Monday, January 27, 2014

whenever I call you friend

I like to read. I read on my short commute to and from work every day. In the age of cutting edge technology, I am one of the few people on the train that reads a book with an actual cover and pages made of paper. I mostly read biographies and memoirs of people whose fame comes from their work in the entertainment industry. I've enjoyed some. The memoirs of Harpo Marx, Phyllis Diller and local Philadelphia DJ Jerry Blavat are standouts. Conversely, I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden's life was a story that didn't really need to be told.

Recently, I completed the quirky Queen of the Oddballs by the equally quirky Hillary Carlip. Although, Hillary is a few years older than I, the time frame of her tales of growing up afforded instant familiarity. Our lives could not have been more different, but I felt an instant kinship in her love of pop culture. Her pursuits of celebrities were somewhat reminiscent of my own desired "brushes with greatness." The book was a joy to read — funny, poignant, sweet and engaging — and I didn't want it to end.

So, I decided to turn the tables on Miss Carlip. I decided to pursue her.

I sought Hillary out on the Internet and discovered a multifaceted website, offering numerous portals to sub-sites of several books, a collection of essays and even a web design business. I located a contact email address and composed the gushiest fan letter a 52-year-old man felt comfortable sending.

Nine days later, I received this reply from Hillary herself:

Thanks so much for the shout-out! 

Sorry for the belated response -- I was out of town and on two deadlines and my email piled up beyond control.

So sweet of you to write, and I LOVE your blog and your drawings!!!  (Not to mention the title of it all!  It's fabulous!!!!)

So glad to e-meet you, and so glad you enjoyed my book.

Stay odd and proud!

XO Hillary
It was awesome, if I do say so myself. Referencing a passage from an early chapter of her book, dealing with her determination to make pop songstress Carly Simon her friend, I wrote back asking if I we were now considered friends, at the Carly Simon level. She replied immediately, asking for her obligatory loaf of banana bread, as she had offered the "You're So Vain" singer that night in a cramped dressing room at the Troubadour on Sunset Boulevard. Then, she said "OF COURSE" in all caps, followed by a smiley-face emoticon.

I read that Hillary had published another book, the concept of which was based on shopping lists found at the supermarket — discarded at the checkout or left at the bottom of an empty shopping cart. Hillary compiled these lists into little dramas, creating an appropriate character and story to go with the contents of each one. Just last week, I discovered an abandoned shopping list that I shared with Hillary, via this email:
Hey there Hillary,

I went to the supermarket this evening and I found this list  in the bottom of the hand-basket I picked up at the entrance (before I went to Hell in said hand-basket).

I though you'd get a kick out of it. It's a six item shopping list on semi-personalized "G" notepaper, carefully torn at the bottom... perhaps hiding some secret or maybe just conserving paper for the next grocery list. How thoughtful and "green"-conscious! Each entry is preceded by an empty, hand-drawn check box. It looks like nothing was found and accounted for. Nothing accomplished. High hopes and broken dreams at the market. Clean up in Aisle Four.

The first item is Morton's Natural Seasonings... whatever that is.

Next is onions, followed by steak and a question mark. Are they unsure about purchasing steak or still wrestling with the possibility of a vegan lifestyle?

Well, so much for becoming a vegan, since the next entry is cheese. (No question mark, dammit!)

Once again, we are contemplating olives.

And, understanding the outcome of a meal with the above components, the final entry is Fabreeze. 'Cause... you know... phew!

Have a great holiday, whichever one you celebrate. (We're doing both Chanukah, 'cause we're Jews and Thanksgiving, 'cause we're Americans. Luckily, they both start the same day!)
Almost two weeks later, this showed up in my email inbox:

I was out of town and my email piled up beyond control and I'm just now catching up.

Not only is this list spectacular, but your blow by blow analysis ROCKS!!!!!!!!

Thanks for thinking of me, and thanks for sending. And speaking of thanks, hope you had a fabulous Thanksgivukkah!


That's right. "FRIEND" is in all caps.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

you get your kicks from just driving me down

Goddamn you, Bruce Springsteen. You broke my heart.

Yeah, yeah, I know I was a bit skeptical when my brother, upon returning from that intimate show at the Widener University Field House in 1975, gushed about your incredible marathon performance. Sure, my brother called you "Springstein," but he was thoroughly taken by your energy and exuberance. Later, when my brother brought home a copy of Born to Run, I still wasn't sold.

But I was intrigued and I listened again. This time something suddenly clicked... and I was hooked.

I bought Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle and I was blown away. There were lyrics that rose above the bubble gum pop I was accustomed to. There was music that transcended the basic guitar and drums of other current bands. You sang with heartfelt compassion, speaking as a voice of the "everyman." Your jubilation was exhibited in rockers like "Rosalita," evoking vivid visions of street gangs and young love. The gentle poetry of "Sandy" was both chilling and earnest. I revisited Born to Run with a new outlook. I rediscovered epics like "Jungleland" as mini-masterpieces of combined story and melody. I had become a rabid and loyal fan.

I saw your show at Philadelphia's Spectrum with my friend Sam the night that John Lennon was murdered. Sam and I had slept out all night for tickets. We were unaware of the terrible event unfolding outside The Dakota in New York City. You were giving your all onstage for the fist-pumping faithful... and you had them in the palm of your hand. You had a difficult time performing the next evening after finding out about the death of one of your heroes and inspirations. But you went on, even paid tribute with "Twist and Shout" as the evening's encore.

Then came Born in the USA and nothing would ever be the same.You were rocketed to super-stardom. The album yielded an unprecedented seven singles. But gone were the gritty, introspective compositions. Instead, you presented a boastful, flag-waving bravado that departed from everything I had come to love about you and your music. The next victim of the "New and Improved Bruce," was the spontaneity. Everything seemed calculated and rehearsed, gearing toward the biggest possible commercial impact, the most "bang for the buck." I saw two, non-consecutive shows on the Born in the USA tour. They were stiff, over-rehearsed and identical, right down to the stories and dramatic pauses — all performed as though it was a play.

And then you did the unthinkable! You brought your wife into the band! Didn't you learn anything from Paul McCartney or your idol, John Lennon?

Then came Lucky Town and Human Touch, the forgettable simultaneous releases, followed by twenty years of some of the sorriest shit I have ever heard put to record. Uninspired, cookie-cutter compositions all carefully groomed to fit to the rockstar character that "Bruce Springsteen" had become. You're telling me that the same guy who wrote the tender "Incident on 57th Street" also wrote the novelty bullshit "57 Channels and Nothin' On"? You were believing your own press and fancying yourself the elder statesman of American rock music.You became a brand, like McDonald's or Coca-Cola. You became what you rebelled against. And you were quite convincing to your blind followers.

And now, you dare release the dreadful High Hopes, a throwaway compilation of covers and outtakes featuring phoned-in guitar work by an out-of-place Tom Morello and exploitative appearances by the late Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. This is easily your laziest effort to date.

Bruce, Bruce, Bruce.... I gave you six years of unwavering adoration and how to you repay such loyalty? You shit all over it on your way to the bank.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I had to find the passage back to the place I was before

"Submitted for your approval — a grocery store unlike any you or I have ever seen. Aisle after aisle of common items, all at unheard-of prices. The prices so incredibly low, the typical shopper would be led to believe the store had made a mistake on nearly every item. But, the prices are legitimate and the products are real. The catch is that this store is in... The Twilight Zone."
Mrs. P and I are not regular grocery shoppers. We run to the supermarket when we have been out of bread for two days or when we remember that it's been a week since we added half & half to our morning coffee. So, a full-blown, all-out, "let's-get-a-cart" trip to the supermarket is a real adventure. This past Friday, an adventure we did have.

I had an appointment for a haircut after work. Mrs. P accompanied me with plans to head to the nearby Walmart SuperCenter afterwards. A SuperCenter combines a standard Walmart store with a bonus, full-size supermarket. Since I don't have as much hair as I once did, my appointments get shorter and shorter, so soon we found ourselves prowling the Walmart lot for a parking space. My wife swung the car into a spot and we started towards the store.

Them's good eatin'.
Now, I have been to Walmart before. They are the single biggest retailer in the world. They call the shots with their suppliers, dictating prices and requiring exclusive versions and packaging of national products. Their prices are low. Very low, as a matter of fact. Because of its ubiquity, Walmart attracts a certain ilk of people. I'm going to do my very best to try not to be insulting, but... Jesus Christ! Have you seen the people that shop at Walmart? They walk the aisles in a fog, as though this is the first store they have ever visited. Once, I saw a guy covered in - what I can only assume was some sort of animal shit - pushing a cart filled with Little Debbie's, beef jerky and tube socks. Walmart - God bless 'em! - happily offers their customers sixty-four ounces of lard in a fucking bucket! And if you can't make it on out t' th' store, by gum!,  they'll ship it right t' yer trailer for under six bucks! I think I may cry.

But I digress...

I love orange soda.
Mrs. Pincus and I roamed the aisles of the grocery section of Walmart. We marveled at the prices, filled our cart and wondered how the other supermarkets stay in business. Our cart was fairly full and we beat a path to the massive checkout area. This particular Walmart boasts thirty or so cashier lanes, four of which were open. We chose a lane behind a young man who was a dead ringer for Kel Mitchell in Mystery Men and an older woman in a motorized scooter. From our vantage point, we watched the woman move in slow motion, meticulously examining each item before she slowly set it upon the conveyor. The young man double-checked each item, as well. My wife had enough and began to scan the store for another line, preferably one with people moving in real time. I followed my spouse to the next cashier over. A customer already had the bulk of her shopping order piled on the conveyor, making its way towards the cashier. Suddenly, time ground to a crawl, as this customer began asking the prices as the cashier scanned each and every item. She clutched a single hundred dollar bill in her hand. She instructed the cashier to put certain items aside as the total inched toward her hundred dollar limit. Even from our distance, we could tell that the items in her cart would total well over one hundred dollars, as it contained large trays of Perdue chicken parts, stacks of Swanson dinners, a full case of ramen noodles and several family packs of frozen fish (something called "swai"). She cast a dismissive finger to most of the perishables in her order, opting instead for such staples as gum and bagged tater tots. The cashier filled a separate cart with the unwanted food and shoved it into a restock area that looked as though it hadn't been touched since the Bush administration (the first one!). Finally, the customer surrendered her C-note and slowly strolled to the automatic doors.

It was now our turn. We blew through our order in record time, quickly grabbing our bagged items. Mrs. P had a credit card at the ready. We were quite anxious to be free of the Walmart experience.
"The next time you see tempting prices for groceries, remember... bargains often come with a price. A price that doesn't always materialize on a sticker or a shelf tag. Sometimes, that price is only payable in... The Twilight Zone."

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

sittin' downtown in a railway station

When I was in high school, my dad had a pretty good job in the corporate office of Pantry Pride, a chain of supermarkets. Just after his discharge from service in World War II, he started out as an apprentice butcher in a Penn Fruit supermarket and worked his way up to manager of the meat department. From there he was made store manager and then, after Penn Fruit went belly up, he found employment at rival Pantry Pride. Despite his knowledge of all things meat, he was made Corporate Egg and Dairy Buyer for the chain of nearly 500 stores.

My dad's job required infrequent travel, but he did make a few trips to Sanford, Florida, when striking union employees were temporarily replaced by representatives from corporate (my father being one of them). He also traveled to New York every couple of months to visit and assess the stock and displays in stores.

After a full day of inventory and observation, my dad set out for majestic Grand Central Station to catch a train back to Philadelphia. As was my dad's modus operandi, he arrived at the station several hours before his train's time of departure. He grabbed himself something to eat, a newspaper to read and looked for a bench to settle on for his lengthy wait. Grand Central was jammed that evening and, although the concourse offered a great many benches (this predated the removal of said benches by twenty years), there was not a single one available that was not occupied by at least one person. My dad gathered his snack, his paper and his briefcase and headed over to a bench where a small elderly lady was seated. He dropped his belongings, sat down and snapped open his newspaper, politely nodding at his senior seatmate.

"Traveling home?," she asked in a dry, but sing-songy voice. My father bristled.

"Yes. Yes, I am.," he replied, glancing in her direction. She was wrapped in an open-knit shawl over her flowered dress. She was wearing way too much make-up for a woman of her advanced age — unblended, overly pink rouge accentuating every wrinkle in her sunken cheeks, dark red lipstick streaked haphazardly across her withered mouth, her hair pulled back into a tight bun with a few wispy strands of limp white hair falling in weak ringlets around her ears. She sported an overabundance of gaudy (most likely costume) jewelry — clinking bracelets, a carved cameo pin, tarnished rhinestone clip-on earrings.

"Oh," the woman smiled, "That's nice." 

My father was in no mood to make conversation. My father was never in a mood to make conversation. He tried to concentrate on the headlines, but the woman insisted on furthering the dialogue.

"I was in movies when I was young.," she said loudly, "Would you like to see a photo of me when I was a movie star?"

Oh jeez!, my dad muttered to himself, but then cordially answered, "Um... sure."

She reached into her purse and produced a large gold locket. She fumbled briefly with the latch until the lid popped open, then she proudly displayed the photograph within. It was a monochrome picture, tinted blue, of a pretty woman with full lips, wide eyes and light, curled hair.

My dad immediately recognized the woman in the picture as Alice Faye, the singing star of many Hollywood musicals in the 30s and 40s and wife of comedian-bandleader Phil Harris. He also identified the photo as being cut from the waxed cardboard lid of a Dixie single-serve ice cream cup, a popular promotion that ran for several decades. Dixie and its licensees featured pictures of the day's top movie stars on its product's lids as a bonus for film fans. He easily concluded that this woman on the bench was not Alice Faye.

The woman silently admired the photo in the locket and smiled as she kept it held high, inviting additional admiration from my father.

My father fake-glanced at his watch. "Oh, my train's here!," he said as he grabbed his stuff and slid off the bench. He found another bench well out of the line of vision of the delusional old woman. He once again snapped open his newspaper and Oh jeez!-ed under his breath a few more times.

Friday, January 3, 2014

these boots are made for walking

It all changed on September 16, 2009. 

That night, my son and I went to see the band Son Volt perform at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live, one of my favorite venues in the city. Fronted by guitarist Jay Farrar, Son Volt was touring in support of American Central Dust, their seventh album and their Rounder Records debut. Jay was one of the founders of the early and influential alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. In 1994, Jay convinced drummer Mike Heidorn to join him in his new band, Son Volt, while the remainder of Uncle Tupelo continued on as Wilco, led by Jay's adversarial bandmate Jeff Tweedy. Needless to say, based on the subsequent output of music, Jeff was the visionary and Jay... well, Jay played guitar. 

I was a fan of Son Volt's first two albums, but had not purchased any of their releases since 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo, and I was sort of disappointed by that one. My son scored free tickets to the show and there is very little that I will turn down for free.

We stood at stage front as the opening act — a very ordinary young lady with a big acoustic guitar — wailed through thirty minutes worth of forgettable tunes. After a brief intermission, Son Volt took the stage. Jay and company plodded through song after dirge-like song, his low register muttering the barely discernible lyrics. Even songs with which I was familiar were rendered unrecognizable by his throaty mumble. At one point, I leaned over and whispered to my son, "When are they gonna do 'Windfall'?," referring to the lead track from 1995's Trace and one of my favorites. He cocked a sarcastic eyebrow and replied, "I think they've being doing it for the last forty-five minutes."

But then, something caught my eye.

As Jay shuffled about the stage, avoiding the cables and randomly stomping on his effects pedals, I saw, peeking out from under the frayed cuffs of his jeans, the coolest pair of boots I ever laid my eyes upon. They were jet black and accented by a solid metal ring at the ankle that was held in place by three thick, riveted leather straps. Since my line of vision was even with his feet, I was transfixed by those boots. Suddenly the music became a misty curtain of white noise. The ambient murmur of the crowd faded into a low, echo-y drone. I was all consumed by the exquisite footwear on display before me. I pointed the boots out to my son, who just shrugged them off with disinterest. But not me. I wanted those boots.

As soon as I got home from the show, I ran to the computer to find and order a pair of those boots. Reliable ol' did not disappoint. A few clicks through their easily-navigable website and I had located an offering of Harley-Davidson model number 1008454 boots — "El Paso." I could almost hear the haunting wah-wah of the theme to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as every angle of those boots were splayed across my monitor. I eagerly added a size 9-and-a-half to my virtual shopping cart and clicked the big "Checkout" button. After entering all of the pertinent information, I surrendered $139.00, which would be charged to my credit card. I was informed that my order was upgraded to "free priority shipping" at no additional charge. It wouldn't be long now.

My boots arrived in a day or two. They were, in a word, awesome. I wore them every single day until Memorial Day 2011, when I was forced to buy a new pair. Those El Pasos served me well. They were durable, reliable and comfortable — from the very second I slid my feet into them. They were the greatest things I ever put on my feet. Much to my dismay, Zappos no longer stocked El Pasos, so I substituted a pair of Harley Sidestreets, a nearly identical boot, but with a slightly longer "leg shaft," as I have come to know as an industry term for the part that you put your foot in and eventually envelopes your ankle and calf.

Yesterday, after almost three years of daily wear, my Sidetstreets gave out. I came home and attempted to remove my boots. The left one came off just fine. The right one, however, put up a fight when I tried to slide down the side zipper. I tugged and pulled until the zipper pull came off in my hand, leaving the zipper in a fully fastened state. My foot was locked in my right boot! I sat on the den sofa, pulling and yanking, twisting and maneuvering, until I forced that leather foot prison over my heel. I finally freed myself. It was as though the boot didn't want to let go, almost sensing its fate, clinging to its service, its final hurrah, knowing a new, younger replacement was just a few mouse-clicks away.

Once again, Sidetstreets are not part of Zappos' stock anymore, so I settled for the metal ring-less "Mason" model. According to tracking, I should have my new boots by Friday.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

a needle pulling thread

You've heard it before, or perhaps you've even done it yourself. A conversation or an explanation that starts off strong, astute, thoughtful and informative — only to trail off and end with a dubious "so...." You know what I'm talking about.
"Why didn't you go to the dry cleaner? I need that suit for an interview tomorrow!"

"Well, I woke up later than I wanted and then, when I got out to my car, I had a flat tire. By the time AAA came to change my tire, it was getting late and I needed gas and the cleaners is way on the other side of town and I think they close early on certain days, so...."
"Wanna come over for dinner this Friday?"

"I'd love to, but my in-laws are going away and they need someone to feed their dog. Plus the dog needs medication and no one else can give it to him the right way and I'm the only one they trust to watch and take care of him, 'cause he's old, so..."
"I know your birthday was yesterday and I really wanted to get you a nice card and a gift, but I was working late and my boss was on me to finish a report for a presentation to his boss on Monday and, by the time I was finally done, the card store was closed and I didn't want to just get you a card from a drug store or the supermarket, so..."

Most of these scenarios could actually end before the speaker gets to the "so... ." I have come to the conclusion that if the statement continues and winds up with the trailing off "so...," the speaker really wants to end his or her statement with "fuck you," which would be their real answer. In most cases, they are too polite to say such a thing, but it fits in nearly every instance.

"...and I think they close early on certain days, so... fuck you. Go to the cleaners yourself."

"...and I'm the only one they trust to watch and take care of him, 'cause he's old, so... fuck you. I don't ever want to come over for dinner — Friday or otherwise."

"...and I didn't want to just get you a card from a drug store or the supermarket, so... fuck you. You forgot my birthday last year, you inconsiderate asshole."

Next time someone trails off when they are explaining why they didn't RSVP to your party or why they can't give you a ride to the airport, you'll understand what they really are trying to say, so...