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Scamming the Scammers

Blame it on sunstroke.

Or my daughters’ addiction to $9 virgin piña coladas and $16 fake grouper sandwiches.

But, during our Independence Day weekend at The Throng-N-Brew Beach Resort, my wife and I signed up for the Velvet Vacation Club presentation.

To score 100 bucks in free resort vouchers.

Yes, we’re those people.

In our defense, it involved free doughnuts.

Plus, we badly needed a vacation from our vacation. 

We had just finished our real, respectable getaway at Longboat Key. The Throng-N-Brew weekend was a guilt-ridden nod to my mother-in-law’s Independence Day tradition, which annually involves her:

1) Generously inviting all 17 of her grandchildren to the beach
2) Picking the loudest rooms in the most crowded resort on the summer’s priciest weekend
3) And making their parents pay for it.

Back at Longboat there were more sea turtle nests than humans. But over the Fourth of July the Throng-N-Brew Beach looked like the Allied D-Day assault on Normandy.

Assuming World War II soldiers blared bad country music, belched second-hand smoke and splashed about in American flag bikinis, red Solo cups and T-shirts reading “Rehab is for Quitters.”

This I knew was true: If I got dragged down to that beach, my 10-year-old was going to guilt me into leaping into an even lower circle of hell: one of the resort’s pools – daily replenished with warm beer strained through the kidneys of the fat, tattooed guys cheering on the bellyflop competition.

So I signed up for a good scamming instead.

What could go wrong? Velvet Vacation Club believes in the power of vacations. They only wanted to share their happiness with me. “It’s only about a two-hour presentation and tour,” they promised.

“About” being the key word.

As in “The earth is about 2.5 million light years away from the Andromeda Galaxy.”

It’s entirely my wife’s fault. She agreed with the plan.

She even talked her brother and his wife into coming along. “Oh, yeah,” said Michael, a starving law school student. “Laura’s all over free money like cheap cheese on nachos.”

So at 10:30 a.m. on Independence Day, we crammed into a conference room with bunch of other people sporting beach shorts and tank tops and eagerly awaiting their free beer money.

And in walked the smooth-talking Don Babcock.

I glanced at the audience member to my right. His face wrinkles screamed 70 but his road tar-dyed goatee screamed 32-year-old comic-book supervillain. While shaving his head, the bald guy in front of me had lost interest mid-neck, so his back hair exploded from his T-shirt like a horde of spring breakers doing keg stands.

Then there was me: a 49-year-old Irish bag of freckles, whose beach forays begin with an inch-thick application of sunscreen.

So that after a good roll in the sand, I look like a battered KFC drumstick heading to the deep fryer.

“My!” Don Babcock began. “What a good looking group of people I have this morning!”

Babcock oozed charm like fat men sweat. His presentation involved PowerPoints, white boards and suspiciously enthusiastic audience participation from the wife of the Beard of Evil. Babcock’s goal? Selling each of us 20,000 vacation points, applicable toward thrilling vacations at top resorts in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky and Elephant Butte, New Mexico. We could even will the points in perpetuity, so our great great grandchildren could also enjoy Elephant Butte and afterwards sprinkle flowers of gratitude on our graves.

And if we signed then and there, each point cost a mere three bucks.

“Isn’t that a deal!” Ron cried.

“Yes!” the wife of the Beard of Evil cried back.

“Wait! Did I say three dollars?” cried Don.

Holy cow! We had completely lucked out! Because on that special day, Don announced, good looking people could buy them for just $2.50 each.

Don, to borrow a phrase, was smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy. While he was pushing a portly 60, his well-tailored suit didn’t pucker. He spoke of his beloved wife, Vicki, and their wonderful grandkids. But his bodacious flirting with the only actually attractive couple in the room – two young gay guys sitting in the front row – made me a tad suspicious.

In a moment, my smartphone was trolling Don Babcock’s Facebook page.

“Single,” it read. “Interested in F.U.N.”

And here I was, cynically thinking Ron was only interested in mating with the tattered wallets of the naïve and gullible.

When Don was done working us over, he handed each couple over to an individual tour guide for additional spanking. We landed Jeremy, who had just left a career in the Air Force. Jeremy gave us a thoroughly thorough tour of the Throng-N-Brew, where my mother-in-law has forced us to stay every Independence Day since 2005.

“So, do you like your new job?” I inquired as we toured another pool.

Jeremy shrugged. “It beats killing people for a living.”

And on that light note, Jeremy ushered us into what, in the high pressure sales world, is called the boiler room.

“I just want to warn you,” Jeremy whispered. “My manager has a really mean looking face.”

My wife launched me an alarmed look. 

“But he’s actually just a warm, huggable teddy bear on the inside.”

And Jeremy launched a sales pitch for the 20,000 vacation points at $2.50 a pop.

Plus the previously unmentioned $1,500 annual maintenance fee.

And the $250 annual club fee.

But wait! There’s more!

Don Babcock suddenly oozed into the seat beside me, nearly tripping over his big, flashy smile.
“Amazing news!” he cried, “I just got word that today we can sell each of the points for [DRAMATIC PAUSE] $1.50 each! Isn’t that tremendous?”

“It’s just shocking,” I agreed. “But if you just leave me the information, we’ll get back to you.”

Don swooned with offense like the Dowager of Downton Abbey. “But in order to get this unbeatable deal, I told everyone you must sign up now.”

“We don’t make decisions that way.”

Jeremy’s hand shot up and Ron oozed away. In a moment, the most threatening guy west of Clint Eastwood stood before us. Mean Manager eyed us like the scum we were and wordlessly slid over another paper.

The offer was now for 1,500 vacation points.

Costing roughly $30,000.

“As I said—”

Mean Manager jumped up and strode away. Probably to get his six-shooter.

“Look,” I said to Jeremy. “We have a daughter with a medical condition and we needed to give her an inoculation about 15 minutes ago. We really need to go now.”

My wife looked at me startled.

Jeremy raised his hand. “We just have a few more things to go over.”

My startled wife stood. “I’m going to have to give our daughter that inoculation.” She patted me on the shoulder. “I’m sure you can handle things from here.”

“Whoa, wait!”

My startled wife had just completely hijacked my highly creative lie and had thrown me under the scam bus.

Now fully recovered, she waved daintily from the door and departed.

Mean Manager stood over me, gnawing an unlit cigar. He wordlessly slid over the latest offer. A mere 1,000 points, which could easily be afforded by raiding our three daughters’ college fund.

“We don’t make financial decisions like this.”

Mean Manager actually growled like a rabid teddy bear.

“Are we wrapping up?” I asked Jeremy.

“Well, in that case,” Jeremy excitedly cried, “Perhaps you’d be interested in our last and final offer!”

Mean Manager wordlessly slid a second paper across the table. For just $2,000, I could buy my freedom AND 400 points, enough for a thrilling night every year in the Sheraton Hotel in Scranton, Pennsylvania and five super-sized slushies at 7-Eleven.

I sighed.

Why, you ask, didn’t I just say, “Dudes, I’m just here for the vouchers!”?

Because I didn’t want them thinking I was just some cheap, desperate scammer.

I swallowed and bravely stared into Mean Manager’s eyes. “No means no,” I growled back.

His eyebrows knit together threateningly.

“But thank you for your very kind offer.”

Fifteen minutes later, I seized our free $100 vouchers from Voucher Man at the front desk. My wife then enthusiastically high fived me and snatched them from me. “That was so totally NOT worth it,” she cried.

As I turned, six thoroughly bored children sat near us, watching the Velvet Vacation Club Video loop for the tenth time, patiently waiting for their parents to finish their hard time with the smooth Don Babcock.

I eyed Voucher Man behind us.

“Go eat all the doughnuts, kids,” I whispered. “Momma and daddy are gonna be a while.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Fighting Fire With Fire

“Stop it!” the high schooler says.

“Stop what?” inquires Elf, our middle schooler. Her sing-songy tone makes clear Elf knows exactly what needs stopping.

I glance in the rearview mirror. But with nearly 13 years of experience in sibling torture, Elf is smartly angled out of view. 

“Stop it now!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I glance over at the child psychologist I call my wife, but she’s already feigning sleep.

We’re soaring over Tampa Bay on the Sunshine Skyway on the way to a calm, tranquil week beach week that will involve my three daughters sharing a 12” by 12” bedroom.

“Look!” I point to the water 180 feet below. “A dolphin!”

You couldn’t see a pod of whales from this high up. But it used to effectively trick my daughters into not quibbling for a mile or two.

They’d momentarily forget they were supposed to be pinching each other.

Or spreading their legs to hog the seat.

Or exhaling warm Cheerios breathe all over each other.

Alas, they’ve grown up. Only the high schooler hasn’t outgrown the bad breathe torture. (It’s still one of her go-to wrestling moves.)

Back when the dolphin trick stopped working, we broke down and bought a portable DVD player.

But instead of torturing each other, the girls started torturing their parents. With High School Musical sing-alongs.

“We’re all in this together!” they’d shriek at the top of their lungs.

Making us regret we didn’t mail them ahead in separate boxes stamped FRAGILE, HATES VEGETABLES and ONLY ORDERS CHICKEN FINGERS.

I began conveniently forgetting the DVD cable.

With pinching, seat hogging and breakfast-cereal breathing punishable under the No Junk Food Injunction, my daughters quickly concocted other creative forms of torture.

The Stuff That Has Been Banned List soon grew exponentially. “Attention,” we’d announce before each road trip, “The following behaviors shall not be tolerated!”

1. Spelling everything to completely baffle your preschool sister.
2. Bickering.
3. Covering your sleeping sister’s face (except the nose holes) with princess stickers so that she can’t open her eyes and concludes she’s gone blind.
4. Repeatedly uttering outrageous accusations of love interests, crushes and alleged boyfriends, particularly those involving The MegaFarter.
5. Saying everything in Pig Latin with a heavy British accent to completely baffle not only your sister (the one who unexpectedly learned to spell) but also your mother.
6. Rib-breaking bear hugs and unwanted, two-mile long smooches that leave actual hickies on your sisters’ cheeks. Because everyone sees through that charade – no matter how much you shout “I love you so much!” while doing it.

Within a year, we were forced to expand the last rule to include:

7. No tweaking, flicking or purple-nurpling.
8. And no attacks, threatened or actual, by The Claw.

Being slow learners, we simply imposed a general ban on all touching the following year.

Which apparently inspired the latest torture.

I shift the rearview. Elf is extending her finger so it’s hovering three inches from her sister’s nose.

“Don’t touch me!” the high schooler warns loudly.

“I am not touching you.” Elf’s finger wiggles and circles threateningly. “There is no actual physical touch.”

“If you touch me, you’ll be in BIG trouble.”

“This is not touching you. This is ALMOST touching you.”

“You’d better not!”

“In fact I could close half the distance between my finger and your nose every second and I would still NEVER be touching you.”

You have to admire Elf’s dedication. She’s all in when it comes to sibling torture. When her iPod battery gave out on our last trip, she started looking at the High Schooler after she refused to share an earbud. It took nearly a half hour of Elf clearing her throat for her sister to even notice she was being stare-tortured.

“Stop it!”

“I can’t help myself. You’re too beautiful.”

Pursed lips. A shrug. Then the high schooler tilted her seat back and closed her eyes.

Elf moved closer. A lot closer.  So close her nose was a mere two inches from her sleeping sister’s.

But it was quiet, so it was all good. In fact, 20 minutes later, I’d forgotten the whole thing.

Until the shriek nearly caused me to drive off the road

“GET AWAY FROM ME! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”

“Admiring your beautousness.”

The Stare Torture is now close to being added to The Stuff That Has Been Banned List. So they recently developed some others.

1. The Seat Invasion Torture. While bad enough on an airplane, the minivan version requires you to suddenly recline your seats ALL the way. Every ten miles or so, just flip the seat latch, dramatically flop your seat back across your sister’s book, look up into her face and announce that her nostril hair has actually thickened in the last nine minutes.
2. The Tapping Torture. Requiring effective acting to convince your parents it’s merely a nervous tick, this torture requires you to repeatedly thunk your knees against your sister’s seatback, preferably out of beat from her iPod song, until she shouts for parental intervention.
3. The Dramamine Shake. This tag-team torture entails two sisters working cooperatively to annoy not only the third sister but also their parents by rocking the minivan as it shoots down the highway, causing widespread motion sickness and triggering truckers to honk and flash a thumbs up.

With things escalating, I finally intervene in Elf’s Nearly Touching Torture.

“Move up to the seat behind me,” I growl.

“I wasn’t touching her,” Elf says, but she wisely complies.

Then I hand her my iPod. “Put it on!”

“But my playlist isn’t on here.”

“Now,” I growl.

She sheepishly turns it on. “But it’s Michael Buble.” Horrified, she turns to the sister she was just torturing. “He’s Michael Buble-ing me!”

The high schooler catches my eyes in the rearview and we share an evil smile.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher
 

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Facon and the Five Mini Wheats

At 5:40 a.m. The Sophomore staggers into the kitchen.

I put down my coffee. She offers a grunt and a one-armed hug. She picks up her bowl containing cut-up strawberries and stares suspiciously. In the four days they’ve sat in the refrigerator, they’ve slid from deliciously firm red to slightly soft scarlet.

“The strawberries are fine.” The momster doesn’t even look up from shoving the 18 tiny plastic containers into three lunch bags.

Shuddering, The Sophomore smothers the berries with vanilla yogurt. Then pours her Frosted Mini Wheats. 

I clear my throat.

“Daaad.”

“Every morning, when I load the dishwasher, do you know what’s in your bowl?”

She feigns deafness.

“Exactly five Mini Wheats.”

“You tell me this every morning.”

“Assuming there are 400 Mini Wheats in each box, do you know how many boxes of Mini Wheats you condemn to the garbage disposal every year?”

She starts chewing like an anesthetized goat.

I try to complete the calculation.

But I’ve not finished my first mug of coffee and I’ve just painted myself into a corner with a Common Core Math Problem for Gifted College Students – one made impossible because some fool tucked 365 days into a year. 

“A lot,” I say. “A lot of boxes.”

A grunt.

“After pouring your cereal, why not just put five Mini Wheats back every morning?”

Our 15 minutes of ritual silence follow. Then I twist the newspaper around to face her and extend a finger.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Daaad.”

Tappity-tap tap.

OK. She’s right. Nine times out of ten I’m tapping a story about a teen, texting while driving, flying off the road up in Brooksville, exploding through a farmer’s chicken coup and smashing into an electrified cattle fence so that the teen’s three BFFs, now compacted into the dashboard cupholder, sizzle brightly before expiring.

“Daaad.”

But my tapping kills no foolish teens this morning. It’s entirely uplifting. I’m tapping a story about the Alabama governor’s son, who talked his dad into vetoing a bill many considered discriminatory toward gay Americans. As someone with a close gay friend and two gay cousins, The Sophomore will LOVE this story: Younger Generation Sets Older One Straight on Gays.

“But!” I protest.

“It’s not a good time,” she huffs.

The momster throws me a warning look.

“Fine,” I say. “Just know that you’re missing out on the most fascinating, important story of your sullen teen years.”

“ARE YOU MY MOMMY?”

Round Two has begun.

Her sister’s Doctor Who phone alarm is popping off – a recording of a creepy, alien-possessed toddler in gas mask, freakily asking strangers in an English accent, “Are you my mummy?”

Right before killing them.

“ARE YOU MY MOMMY?” it repeats.

“What’s wrong with her?” The Sophomore jumps up to get to the bathroom first. “What kind of normal person has an alarm like that?”

Elf, our sixth grader, staggers in. I mentally count backwards from five. Elf predictably dry heaves at one. She picks her sister’s empty yogurt cup in two fingers. Holding her nose, she dramatically hauls it to the sink. “Why does she leave such a huge mess for me every morning?”

Elf grumbles through the Official Morning Hug of Tranquility and Happiness, which, she announces, is far too long and not particularly effective.

And then she pours a bowl of the same cereal she has eaten every day for the last three years: Quaker Oatmeal Squares. Cinnamon flavor.

(Go ahead. Mess up and buy the Brown Sugar flavor by accident. She’ll just gag and you’ll throw out the entire opened but uneaten box.

Again.)

Elf requests the newspaper comics, which she proceeds to shred and fold to her liking.

Another door blows open.

Ladies and gentlemen! Round Three!

Bee, our fourth grader, emerges and hugs the dogs. After throwing all the doors of the refrigerator completely open, she places three slices of turkey bacon on a plate – the grossest, fakest looking slabs of beast ever conjured by man – and pops them in the microwave. They begin popping and spattering loudly.

“Did you cover the plate?” I ask Bee for the 45th day in a row.

“Oh!” Bee proclaims for the 45th day in a row. She rushes over, pops the microwave door and covers the facon.

Elf gags at the smell. “Can’t she just wait until I leave to make that?”

“It’s just bacon!” Bee protests.

“It’s just gross!” Elf retorts.

Bee sits. Then she tucks one end of a particularly limp piece of facon in her mouth and stares diabolically at Elf. Then Bee starts jiving her head so the limp bacon rotates like a helicopter rotor in front of her face.

Elf’s face displays nauseated outrage.

Or outraged nausea.

I pull the facon from Bee’s craw and plop the entire plate on the other side of the table. “You can have your bacon back when you behave in a civilized manner.”

Elf departs to properly address the Sophomore’s bathroom hogging.

Bee draws her knees up into her T-shirt, stretching it out like a balloon near bursting. She sits, her feet flat on the chair, toes curling over the seat lip. She looks like a fat, disgruntled hobbit pouring her Special K with Freeze-dried Strawberries.

Which she eats dry.

With her fingers.

Sitting at least two feet from the table.

So that half the cereal never quite completes the interstellar journey to Bee’s face.

Which is why the two dogs are perched immediately below her, staring up in rapt attention, like nerd children in math class.

“Could you please sit right and use a spoon?”

Meanwhile the Morning’s Official Bathroom Drama sputters to life.

“Let me in!” Elf rattles the bathroom doorknob. “I know you’re just brushing your hair in there!”

“Not true!” The toilet flushes. “Hear that? It’s a toilet flushing!”

“Everyone knows you’re just brushing your hair!”

Because two girls who are 13 and 16 can’t actually share a bathroom mirror six feet wide.

More banging. “Mom and dad! She won’t let me in!”

I pretend to be so engrossed in the newspaper that I don’t hear. The momster does the same, but we both know how this is going to end.

Bee takes advantage of our fake distraction to seize her fake bacon. She quickly stuffs it in her mouth and leaves for her room, the dogs trailing behind, licking her hand.

More banging. 

“Ugh!” My wife stands.

Sweet victory!

“There are three bathrooms and three girls in this house,” she mutters. “Why can’t they do the math?”

The momster departs to hammer out the morning’s bathroom treaty while I begin to clear the abandoned table.

Two coffee mugs. Three cereal boxes. One facon plate.

And The Sophomore’s cereal bowl.

Holding exactly five Mini Wheats.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Going for Broke

Sitting behind the Universal Studios ticket counter, Helen, a native of Flushing, Michigan, tried her best.

But negotiations with the Russian oligarch wearing a gold watch the size of Latvia just weren’t going well. Surrounded by his children, he pointed at the changing digital signs and blustered in Russian. Meanwhile three of them began poking each other and squealing. His teen daughter stood sullenly three steps away.

“I’m still not clear if you want the one-park or two-park pass for two or for three days, sweetie,” cooed Helen. “You’ll need the two-parker to ride the Hogwarts train.”

“Слишком много глупых выбор!” [My helpful translation: “This is the problem with your democracy! Too many silly choices!”]

Helen’s face leaked a smigh – the smile-sigh with throbbing forehead vein that’s the trademark of Orlando’s service industry veterans.

More squealing.

“ТИШЕ!” [“SILENCE!”]

The three little Russians froze like they’d been catapulted into Siberia in shorts and flip-flops. Stepping further away, the teen attempted to pass as the child of a young Japanese couple chattering excitedly in matching Mickey Mouse sneakers and Hogwarts gowns.

As I tapped my foot, Helen foolishly complicated matters with the upsell. “Would you like to add our meal deal? For only $19.99, you can save 30 percent on your meals and get free snacks.”

More poking and squealing.

The Russian pounded his hand. “Где я могу утонуть мои дети!?” [“Where is the nearest bathroom where I can drown my children?”]

“Or for $11.75 each our commemorative lanyards can proudly display your Universal passes!”

The Russian grabbed the lanyards, threw a wad of cash at Helen, seized the nearest son by the ear and dragged him off squabbling. And after a 20-minute wait to pick up the tickets we had bought online to save time, we stepped up.

Five three-day, two-park tickets later, I announced. “Today we go for broke!”

“Between the hotel room and the three-day passes, I’d say, ‘Mission Accomplished!’” my wife said. She already looked ready to head back to the hotel pool to weep into her latest Jodi Picoult novel.

Every married couple essentially has one or two arguments they revisit to feel alive. Some argue over whoopee. Others yell about money.

We bicker about the proper way to visit theme parks.

She Who Controls the Universe is an infuriating dabbler.

In contrast, I’m all in.

She’d rather take the last shuttle to the parks with the hung-over spring breakers at 10:55 a.m. Then return on the 4:35 p.m. shuttle with the seniors and their walkers tricked out with those fancy tennis balls.

But If I’m spending $160.99 to spin a turnstile, I’m slapping on the sunblock at sunrise and not leaving until I’ve grown two blisters and heard the ka-thump of the last firework.

Dads Like Me stalk Disney and Universal en masse. After driving 28 straight hours from Maine, they poke their 3- and 5-year olds awake at 6:30 a.m. to seize that extra hour earned by shrewdly paying too much for a Disney or Universal hotel. When the gates open, they sprint to the back of the park. By the time my wife arrives after lunch (sidetracked by a three-pound Nutella-coated Belgian waffle, all that giggling and gawking at Captain America (Mom: “Did you see the biceps on him?” High School Daughter: “I was too busy looking at his cute booty!” Together: “He! He! He!), and the Bodaciously Adorable Bunny, Bird and Magic Pony Show in The Lost Jurassic Tomorrowish Toonland), Dads Like Me have ridden the best rides four times.

Except other Dads Like Me are riding those rides because I’m stuck with the Dabbler.

Last Disney trip I watched in admiration as one all-in dad held up his little princess as fireworks exploded and Tinkerbell shot across the sky moments before the park closed. He shook his daughter’s ragdoll body in an admirable effort to interrupt actual dreams so she could experience one more dream come true.

Arms folded beside him, his exhausted wife piled on. “You might want to check for a pulse.”

He gave another shake. “I don’t understand! She napped all through It’s a Small World.”

Or the dedicated dad I spotted in Mel’s Diner on our recent trip to Universal. He had lavished $16 on a 15-pound refillable Optimus Prime Transformer Souvenir Soda Cup, bigger than all of his three sons’ heads. The entire family dutifully sucked the Transformer’s head during lunch to recoup his investment. “Hurry up!” He gestured to the nearby refill station. “We can top off Optimus before leaving!”

All-in, the oldest son attacked it, eyes bulging, face turning red.

Such dedication!

But me?

After 40 minutes pancaked against exuberant visitors fingering the Puking Pastilles in Weasleys’ Wizzard Wheezes, I attempt to rally my fast-fading troops. “Time to head back to the Hulk,” I announce. “This late in the day, the line will be half the 50 minutes it was this morning!”

“How can you enjoy things when you’re rushing through them?” the Dabbler asks, wiping Nutella from her face. “Why not head back for a nice dip in the pool?”

“It’s not even six o’clock!” I cry.

In a sly attempt to round up votes, she tries bribery. “We’ll stop at an actual restaurant for nice dinner and then go for a swim.”

Bee, 9, immediately crumbles. “OK.”

But the other two are still standing firm.

“One more ride on Hulk?” The Sophomore begs her mother.

“I’m thinking more like three,” I say encouragingly.

“I’ll waive the one junk food per day rule and we can even stop and pick up ice cream!” the Dabbler counters.

“That’s exactly the problem with democracy.” I counsel the girls. “Too many silly choices!”

“What about hot fudge?” asks Elf, 12.

“No!” I protest (hot fudge being beyond the pale).

But it’s too late. The other two have actually caved for hot fudge and sprinkles.

Amateurs.

Victorious, the Dabbler drags us back to hunt for the minivan in Jaws, Section 417.

But not before stepping briefly into Starbucks for a Classic Chai Tea Latte with Soymilk.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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