Sunday, January 27, 2019

keep telling that same dumb joke 'til we both think it's funny

I have always loved watching stand-up comics. I remember how cool it was staying up late to see Don Rickles or Buddy Hackett of The Tonight Show. Watching them deliver a few minutes of anecdotal shtick and spotting Johnny Carson in the shadows, bent over his desk in hysterics, always made me laugh. I enjoyed The Ed Sullivan Show and his knack for mixing up-and-coming comedians with the respected names of the field. George Burns and Jack Benny shared a stage with George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Even though the humor was from opposite ends of the spectrum, it was all funny.

When I got older, I was able to go to see comedians in local clubs. My favorite was "The Comedy Works," a cramped, narrow room two flights above a Middle Eastern restaurant (aptly name "The Middle East") in the historic district of Philadelphia. For under ten bucks, you could see an emcee, three warm-up comics and a headliner of some note. At different times over several years, I saw Bob Saget, Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling and Tom Wilson (a year or two before he went on to play "Biff" in the the Back to the Future trilogy). One night in the early 80s, the billed headliner was Richard Jeni, fresh from a few appearances on The Tonight Show. Before Richard took the stage, a young man performed... and he had the entire place rolling in the aisles with laughter. He was so funny that everyone missed parts of his routine because they were unable to be heard over the laughter. When poor Richard Jeni began his act, no one was paying attention. Everyone was still laughing and talking about the young man who had preceded Mr. Jeni. The young man was named Eddie Murphy.

The Comedy Works also featured an "Open Mic" Night. At these mid-week, marathon shows, patrons paid just a few dollars to sit and watch a combination of club regulars trying out new material and amateurs taking a stab at a possible career path. I went to "Open Mic" nights often with my friends. Most nights were pretty uneven with average Joes delivering poorly written, unfunny material. Their few minutes in the spotlight seemed like hours and their embarrassment was palpable. Then a pro would take to the stage and bring the meager audience back to life before the next human anchor would drag the waning crowd down again. After attending a few "Open Mic" Nights, I was persuaded by my friends (my drunk friends) to make an onstage attempt at stand-up comedy with words of encouragement like, "You're funnier than these assholes!" Not one to balk at a challenge..... who am I kidding? I balk at a lot of challenges. But, in this case, I answered the call. Over the course of five months, I observed everything that went on around me and wrote down everything, hoping something would be funny. When the big night came, I stocked the audience with friends and family. The show started at 9. I went on at midnight. By this point, the audience was hammered. I could have read the Yellow Pages aloud and got laughs. Honestly, I did not bomb, but I never made a return engagement, labeling my one-and-only foray into the world of stand-up as "Mission Accomplished" (and not in the George W. Bush sense).

I love watching comedians on TV, but lately I have been disappointed by the recent crop of comics. It seems to me that a great many are just not funny. Or ones that were funny are no longer funny. My biggest complaint is the way comedians are presented. There's an audience filled with people sitting and waiting for a funny person to come on stage and be funny. It is implied "This is a comedian, therefore, he is funny and you must laugh because that is what you do when you see a comedian." Then, they proceed to go on for an hour and offer five, non-consecutive minutes of funny material. But, if you watch the reaction shots, the audience is hysterical for the duration.

In the last few years, I've been to comedy clubs in Philadelphia, where I saw one funny headliner and a gang of lame warm-up acts. Ben Bailey, the host of the TV game show "Cash Cab," was very funny, but the supporting acts elicited crickets from the audience. Emo Phillips (admittedly an acquired taste) was great, but the opening comics were awful.

I have seen recent stand-up specials by Jim Gaffigan, a comedian I once thought was really original and very funny. He is no longer funny and his "I'm fat" shtick is repetitive and not amusing. I have seen Patton Oswalt, whose last special started and ended with a bang but the forty-minutes in the middle were totally forgettable. I watched Demetri Martin, who I thought was very funny — but not for as long as his special's entire running time. I saw Norm MacDonald, who I thought was surprisingly good, but I can't remember any part of his act. I saw T.J. Miller, who I loved on HBO's "Silicon Valley," but I couldn't make it past the first five minutes of his painfully manic and unfunny performance. Recently, Mrs. Pincus and I watched Ellen DeGeneres's new Netflix special — her first in sixteen years. I always liked Ellen's irreverent routines on Johnny Carson's show and previous specials, but this one was disappointing. It was very uneven and her overarching premise of "now I'm rich" wore thin after a while.
Other comedian's specials have been recommended to me, but I have to admit, I am a little gun-shy. I don't want to invest an hour of my time watching a comedian who is not funny. They have one job —to make me laugh. Instead, many have become preachy and introspective and unnecessarily philosophical. You wouldn't go to a dentist and sit in the chair to have your shoes shined, would you? (Wait, the way some people fear dentists, perhaps that is a poor analogy.) I guess I'll have to scroll endlessly through the selections on Netflix, HBO and other entertainment offerings to find that elusive comic that will just simply make me laugh.

Or maybe I'll just watch the old-timers on YouTube. Although, they're sometimes not even as funny as I remember.

Hmmm.... maybe it's me. 

Now that's funny!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

rude boy

After work, I stopped at Walmart to pick up a few things in their grocery department. I have a love/hate relationship with Walmart. I love their prices on groceries. However, I hate going to Walmart. Nearly every Walmart I have visited is exactly the same. Scummy, dirty, inconsistently stocked and filled with the absolute dregs of society — both shoppers and employees. I've been to a lot of different Walmarts and it's uncanny how you see the same people in all of them. (The first Walmart I was ever in was in St. Catherines in Ontario. Who knew there were scummy Canadians?) Everyone in Walmart looks as though they'd rather be somewhere else ...and I can't say I blame them. But their prices on groceries are so unbelievably low that I feel silly shopping anywhere else. (Last week, I bought a package of eight hamburger roils for 67 cents. Now, come on!)

There's a Walmart just a few blocks from my job and I stop there often on my way home from work. I usually prepare a list of items I need before I enter the store to make sure I am in and out in ten minutes or less....and I usually am. Today, my list consisted of just three items — milk, a loaf of bread, and butter. This should take under five minutes. 

Today's selections
I pulled into the parking lot and drove up towards the building to find a parking space. I saw a prime spot right next to the row of reserved handicapped spaces. As I flicked my turn signal and began to swing my car into the space, I saw a man pushing a shopping cart in my direction. He was a tall thin man, probably in his mid-seventies. He was one of those guys that has a permanent scowl on his face, as though he is coming to the end of a life that done him wrong time and time again. His mouth was curved into a frown that betrayed years of disdain and contempt. He tightly gripped the handle of the cart with thin bony fingers, but he also may have been using it for support under the weight of that enormous chip on his shoulder. As I slowly guided my car into the space, he frowned harder, made a sweeping gesture with his arm towards the front of my car and mouthed some words that I could not make out. I threw the shift lever into "PARK," pulled up my parking brake, unlatched my seat belt and slowly opened my door... just enough to get out but not so wide as to bump the adjacent car.... which I would soon understand to be the older man's vehicle.

The man stopped briefly right in front of my car, right by the pylons holding the "handicapped" designation signs, and then he pushed his cart to the passenger side of my car and grumbled something under his breath. I managed to get "didn't leave me no room" before he trailed off. He was about a foot away from me and the situation was becoming crystal clear. I dared park next to his car in his parking lot. My selfish act of parking was now forcing him to put his two small bags of purchases in his car by way of the door on the other side. He was tense and fuming.
I looked at my parked car. I was well within the yellow guide lines painted on the asphalt. I was not crooked nor did I overshoot the front of the designated space. I may not have stopped my car equidistant from either side of the space, but I was absolutely within the boundaries. Absolutely.

I spoke up — something I don't normally do. "I can move my car.," I offered, but I followed that proposal with a stern, "You don't have to be rude." 

The old man frowned even harder. "You're the one being rude!," he spat and he pointed in the direction of my car, "Parking like that!"

I raised my voice a bit."I said I'd move my car. All you had to do was ask!" I climbed back into my car, started the engine and backed up into a space on the other side of the parking aisle. This took all of two seconds. I repeated the standard series of "parking the car" formalities and headed to the store. The old man watched me park and exit my car. As I passed him, he managed to choke out a strained "Thank you," but I wasn't convinced. 

I did my shopping (five minutes worth, like I figured) and returned to my car. Considering how slowly the old man moved, I was surprised that he was gone from the lot. But as I approached my car, I saw something under my wiper blade. I gulped and thought the old man left me some kind of nasty note. As I drew closer, I saw every car around mine had the same thing shoved under their windshield wipers. It was an announcement for a restaurant opening in the area. I was relieved.

A lot a people have misunderstood me. I have been pegged as angry and sullen — even a curmudgeon. I am not. I am actually a pretty nice guy. I hold doors open for people. I gladly allow people to enter traffic from a parking lot or an adjacent lane. I say "please" and "thank you" and I do my best to be courteous and polite. I am not aggressive... until crossed. I am a reactor, not an instigator.

But, I'll be damned if being nice doesn't get tougher and tougher every day.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

i don't want to die in the hospital

Well, it happened to me again.

I spent last weekend in a hospital after, once again, experiencing what has been identified as a "vasovagal syncope." Since I missed that course in art school, I had to read up on and familiarize myself with vasovagal syncope. It means that I have a tendency to pass out unexpectedly and at the most inopportune times (as though there is the perfect time for losing consciousness). Saturday evening marked my fourth episode in twenty years – all occurring under vastly different circumstances and all ending with me in the hospital.... actually four different hospitals.

This time, I was enjoying dinner with my wife and her brother's family in the Waterfront Buffet at Harrah's Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Mrs. Pincus and I had frequented this particular buffet quite often when my wife was on the good side of Harrah's marketing department. Lately, however, they must have switched how player algorithms are interpreted and she was unceremoniously cut off from all benefits the casino previously offered. There was a brief flurry of promotion offered in the summer of 2017, but it was fleeting and, by Labor Day, the short-lived party was over. But as 2018 wound to a conclusion, a booklet from Harrah's arrived in the mail and a month's worth of (minimal) "free slot play" and four weekly gifts were offered to Mrs. P for the month of January. Plus one free buffet.  

We redeemed the buffet voucher on Saturday, never expecting to end our meal with me being escorted out of the place on a gurney, surrounded by EMTs and a half dozen electronic leads taped to my chest.

Comedian Rich Hall once observed that he never saw more broken glass anywhere else in the world than in Atlantic City. In the spaces between the glitzy casinos, Atlantic City is a sad little town. It's like an old hooker – once glamorous and appealing, but now doleful and broken after years of use, its beauty now faded. (I have used the same analogy for Fremont Street in Las Vegas.) So, you can only imagine what a hospital in the heart of the Atlantic City casino district is like. That's where I was taken. I didn't have to imagine.

After being prodded and poked for a few hours in the emergency room of Atlantic Care Hospital (on the world famous Boardwalk, next to Caesars Casino), my second gurney of the evening was wheeled up to the fourth floor of the Heritage wing at 2:30 in the morning. The room was dark and I wasn't wearing my glasses, but I could make out that there was someone in the first bed in the room. The nurse drew the curtain between the beds and divided the room in half. Feeling much better, I lifted myself into the bed. The nurse adjusted a pillow behind my head – and then jabbed a needle into my left arm to attach me to an IV drip. She left and returned with my wife, who had been told to stay at a nearby waiting area until I got "settled." (I think that means "until I had another needle jabbed into me.") With our car back in Harrah's parking garage, Mrs. Pincus would be staying the night with me. The nurse asked the man in the first bed if it was okay and he grunted his approval through his slumber. Mrs. Pincus sat in a recliner that was already in the room and tried (unsuccessfully) to get comfortable. I, too tried to get comfortable, but was awakened several times to have my blood pressure checked and to dispense a vial or two of blood for the lab.

When the Sunday morning sun shone through the window, the real fun began. My "roommate" was visited by a parade of medical staff. With every new technician, doctor, nurse, therapist, food service worker and nurse practitioner, he became more agitated, annoyed and, eventually, combative. He dismissed every single suggestion, recommendation and diagnosis that was offered. He argued with every one and demanded to be discharged. Between visits from medical staff, he engaged in venomous conversations on his cell phone. I tried not to listen, but he was just a foot or two away, behind a thin cloth curtain, so I heard nearly every word. He spat phases like "They don't know what the hell they're talking about!" and "I'm getting the hell out of here!" The volume on his cellphone was turned up high and he had some sort of "speech-to-action"  function turned on, so, every so often, we heard an electronic female voice intone "HOME SCREEN" and "CALLING DAUGHTER." And it also phonetically recited each letter as he punched out a text message. After a while, my "roommate" got dressed, argued with the attending nurse, who repeated to the patient that he would be leaving "AMA" (against medical advice). My soon-to-be-ex "roommate" waved the nurse's pleas off and stormed out of the room. The nurse sighed and came over to my side of the room to take my blood pressure. As he wrapped the cuff around my upper arm, he informed my wife and me that the guy is a regular visitor and he would return within this week.

The bed was empty for a few hours until another man was brought in. This man also argued with treatment, dismissed diagnosis and complained about those who were there to help. There was also a lengthy discussion about the color of his urine, which I could have done without.

I suppose hospital visits are a by-product of getting older. I went for almost fifty years between stays, but recently, they are coming closer together. One doctor – a cardiologist who told me I could save money by purchasing henna hair dye in a Indian grocery store – offered some words of encouragement, though. He said if, Heaven forbid, I do pass out again, a call to 911 is not really necessary. Especially if the episode only lasts under thirty seconds and I rebound very quickly.

Hopefully, I have had my last trip to a hospital. 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

what are you doing new year's eve?

Mrs. Pincus and I welcomed 2019 at the venerable Trocadero Theatre, a majestic (if just a bit seedy) venue in Philadelphia's Chinatown. The evening's performance was a triple bill featuring local hip hop duo & More, Nalani & Sarina, a five-piece band fronted by multi-instrumentalist twin sisters and, the icing on the cake, Philly darlings Low Cut Connie. The show kicked off at 9 PM and would burgeon on into the wee hours of the new year.

Anticipating the dreadful parking situation in center city Philadelphia – especially on New Year's Eve – we opted to take public transportation to the show. A branch of the regional rail that serves Philadelphia has a station just a few doors from our suburban home. Although I took the train to work daily for 12 years, I haven't been on the train in quite some time. Especially at night, when a whole 'nother group of people ride. Because of the New Year's Eve holiday and expected increase in ridership, SEPTA (the overseeing body that operates public transportation in the city and surrounding area) extended the usual service to accommodate late-night travelers. The ticket window at the train station near our house, however, keeps highly-unusual and very limited hours. They are never open on weekends and during the week, the doors are locked tight before the clock strikes noon. It being a holiday (well, a holiday eve, anyway), I didn't expect to see anyone selling fares until at least mid-week into the new year. We bought our tickets on the train when it arrived and settled into an empty seat.

The commute downtown is a short one, just under twenty-five minutes and then it's just a one block walk to the Trocadero. It couldn't have been more convenient. No fighting traffic, although Mrs. Pincus loves to drive. No worrying about the possibility of drunk drivers and no concerns about finding that elusive parking spot. (Actually, we passed several parking spaces on our short walk, including one that opened up just steps from the Troc's front door.)

The show was great, as expected. Adam Weiner and company even paused around midnight to lead the crowd in a countdown and treat them to a tinkling impromptu rendition of Auld Lang Syne before breaking into Suzanne from their latest release Dirty Pictures (Part 2). When the show was over, Mrs. P and I said our "goodbyes" to our son (who was there with his girlfriend and a few friends) and made our way back to the train station for the ride home. Despite the relentless drizzle that plagued the evening, the drunks were out in full force, reeling all over the sidewalks. We quickly made it to the train station and descended the steep stairs to the underground entrance.

It was a few minutes before 2019 was officially one hour old. I was surprised to see an alert SEPTA employee monitoring the turnstiles at such a late hour. I was even more surprised when he directed us to the open ticket windows to purchase fares prior to boarding the train. This policy is usually reserved for rush hour. But here we were, queuing up along with several other surprised late-night commuters.

Just ahead of us in line was a young lady and a young man both in their middle 20s and dressed as though they were at some sort of festive event for the evening. The woman was in a dark colored dress and she clutched a small purse in her hand. The man was in a light-toned suit which probably started the night crisp and pressed, but was now showing evidence of some heavy partying. His collar was undone. The knot in his tie was loosened and cocked to one side. His jacket was rumpled and not hanging comfortably on his torso. And he was alternately leaning to the left and right, as though he was straddling a teeter-totter. When the next ticket window was available, the woman walked forward. The fellow zig-zagged slowly behind her and then propped his shoulder against the glass, his head hanging down loosely on his neck. She requested two tickets to Hatboro (a suburb many stops past our house) and the ticket salesman obliged. Money was clearly exchanged. She grabbed the tickets and marched off, leaving her disheveled companion to stagger in her wake. She appeared very pissed off. Mrs. P and I purchased our tickets next and then proceeded to the train platform, which is even further below street level, accessed by more flights of steps. I spotted the couple stop by the SEPTA employee to have their tickets validated with a special hole punch prior to heading to the train platform. A few seconds later, we did the same.

On our way down the stairs, we encountered the ticket-buying couple again. He was having difficulty climbing back up – and then back down – the stairs. She was standing in the bottom stairwell with her arms folded sternly across her chest and an unpleasant scowl on her face. My wife and I quickly and precariously scooted past them and found a seat on the fairly crowded train platform.

After a short wait, our train arrived at a little after 1 AM and we boarded. We selected a seat and I placed our tickets in the little slot on the seat so the conductor would know we paid our fares. More folks filed in, including a gentleman in a Philadelphia Eagles jacket who was carrying on a very animated conversation with himself. Soon, we were joined in our train car by the inebriated fellow and his ticked-off better half. He lurched into a double seat by a window and she seated herself in the unoccupied portion, slightly turned away him.

When the train began to move, a conductor slowly ambled down the center aisle to check passes and collect tickets. He passed Mrs. Pincus and me, concentrating, at first, on those folks seated on the other side on the aisle. The man reciting the soliloquy flashed a monthly pass at the conductor and continued speaking something about what song was playing. (There was no song playing.) The conductor then stopped at the couple's seat and examined their tickets. He handed them back and asked them for the normal fare to Hatboro. Without a word or an argument of any kind, the young lady opened her purse and handed over several bills to the conductor. He handed back change and a long receipt into which he had punched a number of holes. Mrs. P and I exchanged silent glances. Not fifteen minutes earlier, we watched this couple buy tickets just a few feet away from us. We were thoroughly puzzled.

The conductor turned and was now addressing our side of the aisle. He smiled as he removed and inspected our tickets.

"These tickets are punched." he observed, pointing to the little holes in the tickets to make his point clearer..

My wife and I answered in unrehearsed unison. "Yes." we explained, "They were purchased up in the station and punched by an employee who wouldn't let us down to the platform otherwise."

The conductor frowned. "Well, no one told me that!," he announced to no one in particular.

He replaced our tickets, turned on his heels and headed back to the couple by the window. He startled them when he said, "You already paid upstairs, right? I owe you money." He peeled of a number of bills from a fat wad in his gloved hand and handed them to the young lady. Not a word was spoken. She just accepted the refund as though it was standard operation procedure. When the conductor moved on to the next car, there was no further discussion between the couple. He was fast asleep with his forehead flat against the window's thick glass. She was hunched over with her back to him, seemingly plotting an escape once the train doors opened in Hatboro.

The train pulled into Elkins Park and we exited. 2019 was off to an entertaining start.