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Death Merchant
Death Merchant

Death Merchant

FarmerBrownjim brown

Death Merchant

Working in the Santa Clara County Assessor’s appraisal office was riding on a gravy train. In 1977, after 6 years employment, an office promotion opportunity came up. I wanted it. The problem, 28 others wanted it too, including a woman.

Of the 80 appraisers in the office, 3 were female, none promoted. The winds of change were picking up, not a storm yet but more than a gentle breeze. A few years prior there were no female appraisers. The old boy’s, Assessor’s club now caused eyebrows to rise. Gender politics was in the air,

Job qualifications were a college degree, a driver’s license and passing the civil service exams. Due to the need to balance gender, hiring criteria was fudged and 2 secretaries were quietly promoted from within to be appraisers, their office secretarial time deemed meeting the college degree requirement.

Unlike the 2 other female appraisers, Joan the third female, was hired from outside the office. She’d met job specifications and went the civil service procedures. Of the 27 promotion competitors, she was the one I needed to surpass to be senior appraiser. She was the heir apparent, the assumed next senior appraiser in the office. To overcome her advantage, I played the good ole boy’s card by becoming a merchant of death.

About half the appraisers were good ole boys, veterans from World War 2. They’d been given historic hiring preference on returning from the War. Since then, military service didn’t matter with more males hired without prior military service than those with. It wasn’t who you knew that got you on the gravy train. It was strictly civil service exam test scores and if the interviewer liked you at the oral review.

The oral was mostly a matter of luck. If you met a fluke of some sort which pleased the reviewer, you were in. In my case it was grade school. A question which irked me on the job application was not only where I went to college and high school but also grade school. In the oral interview, I learned the reviewer attended my grade school, luck of the draw.

Now gender was the hiring and promotion preferences, like World War 2 military service once did. The 2 other males hired when I came on board squeezed on just before females were given more tickets to ride than males. Hiring and promotion still, however, needed to be played out against civil service procedures.

Under civil service, promotion opportunities were posted in the personnel office. If you met specifications and were interested, you put your name in the hopper and were churned through the civil service to a preference list. Management was required to promote from the 3 with the highest civil service score. Your score was determined by a written exam and an oral interview. The written test was standard, the same for all and given in a proctored group setting.

To keep the oral review impartial, management personnel from another county were brought in to avoid office favoritism.

There was no way to fudge the written exam. You put your Number 2 lead pencil marks on the IBM answer sheet options and the computer put you in your place. That was 50% of your rating score.

The oral review was where you could skew the numbers. Despite use of outside interviewers, home office management had ways of influencing the selection process by the questions they had them ask applicants. I had to influence the questions asked if I was to outscore Joan. To ensure the correct questions were presented I needed to be management’s favorite.

Unfortunately, office management was split in two. There was the captain, Chief Appraiser Bob, who welcomed me aboard with the admonishment I was on the gravy train and not to fuck it up. There was his nemesis, Harry, a former marine, captured in Bataan by the Japanese, who survived the death march and POW camp. They didn’t mix.

As former military, both knew management avoids familiarity with line appraisers. It was difficult to cotton up to either. One of Harry’s management duties was oversight of appeals. Adjusting the home values of the rich hill folks resulted in my generating more property tax appeals than anyone. From my appeal presentations, Harry liked me. It was he, who tagged me Crusader Rabbit.

It was Chief Appraiser Bob, I needed to win over. He was the engineer in charge of keeping the gravy train running smoothly.

One of the perks on the gravy train was the light work load. This resulted in many appraisers having hobbies or attending schools to absorb time. Their hobbies and studies then became additional perks to others working in the office. They provided advice and assistance garnered from their specialty if needed which helped keep the gravy train, choo-chooing.

Clarence drove a tank with Patton during World War 2. As a result, he carried enough shrapnel in him to fail even early airport metal detectors and walked with a noticeable limp. His hobby specialty was collecting material treasures which he started doing during the war. I once asked him.

“Did you ever loot during the war.”

“Jim, when we took a village the Germans were required to turn in any arms, binoculars, cameras or short-wave radios they possessed to a check point. We, knew the officers would take their pick so we’d set up a spot a block ahead and skim through what they turned in and take our pick first. I got lots of cameras. You want to buy one?”

“No, just curious. The GI’s take other things?”

“Some were savages. When we broke into houses, we’d take what we wanted. We knew the Germans often had valuable paintings. Some guys would cut the pictures out of their frames with their bayonet and fold them up. I never did that. I always removed the frame, took out the tacks and carefully rolled them up. I had to extend my time in the army a year to get it all back home. I couldn’t afford to smoke. You could buy a nice coo-coo clock for a pack of cigarettes.”

He had a second garage built to store his goodies and cruised malls and shopping centers to check out deals with his surplus appraiser time. If you wanted to know the best place to by a barometer, you’d ask Clarence.

Steve and Bill in the office, were getting law degrees at Santa Clara University. Steve studied criminal law and Bill real estate law. If you had a legal question, you stopped by one of their desks.

There was Jake the computer guru. He programmed the County’s main frame computer to work out the spread point odds for NFL football games and ran the weekly football pool, a significant office perk.

Many of the senior appraiser promotion contenders had a specialty which added perks to the gravy train. Neither Joan or I did. I needed to slick the rails and make myself useful to the office. What could I do? Just about every option was taken, even porn purveyor was taken by John.

Then I got a break. Prices on the lobby cigarette machine were raised from 50 to 75 cents, part of 1970’s inflation.

About three quarters of those in the office smoked. All management did, even the Assessor. The 75 cents a pack price was a rip off. I could buy a carton of 10 at Payless Drug Store for $4 or 40 cents a pack.

I surveyed the office for brands smoked, went to Payless Drug Store and bought a carton for everyone’s brand, cleared out a district 5 file cabinet and spread my merchandise for sale at 50 cents a pack. It was on the honor system, a smoker opened the file cabinet, took their brand and tossed 50 cents into the cigar box kitty. They saved 25 cents and I was a team player on the gravy train.

Will, aka, Nervous Willy, my supervisor smoked Marlboro but he pretended there were no cigarettes in the file cabinet on the assumption if it blew up, it was best to claim ignorance.

Soon there was a steady stream of customers to the file cabinet. While payment was on the honor system, not all are honest. I broke even but my office reputation as a good ole boy was achieved.

Then came the day of reckoning. Captain Bob approached my desk. He wanted to know about cigarettes in the office.

“Mr. Brown, there’s a rumor in the office you’re selling cigarettes.”

I jumped up as Will also approached. He wanted to appear shocked cigarettes were in the file cabinet if in need to cover himself.

“That rumor is correct sir.”

“How does it work”

I walked to the file cabinet, swung open the door and exclaimed.

“You get a pack of the brand you like and deposit 50 cents. It’s on the honor system sir.”

“Do you have Dual Filter Tareyton?

The chief appraiser was the only person I’d ever knew before or since who smoked Tareyton cigarettes. It took more than Payless Drugstore to find them.

“Flip top box or soft pack sir?”

He pulled out a dollar and took two soft packs. Once he left, Will threw a dollar in and took 2 Marlboros.

As Crusader Rabbit of appeals and as death’s cigarette merchant, I was a good ole boy to the Chief and Assistant Chief Appraisers.

I did well on the written exam. In the oral interview the first question they asked was.

“Mr. Brown, do you handle many appeals?”

“They call me the Crusader Rabbit of appeals.”

The senior appraiser promotion results came out. Joan was number 2. The others revealed their numbers from 3 to 28. I was number 1, the new senior appraiser.

After all my successful plotting, 9 month later, I left the County with passage of Proposition 13. The gravy train had run off the rails. Joan became the next senior appraiser.

Author Notes: It's not what or who you know, it's how you play your cards.

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About The Author
jim brown
About This Story
21 Feb, 2019
Read Time
8 mins
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