Jersey . . . Sure!

Charley yelled at me Monday night.  Apparently, my sibling readers have missed my posts lately (Work and school have proven a leech on my time and energy — even sleep has been forestalled until June).  I’ve been sitting on this post for the last month-and-a-half, not wanting to post until I’ve added a few pictures, a few humoroous vignettes, a few notable insights in the human condition . . . but as this pile of labs-to-be-graded accumulates like a malignant tumor on the desk before me (“Friendly neighborhood Spiderman-mug save me!”), I figure “Screw it!  Move on!  Post the blog!  Scribble an A on the labs!  Take the day off!  Move to Orlando!  Marry a Disney princess . . . preferably Belle or that Tangled-chick!  Use more exclamation points!!!”   Carpe diem guys!  Whoo ah!  

Like many pilgrims before me, New Jersey welcomed me with open arms and a cocktail of  …. grotesque aromas:  sewer vents, tire-mushed polecat, and bilge.  We had passed most of the evening on I-95, driving  to upstate New York from Baltimore via Jersey, much like Dante’s trip to Paradiso via Inferno.   Not being a native New Yorker, you might think this an unkind comparison, but few trips through New Jersey have taken me off the turnpike; thus, the landscape of tangled grey pipes, desiccated fields, and smoking chemical factories encompasses much of my sense memory.  Still, despite the momentary assault on my lungs, the party on Saturday proved well-worth the visit.

After years of pining, dating, failing, blubbering, and ultimately dismissing the whole female race as ‘shallow sluts,’ my friend and brother, Frank ‘The Chainsaw’ had finally discovered  — how had O Henry coined it? — “the one missing face from his heart’s gallery of intimate portraits.”  That was two or three years ago; this weekend Frank had invited his whole ‘adopted’ family to a country club to celebrate his wedding.
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Universal-ly Accepted

None of this architecture is ‘necessary,’ per se, serving no other purpose than to tantalize the eye and imagination, and just so, I love every detail. Who wouldn’t want a windmill spinning atop their house, or a clam-powered faucet?

Details are important.  Any fan of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction will inform you that ignoring the little things in life can prove fatal . . . you know, because all the aliens died in Wells’ novel War of the Worlds . . . because they never considered Earth’s micro-organisms . . . and because of this ‘tiny’ oversight of these microbes the space invaders ended up a ‘little’ dead . . . which is to say ‘very.’

Which brings me to my second point: subtlety.  Subtlety is also a very important quality, especially in writing.  However, in theme parks, the subtle touch is best left outside the gates, along with moderation and unapproved coolers.  In a well-designed theme park, the act of walking or waiting should prove as entertaining as the rides themselves, engaging the imagination as well as the senses.  At the risk of sounding like a dork, I enjoy the lure of another world, of the fantasy.  To quote John Hammond: “I’m not talking about rides.  Everyone has rides.” Continue reading

Wage and War

Like a femme fatale, the curves here proved deadly.

The 3rd Annual Ice Cream Invitational.  Every summer in Disney, Rodney and Ryan compete with Shannon and ‘yours truly’ in a sacred triathlon that tests the very limits of our body, our heart, and — dare I say — our sanity, a contest fit for gladiators (American or otherwise).  The contest consisted of three rounds.  The first grueling challenge sets brother against brother on the miniature golf course, and then the fiery hell of the tennis court . . .

Wait, why are you rolling your eyes?  Seriously, whatever you THINK you know about miniature golf, forget it.  Disney’s Fantasia Fairways is a theme park asylum covered in undulating green felt, reminding you why men have loved and cursed the bloody game for centuries.  No cartoon castles litter the course.  The pathway to the hole rises and falls like waves on a storm-tossed sea so there’s no ‘trick’ or ‘perfect putt’ to secure your hole in one . . . just luck and the pity of God.  This was to be our battlefield — our Ragnarok, some may say days from now — and waiting for us at the end, a rich waffle cone, filled with soft-serve and seasoned with the blood and tears of our enemies. Continue reading

Undreamed shores: Part 1

One joy scatters a hundred griefs.   – Chinese proverb

Living in a family of ten to twelve (sometimes fifteen) people, you learn quickly to adjust to chaos, welcoming the unexpected as a coal miner embraces sunlight.  Dad of course exhausted from plugging unexpected leaks and implosions among his contractors and clients attempts to impose some order on both home and family: clean this mess, fold these clothes, file those papers, make those beds. Indeed he’d have an easier time driving off a thundercloud with a leaf blower.  For on those rare occasions when the day’s events unfold according to some loose plan or schedule, you feel almost isolated, unnerved by the sudden immersion of order, the lone working gear among the scattered piles of monkeys and wrenches.  What is this sensation, you say to yourself, this . . . calm?  The absence of fear and anxiety, of noise and confusion only proves to make you anxious and confused until you knock over Mom’s prized Belleek vase to regain your sanity.  The cycle begins anew. Continue reading

Good Service Nowadays

“One ninety-four!”

“One ninety-four!”

The Panera Bread near the boys’ school is located in an old outlet center under construction. Golden bulldozers and backhoes decorate the parking lot, former Laundromats and Dollar Stores collapse into dust while steel skeletons of new stores emerge from their ashes, and hardhatted construction workers cut thick patchwork pieces from the asphalt like haberdashers into fresh fabric. Once finished, they trim the entire site, barricading the cut edges and broken piles with a neon-orange mesh. Driving through to as-of-yet untouched parking lot before Panera is akin to competing in an off-road obstacle course, skidding over uneven road and avoiding the sweeping necks of monstrous machines. Nevertheless, the ensuing chaos and haphazard construction does little to disrupt the flock of young businessmen and women, who congregate before Panera every morning.

I arrive at the bakery quarter of eight in the morning, after dropping the boys off at football practice, to grab a breakfast sandwich and some cold tea. The suits are all there, mingling outside the store and gossiping inside around coffee and bagels, bedecked like fashionable New York models. I order my food and within a few minutes they leave all at once, flying off to their jobs like startled pigeons migrating between park statues. The café empties and I am left with the Panera staff and an eclectic group of seniors. Most look either relieved for the return to silence or totally oblivious to the change at all.

The chef behind the counter calls my number, shoving a rolled up bag across the counter. Oblivious myself, I continue to sip iced tea and hum old tunes from the 40s, recalled from years of Bug Bunny cartoons:

“You musta been a beautiful baby, you musta been a beautiful child, when you were only startin’ to go to kindergarten I bet you drove the lil’ boys . . .”

“One ninety-four!”

“Right!” I shout and the chef glares at me simultaneously muttering “Have a nice day” with programmed absence.

Maybe my dress is not on par with the rest of the café’s patrons, but it is early on a Monday morning so I cut the guy some slack. Other encounters have not been so warm. Fast food cashiers for example never seem particularly energized. The low pay and long hours without thought probably does little to boost moral. Yet I wonder sometimes whether people work their jobs or whether people’s jobs work them. Sometimes it falls to the customer to galvanize those who serve him into action:

“WelcometoWendysmayItakeyourorder?”

Nothing about my cashier suggested anything but loathing toward me and the food consuming public as a whole. The family and I had stopped on the way down to Florida at combination gas station-Wendy’s-DairyQueen-market for food and ice cream. She – let’s call her Wendy – seemed like she wanted to kill herself and the most of humanity in one fell swoop. Her monosyllabic greeting slid from her mouth like a crash victim, slowly and with great pain. Normally I would have been taken aback. However, Wendy had mumbled the programmed welcome with such perfect fluidity and indifference that I paused before announcing my order, clearly impressed and thus resolute to pester her with cheerfulness.

“Hello, how are you today?”

“Fiiinnne . . .” she moans with a sigh. Success! Already I had struck a nerve.

“Could I get a . . . um, a chicken sandwich and . . .”

“Fried, spicy, grilled, or sautéed?”

“Oh . . . well, what would you recommend?”

At first, I get no response. Wendy glares at me incredulously. Clearly – and probably wisely too – she does not eat here. Nonetheless, she musters a response: “Um if you like spicy hot food and heartburn, get the spicy chicken. The sautéed chicken is greasy. Grilled is decent, and crispy, well . . .”

Here she paused and for a moment I spied a slight grin, mischievous and rebellious. “. . . is God-awful,” she whispers.

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh. “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh.  “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

Fast food cashiers by in large are like that, moaning and groaning like the titular characters in a George Romero zombie flick. Of course, I saw “SuperSize Me” too. If my job involved knowingly feeding the general populace fatty sauces and questionable meat, I would try to frighten away future customers far from our value meals. That reminds me, have you heard the new advertising for McDonalds’ chicken strips: now guaranteed with 100% real meat! Should we ask what kind of meat? Moreover, what exactly did I ingest several months ago? Was it animal, mineral, or vegetable? I do not envy any fast food worker, accosted with these heavy questions.

Fast food workers however are not the only ones afflicted with occupational depression. Take my recent encounter with the drink girl at the local golf course for example. Typically these maidens with their roving oases exude a pleasant cheerfulness, offering liquid hope to the heat-irradiated sportsman, yet this story involves a rare specimen. The girl seemed pleasant enough, if you ignored the bug-eyed sunglasses, petulant sarcasm, and Sunday-morning face of the late night drinker. As she drove near the green, my brother Shannon repositioned the flag and asked for a sandwich:

“Ummm . . . it’s eight o’clock in the morning,” she explained.

“Oh ok, well . . . thank you,” Shannon replied, taken aback. “But do you have any sandwiches?”

“No . . .” she sighed. “We have only few snacks and muffins. That’s it.”

“Iced tea for me,” I clamor after missing my putt.

“I’ll take a muffin,” Shannon’s friend, Chuck, says handing her a hundred dollar bill. For the next year or so, until he finishes his senior year at high school, Chuck is staying with us. The large bill represents the entirety of his spending money for the next six or so months. However, the girl clearly interprets his eagerness to pay for their drinks as futile attempt to flirt.

“I’m not impressed,” she responds, hurriedly passing him his change and driving off.

Clearly alcohol and early mornings mix as well as beer before liquor (never sicker). This alarming trend concerning those individuals in my life who prepare my food gives me pause. Luckily enough, I can always depend on those wonderful folks at my local bookstore cafe. After grabbing my daily egg sandwich at Panera, I read for a bit and then visit the book emporium before retrieving up the boys from practice. This has become a daily routine so much so that the baristas ready the iced tea as I walk in:

“Mornin’ Murph, your usual? Large iced tea again today?”

“You got it, Joel, but with a splash of raspberry syrup if you got any,” I respond, momentarily distracted by a large table of novels. “Buy 1, and purchase another for ½ off.” I remind myself to scour the titles before I leave.

“No problem, man,” Joel responds, energetically. “Scone? We just got a fresh batch of cinnamon and apple . . .”

“Well . . .” I love scones. “Oh, what the heck. Heat it up for me.” I sip my tea while Joel throws the triangular pastry into the oven.

“Did you manage to see any movies over the weekend?” Joel asks, as soon as the oven chimes. Of all the baristas who work at the café, Joel loves discussing comic books, movies, and all things geeky. Moreover, he is the epitome of the perfect barista: energetic, efficient, and friendly. I anticipate our morning discussions every day.

“I took my folks and a few of the siblings out to see “The Dark Knight” for the eighth time. Did you see it yet?”

Joel pauses and frowns. “Yeah, but I didn’t like it. The costume was all wrong, more like a SWAT gunmen than a superhero. They totally forgot about Harvey’s dual personalities, and I lost track of the characters after a while. It was all so confusing. I nearly walked out halfway through . . . Hey, dude, don’t you want your scone?!”

"I didn't like it."

"I didn't like it."

I gasp and mindlessly stagger out into stacks, my fanboy pride in tatters. No disillusioned fast food cashier could have hurt me more. Quickly, I buy a stack of novels, childrens’ lit, and five or so volumes of manga (Buy 4, Get the 5th Free) to ease my pain.

I take a long sip of iced tea to cleanse the bad taste from my mouth. Yes, it truly is a shame: the blended raspberry and the iced tea were delicious, perfectly delicious.