Sunday, January 28, 2018

all hail caesar

One evening this week, Mrs. Pincus and I went to pick up a pizza for dinner, something we do quite often. It may come as a surprise to you, but we regularly go to a Little Caesars location not far from our house. Unlike most people, we don't really have a single location pizza place that we swear by. We are not connoisseurs or "pizza snobs." We happen to like cheap, crappy, chain-store pizza. We just do.

My wife pulled into the parking lot of the strip center where the Little Caesars occupies the end storefront. I hopped out of the car, like I had done countless times before, and walked up to the front door and entered. The place rarely, if ever, has a welcoming vibe. Through the wire racks of stacked pizza boxes at the rear of the narrow service counter area, I could see several workers — all decked out in branded Little Caesars regalia (hats, shirts, aprons) — busily preparing pizzas at a large work table. Behind them, another fellow was monitoring the business-end of the large oven, extracting finished pizzas by gripping their pans with a pliers-like device and deftly shaking them into a waiting, pre-assembled box. They all appeared to be working in a predetermined rhythm, like the proverbial "well-oiled machine."

However, the young lady at the front counter, the "face" of the "Little Caesar's experience" for this particular location, did not exactly fit in with the rest of the apparent work ethic practiced by those in the nerve center of the establishment.

When I entered the store, to my right, was a man — in a Little Caesars hat and apron — stocking single-serving bottles of soda in a tall refrigerated display case. A few customers (maybe two, actually) were scattered about the open area, obviously waiting for their individual order to be served. Behind the counter, seated on a low object (perhaps a small carton?), was a young lady — I would guess still in her teens — with her back to the wall adjoining the business next store, paying extremely close attention to her cellphone. As I approached the counter, she slowly rose — though not exactly tearing her attention away from whatever was dancing across the small screen in her hand. She was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the named of a local high school. No where on her person did the name or logo of Little Caesars appear. Nowhere. She finally turned her attention to me and asked, "Mmmnnnmmnnmmm."

At least, I think it was a question. Only because the inflection of her utterance went up in tone, slightly, at the end. I honestly has no idea what she said, but I can assume it was along the lines of "Can I take your order?" I asked for a pizza and an order of bread sticks and passed over my credit card to her her limp, waiting hand. She swiped it through the slot on the credit card reader, removed the receipt, handed me back my card and said, "Mmmnnnmm." Then, she promptly returned to her original perch, concentrating, once again on her electronic device and blotting the customers out.

A fellow from the back of the store placed a stack of pizza boxes on the wire rack from behind. The young lady rose slowly, grabbed the boxes and announced "Mmmnnnmm" in the general direction of a woman with short dreadlocks in a dark blue coat who was waiting, patiently, with her arms folded across her chest. The woman accepted the boxes and no more words were exchanged by either party. The young lady repeated this same procedure with the other customer who was waiting for an order to be filled.

Offer not valid where invalid.
After about eight minutes (the "Hot & Ready" promotion as presented in a series of Little Caesars commercials and in-store signage seems to be invalid at this location or in this realm), the young lady muttered her signature, unintelligible grunt at me and offered me a pizza box with a bag of bread sticks resting atop of it. I took it from her hands, thanked her and wished her a good evening. I really did. I headed towards the door, which was held open for me by a new, incoming customer — who would, no doubt, be subjected to the "Little Caesars welcome" that is standard operating procedure at this location.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

I want to see the bright lights tonight

In our house filled with things, my wife came across a cache of concert ticket stubs, some dating back to the middle 1970s. I had actually been looking for this collection of memories for some time. I honestly thought they were long gone, tossed to the trash when we made the move from our newlywed apartment in Northeast Philadelphia to the suburban house that has been our home for over thirty years. 

Wild nights are calling.
Curiously stored in a Barnum's Animal Crackers box, these torn paper testaments were in surprisingly good shape. Time had faded some of the early-computer printed particulars, but the ones that escaped total destruction at the hands of some minimum-wage earning ticket-taker were still legible. The band names were clear enough to read - some consisting of careless, though comical, misspellings. (The opening act for a 1977 Queen show at the Philadelphia Civic Center listed the supporting band as "Thin Lizzie," as though it was an emaciated ballerina.)

A lot of the ticket remnants were from 70s-era Grateful Dead shows, many of which were from shows staged at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the self-proclaimed "America's Showplace," which boasted some of the worst, sound-deadening acoustics this side of the $64,000 Question's isolation booth. Despite being the home base for both the Philadelphia Flyers and the 76ers, the Dead managed to find time to fit in 53 concerts at the venue, more than any other musical act. That allotment of tickets, of course, belonged to my wife — as my first experience with the psychedelic San Francisco troubadours was in April 1982, when I was taken (abducted? dragged?) to a spring concert by the future Mrs. P. I recognized my concert tickets by the decidedly un-Grateful Dead band names that were printed across the colorful Ticketmaster branding. Again, most were from the Spectrum, as it was the biggest and most popular venue in the city, but a smattering were from shows at the smaller Tower Theater, a converted movie palace just outside the western city limits.

My brother, older by four years, was a veteran concert-goer, having seen performances by Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, The Moody Blues, George Harrison (reporting that the former Beatle was "awful" and the show was stolen by energetic keyboardist Billy Preston) and others of that ilk. He witnessed the now-legendary marathon at the remote Widener University gymnasium by an up-and-comer that he mistakenly identified as "Bruce Springstein.*" Some of my friends at middle school had toyed with the idea of actually seeing some of our favorite singers live when they came to our town. But I broke the proverbial ice when I scraped together a hard-earned six dollars and fifty cents for a single, general admission ticket to see Alice Cooper (and leather-clad guitar slinger Suzi Quatro) on the local stop of his "Welcome to My Nightmare" tour when it touched down in Philadelphia in April 1975, the twenty-second date on its five-month, multi-city trek across North America. That night, after seeing the wiry Mr. Cooper dance with giant spiders, cavort with tuxedoed skeletons and lop the head off a menacing cyclops, I was bitten by the concert bug. I left that show rabid — anxious to see another concert. And fast! It wasn't until a full year later that I was able to attend my second concert. Forking over a steep seven-fifty, I spent an evening at the back of the cavernous Spectrum, watching bland folk-rockers America deliver one boring song after another as they promoted their newest release — a greatest hits compilation culled from their five-album catalog on which every song sounded identical. I can't figure out what exactly I was doing there. I was not a fan of America — not even in the most casual sense. I didn't own any America albums. I suppose I just wanted to go to a concert.

I made better choices (in my opinion) as the years went on. I saw Elton John when he brought tennis star Billie Jean King onstage to join him in a chorus of the terribly shitty, yet hometown beloved, "Philadelphia Freedom." I saw the electrifying Queen several times, including once with pneumonia (me, not them). Freddie Mercury was a showman like no other. I even took my DeadHead future spouse to Queen's final American tour where she questioned the numerous costume changes and lighting effects. After all, the Grateful Dead had not changed their clothes since 1969 and their fans usually visualize their own lighting effects.

I saw Elvis Costello a few times as well, watching as he made the jump from new-wave pioneer to the elder statesman of his bygone "angry young man" genre. The late Warren Zevon, a short-term Philadelphia resident while he was between record deals, gave impromptu recitals at the wonderful, yet now-defunct, Chestnut Cabaret on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Mrs. Pincus and I were in the audience for several of those intimate shows and they were a memorable treat. Along the way, I got to see The Boomtown Rats, Tim Curry (yes, that Tim Curry), They Might Be Giants, Fleetwood Mac, Duran Duran, Squeeze, even Barry Manilow.

My son developed an early love for music, based on the constant albums and radio blaring from speakers all over our house. His interest blossomed into a career, as he is now a host/producer on a local Philadelphia radio station. Even before his current employ, we accompanied each other to a boat-load of concerts. We've seen good bands, bad bands, strange bands and just-about-to-hit-it big bands. We've had band members jump off the stage in front of us. (In one case, a singer fell off the stage on us.)  My son even introduced me to bands (A Giant Dog, Low Cut Connie, Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds... yeah, you read that right) in the same way I gave him his first taste of the Beatles and his mom taught him about Jerry Garcia. Thanks to my son and the numerous concert venues that have opened in Philadelphia (named by one music website as the "best concert city" in North America), my concert calendar is usually packed. I never dreamed that, at 56, I'd still be going to shows, let alone bumping elbows in tiny venues with fans half my age. Conversely, it was funny when my wife and I sat in a sold-out Atlantic City showroom for a Tony Bennett show and, looking around, wondered how many other audience members had also seen The Clash.

It's okay, I'm with the band.
The concert experience has changed considerably since I was perched on the second level of the Spectrum, squinting to make out the color of Sir Elton's glasses. Bands were untouchable and unapproachable, sometimes just an out-of-focus dot bathed in a purple spotlight. Now, in the days of social media, a selfie with your favorite singer is no longer a rarity, it is a requirement. Granted, artists that fill stadiums are off-limits, save for those willing to pony up a few hundred (even thousand) dollars for a one-on-one experience. But, the bands that play 1200-seat (or smaller) venues will often appear at unannounced "meet-and-greets" at their "merch table" where the purchase of a t-shirt or album will net you the bonus of a sweaty hug and the opportunity of a cellphone picture to document the encounter.

This story, of course, is far from over. I love live music and it takes a lot to stop me from seeing it. As I write this, I have at least two concerts lined up in the coming months. And there will be more after that. I guarantee it.

*My brother informed me that he thought the singer's name was "Bruce Bringsteen." Actually, that's funnier.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

harmony and me, we're pretty good company

A few years ago, Mrs. Pincus and I began, what I thought would be, an ongoing family tradition, Yeah, I suppose it's odd to start a "family" tradition when it's just the two of us and we are well into our 50s. Despite that, a 2014 trip to the kitschy, though spectacular, holiday light show at the flagship Macy's location in center city Philadelphia, followed by dinner in nearby Chinatown, had all the makings of a tradition. After that 2014 visit — as well as one in 2015 and 2016 — I thought that this would continue for... well, for as long as we were able.

I was wrong.

A week or so before Christmas, we began to make plans for our annual outing to the holiday light display at Macy's (the former John Wanamaker's, most nostalgic folks over 40, still refer to the store by its original name). Mrs. P contacted our son E., and soon, our plans included E. and his lovely girlfriend Pandora. A rendezvous time on a Sunday was agreed upon. We would meet them at Macy's, as they live in center city Philadelphia and we still reside a short train ride away in the suburbs. Although it was never mentioned, I assumed that these arrangement included dinner at New Harmony, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant a few blocks from Macy's and the location of each post-light show meal for the previous three years. We assembled with the gathering crowd on the third floor of Macy's, overlooking the Grand Court. The show, once again, delighted the holiday shoppers just as it has for the past sixty years. When the show ended, plans for dinner were discussed, much to my surprise. E. and Pandora suggested a couple of their favorite eating spots, including a new place that featured falafel, a favorite of Mrs. Pincus. I smiled and remained silent, but it was obvious that we would not be feasting on vegetarian Chinese food within the next 30 minutes. Goldie, the falafel place, was voted as our destination. Not wishing to appear childish or obstinate, I "happily" went along with majority rule. Admittedly, the falafel at Goldie was really good and it proved to be an excellent choice for dinner (and I will definitely return). However, I really wanted to go to New Harmony.

On the ride home, Mrs. P revealed to me that she really doesn't like New Harmony. I was shocked. We had eaten there quite a few times, not just after the Macy's light show. She said she would rate the food as "just okay," but, in reality,  she was a bit creeped out by the fact that we have always been the sole customers each time we've been there. She felt it was a reflection of the business that there was never another diner in the place. This admission took me by surprise. First of all — the food was  just okay? Just okay?? Compared to our usual choice for Chinese food, a neighborhood place that is, at best, inconsistent — New Harmony is a four-star Zagat favorite. I love Chinese food and it has featured prominently on my personal menu since I was a kid. (In 2009, I even wrote about the role Chinese food has played in my life.) The Chinese restaurant around the corner from our home is like that pair of ratty old slippers you can't bear to throw away. Sure, they're comfortable, but they're not the best. They've just been around awhile. Plus, when you see a new pair of slippers, it becomes obvious what your tired old slippers are lacking. I wasn't mad at missing my chance at New Harmony, but now it was apparent that, if I wanted to eat there, I was gonna have to do it alone.

Mrs. Pincus went away for an extended weekend to visit Cousin Juniper in Virginia Beach. She had plans to leave on Friday afternoon while I was at work. Although I cannot cook, I am quite capable of fending for myself when left on my own. I can throw together a salad or a sandwich without much effort. I can also go to any number of restaurants or take-out places where a meal can be prepared for me. One of those places, I decided, would be New Harmony. 

Cold, noodle-y and delicious.
After work, I headed — by myself — through a rain-soaked Philadelphia to New Harmony, a mere eight blocks from my office. To my pleasant surprise, I saw I was not the only customer when the host showed me to a table. Across the small aisle, a couple was just finishing up dinner, their table covered with empty, sauce-smeared plates and dotted with stray grains of rice. In the corner, a couple with a baby was dining with a guy who I momentarily mistook for my friend Cookie. As I perused the lengthy menu, another single diner was seated at the table ahead of me. Soon, a waiter filled my water glass for the first of many times and asked for my order. I requested hot and sour soup, cold noodles and sesame sauce and orange beef with broccoli  — all enticing and all creatively made from meatless ingredients. My soup arrived almost immediately. It was a thick, brown broth, resplendent with crisp bamboo shoots, flavorful mushrooms and three enormous chunks of tender tofu. I happen to love tofu and this soup was delicious. As I polished off the soup, a large plate of vermicelli noodles slathered with a big glob of sesame sauce and accented with finely shredded carrots and sesame seeds was placed on my table.

Crispy, crunchy and very orange-y.
I thoroughly combined the two main elements with two provided forks and transferred a healthy portion to my plate. The dish was awesome and, while I could have easily wolfed down the entire serving, I refrained, deciding to focus on my entree. I picked hesitantly at the remaining noodles until my orange "beef" arrived. In spite of the prominent "imitation meat" disclaimers placed at various spots throughout the menu, even the most die-hard carnivore would be satisfied by the offerings at New Harmony. The orange "beef" was a concoction of seitan (a wheat-based meat substitute), breaded, deep-fried and covered with a light, slightly spicy, ginger-orange sauce, accompanied by huge florets of the brightest, freshest, greenest, crispest broccoli. As I ate, I could only compare it to the familiar sameness of every dish at our local Chinese restaurant. My old standby there  — General Tso's tofu (a purely American recipe)  — is good, but it includes thin, limp sticks of broccoli that should be embarrassed by the examples set before me now. I ravenously finished the entire plate (and the rice) as though I was a death-row inmate consuming his last meal.

That's the way the cookie crumbles.
(Click to enlarge.)
The waiter cleared the empty plates from my table and presented my with the check and a cellophane-wrapped fortune cookie. I snapped the baked confection open and read the enclosed message. This prophetic little cookie must have had some kind of insight into my love of trivia, Jeopardy! and all kinds of useless knowledge. I put on my coat, grabbed my messenger bag and started for the front desk to pay my ridiculously inexpensive check. I thanked the waiter and he returned a "thank you," as well. I noticed that the dining room had begun to fill up, with at least six tables occupied in the tiny dining room. Perhaps the secret is to come on a Friday evening and not on a Sunday after a holiday light show. I will try to convince Mrs. P to give New Harmony another chance. I think I am now equipped to make a pretty good argument.

And I brought home a souvenir, although I doubt it will still be here when Mrs. Pincus gets home.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

let me tell you 'bout a place I know

I work hard, so when I take a vacation, I want to go to a place that I know I will have a good time. I, admittedly, have a different idea of "relaxation" than a lot of people I know. I don't care to spend a long time laying on a beach, doing nothing. I'm not particularly fond of beaches anyway, but if my wife, who enjoys laying out at a beach, wishes to include that as an "activity" during our vacation, I will certainly oblige... for as long as I can. Oftentimes, I'm only good for fifteen minutes before I get "antsy" and have to go for a walk or find something to actually "do."

Vacations for my family have mostly involved travelling to a place we've never been before — then going there for several consecutive years until we chose another place we've never been and then repeat the procedure. We went to Walt Disney World for our honeymoon in 1984, then returned for two consecutive years. We took a break when my son was born, but once we decided he was old enough to appreciate the Florida theme park, we went — and went and went.

We visited Niagara Falls when our son was little and, again, returned each summer for several years in a row. We have repeated this pattern with Las Vegas, Hershey Park, Disneyland and, of course, based on its proximity to our home, Atlantic City and nearby Jersey Shore destinations. When our son got older and our vacations were reduced to my wife and me, we latched on to taking cruises. Honestly, I balked and actually shunned cruising for a long time. My wife had brought up the notion several times over the years, but finally, I conceded and — I will now admit — I love it. We just returned from our sixth cruise in five years. See? We even made cruising fit into our vacation formula.

So, if you've been paying attention, you will notice a subtle (or not so subtle) similarity among all of our vacation destinations. The overlying theme is "kitsch." That's right! We like to go to places that are entertaining. Hokey, tourist-y places with bright lights and loud music and gaudy colors. We like to see stuff that we can't see at home. And if there's a cemetery nearby, that's a bonus.... at least for me. Got it?

Earlier this week, singer/songwriter Wesley Stace (who used to perform under the name John Wesley Harding) tweeted this statement that smacked of "I've had enough already!" sentiment:
When I read it, I immediately felt Mr. Stace's pain. Despite the fact that I do not know specifically what his tweet was addressing, I certainly understand the frustration that it expresses. You see, over the years, everyone — and I mean fucking everyone! — has told me where I should go on vacation. Not suggested. Not mentioned. Told. Insisted. Nearly demanded. And by some of the recommendations, you would think these people — friends, family, co-workers — had never met me. These folks know what I like, know my interests, my quirky sense of humor, my love of pop culture and all things "corny." Yet, the vacation scenarios that have been presented to me are downright mind-boggling, For instance, years ago, I was planning one of the many trip I took with my family to Walt Disney World. After I secured my vacation time from work, a co-worker (Actually, he was my boss. A tall, fidgety guy who stayed at the office daily for as long as he possibly could, giving me the impression that he was "in charge" at work, but not "in charge" at home) made a vacation suggestion to me in a manner in which I have come to loathe.

"You know where you should go on vacation?," he began. I hate this preface. I have been on the receiving end of this introduction many, many times. I brace myself, because what follows is a proposal that I would never in a zillion years enjoy. And, sure enough, this one was no different. "Yellowstone National Park!," he revealed his "perfect vacation spot" for the Pincus family. I stared at him blankly, waiting for that smug grin to fade from his face. I thought for a minute before I offered my reasons for why Yellowstone National Park, while a fine destination, is not a place that would fit in to the Pincus's vacation criteria. Except, I wasn't so diplomatic.

"Why on earth would I want to go to Yellowstone?," I answered, "I can see trees on my way to work! I can't see singing pirates on my way to work!" I continued before he could open his mouth. "I don't camp. The thought of camping repulses me. That's why I bought a house, so I wouldn't have to sleep in the dirt."

Another time, while we were making plans for a summertime vacation, my ex-sister-in-law, who had just returned from a week at a beachfront time-share in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, began singing the praises of that locale. "Oh, you should go to Hilton Head! You will love it!," she gushed.

"What is there to do in Hilton Head?," I deadpanned, not responding well to someone telling me what I should do.

"There's golfing and bike riding and there's the beach.," she continued as though she was reading straight from a brochure from the Hilton Head Tourist Bureau.

"Have  you ever seen me golf? Or ride a bike? And how many times have you seen me happily on a beach?," I countered. She seemed to have forgotten that not everyone enjoys the same things. While suggestions are perfectly fine, her command of "you should go here" caused me to become irritated.

It's funny how many people who know me, really know nothing about me. I like plastic-y places. Surreal, goofy places. I like factory tours (I've seen how Tupperware is made and how rum is distilled.) and silly, tourist-y places. I like cemeteries, but only to see the graves of famous people. I don't like white-water rafting or tennis or sleeping under the stars. And no matter how much you suggest, or in some cases, insist, I'm never gonna like those things.

I'm very sure of where I should go on vacation. Have a good time on yours.