Shakedown at the warehouse club

There was shopping to do and we had to get the kids out of the house.

If you have a car in New York City you are one of a privileged few. You can blaze a trail of adventure and wanderlust across the land. Or, you can simply drive someplace where it is a little less crowded to do your shopping, avoiding the hordes that clog your local stores for the slightly less overstuffed shopping experiences of the suburbs.

Pro tip for current and future parents: IKEA stores have a free indoor play area called “Småland” where they will babysit your kids for free if you are in their store.

This past Sunday we headed to Hicksville for the chance to look again at a couch we may want to buy from IKEA and to do our bulk shopping where it was slightly less aggravating.

The drive had put our children to sleep and my wife and I enjoyed listening to Joan Jett’s greatest hits and catching up on adult conversation while our three blessed hellions slumped in their child seats. We decided to get some of our shopping done while they napped. I headed to BJs.

BJ’s is not as fun as it sounds. It’s not an emporium of fellatio but rather a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club. Showing your BJ’s card only wins you the pleasure of buying in bulk.

The BJs in Westbury, Long Island, was a lot less crowded than the one we usually visit in College Point, Queens. I found the things I needed easily. I got in line at one of the self-checkout lanes as going to one of the other lines means an incredibly long wait behind people whose shopping carts are filled to the brim with bulk items.

The woman is taking too long looking over everyone’s cart and there is a line forming just to get out of the store.

The only question I’ve ever had facing this security check in the past is if one of my daughters asks me if this person is going to draw a Mickey Mouse on our receipt.

The woman looks at my cart for what seems like an extended period and then circles the number of items on my receipt. She says there is a problem, something about me having too many items in my cart. Her English is poor, and I ask what is the item that wasn’t scanned. She points to the checkout area, and I think she wants me to go back there but I want to understand this problem and solve it quickly. I’m not going to scan every item again or stand on another line if the store is bringing up the issue. I keep asking what the problem is and what’s not right, and I get no answer. The woman leaves me there and starts checking other customers’ receipts. A chubby woman mumbles something under her breath at me as she walks by, but not loud enough to hear.

The receipt women with broken English calls someone else over. He checks my receipt. He counts the items in my cart. He checks the receipt again; he counts the items in my cart again. People keep passing by and looking at me. I stay stoic.

The young man now checks the UPC numbers on every item against my receipt. He’s moving more things around in the cart and checking off each item on the receipt.

“The tomato sauce,” he says before scurrying off. “The tomato sauce.”

The receipt checking lady has forgotten about me. Her backup left me standing there with my marked-up receipt and no recommendations. I don’t bother to check his work; I just want out of there. I put the tomato sauce aside and walk out the door. No one stops me. I’m free but without the tomato sauce we wanted to buy and with precious time wasted.

Westbury BJ’s: 1, Polite New Yorker: 0.

I had traded the aggravation of weaving your way through crowds of clueless shoppers to being shaken down by store security and singled out as a potential shoplifter. While this was annoying it could have been so much worse. People who forget to scan the groceries on the bottom shelf of their shopping cart have been accused of shoplifting and had their careers ruined. The store employees could have called the police.

I made it back to my van without further delay. The children were awake. We moved on to our next adventure.

NYC’s transit mess to spread above ground

The lives of New York City residents are filled with transit fatigue and the endless negotiation of a failing subway system. Our city subways are in such a sorry state that real lives get interrupted and sidetracked. People miss their college graduations, arrive late for job interviews, or don’t get to say a final good-bye to loved ones.

With the resignation of MTA chief Andy Byford in a dispute with Governor Andrew Cuomo, there is a sense that the situation will get much worse before it gets better.

Queens is poorly served by the New York City subway system and does not have the more comprehensive service that you find in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The subways are so Manhattan-centric that Queens lacks a basic north-south subway route. If you want to get from Ozone Park to the Queens Center Mall it can take you as little as 25 minutes by bus. It would require at least three different subways to get there and it’s only four and a half miles.

Where I live is more than a mile to the nearest subway, which would add 25 minutes to my commute were it not for buses. More recently I’ve learned to take the express bus, which is more expensive but is much better—more comfortable seats and direct service to midtown Manhattan.

The express buses are not a panacea though. Just this past week, as I stood directly next to a bus stop sign on 6th Ave. and 42nd Street, a QM20 bus drove right by as if I wasn’t there, even though I was trying to wave down the driver. So even the express bus system, which is the best experience the MTA has to offer, is still rife with problems.

But not content to serve up sub-par subway service on a good day, the MTA has proposed a plan to slash bus service throughout New York City’s largest borough, Queens. Neighborhood after neighborhood in the borough are organizing to try to stop service cuts that will do things such as: consolidate bus stops, denying service to some areas of the city already lacking for subway access; and stop service earlier in the evening, leaving people stranded in Manhattan if they go to a play or concert.

We need more bus service in the city, not less. Especially at a time when the subways are running so poorly.

Here is a goal for any and all mass transit systems. No one should ever have to wait more than 15 minutes for any bus or train at any time of day or night at any bus stop or train station.

Is that not realistic? Under our current system, yes, that’s a pipe dream, but why should we expect anything less than the best in our city. This is New York. Were it not for our transit system, we would not have experienced the tremendous growth over the last century.

Mass transit will pay for itself in a stronger economy and more productive workforce. Think about all the things you don’t do or places you don’t visit because the travel would be too difficult. Seriously, things only a few miles away are considered out of reach right now because our transit system is so underperforming and unreliable. I know I avoid going to cultural events because getting there and back in a reasonable amount of time is not possible under our current system.

A reliable transit system will have people going more places and doing more things, spending money that keeps our economy going.

Take the MTA out of the hands of political appointees and officeholders who have the power to raid its coffers. Our taxes should support an independent entity governed by a board of directors selected from a population of accomplished people who are transit users.

New York City transit is still way too far away from where it needs to be. There’s no quick fix. Creating a fully functioning transit system is going to take years of political struggle. Let’s start now.

The New York Times’ clueless narcissism reaches new depths

The New York Times announced that it would endorse a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States, the first time in its 169-year history that the newspaper would do such a thing. The Times’ editorial board interviewed nine candidates in extensive interviews at its New York headquarters in December and announced its endorsement for the Democratic nomination this past weekend.

The Times feels it’s important to get its voice into people’s deliberations now, though its coverage has laid out clearly that it does not want former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders or Mayor Pete Buttigieg to be the nominee. It will at least lay its slant bare for all to see earlier on, though it was shamelessly shilling for Hillary Clinton long before the first ballot was cast in 2016.

So, the Times invited those candidates it judged viable to come in and interview completely on the record with its pompous editorial board to be part of “The Choice,” as if it were some drama people were going to follow like “Game of Thrones.” To their credit, Michael Bloomberg, Julian Castro and Tulsi Gabbard declined to kiss the ring of the Times and sit for the chance to be the window dressing on the editorial board’s tribute to itself.

The weekend edition pullout of printed excerpts had an entire page dedicated to profile photos and titles of the editorial board, even noting with an asterisk someone special who is not normally a member but joined the board just for the important task of endorsing a Democrat before anyone even votes.

We’re supposed to be wowed at the brilliance of these professionals, who spent hours mugging for the cameras they invited into their boardroom because they think the American voters give a rat’s ass about what they think. And with all their brilliance and well-publicized rumination over this important endorsement, they couldn’t even decide on a single candidate to endorse!

They Gray Lady was too busy looking at herself in the mirror to choose only one candidate, endorsing both Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“In a break with convention, the editorial board has chosen to endorse two separate Democratic candidates for president,” the Times tells us in its blacked-out opinion page heading made somber for this special occasion.

The Times should have done the extra work and picked one of the candidates. They did do voters a service by giving Senator Klobuchar recognition; her campaign has so far failed to attract support that her accomplishments merit. And the Times is right to credit Warren with being policy-focused and experienced in multiple levels of Washington leadership.

Both Senators Klobuchar and Warren are serious candidates with real ideas and qualifications. The Times insults both with its overwrought half-endorsement that will serve to alienate them from the voters the need to reach most.

New York, like the rest of the country, is in for a long slog through a partisan election year. We can do without the self-congratulatory fluff the Times has subjected us to.

Skynet at the Stop & Shop

“Can we see the robot?” one of our daughters asked.

“Sure,” my wife answered.

We were finishing up lunch and I had mentioned I wanted to briefly visit the Stop & Shop to look for something. I had no idea this outlet near our home employed one of those grocery store robots I had seen mentioned online ubiquitously. These slim, monolith grey towers on wheels are outfitted with large googly-eyes as one would a child’s craft. I had heard they were being installed in more and more stores; friends had posted photos of them at their local supermarkets. I had yet to see one in action.

The shopping center at Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway in Flushing is a zone of cluttered chaos and the logical effluvium of the overcrowded eyesore of the streets nearby. Forgotten New York rightfully calls this part of Flushing “Queens’ Crappiest” for its lack of aesthetics, complete disrespect of historic buildings, and utter incompetence of the design of residential buildings. The shopping center was not long ago filled with crater-like potholes. It has a check cashing establishment and was for a time frequented prostitutes that served truck drivers. I try to avoid this shopping center because of the traffic alone—it’s either accessed by a busy highway service road or a two-lane street that is often busy. My kids love the McDonald’s that is there for some reason; perhaps I have already failed as a father.

The Stop & Shop there is a last refuge of desperation when we are looking for groceries that aren’t found elsewhere. Now I also wanted to see the grocery store robot. These robots are named “Marty.” Stop & Shop supermarkets have deployed them in more them in more than 200 stores to look for spills and hazards. According to Mashable, each robots costs $35,000 and weighs 140 pounds. Also, these robots don’t clean up anything, but just alert people nearby to the fact that there is a mess.

I went looking for the one item I hoped they had: a specific popular baby food pouch that serves as a healthy snack for our youngest daughter. I headed for the baby food aisle while the rest of my family made a bee line for the back of the store where they spotted the robot.

The baby food section was the same mess it was at my last visit and was without the food pouch I was looking for. I scoured again and looked behind every box and envelope to no avail. The robot had not spent enough time in this aisle.

My excited daughters came to get me to show me the robot, which was making its way across the back of the store from where they had first met it near the deli. They ran after it and my wife and I followed.

When my children ran up on the robot again, it seemed to pause to allow us all to gawk at it. Bored shoppers accustomed to the googly-eyed rolling cyborg went about their shopping.

“Hi Marty!” my children thought this thing was great. Maybe you could put googly eyes on a giant steaming people of crap and children will find it convincingly anthropomorphized into a cute friend and want to take it home. The robot slowly moved away from us, not interacting with anyone other than moving out of our way and appearing to look at us with its false, plastic, and unblinking eyes.

New York City seems like a poor choice to send Marty. Our supermarkets are too crowded, and our people in need of work is always plentiful. Also, New Yorkers are more skeptical of gimmicks like this. While little kids got a kick out of Marty the robot, most adults are put off by it.

The supermarket robot is not the coming incarnation of Skynet, the computer system that becomes self-aware and plunges the world into a nuclear holocaust in the Terminator films. It’s pretty underwhelming by itself.

The truly troubling issue with the increasing use of robots is not that technology is marching forward and machines are doing jobs people want to do. It’s that people no longer want to act like people as much anymore.

If society functioned well, customers would report a spill to an accessible employee, who would easily see to it that the spill was cleaned up, or the store would employ enough cleaning staff to make it a pleasurable experience. Instead we’ll gawk at a machine and be on our way.

We are spurning human contact in favor of technology-driven convenience because our human interactions have plunged in quality. That’s not the fault of the machines, that’s our fault.

A decade without alcohol

January 4, 2010 is the day I mark has having had my last drink of alcohol. It might have been a day or two earlier than but four is a lucky number for me and I decided to set that as the date. This past Jan. 4 marks a decade since I’ve had a drink.

The time went by quickly. Since 2010 a lot has happened. I got married and had children. I left journalism and “went over to the dark side” of public relations. Could I have done those things if I had still been drinking? I don’t know.

I am confident that stopping drinking was the right thing for me, but quitting drinking was not some massive and sudden wonderful change. There’s no magic transformation that turns someone instantaneously from a pathetic drunk to a charming success. All of life’s frustrations are still there, and the warm confidence that comes with drinking is now gone.

And while it’s worked for me, the non-drinking life is not for everyone. I think even people who have problems with drugs or alcohol don’t necessarily have to quit completely. There’s a middle ground that most of the world can navigate. One of the signs that I needed to stop drinking was when I was bowled over at my ability to have only one single beer at a punk rock show I went to. I caught myself as I was glowing in a self-congratulatory mood on the walk to the subway from Trash Bar—uh, actually, this is what most of the world is able to pull off every day!

Quitting drinking wasn’t something I did on a whim or at the spur of the moment. I had been thinking about it for a long time. I had taken long breaks from drinking, sometimes as long as three months at a time, to show myself that I could do it. When I first quit, I only gave myself the goal of stopping drinking for one year. Only after one year without alcohol did I decide to officially bid goodbye to the drinking life.

The drinking life had been a fun one. I’d be the worst kind of hypocrite to rage against drinking since I was an absolute maniac with booze for the better part of two decades. I have good memories from those times and made many great friends over rounds of drinks, I can’t just throw all of that away. I can still be around people who drink; I just don’t. I won’t create a new identity or try to reconfigure my entire life because I don’t drink any more – that would truly be giving alcohol power that it doesn’t deserve.

But it got to the point of not being fun anymore. I would ponder and plan out how I was going to approach a night of drinking and then all my well-intentioned plans of moderation would go right out the window. I was tired of waking up with long gaps in my memory, incredibly hung over, and realizing I had spent twice the amount of money I wanted to. I had no one to be angry at but myself, and my weekend mornings regularly began with waking up to this miserable, impotent rage.

There were some moments that stand out in my decision but thankfully no major disasters. I miraculously never got arrested for drunk driving while in college, no major bar fights or major accidents litter my beer-fueled past. But slowly the magic of the alcohol began to wear thin and not work as well anymore. And all the things I felt I need to drink to enjoy—dating women, going to concerts, playing music, reveling in the creative act that drives us to joyful madness—these were all things I was supposed to be enjoying anyway, and if I needed to be drunk to enjoy them, maybe I was on the wrong path.

So I went ahead and quit drinking on my own, though I did read a book that was helpful in my first year of not drinking. Drinking, A Love Story by Caroline Knapp is an impressive memoir and I highly recommend it if you are questioning your drinking. A lot of what she described as signs of having real drinking problems was very recognizable, and it provided the well-researched bulwark that helped me decide that I was on the right path in putting booze aside.

In her book, Knapp quits drinking after joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Alcoholics Anonymous route is one I decided to avoid at all costs. Alcoholics Anonymous wallows in pathetic victimology and peddles its soft-core religion incessantly. Furthermore, many people I know who joined AA have come back to drinking. If AA is the only alternative to drinking yourself to death, have at it, but the success rate is low and its philosophy teaches weakness.

The past 10 years have been filled with a lot of ups and downs, and I’m glad that I experienced them without the hazy filter of alcohol, which for me had become a sad crutch. If the magic dies, don’t be afraid to move on. If I can do it, so can you.

A grateful New York City bids farewell to Two Toms

Two Toms Restaurant in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn announced in October that after more than 70 years in business, it is going to close its doors at the end of this year.

Founded in 1948, Two Toms is an institution unlike any other restaurant that is open to the public. It’s a modest and understated very simple dining room in a relatively narrow space, with a street-facing entrance in the front and a kitchen in the back. The food is outstanding and often served family style in large groups, at least that is their specialty. I’ve seen regular tables order off a menu there. But every time I’ve been there it’s been a large meal with several courses.

An Italian restaurant with great pasta and shrimp parmesan among other dishes, it’s most famous for its pork chops, that are enormously thick and juicy and will count as one of the most memorable meals you ever have. I rarely take photos of food, but I had to stop and take a photo of my meal while I was working on one of the pork chops there last year.

I became aware of Two Toms after meeting a group of friends for dinner there several years ago. The restaurant then was known mostly to locals and has a distinct following among law enforcement. My friend Poppy knew of Two Toms from his time working in Brooklyn with the NYPD and it became a regular spot for people we worked with at JFK Airport to hold meet up.

The several courses are conducive to long dinner conversations, the perfect setting for families and old friends. Its unassuming décor adds to its appeal. You are at home there. You can help yourself to beer or soda or bottled water from the refrigerator that is there in the dining room. You knew there was going to be another amazing course coming soon. You didn’t have to worry. Everyone was going to have a good time, and no one was leaving hungry.

When Two Toms owner announced in October that the restaurant would be shutting its doors at the end of the year, its many fans were in shock and jumped into action. Loyal customers flooded the restaurant with so many reservations they began opening extra days and even still they were quickly booked through the end of the year.

My group of friends that took to meeting at Two Toms worked to get a gathering together, but by the time I called to make a reservation, all bookings were gone. I asked the woman I spoke with on the phone to please let me know if any openings at any time for any number of people would be available—if the usual group couldn’t make it at least a few of us would be able to give a final farewell to the place. Social media is alight with tributes pouring in, and legions of New Yorkers who managed to get a reservation are paying their respects.

Two Toms achieved a devoted following because it does what it does best simply and without pretention. It doesn’t boast a celebrity chef or change its menu to some trendy fusion to match the hip flavor of the month. It also refuses rest on its laurels and scream to the world about how long it has been around either. It has stayed true to its roots and has never let up.

New Yorkers will continue to search for the kind of honest authenticity embodied by Two Toms and we owe the legendary eatery a debt of gratitude.

Thank you, Two Toms!

The courage to chase dreams

A high school friend of mine worked as a successful lawyer for roughly the past two decades. He won a great ROTC scholarship in high school. While in the U.S. Army, he went to law school. After serving in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense before going into private practice law.

But change has come. My friend gave up the life of an attorney to chase his dream of being a radio D.J.

“Because terrestrial radio is such a big thing now,” he joked.

Today commercial radio is a ghost of its former self while music streaming services dominate music landscape. But people still do make a living as radio D.J.s, why shouldn’t he? He took classes at a local broadcasting school and has managed to cobble together an income from various sources—a few nights hosting a lotto drawing here, running a bar trivia night there, he’s not homeless or starving.

Another friend also took a similar plunge, working in comedy and going for broke. Show business is a brutal and heart-rendering business that leaves some its most earnest and talented people out in the cold. My buddies have no illusions they face an uphill battle, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

I yearn for the courage that my friends have shown.

I moved back to New York for several reasons, but one of them was to seek fame and fortune and become a great American writer. We writers are a hopeless romantic lot, even those of us that like to paint ourselves as curmudgeons. Even the most anti-social hermit scribbling away in obscurity harbors dreams of being the stuff of book covers and bookstore postcards someday. Any writer that tells you they do not dream of somehow writing themselves into immortality is a liar. Like all artists, we hope our work will live after us and testify to the improbable infinity that we lived.

One of the problems with creative people is that many of us spend more time dreaming and pondering than working at our craft in a way that is productive. We have overly romanticized notions of what our craft is, that it somehow exists in a sphere outside of the normal marketplaces and human conditions. Crash landing into the realities of business and the arts is a hard thing, but the worthwhile things are always hard.

I am in the same boat with so many hopeful others. My dreams have tempered a bit. I will settle for not being the next Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner, but I still hope to make a living creatively, by doing work that is creative, artistic in nature or at least taps into my talents to write about things that I find legitimately interesting.

I am very lucky in the life that I have. I have a great family and group of friends; my health is good; I can say with confidence I will go to bed tonight with food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And yet, there is the dream I must still chase. I’m not low on ambition, but on direction and focus.

Despite all the reasons to be jaded and negative, I live with the confidence in my own creativity and the ability of New York to feed our greatest ambitions. Wish me luck and hard work.

 

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