Sunday, March 26, 2017

you'll never walk alone

It almost happened, but luckily, it didn't.

Last week, I had long-standing plans to go to a concert with my son — something I do quite often. This time, we were seeing Puddles Pity Party, the acclaimed "sad clown with the golden voice" who has been gaining attention and popularity (of the cult variety) thanks to his many YouTube videos, particularly his collaboration with Post Modern Jukebox and an unusual take on Lorde's anthemic "Royals." Puddles, a six-foot-eight clown, is, admittedly, not for everyone — especially those with a deep (or even mild) fear of clowns. While Puddles does have a beautifully rich, almost operatic voice, his performances are "in-your-face" and heavy on audience participation.

The day before the Puddles show, the Philadelphia area was hit by a blast of winter weather that could only be described as "inconvenient." Instead of the twelve to eighteen inches of snow that was forebodingly predicted, the city was merely covered with a cold wintry mix that blanketed lawns, streets and sidewalks with around four inches of hard, crunchy snow, making travel — either by car or on foot — difficult. The morning of the show, my son set out for work, a trek that ends on the other side of the "center city" area from his South Philadelphia home. In the course of his walk, he slipped on some unshoveled ice and fell. When he hit the ground, his legs involuntarily twisted in a position to cause him the most amount of pain. After downing Advil all day, he decided that staying off his feet for the remainder of the day would be his best course of action. So, we passed on the show, hoping to see Puddles on his next trip through our fair city.

To make up for it, my son got me on the guest list for a local bunch of raucous garage rockers that go by the moniker "Scantron." They are a five-piece band comprised of three-fifths of the band Low Cut Connie. My boy, a DJ and producer at a Philadelphia radio station, would be unable to join me, as he was busy engineering a broadcast, followed by a recording session with another band. I was on my own to find someone to accompany me. Of course, Mrs. Pincus would be the obvious choice, but, alas, my spouse and I do not always see eye-to-eye with our musical tastes. Having been to the particular venue before, I didn't think she would enjoy... well, any of it. The close quarters, the seedy atmosphere, the turned-up-way-too-loud sound system, the near-primitive bathroom facilities and the nothing-more-than-cheap-beer menu. Within a few minutes, Mrs. P would have headed for the door. So, I spared her the trip, although I did offer an obligatory, yet half-hearted, invitation (which she obligingly declined). Via Twitter, I contacted my pal Cookie. I know he goes to a lot of shows, based on the photos he posts on his various social media outlets. Cookie hemmed and hawed a bit and offered a non-committal reply with a solid "maybe." I told him that I'd be going, no matter what his final decision would be.

I have been going to concerts for forty-one years. Since the first time I anxiously entered the (now long gone) Philadelphia Spectrum to see Alice Cooper spill his "Welcome to My Nightmare" tour across the stage, I have seen hundreds of shows at dozens of venues. However, I went to every single one of those shows with someone — never alone. Never.

I came home from work, ate a quick dinner with my wife, then headed down to the show. As I wound my way through the congested streets of North Philadelphia, I thought about parking, about how late I was gonna stay — everything except the fact that I was going to be at this show without anyone I knew. I'd be that guy standing in the corner — or worse — up in front of the stage, all by himself. I'm sure you've seen that guy. I didn't want to be that guy at this show.

I parked and walked up the venue. I began to explain to the dude at the door that I was on Scantron's guest list. Suddenly, George, Scantron's second guitarist, ran from the restaurant across the street to confirm my inclusion on said list. He recognized me from previous introductions. It was pretty cool. I've been the "plus one" on my son's guest list inclusion, but never on my own. I entered, as George smacked my back and told me he was going back to join his band mates for dinner. I took a spot inside and watched two guys stumble their way through a game of pool. I quietly fiddled with my phone and was resigned to that fact that I was gonna be at this show by myself.  Until I got a text from Cookie saying that he was on his way.

Twenty or so minutes later, Cookie and his fiance Consuelo wandered in. We exchanged greetings and, after a bit of chit-chat, I confessed that this was almost my first "alone" show. Ever. Cookie furrowed his brow and gave me a look of scrutiny. "I've been to plenty of shows by myself," he explained, "no big deal. You've never gone to a concert alone?"

"Nope." I said flatly. "Never."

"But I've seen you at...," he started.

I interrupted.  "You were there, so I wasn't alone." Then, I continued, "And now that you two are here, my streak still stands."

Scantron was getting ready to perform and we made our way back to the small stage area. I took a place up close to the left side, within arms reach of the stage. Cookie and Consuelo hung back on the far right. A dozen or so people filed in between us, eventually blocking them from my clear line of vision.

But, I as far as I was concerned, I was not there alone.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

open the door, richard

For however long I have maintained a Facebook presence, I have posted the death anniversaries of notable (and not so notable) people on a daily basis. Each morning before I make breakfast for myself, I scan the dark corners of the internet and select a group of folks whose common bond is the day they took their final breath and joined the choir invisible (as George Eliot so eloquently put it). I find a suitable photo and post it along with the simple, non-descriptive line: "So and so died on this date in this particular year." It's up to the reader (one of the 244 faithful who have chosen to "like" Josh Pincus is Crying) to Google the name to find out more, if they so choose. Hey, it's a hobby. Just like collecting stamps. Sort of.

I also post current celebrity deaths as soon as I can confirm information of their demise. Now, my criteria for "celebrity" varies greatly. Of course, a famous actor or actress, politician or sports figure fits the bill. But, I have also included those with lesser-known sobriquets but well-revered significance in the world of pop culture. Last February, for instance, just a week prior to the passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one Mary Fiumara, died at the age of 88. Ms Fiumara was prominently featured in a commercial for Prince spaghetti that ran for 13 years. In April, Lee Waas passed away at 94. He wrote the happy little jingle that blared out of loudspeakers mounted on the roofs of Mr. Softee trucks, announcing the welcome arrival of the ice cream man. Though I have been obsessed with celebrity deaths for years, I have taken my little hobby to the internet in an effort to keep better track of the demise of famous people and to bring the information to a wider audience. I have "met" (in internet terms) many people who share my interest, thus giving me a bit of validation. So, I will continue.

Just this week, I acknowledged the passing of a character actor named Richard Karron. Karron was a stand-up comic who was performing at New York City's famous comedy club Catch a Rising Star, when actor Dustin Hoffman took a liking to his routine. Through this connection, Richard began getting bit parts in television and films based on his distinctive, gravelly voice and boisterously fun personality. He appeared in television dramas and sitcoms, as well as taking small roles in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I and Anne Bancroft's slapstick but endearing Fatso, her feature-length directorial debut. In addition, he was in a series of commercials on TV and radio for the regional auto parts chain Royal Auto ("We're Sens-a-tive!"). Karron was a member of the Screen Actors Guild for 35 years, yet his name remained mostly unknown. Well, Karron fit the profile of the type of unsung "celebrity" I like to remember and when I discovered that he passed away on March 1, 2017, I let the internet know that I knew who he was.

I never anticipated the shit storm it would unleash.

At 1:20 PM, on a day nearly two weeks after the fact, I posted an innocuous, "Josh Pincus"-style death announcement for Karron on my Facebook page, like I've done hundreds of times before for similar-level celebrities. The "likes" and comments began almost immediately. First was my pal Steve, who joins me in my love for pop culture and forgotten celebrities. In his initial comment, he reminded me of Karron's Royal Auto commercials. Next came a "thumbs up" from my wife. An hour or so later, a fellow named "Gimmi" commented that Karron had lost a significant amount of weight. It's true. In his early career appearances, Karron cut quite an imposing figure and, based on the type of role for which he was cast, his size was an attribute. In more recent photos, he looks as though he had shed a good portion of his bulk.

Now, for those of you who do not know me personally — I am a bit of a smart-ass. No, actually, I'm a lot of a smart-ass. It's just my nature. I have been known to make jokes at "supposedly" inappropriate times. But that's the beauty of being a natural smart-ass. There are no inappropriate times. Nothing is sacred and everything can be funny. I have done my very best to have that aspect of my personality come across on my blog and, for the most part, I think I've been successful. I try to be funny any chance I get. And, if you don't think I'm funny, rest assured, I think I'm funny and that is what's important. So when Gimmi made his comment about Karron's weight loss, I couldn't resist. I replied:
Well, Steve thought it was funny. Of course, I thought it was funny. Mrs. Pincus, who has been my best audience for the last 35 years, thought it was funny. But, alas, Valerie, in The Beach Boys hometown of Hawthorne, California, didn't see the humor at all. As a matter of fact, I must have struck a nerve, because her outrage prompted her to tell me (with Gimmi in her corner): 
See, this is the stuff I live for! This is what makes the internet the greatest invention since... since.... well, ever! I insulted someone I never met, on the other side of the country with a joke that, technically, she had to search for. (I checked. Valerie is not currently a "Facebook follower" of mine. I guess I've blown that chance now.) I love getting comments on my blogs (this one and my illustration blog), especially negative ones. Sure, I appreciate the ones that tell me how wonderful I am. But the ones from readers that have been offended by something I've drawn or written (or both) are the ones I cherish and remember. It's the angry ones that tell me someone took the time to really study what I have produced and, instead of dismissing it as just another blemish on the face of the internet, they took the time to let me know how abhorrent they found my work. Now, that's a sincere commitment! So, imagine my excitement when this little exchange popped up under my original announcement for poor Richard Karron.
Steve joined in my elation and I offered another snide comment to all participants. Valerie, however, was not amused. As an alleged personal acquaintance of Richard Karron, she found my retort repugnant and Steve's accolade equally deplorable. (All claims to close relationships to celebrities — no matter what the level of fame — is "alleged" on the internet. Unless the claim can be backed up or is made by me.) Plus, Karron began his career as a stand-up comic working in small clubs delivering gritty material. I can only assume that he either heard or told jokes of a similar edgy tone.

My mom taught me to laugh at everything. I get my subversive sense of humor from her. My mom died 26 years ago and I have joked about her death on several occasions. It doesn't mean I am disrespecting her memory. On the contrary, with every snarky comment, I am keeping her memory alive.

Oh, this is not the first time I got into a "back and forth" with a total stranger on the internet. I don't think it will be the last, because you never know what benign statement will set someone off. Since the internet is so vast, coupled with the protection one gets from commenting under the guise of anonymity, these usually reserved voices are riled up without much effort. The more riled they get, the more likely they are to tell me exactly how they feel. 

And that makes me love the internet more and more every day.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

let my people go-go

I was born and raised Jewish. Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish. Now, in my social circles, that meant that while everyone else was celebrating Christmas, we screwed a fresh light bulb into the electric menorah with each new night of Chanukah. We had a box of matzo in our house around the time we saw commercials for Easter egg dye on television. We weren't particularly religious, but when one of my friends turned thirteen, he got a big party and bunch of money for reciting a memorized speech in Hebrew in front of a bunch of his relatives at synagogue. Aside from that, we were just like everyone else. We dressed the same. We ate the same food and, for the most part, we looked the same.

However, this did not make me immune to my share of discrimination. I experienced a good deal of antisemitism in my mostly gentile neighborhood. My Jewish friends and schoolmates all lived in a different, mostly Jewish neighborhood. The kids in my neighborhood never let me forget that I was Jewish. I was taunted, accosted, pushed, prodded and verbally abused. Even though, for the most part, like I said, I looked just like they did. I didn't dress any different. I didn't wear a traditional head covering or sport curly payis on the sides on my head. I even ate the same foods they did, except for the foods I didn't like, not for any religious dietary reasons.

When I was 20 years old, I met the woman who would become my wife. When she told me that she observed kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), I told her the only people I knew who kept kosher were in their 80s. Needless to say, I didn't win her over immediately. (It worked out, though.) As I got to know her and the family into which I would marry, I was introduced to the heretofore unfamiliar world of traditional Jews. I found myself witnessing — and even participating in — Shabbat prayers. When Spring rolled around, Passover became more than just a single box of matzo. My in-laws would be host to a full-blown seder, complete with ornate wine cups and long explanations of the origins of the holiday, and, of course, homemade matzo balls, gefilte fish — everything! At Chanukah, my future wife's mother shredded actual potatoes and made latkes right before my eyes! We attended synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also on Simchat Torah, Purim and other holidays that I never heard of. All this prompted my mother — a woman whose maternal grandfather was a rabbi  — to ask if I was marrying into an Orthodox family. When I did marry, my wife maintained a kosher kitchen. (as a matter of fact, we still have a kosher kitchen!) Our son attended Jewish Day School through high school and loved knowing how knowledgeable he was about the history of his family's religious observances.

Recently, Mrs. P and I experienced a different sort of discrimination. This time, it was under the watchful and judgmental eye of our own people.

Last weekend, Mrs. Pincus and I took a drive to Lakewood, New Jersey, a community of 92,000 that sits about 60 miles east of Philadelphia. Lakewood, itself, is pretty unspectacular. It's got houses and apartment buildings and many varied businesses. But what makes Lakewood unique is its Jewish population. More than half of its population is comprised of Orthodox Jews. And they are quite visible. On a drive down Route 9, the township's main thoroughfare, you can see men in dark suits, white shirts and wide-brimmed black hats on nearly every corner. Women surrounded by hordes of clamoring children are close at hand. Because of neighborhood demands, Lakewood is home to a giant supermarket called Gourmet Glatt. An unbelievable operation, Gourmet Glatt is easily twice the size of  typical supermarket. In addition to aisles and aisles of grocery items, there is a huge fresh produce section along with an array of stations offering sushi, cold cuts, salads, entire prepared meals. And every single thing in the place is certified kosher. They stock many national brands that are already kosher (whether you knew it or not) along side lesser brands that are more familiar to the particular (and loyal) clientele, On the Sunday we were there, the place was jammed. It was, after all, the week before Purim, the holiday that commemorates the ancient Jews being persecuted by someone (probably). Purim tradition has children dressing up in costumes mimicking the main characters in the Purim story. Sweets are distributed and exchanged as part of the celebration. Gourmet Glatt sets aside an entire room filled with high factory shelving overflowing with candy treats and various colorful containers ready to fill and disburse. It is on par with what most secular stores put out for the Christmas season. Again, this area of the store was packed to near capacity, making the navigation of the aisles a bit tricky and accessibility of a shopping cart impossible.

As Mrs. P and I strolled the aisles of Gourmet Glatt — marveling at the sheer volume of product, the compelling displays and the swarming crowds of anxious shoppers — I got a strange, somewhat uncomfortable vibe. How could that be? I was among my people. Tribesmen. Mishpacha. Well, we were being watched by the other customers, eyed like we didn't belong, scrutinized like outsiders who had infiltrated their secret sanctuary. The stares were palpable. Mrs. Pincus was wearing jeans, a no-no among Orthodox women. I was sans a head covering and fringes from a prayer shawl were not visible at my waistline. Also, I was clean-shaven. Unfettered, we ignored the silent inspection as best we could.

My wife, who had been to this store several times before, searched the delicatessen section for a delicacy called kishke, a rich, savory appetizer made from matzo meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and spices. (Hey, don't knock it. In my carnivore days, I couldn't get enough of this stuff.) She scanned the many refrigerated cases but came up empty. Not content, she approached a bearded fellow who was arranging some packaged meat in another cold case.

"Hi," she began, with a smile, "I was looking for packaged sliced kishke, but I didn't see any."

By the way, this is kishke.
The fellow placed his last package in the case and, with a friendly grin, replied, "I can check to see if we have some." He burst through a swinging door and soon returned with a Styrofoam tray upon which rested two ochre-colored disks of kishke. "Here's some," he said as he presented the tray to my wife.

"Is this pre-cooked?," she asked, remembering that the last batch she bought only required a quick warming in the microwave. Uncooked kishke, you see, needs a good hour or so in a hot oven before it can be eaten.

The bearded fellow pointed to the tray of kishke and looked at my wife. "Well, Jewish people usually heat this up and serve it with gravy."

An expression of horror flashed across Mrs. P's face. I saw it. I saw it immediately. The bearded fellow was explaining the customs of Jewish people to my wife — she of Jewish day school training, of traditional and observant upbringing, of Kosher kitchen keeping. But now she was gettin' schooled by a guy who already deemed her  — purely based on his own assessment  — as not Jewish.

She momentarily struggled to respond, but then slyly injected her response with the word "fleshig," a Yiddish word for "meat." The bearded fellow didn't bat an eye, figuring to himself, "Well, whaddaya know? The shiksa picked up some Yiddish." We took the package of kishke and continued our shopping, first annoyed, but then amused by the exchange.

We still were being watched and judged as we walked towards the checkout counters. Men in wide black hats, women in sheitels and scarves, droves of kids swarming around the candy displays, all dressed in frumpy drab clothing and all looking exactly the same. I whispered to Mrs. P, "If one of these kids wanders off and Mom calls 'Shlomo!,' two dozen boys will come running."

Then I realized that I was exhibiting the exact same type of discrimination that we just had thrust upon us.

Discrimination and prejudice is a curious thing. Just like opposable thumbs and the ability to reason, it's what makes us human.

I won't be going back to Lakewood anytime soon. But the next time Mrs. P has a craving for kishke, she is likely return.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

big bottom

All this and candles, too.
After seeing countless commercials for the casual dining chain restaurant Red Robin (yummmmm!), Mrs. Pincus and I got the opportunity to dine at one of their 538 locations on our most recent trip to Virginia Beach. Earlier in the day, Mrs. P's cousin Juniper chauffeured us around nearby Williamsburg with our actual destinations being several local wineries. The penultimate stop on our whirlwind tour of the historic city (of which we saw no sites of any historic significance) was a Yankee Candle® store of theme-park proportions. (Oh, you read that right! It's an enormous building that resembles a hotel, jam-packed with display after fragrant display of the stout, glass-potted, wax-'n-wick beauties. The multi-room complex is supplemented with cookware, handbags, candy and other unrelated, non-candle items — just to fill the place out.)

We'll meet 'neath that giant Red Robin sign
that brings this fair city light.
As the sun set and our thoughts turned to dinner options, we surveyed the landscape. I am convinced that the geographic area known as the Eastern Shore of Virginia has more fast food and chain restaurants per square foot than any other place on earth. Along both sides of Interstate 64, some of America's favorite restaurants can be spotted. National heavyweight advertisers like Outback Steakhouse, Carraba's Italian Grill, Olive Garden, TGI Friday's and hundreds of Starbucks, along with regional entries like Smokey Griddle Pancake House and Southern Pancake & Waffle House (the South sure loves them some pancakes!) were among the wide array of evening meal choices. Juniper suggested Red Robin (yummmmm!) and said there was one just ahead. I checked the GPS on my phone and — sure enough — 100 or so feet ahead, in a shopping center that looked just like a dozen shopping centers we already passed, was a Red Robin (yummmmm!), its channel-lettered logo glowing bright red, reflecting off the adjacent Dick's Sporting Goods. We found a parking spot, then entered the restaurant. We joined a fairly large group of hungry patrons, all gripping now-silent pagers, poised for a vibrating explosion of LED lights informing the holder that seating and menus were mere moments away. 

Objects may appear larger
in our commercials.
Soon, our pager's lights began blinking and a young lady in a popped collar, logoed polo shirt led us through a maze of booths and bistro tables to a semi-circular booth in the far corner of a room that boasted three gigantic screen televisions as its main decor. We all slid awkwardly into our booth and perused the menu. Now, I'll be the first one to admit that my silly, self-imposed dietary restrictions severely limits my choices in most restaurants, but, rest assured, I can always find something to eat on nearly every menu. And Red Robin (yummmmm!) would be no exception. I settled on the vegetarian-friendly version of their signature Banzai burger, piled high with grilled pineapple, cheddar cheese and a thick teriyaki sauce, in addition to lettuce and mayo. This, as are all entrees, was accompanied by the highly-touted "bottomless" fries. Oh yeah! The centerpiece of Red Robin's (yummmmm!) advertising is their promise of an endless supply of generously-cut steak fries, always available and always plentiful, even long after you've gobbled up the last of your burger. The implication was that fries could continue to be delivered through dessert and coffee, as long as the customer desired.

Really? REALLY??
We ordered. When our meals arrived, I scrutinized the tiny chrome-plated cup that stood in the shadow of my burger in the corner of my plate. Eight, maybe nine, broad steak fries stood upended in the confines of the scant metal container. I thought about the images I had seen in Red Robin's (yummmmm!) effective advertising campaign. Visions of fresh-cut potatoes, mounds of golden-brown fries fanned out and overflowing from the blond-wood cutting board — far, far too many for one person to consume, but readily available for the taking. The puny cupful of fries next to my burger? Damn! I could down them in one, fairly effortless gulp. Between bites of my burger (which, I will admit, was pretty good) I finished my fries. I looked around the bustling eatery for our server, but he was nowhere to be found. (In all fairness, the servers — with their gelled-up hair and shirt collars standing at attention — all resembled one another.) I finally picked out our guy (Chip or Dave or Bruce or something) and requested another round of fries. Chip (or whoever) winked and shot me a "thumbs up" sign, then disappeared into the crowd. A few minutes went by. Then a few more. Then a few more. I slurped at my water glass and poked around at the crumbs and sauce remnants on my mostly-empty plate. Juniper and Mrs. P, both normal-paced eaters (I am a particularly fast eater), were still enjoying their dinner. Each still had plenty of fries left in their initial order. I was craning my neck and diligently scanning the place for a sign of our server and my second round of supposedly "bottomless" fries. More and more time passed before Chip finally arrived to place a plate of fries before me. There were approximately twice the amount of my first order, this time arranged on a plate instead of in a little cup. I tried my very best to leisurely devour the fries, but I could not. My lightning-fast eating habits, coupled with my lack of patience, had me wolfing down this supplemental portion in record time. Of course, I wanted more. After all, they — not me — made the "bottomless" offer first. But, now I was wise to their game. They were a bunch of "fry-teasers," weren't they?!? Those potato-tempting bastards! They were worse than drug dealers! They get you hooked, then they take their sweet time bringing out more, forcing you to be too embarrassed to order a third round, daring you to risk eating them while the custodial staff is mopping the floor and stacking the chairs on the tables.

I reminded my wife of the time we went to an all-you-can eat Dim Sum night at a Philadelphia Chinese restaurant. We ordered the special and our waiter brought out a considerable selection of vegetarian dim sum (traditional Chinese food served in bite-size portions). We ate the first round and ordered more. Round number two was equally as tasty, but half the amount was offered. The third round was brought to us on two small saucers, a size usually reserved for a tea cup or after-dinner mints. The fourth round was the check. It was determined for us that we had had all we could eat. It seems that Red Robin (yummmmm!) had taken a page from that Chinese restaurant's playbook.

I don't think I will go out of my way to find a Red Robin (yummmmm!) closer to home. The bottomless fries may not have a bottom, but they sure have a catch.