Friday, September 26, 2008

Training myself not to be like others

Scene I, yesterday morning

I dragged my suitcase out of my hotel room, pulled it on to the elevator, and went downstairs. I inquired about the shuttle bus to the train station and airport, boarded the airport/transit center shuttle bus and slunk in to the bench seat behind the driver. The door reopened as a 60-year old woman with white hair stepped into the van. She was talking into her cell phone, her voice filled with exasperation. She had a polite face and her hair was pretty, pulled back from her face in a plain short haircut.

The van driver stashed the woman’s bag in the back of the van, and then he stepped up into the driver’s seat. The woman continued to talk on her mobile phone, asking if there were any other options, telling the person on the other end of the line that thirty minutes would not be enough. And then finally hanging up.

She smiled at me and raised her eyebrows. She said “My flight was cancelled."

“I’m sorry,” I replied.

“Well, I was able to get on another flight. But they had wanted to put me a on a flight that only had a 30-minute layover and I wouldn’t have made that flight.“ She shook her head and looked into her purse. ”You’ve got to be careful because they always try to pull that kind of stuff. “

I said, "I’m glad to hear it worked out," with a concluding clip to my voice. I returned to looking at emails on my phone.

A couple of minutes later, our shuttle van came to the end of a long line of traffic.

“Why is there so much traffic?” the woman asked the driver. But before waiting for an answer, she turned to me to say,” What nerve they have calling that an 'airport hotel.' It was the biggest dump I’ve ever stayed in. Don’t you think so?” She waited for my reply.

I wanted to make sure the driver was on my side and would take me to the transit station. I told her, "My room was actually pretty nice.” I avoided eye contact with her again.

I managed to avoid conversation after that until after she was dropped off . As she got out of the van, I wished her luck with her flights.

As soon as the van pulled away, the driver said to me, “People like that should stay at the goddamed airport if they want an airport hotel.”

My reply: “Yes, she was a mess.”

I gave the driver a tip and exited the van at the MBTA Blue Line Airport Station. The driver was an asswipe, but I wanted to appear the better of the two passengers. The self-searching began.

Scene II, two months ago

Brad and I are at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. We are looking at the baskets and crates of peaches and nectarines. It’s August and each of the organic fruit growers has a staff of shorts-wearing 4-H Club young men and women slicing pieces of fruit with grimy army knives and offering their bounty for our salivating tongues to test.

After a day of sampling white peaches and nectarines, trying apriums and plumcots, plums and apricots, and golden yellow nectarines and peaches, my hand reaches out for a slice of a white peach, handed to me by a worn out looking Asian woman. I take a bite and I turn around to look at Brad, and while I turn I say, “It’s not good.”

Brad tells me I said it too loud. I reply that it’s just her fruit, not her.

Scene III, one year ago

“Ugh, everyone who works here is just so incompetent. “ I said that. In IKEA once.

Scene IV, a few weeks ago

“No,” I said to the cashier. “It should be $1.99. That’s the price that’s on the shelf. I’ll go back and get the price tag from the shelf. “ I leave my purchases on the counter , holding up the line and return with the correct tag from the shelf. The cashier looks at it and says, “The price expired last week.”

I explain to the cashier that the price is what is hanging on the shelf and that’s the price I’m going to pay. I will pay $1.99, not $4.69. The cashier asks another cashier how to refund my money and they spend a couple of minutes at the register figuring out how to cancel the price while the line gets longer. The cashier hands me my change, and says that the shelf tag was there because somebody forgot to take it off --scorn for making her return my money. I explained it wasn’t my fault if the people stocking the shelves aren’t so bright.

As she handed me the cash, I noted a sign posted on the cash register. And asked about it: “What about your policy on this sign to provide me with a $5.00 gift certificate if the price rings up wrong?”

“That doesn’t apply in this situation,” she replied.

“It looks like it should. Will you please get your manager?" I asked .

She called the manager, who arrived a couple of minutes later. The line for the cashier behind me was really long by now.

When the manager appeared, the cashier explained to him the wrong price tags and that someone named Jesus needed to take off the tags and that I wanted to take advantage of their low price guarantee. She rolled her eyes.

The manager told her what to press on the cash register and handed me a $10.00 bill, apologized and said to have a nice day.

Scene V, last night

The setting: A small wine bar in Boston, called Piattini on Newberry Street.

Robin and I agree to order six small dishes to share and a flight of wine each. Our waitress is lovely, smiling, and very confident about the taste and the quality of the food. We eat tasty antipasti and a shrimp salad, and are served a most incredible veal and sage ravioli in a sweet cider glaze: One of the yummiest things I’d eaten in a long time. We also had pumpkin ravioli.

We also ordered polenta with sausage and red peppers. It sounded good, and Robin and I were easily in agreement to make this one of our tapas. It was served and I took a bite. It was, in fact, a truly horrible dish that tasted like what I would envision the flavor of boiled cartilage to be.

The sparkling waitress reappeared to make sure everything was completely delicious. And I said it was.

I am learning.

A great evening, nice company, good wine, and perfect food.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A whole lot of Meijer

If you don’t live in the Midwest, you likely haven’t been in a Meijer store. They are located all across the landscape in Michigan but you’ll find them in adjacent states, too. If you live in Oregon, you’re likely familiar with the Fred Meyer chain of stores. I don’t think there’s any connection between the two chains, although they are pronounced the same and they both carry anything you could possibly need.

Meijer is the place to be. If you need a peach for lunch or a futon at four o’clock in the morning, go to Meijer. You can buy the latest DVDS and televisions and phones. You can buy guns and hunting ammunition, and bright orange vests so other hunters don’t start shooting at you. You can buy Zoloft and lottery tickets, tents and candy bars from Germany and Britain, and gloves.

I remember driving my friend Anita, a fellow Georgian, to Ann Arbor, but the first stop we made in Michigan -- and the very first place she’d ever been in the state -- was the Meijer in Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti has an unfortunate Native American name that doesn’t translate well to a die-hard Michigan Midwestern accent, but that Meijer was the granddaddy of Meijer stores in my book. A massive parking lot of enormous Buicks and Fords and Chevys and Chryslers surrounded the store, and as we hopped out of the rental Corolla and made our way through the snow flurries across the parking lot, Anita knew, for the first time, what it was really like to be cold. We were there to buy gloves and other warm accoutrements, but the store left an indelible impression on Anita, just as it had on me five years earlier.

Picture it: a bright, cavernous store arranged into neat departments. Large families pushed overstuffed shopping carts with mirrors, fried chicken, chainsaws, live hamsters, Hanes briefs and 3-liter bottles of Vernor's and Faygo Red Pop. Meanwhile, the two of us shivered and huddled in the winter accessories department under a stack of University of Michigan and Detroit Redwings acrylic hats. Christmas music played on the loudspeaker, paused only by intermittent announcements about Meijer’s own macaroni and cheese being on sale, three boxes for a dollar, spoken by a woman with a meticulously flat Michigan accent (she succeeded at pronouncing every hint of a nasal syllable in her verbalization of m-yack-uh-rohwn-nheeeee). Anita looked around at the women in the store with their decidedly Midwestern hairstyles, different versions of cropped bowl cuts and pony tails with sculptural “uplifted” bangs in front. Many of them probably had had their hair styled just upstairs at the Meijer hair salon.

It was culture shock. There were no Meijer stores in Georgia. Combined with hairstyles, snow flurries, temperatures, accents and men walking around in hunting vests, I delighted in her efforts to take it all in. I had the same experience five years earlier when I first entered that same store. At the time, the store was called “Meijer’s Thrifty Acres” and sported an appropriately classy sign. I relished the thought that if I ever wanted to buy a dresser or lamps at 3:00 AM, I could just head over to Meijer to see what I could buy.

My friend Anne, now a professor at small liberal arts college about an hour from Ypsilanti’s Meijer, was my partner in crime at the store. We would compare our purchases of new pots and pans and baking dishes, as well as hammers and oatmeal (for baking her famous honey oat bars), all purchased at that Ypsilanti Meijer. I once went on a date with someone who worked there. And that’s where, as a sophomore in college, I bought a glass bowl, a ceramic castle, water purifying solution, and some blue pebbles, along with two bright live goldfish . My new pets swam around, their unemotional fish faces peering from the clear plastic bag that served as their fragile transport vessel as I rode the public bus home to my dorm room. I purified the water and dropped the two little creatures, whose lives were now in my hands, into their new domicile to swim endless loops in the fishbowl around the enchanted castle, together for as long as they both should live. They were dead a few hours later when I returned.

I rode the bus back to Meijer with the dead fishlets in the bag. I returned with two new ones to introduce to the lightly used accommodations, repurifying the water with a friend to make sure I was doing it right. This time they died within three days.

Perhaps it was something toxic in East Quad’s water – something that panicked me for only about a day – but I figured that fish shouldn’t have been taken from their big fish families (schools?). They just were in love with Meijer. They missed the cheery lights, the “fill your own Icee cup machine," the loaves of Meijer bakery white bread colored bright chartreuse on St. Patrick’s Day.

20 years later, I’m on a flight from Grand Rapids. Having just been in Michigan, I stopped in at two Meijer stores in the heart of Meijerland: one in Grand Rapids, the store’s hometown, and one in Holland, complete with an aisle of candies and cookies from Holland (the other one, with more progressive politics).

The barber shops are gone and the aisles have been brightened a bit, no doubt to compete with Wal-Mart and Target. But I bought bins of Michigan dried cherries, Dutch candies, batteries, and a defective telephone headset that I returned (hence, the purpose of my second visit to Meijer). I told my coworker to do his late-night shopping at Meijer, and he bought a decent pair of pants, a shirt and a tie to wear instead of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt at our interview today (I still say he would have had a good excuse, having flown right to Michigan from his honeymoon, without his suitcase, but he looked very Meijer chic).

A magnificent place. Meijer.

Hey Mister Meijer? Do you want to open a store in San Francisco on Market Street? I think it would appeal to those of us in Northern California who don’t like chain stores taking over our city. Nobody would know it’s a chain store because they don’t go to the Midwest, and they would flock there to buy all of your wonderful products. We need a gathering place to see what our own crazy hairdos look like in fluorescent lights, and to hear our own loudspeaker voices, maybe in the form of a speedy Chinese accent , booming over the intercom to tell us about “three for a dollar” Thai spicy flavored ramen noodles . I will wander in from the cold on a June day in San Francisco to buy “Alcatraz Psychiatric Ward” and 49ers gear shirts to protect me from the bluster. Just leave the hunting department back in Grand Rapids.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Mired in dullness

I haven’t had any work trips for a while. So I haven’t had time on the plane to take a break and write a few things. And now I just watched The Visitor from Row 3, Seat D, looking down on the Great Plains while a movie about America is showing on the small screen. The film is about an unlikely relationship between a dull old typical American male professor leading a dull suburban life and a family of undocumented immigrants from Syria and Senegal. They are scammed by one of the many scammers across this great land of ours who prey on immigrants.

It was a good story and is a good reminder of the need to break away from dullness. I’m sure it conjured up other thoughts for other people -- the need for immigrant rights, families being separated from one another -- but for me it was clearly about making a change in your life to avoid isolation, to avoid suburban plainness.

I get depressed about the thought of people living in the burbs. Those dull boxy two-story homes built in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I’m sure they are still being constructed in this century, but I try to look the other way. Those new housing developments from the nineties and naughts just look like strip malls with lawns.

The real suburbs were the neighborhoods I was envious of as a child. People lived in bright new homes with thick wall-to-wall carpet, had giant family rooms in a subterranean basement, and had a separate television dedicated to the Atari. They had big rectangular front yards, and even larger rectangular back yards, always fading off into a creek. Their lawns were perfect, with thick green grass growing right up the trunk of the magnolias and pines. Their driveways were perfectly paved in grey, taupe or blacktop.

The house of my childhood was one long floor, only three steps down to the sunken living room. It had an interesting ranch-meets-Lloyd Wright style, with cork floors and skinny horizontal windows. As a child it was far from the big clean newness of those suburban homes. It was in an older neighborhood close to downtown. It was where the not-so-“new” members of the middle class resided.

Today, I look at the matured suburbs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The once sun-covered lawns now shrouded in pine cones and pine straw falling from the trees on all sides. Some driveways have cracks and some have been repaved. Some houses have been remodeled and others look just as they were. The houses built for families with young children now house the adults of my parents’ generation. They live isolated, hopping in their cars for trips to restaurants in shopping centers and they watch as their home values decline.

Meanwhile, the people living in the one-story older houses have remodeled and re-landscaped. They walk to the new restaurants that have popped up here and there. They mingle with migrants, students, tourists and other people. Their children interact with other children and other adults at cafes. They go to the park not for a family picnic, but to walk around and smile and listen to music and rollerblade with other people. They don’t live isolated suburban lives, living in the denial.

Life’s a bit dull. I can’t shop for furnishings; I can’t travel far and wide; I can’t cook; work is too demanding. A remodel is happening and my money will be spent. It could be bad, and it’s not. It’s all good. Just a bit dull. But it’s all good. Same job for 14 years. Good. Overall it’s good. And when the house is remodeled, I won’t have to get in a car and drive to The Olive Garden for a drab dinner to make life feel very dull and isolating. I’ll walk down the hill to grab a bite to eat and walk around looking at all of the interesting totally freaky wacky people that can help make life less dull. Then I’ll walk back up the hill to look out at the vista of other people’s houses: the same people who were just walking around down the hill, now in their little dull houses.
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