Sunday, November 26, 2023

yes, I remember it well

When my mom died in 1991, she took the entire family history with her.

Every family has an unofficial family historian. You know, that one person you can go to and ask any question about any family member for whom you need a little bit of information or possible clarification. How are you related to this person? Who's child is this and when did they get married? Is that guy we call "uncle" really my uncle? For as long as I can remember, my mom was that person. She was the keeper of the Small family (her maiden name) history and she eventually served in the same capacity for the Pincus family when she married my father. (Curiously, there was no one in my father's family that could be relied upon to give an accurate account of family relations. My father's family all shared one common trait. They were habitual liars.)

My mom knew facts about generations that pre-dated her own 1923 birth. She could rattle off names, dates, locations, offspring, offspring's spouses and countless children — some of whom she never even met. Right off the top of her head, she could tell of long-forgotten incidents, including explicit detail, as though they had just taken place the day before. She could sift through a box of mismatched photographs — ones spanning numerous time frames as exhibited by an assortment of black & white and color examples — and identify the subjects, the location and the approximate date on which the photo was taken.

My mom was the youngest of five siblings — her oldest brother being eighteen years her senior. I recall my mom settling many an argument among her siblings. The phone in our house would ring regularly as a brother or a sister would call to confirm with my mom which one of their uncles owned a produce pushcart or which aunt was especially promiscuous. My mom always had the answer. "Call Doris! She'll know!" was a phase that was spoken frequently among the Small clan and eventually the lying Pincuses came to rely on my mother's encyclopedic knowledge.

In October 1991, after a long, up-and-down battle with cancer, my mom died and left her family in a state of confusion. Not only was she beloved among her immediate and extended family, but she one of the few family members (on both sides) that nobody had an issue with. She was always helpful and pleasant and funny. And when she died, family history began to rewrite itself. Surviving family members were left to piece together their vague, mostly inaccurate memories. This left the Smalls and Pincuses with a legacy that resembled a poorly-sewn patchwork quilt.

There is one story that I really wish my mom were here to set the record straight. It's a story that has become a "bone of contention" between by brother Max and I. Max, as is the way of most big brothers, is always right. This story has been discussed many times since my mother's passing and the way I remember it and the way Max remembers it couldn't be more different. It's as though it isn't even an account of the same incident. Personally, I am fuzzy on the exact time frame. I don't remember exactly how old I was when it happened. But I do know that the way Max tells it is not the way it happened. The way I remember it was....

My mother had purchased a cake for an upcoming birthday — maybe mine, maybe my brother's. I don't remember who would be the eventual recipient. The cake was in a bakery box on the second shelf down in our over-stuffed refrigerator. (I always remember our family's refrigerator being packed so tightly that items needed to be constantly rearranged in order to accommodate new purchases from the supermarket or even a plastic container of leftovers. How my mom managed to find space to fit a bakery box in that frigid Tetris game remains a mystery..... but, I digress....)

The box containing the cake had the string that secured the lid removed and it sat on the shelf with the lid just loosely protecting the pasty within. As was typical for the Pincus family, I sat with my mom and dad in our den, watching television — most likely a program of my father's choosing. My brother was not with us. He was upstairs in his room doing whatever it was that he did up there. At some point, he came downstairs and visited the kitchen, perhaps for a snack or a beverage or both. From the den — adjacent to the kitchen in our small Northeast Philadelphia house — we could hear the refrigerator door open followed by my brother clinking bottles and moving covered dishes in an effort to see what sort of after-dinner nibbles were available. Suddenly, we heard a noise — a sort of a bang! — followed by my brother angrily muttering "OH!"

My mom, my dad and I scrambled into the kitchen to find my brother standing in front of the refrigerator. The door was open. At his feet was the cake box. It was upside-down and its visible contents were smashed on the kitchen floor — a scattering of crumbs and icing in a small, misshapen arrangement on the linoleum. We all stood silently for a few moments staring at the unexpected scene that surrounded my brother's feet. Finally, my father spoke. 

"What the hell happened?" he bellowed, gesturing with his omnipresent cigarette towards the destroyed baked good strewn across the Pincus kitchen floor.

My brother, with not a lick of fear in his voice, plainly stated, "I dropped the cake."

My father was positively dumbfounded. Dumfounded! He jammed his cigarette into his mouth, knelt down and awkwardly gathered up the cake box in his hands. He frowned and spat, "How do you drop a cake?" He repeated this like a mantra several more times, until he forcefully shoved the unwieldy mess into my brother's hands and screamed — demanded! — "Show me how you drop a cake!"

The words sounded downright stupid coming out of my father's mouth. It was one of those things where your anger is so out of control and over-the top, that your mind can't form coherent sentences to express the serious tone of the situation. My mom and I stifled our laughter knowing it would have made my mad father even madder. My always-defiant brother, however, just rolled his eyes as he accepted the dented cardboard box from my father. He placed it on the kitchen table. Of course, he wasn't about to demonstrate the procedure of dropping a cake for my father. This was a one-time performance. Max just stood by quietly and waited for my father's tirade to wind down. Finally, my father let out an annoyed exhale, lit another cigarette and retired to the den, shaking his head muttering about dropping a cake.

My brother returned to his room with a couple of slices of cheese from the refrigerator.

And that's the story. For years — years! — the phrase "Show me how you drop a cake!" — was repeated in the Pincus household for comedic effect. My son, whose birth came decades after the notorious "cake-dropping" incident, has made use of the phrase from time to time. It's a funny story with all the elements you'd expect in a funny story — a silly accident, an over-reaction from my father, my brother standing his ground and my mom and I hiding our amusement.

My brother, however, remembers the event completely different — right down to the action taking place on the sidewalk in front of our house instead of in the kitchen. Because of this, the story is never ever told in my brother's company.

He may have to start a blog of his own.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

gimme a head with hair

On Sunday afternoon, I was at the supermarket to pick up a few things. I needed a head of lettuce, a bag of radishes, a cucumber. (Not for me, for Mrs. Pincus. I don't eat cucumbers in their natural form, Once they are turned into pickles, though... I'm right there!) I added a few more items to my cart before heading to the check-out line.

I queued up behind a couple who had loaded up the conveyor belt with their afternoon's grocery order. I grabbed a plastic divider, placed it behind the last item in their order and began to transfer my selections from my cart to the conveyer belt. In my peripheral vision, I saw a man take his place behind my cart. I continued my task and — in typical Josh Pincus fashion — ignored everything that was going on around me.

Then I heard the man behind me say.... something.

In these days of cellphones and Bluetooth and wireless earbuds, one can never tell who someone is speaking to. I have seen folks have lengthy conversations — complete with flailing arms and expressive hand gestures — with unseen recipients of these animated diatribes. From a distance of even a few feet, they appear to be performing some sort of pantomime skit or perhaps an interpretive dance. With this in mind, I usually assume that a stranger speaking in my general direction is having a phone conversation and not addressing me. That's what I assumed regarding the man behind me in the supermarket check-out line. However, I unconsciously glanced up while leaning over the top of my cart and looked directly at him.

He smiled at me and said, "I like your hair."

Admittedly, I was taken off-guard and I felt myself involuntarily smiling. Then, I emitted a little laugh. He smiled even more broadly and added, "You certainly have more that I do!" He pointed to the top of his own head — shiny and bald. I nodded and laughed again.

It had been a very, very long time since any stranger had paid me a compliment about my physical appearance. For many years, I colored my hair a striking, yet decidedly unnatural, red. This chosen shade became something of a "trademark" among those who knew me personally. It also served as a point of focus for strangers. I regularly received comments about my hair and its unusual hue — in restaurants, in stores, on vacation, even while just walking down the street. However, after a dozen or so years and the onslaught of inevitable hair loss, I stopped coloring my hair and let it grow into its natural gray. With each subsequent haircut, more and more of my forehead became less and less hirsute. The nice woman who cuts my hair would hand me a mirror with which to view the back of my head and assess the results of her adept scissor work. With every new haircut, the bare spot on the back of my head grew bigger and bigger and barer and barer. She always comments that my hair grows so fast, but I know she's just being nice or, perhaps, looking for a bigger tip.

So, no matter what the guy behind me in the check-out line said, there is no way that he — or anyone — genuinely "likes my hair"... at least not at this juncture of my life.

Or.... maybe.... maybe... he really liked my hair.

After I paid for my groceries, but before I made my way towards the exit, I turned to the man behind me in the check-out line and said, "You... have a good day!," with emphasis on "you."

When I got home, I related this story to Mrs. Pincus and that four-word phrase — "I like your hair" — officially entered our daily conversations, joining such stalwarts as "How was your day?" and "What should we have for dinner?"

Sunday, November 12, 2023

wind of change

After mulling over my future options, I entered art school in the Fall of 1980.  I had graduated from high school over a year earlier. Although I had expressed interest in drawing at a very young age, I couldn't imagine making it a career. (Forty years later, I still can't believe I made it a career.) I worked in retail for a year while I decided what to do with the rest of my life. I was terrible at math, so that eliminated a lot of possibilities. I wasn't mechanically-inclined, so that eliminated even more. With my choices narrowing, I resigned myself to the pursuit of a rewarding career (?) in the field of commercial art.

Following Labor day 1980, I joined a small group of other budding artists as part of the freshman class at the renowned Hussian School of Art (Well.... "renowned" in Philadelphia, anyway. Well.... sort of renowned.) I met and eventually formed friendships with a majority of my classmates. Just like any school or other inter-personal situation, I didn't get along with everyone. There was one guy in particular who was.... what's the word?.... oh yeah.... an asshole. He was a sullen, angry, insulting, belligerent jerk. He openly criticized his colleagues' work, whether or not his opinion was requested. (It was not.)  He sat in class with arms folded tightly against his chest, head down, surveying his surroundings through strands of greasy hair that hung limply over his forehead, dipping into his line of vision. Mostly he would mutter to himself, huffing a "this sucks" or "you blow" under his breath. Every so often, he would raise his voice to make sure everyone was apprised of his negative opinion. "Sucks!," he'd spew and punctuate his statement by tossing a crumpled piece of paper at the artist whose work was being actually critiqued by the class instructor. Between classes, this guy would walk the halls and deliberately bump into people with the grace and finesse of a hockey defenseman. He'd offer his favorite, all-purpose, all-encompassing "pet name" to any and all that crossed his path. "Shit stain" he'd call them.

This behavior continued for the entire four years that I was a student. It never let up for one minute. After graduation, I figured I never see this guy again.

Nearly a decade into the 21st Century, an effort was made by some of my art-school classmates for an extremely informal twenty-fifth anniversary class reunion. Plans were made to meet at one of our old haunts — a small Irish pub in one of Philadelphia's narrow alleys. In our younger, more rambunctious days, many a Hussian student downed many an alcoholic beverage at this establishment, so it was the perfect venue. (Although I no longer drink alcohol, I myself ended up on the floor of this pub more times that I'd care to admit.) When the designated date rolled around, I hopped a train from my suburban home. I headed for the tiny bar with the hopes of reconvening and reminiscing with classmates and friends I had not seen in a quarter of a century. Many things had changed in that time. I was married for twenty-five years, having tied the knot just two months after my graduation from art school. I had a son that was about to turn 22. I was working in the marketing department of a large law firm in Philadelphia. I was genuinely anxious to see the paths my various classmates' lives had taken.

I arrived and entered the bar through the familiar heavy wooden doors. In the dim light, I immediately recognized some faces that had strangely not changed in twenty-five years. Sure, there were plenty of folks who I did not recognize, but after some awkward guessing I was able to make identification. As for my appearance, at the time, I had been coloring my hair a vibrant and decidedly unnatural red-orange, so I was subjected to a certain amount of scrutiny by those who knew me with mousy brown locks. 

The conversation was lively. I honestly dread events like this (I haven't attended a high school reunion since my first one — a five year milestone), but I was really glad I came. I talked with people who had not entered my thoughts for years... and it was very nice. During the course of the afternoon, a fellow approached me whom I did not recognize. He knew me, though. The first thing he did was offer an apology. As he spoke, hanging his head and expressing regret over his past actions, I realized who he was. It was my belligerent asshole classmate. He looked totally different, but once he began talking, it all came back to me. He acknowledged his poor behavior and asked for forgiveness for his less-than-amiable personality. He explained that he had grown as a person and turned himself around as his life progressed. He never pursued a career in art, but found a satisfying and rewarding vocation elsewhere. I shook hands with this former asshole. I had never shaken hands with him before.

As I became more active on social media, I have reconnected with a number of people with whom I attended art school. I see their vacation activities and their acquisitions of new pets and sad passings beloved ones. I see what they've eaten for breakfast. I've seen the marriages of their children and births of their grandchildren. I have received comments on my various silly posts and welcomed well-wishes on my birthday. Somewhere along the way, I reconnected with my asshole classmate. He has made comments here and there, although Facebook activity does not appear to be a priority in his life. Recently, however, he has made a few comments that harken back to his art school days, each one dripping with the same venomous loathing once so prevalent in those early 80s classrooms. Several consecutive comments — on different posts relating to different topics — smacked of that dismissive "you blow" and "this sucks" that I remember hearing an apology for.

What's that they say about old dogs, new tricks and a leopard's spots never changing?

Sunday, November 5, 2023

come to me for service

I bought a new car this past May. I am enjoying driving around in a car that isn't 20 years old, not worrying about that new strange noise that I didn't hear yesterday and how much it's going to cost to make that new strange noise stop. 

A week or so ago, I came home from work to find that I had received a Safety Recall Notice from Subaru Corporate Headquarters. This recall includes my five-month old Subaru Crosstrek. Receiving a recall notice is the equivalent of your car being selected for jury duty. First off, it's an inconvenience. A day off from work has to be scheduled. A day sitting in the waiting room at the service area of a car dealership isn't most folks idea of a productive day. Personally, I dread the thought as well as the actual experience. (Same goes for jury duty.)

Following the instructions in the recall notice, I called the dealership at which I purchased my car. Once connected with the service department, I explained about the notice and the fellow on the other end of the phone asked "The wire harness recall, right?"

"Is there another recall?" I thought. What the fuck? What kind of bomb-lemon-reject did Subaru sell me? Instead, I just replied in the affirmative. "Yes," I said, "the wire harness recall." I briefly scanned the recall notice before making the call to schedule a service appointment. It seemed that a manufacturing flaw was detected and a plastic wire harness that sits atop the steering column could melt, thus short-circuiting the car's electrical system. The text explained that an inspection of my car would alleviate the problem, if caught in time. If left unattended, it could involve an all-day repair. None of this, however would incur any cost to me.... except for my time. I scheduled an appointment for a Saturday morning and told the service tech that I would prefer to wait during the inspection. He assured me it would take approximately forty-five minutes. The anxiety that accompanies waiting at a car dealership began.

A few days before my service, my friend Consuelo posted an account of a very positive experience with a Subaru dealer. Consuelo has a Crosstrek a few years older than mine. There was an issue with one of the car's tires. She took it to a Subaru dealer, not the one from which she purchased the car. The mechanic sent a video record, showing the repair. She was treated with respect. The service was efficient. The whole experience reinforced the "family" reputation that made me want to purchase a Subaru in the first place. My nerves were put at ease and I no longer had that sense of trepidation about my upcoming appointment.

Saturday rolled around. I had an earlier appointment for a haircut, but would have plenty of time to make it to the Subaru dealership in time for my recall inspection. I had only been to this dealership three times - once to buy my car. Once to pick up my new car and take possession of it and once more to have a little orientation about the sophisticated on-onboard computer system that controlled everything in the car. I was not familiar with the process of showing up for car service. I pulled into the dealership parking lot and parked in the customer parking lot. I walked in to the building and was greeted by a smiling young lady at the reception desk. "Hi," she beamed, "Welcome to Subaru! How can I help you?" Her smile took up most of her face. This was encouraging. I explained about the recall notice and that I had never been here for service. She stood up from behind the desk and escorted me across the lobby to the service department. This was also encouraging. She pointed to a space near the service counter and told me someone would be with me shortly.

So, I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. While I waited, I was ignored by every blue-topped, beige-pantsed employee that walked by. And there were a lot of them.

As I waited, I watched one young man behind the service counter tapping away at a keyboard as he conversed with a worried-looking woman. There were two other customers ahead of me, anxious to step up once the worried woman's issue was satisfied. The keyboard-tapping man left his post and returned several times, leaving the worried-looking woman to grow even more concerned. Once, he passed me and mumbled: "M'll bewithyoo mint." with I deciphered to mean "I'll be with you in a minute." He wasn't. My initial feeling of encouragement was waning.

I watched as more and more people entered the service area through a set of automatic doors that separated the service desk from the actual area where cars were queued up for there various services. Each of the folks who came to the service area were greeted by an employee and asked to take a place at the counter. I stood and watched like an outsider. An invisible outsider. More men and women in Subaru-logoed clothing passed me, hurrying off to tend to a customer that wasn't me.

Finally, I left my assigned post and went to my car. I pulled it around to the service entrance, following posted instruction to "PULL FORWARD SLOWLY. DOOR WILL OPEN AUTOMATICALLY." Sure enough, the door rose and I navigated my car into the building, stopping behind a green Forrester with a decal from a Golden Retriever Club adhered to the rear window. The car's owner exited the driver's door. She opened the backdoor to release a large, rambunctious Golden Retriever from the confines of the backseat. The woman — of slight build and stature — looked as though she could be overpowered by this hulking canine at any moment. She lazily attached a flimsy leash to its collar and the dog paced quickly in circles around her. She followed a serviceman into the showroom.

And I waited. And waited. And waited.

Mohommed, Jugdish, Sidney and Clayton
Eventually, a young man (a different young man) with an iPad approached my car. "Are you here for an oil change?" he asked. I explained the reason for my visit. He directed me to leave my key fob in the car and take my place by the service desk where someone would be with me shortly. I walked back inside and stood where I had stood before - in my spot of being ignored. I was instantly reminded of a scene from National Lampoon's Animal House when smarmy Doug Neidermeyer is trying to ditch prospective pledges Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman at a Fraternity Rush Party. I felt like Larry and Kent. I was slowly losing my patience and all signs of the "family feeling" reputation at Subaru was slipping away.

After a few more minutes, a man in a button-down Subaru dress shirt stopped and asked if I was being helped. He had passed me several times earlier and I supposed he grew concerned when he saw I had not changed position in nearly twenty minutes. Again, I explained about the recall and he led me to a spot at the service desk at the very end of the counter. He introduced himself as "John" and in an effort to redeem the good name of Subaru, speedily checked me in. He led me to the waiting area, pointing out an array of complimentary refreshments on the way. He aske me to have a seat, assuring me that the inspection should have me out of here by noon. A few minutes after I found a seat by the front window, my phone vibrated with a text message from John. He told me to contact him if he could be of further assistance while I waited.

No charge
True to his word, John returned to the waiting area and announced my name. He led me back to his computer terminal, saying that the inspection was complete, the repair was made and there, of course, would be no charge. He reminded me that a six-month oil change was approaching in November. No appointment was necessary and it was complementary, He led me out to my car, thanked me again for my patience and for choosing Subaru. He waved as I pulled out of the service area.

Although, they did wash my car, I'm not looking forward to that oil change.