Sunday, June 24, 2018

closing time

For our second date, the future Mrs. Pincus took me to her parent's store in the rural town of Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania. Gilbertsville was a place that time had forgotten. Just an hour west of Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the country, Gilbertsville was a tiny farming community inhabited by characters from a John Steinbeck novel — folks that can only be accurately described as "salt of the earth." The men were weathered and grizzled, with far less than the standard adult issue of teeth. Most were clad in well-worn overalls caked with and stinking of farm animal excrement. The womenfolk were meek and reserved, dressed as though they were the stand-by female model for Grant Wood's "American Gothic." And, for some reason, they cowered behind their spouses. This was 1982 and when these people said they were headed to "The City," they meant Reading, Pennsylvania. They'd never set foot in Philadelphia. You could get murdered there.

This populace comprised the customer base of my future in-law's store — an amalgam of hardware, housewares, novelty items and anything on which my father-in-law thought he could turn a quick profit. The store was one of many that occupied Zern's Farmer's Market, a weekend-only commerce center that was a regular gathering place for the aforementioned locals for almost a century. Alongside the store was an array of vendors that offered fresh produce (well, fresh at least until early evening on Saturday), unusual configurations of processed meat identified on hand-written signs by angry-sounding Teutonic names, prepared food (like the popular chicken gizzards in a Styrofoam cup of, what appeared to be, motor oil), as well as sturdy, double-stitched clothing suitable for plowing the fields and a wide assortment of antiques, curios, collectibles and what-nots. But Zern's was more than just a place to buy things. It was a social outing, along the lines of a square dance or a barn raising. (I'll have you know that I refrained from saying "cross burning" as a second example, so I'm pretty proud of myself.)

Mr. and Mrs. Hardware
in their natural habitat.
How am I so intimately familiar with Zern's Farmer's Market? Well, by my third date with Mrs. P, I was working there. That's right. This naive kid from Northeast Philadelphia, who got lost outside of the comfortable boundaries of the city limits was now employed as a stock boy under the tutelage of my soon-to-be father-in-law. In addition to a concession in Zern's Farmer's Market, my father-in-law owned a stand-alone store directly across the street from Zern's that was open an extra day longer than the market. Here he sold, what he referred to as "the serious hardware" — professional-grade trowels and hammers and other implements of construction with which I was not familiar at the time but would come to be well acquainted. Despite years of experience in other retail establishments, I was not permitted to operate the cash register. That privilege was enjoyed by only one person and his name was emblazoned on signage throughout the store. Instead, I was relegated to schlepping cartons of merchandise from the storage area — a large, dirty, poorly-ventilated barn-like structure that had been attached to the existing large, dirty, poorly-ventilated main building. Boxes were piled high and my job was to bring them up to the selling floor, empty them and, at my father-in-law's behest, make all of the contents fit in a space that was way to small for proper accommodation. In the summer, during which I spent many a weekend stretch, the heat was stifling. In winter, the building could be used to keep meat from spoiling. Days, no matter what the weather, were grueling marathons that monopolized entire weekends, including the hour-long ride to and from Gilbertsville. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for his generosity, affording me employment while I sought a job in my chosen field. I just have a funny way of showing my gratitude. 

On Fridays and Saturdays, the logistics of the operation were slightly altered, as my future spouse and her mother would come to open and run the stand in Zern's. I would work with my father-in-law at the hardware store across the street, the two of us coming up much earlier in the morning. While he was a sweet, pleasant man at home, he would succumb to a lycanthropic transformation somewhere around Schwenksville when he would be come a ruthless martinet bent on uncontested ruling over his retail empire. On Saturday evenings, I would head over to Zern's to help Mrs. P bring things to a close for the day. Those were my favorite times. First, I was sprung from the sometimes unreasonable demands of my father-in-law. Second, I got to spend time with my fiance (Mrs. P and I would marry in 1984). We would steal away from the "satellite stand" for a few minutes (this is probably the first time my father-in-law knows about this) and walk thorough the market to see what we could see. Sometimes we'd wander outside to the weekly flea market, where a glance in any direction looked like a living Dorothea Lange photograph. Here we would peruse the unusual (and unrecognizable) items offered for sale. Then we'd quickly rush back, grabbing a soft pretzel or a bag of old-fashioned penny candy, just in time to start the task of closing up the stand for another week.

For twenty-five years, I worked at Zern's. In my younger days, I fearlessly scaled rickety shelves to retrieve that one elusive gizmo that was missing from a customer's life. I was there to help bust through the back wall when we expanded our selling space. I assisted in the arrangement and promotion of special sales when my wife slowly, but diligently, transformed the one-time hardware/housewares store into a treasure trove of pop culture collectibles, bringing in cool memorabilia to join the (ever-shrinking) mix of screwdrivers and extension cords. Mrs. P creatively spearheaded an annual Coca-Cola Festival, offering more Coke branded items than you knew existed. During the summer, she turned the store into an indoor beach party, displaying everything needed for a rural summertime soiree. She single-handedly introduced "Mardi Gras" to the heretofore sheltered population of Gilbertsville.

Throughout my nearly three decades of employment, we would regularly hear customers tell us that Zern's was closing... for good. Every weekend, a growing number of shoppers — many of whom had it on good authority* — would explain confidential details of the fate of the venerable market. "Oh yeah," they would smugly cluck, cocking a thumb confidently around a faded overall strap, "this place was sold to [insert local land developer here]. I heard they're gonna tear the place down and put up a [bowling alley, amusement park, car wash, supermarket, housing development, apartment complex, golf course, multiplex movie theater]." Yep, every week, according to our loyal customer base, Zern's was a goner and would soon become any number of decidedly un-Zern's-like domains. I came to learn that Gilbertsville was "ground zero" for wrong information. They never got anything right. But, that was part of the charm. I suppose.

A fond(ant) farewell
In early 2007, my wife's family made the difficult, but realistic, decision to close their store in Zern's. It was a tough decision, but with many contributing factors (declining sales, my in-law's advancing age, a fucking Walmart within spitting distance), it was the right decision. We mounted an almost year-long liquidation sale — slashing prices, moving merchandise, clearing shelves and wondering what we would do with our weekends. Just after Thanksgiving of that year, my father-in-law contracted an auctioneer and the remaining merchandise was practically given away for pennies on the dollar. (My father-in-law was not happy with the auctioneer or his meager results. He still grumbles about it to this day.) At the end of the day, we closed up shop for the very last time. We left the Zern's parking lot like Lot's wife fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, never looking back for fear of being turned to pillar of fasnachts.

And then we never had to go to Zern's again. Mrs. Pincus remained in frequent contact with some former employees, as well as fellow merchants (some of whom are regular readers of this blog and may have been understandably offended by many things I've written, especially in the first, second and a little bit of the sixth paragraphs of this entry). Mrs. P has even returned to Zern's for a visit on several occasions. However, she went as a solo. I have not been back since the day we closed our doors. Recently, though, through my wife's Facebook page, I have been privy to the same rumor-mongering about Zern's that I heard in the past. Misinformation for the electronic age. But, this time, uncharacteristically, they got it right.

Zern's announced it was closing... for good.

In a lengthy Facebook post, the current owner cited a number of reasons for the proposed September 2018 closure, but the real reason is: Zern's is a relic. A dinosaur whose concept has long overstayed its welcome. A folksy, genial, single-proprietorship retail operation cannot survive in the world of big box mega-stores and internet shopping. It just can't. Even in a place like Gilbertsville that's several years behind the trends. The business is offered for sale, but I doubt there will be any takers. If there are, it will be to level the structure and build one of the previously mentioned options about which customers had speculated.

Do I have have memories of Zern's? Sure. There was no place like it. It was like a visit to Twilight Zone's Willoughby every weekend, if the citizens of Willoughby attempted to "jew down" the merchants. Do I have fond memories of Zern's? Few. It certainly gave me fodder for stories that made it to blog entries over the years. Will I ever stop talking about and thinking about Zern's once there no longer is a Zern's? 


* he said sarcastically 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

I'm on the hunt I'm after you

In keeping with our current campaign of downsizing a houseful of stuff, Mrs. Pincus and I had a yard sale last weekend. I printed out a stack of signs to hang up around our neighborhood. One evening after work, Mrs. P drove me around and I hopped out of the car to tack my paper advertisements on strategically-determined wooden utility poles within a ten (or so) block radius Chez Pincus.

So, we had our little yard sale and when the new week began, we put off the tedious task of taking down the signs until mid-week. (Yes, we are civic-minded people, who do the right thing and take down the signs we put up. Unlike most people who advertise their yard sales, choosing to leave the responsibility of removal for the "sign fairy" or until they deteriorate in the elements.) On Wednesday evening, Mrs. P got behind the wheel of her car and I took the passenger seat, ready to retrace our route through our neighborhood.

As we tooled around our small, suburban community, we saw that someone (or someones) had beat us to the punch. Many of the signs I had attached to utility poles were now just bright-colored corners held in place by heavy-duty staples. In some instances, a long strip of neon green paper sporting the first digits of our address flapped in the breeze. But, for the most part, only corners remained. Sure, there were plenty of signs still intact and I was determined to get each and every one, provided we could remember where we hung them all.

On a long stretch of Church Road, a main thoroughfare that bisects Elkins Park and continues on into the next township, I had hung a number of signs on consecutive poles. I jumped out of the car, finding it easier to just walk the whole way, instead of getting in and out of the car every few feet and have Mrs. P continually halt traffic. So, I got out and my wife drove on ahead to circle the block and eventually meet up with me down the road. I strolled the sidewalk, grabbing and ripping down each sign as I came upon them. At a forked intersection, a small car slowed down next to me and a young man emerged from the passenger side door. He was tall, athletic-looking in a University of Pittsburgh t-shirt and a dark ball cap — the bill pointing backwards — on his head. He hesitantly approached me. I assumed he was going to ask directions like a guy did last week when I was hanging the signs up. (A guy in a rusty heap, its backseat filled with assorted stained boxes and bolts of dirty fabric, leaned over and shouted through the open passenger window, "Which way's Glenside [another nearby town]?" I pointed over my shoulder and said, "Back there." "Back there!?!," he repeated in angered disbelief. He gunned his engine, ignored my reply and continued in the opposite direction.)

The young man smiled. "Sir, would you mind if I took your picture?"

I cocked my head and squinted to indicate I need further explanation. He complied. "My friends and I are on a scavenger hunt. We need a picture of a red-headed stranger." He offered a forlorn look, punctuated by a sorrowful pair of puppy dog eyes.

I laughed. "Sure," I said, "You can take my picture."

A look of relief and elation came across his face. "Really? Cool! I gotta call my friends. They'll be here in a minute." He quickly tapped his cellphone and then shoved it into his pocket. While we waited for his friends, I asked him what else was on his scavenger hunt list. "Any call for old yard sale signs?," I asked and gestured with the stack of spent signs in my hand.

He allowed a small laugh. "Ha! No.," he continued, "We had to walk a stranger's dog."

"Someone let you walk their dog?," I questioned.

"Oh yeah, and she was very nice about it," the young man said proudly.

"I would have run off with the dog.," I joked. He didn't get that I was joking and briefly gave me a look of slight horror. I quickly changed the subject. "So, have you been driving around Elkins Park looking for a red head for a long time?"

"Not really.," he replied, "Well, not too long."

After a minute or two, another small car parked illegally across the street, its two right wheels up on the curb. The doors flew open and four kids in their 20s bounded out, each wearing a heather gray t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a different college. The group gathered around me like we were posing for a family reunion picture and I was the long-lost relative, discovered after years of searching. I announced, "Before you take your picture, is it okay that I'm not a natural redhead?" They laughed and assured me that it was fine. They took their picture, thanked me over and over again and bounded off in much the same manner they arrived.

My wife pulled up as the episode was ending and I filled her in as I climbed into the car. When I finished, she laughed and told me she had passed them on her drive around the block.

"They were putting clothes on a fire hydrant and taking a picture.," she revealed.

Who says nothing exciting ever happens in the suburbs? 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

wordy rappinghood

Like most big cities, Philadelphia has its own set of colloquialisms that only Philadelphians understand. Some of these words have become well-known throughout the nation and are no longer Philadelphia-specific. By now, everyone knows what a "hoagie" is, except that Philadephians still pronounce it with that guttural "oh," a sort of "secret handshake" that allows other Philadelphians to identify their homies. The same goes for "wooder*," "Oh-pal**," "Ac-a-me***" and "fil-im****, all common words that true Philadelphians just can't seem to pronounce correctly.

There's another word that is prevalent in the current Philadelphia vernacular. It's an all-purpose word that means many things and is the perfect word for many occasions. Perhaps you've heard it shouted across the Italian Market on 9th Street. Maybe someone said it while they were walking into the Linc. Or maybe you heard it the first place heard it. In a courtroom in City Hall.

In 1983, I was in my third year of a four-year program at the Hussian School of Art. a small but prestigious art school located on three floors of an office building in Center City¤ Philadelphia. (Yellow Cab occupied several of the lower floors.) One morning, my illustration teacher, a talented and inspirational young lady who allowed the class to call her "Ginny," took our ragtag band of budding artists on a field trip. We assembled and walked as a group to nearby City Hall, a majestic building situated dead center in the intersection of Broad Street and Market Street. Upon completion of its 30-year construction, Philadelphia City Hall was the tallest inhabitable building in the world. The limestone, granite and marble structure is adorned with 250 statues created by artist Alexander Milne Calder, including the massive, 37-foot tall figure of city founder William Penn, which is still the largest statue to top any building in the world. City Hall is the headquarters of Philadelphia's municipal court system and that was the destination of my illustration class that morning. Arrangements had been made by Ginny to have our class observe and draw the occupants of a courtroom during a trial. As a group, we were excited — collectively imagining our work prominently displayed on the 11 o'clock news while Action News anchor Jim Gardner reads a story of some hardened criminal's pending sentencing.

We were ushered into the ornate courtroom by Ginny's legal connection and we shuffled to find seats in the visitors' gallery. A trial was already underway, so we tried our best to remain as quiet and we could. The prosecuting attorney — a novice Clarence Darrow — briefly stopped his questioning as he turned his head to watch us take our seats. When we were all seated, he resumed speaking, only now, it seemed, he was injecting his queries with a more theatrical bravado... after all, he now had an audience. He paced in front of the young man in the witness box as the jury watched intently. The witness, a young African-American gentleman dressed in a popular 80s-style jogging suit, seemed totally disinterested in the proceedings at hand. We had missed the beginning of the case, so we had to figure out what was going on based on current activity. At this point, none of us were drawing. The prosecutor gestured in exaggerated motions and asked his witness, "So, then what you do?"

The witness shifted in his seat and mumbled, "I went and got my hammer."

The prosecutor looked puzzled. "Your hammer?," he repeated, "You got a hammer? A tool to drive nails?"

The witness looked at the prosecutor like the guy had three heads. He frowned, shook his head and answered, "Nah, man. My hammer!" He raised his hand, popped up his thumb until it was perpendicular to his extended forefinger, creating a right angle. He waved his digital approximation of a firearm in the prosecutor's direction and then spoke the word.

"Y'know, man. My jawn!"

The room fell silent. Then a low murmur rippled through the visitors' gallery. "What was that?" "What did he say?" "What does that mean?" The witness shrugged, as though he uttered something as familiar as "Happy Birthday to You." Realizing that his statement was not understood, he leaned forward, his lips almost touching the microphone and said, "My gun.," and leaned back in his chair, lifting the front legs off the floor. The prosecutor was obviously startled, so he changed the direction of his questioning and just let "jawn" go on... unacknowledged.

And I never heard the word again, until some months later.

I was working in my cousin's health food restaurant with a nice guy named Tony... although sometimes he preferred to be called "Gary." One evening, after we closed, Tony was in the kitchen of the restaurant, washing some pots in a sink overflowing with suds. I was carrying the unused portions of casseroles into the kitchen to wrap and pile up in the refrigerator. Tony was working steel wool in perfect time to some awesome jams blaring from the radio Tony kept on the window sill. I asked Tony about the song, one I had never heard before. Tony extracted his hand from the sink and pointed a soapy finger at his boombox.

"That's the jawn!," he said with a smile. In the following weeks and months, Tony said "jawn" a lot. Everything was a "jawn." A casserole in the oven was a "jawn." A serving utensil was a "jawn," My car was a "jawn." My bike was a "jawn." A movie Tony saw the past weekend was a "jawn," too. "Jawn," it seemed, was whatever you needed it to be. An all-purpose word that served all purposes. 

And it was purely Philadelphia.

More recently, "jawn" has hit mainstream Philadelphia vocabulary. It's used on local radio, on local television, in local advertising. Some Philadelphia businesses have embraced and even hijacked "jawn" to give themselves an air of "street cred," thinking it makes them automatically cool. I've seen "jawn" on local billboards for organizations like the Philadelphia Visitors Bureau. And, you know what, I'll give them a pass. They do great things in the name of promoting our fair city. 

But this one, I believe, officially marks the decline — and eventual death — of "jawn."

Oh "jawn," we hardly knew ye.

¤ Another of Philadelphia's charming colloquial terms, this one for the downtown area of the city.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

freeze frame

For eighteen seasons, Mrs. Pincus and I were proud Phillies season ticket holders. Well, maybe we weren't proud for every one of those seasons, but, you get what I'm saying. We first purchased our tickets — four seats in the lofty 500 level of Philadelphia's notorious Veterans Stadium — to qualify to buy two tickets to the 1996 All-Star Game that was scheduled to be held in our fair city in the mid-season break in July.  In 1996, if you recall, the Phillies were terrible. Just three years removed from a World Series appearance, they were now a bedraggled crew of over-the-hill under-achievers. Despite the pitching prowess of dominating southpaw Terry Mulholland and future asshole Curt Schilling, the Fightin's put up abysmal numbers, closing the season just five shy of losing 100 games. We had to literally beg friends and family to join us to occupy our fourth seat. We whittled it down to three seats the following season.

Our plan was especially prepared with families in mind. It was a 13-game plan, every Sunday home game. The April games were cold. The August games were broiling. But, all in all, it was a memorable piece of family bonding for me, my wife and our young son. We all grew to have a love of all things baseball. We visited other ball parks in other cities. We knew the goings-on with other teams. We could rattle off the current standings at any point during the season. My wife could explain the infield fly rule, fer crissakes! When the Phillies moved into their new digs at beautiful (and I do mean "beautiful") Citizens Bank Park, and started to get good again, we were right there with them. We got to know — and became close with —  the group of folks whose seats were surrounding ours. Even when our son decided he wanted his summer Sunday afternoons unencumbered by endless foul tips and Seventh Inning Stretches, Mrs. P and I continued to renew our Sunday plan with just two seats. And we did that right up until the end of the 2013 season, when we quietly opted not to purchase tickets for 2014. The last five years were the most exciting of our entire run... and for a reason that you would not expect.

As any true baseball fan can tell you, baseball is boring. Sure it has its exciting moments — the grand slam, the walk-off home run, the elusive triple play*, the no-hitter** — but, for the most part, not much happens in between. In June of 2009, a benign discussion at work yielded a brilliant idea. During a lull in the workday, some co-workers and I were discussing people wearing Phillies jerseys to Phillies games. I always thought it was weird, along the lines of wearing a t-shirt of the band you are seeing in concert.. Everyone knows why you're there! You're there for the same reason everyone is there. You're a fan! Do you really need to label yourself? I found myself in the minority, everyone in agreement that wearing a jersey of the home team shows support. Okay. I get it. It's just not for me. Then, someone brought up whose name is appropriate to put on the back of a jersey. Well, obviously, your favorite player's name would get the honors... I mean, as long as we're showing support. We all agreed that putting your own name was just flat out wrong! A total violation of the hallowed rules of baseball. An unforgivable infraction that must be dealt with... publicly. And so, my alter-ego was born.

The very next Sunday, I became "Photographer N." I was a silent, stealthy whistleblower exposing those who dare rank themselves among baseball's greatest — the Ruths, the Mayses, the Gehrigs — by displaying their own moniker across their shoulders while bypassing the earned respect and applied diligence. I am a firm believer that anyone over the age of twelve looks silly wearing a baseball jersey to a game — but that's my pet peeve and I know I am in the minority, But, an adult shelling out $200 for an officially-licensed Major League Baseball jersey and ruining it by getting their own name on the back — that's just stupid. Does some out-of-shape accountant sitting in the upper deck with his personalized jersey tucked into his dress pants really think he's gonna get a "call up" if the Phillies' bullpen runs out of relief pitchers? Well, it was my self-proclaimed duty to expose these guys for all the world to see.

With my digital camera battery fully charged, Mrs. Pincus and I arrived at the ballpark early and nonchalantly strolled through the crowds on the main concourse. I kept a keen eye open to my surroundings, hoping to spot someone — anyone — with their own name on a Phillies jersey. I was not disappointed. As a matter of fact, I was pleased — if not a bit disturbed — by just how many people had no problem displaying their innermost baseball fantasies to their fellow Phillies fans. Among the "Utley"s and the "Howard"s and the "Halladay"s, I saw numerous non-Phillie names in big red letters unjustly stitched across those red pinstripes. I got as close to the offenders as I could and snapped a picture, preserving the evidence for later display. On my first day of this project, I got five pictures. After we arrived home from the game, I started a new WordPress blog called "Who Does He Play For?" Every week, I would add to the collection of "jersey offenders." I posted the photos I gathered that day and captioned them with words of good-natured ribbing (well, "good-natured" unless you were the subject). Some days, I came home with a collection of pictures that numbered in the high twenties. As the weeks passed, I started receiving pictures from other Phillies fans, thanks to an anonymous email address posted on the blog's masthead. My blog was even acknowledged by a sportswriter from the Philadelphia Daily News and was mentioned in an online publication devoted to sports uniforms.

This blog had taken on a life of its own, as well as injecting new excitement into the boring routine of going to a Phillies game. Don't get me wrong. We enjoyed our Sunday outings, but, as I mentioned, baseball is not a particularly exciting sport. However, we were making our own excitement. But it didn't come without risk. When I spotted an "offending jersey," I would take off into the crowd, leaving poor Mrs. Pincus (now using the counterpart alias "Mrs. Photographer N") in the dust, worrying if some drunk guy with his own name on his jersey would catch me taking his picture and beat the crap out of me. Would she stumble across my bloodied and battered body a few hundred feet up the concourse with my camera stuffed in my mouth, mob hit-style? Nope. She never did. I was careful. Plus, I came to see that most people are oblivious to their surroundings. With the flash on my camera turned off, I have gotten within inches of a subject and remained undetected. As a courtesy to the folks who deserved no courtesy, I blurred any visible faces in every photograph, including innocent bystanders.

My "Who Does He Play For?" blog kept me busy with nearly 1500 posts over five years, including posts during the off-season (because there is no rest for the weary). But, at the end of the 2013, after 18 seasons spanning two ballparks, Mrs. P and I decided not to renew our ticket plan. I hung up my camera and "Photographer N." faded into the crowd, remaining unidentified until the confession you are now reading.

Mrs. P (or should I say "Mrs. Photographer N") and I went to a Phillies game just last week. I am saddened to say that the tradition continues among the fans. Luckily, I brought my camera and I snapped one for old times' sake.

Although the blog is no longer active, it is still available to peruse (HERE) as an archive until the internet takes it down. Enjoy. I know I did.

* saw one
** saw one