Sunday, October 15, 2017

welcome to the grand illusion

I actually wrote this post almost one year ago to the day. I just never got around to publishing it, Coincidentally, the holiday that I reference — and the subsequent annual celebration — just occurred this past weekend. It is interesting to note that the events that I describe were repeated nearly identically as they had a year ago. This leads me to believe that I could just publish this post every year, at this time, and save myself some writing.
My in-laws had an annual gathering at their house. The occasion was the holiday of Sukkot, a celebration that takes some explaining for the uninitiated. Luckily, I have written about Sukkot before, so you can find the explanation of the holiday here. It may not be the most accurate explanation but, after all, isn't that why you are here? To relish my inaccuracies? If wanted accuracy, you could just "Google" stuff. You're welcome.

Hours before the first guests arrived, my wife was busy in the kitchen. She coordinated a precision "assembly line" of trays filled with hors d'oeuvres. As one tray went into the oven another came out. With the indispensable help of my niece, the process of getting the food prepared for a houseful of hungry people became a regimented ballet. Mrs. P's cousin, an invited guest, even pitched in to plate appetizers and bring them to the serving table. Between the three of them, the place looked inviting and the food was stocked to the delight and appreciation of the multitude of freeloaders guests.

Then there was Simone. Simone was her regular self. She took great care in dishing out the few salads the she brought or prepared there. She sort of shuffled some items around on the kitchen counter, giving the illusion that she was actually doing something constructive or helpful. She checked the status of  the hors d'oeuvres baking in the oven exactly once before retreating to join the rest of the guests that she invited... never setting foot back in the kitchen to see if her assistance was needed.

I have my doubts. 
The table looked beautiful and, thanks to Mrs. P and my darling niece, the food offerings were never sparse. There were mini hot dogs in puff pastry, latkes, sweet and sour meatballs and their vegetarian counterparts (or so I was told) and much much more, including an array of baked goods for which my wife is renowned. At the end of the afternoon, as guests thanked my in-laws and said their farewells, Simone disappeared or faked an injury or some such other bullshit. Mrs. P cleared the serving table, with help from her father and even me. My spouse hand-washed the delicate dishes and loaded the dishwasher with the sturdier plates and utensils. I helped to put away what remnants of leftovers were, well, left over. Simone, spooned her salads back into their containers and loaded them into a bag to take to her home, along with a few bottles of wine that were brought by visitors. She barked for her immediate family and, as they say, "got the fuck out of Dodge,"

Mrs. Pincus made sure her parent's kitchen and dining room looked exactly as it did before a horde of of guests filled the house. Satisfied that everything was in order, we headed home. But first, we thanked my in-laws for hosting. I don't recall Simone doing even that.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

I saw the harbor lights

Here's a fun fact: When the Food Network conceived the show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and offered hosting duties to Guy Fieri, they had to explain what exactly a diner was to the boorish, peroxide-blonde celebrity chef. He just could not grasp the concept, despite being a "restaurateur"* for over twenty years.

However, anyone who grew up on the East Coast — specifically in close proximity to New Jersey — is very familiar with diners and all they have to offer. Poor, derided New Jersey is home to the largest collection of diners in the world — a claim that is completely understandable. A drive through any small town (Jersey has a lot of them) will reveal scenery regularly dotted with gleaming chrome eateries. Diner menus are renowned for their encyclopedic proportions, offering page after laminated page of every possible configuration of meal from hearty breakfasts to full-course dinners (with soup or salad, choice of two vegetables and Jell-o or rice pudding for dessert) to late-night snacks. Even those watching their weight need not worry, as diners notoriously offer "lo-cal" versions of popular dishes. Diner owners seem to think that a hamburger served with peaches and cottage cheese constitutes suitable diet fare. Every diner offers pretty much the same, abundant selection and the same quality food. Not great, but somehow, comforting. After all, it's kind of difficult to screw up eggs or a tuna melt.

I have always loved eating in diners. They are a fascinating time capsule, a place where eras from the past remain a part of the present. What is really fascinating  is that, no matter where they are located, they are all pretty much the same. Same set up. Same decor, Same wait staff. You know what i mean. That teased-haired woman with the doily on her head and too much rouge on her cheeks, her voice roughened by years of cigarette smoke, her vocabulary peppered with lots of "hon"s and "sweetie"s and "not a problem"s. My dad's favorite diner was The Heritage, a place just a few blocks from our house. Our family ate there often. My dad ate breakfast there every weekday morning for decades, and after my mom died, he ate every meal there. The Heritage had a waitress that fit that description. As a matter of fact, all of their waitresses fit that description.

This past summer, Mrs. Pincus and I took regular drives to and from Atlantic City. Sometimes, we went to spend a day on the beach. Sometimes, we went to take care of other obligations. One evening, we were driving back home to Philadelphia. As we drove, we discussed our options for dinner. Growing weary of pizza and sandwiches from Wawa (we love 'em, but...), we decided to stop at one of the many diners that we usually pass on our routine transversing of Route 30. The narrow, mostly two-lane, highway that is Route 30 snakes through many small towns — Pomona, Absecon, Egg Harbor City, Chesilhurst, Elwood, Hammonton — in Southern New Jersey. For a lot of these tiny burgs, the only place to eat is a diner. Just ahead of us, between a church and an Auto Zone, we spotted the soft glowing neon of the Harbor Diner. But this time, we stopped.

There's a light....
The Harbor Diner is pretty unspectacular. It's chrome-clad exterior is similar to a thousand other diners on Route 30 and throughout South Jersey. Inside, the faux leather booths, silver-flecked Formica counter and other characteristics were, again, as nondescript as any other establishment in its category. A young lady grabbed two hefty menus and directed us to a booth along the front of the narrow building. We scanned the numerous offerings for something that did not include meat. On most diner menus, the vegetarian-friendly options are plentiful. I decided on an entree from the typewritten dinner menu that was attached with a clip to the pre-printed menu, expanding the selections by at least 30. The waitress — another young lady who bore all the signs of evolving into the waitress I described earlier — deposited glasses of water on our table and asked if we were ready to order. My wife ordered a lettuce and tomato club sandwich, an assemblage that sometimes requires a bit of explanation and garners strange looks when it is made clear that no bacon is to be included. However, our waitress scribbled the order on a pad without so much as a blink. I ordered grilled salmon and was promptly informed that salmon was not available. I settled, instead, for fried flounder, a diner staple and a point of misty reference from my youth. I ordered fried flounder at The Heritage Diner more times that I can remember. A short time later, our food arrived. It was typical diner food and it was good. Really good. Afterwards, Mrs. P got rice pudding to take home.

A week or so later, we stopped at the Harbor Diner. This time we were with our son and his girlfriend, returning from a relaxing day on the Atlantic City beach. Our family was greeted by the staff of the Harbor Diner as though we  were regulars. We ordered and we all enjoyed our choices. It was a good meal, nothing spectacular or exotic. Just good food at ridiculously cheap prices.

Cluck and Z with Murphy on the side
A few weeks went by and, once again, Mrs. P and I found ourselves at the Harbor Diner. This time it was late, nearly 11 PM. We looked over the menu and decided to have breakfast nine hours early. Mrs. Pincus ordered sunny-side up eggs, toast and home fried potatoes. Strangely, the preparation of the eggs required a bit of additional explanation. The waitress asked if my wife if she wanted her sunny-side up eggs "over easy." My wife smiled and clarified, "No, sunny-side up." The waitress nodded without further expression and jotted something down on her little pad. I ordered a mushroom-cheese omelette and its standard accompaniments. When our food was brought out, I promptly took a picture of my classic-looking platter and posted the result on Instagram. Google Maps, into which I am automatically logged on, asked If I wished to post my photo to the gallery created for the Harbor Diner. I happily accepted, uploaded my photo and then dug into my late dinner/early breakfast.

A few days later, I got an alert from Google. Someone had a question for me about the Harbor Diner, based on the photo I posted, no doubt. I clicked the notice and this eloquent, astute dissertation popped up:

I read it. And reread it. And reread it again. Technically, it wan't a question. Obviously, this fellow was disappointed with his visit to our newly discovered. eatery. Even after several run-throughs, I was still confused by this poor customer's sentiment. His anger seemed to have totally obliterated his ability to use punctuation, save for a set of misplaced ellipses. That aside, I sort of surmised that he saw a young lady (presumably a waitress, although he does not make that clear) smoking in the "ketchen," which I understand to be the area where the food is prepared and not the late creator of the popular.Dennis the Menace comic strip. His food was "diff" and "cold," which, unless it was ice cream or gazpacho (which I do not believe they offer), is unacceptable. Actually, I'm not sure was is acceptable, as far as "diff" is concerned. He concludes by saying that he is paying for this kind of service and he would go there "agian" (sic).

I was saddened by Mr Google "M"s convoluted rant cum complaint about the Harbor Diner. I cannot speak for Mr. "M," (actually he can barely speak for himself), but I know that I will happily return to the Harbor Diner, if given the opportunity. 

Perhaps next summer. Perhaps next week.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

get right with god

I'm going to start my own religion. Would you like to join and become a follower? My religion, for which I have not yet chosen a name, will teach love. Love for everyone, no matter how you look, how you think, what you wear, or who you love. Everyone will be treated equally. There will be no leaders. We will all help each other.

This religion will teach kindness and charity. Sure, other religions claim to teach that, but they don't. We will be polite and non-judgmental. We will never berate or belittle you for the choices you make, as long as they are not harmful or impede upon anyone else's choices. We will teach politeness and tolerance and humility. 

We will have no dietary laws or rules about what sort of garments you should wear in order to make your prayers more effective. Hell, we won't even have prayers, so you needn't worry! We won't have specific houses of worship, either. You can practice love and kindness everywhere, as you should anyway. Religions have rituals that make sense to the followers and appear goofy to everyone else. We won't have to worry about that. We'll have none, unless you want to hop on one leg or clap your hands. We won't mind or judge.

We won't have any reverence for any imaginary "higher being" that allegedly controls everything. If such a being existed, there would be no starvation or sickness or hatred. Offering prayer and sacrifice to this imaginary being obviously does nothing because all of that strife is still as prevalent as it has been for thousands of years. We are on our own and we have apparently been going about it all wrong. I suggest a worldwide movement of peace and love. Sure, other religions claim to preach the concept of love, but they do not. They teach love among their followers while mocking followers of other religions.

With the exception of natural disasters, every single problem in the world has a basis in religion — wars, hatred, bigotry, violence, animosity, racism. What happened to "Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Man?" Or is that only during Christmas? I sit here writing this on Yom Kippur, while, around the corner from me, there are synagogues stuffed with hypocrites who believe that fasting and chanting in Hebrew will allow them to atone for their sins. Sins they will go right back to committing after they've shoved a bagel in their maws at sundown.

So, whaddaya say? Wanna join me? What have you got to lose? Don't want to join me? That's okay, too.

See? It's working already.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

it's all in the game

When I was a kid, nothing beat staying home from school. A day off scheduled on the school calendar was one thing, but an unscheduled day off due to illness — real or otherwise — was the best. All it would take, on those rare days when I would wake up and something in my head or gut didn't feel quite right, would be a little bit of convincing (and maybe a pouty lip), and my mom would relent. She'd fix me some hot tea and dry, butterless toast and deliver it to me while I was propped up on the den sofa — still pajamaed and draped with several blankets. Usually, I was only able to milk this set-up one or two days out of the school year. Any more than a single day risked a non-essential trip to Dr. Barnes, our burly family practitioner who would invariably jab me with a javelin-sized needle no matter what I was brought in for. So, I made myself satisfied with one day off every so often  — and, boy!, did I make the most of it.

My dad left the house for work long before I would wake up for school. My mom would assist in the before-school routine of getting me breakfast and picking out appropriate clothes. She had a little business of driving neighborhood kids to kindergarten in the decidedly unsafe cargo area of her rickety old station wagon. During the course of the day, she was in and out of the house based on her carefully coordinated schedule to accommodate both morning and afternoon sessions of pre-school. On sick days, while my mom was out, I would scroll though the seven channels that our TV picked up (4 VHF and 3 UHF), carefully choosing my entertainment for the day, making sure I looked like I wasn't enjoying myself too much during those times when my mom popped in to check on me. My choices were important and I stuck with them, because these were the days long before remote controls and changing channels required vacating my sofa sanctuary. I avoided soap operas and the news. (On one "sick day" in early June 1968, I remember clicking the TV dial past a report that Robert Kennedy was shot in a hotel the previous night. I was seven and wasn't quite sure who Robert Kennedy was.) I would settle on cartoons (if there were any available on weekday mornings), but my favorite was game shows.

While my contemporaries were stuck behind a school desk listening to Miss McGlynn ramble on about multiplication tables, I was joyfully munching on toast, lounging on the sofa and excitedly watching Monty Hall announce that Jay Stewart was bringing a box down to the trading floor on Let's Make a Deal. My favorite, though, was The Price is Right.

Meet the new boss...
No one hosted a game show better than tanned and handsome Bob Barker. The dark-haired, toothy-grinned Barker, fresh off his long-running stint on Truth or Consequences, endeared himself to contestants and brought an air of decorum and class to an otherwise frenetic atmosphere. Baker became the game show host by which all other game show hosts were measured. Barker, especially as the seasons progressed and he got older, exhibited a sardonic side at times, berating contesting for making obviously boneheaded choices or not following simple instructions. I loved watching bewildered contestants price a can of peas at "five dollars, Bob," only to have Barker roll his eyes, fold his arms across his chest and verbally lash out with a scolding usually reserved for a kid who just smashed a baseball through your living room window. Barker hosted The Price is Right for 35 seasons before retiring and handing the reigns of the show over to comedian Drew Carey. Carey had an understandably shaky start and rightly so. His hosting has been subjected to relentless scrutiny and comparisons to the venerable Barker. However, after ten years, Carey has settled in and has clearly become a fan favorite. Carey has obligingly carried on Barker's campaign to control the pet population, but his on-air patter is peppered with numerous side references that are unleashed for his own amusement. These comments fly over oblivious contestants' heads as they seem to widen Carey's already impish grin.

... same as the old boss.
My love of television is certainly no secret. I especially love watching shows that were popular during my youth, perhaps reminding me of those glorious "sick days." This past year, Mrs. Pincus and I made the jump to 21st century technology and signed on for the X1 entertainment system offered by Comcast, our local cable provider. With this system, I am able to record programs (up to six shows at once, like that need will ever arise) and watch them whenever I feel like it. With uncomplicated ease, I can set up those recordings hours, days or even weeks in advance and the programs are stored in my personal library until I decide to delete them. Eliminating the need for a prehistoric VCR and those bulky, brick-like VHS tapes, my recordings are housed "in the cloud" — where ever that is.

So, taking full advantage of this mind-blowing technology, I record The Price is Right everyday. After dinner, my wife and I curl up on the den sofa in front of our spectacular 43" LG flat screen smart TV and watch Drew Carey, in full realistic color, interact with a new generation of idiots who still don't know the price of a can of peas.

And it's wonderful.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

food, glorious food

No one likes a good buffet more than I do. Actually, no one likes a bad buffet more than I do.

I love going to and eating at buffets. When I was a kid, my parents used to take my brother and me to a buffet, except back then, it was known by the exotic and exciting sounding smörgåsbord, a name that my label-giving, xenophobic father bastardized into "schmorgazboard." This place was a picky-eating child's dream. From the long, winding buffet, I could select only the items I liked — fried chicken, corn, french fries — and avoid the yucky stuff I was forced to eat at home, like green beans and broccoli. I was reminded of a time when my nephew (now 24, but just a child at the time) returned from the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday's with a giant plate sporting a compartmentalized portion of crispy rice noodles and dollop of chocolate pudding. See? Kids know what they want.

Breakfast buffets are always great, no matter how big or small. We used to make an annual event of Mothers' Day brunch at a lovely and bountiful buffet offered at a Sheraton hotel in downtown Philadelphia. An aunt, who obviously didn't get the concept of a buffet, asked a waitress — whose only function was to deliver and refill cups of coffee and removed spent plates — if she could get an omelet for her, as she didn't wish to wait in line. Waiting in line is part of the fun of a buffet! Who doesn't love to grab the last waffle from the serving tray, in full view of the hungry dude behind you, leaving him grumbling until they fill the tray up again  — which is usually in about three seconds.

Of course, I've been to my share of weird buffets, like the one at the Hibachi Grill and that al fresco set-up at a roadside motel in St. Augustine, Florida that Mrs. P stumbled upon on our honeymoon. It's one we still talk about over thirty years later.

More recently, Mrs. P and I have frequented the buffet at Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City more times that we probably should have. When my wife was riding high on the "comp train" at the seaside casino, we could drop by Harrah's buffet any time we liked. We would eat there several times a month. Despite the 90-plus minute drive, Mrs. Pincus would pick me up after work during the week and we shoot down the AC Expressway for a sumptuous — and more importantly free —  dinner. But, all good things come to an end and Harrah's cut her off for no good reason and I'll be damned if I was gonna pay for a meal that I had for free over a million times. So we steered clear of Harrah's until the good folks in their promotions department invited Mrs. P back into their fold. The free buffet offers weren't nearly as plentiful, but we took full advantage of the four per month that we got.

But that didn't seem to stop a group we saw at Caesar's buffet..

Last weekend, during a free weekend stay at Bally's Resort (a sister property of Harrah's), Mrs. P and I ate dinner at the newly-renovated Palace Court Buffet in Caesar's Resort on the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. (Caesar's is also part of the Harrah's family). We hadn't been to the buffet at Caesar's for years, unimpressed by its small size and limited selection. In our almost decade-long absence, they expanded the seating area and nearly tripled the buffet size with stations featuring pizza, Asian and Mexican cuisine, seafood, fresh sushi and a large array of salads. Due to our self-imposed dietary limitations (I'm a vegetarian and my spouse observes the laws of kashrut, avoiding shellfish and non-kosher meat. You have the internet. You can read all about it, if you're interested.) Earlier in the day, we visited the buffet and asked the cashier at the front if we could take a quick look around to see if there was enough for us to eat. Of course, there would be. We perused the many offerings and, satisfied, decided to return for dinner. We left and thanked the cashier for her consideration, making sure she saw us leave. After all, we could have very easily grabbed a plate and helped ourselves and no one would be the wiser.

After a day on the beach, we showered, changed and headed to the Palace Court Buffet. We waited in the long line with all of the other anxious diners. Finally, we presented our vouchers and were guided to a table. We filled our plates and ate. As we sat at the table at the end of our meal, Mrs. P toying with the bottom part of a cupcake and me, downing my second cup of after dinner coffee, noticed a small commotion at the table just behind us. A waiter was having a heated conversation with a table full of twenty-something hipsters who were working diligently on plates full of crab legs. It seems the waiter noticed their table was lacking the receipt from the cashier that every other table displayed conspicuously in the napkin holder. 

"Um, did you folks pay?," the waiter questioned.

The diners stopped their eating and looked at him, silently. One fellow spoke up, while his companions remained speechless. "Pay? There was no one up front to pay.," he replied, hoping that his answer would be satisfactory enough to end this exchange.

The angered waiter pressed. "You have to pay first. Before you eat." He asked the spokesman to accompany him to the cashier. As they walked away, his friends remaining at the table began to snicker. 

Mrs. P and I decided we were through. We left a tip for our waiter who was attentive and brought us iced tea refills without our asking. We made our way out of the dining area and approached the "down" escalator. We were surprised to find the non-paying diners just ahead of us on the escalator, laughing and wiping their seafood-tainted hands on their pants.

I guess free buffet vouchers are still too much to pay for some people.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

I'm in the autumn of my years (redux)

I'm not quite sure when it happened, but I got old.

Maybe I first realized it when I took my son to a concert when he was in high school. We had gone to concerts before, but this one was the first on a school night. It was a performance by the guitar-heavy space rock band Secret Machines. As the venue filled in, I noticed an awful lot of stares in my direction. There was a bit of whispering and pointing and dismissive, judgmental glances silently asking: "Who brought their father?" I looked around more carefully and saw that I was the oldest person in the crowd. By a lot. An awful lot. Luckily, the lights dimmed and the attention was on the band, where it rightfully belonged. 

Another time, my son and I attended a small show at a local bar. As is the policy at most clubs, a brawny, mean-looking bouncer is stationed at the front door making sure that everyone who enters is of the legal age for consuming alcohol. (Whether or not you choose to consume it is up to you once you make it past security measures.) So, while my son was displaying his identification to the bouncer, I made an overt gesture towards my back pocket to produce my wallet. Once he cleared my boy, the bouncer chuckled and, with a conciliatory grin, waved me off as I fumbled to remove my driver's license from the little compartment in my wallet. "That's okay, sir," he announces, "you're good." Good!? I pretty sure he meant to say: You are obviously old enough to be my father! Do you need assistance up the stairs?

I would be satisfied if I thought that these age-related incidents were limited to music venues. But they are absolutely not. There are other things I have caught myself doing. Things that surprise — and somewhat jar — me.

I find I am always cold. When, I'm really cold, I put on a fleece pullover. Rather than turn the thermostat to a slightly higher temperature, it's cheaper to just put on a fleece. Hey, it costs a lot to heat my house. Wait! What? When did I become my father? My father used to say shit like that! And, speaking of fleece pullovers, I purchased a ridiculous amount of them over the past few years. I don't need more than one or two. But I must have a dozen of them! And they are all either gray or black! And they all look the same!

Just the other day, after dinner, I found myself turning off all the lights on the first floor of my house— the living room, the kitchen, the front porch. Then, in the dark, I keyed in the code to set the alarm on our home security system. Then, I flicked the deadbolt on the front door, When I finished, I headed upstairs. As I ascended the staircase, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the kitchen clock. It was twenty minutes after seven. Not even eight o'clock and I'm locking up like it's 2 AM and I just threw the last drunk out of my bar. Network prime-time television hadn't yet begun and I'm ready to turn in for the night. As it was, I probably gonna conk out around 9:30 anyway.

There's another thing — television. A lot of sitcoms and stand-up comics make Jeopardy! jokes in reference to old people. Is that a thing? Do only old people watch Jeopardy!? My wife and I have been watching Jeopardy! for over thirty years. We watched the original incarnation in the 60s when it was hosted by (the late) Art Fleming and the top dollar amount in "Double Jeopardy" was a hundred bucks. When I'm not watching Jeopardy!, I'm watching reruns of TV shows I watched as a kid — Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, The Addams Family. I watch little to no current television programs.

I have been to more doctor's appointments in the last five years of my life than I had in the first fifty. I take daily medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol. At my doctor's insistence, I recently lost a considerable amount of weight and I have caught myself offering extensive details when casually asked, "Hey, did you lose weight?" I realized, during my various ramblings, I sound like all those old men I hear telling old man stories. I also experience pains in my lower back when I stand up or bend over. Ugh! There I go again.

I still think of myself as the same robust young man I was in my twenties when I was newly married and a new father. Though I was never particularly athletic, I rollerbladed and I rode a bike. I walked a lot and never gave it a second thought, This past summer, Mrs. Pincus and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary and that baby of ours just turned 30. Earlier this year he and I walked from one end of downtown Philadelphia to the South Philly neighborhood that he now calls home — a roundabout distance of about three-and-a-half miles. Four days later, my feet were still hurting. Dammit! I'm doing it again!

At 56, I am eight years away from the age when both of my parents passed away. I didn't think they were old at the time. I guess I really don't think I'm old either.

But now, I need a nap.

I wrote on this subject in 2015. You know how old people repeat themselves...

Sunday, September 3, 2017

the heat is on

According to some flowery text on their corporate website, Zoup! is — and I quote — "the leading fast-casual soup concept restaurant that is defining the category with its premium and proprietary soups and other recipes." Before yesterday, I had never heard of Zoup!, nor was I aware of a rivalry among fast-casual soup concept restaurants. Actually, I was not aware of the concept of fast-casual soup concept restaurants. 

Mrs. P came into the possession of several Best Buy gift cards and we decided to extend the purchasing power of said cards by using them in Delaware, the self-proclaimed "home of tax-free shopping." (It's on their state-line "Welcome" sign, for goodness sake!) We have done this quite a few times, choosing to make purchases of large electronics in Delaware to save a few dollars of sales tax. Delaware is just under an hour away, so it's convenient all around. 

My wife picked me up after work and we headed south on I-95, fighting southbound rush hour traffic in the process. The Best Buy that is our usual destination has become something called a "Best Buy Outlet." When we pulled into the parking lot, it was suspiciously empty. We spotted a large sign in the window noting their hours of operation had been reduced to weekends only. Brushing away annoyance, I opened up the trusty Waze® app on my phone and discovered another Best Buy a mere 1.6 miles from where we were. (Thank you, urban sprawl.) Mrs. P swung the car around and we were back on the highway.

We followed the robotic-voiced directions and were led to a large, still under-construction shopping center. The complex occupied both sides of the street. There were a few dirty construction vehicles that rested in their tracks, ready to pick up at the start of the new day. A handful of businesses were open, despite their neighbors being empty storefronts or just framed-out shells. Best Buy, big and bright, stood at the far end of a parking lot adjacent to a Raymour & Flanigan furniture store and something that looked like it will be a movie theater in a few months. We parked, went in, marveled at the giant televisions and the fact that, in the age of Netflix, they still offer DVDs for sale and looked around the appliances for... whatever Mrs. P was looking to buy.

After Mrs. Pincus spent the full value of her gift cards, we turned our attention to dinner. Even in the sparse landscape of this not-yet-complete shopping mecca, there was a small selection of restaurants from which to choose. We briefly considered Zoës Kitchen, but passed when we discovered that the minimally-Mediterranean themed eatery did not offer falafel. (Mrs. P really wanted falafel.) Instead, we opted for Zoës' next-door neighbor, Zoup! Zoup's neighbor, it should be noted, was an empty store.

We entered Zoup! and immediately thought, based on the store's configuration, that we had entered Qdoba. (We felt the same in our short visit to Zoës.) Several framed "soup-related" photographs were placed artfully at irregular intervals along the earthy-painted walls. The service area at the rear of the long, narrow setup was bustling with apron-clad hipsters conversing with prospective customers. Every fifteen or so seconds, someone behind the counter called out "Hot soup!" and the other staff members responded with same call of "Hot soup!" While we perused the menu boards mounted, one fellow, decked out in full Zoup! regalia (hat, polo shirt, apron, name badge), greeted us with one of my favorite chain restaurant greetings.

"Have you folks ever been here before?"

Hot soup! Hot soup!
We answered in the negative and he commenced in delivering a rehearsed commercial for Zoup!, as though he was reading from a TelePrompTer set up behind me. He explained about the 12 rotating soup selections and the freshest ingredients and blah blah blah blah blah. I had lost interest in what he was saying. I knew what soup was. I had eaten soup before. I didn't need someone explaining the finer points of soup to me. What was interesting — and by "interesting," I mean "totally annoying" — was during his company-touting spiel, he kept interrupting his speech by calling out his "hot soup" response when required by the company handbook  — punctuating every other sentence  — each time a new pot of broth was brought out from the hidden kitchen or another server filled a waxed cardboard cup for a customer.

My wife and I each selected a soup and sandwich special. I chose a thick tomato bisque and the missus chose a "rustic"* vegetable, which was soon revealed to be much too spicy for her liking. As its sandwich pairing, we both picked the tuna salad. We paid. The server/cashier (same guy) read our order back to us at least twice. We sat at a nearby table and waited for our dinner.

Soon, two trays laden with food were placed on the counter behind me and the first guy who greeted us announced my name as though I was being paged at the airport. (Dude! I'm sitting right here. We just spoke a minute ago and there are only four other customers in this place.) I transferred the trays to our table and we began to eat.

Almost simultaneously, Mrs. P and I bit into our sandwiches and had the same reaction. Something tasted foreign, like it had no business being in a tuna sandwich. Mrs. P was cautious, but I took another bite. Lemon! There was a distinct lemony taste. Not just understated notes, to borrow from the pretentious judges from shows on the Food Network. This flavor was as prominent as the tuna. Plus, several capers popped in my mouth on that second bite. My spouse decided it was time to call the greeter guy over. She caught his attention and he interrupted his greeting of another couple to come to our table. For some reason, he pulled up a chair from an adjoining table and made himself comfortable, a serious, customer service-focused expression across his face.

I didn't want to lead with "What's that lemony taste in my tuna?," because that would only evoke a reply of "Um, lemon, you moron," so I went another route. Instead, my wife, the more diplomatic of the two of us, inquired, more vaguely," What is that unusual flavor in the tuna?" Mr. greeter proudly stated "Lemon zest. We zest lemon in our tuna, then we add lemon juice and capers." He capped his little explanation with a forced smile. Mrs. P confirmed that the tuna wasn't accidentally hit with a shot of cleaning solution and Mr. Greeter assured us that was not the case. Then he echoed a "Hot soup!"  proclamation and started back towards the prep area.

I don't know about you, but I like tuna with mayo, maybe pickle relish, possibly celery... and that's about it. Did I mention lemons? Or capers? No, I did not. Y'know why? Because this isn't "Chopped" and those items are not included in my Round 1 Mystery Basket. This place is a re-worked Qdoba in some remote section of Christiana, Delaware. Not exactly a brasserie on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.

We forced down the remainders of our sandwiches and finished our soup. Everything was, well, average. Soup is soup. Unless it's the stuff for which Oliver Twist begged a second helping, it is pretty difficult to ruin soup. The sandwiches were typical corporate versions of your local diner fare. The bread was pretty good, though.

As we walked back to our car, my wife offered her assessment, one I have heard more than once after trying someplace new. "Well, we don't have to go there again."

Maybe someday, we'll try one of the other fast-casual soup concept restaurants.

* "Rustic," I can only assume, is a well-meaning corporate descriptor that means "chunky," and not "primitive," as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

hello darkness, my old friend

Uh-oh. Here we go again. How, after so long, did I end up here? Well...

My wife has always enjoyed visiting Atlantic City, the famous Jersey shore resort. When casino gambling was introduced, Mrs. P found another reason to drive the 90 minutes from Philadelphia. She enjoyed playing slot machines. I don't know if it was the flashing lights or the cute characters that decorated the spinning reels or the cha-CHING! of coins, but something about those so-called "one-armed bandits" held her attention. I wasn't particularly worried about her frequent trips to Atlantic City. We were able to meet our financial obligations, so that wasn't an issue. But soon, the casinos, Harrah's in particular, began offering an assortment of gifts for frequent players. Gifts like small kitchen appliances, costume jewelry, Harrah's branded clothing and accessories — all for just showing up at an appointed time and presenting a voucher. She began receiving two or three pieces of promotional mail from Harrah's every day, including offers for show tickets and discounted — then, eventually free — buffets. On weekends, when I could accompany my wife on a trip to Atlantic City, I'd stand by her side and watch as she'd blow through the "free slot play" that Harrah's used to entice her to the casino, followed by a few hundred of her own money. Sometimes she'd come out ahead and sometimes she wouldn't. We'd cap our visit off with a complementary meal at Harrah's bountiful buffet, then head home.

In 2009, Mrs. P and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in Las Vegas. This trip had been in the planning stages for a while and we let friends and family know the dates, hoping some would join us in our celebration. Seventeen members of our collective families met us in Sin City for a pre-planned dinner at the lovely Mon Ami Gabi at the Paris Resort, overlooking the always-interesting Vegas Strip. When we first arrived in Vegas, we checked in at the Camelot-themed Excalibur Hotel, our pre-booked accommodations for the week. My wife and son signed up for Excalibur's Slot Player Club and each received personalized cards on the spot. These cards, when inserted into a selected slot machine, track a players activity and reward various levels of comps based on play. After a week of intense tourist-y stuff and a significant amount of slot machine play, we were ready wrap up our vacation and head to the airport, Mrs. P inquired about accumulated comps at the Slot Player Club customer service desk. The helpful woman behind the counter scanned my wife's card and her eyes lit up at the results glowing on the computer monitor before her. She instructed us to go to VIP Services when we were ready to check out. We skirted the line at the hotel front desk, swarming with angry masses of guests, and passed through a set of gold-trimmed glass doors. Once inside, the sound from the lobby and  near-by casino was blotted out by lilting classical piano. The floor was covered with sparkling white carpet and several plush, upholstered chairs invited VIPs to rest until their name was called. We took a seat and soon, a tuxedoed man beckoned my wife to the counter with a graceful wave. The Pincus family approached and Mrs. P handed over her slot club card. The man nodded, smiled and swiped the card across the card reader. His monitor lit up and he examined the results, noting each line with an index finger. A printer spit out a single sheet of paper. The man made a few notations on the paper and drew a large circle at the bottom. He handed it to my wife with a gracious "Thank you." We looked at the bill. He had circled the grand total. And that total was "$0.00." A week's hotel stay, meals, snacks and a couple of drinks at a hotel bar. Zero. Nada. Nothing. My wife and I exchanged glances, then looked at the man in the tux. "Is this correct?," we said, nearly simultaneously. 

"Oh yes," he replied, "based on your play."

I turned to my wife and whispered, "How much did you play?"

"A lot.," she said plainly.

Just for kicks, my son passed his card to the man and asked if he had any comps available. The man scanned his card and laughed. He handed my son a voucher and said, "Here. Take your parents out for breakfast."

Astonished, my son asked, "Is this from the points on my card?" The man just smiled and winked.

And that's pretty much where it started. We returned home and Mrs. P continued her regular visits to the casinos in Atlantic City. The more she played, the more we benefited. Soon, Mrs. P's casino activity warranted her very own "casino hostess." This is sort-of a personal concierge, able to quickly arrange and confirm spur-of the-moment hotel reservations and secure show tickets — even for sold-out events. We received free tickets for Penn & Teller, B.B. King, Don Rickles and Tony Bennett. We had countless buffets for which we were comped. We had numerous multi-night stays at Harrah's, with all of our meals included. We were flown to several other Harrah's properties across the country, including Laughlin, Nevada, New Orleans, Louisiana and Tunica, Mississippi, where we enjoyed the same VIP treatment we received in Atlantic City. We were offered free cruises, which we happily took and enjoyed. We were riding high and reaping the benefits. Until one day, it stopped. 

I asked my wife if she could call her casino hostess and get tickets for an upcoming show. Mrs. P called and left a message. No reply. She left another message. No reply. The hostess was unresponsive for weeks. The concert I wanted to see came and went. We got the hint — loud and clear. Granted, my wife's visits to Harrah's had sort-of tapered off, but we were cut off. Cold turkey, as though we were the black sheep family member in a dying rich uncle's will.

It was fine. We moved on. Mrs. P satisfied her slot machine cravings with a few apps that she downloaded to her cellphone. Otherwise, casinos were no longer a part of our lives, save for the week-long cruises were were still awarded based on casino activity on previous cruises. But, we were done with casinos. Or, rather, they were done with us.

In the time that passed since we last visited Harrah's in Atlantic City, five — count 'em five — casinos have shut their doors permanently. The casino business in Atlantic City was obviously suffering from outside competition. New casinos have opened in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland and New York — all of the places from which Atlantic City drew its client base, So, someone somewhere in the Marketing Analytics Department at Harrah's decided to re-assess their strategies, because, suddenly, Mrs. P was back in Harrah's good graces. She received a multi-page schedule in the mail, highlighting numerous offers tailored specifically for her. It was just like the good old days. Commencing on July 1, there were free gifts and free slot play and free hotel stays and free buffets. And, there we were on July 1, front and center. We are determined to milk this thing for as long as we can. Mrs. P will accept the free gifts and play the slots only on their promotional money, She won't put a dime of her own funds into a slot machine. We booked a weekend in July and will use our free buffets then. Also, that weekend, we will receive a voucher for another free cruise. Of course, all of Mrs. P's casino activity will be tracked and documented. And they must know that Mrs. P has not given them a dime of her own money.

So, we fully expected to be cut off by August, but Harrah's sent a calendar full of offers for September. Who knows how long we can keep this going?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

for you, for you, I came for you

I love to read and I love actual books. Books with covers and pages and a place to offer the services of a physical bookmark. I still purchase books and read them voraciously... on most occasions. I will admit that I have given up midway into the first chapter of a few books whose convoluted plots just weren't doing it for me. But, there is usually another waiting as a back up. I buy books several at a time because I am such an avid reader. And — best of all — my wife sells the gently used volumes (I take great care with my reading material) on eBay when I am through. She gets a good portion of the original selling price back, too.

As a reader, I have been to a few book signings, an event that coincides with another of my hobbies: collecting autographs. In 2010, Mrs. P, our son E. and I attended a book signing/charity auction in New York City. It was part of a tour by April Winchell, the multi-talented voice actress, who was promoting a recently published anthology of items from her (now-defunct) website April was a blast — engaging fans in conversation, personalizing each book and offering bookmarks made from maxi-pads. A few years later, my wife and I found ourselves at the main branch of the Philadelphia Library to hear actor-comedian Michael Palin read passages from his memoir Diaries 1969-1979, a personal chronicle of his years with the comedy troupe Monty Python. Afterwards, the comic signed copies of the book for a queue line than snaked thorough the cavernous library building. We waited — first outside in the rain, then inside among high shelves of books in forgotten storage rooms — for nearly three hours. Mr. Palin was delightful, humble and truly appreciative of the crowd.

This, apparently, is his BOOM-STICK!
A few weeks ago, I got word (via the internet's foremost source of information, Twitter) that actor Bruce Campbell had written a continuation of his 2001 memoir If Chins Could Kill. I read that book and it was highly entertaining. Subtitled "Confessions of a B Movie Actor," Bruce gives a hilariously self-aware account of his humble beginnings as a budding actor, eager to ply his trade with some down-and-dirty "on-the-job" experience. With his childhood pal, director Sam Raimi, the pair teamed up to stand the horror genre on its bloody ear, combining over the top gore with slapstick humor. Bruce, for the uninitiated, is the rugged goofball best known for his cult-movie roles in the Evil Dead series of horror films, as well as a plethora of cameos in major studio releases, and the television series Burn Notice and the short-lived Adventures of Brisco County Jr. To his fans, like most actors in the horror category, Bruce is held in the highest of esteem. He is movie royalty, occupying a place of honor alongside Robert Englund ("Freddy Krueger" in the Nightmare on Elm Street films) and whoever is behind the hockey mask in Friday the 13th.

Bruce's three-month promotional book tour brought him to Philadelphia on August 18th, to a Barnes and Noble just a few blocks from my office. I pre-ordered my copy of Hail to the Chin* and picked it up early in the week during my lunch hour. When I made my purchase, I was issued a Tyvek wristband that guaranteed a spot in line to get my book signed. So, on Wednesday, I left work at my regular time and leisurely strolled the bustling sidewalks of downtown Philadelphia's afternoon rush. I took my time, as the event was called for 7 PM, a full two hours from the time I leave work. I stopped for a quick bite to eat at a popular vegetarian restaurant and then I walked a block or so up 18th Street to the Barnes and Noble that faces Philadelphia's famous Rittenhouse Square. When I turned the corner onto Walnut Street, I spotted a smattering of folks gathering for the evening event. When I entered the store, I saw even more. How did I know they were there to meet Bruce Campbell? Well, as a veteran of many horror movie conventions, there were quite a few tell-tale signs. First, most were clad in shirts emblazoned with Bruce Campbell's likeness, specifically his "Ash" character from the Evil Dead film franchise. The ones that weren't sporting T-shits were dressed as though they were attending a Victorian funeral, especially the female members of the crowd who were draped in heavy velvet gowns with lacy bodices. The men boasted hair either hanging limp and unwashed from their pale scalps or slicked with product, except for thick and menacing sideburns flanking their collective visages. Numerous examples of elaborately inked flesh were visible at every turn, begging the question: what sort of bodily artwork was hidden by the layers of somber clothing? Plus — and I mean this in the most non-judgmental context — most appeared to be experiencing their first visit to a book store. Not that their behavior was disruptive. (On the contrary, it was not!) They just exhibited a sense of bewilderment at the sight of stacks of those things they have not seen since school was in session.

The actual book-signing process was extremely well-organized. The staff of Barnes and Noble were friendly and jovial — all while being deadly efficient. The wristbands that were distributed earlier were each pre-marked with a letter designating the order in which groups would be led to the store's third floor. The line was moving at a fairly quick clip, with new group letters being announced every fifteen to twenty minutes, it was obvious that, two floors above us, Mr. Campbell began affording his signature almost an hour ahead of schedule. I overheard several non-book-signing customers wandering through the store, muttering, "Is this place always this busy?"

Who drew ya, baby?
I waited patently, following the direction of the smiling staff members, as they guided the line up escalators, around support pillars towards the Bruce Campbell-occupied destination. Mr. Campbell, it was revealed, would graciously autograph one additional piece of memorabilia with each copy of his book that was purchased. People were carrying all sorts of items, from DVDs and magazines, to action figures and replicas of the so-called Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the notorious "Book of the Dead," as featured in the Evil Dead films, noted for its binding (human flesh in the film; something else, I hope, in the facsimiles carried by my fellow autograph seekers). An attentive worker walked along the queue line, exchanging customers books for one that had been pre-signed by Bruce, thereby allowing him to technically sign just one item for each waiting person. I exchanged my book, putting my signed copy in my messenger bag and extracting a glossy print of a portrait I drew of Mr. Campbell as a gift, as well as a photo I printed at home for him to inscribe. In an effort speed things along even more, it was made clear that nothing would be personalized. Bruce would just scribble the few twisted lines that passed as his signature.

I was almost at the signing table, my turn coming just after two sweaty dudes in ill-fitting Evil Dead tank tops reminiscing about every single one of Bruce Campbell's 119 screen credits and a guy in a full Deadpool costume, complete with prop katanas (no, I don't understand the connection either). Finally, I was beckoned forward by a nice young lady who was monitoring the line. She handed Bruce my photo and I approached the signing table. Bruce was seated and, I suppose from that angle he isn't quite the imposing figure he renders on the silver screen. He wore a blue, subtly-flowered shirt. His usually coiffed hair was cut close, accentuating his graying temples. He fiddled with a rainbow selection of Sharpies as I handed him my drawing. "This is for you.," I announced. Bruce took my artwork, raised it to eye level and, with a slight sneer, handed it off to an assistant, with the instruction to "add this to the archives." He signed the photo, cautioning me to wait until the gold ink was dry before putting it away. I told him meeting him was a pleasure and I extended my hand. He grasped my hand with one of his large, perspiring paws and gave it a good, strong, vigorous shake — sending me on my way. It was very obvious that Bruce had done this before and he had the process down to assembly-line precision. My "brush with greatness" lasted under a minute. 

For Bruce, it was just another day at the S-Mart.

*Bruce Campbell's book titles are puns that allude to the actor's prominent mandible.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

up, up and away

Here we are in the final weeks of summer. Families are taking vacations before the kids have to return to school. Some will take quick jaunts to a nearby beach or lake resort, while others plan more elaborate trips to one of the many theme parks spread across the United States. I am reminded of my first vacation without my parents. In 1980, a year after my graduation from high school, some friends and I decided to scrimp and save to afford a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. We were beside ourselves with excitement as the summer date approached. When we actually boarded the plane (my first plane trip), we were ecstatic. When we landed in the magical land called "Florida," we were like uncaged animals, ready to explore and, most likely, wreak as much havoc as we were able.
I wrote this story nearly ten years ago about a trip that happened nearly three decades earlier, but it certainly could have happened last week — or on any trip to any family vacation destination that involves rides, souvenirs and ungrateful children. That pretty much covers everywhere.
Just prior to turning nineteen, I went to Walt Disney World with three of my friends. This was my first vacation without my parents. I told about this trip in a previous blog post. My first day in Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom was great. After spending a fun but exhausting day, my friends and I headed back to our hotel. Somnolent, we slogged the length of the sparsely-lit Main Street USA towards the Monorail that would take us to the parking lot. Just before we exited, I purchased a Mickey Mouse-head balloon for fifty cents (remember, this was 1980). There I was, eighteen-years old, springing toward the Monorail with a balloon string in my fist and a wide grin across my face. 

We waited on the platform, in the thick and shifting throng, for the next Monorail to arrive. The sleek transport snaked into the station. It came to a silent stop and the hydraulic doors opened with a hiss. The individual cabins were fitted with futuristic bench seats, upholstered in undentable teal plastic. They were not unlike the back seat of my father's 1968 Dodge Dart. They seated approximately ten passengers. My friends, my balloon and I chose an empty cabin and slid across the seat to accommodate everyone. A young couple and their son joined our cabin and occupied the bench seat opposite us. The boy was about nine or ten and he had a balloon, too. The balloon looked more age appropriate for him than it did me. 

The doors to the Monorail shushed back into place and we began moving. I sat, holding my balloon and smiled at the young boy across from me as he held his balloon. Suddenly, without warning, his balloon burst. BANG! It hadn't touched anything. It hadn't bumped the low ceiling. It just spontaneously burst — BANG! We were all startled, but even more so, when the boy, just as spontaneously, erupted into a spewing fountain of inconsolable cries and tears. His parents tried unsuccessfully to comfort him. Instantly, I spoke up and offered my balloon to the boy. "Here," I said, "you can have mine." His parents looked at me with expressions of relief and gratitude as I relinquished my balloon. His mom wrapped one arm around the boy's shoulders and gestured to me with her other arm — her hand palm up and extended in my direction. "What do you say to the nice man?," she prompted her son. The boy looked up at the balloon. Then, he looked at me with no expression on his small face. 

"I wanted a red one.," he said.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

now our children grow up prisoners, all their life, radio listeners

There are moments in the life of every parent that stand out as "proud moments." Seeing your child take his first steps. Hearing your child say his first words. First day of school, stellar report cards, praise from teachers, graduation. Then there's Bar or Bat Mitzvah or whatever is the non-Jewish equivalent (confirmation? baptism? coronation? I don't know...). The list goes on with parents beaming with each subsequent accomplishment. This past weekend, Mrs. Pincus and I witnessed an event that made us the proudest we have ever been.

Our son's first "Meet and Greet."

My son E. always expressed an interest in music. As soon as he could talk, he was rattling off the lyrics to Grateful Dead songs, thanks to numerous car rides with his mother. ("Tennessee Jed" was a favorite.) He loved listening to the Beatles and other "classic rock" mainstays, in addition to the eclectic influence of my musical tastes. I introduced my boy to such indie hidden gems as Stan Ridgway (former lead singer of noir new wavers Wall of Voodoo), Michael Penn, Moxy Fruvous and even guitar slingers Dinosaur Jr. and nouveau-ska purveyors The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. While other kids his age were bored by the likes of Raffi, E. was grooving to Garbage and Liz Phair.

As he got older, he made mixtapes (well... CDs anyway) to distribute to and enlighten his contemporaries. He tried to steer his peer group away from the shallowness of Britney Spears and The Spice Girls, exposing them to whatever new finds he discovered on radio stations in the uncharted far left of the dial. And one of those stations was Philadelphia's WXPN.

When E. was winding down his time in high school, he applied for an internship at his beloved WXPN and, all on his own, was accepted. He was slowly introduced to the ins-and-outs of a radio station. He did a lot of administrative tasks, like logging daily playlists and other related data. He gladly fetched refreshments for visiting bands who stopped by for interviews. (He picked up lunch for alt-rockers Guster and learned that indie guitarist KT Tunstall likes her tea strong.) At the same time, E. began another internship with local legend Gene Shay, long-time host of a folk music show on WXPN on Sunday nights. On Gene's show, E. learned how to set up a studio for live performances, how to program music and other technical aspects of the radio business with which I am unfamiliar. 

When E. entered college, he continued his time at WXPN. He became more adept at "running the board," a term for radio production that I won't pretend I understand. He also began hosting his own weekly time slot on the station's internet-only experiment. Here, he was able to hone his on-air skills and personality, as well as select the songs that he played. After a while, he got a couple of "fill-in" shots on the main airwaves while regular DJs were on vacation. After a series of ups-and-downs and shifting-arounds among station personnel, E. was hired as a full-time DJ/producer by WXPN. He was assigned several weekday evening shifts and two weekends slots, including a three-hour stretch on Saturday afternoons where the playlist consists entirely of listener requests. With the help of a volunteer who answers the phone, E. deftly assembles and whittles down five hours worth of musical suggestions (delivered via Facebook, Twitter, email and the aforementioned telephone) into a coherent, sometimes (purposely) jarring, playlist — all on-the-fly, live in the studio. I had the pleasure of answering the phones on two occasions and it was a spectacle watching him work... and don't be fooled, it was indeed work.

With tongue firmly planted in his cheek, E. identifies himself as a minor local celebrity. Sure, there are other DJs on WXPN that are more recognizable, but E. does have a following. Social media, especially Instagram, has allowed listeners to know what E. looks like, making him more visible than DJs of my youth. (Instagram has also allowed folks to know what his cat looks like as well.) I have been with E. at concerts and witnessed people approach him to say how much they like his show. As his father, it sure was a kick.

Nicole Atkins' John Hancock
Last weekend was the culmination of years of pride brought on by my son. Friday afternoon kicked off the annual WXPN XPoNential Music Festival, a sprawling entertainment-packed, three-day event entering its 23rd year. The festival features an unusual blend (just like the station itself) of music from a wide variety of genres. Famous names and up-and-comers are equally represented. Past festivals have spotlighted heavyweights like Bob Dylan, Beck and Emmylou Harris, indie favorites like Wilco, Dawes and Father John Misty (who offered a now-notorious set in 2016), and lesser-known, but equally as talented upstarts like J.D. McPherson, Man Man, Low Cut Connie and Diane Coffee. WXPN, a commercial-free, member-supported station, offers an array of perks to its members that attend the weekend event. In addition to discounted admission and free soft drinks throughout the festival's duration, members are treated to special "meet and greet" encounters with some of the performers. Either before of after their set, a selection of bands and singers seat themselves at a table in the designated, roped-off "members only" area for a little face time with their adoring fans. It has become a fun little bonus and I have taken advantage of the offer on a number of occasions over the years. (I met Aimee Mann, Nicole Atkins and even Kevin Bacon on different occasions.)

At the top of the list.
This year, WXPN decided to allow listeners to meet the faces behind those familiar voices they hear coming from their radios. Interspersed throughout the band "meet and greets," a selection of DJs would be spending a little quality time with their fans... and, yes, there are fans. On Saturday afternoon, the schedule was posted at the Meet & Greet tent in the WXPN Members Only area and the first ones listed were popular DJ Robert Drake, he of local "Land of the Lost" fame (a monthly radio marathon of new wave hits from the 80s) and my boy E. Actually, E. informed my wife and I about his meet and greet earlier, specifically telling me to "not to make a big deal."  But, a father's job is to make a big deal! So, we made sure we were front and center at the designated time. I actually went to make sure that Mrs. Pincus and I weren't the only ones in line. And as long as I was there, I made sure that our last name was spelled correctly on the whiteboard. (It was.) At 1 PM, E. and Robert took their places behind a long table stocked with an ample supply of Sharpie markers and — sure enough — there was a good amount of folks already in line. The festival volunteers (many of whom we know) kept the queue moving along and distributed mini festival posters for the DJs to sign as souvenirs. Mrs. P and I could hardly contain ourselves as we observed our son extend his hand and offer a friendly smile to listeners and fans. We were thrilled as we watched him sign the posters and talk about his show and the station in general. My wife and I even got autographs. He inscribed "Have a nice summer" on a poster for me and he signed the back of a stock dividend check for my wife. (We had just received it the day before. It was from a stock that E. got as a gift when he was born. The total amount was 32 cents.) Mrs. P and I proceeded out of the tent, but hung around a bit longer to watch E. be E.

Wristbands, my man.
On the final day of the festival, E. tracked me down in our usual spot at the top of the natural amphitheater where the XPoNential Music Festival is held. He convinced me to watch the next band, the raucous Sweet Spirit, from a front row vantage point. I obliged and we headed down to the stage. We stood and chatted while we waited for Sweet Spirit's set to begin. A few people around us came up to E. and said "Hello" and "Love your show!," while others pointed E. out to their friends and whispered his name in hushed tones.

During the performance, I raised my cellphone to snap a "selfie" to chronicle another in a series of concerts my boy and I attended together. He snidely asked, "Oh, so you're one of those people now?" I can't possibly express how proud I am of him. He, on the other hand, has no problem expressing his feelings.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

I'm going off the rails on a crazy train

I have a "love-hate" relationship with SEPTA, the entity that provides and operates public transportation in the Philadelphia and suburban area. It is one of only two transit authorities in the United States that operates all five major forms of land transportation (buses, trains [regional rail], subway and elevated trains, trolleys and trolleybuses). SEPTA, an acronym for Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, does none of them well.

I have been a regular commuter on the SEPTA regional rail for over ten years. Sure, it's a pleasure not to have to drive to work and fight traffic, especially in bad weather (which Philadelphia gets a lot of). But. in those ten plus years, SEPTA has exhibited some of the most consistently worst service I have ever seen from a consumer-oriented company. My morning train — the one I take to work at the same time every morning — has never ever been on time. Ever. A SEPTA representative, who was handing out some public relations material one morning at the train station near my house, told me that "railroad standard" allows trains to be within six minutes of the scheduled time and still be considered "on time." I scrunched up my face and replied, "First - the standard is determined by the industry itself? Then why bother to make a precise schedule if the listed times are, in reality by your own admission, approximate times. Second - if the medical profession worked that way, a doctor could remove your kidney, but, since it's within the area of the appendix, it's still considered a successful procedure." The SEPTA guy laughed, shrugged his shoulders and handed me a pamphlet.

The staff on the trains are pretty rude also. They rarely announce upcoming stations. They snap at commuters with questions. They are the furthest thing from courteous. And they never apologize for the train being late, or crowded, or hot (in summer, when the air conditioning fails), or cold (in winter when the heat fails). My feeling is: they are already at work. What do they care if you're late for work.

So, with poor service, late trains and rude employees, SEPTA feels totally justified in raising fares and not doing a thing to improve themselves.

Yesterday was the clincher. I boarded my train at the train station near my suburban Philadelphia home. It was late, as usual. I found a seat in the last car and sat down. Something on the seat across the aisle caught my peripheral vision. I turned my head and saw a rather large key resting in the center of a seat meant to accommodate three passengers (a "three-seater," as we regular commuters call them). I instantly recognized the key as one used by train conductors to open and close the train doors, as well as operate other functions aboard the train. From my observations, it is an integral piece of equipment in a train conductor's arsenal and one that should be kept close at all times. By this one was alone on a empty seat in a train car conspicuously devoid of all SEPTA personnel. I immediate pulled my phone from my pocket to snap a picture and display it on Instagram for all the world to see. (I regularly chronicle SEPTA's and SEPTA rider's infractions on Instagram, mostly blatant violations of the "Dude, It's Rude" campaign that attempts — and fails — to discourage people from putting their bags, backpacks or briefcases on the empty seat next to them, while offering a gentle reminder that seats are for paying customers.) I quickly focused and got the shot, frantically tapping out a smart-ass caption to accompany the image. I chose to go with: "Is that the key to the entire SEPTA Regional Rail System just, absentmindedly, left on a seat? Ahh, SEPTA, it's a good thing you don't guard our nuclear weapons." Because my social media accounts are linked, my message appeared on Twitter, as well.

Well, SEPTA's social media account (for reasons only known to them) follows my Twitter account (@joshpincus for those of you who dare). Almost immediately, I was contacted via Twitter by one "KW" who was monitoring the SEPTA Twitter this particular morning. This was our exchange:

This little conversation shows SEPTA's sheer laziness and complete lack of customer service. Sure they are confined to 140 characters per message, but they didn't come close to the limit. They barked questions are me, a customer, as though I were responsible for their error. "What train? What car number?" Not a "please" or an "excuse me" or a "would you mind." The train number and car number are two pieces of information that are not easily ascertained by the general public. These numbers are usually posted on the lighted informational boards at the train stations (My station does not have one of these boards.) or on the SEPTA smartphone app. Train numbers are never used by commuters and are the source of confusion when SEPTA uses them in updated schedule and train arrival announcements. My admittedly rude reply ("I don't work for SEPTA") was still met with a pressing and impolite demand for these obscure identifiers. I finally conceded and pulled up the app on my phone to find which train number I was currently riding on.

The train pulled into Suburban Station, my destination for work. I rose to exit the train. A spotted a guy sitting in the seat when I had seen the key. He gathered his belongings (which were disobediently occupying the space next to him) and, in one motion, scooped up the key with his stuff. He palmed the key like a seasoned magician and scooted out into the train aisle just ahead of me. He left the train. He did not appear to be seeking out a SEPTA employee.

Will this guy be opening and closing the doors on tomorrow's commute? I don't know. Will he be making any unscheduled stops based on a whim? I don't know. Will that key be dangling from a chain, RUN-DMC style, the next time I see him on the train? Perhaps.

Do I really care? I do not.