteen minutes later he started building up to the climax of his story: he wanted to hear me say, "I'm a stupid little slut who deserves to be raped and strangled and have my tits cut off."

That's what almost made me hang up at the start. I didn't hang up now, but I couldn't say that sentence. I'd spent the whole day in character uttering words I'd never said before, but I did. Not. Want to say that sentence. I spent several minutes trying to bargain out with less extreme variants. Finally, I managed to choke out the phrase and added, "But please, don't do that! Please?"

Silence. The air collapsed, somehow. I thought he'd hung up. Then he spoke again, in the same friendly, cultivated, every-man-I-know tone he'd introduced himself with 20 minutes before.

"Thanks for playing along with this, Jennifer. Bye-bye."

I logged out for good soon after. A few calls came through but none lasted more than two minutes - I'd lost whatever competence I'd gained.

I'd been had. The son of a bitch wanted a mind fuck, not a phone one.


The next night I thought I'd change my greeting and try one more shift to collect more data, but my password didn't work and I got a curt e-mail saying the company "is no longer purchasing your services." Too short a call average, I guess.

That's how you get fired from a phone sex line. At five cents per minute, I made around three or four dollars. I don't mind being a phone-porn failure, but it was damned annoying to sit in Alistair's office later and admit, "OK, you could maybe make the argument I was just a tad overconfident when I told you I could handle this."

But I would've been right, had I quit before that call from Nikolai. There's a warped lesson on the value of perseverance. And I learned another useless lesson from the night's events: a sense of ironic detachment strong enough to sustain you through spanking your knee and fellating your fingers won't do jack to prevent a sadistic murder fantasy from scaring the hell out of you.

Obvious in retrospect, isn't it?

There's a lot of paperwork required to claim your first and only paycheck from a sex chat line. But I won't cash it when it comes. No, I'll buy a dollar-store frame and keep it on my desk, and then someday - if God is good to me - an unsuspecting person walking through the office will say, "Why, Jennifer, whatever is that check?" And I'll flash a smile filled with sunshine and innocence, and say "That's the cumulative lifetime royalties from my career in phone porn."

Oh God, oh please, oh yes.

Coffin Nails Fill State Coffers: Archive

Since my paper still only keeps articles online for two months, I've decided to use this blog as an archive for cut-and-pasted versions of some of my best stuff. I wish I'd thought of this earlier.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Coffin Nails Fill State Coffers
Is taxing smokers fair?
By Jennifer Abel

Hey, smokers! You should inhale a nice, refreshing cigarette while you read this. Maybe two. The exact number doesn't matter; what's important is that you smoke cigarettes purchased instate from a licensed retailer in full compliance with all tax regulations.

Speaking of which, did you notice the price increase that went into effect on July 1? That's because the per-pack state tax went up again. Connecticut now gets two dollars for every pack you buy. That, in turn, explains why you need to keep smoking: according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the state expects to collect $400 million from tobacco this year. If every Nutmegger gave up nicotine tomorrow, we'd face a $400 million budgetary shortfall.

Not that anybody in the government's going to come right out and tell you to keep smoking. Nor are they likely to mention that non-smokers cost society far more money than smokers; a non-smoker will (statistically) live up to seven years longer, costing state or federal pension plans another seven years' worth of payment checks. The more people smoke, the richer the government gets.

That leads to a conundrum: Connecticut's one of the wealthiest states in the nation. The majority of smokers are low-income people. Why is a rich state balancing its budget on the backs of the poor?

"Since most people don't smoke, it's not hard to get majority support for an increase in cigarette taxes," said Jacob Sullum, a senior editor for Reason magazine (published by the nonprofit Reason Foundation). "The share of American adults who smoke is down to about 20 percent. As a group, they are less affluent and less politically influential than nonsmokers, and they are widely reviled for their unhealthy, disgusting habit. So when you ask people whether the government should take money from an unpopular minority ... I guess anything less than 80 percent support should be counted as a victory for fairness."

With 20 cigarettes in a standard pack, the state gets a dime for every cigarette smoked here. But some smokers, for whatever reason, want to avoid this tax. Doing this is quite simple (though illegal): just buy cigarettes from someplace with a tax rate lower than Connecticut's.

If you have friends in low-tax states, it's easy to have them buy cheap cigarettes and mail them to you. However, not everybody has connections in tobacco country. The most popular means of buying out-of-state smokes is to order them over the Internet, but smokers who avoided taxes this way got an unpleasant surprise last month.

"The Department of Revenue Services will begin sending notices ... to Connecticut residents who owe the state taxes," said a DRS press release. "The initiative is part of an effort by the agency to ensure taxpayer compliance with state cigarette laws."

Those laws, of course, basically boil down to "give the state a dime for every cigarette you smoke." And a federal law called the Jenkins Act makes it very easy for the state to find out who's been keeping that money for themselves.

"The Jenkins Act dates back to the 1940s," said Sarah Kaufman, a spokesman for the DRS. "It requires retailers who sell ? at the time it was mail order ? to individuals out of state" to give the state its customer lists, so revenuers will know where to send the tax bills.

Anyone who bought Internet cigarettes in 2005 or 2006 can expect to receive a DRS back-tax bill, Kaufman said. This is partially to help fill the state's coffers, and partially to make things fair for Connecticut cigarette sellers.

"If people buy over the Internet to avoid the taxes, that's hurting businesses that sell cigarettes here," Kaufman said. So does quitting smoking to avoid the taxes, but that's all right. "Our position is, if people quit, there's no tax. It's just, we are, by the nature of this agency, our mission is to uphold the tax laws of the state of Connecticut."

Not every Internet customer will get a bill for back taxes, though. While most mail-order companies are required by the Jenkins Act to hand their customer lists to the government, one subset of retailers is exempt: Indian tribes who sell tax-free cigarettes are technically sovereign nations where U.S. law doesn't apply.

"We argue that they are bound by the Jenkins Act; they argue they are not," Kaufman said. And so far "they" seem to be winning; Indian reservations have not yet turned their customer records over to the DRS.

Indian tribes in Connecticut make money from their casino monopoly, but one state over, in New York, (untaxed) cigarettes are the primary income source. is just one of many New York-based Indian cigarette sellers, this one run by the Seneca Indian Nation. The Advocate called to ask if the tribe turned its customer records over to state revenue departments. "We're exempt from that right now," said the woman who answered the phone (and preferred not to be named). "They're trying to get our information, but so far they haven't."

The key words here are "so far." Given America's shaky record of upholding treaty obligations with Indian tribes, it probably wouldn't be wise to put your faith in such treaties now. (Assuming you wanted to buy tax-free cigarettes in the first place, but you really shouldn't do that.)

Hypothetically, suppose you bought such cigarettes in person and paid with cash? There would be no record to trace. Such Indian tribes in New York aren't as common as those who make mail-order sales, but they do exist.

The nearest one seems to be the tribe running the Poospatuck Smoke Shop on Long Island (a 190-mile round trip from downtown Hartford, according to Google maps). Poospatuck "hasn't done mail-order [cigarette sales] for two years," said the woman who answered their toll-free number. So how do they sell cigarettes?

"It's like a store. You come in, you make your purchase and you leave. There's no [customer] records kept."

Sarah Kaufman of the DRS said that you can only bring one carton of out-of-state cigarettes home with you; any more than that and you're expected to pay the full $20 per carton tax. Considering gas prices these days, it's not worth $20 to drive all the way to Long Island and back just for a single carton of cigarettes. You'd need to buy at least four or five, which would be illegal.

Of course, the chance of getting caught is very low, unless the state decided to have drunk-driving-style checkpoints looking for untaxed Indian cigarettes.

"We're not going to have checkpoints," Kaufman said when asked about the possibility. "We're not the Gestapo."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

We Have Been Chastised

Some of y’all might remember that last October I told you how I managed to fly out of state and smuggle six ounces of a forbidden substance onto the plane in plain view of the TSA. (Full disclosure: this sounds a lot more impressive than it was.) Now a few minutes ago, or ten months later if you prefer, I checked my e-mail and got notice of a new comment posted in that antique thread:

maybe you ignorant bastards should be pointing the finger at the fucking terrorists for losing your precious liquids ... afterall, they are the ones who have used liquids in the past to make bombs, etc. ... instead of the TSA folks who try to make you ungrateful shit-heads safe ... i say go fuck yourself ...
Wow. I hope that's only my very first troll. Sincerity can be scary.

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