No One Ever Said That Finding A Pawpaw Would Be Easy

No one ever said that finding a pawpaw would be easy, though the article (click here) published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 20 seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t be as tough as I’ve discovered it to be. Anyhow, search I did, coming up emptyhanded. Which is okay. You win some, you lose some, to toss in a cliché that’s hard to beat. But I haven’t given up the fight! No way. Pawpaw vibes are in the air. Someday, somewhere, I’m certain that I’m going to meet a pawpaw in the flesh.

“So, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?” you delicately ask. Well, everything that I know about pawpaws, which I’d never heard of before, comes from the short article mentioned above. It contains all that I need or want to know, as I like to avoid extensive, extended research whenever possible. That article, igniting a spark within me, sent me on a quest that has resulted in another pawpaw-related piece. Namely, the one you’re reading.

“So, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?” you delicately ask once again. Well, it’s an obscure fruit. It looks like a mango, has a tropical sort of taste, and is creamy in texture. Pawpaw trees are native to many eastern swathes of North America, and their fruit was popular with native Americans and with early colonists. George Washington, for instance, loved pawpaws for dessert.

But pawpaws no longer are well known. They bruise easily and get over-ripe pretty fast. Consequently they don’t meet the demands of today’s retail world, according to the article. Hell, bananas bruise easily and get over-ripe pretty fast too, but there are billions of them on store shelves. So, there must be more to the story than that.

Whatever, it’s an undeniable fact that pawpaws are hard to come by. Sure, pawpaw trees exist in the Philadelphia region, in which I reside. There just ain’t a lot of ’em. If you know the right people though, or are in the right place at the right time, a pawpaw or two or more will be yours. The right time is now, by the way, since pawpaws are an autumn fruit.

The day after I read the article I left the house to try and find a pawpaw. If anyone near me carried the item, I figured it would be the Whole Foods supermarket about three miles away. They didn’t. “So, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?” two of the store’s produce department workers almost said to me when I made my inquiry. I tell you, I was surprised not to have success at Whole Foods. I mean, they carried cherimoyas and jackfruit, which were new to my radar screen, so why not pawpaws? Ah, the mysteries of life.

A half hour later, at my local Giant supermarket, I also ran into a dead end. Phone calls would be easier and quicker than driving around, it then dawned on me. So back home I called Weaver’s Way Co-Op in Ambler, a town seven miles from mine (the several branches of Weaver’s Way were noted in the article as possible purveyors of pawpaws). The guy I spoke with was full of information. Yeah, he said, they’d received a 10-pound shipment of pawpaws a few days earlier. And sold them all that same day. He had no idea if or when they’d get any more of the bad boys. Not many pawpaw trees are under cultivation, he told me. I thanked him, hung up, and placed a few more calls.

They proved to be fruitless. Creekside Co-op, three towns distant from mine, had never heard of pawpaws. Neither had the Trader Joe’s or the Wegmans supermarket in my area. Neither had the branch of Weaver’s Way located in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Nor the Produce Junction a seven-minute drive from my house.

Hell, that about did it for me. I mean, often I’m a glutton for punishment, but occasionally I know when not to keep beating my head against the wall. There are at least 12 other stores with creative produce sections that I could have dialed. But all of them are 10 or more miles from me. Even if one of them had pawpaws in stock, was it worth a long roundtrip to obtain the fruit?

Uh-uh, baby. Uh-uh.

And so ends my pawpaw saga. For now. When the day arrives that I cross paths with a pawpaw  (and I know I will, as I’ve already stated), I’ll work that magnificent occurrence into a story. Even if it doesn’t fit I’ll shove it in! I’m fairly good at that, you know.

As for now, I’m rapidly tiring of writing about pawpaws. It’s refreshment time. Goodbye till we meet again, amigos. I’m about to ease my busy fingers from my computer’s keyboard and head into the kitchen to pop open a bottle of the king of beverages. Beer. I’m sure that it will taste at least as good as a pawpaw would. Skoal!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. I thank you.)

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My Favorite Season Is Nigh: An Autumnal Story

I don’t know about you, but shvitzing like a pig isn’t high on my list of things I get a kick out of doing. But shvitz like a pig I did on more than one occasion during the annoyingly hot and humid summer of 2018 that sneered at my section of the northern hemisphere. That’s because the grass on my lawn didn’t stop growing these past few months, nor did the bushes that border the lawn, nor did the God-knows-what-kinds-of-plants they were that sprouted up riotously wherever they could gain a foothold.

Somebody had to attend to all that vegetation, which meant that shitloads of mowing, pruning and weeding were in order. And that somebody was me. But, what with the steamy heat, I wasn’t eager to take on those tasks. Thus I let things slide as much as I could. Several times I had no choice though, as my neighbors were threatening to report me to my township’s Messy Motherf*ckers Aren’t Welcome Here department. And so, outside I would head to do the yard work thing.

Bottom line: Within 15 minutes each time, sweat was pouring off me in buckets, and my pale, white-boy face was pale no more. Into the house I’d have to repair to cool down. And then back outside to induce another round of sweating and reddening. Then back inside after 15 minutes, etc., etc.

Eventually the job would be completed.

Well, that’s a fairly long introduction, one that has only a tenuous connection to what I intended to write about when I sat down at my writing station. I need to get on track, as this essay is to be about the time of year that I like the best. Which is autumn. Of the four distinct seasons that my region (northeast USA) experiences, why autumn?  Well, summer, as is obvious from the complaints above, ain’t my fave. And winter is too damn cold. But what about spring? Everybody loves spring. It is, of course, terrific, a time of new birth and all that. But I pick autumn over spring, new birth notwithstanding.

Autumn will officially begin the day after I hit the Publish button for this story. Yet I hadn’t given autumn, fall if you will, much thought until recent days, days in which I downed two bottles of beer that set visions of my favorite season dancing in my head. The first to warm my innards was Smuttynose brewery’s Pumpkin Ale. Man, it was so rich and malty, and kissed with goodness by the pumpkin puree, cinnamon and other Thanksgiving-y spices that were tossed into the brewing vats.

Two nights later I finished off a bottle of Festbier, which came all the way from Germany’s Weihenstephaner brewery. Festbier goes hand in hand with Oktoberfest, a time for fun and getting soused that began in Germany in the early 1800s and has since spread to other parts of the globe. Festbier is one of many strong, tasty lagers that reach some of the world’s marketplaces a bit before the Oktoberfest season begins.

Those beers reminded me that the time of turning leaves and Thanksgiving dinners is approaching. And I felt mighty good about that. Not only do I love the colors of turning leaves, I love the whole idea that oceans of green morph into something very different, something very spectacular. What a show! It’s astonishing to me that the extravaganza takes place at all, and it undeniably is something to look forward to again, once it’s over.

And I’ve always been into Thanksgiving, a holiday of simplicity and, for those of us who are fortunate, one of being with people you want to be with. Not to mention Thanksgiving dinner’s crown jewel, pumpkin pie, which, when prepared correctly, is even better than pumpkin ale.

But that’s only part of the picture for me. I’m also drawn to fall because my birthday is in late October, the heart of the season. And though I no longer get thrilled when my birthday comes around, I don’t get depressed either, despite my hourglass becoming awfully damn low in the grains of sand department. That’s because I’ve built a psychic connection to my youth, when October was the greatest month of all. That link softens the blows of frigging Father Time.

More than anything though, I think my attraction to autumn is a reflection of my emotional structure. There’s something wistful about autumn in the falling leaves that follow the color explosions. And the sense of slowing down that comes with the season, as the amounts of daylight noticeably shorten, is comforting. As are the cooler temperatures that pretty well guarantee that shvitzing like a pig won’t be happening again anytime soon, unless I move to Florida in a couple of months.

Wistful . . . that’s a side of me that’s always been there, one I’m very much at ease with. And taking things somewhat slow . . . rarely a bad idea. Yes, fall is an extended occasion in which to flow soothingly, to get my oh-wow groove on, to smile internally.

Next month my wife Sandy and I will spend some days on Cape Cod. Going there in autumn has become a ritual for us. The Cape’s summer crowds will be long gone. The incredible Atlantic Ocean coastline will be ours to hike with relatively few members of our species around to break the spell of water, sand and sky. As always, I’ll feel happy, decently centered, wistful and relaxed all at the same time while on the Cape. The sunsets will be lovely and the nighttime air will be crisp. And, oh yeah, the lobster rolls will taste great. I can’t wait.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Mucho gracias.)

Signs In The Night, A Dive Bar, And Two Great Songs

Last week’s Wednesday evening found me in central Philadelphia, wandering its streets on assignment for the publication you’re now gazing at with loving eyes. I walked for several miles, zigzagging within the area bounded by Cherry, Spruce, 9th and 19th Streets, all the while giving my fingers plenty of exercise as I snapped picture after picture of illuminated signs. For that was my mission: To capture images of glowing signs, in much of their variety and in all of their glory, under darkened skies.

Chinatown (10th Street between Arch and Cherry Streets)
Chinatown (Arch Street between 10th and 11th)

The train that I boarded in my suburban town delivered me to Jefferson Station, at 11th and Market Streets, at about 7:30 PM. Not much more than a handful of minutes later, night began to emerge. Only a block north of the station I strode into the city’s compact and enticing Chinatown section. There I took my first photo of the evening. And then another and then another . . . Hey, one of these days I might devote an entire essay to Chinatown. It’s worthy, very much so. But I had miles to go before I slept, or something or other like that, so I gave Chinatown a nice looking-over and then made my way to other parts of town.

9th and Market Streets
13th and Sansom Streets

The temperature had peaked at around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35°C) during the day, but was six or seven degrees lower during my mighty walk. Not too bad temperature-wise. Still, conditions weren’t all that great, what with Amazon jungle-like humidity hanging around. Yo, I was sweating like a f*cking pig. But manly man that I am, I motored on uncomplainingly, though if my wife Sandy had been with me I’d probably have been whining to her like a major wuss.

Corner of Broad and Spruce Streets
15th Street near Latimer Street

Anyway, the walk pleased me a lot. Not long into it I realized that I was having grand fun. After all, I love to wander. And I love looking at the sights, including cute girls, quite a few of whom passed before my eyes. In fact, loads of people, cute or not, were on the streets with me, engaging in the sorts of activities that humans are prone to engage in: strolling around; checking each other out; heading to or from work; schmoozing with their pals on street corners or at sidewalk restaurant tables; popping in and out of stores and bars. Not surprising, because Philadelphia has got what it takes. It’s big, it’s fascinating, there’s a ton to see and do any time of day. Yup, I could gush some more about the city that I know better than any other in the good ol’ USA, but that previous sentence will do for now.

Walnut Street between 16th and 17th
Bus stop at 18th and Walnut Streets

What I forgot to mention is that I also love to snap photos with my iPhone’s camera. And there were countless opportunities to snap away, so full of lit-up signs is much of The City Of Brotherly Love at night. I pretty easily could have added 150 more to the 53 shots I took, but I limited myself to scenes that rang my bell in a just-so sort of way. And I’ve scattered some of my output, obviously, throughout this essay.

Corner of 19th and Sansom Streets
Corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets

My adventure ended at 9:50 PM, when I went to Suburban Station to catch a train that would transport me to my little town. Fifty minutes earlier though, the night had taken an unexpected turn, an excellent turn that was outside the realm of my assignment’s mission. For heading north on 15th Street, near the corner of Spruce, I spotted a sign that I’ve seen many times over the years. The sign proudly proclaims the existence of a bar that, during the 1980s, I frequented aplenty. McGlinchey’s is its name, and smoky air is part of its game. Yes, Philadelphia has had a no-smoking law in place since 2006, but certain establishments have applied for and been granted exemptions from the clean-air policy. They qualify because only a tiny percentage of their revenues comes from food. McGlinchey’s gobbled up an exemption. Thus it continues to smell almost as bad as a men’s locker room. But it could be worse. I mean, what if the joint smelled almost as bad as a ladies‘ locker room?

Just kidding! Just kidding!

I hadn’t been inside McGlinchey’s for about 30 years, largely because I gave up smoking in the mid-1980s, after which I became less and less keen about cigarette fumes. But the opportunity to revisit a former haunt seemed too ripe to pass up the other night. And so I entered.

15th Street near Spruce

Had McGlinchey’s changed? Well, the lights were really dim, unlike the much higher wattage that I recall from the 1980s. And the beer selection was much improved, heavy on the quality sorts of ales that have entered the marketplace in enormous numbers since 1995 or so. But basically you’d have to say that McG’s is, as it was in the era when I dropped by consistently, a dive bar. Hazy, smelly air is all a bar needs to nab that honor. McGlinchey’s contains that variety of air in spades.

I ordered a draft beer, Fuller’s London Pride, a delicious brown ale that came to Philadelphia all the way from, duh, London. It went down my gullet very nicely, thank you. In the middle of my third or fourth sip I snapped out of a second-hand-smoke-induced stupor when I noticed that music was projecting clearly and loudly from speakers above my head. The song was a great one, an obscure number about love and disillusionment. It shot straight to my emotional core. In a million years I’d not have expected Ruby And Carlos, by James McMurtry, to be in McGlinchey’s jukebox.

But I was totally floored by what happened after the final strains of Ruby And Carlos dissolved into the dank air. That’s because the rousing and inspiring Fisherman’s Blues, by The Waterboys, came on. I had to restrain myself from singing aloud. So I mumbled the lyrics quietly to myself as I pulled on my beer. Smoke or not, I was in the right place at the right time. Music heaven, so to speak.

Well, the jukebox went silent after Fisherman’s Blues. I finished my Fuller’s and went back on the streets to do my photographing thing for a while longer. The last shot I took, of the intense red, white and blue of Republic Bank’s signs, is one of my favorites of the night. Soon afterwards, the Warminster line’s 10:05 PM train pulled into Suburban Station. I climbed aboard, my assignment over. I’d had yet another sterling outing in Philadelphia, one that detoured in a direction that I’d never have anticipated.

Corner of 19th and Market Streets

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. And if the urge to share the story hits you, let ‘er rip! Gracias.)

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

(It’s possible that the McMurtry and Waterboys songs that I’ve included won’t play for you. That’s because YouTube has licensing rules that sometimes block music or videos from opening, depending upon where on our planet you reside. If that’s the case in your nation, then you might want to search YouTube (or other sources) to find versions that will work. You won’t be sorry.)

A Grunion Story

A few weeks ago I was at a suburban Philadelphia branch of the Weis supermarket chain. Nice store. Big, well-lit and damn fine when it comes to offering a sweet selection of beers. Beer shopping usually is my main reason for entering Weis’s doors. I’ve dropped a lot of dough there in that pursuit.

What I buy, being a beer snob, are brews other than Budweiser and Miller and their milquetoast cousins. Over the last 25 years I’ve developed a love affair with more flavorful brews: the bright and piquant in taste; the murky and dense; and the bitter as hell, to cite a few. And Weis is a mecca for such goods.

So there I was, eyeing Weis’s beer shelves with deep interest. I’m always on the hunt for beers I haven’t had before, and I came upon one that day. It was an example of a pale ale, which is a common species of bitter beer that breweries like to tweak and play around with. Its maker was Ballast Point Brewing Co., a San Diego-based enterprise I was slightly familiar with, and the name on the label was Grunion Pale Ale. Grunion? The word rang zero of my bells. What’s more, the label pictured two fish writhing on the sands. What the f*ck was that all about? I hadn’t a clue. I bought a bottle of it, natch, along with a bunch of other brews, and went on my merry way.

Not many days after that I brought the unopened, fish-labelled bottle with me when my wife Sandy and I joined two of our top friends, Liz and Rich, at a Thai restaurant in the Philadelphia burbs. The place is a BYOB. Rich asked me what beer I’d arrived with. I showed him the bottle.

“Ah yes, grunion,” he said. “They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California. They are quite amazing.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?” I finally asked. “You actually know what grunion are? And you know about their sex lives? How is this possible? I doubt if you’ve ever been fishing in your life.”

“What can I say?” Rich coyly intoned. “Some of us are blessed with the gift of extensive knowledge.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I looked at Sandy and at Liz. I asked them if they’d ever heard of grunion before. The answer was no. I then proceeded to begin drinking the beer. It was delicious. Bitter, slightly citrusy from the hops used in its creation, and not the slightest bit fish-flavored(and that’s because grunion are not used in the brewing process. They only are on the label!).

Twenty-four hours later Sandy and I were at dinner in downtown Philadelphia with two more of our top pals, Cindy and Gene. The conversation, profane and giddy, went all over the map. After a while I started recapping the previous evening’s beer story.

“Can you believe it?” I said to Cindy and Gene. “Rich actually heard of grunion. Have either of you?”

“Not me,” said Cindy. However, Gene, a polite and non-bragging sort, had this to say: “Oh, I know about grunion. They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I stared at Gene in disbelief. “Man, you’re a city boy,” I said. “Why do you know about grunion? Seems to me that they’re as obscure as can be.”

“Well, when I was younger I used to read a lot about animals,” he said.

I guess he did!

I firmly believe that in the greater Philadelphia region, whose human population exceeds the 6,000,000 mark, you’d have to search far and wide to find people who could tell you what grunion are. Yet, on successive evenings I’d broken bread with two of them. Talk about infinitesimal odds. If only, after all these years of knowing Rich and Gene, dashes of their brain power had made their way over to me.

Anyway, since those two grunion-centric meals I’ve done a bit of research into grunion. Not much, because I’m not the scholarly type, but enough to get a feel for the subject. Grunion, it seems, come in two similar but somehow different varieties. Type One lives in the ocean waters off of southern California. Type Two inhabits the Gulf Of California in the Mexican region known as Baja California. And indeed both types do crawl out of the water to mate. They do this at night during certain months of the year. You can read about grunion by clicking here.

And you can witness grunion doing their slithery, entwining beach thing by clicking below. Thanks to this YouTube video we might learn some new sex positions from the grunion spectacle. Hey you!!! You’re blocking my view!!! Sit down!!!

Alas, it’s time for me to wrap up these proceedings. Before doing so, though, I’ll add that Ballast Point Brewing Co. was founded by a bunch of cool guys. They like to fish almost as much as they like churning out beers, which is why they name most of their products after fish and other occupants of the seas, and picture said creatures on many of their labels. I’m on the lookout for Ballast Point’s beers now that I’ve sampled Grunion Pale Ale. Supporting those who not only are talented but lean toward the offbeat side is a good idea, don’t you think?

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)

Amsterdam, When Lights Were Low

This time of year in suburban Philadelphia USA, where I reside, the Sun sets around 8:30 PM and the sky begins to grow meaningfully dark half an hour later. A few weeks ago, though, during my wife Sandy’s and my trip to Paris and Amsterdam, the lighting was different. (If you click right here and right here, the previous two articles about our trip will appear). There, sunset happened circa 10:00 PM and darkness started its descent about thirty minutes after that. It wasn’t till 10:45 or so that you’d say nighttime truly had arrived. These were phenomena that took Sandy and me a little by surprise. We sure weren’t used to them. But we liked them.

Now, Amsterdam is a beautiful place in daylight, as is Paris, natch. Those canals; those old, quaint brick houses; those cute houseboats parked here and there on the waters; those many streets no wider than alleys. Man, investigating and gawking at all of this in full light was the best. But — and I’m not exactly issuing a news flash here — things looked different when the effects of our friend the Sun started to fade. Different isn’t always better, yet often it is equally good. And that was the case with Amsterdam during late evening hours.

Maybe we were under the spell of the delayed darkness, I don’t know, but in Amsterdam we found ourselves starting the evening repasts much later than at home. Most evenings we didn’t begin to eat until 8:30 or later. By the time we concluded restaurant business and moseyed out onto the streets, sunlight was approaching the low end of its dial or was gone. And that’s when our evening entertainment, nighttime walks, began. It also was when the canals put on their more formal clothes.

IMG_1465IMG_1466One night, after a dinner in the western part of town that ended at 10:15, we wandered for ten minutes in search of the still-existing house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) where Rembrandt van Rijn lived during much of the 1600s. Eventually we found it. The famed artist lived near the Zwanenburgwaal, a handsome canal. I imagine that the area looks pretty much as it did in Rembrandt’s time. And, no question, it startles at night. There was a fair but quickly fading amount of light in the skies as we strolled around Zwanenbuegwaal and other nearby waterways. The canal waters glimmered, the electric lights from within houses glowed mightily. And we were amazed by a scene that was almost too good to be true, the Moon early in its rise above an assemblage of rooftops and gables. I don’t know if Rembrandt ever painted a waterscape like that, but if he didn’t he should have.

IMG_1478IMG_1480Another post-dinner trek, along a couple of canals not far from our hotel in central Amsterdam, also was gold. This time our walk started under skies that were fully dark. Not too many people were around. And it was quiet. These were conditions that collectively, in a major city, you don’t often run into. I tell you, the vistas were something else. Reflections from house lights in the canal waters looked like cascades of glitter. And the small bridges crossing the canals were lit along their sides like yuletide shrubbery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Amsterdam is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live.

 

IMG_1388IMG_1389

But it wasn’t only late night outdoors views in Amsterdam that nabbed my attention. Things sometimes got awfully atmospheric indoors too during advanced hours. Usually in restaurants. Our first night in the city, for instance, we had dinner in the middle of town at the cozy Corner House, which serves up some traditional Dutch fare. We had arrived in Amsterdam from Paris with our friends Martine and Alan, and they were at the eatery with us. We all settled in comfortably on that rainy night, soaking up Corner House’s low wattage vibes. The subdued lighting gave the place a charm and magnetism that probably it didn’t have at lunchtime. And after dinner we stepped outside into streets hundreds of years old where, electric lights illuminating the dimness only gingerly, mystery and intrigue cast bigtime spells.

IMG_0787And talking about vibes . . . they don’t come much better than those you get, as midnight approaches, within In De Wildeman. It’s a tavern in a semi-ancient building, and prides itself on its wide selection of beers. A craft beer geek, I went there several times to drink suds from Dutch breweries not named Heineken and Amstel. There are a decent number of them, though most Amsterdam establishments don’t carry them. More’s the pity. In any event, Sandy and I popped into evocatively-lit In De Wildeman, down the block from our hotel, very late on a Wednesday night. The next morning we would fly home, and I wanted to down one last Dutch microbrew before bidding the Netherlands adieu. I did. Sort of. It was a pale ale brewed exclusively for In De Wildeman by The Wild Beer Company. It was delicious. Turns out, though, that Wild Beer’s brewery is located in England, not the Netherlands. Oh well, close enough.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others)

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Caramel (Suzanne Vega, This Beer’s For You)

Leffe Brune
Leffe Brune

A few days ago, in a local supermarket’s beer section, I assembled and bought a “create your own six pack.” At dinnertime later that day I grabbed one of the six from the frig, and I’m glad I did. It was a thick, rich, mellow ale. Dark and handsome too, I might add. And delicious. Leffe Brune (brown), brewed in Belgium.

If it weren’t for this excellent beer I wouldn’t be typing this story right now. Instead I’d probably be cemented to the living room sofa, counting the number of dust balls scattered on the room’s hardwood floor, one of my typical pastimes. But I am typing this story right now, and here’s why:

Earlier in the aforementioned day, fishing around in my mind for something to write about for my blog, I thought about Caramel, a song by Suzanne Vega that I’ve always loved. But I wasn’t sure how I’d incorporate Caramel into a story. It’s a great song, not too well-known. For years I’ve thought it deserves to become a heavily covered tune, a standard if you will, as it is perfectly formed musically and lyrically. For 40 years I’ve thought almost as much of Tom Waits’s (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night. “Maybe I’ll write about Caramel and (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night and one or two other songs that, in my ideal world, nearly everyone would know about,” I more or less said to myself. “That’ll be at least a  couple of weeks from now, though. It’s a tough story to work out.”

But a few hours later, scanning the label on my Leffe Brune, I shifted course. It read: “Savor the mystery of the ages. The authentic Belgian Abbey ale. Enjoy this delicious Leffe Brune with its sweet caramel yet bitter taste.”

Caramel! Whoa, no way this could be a coincidence. No question about it, the beer gods who hover invisibly above Planet Earth are fans of Suzanne Vega’s Caramel. That’s why they placed the Leffe Brune label before my eyes. Which means that they wanted me to devote a story solely to that song. “Screw Tom Waits,” they in effect were saying to me. I love and revere the beer gods. I pray to them before turning off the bedroom light each night. Therefore, I shall obey.

Suzanne Vega is one of those artists who has been around for a long time (in her case, for about 30 years), though not too obviously for much of the span. She hit her visibility peak in the mid 1980s through mid 90s, when a bunch of her songs received lots of airplay. Tunes such as Luka, Tom’s Diner, Marlene On The Wall and Blood Makes Noise. Things have quieted a lot since then in terms of Vega’s fame. She still tours a good bit, playing before plenty of fans, and releases albums fairly regularly. But, barring a fluke of some kind, she’s unlikely ever again to be a big media presence. She hardly is alone in that. The same might be said for Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Bruce Cockburn and near-zillions of others. The music biz, like life in general, is fickle.

Left to right: Beer; Caramel's lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.
Left to right: Leffe Brune; Caramel’s lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.

Despite that . . . if somehow Caramel were to come to the attention of many classic singers (calling Tony Bennett and Jane Monheit) and singer-songwriters, I’m of the belief that it would be recognized as awfully damn good and irresistible and eventually would find its way into the pop music canon. It came out in 1996 on Vega’s album Nine Objects Of Desire and had a now-forgotten shot of exposure that same year when it played during a scene in the movie The Truth About Cats And Dogs. But as far as I can tell, Caramel rarely has been covered by other musicians.

Yo, tell me that I’m wrong. Here is the first half of Caramel’s lyrics. They are concise and they pop. Poignantly. If they didn’t come attached to music they’d read as a cool poem. Coming from me, not exactly a huge poetry fan, that’s a major compliment.

It won’t do
to dream of caramel,
to think of cinnamon
and long for you.

It won’t do
to stir a deep desire,
to fan a hidden fire
that can never burn true.

I know your name,
I know your skin,
I know the way
these things begin;

But I don’t know
how I would live with myself,
what I’d forgive of myself
if you don’t go.

The lyrics above take up 16 (short) lines. And they comprise a mere four sentences. Four additional sentences, which you can read by clicking here, complete the lyrics. Me, I’m totally taken by Caramel’s simplicity. There are no head feints or foot shuffles. Wham, Suzanne Vega gets to the essence of a sexual attraction that must not be pursued, a love affair that must not be allowed to flower. It ain’t easy to write like that.

But Caramel isn’t a poem. It’s a song. And its music makes me want to head south. To Brazil, home of the samba, of which Caramel is an example. What a melody, so sweet and wistful. Such melancholy chords upon which the melody hangs. Ah me. In Rio I’ll set up a hammock on Ipanema Beach. I’ll watch the girls go by and sip on a long cool one (yeah, it’ll be a Leffe Brune). And as the Sun dips below the horizon I’ll listen to Caramel on iTunes. Or maybe on YouTube, which you too may do by clicking right here.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

A Philadelphia Saturday Night

Our plans for a recent Saturday evening came together quickly. Flipping through a newspaper we (my wife Sandy and I) saw a review of a play titled Spine. The play sounded good. Its theater was in Philadelphia’s central section, easy for us to reach from our home in the burbs. OK, Spine it would be. Deciding to have pre-show dinner near the theater, we looked for an eatery where we’d never been before. We clicked here and there on OpenTable and settled on Franky Bradley’s, a place we knew little about. A handful of hours later we arrived at FB’s at the appointed time, 6:15 PM, and the night began.

Some Philadelphians will recall Franky Bradley’s when it was a steakhouse and celebrity hangout and its first name was spelled Frankie. That was decades ago. In its most recent incarnation the place was a gay bar. Last year a new owner turned the property into a restaurant/bar/dance club, resurrecting the name (save for the spelling change) but nothing much else from the original FB’s. Only one steak is on the menu and I doubt if Franky’s is a celebrity hang.

Inside Franky Bradley's.
Inside Franky Bradley’s.

It’s a two-story establishment. A  music room cum bar occupies floor number two. That’s where late night DJ and dancing action takes place. Sandy and I took up a little bit of space on the ground level. There, dark wood tables and booths fill up the square footage not occupied by a large bar, and the walls are covered with wood carvings, a potpourri of signs and with moody, sensual oil paintings. We sat at a peripheral table. It gave us a good view of much of the room. The lights were low, the noise level high, the waitstaff young and friendly. Recorded music from the 1970s (David Bowie, disco tunes) swirled through the air. The place was mobbed, mostly with an under-40 crowd. Tucked away on narrow way-off-the-beaten-path Chancellor Street (1320 is the address), Franky Bradley’s seemed to be a hit, a destination. From my perspective here’s the deal: Sandy and I loved our meal there. And the vibes were a gas, you dig?

Bradley’s keeps the number of beverage and food selections on the modest side, which seems like a good idea to me. Man, this world is cluttered enough as it is. You could do a lot worse than ordering what we had. Liquid-wise, a toasty beer for me, Ellie’s Brown Ale from the Avery Brewing Company. And, for Sandy, a semi-dry and citrusy Spanish white wine that rocked, an Albarino (2013) from Ramon Bilbao vineyards.

Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.
Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.

Solid-wise, we shared a house salad built from powerful purple onions, three or four types of greens and a Banyuls vinaigrette dressing. “Banyuls?” you ask? Right, I hadn’t a clue either. But it was damn tasty. A minute ago I peered at a foodie’s website and learned that Banyuls vinegar is made from fancy grapes. I shoulda known. For entrées we each ordered pan-seared Arctic char, a thin fish that came out moist, just-right salty and just-right charred. The fish shared plate space with warm lentil salad and orange slices. I’m a sucker for a good lentil salad. In this case, cubed beets and diced carrots and peppers said hello to one another and to the lentils just the way I was hoping they would. Wouldn’t have minded staying at Franky Bradley’s for a couple more hours, testing the desserts, knocking back another Ellie’s or two. But Spine awaited.

A few moments before Spine began.
Ten minutes before Spine began.

Spine (running through March 6) is a 70 minute monologue first performed in 2014 in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Its British author, Clara Brennan, probably is a rising star. Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company has staged Spine’s first American production in the smaller (about 75 seats) of two new theaters created within the Drake apartment building (1512 Spruce Street) earlier this year. There’s no intermission, so visiting the loo pre-show ain’t a bad idea.

If I’m sure about anything, it’s that Spine is a whirlwind of words, a rant at times, a collection of colorful tales all recited by Amy, a London teenager struggling to find her way. Amy is not in the education pipeline, can’t hold jobs, has messy relationships with family and friends and recently has become a petty criminal. But she’s no dummy and lacks not for energy. One day this wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl, looking for a room to rent, knocks on the door of a home, in a good part of London, owned by very elderly Glenda. Glenda, an advocate for social justice, takes a liking to Amy and over time gives her barrelsful of counsel.

What’s Spine about? It’s about a lot of things, maybe too many. Brennan takes aim at what she sees as damaging policies by Britain’s Cameron-led government, bemoaning social welfare program cutbacks and the closing of libraries. She believes that young folks like Amy institutionally are ignored and rendered powerless. She feels that the Amys of the world are being deprived of knowledge, but that they yet might come to understand their plights and change them for the better.

Whew, that’s a lot for a play to bite off. And a lot for politically and sociologically semi-conscious characters like me to digest. But let me say this: My attention didn’t waver watching Spine. Emily R. Johnson commanded the minimally-furnished set, bringing Amy fully to life and, by extension, Glenda. When the play ended I shook my head in disbelief. I mean, how does anyone do what Johnson did, spewing a non-stop avalanche of words without a stumble? How can anyone remember all those words? I have trouble remembering the name of the street I live on. Impressed? You bet your sweet bippy I was and am.

But sometimes there’s a but, and I have one. Johnson, a non-Brit, adopted a deep deep Cockney accent. I didn’t understand half the words she spoke. “Huhhh, what?” I said to myself so often I almost started babbling. Sandy had the same problem, even worse. If you didn’t grow up in a workingclass London neighborhood I’m guessing you’d decipher the language not much better than we did. I think that Spine’s director should have decided to soften the blows for Philadelphia’s audiences by toning down the accent. As usual, though, nobody asked for my advice.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Out And About In Fishtown

On a recent Friday night my wife Sandy and I went to dinner with our great pals, Liz and Rich. We dined in Al Dar, an atmospheric Mediterranean-cuisine bistro in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. As the four of us wolfed down lots of good stuff, Liz asked Sandy and me what we had on the agenda for the following day. Because the Philadelphia area was in the middle of an amazing December warm weather streak, any upcoming rain-free day would be a great one for outdoor exploration. “Maybe we’ll go to Fishtown,” Sandy said. And that’s what we did.

Fishtown is a Philadelphia neighborhood fairly near the city’s downtown sections. It is a maze of narrow streets, with a few big avenues running through, and for most of its existence has held a blue-collar reputation. Until a handful of years ago, Fishtown wasn’t somewhere you’d have had any particular reason to go to, unless you lived there. But times change, and sometimes for the better. Fishtown’s rowhouses and small single homes have found favor with millenials, hipsters, musicians. And with those fine folk have come cool bars and eateries and music venues. Fishtown now is on the map, though its goodly number of empty storefronts and how-do-they-stay-in-business businesses show that there’s plenty of climbing yet to do.

The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 1300 block of East Eyre Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.
The 500 block of East Thompson Street.

I like wandering on cute blocks, especially when they have nifty or unusual names. And Fishtown is full of those: Crease Street, Eyre Street, Shackamaxon Street. Yeah, Shackamaxon. I’d never heard of half the streets that Sandy and I stepped upon, which was just the way I like it. Gave me a sense of exploring the unknown. I saw that Fishtown’s byways are crammed with housing and commercial properties that, to my marginally-trained eye, looked to have been erected mostly between the mid 1800s and early 1900s. As with much of Philadelphia, the buildings usually rise no farther than three stories above ground level. And how about those bricks, a construction material that numbers in the gawd-knows-how-many trillions of units in Philadelphia. Fishtown’s share of that bounty must be at least twenty billion.

Fishtown's public library.
Fishtown’s public library.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.
Girard Avenue as seen from Eyre Street.

It would take hours to see all of Fishtown, hours that Sandy and I didn’t have at hand. But we strolled around and I think got a halfway decent sense of what the neighborhood is all about. I was glad to see that Fishtown is kind of a small town unto itself. That’s been the case for at least 150 years, from what I’ve subsequently read. Look! A library. A police station. A rec center with a hockey rink. A wonderfully-domed Presbyterian church that has been in place since 1859. A bunch of pocket parks. Sharp, indeed! But the small town feel disappears when you venture off the residential blocks. On Girard Avenue, a major artery that bisects the area, the almost endless lengths of overhead wires are a gritty spider’s web and a quaint-yet-quintessential urban sight. And the traffic on Girard Avenue and Frankford Avenue at times is relentless.

Let’s move on to food and drink. Fishtown has become a player in Philadelphia’s emergence as a destination for foodies and/or craft beer aficionados. Kraftwork, East Girard Gastropub, Frankford Hall, Fette Sau, Interstate Draft House, Pizzeria Beddia (a take-out-only joint with no phone and a policy of baking only 40 pies per day. It gained instant fame when bon appétit magazine, incredibly, crowned its offerings earlier this year as the best pizza in the USA). Hey, if filling the gut and loosening the inhibitions are on your agenda, Fishtown’s as good a choice as any to do that in.

I peeked inside some of the above-named places, and others, on Girard Avenue. They looked great, but it wasn’t even 5:00 PM yet and I wasn’t ready for alcohol or food. Sandy and I earlier had decided that we needed to patronize, or at least ogle, what probably are Fishtown’s two most well-known spots, just to say that we’d been there. And thus we headed north on Frankford Avenue till we reached La Colombe Fishtown (1335 Frankford Avenue), the crown jewel of the La Colombe coffee empire.

Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Exterior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.
Interior of La Colombe Fishtown.

LCF opened last year and it’s a thing of beauty, a Starbucks-on-steroids enterprise that was created out of a former warehouse. It’s comfortable and fashioned in the rustic chic mode. Dark wood floors go on forever. Exposed air system ductwork looms overhead. At the tables, customers nurse coffees, wines, beers, pastries and sandwiches for a long long time as they stare into their electronic devices or into each others’ eyes. And in the rear of the cavernous space is something I’d have been unable to anticipate in a million years. A rum distillery. Don’t ask me why, but the brains behind La Colombe had a jones for rum that had to be satisfied. The rum is for sale.

Sandy and I, though, kept things simple. We ordered ice coffees. Yes, we’re big spenders. They were strong and delicious. We stared into our devices and into each others’ eyes for awhile, and then hit the streets once again. It now was time for food and alcohol. Next stop was Fishtown’s biggest claim to fame.

Johnny Brenda’s (1201 Frankford Avenue) used to be an insular neighborhood bar. New owners took over in 2003. They installed good beers and good food, made nice with their Fishtown neighbors, and set in motion their visions of expanding JB’s audience. Johnny Brenda’s is widely credited as the catalyst for Fishtown’s renaissance. Things really began cooking in 2006, the year that JB’s brought live rock and roll to its upstairs quarters. Brenda’s has become a favorite place for local and touring rock bands. Sandy and I have yet to catch music at JB’s, but we’ve frequently talked with friends about doing that. One day soon we will.

Exterior of Johnny Brenda's.
Exterior of Johnny Brenda’s.
Interior of Johnny Brenda's
Interior of Johnny Brenda’s

JB’s is a friendly place. It has a pool table, local beers on tap, a nice selection of pub grub. And plenty of customers. Sandy and I grabbed a booth in the dining room. We ordered. Sandy’s Italian white wine was delicious. So was my Sly Fox porter. So were our burgers, hers made from beef, mine from vegetables. But before too long it was time to leave, as a movie, in another Philadelphia neighborhood, was on our evening’s schedule. We settled up and stepped outside. Daylight had disappeared 90 minutes earlier.  The air was cooling down. Groups of 20-somethings and 30-somethings were everywhere. We crossed the street, heading westward on Girard Avenue. But Sandy then suggested that we walk back to where we had just been so that we could get another good look at a resplendent neon palace: Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop. Sandy took its picture. And we left Fishtown on a high note.

JoesSteaks IMG_0076
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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Van Gogh, Scorsese And I: A Tale Of Mispronunciations

So, there the three of us were, sitting around a table inside a cozy tavern, chatting amiably about nothing in particular and knocking back a round of beers. Vincent van Gogh, Martin Scorsese and I. Respectively, a powerful and visionary visual artist, a commanding director of moving images, and a plebeian with, by definition, an awfully light résumé.  What the heck was I doing at that table, you ask? And where, by the way, were the table and tavern?

In my dreams. That’s the answer to question number two. As for the first query, I was seated with greats solely because we all had something in common: A lot of people did not know how to pronounce our surnames.

Martin Scorsese (Photo by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)
Martin Scorsese
There are several purported photographs of Vincent van Gogh. None are totally authenticated. This is believed to be from about 1886.
A purported photograph of Vincent van Gogh believed to be from about 1886.

We’d made more than enough small talk. Turning onto a substantive route, I said to the gent on my left: “Marty, it must drive you nuts that almost everyone thinks your last name is Score-Say-Zee. I wonder how in the world that messed-up notion ever caught on.”

“Neil,” Marty said to me, “I’ve gotten used to it. But it sure would be nice if they’d get things straight. I mean, we’re talking about my name, for crying out loud.” I nodded understandingly.

“Vincent,” I next said, rotating my head slightly to my right, “How do you deal with this? People call you Van-Go, or maybe Van-Gokh. Doesn’t anyone ever do better than that?”

“I gave up on this a long time ago, Neil. My family and my fellow Dutchmen, they know how to say my name. Just about everyone else, fuhgeddaboudit.”

“Guys,” I said. “I hear ya’. I’m not as hung up on the name thing as I used to be. But it still churns me when people say Shee-Nin or Shy-Nin or Shee-In-In. C’mon, I know the spelling is a guarantee to throw almost anyone off, but still . . . ”

A plebeian.
A plebeian.

Scheinin. That’s my last name. A confusing array of letters. But with a simple two-syllable pronunciation: Shay-nin. To make things easy, maybe I’ll legally change the spelling to exactly that, hyphen and all.

I looked leftward once again. “Marty, the only reason that I know how to say your name properly is because years ago I heard you pronounce it on the Charlie Rose interview show. ‘Score-Seh-See’, you said. And ever since then I’ve been careful to say it that way whenever I gab about your movies.”

“Thanks, Neil,” Marty said. “Finally someone pronounced it right.” And I speedily hoisted my right hand to catch the high-five that he threw at me.

“Vincent,” I then said, gazing in the master colorist’s direction. “Yours is very very tricky. And no doubt I’m not gonna be able to duplicate the from-the-back-of-the-throat nuances of the Dutch language. But, good sir, I’m going to give it my best shot. Vun-Khuhkh. Am I right? Am I in the ballpark?”

“Neil, that’s darn well close enough,” he replied, clapping his hands. “That’s the nearest anyone outside of Holland has come in decades.” He smiled broadly as his eyes examined all the planes of my face. Was he toying with the idea of painting my portrait?

The name situation settled, Vincent, Marty and I began to talk of deeper matters. The meaning of art, for instance, and its value to the human spirit. But almost immediately Vun-Khuhkh and Score-Seh-See left me in their wake. Little could I add to their understandings and suppositions. I was more than happy, though, to listen and hopefully to learn, and to toss in a lame comment now and then.

I eventually shouted over Vincent’s and Marty’s lively conversation. “Waitress, three more Guinnesses please.” A few minutes later the dark brews arrived. We downed them greedily.

The hour was advancing, as it always does. “Gentlemen,” I finally said, gesturing to the waitress to bring the bill. “It’s almost time for me to wake up. It’s been a pleasure. And the beers are on me.”

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(Photo of Martin Scorsese by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)

(Photo of a plebeian by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

We Said “Cheese Please” At Iron Abbey

I’ve grumbled before on these pages about the paucity of loveliness in the townships that surround my suburban Philadelphia home base. Stuck in the middle of a large section of this haphazard overdevelopment is a place that I think is a-ok. Iron Abbey is its name, and beer and good food is its game. It is a gastropub. Location: Horsham, Pennsylvania. My wife Sandy and I ate dinner there recently. One part of the meal, a cheese plate of all things, particularly opened our minds and eyes.

Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.
Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.

Iron Abbey is a large establishment. Its dining areas and bar are on ground level where the look is woody and stoney rustic. Kind of like, who’d have guessed, an abbey. Upstairs are an espresso café and rooms filled with beers for takeout purchase. The beer rooms are wondrous, packed with microbrews, many obscure, from the corners of the globe. For this article, let’s stay on the ground floor, where the beer selections are no less mind-blowing.

Sandy doesn’t like beer. She is a wine lady. Unfortunately for her, Iron Abbey does not cater to wine-by-the-glass ladies or gents. Those selections are slim. The two Sauvignon Blanc choices were overpriced at $10.50, so Sandy, a white wine devotee, instead sipped an eight dollar glass of Cielo Pinot Grigio, direct from Italy. Sandy says she has had better. I took a sample and approved of its dryness but quickly decided its flavor could be richer.

Enough about wines. The Philadelphia region has become a haven for beer geeks, and Iron Abbey is a top example why. I spent five minutes poring over the beer menu. The choices were nearly endless, around 40 on tap and 250 in bottles and cans. The pressure was on. Twice I told our waitress that I needed more time to decide. On her third visit to the table I was too embarrassed to ask for another extension. Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA I said, pointing it out on the menu’s draft beer section. With craft beers, one usually can’t go too wrong, so skilled have the world’s brewers become. My selection, birthed in sunny California, was proof. Bitter and hopped-up it was, as all good IPAs should be. One of the hops varieties in the recipe imparted a husky tinge of grapefruit flavor to the brew. I liked that a lot.

The best segment of the meal came next. Sandy and I were all set to bypass any starters and simply place our main course orders when I absentmindedly began to pay some attention to the menu section titled “The Board.” There, one may select from various cheeses and meats, all of which are accompanied by an eclectic mix of nibbly stuffs. Why not, we decided. When the waitress reappeared we picked two cheeses and sat back with our drinks. We’re not naïfs, but neither of us had ever before ordered a cheese plate at a restaurant.

The cheese board that we loved.
The cheese plate that we loved.

The cheese plate arrived and we couldn’t have had a better time. It came with salty olives, crunchy excellent French bread, fig and apricot jams, roasted Macadamia nuts,  pickled red onion slivers and membrillo. Yes, I hadn’t a clue either as to what membrillo is. Turns out that it is a firm soft paste made from quince pulp, sugar and water. Some post-Iron Abbey research told me it’s commonly found in Portugal, Spain and Italy. I caught what I thought were flavors from the apple and pear family. Quince, as additional research told me a little while ago, is indeed related to those fruits. Bottom line, the membrillo was delicious. The other accompaniments were too. As for the cheeses, we had selected  Ubriaco Classico from Italy and Ossau Iraty from France. As with membrillo, I’d never heard of either of those cheeses before. For the most part I’m a Kraft swiss and Cracker Barrel cheddar kind of guy. But I know there’s a world of cheeses out there to be explored. The Ubriaco was semisoft and hinted of wine and citrus. The Ossau Iraty was dense and dry and pungent. Sandy and I swooned over both of them and the bread and the nibbly stuffs. This was the most exciting platter of food we’d had in quite a while.

Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).
Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).

After the cheese extravaganza we’d have been happy to pay up and leave. We knew that it would overshadow the next course. Which it did. My grilled ground chicken burger, though, was awfully tasty, a comfort dish covered with melted Monterey Jack cheese and sautéed bits of red peppers and onion. The side salad I opted for in lieu of fries was fine too. Sandy’s crab cake entrée was done nicely. The grilled crab cake was charred outside, soft inside and good. Some extra doses of spices and flavorings wouldn’t have been a bad idea, though. It sat atop dreamy mashed potatoes, mushroom slices blended through. Blanched then sautéed itsy bitsy asparagus and carrot pieces, very flavorful, surrounded the mountain.

We had no room for dessert. We paid our bill and thanked our waitress, then squeezed past the crowds to the front door. Iron Abbey is a popular spot. Though it is by no means perfect, there are good reasons why it’s bustling.

(Photographs by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)