Sunday, October 27, 2019

keep Baltimore beautiful

Well, we just returned from yet another cruise — our second one this year. We sailed on the Carnival Pride. This was our first cruise that left from the port of Baltimore, the so-called "Charm City," a misnomer if I ever heard one.

When Mrs. Pincus booked this trip, she arranged for an overnight stay and a shuttle to the cruise terminal through an online service called "Park Sleep Fly." (Wasn't there a serial killer with that nickname?) We packed our luggage and headed south on I-95 towards the Best Western BWI Airport Inn & Suites. For around a hundred bucks, they offered a room for overnight, parking for our car for the week we'd be away and shuttle service to the pier — plus a complimentary breakfast in the morning. Sounds good? Yeah..... we'll see.

We followed the directions as the indispensable Waze app guided us to our destination. Exiting I-895, Mrs. P navigated through what can only be described as a seedy-looking neighborhood, eventually arriving at our accommodations situated in a small courtyard at the end of Belle Grove Road, just past two auto body salvage yards.

The first thing I noticed as we pulled into the parking lot was the distinct lack of "Best Western" signage and branding. Nowhere was there any indication that this hotel was part of the Best Western chain. The backlit sign at the street very plainly identified the place as "BWI Airport Inn and Suites" The front of the building bore no signs at all. I found this strange and a bit suspicious. We parked and entered the building at the lobby. It looked like a million hotels we've seen (and passed) along the I-95 corridor, but still, not a single "Best Western" anything in sight. There was a large seating area opposite the front desk that was obvious used for the included breakfast in the morning. Mrs. Pincus confirmed our reservation with the slutty-looking blond behind the desk. We were informed that the cost of the shuttle was not included in the final price of our stay. Mrs. P quickly scanned the confirmation that she had printed out and we reluctantly paid the additional charge. The woman behind the desk rattled off a list of convoluted instructions regarding the timing and meeting area for the shuttle the next morning. She handed my wife a small cardboard portfolio with our electronic room keys and disappeared into a back room. Mrs. P and I exchanged silent glances, knowing full well that neither one of us was certain as to where and how we were to be taken to the pier tomorrow morning. We dragged our luggage over to the elevators.

The elevator arrived. We entered. The door closed. The inside of the doors were decorated with large, full-color graphics of the Baltimore Orioles — which were defaced with angry, jagged gouges obscuring the smiling visage of the familiar Oriole logo. The doors opened at the seventh floor and we followed the directional wall signs to our room. A pile of trash — two greasy pizza boxes, several Coke cans and some unidentifiable crumbled paper — was on the floor next to the small utility room that housed two vending machines and a commercial ice maker. The pile remained for our entire stay.

We found our room and Mrs. P swiped the plastic key card in the lock. A little green light above the knob flashed. I opened the door. The first thing I noticed was a black backpack sitting on the floor under the lone window. The lights were out. The beds were made. The room appeared clean and unoccupied... except for the backpack. Again, Mrs. Pincus and I exchanged bewildered glances. I slowly approached the backpack and gave it a gentle nudge with my foot. Mrs. Pincus exclaimed in horror, "What are you doing?"

"I'm checking to see if something is in it.," I replied, although I was quickly cut off by a stern "Don't touch it!" from my wife.

We decided that the removal of the backpack was the responsibility of a hotel employee. Still with our luggage in tow, we retraced our steps to the elevator (passing the trash pile along the way). Back at the front desk, we encountered a new member of the hotel staff. This woman was dress in a more professional manner and wore a name tag that identified her as the manager. The blond who greeted us earlier was nowhere in sight. Mrs. P told the manager of the strange backpack in our room. The manager listened and immediately asked if we'd like a different room.

"No," Mrs. P answered, "We just want someone to remove the backpack."

A fellow from the maintenance staff was summoned and he accompanied us to our room. Once inside, he fearlessly approached and grabbed the backpack. "Anything else?," he asked with a smile and without waiting for an answer, he grabbed the remote control for the television off the desk. "Let me make sure your TV works.," he said, and mashed a few buttons on the device until the screen lit up. We thanked him as he exited our room.

As night fell, Mrs. P and I ran through our dinner options using Google for nearby restaurants. Across the street was a Checkers, whose neon sign inexplicably flashed "Gheckers" from a side window. Next to that was a Dunkin Donuts. We ruled out both of theses choices, settling instead on hoagies from a nearby Wawa, the beloved Philadelphia convenience chain that has expanded down the east coast. I got directions to the closest Wawa. As we walked to our car, I spotted two young ladies exiting our hotel from the rear of the building. They were prancing towards a car parked in the corner of the parking lot. Both were dressed like stereotypical prostitutes you'd see in any episode of any police show on television in the 70s— short, tight skirts, sparkly tops, fishnet stockings and impossibly tall platform shoes. Glances were exchanged for a third time.

No microwaves for you.
The Wawa was a short drive from our hotel, but located in an equally sketchy neighborhood. We ordered from the touch-screen kiosk, just like at our hometown Wawa. While we waited for our order, a woman, possibly inebriated, burst in and approached the associate who was assembling our sandwiches. She loudly asked if they had a microwave that she could borrow, an odd request, in my opinion. The Wawa associate waved her off and continued with our order as the drunk woman staggered out of the store. More silent glances were exchanged. After dinner, we watched television and then went to sleep.

The next morning, we packed up our stuff and headed down to the lobby. The lobby and breakfast area were bustling with activity. Folks were milling around — assembling a morning meal from the array of items set out by the hotel. Aside from the usual fare of coffee, bagels, cereal and yogurt, there was a self-serve waffle iron and a contraption that dispensed pancakes that looked like it was designed by Rube Goldberg.

Not included in this story.
We got clarification of the procedure for the shuttle. A woman with a clipboard scurried in and out of the lobby, checking off names and gathering groups together. A ten-seat mini van pulled up outside and folks were instructed to file in, leaving their luggage for the driver to pile up in the back storage area. After a bit of confusion and misinformation. Mrs. Pincus and I were directed to the van and soon we were officially off. Within twenty minutes, we were dropped off at the pier.

We cruised.

At the mercy of a bungee.
A week later, we returned from the sunny Caribbean to Baltimore, which was experiencing a heavy downpour. After a fairly simple debarkation process, we claimed our luggage and started towards the designated shuttle area. Trudging through the maze of people waiting for the departing cruise, we maneuvered to the small bus shelter where we spotted some families we recognized from our hotel (and a few we actually spoke to on our cruise). Our waterlogged colleagues told us that they had been waiting for some time, even after a call to the hotel assured them that "someone will be there in a few minutes." A familiar ten-seat mini van pulled up and our group hustled to find seats inside. Once our luggage was loaded, the driver struggled with the sliding side door, grinding it uncomfortably along its track, forcing it to close. His efforts were unsuccessful. Finally, he asked the husband of a young lady (we watched her sing a karaoke version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" a few nights earlier) to grab and attach the free end of a rubber bungee cord to the inside door handle. This was as suspicious as the backpack in our room. The driver hit the gas and ascended the on-ramp of I-895. As the van gained speed, the sliding side door slid open — first an inch, then a few more — kept in check only by the flexible restraints of the bungee. The karaoke girl clutched and pulled her husband closer.

The shuttle lumbered into the parking lot of the Best Western BWI Airport Inn & Suites. A neon yellow emergency vehicle — its top lights blazing — was parked under the carport at the buildings entrance. Two men in reflective vests stood by the ambulance's rear doors. Mrs. Pincus and I — the first ones out — quickly collected our luggage from that back of the shuttle. We found our car at the rear of the building..... and got the hell out of Baltimore.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

tangled up in blue

I am on vacation this week, but please enjoy this story from my illustration blog originally published in 2013. The topic of my father came up recently and I was reminded of his penchant for stretching the truth.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!”
Marmion by Sir Walter Scott

My dad was a liar. And not a very good one.

In the long ago days before the internet, when facts were a little tougher to confirm, my dad made up shit left and right. He loved to tell of how he cut school as a child and sneaked off to a Phillies game. He claimed he witnessed a no-hitter, but couldn’t tell anyone because he’d get into hot water for skipping school. He loved telling that story. Years later, after a minimal amount of “Googling,” I discovered that the entire tale was fabricated.

By trade, my father was a butcher. He was employed by a local supermarket chain for many years, until he worked himself up to the corporate level. A suit and tie replaced his bloody apron as his regular work attire. At this new level, he was rubbing elbows with (in his eyes) the “upper crust” and was entitled to be included among the attendees of an annual corporate executive convention and banquet. My mother, at the time, established herself a little business of transporting neighborhood children to kindergarten at the nearby elementary school. For a mere three dollars per week, she’d stuff twenty toddlers into the open space of her station wagon and — seat belts be damned! — deliver them to their preschool. A little jostled and shaken-up, but relatively safe. My father, however, had told his colleagues that his wife was otherwise employed. He had told them that she was a teacher. But, he did not corroborate his deception with my mom. She was not embarrassed by how she earned her pay. (She was proud, as a matter of fact!) So, while mingling at a pre-dinner cocktail hour, my mom was confused when my dad’s boss asked what subject she taught. With a look of momentary bewilderment, she corrected the man, explaining that she was not a teacher. My dad was livid, despite not briefing my mom on the bullshit he’d been shoveling at the office for the past eleven months.

When my son was born, my wife and I continued the Jewish tradition of honoring a deceased family member by naming a newborn in their memory. My son would be carrying on the symbolic names of my wife’s beloved grandfather and my beloved maternal grandmother. The official naming was done at the brit milah (circumcision ceremony). During the proceeding, the mohel (one who performs a circumcision) announced our child’s Hebrew name to the small congregation gathered in our home. My father’s mother leaned in to my dad and asked who our baby was being named for. Then she asked who my older brother was named for. My dad replied, “Max (my brother) was named for Pop (meaning my father’s father).” This, of course, was not true. My paternal grandfather was still fourteen years from meeting the Grim Reaper when my brother was born. Jews just don’t that and my father knew it. He also knew he was lying to his elderly mother.

My father became very sick very suddenly in October 1993. Actually, he was sick for a long time, he just didn’t let anyone know — so, it was sudden for the family. My father was keeping company with a very nice woman who filled the void in his life left by my mother’s passing two years earlier. As my father drifted in and out of consciousness in a hospital bed, my immediate family — my brother Max, my wife and myself — entertained my dad’s lady friend’s future plans. With sparkly eyes, she spoke of arrangements and promises that my father made — how they would marry in the new year, how she would move in with him. She continued to explain that my father justified the enormous amount of money still owed on a thirty year-old house was due to a second and third mortgage being obtained in order to pay for my art school education.

“Whoa!,” I interrupted before another word was uttered, “I paid for art school. Me! No one else!”

We all stared at each other across the little semi-circle we had formed in the hospital hallway. “What else did he tell you?,” Max asked. She had been told by my father that he was a partner in the current supermarket in which he was employed (he wasn’t). The place had just experienced a devastating fire and he was concerned about the cost of rebuilding (it was not remotely a concern of his).

We were dumbfounded. After 36 years of lying to my mother, my dad had the opportunity to make a fresh start in a relationship. Instead, he chose to continue on the path that he was used to.

I love and miss my father. He taught me a lot, but he had no idea how he was teaching me.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

highway patrol

For nearly twelve years, I took public transportation — specifically the Philadelphia Regional Rail line — to work and I was admittedly spoiled rotten by the convenience. I hate to drive, so letting someone else do the driving — while I read or slept or took pictures of people blatantly ignoring the policy of keeping bags off of seats —was perfect for me. I got a discounted rate on a monthly transit pass and my car sat in front of my house six days a week, only taking it from its curbside resting place to pick up dry cleaning on most Saturday mornings. Well, my daily train commute ended when I was unceremoniously separated from my center-city employer. After a long absence, I was thrust into the nerve-wracking, white-knuckle world of driving to work.

I started a new job in August 2019. My office is located just ten miles north east of Trenton, New Jersey, in a small community called Robbinsville. It is not in close proximity to any single mode of public transportation. So, I have no choice but to leave my house at ten after seven and navigate through unpredictable traffic to arrive at work for an 8:30 start of day. In the first week of my new employ, I tried several different routes, including a stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike that collects a six dollar toll in both directions. I finally settled on a course that costs a dollar in only one direction and takes me past the 6100-seat Arm and Hammer Park, home of the Trenton Thunder, a Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. I also see an alleged homeless guy, displaying a handwritten plea scrawled across a piece of corrugated cardboard, wandering in and out of the traffic waiting to make a left turn on to Route 29. He wears different clothes and a different baseball cap everyday, leading me to believe that he is no more homeless than I am.

I am actually getting used to driving. I have mentally broken down my commute into sections, checking my dashboard clock and figuring what kind of time I am making based on where I am at a particular time. Sometimes, I ignore the clock and just happily listen to the radio.

Then, of course, there are those times when the traffic comes to a grinding halt. It's these times that makes me hate driving. If I am stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a period of time longer than a few minutes, I get anxious and antsy and frustrated. I hate inching along, closing up the gap between my car and the car just ahead, as though those few extra millimeters are accomplishing something. And, when the traffic snarl finally breaks and the pace resumes to regular speed, if I don't see a twisted hunk of sheared metal that used to be a car or a mass of bloody, mangled bodies littering the blacktop with severed limbs, I am genuinely disappointed. If traffic is stopped, there better be a goddamn good reason for it.

Damn this traffic jam!
Just this week, I was tooling south on Route 1, hitting my each of my regular milestones at the times that let me know I would be parking my car in front of my house at the usual time. Suddenly, just ahead, I could see the faint illumination of brake lights. As I approached and decelerated, the steady glow of brake lights increased as more and more cars were slowing and stopping across both lanes. I tensed up, my hands gripping the steering wheel tighter. I moved a tiny bit outside of my lane, trying to see if I could identify the cause of this slowdown, but I was too far back from the cause. So, I sat. Sat along with a crush of other folks who just wanted to get home in a reasonable amount of time. The knot of cars slowly... slowly... moved forward. After a few long minutes of crawling an inch at a time, I spotted the top of a large, electric sign parked in the far left lane. It was flashing a large, electric yellow arrow, obviously indicating that all traffic was to divert to the right traffic lane. This was quite a request. It was approximately 6 PM, the peak of the evening "rush hour" on a piece of highway that is heavily traveled by both cars and trucks. Big trucks. I could see exasperated drivers craning their necks as they jockeyed their vehicles out of the prohibited lane. I could see truck drivers leaning out of their cab windows checking their massive mirrors to see if they were clear to merge. After a few more long minutes, I finally reached the source of the obstruction.

There was a crew of a dozen or so workers, decked out in florescent vests and scrambling around like beavers all over the highway. They were installing shiny new pieces of the guard rail that divides the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic. AT 6 O'CLOCK IN THE EVENING! RUSH HOUR! Someone who works for the Department of Transportation must know that this is rush hour. Yet, it was determined that this was the optimum time to replace the guard rail. Was it decided during a road maintenance meeting that it was much better to disrupt the busiest traffic time of the day than to wait until a time when the road was relatively empty, when it wouldn't inconvenience too many people?

The next morning. I passed the part of the road —from the opposite direction —where the guard rail was replaced. It was beautiful — gleaming silver and expertly installed.*

I still hate driving.

* That there is what you call your "sarcasm."