Sunday, March 31, 2019

a whole new world

I met the future Mrs. Pincus in February 1982 and we were engaged to be married before that year was finished. I was attending art school and our plan was to get married after I graduated. There were a couple of years until that happened, so we had plenty of time to make arrangements for the big event. Future Mrs. P made all sorts of plans on her own, as well as with my soon-to-be in-laws.

One of the more interesting parts of planning a Jewish wedding is the purchase of custom head coverings (yarmulkes or kippot as they are alternately called) for the male guests to don at the ceremony. As a show of reverence to the deity above, men are expected to cover their heads in synagogue. Since our wedding ceremony would take place in a synagogue, the tradition is to supply head coverings. The yarmulkes are customarily kept as a souvenir and thus, inscribed on the inside with name of the bride and groom and date of the blessed event. I remember when my parents ordered blue satin yarmulkes for my brother's bar mitzvah. They just checked a box on an order form along with "paper napkins" and "cigarette holders" and "match books." (Yes, there were complimentary cigarettes at each table at my brother's bar mitzvah. "Today I am a Man," indeed!) But when it came time to order yarmulkes for our wedding, there would be no order forms or checking boxes. My in-laws "knew a guy."

One day a few months prior to our big day, my fiancee and I accompanied my future in-laws on a trip up the Garden State Parkway to New York City. My soon-to-be father-in-law navigated his car through the busy streets of the Big Apple's storied Lower East Side, where in 1983, the scenery could have passed for nineteenth century Anatevka. Storefronts were plastered with advertisements in Hebrew. The narrow sidewalks bustled with Orthodox Jewish men clad in heavy black coats and big black hats, their faces covered with long unkempt beards and their ears obscured by curly locks of payos that bounced as they walked. Women with sullen, expressionless faces, their hair covered by opaque cloth, wrangled scads of children — the boys in black with white shirts, the girls in white blouses and long dark skirts. My father-in-law guided his car into a parking space and killed the engine. We all got out and I dutifully followed my father-in-law down the street, leaving Mrs. P and her mother to window-shop — or shop shop — while we menfolk fulfilled a mission.

My father-in-law examined the addresses above the narrow doors as we walked along. We stopped at a nondescript wooden entrance. My father-in-law pressed a button on a panel with names in Hebrew and other buttons. An intercom speaker clicked on and a crackly voice said a few words in Yiddish. My father-in-law replied in Yiddish and we were buzzed in. We climbed a set of steps to another door that creaked when we swung it inward. The door yielded to an otherworldly view of a dusty room, cluttered with huge bolts of folded fabric and dozens of men — some on ladders, some leaning over work tables, some at desks — shouting at each other in Yiddish, their words overlapping other nearby conversation, that was also being shouted.

We approached a makeshift service counter (actually a thick plank of wood straddling a couple of piles of fabric). A man eyed us up and down and asked our business. My father-in-law asked to speak to "Yankel" or "Yussie" or some such similar name. In less than a minute, a small, wizened man appeared before us. He bore the facial features of a turtle and sported the same sort of facial hair that we saw on the men outside. He said a few words in Yiddish to my father-in-law and then waited for my father-in-law to respond with an order. And order he did — although I couldn't tell you what exactly he asked for because, as he pointed and gestured, he didn't say a single word in English. The old man interrupted a few times to ask a question, but for the most part he stood and nodded. When my father-in-law finished, the old man rolled his eyes in thought. Then he said a few final words in Yiddish and shooed us off with a wave of his lanky, wrinkled hand. Realizing our time here was up, we obliged and left the same way we came in. As we closed the door behind us, we could hear the men continuing their shouting.

"What just happened?," I silently asked myself. Then I asked my father-in-law the same question — aloud this time. He laughed and told me he ordered gray suede yarmulkes for our wedding, with our names embossed in gold text on the inside. Confused, I scratched my head and pointed out that the old man  didn't write a single thing down — not a quantity or a fabric identification number or even our names. For goodness sake, he didn't even give us a claim check to present if and (most importantly) when the order is ready to be picked up. My father-in-law reassured me that it was fine and there was nothing to worry about. Still not convinced, I noted that the man was pretty old. "What if he dies between now and our wedding?," I proposed, "He didn't write anything down. How will anyone know the order or anything?" My father-in-law laughed and changed the subject to where we would go for lunch.

Well, guess what? The guy died. Yep. Died.

My in-laws returned to New York a month or so later to pick up the yarmulke order. And it was ready and it was perfect.

Thirty-five years later, that experience still fascinates me. In a time before computers, this old man (who looked as though he was born old) ran a business where he didn't even use a pencil. Think about that the next time your internet connection cuts out for a few minutes while you're watching a cat video on YouTube.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

she said she said

You know what really annoys me?

Wait a second. Let me start again....

You know what really annoys me this week?

Once again, Mrs. Pincus has fallen into the good graces of the folks in the marketing department of Harrah's Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. My wife's relationship with Harrah's has been one of ups and downs. After nearly a decade of free meals, free hotel rooms, free show tickets, free cruises and a number of prize give-aways, Harrah's algorithms cut Mrs. P off without an explanation. More than a year passed and, suddenly, Mrs. P was once again receiving promotional solicitations in the mail. Sure, the free slot play amount had dipped dramatically, but the offers of small appliances, watches and gift cards were hard to pass up. Just a quick, weekly drive to Atlantic City and the stuff was just handed over. Hey — free is free.

Recently, Mrs. P received a gift card from Harrah's entitling her to $40 worth of merchandise from the "TJ Maxx/Marshall's" family of stores. So, one evening after dinner, we drove over to a Home Goods at a nearly mall. We dragged ourselves up and down the aisles. We perused the displays of useless crap that nobody needs. We saw large distressed wooden things with hanging brackets attached to the back. I surmised that these things were supposed to hung on a wall in one's home. We also saw several white porcelain animals (a pig and perhaps a cow) that I supposed were made to occupy a place of prominence, also in one's home..... possibly the same home with the wooden thing on the wall.

Mrs. Pincus reluctantly gathered up some items, but by the time we made it to the check-out counter, she said, "I could do without this stuff." She put her selections down and we left. 

We strolled down to another section of the mall and entered a Marshall's, determined this time, to use the $40 gift card. Mrs. P picked up some stuff — a set of Mickey and Minnie Mouse pot holders, a mini mandolin vegetable slicer and a small electric waffle iron. (Actually, she picked up a few of each of these items to make it to forty dollars.)

I carried some of the items and Mrs. Pincus carried some and we approached the check-out counter.

Let me interrupt this post for a moment...
When I was in high school and college, I worked many jobs in the service industry. I was a cashier in a department store and in a women's' clothing store. I worked as a soda vendor at a stadium in Philadelphia. I worked at my cousin's heath food cafeteria. As expected, I also encountered numerous folks in the service industry as well. I was taught that service workers were essentially "non-people." They served a purpose and that was to be helpful and courteous while doing their job and dealing with customers. I was told not to be pushy and not to interfere in a customer's personal business. Lately, however, there has been a growing trend and a severe and unwelcome crossing of that line. I remember the time a waitress sat down — actually grabbed a chair and sat down at our table! —  at a TGI Friday's. I was appalled! Surprisingly, it was not the last time this happened. Wait staff are not the customer's friend and they should never think they are. Cashiers don't need to comment on a customer's purchase. The sale has already been made. You don't have to continue to make the sale.
... and now, back to our story.

We plopped our selections on the counter. The cashier — a young lady with a cockeyed smile and a passing resemblance to Alanis Morissette circa 1996 — picked up each item to scan the bar code. But, prior to each scan, she made a comment. On every single item. Even multiples of the same item.

"Oh, I have these potholders. They're great. I use them all the time. I like the small size." She picked up and examined the potholders, turning them over several times.

"These waffle irons are so cool. And you're getting so many. Are there any left? I might want to get one." She picked up and examined the waffle irons, turning them over several times.

"I got one of these slicers. It's so convenient. I use it a lot." She picked up and examined the slicers, turning them over several times.

After she commented on every item, she commented on the gift card.

"Oh! A gift card! Wow! Forty dollars......" blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. She went on and on and on. Mrs. Pincus politely smiled and offered single syllables of agreement, when she could get a word in. I wandered off, trying to get out of earshot. Finally the transaction was completed and the items were finally bagged. I grabbed extensively-discussed purchases from the cashier's hands and headed for the door.

With the gift cards completely spent, guess where we never have to go again.

So.... what will annoy me next week?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

taking care of business

For over 20 years, Mrs. Pincus has sold stuff on eBay, the popular online auction/marketplace. Before you ask... no, she will not sell your stuff for you. We have enough "merchandise" to sell that will last a lot longer than the time we have left on earth. However, if you like to see some of the items that are currently up for auction, please... stop reading now and click HERE. You can come back to this story anytime. But you may get outbid on that one elusive treasure to complete your collection.

Now, when most people hear that my wife sells stuff on eBay, they wrongly assume that she quickly lists thousands of items and then sits back while the money rolls in. Hardly. Listing items is a tedious, repetitious and time-consuming task. But, it doesn't end there. There are endless questions from prospective buyers. Questions that could very, very easily be answered if the buyer would only read more than the first three words of the auction title. Mrs. P is very careful to include pertinent information for each item (color, dimension in inches, sizes for clothing). Unlike some sellers on eBay, she no longer includes an extended, flowery description — opting instead to post pictures of the particular item, taken from several angles. (A picture is worth a thousand bids, as they say in the online auction game.) Nevertheless, no matter how long or short the description, Mrs. P regularly fields questions like "What color is this?" or "What size is this shirt?," despite the answer appearing in the title or the first sentence of the brief explanation of the item.

Then, there's the packing and shipping of the items once they sell. Mrs. Pincus maintains an office near our home that serves as a merchandise warehouse and packing center, stocked with boxes and padded envelopes and tape and bubble wrap. My wife is a regular face at our local post office, making trips there three times per week. So it's a job, my friend. A real live job. Just like the one you go to and complain about every day.

The other thing Mrs. P has to deal with — just like at your job — is assholes. Yep. They are everywhere. While the majority of eBay transactions come off smoothly, every so often, some jerk pops up and causes unnecessary trouble. (Just like at your job.) There are folks who make up elaborate stories about bidding on items by mistake. ("My two-year old bid on this when I wasn't looking." or "I was putting my phone in my pocket and I accidentally bid on and paid for this item.") Mrs. P treats them with courtesy and in the most professional manner, although they are all lying thorough their fucking teeth.

Then there is what is referred to as "buyer's remorse." This is when a purchased item arrives and it is not what the buyer envisioned (although each auction displays numerous pictures of the item). Or, the buyer has second thoughts about buying the item in the first place. Both of these usually evoke some sort of made-up tale of damaged packaging or a flat out lie about the item never arriving. Both of these scenarios are usually accompanied by a demand of a full refund of the purchase price. This is when "buyer's remorse" becomes "mail fraud." 

And then there are times when the unbelievable occurs.

Some time ago, Mrs. Pincus sold a small figurine of DC superhero Green Lantern to a buyer. The figure measures a few inches tall and is meant to stand on a shelf and be observed. It is not an action figure for play, as it is affixed to a base and is constructed from solid piece of molded plastic. 
A week of so after the Green Lantern was paid for and shipped, Mrs. Pincus received an email from the buyer, explaining that the figurine arrived broken. As per my wife's usual procedure for items allegedly damaged in postal transit, she politely asked for pictures of the afflicted figurine in question. At first, the buyer balked and offered the lame excuse that he did not have a camera — a situation that no longer exists in the free world. After a little email back-and-forth and a bit more coaxing, the buyer sent one picture. This picture, as a matter of fact...
Mrs. Pincus and I marveled at this photo. We felt like we were playing one of those "Spot The Differences" games from Highlights for Children magazine we loved as children. First off, this is a picture of an action figure with articulated arms and legs. The original figurine that my wife packed and shipped had non-moving appendages. The green color of the costume is different. The costume configuration is different. The sculpting of his little muscles is different. (If I may draw your attention the the figure's groin area [I beg your pardon!], you will seen the green color extends down to the figure's upper thigh. In the original figurine that my wife sold and shipped, everything from the waist down is black. The green ends at the abdomen. What I'm trying to illustrate is — this guy sent a picture of a broken Green Lantern figure he happened to have lying around. (Remember that thing about "mail fraud" I mentioned? Insert that here.) Mrs. Pincus immediately reported the entire episode to the good folks at eBay's fraud department. They took care of the rest.

We can only imagine that we ruined this guy's intricate international Green Lantern action figure Ponzi scheme, assuming he must have a stockpile of broken Green Lanterns and various disconnected arms and legs.... and my wife foiled his evil plan.... or something like that.

I guarantee this won't be the last eBay flim-flam story. It certainly wasn't the first.

***** UPDATE *****
Thanks to a head's up from a loyal reader of this blog, it appears that this motherfucker was scamming us worse than originally imagined. The picture that he sent to Mrs. Pincus to accompany his claim of the broken action figure wasn't even his picture! It was nabbed from an online article about repairing broken action figures, published a few years ago. See for yourself HERE.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

break of dawn

When I was in high school, I belonged to a local chapter of Aleph Zadik Aleph. a Jewish fraternal group that..... well, actually, I have no idea what their mission was. I only joined to meet girls. Our AZA chapter arranged weekly "socials," an informal gathering held on a weekend night at someone's house, with a local BBG  (B'nai Brith Girls) chapter. The social chairman of our chapter would contact the social chair of a BBG chapter to make plans. Our socials were rarely with chapters of girls we knew from school... which was good. With strangers, we wouldn't have to worry about bumping into a girl who was witness to our over-anxious, awkward teenage boy behavior. It was at one of these socials that I met Dawn, a girl who became one of my best and dearest friends.

There was absolutely, positively never any romantic feelings between Dawn and me. Never. However, from the instant I met her, in someone's darkened basement in Northeast Philadelphia, I felt like I was meeting a long-lost sister. We clicked immediately and remained close friends for years.

With the thought of a romance between us being the furthest thing from our minds, Dawn and I regularly confided in each other about each other's relationships... or, more precisely, the lack of. Over the course of several years, Dawn dated every single one of my friends and acquaintances. She never went out with any of them more than once or twice. I never understood why. I got along great with her. She was sweet and funny and we shared many common interests. But, for some unknown reason, most guys didn't like her. While we bided our time between boyfriends (her) and girlfriends (me), Dawn and I went to concerts and movies or just hung out together. Then, I'd have a date or she'd have a date, it wouldn't work out and we'd find ourselves back in each other's company to compare notes and commiserate. Dawn and I frequently bemoaned our respective love lives — cursing those single dates and offering words of encouragement to one another.

After I graduated from high school, I lost touch with Dawn. Nothing specific happened to drive us apart. We just drifted out of each other's lives and into different ones.

I worked for a year after high school then began art school. In 1982, I met the future Mrs. Pincus. We got married in 1984 and our son was born three years later. We bought a house. I had a dozen different jobs. We went on numerous vacations and experienced a life of fun and excitement, ups and downs, happiness and sorrow. It's a life that could not have been better if I had actually plotted it out.

About thirty years ago, a guy I knew from high school called me up to ask if I was interested in hearing his pitch to purchase life insurance. I reluctantly agreed and he came to my home one evening. At the time, I had no plans to buy life insurance. He recited his little spiel and I politely declined. Instead of making a second attempt at a sale, he caught me off-guard with his next question.

He asked if I still kept in touch with Dawn. I suddenly remembered that he briefly dated Dawn in high school (but, then again, who didn't?) At the time, I had not heard her name nor thought of her in years. I told him I did not. Before I could finish my sentence, he was heading towards my front door,

I don't often think of Dawn. It's been years since I casually searched for her on Google. (And those searches yielded nothing.) It's as though she just vanished from the earth. It's a shame, because I'd like for Dawn to meet my wife and my son and show her — after all those times of wallowing in self-pity about never finding anyone for me — that I did.

I hope Dawn is happy, too. Where ever she is.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

for crying out loud

In 2014, my favorite radio station, a member-supported public radio affiliate, presented a countdown of the worst songs of all time. They set aside a Saturday afternoon and played — in ascending or descending order (depending on your personal preferences) — a collection of some of the most horrible songs from the past forty years. While a few of the selections, like Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and  ABBA's "Dancing Queen," had some listeners scratching their heads over their inclusion on this list, others, like Starship's "We Built This City" were understandable in their ranking. 

Coming in at numbers 12 and 29 respectively (or disrespectively) were two songs from the catalog of heavyweight rocker Meat Loaf. Number 29 was Mr. Loaf's comeback epic "I'd Do Anything for Love" and over a dozen spaces later was "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," the Wagnerian suite of teen sexual frustration.

The latter had me outraged.

In early 1978, I stumbled upon an album at a Sam Goody record store, a place I frequented often to peruse the latest musical trends and to find that elusive release to beat my friends to the punch. The cover caught my eye first. It was a hellish depiction by Heavy Metal Magazine artist Richard Corben, featuring a muscular guy on a motorcycle emerging from the ground of a cemetery in a hail of white energy. At the top, in a Gothic looking font were the words "Meat Loaf." Below that, in thin caps, it read "Bat Out of Hell." At the very bottom was this unusual credit: "Songs by Jim Steinman." I didn't know what to make of this. I had never heard of this singer (or band, for all I knew) "Meat Loaf." I never before saw a songwriter receive credit on the front cover of an album — especially one I never heard of. 

So..... I bought it. And, after just a few plays, it quickly became one of my favorites. I spun it on my family's turntable over and over. Each song was a lush magnificent symphony — thanks to equal parts of Todd Rundgren's Utopia and contract players from Bruce Springsteen's legendary E Street Band. The lyrics formed modern-day librettos that rivaled La bohème and Carmen. Each lengthy composition was delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek — by the multi-octave vocals of Meat Loaf, the mysterious moniker adopted by one-time high-school football star, Marvin Aday. As the album unfolded, Meat Loaf spun otherworldly tales of demonic messengers from Hell, angst-filled adolescent ultimatums and unflinching declarations of unrequited love — all against a multi-layered musical backdrop running the gamut from soaring guitars to sad piano. There were even sounds of grinding gears and a cameo by former Yankee Scooter Rizzuto to round things out. Needless to say, it was unlike any album I owned. And my parents hated when I played it — so, I loved it even more. The album took off nationwide and high-tailed it up the charts, eventually landing at Number 1 and staying there for seven weeks. (40 years after its release, "Bat Out of Hell" still sells an estimated 200,000 copies per year.)

Then, while preparing to record the follow-up, Meat Loaf lost his voice. A panicked Jim Steinman decided to record the album himself. In 1981, Steinman released "Bad for Good," a near clone of "Bat Out of Hell." The songs and production were stellar, but Steinman's thin, uneasy vocals paled in comparison to Meat Loaf's robust vocals. While it yielded a hit ("Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through," rerecorded by Meat Loaf years later), "Bad for Good" was no "Bat Out of Hell." By the time Meat Loaf was able to release a proper follow-up, the fickle public had waited long enough and had moved on, leaving only die-hard fans (like me) to support the once mighty Mr. Loaf. I even bought a few more, lesser-received Meat Loaf albums, including the UK-only release "Bad Attitude."

I saw Meat Loaf in 1982, when he brought his "Midnight at the Lost and Found" tour to Philadelphia. Meat Loaf and his band played the Ripley Music Hallon South Street. My friend Sam and I were kept from a front row seat by a guy who spent the entire show silently mouthing every single word to every single single song, all with his head bowed and his eyes tightly closed. We thought for sure that this guy would produce a gun during the encore and shoot Meat Loaf point blank. (He didn't.) However, the place was relatively empty, revealing a definite wane in Meat Loaf's popularity. 

My admiration for Meat Loaf began to stray as well. I stopped buying his albums and stopped keeping up on his career. 

In 1993, sixteen years after "Bat Out of Hell," Meat Loaf came back with "Bat Out of Hell II," an over-ambitious sequel to the original, sporting the unimaginative subtitle "Back Into Hell." Once again, it featured songs by Jim Steinman, reunited with his collaborative partner after a few years of legal battles. He even filched a few tunes from his own solo effort. The new album — which was purchased by everyone my age with nostalgic longing for their awkward high-school days — was properly overblown and perfectly bombastic. It was everything you'd expect from a Meat Loaf album. But perhaps that only had appeal to a younger audience.... in the late 70s. I played it exactly once and then continued on in my sans Meat Loaf life.

Some time after the "Worst Song" countdown, Dan Reed, the afternoon drive-time disk jockey on my favorite radio station introduced a mid-week segment on his show called "Worst Song in the World." Every Wednesday afternoon around 4:30, Dan selects a terrible song from those suggested by listeners and spins it for the campy displeasure of the listening audience. He recently told the story of how he was inspired to create this weekly feature. He explained that a song came across his desk from a new Meat Loaf album. When he listened to it, he was prompted to deem it the "worst song in the world, " thus creating a new feature on his afternoon program. The song in question was "Speaking in Tongues," from his most recent release "Braver Than We Are" ... and it was, indeed, pretty bad — the songwriting, the arrangement and, sadly, the vocals. Meat Loaf sounded as though he was straining to get the words out. Though, judging by such phrases as "There are things we learn by science/There are things we learn by art/There are things we learn from the fires of love/An erection of the heart," perhaps he was embarrassed to sing these "phoned-in" lyrics from the once clever pen of Mr. Steinman. (I know I would be.) 

Meat Loaf still tours. Jim Steinman still writes. I'm just not interested anymore.

* The Ripley was a small venue on South Street. When The Ripley closed, it became a Tower Records and then a Walgreen's. I believe it's a sneaker store now.