Wednesday, January 30, 2013

i'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in

My father-in-law read this post detailing my episodes with two bats in my house twenty years apart.

F-I-L: "Let me ask you about the bats. Is there somewhere in your house they are getting in?"

JP: "I would assume so. I'm certainly not letting them in the front door."

F-I-L: "Well, where are they getting in?"

JP: "If I knew that, I would probably have plugged it up twenty years ago, after the first one got in."

F-I-L: "Well, you don't want this to continue, do you?"

JP: "Of course not, but let's think about the whole situation for a minute. My first bat encounter was in the early '90s. I ended up killing the bat. My next bat encounter was last summer and the incident ended with the same result — one dead bat. If these nocturnal vermin visits are on some sort of schedule, I will expect the next one when I am 71 years old. By that time, I won't give a shit if there's a bat in my house and if I call you to tell you there's a bat in my house and — God willing — you're still alive, you — at 95 — will probably have no idea who I am."

F-I-L: "I think dinner's ready."

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I'm your handyman

Last week, my wife discovered that a fair amount of water had collected in an area of our basement. Twenty years ago, the basement of our house was converted from a cement-floor-crumbling-wall storage area to a finished room with a tile floor and paneled walls. It is the current home to a Back to the Future pinball machine, an arcade-size Q*Bert video game and my dual collections of baseball memorabilia and autographed celebrity photos. So, the last thing I want near all that prized stuff is water. Mrs. P lugged out the ShopVac (one of the greatest purchases I ever made) and sucked the errant liquid up off the floor. After some repeated prompting (and ignoring), I got my lazy ass down to the basement to empty the water from the ShopVac's holding tank. I was just about to wheel the vacuum out to the adjacent laundry room, when I noticed that a new puddle of water had accumulated in the exact same spot on the floor. It hadn't rained for several days. I couldn't imagine where the water had come from. Silently, I surveyed the room. Then, I heard an unmistakable "drip-drip-drip" coming from a far wall. Upon closer inspection, I saw a crooked path of yellowish water was clinging to the wall, running from the ceiling to the floor and forming a small tributary that fed the larger pond that now occupied my basement floor.

"Shit!," I thought, with the same anger and helplessness that overcomes every homeowner at one time or another.

I vacuumed up the puddle, sopped up the stream on the wall and called to my wife to see if the general contractor who lives across the street was home. This guy is great and, to an inept, mechanically-challenged artist like myself, he is a godsend. He fixed and rescreened my antique wooden storm door. He built a beautiful front porch for my house to replace an ancient and dilapidated one. My wife has a long list of household repairs to keep him busy for months (maybe even years).

Within minutes, he was scanning our basement ceiling through narrowed eyes, pushing against the damp Sheetrock walls and toeing the baseboards.

"I'm sorry," he began, in his Israeli accent, "I have to break through the ceiling to find the leak. But, I promise, it will only be a small hole."

"What exactly is a small hole in a ceiling?," I thought, as he jammed the business end of a claw hammer into the smooth, white drywall. Debris rained down on to the floor, along with shreds of finishing tape, splashes of stray water and whatever other shit has accumulated within the walls over the past twenty years.

"Ahhh," my neighbor said, as he pointed to the source of our liquid troubles, "right there!" and he added, "Oh crap! What did this guy do?" That was an assessment of the quality of work completed by the contractor who had built our basement. We'd been told, by various workers and handymen over the years, that this guy had no idea what the fuck he was doing. Our neighbor showed me where a long, sharp screw had pierced a piece of copper pipe. Water was dribbling from the area of contact. Now, I know absolutely nothing about construction or remodeling or home repair. But, I do know that one does not drive a screw directly into a water pipe to hold it in place. They make brackets for that purpose and that's what professional contractors use... unless, of course, you are an idiot.

Our neighbor immediately began to take steps at solving our soggy dilemma. He placed a plastic container under the leak, mopped up the spilled water and set out for Home Depot to purchase a sturdy, puncture-proof piece of replacement pipe. As the day progressed, my wife and I were treated to a symphony of hammering and sawing and buzzing and gurgling as he fitted the new pipe in place and began preparations for repairing the giant hole in the ceiling. We felt the work was in capable hands. Our neighbor called it a day at around 7 PM, telling us he'd be back to finish in the morning. He said his goodbyes and crossed the street to his own home.

The next day, I left for work with the understanding that Mrs P would contact our neighbor to arrange for the completion of the work in the basement. When my day at work was finished, I hopped on the train and headed home, anxious to see the progress that was made during the day.

After exiting the train at my station, I walked down the block to my house. As I approached my front walk, I saw a huge stain of spilled white paint splashed across the incline of my driveway. Flecks of white dotted the small grassy area that calls itself my front yard. The paint splotch was about four feet across and glowed brightly under the streetlight that illuminates the space in front of my house. I walked across my front porch, taking note of a few paint-white footprints, and unlocked the front door. I could hear construction sounds coming from the direction of the basement door. I followed the noises down the steps and I found my neighbor busily dragging a paintbrush across the surface of fresh, unblemished drywall.

"How's it going?," I inquired.

"Good. Good.," he cheerfully replied, "Sheetrock is up and I'm painting. This is just the first coat, you know."

"Really?," I countered, "It looks to me like the first coat is on my driveway."

Lucky for me, he laughed.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

oh oh the night comes down

Evidently, I snore.

I remember, when I was a kid, my mother would have to sleep with thick plugs wedged into the apertures of her ear canals to block out my father's snoring. Even though my parents' bedroom was one floor below mine, I could still hear his throaty sleep-grunts rattling the windows and echoing through the house.

Recently, I seem to have developed the same nocturnal caterwauling that kept my mother from enjoying an evening's rest. Only now the victim of my bedtime racket my poor spouse. Unfortunately for her, I sleep like a corpse. Many nights have found Mrs. P shaking and shoving my undisturbable carcass into a position that would realign my nasal passages and change my breathing pattern.... or cut off  my breathing, as the case may be. I have briefly stirred from heavy slumber to hear my wife's muffled sobs emerging from under her pillow. Other times, I have been jarred awake by the not-so-subtle screams of  "STOP THAT FUCKING SNORING!" My wife has always been very successful in getting her point across.

In a few weeks, I will be attending the first "work-related" conference in my nearly thirty years of employment. By chance, the conference — a two-day affair enlightening attendees on the power of social media — will take place in Orlando, Florida. As a matter of fact, it will be hosted by the Walt Disney World Resort. When the offer was made for me to attend, my boss suggested that I extend my stay and invite Mrs. P for the weekend following the conference. Everyone knows my affinity for Disney theme parks, so I sent a quick email to my wife just after I secured my travel arrangements with my employer.

That evening over dinner, we discussed the logistics of Mrs. P. joining me post-conference. She offered to drive her car while I flew on my company's dime, meet me in Orlando and we'd drive back together. Now, we live approximately 990 miles from Orlando and the thought of spending it in a car doesn't exactly thrill me — especially when I can make the trip in two hours on a plane that someone else is paying for. ("You used to like that trip!," my wife countered. Sure. Twenty years ago, when I was twenty years less cranky.) A few more scenarios were suggested, including one that involved my in-laws and a side trip to Miami. All were given the thumbs down and we decided that it would work out best for me to just go to the conference and come home. Quick, unobtrusive and I'd be back before you know it.

Mrs. P looked a little disappointed, but her expression soon changed to one of optimism.

"Well, at least I'll get a couple of good night's sleep.," she smiled.

Friday, January 18, 2013

I'm just a girl who can't say "no"

It's okay. It's perfectly normal. You don't have to know everything. No one can possibly know everything. We all have our areas of expertise. But we have to know our limitations. It's okay to ask for help from someone more educated on a particular subject. Don't be embarrassed.

My parents had a friend named Jack. Jack was the nicest, sweetest, most generous guy in the world. He would do anything for you. Anything. Without question or reservation. Jack was also an idiot, but he knew his limitations. He knew he was not smart and he didn't pretend otherwise. He knew that any situation that required rational or logical thinking was beyond his capabilities. And Jack was the happiest, most stress-free guy I ever met.

Several jobs ago, I had a boss who was rich. Very rich. Rich beyond words. He had more money than you or I would see in a hundred lifetimes. And he believed that because he was rich, he must be smart. And he was smart about certain things. Not about every thing, though. He was business-savvy alright — I'll give him that — but that's where his expertise ended. He was not creative. He was not artistic. He was not an actor and he was not a computer expert. However, he fancied himself all of these and, since he was rich, he must be smart and since he was smart, he was good at everything. He peppered his speech with buzzwords and phrases that he picked up here and there. He didn't exactly know their meanings, but he would inject these words into conversation. When he spoke with experts on a particular topic, he would use words roughly related to the subject at hand. He would use them incorrectly, but it didn't matter. His inaccuracies and lack of knowledge on the subject were spotted immediately, but in his mind, he knew what he was talking about and that was most important.

The moral of this tale is "be yourself." It's okay to consult another, more experienced authority. It's okay to say "I don't know."

And if you're gonna bullshit, you better be really, really good. I mean really good.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

they put coffee in their coffee in Brazil




From its beginnings in 15th century Yemenite monasteries, coffee has become a staple in the life of 100 million Americans. Ward Cleaver, Steve Douglas or Mike Brady wouldn't have dreamed of starting a day without it. When time-traveler Marty McFly stumbled upon his father's adolescent hangout, Lou the counterman served him up a steaming cup of coffee when the request came for "something without sugar in it." Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza spent nine seasons picking apart their lives over a cup of coffee. Special Agent Dale Cooper wouldn't have made it through an investigation without a slice of cherry pie and "a damn fine cup of coffee."

I began drinking coffee in high school. Once I started art school, I drank coffee daily, downing three or four cups on some days. As an adult, I start every morning with a cup of coffee. A year or so ago, we purchased a Keurig single-cup coffee maker and things couldn't have gotten more convenient. I have a cup of coffee before I leave for work and another one when I arrive at my office. Sometimes, I'll even swallow an additional cup in the late afternoon. I've been doing that for years.

Coffee was the original no-frills beverage. It didn't get much simpler than hot water forced through ground coffee beans. It was quick. It was hot and it was cheap. As reflected in the 1955 setting of Back to the Future, coffee was a nickel a cup. The classic panhandler begged for a few spare coins for a cup of coffee. The cheapest date you could plan was "Hey, let's meet for coffee." You could impress (or repel) a girl for under a buck.

Then something happened to coffee.

Coffee became the drink of choice among the coolest members of society. Coffee connoisseurs began to spring up everywhere. Exclusive coffee specialty shops opened on every corner. Ordering a hot beverage was as intricate as giving instructions on landing an aircraft. And then, those complicated instructions got compacted into truncated code. A secret language only understood by elite coffee drinkers and seasoned baristas. There's another word — barista!  Who ever heard that word  before Starbucks invaded our lives?

Now, before you spill your tall skinny half-caff double-shot vanilla latte, I am not about to knock Starbucks. Look what Starbucks has accomplished. They have succeeded in making us go from starting our mornings with a small, dark cup of plain brewed Maxwell House to carrying a bucket-sized container of overly-sweetened coffee that looks like an ice cream sundae and costs as much as two dozen donuts. And they did it in about a decade. Starbucks has spawned a number of copycats and together they have turned the humble cup of coffee into an 18-billion dollar industry in the United States. Homeless can no longer just ask "spare some change for coffee." At that rate, it would take months to accumulate enough money for a "short" (or as we long-time coffee drinkers say: "small"). As a supporter of free enterprise, I have no problem with Starbucks. More power to them. I just don't like the taste of their coffee. I do, however, admire their achievement in getting society to accept whipped cream and chocolate syrup in the same "coffee condiment" category as sugar and half-n-half.

I'm gonna run out for some coffee now.

Monday, January 14, 2013

holy moly me oh my you’re the apple of my eye

I lived in my parent's house in Northeast Philadelphia for 22 years. The majority of my friends lived nearby and, and save for a few harrowing incidents of antisemitism, my childhood experiences were pleasant. I remember the green grass of the neighborhood lawns. In my mind, I can still see a shimmering white ice cream truck descending down my street, dispensing brightly-colored frozen treats. I recall row after row of shopping centers lining great Roosevelt Boulevard, their storefronts a gleaming color combination of pastels and chrome. Some even boasted enormous blinking neon signs glowing amiably after sunset. The new car dealership next to the Howard Johnson's with the bright orange roof displayed shiny automobiles festooned with plastic flags in luminous primary hues and beautiful multi-colored lettering painted across the huge showroom windows.

I moved out of my parents' house when I got married and, after briefly renting an apartment, my wife and I moved into a three-story twin just outside of the Philadelphia city limits. I returned occasionally — taking a quick twenty-minute drive — to dine with my parents. After my mother passed away, my son and I would meet my father nearly every Friday for dinner while my wife worked late. Each week, as I made the journey back to my old neighborhood, I noticed a slight deterioration of the surroundings. There were a few more overgrown lawns, a few more closed businesses.

My father died in 1993 and I was tasked with selling his house. I made arrangements with a local Realtor and, once explaining the state of disrepair the house was in, we agreed on an asking price. I handed the keys over and, just like Lot fleeing Sodom, I didn't look back. The house sold in two days.

I have returned to Northeast Philadelphia a handful of times in the twenty years since my father's death. I really have no reason to go back. I don't know anyone there. I have no close family there. There is more convenient shopping near my current residence. The few times that I've had reason to venture back to the stomping grounds of my youth have been disheartening.

This past Saturday, I accompanied my wife to drop off an item that was purchased from her eBay store. The mutual decision was made, by Mrs P and her customer, to meet in the parking lot of a large shopping mall at the far end of Northeast Philadelphia. We woke early, loaded the item (a Radio Flyer wagon) into my car and pulled out of our driveway. When we crossed the county line into what is officially Northeast Philadelphia, a noticeable change took place. The houses looked pale and washed-out. The grass was either overgrown or brown and dead. Small shopping centers exhibited "AVAILABLE" or "FOR RENT" signage in the majority of their darkened store windows. Obviously empty businesses showed evidence of decaying structure beneath peeling paint. We passed my elementary school. It looked small and sad, surrounded by a bleak assembly of faded houses and rusted playground equipment. We passed more empty buildings, parking lots dotted with crumbling blacktop and glistening bits of broken glass. Even the part of our route that took us a mile or so down a six-lane interstate was marked by neglected median strips and oxidized directional signs. The scenery got worse and worse as we got closer to our destination. We made the merchandise delivery in the nearly empty parking lot of a nearly empty mall in desperate need of rejuvenation.

The physical memories of my childhood surroundings have literally faded away. With apologies to Allen Ginsburg, I saw the best years of my generation destroyed by a lack of care, pride and consideration.

Monday, January 7, 2013

click click boom

I boarded the train this morning, heading into Center City for the first full work week of the year. I took a seat, reached into my bag for the book I'm currently reading* and opened it up to the bookmarked page. Midway through the first sentence, it began.

Click. Click. Clickclick. Click. Click.

It was an irregular metallic chirp. Where was it coming from? I looked up and, with my morning-weary eyes, I scanned the train car. I saw mostly the tops of heads bent forward in either sleep or concentration over any number of convenient electronic devices.

Click. Click. Click. Clickclick. Click

I turned to my right and discovered the source of the irritating sound. Curled up in the window corner of the double seat next to me was a guy. In a suit. With a briefcase. And an iPad. And a pen. A regular ball point pen. And he was clicking the fuck out of it. He stared intently at his electronic Apple tablet that was precariously balanced on one jutting knee. In his hand, he absentmindedly worked his thumb at record speed on the click button (that is an actual industry term). I tried to return to my reading, but the patternless clicking was too distracting. I'd read a few sentences and the clicking would begin again. I'd look up and give the "glare of death," but I was powerless. The clicking continued, increasing and decreasing at indiscriminate intervals.

Click. Clickclickclickclick. Click. Click. Click. Clickclick.

What the hell did he need a pen for anyway? He wasn't writing. He had an iPad! He was reading! Unless you're in a college lecture hall, you don't need a pen when you're reading. I was reading and I didn't have a pen.

Click. Click. Clickclick.

Stop it! STOP IT! STOP THAT CLICKING! That's what you would say to your little sister at the dinner table when she's drumming with her utensils. That's what you'd say to your husband when he's... well, pretty much anything he's doing. But, to a stranger on a train not even in the same communal seat? That's just not done. Unless you're a total jerk. (Which I'm not. So, shut up.)

I struggled through a few more pages, not even comprehending what I was reading. Finally, the train arrived at my Center City stop. Mr. Clicky ceased his thumb exercises long enough to gather up his coat, sheathe his iPad and, thankfully, his pen.

Growgirl: How My Life After The Blair Witch Project Went to Pot by Heather Donahue (Not exactly Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment).

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

after all, we're only ordinary men

Casinos are places of unusual camaraderie. I am not a fan of camaraderie of any sort, but in casinos it particularly unsettling. I have observed on many occasions that the overwhelming population of people that visit casinos look as though the last place they should be is in a casino. There is an “Us Against Them” feeling among most casino patrons. It’s a feeling of we, as gamblers, are in a battle against the nameless, faceless, evil entity that is “The Casino” and it is our duty to take down this Goliath. Defeat is achieved by bankrupting the giant and since we are “all in this together”, we are entitled to know the status of each member of the campaign. This is a group to which I do not wish to belong, nor do I wish to be recruited.

Because of the configuration of casino’s slot machine areas — wide open floor space with row after row of machines  — non-playing spectators are offered easy access to view and comment on the activity of total strangers and a lot of them take full advantage of the situation. And once someone occupies the machine next to you, they are granted full disclosure to your financial situation. Or so they believe.

My wife and I spent the final days of 2012 in Atlantic City as guests of Harrah’s Casino Resort. In the afternoon, Mrs. P and I ventured into the casino for a little gaming before attending a New Years Eve party for invited guests. My wife sat down at a slot machine and slid a twenty into the bill acceptor slot and the machine sprung to life. She hit a few consecutive winning combinations, each one tendering a fairly high payout. I stood quietly behind her and expressed my pleasure of her luck. The older woman seated at the machine to her immediate left paused her playing to also express her pleasure.

“Oh good for you!,” she exclaimed in a cigarette-roughened voice, “That was a good hit!” and then, she questioned, “How much did that pay?”

We both looked at her without answering. My wife pushed the “Cash Out” button, grabbed the printed voucher and we left. We found another machine, one themed to the 1984 Bill Murray supernatural comedy Ghostbusters. This particular machine is set up as a pair of consoles with stereo speakers integrated into the bucket seat. The two machines are connected to a flat-screen monitor that displays game graphics, scenes from the film and simulcasts of the games in play. The game is loud and fun and — if you’re winning — even more fun. While Mrs. P played, a man walked up to watch the action. At first, we thought he was a companion to the woman playing the Ghostbusters game next to our left, but we soon realized, by her reaction to his unwanted commentary, he was not. This man’s comments got louder and more frequent as the time went on. And the longer he stood by us, he deemed himself the official Ghostbusters slot machine play-by-play announcer. He described each and every outcome of each and every spin of the electronic reels. “Hey, that was a good pay!” and “Yes! Five of a kind! That pays great!” were coming at us every few seconds. He emphatically cheered when the three “Bonus Game” symbols appeared on the center reel, indicating additional play-within-play for supplemental payouts. He offered his views on which were the better Bonus Games, which were his favorite, which gave the highest payouts — all without anyone ever asking his opinion.

Despite the fact that she was doing well, Mrs. P had had enough. She stabbed the “Cash Out” button with her finger. As she grabbed the newly-printed voucher, the man, now standing well into our personal space, asked, “Are you guys winning?” We did not answer as we pushed past him and made our way deeper into the casino.

The news is full of stories of people being followed, attacked, beaten, robbed, carjacked, and murdered in the areas surrounding casinos. Crooks will observe a winning patron and tail them to a secluded, dimly-lit area of a parking lot and help themselves to the winners’ stash, sometimes with the help of a weapon. Some winners have even been followed home by determined thieves. So why on earth would I confirm to a random someone in a casino that I am winning? Why would a complete stranger feel that my monetary status at that particular moment is any of their goddamn business? Would these same people stand outside of a bank and inquire about the balance in my checking account? Would they feel that the contents of my monthly Visa bill is within their right to know? Do they believe that my weekly pay stub should be public knowledge? My income tax return put on display?

Humans. I will never figure them out.