Saturday, December 26, 2015

remember me to herald square

After a failed attempt to join the U.S. Army during the Civil War, Philadelphia native John Wanamaker opened a men's clothing store with his brother-in-law. In 1876, Wanamaker purchased an abandoned Pennsylvania railroad station with the idea of opening a huge retail business. After renovations, he opened Wanamaker's Grand Depot and he expanded his wares to include ladies' clothing and household dry goods. It became Philadelphia's first department store as well as one of the first in the nation.

Meet me at the Iggle.
Wanamaker, a shrewd and successful businessman, wished to portray his store with an air of elegance. So just after the turn of the 20th century, Wanamaker began replacing his building in stages, eventually constructing a massive, 12-story, full city block structure with granite walls, ornate decor and a soaring marble atrium known as The Grand Court. The building housed the beautifully-appointed Crystal Tea Room, the largest dining room in Philadelphia. It could accommodate 1400 diners at a time. The ovens in its cavernous kitchen could roast 75 turkeys simultaneously. The store offered nine floors of selling space, as well as a post office, a model house in the furniture department, a Egyptian-themed auditorium and a radio broadcasting station. Wanamaker purchased the pipe organ from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and had it installed in The Grand Court. He also purchased the immense bronze eagle that has become a popular meeting and gathering place for people in the store. (Just ask any Philadelphia resident "Meet me at the Eagle." They'll know what you're talking about.) The pipe organ, the largest in the world still in operation, is still used for daily recitals in the store — a practice that began over a hundred years ago.

In addition to the daily concerts, the famed organ is used to accompany the annual Christmas Light Show, another tradition started in 1956 as a holiday treat (and marketing draw) for its customers. It has become a regular stop during the busy holiday shopping season for generations of families. Surprisingly, after Wanamaker's was sold in 1978 (and again in 1986, 1994, and finally in 2005 to its current owner, Macy's), the new owners kept the Christmas Light Show, despite closing and renovating other iconic aspects of the majestic building. The Crystal Tea Room served its last cup of Darjeeling in 2008 and the basement post office is now a parking garage.

My wife and I went to see the Christmas Light Show last year (after a decades-long absence) and again this year. Even though we do not celebrate Christmas, the simplicity of the display and the nostalgic setting in which it's presented offer a warm sense of familiarity to those of us who remember a time long ago — a time that is holding on, however futilely, for dear life. 

I work just a few blocks from the store and I rarely, if ever, go there. Last year, when Mrs. P and I went to see the Light Show, it was the first time I was in Wanamaker's... uh, I mean Macy's.... in years. It was then, as my wife and I hustled through the crowded Men's Clothing department towards the Grand Court, that I took notice of the actual merchandising of the store. It was surprisingly awful! Gone were the wide aisles and sweeping glass display cases. In their place were tables piled high with sweaters and shirts, some folded neatly, most jumbled in a cottony ball on top of the pile or tossed on the floor in a heap. Dress shirts, boasting designer names like Geoffrey Beane and Michael Kors, were haphazardly stuffed into racks too small to adequately accommodate the amount of stock on display. It was a far cry from the once dignified and opulent arrangement that the name "Wanamaker's" instantly brought mind. The signage announcing "50% Off" revealed a puzzling $69.00 price tag on some of the shirts. That was the discounted price. Aside from the roped-off and blocked marble staircases and obscured, though still majestic fixtures, the polish and refinement were missing.

I can't figure out how stores like this still exist? In these times of online retailers and discount stores like Target and Walmart, who is still shopping at traditional department stores? Who is paying these bloated prices for clothing easily purchased at other convenient outlets for far, far less? Seriously, when was the last time you bought anything at a department store?

I just hope that Mrs. P and I get to see the Christmas Light Show again next year. I know that's pretty selfish on my part, but the show is really cool.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

hi, neighbor! hi, neighbor!

Mister Rogers would have sung a different tune about how beautiful the days are in his neighborhood had he lived next to the lunatics that occupy the house next to mine. We live in, what is known in our area, as a "twin home." In some other parts of the country, this sort of structure is called a "duplex" or "semi-detached." It's basically a single building comprised of two single-family dwellings sharing a common wall at the center. The individual floor plans of each home are usually mirror images of each other. (A "duplex," in the Philadelphia area, is the same idea, but the individual homes are stacked on top of each other instead of side-by-side. That concludes the architecture lesson of this blog.)

There always seemed to be something weird going on in the house next door since the day we moved in to our house in 1986. Not necessarily "Amityville Horror weird", but weird nevertheless. Our neighbors were a female couple who mostly kept to themselves. I was fine with that. I know I am not the most warm and friendly guy that ever lived. A cordial nod or wave (or maybe even an infrequent "good morning") is just about the extent of any neighborly relationship I've ever had. Sometimes, I didn't even get that from those two women next door. One day, just after our son was born, I was in his room checking on some sounds I heard from the electronic baby monitor. He was enjoying a sound afternoon nap in his darkened room. I heard something outside, so I parted a couple of the Venetian blind slats that covered the window overlooking our, and subsequently our neighbor's, backyard. Through that tiny horizontal opening, I spied my neighbors relaxing in their newly-installed hot tub on their newly-installed wooden deck and they were sans clothing of any kind. I quickly snapped the blinds to their original position and thought about what sort of environment my son would be exposed to.... no pun intended. But, luckily, those ladies moved away long before my boy's curiosity expanded beyond the likes of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

The house was soon purchased by a young man in his 20s with a great job, a lot of money and very little life experience. Within his first week as our new neighbor, he approached my wife and me with a proposal for new rain gutters for our houses. He went on to suggest copper gutters, elaborating on their classic elegance and aesthetically-pleasing appearance or some such flowery bullshit. We didn't need new gutters. I didn't want new gutters, but, somehow, I was talked into getting new gutters and expensive copper ones to boot. Our new neighbor had already received a price from a contractor, which he shared with us. I questioned the unusually low price, as covering the entire building or was that the price for each of our homes. He assured me it was one price that we would split down the middle. "Okay." I figured, "This kid works as an accountant for KMPG, an international financial audit and consulting firm. I guess he understands how to read a work estimate." We agreed to have new copper gutters installed.

Turns out, this guy didn't have the vaguest understanding of how to read an invoice. As I had originally suspected, the price was for each of our homes and the total would be doubled, not split. I was furious and I let him know it. I paid our share and never spoke a word to that guy for the remaining two years he was our neighbor. 

Two years after the rain gutter incident, he was transferred to Southern California. Unable to sell his house (for which he grossly overpaid), he offered it for lease and became a bi-coastal landlord. (As a footnote to his move, he took his girlfriend with him to the Golden State, where she promptly left him after he was fired from the job that transferred him. Five jobs later, he still remains in California and is still unable to sell the house connected to ours.)

Our new neighbors, now lessees, were six college students who turned the left half of our twin into National Lampoon's Animal House. For eighteen months, we were subjected to keggers on the deck, loads of trash and boisterous and unruly crowds of "college dudes" all accompanied by the strains of bad rap music. After they finally vacated, the current residents — also renters — moved in.

Once again, our relationship started out cordial. My wife, always friendly, welcomed our new neighbors. At first they, too, were friendly. But soon, they retreated into isolation. They were rarely visible. They pulled their young son from school. We began to hear loud noises through our common wall — banging, screaming, crying — at all hours of the day and night. One day, I saw our neighbors dumping something over their backyard fence. Then I saw them do it again. Soon, we began to smell skunks regularly and a groundhog took up residence in our backyard. There was something eerie and dangerous about their behavior, like the kind of people you see on the receiving end of a government siege on a separatist compound. An event that usual ends with the power being shut off and the launching of some sort of incendiary device. We did our best to steer clear of them.

A month or so ago, during a particularly heavy rain storm, the ceiling of a room on our second floor took on the characteristics of Niagara Falls, Rain water had broken through several ignored cracks and was now soaking the floor and furniture. We threw down some tarps and an inspection, when the weather cleared up, told us we needed a new roof. Mrs. P contacted our West Coast neighbor and he agreed to have his roof replaced as well, hoping for a better price to do the whole building. (Lucky for him, we know how to read an estimate.) We assumed that he, as landlord, would inform his tenants about the upcoming work. It certainly wasn't our responsibility.  Again, his informing skills, like his invoice-reading skills, leave a lot to be desired.

Just before 9 AM on the day the roofing work was to begin, Mrs. Pincus received this text from our renting neighbor. (Note - Mrs. Pincus is, of course, designated by the little Grateful Dead icon.):
(I blocked out the name of their landlord., but it's "Len," if you really must know.)
The roofers were waiting for delivery of a Dumpster that would be left of the street for the duration of the repair project, approximately two days. While they waited, the unloaded building materials and parked their truck in my neighbor's driveway. She was not happy and acted as though it was a complete surprise. She was rude and angry and took her anger out on my wife.

The next day, after she had sufficient time to calm down. Mrs. P received this text:
Ah, what could possibly top a rude comment? Why, a little racism, of course! Nothing like a derogatory reference about cleaning at 7:30 in the morning.

The work was completed late on the second day. The roofers planned to return the next morning to pick up any unused material and leave our property looking as it did when they found it. They also needed to arrange for removal of the full Dumpster. Before I left for work, I secured the parking spaces in front of my house with a couple of trash cans strategically-placed behind the Dumpster. I was satisfied with my positioning of the cans and began to make my way back to my house, my neighbor barged out of her house screaming and pointing.

"When is this thing moving?," she screeched, gesturing towards the Dumpster.

I calmly answered, "I don't know." I honestly didn't, but I assumed it would be gone in an hour or two.

"Well, it's been blocking my driveway all week!," she shrieked, teeth bared, arms waving wildly.

First of all, it was two days, not all week. Second of all, it would most likely be moved before noon. Third of all, I didn't give a shit. Actually, make that first.

"I didn't put it there.," I replied, this time with a little bit of edge in my voice.

She responded with an incoherent stream of shrill squeals, too high pitched for me to recognize any actual words. I silently answered by going into my house and shutting the door — mid-squawk.

A later conversation my wife had with the house's owner revealed that he would be putting the house up for outright sale in the spring and that the current tenant would be moving in May... or sooner if a sale agreement comes first.

I anticipate the Munsters moving in sometime this summer. In comparison, that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Friday, December 18, 2015

let me play among the stars

It was a few days before Memorial Day 1977 and my friends and I were looking for something to do. We had a three-day weekend ahead of us and, since the school year was winding down, we didn't have much homework (those of us that actually did homework, that is.) Three of us were just hanging around in Scott's room, on the second floor of his parent's Northeast Philadelphia split-level home, trying to figure out what could kill some time on an otherwise boring Wednesday night. Someone began thumbing through a newspaper and suggested we go to a movie. We had already seen Annie Hall, released just a few weeks earlier. We passed on Charles Bronson's White Buffalo and the dumb premise of the would-be thriller The Car.

"How about this one?" asked Scott, pointing to a quarter-page ad for something called Star Wars. I wasn't much into science-fiction. I watched a few episodes of Star Trek years ago without much interest. Scott campaigned for Star Wars and Alan agreed. I think they were just tired of hanging around and doing nothing. So we went.

We knew nothing about what we were about to see. We heard no advanced press, no pre-release buzz, no nothing. We were just three sixteen-year-olds going to a movie. We bought our tickets at the box office (23 years before the likes of Fandango and any sort of service charges and convenience charges). We paid $2.25 for our tickets. We probably bought popcorn and soda and still got change for a five. I don't remember any long lines or any crowds, for that matter. We entered the theater and had our pick of seats. We had no idea what to expect.

The lights soon dimmed and, after several teasers for upcoming feature films (Smokey and the Bandit would be coming out that weekend), the now-familiar and iconic preface scrolled into the screen. Everyone in the theater read it to themselves, a low murmur filling the air as some audience members were unable to whisper or keep their mouths shut. For the next 121 minutes, as the screen lit up with colorful flashes, booming explosions and other special effects, the audience was captivated.

Except me. I didn't get it.

When it was all over, the crowd erupted in wild applause (something I still find odd for a filmed performance). Some felt compelled to punctuate the clapping with hoots and whistles. The extensive closing credits filled the screen as the audience filed out, busily chattering about different scenes and different characters. Some repeated memorable lines. (How many times I would hear "Laugh it up, fuzzball." and "I'd rather kiss a Wookie." in the coming weeks!) Others re-enacted and analyzed key scenes to the best of their recollection.

Except me. I didn't get it.

Even Scott and Alan got caught up in the excitement. They were already talking about seeing it again. I scratched my head. Did I miss something? Did some hidden meaning pass me by? I just watched the same movie they did. It was basically a cowboy and Indian picture with lasers and aliens. Not too profound and certainly not earth-shattering. I think maybe my teenage mind was too old for such childish frivolity. I was more interested in girls and concerts and girls.

As the summer progressed, the buzz for Star Wars increased. My next-door neighbor — four years my junior — saw Star Wars 25 times throughout the course of the summer. He had little action figures of the characters from the movie and he recreated scenes on his front porch for his own amusement — until the next time he saw the film.

But, I just didn't get it. A few years later, I saw The Empire Strikes Back, hoping it would somehow strike a chord with me and it would all suddenly click. It didn't. In 1983, I saw Return of the Jedi, giving this whole Star Wars thing one last chance. By this time, I was 22, far too old to be moved by evil overlords and Jedi knights in shining armor. And still, nothing. No connection was made. Frankly, I found the trilogy boring and forgettable. I know. I know. I am in the definite minority.

When the second wave of Star Wars mania broke, it came complete with built-in recognition and shrewd marketing. Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 when my son was 12, the prime target market. He, of course, loved the film. He had a slew of Star Wars-related toys and played with them often. He enjoyed the original trilogy in re-release and then the subsequent releases in the so-called "prequel saga." He was, like most fans, critical of certain sequences and certain characters (the annoying Jar Jar Binks comes to mind), but, he still considers himself a fan. He loves the Star Wars attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World and, while not a regular viewer (he's 28 now), has an appreciation for the Star Wars cartoon series and their place in the Star Wars canon.

Now, on the eve of the heralded release of the next phase of the Star Wars legend — The Force Awakens — the excitement builds. The Internet and all outlets of social media (something that didn't exist in the first go-round) are a-flutter with speculation, prognostication and anticipation. Disney, the multimedia entertainment powerhouse that purchased the rights to all things Star Wars in 2012, stands to rake in a ton of money from the new movie. Fittingly, they unleashed a meticulously planned marketing assault that began just moments after the ink dried on their contract with George Lucas. The previews are already garnering positive reviews and at least two more films are already planned. There are upcoming modifications to Disney's theme parks to incorporate both the growing and long-time interest in the Star Wars universe. Everyone is excited and delighted and enthusiastic.

Except me. I still don't get it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

that joke isn't funny anymore

See this transit pass? I have been buying one of these every month* for the past nine years. It entitles me to unlimited rides on the SEPTA Regional Rail systems for the entire month designated at the top of the pass (in this case "November 2015"). I ride the train to and from work five days a week. Sometimes, I take the train on weekends. Other times, I take the subway system for quick commutes within the city. My transit pass includes unlimited subway rides, as well.

For the past nine years, I don't believe that my train has ever been on time. Not going to work. Not coming from work and not on those infrequent weekend trips. The train is usually five or six minutes late. Sometimes longer. Sometimes, a lot longer. According to several inquiries to SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, the entity that runs the public transportation system in Philadelphia and its surrounding area), a train can be up to six minutes behind schedule and still be considered "on time." That is a rail system standard — a standard made up by the rail system. I told a representative from SEPTA that it's a good thing that doctors don't work within similar guidelines. ("Yeah, we'll try to operate within six inches of your heart. If we hit your lung, we're still considering that to be your heart".) It's very frustrating to have the train arrive late every single day. I know I get angry and I can tell by the expressions on the faces of my fellow commuters that I see pacing the train platforms daily, the feeling is shared. Sometimes, an announcement is made over the PA system, but the ancient equipment renders it incoherent. Frustrated commuters look at each other in wonder, hoping someone was able to decipher at least a few important words regarding the status of the next arriving train. Once the train does arrive, no words of apology are ever offered by SEPTA personnel. After all, the conductors and the engineer are already at work. They don't give a fuck if you're late.

Then there's this guy. 
He has been the regular conductor on my morning train for several months now. Every day, the train pulls up to the platform and I board, along with the regular group of commuters I see most mornings. Everyone silently selects a seat (if one is available and not blocked by some inconsiderate asshole's purse, briefcase or other type of bag) and then either reads, sleeps or stares into space until we arrive at their station stop. It's sort of a peaceful time to gather your thoughts before mounting the bustle of a hectic workplace.

But this guy.

Obviously, a frustrated performer, this guy uses the captive audience of the morning train riders to test out his lame attempt at humor, delivered in an unfunny deadpan monotone. Believe me, no one is in the mood for his childish wisecracks at such an early hour. Just take my ticket or look at my pass and be on your way. You don't even have to thank me for being a paying customer. He broadcasts announcements on the PA system from the seclusion of a small vestibule outside of the train car itself, then he enters the car and comments on the announcements, pretending that it wasn't his voice we all just heard. He does the same routine every morning and no one laughs. Y'know why no one laughs? Because it's not funny!

One morning, the train arrived (late) and a few people were walking across the parking lot on their way to the steps to get up to the platform. This guy announces that passengers not on the platform when the train arrives would not be able to board and must wait for the next train. Then, with no expression, announced, "I'm only kidding." I can't believe no one slugged him.

I suppose his little jokes would be funny if SEPTA ran an efficient transportation system. But they don't. Not by a fucking long shot! The train is late every, single morning and every, single evening. I know I am not alone in my anger. Co-workers from other suburban destinations share my experience and frustration. My son has given up taking a bus — one that goes right by his house — because of its unreliability. Instead, he has become a regular user (and advocate) for Philadelphia's new bike-sharing** program. He has said that even walking to work would get him there faster that waiting for a SEPTA bus that may or may not even come.  So, I am in no mood to hear the jokes of a system that can't get their primary function — on-time and efficient transportation  — in smooth running order. After all, the "T" in your name stands for "transportation." It is, quite literally, your middle name! 

You wanna joke? Get your shit together first. Then, by all means, joke all you want. You have my blessing.

In the meantime, SEPTA, invest in an accurate watch instead of a book of one-liners.

Note: this was changed from "week" after it was pointed out, by a sharp reader, that I wouldn't be buying my monthly pass on a weekly basis, unless I was an idiot. She was correct on both points.

** I, unfortunately, live too far from work to ride a bike (if I had one), so I remain at SEPTA's mercy. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

well, don't waste your time waiting

I was clicking away on the Internet and I stopped to read an article on a particular webpage. Because I live in the Philadelphia area and it was early December, this banner ad popped up in the middle of the story I was reading:
Yes sir, our good friend Bruce Springsteen was coming to Philadelphia. He just released a sprawling, seven-disc box set called The Ties That Bind, a comprehensive collection of songs, demos, outtakes and performances from the pivotal The River-era of the venerable Jersey rocker's career. It features the original The River album along with tracks that The Boss deemed sub-par enough to leave off the disc in 1980, but good enough for the fans that have stood by his side for the next 35 years. And, as if the flood of audio wasn't enough, there's four hours of never-before-seen footage of Bruce performing these songs, rehearsing these songs, talking about these songs and burning these songs into two stone tablets with fire from his fingertips. 

So, in order to promote this release and sell the faithful followers on a set of essentially Springsteen cast-offs, rejects and filler, he's springing the remainder of the E Street Band from their various retirement facilities and dragging them on the road to recreate the whole The River experience for those who saw it the first time around (like me) and those too young to have witnessed it.

That's right. I saw The guitar-slingin' Jersey Devil for the very first time on December 9, 1980 when The River tour made a stop at the Philadelphia Spectrum. It was one of the best concerts I have ever seen. He was magical and fully dazzled the audience. Bruce and his band played a marathon three-hour set, delivering their "Detroit Medley" encore with the house lights on and oblivious to the fact that Mark David Chapman was shooting John Lennon to death just 96 miles away. 

After that, I saw Springsteen two more times and the spell was broken. Then, he released Lucky Town and Human Touch simultaneously and I was all done with the Bruce Springsteen portion of my life. I was his biggest fan. I still know every single lyric to Lost in the Flood and Incident on 57th Street but now, I couldn't name a Springsteen song that came out after 1985.

So, just out of pure curiosity, I clicked on the banner. I was immediately taken here:
The Wells Fargo Center, the current multi-purpose venue that replaced the outdated (and now long-gone) Spectrum, had placed me in a "virtual waiting room." According to the website, due to the heavy demand for tickets, I was relegated to watching an animated circle of dots draw and redraw itself until I was connected to the actual ticket-purchasing section of their web presence. Well, I had no intention of purchasing tickets, but, I do have a sense of adventure so I waited to see how long it took until I was given the opportunity to actually buy tickets. 

One minute.

Two minutes.

Three minutes. I opened another tab.

Ten minutes.

I read an article. I checked my email. I clicked through a pop-up to see what had become of the cast of F-Troop.

Twenty minutes. That circle had orbited itself about a zillion times.

Thirty-minutes. I went and got a cup of coffee. When I came back, a new graphic appeared, this one offering the option to request the best available tickets for the February 12 performance in Philadelphia. Again, my curious finger clicked the "find tickets" button and it returned with a pair located on an upper level section at a price of $150 each, not including the additional convenience and service charges. The tickets on the secondary market threaten to command upwards of three-hundred dollars a pop.

I laughed to myself. My first concert — Alice Cooper — cost me $6.50 for a ticket. That was the going rate, with a few topping out at ten bucks (Elton John comes to mind.) When I saw Bruce Springsteen in 1980, nineteen-year-old Josh Pincus had to scrape together an unheard of $15 for admission. Thirty-five years later, time had tacked a zero at the end of that already steep price. 

I imagine that the shows on this tour will sell out. I imagine Bruce Springsteen will make a ton of money to add to the ton of money he already has. I imagine the money he will make for touring in support of an album that is thirty-five years old will give him great satisfaction. The one-time working class guy who grew up out behind the dynamo near the darkness on the edge of town is living the "American Dream."

The ties that bind indeed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

papa's got a brand new bag

Through the far-reaching avenues of social media, Mrs. Pincus came upon a wonderful organization called Valley Youth House. Since its humble beginnings over 40 years ago, Valley Youth House has offered shelter and counseling to LGBT youngsters, now homeless and abused, who have been cast out by families that do not approve of their lifestyle. The thought of parents kicking their child out of the house because they are gay is heartbreaking. I have heard first-hand stories of this — where religion (there's that word again!) has taken precedent over a parent's love for a child — and it is just inconceivable.

Valley Youth House presented a program for the holiday season in which their residents compiled wish lists for presents. These lists were posted on the organization's Facebook page and people could chose to buy as much or as little from the individual youth's requests. Then, once purchased and properly identified with the recipient's first name, the gifts could be dropped off at one of several locations for eventual distribution.

My wife was matched up with Diane, a 16-year-old girl who was thrown out of her home by her parents. Mrs. P perused her requests. Diane asked for an iPad right off the bat. Nice try, kiddo, but I don't even have an iPad. Further down (and more reasonable) on the list were some lotions from Forever 21, a trendy and sometimes controversialchain store catering to "fashion du jour," as well as a gift card from the store. That was more like it.

One afternoon, Mrs. P popped into a nearby Forever 21 and purchased several items – a gift-packaged assortment of lotions and the gift card – from Diane's selections. The cashier gathered everything up and placed them into a sturdy, bright yellow plastic bag emblazoned with the store's logotype. At home, my wife arranged the items in a small, festive gift bag and asked if I could transport the present to Valley Youth House's office just three blocks from the building in which I work in Philadelphia. I said I'd be happy to. (Never let it be said that I am not charitable and won't walk three blocks to prove it.)

At noon on a Tuesday, I put on my jacket, grabbed the bright yellow plastic Forever 21 bag containing the gift and set out for my three-block good deed journey. Fifteen minutes later, when I returned from my goodwill mission, I began to fold the plastic bag to shove it into my messenger bag to bring it home and add to our handy collection of shopping bags that every home has. Carefully folding the bottom of the bag up to the top, I screeched to a halt. Covertly printed in plain block letters along the bottom gusset of the bag were seven characters bisected by single mark of punctuation. I was horrified.
"John 3:16" I recognized it immediately as a biblical reference and I knew (from numerous category appearances on Jeopardy! and that rainbow-wigged nut job at various televised sporting events) it was from the New Testament. To be really sure of its meaning, a quick Google search yielded this:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
"Wow." was my first thought. "What is this doing on the bag of a retail store?" was my second thought. "Why are they hiding it?" was the thought after that. A little more Internet research revealed that Forever 21's founders, Do Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook, are born-again Christians. Fine. Good for them. But, if they are so proud of their religious beliefs, why isn't the scriptural quote plastered across the front of every one of their stores instead of secretly tucked away where the average person (and possibly-offended customer) might not see it. At least right-wing poultry purveyors Chick-Fil-A (no pun intended) have no problem wearing their Jesus on their sleeve. They have made their views on religion and abortion and gay rights publicly known with seemingly no regard for the repercussions on their business — and there were plenty of repercussions. Plus it's kind of difficult to hide the fact that all Chick-Fil-As are closed on Sunday (the Lord's Day or the Chicken's Day). Sneaking a tiny biblical reference into an inconspicuous spot on a component of your business is just that — sneaky. I wonder if our anonymous gift recipient Diane realizes that she is patronizing a store that has such deep religious beliefs that it feels compelled to preach its message — however secluded — to its customers. Diane, as we learned, was tossed out of her house by her folks because of her struggle with her own sexuality. Instead of love, compassion and understanding from her parents, they chose to forsake their child in favor of... well, nothing should be more important than your child in a time of need. Perhaps Diane would cease shopping at Forever 21 if she knew they shared the same feelings as the parents who turned their backs on her. Perhaps, Forever 21 is aware of the uncomfortable feeling that forced religion may give potential customers, so while they still preach their gospel... they just hide it.

West Coast fast-food darlings In-N-Out Burger have taken the Forever 21 route, as well. Thousands of unsuspecting customers are drinking sodas and munching hamburgers from cardboard cups and containers imprinted with tiny bible verse references not readily noticeable to the naked eye. But if you look carefully, they're there. On the inside rim on the bottom of cups. On the bottom corner of french fry bags. On the bottom of burger wrappers. I guess the next step is opening drive-thru confessionals.

Remember when you were a kid in Sunday School and they'd tell you that "God is everywhere"? I don't think this is what they meant.

*Forever 21's business practices regarding labor and copyright infringement have been questioned.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

load up on guns, bring your friends

I started to write this post several times because I didn't know where to begin. I am dumbfounded by the kind of society we have become. I am puzzled by the things for which we have no regard and the things that we choose to hold dear.
  • We love Walmart. I can understand that. Their prices are ridiculously cheap on most items, although the experience of actually shopping in a Walmart can sometimes (most times) be surreal.
  • We love the Kardashians. This I do not understand. I can, to some extent, understand people's appreciation for actors, actresses, sports figures and other celebrities noted for some type of accomplishment. But, I do not understand the appeal of the Kardashians. They don't even have that "Oh my God! I can't look away" appeal. They are vapid, meaningless and not at all relatable to the common person, especially to those that hang on to their every word and action.
  • We love religion. Our own religion, of course, not yours. We will argue and defend our faith and our spiritual beliefs in the most caustic, confrontational and violent ways possible — just to prove that my made-up deity is the right made-up deity and your made-up deity is stupid.
  • And last, but certainly not least, we love guns. We love to shoot them. We love to threaten with them. We love to wave them around and talk about how it's our God-given right to own them. We love to stockpile them and misquote the Constitution about them.
Y'know what we don't love? We don't love life. We don't love peace. We don't love respect. We don't love compassion. We don't love integrity. We don't love truth. We think we love these things, we say we love these things, but we really don't.

Here's the part I don't understand? The things we don't love are easy things. They come naturally. They're instinctive. They're human nature. The other things — the things we consciously choose to cherish — take effort and money and concentration.

There have been 82,000 gun-related deaths in the United States since Adam Lanza shot and killed 28 people in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012. 82,000 in three years. That's absurd! What are we doing to each other and why aren't we doing anything about it? It's sad that we care more about killing each other than we do about just each other. If someone doesn't share your opinion, that's okay. You don't have to kill them. If you don't like someone, that's okay. Ignore them. Steer clear of them. You don't have to kill them. Look, I won't hide the fact that I have wished for the deaths of a lot of people, but I would never actually attempt to cause those deaths. I've wished for a million dollars and for the skies to open up and rain ice cream, too. These are just things I hope would happen. I would never act on it or help it along.

Comedian/director Bobcat Goldthwait offered this observation in his 2011 biting satire God Bless America: "Why have a civilization anymore if we no longer are interested in being civilized?"

The whole thing is upsetting and, sadly, it will continue. But it doesn't have to.

Monday, November 30, 2015

insatiable an appetite, wanna try?

I have very fond memories of Thanksgiving. I remember my mom waking up early on Thanksgiving morning to prepare a giant turkey with her homemade stuffing. After putting the turkey into the oven for a good, long roasting, she'd pop a foil tray of frozen candied sweet potatoes in to keep the turkey company. Then, she'd line up an array of canned vegetables and, one by one, run them under the electric can opener and dump their contents into one of a number of saucepans on the stove. 

Soon, our regular guests would arrive — my aunt and my grandmother. My aunt would hover around the kitchen, offering help to my mother. My mother, of course, had the meal preparation down to a science and politely declined assistance. She made the same meal every year and, at this point, could make it with her eyes closed. My grandmother knew better than to enter my mother's kitchen. Instead, my grandmother would park herself on the sofa opposite my father and complain. About everything. My father would nod and feign interest, devoting more attention to his cigarettes and the televised football game than to his mother's incessant bellyaching.

After what seemed like forever, dinner was finally served. My dad sliced up the golden-brown bird. Side dishes were passed around and plates were filled to overflowing. Then, before a single bite was take, my father would ask me his traditional question.

"Do you want cranberry sauce?," he'd ask, a big, purple, cylindrical blob quivering on the serving plate poised in his hand.

I would frown and shudder at the sight of that unnatural jellied mass. As a youngster, I would merely shake my head. As a teenager with a developing sardonic personality, I would reply accordingly.

That's it 
right next to the flowers.
"Have you ever seen me eat cranberry sauce?," I said one year. Another year, I replied, "I'm trying to keep my 'no cranberry sauce' streak going for another consecutive year." In later years, when I grew tired of acerbic retorts, I would just respond with an annoyed "no." My father, however, never got the message. He still continued to ask the question every year.

Life events — marriage, the deaths of my mother and father, expanding families — altered my Thanksgiving arrangements. After many years of bouncing from relatives' and friends' homes, this year, for the very first time, Thanksgiving dinner was an intimate gathering of three — my wife, my son and me. Just the Pincuses. Mrs. P, outnumbered by vegetarians 2 to 1, graciously conceded to forgo turkey and make a Tofurky® for our holiday dinner. She filled the roasting pan with fresh potatoes, carrots, celery and herbs, creating a base for that softball-sized hunk of faux poultry. With the soy "bird" safely browning in the oven, Mrs. P made her own cranberry sauce. Nope, not that weird "slide out of the can" stuff. She made the real deal, just like the Pilgrims presented to the Native Americans before the post-meal slaughter. 

The table looked beautiful. In addition to the fake turkey (delicious fake turkey, I might add!), it was laden with vegetables, hot-from-the-oven-rolls, gravy and homemade cranberry sauce.  And this year, I decided that my nonsense had gone on too long. I was an adult. I was going to try cranberry sauce. In a scenario reminiscent of my "baked beans" episode, and much to my wife's surprise, I bravely placed a heaping dollop of cranberry sauce on my plate alongside a gravy-covered slice of Tofurky®. At least it looked like food and not a giant, glistening eraser. I scooped up a forkful and raised it to my mouth. Then, I shoveled it home.

It was good. Really good.

I finished my initial small portion and took more. My wife smiled — pleased that I liked her cranberry sauce and pleased that I was finally eating cranberry sauce.

"Your father would be proud.," she said.

Yeah, but he'd probably question me about something else.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

baby, don't you cry, gonna bake a pie

A few evenings ago, Mrs. P and I went shopping as soon as I came home from work. When we returned home after an hour or so, we found this hand-written note (pictured above) lying on the cement step just inside our screen door. On a single sheet of lined notebook paper, torn from its spiral binding, the note was written in the unsteady hand of a teenager. It read:

Hello. My name is

Jin Yu  for from Cheltenham High School
The day before thanksgiving I
I am dropping off yourpies
you ordered on Wed Nov 25
(day before Thanksgiving
Please give me a call
to let me know what time
I should drop the pies off
215 - (phone number)

Thank you &
Happy Thanksgiving

The author was kind enough to offer a pronunciation of his name — Jin You — in parenthesis below the actual spelling of his name.

It took a few reads until we figured out that "yourpies" was actually "your pies." I asked my wife, a phenomenal and proud baker, if she had ordered pies from someone in the neighborhood. Every year, for the past 31, she single-handedly bakes and serves up a huge assortment of goodies from the oven to a houseful of freeloaders guests on the evening before Thanksgiving. So, I already knew the answer before the question left my lips. However, Mrs. P has been known to be charitable and it really wouldn't have surprised me if she ordered a pie from some forlorn young student as a goodwill gesture. Something I would never do in a million years.

Well, we came to the conclusion that she didn't order any pies and we knew that I certainly didn't order any pies. At this point, I would have dropped the issue, but not Mrs. P. She began to contact some surrounding neighbors via text message and Facebook. (Again, something I would never do in a million years.) Within minutes, she received negative replies from all. The mystery had come to a standstill.

The night before Thanksgiving is one day away. Did poor Jin Yu take pie orders from people in a house that looks like mine? Did he forget from whom he took orders? Will Jin Yu possibly be delivering pies to me that I did not order? Or has he figured out his error by now?

Hmm.... I wonder what kind of pies they are and I wonder if Jin Yu will have a happy Thanksgiving. If he gets stuck with those pies, I suppose he will.

We have our own pies, thank you very much.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

our love's in jeopardy

I have been watching Jeopardy! for years. I started watching with my mom in the 60s, when it was hosted by the late Art Fleming. In its original incarnation, the highest dollar amount in the first round was $50. Later, when the show was brought back in the 80s, now hosted by Alex Trebek, the question values increased, but the questions themselves remained just as difficult. I used to make sure I got to watch Jeopardy! every evening, but as time moved on and other things in my life took a greater priority, watching Jeopardy! became a "Oh,  guess I'll just watch Jeopardy!" thing.

Last week, Jeopardy! featured its annual, two-week, ratings hog Tournament of Champions, during which the regular daily game is interrupted for a "March Madness"-like playoff that pits the previous season's top winners against each other for a final competition. The winner receives $250,000 and all the glory that lasts for a day or two. I managed to watch a few episodes of the quarter finals of this year's contest and I even recognized a few of the contestants. The games whittled the participants down to three who would return for a two-day, cumulative scoring round at the end of Week Two. The first was Kerry, a woman I do not remember seeing when she appeared in her regular run of games. Kerry had the nondescript looks of any number of Jeopardy! contestants over the years. She had a quiet demeanor, contrary to most multi-day champions, but she was just as awkward. Then, there was Matt, another awkward, though aggressive, young man who refused to let Alex Trebek finish a sentence before demanding his next question. He also spoke way too loud into the microphone. In the middle position was Alex, an intensely focused fellow, who took this game very, very seriously. He strategically wagered large amounts of his cash and rarely cracked a smile. Often during the games, you could see that Alex was in the zone.

I watched the first evening of the Tournament of Champions finals. During the show, I took to Twitter, as it has become the current, fun way to watch television. It's like watching TV with hundreds (even thousands of your "friends") across the country. Just as the first round began, I tweeted this, in typically smart-ass fashion:
And I continued to watch, as the three contestants mashed their buzzers and rattled off answers to questions that I would not be able to answer with a gun pointed to my head. I consider myself a pretty good student of trivia, but some of these questions were like a graduate school final exam. The "Double Jeopardy!" round was just as difficult and ended with Alex in prime position. He won the game and was poised to take it all on Day Two.

The next morning, I was notified that my snarky little tweet got a few "likes." One of them was from one @whoisalexjacob — Alex himself — the current leader in the Tournament of Champions.
I am always amused when I get a "like" like this. And, obviously,  Alex has a sense of humor about the whole experience, so I replied with this, which Alex "liked," as well:
I really was rooting for him. I found Matt's rambunctious nature to be annoying and I thought that Kerry didn't really stand a chance. Unfortunately, I had a haircut appointment that evening and I would be unable to see the final deciding showdown of the Tournament of Champions. When I got home, a quick Google search revealed the outcome of the tournament. As expected, Alex came through victorious, raking in a quarter of a million dollars for his effort. I offered up this tweet to Alex and the whole Jeopardy! watching world:
As he basked in the brief glory his championship has brought him, Alex gave that tweet a "like," too. Maybe he even smiled.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

is this burning an eternal flame

How many times has something like this happened to you?

A couple of weeks ago, we had friends come over for dinner. My wife asked me to light the dozen or so pillar candles that we have arranged on a really cool, multi-tiered, cast-iron holder in our fireplace. I picked up the extended grill lighter that we keep next to the hearth and gave the trigger a few flicks. It sputtered and sputtered again, producing only a brief, weak spark and a wisp of smoke. A few more clicks and I was convinced that this thing had served us well, but that it had lit its last candle. I scrambled through some drawers, found a forgotten pack of matches and I was back in business. I made a mental note to buy a new lighter, although I soon forgot.

My wife and I were in Home Depot to purchase a piece of plywood to repair the seat of a chair that my wife picked up for almost next to nothing. As we finished checking out, I noticed a small display of grill lighters sitting alongside a huge, point-of-purchase unit filled with more batteries than I or anyone have ever used in a lifetime. I pointed the lighters out to Mrs. P and she asked if I want to grab one, as long as we were here. "No," I said, dismissively, "I don't want to get back in line. I'll get one another time." Again, I made a mental note to buy a new lighter, but, again, I soon forgot.

On the afternoon of a lazy Sunday, I decided to make a quick trip to the supermarket to purchase some immediate "fill-in" items (half & half and cereal come to mind) of which I saw we were running low. I scribbled out a quick list, adding "lighter" at the end as a post-script to myself. I wandered the aisles of the market, referring to my list and filling my hand-held basket with the few items I needed. Next to the shelves of Cheerios (strangely enough) was a small rack stocked with carded blister-packs of grill lighters. Each card housed a pair of lighters and a tiny sticker identified the price as $3.99. I considered the price. This supermarket — one of many in close proximity to my house — was part of an independent co-op of markets not able to be competitive with the "big guys," so I figured this price may be high. I decided to pass and just stop at the much larger Target that shares the parking lot. I assumed (based on absolutely nothing) that Target would, undoubtedly, be cheaper. I left the lighter display as I had found it and made my way to the checkout. 

I drove over to find a closer parking space to the Target, although I probably could have walked. Once inside, I was quickly distracted by a bag of granola in bright yellow packaging. A red and white sign proclaimed a sale price of four bucks, so I grabbed a bag and set out to find.... um.... oh, right!... a grill lighter! I paraded up and down every logical aisle — housewares, automotive, even lighting — until I stumbled upon a shelf filled with Duraflame fireplace logs. Just behind the logs was a hook with packages of Bic brand lighters. These were packaged in pairs, as well, but the shelf tag read $5.19 for the pack. Now, I'm no math whiz, but even I can figure out in my head that $5.19 for 2 is more than $3.99 for 2. I stood there with that bag of granola dangling off my hand like extensions of my fingers, staring at the colorful-handled lighters and the inflated price. I dropped the granola on a nearby shelf and silently stormed out in disgust... and empty-handed.

I drove to the end of the parking lot and pulled up to the Home Depot — the same Home Depot at which this stupid quest began. I parked and stomped into the store, right up to the display that I had seen earlier in the week. This time, the brand was Scripto and the lighters (called "Aim 'n Flame") were offered in single unit packaging with a price tag of $2.97. Using my math skills once again, I concluded that this was the most expensive of all. I realized that, if I had just stuck with the "no name" brand from the supermarket, I wouldn't have had to make two additional stops, I would have had two lighters, I would have spent less money and I would probably have been home by now!

"Fuck it!," I muttered to myself and I lumbered angrily out of Home Depot. Once again, empty-handed.

I still have to pick up a grill lighter. But, I'm sure I'll forget about it as soon as I finish typing this.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

goin' up the country

My father-in-law needed a new computer, so my wife graciously offered to drive down to Delaware (just an hour south and the well-publicized "Home of Tax-Free Shopping") to pick one up. She swung by my office after work one weekday evening and we braved the I-95 rush hour traffic to get to a Best Buy in Newark, right near the sprawling Christiana Mall.

Within minutes, and with absolutely no help nor acknowledgment from a single member of the blue-shirted-and-khaki-pantsed sales team, we selected a spanking-new laptop and made our way up to the front of the store to check out. We actually passed several more salespeople who saw me carrying a large box and didn't offer assistance or a second glance. Remember ol' Circuit City when it comes time to permanently shutter the doors of another alliteratively-named electronics retailer.

At this time, in the post-Daylight Saving Time portion of the year, the sky had already darkened and the subject of "dinner" became the topic of discussion. Mrs. P and I went through the usual "well, where do you want to eat" conversational volley. We both scanned our smart phones for a nearby dinner option until we spotted the glowing red channel lettering of an Old Country Buffet just at the edge of the parking lot. 

"How about there?," Mrs. Pincus suggested.

Many years ago, Mrs P and I, with our young son in tow, would frequent an Old Country Buffet that opened a few miles from our home. It was far from fancy and exactly what one would expect from a family-oriented, serve-yourself restaurant that costs under ten bucks a person. They had a pretty good selection of entrees, side dishes and salads to satisfy our vegetarian appetites. It was definitely "no frills" and it didn't pretend to be otherwise. However, on one visit in particular (one that turned out to be our last), my wife observed an employee filling up the ice dispenser with the discarded ice from the self-serve soda fountain. That's right! The slightly melting, used cubes from the fill-my-cup-up-halfway-and-dump-it trough that serves as the drain for the dripping soda nozzles. A complaint to a manager accomplished nothing, so we placed ourselves on a self-imposed exile from Old Country Buffet.

I considered Mrs. P's suggestion. This year, it seems, has become the year of second chances for restaurants, so I agreed to give Old Country Buffet another shot.

The front door to the restaurant was opened for us by a manager outside on a smoke break and she smiled as we passed through her nicotine cloud. The long approach to the "pay-as-you-enter" cash register was being patrolled by a couple of flies, lazily circling just below the overhead lights. Flies in a restaurant is a turn-off for me. Flies in a restaurant in the second week of November - well, this wasn't a good second impression.

A disinterested young lady welcomed us with no shred of welcome. The total for the two of us was just shy of thirty bucks. Now, thirty dollars for dinner for two is not at all unreasonable. But, given that this was the Old Country Buffet, I was a little — oh, I don't know — shocked? surprised? annoyed? or a combination of the three. We selected a table in the cluttered dining area and converged on our dining options.

As a veteran of many buffets, I know a few things. By opting to be a vegetarian, I know that most buffet offerings are not for me. The inclusion of hand-carved roast beef, homemade fried chicken and slow-cooked barbecued ribs are deal-sealers for most people. For me, at least one fish entree (prepared any style), several vegetables and a salad is just fine as far as I'm concerned. I also know that a dinner plate becomes a mish-mash of food that would never be served together in any other restaurant on the face of the earth. Pizza rubs its golden crust against a lumpy dollop of mashed potatoes. Steamed broccoli and macaroni and cheese mingle freely with tacos and dinner rolls. And Jello fits awkwardly in there somewhere.
I started off with salad, a pretty safe bet. The salad bar was stocked with standard fare — shredded carrots, red cabbage, three kinds of mixed greens. I piled my glass plate high, anticipating meager choices in the main course section. I spotted a few unusual items among the staples, like something labeled "Strawberry Banana Salad." I could surmise what it was based on its two listed ingredients, but I was confused by its position next to the sliced beets and its inclusion in the salad area, not the dessert bar.

I sat down to eat. The salad was pretty average. It's tough to screw up salad. The jalapeño corn muffin I nabbed from the "Mexican Fiesta" section was seriously lacking in the jalapeño department.

I grabbed a plate and headed to the entree section. The place was teeming with one meat dish after another. There were plenty of vegetables — corn, broccoli, carrots, green beans — all floating in a cloudy-looking liquid, pale and limp from having the nutrients (and life) overcooked out of them. A fellow, standing guard over several unidentifiable cuts of meat, his hands clad in disposable sanitary gloves and his hair sequestered under a paper hat, asked if I'd like some ribs. I smiled and told him I was after the few thin fillets of bland-looking fish to fill out my plate. The looks of the fish were not at all deceiving. 

As my wife and I sat and ate, we tried to focus on each other, not allowing our eyes to stray from one side or the other, but we couldn't help ourselves. The clientele were a sad collection of families and single diners, all hunched over plates overflowing with beige food. It seems I was the only one partaking of any of the vegetables. Over here, one guy stared directly at me, as he slowly shoveled neon macaroni into his mouth. Behind me, two weather-beaten gentlemen in filthy coveralls munched on grilled cheese sandwiches (from the children's buffet) and picked wax from their grimy ears. And, since we chose "Family Night" for our first return visit in 25 years, the place was rampant with face-painted kiddies weaving in and out of the tables, screeching wildly with helium balloons bouncing in their wake.

After dinner, my wife reluctantly, but obligingly, walked up to take a glance at the dessert selections. Small plates of commercially-prepared cake slices and brownies surrounded a display of freshly-spun cotton candy.
The only other buffet I have seen offer cotton candy is the mile-long, sumptuous Spice Market at the Planet Hollywood Resort on The Strip in Las Vegas. There was no mistaking this buffet for that one. 

Old Country Buffet is the restaurant equivalent of Walmart. They know their audience, they know what they want and they accommodate them well — with no pretense or lofty expectations. 

But, you only get two chances to make a first impression.