Sunday, August 26, 2018

this town ain't big enough for the both of us

Back-to-back blogs about pizza? Really? I must be hungry.

One day last week, my son E. initiated a "no pressure" gathering at a South Philadelphia restaurant/bar in honor of his birthday. The bar — Tattooed Mom's — is a favorite hangout of my son, his girlfriend and their friends. It sits several doors from the corner on the 500 block of  Philadelphia's famed South Street — which was a popular haunt for me in my high school days. When I met Mrs. Pincus, she lived in an apartment just a few blocks from South Street and I even worked at a busy ice cream store on South Street when I was a struggling art student. However, I haven't been down to "where all the hippies meet" in years — ever since I became a full-fledged "suburbanite."

These look delicious,
I couldn't tell you for sure.
Tattooed Mom's is a cool little place with funky decorations on the walls, kitschy board games on the tables and an eclectic selection of beer and cocktails that the hipsters who frequent the place seem to love. Personally, I was looking forward to sampling some of the offerings from their extensive vegetarian menu, specifically their highly-touted "tater tot" concoctions for which they have received local renown. So when Mrs. Pincus and I spotted our son sitting on one of Tattooed Mom's retro sofas surrounded by friends and beer, I reached for a menu while we said our "hellos."

"Hold on there.," my boy said to me with a cautionary tone in his voice. He explained that the waiter had just announced that back in the kitchen, the grill hood stopped working and the food preparation area was filled with smoke — ergo, no food from their enticing menu would be available until further notice.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. So were a lot of other folks. Mrs. Pincus — ever the pragmatist — came to the rescue with some quick thinking. She asked the waiter if it was okay to bring outside food in to Tattooed Mom's. "Sure." he said, "I do it all the time" ....which isn't exactly a rousing endorsement of the edible offerings when the kitchen is operating properly. My wife decided that we'd run out and get a couple of pizzas and bring 'em back. Everyone smiled with relief... and the anticipation of pizza. We walked out to South Street on a mission.

Back in my youth, when I hung out on South Street regularly, I seem to remember a pizza place approximately every four feet. There was Frank's, whose mozzarella-laden ambrosia was the reason people stood in line for a slice. Of course, there was the Philly Pizza Company, immortalized in the Dead Milkmen's 1988 hit "Punk Rock Girl." They had great pizza but obviously met their demise because they only served tea iced. Plus, their jukebox selections left a lot to be desired. These places, we soon discovered, were long gone. Now, it appears, that one Lorenzo and Sons holds a pizza monopoly on South Street, its saucy empire stretching from the Delaware River all the way up to 9th Street where upstart competitor Little Italy has bravely set up shop.

Empire State Building shown
for size reference.
We headed down to Lorenzo and Sons, expecting to bring back three or four pizzas to feed our son's guests. Lorenzo's, we soon found out, only has two items on their menu — and, technically, one is a variation of the other. They sell slices of pizza and whole pizzas. They also sell soda and water, but as far as food options — well, you better like pizza. The whole pizzas — I'd like to point out — measure a whopping twenty-eight inches across. Twenty-eight inches! More that two feet! The slices are as big as your head! While we marveled at the fellow behind the counter piling fistfuls of cheese on a disk of dough approximately the size of a manhole cover, my wife spotted a hand-written sign warning: "CASH ONLY. " A twenty-eight inch pizza was gonna set us back twenty-eight dollars (that's a buck-an-inch to you and me). We checked our wallets. Combined, our funds would barely get us one of these monsters. A skinny ATM stood silently at the end of the unnecessarily-tall counter. Mrs. Pincus reluctantly withdrew additional cash and — based on the size of these things — placed an order for two whole pies. We paid and waited. We watched a few people walk away from the counter with enormous slices of pizza, the edges not fully contained by the flimsy paper plate on which they were dispatched. A mom awkwardly maneuvered the comically-huge point of the slice into her child's tiny, unaccommodating mouth. Two "bros" confidently ordered two slices each, only to exhibit difficulty attempting a uniform first bite.

The young lady behind the counter began to assemble two capacious cardboard boxes which would contain our pizzas for the two and a half block journey back to Tattooed Mom's. The stocky fellow in the back extracted the first colossal pizza from the oven — deftly balancing its bulk on the end of an extra-large wooden peel and depositing it squarely in the box. The young lady cut the giant pie into 16 slices (at our request, making it look like a mutated version of a Chuck E. Cheese pizza) and then fit the barn door-sized lid into place. She opened the next box as another pizza was dropped into place and repeated the process.

Look at those narrow doors.
Now, I'm 57 years old and I have carried lots of pizzas in my life, but I never considered just how much two, twenty-eight inch pizzas would weigh. The answer is: "A lot." As a matter of fact, it was surprisingly — and unnervingly — heavy. At first, I struggled to balance the two pizzas comfortably. After a minute, I believed I was all set to carry these pizzas the.2 miles back to Tattooed Mom's. I barely cleared the narrow door jamb as I exited Lorenzo and Sons, my wife generously holding door open for me. I made a right and hit the gas, not stopping or yielding or even looking at who might be in my path. These pizzas were heavy in my outstretched arms. I did hear a few errant calls of "Whoa!" and "Lookit the size of them pizzas!," but I concentrated on my route, internally hoping I would make it the whole way without turning the South Street sidewalk into a cheesy, saucy, boxy mess.

I kept a steady pace. My feet efficiently covering as much ground as possible per stride. I could feel my arms quivering. I had to stop and rest, if only for a minute. Just before I reached the corner of 4th Street, I found a metal railing that I placed the outside edge of my cargo upon. I supported the closer end of the boxes with my hands as I caught my breath and regained my composure. I glanced around and noticed that the railing was in front of the inexplicably shuttered Jules Pizza — its darkened  and empty interior mocking me. (What pizza place is closed on Sunday? One that's a block and a half closer to Tattooed Mom's than Lorenzo and Sons, that's who! And they probably sell normal, human-sized pizzas!)

Don't eat that.
There's enough pizza for everyone.
I got my second wind and bee-lined it to Tattooed Mom's. I crossed the street with ballet precision and made it to the front door where a nice man from the neighboring shoe store (he was outside grabbing a smoke) opened the door for me. I left poor Mrs. Pincus in the dust, many paces behind me. Once safely inside, my son's guests saw me coming towards them and quickly cleared a space on a low coffee table near the sofa where some folks were seated. I dropped the pizzas and loudly exhaled.

E. excitedly opened the top box to reveal Pizza #1. It was glorious. Big and cheesy and inviting. His friends offered approval, most commenting that they had never seen a pizza this big. Cellphones came out and soon, social media was awash with photos of the first of the two twenty-eight inch pizzas we had brought. As Mrs. P passed out slices and napkins, we were told that the Tattooed Mom's kitchen was up and running.

But... but, we had pizza. And a lot of it.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

papa don't preach

Papa Johns pizza sucks. The cloyingly-sweet sauce is awful and the crust tastes like the cardboard box it's delivered in. I love crappy, commercially-produced pizza from chain restaurants, but Papa John's is one step below that stuff they made on day-old hamburger buns that I bought in my elementary school's cafeteria. I tried Papa Johns pizza once. Years ago. And I never went back.

But, Papa Johns is big business, with over 4700 locations world wide and lucrative sponsorship associations with ESPN, the Olympics, The NFL and The Football League in the United Kingdom. Not bad for a company that was started in a converted closet in founder John Schnatter's father's Indiana tavern... and continues, to this day, to make shitty pizza.

Mr Schnatter, who has become the "face" and commercial spokesperson for Papa Johns, (à la Dave Thomas of Wendy's fame), has also become a bit outspoken. He broke the cardinal rule of business by publicly weighing in on the controversial "kneeling during the National Anthem" debate that heated up the NFL and recent headlines. No matter how he feels about the topic, it is in his best interest to keep his mouth shut, or he runs the risk of alienating potential customers who may not share his views. Alienating customers equals poor business relationships and poor business relationships lead to no business relationships.

In July 2018, it was revealed that Schnatter used a racial slur during a business conference. On the same day, Schnatter admitted to using the word and immediately resigned from the Board of Directors of Papa Johns. Two days later, the company removed Schnatter's image from all Papa Johns marketing material. Steve Ritchie, the newly installed CEO, issued a memo stating "racism has no place at Papa Johns."  However, a week or so later, Schnatter filed a lawsuit against Papa John's Pizza to give him access to the company's books and records after they fired him. He described the company's procedures as an “unexplained and heavy-handed way” to cut ties between him and the company that he founded. The company countered by implementing precautions that would prevent Schnatter from buying back a majority stake of Papa Johns stock.

As expected, Papa Johns business suffered. Sales were down across the board as they struggled to introduce a "Schnatter-less" marketing strategy. To date, eleven Major League baseball teams have dumped Papa Johns as a sponsor, as well as the NBA's Utah Jazz and the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. The University of Louisville took Papa Johns name off of their football stadium. See how opening up your big, racist mouth is bad for business?

It seems that the company is taking this very, very seriously. Just this morning I was watching television before I left for work. We all know my love for old TV shows, so I was tuned to Antenna TV, one of several networks whose programming consists of vintage sitcoms going back to The Burns and Allen Show — which I happened to be watching as I enjoyed a cup of coffee. When the show paused for a "word from the sponsor," my 43" flat screen surprisingly lit up with the smiling visage of John Schnatter in his trademark red apron, running his knuckles through a big glob of pizza dough. He was surrounded by a group of smiling Papa Johns employees, all touting the ingredients of the pizza and delivering the company's tagline in unison: "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza. Papa Johns." Then the screen faded to black, quickly switching to an older man singing the praises of his new streamlined catheter. I immediately grabbed my phone and took to Twitter. I punched out a typical "Josh Pincus" assessment of what I just saw...

Pretty witty for twenty minutes after six in the morning. It appeared that I was not the only one awake and scanning Twitter. The folks at Papa Johns Support (@AskPapaJohns) saw my tweet and responded. Without a joke and without the slightest bit of levity. Their tweet was all business and  polite customer relations.

Wow. Papa Johns wants details and wants them now. I happily obliged.

Papa Johns was gracious.
Papa Johns is determined to get John Schnatter out of their lives for good. Apparently, there really is no place for racism at Papa Johns. 

I know from personal experience that "once a racist, always a racist." Even when an apology is offered, racists never change the way they truly feel.

Papa Johns' pizza still sucks, but at least their heart is in the right place.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom

Yesterday was my 57th birthday.

Alexander Pope, the poet and satirist who introduced such oft-used quotes into the common lexicon as “To err is human, to forgive divine,” “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” and “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” died at 56.

Adolf Hitler was the leader of the Nazis and one of the most hated men in the world. With defeat closing in, he downed a cyanide capsule and shot himself at 56.

Charles Rocket, an actor and comedian, who as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, was fired for saying "fuck" on live television. He slit his own throat at 56.

Billy Mitchell, a brigadier general who is considered the "Father" of the US Air Force, was an outspoken critic of military strategy. He was convicted of insubordination and court-martialed. He resigned his commission rather than serve a five-year suspension. He died at 56.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. While attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington DC, Lincoln was shot to death by John Wilkes Booth. He was 56.

Ian Fleming was famous and celebrated for his eleven novels and short story collections about fictional super spy "James Bond." As a counter to critics labeling him a "one trick pony," Fleming wrote the epic children's novel "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." He died at 56 on his son's twelfth birthday.

Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the world's most influential composers. Beethoven composed some of his most famous and admired pieces during the last decade of his life, when he was almost completely deaf. After years of heavy alcohol consumption, he died of severe liver damage at 56.

Max Schreck was an actor, most famous for his role as "Count Orlok" in F.W. Murnau's creepy 1922 film Nosferatu. He died of heart failure at 56.

Rick James was a favorite purveyor of funk music. He had several encounters with law enforcement, including holding and torturing two women for six days while under the influence of crack cocaine. Rick died of heart failure at 56.

Betty Grable was an actress and popular pinup model during World War II. She died from lung cancer at 56.

Steve Jobs was a true marketing genius. Despite having never written a line of computer code in his life, he convinced the world to latch on to the technology that was Apple. He also exploited the talents of his pal Steve Wozniak. Jobs' dying wish was to never allow consumers to replace the batteries in their iPhones. He died at 56.

Warren Zevon was the anti-Jackson Browne. His sardonic tales of miscreants and headless mercenaries afforded him a cult following and the appreciation of many, including David Letterman, who welcomed Warren as the sole guest on his late-night show eleven months before the died at 56.

Charles Mingus was a brilliant and influential jazz bassist. Later in life, he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that prevented him from playing his instrument. He died at 56.

John Hancock was one of the leaders in the United States' pursuit of freedom from England. He was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, barely leaving enough room for the signatures of the 55 men who would follow. He died at 56.

These folks only made it as far as their 56th birthday, so I'm feeling pretty good.

Yep. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

they paved paradise and put up a parking lot

Mrs. P and I attended the annual XPoNential Music Festival*, a three-day gathering of members (and non-members, I guess) hosted by WXPN, an indispensable radio station in the Philadelphia area. This year marked the 25th year of the festival and boasted such diverse performers as David Byrne, Lukas Nelson, J.D. McPherson and a bunch more. It's more than just a concert, though. It's like a big family reunion, if you liked everyone in your family.

The festival takes place in Wiggins Park on the Camden, New Jersey waterfront. Wiggins Park, named for Dr. Ulysses Wiggins (who, I believe, was the first doctor to treat victims during the annual "Burn Camden to the Ground on Mischief Night"), is a picturesque natural amphitheater, with sloping lawns and shady trees. It is one of the truly nice things in Camden. Actually, Camden is going through sort of a Renaissance. Sort of. Within the first two blocks off the waterfront, there's a lot of construction, a lot of overpriced, rehabbed buildings festooned with signage to entice tenants.... and an abandoned minor league ballpark, the one-time home of the one-time Camden River Sharks. Past that two-block cutoff, you take your life in your hands. Camden is a scary, scary place — rife with shady looking characters, boarded-up buildings and a ton of broken glass. I suppose that's why Wiggins Park faces Philadelphia.

In the days after the XPoNential Music Festival*, most everyone is talking about their favorite memories of the weekend — which performers they enjoyed, that new musical discovery they were exposed to, how many free ice cream bars they consumed. Sure, we had a good time, heard a lot of great music and downed more than our fair share of ice cream, but, honestly who wants to read a Josh Pincus story about something pleasant? I'll try not to disappoint.

The gates were set to open at 3:30 on Friday afternoon, with the first band — Philadelphia funksters Swift Technique — scheduled to take the stage at 4. Mrs. P and I packed our cooler and gathered our new custom-made blanket (constructed from a collection of bandannas) and backed out of our suburban Philadelphia driveway around 1. After inching through congested traffic on the infamous Schuylkill Expressway, we made it to Camden around 2. Our go-to parking garage is not always accessible, mostly due to non-existent rules and some overzealous attendants who get to exercise a bit of authority one weekend a year. But, instead of following the giant electronic arrow flashing on a temporary sign at the corner of Market Street and Jersey Joe Wolcott Boulevard (I shit you not!), we made a left on the off chance that the parking lot attendant was feeling particularly generous this Friday. 

He was not.

A weathered man with wild gray hair and approximately three teeth in his head (two of which were in his mouth) sporting a bright red "Live Nation" polo shirt signaled for us to stop as we approached the garage entrance. "You folks here for the concert?," he croaked through a sneer. We replied in the affirmative. He sneered more. "You gotta park in lot 1, 3, 4, 9 or 11.," he spat, as though everyone is intimately familiar with his random list of designated parking lots. My wife asked for general directions to the aforementioned lots. The man waved his arms left and right and muttered something about making lefts and rights. Mrs P spun the car around and drove up to the festival entrance where a queue line had already begun to form. I unloaded our gear — chairs, cooler, blanket — and left Mrs. Pincus to grab a spot in line while I went off in search of parking.

I continued past the Camden Aquarium and spotted an A-frame sign in the middle of an otherwise-barricaded street. The sign read: CONCERT PARKING $10. "Well, that's for me!," I thought. As I approached the entrance to a relatively safe-looking, fenced-in parking lot, a bedraggled attendant leaning back in a metal folding chair pointed to his wrist (he wasn't wearing a watch) and yelled, "Three o'clock! Lot opens at three!" Then he curled his lips into the standard parking lot attendant authoritative smirk. I check the clock on my dashboard. It was 2:30. I would have to find a place to sit in my car for a half hour, because the delicate balance of nature would be thrown irreparably out of kilter if I were permitted to stash my car on that hallowed asphalt thirty minutes early. 

Across the street from the inaccessible-til-3 lot was an entrance to a construction site that was as wide as a street with cars parked along both curbs. I saw a couple of hard-hatted men climb in to some of the vehicles and pull away, leaving an open parking spot. I pulled into one of the spaces to wait. A car pulled in behind me and the passenger — a confused looking guy — got out and looked around as though he had been dropped from an airplane. I suppose he was checking for a sign of some sort delineating the regulations for parking in this small access road. Of course, no such sign existed, so he did the next best thing. He asked the nearest person sitting in their car with the windows rolled down. That was me. "Excuse me," he said, "You think it's okay to park here?" I looked right at him and replied, "I wouldn't. I'm waiting for the lot across the street to open at 3 so I can park there." He scrunched up his face in an expression of befuddlement. "What do you mean 'you wouldn't?' Is it because you're worried something would happen to your car because this is Camden?," he questioned. "Yes. Yes, I am." I stated. The man shuffled back to his car. By this time, it was nearly 3 o'clock. I turned the ignition key and swung my car into a U-turn, heading over to the now-open lot. I paid my ten bucks and found myself an open space on the end of an aisle. The guy who questioned my parking plans pulled in next to me.

We arrived bright and early  as the second day of the XPoNential Music Festival* kicked off at noon, with the gates set to open at 11:30. Gluttons for punishment that we are, we took another shot at our favorite parking garage. As we approached, we saw several cars being waved in. That was a good sign and things looked promising. We got closer and an attendant — a different guy from the day before — waved for us to stop before entering. "You folks here for the concert?" he asked. We confirmed that we were. He informed us that today the garage was reserved for radio station employees and handicapped parking. My wife quickly explained that our son is an employee of the radio station. (He is indeed.) The attendant glanced into our car and gave the interior a once-over. Seeing no one but Mrs. Pincus and me, he was prompted to ask, "Is he with you?" Mrs. P tried to save this by saying we will be driving him later. The attendant wasn't buying it. Instead, he directed us to several other lots, the identifying numbers of which he rattled off like he was calling a Bingo game. Slightly annoyed, I dropped Mrs. P off at the entrance line again and parked at the same lot I parked in on Friday.

The final day of the festival found my wife and I dragging. Sure, we were having a great time, but the whole weekend is a tiring undertaking. Plus, with each festival, we find that we are another year older. Although we enjoy the convenience of the riverfront parking garage, we just weren't up for an argument over getting ourselves in. This morning, I just went straight to the entrance line and dropped Mrs. P off with our belongings while I headed to the parking lot that accommodated us the previous two days. As I pulled away from the curb and headed towards the lot situated four long blocks from Wiggins Park, my phone rang. It was my wife. She explained that she was talking to some guys in line who said they parked in the garage with no problem. I hung a quick left and drove right up to the garage entrance where I was greeted by the Sunday attendant — a different guy from Friday and Saturday's guardian. However, he must have been studying the Parking Lot Attendant Official Handbook, because he started off with the ever-popular ice-breaker: "You here for the concert?" I said, "Yes." Then, he threw me a curveball. "Are you a volunteer?" I panicked. I wasn't one of the many volunteers who offer their services for the weekend out of the pure love they have for WXPN. I love the station, but I like to just sit on a blanket and listen to music for three days. Sure, I could have very easily said I was a volunteer, but that would involve lying, which is something I do not do. It would also, most likely, require me to produce some proof of my volunteer status, so I answered, "No." I was immediately denied entrance to the garage. Again. Instead I was directed to follow the street to the traffic light where a left turn would take me to Lot 1. I angrily exhaled. I hit the gas and followed the road until I found a large, fenced-in, unmarked parking lot. A smiling young lady with a fistful of parking tickets waved me in. "Is this Lot number one?," I asked." Her smile broadened. "Yes it is., " she cheerfully replied. As she relieved me of ten dollars, I told her about the contradictory information I was given by many of her co-workers. He gave a little pout and sort of apologized on behalf of the entire Camden Parking Authority. Then she pointed to a wide area of available parking spaces and offered a heartfelt "thank you" as I drove off. That little bit of "nice" almost made up for three days of parking frustration.

At the culmination of the three-day event, the General Manager of WXPN took to the stage, thanked everyone in attendance and invited everyone back for next year's festival.... although he made no mention of where to park.

* presented by Subaru