Saturday, February 27, 2016

walk right in, sit right down

I have worked in offices for over thirty years. I have worked in small offices, just a single room with two co-workers in a cinder block building in the middle of a nondescript industrial park (now known as the more-important sounding "business campus"). I have worked in big, multi-story, corporate headquarters of major corporations. There are a lot of things I like about working in an office. I like the structure. I like the uniformity. I like that coworkers (with a few exceptions) know their place and (again, with a few exceptions) know what is expected of them. I also like the free coffee.

Of all of the things I don't like about working in an office, one thing in particular bugs me more than anything. More than undecipherable corporate jargon. More than unresponsive coworkers. More than personal matters blasted through company email.

I hate when things are left for me on the seat of my office chair.

I don't know when this practice started. This phenomena has followed me and has been kept alive across several employers, so, obviously, it's not indigenous to one place nor is it one company's policy. The first time I came into work in the morning and discovered an assignment on the seat of my office chair, I assumed that it had just fallen off of my desk or, perhaps a breeze from a passing worker in a hurry rustled it up from its original position across my computer keyboard. But then, day after day, I would be greeted in the morning by several pages — from different co-workers or superiors — stacked every which way on the seat of my office chair. 

I don't understand the motivation or the rationale. I have a perfectly good, sturdy desk, able to accommodate reams of paper — in addition to my computer, some pens, a stapler, a container of paper clips and a couple of PVC figurines of Mickey Mouse — without fear of collapsing. I am apt to see something of importance if it is impeding upon my ability to operate my keyboard or propped up and blocking my view of my monitor, than if it is lying on the place where I sit when I actually do the work that you are trying to get me to do. Leaving work on my desk along with an accompanying email, or even a Post-It, quickly noting "Hey Josh, I put the edits to the ad on your desk." would offer a better chance of me seeing what you left than placing it where I park my ass. Leaving work on my chair says to me: "I nearly missed the trashcan with this, but if you see it before your butt does, could you make these corrections?" If I'm not paying attention, there's a good chance I'm going to sit down on that crucial piece of work-related business and wrinkle it to the point where it needs to be reprinted. Placing it on my desk shows me that you hold your work at an esteemed level, that you have pride in what you produce and respect for your job.

The office is the only place that this practice exists. At least I hope it is. Face it, you wouldn't want the grill guy at McDonald's coming in to find a stack of hamburgers on the seat of his office chair. Although, the food there tastes like that's the case.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

may all your favorite bands stay together

I stumbled upon a strange phenomenon at my very first concert, but I didn't realize it until years later.

Alice Cooper, the venerable shock-rocker, was riding high as he brought his audacious Welcome to My Nightmare Tour across North America. One month into the promotional road trip, a stop was made at the Spectrum, the all-purpose (now defunct and demolished) South Philly venue that served as the home base for the Flyers hockey team and the 76ers basketball team, as well as inefficiently hosting concerts with its horrible, noise-deadening acoustics. At fourteen years old, this show in late April of 1975 would become my first foray into a life-long love of live music. As my friends and I found our seats and anxiously awaited the start of the show, we watched a lone man take a seat at the end of our row. He was by himself and he sat quietly, staring off in the direction of the stage. Suddenly, the house lights dimmed and the crowd emitted a collective frenzied cheer. Colored spotlights bathed the stage and diminutive hellion Suzi Quatro, the evening's opening act, strutted into view to the strains of roaring guitar power chords. This was a full two years before Ms. Quatro would gain TV fame as tough gal "Leather Tuscadero" on the sitcom Happy Days. This Suzi Quatro was a real-life rocker, seductively plucking a big Fender bass that was slung low between her leather-sheathed thighs. She churned through a forty-minute set to the polite approval of the sea of Alice Cooper fans, although I didn't recognize a single tune.

The lights came on and the stage filled with roadies busily gathering cables and setting up for Alice Cooper's performance. And the guy at the end of our row got up..... and left. He was done. He had come to see Suzi Quatro and his evening's entertainment had concluded. My friends and I laughed to ourselves and commented briefly, but were soon distracted when a malevolent, top-hatted Alice broke into a Busby Berkeley number while flanked by a couple of six-foot black widow spiders.

Years and years and many, many concerts later, my son and I were seeing a show by the sardonically-named Dogs Die in Hot Cars, a Scottish quintet known for their catchy (and equally sardonic) hit "I Love You 'Cause I Have To." The band, who were quite popular at the time (2004, to be exact), had sold out the small Theater of Living Arts and the capacity crowd was getting antsy. Soon, the show began with a then-unknown French band called Phoenix. They have since gone on to bigger and better, including headlining numerous outdoor festivals and nabbing a Grammy Award. But, on this particular night, they were just another opening band in a long line of opening bands. My son and I, pressed up against the stage and bobbing our heads to the beats, glanced to our immediate right. There was a young lady and a woman (who was most likely her mother) dancing and jumping and having the time of their lives. Although the volume was turned up enough to blot out any audible audience singing and conversation, this familial twosome were clearly mouthing every word of every song in the Phoenix repertoire. Every single word of every single song. Three minutes earlier, I had never heard of these guys, yet Mom and her girl were obviously their biggest fans.

Something occurred to me that night as I left that particular concert. I started to think back to other shows. I remembered similar scenarios that, at the time, I just didn't give another thought, but, revisited, I began to see a pattern. After observing rabid fans screaming for The Jack Rubys (who opened for They Might Be Giants) and a small cheering section for a young lady with a guitar doing her best Joni Mitchell impersonation (I forget who she opened for, but I swear they grabbed her off the sidewalk and asked if she knew a few songs when the real opening act bailed), I was convinced that every band is someone's favorite band. Now, I've seen some established acts as warm-ups for a big-name headliner. I saw Kenny Loggins open for Fleetwood Mac. I saw Thin Lizzy open a show for Queen. I have gone to concerts specifically to see an opening act and still stuck around for the headliner. I have even been so impressed by an opening band, that I was prompted to purchase their album afterwards (New Zealand new wavers Split Enz come to mind, after seeing them precede Squeeze in the summer of 1982). But, I don't think I would qualify any of these bands as my (or anyone's) sole favorite. I don't think...

Look, I've been to a lot of concerts over the past forty years. I've seen a lot of bands and I have liked a lot of bands. There have been plenty of bands that I don't like, however I can understand their appeal. They're just not my taste. When I was in high school, I was a big fan of the band Queen. I had all of Queen's albums. I had Queen posters. I had Queen stickers on my books. I saw them many times and always clamored for seats as close to the stage as I could get. I had friends who felt the same way about other bands, too. I knew fervent Who fans and devoted Dylan fans and, of course the ubiquitous Deadheads (As a matter of fact, I went on to marry one of those Deadheads). I was not really a fan of any of these performers, but I certainly understand their appeal. But, there are bands that are so... so... average that I can't image that they are anyone's favorite. I won't name any one band in particular because everyone is entitled to their opinion — no matter how stupid, narrow-minded and tasteless their opinion may be.

This past weekend, a friend sent me a text that read: "You know how we always say that every band is someone's favorite band?" His message was accompanied by this photo he snapped while driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike —
Click photo to enlarge.
Since this is 2016 and the crazy days of nuevo punk are long in our past, I replied: "I sure hope that's Adam Ant himself driving that car."

I rest my case.

Monday, February 15, 2016

that kind of luxe just ain't for us

As a belated holiday gift, my wife and I took her parents out to dinner. We went to a small, nondescript, storefront place at the far end of a strip mall in desolate Northeast Philadelphia. After dinner, my father-in-law said he wanted to pop over to a nearby supermarket for a dozen eggs. The supermarket to which he was referring was an ominous-looking Aldi next door.

I've seen Aldi markets here and there, mostly, from what I can tell, in lower income areas. There is one, actually not too far from my suburban home, but it's just over the county border and within the Philadelphia city limits. I have never actually been in an Aldi market, but, from the outside, it looks like a warehouse-style store, offering unknown "off" branded products at low prices. So, when the opportunity arose to actually enter an Aldi, to do a little first-hand, face-to-face investigation while my father-in-law was on his little egg quest, I jumped!

The entrance to the store is guarded by scores of shopping carts, all locked together by a short length of chain between each one. Customers must insert a quarter into the large locking mechanism to release a cart. Your quarter is returned when the cart is returned. This system eliminates the need for a kid to scramble around the parking lot, collecting and organizing abandoned shopping carts. And the savings are passed on to you!

Not what you think.
It turns out that the majority of products that Aldi stocks are their own versions of national brands. There are a few products that you've seen in other supermarkets, but those are few and far between. Also, the products are displayed in open cardboard cartons stacked high and tightly along side each other, thus creating aisles of cardboard shelving. We entered the store in the potato chip/candy/cereal aisle — an unusual grouping of foods and an even more unusual starting point for a grocery shopping trip. As I made my way down Aisle One, I looked carefully at all of the package designs. Most were obvious attempts at copying the well-known brands, using similar product "beauty shots," similar typefaces and positioning on the package. It was as though I discovered the source of all of those products you see in the kitchen cabinets on TV sitcoms or pulled from the Mystery Ingredient Basket on Chopped. (Ah, hard shell coated chocolate candy drops! I wonder what they're supposed to be?) Just past a display of Aldi's rectangular, frosted "Toaster Tarts" (a thinly-veiled version of PopTarts), was the breakfast cereal section. I saw box after box of slightly-skewed renditions of General Mills' "Cheerios" and Kellogg's "Raisin Bran." There was even a near-clone of "Raisin Bran Crunch" in a box that smacked of copyright infringement. All of the cereal was presented under the fabricated "Millville" brand. They weren't fooling anyone.

Fake rolls.
We may need a warrant.
Aisle after aisle, brand after faux brand was presented. I felt like we were shopping in a carnival fun house, each family of products exhibited by way of one of those distorted mirrors. I picked up and replaced dozens of items, but not before examining and chuckling at the blatant plagiarism of the packaging. Mrs. P, now carrying a small shopping basket, had chosen a couple of "Bake House" brand crescent rolls. Clad in a slender, navy blue cardboard tube and looking a little too close to its Pillsbury counterpart, these rolls, surprisingly, carried a pretty reputable kosher certification, something Poppin' Fresh's line sorely lacks. (I believe their ad slogan is "Lard Makes It Great!") Mrs. P also selected several individually-boxed cherry pies from the folks at the made-up "Bakers Treat."  These were defiant affronts to our beloved Philadelphia bakery treasure Tastykake, but they were 49¢ versus Tastykake's hefty buck and a half.

We met up with my father-in-law, who was now cradling four dozen eggs in his arms. We made our way to the checkout lanes, where one lonely, yet friendly, young lady was ready to add up our purchases. We quickly learned that, in order to offer additional savings to their customers, Aldi does not accept credit cards or coupons, nor do they supply bags. "Pay with cash and carry this stuff out on your own" is their apparent company motto. Luckily, because of Aldi's ridiculously low prices, these few items only set us back a couple of dollars. Hey, the eggs were an unheard of 99 cents a dozen!

When I got home, I did a little research on Aldi and its history. (Okay, I "googled" it.) Although it can trace its origins to the 1940s, Aldi was officially formed in the 1960s in Germany, when the Albrecht brothers split up the family grocery business over a disagreement about selling cigarettes. Though legally two separate companies, they both operate under the "Aldi" banner and grew to become a global chain with 10,000 stores in 18 countries. 10,000 stores! I was shocked! (Shocked, I tell you!) I totally and unjustly underestimated Aldi. The chain was voted "Best Supermarket in the United Kingdom" two years in a row. Pretty impressive.

Is it impressive enough to get me to go back into an Aldi again? I don't think so.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

don't you forget about me

My wife sells stuff. All kinds of stuff. — toys, TV memorabilia, cookie cutters, vintage advertisements, clothing, household items. Like I said, all kinds of stuff. In order to sell stuff, she has to buy stuff. And she buys a lot of stuff. 

Recently, Mrs. P made arrangements through the internet to buy some guy's stuff. And buy it she did. She came home with a big box filled with stuff — mostly ephemera. "Ephemera," for the uninitiated, is a fancy word for "printed and paper collectibles." The box, a carton that previously held neatly packaged reams of copy paper, was overflowing with thick folded documents, dogeared squares of faded and yellowed cardboard and an assortment of printed advertisements that predated my parents. She plopped the box in an unobtrusive corner of the dining room with the promise to sort through it after dinner.

When we finished our dinner, Mrs. P cleared a spot on the kitchen table and we began to make some sort of order of the box's contents. We made neat little piles of colorful postcards here, stacks of vintage road maps there. From the bottom of the accumulation, Mrs. Pincus produced three folded portfolios, dark, but faded in color, each embossed with a hard-to-make-out, but official-looking seal. She opened the first one to reveal an elementary school diploma bearing the name of a student named Arthur. The second one was Arthur's high school diploma and the third was a commendation for Arthur for perfect scholastic attendance. Mrs. P examined the three documents closely, noting the name and location of the schools. We live just outside of Philadelphia and it seems Arthur got his education in the Chicago area in the 1940s.

Now, my spouse was on a mission. She took to Facebook, everyone's favorite go-to source for all things human and interconnected. First she posted a little blurb on the Facebook page maintained by the Chicago suburb that was Arthur's hometown. Next, she posted photos of Arthur's documents on a Philadelphia-based Facebook page that regularly features vintage images of the City of Brotherly Love.  Then, she sat back a waited.

Her wait was not long. Soon, she was flooded with replies, mostly from strangers commenting on how cool her find was. But, in the midst of those benign responses, she received a link to poor Arthur's obituary in a Fulton, Illinois newspaper. After getting over her momentary sorrow, she read the death notice and found the name of the mortuary that handled Arthur's funeral.

Always persistent, she found a phone number for the funeral home. Actually, there were three locations. She tried the first number. After two rings, a man with a deep, ominous voice with a slow, deliberate delivery answered.

"Hello." My wife pictured Lurch from The Addams Family on the other end of the phone line.

She explained the reason for her call, mentioning the diplomas and certificate, before asking the very out-of-the-ordinary question: if she could have access to contact information about next of kin. The man on the phone, once understanding that this call would not result in his business handling another funeral, lost interest in furthering the conversation.

"Write me a letter and I will put you in touch with family members, if I can.," he offered with no detectable emotion in his voice.

"A letter?," Mrs. P asked, "Can't you just give me that information now? Over the phone?"

He repeated, even more slowly, "Write me a letter."

My wife thanked him, hung up and immediately called the number for the funeral director's other location. A friendly woman answered the phone. She was much more receptive when Mrs. P related the story of Arthur and his school certificates. She told my wife the names and phone numbers of several nieces and nephews, as Arthur had never married and left this world childless. For the second time that evening, Mrs. P thanked a funeral director.

Still determined, Mrs. P left voice messages for a niece and nephew of Arthur's, one of whom lives in nearby New Jersey. The next day, our dinner was interrupted by a call from Arthur's niece. She was grateful for the contact and spoke briefly about her departed uncle. When asked if she would like the few earthly remnants of Arthur's existence we had discovered at the bottom of a box of maps and postcards, Arthur's niece politely passed.

A little later in the evening, Arthur's nephew called. A few pleasantries were exchanged. He told my wife that the woman claiming to be Arthur's niece is not actually related, thus creating a bit of family intrigue. The focus of the conversation was quickly rerouted when he then explained that Arthur served in the US Army and his battalion was in the first wave of troops at Okinawa or Iwo Jima or something to do with World War II. In reality, Mrs. P stopped listening when yet another of Arthur's relatives declined to be the caretaker of his precious records of academic achievement. Arthur's nephew was more interested in telling about his own preoccupation with US military history.

So, Mrs. P stared at poor Arthur's documents, turning them over and examining them again. "There's gotta be somebody who wants these things.," she lamented.

If you are the person who feels qualified and, maybe even obligated, to carry the torch for Arthur, your wish can come true here. You pay for shipping, of course.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes

A sprawling film deserves a sprawling blog post. - JPiC

I somehow agreed to go to a friend's house to watch Rent — both the 2005 film version and a recording of the final stage production that, while it opened on Broadway in 1996, was filmed live in 2008 after 5,123 performances. I was not familiar with Rent, aside from knowing it had something to do with AIDS and nearly everyone but me had seen it. I didn't know any songs, or plot lines or even actors. Hell, I'm not even a big fan of musicals to begin with. Oh, there are a few classics that I like — Oklahoma, The Music Man, Singing in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz come to mind — but they are the exceptions, not the rule. And, despite my love of concerts and live music, I get antsy and uncomfortable at live stage productions. I've seen a handful to know that. Like movie musicals, there are a few exceptions. My wife and I saw The Lion King, which was big and overblown, but, as a Disney fan, I was already familiar with the songs. We also saw Jersey Boys. I never was a fan of The Four Seasons, but again, I was familiar with the music and I found it to be enjoyable (plus it was free, so it had that working for it). However, I hated the movie version. It was long and tedious and I caught myself looking at my watch throughout the entire two-plus hour run time.

I'm pretty sure I the only reason I agreed to this event was because it was touted as an "80s" themed gathering (since the show takes place in the late 1980s). Invited guests were asked to bring "80s" themed food — whatever that means. A Google search of "80s food" yielded such memorable decades-past treats as "fruit snacks" and "Capri Sun," but our host was looking for more substantial fare. Mrs. P decided to take a shot at making spinach-artichoke dip and potato skins (in addition to a couple of batches of brownies, 'cause brownies were invented in the 80s, right?). Bottom line, if there's food, I'll sit through pretty much anything.

While Mrs. P and our host set things out on the dining room table buffet style, I lazily plopped myself down on the sofa. I noticed the DVD cases for both films lying on the coffee table. I picked them up, immediately searching for the length of each. The film, according to the little specifications legend buried in the corner under a collage of splashy pictures of the cast, runs 135 minutes. The filmed stage show clocked in at almost three hours. I looked up from the boxes and tried to get our host's attention.

"We're watching almost six hours of this?" I asked gesturing to the plastic-clad packaging.

"And a 'making of' documentary! Don't forget that!" she explained.

With the table set and guests fed, our host popped the first disk into the player. By popular demand, we would be starting with the movie. It was shorter. The credits began and eight silhouetted figures wailed the song "Seasons of Love." I was surprised by the fact that I had actually heard the song before, though I didn't know its title and I didn't know it was from Rent. As the list of actors faded in and out of prominence on the screen, I was again surprised by how many I knew. There was sultry Rosario Dawson, finally able to shake the ghosts of Josie and the Pussycats and properly show off her musical prowess. There was that guy from Law & Order who now costars on The Flash. I recognized Tracie Thoms from Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof and from the captivating and unfairly short-lived series Wonderfalls. And I spotted Sarah Silverman's name and thought, "Well, okay. I'll give it a chance."

I watched, taking it in, judging. The songs were — well, they were everything I dislike about the current trends in Broadway musicals. They were big, loud, overly-dramatic show-stopping numbers that, while carried off by the talented cast, were (in my admittedly untrained opinion) totally forgettable. One song, "Tango: Maureen," I thought was clever in its execution, subject matter and staging. The rest, I couldn't remember even under bright lights with a gun to my head.

Three five zero zero
The more I watched, the more I was reminded of a show I saw when I was in sixth grade. My mom (one of the coolest people that ever lived, no bias there.) took me out of school to treat me to a matinee performance of the rock-opera Hair when its touring company made a stop at Philadelphia's Shubert Theater (now The Merriam Theater). We hurried up Broad Street to the venue, only to be greeted by a rowdy group of protesters, beating a circular path on the public sidewalk, just feet from the theater's entrance. One woman in a sensible wool coat, conservative hat and white-gloved hands wrapped around the support post of a sign reading "PORNOGRAPHY!!" (with two exclamation points for extra emphasis!!) screamed at my mother, "Are you taking this child into see this smut?!" Little did this woman know, I had been listening to the soundtrack album daily for the past few years. I memorized every song, every lyric, every note. I sang along, sometimes duetting with my mom. (Told ya she was cool!) My mother turned to the woman and plainly asked, "Have you seen it?" The woman was horrified by the question. "No!," she huffed, "I wouldn't dare!" "Well, I'll let you know how it is when we come out.," my mom replied as we pushed our way past the human blockade. I turned and stuck my little tongue out at the lady as we passed through the doors.

Rent reminded me of Hair in its passion for the seriousness of its subject matter (Rent: AIDS; Hair: The Vietnam War). The rag-tag group of youthful performers in Rent were also reminiscent of the company of hippies that comprised the cast of Hair. Since I made that mental comparison, I couldn't get it out of my head. It stuck with me for the rest of the film's run. It wasn't a bad thing, I wasn't bored by the film. I just wasn't grabbed by it. I felt as though I was watching an updating of Hair and I found that distracting.

16 men and 1.21 gigawatts
Oddly, at Rent's conclusion, I was reminded of another movie-related scenario. I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the second installment in the Disney POTC franchise of films, on its opening night. At the grandiose epic's finale, my son turned to me and reported, "That was Back to the Future II." I laughed, immediately getting the reference. Both films were purely set-ups for a third part to wrap up all loose ends and send fans off with closure tied up with a big red bow. Although Rent was not part of a trilogy (at least I don't think it is), it's similarity to another film (in this case Hair) struck me as  — oh, I don't know  —  similar.

I expressed my opinions to our host. A fellow movie fan, she accepted my assessment. We have agreed and disagreed on many movies, but that's a good quality in any friendship. She smiled and reached for the second DVD, however, the general consensus among the guests was "Let's save this for another time." Instead, more brownies were eaten.

The next showing of Rent in currently under consideration.