Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's a helluva town

One day in New York City, I was riding the subway downtown.  Across the aisle sat an older couple, clearly tourists.  The man, a jumpy guy in a baggy sweatsuit, nervously fingered his fanny pack while eying the other passengers.  His wife, also clad in sweats, was rooting through the contents of an enormous denim purse.  Whatever she was looking for was hiding.  Determined to find it, she put both arms in the bag up to the elbows, spread wide the zipper, and inserted her face into the opening. 

As we pulled into a station, the conductor made an announcement over the train's intercom system.  The message was completely unintelligible to me and, judging from their confused expressions, to most of the other passengers as well.  The man across the aisle, however, listened intently to the garbled announcement, jumped up, and bolted off the train.

The woman's head resurfaced from the depths of her purse just in time to see her husband exiting the train.  She gathered her belongings and followed him.  As she was about to step onto the platform, the doors of subway car closed.

On the platform, the man turned and saw his wife still inside the train.  His face took on an expression of surprise and, a split second later, sheer terror.  Six inches away on the other side of the glass, his wife's face twisted into a furious scowl.  She glared at him, baring clenched teeth.  Her red, bulging fists tightened around the strap of her purse.

For several long seconds, the train did not move.  The couple stood frozen in this horrible moment.  Slowly, with a soft whirring noise, the train began pulling away from the station.  The woman stood there, clutching her bag and watching her terrified husband grow smaller and smaller as he receded into the distance.

To my side was my own husband.  He, too, had seen the drama unfold.  "Wow," I whispered, "that guy is in big trouble.  How are they going to find one another?  They'll need to return to the hotel to meet up.  It'll take hours out of their day, including the yelling and abject apologies.  Forget wherever they were headed together."

"Yeah, she's gonna tear him a new one," my husband said knowingly.  "Their vacation is totally ruined.  They may as well go back to Idaho right now."

New York is a tough town, for tourists and residents alike.  But it's the greatest show on earth.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Take your chances at Nance's (Mud Macht Frei)

Several years ago, I visited my friend P in Berkeley, California. Just for the hell of it, we took a trip to wine country. What a place! Beautiful scenery, fantastic weather, and the most sophisticated drunk drivers in the world!

To cap off this mind-blowing experience, P and I headed to Nance's Hot Springs in Calistoga. We were tired and ready for some pampering. We entered the office and eagerly paid $55 each for a package of mud bath, mineral soak, and massage. We were directed through a velvet curtain. We entered a long hallway and, after many twists and turns, found ourselves in a windowless concrete bunker. There stood a middle-aged woman in shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops. She was clutching a garden hose. "Take off your clothes," she ordered. Terrified, we stripped and placed our possessions in the burlap sacks she provided.

"Now," she said, "You need to be cleaned." She blasted us with cold water from the hose. "Lift up your arms. I gotta get your pits." Freezing water pelted our underarms and, then, for a long time, our privates. "Time to get in the mud."

I was first for the chop. Waving her hose, the woman directed me to a crude brick structure, much larger than a tub but with similar proportions. It was filled with mud and straw. She dropped her hose and grabbed a large, wooden paddle. She directed me to sit on the side of the tub with my legs sticking out over the mud. Without warning, she jammed the paddle under my ass and shoved me out into the center of the mud bath -- kind of like how pizzas are shoved into ovens. Suddenly the paddle was gone, and I found myself floating on top of the mud. It was very hot and equally smelly. Bits of straw poked at me.

"Now I'm gonna pile mud on you," the woman informed me. "Don't move. The mud is heated from below. If you touch the floor of the tub, you could be horribly burned." This was new and unsettling information. Apparently taking a mud bath is like surviving quicksand: If you panic and flail about, you will be sucked to the bottom and perish. YOU MUST KEEP YOUR HEAD IF YOU WANT TO GET OUT ALIVE!

As the woman flopped hot, stinking mud all over me, I noticed P in the corner. She had been observing everything with a keen eye. Before she had a chance to escape, however, the woman turned on her and said, "You're next." Soon P was in the mud bath next to mine.  The woman plopped wet rags over our eyes and left.

So there we lay -- blinded, up to our necks in mud, and afraid to move. A long time passed. We grew very thirsty.  The hot mud sucked and burped around us.

Finally, the woman returned. She yanked the rags off our eyes and, with the paddle, lifted us out of the mud. My skin vibrated with joy as it met the cool air.

The woman led us to a bare pipe protruding from a wall. "Shower off here," she said. I saw raw fear in P's eyes -- would we get a shower, or Zyklon B gas? The woman turned a valve under the pipe, and water began trickling out. Ecstatic, P and I took turns standing under the cold water. We helped each other get the mud and straw out of our hair and asscracks.

Our survival was rewarded with a mineral soak and massage. These were actually quite pleasant, especially after the trial by mud. We dressed and were permitted to leave. It was great!

Overall, I would give Nance's a rating of 8 out of 10. The location and price can't be beat, but they really need to improve their massage-to-terror ratio.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Communication breakdown

My friend E sent me a bewildering email response:  OMG LOL JPMP!

WTF does JPMP mean? I immediately phoned my husband, who is much savvier and cooler than me. But he, too, was puzzled.

Depressed, I hung up - now I would need to ask E what it meant. E has worked so hard to bring me into the 21st century.  Once again, I was proving a huge disappointment.

Suddenly I remembered E drilling me on the latest internet slang.  I grabbed the phone and proudly told my husband: "Just Pooped My Pants!"

"Pet," he said tenderly. "It's okay. These things happen."

"What?  No!" I shrieked. "That's what JPMP means!"

"Oh, thank God!" he replied. "I was really wondering about you there."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dick Cheney and the yoga class

Traveling for work, I found myself at a fancy hotel in Philadelphia, PA.  Upon check-in, I learned that the highest floors of the building were condo units for rich people.  Like you, Dear Reader, I find the sloth and excess of the upper classes abhorrent.  Just imagine:  These pricks have so much dough that they live in a five-star hotel year round, complete with room service, daily housekeeping, and complimentary shoeshines.  What a bunch of assholes!

But then I learned that the hotel guests - even those of us with discounted, Pricehag rates - had access to the condo's luxurious gym and spa facilities.  Score!  My husband and I headed over in our garish, middle-class sweatpants.

While my husband exerted himself on the treadmill, I snooped around for free stuff.  The ladies room was a veritable mother lode of unguarded tampons, cotton balls, and ear swabs.  I was in heaven!  Then hubby and I reconnoitered for a yoga class.  We entered the nicest gym studio I have ever seen -- bamboo floors, gleaming mirrors, recessed lighting, and that new-yoga-mat smell.  I immediately felt calmer and more enlightened.

The yoga lesson was fantastic.  The instructor was clearly at the top of her game.  She had a soothing voice and a complete collection of Enya's albums.  As I stretched and sweated, I stole glances at the other students.  Lean, blissed-out women wearing organic cotton leggings and all-natural lip gloss.  A man with a graying ponytail and a t-shirt that proclaimed "I'm a tree-hugger!"  "Wow," I thought, "Look at these people - they're so peaceful and at-one with the universe.  I should really do this more often."

The door to the studio creaked open, and a gym employee entered and tiptoed to our instructor.  The employee whispered something and then left.  The instructor cleared her throat.  We all looked up.  "Well," she began, "it appears that we need to end class early today.  Dick Cheney will be at the hotel for a private event this evening, and security needs to clear the area for him.  I'm terribly sorry, but we need to wrap up now."

Her announcement was met with stunned silence.  Then my classmates' expressions twisted into angry scowls.  "Fuck that guy!" exploded Ponytail Dude.  "I hate him!  How dare he interrupt our class!"  "He's a war criminal!" hissed a blond woman in earth tones.  "He shouldn't even be welcome here!"  The other students nodded vigorously in agreement.  "I don't like him either," murmured the instructor, "but unfortunately we still need to leave." 

The mood of the class was totally ruined.  People angrily gathered their belongings and stormed out.  My husband and I watched them go.  We looked at each other, then at the instructor.  She smiled sheepishly.  "I'm so sorry," she repeated.  "It's okay," said my husband.  "I split my shorts during Downward Facing Dog, anyway."  "Let's go, honey," I told him.  "This place is really harshing my mellow."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Susan takes on the Jersey granite industry

My husband is blogging for me today.  He writes:
When Susan and I bought our starter apartment, we needed to renovate the nasty old kitchen. After installing new GloboSwede cabinets, we turned our attention to the countertops. Since the kitchen was small and there wasn’t much countertop space, we thought we could afford something nice like granite.
As with all home renovation projects, Susan attacked this one with the grit and determination of a hungry cheetah on the Serengeti. She did online research, she read Consumer Retorts, we visited Home Despot to look at samples, and so forth. This lasted weeks since Susan always does thorough reconnaissance. Just when I was about to suggest that we maybe don’t need to think about countertops anymore and could just use a sheet of plywood I found on the street, she announced the solution: New Jersey.
Evidently, northern New Jersey has a large population of granite contractors, and Susan had talked to all of them. These are large, gruff, grimy men, cigar smokers mostly, from rough towns like Jersey City and Paterson. Think Sopranos guys, but not as violent, and with a deep appreciation of igneous rock.
Susan made an appointment with a granite guy, and we took a bus to Jersey to see him. He had a countertop showroom with lots of beautiful samples. We looked around and eventually settled on Blue Pearl, a nice blue/gray stone with great texture. I turned over the sample and saw “Made in Norway.” That was a relief. Labor issues matter a lot to me, and granite comes from many countries around the world. I had visions of slave laborers picking away at rocks in dark dungeons. But no African child labor or Chinese prison labor with this Blue Pearl. Probably just one affable, well-paid Norwegian guy and an expensive excavation machine digging up our slab. I could live with that.
Then it was time to negotiate price. I always pull up a chair and pay close attention when Susan gets into bargaining mode. She has many tactics, most of which I don’t even realize are tactics, and she comes at the process from many angles. This one was easy, though. She looked at the price this poor guy quoted and pulled out some information from a different contractor from whom she had extracted an absurdly low price the day before. Susan asked this guy to beat the price. He started sweating. He said something about how his family had to eat, etc., and Susan began pulling me toward the door. He caved.
As Susan was filling out the paperwork, the granite guy took me aside. He looked me in the eye and whispered huskily, “She’s good.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

10% off is just an icebreaker

My husband and I needed new cabinets for our kitchen.  Internet sleuthing revealed that a certain European big box store would soon offer a 10% discount on all kitchens.  On the first day of the sale, we boarded the free shuttle from New York City to GloboSwede.

The shuttle bus disgorged us at the lobby.  It was go time!  We popped some aspirin, emptied our bladders (in the restrooms), and headed to the kitchen section.  There, gleaming under soft halogen lighting, was the model kitchen we had admired in the catalog.  The natural wood grain swirled and glowed beneath our fingertips.  This was our kitchen!

We retreated to the store cafeteria to strategize.  The cabinets were expensive, and we were cheap.  How could we make this work?  All around us, exhausted shoppers with dead eyes gnawed at mass-produced meatballs.  We needed to tread carefully or we could end up like them:  They were paying retail!

We returned to the kitchen section and requested to speak with the manager.  Tony appeared, a balding, middle-aged man who greeted us cheerfully and asked what we needed.  I carefully explained our situation:  We liked the Snörk kitchen and needed about $5000 worth of cabinets.  Our problem was the sale wasn't that exciting.  Was there any chance he could increase the discount? 

Tony looked at us, and we smiled back.  "Uh," he said, "I want to say yes."  He paused for a minute.  "How about I give you another $300 off?"

"Hmmm," I pondered, furrowing my brow.  "It would really make our decision a lot easier if you could increase the discount to 20%."  My husband jumped in like an infomercial:  "We're ready to buy today!"

"Let me think," Tony replied.  Another minute passed.  "Okay, it's a deal."  He led us to an employee and had her place our order.  He wrote out a voucher for $954 - double the advertised discount.  

Overcome with joy, we raced to the checkout and paid for our order.  "Wow, you saved a lot!" the cashier admired.  We beamed with pride and savings.

Rule #1 when dealing with corporations:  
The advertised price is just a suggestion.  There is always room for negotiation, and it costs nothing to try.  You don't even need a sale, just your cajones.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sometimes it's not the sausages

P and I were gossiping about the Republicans' version of health care reform: 

"Their plan is a joke," P seethed.  "Barely anyone would gain coverage."

"Expanding coverage is not their goal," I agreed.  "The uninsured could be ground up into sausages for all they care."

P took another sip of gin.  "Speaking of sausages," she said, "there was a sausage factory in the news recently.  The smell from the factory was terrible, and all the neighbors were complaining.  Inspectors arrived and ordered the factory to clean its pipes.  The pipes were purged, but the stench remained.  More inspectors and more pipe cleanings followed.  This went on for months.  The factory's owner was beside himself.  'We got the cleanest pipes anywhere,' he moaned.  'We spend a fortune cleaning them all the time!'  Finally, the mystery was solved:  Eleven dead bodies were discovered in the house next door."

The three most important things when you're a serial killer:  Location, location, location.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My guardian angels wear safety helmets

Yesterday I went to the National Zoo in DC. That place is Gitmo for cute animals: Those poor bastards have been locked up for years, and some of them may well be innocent. At first I was upset, but then I remembered that it's sort of educational for kids.

After the zoo, I decided to walk through Rock Creek Park to get back to the hotel. I met a couple of joggers near the entrance, but then I was alone in the woods. For over an hour. Then I realized I was lost. I was getting nervous - is this how it went down for Chandra Levy? Suddenly I spotted an overpass high above the trees in the distance. I started climbing up, up, up through the woods. Then I hit a narrow road. At the end of the road was a gate. And beyond the gate was civilization! Humans beings walking, talking, biking. A hippie sleeping on the grass. Can you imagine anything more beautiful?!

But the gate was locked, and a fence extended in both directions as far as the eye could see. Now I was the one in the cage! Through the bars of the gate, I watched people in the distance taking their freedom for granted. They were utterly oblivious to my plight (especially the hippie).

Then my prayers were answered: Two middle-aged Black women appeared on bicycles. One asked, "What in the bejeezus are you doing in there?" The other: "How did you get inside? That's the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Sanctuary. You're not supposed to be in there!"

I told them I was trapped, and they sprang into action. Dropping their bikes, they each grabbed one side of the gate and pulled in opposite directions. A four-inch gap appeared in the center. "You're skinny," the first one said. "What size pants do you wear? I bet you can squeeze through." "I'm not THAT skinny," I replied, gesturing at the tiny gap. "Don't be so negative," her friend advised. So I took off my coat to make myself smaller. I was ready to strip naked if necessary! I began squishing myself, one body part at a time, through the gap. "GO, GO, GO!!! You can do it!!!" the first one yelled. "She's through already," her friend said. "Why are you yelling?"

Friday, November 6, 2009

Because the world needs another blog

Welcome, everyone. And thanks for tuning in. I've heard that the average blog has one viewer - the blogger. Hopefully I won't bring that average down too much.

Just so you know, I have no plan here. I'm just going to tell stories. That's all. I hope you're okay with that.

So, first thing, let me tell you what it was like setting up this blog. It was nuts! Way too easy and way too hard, all at the same time. Any asshole with an alleged name and a putative email address can start a blog. But then a pop quiz from Blogger followed: What are your favorite movies? books? music? I don't have any of those things! It really depends, right? What kind of shallow jerk does Blogger take me for?

Moving along: I'm in DC today. My husband and I acted like total douchebags when we arrived yesterday. We got into town very late. We arrived at the hotel and learned that, because the rooms were oversold, we were being cast out into the night like hobos. (Actually, they just sent us to another, much nicer hotel, but it was still a very jarring experience at 1 AM.) This has never happened to me before, but I immediately sensed the opportunity for free stuff. (Rule #1 in life: When a corporation inconveniences you, even just theoretically, ask for reparations.) So we requested a complimentary breakfast for our trouble. The manager, Chaz Buzzarelli -- I am not shitting you, that really was his name -- was reluctant, but we kept asking, and ultimately we prevailed. Yay! Breakfast was extra delicious.

But then: As I licked the last, buttery crumbs of Viennese pastries from my lips, I realized that we weren't being charged for the hotel stay! That was never made clear!!! So I had swindled them out of breakfast ON TOP OF getting the hotel room for free. This probably explains the manager's shocked demeanor. In two seconds, I went from profound, pastry-induced elation to deep despair. It was awful!

And it got worse. I retired to my suite to contemplate my wretchedness. I even did some work on my laptop as penance for my ghastly behavior. Suddenly, the door burst open, and an English butler entered (all the workers at this hotel are made to dress like servants in a Dickens novel). He bowed and extended a silver platter bearing three chocolate chip cookies. Seething with self-loathing, I devoured his offerings. I am a monster!