Sunday, February 28, 2021

you bug me baby

It's no secret that I watch a lot of television, with a certain affinity for TV shows from my youth. I love the sitcoms with preposterous premises that were the staples of my formative years. Watching them now, however, I find these shows quaint and endearing in their awfulness. 

Most sitcoms featured a cast of likeable characters — a sweet mom, a friendly dad, a helpful neighbor, a loyal coworker, a jovial hillbilly who suddenly comes into a large sum of money. You know, everyday folks to which the home viewer could relate. A lot of shows, however, featured an annoying character. Someone whose sole purpose was to be irritating. I'm not talking about a character like Barney Fife, the hapless deputy sheriff on The Andy Griffith Show. Sure, Barney had his annoying moments, but he meant well. He was sincerely trying to help. He was just a little overanxious, longing for some real police action among the day-to-day tedium of cats stuck up in a tree or making coffee to sober up Otis the drunk. Sheriff Andy knew that Barney was not malicious, just zealous and proud. Also, Don Knotts was awarded five Emmys for his performance and he was a favorite of the viewing audience. In 1999, TV Guide ranked him ninth on its "50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time" list — so someone liked him. Although I love The Andy Griffith Show, I find the character of Barney thoroughly annoying in the majority of episodes, but I am in the overwhelming minority. 

I'm also not talking about characters like Dennis Mitchell, the rascally main focus of Dennis the Menace. Sure, the point of the show is that he's annoying, but he does mean well and, at times he can be endearing. I also don't mean Mr. Mooney, Gale Gordon's character from The Lucy Show. First of all, anyone who has to put up with Lucille Ball gets an automatic pass, but Mr. Mooney is just doing his job and Lucy is the real cause of his ire. I'm not talking about mildly annoying characters, like Dwayne Schneider on One Day at a Time or Steve Urkel on Family Matters. Yeah, they were annoying, but they genuinely meant well and weren't necessarily toxic. The kind of characters I am singling out are annoying for the sake of being annoying. They have no endearing qualities. They are selfish and mean for no other reason than stroking their own ego. Their actions are not beneficial to anyone but themselves. There are three of these jerks that I wish to expose.

First, there's Larry Tate, the weaselly, wafflely president of the advertising firm of McMann and Tate on the sitcom Bewitched. Larry is a jerk, first and foremost. He appears to be a friend of  star employee Darrin Stephens and his wife Samantha, but, in reality, he is not. Usually accompanied by an important client, Larry barges unannounced into the Stephens' home. He contradicts and questions Darrin's pitches, belittling his midnight-oiled efforts, as he second and third guesses the client's reactions. When a particular ad campaign is inevitably rescued by Samantha's contribution of witchcraft, Larry jumps on the congratulatory bandwagon at the first glimmer of approval from his client. In the next breath, Larry threatens to fire Darrin if he pulls a stunt like this again. A stunt like what, you ungrateful asshole? Saving your non-creative butt? What sort of input did you have in the development this ad campaign when Darrin was toiling nights and weekends before there was such a thing as "working from home." Larry Tate is a dick and Darrin doesn't need his wishy-washy, non-committal, two-faced bullshit. Plus, when Larry is at their home — whether invited or just showing up — he drains their liquor cabinet. 

Then there's Dr. Alfred Bellows, the ever-suspicious and ridiculously nosey NASA psychiatrist on I Dream of Jeannie. Prior to discovering a mysterious bottle on a beach in the South Pacific, we can only assume that astronaut Tony Nelson was a normal guy. But after uncorking that bottle, Tony's life was changed considerably when he unleashed an ancient (and adorable) genie who promised to grant his every wish. Now, granted, we don't know what sort of guy Tony was before he found that bottle, but he was a good-looking 34 year-old bachelor astronaut in Cocoa Beach, Florida. I'm sure he was hitting the singles bars and hooking up on a regular basis. That behavior must have appeared "normal" to the base psychiatrist. Suddenly, he has a hot blond living in his house and Dr, Bellows doesn't like it one little bit. Why? Why does this bother him? Was he jealous? I suppose, although Mrs. Bellows was pretty attractive and way out of his league. Okay, so, Dr. Bellows thought he saw some unusual things in and around the Nelson house... while he was peering in the windows looking for something unusual. What kind of career sabotage was he planning? Why did he have it in for Major Tony Nelson? Tony seemed to be handling his assigned duties well. He didn't behave in a manner that was detrimental to any space exploration mission. He was still a capable astronaut. If anything, having Jeannie around made him a better astronaut. But Dr. Bellows was a self-serving, meddling jerk. He was bent on convincing everyone at NASA that there was something off about Tony Nelson. In reality, Dr. Bellows was the only one who witnessed strange goings-on. You would think that after failing to get any of the top brass to believe his accusations, he would have given up after the first couple of instances. But no! Dr. Bellows kept it up for five seasons! What was his problem? He appeared to be the crazy one! Why didn't NASA dismiss him for incompetence? Dr. Bellows didn't benefit anyone. Not the space program, his fellow officers, the medical profession... or genies. Just himself.

I have saved the best — or in this case — the worst for last. The single most annoying character — in my qualified, long-time television watching opinion — is Lew Marie, the overbearing father of budding actress Ann Marie on That Girl. Played to the most grating degree by actor Lew Parker, this character's main purpose is to antagonize everyone with whom he comes in contact. He has an instant dislike for Ann's affable boyfriend Donald Hollinger. He criticizes, berates and insults every move poor Donald makes. Donald loves Lew's daughter (Hey! Who wouldn't?!?) and he is unnecessarily cordial and often forgiving of his future father-in-law. But, still the cranky Lew is relentless, unjustly flinging put-downs at Donald at every opportunity, sometimes creating those opportunities. Ann is also the target of her father's irascible persona. Nearly every episode of That Girl includes a scene in which Lew Marie threatens to physically drag his daughter back to the safe cocoon of Brewster, New York where she can give up her ridiculous dream of becoming an actress and work in her father's restaurant. Cute-as-a-button actress Marlo Thomas was 28 when That Girl premiered in 1965. She was not a kid. As the series progressed, she took jobs as a fashion model, commercial pitch girl, Broadway and television actress and dancer. It's not like she was a helpless failure. She was a working actress, hustling auditions and landing good roles. She did not need "Daddy's help." Yet, Daddy felt perfectly at home meddling in Ann's life — often misconstruing situations and perceiving them as dangerous to his daughter. He continually misinterpreted phone messages. He would overhear a conversation from the next room — or through a wall with the aid of an amplifying water glass — and invariably jump to the wrong conclusion. Lew Marie served only to benefit himself. He didn't really care about the welfare of Ann. He knew she could take care of herself, She knew she could take care of herself. It is my understanding that the relationship between Ann Marie and her father was based on the real-life relationship between Marlo Thomas and her father, entertainer Danny Thomas. I never liked Danny Thomas. I didn't find him funny. I found him to be smug, condescending and overbearing. In his long-running series Make Room for Daddy, he, too, was a jerk for the sake of being a jerk. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery... or something like that.

I like to think that television writing and character development has improved over the decades since Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and That Girl graced the airwaves. But it really hasn't.

Just ask Kimmy Gibbler or Ross Geller.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

misty watercolor memories

One of the first things I did when I finally broke down and joined the wonderful world of Facebook, was join some groups. I joined a few that appeared to show appreciation for several TV shows from my youth, specifically The Munsters and the original Batman series from 1966. The Batman group went south real fast, as it was hacked and overtaken by a fierce political faction that bombarded the defenseless group with vicious, unrelated-to-Batman posts. The Munsters group just got boring after I saw the fifth consecutive photo of Al Lewis sneering at the camera in full "Grandpa" makeup. I have since left both groups.

I also joined an "Adrienne Barbeau Appreciation" group, if only to post my tale of my meeting with the actress to see what sorts of feedback it elicited. The response was mostly positive, until it turned into a free-for-all with unwelcome, sexist comments that crossed the line of decorum several times. After repetitive doctored photos of  Ms. Barbeau were posted in this group, I left.

I also joined a group devoted to my elementary school. This one was initially joyful. I was reminded of incidents and people I hadn't thought about in decades. I saw class pictures that instantly brought back vivid memories — some good, some not so good. The more I read, the wider my smile grew. I saw references to long-forgotten teachers made by equally unrecalled classmates. The conversations were cheerful, misty-eyed chronicles of times gone by. It was very sweet and sentimental and — as much as you might not believe it — I can be a pretty sentimental guy. Yes, I can!

One particular comment thread that I followed exuded endless and unwavering praise for a particular sixth grade teacher named Mr. Waggoner. "He was my favorite!," was the general consensus, with others offering more personal details. 

"He was an inspiration!"

"He was so cool!"

"He taught me so much!"

...and on and on and on. Mr. Waggoner was a big, barrel-chested he-man with coiffed hair, thick sideburns and a flashy wardrobe right out of Hollywood. He sported huge-knotted neckties to complement his fashionable wide-lapeled sport jackets. His pearly-white smile melted the hearts of his female students and their moms alike. The boys appreciated (and were maybe a bit envious of) his rough-and-tumble persona and rugged appearance. Needless to say, the guy was well-loved and made quite a long-lasting impression.

I, however, did not have Mr. Waggoner for a teacher. My teacher, that year, was a first-year, unsure, awkward young lady who looked as though she had stepped off the set of To Sir with Love. But, I often saw Mr. Waggoner walking the halls, his chest puffed out and a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses perched on his head for easy accessibly in case his services were required for schoolyard duty in the bright sunshine.

As I read the comments and endless accolades for Mr. Waggoner, I scowled to myself. I had a different impression of the beloved teacher. My memory was formed years after I had left elementary school. My memory was just as vivid as those cherished by a bunch of nearly sixty year-olds, now frequenting Facebook for a chance to relive their youth.

I graduated from high school in 1979. During my high school years, I made friends with some people who attended my elementary school, but I did not know them then. Sure, I maintained relationships with those that I had known since first grade, but the more "open" atmosphere allowed for more outreaching friendships. My best friend in high school was Alan. Alan and I were nearly inseparable for four years. Alan was a student at my elementary school, but our friendship didn't meld until high school. 

The day after graduation, Alan and I thought it would be fun to visit our elementary school. Despite nursing mild hangovers, Alan and I gathered up our newly-acquired yearbooks and headed to a school whose hallways we had not darkened in years. We effortlessly entered the school, as it was 1979 — years before rampant school shootings and terrorist attacks required prison-like security measures. Nobody gave us a second look as we roamed the hallways — hallways that appeared much smaller and compact than they did in our collective memories. We looked through the narrow glass window of each classroom door until we spotted a teacher we recognized. Finally, at the end of a top-floor hallway, we saw Mr. Waggoner at the front of his classroom. We brazenly knocked on the door. He opened the door with a grin and invited us into his classroom. Mr. Waggoner looked nearly the same as we had remembered, except for a few gray hairs now mingling with the jet black ones at his temples. He was still wearing up-to-the-minute fashions and he still had a brilliant smile. Mr. Waggoner introduced us to his classroom as two former students, although neither Alan nor I had him for a teacher. I remember being taken aback by how little sixth-graders were. We thought we were "hot shit" in sixth grade and now we stood before a roomful of veritable babies!

Mr. Waggoner offered "congratulations" as he took a yearbook from one of us and began thumbing through the hefty volume. He was perusing the glossy pages when he suddenly stopped on a large, candid photograph of a particularly attractive female classmate. Mr. Waggoner pointed to her ample breasts and made an extremely — and I mean EXTREMELY — inappropriate remark in a low voice that only Alan and I could hear. Here he was, in front of a classroom filled with 11 year-olds, speaking to two 18 year-old former students and yet, still felt compelled to make a macho locker-room comment of an overtly sexual nature. 

This incident happened 41 years ago and I still think about it as though it happened yesterday. 

So, I as a new member of my elementary school's group, I related my story in direct contrast to popular opinion. Yeah, I knew it was probably a mistake as soon as I clicked the "post" button, but I never claimed to be a genius. Within a minute, I got a reply telling me that my post was inappropriate. I understand that the group was made up of an overwhelming majority of folks who have only the fondest memories of Mr. Waggoner and can't possibly face the fact that he is not the sainted figure they remember... that someone else may have a different opinion. Soon, the chastising replies directed at me came thick and fast. I deleted my original post and possibly learned my lesson. Although I still comment here and there in this group, I have not participated in any further conversation regarding Mr. Waggoner.

Just this week, a member of my elementary school's Facebook group announced that Mr. Waggoner had passed away at the age of 88. The outpouring of grief and love was astounding, with dozens of people offering memories of a beloved figure, so influential in their lives.

No. I did not comment.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

promises something for everyone

Boy, do I miss going on a cruise. Actually, my wife really misses going on a cruise, but she begins her lamenting as soon as our current cruise pulls into home port. As much as I love cruising, I at least wait until there is a worldwide pandemic to begin thinking of how much I miss cruising.

I remember when Mrs. Pincus booked our first cruise way back in 2013. I was not really happy with the thought of spending a week floating in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of strangers — playing shuffleboard, participating in some sort of dance class by the pool and wearing a tuxedo to dine at the Captain's Table. You see, my only frame of reference for going on a cruise came from The Love Boat.

From 1977 until 1986, I relished in the exotic locales, cheesy plotlines and familiar crewmembers that flashed across my television screen on a weekly basis — sometimes taking twice its allotted hour-long time slot to tell a tale filled with more intrigue than normal. I knew the Pacific Princess inside and out — from the split-level dining room, to the Acapulco Lounge to the secluded Pirates Cove where one could find a sympathetic ear from Isaac, apparently the sole bartender aboard. The staterooms depicted on The Love Boat were spacious and luxurious, decked out with full curtain-and-valance ensembles, wall-sized paintings and king-size beds (or twins with two feet of maneuvering space between). There was a large dresser and a bureau (those are two separate pieces of furniture) and a full bathroom with a door that doesn't hit anything when opened. Guests would regularly invite other guests into their cabin for drinks, hors d'oeuvres, hanky-panky or climbing into a two-piece horse costume to fool a couple of kids. 

On my first cruise, I mistook the corridor to access our room for a "staff-only" passageway, due to its narrow span and the tiny doors that lined its walls. The actual room — once I wedged our suitcases through the door — was closet-like in size with just a few inches of buffer between the bed and the adjacent walls. The bathroom was bisected by a thin curtain that served (unsuccessfully, we would later discover) to contain the shower water from entering the rest of the room. The streamlined toilet jutted out awkwardly from a wall, its jet-engine flushing mechanism activated by a small button an inch above the unit, alongside an ominous sign warning that flushing should only be attempted with the lid closed. I am doing my best not to say the room was so small that you had to step into the hallway to change your mind... but I fear I'm going to fail.

The dining room on The Love Boat was huge and the showroom was tiny with a small stage jammed with musicians, barely leaving enough room for Charo to shake her cuchi-cuchis. There appeared to be just three bars on the ship — one at the pool, one in the Acapulco Lounge and the aforementioned Pirates Cove. The always jovial and accommodating Isaac Washington  seemed to man all three, even donning an eyepatch and striped tunic to match the buccaneer theming. I can tell you for a fact that if ships only had three bars, they would invariably tip over from the lopsided distribution of patron weight. The showrooms, on the other hand, are multi-deck affairs, some with stadium seating in the upper tiers and intimate booth and theater seating on the main floor. The stages are pretty elaborate, employing trap doors, hydraulic risers, props and lighting and more than enough room to contain a dozen Charos and all the cuchi-cuchi energy they could muster.

Which brings me to the other crew members. There was Burl "Gopher" Smith, the ship's yeoman purser — a position so vital that the chief purser was never seen, leaving Gopher to fumble through the cruise, chasing after Doc Bricker's cast-offs, hiding from the captain and tripping over his own feet. Doc Bricker was a baffling character. He greeted arriving passengers, assisting in checking them in and providing directions to their accommodations. He also surveyed the group for those who displayed symptoms of illness as well as those female passengers on whom he could perform a "skirt-ectomy" by the time they dock in Puerto Vallarta. I have been on eight cruises and I have never seen the ship's doctor.

Cruise director Julie McCoy — with her cockeyed smile and look of constant bewilderment — is the antithesis of every cruise director I have ever encountered. Most real-life cruise directors are pulsating balls of pure energy, injecting a feeling of fun and excitement where ever they go. They are on 24 hours a day! Some are more on than others, but all subscribe to the same basic philosophy: "The passengers must have a good time all the time!" Cruise directors are in show business and the entire ship is their stage. There is no time to have a quiet, candlelit dinner with Tony Roberts when you got a ship full drunk and uncoordinated Baby Boomers who came to dance and sing along to the best of Motown. I swear I've seen some cruise directors in two places at the same time — leading a lesson in dancing like Michael Jackson and, minutes later in another part of the ship, reading "Green Eggs and Ham" to a bunch of over-stimulated children. Besides, cruise staff are not permitted to, shall we say, "interact romantically" with the passengers. I'm pretty sure that, when you're asleep, they are below deck, fucking each other any way. The only thing that real cruise directors have in common with TV's Julie McCoy is the cocaine usage. How else can they keep up that energy?

Then there is the captain — stern but lovable Merrill Stubing. I have only seen the actual ship's captain of any ship we've sailed on when he showed up on "Pose with the Ship's Captain" picture night and during an informal question and answer session, finally debunking the theory that there are shirtless guys below deck shoveling coal into boilers like in Titanic. Otherwise, the captain is sequestered on the bridge, driving the goddamn ship! He isn't mingling with the passengers, showing them where Promenade 215 is or joking with his college professor who said he'd never amount to anything. His look-alike brother isn't boarding and he isn't laughing off "bald jokes" from his barely-competent crew. He's navigating storm-affected waters for the quickest possible route to get your pasty white ass on a beach by 10 AM tomorrow morning... of course, that's after you've downed a stack of fifteen pancakes and a couple of Sea Day Brunch Bloody Marys. See? No time to court Marion Ross or help his ship-bound daughter with her algebra homework.

According to The Love Boat, the entire ship is effortlessly managed by five crew members, a couple of whom don't really seem to do anything. Sure, Al Molinaro was an ill-tempered chef in one episode and Abe Vigoda was a beleaguered steward in another, but Isaac and Gopher seemed to be pulling double duty waiting tables. In reality, the buffet alone has hundreds of workers silently putting out more food for the perpetually-famished diners. Others are stealthily clearing tables and sweeping up the messes left by finicky and frustrated children. Still others are behind the scenes whipping up familiar and gourmet fare on a scale that rivals a summer camp, an army base or a federal prison. The formal dining rooms are run like clockwork and never have I witnessed a waiter lose his footing and slam a multilayer cake into the captain's lap — a mishap that occurs at least once an episode.

And never have I seen someone fall into the pool fully clothed.

I miss cruising. But at least I have Love Boat as an unrelatable distraction while I'm waiting to cruise again.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

you do what you wanna do

My mom made great iced tea. She made it all the time, often four or five times a week during the hot months of the summer. Our family would drink it regularly, downing several glasses each during dinner. Even my dad, who was very particular about what he consumed — he never ate pizza and he never drank Coca-Cola — happily drank my mother's iced tea. When guests would come to our house, my mom always made sure she had a pitcher or two of her iced tea ready to be served, because she knew that someone would ask for a glass within minutes of their arrival. Even my friends would refer to my mom's iced tea as "World Famous."

Because my mom's iced tea was so downright delicious, folks would often ask for the recipe. My mom was only too happy to give the recipe — one that she concocted herself — to anyone who made the request. She would even write it down to make sure all of the ingredients and procedures were included correctly. Actually, the recipe wasn't at all complicated. But, if it wasn't followed correctly, it wouldn't taste like my mother's iced tea. 

First off, she used a brand of tea bags called "Swee Touch Nee." Back in the 1960s, this brand wasn't always readily available at our regular supermarket. Sure, they stocked it sometimes, but other times, my mom would have to hit some out-of-the-way market or smaller grocery store to track down the main component that made her iced tea her iced tea. The recipe called for ten tea bags for a half-gallon batch... and she only made it in half-gallon batches. Then, she would fill up her old reliable whistling tea kettle and set it on the stove with a full flame underneath until the high-pitched shriek — or "g'shrei from the chinik" as she'd say in Yiddish — would alert her that the water was boiling. She'd drop the ten tea bags into her big Tupperware pitcher, pour in the boiling water until the kettle was empty, then add a cup of sugar. That's right a brimming cup of full-strength, one hundred percent granulated cane sugar poured right from that familiar yellow Domino's paper sack. She'd give it a few stirs, fit the lid in place and position it front and center on the top shelf of our refrigerator. Once the refrigerator door was shut, some sort of magic happened over the next hour or so. Those few, simple ingredients mingled and melded into something so indescribably delicious that it was.... well, indescribable! And that's it! That's my mom's "world famous" iced tea recipe.

But no one could ever duplicate it. No one. Even those with the recipe. Even those who were coached on the phone — by my mom — during the actual process... they still couldn't get it right. 

Now, I ask you. Were those instructions complicated? Jeez, there are only three ingredients. Sure, one of them could prove to be a bit difficult to locate, but not impossible. Besides, if my mom could find a lesser-known brand of tea bags, any of her friends and relatives were just as capable of doing the same. For all we knew, Swee Touch Nee was the top seller at the supermarket where they shopped. And the other ingredients? Everyone had access to water and every one of my mom's friends, neighbors and relatives had a whistling tea kettle. It was the 60s, for goodness sake! It was a required piece of kitchen equipment, like the ubiquitous electric can opener/knife sharpener. So, how tough is it to boil water, pour it over some tea bags, add sugar and stick it in fridge for a few hours? Evidently, very! My mom would routinely receive phone calls from those who were disappointed, even after claiming to have followed her recipe to the letter. They'd complain that their version of the finished iced tea didn't taste the same as the contents of those tall glasses that my mom served at our house. Trying to help, my mom would run down the short list of ingredients and the relatively easy process for making her iced tea. 

"Did you use ten Swee Touch Nee tea bags?," she'd ask

"Well, I couldn't find Swee Touch Nee, so I just used Lipton. And since they are, like, double-size — y'know, those "flow-thru" like on the commercial — I just used five."

"Did you use a cup of sugar?," my mom would further question.

"Well," the reply would begin... and when a reply begins with "well," you just know it will be followed by some lengthy justification for why the original instructions were not followed. "We don't like to use sugar in our house, so I used four or five packets of Sweet 'n Low, instead."

"Did you use a half gallon pitcher?" my mom would ask.

"Well, I don't have one, so I used a glass pitcher, but I don't know how much it holds."

"Did you put it in the refrigerator for a few hours?" my mom inquired.

"Well, I wanted to see how it tasted, so I just poured it over some ice in a glass as soon as I finished mixing it up. Oh, and I put some lemon slices in it, 'cause I like lemon."

They'd usually end with: "It didn't taste like yours!"

At this point, my mom would pull the telephone receiver away from her ear, stare at it, roll her eyes and shake her head.

For years and years, she received calls from various acquaintances, who were simply baffled as to why their iced tea didn't taste like my mom's ice tea. 

After all, they didn't follow the directions.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

she works hard for the money

My wife is very entrepreneurial. That's a fancy word for always trying to make a buck. She has an uncanny knack for seeing the resale value in just about anything. Her business philosophy has always been "There's a lid for every pot." (I cleaned that one up considerably.) She has offered things for sale that the average person would deem "trash." But, as the old expression goes: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." She's not forcing anyone to buy her stuff, but if some like-minded person seeing a bit of viability left in something that they can snap up for a couple of bucks — well, that's the service Mrs. Pincus provides.

Recently, Mrs. P has been offering items for sale on a local Facebook marketplace page. This page has been set up as a virtual yard sale, offering a wide variety of new, slightly used or very used items without the hassle of cluttering up your front yard or driveway with the soon-to-be discarded from your house. Just take a picture, compose a brief but truthful description and wait for someone to see the same value that you see. Once a deal is made, electronic payment is logged and Mrs. Pincus sets the item out on our front porch — a safe, contactless pick-up in these cautious times during a pandemic.

A few weeks ago, our city-dwelling, non-driving son bought a new shopping cart to replace his once-reliable cart — now showing signs of age. The old cart sported the battle wounds of the city — scraped paint, bent axle, a wobbly wheel. Sure, the thing served him well, but its time had come and a new cart was purchased. My wife saw some resale value in the old cart and offered to sell it for our son, if only to net a few dollars. We brought the well-worn, well-loved cart home. My wife took some pictures, wrote a short, but very honest description mentioning all of the cart's flaws and posted it in the local Facebook group. She asked for five dollars, noting that it still had some life left in it and that a handy person could tinker around and fix it up. A brand new cart can run upwards of thirty to forty dollars, so five bucks was quite a bargain. And if you weren't interested, you could just... keep... scrolling.

Well, this is the internet and on the internet everyone has a fucking opinion. Immediately, Mrs. P's post erupted with a barrage of insults. 

"Why are you selling trash?" 

"You should be ashamed of yourself for selling junk!" 

"This is garbage." 

...and many more variations on the theme.

There were some comments expressing legitimate interest, but, as if often the case, an initially eager potential customer disappears after their first question is answered. But, one person replied with interest. A text chat ensued and finally the gentleman agreed to purchase the cart for five dollars. However, he explained that he is older and, therefore, doesn't use any of these payment apps. From the grammatical structure of the majority of his texts, his command of cellphone technology was spare. He promised to drop off a five dollar bill in an envelope when he came to collect the cart. We weren't too worried. After all, who would come out of their way to steal a less-than-new shopping cart? And if that was indeed their scheme, hey! it's only five dollars.

The buyer said he'd be by our house around 3 PM on Saturday. He said he lived about a thirty-minute drive, so around 2, Mrs. P set the cart out on our porch. And we forgot about it.

3 o'clock came and went. So did 4 o'clock. And then 5 and 6. The sun began to set and that poor shopping cart stood as a silent sentinel under the illumination of our porch light. Just before my wife and I were ready to turn in for the evening, Mrs. P's phone signaled a Facebook message. As expected, it was the cart buyer. He went off about crossed plans and time constraints and some rambling story involving his wife. The gist of his message was that he would not be coming to get the cart today, perhaps tomorrow. He apologized several times and even offered to leave six dollars for the inconvenience. He said he would come Sunday morning. As my wife confirmed his arrival time, I went downstairs to bring the shopping cart inside.

Early Sunday morning, I returned the shopping cart to its spot on the porch. The buyer — allegedly — would be coming before noon. He didn't. Just before 4 PM, we heard the unmistakable sound of our wooden screen door open. It had to be the buyer finally collecting the cart and leaving his payment in the space between our screen door and front door. But, within a few minutes of the familiar "creak" of our door, my wife received an irate Facebook message.

"Why you sell me crap?" it read. Before Mrs. P could type out a calming, level-headed response, another message chimed in. "One wheel wobbles! This is junk dammit!"

"Are you still here?" Mrs. Pincus replied, hoping to catch the buyer still on our front porch. No reply for a long time... until suddenly an electronic "DING" announced a new message in angry thread. "No! This trash! GOODBYE!"... followed by more silence.

Oh.... and we have six bucks.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

i hear a symphony

I never learned to play a musical instrument. I had friends that played instruments. It wasn't so much that I was jealous of their ability. I was more in awe and filled with admiration for what they could do. Okay, okay... maybe I was a little jealous.

Some of my friends were forced to take piano lessons, sitting for endless hours at that huge piece of furniture in their quiet living room while some Aunt Bee look-alike tutor who probably took lessons from Beethoven himself, sternly expounded on proper finger positioning. (Oh, don't even!) Others voluntarily sought instruction on the much-cooler guitar, envisioning themselves the next George Harrison — much to the chagrin of their parents and their parents' wallet. Then, there were those who got free music lessons and a free instrument, all while legitimately being excused from class. These lucky kids were members of my elementary school orchestra. And I wanted in!

The kids in the orchestra had a certain elitist air about them. They carried those ominous black cases at all times — on the bus, through the halls, in the lunchroom. The cases were of various sizes. Some were like a second, protective shield for the instrument within, like the distinctive shape of a violin case. Others yielded only a partial clue as to the identity of the musical gear inside. A plain oblong case was pretty mysterious until you saw the large flared bell-like extension at one end, obviously betraying the trombone contained in its interior. The kids themselves were set apart from the rest of their classmates. They frequently used unfamiliar terms discussed at their sequestered practices and laughed at in-jokes understood only by those who were able to decipher sheet music and produce a pleasing (or sometimes not-so-pleasing) sound from a stringed or reeded inanimate object. All that was fascinating — but I was more interested in just playing a musical instrument and skipping class. 

I knew full well that my parents weren't going to spring for a guitar or piano or any musical instrument, for that matter. But, a free instrument and free lessons were just their style. So, the day my teacher announced that Mr. Simmons, the resident music teacher and orchestra leader, would be holding open enrollment to join the orchestra, I paid extra close attention. She explained that a note from a parent was all that would be required for permission to miss some class time for — what was apparently — an audition. The prospect of playing a musical instrument was all I could think about for the rest of the day. That and recess and lunch.

As soon as I arrived home that day, I ran to my mom as excited as I've ever been. I blurted out all about music lessons and joining the orchestra and getting my own instrument. I asked my mom for a note for Mr. Simmons and stood close by as she wrote one out in her lovely, distinctive handwriting on her small, rose-embellished stationery. "Please allow Josh to play the..." she began. Then her pen came to a halt.

"What do you want to play?," my mom turned to me and asked.

"The clarinet.," I replied. I don't know why. I had no real affinity for the clarinet. I didn't know or admire any one who played the clarinet. It just popped into my head.

My mom didn't question. She didn't even bat an eye. She just completed the note, folded it in half and placed it in my outstretched hand. I immediately put it carefully into my schoolbag lest I forget the next morning while I was rushing through my breakfast.

The next day, I presented my note and at the hour appointed by Mr. Simmons, I accompanied several of my classmates on the long walk to Mr. Simmons' tiny office just off of the main school office. I already had visions of myself carrying a black "pleather" case, opening it up and fitting together the pieces of my new clarinet,  everyone around me marveling as I did so. The small group filed past the stone-faced Mr. Simmons as he held the door open. He was a short man, not much taller than the students. He had a head full of tiny, tightly-wound curls and a trim little mustache, groomed to line the length of his top lip. He had black-rimmed glasses with thick lenses, however his thick eyebrows were quite prominent above them — and they were furrowed downwards to show that he was not especially happy about the ensuing agenda. He reminded me of Billy DeWolfe, the perennially impatient and exasperated comedian I had seen regularly on TV sitcoms.

"Sit." he said and, instinctively, everyone quickly and silently selected one of the wooden chairs arranged around his outer office. He pointed to one of my classmates — a girl in a plaid dress and a matching flouncy ribbon in her hair. She followed him into his inner office and the door closed behind them. We heard nothing except the shuffling of our own feet on the floor or a soft squeak when some shifted in their chair. Soon, the door opened and the girl bounded out — a big smile on her face and a small, faux lizard case in her hand. A case that I recognized as one used to hold a disassembled flute. A boy with freckles and a crewcut was summoned next. When he emerged from Mr. Simmons' office a few moments later, he was holding a large-format, scholastic-looking booklet in his hand and sporting a pair of long, blond wood drumsticks in his back pocket. Mr. Simmons stood in the doorway and pointed right at me. I rose from my chair and entered his office.

The room was stacked with sheet music in messy piles, books with shiny covers and decorated with stylized drawings of various musical instruments and fragmented examples of brass, stringed and woodwind instruments tucked into corners — dingy and in need of repair. And everything was coated in dust. It seemed the only light in the room was a thin shaft of sunbeam coming through the glass of a painted-shut window. Mr. Simmons was seated at his desk, his chin resting on the fisted end of his bent arm. He squinted at me.

"Pincus... right?" he said, waiting for confirmation. I nodded in the affirmative.

"Okay," he continued, "I'm going to sing two notes. You tell me which is higher."

Again, I nodded.

He opened his mouth and emitted two sustained AHHHHHs that both sounded the same to me. I looked at him. He looked at me.

"Well?," he demanded.

"Um... the first one?," I managed to say. I was guessing.

Mr. Simmons closed his eyes, shook his head and frowned. "No!," he bellowed. Then he said, "We'll try another." I swear to God, he sang the two exact notes one more time. So, suspecting that this frustrated Leonard Bernstein was trying to pull a fast one, I thought I'd outsmart him.

"Second one.," I answered proudly, my chest confidently puffed out.

"You are tone deaf!," he hollered at me — hollered! "Get out of here!" He extended a stubby finger in the general direction of the door. This was the 1960s and faculty addressing the student body in this manner was not only acceptable, but it was commonplace. I hung my head and sheepishly slunk my way out of his office and out of my life as a concert musician.

A few months ago, I joined a Facebook group made up of people who attended my elementary school. I reconnected with a woman who I knew from high school, but only slightly remember from before that. Although I am a year older than she, we did attend the same elementary school and even had some of the same teachers. We got to chatting and reminiscing. I asked if she remembered the music teacher and I refreshed her memory by relating the story I just told. She actually help me remember the teacher's name, which I had somehow blocked form my memory. Then, it occurred to me that the incident took place over fifty years ago and I remember it vividly, as if it happened yesterday.

I suppose it's time to let it go. Now if I only had some musical accompaniment to play me out.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

try a little kindness

I have been accused of being a curmudgeon, a pessimist, grumpy, a crank, a griper, a complainer, a sorehead.... well, you get the idea. Yeah, I know. I find fault with my fellow human, recurrently pointing out things they do that — shall we say — "rub me the wrong way." And, if you are a regular reader of my blog, or, God forbid, know me in real life, you know that I don't often acknowledge when someone does something kind, something genuinely thoughtful and unselfish. Well, that's about to change. And please forgive me if I begin to choke up while I type.

My wife and I met Richard on our sixth cruise. A few moths prior to our departure, Mrs. Pincus joined a Facebook group whose membership was comprised of folks who had booked the same late October sailing aboard the grand Norwegian Breakaway. Mrs. P was very active in this group and interacted daily with a core group of folks who were soon-to-be our fellow cruisers. This made for a very interesting cruise once we set sail, because it was as though we were vacationing with a bunch of our friends. A pre-arranged "meet-and-greet" on our first full day at sea created friendships that were strong during our week on the ocean and remain strong (thanks to social media) to this day. One of these people was Richard.

Richard is a fun-loving guy in the truest sense. He loves fun. He attracts fun. He exudes fun. He's a fun guy. (Keep your "mushroom" jokes to yourself.) In addition to being an avid and very experienced cruiser, Richard is a writer, an editor, a foodie and an amateur filmmaker. He's the kind of guy you sit next to at a bar and — after several hours — you think, "Wow! This is a great guy!" And if you've ever had the opportunity to be on a cruise with Richard, you could easily find yourself in that very situation. During our cruise in 2017, every time I looked up or passed one of the many bars aboard the ship, there was Richard, umbrella-sporting drink in hand, head back and laughing among a group of people who were also laughing. (This is not to imply that Richard spends seven days on a ship drinking and laughing 24 hours a day. He might, but I don't want to be the one to make such an implication.) I actually wrote about an incident involving Richard just after our 2017 cruise. You can read it here.

At the end of our cruise, Mrs. Pincus and I exchanged email addresses and social media contacts with all of our new found best friends and went off to live the rest of our lives. Now, we regularly see, correspond and "like" each others posts, making it feel like we are all still connected. We comment on Richard's Facebook status and his quirky Instagram pictures and he gives ours the ol' "thumbs up" in return.

At the end of 2019, Mrs. Pincus and I returned from our ninth cruise. It was our second one of the year. We had two more planned and the idea of additional cruises in our future. Mrs. P wisely purchased a gift card from Carnival Cruises for a pretty significant amount. 

Then, the world was hit with a devastating global pandemic. In addition to taking lives, COVID-19 wiped out businesses, social gatherings, travel and commerce of all types. All manners of places where large numbers of people congregated — movie theaters, concert venues, sports stadiums, theme parks and, yes, cruise ships — ceased operation. After a few weeks of working from home, I found myself among those filing for unemployment insurance. Thankfully, Mrs. Pincus's eBay business was active, providing us with one source of a steady income. However, we had placed a pretty sizable deposit on a cruise booked for October 2020. A deposit that, given our current financial situation, we could not afford to lose. The cruise lines were all being very cautious. They were indeed canceling scheduled sailings, but they were doing it on a slow, month-by month basis. You see, if you cancel your cruise, you only receive a partial refund of any funds already paid. If the cruise line cancels, then all payments are refunded... and cruise lines aren't real keen on giving refunds. So, in April, we anxiously waited for a cancelation announcement from Carnival. 

Then there was that gift card. We had a lot of money locked up in it. There was an overhanging possibility that cruise companies would not survive a lengthy shutdown. A gift card would be worthless if there was no company to redeem it. We were in no position to lose a considerable amount of money. So, Mrs. Pincus attempted to offer the card for sale in her eBay store. She did a little research and discovered that listed gift cards were still selling. However, she soon found that she was not permitted to sell a gift card, based on the type of account she had. We began to feel trapped and desperate. Mrs. Pincus toyed with offering it for sale on Facebook, specifically one of the many available marketplaces. Then she remembered Richard.

Richard maintains a Facebook group for people who love cruising. She contacted Richard, via a private message, asking permission to post the gift card for sale in his cruise group. Richard instantly gave his approval. Then, he added something totally unexpected. Totally unprovoked. And totally unselfish. Richard offered to buy the card from us outright. Mrs. P read and reread the offer several times to make sure she was seeing what she thought she was seeing. Mrs. Pincus asked for an amount that was less than face value, hoping that a "split the difference" offer would be more enticing. Richard would hear nothing of the sort. He insisted on the full amount. We were speechless. That's not just a "figure of speech." We were unable to produced a sound. Mrs. Pincus began to cry as she typed out a simple "thank you" to Richard. Honestly, we spent only a few fleeting minutes with Richard on a huge ship over three years ago. We didn't get to know him as well as we had liked... which makes Richard's act of kindness all the more special and touching.

Within minutes, Richard send a payment through an online payment service. Mrs. P securely sealed the card in an envelope and set out to baking a batch of her famous kamish broit (sometimes called mandel bread) to accompany the card in shipment, as an extra added gesture of sanity-saving and relief-inducing gratitude. She packed everything up nice and safe and took it to the post office the next day with her daily eBay shipments. She kept a watchful eye of the delivery, carefully monitoring the tracking, keeping tabs on its journey to northern New Jersey where Richard lives. Mrs. Pincus finally received confirmation of delivery. She waited for a message from Richard, because the US Postal Service isn't always accurate. 

She waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Unable to contain her anxiety, Mrs. Pincus contacted Richard to make sure he had, indeed, received the package and the precious gift card within. He laughed, explaining that a box has been sitting on his dining room table all day. He didn't open it because he assumed it was for his partner Gary. While he texted, Richard opened the box and assured Mrs. Pincus that the gift card was in his possession. He also explained that he would be keeping the kamish broit away from Gary.

See, there are still nice, kind, thoughtful, generous people in the world. Richard is at the very top of that list.