Monday, July 28, 2008

SIPPING WAWA COFFEE IN MY CAR

I grew up two streets away from Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz. In 1970, when I was a fledgling sophomore on the Canarsie High School (Chiefs) junior varsity football team, pimply-faced Howie was a senior and the "star" quarterback (uniform #18) of our traditionally awful varsity.


I remember Schultz as being both scholastically advanced and a cocksure, schoolyard athlete. Due to our age difference and my much lower profile, I'm certain he would have no memories of me...but perhaps his folks would?

At varsity games, my JV brethren and I sat together and cheered our team to its limited glory, (that particular year, Canarsie's top football squad went 1-6-2). That's one win, six losses and two ties...yes way back in the Stone Age (1970) games didn't go into overtime, they ended in ties. If that makes me a relic, I'm guilty.

It's hard to imagine but in one of those tie games, the mighty Chiefs (temporarily changed to the politically correct Red Storm but recently restored back to Chiefs) were heavy favorites. They were playing Boys High, (it should be noted that even when Boys High began admitting females, the school's name remained the same. However, other politically correct people finally got their way and the school's nickname is now...are you ready...Boys and Girls High...how dainty...).

What's even funnier about that tie with Boys High was...the final score: 0-0. You couldn't point a finger at the weather, it was a bright sunny day . So what was the problem.? I have narrowed it down to three major blame factors; A) Our punter didn't show up till the third quarter, B) The band played so loud that the signals on a key play couldn't be heard. C) Late in the game, on a fourth down...(we had no place kicker)...when we only needed a foot or two for a touchdown, Schultz, turned to hand off the ball but the halfback was nowhere to be seen.  So while the whole team surged to the right, Schultz ran left.  Fortunately, even though he wasn't fleet-a-foot, he wound-up with a clear angle to paydirt. The Boys High defenders gave chase as he neared the pylon.  The touchdown and certain victory could NOT be stopped!  All Schultz had to do was put his head down and take the hit.  Instead, 'ol #18 went down on his own, inches short of the goal line, to avoid the contact...how dainty.

Afterwards in the locker room, the coach addressed the first dismal issue by reaming out the punter for being tardy. Two days later on Monday, the coach "fired" the band. It was no great loss, they were lousy. The only pieces anyone could distinguish of theirs was the theme from "HAWAII 5-0" "HEY LOOK ME OVER," and, "THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER."

The third reason we tied instead of won was handled as soon as it happened by me and the JV boys.  In our section of the bleachers, (behind our team's bench), we booed Schultz, the fallen hero, as he fake-limped off the field. When he got closer, we screamed our opinions...which included unkind and harsh verbiage. At that point, a woman (from the couple in front of us), singled me out and said, "STOP IT! That's my son."

Well Howard Schultz got the last laugh. As Starbucks CEO, I'm certain he enjoys an incredibly wealthy, celebrity status. Nevertheless, I never set foot in a Starbucks until yesterday. Unless you want to count the time, a few years back in Drescher Pennsylvania, I ran into one just to pee. In any event, my disinterest in Starbucks had nothing to do with Schultz.

Yesterday, my friend ZYMBOT came in from out-of-town and we went to my local Starbucks here in Galloway NJ. We made ourselves comfortable and chatted for ninety-minutes. The ambiance was great, the staff was friendly and hospitable and the coffee GOOD. I expected it to be orgasmic...but it was merely good.

I enjoy the finer things in life but I don't need to surround myself with them for the sake of status. Sorry, I just don't get the Svengali hold Starbucks enjoys over the American (worldwide) market. It's just a good cup of coffee...and a tad on the strong side...and the price, ouch!

They can keep their ambiance. I can sit in Dunkin' Donuts for two dollars less per cup and hobnob with the equally cordial foreign help just the same. Better yet, the 100% Colombian or dark roast coffee at Wawa is worthy of being sipped in the comfort of my car. 
WAWA (SINCE 1964)  IS NOW A MAJOR PLAYER N THE CONVENIENCE STORE - GAS STATION BUSINESS. NEARLY EVERY TOWN IN SOUTH JERSEY HAS AT LEAST ONE LOCATION AND OTHERS CAN BE FOUND IN PENNSYLVANIA, DELAWARE, MARYLAND, VIRGINIA AND FLORIDA. 

Did I ever tell you I drive a nine-year-old Toyota Sienna mini-van? Talk about the finer things in life, it has 13 cup holders...top that Howie Schultz.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

FERRETING OUT THE TRUTH !

Yesterday's ATLANTIC CITY PRESS article about ferrets has spurred my memory of two stories.The first centers on a blackjack student from my dealer school named Phil. Phil, a Colombian-American was fluent in English. He liked teaching me the nuances of Spanish and found it both funny and challenging to improve my bastardized version of his language, (to a small degree, he succeeded). But Phil's true passion was in sharing his adventures as a ferret owner and breeder.

During his time at the school, I took part in an educational conference in Miami. After dinner, I attached myself to a small group of attendees and we strolled through Miami's slum-like downtown business district. It was around 9:30PM and the closed stores, to protect their windows, had their iron gates down.

This area has a large Cuban population and caters to a predominately Hispanic community. In a
mixture of Spanish and English , the signs above the businesses' shuddered windows were the only way to identify the stores. So next to Pepe's Tacquitos (Taco Stand) was Ulmstead's Dry Cleaners etc. What truly caught my eye was a gigantic three-story store with a buzzing neon sign that read: F-E-R-R-E-T-E-R-I-A.

I was unable to see inside because of the security gates and assumed it was a million dollar idea...a ferret inspired, super-sized, pet department store. These were the late 80's and I had never dreamt of the concept of PETSMART or PETCO.
Back in the school, I couldn't wait to tell Phil of my ferret store discovery. Well Phil laughed and laughed. I guessed from his acute joy that I should brace myself for some level of humiliation.

When he calmed down he exaggerated the pronunciation to rhyme with cafeteria and sneered, "A ferreteria?"
I hesitated and said, "Well, yeah."
"Did the last 'E' have an accent mark on it?"
I shrugged, "Maybe?"
"Well you idiot," he said. "That's not a ferreteria, its a ferr-ret-TAH-REE-ah. A ferr-ret-TAH-REE-ah, is the Spanish word for hardware store!

The second episode is an excerpt from my short story RETREADS. This story is so accurate that it DOESN'T use my usual 5% embellishment factor. Yes, some names were changed but these events are true.

At a time when cocaine was still considered a "safe" and recreational drug, I dealt craps in Las Vegas at the Holiday International Casino. It was a beautiful new building in a terrible location, serving mostly low-limit locals.

The two primary characters here were: Paul "Shag" Darrow our cocaine dependant pit boss and my boxman (immediate supervisor) Dick Paine, (yes, his name was Dick Paine...if you want to hear what's what with his (real) name, read RETREADS).

Shag was a spoiled kid who was raised in upscale Newport Beach California. He had been juiced into a couple of great jobs and eventually...because of his cocaine habit, fell (as a retread) to the depths of the Holiday.

Shag had some sort of fetish for vermin. He loved it when I told him stories of water bugs, maggots, lice and roaches but for some odd reason, he preferred to hear about rats. One particular rat story that he made me repeat several times, was based on my experiences in the New York City subway.

One night around 3AM our craps table was jammed with retirees waiting for the wives to get out of the last bingo session. The biggest bet on the table was $3.00 and Shag who was flying on coke was bored. An acquaintance of Shag came into the casino wth a caged ferret. This fellow had a bunch more in the car and wanted to sell them to the workers.

Shag never saw a ferret and naively asked, "Is that a rat?"
The guy said, "Not exactly, its more like a weasel...but its in the rodent family."
Shag said, "It looks vicious, does it bite?"
The guy said, "No, they're great pets and kids love 'em."

I was dealing next to boxman Dick Paine. His job was to put the money in the "drop-box," oversee the dealer's pay-offs and keep the tempo of the game up.

Dick was not the smartest in the world but its also possible that he didn't hear Shag say to the ferret man, (they were right behind us), "Take the rat out, I want to hold it."

Despite having a lot of little action on my game, I looked over my shoulder and saw Shag with the furry critter inch closer to the table. When he was between Dick and I, he dropped the ferret onto the craps layout. The bugger ran in a great oval, knocking over bets, scattering the dealers working stacks and destroying the bank.

Everyone was laughing except Dick Paine. Like a complete moron, he tried to grab the agile creature which only made it funnier. Finally, he lunged and grabbed it. The terrified ferret took a nip out of his thumb. Dick was already stretched out across the layout, yelped in agony and then his feet came out from under him. Dick smashed his face into the layout and broke his nose.

A couple of laps later, Dick corralled the ferret, handed it back to the guy and squawked, "I thought you said these bastards don't bite." Angrily he showed the guy his thumb and wailed, "Oh Christ oh mighty...I'm bleedin'."
He was referring to his finger but blood was also dripping from his nose. After Shag laughed in his face, Dick was sent to the infirmary.



Monday, July 14, 2008

TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE

Its July 14th, so HAPPY BASTILLE DAY to all my French friends.

Actually, I don't think I have any French friends. The more I think about it, my exposure to those snooty S. O. B. S. when I was on the French Riviera and in Paris was insulting. And their equally offensive cousins that I have encountered throughout Quebec are just as bad. So, in the name of making good "copy," I LIED about caring for their big holiday.

Other than "A TALE OF TWO CITIES," I couldn't give a rat's pa-toot about their independence day. Beyond my personal tussles with them, let's consider the French on the international stage. Remember, they talk a big game but in terms of winning their own wars, since 1789, they have an intensely putrid batting average. Plus their "no-fly" zones...beheading instruments, personal hygiene habits etc. are all ghastly.
THE GUILLOTINE 

I'm sorry I lied about Bastille Day. I hate to lie especially to my peeps. But lying is a sort of mental bugaboo that has WRONGLY plagued me since childhood...it all started when my dad inadvertently lead me astray.

The New York Mets, in their infancy, were the epitome of pitiful. At the same time the cursed cross-town rivals, the New York Junkees were baseball's royalty and in the midst of a dynasty. Perhaps I was a little too ardent in my fan-hood but when I was about ten, I was the kid who'd argue for hours that Ron Swoboda was greater than Mickey Mantle and that "Fat" Jack Fisher was a million times better than Whitey Ford.

                                                            "FAT" JACK FISHER

My dad understood my frustration and perhaps thought he could lift my spirits by telling me that the Mets had traded five scrubeenies, a fungo bat and a left-handed catchers mitt in exchange for popular slugger *** Rocky Colavito. Maybe dad was wrong or maybe he said it was a rumor and I misinterpreted it. In any case, I was overjoyed and excitedly told the world how this move would catapult the lowly Mets to super-stardom.
                                                               ROCKY COLAVITO
When the deal didn't happen, my friends called me a liar. The humiliation I felt was crushing. Time passed and my friends forgot about it but I was scarred for life. To avoid being publicly ridiculed like that again, I learned a valuable lesson...to check my sources. Still, years later, even with the most reliable source...myself...I got burned again.

The Staten Island Zoo...for the uninitiated, is in Staten Island. Unlike the great zoos across the country, the Staten Island Zoo is famous for...nothing! Nevertheless, I visited there three times; twice with day camp in 1967 and 1968...and again around 1974 while in college.

That first trip in '67 was highlighted in the reptile house. On display, in a series of small cases were lizards, frogs and snakes. In that array, the most striking, to twelve-year old me was...a two-headed baby turtle.
                                FILE PHOTO-NOT THE SAME-TURTLE I SAW...I SWEAR !
A year goes by and my camp is having another Staten Island Zoo outing. The kids in my group were all different, so I told them about the two-headed turtle. They didn't believe me so I confidently led them to the exact spot. Only the two-headed turtle case was EMPTY. 

I was called a liar and was embarrassed. Luckily for me, later,that afternoon an older bully (nicknamed Gestapo Harry) decided to torment the orangutan. For all his trouble, the great ape peed on him...his humiliation was far worse than mine and thus deflected the unwanted attention off me.

The third time I went to that zoo was a boring afternoon with a boring girlfriend. I took her to the room where the two-headed turtle had been and told her my story. It was annoying that she doubted me. A zookeeper making his rounds came by.  I told him my circumstance in the hope of being vindicated. He said two-headed turtles are not that uncommon.  But due to inherent health issues, they don't enjoy a full life span.

For a brief moment, the girl not only believed me but was impressed...unfortunately though...she totally didn't believe that Gestapo Harry got peed on...as the French say; c'est la vie, (okay, so at least they're catch-phrases are good for something).

Now that you know my sensitivity in the truthfulness department, I feel obligated to tell you, that on the computer news yesterday...from Amherst New York...wherever that is...a two-headed snake was born. The segment included video of the beast and claimed that a two-headed snake is a one-in-a-million shot. Please check it out quickly before they stop showing it...because if you don't, whatever psychological progress I've made in 40 years in regards to my credibility will be shattered.
WHERE'S A PHOTO OF AN ORANGUTAN URINATING ON JERK WHEN YOU NEED IT

***Editors note - On three occasions, I worked (pro bono) at WFPG-AM 1450 radio in Atlantic City as a substitute on-air sports talk personalty. The last time, (before the station changed its "All-Talk" format to "Easy Listening Rock" in 1994), I interviewed six-time major league All-Star Rocky Colavito.

It crossed my mind to mention the predicament I was put in...when at nine years-old, I mistakenly advertised to my friends that he had been traded to the New York Mets...but I chickened-out. In retrospect, I should have. It would have been a cute story-line to pursue...I swear, it really, really happened...I'm not making it all up, I got proof...you gotta believe me, I have a cassette of that show...I just can't put my finger on it, but I can produce three friends who listened to it live...if not, I can...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

THE SHIP, THE MYTH...THE LEGEND

The Norwegian Dawn was the cruise-ship we took to Bermuda. Before we set sail, I learned from a friend/co-worker (Mini-Phil...a veteran of 25 cruises) that our boat had an interesting history. Then, three days after we docked, on its next voyage, the "Dawn" added to its resume.

The Norwegian Dawn is a new ship and has been sailing from Manhattan to Bermuda and the Bahamas since 2002. For our trip, it carried a crew of over 1,000 serving over 2,700 passengers. The ship dwarfs anything around it...even the Statue of Liberty seemed small as we went by. The Dawn is tall; it has eight elevators that carry people to 14 levels/decks. Plus, the length of the ship is probably close to a city block.
One of the great event's in the Dawn's career occurred in rough weather on April 16, 2005 off the Georgia coast...a series of three, seventy-foot "rogue-waves" pounded the ship. Four passengers suffered minor injuries and the Dawn's ninth and ten deck reported broken windows. However, the damage was not extensive and service was barely interrupted even though other decks were flooded.

A couple of years ago, the Dawn was in the news again when comedienne Rosie O'Donnell hosted/hostessed? a gay and lesbian cruise aboard ship.

Two months ago on May 11, 2008, a 46 year-old woman "fell' overboard fifty miles northeast of Atlantic City. Although there are contradictory accounts involving suicide and/or murder, the one that made the most sense to me was: SHE WAS DRUNK! More specifically, she was drunk and for whatever reason...she climbed the outside railing of her stateroom's balcony and tried to "jump" across to the next cabin's balcony. Right away you can see this was NOT a good idea.

She slipped and was never seen again. Apparently the captain circled the area a few times in an attempt to rescue her but came up empty. Her family and friends swore that even under the influence...that her personality wouldn't let her do such a thing...maybe her people aren't being realistic because drinking can be like taking a crazy pill.

Our cruise was as close to perfect as you could get. We never experienced sea-sickness, there were no fireworks, no tropical storms and the curse of the Bermuda Triangle only came-up when I made jokes about it.

Interestingly, we docked back in New York City at 8:AM Sunday morning. My fellow shipmates and I were all cleared off the ship by 10:30AM. Like clock-work, the boat is readied for the next batch of cruisers by 1:PM. At 5:PM, the "newbies" were blasting back off to Bermuda.
Three days later on Wednesday July 2nd, the Norwegian Dawn added to its list of accomplishments.

In rough weather, the Dawn gets a distress call from a sail boat off Cape Cod. That boat's operator feared for a man's life when he couldn't care for the victim's shock-like symptoms and dehydration. Three-hours later, the Dawn arrived. The captain expertly maneuvered the huge vessel close to the tiny forty-footer and in stormy seas made the daring rescue look easy.

The Dawn wasn't done...coincidentally, twelve hours later another distress call is received 250 miles off Long Island. in this case, another sail boater needs immediate medical attention. In worse weather conditions, a mast has smashed a man's head and he was losing consciousness. Despite heavy rain, severe gusts and twenty-foot swells, the Dawn races to the scene, puts the giant ship into position and plucks the patient to safety.

The Norwegian Dawn, as well as thousands of other ships, participate on a volunteer basis in a worldwide program that promotes such sea rescues. Service to the passengers was not disrupted and the Dawn arrived in Bermuda on schedule.

I mentioned in my last blog, most people who asked me about the cruise were interested in sea-sickness. Then as I spoke to more people, I found two separate individuals who were afraid to go on cruises. One felt that decadent infidels like Americans were easy terrorist targets. While the other was afraid of being poisoned...apparently there have been rare cases of large groups getting sick on cruises. It should also be pointed out that she is a germophobe and is so paranoid of being slipped a "Mickey" that she insists on opening her own beer when she goes to bars.

My advice to them and to anyone uncertain about vacationing in the lap of luxury...don't live your life like an ostrich hiding its head in the ground. Yes there are risks in anything we do...but if you take it one step further...you'd never leave the house...crap happens a million times a day...when you fly, drive or even take in your mail.

To para-phrase Mini-Phil...once you go on a cruise, you'll never want to vacation any other way. To prove how I feel about that, we are already setting aside money NOW!