Friday, June 26, 2015

come on over to my yard

My wife is driven and determined. When she sets her mind to something ― goddammit! ― it gets done and it gets done right! So, last summer, when a neighbor invited us to bring a few items over for a yard sale, Mrs. P was bitten by the "Yard Sale Bug" just after our modest contribution (our rarely-used, wrought iron patio furniture) was snapped up quickly ― and for a pretty good price. Mrs. P already envisioned the spectacle that would be our next yard sale.

Almost immediately after our neighbor began packing up their unsold offerings. my spouse began a mental inventory of additional items from our home that could she could easily part with. When items were weighed between "do we really need this?" and the possibility of extra cash, the cash always won. So for the next several weeks, our back porch  ― and soon, dining room and living room ― slowly accumulated an inventory of housewares, clothing, jewelry, books and knick-knacks that could put a Woolworth's* to shame. She also saw a yard sale as the perfect opportunity to thin out some "slow movers" from her eBay store**. So, more gathering and storing took place until the first floor of our house resembled a compact flea market. This was going to be the mother of all yard sales. Mrs. P would personally see to that.

We plastered our neighborhood with hundreds of signs tacked up on every available utility pole. Mrs. P posted notices on various social media sites, including electronic community bulletin boards and township Facebook pages. She placed and regularly updated announcements on Craig's List. And she told everybody who glanced in her direction. On the designated morning, we carted load after load of merchandise out to our small front lawn, thoughtfully arranging everything for maximum visibility and, more importantly, sale-ability. (Mrs. P's many years of experience running her parents' retail store came into play.) The potential customers milled about as we were still covering our grass with a mish-mash of appliances, toys, decorations and who-knows-what!. Mrs. P tied on an apron, dumped change into the big front pockets and proclaimed us "Open for Business." To quote Brad Pitt from Inglorious Basterds, "And cousin, business is a-boomin'." At the end of a long, grueling, yet satisfying day, we took in a very nice sum of money ― plus we got rid of a ton of shit that our son won't have to weed though after we die. Very nice indeed.

Around mid-afternoon, a man strolled up to our yard. He was wearing a pristine pink polo shirt (actual Polo brand; little horse logo and all) with the collar popped up and a pair of sharply pressed khakis. A pair of actual RayBans were perched on top of his head and a shiny iPhone 6 was clipped to his braided belt. He smiled and offered a "Good afternoon," as he looked over our wares. He knelt down and picked up a small trowel that I used once to apply a small amount of Spackle to a nail hole in a wall about twenty years earlier. My wife had marked it $1.00.

"I'll give you fifty cents for this." he said, waving the trowel in our direction, a cocked smile across his face.

My wife considered the offer and, ever the seasoned businesswoman, countered with, "Will you be getting something else? I can give you a deal on a lot."

He picked up a few more items, proposing a "fifty cent" price for each one, regardless of what it was marked. I began to fume, but the ever-patient Mrs. P negotiated and finally they agreed on a price for all of his selections. Mrs. P thanked him. I muttered a few unsavory phrases under my breath.

A week ago, we had our first of several planned yard sales of this year. We followed the same ritual and set-up and, once again, with our small front lawn laden with a cornucopia of treasures, we did a pretty good business.

And guess who made an appearance ― The "fifty cent" guy.

This year, he chose a never-used box of Crayola colored pencils (these, as a matter of fact), each with the factory-sharpened point still intact. My wife had marked the box one dollar.

"I'll give you fifty cents for this." he said, waving the box of pencils in our direction, a cocked smile across his face.

My wife considered the offer and, ever the seasoned businesswoman, countered with, "Will you be getting something else? I can give you a deal on a lot."

He pointed to a stack of five terracotta flower pots at the foot of our driveway. There were several different sizes and each one had a matching tray. "I'll give you fifty cents for them," he said, "I don't see a price on them."

My wife, smiling, walked toward the flower pots. She discovered a large cardboard sign stuck in the top pot of the stack. Bright red letters on the sign proclaimed the stack to be two dollars. One could easily read the sign from several feet away.

"No," Mrs. P began, "I think two dollars is a fair price for those. And a dollar for the pencils is fair, too. Name brand. Never used. Yeah, a dollar will be fine." The smile never left her lips.

The man removed a thick leather wallet from his immaculate, designer trousers and extracted three crisp singles. My wife thanked him graciously and sincerely. I would have told him that those items were not for sale.

Obviously, our yard sale was successful because I was not in charge.

*Woolworth's was a store that... um...that.... oh, just ask your Mom.
** Check it out early and often.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling

I made a quick trip to the supermarket for some fill-in ingredients that my wife needed for some baking she planned for after dinner. I jotted down a short list, hopped in the car and I was off. Minutes later, I found a parking space. I locked the car, grabbed a cart and headed inside, determined to make it fast, efficient and home in time for Jeopardy! 

I knew exactly where I was going, plotting the layout of the store in my head for optimum shopping results. With my eyes locked on a far aisle, I deliberately guided my cart towards the flour and chocolate chips. As I turned the corner, off the main front aisle into the "baking" aisle, I was greeted by an unexpected scene that threw off my single-minded procedure.

There was a group of people, probably an extended family of some sort, as the members exhibited a wide range of ages. Attention, however, was commanded by a young man who was crying. His eyes were red and puffy. His cheeks were wet and streaked with the remnants of recently-fallen tears. He was audibly sobbing, long mournful sobs that interrupted his normal breathing pattern.

And, at approximately 12 years old, he was way too old to be crying.

The family scanned the shelves and placed items in their cart, ignoring the boy, despite his anguished tones and weeping eyes. As I slowly made my way up the aisle, I surmised from bits of overheard conversation that something had happened in the store. Something distressing and sad. Something that was troubling. Something that hurt. In spite of his pleas and the waterworks turned on full blast, the family was only interested in finishing their marketing. It was genuinely heartbreaking. I could still hear his soft wailing from several aisles away.

I gathered the few remaining items on my list. I paid for my purchases and soon I was homeward bound.

I hate to see crying children. I hate to see crying children being ignored by their parents. Conversely, I hate to see parents ignoring a child in need.

Maybe some of Mrs. P's baked goods would cheer me up. They usually do.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

why don't you hate who I hate

If you want to pick a sports figure as an inspiration and a role model, Serena Williams is a pretty good choice. On Saturday, Miss Williams won the French Open, the latest achievement in her illustrious, title-filled twenty-year career. Making her debut at the tender age of 14, Miss Williams fought hard to emerge as a true champion in the field of professional tennis, maintaining her ability and competitive edge into an age when most of her contemporaries have retired. So how did the judgmental world of social media congratulate Miss Williams on her latest victory? Well, some took to Twitter to call her "disgusting" and "manly." Others expressed more vicious sentiment, some with a decidedly racist tone. Miss Williams has been on the receiving end of sexist and racist slurs her entire career.

On the same Saturday, Mrs. Pincus and I attended a wedding. Aside from the bride and her parents, we didn't know any other guests. After a lovely and traditional ceremony in an historic rural church, we gathered at the outdoor pavilion of a nearby country club for the celebratory reception. Amid the open seating, Mrs. P and I chose an empty picnic table and chatted and watched as other guests filed in. A couple, slightly older than my wife and me, approached and asked to join us. We smiled, offering a gesture of welcome. As we enjoyed our dinner, we made informal small talk with the couple, touching on the usual subjects of jobs, relationship to the bride, the weather and travel. We mentioned that we had just returned from a cruise. We spoke briefly about our trip before they began tell us of a cross-country drive that they recently took. The gentleman spoke about some of the unusual things they encountered and happily reported (with a sardonic tone) about a hotel they visited that was — and I quote a man that we had only met twenty minutes prior — "filled with blacks." My wife and I were silently horrified.

My son is a disc jockey on a local Philadelphia radio station. In addition to other responsibilities, he hosts an all-request show every Saturday afternoon. In the current age of technology, requests are submitted via Twitter, Facebook and email, as well as the good ol' telephone. On this very same Saturday, he received a call by way of Katie, the young lady who sometimes answers the phone for him. A woman phoned to ask: "The guy that's on the radio right now... Is it E. Pincus?" Katie, the phone-answerer, replied, "Yes." The caller continued the line of questioning. "Is that his real name? Or is it a name he uses just for the radio?" Having no clue where this inquisition was headed, Katie answered, "That is his real name. Is there a song you'd like to hear?" She tried to get the caller back on track. But, the caller persisted, "Is he Jewish or does that question make me a bigot?" Katie immediately disconnected the call and shook her head in disbelief.

My friend Randi works for the local office of the Anti-Defamation League. She often organizes and facilitates in-person seminars about tolerance. Her presentations discuss bullying, antisemitism, racism and other topics to help educate the uneducated. She travels city-wide, to schools, to youth groups, to senior centers — anywhere that is willing to assemble an audience and willing to open their minds. Whenever I see Randi I tell her that, based on what I regularly witness, she will have job security for a long, long time.

I can't wait to tell her about Saturday.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

and now you're even older

Okay. Okay. One more story about the cruise and then I'll stop. Promise.*

On our first evening, Mrs. P and I ate dinner in one of the ship's dining rooms. We each had the same thing — a tiny portion of broiled cod, a dollop of parsley mashed potatoes and a single sprig of broccoli. Of course, we could have opted to order six or seven more complete servings, but it was only our first night. After dinner, we paid a short visit to the casino (we won!) and then headed to a scheduled session of "Name That Tune" that was to take place in one of the many lounges on board.

The lounge was beginning to fill up as eager participants and tipsy observers grabbed themselves one of the many mismatched chairs and love seats that were scattered about the room. Mrs P and I selected a pair of overstuffed armchairs. Another couple soon approached and asked if the two seats next to us were occupied. We answered "no," and welcomed them to join us. They were considerably younger than we are and, if I had to venture a guess, I would have put their ages somewhere in the area of our son's (middle 20s). 

Past experiences have proven that in the early days of a cruise, guests tend to be very friendly in hopes of securing an on-board friendship that will last for the entire trip. We started right in, turning on our "friendly" full-blast, asking the standard "where are you from" and "what do you do" questions. After the initial ice-breaking, the young lady of the pair leaned in close to Mrs. P and whispered confidentially, "Are you two a couple?" 

My wife looked the woman in the eye and, though puzzled by the inquiry, replied with a broad clarifying question, "What do you mean?"

"I mean are you two married?," the young woman asked with earnest in her voice.

"Yes, of course." Mrs. P answered, "Why do you ask?"

She kind of wrinkled up her face and pointed in my direction, "Well, he's obviously so much older than you. I just figured that he picked you up in a bar or something and asked you to come on this cruise." 

Mrs. P smiled. Then laughed. Then she told me about her little exchange with her new best friend.

And she laughed again.

* this should not be taken as a binding guarantee.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

don't try suicide

I personally knew two people who committed suicide.

I went to high school with Merrill. Although he was a year behind me, he was in my art major class when I was a senior. Our relationship could be classified as "frenemies," decades before that term was coined. We weren't exactly friends, but we did, on occasion, hang out together. For a brief time, we also dated the same girl. During those few months, I think we fell into the "enemies" category. He was very into music (as was I) and very into drugs (as I was not). He also had a very intense personality that was somewhat unpredictable and bordered on violent. When I graduated from high school, I thought (secretly hoped) I'd never see him again. And I almost never did, until years later, when my wife's best friend introduced me to the guy she was dating. It was Merrill. They had a tumultuous relationship – passionate one minute and vicious the next. He eventually married and divorced someone who was not Mrs. P's friend, although that never stopped them from continuing to see each other. His brief marriage produced a child that calmed Merrill's malice down just a bit, but not enough to change his fate.

In 1997, the ringing phone in our bedroom broke the silence of the wee morning hour. A ringing telephone in the middle of the night rarely brings good news. I fumbled for the receiver in the darkness with only the faint illumination from my alarm clock to guide me. I whispered a throaty "Hello," and was greeted by the distant, tinny reply of Mrs. P's friend's uncontrollable sobs. Through her hysterics, I was able to decipher a few words, specifically "Merrill killed himself." A jarring bolt shot through me. I nudged my wife and passed her the phone. Her friend elaborated as my spouse sat up, blankets wrapped around her shoulders, mouth agape in silent dubiety.

Merrill had phoned Mrs. P's friend and dramatically told her he had a gun and was going to end it all. Always one to be the flamboyant center of attention, he waited patiently in a second-floor bedroom as Mrs. P's friend rushed to his house. He waited until he heard the sounds of her struggling with the front door until it opened. He took that as his cue to pull the trigger, wanting her to hear the shot and knowing that she'd be just seconds too late to save his life. It was so obvious that he had selfishly planned the whole scene and it played out exactly as he had hoped. Looking back, I think Merrill's suicide was expected by a lot of people who knew him.

While innocently checking my email one evening in March 2010, I was blindsided. I read and reread an email I received announcing that my friend Tanner had passed away. The email, from Tanner's sister, was a sentence or two in length, only explaining that Tanner resided in Florida and that his death was sudden. I replied quickly, asking for further details. The response was just as vague as the initial email, but alluded to a still-in-the-planning-stages memorial service for Tanner's Philadelphia friends and family.

The next weekend, I found myself in the community room of a suburban high-rise apartment building twenty minutes from my house. This was the designated place for the memorial service. The room began to fill with people I had not seen for nearly thirty years. We shared stories and anecdotes about Tanner's life. We laughed and cried and shook our heads in disbelief. Although I had not seen Tanner himself for quite some time. I often heard from him in the form of an email or text. He regularly kept me apprised of his whereabouts and latest endeavors. I had heard from him last just a month prior to the final email from his sister.

Just after the service ended, Tanner's sister pulled me aside and told me that Tanner had taken his own life. Through tears, she elaborated that Tanner was a very, very troubled man. Internal trouble that had lasted many, many years. I had a hard time understanding this, as I had known Tanner to be a funny, upbeat character who could ably match my twisted sense of humor blow-for-blow. She described his long-time battles with depression and how he hid it the best he could... until he couldn't hide it any more.

Merrill and Tanner didn't know each other, however they both chose to end their lives the same way and on their terms. I wonder, when coming to the conclusion that suicide was the only solution to their individual dilemmas, did they consider the can of worms they were opening up for those they were leaving behind?

Or did they just not consider anything?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

it's important to me

Mrs. P and I just returned from our third cruise in as many years. While we did have a good time — a great time, as a matter of fact — each cruise was nearly identical. Yeah, they each had the same itinerary (two days at sea, stop at Port Canaveral, Florida, stop at Norwegian Cruise Lines' private island, stop at Nassau, Bahamas, then two more days at sea), but I mean the overall experience was the same. There were scheduled activities, 24 hour-a-day food, high energy, yet campy, shows and... did I mention there was food 24 hours-a-day?

The early part of the cruise is sort of a self-orientation period. After boarding the ship, the first activity is, of course, a visit to the buffet. Here, one can get a preview of the obscene amounts of food that will be abundantly available for the next seven days. During your third or fourth helping of spicy citrus cole slaw and pomegranate cheesecake brûlée, the PA crackles to life with the announcement that the staterooms are ready. Then after unpacking your belongings into the tiny drawers and skinny closets of your cabin, all guests are instructed to gather at a designated area for a mandatory life boat drill. Federal maritime law and the International Brotherhood of Seafarers (I think) require all cruise lines to have a life boat drill prior to launch. (That's launch, not lunch. For Chrissakes, you just ate lunch!) 

All cruise lines treat the life boat drill differently. Some are rigid and deadly serious, requiring passengers to don life jackets and stand silently by their appointed lifeboats. Others, like Norwegian, are more relaxed, merely having guests gather, sans life jackets, in an on-board restaurant, bar or other common area and sit through a five minute run-through of some loud air-horn blasts. At 2:30 sharp, Mrs. P and I joined our fellow "Section G1"s and waited until we were given the "all clear." We sat at a table in one of the ship's formal dining rooms as other guests filed in at staggered intervals. Slowly. Very slowly. A crew member in an official-looking vest checked names off on an official-looking clipboard. Several other crew members in equally official-looking vests, circled through the assembled crowd counting and recounting. The first crew member announced that we would begin once everyone from our section was accounted for. People were trickling in at 2:45. Others stumbled in as the clock approached 3 o'clock. At thirty minutes after the designated time, people were still entering the "G1" area, kicking punctuality to the proverbial curb. Finally, with everyone in attendance, the alarms sounded and the drill was completed. Everyone filed out and, most likely, headed back to the buffet.

Once the ship crossed the 12 nautical mile mark, the on-board casino sprang to life with the ringing of slot machines and the shrieking of winners. The casino remained open for the next consecutive 48 hours, as the ship cut its way down the eastern seaboard in international waters toward Florida and all points south. When the vessel entered Port Canaveral, slot machines were silenced, chips were stacked and locked up and the casino emptied as passengers took the gangway out to the various available shore excursions.

Mrs. P and I returned from our shore excursion, a full day at Downtown Disney, the shopping district at Walt Disney World. We made our way back on to the ship and walked through the closed casino. We nearly screeched to a stop. Every single seat at every single blackjack table was occupied, as were the seats at every slot machine and all available space at the craps tables. The casino would not open for at least ninety minutes, as buses arrived from various shore excursion destinations. Yet guests had already staked their territory, not wanting to miss a single second of gambling activity. I recognized some as the same people who sauntered in late for the life boat drill. 

When it comes to personal safety and gambling, it was clear which was a priority. The early bird gets to double down.