Wednesday, April 29, 2015

we'd spread a little lovin' then we'd keep movin' on

Actress Suzanne Crough passed away, unexpectedly, this week at the age of 52. With only a handful of credits over an eight-year career, she is best known as "Tracy," the youngest sibling in the 70s sitcom The Partridge Family. Of course, her role was overshadowed by series stars David Cassidy (every prepubescent girl's heartthrob, specifically the ones who didn't care for Bobby Sherman) and Shirley Jones, the Oscar-winning actress from Elmer Gantry and some of Hollywood's most successful musicals. Unfortunately, Suzanne wasn't given a whole lot to do in the show. As the "baby" of the clan, she was mostly sent out of the room with brother Chris (played by, at different times, Jeremy Gelbwaks or Brian Forster). Sometimes, she was used for two-second "reaction" shots or called upon to deliver a line or two of dialogue as a set-up for a joke by one of the other cast members. During the performance sequences, Suzanne was confined to an elevated platform near the drum kit, where she smacked a tambourine against her hip and smiled.

I was nine years-old when The Partridge Family premiered on September 25, 1970. I never missed an episode of its four season network run. Despite a pretty impressive array of guest stars (Ray Bolger, Richard Pryor, Louis Gossett, Jr., Rob Reiner, Jodie Foster, three future Charlie's Angels — even Johnny Cash appeared in the first episode!), the acting was sub-par, the jokes were typical sitcom fare and the story lines were unimaginative. But, The Partridge Family was wedged between The Brady Bunch and Room 222, so I watched it and I loved it. Evidently, I wasn't alone. The show was in the top 25 for three of its four seasons. In addition, I had stacks of Partridge Family trading cards and a couple of paperback books featuring TV's "first family of pop music."

Suzanne eventually left show business and led a normal life. She attended college. She got married and had two daughters. In the 90s, she owned a bookstore and later she was employed as the store manager of an Office Max in Bullhead City, Arizona, just across the Colorado River from Laughlin, Nevada.

I don't know why the news of Suzanne's death made me so sad. She wasn't a big star and I never met her. Maybe it's because she was so close to my own age. Maybe it's because she was a small part of a life that seems so far away and will never come back. Maybe it's because, unlike her TV co-stars, she was just a person with a family and a job and a life with no pretense.

I think it was most upsetting because it wasn't Danny Bonaduce.

Friday, April 24, 2015

don't stand so close to me

I went to see my friend Sly's band play at a small venue in the nuevo-hip Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown on Monday night. Rock shows on Monday nights don't draw a lot of people. That is a fact and there is no getting around it.

I scored the perfect – and I mean perfect! – parking space directly across the street from the club. I ran over to the sidewalk where I admired my car sitting in said perfect space, while I sent a text to Lis (another friend I had planned to meet at the show) to let him know I was waiting outside. Just as I hit "SEND" on my phone, Lis turned the corner and greeted me. I heard his phone signal a message and I told him to just ignore it because that message was from me.

We paid our admission and walked into the club a few minutes before the first band was scheduled to take the stage. There were three or four other people inside, including the bartender. I understand that this particular club has a reputation for starting shows late, but I doubted that the crowd (could it even qualify as a crowd?)  would double or triple in a few more minutes.

Lis and I hung back at the bar which is, more or less, a separate room from the performance area. From the bar, you can see the stage, but there is a distinct separation delineated by a wide threshold and a long, narrow step. The performance area is also distinguished by its darkened, "mood-lit" atmosphere.

The opening band (of a card of four) finally began to tune-up. It was one guy behind a small drum kit and another on guitar. And they were horrible. No... I take that back. They were loud and horrible. Lis and I were easily forty feet away from the stage, in, essentially, another room, and we could not hear a word the other was saying. I looked towards the stage and I saw two silhouetted figures pushed against a wall watching the band. The rest of the stage area was empty and that's not an exaggeration.


The next band wasn't any better, although I believe they were louder, as I had an even harder time hearing Lis during our conversation. Also, the size of the crowd (crowd?) had not increased over the course of the first band's set.

The headlining band for the evening's show was Split Squad, a so-called "supergroup" comprised of members of such seminal rock acts as The Plimsouls, The Fleshtones and New Wave darlings (and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees) Blondie. Sly's band was scheduled to go on just before the headliners. Now that the warm-up bands had finished, Lis and I made our way towards the small stage and watched as Sly and his bandmates set up and prepared their equipment.

With no formal introduction – aside from Sly screaming the band's name into his microphone – the set began. As the sound from Sly's mighty Hammond organ filled the tiny room, I actually counted the number of individuals gathered around the stage. I counted ten. A quick recount yielded the same result. Back at the bar, there may have been another ten folks. So, with ten people in the audience, needless to say, there was a lot of empty floor space in front of the stage. An awful lot.

"Got personal space?"
[Click to enlarge]
In the darkness, a couple of shadowy figures swayed and bopped to the music. A few people paced back and forth across the empty floor, some making their way to the bar, while others took their choice of open spots against one of the walls. Suddenly, a guy came up from a side flight of stairs into the area in front of the stage. He never took his gaze off of the band as he backed up and planted himself smack dab in front of Lis and me. I don't mean a few feet ahead. I mean close enough that I could see the frayed threads on the back of his collar. I could read the label stitched on the back pocket of his jeans. I could see the amount of product in his long hair, attempting to keep it flat against his neck. I could also see that it was Keith Streng, the energetic guitarist from Split Squad (as well as legendary garage rockers The Fleshtones). Based on past performances I have witnessed, Keith is a pretty frenetic guy onstage. He regularly executes high leg kicks, exaggerated shakes and whiplash-inducing neck shimmies. Many times during a show, with guitar in hand, he scales speakers and drum risers as a springboard to leaping several feet in the air, legs tucked beneath him, achieving impossible hang-time before a perfect landing on the heels of his pointed, two-tone Oxfords. But, now, here he was standing – literally – inches from the tips of my toes – grooving like he was in an empty room. And, save for a few people, he was.

As Shakespeare said, "Ah! There's the rub!"

Did I mention that the place was nearly empty? Well, it was. One could have plopped down on the floor and rolled around and not bumped into anyone. You could have marked out a game of hopscotch on the floor and played without interfering with anyone's personal space. With ten pins and a 16-pound ball, you could have fucking bowled in there and not infringed on anyone's good time. But, Keith chose the immediate spot, several inches in front of us, for his own personal "get down tonight." He pranced and bobbed and danced and gyrated. I was shocked that, in the dim light, he didn't step on my or Lis's feet.

Keith stayed in that spot for almost the entire thirty-minute set by Sly's band, only stealing away during the last song to prepare for his own set. I've often heard that musicians are living in their own little world. I guess Keith's little world is always packed to capacity.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

working at the car wash

I never wash my car. Never. I know, as a responsible car owner, you're supposed to, but I never do. And here's why...

Because I take the train to work, my car is parked in front of my house all day, five days a week. (Sometimes more, if I don't drive anywhere on weekends.) Day after day, my car rests comfortably by the curb — silent, undisturbed — obediently waiting for my Saturday trip to pick up my dry cleaning and perhaps a stop at the supermarket. 

A couple of weeks ago, as I descended my front porch steps on my way to the train station, I noticed a number of long, dark strips of something all over the passenger's side of my car. As I moved closer, I saw that the sidewalk was dotted with a similar discoloration. I looked around. Any overhanging tree branches were too far back to drip any sap (or whatever trees drip) on my car. The spots were too numerous, too spread out and not the right color to be bird droppings. I lightly touched and rubbed my finger on one of the many dried streaks that, upon closer inspection, ran the full length of my car. I didn't know what it was... but, if I stood there any longer, I would miss my train. I decided to continue my investigation when I got home from work. When I got home from work, I completely forgot about the stuff all over my car.

Of course, I saw it again the next morning. "Dammit!," I thought, "I better do something about that." In typical fashion, I let it go a few more days. Then, I remembered and I started checking Google for a self-serve car wash near my house. I figured that, when the weekend rolled around, I'd go to one of those places that offer the general public access to a high-powered hose, thus saving me some money. Then, I realized I'd have to buy a sponge and some sort of car-washing detergent, prompting a subsequent visit to an auto supply store. Then I'd have to find some rags. Shit! This was turning into a project. And I hate projects that don't result in some sort of Disneyland vacation at the end.

I changed my Google search to regular car washes and found one that I pass regularly when I go to my local Target store. I figured that paying someone to get that shit off my car was better that wasting my time (read: I'm lazy.) doing it myself.

So, this morning, I drove down to the nearby car wash and swung my car into the driveway, past an active crew of guys drying off a shiny car that had just emerged from the equipment-filled building. I pulled around to the entrance and slowly drove up to the massive car wash "menu." The prices ranged from "The Basic" for $13 all the way up to thirty-five bucks for something called "The Ultimate," that boasted an enhanced list of services, most of which I could not readily identify. A guy sporting a backwards baseball cap approached my car and I told him I'd be going for "The Basic." He typed something into a small terminal, presented me with a voucher and directed me "inside" to pay. Catching a glimpse of two more guys, with backwards baseball caps, prepping my car for entry into the soap-and-automated-brush tunnel. I walked down the narrow hall alongside the actual car wash. The wall to my right was outfitted with huge viewing windows, allowing car owners to keep tabs on their vehicles during every step of the cleaning process — sort of like the windows in a hospital nursery. At the end of the hall, a guy took my voucher and swiped my credit card. I signed the receipt and stepped outside to wait for my freshly-cleaned car.

A blue Honda was parked outside, dripping wet. A few guys, all with backwards baseball caps perched on their heads, wiped off the excess water. The car's owner got up off the waiting bench, folded up her newspaper, and headed over to her car. A minute later, my car emerged. A swarm of workers, backwards baseball caps firmly fitted on their heads, attacked my Toyota with the fervor of a pack of hyenas pouncing on a helpless zebra. My car was briefly obscured by a blur of hands and chamois. During the advertised "hand towel drying" process, I noticed one of the workers hesitantly touching an oily streak on the back window of my car. He then gingerly scratched the smear with his fingernail. Then he quickly buffed the spot with his towel and moved on to the plastic cover on my spare tire. 

A worker cocked his thumb at me, indicating that the car washing process was now completed. I hopped into the driver's seat, readjusted it to my liking and sped off to my next stop — the supermarket. When I arrived, I got out and grabbed a shopping cart from a nearby corral and saw the passenger side of my car was still covered with those grimy streaks, now even more noticeable with the untouched car finish gleaming around them.

After my grocery shopping, I angrily drove home. I raided my basement closet for paper towels and any spray bottle marked "extra-strength" or "grease-cutting formula." I also grabbed a razor blade scraper and couple of cloths that our twice-a-month cleaning lady uses to dust (or whatever she does with them).

I went outside to my car. I scraped and sprayed and wiped and polished until every last bit of that crap was off my car. The car wash had removed none of it. The only reason I went to the car wash was to have those streaks removed... and I had to remove them myself. 

And I did it without a backwards baseball cap.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

you spin me round (like a record)

I bought my first vinyl album when I was in elementary school. It was a copy of the multi-Grammy Award winning Tapestry by singer-songwriter Carole King. From there, I was on a path that veered off to darker selections like Alice Cooper's adolescent lament School's Out and the original Broadway cast recording of Hair. As I got older, I purchased seminal efforts by Jethro Tull, Meat Loaf and The Alan Parsons Project, as well as superstars like Elton John and Bruce Springsteen.

Meanwhile, the future Mrs. Pincus was assembling her own lot of record albums, from the bubble-gum pop of The Archies to the decidedly more adult Little Feat. Her later acquisitions included the full Grateful Dead catalog and, in curious dichotomy, the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

When we met and eventually married, my wife and I combined our separate record collections into one. There, like a musical United Nations, my Queen albums commingled with her Neil Young discs and our Billy Joel library expanded with multiple copies of Piano Man and Turnstiles. As our collection increased, storage was at a premium in our small apartment, with wooden crates jammed with albums — some double and triple sets, with thick gate fold jackets — stacked to a height of nearly three feet. One wall of our living room had become a veritable fortress of recorded music, with crates of records now spanning two across and three high. In order to maintain some order, I arranged them alphabetically by artist. At one point during our accumulation, our cats decided to use the outward-facing spines of the Beatles albums as a scratching post, shredding the cardboard and rendering the titles unreadable. (I took this as a commentary on Ringo.)

As our possessions increased (musical and otherwise), as well as our family, we moved to a larger house. It was the late 80s, and the compact disc was gaining popularity, threatening to overtake the stalwart vinyl album as the preferred format for recorded music. I broke down and bought a CD player. New music came in digital format, as well as old favorites, now available on the small, nearly indestructible discs. Our record collection — all five hundred-plus pieces — was, sadly, relegated to a corner of the basement under a shelf piled with board games. From that point forward I purchased music exclusively in CD form. The needle on my turntable broke and wasn't replaced.

Last week, a pipe broke within the walls of our dining room, spilling its contents down to the only outlet the damaging water could find — the basement. Specifically, the corner of the basement where our records were stored. Only the ones housed in the top crate were spared. The rest were ruined. 

Our homeowners' insurance required a detailed list of the records in order to submit a claim and receive some compensation. Donning rubber gloves and respirators, Mrs. P complied the list as I peeled apart the waterlogged cardboard sleeves to check release dates, catalog numbers and other identifying information. Once the inventory was completed, this was the fate of our collection...
That's right. That's our record collection. Fifty years of records  doubled-bagged alongside our township-issued recycling container — awaiting its final reward on Wednesday morning when Cheltenham municipal workers would toss them into the back of a truck, along with a week's worth of neighborhood refuse.

Strangely, I wasn't upset. I really wasn't. I still have a lot of CDs. I acquire and listen to music through different sources now. (My son works at a Philadelphia radio station, so there's that.) Besides, I hadn't listened to those records in years, even decades. Surprisingly, I felt no emotional attachment as I bagged them up and hauled them down to the curb. While I am a die-hard music lover, I felt the same as if I was just throwing away trash that was cluttering up my house and, health wise, posing a danger to my family. 

I still have the memories, though. They don't get thrown away.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

tuxedo junction

Winter is finally giving way to nicer, milder weather. And as the days get longer and the temperature rises on a daily basis, the school year begins to wind down. While most students are contemplating summer camp or a special family vacation, high school seniors are setting their sights on the grown-up world of the future. The future has a looming menace about it. An uncertainty that can be pretty confusing — even frightening — to a seventeen-year-old who spent the last decade in the protective cocoon of book reports and recess. So, the last thing that these adolescents need is another administrative, power-wielding adult telling them what is appropriate attire for the senior prom.

As far as proms are concerned, tradition dictates that the boys wear a tuxedo — and pretty much anything with silk lapels passes as a tux, even if the accessories include a pair of well-worn Nikes. Girls are expected to wear something that falls into the very broad category of "formal dress." Some schools and school districts have gotten very precise about the depth of necklines and the height of hemlines and the form-fitting tightness of the dress itself. For some reason (known only to school board officials), there is more scrutiny of girls apparel than boys. I suppose they are just happy that boys have the decency to put on long pants for a few hours. Girls, albeit unfair, are held to a higher standard. Over the years, school administrators have become increasingly adamant about gender-specific dress codes, asserting that it needs to be reinforced and maintained, lest the delicate balance of society be thrown towards an unspeakable demise. Even if the formal wear is made of an unconventional material (like duct tape), as long as the girl wears a dress and the boy wears a tux, our safety is protected.

It seems that each new "prom season," brings another news story about a girl wishing to wear a tuxedo to the prom. The community is aghast. The school bans the young lady from attending in male-specific clothing. An uproar ensues. The local news station sends out a camera crew. Everyone behaves as though a girl wearing a tux is the harbinger of the apocalypse. Just this week, a story about Claudetteia Love, a student at Carroll High School in Monroe, Louisiana, was initially banned from the prom because of her desire to wear a tuxedo. The school's principal  firmly stated, " 'Girls wear dresses and boys wear tuxes, and that's the way it is." Love, an honor student who happens to be gay, was furious over the decision. Several teachers stood behind Love and, through protest and solidarity, the policy was eventually relaxed.  Love was granted permission to attend the prom – tux and all. Similar stories have crept up every year, some with different outcomes, but always the same controversy.

I don't get all the fuss.

"Come on down,
you'll find me there"
In 1979, as my senior year was winding down, my thoughts turned to my own prom. I didn't have a girlfriend and I wasn't dating anyone on a regular basis, so I knew my prom date would not be of the romantic variety, merely a friend. At the time, I worked as a cashier, and the only male employee, in a women's clothing store. (My mom was the store manager. Never turn your back on a little nepotism.) I had become friendly with the assistant manager, Randi. Despite our constant battles stemming from her love and my abhorrence of disco, we got along pretty well. Randi, who was two years my senior, was a sweetheart. She was also one of those girls who had to go to as many proms as she could. She attended a senior prom when she was a junior, her own senior prom and one the year after her graduation. She made it very clear that she wanted to be my date for my prom. I was her "in" to one more high school gala. She also made it very clear that, instead of buying a dress that she'd never wear again, she wished to wear a tuxedo — one that matched mine, as a matter of fact. Without giving the notion a second thought, and being the die-hard nonconformist that I was (and still am), I just said, "Sounds okay to me."

Together we went to a tuxedo rental store. The place was jammed with guys my own age milling around, looking at the formal offerings on display on the many racks. Randi was the only female there (not counting some guys' mothers). Her inquiry to a salesman about renting a tux was only met with an amused smile and a couple of  side comments of "That's neat!," but nothing derogatory or insulting. Nobody screamed or fainted or told us we were going to hell. They just cleared out an area of the fitting room so Randi could have some privacy while trying on her tuxedo choices. The night of my prom, we danced, laughed, mingled and had fun. We even noticed a few other girls wearing tuxedos.

That was 36 years ago. And, believe it or not, the world didn't end.

Monday, April 6, 2015

you ought to be in pictures

I think I first noticed how stupid people are one day when I was in Atlantic City with my family. My wife, my then-young son and I got on the elevator at my in-law's apartment building in the small, summer destination town of Ventnor - just outside of the so-called "America's Playground." We were headed out to the beach. My wife carried a tote bag stuffed with sunscreen, snacks, water, toys and other essentials for a day in the sand. Doing my best to help, I gripped two folded chairs in my hands. My son, possibly six or seven at the time, donned a baseball cap and rested the business end of a large plastic baseball bat on his small shoulder. Our descent to the lobby was briefly interrupted by a stop at a lower floor, where we were joined by an elderly woman in a flowing beach cover-up that dated back to the Coolidge administration. She was the type of woman that we Jews refer to as an "altacocker*." She smiled as she entered the elevator and glanced down at my son.

"Ohhhhh!," she exclaimed, dragging the interjection out to double-digit syllables, "You play baseball!" She pointed a crooked finger at the bat slung on his shoulder and added, "You must be smart!" Then, she smiled and winked.

To this day, there are a couple of things that intrigued and baffled me about the pairing of those two short sentences that woman spoke:
  1. If a boy is holding a baseball bat and wearing a baseball cap, the chances are pretty good that he plays baseball. It's not a longshot of a guess. It's not like, upon seeing the bat and cap, you surmised that he is on his way to ballet class.
  2. If you follow baseball, you know that strength, speed and stamina are some basic requirements in order to be a player at a professional level. However, brains, intellect, smarts – whatever you want to call it – are not remotely required to play the game. Those lunkheads that shoot themselves up with steroids and whack homers over the stadium fences are one step removed in the evolution process from single-cell organisms. Dumb single-cell organisms.
It was then that I started to take note of the comments, advice and suggestions that people make, based purely on their own ignorance, as to how the world operates. Look, I know that this woman was trying to be nice and friendly to a little kid, but there are other ways to express that without sounding moronic. Sometimes people gotta suppress their overwhelming urge to just say something to someone.

Since my days in art school, when I was already preparing myself for my eventual career, I have been given uninformed and unprovoked advice on "what I should do with my life." When I was a child, busily copying some of my favorite cartoon characters and eventually creating some of my own, people would regularly say to me "You should sell your comics to The Inquirer (the local Philadelphia daily newspaper)." I know they were well-meaning with their suggestions, but, even as a kid, I knew that comic strips were distributed to newspapers through one of several syndication agencies that represent artists and writers and their work. It is rare that a newspaper, especially one in a city the size of Philadelphia, would run a comic strip by a local artist exclusively in their paper. Plus, in order to have a comic strip eligible for review and selection by a syndication company, one would have to submit six weeks worth of completed work, including full-color versions for the Sunday editions. Even then, there is a slim chance that a first-time artist would be chosen amid the politics and pecking order of a fairly-closed business. Then there's the consideration of agents and unions and on and on and on.

More recently, it has been suggested that I pursue publishing a book of the collected drawings and stories from my blog. I try to dismiss that proposal with a simple, yet gracious, "thank you," without expounding on the difficult process of getting a book published, not to mention the fact that there are thousands of other artists that do what I do, some (most) much, much better at it.

I understand that I was just being praised for my work, but a simple "My, you are talented!" or "Nice work, Josh!" would have sufficed instead of misguided career advice from someone who has no clue as to how a particular business operates.

Open for business!
My wife is a phenomenal baker, often whipping up treats for me to bring to my office, or showcasing her patisserian talents at our annual "Night Before Thanksgiving" dessert party (now in its thirtieth year!), though her baking endeavors have never risen above the level of "hobby." Despite that, people who have sampled her delicious offerings from the oven, frequently insist that my wife sell her wares from our home or, maybe, open a bakery. While I know they are merely offering a compliment to my spouse's prowess with a sack of flour and a rolling pin, opening a home business requires much more than popping out a tray of cookies, opening your front door and placing yourself on standby with a cigar box full of nickels and dimes for change. A home business is subject to numerous ordinances from local municipalities, including stringent zoning and health codes. Then there's the task of figuring how to place a profitable dollar amount on the goods and the recalculating of new formulas for recipes that previously yielded merely two dozen of a particular item. Other considerations include distribution, advertising, insurance, equipment and on and on and on. Opening a bakery means entering a highly-competitive market, selecting a location, paying rent, hiring employees, and on and on and on.

Again, I know that the praise is earnest, but a heartfelt "Gosh, these are yummy!" is more appreciated that the suggestion of a poorly-conceived business plan.

Just before my son landed his dream job at a local Philadelphia radio station, a family member suggested that I look into purchasing a radio station at which my son could work. I swear to God.

I have often wondered if these same people have told stamp collectors that they would make excellent postal workers.

Just a thought.

*Its literal translation, from Yiddish, is "old shit."