The Haircut

FRESNO

My father keeps telling me about how much he likes the work his barber does.  Now, Dad has very little hair left at this point, so it’s not as if I expected his barber to be a corn row connoisseur or a faux hawk aficionado.  But when he told me that his barber charges only four dollars (plus tip), I was sold.  I decided to put up with my sideburns for a couple of months in order to get my ears lowered both competently and cheaply when I headed south to visit my parents for Thanksgiving.

On Black Friday, my wife and I drove from my parents’ house out in the country to “the big city” of Fresno to get coiffed.  (Well, really so my wife could use her computer to get some work done, since there is no high-speed internet connection or wi-fi out on the rangeland where my parents call home).  My father warned me that his barber might have the day off, but that “one of the girls” would take me.

When we arrived at the shop, we were greeted with a CLOSED sign on the door.  My wife told me this would happen!

Fortunately, we had just passed an open barber shop a few blocks away.  Inside, three barbers were working away on customers while another family waited their turn.  I sat down patiently and waited about 20 minutes to be called.  This was definitely not a discount hair establishment like the place my father patronized.  A sign advertised that a regular haircut would set you back $12.  But I was there already and I just wanted to get this itchy stuff off my ears and face.  I was not about to drive around looking for someplace less expensive.

The last time that I had my hair cut back home, I told a young woman at a salon that I wanted a “3.”  For at least 20 years, I’ve been familiar with the numbering system that many barbers use.  Before I was married, I used to get a “one,” which is basically your Marine special.  Just a bit of fuzz on top.  My wife says that this style makes me “look like an escaped mental patient,” so I began leaving some hair on my noggin. I am now used to having the sideburns removed and keeping a reasonable amount of hair north of that.  Still, I thought the “3” was a bit too short.  Therefore, this time around I requested a “4.”  “You know what a 4 is, right?” the barber asked.  Yes, I assured him, I know what it is.  Upon which I blinded myself by removing my eyeglasses and hoped for the best.

The barber was a young guy who insisted that I used to be a tutor at his high school (I have never taught), urged me to get a lump on my head checked out (I explained how I obtained it forty years ago) and griped about how Heald College closed down when he had almost completed his associate’s degree and how Fresno City College wouldn’t transfer any of the credits.

I should have told him that he missed his calling.  He should have been a bartender.  I wished I had the nerve to tell him to shut up and pay attention to what he was doing.

At that point, the barber requested the details of my Thanksgiving.  “Whad you grub on?” he inquired.  I explained that my mother prepared the traditional turkey, cranberry sauce and potatoes, but that I very much enjoyed my eggplant and tofu, thank you.

“You a vegetarian?” he asked, incredulous.  I answered in the affirmative, in no mood to explain the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan.  Then he asked when was the last time I ate meat.  “About 25 years ago,” I responded, upon which he wanted to know what my last meat meal consisted of.  “I really don’t remember,” I admitted.  “It was a long time ago.”

“If it was my last time eating meat, I’d remember,” he remonstrated.  “I’d have a triple cheeseburger.  But I could never stop eating meat.”

About this time, the barber offered me my eyeglasses and I glanced in the mirror to check out the new me with a “4.”

Welcome to the Marines, son.

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Casa de Tourist Trap

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ON THE PACHECO PASS, CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

The Pacheco Pass, also known as Highway 152, connects the Central Valley with Silicon Valley and the Pacific coast.  It winds its way from Los Baños, in Merced County, to Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world.  Home of the annual garlic festival, Gilroy features shops and roadside stands hawking diverse types of garlic memorabilia along with fresh produce.

Just west of Los Baños, the Pacheco Pass affords views of the huge San Luis Reservoir and rolling hills grazed by cattle.

imageAbout three-quarters of the way across is the mega rest stop and tourist trap known as Casa de Fruta (Spanish for “fruit house”).  As I am originally from the east coast, it reminds me a bit of South of the Border on Interstate 95 in Dillon, South Carolina.  As kids making the semiannual car trip from New York to Florida, we would beg my father to stop there, seduced by the Burma Shave style advertising signs along the interstate.  He acceded to our whining only once, and he was right, the place was a schlocky, notorious tourist trap.

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Casa de Fruta has a Hollister postal address, but is actually about nine miles away from the town, located in a different county with a different telephone area code.  The place contains shops selling outrageously priced fresh and dried fruit, candy, nuts, ice cream and souvenirs.  We splurged on some dried apricots and pistachios.

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There is a little train ride and a carousel for the kids, and you can go “prospecting” for precious metal à la Gold Rush.

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Casa de Fruta is a convenient rest stop between the Bay Area and Fresno, but it’s a better place for a walk around than to spend your money on overpriced snacks and gewgaws.

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Things I Saw in the Central Valley

MADERA

We have been spending Thanksgiving weekend with my parents at their home in California’s Central Valley.  These are a few of the things I saw:

imagePalm trees.  Residing in northern California as we do, we tend to forget that tropical foliage predominates in the more southerly parts of our fair state.  With the freezing temperatures we have experienced the last few nights, I have no idea how the palms survive.

imageDonkeys.  Not something we see in Sacramento.  Unfortunately, Eeyore’s companion was camera shy and took off as soon as I pointed a camera in his direction.

imageMy little niece.  She recently turned one year old.  I don’t see her very often and can’t believe how big she’s grown already.

A homeless man in a wheelchair begging for change in front of a McDonald’s in Fresno.  It was freezing out, so we bought him some hot food and coffee.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

imageMy mother’s Siamese cat.  Taffy is 18 years old and spoiled rotten.  She refuses to eat cat food anymore and gets chicken, turkey and fish.  I think the poor thing has a cold, as she was coughing last night.

imageMacaroni Grill.  Pasta for dinner!  Garlic, mushrooms, who could as for more?

imageThe full moon, playing hide and seek with the clouds.

Here’s hoping all of you are enjoying the holiday weekend!

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Blackie

MADERA

Well, we made it through Thanksgiving without disaster.  My sister and her son, who were supposed to stay overnight at my parents’ house, instead visited for four hours and left.  This was probably for the best.

My sister showed up more than two hours late and then spent most of her visit griping about working irregular shifts at a hospital, being on call all the time and never getting any sleep.  As if on cue, her cell phone rang and the hospital tried to call her in.  She had to explain that this was not her on call day and, in any event, she was six hours away.

I think it was really rotten of my sister to browbeat my octogenarian parents in preparing an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner when we had planned to go out to a restaurant.  Mom was so tired from cooking.  It’s really unfair and thoughtless.

Thanksgiving is always a time for telling family stories, and my favorite story of the day was told by my mother.  She reminisced about her summer in a rented beach house at Brooklyn’s Coney Island when she was 13 years old.  A large homeless dog adopted her, much to her delight.  She named him Blackie and was disappointed when her parents would not let her keep him.  Still, the dog followed her around all summer, even stealing the ball from boys playing in the street and delivering it to my mother.

Then came the day when her mother gave her money and sent her to a local store to buy a six pack of beet for my Grandpa.  Even in the 1940s, it was illegal to sell beer to minors.

“Who are you buying it for?” asked the merchant accusatorily.  “For my father!” she protested.  The storekeeper took her money and told her to go wait outside.  Stepping outside to a patiently waiting Blackie, my mother soon saw the merchant come out and surreptitiously hand her a bag containing the contraband.

I’ve heard many wonderful family stories from my mother, but this was one of the most delightful.

Meanwhile, here in California’s Central Valley, the temperature has uncharacteristically dropped below freezing, threatening the area’s citrus crops.

I hope all of you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving.  High on my list of the many things I am thankful for are all of you, my faithful readers. A heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you.

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15 Things (Other than Shopping) to Do on Black Friday

Many of us have a holiday from work on the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday may be the biggest shopping day of the year, but what if you’ve finally digested all that food but you’d really rather not stand in endless lines just to be trampled and go into debt? The following are some ideas for alternate uses of this precious day off.

1. Start your holiday baking. What better time to whip up batches of cookies and gingerbread people to pop in the freezer all ready for Christmas giving?

2. Go fly a kite! Bet you haven’t done this since you were a kid. What better time than the holidays to be a kid again?

3. Go take a hike! Fresh air and exercise beats credit card bills any day of the week. (Or take a bike ride, climb a rock wall or start a pickup game of touch football in the yard.)

4. Work on a jigsaw puzzle and drink hot chocolate. If it’s too cold to do much outdoors, why not enjoy the great indoors?

5. Go to the movies. You might not avoid the crowds on this one, but the smell of popcorn and snuggling with your honey makes it definitely worth waiting in line for tickets.

6. Take the kids to the park, zoo or museum instead of to the mall. Make the day a learning opportunity instead of a lesson in conspicuous consumption.

7. Write Christmas cards. Get it out of the way early. Gives your family and friends plenty of time to send one back!

8. Get organized. Grab a calendar and make lists of what you need to do before Christmas and when you will do each one. A little effort now, a lot less stress in a few weeks.

9. Volunteer. Spend part of the day being of service to your local soup kitchen, animal shelter or church. Do good in your community and feel good about it.

10. Get in the holiday spirit by watching seasonal videos, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Home Alone.

11. Tell your story. Begin writing your memoir. Remember, you can start anywhere, not just at the beginning.

12. Start the holiday season by pampering yourself. Visit a local spa for a massage and facial.

13. Read a book. Remember those? When did you last sit down with a good thriller or juicy romance?

14. Set an example. Perform a random act of kindness.

15. Visit someone lonely who would enjoy a few hours of company and conversation over coffee.

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Thanksgiving or Festivus?

Tofurky

Last week, I attended our Thanksgiving luncheon at work, despite my reservations about how it would go with me being a vegan.  Last year, I chose to take the coward’s way out by staying away.  This wasn’t so difficult, as I was still new, wasn’t yet in management and had duties that left me working by myself most of the time.  This year was a bit different since my role has changed so drastically.  Accordingly, I thought it advisable for me to show up.

I brought my own food, with the idea that how much of it I would use would depend on whether there was anything else available that I could eat.  Good thing I did.  I had the idea that there might be salad or plain vegetables, but the only thing for me turned out to be a dinner roll.

As I sat down at a crowded table and spooned out my broccoli onto a plate, I felt a little like I did back in junior high and high school, taking out my yarmulke to eat my lunch in the cafeteria.  It’s strange how, at my age, such things come back to me.

One of my coworkers inquired about what Thanksgiving was like for me.  “Do you have Tofurky?” she asked.

I patiently explained that, while some vegans go that route, we go out to dinner with family so that everyone can order what they want.  I thought I was telling the truth, too.

Then, on Sunday, I called my parents to check in only to discover that plans had changed.  Apparently, my sister, who drives just as far as we do to be with our parents, threw an unholy fit about how if she was coming all that way, at least she should be able to get a traditional turkey dinner at home.  Mom caved in to her demands, as she always does.  The fact that my wife and I have no interest in such a dinner was not even a factor.

In my mother’s favor, she did buy an eggplant to prepare for me.  My wife, who does not enjoy turkey, is not pleased.  My parents are “kosher at home,” meaning that we can’t even bring most of the foods that my wife enjoys.  I am wondering whether we should just stay home and eat what we want.

To make matters worse, we are scheduled to do even more driving, from my parents’ house in the Central Valley to my sister’s house in the Bay Area, to celebrate my father’s birthday.  Supposedly, this is so that my niece can join us and so that my parents can meet her boyfriend, with whom she is now living.

We have a history of really horrible Thanksgivings in my family, going back decades.  Until I was ten years old, we spent most Thanksgivings with my paternal grandparents.  For reasons too complex to get into here, my mother never got along with them.  There were a lot of horrific fights over the years, with my sisters and me usually in the middle.  We loved my grandparents, but felt guilty about doing so when my mother hated them.  (Later, I learned that much of her animosity was warranted.)  Between my parents’ screaming arguments and the ones they had with my grandparents, I was scared to death of marriage for years.  It’s something of a miracle that I ended up with a truly wonderful mother-in-law.  I feel badly that my wife got the raw end of the deal.

I related in this space last year how, the first time I brought my wife to my parents for Thanksgiving (we weren’t even married yet), my sister and my mother had it out in a screaming, cussing match worthy of a telenovela.  I was embarrassed.  She’ll never marry me now, I thought.  I am very, very lucky and blessed that my wife doesn’t give up so easily.

So what will this Thanksgiving bring?  I’m afraid to find out.  While the idea of family getting together over good food is lovely, the fact is that most of us do not live up to the Norman Rockwell ideal.  I believe it is important to recognize when a family is so deeply dysfunctional that it is really better if those involved do not gather in a single location.  This is particularly true when Thanksgiving feels more like Festivus, with its “feats of strength” and “airing of grievances.”

What I do know is that, high on the list of the many things for which I am thankful will be the fact that my wife and I am able to support ourselves and don’t have to live with family.  At least for now.

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Suburban Food Memories – Part III

The Pizza Place

I drove past Martio’s Ole Time Pizza Parlor every day on the way to work and on the way home for about two years before I set foot in the place.  I no longer remember who or what caused me to try Martio’s.  What I do know is that, after my first meal there, I was hooked.

Much later, I learned that Martio’s had already been a Nanuet, New York institution for decades, the orange and green neon sign on the plate glass a window a magnet for local teens hanging out with friends, young couples on dates and families out for dinner.  I was none the wiser, living over in the next town, where the big deal was Perruna’s downtown or, closer to my own neighborhood, Hillcrest Pizza (and later, Paesano’s, their competitor across the street).

Located on Main Street only a block or so from busy Route 59, parking at Martio’s could be a challenge at times.  The establishment had no parking lot; you had to park parallel on the street or in one of the diagonal spaces around the corner by the firehouse.  I cannot tell you how many times I parked on Prospect Street and, just as I stepped out of my car, “blaaaaaattt!” went the fire horn, causing me to about jump out of my skin.

Once I got started with Martio’s, I’d find myself sitting at their counter at least a couple of times each week, and sometimes quite a bit more often.  They had booths along the wall, which worked great when I brought my parents or a date, but mostly I was in there alone and enjoyed watching all the action from the convenient vantage point of my perch on a stool.

I usually started out by ordering a Coke and a mushroom slice, sometimes the regular Neapolitan, sometimes Sicilian.  I’d chat up the owner, his son and the son’s fiancée while they went about their duties.  Then I’d order dinner, usually manicotti or eggplant parmigiana, occasionally a hero sandwich.  The platters would come out with two pieces of crispy garlic bread.  I’d often order a salad, which was served with cruets of oil and vinegar.  While I ate, I would watch customers come and go and listen to pizzas going into and coming out of the oven that was just out of sight, while staff yelled at each other about what they were cooking or what was 86’d for the evening.

When I finished, I would order a cappuccino and a cannoli and linger over dessert.  Often, I’d order a second coffee, not quite ready to go home yet.

When I advanced to management at my job, one of my minor responsibilities was ordering food for my section’s monthly employee recognition meetings, held in the basement canteen.  One month, I’d order fancy pastries from Pakula’s Bakery (alas, long gone)  — chocolate pudding tarts, cannoli, charlotte russe and tiny replicas of strawberry shortcakes. Pakula’s was a Spring Valley institution at least since the 1950s, when they moved to the suburbs from their original home in The Bronx.  They produced the most amazing desserts, including “yummy rummy cake” (kind of like a firmer pound cake with a hard crust and layers of rum-soaked chocolate cake), “tropical fruit pie” (cake and custard with slices of kiwi, pineapple and strawberry on top), giant brownies slathered in chocolate icing, and all the local Jewish and Italian favorites (hamantashen, rugalach, Napoleons).  It was where my bar mitzvah cake was purchased when I was 13 and where my sisters’ engagement party cakes were purchased 13 years after that.  Back in my hometown, you couldn’t go visit someone without bearing a Pakula’s box tied up in red and white string.

On the alternate months, however, I would order pizzas for work from Martio’s.  My section contained five departments and about a hundred staff, including a lot of big, hungry pressmen, so you can imagine how many pies they had to lug over to the chemical plant.  Sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, cheese, ground beef?  Yes, please.  Give me some of each.  Martio’s made good money from us in those months.  I would bring out a rolling cart and have the Martio’s people load it up in the parking lot.  It would be so heavy that I could barely push it past the assembly lines, through the narrow, winding passageways that led to the canteen in the back of the building.

Sitting at the counter at Martio’s, I could look out the glass in the center of the big red door and watch the cars come and go on Main Street and the time and temperature sign change on the bank across the street.  In the wintertime, it might read -19° F, while in the summer, it might read 105° F.  Seasons came and seasons went, but through it all, the popularity of Martio’s was a constant.

In the years immediately before I moved to California, Martio’s purchased the storefront next door and expanded it.  First, they turned it into an ice cream parlor, featuring Italian gelatos.  Then they installed a brick oven in the annex in addition to the regular oven in the old store.  All of the staff was extended family, and they would use the kitchen to cut back and forth between the two storefronts.  At busy times, the booths in the old store and the tables in the new store would all be full.

I am happy to report that Martio’s remains alive and well and serving its heavenly pizza, heroes and parmigiana dishes.  It is among the finest memories of my youth and one of the things that I sorely miss about New York.  Eating there once more would be near the top of my bucket list.

Tomorrow:  Thanksgiving or Festivus?

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