The Notebook

Notebook

My wife and I visited my parents shortly before Thanksgiving.  “I don’t want to make you sad,” was how my mother opened a conversation at breakfast one morning.  I knew what was coming.

My father just turned 85 and my mother will be doing likewise about three months from now.  Dad is nonchalant about getting older; his philosophy has always been that “it’s better than the alternative.”  My mother, on the other hand, seems a bit obsessed about her funeral arrangements.

Mom has a notebook detailing her last wishes, and on this occasion, she wished to inform me that she has updated it.  And also that she’s made a second copy in case something happens to the first.  It’s starting to feel a little creepy.

Now, I know that many will find my mother’s initiative admirable.  I would tend to agree if her instructions had something to do with, say, disposition of her assets (she says she doesn’t have a will) or even what type of casket to use or what music to play at her funeral.

No such luck.

My mother doesn’t care about any of that stuff.  She says that no one but immediate family would attend her funeral anyway, so there’s no sense in spending money for a lot of worthless nonsense.

Mom’s funeral notebooks are primarily devoted to the minutia of how to have her body transported from California to her family burial plot in New York City.  I’m talking about which airline to use, which funeral home to call on this end, which funeral home to call in New York, how to contact the cemetery to have them open a gravesite.

Sigh.

When I try to make sense of this, I remind myself that there is plenty of precedent going back millennia.  After all, the Children of Israel honored Joseph’s wishes to bring his bones up from Egypt to be buried in the Promised Land.  And that involved forty years of wandering in the desert, not making a reservation with United.  But still.  Is this really necessary, parents of mine?  Yes, I know, Mom, you want to be buried next to your mother.  I get it.  Um, I think.  Uh, why exactly do you insist on staying in California if you wish to spend eternity in New York?

I’m glad that my parents no longer have to deal with the winter weather that they so dislike, but really, why would an octogenarian elect to reside nearly 3,000 miles away from his or her final resting place of choice?  To me, it’s simple.  I have resided in California for nearly a quarter of a century, and here I will be buried.  If California is good enough for me to live in, it’s certainly a good enough location for my headstone.  I doubt that I will ever move anywhere else, but if I do, then just bury my carcass there in the local cemetery, please.  Don’t even think of transporting my decomposing corpse on a final plane ride to a location thousands of miles away.  That’s both insane and insulting.

As for my parents, they made New York their home for the first sixty years of their lives.  In my opinion, if they want to spend eternity there, then they had no business moving to California.  I think my uncle got it right.  He lived down the street from us in New York, and at the age of 92, he’s still there.

What’s even crazier is that Mom has mentioned more than once that, were she terminally ill, she would attempt to travel to New York City so that she could breathe her last in close proximity to the cemetery.

There just isn’t a lot I can say when Mom starts in with this kind of talk and her notebooks.  Yes, I assure her, I’ll honor your final wishes.  Yes, I know it’s paid for.  Yes, I’m glad that you have informed my sisters (since they will likely be doing most of the heavy lifting anyway).

Arguably, my father goes to the opposite extreme.  When Dad is asked about his final wishes, he often says something about stuffing his body into a sack and throwing it in the river.

Maybe he’s on to something.

 

Russian Hotel Roulette

The 2016 Great American Escape

In a recent post, I mentioned the sticker shock that my wife and I experienced upon searching for a reasonably priced hotel in Manhattan.  It did not take us long to realize that, at least in terms to which we are accustomed, there is no such thing.  Three hundred dollars a night appears to be the bellwether, with more chic accommodations going for many times that price.

At The Library Hotel, for example, a “petite room” with one full bed, not at all appropriate for two very large people (the website indicates “most suitable for one person”) goes for $305.15 per night, plus taxes and fees.  While I was intrigued by the hotel’s large book collection for which it is named (and from which guests may borrow for bedtime reading) and its midtown location right by the world-famous main branch of the New York Public Library, I must remind myself that this is considered a luxury hotel and far outside my budget.

So we started thinking about another really nice place that’s not in Midtown, the Bentley Hotel.  What’s that they say about location, location, location?  The farther away from Times Square, the cheaper, right?  It’s not like we wanted to stay in the Bronx or anything, but this hotel is in a decent upper east side neighborhood hard by the Queensborough Bridge.  We can deal with it!  Let’s check availability and rates.  (Gasp, gag)  $375.50 per night!

Clearly, this is not working.  Another approach is in order.  A friend of ours from the Central Valley who often ferries out of town tour groups around Manhattan tells me she either stays in New Jersey or uses the Hotel Tonight app to catch a same-day reservation on the cheap for an in-town room that would otherwise go vacant.  The latter choice will not work for us, as we want to have advance reservations, not wander around Manhattan wondering where we’re lay our heads for the night.  New Jersey is starting to look better and better.

I made a last ditch effort to stay in Manhattan by furiously clicking around until I found a hotel room on the Lower East Side that went for about $120 per night once tax and fees were added on.  “Only one room left!” the website warned.

“Quick, look at this!” I implored my wife.  She called up the place on her own laptop while I yanked my credit card out of my wallet and hurriedly entered my information.  After all, the web page said that eight others were looking at the room.  “I don’t know if I can do this fast enough,” I confessed as I harbored images of the screen flashing a laughing message:  “You lose, sucker!  Room booked by someone else 1.5 seconds ago.  Better luck next time!”

But that’s not what happened.  I successfully booked the room before it was gone.  “Whew!” I proclaimed in relief, congratulating myself on snagging such a good deal.  “Walking distance to Katz’s Deli,” the site assured me as the reservation confirmation hit my email box.  Great!  My wife wants to try out Katz’s (or at least gawk at the place) while we’re in town.

Only then did I take a look at the online reviews.  There were many of them, which I hoped would present me with a balanced picture.  Unfortunately, most of them said the same thing, in the most exclamatory of tones.  “Bedbugs!  Bedbugs!  Do not stay here!  Shitty sheets!  Blood on the sheets!  Bedbugs, bedbugs!”

I was crestfallen.  Oh, my God, how could I have been so stupid!  Of course, you’re going to get what you pay for.  (Or at least you won’t get what you don’t pay for.)  As if that weren’t bad enough, my wife could not believe the depth of my imbecility in having reserved through booking.com.  “You never go through those services!” she informed me.

Obviously, I am way out of my depth here.  I have to learn not to mess with things I so clearly do not understand.

The next evening, when I arrived home from work, I accessed the reservation and cancelled it.   Luckily for me, the screen assured me that there was no charge for cancellations at least 48 hours in advance.  It was still a month in advance, so I was good.

So where are we going to stay in New York?  Well, it looks like Manhattan is out, so New Jersey it is.  I found a trucker motel for $60 a night plus tax near the Pulaski Skyway.  Memories returned of my father’s old Rambler breaking down there one night when I was about ten years old, with the trucks whizzing by while Dad cursed and tried to figure out what was wrong with that piece of crap car this time. Let’s see, there’s Tonnele Avenue to Routes 1 and 9, that’s close to the Turnpike, right?  Near the Holland Tunnel?  I’m sure I can figure it out.

Ultimately, my wife found us a better answer.  We booked into a very nice chain hotel in my hometown in Rockland County, about 40 minutes from Midtown and right by the New York Thruway.  Hot breakfast included, even a refrigerator and a microwave in the room.  Decidedly lacking in some of the finer New York amenities, such as bedbugs.

One of these days, I will learn to trust my wife’s judgment in all practical matters and stay the heck away from expensive, messy errors.

I may have learned this lesson a little too late, however.  This evening, our Visa bill turned up with a charge for a two-night stay at Bedbug Heaven.

And that, my dears, is the reason that mistakes are so painful.  No matter how hard you try, they can never be fully corrected.

 

Sticker Shock

When my wife and I were first married (17 years ago), she was surprised that I did not look at prices in the supermarket, at Target or at Walmart.  My philosophy had always been “if you want it, buy it” and, as for the price, “it is what it is.”  Should I deny myself a mass produced cherry pie just because it costs six dollars?  I figured that I had no control over prices, so why should I be concerned about them?  If I refused to buy an item due to my objection that the price was too high, would that change anything?  Would I teach the store a lesson (“So there!  Take that!”) so that, on my next visit, the price would be slashed?  I think not.

Things have changed a bit for me in the past couple of decades.  I do look at prices now, although they confuse me.  I rarely do any shopping without my wife.  This is probably a good thing because I have no clue whether something is expensive or not.

Until now.

In the course of planning a trip to New York, we have been checking hotel prices with the goal of making a reservation.  Now, as a charter member of the Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn club, even I can tell you that $400 to $500 or more a night is expensive.

Let’s be real about this:  All I am looking for is a place to lay my head and take a hot shower.  The word “amenities” doesn’t mean anything to me.  I simply am not looking for anything fancy.  If that’s the case, I’m told, then don’t go to New York.  It’s all about location.  Just being in Manhattan is itself “fancy.”

Indeed, we have been able to find (somewhat) reasonable prices out in the suburbs.  We considered taking advantage of that fact until we realized that it would mean not only paying for gas and fighting the bridge and tunnel commuters to get into and out of the city every day of our visit, but also paying for a parking garage in Manhattan ($50 a day!) and then paying taxicab fares to get to the attractions we’d like to see.  When you add it all up, it would be almost as much as staying in the city.

Sure, we could save some money by taking the subway or staying at a fleabag (some of which are notorious for bedbugs).  But that’s not what we’re looking for in a vacation.

We were originally thinking of spending five days in Manhattan.  With the prohibitive cost, however, we settled on four days.  Then we began figuring out how we can do most of what we hope to accomplish in three days.  And lately, we’ve been considering paring it down to just two days.

After all, we’re already going to be spending a lot of money driving cross-country to get to New York, then driving back to California.  True, we’ll see a lot of our great nation on the way, but our hotel costs for the entire 6,000 mile round trip will be about the same as the cost of staying just three nights in Manhattan.  Even a dunderhead like myself knows that this is way too expensive for the likes of us.

I realize that the costs of maintaining a hotel in Manhattan are exorbitant and that these costs have to be passed on to the consumer.  I am also aware that Manhattan hotels increase their profits by raising prices for visitors and businessmen who want to stay in a convenient location.  Something tells me that I should “just say no” and let the New York hotels make their money off the suckers who are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars per night.

But then we wouldn’t be able to stay in New York.  Perhaps we should just go somewhere else.  Prices are more reasonable almost every other place you can think of, so why New York?  Because there’s no place like it.  It is this very uniqueness that leads tens of thousands of travelers to the Big Apple every year, prices be damned.

Perhaps my former way of thinking was the right one after all.  If you want it, buy it.  Take out your credit card and don’t think about the price.

Just try not to wince when the Visa bill comes in.

 

Next Stop, Manhattan?

Soooo, New York.

Huh.  Where do I start?

We’re hoping third time is a charm.  The first time we planned a trip back east was a couple of years after we were married.  Ultimately, however, I couldn’t see blowing all our money and all my vacation time to pull it off.

Then some strange things happened.  First, I turned 40.  Then, before I knew it, I had turned 50.  How many more chances would I have to do this?

When we lived out in the middle of the desert, we decided to try again.  We hauled out the calendar and set a date, started to save money for the trip.  Then we got word that my employer was failing and might actually close our small desert branch.  Would I be out of a job?  We’d better save our money.  Trip cancelled.

It turned out to be a wise decision.  Although the branch did not close, I was forced to lay off half my staff.  Shortly after, I myself was laid off and we returned to northern California.  I was out of work for a year and we pinched pennies like never before, particularly after my unemployment checks ran out (described in great detail in this space).

As they say, however, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  However, I would never have guessed that 2016 might be the year.

Then, one morning a couple of weeks ago, while sitting in freeway traffic on the way to work in downtown Sacramento, my wife casually mentioned that we should go on vacation.  “Yes!” was my immediate response.

“We could just drive for three days and see where we end up.  Where can we get in three days?”  I suggested Chicago, if we pushed it.  This would not be a problem, as we typically do “push it,” with my wife and I trading off four-hour shifts with one of us driving and the other sleeping.  We’ve been to a lot of places this way, including Texas and Canada.

My wife said she’d never been to Chicago, and I admitted to only having seen the inside of O’Hare Airport.  The wheels started turning in my pea brain.  Art Institute of Chicago?  Deep dish pizza?  Watching the waves come in on Lake Michigan?  The Sears Tower?  Oh, they call it something else now, don’t they?

“Hey,” said my wife, her wheels turning as well.  “How long would it take to drive to New York.”

That did it.

New York.  No, New York, New York.  Sounds so nice, they said it twice.  It’s a hell of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery down.  Bite the Big Apple. (Don’t mind the maggots!)  If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere . . .  Give my regards to Broadway, remember me to Herald Square.  Maybe you know some little places to go to where they never close.  New York City rhythm flowing through my life . . .

The thought of seeing New York again, probably one last time, turned my brain to mush and evoked every cliché song you can think of.

Maybe I’ll finally get to see the museums.

I spent more than 30 years residing less than half an hour from Midtown, but the only museum I ever visited was the Museum of Natural History, as a child.

I thought I had missed my chance.  I knew I’d never get to see the Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum.  I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building in so many movies that I have no desire to go in person.

But Times Square.  Back in the day, I drove through the area many times and even walked there once.  The place was loaded with triple-X movie theatres and was generally a filthy pit.  Since I’ve been in California, however, Times Square has been renovated to encourage tourism.  Now you can make a pilgrimage to the huge Disney Store past costumed Elmos and Mickeys trying to make a few bucks on the street from photos taken with gawking out-of-towners.

My wife said she wants to eat at Katz’s Delicatessen, so well represented on TV.  I visited there once, with my father and Grandpa when I was about five or six years old.  I still remember it.  I refused to eat anything because it wasn’t kosher; they had to take me down the street to Henry’s.  But now?  I’m game.  Even a vegan can enjoy some kugel and a kasha knish.  And, if I’m to be perfectly honest with myself, I don’t know that I would be able to resist the lure of a bagel with cream cheese and lox.

There’s just too much to do, see and eat in New York.  You really can’t hope to accomplish much in a few days.  But at least I’d be able to show my wife the big town.  This is where I’m from, this is who I am, this is the essence of my being.

A quick check at work revealed that I have several weeks of paid vacation on the books.  But, man, this is going to be an expensive venture.  Can we really pull it off?  My wife says we can.

All that’s left is to make up an itinerary.

 

New York State of Mind

I moved to California in 1995 after a few years in New England, but I was born and raised in New York City and environs, and will always be a New Yorker deep inside.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe what makes one a New Yorker.  Well, for one thing, we know the difference between the Bruckner and the Deegan and whether it’s better to take the Whitestone or the Throgs Neck.  We love bialies and knishes and how to navigate the subway system.  We’re jaded and take every annoying inconvenience in stride (alright, so I’m not so good at that one).

For many of us who came of age in the 1970s, being a New Yorker meant nurturing a deep and abiding affection for Billy Joel and Barry Manilow.  Now, back in college, I was on the receiving end of a lot of (not so) good-natured teasing about my appreciation of Barry’s music.  But there is something about the hits of Billy Joel that scream “Big Apple” like nothing else.  My sisters and I deconstructed the lyrics of nearly every song on The Stranger, and I managed to have the chutzpah to quote the lyrics to “Allentown” in one of my college term papers after I devoured The Nylon Curtain in all its vinyl glory on the turntable in my bedroom.

There is nothing like hearing Billy Joel croon about The New York Times and The Daily News, “don’t care if it’s in Chinatown or on Riverside” to bring it all back to me in a flood.  Among my favorites is Joel’s early recording, “Summer, Highland Falls,” not only for the melody, but also because the place referred to holds some very specific memories for me.

So it was with great delight that I recently learned that SiriusXM satellite radio has launched, for a limited time, The Billy Joel Channel on Ch. 18.  Aside from the songs sending me tripping down Memory Lane, I am enjoying the interviews in which he explains the influences and inspiration associated with many of his hits.  And I have discovered a number of tunes with which I was not familiar, such as the amazing piano instrumental “Root Beer Rag.”

The timing of this is excellent, as Billy is placing me in the right frame of mind for a cross-country road trip to New York that we are planning to take a few months hence.  (More about that in a later post.)

I will conclude by mentioning that Billy Joel being piped into my ear buds from my trusty iPhone has raised my spirits greatly in the past week or two.  Believe me, I’ve needed it.  We recently switched health care plans through my job, and tomorrow, I get the pleasure of starting all over again with a new doctor at (cough, ack, eek!) Kaiser.  Medical stuff gets me depressed, and I am quite aware that I have plenty of it ahead of me.

I don’t care if you have to do a million tests and then cut me up and put me back together, Doc, just don’t make me use up all my annual leave so we can’t go to New York.  I mean it, Doc.

I’ll sic Billy Joel on you.

 

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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Suburban Food Memories – Part II

The Diner

In the late 1970s, I was in college and my sisters were in high school.  When I was at home, we all liked to relax in the family room and play records (yes, real vinyl 33⅓ rpm ones) on my father’s old phonograph.  Among our favorites, which we played over and over again, was Billy Joel’s The Stranger.  We would muse and hypothesize about what the songs really meant and, in a few cases, what the correct lyrics were.  We particularly loved “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” with its key changes and song-within-a-song.  When Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie always being a hit “at the Parkway Diner,” we knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Plaza,” one of us would say, exchanging knowing glances with the others.

In our neighborhood, when you said “the diner,” it only meant one thing:  Don-Len’s Plaza Diner on Route 59 in Nanuet, right across from the mall.  (It lives on today as the Nanuet Diner.)  There were plenty of diners all over the place, but only the Plaza was the diner.  That’s because it was the gathering place for teens and young adults, while still being popular with families.  You could come in with a date or with your whole crowd.  It was open 24 hours a day and, most of the time, you could count on a cacophony of conversations.  When the movies let out on a Saturday night, you could barely get in the place.  Same thing after the bars closed down at 2 in the morning.  Same thing on Sunday morning, when families came in for brunch.  If you had to wait for a table, you could sit on one of the long vinyl banquettes out in the lobby by the pay phone (remember those?).  The lobby had doors at either end, one facing Nova Lighting and Gaylin’s Housewares, the other leading to the parking lot of the decrepit Rockland Plaza.  Once the county’s shopping epicenter (before the mall came in, it was anchored by W.T. Grant Co. on one end and Grand-Way on the other), by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the place had deteriorated into a series of vacant storefronts and discount stores that seemed to come and go every month or so.  Eventually, it stabilized a bit when Marshalls and Barnes & Noble came in.  But through all the changes, the Plaza Diner remained the one stalwart soldier, always ready to serve you anything your heart desired, any time of day or night.

The first thing you noticed when you pulled open the interior doors was the pastry case.  There would be strawberry shortcake, mile-high with whipped cream.  There would be a tall seven-layer chocolate cakes.  Then the cheesecakes, perhaps cherry or blueberry or pineapple.  Cannoli, giant chocolate chip cookies.  Chocolate cream and banana cream pies.

The menu was a book.  There wasn’t much missing.  Want a steak?  Pancakes and eggs?  Shrimp scampi?  A salami sandwich?  Spaghetti and meatballs?  Spinach pie?  An ice cream sundae?  They had it.  Greek, Italian, Asian and Jewish specialties, check!  (Who ever heard of Mexican in New York back then?)  There was even a note on the menu to the effect that if you didn’t see what you wanted, you should just ask and they’d make it for you if they could.

My parents took me here as a kid, and seafood was the name of the game.  Dad liked the scallops, Mom liked the whole baby flounder or a fried fish sandwich, and I salivated over broiled bluefish (which, incidentally, I have never seen in California).

On the weekends, a long, gleaming salad bar would be rolled out onto the floor.  It cost extra to get the salad bar with your meal, but I begged my father for it.  I seem to remember that there were plenty of crisp greens and salad makings, but I thumbed my nose at that stuff.  I headed straight for the noodle pudding, the pickled herring in cream sauce and the rigatoni with tuna.

When I landed my first job out of college, on the night shift, I’d head to the diner after work for cheesecake with my buddy, Bob.  Or I’d drive over there when I woke up around noontime for spanakopita because I knew a certain really cute waitress would be on duty.

I wasn’t faithful, however (to the diner, not the waitress).  In fact, you could say that I was downright promiscuous.  I’d bop over to Janet Hogan’s down in the swamp hollow in West Nyack.  In a hard rain, the whole area would flood and you couldn’t get near the place.  The rest of the time, however, they had great challah bread that was served with every entrée.  Or I’d head south on Route 303 to the Golden Eagle Diner, just across the New Jersey state line in Northvale.

When I started working day shift, I became enamored of the kosher deli in our neighborhood (described yesterday).  After I tired of that, however, I became attached to the Red Eagle Diner (known years before as the Spring Valley Diner and not to be confused with that other color eagle in Bergen County) on the corner of Route 45 and Route 59, one of the busiest intersections in all of Rockland County.  It was located next to an Orthodox Jewish bakery and an Italian barber shop, across from the old Shopper’s Paradise, later Masters, later the flea market.

Sometimes I’d stop in at 6:00 in the morning for oatmeal.  They’d heat the milk so it didn’t make the cereal cold.  The place was staffed by crusty waitresses of the old school who’d actually yell “Whiskey down!” when a customer would order rye toast.

But mostly I’d stop in after work.  They knew me so well that they’d see me walking through the parking lot and have my iced tea with plenty of lemon on the counter before I sat down on a stool.  Someone would be playing Springsteen on the jukebox as I dug into my rice pudding.  You could stay as long as you wanted and chat with the servers.

Years later, when I lived in Connecticut, I experienced pretty much the same thing at a Greek diner in Danbury.  It was more than just food.

It was almost like family.

Tomorrow:  The pizza place

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Suburban Food Memories – Part I

The Kosher Deli

I have been a vegan for only two years.  Prior to that, I was a vegetarian (sort of – I ate fish) for 23 years.  But I was raised as a meat-eater from earliest childhood, and in the halcyon days of my youth, I was a dedicated carnivore.

A few days ago, I found myself tripping merrily down Memory Lane, regaling my wife with stories of my gustatory adventures in my native New York.  As a young man just out of college, I found myself earning decent money, while living at home and having few expenses other than my car.  I didn’t have a serious girlfriend to spend my paychecks on, so I blew my cash on the thing I liked best:  Eating at restaurants.

In later years, when I had girlfriends with expensive tastes, I would leave the suburbs and head into the big city on the weekends, attending concerts and Broadway shows and plunking down piles of cash at restaurants that I really couldn’t afford.  For the first few years, however, I indulged my proclivity for cheap local places where, as on Cheers, everybody knew my name.

I went through a series of phases.  First, it was the kosher deli.  After work, I would plunk myself down at the counter and order iced tea.  Back then, most restaurants in our area served iced tea only in the summertime.  But the deli would mix up a pitcher just for me and start slicing lemons even in January.  They knew I’d drink the whole thing.

In those days, I got off work at 3:30 in the afternoon, so the deli was usually pretty dead.  There might be one or two customers or perhaps a couple enjoying a late lunch.  Often as not, however, I’d be the only paying customer in the establishment.  The manager or the one waitress on the premises would come over to chat.  On nice days, the doors would be propped open and the salamis hanging up front would sway gently in the breeze.

I’d usually start my odyssey of flesh consumption with a big bowl of chicken noodle soup that had a huge matzo ball floating in it.  The pickle bowl (both garlic sours and mild half-sours) and the rye bread with pareve margarine would appear.  While I munched, I’d peruse the menu for dinner ideas.  I might decide on a half roast chicken or sliced turkey or a hamburger (raw onion, please, never fried) or “specials” (giant knockwurst).  Dinners came with two sides, and my favorites were kasha varnishkes (known among deli aficionados as “KV”) and luckschoen kugel.  The former consisted of bow tie pasta with buckwheat groats (a little like rice pilaf, but hard to explain if you’ve never tried it) and brown gravy; the latter was noodle pudding liberally studded with raisins and fruit cocktail.  Vegetables?  Get outta my face!

Some afternoons I’d really go to town and order an appetizer in between the matzo ball soup and the entrée.  My favorite forschpeis was tongue polonaise, which is thinly sliced beef tongue smothered in sautéed cabbage, raisins and tomato sauce.  I also favored stuffed cabbage, and occasionally I’d go wild and have chicken fricassee or stuffed derma (a type of sausage — take my word for it, you don’t want to know).  The only appetizers I stayed away from were chopped liver and liverwurst.  Sorry, pâté lovers, but I found the flavor to be extremely bile, oops, I mean vile!

There were plenty of days that I stayed away from hot food (other than my beloved matzo ball soup) and went right for a sandwich.  I’d have them create whatever concoction sounded good to me.  It might be turkey, tongue and salami or roast beef, brisket and rolled beef (similar to, but not the same as, what Montréal natives know as “smoked meat”). Surprisingly, I was never particularly fond of pastrami or corned beef, perhaps the two items that most represent the essence of the New York deli.

How could I possibly have room for dessert after all that?  I’d make room.  I was a veritable bottomless pit.  Most often, I’d have a cup of hot tea with lemon and whatever pastry I could get my hands on.  My favorite was sacher torte, which is a chocolate and raspberry cake.  The deli didn’t always have it on hand, but they always had fresh apple strudel, topped with chopped walnuts and cinnamon.  It was heavenly and I seldom waddled out of there without a second slice.

I spent so much time and money in that deli that, eventually, the manager asked if I wanted to run a tab.  “No, I’d rather pay as I go,” I immediately blurted out.  Flattered as I was, I was horrified at the notion of going into debt and maybe not being able to pay my bill.  As it was, my employer paid me on a weekly basis and I always had a pocket full of cash.  Let’s keep it simple, folks.

I had a history with that deli, as it had been around since the early 1960s.  As a kid, my parents would take my sisters and me out to dinner there once in a while.  While Dad munched away on “His Majesty’s Twins” (two small sandwiches on mini Kaiser rolls, one pastrami and one corned beef), a Dr. Brown’s cream soda and apple strudel, the kids had exactly two choices:  A hot dog or a hamburger.  I always went for the Beefburger Deluxe, as it was much larger than just a hot dog (and it came with steak fries!).  That may be part of the reason that the longtime manager asked me whether I wanted to run a tab.  He knew me back in the day when I was still in school, my parents wouldn’t allow us to have soda, and Dad recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” because I was the designated water boy for the table.  (“You’re not going to make that waitress keep running over here to get us more water!”)  I would take our glasses over to the little spigot and feel put upon for being required to get up off my butt.

I made up for it after I started working.  I would darn well have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it!  Oh, but that’s not even the best part.  Want to know what a disgusting fresser (glutton) I was?  After spending a couple of hours at the deli, I’d drag myself home and take a nap until my parents showed up after work.  They were tired and often went out to dinner.  They would invite me and I would go!  I would never admit that I’d already eaten enough for a small army.

If my parents wanted to go to the deli, I’d beg them to drive to the deli in the next town “so we can have cabbage and raisin soup.”  They generally obliged.  Whew!  I didn’t want to show up in my deli a second time in a single day!  Who knows whether the staff would keep my secret or not?

A few years later, things changed at the deli.  The excellent cook, who loved food even more than I did, had ballooned to more than 400 pounds and had to “go away.”  This was long before bariatric surgery was as common as a nose job.  They told me he went to a special clinic at Princeton University.  Thereafter, my parents regularly threatened me with the same fate if I did not lose weight.

Then the deli manager and his father purchased the cabbage-and-raisin-soup kosher deli in the next town.  Out of loyalty to them, I transferred my eating binges over there.  By then, however, my deli orgies had become less frequent than my former daily romps through cholesterol heaven.  Some other local joints had captured my attention.

Over time, the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changed from predominantly Jewish and Italian to mostly Dominican and Haitian.  It’s been almost a quarter of a century now since my favorite kosher deli passed into history.

Tomorrow:  Diners I have known and loved

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logo    nanopoblano2015dark

On Gratitude and Striving, from Coast to Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Prompt: Home Sweet Homeless

home sweet home

My parents retired from their professional careers in 1994.  They took a year to fix up their suburban New York house, sell it and move to California.  This was the house in which I grew up.  We moved out of a fourth floor walkup in the Bronx and into this brand new home in Rockland County when I was six years old.  Except for four years in college and a stint in graduate school, I lived there until I was well past the age of thirty.  For all that time, the downstairs family room had my mother’s framed embroidery displayed proudly on the wall:  “To know how sweet a home may be, just lock the door but keep the key.”

By the mid-nineties, my sisters were both married and had moved west to Silicon Valley with their engineer husbands.  They started having babies and my parents decided they wanted to be a part of the lives of their grandchildren.

When they retired, I happened to be working in the composition room of a publisher of dozens of local real estate magazines.  You know, the ones with all the pictures of houses and the highly abbreviated captions:  4 BR, 2½ BA, EIK, FDR, motivated seller!

I felt a pang in my heart the day I saw a grainy black and white photo of my childhood home in one of our paper bound books that had just come hot off the press.

And that’s when I decided to quit my job and move to California, too.

I camped out on my sister’s couch for about four months until she kicked me out.  Then I moved in with my other sister.  Turned out Silicon Valley was not exactly the Promised Land for those of us without engineering degrees.

My parents had placed all their belongings in storage.  They were living in a hotel while they looked at houses all over the Central Valley.  Should they buy an existing house or have one custom built the way they did thirty years earlier?  “We’re homeless!” they told me.

I hadn’t thought about this story in years, but it came back to me a couple of months ago when I learned that I’d be laid off from my job and that we’d have to relocate.  One of my employees asked me whether my wife and I were going to “move back home.”

Like my parents twenty years ago, my first thought was “We’re homeless!”

But instead I carefully chose my words and said “there really isn’t any place that I could honestly call home.”

We moved to the desert from Fresno more than three years ago, but we certainly weren’t going back there.  In any event, we lived there for only four years, so I wouldn’t consider it home by any means.  Before that we were in Modesto, which is where my wife and I were married.  As a single guy, I moved all around New England and back and forth to New York.

My wife and I had an interesting discussion about this.  “I guess I would call California home,” she told me.  This makes sense, as she was born here in the Golden State and has never lived anywhere else.

Does this mean that I should call New York home? Michelle W’s Daily Prompt post asked “when you’re away from home, what person, thing or place do you miss the most?” Thus, to answer my own question, I would need to decide whether there is any person, thing or place that I miss in New York. I can honestly say that there is not.

I haven’t seen my childhood home in 18 years now, although I can mentally map every inch of it.  But I wouldn’t want to go back there.  A few years ago, I found a picture of it on Google Maps’ Street View.  I didn’t even recognize it.  It had been painted a different color and tall trees had been planted in front.  I had to check twice to make sure it was the same place I had lived in for three decades.

I have no desire to return to that locale, which is a good thing, because my memories no longer jibe with reality.  As they say, you can’t go home again.

Did I say home?  Maybe New York really is my home.  I have few relatives on the east coast and therefore have little incentive to visit.  It’s been so many years since I’ve been back there.  I keep telling myself that one day I will go back, if only to show the old stomping grounds to my wife.  And it is with dread in my heart that I know the day is likely to come when I will have to return for a funeral.

We have a family plot in that colossal cemetery that goes on for miles out by LaGuardia Airport in Queens.  Do those graves mean that this my real home?  I remember the Hebrew and English names carved so carefully into the granite and how we always left little pebbles atop the polished headstones, as if to say “we were here.”

So, at least for today, I would have to say, as my wife does, that California is my home.  It’s where I hang my hat.  It’s what my driver’s license says and where I get my mail.  But in a real sense, I am “in California” but not “of California.”  On the other hand, I hail from New York but have no longer have any current ties there.

I am reminded of the abandoned dog who shows up unwelcomed on a stranger’s front porch.  The owner steps out the front door and claps his hands to chase the dog away.  “Go home!”

And where exactly would that be?