Sunday, November 29, 2020

once you get started

My first real job in the world of art was in the main office of a local chain of popular ice cream stores. Officially, I was the "art director." In reality, I was the entire art department. I sat in a little cluttered office, churning out ads and signs and displays — all without the aid of computers or the sophisticated printers I have used in more recent employment. After many months of service, I was rewarded with a token of thanks as the holiday season approached. No, it wasn't a bonus check or monetary compensation of any kind. It was big turkey made out of ice cream. The owner of the company was the slimiest, most conniving and deceitful person I had ever met. When he bestowed this misshapen frozen gift to me (with his nicotine-stained hands), it was as though he was handing me a gleaming gold brick — at least that was the impression I got from his wide, nicotine-stained smile.

So, I drove home with that frozen turkey replica on the front seat of my car and soon silently presented it to my wife of just over a year. She frowned. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and we had plans to celebrate the holiday at my in-law's house. My wife's parents keep a strictly Kosher home and — without going into the intricate edicts involved in the observance of kashrut — a meal that includes meat may not be capped off with anything that includes dairy. Period. 

Faced with several pounds of turkey-shaped ice cream and no where to pawn it off, the ever-resourceful Mrs. Pincus hatched a grand idea. ("Hatched!" Ha ha! Get it? — Uh... on with the story.) She decided to use her stellar baking skills to whip up a few supplementary additions to the frozen faux fowl. Then, we'd invite a few folks over to our tiny Northeast apartment to help us consume the whole shebang. This would all go down the night before Thanksgiving and after everyone had eaten dinner at their own homes.

And so, a tradition was born.

Our very first dessert party was an impromptu gathering of a dozen or so family and friends crammed into our narrow townhouse apartment on the night before Thanksgiving 1985. It has become an annual occurrence that has since blossomed into a warm and beloved (by most) affair — bringing together family, extended family,  friends and, in some cases, strangers. The venue has changed to our much larger suburban home, which is able to accommodate more guests more comfortably. But, we haven't missed a single one since that first one in '85.

Over the years, the guest list has expanded and evolved from family and friends to friends of our son to new-found friends, a changing parade of co-workers and — curiously — less family. Also the number of guests has increased considerably. One year, we had nearly 75 people jockeying for even a spot to stand in our living room and dining room. One of my favorite games to play every year is "Who is This in My House?" I like to quietly scan the crowd and pick out a person whom I have never seen in my life, standing in my house, happily shoving a piece of my wife's celebrated pecan pie into their smiling mouth. We have also had guests — unfamiliar with the houses on my street — wander into a neighbor's house, before realizing that they transposed some numbers in my address.

The menu has also evolved. I only worked for the ice cream company for a year, so I never got another frozen, year-end confection for free again. For a few years, we purchased an ice cream turkey elsewhere, until we realized that no-one was eating it and the widening chocolate puddle it was reduced to was spoiling the layout of the rest of the table. It was soon eliminated from the bill of fare. The real draw is my wife's baking, which has rightfully become the centerpiece of the evening. She spends a surprisingly little amount of time preparing an overflowing tableful of delicious bakery-quality treats for our eager guests. After an hours-long trip to the supermarket, where two full shopping carts is not unusual, Mrs. P knocks out dozens of perfectly baked goodies with the impeccable precision of a ballet company — usually in just one day. She has even experimented with recipes — adding new ones and tweaking tried-and-true favorites. While multiple items are in the oven, I have assisted (minimally) in decorating our home, transforming our everyday living space into a close approximation of a 1930s winter season cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Mrs. Pincus lays out the table, the utensils, the decorations — everything — while I stand idly by, like a lunk and marvel at her accomplishments. The evening truly belongs to her.

Of course, over a span of 35 years, we've had our share of mishaps. One year, with a kitchen counter covered with various ingredients and our then-infant son reclining in a baby seat, one of the cabinets just dislodged from the wall, sending its contents — coffee mugs and dishes — crashing into the sink and eventually the floor. Another time, I had assembled our newest addition — a real, two-tier chocolate fountain — incorrectly. When I turned it on, it spewed melted chocolate all over our kitchen like a delicious Mount Vesuvius.

Mrs. Pincus and I are the only two people that have attended the dessert party every  single year. Some longtime guests missed a few years here and there, due to illness, other logistic complications or, sadly, death. Others have been stricken from the guest list for one reason or another, replaced by new friends or newly born-family members. Our son missed the first few because he had not yet been born. But, he was not present at a few during his teenage years, as he attended a conflicting annual dance held by an organization of his contemporaries. A few days prior to last year's party, my brother noted that he had never missed a year. Sadly, due to an emergency within his family, he was forced to skip the 2019 gathering. 

Which brings us to 2020. Goddamn 2020.

Back in the spring, Mrs. P and I mulled over various scenarios that would enable us to continue a decades-long tradition in the time of a global pandemic. We optimistically envisioned this whole thing being over by September, leaving plenty of time to make arrangements in the same manner in which we were accustomed. But as summer became fall, it was clear that COVID-19 wasn't going anywhere and was determined to ruin our tradition. Mrs. P alternately cried and fumed. She was determined to have a "Night Before Thanksgiving" dessert party and inject a bit of normalcy into the near-chaos that this virus wreaked on our lives. The problem was that our house tends to get fairly crowded at the peak of the evening, with guests standing elbow-to-elbow not the least bit unusual. In the time of "social distancing," this was going to be tricky. Mrs. P proposed staggered admission, assigning small circles of guests different arrival times and asking them to leave after a pre-determined period to allow for the next group to safely enter. My wife's older brother (who has chosen to live outside of the day-to-day tedium of family concerns and remains a mysterious entity to even some of our close friends) volunteered to drive all the way in from his remote location to serve as a bouncer. He cheerfully offered to kick people out of our house who have overstayed their allotted timeslot. We passed on his gracious offer.

Together, my wife and I conceived a "Plan B." Taking a page from the current safety practices of the retail business, our "Night Before Thanksgiving" dessert party this year would be a curb-side pick-up version. It was ingenious, if I may compliment ourselves. We sent out electronic invitations including an option to select which type of pie you'd like — pecan or pumpkin. Mrs. P set out to compile a modified menu, featuring only items that would travel unscathed in a take-out container. Then, she bought takeout containers and autumn-themed carry bags. Our excitement grew as affirmative replies began to roll in. Mrs. P kept careful track of  who was coming and which pies they requested. She wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote the menu, refining it until she was satisfied with a good sampling of dessert favorites from past years' parties — sort of a dessert party greatest hits.

The replies we received energized Mrs. Pincus. A lot of the responses were accompanied by a heartfelt message of surprise and gratitude for keeping up a tradition in the midst of a discouraging global situation. On Tuesday, Mrs. Pincus did her usual phenomenal job of turning out hundreds of tempting little morsels from our kitchen's magical oven. Refrigerated items were refrigerated. Other items were left to cool in what looked like an abstract jigsaw puzzle on our dining room table. The morning of the "event," we turned into a two-person assembly line. We filled small take-out tins with pies. Then, we filled larger versions with an assortment of a variety of baked goods — each one slightly different in its contents but no less appetizing. Our dining room looked like the stock area of a commercial bakery with plastic-lidded tins piled in neat little stacks, ready to be distributed to the bags and delivered to its waiting recipient.

At 4 o'clock, the first guest pulled up. It was my father-in-law, who lives around the corner from us. Just like he was keeping a scheduled appointment for a curb-side pickup at a supermarket, he called my wife and explained that he was checking in for his order. We didn't consider creating an app for the evening's procedure, but we played along with my wife's father. Properly masked and insisting he remain in his car, Mrs. P opened the rear passenger door and placed the dessert-filled bag on the seat. My father-in-law waved as he pulled away. And this is how it went for the next three hours. At irregular intervals, friends and family, who otherwise would have gathered around our extended dining room table or clogged accessible walking space in our house, were now parallel parking at our driveway and trying to identify themselves from behind a cotton facemask through a rolled-down window in a car we didn't recognize. A few folks — who shall remain nameless — exited their cars to chat, seeing that no other guests were around. Mrs. P indulged these "violators" in conversation. I, however, was a little more forceful, as I attempted to direct them back into their cars, so as not to encourage others to react similarly. I was gently reprimanded for my actions. Overall, everything worked out smoothly and better than we could have imagined. Several curbside interactions resulted in a few tears shed, as my wife expressed her wholehearted gratitude. The whole experience was pretty emotional, if one were to dwell on it for a bit. The final guest to arrive was our neighbor from across the street who walked over in the dark, traversing our lawn approximately 90 minutes after I had shut off the porch light.

We were very satisfied with the entire evening. It could have been more fuel for the fire of disappointment that has burned through the past nine months. Instead it was a glimmer of hope for what lies ahead in the coming year. This time next year, I hope to be complaining about a house full of unruly people who don't know when it's time to leave.

And be thankful for them, Y'know....just like normal.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

you better shop around

Since the beginning of the global pandemic, our shopping habits and procedures have changed considerably. Going to buy groceries used to be a regular occurrence for the Pincuses (Pinci?) and sometimes, Mrs. P and I would find ourselves at the supermarket a few times during any given week. Now, we (and by "we," I of course mean my wife) go to pick up our groceries from a list compiled online. Our pre-picked, pre-bagged, pre-paid grocery order is delivered by a masked employee right to the cargo area of our SUV. Simple. Convenient. Annoyance free.

Yeah. Right.

There ain't nothing that is annoyance free, especially in a world occupied by humans. Humans always seem to ruin a perfectly good plan, either by saying something inappropriate or stupid or both. Or by doing something that blatantly goes against the policy of the company for whom they enjoy employment. Or they don't do something they should be doing. Or any combination of the above.

Our first choice for groceries is Walmart, the mighty global retail giant that stocks nearly everything. Their prices on most items are so ridiculously low, it makes one wonder how they can sell things so cheaply and why other stores sell the identical item for much more money. Oh... I know the reason! It's because, in order to take advantage of the great prices, you are forced to go to Walmart. Our weekly trips to Walmart started off great. After the first couple of weeks, their ranking dropped from "great" to "pretty good," as the accuracy decreased and product substitution increased. Soon, Walmart's status was at a solid "okay," with the foreseeable potential of dropping further. Right now, thirty-plus weeks into this shitshow, Walmart is holding steady at "adequate." Lately, our orders have been missing items, requiring a return trip. Once, they forgot an entire bag of groceries. We had to go back to the store, well after their curbside pick-up hours had ended for the day. We had difficulty finding someone — anyone — who would venture into the now-closed grocery department to retrieve our errant bag. Now, for subsequent orders, we have begun to perform an inventory before we leave the parking lot.

We have also frequented Target for grocery pick up. Target, while still a discount store, is a noticeable step above Walmart. In the pre-COVID-19 days, when we still went in to stores, Target was always cleaner and more orderly than Walmart. And their customer base was well-versed in the art of tucking in a shirt. These days, Target seems to have a better, more-efficient handle on the "curbside pick-up" procedure. Walmart requires customers to book and secure a time slot in which to arrive. Target will happily accept your online order and merely asks for the time you will be in their parking lot (in a newly-delineated area installed since the pandemic began). When you arrive, you log into their website, enter the space number in which you are parked and within a minute or two, a friendly red-and-beige clad employee will appear with your order — sometimes including a free sample product along with the requested items. (Once, we got a fruit rollup. Another time, we got a small box of Cap'n Crunch!) But, even Target isn't perfect. Just this week, Target experienced its first Achilles' heel. As part of our order, I asked for two bottles of Johnson's Baby Shampoo. (Yes, that's what I wash my delicate scalp with, you got a problem with that?) According to the website, it was available, but we were only permitted to place 'one" in our virtual shopping cart. Just before our selected pick-up time, we were informed, via email, that the shampoo was unavailable. "Really?" I exclaimed, to no one in particular, "There's not a single bottle of baby shampoo in that entire store?" No one in particular remained silent. My wife and I headed over to our nearby Target. We parked and notified the store that we were there to accept our order. However, the option to enter your parking spot was unavailable. Someone was required to actually go into the store. Mrs. Pincus donned her mask and gloves, a practice that has become second nature at this point in time, and grudgingly set off for the front entrance. A few minutes later, she returned, holding a plastic Target shopping bag. While at the "pick up" area, she asked about the shampoo, explaining its alleged unavailability. The employee shook her head and said that baby shampoo is with baby items, not health and beauty. Another employee was sent out on a mission and returned with three bottles of the shampoo. I have a hard time understanding how just one person in Target holds the secret as to the location of baby shampoo... and it's not the person filling the online orders. Is Target slipping? Oh, say it isn't so!

There's one more place that Mrs. P goes for groceries, but visits have been reduced to approximately once per month. I'm talking about BJ's Wholesale Club. BJ's Wholesale, if you are not familiar, is like Costco and Sam's Club, selling common grocery items in quantiles far too big for the average family to fully consume before some of it spoils. They also stock giant-size containers of things that you would normally purchase one of in a lifetime — like nutmeg. Does anyone who doesn't operate a ski lodge need a hundred and twelve ounces of nutmeg? Mrs. Pincus has graciously been doing the shopping for her parents, as well as for us. So an infrequent stop at BJ's Wholesale can be beneficial for stocking up on large containers of orange juice or cereal or other items that we know we'll use in a reasonable amount of time (no... not nutmeg). On my wife's most recent trip to BJ's Wholesale, her purchases were actually pretty modest. A bunch of bananas, a couple of heads of lettuce, a case of Polar seltzer for our son and a couple of big bags of Hallowe'en candy that may or may not be distributed — the jury is still out. When Mrs. P began placing her items on the conveyor belt at the check out, the cashier felt that it was fully within her rights to comment on my wife's purchases. "Boy, you sure have a big order," she announced. 

Now, if you've ever been to a BJ's Wholesale (or Costco or Sam's Club), I'm sure you've seen folks dragging flatbed carts behind them laden to overflowing with cases and cases of various commodities like soda, bottled water, bulk packages of potato chips, giant glass jars of pickles or jalapeno peppers. Sometimes, you'll see people guiding several overstocked carts through the aisles — as though they are replenishing the staples of a small convenience store or sandwich shop. As a matter of fact, some of these people are doing just that. Independent businessmen and women come to BJ's Wholesale often — a few times a week sometimes — to buy what they need to help keep their businesses running. Believe me, they are buying way more that eight bananas and a gallon of orange juice. Heck, there were people in the checkout line with triple the order size as Mrs. Pincus's. Why this cashier chose to marvel at a few bunches of produce and a few bags of candy is beyond me.

Oh, we will get through this dark pall that is hanging over us. COVID-19, I mean. Stupidity we're stuck with.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

that's me in the spotlight

I know some famous people. Some are local celebrities whose fame — whether or not they acknowledge it — only reaches to the very real boundaries of the Delaware Valley*. Others have achieved widespread nationwide success — even worldwide in a few well-deserved cases. These people fall into many categories. Some are singers. Some are actors. Some are media personalities. However, I will not divulge the names of any of them. I don't want to brag. I don't wish to use my acquaintance with a famous person in an attempt to impress you. (Some of them, I will admit, are far from impressive.) I won't do this, because it was done to me many years ago. And I was not impressed.

When I was in elementary school, I was pretty close friends with a boy named Mitchell Rosencrantz. Mitchell was a nice kid. He was somewhat awkward and quirky and not one of the "cool" kids. Well, neither was I, but I was able to ingratiate myself among that clique-y, elitist group without much backlash. Mitchell, however, was not so savvy. He experienced his share of bullying. He was the unfortunate target of schoolyard epithets on a fairly regular basis. It was sad, but I was his friend because I thought he was a nice guy, not because I felt sorry for him.

Mitchell and I hung out at recess with a few other kids who didn't fit in with the top tier of the popular hierarchy either. But that was okay. We had just as much fun. We discussed our favorite television shows, often debating the logistics of actually kissing Marcia Brady. We traded baseball cards that we collected, although none of us was really that interested in the actual sport of baseball. Mostly, we ran around and did "kid on the playground" stuff until the bell rang and we filed back into our classrooms. Every once in a while, on a weekend, I would go to Mitchell's house or he would come to mine. (To be honest, he would rarely come to my house, because that would've required my mother to straighten things up and possibly vacuum... and she wanted no parts of that.) At Mitchell's house, we'd do almost the same things that we did in the schoolyard except it was just the two of us.  (I remember that Mitchell had a little brother who was the spitting image of Mitchell. He also had a little sister who looked like Mitchell with pigtails.) After a few hours, my mom would pull up to Mitchell's house in her giant station wagon. I'd say "goodbye" and "thank you" to Mitchell and my mom would nudge me until I remembered to thank Mrs. Rosencrantz as well.

There was one thing that Mitchell did in an concerted effort to be accepted. He bragged about knowing a celebrity. He would find an opening in the conversation to remind everyone that his father was the manager of a celebrity. Now, we all knew that short, balding Mr. Rosencrantz was a lawyer. With his pen-filled plastic pocket protector, he looked nothing like any of the managers we saw on TV, like the guys in sequined-covered suits who escorted hulking professional wrestlers into the ring or the often-harried but coolly-coiffed Reuben Kincaid who called the financial shots for The Partridge Family. Granted, the celebrity that Mitchell talked about wasn't Adam West or Bobby Sherman or Karen Valentine. Hell, it wasn't anyone we even heard of. But he swore up and down of his celebrity status, so who were we to argue. We weren't worldly and we knew it. Mitchell insisted that his father represented the one and only Eddie Holman in all things show business.

That's right. Eddie Holman.

New York-born Eddie Holman moved to Philadelphia with his family as a teen ager. At 16, he recorded his first song. It was heavily influenced by the so-called "Philly Soul" sound. He continued to record eventually hitting big in 1970 with "Hey There Lonely Girl," which was a reworked cover of a song originally released by Ruby and the Romantics in 1963. The tune hit Number Two on the prestigious Billboard Hot 100 chart. It sold over a million copies, however, Eddie Holman never had another hit.
Mitchell talked about Eddie Holman as though his popularity and recognition rivaled The Beatles. Mitchell's friends would nod politely as he expounded on the vast reaches of Eddie Holman's fame. He got misty-eyed as he spoke of Eddie Holman's talent and renown. Honestly, in 1970, I was 9 years old. I don't remember hearing "Hey There Lonely Girl" on the radio. Granted, the AM pop stations that I listened to were unjustly segregated and featured predominantly white artists. I don't recall seeing Eddie Holman perform on the ubiquitous Ed Sullivan Show, the barometer by which true fame was measured — at least in my young mind. If Ed Sullivan welcomed you to the stage, you were somebody... even if you were somebody I never heard of. I don't believe Eddie Holman ever graced the stage at 1697 Broadway in the Big Apple. But, as far as Mitchell Rosencrantz was concerned, Eddie Holman was celebrity enough to impress his friends.

As the years passed, I still remained friends with Mitchell Rosencrantz. We moved on to a new school after elementary school and the name "Eddie Holman" rarely breached conversations anymore. 

Soon, many of my classmates were anxious and excited about upcoming Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Invitations were sent and the buzz was constant about how elaborate plans would be. Sometime in the autumn of 1974, I attended Mitchell Rosencrantz's Bar Mitzvah.

The day began early in the morning, as I fidgeted in my seat at a synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia. I tugged at the necktie that my dad so expertly knotted around my skinny neck and thumbed through the Hebrew-printed pages of the prayer book some bent-over old man with three teeth in his head shoved into my hand as I entered the sanctuary. I adjusted the complementary satin yarmulke on my head (I think the old man plopped that on the back of my skull as well) and whispered to my seatmates that I recognized from school. I'm sure I also ogled the young female guests, marveling how they all looked well beyond their thirteen years, some wearing make-up for the first time and appearing waaaaay prettier than they did in any math class. Mitchell was barely visible at the lectern, peering over the top of those big wooden disks that kept the sacred Torah scrolls properly corralled. We could hear Mitchell's voice stammering out some tuneless chant. We giggled covertly each time his maturing vocal chords hit an unintentional sour note. When the grueling marathon service was over, we adjourned to a banquet room in the synagogue building that was decorated for an adults' version of a children's party. There were people who, though strangers, resembled members of my own extended family. There were two multi-tiered fountains, situated on a table — side-by-side — surrounded by large platters of unidentifiable hors d'oeuvres. One fountain dispensed wine, the other a tamer grape juice. Of course, my friends and I tried to sneak the wine, only to be scolded by a stern-looking older woman in a beaded dress, her mass of hair all done up for the occasion. Some of us danced with unwieldy moves to the typical hired band — a four-piece combo comprised of two accountants, a department store salesman and a guy who sometime, somewhere was passed over for his shot at stardom. Some of Mitchell's friends even mustered up enough nerve to ask one of the girls to dance.

Once Mitchell's friends were finally seated at the long table reserved for the younger set (and far removed from the rest of the tables at which more important guests were seated), Mr. Rosencrantz hijacked the microphone from the tuxedoed band leader. He delivered a solemn double-shot of HaMotzi and Kiddush over a hefty loaf of challah and a full goblet of wine. Then, he cleared his throat, waved his hand and, through a wide smile, announced a "very special guest" of the afternoon. The double doors at the rear of the room opened and a tall, handsome African-American man appeared — impeccably dressed in a maroon velvet tuxedo, his barrel chest festooned with contrasting powder-blue ruffles. He smiled and waved to the guests as he made his way to the microphone offered by Mr. Rosencrantz. The man accepted the mic and, after warmly embracing Mitchell's dad, began to sing in a smooth tenor. His selection? Why, that 1970 near-chart topper "Hey There Lonely Girl." As he serenaded, whispers carried through the room. "That's Eddie Holman!," was the general consensus. 

Mitchell sat at the center of the long table with his arms crossed and a satisfied smirk on his lips. He was surrounded on both sides by his school friends and he beamed! I mean visibly beamed! Finally, he must have thought, everyone will see that I really know Eddie Holman. It really didn't matter that his friends still didn't know who he was. By the thunderous applause at the song's conclusion, Mitchell was fully convinced that he knew a celebrity. 

And that was all that mattered.

*A colloquial term for the area surrounding Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey and the tip of Northern Delaware.

This is a fictitious name. Don't bother trying to figure out who it is.

I did not have a formal, traditional Bar Mitzvah. The explanation for that can be found here

Sunday, November 8, 2020

best thing I never had

According to the signs posted outside of Joe Italiano's Maplewood Inn, you are looking at a plate of the "World's Best Spaghetti." Think about that for a minute. The world's best spaghetti. The best spaghetti in the entire world — out of all of the restaurants on this planet that offer spaghetti as an entrĂ©e on their menu. This is the best! Stare at it. Bask in its glory. The. Best. Spaghetti. In The. World.

My wife and I have been traveling to Atlantic City for a good portion of our lives. First as children, chauffeured by our parents on family vacations to the famous New Jersey shore destination. Then as adults with our son to create our own beloved memories of the storied seaside burg known as "America's Playground."

In more recent years, Mrs. Pincus and I would drive from our suburban Philadelphia home to Atlantic City to... enjoy?.... encounter?.... experience all that the Harrah's Casino Resort has to offer. For a time, Mrs. P was a favored patron in the eyes of Harrah's. She was showered with gifts and trips and free rooms and complimentary meals, as well as literally hundreds of dollars in "free play" for use in their casino slot machines. We traveled to Atlantic City several times a week to take advantage of all of the perks that came our way... until it ended, of course. Yep, one day, the marketing algorithms caught up and Mrs. P was cut free. Until, of course, it picked up again. In hopes of recouping some lost income due to closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Harrah's apparently dug deep into their mailing list and suddenly Mrs. Pincus was back in their good graces. She began receiving offers to come down and collect a modest gift card or household appliance of some sort. These offers were made to encourage folks to gamble a bit while they were there to get their free gift. But they don't know my wife very well. We took the ninety-minute trip, Mrs. P ran in (properly masked and gloved while I — also masked — waited outside), got her gift and we left. We spent approximately fifteen minutes at Harrah's including the walk from the parking garage. Mrs. P didn't drop a single nickel in a slot machine. Oh, they'll cut her off soon. Don't you worry.

So, while we are still on Harrah's "good list," we have found ourselves Atlantic City bound on that two-lane blacktop road that bisects the rural-looking communities of South Jersey more often than we ever figured. Considering how often we traverse Route 30, colloquially known as "The White Horse Pike," I still marvel at how it still seems unfamiliar and its landmarks very forgettable. The landscape is dotted with a smattering of weather-worn, single-story houses that — I am convinced — all have one of those brick-walled dry wells in the basement, like Buffalo Bill's house in Silence of the Lambs. I'm also sure that they each contain a senator's daughter pleading for her life. Oh, there are a small amount of recognizable businesses along the way, too — like local supermarket chains and big-box stores like Wal-Mart. (I think we pass three.) But, for the most part, it is a repetitive tableau, like the one Fred and Barney pass as they tool through Bedrock. There are dozens of car repair places, their yards piled high with rusted husks of years-old vehicles in various stages of disassembly. There are numerous strip centers with empty stores. There are a number of restaurants, some looking closed at the dinner hour, some lit up with no customers. But among those restaurants, shining like a beacon, its parking lot jammed with cars, is Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn.

An otherwise nondescript building situated in a cleared lot along an unremarkable stretch of the White Horse Pike in Hammonton, Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn has something its competitors (if any) are lacking. Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn has the world's best spaghetti. They even have two signs proclaiming the title. The most noticeable is perched on the roof of the building, backlit at night, reinforcing what the world (in the aggregate mind of Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn) already knows. If you are in search of the best spaghetti in the entire world, search no more. Within this unadorned brick structure, your quest has come to an end. The great pasta salons of Rome, Venice and Bologna have resigned themselves to the fact that despite centuries-old recipes and preparation processes, a little red masonry structure in the tiny hamlet of Hammonton, New Jersey has bested them all. The best! In the world! Wow! Just wow! They don't have enough room on their signs to spell out Joe's first name in its entirety, but damn! — they need the space to alert the 14,000 residents of Hammonton and beyond that within these walls the best spaghetti in the world can be found. There are highly regarded restaurants and establishments boasting the coveted third star from the revered Michelin Guide. They are concocting delicate gourmet recipes from exotic ingredients to tantalize the discerning palate. But, when it comes to spaghetti — forget it! They hang their collective heads. Because, as we know now, none of them serve the world's best spaghetti. That, of course, can only be gotten from the kitchen of Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn. 

During the pandemic, Mrs. Pincus and I are being very cautious in our actions. Yes, I know. Going into a casino seems like the last place we should be going. But, Mrs. P is diligent in her precautionary measures... and when my wife is diligent about something, watch out. In the meantime, we are eating all of our meals at home and we have not ordered from a restaurant in eight months. When the time comes when we feel it is safe for us to venture out and re-enter the world of "dining out" again, will we make a beeline to Joe Italianio's Maplewood Inn for a sampling of the world's best spaghetti?


Sunday, November 1, 2020

happy place

Vanessa Hudgens is a popular (I guess?) singer and actress who rose to her level of fame as part of the young ensemble cast in Walt Disney's celebrated High School Musical. As a teenager, Vanessa became a staple among the prepubescent set via a generous, though well strategized, push from the mighty Disney publicity machine, much in the same way as Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears. And, like them, Vanessa has done her very best to bust out of the safe and wholesome confines of the "Disney brand." First of all, she is 31, hardly an age that would appeal to any pre-teens. But, still, she has adopted a more sultry and sophisticated persona in hopes of being recognized as an adult and taken seriously by an adult audience.

In her quest to maintain a career, she has done some good things and done some bad things — just like any one of a zillion actors trying to "make it" in a cut-throat business. She costarred in some box-office successes as well as some failures. She stayed in the positive headlines by dating her High School Musical co-star Zac Efron. She caused a bit of controversy when she carved her initials into a rock and posted the photo on her Instagram account, proudly displaying her handiwork to her nearly forty million followers. The US Forest Service wasn't among those lauding accolades on the young celebrity. The rock, you see, was in Coconino National Forest and she was ordered to pay $1000 in damages.

Well, Miss Hudgens is at it again. She posted a photo on her Instagram account for which she received a good amount of criticism. Unjust criticism, in my opinion and the opinions of some of my death-obsessed pals across the internet... and there are a lot of us. On October 10, in a time where most Hallowe'en celebrations have been stifled by the global COVID-19 pandemic, Vanessa offered a bit of the dark holiday season to her followers. She posted an artful, black & white shot from a recent photoshoot that took place in a cemetery in the storied New York burg of Sleepy Hollow. Vanessa is pictured in a clingy black dress (and accompanying face mask) cavorting among the headstones. She originally captioned the image as "my happy place." Immediately, the post was hit with a barrage of angry comments, as the internet is want to overreact to pretty much everything — including: “Why would you pose in a cemetery and post ‘happy place?’ Bruh.," “Um am I the only one who finds that disrespectful?," "Ur happy place is a cemetery?," and my personal favorite - "What's wrong with you?"

Some folks came to her rescue, noting that — at one time — a great many cemeteries were park-like places that welcomed family picnics. However, the overwhelming response was negative. Vanessa did not remove the post, though she did revise the caption to read: "Searching for that headless horseman" - a reference to Washington Irving's beloved tale that takes place in the otherwise quiet little town of Sleepy Hollow. 

I know that "the internet" is very judgmental and awfully quick to jump all over those who are deemed "objectionable." That means everyone at one time or another. But, just because something seems strange to one person, someone else could — and often does — find that same thing thoroughly enjoyable. Skydiving, getting a tattoo, eating octopus, liking the Dallas Cowboys — all of these things are both joyful and repulsive. It all depends on who you ask. Which is why I found "the internet's" initial condemnation of Vanessa Hudgens's photo so... so... offensive!

I have been visiting cemeteries for years. Years! They are fascinating, interesting and informative. In addition, I find them to be both majestic and peaceful. They are not merely storage places for the deceased. They are three-dimensional history lessons for the living. Grave markers are works of art, sometimes engraved with personal sentiment or loving memorials to the person buried beneath. Many graves are adorned with statuary, commissioned by the surviving family to honor their loved one. The grounds are usually pastoral areas of rolling lawns and shady trees, offering a tranquil retreat in which to reflect.

Or it's a cool place with dead people.

However you feel, there are a lot of people who like cemeteries. I regularly peruse the Find-a-Grave website to plot out my next cemetery field trip. I find myself craning my neck for a better look when we pass a cemetery while out running errands. Vacation destinations would often include a side trip to a nearby cemetery, much to the chagrin of my family. (They love me, so they humor me.) I belong to a private Facebook group called "The Death Hags" — a darkly humorous name for a bunch of folks who share my love of cemeteries and all things death. (Note: I have since been kicked out and banned from this group based on the feelings of a paranoid and over-zealous admin.) Before you start passing your self-righteous judgement, the group boasts eleven thousand members. So, your neighbor, your boss or even your spouse might be one of us... so watch it.

As far as Vanessa Hudgens's little jaunt through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.... I was there in 2014. It's a beautiful spot and a local tourist attraction. It is the final resting place of some pretty notable names like Walter Chrysler, Elizabeth Arden and, of course, Washington Irving. You can visit vicariously through this link.

I am really not that familiar with Vanessa Hudgens's work and I believe I am way out of her target audience. But.... she's okay by me.