Images of the Past and Future

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MADERA

I have a lot of vivid dreams. It is almost as if someone has reached deep inside my body, grabbed hold of my soul and then yanked upward violently, turning me inside out like a sweater. Thus exposed, my dreams take me to places I fear to go in the light of day.

Lately, I have dreamed several times of my father’s death. I wake grateful in the knowledge that he is very much alive, fearing the day when I shall dream of him and awake to find that he is just a memory.

My father is 82 years old and I am a grown-up who is very much aware of the circle of life. But, still.

Still.

Visiting my parents for Chanukah, I sat in their family room, reminiscing with my mother over old photographs in oversized albums that filled up her lap and spilled into mine. It seems all of us have been in a reflective mood since a childhood friend of my sister, who long ago was married to and divorced from my first cousin, was found dead in her apartment in New Jersey. No one noticed for a couple of weeks until the smell got so bad that the neighbors finally complained.

Three thousand miles away in California, we had heard not long ago that she was destitute, unemployable, abandoned by her two brothers and her two sons, and about to become homeless. No one knew what could be done for her and now no more needs to be done. I do not know how she died. Somehow, it doesn’t even seem important.

My sister in Texas calls my mother to talk about her childhood friend, now gone. My other sister broods about this while driving and plows right into the car in front of her. There is a lot of damage but no one is hurt, as the police reports say.

They’re right about the damage. I’m not so sure about the other part.

My mother serves potato latkes and she even makes one of them eggless so that her weirdo vegan son can have a taste of Chanukah. She lights the menorah and I don a kippa from a decades old bar mitzvah to recite Ha’nerot Hallalu and sing Maos Tzur, Rock of Ages.

The husband of my mom’s cousin, at the age of 84, announces that he will celebrate his “second bar mitzvah” in April. Although he is a member of three synagogues, none can book the simcha for the Shabbat corresponding to his Hebrew birthdate. And so, nearly four months out, he has begun preparing a different Torah portion than the one he chanted before family and friends 71 years ago.

My bar mitzvah photos turn up in the album that my mother and I are perusing. I look like a total dork in the bar mitzvah suit that cost a fortune and then had to be altered to fit. My father took me into Manhattan for the occasion, Barney’s at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street.

Photos of my sisters with their friends from elementary school and junior high. Mom doesn’t remember the friends’ names, but I do. The one standing outside the tent is Sharon. Yes, that was the fateful camping trip on which it rained the whole time. No, she didn’t live in our neighborhood; she lived across the street from the school and was a “walker” who didn’t have to face the ignominy of riding the bus. The one with the cat is Debbie, from when we lived in Wappingers Falls. That one is Vitor, the exchange student from Brazil. We trip merrily down Memory Lane until Mom picks up her dying cat and it pees all over her.

Pictures of Dad, decades younger, displaying his chest hair on the beach in Florida. Me as a teenager, with a goofy grin, holding a seashell in Myrtle Beach. My sisters, bundled up in matching hooded parkas, in the snow in front of our house. My very young looking mother in a bathing suit on a chaise lounge at the pool. Me and my grandfather at my college graduation, two months before he died.

Photographic evidence of a life so far in the past that it’s a stretch to believe it ever happened. These Polaroids could just as well be a figment cobbled together into one of my colorful dreams, more real than the real thing.

My parents are discovering that one of the hazards of aging is that everyone you know dies. Parents, siblings, friends. Live long enough and there’s no one left but you.

And as the names are erased from the paper, one by one, with only old snapshots in oversized albums remaining as a reminder, I wonder how I will manage when the very paper itself disappears and, as in my dreams, I am left with nothing but memories and black and white photographs dated AUG 65.

Pet-Free and Glad of It

Taffy

MADERA

Taffy was lying down outside the sliding glass door to my parents’ family room, so my mother let her cat in. This cat is in bad shape. Despite the furry winter coat, you can see the outline of bones in the sunken profile. The cat attempted to jump up on the couch, but can no longer make the leap successfully. Claws scrabbling momentarily on the edge of the seat, the cat slides back down to the carpet. Mom picks up the cat and lays it across her lap, where we were looking through old photo albums. The cat promptly pees all over her.

Mom lets the cat out before taking a shower and changing her clothes.

My mother’s cat, now 18 years old, is on its ninth life. Although she has taken her pet in to the vet in Fresno on a couple of occasions, she won’t spend the money now that Taffy is preparing to fly up to that big furball in the sky. Indeed, her raspy, labored breathing reminds me of what used to be known as the rales or death-rattle. I bet Taffy has pneumonia.

My sister in Texas had two black and white cats, Cookie and Oreo, and both of them died recently. My niece, who is an adult, took it hard. My sister stayed home from work to comfort her.

Many people who I meet, both online and in person, are surprised that a child-free couple like us has no pets. Surely we bestow our love on a dog or a cat? A songbird? Not even a little goldfish in a bowl?

Nope, nope and nope. Throughout our marriage, we have been 100% pet-free. Part of this relates to the fact that my wife grew up with dogs and I grew up with cats, and neither of us particularly understand the other species. Not to mention the fact that we tend to live in tiny rentals where no pets are permitted.

The bottom line for me, however, is that the love bestowed upon us by our pets for years can never make up for the heartbreak of losing them. I realize that we are missing a lot, but every joy comes at a price.  I see what is happening to my sister, my niece and my mom, and I know we have made the right decision all along.

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.

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logo    nanopoblano2015dark

 

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!

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logo    nanopoblano2015dark

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.

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logo    nanopoblano2015dark

While I Wasn’t Looking, My Parents Got Old

For some time now, my wife and I have been concerned about my elderly parents living alone out in the country.  It has now been about 17 years since my mother stepped out onto the patio, slipped on the wet surface, went down hard and shattered her shoulder.  She had to have surgery to remove the crushed pieces of bone and replace it with a new shoulder.  These fixes are not designed to last forever and we know that she will likely have to have the shoulder replaced again at some point.

In the meantime, my parents inched up into their eighties.  They are in relatively good health for their ages, but my father has to keep having growths removed from his head.  Then there was the time he passed out in the bathroom and hit his head on the floor.  This past weekend, I called to see how they were doing and, sure enough, it’s starting all over again.  Dad climbed a ten-foot ladder to replace one of the fluorescent bulbs in the kitchen ceiling.  Well, you can guess what happened.  On the way down, he fell, hit his head on one of the cabinets (knocking the knob clean off), then continued his fall headfirst onto the floor.  Being Dad, he refused to seek medical care.

Until three days later, that is, when he realized that he was still in pain.  Turns out he had two cuts on the back of his head.  Fortunately, an x-ray revealed that he had not fractured his skull.  I guess you could say he is hardheaded, not unlike his son.

I suppose this will go on and on until a true disaster occurs.  My folks enjoy having their big piece of land out in the country where my mother can spend her days planting trees and tending to the flowers and her little vegetable patch.  They have acknowledged that they will be unable to stay there forever, but they give no indication of taking any action to set up in a more favorable situation elsewhere.  They love being able to sit outside in the cool of the evening and watch the nightly star show, courtesy of the extreme darkness out in the farm country.  They can’t imagine being cooped up indoors in a little condo somewhere.

On the phone, Mom mused that they may be better off going back east, either to our native New York or to New England or perhaps to the Midwest, where homes are so inexpensive.  “After all,” she tells me, “that’s where we’re going anyway” (alluding to the family burial plot in New York City).  She then got into the difficulties of transporting a deceased person’s body nearly 3000 miles across the country.  (“They don’t take caskets at Fresno Airport, so the funeral home would have to drive us to Los Angeles and then another funeral home would have to pick us up at the other end.”)  It would be easier if they lived closer to their final resting place, she pondered.

I have no idea how to respond to arguments of this nature.  My first reaction is to brush them off, assuming that they’re mostly intended for shock value.  Nevertheless, I know full well that the time will come when such arrangements will need to be handled.  Meanwhile, I have to hope that Mom and Dad do not become the target of one of the home invasion robberies that I have been hearing so much about lately.

Toward the end of our phone conversation, my mother related how she recently was locked out of the house late at night when she went to feed her cat in the garage.  My father, who is going deaf and was watching TV at ungodly decibels in another part of their big house, was none the wiser.  Mom had to go outside in the pitch blackness and feel her way around from the back patio, past the rose bushes, along the side of the house and eventually around to the front.  She pounded on the windows and doors, and still Dad did not hear her.  Just then, my sister called.  When Mom didn’t pick up after a few rings, Dad answered the phone and then had to go looking for my mother to take her call.

What am I supposed to say?  What am I supposed to do?  I have no idea, but I am fairly certain that one or both of them will come to a bad end.  And I truly do not want to think about what will transpire if one of them dies and the other is left alone.  Hopefully, one of my sisters will step up to the plate.  My wife and I live in a tiny mouse-hole that couldn’t accommodate a cat, much less another person.

Why is it that they don’t teach you how to do this stuff in school?  Perhaps it’s because we all prefer to think of our parents as forever young.  I just wish reality would stop that infernal knocking on my door.

Tomorrow:  Kosher deli memories

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Bones

Phone Bones

We have been out of town the past couple of weekends, once to Reno and once to visit my parents in the Central Valley.  From the vantage point of a New Yorker who transplanted himself to California 20 years ago, the distinguishing factor of the Golden State is that it has no distinguishing factor.

Even after two decades on the west coast, many notice a trace of a New York accent that lingers in my speech.  When I admit to my roots, I am typically asked where exactly in New York I am from.  It seems that I disappoint them when I don’t announce that I hail from Batavia, Binghamton or Buffalo.

“I was born in Manhattan,” I tell them, and they seem suitably impressed.  I don’t bother mentioning about starting out sharing a single bedroom with two sisters in a roach-infested walk-up in the Bronx.  Nor do I get into my parents’ flight to the leafy suburbs in the mid-sixties.

“Things must be really different back there,” is the usual reaction.  I disappoint once again when I say that, no, they’re not.  I’ve long resigned myself to the increasing homogeneity of America.  So much of California reminds me of New Jersey.  The grubby suburbs of Sacramento and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles are not that different than Passaic and Essex Counties in the Garden States.  Newark, California has a lot in common with Newark, New Jersey.

We travel the interstates, taking an exit periodically to fill the gas tank, fill our bellies, use the rest rooms.  Whether we’re in Oregon or Nevada or right here in northern California, the one thing that every convenience store, strip mall and restaurant seems to have in common is the bones.

I refer to the skeletal remains of the once ubiquitous pay phone.

I remember it well.  It was the summer before I went off to college, and my father and I were hitting balls on a tennis court at the local junior high.  I had never been away from home before, was quite immature at the age of 17 and began fretting about how I’d keep in touch.

“There are pay phones everywhere,” my father offered.

Oh, so true during the Carter administration.  In my freshman year, I lived in a dormitory that had one pay phone on each floor, in the elbow that separated the men’s wing from the women’s.  It was considered proper etiquette to answer it if you were nearby when it rang, and then to leave the receiver dangling while you went to bang on the door of whomever the caller requested.  I remember being tickled the day I heard it ring just as I walked by and it was actually for me!

Later, I transferred to a giant state university that was bursting at the seams with baby boomers.  Despite a veritable city of dormitories, there was no room at the inn and I ended up with a couple hundred other students in a decrepit single room occupancy hotel downtown.  There was an old cast iron black telephone in each room.  The phone had no dial (this was before the age of push button phones), as it received incoming calls only.  To place an outgoing call, one would use the pay phone in the lobby.  Alternatively, up on campus one could descend into the basement of the university library, where in a room near the huge bound volumes of obscure academic journals, was a bank of pay phones, complete with little stools on which to perch during one’s phone call.  For some reason, Sunday night seemed to be the time when everyone wanted to call home to Long Island.  After all, everyone was far too busy bar hopping on Friday and Saturday nights.

Somewhere in a dusty album there is a photo of my sister and her young ex-husband, newlyweds on their honeymoon, hugging each other while squeezed into the narrow doorway of a phone booth.

Phone booths!  Remember those?  Clark Kent relied on them to make his transformation into Superman.  The red ones I found throughout London when I visited in the mid-1980s were highly photogenic, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use them to make a phone call.  “You can dial that yourself,” one operator unhelpfully informed me.  HOW??!!

My parents typically spend their evenings watching television, a habit I have studiously avoided for years.  To make matters worse, they don’t have cable or a satellite dish.  Thus, they receive only a few over-the-air stations from a nearby city.  The trash that they serve up to the public makes me roll my eyes.

And so, on Saturday night, after sitting on folding chairs in the driveway to watch the stars for an hour, my wife and I found ourselves sitting on my parents’ couch, watching the first Terminator movie (1984) with my mother.  My father was in the office watching documentaries about murders on another TV.  As a Californian who endured a term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, I could not but guffaw at seeing him as a cyborg.  But it was his repeated visits to phone booths that really caused me to belly laugh.  Phone booths that not only had fully functioning phones in them, but also had phone books present (remember those?), so convenient for Arnold to look up the addresses of his next victims.

Pay phones went through slow stages of disrepair and dilapidation before they disappeared altogether.  There were a number of years during which the phone probably still worked, but nothing dangled at the end of the cord where a phone book was supposed to be.  Most pay phones seemed to be of the outdoor variety; where an actual booth still existed, the little shelf beneath the phone that was supposed to house the phone book was always empty.

When I worked as a manager in the court system, I remember making a sign and posting it on the wall of the courthouse lobby to inform visitors that the pay phone did not work and that no money should be inserted therein.  People tried anyway and lost their dimes and quarters.  I don’t know how long it had been since that particular pay phone had ceased functioning, but I do know that picking up the receiver yielded an incessant beeping and nothing more.  It took quite a lot of research, probing and pleading before I was finally able to get that pay phone removed and the empty hole in the wall plastered over.  The challenge was finding out who actually owned the phone.  None of the phone companies who I contacted were willing to take responsibility for it.  Little did I know that there were businesses that actually purchased and serviced pay phones.  I always had a vague idea that “the phone company” took care of it.  Perhaps this was true in the halcyon days before the breakup of Ma Bell.

The advent of the cell phone relegated pay phones to be just another remnant of American social history, along with the vinyl 33⅓ RPM record and the manual typewriter.

But still, like ghosts of the past, the bones remain.

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

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.