October, 2009


Most leases today prohibit smoking, but up until the 1970s, very few leases said anything about the subject. In 1970, half of all adult Americans smoked, and smoking was allowed nearly everywhere. People smoked in stores, on airplanes, and even in hospitals. In 1969, I worked at Sloan-Kettering Medical Center, a cancer hospital in New York City. Even there, they allowed smoking. I saw doctors and nurses smoking at the hospital every day. They also sold cigarettes at the hospital. I worked in an office next to the gift shop. Over half of the gift shop's income came from the sale of cigarettes, and remember, this was a cancer hospital. Sounds hard to believe, doesn't it? Because smoking was so common in those day, prospective tenants didn't complain if a vacant apartment smelled liked cigarette smoke, but today, people expect apartments to smell tobacco-free.

John. I once rented a small cottage to a man named John. During the 8 years that he lived in that cottage, John never once opened a window, even though he smoked a pack of cigarettes every day. John was not malicious, but when he left, it cost me $10,000 to clean the place up. The walls were white when John moved in, but they were brown and sticky when he moved out. I had the walls cleaned and painted, but the tar and nicotine bled through the new paint, so I had the painter come back and paint the walls with tobacco stain sealer and then repaint the walls yet again. I also had to replace the carpet, the pad, the venetian blinds, and the furniture because the tobacco smell would not come out even after repeated cleaning. After that experience, I started putting 'no smoking' clauses in my leases. I'm not a prohibitionist or a nanny. If you want to smoke on your porch, or in your yard, or in your car, it's OK with me.

Smoking on Airplanes. All airlines allowed smoking until the 1980s. In 1988, the government banned smoking on flights of 2 hours or less, but they didn't ban smoking on all flights until 2000. Between 1988 and 2000, airlines were only required to restrict smoking to a 'smoking section' on the plane. That was usually the back of the plane. I always tried to sit as far away as possible from the smoking section, but an airplane is a sealed environment, and everyone on a plane breathes the same recirculated air. On long flights, the smoke always got to me. I would leave the plane with a sore throat, watery eyes, and a strong desire to go outside the airport and take some deep breaths. Here's a short video showing what things were like: Smoking on Airplanes.

Oasis Cigarettes. In the 1960s, Rod Serling used to smoke Oasis menthol cigarettes while narrating episodes of Twilight Zone. At the end of every episode, he would put in a good word for the brand. Most Oasis television commercials showed people skiing, either water skiing or snow skiing, while smoking Oasis cigarettes. All ads for menthol cigarettes stressed their coolness. Kool menthol cigarettes had an ice skating cartoon penguin. In Newport commercials, a man was magically transported from a desert to a waterfall in the Rockies after inhaling a Newport menthol cigarette. When I was a child, I was very skeptical of Oasis commercials. I didn't know anybody who skied, so I had no way of knowing if people actually smoked cigarettes while they were skiing. It seemed improbable. Here's an Oasis television commercial: Smoking While Water Skiing. When I got to high school, I finally met somebody who skied. I asked him: "Do you smoke cigarettes while you're skiing?" He looked at me as though I was crazy and told me that nobody smokes while skiing. I knew that my question sounded stupid, but those Oasis commercials had been on my mind for years, and I had to find out.

The Flintstones. The most popular cartoon television show in the 1960s was The Flintstones. At the end of every episode, Fred Flintstone, his neighbor Barney Rubble, and their wives smoked Winston cigarettes and explained to the show's viewers why they should smoke Winston as well. Here's an example: Fred & Barney Smoking Winstons. These ads came under a lot of criticism, and in 1963, Winston stopped advertising on the show. It was the first sign that public opinion on cigarette advertising was changing.

27 Cent Cigarettes. Cigarettes used to be very cheap. My mother was an occasional smoker. She only smoked when she was at a party or in the teacher's lounge and everybody else in the room was smoking. She would hold a lit cigarette in her hand just to avoid feeling conspicuous. When I was 8 years old, my mother started letting me buy cigarettes for her from the vending machine at the Maryland Institute. I liked vending machines. I would put a quarter and a nickel in the machine and pull the knob for Lucky Strikes. The cigarette package had 3 pennies inside the cellophane wrapper, making the net cost 27 cents. I thought about that today when I was at Walgreen's and noticed that cigarettes now cost $5.00 to $6.00 a pack, plus sales tax. A carton of Marlboros now costs $60.00, and it may soon cost $80.00. The California legislature is considering a bill to raise the state cigarette tax by $15.00 a carton. It has a good chance of passage. A few months ago, the Federal excise tax on cigarettes went from $3.90 to a carton $10.10. When I see Berkeley High School students smoking, I wonder where they get the money to pay for it. Smoking has become a very expensive habit.


I am often asked where I buy my chocolate making equipment. Although it comes as a surprise to most people, the truth is that I don't have a lot of chocolate making equipment. Most of the things I use to make chocolate are very simple items, like bowls and spatulas. Whenever possible, I buy kitchen equipment at the Costco Business Center in Hayward. The merchandise at Costco Business Centers is very different from the stuff they sell at other Costco stores. There are very few Costco Business Centers in the U.S. The only one in the San Francisco bay area is in Hayward. They sell high quality restaurant supplies at unbeatable prices. For example, aluminum half-sheet baking pans sell for $4. I use a lot of baking pans. These pans cost $10 to $15 elsewhere. They sell heavy cream for $2.25 a quart vs. $6.00 at supermarkets. I use heavy cream to make caramel, english toffee, etc. If you would like to own commercial pots, pans, knives, porcelain, kitchen appliances, etc., Costco Business Center is the place to go. Christmas will soon be here, and this is a great place to buy a present for a friend who likes to cook.


Baggage Fees. Most airlines lose money on tickets. They now make their money on fees. At American and Delta airlines, if you make a change on a non-refundable ticket, any change at all, you'll have to pay a $150 ticket change fee. Airlines now charge fees to do a lot of things that used to be free, but they make more money on baggage fees than all the other fees combined. That's because they collect baggage fees from so many people. If you check on 2 small bags at United or U.S. Airways, that will cost you $100 round trip, and even more if you use curbside check-in or are flying overseas. If you bring more than 2 bags, expect to pay $200 to $300 round trip for each additional bag. What can you do?

  • Carry on your luggage. Every airline allows you to carry on one piece of luggage and a "personal item" for free. If you can't get all your stuff into one carry-on bag, try this: wear your jacket and bulkiest shoes when you go on the airplane. You can take off your jacket once you are on the plane. You can also get quite a bit of stuff into your "personal item," which can be a handbag, a brief case, or a laptop computer bag.
  • If you are going to check on luggage, try to get all your stuff in one bag. As long as your bag weighs under 50 pounds, you won't be charged an overweight bag fee. Does anyone really need to travel with more than 50 pounds of stuff?
  • Check your hotel's web site to see what's in their rooms. If there is a hair dryer or a bathrobe in your room, for example, then there is no need for you to bring these things with you. If your hotel has a computer in the lobby with free internet access, do you really need or want to bring a laptop with you?
  • Fly on Southwest or Jet Blue. Southwest allows you to check on 2 bags for free. Jet Blue allows 1.
  • Ship your luggage ahead by UPS or FedEx Ground. That's what I do when I visit my relatives back east. It costs me $10 to $15 each way, and I don't have to carry my luggage around the airport.
  • Southwest's Lemons. Southwest is the last remaining airline that will allow you to check on 2 bags for free. They are trying to beef up profits by cutting costs rather than raising fees. Last month, Southwest announced that they will no longer have lemons on their airplanes. If you want a slice of lemon in your drink, it's now BYOL (Bring Your Own Lemon.) Southwest expects to save $100,000 a year by getting rid of lemons. You will still be able to get a slice of lime on Southwest flights. A customer survey conducted by the airline showed that the overwhelming majority of their passengers preferred lime over lemon. So do I.


    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that businesses must must make "reasonable accommodation" for the needs of disabled people. Ever since the ADA was passed, I have been asking: "Exactly what does the term 'reasonable accommodation' mean?" and "Who gets to decide whether a requested accommodation is reasonable or not?" I have spoken to quite a few lawyers about this, but they all give me different answers.

    Bank of America and Steve Valdez. In some situations, it does seem clear that a business is not being reasonable in accommodating the needs of disabled people. On September 2, 2009; Steve Valdez, a man born without arms, walked into a Bank of America branch office in Tampa, Florida. When Mr. Valdez tried to cash a check drawn on his wife's account at the bank, the teller told Mr. Valdez that she needed a thumbprint before she could cash his check. The teller looked at Mr. Valdez's prosthetic hands and said: "Well, obviously you can't give us a thumbprint" and refused to cash the check. Mr. Valdez showed the teller two photo IDs, which she examined, but still insisted on getting a thumbprint. Mr. Valdez asked to speak to the bank's manager; however, the manager supported the teller's position. Mr. Valdez pointed out to the teller and her manager that the bank was required by the ADA to make a reasonable accommodation for his disability and that demanding a thumbprint from an armless man is unreasonable. (That sounds logical to me.) When neither the teller nor the manager would budge, Mr. Valdez said: "This is a violation of federal law, and you haven't heard the end of it." After an embarrassing story about this incident appeared on CNN, Bank of America said in a statement: "While the thumbprint is a requirement for those who do not have accounts, the bank should made accommodations."

    I have only once had a tenant ask me to do something to accommodate a disability. I own an apartment in Oakland that has a hall light about 5 feet above the floor. My tenant could not reach the switch, which was attached to the light fixture. She asked me to move the switch lower. That seemed reasonable to me, so I did it.


    Heavy Duty Vacuum Cleaner. I have a vacuum cleaner that is made for use in hotels and office buildings. It has a lot more suction than vacuums made for home use. If you would like to borrow it, give me a call. It's surprising how much dust this thing can suck out of a carpet that looks clean.

    Chocolate Fondue. Chocolate fondue is very easy to make. You just put 1 pound of chocolate and 1 cup of heavy cream in an electric fondue pot and turn the thermostat on 'low'. When the chocolate is melted, you just stir it up, and you're done. This isn't a simplified recipe. This is how the pros make it. Chocolate fondue is great for parties. If you would like to make chocolate fondue, I'll give you the chocolate and lend you an electric fondue pot and fondue forks. It is important that you use the right kind of chocolate. My favorite things to dip in chocolate fondue are strawberries, bananas, marshmallows, and cubes of Sara Lee pound cake.
    Caramel Fondue. Have you ever had caramel fondue? An apple or pear wedge covered with warm caramel is mighty tasty. You make caramel fondue by melting a pound of caramel, which you can get from me, with half a cup of whole milk in a fondue pot.

    Broiler Pan. If you want a new broiler pan for your kitchen stove, just come on over and pick it up. I always have them in stock. The baked-on crud on broiler pans sometimes just won't come off no matter what you do.

    Mark Tarses

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