Tales from the Water Carnival—Lessons That Are Learned and Never Learned

By Robin Adair

Most of us learn life’s most valuable lessons when we’re kids. Most of us. Not all.

I learned many a profound lesson about customer relations while attending the annual water carnival during idyllic West Side summers. One carnival stands out.

By the time most of us in the neighborhood hit age 11, the World-Famous Water Slide had lost much of its allure as a thrill worth 25 cents. Anthony De Vin told his father just that, right as they were waiting for Anthony to complete another summer rite in the neighborhood.

“It’s a gyp, Dad,” Anthony told Mr. De Vin, who would continue to bankroll many of Anthony’s ventures, up to and including a fabrication business in the ‘80s. “I’d rather go get a foot-long.’ By 11, Anthony was taking his first real steps as a discerning consumer as well as continuing dietary decisions that would turn him into one of the biggest small-businessmen to come out of our grammar school.

The operator of the World-Famous Water Slide closely took in this confab between the De Vin males. And as Anthony and father began their journey toward the hotdog stand, the impresario of H2O fun yelled, “Hey, where you going? It’s the boy’s turn.”

“He changed his mind,” Mr. DeVin said, over his shoulder, picking up steam as he picked up the scent of tube steak. “The kid says the slide’s not as good as it used to be.”

A life lesson spontaneously generated before me. A lesson I wouldn’t come in contact with again until my close encounters with case studies at The Wharton School. “What the hell does your kid know, anyway?’ the slide’s operator yelled. “I should charge you ‘cause he took up space waiting in line! What’s with you people around here?”

Mr. De Vin turned around to face the guy. Anthony’s father stared down the soon-to-be-late operator of the World-Famous Water Slide. That electric moment of discomfort between civilized adults had arrived. Mr. De Vin was still holding Anthony’s quarter in his hand. From my vantage point, I could see Mr. D., an ironworker, suffocating George Washington inside his meaty paw. G.W. was taking the hit so that the carnival’s marketing genius could live another day. Anthony’s father finally turned again and headed off to make the hotdog guy marginally richer.

As I said, lessons learned by most of us early on. That occurred to me as I checked the latest box score of the contest between Cleveland and neighboring Westlake.

The suburb, a la Anthony De Vin, is an unhappy customer of Cleveland’s water system. It has designs to spend future public funds on its own water works, getting the potable from Avon Lake. Westlake has even checked with a consultant to confirm the wisdom of moving to another supplier.

“[Mayor Dennis] Clough, like other suburban mayors, has logged many complaints about Cleveland water service and rates, which are on track to increase by about 50 percent for suburban customers by 2015,” the Plain Dealer reports. “Clough also takes issue with his suburb shouldering costs to replace inadequate water lines during road construction projects. He says the replacements have cost Westlake $12 million since 2003, but that Cleveland should be paying for the upgrades.’

Very shrewdly, my home town leaders are handling this kerfuffle with an eye toward case-study glory at Wharton, Harvard Business School and several other distinguished temples of modern management education. Westlake wants to rely on Cleveland as a secondary supplier; Cleveland says no. Cleveland says it has exclusive rights to supply water to Westlake; the suburb says Cleveland is grossly mistaken, emphasizing the adverb. Cleveland has retained a consultancy that says Westlake’s plan is bad management writ large; Cleveland is also tossing about expressions such as “breach of contract.”

Westlake’s mayor, who oversees $6 million in water-bill payments to Cleveland, makes all the noises that he and his city are ready to seek improvements wherever they can be found. He and other folks in the region remember past battles over service from Cleveland’s water works. Cleveland and its “satellites” have been in a protracted water fight about costs and services since my hair was longer and my waist was smaller.

Mayor Dennis, in effect, is now ready to pick up the quarter his town gave him and move to wetter pastures west of Cleveland. “We’re double-paying right now,’ Mayor Clough tells Cleveland’s daily paper. “The money our people are paying to purchase water is not coming back to us to replace water lines.’

Sure does sound like Mr. De Vin.

By the way, Mr. De Vin ultimately moved out of Cleveland in the ‘70s. In the ‘80s, he bought Anthony’s kids a real fancy water slide for their backyard pool.

 Fiction writer and former reporter Robin Adair has moved back to Cleveland, tempting fate and recklessly disregarding Thomas Wolfe’s famous admonishment about making hometown curtain calls.

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