Monday, July 18, 2016

MY STAND-UP COMEDY DEBUT = VENI, VIDI, VICI

While living in Las Vegas, during the Labor Day weekend in 1982, I took my girlfriend, (Sue my wife), to a favorite, romantic restaurant, Bob Taylor's Ranch House.
BOB TAYLOR'S IS LOCATED IN THE NORTHERN OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN. I DIDN'T PLAN IT BUT I PARKED FACING DOWNTOWN VEGAS.


After dinner, in our darkened car, I presented Sue an engagement ring and fumbled out my marriage proposal.  Within seconds of her acceptance, Labor Day fireworks lit the near-distant skies above the Union Plaza Casino.  

We always took those unexpected yet timely pyrotechnics as an omen of success...and we were RIGHT!

                                                                       

                                                                              *



This past Saturday night, I performed stand-up at the Comedy Hideaway, in Atlantic City. This experience was exhilarating, challenging and fun for me. And judging from the public's response and the positive vibe I got from the professional comedians who also appeared on stage, I did a good job.

I closed my schtick by quoting Julius Caesar, (and honoring him on his birthday) by calling out to Sean, (my Latin consultant), "Veni, vidi vici," (I came, I saw, I conquered).
JULIUS CAESAR (100 BC - 44  BC) WAS A ROMAN POLITICIAN AND GENERAL. HIS BIRTHDAY IS NOT ONLY JULY 13th BUT THE MONTH "JULY" WAS NAMED IN HIS HONOR.  

In addition to Sean...Tom, Matt and Heiner played key roles in either encouraging me to go on stage or providing technical assistance to improve the final product.  But one person out shines them all, my son Andrew.
ANDREW, (OY SUCH A MENTSCH),  SINGLE-HANDEDLY ADVERTISED MY BIG MOMENT AND WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR MUCH OF MY AUDIENCE. DURING MY DRAMATIC REHEARSAL MELT-DOWNS, HE PROVIDED PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP, (EVEN FREUD HAD TURNED MY CASE DOWN).  ADDITIONALLY, ANDREW'S TECHNICAL SUPPORT PUT A MUSICAL FRAMEWORK TO MY PERFORMANCE.  HE ALSO PRODUCED THE ATTACHED VIDEO AND DURING THE SHOW, HE VOLUNTARILY ISOLATED HIMSELF AWAY FROM HIS PEOPLE, TO ACT AS MY SOUND MAN.


The biggest question I have been receiving is, how, when and why did this sudden urge to perform stand-up come from?

The greatest influence in getting me on stage is stellar crime novelist Charlie Stella.  We had a chance meeting about twelve years ago after not seeing each other in twenty-five years.  He appreciated that I have led a colorful life.  He especially liked my Vegas adventures and called me, "a natural story teller."

My confidence was catapulted by his praise, so I began writing out my experiences.  These jottings developed into a twenty-piece series of "Standing Dead" short stories.  Through Charlie's enthusiasm for my work, he encouraged me to refine my craft.

Later, he became my most consistent follower of this, my "MORE GLIB ThAN PROFOUND," blog.  Now that my blog ideas have slowed down, it was a natural transition to find a new story telling vehicle.

It should be noted, I am not bashful but I never sought the spotlight.  However, I now have an incredibly large arsenal of vignettes that I enjoy sharing (in intimate settings) with family, friends, coworkers and casino customers.

At my job this past April, I was dealing Pai Gow Poker, to one player.  Woven into the game, I told this gentlemen several humorous tales. I could tell I was on a roll and that his was rapt on every word I said.

A buddy of his came by.  I got a sense from their conversation that they were in some level of show business.  When the friend left, I asked, "What do you do for a living?"  He said, "I do stand-up, at the comedy club upstairs."  I said, "We have a comedy club?"  He said, "Yeah, for about a year and a half."  I joked, "That's the best kept secret since the development of the nuclear bomb."

I went on break and this fellow was gone when I got back.

Three nights later, on my drive home from work, I recounted that meeting.  I got the idea that if I entertained a professional, I might be able to do stand-up myself.  I began thinking of a routine.

During the first week of May, I approached the comedy club manager, (Matt Bridgestone), of the Blue Velvet Theater.  He was busy ushering the paying customers to the hostess, (it was a sell-out).

When I got his attention, I wanted to see if they ever have an "open mic night," for amateurs.  His answer was no. Although there are many more small details, he did agree to giving me five minutes. I asked for twelve minutes.  It was insane, he didn't hesitate and said, "Okay." As he went back to crowd control, he encouraged me to look around inside.
THE BLUE VELVET THEATER WAS A GORGEOUS, STATE-OF-ART COMEDY VENUE.  THIS PLUSH SHOWROOM HAD A SEATING CAPACITY OF 100 AND SCREAMED-OUT...MAJOR LEAGUES.

I still hadn't sold myself on the idea of following through on this, "mental masturbation."   When my wife Sue and I visited my son Andrew at college, (he was on the verge of graduating), I broke the news that I was considering doing stand-up.  He enthusiastically, said, "When? I'll go!"  His roommate Tom sealed the deal by saying the same thing.

From that moment on, I made a commitment to make this dalliance into a reality.  At the same time, Andrew and Tom through social media, got the word out.

My big moment would be Saturday July 9, 2016.  I chose that date because:

  • The theater is only open on Saturdays
  • I would be on vacation that week
  • I'd have two months to prepare, rehearse and advertise
Later, we received happy news that Andrew got a summer job, in a psychology lab at Duke University.  He vowed to drive nine-hours through Friday night to see me on stage.  And leave Sunday to be back to work for Monday. I told him not to...even though I expected a big drop in attendance, (his friends wouldn't come without him). But it worked out that he could.

I waited until mid-June to touch base with the comedy club manager. He was doing me a favor so I didn't want to be a pest.  I can only imagine the look on my face when I read his return E-Mail, "The Blue Velvet Theater has closed."  I was about to shit my pants when I continued reading, "But I have another spot...here in town."
THE COMEDY HIDEAWAY,  IS ON THE BEACH BLOCK OF NEW YORK AVENUE IN ATLANTIC CITY.  IT HAS AN INTIMATE (75-SEAT CAPACITY), IN A, SPEAKEASY-LIKE ATMOSPHERE.  ALTHOUGH THE ROOM IS FAR LESS SPECTACULAR THAN THE BLUE VELVET, IT DID RECEIVE POSITIVE REVIEWS ONLINE.


I didn't let this drastic change diminish my swag.

Indirectly, one of my best ideas was to use Frank Sinatra's song, "NEW YORK," for my walk-up music and as my close.  It not only framed my performance but because I continually heard it in my head for two months, it became my anthem and a tool that kept me focused on the prize...succeeding.

My son Andrew not only helped record the needed musical segments but he acted as my sound man during the event, (up the street there is an all-nude cabaret).  Both places are owned by the same person...to save a salary, one sound man runs back and forth between both.  Who can blame this man for spending more time at the nudie show.

At the Comedy Hideaway, my audience was about twenty-five people, (seven-eighths of them were my people).  The line-up of comedians included six professionals and me.  I went on next to last, before the "head-liner."

The nervousness never overcame me, until I went to pee during the third act.  I looked in the mirror and couldn't remember my first line.  Later, I felt numb as I reviewed my cues with Andrew. We were still chatting when  I was caught off guard by the emcee introducing me, (one of the other comedians didn't show up).

This last second switch worked to my benefit.  I had no time to over-think the process as Andrew started the soundtrack and patted me on the back.  While waiting for the exact phrase, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere," I inwardly repeated my mantra; be poised, have fun...and off I went.
THEY SAY, IN OUR SEARCH FOR PERFECTION, IT'S A NATURAL TENDENCY TO DWELL ON OUR MISTAKES.  I HAD MESSED-UP OR FORGOT SO MANY KEY LINES. BUT I HID THEM WELL ENOUGH THAT THE AUDIENCE APPRECIATED WHAT THEY DID SEE..AND WHAT THEY SAW WAS GOOD.

The audience's positive response made my odyssey worthwhile.  I felt empowered and after my set was over I remembered to thank the manager, Matt Bridgestone, (even though he wasn't there).

My body felt like jelly long after I was over.  I languished over my screw-ups until, on the way out, the professional comics gave me sincere congratulations...and were amazed that it was my first time.

As my entourage and I stepped into the street, the darkened Atlantic City skyline exploded in brightness. The fireworks that had been cancelled on the 4th of July magically signaled to me that I had succeeded.  And from the feedback I've gotten from Andrew's video and general word mouth...the firework omen was correct again.

That night's joyride didn't end.  We adjourned to the Black Cat Bar in the next town, Absecon for the after party. Three other couples joined us who had missed the show.
THE "A-TEAM," CAPPING OFF MY PERSONAL TRIUMPH WITH GREAT FRIENDS, AT THE BLACK CAT BAR IN ABSECON.

We adults all have heavy responsibilities.  It's infrequent that we have special moments all to ourselves. At no point did I ever think doing stand-up was anything more than a wild hair up my ass but through the greatness of the people I surround myself with, it became far more rewarding and a personal highlight of my life.

A special thanks to everyone who came, supported me or cheered me on from afar.  Andrew's friends who came a great distance like Heiner F., (all the photo credit on Facebook goes to him).  Tom K., (public relations and promotion), Matt H., (who came against the odds of an early start of a new job the next morning) and Sean F. (Latin consultant)...even though at the party I had to remind him that Veni, vidi vici meant; I came, I saw, I conquered. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

JOE GARAGIOLA vs THE STYROFOAM SPITTOON

Joe Garagiola died March 23, 2016. Today's offering isn't intended to be s a eulogy, it should be looked upon as a celebration of an unsung champion.
JOE GARAGIOLA (1926-2016) WAS A WORLD CHAMPION, (1946), IN HIS ROOKIE SEASON WITH THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS.  DURING THE WORLD SERIES, HE SHOWED GREAT PROMISE AND BATTED .316.  HOWEVER THE REMAINDER OF HIS NINE-YEAR CAREER THAT INCLUDED STINTS WITH THE PIRATES, CUBS AND GIANTS, CAN BEST BE DESCRIBED AS MEDIOCRE.

Garagiola possessed the gift of gab and was famous for self-facing humor.  He liked to call catcher's equipment (seen above) as; "the tools of ignorance." In reference to his marginal skills as a major league baseball player, he related this anecdote about growing up with future Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra, "Not only was I not the best catcher in majors but I wasn't even the best catcher on my street."

In his early years in St. Louis, he said to Stan Musial (arguable one of the top ten hitters in baseball history), "I had a great day today.  I woke up to a beautiful morning, made love to my wife and ate a great breakfast.  On my way to the park, I made every traffic light.  Then I got two hits including a homer and...we won.  Stan, did you ever have a day like that?"  Musial said, "I have a day like that every day."

Garagiola retired from baseball after the 1954 season.  He then used his outward personality and glib humor to land in a career in broadcasting.  I best remember him as an analyst on NBC's baseball game of the week. But he reached champion status and national prominence when he became a regular on TV's, "THE TODAY SHOW."  Beyond that he appeared on several other shows either as a host or a guest...as well as being a celebrity panelist on game shows.

Behind the scenes, Joe Garagiola's true champion caliber was developed as an anti-chewing tobacco advocate.  Joe had been a user until the mid-1950's.  He realized the health risks and quit cold turkey. When few people were stepping forward, Garagiola organized some major leaguers who had suffered the effects of this addiction.  Then voluntarily, each year, they visited major league spring training facilities, (as early the late-1950's).
BEFORE THE HARMFUL EFFECTS OF THIS CANCER-CAUSING POISON WAS WELL-KNOWN, ADS LIKE THIS (1955) WERE USED TO SELL INDIVIDUALS ON IT CALMING EFFECTS.

Garagiola together with the horror story of an afflicted colleague, he used his personality and humor to get his foot in the door.  A big point of his "scared straight" type lectures was to say, "If you have lung cancer, (from conventional smoking), you die of lung cancer.  But with oral cancer (from smokeless tobacco), you die one body part at a time...they operate on your neck, your jaw, your throat etc."

In my pre-pubescence, I recall so many baseball cards (1950's and 60's), where the players like; Fox (above), Bill Tuttle and Rocky Bridges proudly posed with a wad of this crap in their cheek.
LIKE MANY OF HIS PEERS, DON ZIMMER THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED WHILE USING IT.

Somehow the dangerous message never got universally accepted.  So while you might remember the premature death of Hall-of Famer Nellie Fox, others users made a far less powerful case. Nevertheless, the  problem is ongoing and its continued use is still strong.
CONTEMPORARY USERS AND ABUSERS OF THIS DISGUSTING AND LIFE-THREATENING HABIT REPRESENT A WHO'S WHO OF BASEBALL.  SOMEONE LIKE CURT SHILLING CREDITS GARAGIOLA FOR SAVING HIS LIFE.  HOWEVER, TONY GWYNN AS GREAT AND POPULAR AS HE WAS DIED WAY BEFORE HIS TIME.  

Despite the uphill battle, Garagiola fought well-up into his eighties.  He took information from a George Vecsey article from May 29, 2010 that sighted the Center For Disease Control's finding that there's a link between oral cancer brought on by the use of smokeless tobacco, to pancreatic cancer and heart disease.

Later, Garagiola spoke against smokeless tobacco lobbyist at congressional hearings,. To paraphrase his rebuttal that chewing tobacco is a safe alternative to smoking he said; It's like jumping out a 25th floor window instead of from the 50th.

Today, there are bans against smokeless tobacco in the majors and minor leagues.  Still, users find ways to circumvent these rules.  Hopefully, at the high school level enforcement can pave the way to change the culture in order to eliminate this highly addictive habit.
THE STAGGERING TRUTH ABOUT SMOKELESS TOBACCO IS, IT'S NOT LIMITED TO BASEBALL, ETHNICITY, AGE OR EVEN GENDER.

I hope Joe Garagiola wasn't just spitting into the wind. To me, he was a hero and truly a head of his time.  But sometimes people need visual evidence.
"SKOAL BROTHER!"  JUST A PINCH BETWEEN WHERE YOUR CHEEK AND GUM WERE...THE "LUCKY" VICTIMS GET AWAY WITH JUST BEING DISFIGURED.

I see far too much Skoal-like products in use, on my job.  I can't possibly explain how disgusting it is to watch people use a Styrofoam cup or an empty beer bottle as a spittoon. While my sarcastic supervisors say; just look away.  I remind them that they can not only look away but walk away as well. Even less sophisticated coworkers might call it the lesser of two evils when compared with getting inundated by secondhand smoke.  The reality is, the whole practice shouldn't be permitted in public especially in casinos where it could be used to distract the staff who are protecting high volumes of money.

This is not a simple thing that you can merely divert your eyes from...like rubberneckers going by a car wreck...your eye keeps stealing looks at the spittle.  On a rare occasion, a drunk or careless jerk allows the overage (minute flecks) to fall onto the gaming table.  That constant reminder is bad enough...but it's a million times worse and far too frequent that the brown slime drips down the side of the cup.

I pity the unsuspecting clean-up person who touches a Styrofoam spittoon.  It's so nauseating that someone with an iron-clad stomach would want to wretch. AND...AND...AND, if you have the misfortune of touching anything even remotely damp when witnessing this apex of awfulness...it becomes a miracle that you don't projectile vomit on your abuser.

I mourn the death of Joe Garagiola.  He was a champion of baseball, broadcasting and the common sense behind the anti-smokeless tobacco movement.

In his passing, I hope that Joe Garagiola will rest in peace and that the torch of his anti-smokeless tobacco campaign will gain momentum.  Maybe in the near future, he can become like Vincent Van Gogh  when the depth of his life-long struggle is fulfilled and appreciated.  It's just a shame when the great ones are only immortalized when they are gone.

Monday, April 25, 2016

BEE-YOO-TEE-FUL...A DINING GUIDE FOR PHILADELPHIA

My wife Sue and I went to Philadelphia two weeks ago, to see the stage production of, "BEAUTIFUL," the musical story of songwriter and singer, Carole King.
BEGINNING AS A TEENAGER, CAROLE KING,  (1942-PRESENT), WAS A HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SONGWRITER.  LATER, SHE STARTED TO PERFORM AND HER MUSIC BECAME THE SOUNDTRACK OF A GENERATION. 

For a short while, there was some real doubt whether we'd actually make it to the show.  But first, a little backstory.



                                                                               *



In the summer of 1969, two friends and I were walking to "the pool," aka, the Seaview Pool and Yacht Club, (for the sake of accuracy, please be aware that due our fourteen year-old mentality, "yacht" should be pronounced to rhyme with, botched).

Halfway there, a shiny, old, black car slowed to a stop, (I was a kid, so beyond knowing a jalopy from a Rolls Royce, my knowledge as an autophile was limited).  A smiling man, smoking a stogie called out, "What's the only thing that's important in life?"  My friend J answered, "Parking spots."  The man said, "Bee-yoo-tee-full!  You remembered.  Now tell your buddies; a man shouldn't be judged because of his character, a man should be judged by the quality of his parking spaces."

The big car whipped around the corner.  I said, "What was that all about?"  J said, "That's Bobby V's dad."  S, my other friend whispered, "Was that really Joe Vanilla, the Patron Saint of Parking Spaces?"

I knew only Bobby V.  as being my friends' friend but I never heard of Joe Vanilla. Apparently, on their side of Canarsie, Joe Vanilla was a household name.  Still, most adults avoided him or claimed they didn't know this shady character.  That's why back then, Joe Vanilla was what we call today, an urban legend.

Joe Vanilla, (before he was arrested), was a  mythical spirit like Robin Hood. Except in their section of my neighborhood, if something fell off a truck and you knew a guy, who knew a guy, that second guy giving you the incredible deal, was usually Joe Vanilla.

During my budding puberty, I wasn't savvy to anything that resembled the Witness Protection Program.  But that's what it seems like now because Joe indeed vanished and his own son never confided in his friends as to the situation his dad was in or his whereabouts.

This  level of criminal behavior  was heroic to my moronic, young mind. I listened with great interest as J shared what he knew.  I found out that Joe had a scrap metal business in Staten Island.  But because he was "connected," (associated with mobsters), he earned a lot more selling untaxed cigarettes and whiskey as well as a wide range of "hot" items.

J ended with, "We all thought Joe was in jail...maybe he made other arrangements...either way, he has the mark of the squealer."  I said, "What?"  J said, "There's tons of people out to get him, so he shouldn't be driving around in that thing."
THAT "THING" WOUND-UP BEING A 1959 ELDORADO CADILLAC BIARRITZ CONVERTIBLE.  TODAY YOU CAN'T TOUCH A FULLY RESTORED ONE FOR UNDER A QUARTER MILLION.  BUT TO ME, IT WAS JUST AN OLD, SHINY CAR.  BUT ACCORDING TO J, IT MAY AS WELL HAVE HAD A GIANT RED "X" PAINTED ON THE HOOD.



Years later, (1976), I socialized a few times with Bobby V.  That's when disco was king and it brought my friends and I into Manhattan.  Bobby always insisted on driving.  His father's reputation for great parking must have been in the genes because soon, he, in his own 1975 Eldorado, developed the knack of finding million-to-one parking spots.
THE ONE TIME I WENT WITH BOBBY V.  THE DISCOTHEQUE WAS ON FIRST AVENUE IN EAST SIXTIES.  TEN BLOCKS BEFORE WE GOT THERE I STARTED SCOUTING FOR A PARKING SPOT.  FOUR BLOCKS FROM OUR TARGET, I SAW ONE.  BOBBY V. IGNORED ME.  A GAZILLION PEOPLE WERE MILLING AROUND OUTSIDE THE CLUB WHEN WE GOT THERE.  THEN LIKE THE RED SEA PARTING, SOMEBODY PULLED OUT FROM A PRIMO SPACE.  BOBBY V. PULLED HIS "BOAT" INTO THAT TIGHT SPOT SO WELL THAT WOULD HAVE WON THE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL FOR PARALLEL PARKING.  ON THE WAY TO THE CLUB,  I CONGRATULATED HIM.  BOBBY SAID, "SHIT, IT KILLS ME THAT WE HAD TO WALK ACROSS THE GODDAMNED STREET." 

On a subsequent trip to the same club without Bobby, we circled the neighborhood for forty minutes Until someone had the good sense to say, "It's time to pray to Joe Vanilla, the Patron Saint of Parking Spaces."  Strange but true, a minute later we found a spot...of course the ten-block walk to the disco in those damned platform shoes was so far that we should have taken a cab.

Down through the years, I have enlisted the help of the Patron Saint of Parking Spaces often enough that my wife Sue uses it too.

Sue and I, with parking issues in mind have a private joke that in our thirty-two years of living in South Jersey, we have NEVER had a sit-down dinner in Philadelphia, (she has...without me).

I have written other blogs that concern my unrealized attempts to have dinner in a Philadelphia restaurant...the common theme to those failures were...parking.

My parking ineptitude in Philly took an interesting positive turn when Sue and I flew to Hawaii, in December 2015.  While in the planning stages, a stranger overheard me grousing about the cost of airport parking and said, "Google Philadelphia off-site airport parking."

He was right. His random act of kindness saved me close to a hundred dollars.  On the computer, there were several nearby places (usually hotels), that allow you to park on their premises and provide shuttle service to and from the airport.  Our choice was located ten minutes away in, Essington.

Four months later, Sue bought tickets to see, "BEAUTIFUL," the musical about singer, songwriter Carole King's life.  Sue used the similar idea by googling, parking in Center City Philadelphia.  The result was an incredibly low (pre-paid) rate of $16.00 that would be valid from 3:30PM until 3:30AM.

The luxury of guaranteed parking inspired us to stop the thirty-two year jinx of never having a sit-down dinner in the city of brotherly love.  But it wouldn't be blogworthy if there weren't any ifs.

Sue's GPS easily got us to Center City at 4:30.  Despite the heavy rush hour traffic, at crawling speed, we found Locust Street, (where our parking lot was).  However, the geniuses who put-up the garage's web-page failed us, in three key ways.  First, the business name and the corporate name were different. Second, two rival parking lots were on the same street.  Third, despite having the address on our receipt, building numbers along the street were impossible to find.

By design, we were early for a relaxing dinner, so time was in our favor.  Still, it was hyper-annoying to unnecessarily go around the block...only to find out that you can't make a legal left turn there.  So our bumper-to-bumper circle back for a second try, took an eternity.

To the annoyance of the drivers behind me, to make an informed guess, I inched back up Locust Street.  I saw all three garages on the left side of the street and said, "I wish I was wearing a 'WWJVD' bracelet.  Sue  grinned after I added, "It's a 'What would Joe Vanilla do,' bracelet."
WHO WOULDN'T WANT SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE WHEN STRUGGLING TO PARK.

I took an impulsive ,calculated risk and pulled into the middle lot.  But there wasn't a human to speak with.  I balked about pushing the button for a ticket because I had pre-paid and was afraid if I was in wrong place, I 'd get charged ten bucks just to make a U-turn.  Luckily a worker spotted me. He didn't give a shit and insisted I continue in.  Before I took the ticket, I made him assure me that even though the web-site name and the business name on the wall didn't match...that they were the same outfit.

Once inside this claustrophobic garage that was probably built in the 1930's, I was directed to take the spiral ramp to the roof.  It was a tight squeeze and there were no mirrors to assist in seeing oncoming drivers.  So I naturally hugged the right wall.  Seconds later, a woman coming down (too fast) was heading right for us.  I slammed on the brake.  Like a scene from a horror movie, the giggly bitch swerved back into her lane without hesitating.  We really, really came close to not having our long overdue dinner Philly that night.

Our hearts were thumping out of our chest when we finally parked, (my instinct was to kiss the ground but the pavement was too filthy).  Downstairs at the exit, life became good again, we could see our show's venue a half block away, the Academy of Music.
THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC OPENED IN 1857, AT 240 BROAD STREET.   SOME OF MY ALL-TIME FAVORITES HAVE GRACED THAT STAGE INCLUDING: CARUSO, AARON COPLAND, VLADIMIR HOROWITZ, PAVAROTTI, ITZHAK PERLMAN, LEONTYNE PRICE, MARIA CALLAS, SERGEI RACHMANINOFF, RICHARD STRAUSS, IGOR STRAVINSKY AND TCHAIKOVSKY. 

It was a "beautiful" night, so we didn't mind taking blind stabs in the dark, trying to find a restaurant. We read several menus before ending my three-decade dinner schneid in Philadelphia, at Prieta's, a lovely Italian restaurant/bar, on Walnut Street, between 18th and 19th.

Outside the Academy of Music, I busted on Sue because 94.8% of the crowd waiting to get in were seventy or older, (with 94.8% of them being women). My jibes were forgotten when the doors to the lobby opened.  I felt like I was hobnobbing with royalty because it was that stunningly "beautiful."  The rich and wonderful feeling continued inside when my eyes feasted on the classic theater.
THIS GORGEOUS RENAISSANCE-STYLED THEATER HAS A SEATING CAPACITY OF 2509, (1800 FOR BEAUTIFUL).  OUR USHER TOLD US IT WAS GOING TO BE A FULL-HOUSE.  WE ALREADY KNEW BECAUSE WHEN SUE ORDERED THE TICKETS ONLINE, ONE SEAT (MINE) INCLUDED AN ASTERISK, FOR A PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED SIGHT-LINE OF THE STAGE, (PLEASE NOTE, THE MANY PILLARS THROUGHOUT THE UPPER TIERS).

The show grabbed my interest immediately and never let go.  The only reasons I got restless was because halfway through the first act, I had to pee and I didn't want to miss anything.  Plus I was scouting out two other empty seats because my partial obstruction of the stage was too distracting and more than I thought I could overlook.
MY SEAT WASN'T THIS BAD.  BUT BAD ENOUGH TO MAKE US MOVE (SUCCESSFULLY) AFTER INTERMISSION.  I GOT AN ADDED BONUS OF AN AISLE SEAT THAT HELPED ME STRETCH MY PREVIOUSLY CRAMPS LEGS.

"Beautiful" received rave reviews both on Broadway and in Philly.  Carole King's story is reflected as the timeliness of her life influenced by her music, (Sue and I saw "JERSEY BOYS," last year and that great show used a similar formula).  Despite catering to a female audience, I loved this show.  I never realized that Carole King's songwriting talent was so vast and important. The deeper message is going beyond mere survival and attaining greatness. The audience truly appreciated that when they find out why after always shunning the limelight of performing...she became one of the all-time greats.

In using Joe Vanilla's famous quote, it's fair to say that "BEAUTIFUL," was, "Bee-yoo-tee-full." Later, the joy continued as Sue and I investigated the length of Ms. King's famous songs that she wrote for others, (to feel the same rush, just google her).
IN 1971, CAROLE KING'S "TAPESTRY" ALBUM EXPLODED ONTO THE CHARTS. IT WOULD SELL OVER 25 MILLION COPIES WORLDWIDE.  IN 2003, ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE LISTED IT AS #36 IN THEIR TOP 500 ALBUMS OF ALL-TIME.  IT'S UNIVERSAL SUCCESS WAS DUE IN PART TO; KING'S SURPASSING PERSONAL MUSICAL INTIMACY AND RAW IMPERFECT VOICE HELPED.  THOSE ATTRIBUTES LED THE WAY FOR OTHER FEMALE SINGERS, AT A TIME WHEN THE WOMEN'S LIB MOVEMENT WAS GAINING MOMENTUM. 

Back at the garage, we discovered that the whole audience also parked there.  Maybe the Joe Vanilla parking movement is gaining momentum too?  Still, it took forever to get out but at least our lives were never put at risk. The usually tedious ride home flew by as Sue played Carole King music from her phone and read aloud about her well-accomplished life.

Monday, April 18, 2016

MY DAD'S SUPER-SIZED VENDETTA AGAINST KATZ'S DELI

From the mid-1960's to the mid-1970's, I accompanied my father, once a year, to the National Toy Fair, in New York City  Dad owned a juvenile furniture store and some of his vendors displayed their new items there.

At the close of each show, (at the Statler Hilton Hotel), many companies found it cost-effective to cheaply sell-off their showroom merchandise instead of packing it up and shipping it back to their corporate headquarters, (or wear ever). Dad's best supplier always reserved a chunk of this once a year privilege, to him.
THE STATLER HOTEL WAS BUILT IN 1919 ACROSS FROM MANHATTAN'S PENN STATION (AND TODAY'S MADISON SQUARE GARDEN).  IT'S NAME EVENTUALLY CHANGED TO THE STATLER -HILTON AND HAS SINCE BEEN RENAMED, HOTEL PENNSYLVANIA.

In my pre-pubescence, I had many Toy Fair adventures, (playing with toys and getting free samples). In my early teens, my father's annual bonanza lost its luster because I was put to work, (disassembling goods, packing them up and piece by piece carting it to dad's Ford Econoline).
NOVEMBER - 1961, CANARSIE BROOKLYN. THE ORIGINAL FORD ECONOLINE VAN WAS MADE FROM 1961-1967.  THIS "WAGON," (AS WE CALLED IT),  AND SIMILAR ONES IN THE FUTURE, SERVED BOTH AS DAD'S WORK VEHICLE AND FAMILY CAR. 

Our '"wagon" was not big.  So the monumental, back-breaking and tedious Toy Fair task got worse when, to fit in the last few items, we had rearrange what had already been packed. Luckily dad's artistic flair reduced the time, (I hate to imagine how long it would have taken if I was in charge).

Unfortunately, dad's artistic flair didn't always net us a parking spot at the loading dock.  Sometimes, dad parked illegally on the street.  This situation resulted in the low man on the totem pole...me...having to sit, alone for hours while rehearsing how I was going to tell a summons-happy policeman, "My father is coming right down."

I hated sitting there (and usually freezing) so bad that I actually preferred being upstairs doing the grunt work.. However as an unrelated sidebar to this story, on February 28, 1971, I was waiting for dad to come down at 1:00AM.  Across the street, a man on crutches with a cast on his leg came out of a bar.  A few seconds later, someone else poked their head out from inside and called, "Good-night Brad!"  I realized it, was New York Rangers star hockey player, Brad Park.  I abandoned my post with pen and paper and tracked down my hobbled, beloved hero.
I STILL HAVE THAT CHERISHED AUTOGRAPH.  EARLIER THAT NIGHT,  MARKED THE NHL DEBUT OF PARK'S REPLACEMENT, ANDRE "MOOSE" DUPONT...WHOSE RANGER CAREER WOULD LAST ONLY 7 GAMES BEFORE BEING TRADED TO THE ST. LOUIS BLUES.  

The route back to dad's store, (to unload the wagon, was south on Second Avenue, a left onto Houston Street, over to Delancey Street, to the Williamsburg Bridge.  By this time of the night whatever dinner I had was long forgotten.  So on each sojourn home as my husky-sized belly whined for a refill, we'd pass Katz's Delicatessen, (on earlier trips, sometimes they were still open).
A NEW YORK CITY LANDMARK, KATZ'S DELI AT 205 E HOUSTON STREET (CORNER OF LUDLOW STREET) HAS BEEN OPEN SINCE 1888. 

Once, to satisfy my hunger, I asked (begged) dad to stop.  My father probably didn't relish getting home at 3;00AM so stopping for a bite, in a sketchy part of town with valuable cargo was out of the question. To deflect my request, dad went into a detailed explanation of why Katz's was a terrible place to eat, (I'm sure as soon as he said "no" I went into pouting-mode and tuned-out his rant.  That's why I don't recall any specifics).
HAWAII, JANUARY 1975.  DAD WAS ALWAYS A SKINNY GUY.  MY MOM USED TO SAY , "HE ATE LIKE A BIRD."  THEREFORE HE WAS PARTICULAR ABOUT HIS MEALS AND HOW THEY WERE SERVED.  SO PERHAPS HIS DISLIKE FOR KATZ'S WAS REAL ON THAT LEVEL?

At some point in the 1970's, the prices at New York's kosher delicatessens skyrocketed.  Coupled with changing neighborhoods, the higher prices caused many delis to go out of business.  To combat this trend, most of the remaining restaurants found it prudent to go to "kosher-style" menus.  The result (to me) was an increasingly difficult task of finding my favorites, the way I liked it.

In January 1979, I moved to Las Vegas.  By the time I moved back home (Canarsie Brooklyn, in 1984), even the kosher-style delis had become nearly extinct.

Fortunately, Grabstein's ,the delicatessen a few streets from home was still there and still good.  But later that year after my wife Sue and I permanently moved to south Jersey, all my favorite deli delectables became a thing of the past...often imitated...but never duplicated.

A few months back, my long dormant desire for real deli food was rekindled by  a credit card commercial, filmed inside Katz's.  I realized that my father hated the place.  So I assumed he was wrong and fantasized about the glory of perceived sweet ambrosia for stomach and soul.

Coincidentally, right after seeing that advertisement, my sister called from out of town and said she was bringing my three great-nephews to New York City.  After we figured out a time and place to meet, that could include my son Andrew, she suggested dinner at Katz's.
APRIL 8, 2016 AT THE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY,  ANDREW WITH HARRY (8), BARRY (6) AND GARY (5).

From the museum, during our drive downtown, we googled Katz's menu.  I decided on a hot, corned beef sandwich slathered with spicy mustard and stuffed with sauerkraut with a potato knish and a Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray.
DR. BROWN'S CEL-RAY, (aka JEWISH CHAMPAGNE), IS A GOLDEN, CELERY-FLAVORED *SODA POP (TONIC).  IT ORIGINATED (1869), IN MANHATTAN.  TODAY, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHERE TO LOOK, TO GET IT IN THE CITY, (AND HARDER IN PHILADELPHIA OR SOUTH FLORIDA...ANYWHERE ELSE, IT'S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND).

* EDITOR'S NOTE. - Since my hernia surgery, (February 1, 2016), I have weaned myself from a 40-can/week addiction to Diet Cherry Pepsi and other sodas. Coupled with avoiding carbohydrates, I feel less bloated while losing twelve pounds. So at Katz's, I looked forward to risking the empty calories and my positive progress for the sake of non-dietetic Cel-Ray, a knish and rye bread.

Sue opted for Katz's famous pastrami, fries, an order of cole slaw and a Dr. Brown's Creme soda. Andrew wanted roast beef with tomatoes and mayonnaise.  Sue and I then tried to talk him down from the strawberry thick shake he wanted...after binding arbitration with his uncle, (my brother-in-law), my boy settled out of court for an orange soda.

Katz's was a throwback restaurant.  That's nice way of saying, the atmosphere sucked...but we knew that ahead of time, as well as the staff's reputation for being theatrically cranky.
(STOCK PHOTO).  THIS SHOT IS A FAIR REPRESENTATION OF THE BUSYNESS WE ENCOUNTERED. HOWEVER, ON THE FAR RIGHT, THE SIX "CUTTING STATIONS" HAD LINES OF PEOPLE WAITING FOR THEIR SANDWICHES THAT EXTENDED BETWEEN THE TABLES.

My sister found a table us.  She sat with her three grandson's directly behind the man (above), standing with the cap.  Just as I feared, the folks on those lines surrounded my sister and the kids. Luckily, I ran to the restroom.  Unseen in this photo, I discovered a more private alcove in the back, (to the right).  At first, sis didn't want to up-root Harry, Barry and Gary...but in doing so, she saved us from the claustrophobic feeling of being enveloped by strangers, having our conversations nullified by leering, loud talkers and the unappetizing threat of getting our seats jostled.

Oy!  Soon, my problems with this so-called holy shrine to delis really started when I saw the cutter making my sandwich from a huge hunk of meat (corned beef) that obviously had been sitting on his counter for a while.  I also didn't like that the cutter was not using a machine to slice the meat. Instead, he cut-up long, thick slabs.

My perception of old school delicatessens is that the meats are stored in stainless steel steamers until needed. Like a fine artisan, each hot sandwich is prepared to perfection.  However, Katz's was more like an assembly-line where speed (and size) trumps quality.

Part of the gimmick is for the cutters, to offer you a sampling.  Ugh!  The "fresh" meat was misshaped, cold and tasteless.  I must have been out of my mind with starvation because I rationalized (WRONGLY) that the sum of the pieces would be greater than an individual piece.

Later, I reflected on my corned beef and concluded that the texture should have been grainy yet moist, not smooth and slimy.  I thought that perhaps the evolution of kosher delicatessens included synthetic meats. Certainly, smooth, slimy-surfaced corned beef felt wrong. Maybe Katz's fanciers forgot what was the gold standard for meats once was... and now accept inferior facsimiles that feel like cold, tasteless plastic in your mouth. Of course in defense of my father, it's possible Katz's was never good?

The result was a gargantuan, super-sized sandwich that cost $19.00, (later I joked, they probably use 20% more meat so they can kick you in your nut-sack, by doubling the price).  It's only fair to say, that as disappointing as it was, I indeed ate (half), my sandwich that included cold, tasteless sauerkraut, topped with unimpressive, unspicy, brown mustard, ( I could have finished the whole thing...but I didn't want to).

On the positive side, My knish was warm (not hot) and the inside was close to being soft enough but not quite, (still I did actually liked it).  The true highlight of my epicurean "delight" was a free, generous supply of delicious, (to die for), sour pickles.  And I loved every ounce of my Cel-Ray.
THE BEST PART OF OUR TRIP TO KATZ'S WAS OUR FAMILY SOCIALIZING, IN THE FAR MORE COMFY ALCOVE.  (above), A BRUTISH MAN IN NEED OF A SHAVE WEARING A BLOND WIG, A RED DRESS AND MATCHING PUMPS, VOLUNTEERED TO TAKE THIS SNAPSHOT.  IF YOU SQUINT, YOU'LL SEE SUE, ANDREW, MY SISTER AND I ALL LEFT OVER HALF A SANDWICH.


Another nice touch is, the collection neon signs and printed slogans throughout Katz's.

(STOCK PHOTO)  MY FAVORITE WAS THIS SIGN, BECAUSE IT WAS CUTE AND SENT A PATRIOTIC MESSAGE. 

The collection of celebrity customer photos that lined the walls was also a big plus.

BEHIND ME, I SAW RICHARD SIMMONS' PHOTO...SPEAKING OF DIETS,  HE'S THE LAST GUY YOU'D EXPECT TO SEE EATING THERE.  MY FRIEND ERNIE AT ESA ENTERTAINMENT HAS BEEN PRODUCING SIMMONS' 'WORK-OUT VIDEOS FOR YEARS.  INTERESTINGLY,  HOW FORGOTTEN IS ELLIOTT GOULD?   HIS WAS THE ONLY PIC I NOTICED THAT INCLUDED A LABEL WITH HIS NAME. 

Katz's has been around for over 125 years, so I'm certain, they don't give a rat's ass how shitty I thought their hallmark sandwiches were. But this review gets worse.  If the quality of their meats weren't bad enough, instead of a standard check, your bill is tabulated onto their trademark ticket. This ticket (slightly larger than an old-fashioned movie theater ticket), will have everything you order hand-coded onto the back.

On the way out, with their ticket ready, hordes of satisfied diners (as well as the dissatisfied) are funneled onto a line to the cash register.  Like bomb-sniffing TSA dogs, each out-going person is scrutinized as they advance. At the door, ill-tempered, gestapo-like bouncers watch the queue and wait for criminal-minded schmucks to try running out without paying. After I saw that my dinner for three was $102.00, I had to wonder if management compelled creative cutters, (by providing a bounty), to inflate their scribbled charges. I was so pissed by the my final tab that conservative little old me I pondered a, "dine and dash."  How bad could a $102.00 beating be?

When you add-up the low-quality meats, the rush-hour subway platform ambiance and lofty prices, Katz's is a once in a lifetime, poor choice.
BACK IN THE FRESH AIR OF LOWER MANHATTAN, THE ONLY REASON I COULD SMILE THROUGH MY MOLTEN AGITA WAS THAT I GOT A MONDO BOFFO PARKING SPACE, INSPIRED BY THE PATRON SAINT OF PARKING SPOTS  "JOE VANILLA."

We got to my car with four doggie bags. My sister didn't have a refrigerator in her hotel room and Andrew disliked his sandwich so much that I wound up with their half sandwiches as well as Sue's and mine. For lunch the next day, I threw away the rye bread and microwaved, the corned beef, pastrami, roast beef and sis's turkey, (luckily Andrew didn't poison his uneaten half with mayonnaise but I did have to peel away the tomatoes).  To improve the situation, I used my old reliable Gulden's mustard, (for the pastrami and corned beef).  Sorry Katz's...even though they were properly heated, all four still were still tasteless...except for the mustard.
GRABSTEIN'S OF CANARSIE IS LONG GONE.  IT HAS BEEN REPLACED BY A CHINESE TAKE-OUT.  BUT I BET YOU CAN STILL GET A BETTER PIECE OF ORIENTAL-STYLE CORNED BEEF THERE THAN YOU CAN GET AT KATZ'S.

It's puzzling how Katz's fool the informed masses with their hype?  But the harsh reality was those four supposedly distinct flavors should never have tasted the same...but they did.  In protest, I made those leftovers what they truly were destined to be...doggie bags. So I fed them to my puppy, Roxy.
TO SUPPORT HER GRANDFATHER, ROXY (above) WEARS ANDREW'S, "HASKELL HAT."  THEN SHE ENCOURAGED ME TO GO BACK TO KATZ'S AND BRING HOME MORE SUPER-SIZED DOG FOOD.

Somewhere up in heaven, my dad's luxuriating over an extra lean pastrami sandwich and saying to my mom, "Vendetta, schmendetta, our little vonce (me), could've saved time, money and energy if he just took my word for it! And my word for Katz's is, FEH!"

Monday, March 7, 2016

GOOD OLD RELIABLE NATHAN'S

On February 1, 2016, my wife Sue and I had an overnight road trip to Rockville Maryland.  On the way down, I had a startling revelation.




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My son Andrew is pursuing a career in the psychology of marketing.  Somebody already in that position within the Burger King corporation has come up with the genius idea...to suddenly start selling hot dogs.  To me, this is a strange (stupid) and unnecessary change (step in the wrong direction), because the hot dog has always played second fiddle to the hamburger.  That's why today's article is dedicated to this red-headed step-child of fast-food.
BURGER KING WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1954.  AT THE END OF 2013, IT BOASTED OVER 13,000 LOCATIONS IN 79 COUNTRIES.  SINCE ITS INCEPTION, IT HAS COMPETED WITH McDONALD'S TO BE "KING" OF FAST-FOOD.  SUDDENLY, IN AN ATTEMPT TO BECOME THE INDUSTRY'S TOP "DOG," IT RECENTLY ANNOUNCED, FOR THE FIRST TIME, THAT THEY ARE SELLING HOT DOGS.

I find it funny that with all the resources Burger King has at its disposal, it will soon find out that the public does not have enough hot dog affection, to sustain a long term financial upswing. The timing of BK's expected path to supremacy is also odd because they are bucking a strong trend towards health-conscious foods.  At a time when apple slices are replacing french fries and nutritional transparency is "king," BK is slapping the burgeoning less sugar, less sodium, less fat, gluten-free, vegan-aware customer base with the grand daddy of retro mystery meat...the lowly frankfurter. To make matters worse, to keep the ala carte price around two bucks, they have turned their back on the "kings" of the hot dog world and partnered with a bottom of the dung heap purveyor, Oscar Mayer.
BEYOND THE NOVELTY OF SEEING THE OSCAR MAYER HOT DOG CAR DRIVE THROUGH YOUR TOWN OR GETTING THE HOT WHEELS VERSION FOR YOUR KID, A WISE CONSUMER SHOULD NEVER STOOP TO THE LOWEST OF THE LOW.

Burger King is forgetting that franks are overwhelmingly the inferior choice, next to a hamburger. To accentuate their poor judgment, go to YOUTUBE and see which wholesome celebrity these giants of the burger universe have chosen to host their hot dog training video.  If you guessed, Snoop Dogg, you're RIGHT!

The best gauge to test my theory would be at a cookout where only hot dogs and hamburgers are offered, I stake my reputation that barbecued burgers will be eaten first.

Trust me, I like hot dogs and have eaten a gazillion of them.  But I've eaten fifty gazillion burgers. Plus, I'd NEVER, EVER, NEVER, EVER be tempted to have one at Burger King.  I think Andrew would agree.
JUNE 1998, EGG HARBOR CITY NJ.  AT ANDREW'S TEE-BALL AWARDS "BANQUET" CEREMONY, HE TURNED A HOT DOG DOWN.  THE VOLUNTEER SAID, "WHY?"  MY BOY SAID, "I LIKE THE 'HOT' PART BUT I'M NOT EATING A DOG."  SHE REMINDED HIM THAT THERE WAS NO OTHER CHOICE. HE GRUDGINGLY HAD A FEW NIBBLES.  YOU CAN SEE (above) HIS LESS THAN SATISFIED EXPRESSION. IT WOULD BE 12 YEARS BEFORE HE ATE ANOTHER.

Unlike Andrew, I was eating "red hots" at a young age.  My earliest recollection was mom boiling a couple and serving them with yellow mustard.  It would be quite sometime before I had them any other way.

I remember at the movie theater candy counter, how fascinated I was as hot dogs, impaled on metal tines, spun in a cooker.  Mom implied that there was something taboo about them and never let me have one.  So I stuck with Raisinets and popcorn. Despite those rotating hot dogs looking so enticing, mom's word was good enough for me, to this day, I've never had one.
I COULDN'T FIND AN INTERNET PHOTO OF THE EXACT ROTATING HOT DOG CONTRAPTION THAT MESMERIZED ME IN MY YOUTH...BUT THIS FERRIS WHEEL TYPE IS SIMILAR.

Mom also never let me have the pleasure of a dirty water hot dog, (usually a Sabrett).
UNIQUE TO NEW YORK?  A DIRTY WATER HOT DOG IS A DELICIOUS YET DISGUSTING SNACK.  DESPITE ITS DUBIOUS REPUTATION, IT REMAINS POPULAR, (ON STREET CORNERS ALL OVER MANHATTAN). ITS NICKNAME COMES FROM THE WIDELY HELD BELIEF THAT THE FRANKS SIMMER IN THE SAME SLUDGE WATER ALL DAY, (ALL WEEK?)  IF THAT WASN'T ENOUGH...EVER WONDER WHERE THE VENDORS WASH THEIR HANDS OR GO TO THE BATHROOM?

Going to Manhattan with my family was reserved for special occasions.  So eating a hot dog in the street was understandably out of the question.  But in our neighborhood, on Canarsie Pier, (after the official snack bar permanently closed), an old man, (aka, Eli's by the Sea), vended Sabrett hot dogs. In that forum, my seven year-old brain realized that a plain old frank could be garnished. The aroma of sauerkraut and stewed onions had a Svengali hold on me.  I watched the happy customers chomp away but mom convinced me that Eli's product was somehow tainted.

By the time I was attending New York Mets games (1963), I discovered that hot dogs (as well as the bun) were steamed and came with spicy brown mustard, (Gulden's).  While this was way better than mom's bland hot dogs, it did not cause an epicurean renaissance for me.

In the fall of 1963, after a full day as a third grader, I entered into Hebrew school.  My folks gave me chump change for eats to tide me over till dinner. Conveniently located in front of the synagogue, a gentleman (Ruby) sold homemade *knishes from a depression-era pushcart, (see my February 16, 2009 blog, "YOUR MOTHER RIDES SHOTGUN ON RUBY'S KNISH WAGON)."  

*A knish, (KEH-nish or k'nish),  is a side-dish in kosher delicatessens or an eat-on-the-run fast food. They are baked or fried and usually packed with softened potato.
RUBY THE KNISH MAN, (above), AT MY MIDDLE SCHOOL, PUSHED HIS OVEN ON WHEELS ALL OVER CANARSIE...AND BEYOND. DUE TO A PLETHORA OF HIS *UNSANITARY HABITS, MY MOM GAVE ME EXTRA INCENTIVE MONEY TO WALK TWO BLOCKS, TO THE KING ARTHUR DELI.  * NOTE RUBY'S CRUD ENCRUSTED MUSTARD JAR AND THE RAW CHOCK OF WOOD HE USED AS SERVING STICK, (LUCKY FOR YOU, THIS PHOTO HIDES HOW UNAPPETIZING HIS HANDS LOOKED).  

My neighborhood (Canarsie) had three kosher-style delis in walking distance, (plus three more, along the border of East Flatbush, on Ralph Avenue).  With all these places clambering for business, you'd think they would make sure that the humble hot dog was as good as it possibly could be.  But the deli nearest to my Hebrew school (King Arthur's) had tasteless sauerkraut.  So I turned my back on the frankfurter and wound up eating Ruby's knishes and using the extra cash for baseball cards.  

By the time I was fourteen, (1969), my friends and I were going to Mets games via subway, (unchaperoned by an adult) . We had little money, so we savored the one hot dog we'd get during the game.

One friend (SLW) revolutionized our ballgame dining experience by discovering that the Shea Stadium subway stop (Willets Point), had a concession stand with a grilled hamburgers and...sweet ambrosia for the soul...fried onions.  Once again, burgers prevailed.

In 1970, my roly-poly Uncle George took me to a lunch truck perfectly located along the wall of a cemetery, on Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens.  The gimmick there was one, two or three dirty water hot dogs, on a special, poppy seed roll.  I knew Babe Ruth was famous for eating five hot dogs during a game, so as a misguided fifteen year-old, I figured I could handle what my uncle got..."The Triple-Header."
MAYBE NOT EVERY GAME, BUT I BELIEVE THE GREAT BAMBINO HAD PLENTY OF FIVE HOT DOG DAYS.

I followed my uncle and had "the works," (sauerkraut, stewed onions, brown mustard and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper).  My first two bites were orgasmic. Despite washing the whole kit and caboodle down with gulps of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, I quickly slowed down.  Halfway through, as the stability of the sandwich disintegrated, I thought it wise to just eat the exposed hot dog.  That's when I learned that Sabrett franks, by itself, were tasteless. I trashed the entrails of the Triple-Header and within twenty minutes had severe agita, (suddenly it made sense why the truck was so close to a graveyard).

Maybe a psychologist should recommend to food trucks, to market bowls of just sauerkraut, stewed onions and Gulden's.

In 1974, I was a waiter in a bingo hall, (the full story, "I'LL SHOOT RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES," was blogged February 14, 2011).  Our best customer was Hortie, a sloppy, fat lady with a goiter.  She liked to have a knish with a hot dog embedded in the potato, (sliced in six sections) and covered with melted cheese.  It was put on the menu placard as "HORTIE'S FAVORITE," $1.65.  But she wanted it to have a more glamorous name.

At the snack bar counter while waiting for our orders, I got in an argument (over naming Hortie's Favorite), with a fellow waiter, (Curt). The name he suggested was a "cheese-nish-dog." I called his idea, unimaginative and asinine.  When I came up with a, "KFC," (knish, frankfurter and cheese). Curt grabbed the hot dog out of the bun I was going to serve.  He held by the end, waved it around and said, "You're a dick just like this.  If we call it KFC, people will think its chicken."  I was so skeeved,.  Hot dogs lose again...it would be many years until I ate another one.

During my hot dog hiatus, I lived to Las Vegas, (1979-1984).  On Decatur Boulevard, there was Der Weinerschnitzel restaurant, who specialized in hot dogs.  Before I realized that it was a successful fast-food chain, I used to tell people, "Hot dogs! That'll never last."
KNOWN FOR ITS A-FRAME BUILDINGS, DER WEINERSCHNITZEL WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1961.  TODAY, THE HOME OF THE "WORLD'S MOST WANTED WEINER," IS THE LARGEST HOT DOG CHAIN ON THE PLANET.  IT BOASTS 358 LOCATIONS, ALL IN THE WESTERN USA.

Eventually, I went back to franks.  They helped fill an empty void but hot dogs were merely edible, I never loved them.

In 1984, I returned to New Jersey and was hired as a craps dealer at the Atlantis Casino.  They weren't known for lavishing their employees with food, (or anything else). In support of that notion, a friend dragged me through the food line one night to show me that the Soup of the Day was, cream of hot dog.  Now thirty-plus years later, the image of cut-up franks bobbing up and down in a sea of milkiness, causes a rumbly in my tumbly.

In 2000, I became aware that every 4th of July, a Hot Dog Eating Contest is held at the original Nathan's, (Coney Island section of Brooklyn).  Nathan's has other locations but the urban legend from my youth was...only the original was good.  So, because the neighborhood was so seedy, I didn't have a Nathan's hot dog since I was a kid.
NATHAN'S IS SO FAMOUS FOR HOT DOGS THAT MANY AREAS AROUND THE COUNTRY NICKNAME THEIR FRANKFURTERS, "A CONEY ISLAND."

The contest has since gone Hollywood.  Last July, 3000+ spectators watched competitors, like eight-consecutive-year winner Joey Chestnut, as over 1.1 million viewers saw it on ESPN.
IN 2013, JOSEPH "JAWS" CHESTNUT (32) SET THE HOT DOG EATING RECORD WITH 69, IN TEN MINUTES.   I WONDER IF THERE'S A PEPTO-BISMOL CHUGGING CONTEST TOO?

I watched the revolting carnage on TV once.  Simply put, the contest should ruin hot dogs for the sane portion of our population.

Unfortunately as I got older, I gained weight.  To combat my ever-expanding waistline, I went on the Atkins Diet.  Micro-waved hot dogs became a quick and easy "go to food."  But it was like I had gone full circle.  I was reminded of my mom's boiled franks because even though I was slathering on Guldens and ensconcing my meals in mounds of sauerkraut...the whole shebang was too plain without bread.  Yet again, I swayed away from hot dogs.

Currently, my friend GERM (of North Jersey) ls a connoisseur of fine food.
GERM MUST BE A FOODIE BECAUSE WHEN HE WAS IN PERU (above), HE ATE A GUINEA PIG. 

GERM might have an appreciation for the exotic but he also loves American classics, like hot dogs. To prove his attachment, he has gone on a five-year, forty-seven frankfurter specialty restaurant crusade.  He has yet to commit to a winner. Along the way, he once teased me about my indifference to hot dogs by referring to the old, "PATTY DUKE SHOW."
PATTY DUKE STARRED IN A DUAL-ROLE AS IDENTICAL TWIN COUSINS.  THE SHOW LASTED THREE SEASONS, (104 EPISODES, 1962-1966).  ITS POPULARITY CAME AT A TIME WHEN RIDICULOUS SIT-COMS LIKE, "MY FAVORITE MARTIAN" AND "GILLIGANS ISLAND" RULED THE AIR WAVES.

GERM (in terms of hot dogs appreciation) likened himself to Patty (left) a regular, goofy high school kid and referred to me as Cathy (right) the sophisticated cousin.  I remember how awful he sounded when sang a few lines of the "PATTY DUKE" theme song:

"While Cathy (me) adores the minuet, the Ballet Russes and crepes Suzette...
Our Patty (him) loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control."

Last month, while GERM continued his search for the Holy Grail of hot dogs, I needed hernia surgery, (see my February 8, 2016 blog, "PLEASE, DON'T PUT IN A ZIPPER.)"  My ordeal took me to Rockville Maryland.

On the way down, Sue and I stopped for lunch at the Maryland House Travel Plaza, (I-95, mile marker 82, near Aberdeen).
THE MARYLAND HOUSE RE-OPENED ON JANUARY 16, 2014 AFTER A $30M REMODELING JOB.  NOW, THIS CORNUCOPIA OF REST STOPS, IS HOME TO TEN FOOD OUTLETS, IN A COMFORTABLE, CLEAN AND CONTEMPORARY SETTING.

Funny, with so many choices, I had difficulty deciding what to have. I knew we were meeting my boyhood friend HJ and his wife for dinner that night, so I wanted to eat light. It took a long time, but I picked the last thing I ever would have expected...a Nathan's hot dog.  I hate to admit it but...that hot dog almost made me lose control.  It together with sauerkraut, Gulden's mustard and a terrific bun was tasty, crunchy and fantastic, (the french fries were great too).

I wonder where GERM ranks Nathan's?

The next day, I pictured Nathans' grill roasting all those hot dogs as I was wheeled into surgery.  The pleasant memory of eating that hot dog was the last thing I thought about before the anesthesia took effect.

Please note, at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, it might be a long time till I have another because I'm on a new and improved mission to lose weight...and we know Nathan's recipe would be lacking without the bun.

Now that my son Andrew has been accepted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society, those lofty credentials will help get into a top-notch grad school.  And when the finished product is ready for the job market, I bet you a trip to good old reliable Nathan's that Andrew comes up with something far superior than Burger King selling friggin' Oscar Mayer weenies.

Monday, February 22, 2016

THE FABULOUS MR. K.

Under GENE K's. thin shell of hardcore depravity, lived a good and decent person.  However, due to his polarizing peccadilloes, others who knew him might not agree.  After all, a wise man once said, "WE ALL RELATE TO THE SAME PEOPLE...DIFFERENTLY."  Oh wait, I said that...so scratch off the wise man comment.

                                                                           

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Way before the, "FABULOUS MR. K" earned his ritzy nickname, he was just Eugene or Gene from 99th Street.  He and I lived, in Brooklyn New York, between the same avenues, four blocks apart but because we went to different elementary schools, I didn't know of him until middle school.

He remained a nameless face in the crowd until we became acquainted, in September 1970, (our sophomore year at Canarsie High School).

Gene and I had nothing in common.  He wasn't athletic when that was an important part of my life and because he was a quiet kid, I assumed he was a nerd.  In tenth grade, we wound-up in the same English class. The teacher had given us a spelling quiz and had us arbitrarily grade each other's exams. Gene's paper fell into my hands.  Curiously, he left out the "i" in three words, (convenience was one). Way before the term, "random act of kindness" was in vogue, it was simple for me, to insert the extra letters for this stranger.

In private, I told Gene what I did.  Days later, he showed his gratefulness for taking his C+ to an A- by giving me a small token of appreciation. Forty-five years later, I still have it.
GENE WAS AN AMATEUR MAGICIAN.  HE BOUGHT THE (above) *BOGUS "TWE DOLLAR BILL," XEROXED TONS OF COPIES AND USED THEM IN HIS ACT AS PRIZES.      *TO EMPHASIZE ITS FRAUDULENCE, THE BILL INCLUDES TERMS LIKE, "U. CAN'T CASHITT" AND "UNITED STATES OF ANEMIA."

For the rest of high school, Gene and I were limited to passing nods in the hall.  But by the time I entered Brooklyn College, we discovered that we had mutual friends.

One-on-one, Gene was  funny, intelligent and had an out going personality.  He was down-to-earth, generous and a caring person. However, in bigger groups, even in the comfort of hanging out, Gene melted into the crowd.  He and I never became close, probably because we were both too independent for our own good?

Gene got a messenger's job that was headquartered at the World Trade Center. The money he earned greatly subsidized two major vices; being a heavy pot smoker and prostitutes, (eventually his range of vices would take a quantum leap).  So despite a full-time job and living at home, he was always broke.
GENE'S GENEROSITY INCLUDED SETTING ME UP FOR AN INTERVIEW WITH HIS EMPLOYER.  WE COULDN'T WORK-OUT A SCHEDULE, SO I TURNED THEM DOWN.  HOWEVER, IT MARKED THE ONLY TIME, I WAS IN THE WORLD TRADE CENTER,  (I ONLY MADE IT UP TO THE SEVENTEENTH FLOOR).

Gene's eccentricities influenced some of our friends.  He encouraged a few guys to sell just enough marijuana to get theirs free, (I wasn't interested because I almost never indulged).  He also introduced them to the 25c peep shows in Times Square and a whorehouse in midtown Manhattan called, "The Meeting Room," or as they encrypted it, "TMR."

I was never led down the TMR path.  Gene was addicted to some pretty kinky stuff.  His stories were indeed fascinating but I was just a good listener. He  liked to call me a "milk and cookies kind of guy" because he couldn't tempt me into even entry-level meat and potatoes debauchery.

In 1975, our group decided to go, in two carloads, to some bar in the Bronx. Gene insisted that our car get diverted to Flatbush first, to a group of high-rise apartments, (Nostrand Avenue and Avenue L).  He said one of his uncles was on his deathbed and he wanted to pay his respects.

Gene came down and admitted that he never had a relationship with his uncle.  He showed his true mercenary colors by bragging about how wealthy the "bastard" was and hoped that the investment of this fifteen-minute visit might result in a big inheritance payday.

Gene and one of his friends (1977), became casino dealers in Las Vegas.  They both influenced me, to become a craps dealer.   While I was in training, at the New York School of Gambling, Gene telephoned me a couple times.  He had a surprising sensitivity and a talent for reassurance. When my insecurity oozed out, he was able to relate and soothe my misgivings.

I moved to Las Vegas in January 1979.  By that time, Gene had relocated to Reno.  We remained in contact and he landed an impressive job at Reno's MGM.  Hourly commuter flights between Nevada's two gambling meccas were $34.00 round trip.  So it was easy and inexpensive, to spend my two days off with Gene, twice, (these visits were explained in detail in previous blogs).

The first time, Gene took me around "the biggest little city in the world" in taxis.
RENO IS 500 MILES NORTH OF LAS VEGAS.  DESPITE GENE'S PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS UP THERE, I PREFERRED THE IMPLIED ENORMITY OF VEGAS.  I WAS WORKING IN TOILETS WITH NO REAL PROSPECTS OF THE BIG-TIME BUT MY CHOICE TO STAY PUT,  IS ONE OF THE BEST DECISIONS I EVER MADE.

Gene's income was high for 1979, (averaging over $100.00/day in tips...I was making $20.00/day in downtown Vegas).  But he was flat broke due to the expensive peculiarities I already knew of.  But he had developed a new corruption that took a heavy toll on his finances...being a degenerate gambler.  Far worse, Gene had no friends.  He seemed content to smoke pot all day, play craps and otherwise live like a hermit...unless he needed comfort from hookers.
GENE WAS VICTIMIZED BY THE IMPLIED EXCITEMENT OF CRAPS.  AFTER YOU'VE BEEN AROUND IT, (EVEN FOR A SHORT TIME), YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO REALIZE; THE FREIGHT TRAIN DOESN'T COME THROUGH TOWN EVERY DAY.  THAT MEMO NEVER CAME ACROSS HIS DESK.  INSTEAD, GENE WHO THOUGHT HE WAS SMARTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE, DEVISED PETTY, (AND RISKY),  SCAMS TO INCREASE HIS CHANCE OF WINNING.

It was clear to me that Gene was a low-life and that he lacked a good grip on reality.  Some of his coworkers called him the, "Mad Russian," (he took it as a compliment but they weren't calling him angry, they were calling him crazy).  Others called him, "FABULOUS," (a short version of the Fabulous Mr. K.), because they enjoyed what they thought were exaggerated tales of his sexual exploits, (I wasn't impressed but I chose to believe those stories).

I soon learned of the desperation in Gene's life and lengths he was willing go...to make a "good' impression on me. For my only night in town, he wanted to treat me to Japanese food.  After dark, we took a taxi to the bus station in Sparks.

Sparks Nevada is just east of Reno.  There's a string of tiny storefront casinos, (that catered to low-rollers). But the town (less than 100,000 people) was best known back then, as the home of Nevada's biggest mental hospital.

The cab slowed as we neared our false destination.  In the shadows of the back seat, Gene showed me a ten dollar bill. The driver announced, "That'll be $3.55."  Before handing over his ten Gene said, "Cabbie, take a dollar for yourself and give me $15.45 change."  The poor soul took the bait of the disproportionate tip.  That successful "short change" gimmick marked the beginning of how our dinner was to be funded.

While looking over his shoulder, Gene hustled me into and through the bus station.  We exited a rear entrance and scurried into one of Sparks' casinos.  This saw dust joint had a ramp that led to gaming area.  Hard to believe but true, at 10:00PM, there wasn't a single customer.  Every employee was looking at us...even the short order cook watched us through the kitchen's transom.

Gene was a petty opportunist.  I didn't pick up on it right away but his plan to scrape up food money called for anonymity. We left and soon found a different target more conducive to his scam.

The casinos in Sparks had so little business that to save on salaries, the craps games frequently had no supervisors (customarily there would be two) and were were manned with two dealers, (instead of three).

Gene bought some chips at a blackjack game before wandering over to craps.  I was unaware that he had already cased the joint as he whispered, "Be prepared to run."  I was so naive that I didn't realize that he had found lazy and/or inexperienced dealers and positioned himself in their blind spot. Gene waited patiently. When a seven rolled, he "past posted" the come for $20.00, (cheating the casino with a late bet after the dice landed).  He did this in two other casinos before taking me to eat.

Back in Las Vegas, my roommate was Loopy-Joe.  He struggled with the same disappointment I did of dealing craps for peanuts.  Joe wanted immediate gratification and when he heard how "well" Gene was doing, he decided to take his chances in Reno.

Joe looked-up Gene and they became friendly.  On my second trip up there, Joe chauffeured us in his 1971, dark green Le Sabre convertible, all over, including an afternoon in Lake Tahoe.
THE FIFTY-MINUTE VEGAS TO RENO FLIGHT COMES TO A GORGEOUS CONCLUSION AS IT DESCENDS OVER LAKE TAHOE.

The three of us were on line to cash-out our chips out at Caesar's when Gene asked a big dude in a cowboy hat if he had a green chip, ($25.00).  He took the chip and did a series of sleight-of-hand maneuvers.  The short magic routine ended with Gene saying, "Now you see it...now you don't."   Gene turned away.  The man wasn't as gullible as Gene hoped and he didn't like being preyed upon. He grabbed Gene's shoulder and spun him (hard) around and said, "I ain't no hayseed.  Give me back my chip."  Gene looked him in the eye and said, "Tex, you saw, your quarter vanished."  Gene continued playing dumb until the man cocked his fist back and said, "I'll break your fuckin' face before I let a shit-ass wise-guy like you rob me?" Gene looked at Joe and I for support but we were dumbfounded.  He handed over the green chip and bleated, "Geez, can't you take a joke?"

Gene never confided in me but the Reno, Sparks and Lake Tahoe metropolitan area is small. Something tells me his hustling must have caught-up with him.  So it wouldn't surprise me if he took a beating from other cabbies, casino players, security guards etc., who also couldn't take a joke.  Who knows, his unsavory antics might have resulted in a police record.

On the way back to Reno, Gene led us through some beautiful back country.  Just outside town, we approached the Mustang Ranch.  Gene said, "Let me show you guys around."
IN 1979, FROM THE OUTSIDE, THE MUSTANG RANCH, "NEVADA'S MOST INFAMOUS BROTHEL," LOOKED LIKE A FEW CHEAP TRAILER HOMES CONNECTED TOGETHER.  INSIDE, THE THREE OF US WERE GREETED WITH A STRAIGHT LINE OF TEN WOMEN...WHO CHIMED IN ALL AT ONCE, "GENE'S HERE." 

Don't let the stock photo above fool you...there was NO cute one.  All the "girls" looked like typical, thirty-ish housewives.  I was twenty-four and I came up with the snap judgment that there was nothing there for me, (plus I had little money).  Simultaneously, Loopy-Joe was coming to the same conclusion as Gene grabbed a frumpy brunette and disappeared for a half hour, (Joe and I waited in the bar.  It was actually empowering to have some of these less-than-dazzling ladies try to woo me into their den of iniquity).

On the way back, Gene boasted of all the Sexual Transmitted Diseases, (STD's), he had contracted, (mostly from street-walkers).  This strange boy mentioned symptoms, medications and nearly made me puke with graphic tales of having "things" burnt off his private parts.

I moved to New Jersey in 1984.  While dealing craps, I met an old man with the same unusual last name as Gene. He was also an eccentric, did magic tricks, made petty claims, (on bets he didn't win) and NEVER tipped.   The apple doesn't fall far from the tree because that geezer wound-up being another uncle of Gene's.  I was tempted to ask who profited the most by the other uncle's death but I didn't have that kind of audacity.  However, he did say that Gene got married.

I knew few intimate details of Gene's life but when I shared this knowledge with old friends I found out his marriage was old news.  One friend told me that Gene sent wifey into lesbian bars, to have her pick someone up who was into threesomes, (they called it foo-foo).

In August 1988, I returned for a weekend in Las Vegas.  Gene was living there again.  We spent a few laugh-filled hours reminiscing. It would be the last time I ever saw him.
IN 1991, THE BRITISH COMEDY TROUPE MONTY PYTHON PRODUCED A RECORD ALBUM OF SONGS.  THE THIRD CUT IS CALLED, "THE MEDICAL LOVE SONG."  IN THIS LIVELY ROMP, EVERY STD IMAGINABLE IS SET TO MUSIC.  WHENEVER I HEAR IT, "THE FABULOUS MR. K. " COMES TO MIND.

The last time I visited Las Vegas (2009), was with my wife Sue and son Andrew.  I made it a point to see another friend, Ciro the Hero.  I had introduced Ciro to Gene way back when.  During our meeting, I realized that Ciro had gone from hero to zero.  That's when he reminded me that Gene was living in town said, "Let's call the Fabulous Mr. K."

I spoke to Gene.  He wanted to get to together but my meeting with Ciro the Zero was such a disaster...and considering that Gene and Ciro were cut from the same cloth, I decided against it.

Sadly, I learned that in late January 2016, the Fabulous Mr. K. passed away.  One of my Canarsie buddies told me that it was from colon cancer.

While we all tend to relate to the same people differently, Gene was a rare case in which all the old friends shared the similar, "likable but shady" opinion of him. I'd go as far to say that his deviant behavior served to unwittingly teach me by example...to do the opposite of what he did.  But the bottom line was, under that superficial veneer of strangeness, Gene was a sensitive, kindhearted person. That's why I regret missing that one last chance to see him.

When I was asked if I had any recollections of him...this blog/eulogy, packed with mixed feelings, was the best I can do.