Hope

It is difficult to write passionately about a cause, regardless of how much it might mean to you, when you cannot honestly write about it in the first person.

I have written dozens of posts about unemployment, railing about the stupidity of Congress and the plight of those who have been economically sidelined and will likely never work again.  But I did this while on my own gut-wrenching, year-long odyssey of job hunting after being laid off from the state court system.  I was able to give my readers the down low about nearly collapsing after standing in line in the sun for three hours to obtain USDA surplus canned goods, about telling my life story to the Salvation Army lady, about the indignity of applying for Food Stamps.

The same is true of my experiences in going vegan.  I couldn’t reasonably expect anyone to put stock in a thing I said about the virtues of veganism if I hadn’t committed to it personally.  I didn’t do this all at once; I played with the idea for bit before realizing that it is the only ethical food choice in today’s world.  Yes, being a vegan can be a big fat pain in the ass when you are the oddball among carnivores, but at least I can tell you all about it firsthand.

When it comes to homelessness, however, things are a bit different.  I have never been homeless myself, although I’ve come close a couple of times.  I’ve had to rely on family for a roof over my head on more than one occasion, and I can see why some find living on the street preferable.  I can empathize, to some extent, with a friend in Georgia who spent some months sleeping behind a bush in a downtown business district because she was flat broke and it was the only way she could leave her abusive boyfriend.  She can speak about homelessness with a conviction that I cannot.  No matter how many stories I relate about the desperate of Sacramento, it’s necessarily a second hand story.

There are a lot of us who are perennially a paycheck or two away from homelessness and who would rather not talk about it out loud for fear of waking up to find that the nightmare has become real.  But there are others who own a home and a car, have no mortgage and have sufficient savings to get by on for virtually as long as necessary.  More than a few of these individuals are in Congress and in the state legislature.  It is difficult to convince someone of the dire necessity to do something about homelessness when they themselves are highly unlikely to ever find themselves living on the streets.

Those folks may tell you that they earned everything they have, that they got to where they’re at by dint of hard work and good decisions.  While some have succeeded by drawing themselves up out of poverty, many more at the top of the economic heap arrived there largely by having chosen their parents well.  Would that we all could have been such smart babies.

Fortunately, a desire to alleviate a particular type of suffering does not require that we experience that suffering personally.  So what can anyone of us really do to help the homeless?  Surely we’re not going to risk bringing them into our own homes?

To those of the Christian faith, I say WWJD.

But I am also aware of the realities of the world in which we live.  I’ve been hearing stories about a good Samaritan who stopped to help a homeless man a few weeks ago, just a couple of miles from here.  I am told she was murdered, her throat slit by the person she hoped to help.

So I get it when we drive by the guy with the sign, keeping our eyes on the road.  I get it when we walk by the panhandler, keeping our heads down and being careful not to make eye contact.  Perhaps we are disgusted with the situation and know that we can never hope to do enough personally to make a significant difference.  Perhaps we are ashamed that we lack the courage to make the first move.  Perhaps we believe that “these people” have done this to themselves and are responsible for their own bad decisions.  They made their bed, now they have to lie in it.  Or perhaps we just fear for our personal safety when we have no idea whether this “beggar” may be crazy and violent.

For years, I’ve read about how Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., directly across the street from the White House, is a veritable drug supermarket and a haven for crack addicts.  While I am aware of the drug problem in our nation’s capital, it wasn’t until this week that I learned the extent of the homelessness situation there.  The Washington Post recently reported that the city’s metropolitan area has 11,623 homeless people crouching over heating grates, staying in dangerous overnight shelters, sleeping in little encampments under bridges.  This figure was arrived at as the result of a PIT (point in time) count conducted on the night of January 28, during the coldest part of Washington’s winter.  I don’t know about you, but at least to me, eleven thousand seems an awfully large number of people to be shivering in the cold without roofs over their heads.  And in some other parts of the country (and the world), it’s even worse.

The highest rates of homelessness in the United States are in Florida and right here in California.  The Sunshine and Golden States are the only two states of the Union to have the distinction of hosting a homeless population exceeding 6% of all residents.  Perhaps some of this has to do with California’s sheer size; after all, nearly one in ten Americans live here.  Then there is the reality that, at least in the southern portions of Florida and California, the weather is warm enough year-round that one who is forced to live al fresco has a fairly good chance of not freezing to death the week before Christmas.  Out here, the stories are legion about folks who arrive here by bus, thinking they’ll manage to survive on the beach in San Diego.  As if we didn’t have enough homegrown homelessness.  Really, who can afford to live in San Diego?  Or Los Angeles?  Or San Francisco?

There is no need for despair, however.  There is hope.

Thanks to a program (or a philosophy, depending on one’s viewpoint) known as Housing First, the state of Utah has succeeded in virtually eliminating homelessness.  The secret of Utah’s success is right there in the program’s name.  Housing first, then worry about things like drug rehab, mental health assistance, job training.  Utah started by taking the most intractable, most seemingly hopeless cases off the streets of Salt Lake City by handing them the keys to an apartment, a house or a single room occupancy community residence.  The SROs were for those who needed health and welfare checks on a nearly daily basis, with services available right in the same building.  Some of those who were newly homed had been on the streets for twenty years or more.  All of them were offered, but not forced to accept, free counseling, health care, job training and food.

The idea is that it is next to impossible to succeed at something as hard as kicking drugs, getting one’s mental illness under control or finding a job when you don’t have a stable address, a reliable place to take a shower or the assurance that you have a bed in which to get a good night’s sleep.  Utah removed the morality from the situation.  Instead of sitting in judgment upon the homeless and their poor choices, they simply gave them keys.

In other words, the way to end homelessness is to give people homes.

And to give people hope.

I encourage you to check out the link above and read about how Utah managed to achieve such an accomplishment.  It wasn’t easy.  It took a consortium of public and private resources.  It took building new apartments when the available housing stock was depleted.  And it didn’t happen by itself.  It took commitment, those in power saying “yes, we’re going to do this.”

It wasn’t done by taking neighborhood homeless people into our own homes; it was done by giving them their own homes.  It wasn’t done by buying fast food for hungry people holding signs at Wal-Mart or the McDonald’s drive-through.  It wasn’t done by means of token shows of caring.  It was done by collective will.

I feel confident that if providing homes to the homeless worked in Utah, we can also make it work right here in California.

Anyone with me?

Henry and the Guy with Two Signs and the Pregnant Woman and the Old Man with the Dog

I think his name is Henry.  I’m not really sure because he has a speech disability and I found him quite difficult to understand.

We met him standing by the side of the drive-through lane at one of the local McDonald’s.  My wife had a headache and wanted a Coke and, you know, Mickey D’s has drinks for a dollar these days.

We asked him if he wanted something to eat and he said yes.  So along with my wife’s Coke, we ordered Henry a cheeseburger and fries and a soda.  He expressed his gratitude in no uncertain terms.

At the drive-through window, my wife asked the young clerk with the headset whether the people that hung around outside McD’s were really homeless or just beggars.  “Probably a little of both,” he opined.

When we drove by again a few minutes later, Henry was still there.  The food was gone and the wrappers were discarded on the ground.  The guy must have inhaled his meal.  It may have been a while since he had eaten, or perhaps instantaneous consumption is the only bulwark against competing homeless people stealing what little you have.

I felt as if someone should chastise Henry about littering, but I suppose where one’s trash is deposited falls low in priority when one’s belly is empty.  Moreover, my wife and I realized that the man is almost certainly developmentally disabled.

A little while later, while exiting the Wal-Mart parking lot, we saw a gentleman with one cardboard sign propped against his backpack (“I am really hungry”) while he held another (“I am really thirsty” in large lettering, with a small notation “anything but alcohol”).  I suppose he believed that he would be deemed more worthy of charity if he made it clear that he wasn’t just hoping for a beer.

Then there was last night.  On the way home from my job in downtown Sacramento, we pulled off the freeway to use the rest room in a fast food restaurant.  Two homeless people, an old man and a young woman, were hanging out near the door.  The woman was wearing a vertically striped outfit that reminded me of an umpire.  She kept tugging up her low rider pants that gave the world a clear view of her butt crack.  My wife pointed out that she was pregnant.

The old guy had a scruffy little dog as a companion, tied to a small pile of possessions by a red leash.  I couldn’t help thinking that it was bad enough to be born a dog, much less to end up the canine pal of a homeless person.  As often as I hear derogatory comments about homeless people having pets when they can’t even feed themselves, as the first drops of rain began to fall I realized that loneliness does not discriminate based on economic need or social station.  We all need a friend.

My good and kindhearted wife pointed out that we should drive back around to ask the man and the woman whether they needed something to eat.  But they were gone, perhaps to seek shelter from the impending storm, just another in a long line of storms that had already permeated their lives.

As we headed home, we heard a clap of thunder and spied a distant flash of lightning before the sky opened up in a torrential downpour, so desperately needed by the parched crops here in drought-ravaged central California.  Hurrying the short distance into the house, I was well and truly drenched.

As I stripped off my soaked clothes and pulled on a warm pair of sweats, I wondered where the pregnant woman and the old geezer with the dog would spend the night.

And I wondered what their names are and how long they’ve been living outdoors and who their mothers and fathers were.

It seems a crime to throw away people as if they were worthless, as if they had no ability to contribute to society, no ability to love and be loved.  As if they were no more than paper wrappers discarded from hastily devoured cheeseburgers.

At least if I see Henry again, I’ll be able to address him by name.

On Gratitude and Striving, from Coast to Coast

Back when I was young and oblivious (as opposed to now, when I am old and oblivious) and living in the suburbs of New York City, I was friendly with a young couple who celebrated being bicoastal by prominently displaying a framed poster in their kitchen.  You’ve probably seen the one to which I refer:  One half is “New York” with an image of the Statue of Liberty, while the other half is “California” with an image of a palm tree.  Both images stand tall and proud, almost as if reaching out to each other in a gesture of friendship.

This July will mark twenty years since I defected from the Lady Liberty side to the palm tree side.  When I jumped ship, about all I really knew about living in California is that I’d have an easier time being a vegetarian here (Avodadoes!  Sourdough bread!  Tofu sandwiches!) and that there would be plenty of work for me in Silicon Valley’s tech industry.  I was mostly wrong on the first count and horribly, disastrously wrong on the second count.

Like many New Yorkers, I saw California as the golden land of opportunity, filled with sunshine and the chance to reinvent yourself into anything you wanted to be.  (Sadly, not so for most of us.)  I also had the idea that California would be more laid back than stodgy, hung-up New York.  This last one actually turned out to have some basis in fact.

Take the state mottoes of California and New York, for example.  California proudly displays “eureka” on its state shield, a Greek word proclaiming “I have found it!”  New York, on the other hand, chose “excelsior,” Latin for “ever upward.”  Thus, New York stands for constantly striving, while California believes it can relax because it has already arrived.  One might even generalize that New Yorkers constantly work toward achieving “more and better,” while laid-back Californians are satisfied and content with what they have.

With this in mind, I am forced to admit that you can take the boy out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the boy.  As my wife is quick to point out, I always want more and am never fully satisfied with anything.  For this I do not apologize.  As Shakespeare famously put it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Nevertheless, I am grateful for those who are perfectly satisfied with exactly what they have.  More opportunity for me!

This is not to say that I am ungrateful for the gifts that I have been given.  In prayer each day, I recognize how good God has been to me and I thank Him for His blessings.  Unlike many, I don’t believe that gratitude and striving are mutually exclusive.  I greatly appreciate what I have, but that doesn’t mean I am going to sit on it and say “oh, I don’t need any more.”

Growing up, I was taught that ingratitude was one of the worst sins of which a kid could be accused.  It was an ironclad rule that you must sincerely thank anyone who gave you anything, regardless of how little you thought of the gift.  This was supposed to be part of the socialization process, a rule that existed to enable you to be thought of as a “good kid” rather than a “spoiled rotten brat.”  I am so glad that no one ever tried to give me a rotting, stinky fish filled with  maggots, because I would have had to thank the giver for his or her incredible generosity.

These days, when I find myself on the other side of the dynamic, I try to stop and remind myself of how ridiculous it is to impose my own values on others.  For example, it seems I am always running into people who love to gripe about their jobs.  My knee jerk reaction is to think “how ungrateful!”  But then I stop and remember that just because I am so grateful for my own job doesn’t mean that I should expect others to feel similarly about theirs.  Half the time I bite my tongue to avoid encouraging them to quit and give me the opportunity that they would so willingly throw away.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

I feel the same way about those who seem to take a perverse joy in complaining about the shortcomings of their kids and how hard it is to put up with them.  Most of the time, I just smile rather than seem pathetic by admitting what I’d do for a kid of my own.  Sure, I feel as if they should be grateful for what they can’t see as a gift, but there I go again, imposing my own values on others.  It is wrong for me to charge them with ingratitude when I haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins.  In their place, I might very well feel the same way.

I have come to realize that tolerance is the key.  Don’t think I lack appreciation for what I have because I always strive for more, and I won’t fault you for lacking gratitude for your own gifts.

Lessons Learned from Children While Waiting on Hold

On the phone at work today, I found myself stuck on hold for nearly half an hour with a social service agency in a county about 300 miles away.  What surprised me was the recorded message that played over and over.  Actually, it was quite cleverly done.  But what I heard sent a chill up my spine.

The recording consisted of the voices of children, both girls and boys, of various ages, many of them extremely young.  One by one, they told their stories in a single sentence each:

“I am not a punching bag.”

“I need a place to call home.”

“I can’t reach my potential without you.”

“I am not a toy.”

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

And finally, the voice of a three year old.

“I need you.”

My eyes began to tear up, so I turned to face the window.  Um, you know, men just aren’t supposed to do that, and particularly not at work.

I felt like an idiot.  There I was feeling put upon because I had to sit on hold (and was getting paid for it), while just out of sight were children in desperate need of families, whose entire lives had been placed on hold, often for years.

For a very long time I had thought about adopting or becoming a foster parent.  Something always got in the way, however.  Either I was living in a tiny one bedroom apartment or I was working a zillion hours or I was with a woman who had no interest whatever in children.  Then the inevitable happened:  I got old and disabilities caught up with me, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing a child into my life.

But dreams don’t fade away so easily.  They die hard.  So before I could close the cover on this particular book, I managed to convince myself to become a mentor with the Big Brothers program.  This was quite a few years ago, when we were living in Fresno in California’s Central Valley.  I was matched to a teenager who, despite multiple disabilities, managed to live a full and vibrant life.  This young man’s mental and emotional issues frequently threw me for a loop; he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident at the age of two.  We usually got together for a few hours on the weekend and I never really knew what he would come up with.  We went out for breakfast or lunch (his favorite was Hometown Buffet, where he could eat me under the table), went to the movies, went to the video arcade, played board or computer games.  He taught me Dungeons and Dragons; I taught him Scrabble.

More than anything else, my friend taught me patience.  He used a hearing aid and was unable to gauge the volume of his own voice.  This could create embarrassing situations in quiet places like bookstores or movie theaters.  He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and would regale me with his endless takes on theology and his beloved science fiction, often combining the two seamlessly.  He wanted to look at the porno room at the video store (and was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him in there) and, on a number of occasions, asked me questions that, um, I had to suggest that he redirect to his mother.  He never had a father.

I know perfectly well that I wasn’t much of a male role model for that year, but I guess it was better than nothing.  That’s the funny thing about kids:  They don’t judge you.  They just take you as they are.  They are appreciative of whatever time and attention you are able to give them.

They don’t care that you’re not perfect, because to them, you’re perfectly fine.  Somehow they don’t see your dents, your creases, your insecurities, your creaking bones.  They’re just glad that they mean enough to you that you keep showing up.  So you do.  Even when you don’t particularly feel like it.  Even when you want to sleep late because it’s Sunday and you were out at a party the night before.  Even when you just don’t want to deal with it today.

You get in your car.  And you go.  And you see his smile when you pull up to the place he and his mother call home in a dilapidated trailer park.

Then he gets in the car and you have to remind him to buckle up because he’s blurting out a joke that he’s been waiting three days to tell you.  It’s not even very funny, but he starts laughing uproariously and then you feel a smile slowly creep over your face and then you’re laughing too because your health problems and your messes at work and your money woes all fade away in an instant.

And you wonder who has given the gift to whom.

Oh, and by the way, they’re waiting for you.  Right now.  Boys and girls who need you desperately.

Call your county or city social service agency today.  Adopt.  Be a foster parent.  Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

“I need you.”

Salad Bar

salad bar

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with salad bars.  I loved them and everyone else hated them.

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City during the 1970s, salad bars were few and far between.  Even fast food was virtually unknown.  Well, we had a takeout place called Chicken Delight.  (Anyone remember their catchy little TV jingle, “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight?”) I remember what a big deal it was when a McDonald’s opened on Route 59 around 1969 or so.  There were a few little local hamburger stands, but most people just ate at home.  All of the families I knew had two parents who ate dinner with their kids every night, even if both parents worked.  It was another time, for sure.

When we did go out to eat, it was usually for ethnic food.  That meant either pizza or Chinese or one of the kosher delis.  I had never even heard of Mexican food.

There were exceptions, of course.  For the travelers, there was Howard Johnson’s over by the Thruway.  Or you could get a meal in one of the department stores, such as W.T. Grant in Nanuet (all you can eat fish, every Friday night!) or Stern’s across the New Jersey border in Paramus.  And yes, I do remember the leaping flames from the grill (and the heavenly odors wafting through the doorway) of Wolfie’s, near the entrance to Bergen Mall.

All these diverse eateries had one thing in common:  No salad bar.

The first salad bar experience that I can remember occurred whilst visiting my grandparents in South Florida.  Starting when I was about thirteen years old or so, we’d make the 1,300 mile trek in the station wagon at the start of every Christmas vacation, and occasionally at other times of the year as well (Easter break or summer vacation).  The first place we always wanted to head for dinner was Red Lobster, which had not yet come to Rockland County.  (Giant baked potatoes rolled in salt!  An exotic thing called hush puppies, with both tartar sauce and cocktail sauce!)  A night or two later, I’d be begging to go to Black Angus for dinner.  The only one in my family who would eat steak in a restaurant was my father; my mother and the kids only ate meat from the kosher butcher or the kosher deli.  But that was okay.  For me, it wasn’t about the steak anyway.

It was about the salad bar.

My grandfather would start to gripe about how it wasn’t healthy to let me near a salad bar.  Sure it was, I countered.  I may be a grossly overweight teenager, but hey, it’s salad!  Nice crispy, low calorie greens and tomatoes!  Oh yeah, my sarcastic grandpa would come back at me.  Loaded with bleu cheese dressing and cheese and croutons and God knows what other calorie laden treats.  Didn’t I know that salad bars were nothing but a big scam to make us think we were eating healthy when, in fact, everyone went back for seconds and thirds and ended up consuming more calories than would be appropriate for a pachyderm?  I had to look that word up in the dictionary.  The definition came as no surprise.  Still, an appeal to my father, whom I knew would talk to his father, usually did the trick.

On Black Angus night, of course, I would gorge myself in the exact fashion of which my grandfather had warned.  But, oh my gosh, that salad bar was amazing!  They used to advertise how many feet of fresh fruit and veggies they had.  I mean, this salad bar actually had melons and (gasp) canned peaches!

Well, back home in Rockland County, there was one place that had a salad bar, usually only on Friday and Saturday nights:  The Plaza Diner, across the street from the brand new Nanuet Mall on the corner of Route 59 and North Middletown Road.  Sure, there were a few other diners around (although not yet the explosion of diners that hit the scene in the 1980s), all of which were great for pancakes and eggs on Saturday morning or a slice of cheesecake after a movie.  But on the weekends, the Plaza Diner rolled out a salad bar cart onto a corner of the restaurant floor, and I thought it was nothing short of stupendous.  I would approach this holy altar with joy in my heart and a lick of the lips.  I might stick a leaf of lettuce or a cherry tomato on my plate for window dressing, but this was definitely not about the greens.  I would load up with pickled herring in cream sauce, noodle kugel (the good kind, made with fruit cocktail) and cold rigatoni with tuna and mayonnaise.  The best thing, of course, was that this zillion calorie debauchery was in addition to the entrée, potato, vegetables and bread that would be served.  For several years, my favorite meal was broiled bluefish (at least until I discovered spanakopita).  As far as I was concerned, however, it was fine to box up the main part of the meal to eat cold the next day (this was prior to the age of the microwave).  Just let me at that salad bar, mister!

During my college days, the family dining scene changed significantly back in my hometown with the opening of a chain steakhouse known as Ponderosa.  I believe the name, the knotty pine décor, the wagon wheels and campfire implements littering the walls and the Wanted posters were intended to represent images of the Old West.  The place was cheap, and it quickly became a go-to dinner establishment on the many evenings when my hard-working mother was too exhausted to cook (my father did not cook under any circumstances).  Dad would order a hamburger or, occasionally, a steak, while the rest of us chowed down on a limpid, greasy, breaded fish filet and a tiny baked potato.  No matter, though; Ponderosa had a salad bar!  Okay, it wasn’t a glorious salad bar like the one the Plaza Diner rolled out on Saturday nights, but it fit right in with the increasingly vegetarian sensibilities I was nurturing at college.  Come on, this salad bar had sprouts!  My fellow hippies back at the food co-op would be proud.

Decades later, I still love salad bars, although they are now even more vilified than they were back then.  My wife, who prefers to sit down and be served, refers to buffets of any kind as “used food.”  I must admit that I can understand why.  Despite the presence of plastic “sneeze guards,” the unappetizing manner in which the food has obviously been rooted through, plus the inevitability of some rotten kid sticking his boogers in the thousand island dressing, doesn’t exactly inspire images of freshness and health.  And when you combine this with the news stories about people getting deathly ill from such evil bacteria as E. coli . . .

None of this, of course, dilutes my enthusiasm for salad bars in the least.  Locally, there is Lumberjack’s, which features a compact little salad bar tucked in the corner.  While one could say it is “nothing special,” I appreciate the pepperoncini, the raisins and the sunflower nuts, particularly since the salad bar is about the only thing other than a naked baked potato that a vegan can eat in that establishment.  When the family is in the mood for pizza, I am in good shape as well.  Both Round Table and Mountain Mike’s have perfectly decent salad bars at lunchtime.  Most of the time, everything from the broccoli to the radishes to the red leaf lettuce is fresh, and I can go back to munch on pineapple and grapes for dessert.

As for salad dressing, I have noticed that most salad bars now have at least one low-fat or vinaigrette choice, along with cruets of oil and vinegar for snooty purists such as yours truly.  Some even have lemon slices available.

Here in central California, I must say that, when it comes to salad bars, the chain steakhouse Sizzler is in a league all its own.  Not only are the greens crisp every time (and we are frequent visitors), but I am treated to such delights as pickled artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, green peas and quinoa-jicama-mango salad.  One end of the salad bar is devoted to fruit:  Fresh pineapple, honeydew, watermelon, strawberries.  Then there is the accompanying “hot bar,” most of which I ignore.  However, I always mosey on down to the taco station for the vegetarian pinto beans and the fresh guacamole.  And, unlike many other Sizzler locations, our local shop will gladly serve you a baked potato with your salad bar at no extra charge.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I recently learned some shocking facts about Sizzler.  With the decreasing demand for salad bars, it is something of a miracle that Sizzler is still around.  The chain had to file for bankruptcy in 1996 and ended up closing about 80% of its stores.  Only two Sizzlers remain on the entire east coast of the United States, one on Long Island and the other in Florida.  The remaining Sizzlers are all in California, the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico.  The Washington Post story linked above states that the idea behind Sizzler was one of “choice,” the ability to be all things to all people.  Like Alice’s Restaurant, you could get anything you want at Sizzler.

Sizzler salad bar

Sizzler salad bar

Well, not quite.  The beloved diners of my youth in New York and New Jersey, with their booklike comprehensive menus, really did serve just about anything you could want.  Sizzler, which operates on a considerably more limited scale, was simply trying to be both a steakhouse and a “fresh healthy food” place.  The problem is that, in the nineties, beef lovers began gravitating to places like Outback Steakhouse, Tahoe Joe’s, Red Robin and, at the higher end, Ruth’s Chris.  As for fresh, healthy food (I use the term extremely loosely), places like Chipotle and Togo’s appeared to be the up-and-comers.  Sure, Sizzler had an Italian bar with spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese, but everyone seemed to want to eat lasagna and ravioli at places like Olive Garden and The Old Spaghetti Factory.  You want variety in your chain restaurant?  There’s BJ’s Brewery, Ruby Tuesday, Mimi’s Café and (dare I say it?) even Denny’s.  The salad bar had become the ugly duckling, the red-haired stepchild.  No one wanted a salad bar anymore.

With this in mind, take a moment to watch the 1991 Sizzler video in the article linked above.  It is a real groaner, to say the least.  The whole, schlocky thing, from the dated outfits to the pasted-on smiles to the little girl taking batting practice to the couple kissing at the end is more than a little embarrassing.  Were the nineties really like that?  Or is this just some Madison Avenue fantasy that fooled no one, only further fueling Sizzler’s downward spiral?  When the video started being passed around online, I’m glad that Sizzler was confident enough to make fun of itself by posting it on Twitter under the headline “Let’s Sizzler like it’s 1991!”

My first visit to a Sizzler was in Modesto, California in the 1990s.  The place was just plain awful and we never returned.  In 2005, we moved to Fresno and agreed to try Sizzler again on the advice of my parents.  This time, it was actually good.  For a while, we took to eating lunch there after sleeping late on Sundays.  The place would be packed with the after-church crowd, and we’d engage in much merriment at the expense of the outrageous church outfits that many of our fellow diners were caught wearing.  Purple suits, bowler hats, bright orange shirts with bolo ties, dresses that looked like a rainbow threw up on them.  This location served a brunch buffet in the morning (scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, the usual fare) before they switched over to the regular salad bar and “hot bar.”  For a while, I loved the place for the pans of vegetable lasagna they would routinely set out.  Soon, though, I tired of Sizzler and would beg my wife that we go eat elsewhere.

Eventually, I took a job out in the Sonoran Desert on the California/Arizona border.  Sizzler was one of the few restaurants other than fast food joints or Mexican places that the little town had to offer.  I reluctantly agreed to have dinner there when we went for my job interview and was pleasantly surprised.  For some reason, this place served both rice and potato (or vegetable) with every meal.  The salad bar included a feta cheese laden Greek salad that would always be my first stop.  And instead of a soft-serve bar, the server brought a dish of vanilla goop (back east, we used to call this “frozen custard”) to the table.  You could then take it to the dessert bar and dress it up with chocolate chips, syrup, strawberry sauce and Oreo pieces.  Once we moved to town, Sizzler became one of our regular dinner haunts.  On a typical night, you might see a dozen people you knew sitting at the tables and booths.  Sometimes, you could barely get in the place, thanks to the buses full of foreign tourists that regularly made dinner stops at Sizzler in both directions on the Los Angeles to Phoenix run.  We’d listen to a Babel of languages and made fun of the retirees and vacationers taking photos of each other on the way to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon.

As often as we ate at Sizzler, I refused to go near the place when we visited my wife’s family in northern California.  I had tried it once and was so disgusted with the disarray of the salad bar and the general uncleanness of the place that I vowed to never return.  Several years later, however, my wife’s family assured me that things had changed and urged me to give it another shot.  That location was now under new management, and I found the transformation nothing short of amazing.  It had become one of the “good Sizzlers” (like its sister stores in Banning and Turlock), with fresh greens and broccoli, mushrooms, plenty of fresh fruit, a taco bar and hot pasta.  And the place was clean.  Once I got to know some of the managers, it became clear that their commitment to the customers made all the difference.

Now that we live here, we find our way to Sizzler at least a couple of times per month.  In our year and a half in the area, nothing has changed.  As a vegan, I am pleased that I can have confidence that I will find plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit on each and every visit.  Even better, my wife can get her steak.

In the 21st century, salad bars remain relatively unpopular, and few restaurants in this area offer them.  I’m just glad that there are still a few places around, like Sizzler, where salad bar lovers like myself can indulge in their guilty pleasures.

Sizzler

Our local Sizzler, Sutter County, California

Impostor

I am reading a beautifully written essay on the difficulties of relating childhood memories in English when you grew up speaking another language.  Some things just don’t translate.  In fact, one could argue that events experienced in one language can no more be translated into another than apple can be translated into banana.  Barney the Dinosaur notwithstanding, if you grew up speaking, breathing, existing in purple, how is one to render the experience into green?  The phrase “lost in translation” doesn’t tell the half of it.

In the very first paragraph of the essay, I ran across the Spanish word maldito.  Instinctively, I know that this is translated into English as “damned.”  I do not know how I know this.  Somewhere between growing up in New York and twenty years in California, I inhaled it through my pores.

I do not speak Spanish.  This fact hit me hard recently when, sitting at a table full of strangers, I heard a nearby woman speak a few words en español and I responded in kind.  “Do you speak Spanish, or just understand it?” she asked me in English.  Busted!  I am an impostor, and this was her way of telling me that she knew it.

Having some knowledge of Latin roots has helped me “figure out” the meanings of many English words without having to look them up, just as Mrs. Morse promised back in tenth grade.  But recognizing bits of Latin has helped me to understand words in the Romance languages as well, first in my high school and college study of French and later, in my study of Spanish on the streets, in the supermarkets and in the break rooms of my workplaces in central California.

I remember that maldito hails from the same Latin roots as the English word “malediction,” which refers to a curse.  I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word in conversation, but I have a vague recollection of once having come across it in the works of an obscure writer named William Shakespeare.  Reaching back in my memory banks to high school days, the year after I sat in Mrs. Morse’s classroom, I sang Mozart’s Requiem with the John Jay Senior High School chorus and, what do you know, the Latin word maledictis cropped up.  It seems that, in every century, a lot of people were into curses.

Actually, the word maldito sounds to me as if it should mean “misspoken,” as in saying one thing when really meaning another.  Returning to memoir mode, as a kid I believed that this applied to most things said by adults.  To my mind, this made them “damned” liars.

Breaking maldito into its two component parts leaves us with mal (bad, evil, wrong, sick, etc.) and dito (from the Latin dictum, or “speech, spoken, told,” I assume).  As in high school, I largely rely on my memory because I am too lazy to look it up.  So if a malediction is a curse, and mal + dito = bad speech, it makes sense that “damned” is still considered a “curse word” (or “bad speak”) in some circles.  (Or so I think.  I am old enough to have been around when a kid could get in serious trouble for saying “damn.”  Something tells me that “damn,” along with “hell,” may have been laughed out of the curse word pantheon years ago.)

The Spanish language has long been a bit of an enigma for me.  One day a basic knowledge of español is my best friend, while the next I find myself flummoxed and fumbling for the correct Spanish word, much to the amusement of the person with whom I am hoping to communicate.

Back when we lived in Modesto, I loved to pull up to the self-service pumps of a convenience store, walk inside, throw a twenty on the counter and yell ¡Veinte, número uno! over my shoulder as I turned around and walked out, knowing that the correct gas pump would be turned on.  It made me feel like some kind of big shot.

Impostor, that’s me.  But I love the ability to live as a stranger in my own land.

If two women are holding a spirited Spanish conversation in the supermarket aisle, most of what they are saying will likely go right over my head.  As I maneuver my shopping cart around them, however, I will catch that one of them is cussing out her cheatin’ good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend.  As I’ve mentioned before in this space, some things you can understand in any language.

Although I happen to enjoy the mellifluous sound of Spanish, I am well aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm therefor.  It is a hot button issue here in California, where the Mexican border is just down the road a piece.  Many object to the plethora of signs in Spanish and to the way our state and federal governments feel compelled to translate everything into that language.

My father, for example, refers to Spanish as “babble” and will gladly tell you how he feels about people who speak languages other than English in public.  “You like this country?” he starts off.  “You want to stay here?  Learn the [insert invective here] language!”  I’d be a little more specific, but Dad’s colorful language is a notch or two stronger than maldito and I consider this a (more or less) family blog.

It seems obvious to me that just because two people converse in a foreign language doesn’t mean that they don’t speak fluent English as well.  Bilingualism is alive and well in California.  And I know of no law that states that you have a right to understand conversations that don’t involve you just because they happen to be conducted in public.  Our Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech is not limited to the English language.

There are those who point out that when Americans travel to other nations, they are expected to speak the native tongue, not English.  I call this the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” theory.  I poked around online to see how much validity this theory actually has.  The answer I found is “not much.”  A recent article in the Washington Post points out that English is widely spoken in 101 countries, is one of the official languages in 35 countries and is the most widely studied foreign language.  This final statistic may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide are currently studying English.  Then I saw this map of the second most spoken languages in countries around the world.  I found it interesting that English is the second most spoken language in Japan (good for my nephew when he visits his girlfriend who is currently teaching there) and in Russia (presumably a lucky thing for Edward Snowden).

I am a fan of diversity because homogeneity is, quite frankly, rather boring.  It would be a dull world indeed if we were all exactly the same.  I find it fun to learn about the cultures and traditions of others and delight when they take an interest in my own.  And if I know that you speak another language in addition to English, I will make an effort to learn at least a few words of it.  And I will try to remember that there is no such thing as an exact translation.

So, yes, I may be an impostor, and I may butcher your native tongue unmercifully, but if I catch you saying something funny in Spanish in Wal-Mart, don’t be surprised if I chuckle as I walk by.

Help! My Parents are Stuck in 1995!

iPhone

We made another weekend run down to the Central Valley because my mother needed me to help her with some paperwork related to her stockholdings.  Buying and selling stocks has been a hobby of hers since back in her working days.  My parents have now been retired for twenty years, leaving Mom with plenty of time to pursue her fascination with Wall Street.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, my parents didn’t own a computer and didn’t subscribe to a newspaper (unless you include running out for bagels on Sunday morning and hauling home a doorstop-sized New York Times).  My mother listened to the stock reports on the radio and, every so often, would have my father drive her to the public library, where she’d pore over the latest Wall Street Journal.

Nowadays, Mom turns on the TV at 5:00 pm every weekday (unless my parents are out to dinner at Red Lobster) to watch the stock reports on one of the five over-the-air stations that can be pulled in out on the rangeland.  My parents live in the country, don’t receive cable, and once tried to install a dish antenna on the roof of their house but quickly removed and returned it when they couldn’t get it to work properly.  They still don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but they do own a PC.  Dial-up connection, of course.  Remember those?  Ooooooweeeeeeaaaaahhhhshhhhhhhhhhhh… You’ve got mail!

Yep, my parents are stuck in 1995.

About half the time that I call my parents, I am unable to get through because Dad is online, looking at pictures of old cars and checking out the for sale ads (his own Model A Ford sits in the garage).  When I see him, he rails about the scourge of internet abbreviations and about how people don’t know how to spell anymore.  Meanwhile, Mom is listening to conservative talk radio in the kitchen.  When I see her, she bemoans the atrocious grammar of the broadcast personalities and those participating in the call-in shows alike.

My father, who is 81 years old and had never used a computer until he was retired for several years, knows how to Google search terms, send and receive email, contact me via IM (exceedingly rare) and place bids on eBay.  Each afternoon (after his daily TV dose of theater and opera goes off the air at 1:00), he logs onto AOL and checks my mother’s stocks.  Back east on Wall Street, the market has just closed for the day.  He scribbles the prices and progress of each of her stockholdings (XYZ 128.16 +1/8) on a sheet of paper, after which he hunts down my mother (likely tending her roses out front or watering a fruit tree out back) and provides her with the results.  Mom then transposes this information into neat columns in her stock notebook.  I am impressed with the detail (“See?  This is the PE ratio.  I am watching this one reeeeaaaalllly closely.”), which looks for all the world like a Stone Age version of an Excel spreadsheet.  I am tempted to make a bad Fred Flintstone joke here, but you know, poor Mom.

My mother assures me that she knows how to look up her stocks online without any assistance, thank you, but that she lets my father do it because he’s online anyway and, goodness knows, he sure doesn’t do anything else around here.  She then proceeds to gripe about how he goes to bed early, sleeps until 10 every day, and then takes two hours to get ready and have his cereal with blueberries, which he finishes just in time for his theater and opera show.  Meanwhile, she tells me, she herself couldn’t possibly sleep past 7:30 or 8, at which time she gets up and does all the work around the house with no help at all from peacefully snoring Dad.  I did not exactly ingratiate myself to her when I offered that I plan to do exactly the same when I retire and that I, too, do nothing around the house.  My wife enthusiastically vouched for the veracity of my assertion.  Like father, like son, hey?

My mother has an armload of college degrees and has always been a smart cookie.  Her investments are about as conservative as her politics, but she does make money.  Not a lot, mind you, but the quarterly dividend checks roll in and when the stock goes up just the right amount, she’ll make a stop at her discount brokerage house on the way to Food Maxx and place an order to sell that sucker.  Capital gains tax?  Just a part of the game, son, just a part of the game.

“What’s your strategy?” they ask Mom at the brokerage, marveling at her many small victories.  “I have no strategy!” she snaps back.  The trick, she assures me, is patience.  Like a cat, you stay real quiet and wait for just the right moment and then… Pounce!

Let’s just say that I am seriously impressed with Mom.  What I find particularly amazing about my mother’s investments is that most people spend money on their hobbies, but she makes money from hers.  Whether you’re into golf or sewing or travel or collecting things (or, in my own case, attending Scrabble tournaments), it’s always a money pit.  It would be wonderful if one day I, too, manage to find a formula for doing something I enjoy and have the checks roll into my mailbox every three months or so.

Nah, ain’t happening.  I’d rather sleep until ten like Dad.

Dial-up modem notwithstanding, my parents do have cell phones.  They each have their little TracPhone, which Dad likes to hang on his belt when he goes out, while Mom keeps hers tucked in her purse.  My sisters and I find those two cell numbers mighty convenient for times when Dad is online again and we just have to tell Mom something right now.  All three of us know that if the house phone is busy, you call Dad’s cell, which may be plugged in to charge somewhere, so if there’s no answer you proceed to calling Mom’s cell.  My father even knows how to navigate his little black and white screen to key in his contacts.  It took my parents years to advance to this stage, so I suppose I should be grateful that they’re not still stuck on a plain black wall phone and no “answering machine.”  Really, Mom, you know it’s called voicemail, right?  My wife reminds me that rolling one’s eyes is impolite, mister.

Of course, my parents still don’t text.  Even their funky TracPhones have that capability, but my parents are just not interested.  Texting leaves Mom cold.  If she can’t see my face, at least she wants to hear my voice.  I guess I should be flattered, but oy, Mom, it’s a pain in my tokhes when I need to tell you one little thing and can’t without getting on the phone with you for an hour.  I don’t always have an hour, Mom.  What?  You don’t have an hour for your old mother?  Not when I’m at work, Mom!  Not when I’m at the supermarket, Mom!  Not when I’m barreling down the 99 and I know I’m about to hit that dead spot between Nicolaus and Natomas.  The upshot is that you lose out on a lot of stuff that might bring a smile to your face and make your day.  To date, my arguments have been unsuccessful.

Mom and Dad have now become accustomed to the way it is when my wife and I are visiting.  Most of the time, we have our iPhones out.  It’s not like we’re texting all the time or anything, but we keep one eye on email and my wife is aware when someone posts a comment on her Facebook status.

My phone buzzes.  “What was that?” Mom asks.  I have a new follower on my blog, I tell her.  Ohhh, she says sweetly, do you still do that?  Barely, I tell her.  These days, I only have time to post on Sundays.  But do you still have a lot of followers?  I don’t feel like explaining that followers don’t just go away; you have to be really boring for them to take the time to go into their WordPress Dashboards and unfollow you.  It’s okay, Mom, I wish I could say.  I’m so glad that you don’t really understand about this stuff and that you don’t read my blog because I write about you quite a lot and some of the things that have come out of my fingers would make the hair stand up on your graying head.

My father’s eyes dart back and forth between my wife’s purple phone and my orange one.  And he sighs.  Maybe we’ll have to come into the 21st century eventually, he offers.  “I really, really wish you would!” I reply.  It’s not that expensive anymore, I tell him.  The prices have come way down from when Apple first came out with this.  Dad is very good about keeping his TracPhone charged, but should I tell him about wifi and 4G?  He is impressed when Mom asks me for the address and phone number of one of my cousin’s ex-wives and it takes me about 30 seconds to locate the information on my phone.  “It’s really quite useful,” I say of my iPhone.  I want to tell Mom that she can tap an icon and see the latest prices of her stocks, but I bite my lip and refrain.

If my parents are to take the plunge off the deep end, I know it will have to be Dad first.  I wonder whether we should just get it over with and buy them a pair of iPhones with protective covers in some cutesy his ‘n hers colors.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could text Dad “good morning” every day?

I know, Dad, not before 10 a.m.