My wife and I are often asked: "How did you two meet?" It's a story that we have told many, many times over the years — both separately and together. In a group situation, the story usually unfolds as though it's been rehearsed over and over again. We take turns interjecting a crucial piece of the tale, like we are reciting lines from a script that we have been performing on a nationwide tour. Well, this year — this month, as a matter of fact — marks the 40th anniversary since the night we met. So, if you've heard this story before or if you haven't, here it is in all its quirky, typical Pincus glory...
I was a student at a respected Philadelphia art school in 1982. Prior to enrollment, I was informed by my parents — the world's worst handlers of money — that if I chose to continue my education past the tuition-free arrangement of public school, I was on my own. So, just out of high school, I wandered — alone — into a bank and with no prior experience aside from a little savings account (complete with a bank book) I had in third grade, I dove headfirst into the uncharted world of student loans. After a lengthy explanation of terms, I signed a bunch of papers and, a few weeks later, I received a check for tuition made out jointly to me and the school. I would have to begin repaying this loan (and subsequent loans I would contract over the next three years) six months after graduation. I had a job as a cashier at at discount department store near my Northeast Philadelphia home, but I needed to find something a little closer to the Center City location of my new school. Well, I did — at my cousin's health food restaurant. While his establishment did a brisk lunchtime business, he was looking to open a few nights a week for dinner. With my beard, ponytail and bohemian "art school" attitude, I would fit right in — despite the fact that I ate cheesesteaks and meat-filled hoagies. Not exactly the expected diet of someone who would be serving tofu and various vegetable-based entrees to a bunch of hippie holdovers that comprised the restaurant's clientele. (This, of course, was years before I latched on to the vegetarian lifestyle I currently practice.)
Three days a week — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — I would leave school a few minutes early and rush across downtown Philadelphia to my cousin's restaurant. When I arrived, I'd stash my bag of art supplies, don a green apron and dish out salads and brown rice and tempeh and any number of foods that, if I wasn't getting paid to handle, I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot celery stalk. The restaurant was cafeteria-style and from 3 pm to 9 pm, I'd force a smile on my face and dispense plates of meatless food for an assortment of patrons that ran the gamut from hardcore vegans (before the concept was popular) to the "what's this all about" crowd. At 9 on the dot, I'd lock the door and begin the clean up process. I'd wipe down countertops and tables and mop the floor, while my co-worker would wash the pots, pans and serving utensils in the upstairs kitchen. We had the process timed down to approximately 50 minutes, if we weren't distracted. And by "distracted," I mean cordially, but firmly, guiding any straggling diners out the door before the clock struck 9.
On February 26, 1982, I was distracted... and my life changed forever.
It was a Friday and I was ready to go home. Around 8 pm, I attempted to get a jump on my regular closing time ritual by covering some of the food that had gone untouched with plastic wrap. The restaurant had been pretty slow since the "dinner hour" ended around 7. Suddenly, the front door swung open and three — ugh! — customers walked in. A tall, dark haired guy in a preppy sweater and two pretty young ladies. I was just a few months shy of my twenty-first birthday, and — truth be told — every girl was pretty, in my opinion. I had a lot of "one dates" with a lot of different girls. Admittedly, I was always on the prowl — as they said in the promiscuous 80s. Tonight, however, I was in no mood to flirt. I wanted to get home and three customers were now standing in my way.
One of the girls approached the serving counter and perused the array of offerings in the salad section and the adjacent steam table where the evening's hot entrees were displayed. She pointed to a container of shredded cheese sandwiched between a container of sliced bell peppers and one of julienned carrots. She smiled and asked, "Does the cheese have rennet?"
I looked at her. She was pretty, but — like I said — I wasn't looking to hit on a girl right now. I was anxious to lock up, mop up and hit the road. I wrinkled my face at her question and replied with five words that — I assume — charmed her like a Shakespearean sonnet.
"What the hell is rennet?"
She explained that she observed the ancient laws of kashrut — "keeping kosher" to you and me. If the restaurant was truly vegetarian, then the cheese would contain a vegetable-derived rennet, instead of the commonly-used meat-based rennet employed by most commercial dairies in the manufacturing of cheese. "Kosher?," I exclaimed, "I don't know anyone under the age of 80 that 'keeps Kosher!' My grandmother keeps Kosher, for chrissakes!" Slowly but surely, I was winning this young lady over.
Soon, she was joined by the man and the other young lady. The trio asked some more questions and eventually made their dinner selections. They explained that they were headed to a movie and didn't want to be late. Once they chose a table in the otherwise empty seating area, I made sure that they didn't stay one second longer than they had to. Uninvited, I took a seat at a nearby table and struck up a conversation. I started with the obligatory "How is everything?" before moving on to questions about the movie that was in their plans. Then, assuming that the "rennet" girl was a few years too old for me, I relaxed my "let's hurry this along" strategy and asked the other girl for her phone number... just like that. She frowned and refused. The "rennet" girl, however, asked if I had an older and taller brother. "Hmm....," I thought, "she's not with this guy after all." (In reality, she had grown up with the male member of their party and always figured she would marry him one day. However, until that time came, she was open to other possibilities....) Coincidentally, I do have an older — and yes, taller — brother. I happily accepted her hastily scribbled phone number to deliver to my brother.
I made a few additional smart-ass comments to the group as they finished up their dinner. Actually, my intention was that my commentary would help in hurrying them along. A little before 9, they gathered their coats and belongings and headed for the door. But not before the "rennet" girl told me that I was the most obnoxious person she had ever met. She wasn't the first person to tell me that. She wasn't even the first person that day.
Early Saturday morning, I called my brother to tell him I got the phone number of a girl for him. My brother was in a long-term relationship with the woman who is currently my sister-in-law. But the Pincus brothers were the Pincus brothers and — prior to the meaningful and solemn commitment of marriage — anything was fair game. He did ask a favor of me, though. He requested that I call this prospective girl first and explain that he was going to call. He hated to go through the awkward formality of jogging someone's memory. What if they couldn't remember giving out their number or even the entire encounter at all. He wanted that all out of the way, leaving plenty of time to ply the patented Pincus charm that won over so many defenseless members of the fairer sex.
So, I called her. She answered the phone and I launched right into identifying myself. "You know, the obnoxious guy from the restaurant." She laughed... and that began a lovely, natural and engaging conversation that lasted three hours. Three hours! Finally, I told the "rennet" girl — Susan — that I would not be turning her phone number over to my brother. I would like to ask her out myself. She accepted and a date was planned for the following Saturday. By December of that year, we were engaged to be married.
... and it all started when Susan walked though the front door of that restaurant.
Footnote: One of our early dates was to my brother's 25th birthday party. This was the first time Susan met my brother and other members of my extended family. Later in the evening, Susan confided to me that if the original plan of events had transpired and she, indeed, went out with my brother, that would have been the last time any member of my family ever saw her. Oh, Susan and my brother get along just fine... just not in that way.
And the two other people mentioned in this story? Well, the have both been written about elsewhere on this blog.