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.