Sunday, August 27, 2017

hello darkness, my old friend

Uh-oh. Here we go again. How, after so long, did I end up here? Well...

My wife has always enjoyed visiting Atlantic City, the famous Jersey shore resort. When casino gambling was introduced, Mrs. P found another reason to drive the 90 minutes from Philadelphia. She enjoyed playing slot machines. I don't know if it was the flashing lights or the cute characters that decorated the spinning reels or the cha-CHING! of coins, but something about those so-called "one-armed bandits" held her attention. I wasn't particularly worried about her frequent trips to Atlantic City. We were able to meet our financial obligations, so that wasn't an issue. But soon, the casinos, Harrah's in particular, began offering an assortment of gifts for frequent players. Gifts like small kitchen appliances, costume jewelry, Harrah's branded clothing and accessories — all for just showing up at an appointed time and presenting a voucher. She began receiving two or three pieces of promotional mail from Harrah's every day, including offers for show tickets and discounted — then, eventually free — buffets. On weekends, when I could accompany my wife on a trip to Atlantic City, I'd stand by her side and watch as she'd blow through the "free slot play" that Harrah's used to entice her to the casino, followed by a few hundred of her own money. Sometimes she'd come out ahead and sometimes she wouldn't. We'd cap our visit off with a complementary meal at Harrah's bountiful buffet, then head home.

In 2009, Mrs. P and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in Las Vegas. This trip had been in the planning stages for a while and we let friends and family know the dates, hoping some would join us in our celebration. Seventeen members of our collective families met us in Sin City for a pre-planned dinner at the lovely Mon Ami Gabi at the Paris Resort, overlooking the always-interesting Vegas Strip. When we first arrived in Vegas, we checked in at the Camelot-themed Excalibur Hotel, our pre-booked accommodations for the week. My wife and son signed up for Excalibur's Slot Player Club and each received personalized cards on the spot. These cards, when inserted into a selected slot machine, track a players activity and reward various levels of comps based on play. After a week of intense tourist-y stuff and a significant amount of slot machine play, we were ready wrap up our vacation and head to the airport, Mrs. P inquired about accumulated comps at the Slot Player Club customer service desk. The helpful woman behind the counter scanned my wife's card and her eyes lit up at the results glowing on the computer monitor before her. She instructed us to go to VIP Services when we were ready to check out. We skirted the line at the hotel front desk, swarming with angry masses of guests, and passed through a set of gold-trimmed glass doors. Once inside, the sound from the lobby and  near-by casino was blotted out by lilting classical piano. The floor was covered with sparkling white carpet and several plush, upholstered chairs invited VIPs to rest until their name was called. We took a seat and soon, a tuxedoed man beckoned my wife to the counter with a graceful wave. The Pincus family approached and Mrs. P handed over her slot club card. The man nodded, smiled and swiped the card across the card reader. His monitor lit up and he examined the results, noting each line with an index finger. A printer spit out a single sheet of paper. The man made a few notations on the paper and drew a large circle at the bottom. He handed it to my wife with a gracious "Thank you." We looked at the bill. He had circled the grand total. And that total was "$0.00." A week's hotel stay, meals, snacks and a couple of drinks at a hotel bar. Zero. Nada. Nothing. My wife and I exchanged glances, then looked at the man in the tux. "Is this correct?," we said, nearly simultaneously. 

"Oh yes," he replied, "based on your play."

I turned to my wife and whispered, "How much did you play?"

"A lot.," she said plainly.

Just for kicks, my son passed his card to the man and asked if he had any comps available. The man scanned his card and laughed. He handed my son a voucher and said, "Here. Take your parents out for breakfast."

Astonished, my son asked, "Is this from the points on my card?" The man just smiled and winked.

And that's pretty much where it started. We returned home and Mrs. P continued her regular visits to the casinos in Atlantic City. The more she played, the more we benefited. Soon, Mrs. P's casino activity warranted her very own "casino hostess." This is sort-of a personal concierge, able to quickly arrange and confirm spur-of the-moment hotel reservations and secure show tickets — even for sold-out events. We received free tickets for Penn & Teller, B.B. King, Don Rickles and Tony Bennett. We had countless buffets for which we were comped. We had numerous multi-night stays at Harrah's, with all of our meals included. We were flown to several other Harrah's properties across the country, including Laughlin, Nevada, New Orleans, Louisiana and Tunica, Mississippi, where we enjoyed the same VIP treatment we received in Atlantic City. We were offered free cruises, which we happily took and enjoyed. We were riding high and reaping the benefits. Until one day, it stopped. 

I asked my wife if she could call her casino hostess and get tickets for an upcoming show. Mrs. P called and left a message. No reply. She left another message. No reply. The hostess was unresponsive for weeks. The concert I wanted to see came and went. We got the hint — loud and clear. Granted, my wife's visits to Harrah's had sort-of tapered off, but we were cut off. Cold turkey, as though we were the black sheep family member in a dying rich uncle's will.

It was fine. We moved on. Mrs. P satisfied her slot machine cravings with a few apps that she downloaded to her cellphone. Otherwise, casinos were no longer a part of our lives, save for the week-long cruises were were still awarded based on casino activity on previous cruises. But, we were done with casinos. Or, rather, they were done with us.

In the time that passed since we last visited Harrah's in Atlantic City, five — count 'em five — casinos have shut their doors permanently. The casino business in Atlantic City was obviously suffering from outside competition. New casinos have opened in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland and New York — all of the places from which Atlantic City drew its client base, So, someone somewhere in the Marketing Analytics Department at Harrah's decided to re-assess their strategies, because, suddenly, Mrs. P was back in Harrah's good graces. She received a multi-page schedule in the mail, highlighting numerous offers tailored specifically for her. It was just like the good old days. Commencing on July 1, there were free gifts and free slot play and free hotel stays and free buffets. And, there we were on July 1, front and center. We are determined to milk this thing for as long as we can. Mrs. P will accept the free gifts and play the slots only on their promotional money, She won't put a dime of her own funds into a slot machine. We booked a weekend in July and will use our free buffets then. Also, that weekend, we will receive a voucher for another free cruise. Of course, all of Mrs. P's casino activity will be tracked and documented. And they must know that Mrs. P has not given them a dime of her own money.

So, we fully expected to be cut off by August, but Harrah's sent a calendar full of offers for September. Who knows how long we can keep this going?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

for you, for you, I came for you

I love to read and I love actual books. Books with covers and pages and a place to offer the services of a physical bookmark. I still purchase books and read them voraciously... on most occasions. I will admit that I have given up midway into the first chapter of a few books whose convoluted plots just weren't doing it for me. But, there is usually another waiting as a back up. I buy books several at a time because I am such an avid reader. And — best of all — my wife sells the gently used volumes (I take great care with my reading material) on eBay when I am through. She gets a good portion of the original selling price back, too.

As a reader, I have been to a few book signings, an event that coincides with another of my hobbies: collecting autographs. In 2010, Mrs. P, our son E. and I attended a book signing/charity auction in New York City. It was part of a tour by April Winchell, the multi-talented voice actress, who was promoting a recently published anthology of items from her (now-defunct) website April was a blast — engaging fans in conversation, personalizing each book and offering bookmarks made from maxi-pads. A few years later, my wife and I found ourselves at the main branch of the Philadelphia Library to hear actor-comedian Michael Palin read passages from his memoir Diaries 1969-1979, a personal chronicle of his years with the comedy troupe Monty Python. Afterwards, the comic signed copies of the book for a queue line than snaked thorough the cavernous library building. We waited — first outside in the rain, then inside among high shelves of books in forgotten storage rooms — for nearly three hours. Mr. Palin was delightful, humble and truly appreciative of the crowd.

This, apparently, is his BOOM-STICK!
A few weeks ago, I got word (via the internet's foremost source of information, Twitter) that actor Bruce Campbell had written a continuation of his 2001 memoir If Chins Could Kill. I read that book and it was highly entertaining. Subtitled "Confessions of a B Movie Actor," Bruce gives a hilariously self-aware account of his humble beginnings as a budding actor, eager to ply his trade with some down-and-dirty "on-the-job" experience. With his childhood pal, director Sam Raimi, the pair teamed up to stand the horror genre on its bloody ear, combining over the top gore with slapstick humor. Bruce, for the uninitiated, is the rugged goofball best known for his cult-movie roles in the Evil Dead series of horror films, as well as a plethora of cameos in major studio releases, and the television series Burn Notice and the short-lived Adventures of Brisco County Jr. To his fans, like most actors in the horror category, Bruce is held in the highest of esteem. He is movie royalty, occupying a place of honor alongside Robert Englund ("Freddy Krueger" in the Nightmare on Elm Street films) and whoever is behind the hockey mask in Friday the 13th.

Bruce's three-month promotional book tour brought him to Philadelphia on August 18th, to a Barnes and Noble just a few blocks from my office. I pre-ordered my copy of Hail to the Chin* and picked it up early in the week during my lunch hour. When I made my purchase, I was issued a Tyvek wristband that guaranteed a spot in line to get my book signed. So, on Wednesday, I left work at my regular time and leisurely strolled the bustling sidewalks of downtown Philadelphia's afternoon rush. I took my time, as the event was called for 7 PM, a full two hours from the time I leave work. I stopped for a quick bite to eat at a popular vegetarian restaurant and then I walked a block or so up 18th Street to the Barnes and Noble that faces Philadelphia's famous Rittenhouse Square. When I turned the corner onto Walnut Street, I spotted a smattering of folks gathering for the evening event. When I entered the store, I saw even more. How did I know they were there to meet Bruce Campbell? Well, as a veteran of many horror movie conventions, there were quite a few tell-tale signs. First, most were clad in shirts emblazoned with Bruce Campbell's likeness, specifically his "Ash" character from the Evil Dead film franchise. The ones that weren't sporting T-shits were dressed as though they were attending a Victorian funeral, especially the female members of the crowd who were draped in heavy velvet gowns with lacy bodices. The men boasted hair either hanging limp and unwashed from their pale scalps or slicked with product, except for thick and menacing sideburns flanking their collective visages. Numerous examples of elaborately inked flesh were visible at every turn, begging the question: what sort of bodily artwork was hidden by the layers of somber clothing? Plus — and I mean this in the most non-judgmental context — most appeared to be experiencing their first visit to a book store. Not that their behavior was disruptive. (On the contrary, it was not!) They just exhibited a sense of bewilderment at the sight of stacks of those things they have not seen since school was in session.

The actual book-signing process was extremely well-organized. The staff of Barnes and Noble were friendly and jovial — all while being deadly efficient. The wristbands that were distributed earlier were each pre-marked with a letter designating the order in which groups would be led to the store's third floor. The line was moving at a fairly quick clip, with new group letters being announced every fifteen to twenty minutes, it was obvious that, two floors above us, Mr. Campbell began affording his signature almost an hour ahead of schedule. I overheard several non-book-signing customers wandering through the store, muttering, "Is this place always this busy?"

Who drew ya, baby?
I waited patently, following the direction of the smiling staff members, as they guided the line up escalators, around support pillars towards the Bruce Campbell-occupied destination. Mr. Campbell, it was revealed, would graciously autograph one additional piece of memorabilia with each copy of his book that was purchased. People were carrying all sorts of items, from DVDs and magazines, to action figures and replicas of the so-called Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the notorious "Book of the Dead," as featured in the Evil Dead films, noted for its binding (human flesh in the film; something else, I hope, in the facsimiles carried by my fellow autograph seekers). An attentive worker walked along the queue line, exchanging customers books for one that had been pre-signed by Bruce, thereby allowing him to technically sign just one item for each waiting person. I exchanged my book, putting my signed copy in my messenger bag and extracting a glossy print of a portrait I drew of Mr. Campbell as a gift, as well as a photo I printed at home for him to inscribe. In an effort speed things along even more, it was made clear that nothing would be personalized. Bruce would just scribble the few twisted lines that passed as his signature.

I was almost at the signing table, my turn coming just after two sweaty dudes in ill-fitting Evil Dead tank tops reminiscing about every single one of Bruce Campbell's 119 screen credits and a guy in a full Deadpool costume, complete with prop katanas (no, I don't understand the connection either). Finally, I was beckoned forward by a nice young lady who was monitoring the line. She handed Bruce my photo and I approached the signing table. Bruce was seated and, I suppose from that angle he isn't quite the imposing figure he renders on the silver screen. He wore a blue, subtly-flowered shirt. His usually coiffed hair was cut close, accentuating his graying temples. He fiddled with a rainbow selection of Sharpies as I handed him my drawing. "This is for you.," I announced. Bruce took my artwork, raised it to eye level and, with a slight sneer, handed it off to an assistant, with the instruction to "add this to the archives." He signed the photo, cautioning me to wait until the gold ink was dry before putting it away. I told him meeting him was a pleasure and I extended my hand. He grasped my hand with one of his large, perspiring paws and gave it a good, strong, vigorous shake — sending me on my way. It was very obvious that Bruce had done this before and he had the process down to assembly-line precision. My "brush with greatness" lasted under a minute. 

For Bruce, it was just another day at the S-Mart.

*Bruce Campbell's book titles are puns that allude to the actor's prominent mandible.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

up, up and away

Here we are in the final weeks of summer. Families are taking vacations before the kids have to return to school. Some will take quick jaunts to a nearby beach or lake resort, while others plan more elaborate trips to one of the many theme parks spread across the United States. I am reminded of my first vacation without my parents. In 1980, a year after my graduation from high school, some friends and I decided to scrimp and save to afford a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. We were beside ourselves with excitement as the summer date approached. When we actually boarded the plane (my first plane trip), we were ecstatic. When we landed in the magical land called "Florida," we were like uncaged animals, ready to explore and, most likely, wreak as much havoc as we were able.
I wrote this story nearly ten years ago about a trip that happened nearly three decades earlier, but it certainly could have happened last week — or on any trip to any family vacation destination that involves rides, souvenirs and ungrateful children. That pretty much covers everywhere.
Just prior to turning nineteen, I went to Walt Disney World with three of my friends. This was my first vacation without my parents. I told about this trip in a previous blog post. My first day in Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom was great. After spending a fun but exhausting day, my friends and I headed back to our hotel. Somnolent, we slogged the length of the sparsely-lit Main Street USA towards the Monorail that would take us to the parking lot. Just before we exited, I purchased a Mickey Mouse-head balloon for fifty cents (remember, this was 1980). There I was, eighteen-years old, springing toward the Monorail with a balloon string in my fist and a wide grin across my face. 

We waited on the platform, in the thick and shifting throng, for the next Monorail to arrive. The sleek transport snaked into the station. It came to a silent stop and the hydraulic doors opened with a hiss. The individual cabins were fitted with futuristic bench seats, upholstered in undentable teal plastic. They were not unlike the back seat of my father's 1968 Dodge Dart. They seated approximately ten passengers. My friends, my balloon and I chose an empty cabin and slid across the seat to accommodate everyone. A young couple and their son joined our cabin and occupied the bench seat opposite us. The boy was about nine or ten and he had a balloon, too. The balloon looked more age appropriate for him than it did me. 

The doors to the Monorail shushed back into place and we began moving. I sat, holding my balloon and smiled at the young boy across from me as he held his balloon. Suddenly, without warning, his balloon burst. BANG! It hadn't touched anything. It hadn't bumped the low ceiling. It just spontaneously burst — BANG! We were all startled, but even more so, when the boy, just as spontaneously, erupted into a spewing fountain of inconsolable cries and tears. His parents tried unsuccessfully to comfort him. Instantly, I spoke up and offered my balloon to the boy. "Here," I said, "you can have mine." His parents looked at me with expressions of relief and gratitude as I relinquished my balloon. His mom wrapped one arm around the boy's shoulders and gestured to me with her other arm — her hand palm up and extended in my direction. "What do you say to the nice man?," she prompted her son. The boy looked up at the balloon. Then, he looked at me with no expression on his small face. 

"I wanted a red one.," he said.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

now our children grow up prisoners, all their life, radio listeners

There are moments in the life of every parent that stand out as "proud moments." Seeing your child take his first steps. Hearing your child say his first words. First day of school, stellar report cards, praise from teachers, graduation. Then there's Bar or Bat Mitzvah or whatever is the non-Jewish equivalent (confirmation? baptism? coronation? I don't know...). The list goes on with parents beaming with each subsequent accomplishment. This past weekend, Mrs. Pincus and I witnessed an event that made us the proudest we have ever been.

Our son's first "Meet and Greet."

My son E. always expressed an interest in music. As soon as he could talk, he was rattling off the lyrics to Grateful Dead songs, thanks to numerous car rides with his mother. ("Tennessee Jed" was a favorite.) He loved listening to the Beatles and other "classic rock" mainstays, in addition to the eclectic influence of my musical tastes. I introduced my boy to such indie hidden gems as Stan Ridgway (former lead singer of noir new wavers Wall of Voodoo), Michael Penn, Moxy Fruvous and even guitar slingers Dinosaur Jr. and nouveau-ska purveyors The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. While other kids his age were bored by the likes of Raffi, E. was grooving to Garbage and Liz Phair.

As he got older, he made mixtapes (well... CDs anyway) to distribute to and enlighten his contemporaries. He tried to steer his peer group away from the shallowness of Britney Spears and The Spice Girls, exposing them to whatever new finds he discovered on radio stations in the uncharted far left of the dial. And one of those stations was Philadelphia's WXPN.

When E. was winding down his time in high school, he applied for an internship at his beloved WXPN and, all on his own, was accepted. He was slowly introduced to the ins-and-outs of a radio station. He did a lot of administrative tasks, like logging daily playlists and other related data. He gladly fetched refreshments for visiting bands who stopped by for interviews. (He picked up lunch for alt-rockers Guster and learned that indie guitarist KT Tunstall likes her tea strong.) At the same time, E. began another internship with local legend Gene Shay, long-time host of a folk music show on WXPN on Sunday nights. On Gene's show, E. learned how to set up a studio for live performances, how to program music and other technical aspects of the radio business with which I am unfamiliar. 

When E. entered college, he continued his time at WXPN. He became more adept at "running the board," a term for radio production that I won't pretend I understand. He also began hosting his own weekly time slot on the station's internet-only experiment. Here, he was able to hone his on-air skills and personality, as well as select the songs that he played. After a while, he got a couple of "fill-in" shots on the main airwaves while regular DJs were on vacation. After a series of ups-and-downs and shifting-arounds among station personnel, E. was hired as a full-time DJ/producer by WXPN. He was assigned several weekday evening shifts and two weekends slots, including a three-hour stretch on Saturday afternoons where the playlist consists entirely of listener requests. With the help of a volunteer who answers the phone, E. deftly assembles and whittles down five hours worth of musical suggestions (delivered via Facebook, Twitter, email and the aforementioned telephone) into a coherent, sometimes (purposely) jarring, playlist — all on-the-fly, live in the studio. I had the pleasure of answering the phones on two occasions and it was a spectacle watching him work... and don't be fooled, it was indeed work.

With tongue firmly planted in his cheek, E. identifies himself as a minor local celebrity. Sure, there are other DJs on WXPN that are more recognizable, but E. does have a following. Social media, especially Instagram, has allowed listeners to know what E. looks like, making him more visible than DJs of my youth. (Instagram has also allowed folks to know what his cat looks like as well.) I have been with E. at concerts and witnessed people approach him to say how much they like his show. As his father, it sure was a kick.

Nicole Atkins' John Hancock
Last weekend was the culmination of years of pride brought on by my son. Friday afternoon kicked off the annual WXPN XPoNential Music Festival, a sprawling entertainment-packed, three-day event entering its 23rd year. The festival features an unusual blend (just like the station itself) of music from a wide variety of genres. Famous names and up-and-comers are equally represented. Past festivals have spotlighted heavyweights like Bob Dylan, Beck and Emmylou Harris, indie favorites like Wilco, Dawes and Father John Misty (who offered a now-notorious set in 2016), and lesser-known, but equally as talented upstarts like J.D. McPherson, Man Man, Low Cut Connie and Diane Coffee. WXPN, a commercial-free, member-supported station, offers an array of perks to its members that attend the weekend event. In addition to discounted admission and free soft drinks throughout the festival's duration, members are treated to special "meet and greet" encounters with some of the performers. Either before of after their set, a selection of bands and singers seat themselves at a table in the designated, roped-off "members only" area for a little face time with their adoring fans. It has become a fun little bonus and I have taken advantage of the offer on a number of occasions over the years. (I met Aimee Mann, Nicole Atkins and even Kevin Bacon on different occasions.)

At the top of the list.
This year, WXPN decided to allow listeners to meet the faces behind those familiar voices they hear coming from their radios. Interspersed throughout the band "meet and greets," a selection of DJs would be spending a little quality time with their fans... and, yes, there are fans. On Saturday afternoon, the schedule was posted at the Meet & Greet tent in the WXPN Members Only area and the first ones listed were popular DJ Robert Drake, he of local "Land of the Lost" fame (a monthly radio marathon of new wave hits from the 80s) and my boy E. Actually, E. informed my wife and I about his meet and greet earlier, specifically telling me to "not to make a big deal."  But, a father's job is to make a big deal! So, we made sure we were front and center at the designated time. I actually went to make sure that Mrs. Pincus and I weren't the only ones in line. And as long as I was there, I made sure that our last name was spelled correctly on the whiteboard. (It was.) At 1 PM, E. and Robert took their places behind a long table stocked with an ample supply of Sharpie markers and — sure enough — there was a good amount of folks already in line. The festival volunteers (many of whom we know) kept the queue moving along and distributed mini festival posters for the DJs to sign as souvenirs. Mrs. P and I could hardly contain ourselves as we observed our son extend his hand and offer a friendly smile to listeners and fans. We were thrilled as we watched him sign the posters and talk about his show and the station in general. My wife and I even got autographs. He inscribed "Have a nice summer" on a poster for me and he signed the back of a stock dividend check for my wife. (We had just received it the day before. It was from a stock that E. got as a gift when he was born. The total amount was 32 cents.) Mrs. P and I proceeded out of the tent, but hung around a bit longer to watch E. be E.

Wristbands, my man.
On the final day of the festival, E. tracked me down in our usual spot at the top of the natural amphitheater where the XPoNential Music Festival is held. He convinced me to watch the next band, the raucous Sweet Spirit, from a front row vantage point. I obliged and we headed down to the stage. We stood and chatted while we waited for Sweet Spirit's set to begin. A few people around us came up to E. and said "Hello" and "Love your show!," while others pointed E. out to their friends and whispered his name in hushed tones.

During the performance, I raised my cellphone to snap a "selfie" to chronicle another in a series of concerts my boy and I attended together. He snidely asked, "Oh, so you're one of those people now?" I can't possibly express how proud I am of him. He, on the other hand, has no problem expressing his feelings.