Sunday, October 29, 2023

so ya thought ya might like to go to the show

Now that the world seems to be slowly creeping back to some form of "normal" in these so-called "post pandemic" days, I've begun to venture out and experience live music again. I started off slow, first going exclusively to outdoor shows. Luckily, in my part of the Greater Philadelphia area, there are a lot of outdoor shows throughout the summer. The best thing about these outdoor shows — besides being outside — is they are free. I like free. My wife and I saw quite a few free show this past summer. The performances touched on all sorts of diverse genres — R & B, hip-hop, Tex-Mex, folk, jazzy cabaret and even a little bit of surf guitar. Oh, and they were free.

In June, I attended my first indoor show since 2020. I had some initial hesitation about going, but it was a show in a 1300-seat venue with reserved seating. I figured if I kept my mask on and people stayed in their seats, I could enjoy myself and not worry that some drunk hippie would twirl in front of me and cough his COVID-infused droplets all over my face. (No, it was not a Grateful Dead-related band and there was little-to-no twirling.) I left that show unscathed and — better yet — uninfected.

In September, I went to my first general admission, stake-out-your-spot-on-the-floor show since the week before COVID-19 shut down every public performance venue across the globe. I wore a mask and did my best to steer away from close contact with my fellow concert-goers... even this guy

Last Sunday, I went out to another show at a very small venue to see a band I had seen before. The headliner was supported by two opening acts, with neither of which I was familiar. After a quick dinner, my son and I went over to the venue and took our place at his favorite spot — a seat by the rail on the balcony, offering an unobstructed panoramic view of the stage, albeit an aerial view. Around 8 PM, the lights dimmed and the first band took to the tiny stage.

Now, I have been to a lot of concerts in my life and I have seen a lot of bands. Some good, some very good and some bad. Some very bad. I've seen some opening acts that I really enjoyed. I've also seen some that had me checking the time throughout their entire performance and trying to figure out how many more songs they would play in their allotted time. When the venue darkened last Sunday, from the opening guitar chords, I knew I'd be checking the time very soon.

The first band was boring... and bored. They appeared disenchanted with performing. Their opening number was dirge-y and tedious and cacophonous. At the song's conclusion, the lead singer, a young lady whose long and unruly hair covered her face, pushed her mouth against the microphone and introduced their next selection.

"Yeah... um.... so, this.... uh... next... um, like song.... is a new song and... like.... um.... its not on like an album or anything... and um... so... yeah... "

Every other song from the 30-minute repertoire was introduced in this fashion. One time, the stage banter was altered slightly to include a plug for the band's merchandise that was available for sale near the venue entrance.

"Um... yeah... so, like we have, like merch for sale. Like over there. We don't have no stickers though. We have t-shirts and... um, yeah... so we have merch and stuff. So, um... yeah... here's like... um... a... um.... song."

The sparse crowd — considerably younger that yours truly — seemed to be okay with this band. This led me to believe that the musical opinion of a 62-year old man is pretty much irrelevant. So, I sat quietly, fiddled with my phone, looked around and waited for the first band to leave the stage. They eventually did, departing with a message as eloquent as anything they previously said.

"So... um... that's our, like.... last song. Thanks for having... um.... us. We have merch. and... um.... so, yeah..."

After a brief rearranging of the stage, the next band came on. They were fronted by a particularly-flexible young lady with dyed periwinkle hair and a short, leopard skin skirt. They delivered a good old-fashioned punk rock show, possibly showing their predecessors "just how its done."

Sunday, October 22, 2023

happy loving couples

My parents had a group of friends with which they socialized on a fairly regular basis. By "regular basis," I mean whenever my mother made plans with the wife of the couple. Then, those plans were gently divulged to my father upon his return from a "hard day at work." (Every day at work was a hard day at work for my father.) My father would, of course, frown and grumble and express his displeasure at the thought of getting together with "those couples." Then he would relent when my mother would glare and threaten to withhold dinner beyond the unspoken but pre-determined 6:15 start time. You see, the majority of my parents' "couple friends" were my mother's friends from her days as a carefree, slightly uninhibited "party girl" and their husbands. I honestly don't remember any of the storied men from my father's youth making it to the "married adult friends list." 

My mom kept in close touch with her teenage (and beyond) girlfriends. She attended each of their weddings as a still-swinging single. When she became a bride at the unheard-of age of 33, her now-married friends joined her and rallied around to watch the once spontaneous and unpredictably wild Doris become Mrs. Pincus the First. Keeping in step with 1950s society expectations, my mom made regular plans with her friends and their husbands — regardless of how my father felt.

My mom had three very close friends in their early twenties — Annette, Roberta and Bernadette. These three women, led by my mom, would descend upon various Catskill, New York resorts (like the one you saw in Dirty Dancing) and — as they say — "paint the town red." They would swim and dance and drink and flirt and flirt and flirt. My mom was the ringleader of the "Four Musketeers" and her friends were only too happy to follow along. Marriage, however, calmed these ladies down — reducing their frenzied nights of debauchery to quiet games of Mah Jongg. But, my mom liked having friends and, even though my father didn't like having friends, she got together with her friends and forced my father to be as cordial as he possibly could.

Plans were made most often with my mom's friend Annette and her husband Rusty. Annette was a typical quiet, polite, reserved 60s housewife, behaving as though she stepped right out of a TV family sitcom. Rusty was loud and boisterous and wore bold plaid sport jackets and told corny jokes. And, according to my father and repeated regularly, Rusty was cheap. Maybe that's the reason my father never wanted to get together with Annette and Rusty. My father, one of the world's worst handlers of money, had a terrible habit of reaching for the check at the end of a restaurant meal with friends. Always wanting to appear "the big shot," my father would grab the check as soon as the waiter would drop it on the table. Other husbands would protest and argue with my dad that the check should be split — the reaction my father was always hoping for. But not Rusty. Rusty would shrug and loudly exclaim to his wife: "Look Annette! He's doing it again!" Rusty would never argue or reach for his wallet, but he always had the same reaction. And my father still continued to grab the check first. He never learned.

One time, my mom made plans to go to a baseball game at brand new Veterans Stadium, the giant concrete monstrosity in South Philadelphia that was the new home to the Philadelphia Phillies after the closing of the venerable Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly. My father often took my older brother to Phillies games at Connie Mack, leaving my mother and I to stay home and listen to the game on the radio. My mom's plans for a family outing at the ballpark would include Annette and Rusty and their daughter, Cindy Wanda, who was my age. I didn't especially like Cindy Wanda (and I think the feeling was mutual), but a friendship was forced upon us by our parents. And I always thought it was weird that she was always referred to by her first and middle names. As per usual, my father grumbled about plans with Annette and Rusty, but, as per usual, buckled under pressure from my mother. Tickets were bought and we were going.

The day of the game — a Sunday afternoon — we found our seats and settled in. Somewhere around the third inning, my father silently rose and left his seat, never informing anyone of his destination. A few minutes after my father left, Rusty also left and scurried up the aisle of our section. Rusty returned quickly, carrying three hot dogs in his hands. He made his way to our seats and handed a dog to his wife and his daughter and they ate in silence. My father soon appeared toting six hot dogs — one each for his family and for his "friends' family." He was visibly angered by the fact that Rusty and his family where already munching on their own ballpark staples. He grew more vexed when Rusty happily accepted three more hot dogs and opined a familiar sentiment: "Look Annette! He's doing it again!" 

Every so often, my mom would invite her friends and their husbands to our house for an evening of talk, camaraderie and some games — poker for the men in one room and Mah Jongg for the ladies in another room. With the notion of company, my mom would stock up on snacks and such, putting out a spread on our kitchen table of cold cuts, bagels, sandwich accoutrements and condiments, as well as big bowls of potato chips, pretzels and something called "bridge mix," little dark chocolate coated morsels that resembled rabbit droppings. Often these little get-togethers would rotate from house to house and a similar array of food and refreshments would be offered by the evening's host couple. My father dreaded when Annette and Rusty where the "hosts of the week." (Honestly, my father dreaded these evenings PERIOD.) The food at Annette and Rusty's was minimal, consisting of cheese slices and other foodstuffs corresponding to the exact number of people attending the night's gathering. Four couples? Eight slices of cheese. No more. No less. Eight bagels. Eight slices of tomato. Eight napkins. You get the picture. Oh, and eight cans of soda were set out. And no ice bucket.

After a while, my parents didn't get together with my mom's friends and their husbands. My mom began working full time and taking on lots of overtime hours. Her time at home was spent catching up on sleep. My dad was just as happy. he went to work. He came home. He smoked a ton of cigarettes, ate a lot of red meat and watched a lot of television. Friends he didn't need or want.

Especially cheap ones.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

i want candy

Halloween is coming. I like Halloween. Yeah, there are not many holidays that I like, but I do like Halloween. When my son was little (he's 36), I loved thinking up costume ideas and then creating and assembling said costumes on Halloween night. I liked taking him around the neighborhood and then returning to our house to greet trick or treaters, see their far-less-imaginative costumes and reward them with candy for their efforts. My wife and I would decorate our house with elaborate accoutrements we had accumulated over the years, a collection that rivaled some family's Christmas decorations. As the years went on, though, and my son grew up and moved to his own house, Halloween has become less exciting. We don't decorate as much. (Some years, not at all.) We get fewer and fewer takers for free candy. Those that do venture out are finished knocking on doors and ringing door bells by the time the sun has set. The fun of Halloween has waned.

Mrs. Pincus and I got married in the summer of 1984. We moved into a two-story townhouse in Northeast Philadelphia just after our honeymoon. This is where we celebrated our first Halloween as a married couple. We had noticed a lot of young kids at the apartment complex where were lived and figured that — come Halloween — we had better stock up with plenty of giveaways.

Northeast Philadelphia is fertile ground for strip shopping centers. There were several right near our house. During the summer, we saw a new concept store open up in one of the nearby strip centers. It was a store called Barrel Grocer and they sold their various wares in bulk. The store was outfitted with aisles and aisles of barrels from which shoppers could fill a bag with bulk flour or nuts or Hershey Kisses, weigh the selected amount and (theoretically) save big. It was a novel idea, but I don't think the savings were nearly worth the effort. Supermarket prices were still cheaper and their established system was really more convenient. But, Barrel Grocer was a fun place to shop. While strolling among the barrels one day, I thought of a funny idea and I laughed to myself. I presented it to Mrs. P and she was totally on board. I decided that, instead of giving out candy for Halloween, we should give out packets of ketchup and mustard and jelly, like you would get at a fast food restaurant. These were all readily available in bulk at Barrel Grocer. I thought: "Would kids complain?" Probably not, and especially not if they can't see what we're putting in their trick-or-treat bags. Then we thought of these kids coming home at the end of the night, dumping their bags on the kitchen table and spotting ketchup and jelly packet among their Snickers bars and Reese's cups. Mom and Dad would scratch their heads, look at each other, then silently mouth: "Who the fuck gave out ketchup and mustard packs?" The answer, of course, would be "WE" the fuck did and we laughed again at the mental picture.

But instead of dismissing a funny idea, we went ahead with our plan. We filled a bunch of bags with ketchup packets and mustard packets and jelly packets (two different flavors) and even honey packets. We brought our twisty-secured plastic bags up the the cashier, laughing all the way. We laughed on our drive home. We laughed as we lined the bags up on our small kitchen counter and waited for Halloween.

Halloween 1984 arrived with pleasant weather. It was nice enough that we were able to leave our front door open as we watched the parade of kids make their way up and down the little walkways that led to each individual apartment. When the various faux witches and ghosts and clowns and superhero du jour approached with various configurations of bags extended at arms length, we were ready. As each costumed child exclaimed "Trick or treat" in their excited and shrill little voices, I reached deep into an opaque brown paper grocery bag that handily concealed what The Pincuses were giving away. I extracted a fistful of condiment packets and, under the cloak of the descending darkness, reached deep into the depth of the trick-or-treat bags to deposit our "treat." The children narrowed their little eyes and craned their little necks to catch a telling glimpse of what sort of unknown treat this guy (me) was giving out. A few kids poked around in their bags as they shuffled off. Others flat out asked us what we were giving, to which we evasively replied: "It's a surprise."

Mrs. Pincus and I (mostly me) had a hard time containing our laughter with each innocent trick-or-treater. As the night went on, however, I remember a pair of costumed kiddies pointedly ask "What was that?" as they got a fleeting peep at one of the packets being dropped in their bag. Mrs. Pincus, who as we have already established is waaaay nicer that I am, just answered. "It's jelly" and stepped back slightly, awaiting a reaction. The two kids looked at each other, looked down at their bags and looked at my wife. Then they turned on their heels and enthusiastically shrieked "WE GOT JELLY!!!!," as they skipped off towards their parents who were waiting at the end of the walkway. It was priceless.

I'm sure we ruined Halloween for a lot of children that night. But two — in particular — had jelly with their breakfast on the morning of November 1st and were excited about it.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

police on my back

In the summer of 2020, I wrote about the police for what I thought would be the last time. I don't like to get political on this blog, but sometimes a situation becomes so astounding and so outrageous, I feel I have to address it. (I promise to get back to in-depth analysis of old TV shows and things I ate for dinner as soon as I can.) Not that my opinion makes any difference, but it's more like opening a valve on a pipe to let the build up of steam escape. In 2020, a police officer murdered George Floyd in plain sight of a number of people, including other police officers who did nothing. As a result, the nation erupted in outrage and protest in many cities across the country, including my own city of Philadelphia, the alleged "City of Brotherly Love." Watching the protest on television from my safe suburban home was horrify and, at the same time, enlightening. In the following days, I was educated by a few African-American friends, giving me a perspective on the events to which I had previously been blind. I learned — in the most basic of terms — that white people are awful. Just awful. They are unjustifiably scared and have pretty much caused all of the issues they have with people who are not white. White people have always been in charge and have feared losing that status the entire time. It's just terrible and, sometimes, I am embarrassed and ashamed to be white. I thought — and really believed — that after George Floyd's death and the eventual sentencing of his police officer/murderer, things would improve. I believed that white people would collectively realize their past treatment of non-white people and begin to take the road to understanding, equality and better relationships. I thought that police officers would relax their targeting and profiling and stop being bullies. I would have been better off and achieved more favorable results had I focused my optimistic beliefs on the Tooth Fairy.

Tashawn and Michael Bernard
In August 2023, 12 year-old Tashawn Bernard was helping his father wash the dinner dishes in his Lansing, Michigan apartment. Tashawn's father, Michael, asked his son to take a bag of trash out to the dumpster that sat just across the parking lot from their unit in the apartment complex. It was something that Tashawn had done a million times before. After an inordinate amount of time, Tashawn had not returned and Michael became concerned. He left the apartment and came down to the parking lot — only to discover several police cars surrounding the dumpster and his son - in handcuffs - flanked by two police officers and being guided into the back seat of one of the police cars. Both frightened and angry, Michael called out the the officers: "Why is my son in handcuffs?" One of the officers answered back that he would be told "in a little while" and should keep his distance on the sidewalk. With Tashawn in the back of the police vehicle, Michael pressed for an explanation. Another officer explained that they were searching for a suspect in a series of car thefts in the area and Tashawn fit the basic description. As the story unfolded, some disturbing details were revealed. It seems that Tashawn had just tossed the bag of trash into the dumpster when a police car pulled up to him. An officer emerged from the car and unholstered his gun as he began to question the young man. It turns out that the only characteristic that Tashawn shared with the suspected car thief was he was black. Tashawn was a different height, a different build, different age range and was dressed differently. Eventually, Tashawn was released to his father and the two returned to their apartment. (Michael was subjected to disrespectful comments and threats prior to his son's release from custody.) Michael contacted the Lansing Police Department, as well as several media outlets. He demanded an apology, which he did receive a few days after the unfortunate incident. Both Lansing's Chief of Police and Lansing's Mayor offered very standard, very corporate and very cold apologies, with phrasing that would have been more appropriate for a mistakenly-issued parking ticket. Michael has since contacted an attorney for possible further legal action.

When I read this story (that got relatively no national attention), I was saddened, frustrated and angry. I could not imagine what was going through Michael Bernard's head when he saw his son in handcuffs. I thought about how I would have felt if I had seen my son in that situation. But, what would be the chances of that happening? My son is white and police officers would run past a white young man for the opportunity to unjustly harass a black young man. This story made me ask the rhetorical question: "When will this end?"

I got my answer last week. And the answer I got is "never."

David Ryan Harris and his children
On September 15, 2023, David Ryan Harris, a singer/songwriter, got his children up for an early flight from Atlanta International Airport to LAX. It was a six-hour flight and his two boys were understandably cranky from being awakened at 4:15 am, hours before sunrise. As they boarded the flight, a flight attendant became concerned that a light-skinned 7 year-old with curly blond-brown hair was travelling with a black man. The shy young man didn't answer the flight attendant's questions and turned away when asked his name. The flight attendant contacted authorities in Los Angeles. When the flight touched down at LAX, Harris and his two boys were met at the jetway by four Los Angeles police officers and an employee from American Airlines. After some brief public questioning, right at the gate, the police determined that the now-agitated Harris was, indeed, the father of the two boys. A furious Harris noted that his boys are shy and are not obligated to engage in any conversation. Harris unsuccessfully contacted American Airlines customer service before taking his anger to social media.  In a post to Instagram, Harris stated: "If this had been a white dad/mom with 2 little black kids, they would probably been offered an upgrade, not an interrogation." American Airlines later issued an apology to the singer. A company representative contacted Harris, explaining that they were concerned over the possibility of child trafficking. In an effort to "make things right," American Airlines promised an investigation and would credit Harris's account with 10,000 frequent flyer points. Harris pointed out that the airline awards 50,000 points when you open an account, so this is kind of insulting.

I wonder how soon until I read another one of these stories. I wonder when it will end. I wonder when I will stop hearing people say "Blue Lives Matter" as a response to "Black Lives Matter." 

White people, I mean.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

like a prayer

I wrote this a few years ago and never got around to publishing it. My feelings about religion have not changed. If anything, they have become even more critical and dismissive, if that's possible. But, it's a nice story at its heart.
Religion isn't one of my favorite things. It doesn't even rank in the top thousand. If I were to give it a position among the things for which I have a fondness, I would place religion just below repeated punches to the forehead. I find religion silly, outdated and totally useless... for me, anyway. I equate the mumbo-jumbo recitations with the mystical incantations spoken by "Samantha Stephens" in countless episodes of Bewitched... and just as effective. I will not, however, impede on anyone who finds peace and solace from religion. But, don't try to convince me to see things your way. I won't. My limited participation in any sort of religion-related activity is purely out of respect for my dear wife and, in turn, her respect for her parents — who take their religion pretty seriously.

Recently, I accompanied my wife to a shiva for a family member. A shiva, for those of you not familiar with Jewish practices and customs, is a gathering for a period of mourning after the death of a "first-degree" family member (i.e. mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter). Family and friends assemble at the decedent's home (usually) for evening prayer services for a (traditional) period of seven days, but most American secular Jews whittle that down to three (sometimes less).

The shiva that I attended was to remember Lila, my wife's once or twice removed cousin. We arrived at a house filled with people I did not know. Most, I assumed, were friends of Lila's and her husband. Further inside the house, I spotted my in-laws, my nieces, my wife's brother and sister-in-law and Lila's two children, who are around my own age. I also recognized the rabbi from the synagogue to which Lila and her husband frequented as long-time members. Coincidentally, my son went to elementary school with this rabbi's children, although they were not in the same grade. As far a rabbis go, he's a nice guy. As far as non-rabbis go, he is also a nice guy.

Growing up, I rarely went to any sort of religious services. The ones that I did go to, I always remained in the back of the chapel, as far back and as close to the exit doors I could get and still be considered "inside." From my distant vantage point, I watched the rabbi go through his motions. He was usually an older man, with graying temples and a Mona Lisa smile — not unpleasant, but not quite friendly. After services concluded, he greeted congregants with a wise and knowing nod, patting young ones on the head and warmly shaking the hand of older folks. In my mind, I  have always had a certain mold in which rabbis should fit. This is how I want my rabbis to appear and behave. 

When I met my wife, she and her family belonged to a synagogue whose rabbi fit my "rabbi criteria." He was a tall, genial, white haired gentleman with a pleasant voice and reserved demeanor. He had a strange habit of repeating the last few words of his sentences, I suppose, to emphasize the points of his sermons. I also learned that he was a career Navy man. But, he was, unmistakably, a rabbi. Mrs. Pincus and I were married at a different synagogue whose rabbi, while much more approachable and friendlier than the Navy man, was still, unmistakably, a rabbi. He was a warm presence and his congregation adored him.

When the Navy rabbi retired, he was replaced by a steady stream of candidates who were, decidedly, un-rabbi-like. Some were crass, unpolished and very uninspiring. The synagogue finally settled for a young rabbi who treats the honored position with the same dedication as a fifth-grade kid at 2 p.m. on the last day of school before summer vacation — staring at the clock, watching the hands tick off the minutes until he can blow this proverbial taco stand. To this guy, being a rabbi is no different than any profession that works "on the clock." Once the time card is punched "out," that's where his "rabbi"-ing is — out! His service is supplemented by an assistant rabbi who, I believe, assists him in watching the clock. Both of them are out-of-sight more than they are visible and "rabbi"-ing.

Back at the shiva, the evening prayer service was beginning. I politely grabbed a siddur (prayer book) to follow along. I refuse to participate in responsive reading, reading in unison or pretending to read "silent devotion," but I will not be disruptive to those who wish to carry out the ritual. This rabbi took his place in the center of the living room, a small, semi-circle of people loosely formed around him, and he began.

He spoke so eloquently, guiding everyone through the words and offering gentle reminders of the current page from which we were reading for those (like me) who don't read Hebrew or just lost their place. He interjected with brief, but concise, explanations of the prayers and their intended meaning. His voice was sweet, filled with compassion and comfort, while maintaining an air of authority and command. The crowd was obviously entranced by his presence.

When the service concluded, I thought "If I was gonna start believing in this hooey, this guy would certainly be a good reason." His voice and manner were comforting and compassionate, giving off a palpable feeling of warmth and grace and kindness. It made me think that maybe the content of religion isn't important. All those so-called words of scripture aren't the important part. Maybe it's just the vessel through which they are delivered.