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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

I'm takin' what they're givin', 'cause I'm workin' for a livin'

“The first time I got a nickel I thought, the world is a marvelous place, but then I thought— a dime, a dime would be better. Then I wanted a quarter.”
These words, spoken by Nucky Thompson (as so eloquently portrayed by Steve Buscemi) in the final episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, echo the sentiment of anyone who has ever held a job. Ever.

As I do most Sunday mornings, I leisurely sipped a cup of coffee while I watched the languid reporting unfold on CBS Sunday Morning, a mainstay on the Tiffany Network. When the program premiered, its target audience was mainly (and still is) older Americans. Sometime over the past 34 years, I fell into that demographic and I find myself enjoying stories that, in my younger days, would have scoffed at. (Ironically, it was my son who got me back into watching the show, although he would often poke fun at host Charles Osgood's quaint bow ties and somewhat folksy introductions.)

Don Thompson, Ronald McDonald's boss.
This morning, I watched with interest, as a profile of McDonald's CEO Don Thompson was presented. In 2012, after 41 years with the international fast-food giant (nine of those as CEO), Jim Skinner* stepped down from his position. Don Thompson took over and a better man couldn't have been found. Mr. Thompson grew up in the shadow of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago's mostly-affluent Near North Side. The exception to the area's prosperity was Cabrini-Green, a hot spot for murder, robbery and gang violence. Thompson, a bright young man, rose above the obstacles of his surroundings and, with the love and support of his grandmother, graduated from Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering. However, he decided to exchange his degree for a spatula, working his way through the ranks of the McDonald's Corporation. Thompson eagerly took on every task — no matter how menial — from flipping burgers to cleaning the fryers to scrubbing the rest rooms until they sparkled. All of his hard work and diligence paid off. The one-time fry cook is now running the largest hamburger restaurant chain in the world (35,000 outlets and counting). His salary in 2013 was a french-fry width under 9.5 million dollars. I'm sure he is proud of his accomplishments. He should and has every right to be. Any one of us, in his position, would be, too.

In his 2+ years as CEO, he has faced a number of company issues — sagging sales, bad press — but, recently a series of protests has been his prime focus. McDonald's employees across the country have been up-in-arms about their wages. They've been staging rallies and even walkouts. The average crew member at McDonald's makes about nine bucks per hour. Different positions (cooks, cashiers, shift managers) are paid different wages. Promotions are rewarded with an increase in hourly pay. Sure, it's sometimes a matter of a few cents, but an increase is an increase. I'm sure that when they applied for the job, they were told what the compensation would be. I'm sure that everything from how to hold a mop to how to operate a cash register was clearly explained in the hiring process. And, no doubt, "rate of pay" was covered somewhere in the mix.

Now, I know that there ain't a single working person on God's green earth that thinks they are overpaid. Not a one. No one tells their employer, "Thank you for paying me more than what I am worth." On the contrary, everyone from the hardest, stay-late-to-finish-a-project go-getter to the laziest, what-do-you-do-all-goddamn-day goof-off feels — nay, knows — they are underpaid. The solution is very simple and it doesn't involve a protest sign. If you don't like your current pay at your current job, get another fucking job! No one is stopping you. And don't give me that shit about the CEO making millions. That has absolutely nothing to do with your job. Nothing! Believe me, he works pretty hard. Very hard, in fact. Harder than you'll ever work, with waaaaay more responsibility than you'll ever have. He is responsible for the company staying in business and he is on the receiving end of every complaint. The guys who are bitching about their hourly wage are responsible for making sure that the pickles go on top of the ketchup, not underneath. If they think they should be getting fifteen dollars an hour for forgetting your hot apple pie in your order at the drive-thru, there are at least ten people who will be happy — nay, ecstatic — to do it for nine.

Don Thompson is a man to be admired. He is "The Great American Dream" personified. If the disgruntled masses out on the picket line exerted the same energy at their jobs as they do grumbling over Mr. Thompson's success, perhaps they would actually be worth the pay increase that they seek.

There's an old expression that comes to mind: "Everybody wants a job, but no one wants to work."

* Mr. Skinner, at 70,  currently resides at the corner of Happy & Healthy as Chairman of the Board of Walgreens.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


You know those big, imposing, tough-looking guys that stand by the door outside small concert venues, keeping the rabble out? You know the ones I mean. They look like they just tunneled under the wall of a maximum security prison and their first stop, after eluding the blazing searchlights and the tower guards' high-powered rifles, was checking IDs at a dive bar. Well, don't judge a book by its leathery, pierced, tattooed, muscular cover. They are people, too, my friend. People with feelings and interests and hopes and dreams. They celebrate birthdays and Thanksgiving and Christmas. They go to the supermarket and Pizza Hut and dentist appointments. The are people with families and children and pets. Oh, yes — they have pets. 

I arrived early for a weeknight show at a small club on the edge of the Philadelphia neighborhood of Northern Liberties. I waited just outside the entrance and fiddled with my phone while I waited for my son and a friend to meet me. Just a few feet away, the bouncer, a beefy guy — dressed in a black T-shirt emblazoned with "STAFF" in big block letters, black cargo pants and a backwards ball cap perched on his full Afro — sat on the top step at the club's entry and fiddled with his cell phone as well. Soon, a guy with multiple facial piercings and earlobes stretched by half-dollar-sized metal disks came out of the club, tapping a cigarette on the back of his wrist. He plopped down next to the bouncer and rummaged through the many pockets of his dark camouflage pants for a lighter. He met with success on pocket number three and fired up the tobacco stick now extending just above the vertical labret in his lower lip. Between puffs, he offered conversation with the bouncer. It was like eavesdropping on the mundane verbal exchange from a rejected Quentin Tarantino script.

"Hey man," he began, "Where's Pete tonight?"

The bouncer pocketed his cellphone, giving his full attention to the conversation. "Pete doin' sound tonight. I doin' th' door."

"How's your dog?," the smoker asked, abruptly changing the subject.

The bouncer perked up, his voice taking on a cheerful quality. Now, here was a topic that was close and dear to his heart. "Great! Y'know my dog, with his bloodline, is worth about five grand. It's an Italian Great Dane."

Just then, a woman walks by with a majestic-looking canine at the end of a retractable leash. The bouncer smiled. As the woman and the dog strolled within a foot of the bouncer, he spoke up and said, "That's like my dog. That's an Italian Great Dane, right?"

The woman was startled, not realizing that she was being addressed. Then, she corrected him. "Greyhound. He's a greyhound, not a Great Dane."

"Yeah, but Italian, right? Italian?," the bouncer persisted.

The smoker laughed. "You jackass! It's not a Great Dane! A Great Dane is like fuckin' Scooby-Doo!"

"Yeah, whatever.," answered the bouncer, glossing over his error, "I could sell my dog for what a car costs. I got the paperwork an' all. People don't believe my paperwork. People be axing me if I stole the paperwork or if I'm lying. I say 'No!' That dog got UDAC, KC, AKC, UDKC, every-fuckin'-thing! I gave him a Dallas Cowboys crib blanket to sleep on. He so chill and he got personality, like an ex-girlfriend. I give him peanut butter balls an' he don't bark no more. It's peanut butter and oatmeal and oil and some other shit all mix together. You roll it into balls. It's like balls, y'know? Takes so long to chew them up that they jaws get tired."

He was through elaborating on the joys of dog ownership. He leaned over to see if I was still standing by the entrance.

"Yo' man," he said to me, "We open now. You can come on in."

I thanked him, saying that I was waiting for two people to join me. Secretly, I couldn't imagine leaving this spot and missing any of his stream-of-consciousness soliloquy. What concert could possibly be more entertaining than this?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

everyday stupefaction

Are we really this dumb? Have we really become a society of unthinking, illogical idiots? 

The graphic above is part of the latest online outrage (of undetermined origin). This one instructs a nation of blind followers to emblazon their Facebook pages with the promise not to shop on Thanksgiving, obviously newly-designated as the holiest and most sacred of all holidays. People who silently stand up for an ill-conceived "cause" such as this one are selfish and inconsiderate.

Shit like this infuriates me. (In all fairness, a lot of things infuriate me. I am not the barometer upon which anger for the actions of my fellow man should be measured.) If you don't want to shop on Thanksgiving, then don't. Just plain "don't!" But, if you do wish to shop on Thanksgiving, by all means, shop! And don't let anyone guilt you into feeling that you are doing something wrong. The country (this one, the one that you love and will defend to the ends of the earth) is slowly recovering from a crippling recession, in case you have been under a rock for the past six years. Getting the population to spend money increases production of goods and strengthens the economy on many levels.

It costs a lot of money to operate a store. Heat, electricity, refrigeration, cleaning staff - it all costs. If stores didn't think customers would show up, they wouldn't bother to open. Also, retail businesses do not force anyone to work when they don't want to. No one threatens anyone. As a matter of fact, a lot of retail stores offer extra pay incentives to employees who wish to work on Thanksgiving. Some stores even treat their employees to a full Thanksgiving dinner as a bonus.

There are a lot of people who need their jobs to support a family and survive. They choose to work whenever they can. Perhaps they are the only one in their household who has a job. Perhaps they are trying to better themselves and need the money to pay for education or student loans. Holiday hours offer double or even triple time and that money is very important to some people.

There are some people who do not have families. The closest thing they have is their co-workers. A job is the only social life that some folks have. There are even some people — believe it or not — that don't celebrate Thanksgiving. That's right, you narrow-minded, self-righteous, insensitive bastard, Thanksgiving is just another Thursday to go to work for some people. Maybe not you, but it's not all about you... is it?

So, let those who want to shop shop and let those who want to spend time with their families make their own decisions. And you can get back to your yearly complaining about retailers displaying Christmas decorations three weeks before Halloween. That's always a good fight.

* * * * * UPDATE * * * * *
This is bullshit and K-Mart should be ashamed of themselves. Between the ridiculously cheap prices at Walmart and the clever marketing of Target, there is no room for K-Mart in the retail business. I hope this is their last holiday season.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

it doesn't matter what you had for lunch

One of my responsibilities at work is to order printing. In addition to design, layout and production, I arrange for collateral materials — brochures, informational "one-sheets," various types of signage — to be printed. (For years, these items were known by their actual names. In the corporate world, keeping with the trend of referring to common things by a new and confusing buzzword, they are now collectively called "deliverables.")

Over the course of my thirty-plus years in the marketing/advertising/publishing field, the amount of actual printing has dropped considerably. Chalk it up to the internet and, more recently, portable devices like the iPad and Kindle. You can also lump in the overall short attention span of the average person (a direct result of the aforementioned wireless culprits). But, every once in a while, some things still require a physical piece of paper with words and colors and a logo, if not simply to appease a bunch of old guys who haven't quite warmed up to progress.

Because most people are either not familiar with, oblivious to or not interested in the actual time frame or the effort that goes in to the printing process, I am lucky to have a full-service quick-print shop right on the premises at work. So, when another whim-driven printing project arises with an impossible turn-around time, I can send a PDF of the job via email and in a short time, I will miraculously have a quantity of professionally-printed pieces, ready to impress.

There have been three different managers of the in-house printing facility in the nearly eight years I've been with my current employer. The first guy  Chris  was great. He was well-versed in all printing terminology and was able to provide quality service and product. He was replaced by Dave. Dave was an idiot. He was forgetful and unresponsive. Dave was soon relived of duty and a new guy named Chris came aboard. New Chris is capable, knowledgeable, accommodating and friendly. Obviously, they should stick to hiring guys named "Chris."

A month or so ago, New Chris delivered a stack of freshly-printed newsletters to my office. I thanked him for his usual prompt service. He offered a heartfelt "You're welcome," immediately followed by an invitation that caught be off-guard.

"Hey, Josh," he began as he dropped the newsletters on my desk, "You've been giving us a lot of work lately and we'd like to thank you by taking you out for lunch one day this week." 

Wow, I thought, that's really nice. Then I thought about who I would have to have lunch with! In addition to printing services, this outside company also maintains our internal and external mail room. A team of sleepwalking boobs shuffle regularly about the hallways, pushing carts laden with envelopes and packages. At any given time during the day, I swear they have the same cargo and have just been pushing it aimlessly around for hours. When placing print orders, I only feel comfortable dealing with Chris, as the rest of the staff seem to not fully grasp the concept of... well, of anything. If Chris is out, simple explanations become lengthy and repetitious usually ending with: "You should probably wait until Chris is back." And now I face the possibility of eating with these goons. What on earth would I talk to them about? What sort of common topic could fill a lunch hour? Oh, jeez... this was bad.

The week went on and Chris never called me. I was relieved. It was a nice gesture and it looked like I was off the hook.

On Thursday, Chris showed up at my office door again and reiterated his invitation. Shit! This time, he said they would be ordering in. Ugh! Now, I'd have to sit in their office and make benign chit-chat for an hour! Maybe I could say I was really busy and had to rush back to work. All sorts of lame excuses rushed through my head. How could I spend little to no time at a lunch in which I was the guest of honor? This was gonna take some strategy and it wouldn't be easy.

Chris instructed me to visit the website of a local Ruby Tuesday's and select a lunch entree. I hate Ruby Tuesday's. Their menu is not very accommodating to vegetarians. Aside from spaghetti squash and baked potatoes, the pickins are pretty slim. However, I do eat fish (I know, I know, technically I'm not a vegetarian, I'm a pescatarian. Go fuck yourself), so I ordered a grilled salmon salad. And the anxiety started all over again.

All morning, I played the pending lunch date over and over in my head. Could I talk about movies? No, I haven't seen any recent movies, as my tastes tend to lean towards Hollywood classics shot in glorious black & white with most of the cast long deceased. Could I talk about sports? Not really, aside from baseball (which is all but done), I don't follow sports. How about books? Nah, I doubt any of these cart-pushers have read anything more advanced than Hop on Pop. The clock ticked. 11:30. 11:45. Finally, the noon hour struck. Soon, it was quarter-after. Then, 12:30. Had I been forgotten? It was today, wasn't it? My phone wasn't ringing. No "Hey, Josh, lunch is a-waiting up here!"

Suddenly, at two minutes before one, Chris appeared at my door. I stifled a gulp. He smiled and announced, "Here you are!" In his outstretched grip was a large, Styrofoam take-out container. "Enjoy!" he said, as he handed me the container and a sealed package containing plastic utensils and a neatly folded napkin. I thanked him. He returned a nod and headed back down the hallway alone. With a long exhale of relief, I popped open the lid — all ready to enjoy a solo lunch.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

mother mary comes to me

I was on my usual train on my way home after work. Seated in a far corner, I was deeply fixated in the late chapters of James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, the biography that has been passing the time of my daily commute for the past several weeks. I was alone in my double seat for most of the ride. That changed when the train pulled in and hissed to a halt at the Temple University station.

A backpack-carrying contingency of students boarded and began scouting out the few remaining available seats. In my peripheral vision, though my nose was still buried in my book, I saw someone slide into the seat beside me. He dropped a bulky duffel bag on the floor between his ankles and prodded his pockets for a cellphone — elbowing me several times in the process. I tried to remain focused on my book, but his quirky, spastic gestures I saw out of the corner of my eye made that task difficult.

In the most nonchalant manner, I glanced fully at what this guy was doing. He was staring intently at the glowing screen on his cellphone. Its glass screen displayed a predominately sanguine portrait of the Virgin Mary, her expressionless face ethereally back-lit thanks to the good folks at Apple. My seatmate raised the phone in his left hand and, with his right, crossed himself. Then he pursed his lips, kissed his fingers like a stereotypical Italian chef expressing satisfaction over a particularly fine lasagna, and smeared his now-moistened fingers across the phone, leaving streaks of spittle on the Blessed Mother's kisser. This ritual was repeated. And repeated again. Then, after fiddling with his phone, he changed the image to one resembling the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the spiritual leader whom The Beatles regarded as "adviser" during their LSD-fueled halcyon days. I'm not sure where he fits in with Jesus' mom, but it didn't seem to matter to the gentleman to my right. He exercised the same routine, right down to the finger kissing and the saliva smearing.

I have always been freaked out when I see people reading the Bible on the train. Although I am not at all religious, I feel that religious observance should be reserved for private times, either alone or in a congregation of like-minded people. I don't think it belongs in a place where you are surrounded by a majority of people who are on their way to a place to which they dread going. Also, people reading the Bible on train make me think that they have insider information about some horrible impending doom and are now making their peace with themselves and their maker. I don't wanna be a witness to or a part of their rapture. But I digress.....

So, this guy is genuflecting in the seat next to me and my stop is next. I start to gather myself — putting my book into my messenger bag, stowing my train pass in my business card case — and I politely excuse myself. He stands up to let me out. As I squeeze past him, I get an involuntary, yet appalling, whiff. This guy stinks!

I guess he should be praying harder. The Lord works in mysterious ways indeed.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes

No! No ketchup for you!
I recently read an article about a trendy restaurant in the Gulf Coast resort town of Fort Myers, Florida that has banned ketchup. The eatery, Mad Fresh Bistro, unapologetically declares on their website that they "reserve the right to refuse the service of ketchup to anyone over the age of 10." On another page, they clarify their stance in an even more arrogant fashion, stating — in so many words — the customer should "trust us" to serve your food the way we want to serve it, because "we know what we're doing." It seems that chef/co-owner Xavier Duclos ("KNOWN FOR HIS CULINARY HOMERUNS," as the website proudly describes), knows more about what you like eat than to you do. Well, I'll give him this much: he sure knows how to overcharge for a hamburger. Look, Mr. Duclos, if I'm paying fourteen bucks for a hamburger in your pretentious little strip-mall bistro, then I'm going to slather it with porcupine piss, if I so choose. You're still gonna get paid and your customer is gonna be satisfied. After all, isn't that the ultimate goal? Egos aside, of course.

"We don't have any hot dogs. We have Superdogs®"
This story brought to mind a piece I saw a year or two ago on one of my favorite cable channels, The Food Network. They featured a segment about hot dog stands around the country and stopped off at Superdawg®, a Chicago institution since the 1940s. The charming little drive-in (one of the few remaining in the United States) whose roof is crowned with two giant, anthropomorphic wieners, still boasts carhop service, thick milkshakes made with real hand-scooped ice cream and, of course, the gem of the menu, the Superdawg®. The owners, a quirky (and thoroughly irritating) couple named Maurie and Flaurie Berman, greet each customer with a friendly (and trademarked) "Hiya! Thanks for stopping!," but it's all downhill after that. If you ask for a "hot dog," these two relics will smugly reply "We don't have hot dogs." A confused customer will glance at the enormous twin frankfurters on the roof of the building in bewilderment. Not giving a crap about the potential of losing a customer, the elderly proprietors offer a cocky, pompous smile and, shaking their heads, inform the patron that they call their main fare a "Superdawg®." Sometimes they don't volunteer that information and let the customer walk. I guess it's worth it to them to lose a paying customer than to compromise the name that they — and only they — call hot dogs. In addition to standing firm as to how their hot dogs are referred and alienating customers, the Bermans are staunch anti-ketchup-ites. In a video on their website, they explain (using the most roundabout, convoluted, old-people logic) that they never thought ketchup belonged on a hot dog, so, based solely on that, no one should be permitted to have ketchup. They are like pro-lifers for condiments. These two altacockers even go so far as to call ketchup "an abomination." Actually, my wiener-hawking friends, female genital mutilation, as practiced in Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan, is an abomination. Smearing some ketchup on a fucking hot dog is a matter of harmless culinary preference. A victimless crime, if you will.

Beavis says, "No ketchup, dude!"
Another establishment where poor ketchup garners no love is a little mainstay in the seaside resort of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware called Thrasher's. With three locations in the First State's seasonal vacation spot, the popular Thrasher's has been serving up giant tubs of hand-cut, fresh fried spuds for the beach-going crowd for eighty-five summers. But, once again, they are resolute about their contempt for ketchup. Thrasher's will cheerfully offer vinegar and salt. However, when it comes to ketchup, there is no misunderstanding. The sentiment is posted prominently on their limited menu. The counter-help display the message defiantly on custom-airbrushed trucker hats. Jesus! Look at the attitude on that smug little asshole! Don't you just want to push his smirking puss right into the goddamn deep fryer! Hey, you minimum-wage-earning motherfucker, if I'm forking over nearly ten bucks for French fries - one: they better be the best fries I have ever eaten in my life and two: if I want to drown them in ketchup, you are not going to impede upon my "freedom of tomato-based condiment right," as granted by the Constitution of the United States (38th amendment, I believe.).

"Ketchup? Catsup?"
What the heck is wrong with ketchup and why do some people have such a problem with it? For goodness sake, it's been around since the 17th century and came to this country from halfway around the globe! It's the second most popular condiment in the United States (after mayonnaise, because America's desire for oil and fat will never be satisfied). Why on earth should anybody be embarrassed by their use (or love) of this steadfast condiment*? The H. J. Heinz Company, who introduced the tomato-based, all-purpose food enhancement in 1876, produces and distributes over 650 million bottles annually... so, somebody must be using and enjoying it. The aforementioned establishments wouldn't need to put up such signs or make such brazen stipulations if someone wasn't asking for ketchup in the first place. Jeez! No wonder poor Mr. Burns is so perplexed.

*With the possible exception of my brother-in-law, whose barbaric overuse of ketchup borders on obscene.