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.