Jeff Bezos Spoke With Me! (An Amazonian Story)

I was mad as hell. You would have been too if the monogrammed boxer shorts that you ordered from Amazon came with incorrect initials. My initials are NSS, not ASS, for crying out loud! And the manufacturer got it wrong not once, not twice, but thrice. And so I decided to give Amazon a piece of my mind before returning defective goods to them once again. They needed to know that Underpants R Us, based in Crotchonia, Bulgaria, is a firm that does not deserve to have its products handled by the world’s largest online retailer!

That’s why I dialed 888-280-4331 last week, Amazon’s customer service number in the USA. I wasn’t sure where my dissatisfaction would take me. Turns out that the call resulted in an experience that in a million years I wouldn’t have expected.

“This is Anna, in Amazon’s customer service department in beautiful Kennewick, Washington. Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with, and how are you this fine day?” were the words that greeted me. Ah, such a lovely tone. Anna seemed so agreeable, so gentle over the phone, I almost decided not to burden her with my complaint. But complain I did, succinctly explaining the situation without ever raising my voice.

Anna listened attentively, confirming all pertinent information and asking appropriate questions. Then she took me aback.

“Mr. Scheinin,” she said, “I am pleased to let you know that there is a special visitor in our facility today. He stops by several times each year, being a very hands-on individual. He has been listening to our conversation and has indicated to me that he would like to talk with you. He will provide you with the highest level of customer satisfaction. If it’s all right, then, I’m going to place Mr. Bezos — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO — on the line.”

“Why, yes, that is absolutely all right, Anna,” I said. “Thank you.”

A few seconds passed. And then I heard the voice of the world’s richest person. (He’s worth well over 100 billion American dollars.)

Photo of Jeff Bezos by Tom Stockill/Redux

“Neil! This is Jeff Bezos. I’m so sorry that you’ve been having problems with some of our merchandise. I don’t quite understand what the situation is, though. Something’s wrong with your ass, is that it?”

“Well, not exactly, Jeff. You see . . .”

He cut me off. “Neil, if your derriere isn’t feeling right, I have just the product for you. I totally swear by it. I tell you, it’s provided me with wonderful relief many times in recent years. Preparation H, Neil. Preparation H. It’s been around forever, and that’s because it works. Hemorrhoids begone! Neil, Amazon will be glad to sell you a case of this magical concoction, enough for many years, for a mere $109.99. And shipping, it goes without saying, is free. What do you say, Neil? May I process your order?”

“Mr. Bezos,” I said, “you’ve got it all wrong. Let me start from the beginning. You see, I’ve been having enormous difficulty obtaining properly-monogrammed boxer shorts . . . oh, it’s a long, boring story. Who really cares? I’ll just keep the ones with ASS stitched onto them. My wife thinks those initials are appropriate, anyway. Listen, do you have a couple of minutes?”

“Indeed I do. Wassup?”

“Jeff, you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain. You have achieved success and wealth to a degree that boggles the mind. Obviously you are a man with a plan. On the other hand, I’m a chap with no map. Jeff, all my life I’ve been bouncing through life like a pinball, rarely finding satisfaction, unable to smell the roses because of my intense sinus condition. Hire me, Mr. B! I want a job that I can throw myself into.”

“Neil, I liked you the moment we started talking. But I have to probe a little deeper to make sure that you’re the right individual for the position I have in mind. Spot quiz: Spell hemorrhoid quickly!”

Wham! The convoluted letters flew off my tongue like bullets.

“Excellent! Another spot quiz: How many writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“Jeff, that depends on how deeply they want to analyze the situation. Writers, you know, can be complicated.”

“Right on, Neil! You’re the first person to get that one correct. My man, I can’t believe my good fortune in meeting you today. I want you to join Amazon as my sounding board. I have so many ideas to bounce off you. For instance, I’d like to create a chain of restaurants that serve nothing but LOL sandwiches — liverwurst, onion and Limburger. Man, I love me a good LOL! And I have the perfect slogan for the sandwich: It surely does smell, but what the hell.”

“That’s brilliant, Jeff. Brilliant.”

“Thanks, Neil. And how about this one? Amazon gas stations manned by robots who give you the best hugs of your life before and after they fill up your car’s tank. Customers will drive away bursting with happiness!”

“Bravo, Jeff! You have your finger on humanity’s pulse. It will be an honor to work for you. What’s my salary going to be, by the way? Eighty grand a year sounds about right, don’t you think?”

“Salary? Who said anything about a salary? This is an unpaid internship, Neil. Despite the lack of remuneration, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. When, my boy, can you start?”

That was a good question. I don’t encounter good questions all that often. And when I do, I usually don’t have good responses to them. This time I did.

“Later, Jeff,” I said.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. I thank you.)

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Let’s Dance! (A Story In Waltz Time)

One night in the foggy past, circa 1983 I suppose, I was at the Cherry Tree Music Co-op, a long-deceased and seriously-missed folk music venue in Philadelphia. A Cherry Tree devotee, I took in at least 150 shows there. Anyway, on the night in question the band that commanded the stage played a song that has stayed with me all these years. I have no recollection of who the band was. But the song? It was Waltz Across Texas, which I’d never heard before. It is as sweet and pure a number as you ever will encounter.

I recall that the band’s lead singer mentioned that Waltz Across Texas is a tune by Ernest Tubb (1914-1984), a country music legend. And indeed his fans craved his version of it. However, as I discovered on the day that I began to compose this essay, the song was written not by Ernest but by his nephew Talmadge Tubb, a country music semi-obscurity. Hell, Talmadge Tubb deserves to be as famous as Ernest on the basis of this one song alone.

When we dance together my world’s in disguise, it’s a fairyland tale that’s come true.
And when you look at me with those stars in your eyes,
I could waltz across Texas with you.
Waltz across Texas with you in my arms, waltz across Texas with you.
Like a storybook ending I’m lost in your charms,
And I could waltz across Texas with you.

Ah, beautiful. And let’s add some music to the fine words. Here’s Ernest Tubb performing the song:

Now, I like music that rocks and roars. But I also enjoy the slow and uncomplicated, such as Waltz Across Texas. And ever since that fateful Cherry Tree evening I’ve held a soft spot in my heart for songs written in waltz time, of which Waltz Across Texas, almost needless to say, is an example. Waltz time’s one-two-three, one-two-three rhythmic pattern seems to perfectly mesh with my emotional makeup. When I hear a worthy waltz-time number, such as Bob Dylan’s Winterlude or the Eagles’ Take It To The Limit, I start to soften and melt . . . and then I dreamily drift within a higher realm.

All of which leads us to the morning of February 23, 2019, a Saturday. The living room radio was tuned to WXPN, a Philadelphia station that I’ve mentioned so many times on these pages, its general manager should make me an honorary DJ. I was communing with the living room sofa when my ears perked up at about 9:45, caught by a soft, alluring song issuing through the speakers. One-two-three, one-two-three it flowed. The repetitiveness of the beat induced that softening, melting and drifting syndrome. The song was Johnny’s Blues, written and recorded by little-known Denny Brown in 2008. A pared-down look at insecurity, at the difficulty so many people have in feeling at home with themselves and with the world, Johnny’s Blues is a country waltz lifted, as many country waltzes are, by fiddle playing that bores deep into your heart.

For the rest of the day I couldn’t get Johnny’s Blues out of my head. And it became the spark for the story that you now are reading. Yeah, for a long time I’d had it in mind, amorphously, to write something or other about pop music waltzes. At last the story began to become clearer to me. And the story’s biggest point emerged after dinner on the following day.

Truer words never were written than these: I can’t dance worth a shit. Man, I sucked at dancing even when I was fairly nimble and agile. But nimble and agile are not words that have applied to me, a septuagenarian, for the last 10 years. Awkward as a motherf*cker is more like it. Yet there I was, following dinner on Sunday the 24th, waltzing around the living room with my wife Sandy, in search of story-writing inspiration. We glided to the accompaniment of Johnny’s Blues, courtesy of YouTube.

We didn’t set the world on fire with our performance, but we weren’t bad. That’s one of the beauties of waltzes: Even an oaf like me can move to a waltz pretty well, since it doesn’t require any amazing techniques. All you have to do is become one with the music, hold onto your partner, and ease yourself from here to there to there.

It was fun. We got into it. Hey, we hadn’t danced in years, so we were overdue. And you know what? I believe that we’re going to dance again, occasionally, in our living room. To songs in waltz time more likely than not. Dancing, I realized, is very freeing. It’s a natural thing to do. But I ain’t about to enroll in a dance class to learn, after all these years, how to shake my boney booty to hip-hop or swing music. I’m too inhibited for that. Nor shall I invade a local mosh pit and become the oldest nitwit ever to jump and spin spasmodically at a punk rock concert. Yo, not only am I inhibited, I’m also fragile! Better that I stick to my living room and to waltzes with Sandy.

At long last you have the opportunity to listen to the song that I’ve been making a fuss about. Perhaps it will inspire you to dance inside your house. Here then is Johnny’s Blues, by Denny Brown. Before I remove my fingers from the keyboard, though, I’ll say what I always seem to say at the ends of my pieces: Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.

Walking Around While Looking At Things . . . It’s What I Do!

What you’re now reading is another of my walking around while looking at things stories, this time an examination of my escapades last week on the day after Valentine’s Day. I’ve written scads of such stories since inaugurating this website in 2015. Hell, they probably account for one-third of my output. And why is that? Well, because walking around while looking at things is one of the activities I most like to do. It’s part of my fabric. Has been for decades. But I didn’t consciously realize that until the recaps of my mini-adventures started flowing naturally and happily from my keyboard four years ago. Yeah, writing sometimes teaches you about yourself. Learning is good!

Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania

The 15th of February began in a cloud-covered, uncertain fashion in the Philadelphia suburbs where I reside. However, all signs, as indicated on the all-knowing weather.com, pointed towards bright skies and warm temps in a handful of hours. Itching to stretch my legs and to feel the Sun upon my wrinkled, age-spotted visage, I gathered my iPhone, a water bottle and a packet of trail mix, and jumped into my car when it became apparent that the weather prediction was correct. Eight miles later, at a few minutes past noon, I parked across from the public library in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The game was on! Another edition of walking around while looking at things was about to start.

For sure, in my neck of the woods there aren’t a whole lot of towns worth walking around in, including my own. That’s because most are uninviting, not looking like towns at all. What they do look like are hodgepodge collections of strip malls, large shopping centers, office buildings and residential sections. Eh!

Butler Avenue

Ambler, however, is a different story. It boasts a long, traditional main drag, Butler Avenue, that is filled with old and not-so-old structures containing eateries, non-food-related businesses of all manner, an art house cinema (Ambler Theater) and a stage theater (Act II Playhouse). And there are streets of interest that run perpendicular to Butler Avenue, including the misnamed Main Street, which decidedly is secondary to Butler. Whatever, much of Ambler, whose history dates back to the early 1700s, looks like a true village. The town, by the way, is named after Mary Johnson Ambler, a civic leader during the mid-1800s.

Bar on Main Street
Tattoo parlor on Butler Avenue

Now, my walk around Ambler wasn’t a walk for the ages. It was on the mild side, on the casual side. But a good walk it was, about three miles in length and nicely invigorating. Meandering from here to there as instinct and whimsy called, I enjoyed the hell out of the unseasonably warm temperature (58°F/14°C) and soft blue heavens, as I kept my eyes open for interesting sights, including good-looking women. Hey, it’s every girl’s dream to have a wrinkled, age-spotted geezer looking her over, right? Don’t answer that!

Houses on Main Street
Church door on Lindenwold Avenue

And, of course, I took photos of that which seemed worth documenting, such as street scenes, sharp buildings and signs, and the most interesting door that I could find in town. It belongs to Calvary United Methodist Church.

Ambler Boiler House, on Maple Street

Did I stumble upon anything I hadn’t expected to run across? Indeed I did. Near the town’s railroad tracks I saw a huge, smokestacked old building, now known as Ambler Boiler House. It’s an office building, but once was a power plant for the asbestos products factories that, for about 100 years, had been Ambler’s industrial core. Due to health concerns and governmental regulations though, asbestos, a carcinogen, eventually went out of favor, as well it should have. As a result, almost needless to say, Ambler’s fortunes fell swiftly, reaching a low point in the late 1980s when the remaining segment of its asbestos industry went kaput. That low point didn’t budge for many years.

Act II Playhouse, on Butler Avenue
Ambler Theater, on Butler Avenue

These days, though, Ambler is a lively place. Its revival can be pegged to the birth of the Act II Playhouse in 1998 and to the rebirth of the Ambler Theater in 2003, and to the restaurants that opened in their wake. My wife and I have been to Ambler probably about 150 times during the 21st century. And that’s mostly because of the cinema and the eateries. Many a night we’ve caught a movie and stuck around for dinner.

Ours is a world full of problems. Humans are skilled at creating problems, whether intentionally or not. In Ambler the main problem is the mountains of asbestos waste materials that were dumped in the southern end of town over many decades. The federal government has dealt with, and is still dealing with the situation. The asbestos is contained, supposedly, and poses no immediate threat, supposedly. But who really knows? (You can read a very good article about the situation by clicking here).

The Pizza Box, on Butler Avenue

Me, I become trembly and irritable when thinking about or confronted with problems too much. That’s one of the reasons why I favor walking around while looking at things. And it’s also one of the reasons why I enjoy sitting in pizzerias, where I can ingest my favorite food while letting my mind wander. Speaking of which, two-thirds of the way into my stroll through Ambler, I noticed The Pizza Box, a cute-as-a-pin establishment that I’d never paid attention to before. Inside I went, and was glad that I did, because the two slices of traditional pizza that I ate were very good. They helped ease my worried mind over the next half hour, as I further poked around Ambler before walking back to my car.

The above paragraph would have been a good one with which to end this essay. However, during the day that followed my mighty stroll it dawned on me that I, an ambler, had ambled in Ambler. And that many amblers amble in Ambler every day. It would have been oh so wrong of me not to point this out. Thanks for reading. Goodbye till next time!

(As I always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks.)

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This Is My 200th Story! Will It Be My Last?

Image by Karma Willow Designs

It’s amazing! They said it couldn’t be done! I’m going to throw a party to which you all will be invited. I’m going to hire a sky-writing plane to fly over Manhattan and cover the heavens with this announcement: Neil Scheinin, a grand slacker, somehow has written 200 stories for his blog. A miracle has occurred!

And after all of that I might just hang up my writing boots forever. Why? Because writing mentally exhausts me. I mean, after I finish a piece I’m so limp you’d have no trouble folding me up and squeezing me into a goldfish bowl. I’ve gone through this 200 times now. Maybe that’s enough.

And if it is enough, that wouldn’t be so bad. With writing no longer on the menu, I’d devote the extra time on my hands to my living room sofa, where I’m already spending an average of 10 hours a day. The sofa is where I do my best kind of work anyway, you know. By which I mean that I am a master at twirling the handful of hairs remaining on the crown of my head while stuffing my maw with boxfuls of Cheez-It crackers. I love my sofa. My gratitude for having the comfiest place in the world to rest my ancient ass is eternal.

To write or not to write, that is the question. Making the decision isn’t easy. Which is why I’ve recently sought guidance from three individuals. The first conversation took place a week ago. It was with my esteemed editor, Edgar Reewright.

“Neil, the exorbitant fees that you pay me for my services are crucial to my financial stability,” Edgar screamed over the phone after I laid out my thoughts. “Do you hear me? Crucial, I say. My stable of writers has been shrinking like a Greenland glacier. Without you on board I don’t know what I’d do! Oh, why was I born? Why was I born? I should have listened to my parents and majored in philosophy in college. If I had, then I’d know the answer to ‘why was I born?’ Shit, maybe it’s not too late. Where are those volumes of the collected works of Plato and Aristotle that I occasionally glanced at years ago? Ah, I remember. They’re under my dog’s mattress, firming it up. Spot! Spot! Get off your bed! Daddy needs to get something.”

“Later, Edgar,” I said. “I’ll be in touch.”

Edgar’s situation is no joke. Though not many people depend on me, he definitely does. Conversely, my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, is someone upon whom many people depend. Including me. The day after I spoke with Edgar I attended my bi-weekly session with Dr. Forereel.

“Doctor,” I said to her after seating myself in her patients’ chair, “I know that we normally discuss issues that have their roots in my misspent childhood, such as why in my 71 years of existence I’ve never once bonded with a cat. If I weren’t so sphinxlike, maybe by now we’d have uncovered an answer or two to that one. My bad! But today I need your opinions about my creative outlet. I’ve been writing steadily for almost four years, as you know. My next story will be my 200th, a true milestone. But I’m weary, doctor. Writing has taken its toll on me. I’m thinking of ending my career.”

Career?” Dr. Forereel immediately exclaimed. “What career? Neil, the essays and other pieces that you produce are trifles, no? And you receive how much in payment for them? Wait, let me guess. The answer begins with a z and ends with an o and has an e and an r in the middle. Am I right? Neil, what you do with words amounts to nothing more than a hobby, a way to pass the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s important to look at things realistically. I have no couch in my office for my patients, only a chair. But you, Neil, have a wonderful couch at home, as you’ve told me many times over the years. Take further advantage of that sofa. It’s one of your very best friends. Writing means little in comparison to the peace of mind that your sofa brings.”

At the end of the session I thanked the good doctor and then went to my car. Her advice echoed through my mind continuously during the drive back home.

Later that day I poured out my heart to my wife Sandy. Edgar Reewright had implored me to continue writing. Dr. Forereel had said, basically, “why bother?” What were Sandy’s feelings?

“Listen,” she began, “it’s entirely up to you. But I’ll say this: At least you’re not getting Cheez-It crumbs all over the couch when you’re at your writing desk. So that’s a good reason, in my opinion, for you to keep turning out your stories. However, there are how many projects around the house that you’ve never gotten to? Twenty? Thirty? Seems to me that starting a blog might be what you came up with to avoid doing what needs to be done around here.”

Valued readers, I’m in a quandary. I’m going to have to look deep within myself over the next several days. There’s plenty for me to ponder. Maybe I’ll be back on these pages. Maybe I won’t. Time, as always, will tell.

(Yo! Despite the uncertainties presented above, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Mucho gracias.)

The Story That Almost Wasn’t: A Sculptural Walk Through Philadelphia

“When things go awry, write the f*cking story anyway.” — Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, October 2, 1774

Leave it to Ben to get me back on track. Last week I happened upon the above quote in Mr. Franklin’s excellent book, Good Advice For Those Who Probably Are Too Damn Dumb To Know They Need Some Good Advice. Franklin published Good Advice in May 1775 at the behest of his friend Thomas Jefferson, a future American president. A few months earlier Jefferson had lit a fire under Franklin by saying this to him: “Ben, you’ve been talking about compiling some of your recent sayings into a book. F*cking do it already!” I tell you, I like the robust way that Ben and Tom talked.

If I hadn’t been thumbing through that little-known volume in a local library, the story you’re currently reading wouldn’t exist. Thank you, Benjamin. I’ve always believed the multi-talented Mr. Franklin to be the most accomplished and remarkable American of all time. And never, certainly, did I expect that he would kick my ass into gear.

For a year or more I’d had it in my mind to stroll through Philadelphia’s central sections, looking at and taking photos of my favorite outdoor sculptures. And, it goes without saying, turning the adventure into a story for my online abode. When the 6th of December rolled around last year I decided that the time had arrived. Despite it being a windy and cold day, into the city I headed from my suburban town. I was feeling good and was ready for action.

I arrived in Philadelphia with a list of the works I planned to visit. They comprised a tiny percentage of what’s out there, because Philadelphia, and not just in its central region, is loaded with outdoor sculptures. Many of them, natch, are of war heroes atop horses. Civic leaders, natch, also are well-represented. Me, I dig those sorts of fare — statues if you will — when they’re done stylishly. But I’ve always been more drawn to sculptures that are less standard and full of flair and vigor.

Bolt Of Lightning, by Isamu Noguchi

My first sculptural stop would be in the city’s Colonial-era section, at 6th and Race Streets, near where Franklin lived and even closer to where he is buried. There, in the middle of a traffic rotary often crazy with vehicles going to and from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, stands Isamu Noguchi’s 101-foot-tall Bolt Of Lightning. It commemorates Franklin’s kite-flying experiment, during a thunderstorm in 1752, that showed the connection between electricity and lightning. Yes, Ben was the man.

In retrospect, the Bolt Of Lightning situation that I encountered should have tipped me off that the day might not turn out as hoped for. I wanted to dodge the whizzing cars and climb onto the rotary, where I’d get some up-close-and-personal photos of the very cool sculpture. But, wouldn’t you know it, a police car was parked beside the rotary. Sure as shit, if I had tried to reach the Bolt a police car door would have opened and I’d have been told to get the hell out of there. So, from a hundred feet away I took what images I could.

Milord La Chamarre, by Jean Dubuffet
Paint Torch, by Claes Oldenburg

After that I walked and walked, grabbing shots of artworks I’ve loved for years. Jean Dubuffet’s Milord La Chamarre, for instance, which is a wild and wooly vision of a nobleman, and Claes Oldenburg’s giant representation of a paintbrush balanced on the tip of its handle. Claes’ sculpture, Paint Torch, is appropriately placed, as it sits beside The Pennsylvania Academy Of The Fine Arts.

The Bond, by James West
(Ben Franklin on left, George Washington on right)

In front of the Masonic Temple, on my way to the Oldenburg work, I passed James West’s The Bond, a lifelike and life-size sculpture of Ben Franklin and George Washington, the USA’s first president. The guys, both of whom were Masons, are happy to see each other and are admiring Washington’s Masonic Apron. I probably had walked past this piece before but hadn’t really noticed it in a meaningful sense. At once it leaped onto my list of faves.

Brushstroke Group, by Roy Lichtenstein
Rock Form (Porthcurno), by Barbara Hepworth

Yeah, things were going swimmingly. But in the latter half of my stroll, my phone’s battery did something it never had done before. It went dead. I went into a public library and plugged the phone into an outlet, eventually resuscitating it. Then I continued my trek, a few minutes later reaching the Rodin Museum, on whose grounds sits my number one outdoor sculpture. Its English title is The Burghers Of Calais. The creation of Auguste Rodin, a Frenchman, it is stunning. A memorial to bravery and a profound depiction of anguish, the sculpture shows leaders of Calais, in the mid-1300s during war between France and England, gathering to face their death. The men had volunteered to be executed by English hands in lieu of a threatened killing of their city’s entire population. The intervention of the English queen, at some later point, saved them.

The Burghers Of Calais, by Auguste Rodin

I planted myself in front of The Burghers, aimed my phone’s camera at it and pressed the button. Voilà, a pretty good shot. Then I moved to a different spot to take a photo from another angle, got the camera ready, and . . . the screen went dark! The frigging battery had died a second time. An attempt at revival, via an electrical outlet inside the Rodin Museum, failed. Disgusted, I made haste to Suburban Station, within which trains that go to my little town may be found.

My mission had not been accomplished. Rodin’s sculpture required multiple photos, I felt, to capture its complexity. What’s more, two other sculptures on my list were left waiting for my visit. They had to be part of my write-up. A dejected semi-perfectionist, I threw the outdoor sculpture story idea into my cranium’s rubbish bin and left it there to decompose.

Seven weeks later, thankfully, I encountered Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom, the ones that are placed at the top of this essay. And I also encountered my wife Sandy’s comments when she was looking through the photos on my phone (the phone, by the way, somehow bounced back to life on December 7). “I like the sculpture pictures that you took last month,” Sandy said.

Looking at them again, so did I. And thus I decided to write the f*cking story anyway, a story that has some warts and holes but will have to suffice. As everybody knows, not everything turns out the way you want it to. You’ve got to roll with the punches and get on with life. That’s what big boys and big girls need do, a truth I’m not always great at keeping in mind.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. Gracias!)

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Too Much Stuff? (A Story About The Modern World)

A couple of weeks ago, my fingers quivering with excitement, I began to thumb through the January 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker magazine, a publication I’ve been subscribing to for eons. Great magazine, where lightweight and goofy forms of content happily share space with heady material.

These days I gravitate to short New Yorker pieces, rather than the lengthy articles that the magazine also serves up. That’s because my attention span over the last 20 or thereabouts years has shrunk like a chilled dick. It was with relish, therefore, that I read an easy-to-manage story (click here to read it) about one Martin Kesselman, a “color consultant to home owners and decorators” (to quote the article). Not long ago Martin co-created what he feels is a perfect shade of white paint. Known as Elliyah, it is named after his daughter. Apparently that shade of white has found good success in the marketplace.

Before you ask what I think you might be all set to ask, read this: “Does the world really need another white? Benjamin Moore has a hundred and sixty-four versions of it, all of which Kesselman sells. But he believes that Elliyah is different.” Those are the words of Patricia Marx, the article’s author. See, she anticipated your question.

Elliyah is different? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But even if it is, how different can it really be from many of the whites available from Benjamin Moore and the world’s other paint manufacturers? Well, maybe that doesn’t matter. After all, we live in expansive times. Hand-in-hand with an exploding human population (it’s pushing eight billion), there have been bigger and bigger demands for products in just about any category you can name. More people equates with more buying, after all. And within each category the number of available items has skyrocketed to the Moon. Hip, hip, hooray! Choice is good, right?

When I was a high school senior, which puts us back in the years 1964 and 1965, I worked part-time at a Bohack supermarket. (Bohack, for you trivia buffs out there, was a chain in the New York City area, where I used to live.) It was an average-size supermarket for its time, maybe 90 feet long on each side. Whatever its dimensions were, they would pale in comparison to the supermarkets of today. I mean, you could probably fit 20 Bohack stores inside the Giant supermarket (a member of an aptly named chain) half a mile from my current home in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The cereal aisle at Giant.

Talk about choice! My local Giant carries so many items, it’s amazing and dizzying. Teas, breads, cereals, cookies, fruit juices, frozen dinners . . . hundreds of feet of shelf space are devoted to pretty much every category. And that’s only to be expected in our Amazonian age of untold options. Do you want to buy a Bulgarian-made desk lamp that doubles as a miner’s cap, or monogrammed bras manufactured in Azerbaijan? After a handful of clicks and other keystrokes, they probably can be yours.

The cookie aisle at Giant.

I sometimes wonder what the avalanche of choices means. Have buyers gone loopy, constantly on the lookout for something new to distract them from our angst-producing world? Are we genetically programmed always to demand more, more, more? Are we just wild and crazy guys and gals, out for a fun time? Whatever the case or cases, manufacturers are more than happy to read our minds, to anticipate our wants and to induce new cravings. Let’s look at cookies — at Oreo cookies specifically — as one of 25,000,000 possible examples. I mean, plain ol’ Oreos weren’t good enough? Now there needs to be white fudge Oreos and chocolate mint Oreos and a half zillion other types of Oreos too? Uh, let me think about that. Okay, I’ve come to a conclusion: Yeah, man, nothin’ wrong with white fudge and chocolate mint Oreos. They’ve got my votes!

The tea aisle at Wegmans.

Let it be said, however, that overall I’m not much of a shopper, at stores or online. But I do like to go food shopping. For one thing, it gets me out of the house, which is a positive. Hell, at home I’m very unproductive, spending 80% of my waking hours scratching my head and my balls. (What, at my advanced age there’s something better for me to do?) At food stores, though, I have a good time and I don’t scratch. Anyway, one day last week I paid visits to my local Giant and to Wegmans, another airplane hanger-sized supermarket. I breezed through their aisles, quickly picking up the items on my shopping list.

Part of the beer section at Wegmans.

But there was one exception to my breezing: At Wegmans I slowed down to smell the roses, alcoholically-speaking, in its beer section. I’m not all that interested in the enormity of choices on our planet for automobiles, smart phones, toothpastes, hot sauces, whatever. Beer, however, is another story. Small, adventurous breweries began popping up left and right in The States and elsewhere around 1990. I got into their products in 1994, on my honeymoon. Ever since then I’ve made it one of my missions to explore the wonderful world of beers, while of course drinking in moderation and while not scratching my head or my balls.

Wegmans’ beer area put a smile on my face the other day, as it always does. It’s colorful, intriguing and worthy of deep investigation. So many choices! What to buy? What to buy? After 20 minutes I opted to go home with a craft-your-own six pack. Before transferring its contents to the frig, I arranged the bottles neatly, asked them to smile for the camera and took their picture. Beer. That’s one category that, for me, never will have too many options.

(As I almost always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Many thanks.)

The Best Movie Of 2018 Is . . .

I speak nothing but the truth when I say that I’ve never paid much attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which are honors bestowed upon the film and television industries. (I’m not anti-awards shows, by the way, being a lifelong Oscars devotee.) However, two news flashes are in order in regard to that opening sentence: 1) Hardly anybody gives a shit about what I do or don’t pay attention to, which is entirely as it should be. 2) Many millions of people pay a good deal of attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which may or may not be as it should be.

Recently, though, for the first time ever I did spend a few minutes looking online at the nominees and winners from the Golden Globes event held on January 6. That’s because I was curious about how much overlap there would be between my choices for 2018’s best flicks and the choices of the folks who vote for the GGs.

There wasn’t a ton of overlap. The Globes nominated 20 films (five nominees in each of four categories: drama; musical or comedy; animated; foreign language). I saw only six of them, of which I thought highly of three (A Star Is Born; BlacKkKlansman; Isle Of Dogs). And as for the winners, I caught but one: Green Book, good but not special in my estimation, won in the musical or comedy division, though in my view it isn’t a member of either of those genres. It’s a drama with light comedic brushstrokes. Whatever.

Also bringing home the bacon at the GGs were Bohemian Rhapsody (drama), Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (animated), and Roma (foreign language). I have a feeling that I’m going to love Roma when I see it. As for the latest Spidey affair, there’s almost zero chance that I’ll fit it into my schedule during my remaining time on Planet Earth. Bohemian Rhapsody, though, definitely is on my radar screen.

So much for the Golden Globe Awards, then. The time now has arrived for me to pen some thoughts about my nominees for best picture and about why my winner from that pool captured the top spot. Caveat: Even though I’ve seen a lot of movies — 32 — that were released in the USA during 2018, there’s no question that numerous good ones didn’t pass before my eyes. But you can’t see everything. Away we go.

Of the 32, a few, such as The Death Of Stalin and On Chesil Beach, stunk up the joint mightily, in my modest opinion. But most of the others were enjoyable, some remarkably so. And a small group were not only highly enjoyable but thought-provoking and poignant too. It’s those three characteristics that elevate them into my Best Films Of 2018 category. Here they are: The Hate U Give; The Insult; American Animals; BlacKkKlansman; The Rider; Leave No Trace. Three others (Eighth Grade; First Man; Can You Ever Forgive Me?) came awfully close to making my list, but six is more than enough for me to deal with.

That sextet is a very fine group. I mean, these are thoughtful, carefully-crafted movies. The Insult, filmed in Lebanon and subtitled, peers at the societal and familial ramifications brought about by two men’s stubbornness and unchecked emotions. BlacKkKlansman and The Hate U Give throw American racism right smack into your face. American Animals, about which I’ve previously written (click here), is a depiction of screwy, exciting people on a crazy quest. Their quest kept me nervous as hell.

The final two flicks, unlike the four just mentioned, are enveloped with calmer vibes. A quiet, contemporary tale set among Native American cowboys, The Rider matter-of-factly and movingly presents tragedy and love in equal measures. And what about Leave No Trace (click here to read my earlier comments about it), in which a father and his teenage daughter, living off the grid, eventually have to decide how far into society they will venture? Well, among other things, it absolutely broke my heart.

When I began tossing around ideas for this article, I thought it would be difficult for me to select a winner. Turns out it wasn’t. Only one of the nominees has popped into my mind semi-regularly since I watched it. And although each of the six got to me in one or more meaningful ways, the depth to which Leave No Trace penetrated leaves no doubt that crowning any other movie would be oh so wrong. Leave No Trace, I bow before your powers.

At the start of Leave No Trace, directed and co-written by Debra Granik (who notched those same credits for 2010’s excellent Winter’s Bone), dad Will (played by Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are doing their best to keep away from organized society. They live in a makeshift campsite deep within an Oregon public forest, where they forage and hunt. Will, an emotionally and psychologically damaged war vet (he probably served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, though we never find out), has chosen this life for them. But he’s not a hopeless case, not when it comes to Tom, who is the apple of his eye and for whom he’d do just about anything. And Tom’s feelings for her father are as deep as his are for her.

As might be expected, though, time and the legal and social welfare systems catch up with the duo. After evaluations by social workers, Will and Tom are placed into a soft corner of the real world. The second half of the movie is an elegant laying out of their responses to their new circumstances. The movie’s end, sad and profound, yet life-affirming in a sense, just might break your heart as much as it did mine.

Okay, I’m about to bid you adieu, but first I have to state the obvious. Namely, it’s as clear as a bright, sunny day that no one movie is the best of 2018, or of any year. Everyone has their own opinions. The Golden Globes picked their 2018 winners, and I’ve picked Leave No Trace. I’d be very interested to know which films, from 2018, you think stand out from the rest, or any other thoughts you have about movies. So, please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias. Goodbye till next time!

Rock On, Old-Timer!

Hey there! This piece is partly a commentary about growing old, a subject and a sad reality that I can’t seem to stop thinking about. And, consequently, writing about. I don’t obsess over it by any means, but as I mentioned in an article a month or two ago, I am very aware of the grains of sand that steadily and relentlessly are falling to the bottom of my hourglass. Man, I’m 71, at least 20 years older than I’d like to be. But hopefully I’ll be around for many more years, hitting the Publish button for scads more stories on this website. And if not, well, c’est la f*cking vie, as they say in Gay Paree.

Doom and gloom, however, will not dominate the present proceedings. Nah, that’s not me. Age-wise, I may be nearing lofty heights. (Nearing? Shit, I’m already there.) At heart, though, I’m still kind of a rabid 20-something.

Which is why I was bouncing like a rabbit on amphetamines a week and a half ago, on the way back home from the supermarket. I was in my trusty, humble, beat-up Honda Civic, model year 2001. This car is well-known in my neighborhood for its pitted paint and for the fabric langorously sagging from the roof’s underside. Hell, I’m pitted and sagging too. Naturally, then, the Honda and I get along real well.

I listen to music a lot when I’m in the car, but it’s pretty rare for my body to react like it did on the short drive home. My hips, my shoulders, my head were jumping around excellently, fueled by the energy coming through the speakers. I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t believe that not one, not two, but three catchy-as-hell, blistering rock tunes in a row accompanied me on the drive. I hadn’t been blasted like that in quite a while. It was good to be reminded that hard, driving rock and roll is hard to beat, and that, old as I am, I love potent rock as much as I ever did.

The music came over 88.5 FM, the frequency of  WXPN, a Philadelphia station. More important, these are the songs that I heard: Feels Alright, a brand new number by the young band The Nude Party; Do Anything You Wanna Do, a classic by Eddie And The Hot Rods that came out in 1977; Silver, from 2017, by the group Waxahatchee. You can listen to them now, if you wish, via YouTube. My epic tale continues below the YouTube offerings.

Yeah, ever since my late teens I’ve been under the power of snarling, soaring electric guitars, throbbing electric basses, and pounding drums. Not that I don’t like the less-wild forms of rock or other styles of music. I do. A lot. In fact, I’m into almost everything, except for rap, opera and Madonna-style pop. And I even get along with those genres at times.

But if I had to pick the one type of music that perfectly meshes with the hidden recesses of my inner self, there would be little contest. It would be vigorous, tuneful, guitar-driven rock. Were I a musician, that’s what I’d be playing. I’d man the electric bass, helping to hold the rest of the band together, and getting my rocks off stratospherically.

Alas, I have zero talent as a musician. Like most of the rest of humanity, I’m a listener, not a player. But there’s a lot to be said for listening when you have the capacity to go higher, higher, higher. What a rush! What a gas!

Why, then, don’t I listen to the recordings of powerful bands (The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Patti Smith Group, etc.) at home as much as I did when I was single? Well, my wife Sandy usually prefers that things be on the calmer side in the house, so that’s the main reason. And yes, I know I could listen through earphones, but I’ve always found them to be uncomfortable.

As for hearing the strong stuff in person, there’s not much of it in the burbs, where I live. Most of it is concentrated in clubs and theaters in The City Of Brotherly Love, an hour’s drive away. It’s tough to find a parking spot near those Philly venues, and the shows start late and aren’t over till after midnight. Which means that I’d arrive back home well into the wee small hours. Thus, when I attend concerts these days (I go to quite a few), they tend to be of non-hard-rock varieties in places within comfortable driving distance of my home.

But you know what? Those excuses in the above paragraph are lame. I know for a fact that a smattering of people in my age bracket go to the music venues that I’ve been avoiding. They’re not embarrassed to shake and groove among music lovers 40 or more years younger than them. And neither am I. That’s why, a few days into our new year, I’m making one resolution: I am going to start visiting some of Philadelphia’s rock meccas now and then. Johnny Brenda’s, Boot And Saddle, and Union Transfer, here I come! It will be fun. It will be soul-satisfying. And I’d better do it while I can, because those frigging grains of sand have no plans to take a break.

(As I always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay via Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

Friends, Pals, Chums, Amigos . . .

There I was the other afternoon, walking with my friend Gene along the streets of central Philadelphia, both before and after we ate lunch at Black Sheep, a cozy, wood-paneled pub. The skies were massed with clouds pre-lunch, but no rain was falling. After our repast, however, water began to enter the picture.

A few minutes after we left Black Sheep, as a couple of raindrops clunked us on the head, I decided that I’d try to turn the post-lunch segment of our stroll around town into a blog piece. I’d covered Philadelphia from all sorts of angles for the publication that you’re now gazing at, but never from a rainy one. It was a natural! Visions of an impressionistic, watery essay began to float in my head.

The couple of raindrops soon turned into a drizzle. And then the rain’s pace picked up, so that 20 minutes later we were getting noticeably wet. Tough, dauntless guys that we are, though, we smirked at the meteorological conditions, refusing to protect ourselves (Gene didn’t open his umbrella, and I, who was sans umbrella, didn’t raise my coat’s hood). We continued what we’ve always enjoyed doing together: wandering around, casually looking at this and that, and talking about a mishmash of things.

On Chestnut Street we admired the Dolce Carini pizza parlor and Maxamillion’s barber shop, and were about to extend our westward journey along Chestnut when I noticed a bus approaching. It was heading north on 20th Street. “Does that bus go to your neighborhood?” I asked Gene, a Philadelphian. He answered in the affirmative. “Listen,” I then said, “I know that we’re tough and dauntless, but possibly it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you climbed aboard.” He did.

The bus that my friend boarded

My gloves were waterlogged by this time and my hair had become a soggy mess. Yet, I persevered. Strolling around, I snapped a few more pictures with my iPhone and dodged a few puddles. But when my phone’s battery conked out a minute later, I said the following to myself: “F*ck it, this f*cking story will have to wait for another rainy day.” Nicely drenched, I pulled the hood over my head and strode to Suburban Station, from which I caught a train back to the sleepy town in the burbs that I call home.

If you’ve made it this far with me, I’ll now test your patience by changing the subject almost entirely. That’s because, later that night, I decided that a story about friends, not one built around a rainy day, should have been my aim from the start. I came to that conclusion when I realized that the afternoon in Philadelphia with Gene had been my fifth social engagement in December. For me, that’s a lot. Those get-togethers quietly had pushed friendship to the front of my mind. And friendship, as we know, is an important topic, one that — my bad! — I’ve barely if ever written about before. But, let me add, some of my photographic efforts from rainy Philadelphia adorn this story nonetheless. I’m a believer in waste not!

Friends, pals, chums, amigos . . .  Whatever term you employ, they are valuable assets, ones to appreciate and cultivate. Gene and I had had a fine time together earlier in the day, as always has been the case in the 10 years that we’ve known each other. I’m fortunate to have him as a friend. And fortunate because there is a medium-size bunch of others, both female and male, with whom I get along swimmingly and meet on a pretty regular basis, sometimes with my wife Sandy, sometimes by myself. And fortunate because of the several more individuals that I see only very occasionally, due to the thousands of miles separating us, but with whom I’m oh so tight.

It wasn’t always this way. A social butterfly in elementary school, friendships somehow became harder and harder for me to maintain and establish when I hit the age of 12 or so. And high school? Fuhgeddaboudit. I had about 100 times more pimples than good friends during the four years I spent in high school, an institution that I detested.

Fortunately, my friendship situation took a nice upswing while in college, and stayed almost at that level over the next 40 years. I wasn’t awash in friends, but I was doing okay. And during the last 12 years, an era that last year saw me enter the Holy Shit, Am I Really This Old? septuagenarian club, much to my amazement several new friends have come my way. Not exactly a miracle, but pretty damn close to one.

I’m not someone from whose mouth pearls of wisdom flow like a mountain stream. But occasionally I’m able to offer up good advice or insights. Here then is what I’ll say about friends: “You can’t have too many of them.” They help make our lives better, those folks we are on similar wavelengths with, can rely on, and whom we also respect. In fact, having plenty of friends — true friends — is a crucial key to a fulfilling, well-balanced life. (And yes, relatives absolutely can be true friends. But, for the purposes of this article, I’m sticking to the non-relative variety.)

“Hey,” I hear one or two smartasses say, “all of that is a big DUH. It’s obvious!

And so it is. Still, I for one never really began thinking about the importance of friendships until fairly recent years. I wish that someone had taken me aside decades ago, when I was in my early 20s, say, and laid out the friendship gospel for me. Maybe I’d have paid attention. Maybe I’d have made an effort to learn how to make friends more easily and to add even a few more of them to my little world. More is better.

I’ve heard Baby Boomers, of which I of course am one, say that making new friends at their age is kind of difficult. But I tend to think that this is true for millions upon millions at any age. Hell, life’s a challenge, and forging good friendships is part of the challenge. It takes effort. It takes discipline. And it decidedly might take big strokes of luck. When the mission is accomplished though, the payoff is sweet. Friends, along with some other key ingredients (strong family ties; open-mindedness; a charitable heart), are where it’s at.

(As I always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

Will Santa Claus Make His Rounds This Year, Or Will The Job Fall To Me?

A few nights ago my cell phone began to ring 10 minutes after my wife Sandy and I lit the menorah candles on the eighth and final night of Chanukah. A secular Jew, I’m about as unreligious as they come, but I’m okay with Chanukah candle-lighting. When aglow, those slender wax sticks look so sweet and peaceful, they come pretty close to making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Or something or other on that order.

The caller’s name didn’t appear on my phone’s screen, and the displayed phone number didn’t register with me at all. But being in a relaxed and welcoming mood after watching the candles burn down for a while, I did what I ordinarily wouldn’t have done. In other words, I answered the phone.

I opened my mouth to talk, but the caller beat me to it. “Neil! I’ve lost my way! I have enormous doubts about my purpose in life, about my abilities to continue doing my good work, about whether the world really needs me, about . . . ”

I cut him off. “My man, calm down! I hear you. But I haven’t a clue who I’m talking to. Who the f*ck is this?” I yelled.

“Neil, it’s Santa Claus. You gave me your number two years ago, remember? I’d have shown up in person, but I’m too down in the dumps to even open my front door and go for a walk. Anyway, a phone call is a lot easier than flying thousands of miles in a sleigh to get to your house. Bottom line is that my wife’s not here to help me, and I couldn’t think of a better person to speak with than you.”

“Thank you, Santa. I’m humbled,” I said. “But where’s your wife?”

“Neil, don’t get me started on Mrs. Claus. She’s gotten so fed up with my moods and angst, she’s threatening to file for divorce. And she split a week ago. Last I heard she was flaunting her fine Nordic bod on Ipanema Beach, in Rio. Yeah, she enrolled in Weight Watchers last year and the program worked. She used to be on the plump side, to put it charitably, but now the girl is smokin’ hot! Who could blame her if she never comes home to the frigid North Pole?”

“Santa, oh Santa,” I said, “I’m so sorry. She’ll come back, though. I mean, there’s no better catch than you. Just give her time. What can I do to help?”

“Neil, my problems are so deep rooted, a plumber couldn’t flush them out. I appreciated the help you gave me two years ago [click here to read all about it], and as you know you weren’t the first to keep me focused on my daunting job. But, brother, this time I think I’ve had it. I suppose I’m having an existential crisis. Neil, I don’t see how I can do my toy deliveries anymore. Someone else might have to take over. I’ve done it long enough.”

“Santa, please reconsider. There’s no one who can replace you.”

“Well, then the world would have to adjust. I really need to start thinking about myself at this point. Maybe Judaism holds the answers for me. Should I convert, move to Miami Beach and start wearing that little skull cap . . . what do you call that thing, Neil?”

“It’s a yarmulke, Santa.”

“Yes! I’d look good in one of those, don’t you think? They’re usually in black, right? Black would match my belt, and I’d be happy to ditch my silly hat with the pom-pom on the end.”

“But, Santa, why the heck would you want to convert to Judaism? The Christian world relies on you. You’re one of its bedrocks. Santa, you’re an icon, someone who should have been awarded a Nobel Prize decades ago, maybe in best costume design. Oh wait, it’s the Oscars that do costume design. Well, shit, then you should have been awarded an Oscar!”

“Thank you, Neil. Thank you. You know, an Oscar would look grand sitting above my fireplace. Which reminds me, I’ve got to throw another log on the fire. I’m freezing my ass off. Be back in a minute.”

A minute passed, and then, true to his word, Santa was back.

“That’s better,” he said. “It’s starting to feel nice and toasty again inside this icebox that I call my house. I tell you, whoever they were that decided to start inhabiting these far northern regions ages ago were out of their freakin’ minds!”

“Neil,” Santa then continued, “I’m uncomfortable bringing this up. It’s a favor of the highest magnitude: If I decide to bail out from my job this month, is there a chance you might fill in for me? I know that Christmas isn’t your holiday, but who else can I ask? I barely know anybody, living up here in no-man’s land. Keith Richards sat on the sleigh with me last year [click here to read about it], but he wasn’t much help, to tell you the truth. He spent half the time strumming an air guitar, so there’s no way I’d ask him to carry the load all by himself. Neil, a large segment of humanity might have to count on you!”

Stunned, I didn’t answer right away. Finally, I spoke. “Listen,” I said, “I want no part of this. I’ve got hemorrhoids, Santa! Raging, powerful hemorrhoids. Endless hours of sitting in your sleigh might be the end of me. But I’ll do it if I have to! I’m that kind of guy!

“You’re the best, Neil. The best! Well, actually I don’t know you very well, so there’s a good chance I’m wrong about that. In any event, you have my thanks.”

“But here’s the thing, Santa,” I said. “I’m going to go outside in a few minutes. And I’m going to walk around my neighborhood, taking pictures of the pretty Christmas lights that lots of people have put up outside their houses. Then I’m going to write a story about our conversation. And I’ll add a few of the Christmas lights photos to the article. Read that story, Santa. And look at the photos! The lights in my neighborhood got you back on track in 2016, and I’ve got a strong feeling that they will turn you into your jolly ol’ self again this year. And if they do, there will be plenty of time left for you to pull everything together and make your Christmas deliveries. Okay, Santa? Do we have a deal?”

“Deal, Neil.”

“Goodbye, Santa. I’m ready to do my duty, if need be, but not as ready as you had better be a few days from now. Man up, Santa. Man up!”

(As I always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks.)

(If you click on a photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)