Monday, January 31, 2011

HAPPY HARRY'S...THE BEST PLACE I EVER ATE IN, IN PHILLY'S CHINATOWN

I have only eaten in Philadelphia's Chinatown once...sort of.

Maybe I'm just being partisan but I never developed an interest in Philly's Chinatown. I guess it doesn't compare to New York's because I have a history with our Chinatown that dates back to my late teens. That's when C-Town was one of my clique's high-priority road trip destinations.
When you're a punk kid the way I was, investigating the implied danger of Chinatown's dark alleys and back rooms was cool. This coming of age process included the cultural shock of dealing with weird vermin (both human and animal), in the streets. In the end, the Wo Hop restaurant (17 Mott Street, downstairs), became our singular "go-to" spot.
I ONCE OVERHEARD A FELLOW WO HOP CUSTOMER BRAG WHILE SIPPING A YOO-HOO, "THE FOOD HERE IS MORE AUTHENTIC THAN ANYTHING YOU CAN GET IN CHINA."

Wo Hop's continuing allure was proven to me by the quality and quantity of comments made in my previous Chinatown blogs. That means that, "MORE GLIB ThAN PROFOUND," readers, despite drifting to every corner of our country and beyond, still hold the humble eatery close to their hearts. That bond is so strong that some out-of-towners, such as myself, make a point to make a pilgrimage back to the Mecca of Chinese food, every few years.I SHOT THIS WO HOP "WON TON" FACTORY PICTURE IN 1977. ONE OF THESE DAYS, I'LL MAKE A HARD COPY AND GIVE IT TO MANAGEMENT. EVEN IF THESE WAITERS AREN'T STILL WORKING THERE, I'M SURE SOMEONE REMEMBERS THESE GENTS. WHO KNOWS, MAYBE THEY'LL HANG IT ON THE WALL...AND "COMP" ME A BOWL OF 50c SOUP NOODLES.

Philadelphia's Chinatown does not have a definitive go-to restaurant. I have now lived an hour from the action, (in South Jersey), for twenty-seven years. The overwhelming majority of my friends, neighbors, co-workers and clientele here are from the greater Philly area. So, I find it interesting that none of them ritually go there.

Their lack of enthusiasm was made clear in 1991. My wife Sue and I decided to include dinner in Chinatown during a planned visit to Philadelphia. When I scoured my connections for recommendations, I found it strange that my Philly peeps didn't have a universal a favorite.

At that time, I was only at my current job for a short time. It was shocking that with so many co-workers being former residents of the city of brotherly love, no one could help me. The one decent suggestion I got directed me to an Asian supervisor named Foo.

Foo and I were strangers because we had never worked directly together. So when I approached this quiet, anemic-looking man, I had no idea what to expect. He was about five years older than me but up close, he looked much older. I could see his unhealthy, frail body and wan complexion made him look like Dracula jonesing to take a bite out of a jugular. The situation became awkward when I noticed that his name tag was spelled P-H-U-C. When he saw me hesitating during my introduction he said, "Just call me Foo."

Through broken English, he was receptive to helping me. On the back of his business card, he scribbled a detailed map. Unfortunately, I soon realized that I inadvertently stumbled onto a code for something different from directions to a restaurant.

FOO CONCENTRATED ON RACE STREET BETWEEN 9th AND 10th STREET.

When the map was finished he looked me in the eye and said, "You want *f***y, f***y or drugs?" *(Please note, his exact quote was adding a "y" to the end of the "f" word...twice). I was in shock and said, "Neither. I want to take my wife to dinner." Angrily he said, "Food? You just want f*****g food. It no matter where you eat!" I was disturbed by this verbal exchange and lost my urge to eat there for a long time.

Three years later, my son Andrew was born. When he was four, we started a series of father-son day trips to Philadelphia. We specialized in museums, most notably; the Franklin Institute, The Academy of Natural Sciences and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

WHEN ANDREW WAS NINE, I SHOT A CUTE VIDEO OF HIM RUNNING UP THE ART MUSEUM'S "ROCKY" STEPS AS I HUMMED THE THEME MUSIC.

In 2001, we capped our visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences, (highlighted by their live butterfly room), by visiting the Independence Mall. I figured, as long as we were in the neighborhood, I can finally eat in Chinatown after we checked-out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. To Andrew's delight, my dream was dashed...from the comfort of a shaded park bench, by the lure of a unique dining experience...fast-food served from trucks and street vendors.

By 2003, the concept of eating in Philly's Chinatown was fading fast. We did all the museums, the zoo twice and visited South Street too. I mentioned my dilemma to KURUDAVE and he claimed that the Mutter Museum was a must.
AN UMLAUT ( A "U" WITH DOTS ON TOP) IS INCLUDED IN THE PROPER SPELLING OF MUTTER. IF ANY OF YOU ARE GERMAN GRAMMAR EXPERTS, YOU CAN HELP ME WITH THE CORRECT PRONUNCIATION.

KURUDAVE added that the Mutter might not be suitable for those with weak stomachs...especially nine-year olds. To whet my appetite, he rattled off some of the bizarre exhibits like; medical oddities, anatomical and pathological specimens, wax models and antique medical equipment.

ESTABLISHED IN 1858, THE MUTTER IS NOW PART OF THE PHILADELPHIA PHYSICIANS COLLEGE. http://www.muttermuseum.com/ IT'S LOCATED IN CENTER CITY AT 19 SOUTH 22nd STREET, NEAR THE OTHER MUSEUMS I CITED ABOVE.

I mentioned the idea of this trip to Andrew and he said, "Okay. But only if I can bring a friend." After the particulars of the outing were ironed-out with TEAROOF, his friend's mom, I had the go ahead.

Both boys were bright and mature for their age. So seeing a collection of skulls, the intestines of the "Human Balloon" and the remains of the "Soap Lady," didn't adversely affect the two youths. To my surprise they also handled seeing the malignant tumor from President Grover Cleveland's palate, tissue from John Wilkes Booth's thorax and a section of Charles J. Guiteau's brain, (President James Garfield's assassin). After ninety minutes, we were close to seeing everything. That's when we entered a long hall that featured the skeleton of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. This display also included tons of present days photos of conjoined twins. It was at that point that Andrew was selected to inform me that he and his buddy had seen enough. He tip-toed around the fact that they were freaked-out by the conjoined twins and concentrated his argument on being bored and hungry. He closed his statement with this quote, "Is it okay if we go now?"

We bought a couple of Mutter souvenirs at the gift shop before leaving. On the way to my car, I had the Siamese twins' skeleton on my mind so I suggested lunch in Chinatown. Both boys agreed. The short drive was punctuated by a prolonged battle for a parking space. It was a beautiful day so the eventual ten block walk was no big deal. When we reached our journey's end, we found several restaurants on every street. We were wandering around when the boys sensed that I still didn't have a clue where to go. That when they pressed their nose against the window of a crumby cheese steak joint.

WITH THE BEN FRANKLIN BRIDGE IN THE BACKGROUND, SOMEWHERE HIDDEN IN THIS SEA OF ORIENTAL RESTAURANTS AND SPECIALTY SHOPS, IS HAPPY HARRY'S HOAGIE HOUSE, (THESE DAYS, WE KIDDINGLY REFER TO IT AS, "HAPPY HARRY'S HORIZONTAL HAMBURGER HUT."

Andrew and his friend ordered meatball subs and French fries. I was tempted to run next door for some traditional Szechuan cuisine but I settled for acutely bad pizza. So that makes Happy Harry's, the best restaurant I have ever eaten in, in Philly's Chinatown...sort of.

Monday, January 24, 2011

WHAT WOULD LARRY DAVID DO?

"SEINFELD," the number one sit-com of all-time? I think so. Yes, I loved the "HONEYMOONERS," "THE ODD COUPLE," "CHEERS," "MASH" and "ALL IN THE FAMILY" but the show about nothing, is still my favorite.THE COMMERCIAL AND CULTURAL PHENOMENA KNOWN A "SEINFELD" RAN FOR 180 EPISODES DURING ITS NINE SEASON RUN, (1989-1998).

The show featured stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld playing a fictional version of himself. While using his uptown Manhattan apartment as a focal point, his best friend George Costanza (Jason Alexander), ex-girl friend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and wacky neighbor Cosmo Kramer, (Michael Richards) provided a steady flow of "welcome" interruptions to his superficial lifestyle.

Years later, the casual "Seinfeld" viewer learns that the show has a wild card. Lurking behind the scenes is Larry David. David, together with Jerry Seinfeld were the co-creators of the show. David was also the executive producer and head writer. Even more interesting than that, the George Costanza character was molded after the pre-mega successful Larry David. In addition to being an insecure loser as well as cheap, dishonest, petty and envious, Jason Alexander a short, fat, bald man with glasses was cast to complete David's negative self-image.

Larry David then parlayed the George Costanza role into another smash comedy on HBO, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM." In it, Larry plays a contemporary version of himself which means, he is Costanza as a success.
Like "Seinfeld" on steroids, cable TV allows "Curb's" themes, language and sexuality to be far less restricted. Even though we all know Larry is going to be a jerk, this freedom of expression gives him the latitude for the outrageous while continuously achieving higher plateaus of depraved indifference. Just like as a kid when I watched Soupy Sales...I knew Soupy was going to get hit with a pie but it was still funny when he did.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm," has many actors play themselves. So it is a recurring theme that Larry will produce a "Seinfeld" reunion show. It is especially funny when Jason Alexander insults Larry by analyzing George and calling him stupid, selfish, self-centered, etc. That's one reason why "Curb" has the potential to become my all-time favorite sit-com.

"CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM," HAS AIRED FOR SEVEN SEASONS SINCE 2000. THERE ARE 70 EPISODES AND MORE ARE BEING PRODUCED FOR 2011.

Larry was born in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn on July 2, 1947. We love watching him make an ass of himself as he battles social conventions and their expectations, other people and the mundane aspects of life. The truth is, we all have or wished we had a bit of his antics in us...I know, I do.

When I look back at the most embarrassing moment of my life, I wish I had had a, "What Would Larry David Do," bracelet.

POPULAR IN 1990's, THE "WHAT WOULD JESUS DO," INITIALS APPEARED ON VARIOUS ITEMS. IN PRACTICE, THIS MOTTO SERVED AS A REMINDER FOR INDIVIDUALS TO UPHOLD THE MORAL IMPERATIVE AND ACT IN A MANNER THAT WOULD DEMONSTRATE THEIR LOVE FOR GOD.

In March 1981, I could have used the guidance of a "What Would Larry David Do," bracelet. My wife Sue's, sister-like BFF and my friend too (Sabrina), flew into Las Vegas to visit. Sue was grossing $300.00/week as a keno writer at the Maxim Casino and couldn't take the night off to meet Sabrina's flight. If I had a "WWLDD" bracelet I would have told her to risk losing that shit job so she could have the added thrill of meeting her friend at the airport.

Sabrina and I had five hours to kill. Larry David would have gone out of his way to bring the girls together...to at least have them see each other for a minute while Sue worked...I didn't. Instead, I drove forty miles out of town towards Mount Charleston.

IN THE MOUNTAINS NORTH OF LAS VEGAS THERE IS A SKI AREA ON MOUNT CHARLESTON. BECAUSE SABRINA WASN'T A GAMBLER, I THOUGHT THE GOURMET RESTAURANT UP THERE WOULD BE A TREAT.

We turned off the desolate highway onto the far more remote, two-lane, Kyle Canyon Road. Within a mile we saw a giant sign: NO GAS ON MOUNTAIN. I instinctively checked my Chevy Monte Carlo's fuel level, it was scraping EMPTY. If I had a Larry David bracelet, I would have played it safe and retraced my steps for five miles. Instead, I internally cited the incline of the pavement and assured myself that the gauge was being skewed by the angle of the car.

On that the dark, winding road, we encountered almost no traffic going in the opposite direction. Fifteen minutes later, we crossed the snow line and soon ran out of gas. This was way before the cell phone-era so I was stuck on a dangerous blind curve with no help in sight. You can see why I panicked. That's when I hatched an idea that was so ridiculous that even an entire staff of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" writers would have thought it too unbelievable and idiotic. I tried to make a reverse, K-Turn with the idea of rolling down the mountain.

I backed up and as luck would have it, my car's rear tires rolled into a ditch along the shoulder. My under-carriage was scraping the asphalt and my tires couldn't get traction in the gravel. Even worse, my car was perpendicular to the roadway and its front-end was sticking out, about ten percent into the lane. I turned on my hazard lights but at the odd angle, I couldn't be sure that they could warn a speeder in time.

I had to think fast. I told Sabrina that I would push the car and that she would use the brake when we were out of the hole. That's when she said, "No! I never drove a car in my life."

After Sabrina took a light jacket from her suitcase and I put on a sweat-shirt, plan-B included us positioned to flag down passersby. The occasional car coming down from the mountain safely zoomed by in the other lane but didn't stop. After a long while, the first car at risk, stopped.

The forty-ish man was sloppy drunk and driving a two-seat, MG Midget. This jet-setter ogled Sabrina like Glen Quagmire from "FAMILY GUY," before identifying himself as Slade, a gaming supervisor at the Dunes Casino. After we failed to liberate my car by brute force, he announced that he had access to gas because he was a Mount Charleston volunteer fireman. I needed to consult a Larry David bracelet when he said, "I'll take the girl with me and come back with the gas." Nobody in their right mind would have agreed to that...but I did. It wasn't until this delicate flower disappeared around the first bend that I realized that even if I ever saw her again...that her virtue would never be the same.

DIGGITY, DIGGITY, DIGGITY. HOW MANY INDICATORS DID I NEED TO STOP THIS INSANITY. SLADE WAS WASTED, DRIVING A SEXY CAR AND HEADING TO A ROMANTIC RESORT. PLUS, I DIDN'T HAVE THE WHEREWITHAL TO WRITE DOWN HIS LICENSE PLATE NUMBER OR VERIFY HIS NAME.

For the next thirty minutes, my stomach was in knots as I imagined this man's eighty-woman conga-line of conquests dancing in, "I GOT LAID BY SLADE," tee-shirts. The whole torturous time, I was praying to see that little sports car and Sabrina again. Inexplicably during this whole ordeal, no cars stopped to help even the two that swerved to avoid hitting my Chevy.

My last embers of hope were as frosted as my body when Sabrina finally returned intact with Slade. We emptied nearly his whole gas can into my tank. But the car wouldn't start. The front end was elevated and because of gravity, the gas couldn't travel to the engine. That's when Slade said he'd put a little directly in the carburetor to get the motor going at its source. After the thimble-full dose didn't work, I watched the drunk douse the engine. Gas was all over the place when suddenly, BAM! The engine caught on fire.

I dashed out of the car. Slade and I ran to avoid the expected explosion. But Sabrina took a few steps away and returned with slushy snow in her bare hands. I told her to forget it but she kept tossing snow on the flames. She was making progress. When I joined her, I was able to smother the last of the blaze with my sweat-shirt.

We were enjoying a short-lived sigh of relief when a motorcycle gang roared to a stop. When I caught a glimpse of these six, filthy toughs, I was sure that Sabrina, Slade and I were all getting robbed, raped, murdered and raped. I mentioned rape twice because the leader was wearing a black leather vest with no jacket, coat or even a polo-shirt...and menaces like that...like rape.

MY MIND DRIFTED TO BEING HANDCUFFED TO A TREE AND THE OLD JOKE WITH THE PUNCHLINE, "THIS JUST AIN'T YOUR DAY."

I cringed when the leader combined laughing with a growl, "You stuck?" I think Larry David would have thrown the gas can at him and run away. I didn't. I'm positive the first smart thing I did during this escapade was to not insult this devil and just stammer, "R-r-ran out of gas..." His scary crew crept closer as he interrupted, "And you set your car on fire." I knew we were dead so I only nodded. He pointed to the back of my car, signaled his friends and said, "Don't worry, we'll push you out."

Seconds after they got me out of the gully, my car started right up. Larry David would have brought them back to my condo and insisted that they stay as long as they wanted. But I invited them all out to dinner. Being the true humanitarians that they were, the bikers and Slade only accepted my sincere thanks.

Sabrina and I didn't continue up the mountain. We went back to town, stopped at a roadside bar and drank our dinner. We were still reeking of gasoline by the time I re-united the girls at the Maxim.

If you tally-up the score, I think a "What Would Larry David Do," bracelet would have only proven that my poor decisions made every step of that impossible situation worse than anything Larry would have done. Because the only thing that he and I would have have agreed on was...when I told Sue...you're not going to believe the funny thing that happened to us.

Monday, January 17, 2011

TRENT DILFER SAVED MY LIFE !

I hope Trent Dilfer subscripts to "Google Alerts" because this blog is a true story and might be the best way for me to thank him.

Trent Dilfer was mostly a back-up quarterback in the NFL. His one sparkling moment had to be, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a decisive 34-7 victory over the New York Giants, in Super Bowl XXXV.

Dilfer and I have never met. To my knowledge, we have never been in the same building at the same time nor have I ever bet on a game he participated in. Yet, this man most certainly saved my life.
DILFER HAD MORE DOWNS THAN UPS AS A PLAYER DURING HIS FOOTBALL CAREER, (1994-2007). TODAY, HE IS AN ARTICULATE ANALYST FOR ESPN.

For some reason, way before Mr. Dilfer saved me, I have had several brushes with death...definitely more than the average person. What makes it so odd is, I have never been a commercial fisherman, gone skydiving or worked as a riveter on hundred-story buildings. I have never needed an emergency blood transfusion, been pulled from a wreck by the jaws of life or had a condition that baffled medical science. That means, I am not a daredevil. It's nothing to brag about but I have always taken personal conservatism to extreme heights.
DESPITE TEN TRIPS TO NIAGARA FALLS, I'VE NEVER BEEN TEMPTED TO TAKE THE PLUNGE IN A BARREL. STILL, ALL MY CLOSE CALLS WITH DEATH SEEM TO BE RELATED TO MY OWN POOR JUDGEMENT.

The key to longevity is to limit your intake of fatty foods, avoid taking a bath with your toaster and steer clear of dirty hypodermics and dirty women.
I SAVED MY OWN LIFE WHEN I LIVED ON THE CORNER OF SKIDMARK AND SYRINGE. THAT'S WHEN I DODGED PTOMAINE MARY, a.k.a. NURSE RATCHET AND I MADE THE FORTUITOUS LIFE CHANGE BY SWITCHING TO "HEROIN LITE."

The earliest threat to my longevity took place in the summer of 1959, at the Irvington Hotel, in South Fallsburg New York. UNLESS YOUR PARENTS WERE IMMIGRANTS, IT IS FAR WORSE TO DIE FROM THE EMBARRASSMENT OF WEARING BLACK SOCKS UNDER WHITE, PLASTIC SANDALS...THAN DROWNING.

At the Irvington, I wandered away from my folks and went to the closed swimming pool. I tried to reach a seal-shaped inflatable tube in the deep end and fell in. An anonymous passerby witnessed the incident and pulled me out. Too bad he wasn't around to save me from the brow-beating I received from mom.

YOU SHOULD KNOW YOUR KID. SOMETIMES IT'S OKAY TO RISK A CHILD'S DIGNITY AND FUTURE PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS WITH A KIDDIE-LEASH.

The next time I tempted fate was in 1974. While canoeing along the border of New York and Pennsylvania, (on the Delaware Water Gap near Skinner's Falls), I was indirectly hit by lightning. Today, I can still feel the surge of electrifying pain that zapped every nerve in my body.

Along the strange path of life, I've been in several car accidents...we all have. I have walked away from every one of mine but on closer examination, it's not hard to imagine how my quality of life could have suffered if not for the grace of a couple of inches.

One of those collisions came outside Vegas' Hilton International Casino, in 1979. Almost at the same time that a red light turned green, I was rear-ended by a guy going fifty. It was just a matter of luck that I had taken my foot off the brake a split second before impact. My little Mazda was pushed through the intersection and I was spared a fiery death when my full gas tank ruptured and didn't explode.

Two months earlier, I was side-swiped near the Sahara Avenue off-ramp on Interstate-15. I lost control, hit a streetlight pole on the right shoulder, did a 180 and wound up facing oncoming traffic in the middle lane. I broke my left hand but lived to a see another day...which was more than I could say about my Ford station wagon.

On New Year's Eve 1979, Hersh Schtiermann, my seventy-year old, Jimmy Hoffa-like casino supervisor, picked a chair up over his head. This seat was so heavy that most of the staff thought it was bolted to the floor. Mr. Hercules swung it like a baseball bat and tried to hit me over the head with it. You may be familiar with this because it appeared in length, in two previous blogs as well as in my short story, "RIDEOUT, WHITE-OUT AND RIGHT OUT."

Schtiermann quit that day. We didn't cross paths again until a year later. At first he was cordial. Then while squeezing the life out of my arm, he angrily whispered, "Kid, I cudda made your life a lot easier. Instead you gotta be a f*****g wise-guy." When I didn't respond, his ridiculous temper exploded. His wife tried to calm him down. She pulled him away from me. After a profanity laced insult fest, he screamed his parting shot, "You have no idea how close you came to the kiss of death!"

Another close call came a year later. That's when a Las Vegas police officer put a gun to my head at a routine traffic stop. In retrospect, I don't think he was being overly cautious. I believe he was a shallow jerk getting his jollies off at my expense while making the point...that I shouldn't have reached so quickly for my credentials in the glove compartment. Whether I was in real danger or not is secondary to the fact that I was lucky my continence held up.

In 1984, I hit a patch of black ice just west of Pecos Texas and flew off the road. On the snowy shoulder, I somehow got enough traction to stop...a foot or so from a jagged mountain wall.
THIS PICTURE WAS TAKEN IN MY CHEVY MONTE CARLO, ON INTERSTATE-10, A HALF HOUR BEFORE OUR DATE WITH A MOUNTAINSIDE AND DESTINY.

Two miles from home in 1990, me and my Chevy Corsica survived another bout with an icy road. I was doing about forty and went into a skid. My car veered directly towards a telephone pole. In panic-mode, I jammed on the brakes, turned the wheel hard to the left, closed my eyes and prepared to kiss my ass good-bye. At the last second, my car jerked to the left. It made a seemingly impossible 90 degree turn, crossed the road, drove through a hedge and came to a stop on some one's front lawn.

My most narrow escape from the grim reaper occurred when we first moved to New Jersey in 1985. In a perfect storm of ignorance and stupidity as well as my first experience with a fireplace, I bought one of those romantic, ninety-nine cent, easy-light Dura-Flame logs. When the embers started fading and the mood struck us, I shut the flue before adjourning to the boudoir. Later, kismet led me to the kitchen for a snack. To my shock, when I opened the door, the living room was filled with thick black smoke...I guess you can say the lure of Entemann's saved us from being asphyxiated in our sleep.

AFTER DUNKING MY CHOCOLATE DOUGHNUT IN SKIM MILK, I TOLD THE REAPER WHAT HE COULD DO WITH HIS EVIL SCYTHE AND ADDED, "I DON'T WANT TO SEE YOU OR YOUR BONY BUTT FOR AT LEAST 50 YEARS."

A far more gruesome close call came from the always reliable, drunken boating incident. In 1980, under the influence, I fell out of the back of a rented speedboat. The idiot driver, who was a moron even when he was sober, made a u-turn to rescue me. Like a beached whale, three friends hauled me back in the boat, unscathed. Later, I was still laughing when I was informed that the genius steered directly over where I fell in, BEFORE cutting the motor.
TO QUOTE MY BUDDY STUW, "A BEER AT THE BEACH IS WORTH TWO IN THE HOUSE." ON WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN MY LAST DAY IN ONE PIECE, IT WAS 112 DEGREES ON LAKE MEADE. WE WERE DRINKING ICY GIN AND LEMONADE...IN THE BROILING SUN. IT WENT DOWN LIKE CANDY BUT PACKED A POWERFUL WALLOP. THAT'S WHEN A MENTAL MIDGET FROM NEBRASKA NAMED TIGHE, NEARLY SLICED AND DICED ME TO SHREDS.

My last brush with death occurred on Sunday January 28, 2001, in the adjoining town of Smithville. With a little research, I could tell you the exact second I almost met my demise...or at least got permanently demobilized by brain damage. Please bear in mind, the names have been changed to protect the GUILTY!

A friend and his wife invited my son Andrew and I to a lavish Super Bowl party in their custom home. This event included a birthday party downstairs for one of their kids so I would estimate that there were a hundred guests. While mingling, I counted six separate TV's as I took a self-guided tour of the cool nooks and crannies of this unique home.

This game pitted the New York Giants versus the virtually unknown, Baltimore Ravens. Ninety-eight percent of the gathering had either bet on the Giants or were rooting them. That left me and some sloppy drunk, forty-something, valley-girl from Timonium Maryland as the only folks pulling for the Ravens.

In a combination of getting away from the hostile, pro-Giants crowd and finding a seat, I wandered into a two-story atrium-like alcove off the dining room. It was a cozy spot highlighted by a southwestern/greenhouse theme. In front of a little TV, surrounded by plants and flowers, I plopped down on the only chair in the room. To make my Eden-like situation even better, during the early part of the game, I had private access to a banquet table full of delicacies. Even when others discovered my hide-away, they were forced to stand or sit on the spiral staircase that led to a bedroom loft area.

The game was still scoreless when our tipsy hostess, inexplicably decided to water these plants. She probably would have gone unnoticed if she hadn't unearthed the couple sitting on the steps of the winding staircase. On her way up, we all lost focus on the game when she misstepped and almost fell.

A few minutes later, I stood up to get a food refill as Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer dropped back to throw. He arched a long bomb and I stopped to watch. When the receiver caught the touchdown pass, I cheered and took an instinctual step, closer to the TV. While celebrating, I felt a breeze on the back of my neck and heard a nearly simultaneous crash. In the exact spot I had vacated, a huge barrel cactus and what was left of the heavy, earthenware pot it was in, lay splattered on the terracotta, ceramic floor.
AN EARLY NATIVE AMERICAN MISSILE. WHEN THIS AERIAL WEAPON IS DROPPED FROM ABOVE...WITH OR WITHOUT A STOUT BARREL CACTUS INSIDE, IT CAN BE LETHAL.

Curiosity seekers flooded into the room. I looked up and saw the hostess. She had a watering can in one hand and the other was over her mouth. I was in shock and couldn't figure out if she was embarrassed or laughing. Finally she said, "I was watering...and...oops...and...are you okay?"

People were tending the mess as she came down. At ground-zero, the ceramic tile was smashed with countless spider cracks going in every direction. My friend's wife ignored me as she was surrounded by her supportive lady friends. When the valley-girl handed her a can of Heineken, the hostess never looked my way again. She was then ushered away. On her way out of the room, the hostess picked out a large pottery shard from the trash and announced to her cronies, "I bought this at the Hopi reservation in Arizona."

I never got a sincere apology. The hostess was so blitzed that she probably forgot about me ten seconds after she came down from the loft. So I have to put that drunk out of my mind and concentrate on the fact that Trent Dilfer saved my life. Hopefully, my savior will validate my feelings and acknowledge my appreciation when the Google Alert leads him to reading this blog.

Monday, January 10, 2011

TELL 'IM WHAT ELSE HE'S WON, JOHNNY !

I've always been a big fan TV game shows. Some of the early ones I liked the most were, "CONCENTRATION," "YOU DON'T SAY," "PASSWORD," "TO TELL THE TRUTH," and "WHAT'S MY LINE?"

While the average home viewer gravitated to winning cash and fabulous prizes, I liked the emcees. So much so, that by the time I was ten, I was fantasizing about being a genial host like Hugh Downs, Tom Kennedy, Bill Cullen, Allen Ludden or Wink Martindale.

My attraction had something to do with the perceived easiness of being in charge, the confidence of knowing all the answers, the security of having everyone respect you and of course, the excitement of being a TV personality. In retrospect, I'm certain Freud or even a novice shrink would see how my current phobias and emotional shortcomings originated from these childhood delusions of grandeur.

By my later teens, I convinced myself that Jack Barry the host of, "THE JOKER'S WILD," could and should be replaced... by me. Because, in addition to being an older dullard, his only credentials I knew of was that he had hosted the kids show, "WINKY DINK."

"WINKY DINK" WAS A KIDDIE SHOW FROM 1953-1957. WHEN IT WAS REVIVED IN 1969, BARRY WAS SELECTED AS THE HOST. LITTLE DID I KNOW THAT IT WAS REJUVENATING HIS BROKEN CAREER.

Unbeknownst to me, Jack Barry had a checkered past.

IN 1958, JACK BARRY (center) WAS THE HOST OF THE POPULAR QUESTION AND ANSWER SHOW, "TWENTY-ONE." HIS CAREER TOOK A NOSE-DIVE WHEN HE WAS IMPLICATED FOR RIGGING THE OUTCOMES... BY GIVING CONTESTANT, CHARLES VAN DOREN (right), THE ANSWERS. THE 1994 MOVIE, "QUIZ SHOW" WAS BASED ON THAT SCANDAL.

Jack Barry was blackballed. He tried to develop his own shows but had little success. He didn't return as an on-air personality until, "WINKY DINK," was remade.

Some of my friends watched the revamped Winky Dink but I was fourteen and it was too babyish. Still, it was ahead of its time because authorized Winky Dink products like a "magic drawing screen" that covered your TV and special crayons could be bought. With these materials and Jack Barry's suggestions, kids at home could draw on their TV's, a solution to Winky Dink's problems, solve codes, etc. Computer mogul Bill Gates praised the program as; "The first interactive TV show."

Jack Barry's success on Winky Dink lasted 65 episodes until 1973. During that time he was hired as the host of the "JOKERS WILD." He established the catchphrase, "JOKER, JOKER, JOKER!" when the best situation came up, (all three question reels were wild cards). Barry maintained that position until 1984. It was his influence during that time that really made me want to be a game show host. Unfortunately, I was forced to suppress that desire for a long time...until my son Andrew entered grade school.

Andrew's first grade teacher and I had a friendly relationship. When she learned that I had a sparse knowledge of Spanish, she asked me to come in during their term-ending party and give a simple demonstration of the language. That demonstration developed into, "SPANISH BINGO." Due to its success and my subsequent rapport with his other teachers, my inventing and hosting game shows became a Reeds Road School tradition. The fun continued each year until Andrew "outgrew" the concept after fifth grade.

"SPANISH BINGO" DID NOT USE NUMBERS. MY BINGO BOARDS HAD 1st GRADE VOCABULARY WORDS ALONG SIDE THEIR SPANISH COUNTERPART....SO INSTEAD OF CALLING G-57, I CALLED, G-HAT/SOMBRERO. THEN THE STUDENTS WOULD MARK THEIR CARDS AND TRY TO MAKE A BINGO.

In second grade I came up with, "THE GREAT AMERICAN CLAM RACE." This quiz show split the class into two teams, the Fuchsia Crustaceans and the Orange Mollusks. I built a punch board with a hundred questions based on the year's curriculum. A game board was drawn on the blackboard and magnetized clam shell game pieces advanced to the finish line.

The "GAME OF THE STATES," inspired the third grade edition. The next year's installment involved all four fourth grade classes. We went outside and combined questions and answers with physical challenges. Some of those events were; racing with a ping pong ball on a spoon, the game telephone and a running backwards relay.

These shows had satisfied my urge to be the master of ceremony. I proved to myself that it was easy, fun to be in charge, cool to know all the answers and respected by so many. That's when I realized that I should share that joy with Andrew. When I asked if he wanted to be the moderator in fifth grade; he was thrilled.

We began sketching out concepts during the winter break. I gave him some simple tasks to prepare over the next few months but because video games and various other levels of entertainment dominated his private time, these goals weren't fully reached.

Andrew was still helpful but my vision of this being HIS show evaporated. In a bit of a rush job, "CLUELESS...THE SEARCH FOR BUBBA'S GOLDEN COLLAR," was born.

BUBBA THE BULLDOG, IS THE SCHOOL MASCOT. ON A COUPLE OF OCCASIONS, I WORE THE COSTUME WHEN THE REGULAR GUY COULDN'T MAKE IT.

"CLUELESS, THE SEARCH FOR BUBBA'S GOLDEN COLLAR," was based on the board game, "CLUE." The show featured four teams trying to figure out which imaginary Reeds Road School employee stole Bubba's golden collar, how it was taken and where they were hiding it.

ADVERTISEMENTS FOR "CLUELESS," WERE PLASTERED ALL OVER THE SCHOOL.

Andrew was the emcee. The teams received clues to the crime by answering questions about the term's work. Then they were awarded points for figuring out the; who, how and where of the stolen collar. Then with the help of the teachers, Bubba's collar (a Dollar Store item spray painted gold) , was hidden the classroom. To show my cleverness, I told Andrew that it would be better if he didn't know where it was hidden so he wouldn't be tempted to tell anyone. Ergo, without him realizing it, he would eventually be a contestant too.

Weeks earlier, I conspired with one of the teachers to have the class name her new, rhinestone encrusted paper clip box which was proudly displayed in plain sight, on her desk.

This paved the way to Clueless's double-climax. Number one was the hilarity of us adults and Andrew watching the kids' three-minute ( fruit-less) search of the entire school. Number two was when they came back, Andrew told them that without finding the collar, the score was too close to have a clear winner. Then as a tie-breaker, I wrote these letters on the chalkboard; X-B-K-S-E-O-A-C-O-H-T-T-T-H-R and told the class to unscramble them and fit then into this sequence: --- --- ---- -----.

The class was told to not only solve the puzzle but to go to that spot and retrieve the collar. Everyone was encouraged to do their own work because their team would be declared the winner but that individual would be awarded an actual prize, a gold bubloon, (Andrew coined the phrase bubloon, by combining Bubba and doubloon). To his surprise, my boy was invited to participate.TO RE-CREATE A DOUBLOON, I USED A SILVER DOLLAR-SIZED LEAD, NON-VALUE LAS VEGAS PROMOTIONAL SLOT MACHINE TOKEN. I ROUGHED IT UP BY PLACING PEBBLES UNDERNEATH AND DRIVING OVER IT A GAZILLION TIMES WITH MY CAR. THEN, I SPRAY PAINTED IT GOLD AND PLACED IT IN A PLASTIC, COIN COLLECTOR'S CASE.

A girl edged out Andrew and figured out that the anagram. It was the name of the teachers rhinestone encrusted box that the students named a few weeks earlier, THE BOX THAT ROCKS. She was thrilled to open the box and win the prize. And I appreciated that another kid asked to keep Bubba's collar as a souvenir.

I bet Jack Barry was never that ingenious. And I bet that when Andrew has a more defined goal in life, he won't be relying on three reels coming up, JOKER, JOKER, JOKER !

Monday, January 3, 2011

I.O.W.A. STANDS FOR, IDIOTS OUT WANDERING ABOUT

My 1976 cross country trip remains one of the highlights of my life. I liked it so much because on my own I found adventure, retraced history, discovered oddball places, learned about other cultures and met new people. I never re-experienced that joy but in the 80's and 90's, I recaptured a bit of that feeling by going to flea markets.

When flea marketing was hot, I was off on Saturday and Sunday. And because my wife and local friends were casino people, I was left alone to venture all over South Jersey and rekindle the flame of joy that I mentioned above.

AERIAL VIEW OF THE FARMER'S MARKET IN BERLIN NEW JERSEY. IF YOU SQUINT, YOU CAN SEE ME AND MY THREE-YEAR OLD SON ANDREW IN AISLE SIX, AT THE SNO-CONE STAND. WE BROUGHT MY DAD'S COLLECTION OF EARLY 60's TRUE MAGAZINES TO A VENDOR. I WAS OFFERED SEVEN CENTS A COPY. MY BOY WAS IMPATIENT AND DIFFICULT TO HANDLE BUT I DIDN'T WANT TO CARRY THE "RAGS" BACK TO THE CAR. IT STILL KILLS ME THAT I, "GAVE THEM AWAY," FOR $2.94.

Heavier responsibilities ended my vagabond days. However, I recently found a reality TV show that touches on many of those old emotions. Its called, "AMERICAN PICKERS."

A "PICKER" REFERS TO SOMEBODY WHO WORKS IN FIELD AND HUNTS DOWN ANTIQUES AND OTHER ITEMS. PEOPLE LIKE MIKE WOLFE (left) AND FRANK FRITTS (right), REPRESENT THE ORIGIN OF THE COLLECTIBLES PIPE-LINE, BY CHERRY-PICKING WHATEVER CAN BE RESOLD FOR A PROFIT.

AMERICAN PICKERS features the two Laurel and Hardy-like pickers (see above), from Le Claire Iowa. It debuted on January 18, 2010 and is concurrently being aired on "THE HISTORY CHANNEL" and "LIFETIME." MIKE IS THE PASSIONATE NUMBER-ONE MAN. HE SPECIALIZES IN BICYCLES AND MOTORCYCLES, LIKE THE 1937 KNUCKLEHEAD ABOVE. FRANK, THE SECOND BANANA, GRAVITATES TO TOYS AND VINTAGE OIL CANS.

Their enterprise is called, "ANTIQUE ARCHAEOLOGY." While they crisscross the country in their van searching for tarnished gold, an employee, (Danielle) minds the command center back in Iowa. Through the use of business sense and her feminine charm, she uses the Internet and telephone to do advance scouting and research leads. Equally important, she connects Mike and Frank with appraisers in the furthest corners of the middle of nowhere, to answer questions and establish prices.

Danielle also uses her wiles to advertise merchandise. Sometimes new purchases are sold before they reach the shop. Along the way, the home viewer experiences their adventures inter-laced with team's three-sided, good-natured taunting. That adventure is sure to include; history lessons, a visit to unusual places, seeing other cultures in action and meeting tons of cool people.

The History Channel has another, somewhat similar program. "PAWN STARS," features the Harrison family and their Las Vegas pawn broker shop. I liked this show because you never knew what was coming in the store next plus every customer had a story. I would have been satisfied with it if "Pickers" never came around.

COMPARED TO AMERICAN PICKERS, PAWN STARS COMES OFF LIKE THREE GENERATIONS OF WEALTHY WISE-ASS, FAT-CATS.

The Pawn Stars show is sanitary. They are in a dirty business but they never get dirty. Overwhelmingly, everyone has to come to them. And if the "pawner" doesn't like the deal, they are given a dour, take it or leave it ultimatum. I'm also put off by the fact that they are located in Las Vegas and frequently prey on desperate/down and out gamblers who might feel compelled to accept less.

Even the way they use humor to humanize themselves doesn't work for me. Pawn Stars use the "THREE STOOGES" method. Grandpa only stops counting his money when he's angry. That's when he verbally slaps his son Rick. Rick (the number-one man) has genuine enthusiasm and knowledge for his profession but when he gets slapped, he turns around slaps his son, Big Hoss. Then dimensionless Hoss, who comes off like a monetary mercenary who's only other desire is to prove to his dad and granddad that he is already worthy of running the show, turns around and insults a worker, (Chumlee). And when your at the end of the stooge totem pole like Curley...when Chumlee turns around there is nobody to slap.

I'm sure that the Harrison's worked hard to get where they are but the American Pickers possess and maintain the work ethic that our country stands for. Mike has been picking since he as eight. Together with Frank, a friend from his early teens, they started buying and selling. With the advent of EBAY, they widened their customer base.

Mike says he was making around fifty thousand a year when he produced a "how to" video on picking. This video found its way into the hands of TV producers on the History Channel and the show was soon born. While they didn't divulge Mike's current earnings, he did say that because of the show's success, their web-site activity has spiked to about three-hundred hits a day. Plus, they are now planning to expand their home-base to accommodate walk-ins.

The Iowa boys use a combination of Danielle's leads and cold calls. A cold call occurs when they drop in on a house or business with certain exterior indicators suggesting that there might be items they could buy and re-sell. Armed with a friendly face and a handbill that describes what they do and what they are interested in, they knock on doors. Many times, people invite them onto their property. Some folks are active collectors and some are looking to downsize and still others are people who inherited tons of accumulated junk.

At no time do I ever lose sight of the fact that everyone knows they are on camera. That means that the viewer is only seeing what the director wants them see. On occasion, I'm sure they might be considered invaders and have doors slammed in their face. Nevertheless, the sellers we see are interesting, thought provoking and entertaining.

I have seen the boys deal with hippies, hobos and housewives as well as curmudgeons, clowns and castaways. I've seen them sift through old stores, theaters, churches, amusement park and even a prison. But mostly, they work with collectors who invite them into the inner sanctum of their old barns, basements or in the great outdoors.

You have to give them credit for risking life and limb by climbing tenuous piles of junk or dragging out heavy or delicate treasures. Sometimes these tasks are performed in dusty, filthy and wet conditions. Other times they are exposed to poison ivy, bat guano or a hundred kinds of pestilence, in search of the almighty buck.

I can relate to Mike and Frank's trials and tribulations because my BFF ZIMBO, is an antique dealer, (TIME AND AGAIN ANTIQUES). On a smaller scale, I know what he goes through. Zimbo might not be wading through swamps with precious cargo balancing on his head but because he is generally on his own, Mr. Z. has developed a laundry list of picking injuries that include his back, knee, heel and hip. And something tells me, you can add a thousand hours of psychotherapy too.

TIME AND AGAIN ANTIQUES IS LOCATED AT 1416 E. LINDEN AVENUE, IN LINDEN NEW JERSEY 07036 AND CAN BE REACHED AT: (800) 290-5401. OR AT: www.timeandagainantiques.com. ASK FOR ZIMBO, (a.k.a. JEFF), AND TELL HIM YOU ARE A FAN OF, "MORE GLIB ThAN PROFOUND."

It's hard to believe but Iowa has beaten Las Vegas as my favorite buy and sell reality TV show. The ultimate capitalists, American Pickers come and unearth stuff that might disintegrate or get hauled to the dump. Then through a restoration process, Mike, Frank and Danielle, in a self effacing manner, recycle grand and not so grand pieces into new life. Voila, what you are left with is a slice of Americana that might have become forgotten. Plus the luxury of going cross country with them, from your La-Z-Boy, every week. And if that wasn't enough, you also get an insight to a viable, alternative method to earning a living in these difficult economic times.

Maybe Buck Owens and Roy Clark from the comedy/variety show, "HEE HAW," were talking about Mike and Frank when they used to say; he's a pickin' and 'um a grinnin'.

MUSICIANS, OWENS (left) AND CLARK (right) RESEMBLE LAUREL AND HARDY TOO. MAYBE BETWEEN THEIR GUITAR AND BANJO JAM SESSIONS, THEY PICKED ANTIQUES TOO.

Then to top it all off, I'd love to hear one of the American Pickers to say, "You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose.