Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Letter from California-October 17, 2004

Imagine that a friend of a friend comes to you unexpectedly and says that he’s going to give you $121 million dollars, paid out a little at a time over the next seven years. What would you do first?
If you were St. Mary’s College, in Moraga, just a little northeast of San Francisco, you’d buy a fancy new science building. After all, with $121 million rolling in, St. Mary’s could afford to upgrade its previously gray rectangular science building to one of these ultra-modern science buildings shaped like a Rubik’s Cube or Darth Vader’s head. Plus, you’d want one of those fountains out front that shoots out water in unpredictable patterns from about a thousand different places. Not only does it attract children like pigeons to a discarded hot dog; it also makes it easy to spot visitors. They’re generally the ones soaked to the bone in their good clothes, chasing their scattered and waterlogged papers around, and enjoying a pleasant chuckle at the whimsy of the outdoor fountain.
I’d like to think I would do things a little differently. Naturally, Science Centers aren’t at the top of my personal wish list, though maybe a Darth Vader-shaped vacation chalet might make the cut. More than that, I’d like to imagine that before building anything, I would have taken one critical step that the St. Mary’s people didn’t: wait to get the money. That would have been a particularly wise step in this case. It turns out that the donation pledges were an elaborate fraud by 83-year old John Banker. Banker, they say, has left the country, going 45 in the fast lane with his left turn blinker and a black ski mask on the whole way.
Obviously, I made that last part up, and it’s probably not true. Anyone who could concoct what investigator Neal Stephens called a “serious act of deception against the college” on this scale would probably notice the clicking sound the turn signal made. Then again, St. Mary’s administration didn’t quite have Encyclopedia Brown on the case either. Board of trustees member, Barbara Ageno, knew as early as 1992 that Banker had been convicted of trying to sell restaurants that he didn’t own, but she somehow never told the rest of the board about that. I guess there just wasn’t a “right” moment for it, especially with all the hubbub of building new science centers and such.
Not only that, but the first installment of the cash was supposed to hit the bank in ’97, which isn’t exactly yesterday. In ’97, no one had ever been voted off the island, most people still thought of Amazon as either primarily a river or the best description for Brigitte Nielsen, and in ’97, some people still knew who Brigitte Nielsen was. The point is that 7 years is a long time to wait to get money owed to you. Try it with your cable bill sometime. I don’t think they’ll wait until 2011 to cut you off from seeing 30 Ultimate Bad Boys of Rock on VH-1. (By the way, if Justin Timberlake makes that list, throw a shoe at the TV for me.)
Money, even the idea of money, has a lot of power to make people do crazy things, which pretty much explains how a group of presumably sane people running St. Mary’s College can make such amazingly bad decisions. On the flip side, money can also lead to things that otherwise would have no earthly business existing. For example, the news broke this week that L.A. resident and aging hunk, Fabio will be launching a line of clothes for women, designed and approved by a committee of him, his hair, his pectoral muscles, and the girl who does his make up. (Laugh if you will, but even they would have seen through the scam at St. Mary’s.)
Before you book your plane tickets to L.A. to buy Fabio’s line in the swanky shops along Rodeo Drive, relax. While Fabio’s goal is to provide women with fabulous, hunk-approved clothes, he doesn’t expect them to come to him. Instead, the Fabio line will be available in Sam’s Clubs everywhere. Feeling glamorous yet? For those of you who find Wal-Mart a little too “uptown”, Sam’s Club provides a cheap alternative. Now while you’re raking armloads of bulk-sized cornflake boxes into your cart, you can rake in a fashionable wardrobe as well.
Why a line of Fabio clothes? Simple answer: Fabio sells. Unlike some small liberal arts colleges northeast of San Francisco I could mention, Fabio and Sam’s Club checked to see if this would work first. Fabio toured several Sam’s Club stores promoting a certain brand of suede coat, and everywhere he went, the coats just vanished. Before that, publishers of romance novels learned that a book with Mr. F on the cover outsold the same book with more generic beefcake on the cover by about a third. And let’s not even talk about what happened to “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” when he signed on.
It’s sad what happened to St. Mary’s, because I’m sure they’re not the kind of folks who generally spend $26 million on science buildings they can’t pay for. I do have a solution, though. Rename it the Fabio Center and sell suede jackets and romance novels in the front, with all the unsexy science happening discretely in the back. Convince Fabio and his committee that Super Hunks have a duty not just to make money, but also to help people. Especially people who have absolutely no ability to judge wild-eyed lies about millions and millions of dollars. He’s sure to lend a hand.
Call it the “I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-A-Legitimate-Donation” campaign. They’ll have that $121 million in no time.


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