Sunday, September 24, 2017

it's all in the game

When I was a kid, nothing beat staying home from school. A day off scheduled on the school calendar was one thing, but an unscheduled day off due to illness — real or otherwise — was the best. All it would take, on those rare days when I would wake up and something in my head or gut didn't feel quite right, would be a little bit of convincing (and maybe a pouty lip), and my mom would relent. She'd fix me some hot tea and dry, butterless toast and deliver it to me while I was propped up on the den sofa — still pajamaed and draped with several blankets. Usually, I was only able to milk this set-up one or two days out of the school year. Any more than a single day risked a non-essential trip to Dr. Barnes, our burly family practitioner who would invariably jab me with a javelin-sized needle no matter what I was brought in for. So, I made myself satisfied with one day off every so often  — and, boy!, did I make the most of it.

My dad left the house for work long before I would wake up for school. My mom would assist in the before-school routine of getting me breakfast and picking out appropriate clothes. She had a little business of driving neighborhood kids to kindergarten in the decidedly unsafe cargo area of her rickety old station wagon. During the course of the day, she was in and out of the house based on her carefully coordinated schedule to accommodate both morning and afternoon sessions of pre-school. On sick days, while my mom was out, I would scroll though the seven channels that our TV picked up (4 VHF and 3 UHF), carefully choosing my entertainment for the day, making sure I looked like I wasn't enjoying myself too much during those times when my mom popped in to check on me. My choices were important and I stuck with them, because these were the days long before remote controls and changing channels required vacating my sofa sanctuary. I avoided soap operas and the news. (On one "sick day" in early June 1968, I remember clicking the TV dial past a report that Robert Kennedy was shot in a hotel the previous night. I was seven and wasn't quite sure who Robert Kennedy was.) I would settle on cartoons (if there were any available on weekday mornings), but my favorite was game shows.

While my contemporaries were stuck behind a school desk listening to Miss McGlynn ramble on about multiplication tables, I was joyfully munching on toast, lounging on the sofa and excitedly watching Monty Hall announce that Jay Stewart was bringing a box down to the trading floor on Let's Make a Deal. My favorite, though, was The Price is Right.

Meet the new boss...
No one hosted a game show better than tanned and handsome Bob Barker. The dark-haired, toothy-grinned Barker, fresh off his long-running stint on Truth or Consequences, endeared himself to contestants and brought an air of decorum and class to an otherwise frenetic atmosphere. Baker became the game show host by which all other game show hosts were measured. Barker, especially as the seasons progressed and he got older, exhibited a sardonic side at times, berating contesting for making obviously boneheaded choices or not following simple instructions. I loved watching bewildered contestants price a can of peas at "five dollars, Bob," only to have Barker roll his eyes, fold his arms across his chest and verbally lash out with a scolding usually reserved for a kid who just smashed a baseball through your living room window. Barker hosted The Price is Right for 35 seasons before retiring and handing the reigns of the show over to comedian Drew Carey. Carey had an understandably shaky start and rightly so. His hosting has been subjected to relentless scrutiny and comparisons to the venerable Barker. However, after ten years, Carey has settled in and has clearly become a fan favorite. Carey has obligingly carried on Barker's campaign to control the pet population, but his on-air patter is peppered with numerous side references that are unleashed for his own amusement. These comments fly over oblivious contestants' heads as they seem to widen Carey's already impish grin.

... same as the old boss.
My love of television is certainly no secret. I especially love watching shows that were popular during my youth, perhaps reminding me of those glorious "sick days." This past year, Mrs. Pincus and I made the jump to 21st century technology and signed on for the X1 entertainment system offered by Comcast, our local cable provider. With this system, I am able to record programs (up to six shows at once, like that need will ever arise) and watch them whenever I feel like it. With uncomplicated ease, I can set up those recordings hours, days or even weeks in advance and the programs are stored in my personal library until I decide to delete them. Eliminating the need for a prehistoric VCR and those bulky, brick-like VHS tapes, my recordings are housed "in the cloud" — where ever that is.

So, taking full advantage of this mind-blowing technology, I record The Price is Right everyday. After dinner, my wife and I curl up on the den sofa in front of our spectacular 43" LG flat screen smart TV and watch Drew Carey, in full realistic color, interact with a new generation of idiots who still don't know the price of a can of peas.

And it's wonderful.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

food, glorious food

No one likes a good buffet more than I do. Actually, no one likes a bad buffet more than I do.

I love going to and eating at buffets. When I was a kid, my parents used to take my brother and me to a buffet, except back then, it was known by the exotic and exciting sounding smörgåsbord, a name that my label-giving, xenophobic father bastardized into "schmorgazboard." This place was a picky-eating child's dream. From the long, winding buffet, I could select only the items I liked — fried chicken, corn, french fries — and avoid the yucky stuff I was forced to eat at home, like green beans and broccoli. I was reminded of a time when my nephew (now 24, but just a child at the time) returned from the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday's with a giant plate sporting a compartmentalized portion of crispy rice noodles and dollop of chocolate pudding. See? Kids know what they want.

Breakfast buffets are always great, no matter how big or small. We used to make an annual event of Mothers' Day brunch at a lovely and bountiful buffet offered at a Sheraton hotel in downtown Philadelphia. An aunt, who obviously didn't get the concept of a buffet, asked a waitress — whose only function was to deliver and refill cups of coffee and removed spent plates — if she could get an omelet for her, as she didn't wish to wait in line. Waiting in line is part of the fun of a buffet! Who doesn't love to grab the last waffle from the serving tray, in full view of the hungry dude behind you, leaving him grumbling until they fill the tray up again  — which is usually in about three seconds.

Of course, I've been to my share of weird buffets, like the one at the Hibachi Grill and that al fresco set-up at a roadside motel in St. Augustine, Florida that Mrs. P stumbled upon on our honeymoon. It's one we still talk about over thirty years later.

More recently, Mrs. P and I have frequented the buffet at Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City more times that we probably should have. When my wife was riding high on the "comp train" at the seaside casino, we could drop by Harrah's buffet any time we liked. We would eat there several times a month. Despite the 90-plus minute drive, Mrs. Pincus would pick me up after work during the week and we shoot down the AC Expressway for a sumptuous — and more importantly free —  dinner. But, all good things come to an end and Harrah's cut her off for no good reason and I'll be damned if I was gonna pay for a meal that I had for free over a million times. So we steered clear of Harrah's until the good folks in their promotions department invited Mrs. P back into their fold. The free buffet offers weren't nearly as plentiful, but we took full advantage of the four per month that we got.

But that didn't seem to stop a group we saw at Caesar's buffet..

Last weekend, during a free weekend stay at Bally's Resort (a sister property of Harrah's), Mrs. P and I ate dinner at the newly-renovated Palace Court Buffet in Caesar's Resort on the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. (Caesar's is also part of the Harrah's family). We hadn't been to the buffet at Caesar's for years, unimpressed by its small size and limited selection. In our almost decade-long absence, they expanded the seating area and nearly tripled the buffet size with stations featuring pizza, Asian and Mexican cuisine, seafood, fresh sushi and a large array of salads. Due to our self-imposed dietary limitations (I'm a vegetarian and my spouse observes the laws of kashrut, avoiding shellfish and non-kosher meat. You have the internet. You can read all about it, if you're interested.) Earlier in the day, we visited the buffet and asked the cashier at the front if we could take a quick look around to see if there was enough for us to eat. Of course, there would be. We perused the many offerings and, satisfied, decided to return for dinner. We left and thanked the cashier for her consideration, making sure she saw us leave. After all, we could have very easily grabbed a plate and helped ourselves and no one would be the wiser.

After a day on the beach, we showered, changed and headed to the Palace Court Buffet. We waited in the long line with all of the other anxious diners. Finally, we presented our vouchers and were guided to a table. We filled our plates and ate. As we sat at the table at the end of our meal, Mrs. P toying with the bottom part of a cupcake and me, downing my second cup of after dinner coffee, noticed a small commotion at the table just behind us. A waiter was having a heated conversation with a table full of twenty-something hipsters who were working diligently on plates full of crab legs. It seems the waiter noticed their table was lacking the receipt from the cashier that every other table displayed conspicuously in the napkin holder. 

"Um, did you folks pay?," the waiter questioned.

The diners stopped their eating and looked at him, silently. One fellow spoke up, while his companions remained speechless. "Pay? There was no one up front to pay.," he replied, hoping that his answer would be satisfactory enough to end this exchange.

The angered waiter pressed. "You have to pay first. Before you eat." He asked the spokesman to accompany him to the cashier. As they walked away, his friends remaining at the table began to snicker. 

Mrs. P and I decided we were through. We left a tip for our waiter who was attentive and brought us iced tea refills without our asking. We made our way out of the dining area and approached the "down" escalator. We were surprised to find the non-paying diners just ahead of us on the escalator, laughing and wiping their seafood-tainted hands on their pants.

I guess free buffet vouchers are still too much to pay for some people.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

I'm in the autumn of my years (redux)

I'm not quite sure when it happened, but I got old.

Maybe I first realized it when I took my son to a concert when he was in high school. We had gone to concerts before, but this one was the first on a school night. It was a performance by the guitar-heavy space rock band Secret Machines. As the venue filled in, I noticed an awful lot of stares in my direction. There was a bit of whispering and pointing and dismissive, judgmental glances silently asking: "Who brought their father?" I looked around more carefully and saw that I was the oldest person in the crowd. By a lot. An awful lot. Luckily, the lights dimmed and the attention was on the band, where it rightfully belonged. 

Another time, my son and I attended a small show at a local bar. As is the policy at most clubs, a brawny, mean-looking bouncer is stationed at the front door making sure that everyone who enters is of the legal age for consuming alcohol. (Whether or not you choose to consume it is up to you once you make it past security measures.) So, while my son was displaying his identification to the bouncer, I made an overt gesture towards my back pocket to produce my wallet. Once he cleared my boy, the bouncer chuckled and, with a conciliatory grin, waved me off as I fumbled to remove my driver's license from the little compartment in my wallet. "That's okay, sir," he announces, "you're good." Good!? I pretty sure he meant to say: You are obviously old enough to be my father! Do you need assistance up the stairs?

I would be satisfied if I thought that these age-related incidents were limited to music venues. But they are absolutely not. There are other things I have caught myself doing. Things that surprise — and somewhat jar — me.

I find I am always cold. When, I'm really cold, I put on a fleece pullover. Rather than turn the thermostat to a slightly higher temperature, it's cheaper to just put on a fleece. Hey, it costs a lot to heat my house. Wait! What? When did I become my father? My father used to say shit like that! And, speaking of fleece pullovers, I purchased a ridiculous amount of them over the past few years. I don't need more than one or two. But I must have a dozen of them! And they are all either gray or black! And they all look the same!
Just the other day, after dinner, I found myself turning off all the lights on the first floor of my house— the living room, the kitchen, the front porch. Then, in the dark, I keyed in the code to set the alarm on our home security system. Then, I flicked the deadbolt on the front door, When I finished, I headed upstairs. As I ascended the staircase, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the kitchen clock. It was twenty minutes after seven. Not even eight o'clock and I'm locking up like it's 2 AM and I just threw the last drunk out of my bar. Network prime-time television hadn't yet begun and I'm ready to turn in for the night. As it was, I probably gonna conk out around 9:30 anyway.

There's another thing — television. A lot of sitcoms and stand-up comics make Jeopardy! jokes in reference to old people. Is that a thing? Do only old people watch Jeopardy!? My wife and I have been watching Jeopardy! for over thirty years. We watched the original incarnation in the 60s when it was hosted by (the late) Art Fleming and the top dollar amount in "Double Jeopardy" was a hundred bucks. When I'm not watching Jeopardy!, I'm watching reruns of TV shows I watched as a kid — Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, The Addams Family. I watch little to no current television programs.

I have been to more doctor's appointments in the last five years of my life than I had in the first fifty. I take daily medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol. At my doctor's insistence, I recently lost a considerable amount of weight and I have caught myself offering extensive details when casually asked, "Hey, did you lose weight?" I realized, during my various ramblings, I sound like all those old men I hear telling old man stories. I also experience pains in my lower back when I stand up or bend over. Ugh! There I go again.

I still think of myself as the same robust young man I was in my twenties when I was newly married and a new father. Though I was never particularly athletic, I rollerbladed and I rode a bike. I walked a lot and never gave it a second thought, This past summer, Mrs. Pincus and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary and that baby of ours just turned 30. Earlier this year he and I walked from one end of downtown Philadelphia to the South Philly neighborhood that he now calls home — a roundabout distance of about three-and-a-half miles. Four days later, my feet were still hurting. Dammit! I'm doing it again!

At 56, I am eight years away from the age when both of my parents passed away. I didn't think they were old at the time. I guess I really don't think I'm old either.

But now, I need a nap.

I wrote on this subject in 2015. You know how old people repeat themselves...

Sunday, September 3, 2017

the heat is on

According to some flowery text on their corporate website, Zoup! is — and I quote — "the leading fast-casual soup concept restaurant that is defining the category with its premium and proprietary soups and other recipes." Before yesterday, I had never heard of Zoup!, nor was I aware of a rivalry among fast-casual soup concept restaurants. Actually, I was not aware of the concept of fast-casual soup concept restaurants. 

Mrs. P came into the possession of several Best Buy gift cards and we decided to extend the purchasing power of said cards by using them in Delaware, the self-proclaimed "home of tax-free shopping." (It's on their state-line "Welcome" sign, for goodness sake!) We have done this quite a few times, choosing to make purchases of large electronics in Delaware to save a few dollars of sales tax. Delaware is just under an hour away, so it's convenient all around. 

My wife picked me up after work and we headed south on I-95, fighting southbound rush hour traffic in the process. The Best Buy that is our usual destination has become something called a "Best Buy Outlet." When we pulled into the parking lot, it was suspiciously empty. We spotted a large sign in the window noting their hours of operation had been reduced to weekends only. Brushing away annoyance, I opened up the trusty Waze® app on my phone and discovered another Best Buy a mere 1.6 miles from where we were. (Thank you, urban sprawl.) Mrs. P swung the car around and we were back on the highway.

We followed the robotic-voiced directions and were led to a large, still under-construction shopping center. The complex occupied both sides of the street. There were a few dirty construction vehicles that rested in their tracks, ready to pick up at the start of the new day. A handful of businesses were open, despite their neighbors being empty storefronts or just framed-out shells. Best Buy, big and bright, stood at the far end of a parking lot adjacent to a Raymour & Flanigan furniture store and something that looked like it will be a movie theater in a few months. We parked, went in, marveled at the giant televisions and the fact that, in the age of Netflix, they still offer DVDs for sale and looked around the appliances for... whatever Mrs. P was looking to buy.

After Mrs. Pincus spent the full value of her gift cards, we turned our attention to dinner. Even in the sparse landscape of this not-yet-complete shopping mecca, there was a small selection of restaurants from which to choose. We briefly considered Zoës Kitchen, but passed when we discovered that the minimally-Mediterranean themed eatery did not offer falafel. (Mrs. P really wanted falafel.) Instead, we opted for Zoës' next-door neighbor, Zoup! Zoup's neighbor, it should be noted, was an empty store.

We entered Zoup! and immediately thought, based on the store's configuration, that we had entered Qdoba. (We felt the same in our short visit to Zoës.) Several framed "soup-related" photographs were placed artfully at irregular intervals along the earthy-painted walls. The service area at the rear of the long, narrow setup was bustling with apron-clad hipsters conversing with prospective customers. Every fifteen or so seconds, someone behind the counter called out "Hot soup!" and the other staff members responded with same call of "Hot soup!" While we perused the menu boards mounted, one fellow, decked out in full Zoup! regalia (hat, polo shirt, apron, name badge), greeted us with one of my favorite chain restaurant greetings.

"Have you folks ever been here before?"

Hot soup! Hot soup!
We answered in the negative and he commenced in delivering a rehearsed commercial for Zoup!, as though he was reading from a TelePrompTer set up behind me. He explained about the 12 rotating soup selections and the freshest ingredients and blah blah blah blah blah. I had lost interest in what he was saying. I knew what soup was. I had eaten soup before. I didn't need someone explaining the finer points of soup to me. What was interesting — and by "interesting," I mean "totally annoying" — was during his company-touting spiel, he kept interrupting his speech by calling out his "hot soup" response when required by the company handbook  — punctuating every other sentence  — each time a new pot of broth was brought out from the hidden kitchen or another server filled a waxed cardboard cup for a customer.

My wife and I each selected a soup and sandwich special. I chose a thick tomato bisque and the missus chose a "rustic"* vegetable, which was soon revealed to be much too spicy for her liking. As its sandwich pairing, we both picked the tuna salad. We paid. The server/cashier (same guy) read our order back to us at least twice. We sat at a nearby table and waited for our dinner.

Soon, two trays laden with food were placed on the counter behind me and the first guy who greeted us announced my name as though I was being paged at the airport. (Dude! I'm sitting right here. We just spoke a minute ago and there are only four other customers in this place.) I transferred the trays to our table and we began to eat.

Almost simultaneously, Mrs. P and I bit into our sandwiches and had the same reaction. Something tasted foreign, like it had no business being in a tuna sandwich. Mrs. P was cautious, but I took another bite. Lemon! There was a distinct lemony taste. Not just understated notes, to borrow from the pretentious judges from shows on the Food Network. This flavor was as prominent as the tuna. Plus, several capers popped in my mouth on that second bite. My spouse decided it was time to call the greeter guy over. She caught his attention and he interrupted his greeting of another couple to come to our table. For some reason, he pulled up a chair from an adjoining table and made himself comfortable, a serious, customer service-focused expression across his face.

I didn't want to lead with "What's that lemony taste in my tuna?," because that would only evoke a reply of "Um, lemon, you moron," so I went another route. Instead, my wife, the more diplomatic of the two of us, inquired, more vaguely," What is that unusual flavor in the tuna?" Mr. greeter proudly stated "Lemon zest. We zest lemon in our tuna, then we add lemon juice and capers." He capped his little explanation with a forced smile. Mrs. P confirmed that the tuna wasn't accidentally hit with a shot of cleaning solution and Mr. Greeter assured us that was not the case. Then he echoed a "Hot soup!"  proclamation and started back towards the prep area.

I don't know about you, but I like tuna with mayo, maybe pickle relish, possibly celery... and that's about it. Did I mention lemons? Or capers? No, I did not. Y'know why? Because this isn't "Chopped" and those items are not included in my Round 1 Mystery Basket. This place is a re-worked Qdoba in some remote section of Christiana, Delaware. Not exactly a brasserie on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.

We forced down the remainders of our sandwiches and finished our soup. Everything was, well, average. Soup is soup. Unless it's the stuff for which Oliver Twist begged a second helping, it is pretty difficult to ruin soup. The sandwiches were typical corporate versions of your local diner fare. The bread was pretty good, though.

As we walked back to our car, my wife offered her assessment, one I have heard more than once after trying someplace new. "Well, we don't have to go there again."

Maybe someday, we'll try one of the other fast-casual soup concept restaurants.

* "Rustic," I can only assume, is a well-meaning corporate descriptor that means "chunky," and not "primitive," as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word.