An Evening On The Deck In The Burbs

Photo taken on July 9, 2019 at 8:26 PM, five minutes before the Sun set.

On Tuesday evening of last week a simple notion swam into my mind. When it made its presence felt I immediately became comfortable with it. And minutes later I answered its call. To wit, I gathered together a bottle of beer, a glass mug, a bottle opener, a box of Cheez-It crackers and a portable radio. Then I opened one of the two doors that lead to the deck attached to the rear of my house and stepped onto that planked structure with the just-mentioned items in hand. Atop the outdoor table I placed them. And upon one of the chairs surrounding the table I deposited my bony, lazy ass. I like the deck a lot, but for reasons associated with a mild-to-medium case of stupidity I don’t relax on it as often as I should. Tuesday evening of last week was only the second or third time I took advantage of the deck since outdoor-sitting weather arrived in April.

The trees on my lot and on surrounding properties have grown madly since my wife Sandy and I took ownership of our suburban-Philadelphia home in 2005. Back then you could see the Sun dip below the horizon from the deck, because our wooden friends were of manageable size. But that was then and now is now. On the night in question I stepped outside at 8:20 PM, eleven minutes before the big ball of fire was scheduled to bid adieu to the Philadelphia region. Not only did trees block out the horizon and the Sun from my perch, they did the same to much of the sky. Ergo, there wasn’t a whole lot of sunset to be seen.

But I didn’t let those realities bother me, as I was in a relaxed mood, a mood that inched closer to the “highly contented” end of the spectrum during the hour and 40 minutes I spent on the deck. And why not? That’s what drinking beer, munching on Cheez-Its and listening to music on the radio will do to you. As will nonchalantly paying a decent amount of attention to what’s going on around you as the sky gradually makes its way from plenty bright to awfully dark. The bottom line is that, after a while, I found myself lost in the evening’s slow flow, a gentle state of affairs the likes of which happen to me only every now and then.

8:48 PM
8:56 PM

Fifteen minutes or so after sunset I admired the pale pink and purple hues in the western part of the sky not obscured by leafy branches or by houses, including mine. And I took note of birds chirping and of insects’ buzzes and clicks. The insects continued to harmonize once dusk began to take hold, but the birds stopped their chatter at that point and hit the sack. And it was impossible not to steal glances at the Moon, which was a few rungs above eye level in the southern sky. It glowed proudly in the clear heavens both before and after darkness arrived, and noticeably moved westward during my stay outside.

Motorcycle roars, somewhere in the distance, filled the air on several occasions while I sat. Central air conditioner systems hummed in unison. I heard the tooting of a train passing through my little town, and the sirens of two or more police vehicles. You know, the man-made sounds seemed as natural as those of the birds and insects, even the jarring ones that usually bug the hell out of me. Yeah man, I was in a mellow groove.

9:28 PM

Music kept me company mighty finely, as I’d known it would. I heard 20 songs or thereabouts on the radio, and they all fit snugly into the evening. One of them especially pleased me, partly because it came over the airwaves (via WRDV, a station in a town close to mine) when darkness was comfortably settling in. That’s the time of day when dreaminess becomes part of the picture.

I’d never heard of Theola Kilgore (born 1925, died 2005) before. I don’t know why, because she had a strong career in the soul and gospel music worlds. Nor had I heard her recording or any other recording of This Is My Prayer, which came out in 1963 and is such a good love song. The late Ed Townsend, a singer and songwriter who fully penned “For Your Love” and co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye, composed Prayer. I sighed happily when Theola began to sing. I knew that I was in good hands. Her pleading, honest vocals can shake you to your knees.

At about the time that Theola Kilgore was entering my heart, a quarter past nine o’clock, I couldn’t help but notice that fireflies were starting to kick their show into high gear. Tiny lights flashed to my left, to my right, in front of me, everywhere. The performance was wonderful, and was the main focus of my attention until I headed back into the house at ten after ten.

Is it possible to photograph fireflies? With high-end cameras in the hands of knowledgeable photographers I have no doubt that it is. But with an iPhone in the hands of an amateur? Well, I tried, snapping shot after shot, hoping that one or two little light bursts would appear at the moment that my finger pressed the camera button. I’m not going to bet my life on it, but I believe that one of my attempts might have paid off. It’s hard to say, of course, whether those pinpricks are from fireflies or are artificial lighting, peeking through dense foliage, from a house behind mine. But I’ve got my money on the former. Here’s the photo. The dots are firefly lights, right? Right?

Fireflies? (Photo taken at 9:47 PM)

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias.)

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A Trip To Scotland, Part One: An Overview

Thousands of moons ago, in the spring of 1977 to be exact, I backpacked around England, Scotland, France and Italy for six weeks. I had little money at the time, lots of hair on my 29-year-old head, and enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

In ensuing years I returned to England, France and Italy. And entertained the idea of visiting lovely Scotland once again too. You know what? It finally happened, because my wife Sandy and I spent eight days there in late May. This time I had a decent amount of money to my name, but distressingly less hair on my head. And, as before, I enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

Sandy and I were based in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. We took day trips to other parts of the land (the county of Fife, which is north of Edinburgh; and the Scottish Highlands, a majestic territory of mountains, forests, meadows, lochs and charming villages), but otherwise spent our moments in that hilly, fine city. Which was our game plan. When traveling nowadays, you see, we prefer to linger in whatever locales we’re visiting, rather than race from one town or city to another. You can’t see and do everything anyway, so why put pressure on yourself trying to?

Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh doesn’t have the knock-your-socks-off looks and attractions of, say, Paris and Amsterdam. But it’s got plenty going for it. For one thing, it’s very walkable. Most of what anyone might want to see is no more than two miles apart. Its buildings, solid and stoic and constructed from stone far more than from steel, create a comforting sense of permanence and often one of mystery. It boasts Princes Street Gardens, an enormous park that is one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. And not only does the city ooze history and culture, it is filled with pubs, bistros and restaurants where hungry and thirsty souls may find nourishment and refreshment. A low-level beer geek, I was anxious to check out the brew scene in town. Success! Each night I quaffed an ale from a brewery that I’d never heard of before.

Old Town
Old Town
Warriston’s Close, in Old Town

The sections of Edinburgh that visitors spend the most time in are Old Town and New Town. Old Town was the first part of the city to be inhabited, and though few ancient structures remain, much of what stands in Old Town is old enough, dating from around 1600 to the late 1800s. Old Town, built on a ridge, is heavily cobblestoned. It is peppered with winding streets and with alleys (known as closes) that often are steep and that connect one street with another. Ergo, Old Town is highly atmospheric. I preferred it to New Town, which actually is pretty old, but flatter, more open and far less funky than Old Town. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Old Town was mobbed with tourists and locals while I was in Edinburgh. New Town was busy with people too, but less so.

Street performer in Old Town
Old Town

Sandy and I went on two walking tours of Old Town, accompanied by our Parisian friends Martine and Alan. That handsome couple was with us for the first two and a half days of our Scottish experience. The four of us also wandered here and there on our own for hours, both in the Old and the New. It was good to hang with folks with whom we’re very comfortable and on the same wavelengths. Life’s better that way.

Left to right: Sandy, Martine, Alan, Neil
New Town

I could write loads and loads of words here about all that the four of us saw and did, and loads more about the experiences that Sandy and I had after Alan and Martine returned to Gay Paree. But that would be too much information for this humble essay. After all, A Trip To Scotland, Part Two will follow fairly soon to fill in some gaps. And who knows? Maybe Part Three also will emerge.

Exterior view of Edinburgh Castle

For now, then, I’ll toss out a few comments about Edinburgh Castle, which sits high on a hill at the western end of Old Town and looms over the city. Its history is long and complicated, too much so for the mostly-in-one-ear-and-out-the-other likes of me to understand and retain, though the leaders of both walking tours went into great detail. But let me say this: The castle complex is a maze-like assortment of buildings. There’s a palace, prisons, barracks, a chapel and many other structures, only a few of which have present-day usage.

I dug the palace, which holds the Scottish Crown Jewels (a crown, a scepter and a sword) and also the Stone Of Destiny, a slab of sandstone that was the coronation seat of Scottish queens and kings during long-ago centuries. The Stone Of Destiny was last used by a Scottish monarch in 1292. (Damn right I’d like to include photos of the Jewels and of the Stone, but taking their pictures is forbidden.) Within the palace I also saw the tiny room in which Mary Queen Of Scots gave birth in 1566 to a son, James, who in 1603 unified the Scottish and English crowns. See, somehow I retained a few iotas of historical information!

St. Margaret’s Chapel
A window in St. Margaret’s Chapel

And I especially admired the castle complex’s St. Margaret’s Chapel. Built in the 1100s, it is the oldest-surviving building in Edinburgh. The chapel is small and plain-looking. That was its main appeal for me, as those two adjectives describe yours truly very accurately. And I thought that its stained glass windows were beautiful.

The proper way for me to close out Part One is to note the most intriguing event that happened during the vacation. Namely, I met in person the one and only Andrew Ferguson, who lives not far from Edinburgh. Andrew is a multi-talented guy, being a lawyer, a writer, a musician, a wine lover and who knows what else. One of the places upon which he places his written words is his WordPress blog (click here to reach it).

Somewhere in the misty past, Andrew and I discovered each other’s WordPress sites and quickly developed an online friendship. When Sandy and I made our plans to visit Scotland, I contacted Andrew. He and I then arranged a meeting date. It’s amazing that WordPress brought the two of us together, in the flesh.

Left to right: Alison, Neil, Sandy, Andrew

I’m here to tell you that Andrew and his wife Alison are swell. They drove Sandy and me around Fife, where we stopped at a couple of fishing villages. And, before returning us to our hotel, they gave us a mini-tour of some of Edinburgh. In all, they took out a day from their lives to show Sandy and me a good time. They couldn’t have done more. Wait, that’s an overstatement. Shit, they should have picked up the tab for Sandy’s and my hotel stay!

Anstruther, a fishing village in Fife

I have a couple of other online Scottish buddies via WordPress. Alyson and Anabel, I’d have liked to have met you. But the trip was too short to allow for any additional socializing. I hope you understand. (Click here and here to read, respectively, Alyson’s and Anabel’s blogs.)

Readers, thanks for joining me on this journey. Goodbye till next time.

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

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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.)

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.)

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

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(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?

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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.

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(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)