Sunday, October 30, 2016

big boss man

I just caught the late 4:45 train for my evening commute home.

SEPTA's train service (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) has been running poorly all summer. In 2006, SEPTA purchased one hundred and twenty. brand-spanking-new new Silverliner V railcars for two-hundred and seventy-four million dollars. The cars were manufactured by the relatively-young Hyundai Rotem company of South Korea. SEPTA chose to purchase the cars based on Hyundai Rotem's undercutting all of the competition. The train cars experienced massive delays in production and delivery. But, better late than never, the cars were finally delivered and soon were gliding on the rails all over Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Until June.

A routine inspection discovered numerous fatigue cracks on the support trucks of every single Silverliner V in SEPTA's system. The beautiful new trains were immediately pulled from service and SEPTA began a frantic scramble. Timetables were altered, trains were borrowed from neighboring cities and delays were insufferable. All summer long, daily commuters have experienced nightmares in travel time and over-crowded train cars. SEPTA employees have been extra surly and belligerent. Another bonus to make the experience even more pleasurable.

If you follow my Instagram account, you know that it is chock full of pictures of people taking up more than their fair share of allotted space by placing their bags, backpacks, briefcases, food or any number of other items on the empty seat next to the single seat that their fare permits them to occupy. SEPTA has introduced the "Dude, It's Rude" initiative, reminding riders that one fare entitles them to one seat. Most people ignore the rules. Some even get testy when asked to move their stuff to accommodate another passenger. The policy is not remotely enforced by SEPTA on-board employees.

Now, with over-crowded trains, seats are at a premium. Yet, I still see many commuters spread out across two, or sometimes three, seats with their personal effects.

Today, on my ride home, I was joined by a man in the seat facing mine. With my messenger bag perched squarely on my lap, I silently read my book until the train pulled up into my station. This gentleman, my seatmate, sported a SEPTA employee badge dangling from a SEPTA lanyard around his neck. He wore a dark dress shirt and an expensive looking tie. This let me know that he was not a rank-and-file "train guy." This guy was a "main office executive" type. No sooner did this guy plop himself down in the seat opposite me, his knees bumping into mine, did he drop his bulky backpack on the empty seat to his left. He absentmindedly draped his beefy arm across the bag, blocking any access for another commuter to take a load off. He pulled a cellphone from his pocket and squinted as he thumbed the screen.

A representative of SEPTA blatantly breaking the rules that his company introduced. Average commuters are expected to follow the rules. SEPTA employees, especially the upper echelon, should lead by example, especially with limited seating available. I looked around and noticed there were people standing in several places throughout the train, gripping handrails and seat backs to steady themselves.

Disgusted, I rose from my seat as the train approached my stop. I grunted an "excuse me" and the guy swiveled his knees to make an exit path for me.

I stepped on his foot on my way out.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

take the long way home

One Friday evening in September, Mrs. Pincus and I did something we haven't done in a long time. We went to a Phillies game. Considering we were Phillies season ticket holders for 18 years, you would think that going to a hometown baseball game would be a regular activity for us. Since we gave up our ticket plan three seasons ago, we have only been to a few games in the subsequent seasons, although we haven't paid admission for any of them. Friday's game was no different. We were guests of the law firm that, most generously, keeps me gainfully employed.

Though we were once avid baseball fans, we have not watched a game in several years. Seeing how the Phillies are doing so poorly this season, we express no real interest in the game, opting instead to pay closer attention to the free food that came with our deluxe suite tickets. So. as the game entered the late innings with a tie score, my wife and I decided to call it a night. I didn't remotely care about the outcome, as the Phillies are currently in a so-called "rebuilding" period, which is Major League Baseball speak for "We suck and aren't making any trades to better our team as long as we are turning a profit." We said our "goodbyes" to my co-workers who remained and headed we out to our car.

I live about 16 miles from the Phillies' South Philadelphia ballpark, about a twenty-five minute drive. There are several different routes we could take to our home just over the city limits in the glorious northern suburbs, but our preferred route is straight up Broad Street, the main North-South thoroughfare that traverses our fair city. Broad Street (Philadelphia's placeholder for 14th Street.) bisects a variety of neighborhoods as it makes its way out of the city, where it picks up Old York Road as the continuation of Pennsylvania State Route 611. Once out of the ballpark's lot, a left turn deposits you in a knot of concrete roadways leading in all directions. One ramp inclines towards the Walt Whitman Bridge, where anxious New Jerseyites jockey their way out of Philadelphia. Another access ramp leads toward I-76 and Packer Avenue, where drivers can choose between traveling West or South of the city. We, however, aimed for the local lane of Broad Street.

At the southern end of Broad Street the neighborhood is a mix of longtime residents, mostly of Italian descent, living alongside young "hipsters" looking for the "Center City experience," but have been priced out the the Center City dwellings. Further north, the area is full of bustling commerce and nightlife, with clubs and restaurants spilling their patrons out onto the sidewalk. Circling City Hall, Broad Street cuts through the recently-updated and heavily-patrolled campus of Temple University. But just beyond Temple is the ominous reaches of North Philly, a neighborhood that has been a thorn in Philadelphia's side for many, many years. Broad Street in North Philly is fine, usually packed with pedestrians and traffic no matter what the time of day. But, a few blocks in either direction off the main drag lies a frightening landscape of boarded-up houses, abandoned warehouses and desolate lots strewn with trash and discarded, picked-over automobiles. Shootings and drug deals and carjackings in North Philly are regularly presented on the local news

On our way home from the Phillies game, Mrs. Pincus and I were diverted off of the security of Broad Street by a team of municipal workers who decided that 11 PM was the ideal time to pave the street. Forced to make a left into the uncharted territory, we cautiously cruised towards 17th Street. Where Broad Street is illuminated by the eerie orange glow of the high-pressure sodium lamps that line the sidewalks, the outlying streets are dark and foreboding. Silent silhouettes of condemned homes loom large at each dimly-lit intersection. The tiny streets — their surface dotted with cracks and broken chunks of paving — twist unevenly through block after congested block. Although we did not pass a single person walking the streets, we still had a very uneasy feeling until we managed to find an access back to the brightly-lit familiarity of Broad Street.

Although I was born and raised in Philadelphia and am very familiar with most of the city, there are small pockets of remote neighborhoods which are totally foreign to me. Maybe it's because, as a child, it was instilled in me that those sections were "bad neighborhoods" and should be avoided at all costs. However, as we navigated through the unfamiliar streets of North Philly, I saw that people lived in some of the houses we passed. There were obvious lights on in windows shrouded by curtains. There were families watching TV and tucking their kids into bed. And here I was — just feet from a front door that had welcomed someone's extended family member for Thanksgiving — and I was fearing for my life. I caught myself being stupid and narrow-minded. My fear was really based on nothing. I thought about the possibility of someone driving past my house and thinking the same unfounded thought.

There is no moral to this story, except maybe not to be so quick to be so judgmental. Y'know... that "book by its cover" thing.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

keep your hands to yourself

What the hell is the matter with men?

Recently, there has been a lot of talk and accusations and speculation in the news about the behavior of men. This "hot button" topic was ignited by the actions of one particular man who is seeking the office of President of the United States. He has been recorded, both on audio and video, happily bragging about his exploits with women. It seems — at least the way he tells it — that he could see no difference between whether his advances were welcome or unwelcome. I don't wish for this to turn into a political commentary. As a matter of fact, I have purposely steered clear of any sort of political content on this blog, save for this single post during the current campaign season. Instead, I wish to address the outrageous behavior I have witnessed from men in the workplace... and how, as a man, it horrifies me.

Years ago, my wife's friend was married to a man whose behavior could be deemed as "unsavory." He worked as a copier repairman, a job that required him to go from office to office to service out-of-commission copiers. I have worked in many offices and encountered many copier repairmen. Our interaction was usually limited to a cordial "hello" when they arrived, followed by direction to the copier in question. Then, an hour of so later, he'd return, straightening his tie with toner-stained hands and asking for a signature on his work order. And that's it. He's out of your life until the next time the copier acts up... and even then there's no guarantee that the same guy will show up. Well, the guy we knew was fired from his job for sexual harassment. It seems he made an inappropriate comment to a secretary (a woman he did not know) at an office where he was not an employee. I can't figure out how the opportunity arises to have a conversation with someone in a workplace in which you are a guest — let alone — breach the conversation with a lascivious remark. He managed to get another job at a rival copier repair company and — wouldn't you know — he was fired again for the exact same offense, but at a different office!

At my last job, I briefly worked with a department supervisor named Mike. Mike was an intense, frenetic bundle of nervous energy. My position, at the nation's largest after-market auto parts retailer, was in the production of the company's newspaper advertisements. I worked in a large room of cubicles with ten other artists, all doing the same thing — and that was preparing multi-page circulars for newspaper distribution. Due to the breakneck pace that needed to be maintained, we employed the services of a number of artists who worked as outside contractors (or freelancers, if you will). One morning, Mike was sitting with a female freelancer at the cubicle just behind mine. He was explaining how he wanted a particular ad composed. After she bristled several times at Mike's leering usage of the word "sweetheart," she bolted from her desk when he placed an uninvited hand upon her exposed knee. The young lady stormed in the department head's office and, in a hail of obscenity-laced shrieks, she made it clear that she would never set foot on these premises again. Mike was reprimanded, though not firmly enough. Within a day or two, he was the object of several grievances from a number of other female employees, including one long-time production artist who was subjected to Mike delivering a lengthy instruction while his eyes laser-focused on her chest. Once again, Mike was chided for his behavior, but not fired. He allegedly attended sensitivity classes, but I noticed no change in his demeanor. Eventually, Mike pushed a male worker too far and the guy — who bested Mike in the height department by nearly half a foot — had to be restrained. Mike quit the next day.

At my current job, a man in an executive position regularly spoke in derogatory terms about women (as well as various ethnic and religious groups). Almost immediately after taking the job, he began to use the foulest of language and make the most inappropriate comments at the most inappropriate times to the absolute wrong people. He also (so I heard) made unwanted physical contact with a few female members of my department.

Although he was reprimanded many times, he was not let go. I speculated (as had been the case with Mike) that filling his position was a long and grueling process. It was a procedure that the company did not want to undertake again so soon. So instead of doing the right thing, they just stuck it out with this guy until they could no longer take it. He was eventually removed for reasons that were never made public. One morning he was there and, late in the day, he wasn't.

I have been in the workforce for a little over thirty years. I have always maintained a cordial working relationship with all of my coworkers. I made sure, however, I never got too ingratiated on a personal level. I remained friendly enough to achieve the common goals as set by our employer.

I have had many female immediate superiors. I actually prefer working for a woman than a man. Women, I have observed, are harder and more dedicated workers, while men, for the most part, are egotistical blowhards who are more concerned with wielding authority than actually accomplishing the job at hand. (There are some women who fit this model, though they are few and far between.) Over the years, I did gain "work friends" — some of them female — that I have kept long after I left the company that brought those friendships to be. I like them very much, but I am still a bit uneasy hugging them.

I will say, however, that I have always been very careful with female coworkers. In my personal life, I am not a "hugger." I am not comfortable hugging anyone who is not my wife or my son. It's nothing personal. I like many people that I just won't hug. I admit that it can get awkward, especially since my wife has no problem being "huggy-kissy." In the workplace, I have always been very careful not to touch a female co-worker in any way. I will not (nor have I ever) compliment a female coworker on clothes, hair, jewelry... anything. I fear that any — any — innocent contact or attempted compliment could be misconstrued and jeopardize my employment status. You never really know how someone is going to react, so, as they say, "better safe than sorry." Very sorry.

It is a revealing reflection of current attitudes that, for the first time in the history of the United States, a major political party has nominated a woman as their presidential candidate... and the man she's running against is disgusting.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

no time left for you

We had another yard sale. This time, we went in a slightly different direction, offering more household items and less items from Mrs. Pincus's eBay store.

After spending the week filling our living room to overflowing capacity with a vast selection of items, we plastered the neighborhood with signs announcing the date and time. Early on Saturday morning, we arranged the stuff on our front lawn and driveway in such a way as to avoid another possible lawsuit. Then we waited for customers,

Meanwhile, our neighbors across the street, set up their own offerings on their lawn, They were the ones who first proposed the idea of a yard sale to my wife a few years ago. Rae dragged a few items down the long walkway that bisects their front lawn. She set a large, plastic storage bin upside down near the sidewalk as an improvised tabletop and placed a few small items on its bumpy surface. She pulled up a folding chair and also waited for customers.

Our lawn soon began to draw a few people whose attention had been distracted as they strolled down our street. However, I glanced across the street to see that Rae was nowhere in sight. Instead, the plastic bin was now filled with the items that once graced its base. A hand-written sign reading "FREE" was taped on the container's side, Rae's yard sale had lasted approximately four minutes... and that was being generous with the time. I imagined that her calendar was marked on this particular Saturday with a five minute block allotted for "YARD SALE" — including set-up time. I'm certainly not faulting her. Some people just don't have the patience for retail.

Or to sit with a lawn full of their shit.

Monday, October 3, 2016

sunday morning coming down

The Jewish New Year is upon us again. In years past, this was a pretty big deal around the Pincus household. But, more recently, as my view of religion has waned, it has become just another day. My wife, however, still chooses to embrace the traditions in which she was raised and I fully support her wishes. 

As in past years, my in-laws are hosting dinner for the first evening of the holiday. (I'm not sure how many days this one rages on for. Two, maybe three days.) Right now, as I write this, Mrs. Pincus is busy in the kitchen, baking some of her specialty treats to serve at the meal's completion. In addition to Mrs. P's homemade baked goods, she likes to have another traditional holiday.. um... dessert gracing the table — the esteemed taiglach.

Taiglach is a collection of small balls of baked dough, sometimes called called mandlen*, boiled in a sweet honey syrup, then mixed with nuts and dried fruit. The mixture is either distributed into small paper cups or piled high into a vague pyramid and pulled apart with the fingers... those fingers then brazenly licked accordingly to remove any remaining remnant of honey. And it often looks like this...
Sort of appetizing, in a quaint, old-world, peasant kind of way. I tasted it once, many years ago, around the time I had my first introductions to a lot of Jewish traditions of which I was not previously aware. It was a strange mingling of flavors, some of which I could not quite place. It was not bad. It just wasn't good and I chose not to partake of any more. My wife and her father gobbled it up as though it was manna. Perhaps, to them, with their long association with the dessert, it was. Me, however... I took a pass.

This morning, when my wife woke up, she remembered that she did not purchase a taiglach for this year's dinner. In her opinion (which I would hotly contest), it would not be Rosh Hashana without a big ol' taiglach occupying a special place on my mother-in-law's linen-covered (then clear-plastic-covered) holiday table. Quickly, she called a bakery (yes, these things are purchased in a bakery) around the corner from our house to see if they still had taiglach left, what with the rush for holiday baked goods at hand. The good folks at the bakery said they were well stocked. Mrs. P asked if I would pop over (a little bakery humor there) and pick one up. I got dressed, pulled on a pair of shoes and hoofed it over the the bakery, which is within walking distance from our home.

Situated in a compact, basement-level space behind a strip of commercial properties, the bakery is accessible by a narrow set of stairs that can only accommodate one person at a time — either entering or exiting. I allowed two gentlemen gripping bags of bagels and a woman carrying some sort of dry-looking cake to pass before I descended the steps into the bakery. The lit glass display cases were full of beige and crumbly baked goods, none which appeared the least bit appealing. A display of plastic containers, not unlike a corner deli uses to package a pint of cole slaw, were stacked high atop tall refrigerated case. The containers were identified by a cardboard sign with a single word scrawled across it — "Taiglach." I examined the display more closely. These things didn't remotely resemble any of the taiglach I had seen in the past thirty years. They, in fact, looked more like the leftovers of a big serving of sweet and sour soup from a Chinese restaurant — dark brown, thick and packed with beans and other unidentifiable ingredients. I exited the bakery and called Mrs. Pincus.

"They have some stuff that they are calling taiglach," I began when she answered the phone, "but it doesn't look like any taiglach I've ever seen."

She asked me to describe it and I related its similarity to Asian soup. She laughed and asked me to buy it anyway. I said I would, with the caveat that when I get it home, she may not say, "What the hell is this?" when she sees it.

I went back into the bakery and made my purchase. I took the bag containing the possible taiglach from the bakery lady's hand and proceed home. When I got home and pulled it from the bag, Mrs. P didn't seem as upset or confused as I had been, considering it looked like this...
... not the symmetrical, gooey sculpture we were both used to.

It doesn't really matter. I have no plans to eat it anyway.

* no, not the musical instrument, the "soup nuts."

Sunday, October 2, 2016

again and again and again and again

In 2005, filmmaker/comedian Paul Provenza and filmmaker/magician Penn Jillette produced a documentary called The Aristocrats. Similar in title (but not remotely in content) to a beloved Disney film, The Aristocrats examines the origins and evolution of a so-called "secret" joke, told only in hushed tones among the closed society of comedians. The joke's setup and punchline remain the same in each telling and retelling — "A man walks into a talent agent's office." — and proceeds to describe a particular act. The unique embellishments are added by the individual comedian. The object in making the joke "one's own" is to elucidate the most vile and disgusting scenarios imaginable. Some versions of the joke have gone on for hours and have described some of the most shocking, outrageous and repugnant acts involving family members, pets and inanimate objects and any combination of the three. The punchline — The agent asks the name of the act, and the reply is always "The Aristocrats!," accompanied by a graceful double-snap of the fingers — which, by the time the exhaustive tale winds down, has become secondary to the horrific narrative that preceded. Over the course of the documentary's 88 minute run time, the joke is told many, many, many times, by a vast array of veteran and up-and-coming comedians. My son and I first saw the film in a nearly empty theater and our own uncontrollable laughter drowned out a portion of the dialog on several occasions.

When The Aristocrats was released on DVD, I purchased a copy and my son and I watched it again on a Sunday afternoon. And, once again, we found ourselves doubled over in hysterics. On this viewing, however, we could rewind the action to see what we had missed. My wife, who chose not to watch with us, flitted around the house, taking care of household things that needed taking care of. At one point, she walked past the doorway of the den to find my son and I literally rolling on the sofa crying and eliciting peals of laughter. She crossed her arms and with a furrowed brow and her head cocked to one side, said, "I can't believe you two idiots are laughing at the same joke for an hour and a half."

The incident got me thinking about all the things I like to do over and over again — and it turns out, it's quite a lot.  I've been to Walt Disney World over a dozen times. When we finally took a chance and ventured westward to Disneyland, we visited that theme park for six consecutive years. 

I have often caught myself watching a movie (Back to The Future, Singin' in the Rain  or It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for example) I have seen a hundred times, either accidentally coming across it while scanning the channels on television or actually setting aside time when I discover a scheduled broadcast. The same goes for specific episodes of television series. The "Adam's Ribs" episode of M*A*S*H comes to mind.

Just this week, my son and I saw the pop group The Bird and The Bee perform a rare show in Philadelphia. The last time they were in our fair city was six years earlier. Guess where we were on that night? Yep, seeing their rare Philadelphia performance.

On my birthday in 2012, my son introduced me to this little band from right here in Philadelphia, called Low Cut Connie (remember that name — you'll be screaming it later.) We were pushed right up against the stage at the now-musicless North Star Bar in the sweaty swell of the crowd. These guys — as they say — delivered the goods, cranking out vintage-style, hip-swiveling, high-octane rock and roll to the delight of the frenzied throng packed into the tiny, narrow showroom. In keeping with my repetitive pattern, I saw The Connie boys again on my birthday the following year. I have seen them a gazillion times since, including last night at Philly's venerable Trocadero Theater, their latest show to date. Although they have experienced several personnel changes over the years, Low Cut Connie remains one of the greatest, rawest, showiest, most energetic "party" bands I've ever seen, and so far, they are Philadelphia's best-kept secret. However, after an inclusion on President Obama's personal 2015 Spotify playlist, they seem to be poised for the stardom they most definitely deserve. 

And I will to continue to see them until they have to wheel me into concerts.

When I was a kid, my father was convinced that I could eat pizza for dinner every single night. I think he was right. Hmmm... maybe this repetition thing started further back than I thought.