Sunday, September 16, 2018

goin' southbound

Looks like we won't be making it to our destination.

Every year, for the past several, Mrs. Pincus and I attend The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention or MANC for those in the know. MANC is a three-day gathering of folks around my age (or older) who need to be reminded of the glory days of their youth. Days filled with simple toys like puzzles and board games and simple entertainment like heroic TV Westerns and gentle family comedies. MANC fills that need in spades. Taking over event facilities at the Delta Hotel in Hunt Valley, Maryland, MANC is jam-packed with vendors offering all sorts of pop culture treasures from the past fifty, sixty... even seventy years. Along with the vendors, MANC plays host to a bevy of celebrities —beloved to me and my peers, but nearly unknown to the members of the generations after mine. Sometimes explaining to younger people who some of these personalities are is not worth the trouble, but their names and shows are instantly recognizable to us "baby boomers." At past conventions, we met Oscar winners Patty Duke and Shirley Jones, TV heartthrobs Ron Ely and Tina Cole, movie stars Robert Loggia and Britt Ekland and many, many more. (I've written about MANC several times... herehere and here, too.)

When my wife and I first attended this convention, it was one of several that I frequented to feed a little hobby that I started nearly twenty-five years ago — collecting autographed pictures. The set up at these conventions and collector shows is a little unnerving and it's one of the negative aspects for Mrs. Pincus. (She finds it a bit on the creepy side.) Celebrities are seated at tables covered with 8 x 10 glossies depicting highlights of their careers. For a nominal fee, fans can spend a few fleeting moments with their "idols" and take home a personally-inscribed souvenir of the encounter. The unwritten rules have changed considerably since I purchased my first autographed photo (for five dollars) of Butch Patrick, little "Eddie" on the 1960s horror send-up The Munsters. Over the years, the prices have escalated at an unreasonable and baseless rate. The celebrities now come complete with a menu of ala carte services on every table, delineating the cost of an autographed photo, an autograph on an item that you brought to the show, a photo of the celebrity, a photo of you with the celebrity or any combination of the above. (Some have even broken it down further, with different prices for black & white glossies or color.) I have amassed quite an array of photos and the fame of these celebrities ranges from Tom Hanks and Gene Kelly to my wife's cousin who is a field reporter for the NBC affiliate in Virginia Beach. (Hey, he's got more Emmy Awards than you do!) I also accumulated quite a few amusing anecdotes (good and not-so-good) about my "brushes with greatness" that I have related for years. I look forward to MANC every year to add to both collections.

However, this past February, I lost my job. Although I was eligible to collect unemployment insurance, Mrs. Pincus and I were justifiably panicked. We immediately cut back on expenses where we could. Luckily, Mrs. Pincus's eBay business was thriving. We were prompted to assess our possessions and begin selling non-essential items. Items that were tucked away in closets or gathering dust in a corner were the first sacrifices. Next was our collection of advertising figurines and plush characters, followed by our Flintstones and Superman collectibles. Then, we made the difficult decision to purge our extensive Disney collection. As discussed earlier on this blog, liquidating a thirty-plus year assemblage of thousands of pieces of Disney memorabilia was a mixed-bag of emotions. At first, I was very discerning about which items I selected to be offered for sale. But as more items sold and more inquiries about the items were received, I gained a new (and surprising) outlook. Now, I was on a mission! Every weekend, Mrs. P and I sat side-by-side at our computers and listed item after item on eBay at a breakneck rate. Seven months later, the shelves are shockingly bare and the "famous" Pincus Disney collection is unrecognizable. Even though I secured new employment in April, we have not ceased our goal of seeing that room empty for the first time in thirty years. Plus, we are having a great time spending time together and seeing what sells.

So, based on our efforts to sell off our Disney collection, I couldn't justify spending money on autographed photos. For whatever reason, the once-prominent collector in me has vanished. Gone. All done. I still want to meet the celebrities. I just don't feel the need to spend upwards of thirty dollars to have them drag a Sharpie across a photograph of a role that made them semi-famous a lifetime ago. Instead, I drew a bunch of portraits of this year's guests and made a plan to distribute them to their subjects, offering a few words of praise and appreciation. I have done this in the past, and sometimes — sometimes — I appealed to the particular celebrity enough that I got an autographed picture in exchange for my portrait. (Cindy Williams, Jay North and Stanley Livingston each complimented my talent.) So, I made my decision to end my collecting of autographed pictures.... unless I can get them free of charge... which I have. And, again, instead of being upset, I found the decision very freeing. The pressure was off. The sort-of guilt I felt in the past over spending hard-earned cash for something that brought brief pleasure and really no actual value was gone. Now I would really enjoy this year's convention in a different way.

Just after I purchased tickets online for MANC, Mrs. Pincus and I decided to stretch out the weekend of the convention into a little vacation. We planned to head further south at the show's conclusion, driving as far as we liked, getting a hotel room for the night and then continuing on the next morning. Our ultimate destination was South of the Border, the kitschy tourist oasis that lights up I-95 in Dillon, South Carolina. While some travelers zoom right past the place, we love it. Sure it's hokey and silly and filled with cheap, useless souvenirs that we never buy. Sure, it proliferates racist stereotypes with its numerous billboards featuring mascot Pedro, a cartoon Mexican of the highest insult. But, we love the nostalgic aspect of a place that really shouldn't exist in this day and age. A place that just seems out of place.

But, alas, our plans for a Southern road trip were dashed by the onslaught of Hurricane Florence, a fluctuating Category 3 storm that couldn't decide on which path to take. National and local weather services painted a bleak scenario, making predictions just short of a tidal wave washing away the entire Eastern United States. It appeared that Wilmington, North Carolina and surrounding areas would be bearing the brunt of Florence's anger. Dillon lies 90 miles west of Wilmington — and seems to be the shortest distance between two points. We didn't wish to be anywhere near the chaos of both the storm and the residents vacating their homes. MANC is held just north of Baltimore, Maryland — well out of the predicted storm zone and would only experience just a little rain. And as they say, "into one's life, a little rain must fall." 

I'm okay with a little rain.

(Next week: Close encounters of the celebrity kind)

Sunday, September 9, 2018

I've got a little list

I started going to concerts with my son when he was in high school in the early 2000s. Because of our shared love of eclectic bands and music that was decidedly off the the mainstream, we frequented venues that were small and intimate. We had no interest in any bands that were booked to fill the large arenas. And never stadiums! Stadiums — as far as we were concerned — were reserved for sporting events, not musical performances. We gravitated towards single room venues that were reminiscent of the dark smoky coffeehouses of the beatnik era, where patrons sat at too-small tables and watched a singer try not to step off of the too-small stage.

Due to the small capacity and close quarters of these places, my son and I were usually in very close proximity to the stage. So close, if fact, that we became pretty adept at reading the set lists that the artists would place around the stage prior to the evening's performance. These little, hand-scribbled agendas served as a reminder to the singer of what songs to sing. Used primarily as a guide, most performers would often stray from the predetermined list, though some would stick to it to the letter. For us, reading these lists was no easy task since — from our vantage point — they were upside down. However, reading them would spoil the spontaneity of the show. But sometimes, we couldn't help ourselves. After the show, my son would stealthily snag one of these set lists. No one looked our way as my boy would carefully remove the thick gaffer's tape that held the list in place during performances.. The more shows we went to, the more his collection expanded. For years, no one seemed to care. Not the band members. Not the owners of the venue. Not the audience members. It was as though he was picking a used tissue off the stage. If someone did notice my son taking a set list, the act was usually regarded with a scowl or a puzzled look that silently questioned, "Why on earth would anyone want one of those?"

One night, after a raucous show by Austin "bad boys" The Asylum Street Spankers at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania's now-defunct The Point, my son greedily (or accidentally) grabbed two set lists from the recently-vacated stage. As we rose from our stage-side table, Spankers singer Wammo approached us and politely — almost sheepishly — asked my son to return one of the lists. "We kind of need them from show to show." he explained. I understood. The Spankers were a small,  scrappy, self-reliant, independent band that traveled around in a rickety van, packed with musical instruments and few personal possessions. I suppose they didn't have the luxury of writing out a new set list for each show, the way a Bruce Springsteen or a Bob Dylan might. My son relinquished one of the two identical pages and Wammo thanked him.

Father John Misty's "fake list"
My son continued the practice of sneaking a set list for years and years. He eventually stopped, however, for a couple of reasons. One - he got bored, I guess. He had a several folders stuffed with torn, sticky and folded set lists and it was time to move on to something else. Two - other people, we noticed, picked up on his little hobby. We began to see other audience members making a move toward the stage near the end of a concert, edging closer and closer as the shows drew to a conclusion. This sometimes resulted in a friendly (or not-so-friendly) confrontation over set lists. Other times, roadies would just hand set lists over to the prettiest girl nearest to the stage. Lastly, my son is a DJ on a local Philadelphia radio station. Through his job, he was become friends with some of singers from whom he nicked a set list or two. So, nabbing a torn piece of paper pales in comparison to meeting and interacting with these folks.

Don't take her music charts.
(Photo by E.)
One of those singers with whom my son maintains a friendship is Nicole Atkins. (A quick Nicole Atkins story, then right back to our regularly scheduled blog post.... At the end of June, the residents of the tiny 100 block of Mole Street in Philadelphia held their annual Molestice Festival to welcome the longest day of year with food, drinks, games and live music. This year's headline performer was Nicole Atkins. My son and I gathered, along with hundreds of other folks, at the far end of Mole Street about twenty-five feet — and a sea of people — away from the temporary stage that was set up for the day's performances. Four or five songs into Nicole's set, she approached the microphone and picked my son out of the crowd, pointing to him, waving and offering a friendly "Hi E!" But she wasn't finished. She squinted and announced to the crowd, "I see you brought your dad Josh with you." I was so embarrassed.)

Now... where was I...? Oh, right.... Nicole Atkins, a wonderfully talented singer-songwriter, is currently on tour in Europe with her band. A few days ago, she posted this cautionary statement to Twitter:
It appears that, after all these years, there are two types of lists lying around on a stage after the show is over. It also appears that audience members feel they are entitled to take whatever they wish once the performers have abandoned the stage for the isolated comfort of the "green room." A handful of audience members, I have noticed, now viciously clamber for those set lists (or whatever else they can grab) like vultures fighting over a coyote carcass in the desert,

Back when my son first started collecting set lists, no one — I mean no one — bat an eye when he picked one off the stage. Now, it has become a thing. A real thing with unwritten rules and protocol. Not all artists welcome nor appreciate the taking of set lists. Some are okay with it. Now, I would just ask first.

Or perhaps, if you really want to show your appreciation and support for your favorite singer, buy a t-shirt or other merchandise after the show.

I think Nicole would like that, too.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

come hear uncle john's band

At the end of July, Mrs. Pincus and I went to the three-day XPoNetial Music Festival (remember the story about the ridiculous parking situation?). Besides hearing some great music and eating free ice cream samples, we were able to snag some other free stuff from a variety of vendors who set up informational booths every year. In order to build brand awareness (that there's a marketing term), these businesses and services offer free bag clips, ball-point pens, reusable shopping bags and magnets — all emblazoned with company logos. Among the local businesses are several concert venues offering free tickets to the winners of a lucky spin of a wheel (like those seen at carnivals... but not rigged. At least, I think they're not rigged). One year, I won a pair of admission tickets to see something billed as "Extreme Midget Wrestling," which I attended by myself... on my 53rd birthday, no less. Last year, we won tickets to see Father John Misty. We passed those on to my son and his girlfriend. We also won tickets to a performance by a Philadelphia-based band called Box of Rain, who offer a tribute to beloved hippie jam band, The Grateful Dead. Despite my wife's love for all (most) things Grateful Dead, tribute bands are where she draws the line. With no desire to attend this show, we asked around at the festival if anyone wanted the tickets. We had no takers. Mrs. Pincus posted an offering for the tickets on Facebook and received the internet equivalent of crickets in response. The date of the show came and went and suddenly the tickets transformed into bookmarks.

This year, we won more tickets. This time, to shows we will actually attend. In a few weeks, we will see surf guitar legend Dick Dale, who I was shocked to hear he is still alive. I saw Dick Dale almost a decade ago and he looked like he was standing on death's doormat. Hopefully the 81-year old will make it to August 16. We also won tickets to see folk icon Arlo Guthrie in October and crooner Rufus Wainwright in December. In addition, once again, we were blessed with a pair of tickets to see Box of Rain.

Again, we asked around at the festival to try and ... er... unload them. No one appeared interested. Even our friends Cookie and Consuelo politely declined. Surprisingly, Cookie, a veteran of numerous Dead shows and a lover of live music, was just not interested. I guess I understand, though. Tribute bands are a tricky sell. You either like them and appreciate their place in the hierarchy of music or you flat out have no time or patience for them. I find myself in the camp of the latter. (Remember my Queen tribute band experience? I sure do.) 

So, when we got home late Sunday evening, Mrs. P put out a plea on Facebook to take these tickets off our hands. The very next day, she got an inquiry from a friend, a young lady nearly twenty years our junior, but a Dead Head just the same... just a little late to the party. She expressed interest in the tickets with a caveat - she needed a date. A few hours later, she replied with her regrets. She could not find anyone who wished to accompany her to the show. So, Mrs P's Facebook post remained.

Early Saturday morning — the day of the Box of Rain show — Mrs. Pincus got a Facebook message asking if the tickets were still available. Indeed they were. The interested party — Sheila, whom we do not know — said she would love them and asked how she could get them. Mrs. P explained where we live and made it pretty clear to Sheila that she would have to pick them up. Sheila lives in Vineland, New Jersey. Box of Rain's show was at the TLA, a venue on Philadelphia's South Street. Throw our Elkins Park residence into the equation and you have a perfect, totally-inconvenient triangle. Mrs. Pincus told Sheila that the tickets would be in an envelope taped to our front door. As promised, I put the tickets in an envelope, drew some Grateful Dead-ish pictures on the front and taped it to our front door. The rest was up to Sheila.

A few hours later, Mrs. P's Facebook messenger signaled an incoming message. It was from Sheila. She sent this picture of the envelope and a word of thanks. 

Mrs. P acknowledged the message and we thought that would be the end of it. It wasn't.

A few hours later, Sheila sent another picture. It was a stage bathed in trippy purple light with a backdrop of some fractal pattern of something suitably psychedelic. Evidently, she was at the TLA and the stage was set for a night of Grateful Dead tributing. I suppose it was nice that Sheila was keeping us abreast of the evening's activities, but, honestly, if we wanted to know what was going on at the show, we would have gone ourselves. And we obviously weren't interested in doing that. 

Click for video, if you must.
Soon, we got anot her message - this time a short video. Mrs. P politely acknowledged it, something I would not have done, but she is nice and I am not. I figure any acknowledgement will only encourage Sheila to sent more highlights of a show we had no desire to go to, but my wife, as we have already established, is the nicest person who ever lived. Mrs. P replied with an "I'm jealous LOL. Have a good time. Glad you could use the tickets." I would have hit "delete" and moved on, but that's me.

The video was the last message for a while. Later in the evening, Mrs. P received a picture of both sides of a flyer that was handed out at the end of Box of Rain's performance, making patrons aware of another Grateful Dead cosplay event occurring every Sunday at a bar in South Jersey. Guess where we won't be going...

Sheila's messages soon stopped. We were just happy that someone was able to use the tickets and enjoy themselves. But, we really could have done without the play-by-play.

Next time, we'll just be happy with new bookmarks.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

this town ain't big enough for the both of us

Back-to-back blogs about pizza? Really? I must be hungry.

One day last week, my son E. initiated a "no pressure" gathering at a South Philadelphia restaurant/bar in honor of his birthday. The bar — Tattooed Mom's — is a favorite hangout of my son, his girlfriend and their friends. It sits several doors from the corner on the 500 block of  Philadelphia's famed South Street — which was a popular haunt for me in my high school days. When I met Mrs. Pincus, she lived in an apartment just a few blocks from South Street and I even worked at a busy ice cream store on South Street when I was a struggling art student. However, I haven't been down to "where all the hippies meet" in years — ever since I became a full-fledged "suburbanite."

These look delicious,
I couldn't tell you for sure.
Tattooed Mom's is a cool little place with funky decorations on the walls, kitschy board games on the tables and an eclectic selection of beer and cocktails that the hipsters who frequent the place seem to love. Personally, I was looking forward to sampling some of the offerings from their extensive vegetarian menu, specifically their highly-touted "tater tot" concoctions for which they have received local renown. So when Mrs. Pincus and I spotted our son sitting on one of Tattooed Mom's retro sofas surrounded by friends and beer, I reached for a menu while we said our "hellos."

"Hold on there.," my boy said to me with a cautionary tone in his voice. He explained that the waiter had just announced that back in the kitchen, the grill hood stopped working and the food preparation area was filled with smoke — ergo, no food from their enticing menu would be available until further notice.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. So were a lot of other folks. Mrs. Pincus — ever the pragmatist — came to the rescue with some quick thinking. She asked the waiter if it was okay to bring outside food in to Tattooed Mom's. "Sure." he said, "I do it all the time" ....which isn't exactly a rousing endorsement of the edible offerings when the kitchen is operating properly. My wife decided that we'd run out and get a couple of pizzas and bring 'em back. Everyone smiled with relief... and the anticipation of pizza. We walked out to South Street on a mission.

Back in my youth, when I hung out on South Street regularly, I seem to remember a pizza place approximately every four feet. There was Frank's, whose mozzarella-laden ambrosia was the reason people stood in line for a slice. Of course, there was the Philly Pizza Company, immortalized in the Dead Milkmen's 1988 hit "Punk Rock Girl." They had great pizza but obviously met their demise because they only served tea iced. Plus, their jukebox selections left a lot to be desired. These places, we soon discovered, were long gone. Now, it appears, that one Lorenzo and Sons holds a pizza monopoly on South Street, its saucy empire stretching from the Delaware River all the way up to 9th Street where upstart competitor Little Italy has bravely set up shop.

Empire State Building shown
for size reference.
We headed down to Lorenzo and Sons, expecting to bring back three or four pizzas to feed our son's guests. Lorenzo's, we soon found out, only has two items on their menu — and, technically, one is a variation of the other. They sell slices of pizza and whole pizzas. They also sell soda and water, but as far as food options — well, you better like pizza. The whole pizzas — I'd like to point out — measure a whopping twenty-eight inches across. Twenty-eight inches! More that two feet! The slices are as big as your head! While we marveled at the fellow behind the counter piling fistfuls of cheese on a disk of dough approximately the size of a manhole cover, my wife spotted a hand-written sign warning: "CASH ONLY. " A twenty-eight inch pizza was gonna set us back twenty-eight dollars (that's a buck-an-inch to you and me). We checked our wallets. Combined, our funds would barely get us one of these monsters. A skinny ATM stood silently at the end of the unnecessarily-tall counter. Mrs. Pincus reluctantly withdrew additional cash and — based on the size of these things — placed an order for two whole pies. We paid and waited. We watched a few people walk away from the counter with enormous slices of pizza, the edges not fully contained by the flimsy paper plate on which they were dispatched. A mom awkwardly maneuvered the comically-huge point of the slice into her child's tiny, unaccommodating mouth. Two "bros" confidently ordered two slices each, only to exhibit difficulty attempting a uniform first bite.

The young lady behind the counter began to assemble two capacious cardboard boxes which would contain our pizzas for the two and a half block journey back to Tattooed Mom's. The stocky fellow in the back extracted the first colossal pizza from the oven — deftly balancing its bulk on the end of an extra-large wooden peel and depositing it squarely in the box. The young lady cut the giant pie into 16 slices (at our request, making it look like a mutated version of a Chuck E. Cheese pizza) and then fit the barn door-sized lid into place. She opened the next box as another pizza was dropped into place and repeated the process.

Look at those narrow doors.
Now, I'm 57 years old and I have carried lots of pizzas in my life, but I never considered just how much two, twenty-eight inch pizzas would weigh. The answer is: "A lot." As a matter of fact, it was surprisingly — and unnervingly — heavy. At first, I struggled to balance the two pizzas comfortably. After a minute, I believed I was all set to carry these pizzas the.2 miles back to Tattooed Mom's. I barely cleared the narrow door jamb as I exited Lorenzo and Sons, my wife generously holding door open for me. I made a right and hit the gas, not stopping or yielding or even looking at who might be in my path. These pizzas were heavy in my outstretched arms. I did hear a few errant calls of "Whoa!" and "Lookit the size of them pizzas!," but I concentrated on my route, internally hoping I would make it the whole way without turning the South Street sidewalk into a cheesy, saucy, boxy mess.

I kept a steady pace. My feet efficiently covering as much ground as possible per stride. I could feel my arms quivering. I had to stop and rest, if only for a minute. Just before I reached the corner of 4th Street, I found a metal railing that I placed the outside edge of my cargo upon. I supported the closer end of the boxes with my hands as I caught my breath and regained my composure. I glanced around and noticed that the railing was in front of the inexplicably shuttered Jules Pizza — its darkened  and empty interior mocking me. (What pizza place is closed on Sunday? One that's a block and a half closer to Tattooed Mom's than Lorenzo and Sons, that's who! And they probably sell normal, human-sized pizzas!)

Don't eat that.
There's enough pizza for everyone.
I got my second wind and bee-lined it to Tattooed Mom's. I crossed the street with ballet precision and made it to the front door where a nice man from the neighboring shoe store (he was outside grabbing a smoke) opened the door for me. I left poor Mrs. Pincus in the dust, many paces behind me. Once safely inside, my son's guests saw me coming towards them and quickly cleared a space on a low coffee table near the sofa where some folks were seated. I dropped the pizzas and loudly exhaled.

E. excitedly opened the top box to reveal Pizza #1. It was glorious. Big and cheesy and inviting. His friends offered approval, most commenting that they had never seen a pizza this big. Cellphones came out and soon, social media was awash with photos of the first of the two twenty-eight inch pizzas we had brought. As Mrs. P passed out slices and napkins, we were told that the Tattooed Mom's kitchen was up and running.

But... but, we had pizza. And a lot of it.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

papa don't preach

Papa Johns pizza sucks. The cloyingly-sweet sauce is awful and the crust tastes like the cardboard box it's delivered in. I love crappy, commercially-produced pizza from chain restaurants, but Papa John's is one step below that stuff they made on day-old hamburger buns that I bought in my elementary school's cafeteria. I tried Papa Johns pizza once. Years ago. And I never went back.

But, Papa Johns is big business, with over 4700 locations world wide and lucrative sponsorship associations with ESPN, the Olympics, The NFL and The Football League in the United Kingdom. Not bad for a company that was started in a converted closet in founder John Schnatter's father's Indiana tavern... and continues, to this day, to make shitty pizza.

Mr Schnatter, who has become the "face" and commercial spokesperson for Papa Johns, (à la Dave Thomas of Wendy's fame), has also become a bit outspoken. He broke the cardinal rule of business by publicly weighing in on the controversial "kneeling during the National Anthem" debate that heated up the NFL and recent headlines. No matter how he feels about the topic, it is in his best interest to keep his mouth shut, or he runs the risk of alienating potential customers who may not share his views. Alienating customers equals poor business relationships and poor business relationships lead to no business relationships.

In July 2018, it was revealed that Schnatter used a racial slur during a business conference. On the same day, Schnatter admitted to using the word and immediately resigned from the Board of Directors of Papa Johns. Two days later, the company removed Schnatter's image from all Papa Johns marketing material. Steve Ritchie, the newly installed CEO, issued a memo stating "racism has no place at Papa Johns."  However, a week or so later, Schnatter filed a lawsuit against Papa John's Pizza to give him access to the company's books and records after they fired him. He described the company's procedures as an “unexplained and heavy-handed way” to cut ties between him and the company that he founded. The company countered by implementing precautions that would prevent Schnatter from buying back a majority stake of Papa Johns stock.

As expected, Papa Johns business suffered. Sales were down across the board as they struggled to introduce a "Schnatter-less" marketing strategy. To date, eleven Major League baseball teams have dumped Papa Johns as a sponsor, as well as the NBA's Utah Jazz and the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. The University of Louisville took Papa Johns name off of their football stadium. See how opening up your big, racist mouth is bad for business?

It seems that the company is taking this very, very seriously. Just this morning I was watching television before I left for work. We all know my love for old TV shows, so I was tuned to Antenna TV, one of several networks whose programming consists of vintage sitcoms going back to The Burns and Allen Show — which I happened to be watching as I enjoyed a cup of coffee. When the show paused for a "word from the sponsor," my 43" flat screen surprisingly lit up with the smiling visage of John Schnatter in his trademark red apron, running his knuckles through a big glob of pizza dough. He was surrounded by a group of smiling Papa Johns employees, all touting the ingredients of the pizza and delivering the company's tagline in unison: "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza. Papa Johns." Then the screen faded to black, quickly switching to an older man singing the praises of his new streamlined catheter. I immediately grabbed my phone and took to Twitter. I punched out a typical "Josh Pincus" assessment of what I just saw...

Pretty witty for twenty minutes after six in the morning. It appeared that I was not the only one awake and scanning Twitter. The folks at Papa Johns Support (@AskPapaJohns) saw my tweet and responded. Without a joke and without the slightest bit of levity. Their tweet was all business and  polite customer relations.

Wow. Papa Johns wants details and wants them now. I happily obliged.

Papa Johns was gracious.
Papa Johns is determined to get John Schnatter out of their lives for good. Apparently, there really is no place for racism at Papa Johns. 

I know from personal experience that "once a racist, always a racist." Even when an apology is offered, racists never change the way they truly feel.

Papa Johns' pizza still sucks, but at least their heart is in the right place.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom

Yesterday was my 57th birthday.

Alexander Pope, the poet and satirist who introduced such oft-used quotes into the common lexicon as “To err is human, to forgive divine,” “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” and “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” died at 56.

Adolf Hitler was the leader of the Nazis and one of the most hated men in the world. With defeat closing in, he downed a cyanide capsule and shot himself at 56.

Charles Rocket, an actor and comedian, who as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, was fired for saying "fuck" on live television. He slit his own throat at 56.

Billy Mitchell, a brigadier general who is considered the "Father" of the US Air Force, was an outspoken critic of military strategy. He was convicted of insubordination and court-martialed. He resigned his commission rather than serve a five-year suspension. He died at 56.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. While attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington DC, Lincoln was shot to death by John Wilkes Booth. He was 56.

Ian Fleming was famous and celebrated for his eleven novels and short story collections about fictional super spy "James Bond." As a counter to critics labeling him a "one trick pony," Fleming wrote the epic children's novel "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." He died at 56 on his son's twelfth birthday.

Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the world's most influential composers. Beethoven composed some of his most famous and admired pieces during the last decade of his life, when he was almost completely deaf. After years of heavy alcohol consumption, he died of severe liver damage at 56.

Max Schreck was an actor, most famous for his role as "Count Orlok" in F.W. Murnau's creepy 1922 film Nosferatu. He died of heart failure at 56.

Rick James was a favorite purveyor of funk music. He had several encounters with law enforcement, including holding and torturing two women for six days while under the influence of crack cocaine. Rick died of heart failure at 56.

Betty Grable was an actress and popular pinup model during World War II. She died from lung cancer at 56.

Steve Jobs was a true marketing genius. Despite having never written a line of computer code in his life, he convinced the world to latch on to the technology that was Apple. He also exploited the talents of his pal Steve Wozniak. Jobs' dying wish was to never allow consumers to replace the batteries in their iPhones. He died at 56.

Warren Zevon was the anti-Jackson Browne. His sardonic tales of miscreants and headless mercenaries afforded him a cult following and the appreciation of many, including David Letterman, who welcomed Warren as the sole guest on his late-night show eleven months before the died at 56.

Charles Mingus was a brilliant and influential jazz bassist. Later in life, he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that prevented him from playing his instrument. He died at 56.

John Hancock was one of the leaders in the United States' pursuit of freedom from England. He was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, barely leaving enough room for the signatures of the 55 men who would follow. He died at 56.

These folks only made it as far as their 56th birthday, so I'm feeling pretty good.

Yep. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

they paved paradise and put up a parking lot

Mrs. P and I attended the annual XPoNential Music Festival*, a three-day gathering of members (and non-members, I guess) hosted by WXPN, an indispensable radio station in the Philadelphia area. This year marked the 25th year of the festival and boasted such diverse performers as David Byrne, Lukas Nelson, J.D. McPherson and a bunch more. It's more than just a concert, though. It's like a big family reunion, if you liked everyone in your family.

The festival takes place in Wiggins Park on the Camden, New Jersey waterfront. Wiggins Park, named for Dr. Ulysses Wiggins (who, I believe, was the first doctor to treat victims during the annual "Burn Camden to the Ground on Mischief Night"), is a picturesque natural amphitheater, with sloping lawns and shady trees. It is one of the truly nice things in Camden. Actually, Camden is going through sort of a Renaissance. Sort of. Within the first two blocks off the waterfront, there's a lot of construction, a lot of overpriced, rehabbed buildings festooned with signage to entice tenants.... and an abandoned minor league ballpark, the one-time home of the one-time Camden River Sharks. Past that two-block cutoff, you take your life in your hands. Camden is a scary, scary place — rife with shady looking characters, boarded-up buildings and a ton of broken glass. I suppose that's why Wiggins Park faces Philadelphia.

In the days after the XPoNential Music Festival*, most everyone is talking about their favorite memories of the weekend — which performers they enjoyed, that new musical discovery they were exposed to, how many free ice cream bars they consumed. Sure, we had a good time, heard a lot of great music and downed more than our fair share of ice cream, but, honestly who wants to read a Josh Pincus story about something pleasant? I'll try not to disappoint.

The gates were set to open at 3:30 on Friday afternoon, with the first band — Philadelphia funksters Swift Technique — scheduled to take the stage at 4. Mrs. P and I packed our cooler and gathered our new custom-made blanket (constructed from a collection of bandannas) and backed out of our suburban Philadelphia driveway around 1. After inching through congested traffic on the infamous Schuylkill Expressway, we made it to Camden around 2. Our go-to parking garage is not always accessible, mostly due to non-existent rules and some overzealous attendants who get to exercise a bit of authority one weekend a year. But, instead of following the giant electronic arrow flashing on a temporary sign at the corner of Market Street and Jersey Joe Wolcott Boulevard (I shit you not!), we made a left on the off chance that the parking lot attendant was feeling particularly generous this Friday. 

He was not.

A weathered man with wild gray hair and approximately three teeth in his head (two of which were in his mouth) sporting a bright red "Live Nation" polo shirt signaled for us to stop as we approached the garage entrance. "You folks here for the concert?," he croaked through a sneer. We replied in the affirmative. He sneered more. "You gotta park in lot 1, 3, 4, 9 or 11.," he spat, as though everyone is intimately familiar with his random list of designated parking lots. My wife asked for general directions to the aforementioned lots. The man waved his arms left and right and muttered something about making lefts and rights. Mrs P spun the car around and drove up to the festival entrance where a queue line had already begun to form. I unloaded our gear — chairs, cooler, blanket — and left Mrs. Pincus to grab a spot in line while I went off in search of parking.

I continued past the Camden Aquarium and spotted an A-frame sign in the middle of an otherwise-barricaded street. The sign read: CONCERT PARKING $10. "Well, that's for me!," I thought. As I approached the entrance to a relatively safe-looking, fenced-in parking lot, a bedraggled attendant leaning back in a metal folding chair pointed to his wrist (he wasn't wearing a watch) and yelled, "Three o'clock! Lot opens at three!" Then he curled his lips into the standard parking lot attendant authoritative smirk. I check the clock on my dashboard. It was 2:30. I would have to find a place to sit in my car for a half hour, because the delicate balance of nature would be thrown irreparably out of kilter if I were permitted to stash my car on that hallowed asphalt thirty minutes early. 

Across the street from the inaccessible-til-3 lot was an entrance to a construction site that was as wide as a street with cars parked along both curbs. I saw a couple of hard-hatted men climb in to some of the vehicles and pull away, leaving an open parking spot. I pulled into one of the spaces to wait. A car pulled in behind me and the passenger — a confused looking guy — got out and looked around as though he had been dropped from an airplane. I suppose he was checking for a sign of some sort delineating the regulations for parking in this small access road. Of course, no such sign existed, so he did the next best thing. He asked the nearest person sitting in their car with the windows rolled down. That was me. "Excuse me," he said, "You think it's okay to park here?" I looked right at him and replied, "I wouldn't. I'm waiting for the lot across the street to open at 3 so I can park there." He scrunched up his face in an expression of befuddlement. "What do you mean 'you wouldn't?' Is it because you're worried something would happen to your car because this is Camden?," he questioned. "Yes. Yes, I am." I stated. The man shuffled back to his car. By this time, it was nearly 3 o'clock. I turned the ignition key and swung my car into a U-turn, heading over to the now-open lot. I paid my ten bucks and found myself an open space on the end of an aisle. The guy who questioned my parking plans pulled in next to me.

We arrived bright and early  as the second day of the XPoNential Music Festival* kicked off at noon, with the gates set to open at 11:30. Gluttons for punishment that we are, we took another shot at our favorite parking garage. As we approached, we saw several cars being waved in. That was a good sign and things looked promising. We got closer and an attendant — a different guy from the day before — waved for us to stop before entering. "You folks here for the concert?" he asked. We confirmed that we were. He informed us that today the garage was reserved for radio station employees and handicapped parking. My wife quickly explained that our son is an employee of the radio station. (He is indeed.) The attendant glanced into our car and gave the interior a once-over. Seeing no one but Mrs. Pincus and me, he was prompted to ask, "Is he with you?" Mrs. P tried to save this by saying we will be driving him later. The attendant wasn't buying it. Instead, he directed us to several other lots, the identifying numbers of which he rattled off like he was calling a Bingo game. Slightly annoyed, I dropped Mrs. P off at the entrance line again and parked at the same lot I parked in on Friday.

The final day of the festival found my wife and I dragging. Sure, we were having a great time, but the whole weekend is a tiring undertaking. Plus, with each festival, we find that we are another year older. Although we enjoy the convenience of the riverfront parking garage, we just weren't up for an argument over getting ourselves in. This morning, I just went straight to the entrance line and dropped Mrs. P off with our belongings while I headed to the parking lot that accommodated us the previous two days. As I pulled away from the curb and headed towards the lot situated four long blocks from Wiggins Park, my phone rang. It was my wife. She explained that she was talking to some guys in line who said they parked in the garage with no problem. I hung a quick left and drove right up to the garage entrance where I was greeted by the Sunday attendant — a different guy from Friday and Saturday's guardian. However, he must have been studying the Parking Lot Attendant Official Handbook, because he started off with the ever-popular ice-breaker: "You here for the concert?" I said, "Yes." Then, he threw me a curveball. "Are you a volunteer?" I panicked. I wasn't one of the many volunteers who offer their services for the weekend out of the pure love they have for WXPN. I love the station, but I like to just sit on a blanket and listen to music for three days. Sure, I could have very easily said I was a volunteer, but that would involve lying, which is something I do not do. It would also, most likely, require me to produce some proof of my volunteer status, so I answered, "No." I was immediately denied entrance to the garage. Again. Instead I was directed to follow the street to the traffic light where a left turn would take me to Lot 1. I angrily exhaled. I hit the gas and followed the road until I found a large, fenced-in, unmarked parking lot. A smiling young lady with a fistful of parking tickets waved me in. "Is this Lot number one?," I asked." Her smile broadened. "Yes it is., " she cheerfully replied. As she relieved me of ten dollars, I told her about the contradictory information I was given by many of her co-workers. He gave a little pout and sort of apologized on behalf of the entire Camden Parking Authority. Then she pointed to a wide area of available parking spaces and offered a heartfelt "thank you" as I drove off. That little bit of "nice" almost made up for three days of parking frustration.

At the culmination of the three-day event, the General Manager of WXPN took to the stage, thanked everyone in attendance and invited everyone back for next year's festival.... although he made no mention of where to park.

* presented by Subaru

Sunday, July 29, 2018

dirty lowdown

As you read this, I am sitting in a camp chair on the Camden Waterfront, enjoying the final day of an annual music festival — just the latest in a forty-plus year stretch of going to concerts. Here is a tale of my early concert-going days.
A day or so ago, Mrs. Pincus and I were in the car when our favorite radio station played a new song called "Radiator 110," by venerable singer/songwriter/guitarist William Royce Scaggs, more widely known by his prep school moniker: Boz.

Mrs. P smiled and bobbed her head to the music. "Have you heard this?," she asked. I replied that I had. "I like it.," she continued, explaining that she had always liked Boz Scaggs.

I, however, have never liked Boz Scaggs. I have never purchased a single one of his two dozen albums, including the two on which he served as guitarist and sometimes vocalist for The Steve Miller Band. I really have nothing against Mr. Scaggs. His voice is okay. His guitar playing is okay, too... I guess. The reason I don't like Boz Scaggs is stupid. But, in all honesty, has nothing to do with Boz Scaggs.

I have been a music lover since I was a child. When I was in grade school, my beloved Uncle Sidney gave me a stack of Beatles 45s that he "obtained" from a jukebox as part of the "sketchy" affairs through which he made a living. I spun those disks on the family hi-fi, mesmerized by the hypnotic yellow and orange Capitol Records label. Later, armed with some birthday money, I purchased my very first album - multi-Grammy winner "Tapestry" by Carole King. After buying more singles (including "Sugar Sugar" by The Archies and "Age of Aquarius" by The 5th Dimension), I went back to my old friends The Beatles and made their self-titled "White Album" my second album purchase. After that, my music obsession went full steam ahead. More albums and singles. Music magazines. Listening to songs on the radio. But one part of my love for music was missing. Concerts. But, at the time, going to a concert never occurred to me. My parents regularly attended shows at the nearby Valley Forge Music Fair. My mom went to see Sergio Franchi, the charismatic Italian tenor, every time he performed at the famed Latin Casino nightclub in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Once, we even went as a family to "the Latin" to see crooner Bobby Darin just a month before he passed away. I remember an older cousin passing on my brother's Bar Mitzvah, opting instead to see Jefferson Airplane at the Philadelphia Spectrum. My brother went to concerts, too... I suppose. At the time, I just thought it was something that older people did. That is, until a couple of classmates told me they were going to see Elton John. "What do you mean 'going to see'?" I questioned, "Do you know him? How are you going to see him?" They clarified their statement. They had bought tickets to his upcoming concert in Philadelphia. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my 14 year-old head! "You can do that?," I thought. I now saw things from a new perspective. Maybe I was an "older person," and the time has come for me to go to a concert. 

When I got home from school, I scoured the Philadelphia Bulletin for concert listings, something I had never done before. I read that shock-rocker Alice Cooper was bringing his malevolent Welcome to My Nightmare Tour for a stop at the Spectrum in my hometown. I had — and loved — the "Welcome to My Nightmare" album. I asked my mom for permission to buy a ticket (a whopping six dollars of savings I earned from hawking pretzels at a busy intersection in Northeast Philadelphia). When she agreed, I asked if she could chauffeur a few friends and me to the show. My mom — a sympathetic rocker herself — conceded. On April 25, 1975, I found myself in a darkened Spectrum among a throng of frenzied fans watching a tuxedoed and mascaraed Mr. Cooper execute a Busby Berkeley-style chorus line, flanked by six-foot tall black widow spiders. He also executed a giant menacing cyclops. It was well worth the entire six bucks.

I was bitten by the concert bug. I wanted — nay, needed — to go to another as soon as possible. Granted, funds were low. I'd have to sell a lot of street corner pretzels to buy another ticket at these steep prices. It wasn't until a year later that I attended my second concert: America with former Raspberries lead singer Eric Carmen opening the show. America? Really? "A Horse with No Name" America? After Alice Cooper? I know, I know. But I was desperate. I wanted to go to another concert so badly that I was willing to see the first band that I heard of. I knew some America songs from the radio, but I wouldn't number myself among their die-hard fans (Do they even have die-hard fans?) I bought a ticket — setting me back a full dollar more than my Alice Cooper admission! The show was... okay. Not awful. Just not spectacular. They sang a bunch of their familiar sunny, silly Top 40 hits. Actually, it was pretty forgettable, but it was a concert nonetheless. I redeemed myself later in 1976 by attending a concert by the ubiquitous Elton John, touring in support of his "Rock of the Westies" album, an album that, despite the inclusion of the achingly putrid "Island Girl," would become my favorite Elton John release. 

With three shows under my belt, I was now an official "concert veteran." I eagerly participated in those regular high school "concert conversations." (Who have you seen? Oh I saw them. They were great!) I was constantly planning and deciding which would be my next concert. So were my friends. 

My friend Hal knew a guy named Mike. Although the word didn't exist five decades ago, Mike was — what you would now call — a "frenemy."  I knew him, but I didn't particularly like him. He was loud and overbearing and one of those people who was an expert on everything.  But, he was Hal's friend, so I put up with him. One day, I was at Hal's house and we were listening to records. I put on my copy of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours." I wasn't a fan of the band, but it was an album that everyone had. Plus, if you were a 16 year-old male in 1977, Stevie Nicks was the shit! While we listened, Hal noticed, in the newspaper, that Mick Fleetwood and company were coming to Philadelphia in a month or so. We decided we would go and, since Mike was there, we felt obliged to invite him along. Mike had never been to a concert before. He was obviously excited by the idea, but tried to hide his excitement behind a shield of forced, cool indifference. It was pretty annoying. Exactly the thing I didn't like about Mike.

The night of the concert rolled around. Hal, Mike and I rode the bus and then the imposing Broad Street Subway to the South Philadelphia venue. Mike was so ecstatic, one would have thought we were headed to an audience with the Queen of England. He yammered on with unsubstantiated authority about the location of our seats (in a venue he had never visited) and the band (whose albums he didn't own) and — due to his limited concert and music experience — repeated himself several times. The show itself was good. Kenny Loggins opened the night, followed by a substantial hit-filled set by Fleetwood Mac. Strangely, they skipped "Don't Stop," despite its inclusion on the playlist of every radio station in the country. At the show's conclusion, Mike picked up his non-stop monologue where he had left off, only now, as the veteran of a single concert, he was an expert. He sang wrong lyrics to songs he had just heard, awkwardly fitting them into tuneless melodies. It was maddening.

During the next week at school, Mike cornered me in a hallway as I was retrieving some books from my locker. "Hey!," he began. Was he initiating a conversation with me? He was Hal's friend, not mine. What does he want? I thought. 

"Yes?" I replied. 

"You wanna go see Boz Scaggs?," Mike asked. Why was he asking me? Oh right! I'm his concert buddy now. Shit! I rolled my eyes. 

"What?," I said, hoping for a little clarification. 

"The Scaggs show. You wanna go see Scaggs?," he elaborated, narrowing his eyes, cocking his head and forcing an air of coolness about himself, like he had been to hundreds of concerts. It wasn't working. He looked and sounded like an idiot. And "Scaggs?" What the hell was that? Why does he keep saying that? Who was he trying to impress? Me, I suppose. 

"Uh, no," I answered, "I'm not a big fan of Boz Scaggs." He looked dejected, but tried to maintain his stupid "cool." It was apparent that Mike had been bitten by the concert bug as well and wanted to see another concert as soon as possible... even if it was a performer with whom he was not familiar. (At least I held out for America, a band from whom I could name a number of songs.) 

"Awright, I'll see if someone else wants to see Scaggs." His voice trailed off as he walked away. Finally, I wouldn't have to hear him say "Scaggs" again.

So, there. That's it. That's the stupid reason I don't like Boz Scaggs. Because Hal's friend Mike ruined him for me. Even if I had the notion to give Boz a second chance and another listen —  in my head, I'd only hear Mike saying "You wanna go see Scaggs?" Ugh. That was forty years ago! Some things stick with you forever. No matter what you do, you just can't shake 'em.

My apologies, Boz. Blame Mike.
This is a very unusual photograph. It was taken in 1977.
I was not friendly with anyone in the picture... especially Mike, who is second from the left. That's me in the center.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

don't leave me hanging on the telephone

I often wondered if faithful lab assistant Thomas A. Watson rolled his eyes and pretended not to hear when Alexander Graham Bell's voice crackled over his new invention, ordering: "Mr. Watson – Come here – I want you," "What!?!," I imagine Mr. Watson bellyaching while throwing his hands in the air and stomping his feet. I can picture him groaning at being interrupted — unnecessarily — by his boss Bell for some stupid task that Bell could no doubt perform for himself.

When I was young, my dad would get furious when the phone rang in our house. Not just during mealtime or TV watching time or sleeping time but anytime. Granted my dad would get annoyed by a lot of things (snow, rain, Democrats, minorities on television, minorities not on television, Philadelphia sports teams, teams opposing Philadelphia sports teams), but a ringing telephone would set him off every time without fail. Midway through the first RRRIIIING!, my father would growl, "Who the hell is calling?" Even if he was expecting a call, my dad would greet that initial telephone ring with the same contempt. If it was one of my friends or one of my brother's, my dad would mockingly mutter the friend's name under his breath for the duration of our conversation. I sometimes wondered why we even had a telephone. Why was my father paying a monthly fee to have this constant source of irritation in his house?

Something in my father's make-up must have rubbed off on me. While I don't get annoyed when the phone rings in our house (well, not nearly as annoyed as he did), I will admit, I do hate talking on the phone. I can't quite put my finger on what it is about talking on the telephone I don't like... but I don't like it. I can make it through a few informative seconds on the phone, like a call from my wife if I ran to the supermarket and she realized that eggs were not included on the shopping list. But, if the conversation extends past the instruction to get eggs, I bristle. "We can talk when I get home," I'll gently explain, trying to put an end to a lengthy discussion yet not wanting to appear rude — but usually failing miserably in the process.

I rarely — if ever — answer the phone in my house. It's never for me. If I do answer, it will most likely be someone who wants to speak to Mrs. Pincus. Or it'll be a solicitor with a brief survey that usually ends when question number three is: "Does anyone it your family work for a radio station?' and I answer "yes." Or it's some malicious scammer telling me that they have been receiving messages from my Windows computer. Or it's just a plain old wrong number. But, I can be assured that it's not for me.

So, wouldn't you know.... I started a new job earlier this year that requires me to speak on the phone more than all of my previous jobs put together. It's very strange, but over the last few months I've gotten used to it. Some of my new co-workers have even complemented me on my phone manner, citing me as both professional and pleasant. I have even surprised myself with my patience and courtesy. Some of the folks I speak to on the phone are decidedly harried, curt, unreasonable and downright rude. But I have uncharacteristically maintained a cool head and affable demeanor. I never knew I had it in me. I still don't like talking on the phone, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. The phone is ringing..... and I'm not gonna answer it.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

we now state emphatically it's happy anniversary

Today marks thirty-four years of wedded bliss shared by my beloved (and yours) Mrs. Pincus and me. I was the first one of my friends to get married. When I told my friends that was my plan, they were shocked. Josh? Married? Never! But it turns out that our marriage has outlasted a lot of marriages — and that says something. Something about the strength of my relationship with my wife. And we do have a great relationship. We have often said that we were destined to marry each other because no one would be able to put up with either one of us.

But how did it begin? Well, I'll tell you...

I was in the middle of my junior year at the Hussian School of Art, a small vocational institution located in Philadelphia. I was a typical budding artist — a strong-willed dreamer with unrealistic visions of fame and fortune filling my head. I footed the tuition bill myself, as my parents made it very clear that if I chose to further my education past free public school, I was on my own. So, at 19, I wandered into a bank and, with no idea what I was doing, applied for a student loan. Then, I had to figure out how to begin to save up to pay that loan back. I got a job at my cousin's vegetarian restaurant located a distant, but manageable, walk from school. Three days a week, I would pack up my art supplies fifteen minutes early and head out of my mostly informal classes. The majority of my instructors said nothing, but for the few that questioned my early exit, I would curtly justify my actions with, "I'm going off to pay your salary." My departure was usually met with a silent nod.

My job was manning the counter of a cafeteria-style eatery that did a pretty brisk lunchtime business, but slowed to a crawl during the dinner hour. To be honest, Wednesday and Thursday evenings were dead. Tony, my co-worker, and I would sometimes stare at each other for a couple of hours before the first customer would breach the doorway. Fridays would be a little busier, but by no means did we ever — ever — experience the so-called dinner rush. With our 10 PM closing time approaching, Tony and I would start to wrap up items that we knew we wouldn't use in the final hour, like salad ingredients and baked potatoes. I'd leisurely begin to sweep, then fill the mop bucket as Tony gathered up serving utensils and nearly-empty casserole pans to carry to our second-floor kitchen and deposit them in a sink of warm, soapy water. At 10 on the button, I'd lock the door and we'd get that place "spic 'n span" in record time.

However, there was that one particular Friday night — February 26, 1982, as a matter of fact — when things went a bit differently...

It was 9:30, a half hour from closing time and Tony and I were at our usual places behind the counter of Super Natural Restaurant, just killing time until I could lock the door for the night. Suddenly, the front entrance was darkened by three late-evening diners — two attractive girls and a guy — and I didn't want any of them there. Begrudgingly, I tightened up the ties on my apron and forced a smile to my face. Tony disappeared upstairs to get a jump on his dish washing duties, leaving me to handle the threesome on my own. The trio first perused the menu board then drew closer to the glass-enclosed counter to examine what was left of the evening's dinner offerings. One of the young ladies — a tall, pretty girl with long dark hair — was the first to speak. She pointed to one of the many recessed metal containers that filled the serving area — each sporting the evening shift's remainder of salad fixings. I followed the direction of her dark-hued, lacquered fingernail, as she asked, "Does the cheese contain rennet?"

I frowned and replied with five words. Five magical words that were flush with charm and allure — effortlessly melting the heart of this young miss. "What the hell is rennet?," I said.

She frowned right back. "It's an animal derivative that is used in the making of cheese. I keep kosher and if this is a true vegetarian restaurant, then you should be serving cheese that is made with vegetable-based rennet." She finished and smiled sweetly.

I dug in for a second salvo. "Kosher?," I asked, "I don't know anyone under 80 that keeps kosher." This conversation was in a downward spiral. The subject of "cheese" was not brought up again, as they placed their orders. As I tended to preparing their meals, they took seats at the first table-for-four in the small dining room. In a few minutes, I presented these diners with their late dinner. And I decided to hang around their table, even though I was not invited. Hey, I was 20 years old and the pursuit of girls was instinctively a top priority. Based on absolutely nothing, I decided that the first girl was too old for me. Instead, I focused on the other girl. She was cute and I brazenly asked for her phone number. I didn't know who the accompanying guy was with... and, frankly, I didn't care. She wouldn't give in, despite my relentless badgering. The first girl looked up from her dinner and interrupted my ploy with, "Do you have an older and taller brother?" Caught off guard, I answered, "As a matter of fact, I do." She laughed and scribbled her phone number on a scrap piece of paper. And still, her friend wouldn't relent. They finally finished and stood to put on their coats, explaining that they were headed to a midnight showing of the movie musical Grease. Just before they left, the first girl double-checked that I had her phone number for my brother and then punctuated her visit by telling me that I was the most obnoxious person she had ever met.

And that was it. They left. Tony and I cleaned the restaurant. He went home and I went home.

On Saturday afternoon, after finishing up a some work for school, I gave my older and taller brother a call. At the time, he was dating the woman who is now my sister-in-law, but a zillion years ago, the Pincus boys didn't know the meaning of the word "loyalty." I told my brother Max that I had met a girl and got her phone number for him. He stopped me before I went any further. "Could you call her first," he said, "and tell her I'm going to call? I hate having to explain who I am and how I came to make this call in the first place."

"Sure," I answered obligingly.

I hung up the phone and then immediately dialed the number written neatly on that little piece of paper. Susan, the girl from Friday, answered on one ring.  "Hello?," she said.

"Hi," I began, "It's Josh... the guy from the restaurant...."

Once we got past the awkward re-introductions, our conversation touched on a wide variety of subjects. The next thing we knew, three hours had whizzed by as though they were mere seconds. "Damn!" I said, about to get brave, "Forget my brother! I'm going to ask you out myself!" She laughed. I laughed. And we went out on our first date the very next weekend. And then we went out the weekend after that. And the weekend after that. I never went out on a date with anyone else ever again. Susan and I were engaged before the year was over.

I still wonder, after 34 years of marriage, if I'm still the most obnoxious person she ever met. That's a title I don't want to lose.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

hot potato, hot potato

When I first started to write this story, it was a happy story. But, if you wait too long, happy stories might turn sad. Spoiler Alert! This story turns sad.

One day, last December, I had a few days off from work, so I met my son for lunch. My son, a Center City Philadelphia dweller, suggested we meet at a place that he had been meaning to try. So I, a firmly-planted suburbanite, hopped on the train and traveled into town. Around 11:45 a.m, fifteen minutes before "official lunch time," I arrived at our predetermined destination — Smoke's Poutinerie, a funky, little eatery that opened in the summer of 2017 on Philadelphia's famous "hippest street in town," South Street. A few minutes later, my son E. came strolling around the corner in his usual manner, water bottle in hand and bike helmet swinging by his side, having just returned his contracted bicycle to one of the nearby Indego Bike Share docking kiosks that have popped up around the Center City area. Together, we entered the mysterious and exciting world of poutine.

Poutine, for my non-Canadian readers, is the unofficial "official" food of Canada. Although the actual origin is in dispute, it seems to have first been served in Quebec in the 1950s in small restaurants called casse-croûtes, essentially greasy spoon diners. Much in the same way arguments have erupted over the origination of the French Dip sandwich or the all-American hamburger, no less than three establishments lay claim to inventing poutine, with one — Le Roy Jucep — earning a government-issued trademark, much to the dismay of Le Lutin qui rit and La Petite Vache, the other claimants.

The dish — a big pile of french fries covered with cheese curds and brown gravy — is comfort food for our neighbors to the north. In its early days, poutine was negatively received and mocked as "food for commoners," but now it is a source of cultural pride. Numerous restaurants serve their own signature interpretation of the concoction. Even popular fast food chains have jumped on the band wagon, including versions from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Dairy Queen. But in the United States, poutine is relatively unknown.

In 2008, Canadian entrepreneur Ryan Smoklin opened his first Smoke's Poutinerie in Toronto to much acclaim. He expanded his gravy-and-cheese-smothered empire to 150 locations across his native Canada. Not satisfied with keeping his successful venture sequestered in those ten provinces and three territories, Smoklin was determined to spread the comfort cuisine all over the world. In December 2014, the fine folks of Berkeley, California got its first taste of poutine. The company announced plans to open a whopping 800 Smoke's locations in the United States. Last summer, Philadelphia got its Smoke's. Actually, Philadelphia was doubly blessed, when a place called "Shoo Fry" opened up in the former location of the wildly popular (but mysterious closed) Underdogs, an eclectic hot dog joint just off renowned Rittenhouse Square. Poutine was nearly unheard-of in the City of Brotherly Love... now we have two "poutineries!"

My son and I studied the menu in the cramped restaurant that barely accommodated two small booths and a counter top to allow in-store dining. Our server/cook took our orders — two vegetarian versions of traditional poutine made with non-meat based brown gravy. He disappeared back to the food prep area as we seated ourselves on stools by the window and waited. Within minutes, we were presented with a steaming cardboard container stuffed to overflow with crispy fries, glistening dollops of cheese curds and a light beige gravy enveloping the whole she-bang. My son grabbed two plastic forks from a dispenser next to the cash register and I snagged a fistful of paper napkins I knew — from the looks of things — we would desperately need. We dug in for our first sampling of Canada's national food.

Oh. My. Goodness. It was delicious, despite its "pre-digested" appearance. It was so delicious, in fact, that I scarfed the whole thing down in a matter of minutes, as though I was in some sort of competition. My son, who ate at a slower, more human-like pace, wrapped a protective arm around his container, pulling it closer after he caught me eyeing up his uneaten portion. I sipped my Diet Coke until he finished, resigning myself to the fact I was getting none of his.... but it was sooooo goooood! Did I really want to place another order? Probably not. I didn't want to look like a glutton, although this would have been nothing new for my son to witness. I refrained. I was satisfied with what I had eaten and I would make time for a return visit to Smoke's. Perhaps I would even try something else from their menu. Maybe a different take on the poutine theme.

Here comes the sad part.

Just last week, my son called to tell me that Smoke's on South Street has closed. For good. And, it appears — according to their website — there are only five locations in the United States (the one in Ann Arbor, Michigan is so close to the international border that it might as well be counted among the Canadian locations). Alas, it seems that global expansion of the Smoke's Poutine Empire has come to a halt. People in the United States just haven't warmed up to poutine. To drive the point home, Shoo Fry has also closed its cheese-curd-guarding doors leaving Philadelphia — once again — a "poutine-free" zone.

I'm glad I got to taste and experience poutine. Maybe one day it'll catch on in the United States, eh?