Sunday, January 31, 2021

she works hard for the money

My wife is very entrepreneurial. That's a fancy word for always trying to make a buck. She has an uncanny knack for seeing the resale value in just about anything. Her business philosophy has always been "There's a lid for every pot." (I cleaned that one up considerably.) She has offered things for sale that the average person would deem "trash." But, as the old expression goes: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." She's not forcing anyone to buy her stuff, but if some like-minded person seeing a bit of viability left in something that they can snap up for a couple of bucks — well, that's the service Mrs. Pincus provides.

Recently, Mrs. P has been offering items for sale on a local Facebook marketplace page. This page has been set up as a virtual yard sale, offering a wide variety of new, slightly used or very used items without the hassle of cluttering up your front yard or driveway with the soon-to-be discarded from your house. Just take a picture, compose a brief but truthful description and wait for someone to see the same value that you see. Once a deal is made, electronic payment is logged and Mrs. Pincus sets the item out on our front porch — a safe, contactless pick-up in these cautious times during a pandemic.

A few weeks ago, our city-dwelling, non-driving son bought a new shopping cart to replace his once-reliable cart — now showing signs of age. The old cart sported the battle wounds of the city — scraped paint, bent axle, a wobbly wheel. Sure, the thing served him well, but its time had come and a new cart was purchased. My wife saw some resale value in the old cart and offered to sell it for our son, if only to net a few dollars. We brought the well-worn, well-loved cart home. My wife took some pictures, wrote a short, but very honest description mentioning all of the cart's flaws and posted it in the local Facebook group. She asked for five dollars, noting that it still had some life left in it and that a handy person could tinker around and fix it up. A brand new cart can run upwards of thirty to forty dollars, so five bucks was quite a bargain. And if you weren't interested, you could just... keep... scrolling.

Well, this is the internet and on the internet everyone has a fucking opinion. Immediately, Mrs. P's post erupted with a barrage of insults. 

"Why are you selling trash?" 

"You should be ashamed of yourself for selling junk!" 

"This is garbage." 

...and many more variations on the theme.

There were some comments expressing legitimate interest, but, as if often the case, an initially eager potential customer disappears after their first question is answered. But, one person replied with interest. A text chat ensued and finally the gentleman agreed to purchase the cart for five dollars. However, he explained that he is older and, therefore, doesn't use any of these payment apps. From the grammatical structure of the majority of his texts, his command of cellphone technology was spare. He promised to drop off a five dollar bill in an envelope when he came to collect the cart. We weren't too worried. After all, who would come out of their way to steal a less-than-new shopping cart? And if that was indeed their scheme, hey! it's only five dollars.

The buyer said he'd be by our house around 3 PM on Saturday. He said he lived about a thirty-minute drive, so around 2, Mrs. P set the cart out on our porch. And we forgot about it.

3 o'clock came and went. So did 4 o'clock. And then 5 and 6. The sun began to set and that poor shopping cart stood as a silent sentinel under the illumination of our porch light. Just before my wife and I were ready to turn in for the evening, Mrs. P's phone signaled a Facebook message. As expected, it was the cart buyer. He went off about crossed plans and time constraints and some rambling story involving his wife. The gist of his message was that he would not be coming to get the cart today, perhaps tomorrow. He apologized several times and even offered to leave six dollars for the inconvenience. He said he would come Sunday morning. As my wife confirmed his arrival time, I went downstairs to bring the shopping cart inside.

Early Sunday morning, I returned the shopping cart to its spot on the porch. The buyer — allegedly — would be coming before noon. He didn't. Just before 4 PM, we heard the unmistakable sound of our wooden screen door open. It had to be the buyer finally collecting the cart and leaving his payment in the space between our screen door and front door. But, within a few minutes of the familiar "creak" of our door, my wife received an irate Facebook message.

"Why you sell me crap?" it read. Before Mrs. P could type out a calming, level-headed response, another message chimed in. "One wheel wobbles! This is junk dammit!"

"Are you still here?" Mrs. Pincus replied, hoping to catch the buyer still on our front porch. No reply for a long time... until suddenly an electronic "DING" announced a new message in angry thread. "No! This trash! GOODBYE!"... followed by more silence.

Oh.... and we have six bucks.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

i hear a symphony

I never learned to play a musical instrument. I had friends that played instruments. It wasn't so much that I was jealous of their ability. I was more in awe and filled with admiration for what they could do. Okay, okay... maybe I was a little jealous.

Some of my friends were forced to take piano lessons, sitting for endless hours at that huge piece of furniture in their quiet living room while some Aunt Bee look-alike tutor who probably took lessons from Beethoven himself, sternly expounded on proper finger positioning. (Oh, don't even!) Others voluntarily sought instruction on the much-cooler guitar, envisioning themselves the next George Harrison — much to the chagrin of their parents and their parents' wallet. Then, there were those who got free music lessons and a free instrument, all while legitimately being excused from class. These lucky kids were members of my elementary school orchestra. And I wanted in!

The kids in the orchestra had a certain elitist air about them. They carried those ominous black cases at all times — on the bus, through the halls, in the lunchroom. The cases were of various sizes. Some were like a second, protective shield for the instrument within, like the distinctive shape of a violin case. Others yielded only a partial clue as to the identity of the musical gear inside. A plain oblong case was pretty mysterious until you saw the large flared bell-like extension at one end, obviously betraying the trombone contained in its interior. The kids themselves were set apart from the rest of their classmates. They frequently used unfamiliar terms discussed at their sequestered practices and laughed at in-jokes understood only by those who were able to decipher sheet music and produce a pleasing (or sometimes not-so-pleasing) sound from a stringed or reeded inanimate object. All that was fascinating — but I was more interested in just playing a musical instrument and skipping class. 

I knew full well that my parents weren't going to spring for a guitar or piano or any musical instrument, for that matter. But, a free instrument and free lessons were just their style. So, the day my teacher announced that Mr. Simmons, the resident music teacher and orchestra leader, would be holding open enrollment to join the orchestra, I paid extra close attention. She explained that a note from a parent was all that would be required for permission to miss some class time for — what was apparently — an audition. The prospect of playing a musical instrument was all I could think about for the rest of the day. That and recess and lunch.

As soon as I arrived home that day, I ran to my mom as excited as I've ever been. I blurted out all about music lessons and joining the orchestra and getting my own instrument. I asked my mom for a note for Mr. Simmons and stood close by as she wrote one out in her lovely, distinctive handwriting on her small, rose-embellished stationery. "Please allow Josh to play the..." she began. Then her pen came to a halt.

"What do you want to play?," my mom turned to me and asked.

"The clarinet.," I replied. I don't know why. I had no real affinity for the clarinet. I didn't know or admire any one who played the clarinet. It just popped into my head.

My mom didn't question. She didn't even bat an eye. She just completed the note, folded it in half and placed it in my outstretched hand. I immediately put it carefully into my schoolbag lest I forget the next morning while I was rushing through my breakfast.

The next day, I presented my note and at the hour appointed by Mr. Simmons, I accompanied several of my classmates on the long walk to Mr. Simmons' tiny office just off of the main school office. I already had visions of myself carrying a black "pleather" case, opening it up and fitting together the pieces of my new clarinet,  everyone around me marveling as I did so. The small group filed past the stone-faced Mr. Simmons as he held the door open. He was a short man, not much taller than the students. He had a head full of tiny, tightly-wound curls and a trim little mustache, groomed to line the length of his top lip. He had black-rimmed glasses with thick lenses, however his thick eyebrows were quite prominent above them — and they were furrowed downwards to show that he was not especially happy about the ensuing agenda. He reminded me of Billy DeWolfe, the perennially impatient and exasperated comedian I had seen regularly on TV sitcoms.

"Sit." he said and, instinctively, everyone quickly and silently selected one of the wooden chairs arranged around his outer office. He pointed to one of my classmates — a girl in a plaid dress and a matching flouncy ribbon in her hair. She followed him into his inner office and the door closed behind them. We heard nothing except the shuffling of our own feet on the floor or a soft squeak when some shifted in their chair. Soon, the door opened and the girl bounded out — a big smile on her face and a small, faux lizard case in her hand. A case that I recognized as one used to hold a disassembled flute. A boy with freckles and a crewcut was summoned next. When he emerged from Mr. Simmons' office a few moments later, he was holding a large-format, scholastic-looking booklet in his hand and sporting a pair of long, blond wood drumsticks in his back pocket. Mr. Simmons stood in the doorway and pointed right at me. I rose from my chair and entered his office.

The room was stacked with sheet music in messy piles, books with shiny covers and decorated with stylized drawings of various musical instruments and fragmented examples of brass, stringed and woodwind instruments tucked into corners — dingy and in need of repair. And everything was coated in dust. It seemed the only light in the room was a thin shaft of sunbeam coming through the glass of a painted-shut window. Mr. Simmons was seated at his desk, his chin resting on the fisted end of his bent arm. He squinted at me.

"Pincus... right?" he said, waiting for confirmation. I nodded in the affirmative.

"Okay," he continued, "I'm going to sing two notes. You tell me which is higher."

Again, I nodded.

He opened his mouth and emitted two sustained AHHHHHs that both sounded the same to me. I looked at him. He looked at me.

"Well?," he demanded.

"Um... the first one?," I managed to say. I was guessing.

Mr. Simmons closed his eyes, shook his head and frowned. "No!," he bellowed. Then he said, "We'll try another." I swear to God, he sang the two exact notes one more time. So, suspecting that this frustrated Leonard Bernstein was trying to pull a fast one, I thought I'd outsmart him.

"Second one.," I answered proudly, my chest confidently puffed out.

"You are tone deaf!," he hollered at me — hollered! "Get out of here!" He extended a stubby finger in the general direction of the door. This was the 1960s and faculty addressing the student body in this manner was not only acceptable, but it was commonplace. I hung my head and sheepishly slunk my way out of his office and out of my life as a concert musician.

A few months ago, I joined a Facebook group made up of people who attended my elementary school. I reconnected with a woman who I knew from high school, but only slightly remember from before that. Although I am a year older than she, we did attend the same elementary school and even had some of the same teachers. We got to chatting and reminiscing. I asked if she remembered the music teacher and I refreshed her memory by relating the story I just told. She actually help me remember the teacher's name, which I had somehow blocked form my memory. Then, it occurred to me that the incident took place over fifty years ago and I remember it vividly, as if it happened yesterday.

I suppose it's time to let it go. Now if I only had some musical accompaniment to play me out.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

try a little kindness

I have been accused of being a curmudgeon, a pessimist, grumpy, a crank, a griper, a complainer, a sorehead.... well, you get the idea. Yeah, I know. I find fault with my fellow human, recurrently pointing out things they do that — shall we say — "rub me the wrong way." And, if you are a regular reader of my blog, or, God forbid, know me in real life, you know that I don't often acknowledge when someone does something kind, something genuinely thoughtful and unselfish. Well, that's about to change. And please forgive me if I begin to choke up while I type.

My wife and I met Richard on our sixth cruise. A few moths prior to our departure, Mrs. Pincus joined a Facebook group whose membership was comprised of folks who had booked the same late October sailing aboard the grand Norwegian Breakaway. Mrs. P was very active in this group and interacted daily with a core group of folks who were soon-to-be our fellow cruisers. This made for a very interesting cruise once we set sail, because it was as though we were vacationing with a bunch of our friends. A pre-arranged "meet-and-greet" on our first full day at sea created friendships that were strong during our week on the ocean and remain strong (thanks to social media) to this day. One of these people was Richard.

Richard is a fun-loving guy in the truest sense. He loves fun. He attracts fun. He exudes fun. He's a fun guy. (Keep your "mushroom" jokes to yourself.) In addition to being an avid and very experienced cruiser, Richard is a writer, an editor, a foodie and an amateur filmmaker. He's the kind of guy you sit next to at a bar and — after several hours — you think, "Wow! This is a great guy!" And if you've ever had the opportunity to be on a cruise with Richard, you could easily find yourself in that very situation. During our cruise in 2017, every time I looked up or passed one of the many bars aboard the ship, there was Richard, umbrella-sporting drink in hand, head back and laughing among a group of people who were also laughing. (This is not to imply that Richard spends seven days on a ship drinking and laughing 24 hours a day. He might, but I don't want to be the one to make such an implication.) I actually wrote about an incident involving Richard just after our 2017 cruise. You can read it here.

At the end of our cruise, Mrs. Pincus and I exchanged email addresses and social media contacts with all of our new found best friends and went off to live the rest of our lives. Now, we regularly see, correspond and "like" each others posts, making it feel like we are all still connected. We comment on Richard's Facebook status and his quirky Instagram pictures and he gives ours the ol' "thumbs up" in return.

At the end of 2019, Mrs. Pincus and I returned from our ninth cruise. It was our second one of the year. We had two more planned and the idea of additional cruises in our future. Mrs. P wisely purchased a gift card from Carnival Cruises for a pretty significant amount. 

Then, the world was hit with a devastating global pandemic. In addition to taking lives, COVID-19 wiped out businesses, social gatherings, travel and commerce of all types. All manners of places where large numbers of people congregated — movie theaters, concert venues, sports stadiums, theme parks and, yes, cruise ships — ceased operation. After a few weeks of working from home, I found myself among those filing for unemployment insurance. Thankfully, Mrs. Pincus's eBay business was active, providing us with one source of a steady income. However, we had placed a pretty sizable deposit on a cruise booked for October 2020. A deposit that, given our current financial situation, we could not afford to lose. The cruise lines were all being very cautious. They were indeed canceling scheduled sailings, but they were doing it on a slow, month-by month basis. You see, if you cancel your cruise, you only receive a partial refund of any funds already paid. If the cruise line cancels, then all payments are refunded... and cruise lines aren't real keen on giving refunds. So, in April, we anxiously waited for a cancelation announcement from Carnival. 

Then there was that gift card. We had a lot of money locked up in it. There was an overhanging possibility that cruise companies would not survive a lengthy shutdown. A gift card would be worthless if there was no company to redeem it. We were in no position to lose a considerable amount of money. So, Mrs. Pincus attempted to offer the card for sale in her eBay store. She did a little research and discovered that listed gift cards were still selling. However, she soon found that she was not permitted to sell a gift card, based on the type of account she had. We began to feel trapped and desperate. Mrs. Pincus toyed with offering it for sale on Facebook, specifically one of the many available marketplaces. Then she remembered Richard.

Richard maintains a Facebook group for people who love cruising. She contacted Richard, via a private message, asking permission to post the gift card for sale in his cruise group. Richard instantly gave his approval. Then, he added something totally unexpected. Totally unprovoked. And totally unselfish. Richard offered to buy the card from us outright. Mrs. P read and reread the offer several times to make sure she was seeing what she thought she was seeing. Mrs. Pincus asked for an amount that was less than face value, hoping that a "split the difference" offer would be more enticing. Richard would hear nothing of the sort. He insisted on the full amount. We were speechless. That's not just a "figure of speech." We were unable to produced a sound. Mrs. Pincus began to cry as she typed out a simple "thank you" to Richard. Honestly, we spent only a few fleeting minutes with Richard on a huge ship over three years ago. We didn't get to know him as well as we had liked... which makes Richard's act of kindness all the more special and touching.

Within minutes, Richard send a payment through an online payment service. Mrs. P securely sealed the card in an envelope and set out to baking a batch of her famous kamish broit (sometimes called mandel bread) to accompany the card in shipment, as an extra added gesture of sanity-saving and relief-inducing gratitude. She packed everything up nice and safe and took it to the post office the next day with her daily eBay shipments. She kept a watchful eye of the delivery, carefully monitoring the tracking, keeping tabs on its journey to northern New Jersey where Richard lives. Mrs. Pincus finally received confirmation of delivery. She waited for a message from Richard, because the US Postal Service isn't always accurate. 

She waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Unable to contain her anxiety, Mrs. Pincus contacted Richard to make sure he had, indeed, received the package and the precious gift card within. He laughed, explaining that a box has been sitting on his dining room table all day. He didn't open it because he assumed it was for his partner Gary. While he texted, Richard opened the box and assured Mrs. Pincus that the gift card was in his possession. He also explained that he would be keeping the kamish broit away from Gary.

See, there are still nice, kind, thoughtful, generous people in the world. Richard is at the very top of that list.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

karma chameleon

In my last post, I made reference to my wife's friend Randi. Remember, she stayed in our apartment when Mrs. Pincus and I were on our honeymoon. She was the first person to see those ominous white postcards from Bloomingdale's-by-Mail that kicked off the twisted tale that I recounted in that particular post. (If you missed it, you can read it here.) Well, let me tell you a little bit about Randi.

Mrs. Pincus met Randi when they were both on staff at a summer camp in the Poconos. They bonded almost instantly and were nearly inseparable that summer. At the end of the eight-week session, they vowed to stay in touch, a promise that would be fairly easy, as Randi lived in Northeast Philadelphia, just a short drive from Mrs. P's suburban home.

I met Randi on the same night I met the future Mrs. Pincus. To be honest, I was initially interested in Randi, especially since my bride-to-be asked if I had an older and taller brother and proclaimed me — and this is a direct quote — "the most obnoxious person she had ever met." But, once the stars aligned and our rightful paths determined, Randi became a constant companion to my wife and me. Whether it was movies, restaurants, concerts or just hanging out, Randi was always there and we all got along great. I soon discovered that Randi and I had a lot in common, as well. Since we both grew up in close-knit, paths-crossing Northeast Philadelphia, we found that we knew a lot of the same people. I remember she liked to keep up with the latest trends in music and clothes, effortlessly sliding from disco to punk, from "Saturday Night Fever" chic to "Ramones" rage.

Randi latched on to Mrs. P and I and exhibited a combination of admiration with a slight edge of jealousy. She wasn't dating anyone steadily. She dated infrequently, as a matter of fact, mostly a series of "one shot" dates. After each night out, she would gush about this one being "the one," and begin making elaborate life-changing plans in her mind — only to be disappointed.  However, Randi never seemed like a "third wheel." We all got along so well and had such a good time together — that thought never crossed our minds. It crossed other people's minds, but never ours.

Randi was the obvious choice for Maid of Honor when Mrs. Pincus and I tied the knot in 1984. She was esteemed and humbled by the honor, but she knew the position was hers as soon the Pincus wedding plans were announced. As expected, Randi attended our wedding as a single. Actually, she only had one "long term" relationship that I recall. No, it didn't end when her on-again-off-again boyfriend got married to someone who wasn't Randi. They continued to date in spite of his marital status. It ended when he committed suicide. Although, Randi was never married to him, she presented herself and behaved as the bereaved widow — in the most flamboyant manner imaginable.

Even after Mrs. Pincus and I married, Randi remained our friend. We went on vacations with her - short romps to nearby Atlantic City and long, planned-out trips to Walt Disney World. When our son was born, Randi was named his godmother and "Aunt Randi" continued to accompany the Pincus's on family trips. After all, she was part of the family. She was included in holiday dinners and celebrations without a second thought. Randi was treated like a second daughter by my in-laws. She also had the same love-hate relationship with my wife's two brothers — as though she was another sister.

After a while, Randi met a guy in an online chat room. She was beside herself. She told us all about her "new love" and how their relationship graduated past the "chat room" and on to real telephone conversations — except... She explained that she had to wait for him to call her. He was divorced, but still lived in his wife's house and she closely monitored the phone. Mrs. P and I exchanged glances during Randi's description and — rightly — surmised that this new guy was married. He eventually came clean, but was, indeed, heading for divorce. He and Randi dated exclusively. Randi was ecstatic about her first, bonafide relationship with the possibility of marriage on the horizon. The new guy was — for lack of a better word — a dimwit. On double dates at a restaurant, we would often catch him staring off into space or contemplating the napkin dispenser like it was a newly-discovered fossil. He rarely contributed anything of substance to a conversation, if he contributed at all. One thing he did do well, was two-time Randi. She would catch him talking to other women regularly. Since he lived in Northern New Jersey, he could easily see other women without Randi finding out — or so he thought in his little pea-sized brain. After a blow-up, he promised to stay loyal to Randi. Once Randi and Mrs. P went away on a "girls' week" in Jamaica. When they returned, Randi's guy was so happy and proud to tell her that he "didn't even see anyone else while she was away." Randi eventually married this guy and that's when things began to head downhill — I think.

You didn't really think
 I'd show her picture,
did you?
Randi had always been a chameleon. She liked to cozy up to people, in hopes they would like her. She would take on their way of speaking and their mannerisms. She would pepper her speech with  expressions she had heard them use. She was like this for as long as I knew her. When she married "her guy," she started hanging out with a group of people who would later reveal themselves to have very outdated views. Randi would parrot their take on minorities — expressing a viewpoint that contradicted her prior feelings. She also became very obsessed with her physical ailments — some real, but mostly imagined. Randi subjected herself to surgeries that we felt were unnecessary, but she insisted were "important and life saving." Randi was becoming something that she never was. We drifted apart, our encounters becoming less frequent until we just never saw Randi anymore. Through social media and mutual acquaintances, we learned that Randi had divorced "her guy" and remarried a retired police officer of questionable background. 

A few years ago, Mrs. P found herself in the emergency room of a local hospital on the same day that her mother was also an emergency patient. I scuttled between the two curtained areas, offering doctor's updates to the familial occupants of each. When I returned to my wife, she was talking to a wizened, tired-looking woman who I did not recognize. I sat quietly in a chair as they continued their conversation. A few familiar things in their exchange jumped out at me. Suddenly, it hit me. This unrecognizable woman was Randi. I looked at her and she bore absolutely no resemblance to the Randi I once knew. And — me being Mr. Subtle — I told her so. Mrs. P was soon discharged from the hospital and we left Randi in our wake.

Recently, we learned through the grapevine, that Randi had moved to Florida. A quick Google search led us to her presence on Twitter*. It appears that Randi — with her inexplicable 12,000 followers — has, once again, reinvented herself — this time, as a hate-filled, conspiracy-theory spouting, QAnon-supporting, fear-mongering, proud and outspoken extreme right-wing racist. A further search revealed a disturbing mug shot from a 2018 booking for charges described as "aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill."

Boy... the lengths some people will go to just to be liked.

*As of this posting and in light of the events in Washington, DC this past week, Randi has deleted her social media presence. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

the great pretender

Sit back. Here's a complicated story of deceit and intrigue that'll have you expecting to see the secret "nose-swipe" signal from Paul Newman by the time it's over.

Thirty-six years ago, Mrs. Pincus and I got married. Immediately after the ceremony and reception, my new bride and I headed to the Hershey Hotel (now the Doubletree) on Broad Street and, bright and early the very next morning, we started down I-95 in my wife's little Datsun with our eventual honeymoon destination being Walt Disney World.

A month or so before we got married, we secured a lease on a cute two-story townhouse apartment in Northeast Philadelphia. As our first foray into "responsible adulthood," we filled out all the paperwork at the complex's rental office. It included all the standard questions — name, previous address, employer. The manager of the apartment complex, a friendly woman who introduced herself as Micki Silver, explained that a customary credit check would be generated. I had never had any credit on my own, except for three years of student loans that I contracted myself to pay my way through art school. My prospective bride, however, was a different story. As a hobby, some people collect coins or stamps or little ceramic knick-knacks. Mrs. Pincus collected credit cards. Beginning in her teen years, she secured her first department store credit card, soon followed by a more powerful bank card (Bank AmeriCard, in those days). Soon, she was submitting applications for a credit card at every major (and minor) store in the Greater Philadelphia area... and she was getting them. Nearly every week, a new, colorful piece of plastic would show up in her mail — all shiny and ready to extend full buying power at a particular store. She would make one modest purchase, pay it in full when the bill arrived and watch her credit rating climb to numbers that were unheard of. Her wallet was overflowing with little "charge plates" until she started stashing the excess in a drawer, hanging on to only the ones she used on a regular basis. She had credit cards for stores she had only set foot in one time, but, once you have one card, a stellar credit rating can make more credit cards appear like ants on a glob of jelly dropped on the kitchen floor.

Within a few days of tendering our lease application, our new friend Micki Sliver called my wife to offer congratulations. She cheerfully delivered the news of our acceptance and gave a "move-in" date. Oh, and Micki made it a special point to praise Mrs. P on her impressive credit rating. She noted that, in all her years as a rental manger, she had never seen a credit report go on for so many pages. She laughed as she expounded on the incredible size of the printed report, that it went on for pages and pages. She gushed and my wife thanked her.

Our plan was that Mrs. Pincus would live there alone, until we were married (this was 1984 and our parents wouldn't have stood for any other arrangement). I would move my stuff in when we returned from our honeymoon. My wife's friend — and Maid of Honor — Randi would stay at our apartment for the two weeks we were away. Randi would feed our cat, take in our mail and keep a watchful eye on things until our return.

A day or so after our arrival in sunny Florida, Mrs. Pincus gave Randi a call before leaving our hotel room for the day. (These were the "pre-cellphone" days, when securing a telephone on vacation was a bit of a chore. Foregoing the payphone route, we just charged any long-distance calls to our room.) Randi gave us the uneventful rundown of a typical Philadelphia summer. She didn't really have much to report, except for mentioning that a number of postcards had arrived from "Bloomingdale's By Mail," informing my wife that some of the items she ordered were, unfortunately, out-of-stock.

"From who?," Mrs. P inquired

"Bloomingdale's By Mail," Randi confirmed.

"Hmm...," Mrs. Pincus jogged her memory, "I didn't even know Bloomingdale's had mail order..., so I certainly didn't order anything from them."

Randi thumbed through a few of the cards and read off some random item descriptions. "It looks like it's mostly underwear — bras and panties and stuff."

Mrs. Pincus was baffled, but soon the subject was dismissed. She ended the conversation with Randi and we were off for a day of honeymoon fun.

A few days later, a second "checking in" call with Randi revealed the arrival of more postcards from the previously unknown "Bloomingdale's By Mail." Now, Randi told us, there must be nearly two dozen of the "out-of-stock" announcements in with our mail accumulation. This became a recurring topic of conversation on our drive back home to Philadelphia.

We finally entered our apartment after a long trek on homebound I-95. Just as Randi warned, there was a stack of white postcards alongside our regular mail, each enumerating a computer-generated list of "out-of-stock" items that Bloomingdale's was convinced Mrs. Pincus ordered. Mrs. Pincus, however, thought otherwise. Once we got settled, Mrs. Pincus called the mail order department to straighten things out. She spoke to a helpful operator at Bloomingdale's who authenticated my wife's account. She looked up recent orders and located a lengthy list, most of which — as the postcards confirmed - were out of stock.

"Who ordered these?," my wife asked flatly, "I sure didn't." The operator said they were ordered by Susan Pincus (my wife). Then, she added that all of the items appeared to be gifts, as they each included a personal message. My wife asked if she could please read the message. The operator obliged.

"Dear Maria, Thanks for everything. Sue"

Two things rang out immediately. First - nobody, but nobody, has called my wife "Sue" since she was a child. She doesn't even answer to the name. Second - My wife didn't know anyone named "Maria." And she certainly wouldn't purchase underwear for her as an alleged "thank you." This was weird. Perhaps, Bloomingdale's, a fairly large company, just made a mistake. Perhaps a wrong digit was entered in the account number.

Now this was 1984, the glorious pre-internet days of no encryption, no passwords, no "mother's maiden name" and "last for digits of your social security number." This was a time where companies would happily and freely offer personal information to anyone who called and asked for it. The operator happily and freely told Mrs. P the address to which the items were to be shipped — if they were in stock. My wife hastily jotted the address down and recognized it as a street in Northeast Philadelphia, not too far from our new home. The next day, my ever-brazen wife decided to do a little investigating. She took a drive to the address in question, stealthily tooling down the street and she scrutinized the house numbers. When she arrived at the number corresponding to the one she had written down, she made a interesting discovery. Parallel-parked by the curb, right in front of the house, was the dark blue sedan that belonged to Micki Silver, the rental manager at our apartment complex. Of course, she didn't know the exact license plate number, but Mrs. Pincus spotted a silver-colored sticker that had been placed on the rear bumper, its message faded from years of exposure to the elements. The weird just got weirder. Obviously, there was no proof of anything at this point. But, Mrs. Pincus is not one to give up easily.

My wife has always had a good head for business and is very entrepreneurial. It started years ago and was fueled when she worked in (and eventually ran) her parent's general merchandise store in a rural Pennsylvania farmer's market. Mrs. P possesses an uncanny knack for finding the "hot item" of the minute. She has capitalized on (and benefitted from) the "Pogs" craze, the "Crazy Bones" craze and the ubiquitous "Beanie Babies" craze. Well, in 1984, the "item du jour" was Cabbage Patch Kids. The quest for these puffy-faced cloth and plastic cuties prompted fistfights among anxious parents in toy store parking lots. Delivery trucks were stalked like armored cars arriving at Fort Knox, their cargo more precious and elusive to the throngs of moms and dads queued up for hours at the behest of their relentless children. Mrs. P latched onto this frenzy and managed to acquire a half dozen or so Cabbage Patch Kids on any given week. She'd put one or two out on display in her parents' store and make a good , quick profit on them. One day in December, as the Christmas gift season approached, Mrs. Pincus went to the office of our apartment complex to pay our monthly rent. She was greeted by an overly friendly Micki Silver, who began to elaborate on how she needs to get "one of those Cabbage dolls." Still wary of the discovery she made about Micki, Mrs. P offered her assistance in getting Micki hooked up with a Cabbage Patch Kid. Hey — a sale is a sale! Mrs. Pincus explained that she had several dolls available and she could bring them by the office. Micki was ecstatic and greatly appreciative.

After visiting the stock room at my in-law's store, Mrs. P returned with two fine examples of the hottest property of Christmas 1984. She carried them into our apartment complex office and handed them over to an elated Micki. Micki hurriedly wrote a check and presented it to my wife — along with a bit of clarifying information. She had scribbled over the address on the check until it was totally obscured. She explained that she no longer lived at that address. The name printed on the check was "Maria Gustavo." Mrs. Pincus had difficulty keeping her now-widened eyes in their respective sockets, as Micki further explained that "Micki" is a nickname and "Silver" is her maiden name. The tiny hairs on the nape of my wife's neck stood on end, as this tale took a twist more suitable for an M. Night Shyamalan film, despite the celebrated future film maker residing somewhere in nearby Penn Valley, Pennsylvania — busy being fourteen years old. My wife tried to steady her shaking hand as she accepted the payment. She smiled an uneasy smile and quickly exited the small office. 

The short walk back to our street-front apartment seemed to take hours. A recap of all of the related events rocketed through Mrs. P's mind — all of the seemingly unrelated pieces now falling into place. The first thing Mrs. P did when she got inside our apartment — before even taking off her winter coat — was call the police. 

An explanation and a few follow-up questions resulted in a Philadelphia Police car arriving in our parking lot, just a short time later. Two officers exited the vehicle. One headed to the office at the rear of the lot. The other knocked on the front door of our apartment. A few moments later, a crying Micki Silver emerged from the office. Her uniformed escort navigating her from behind, his hands gripping the handcuffs that restricted her manual movements. Mrs. P silently stood outside of our apartment with the second policeman. As they approached the police cruiser, Micki loudly pleaded: "Please don't do this! Please! My father is a policeman! I am so sorry! I didn't mean to do this! Please!" Her voice trailed off as she was guided into the back seat of the vehicle. The officers took their place in the front seat and the car proceeded out towards the street.

In the days following, Mrs. Pincus pored over some of her past credit card statements. She identified several purchases that she didn't recall making. They were small and insignificant enough that they went unnoticed by Mrs. Pincus. Inquiring phone calls confirmed that these were early, unauthorized purchases that "tested the waters" for Micki's eventual, more diabolical, plans. 

There was a different woman in the office when we paid January's rent.

Mr. Newman, that's your cue.