Sunday, April 30, 2017

early morning strangers

Every so often, I ride the train to work with my friend Randi. I met Randi when our kids went to nursery school together, so I have known her for a very long time. A few years ago, Randi and her husband moved into my neighborhood and, coincidentally, we both work in the same office building in center city Philadelphia. Randi usually takes an earlier or later train than the one I regularly take, but, a few times a week, we ride to work together.

On our short commute into Philadelphia, we discuss a multitude of topics — religion, family situations, movies, television shows. This particular Monday morning, I was telling Randi about the Monster Mania convention, a twice-yearly gathering of all things horror that my son and I attended the day before.

I don't know why I continue to subject myself to this convention, but I do. And with much regret. I go specifically to add to my autographed photos collection, but over the years, the cost of admission and the autographs themselves, have become ridiculously overpriced. I really wrestle with myself every time a new roster of "celebrities" is announced. I assess the pros and cons of driving to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, finding a place to park in the small hotel lot, paying the inflated admission and then paying the exorbitant fee for an autographed photo. But, this past weekend's "guest of honor" — Danny Lloyd — was the clincher. Thirty-seven years ago, Danny played Jack Nicholson's enigmatic son in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining. After filming wrapped, Danny had one more role in a TV movie about Watergate nut-job G. Gordon Liddy, then abandoned show business and fell back into "real life." Now, at 44, he is a biology professor at a community college in Kentucky. Well, I don't know exactly what he's teaching in his class, but he sure learned how to get forty bucks for writing his name on a photograph of himself from his youth. I begrudgingly handed him two twenty dollars bills (Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher, who was also at this show, was only asking thirty bucks) and tried to make some small talk. I asked him if the Internet rumors about his not knowing that The Shining was a horror movie were true. He laughed and confirmed that Kubrick, a vicious taskmaster to the adult actors, was very protective of his underage actors (Danny and the Burns sisters, who played the ghostly Grady twins and were, coincidentally, seated at their own table to Danny's left). I asked if his students know about his former life as an actor (albeit two roles). He said some did, some didn't and most were not impressed and didn't care.

As I related my little weekend adventure to Randi, I noticed another commuter, just across the train aisle from us, was hanging on to every word I was saying. It was so obvious. He wasn't even trying to hide the fact that he was listening so intensely to our conversation as though he would be transcribing it later. I tried to subtly nudge Randi to covertly point the eavesdropper out. When the train stopped at our station, we all got off and I pointed the guy out as he hurried up the platform stairs.

The next day, I was standing on the train platform waiting for my morning train. Randi was not in sight on this morning, but that was not unusual. So, as I waited, I fiddled with my phone. Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I could see someone approaching. I looked up and I was startled to see the eavesdropper from yesterday's morning commute standing less than a foot away from me.

"Hi.," he began, innocently enough.

"How're you doin'?," I mumbled, still trying to figure out what this guy wanted. I am, admittedly, very suspicious of people I don't know.

"I heard you talking on the train yesterday about The Shining." Well, at least he got right to the point. "I wanted to know if you ever saw the documentary Room 237? Have you ever heard of it?," he asked. Not only had I heard of the film, I had seen it. It is an independent production from 2012 that unobjectively relates several wild theories that The Shining is not merely an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, but an elaborate puzzle, cryptically alluding to either the systematic slaughter of Native Americans or an apology by director Kubrick for his collusion with NASA in the ruse that was the first moon landing or a symbolic tale of the Holocaust or a combination of the three.

But the real question was: Why did this guy care if I saw this documentary? Plus, he just admitted that he was listening to my conversation from the previous day.

This was weird. I, however, was uncharacteristically polite. I answered his question and engaged him in a little chit-chat about my views on The Shining and my conversation with the now-adult Danny Lloyd. A train pulled up to the station, thankfully bringing this awkward exchange to an end. I started towards the last car of the train and he called out "Nice talking to you!," as he headed in the opposite direction. I was relived that he didn't feel compelled to continue our tête-à-tête in a more intimate setting on the train.

On subsequent days, I have seen the eavesdropper milling about on the train platform. He seems to be purposely steering clear of me. That's just fine with me. His "striking up a friendship" skills are in need some refinement.

Oh, and Room 237 was absolute bullshit.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

and now, the tragic story

Am I about to write a review of a movie that's forty-three years old? Um, possibly.

When I was thirteen, I used to go to the movies with my friends and my family. It was 1974 and I accompanied my parents to see Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Riding on the successful coattails of the 1972's  The Poseidon Adventure, the trend-setter in the disaster film genre, I saw The Towering Inferno, Airport '75 and Earthquake (presented in theater-shaking Sensurround). Although titillated by the provocative TV commercials for the animated adult feature The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, I had to settle for tamer, more age-appropriate offerings like Journey Back to Oz and Herbie Rides Again. When I was out with my friends, we gravitated towards cooler movies, like The Lords of Flatbush (with Henry Winkler and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone) and the rollicking, swashbuckler The Four Musketeers. However, one movie stood out among all the others that year. It was a hodgepodge of horror and music and comedy and just plain weird. I'm speaking, of course, about Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise. (Yes, that Brian DePalma.)

Phantom of the Paradise stars singer/songwriter/actor Paul Williams as Swan, a villainous record impresario who flim-flams a poor sap named Winslow Leach out of his elaborate cantata. The film is chock full of everything to appeal to the cinematic masochist. There's mediocre acting, over-the-top musical productions (as over-the-top as the small budget would allow), and a handful of Paul Williams-penned tunes — none of which come close to "We've Only Just Begun," "Old Fashioned Love Song" or "The Rainbow Connection," though spunky Jessica Harper (in her motion picture debut) was obviously coached to mimic Karen Carpenter in her somber take on "Old Souls" about midway through the film.

By no means is Phantom of the Paradise on the level of Citizen Kane. Nor does it pretend to be. It does, however, possess all the elements of a great cult film. It's one of those "so bad, it's good" films. You know, like a big-screen car wreck at which you cannot look away. It pre-dates The Rocky Horror Picture Show by eleven months, and certainly, in my opinion, deserves the same (dis)respect. Phantom of the Paradise boasts similar production values and hokey story, though the Tim Curry-Susan Sarandon-Barry Bostwick trifecta is far superior to Paul Williams and a handful of glitter. When I was thirteen, Phantom of the Paradise was the coolest movie I ever saw — until it was usurped by Tommy only five months later. But those were a glorious five months.

When my son was in high school, Phantom of the Paradise was released on DVD and I bought it immediately. I was so excited to watch this film with my son, hoping that he would enjoy it as much as I did. He was very leery of my big build-up for the film. In his defense, I had not seen it in thirty years and I only had fuzzy but fond memories of it. So the two of us sat on the sofa as scene after garish scene flashed across our TV screen. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my son giving me that look. "This is the coolest movie you every saw?," he muttered in disbelief. "Well, I remember it being a lot better.," I explained, "Besides, I was thirteen." He was a sport and he sat with me until the end. Then he got up and left the room without saying a word. I got the message, though I think I may have watched it again by myself.

Over the years, I would still pull out my Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack and give it a nostalgic listen. Sure the songs are not particularly memorable, but they are like a visit from an old friend. So you can imagine my excitement when it was announced that there would be a special screening of Phantom of the Paradise at a popular concert venue on the night before Easter. My excitement level could be measured in direct contrast of Mrs. Pincus' reaction when I asked her if she'd like to go. I noted that it was free admission. She gave a defeated exhale and agreed to go. My son even joined us. (Granted, the venue is in the same building where he works.)

All day Saturday, I tweeted about my evening plans and Instagrammed screenshots from the movie (some of which were "liked" by Paul Williams himself, who, for some reason, follows me on social media. Yep, the real Paul Williams.) I was as giddy as I had been when I saw the movie in its initial run.

That evening, we sat in an audience that was comprised of about eight people and a whole lot of empty chairs. I sang along with all the songs. (I still knew all the words.) My son laughed at the terrible acting and my wife checked her eBay auctions and answered emails, pausing several times to ask me "How much longer?" Ninety-one minutes and one big, splashy, puzzling finale later, it was all over.

And it was great!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

gettin' down here with the people

It was a typical Saturday night, but it turned out to be anything but typical.

I picked my son up around 5 o'clock, just after he finished his on-air shift at the radio station where he works. We had plans to go to a concert in Delaware, just over the Pennsylvania border. We had plenty of time, so we hopped on the subway and headed to a new restaurant we had heard about to grab dinner. Pretty typical so far.

After dinner, we jumped back on the westbound subway to get my car and make our way down to the show. I punched the address of the venue into the GPS on my phone and we were off. After crossing the state boundary, I carefully followed the mechanical-voiced instructions though uncharted rural Delaware thoroughfares until we arrived at our destination, which, in this case, was the Arden Gild Hall. Again, pretty typical.

It was our first time at Arden Gild, a rustic looking compound comprised of several utility buildings and a large main structure that, once inside, my son observed that it looked like a "hunting lodge for rich weirdos." The room was slowly filling up and the weather had just turned to a more seasonal clime for our area. Actually, the temperature was inching towards the higher numbers on the scale. We spotted a few members of both the warm-up act (Scantron) and the headliner (Low Cut Connie), both of whom we've seen numerous times before. As a matter of fact, the bands actually share a few members. My son and I chatted with James and Larry, the Connie boys' guitarist and drummer respectively, and then moved closer to the stage as the lights dimmed and the first band played the opening notes of their first song. Still, nothing out of the ordinary.

After a brief intermission, my son and I moved even closer to the stage. Scantron burst onto the stage with the same high-energy, high-octane bravura they displayed a week ago on the tiny stage at Kung Fu Necktie. Performing this time as a trio (with a supplemental keyboardist), the band ripped through a raucous playlist that included garage rockers and odes to James' Delaware roots. Scantron concluded their set and crew began setting up for Low Cut Connie's show-closing set. I talked with my son and a photographer friend of his. Soon our conversation was joined by a lovely couple we have met at many a Connie show, who just happen to be the parents of Low Cut Connie's charismatic frontman Adam Weiner. So far, so typical.

Suddenly, a strange feeling fuzzed up my head and my vision. Things started to get atypical.

As the stage crew adjusted mic stands, arranged guitar stands and placed the venerable "Shondra" (Adam's trusty, road-worn piano) in her usual spot at the front of the stage, my peripheral vision began to close in creating the effect of standing in a darkened tunnel. My head began to swim. I removed my denim jacket and tied it around my waist. I leaned toward my son and asked him if he could get me a bottle of water. He took several steps towards the bar at the back of the venue, but stopped to grab a folding chair for me. He could tell I was a little "off." He didn't have time to unfold the chair as I fell unconscious into his arms. Adam's father jumped from his chair and rushed to my aid, helping my son to lower me to the floor. I don't remember any of this. I only remember opening my eyes to see a dozen or so faces peering down on me from my prone position. My shirt was drenched in my own perspiration. Two women, crouched on either side of me, identified themselves as nurses. One grasped my wrist as she searched for a pulse, while the other started in with a barrage of questions — "What's your name?," "How old are you?" (My son later informed me that I got that one wrong.) The one that momentarily jolted me back to my senses was "Who's the president?" I remember scowling and cautioning my interrogator not to get me started.

My son and Adam's dad hoisted me into a folding chair. Someone placed a wet towel on my neck. I felt better, but only for a few minutes because I passed out a second time. Meanwhile, the venue's announcer was backstage, informing the band that "some guy with bright orange hair passed out in front of the stage." Adam interrupted his pre-show rituals to exclaim, "I know that guy." When I came around the second time, Adam was kneeling on the floor in front of me, grasping my sweaty palms in his hands. The rest of the band was at the edge of the stage, gazing down on me, along with nearly everyone else in place. I looked up to see my son on his cellphone.

"Who are you calling?," I asked.

"911.," he replied. He was calm and in control.

Soon, the crowd parted for two EMTs who helped me on to a gurney and wheeled me out to a waiting ambulance. As they shoved me backwards into the vehicle, my head reeled. My son announced, "I guess this is a good time to call Mom." He punched in my home phone number and slowly, coolly and calmly explained the situation to my wife, who was an hour away in Philadelphia. As I was whisked off to the hospital, with my son in the ambulance's passenger seat and my wife frantically dressing then speeding south on I-95, I could imagine the chatter among the people at the concert venue.

"I wonder what that guy was on?"

"Wow! I think that guy died!"

"I never saw anyone with that color hair before!"

Within minutes, I was in a small room in the emergency department of Christiana Care Hospital in Wilmington. An attentive team of technicians, nurses and doctors dutifully poked and prodded me. They asked me the same questions several times over. They took my blood pressure a million times and extracted many vials of blood from my left arm. A bag of some magic rejuvenating fluid was attached to my right arm via a tube and I began to feel much better. A short time later, my wife arrived at the emergency room, blotting tears from her eyes. She made me promise that I wouldn't die.

I would find out later that Adam and his pals dedicated the evening's performance to me. (Appreciated, but how embarrassing!) The next day, my Twitter feed lit up with well wishes and concern from a sampling of people I met at the show. (Appreciated, but how embarrassing!) My son stated that, while we can never show our faces at Arden Gild again, I better not pull that shit in September, when Low Cut Connie makes a return trip to Union Transfer in Philadelphia. "I go to Union Transfer a lot," he explained, "I want to be able to go there again." (How very embarrassing!)

I'm just happy that this didn't turn out to be Low Cut Connie's "Gimme Shelter."

Sunday, April 9, 2017

it seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

Two years ago, I wrote a lengthy blog entry about a bad experience at a local Ruby Tuesday restaurant. I carefully described the entire episode in great detail and then... I never published it. It still sits in my "drafts" folder, waiting for its day in the sun.

In that blog post (which you may never get to read), I had an issue with a gift card and the unprofessional manner in which the restaurant manager handled it. Then, on a later visit, we had an issue with the way a server first ignored, then argued over, our presentation of a discount coupon. I vowed never to return to Ruby Tuesday. I usually pride myself on keeping my word on ultimatums, but since I never actually published that blog entry, there was my loophole. (Jeez! Politicians use that excuse all the time!)

One day last week, I arrived home after work at my usual time. My wife greeted me and said that she wanted to make a quick trip to IKEA to get some specialty light bulbs. (Evidently the lamps in our bedroom can only accommodate rare Swedish light bulbs. We have tried run-of-the-mill Philips brand bulbs from Home Depot, they only last a few days. In defense of our lamps, I believe they were purchased at IKEA, as well.) While we were out in the direction of our nearest IKEA, Mrs. P suggested getting dinner at Ruby Tuesday. I frowned. She saw me frown. But, I relented and agreed to give Ruby Tuesday another chance.

Trips to IKEA, in my experience, are never "quick." Maybe it's because of the sheer size of the building or the overwhelming inventory or the fact that my wife likes to shop, but a visit to IKEA rarely involves picking up one item. We snaked our way through aisles of kitchen gadgets and magazine storage boxes and folding somethings until we found the lighting department. Finding the item you're seeking in IKEA is never an easy task because things are arranged aesthetically not categorically. We finally located a display of Ryet bulbs (one of the endearing individual names that IKEA gives to their products to personify them.... I guess) and grabbed enough of a supply to keep us from coming back to IKEA for a while. We wended our way to the check-out area, paid, and headed out the door. 

Content with our purchases and hopeful of our bedroom being fully lit for more than a week, we pulled into the parking lot of Ruby Tuesday. It was a weekday evening, nearly 7:30 pm, so we were seated immediately. Our server, Riley, introduced himself and handed menus to Mrs. Pincus and me. I marveled at — what I considered — fairly high-prices for chain-restaurant food. After a few minutes, Riley returned to take our order. We helped ourselves to the newly-expanded salad bar (four different kinds of mixed greens, garlic-sauteed broccoli, mandarin orange slices). We were silently welcomed back to our table with tall glasses of water and a plate of Ruby Tuesday's signature cheddar biscuits, a complimentary feature that are about as moist and flavorful as the Sahara Desert. Our dinner was okay. Not great. Not terrible. Just okay. Riley checked on us a few times during the course of our meal and even filled our water without being asked.


At the conclusion of dinner, Riley arrived at our table with a leatherette portfolio containing our check. He laid it on the table midway between Mrs. P and me. He smiled and said, "Thank you and have a blessed evening."

What the fuck?

Were we just blessed by a guy whose most recent interaction was bringing me bland tilapia and a baked potato? Were we consecrated by someone who only 30 minutes earlier told us that we could substitute the salad bar for one of our side dishes? Did our waiter just invoke a sacred bond between us and his deity for the remainder of the night? Riley just crossed the fucking line. 

I was annoyed. Mrs. Pincus was furious. 

Religion is a very, very personal thing and my relationship with organized religion has waned considerably over the years. I am not a fan of religion or any of the people who blindly follow it. I have respect for the people who follow religion, as long as they keep their beliefs to themselves or to the company of others they are one hundred percent sure share their beliefs. Aside from that, I get pretty uncomfortable with anyone making any sort of religious reference to me. In a routine by comedian Jim Gaffigan, he begins by telling the audience that he'd like to talk about Jesus. Then, he mutters (in his characteristic imitation of the audience): "He better not!" He goes on to say, "Does anything make you more uncomfortable than a stranger telling you he'd like to talk about Jesus?" Well, as far as I'm concerned, I don't want to hear about anyone's religion, especially someone I don't know and especially if my relationship with that someone is of a server-customer nature. You cannot assume someone's religious beliefs are the same as yours, unless you really know that person well. Very well, in fact. And dropping a plate of tilapia and a baked potato in front of them does not qualify as a close relationship.

An enraged Mrs. P wanted to give a piece of her mind to the manager on duty. I discouraged her, explaining that her anger would be falling on the deafest of ears. Instead, I continued, I will send a email to Ruby Tuesday corporate headquarters. I would let them know how offended we were and how inappropriate the sentiment was. We silently paid the bill and left.

The next morning, I composed a carefully worded email and sent it through the feedback section of the Ruby Tuesday website. The next day I received this reply:

Dear Josh, 
Thank you for your message following your visit to Ruby Tuesday. Our guests, like you, are very important to us and it is concerning when anyone leaves our restaurant feeling uncomfortable. Please accept our apology. Your feedback has been forwarded to our senior management, for follow up with the restaurant team. We anticipate a response directly to you within 48 business hours.  
Ruby Tuesday Guest Relations

Very nice. Very corporate. It is now 240 business hours since I received this reply. I have received no response directly to me from the restaurant team. Actually, I have not received any additional response. Guess who won't be getting a third chance?

And this blog entry is officially published.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

one hundred hairs make a man

Starting from the day after the first time I ever shaved, I had a mustache. I remember gliding my father's electric razor around the contours of my 16-year-old face and thinking, as sparse growths of ultra-fine peach fuzz were sheared off: "Fuck this. I'm growing a mustache." And grow a mustache I did.

In all honesty, it was really just me being lazy. I didn't like shaving. Even with an electric razor, I didn't like standing and staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, trying to remember if I covered that area of my face yet. It wasn't like mowing the lawn, where — if I let it go long enough — I could tell which areas I hit with the mower by the comparison to the areas I hadn't yet covered. But, the hair on my face didn't grow at the same rate as my parent's lawn, so to me, shaving was an unnecessary chore. Of course, as I got older, my facial hair was in need of regular maintenance. I, however, had fallen into the rut of ignoring extensive daily grooming. Brushing my teeth was all I needed. I just pulled my long hair back into a ponytail and I was ready for the day. The scruffiness of my unkempt whiskers was not a priority.

When I attended art school in the early 80s, I earned extra money scooping ice cream at a popular spot on Philadelphia's artsy South Street. When I interviewed for the job, the store owner (a guy my brother knew from high school) told me I would have to shave my mustache. He explained that no one can have facial hair behind the ice cream counter. No exceptions. I really wanted this job, so I informed my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and I reluctantly took a razor to my face. For months, I was clean-shaven. I carefully maintained my face and shaved more often than I ever had in my life. One day, a new hire showed up behind the counter. A new hire — with a mustache and beard! I marched right up to the owner and questioned the allowance of the new guy's facial hair. He rattled off some lame excuse about the guy posing for a religious-themed painting and he was portraying Jesus so he had to have a mustache and beard. I wasn't buying it. I told him that, as of this moment, I will stop shaving. I promised to keep my pending mustache neat and trim, but I'd be growing it back just the same. 

When I finished art school, I was finished with scooping ice cream as well. I grew my hair long and my facial hair grew back to its unruly glory. Even as I entered the working world, employers didn't seem to mind how long my hair was or how I grew my mustache as long as my talent as an artist was up to the challenges of the job (or in my case, many jobs). I worked in small production houses (that's art industry talk) until I got my first job interview in the "corporate" world at the suburban Philadelphia offices of a legal publisher. I cut my hair, trimmed my mustache and beard close and got the job.

Several years and several jobs later, I was working for a local chain of floor covering stores where I produced their weekly newspaper ads and in-store signage. One day, a warehouse worker, in the throes of innocent conversation asked my age. I smiled and dared him to guess. He looked me up and down, scratched his head and said, "Eh, I don't know.... sixty?" I was taken aback and a bit insulted. I was not then, nor am I now, sixty. As a matter of fact, at the time, I was forty. I did, though, sport a full gray beard, which I promptly shaved off as soon as I got home that day — never to be grown back again.

When I first began my current job, a co-worker offered me five dollars to shave off my mustache. I did and happily took his money. Everybody got a good laugh and my mustache was back within a few days. However, after toying with the idea for some time, I shaved my mustache off at the beginning of 2017 — this time for good. It had been years since I had shaved the area between my nose and my upper lip. I cut myself a few times, despite being extra careful. Several dabs from my trusty styptic pencil and I was just fine.

With the exception of two colleagues with whom I work very closely, no one in my fourteen-person department said a word. I had shaved early in the morning before my wife woke up. When I got home, it even took a few overly-theatrical coughs and throat clearings until Mrs. P noticed. My in-laws still haven't said a word. My wife postulated that, since my mustache was predominantly white in color, it wasn't really such a drastic change. My son (who is still getting used to seeing my bare upper lip) told me that I now resemble my older brother. My brother, who seemed a little insulted by that assessment, told me I look nothing like him.

When I was a teenager, I think I grew a mustache in an attempt to look older. Now, I'm kind of hoping the lack of a mustache makes me look younger 'cause I'm not so sure the red hair is doing the trick.