Sunday, August 25, 2019

baby what a big surprise

My wife and I just returned from a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean aboard the Carnival Breeze. But this story isn't about that cruise. It's about the events that led up to the cruise. If you want to read about a cruise, go here. If you want a story about deceit and intrigue and messing with family, then here we go.

A little over a year ago, Mrs. P's cousin Liv planned a family cruise to celebrate her 45th year of wedded bliss to her husband Peter. My wife is very close with Liv and her three children, Scoop, Veronica and Juniper. The children are grown, some with children of their own. Mrs P is close with that entire branch of the family, even though they live in Virginia Beach. Mrs. P often takes the six-hour drive to spend a weekend with them. I have made the trip, as well, when I could, but, honestly, they want to see Mrs. P, not me. When Mrs. Pincus found out about their cruise plans, she secretly booked a trip on the same ship, as a surprise. At the time, I was limited to vacation days from my job, so Mrs. P would be taking this trip solo. She planned to drive — alone — to the Port Canaveral launch destination, staying — alone — overnight along the I-95 corridor. Then she planned to board the ship as stealthily as possible and surprise the whole clan. Mrs. Pincus regularly speaks with Liv and Juniper, even visiting them over the past year, but she never breathed a word about her secret plans. Actually, she didn't tell anyone about her plans for fear of someone spilling the beans.... and in her family, there is an awful lot of bean spilling.

Well, a year is a long time and, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men...

Everything was planned perfectly. Mrs. P arranged for a hotel near Port Canaveral, Florida that included parking and shuttle service to the cruise terminal. She would leave on Thursday morning, leaving plenty of time for a Friday arrival. She would keep the trip on the down-low, so as not to arouse any suspicion. With these plans in place, Mrs. P visited Virginia Beach a few months ago for the first birthday of Scoop's son. She steered the conversation away from "cruise talk," only briefly and casually asking about their plans. Meanwhile, Mrs. P was gathering gifts and novelties to share with Veronica's pre-teen children who, most likely, would be the most surprised and thrilled to have the magical Mrs. Pincus along on their vacation.

With all the details and plans taken care of, all that was left was waiting for the date to roll around and the surprise to get underway. Then, a monkey wrench was thrown into the works. Without any warning, I was laid off from my job at the beginning of July, just five weeks before the cruise departed. Past experience had revealed that the job market was not exactly a welcoming place for a 58-year old graphic designer. Mrs. Pincus, however, was stuck with a laundry list of non-refundable charges and payments that had already been made. She felt horrible about taking a fairly pricey trip  — alone — while I stayed home and looked for a job. She suggested that, as long as I had the time, I should come along. She would check to see if I could be added to her cabin booking. She would also check for an open spot on the terminal shuttle. Calls were made and reservations were amended. This contradicted everything I stood for. I hated the idea of taking a vacation when I should be out looking for a job. I continued on the job search and, luckily, secured a new position just a few weeks after losing my job. At the interview, I explained that I had a previous obligation and I would not be able to start until the third week of August. My new employer was fine with that and I felt a whole lot better. With my conscience clear, we continued with our plans. Mrs. Pincus was actually relieved that she would not be taking the journey alone... although we were not convinced that our surprise presence would be welcomed by Liv and her family.

Mrs. Pincus chatted often with Juniper and Liv, answering their many questions based on our previous cruise experiences, but careful not to appear too enthusiastic. On Wednesday, the day before we (collectively) planned to leave, Mrs. Pincus told Juniper that we were going to take a road trip to celebrate my new job and to give our new car (purchased in September 2018) a chance on the open road. Juniper remarked "you should just come on our cruise with us" and Mrs. P nervously giggled and brushed the invitation off.

We left before sunrise on Thursday morning with a full car and no set destination for our first night. I joked to Mrs. P that this time tomorrow, not one member of her family would be speaking to us. We stayed in phone contact with our Virginia contingency who would be starting out later but picking up I-95 near Emporia, Virginia and, most likely, wind up ahead of us. We arrived at South of the Border, the infamous tourist trap in Dillon, South Carolina, just missing the Virginia convoy by a few minutes. They drove through the night, arriving in a pre-booked air B&B in Kissimmee, Florida with plans to hit Walt Disney World for a single day. We made it to a Hampton Inn in Walterboro, South Carolina, just under 80 miles from the Georgia state border. The next morning we would get to our Titusville, Florida accommodations in the afternoon and make innocent plans with Juniper and her parents for dinner at Disney Springs, the revamped shopping and dining area at Walt Disney World. Mrs. Pincus spoke with Juniper, who wondered what we were doing headed to Florida. Everyone knows how much my family loves Disney, so it really wasn't that out of the ordinary. Without revealing that we already had a hotel room, we met at Disney Springs and had a quick dinner at the Earl of Sandwich sandwich shop, then checked out the new stores and layout of the refurbished and reimagined entertainment district. We parted ways around 9:30 and wished them a great cruise, never alluding to where we were off to next.

The next morning, we drove our car to the Cocoa Beach shuttle and parked in a space near where the shuttle bus was loading. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in the Port Canaveral cruise terminal, waiting for our boarding time to be announced and hoping that Liv, Juniper and the family wouldn't arrive and spot us. Finally, we were able to board without incident. We entered the three-story lobby on the Carnival Breeze, marveling at the decor and excited by the thought of the week ahead. We also tried to gauge the reaction we would receive once our cover was blown. Would we be embraced or would we be reviled for muscling in on their cruise? We were baffled.

Almost an hour had passed as we stood conspicuously by the door through which all arriving passengers boarded. Suddenly, our Virginia cousins arrived.... and they were all smiles and bursting with laughter. It seemed that they booked the exact same shuttle service and parked their car in the same row in the parking lot. In addition, Veronica had a bag of trash to discard and she spotted my wife's Grateful Dead inspired license plate, as we were parked next to the trash can. She snapped a picture and exclaimed, "I knew it! I knew it!"

As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men...

We had a great week that ended with everyone still on speaking terms. But next time, we'll try to better cover our tracks.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

songs from the big chair

This story was originally published on my illustration blog in 2009. - JPiC

My brother was born in 1957. The Pincus family was a nice, sweet, calm family for four and a half years. Then little Josh was born and all hell broke loose. 

It began when I was brought home from the hospital. My parents thought it would be nice if the baby brought a present for his big brother. They stopped at a toy store on the way home from the hospital. My father ran in and, being 1961, had no problem purchasing a wood and metal rifle for his older son as a gift from his infant. My mother and father arrived home with brand new baby Josh. At first, my brother expressed disappointment at the sight of a baby. When my mom had explained that a “new playmate” would be coming, he expected one of his own age immediately ready to play. He never imagined it would come in the form of a whining and crying poop machine. The gift of the rifle softened his initial reaction — until years later, after mastering walking and hand-eye coordination, I broke that rifle. 

The family home, in a budding Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, was a great place. My brother had a huge backyard in which to romp and play and develop his eventual athletic ability. Access to the large front lawn was unobstructed and it offered a comparable open space. When I gained confidence in my walking skills, my parents were forced to construct a chain-link fence around the perimeter of their property, complete with a hinged gate with a large steel padlock. My mother often told of the endless hours I would spend trying to pick that lock and plotting my escape. 

I started kindergarten at Stephen Decatur Elementary School in 1966. My mom began a small business of transporting my classmates from the neighborhood to kindergarten. She drove a station wagon that featured a large flat area behind the front seats when the rear seats were folded down. Approximately fifteen tykes were sloshed around the back of that car, unencumbered by seat belts or any sort of safety restraints. After all, this was the freewheeling 60s and child safety was not a concern. My classmates’ parents were happy not to be burdened with driving their kids to school themselves, so, for this service, my mom received a small weekly fee. My mom kept that service up for thirteen years, with the fee escalating only slightly. 

My parents were a bit apprehensive about the start of my school career. They were very familiar with my out-of-control behavior, but few people outside of the family were. Once I entered the classroom and was introduced to my classmates, things were pretty uneventful. I listened to my teacher and did as I was instructed. I happily and complacently participated in playtime, story time and whatever-else “time” that was part of the curriculum. One day, I witnessed a fellow kindergartner push another student. In full view of the entire class of wide-eyed, innocent pupils, the offending five-year old was led to a large wooden chair situated in a corner of the room. He was reprimanded by the teacher and made to sit in “The Big Chair” to think about what he had done. He sat as if in the pillory in a colonial town square, on public display, open to the class to levy their silent mockery upon him. After a period of time, his sentence was served and he was free to rejoin the class activities. I, however, was intrigued by the Chair. It was so big and ominous, sitting at the far end of the classroom in a veritable “no man’s land”. During regular class time, no one played near it. The teacher read stories far away from it. When we rested on our mats for nap time, the Chair stood silent and menacing in that dimly-lit room. As the days and weeks went on, several more of my classmates committed offenses worthy of a stretch in The Big Chair. As I observed them in their dire, sometimes tearful state, suddenly, it occurred to me — I needed to sit in that chair. I thought about what horrible act, what heinous deed I could perform to get to sit in that Chair. I was determined. 

Honestly, I don’t remember what I did. After all, it was well over 40 years ago. But, it was something. Something so awful that my teacher had no choice but to make me sit in that Chair. I was elated. I was led to the Chair as a death row inmate is led to his final destination. I climbed up the wooden rungs of its thick legs and planted my butt on its huge flat seat. The view from up there was not as rewarding as I had imagined. The emotion that those staring tiny and forlorn faces offered me was not what I had hoped for. 

It sucked being in The Big Chair.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

thirty-thousand pounds of bananas

I was a very picky eater when I was a kid. I didn't like most vegetables and I didn't like most fruit. Every once in a while, I would eat a few slices of apple... if the skin was peeled off and it had absolutely no remnant of core attached. And even then, I would only eat a minimal amount until I opted for something.... chocolaty-er. Sometimes, I would eat a grape or two, but that was a rare occurrence as well. Once or twice, I may have eaten a sliced banana in my morning cereal, but only because I saw it as a "serving suggestion" on the front of a box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and I figured that Tony the Tiger wouldn't steer me wrong. I did not make it a habit.

When I was 19, I ran an outdoor fruit and vegetable stand for my cousin who owned a produce delivery service in Philadelphia. He would buy bulk fruits and vegetables from wholesalers and distribute them to local restaurants. In the summer months, he would purchase additional stock to sell to passers-by on Spring Garden Street, a major city thoroughfare that saw a lot of foot traffic from nearby public transportation. I ran that sidewalk stand for him for a couple of summers. It was a great job. I was able to sit out in the sun and kibitz with regular customers. I was often asked about the fruit I was selling. "Hey, are the plums sweet today?" and "How are the strawberries and cherries?" I never knew how to answer. I never sampled any of my wares. And, much to my cousin's chagrin, I bluntly told the truth. My answers, as you can imagine, were met with puzzled looks. How could a guy who sells this stuff not eat this stuff? But, that was the situation, whether my customers liked it or not.

Sam the Banana Man
A few years ago, I read a fascinating book called The Fish That Ate The Whale. It was the biography of Sam Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who was responsible for introducing the banana to the United States. The book read like a swashbuckling adventure novel, filled with international intrigue, double-crossing, espionage and high finance. Oh.... and bananas. I enjoyed this book so much. It almost made me want to start eating bananas. Almost. But, I didn't.

Recently, however, I have changed my eating habits considerably. Although I have been a vegetarian for nearly fifteen years, I have not been the model vegetarian. Sure, I stopped eating meat, but I wasn't necessarily the most healthy eater. I still ate candy and cake and cookies and all kinds of non-healthy foods. I just didn't eat meat anymore. It took a health scare to bring me to the realization that as I approach my "golden years" I should stop eating like a six-year old. I stopped eating junk, introducing nuts, grains, fresh vegetables and even the long-avoided fruit into my diet. And just within the past few months, I started eating bananas. A lot.

I now cap off my evening  meal with a ripe, yellow banana. With every bite, I cannot believe that I never ate bananas on a regular basis. I saw other kids when I was growing up consuming bananas all the time — during school lunchtime, at recess, on the playground, everywhere. My brother ate bananas. My mother offered me bananas and I always refused. What was wrong with me? Why was I passing up those delicious, easy-to-access, easy-to-manage, self-contained treats. Bananas are pretty much the "perfect food." They are high in potassium and are good for lowering blood pressure. They are a good source of essential vitamins and minerals. Bananas are high in fiber, while being naturally free of sodium, cholesterol and fat. They come in their own wrapper which can be used to provide comic relief, if properly implemented. And they taste pretty good, too. 

The Gros Michel (also known as "The Big Mike") was the most popular variety of bananas in the world. In 1965, disease wiped it out, bringing the Gros Michel to extinction. It was replaced by the Cavendish variety, which is what most supermarkets, greengrocers and produce purveyors currently stock internationally. There is speculation that, because bananas are notoriously difficult to cultivate and very susceptible to disease, the Cavendish could face the same fate as the Gros Michel. So eat them while you can.

I know I will. And I'll be making up for lost time.