Musings

Bandwagon Season

There’s a strange hue hanging over Northern California recently. And no, it’s not the ubiquitous smoky sky from approximately seventeen thousand wildfires going on simultaneously. It’s August, so we’re pretty accustomed to that visage.

Although did we really need to name one of them the Carr Fire? You know “car fire” has a different connotation, right, media?

“Hey, did you hear the latest on the car fire?”

“No, I took a different route to work today. Is that why you were late?”

But the current strange vision is  a color combination that I’m not used to encountering in the summer. Or really, at any time since the Bush administration. It’s a distinctive shade of green. Bright, unnatural. Maybe it’s called Kelly green? I don’t know. It seems to me that Forest Green is very deep green color, and everything else is Kelly Green. Or turquoise.

But these shirts and hats I’m seeing definitely aren’t turquoise. Turquoise only shows up in this region in April or May of years when the Sharks are both in line for a top playoff seed AND didn’t underperform in the playoffs the season before. So, basically never.

“Never” is also when I assumed I’d see this garish green-and-yellow again, but it’s the summer of 2018, and it’s back. When I first moved to Northern California, in the early 1990s, it was everywhere, the unofficial color of spring and summer, after which it became garnet-and-gold season. Then it disappeared, only to have a brief resurgence in the early aughts, coming up for breath once per decade like the Nessie above the surface of her Scottish loch. I’m wracking my brain for what that precise confluence of events, which stars and constellations have aligned, to bring out the blinding combination once more.

Wait. Could it be… Let me double check the standings just to be sure and… Yep, the Oakland A’s are holding the wild card. If the season ended today, they’d be in the playoffs.

At least the Giants aren’t in contention, so we don’t have to worry about the green-and-yellow clashing with the black-and-orange that is usually seen around these parts this time of year. Of course, you could never have both teams being represented at the same time. Because the people wearing the green this year are the exact same people that were wearing the orange two years ago.

You see, Northern Californians are horrible sports fans. When a team is losing, they are either afraid to represent it, or more likely, they simply stop rooting for that team. Ignore it like Janet Jackson asking, “what have you don for me lately?” And then, when that team starts to win, they all of a sudden come up with these wonderful stories of how they’ve been lifelong fans, busting out clothes that looks either twenty years old, or freshly purchased this week.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not just NorCals. ALL Californians are horrible bandwagoners. Northern Californians are just much more obvious about it. The SoCals’ fandom expands or contracts based on the viability of the team at the moment. A decade ago, Dodger blue was only noticeable in the Valley and LA proper. Now it’s the unofficial color of the Southland. At least it was until LeBron signed with the Lakers, and then my Facebook feed looked like it was 2010 all over again.

But the SoCals don’t swap allegiances quite as fickly as thee NorCals. Now, maybe that’s because Southern California teams rarely change position. The Clippers, Angels, and UCLA aren’t competitive enough to do a true control experiment. The Angels won one World Series, but usually underperform. The Clippers gave us a little test run, being a better team than the Lakers for most of the past decade. And while I saw more people checking in at Clippers games, and many people saying “Hey, good for the Clippers,” nobody was changing their profile pictures to suddenly claim their lifelong Clipper fandom. If the Clippers and Lakers played in San Francisco instead of Los Angeles, there would be a whole lot of people shuffling past their red-and-blue to find their antiquated purple-and-gold the moment LeBron signed. (See Below: Kings, Sacramento; Warriors, Golden State)

Southern California does have one sport with two different champions. And I give them credit for sticking by their hockey guns. The level of excitement for the two Kings championships was equaled only by the general level of ho-hum, oh-wait-there’s-another-hockey-team-here apathy the two times the Ducks won it all. And most of my friends live in Orange County. However, most of them became hockey fans before the Ducks existed. Oh, and they hate Disney. Still, if Orange County gives more of a shit about the LA team than the one in their own backyard, they’re not bandwagoning.

Back to Northern California and the impending return of “A’s Country.” Northern Californian teams swap places on a more regular basis, and boy howdy, do those fan allegiances give me whiplash. Fifteen years ago, when the Sacramento Kings came within one compromised referee game of winning the NBA championship, everything north of Fresno might as well have been washed over in purple. You couldn’t go anywhere without proudly showing your allegiance to the basketball team-du-jour.

There was another NBA team in Northern California at the time. Not that you’d know it. They were called the Golden State Warriors. I doubt you’ve heard of them. Their colors were… dark blue? Or maybe grey. I seem to remember they had some sort of ninja on their logo. With lightning-bolt lettering?

I’m being serious here. I don’t remember what their colors were in 2002, because NOBODY owned any Warriors gear. Or if they did, they wouldn’t have had the audacity to show it in public.

I know what the color and the logo look like now. It’s blue and yellow, with a picture of the Bay Bridge in a circle in the middle. I know that because the Warriors are good now, so everyone is wearing their gear. And a hell of a lot of these “Lifelong” Warriors fans were so decked out in purple a decade ago that their own children might not recognize them.

Nowadays, if you  wear a Sacramento Kings hat in Sacramento, you will be mocked incessantly. This is Warriors-county, baby!

Does this bleedover happen in other markets?  I imagine that, even when the Dallas Mavericks were very good, the predominant gear worn in Houston would still belong to the Rockets. Am I wrong here?

The good news is these Warriors fans can’t claim they bought their gear twenty years ago, because the Warriors have changed their look so many times. And yeah, their current look is a bit of a throwback, but the Bay Bridge has been torn down and rebuilt since the 1980s logo.

We went through the whole bandwagon with the San Francisco 49ers, too. Again, when I moved here, you could barely go out in public between August and February without sporting a gold Starter jacket. But by the time Y2K rolled around, you couldn’t find Niners gear everywhere. And I know these fans still rooted for their team. They would come into work on Monday morning rehashing every play of the game. Even in shitty Candlestick Park, the team was still selling out games. But there were no hats or jerseys or Starter jackets.

It got to the point that I forgot I lived in Niner Country. Then Jim Harbaugh showed up and they started winning again. All of a sudden, people who I had worked with for ten years started showing up in Niners polos and jerseys every Friday. I even mocked some of my students (“Oh hey, you Niners fans finally found all that gear at the back of your closet”), which was mean and probably a bit errant because the Niners had never been good in their life, so if they had gear, they probably were legitimate fans.

Although, in my defense, last year I taught the younger sister of the girl I mocked. I asked her if her sister still wears a lot of Niner gear. She said no.

Northern California fans feel this is absolutely normal. They simply believe the way the world works is to stop showing support for your team when they are losing. Clearly they’ve never been to Chicago, where people were wearing Cubs and White Sox gear when neither team had won anything in fifty years or more. Or Boston before 2004. Hell, I’ve never been to Cleveland, but I bet there are still a lot of people wearing Browns gear during football season there.

And this says nothing of international destinations, where people still wear shirts for their teams when they drop down to the minor leagues.

At least Niners fans didn’t put on silver and black when the Raiders got good. If there’s one sport where NorCal fans don’t just jump to the currently successful team, it’s football. But when you talk to a Giants fan who thinks it’s perfectly fine becoming an A’s fan overnight, and you ask them if they should do the same thing with the football teams, they will look at you aghast. That’s fucking crazy talk.

It should be for baseball, too. Browns fans are still Browns fans, even after years of being horrible. They wouldn’t jump ship to the Bengals just to save face. Nets and Knicks fans don’t have to look at the standings to know which team they like that day. I have a White Sox friend who says, “I’d rather my sister be a whore than my brother be a Cubs fan.”

Of course, I always told him those weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

And I guaran-fucking-tee there is no New York equivalent of this monstrosity:

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I’m not saying you can’t root for a team other than yours. On any given day, there are usually 14 games that do not feature your favorite team. It’s not a bad thing to prefer one team over the other. In 1986, when the Mets were playing the Red Sox in the World Series, I assume that Yankees fans wanted the Mets to win. But I doubt they started spouting off about how long they had loved the Mets and started wearing Mets gear instead of Yankees gear.

That’s what puts California fans apart. They are proud of switching their allegiance on a dime. Again, look at that atrocious hat. People are PROUD to own that hat.

But when two teams share one media market, dammit, those are supposed to be rivals. I grew up an Angels fan and I absolutely hated the Dodgers. The typical sports news in Southern California was eighty percent Dodgers and twenty percent Angels. We were the red-headed stepchild of SoCal.

Then the Angels won the World Series and the whole Southland was smothered in halos. Not only did the Orange County Register remember there was a team in Orange County, but the Los Angeles Times did, as well. It was unnatural. I felt uncomfortable. I actually felt a little sorry for the Dodgers fans who stayed true, because I knew how they felt rooting for the forgotten team in the market. Just like those Golden State Warriors fans.

Even worse, the Angels started selling out their games. I was like the fan of the indie band that hits it big. For two or three years, I couldn’t get tickets.

Of course, the Angels only won once and within a few years, the Dodgers were back on top in SoCal. Now I can get any ticket I want in a stadium that’s only forty-percent full. All is right with the world. Until we lose Mike Trout…

Which brings me back to the Bay Area. I thought we had finally gotten to an equilibrium a la SoCal, with the A’s as the permanent underclass. They haven’t been competitive in over a decade, and they usually have to trade away their entire team every year. Even worse for them, their decade of crap was also a decade when the Giants won the World Series three times.

And some of the A’s fans that switched to the Giants actually acknowledged it. They say it’s tough to root for a team that will never sign good players and will always trade away their stars. The irony, of course, is that it’s the Giants fault. Back in the early nineties, when NOBODY went to, or watched, Giants games, they threatened to move to Florida. To entice them to stay, the commissioner made it so that the A’s would never be able to move out of very-heavily congested Alameda County. So then the Giants built their brand new stadium and everybody started going to their games. The A’s tried to follow suit and the Giants blocked them. The Giants are literally the only team in all of sports that can control the ability of a rival to make money.

And that power was given to them because the A’s were too popular in their market.

Now, or at least up until this year, the Giants have the fancy new ballpark and the world championships and all of the fans. Fans who say, “I just love the black-and-orange color scheme. That rustic, intertwined SF Logo. I mean, the A’s logo is just so gauche and doesn’t really match with anything.”

Until 2018.

In Sacramento, our AAA team switched affiliates from the A’s to the Giants, thinking this would bring in more fans. Not only did they switch, but they went Giants all the way. When they were the A’s franchise, they marketed themselves as “Sacramento’s team.” Since the switch, they reference Sacramento as little as possible. All of their giveaways are Giants players who never played in Sacramento. The bobbleheads all wear Giants, not River Cats, uniforms. They even put the fucking Golden Gate Bridge on our hats and uniforms.

It’s sucked for attendance though, because they forgot that Northern California fans are fickle. The year after the World Series? Yeah, gangbusters in Sacramento. But since then, it’s been dismal. Plus the team has tanked. The A’s usually have really good minor league teams, a result of that whole “trading their entire team every other year” thing. But the Giants don’t really build through the minors.

So now the River Cats are horrible and the stands are empty. The only time fans show up is if a major leaguer is rehabbing, and then they only pay attention when that particular minor leaguer is at bat. Then they talk over the rest of the action and check their phones and just generally don’t give a shit about anybody else on the team.

When Madison Bumgarner was rehabbing, tickets were being sold on eBay for over $100. Fifteen-thousand fans showed up. MadBum  pitched into the third inning. By the fifth inning, there were only about four-thousand fans left. The following week, MadBum was back up in San Francisco. The stands were half-full. Those Sacramento fans probably could have seen him for substantially less than $100, even after paying for gas and bridge toll.

Hey, at least playing in Sacramento is preparing those AAA guys for what it’ll be like to be a real San Francisco Giants, where nobody will come to their games or bother knowing who they are unless they’re winning a World Series or are named Barry Bonds.

New York, Addendum

One more day about my New York trip. Here’s some of the various musings that didn’t necessarily fit into one of the other posts. Some residue, if you will.

And of course, because everybody loves some more giraffe adventures, I’ve put some more of his pictures at the end. Daughter will be so happy!

Staten Island Ferry

Staten

We did the Staten Island Ferry. We didn’t do anything on Staten Island, but we did the ferry. It’s free.

We  planned on doing something on Staten Island. The Staten Island Yankees, a short-season low-A minor league team, is changing to the Staten Island Pizza Rats on Saturdays this year. And you can walk to the station from the ferry. So I can go to a minor league game when they’re NOT named the Yankees? And the view from the ballpark actually looks pretty nice. Hell’s yeah!

But then Saturday night rolled around and it was threatening to rain and we had just dealt with the 9/11 Museum and an annoying Hop-On/Hop-Off narrator, so we decided to just take the night bus instead. It ended up not raining, but it might have, and that’s enough reason to stay away from the minors. Trust me, I live in Sacramento, and if the high isn’t between eighty and ninety on any particular day, nobody goes to the ballpark. And we’re AAA!

We knew we weren’t going to do the Statue of Liberty, but I figured wife might want some photos of it. Actually, let’s be honest, Giraffe wanted pictures with Lady Liberty. And we had an hour or so to kill between the Tenement Museum and the Mets game, so we figured the Staten Island Ferry was a good, free way to fill that time.

Oh, by the way, I did the tenement museum. It isn’t catered to history teachers.

The Staten Island Ferry was easy as hell to board and ride. I don’t understand why it’s free. I could see it being an extension of the subway, where the same swipe that’ll take you from Flushing to the north Bronx can get you to Staten Island. But I don’t understand how its free. The terminal has turnstiles, so at one point it wasn’t free, but now it is. I feel like things usually flow in the opposite direction.

The angry hop-on, hop-off narrator said the only people who live in or go to Staten Island are mafia. So maybe that’s why it’s free. Maybe now that I’ve ridden it once, someday, and that day may never come, I will be called on to do a service. But for now, the ferry ride is a gift on the day of some daughter’s wedding.

Anyway, with no paying or scanning of cards, the boat arrives, everyone in the terminal boards it, and off we go. Four decks, plenty of room to spread out. Inside, outside, upper deck, lower deck. Doesn’t really matter, it’s a quick trip.

Does come damn near the Statue, though.

Staten Liberty

And when we got to Staten Island, we got right back on the same ferry for the return trip. We weren’t the only ones. Clearly it’s a touristy thing to do. Did I mention it’s free? All the people that were out taking pictures of the Statue were the same ones taking the left turn in the terminal to put us back in the boarding group. The commuters, the ones who stayed inside the ferry because it was fucking hot outside and why the fuck do they care about some goddamn statue they see every goddamn day on the way to and from work, they all walked straight to the parking lot or the blue line or whatever the hell was going to take them home.

The other fifty of us got right back on the same boat. Not sure why they made us get off in the first place. But they made an announcement that acknowledged there’d be plenty of us barnstormers fucking up their ticket count.

Not that they sell tickets.

The ferry ended up being a great diversion. My only real complaint was that they didn’t have…

You know what? This deserves its own sub-heading

Lack of Chargeports

I know I come from the outskirts of Silicon Valley. Okay, maybe not the outskirts, maybe just the general region. But I also travel a lot on this side of the country. Southern California, Seattle, Denver, Portland. And I’m surprised at how much more technological the West Coast is than the East Coast.

I already mentioned a few examples. Hop-on/Hop-off buses requiring extensive line-standing and humongous, awkward tickets. A subway system that only reads cards on the way in, and charges a general fee regardless of how far you’re going. The Broadway tickets still predominantly use willcall or a TKTS system where you have to hoof yourself to a designated area to purchase a paper ticket. At the Mets game, I had to print my internet purchase out at a kiosk instead of using the MLB Ballpark App.

But the most noticeable aversion to technology in New York was the sheer lack of chargeports. Or really, the lack of plugs out in public. If the Staten Island Ferry were, say, ferrying us across the San Francisco Bay instead of Hudson River, I have to assume there’d be outlets at the end of each row of seats. Maybe in between seats, too. On the Staten Island Ferry, however, there wasn’t a damn outlet in sight. Trust me, I looked through at least five rows on all four floors.

Before boarding the Night Bus, my wife and I were trying to get a quick charge on our phones. We already knew the buses had no chargeports, which would be sacrilege in California. What do they expect us to take pictures of all of their fancy touristy things on? Cameras? Which Roosevelt do they think is still president?

So we went to the Starbucks in Times Square. Starbucks always have outlets. Hipsters surfing the web while sipping coffee is pretty much their entire business model. A lot of them even have those cool magnetic wireless chargers. But at this particular Starbucks, there were no plugs in the entire store. Or at least in the customer area.  There WAS one in the bathroom, and there was a guy charging his phone in the bathroom. Because, as we all know, anyone’s allowed in Starbucks bathrooms now. Even phone chargers. It’s just in the REST of the Starbucks where our kind is made to feel unwelcome.

I’m sure this was intentional. If it wasn’t intentional, there would’ve been one or two outliers. I’ve been to those coffee shops before, where all of the customers were huddled around that one particular corner. I’m sure Times Square real estate’s gotta be pretty pricey, and you can’t make those sales if you’ve got a bunch of squatters. But this Starbucks did have round tables, which I presume were for sitting and sipping or meeting friends or having job interviews or whatever the hell else people do at a Starbucks. So the only action they were hoping to avoid was charging of electronic devices. Oh, and maybe they were hoping to avoid some West Coast jackass from blogging about their lack of plugs.

The Sacramento Airport has gone through about five redesigns in the last decade, and each one has added more plugs and charging stations. Often at the cost of seats. But most West Coasters would take a fully-charged electronic device over a comfy seat any day of the week. Because when that battery level hits 0%… Well, life is over, right? You can’t Twitter or Instagram. Or access any of those paperless tickets and plans that you downloaded. You can’t even figure out how to get from where you are to where you’re going without Google Maps these days, can you?

Sacramento Airport also added a stupid monorail in one of its redesigns, but that’s probably a post for another day.

I’m not saying California’s ubiquitous electronic consumption is better, necessarily. Only that I had assumed the rest of the world was on the same page as us. The same lumin-clad e-ink page.

Lack of Sortable Trash

Speaking of New York feeling decades behind San Francisco, what the hell is with the trash-sorting there? Central Park had three, count ’em, THREE, types of trash cans: trash, cans, and magazines.

Magazines? Are those still a thing? Would it have been too difficult to label that last one “paper”? As I just said, there’s a lot more paper produced in New York than I’m used to in the current decade. But I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to throw paper in the magazine bid, so the fifty pages of Hop-on/Hop-off ticket had to go in the garbage. Wouldn’t want to interfere with the, I don’t know, five magazines still in circulation.

And just cans? Maybe they’re hoping by not printing glass bottles, that nobody will bring those to the park. But what about plastic bottles? Every hot dog cart in the Park sells plastic bottles, but we wouldn’t want to update our nomenclature since 1986 or so.

So what am I supposed to do with an apple? No compost? Or how about those cardboard coffee cups from Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts? In most West Coast parks, there’d be a more general “paper” option. But I don’t see myself throwing a coffee cup into the “Magazine” bin. By the way, I tried some Dunkin’ coffee because I’ve heard so much raving about it. My verdict? Meh.I’ll take a Philz or a Temple or a Blue Bottle, thank you very much.

And yes, I know many of our trash bins can be confusing. You see people standing in front of the multi-colored facade for five minutes, staring back and forth between the rubbish in their hand and the fine-hair splitting signs in front of them. I stayed at an airbnb in Seattle where we were informed that we’d be charged extra if the owners or the city had to resort our trash. Eight college grads with at least four advanced degrees, and we spent damn near thirty minutes debating what to do with the cellophane wrapping around the butter.

I only hope that they pay people to sort the trash after it’s been thrown away. If not, I never want to hear a New York politician talking about me not doing my part for the environment.

Denouement (Pronounced “Dyno-MITE!”)

RCMH

Look, kids, it’s Radio City Music Hall. Giraffe’s hitting the big time.

Chess

Nobody was willing to take on the powerhouse that was Giraffe at Chess.

Donuts, donuts, and more donuts. And what better thing to do with donuts than eat them in Central Park? Picture number one was of the fancy donut place that didn’t open until 8:00 AM. The second was Giraffe being singularly unimpressed with this Dunkin’ Donuts coffee he’s heard so much about.

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I don’t quite understand this sign. Plus two points for blocking the intersection? Is there some New York driving RPG where you have to gain experience points by driving poorly?

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And finally, since my very first blog post was about Sharknado 2, I couldn’t resist reenacting one of the most quintessential scenes from the cinematic masterpiece. Unfortunately, no giant inflatable bat. And no Sharknado.

New York, Part V

It’s my last day of point-by-point descriptions of our trip to New York. In fact, on our last day we left the friendly confines of New York and drove to Boston. West Coasters might not realize those are different cities. In our defense, the distance between those two cities and the time it takes to get from one to the other are about equivalent of the greater LA area. Yet somehow it requires driving through four states when you’re in the east. If a Californian moved from Ventura to San Diego, they’d still be able to pronounce Worcester.

But I digress. Because before Boston, I wanted to talk about…

9/11 Museum

I know I said I wasn’t going to delve much more about the 9/11 Museum. I changed my mind. It’s been long enough that I might be able to write a bit more about it.

Overall, we avoided a lot of the overly touristy stuff. Other than the Hop-on/Hop-off, which is more of an geographic introductory course. We didn’t do the Empire State Building. No Statue of Liberty, no Coney Island. We never paid a shit-ton of money to go up a building. We were willing to go to a roof-top bar, but never got around to it. Sure, we did the Natural History Museum and the Tenement Museum. And of course, Times Square, but primarily to see some TKTS-discounted shows.

Some of those things were on our “if we get to it” list, but not long into the trip, we figured we’ll probably bring our daughter when she’s a bit older. So we started to update our “to-do” list with things that would be appropriate for an eight- or ten-year old and what would not. I figure we can do the buildings and the statues and the Disney shows then. Not the Disney Store, mind you, just the Disney shows. Three front-row tickets to “Frozen” probably costs less than a Jack-Jack doll.

And this trip, we did the “Avenue Q” and the Becco and breweries um, the bar inside the Whole Foods. The one thing we absolutely knew we had to do this time was the 9/11 Museum, because there’s no fucking way we’re taking her there next time.

So yeah, we did the 9/11 Museum and all I can say is wow. I mean, it’s powerful. I wish I could be coy or funny or flippant, but I really can’t. It’s a powerful, draining experience. Not a lot of talking going on. Just a lot of zombies slowly swaying from one exhibit to the next.

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We saw the fire truck that was crushed and burned beneath falling debris. We saw what was left of the steel girders that were at the impact point. Hey, all you 9/11 Truthers who claim that fire shouldn’t be enough to bring a building down. You know that the superstructure had just been pierced by a fucking plane, right? Those girders weren’t exactly at their full load-bearing self. Looking at the frayed girders, I’m surprised the buildings stayed up as long as they did after impact. The fucking plane flew THROUGH the fucking building. And the second tower to be hit fell first because it was hit lower. You’ve played Jenga, yes?

Oh, and Building 7 was damaged by the two fucking skyscrapers raining down on it. Did you bother to look at what happened to Building Five? No? The whole fucking front of it was gashed down the middle. Because 110 stories of steel falling right next door to you are going to cause some pockmarks.

Oh, and Truthers? The Earth is round. And Rebecca Black wasn’t singing about JFK. Sorry to shatter your other conspiracies.

But I am willing to engage you in a discussion about whether the U.S. had the technology to land on the moon in 1969.

Back to the 9/11 Museum, just when we thought we were done, we stumbled upon the actual historical exhibition. Yikes.

So, it’s at the Historical Exhibition, buried deep in the bowels of the footprint of… I’m gonna guess Tower Number One? Fifty percent chance I’m right, right? The North Tower. Again, a fifty-fifty chance, although I’m now down to twenty-five percent chance overall. Hey, look at that! A history teacher doing math!

And there you have it: my joke for this section.

Because the historical exhibition was intense.

Even worse, Fitbit evidently doesn’t count things as “steps” when you are crawling at a snail’s pace, mouth agape, staring and reading intently every thing on every wall and then some. What the hell do you mean, only 200 steps this hour, Fitbit? I think I lost more than 3,000 steps that day. One for every 9/11 victim. Not sure if it’s a fitting sacrifice, but one does what one can.

It’s dubbed a multi-media experience, and I guess that’s true based on the dictionary definition, but don’t go expecting some “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” 4-D Experience. There’s no cockpit footage taken by the government because they were behind the whole thing. Right, Truthers? Was it Dick Cheney flying the airplanes or Dubya himself? I know he couldn’t complete a sentence in English, but he was certainly capable of masterminding a multi-pronged, simultaneous attack in complete secrecy. Oh, and fly a plane, of course, and maybe teleport out at the last second.

The walls of the historical exhibition was a timeline of the morning, accompanied by videos, pictures, and audio clips. I thought I was well-versed in 9/11. My school’s latest revamp of U.S. History had the intent of getting to 9/11, and dogonnit, I finally succeeded in getting there. But now I feel like I have more to add to the 9/11 story than just the story of my dumb ass sitting on the couch watching the second plane hit because my insomniac father called me at five-something in the morning, and this was in the time before silent voicemail, so my answering machine played his message out loud and woke me up and made me think, “What the fuck does he mean, a missile hit the World Trade Center? I should probably wake up to prove him wrong.”

Does the mention of answering machines make you feel old? Hey, here’s another one: The juniors I taught 9/11 to this year were born in 2001. Most of them were born before 9/11, but some were not. Next year, all of my junior will have never lived in a world that contained the Twin Towers. Or a time when the United States was not at war.

Here’s some other things that surprised me in the historical experience. We have the footage of two of the terrorists walking through airport security in Portland. Kinda creepy, them walking though without a care in the world grabbing their coats off of the X-Ray conveyor belt. Dressed business casual, if you care.

And we have recordings of the flight attendants in contact with air traffic control. They were giving a pretty detailed account of what was happening, especially in the first two planes. I know we focus so much on the “Let’s Roll” in Flight 93, but I found “I see the water. I see buildings.” to be a much more powerful reminder of the day.

Oh, and Truthers? I’m with you on the whole “Flight 93 was shot down.” There’s no way passengers could have bum-rushed the cockpit. Have you ever been in the corridor of an airplane? But I’m also fine with Flight 93 being shot down. It was either going down in a field in Pennsylvania or it was killing even more people in Washington, DC.

There was also a lot of video footage, like the World Trade Center victims jumping from the towers. I found it interesting that there were a couple of spots in the exhibit that were hidden behind walls with warnings that the visuals might be disturbing. Oh, it’s just the people leaping to their deaths that’s disturbing? I’m so glad everything else in here is just a visceral walk in the park. I know we are a visual creature, but I don’t know how “I see the waters, I see buildings” is somehow less abysmal than people leaping to their deaths.
Seriously, if a person ISN’T disturbed by any part of this exhibit, then I think it’s probably the person that is disturbed. You might want to go see somebody about that. “Hey, Doc, I thought the 9/11 Exhibit was kinda ho-hum” should definitely get someone put on the no-fly list.

So there’s my recap, saved for Part V for a reason.

Let’s just focus on the Vesey Street Stairs. Yay, some people survived!

And let’s go on to a spot where the good guys were the terrorists…

Boston

Our last day was in Boston. The timeshare agreement only allowed for five nights in New York and, dammit, we have a week’s worth of grandma babysitting, so we ain’t going back a moment too soon. So let’s hit that other New England city. After all, I used to watch a lot of ESPN, and as far as they’re concerned, they are equal and the only two cities that matter in the entire American landscape.

Speaking of the four-letter, I drove through Bristol, or at least nearby. It’s halfway between New York and Boston, if that helps you understand the focus of the four-letter. I’m sure if it were based in Fresno, the A’s-Angels rivalry would be much more pronounced. Then maybe we wouldn’t have the fucking commissioner of baseball saying that the best player in baseball is bad for baseball.

The reason I was driving near Bristol, and not taking the train like a proper Nor-easter (what? That’s only a storm? I can’t use it to describe a people? Fine.) is because I didn’t book the train early enough. I had checked the prices many times back before the trip, but I didn’t buy because it looked like the price wasn’t changing, and I doubted Amtrak was using any of the nasty economic ploys one might expect. For instance, I just checked the rates for a train ride tomorrow from Sacramento to LA, and it’s $57. That’s comparable to what the prices were from New York to Boston when I was checking back in April and May.

But clearly there’s a time warp on the East Coast. Or maybe it’s they have really fucking good cookies on their website. Because when I went to order train tickets when I was in New York, Holy Crap!

The real reason I hadn’t ordered the tickets ahead of time, aside from confidence in cheap availability, is because there were four train trips, each an hour apart from each other, and I wasn’t sure how much our PDT body clocks would have adjusted to the time zone difference, so I thought I’d wait a few days to see how brutal 8:00 AM EDT is.

It turns out 8:00 AM EDT is brutal, but I’m not sure how many New Yorkers are aware of that. I don’t think our clocks ever adjusted. We really didn’t need to. The coasts play off of each other, so even though we’re three hours apart, we don’t really do things that far apart. For instance, that whole “9 to 5” thing? That actually exists on the East Coast. Like, people don’t actually get up and go to work until 9:00 AM. Out here on the West Coast, it’s pretty common for people to roll into work closer to 7:00. The school I teach at starts at 7:20 AM. But there was a donut shop near our hotel that didn’t open until 8:00. Eight? A donut is a breakfast food, right? I think a West Coast donut store that didn’t open by 5:30 wouldn’t be in business very long.

And unless you’er in San Francisco or Seattle proper, we usually try to eat dinner between 6:00-7:00 here on the West Coast, which was not a problem at all, because 9:00-10:00 seems to be prime time for dining in Manhattan. So in the end, my back-home body clock wakes up in the 5:00 hour and trails off into dreamland between 9:00-10:00. So waking up at 8:00 AM and plugging away past midnight seemed perfectly acceptable in our new environment.

At least until we had to wake up at 5:00 AM to be on our way to the airport by 6:00. On a coast where a place that calls itself a Bed and BREAKFAST can’t be bothered to even have coffee brewed by that point. They make timers on coffee pots on the East Coast, too, right? At least because of my faux pas with the train the day before, we had the benefit of driving to the airport instead of taking the T.

Speaking of which, I never finished my train v. car comparison. By the time I tried to book the train, three days before traveling, the price was up to $250. One way! Per Ticket! I checked airplanes, and that would cost around $100 each. The new Amtrak slogan: “Triple the time for triple the cost!”

The rental car cost $63 total, even with us renting it in New York and returning it in Boston. Well, I don’t need to be an AP Economics teacher to know that, of those three options, the train is not the best. But since I am an AP Economics teacher, I might bring up that the variable cost of adding one more train car, and thereby servicing a hundred or more new customers, seems negligible. The benefit of no TSA and not having to drive is not worth paying eight times as much.

So we drove.

Rental

Daughter was very upset that Giraffe wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

Regardless of how we got to Boston, we weren’t going to have much time there. By the time we “checked in to” the B&B (we never saw the owners – they just left a key and some instructions on the front door for us) and took the T down to Boston Commons, it was well past 2:00. And we had Red Sox tickets for 7:00. So after a lunch from the Vietnamese food truck that was a hell of a lot cheaper and a hell of a lot better than the shitty lamb gyro in New York, we did what anybody with only a few hours in Boston should do. We took the Freedom Trail.

At least that’s what I assumed would be a proper American’s first order of business in Boston. Except the first time I was there, I was with some other teachers and we were playing hooky from “further enhancing” an educational conference in Providence. We drove into Boston and went straight to Cheers. That was the one bone the two ladies I was with threw me. But when I found out the Boston Massacre site was only a few blocks away and wanted to go, they wrinkled their noses. They were in a brand new city, filled with wonder and personality and architecture. Why would they want to go to some stupid “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” site? (Actual quote)

So we settled for Harvard. Fine, I figured, we’re teachers, let’s go to Harvard. We did one circle around the campus, or really one “quick glance at the quad,” then went into Harvard Square. Harvard Square has a bunch of shops. And while I found a kinda cool book store, where did my fellow conference attendees go? The Body Shop. You know, the one with the scented soaps and shit? The one that’s in every mall in America? Yeah, they spent a fucking hour in there. Because of course, when you’re in a new city, filled with wonder and personality and architecture, why would you go to a rather specific site where one of the quintessential acts of the American Revolution happened, when you can get lavender-scented soap at a “Buy One, Get One Ten Percent Off” deal?

Just as Benjamin Franklin would’ve wanted it.

I’ve returned to Boston a few times since then and finally did the Freedom Trail properly. Including Lexington, spot of the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Concord, the spot of the first official battle (a couple hours after Lexington). Both towns have the battle spots still as they appeared 240 years ago. With visitor’s centers and shit. Pretty fucking awesome if you can get twenty miles out of town. When we transitioned from train to car, I thought about diverting wife there, but the Red Sox weren’t waitin’ for no one that night, so we bypassed the best addendums to the Freedom Trail.

But this was wife’s first Boston foray, and we only had a couple hours, so it’s time to follow the yellow-brick sidewalk.

That was somewhat literal. If you haven’t done the Freedom Trail before, it’s about as dumbshit-proof user-friendly of a tourist attraction as you’re liable to find. There’s a yellow line that goes through a good portion of the town. It’s embedded into the brick sidewalks for most of its path, it crosses the street when it needs to. And there are plaques along the way. Look honey, “One if by Land, and Two if by Sea.” And the act of self defense that was sold as a Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Except last time I did the Freedom Trail, I feel like I got a lot more context. I remember anecdotes about British soldiers quartering themselves in people’s homes, so those colonists had to camp out at Boston Commons. Or maybe the British garrisoned at Boston Commons after the Boston Tea Party. Regardless, that’s where the Third Amendment, America’s second-most forgotten amendment (I’m looking at you, Eleventh) came from. On my last Freedom Trail jaunt, there was also derisive disdain for Paul Revere, who didn’t even deliver his fucking message but still took credit for it because he ran a newspaper, the same newspaper that dubbed the riot a massacre.

Okay, so maybe the fun little anecdotes didn’t really stick with me as much as they ought to have, but I at least remember getting them.

So maybe I was taking a tour? But I don’t think so, because I was visiting a friend who lived in Boston. And I don’t think she told me all of those stories. Maybe Paul Revere, but I don’t think she went into the Third Amendment. So I kinda think I was listening to some pre-recorded thing.

I must have been listening to an audio tour. And this was back before mp3’s and ubiquitous listening devices. So maybe I rented one of those old-timey listening sticks.

And it turns out that there is an audio tour now. Unfortunately, you have to download it before you arrive. The info we saw said it wouldn’t work to download it straight to your phone – you have to go the mp3-to-iTunes-to-phone route. Maybe that info was outdated, because I remember getting books on CD that had to work that way. But most phones produced this decade can bypass that route. But maybe it’s intentional on the Freedom Trail. I assume they’re trying to replicate the difficult technology problems of the Revolution. We all know that the war dragged on for six years because Washington only had 3G technology to text out his battle plans, right?

So instead, wife and I just walked a few blocks and saw some cool brick buildings. And a cemetery with a bunch of faded tombstones. Very historic. One of them housed a Chipotle, which I can only assume is the very same Chipotle that the John and Sam Adams met at before the Boston Tea Party.

And of course we saw the cemetery, because that’s a happy way to start any trail. Seriously, Boston, I know you can’t go all Poltergeist” and “You moved the bodies, but not the souls,” but why the hell do you start the Freedom Trail with a cemetery? I’d be a hell of a lot more impressed if John Hancock had signed his own tombstone.

I also remember something about Crispus Attucks, the first victim of the non-massacre, being buried here. Or maybe he wasn’t buried here because he was African American? I can’t remember. If only I had an audio tour.

We ended at Faneuil Hall, which I remember as a natural stopping spot when walking the Freedom Trail. There’s like ten “stops” within five blocks of each other. Then, I think, it’s a seventy-five mile hike to the next spot. Yeah, I get that the Battle of Bunker Hill wasn’t really fought on Bunker Hill, but I don’t need to hoof it halfway to Maine to verify that.

Plus, I was too pissed to continue. Why? Because at Feneuil Hall, they had a whole bunch of random slightly-patriotic shit for sale. Huzzah, America! And one particular display featured this:

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TEA? In Boston? The Audacity! Don’t they know their history? We dumped all the fucking tea in the harbor so we wouldn’t have to drink that British shit anymore. Sell some goddamn American coffee here, dammit! USA! USA!

So we “finished” the trail, and made sure to do the other properly American thing to do in Boston. Giraffe had to pose in front of Cheers. We didn’t go in, because as I discovered on my first trip to Boston, the inside looks nothing like the TV show and was very disappointing. There is another Cheers in town that was built to look like the TV Show set, but it wasn’t built until the show was off the air. And I didn’t find that out until my third trip to Boston. But the TV-set lookalike was closed the day we were visiting. So sorry, no shots of Giraffe sitting in Norm’s spot.

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In the end, Wife liked Boston. It definitely felt more laid back, and more comfortable for these two California-suburb dwellers, after five days of the hustle and bustle of a city where people spend ninety million dollars and still have to exit their apartment onto a street with a shit-ton of people who haven’t bathed in weeks. Boston Commons feels like you could sit back and read a book. Central Park feels like you better be fucking doing something, or on the way somewhere, or else why the fuck did we build this fucking park for you? And, hey look, there’s the Dakota building!

 

We ended our day in Boston, and our trip to the Northeast, with a trip to Fenway Park. My Angels were in town, and when I bought the tickets, their season and their likelihood of winning this game, or really any game, was not so farcical. By the time the game rolled around, I told my wife that it might get ugly, early. And it did. The Red Sox slapped the Angels around like they were playing a different game. The pitcher, who had only been called up a few starts ago, got as absolutely lit up as one would expect when a AAA pitcher faces a first-place lineup. He didn’t make it out of the second inning.

But the fun didn’t end there. The perfect bookend to our trip happened the next morning. After we got our asses up at oh-dark, left the B&B with very little B and not a sniff of B, who did we see boarding the same United flight to Los Angeles as us? It looks like… well, let me just pull up the apps to check the tattoos and… Why, it was the Angels pitcher from the night before! Well, I’ll be damned. I guess Los Angeles is the transfer point to get ballplayers back to Salt Lake, where the Angels have their AAA affiliate. And all of a sudden, I feel bad for this guy. Twelve hours before, I was cussing him out and saying he better re-think his fucking career because his pitching was a fucking joke. And now I’m thinking, aww, poor guy, he finally got his dream to pitch in the majors and now he’s being sent back down to AAA on the next fucking flight.

Turns out it was neither scenario. He went on the disabled list with an “inflammation of the elbow.” And now I’m back to pissed at him. His elbow seemed fine. Maybe he should have his neck looked at because he had to keep watching all the laser-beam home runs he was serving up. Go back to tha Minors, ya bum!

At least he got to ride first class.

New York, Part IV

Day Four of my New York recap. It’s Times Square Day!

Times Square

Not that we only did Times Square once. We hit it multiple times.

I read a travel guide that said don’t bother going to Times Square unless you’re doing Broadway. Otherwise it’s just a festering pool of humanity. However, we were doing Broadway. But yeah, it’s a festering pool. One thing I didn’t mention below that I never quite understood: there are bleachers at the north end of Times Square that people sit in. I can’t tell why they’re sitting there. It looks like there should be a performance going on in front of them or something, but there’s not. I assume they want a better view of Times Square, but it’s kinda hard to NOT see Times Square. I don’t imagine sitting ten rows up makes all that much difference.

Oh well. On to the stuff I wrote during the trip:

Three Broadway Shows

We saw three, count ’em, THREE Broadway shows over the course of the five nights we were there. Okay, technically one of them was deemed “off-Broadway,” but if it’s in the city of Manhattan with equity-earning actors, I’m calling it Broadway. We picked all three of them using the time-tested “what’s half-off at TKTS” method. Like real New Yorkers. So don’t expect any reviews of “Hamilton” or “Frozen.”

Although, holy crap, when did Broadway become all Disney? In addition to “Frozen” and the currently-longest running “The Lion King,” there was “Aladdin” and “Anastasia.” “Beauty and the Beast” wasn’t currently running, but I know that’s a thing. We’ve done a full one-eighty circle from the 1950s, when the successful stage shows became movies.

But let’s focus on the shows we actually saw:

The first show was the off-Broadway one. We saw “Avenue Q” at the New World Stages. I saw “Avenue Q” pre-wife when it came to Sacramento. There were many, many complaints, because the typical Sacramento theater-goer only wants to see the same ten shows repeated once every three years. And when something new comes along, that means “My Fair Lady” has to wait a fourth year before returning, and we can’t be having that. If you add in bad words and/or, I don’t know, puppet sex, you can assume every blue-hair in the audience will be writing a sternly worded letter to the editor. So if wife wanted to see it, and ain’t no way it’s ever coming back our way. So it was resolved that, if “Avenue Q” was at TKTS (and let’s be honest, “Avenue Q” is ALWAYS gonna be at TKTS), then that’s the show we would see our first night in New York.

The show was fun. Wife is now happy she’s seen it and will have some context when those songs come up on my iTunes. Not that you need much context for a song titled “What do you do with a BA in English?” And “The Internet is for Porn” is the most self-explanatory songs ever.

But the coolest thing about this show was the venue. Note the plural in the name New World Stages. Because there were multiple plays going on at the same time at this venue. You walk into a fairly non-descript storefront and immediately descend two or three levels of stairs/ramps. For my first night in New York, I immediately assumed we had been led astray and were going to a sex dungeon instead of a Broadway show. It’s in Hell’s Kitchen, after all, and Daredevil fights sex dungeons ALL the time.

Unfortunately, it ended up being a Broadway show.

But not just one Broadway show. There were at least four shows going on at the same time. And by the same time, I don’t mean “at intervals throughout the day.” No, I mean that at least three of the shows were starting at more or less the same time. When we got to the bottom, there were ushers like at a movie theater: “Avenue Q?” First door on your left. “Puffs?” Second door on your right. “Jersey Boys” and “Imbible,” around the corner.

By the way, “Imbible” sounds fun. On night three, it was a toss-up between that and the show we actually saw. I think the show we saw was more entertaining, but “Imbible” would’ve given us free booze.

The theaters were smaller than one would expect in New York, but it’s still impressive to fill many shows nightly. Must be some damn good sound insulation in those walls. It IS a sex dungeon!

It appears their one major rule is that the plays couldn’t have intermission at the same time. Don’t let the “Avenue Q” perverts out at the same time as the squeaky-clean Harry Potter nerds watching “Puffs.” No co-mingling, no sneaking into “Imbible” to get the free drinks they give out. No crossing the streams.

Speaking of which, here’s one glance at the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Giraffe:

Stay Puft

The effect of staggering the intermissions was that our play was rewritten to extend the first act and tighten the second act. At first I thought I was going crazy, thinking “I swear this song/plot point was in the second act before” or “I really don’t remember this dragging so much” and eventually even “Did they just get rid of the intermission?” But when we finally were released into the wild, ushers were standing there with signs that read “Please be quiet. Other shows in performance.” Then it made sense. It’s probably a lot easier to re-arrange puppet sex scene than to have Frankie Valli’s daughter die in the first act.

Oops, spoiler alert! For an event that happened in 1980.

Margaritaville

On night two, we opted for “Escape to Margaritaville.” Long-time readers of this blog (Hi Mom!) know that I am something of a Parrothead. Jimmy Buffet’s songs, and the lifestyle they represent, are a little slice of wannabe reality for me. I also think he’s a hell of a wordsmith and has a fair assessment on what really matters in life. So when we heard that there was a musical featuring his music on Broadway, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Until the show got totally panned. There were reports about it playing before half-filled crowds and getting shut out of the Tonys and that it was going to wrap up production on July 1, about three to five years earlier than planned. So I started having second thoughts about seeing it in New York. Allegedly it had done wonderfully in San Diego and New Orleans (no surprise), but the stodgy Broadway crowd didn’t find it appealing (less of a surprise). So, even if I might like it on its own merits, do I wanna see it amongst a crowd of the unimpressed when I could just wait for it to go on tour and see it with a bunch of fellow Parrotheads?

So after six months of “Escape to Margaritaville” being at the top of our list, a couple of weeks before we went to New York, we swapped it with “Avenue Q,” for the reasons stated above. If we made it to a second show, we might go the Jimmy Buffett route. Although, truth be told, I was leaning a different direction when we were standing in the TKTS line. Because I really was worried about being disappointed. I remember all too well being annoyed when they failed to market the Billy Joel musical as a ballet, because the people on stage only sing, they only dance.

But wife chose the tickets on day two, so we hit Margaritaville.

I’m glad we did. It was a fun show. Not bad knowing ninety percent of the words before the show even starts. Although, to the dude sitting in front of me, that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to sing along to every fucking song. You know those people up on the stage are, like, professional singers who are getting paid to do this, right?

Plot was pretty straight-forward. No real shocks. Uptight, workaholic woman takes her friend, who’s about to get married to an asshole, to an island resort. They both fall in love with workers at the resort.

Astute Parrotheads could spot most of the Easter Eggs in the first scene of the play. Hmm, the old dude is drinking a green label. I bet he, I don’t know, went to Paris at some point in his life. And they’re drinking “good red wine” out of a tin cup. And I’m sure the “Volcano” on the center of the island isn’t going to erupt with a series of “I Don’t Know”s.

At least the characters were way more likable than “Mama Mia.” Oh holy crap, the first time I saw “Mama Mia,” I tweeted out at intermission that it was like a bad episode of Maury Povich, except that I didn’t care who the father was. So glad they’re making a sequel to that piece of garbage.

And of course, ABBA music doesn’t hold a candle to Jimmy Buffett music. Sorry, Norway.

They tweaked around a couple of songs to fit the plot or the more modern setting. Most still kept the feeling or mood of the original song, with the exception of the one they tweaked the most, “It’s My Job.” The original song is about working hard and taking pride in what you do, even if it’s not a glamorous job. “Escape to Margaritaville” turned it into the workaholic woman whining about why she can’t turn off her desire to be number one. It went from being a working class anthem to a song about the 1%.

They also changed my favorite line in “A Pirate Looks at 40.” I don’t care if “I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast” doesn’t fit four people nowhere near Miami, it should’ve stayed in there.

So all in all, I’m glad I went. And I’ll probably still see it again when it tours nearby.

Oh and, hey, “Escape to Margaritaville” did set one Broadway record: most alcohol sold on opening night. I guess the people that paid $10,000 to see “Frozen” on opening night weren’t the “three margaritas at intermission” types.

I was going to reference the people who saw “Hamilton” on opening night, but that musical shocked everyone. There was virtually no demand for it at first and it has moved three times to bigger and bigger theaters.

Play

Our final show was Sunday night, which didn’t leave many options. That’s okay, though, because the show we had unofficially pegged at third (Hell, I would’ve picked it before Margaritaville) was playing Sunday night. We hit the Times Square TKTS booth ten minutes before the show started and got two of the last tickets available. We’re damn near locals at this point!

“The Play That Goes Wrong” had an interesting premise. You see, it’s a play, but get this… it goes wrong! Not sure if you caught that from the title. The synopsis talked about the set falling apart and whatnot. I expected it to be a farce, and I like farce. Jack Tripper was my hero growing up. That probably explains a lot. I’ve even acted in some community theater-level farces before, so I really wanted to see how Broadway compared.

Oh holy crap. I don’t think I’ve laughed that solidly since… I don’t know, the first time I saw “Airplane!”?

The play “starts” before it really starts. Two “techies,” clad in black, are “fixing” a couple of things on the set. The door won’t close, so he keeps pushing it closed. The mantle keeps sliding down. The female techie is too short to hold the mantle in place, so she picks someone from the audience. Audience member holds it up in place, then she just walks away. Other tech comes, chats with audience member. Audience member nods, let’s go on mantle, walks off stage to applause from rest of audience. As soon as he resumes his seat, mantle falls again.

Ah, so it’s going to be prat falls and physical comedy. Lady behind me, who I can only assume bought tickets even later than us, is unimpressed. “Oh, is this going to be one of those stupid plays where they do stuff nobody ever does? This is lame.” Well shit, I thought, I really don’t want to have to turn around and explain what live theater is. But guess what? Within two minutes of the show starting, the only fucking peep I heard out of her the rest of the night was her laughing her ass off.

Tech addresses audience before the play “starts,” asks if anyone’s seen his “Best of Duran Duran” CD. He then takes his place in the balcony to run the “sound board.” Needless to say, half the sound cues “accidentally” start off as Duran Duran songs. An actor says the storm’s coming in, and the first few chords of “Girls on Film” play, before the tech scrambles to push the correct “thunder” button. These types of callbacks went on throughout the play.

When the “play” actually starts, of course the door that wouldn’t close all of a sudden doesn’t open. So the actors who are trying to get in do what anyone else would do in that situation: they go around the set wall and just walk in from stage left. And it’s already begun, because the whole point of this play is that the actors are pretending that the stuff isn’t going wrong. Did I mention I’ve been in community theater productions before? So maybe I was a bit more susceptible to some of the laughs. Because when he says he needs to get the pencil from the desk and there’s no pencil, he just grabs the key and hopes nobody notices. And when, two minutes later, another character comes in looking for the key, well…. Of course, in community theater, I would find the pencil off stage, so that I had it in the next scene if I needed it. Not in “The Play That Goes Wrong.” One scene later, he’ll be using a key to “write” in the vase that was the only thing left on the table when he went to grab the notebook. The notebook, naturally, was used to unlock a door.

And of course, the missed cues and forgotten lines. Again, I’ve been there. Nothing’s worse than your fellow actor stare at you, open-eyed, on stage in the middle of a performance. The universal sign for “Oh, shit, I forgot my next line.” Then it’s on everyone else on stage to make do without that character, or to give that actor a subtle cue without being obvious, or maybe jump ahead to an easy jumping on point, or, worst of all, to ad-lib. I think “The Play That Goes Wrong” did each of those at least once. They also called for “Line” when the Duran Duran-listening techie isn’t even following along in the script. “I don’t know where the hell we are,” the techie says and, of course, the actor repeats that word-for-word. And, of course, it kinda fits what’s going on in the play right then.

I don’t want to delve too deeply, because I could probably proceed to spoil every single joke. But just look at this Giraffe selfie and note that everything on the set, including the set itself, will come into play. See that “Second Floor”? Yeah, that’s not long for the world, either.

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All I know is I was very happy we decided to return for one more evening of theater, and even, GASP, see a non-musical on Broadway. And I’m also glad we saw this in New York, because as I said, I’ve seen community theater farces, and this show could be really, REALLY bad in the wrong hands. But, oh hey look at this… They’re going on tour with the same set? They’ll be in Los Angeles next Summer? You don’t say…

Disney Store, Hershey Store, M & M Store

After “Escape to Margaritaville,” we found ourselves in Times Square on a Friday night, so we figured we’d do the whole “Times Square on a Friday Night” thing. And no, that didn’t mean picking up a transvestite hooker. At least not this time. Besides, I think that’s Thursday’s du jour.

In 2018, the only way to properly “do” Times Square is with unbridled, neon-infused consumerism.

On somewhat of a lark, when we saw the orgy of capitalism in front of us, I joked to my wife that we should go check out the Disney Store to buy the same crap that we could get at any mall back home, albeit with some additional service charge for being in Times Square. Evidently wife thought that was a capital idea, because the next thing I know, I’m surrounded by Belle and Rapunzel and some transvestite hooker screaming, “I didn’t say she was crazy, I said she was fucking Goofy.”

In this particular sojourn’s defense, this Disney Store did in fact have a few items specific to its prime real estate location. Directly as you enter, you see a full display of Mickey Mouse Statue of Liberty shirts and plushes and totes. Next to them are some “I Heart NY” items with Mickey’s silhouette in the heart. the other 95% of the store, as predicted, is the exact same as every other Disney Store. Okay, so maybe we can get one New York-specific item for the toddler we left at home with Grandma and then we’ll be on our…

What’s that? An alleged one-day only sale? Buy six items and get 26% off? Well shoot, I guess I can… Wait, SIX fucking items?

So for the next half-hour, we’re scrounging every corner of the store looking for the best deals. We were stuck on three items for a long time. And wife was not interested in my argument of “You know, if we only buy three items, it’s fifty percent off.” So sometime around midnight, we finally found enough trinkets to make the one New York item we bought cost slightly less. We got in line and wife decided to buy a couple more items in the impulse-buy area. Good thing the sale was for six OR MORE items.

Our next stop was the Hershey Store. And HELLO, I’M HOME!!! Wow, if I had known this little slice of heaven was so close by, I might’ve let wife peruse Walt’s empire on her own. This place had it all. Mini size, regular size, king size. Flavors that don’t exist elsewhere. Did you know they make pina colada Kisses? I don’t care if that’s getting us closer to Peak Coconut, it’s going in my belly.

They also had a whole line of Reese’s clothing. And a shit-ton of products that I had no idea were produced by Hershey. Like Reese’s. And those Brookstone chocolate-covered berries. And that new Chocolate Bark. And Jolly Ranchers. Plus good old fashioned candy bars like Whatchamacallit and Mr Goodbar.

Oh, Mr Goodbar, how I miss you at all of the times of the year not named Halloween. And I forgot they made Mr. Goodbar in any size besides mins. Speaking of candies I forgot about, is that a king size Whatchamacallit? For sharing? Oh, I think not.

And do you want to know what Hershey’s Chocolate World had that the Disney Store didn’t? Bakeries. That’s right, plural. They had one bakery in the back that was making giant s’mores sandwiches. And then over on the side, they had a bakery with different types of cookies and brownies and the like. I bought a Reese’s Peanut Butter Blossom Cookie that was simply divine. It took me two nights to finish it, and even after it had cooled off, its crumble was still a masterpiece.

You know what? I’m getting hungry. Let me just go on to the third Times Square stop:

The M& M Store. Crap, that’s not going to help my hunger.

Except, actually, it is. Because after the Hershey experience, I was sorely disappointed by the M&M store. I know M&M/Mars is responsible for almost as wide an array of candies as Hershey. Certainly I’d find all manner of Snickers and Twix and Skittles, right? I once saw a hazelnut Snickers in Australia, It was wonderful, but I’ve never seen it in the States. Maybe it’ll be at M & M World, like a king size, pina colada Whatchamacallit.

Nope.

But that’s okay. Certainly they’ll have some mix-and-match Skittles. Those new sour ones are really tasty.

Nope.

Okay, but I bet that Twix cookie from the bakery will just taste… Hmm, there’s no bakery.

So what, you may ask, do they have at M & M World? Clothes. And a few plushes. And maybe a towel or two.

They’re all very colorful. But my daughter doesn’t quite identify with the cute, anthropomorphized characters from the M & M commercials the way she does Mickey Mouse. My niece might have when she was younger, but that’s only because her initials are M.N.M., so my sister got her a bunch of M&M stuff when she was a child. But that seems a tad too focused of a marketing strategy. Kinda like this birthday card:

I mean, how many people outside of Arkansas have a wife/mother.

Sorry, Mars, but you’re about a century behind Disney in the whole co-opting of childhood thing.

Oh, and a lot of those commercials are actually catered to adults. And air during adult programming. Which might explain the mode age in the M & M World being a 22-year old female. Hey, so is my niece!

There were, at least, plenty of M&M’s for sale, many in colors and mix-and-match options that aren’t available in the real world. But that clearly wasn’t the focus of the store. There was also a place to stamp your own M&M’s. You could put one of about five pre-written messages, like “Happy Birthday” or “Getting Married,” or else a letter other than M. The line looked about an hour long, so no thanks, I guess I don’t need to put “W” for Wombat on some M&M’s. I guess I’ll just turn my next M&M upside down.

At least Giraffe found something he liked:

M & M

New York, Part III

Read Part I and Part II, if ya want. Or read the Cliff’s Notes:

Wife and I spent five days in New York in June. It took me a while to write it all up. If you close your eyes and squint really hard, you can pretend this is a live blog. Just don’t look up when the New York Pride Festival was…

Food

How the hell did I make it to day three of updates before I mentioned food? I’m disgusted with myself. Who the hell cares how I GOT to New York? All that matters is I ate there. And might as well start from the beginning, which was also the low point.

I’m horrible at making decisions. Blame it on being a Libra, I suppose. I’m usually okay narrowing a choice down to two or three options, but from there it’s a non-stop back-and-forth of the pros and the cons. And if/when I’m finally forced to make a decision, it’s buyer’s remorse the entire way.

I think the “Freakonomics” podcast did an episode on this phenomena. The takeaway was to take away choices. People say they want to have a choice, but are almost always less satisfied with their experience if they were given a choice. If you don’t know what the alternatives were, you’ll make the best of the situation. Subway sounds fine if I didn’t know Five Guys was an option. But if I chose Five Guys, I’m spending all of lunch checking my phone for the specials at Subway, even if I haven’t voluntarily eaten at Subway in years.

Regardless, by the time we got to our hotel, after one hour of sleep on a redeye, with bodies feeling like it was breakfast time despite the clock and world saying lunch, we knew that we needed to eat before we did much else.

Oh, and we wanted to see Central Park first.

So I checked Yelp for anything in Central Park. I found one that seemed to have an okay aggregate score. Even better, it didn’t look like there were any other options short of mortgaging the house for Tavern on the Green, so boom. No shifting back and forth between different reviews, no half-hour spent trying to figure out what I want. Let’s just head straight there.

And ignore some of those reviews that say, “Great view, mediocre food.”

My review? To call the food mediocre is being generous. And the view was… I mean, it was Central Park, but… meh.

Central Park1
(The view was not as nice as this)

Well shit, this isn’t gonna do fuck-all for my propensity toward analysis paralysis. The few times I pick the first option, I get burned. Wade Boggs never swung at the first pitch, meaning that pitchers had caught on and were throwing the first pitch right down the middle and getting a free strike. A manager once told him he needed to swing at the first pitch to keep them honest. He swung at the first pitch and hit a weak groundout. He never swung at the first pitch again.

So after figuratively swinging at the first pitch, and ending up with the culinary equivalent of that groundout to second, where’s my next destination? We need to go to TKTS in Lincoln Center. Any guess how many restaurants were on that route? Good restaurants with happy people eating tasty-looking food? Wonderful ambiance, with beer and wine? Oh, I’d say a thousand. Or so it seemed. And they all looked a hell of a lot better than the lackluster meal we just ate.

You’re right, Wade Boggs. I’m never doing that shit again. Did I mention Boggs hit over .300 even with that free strike he gave pitchers?

But, like Wade, we got more hits than whiffs in our New York career. (Double-checking Boggs’s Yankee stats and…. yep). In fact, other than the first lunch and a lamb gyro from a cart in Times Square (really? $18? Maybe you should have the price written somewhere or communicate it ahead of time, cause I wouldn’t have bought that shit if I knew I’d only be getting two dollars back.), every other meal was good.

Two places stick out: On the first night, fresh off our Central Park faux-pas, we went to Becco in Hell’s Kitchen. Again, I had found it online, but this wasn’t an instant Yelp check, I had researched it before we left California. That being said, I still worried when the cab drove by ten to twenty good-looking spots en route. Who knew Hell’s Kitchen was such a culinary hotspot? My only cultural reference to Hell’s Kitchen prior to this trip was Daredevil comic books. And the Gordon Ramsey TV show, but I don’t think that’s intended to be literal.

But while I’m sure that Cajun Italian place is wonderful, there’s no buyer’s remorse this time. Becco was wonderful. We felt more confident in our decision as soon as we arrived. The wait list was overflowing wait list and no, they could NOT moveour 6:30 reservation up to 6:00 because we “happened to” there early in an attempt to make our show. They’re in the theater district. Do you think you’re the first try-hards to hocus pocus that particular bullshit?

becco.jpg

At Becco, their specialty is daily pasta dishes. There are three of them. And here comes the kicker: I didn’t have to choose between them! You get all three. And ALL YOU CAN EAT! Let me repeat that: Three different all-you-can-eat pastas, changing daily. Why do they even need to print the rest of the menu?

The night we were there, they had a spaghetti in tomato sauce. Just plain ol’ spaghetti. Guessing they have to have something run-of-the-mill each night. It was fine. Nothing to write home about. Definitely not going to cede any more of my dwindling stomach space to it. Not when there’s…

An artichoke ravioli in a light cream sauce. Now we’re getting somewhere. The ravs were a bit too big, but my family’s Piedmontese, and from what I can tell, everyone else considers our ravioli to be Mini Coopers. Size notwithstanding, the flavor was very good. I flagged the guy walking around with ravioli refills over once and was happy to do so. So long as it didn’t take up the third corner of my plate, where I had fenced-off a permanently vacant lot of real estate so that it would be ready for the return of the…

Penne pasta with short rib ragu. Oh my freaking lord. It’s been a month and I’m still dreaming of this dish. To be clear, wife is absolutely not a fan of short rib, and she thought this dish was wonderful, too. If there was short rib on a menu and she wasn’t forced to have it in order to get at the ravioli, it never would’ve touched her plate. And now even she is craning her neck around to find the refill guy. So imagine her husband, who likes short rib under normal circumstances, sitting across from her, salivating over the remaining portion on her plate since he’s already devoured his portion and is now just swirling around the pomodoro in a holding pattern.

And let me tell you, that short rib ragu guy was the one circling the least often. It always happens that way, doesn’t it? Like the sausage and pineapple guy at the Brazilian ststeakhouse. No thanks, chicken dude. There’s a reason your sword is still ninety percent full and it ain’t your lack of salesmanship.

So yeah, spaghetti dude passed by four times and every time, we responded with, “No thanks, but if you see the short-rib guy…” When the messiah finally returned, he had to weave his way through the ravenous beasts throughout the entire restaurant. Beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. When our hero finally emerged from the tumult and the travesty, he scarcely had a smittance of his holy grail full. But it was enough.

And fuck all of you patrons with the audacity to sit behind me. Just keep scooping, pasta boy, don’t look at them. What did I tell you about eye contact?!?

The other major culinary win for us was going to be a win whether the food was worthwhile or not. Because HISTORY!  I decided long ago that the next time I went to New York, I would dine at Lombardi’s Pizza. Not because it’s named after a famous street in San Francisco, but because it is, officially, the first pizzeria in the United States. It might not actually be. But it’s got a fancy plaque out front and, more importantly, it’s been featured on the History Channel, which is where all proper Americans get their historical knowledge. And alien conspiracies. I mean, who cares if Paul Revere didn’t actually complete is midnight ride and it was actually William Dawes who delivered the “Regulars are coming.” Dammit, “America: The Story of Us” claimed it was Revere saying “The British are coming,” so that’s how it fucking happened. It is not for us to question what the alien overlords tell us. After all, they built the pyramids.

But Lombardi is credited as the first, and furthermore, they own up to that. So to Lombardi’s we go. Even if I’m not a fan of thin-crust, and if their aversion to shredded cheese seems downright communistic.

Lombardi

But I’ll be dammed, it was fucking good. The crust was what my wife described as “the perfect amount of fluff.” Odd, because Lombardi allegedly trained most of the early pizza chefs and is considered the godfather of that “calling it cardboard-thin is an insult to cardboard” New York-style pizza. I mean, if the guy and the place who invented it thinks dough is not a bad thing, why does the rest of the city want it to be the consistency of a Saltine?

And the no-shredded cheese? Okay, that fucking WORKED. I know real mozzarella is a tender cheese. And I know that the shredded mozzarella that you buy in the store is just an overly-processed facsimile of what it’s really supposed to be. But at the same time, a pizza with strips of mozzerella placed throughout its circumference going to leave some cheeseless territory, like when I attempt cheese toast in the toaster oven. And you need cheese in every bite, right? Otherwise it’s just tomato bread. I can’t be the only one who shudders when a cheeseless pizza is an option on some menus, right? Because without cheese, it’s just bread. The cheese is what MAKES IT PIZZA.

But my worry was unfounded. It turns out that there is enough cheese to go around. I don’t think I took any cheeseless bites, and if I did, there was at least enough going on with the other stuff. And the ninety-plus percent of the bites that DID have cheese were divine. Oh my goodness, I didn’t think pizza was supposed to taste this way, this combination of crunchy and pungent and smooth.

The best proof of conversion? I told my wife that I’m making the extra trek to the Italian store to get some real goddamn mozzarella the next time we do a Boboli. Although I don’t feel like Boboli is sufficient for legitimate mozzarella. Because, let’s be honest, Boboli is much closer to French bread than it is to pizza crust. We might have to splurge and get the Pillsbury.

The Pride of High Line

We knew that Pride was going on the weekend we were in New York. It’s kind of hard to miss it. The entire Island of Manhattan was strewn in rainbow. The Night Bus narrator seemed to be surprised by this. I mean, she knew the Pride parade was the following day, because she warned us about the upcoming changes in the bus routes at the end of our ride. But every time we went around a corner and saw a new building. “Oh, and it’s always fun to see how they change the decorations to… hmm… it’s another rainbow…”

So yeah, we knew there was going to be a big parade. Google was even nice enough to tell us the route of said parade. South of Empire State Building, down to Washington Square Park, then over and back up 6th or 7th Ave. At least, I think. This is from memory. New York peeps, does this sound like an accurate parade route, or did I just give directions to some “Wrong Turn” West Virginia cannibals?

We planned to meet a couple of my high school friends who have been living in New York for a few years. We texted each other in the morning about where to meet up. They asked what we were planning on doing that day, we responded with either the Brooklyn Bridge or the High Line or Harlem. I thought they lived in Brooklyn because the husband posts about a lot of Brooklyn breweries. No, they live in very, very north Manhattan. So they tell us there’s a good spot at the southern end of the High Line, and they can take the A Train (cue the Duke Ellington) there. So that’s the plan. I briefly thought about mentioning the Pride parade, but I thought, “Nah, how could they live in Manhattan and not know about the parade?”

Spoiler alert: they knew about the parade, but not its route.

As for the High Line, it was okay. I had been told it was something surreal and sublime. It was, meh, a nice walk.

For those of you who don’t know, the High Line is an old elevated train line that they’ve turned into an elevated walkway. It’s location is awesome. It was for shipping, not for commute, so it’s right along the waterway, which I’m going to guess is the Hudson River, because it’s on the left side if the island, so I’m guessing it’s not named East.

Seriously, New York, why does one river have the name of an explorer and the other is named after a direction? Some consistency, people!

There are plants along the High Line. The sign said something about nature reclaiming civilization, urban jungle, “Life After People” type of plants. I believe some of them are naturally-occurring, but I have to believe a lot of it is planted to look that way.

Highline

Which leads me biggest problem with the High Line. For all of the nods to reclaiming wasted space with an innovative new urban plan, it’s really just an elevated walkway. I assumed I’d be walking along rickety old train tracks a la “Stand By Me.” But for most of the track, they’ve built the walkway to be a foot or two over the train tracks. With the exception of the newest part, where the sign said they are making an effort to let the track still be seen, you would never even know you’re on a train track. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took the train track out for most of the southern half of the trail. Even on the newer parts, where the tracks were still visible, they were enclosed by a large chain-link fence, so there’s still no coming in contact with them. It’s like a zoo where you can see the past, but not really interact with it.

Continuing in my “Stand By Me” let-down, there was also no blueberry pie-eating contest. But there was a person selling ice cream sandwiches at the midway point, and they were abso-fucking-lutely awesome. Totally worth the price of admission. Actually, the price of admission was free, so maybe they were worth the price we paid for the sandwiches.

High Line Ice Cream

We finished our trek a little bit early and meandered through the Chelsea Market. It was pretty much what I thought it would be. Lots of good looking places to have a drink or a bite to eat. This information might have come in handy in a little bit, but it didn’t. Instead, in retrospect, this would be a reverse of that first-day lunch. This time, we passed all the good places to end up someplace very mediocre.

The text came in. “Meet us at the corner of 16th and 8th.” Okay, no problem, we’re on 16th and 9th, so it’s only one block.

Except for the barricade. Oops, the block between where I’m at and where I’m going is blocked off. A cop is only letting people in if they have a wristband. And, despite the fact that I looked NOTHING like I was going to a Pride Parade, the cop would hear nothing of me just wanting to get to 8th Avenue.

Wait, you need a wristband to watch a parade?

No, I would later find out that this block, and the next few, were staging areas for the floats. So the wristband was to get you on to a float. I guess I’m fine with that.

But others weren’t. When I finally made it to my friends on 8th, there were some protesters  walking down the street with signs that said “No Wristbands,” “Allow Everyone.” Clearly I wasn’t the only one who needed to get from 9th Avenue to 8th Avenue and didn’t want to go around. I can only assume that’s what they were protesting, because these guys had to know they could still watch the parade, right?  And that the wristbands were just to get ON a float? Or was this some reverse “Little Red Hen” protest? Without working on or helping build a particular float, they just think anyone should be allowed on any damn float they want? Why even have a parade? Just put the floats on display and have everyone climb all over them like a jungle gym, I guess.

But before that, when faced with the initial barricade, I figured I’d just go around. One block down to 15th Street and… same problem. We doubled back and went up to 17th Street. Well, shit. Finally we heard rumor that 14th Street went through, so a few more steps on the Fitbit and I was finally approaching my friends at the corner of 16th and 8th. Now let’s eat and drink and catch up on the olden…

Oops! The place they wanted to go was behind another barricade, blocking off the next block of 16th Street, where another float was being staged, which would require another wristband. Again, at this point, I’m thinking it’s the actual parade route that’s being blocked off, and I’m thinking this is the most fucked-up, non-inclusive parade ever. They go for a block at a time and don’t let anybody in? Maybe I should join that protest!

With the lunch spot my friends had chosen blocked off, they decided to go up a few blocks, hoping to get away from the crowd. I thought about mentioning the Chelsea Market, but nah, these two are locals and probably have a better handle on where everything is. Chelsea Market looked kinda hipster, anyway.

But the crowd wasn’t thinning out. So the next thought was to go across to the other side of the island. The Little Italy/Chinatown area should be far enough away from the insanity. Again, I thought about mentioning that the parade route was supposed to go right down 5th Avenue, but nah, these two are locals and probably have a better handle on where everything is.

Plus I thought that the parade was going DOWN 5th Avenue, and that the parade was already over. That the blockades and such were at the END of the parade.

Nope.

And… Nope.

We tried to cut across 23rd Street, because certainly Madison Square Park would be accessible, and “Hey, have you guys seen the Flatiron Building?”

“Yes, we have seen the Flatiron and, HOLY CRAP, is that an actual live parade, in progress, down 5th Avenue?”

Yeah, we’re not cutting across to the other side of the island.

All four of us finally come to the conclusion that we should’ve reached from the get-go: Let’s take the subway. Did you know that New York has a rather extensive public transit system?

Of course, the subway stations near the parade are closed, so now we’re huffing back west toward 7th Avenue. Are you tracking this so far? We started at 9th and 16th, we are now near 5th and 23rd, but are doubling back to 7th.

We go down in the first subway station we see, figure we’ll just take the subway a stop or two and figure it out. Of course, it’s a north-south line, not an east-west line, so no going to Little Italy. But as long as we get past Times Square, the city should be somewhat sane. And the first stop past Times Square is… right the fuck in front of our hotel.

But hey, we finally had that beer! At a Whole Foods…

Technically it was an Asian restaurant inside the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. And they didn’t have a bad beer selection. The wine selection wasn’t thrilling my wife, but we’re northern Californians, and it takes quite a bit to thrill us with wine. In fact, the best wines we found were Northern California wines. Oh hey, they have Bogle. That winery’s thirty minutes from my house. 

So to racap: We left our hotel on 57th Street, and they left their home on 180th Street, in order to both meet down on 16th Street, so we could walk another ten-to-twenty blocks, in order to take the subway back to where we had started. In retrospect, we should’ve just walked the Brooklyn Bridge, or, I don’t know, just met them at the Whole Foods in Columbus Circle.

The food at the Whole Foods wasn’t bad, either. And it’s between our hotel and the TKTS, so let’s add one more spot to the list of places we could’ve gone for lunch on day one. Oh, and the place that I was really salivating for after that lackluster lunch? P.J. Clarke’s? Yeah, my friend told me it’s pretty good. I should totally check it out.

Damn you, Wade Boggs!

At least my Fitbit was happy.

As for the Pride Parade, it was more or less the same as those in other major cities. I mean, I only saw one topless woman, so maybe it’s not quite as brash as its West Coast counterparts. I’ve never really understood why that happens. At some point, it was determined that the most appropriate way to celebrate homosexual love is to expose oneself in public. This is particularly true amongst heterosexual women. They’re co-opting this celebration just as they have Halloween.

Oh, it’s time to celebrate? Here are my asscheeks.

Don’t get me wrong. I love asscheeks. And breasts, for that matter. And as a heterosexual male, I gotta be honest that the six-packs on the dudes wearing the mesh shirts are impressive as hell, too. I just don’t know why they necessarily all have to be on display at this particular event.  I worry that, when the dress-up becomes what everyone gravitates toward, the original purpose of the event might get lost. And what happens when Aggressive Hetero Dude-Bro starts to realize that he can ogle attractive females at Pride events? Welcome to Mardi Gras 2.0.

Besides, what the hell do these people do with these outfits the rest of the year? I guess they get put in the same spot in the closet as my Silent Bob and Santa Claus costumes. Probably take up a lot less space, too.

New York, Part II

Find Part I Here.

Part Two of my non-chronological, written-after-the-fact recap of my trip to New York. Today’s focus is on some of the adventures in getting around the island: The Subway and the anathema of every tourist trap, the Hop-on/Hop-off Bus.

Subway

I don’t mean to get all West Coast Snooty here. I know New York is known for its subway. I know you had mass transit a century before we started getting around to it. But damn, BART’s got you beat, hands down.

Sure, BART doesn’t go ninety percent of the places you want to go in the Bay Area and you usually have to drive to a station, thus negating part of its purpose. Then again, the New York system seems to have some pretty major blind spots, too. I thought it would be as ubiquitous as the Underground in London. It is not. Good luck getting west of 7th Ave.

New Subway slogan: Harder to ride than BART and less useful than the Tube!

Seriously though, would it kill you to have more than one sign that says which train is coming next? BART only has one or two lines per station, but they still tell us when the next three trains are coming and where they’re heading. In New York, some stations had a fancy touchscreen directory that you could maybe, hopefully find when and where the next train is, but only after swiping through countless ads and screens not related to subway trains at all and whispering sweet nothings in the directory’s ear and cupping its balls just so. Other stations had one hanging sign, usually all the way down at the end of the track, often turned off. Other stations had abso-fucking-lutly nothing.

However, I like your idea of a local/express option. Locals stop at every stop, expresses only hit the major ones. There’s a lot of times I would like to have my BART train skip all the stupid stations where nobody gets on or off. And when Subway trains were listed as local or express, it was easy enough to figure out. Sure, with no forewarning, you pretty much had to wait till the train was on top of you to figure out if you should board or not, but at least the train itself was (usually) labeled. On the way out to the Mets game, we were told to take the express, and were quite happy to see 80% of the stations going by. On the way back, we couldn’t tell if express trains were running at all, so we boarded a local and took forty minutes to get back.

7-train.jpg

(Speaking of the 7 Train to the Mets game, here’s the only verification that we took public transit. Giraffes tend to get nervous underground.)

But then there are the expresses that aren’t listed as expresses. Rat bastards! The 1, 2, and 3 lines run on the same general track through Manhattan. The 1 Train makes every stop, the 2 and 3 do not. As far as I could tell, that was not designated on any map. Fortunately, some nice locals told us to hop over to the 2 train. Well, they didn’t tell us, because we didn’t ask, because we thought we were pros at this little system after four days. Fortunately there were two other tourists rude enough to ask some locals how to get to Times Square, and the local told them to transfer to the 2 train. I overheard and was rather appreciative.

A couple more things I found odd about the subway. One was the cost. It cost the same whether you’re going one stop or to the end of the line. Boston’s T Line worked the same way. BART works the opposite, where the farther you go, the more you pay. That was great when I was heading to and from the Mets game. But when I only had to go two stops, it was kind of a pain in the ass. Maybe it’s done to discourage laziness. Or maybe it’s done to encourage people to venture out of their comfort zone. From a political economics standpoint, it makes the tax very regressive, not something I would associate with a city that just nominated a socialist. Any time anyone, rich or poor, near or far, pays the same dollar amount, that burden rests more on the poor. I also assume that the rich or middle class are the ones likely to go farther, or to visit lower Manhattan from the far ‘burbs. Whereas the working poor are more likely to only go one stop or two stops, doing groceries or errands.

The last thing I found weird was that people went in and out via the same turnstiles! What sort of chaotic morass is this? BART entries CAN go both ways, but they’re always programmed to go only one direction at a time, and they change based on time of day. In the morning at an inbound station, maybe four of the five turnstiles are for entry, but in the afternoon, they’re showing exit. In New York, they’re all entry and exit AT THE SAME FUCKING TIME!!! The outward direction doesn’t require a ticket (hence the universal $2.75 fee for each ride – they only “charge” at the entry), so the turnstile is always freely flowing in the outward direction. The inward direction is locked until the metrocard is swiped.

Eventually, though, I came to be fine with this. Even maybe preferred it. Obviously, the only time you’re going to have a large influx of traffic is when a train just arrived. And giving them access to all of the turnstiles helps expedite matters. I’m reminded of Oakland A’s games where 30,000 people were just released from the stadium, yet can only use three turnstiles. But under normal times, it wasn’t hard to avoid having two people trying to use the same turnstile in opposite directions at the same time. All you do is look up, see someone approaching one turnstile, and sidestep over to the next one. We do it on the street all the time, right?

Hop-on/Hop-Off Bus

Hop On

I have a love/hate relationship with Hop-on/Hop-Off Busses. They’re something of a necessary evil. Most of the cities they run in are a bit too large, too spread out, too diverse to do piecemeal. If you’re going into a city blind, a quick jaunt around the city is a good way to get the lay of the land, maybe make some plans for the rest of your trip. My wife had never been to New York before, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t just doing the things I wanted to do. So either she reads through seventy-five travel websites, or we do a two-to-three hour circle around Lower Manhattan.

Completely logical. And yet…

It’s hard to not roll your eyes at people espousing how much they know about a place based on their hop-on/hop-off “experience.” Even after I spent the better part of two days riding it, I had to roll my eyes at myself.

And of course, once you’ve bought the 48-hour pass, you’re pot-committed. You can’t do ANYTHING else for the next 48 hours because, dammit, you paid for the damn bus.

An unlimited subway ticket would’ve been more affordable. If only I hadn’t bought the fucking AirTrain ticket instead.

But aside from my general issues with these tour bus companies, there were some rather specific problems with the New York varietal. I went on their website like a good boy. I purchased it online like a good boy. At which point I had to… go down to their primary office in order to stand in line in order to turn the vouchers I just purchased in for actual tickets. The line at the office included people who had already purchased, people who were looking to purchase, and people looking for information. I think there were some Broadway shows being sold there, too.

And no, that last sentence was not for humor and exaggeration. There was some sort of Broadway package being sold in the same place, and in the same line, as the hop-on/hop-off bus.

The end result was a twenty-to-thirty minute wait to get a physical representation of a product I already purchased. Have they not heard of kiosks?

Once I finally got the ticket, I had to walk three blocks to catch the actual bus. En route, I passed maybe ten guys hawking the hop-on/hop-off bus I had just purchased. These guys are as ubiquitous, and as subtle, as the guys in Vegas slapping their hands with strip club advertisements. I assume they must be paid on commission, because they’re fucking vultures. Even when we told them we had already purchased, they only took a step or so back, still watching us warily. They’ve been burned by that line before, like the Girl Scouts at the store who know that the whole “I bought cookies at the office” is complete bullshit. And I can only assume that, had I purchased from one of these guys standing right by the bus, if I would’ve had to walk the three blocks back to the office, and stand in line for a half-hour, with a voucher they had printed.

And speaking of printing the ticket, take a look at how convenient this motherfucker is to carry around a densely-populated metropolis:

And of course, I had to unfurl the whole fucking thing every time I decided to hop back on a new bus. So that they could scan the…

Holy fuck, it’s a goddamned QR Code? Like, one I could very easily have just downloaded to my phone back at the hotel when I purchased the product on their website? When the hell was this business model constructed, 1988?

Once you’re on one of these buses, you’re at the whim of the narrator. Most of them have a live narrator, who speaks into a microphone, that you can listen to by plugging in earphones to the side of the seat. You can also change the channel to listen to a pre-recorded narration in any number of languages. Sometimes the pre-recorded is the better option, because the live narrators are a complete crap shoot.

The first one we had wasn’t too bad. He was a cranky old-timer who started the tour with colorful stories about all of the adult theaters that lined Times Square in the seventies. He then complained about Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, and mocked a guy for liking the look of the latter. On the downside, he had a tendency to get lost in the script and repeat himself. Sometimes it was understandable. He’d say an Empire State Building anecdote when it first became visible, then repeat it again five minutes later when we stopped in front of it.

Empire

But the repeats started coming closer and closer to each other. Shortly before we “hopped off,” (does that sound dirty?), he went overboard, repeating the same sentence, literally word for word, back to back.

I probably should’ve checked him for a stroke. But hey, I gotta get off to see that 9/11 Museum and berate other people’s lack of humanity. I can’t be bothered saving somebody’s life.

There was also a point that we went quite a few blocks without him saying shit. I didn’t notice it at first. Just assumed we had hit one of those spots in Lower Manhattan where there’s nothing interesting. I mean, what the fuck is a flatiron, anyway?

Flatiron

But no, turns out Dude was on his phone. He popped his head back up the stairs to look around a bit. Said something about the intersection of fuckwit and twattle, then popped back down the stairs. Dude was giving directions to someone. After an extended period of time, he got back on the microphone.

“Yeah, so this is Tribeca. Stands for Triangle Below Canal. And Robert de Niro lives right…”

His phone rings and he’s back talking to his buddy. But now his convo is bleeding through the microphone. No. I said twatwit and fuckle. My bus never goes to fuckwit and twattle.

Rather entertaining, but eventually we had to take advantage of the “hopping off” aspect, so we didn’t get to stay long enough for him to rant about all the Chinamen in his fine city nowadays.

We got off at the 9/11 Museum. And at this point, I’ll just say that I did the 9/11 Museum. Not much I can add if I want to stay tongue-in-cheek and/or irreverent. For now, just… wow.

When we jumped back on the next bus, after waiting about forty minutes and seeing three buses from the competitor company, the one that doesn’t advertise itself as “most buses in Manhattan,” drive by, we were relegated to the lower deck with the forty other people who were in line by then. No air conditioning. And for even more “fun,” the new narrator screamed every statement he said, each of which started “Alright, folks, this is…”

Fortunately we weren’t with him very long. But this was the first time I opted for the joy of the prerecorded narration. He was also the narrator that was most adamant about tips.

Our third experience was the Night Bus, which unfortunately did not take us to Hogwarts. But fortunately it was our best narrator. Not the brightest. No real history or architectural knowledge, as prone to distraction as the dog in “UP.” Most of her commentary followed along the lines of “I don’t know why that’s here” or “There used to be another building here” or “A lot of my friends like this pizza place.” Kinda felt like my four-year old was narrating.

But you know what? She was the best narrator we had. Nice and genuine. She started out the tour with a profound statement: Some buildings are really impressive during the day but you can’t even see them at night. Some buildings don’t do anything during the day but light up beautiful at night. And some buildings are wonderful no matter what time of day.

She’s the only one we tipped.

The following day, we took the uptown bus loop. It said it went to Harlem, but that’s being generous. It went just far enough to see the Apollo Theater, then it hightailed itself south like a wave of anti-gentrification, with a cursory announcement about Malcolm X as we skedaddled down the street named after him. Good job, bus company. Wouldn’t want to see where the Cotton Club or the Polo Grounds used to be. Langston Hughes, anyone? Y’all know there’s a huge artistic movement named after Harlem, right? But never mind. There’s the Apollo. Watch out for minorities. And hey, now it’s on to museums for the uber-rich.

The uptown loop also had no live narrator. I think it was supposed to have a live narrator. Other buses we saw had narrators. There was an employee on the bus with us, but he was just checking people’s tickets and playing on his phone while taking up a primo seat most of the time.

And the pre-recorded needs a little help. A bit obsolete. When it was describing the Tavern on the Green, it said it was closed for remodeling. I thought that was odd, because we had seen it our first day, one of the wonderful lunch spots we passed right after our shitty lunch. Then the recording went on to say it would hopefully be re-opened by the summer of 2013.

Hmm…. Might need to stop paying two hundred salesmen throughout the island and update the recording instead.

Also, the narrator changed when we got into Harlem. Not sure if “random white voice” was deemed inappropriate for Harlem. Or if the random white male behind the voice refused to talk about Harlem. Or, more likely, the route has changed since his 2012 recording.

The recording also repeated the same thing on both sides of Central Park, just like the live dude on the downtown loop. And it must’ve said “Watch out for low-hanging trees. Your safety is important to us.” about twenty times.

Maybe HAL was having a stroke. Again, I didn’t bother to check.

Of course, the best part about the uptown loop was getting to re-enact one of the best scenes in cinematic history. I present to you: The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Giraffe!

Stay Puft

New York, Part I

Wife and I went to New York (and Boston) back in June, so what better time for a patented Wombat Travel Blog. In the past, I’ve done this two ways: writing and posting what we did each day (the “Live Blog” approach), and waiting till the end to post one big summary.

This one will be a hybrid. There was a lot to do, little free time, and as an added bonus, this trip was sans in-laws, so it had alcohol! So I’ll be up front and admit that I’m writing a lot of this after I’m already home. And I intended to get it out quicker, but it’s grown past 15,000 words, so that took a while. But I’ll still split it up into five somewhat chronological and/or logical daily(-ish) posts, giving the faux-impression that it’s live. Hopefully it’s no more confusing than my usual fare.

But yeah, I know “Welcome to Margaritaville” has been closed for weeks and Pride happened a month ago.

As background, Wife’s never been to New York. I went there twice before. But the last time I was here, there were two giant identical towers on the southern edge of the island. I’m guessing nothing’s changed since the nineties, right?They don’t randomly, like, build 50-story buildings on a whim, right?

Oh hey, look what’s going up across the street from our hotel:

plane

One more caveat: We left the child at home with the in-laws. She made us take her giraffe stuffed animal with us. So most of our touristy pictures will feature not us, but a stuffed giraffe. Enjoy!

Flight Redeye. Nuff said. We got a “free upgrade” to the emergency exit row. Not sure how, not sure why. They just called our name over the loudspeaker and asked if we’d be willing to open the door if need-be. I said sure. I know they try to sell those seats as an upgrade, so maybe if they can’t sell them, they give them away. But how do you pick the two people in a plane of 150 for the free upgrade.

Even better, we went from the fourth boarding group to the first. More time to get on that midnight flight and promptly fall asleep. Oh crap, I have to stay awake through the drill so I can answer “yes” when the flight attendant asks if I’m willing to open the fucking door. I’ve been through this rigmarole before. You can’t just nod, you have to say “yes.” To prove you know English. Because, as we all know,  “yes” is one of the last words anybody learns in English. It is the true barometer of English comprehension.If you can say the word “yea,” you are certainly capable of following complex instructions while plummeting toward your death amongst 150 other people similarly circumstanced and taking it all wonderfully in stride.

I read a book to keep me awake until the obligatory “yes,” and when I went to put it away, the seatback in front of me was way too far to reach. So I just put the book on my lap. And nothing helps you get to sleep faster than constantly being worried that you’re going to drop your book. Eventually I tucked it in next to my body.

But here’s the rub. If I’m planning on sleeping the whole flight, the extra foot room doesn’t do me much good. If anything, it made it a bit awkward. The seat in front of me will usually prevent me from slumping too much. Without that natural cocoon, I wasn’t really sure how to position my body to get comfortable. Do I sit straight up, with my legs stretched out in front? Do I curl up and tuck the legs under? Do I open my legs in a whore-pose? I didn’t know then and I still don’t know.

Also, my original “ungraded” seat was a window seat. I had booked it that way so I could lean up against the fuselage to sleep. My wife was similarly planning on leaning against me, but now neither of us had support to the side, and instead we both just lie there like a couple of unwrapped mummies. Plus, now I was in the aisle, so any time my elbow went into the aisle, someone brushed against it.

And all of a sudden I was wondering if my original seat was still available. I bet the rat bastards that were originally in this seat paid extra for a chance at sleep! And dammit, the plane didn’t even crash so I didn’t even get to open the door! Of all the luck.

So while I don’t entirely believe in the accuracy of my Fitbit at tracking my sleep when I’m in and out of consciousness, according to it, I slept one hour and three minutes on my overnight flight to New York. Can we say “refreshing vacation?”

At least Giraffe got some sleep:

sleeping.jpg

AirTrain

After we landed, it was a chore just getting to where our New York experience could begin. We had to take the “AirTrain” from JFK airport to the subway station, then ride the subway into Manhattan with somewhere between one and three transfers, depending on how well I’m reading this map. The AirTrain doesn’t really go anywhere other than the subway, but it still is counts as its own entity with an entirely different ticketing system. We waited maybe ten minutes for the first train.

When the train finally arrived, naturally everyone flocked in. Then some dude got off the arriving train and waved us all away from getting inside. He kinda, sorta looked official, because he was wearing a red coat and who would wear a red coat unless it was required by the job? Plus he seemed to have a walkie-talkie sort of contraption.

Anyway, when he comes out of the front of the train and does his big wavy-hand, don’t-go-in-this-train move, some patrons had already started to sneak into the other three doors of the train. So red-coat dude follows some of those patrons in and shoos them back out onto the platform. Like “C’mon patrons, why the fuck would you just be walking onto a commuter train like that? Don’t you know you gotta be invited first?” This maybe takes two to three minutes. Then we’re all standing there in front of an empty AirTrain, doors wide open, wondering if this is some prank.

Dude talks into his walkie-talkie, gets an answer that seems to please him, then announces that this train is going to Howard Beach. Well shit. There are two spots to catch the subway, and Howard Beach was not the subway that would get me to where I wanted to go. In fact, only about ten percent of the people standing around are going to Howard Beach. They get on the train, red-coat dude goes into the train and pushes a button, then hops back out onto the platform with us and sends the poor souls off to their doom.

At least that’s what I’m guessing. It definitely seemed like a super-villain move.

After that, trains started coming more frequently. And I know they started coming more frequently, because I had to wait for three more of them. The next one, red-coat dude announces, is an inter-terminal train, so it’ll only go around in a loop and never make it to the subway station. The next train, wouldn’t you know it, is another fucking Howard Beach one. But at least this time I can verify it because the electronic sign that had previously just said a very ambiguous “Inter-terminal and Howard Beach and Jamaica Station trains all run on this platform” is now actually saying “Approaching train is a Howard Beach train.” That key piece of information was missing for the past fifteen minutes. We had only a red-coated, walkie-talkied dude to base our information on. And I’m not saying I don’t believe him, I’m just saying in this day and age, I believe the HAL that programs the digital instructions sign a little more than a fallible human.

BART always says what train is approaching and how long you have to wait for the one you actually want, by the way. Probably more on that tomorrow.

So twenty minutes and four trains after arriving on the platform, we’re finally on our way to Jamaica Station. Along with a shit-ton of other commuters.

And this is where the fun begins.

There’s no ticket booth at JFK, so you pay when you get off the AirTrain at the subway station. I guess I understand this policy. The inter-terminal train needs to be free, and the government wouldn’t want to make them accidentally pay for something they don’t need, right? Man, the government HATES when people overpay for things. That’s why taxes are so easy to file.

Unfortunately for me, whereas I could have bought at a leisurely pace while waiting the twenty minutes for our train, now all 150 people had to purchase their exit ticket at the exact same time. There were four ticket machines.

Now I’m totally admitting what happened next was my fault. I could have slowly taken my time to ensure I wasn’t making a mistake. I could’ve told all the people jostling for position behind me to go fuck the right off. I should not be susceptible to peer pressure. But I’m also the guy who looks in his rearview mirror every time I have to make a left turn, and if there are cars behind me, I’m gunning a much narrower gap.

So, while puffing out my back to protect myself from the Black Friday crush behind me, I selected which ticket I wanted to buy. I selected AirTrain. The next screen asked if I wanted to buy a discounted 10-trip ticket. With ten people clearing their throats behind me, I quickly thought it would be a good idea. I had just been looking into subway discounts, such as 7-days, unlimited rides for $32. So when I saw “Would you like to buy 10 discounted trips for $25?” I thought, Sure!

Do you see my error? Yeah. I just bought ten trips on the AirTrain, NOT the Subway. Because I’m clearly going back to the airport eight more times in my five days here… Fuck.

Well, I figured, maybe an MTA card is an MTA card and this one will allow me to get into the Subway anyway, right? Wrong. This ticket allowed me to exit the AirTrain portion and not a damn thing more.

So then I had to buy an actual subway ticket to complete my journey. Woo-hoo!  My first hour in New York, I hadn’t even made it outside of a protected environment yet, and I’d already spent a frivolous twenty bucks on something I didn’t even need.

Bring on Saks 5th Avenue!

Cuckoo for Coconut

I really like the latest food fad.

Which worries me. Because a fad is bound to fade. And I don’t want another bacon.

Remember bacon?

Bacon was once a breakfast staple. Then somebody decided to put it on a burger. And it was good. And the world said, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.”

But let’s face it: bacon is awesome. Fat, crunchy, and salty are the cornerstones of any healthy diet.

Sorry, did I say healthy? I meant American.

The real fad part of the bacon journey wasn’t when it took its natural spot atop hamburgers, though. That came in the early aughts, when we started bacon-wrapping everything. Some of it was great. For instance, if you cover your meatloaf with bacon, it protects the outside, and the fat renders down to keep the whole thing moist. Plus the salty and the crunchy still work.

Hell, Emeril Lagasse made an entire career out of it.

But then we went overboard. Some things aren’t meant to be wrapped or rendered in fat. Ever been able to actually eat a bacon-wrapped item on a stick? The bacon loses its structural integrity as soon as you bite into it. Unlike a corn dog, where the rest of the sheath remains intact as you eat it, once you bite into a bacon-wrapped hot dog on a stick, you’re stuck with half a slice of bacon hanging from your mouth (or falling to the ground) with the remaining “entree” being 100% hot dog.

I have yet to meet the french fry that can hold onto its bacon bit all the way to my mouth. And don’t get me started on cheesy fries.

Then we started infusing things with bacon. Of course, to “infuse” something is supposed to mean steeping it in liquid over time. But in practice, it usually just means you add a flavored syrup. With a bacon infusion, you’re losing most of what makes bacon good. The crunchy is gone. The wonderfully-marbled curve of fat, that mouthfeel of heaven, is replaced by a vague smokiness. And I don’t care how many times the Food Network repeats the lie, smokiness and fat aren’t the same taste.

So when you take a shot of bacon-infused vodka, you’re basically just gulping down some alcoholic seawater. I tried a bacon soda once, which I’m pretty sure was just a dirty dishrag strained through a sugar cube.

When Peak Bacon hit, you couldn’t swing a blood pressure monitor without hitting some bacon-flavored contraption. When someone, probably Guy Fieri, proposed bacon-wrapped, bacon-infused bacon, we should have known we’d gone too far.

Remember the chocolate-covered bacon? Yeah, nobody could admit this at the time, but it was never all that good. You never got the proper mixture of the different flavor profiles. It was usually a sweetness on the front, although not too sweet because it was usually dark chocolate, followed by a flood of salt. You never fully got the chocolate flavor, and even the bacon was just lost in the salt. Some brands have forayed back into that realm recently, when you can do it with neither fanfare nor eye-rolls, and I think some of the modern candy bars are getting closer to a proper blend of bacon and chocolate, but it usually needs to be done with bacon bits, not giant strips in the middle.

Of course, I never would have admitted to that opinion back during peak bacon. Saying anything with bacon wasn’t wonderful in 2002 was kind of like admitting to being a communist in 1952. You only did it behind closed doors with people who had sworn a blood oath. Nothing said “Unamerican Activities” more than “it’s a little too much bacon.”

And then, poof, before you knew it, bacon became blase. That bacon-wrapped everything booth at the state fair went from an hour-long line to a walk-up-and-get-it booth. I think the last time I was at the state fair, the deep-fried catfish had a longer wait than the chocolate-covered bacon. Cause deep fried never goes out of style!

All of a sudden, a restaurant that carried more than one bacon item seemed like it was trying too hard. Saying a new bacon idea sounded intriguing became the equivalent of shouting out ‘Murica. If you’re not doing it ironically, you might need an intervention.

That’s the way fads go. Put bacon on your ice cream now, and you might as well be wearing a mullet.

Over the past decade, we’ve had a few smaller food fads, but none of them have approached the bacon craze. They tend to pop up for a season or two then fizzle out. For a little while there, I thought bleu cheese/gorgonzola was poising itself for a breakout. It started popping up in more foods, starting, much like its bacon forebear, in burgers and pastas. Salads started to come with bleu cheese dressing AND bleu cheese crumbles.

But bleu cheese is too intense, too pungent, a flavor for a lot of people. It has a tendency to overpower whatever it is paired with. So does bacon, but maybe we’re learning. Whatever the reason, it never went mainstream. I don’t envision any gorgonzola cookies in the near future. We never bleu-cheese Torani coffee flavoring. No bleu-cheese margaritas, although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it in martinis. Bleu cheese seems to have settled into an accoutrement, slowly expanding its foothold over the past twenty years.

And I’m good with that, because I like bleu cheese and I don’t want it to go away.

A few years ago, New York Magazine predicted that the “next bacon” would be pumpkin. There are certainly some parallels. Pumpkin’s grown from its dessert roots. It went the coffee route instead of the burger route, because tying yourself to an addictive chemical seems a pretty sure bet. I’ve started seeing dinner pumpkin casserole recipes pop up in my social media feed. Last autumn, there were at least three cereals that came out with pumpkin-spice flavors.

But while I can see pumpkin extending its autumn empire more, I can’t imagine it expanding its borders to become a year-round flavor. It’s a hundred degrees where I live right now. When my armpits and crotch are setting new world records in the World Cup of Moisture,  a nutmeg and clover-flavored squash sounds about as appealing as an adult diaper. For dinner.

Which leads us to the current trend. I wrote about it a little bit in my Hawaii posts, but I love me some coconut, and the month of June seems to be prime-coconut time.

Like some of the previous fads, the flavor can come from multiple sources. Unlike bacon, the extra sources are usually still legitimately coconut. The shredded coconut has a texture that’s rare in other foods, almost crunchy and chewy at the same time. As a milk or water, it has a sweeter element to it.

And, of course, there’s the Torani flavor.

Over the past few summers, coconut seems to be venturing beyond its home base of desserts. It’s made some pretty serious inroads into the coffee and health food fiefdoms next door.

You didn’t know the dessert and health food fiefdoms are next to each other? You must not have the same culinary map as I.

So far, I’ve been loving this coconut expansion. As I mentioned when I was in Hawaii, my wife is no fan of the flavor. She was hoping to give me so much coconut in Hawaii that I would be done with it when I got home. No such luck. All she succeeded in was making me aware that these wonderful Coconut Clusters are available in Costco on the mainland, too!

And hey, I just saw them at Starbucks:

coconut

Then there’s the whole coconut oil, coconut water thing. Coconut oil was briefly being sold as a healthier alternative to vegetable oil. Then there was backlash because it has more fat. Somehow it’s the second decade of the twenty-first century and we can’t figure out that healthy and non-fat aren’t always the same thing. As for the coconut water, I’m not particularly a fan. It doesn’t really taste like coconut, nor like water. It’s just a sweet water. Maybe it “hydrates,” but it doesn’t quench my thirst. But unlike the oil, coconut water doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Every time I’m at the grocery store, there seems to be some new flavor.

But this is where I start to get worried. Because if coconut expands too fast, or if it starts to cross over into non-coconut friendly areas of the menu, there will be a backlash. The M&Ms were fine. The coated seafood? Okay. Potato chips? I’m starting to get worried. Sure, the chips “made with coconut oil” are one thing, because they don’t taste like coconut. Trust me. But I just recently saw a bona fide “red curry coconut” flavored chip. Naturally, I bought it.

Then saw a menu that put shredded coconut on steak. And to that, even I have to say: “Dammit, coconut, you’re going too far!”

I’m sorry. I take it back. Oh, coconut, I’m going to miss you when nobody will be caught dead trying a new fusion of you.

There might be one saving grace from the future backlash: if coconut becomes the summer flavor. The first time I noticed the new incarnations was at Peet’s Coffee two summers ago. They had a coconut latte. It was delicious. They had a coconut black tie, a mixture of cold brew coffee and condensed milk that they usually do with chicory. It was also delightful. I kept going back to order them. Then one day, probably in early September, I popped in to order a coconut latte, and the barista said, “Sorry, we just switched over to pumpkin spice.”

Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be. A little bit of forewarning would’ve been nice, but whatever. I guess I’ll just wait until May to get my fix again. Shit, how far away is May?

But maybe that will keep things fresh, like the McRib of good taste. Wow, did I just write McRib, fresh, and good taste in the same sentence?

But seasonal flavors have a way of lasting past their shelf life. Pumpkin spice isn’t going anywhere. We roll our eyes at it, but the phrases Autumn and pumpkin-spice are damn-near synonymous. Just like eggnog has its hold on December, although it seems to be ceding ground to whatever the hell “gingerbread spice” is.

So maybe coconut will become the summer flavor. I don’t know what’s so summery about it, because as I said, I don’t think sweetness quenches thirst. But I’m not going to question it as long as it stays relevant.

And I’ll just ignore the fact that Peet’s now keeps the coconut black tie year round. Dammit! Don’t ruin it, guys.

In the meantime, I’m going to go put my head in the sand.

Or maybe my feet.

With a pina colada.

Eating Habits of the Elderly

My mom came to visit last weekend. Always an adventure. But between the “fun” of having someone in our space constantly and the “why is grandchild getting tired of me” and the off-hand comments on our parenting, I found a few oddities about her choice of food.

I found a few of her choices odd because they align with my in-laws, who we dine with more often. My mom grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, my mother-in-law grew up in the rural foothills of Northern California, and my father-in-law grew up in Vegas, so there shouldn’t necessarily be too many common threads between them, geographically.

Except that they were all firmly entrenched in the Baby Boom era. Which means they grew up in an era where Kool Aid was considered healthy and Wonder Bread was the preferred avenue toward the mandatory carbohydrate input of the day. And the only proper spice to put on any dish is salt. And if that’s not enough, add a little more salt.

So it must just be the children of a certain age that have a couple of tendencies toward what I might call double-wide culinary school.

And, other than a few go-to’s, all three of the eaters in question are prone to the finer things in life. Their tastebuds have definitely progressed beyond their meager beginnings. I wouldn’t necessarily call any of them foodies, but they’re not those “same five dishes we’ve always had” types. Especially the females. My mom won’t bat an eye at a Thai restaurant and my in-laws love to discover new gastropubs in San Francisco (provided they have been well vetted by a known source). My mom and mother-in-law are both very good cooks. Both of them can make Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for twenty, and are even sometimes willing to tweak one recipe or another. One at a time, of course, but still. My father-in-law watches every single competition show on Food Network and my mom is hellbent on visiting every Bobby Flay restaurant in the world.

And yet… And yet…

Mustard. 

I love mustard. I will put mustard on just about anything. I’ll take mustard over mayo on a sandwich any day of the week. I hate when you’re at a conference that’s “providing sandwiches,” because those sandwiches are inevitably half mayonnaise, and the mustard is relegated to tiny packets. So there I’ll be, standing over the trash can, trying to scrape off the mayo and using my teeth to open the five mustard packs it’s going to take to offset the slimy meat and… you know what? Screw it, I’m just going to have a mustard sandwich.

My jaw hit the floor when I saw Alton Brown put mustard (and cracked pepper) on a grilled cheese sandwich. My life has never been the same.

And don’t get me started on In n’ Out’s mustard-grilled patties. They’re a slice of heaven, but I can only get them right about 1/3 of the time. Every other time they assume I want animal style.

“Can I get a double-double, mustard-grilled?”

“Okay, one animal-style double-double.”

“No, just mustard-grilled.”

“Okay, mustard-grilled with pickles.”

“No pickles. Just mustard-grilled.”

“Okay, thousand-island dressing.”

“No, I don’t want fucking animal style. I just want fucking mustard-grilled.”

Blank stare. “Okay, I’ll just write animal style, and I assume the cook will know what to do.”

And there’s I’ll be, scraping shit off of his burger over the trash can.

About a year ago, the in-laws were over for a barbecue. Burgers and hot dogs. Of course, all three of the baby boomers prefer hot dogs over Brats or Polish or Italian or Hawaiian, but whatever. I get out the condiments and…

“Do you have any mustard?” Father-in-law asked.

I hand across the mustard. He looks puzzled, turned the bottle over in his hands, put it down.

“No, I mean mustard.”

See, the problem was that I had given him what I consider mustard. I don’t remember which specific type it was. I can’t imagine it was anything overly spicy. Nothing with horseradish, no Colman’s English, no nuclear-orange sweet and hot. It was probably a generic stone-ground. I probably had some better stuff on hand, but I wouldn’t waste it on my in-laws.

And don’t get me started on the coffee swill I bust out when my mom is visiting.

But no, my father-in-law didn’t consider this particular bottle to be mustard. Of course, we all know what he meant by mustard. He wanted the neon-yellow sourpuss mustard. Good, old-fashioned American brands like… French’s. Or Heinz. What I had handed him was a natural-looking yellow-brown, with a couple of speckles indicating that it did, in fact, come from a plant. Maybe even a mustard plant.

I know the seeds are only for effect. I worked in a homemade ice cream shop in college and can attest that the beans in the vanilla bean don’t add squat to the flavor.

Well, I was a tad bit embarrassed at this barbecue to discover that, although I had three different types of mustard in the fridge, none of them were what he was looking for. I resolved to have some the next time they were over, and he settled for ketchup. I was smart enough to not bust out the malt-vinegar ketchup.

The earlier incident had been lost to the annals of experience. We now keep a bottle of French’s yellow mustard around for the in-laws when they visit. I never thought more of it, and often forget it’s in my refrigerator, even though I see it next to the good shit every time I open the refrigerator.

So while my mom was visiting, I absentmindedly asked her if she could put all the condiments out while I was cooking the burgers. Three guesses which yellow condiment was waiting for me when I got outside.

And look, I’m not opposed to the yellow mustard. It serves its purpose. It gets the job done. It’s cheaper and usually more accessible than the good shit. When I’m scrounging together a mustard sandwich from the Subway spread, chances are it ain’t Grey Poupon I’m slathering on the soggy bread. When I’m at the ballpark, if yellow’s all they’ve got, I’m still getting a hot dog. Whereas, if Coors Light is the only beer they have, I’m getting water.

Although I have noticed that more ballparks are giving good mustard as an option. Just sayin’.

Yellow mustard is a perfectly fine product. But if there’s a yellow mustard right next to a stone-ground horseradish mustard, is it really a question which one you should grab? Well, evidently, it is, because I now have one Baby Boomer who refuses to eat the latter, and one that, I don’t know, doesn’t know it exists? Because what surprises me the most is that my mom opened the refrigerator, saw this, and it never even occurred to her to grab more than one.

mustard

Oh, and that mayonnaise is also only there for when Baby Boomers are in tow.

Bisquick

I’m a little less understanding about this second culinary foible.

Whenever my wife’s sister is in town, we do breakfast at the in-laws. I usually try to steer us toward a restaurant. We have a wonderful breakfast place that specializes in mimosas. I am usually overruled.

Breakfast at the in-laws is usually a smorgasbord of chaos. Mother-in-law cooks up bacon and then leaves a bunch of options out for us to cook for ourselves. There are eggs, which I usually opt for. And then there’s a giant batch o’ Bisquick.

I could have said “pancake batter,” but I’m striving for accuracy here. And whatever the fuck Bisquick is, it ain’t pancakes.

The name implies it started as a biscuit mixture. That might explain the odd baking soda-esque tinge that remains on my tongue whenever I eat a Bisquick pancake. Maybe if I were to eat the pancake with a big ol’ batch of country gravy on top, it would taste a little better.

Bisquick officially lists itself as “Pancake and Biscuit Mix.” So even they have acceded to the fact that they are usually used for the former. Didn’t bother changing their name to Panquick, though.

Oh hey, they also say you can make waffles with their product. Just… let me see here… well, it’s the same as pancake batter, but with a little oil. Are they aware that waffles are supposed to taste different than pancakes? No? That might explain why I also didn’t know that until I was twenty.

My mom is on the same Bisquick-wagon my in-laws are on. About six months ago, she was excited to make some Mickey Mouse pancakes for my daughter. She had been practicing! Because it’s super hard to make Mickey Mouse pancakes. You have to… make three pancakes… but simultaneous! And connected! I assume it takes up a whole semester at culinary school.

But sure, Mom, knock yourself out.

She goes to our pantry and comes out a few hours later like a bewildered spelunker returning from the Land of the Lost.

“I’m sure I’m just missing it, but I couldn’t find any Bisquick.”

“Oh yeah, I usually make pancakes from scratch.”

Blink. Blink.

“From that standard, in-every-kitchen-in-America, Betty Crocker cookbook right there.”

Blink. Blink.

“The one you gave me twenty years ago when I moved out?”

“Oh. Um. Okay. I just. I don’t think I’ve ever made them that way.”

So for this visit, my wife decided to get a box of Bisquick at the store.

“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much,” my mom said when we showed it to her. I think she was more excited at the Bisquick than she was when I told her a grandchild was on the way.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going all hipster, anti-processed food here. I am perfectly fine with boxed meals. If I could eat Zatarain’s Caribbean Rice fortnightly, I would. I survived a good portion of my bachelor years on Rice-a-Roni, Pasta-Roni, and their ilk. My mom probably had to look behind three boxes of Shake & Bake and a barricade of Mac & Cheese (for the child, naturally…) in her ill-fated search for the Bisquick.

But I’ve got a few problems with Bisquick. First and foremost is the taste. There’s something acrid to it. Something that tastes like they couldn’t figure out if they wanted to taste like biscuits or pancakes (or waffles), so they split the difference and banked on being nondescript enough or ubiquitous enough that nobody would notice. It is not a flavor you would find when you go out for breakfast. Fortunately the IHOP/IHOb rebrand wasn’t alluding to International House of Bisquick. All of these Bisquick-lovers opt for fluffy, flavorful pancakes when we’re out for breakfast, yet don’t bat an eye settling for substantially less when at home.

I suppose I get that a little. I love getting Eggs Benedict when I’m out for breakfast. Because poaching eggs is a pain in the ass. And I can only assume hollandaise sauce would take effort. And I’m guessing the packet hollandaise wouldn’t taste as good.

But there’s a big difference between Eggs Benedict and pancakes, and it’s my biggest problem with the Bisquickers. PANCAKES AREN’T DIFFICULT TO MAKE! Bisquick requires three ingredients: Bisquick, milk, and egg. The Betty Crocker recipe adds four more ingredients: Flour, milk, egg, brown sugar, oil, baking powder, and salt. And I can’t imagine either of the Baby Boomers I know are having issues with brown sugar, oil, baking powder, or salt.

Seriously, I’m shitty at baking because I never measure things correctly. My wife’s the baker and I’m the cook, because I like to toss it in the pan and sample and add a little of this and try to offset a pinch of that. Who does my wife get her baking ability from? Her mother, who loves to bake. My mom makes enough Christmas cookies to feed a battalion. They both make homemade pie crusts and cakes that I would have to buy from the store.

You know what pie crusts and cakes and cookies all have? Oil. And sugar. And probably some baking powder.

Yet neither of them can be bothered to put the extra three minutes and one dirty measuring spoon into a morning meal.

So my mom made a batch of Bisquick pancakes for my daughter. She used the number four mold this time, since my daughter just turned four.

Then she put the rest of the batter in the refrigerator.

Two days later, she busted out the two-day old Bisquick batch. Even my daughter thought that was much. Those refined four year-old taste buds took one bite and said no, thanks.

So my mom made another batch.

Look, I love me some leftovers. But all three of these Baby Boomers are prone to hold on to every morsel of leftover food. A refrigerator becomes a veritable minefield of day-old, week-old, and when-the-fuck-did-we-have-Chinese food. I’m prone to a bit of this, myself.

But Bisquick batter? The whole fucking box cost five bucks. It’ll last twenty years. I may only be a teacher, but I think I can afford a little batter dump.

But then I have to remind myself that our parents grew up during the Great Depression.

Right? Like in “Grease.” The malt-shop, poodle-skirt, Elvis-Presly-pelvis-shaking Great Depression.

A Writing Retrospective

A couple weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in almost 200 days.

Or rather, I didn’t do something I had done every day, for just under 200 times in a row.

On May 16, I did not write. No blog entry, no flash fiction, no in-progress novel.

Oh, I wrote plenty on May 16. Notes on essays, probably some e-mail responses, but those don’t count.

Prior to that Wednesday, however, I wrote. Every day, all 195 of them from November 2 through May 15, I created some typed content. I wrote on Christmas. I wrote on New Years Day. On Valentine’s Day. On St. Patrick’s Day. The day AFTER St. Patrick’s Day. I wrote the day I flew to Hawaii, and every day when I was there. On the day I flew to a curling bonspiel, and after every game I played while I was there. I wrote while camping (although it was only a one night camping trip, so I wrote before I left and after I got back).

More specifically, during that streak, I typed at least 444 words into the website 4thewords.com. That website is also the reason I know how impressive my streak was. I don’t even know what my best streak was before this. Maybe twenty days? I mean, I know I sure as shit never wrote on Christmas before. Or any of those other dates written above. Except for Camptathalon, of course.

But 4thewords keeps track of my streak, which thereby makes it easier to maintain said streak. My character gets special wings when my streak reaches a certain number of days.

The website and its various carrots are also the reason that the streak was as impressive as it was. I wrote about it after NaNoWriMo. Wow, the number of throwbacks in this blog post makes it feel like those clip shows that sitcoms used to run in April before everything was available on demand.

But because of 4thewords.com, for the first time ever, I continued writing after November was over. Every day. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days, I drudge back downstairs at 10 PM to put down some drivel. Naturally, I get wordier that time of night. Or maybe, since I’m typing this in 4tw, it might be better to say I get as wordy as a talkative wordsmith crafting his wordiness for a living.

What happened on May 16? It was a conscious decision to not write. No, I didn’t wake up with a general “fuck it.” But, with the finite amount of time available to me between the child being put down and my impending crash into unconsciousness, I opted for what was behind Door #2. The AP Test was two days away and I still had a handful of essays I wanted to return  to the students taking the test the following day.

So I said “Fuck it.”

Actually, after I “fucked it” (fuck ited? wordy wordsmithed it?), I logged onto the website to make sure I didn’t lose my streak. They have a special item that extends a streak without needing the 444 words. I had five of them in reserve. Then I got back on the donkey the next day. I’m now up to 216 days, which they count as 195 legitimate days + May 16 + 20 more days since.

So don’t worry, I didn’t lose my wings. Had I not owned one of those items, then I guess my students would’ve just been a little less prepared for a nationwide standardized exam. Gotta have my priorities, after all. Now I have four of the mulligans left. I’ll earn back the one I used next Monday when my streak hits 222. Who knows, maybe I’ll just get a hankerin’ and take a week off from writing. Of course, this is coming from the teacher who has 120 sick days banked, so it’ll take a much more legitimate “fuck it” before I lose that streak.

But still, maybe I should take Christmas off this year.

Oh wait, Christmas is with the in-laws this year? Yeah, I’ll be writing that day.

So what are the results of this newfound verbosity?

On a sidenote, I just looked up verbosity on thesaurus.com, and evidently there’s a word called logorrhea. Like diarrhea, but with words. I definitely need to use that word more.

Okay, here are the stats: I just passed 197,000 words written on the website. Not bad.

They’ve come in all forms: blog posts, which have allegedly become more frequent; flash fiction, and I promise there are more of those on the way, I can only post them after I lose the contest, but I’m 0-for-4 so far, so I’ll start posting them weekly in the summer; e-mails, letters, and Facebook posts (don’t judge); and, of course, the novel-in-progress.

I started the novel way back in NaNoWriMo, 2014. You can read the basis for it here. And a sample chapter that’s four years old. It fizzled out after about 25,000 words, but the idea was still there. Over the next four years, I managed another 15,000 words. In the past 200 days, I’ve added another 75,000+ words to be on the cusp of 120,000 words. That’s too long for a first book, but a lot of those frivolous words will be edited out. I’m guessing it’s closer to 80,000 legitimate words.

How did I triple the output? Well, this will be a shocking answer to some: I actually sat my ass down and wrote. For 200 days. Not always on the book, but I run out of e-mails eventually, and if I want my 444 words, I’m going to have to move that pesky main character along.

I always knew where the book was going. Since I first started, I had this grandiose final scene in my head. Some of the dialogue’s been ready to go for four years. I’ve known where the characters will be placed and exactly how much of the big picture would be revealed (gotta keep a couple things for the sequel, after all).

But getting to that final scene is sometimes a problem. And by sometimes, I mean always. For four years. I’d often get stuck mid-scene. How do I get the characters or narrative through a particular scene? So historically, I would get to a spot, the main character dangling precariously from the precipice, and then I’d take a few days off while I mulled how do get him to the bottom of the cliff. Or a few weeks. Or years.

Then maybe I’d figure it out, and I’d sit down to write the scene, and I’d write 1,000 words and, wouldn’t you know it, the fucker’s still up on his clifftop. Because I forgot I needed a little internal dialogue or a scatological description of how scared he is. And then I’d get frustrated that I spent two months deciding where this scene was going and I finally sat down to do it and I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO THE FUCKING PART I JUST SPENT TWO MONTHS FIGURING OUT!

Here’s how that same scene has played out over the past 200 days: I blog for a day, write a flash fiction over the weekend, and when Tuesday rolls around, I guess I have to write the actual book. So I write 500 words. That’s easy enough. Nothing has to happen in 500 words. He shits himself. Then the next day, he wipes for 500 words. After three or four days, I finally get to the point where I just say “Fuck it” and describe him scrambling down the cliff. Three days later he’s finally engaging in the dialogue I’ve known he was going to get into at the bottom of the cliff.

There are chapters that I know for a fact I will chop 1000 of the first 1500 words. But a lot of times those words were necessary for me at the time, because they helped me work through what the character’s going through. I gain insight into my characters and their world that can be edited to be implied instead of explicit.

It’s the same process I would’ve gone through before, just without the winter of contemplation in between.

So here I am, 120000 words later and guess what? I’m finally to that culminating scene! The one that’s been in my mind since page one. Woo Hoo! Easy sailing from here!

And how’s the scene going? The one that I’ve known the intricacies of forever?

Well, I’m blogging right now.

Because, goddammit, this “easy” scene is just as difficult as any other scene. Maybe moreso because it’s the culmination of four years and 120,000 words of character and plot development. One of the characters who’s supposed to be there is dead. There is a character that showed up around the 70,000 word mark that is vitally important now. rDi I just have him stand around and pick his butt while the corpse of the dead character does something important? Just because I know Darth Vader’s going to reveal he’s Luke’s father doesn’t mean I know how Luke’s going to get there in the first place.

Come to think of it, how the hell is there a Death Star-esque bottomless cylinder in Cloud City? Is everything in the Star Wars universe built by the same contractor?

I think there’s something else hindering my process right now. Do you ever get to the end of a book and slow down your reading? Not sure if you’re ready to be done with it? Well, this book’s been in my thought process for four years. What am I going to write the next day? Sure, I have plenty of new books I could start, but which one should I do? I feel like I’ll be so lost when I don’t have this specific existential weight on me. If I’m not thinking of this specific character and plotline, will I suddenly become aware of a lack of substance in the rest of my life?

Meh. Maybe I’ll take another day off.

But until then, it’s a shit-ton of logorrhea.