My Mother’s Monopoly Set


Growing up in the sixties and seventies, my sisters and I were rabid devotees of every ilk and variety of board game.  We accumulated them slowly, as we usually had to wait until a birthday rolled around to acquire an addition to our collection.  However, I knew quite well that a well-timed letter to my spinster Aunt Iris in Florida would likely result in a postal package containing a board game arriving on our doorstep several weeks hence.  This was a bit like rolling the dice or twirling the spinner, as we did not always receive the game we had requested.  We eventually learned to accept this with a sense of humor, taking the opportunity to read the instructions and learn the rules of a game we had never heard of.

Of all the board games in the toy box, our hands down favorite was Monopoly.  Actually, this was one of the two games that wasn’t stored in the toy box (the other being Scrabble).  That’s because those games were property of my parents and permission had to be asked to drag them out of storage.

Our toy box was a dark wood crate with holes on either side for carrying that may have once served as a foot locker or hope chest.  As the years went by and the toy box was accessed with less frequency, this large, heavy object was exiled to the great outdoors, sitting under the overhang on the raised deck, two steps from the kitchen door.  In time, wasps and hornets found their way into the hole handles, making their nests within.  Exposure to the elements also caused the toy box to begin to rot, and in our teen years the entire thing had to be discarded, contents and all.

My mother’s Monopoly set was one of the originals issued by Parker Brothers during the Great Depression.  I wonder what it was like playing with that set in my grandparents’ one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.  Mom’s sister was eight years older than she, so I imagine that by the time Mom was old enough to appreciate the game, my aunt was probably too occupied with high school and parties and boys to have had much interest in playing the game with her little sister.  My grandparents were always working, so I doubt that they had much time to play the game with her.

My first recollection of playing Monopoly was at the age of four or five, when I was sick in bed in our New York City apartment and, in the evening, my parents would come into the bedroom that I shared with my little sisters and spread out the board on top of the covers.  I didn’t fully understand the rules of the game, but I was fascinated by the strange street names, the colors of the different denominations of money and, most of all, the game pieces.  I would laugh and laugh at the thimble, the flatiron, the wheelbarrow and the top hat.  The green houses and the red hotels were made of real wood and the board was of heavy cloth material.

By the time I first played with Mom’s set, it had already been in the family for more than a quarter of a century.  We moved to suburbia when I was six years old, and the game took up residence in the lower center drawer of the dining room hutch.  This huge piece of furniture had a top part and a bottom part.  The bottom part consisted of two wide wooden drawers, one above the other, and two smaller drawers on the sides.  Above was the glass breakfront that proudly displayed Mom’s china and fancy “company” glassware.  There was a small space underneath the hutch, between the legs, just tall enough to slide in the wooden case containing Mom’s silver.  In a recent phone conversation with my mother, the two of us reminisced about the hutch, which over the course of thirty years began to buckle under the weight of the breakfront.  It was eventually donated to charity when my parents sold their house and moved to California twenty years ago.  I reminded my mother how, when the dining room curtains were open, the sunlight of the southern exposure would reflect off the glass doors of the breakfront and illuminate her good dishes.  I could feel her smiling through the phone as widely as I was.

When my sisters and I asked my parents for permission to drag Mom’s Monopoly set out of the hutch, they never said no.  Occasionally we would play at the dining room table, but more often than not, we spread out the set on the living room floor, the three of us sprawled out on the carpet with all of the game’s paraphernalia.

Well, not all of it.  We played with what was left after all those years.  By then, the board had been folded and unfolded so many times that it was in two pieces that we pushed together.  Some of the deeds were missing; we filled in the gaps by making our own out of sheets of my parents’ good typing paper, drawing our best efforts at facsimiles thereof, cutting them out with blunt scissors and using a crayon to create the approximate property color.  We figured we were probably missing some of the money, too; we didn’t really know or care.  When we ran out of a particular denomination, we would ask my father what to do.  The answer was always the same:  Make some more.  Which we gleefully did.

We were missing some of the tokens, too, but that never bothered us a bit.  There were still more than enough tokens for the three of us to pick one, and we delighted in moving them round and round the board.  We still had the dice, while the salmon pink Chance cards and the canary yellow Community Chest cards were more or less intact, so what could be wrong?

At best, our games took hours to play.  Often, they took days.  When bedtime came, we would simply leave the game where it was on the living room floor, particularly if it were a Saturday or during summer vacation.  The next morning, we’d wake up as early as possible and advance upon the living room, still in our pajamas.  We’d try to remember whose turn it was and we’d pick up right where we had left off the night before.  I recall several times when a game of Monopoly took the entire day, as well as other games that had to be aborted because there were places to go, things to do, meals to be eaten.  We would inevitably groan with disappointment; what could be more important than Monopoly?

Like just about everything else, as the years went by, Monopoly joined the electronic era.  It was the first game pack I purchased for my Game Boy in the early 1990s, and now, thanks to Electronic Arts, I play against artificial intelligence opponents on my iPhone.

I still smile when I see the stacked boxes of Monopoly sets on the shelf at our local Rite-Aid, and I think that perhaps some parent, coming in for medication for their sick child, will notice the game and pick one up to spread out on the covers and play for hours and hours, like my parents did with me so long ago in the Bronx.

Over the years, I have purchased modern Monopoly sets on several occasions on both coasts of the United States.   And although I still feel a thrill when I unpeel the shrink wrap and crack open that board for the first time, it can’t begin to compare to my mother’s old cloth Monopoly set from the 1930s.



Roasted Veggies for Dinner, Cold Succotash Salad for Lunch

veggiesbean salad

I never cease to be amazed at how wonderful a cook my wife is.  She constantly comes up with tasty, frugal vegetarian meals on the fly.  And she is a meat-eater who doesn’t like veggies!

Yesterday, she prepared roasted veggies for my dinner (left photo); the extras and leftovers turned into a cold succotash salad for today’s lunch.

For the roasted veggies, we used Portobello mushrooms (you can also use shiitake, but I like to place the caps bottoms up so that I can place sliced onions inside, which flavor the mushrooms as they cook), zucchini, carrots, onions and bell peppers (red, yellow and orange).  Just cut up whatever veggies you have on hand, spread out on an oiled baking sheet, sprinkle on plenty of garlic powder, onion powder and oregano, and bake at 400°F for about 15 minutes.

We had peppers, carrots and Portobellos left over, which we turned into a wonderful salad.  Traditional succotash is made with corn and lima beans, served warm.  This version, however, was made with corn and plain old frijoles negras — black beans out of a can.  Open and drain a can of sweet corn and a can of beans.  Dump into a colander and rinse.  Cut up whatever leftover veggies you have hanging around (the red, yellow and orange peppers provide festive colors), dump the corn and beans on top and sprinkle with garlic powder or whatever spices you like.  When you are ready to serve the salad, spoon tangy plain yogurt liberally on top.  Yummy!

The End of the Rainbow


I am one of those softies who wears his heart on his sleeve and is a bigger pushover than the Pillsbury dough boy.  So, of course, I have a job in which I have to do things that make people cry.

Like, for instance, performance evaluations.  No one likes to be confronted by his or her shortcomings, and there is no better way to rub it in one’s face than putting it in black and white on official looking paper.

If that weren’t bad enough, I have had to “write people up” for petty peccadilloes such as failing to come to work, sleeping on the job and using words that will not be printed in a family newspaper.

And I didn’t just start doing this, dearies.  I’ve been pretending to be a supervisor for more years than I’d like to admit.  You’d think I’d have skin thicker than a bank vault by now.  But every time I think I have it all under control, one of my people goes out and does something like get cancer or retire.

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a retirement party for one of my people.  Not just anyone, but a really experienced person whose depth of knowledge cannot be replaced.  If that’s not enough, it was someone who is really good with customers, has a cheerful attitude and seldom complains about anything.  (Big sigh.)

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not all about me.  After a lifetime of work, a person deserves a measure of freedom to travel, enjoy the grandkids, pursue hobbies and not be tied down by an eight plus hour daily commitment that, like any job, can suck the life right out of you some days.

It does seem like there should be some reward, if not a pot of gold, at the end of the rainbow.

A few others who have retired in the last three or four years showed up at the party.  They appeared happy with the free time that their new lives offered, and if there was any regret about having stepped away from the daily grind, I was unable to detect it.  Sure, they missed seeing some of their favorite people every day, but the trade-off seemed to balance.  There was much talk of breakfast clubs and lunch clubs and get-togethers.

We work for so many years of our lives that it becomes a constant that we tend to take for granted.  With so many people being out of work in the current difficult economy, this has begun to change somewhat.  Even for those who are out of work, however, there is always the hope of a job just over the horizon, that we will once again find our place in the nation’s economic engine.  “What do you do?” is one of the first questions asked when we meet someone at a cocktail party.  Too often, our employment transcends the nature of our job responsibilities and becomes our very identity. What we do becomes who we are. As the Bible says, “establish the work of our hands.”

All things, however, must come to an end one day.  Going back to the Bible again, I think of the verse from Ecclesiastes about “to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  Made famous by one of my favorite sixties’ oldies, the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn.”

So, amidst the egg rolls, the potato salad and the cheesecake, I must come to terms with the fact that it is time to say goodbye.  Don’t be a stranger, come and visit us, and enjoy your new life.  After all, you’ve worked hard for it all these years, and you deserve it.

And who knows?  Someday, if I’m lucky, the party may be for me.





My mother called this morning.

She is planning a birthday party for my father.  His birthday is still more than seven months away, but she says he is making a big deal of it.  She wants to make sure to plan it well in advance so that my sisters, who live in distant states, can make it out here to California.

Well, yes, I’d say it’s a big deal.  My father is going to be the big eight-oh.

I took the bait and asked my mother what she means by saying that Dad is making a big deal about his birthday.  She proceeded to explain that he mentions it to everyone he meets, strangers included.  For example, when the bagger at the supermarket offers to carry my parents’ groceries out to the car, he says “No, thanks, I think I can still handle it.  After all, I won’t be 80 til November.”

As big a milestone as eighty represents, this means that in ten years, Dad will be ninety.  Now that is what I’d truly call a mind-blowing number.  Imagine the bash we’ll have then!

I have to keep reminding myself to be more realistic, however.  Who knows if he’ll make it to 90?  One part of me says “certainly, he’ll make it to ninety!”  But another part of me remembers that my wife’s grandmother recently passed away at 89.  As for my own grandmother, the whole family had planned to converge on Florida in honor of her 100th birthday.  She made it as far as 97.

Thus, we must celebrate while we can.  With all the fuss we make at our loved ones’ funerals, I think it’s more important to let them know how much they mean to us while they are still with us.

So yes, we’ll go out to dinner and have cake and all that stuff, but I’d like to do something to remind Dad of those special moments that will stay with me forever.  The way he would tell us bedtime stories and pretend to make us a “malted” by going through all the steps in creating this ice cream treat and then shaking the bed to imitate the electric mixer.  The time he granted my birthday wish (age 8) by driving me from our home in the suburbs into midtown Manhattan to visit the big 42nd Street library (I was a nerd even then).  The time he rescued me, a neophyte driver, in an ice storm, somehow knowing that my rickety old car wouldn’t make it up West Clarkstown hill without an expert coaxing and swerving in first gear.  All those late night walks to the beach followed by pizza slices at Vocatura’s.  The way he’d hug me so hard when I was going to through a very, very bad time.

Then again, I don’t want to make us all cry.  Perhaps my sisters and I should inject some humor into the situation by writing and performing a little skit or song in my father’s honor.  That could be difficult, though, as I doubt that I’d get much cooperation.  I barely hear from one sister and I haven’t spoken to the other in about four or five years.  I don’t hold it against them; it’s just that we have very different lives.  All of us being together is going to be awkward as it is.

Once I start telling stories, I know my father will bring out some of his own.  Like how he used to carry me up four flights of stairs to our apartment in the Bronx.  Or how, at the age of five, he took me on a ride in a simulated car at the World’s Fair and I started crying because I wasn’t old enough to drive.  Or how he wandered around in his car looking for me when I was ten years old and decided to try to walk to New Jersey without bothering to tell anyone.  (He found me.)

When you’ve been close to someone all your life, it’s amazing to discover that time and distance have no effect on how deeply they live within your soul.

My mother says that my father is getting old and crotchety these days.  But I don’t think he’s changed that much.  He still gets frustrated and directs some choice four-letters toward inanimate objects, commercials on TV, other drivers on the road, and sometimes, my mother.  Sounds like the same old Dad that I know.

So now I have to figure out what to buy my father for a present.  I mean, what do you get for a man who has turned eighty?  When my grandfather was in his eighties, we used to buy him a bottle of whiskey for his birthday.  But my father rarely drinks, aside for an occasional beer.  Clothes are always tough to buy for him.  He prefers wearing his old shirts and shorts, even after they’re stained and have sprung holes that could double as emergency exits.  Books or videos are always possibilities, but I’d be hard pressed to find just the right one.  I suppose there is always the old standby of a gift certificate.  Lame, I know.

My dad loves the Internet, to which we introduced him several years ago.  He is not a very social person, but loves to do research online and to peruse, in solitude, websites about old cars.  Maybe we should buy him an iPhone, download the New York Times top headlines and show him how to play Words With Friends with us.

Meanwhile, my mother is just concerned about what to feed everyone who will converge upon her house.  I don’t eat meat, my wife doesn’t eat seafood, one of my sisters is gluten-free and the other drinks soy milk, likes wine and most of the time doesn’t eat anything on account of her gastric bypass.

Don’t worry, Mom, it’ll all work out.  And don’t forget, next year it’s your turn.


No Dogs Allowed, Cats Keep Out

cat dog

Some people should not own pets, and I am one of them.

It’s not that I have anything against animals.  Far from it.  I consider myself an animal lover and I wouldn’t want any poor dog or cat or bird to be stuck with the likes of me.  They deserve better.

I think about the TV ad that refers to “pet parents.”  As stupid as that sounds (I guarantee that no son or daughter of mine will ever be a pomeranian or a chocolate point Siamese), I do understand what they’re saying.  To be an effective pet owner, you have to love your charge as you would your child.  This means going beyond the basics of providing food, clothing and shelter (although I’m not quite sure what type of clothing a pet is expected to wear).  It means walking your dog even when you’re too tired and cleaning the cat box even when it stinks like the pit of hell.  In the case of dogs, at least, it means teaching at least a modicum of discipline.  I don’t think discipline exists in the cat world.

I have come to realize that I am not willing to do these things on a regular basis.  I am just too lazy.  When I was ten years old, my sisters and I allowed a poor hamster to die of neglect.  I’m pretty sure the same fate awaits any quadruped that should happen to be unlucky enough to take up residence in my household.

My mother was a cat person, so we always had a cat when I was growing up.  Actually, we had a long line of felines, each of which seemed to come to a bad end.  Some ran away (I don’t blame them), some were run over by cars, and others were summarily fired.

Yes, fired.  When the decision was made that the pet of the moment was acting inappropriately, it would simply be asked to leave.  We even had a euphemism for this.  The cat would be “taken for a ride” (and tossed out in unfamiliar territory).  Today people are fined for animal abandonment, but back then it didn’t seem like a big deal.  Particularly when the cat had just scratched a child’s eye or bitten someone.

My parents never took any of our cats to the vet.  They simply had no intention of spending that kind of money on a nonhuman.  Mom did her best to care of them when they were sick or injured, and often they did recover.  She would make a bed for them out of a shoebox in the corner of the living room or apply boric acid to a runny eye.  Home remedies were the rule.

In our house, respect for the cat was largely split down gender lines.  My mother and sisters played with and cared for the cat, while my father and I did our best to ignore what he referred to as “the filthy beast” along with other, more colorful monikers.

As for those of our cats who finally gave up the ghost and padded off to kitty heaven, their corporeal remains would be consigned to the earth of our back yard.  It seemed like they could never wait til summer to go to that big cat box in the sky.  It would usually be the dead of winter when, beneath the snow drifts, the earth would be harder than rocks.  My father would hack away at it with a spade and offer a few choice words that were decidedly not in the vein of prayer.

You can see that I nurtured a poor attitude toward four-legged companions from an early age.  Pets and I are simply better off without each other.  So, of course, my wife has mentioned on several occasions that she would really like a dog.  (Cats, she tells me, are evil.)

I don’t claim to understand dogs.  Having never lived with one, I believe I lack the requisite canine sensibility.  As a kid, I was afraid of them, particularly the neighbor’s German shepherd.  Its bark could be heard three blocks away and it liked to chase cats and kids and growl a lot.  I wouldn’t go near it for fear of being bitten.

Still, I love visiting my nephew’s huge, white Labrador.  For such a big dog, Mia is so friendly and gentle.  But I wouldn’t want to have her live in my house.  And I definitely wouldn’t have my sister-in-law’s Chihuahua, who likes to jump up on the couch, walk back and forth over my lap and beg for whatever food I happen to be eating, even tortillas dipped in thousand island dressing.

Fear not, pet lovers.  We are definitely not obtaining a dog.  You see, my wife wants one, but she wants me to clean up its poop.  I can’t say I blame her.  I don’t want to pick up the doggy doo any more than she does.  Now, I know my wife couldn’t do doody duty even if she wanted to.  The smell alone would make her gag.  I, on the other hand, could take charge of the canine waste products, but I simply won’t.  Perhaps I would feel differently about being a “pet parent” if I had been a “people parent” who had to change dirty diapers.

My father used to say that the ideal pet would be one that didn’t eat and didn’t shit.  I won’t go quite that far, however.  I would definitely consider a pet that is toilet trained.

Please flush, Rover.


Giddyap! (Bon Appetit)

horse meat

A burger walks into a bar and orders a drink.  “I can’t hear you!” says the barkeep.  “Oh, sorry,” replies the burger, “I’m a little horse.”

According to a recent New York Times article, the above is one of many groaners going around in England these days following a scandal resulting from horse meat being sold as beef.  Inspectors have detected equine DNA in pre-packaged heat ‘n eat foods, including various brands of lasagna, spaghetti bolognese, burgers and Ikea’s meatballs.

Some see this as a labeling controversy; they expect food to contain only those ingredients listed on the box and nothing else.  Others find eating horse just plain disgusting.

When I shared the above joke at work recently, one of my coworkers shrugged and responded “It’s meat, right?”

As a vegetarian, I think my coworker’s response is spot on.  I don’t see much difference between eating the flesh of one animal species and that of another.  But I was a bit surprised that my coworker, a meat-eater, felt the same way.

I would tend to think that most people neither know nor care about the origin of the ground meat that appears in their pasta or meatballs.  They would probably assume that it was part of a cow at some point, but who really knows?  I am reminded of the “mystery meat” of school lunch days.  If it tastes okay, it’s all good.  Or, as my grandfather was fond of saying, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

A common objection in the horse meat scandal is that horses are pets, and we don’t eat pets, right?  I am all for truth in labeling and personal choice.  But when it comes to what does or does not constitute a pet, and whether it is or not permissible to eat said animal, it comes down to the standards of the culture.

One of the most famous examples of this is the “holy cow,” revered by the Hindu faith.  In some parts of India, cattle roam the streets and most wouldn’t think of these gentle beasts as food.  In North America and Europe, dogs and cats are considered pets, not to be eaten under any circumstances.  But this is not the cultural standard in other parts of the world.  When I lived on the east coast of the United States, hardly a year went by when there was not a rumor going around about domesticated pets showing up in the freezers of one Chinese restaurant or another.  My father refers to this phenomenon as “moo goo meow mew” and “har kow bow wow.”  In fact, Japan, not China, has been tagged as the greatest consumer of horse meat worldwide (although China has been identified as the largest supplier of horse meat).

There is nothing inherently wrong in treating one species as food while forbidding the consumption of another.  Local culture dictates the tune of this song.

The same is true of horses.  In North America, we tend to think of horses in terms of riding stables, old fashioned horse and buggy transportation, taming the wild west, Canadian Mounties and Black Beauty.  Equestrian skills and horse grooming are shown off by kids at the county fair.  And we treat the bridle and the saddle as a part of Americana.  Although we wouldn’t expect to see horse flesh in the meat case at Safeway or Winn Dixie, in France and other European nations, horse meat is sold openly by local butchers and large supermarket chains alike.

Does anyone else remember the episode of All in the Family, the iconic seventies sitcom, in which Edith (Dingbat) stretches her food budget by serving horse meat for dinner?  (I am dating myself, I know, I know.)  None the wiser, Archie praises his wife’s cooking and even asks for a sandwich.  Meanwhile, his son-in-law, the Meathead, laughs at Archie’s ignorance while dropping hints and innuendoes about horses that go right over Archie’s head.

These days, however, horse meat is generally not sold in the United States or Canada, although this is starting to change in some places.  Most North Americans have never tried it and never wish to do so.  So inquiring minds want to know: Is horse meat delicious?  Many in the blogosphere have raised this question recently.  I recommend this post from the Jeju Tourism Organization.  I can’t help but notice that a plethora of gourmet recipes using horse meat have been popping up in my newsfeed.

Some of those who do not harbor cultural qualms about eating horse (see “Horsemeat?  So What?” on There Are No Meerkats in Scotland) nevertheless have reservations about the possible presence of phenylbutazone in horse meat.  “Even with the emotional attachment to horses taken out of the equation,” writes blogger randomslate in her post “Why Not Horse Meat,” horse meat has no place on our dinner plates.”

As a (nearly) vegetarian, I consider myself a neutral party and I do see both sides of the issue.

So, gentle reader, what say thee?


Auto Glass Blues

windshield crack

The first time was at night.  It scared the bejabbers out of us.

We were driving through the desert on U.S. 95 on the way to Nevada when it hit us.  The stone collided with our windshield so forcefully that we thought for a moment that the glass had shattered.  We were surprised that the projectile hadn’t come right through and taken us out.

When we stopped to take a look, we found that the shatterproof glass barrier had done its job well.  Despite the loud noise, it was a relatively small hole that we were able to have repaired the next day.  Tiny lines radiating from the point of impact made it look like a star.  We were lucky that the crack was located high enough to be outside the driver’s direct line of vision; we did not need to replace the entire windshield.

The next time it happened was less than a year later on a remote part of Highway 20 in northern California.  We were on our way to visit family in Marysville.  This time, the sound was not loud at all.  A pebble had left a second crack in our windshield.  Although it was low on the glass, it was way over on the passenger’s side.  This one, too, was out of the driver’s line of vision, and we decided to just let it be.

They say things come in threes, so we weren’t totally surprised when, not long after, another pebble pock marked our windshield while we were cruising down the freeway.

By this time, we figured there was no point at all in having the windshield replaced.  As long as we were still legal, we weren’t going to waste a lot of money when we knew that somewhere another pebble had us in its crosshairs.

This worked fine until last month when the perennial summer heat returned to our desert home.  Apparently, two or three days of ninety degree temperatures were enough to expand one of the cracks in the glass.

We were thinking that, even if one of the cracks enlarged, it wouldn’t be by much.  We were wrong.  The crack expanded in a line that extended from one end of the windshield clear to the other.

Now there was no question that the windshield needed to be replaced.  While my wife was up north visiting her family for Easter, she made an appointment will a well-known auto glass chain.  More than $400 later, we had a brand new windshield.

This made me feel better, as I was expecting us to end up with a fix-it ticket at any moment.  I was very pleased that my wife was able to have the work done before she headed home.  As she had eleven hours of solo driving ahead of her, I did not want her be worried about being stopped by the cops because of the windshield.

So I’m sure you can guess what happened on her trip home.



24 Hours in Civilization (and One Black Cloud)

black cloud


Today we traveled 180 miles west for a one-day work meeting.  Out of the desert and out of the heat.  24 hours in civilization.

What do I mean by civilization?  A city that has such luxury amenities as restaurants (other than fast food, that is), shopping malls, movie theaters, even synagogues.  As for the last two, they do not exist within 100 miles of our home.  So you can see why this is a brief respite from the decidedly ascetic life of the wilderness.

So what if we have to stay in a cheapo motel that features broken crack vials in the parking lot?  Oh, and did I mention that guests must sign a pledge not to conduct any illegal activities while on the premises?  It seems rather sad that a paying guest must promise to be good.  One cannot help but wonder how many times the police have had to be called out to this location, and precisely what for.  Loud music?  Fistfights?  Destruction of property?  Running an illegal numbers ring out of the handicapped suite?

But then again, there are those crack vials.  Sigh.

Just getting here was a bit of a challenge.  About an hour from home, the wind picked up to what felt like gale force and the gusts kept trying to knock me out of my lane.  I had to grip the steering wheel tightly to remain in some semblance of a straight line.  I guess this is what they call white-knuckle driving.

I passed many 18-wheel trucks while doing 70 mph, the vicious wind blowing us inches from each other.  Believe me when I say that this is an activity that requires prayer.

As I approached the two-hour mark, the sky turned 50 shades of gray and presently I passed under a black cloud.  Said cloud picked that precise time to dump water droplets all over my vehicle, at the approximate rate of 100,000 per second.  This occurred, by the way, while climbing up the San Gorgonio Pass.  This is where one passes from the desert into the Los Angeles Basin, a location famous the world over for the dozens of enormous windmills that flank the freeway.  Normally, I am fascinated by the beauty of these manmade wonders.  Today, however, I hadn’t time to watch them turning furiously because I was busy trying to keep the car on the road while a black cloud was busy laughing at me.

At 70 mph, I figured I’d be moving out from under that black cloud fairly quickly.  Apparently, however, I woefully misjudged the crafty resourcefulness of black clouds.  This one appeared to me moving at precisely the same speed that I was, so that my windshield wipers were doing the same double duty going up the pass as they did coming down the other side.

Finally, I gave up and asked my wife to drive the last hour.  Let me tell you, black clouds are exhausting.

It was all worth it in the end, however.  We treated ourselves to an amazing five-course dinner that did not come from a drive-through or from a Mexican restaurant.  We are talking steak for my wife and salmon for me, with all the trimmings and cheesecake for dessert.  A little bit of heaven for deprived desert rats.

I gawked when we passed, quite near our motel, not one, but two multiplex movie theaters.  The little two-screen theater in our remote town closed nearly three years ago, just after we moved to the area.  My wife got to see exactly one movie there, the day before it shut down.

It’s not like we haven’t seen a move in three years, however.  Every so often, we drive to Nevada, stay overnight at a casino and take in a movie or two.  But that is a five-hour round trip.

After my meeting tomorrow, we will head straight back to the desert.  But not before we enjoy another amazing meal somewhere.  Perhaps we should do Italian food, as there is nary an eggplant parmagiana to be found within a hundred miles of our humble abode.  And if we finish the meal with cappuccino and cannoli, I’ll even forgive that black cloud should we meet again on our way back east.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that civilization is overrated.


Denny’s, Part 2


Yesterday, I discussed my pleasure at finding a very economical meal at Denny’s on their $2-$4-$6-$8 menu.  But the $2 quesadilla and the $4 breakfast is only the start of it.  I am happy to report that I found some other good stuff without the need to resort to the regular menu.

You can get two pancakes with butter and syrup for $2, but for $4, you can get all-you-can-eat pancakes.  I know what you’re thinking:  How many pancakes can you eat?  Not many, in my case.  Denny’s pancakes are large and filling.  I wish I this option had been available 30 years ago, when I could have eaten pancakes until the cows came home.

Continuing the all-you-can-eat theme, for $6 you can get unlimited soup and salad.  For the vegetarians among us, there is no law that you have to get the soup.  However, I must admit that the broccoli cheese soup did look tempting.  If you ask whether the soup is vegetarian, the staff will tell you that it is meatless, but I don’t believe for a second that it’s not made with chicken stock.

For $8, you can order a fried seafood dinner consisting of fish, shrimp, French fries, broccoli and garlic toast.  If you’re like me and don’t eat shellfish, just ask them to leave it off.

One of my favorites, however, is a truly unhealthful choice known as the fried cheese melt.  This sandwich consists of breaded, fried mozzarella sticks covered with melted American cheese and served on grilled white bread with sides of French fries and tomato sauce for dipping.  Four dollars!

I confess, I tried this several months ago and it tasted even better than it looked.  To properly enjoy this dish, it is important that you do not look at the nutritional information.  If you do, you will discover that this item packs in 1,190 calories, nearly half of them from fat.  Speaking of fat, you will consume 61 grams thereof.  In other words, file under “for special occasions only.”

Restaurants are not all about the food, of course.  One would expect a certain amount of ambience, at least enough to allow you to relax and enjoy your meal.  Well, Denny’s is a family restaurant, so one’s expectations must necessarily be limited in this department.

Since adopting the diner motif, Denny’s has acquired some rather funky fixtures.  Aside from the perennial blinking Christmas lights (for Valentine’s Day there were red ones, for St. Patrick’s Day there were green ones, for Easter there were lavender and pink ones — you get the picture), Denny’s now has rows of streaky, orange-hued lamps hanging from the ceiling.  I think these were intended to resemble period pieces from an art deco diner, but instead they come off looking like Chinese lanterns gone wrong.  They may very well have been obtained from a seventh grader seeking to make a little money from an art project.

I also pay attention to the recorded music played in the establishment where I chow down.  Lately, I’ve noticed that some chain restaurants have taken to playing fairly hard rock that sounds annoyingly cacophonous to these aging ears.  Not so at Denny’s, however.  Neither hard rock nor elevator music, I was quite content with listening to pop hits by Fleetwood Mac, Lionel Ritchie, Hall & Oates, James Taylor and the like.

One of the things I enjoy about sitting in Denny’s by the freeway is observing the travelers straggling in, retired couples, young people, families with children, visitors from overseas.  There is talk of where they’re headed and where they’ve been, the maps and cell phones come out, and conversations often proceed in a Babel of tongues.

The following are a few of the things I observed in Denny’s last night.

At the table behind me were a man and a woman treating a very little girl to a very big banana split.

At the table ahead of me was a woman traveling with four children.  The youngest was around four years old and oldest maybe ten or eleven.  Two girls and two boys, all of them fidgeting and none of them able to figure out what they wanted to eat.

At the table ahead of them was a businessman sitting by himself, just him and his laptop.  Now, I felt a bit gauche because I was using my cell phone to text in a public place, but this guy made me feel good when he set up his computer and proceeded to check email. Periodically emanating from said laptop was tinkly, faux nickelodeon music that I can only describe as being in the style called “early slot machine.”  Only he was working on a spreadsheet rather than lining up cherries and sevens.  Go figure.

Finally, I must mention the mother and daughter duo I encountered at the register on the way out.  The woman was holding on to the little girl by the hair on the top of her head.  Mom kept repeating “It’s gonna hurt if you run!”  Of course, the kid was squirming, trying her best to get away.  That is, until Mom gave up and grabbed the kid by the arm, forcefully pulling her out the door.

I keep hearing about people being disgusted with public displays of affection, but why is it that twenty or thirty people can observe a public display of child abuse and no one says a word?


$2-$4-$6-$8, Who Do We Appreciate?


I don’t believe Denny’s gets the respect it deserves.

Ubiquitous as a roadside waystop, seemingly in every other town and every other exit off the interstate, Denny’s is either perceived as hopelessly boring or else a beacon in the night for weary travelers in need of strong coffee and maybe a little food.

People think of Denny’s and they think of breakfast.  Eggs and pancakes.  Bacon and toast.  Lots of coffee.  So Denny’s attempted to give itself a makeover and assume a new image, that of “America’s diner.”  They updated their menu to include more kinds of hamburgers, appetizers, dinner entrées.

So what do the folks like to order with all these new choices?  The “Build Your Own Grand Slam.”  So we’re right back at square one with breakfast.  Poor Denny’s.  It can be hard to reshape your image.  At least they have a sense of humor about it.  They have a giant poster inside the door that proclaims in oversized letters:  “Breakfast for dinner?  We’re open for that.”

They better be.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, breakfast is as breakfast does.

My chief problem with Denny’s is that, once you get past the Grand Slam, I never know what to expect.  One day they’re doing the build your own hamburger thing, where you take a pencil and circle the fixings you want on a little form and then name your burger.  Next visit they’re doing some Tolkien Hobbit thing.  At the moment, it’s Baconalia.  They even have a bacon ice cream sundae.  If Denny’s is seeking to gain notoriety through being disgusting, I do believe they are on the right track.

What I find truly amazing is their $2-$4-$6-$8 menu.  They’ve had this feature for a while nows, and it actually features some deliciously satisfying, if greasy, items.  Today, for example, I treated myself to a cheese quesadilla appetizer, with sour cream and pico de gallo on the side.  Two bucks.  Now who can beat that price?  That’s about the same price as a fast food quesadilla through the drive-in, which doesn’t come with sour cream or pico.  Admittedly, the quesadilla and our local, family-run Mexican restaurant is a bit larger and a bit tastier, but it’s also greasier and costs more than twice as much.


Then I ordered the Everyday Value Slam, also from the 2-4-6-8 menu.  Breakfast for dinner.  I’m so glad they’re open for that.

You get two eggs any style, two pancakes and your choice of bacon or sausage.  I don’t eat meat, so they gladly substituted fried redskin potatoes.  It was almost more food than I could eat and it was four dollars.


Actually, $4 was the menu price.  For me, however, it was FREE.

That’s right:  Free, no charge, gratis.  That’s because, when I paid my bill on my last visit, the cash register spit out a receipt that offered me a free Everyday Value Slam if I went online and completed a brief survey at  There were just a few questions; it didn’t take me five minutes to complete it and obtain a code to write on the receipt.

You think this is unusual?  Well, I will tell you that I get a survey offer for a free meal on about every second or third visit.  The prize used to be a free Build Your Own Grand Slam; these days it’s the slightly smaller (3 items rather than 4) Everyday Value Slam.

So you have to pay for your beverage, big deal.  The bottom line is that a very filling meal, when it’s not free, is only four dollars.  You can’t get out of the fast food drive-through for that price.

Forget about their reputation.  Denny’s rocks!