Saturday, December 27, 2014

just another day

I'm gonna tell you right now — nothing really happens in this particular post. And that's the point.

While a lot of people we know were celebrating Christmas, Mrs. P and I carried on the traditional Jewish alternative of going to the movies and eating Chinese food. If you remember, last year's exercise was quite an endeavor. The roads were eerily empty, however the theater was jam-packed with fellow "Chosen People" carrying on the annual "not-our-holiday" tradition. And when we left the movie for our local Chinese restaurant, that, too, turned out to be the destination of everyone we ran into at the theater.

This year, the situation was odd, in a "nothing is odd" sort of way. First of all, there was traffic, not a lot, but it was something we did not expect to encounter. We passed a Dunkin Donuts displaying an illuminated "OPEN" sign, its parking lot surprisingly sporting several cars. Further on our route, we passed a Wawa, its parking lot filled and its multi-pump, self-serve gas station area suitably bustling with activity. Across the street at the 24-hour CVS pharmacy, groups of customers strolled toward the entrance, while, through the large glass windows, more shoppers could be seen walking the aisles. We drove past several more Dunkin Donuts and gas stations, all brightly lit and doing obvious business.

The parking lot at the theater was crowded but we found a space pretty quickly. With our pre-purchased, "print-at-home" tickets in hand ("skip the box office and proceed right to the ticket-taker podium" as the printout instructed), we entered at the "Ticket Holders" door. The box-office line (that we passed) was orderly. The concession stand lines were uncharacteristically sparse. We were directed to Auditorium 20, where our selection, Tim Burton's Big Eyes, would be screened at 4:10 pm. When we entered the darkened theater, we were taken aback by the sight of just one other couple quietly chatting in their seats. My wife and I climbed the aisle to the top row of the stadium-style seating and chose a spot just under the projection booth window. As the appointed start time approached, the place filled in, but by the time the film began, there were plenty unoccupied seats. Plenty.

After the show, I phoned our order in to our regular Chinese restaurant. My call was answered by a friendly, leisurely "hello." Last year, it took two calls to the frantic woman on the other end of the phone line. Fifteen minutes later, I was bounding out of my wife's car to pick up our dinner. The place looked like it does on any random Thursday evening, as opposed to the sea of annoyed diners and hectic atmosphere that greeted me last year. My order was bagged and ready to go when I arrived. And it was correct to the very last noodle. We headed home and ate. And that was that.

Maybe, with more stores and businesses opening up on Christmas and treating it as just another retail day, the novelty of "a movie and Chinese food" isn't nearly as "novel" as it once was.

I'll let you know next year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

hush, hush, keep it down now

This has been a pretty adventurous year for Mrs. Pincus. A die-hard driver, she agreed to take the train into Center City Philadelphia a whopping three times this year! I, of course, have been a daily train commuter for nearly eight years (as chronicled regularly on this blog). But there is still something both cute and quaint in Mrs. P's fascination with "how the other half lives." I love watching her scan the train car in the same wondrous manner as when she boards a ride at Disneyland. I smile when she earnestly thanks the conductor when we exit at our destination — something no regular, monthly pass-carrying train passenger would ever consider doing. After all, those bastards make us late for work most mornings.

"Meet me at the Eagle"
Our latest adventure on the train took us to the annual Wanamaker's (now Macy's) Christmas Light Show. The display, a multimedia presentation comprised of blinking lights synchronized to a soundtrack of familiar Christmas songs, has been a Philadelphia staple since its introduction in 1956. Every two hours, crowds pack the famous first-floor Grand Court, surround the famous bronze eagle sculpture (a central meeting place for Philadelphians for decades with the universally understood direction: "meet me at the Eagle") and marvel at the animated lights that stretch several stories high. The highlight of the spectacle is the musical accompaniment by the world's largest, still-playable* pipe organ.

Mrs. P had not seen the show for years. I, coincidentally, just saw it this past Monday, taking advantage of a day off from work and meeting my Center City-dwelling son. The two of us stood among the throng of shoppers who ceased their bustling long enough to enjoy a bit of free holiday entertainment — a rarity in these times. It was hokey and endearing and very cool.

Afterwards, we strolled the store like tourists in our own city (or at least former residents who had been relegated to the suburbs thirty years ago). The once-majestic store, featured in several motion pictures like Blow Out, Mannequin and Twelve Monkeys, has lost some of its unique grandeur and now looks closer to its cookie-cutter mall counterparts. My spouse, never one to pass up an opportunity to buy something, made a couple of small purchases before we headed out to nearby Chinatown for dinner. It was like an old-fashioned "Date Night."

"No meat! None!"
We walked five or so blocks through a blustery December evening to New Harmony, a small, nondescript restaurant, one of the few in Chinatown offering an exclusive vegetarian and – gasp! – vegan menu. And the place has Kosher certification, to boot! We entered the restaurant and were shown to a table in the nearly empty dining room. As we studied the menus, a group was seated at the table next to us, a mere foot or two away. It was two young ladies and a fellow approximately of early college age. We tried to disregard them and concentrate on our dinner selection, but that was difficult.

They were loud. Very loud.

And their conversation was inane. Distractingly inane.

On my daily commute to and from work, my train makes a stop at Temple University. I am both intrigued and appalled by the conversations I have involuntarily overheard between students boarding at that station. Considering they are (allegedly) furthering and honing their education, they can passionately discuss, at great length, such riveting topics as the pros and cons of various protective coverings available for earbuds. I've heard interactions that were fraught with incorrect information, mispronounced names and locations and improbable accounts of events... all punctuated with nervous twitches and insecure giggles. This is the future of our society, dammit. An awkward, uninformed, ill-mannered, unwashed faction, poised to keep things running smoothly when you and I are sucking our meals through a straw.

So, the small representative group who were nearly our dining-mates loudly perused the menus, reading selected entrees to each other, as though none of the others had menus themselves. Every so often, they'd stop and loudly question if the "meat" that was listed for each entree was indeed a vegetarian substitute... despite the large, bold headings noting "IMITATION MEAT" on every single page. When the waiter came to take their order, the fellow (the loudest, and obviously dimmest, of the bunch) again asked, "It's not real meat, right?" The waiter assured them several times. 

My wife and I tried to ignore them. However, at times, conversation between us (just inches apart) was overpowered by the loud, atonal squawks emanating from our young co-diners. A few times during their meal, I still heard the guy's grating cackle ask, "This isn't real meat, right? I keep forgetting." Nervous laugh.

We finished our dinner (it was really good, in spite of the company). After paying the check, we stood and began gathering our scarves, gloves and coats for our trek back to the train station. As I was threading my arm into my jacket sleeve, I glanced in the direction of the nearby diners, now finishing up their meal. The fellow — his big, gawky head cocked to one side atop his elongated, Adam's-Appley neck — was shoveling spoonfuls of rice into his mouth... straight from the serving bowl. I bit my lip to stop my gut-reaction of screaming, "You moron! That's for the whole table!!" I covertly gestured to my wife. She rolled her eyes. He continued to feed from the community bowl, to the slight chagrin of his female companions.

We left. We left a future generation of decision-makers stumped by the ponderous choice of fortune cookies.

The future looks bleak. I hope they have good Chinese food.

* The world's largest pipe organ is in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Like most things in Atlantic City, it is in a state of decline and no longer fully operational.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I want a big mexican dinner

I love Mexican food. My favorite Mexican restaurant, Rancho Del Zocalo Restaurante, is difficult for me to get to on a regular basis. Mostly because it's in Disneyland and that's 2,706 miles from my front door. So, I have to make do with what's nearby. 

The Mexican restaurants close to my house (or at least closer than Disneyland) aren't much to brag about. There are a few upscale offerings like El Vez and its less-expensive counterpart El Rey, two of local restaurant impresario Stephen Starr's establishments. While these places are very good, they are also, like most of Starr's roster, overpriced. I realize that they are located in the heart of the Center City Philadelphia restaurant district, but considering the ingredients are pretty common and the preparation is fairly simple, thirteen bucks for a small bowl of guacamole is a bit steep. Stephen Starr's restaurants are best enjoyed when you are the guest of someone who's footing the bill (re: business lunches and birthday dinners).

A little more reasonably priced is Mad Mex, a chain of dine-in restaurants scattered throughout Pennsylvania. It's sort of on the same level of a TGIFriday's or Applebee's, but with edible food. The portions are large and they offer a wide selection of vegetarian-friendly choices.

Mad Mex fills the void left by a single-location favorite called Tortilla's. A family favorite for years, Tortilla's was our "go-to" place for Mexican cuisine. The food was great, the prices were low and the staff was friendly. Until it began to fall apart. Tortilla's changed owners, changed menus and changed staff. The quality dropped, the cleanliness became lax and the new waitstaff was a deadly combination of slow and rude. Within a month of our last, disappointing visit, Tortilla's location had become an Italian restaurant.

The bottom rung on the Mexican food ladder are the fast-food joints. I won't even include Taco Bell because I won't set foot in one based on reputation alone. So, I am left with Baja Fresh, Qdoba and Chipotle. (The closest Moe's Southwest Grill closed and I have not yet tried the first Philadelphia outlet of West coast favorite Wahoo Fish Taco. The Philadelphia area does not have The Green Burrito or Del Taco, although both have terrible reputations. I actually liked Del Taco the few times I've eaten there.) I realize that none of these restaurants are anything close to authentic Mexican fare. I know that their menus are comprised of what Americans think Mexican food is. But, with so few options, I'll take what I can get, if it's at least tasty.

Recently, all of the Baja Fresh locations in my suburban Philadelphia area shut their doors for good. Curiously, one of them, centrally located in a suspiciously-desolate strip mall, reopened as a Chipotle. Earlier this week, Mrs. P and I stopped in to grab something quick on the way home from a full day of holiday shopping.

It was just past the expected dinnertime rush, so the Chipotle seating area was unsurprisingly empty. It was, however, surprisingly filthy. The floor was noticeably strewn with napkins — both crumpled used ones and new ones that had strayed on their way to a table. Undetermined bits of food — absentmindedly dropped and smeared — were mixed with a sampling of plastic utensils and assorted spent condiment packets. Already turned-off from our silent, first-impression greeting, we inched our way to the service counter as we studied the limited menu displayed on several placards high above the food preparation area. We were welcomed by a cheerful young lady who asked my wife is she would like to order. Mrs. P selected a burrito and, as the worker removed a large tortilla from a plastic bag and placed it under a contraption resembling a commercial pants presser, she asked what specific ingredients she'd like added. While my wife pointed out and selected the various vegetarian fillings, a sad-faced young man mumbled something to me that I assumed was "What would you like?," although that was a wild assumption because none of his words sounded remotely familiar... or remotely like words. I requested a burrito and he slipped a tortilla under the "presser" when his co-worker removed the one that was heating up for my wife's order. When prompted, I began selecting my custom ingredients. But just after he scooped a spoonful of drippy black beans into the mound of brown rice already in my tortilla, he placed the half-prepared burrito on the counter and walked away into a secluded room behind the dull metal grill. And there it sat, my poor abandoned meal — open, vulnerable, its black beans glistening under the lights. The young lady was finished preparing my wife's order. She began to wrap the completed burrito with aluminum foil in the patented "Chipotle roll." Meanwhile, my unattended assemblage lay exposed and defenseless. Anyone could walk by and drop anything they wanted into my meal. I got the attention of the young lady who waited on my wife. After she scanned the open kitchen area for her missing co-worker, she happily completed my order. The cashier rang up and bagged our purchase. The fellow who began my order was never seen again.

And that's the way I feel about about Chipotle.

Even if they were next to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

i've loved these days

My boss sent an email out to the entire department yesterday morning. She titled it "Josh Pincus is Dedicated" and it went like this:
He will probably be mortified, but I had to share that our very own Josh Pincus had perfect attendance once again this year. Here's to Josh for coming in every day, despite knowing what awaits him. 
Wow!, I thought, I'm either really dedicated or a glutton for punishment. Then, I thought back to the very beginning, to my first real job in the graphic design field. I worked in a small graphics studio not far from my house. I did what was called "paste-up." You old-timers know this process well. It involved X-Acto knives, T-squares and sticky, adhesive wax for the physical cutting and pasting of galley type. These tiny bits of paper were carefully affixed to stiff board for the purpose of making printing plates. If this evokes quaint visions of Johannes Gutenberg pulling a lever to tighten his auger-driven printing press, you're not far off. Compared to the computerized turn the printing industry has taken, the jobs I held a mere thirty years ago seem like something right out of The Flintstones.

My next jobs pretty much mimicked that first one. It wasn't until 1995 that I got my first job where I didn't keep a box of Band-Aids on my desk. It was here, at a national legal publisher, I began working exclusively on a computer and never looked back. After that, all subsequent employment required computer skills, on all of which I am, for the most part, self-taught.

But perfect attendance in the workplace is a pretty common thing for me. I have maintained that practice in every job I have ever had. Regular attendance is pretty important to me. I think it is pretty important to your employer, too,  and since he's the one signing your paycheck at the end of the week, abiding by his priorities goes without saying.

I have only missed here and there over the past thirty years, with the exception of scheduled vacation days and that time I served on a federal grand jury. In August 1987, I ran out of work one afternoon because my pregnant wife was having labor induced after missing her projected due date by nearly two weeks. More recently, I used all of four acquired "sick days," for a hospital stay when I was treated for a nasty bout of cellulitis, a bacterial infection that still makes me cringe when I think about it.  It was the first time I had been a hospital patient since 1966. Later the same year, I dealt with an excruciatingly painful kidney stone, but thanks to carefully-regulated doses of Percocet, I was often uncomfortable, but I still didn't miss a single day of work.

I didn't even miss a full day of work when my grandmother died. When encouraged by my boss (my boss at the time) to take a full day, I explained that the only reason I was going to the funeral was to make sure they put that evil witch into the ground where she belonged. I was happy to be back at my desk before lunchtime.

I don't know where the motivation came from. It's not like I didn't cut my fair share of classes in high school. It may have something to do with the amount of extra work that awaits me when I return from that rare work absence. So, after so many years and so many jobs, I was finally recognized and rewarded for something that just came as second nature to me.

Maybe I deserve a day off.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

holiday, oh, holiday and the best one of the year

It's time once again for the big, year-end, holidays. Everyone (well, almost everyone) is celebrating something. Most people will be observing some level of Christmas. A little over five million people will be lighting some sort of menorah in celebration of Chanukah (or Hanukkah or Chanukkah or Chhannnukkkkah or whatever). After the Christmas and Chanukah festivities have ended and all the dreidels have been packed away and the Christmas trees have been kicked to the curb, some people will be celebrating Kwanzaa. (Unclear estimates put that number anywhere between two and thirty million.) Muslims already had their traditional festival in the summer, as Ramadan and Eid-al-Fatr both fell in July.

Last weekend, Mrs. Pincus and I experienced the two extremes of the holiday season within a few hours of each other. In the afternoon, we joined my son and his girlfriend for the 12th Annual "LatkePalooza" held at a downtown Philadelphia Jewish community center. The event was sold out. I didn't even know that eleven similar events had preceded this one. For fifteen bucks, attendees clamored to sample latkes (fried potato pancakes, traditionally served on Chanukah) offered by a dozen different area restaurants. Some of the sizzling goodies were pretty average, not able to hold a shamash to my mother-in-law's version. Others, however, like the lox and pickled beet-topped morsels served by Philadelphia newcomer Abe Fisher were a delight. The Cajun spin from Catahoula was delicious as well, although the spicy apple sauce topping was a bit too much for Mrs. P's palette. The event was supplemented by a four-piece band playing family-oriented songs (with a few holiday-appropriate tunes sprinkled in the mix) and an awkward magician who was unable to hold anyone's interest. We observed a number of restaurants packing up their equipment well-before the 4 PM closing time. It seemed that the attendees descended upon the latkes with the efficiency of a swarm of locusts, wiping out the surplus in just forty minutes. The vendors appeared pleased with the prospect of an early exit. 

"They won't revoke my
synagogue membership
for this, will they?"
With the room nearly empty, we, too, exited and made our way to our next destination - a Christmas tree decorating party. (I was later informed that it was not a "party," but instead, should be referred to as a "spire." When I questioned the term "spire" in reference to an intimate get-together, I was told in the original text message it was actually a "soire," but auto-correct changed it to "spire." So, it stuck.) Our pal Kathy asked a select few of her "inner circle" to, essentially, come over and decorate her tree while she watched. Having never had the opportunity to decorate a Christmas tree in my Jewish household or among my Jewish friends, I watched as well. Mrs. P, whose family's Jewishness outranks me in spades, took a front-row seat for the activity, as she nursed a glass of sparkling cider. As the only Jews in a roomful of long-time Christmas celebrants, we were warmly received and the overall tone of the evening was one of snarky joviality. After a while, Mrs. P bravely joined another guest in adorning the tree when a "Gone with the Wind" ornament was produced from the packed box of decorations. My wife's favorite film is the epic Civil War tale and she knew she'd probably never get this opportunity again. Afterwards, everyone dined on a delicious, serve-yourself meal of homemade chili and a vegetarian-friendly corn soup. There was a miscommunication when we questioned the ingredients of the homemade cornbread. The preparer cheerfully rattled off the various components — flour, baking soda, etc. Satisfied, my Kosher-observant wife and my vegetarian self simultaneously popped warm slices into our mouths, when the guest suddenly remembered that she had smeared the pan with bacon grease prior to baking. Mrs. P and I exchanged wide-eyed panicked glances, although we were comforted in the fact that Jews don't acknowledge the existence of Hell and eternal damnation. We get enough guilt from our mothers. We also steered clear of the cornbread for the rest of the night.

As the evening moved on, conversation bounced around, ranging from favorite holiday movies to various and diverse holiday celebrations to convincing me to allow my hair to go back to its natural color, a suggestion I quickly dismissed. Considering that my spouse and I had just met the other guests mere hours earlier, we were as close as childhood friends by evening's end, even hugging when we eventually parted.

Maybe this will become an annual tradition. And depending on when Eid-al-Fatr falls in 2015, perhaps someone will bring a plate of baklava. I don't think there is anything to decorate or light.

Monday, December 8, 2014

I never needed anybody's help in any way

I got a call this afternoon from the office manager of a branch office of the law firm that employs me. She had an unusual request. She asked if I could locate a group of photos from an event held at her office earlier this year. As the graphic designer for the firm, I maintain a vast electronic archive of every photo, every logo, every graphic, every everything that has ever been sent to me or created by me in the past eight years. Sometimes I will need a little more information to locate the requested information, as I don't always recall what name I have given to files. Usually, I will name folders with the name of the event, along with a string of number code identifying the date the folder was created. The office manger wasn't sure when she sent me the photos. She wasn't even sure if she sent the photos.

I asked, "Who took the pictures?"

She replied, "I did."

"On your camera?" I continued my line of questioning.

"Yes," she answered. She seemed to be getting annoyed.

"And you didn't save the photos anywhere on your hard drive or the network?," I asked.

"Nah!," she dismissed, "I never save shit like that."

She never saves "shit like that," but expects me to lay my hands on them within seconds.

I'm not sure, as office manager, what exactly she manages.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

treat me right

In the middle of last week, the signal from my wireless home network kept dropping out. Everyday, I would restart the modem and then restart the router and service would be restored. After several consecutive days of this procedure, I rendered my own diagnosis and exchanged the modem at my local Comcast office. I, like most Comcast customers, would try anything rather than calling their notoriously inept tech support. 

When I received my new modem, I was given the instruction to connect it in the same manner as the  previous one and then — dum dum DUM! — call a Comcast toll-free number for activation. Shit! I couldn't get around a phone call to Comcast! I arrived home, connected the new modem in a matter of seconds and then, filled with dread, I punched Comcast's number into my phone. A friendly, automated female voice answered. She identified the number from which I was calling and asked me to select my reason for calling. I pressed "2," indicating I needed activation for a new modem. The robotic voice assured me this could be handled quickly, but suddenly, I was told to hold while my call was transferred to a live technician. Immediately, a stream of bland "hold" music began to play. After a few minutes, the violins and bass were interrupted by a  disinterested monotone voice who rattled of a series of sentences, none of which I understood. 

"I'd like my new modem activated, please.," I said, hoping that the question of 'How can I help you' was buried somewhere in the technician's opening monologue.

"I can help you with that, but first, I  will need some information. May I have your address, please?," the tech asked.

I recited my address, my name and the last four digits of my Social Security number as requested. After a lengthy series of apologies and assuring me that service and satisfaction was her highest priority, the tech told me that my modem was now activated.

And so it was... for approximately two hours. The signal dropped out again. So, reluctantly, I called Comcast back.

The automated voice asked for my phone number and then directed me to tech support. Technician Number 2 also asked for my phone number, as well as the nature of my call. I explained that I exchanged an old modem for a new modem, called for activation and, although I was told it was activated, I was still experiencing a loss of signal. Technician Number 2 asked if I got a new modem and if I called to activate it. I pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at it. I had just finished explaining the issue. I repeated the situation, again in detail. Technician Number 2 asked if I was trying to connect wirelessly. Again, I stared at the phone. After more frustration and a little voice-raising on my part, I was elevated to the next tier of support. The next, higher-level tech (Technician Number 3) had me up-and-running in a matter of minutes, He offered a "ticket number," in case the problem persists and I need to call back. This way, everything will be documented and I won't need to explain it to a new technician unfamiliar with the problem.

I lost my internet signal the next morning.

With my patience waning, I called Comcast back. I offered up my ticket number and Technician Number 4 asked me to explain the entire scenario again. Technician Number 4 told me that I should restart the modem and router if I would like internet service. I told Technician Number 4 how I have restarted my modem and router every day for the past three days. Technician Number 4, phrasing her scripted response differently, told me if I want to receive internet service, I would have to restart the router and modem every day.

I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it.

"Are you telling me that I have to restart the router and modem every day if I want to get online?," I questioned.

"Yes, if you want to receive internet service." repeated Technician Number 4

"Are you telling me that I pay Comcast $200 per month and, after being a customer for twenty-five years and never restarting my modem that I now would need to restart the modem and router every day if I want internet service?," I repeated, increasing the volume of my voice as I finished my question.

"Yes, if you want to receive internet service." repeated Technician Number 4.

I was livid. I demanded to speak to a supervisor. I was put on hold for twenty minutes. Technician Number 4 returned four times during my "hold" time to assure me that satisfaction was her top priority and that her supervisor would be with me in a moment. One more time, she announced that the supervisor would be the next voice I hear.

And then my call was disconnected.

I called back immediately, angrier than I was on the first call. I rehashed the situation to Technician Number 5, who, first, needed some more information. I ran down the usual info, only this time, I was told the at the last four digits of my Social Security number didn't match the account... even though they matched on the four previous calls, I was grilled for my actual account number, which I recited once I located my current cable bill. When Technician Number 5 was satisfied that I was who I said I was, I asked to speak to a supervisor. It took some additional convincing and some additional "hold" time, but I was ultimately connected to a supervisor. 

The supervisor (now the sixth tech person I have spoken with) was receptive to my complaint, assuring me that it is not the policy of Comcast to have customers restart their modems on a daily basis. He apologized repeatedly and referred to me as "Mr. Josh," as though I was a Southern plantation owner and he was the downstairs butler. He explained that he would retrain the technician who gave me the incorrect information, and when he asked for her name, I asked, "Isn't her name on my account information log?" He replied, "Yes. Yes it is." and he apologized again.

My service was restored and, two days later, it seems to be working fine. Comcast's customer service still sucks, but it could be worse. I could be a Verizon customer.

* * * UPDATE * * *

click to enlarge
This is a screenshot from Comcast's website. It shows instructions for programming a Comcast Universal remote control without any assistance from Comcast technical support. Everything is okay until you get to Step 4, where it tells you to "type in the 5-digit code" and just below, they have selected the most likely code for your model of television. All four digits of it. The last step says "if the code doesn't work, look for another," but offers no additional source for that code. At the bottom of the screen, there is a button that reads "I'm done." 

Oh, I'm done alright.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

now what you hear is not a test

The early 80s was a transitional period for music. The brief Disco Era was on the decline. The mainstay rock-and-roll heavyweights were still trying to maintain a grip on the once-mighty genre now categorically referred to as "classic rock." A wide variety of music jammed the radio airwaves, from the sappy sentimentality of Air Supply and Melissa Manchester to the faux macho bravura of John Mellencamp (still sporting his tough-guy "John Cougar" moniker), to the frenetic energy of budding new-wavers like the Human League and Adam and the Ants. And I listened to all of it. I had no real choice. In those days before Spotify and iTunes, you listened to what the radio told you to listen to.

In the early 80s, I was a struggling art student earning tuition money by working in my cousin's health food restaurant. By day, I was packing away burgers and Philly cheese steaks, while at night, I would offer baked eggplant and bulgur wheat casseroles to a regular crowd of gaunt, pale tree-huggers who all looked like they could benefit from a good steak.

After classes, I would rush to the restaurant, ditch my imitation leather portfolio and tie on an apron. The building was a tall narrow structure, so the kitchen was on the second floor. As I was pulling my hair back into a ponytail on my way down the stairs, I passed by Tony, who was elbow-deep in a sink full of soapy water. Tony was hired to do a little bit of everything. He could shove a pre-made casserole into the oven. He could sweep the back-porch seating area. He could assist me behind the cafeteria counter at particularly busy times. But, mostly, he could keep the kitchen in a state of sparkling cleanliness. Tony was a great guy and he opened me up to an unknown world out side my small, sheltered, white, Jewish, Northeast Philadelphia existence. As Tony scrubbed that stainless steel to a mirror-like shine, he found his groove from the unusual tunes coming from the radio perched on a nearby windowsill. I had never heard anything like those sounds. It was rhythmic, tribal, raw and infectious. No radio that I owned ever picked up sounds like that. Tony closed his eyes, bobbed and swayed his head and, at machine-gun speed, harmonized with the singer.
It's like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under
He followed the line with a guttural, yet musical, laugh — ha ha ha HA ha. He continued. It was awesome.
They pushed that girl in front of the train
Took her to the doctor, sewed her arm on again
Stabbed that man right in his heart
Gave him a transplant for a brand new start
I can't walk through the park cause it's crazy after dark
Keep my hand on my gun cause they got me on the run
"Oh my God, Tony!," I sputtered. I couldn't get the words out fast enough. "What is that?"

"That's the joint, man!," he smiled and replied and that was all the answer I needed.

Of course, it was the ground-breaking hip hop classic "The Message" by South Bronx pioneer rappers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I needed to own it. It was the most incredible thing I had ever heard, cutting through the FM radio sameness of Foreigner/Eagles/FleetwoodMac. I couldn't get it out of my head. The next day, I ran to The Sound of Market Street, a store where I made the majority of my record purchases. I wandered into a section of the store that I usually ignored. It was the R&B section. The walls displayed LP sized singles by bands I never heard of — Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force. (There was Fab 5 Freddy, who I heard mentioned in a Blondie song, but, at the time, I didn't know what Debbie Harry was talking about.) My head was spinning. I grabbed an armful of random selections, making sure that a copy of "The Message" was among them. My next few hours at art school were difficult ones. I knew those disks were in my bag, just aching to spin on my turntable at home. And, when I finally arrived home, that's exactly what I did.

Soon, I was buying full-length albums by RUN-DMC and LL Cool J, along with more 12" singles by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Sugarhill Gang. My collection was supplemented with "The Message II," "Apache," "New York New York," and "White Lines." I knew every word, every beat, every scratch and every rhyme and proudly sang along. Among my friends and their unwavering allegiances to The Cars and Huey Lewis, these songs were like my dirty little secret.

Suddenly, someone in "mainstream recordland" got wind of this surging genre. Next thing I knew, aging rock relics Areosmith had joined forces with DJ Run and his cohort Darrell Mac to pump new life into the leering schoolboy anthem "Walk This Way." Now, rap had crossed the race line and it was everywhere.

Next on the mic is my man Hank.
C'mon Hank, sing that song.
But sometime, when I wasn't looking, rap got angry. Rap got ultraviolent and misogynistic and a bunch of other things it never was. And it lost its uniqueness. Somewhere, rap — that shining pillar rising above the bland sameness of commercial music — got boring.

Recently, Henry Jackson, better known as the Sugarhill Gang's "Big Bank Hank," passed away at 57 years old. His death brought back vivid memories of that new discovery. It was a small piece of time that, because of the combination of the innocence of the moment and the subsequent years that have passed, can never be duplicated.

Monday, November 24, 2014

under my wheels

My next-door neighbor rear-ended my car while it was parked (parked!) in front of my house. He rang my doorbell and sheepishly admitted to the accident (details of which were revealed by his mother later*) in an awkward exchange on my front porch. I contacted a friend who owns an auto body shop and my car was soon off for repair, with the entire cost rightly footed by my neighbor.

After a week or so, my car was returned to me as good as new (or as close to new as a ten-year old car can get). I was not really inconvenienced by its absence, as I take the train to work daily and I rarely drive on weekends. Why do I have a car then? Well, I'm not going to walk to the dry cleaners and I regularly go to concerts that are not at venues located on convenient train routes. 

When my car was returned, it was pointed out that both rear tires were in pretty poor shape. "How on earth did they even pass inspection?," was the actual assessment. I promptly made an appointment with my mechanic and I dropped my car at his shop the night before, leaving my keys and instructions in a sealed envelope that I shoved under one of the locked garage doors. The next morning, he called to say that the front tires were just as bad and he recommended replacing them as well. So, eight hundred bucks later, I was back in business. I got my car back just in time. That evening, I had plans to go to one of those "off the train route" concerts, this one remotely located in South Philadelphia.

Warning! Warning! Danger! Danger!
I hopped into my newly-tired vehicle and set out for the show. Just as I took the on-ramp to Philadelphia's notorious Schuylkill Expressway, I noticed the ominous glow of the tire sensor light on my dashboard. "Yikes!," I thought, "What didn't the mechanic do?" Here I was, doing 60 miles-per-hour on what could possibly be poorly-attached tires. Or maybe I had a flat. I lowered the radio and listened carefully, trying to slow down as cars whizzed by me on either side. The angry tire light remained at a steady amber gleam. Mocking me. Warning me of impending trouble. I pictured a tire loosening from its mount and bouncing across the four lanes as I skidded to my death on a bare, spark-spewing wheel hub. With panic being to set in, I frantically anticipated the next exit. I was approaching Girard Avenue and I passed. I was in enough trouble already without having to worry about the sketchy neighborhood surrounding the Philadelphia Zoo. ("Wow! A faulty tire AND he got shot seven times and robbed. Poor guy.") I opted for the 30th Street exit instead, where I would feel safer in the vicinity of a heavily-trafficked train station and several well-lit high rises. I pulled over into a taxicab stop and jumped out of my car. I authoritatively inspected each tire with a few kicks from my boot. I encircled my car a few more times, like most mechanically-deficient guys, half-expecting and secretly hoping a flashing neon light and a cartoon arrow to pop up and scream "Here's your problem, idiot!" But, no such luck. I called Mrs. Pincus and told her I was blowing off the concert and heading back home. She suggested I take a different route, avoiding the high-speed requirements of the Expressway. I obliged. I got back in my car and carefully maneuvered my way into traffic and through the city to Broad Street, a main thoroughfare, though punctuated by traffic lights at nearly every corner. I slowly drove the thirteen miles to my house.

When I finally arrived home after the grueling, white-knuckle journey, envisioning my demise at every trolley track and pothole, I dropped my car off at the now-closed mechanic. I scribbled a note describing my ordeal and, leaving my key, shoved another envelope under the locked garage door.

I called the mechanic bright and early the next morning. He said he was working on mu car as we spoke. It was not a problem. He explained that the tire sensors work differently in older cars and he only needed to make a small adjustment or two. He assured me that at no time was I ever in danger.

I missed the concert, but better safe than splattered across the asphalt... or however that saying goes.

Nice work there, Alex
* She told my wife that her son, Alex, was very upset by my reaction to the accident. I was puzzled by this, because I did not yell or even raise my voice. I slowly walked to the curb where my car was parked and evaluated the damage aided only by the illumination of a nearby streetlight. When I saw the giant crack in the spare tire cover, I muttered, "Well get it taken care of." and I walked back into my house to finish my interrupted dinner. I later found out that, near tears, Alex asked his mother, "Why doesn't Mr. Pincus like me anymore? He liked me when I was a kid?" Oh, I don't know, Alex, maybe it has something to do with you just hit my fucking car!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

potatoes are cheaper

See those big, unusual vegetables piled up and ready for market? Do they look familiar? I didn't think so, because you have probably never seen them before. Those things are called "yams." 

Look at my giant yam!
Yams are part of the species of flowering plants called "monocots." This group of over 59,000 species includes orchids, lilies and tulips, as well as wheat, sugar cane and bamboo. Yams are native to Africa and Asia. They can grow to up to four feet in length and weigh in the neighborhood of 150 pounds. They have a rough skin, which can be difficult to peel and tough white flesh, which softens when cooked. They are rarely sold — or even seen — in the United States.

So, what are those neon orange things surrounded by mini-marshmallows, brown sugar and a boatload of butter that Grandma prepares every Thanksgiving? Um, they're sweet potatoes. I don't care what Grandma says, or what you've been told. They are sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes aren't even in the same plant family as yams. Sweet potatoes are related to the morning glory and the popular Asian vegetable water spinach (not actually spinach) and come from the plant species of "dicots," as opposed to "monocots."* The oranges ones, the yellow ones, as well as the exotic purple ones — they are sweet potatoes, too. Hell, sweet potatoes are only distantly related to other varieties of potatoes. 

Bruce doesn't know
what he's talking about.
When did the confusion start? When slaves from Africa were brought to the United States, they called the misshapen potato with the orange flesh "yams" because they resembled the true yams from their native land, though much smaller. Over the years, the name stuck. In order to reinforce "truth in advertising," The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that commercially grown and marketed sweet potatoes labeled with the term "yam" must also be accompanied by the term "sweet potato."

This week, when you are filling your shopping cart with all the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving feast, know that those things that you're passing off to your family as "yams," are nothing more than sweet potatoes. No matter what you or the signs in the produce section or even Bruce® says. They ain't yams.

Good luck trying to convince Grandma, though.

* If you are really interested, you can read more about dicots and monocots here. Or you can invite a botanist to Thanksgiving dinner.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

baby, what a big surprise

Nearly every morning, I see this guy on the train. He's one of those people that — just based purely and superficially on appearance — you know is an asshole. You know the type. I can't quite pinpoint what it is about him that assures me that he's an asshole, but I know that he is. It may be his default facial expression. It's sort of a haughty sneer; mouth turned down slightly at the corners, furrowed brow, heavy-lidded judgmental eyes. Maybe it's that fact that, despite numerous cautions and warnings from SEPTA, he still insists on placing his expensive-looking briefcase on the seat next to him. Perhaps it's the one time, on a particularly crowded train, the only available seat was the case-filled one next to him. When I asked to sit, he hesitated before he moved his bag and then refused to give up the full 50% of the seat. He encroached on my space for the entire journey to work, trying to edge me out onto the aisle. I think he even leisurely crossed his legs at one point, revealing a designer sock between a tooled-leather shoe and a hairy shin.

Know your train.
This morning, I saw him in his usual spot (last car, left-hand side, briefcase on seat). The train was unusually empty this morning, so I grabbed an aisle seat on a three-seater two rows behind him. I removed my book from my messenger bag and began reading. Suddenly, someone's cellphone began to ring. The ringtone wasn't the generic, factory-installed, synthesized series of "beeps and boops". This was a customized ringtone. A popular song chosen specifically to reflect the owner's light-hearted and carefree outlook on life. A song that hearkened back to a simpler, less-complicated time in the owner's life, when innocence was the driving force and the sweet sounds of four mop-topped lads from Liverpool held a place of high esteem. Someone had purposely sought out and selected the Fab Four's international chart-topping hit "She Loves You" as a way of alerting them to an incoming call. 

It was the asshole.

He fumbled from pocket to pocket in a mad search to locate his phone. All the while, the bright vocals of Lennon and McCartney soared loudly above George Harrison's jangly guitar, filling the train car.

"Wow!" I thought, "Maybe I had this guy all wrong. No asshole could possibly have a peppy, cheerful song like 'She Loves You' as their ringtone!" I looked up from my book, cocked my head, and silently pondered this guy again, reconsidering my earlier stance. 

Then he stepped out into the aisle, blatantly cutting in front of a woman trying to exit the train. He had that regular scowl on his face. 

Looks like I was right all along.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

trash — pick it up!

Those of you who don't live in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Eastern Virginia and parts of Florida don't know what you're missing. We get to go to Wawa, the greatest of all convenience stores. Forbes Magazine knows what I'm talking about. They ranked Wawa 47th on their list of the largest privately-owned companies.

Last night we ran into a rare customer service mishap in the usually cheerful and efficient Wawa. A faux-pas so rare that — for a minute there — we thought we were in a 7-11.

My wife and I stopped for sandwiches at Wawa and, while they were being prepared, we grabbed two corn muffins from the self-serve bakery case for tomorrow's breakfast. The usual clear plastic bakery bags had been replaced with smaller bags usually reserved for soft pretzels. They were even imprinted with the UPC code for pretzels. With no other option, I shoved two muffins into the bag and got in line at the checkout. When it was my turn, I handed the cashier my bar-coded order receipt for the sandwiches, along with the muffin-stuffed bag. Without batting an eye, the young lady scanned the bar code on the bag. The cash register screen identified the purchase as "two pretzels" at a cost of $1.19. Mrs. P. brought the discrepancy to the cashier's attention.

"Those are muffins," she noted, "not pretzels. I'm not sure if muffins are the same price."

The cashier was just as confused. She sought assistance from the store manager. The manger, an unusually unfriendly fellow, corrected the item and informed the cashier that muffins were $1.59 each. The item was voided and the right price was entered. Because I pride myself on being honest, I joked that I would have felt bad cheating Wawa out of eighty cents. The cashier awkwardly smiled, obviously not getting my attempt at humor.

We picked up our wrapped sandwiches and, as we crossed the floor towards the exit, a doughnut rolled across our path. We looked in the direction of the rolling pastry. The manager was dumping every last morsel of doughnut, cruller, croissant and — yes! even muffins! — into a large, industrial-size trash receptacle.

Mrs. P spoke up. "You're throwing everything away? After we just paid full-price for those muffins? Even though you charged us the wrong price and we honestly paid the higher price. Now you're throwing them away?"

The manager stared blankly at us. "Well, we're getting a delivery of fresh ones."

So, how were we rewarded for our honesty? We paid full price for muffins that were 90 seconds away from becoming trash.

Thanks, Wawa.

* * * * UPDATE * * * * 
Wawa redeems themselves with a letter of apology and a ten dollar gift card. Muffins for everyone!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

I just might stop to check you out

I have grown to really detest organized religion. I was never a very religious or spiritual person. I had no religious upbringing at all. Sure, I knew I was Jewish and, thanks to my many anti-Semitic neighbors, I was regularly reminded. But I rarely attended services and only observed holidays if it meant a day off from school. 

When I met my wife, I was perplexed by how observant she and her family were. I found it interesting, and both historically and culturally stirring. Although I still wasn't buying into the spirituality, I was impressed and even proud of the centuries-old traditions. When our own immediate family increased by one, we instilled and exhibited the same traditions and pride to our young son. We celebrated Shabbat each week with challah and candle-lighting. We attended synagogue, not only on the so-called High Holidays but for lesser holidays throughout the year. Our son went all through Jewish day school, becoming quite knowledgeable in the history and origins of his religion — knowledgeable enough to wage heated challenges to some concepts and interpretations, much to the chagrin of his teachers. He even accompanied my father-in-law — his beloved Zayde — to the services held at a small Orthodox shul, where, despite his young age, he held his own amid the old guard.

A few years ago, my father-in-law — a very pious, learned and traditionally-minded man — was unceremonious dismissed from his long-standing position as Head Usher at High Holiday Services by a younger, disrespectful regime that had moved into control at his synagogue. He was removed without a "thank you" or grateful sentiment of any kind by a bunch of self-righteous machers, most of whom were shitting their diapers when my father-in-law was already davening shachreit. I felt this behavior went against the very basic foundation of religion. That this was done by a committee under the auspices of a religious organization made it even more unconscionable. Is this what they learned from the teachings of the Torah and the message of Talmud? Ugh! With my already waning beliefs, this was the last straw.  I was so done with religion and synagogue and services and all of it. As far as I was concerned, it was all bullshit. Total, unscrupulous, nonsensical bullshit. I vowed never to cross the threshold of a synagogue again.

Yesterday, I broke the promise that I made to myself. I begrudgingly squeezed myself into a suit and tie and accompanied my wife to the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a childhood acquaintance. I wasn't happy about going to synagogue for any reason, but, I love my wife, so I went.

The service was called for 9:30 on a Saturday morning. We swung into the parking lot at five minutes past the delegated time, just in time to see the Bar Mitzvah boy's grandparents walking in to the building. Jews aren't exactly known for their punctuality, hence the "ish" that is routinely added to appointment times ("Okay, Phyllis, I'll see you around 10-ish for a nosh."). We parked, walked up and through the doors, where we were greeted by an older woman wearing too much make-up and a name tag (designating her importance, as Jews love to show their importance). 

"Helllllloooooo!" she welcomed in a sing-songy voice, stretching the two-syllable word to an impossible nine syllables, "Have you been here before?" and without waiting for an answer, she continued, "Just ahead to the left and then up the stairs." She extended her age-atrophied arm and gestured in the general direction of "to the left."

We approached the sparsely-populated sanctuary where the rabbi — a frail-looking, pale young lady with unkempt hair and a shmata tied around her head — was leading the service with a whiny, yet earnest, voice. The hallway just outside the main sanctuary was dotted with many more name-tagged "potentates," each with their own self-appointed job. There was the smiley lady who was giving out the little Xeroxed programs, explaining what the heck is going on here for those who may have stumbled in just looking for a place to warm up for a bit. Then there was my favorite  — the old guy who was silently checking every male head for the presence of a yarlmulke, like some kind of inventory manager for God. He was also charged with distributing talllit (prayer shawl) to those gentlemen he deemed too stupid to know whether or not they were wearing one.

We chose a seat in the fifth row, just behind my in-laws. All religious services have struck me in a humorous way. I have always equated the ceremonial liturgy and chanting with the incantations I heard in horror movies or tongue-in-cheek recitations delivered by an angry Agnes Moorehead on Bewitched. Is the effectiveness of prayer determined by the proper order of the words? If you stumble over a phrase or leave out a word, does God dismiss the entire plea as null-and-void? If you ask any of the regular ritual attendees, you would think that's the case. 

One of the most intriguing phenomenons of the morning service is how many people sit in their seats with an open prayer book in their hands and pay absolutely no attention to the service. A lot of people (mostly women) aren't even facing front. They are more interested in what every one else in the room is doing. Who's walking in, who's following along, who's on the right page, who's talking to their neighbor. All of these things are way more important than worshiping the deity of choice. Also taking precedent over God is: what is she wearing? who is that new man Sheila is sitting with? and the ever popular I think Bernie is here with a shiksa! The very idea!

Look, I know I've come down pretty hard on religion. I understand that there are a lot of people who find solace and comfort in it. Just not everyone. As the years go on and generations beget generations, the interest in religion grows thin and religion itself becomes less relevant.

It's funny how my feeling towards religion were brought to a head by actions taken against my father-in-law. It's funny because this story is gonna piss him off.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

good morning, worm your honor

Last week, while all of you patriots were performing your civic duty, I was watching a 55 year-old rerun of Make Room for Daddy, a show I don't particularly like. But, given the choice, I was glad to have endured a half hour of the insufferable Danny Thomas – hamming it up and mugging for the camera – than to flick a little lever in a voting booth and pretend that my vote makes a difference.

I have not voted since Barack Obama became president the first time. Actually, after the embarrassing debacle that was the 2000 presidential election, with its lengthy recounts, ballot tampering and infamous "hanging chads," I swore I would never vote again. But, I gave in to some heart-stirring "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave" sentiment and voted in several more elections over the next eight years. 

Until that one day.

It was early in 2008. I came home from work, slung my jacket on the back of a living room chair (much to the on-going dismay of Mrs. Pincus) and began to leisurely rifle through a stack of the day's mail. Among the catalogs and utility bills, was an ominous yet important-looking envelope. It was addressed to me and featured a governmental return address in the top left-hand corner. I frowned. I slipped my index finger under the sealed flap, carefully sliding it along and tearing a neat opening along the fold. I removed the machine-folded single sheet of paper and began to read. I scanned the first few sentences following the cold salutation. When I hit the fearful gist of the communique, I involuntarily reacted.

"Dammit!," I uttered aloud, "Jury duty!"

But this was no ordinary jury duty. No sir. This was not of the "One Day. One Trial" variety. This was a call from the federal government. I was to report as part of a pool of prospects for service on a Federal Grand Jury.

On my designated day, I assembled, along with 74 others selected from the registered voters representing seven counties in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. A low murmur filled the cavernous marshaling room of the federal courthouse, as numbers were called and the potential jurors were chosen. A grand jury is comprised of 22 jurors and two alternates. The alternates do not have to report for jury duty until one of the actual jurors is excused for valid reason. As the selections were made and my chances of being chosen slimmed, several of those already picked conferred with a court officer. Obviously they pleaded a convincing case of family hardship and were instantly excused. Replacement alternates had to be chosen. My number was the last one called. In the immortal words of Maxwell Smart: "Missed it by that much."

I was told by an official that, as an alternate, it was very unlikely that I would ever have to report. 

Six weeks later, another ominous-looking envelope was delivered to my house. When I read the contents, I, once again, involuntarily reacted. Only this time, I yelled instead of uttered.

"FUCK!," I screamed with enough vocal power to rattle some dishes in the kitchen.

A Federal Grand Jury convenes once a week to hear testimony (or parts of on-going testimony) from witnesses questioned by a federal district attorney. There are no attorneys and no judge. There is a District Attorney, the members of the jury and a court reporter. After enough evidence is presented to satisfy the D.A., the jury discusses and rehashes until a decision to indict (or not to indict) is reached. Sure it sounds interesting, like something right out of Perry Mason or Law & Order, but, believe me, it isn't. It's boring. Witnesses are boring. Testimony is tedious. People are inarticulate and downright stupid. Some District Attorneys think they are auditioning for a role in Inherit the Wind. But mostly, it's monotonous. And I sat through that bullshit for the initial term of eighteen months — plus a six-month extension — for a grand fucking total of two fucking years. Every Thursday, I was excused from work to sit in a federal courthouse and listen to a parade of morons get schooled in the ways of the law. And that applied to both sides of the witness box.

Some of my jury mates had never been to the "big city" of Philadelphia in their lives and were bewildered by buildings taller than three stories and the fact that people wore shoes all the time. One guy sat in the first row of seats and read the newspaper during testimony. One guy rattled and crinkled a cellophane bag of candy as witnesses spoke. Another guy slammed his head against a rear wall as he dozed off to sleep. These are the people who are deciding your fate, Mr. Criminal, so you best keep to the straight and narrow. 

The jury on which I served heard predominately cases of fraud (identity theft, credit card scams, bad counterfeiting), although, due to overflow and crowding, we sometimes heard cases of another nature. One of those non-fraud cases involved an online child-pornography distribution ring. During some of the most disgusting, stomach-churning testimony, the DA asked if we would like to see examples of images that were seized. The jury collectively cringed. One guy — the bag rattler, as a matter of fact — cleared his throat and suggested that we should view the photos to help us decide on an indictment. The assistant foreperson  — an outspoken young lady — shot up out of her seat and pointed an accusing finger at her fellow juror.

"We don't need to see any of that!," she spit, "I don't need to see every bad check that was passed in a fraud case!"

I did, however, learn a few valuable lessons from serving on a Grand Jury:
  1. Never ever ever ever buy a used car. There is an excellent chance that the odometer was turned back. More than excellent.
  2. Don't trust anyone who works in a bank. For the price of a few bouquets of flowers and a dinner or two, tellers are giving out your bank account information like it's Halloween candy.
  3. Criminals get caught because they are greedy. If everyone who ever perpetrated a crime would have quit after one time, satisfied with whatever they got, they would have gotten away with it. It's when they want more and want it faster  — that's when they get caught.

And the most important lesson I learned? If you don't want to be subjected to the insipid task of jury duty (federal or otherwise), keep your name off of the voter list from which potential jurors are culled. And how does one stay off of voter lists? By not voting, of course.

Believe me, this nifty little certificate ain't worth it. Neither is voting.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

cry if you want to

In March 2013, when my son E. and I went to see our third concert by the indie cult band eels, we didn't know what to expect from the opening act that was mysteriously billed as "Puddles Pity Party." Last night, we were a bit more prepared... or so we thought.

Puddles Pity Party is a... well, I'm not sure what it is. It's sort of a multimedia "event" featuring Puddles, a six-foot-eight pancaked "sad clown with a golden voice." And what a voice he has! Powerful, commanding, gut-wrenching. But he only uses it for singing. Otherwise, he remains silent, expressing himself only with pantomime and sparse stage props.

The floor of the venerable Trocadero (or "The Troc," as it has been nicknamed by Philadelphia locals), an ornate one-time vaudeville theater, was arranged with tables and chairs as though the place had been booked for a wedding reception. E. and I grabbed seats at table up front and we chatted until showtime. When we saw Puddles Pity Party last time, he was an opening act and his short set could only accommodate five or so songs. We wondered what he would do, besides sing of course, to fill an hour. The house lights dimmed and our questions were about to be answered.

For the next 75 minutes, we witnessed a full spectrum of entertainment. The performance, dare I say spectacle, showcased shtick, karaoke, audience participation, slapstick comedy and singing. Singing the likes of which you have never heard. What a set of pipes on this guy! Between short, comical interactions with the audience, including serenades to a few with a personal message of "Happy Birthday," Puddles reclined across a makeshift set of stairs and prowled the massive stage, all while unleashing his rich multi-octave vocals to the joy and bewilderment of the crowd. Sure, the act is gimmicky and the entire concept is unusual, but there is no disputing the sheer beauty of Puddles' voice. He treated the audience to renditions of The Bee Gee's "I Started a Joke," Leonard Cohen's reverent "Hallelujah," and his interpretation of Lorde's "Royals," which has become an internet sensation. His heartfelt delivery of "My Heart Will Go On (The Love Theme from Titanic)" was inexplicably enhanced by a slideshow montage of scenes from Kevin Costner films. He even transitioned the song into a take on Metallica's "One." During his tearjerking cover of The Flat Duo Jets' "Lonely Guy," Puddles showered the front row with dozens of spent tissues, dampened with his own tears.

Perhaps "spectacle" isn't the right word. Maybe there just isn't a word to describe Puddles.

At the show's conclusion, the clown graciously posed for photos with each member of the audience. 

Those prone to bouts of coulrophobia, proceed at your own risk.

Here's little taste of Puddles... and that voice.

* * * * * UPDATE * * * * * 
Acknowledgement from the big man himself.