Sunday, December 26, 2021

mystery train

I took the train to work for ten years. Remember all those blog posts I made about my adventures — good and bad (mostly bad) — on the train? Well, they kind of stopped in 2017, when I no longer had a job that required me to take the train on a daily basis.

I am back among the "drive yourself to work" set and I rarely have the opportunity to take the train. And then there was the worldwide pandemic that brought nearly everything to a halt. Now, as things begin to reopen, readjust and get back to some sort of "normality" (whatever that means), my wife and I ventured into center city Philadelphia to see the iconic Christmas Light Show held annually at the former John Wanamaker department store, now operating under the "Macy's" name. Instead of driving, fighting traffic, paying an exorbitant amount for a few short hours of parking, Mrs. P and I decided to take the train.

It's comforting to see that SEPTA (the acronymed organization that operates the public transportation system in southeastern Pennsylvania) has remained its same, old, dysfunctional self.

Early on Saturday morning, Mrs. Pincus and I took the familiar stroll to the Elkins Park train station, located just down the street from our house. (It's so close, we actually use it as a landmark locator when directing people to our house.) Upon our arrival on the platform, I checked the SEPTA app on my phone and was not one bit surprised when I saw that our 8:29 train was already listed as 15 minutes late. Mrs. Pincus realized she should have dressed more warmly for the unpredictable weather that Philadelphia had been experiencing. She made a quick run home to grab a hoodie. I watched, in her absence, as the SEPTA app added more time to our already-late train. SEPTA was already meeting and exceeding my expectations for getting back to "how things used to be." Mrs. P returned, bundled in her newly-retrieved hoodie, to find me in the exact same spot — with no train in sight.

Eventually, our train arrived to take us on the short, twenty-minute journey to center city Philadelphia. Now, the Elkins Park ticket office is only open for limited hours during the week and never on weekends. Passengers without a pre-purchased monthly pass (the traveling category in which we now fall) can purchase tickets on the train from one of the hopefully friendly conductors. As the train pulled away from the platform, one of the aforementioned conductors (this one uncharacteristically friendly) made his way down the center aisle. He stopped at the folks seated right in front of us. They were also headed to see the holiday light show, so our fare would be the same as theirs. After paying, the conductor presented them with two cardboard "swipe cards" that, he explained, should be used to open the electronic gates to exit the station. As he took a step in our direction, the train slowed to a stop at the Melrose Park station. He raised a finger to us and informed us that he'd be back.

He never returned.

Instead, he stood and gabbed with a group at the front of our train car — laughing and gesturing — as the train stopped at the three subsequent stations before our Jefferson Station destination. I gripped a ten dollar bill, ready to pay since we boarded. Mrs. P and I shuffled down the aisle towards the exit doors. I sidled up to our conductor and whispered: "We haven't paid our fare yet." He smiled and tipped his head in the direction of the doors. Extending his open palm, he said: "Happy holidays!" implying that our trip was gratis. Except we were now without that special swipe card that would free us from the confines of the station, once we climbed the exit stairs from the subterranean platform.

Once in the bustling station, I observed a newly-installed (well, "new" since my last trip on the train over two years ago) bank of electronic turnstiles occupying the once-unobstructed exit passage. I, along with my wife and a small group of similarly bewildered commuters, examined the steel and glass barriers that separated us from the outside world. And he we were without a way to make them open and grant our freedom. Mrs. Pincus spotted a disheveled-looking fellow, his SEPTA-emblazoned shirt untucked from his wrinkled, ill-fitting pants, puttering around an Information Booth. 

"Excuse me," she began. The fellow looked up with a confused expression, as though no one had spoken to him in weeks. Mrs. P continued, "How do we get out? We were not given swipe cards by the conductor on our train." The man scratched his head and offered two options. "Well," he said, you can buy an exit card from that machine over there." He gestured to a large, refrigerator-looking vending machine with a very complicated-looking glowing blue screen. Our little group collectively cringed. We all turned back to the fellow, hoping that Option Two would be more appealing. "Or you can just push open the glass door at the ADA exit." (The ADA, of course is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that required all public area to be equipped with easy access for those folks in wheelchairs or other disabilities requiring special provisions.) Although we felt bad, we all silently acknowledged that we liked Option Two much better and would take full advantage of it. Like a mini parade, a dozen people walked single file through the easily-opened ADA exit... and no one said a word.

Our return trip home was equally as "typical SEPTA" as our morning adventure. Upon exiting the station earlier in the morning, I purchased tickets for our trip home and safely tucked them in my wallet. After a full, fun day of holiday lights, lunch with our son and his girlfriend, a stroll through the temporary Christmas shopping village set up around Philadelphia's City Hall, Mrs. Pincus and I walked back to the station to board a homebound train.

Our train arrived and we selected a seat. We talked in quiet voices as we rode. In my peripheral vision, I noticed a young man in a seat across the aisle slightly turning his head to listen to our conversation. We weren't discussing any sensitive or controversial topics. We were probably talking about our plans for dinner or what we were doing on Sunday. Nevertheless, this guy was hanging on to our every word. He even turned around further and chuckled to himself, as though he was an active an welcome member of our conversation. I recalled experiencing this on a daily basis when I took the train more often. My conversation, it seemed, was infinitely more interesting, informative and entertaining than those of my fellow passengers — and they weren't shy or discreet about hearing the full dissertation.

Ah, SEPTA. You appear to be adjusting to the post-pandemic world just fine. God bless you. Keep up the good work.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

sign, sign, everywhere a sign

I was out shopping with my wife at one of those discount stores that I always assume will be closed and out of business the next time we visit. When she decided that our cart was sufficiently filled, we made our way to the check-out counters. Mrs. P methodically emptied the contents of our cart on to the counter, reexamining each item to confirm that she was making a wise purchase. While she did this, I gazed dreamily at the windows which were shielded from the afternoon sunlight by a large number of badly hand-written signs taped to each glass pane. Looking at the signs – the childlike scrawls forming crookedly-placed, unsure capital letters – I was instantly transported back 40 years... to an incident I remember as if it happened yesterday.

When my father was discharged from service in the US Navy at the end of World War II, he was hired as an apprentice meat cutter with Penn Fruit, a once-prominent, now-defunct supermarket chain in the Philadelphia area. He learned a viable trade as young man, but he longed to, one day, own his own store. A store he could preside over as "the boss" – calling the shots, offering wisdom from years of experience in the retail food purveying business and keeping his beloved meat case fully stocked with ribs and chops, roasts and steaks. As adept as he was at slicing up a side of beef, he was a poor businessman. He was bad at monetary affairs both at home and at work. He made bad choices, had bad instincts and learned nothing from his mistakes. He could cut meat like nobody's business, but when it came to being "in charge"... well, my dad wasn't an "in charge" kind of guy.

Nevertheless, when I was a senior in high school, my father negotiated to purchase a small food market in a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia. It was a miniature version of a supermarket and my father had big plans to compete with the three actual (and busier) supermarkets that were in walking distance. The current owner was a man with a checkered background. He was well-known to have a very close association with Philadelphia organized crime. He also owned a popular cheese manufacturing company, that was most definitely a front for his other shadier dealings. Despite warnings from a hired business attorney (his actual words were "you are crazy if you do business with this guy"), my father was blinded by his own business fantasy. He ventured into a "trial period" and brought his family along for the ride. My dad made my brother and me quit our little after-school-and-weekend part-time jobs. He asked my mother to do the same thing, but she refused. Based on my dad's track record, she saw this venture going South real fast. My mom was a cashier and assistant manager at a women's clothing store. She merely cut back her hours there, informing them that she'd be back full-time when her husband's pipe dreams fell apart... and surely they would. 

So, the Pincus family went to work with the current staff – a collection of the motliest of crews this side of a prison work-release program. Some of the staff would not show up for their shifts. Just plain not show up. Then come in a few days later and work as though nothing happened, not the least bit concerned about the possibility of losing their job. My father was only concerned with making his new "fresh cut meat" department look good. He also didn't have the guts to fire some delinquent kid who may or may not pull a knife on him.

My mom was made Head Cashier. My brother was Assistant Manager and worked the deli counter. I was relegated to whatever job was needed. I stocked shelves. I unloaded trucks. I ran a cash register. And, once a week, I hung the giant-size sale signs in the windows. That was quite an undertaking. I climbed up on shelving, sometimes teetering on a narrow ledge as I braced myself against the window frame, positioning the unfurled signs as straight and square as possible, then securing them with a pre-torn strip of adhesive tape. I performed this task every Thursday for the entire time I worked at my father's little retail venture. 

Every Thursday but one.

On Wednesday, June 20, 1979, I graduated from high school. After the ceremony, which was held on the school's football field, a group of family and friends gathered at my house for a celebration. For the special occasion, my parents allowed my friends and me to imbibe in alcoholic refreshment in the form of a case of Genesee Cream Ale, my then "drink of choice". Although we lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey was regarded as a suburb of Philadelphia and, at the time, the legal drinking age in New Jersey was 18 years of age. Sure, I was a few months shy of 18, but I had been sneaking into bars in Jersey for a while, never once getting asked for ID. Good thing, too, because I did not have a fake identification. If they wouldn't let me in, I'd just go to another bar that would. Forgoing the legalities of serving minors, my parents happily let us drink. And drink we did. And did. And did.

My friend Alan and I drank well into the wee hours of the morning, eventually passing out in my room – me across my bed, Alan barely making to my brother's bed. (My brother was living elsewhere by the time I finished high school.) We slept like we were dead. We slept like we drank more than we should have the night before. I could have slept all day. But the sharp ring of our house phone woke me up.

It was my father.

I fumbled with the receiver, looking at it through squinty eyes. I croaked out a weak "Hello" and had to pull the phone away from my ear when my father's reply sounded like an air-raid siren through the pounding of a full-blown hangover. His words registered in my brain on a delay, but – as I understood – he was asking me to come down to the store and hang the signs in the window. I was pretty sure I had asked for the day off and I was also pretty sure that my father assured me that he would ask one of his other employees to cover for me, including the honor of hanging his precious signs. This wasn't brain surgery, fer Chrissakes! It was taping some paper to windows. The hardest thing about it was making sure the words on the signs faced outward. The problem was, every single employee in that store – before the Pincus family arrived – was an absolute moron with a capital MOR. I protested, explaining to my father that I was in no condition to climb shelving and hang signs, let alone drive to the store. He insisted, assuring me I could leave as soon as the last sign was re-hung.

Re-hung? What? "You mean the signs are already up?," I questioned. "What do you need me for?" My father answered: "You'll see when you get here." And he hung up. I had to go.

I pulled on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. I tied my sneakers and informed Alan that I had to go to work for an hour or so. Alan grumbled something that I don't think were actual words. I went out to my car.

When I arrived at the store, I couldn't believe what I saw. Not only was every sign crooked, but every one was upside down. Several were hung upside down and backwards, with the flipped type facing the inside of the store. Not one or two. Not a few. Every. Single. Sign. Every one!

I came into the store and met my father. We didn't exchange any words. We just slowly shook our heads and rolled our eyes. I silently grabbed a roll of tape and got to work – taking down each sign, turning it around, flipping it, if necessary, and taping it – correctly – back into place. When the whole job was re-done, I handed the roll of tape back to my father and said: "See you at home." And I left.

My father never did buy that store. His lawyer finally convinced him just how bad an idea it was. The Pincuses all left the venture and we all got jobs in other places, except my mom. She went back to the clothing store full time. My father took his meat cutting skills to another chain supermarket. He never attempted to purchase his own store again.

I still laugh when I see signs in supermarket windows.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

box set

A few doors up the block is a house where an older woman lived. Recently, due to her advanced age and declining health, the woman was relocated to an assisted living facility. After the woman was settled into her new home, her daughter and her son-in-law moved into the house.

Apparently, the woman's daughter began emptying out the house. Perhaps in an effort to working towards selling it. Or possibly to unclutter a lifetime's worth of accumulation and make the house more livable. Whatever the reason, day after day, a large cardboard box would appear at the curb. It was filled with an unusual assortment of household items, glassware, dishes in once-trendy patterns, magazines and books. Way at the bottom, there was usually some sort of costume jewelry (we presumed) or some gold-leaf appointed oddity that could only be classified as "bric-a-brac." One of the open flaps of the box presented the single word invitation "FREE" scrawled in black marker, as though a box filled with someone's obvious castoffs wasn't enough of an enticement. The clarification that this stuff was being offered gratis was — in my opinion — overkill.

Mrs. Pincus is not one to shy away from a bargain. She loves yard sales and estate sales and sales sales of any kind (Soupy Sales notwithstanding). Many a road trip has been detoured by an alluring display on some local's driveway or the promise of great deals as proclaimed by signage in the window of a store. But, a boxful of stuff barely fifty feet from our front door is the veritable motherlode. As we embark on our daily walks, Mrs. P regularly checks the contents of "the box," often finding something that could be put up for auction on eBay or, at the very least, put out on a table at our own annual yard sale.

Understand that "the box" is not just a collection of random crap that someone never, ever wants to see again. Well... a lot of it is. But, more than once, my wife has nabbed a little tchotchke that has sparked a surprising bidding war on eBay. Mrs. P has begun to look forward to checking out "the box," sometimes twice, at the beginning and end of our walk.

Just the other day, we saw a fresh sampling of items placed at the curb for the taking. Situated among a stack of instructional sports books, a small wooden cabinet, an unidentified plastic fellow with big inquisitive eyes and a bulky pair of ski boots was an unopened, still-intact six pack of Boost®, which according to the product's official website is: "a nutrient-rich drink that's great as a mini-meal or an in-between meal snack, designed to produce a lower blood sugar response in people with diabetes."

Why the occupants of the house didn't want it is beyond me.

I began to think. Sure, Mrs. P has taken stuff from "the box." and, obviously other people have taken stuff from "the box," as we have seen folks milling about the container in much the same way we have - bent over, gingerly rearranging the contents and then scurrying away with some treasure. I wondered, though, did someone wander along, spot a six-pack of Boost® and think: "Just what I needed!" I can imaging the poor sap downing bottle after bottle of the drink, eventually feeling ill and consulting a doctor after experiencing stomach cramps, cold chills and all sorts of discomfort. The doctor would ask a list of routine questions, trying to pinpoint the source of his patient's illness. "Did you eat or drink anything unusual?," he'd ask. The patient would explain that he consumed several bottles of the nutritious Boost® drink, a ritual he's done for some time. The baffled doctor, continuing his probe, would ask: "Was the product past its 'Good Till' date? Which store did he purchase the drink from?" "Oh no," the patient would scoff dismissively, "I didn't get it at a store! I picked it out of a box by the curb next to a pair of ski boots." The doctor would then quickly make a few notations on the patient's file before kicking him the fuck out of his office.

See.... "the box" is more than just a source of merchandise.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

party all the time

My current resume reflects seven jobs - my current employment and six previous. However, I have trimmed and edited my resume considerably over the past forty years, so the actual number is more like a dozen. My attitude towards my job du jour has also changed over time.

If you have kept up with this blog for any length of time (and why wouldn't you?), you know that I just started a job this past Spring after being among those who lost their jobs when COVID-19 brought the entire world to its knees. In my new position, I spend a good portion of my day alone in an office with little to no interaction with anyone. That is not a complaint. That is a fact... and I like it just fine. The days go by quickly and Spring became Summer and Fall became Winter in the wink of an eye. As November wound its way towards December, I received an email similar to emails I have received at past jobs once the phenomena of "email" came into existence. The subject line made me cringe the way all the similar subject lines all those years ago.

Subject: H O L I D A Y   P A R T Y

At many of my past jobs, I was always expected to attend some sort of holiday gathering for folks that I really didn't consider my friends. One day in late December, actual work would taper off around noon and co-workers would gather around a tray of cookies and a platter of bland sandwiches forcing themselves to smile and talk about non-work stuff. It was awkward, non-productive and... just plain weird. Some of these gatherings were small because the office (at the time) only employed three or four people. Others were lavish catered affairs at a rented hotel ballroom, resplendent in shimmering decorations, live music, flowing buffets, overstocked bars.... and the same feeling of awkwardness. More recently, holiday work parties were dispensed with in favor of the the idea of going home early, an idea which was way better received by employees.

Based on past experiences, I had hoped that "office holiday parties" were something I would never have to be subjected to again. And, considering my current job, I really don't know any of my co-workers and — honestly — I don't really want to. But, there it was. In my "IN" box of my email. An unopened email with the dreaded subject line that I wish could remain unopened. But, alas, it could not.

As I read the contents of this inter-office correspondence, I became filled with a growing angst. The email revealed plans for an off-site gathering on a Saturday evening. Ugh! Not only don't I want to go to this thing, I will have to go on my day off. At night on a day off. Ugh! This was not looking good. I read the email and ignored it for the rest of the day.... hoping it would go away.

Just this past Monday, a woman who I only know as Angela approached my desk with a menu from the proposed nearby bar that would be the hosting venue of the pending holiday party. She pointed out several vegetarian options on the listed of available entrees. I must have told someone that I was a vegetarian, because she seems to push that as a selling point. Then she said "I really hope you can come."

"Really?" I thought. "Do you really hope I can come? Does the fate of your 'happy holiday' hinge on whether or not an employee of less that a year — someone you know nothing about — comes to your little party?"

In a few minutes, Angela emailed the entire menu to all members in my nine-person department. Along with the menu, there was a proposed price-per-person for those attending. This is the first of these dreadful events that required attendees to pay their own way. However, it is also the first one where spouses and significant others are welcome. Over these past years, my wife was always a bit annoyed that she was not included in any of my work holiday parties, despite getting specific requests from my co-workers for specific baked goods to be served at a party to which she was not invited.

Well, dear Mrs. P, your wish has been answered. You will absolutely be joining me at this year's work holiday party.

As a matter of fact, you can go in my place.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

u got the look

Let's talk about this asshole, shall we? Why is he an asshole? I'll get to that in a minute.

Remember back before March 2020? Before we were all sent home from our office jobs to "work from home?" Unless you are over 100 years old and you lived through the last pandemic that was experienced worldwide, this was a whole new experience for almost everyone. As the tedious, unsure days of the pandemic raged on, going out in public and mingling with your fellow human became a rare event. However, a strange phenomenon occurred almost organically. People began to express a compelling feeling of camaraderie. An overwhelming "we're all in this together" attitude arose among humankind. A feeling of goodness and benevolence. Helping your fellow earth-dweller through the hard times became an everyday occurrence. Helping those having difficultly dealing with the pandemic — both physically and mentally — became second nature. Then we all got vaccinated and we all went back to our offices and we all started going out in public and we all regained our disdain for our fellow humans.

Back to normal.

My wife and I went to BJ's Wholesale Club yesterday. The store was fairly busy for 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, so I could understand the added crowd... although the woman exiting the store with merely two boxes of Cheerios and a container of sour cream puzzled me, but who am I to question someone's holiday traditions. We, too, were there to purchase some of the ingredients for our Thanksgiving meal in what would be the second of possibly four grocery store stops.

Once our cart was filled, we made our way up the the check-out area at the front of the store. That's where we encountered the asshole I alluded to earlier. But wait.... I'm getting ahead of myself.

The check-out lines were long. So long, in fact, that they snaked way back into the retail area of the store. Still-shopping customers had difficulty navigating the featured Christmas department while weaving around other customers who had already made their selections. The recent, pandemic-related practice of "social distancing" was somewhat relaxed, despite bright red labels affixed to the floor instructing customers to maintain a gap of six feet between them and fellow shoppers. Being respectful (pandemic or not), we kept a comfortable amount of space between us and the guy in front of us.

Evidently, not comfortable enough for him.

Since another pandemic-related practice — wearing face masks — has been implemented, our immediate interpretations of another person's feelings via facial expressions have been seriously impeded. The only thing we have to go by now is someone's eyes. Y'know, they say "the eyes are the windows to the soul." The guy in line in front of us.... well, there was no mistaking what was going on in his soul. If his eyes were lasers, they would have bored a hole through everything in our cart before moving on to our respective foreheads. From the look he gave us when we joined the line, and without hearing a word from him, I instinctively backed up a few feet. After his initial glare, he stood and silently surveyed each and every item in our cart. I could actually see his eyes stop and align themselves with each bag, box and plastic container. Before his eyes shifted to the next item, they would narrow angrily and reveal a palpable judgement of disgust. 

I stood by our cart as Mrs. P wandered in and out of the nearby aisles. Every so often, she would return with an interesting game or toy to show me. We would have a brief conversation about what she brought over. In my peripheral vison, I could sense the guy in front of us intrusively hanging on every word of our conversation. I could also see him silently shaking his head in an equally judgmental capacity, previously bestowed upon our grocery choices.

The line actually moved at a pretty good clip, bringing us within visual proximity of the cashier area. At this point, the single line fed each of the operating cash wraps. The guy in front of us — the asshole — chose the cashier to the left. We went right. As my wife entered her membership credentials into the electronic terminal, I began to arrange our soon-to-be purchases on the conveyer belt. I glanced over to our former line-mate, curious to see his progress. He was standing behind a woman who was methodically, albeit slowly, rifling though her purse, obviously searching for some form of payment. Our former line-mate — the asshole — stood rigid, arms tightly folded across his chest, his laser eyes burning a hole in the back of the woman's head.

Yep, we are on our way to "back to normal." There's a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, it may be a laser.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

doing alright

In 1982, two great things happened. I met the woman who would eventually become the illustrious Mrs. Pincus, and Chipwich — the beloved chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich — was introduced to the world via vending carts on city streets.

I loved Chipwiches, from the very moment I purchased and gobbled one down. They were ingenious and I often wondered why no one thought up the concept prior to 1978. After all, ice cream had been around since the 17th century and, when Ruth Wakefield pulled that first batch of chocolate chip cookies out of her oven at the Toll House, why wasn't her immediate inclination to put a scoop of ice cream between two of 'em? Nevertheless, Richard LaMotta of Chappaqua, NY, inspired by his love of dunking chocolate chip cookies in milk, devised the Chipwich. His rag-tag squad of street vendors — clad in khakis and pith helmets — sold their frozen wares out daily... even at a then pricey $1.00 each. One of those vendors, with his retro-cool cart, stocked with Chipwiches, was a regular fixture on Philadelphia's famed South Street, a frequent haunt of the future Mrs. P and myself in our early, carefree dating days. Just into our official "adulthood," our lives were filled with movies and music and the pursuit of fun — all of which were readily available on South Street. And our pursuit always had room for a Chipwich.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, (future) Mrs. P and I strolled up South Street. As we approached our favorite Chipwich vendor — a typical 80s kid with multiple earrings and bleached blond-and-pink hair trying to make a buck — I spotted a new addition to his mobile establishment. Suspended from the metal ribs of his Chipwich-logoed umbrella was a hand-written sign that read "Rock and Roll Trivia." My curiosity was instantly piqued. I fancied myself an aficionado of trivia, especially in topics with which I was very familiar and rock & roll were two of them. Plus, at a Chipwich cart, I could only imagine what the prize would be. I was game. And hungry. I asked our intrepid vendor "What's this?" as I poked an extended finger in the direction of his sign. He smiled and laid down the simple rules of his probably-unauthorized contest. "I'll ask you three questions about your favorite band. If you can answer all three right... dude... you get a free Chipwich. Simple as that! Wanna play?"

He had me at "free Chipwich."

"I get to pick the band, right?," I confirmed. He assured me that was the case. Without even any consideration, I chose Queen, a band I had loved since I heard "Killer Queen" wafting from my AM radio back when I was in 8th grade. The Chipwich vendor smiled and rubbed his palms together in a close approximation of a cartoon villain. I could almost visualize the wheels spinning in his head as he formed the first of my three questions.

"What was Brian May's first guitar made of?," he asked, and stared at me as he waited for — and anticipated — a wrong answer.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that my feelings for Queen's guitarist have changed considerably since the passing of Freddie Mercury in 1991. With the flamboyant frontman out of the way, May has morphed from a silent maestro of the six-string into an outspoken, self-appointed and self-important mouthpiece of a (in my opinion) now-defunct band whose musical output is at the licensing beck-and-call of Brian May's monetarily-driven whims. But, in 1982, I was still on "Team Brian" and he was okay in my book. I made it my top priority to know everything there was to know about Queen — its germination, its members, its songs, everything! And — goddamn! — if I didn't know what Brian May's first guitar was made of!

I looked the Chipwich vendor right in the eye, puffed out my chest and proudly said, "Brian May built his first guitar from some wood from a fireplace mantle and parts of an old chair."

The Chipwich vendor's jaw dropped. "What?," he exclaimed, "No one knows that!" He reached into the frigid bowels of his cart and extracted a cellophane-sheathed Chipwich, its wrapper flecked with sparkly bits of ice. "I'm just gonna give you the Chipwich, man. I'm not even gonna bother with any more questions. No one knows that guitar one!"

I began to unwrap the frozen, chocolate chip-appointed spoils of my victory. As I reached for a napkin from the conveniently placed chrome dispenser, I casually asked the Chipwich vendor, "Just out of curiosity, what was the second question going to be?" The Chipwich vendor grabbed a rag and wiped up a few errant drips of ice that were now liquefied on the hot chrome lid of his cart. "I was going to ask 'How many synthesizers were played on Roger Taylor's first solo album?'" 

There was a long-running statement/inside joke included in the credits of every Queen album release. At the end of a long list of studio personnel and an enumeration of the various musical instruments and recording techniques employed by the band, they were adamant about letting the world know that not a single synthesizer was used to achieve any of the unusual sounds the listener heard. Sometimes varying in its wording — no synthesizers, nobody played synthesizer, no synths!  — the sentiment was always the same. Drummer Roger Taylor, the first member of Queen to release a solo album, included the smart-alecky line "P.P.S. 157 synthesizers" at the end of the liner notes of his "Fun In Space" debut in 1981. At the time, however, I did not own this album. Ergo, I did not know the answer to the second question.

I finished that Chipwich as fast as I could.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

welcome to my world

Remember that guy I told you about last week? My co-worker who stinks? Well, I have another co-worker who also stinks... but in a different way.

I have been in and around the commercial printing business for approximately 40 years. I have worked for printing companies. I have designed for printing companies. I have dealt with printing companies as a customer. In my nearly four decades of experience, I can safely say, with certain small exceptions, that people in the commercial printing business are some of the dumbest people I have ever met. The frightening majority of folks in the commercial printing business are ignorant, narrow-minded lunkheads who, aside from operating a printing press roughly the size of a battleship, can't do much else. And the sales force in the commercial printing business don't posses the skills to operate the presses, so they are even dumber. Salespeople who sell commercial printing services are a special kind of dumb.

Here's my most recent encounter with one of their representatives.

In my current job, I design ads and other promotional materials for the supermarket industry. I work closely with a guy who sells the owners of these supermarkets on the idea that their store needs these items in order to drum up business. After lengthy in-person or phone conversations with the customer, the salesman hands me scribbled pages of notes and rudimentary drawings and it's my job to translate these hieroglyphics into something "pretty." After submitting a design idea, the salesman runs it by the customer and it goes though several more rounds of changes, edits and additions until an approval is given and it goes to print. The changes are usually transmitted via email . But along the way. some of those changes are delivered verbally, in the form of the salesman sitting behind me as I guide my mouse cursor around my computer monitor, telling me "Move that there." and "Change this to that." 

The salesman in question is a slick little motherfucker with a Mephistophelian beard, French-cuffed shirts and a vocabulary like a longshoreman. An uneducated longshoreman. He complains about the stupidity of every single one of his customers. He second-guesses his customer's changes and often directs me to make changes contrary to their changes... only to have those changes changed back to what they originally requested.

Just this week, I was working on a door hanger for a supermarket grand opening in the South Jersey area. (You know what a door hanger is. It's a long cardboard advertisement with a slotted hole cut in it that... you know... hangs on your doorknob.) This particular piece had gone though an inordinate number of changes over a period of a couple of days. (I generated nearly eight unique proofs, only differentiated by a few insignificant changes — none of which would ever be noticed by a potential recipient as he tosses it from his front door into the pile of the week's recycling.)

Late on Friday afternoon, the salesman stomped into my office, grumbling something about "more changes." He plopped himself into a nearby office chair and asked me to pull up the pending door hanger-in-progress on my computer. As I searched my folders for the proper version of the InDesign file, the salesman said: "The first thing the customer wants, is to add 'Black Lives Matter" to the front, under the logo."

I froze.

I slowly turned around, something I rarely do, as I prefer to accept dictated changes while I face my computer screen. "Really?," I asked. Customer changes of any kind never surprise me. Store owners have been known to make any number of unusual requests ("unusual" in my opinion) for what they want added to their advertising in the name of the dangerous combination of "promotion" and "community awareness."

He laughed heartily. "No," he clarified, "I'm just kidding."

This made me angry. Very angry. First of all, as the "new guy," I was in no position to say anything about anything. I couldn't reprimand him. I couldn't explain how I found his callous comment offensive. I couldn't tell him how his belittling of the BLM movement was dismissive of an entire race that has been dismissed for years and years. I certainly understood his derisive remark. The supermarket is located in a predominantly black neighborhood. In his narrow little mind, he saw me — a white guy with gray hair — as a comrade. A compatriot. A confederate. An ally. A reflection of his own way of thinking. He even repeated his little racist comment to the real stinky guy behind me — who chuckled with his acknowledgement.

The salesman continued dictating the actual changes he wanted and I made them to the document. I generated a PDF proof and emailed it to the salesman, hitting the big "SEND" button as he exited my office. I stewed for sometime until I gathered up my jacket and left the office myself, as it was the end of another work week.

Over the weekend, I thought (on and off) about my few options. I decided — reluctantly — to do nothing. Not to say anything to my supervisor at work. Not to say anything to the nice lady in Human Resources who I have not seen since my first day of work seven months ago. I decided to let it pass. Racists will always be racists. I can't change that. Stupid people will always be stupid. I can't change that either.

The best I can do is blog about it.

So I did.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

ooh, ooh... that smell

I started a new job a few months ago. I work in an office by myself and... well, it doesn't really make a difference what I do. That's not the point. The point is: I work in an office by myself for most of the day.

Until around three o'clock.

At three o'clock every day, a guy named Frank comes in and sits at another desk — at another computer — about five or so feet away from me. I say "Hello" when he walks in and he raises an open palm in acknowledgement. When I leave — approximately 90 minutes later — I say "Good night" and am usually out the door before I hear whether or not Frank has replied.

Those 90 minutes, however, are torture.

That's because Frank stinks.

At first, I just thought it was the familiar smell of lingering cigarette smoke. I grew up in a house where, for a time, both of my parents smoked. My mother quit sometime in the middle 1970s. Afterwards, I believe my father increased his cigarette smoking to make up for my mom. My father smoked right up until the time he was still able to lift a cigarette to his lips. When he could no longer smoke, it was because he was dead. He threatened promised to quit many times over the years, but, like most of his promises, he never followed through. In the meantime, his clothes, his house, his car, his everything smelled of smoke. It is a smell with which I am intimately familiar and suitably repulsed. My mom would regularly wipe down the furniture in their bedroom, coming away from the process with a cloth that was yellow with nicotine residue. It was disgusting.

So is Frank.

Because I realized that the smell that accompanies Frank is not just cigarettes. It's just partly cigarettes, because Frank does indeed smoke. Frank obviously does not maintain the proper grooming practices that an adult in a civilized society should. He sits behind me at his desk and does whatever it is that he does. The whole time, the air is fouled with a horrible stench I can only imagine is similar to that of the city morgue or a butcher shop experiencing freezer problems. 

Every so often, Frank gets up and leaves the office, leaving an invisible — but palpable — odor of decomposition in his wake. When he returns, he brings the aroma of freshly-burned tobacco back with him, along with the deathly scent of a month's worth of unwashed laundry marinating in stagnant motor oil.

Frank seems like an okay guy. Y'know... just an average guy. But — Jesus! — is there no one at his house or in his life to sit him down, hand him a bar of soap, and explain the simple instructions of how to put it to its best use?

Luckily for me, Frank and I are on differently work schedules. Our shifts only overlap for an hour and a half. I can work through the uncomfortable atmosphere for a quick 5400 seconds. At least he is a fair distance from me and the air circulation is pretty good in the building. I do sit with my back to him and I've been practicing holding my breath. 

I am also thinking of buying this shirt for Frank...

... but Frank is bigger than me.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

i've just seen a face

This is Daniel Roebuck. He's an actor. A pretty busy actor, as a matter of fact. You know him. He's that guy from that thing... you know. Actually, IMDB (the invaluable Internet Movie Database) lists him with over 250 acting credits, not to mention his numerous other credits as director, producer, writer and "special thanks." Here's a story about when I met Daniel... who is a really nice and gracious guy, to boot.

My in-laws owned and operated a store in a once-thriving farmers market just outside of Philadelphia. By the time they became my in-laws, the store was well into its fifth year of business. (Side note: my father-in-law opened this store as a stopgap while his primary business — a popular hardware store — was rebuilt after a devastating fire.) The store in the farmers market — Larry's Hardware — became a well-known "destination" as my wife and my mother-in-law brought in more "pop culture" merchandise, shoving aside precious shelf space once occupied by hammers, trowels and boxes of nails. 

I began working for my in-laws by the time my soon-to-be wife and I had our third date. I worked every weekend while I diligently sought a job in my chosen profession — graphic design. Even after I secured many a position in the design field, I still found myself stocking shelves and applying price tags to various items each and every Saturday from early in the morning until late at night. On Fridays, I was at my regular job, but Saturday was "Larry's Hardware" day for me. My wife, however, worked both days. When our son was born, Fridays were the times I spent with him while Mrs. P worked late. After putting him to bed, I would try my darndest to stay up until Mrs. Pincus got home. Sometimes, I didn't make it and I was often jolted awake by the sound of a key turning in the front-door lock. The TV was showing something that I don't remember watching. We'd go to bed to get a little rest before tackling a marathon Saturday at Larry's.

One particular Friday, I was watching a movie that I had never seen before. It was called River's Edge, a 1986 independent effort from director Tim Hunter, who went on to helm a lot of episodic TV, including Twin Peaks, Mad Men and the recent Hannibal. River's Edge is a dark, disturbing tale featuring a quirky cast of actors with a young Keanu Reeves at the forefront. I watched the film, admittedly dozing on and off as the hour got later. When Mrs. P got home, we talked a bit. She told me about some regularly-occuring incidents at the store and we headed off to bed.

The next day, I caught myself dozing off while sitting at the unusually not-busy cash register. I glanced over at one of the aisles — ten or so feet away — and I saw my wife talking to a customer. He was a man about my age. He sort of looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place him. I stared at this man as my wife talked, gesturing to some items on a shelf, although they were too far away for me to hear actual details of their conversation. Where do I know this guy from? was going over and over in my head. Finally, it hit me... I think. I got up and walked over to them. At first, I didn't interrupt them and the man smiled and nodded at me. I couldn't hold back any longer.

"Do I know you from coming into the store," I began, "or do I know you because I saw you kill your girlfriend in River's Edge last night?"

He wasn't even taken aback by my accusation. As a matter of fact, he laughed. Loudly. And so did my wife. Through her laughter, she explained that she just had a nearly identical exchange with this man.

"I asked," she said, "do I know you from coming into the store or because I saw you in an episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman?"

Daniel in Lois & Clark and River's Edge
The man, as we soon found out, was Daniel Roebuck. Daniel, a native a nearby Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, explained that he has been coming to this farmers market since he was a child. Now that he lives in California, he makes sure that it's one of his stops when he comes in to visit family. As we continued our conversation, we heard customers whispering and pointing at Daniel. We heard things like "That's Cody Bank's father!" referring to his role in a popular kid's film franchise and "There's the guy from Lost!," recalling his role of the notorious "Dr. Leslie Arzt," who blew himself up in a memorable sequence in the cult series. Other folks remembered other times they've seen Daniel Roebuck flash across their TVs or the big screen during an evening at the movies. After all, he's been in a lot, working alongside some of Hollywood's biggest names (Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive comes to mind), as well as being cast as a regular in the TV series Matlock and Nash Bridges. Horror films seem to be Daniel's bread and butter, appearing in a number of shockers with both big and small budgets. Daniel briefly paused our conversation to run out to his car to retrieve a photo album (this was before such a collection could be conveniently stored on one's phone) displaying his vast accumulation of horror movie memorabilia. He also inscribed a glossy, black & white headshot of himself to my wife and me. He actually purchased a few horror-related items to add to his collection, thanked us and exited into the busy main aisle of the market — where more people rattled off some of Daniel's past roles in somewhat hushed tones.

Daniel as Grandpa
From that point forward, we saw Daniel Roebuck in everything! New shows, old shows that we've seen a zillion times, but just now noticed an appearance by our new friend. He's been in a slew of comedies, dramas and anthologies. He was even in a late-season episode of Love Boat... (but who hasn't?) He played Jay Leno in a made-for-television movie about the late-night talk show rivalries. He played Garry Marshall in a TV biopic about Robin Williams. He's been featured in small roles in several of rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie's productions. As a matter of fact, Daniel landed the plum role of "Grandpa Munster" in Zombie's upcoming take on the classic TV sitcom.

Daniel popped into the store a few more times before its permanent closing in 2007. I have contacted him through various social media platforms, and after relating the story you just read, Daniel confirmed the episode and told how it still makes him laugh. He's a good guy.

If you didn't know his name before, you do now. And, just like us, you will now spot him in everything.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

you've got a friend

Did you have someone you knew but weren't sure why you were friends? I did. There was one guy — Wally — who was always "in the picture." As best as I can figure, I was "friends" with Wally because he was in my homeroom for four consecutive years, based purely on the fact that those classes were formed alphabetically. Just because Wally's last name began with the same few letters as my last name, we were — as they say — stuck with each other. 

Where it all began.
When I first met Wally, we made small talk about music and concerts. Then, he invited me to his house... which I'm sure I declined on the first few invitations. You see, I had come to realize that Wally was a jerk. He was very full of himself. He bragged. He was a loudmouth. Among my group of upper middle class friends and acquaintances, Wally and his family were — what was considered — rich. His father (who I met only once or twice) possibly owned a construction company — which in 1970s euphemisms — meant connections to organized crime. Wally's father owned a giant silver Lincoln Continental at a time when other dad's drove second-hand Chevys. Wally lived in a big house with an in-ground pool on the furthest outskirts of the Philadelphia City Limits, still allowing him to attend Philadelphia public schools. The official county boundary was across the street from his house.

Wally's pride.
Wally always had the latest technology gadgets. He was the first person I knew with a VCR, a push-button phone, a big-screen (projection) television. His split-level house had a built-in intercom system. For his 16th birthday, which came in February (before any of my other friends), Wally — of course — got a car. And not just any car... a brand new Datsun B210. It was a cool, sporty little car with racing stripes and he flaunted it conceitedly through the school's parking lot — stopping short of screaming "I GOT A CAR!" in the face of everyone who looked in his direction. However, one day, Wally came to my house to pick me up (I did not have my own car. Not many of my friends did.) in his father's Lincoln. That thing was like a tank and Wally, who was small of frame, was dwarfed by its massive dashboard and gigantic steering wheel. I swear, he had a hard time seeing over the dash and out the windshield. I climbed into the front passenger's seat and we headed out to whatever our destination was (probably a Sam Goody record store at a nearby mall). Wally gunned the engine in a typical "show off" move and we took off up an on-ramp of the highway near my house. As we approached our exit, Wally — who was going way too fast — veered off the blacktop and into the overgrown grassy area that followed the contour of the road. With wide eyes and a grimace of panic across both our faces, Wally managed to bring the mammoth vehicle to a halt. He gathered his breath and turned to me. Instead of what I assumed would be an apology or at least an "Are you all right?," Wally grit his teeth and seethed, "Not a word about this to anyone at school!" Wally was indeed a jerk, but I kept my word.

Wally had a huge record collection. An entire wall of his bedroom was occupied by shelves and shelves of albums. Wally would happily record any one of his albums on cassette for me (if I provided the blank tape) but he would never ever lend an album to anyone. Never! No one was permitted to touch Wally's albums. When he removed one from its protective cardboard sleeve, one was barely permitted to breathe near the vinyl disk as it spun on his expensive turntable. Wally was a big fan of The Who, a band who — to be honest — in the middle 1970s, I was not familiar with. But, they were gods to Wally. I remember I was at Wally's house when the news came out that Keith Moon, the Who's wild man drummer, had died. Wally sank as though he was just informed that his father had died. Actually, I don't believe the death of his father would have elicited the same reaction, until he realized that his source of unlimited funds had now run dry.

During the course of high school, Wally's house (suspiciously)  burned down. Another time, Wally and his girlfriend were accosted and tied up by three men who muscled their way into his house (also suspicious), the place cleaned out of valuables as Wally and his girl sat helplessly. (Again, unsubstantiated.)

After high school, I lost touch with Wally. Actually, "liberated myself from" would be a better way of putting it. A friend of a mutual friend told me that Wally had opened a retail store not far from my home. I was talked into attending the grand opening. Surprise! Wally was still a jerk. Not graciously welcoming his acquaintances to his new venture, but thumping his chest and stopping short of screaming "I GOT A STORE" in the face of everyone who looked in his direction. A few years later, Wally and his new wife wandered into my father-in-law's store, where I worked with Mrs. Pincus on weekends for years until it closed. I introduced Wally to my wife, choking on the words "my friend" as they passed through my lips. Wally's wife, a nice enough woman who I secretly wondered what was she doing with Wally, suggested that we all get together sometime. I smiled... with no intentions of ever making that happen.

A few years ago, I had an accumulation of vacation days from work that had to be used before the end of the calendar year. I took random days off with no real plans to do anything. On one of those days, I found myself in the neighborhood of Wally's store — still in business, but in a different suburban location. I parked my car and entered the store. There was Wally, looking a bit older and a bit grayer, but it was Wally. He was behind the counter, surrounded by stacks and piles of haphazardly displayed merchandise — and not a single customer in sight. He looked up as I entered. He did not recognize me. Granted, at the time I had flaming red hair, something I did not sport in high school. I explained who I was and Wally lit up. Not with a "Great to see you after all this time," but with a barrage of boasts about his business and his overall success.

Yep. Wally was still a jerk and I wondered why on earth I ventured into his store and why I wanted him in life again.

More recently, Wally tracked me down on social media. He made himself known by making a succession of very racist comments on several of my posts. I immediately blocked him.

If only life was that easy.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

I love a man in uniform

I love old television shows, especially the ones from my youth. But you already knew that. Actually, I don't love all old TV shows. There are a few (quite a few, as a matter of fact) that I don't like. Three of them, coincidentally, have military premises... and I don't like any of them.

In 1962, the anthology series Alcoa Premiere presented a one-hour drama called "Seven Against the Sea." The show featured Academy Award-winning actor Ernest Borgnine as a beleaguered US Navy Captain dealing with the trials and tribulations of World War II. The character Borgnine played was "Quintin McHale." Someone at the ABC Network got the bright idea to spin the show off into a weekly series and.... make it a comedy... and McHale's Navy was born. All new supporting characters were created except for "Christy" who appeared in the drama (played by Gary Vinson) and was carried over to the series. The show presented the crew of the PT-73 under the command of McHale, whose pursuit is to goldbrick and profit off the war effort. Borgnine was not known for playing comedy. He mostly appeared in films as despicable villains, although he was awarded his Oscar for his tender portrayal of shy Bronx butcher "Marty Pilletti" in Marty. But broad comedy was not his forte... and it showed. Borgnine delivered his lines with stammering confusion. Luckily, he was professional enough to let the real comedians handle (what passed for) comedy in the show. Veteran comedic actors like Tim Conway, Billy Sands, Carl Ballantine and the irascible Joe Flynn did the heavy lifting for Borgnine while he did double-take after poorly-executed double-take and mugged for the camera in wide-eyed bewilderment. The show ran for four seasons, including the final season set in a liberated town in Southern Italy featuring another comedy heavyweight, Vito Scotti. I suppose ABC felt they could sustain the show and cover up Borgnine's lack of comedy chops by hiring real comic performers to act funny around him. It worked, I guess. The show was pretty popular in first run and perennial reruns. According to Borgnine's wonderful autobiography, McHale's Navy was the cause of his marriage to singer Ethel Merman to end. Borgnine explained that they wed at the height of McHale's Navy's popularity. He was far more recognizable than his movie star/Broadway star wife and she couldn't deal with someone being more popular. Their marriage lasted 42 days.

McHale's Navy has enjoyed a long and prosperous run in syndication and is currently shown on the Antenna TV nostalgia network. I like the theme song, but I change the channel when it ends. The series spawned a 1997 unnecessary big-screen remake that featured Tom Arnold as Quinton Jr., Tim Curry as the Russian villain and... of course...  Ernest Borgnine in a cameo.

There's a scene in the 2002 biopic Auto Focus that sums up the incredulous premise of Hogan's Heroes very succinctly. It depicts actor Bob Crane (as played by Greg Kinnear) being pitched the idea for the comedy by a network executive (played by Ed Begley Jr.). As the executive eagerly explain the setting as a POW camp in World War II Germany, Crane — with eyes wide and mouth agape — interrupts several times to confirm that this is, indeed, a comedy about Nazis. A comedy. About Nazis. I have watched Hogan's Heroes and, much like McHale's Navy, the show is supplemented with real comic actors to make up for the shortcomings of the lead. For me, Hogan's Heroes is hard to watch for a few reasons — Nazis notwithstanding. Knowing what I know now about Bob Crane, I have an unpleasant mental picture that I just can't shake. Little did we know that his trademark knowing looks to the camera held a much, much creepier meaning than just his outsmarting the inept Colonel Klink. I liked the supporting cast, specifically the long parade of Jewish actors consciously portraying Nazis as halfwit buffoons. But the overall tone of the show was tedious, repetitive and, for me, difficult to swallow. 

Two episodes of Hogan's Heroes air nightly on the MeTV network. I rarely watch.

I love The Andy Griffith Show. I've seen every episode of its 8-season run countless times. I liked most of the characters and the folksy sentiment of the series. Jim Nabors joined the cast as slow-witted, annoying, meddling "Gomer Pyle" in season 3 as a recurring character. I disliked that character almost immediately. Gomer stuck around in a smattering of episodes in season 4, with the final episode of that season serving as a pilot for a new series starring Nabors. His "Gomer" character enlisted in the US Marines. At the heated peak of the Vietnam War and with no consideration for America's feelings at the time, CBS network executives thought this was a good idea. The show made no mention of war during its entire 5-season run. Instead Gomer and his colleagues participated in "maneuvers" and "drills" and "exercises," never "battle." Most episodes focused mostly on simple-minded country boy Gomer and his many conflicts with the insufferable, one-dimensional "Sergeant Carter," as played by the insufferable, one-dimensional Frank Sutton. (Frank Sutton always looked as though he regretted being talked into taking this role.) This show was a mess. Not even brief appearances by Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Andy Griffith himself reprising their Mayberry characters could salvage the hackneyed writing and poor acting of this ill-conceived series. I felt sorry for co-stars Ronnie Schell and a pre-That Girl Ted Bessell playing second fiddle to the hapless Jim Nabors and his totally implausible situations. If this was Full Metal Jacket, his entire platoon would have armed themselves with bars of soap wrapped in towels and beaten Gomer to a pulp every single night for five years. Unlike McHale's Navy, when I hear the opening chords of the Gomer Pyle theme, I race for the remote control as quickly as I can.

An episode of Gomer Pyle USMC airs Monday through Friday on MeTV, after a double dose of The Andy Griffith Show. Have at it, if that's your thing. It's not mine. 

There you have it. My opinion on the three 1960s-era military comedies. It may differ from your opinion of these shows... but it's my blog. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.