mr. grant’s rant: double-digit desperados

James Plascencia, is said to have obtained the finger from a coworker who lost it in a job-related accident. Reportedly the guy was fond of showing it off on the job site to impress the boys, and, after a certain amount of dickering, let it go to the husband to settle a $50 debt….”

 

 

Normally I try to limit myself to one outrage du jour as I prepare my periodic rants, but this time around, short of a coin toss, I just couldn’t bring myself to let one or the other go. In one case, I’ve been deeply affected, brought low by the loss of one of my most cherished culinary luxuries. With the other story, well, it’s just too weird, too much of a commentary on these times, to resist. I am speaking of course about the Wendy’s finger-in-the-chili scare and the controversy sparked by Minnesota Vikings running back Onterrio Smith and the now-infamous “Whizzinator” debacle.

Both cases hit close to home for me. Riding herd on the likes of Covert, Pinamonti, Dockins, Richen and Eisenlohr while putting the ‘box together six times a year has taken a toll in the form of my gastointestinal tract being forever tied in some of the most impenetrable knots known to mankind. My days of chowing down greasy sacks of carne asada tacos drenched in Pico sauce are long gone, much to my dismay, but my one remaining dirty little fast food indulgence was pulling through the Wendy’s drive-thru for a bowl of chili. It’ll never win any trophies or earn the slightest nod from true chili aficionados, but damn, that stuff has just enough flavor peeking through its mass-produced blandness to remind me of simpler, more happy-go-lucky days. And now, thanks to the Great Wendy’s Severed Digit fiasco, my one last shred of sumptuous excess is forever ruined.

It seemed too bizarre to be true right from the start. On March 22, Anna Ayala, a 39-year-old Las Vegas resident, caused a major ruckus by loudly protesting the presence of a severed human finger in a bowl of chili she purchased at a Wendy’s in San Jose, Calif. Claiming she bit down on the “well-manicured” digit during a meal there, causing her to upchuck in the restaurant’s dining area, she quickly lawyered up and filed a claim against the franchise owner. At some point she turned the offending finger over to authorities, and it wasn’t long before images of the mangled meat-knob were flashed all over national and local news shows. I can see the “well-manicured” monstrosity even now, chewed into two sections, seemingly flipping me off along with my tattered sense of decency and propriety. Ecch.

Before long Ayala’s story began falling apart. Despite her claims to the contrary, none of the Wendy’s employees recalled any sort of outburst that day, vomitous or otherwise. A quick finger count of the restaurant’s employees turned up no missing members; a wider search of Wendy’s employees and food providers turned up no accident reports involving detached digits, well-manicured or otherwise; eventually it was found the fateful finger wasn’t even cooked. Tellingly, investigators found that Ayala and several of her family members had been parties to at least 13 unsuccessful civil actions in California and Nevada; after an April 6 raid on her Las Vegas home by police, she abruptly dropped her claims against Wendy’s, saying the publicity was “ruining my kids and me and dragging my family through the mud.” By April 21 she was cooling her heels in jail, charged with theft and eventually with conspiracy, to the tune of $500,000 bail.

And what about the finger that started it all? That’s where the conspiracy charge enters in—Ayala’s husband, James Plascencia, is said to have obtained the finger from a coworker who lost it in a job-related accident. Reportedly the guy was fond of showing it off on the job site to impress the boys, and, after a certain amount of dickering, let it go to the husband to settle a $50 debt. So set the minds of these two brilliant tacticians into motion.

Wendy’s, one of the Big Three burger-slingers, claims to have taken a substantial hit in sales and tarnished reputation; they are reported to be demanding restitution for some $2.5 million in losses since the whole sordid story broke, although it must be as clear to them as it is to anyone that these two birds are unlikely to come up with that sort of cash even if they live well into the next century. The company points to the unfortunate San Jose-area employees they had to lay off in the face of plummeting sales—I would imagine it must have taken some of those affected nearly a week to find new fast food jobs, after all. But it seems to me that this is not going to be a story of the big, bad corporation going after the little guy. Ayala and her husband are clearly a couple of small-time, hopelessly inept chiselers whose seemingly brilliant idea backfired in a big way—biting off more than they could chew, if I dare say.

What I do know is this: I’ll never be able to look at another bowl of Wendy’s chili without the image of that damn finger coming to mind. For that alone, I feel not the slightest hint of empathy or sympathy for either one of these boneheads. Do your worst, Wendy’s, go after the Gang of Two with all the fiduciary fury your legal team can muster, and use their fate as a grim warning to any and all who would sully a bowl of your perfectly adequate chili for personal gain. And let’s hope they watch their fingers around those license plate punching machines for the next few years.

***

Whatever this second story lacks in comparison to the first when it comes to downright bizarre circumstances, it more than make up as a sad testament to these ultra-invasive times. Regular readers of Smokebox may already be aware of my love of sports, and Oregon Ducks football sits high on my list of favorite teams. So I was shaking my head sadly when I read that former Duck Onterrio Smith was well on his way to striking out with the NFL’s controlled substance policy, this time by being caught with jars of what can best be described as powdered pee—the clean variety—in his luggage during a trip through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this past April. On closer inspection, authorities at the airport found what is tactfully described as a kit designed to circumvent drug tests: the now infamous “Whizzinator,” pictures of which you will NOT be seeing on the six o’clock news, at least not without the fuzzy dot usually reserved for naked contestants on “Survivor.”

Basically, the Whizzinator is a jockstrap-mounted artificial appendage available in a number of ethnicity-matching shades (no word on the website about available sizes, however). Tailor-made to foil the close scrutiny demanded of many urine donors these days—gone are the days of standing by yourself in a men’s room stall filling up your plastic cup—the Whizzinator is designed to look just like the average man’s Johnson, ready to be loaded with reconstituted pee (which is kept at body temperature with a special heating unit) and whipped out when needed. A clip valve is used to start the flow, although the makers, Puck Technologies, acknowledge that the sound of the valve being uncorked can be problematic, recommending that customers cover it up by coughing, clearing their throat, or, I suppose, using a bodily sound of their own choosing. I’m not linking to it here, but rest assured, curious readers will have no trouble finding the website and its surreal FAQ, which details operating procedures and recommends “Please read these instructions carefully and then PRACTICE!”

Ordinarily any good entrepreneurial outfit would love all the free publicity, but so far nobody at Puck is gushing about increased sales or expanding product lines. In fact, as a direct result of the firestorm created by the Onterrio Smith scandal, the U.S. Congress is taking aim at the Whizzinator and similar products in its ongoing anti-steroid/anti-drug crusade. “U.S. Lawmakers Object to Fake Penis for Drug Tests” trumpets a May 11 headline on Reuters, leading with “A life-like prosthetic penis…promising to help illegal drug users pass urine tests provoked U.S. lawmakers to take legal action with subpoenas on manufacturers.” Personally, I take great delight in the idea of Congress members being provoked by penises, subpoenases, what have you, but I doubt the good folks at Whizzinator Central are laughing it up over such scrutiny.

It is nice to see that the old classics never go out of style. Smith claims he was “taking it to his cousin,” an ingenious offshoot of “I’m just holding it for somebody,” which is absolutely the oldest excuse in the book. Rest assured that I as well as every single one of my fellow high school students in the middle to late 1970s used that one when—not if, WHEN—our parents found a bong in our underwear drawer or a sack of herb in the pocket of our letterman’s jacket. No matter how dumb we were convinced our parents were then, they never fell for it. It was never true then and it’s never true now. Who the hell holds things for someone else? It’s ridiculous, but that’s his story and he’s sticking to it—to quote his mouthpiece, attorney David Cornwell: “Well, that’s what happened. I’ll live or die with that statement, whether or not you believe it.”

I’m just ranting here, true to form, and I must admit to mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, it’s a sorry state indeed when it becomes impossible to go through life without being forced to turn over samples of urine, saliva, blood, and God-knows-what-other bodily fluids just to remain gainfully employed or to take part in sports or other activities, from grade school through professional sports to the corporate world. Invasion of privacy just keeps getting worse and more widespread, with increasing acceptance. But, in a case like Smith’s, if your love of the chronic is such that you’re willing to jeopardize a multi-million dollar position at the pinnacle of your chosen sport just to indulge in what, for better for worse, is an illegal activity, well, it’s time for some serious soul-searching and prioritizing. And if your choice is to continue in the behavior that puts your life’s dream at risk, and you’re willing to circumvent the consequences by walking around with an extra unit strapped inside your pants, it’s time to find yourself some help. Plain and simple.

And thanks to all this publicity, what must be an already humiliating, degrading experience—being forced to whizz into a stupid little jar in order to play football, get or keep a job, etc. etc.—is probably going to be made even more so by mandatory “short-arm inspections” to be sure you’re not packing a fake hose complete with reconstituted pee. A good sharp smack with a yardstick to see if the applicant jumps should do the trick.

Originally published:
Issue Thirty-Seven
June 2005

(toons: marc covert)

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