Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Grand Opening

After church last Sunday, my sister and I went on an expedition to the new Bellefonte Weis supermarket. It’s not every day that you can go to the grand opening of a supermarket after church. Unless you’re Miss Arkansas, I mean. I suppose she does it all the time. Weis Markets mailed me a coupon for $8 off a $50 purchase and it was burning a hole in my pocket like nobody's business. Redeeming it after church, on the first day the store was open, seemed as good a time as any. If the day’s sermon was on self-denial, we didn’t listen very well.

According to the newspaper, the new Bellefonte Weis isn’t just a supermarket, it’s a superstore. Perhaps that’s because it sells beer and gas in addition to all the other stuff you can buy at a regular supermarket. The new store might have other amenities such as an esthetician and in-store Zumba, too, I wouldn't rule them out. In these days of supermarkets, superstores, and the even larger and more jumbo supercenters, I don’t know where to draw the line between what we should take for granted (e.g. the Kardashians on the front of every tabloid) and what’s an superstore-worthy amenity (e.g. Ryan Gosling on the cover of Vanity Fair, photos by Annie Liebovitz). 

On a serious note, the downside of the place is that it’s on the wrong side of the Bellefonte bypass and so adds just another little piece of sprawl to a town that until a short time ago scarcely had a strip development. People can crow about how green the new building is, but more often than not, the greenest building is one that’s already there. 

OK, enough of the sermonizing, back to our regularly scheduled programming. 

So as you might guess, it was a happening place. All the parking spots were filled, and there were even attendants in the lot wearing reflective vests guiding the traffic around in circles as people waited for a parking spot as eagerly the cast of Jersey Shore awaits the opening of the tanning parlor on a cloudy day. 

When we walked in the first thing we noticed was that the store sold beer, lots of it. I’m still not accustomed to supermarkets selling beer in Pennsylvania and don’t understand how that happened. But I am glad that it did.

At the new Bellefonte Weis you can even buy beer by the bottle and create your own mix 'n' match six pack. Since 21st century American beer comes in such varieties as Lady Astor’s Toe Jam Double Bock and Sciatica Tranny Kumquat Lager, putting together a special six pack is much more fun than back in the 20th century when we had a choice of Bud, Miller, and Bud.

The second thing we noticed, after the beer (noticing beer first is part of our priceless cultural heritage), was the fact that each of the cars in the parking lot had to be carrying at least 14 people, because there were about a kabillion people in the store.

The veg section, right by the beer, featured not one, not two, but three Weis dieticians, one sort of the Weis version of a social x-ray in hideous faux Tori Burch flats. They were handing out recipe books and offering up samples of shrimp and walnut stir fry. (It was just OK.) I mentioned to them that my mother was a dietician and she particularly enjoyed cigarettes and percolated coffee. In return for this bon mot I got the “It's a pity your mother didn’t drop you off at the SPCA” look. Then, clearly not realizing that I was going down in flames, I shared, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, that I was a Weis shopper, and that I loved my neighborhood store, Ghetto Weis. Perhaps I should have used its alternate, more upscale name, Soviet Weis. I don't know. Nevertheless, I was not offered a second helping of the shrimp and walnut stir fry.

I had no idea that Bellefonte, my birthplace, had so many exotic fruit and vegetable aficionados. The new store has everything they could want from champagne mangoes, to things that look like a cross between turnips and firewood, to some stuff that even I wouldn’t photograph.

There quite a nice bakery with all sorts of breads that looked tasty and a bunch of confections that would make me say “You’re not going to eat that, are you?"

Middleswarth Potato Chips, without a doubt the world’s worst potato chips, were on sale, “Buy One Get Two”. As you can imagine, they were flying out of the store. It was practically like the Oklahoma Chip Rush in the salty snack department. The Middleswarth matron, who was busily stoking the towering inferno of a potato chip display, told me that they had already used the contents of three chip vans and were expecting a 53’ tractor trailer filled with the not so tasty morsels...and it wasn't even 1:00 p.m. yet. Yikes.

There are at least sixteen check out lanes and each one was open with both a cashier and a bag boy (or girl). And still the lines stretched at least half way to the back of the store. Each lane also had an air traffic controller, too. Her job was to keep the travel lane between the store shelves and check out area clear and to guide you to the proper cashier. I don’t know about other lines, but the people in our line, which was moving along at a glacial pace, were concerned about getting home in time for the Daytona 500. I am pretty sure they meant the 2012 Daytona 500 but I wasn't entirely certain.

Carolyn and I did make it home in time for the Daytona 500, but that was mostly because the race was delayed by rain from Sunday afternoon until Monday evening. Once we got to the cashier, the checkout was speedy and we saved something like $2,130,781.43 on our $51.79 purchase. I'm definitely going back to the Bellefonte Weis, since even if the shrimp and walnut stir fry is just OK, you'd have to be German Chancellor Angela Merkel not to fall in love with math like that.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dutch (Wonderland) Country

Not long ago I got to spend some time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That's right, the home of James Buchanan, Dutch Wonderland, and Armstrong World Industries. I hadn't spent much time in Lancaster in well, forever. But forever ago I was fairly familiar with the place which made going back so interesting.  However, instead of staying in Lancaster proper, my hotel was in Leola, just outside the city.

The hotel was a collection of small vernacular buildings that had been adapted into a hotel with conference facilities and chic shoppes. It had all the things good hotels have including friendly professional staff, clean and quiet rooms, great beds, and toiletries from some swanky-sounding company you've never heard of. On the other hand, I did think it a tad disconcerting that the exterior of the place looked like Lancaster County while the interior was sort of Italian Provincial meets Yorktown, Virginia's late, great Nick's Seafood Pavilion.

A nice thing about staying in Leola was that I was close to rural Lancaster County, and by rural, I mean actual farms populated by actual Amish and not the rear parking lots of outlet malls on Route 30.

I had the opportunity to go to an Amish farm near Leola and I was quite surprised at how different it was from the Nebraska Amish place that used to be next to my sister's farm. The Nebraska Amish family was on the scruffy side, to put it mildly. The place near Leola was spotless. Seriously, I think you could have eaten off the driveway, it was so clean.  In addition to operating a farm, the family ran a craft co-op where they sold quilts, dolls, tchotchkes, and even Amish romance novels.

I think groups of dolls always look sort of creepy. Even if they are quaint Amish dolls, when you put a bunch on a shelf it's enough to give me the willies.

I just can't face another day stuck in this Longaberger basket.

I had a conversation about chow-chow just the other day. Lancaster County is the home of seven sweets and seven sours. At least that's what the sign at Miller's Smorgasbord used to say.

I don't know if they were made for the tourist market or not, but the pillows were my favorite thing.

When it comes to electricity, it's so close and yet so far. 

We went by a country store advertising itself with these two signs on our way back to the hotel from the Amish farm:

The catering business may be booming but it wasn't booming enough to purchase a decent sign.

No way am I rooting around in some country store trying to figure out which item is 25% off. 

After the visit to the Amish farm, I had some free time and so high tailed it to Lancaster City with my RULE classmate Patti to see how it had changed in the 30ish years since been there. I knew that Lancaster’s grand department store, Watt & Shand, had closed, and that the building had been demolished, except for the façade. I wanted to see the new Marriott Hotel and Convention Center that had been built behind the old store's façade.

Wow, it's big. WAY bigger than I expected.

I would have taken more photos, but it had to be the coldest day of the winter. Ok, ok, ok, there have been worse days this winter but a cold day in the middle of a mild winter makes me act as if I have been transported to Antarctica and I’m about to meet the same fate as Capt. Robert F. Scott and his not all that merry men. In other words, sorry for the one lousy photo of the building but no way was I standing out there freezing my point 'n' shoot off. 

So it’s a Marriott on the outside, but on the inside the Marriott has really stepped up and it’s sort of like a W, the happening Westin brand. Who knew that Lancaster had so many hipsters?

As Patti and I wandered around the hotel we found that we'd hit pay dirt when we stumbled onto the home show in the convention center that opened onto one end of the hotel lobby.

I haven’t been to that many home shows, so perhaps they’re all the same. Judging by the booths in this show, the people of Lancaster County have water in their basements, skanky bathrooms, and are just discovering granite countertops. There were lots of aging former jocks in their corporate golf shirts with slick displays of the portfolios of the hideous McMansions they’ve built. Apparently aging jocks like McMansions plopped out in a field someplace. At least they like them way more than aging band geeks do. In addition to the slick and semi-smarmy corporate types, there was the occasional Amish or Mennonite guy with a bowl haircut. Unlike their English compadres, they were not standing around talking about golf scores. They seemed very earnest and ready to make a sale.

Also wanting--almost desperately--to make sales were the product demo guys. Patti says this SweepA rubber broom thing really, really, works. According to the SweepA web site, it's especially valued in the hairdressing and meat industries. Interesting combo there.

Then there is the Smart Living Steam Mop. The sales guy had one couple absolutely hypnotized. I have no doubt that he could have asked them to take all their clothes off and recite beat poetry and they would have done it right then and there. The product packaging is very slick, but when I went to the web site for the mop there were tons of comments about it breaking and generally being a piece of crap. And the company hasn't bothered to take them down. I'm not sure who is more clueless, the mop manufacturer or the consumer.

There were other live demos, too, including a couple of cookware demonstrations, but I didn't feel the need to watch some yahoo make Lebanon bologna cobbler and other local delicacies. The product demo guys did make me wonder if people in this line of work go to their high school reunions and cop to what they do for a living.  Or is it sort of like making a living by scraping the road kill off highways for PennDOT, and not something that you want folks to know about?

The hot spot of the show (literally and figuratively) was the Sauna Magic booth. Patti and I were about to walk by when we noticed Miss New Jersey (not her real name) sitting inside the sauna reading a novel. While you may be thinking that the book was Jane Austen, my money is on Jackie Collins, only trashier. We piled into the three person sauna, which was going at full blast, and that was the clue for Miss New Jersey (not her real name) to share and share and share some more.

She was from Exit 7A on the Turnpike and yes, she had a sauna at home. She would have enjoyed being in the sauna in Lancaster with two other men. (Saying "What am I, beef jerky?" did cross my mind.) Miss New Jersey (not her real name) did not specify that one had to be named Vinnie, but I am thinking that would have been her first choice. We learned that saunas have many therapeutic effects such as rearranging your heavy metals, heating up your bunions, and generally making you sweat a lot. Hot tubs, on the other hand are for socializing and covering up the bouquet of cheap red wine with a bouquet of cheap chlorine. Miss New Jersey (not her real name) offered us a great deal--those babies were priced to move--but neither Patti nor I were in the market for a sauna, unless of course, it included a Jersey girl and a Jackie Collins novel.

Actually neither Patti nor I weren't really in the market for anything. Not for a McMansion. Or a sauna. Or a pink pig gas grill, which is probably the only pink item in the world not licensed by the Susan G. Komen Foundation. However, we were both a bit peckish and in the market for a brew, so we reluctantly bid farewell to the Lancaster Home Show and headed out to dinner.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Valentine's Day

Perennially in love with love (note to new readers:  that was thinly veiled sarcasm), I had the pleasure of delivering flowers in State College on Valentine’s Day. This was perhaps my tenth year—I’ve lost count— of working, if you call it that, on Valentine’s Day for a local florist. 

As I’m sure you know, Valentine’s Day, along with Mother’s Day and Millard Fillmore’s Birthday, is super busy in the floral world. Who better than to call in for reinforcements but someone who’s clumsy and has a knack for saying just the wrong thing at just the wrong time? Fortunately my history of scraping the flower truck on the side of a stationary parking garage during another floral adventure has not dq’d me from the task of getting roses, lilies, tulips and assorted spring flowers to their new homes.  This year I was on the job at 7:00 a.m. 

Speedy flower delivery requires a two person team: a driver and a runner. This year my sister the NASCAR aficionado drove. It was my job to navigate and run the flowers from the van to the lucky Valentine. Carolyn did a great job and we made it through the day without trading paint with any other delivery vehicles. 

Navigating is probably easier for me than it would be for some folks, since I’ve lived in State College for a long time, and I’m part Indian, and we all know what a great navigator Sacagawea was. But I am a born oaf, so I am not sure that my exemplary navigation skills make up for the constant threat that I will spill something, squash an arrangement, or drop a vase of long stemmed roses, issues that Sacagawea didn’t need to worry about. 

The blooms must have been arranged in just the right way, since we got through the day without any mishaps.  

There are some constants in the Valentine’s Day flower delivery world.  

Each time you carry an arrangement by a group of straight guys in an office building, one of them always says, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!”  This wasn’t really that funny the first time, and after ten years, it’s still not that funny. I try to be a Mr. Nice Guy, but when the fellow is an uber-jerk I have been known to say, “Had you called as you said you would, these could have been for you.”  This typically embarrasses the perp and then you can get back to the topic at hand of trying to find Suite 213A and the lucky Penny Oberholzter, the recipient of a FTD “Old Ball and Chain Bouquet”.

Ninety-eight percent of flowers are for women. This year there I had four deliveries for men. One of them had the volume up to 11, one guy was in that ‘European or gay?’ nether region, and I gave the flowers for the third guy to his administrative assistant. I am pretty sure the last guy was straight. He wore gym clothes that looked as if they’d been worn to the gym about 50 times without a trip through the washer, he had a large sailfish mounted on his apartment wall, and the biggest clue of all, he was singularly unimpressed by yours truly and the Teleflora “Jersey Shore®: Gym, Tan, Laundry, Get Laid” arrangement.

College women wear pajamas until late in the day, when they change into the obligatory black tights and Uggs. It’s a look. Apparently no one ever has had the sense to say “Do these black tights and Uggs make my ass look fat?”  

Anything with a Mylar balloon is a bad idea. 

Most college apartments look as if the décor, if you can call it that, was inspired by the San Francisco earthquake. Why put something on the wall or a shelf when the floor is so handy? And we are not talking about a little mess, but enough to make me think that the first step in cleaning the apartment would be to run a snowblower. 

There are those times when you hand over the flowers and want to say, “Just what is going on in here?” One of my deliveries was to an apartment in a particularly skanky building. When the door opened, I could see that there was nothing in the living room save three paper lanterns on the mantelpiece of the bricked-up fireplace. The young woman who lived there was wearing really short shorts, and an off the shoulder tee shirt, and as she was opening the door she was putting on rubber gloves in and exaggerated, theatrical motion. I didn’t know what all of that meant except that it was time to get out of there. Fast. 

Little old ladies are the nicest customers.  They all tell you they’ve never seen more beautiful flowers and act as if you’re the second coming of Rudolph Valentino. Perhaps the flowers really are that nice, and I’m that hot. I’m not ruling either out. 

Flower boys don’t get many tips. Not even a buck this year.  But maybe that will change next year when I don my red sweater and am back at it again. Hope springs eternal when you’re Cupid’s right hand man.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

But Does It Have E-Z Pass?

I would have to have the willpower of G. Gordon Liddy—the Watergate conspirator who could hold his hand over an open flame without flinching—to be able to write about an morning encounter with a large wiener without heaping helpings of processed meat based puns and sexual innuendo. As y’all know by now, I am quite lacking in willpower. So consider yourselves warned.

I’d almost finished my walk to the office this morning when my co-worker Carol stopped her Honda in the middle of the street and called out to me that the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile was parked nearby, at the Days Inn.  I relish a morning encounter with a big wiener as much as the next guy who pays attention to both his shoes and hair product, so even though I’d left my camera at home, I made detour over to the Days Inn to check it out. 

Lo and behold, there it was, right next to a Halliburton pickup truck. Marcellus shale gas meets too much kraut on a dog gas, I thought. 

Before I could look under the Wienermobile to see if it were leaking mustard, the Oscar Meyer team, my new best friends Taylor and Tyler, appeared on the scene. Yes, those are their real names. For those of you keeping score at home, Taylor is the girl and Tyler is the guy, though they could have easily been the other way around. In wiener-speak they’re known as Bacon Lettuce & Taylor and Turkey Dog Tyler.

Taylor is a Penn State alum and Tyler hails from the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and now they’re both working as Hot Doggers, driving the Wienermobile hither, thither, and yon, promoting the Oscar Meyer family of tube steaks. Frankly speaking, that’s meat, beef, turkey, Angus (not made out of my dearly departed dog Angus, I hope), cheese, and selects, whatever in the hell they are.

Of course I asked the usual first question that comes upon encountering a huge wiener. ”Just exactly how big is it?”  For the record, I did, however, resist asking, “So, late at night, and after a few beers, does it have a mind of its own?” 

Actually, we talked about the chassis and drive train (Chevy) and how easy it was to fix it. (I’ve heard that a zillion times from my married chums.) Oh wait, maybe he wasn’t talking about that “it”.

I asked how many Wienermobiles there were, and with the alacrity of Jeopardy! contestant Mitt Romney providing the $200 answer, I mean question, in the category “Mitt Romney”, Turkey Dog Tyler replied “Six”. I said that I thought wieners came in packages of eight, and T.D. Tyler said they also came in packages of 10, but we never got around to the important question of why are there are eight hot dogs to a package but usually ten hot dog buns in a bag.

Soon enough we were differential deep in a discussion of corporate icons that had been turned into vehicles, when another local came on the scene asking a bunch of lame questions. I thought to myself:  ”This is just like being in a bar. Here I am charm, looks, and erudition personified, and some not-that-hot guy whose idea of literature is Jugs magazine (especially the June 2010 issue, pages 43-47) comes over and starts horning in on my territory.”

Someplace along the line, a long time ago, I learned that discretion was the better part of valor. (Very un-Bryant like, I know!)  So, just like in a bar, I took Mr. Yahoo’s appearance as my cue to say my goodbyes.   T.D. Tyler and B. L. & Taylor gave me a Wiener Whistle as I gave them the gift of quality time with another member of the adoring public.  

Soon enough they realized the grass wasn’t greener on the other side of the fence (or they had to ketchup with some friends) and they fired up their twin Webers, taking to the road to spread the Gospel of St. Oscar. 

When I got home I found G.O.P. Congressman Paul Ryan had been a Hot Dogger. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s much better than finding out that he has a sex tape.  I also learned that the Wienermobile has been around for ages, and has automotive cousins. Not only is there a Planters Peanut Mobile, but there is also a Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Mobile, and a Hershey Kisses Mobile. Oh there’s a Mini Wiener, too, but I’d stayed late in the bar often enough to know that already.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Life Imitates Opera

The death of Joe Paterno not long ago was proof, as if we needed it, that life as opera had come to State College.  For the past several months, it’s been a plot worthy of one of the less talented brethren of Rossini, Verdi, or Puccini. You know who I mean, the one who wrote jingles for furniture stores such as Sam’s of Genoa. (Signore Sam’s, of Gen-Oh-Ah, open dailamente from nine to nine. Spende di lire or buy on time, either way Signore Sam treat-a you fine!)  

Before you ask, “How do you, the Wandering Wahoo, know so much about opera?” I’ll tell you. My encyclopedic knowledge of opera has been gleaned from watching Jeopardy!, listening to Saturday Afternoon at The Met (sponsored by Toll Brothers), and that time I chatted with the opera queen who was wearing assless chaps outside a leather bar in San Francisco. 

Act One

A long time ago, in a place that existed someplace between Brigadoon and Boalsburg,  there was a city-state known as Felicevalle, difficult to reach, but a helluva good time once you got there.  Felicevalle was in the far reaches of the Kingdom of Scrivelegno, ruled by the unpopular King Tomaso. King Tomaso ignored Felicevalle, except for the occasional visit to bask in the reflected glory of its gladiators, gorge on fried foods at its fairs, and extract taxes from its hardworking citizens. Except, of course, from those producing gas from Marcellus Shale.  No taxes for them.

When King Tomaso meets an old crone at Starbucks and hears rumors of unspeakable crimes in Felicevalle, he realizes—before anyone could say double tall soy latte with whip—that his dreams of even more power and fame are within his grasp.  The King cackles with glee (the emotion, not the TV show) when he learns that the man accused of the crimes had worked —in the distant past—for his frenemy, the aging Generalissimo Giuseppe Pescapadre, the most famous man in Scrivelegno.  Unlike King Tomaso, Generalissimo Giuseppe is beloved by the citizens of the entire kingdom.  With affection, everyone calls the Generalissimo “GiuPe”.

Months later when the scandal of unspeakable crimes engulfs the kingdom, the Alleged Perp, GiuPe’s long ago protégé, is arrested. As Alleged Perps go, this one is not the brightest footlight on the stage; he mistakenly hires the Village Idiot as his attorney. While he awaits trial, the A.P. is imprisoned in a hut on the side of Felicevalle’s sacred mountain and becomes a subplot in his own story. 

Seizing his chance to dominate the prosperous but confused city-state, King Tomaso makes a rare appearance at a meeting of the Privy Council of Felicevalle.  GiuPe has told the Privy Council that to atone for any mistakes he may have made, he will turn in his sword and return to his farm at the end of the gladiatorial season. The Privy Council does what they do best and discusses who to blame for the scandal, an upcoming Jerry Lewis Film Festival, and where to have lunch. It bows to the King’s wishes and immediately exiles not only GiuPe and but also the not much loved Doge, Gramspan the First.
When GiuPe receives the news of his dismissal by carrier pigeon, his wife sings the show-stopping aria, After 61 Years He Deserved Better. Riots ensue when the news of GiuPe’s dismissal reaches the peasants of Felicevalle. 

The Privy Council installs a loyal functionary as the new Doge, bypassing Felicevalle’s standard Doge search committee process.  The P.C. also elevates one of GiuPe’s assistants to command Felicevalle’s gladiators, sending him to an almost certain death in battle. Wait, it’s opera. There is no almost. More is more! The gladiators lose every contest until battle is suspended for the winter. The Privy Council’s ineptitude in kowtowing to the King is exposed and it loses the trust of the citizens.

Soon afterward, in a stunning blow to the community, Generalissimo Pescapadre, beloved GiuPe, dies at his farm. Everyone wonders, was it a broken heart, or was he cursed by a witch?

The people ignore the possible curse and rise up and show their love of and loyalty to GiuPe with several large production numbers.  The men and women of the kingdom hatch plans to revolt against King Tomaso and his henchpersons on the Privy Council as the curtain falls on Act One. 

Quite a lot, eh?  Hey, no one said opera was like haiku with music! 

Act Two

Act Two opens deep in the forest at Wicked Witch Signorina Vitoria’s cottage made not from candy but from antacid tablets. She casts a spell that causes all firstborn sons in Felicevalle to throw like girls. The townsfolk ignore gladiatorial combat and concentrate their energies on duplicate bridge and the home edition of Project Runway.  Beer sales plummet as young men take up drinking chai and vow to save themselves for girls who meet their mothers’ exacting standards. Young women opt for sensible shoes and clothes picked out by their parents. Pilgrims stop travelling to Felicevalle so the sale of lucky charms and trinkets falls precipitously, impoverishing the town’s merchants. Act Two closes with the GiuPe’s successor singing the famous solo, Belichick Never Grunted at Me That There Would Be Days like This

Act Three

In Act Three, Leecorso Il Bloviatore, the frequently heard but never (well, hardly ever) listened to oracle, finally appears predicting a renaissance for the town. At a nearby gypsy encampment, the townsfolk mistake Brutus the Buckeye for a Yule log and throw him into the bonfire in an Agnes de Mille-esque dance number. Privy Councilors soon fear for their safety and take a page from the Baltimore Colts’ playbook and move to Indianapolis in the middle of the night.

Finally a hefty woman in a breastplate and Viking helmet answers an ad on Craigslist for “Opera Singer Wanted” placed by the town fathers (and mothers) of Felicevalle. She qualifies under Federal nutritional guidelines as a fat lady. Her mellifluous song lifts the various curses and spells and everyone in Felicevalle goes back to living happily ever after. 

For the time being anyway.