Sunday, June 25, 2023

when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie

I love pizza. My father used to joke (although I don't really think he was joking) that all I ate was pizza. Three meals a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner — pizza! He wasn't that far off, to be totally honest. I have eaten a lot of pizza in my life.

I am not — nor do I claim to be — a pizza connoisseur. I firmly believe that all pizza is good pizza. Before you start criticizing that statement or attempt to guide or educate me, please read that sentence again. I said "I firmly believe that all pizza is good pizza." "I" believe. Not you. I'm writing this. If you feel differently about pizza, go write your own blog. Are we clear? I truly believe that it is pretty difficult to screw up pizza. I have had good pizza. I have had very good pizza and I have had bad pizza. And guess what? Bad pizza is still good pizza.

When I was a kid, there was a large discount market near my house. It had a number of individual businesses under one roof. It wasn't exactly a mall or a shopping center. They called themselves a "mart" and it was more along the lines of a farmer's market. There was a selection of food counters at the mart, including my first exposure to pizza. The concession was owned and operated by two women who, in hindsight, didn't know the first thing about making pizza. But, in my memory, that pizza was good. Cheese. Sauce. Crust. What else did one need?

I recall at my elementary school, those angry women in the hairnets would concoct their version of the Italian staple on hamburger rolls left over from the day-before's lunch menu... the one where they thought they were giving McDonald's a run for their money. The surplus rolls were placed crust-side-down on a large tray. They each got a dollop of red sauce straight from an industrial size can and topped with a half slice of American cheese. Then the tray was set under the giant broiler until just before the burning point... usually. For 35 cents, you got two "burger bun" pizza, a scoop of limp string beans and a cup of Jello — the last two items, of course, never to be eaten. I even liked that pizza. Even the ones that passed the burning threshold.

As my life experiences expanded beyond my little Northeast Philadelphia cocoon, I encountered actual pizza. Pizza made by actual trained pizza chefs. Burly guys in athletic shirts, a red cloth tied tightly around their necks, expertly tossing a huge circle of pizza dough in the air like those jugglers I saw on the Ed Sullivan Show. They'd shove prepared pies into a hot narrow oven and extract the same a few moments later on a large wooden paddle — all in a choreographed ballet. They had names like "Piasano's" and "Luigi's" and "Frank's" (short for "Francesco") and the slices they served were as big as your head. And they were good. Of course, they were good. When I was in high school, I frequented Philadelphia's famed South Street nearly every weekend. It was the epicenter of "what was happening" among my peers. Whether you went to see a weekly midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or just came to hang out, South Street was hopping with activity. And where there was teenage activity, there was pizza. When my friends and I would descend upon South Street, our first stop was the aforementioned Franks, a small pizzeria next to a cool little stationery store. Frank, who I don't believe spoke a word of English, made great pizza. It was hot and cheesy and spicy and the slices, once lifted off the flimsy, grease-coated paper plate, needed to be supported by both hands. And — boy! — was it good!

I've had pizza all over Philadelphia. I've had pizza in other states — near and far. I've had pizza in the few other countries I've been to. I've even had pizza in the wee hours of the morning aboard several different cruise ships. And they were all good. All of them.

I reiterate. It is pretty hard to screw up pizza. You may have your particular favorite pizza place. A place that is your "go-to" place. A pizzeria to which you are loyal. One that you insist — insist! — is the best pizza in the world and where you bring friends in an effort to convince them to share your affection. You may engage in hours-long debates about who has the best pizza you've ever eaten, during which you reveal a little known hole-in-the-wall in an unexplored alley with no street address that is run by the great-great-great-great-grandnephew of the actual guy who invented pizza. You may turn your nose up at places like Pizza Hut or Little Caesars. You might cringe at the very idea of Ellio's or DiGiorno. Please. Argue among yourselves because I don't do any of that.

I just love pizza. And all pizza is good pizza.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

feels like the first time

I keep finding him... or maybe he keeps finding me.

Perhaps you have encountered him, too.

You are in your car, waiting to enter a parking lot for a concert or a baseball game or some other large event that draws thousands of commuters to a parking facility provided by the venue to store your vehicle for a few hours. You've done this dozens of times. You drive up, pay the attendant who tosses some sort of official voucher on your dashboard and you pull away, off to seek a suitable spot to safely leave your car while you enjoy the evening's entertainment. Your interaction with the parking lot attendant — usually a young man or woman working their way through college or responsibly earning a few bucks to get their parents off their backs — is minimal, sometimes even wordless, unless you are the friendly type who greets everyone with  a rhetorical "Hey, how you doin' today?" (Unsurprisingly, I am not one of those.) But, invariably, I usually get in the entrance line behind that guy who is experiencing the "public parking lot adventure" for the very first time. It never fails! The queue line comes to a screeching and unnecessary halt while that guy in front of me begins a long and involved dialogue with the hapless (and usually disinterested) attendant. From my car-length vantage point, I can see this guy's hands expressively gesturing through his open driver's side window, I can't see a face, just the hand. And that hand is waving around as though performing an interpretive dance. Just when you think that this conversation will end, it continues. Way too long. "What," I think to myself (sometimes out loud), "could this guy possibly be asking or saying or explaining or complaining about? Pay your overpriced parking fee, you get your little ticket and you go!" But, no! It is obviously that guy's first time at a parking lot.

I know some people use them every day (sometimes several times a day), but I have not had the need to access an ATM in some time. As a matter of fact, it is so infrequent that I use an ATM, I have to seriously think about my password on each occasion. However, every time I have had the need to have some banking transactions via the convenience of an ATM, that guy is once again in front of me in line. He was issued his card and left, by the bank, to his own devices. No explanation was offered. No instructional pamphlet to read or video to watch. To be honest, how much teaching is really needed? ATMs are pretty intuitive. There is only one slot that could accommodate your card. The numerical buttons are nice and big. Hopefully, you have selected a fairly easy-to-remember four-digit access code and hopefully you have not forgotten what it is. The entire transaction should take just a few minutes (unless the machine keeps your card, which it has been known to do). Even then, after a few open-palm "bangs" on the ATM faceplate, your real beef is with the malevolent forces within the bank itself. But, that guy is having his first rendezvous with an ATM... and it is not going well. From a comfortable and socially-acceptable, privacy-aware distance, you can see that that guy has pressed waaay too many buttons after inserting his card. He appears to have canceled his transaction, only to start again, by inserting his card and, again, pressing double the amount of buttons this time around. He looks as though he is typing a report on a typewriter as opposed to merely entering a four digit number. As your patience wanes, that guy has begun the process of accessing the ATM no less that ten times. In between the fifth and sixth attempts, he turns around and, with mournful puppy-dog eyes, silently requests your help - only to shrug and return to the procedure. It is obviously that guy's first time at an ATM and here I am.... once again.

Recently, my wife and I accompanied her young cousin to his very first Major League Baseball game. As the game made its way to the late innings, Mrs. P thought it would be a nice idea to get him one of those "My First Baseball Game" certificates that all MLB stadiums offer. It's a cool memento and it's totally free, which is very nice in these days of six-dollar hot dogs and eighteen-dollar beers. A little research on the stadium's website revealed that the certificates are readily available at the Fan Services window which is located a short walk from  our seats. We hopped up at the bottom of the seventh inning, excused ourselves and made our way through the concourse to our destination. Navigating through the wandering crowd, we spotted the "Fan Services" sign jutting out from a wall just ahead. There was a woman at the window when we arrived. She must have been that guy's spouse. Keeping a respectful distance from her, we could see that she was waving her arms and gesturing to the poor young lady on the receiving side of the window. Mrs. That Guy went on and on and on, flailing her arms, stomping her feet and tapping the window to make her point. "What," I thought to myself, "could have possibly happened to this woman to warrant such an animated display? I don't believe she was pitching for the home team when back-to-back home runs were given up. I'm sure the manager didn't bench her for not running out an an infield hit. Eventually, she concluded her rant. The young lady behind the counter made a phone call and soon handed that woman something that made everything all better. Perhaps this was her first baseball game and her expectations were not satisfactorily met. And we were there to witness it.

Everything from self check-out at the supermarket to the simple operation of an automatic door to a traffic signal turning from red to green... I have been lucky enough to get a first-hand, eyewitness view of that guy's first time for everything. We always find each other. Most of the time, though, he's first.

Interestingly, when he is not first and I manage to get a seat in front of him, say at the movies or a concert or sporting event), he lets me know he is there. 


He kicks my seat through the whole event.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

do you know where you're going to

It's June. I graduated from high school in June. Not this June, of course. A different one. One that was forty-four years ago.

I don't have fond memories of high school. I dreaded every day. I didn't like going there or being there. Despite the Jewish population of the student body tallying nearly 85%, I was subjected to my share of anti-Semitism. I wasn't an especially good student. I didn't bring home good grades. I experienced the ache of unrequited love and, conversely, avoided some female classmates who came on a little too strong for my liking. However, I met some people who, for four years, grew to be inseparable friends, but whose camaraderie waned post-graduation... only to re-connect decades later via the magic of social media. I even re-connected with some classmates with whom I wasn't particularly close. But, time is the great equalizer and once you breach your 60th year on Earth, you begin to understand what was meant by the old adage "life is short" and you finally see just how short it is.

A classmate
wearing the winning button.
Recently, a few silly "snapshots" from my high school days popped into my head. I recall in my sophomore year, an open solicitation to design the "official" Class of '79 button was announced. The winning button design would be mass produced and distributed among our class, where it could proudly (proudly?) be displayed on a shirt, jacket or other piece of clothing. Even back in my teenage years, my budding art career was beginning to emerge. Art classes were the only ones I attended with any interest. In other non-art classes, I found myself doodling in the margins of American History tests or lengthy algebra equations. I was somewhat excited at the thought of having my design grace the "official" button representing my class, having all 1100-plus of my classmates sporting a 3" metal circle of my original artwork. I made a bunch of sketches and after rejecting several preliminary ideas, I settled on a mystical-looking wizard waving his hand above a glowing crystal ball, with the phrase "Class of '79 - We Make It Happen" floating in a semi-circle above his pointed blue, star-spangled cap. I'm not one to brag, but it was pretty good for a 16 year-old. Unfortunately, the rest of my class did not agree. In lieu of my design, they selected a strange depiction of two silhouetted figures standing on a royal blue hill before a bright yellow sun (our school colors) along with the sentiment "Class of '79 Walks Tomorrow's Paths Today" in a swirly, hand-written font. I don't like to knock other artists' work, but there were other designs — that weren't mine — that were waaaaay better than the one that was chosen. I would have been okay with not having my submission chosen. Just not this one. In my opinion, it was poorly executed and the slogan didn't exactly roll off the tongue... and that's not just sour grapes. Although, I retained some keepsakes from my tumultuous high school years, my button currently rests at the bottom of the man-made lake beneath the roller coaster at Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson, New Jersey. Great Adventure was the destination of my year-end Sophomore Class Trip. A friend picked the button off my shirt and flung it skyward with the gusto of an Olympic discus thrower. I wasn't terribly upset.

A classmate
wearing the winning shirt.
My Junior year in high school brought about a similar art-related project. This time, the task was designing the Class T-shirt. This was a big deal. Everyone's wardrobe was comprised almost exclusively of t-shirts. Concert commemoratives, sports teams, "peace" signs held over from the 60s — t-shirts and jeans were the accepted "uniform of the day" throughout the 70s. Even those students whose wardrobe was influenced by the burgeoning disco trend could sometimes be spotted in a t-shirt emblazoned with a glittery iron-on decal. Once again, I repurposed my "also-ran" button design of the wizard. I embellished my original design with more stars, brighter colors and a more detailed main figure. Again, my design lost out to a reworked take on the cover of Steve Miller's Book of Dreams album. Done in the school colors, the shirt featured a near-identical to the album depiction of Pegasus surrounded by stars, beneath the words "Flying High" in capital block letters. I will admit, it was a good design. It certainly was good enough for Steve Miller. It just wasn't an original design. However, the school "powers that be" including the principal, several administrators and an English teacher who served as our "class sponsor," debated the insinuated "drug" overtones of the slogan and mulled over the message that it conveyed. After many heated "back-and-forth" squabbles, a compromise was reached. The slogan would be changed to "Class of Dreams" before the shirts went into production. I believe the designer played dumb regarding any potential drug reference in the original design, only to create a custom-made short run of the original design for him and his pot-head friends. He wasn't fooling anyone.

The next item on the class agenda was choosing a song as our Senior Prom theme. Traditionally, the "prom theme" is a ballad that accommodates slow dancing. A number of songs were nominated with Billy Joel's "I've Loved These Days" declared the winner. A track from Joel's 1977 album Turnstiles, "I've Loved These Days" expresses the heartfelt feelings of a man reflecting on his life's accomplishments — a fitting narration for the end of high school and, of course, an opportunity to hold your prom date close... however awkward. But.... just a few weeks prior to the prom, the same committee that forced the alteration of the class t-shirt, got around to actually reading the lyrics to "I've Loved These Days." Four verses into the unfeigned sentimentality, someone discovered the line "we soothed our souls with fine cocaine." Frightened that this single line would turn the innocent prom into a deranged orgy abundant with narcotics, a meeting was held. Then another. Until another compromise with the incorrigible Class of '79 was reached. Billy Joel's composition on reminisces would be replaced with Diana Ross's 1975 hit "Theme from Mahogany" — a song priggishly subtitled "Do You Know Where You're Going To." I believe the school administration was making a backhanded assessment of my class's actions up to that point. A day or so before my senior prom, there was an afternoon luncheon where speeches were made, awards were presented and yearbooks were distributed. A few of the more musically-inclined students performed for their classmates. One young lady brazenly treated us to a rendition of "I've Loved These Days" — waving her acoustic guitar in the air at its completion in sort-of last ditch exhibition of her middle finger.

In June 1979, my years-long stretch in public school came to a close. My rambunctious class caused its share of controversy through music selections and  t-shirt designs. We thought we were tough little rebels, going toe-to-toe with "the man" and doing our best to "stand our ground." Over the course of four years, there was a certain amount of shoving and name-calling and maybe even a physical scuffle or two. But no one brought a loaded gun to school and I never hid in a closet, huddled with classmates, silently fearing I would never see my parents again.

Maybe my time in high school wasn't as bad as I remember.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

what's new

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a new car to replace a car that served me well for nearly twenty years. While doing a little online research before making my purchase, I discovered that the technology available in cars has advanced greatly in twenty years. When I bought my Toyota RAV4 in 2004, my biggest concern was that it had both a cassette deck and a CD player. I didn't know a thing about anti-lock fuel injection or anything else that went on under the hood — nor did I want to know. As long as I knew which side of the car allowed access to the gas tank for self-serve fill-ups (an activity of which I am not too crazy about performing), I choose to leave the down-and-dirty "car stuff" to the experts.

My Toyota RAV4's entertainment center came equipped with a cool little feature that I found fascinating. (Remember it was 2004!) When a CD was inserted into the player, a press of the "TEXT" button on the console changed the monochrome digital readout to display the name of the song, sometimes scrolling across the panel if the text contained a lot of characters. This was cool, in my easily impressed opinion. (As a frame of reference, I was mesmerized by the first fax machine I witnessed.)

After several purchases from Toyota, I decided to give Subaru a try. I had been very pleased with Toyota's products. Over the years, my wife and I bought four of them and the local dealership from which we made all of those purchases was great. Nice, no-pressure salesmen. Helpful and respectful service department. They were responsive and accommodating. However, recently, their customer service began to show signs of slipping. My wife had to return a day after some routine maintenance because a technician forgot to tighten something that caused the door to the glove compartment of her 2018 RAV4 to fall off mid-drive. A week later, she noticed her driver's side headlight was out and the dealership was less than accommodating in her efforts to replace it. What turned out to be a five-minute process by a neighborhood mechanic required an all-day appointment with our Toyota dealership.

I had heard good things about Subaru, so I thought I'd give them a shot. I am not a fan of the "haggling over price" part of buying a car and that process is nonexistent at Subaru. There is a price on a sticker affixed to the windshield of every car and that is the price. Of course, they will discount the car further with a trade-in vehicle, but there's no "what if I pay cash" incentive or "what's your best price?" nonsense. The price on the sticker is the price... and if you don't like it, you get a shrug, a smile and a point to the door. My wife and I discussed what we wanted to spend and my internet research led me to the Subaru Crosstrek, a model that was comparable in size to the RAV4 with which I had been so comfortable. A salesman directed me to a 2024 model on their lot. After a brief walk-around introduction, I eased myself behind the wheel, pressed the "START" button (No more ignition keys! When did that happen?) and took a few spins around the dealership's large parking lot. That was all the convincing I needed.  A few minutes later, we were signing paperwork and making arrangements for me to pick up my brand new car on the upcoming Saturday.

When my Saturday appointment came, my wife and I drove my RAV4 on its last journey under Pincus ownership. I relinquished the title to the business officer at the Subaru dealership. After exchanging handshakes and receiving a several "congratulations," I was led to my new car, ready and waiting in the safety and security of the showroom's sparkling-clean garage. (I never understood the "congratulations" from the sales staff when completing the purchase of a new car. It's not like I won the car. I was paying for it. I don't recall getting a "congratulations" from a supermarket cashier on my purchase of Cheerios.)

Before the garage door was lifted and my life as a Subaru owner began, I was introduced to Eric, the "tech guy" in Subaru's service department. Eric, a friendly young man, took a place in the passenger's seat and highlighted the finer points of the newly-redesigned 2024 Subaru Crosstrek's dashboard.

This is a stock photo.
My car will most likely 
never see mountains.
He ran through the various buttons and levers and mini-joysticks that surrounded the driver's seat. If I didn't know better, I would have thought I was getting my first lesson in piloting a helicopter. Eric helped me link my new car to my cellphone via a Bluetooth connection, technology that did not exist last time I bought a car. (My wife's 2018 vehicle accommodates Bluetooth, but just for phone calls. In six short years, the advancement is mind-boggling for someone of my age group.) He explained all sorts of neat little features that could be accessed by a few touches on the large screen that occupies the center spot of the dashboard. Radio, media player, phone, even air temperature can be controlled from the virtual buttons on the extremely-intuitive and futuristic-looking touchscreen. Eric ran through his little lesson with breakneck speed, pointing and expanding at a rate that I really couldn't keep up with. When he finished, he added that if I had any questions, I could come back and he'd be happy to answer them. As an incentive for a return visit, he offered a $25 gift card to be used at Wawa, the legendary Philadelphia-based convenience store chain that runs circles around your Sheetz and Seven-Elevens. Upon hearing that offer, I happily made an appointment for two weeks from my Saturday pick-up day.

I drove my car for two weeks... mostly — if not exclusively — to work and several supermarkets. Actually, on Day Two, I drove my son and his girlfriend to their respective center city Philadelphia homes, all the while showing off the cool stuff my new car could do. 

I returned for my second "orientation" appointment yesterday. I was greeted by Eric who asked me how I was liking my new car. I told him it was good, much better — and much, much different — than my RAV4. Not being a "car guy," a lot of what Eric explained to me sort of went in one ear and out the other. I do remember being told that the headlights are so advanced that they actually turn toward the direction of a right or left turn to light the way. At least that's what I think I heard. Once inside the car, Eric scrolled through a slew of options available under the category of "Driver Assistance." He explained how to activate each one and described how each one worked. He pointed out three little buttons at the bottom of the rearview mirror that can be programmed to operate a garage door opener. I told him I do not have a garage door opener because I have no use for a garage door opener because I do not have a garage. I also told him that I almost needed his assistance in getting music stored on my phone to play through the speakers in my car. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch a video that walked me through the fairly simple procedure.

Gotta hava
Over the course of twenty minutes, Eric gave me lessons in a number of things that I could activate at the touch of a few buttons. I nodded as he explained what each feature did, but honestly, I nodded when my eighth grade math teacher explained integers to me. Finally, he sounded as though he was wrapping his little spiel up. He said if I had any additional questions that I should not hesitate to contact him at the dealership. Then he presented a clipboard and pen before me and requested my signature. After I signed, he handed me a Wawa gift card, as promised — the real reason I made this appointment. As he surrendered the shiny piece of plastic, he told me it could be used for snacks, sandwiches, coffee, anything that Wawa sells. (Dude! I know how a gift card works! I may not understand rack and pinion assisted brakes, but I've been to more Wawas than years you've been on this planet!) "Thank you." I said.

As I pulled away in my brand new car, I turned off two of the options that Eric turned on.

And I headed for Wawa.