Tuesday, January 27, 2015

walking to new orleans

My wife and I just returned from New Orleans, sneaking back from the 60 degree weather to the Philadelphia area in between two winter storms. It was our first trip to The Crescent City and, while we had a good time, I will be the first one to admit that we don't vacation like most people. Mrs. Pincus and I do not drink. As far as eating, I am a vegetarian and although Mrs. P eats meat, we observe the laws of kashrut, so no meat unless it is certified kosher*, no shellfish or any other shit-eating bottom-feeder, thus eliminating a good portion of the cuisine for which The Big Easy is renown.

One evening, after a full day of exploring a couple of New Orleans' famous cemeteries, Mrs. P was bushed. She headed back to our hotel room. I offered to go out to pick up dinner. I had read about a place called The Gumbo Shop that offered a vegetarian version of the signature Creole dish. The restaurant was close by, just off of Jackson Square. Mrs. Pincus curled up under the blankets and I set out on my mission.

I'm going to make a confession. I am not the most patient person that ever lived. Especially when I am walking. I am a determined walker. I do not stroll. I do not meander. I do not saunter. In the morning, when I exit my train, I proceed with a purposeful gait. I am not on a happy jaunt with a Straw Man and a Tin Man towards The Emerald City. I am headed to work. I don't like to get behind someone who is weaving unsteadily across the sidewalk like they are already drunk at 8:30 in the morning. You wanna take your morning constitutional? Save it for the early dawn hours on a beach somewhere.

I crossed over to Canal Street making my way towards Bourbon Street. I dodged a few of the many homeless that littered the narrow thoroughfares of the French Quarter. The sidewalks were beginning to fill with inebriated tourists, reeling all over the pavements, some stopping indiscriminately and for no apparent reason. Grrrr! Sidewalks should be treated like highways. Move to the right lane if you're going to move slowly. The left lane is for passing. Look, I realize that the New Orleans tourist area is filled with tourists and that tourists are in no rush because they are on vacation, but please! How about a little courtesy for other types of tourists. Like me.

I made a right onto Bourbon Street. I immediately thought, "So! This is where they moved Sodom and Gomorrah!" I was practically the only person who wasn't currently draining a container of alcohol. Don't get me wrong. I don't mind if people drink and make merry. But do they have to do it while they imitate a ball in a pinball machine? The French Quarter sidewalks are narrow, but, luckily the street was closed to motor vehicles. Pedestrians (those that could still walk), taking full advantage of the traffic situation, staggered and careened from one curb to the other.

I weaved in and out, carefully avoiding bodily contact with the hoards of drunkards. Just ahead, I spotted The Gumbo Shop's sign and located the entrance. A long queue line of potential patrons had clogged the entrance way. I cut an uncompromising path to the hostess podium and inquired about placing a take-out order. After a brief wait, the smiling bartender appeared with a plastic-handled bag stuffed with steaming, fragrant gumbo and a full, crusty baguette. I exited and rerouted myself to the wider, yet just as congested, Decatur Street parallel to the Mississippi Riverfront. I threaded my way through the tipsy crush of people, none of whom were moving in anything close to a straight line.

The foot traffic thinned out as I crossed Poydras Street. I could once again walk my normal walk. Quick. Straight. Determined.

Yeah. I know it's me.

*Please don't even start with that "blessed by a rabbi" bullshit. You have the internet. Look it up.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I just died in your arms tonight

I met Taylor Negron in 2012, after being a fan for many years. "Who?" you may ask. Well, I'll tell you.

He's that guy. You know, that guy. He's been in everything. He was the pizza delivery guy who brought a pie to Sean Penn's classroom, much to the chagrin of irate teacher Ray Walston in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He played Rodney Dangerfield's slimy son-in-law in Easy Money. He appeared as "David Montagne," the uptight, prissy guardian of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Disney remake of Angels in the Outfield. He took a turn as the villain Milo in the action flick The Last Boy Scout. On television, he had roles in ER, Friends, Seinfeld (as Elaine's hairdresser), and a bunch of other shows you never heard of. Taylor was a regular in the short-lived series Detective School and the post-Full House Olsen Twins series So Little Time. (Yeah, me neither.)

Taylor was a playwright and a painter, as well as a stand-up comedian. That's where I first took notice of his talent. I used to regularly patronize a comedy club in Philadelphia, where I saw numerous up-and-coming comics. Some went on to "bigger and better" (Eddie Murphy, Richard Jeni, Jackie Martling) and some never got further than that little Philadelphia stage. One evening, I happened to be at a restaurant on the same street as the comedy club, although I did not attend that evening's show. I was leaving dinner as the comedy show was also letting out and I recognized Taylor Negron crossing the street. I hollered, "Hey! Taylor!" He looked up at me and waved, then continued on his way. I really didn't expect him to do much more than that.

Years later, I attended another in a long line of collector shows that I have been known to frequent. Although this show had a monster/horror theme, Taylor Negron was making an appearance, despite the lack of horror-related films on his long resume. I entered the big conference room and scanned the different tables and displays for a sign of Taylor. He was in a far corner between William Forsythe (another actor with a character resume as long as your arm) and one of the guys who played the adult "Jason Voorhees" in a double-digit Friday the 13th sequel (sitting behind a table covered with glossy photos of someone in a hockey mask; for all anyone knew, they could've been pictures of Bernie Parent). Unlike the other "celebrities," Taylor was not sequestered behind a table, cordoned off from the public. He was out in front, mingling, joking and laughing with the conventioneers. I waited patiently for his autograph, getting in line behind a guy with whom Taylor was enjoying a lively banter. Because of my close proximity, I couldn't help but overhear their conversation. I heard Taylor make a reference to actor Steve McQueen, to which I rudely interjected, "I don't know how to break this to you, but Steve McQueen is dead." Taylor looked right at me, a solemn, mournful expression on his face.

"I know." he said, "He died in my arms." He paused. Then, he grinned. Then, he burst out laughing.

When my turn came to speak one-on-one with Taylor, I related the story of calling to him across the street all those years ago. He laughed and said he remembered (he didn't) and explained that he had told me "go fuck yourself," but I guess I didn't hear him. He laughed again and threw a friendly arm around my shoulders. He graciously posed for a photo with me and signed an 8 x 10 from Easy Money, inscribing the shot "Can I call you Dad?," a reference to his character in the film.

I spent less than ten minutes with Taylor Negron. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy. Based on his body of work, he seemed like a reliable guy and dedicated to his career. And really funny.

Taylor passed away January 10 at the all-too-young age of 57. I'm glad I got to meet him.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I could while away the hours

I first saw The Wizard of Oz as a child in the mid-1960s, when (beginning in 1958) it was broadcast annually on network television. I watched it with my Mom, my Dad and older brother, the four of us gathered around the 19-inch black and white Zenith that was the centerpiece of our den AKA "the television room." I enjoyed the movie immensely, but it wasn't until my family got its first color television that I realized why Dorothy gasped when she opened the door to Oz and how much it indeed differed from Kansas.

Every year, my brother would tease me, convincing me that this year, the Wicked Witch was going make a surprise move to her left when Dorothy threw the fateful bucket of water. He told me as though The Wizard of Oz was a live event, like a boxing match. But every year, I'd fall for it, anticipating the trick move that would enable the Witch to nab those ruby slippers once and for all. (After all, technically, they were her birthright!)

From the time I was a kid, through the birth of my own son and later, I have seen The Wizard of Oz countless times. I continued to watch the annual network broadcasts and I watched nearly every showing since its exclusive move to cable in 2000. I also own a DVD copy, even following the Internet's instructions for syncing it up to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" when the so-called "Dark Side of the Rainbow" craze was popular.

The Wizard of Oz became one of my favorite films. Not so much that it is a great movie, but more for the nostalgic memories that it stirs up. I still will watch it if I spot it in the TV listings. I know a load of trivia associated with the film. But, because its original release was 22 years before I was born, I never had the opportunity to see it as it was meant to be seen — on the big screen.

Until now.

This week, the good folks at Turner Classic Movies, the greatest cable channel of them all, presented a limited theater run of  the 1939 classic. Last night, Mrs. Pincus and I (and a couple of friends) attended one of only four showings at the same theater where we saw Big Eyes this past Christmas. We purchased our admission online, ($12.50 per ticket, a twelve dollar and twenty-five cent increase from its initial run) securing seats early, because we could not gauge the appeal that this limited engagement would have. 

When we arrived at the theater, our "crowd size" questions were answered. The darkened auditorium was sparsely populated with no more than two dozen patrons. Actually, closer to 20. We grabbed our usual spot — last row, just under the projection booth — and waited for the movie to start. After a brief recorded introduction by TCM host Robert Osbourne, the center of the modern wide screen flickered with the familiar image of the MGM lion. I was immediately surprised, then remembered that Panavision, CinemaScope and other wide-screen technology didn't exist in 1939. The film, for you movie buffs, was shot in 1:37 aspect ratio, which is basically, a little square. The title card, accompanied by the orchestrated strains of "Over the Rainbow," flashed across the screen in glorious sharp sepia-tone. 

My wife had preconceived plans to make this event a second coming of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with reciting dialogue before the on-screen actors, and singing along with the beloved songs. No one seemed to mind when we questioned aloud with the Emerald City guard, "The Witch's Dorothy?"  And we definitely were not alone when we collectively answered the Scarecrow's directional query "To Oz?" with an emphatic "To Oz!" While a lot of the audience was quiet, it was a foregone conclusion that nobody was seeing The Wizard of Oz for the first time tonight. Or the second time. Or the twentieth time.

Yeah, we were all there for the same reason.

(By the way, the newly "brained" Scarecrow's statement: "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side" — is not true of any type of triangle.)

Friday, January 9, 2015

wake up the members of my nation

When I moved to Elkins Park, there was a little grocery around the corner from my house called Ashbourne Market. Despite its small footprint, the store offered a variety of specialty items, gourmet versions of many dietary staples and a smattering of unusual and exotic fare. At the time, it managed to hold its own against the big chain supermarkets. As a matter of fact, it thrived. The neighborhood loved the little market and it was often very busy.

And then it closed. The neighborhood yentas spread rumors, speculating on any number of reasons for their favorite store's collapse, but no one was able to nail down the actual cause. The building sat empty for a long time. A big, hulking shell smack on a main thoroughfare opposite the Elkins Park train station, its presence a sad reminder of a once-bustling retail establishment.

Meanwhile, a burgeoning co-op opened a mere six miles away, supplying the revitalized neighborhood of Mount Airy with a real sense of community and camaraderie. It was the true embodiment of how a co-op functions.

Coming soon...
Someone in Elkins Park, with their heart in the right place, suggested that the former Ashbourne market site would be the ideal location for a co-op of our very own. A committee was formed. Meetings were held and a membership drive began in 2009. And the building remained empty. For a long time. A... very... long... time. The meetings still continued and more members were recruited but without a lick of progress on the building.

Suddenly, at the beginning of 2012 (that's right, three years later), demolition crews descended on the building and — at a snail's pace — gutted the place. The construction was done sporadically, taking place a day here and a day there — rarely consecutive —  with any noticeable progress appearing over a period of many months. Then, behind the makeshift construction fence, something resembling a store emerged. But, that sat empty for more months. Finally, at the very end of November 2012 (post-Thanksgiving), the newly named Creekside Co-op opened for business. Opening for business was its first mistake.

I love this neighborhood. It's a quiet suburb just outside of Philadelphia. My wife grew up here. We raised our son here. But, the neighborhood has this uncanny knack for not supporting local businesses. As much as they may think they do, they don't. I've seen many new businesses (restaurants, clothing stores, pizza shops) open and close like a door with a faulty hinge. Granted, most of them were started by people with big ideas and no business sense, but the neighborhood was less than supportive. Creekside Co-op was headed down the same, dark, bankrupt path.

Though not a member, I've been to Creekside a couple of times. On my first visit, I bought a loaf of bread, the same national brand I could have bought at a supermarket. I was just too lazy to get in my car and drive to the supermarket. As I made my way to the checkout, I spotted Campbell's soup, Heinz ketchup, Kraft cheese, Coca-Cola and several other "exotic and unusual" brands on the shelves.  At the checkout, the cashier asked me if I was a member. When I replied "No," he just rang up my bread and told me the total. No friendly spiel about the benefits of membership. No pitch about "community pride" or whatever. No nothing. Just an unemotional "Two twenty-nine." Not even a "please."

My next visit was to fulfill a spur-of-the-moment craving for guacamole. I walked over to Creekside and headed straight to the refrigerated prepared food display, where I found a small, overpriced container of mashed-in-store avocado, cilantro and spices. On this and every subsequent visit, I  observed that I was only one of maybe two or three customers milling around the place. I also noted that, from the time that Creekside opened until right this very second, I have never received a single advertisement/flier/solicitation of any kind enticing me to join or explaining how my quality of life would be richly enhanced if I signed my family up for a membership. Not a single advertisement making me aware that Creekside even exists. The building conveys no air of "welcome" from the outside, an attitude that carries on right to the employees.

Last month, just after its surprising two-year anniversary, the Creekside president posted this rant on the Creekside's Facebook page:
From our CreekSide co-op president: I know most of you think I am crazy. I am not. I hate starting something that I cant finish well yet I don't want to chase pipe dreams -life is too short for that and as we know - shit happens so we better do stuff with our time that we really value. I value this. I don't want thank yous, I don't want arguments - I just want you to think about what this community will be if we close the doors. 
Amidst the gloom and doom, here is where I find hope. Its always in the numbers -- in September and October - we had 1800 member households shop at least once in the coop. given we only have 2250 total member households, our HIT ratio it off the charts. Some of them only came once, some twice, but they came and they shopped .. we need to make their shopping experience better - whatever that means as it means something different to every single person who walks through the door - but the good news is they walked through the door. if we can get half of those people 900 of them to buy $15 more each week, our sales increase $13,500 each and every week -- if 1000 spend the same extra $15 a week - its $15000. It's in our control -- we are not asking or expecting any one family or 100 families to carry the day - we are asking half of our membership to spend an incremental $15/week -- its nothing. 
Please think about where you shop and what you buy there. wherever it is - its not your store and that money doesn't stay in our township. Look at your receipt from whole foods, trader joes, and ask yourself if you can shift $15/week to the coop. If I thought this was a lost cause or a pipe dream, I wouldn't put so much energy into this = believe it or not, I could do other things but nothing that helps our little community as much. 
So here is my ask -- think about where you shop other than the coop and what you buy there - can you shift $15 to the coop per week? If so, please do so. Second ask -- Please share this email with others in our community- your friends, and family - they don't have to be members - the corner is right there for us to turn. its always nicer to do it together. 
Thanks for listening -- and helping and sharing. It's worth it .. the alternative stinks!! 
See what I mean about "no business sense?" Here is the president of a community effort alternately begging and berating customers in a public forum — and interjecting a little foul language to boot. Does a business person speak to customers this way and expect them to still patronize the store and continue to offer support? Is it really endearing to scold your members, supporters and potential customers? Besides, it's unprofessional and poorly written. I do know that the job of Creekside Co-op General Manager pays very well — more than I make, as a matter of fact. Not a problem, except that this place is pleading for additional support from current supporters. They don't seem to be reaching outside of their member base. They are, as they say, "preaching to the choir," and condemning them at the same time.

I was so offended by this angry diatribe that I promised myself to never set foot in Creekside again. Actually, I wasn't planning on setting foot in Creekside again anyway, so it'll be pretty easy to keep that vow. At this point, I hope this place closes and a real co-op opens in its place. One run by grateful, friendly people who really care about their investment, their community and their local residents and suppliers, not just a bunch of clueless loudmouths who like to be on committees.

Either that or a Wawa.

* * * * UPDATE * * * *
As of today, this post has been viewed by 869 people. Now, I don't know if that means they all read it, but they at least browsed their way to this page. Based on a lively discussion on the Elkins Park Happenings Facebook page, I seemed to have given the members of Creekside Co-op the kick in the ass that they needed. Instead of the big, happy, campfire "Kumbaya" mentality of patting each other on the back and congratulating each other on what a great job they are doing, they sat up and took a hard and realistic look at their shortcomings. Hopefully, they will figure it all out and prove me wrong.

You're welcome.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

i'm a happy idiot

No, this isn't Pintrest. You didn't stumble upon a page with recipe suggestions for making an Italian dinner tonight. This is It's Been a Slice. You're in the right place.

I went to get my haircut this morning, something I do, like clockwork, every six weeks (It takes a lot to maintain this unnaturally startling red color!). While I sat quietly chit-chatting with my regular stylist*, I listened to the conversation around me. It was fascinating... and not in a good way.

One stylist, Candy, stands out as especially dim. She speaks loudly, directing her inane statements to no one in particular, as though she is delivering a monologue. This morning, while dragging a comb through her own hair, announced to the entire salon that she had purchased whole wheat pasta, the cherry tomatoes, some pine nuts and chopped-up calamari. No one responded — interested or otherwise. Then she continued — inquiring aloud — "what is the difference between whole wheat pasta and regular pasta." Again, no response — until another stylist offered a nonsensical reply that actually amounted to nothing.

Soon, Candy's 11 o'clock appointment arrived. A woman sat down in Candy's chair and her young daughter took a small seat nearby, occupying herself with some sort of electronic screened device. Candy fluffed the woman's hair, assessing her follicle canvas, and asked, "How were your holidays?"

The woman explained that she and her family went to Cape Cod.

"Is that near Cape Ann? " asked Candy, in the same loud voice, despite her customer sitting mere inches from her.

"I really don't know," the woman replied, then added "It's near Hyannis."

"Oh!," Candy interrupted and exploded, "That's Kennedy country! That where the Kennedys are! Yeah! The Kennedys are there! Yeah! The Kennedys!"

The woman offered up an awkward smile. Candy turned to work on the daughter now. "What did Santa bring you for Chrsitmas?"

"An iPad," the little girl answered shyly.

"Oh!," Candy shrieked, "You must have been really good!"

Soon, the conversation turned to movies, with Candy grilling the poor girl about which was her favorite of the Disney roster. Without waiting for the young lady to consider the question and answer, Candy blurted out "Frozen, right? It's Frozen! You like Frozen, right? Yeah, you like Frozen."

Then, without waiting for the little girl to weigh in on the one-sided Frozen debate, Candy changed the subject to her own fondness for the 1982 film ET. "Oh, you would love it!," she screamed at the girl. The girl shied away with a timid half-smile. "Oh, yeah," continued Candy, her attention now back to the mother, "Remember how little Drew Barrymore was in that movie? Yeah, that was a classic! She was so young. Your daughter would love that movie! Love it! Drew Barrymore! Ha! Little Gertie, remember? Yeah, she would love it!" She no longer needed anyone else in her conversation.

The mother offered the same half-smile and did not add a response, choosing instead to remain quiet.

I wondered, to myself, how can someone who makes such inane and idiotic statements function in everyday life? How did she pass the job interview? How can anyone live in the same house with such a person? There is no thought, no sense, no constructive addition to the conversation. No nothing. Just random, stream-of-consciousness thought with no discernible filter.

Look, I know I'm not the brightest person that ever lived. Not even close. But I know my limitations. I know what I can contribute to a conversation. I know when my input is helpful and when it is not.

And, despite what you may think, I try not to sound stupid. I try.

I have been getting my haircut and colored by the same young lady for over five years. She is the only one that I trust not to cut my ear off or wrongly mix the batch of dye. While she is very sweet, she isn't exactly next in line for a position at NASA. In her defense, the other stylists would have a difficult time spelling "NASA."

Saturday, January 3, 2015

what a fool believes

I have been in the marketing field for years. I seek out and admire clever and innovative marketing practices regularly. Everything from Coca-Cola commandeering ol' Santa Claus for their own financial gain to Christian Mingle, the matchmaking website, claiming that God himself has endorsed their services. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

But so far, the best one I've seen is the campaign behind Sony Pictures' film The Interview. Follow this proposed scenario*, if you will...

Seth Rogen, an actor/writer possessing a modicum of talent, wrote the screenplay for a goofy film concerning the implausible concept of two reporters being recruited by the CIA to assassinate Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. When the silly concept was first conceived the object of the would-be assassins was Kim Jong-il, the current leader's father, who died in 2011, while the script was still in development.

As many kinks as possible were ironed out of the one-joke script and an August 2014 release date was set. Rogen, along with regular collaborator and Freaks and Geeks co-star James Franco (another actor that, despite a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 2011, has questionable acting range) were asked by Sony to reshoot and rewrite portions of the film. So, from the beginning Sony had its doubts about the sophomoric romp. The release date was changed to Christmas Day, a long-time popular and profitable day for the release of films.

Suddenly, what appeared (to me, at least) to be a brilliant marketing campaign was launched. Sony announced to the rabid, hungry-for-a-story media that their corporate email system had been hacked, the culprits releasing hundreds of personal correspondences that would prove embarrassing to a slew of executives, producers, directors and actors. The media leaped all over the story like a mouse to a peanut butter-smeared snap trap. 

A day or so later, alleged hackers released several as-yet unreleased films online, to the apparent shock and dismay of Sony (including the inexplicable second remake of Annie).

After days of jarring emails — some deriding famous and beloved actors and their films — Sony announced that the source of the criminal infiltration was rebel group calling themselves Guardians of Peace, based in malevolent North Korea (read: George Orwell's Eurasia). Kim Jong-un himself had condemned The Interview, promising a "merciless" retaliation if the film is released. The Guardians of Peace threatened a 9/11-type attack on theaters daring to show the film. Suddenly, Sony was shaking, giving in to the threats and demands of an evil foreign government who was allegedly behind a massive email attack, although their previous technological know-how resulted in four consecutive failed satellite launches, Sony canceled the Christmas Day release of The Interview. The voice of the people roared with displeasure. Celebrities took to Twitter (the cool outlet of choice) to express their outrage about the decision. Even the President took time out of his busy day to offer an opinion, calling Sony's decision "wrong." With just a few days to spare, Sony did a complete turnaround, standing proud against foreign threats. The studio announced that it would show the film in a select group of theaters, terrorist groups be damned! It would also make the film available to online outlets, like YouTube, Google Play and many, many others, for a small rental fee. Social media exploded in approval. We won! We beat the terrorists! We would now exercise our God-given American rights of Free Speech to see shitty movies! One fellow in the military was even prompted to tweet to Mr. Rogen: "You make me proud with your courageous decision to stand up to North Korea. I support you and am proud to serve you. You are a true American." (Seth Rogen is Canadian, but, y'know... whatever.)  U-S-A!  U-S-A! U-S-A! 

So, defiantly, The Interview was released on Christmas, as promised. It made one million dollars — granted it was only shown in 330 independent theaters nationwide (as opposed to Unbroken, which was shown on 3,100 screens). The home, video-on-demand views, once tallied, will, no doubt, bring that total higher. The critics, however, were less than kind, mostly panning the film as "misogynistic," "racist," "filled with toilet humor and penis jokes," and "vulgar." One critic wanted to know "What was all the fuss about?"

A little more than a week after the hoopla has died down, The US Government (the same one that recently admitted to lying about the CIA's torture methods) revealed that North Korea may not have been behind the Sony hacking, but plans for sanctions against North Korea will still be implemented.

Oh well, you got to see your Seth Rogen movie. You got to wave the American flag for a little while. And you fell right into Sony's master plan.


* the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, but maybe you'll share them.