More Great Adventures in Cheap Wine

Copyright © 2015 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

My last posts about liquid refreshments were such big hits, here’s some more!


And now, the bad news. 2012 wines blow.

What 1929 was to the stock market, what 1963 and 2000 were to presidential debacles, what 2001 was to the demise of the Fourth Amendment and 3000 people who mostly weren’t bothering anyone, 2012 is to wine.

I say this because every single 2012 I’ve tried — and there is no nice way to put this — sucked so loud I needed earmuffs to drink it.

Flat. Bitter. Mediciney. Weird colors. I will not touch any more 2012s with a barge pole. Unless someone gives me one for free, in which case I’ll cook with it. Maybe. 2012s are not — repeat NOT —  going to improve with age.

Why? A good question. And as a public service I will answer it, in the hope of sparing everyone undue misery.

Before you suggest that perhaps my neighborhood packies park their stock too close to the radiator, let me just say this: All wines usually aren’t bad at once.

That means the problem with the 2012s is something else, something way bigger. (Although the radiator thing is pretty bad too, and it actually happened at one store I used to frequent and don’t anymore.) That’s why this is such a disaster. Being a wine aficionado without being a dick is hard enough without obstacles like this.

What happened? Well, I have a theory. I always do. So permit me to winesplain.

Am I an expert? Not about wine. But I am an appreciative drinker, and an expert reader and writer of mysteries. Normally I do enjoy a good one (wine and mysteries, especially together). But not this time.

I’m telling ya, it’s been a long year waiting for reinforcements to replace the dogshit 2012s that still bogart the store shelves. So it was with great emotion and gratitude that I flung myself upon the 2013s that finally rolled in and, just last week, a 2014! I was so happy to see it, I took a picture.

Frontera malbecFrontera malbec is a long-time bargain fave here at Casa Loco. (FYI, if you have a choice, 2014 is better than 2013.) As you know, we are ardent fans of cheap good wine. We consume it like pop. We don’t care if it has a screw cap. We’re fond of spritzers and goofy cocktails. It’s not that we don’t have refined palates. It’s just that, for the most part, expensive wine is wasted on us because we’ll drink it with corndogs.

Here at Casa Loco we drink cheap wines from all over the world. It’s stupid not to. Until recently our go-to winners were Berco Do Infante Regional, a $6 super-Tuscan-like red from Portugal that I just adored, and a bangin’ $9 Medoc from Chateau Haut Queyran. Good stuff! Until 2012. Our first bottle of 2012 Berco mostly went into the ragout. There was not a second. And after we cleaned out the 2011 Haut Queyran Medocs, the store didn’t get any more.

An endless parade of 2012 swill ensued, along with my theory: I suspected 2012 was the first year wine growers got slammed by climate change, and it was major. Too much heat or cold, too much rain or not enough, hail in deserts, industrial sludge in the soil for spice. The result: a uniform awfulness of product beyond description (and the reason I didn’t post about wine for a long time).

I figured I’d interview some real experts to get the poop, because I was going there anyway. Everyone should have a wine store like my favorite, owned by two guys (Terry and Terry, I am not making this up) who sample everything they sell because they, you know, care. They’re a reliable source of great sleeper wines, and stuff like premium single malt scotches, craft beers, and boutique tequilas (which we also enjoy, but that’s a post for another time). So I can always say to them, “Is this any good?” and they’ll answer “Yes!” or “Maybe get this other one instead.”

Anyway, I asked them what’s the deal with the 2012s. There was a lot of whispering and shoulder shrugging, followed by crickets.

Okay. So next I visited the Interwebs to see what I could find about the death march that is 2012 wine. Here ya go:

It turns out 2012 was a benchmark year in wine fails. According to this lady who clearly knows more than I do, European vineyards were ravaged by bad weather in 2012, “leading to what could be the worst grape harvest in 50 years.” Crop damage was so widespread, some fancypants French and Italian vintners, such as Château d’Yquem, wrote off 2012 altogether rather than produce crap wine.

So much for Europe (and my beloved Berco and Medoc). Unfortunately, I endured equally vile stuff from South America, so don’t believe any PR blather about what a great year 2012 was for their malbecs and carmeneres. It wasn’t. Although some whites took somewhat less of a beating. We did get all the way through a 2012 Concha Y Toro sauvignon blanc magnum. Not terrible, just meh.

Now if you’ll recall, 2012 also was the year Hurricane Sandy destroyed most of the east coast of the US and seven other countries, so don’t expect anything good from them. Not that I was such a fan, but Martha’s Vineyard and Newport do produce wine that some people actually don’t mind drinking when it doesn’t taste like lighter fluid.

Over on the left coast, 2011 was the start of a rough streak for the Northwest. Which makes me sad, because Oregon and Washington state wines had always been among my favorites. I remember a pre-climate change Columbia Crest Two Vines shiraz so divine, it made me weep. RIP, my friend.

Northern California wines got T-boned too, with their climate-related slide starting back in 2010. Out-of-control wildfires aren’t helping them, either. I’d bag Napa and Sonoma brands for now.

As long as we’re piling up on California, let me just add that the current drought there pretty much ensures the legendary Central Valley won’t be producing anything promising for a while, if ever again.

Reportedly the SoCal wines of 2012 dodged the ick bullet. But I tired of them a while back — the whites are too minerally and acidic for my taste, the reds too big and unnecessarily complex, and most are stupid expensive — which is why I haven’t bothered testing any lately. Why don’t y’all do it, and report back? I’ll post your tasting (or other) comments!

Doubters: Check out this chart below from Wine Folly. It only covers 2004 to 2011 vintages, but the point’s pretty obvious.

Vintage Badness Chart

Vintage Badness Chart

For what it’s worth, this guy here swears some 2012 German wines aren’t so bad. And while Australia had smaller 2012 crop yields due to drought, they’re not necessarily nasty-ass ones so don’t dismiss them out of hand if you can afford the jacked-up prices.

Now if one were to ask me, I’d guess that many 2012 wines that did make it to stores are “special blends” cobbled together from leftover dregs of previous years and recent rejects that in a million years would never have made it into any bottle. Except, obviously, in an emergency. Which clearly 2012 is. And I’m guessing the few 2012s that don’t suck aren’t really made from 2012 harvests.

Mystery wines to try at your own risk

Mystery wines to try at your own risk

And now you know what torpedoed 2012. Take a moment. Breathe. Then buy something else, okay? Anything else. Thank me later.

Herewith are some wines that are affordable, available now, pretty damn tasty and, most important, not 2012s. Enjoy!

🍷Tricky (Rabbit) Reserva Sauvignon Blanc/Carmenere blend (white, from Chile) 2013 $11.49
🍷The Bean Pinotage (red, from South Africa) 2014 $12
🍷Concha Y Toro Frontera Malbec (Argentina) 2014 $10 magnum!
🍷Concha Y Toro Frontera Carmenere (Chile) 2014 $10 magnum!
🍷Black River Malbec (Argentina) 2014 $12 magnum!
🍷Hedges Family Estate CMS Red Blend (Cab/Merlot/Syrah from Columbia Valley, Washington state) 2011 $12
🍷Lab Vinho Regional Lisboa White Blend (Vital, Arinto, Moscatel, and Sauvignon Blanc, from Portugal) 2013 $6
🍷Lab Vinho Regional Lisboa Red Blend (Castelao, Tinta Roriz, Syrah, and Touriga Nacional, from Portugal) 2013 $6
🍷Slavcek Sivi Pinot (white, from Slovenia) 2014 $13 (a splurge for a bargain wine, and totes worth it!)
🍷Mandrarossa Nero D’Avola (red, from Sicily) 2013 $10
🍷Purato Nero D’Avola (organic red, from Sicily) 2013 $13
🍷Tilia Bonarda (red, from Argentina) 2013 $10
🍷Fairview Goats Do Roam (Cote du Rhone-style red blend from South Africa) 2014 $10
🍷Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava (bubbly goodness from Spain) 2014 $11
🍷Mionetta Prosecco Brut (bubbly goodness from Italy) $13
🍷Terrilogio Primitivo (red, from Italy) 2014 $10
🍷Morgan Cotes du Crow’s (syrah and grenache blend from Monterey) 2013 $18 — well worth the splurge!)


Copyright © 2015 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All Rights Reserved
Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party video advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

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Joan Jett, The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll, Finally Gets Crowned

joan jettThe only person happier than me that Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on April 19 — finally! — is Joan Jett. The multitasking sex goddess is WAY overdue for this accolade.

Not for nothing, but Joan is an icon. For real. I’ve been an unapologetic fan since she was a Runaway.

Like every good Joanaholic, I’d always wanted to meet her, despite that old adage about meeting your idols being a bad idea. I have to admit, having met many of mine, that it’s kind of true. Joan eluded me, but we almost met many times. Ergo, I’m at a loss for how to calculate our degrees of separation. You decide!

When I lived in the West Village, a scarily reliable source (my busybody neighbor) insisted Joan lived on the next block. Never saw her. Then for three years she and I lived in the same suburban town, a few blocks apart. We even went to the same chiropractor. Somehow we never collided. I heard the local post office had one of her gold records, which they’d taken down during a renovation and not replaced, but I did ask them about it, and it is a thing — a thing I stood a few feet from in the dusty box where it was cavalierly abandoned by unworthy civil servants. Then we both moved back to civilization, she to a building not far from mine that I passed six days a week — before she moved in and I moved away. I did have one fun Joanless close encounter, when I shared a pizza at the beach with a woman whose brother wrote “Too Bad on Your Birthday.”

Ever the good Jettster, I’ve been to a gazillion Joan shows. I used to try to find out where she was signing autographs, but I was always too late or at the wrong place. At one show I had an in with the backline company, but all’s I got was an autographed CD from Kenny Laguna. I mean, he’s adorable and I appreciated it, but he’s not Joan.

So what’s that? Like, three degrees? Two? Whatever. We ain’t dead yet, me and Joan, so I guess it could still happen.

I sent Joan an email once, asking her advice on band marketing websites because she was one of the first to have one. I received an autoreply saying something like “Joan gets an awful lot of mail, she’ll get back to you.” She never did. That was seventeen years ago, but it’s okay. Joan was likely too busy fighting the good fight to wade through terrabytes of gushing emails.

If all you know about her is how she fought with the Runaways and their cretinous manager Kim Fowley and rude industry execs (she had to sell “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” out of her car trunk after 23 record companies rejected it, and then it became No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, neener neener), you’d have a pretty good idea about her scheduling issues. But Joan does USO shows and benefits, like for PETA and Farm Sanctuary. Plus she saved a 3-year-old from drowning in the ocean. I mean, how many people do all that in their spare time?

Joan Jett is a force of nature. She works incessantly. She made three platinum and gold records. In response to the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” brouhaha, she founded Blackheart Records in 1980, making her among the first women ever to start a record company. That very elite group includes Vivian Carter (Vee-Jay, 1953), Sylvia Robinson (Sugar Hill, 1979), Florence Greenberg (Tiara, 1958), and Estelle Axton (Stax, 1958).

Joan also produced three movies, and many albums by The Germs, Bikini Kill, Circus Lupus, The Vacancies, and L7. She toured with The Police, Queen, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, the Ramones, Motörhead, Def Leppard, Green Day, Alice Cooper, Van Halen, Heart, and The Who.

She does some other stuff, too. If you didn’t see her awesome 2014 Hall of Fame performance with the surviving members of Nirvana, you must be dead.

It would’ve been enough for me had she stuck to music. But I was just agog at her star turn in the 1987 film Light of Day. She was luminous. Geez. If you ignore the secondary plot about the annoying mother, it’s a wonderful, painfully truthful depiction of gritty bar band life in the pre-Internet Midwest, with actual musicians (Joan, Michael J. Fox, Michael McKean, Trent Reznor, Paul Harkins, Jimmie Vaughan) playing the fictional ones. The soundtrack is bangin’, natch. Paul Schrader directed it (as well as some of my other favorite edgy flicks — Cat People, Auto Focus). Schrader said of Jett: “She’s phenomenal.” If you haven’t seen Light of Day (or even if you have), do it today.

light of day cast photoMany film reviewers expressed shock that The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll can also act, but it should come as no surprise. (Did you see her on Walker, Texas Ranger? Holy shit!) She played Columbia for over a year on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show. For cryin’ out loud, she was a professional performer before she could legally drink. She founded The Runaways in 1975, when she was a mere 16.

Since then Joan has faithfully, unflinchingly championed the empowerment of women. The guitar, the leather, the snarl — it’s all showbiz, baby. Yeah, she’s the queen of that, too. I’ll never forget one of her concerts years ago, where a bunch of JJ wannabes were picking fistfights with each other, trying to out-Joan Joan. Their mall gear and decal tattoos were no match for Joan’s divine glam punkness and couture S&M outfits, designed by the likes of Norma Kamali in the old days and Saint Laurent today. Those stupid girls didn’t get Joan, and never would.

Joan is not mean. She’s a true pioneer. She made it possible for female rockers who followed her to actually have careers in an industry that had been a male preserve. While clueless suburban debs were kicking each other in their tragic Riot Grrrl misinterpretation, Joan was kicking down doors for real women who totally got what she was about. And it changed everything.

At the induction ceremony, Miley Cyrus said, “all of us are going to experience people who try to tell us who to be and what to be. Fuck those people! Instead of changing for all those people, if you don’t like how the world is, change it yourself. [Joan] made the world evolve, her life and her success is proof that we can’t stop evolving.”

English translation: You da bomb, Joan! Congrats on your Hall of Fame induction. You’re my queen!

Joan Jett - The Kamali Years

Joan Jett – The Kamali Years

Joan Jett : Light of Day 1987DEAD SPOT on AmazonDEAD SPOT
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Text Copyright © 2015 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
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I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5. Thanks!

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party  advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Why Selling Your Book (or Anything) on eBay Is Hopeless

Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Note: I will keep updating this post with new developments.

Do you sell your book (or anything else) on eBay? If you’ve had more than zero sales, consider yourself lucky.

eBay sellers have seen catastrophic drop-offs in sales, while eBay steals scads of their dough. WTF happened?

The easy blame is Cassini, the glitch-plagued, useless search engine eBay rolled out in 2013 just when sales started flatlining. (Sellers affectionately call it “Can’tSeeMe.”) Naturally everyone assumed a connection. And there is one, but eBay started doing things that are way more awful than Cassini:

● eBay gives preferential treatment to foreign mass marketers, pushing aside smaller domestic sellers.
● eBay deliberately hides many listings. (See here’s how and why eBay limits visibility of your listings below.)
eBay hides your listing descriptions, too. Except when it replaces them with random nonsense phrases.
● eBay interlards the listings you pay for with eBay product promotions and links to competing listings, typically 31 per page. That’s not including advertising from external retailers like Target, who pay eBay to skunk up your listings with pop-up ads that redirect buyers away from eBay. Even Amazon considers this practice unconscionable. Schadenfreude points: Those retailers are paying eBay big bucks for ad placement on listings no one can see. LMAO
● eBay launched its Global Shipping Program (GSP) and forced sellers to use it. How it works: You mail your international packages to a Kentucky distribution center run by Pitney Bowes, who removes your packing materials to save money on postage and then ships broken purchases, often to the wrong place, with exorbitant export fees due to buyers (typically 33% of item value) that eBay keeps if customs doesn’t request it. GSP has been caught stealing shipments and reselling them on eBay.

eBay vs Google

There’s more. Remember all that action you used to get from people finding what you sell via Google search? Wave bye bye. eBay shot off its own foot by aggravating Google so egregiously that Google eliminated eBay listings from Google search.

● In 2006 eBay rolled out Google Checkout as a payment method, then rolled it back in a few days later.
● Over three days in 2014, eBay rearloaded 97 commercial tutorials onto YouTube, hoping guides on how to buy belly button rings and not lose socks would boost eBay’s presence in Google searches (Google owns YouTube). Mostly it just boosted Google’s pique.
● In retaliation for eBay being dickish, Google minimized the presence of low-quality and/or thin content promotions, like eBay’s poorly thought out AdWords campaign.

eBay Adwords In 2014 eBay sellers suffered massive cutbacks in their listings on Google Shopping search after Google made the service pay-to-play and eBay didn’t want to so much. eBay punished Google by moving its Internet ad business to Bing, used by no one.
In 2015 shoppers reported receiving “Suspected Phishing Site” warnings on every eBay page they viewed using Chrome (a Google product).
Due to eBay’s intransigent reliance on Flash (the program of choice for hackers who implant malware on your computer), Chrome disabled eBay features that utilize it (Auctiva displays, translation options).

Anyway, here’s how and why eBay limits visibility of your listings:

Rolling blackouts (rotating exposure). eBay’s file management system herds what it considers less-desirable listings (ie, yours) into dead zones. It assigns server locations and listing numbers based on criteria like category and seller volume, allocated regionally, which eBay can manipulate discreetly. So like, if eBay needs you to step off because they got boxcarloads of bad art and Korean Rolexes to fence and you’re hogging their precious bandwidth with your dumb book, they just turn off your whole server and the entire Midwest (or wherever you are) goes dark.
Restricted visibility of listings to small, distant areas.
By forcing you to sell far away, eBay gets a bigger postage kickback. When you buy postage from eBay, eBay gets a fat cut from carrier services (a whopping 58% from USPS, 13% from FedEx). And eBay doesn’t want you selling locally, where buyers can — horrors — pick up for free!
eBay physically turns off listings (tap-on-tap-off) without notification (including ending auctions early, often within one minute of the end. One reason is to block snipe bidding, which overtaxes eBay’s inadequate infrastructure and bandwidth. eBay uses other means to block sniping, too.
Secret selling limitations (throttling). No matter what you do, you’ll only be able to sell as much as eBay allows, and not one widget more. (You’ll still be allowed to list things, of course. Buyers just won’t be able to find them.)

Instead of your listing, buyers often see this:

ebay unavailable message

eBay’s rationale regarding restricted visibility is actually codified in their user agreement:

Accordingly, to drive a positive user experience, a listing may not appear in some search and browse results regardless of the sort order chosen by the buyer.

I now invite you to share my horror upon discovering that “a positive user experience” means my eBay listings are visible ONLY in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. They’re not big readers of cutting-edge literature there, so I gave up selling my novel Dead Spot on eBay.

Fun Fact: In December 2014 an eBay forum moderator posted an internal company memo explaining nine different kinds of limits to which sellers are arbitrarily subjected, including this one: “Silent limits (limits placed on an account that can’t be seen by the seller).” The post and the mod both were deleted from the forum immediately. Here’s the deleted memo:

eBay secret seller limits

Fun Fact: eBay customer service reps are trained to call 911 in response to the many calls from sellers who are suicidal or having heart attacks.

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Earth to eBay: Your technology platform blows

You’d think an ecommerce company as big as eBay would try to keep up with technology. But no. eBay is aggressively brainless, or nihilistic, or both. Apparently it recruits programmers from the local bus station. (Except for the one who also coded Silk Road, which worked great until the Feds torpedoed it.)

● Instead of using dedicated standalone servers to conduct its cavalcade of bad experiments, eBay uses live listings for beta testing. Worldwide, eBay had 16 site crashes in 2014 alone, on top of site hacks resulting from inadequate security. In November 2015, the site was down three times.
● eBay tasks its programmers with screwing sellers instead of improving security, resulting in broad downtime outages and the hacking in May 2014 by cyberthieves who stole the unencrypted names, passwords, email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers, and birthdays of 100, 112, 128, 145 or 233 million eBay users (depending on which report you believe, although there’s a consensus that the hack actually occurred the previous February and eBay informed no one for three months). As a direct result, 24% to 49% of customers abandoned the venue.

Fun Fact: So many sellers fled, eBay now encourages buyers with complaints to file IC3 Internet fraud reports, thereby relieving eBay of responsibility to refund them when sellers go AWOL. If you thought selling on eBay sucked before, just wait until your name is on an FBI list.

Fun Fact: 149,000 users successfully sued over a data breach in 2008, and another breach-related class action began in 2014. eBay didn’t fix its security then, so you can safely assume eBay will never fix it. Paying off claimants is cheaper.

● eBay’s user database was hacked again in July 2015, and then again in December. eBay wouldn’t say how many accounts were compromised either time, and ignored the second one for a month before patching the related security flaw.
● Instead of safeguarding its own servers, in October 2015 eBay started storing security data in temporary Flash cookies stored on your computer. When you clear the cookies from your browser (as many do during regular maintenance), you’ll be locked out of your eBay account and see this message: “We don’t recognize your computer.”
● eBay sells discounted postage to sellers, but the service is frequently ultra-slow or completely down.
● eBay encourages sellers to input “item specifics,” ostensibly for better search visibility. Then Cassini systematically excludes listings from search by those attributes.
● eBay and PayPal were merrily robocalling customers in blatant violation of consumer protection laws until the FCC and New York State attorney general warned them to cut that shit out.
Starting in 2014 eBay allowed scammers to use cross-site scripting (XSS), a malicious Javascript code, to steal names and passwords of users by redirecting them to spoof sites. eBay didn’t patch the security flaw until 2016.
● Magento, a popular ecommerce service that was part of eBay Enterprise from 2011 until November 2015, is a jackpot for cyberthieves using malware and ransomware to freely steal customer credit card information from independent web stores that use Magento.
● eBay UK was occupied for 3 weeks in September 2015 by hackers. They installed booby-trapped ads on the site that infected millions of users’ computers with malware that steals data. eBay notified no one. “The attacks that are documented publicly are only the tip of the iceberg,” said a representative of the security firm that discovered them.
● eBay’s mobile app is virtually useless. It omits item descriptions and shows all your listings with Free Shipping! If a buyer tries to leave you five-star feedback on his iPhone, eBay’s mobile app will erase it. Plus the shopping cart doesn’t work. The September 2015 app update is even worse than what it replaces. Among other things, it hides bidder IDs from sellers.
● eBay’s Apple Watch app was so abominable, Apple yanked it from its app store — one of only two dumped out of some 3,500 available. The other one belonged to a scumbag who stole cancer charity donations.

eBay’s unwillingness to upgrade its staff, coding, or infrastructure is a big mess of stupid, best exemplified by a market launch on October 9, 2014, when eBay began hosting live auctions with real-time bidding for a consortium of major art auction houses. The highly publicized event crashed eBay’s American servers the first day and its European ones the next. The buyer premiums alone ranged up to 30% of price realized, and eBay wasn’t about to forfeit that. So it shut down other marketing operations and/or transferred their databases to foreign servers to free up bandwidth and server space for the live auctions. According to reports on technical issue reporting boards and eBay forums, US sellers found their stores had become Russian or Chinese ones, their PayPal accounts were German, and their auctions had vanished. Some members could only access their accounts by logging in via eBay Canada. US buyers were blocked from making purchases from US sellers because, eBay insisted, one party wasn’t in the US.

Fun eBay Tech Facts:
In May 2014, then-CEO John Donahoe blathered freely to the media that eBay was on the verge of integrating Bitcoin as a payment option. A year later, eBay was banishing sellers who accepted Bitcoin payments.
● In 2015 the DOJ actually managed to catch exactly one eBay scam artist (with no help from eBay), and only after he stole the identity of a USPS Office of Inspector General special agent and used it to access law enforcement databases to steal personal info of many of his victims.

An Even Funner Fact: On January 27, 2015, eBay announced it had created a new horrible technology division to build a new horrible payment gateway to replace the now-erstwhile PayPal (spun off in July 2015), in spite of a non-compete agreement with PayPal.

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eBay’s Award-Free Customer Service

Call customer service all you want. They won’t help you, but they WILL activate bots that identify keywords in your conversation that enable eBay to spam you with Internet ads. There’s also this:

● If you call eBay customer service and the CS rep doesn’t like your attitude after you’ve been on hold for hours, watch out for damaging retribution.
● eBay customer servivce reps, who are mostly in the Philippines, are paid $5 per day plus a sandwich.
Instead of improving its virtually nonexistent customer service (because that would cost money), in August 2015 eBay tried to trick, an independent news site, into carrying eBay’s baggage for free. When that failed, eBay tried to sucker eBay sellers into providing US support, for free. Meanwhile, eBay invested lavishly in a massive eCommerce talent training center in China.
Fun Fact: Chinese eBay sellers enjoy deeply discounted shipping to the US, subsidized by USPS who loses an average of $1.10 on every piece and lost $75 million on ePacket service in 2014.
eBay is considering charging fees for access to customer service.

Today, eBay’s relevance in modern ecommerce is the same as Myspace’s is to Instagram.

☹ ☹ ☹

Seriously, WTH?

This seems like a good time to remind everyone (especially eBay) that even though eBay acts like a retailer, it’s not. It has no inventory, warehouses, fulfillment capabilities, or salespeople. It’s just a brokerage for independent sellers who provide stock and manage their own sales, and pay eBay a commission to use the venue. But for reasons that defy all logic of commerce, eBay has commenced jettisoning the small and mid-sized sellers who made it the 800-pound gorilla it is today.

In 2013 (and reportedly as early as 2008, when ex-Bain chief John Donahoe became CEO) an anonymous eBay manager posted this chilling warning on the sellers’ forum, accompanied by details of the secret Machiavellian makeover designed to result in exactly what has transpired:

“[Small to mid-sized sellers] are not wanted. Leave. If you stay, you will be crushed. Leave. Go away. You cannot win. … You do not know how much they [eBay] hate you.”

Reports vary, but eBay admitted to (translation: probably grossly understated) 54,000 seller suspensions over just two days in 2013. In addition, ridiculous sales limitations were placed on an undisclosed number of active sellers. And when eBay locks out sellers, it uses their IP addresses to stop their rise from the grave, unlike deadbeat eBay buyers who return again and again like a zombie army, with “rental” scams that include death threats.

After a tsunami of bad publicity, eBay clammed up about whatever it’s doing. (One possibility: driving disenfranchised sellers into its disastrous Valet selling program. Another possibility: unloading small sellers before ecommerce sites are forced by law to collect and disburse sales taxes to all states; eBay has no programming to support that nor means of enforcement.) Whatever the answer, on the 20th of every month thousands more sellers are kicked out, nominally for “underperformance” (directly caused by listing invisibility, duh).

Your turn will come. In the meantime, eBay doesn’t care if your listings never sell. Why? Because fees, dog. eBay has no skin in the game. You sell, you don’t sell — eBay wins either way.

When buyers can’t see listings, sellers relist perpetually, paying a fee per listing of 50 cents to $2 (although some fees increased up to 500% in spring of 2015). eBay collects $7.20 in basic fees for one unsold $10 item relisted for two years, compared with $3.63 if it sells once. If a seller ends an auction early and there were bids on it, there’s a penalty fee. Do you prefer 30-day fixed-price listings? Don’t worry — eBay will convert them to Good Til Canceled without notice (no, you can’t change them back) and bill you monthly in perpetuity. Yes, even after you’re dead.

Want more (or any) buyers to see your listings? You’ll pay extra for that. And if you do manage to actually sell something, eBay will relist it without telling you — and charge you a listing fee. If your buyer doesn’t pay or returns it, you ain’t getting your seller fees back. For returns you’ll pay for return shipping, at a specially inflated rate that’s hoovered from your PayPal account against your will along with the refund you’re forced to give, all of which you lose and eBay keeps, including the thing you sold if your buyer doesn’t bother returning it. Yes, even if you use GSP, despite assurances that sellers bear no responsibility for packages GSP loses. Buyers don’t even have to pay for what they “buy” to receive a refund (wrested by eBay from sellers, who have no recourse). When all else fails, eBay blocks buyers from paying you (and keeps the fees).
Fun Fact: eBay announced in November 2015 that it will no longer investigate seller claims of buyer return fraud.
Fun Factoid: eBay reportedly scores an average of $100 for every sale that goes south.
Bonus round: Fake sales inflate eBay’s GMV report to investors.

Now multiply all of the above by millions of unsold/unpaid-for listings to get the big picture.

But wait, there’s more fees!

● eBay collects store fees — $16-$180 per month. If you signed up for a store and you want out, you’ll pay an early termination fee, from $5.32 to $719.80. Cha ching, sucker!
● eBay pushes eBay MasterCards with a vertigo-inducing variable purchase APR of 19.99% or 23.99%.

Fun Fact: For books, eBay caps your shipping charge at $5 or $6 and then steals 13% of that in fees (10% to eBay + 3% to PayPal). Selling coffee table books? Reference books? Textbooks? Good luck with that!

Plus there’s other misery besides fees!

● eBay is considering limiting search results to five items.
● So you think you set your listings to only sell domestically? Bwahahaha! eBay changed them to show you ship to Russia and China, without your knowledge or permission.
● eBay secretly allows preferred sellers to hide crappy ratings.
● eBay cares way more about your sales if you’re a bloodthirsty international terrorist or fencing shit stolen from Amazon.
● Think your sales are slow now? Just wait. Listings without UPCs are now relegated further in search results (if that’s even possible), even if what you’re selling predates the use of such codes (vintage) or doesn’t have a UPC for any other reason (you know, like a book). Fun Fact: You cannot search an item on eBay by UPC number.
● eBay’s new UPC system is tied to its new Amazon-ish catalog system that has confused eBay’s many braindead buyers, who don’t know the difference between product reviews and feedback and stick scathing irrelevant rants on catalog descriptions.

☹ ☹ ☹

What a shock. eBay is hemorrhaging money.

Despite valiant efforts to fleece sellers, company revenue nosedived in 2014 and 2015 (including a $200 million loss due to the Google debacle alone). Three of eBay’s biggest partners bailed: Toys R Us, Martha Stewart, and Neiman Marcus, who said the partnership “did not meet all our expectations.

According to eBay’s 2014 Q3 report, the company had $749 million net profit from 128 million users. Sounds like a lot, right? Dogs, that’s $1.95 monthly profit per user. Who needs massive infrastructure for that? Homeless people make more money selling soda cans.

A Seeking Alpha article explains that eBay’s 2014 net income was actually $46 million, down from $2.856 billion in 2013.


eBay’s unreliable new revenue streams, willful subversion of sellers, endless technology failures, and inexplicable customer abandonment have backfired. But according to eBay, all its problems are someone else’s fault.

The company blamed its 2014 slump on the data breach (and blamed that on employees) and food stamp reductions (after partnering with bottomfeeder mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Sears). In 2015 eBay blamed its Q1 4% revenue dive on the US dollar being too strong. John Donahoe blamed mom-and-pop sellers for tanking eBay.

Fast forward two quarters. In October 2015 eBay reported a 2% revenue decline from the year earlier. In a Q3 earnings conference call, CEO Devin Wenig idiotically called that “solid performance” and “a step in the right direction.” US gross merchandise volume (GMV) accelerated a mere 1 point over the previous quarter, due entirely to ticket sales on StubHub. YTY GMV declined by $433 million and net revenue by $51 million, both 2% deficits. Q3 auctions declined 21%. eBay blamed “the SEO headwinds” (codespeak for Google exiling eBay) for eBay’s inability to attract new buyers.

A July 2015 report by the ecommerce consulting company noted that eBay’s Q2 active user growth was 6% way lower than its 14% growth a year earlier.


The upshot: eBay is hurriedly liquidating assets of any value.
● The PayPal IPO was July 17, 2015. eBay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion but won’t reveal the amount raised in the IPO. Neither will PayPal.
● On July 15 eBay claimed it sold Enterprise, its ecommerce services division, for $925 million at a loss of $1.475 billion. (eBay acquired it in 2011 for $2.4 billion.) Part of Enterprise is now owned by Permira Funds’ Innotrac Corporation; Morgan Stanley, who’s managing eBay’s debt financing on the Enterprise deal, says it can’t find buyers for the remaining $640 million of eBay’s loans still outstanding and eBay lied to investors about its earnings on the deal.
Fake IPO Fun Facts:
● Enterprise, despite being “sold” in a suspiciously PayPal-esque fashion and relocated to Wilkes-Barre, PA, is still called eBay Enterprise, remains affiliated with eBay, and is run by the same executives who were in charge of it at eBay.
● Remember Magento, the eBay service that allowed hackers to loot its customers with malware? It was part of the Innotrac deal, and was then spun off from eBay Enterprise in a big hurry (November 2015). Mark Lavelle, the eBay boss who let hackers run rampant at Magento, is the new CEO of Magento Commerce Technologies.

We are doing what we said we would do,” boasted Wenig, obviously very proud of losing vast sums of money and exacerbating huge messes.

eBay is “on life support,” Scott Wingo, CEO of, told Bloomberg in April 2015.

☹ ☹ ☹

*** Sucks-to-be-you eBay update:

Here’s how things are going under new CEO Devin Wenig, who ascended on July 20, 2015:

● July 16: Instead of advertising and fixing eBay’s worthless broken search engine (both cost money), Wenig told sellers to promote their listings their own damn selves on social media.
● July 20: eBay announced it purchased the retread rag business to beef up Valet. Then on July 28 eBay announced it’s ending Valet. Then it didn’t.
July 23: eBay announced a grand seller outreach event — that you could attend for just $95!
● Sept. 4: eBay announced more real-time auctions with Phillips and Sotheby’s, presumably because of the success of the previous live auctions that crashed eBay’s servers and got it sued.
Sept. 14: eBay launched eBay Plus, a membership program to compete with Amazon Prime. It provides (for €19.90 annually, the test is in Germany) free two-day shipping and returns. Clearly eBay is clueless about how little shipping €19.90 actually buys. Which means sellers will be forced to pick up the slack.
Sept. 14: eBay’s updated user agreement forbids you from adding your customers’ email addies to your marketing list.
Sept. 14: eBay will be helpfully translating your emails to foreign buyers into whatever their language is. Ack ack! We are your friends! What could possibly go wrong?
Nov. 14: eBay colluded with UPS to illegally auction off a rare custom car engine made for and stolen from tech entrepreneur Rob Dahm.

<end of update>***

Speaking of PayPal: eBay claims to have freed it in the wild but it’s really still part of eBay. They still share operational facilities, including a main database center, and PayPal shipping labels still display eBay logos. Plus there’s all this:

● PayPal, which is not a bank, nevertheless makes what it calls “business loans” to customers — half a billion dollars’ worth per year at annualized rates of up to 86.3%. In April 2015 the CFPB indicated a willingness to sue PayPal for excessive finance charges.
● PayPal (which eBay forces sellers to use) places 21-day holds on seller funds. The problem (besides the obvious): The length of time a money transmitter can hold funds is regulated by states, and most allow a maximum hold of 10 business days. PayPal hopes you don’t know this.
● PayPal’s user agreement effective July 1, 2015, makes PayPal the owner of all intellectual content of any business or website that accepts PayPal payments. As in non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, sub-licensable right to exercise any and all copyright, publicity, trademarks, and database rights on your personal intellectual property.
● PayPal sends you a 1099 stating your annual revenue, and then sends one to the IRS stating something entirely different, and then you get audited.

Fun PayPal Facts:
● In 2010 PayPal froze the account of Markus Persson, developer of the video game Minecraft, threatening to keep his €600,000 without explanation. Funner Fact: PayPal has been doing this forever. In 2005 the company was sued by a computer seller whose funds were held for six months without explanation. When confronted about it by the California attorney general, PayPal lied that the case had been resolved.
● In 2013 PayPal withheld hundreds of thousands of dollars raised in Indiegogo and Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns by entrepreneurs, including Ouya, GlassUp, and Mailpile.
● In 2014-2015, Paypal froze 5,000 accounts of Chinese sellers scammed by eBay. CEO Devin Wenig told The Atlantic: “We send data [to Chinese manufacturers] about what people are looking for on eBay and they respond and turn it around incredibly quickly” by knocking off copies. Then eBay busts them for selling counterfeits, US courts sue them, and PayPal confiscates their money. Most can’t afford an American lawyer to fight their case.
● In May 2015 a woman sold her boat on eBay for $8,500. The buyer paid with PayPal, used the boat all summer, then filed a credit card chargeback. PayPal sided with and refunded the buyer, who refused to return the boat unless the seller paid him an additional $2,690.
● American Express, tired of account hijackers and scammers who abuse chargebacks to “rent” eBay stuff, revamped its Return Protection in 2015. It now covers only US purchases returned unused/unopened/undamaged within 90 days, with a $1,000 annual cap and no reimbursement of shipping costs.

*** Sucks-to-be-you PayPal update:

Since becoming chairman on August 20, 2015, here’s how former eBay CEO John Donahoe is crapping up PayPal:
Aug. 28: eBay announced sellers can no longer accept ProPay and Skrill payments, only PayPal. The same day, PayPal announced 16-32% transaction fee hikes.
Sept. 4: Donahoe apparently didn’t get the memo about the US and Cuba resuming diplomatic relations. PayPal is confiscating funds of sellers who sell anything made in Cuba, including empty cigar boxes.
Sept. 8: PayPal resumed servicing online betting, an activity the US government indicted and fined PayPal for in 2002 as a violation of the Patriot Act. In December Illinois and New York State banned two of PayPal’s partners, and New York’s attorney general is suing them.
Sept. 11: PayPal was found by researchers to have three web app vulnerabilities that allow attackers to bypass login securities and steal user accounts and info.
Sept. 15: PayPal increased its return window to 368 days from purchase (180 days for buyer to request refund plus 188 days to investigate the claim).
October: PayPal limits the amount of customers’ own damn money customers can transfer from their own damn PayPal accounts to their own damn bank accounts.
Approximately every three weeks starting in October 2015, PayPal’s system goes down. No online selling or buying, no grocery shopping with PayPal debit cards. No warnings, no explanations. Just PayPal protecting you from your own money. Bonus Round: When you do manage to use PayPal to pay for a purchase, PayPal sucks the money out of your bank account first, leaving your PayPal cash balance available for PayPal to lend to someone else for 24-86% interest.

<end of update>***

☹ ☹ ☹

So caveat venditor, dogs. eBay is no longer a venue for indie sellers. It’s just that eBay isn’t copping to that because they’re too greedy to blow off that much free dough. The big question is, where does it all go?

eBay openly admits hiding money in Switzerland and Luxembourg. But if eBay’s not spending it on programmers, inventory, infrastructure, advertising, or customer service, what does it spend money on?

That would be lawsuits. Also golden parachutes and businesses it doesn’t need. (Over 40, according to Wikipedia. Remember Skype?) But mostly litigation payouts.

A brief history of eBay litigation

Sellers are lining up to sue the crap out of eBay, and three state attorneys general (not including New York’s, see below) have started investigations.

Here are some of the rest:

● 2001: Montres Rolex S.A. sued eBay for selling counterfeit Rolex watches. In 2007 the German Federal Supreme Court found eBay guilty of infringement.
● 2001: eBay and Re/Max International settle out of court after eBay used Re/Max’s logo illegally for its own advertising.
● 2005: Then-CEO Meg Whitman, founder Pierre Omidyar, and Goldman Sachs were sued by eBay shareholders for a type of securities fraud called “spinning,” the pre-sale of IPO stocks to pet customers by investment banks. The executives paid $3 million, Goldman $395,000, the amounts they profited from the illegal deal.
● 2006: Net2Phone, Inc. sued eBay for infringement of five Internet technology patents.
● 2007: Netcraft Corporation filed a lawsuit alleging that eBay and PayPal infringed two of its patents for Internet billing methods.
● 2007: An Asian-American eBay employee charged then-CEO Meg Whitman with assault after Whitman shoved her during an expletive-laden tirade. The case was settled out of court for $200,000. Fun Fact: In 2009 Whitman was sued by her Mexican housekeeper for treating her like a slave.
● 2007: Prince (the Minneapolis one) announced he was suing eBay for allowing unauthorized recordings of his music and films to be sold. He succeeded in killing 300 listings.
● 2008: eBay’s Korean subsidiary, IAC, was sued by 149,000 eBay users for a data breach involving personally identifiable information including name, address, resident registration number and some transaction and refund data.
● 2008: To honor the first eBay “live auctions,” the company was sued for bid rigging.
● 2009: A French court fined eBay €40 million on behalf of LVMH, the distributor of perfumes by Christian Dior, Guerlain, Givenchy and Kenzo, which by law aren’t supposed to be for sale at a dump like eBay. LVMH claimed 90% of the Louis Vuitton and Dior-labeled perfumes, watches, and handbags on eBay were fakes.
● 2010: Tiffany & Co. sued eBay after proving 73% of “Tiffany” jewelry sold on eBay was fake, and eBay refused to do anything about it. A federal court ruled that eBay could keep selling counterfeits because how could eBay possibly know?
● 2011: eBay settled a class action for $30 million for overcharging sellers in the Motor Parts and Accessories category.
● 2012: A federal class action was allowed to proceed in which claimants allege eBay’s refusal to allow any payments other than PayPal constitutes an unlawful monopoly.
● 2013: An Israeli sued PayPal for converting his account funds to a currency he didn’t want or authorize, and charging him conversion fees.
● 2013: eBay settled a class action for $4.75 million after failing to provide visibility upgrades to sellers who paid for the service.
● 2013: A PayPal program called Bill Me Later was investigated by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for predatory lending. eBay’s solution: rename it PayPal Credit and resume as before. In 2015 PayPal Credit was fined $25 million by the CFPB for illegally signing up customers and diverting them away from their preferred payment method. PayPal Credit also (among other crimes) failed to honor advertised promotions and charged late fees when website problems prevented consumers from making payments.
● 2013: A DOJ judge allowed a lawsuit against eBay to proceed that charges the company with poaching employees from Intuit.
● 2014: Two technology companies sued eBay for patent infringements. (US patent numbers 7,296,033 and 8,195,569). In 2001 a third company, MercExchange LLC, sued eBay all the way to the Supreme Court for patent infringement of three technologies, resulting in a 2011 landmark technology ruling and a $30 million settlement.
● 2014: A class action was allowed to proceed in which eBay is accused of unfair policies toward sellers that enable buyers to defraud them.
● 2014: A class action was filed in a U.S. federal court in connection with the May 2014 data breach.
● 2015: eBay settled two class actions seeking damages for unauthorized charges to sellers for Good Til Canceled listings. Gross settlement amount for Noll v. eBay: $6.4 million; for Rosado v. eBay, $1.2 million. Fun Fact: Payouts will be made as credit to claimants’ eBay accounts, not cash, usable only to pay eBay fees.
● 2015: PayPal was compelled to pay $7.7 million to the US Treasury for 486 economic sanctions violations including the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators regulations.
● 2015: A seller is suing eBay in Spain for kicking her out after she auctioned off 1-meter-square plots of the sun. Turns out there’s precedent (John Travolta and Ronald Reagan, among others, own stuff in space, plus there’s the International Star Registry), and she has legal standing to challenge eBay for breach of contract in violation of its seller agreement.
● 2015: Mary Kay Inc. sued eBay in Texas courts to force eBay to reveal the identities of people selling Mary Kay cosmetics illegally. Mary Kay won initially but lost on appeal.
● 2015: eBay and PayPal are being investigated by the New York Attorney General and the FCC for violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act in their user policies. FYI, NYS takes such abuses very seriously.
● 2015: Wimo Labs, a maker of Apple accessories, is suing eBay and some of its Top Rated Chinese sellers for selling counterfeits on the site. The lawsuit accuses eBay of racketeering. Wimo Labs called eBay’s counterfeit oversight program “a sham.”
● 2015: eBay Australia and New Zealand is being investigated by the tax office there for cheating on its income tax payments for the past 12 years.
● 2015: Fair Isaac Corp. (FICO, the credit rating company) sued eBay for $45 million for “intentional and willful” breaches of strategic partnership contracts involving data management products and services.
● 2015: PayPal lost a German lawsuit challenging the legality of PayPal’s terms of service, and claiming it’s illegal for PayPal to hold funds for 180 days.
● In 2011 the DOJ launched a criminal investigation after eBay stole confidential data from Craigslist in 2004, and used it to start a rival classifieds site, Kijiji, that eBay charmingly nicknamed the “Craigslist Killer.” eBay has yet to be indicted. eBay attempted a hostile takeover of Craigslist and ran bait-and-switch Google ads redirecting Craigslist searches to Kijiji. Craigslist sued eBay for 14 crimes including deceit, breach of fiduciary duty, securities fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. The case ended in 2015 when eBay sold its stake in Craigslist back to Craigslist.

Despite plenty of complaints, there’s no action yet against eBay by either the SEC or FTC. The FBI and DOJ announced an ecommerce counterfeits crackdown in 2015, and the SEC at least still pretends to prosecute insider trading. You’d think they’d look into eBay’s vast off-the-books slush fund, called the black budget, that eBay uses to finance illegal activities.

The most plausible reasons why eBay has dodged greater regulatory scrutiny should make you think, and squirm:

1) Boardroom bully Carl Icahn (he owned 2% of eBay before the PayPal spinoff, and 3.8% of PayPal now) makes generous political contributions to Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Mitt Romney, Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and other cash-before-Constitution carpetbaggers who endlessly block cabinet appointments and kill meaningful regulatory legislation; plus, he has successfully evaded SEC investigations himself;
2) John Donahoe contributed $35,800 in 2011 to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and $15,200 to the DNC in 2009. Donahoe was recently appointed a member of the President’s Export Council, an international trade advisory committee. In November 2015, the President begged eBay sellers to support TPP by selling more internationally (despite that — or maybe because — a small padded flat rate mailer sent priority with insurance to Europe or Japan costs $50 — and coincidentally provides huge seller fees and postal commissions to eBay). Draw your own conclusions.
3) eBay is used by the government to spy on … well, everybody, the same way it uses Facebook and Google. eBay saves searches and purchase histories of users, and maintains a proprietary email system for them to rant at each other. Connect the dots, yo. Back in 2006 an eBay executive claimed the company doxed 200 members per month. (This being eBay of 10 years ago, probably add a couple of zeroes to that figure now.) “I don’t know another Web site that has a privacy policy as flexible as eBay’s,” he said. We are doing a lot of work with law enforcement agencies.”

☹ ☹ ☹

Which brings us back to the seller purge that’s destroying millions of small businesses…

Giant fees from big box retailers and generous government payments for member records (e.g., the Feds pay Verizon $775 each and AT&T $325 each; Facebook pays no taxes in exchange for providing records) mean eBay doesn’t need your pathetic little sales commissions anymore.

That has freed eBay to painfully drag out and monetize the exodus of all the small sellers it no longer wants. Rest assured that’s part of a larger heinous plan you’ll discover the hard way.

Scuttlebutt is rampant in eBay forums and elsewhere concerning what that might be. Pick your fave:

1) fewer members means fewer payouts from upcoming lawsuits
2) fewer members means fewer claimants from a rumored bankruptcy filing
3) easier reincorporation of eBay in another country. In the UK, the company paid a paltry £620,000 income tax for 2013 sales of over £1.3 billion (eBay US paid $6.1 million on $2.86 billion net revenues). eBay Australia and New Zealand paid only $6.2 million in income tax on billions in revenue over the past 12 years, and wrote off goods and services taxes it didn’t collect.
4) prep eBay for sale to another company, like Alibaba.

FWIW: On September 30, 2014, eBay announced it would offload PayPal (representing nearly half of eBay’s value) in 2015. The next day eBay assumed $7.5 billion of PayPal’s debt (ie, all of PayPal’s debt). Then on December 10, eBay announced layoffs in the thousands. According to the Wall Street Journal: “Analysts have said an independent eBay would be a candidate for a buyout, and job cuts would help lower operating costs, a key metric for buyout firms.”

☹ ☹ ☹

Anatomy of a trainwreck

It’s been nearly a decade since eBay’s profit machine comprised buyers and sellers of stuff. Now you are the product being sold. (When I logged in for 10 minutes on June 23, 2015, eBay injected 127 advertiser-paid cookies into my computer.) The rest of its revenue comes from fee theft, selling customer records to governments, fake IPOs, and pump-and-dump.

Here’s how the latter works. For years, eBay has unlawfully goosed the price of its stock by planting acquisition/spinoff rumors in the media. (Google to buy eBay! Carl Icahn to buy eBay! eBay may accept Bitcoin! eBay to sell off PayPal! John Donahoe going to PayPal!) Every time eBay’s share price spikes, board members and top execs sell theirs, then buy them back low (via company discount), and resell them at the jacked-up market price for huge profits. (eBay execs and Icahn owned 12% of the company’s shares in September 2015.)

For example, in 2015 then-CEO John Donahoe sold (for $6,865,815 on Feb. 2), bought back (for $3,227,063 on Feb. 10), and then resold (for $7,119,475 on Feb. 10) the same 129,445 shares. Donahoe’s one-day profit on Feb. 10: $3,892,412.

To squeeze off a shitload of Hail Mary stock dumps before the PayPal split, management dragged their gold-digging ass for six months before divulging the exact spinoff date (July 17, 2015) and triggering the massive sell-off destined to accompany it.

When the split completed, stockholders received one share of PayPal for every eBay share they already owned. Before the split, eBay stock eternally hovered between $50 and $60. Even with a last-minute buying frenzy by opportunists taking advantage of the stock split, the price never rose above $66.

On the first trading day after the split, July 20, eBay’s share price sank to $28.57 and hasn’t recovered as of January 2016. Compare that with rival Amazon’s shares: $466 on a regular old day the same week eBay and PayPal split.

Donahoe left eBay for PayPal the day of the split, with a $23 million retention bonus for “helping out.” CFO Bob Swan received an obscene retention bonus, too, of $12 million. Other top execs left, too.

Along with the first PayPal spin-off announcement on September 30, 2014, eBay also announced the imminent departures of the much-despised Donahoe and Swan. As per usual, the announcement caused the share price to spike 7.5%. 

Wow, what a coincidence! On September 30 Donahoe just happened to own 660,748 eBay shares that he no longer needed. (And he got this figure deleted from the Internet.) His golden parachute just happened to include acceleration of all his restricted stock unit and stock option awards.

On November 17, 2014, Donahoe bought 297,573 eBay shares at $25.85/share for $7,692,262, and sold them the same day at $55/share for $16,344,000. The next day it was publicly reported that he dumped another 485,665 shares for $26,672,721. These numbers have since been cooked to show he instead sold 188,092 shares on November 18 for $10,346,940 at $55/share, and repurchased them that same day at $25.85/share for $4,862,178.

Other dumpers joining Donahoe in the eBay insider clusterfuck of November 2014:

CFO Bob Swan sold 148,000 shares for $6,015,482
SVP Alan Lee Marks sold 6,750 shares for $369,427
SVP Michael Jacobson sold 94,000 shares for $5,124,880
SVP Elizabeth L. Axelrod sold 241,250 shares for $13,222,912
Director Thomas J. Tierney sold 10,120 shares for $295,200
CTO Mark Carges sold 11,392 shares for $600,358 just before resigning in November, after unloading 37,421 shares for $849,861 in July.

Bonus Round: In 2015 Q3, the German hedge fund Meag Munich Ergo Kapitalanlagegesellschaft sold its entire eBay stake of 521,357 shares for $14,326,890.

And the giantest dump of all:
Carl Icahn unloaded all 46.3 million of his shares in November 2015 — his entire 2% stake in eBay. Schadenfreude points: Icahn now owns 3.8% of PayPal, where his old eBay nemesis John Donahoe chairs the board.

☹ ☹ ☹

Where’s the beef?

In short, it’s at PayPal. Just ask Icahn and Donahoe.

Back on February 11, 2015, eBay’s then-CFO Bob Swan revealed at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference that PayPal, which constituted 45% of eBay’s value, would receive a $5 billion cash divorce settlement from eBay, a gift that would “more likely than not” be parked offshore. (Which corporations do to evade tax liability.) Let’s be clear: $5 billion is 80% of eBay’s entire 2014 end-of-year cash position.

So let’s just say it: eBay transferred all its cash and assets to PayPal and offshore banks, and absorbed all of PayPal’s financial liabilities, obviously in preparation for (one way or another) The End.

What’s left of the new, PayPal-free eBay is a hollow shell making a loud thunking sound.

☹ ☹ ☹

eBay corporate culture in a nutshell

Under the stewardship of John Donahoe, the former Bain & Company CEO who calls eBay sellers “noise,” eBay became an easy road to huge piles of money (ie, yours) for rich insiders. Especially Donahoe.

Not for nothing, but if you hire a corporate raider to run your company, this is what you get: a CEO who milks you for multimillions, spends his time manipulating company stock instead of managing its marketplace, robs mom-and-pop businesses with impunity, perpetuates a marginally functional ecommerce platform, and secretly sells its customer database to a rich buyer guaranteed not to squeal.

In a 2014 letter to shareholders, Carl Icahn wrote: “The CEO seems to be completely asleep or, even worse, either naive or willfully blind to these grave lapses of accountability and stockholder value destruction.”

Fun Facts: Donahoe claims he once sold an old cell phone on eBay. [He deleted this reference from the linked page.] And that his first job, which mainly involved drinking stolen beer, taught him everything he knows about leadership. [I made a screencap of this one, before he nukes this too.]

Few Nasdaq companies need to be investigated more than eBay does. In the meantime, eBay still laughably promises sellers better visibility in exchange for sellers providing 24-hour turnaround, free shipping, generous return policies, and of course lots of fees. But in reality seller compliance doesn’t buy blackout immunity, and eBay penalizes sellers for things they can’t control. eBay forums are clogged with complaints from cooperative sellers whose stuff is still deadweight at the ass end of search results (when it’s visible at all) behind thousands of duplicate listings for Chinese counterfeits and other dreck that don’t even have the search terms in the titles.

In other words, eBay’s current business model is you giving eBay money for nothing and eBay pimping you out to advertisers, not you selling stuff on eBay.

My advice: RUN LIKE HELL! Don’t bother selling your book (or anything else) on eBay. Short of worldwide famine or collision with a comet, eBay is your worst nightmare.

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Memo from the Dead Zone | 1986 World Cycling Championships

Let’s take a trip back in time. The year: 1986 — the last and only year the US was allowed to host UCI World Cycling Championships since 1893. You’re about to find out why.

In the mid-1980s I was a columnist for the greatest cycling magazine ever, Bicycle Guide. They sent me to cover the Worlds in Colorado, and the following is my report. Consider it a little taste of what to expect next year when, for better or worse, the Worlds return!

That’s right, in 2015 the World Cycling Championships road race is scheduled for Richmond, Virginia — a state with hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous seismic activity, toxic waterways, 31 Superfund sites, doctors in tents instead of modern clinics, a governor convicted of 11 felony corruption counts, and police who tried to force a teenager to have an erection to prove they saw it in private emails they spied on illegally. Yup, Virginia is for lovers. And, uh, racing.


originally published in Bicycle Guide, January/February 1987
Text and Photos Copyright ©1987, ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Colorado Springs, America’s largest small town, wasn’t quite ready for the Worlds. After all, who else would sic police dogs on the World Pursuit Champion and ask you not to ride your bike in their hotel rooms?


I’m no good with small towns. I need large quantities of food at odd hours, department stores open ’til 9, all-night newsstands, winos who wipe your windshield because gas stations won’t, and 24-hour greaserias serving rotgut coffee. I’m a New Yorker. Bite me.

In the pantheon of small towns that should be avoided, Colorado Springs may be America’s largest. Its population, mostly somnambulant, consists of 375,000 tropes who seemed utterly unaware they were hosting a major international sports event.

Upward of 100,000 bikies had been making World Championships-related reservations since the previous January, but by August the Springoids remained staunchly oblivious even as cycling interests mainlined $10 million into the local economy. Few area businesses benefitting from this windfall reciprocated by donating primes to the Wheat Thins Mayor’s Cup street races, pretty much the only recreational entertainment available (and organized by David Pelletier, a savvy non-USCF East Coaster, natch). Because, you know, … duh.

Me, I saw the planets lining up upon my arrival at my fancy B&B, which was more like a dorm in hell. The headmistress saw our bikes and demanded to know — wait for it — if we intended to ride them in our room. Huh?!

I tried to imagine her scenarios: The next track session is three hours away and every restaurant in town is closed (yes, that happened): “Honey, I’m bored. Let’s ride bikes around the room!” Or I’ve just met some interesting people who also shlepped bicycles along, like the Italian team (that happened, too): “Hey, let’s have some fun riding bikes around my room!”

Soon the headmistress found out I was press, which resulted in surveillance of my “gourmet breakfast” plate. Her “inn” publishes and sells a collection of its “special recipes” (too special to actually waste on guests, apparently; I was never served any). My leftovers (ie, everything — hippie moderne crap!) elicited a stern lecture from the management, who considered that a smart way to avoid bad publicity.

I have to tell you, this grub nouvelle was everywhere, like acid rain. And they couldn’t even get that right. Hungry bikers turned militant as they searched in vain for bacon and eggs and burgers, and starved altogether from 3 to 5 pm and after 9, when Colorado Springs rolls up its streets — even when 100,000 tourists blow into town, dying to burn $10 million.

The city has exactly one diner (which I discovered on my way out of town) and barely enough late-night eateries to count on one hand. These establishments are distinguished by religious graffiti in the restrooms and menus featuring airbrushed, highly idealized photos of food-like matter. The pictures came in handy when the Japanese team (whose English was better than ours) failed at verbal communication with the waitresses, who eventually took orders by pictures. That is, after they finally stopped laughing and got up off the floor.

Where's the beef?

Where’s the beef?

Basic math

Ever notice how the ratio of small brains to small towns is in direct inverse proportion? I went sightseeing by bike and a local passed me in a tricked-out RV, yelling “Go Germany!” The jersey I wore was yellow, with my New York City club’s name on it. The Germans wear silver ones (East), or white (West). With German words, usually. Go figure.

I was luckier on my ride than others. Another hayseed drove his car over Olympic track star Shaun Wallace, and the police sicked an attack dog on world pursuit champion Tony Doyle. (Said Doyle after winning the pursuit gold with the teeth marks still visible on his calf, “I’ve got three legs he could have bitten. I’m glad he chose the one he did.”)

The Russians rode their bikes over to K-mart and were orgying inside when some hoods swiped their rides parked outside. Their bikes were recovered only because sharp-eyed neighbors noticed the $2,000 custom Colnagos with Cyrillic decals parked beside the Carrillo’s trash. [$2000 was a LOT of money in 1986. — ss] Sensing something not quite right about that, they called the cops, who clearly need all the help they can get. They never did find the $25,600 worth of equipment stolen from Campagnolo’s service truck.

Colorado Springs — a national treasure

No, really. Where else would contractors build bleachers to seat 8,000 by balancing them on little piles of sticks and sand? Where else would an elite international audience be expected to sing “Home on the Range”? Where else can you spend $100 on dinner and get food poisoning? (The Broadmoor, y’all — plan accordingly.) Where else would the Soviets end up in the Satellite Motel?

It’s somehow fitting that the United States Cycling Federation* is HQed in Colorado Springs. As small-time as small-town operations get, the USCF was unfortunately the organizer of this event, and mired in provincialism to the bitter end. First they blew a deal for network TV coverage. Then they let sponsors paint advertising directly onto the brand-new, state-of-the-art track surface at the US Olympic Training Center, on which many racers subsequently slipped and crashed. They mounted signs on all the velodrome’s rails, blocking most paying folks’ view. They recruited redneck road marshals who’d never seen a bike race before, much less hoards of hardcore bike racing fans, with whom they interacted like the Berlin border patrol. There were a lot of fights.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Judging by how late the town got the event memo, I’m guessing the USCF dropped the ball on publicity, too.

The one thing that was micromanaged was the press. The Federation demanded that we send in passport pics for mandatory photo IDs, which the Federation immediately lost. Then the USCF generously reshot them, thoughtfully providing a broken laminating machine to seal the magic passes. I call them magic because, although they looked alike, women’s prohibited them from bringing anyone inside the press area, while men’s allowed access by their entire families plus their analysts, stockbrokers, refreshment dealers, Akita trainers, et al.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

A night out in paradise

Every convention has its party scene and this Worlds was no different. The only thing was, utterly no entertainment was provided for athletes or press, so improvisation was necessary. The trick was finding a decent location for a party.

One nightclub deejay proudly informed me, “I’m from Iowa, and we’re at the same level musically as New York.” Sure. Whatever. He demonstrated by spinning up a stupefying disco cacophony of stuff listened to in New York by people who wear vinyl pants and shower caps.

I pounded the buckaroo meat beat until I struck gold. Everyone else seemed to have found it first — including the hardhats, food designers, RV fans, waitresses, merchants, graffitists, thieves — even the deejay from the other club was there. One townie flew at me out of nowhere, shrieking that I better dare not take the empty barstool that was obviously hers because she’d left her wallet on it while she was gone. Like, to reserve it. I am not making this up.

The track events had just concluded and the biciclisti were there, too, boogying with a vengeance. The crème de la crème of sports proceeded to rout the scum de la scum of Colorado Springs. By midnight the townies had retreated in disgust.

Closing time came and went (too many receipts to skim). The morals squad came and went (not enough paddy wagons). Into the wee hours the bikies danced on the tables, danced on the chairs, danced on the bars. Had there been rafters, they’d have swung from them. No big deal, our clueless bartender assured us. “It’s always like this on Ladies’ Night.”

The next day I called it quits. A simpatico native asked to beam up with me.

“The people who live here think the UCI championships are an annual local event,” he told me, incredulous. “They’re already talking about next year.”

Call it a hunch, but I’ll bet it’s a cold day in hell before Colorado Springs hosts another Worlds. And that’s just fine with me.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Text and Photos Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
May not be reproduced without permission.
*In 1993 the USCF was incorporated into USACycling. It didn’t help.

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot  neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

HELP WANTED | The Myth of the Mighty Bicycle Messenger

Back during The Great Bike Boom of the 1980s, I wrote for an assortment of cycling publications. Mostly I covered racing.

At that time there was this inexplicable American obsession with big-city bicycle messengers — or rather, the idiosyncratic romantic heroes Americans imagined they were.

I knew many New York City bike messengers and was mystified by the out-of-towner’s fascination with them. Romance, my ass. We were in a recession, and they were just a bunch of good kids making a bad living the hard way. In 1987 Cyclist magazine asked me for a report. Here it is. Enjoy!

Originally published in Cyclist Magazine, August 1987

Copyright ©1987 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Let’s start this thing off with a fairy tale that came true. The prince is Nelson Vails — Olympian, film star, and officially New York City’s most famous ex-bicycle messenger.

Popular legend holds that Vails was snatched from obscurity by Fred Mengoni, the US Bicycling Hall of Famer who founded GS Mengoni USA. That’s the NYC farm team that produced international champions Alexi Grewal, Leonard Harvey Nitz, Mike McCarthy, Steve Bauer, and George Hincapie.

The story goes that one day Mengoni spotted the Harlem native chasing racers on a beater bike in Central Park. Profoundly impressed, Mengoni was moved to buy Vails his first good racing bike. The rest — Olympic stardom, product endorsement deals, film role, nice house in fancy neighborhood — it’s all history now. From ghetto to Gollywood on the express track.

Vails became the first African American to win an Olympic cycling medal (the silver), back in 1984. He also won a gold medal at the prestigious Pan Am Games in 1983. Not for nothing, but Vails’ messenger nickname was The Cheetah.

In the press, Vails’ story sold like ice water to bedouins. Hollywood couldn’t resist. So instead of making a movie about that, Columbia Pictures pandered to the appetites of drooling yahoos enraptured with idealized urban rebels (or the idea of them, anyway). The result was the fawning 1986 tribute to bicycle couriers, Quicksilver, about a fictional white stockbroker played by Kevin Bacon. Vails had a cameo. He played a bicycle messenger.

The best part of Quicksilver is the exciting opening action scene: a street race between Vails on a bike and Bacon in a cab. (Saw it or not, you know who won.) The movie goes downhill from there. New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman wrote: “Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak.”

No doubt about it. Bike messengers are hot stuff. But are the genuine items really the scruffy-yet-lovable street urchins portrayed in the media? Or are they slumming yuppies like Kevin Bacon, or sports champions in training, or something else? Who the heck becomes a bicycle messenger, anyway? And does the reality live up to the hype?

Nelson VailsNelson Vails delivering the bacon.


At a spartan loft space one flight up from Park Avenue’s glitz, you’re welcomed into Amazing Racing Messengers by a scrawled Kilroy with a hole in the plaster instead of a nose. A crazy quilt of receipts, bike frames, posters and flags is the backdrop for Stella Buckwalter, a former racer. She looks like a fashion model, talks like a corporate executive and manages the business like an air traffic controller.

Most messengers, including Buckwalter’s, work part-time, furnish their own equipment and get a commission. Buckwalter’s are independent contractors who keep the standard 50 percent of what each trip nets, which is about $10. Buckwalter feels they don’t get compensated enough and loads them down with quarters out of her own pocket, she says, “to make sure they call for pick-ups.”

Not far away from Amazing Racing Messengers is its competitor, Born to Run. On the surface it seems antithetical to the standard courier company model. There are no random arrangements of tire tracks and chain grease. Floating amid glowing oak floors and pristine white walls is the only decoration: a landing strip of a desk covered with phones. Born to Run looks like an art gallery, sans the art.

“We just moved in,” apologizes owner Shelly Mossey, a former messenger with some great stories to tell.

While back office decor may differ, the function served by bicycle messengers stays the same. Or as Mossey puts it, couriers accommodate “anybody who can’t fax their package across town.”

Even with the proliferation of telecommunications and overnight air delivery, the cyclists’ immunity to gridlock and AT&T strikes makes them tough to beat.

Road to Riches! (Not)

Just so you know, messengers don’t get rich doing this. For 40 or so miles of daily riding, the average week’s messenger pay is a modest $250 to $300. A little ambition guarantees $450 to $600, and $1,000 weekly isn’t impossible for top earners.

But employee turnover is rapid — a messenger’s career is as spasmodic as a cabbie’s driving. And while they may have transformed communications, New York’s 3,000-plus messengers haven’t endeared themselves to the man on the street.

Despite superior bike-handling skills and a competitive attitude (plus any bull you’re asked to believe by Hollywood about stockbrokers-turned-messengers), these are not all middle-class bike racers.

The reality is that a relatively lucrative job with limited educational requirements is flypaper to immigrants and the underclasses. The racer look is often just vigorous posturing by wannabes with every reason to emulate athletes and no reason to take a driving test or learn vehicular law. Language comprehension and social graces are not givens, either.

The picture New Yorkers see frequently looks like this:

• A messenger zigzags the wrong way down a one-way street and then peels south on Madison Avenue, which goes north. He hits a pedestrian, who lies unconscious in the intersection. As a crowd gathers, he takes off without so much as a wave. Don’t want that pizza to be late!

• Joey is famous for his delivery uniform and style, which includes a hockey helmet complete with goalie’s mask. “He’ll ride the wrong way up Fifth Avenue, weaving in and out,” laughs Mossey. “At full speed. He’s totally crazed!”

• A non-English-speaking messenger drops off a package at the wrong address. The client is desperate. The frantic dispatcher tries to reconstruct the messenger’s trip. “Where did you come from?” he asks the messenger. The reply: “Cuba.”

• A messenger cuts off a bike commuter, hops a curb, scatters a gaggle of terrified pedestrians, and is stopped. A shouting match ensues. The messenger reaches into his pants as if to seize a weapon. Lycra doesn’t lie, clearly indicating the limitations of his defense options. Bewildered but relieved victims close in.

Despite the inherent chaos, it’s wrong to assume all messengers are guerillas. You’re just as likely to find gentle folk who can’t abide suits, or need flexible hours for auditions or classes. A cross-sampling of employees discloses lots of moonlighters from other trades: musicians, students, writers, artists, models — yes, even bike racers.

One of the latter is Craig Cook, a USCF-licensed junior racer. At 17 he’s more articulate and self-assured than your garden-variety teenager (or even your garden-variety racer). He looks like a choirboy from the waist up and a power sprinter from the waist down and doesn’t wear weird outfits.

Initially Cook was attracted to messengering by its mystique. That was before the pick-up that turned out to be a stack of dining chairs.

“But it also looked like a way to combine race training with a summer job,” he says. Now he finds that riding in fits and starts all day is stressful, and after-hours laps and Saturday races feel redundant. “By the end of the week,” Cook admits, “you’re sort of sick of bicycles.”

An interesting messenger subset is the small but growing contingent of women invading what’s considered male territory, because of the risks. One of them is Julia Ashcroft. Her purple locks are souvenirs from her last job, writing for a rock music publication in London. This American adventure junkie shifted to bike messenger mode, she says, “because the pay is better than a staff journalist’s, and I love riding.” She also loves the undeniable glamor of being a road warrior.

That last part, of course, comes with a downside.

Wild Kingdom

“It’s not an easy job, and it’s dangerous. It gets pretty wild for them out there,” insists Buckwalter. She estimates Amazing Racing Messengers’ crashes at one per week, “mostly minor. We try to get them to wear helmets.”

Trouble is a messenger’s shadow. Car doors open unexpectedly. Pedestrians cross against the light. One time a chicken-playing bus driver intentionally broadsided Mossey.

“Compare it to skydiving,” he suggests, remembering a messenger who lost two front teeth in an accident. “Take your eyes off the road for one second, you end up under a truck.”

Cook was prepared for bad surprises like oversized deliveries and rushes, but not certain others, like getting hit by a limousine that ran a light.

Casualties, which have doubled over the last five years, are a touchy subject. Sizable taxes and licensing fees are derived by the local government from commercial delivery activities, and the city doesn’t want the negatives publicized. But in 1986 there were 2,629 injuries and 7 fatalities in bike/motor vehicle accidents in New York. Pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time numbered 617, one of whom checked out permanently.

Who’s minding the store? The city claims courier services are responsible for insuring their messengers. Services claim their messengers are responsible for insuring themselves.

Just call it a free-for-all, because that’s what it is. Tired of dodging two-wheeled projectiles, irate citizens and businesses lobbied for citywide bike control several years back. City Council members and even Mayor Ed Koch jumped in, although Koch would jump into a vat of boiling Afrosheen if a camera was there. Steady streams of damning legal documents flowed between lobbyists and City Hall. Guess who was hired to deliver them.

The upshot was a toothless commercial regulation passed in 1984, Local Law 47. It requires company uniforms on messengers and identification plates on their equipment, so they can be more accurately fingered in the event of mishaps.

With messengers pretty much left to police themselves, compliance is unsurprisingly lax. Improvised head protection and comic book onesies rule. A courier named Juda authored and distributes a handout entitled Safe Cyclists Code [sic] in a sincere (if bone-headed) attempt at self-government. The Code dispenses jewels of advice like this one: “Don’t run red lights or ride against traffic without giving everyone else the right of way.”

So are couriers above the law, or what? Let’s just say they’re in a grey area of enforcement. This fact contributes substantially to their fearlessness, or foolhardiness, depending upon your vantage point.

One fellow sure to take the long view was standing on Wall Street recently, minding his own business, lost in thoughts of blind trusts and insider trading when one of Mercury’s own zoomed out of nowhere. Pedal and knee connected in a mighty crunch. David Stockman, former bad-boy budget director of the Reagan administration, went straight to the hospital. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Legends die hard, especially ones about blue-collar workers in day-glo Spandex. Andy Warhol said that in this, the Electronic Age, everyone will be a celebrity for 15 minutes. It’s been a long trip from anthropological footnote to media darling, but for better or worse, the bicycle messenger’s quarter-hour has arrived.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

New York City’s 1992 Team Breakaway Courier. From left to right: Craig Cook, architect; Mike McCarthy, 1992 World Pro Pursuit Champion; Kurt Gustafsson, competitive skier; and Rafe Diaz, MIA. Photo © 2014 Kevin Hatt


Sydney Schuster rides bikes, lifts weights and battles computers in New York City. She was hit by a bike messenger once. He is expected to recover.

Text Copyright © 1987, © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Photo of Nelson Vails © 2014 Nelson Vails
Photo of Team Breakaway Courier © 2014 Kevin Hatt
Photo & Video from Quicksilver © 2014 Columbia Pictures

Breaking: A new documentary about the life of Nelson Vails will premiere in New York City on February 15, 2014. It’s called Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story. For tickets, go to Vails’ info page.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll really like my book Dead Spot!

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Film Review | Road to Hell

road to hell title

The Long-Awaited Film by Albert Pyun

Movie Review Copyright ©2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved


I watch an awful lot of movies. I own very few. One of them is Streets of Fire, the 1984 cult rock drama by Walter Hill about a mercenary soldier, Tom Cody. Another is Cyborg, the 1989 martial arts horror extravaganza by Albert Pyun starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. So when I heard years ago that Pyun was making a sequel to Streets of Fire, it stayed on my radar like gum stuck to my shoe.

I finally got to see it this week. Let me just say this: It is stunning.

Road to Hell, as it’s called, certainly lives up to its name. A largely self-financed labor of love, it was in production for five years and survived many setbacks before finally making its maiden tour of film festivals in 2012. So far it’s won three Best Picture awards: Yellow Fever (Belfast), XIII Costa del Sol Fantasy Film Festival (Spain), and the PollyGrind UnderGround Film Festival (Las Vegas, where it also scored Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Song, and Best Visual Effects). It recently began general theatrical showings. At its first screening, Road to Hell grossed enough to make Indiewire’s box office chart, and was the only independently distributed film in the bunch.

If you get the chance to see it, do not hesitate. Go!

That said, Road to Hell is not what you’d expect. If you’re a Hill fan, keep in mind that it’s an homage, not an official sequel. If you’re a Pyun fan, you’ll love it no matter what. One viewing tip: If you never saw Streets of Fire, watch that first and you’ll appreciate Road to Hell even more. (Rent it. It’s $3 on Amazon.) For fans of both Streets of Fire and Pyun, Road to Hell is totally worth the interminable wait.

So what’s it about? Okay, first let’s review. When we last saw our hero Tom Cody (Michael Paré), it was 1984. He’d just rescued the toothsome Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) from rubber-clad kidnappers and was leaving to attend a war, apparently because he liked guns more than her. Go figure. And she was leaving their slummy ’hood, The Richmond, for rock superstardom. Fair enough.

Plotwise, Streets of Fire is your boilerplate morality play with the usual suspects. The only characters with any emotional depth are Cody and his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). The rest are one-dimensional, almost cartoon-like. Or as Pyun explains it, “Cody was all about Ellen and Ellen was all about Ellen.” Which is perfect here, because anything more complex would just muddy an effort of this scale. Sort of the way Ben & Jerry’s flavors all have one too many ingredients so you buy Haagen-Dazs chocolate chip instead, just so your head won’t explode.

Why pay $3 to watch this? I hear you asking. Well, Streets of Fire has singing and dancing. It has brawls and car chases and motorcycles, and stuff exploding everywhere, and the obligatory mash scene is extra steamy. It has a huge cast of talent who became famous for doing something else. The action’s artily set against other-dimensional backdrops of garish 1950-ish tableaux mixed with 1980s hair and semiautomatic weapons.

You might guess a formula like that would never work. You’d be wrong. Not to mention the soundtrack is so bitchin, it had a life all its own. There are songs by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Ry Cooder, Leiber and Stoller, Link Wray, Bob Seger, and Meat Loaf’s wife, Jim Steinman, produced by Jimmy Iovine. The Dan Hartman hit “I Can Dream About You” made Billboard‘s Top 10 chart. In 2007 Vanity Fair rated the film’s score Number 6 on its Best Soundtracks Ever list. Simply put, Streets of Fire is a pre-CG sensory feast.

A rock & roll fable, Hill called it. Others called Streets of Fire the first music video. MTV didn’t exist yet, and Hill famously said in interviews that he filmed all the concert scenes by the seat of his pants, having no precedent to follow.

“It’s cut in time with the music!” oozed viewers who’d never seen A Hard Day’s Night. “You can’t use my song!” snorted Bruce Springsteen when told Hill didn’t want him to sing it. “It wanted to be a comedy and it turned out to be a drama,” costar Rick Moranis groused to Empire magazine. “What is this crap?” said just about everyone at industry screenings.

Nobody got it. One reviewer picked on the stars’ noses. (“…the smallest noses in show business history; perhaps this is why, when their faces meet, so little happens.” — Susan Dworkin, Ms. Magazine, August 1984)

It opened the same week as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Doom being the operative term here, box office was half what the film cost to make. ($14.5 M cost, $8 M gross.) And so Streets of Fire bombed resoundingly, thus claiming its rightful place in the pantheon of Eye Candy Rock Movies We Love, Now.

According to Hill, Streets of Fire was to be the first film in a Tom Cody trilogy. When it tanked at the box office, The Bombers Strike Back and Return of the Sorels sank with it. (Paré claimed the sequels were abandoned because everyone involved left Universal, who owned the rights to the franchise and wouldn’t play nice.)

For three decades, Streets of Fire fans waited patiently for someone to salvage the wreckage. Albert Pyun is their Argo.

Pyun, for those who don’t know, apprenticed to Akira Kurosawa in the 1970s and debuted as a feature film director in 1982, with The Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the top-grossing indie films of all time. His 50-some movies include the horrorfests Nemesis (1992) and Infection (2005), which won best picture and best director awards at VI Semana Internacional de Cine Fantástico y de Terror de Estepona. In 2013 he received the Indie Genre Spirit Award at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival.

Pyun first met Paré in the 1990s. Both were making movies for Cannon Pictures then, albeit not together, and racking up industry cred — Paré was upcycling his image to action hero after a decade of mostly forgettable TV roles and romance films, while Pyun was establishing himself as a director who could quickly make profitable movies, often two at a time.

houston knights &amp; women's club 3

Michael Pare in “Houston Knights” (left) and “The Women’s Club” (right)

“We discussed the Road to Hell movie with Paré in 2007, in Spain” at a film festival, says Pyun’s longtime collaborator, Cynthia Curnan. “Albert and Michael had wanted to work together for a long time.”

With Pyun directing, Curnan writing and producing, and the preternaturally handsome Paré in nearly every scene, they started shooting Road to Hell in 2008. The result is more a tribute to Streets of Fire than a followup: not so much singing and dancing, way more violence and blood, all of it set against staggeringly beautiful scenery.

But that’s Pyun’s forté. Shocking visual effects, coupled with edgy dialogue by Curnan that makes you believe ordinary people can triumph in extraordinary circumstances. Like Streets of Fire, Road to Hell is way, way ahead of its time.

Much of the film’s carnage is suggested rather than shown (probably as a result of budget constraints and lost footage — I’ll get to that). There’s a lot of outside-the-letterbox mayhem and sex. Personally, I like this approach. It leaves more room for the characters to develop and the plot to run on its own wheels. A great director is one who presents stories as well as he does entrails.

I don’t want to give away too much plot here. Me, I thought I knew what to expect and still had a visceral reaction at key moments, so I’ll let some other reviewer mess up that pleasure for you.

Suffice it to say that Road to Hell didn’t win PollyGrind’s best effects award for nothing. Much like Streets of Fire, many scenes have mesmerizing other-worldly backdrops. Every color-saturated shot is carefully framed, almost like a postcard — a picture postcard from Hell.

Hell Valley, that is. That’s where we hook up with Cody again, returning from his precious war with a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. He still has too many weapons. Hell, he is a weapon.

Having had 29 years to reconsider his earlier poor decision, he’s now on his way back to The Richmond to reconnect with the hot girlfriend who got away. Along the way he meets two new characters: Caitlin (Clare Kramer) and Ash (Courtney Peldon), a pair of fetchingly underdressed misanthropes having car trouble on Route 666.

The women are luminous and electric, even while changing a tire that’s bigger than they are, and so reprehensible it’s hard to feel sorry for them. They’re loud and pottymouthed. They kill people for fun. Caitlin thinks she’s found her soul mate in Cody.

Kramer simmers in her role. She was my favorite villain — the mean, funny, fashion-victim god Glory — in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she makes a good baddie here. Peldon cooks, too. Her best moments come when she realizes her use-by date has expired, and she utters barely a word. It’s all on her beautiful, horrified face.

Speaking of meaningful looks, one part I was compelled to rewatch several times is the scene where Cody meets Caitlin and Ash. Look carefully. You’ll see the face of a softer, younger Cody, the one who wants to believe in love, in a pitched battle with harder, older, no-bullshit Cody who’d rather just kill. Paré’s face actually changes, then changes back. It’s more than acting (bygones, Michael) and it’s not a digital manipulation.

The technical explanation? “A camera malfunction damaged all the shots,” says Curnan. “We had to wait for technology to advance to fix them. We couldn’t afford to rotoscope each frame.” Five years after they started, they were reshooting and repairing scenes. This sequence was among them. What you see is an epic Jekyll/Hyde duel between a 40-something Paré and a 50-something Paré, duking it out for realsies.

And it’s freakin’ awesome. There isn’t a makeup artist alive who could believably achieve what Pyun accomplished here. That he arrived at it while making lemonade out of lemons is the stuff of legends.

If you don’t understand what I mean, or think I’m full of crap, or both, I refer you to 1989’s Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, in which a then-30ish Paré alternated between a 20ish Eddie and a 40ish one wholly via makeup, and succeeded at neither. Clare Kramer had an alter ego in Buffy who was more believable, and he was a guy. Not for nothing, but in 1977 Luis Buñuel ingeniously used two actors (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) to play one character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire. No makeup magic there and no one laughed, either, at least not when they weren’t supposed to.

My point is, there are ways to do this sort of thing believably and too often it isn’t, due more to lack of imagination than budget. Film history is littered with detritus from failed id-versus-ego slapdowns. (The Curse of the Werewolf? The ShiningMary Reilly? Sybil? Anyone?) I say do it right or go home, and Pyun nails it.

Among Road to Hell’s other visual treats are the spectacular Nevada desert, subbing for purgatory here with enhancements recalling a bad acid trip (and cleverly referencing Streets of Fire‘s original artwork).

Road to Hell

Streets of Fire posterAnother thing I liked immensely is the juxtaposition of multiple timelines in the present (Cody’s, Ellen Dream’s, and Reva’s) with the Ellen Aim flashbacks. The present-time scenes are all different styles: a graphic novel look for Tom Cody, a cinema verité one for Ellen Dream, and a documentary feel for Reva Cody. They’re knitted artfully with the happy-fuzzy uber-romanticized memories of Ellen Aim. When they all collide at the end, you know exactly where you are.

Anyway, Van Valkenburgh reliably reprises the role of Reva. She does a fine job of tethering the day-glo present to a noir past necessarily relegated to viewer memory. It’s good to see her again. Ellen Aim is played by the sexy Anita Leeman. Other characters from Streets of Fire are mentioned but never shown at all (except for Cody’s sidekick McCoy and arch enemy Raven, briefly and gorily). As always, Brick Bardo (Scott Paulin) is in the mix, too.

Michael Paré of course plays Tom Cody. Michael Paré rocks Tom Cody. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role, ever. If there’s ever a sequel to the sequel, they’ll just have to wheel Paré out and let him gum the scenery. That’s how much he owns the part.

The Cody in Road to Hell is disillusioned and surly, seeking some type of redemption while questioning whether he even deserves it. He’s so discombobulated, he even toys with the idea of badgirl Caitlin as a viable alternative to Ellen, I guess in case his childhood sweetheart who’s probably an altacocker now doesn’t work out. Caitlin’s hot. She’s there. She gives MRE new meaning. So what if she’s depraved?

Granted, it’s a lot of story packed into a compact space and I’ve only told you half of it, like I promised I wouldn’t. Pyun and Curnan cleverly manage to convey all this in terms of biblical allegory. Don’t worry. It’s fun, not preachy.

The unique concept gives an interesting spin to a plot that, in the hands of lesser storytellers, could easily be not so special. I dare you not to love the backstory exposition humorously offered by Gabriel, of all people — yes, the archangel given the unenviable job of telling the Virgin Mary that the rabbit died. Joei Fulco plays the part — yes, she’s a woman. Instead of a horn, this Gabriel wields a mean guitar and modern slang. Her mission: Snatch Cody from the jaws of hell. Woot!

One of many other scripty things Curnan does especially well is sandwich very funny quips in between body blows. Consider this one, delivered ominously by a grinning, up-to-no-good Cody: “I’ve hunted up here. I hunt wabbit. The two-legged breed.” And this, blurted by Ellen Aim’s eternally disappointed daughter (Roxy Gunn) during a confrontation about to turn postal: “I needed you my whole life, asshole!”

Streets of Fire fans will delight in the strategic reuse of signature lines throughout Road to Hell. There are slick cross references, too: a flat tire that changes everything; OTT bondage; Ellen suffers idiotic fan questions about her creative process. Her band sports the same name as Torchie’s band, the Blasters. Cody coldcocks chicks. He even mentions his “dark side,” a sly wink at another Paré cult musical, Eddie and the Cruisers.

Much to the relief of everyone except Springsteen, there’s finally an actual song called “Streets of Fire,” written for the movie by musical director Tony Riparetti and sung the hell out of by Fulco. The whole score is quite good. Two Jim Steinman songs from Streets of Fire were dusted off and performed again, this time by Gunn, and arguably better: “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” Gunn is a guitarist and vocalist who wrote and performed many of the film’s excellent tunes. Vegas Rocks! Magazine called Road to Hell “one of the best music-driven films of the year.”

I love Pyun’s willingness to take big chances on relative unknowns, a kind of artistic bravura that really pays off here. Newcomers Fulco and Gunn pull double duty supplying both pipes and pivotal character portrayals, and never miss a beat. Fulco, amazingly, is only about 15 here and has since moved on to leading roles in feature films. She’s going to be a huge star. Quadruple-threat Gunn also has a big career ahead. Her band The Roxy Gunn Project is a favorite on Vegas stages, with a rapidly growing fan base. Both Fulco’s and Gunn’s lungs should be gilded and enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Best of all, Road to Hell has a twist ending you’ll never expect. I foresee it winning a lot more awards. And fans. Go see it. You’re welcome.

Albert Pyun Movies on Facebook
Road to Hell official website
Road to Hell on IMDB

Content of this blog Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved.
Road to Hell material Copyright ©2014 Albert Pyun Movies and Curnan Pictures ★ Images used with permission
Streets of Fire poster art © RKO Universal Pictures

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Five O’Clock World | The Straight Pipes Band

Five O’Clock World Club Review

Text & Photo Copyright ©2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

There’s always something magical about an evening spent at the beach, lapping at drinks and listening to good music. You appreciate it all the more after acts of nature threaten your fun.

A lot of East Coast businesses were destroyed by hurricanes Irene and Sandy which, sadly, washed a lot of nightlife units out to sea. I revisited a survivor recently to take its pulse and catch a new act I really like, the Straight Pipes Band.

I’d been to Sandy’s Lighthouse (148 Atlantic Ave., Misquamicut) many times, and never had as good a time there before Sandy clobbered Sandy’s. Owners Sandra and Don Daggett rallied valiantly to rebuild it into a way nicer venue than it was pre-storm. It must’ve been wicked messed up, too, because the last time I saw Sandy’s it was a bare-bones biker bar. The phoenix risen in its place is a thing of beauty.

It’s all cozy and homey now, with an easy-access bar and shiny wooden dance floor that’s no longer in the path of … well, everything. (If you’ve ever had to fight your way through drunken twisters to get to a beer or a urinal, you know what I mean.) There’s nothing in the way of anything here now, unless you count the fancy new pool table that kept some dudes from dancing with their confused dates. (Eventually the women just said to hell with it and danced with each other. Who wouldn’t? A Straight Pipes tune sat out for no good reason equals two minutes you’ll always wish you could do over.)

The new and improved Sandy’s has lots of tables and chairs for us armchair dancers, and the cleanest club bathroom I’ve seen in the history of ever. Wait, there’s more! AC that works. A psychedelic light show. An ATM. A fireplace. No, a real one. Good acoustics. Classic home-cooked seashore food that my spies assure me is extra tasty (okay, I might’ve hoovered someone else’s clam fritters that were too bangin’ to resist).

I’m telling you, Sandy’s is the beach bar with everything, including tonight’s great dance band, Straight Pipes.

And dance you will. Straight Pipes decided from the git-go to just play straight-up party music, the heck with pretentious arty shit. No blues. No jazz. No technopop. The band’s repertoire is all rock’n’roll, like your dream jukebox with only your fave butt-shaking tunes. You know — all the guilty-pleasure stuff you crank up to 11 when nobody’s around to make faces.

That’s not to say their set list isn’t ambitious. There are plenty of Top 40 tunes nobody ever needs to hear again. Thankfully, these guys don’t play any of those. And what they do play is often better than the originals. Rebel Rebel. Whipping Post. Keep On Rocking Me Baby. All Right Now. Feels Like The First Time. White Room. The Letter. Mary Jane’s Last Dance. Money For Nothing. Addicted To Love. C’mon — when was the last time you heard a bar band with the balls to cover that?

Who are the Straight Pipes? Well, its members kind of floated around in other bands for years, finally coalescing into something that seems preordained. Sort of a frat party version of CSNY or Cream, with all the chops and none of the attitude. The core members are bassist Chris Bergeron (Soul Ambition), guitarist Paul Gizelt (a NYC export and one-time Natural), Kevin Weyman (the singingest chef in the Ocean State), keyboardist Charlie Huntington (former songwriter and keys with Killer Kane & The Blue F.O.s), and legendary drummer Ignatius J. Reilly (aka Steve W, formerly with Bobby Fleet, Mark Ray, Professor Harp, Greg Hodde, et al).

Straight Pipes bandI’ve actually seen the Straight Pipes a few times. They always bring new material to each gig. And their formula seems to be working. They’re getting lots of bookings in a geographic area overrun by bands clinging tearily to their precious hoary “blues tradition” (and who, unlike the Pipes, wind up playing mostly for themselves).

“We ain’t just thrashing. We’re rehearsing and planning,” says guitarist Gizelt about the Straight Pipes’ game plan. So far, it’s all good. “There are times when the crowd is singing along so loud, I can barely hear the band. It’s so much fun, I’m thinking of applying for a patent!”

There’s no cover at Sandy’s — great for guests, but also makes you wonder WTF? as the Straight Pipes effortlessly deliver one delicious hit after another. I’d totally pay for that.

Straight Pipes has a bunch of gigs lined up. Catch one. You can get details on the band’s Facebook page or website. Sandy’s Lighthouse is also on Facebook, where upcoming club events are posted. Don’t wait til the next superstorm.

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