Sunday, December 12, 2010

Post-Chanukah blues (and reds, oranges, yellows and greens)

Last night, after I finished frying a tray’s worth of post-Chanukah potato latkes, I reached into the gleaming lights of the refrigerator – that bright, massive cavern filled with beautiful jars of jam, squares of white cheese, and bottles of sparkling water and wine – and pulled out a bowl, five inches in diameter, filled with pineapple sauce. The sauce, a golden heap of fruit that I had cooked down to a chunky custard of pineapple fibers, sugars and juices, seemed the right accompaniment for post-Chanukah deep fried potatoes, onions, eggs and whole wheat flour, thoroughly crisped in an inch of safflower oil. This was only the first course of a post-Chanukah dinner, which also featured red leaf lettuce in a mustardy vinaigrette and a pot of lentil, kale and vegan sausage stew. Chanukah was over and I was celebrating, several days after the fact.
I had already put away the menorah and the remnants of the fancy Chanukah candles my mother had purchased for me last year at TJ Maxx. Each slender candle had a beautiful twist of a secondary color winding its way from wick to base. Not lighting the menorah during a couple of nights (due to other obligations, of course) of Chanukah’s overextended tenure was the only reason a handful of candles remained. I made a note to myself that I need to pick out some new Chanukah candles for next year, and should start looking around soon at the after-holiday sales. I took the tray upon which the menorah had stood out of the freezer, where Brad had put it. He later told me it was there because a frozen ceramic plate apparently forces the wax to peel off with ease. I peeled the wax right off and scrubbed the tray and put it away.
In the other room. While I was cooking latkes in the kitchen and dealing with post-Chanukah cleanup, from around the corner, in the living room, came a subtle glow comprised of primary colors. The colors were muted, as if they were the coming from the back side of lanterns facing in different directions. This glow, in fact, was a result of my earlier efforts to string the large plastic faceted multicolor bulbs onto the Noble Fir, a Christmas tree I named Sigmund the Tree Monster. It towered above the remaining living room furniture, artwork, lamps and tables.
This is my first true Christmas tree that I feel I have ownership over. When I moved to Berkeley, my dear roommate Diane convinced me – it took no prodding, to be sure– to join her on an adventure to the Christmas Tree lot, just west of I-80, along the Berkeley Marina. The lot, which had transitioned from a pumpkin patch to a winter wonderland only a few weeks earlier, featured tree after tree, some flocked in spray-on California winter white and others seemingly artificial in their cone-like dimensions (Were they regular pines hacked to Christmas shapes, like the shrubbery down the street in the shape of a massive rabbit?). Children ran up and down the aisles and coaxed their siblings to talk to Santa or one of the elves working at the lot. Diane insisted that we buy a certain type of tree – as a Jew I could never tell the difference – and we found one of whatever tree that was (Pine? Cypress? Fir?). We asked the cheery young guy who worked there to hammer two boards crisscrossing each other in to the base, and put in on top of the car. As we pulled out of the Christmas tree lot, I rolled down the window to peer at the giant Frosty and Rudolph air-filled decorations. I saw the bouncy castle for small children, and the sparkle of Christmas lights in the foreground, with the twinkling lights of San Francisco and Sausalito across the bay, miles behind the lot. We drove the seven or eight blocks to our South Berkeley shared home and I realized just how much I had missed as a child: the Jewish kid whose only experience of getting a Christmas tree had been at Briar Vista Elementary School, when our teachers would walk our class into the forest behind the school (bringing along one of the custodians, who carried an axe and saw), and we would pick out a tree for the custodian to chop down and carry back our class. It sounds like something out of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood.
When we got to our home in Berkeley, Diane and I placed the tree in the corner to the right of the fireplace and she brought out one small box of ornaments. We put them on the tree. That was it: an enormous tree with a dozen small ornaments. So I went through my closet, and to the basement. I brought out some seashells and sand dollars, a couple of bones I found, and a few baseball caps and put them on the tree. Diane went into her room and pulled out some of her most colorful shoes. We hung them on the tree and admired what we had.
Eighteen years passed with no trees. And then this year, Brad and I went to a local Christmas tree lot after going to a local nursery, looking for Christmas trees. The nursery was expensive and the trees were not calling my name – each one seemed a little artificially shaped, with bits of white ooze (or paint?) at the end of each of the cut branches. These did not stir me and my first reaction was sorrow: “Brad, it’s almost as if they made the trees this shape artificially. We want a real tree.” Brad explained to me that they were real trees, but that all Christmas trees are artificially shaped. I disagreed and said I’ve seen Christmas tree farms with little trees creeping up from the soil in perfect conical Christmas shapes. Brad repeated his lesson to me: that Christmas trees don’t naturally grow in the shape of Christmas trees. I still think he’s wrong.
The Christmas tree lot across from the local nursery had trees lined up one after the next, distributed in long rows, marked in “departments” of trees: hand painted signs hawked Douglas Firs, Noble Firs, Green Pines, White Pines, some kind of pines, etc. But the magic of this Christmas lot was smeared by the mud of the drive and parking area, the men hustling for work to pick out trees for the people milling about, the sound of circular saws hacking trees to bits, and the five different men who approached and aggressively tried to steer us toward a magical tree of their choice. At one tree, I wandered over to peek at the odd shape of the branches and try to figure out how the top of the tree had somehow grown into a crook-like shape. With stubborn alacrity, I was immediately greeted by one of the hustling employees trying to show me the tree, pulling it forward from the fence. I told him not to pull it out, and that I was just trying to figure out what was going on with its weird hump. He gave me a nod and walked away.
We walked around the lot and saw the many trees that were still rolled up, waiting to have the wiry strings cut loose so they could be fluffed and displayed with the other trees that leaned on the fences, up and down the long aisles. We walked back to the third aisle of trees and two men where unfurling one of those that had been wrapped and tossed along the fence only a few minutes earlier. We watched as they snipped the last of the cords and pulled the tree out from its bindings. They shook the tree, spun it a little, slapped its behind, ran their hands up and down it, and left it leaning against the fence with the other upright trees. And there it was – our tree – born right in front of us. It was perfect: a beautiful shape, tall and green, a fresh smell. It was meant to be ours. The thuggish guy (did he just get out on parole?) picked it up and carried it to the gate and told us to follow. I stood there and paid the woman – with Brad’s credit card – a woman who seemed unable to add up the cost of one tree and 12 feet of garland: first too high and then too low. The various thugs thanked us for coming, as a Latino guy in a white Cadillac burned rubber trying to pull out the lot, unwilling to wait for us to finish shoving the tree into our truck.
The magic of the season. That was it, the magical moment that kicked off this Christmas season. We drove the tree home, squeezed it into the “pivoting tree holder,” wrapped it in those plastic faceted color lights and I walked into the kitchen to cook post-Chanukah latkes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Strategic visioning workshop

I was working in a Starbucks because I needed an internet connection. [Yes, if you read that too quickly, it will sound as if I’d been a Starbucks employee.] I confess I usually try to avoid the places with their unimpressive coffee doled out at higher-than-appropriate prices based on the added volume of milk whipped into the drinks, but I know they are adored by just about everyone else (when doused with Splenda by you yellow packet worshippers).

I saw them when I walked in: a mixed bag of eight newbies getting indoctrinated “The Starbucks Way.” They were guided by an upbeat trainer who gathered them around two Starbucks standard-issue round tables pushed together in front of the sales counter. The regional trainer who said he “floats between stores” led the mismatched collective through a series of discussion topics from “creating a customer dialogue” (a.k.a., upselling), meeting customer needs, keeping the store clean, getting to know your customers, selling seasonal items, and providing excellent customer service. He was a good facilitator: asking lots of questions, doing ridiculous exercises, and remained endlessly upbeat about the Starbucks brand. As I listened in on the conversation every once in a while, I thought to myself that I would be really good at doing a corporate training, getting people to buy in to a culture they were stuck with because they needed a job.

At first glance, I thought the people at the table were high school types or people who might otherwise be college students. All except for two were white. Three in the group were women. And the oldest was a white man, probably at retirement age – presumed by me to either be retired or to have lost his job in the recession.

I tried not to pay much attention. After all, I had a really important meeting I would be facilitating the next day and was trying to develop some exercises to make sure leaders from around the region engaged to provide helpful, honest input.

The Starbuck group did some interesting exercises. For example, the trainer asked them all to close their eyes and point to the most important Starbucks customer in the room. Then they opened their eyes and the trainer said, “Whoa. You’re pointing in a bunch of different directions. That means our most important customer is everyone you see – all around us.” I was amazed.

Later, the trainer hopped up from his seat and talked about the Christmas holiday displays, breaking open one of several large boxes stacked near the counter. He pulled some bags of holiday peppermint brownies and the group talked about the white color of the brownies versus the green color some years ago. And then, the tough question was posed by the trainer, “How can you connect with a customer over a Peppermint Latte?” The young Black man sat back in his seat and said, “Well, you know they like Peppermint Lattes and so you could say, ‘if you really like peppermint, you should try these limited edition peppermint brownies next time you’re in’ or something like that.” Brilliant.

They went on to talk about giving someone a sample of a peppermint brownie if you want to encourage them to make a purchase, and the trainer said it was really okay if it happened to be a slow time in the store.

Keeping the store clean was another useful topic. The trainer reviewed the importance of making sure the counters were wiped down, spills cleaned up, and that the restroom was always well stocked and cleaned. He confirmed that keeping the restroom clean was an assigned responsibility, but suggested that everyone could pitch in. By eavesdropping I learned if you don’t have bathroom duty but go to use the bathroom and discover a paper towel on the floor, you could pick it up and throw it in the trash. I appreciated that team player approach to the training session.

And then I felt sad. There was a sixty-something year-old man sitting with an 18-year old guy with long hair listening to this training and participating. Maybe all of the people sitting at the table didn’t realize they were being talked to as if they were clever morons. It was a bit like watching a person who works with developmentally disabled young people leading a socialization session with a series of exercises, eliciting very active responses for which high-fives were deserved. But these were grown-ups and this was their job. And with heaviness in my heart, I packed up my PowerPoint presentation for the Strategic Visioning workshop I would be leading the next day and left the building.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Am I on a bus?

People behaving badly. I am on a Continental Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco, lucky enough to be upgraded and sitting in First Class. Everyone was just boarding and filling up the bins. I watch as a sweaty late 40s white Continental male flight attendant (who calls himself a flight coordinator), “Rick,” from Houston runs around frantically trying to take drink orders, stow luggage for old people and restrict the flow of passenger traffic down the aisle.

The flight seems to have a bunch of New York suspects, claiming large amounts of space in the overhead bins, talking loudly on cell phones with aggressive accents, and making demands that the flight attendant store their belongings in the closet at the front of the plane.

And down the aisle comes Number 1, “Vinny,” a big bonehead of a white guy who is seated in front of me in Seat 2A. He tries to put all of his clothes in the overhead bin, including a massive garment bag. He’s tall, shaved scalp, and of course, reclines his seat as soon as he gets into it. He picks up his cell phone and starts screaming at somebody about their relationship that got all fucked up and there’s something somebody doesn’t know about him.

Number 2, “Steve,” a nebbishy Jewish-looking guy, gets on the plane and wants to put his things in the same overhead bin that Vinny used. Vinny gets agitated so Steve tells him he is going to take Vinny’s garment bag out and put his suitcase in, and then put Vinny’s bag back in. Steve adds his oversized suitcase to the bin and then shoves Vinny’s garment bag back into the overhead. Steve doesn’t want to sit in seat 1B quite yet, so he stands in the front of the plane blocking the aisle and proceeds to talk to Rick the flight coordinator, but Rick politely yet firmly tells him to step aside.

Then comes the fun part: “Gloria,” a Chinese-American woman in her 50s toddles over to seat 2B, behind Steve and next to Vinny. She begins by trying to pull out all of the things Steve and Vinny have shoved in the overhead bin above her seat to make room for her pink oversize suitcase and her leather coat. Rick, trying hard to ‘coordinate’ the flight, informs Gloria that there’s plenty of space in the bin above seats 4 A and B. Gloria is spinning around in front of her seat muttering to herself that she wants to put things above her and she’s not going to put things two rows behind her. That’s when “Denise,” the African-American gate agent with a hefty Jersey dip to her voice, gets on to finalize seating so the plane can depart on time.

It all goes something like this:

“Eunice” in Seat 4A, behind me – (to Gloria) Excuse me! Make sure you don’t put anything on my tennis racket up there.

Flight Coordinator Rick – It’s no problem. I’ve got space for her here. (To Gloria) there’s no room up there, ma’am.

Gloria – We need to move things around so I can put my bag up here. I don’t want it behind me because I might forget about it.

Flight Coordinator Rick – Don’t worry. I doubt you’ll forget about your suitcase when you’re getting off the plane in San Francisco.

Gate Agent Denise – (To Gloria) Excuse me, ma’am. We need to stow your belongings so the plane can depart the gate.

Gloria - [She starts spinning again in front of her seat]. (Shouting) I just had a medical procedure and I think I have the right to put my things above my seat! You cannot tell me where to put my stuff! I want to put it here above my seat.

Vinny (in the seat next to Gloria’s assigned seat) – (To Gloria) I understand. But I got on here first and I put my stuff up there.

Gate Agent Denise - Ma’am you really need to stow your bag so we can go.

Gloria – (Shouting). You cannot tell me what to do. I will forget my bag back there!

Steve gets out of his seat (1B) to look at the bins and to confirm Gloria hasn’t shifted his suitcase either.

Joey (me) – [Starts laughing out loud and then silences self]. (Quietly to neighbor in Seat 3B) Oy vey. It’s just like commuting to work on the bus.

My neighbor in Seat 3B: Oh, is this your regular commute between New York and San Francisco?

Joey (me) – Oh, no. I’m just saying that with the crazy screaming lady [who can hear every word I’m saying], it's like being on the bus for my commute in San Francisco.

Flight Coordinator Rick assists Gloria with her bag and puts it in the overhead bin above Row 4. Gloria follows him to make sure it is really there, two rows behind her seat.

– (To Rick) How am I going to remember it’s there?

Eunice in Seat 4A – (Shouts out). I’ll remind you!!

Man next to her in Seat 4B – I’ll remind you, too!!

Woman across aisle – I’ll remind you, too!

Neighbor in Seat 3B - I think everyone is going to remind you!!

[Laughter from the other passengers.]

I’m hoping they will just drag Gloria off the plane and this incident can end up on the local Newark News at 6 pm.

Gloria - [Says something unintelligible, but recognizing she’s in a losing battle]. I had a medical procedure! I had a medical procedure!!

* * *

Everyone returns to their pre-flight cocktails and fumbles with their DirecTV channels, none of which are working (and none of which work throughout the entirety of the flight).

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hell on earth: Walgreen's sucks

I was in Walgreen’s the other day. I’m usually there a couple of times a day, even though it is one of my least favorite places in the world, and even though a terrible Walgreen’s store went in where a Rite Aid previously had existed across from my office. Although there are many terrible things about Walgreen’s, I have prepared a list of the top 5 terrible things:

1. The stupid products that are locked up. Many of the items for sale throughout the store are kept behind plastic cabinets that require a Walgreen’s employee to come and unlock a case with a key. On almost every aisle of the store, numerous key-access areas exist, requiring you to push a button. So, if I’m standing in the area for the stomach pills and it so happens that the brand of stomach medication I want is behind the plastic flap, I must push the button and listen to the chime and the recording of the old woman’s voice that echoes throughout the store: “Assistance needed in the Antacids Department.” An Antacids Department?

What is so infuriating is that some brands are behind plastic and others are not. The crappy Walgreens versions are often in the open, while the Prilosec is behind plastic. But not all of the Prilosec might be behind the plastic. Some sizes are too large or too small for the plastic, so those are just above it on the shelf. Once you push that button, and a sour Walgreen’s employee arrives to assist you [see more about sour Walgreen’s employees below], he or she pushes the same button and the voice says, “Antacids Department,” supposedly indicating that somewhere in the store, some poor soul with stomach issues has been approached by a Walgreen’s employee with a key. When I started to take two containers out and compare the ingredients, the guy sighed like “hurry up” and then finally said, “I don’t have much time.” I said it would just be a few minutes more and added an apology, but continued to compare the composition of the stomach pills.

Sometimes what is behind the plastic panel makes no sense: Crest is not but Colgate is. Vitamin E is not but Vitamin C is for one brand, and for another brand Vitamin E is and Vitamin C is not. The good news about some of the pills and products locked in the plastic key-access spaces: you can sometimes knock over a few containers of whatever’s adjacent to the case, and stick your hand into the locked area from the side. It means knocking over a few bottles of pills for $11.99 outside the case to reach your box of something for $3.99 inside. Sometimes it’s just easier than pushing the button and waiting.

2. The ugliness of Walgreens, whether it’s the “old” design or the “new and updated” store design. It feels old and dated. The uniforms are ugly. The logo is screamingly tacky. The store displays are ugly. The people who work there are ugly and unpleasant and have never smiled in their lives. And the people who shop there are really ugly.

3. The terribleness of Walgreens products. Need Sudafed? Buy Wal-fed. Looking for Claritin? They have Wal-itin. And Wal-dryl, Wal-tussin, Wal-act. In addition to the products that seem to have been named by a 50-year old woman who is a PTA volunteer in Deerfield, Illinois, they have created a number of fake “brands” that are really manufactured expressly for Walgreens including a line of stale peanuts, ‘European’ chocolate (Albania is in Europe), and dried fruit for $1 that tastes more like the added sugar and preservatives than the name of the fruit listed on the label. Many of their horrible products are actually marketed under the name Deerfield Farms. Do farms exist in Deerfield? Oh, and use your food stamps for some delish Walgreen’s Bridge Mix, Circus Peanuts, Peanut Clusters, and Walgreen’s Comfort Stretch training pants. They even sell their own Splenda-like product: delicious Walgreens Sucralose Sweetener Sugar Substitute in little yellow packets.

4. The awfulness of Walgreens coupons. Ok, so you’re browsing around the shitty Walgreen’s store and you see a sticker on the shelf under that can of toilet bowl cleaner that says ‘only $2.99 with instant savings coupon.’ Next to that is a bottle of dish detergent that says ‘only $2.99 with coupon in this week’s circular.’ Next to that is a can of powdered bleach that says ‘like spending $2.99 after the little crappy coupon is printed out at checkout so you can come back and save a buck on your next purchase.’ In the next aisle is a sign under some candy corn that says ‘2 for $5.00 (or $3.69 each).’ In order to get all of these savings, you have to run to the front of the store and pick up a circular and rip out the coupon, grab a copy of the monthly coupon savings catalog somewhere in the back of the store and take that powdered bleach to the front and buy it and hope that the sour Walgreens employee remembers to give you a coupon for one whopping dollar off your next purchase. And for the candy corn, you have to buy two to save any money, and if you happen to grab one bag of the Walgreen’s chocolate-flavored candy corn and one bag of the Walgreen’s banana-flavored candy corn and expected to pay $5.00, good luck to you because stock boy #1 only entered the banana-flavored candy corn into the computer system even though stock girl #2 put the savings labels under both. Basically, buying anything at Walgreen’s is a frigging ordeal if a coupon is involved.

5. The artificiality of it all. Nothing natural exists in the Walgreen’s store. If Alexander Hamilton were to appear and go shopping in San Francisco, I think the most shocking store he would set foot in would be Walgreen’s . Whether it’s the one at 3rd Street, 4th Street, or 5th Street, or any of the others a block away in any other direction, I think Mr. Hamilton would be mortified that the apothecary had become a bastion of artificial flavors and colors, and plastic-wrapped brightly colored boxes filled with chemicals for fat people to lose weight.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Something odd about this

I took this photo in Waikiki. I can imagine how appealing it might be for a tourist from the Mainland to go sit and have her toenails done while she's chomping on a big fat funnel cake, with the grease and powdered sugar oozing down her arm: it's good for the skin.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Just an observation about Minnesota

I just spent the last few days in Minneapolis, with a little time in St. Paul. I had a meeting to attend so I made a short vacation out of it, bringing Brad along to continue our exploration of the great cities of the American Midwest. First there was Pittsburgh, for a family Thanksgiving and later a funeral, then Cleveland for a wedding. A couple of trips to Cincinnati to visit my sister and niece and nephew gave us the southern Midwest experience, and now we have Minneapolis to point to. And when I asked Brad if he had to live in any of the cities we’ve visited so far, Minneapolis is the winner. Flat and expansive with terrible winter weather and an overcooked summer climate, Minneapolis has a great arts museum, nice cafes and restaurants, a beautiful river setting, pretty architecture, and a nice crop of doughy all-American white people who came from Norway, as well as a mindboggling concentration of Somalis who fled that county’s anarchy for a better life – in the upper Midwest.

I felt okay for the Somalis in the summer because it was hot – maybe a little more humid than it is in Somalia. And they were everywhere, quickly integrated into Minnesota Culture, but also still speaking the language of their homeland and wearing clothes designed for the desert. When one is accustomed to seeing big-boned white people everywhere with Scandinavian baldness patterns (the men, that is) peeking though their stiff dirty-blonde and reddish hair, it’s quite a sight to come across groups of women and girls wearing dark veils with skin dark in the northern plains.. According to Minnesota Public Radio, Minnesota is the American home for the former prime minister of Somalia, Ali Khalif Galaydh. He was ousted from office in October, 2001. Galaydh, his wife Mariam Mohamad and three children live in Owatonna. Most Somali refugees moved to Minnesota because a small group of Somalis had settled there.

From my experience, each time I’ve visited Minnesota, the people there are very friendly in restaurants and on the street, and waiting in lines. We had the biggest fan (and long-time theatergoer) of the Fringe Festival serving as our ambassador, passing out coupons, making recommendations about which shows we would want to see. The other women in line were laughing and chatting away. We stopped in a small antique mall and the people were following us around making beautiful small talk. A waitress in a diner had all of us eating out of her hands. And two women in a gift store welcomed us to town with rave recommendations for a St. Paul ice cream spot that gives its patrons a gimmicky Izzy ball of ice cream on top. I have been told the Minnesotans are great people, and indeed are masters of small talk. Friends who have moved to Minneapolis had a hard time “breaking in” because, according to them, everyone there went to kindergarten together and although they’ll gleefully chat with you in any public space in the upper Midwest, trying to form a close relationship is like trying to find an outfit you could wear all four seasons.

Perhaps what makes the Minnesotans seem so friendly is their goofy accent. It’s hard not to smile when people are pronouncing everyday words the way they are actually pronouncing them there. Whether it’s eating hoagies or grinders, or being told by my waiter the fish special on the Thai restaurant menu is a basil spiced walleye, it’s amusing to those of us who grew up in other states. Minnesotans have a wide-eyed joy about life unlike the hurried Michiganders or the wily Pennsylvanians. Just ask me, a dopey drawling Georgian or a sly and fake Californian. Obviously these are all fun stereotypes to rattle around, but I do appreciate something about the Minnesotan that I don’t necessarily appreciate about others.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I’ve been regretting not having the flights lately that have allowed me to keep writing, and looking at my schedule for the months ahead, I will probably have plenty of time to catch up. There was that pesky one-month trip to Italy that got in the way, and I didn’t bring my laptop along for that one. And then after being on vacation for a month I didn’t have very many negative thoughts, so there wasn’t much to write about.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The perils of travel to the South and back

I spent the last week in Atlanta and rural Georgia. As I child, I spent tons of time in Atlanta, because I lived there, but also in other parts of Georgia: Savannah, Augusta, the Okeefenokee Swamp, Sea Island, Gainesville, Jekyll Island, Dahlonega, Macon, Cleveland, Helen, and others. These are all places that aren’t widely known to the people in my current social circles, but would easily qualify as small town in rural Georgia. But to me these were childhood destinations, worthy of long car rides traversing the largest state east of the Mississippi (Do you remember the Trivial Pursuit Question? The answer was Waycross. “What is the name of the largest city in the largest county in the largest state east of the Mississippi River?). We spent hours on those pine-packed throughways linking Atlanta to our weekend destinations, often my dad’s medical meetings, keeping track of the license plates that we passed, because nothing else could be spotted outside the car windows: an occasional church, lots of forests and swampland, and some mountains. I was always so proud of my home state, with its capital city – my home – shared by the Braves and the Falcons and the Hawks and the Chiefs and the Flames (before Calgary stole them away), Underground Atlanta’s cool penny arcades, the High Museum, the multi-level world of Sid and Marty Kroft indoor amusement park, the massive Hartsfield Airport, WTBS, and more malls than I had seen in any other city, with Lenox Square as a regular weekend and evening destination. I read book after book about the history of Savannah and Atlanta, and was filled with sorrow that Atlanta had been destroyed by those damn Yankees, but felt it had been rebuilt as one of the best cities ever.

And now I go to Georgia and see a state stuck in the past or growing out of control in almost every way. Atlanta is too large to manage, and not in a good way like New York City. The street network, perhaps the worst in the US, was never built to handle the level of traffic that now clogs every roadway. The city’s suburbs have sprawled far beyond any lack of natural boundary that might have been suggested. But some interesting things have happened. Whole neighborhoods that were once white are now Black and the reverse is also true. Many of the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods in the urban core are fairly diverse, more than they were when I was a kid, and feel welcoming to everyone. Even some more progressive politics are spreading out into formerly exclusively conservative bastions.

On this trip to Georgia, I ventured into an area known as the Heart of Georgia, unfortunately abbreviated HOG. I picked up a coworker at the now awkwardly named Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport and we zipped south to Macon (pronounced like bacon) in the middle of the state, arriving around 10:00 PM. Macon isn’t an especially glamorous locale, and my most recent memories of Macon included a stop at a Zaxby’s with my salmonella-poisoned friend Mike and not-poisoned friend Viet. Prior to that, my friend Anita and I had stopped to explore the Indian mounds, albeit on a 99-degree and 99% humidity sort of day, making exploration more of an endurance competition than an archaeological expedition.

On this trip, my coworker, Alice, and I stayed at the hotel, a Homewood Suites on the north side of town, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But it wasn’t until the next morning that we really headed to the middle of nowhere. We drove south from Bibb County and make it to Bleckley County, and further south to Dodge County, arriving in the City of Eastman – a very small town, but one large enough to have a Piggly Wiggly and two motels… and a nice airport. And that’s where we went: straight to the airport. Not to get out of Dodge on a plane, but to conduct a workshop with a wide array of human service agencies and county administrators to talk about transportation. The guests were friendly and participated fully in the workshop, and they were also very Southern. When I say Southern in this context, it’s (1) an observation, (2) a commentary on what I expect of them, and (3) a genuine appreciation for the friendliness of the people. Nowhere can I go in California and hear women whose first names are Sue Ann, Anabella, or Beatrice referred to by young men and old women alike as Miss Sue Ann, Miss Anabella, and Miss Beatrice. But they most certainly do that in the rural south. Hair salons in rural California cut women’s hair short or long, but in this community where hair salons clearly outnumber restaurants, the women sported hair I can only describe as fluffed, rounded, and frosted. And at my meetings in other communities –in just about any other state – the food brought in for lunch is usually sandwiches and salads; here lunch was a large tinfoil tray of finely chopped smoked pork, a couple of tins of a mustardy Carolina-style barbecue sauce, a large tinfoil tray of Brunswick Stew (one of my favorite dishes from Georgia, but not something I find on menus in San Francisco), a large tinfoil tray of creamy potato salad, and several plastic-wrapped loaves of white bread. And plenty of sweetened iced tea. Always have to have the iced tea. I was really glad my kosheresque vegetarian coworker Richard was not there, or Linda, who only really eats crunchy things and hates anything mushy or creamy. Had they been there, I would have had to explain their awkward reactions and make excuses for their not eating this food at a meeting. But Alice and I, both being from the South, were able to play the southern card. I even heard my accent get more and more southern the longer I stayed and talked to people. And it wasn’t really fake or forced. That’s what’s so weird. It just was what it was.

After our workshop ended and the participants had left the airport, a young man came in to introduce himself. He’d heard “outsiders” from Massachusetts and California were in the building and wanted to meet us because he really liked talking with “normal people,” though I was starting to wonder if I was less normal than everyone else around me. He was charming and friendly and suggested the best restaurant in town for us to have dinner. He came running back 15 minutes later to talk to us about restaurants in New England and to tell us about a recent visitor from New York. We thanked him for his dinner recommendation and headed to it an hour later, only to learn the finest restaurant in Eastman is actually only open on Friday nights. Feeling despondent, I went to Google maps for other restaurant options. After the five fast food joints that showed up failed to entice me, I clicked on the other barbecue place in town (the one that didn’t cater lunch) and read the sole review (one star: “This place used to be good, but now their food is all greasy and nasty…”) and Alice and I found ourselves in a near panic that we wouldn’t get to eat. Would we have to go do Captain D’s or Dairy Queen? On a phone call, Alice had her mother Googling other dining options, and she came up with ”Chik King,” reading us the very positive review over the phone. “The best fried chicken around” was enough to tempt us, and so we ordered at the counter and waited for our Styrofoam plates of fried chicken, fries, onion rings, coleslaw, and my lemonade, to which I added a few tablespoons of cherry syrup. I don’t really know why I did that but figured I’d already eaten a not-so-healthy selection of foods in the last day, so a little cherry syrup might be just what I needed.

The next morning, we packed it up, did a little bit of fieldwork and had some informal meetings with a few of the people who attended the workshop and drove back to Macon. Outside of Macon, we stopped at a truck stop and I bought a Styrofoam container I filled with boiled peanuts – salty and porky – to snack on as we headed north to Atlanta. Overwhelmed by the salt, I ate one of the fresh Georgia peaches I’d bought the day before and felt a certain pride that my home state produced delicious peaches.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Looking for a career

I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I can certainly carry on writing reports about buses going up and down streets and making turns. I can write more reports about bringing large items and mobility aids and strollers on buses and trains. I can write even more reports about land use planning and long range community development plans. And I can write copy for public involvement pieces and marketing efforts for transit agencies. But could there be more?

I meet people who tell me about the jobs they have. They work as attorneys, which is appealing because they make buttloads of money, but reciting legal text and crafting tenuous arguments based on legal precedents isn’t exactly what I would consider one of those things that gets me excited. I do that every day anyway and I don’t have to memorize the documents that I reference. I talk to my friend who is a Director of Service Planning at a major US airline, but most of what he does is make decisions about where planes go based on gobs and gobs of data – pretty much what I do for buses – and if I’m not eager to continue planning, then that seems like the wrong direction for me. He has great benefits – flights around the world for free whenever he wants to go, but I fly all over the place too. I look at my sister’s career, at a major consumer products company that produces all kinds of crap that you really don’t need to buy, but that advertisers make you think you need, and so you buy new things to spray or to reduce the fat levels in your body or to wipe your ass. She creates diapers that parents will want to buy. Her job sounds interesting, but working for a multinational corporation, nothing happens very fast and her decisions must percolate up and down before they ever get carried to the next step.

I look at my friend who works for a major animation studio. She’s always excited about the ultimate product: the films the studio produces. But the day-to-day grind involves managing people and managing data backups and doing lots of things that are way behind the scenes, keeping her far from the cute characters that grace the studio’s screen.

I used to always want to work for a chamber of commerce or convention and business bureau promoting a community I liked. And the person I know who does exactly this is responsible for getting major employers to lay off their employees in California and move to Texas to hire the locals. He can tout cheap labor and a low cost of living. If I were to work for the San Francisco chamber, I would have to promote high costs of living, a business-unfriendly climate, and don’t think I would be too successful at luring businesses based in places like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Utah and Arizona. And then, I confess, I don’t know if I really would want lots of people from those states to move to San Francisco, so I would most certainly be a failure in that job.

My father and my friends who are doctors have too much non-doctoring to do to make their jobs what they want them to be. They seem to like working with people and trying to help ill people find solutions to make their lives better. But the part of my job that I hate the most – billing and dealing with invoicing my clients – that’s what they have to do for every patient they see, and with the US government’s screwy Medicaid reimbursements (or lack thereof), that’s what just drove my primary care doctor to bankruptcy. And nurses always seem to be great people: helpful and considerate and knowledgeable. But dealing with patients’ shit and doctors’ shit makes that seem like a job not worth pursuing.

The authors and writers I know seem a little overwhelmed and depressed all the time. I write all the time myself, and I get fed up with it from time to time, but I have lots of different outlets: I can make presentations and create graphic images and boss people around. But writers write, and writing all the time can be a lonely job. I don’t want a lonely job.

Educators generally seem happy with their jobs, but state cutbacks and dismal work environments make teaching less and less appealing. My spouse and friends in the world of education appreciate their long summers and shorter workdays, but also have to put up with archaic computer systems and dreary schools, along with more and more children who come from terrible homes. And educators don’t get paid enough for what they do.

And so I’ve written off most of the careers of the people I know. I neglected to mention pilots and water quality regulators and environmental policy enforcement specialists. I didn’t mention real estate developers or IT project managers. I know people with all of these jobs too, but they’re not for me. I’m too hasty to take after my friends who are architects or landscape architects or engineers.

And so I look again at the multitude of different things that I do, and the incredible flexibility I have and the ridiculous number of frequent flyer miles I accrue and wonder what else should I be doing. I speak at conferences, I write reports that are published, I help seniors and people with disabilities get to their doctor, I create logos, I write advertising copy, I design things, I calculate things, I lead focus groups, listening to regular people and making recommendations based on what I hear.

If you have any suggestions for my next career, please let me know. And if you have expertise in bakeries, delicatessens, acting, art, or retirement before age 45, please let me know.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Yard work

Completion of a garden. When our house was nearing the completion stage, I was getting excited about planting the yard. In my mind, I saw a beautiful yard filled with lush flowers in yellow and blue, every herb imaginable, flowering fruit trees cascading on the slope from above. I sketched a five minute plan and showed it to Brad and gesticulated that there would be trees and flowers and birds and fruit and tall grasses. And he looked at me and told me it would be a “granny garden.”

What’s wrong with a granny garden? Perfectly pruned plantings of primrose? Healthy hostas? Giant geraniums with juniper. Calla lilies and birds of paradise, all to be planted in clumps on a slope so all of the neighbors could marvel as I do my daily watering and weeding. I would wear a Kentucky Derby hat and a pair of flowered gloves while I snip away – delicate and precise – the suckers and awkward branches. The hummingbirds would flutter above me sipping the nectar from the hibiscus, and I would gather a few petunias to place in a small teal vase on the dining room table. I would make regular trips to the garden store and hire a group of day laborers to help me with the heavy lifting, but knowing most of what I was doing was organically designed and free-flowing and thoroughly manageable.

That was my odd little vision. But it was shot to pieces and instead my wallet was pulled from my pocket to create a different type of dream garden. Instead of the makeshift berms and patched together plants that would intrigue me at the nursery, a very intelligent landscape architect was summoned to draw up a plan that would thoroughly respect the slope of the yard, the modern design of the house, and the geometry of an urban garden. Instead of a mix of “fancy” in yellow and pink and white and purple and blue, a palette of bright greens and vibrant purples paired with grey-greens and grey-mauves, was drafted in a design of rusting steel earthworks, carefully placed stones and groundcover, and lighting and a watering system to nurture it. Instead of granny’s whimsy, our garden was to be a lush architectural showpiece to be enjoyed from above, within and below.

The steel was fabricated, the watering system put in, the driveway concreted, the slopes protected with headers, the walkways clad in black slate, and impressive pieces of granite and blue stone were set perfectly to create a path through euphorbia and leucadendron. Lighting was installed. The result: a garden that even granny would love, but granny wouldn’t have to prune it.

The neighbors like it too. It took a year to remodel the house, and only a few neighbors stopped by to peak in or ask what we were doing. It took only a couple of months to complete the yard and garden, and nearly everyone in the neighborhood has stopped by to compliment us and, to my delight, to point to our neighbors’ house and say, “You need to tell them to do something about their ugly yard.”

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sad and mad

Sad. Watching the 16-year old Asian girl with ill-fitting clothes and a runny nose on the Muni subway train reading a book of Garfield comic strips

Mad. Having to walk out of my office building through the crowd of cigarette-puffing German, Italian, Russian, French and Japanese 18- to 22-year olds in tight jeans who won’t step aside after walking outside of their English language classes on the 3rd and 4th floor of my office building.

Mad. Having too much to do and not getting to relax.

Sad. Visiting my 39-year old friend in the hospital after he had a heart attack.

Sad. That it’s so expensive and so much work to parent a baby if there’s not a uterus in your house.

Mad. That those awful tea-party lemmings have made it almost impossible for me to feel relaxed after I read the Google or Yahoo homepages because it’s filled with tacky stories generated by Rupert Murdoch’s “news” website.

Sad. Learning that an educated and fun [former] friend of mine who disappeared from my life to marry an Orthodox Jew in New York has become a Republican.

Sad. Walking by the young white guy with chin-length hair who juggles, not very well, in the long underground hallway connecting the BART station to its Stockton Street exit.

Mad. Talking to customer service people in India who are probably perfectly nice and smart, but completely incapable of responding to my website inquiry.

Mad. That the man who has the window seat next to me is wearing an ugly Versace belt and Prada slacks and continues to stand in front of me in the row, taking his time folding his newspaper and putting his things in the overhead bin.

Sad. That every weekend can’t be relaxing and warm and deadline-free like the last one.

Sad. That my grandmother is about to turn 100 years old, and lives in a nursing home, uses a walker, eats flavorless food, and doesn’t know who I am.

Sad. That the children at the school where my spouse teaches who are Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t allowed to participate in Valentines’ Day parties, Halloween or classmate birthdays.

Mad. At the parents of those children for forcing an intolerant religion on them.

Mad. At the people who are cocaine users because their addiction destabilizes so many countries and the lives of the people in those countries, leading to deaths and kidnappings.

Sad. That sometimes it feels like there’s no way out when I feel overwhelmed.

Mad. When I don’t like the people who are telling me what to do.

Sad. That the people shopping at K-Mart continue to do so and the people working there have jobs there – there in that dirty, ill-stocked fluorescent shell at the edge of that huge cracking parking lot with the painted parking spaces all faded and the broken down cars out front.

Sad. That Family Dollar Stores where young Latinos and Blacks shop in low-income neighborhoods are like miniature K-Marts, but even drearier.

Mad. That Wal-Mart is such a terrible place that does terrible things to the world, but people still spend lots of money there.

Sad. That a formerly good friend of mine and I don’t talk to or see each other anymore.

Sad. That things aren’t always like they used to be.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pardon my tirade about some labor unions

More and more often, my experience with labor unions involves corruption, strong arming, and protecting the lazy. I used to be a big union advocate, because I understood unions stood up for all of the little people and gave them the power they otherwise did not have in terms of collective bargaining.

When unions first started, they had a noble purpose, but I wonder whether they still do. I offer three different observations:

Transit. I work with a number of different transit agencies, and reading through their documentation, contracts and performance data, I think, quite often, that the operators and dispatchers and maintenance personnel would be better off without a union. I’ve had transit managers tell me that they tried to give 15% merit pay raises to their long-term drivers with the best safety records and the highest number of passenger compliments, but the union leadership argued against it, instead eking out a 3% increase for all of the drivers, including the terrible ones. I see ridiculous provisions in San Francisco Muni’s contract that allow drivers to skip work without calling in. I see agencies sideline, with full pay and benefits, bus drivers who are drunk or beat up passengers. These people should be fired.

Schools. I have acquaintances who work in education and a spouse who works as a teacher at San Francisco Unified School District. Reading the directives of an educated and fairly reasonable sounding superintendent and then the teachers’ union’s irate and unreasonable response makes my blood boil. Why is the union willing to sacrifice some of its best and brightest young and innovative teachers to protect a few substitute teachers? Why can’t one of the worst performing schools in the SFUSD, with a particularly inept and crazy teacher who cannot competently educate the students assigned to her class year after year, be fired so that young, bright and innovative teachers can transform the classrooms and be rewarded for their work? The union protects the rights of the terrible teachers without even thinking about the students in their classrooms. The union’s focus is far too narrow.

Grocery. Almost every day I walk into Bristol Farms’ store in Westfield San Francisco Centre, an urban mall anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom in downtown San Francisco. Bristol Farms is a high-end supermarket on the ground floor of the mall that has been picketed by labor union representatives since the store opened. One day, shortly after the picket started in front of Bristol Farms, I asked the 60-something looking man with a huge gut and a yellow t-shirt why he was picketing. His answer: “It’s not a union store.” My response: “So why don’t you picket Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s? I don’t think they’re union stores.” His answer: “Umm, they just told us to come down here. I don’t really know anything.”

And so nearly every day since then, I walk past the mix of disheveled people who I would certainly have laid off if I had a business. They lean against the outside of the Bristol Farms store and talk on their cell phones or to one another about somebody’s “son who beat up his cousin getting out of jail” or “getting real fucked up this weekend.” I walk inside, buy some sushi or some soup, and I make a purchase from one of the efficient, friendly people who work at Bristol Farms. It’s not to say I don’t value the supermarkets and other businesses that offer their employees benefits and health care and other things, but it is to say to this union, if you’re going to send out the laziest, sloppiest people who don’t know why they’re standing outside the supermarket to tell people not to go in, then I’m not going to listen to your whining and irrational behavior. If you want to make an impact, you might need to hire some smart non-union young people who can clearly communicate what you seek to accomplish.

It may be my upbringing. My perspectives have changed over time, but I confess that growing up in Georgia – perhaps the least union-supportive state in the US – may have tinged my opinions somewhat. My school teachers were not unionized. The hometown airline, Delta, was not a union shop. And my friend in high school who worked at a local supermarket was pissed off that he had to pay union dues that got him nothing in return.

I am not a union-basher. Really. I believe that employer-sponsored health care, vacation time, cost-of-living increases and other benefits are rights that working people should have. And I’m grateful to the labor unions for making sure that Americans are guaranteed these benefits by most employers. But I also believe in rewarding people who do a good job, firing people – without question or backlash – who are slow or lazy or inept, and that an organization should rationally and clearly communicate its goals and responsibilities if it wants people to listen to its message. I’m seeing fewer and fewer examples of labor unions that are succeeding in these three areas, and that disappoints me because I want to be more supportive. Unfortunately, some of the only unions that impress me anymore are health care workers’, manufacturers’, construction and farm workers’ unions.

The good news is that one of the neighbors up the street is a union official and often is threatened enough by another union or another organization that her union positions bodyguards on the street to protect her. I suppose after posting this, I’d better cozy up to her.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

My bad driving is okay

You’ve heard me complain about people who drive the Toyota Prius. It’s that somewhat uglyish-funkyish car that looks like a wedge of cheese-something on wheels. It’s typically driven by an incompetent foolishly bad driver. In the olden days, Volvo drivers were the bad ones, but then they all moved on to the Prius, which allowed me to buy a Volvo. And to knock people who drive the Prius.

That car. The car that is driving in two lanes 25 mph below the speed limit? Yes, it’s a Prius. The car that pulls into the intersection in front of you causing you to slam on your breaks? It’s a Prius. The car that stops at every intersection, even if no stop sign exists? A Prius, of course. Of course, on the bright side, these bad drivers are saving gasoline and generating their own energy.

And what about that car driving 35 mph over the lane markings, making a U-turn on a residential street and slowing down traffic in front of Rayzor Ranch in Denton, Texas? Ummm, well, that would be me, in a Prius. Indeed, on my last trip to Texas, my rental car was a Toyota Prius. And I took advantage of my ability to be a bad Prius driver while I was doing fieldwork.

I ran a stop sign, drove as slow as a refugee boat on the freeway, and pulled across three lanes of traffic to make a left turn. “Ha ha!” I yelled out. “I’m driving like shit but it’s okay because I’m driving a Prius! You know you’d better stay away from me!” I accidentally missed a turn and backed up in the lane of traffic. I pulled over on a dirt bank. I sat in the middle of the road trying to get over into the right lane. But, again, as I proudly told my coworker, “I’m driving a Prius, so it doesn’t matter how well I drive,”

I’m usually a good driver. I’m fairly assertive, stay in my lane, pay attention to what’s going on around me, stop at crosswalks for pedestrians, parallel park quickly, etc. But I’ve realized if you put me behind the wheel of a Prius, you’ll turn me instantly into a bad driver. Cruising around in a weird sloping donut-shaped car makes Joey’s driving as bad as all of those drivers I berate, not because of their ethnicities or age, but because their brain cells are zapped when they are behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius.

The shape of the car. Is it the weird maneuvering of the incompetent driver or the shape of the car that renders a driver useless? I confess, the Prius has some serious blindspots. Even the rear window has some sort of big slat of car-colored plastic keeping the top part of the glass from being connected to the bottom part of the window.

There’s also a big television-like screen on the dashboard that is addictive to watch. I mean, come on, we all like to stare at televisions or computer screens when we see them. We think we’ll see and awesome touchdown or some shitty Fox “News” story or a crappy You Tube video of the Grape Lady falling in front of the Georgia’s chateau-esque winery. I’m sitting on an airplane right now (on my fourth glass of wine) and there are videos of Japanese art flashing across the screen that I don’t really care to watch, but because it’s all on a screen in the vicinity of where my eyes are generally directed, of course I’m going to look at it. Anyway, that screen on the Prius shows you anything you want to see, from a rear view of your car (“wow, a car cam!”) to little icons of automobiles stacked upon each other generating energy and showing you who much energy is created each time you do something or other that I don’t understand. Or if you touch the screen, you can look at all of the radio stations programmed into the car’s memory and each rectangle on the screen lists the name of the songs currently being played on my “favorite” radio stations. Lady Gaga’s Poker Face is on 99.3, while Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” is on 98.7 and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” is on 104.2. With all of these choices on a giant touch-screen in front of my face, no wonder I’m swerving off the road at 15 mph in my weird sloping car singing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” lyrics at the top of my lungs: “Ra ra aha ah ah rama ramama gaga ooh-la-la…”

I got home and drove my little Volvo. I could see out the windows and had a good sense of the size of the car. I stayed within the lanes and drive above the speed limit. I parked it in a snap and saw that my mpg was approximately 19. And I was fine with that.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Censorship up in the air

Dullness. I’ve been pondering why people live in incredibly dull places. Most of America is incredibly dull. Incredibly large Super Target stores with incredibly enormous parking lots. Incredibly boring malls with all of the same stores that are at all of the incredibly boring malls in all of the other incredibly dull places. Incredibly drab people shuffling their incredibly plain children in and out of their SUVs at incredibly uninteresting athletic fields and amusement parks and CVS parking lots. Eating at the Olive Garden and Outback and all of the incredibility blah dining establishments located on the side of the US’ incredibly wide freeways and shuttered shopping centers.

Perhaps because I was half-heartedly watching Up in the Air on my United Airlines flight from Texas – not an American Airlines flight – and hearing the grouchy young woman talking about how she moved to Omaha, Nebraska for the man of her dreams and gave up a job offer in San Francisco. Now he’s broken up with her by text message and George Clooney and the married woman he falls for are trying to make her feel better.

I was watching George Clooney fly to various places in the middle of the country. I was listening to Lady Gaga on my iPod. I saw George Clooney walking with the uptight young woman (“Natalie”) toward the airport and decided it would be interesting to listen in to see how United Airlines could get away with showing this film – a film prominently featuring American Airlines – and how they would “modify” it.

Change is in the air. The modifications are quite amusing, really. As Clooney is showing uptight chick through the security lines, he says something like “Don’t get in line behind families, with children; don’t get behind old people – they have so much metal in their bodies even they don’t know where it is. Get behind Asians – they pack lightly and follow the rules (or something equally inane). And then Natalie says, “That’s racist.” The United Airlines version is “Don’t get in line behind families, with children; don’t get behind old people – they have so much metal in their bodies even they don’t know where it is. Get behind business people – they pack lightly and follow the rules (or something equally inane). And then Natalie says, “That’s racist.” The words 'Business People' are said in a moderately bad imitation of George Clooney's voice.

The United Airlines' film's version of the American Airlines check-in counter is a weird zoomed in picture of faces only. The airplanes are blurry and unrecognizable as being part of a competitor’s fleet. The Admiral Club door is not shown. The logo is not shown anywhere. The best line for us geeky Premier Executive 100,000 Mile Flyers is when Clooney is telling Natalie that certain benefits are reserved for people with Executive status, dubbing in a uniquely (and awkward) United Airlines term in place of the “Platinum” word.

Of course, my childish side enjoys all of the poor-quality voiceovers with the following approximations:

· Fuck you=Go off

· Think of me as a version of you with a vagina = Think of me as a version of you with _____

· Fuck off you fucking asshole = Bug off you unkind person

· You’re an asshole= Don’t be an ass

And plenty of others.

It makes me wonder what the passengers on American Airlines flights are hearing and seeing when they watch Up in the Air on their flights. It also makes me wonder what I’ve missed in all of the other films I’ve seen on airplanes: those that I’ve seen for the first time up in the air. Has my movie world really been censored and modified all along, so I’m only seeing a knockoff of the original without any of the racist, foul cleverness or mindboggling product placement?

Tired of this movie soundtrack. I’ve switched my headset to another channel. I see the movie continue to play on the screen ahead of me and the one across the aisle, and the one over my head. Instead I listen to the pilots talk to the air traffic controllers and hear that my pilot is instructed to contact Emerson, wherever that may be. A Sun Country Airlines pilot asks if he may increase altitude. A Delta pilot asks if she may increase altitude. The air traffic controller tells them both to wait eight minutes until the bumps smooth out. Continental and Southwest pilots report back on their moderate light chops.

It’s better to watch the film this way.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thank you waitress, now go away

I missed breakfast in my hotel by six minutes, so I hopped in the car and started driving through the suburban hell known as Glendale, Arizona. I passed a Chili’s and an Olive Garden, a Starbucks and a Swensens’. I drove by a Fat Burger and a Subway, and then saw a parking lot full of cars that old people drive – Buicks, Pontiacs, Saturns and Toyotas – and realized I had arrived at my destination. The sign in front announced “The Best Breakfasts in town” and I knew it was a reliable chain, where I had eaten lunch in Orange County only a couple of weeks earlier. A young woman with a baseball cap and her hair pulled back in such a way as to make her look a bit like a gawky girl who would talk about band camp greeted me outside the front door and walked into the restaurant with me, asking if I was a party of two.

“Nope. Only one for breakfast,” I replied.

She acknowledged her miscount and asked, “Booth or a table?”

I followed her into the front dining room, a dark high-ceiling room with a distinctly fake French motif and accepted the booth she offered. My waitress would be right with me, I understood.

I opened the menu and looked over the tantalizing cholesterol- and syrup-filled breakfast items. French toast filled with mascarpone and berries. Omelettes with mushrooms and cheeses described as much more than omelettes with mushrooms and cheeses. Pancakes with lemon…

Her voice interrupted my perusal of the offerings. “Oh, you. Good morning. Maybe you would like a cappuccino or white mocha cocoa latte or espresso whip? We have so many choices.” It was a voice that would have been attached to a character on a Saturday Night Live skit mocking a bossy, wacky Asian woman fresh off the boat (Or maybe I’m thinking of Ms. Swan from Mad TV?). I looked up and saw an eager grin on a thin 64-year old former snow-shoveling Gemini Korean woman who likes the winter weather in Phoenix, who has a sister who used to live in Cincinnati, who argues a bit with her coworker, sports L'Oreal Excellence 4BR Dark Burgundy Brown hair color, and who talks a lot to all of her customers, including the group of 60-something women visiting from Minnesota, one of whom offered her their camera so she could take their photo, and one of whom complimented her on her hair color after she told a long story about her hair, and how she saves $65 that she would spend at a salon by coloring her hair herself and it does a good job of hiding the gray and adds a splash of maroon. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I smiled and told her I’d stick to water and returned to my menu. ….Pancakes with lemon curd and eggs, oatmeal..

My waitress returned promptly. “Do you know what you want? We have many choices. Such a good menu!”

“I’ll have the French toast, with my eggs scrambled.”

She gave me warm thank yous and friendly wishes and wandered away with my order written on her pad.

I read over some of my maps and documents scatted across my small breakfast table and looked around the dining room. I saw the waitress delivering coffee to the only other men in the room and then giggling and walking away with her coffee pot. She then brought me my orange juice.

“Here is your orange juice. Such a nice day today, huh? So different from when I was growing up in Korea. I have to shovel snow – oh so much – all the winter and here is so beautiful every day.”
“Oh yes,” I obliged her. “I live in San Francisco and it’s been a little cool and gloomy lately, but this is great. I was in Ohio last weekend and it was so cold and snowy.”

“Oh yes. So nice. My sister used to live in Cincinnati and she have to shovel snow and it so cold all the time. I don’t like that. She don’t like that either. She left and moved away to another place. Here is so nice, but summer get very hot. But I like.” She laughed and told me a few more things about the weather before wandering away.

I watched her move from table to table taking orders and delivering food. She spent perhaps 10 minutes chatting with a group of eight middle-age women. She told them they were so pretty and looked like they were having a nice time together. They told her they were visiting from Minnesota. She talked about the weather and they talked about the weather. One of the women told her how much she liked her hair color. The waitress told the woman that she uses L'Oreal Excellence 4BR Dark Burgundy Brown. The woman told her it was a beautiful shade. The waitress said it was good at hiding the gray and that it also saved her $65 by doing it herself instead of going to the salon. The other women at the table laughed and volunteered their haircolors. The waitress asked if they wanted her to take a photo of them (one woman had her camera out). They all moved around the table and smiled and let her take their photo. They exchanged many other pleasantries and talked about their children.

Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the other waitress behind the coffeemaker. It was like watching a jealous ninth grader plotting against the popular JV cheerleading captain. The other waitress, a white woman with glasses and a mousy brown ponytail, poured decaffeinated coffee from the orange-rimmed glass carafe into two brown mugs, but she looked up and watched the Korean waitress interact with the women from Minnesota. Her eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared as she watched the Korean waitress work the crowd to rake in tips the pony tailed woman could only dream of. In her mind she was thinking, “That old Korean hussy needs to be poisoned. She needs to be taught a lesson and then move on away from the best breakfast in Phoenix. I used to be the popular one and I got all of the tips. I’m younger and prettier than she is. She talks about her flaws and somehow she charms the clients. How does that happen?”

My waitress came back and delivered my meal. “Here it is, your yummy breakfast. You will enjoy so much. Do you want some more jam? Some more syrup? Maybe some ketchup? Oh, I bet you want hot sauce? “

“Oh no, I‘m fine,” I replied.

“Okay. She giggled. “You know, I’m 64. Can you believe it? I have so much energy and can keep working.” She then told me about “those ladies over there visiting from Minnesota” and how they complimented her on hair color and how she told them she “uses L’Oreal hair color and it makes it so nice that you can’t see her gray hair and they were all comparing colors and it was so much fun.” Then she told me how much she loved her job and how much fun it is to talk to the friendly people from Phoenix and everywhere.

I thanked her again and started eating my food.

After 10 minutes of eating and contemplating the lack of personal/private space in this massive restaurant, the waitress returned.

“Somebody just asked me if it’s my birthday,” she announced. “Oh no!” She laughed for a few seconds. “My birthday is in June.”

I think she told me the date, but I don’t recall.

She continued. “Maybe I seem happy like it is my birthday, but I am always so happy.”

“Or maybe it’s because you’re telling everyone your age.” I smiled. “Happy Birthday in June.”

She laughed, like it was the best joke she’d heard all morning. “Thank you,” she laughed again. “In June.”

While she was talking to me, I saw the jealous waitress sneak out from behind the
waitress station and refill some empty coffee cups at the table where the only other two men in the dining room were seated. Perhaps she was puffing flirtatious air at the men to stave off the Korean waitresses’ charms.

I finished my breakfast and waited several minutes for the check to arrive. I looked around and saw my waitress was busy conversing with all of the other guests at the tables in her serving area. Finally she brought me the check, we exchanged a few more pleasantries, I left her a 20% tip, and I stood up and walked to the front door. I was thanked three times by wait staff I hadn’t interacted with during my experience in the restaurant, and then shown out by the slightly gawky baseball cap-sporting young woman who greeted me when I arrived.

I settled into my rental car – a Toyota Camry – with exceptionally functional brakes, and drove to my first meeting of the day, somehow more prepared to interact with the client than I sometimes am.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Bulky items on transit (or passive aggressive ways to annoy the bad people)

I just took a break from my work. I’m sitting on a plane watching a dreary Australian movie about a single father trying to raise his two sons after his wife dies. Everything runs amok and I’m sure that eventually the nice blonde young woman will help him get it together. I’m glad that I didn’t see this film in a theatre, or waste a Netflix selection on it.

I’m on my way home from Honolulu where I have been riding buses and driving all around Oahu to try to figure out what needs to be done to make the buses work more smoothly, to make it easier to get from one place to another, and to keep it one of the best used transit systems in the United States.

Among the many challenges facing TheBus is how the agency deals with parcels and baggage and bicycles and strollers and surfboards and wheelchairs and Segways and scooters. They have a better set of policies than most transit agencies – something I’m learning because I’m also leading a national research study about how transit agencies deal with all of these large things on their buses and their trains. And although I am trying to take a purely academic look at the policies in place, I find myself wanting to write my own research report about how much parcels and baggage and bicycles and other large items on buses and trains bug the crap out of me – if they’re not mine.

My transit behavior peeves are as follows:

The backpack, usually sported by an overweight young woman or a stringy old white woman. They get on the train and turn around and bang their backpack into my head or my back or my arm. So I push against their backpack to make the experience as unpleasant as possible. I figure it is already unpleasant for me, why not roll with it and try my best to knock them off their feet? Take off your backpack and put in on the floor between your legs: you’ll take a load off your back, you’ll know if someone grabs for it, and you won’t be a pain in my ass.

The oversize handbag or shoulder bag, usually over the shoulder of a clueless woman or a old gay man. Just like the backpack person, the person with the shoulder bag assumes that if they twist their shoulder bag to the rear, it will be out of their way. But these people are very stupid, because they end up with their bag more in the way because I am secretly twisting it back in their direction, so it not only strains their shoulders but they get the end of their own bag digging into their side. Unlike the space-hogging knapsack users who stand their ground, usually these people move away from me to get out of the impossibly tight situation I’ve created for them.

The bicycle on the train, usually brought on board by a skinny white guy with strange body hair or a lean woman with a sour smell. He or she will park the bike right in the middle of all of the other riders, making us navigate around them to get off the vehicle. I understand there is nowhere else to store your bike on the vehicle, SO WHY BRING YOUR DAMN BIKE ON THE VEHICLE? Just bike all the way to your destination. Unlike backpacks or handbags, bike owners are very possessive of their two-wheeled ride, so they seem to stand aside with one hand on the bike frame and guard their wheels. The best strategy I’ve been able to come up with is to step close to the bike (pretending I have no other room and am being pushed there by other passengers) so that my shoe actually pushes against the wheel of the bike (or better yet, the rim of the bike). The bike owner thinks I’m trying to balance as their bike gets pushed further and further into the corner). Bike owners hate it!

Strollers on transit are a whole different story. About half the time, the stroller user is the bad person; the other half of the time, it’s the other passengers on the bus who are the bad ones. First, let me say that I blame the stroller manufacturers who are building SUV-sized strollers for extra fat American babies who drink Coke in their bottles and eat heaps of beefy mac by age 1. The parents go out and buy these ugly, contorted looking strollers because they are modern and new and everyone else has them. And then, they expect to bring these strollers with them when they ride the bus? Hello? Whatever happened to those umbrella fold-up strollers that everyone had in the 80s. The only people you now see using those are young women in low-income neighborhoods. Why? Because their cheap and those young women aren’t about to waste their money on a six-foot high stroller so their baby can get a spring-loaded upright view of the world. Those women also know how to ride transit: take your baby out of the stroller and fold it up. It’s usually the weekend riders who don’t have the sense to leave the ultra-deluxe stroller – the one that’s perfect for walks around the neighborhood because you can hold all of the baby’s needs as well as six bags of groceries from Whole Foods – at home and bring the umbrella stroller along for the ride. And people with double-decker twin strollers: you are not meant to ride transit.

Luggage is also a different story. As one who takes luggage on buses and trains, I move all the way into a seat and put whatever I’m schlepping on my lap. Most people with luggage are okay in my book. I think they realize they are carting around giant fabric-coated rectangles on wheels and they are best kept out of everyone’s way.

Miscellaneous parcels. I’ve talked about these from time to time. They range from a man in a wheelchair carrying a terrarium full of mice to hundreds of small Chinese women preceded by pink plastic grocery bags full of leaves and roots pushing their way in front of me on the train. Most parcels are comic relief. The old man with the grocery cart gives me an opportunity to marvel at his purchases and wonder how he feels when he buys Depends. I get to look at the boxes wrapped in brown paper with Feliz Navidad stickers and “ECUADOR” scribbled all over, wrapped lovingly and laboriously, if not improperly, only to be rejected by USPS or UPS staff. I watch the man with the brooms and the buckets and the cleaning solutions headed out to a job somewhere.

Many things are prohibited on the buses in Honolulu. Including poop.

I hope the research study finds some good solutions to address all of these problems, which are exacerbated with the overcrowding that transit agencies are experiencing as they slash bus routes due to diminished funding. I’m optimistic that some solutions can arise to make it easier for parents to bring strollers into the subway and on to the bus without being squeezed out. And I hope that people continue to bring interesting things on board buses and trains so I will have something else to write about. And complain about.

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