Billboards, substations

This has nothing to do with aviation. It’s more of a walk in the park.

I take care of a disproportionate number of Birmingham’s Lebanese population, because one influential family believes I can cure AIDS, which delights my scamming heart. That’s a pretty good story, a tale for another day.

Because of this connection, I am familiar with the extensive Shunnarah family. They are Christian Lebanese, emigrated piecemeal from the 1940s through about 1980, when the spigot ran dry. They are a hardworking bunch, familiar with harsh climates, tough markets. They’ve got grit. They could buy from an Arab and sell to a Jew, or vice versa, and survive. Tight families, even three generations in, it’s still Sundays at Mom’s.

They proved well suited to our marketplace. Odeh, the patriarch, pulled me aside, whispering in heavy accent “property- you cannot go wrong with property.” He started out in 1950 as an apartment super, working for cut rate rent. By the time we met, he owned that apartment and about 10 others, never sold any of them.

Things might be different if I followed his advice. Instead, I bought an airplane.

Their most famous descendant, Navim, graduated from the Birmingham School of Law.

It is not among the nation’s finest. But it’s an adequate night law school, if your day job is debt collection for a bank, for example. The bank will want you to have some legal background, to help deal with the deadbeat’s attorneys. They prefer you not take the bar exam, since passing it, though statistically unlikely, might require them to pay you more.

Pass the bar and who knows, you might get delusional, set up your own shop and compete with your former employer. Or worse yet, sit across the table from them as you try to work out a hopeless loan. Then the bank is contending with a deadbeat who understands their options and limits. That understanding could prove expensive.

It’s that kind of law school.

Navim is en train. First off, like any second generation, he needed to fit in, to streamline that name.

In the 1930s, nobody wanted to speak Yiddish- it’s not until the third generation that anybody looks back fondly, the rough edges sandpapered by the passage of time, by success itself (Listen, take no offense- nobody speaks Gaelic).

So he changed his name to Alexander, which was excellent marketing. It’s a Macedonian powerhouse of a name, but familiar to an American audience.

Then he got busy, making a sweetheart deal with the Lamar billboard advertising company. He snapped up all their empty billboards at rock bottom prices, with the proviso that they could take his postings down if any better offer came along. It was a brilliant lowball offer- for him, plentiful cheap ads. For them, found money until better times, nothing to lose.

I walk the dog in an old park that has an electrical substation in it, full of complex equipment, strange shapes. Wires in, wires out, but I couldn’t name even one bit of the heart of it. I did some reading. There are various types of substations, for transmission, distribution, collection, switching- it’s a broad topic. You could be an electrical engineer and not know them all. There is never anyone around to ask, either- they appear to be all automatic, monitored by SCADA. Who knew? Well, somebody on COPA knows, it’s safe to say.

Rooting around led to reading about their development, about Tesla v. Edison, and Westinghouse- there was some real drama about the type, setup and location of substations 130 years ago, affecting, to a surprising extent, the way our cities grew and are structured still. The way we live, shaped by engineers.

That was interesting.

There was also a parallel observation, one that should warm the hearts of our many conspiracy theorists.

Adjacent to almost every electrical substation in Alabama is a billboard touting the plaintiff work of Alexander Shunnarah. There are hundreds of these billboards, maybe a thousand. Hard to say, but A LOT. From the Gulf all the way up to Tennessee, sometimes packed in tight- four or five in just a few blocks- you can’t get away from them.

In fact, they eventually stretched out WAY beyond Alabama’s borders. A favorite of mine, a Crohn’s patient, who got much better on turmeric, and then even better yet after he switched from Post Office management to long distance trucking, found a Shunnarah billboard all the way up in Madison, Wisconsin. Business must be good.

Billboards, substations…there must be a connection.

Shunnarah screens the cases, takes out the trash, and then farms out the potentially legitimate work. He’s chiefly an advertising magnate, so he doesn’t work the cases. His firm keeps half of the plaintiff attorney’s 40% of a settlement, much of it small claims, auto accidents, slips and falls, work injuries, personal injury stuff…but there have been a few huge settlements, too. It sounded like a hefty charge.

I wondered why the plaintiff attorneys would put up with this. According to his ads, he apparently holds contracts with 300 of them, so it’s not rare.

A lawyer friend gave me the gouge. Lawsuits are all floods and droughts, moneywise. Busy or slow, the overhead keeps on coming, a problem I’m well familiar with. So they need work, at any price, to keep the pump primed. Small work makes for a quick turn, the prescreening saves time, and the case has at least a prayer.

Alexander has done very well.

But lately, I see a lot of billboards for Morris Bart, a New Orleans plaintiff attorney, and Morgan and Morgan, a Miami plaintiff firm.

Meanwhile, Alexander has taken to the radio, mentioning he’s Alabama born and bred, a ploy as effective in the deep South as any politician holding a shotgun at port arms, standing in front of a small white clapboard church. On the radio, Alexander exhorts, “Call me, Alabama.”

I wondered about that, too. It was a change in his approach. Was he about to run for office, or was this just a natural development, an outgrowth of success?

Thinking about it, walking the dog, I hypothesized.

  1. Failed billboards are very cheap for Alexander Shunnarah. The Lamar company is happy to put up something, anything in a place where business is dead. Nothing spells blight like a blank billboard. With an eager partner, his cost of market entry was low.
  2. Business is slow in blighted neighborhoods, jobs scarce, ready cash always short. Voting the obscure issues, like substation placement, is a luxurious concept, if you missed lunch.
  3. Electrical substations are a NIMBY issue. We all need them, but they are excessively utilitarian- ugly, really. Too few Italians were involved in their design. We make sure they wind up in somebody else’s backyard, or what’s the value of wealth?
  4. So blank billboards and electrical substations are brothers in arms, standing guard over the poorer neighborhoods- nobody in, nobody out. Options there are limited. You want to get rich? Sue!
  5. Everything was rosy for the original Macedonian until he tried to take all of India. Bonaparte did fine until June 12. Hitler, oddly, looked East the same day, June 12- they never learn. When their eyes were bigger than their stomach for cold war, things went awry. Alexander Shunnarah got ambitious, took his tactics into highly competitive markets, aroused the ire of the local talent, the Morgans and Morris Bart. Challenge any plaintiff attorney, and what does he do? He fights!
  6. They figured out his business methods, and who knows, maybe they got to Lamar. They began to outbid him for billboards in Alabama-maybe siphoning off some of his business, but certainly driving up his overhead. Perhaps they remembered this- as Rome failed, it contracted from its extremities inward, and Hannibal got the best result, by taking his elephants straight to the other team’s home turf. But for all I know, Lamar called THEM, and there is no honor anywhere. That’s conjecture, but my favorite. It would be a nice twist, and a good business move, if Lamar thought of it.
  7. This led him to the radio ads, which are more expensive. But now, with rising billboard rates, radio may look more attractive. At any rate, he’s upping the ante, and appeals to his grass roots.
    I confess I love everything about this story- the way America came to be made, its technological excellence, social failures, and its crazy legal proceedings, the remaking of yourself in America, the succeeding, overreach, then reacting to whatever comes next, with deadbeats and scammers galore (Finally! A Gaelic word).

The fact that I might have made half of it up- well, that’s just lagniappe, and I’ll take my place in the procession.

This whole process seems uniquely American to me, but perhaps I’m just a very parochial guy.

It’s hard to get out and about all that much, gotta walk the dog.

That’s my $65 worth, right there.

Thank you. Read this to my family at dinner.

What do you say I put a couple 100X1024 image on your posts from now on ? You know all that blank space on the left and right…


Pure gold! Encore