Sunday, April 28, 2013

amateur hour

It was nearly forty years coming. Since I discovered them on a late night showing of Don Kirshner's Rock Concert in 1974, I have been a devoted fan of Sparks.

"Sparks?," you say, "I've never heard of them!"

Whaddaya mean you've never heard of them? Their career spans five decades. They've released twenty-three genre-defying albums. Sure, they haven't had a charting single in the United States since 1984, but they are ridiculously popular in Europe, where they regularly tour. However, for the first time in years, Sparks performed a handful of dates in the United States — including a stop right here in Philadelphia. When the tour was announced, my son (a local Philadelphia DJ and fellow Sparks fan) immediately called to tell me tickets were secured. I honestly anticipated the two us comprising the entire audience.

The night of the Sparks show finally came. I hopped on the train and by 7:20, I was at Philadelphia's stately old Trocadero, a former vaudeville theater turned strip joint turned concert facility, at the corner of 10th and Arch Streets. My son, who was taking care of some obligations at the radio station, would be meeting me a little after 8. So, I took my place on a patch of sidewalk out of the way of the pedestrians. The venue doors were already open and, to my surprise, a steady flow of patrons was entering and I observed a fascinating ritual.

Two security guards, only identified by gray work shirts with "TROC" emblazoned on their backs, stood on the sidewalk separated from the foot ttraffic by several large metal barriers chained together to create a sort-of cattle chute for concert-goers. The male security dude was a big, imposing guy — dorky with a Moe Howard haircut — but, at over 6 feet tall, still imposing. His female counterpart ('cause he can't very well frisk the ladies!) was equally fearsome — friendly, but fearsome, somewhat like Stockard Channing. As each happy ticket-holder approached, the dude smiled broadly and offered a loud "Welcome!," followed immediately by "Arms up, please. Gotta give ya a quick check." When a couple approached, he directed, "Ladies to the left. Guys straight ahead." Then, he began his duty. With open palms, he rapidly patted the sides of every male torso with investigative precision, squeezing bulging pockets with the gentle, but firm, dexterity of a urologist administering a testicular examination. He stopped here and there to question the cloth-covered outline of an unfamiliar concealed object. "What's this?," he'd ask, "Keys or something?" Then, when satisfied with the explanation, he'd pat the gentleman on the shoulder and send him on his way with an "Enjoy the show!" and a concerned "Watch yer step goin' in."

If a search took a little longer, say if the patron had a bag or backpack, the dude made small talk. "How you doin' tonight? Gonna be a good show. Got any markers, food or drinks in here? Can't come in with those." He'd continue his cheery little chit-chat as he swiped his ungloved hands just inches from total strangers' crotches.

At one point, the security dude had to turn away an apparently intoxicated gentleman. As the drunk yelled and slurred his displeasure at being denied admission, the dude stood his ground, staring straight ahead with arms folded defiantly across his barrel chest and politely repeated, "I told you, sir, I am not letting you in."

For nearly forty-five minutes, I was captivated. It was both entertaining and a commentary on the human species. And all I could think was: what does this guy put on his tax return as "occupation"?

Around ten after eight, my son sauntered up Arch Street and extended my admission ticket to me. Now, it was our turn to be searched for concert contraband. The dude, who obviously saw me taking in the entire entrance process, nodded to me as I assumed the "about to be searched" position.

"Y'know," I said to him, "I'm not sure that I even want to go in."

He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

"This whole procedure was so entertaining that I don't know if any concert can top it.," I explained.

The dude laughed and told me to watch my step going in.

Oh... and Sparks were good.

Monday, April 22, 2013

take the skinheads bowling

"Let's see... who haven't I offended yet? Hmmm... I've covered old people, dog owners, plumbers, commuters, students, residents of Las Vegas, people with tattoos, Dick Van Dyke's wife, followers of religion and even members of my extended family. How about if I offend bowlers now? Yeah, that's a good idea." — JPiC
I hate bowling. It's a stupid sport, if it can even be called a sport. I don't understand how professional bowlers (y'know, those crew-cut sporting guys you see on Saturday afternoon TV with that big leather apparatus strapped to their wrists) don't get a strike every time they bowl. They are professionals, after all. It's not like baseball or football, where there are other players on the field trying to stop you from scoring. It's not like weather conditions are a concerning factor. The alleys are all the same length and width. The pins are all the same size and the same distance from the foul line and they are always set up in the same configuration. It's not like billiards, where you have no control over the break or how your opponent breaks. Each bowler plays each frame by himself. Plus, every pro bowler has his own ball. HIS OWN BALL! It's a clear 60-foot shot from one end of the alley down to the pins. No obstacles. No rough. No traps. No goalie. No defensive linemen trying to deflect your shot or cross-checking you. If you're a professional, you should be knocking those pins down with your eyes closed every single time, thus making bowling an even more boring activity than it already is.

Years ago, when my son was little and I was still on speaking terms with my sister-in-law, we were all making plans for New Years Eve. My sister-in-law told my wife that her family tradition always included a full evening of bowling to welcome the new year.

"That sounds like fun!," my wife said, smiling cheerfully.

I interrupted. "Perhaps you didn't hear the same thing I heard. None of that sounds remotely 'like fun'"

Last week, a super secret special outing was announced as a social experience for the members of my department at work. In the few days prior to the actual event, there was much speculation as to what it would be. On the morning of "the big day," it was revealed that we, as a group, would be going bowling.

"Oh great!," I said before a packed conference room after our weekly department meeting, "Two things I can't stand: bowling and my co-workers." "Not you guys, of course.," I quickly added.

So, that afternoon, I found myself in a dimly-lit bowling alley surrounded by my jovial co-workers - forced to participate in the futility of toppling pear-shaped blocks of maple with a 13-pound urethane sphere. Luckily, there was pizza.

My first attempt ended in the gutter. So did my second. And my third. In the fourth frame, I managed to wing the 7 pin before my ball disappeared into the mysterious reaches of "whatever goes on beyond the pins." So, with a score of "1" at the midway point, I took my game into the home stretch. In frame eight, I miraculously eked out a strike while simultaneously fucking up the third finger on my right hand. I released the ball and my finger slipped from the drilled hole at an unnatural angle. Perhaps it was some stray pizza cheese or excess grease from the french fries (which were also pretty good). Whatever the cause, my finger began to swell like an inflated balloon. I gripped an ice-filled glass and bitched a little out loud, but I was a good sport and I continued to play two more complete games.

At the conclusion of our little jaunt - as much as I hate to admit it - I actually had fun. We joked and laughed and mock-insulted each other. And, we blew off working for three hours. I didn't even give much consideration to the thousands and thousands of people who wore those rented shoes before I did.

I still don't see myself bowling anytime soon. Unless, of course, my boss requires it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

we didn't start the fire

I work on the 36th floor of an office building in downtown Philadelphia. The building sits at the corner of 15th and Market Streets among a grouping of other high-rise structures that, together, comprise the business center of the fifth largest city in the country.

During my first week of employment, over six years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my small office in an inside alcove flanked by three other similar-sized offices. Suddenly, a blaring siren sounded just outside my office door. I stood up and poked my head into the hallway. A strobe light flashed on the fire emergency signal that was mounted on the wall three feet from my door. The ear-splitting wail continued. I looked around. I was the only person in the hallway. One of my new co-workers sat at her desk and stared at her computer monitor, unflinching. Another co-worker continued a phone conversation, unfazed.

I dramatically cleared my throat. "I'm not the only one who hears that, am I?," I loudly questioned, motioning skyward to the blinking light and deafening alarm.

Co-worker Number One turned toward me and answered, "Oh, nobody pays attention to that." She turned back to her computer.

"Good to know., " I said aloud, to no one in particular.

This morning, as I ascended the escalator from the train station to the elevator lobby, I was greeted by a large sign warning of a fire drill at 10 o'clock. I boarded an elevator, as I have done hundreds of mornings before, and didn't give the sign or the warning another thought.

And here's why:

I'm nearly 52 years-old. I work on the 36th floor. If there is ever a fire in my building, safety regulations forbid the use of elevators (they probably shut off automatically anyway). If I run down 36 flights of stairs, I am so out of shape that I will die when I get to the bottom. If I stay in the building, I will die in the fire. Either way, I'm equally fucked and I will die. So I might as well stay at my desk and get some work done.

How's that for loyalty?

Friday, April 12, 2013

I'm lost in the supermarket

I have been involved in the advertising and marketing business, in one aspect or another, for over thirty years. I love marketing and observing how companies market themselves to prospective customers. Some companies do it better than others. They have a name for those companies. They're called "successful."

The key to marketing is to not let your customer know he's being marketed to (or at.....whatever). A company needs to be its customer's friend, confidant and guide. A company must exhibit a "we know what's best for you" attitude and make the customer think he just made a wise decision based on advice dispensed by a friendly, caring company. Of course, the company's main concern is separating a customer from his money as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

However, just like in life, friends can sometimes offer pretty shitty advice.

I like going to the supermarket, although I have no loyalty to any one in particular. I go the one that is closest to my house. If they built one fifteen feet in front of the one I currently go to, I'd have no problem shopping fifteen feet closer to my house. Last week, my wife and I went to a supermarket called Giant that's a little bit further from our house. Despite being a subsidiary of Ahold, a Dutch-based international retailer with three-thousand outlets worldwide, Giant does its best to convey a small-town, homey atmosphere. (That's marketing strategy at work, my friend.)

One of the ways Giant guides its customer is with "Compare & Save" signs all over the store. Scattered from the produce section to frozen foods, these brightly colored placards serve as constant reminders of what a great decision you made by shopping at Giant. They reassure you in the notion that you are a brilliant and conscientious shopper and you know how to stretch your shopping dollar. You care about your family's well-being and you have great concern for the quality of food you put on the table. So, Giant – as your friend – shows you that you should avoid the big-name, faceless corporations who don't give a rat's ass about you or your family and stick with us who not only cherish your patronage, but offer comparable merchandise at a savings of THIRTY FUCKING CENTS! Thirty cents that you can put to better use, say as a down payment on that heart-lung machine for Grandma or tuition for Junior's Harvard education.

What they fail to tell you is: the donuts taste like sawdust.

With friends like that...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

for whom the belle tolls

It was little Pealy's birthday. Grandma asked Pealy who she'd like at her party and what sort of cake she would like.

Mommy ignored the conversation.

Grandma made the plans, invited the guests, bought the favors and the snacks. Grandma ordered the cake. Grandma arranged for a party organizer to play games with the kids.

Mommy had other things to do.

Grandma picked up the cake at the bakery. Grandma set up the party tables. She placed a small bag of chips and a juice box at each place setting. She made sure there were enough goodie bags for each young guest. She watched as the kids played games. Afterwards, Grandma served the cake and led the guests in a chorus of "Happy Birthday." As the children began to depart after the festivities had ended, Grandma thanked them each for coming. Pealy smiled and waved "goodbye" to her guests.

But, Mommy never came.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Down with Boozophilia

Good Friday? Depends on your perspective.

I rushed through my Shabbat Passover dinner to meet my son at Johnny Brenda's, a tiny venue at the corner of Frankford and Girard, smack in the middle of the on-going revitalization of Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood. Since last August, when I first witnessed the on-stage antics of raucous rockers Low Cut Connie (soon to be a household name), I have been aching to see them again. My son, a local Philadelphia DJ and friend of the band, got on the guest list for this show and I was designated as his "+1".

When I arrived, my son, E., was talking with a young man who was introduced as a member of a local band. We chatted briefly then made our way into the club, cutting through the crowd packed around a billiard table and heading to the stairway that led to the second floor concert facility. The room was empty, but as showtime approached, fans began to fill in the vacant spaces on the floor. (Johnny Brenda's is a standing-room only venue.) I staked a prime spot at a large wooden post that supported the balcony that hugs the perimeter of the room. Around 9:45, the lights were lowered and Philadelphia's own DRGN KING took the stage to get the crowd going before Low Cut Connie's headlining performance. Seven or so songs later, they thanked the crowd and the house lights, once again, came on.

More patrons filed in. E. and I talked, straining our voices above the recorded music playing to pacify the waiting crowd. Soon, a group of eight hipsters wedged themselves into a narrow swath of floor just in front of me, clearly and thoughtlessly breaching my personal space. I turned to E. and, while motioning around me, said, "They couldn't find anywhere else to stand?" They had to pick right here!" Disgusted, I asked my son to slide a foot or two to his right so I could put my feet in a place where they wouldn't butt up against someone else's. He complied and we continued our conversation. Not twenty seconds after our relocation, there was a loud BANG!, followed by a splash on the floor. The ambient noise ceased as confused patrons looked around for the source of the sound  Evidently, someone leaning over the balcony dropped a heavy pint glass filled with beer and it plummeted like a bomb, spreading its liquid shrapnel in all directions. Although the glass did not shatter, its trajectory was briefly interrupted by a young lady's head – the same young lady who unceremoniously forced me to vacate my original spot. The spot in which she now stood – bent over in obvious pain. She clamped a hand on top of her head and sobbed. Her evening's escort draped a soothing arm around her shoulders and guided her off into the darkened bar area, presumably downstairs for assistance. I never saw them again.

But, now, I could see the stage.

See what I saw...HERE.