The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘restaurants’ Category

FOOD, AMUSEMENT PARKS AND POLITICS

Once upon a time in America, not all that long ago, few of us had the luxury of air conditioning that went beyond a bowl of ice placed in front of an oscillating fan.  Our cars didn’t come equipped with entertainment centers to distract the kids on long trips and we little tykes had to satisfy ourselves with playing license plate poker.  But those of us who lived in New York had the beaches and we were fortunate to have what was, at that time, America’s premier amusement park, Coney Island.

One summer weekend my father was working the Gift Show in Boston and Mom had decided to accompany him.  My parents loved Boston for its history and, as many times as they had been there, always made a visit to the Old North Church as well as a number of other historic sites.  So my mother imposed on my aunt to look after me for the weekend.  My aunt Helene adored me, and my feeling toward her was reciprocal, so I looked forward to spending the weekend with her and my two girl cousins who were still at home.  My aunt’s son was off at military school and was working there through the summer for extra credit.

So in addition to spending time with my aunt and cousins, I was further delighted to find that she had planned a Saturday night visit for us to Coney Island, preceded with a dinner at Lundy’s Restaurant which was in the immediate vicinity.

Lundy’s was a tradition for those who really wanted to splurge.  For those of us who mostly ate home cooked meals, going to any restaurant was really a great treat.  But Lundy’s was very special.  It was a family style restaurant with large bare wood tables that could easily accommodate twenty diners.  As a result, everyone found themselves seated next to total strangers at every meal there.

Their specialties were buckets of steamed Little Neck Clams, served in pots that smelled of the ocean and accompanied with bowls of drawn butter for dipping the succulent sea creatures.  And, this was followed with a freshly boiled lobster (size dependent on appetite) and a huge bowl of French fries.  The waiters (they were all men) would clear the debris the diners had made of the clam buckets and before bringing on the entrees would tie a plastic bib around each person’s neck to prevent any inadvertent dribbling from the succulent shell fish from falling on our shirts and blouses.  The finale was their famous Nesselrode pie, a fabulous creation of whipped cream and dried fruits that sadly is hardly made anywhere anymore.

The four of us finished our dinner and I have to admit that I felt a bit bloated.  I probably should not have shoved that last bit of pie own my throat – but it was so good.  And I remember my grandmother’s admonition that, “Eat everything on your plate.  There are children in China who are starving.”  So I did.  And I knew that I had at least moderately over eaten.  But I sublimated my full tummy by thinking that we were on our way to Coney Island Amusement park and my cousins and I were going to have a swell time on the rides.

My father had taken me to Coney Island the previous summer with one of my good friends.  We both had reached the age and height where we were allowed on the park’s most famous ride, the roller coaster known as the Cyclone.  There was my dad in the middle of the car with me on his left and my friend Andy on his right and only a flimsy metal bar protruding toward our midsections, holding us and theoretically keeping us safe.

As the queue of cars slowly made it’s way up the rickety old wood that supported the Cyclone to the top of the first drop, Andy and I both anticipated that this was going to be a lot of fun.  And then we came to the top and suddenly plunged down at incredible speed.  I think all three of us were a bit shaken by this, but it was nothing compared to the next two drops that were to come, each being higher than the previous one.  By the time we got to drop number three, my knuckles were white from gripping the metal restraining bar and as we began our long descent, Andy was screaming at my dad, “Make it stop.”  I didn’t say anything – but only because I was too scared to join him in that sentiment.  But the ride finally ended and with knees that were quivering, we got out of our car, thankful that we were still alive.

Well, neither my aunt, my cousins (nor I) was feeling brave enough once again to test our fate in the grips of the Cyclone.  So we contented ourselves with rides that were far more sedate.  Things were going along just fine until we got to the Tilt-A-Whirl, a ride that is fun but not overly scary.  However, the combination of the different movements that the ride made didn’t interact well with my dinner and no sooner had we gotten off, I realized I needed to find a waste basket because I was going to vomit.  Well, I did find a basket and even faster than it had gone in, out came a barely digested mixture of Little Neck clams (dipped in drawn butter), lobster, French fries and Nesselrode pie.

As I stood by the basket, my sense of propriety kicked in and I hoped that no one had witnessed my feat of regurgitation.  And even more, I hoped that someone would come by and offer me a handkerchief to wipe the evidence of what had just happened from my lips.  My aunt did so, handing me one of her monogrammed hankies, which I sheepishly accepted.

Now my aunt had a very dry sense of humor.  I’m sure that her major concern was that I was feeling okay, having expelled my meal in full.  But she used this as a teaching experience when she asked me the question, “Sweetheart, do you know how much that meal cost?”  (I was going to have to have a talk with Grandma about those Chinese kids and clean plates).  But I knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t really mad, particularly when she said, “Well, now that you’ve left your dinner in the basket you must be hungry.  Do you want to go over to Nathan’s Famous for a hot dog?”  There could have been nothing further from my mind than eating – possibly ever again.  And I’m sure that my aunt knew that when she asked me.

It was a ritual that the final ride we would take at Coney Island was one called the Steeplechase – a pseudo-enactment of a horse race in which the winner varied based on how the ride had been set by the person in charge.  Given my earlier gastronomic experience and its aftermath, I was done with rides for the night and decided to take a pass on it.  But that evening brought me to thinking about politics and the race for the presidency.  And with one small variation, it seems to me that with the substitution of one letter, that horse ride really describes what we have to look forward to for the next seventeen months.  The race to the White House is not much more than a Sheeplechase.

It’s sad, but I believe true, that the vast majority of our voting population is either incapable of or has decided to decline from engaging in critical thinking.  It is far more important to them that they accrue a coterie of “friends” on social media as a validation for their sense of self-worth than it is to stand on fact and principle which might discredit them in their network of equally vapid amigos.  The astute politician, and there are certainly a number running who might be categorized as competent or more, will play to this audience, saying whatever is necessary to convince this group of sheep that she/he deserves their vote.  And if their collective herd generally buys their argument, like lambs to the slaughter, these unthinking souls will go along for the ride.  After all, this is the path of least resistance – and I might add, the road to Hell.

As I’ve listened to a number of the candidates speak recently, the lyrics of an old song came to mind.  “Lord, it’s so proud to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”  We’ve had six and one half years of a President who repeatedly speaks only in the first person, “I, “Me,” “Mine.”  And we can see what the sense of egomania has gotten not only the country but a world that is seething with strife as the United States abandoned not only its principles which made us unique but our role of leadership and respect.

It’s time that we found a person whom we could elect who might learn the lesson of humility with dignity which possessed that great black contralto, Marian Anderson.  Barred from performing at a DAR conference because of her race, then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a stand, resigned from that organization and organized an outdoor concert which thousands attended.  Marian Anderson always spoke using the words, “We,” “Us,” “Our.”

As a nation, “We” deserve no less and should demand that the next President be a person who is committed to restoring America to a position of greatness, thereby not only securing a better life for our citizens but by standing on principle (not some malleable “truth” based on the latest polls), securing a safer world for all of Earth’s people.

Will we find and more importantly elect such a person?  At this point it’s difficult to say.  But I know that if we again fail to endorse through our votes a candidate who has real values, original ideas and a cohesive plan, I might just repeat the experience I had after I got off the Tilt-A-Whirl ride.  And it’s just possible that a lot of other people will have that same reaction.

CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL

Perhaps I’m one of the few people in America who hasn’t eaten there but I haven’t.  My friends who frequent Chipotle regularly tell me it provides a far better dining experience than its competitors.  And while I enjoy Mexican food, I don’t go out of my way to get it.  Now open a great dim sum restaurant and we’re talking a whole other story.

The genesis for this story has nothing to do with the quality of food or the dining experience at Chipotle.  It has to do with the compensation of the company’s CEO, Steve Ells.  In an advisory vote, the majority of shareholders recommended that the Board not increase Mr. Ells annual compensation to approximately $25 Million.  Apparently, several unions and others who hold the stock in pension plans were responsible for the overwhelming “No” vote.  As shareholders, that is their right and that they exercised their voice is their responsibility.

This story, which has received more coverage on the Huffington Post than the scandal at the VA which apparently has now spread to include eleven separate facilities, also generated far more comments than the second story.  Most of those comments applauded the vote and went on to comment about how CEO’s are overpaid to the detriment of the poor schlub counting out twenties at your local bank or slinging guacamole at your local Chipotle.  I engaged in a conversation with one person who left such a comment.

In response to this individual, I asked, “If $25 million is too high, is $1 a year too low?  If so, what would you consider to be equitable and how would you determine what is fair?”  While I was waiting for him to get back to me, and I still am, I decided to try to look at this situation in as objective manner as I could.

The first thing that occurred to me is that many who have not been in the situation personally can only theorize, if they take the trouble, to understand what it is like first to conceive of a business and then to make that vision turn into a reality.  If they had done this themselves, they might have more respect for those CEO’s whom they denounce.

What if Mr. Ells had never had either the moxie or the good fortune or the work ethic to start this company which now employs 45,000 people?  Where would these individuals be going to work on a daily basis?  In this Obamaconomy where new business start ups are few and established companies are laying off and trimming the fat, would they even have a job or just join the ranks of the gainfully unemployed?

But then I thought, not that it’s my business since I’m not a Chipotle shareholder, what if the company reduced Mr. Ells’ compensation by 90% to $2.5 million a year and the $22.5 million difference was passed along to Chipotle workers in the way of pay increases.  How might that impact their lives?

Well, it would result in a $500 a year annual increase for each of the company’s other employees.  Of course, after they paid Federal income tax, FICA, Medicare Tax and in many cases state income tax, that pay increase would shrink to about $350 per year.  That works out to a little less than $7.00 per week or, based on a forty hour work week, seventeen cents per hour.

Now the people who man those fast food lines at their outlets earn more per hour than the typical fast food restaurant worker who makes minimum wage.  But if we were to apply their percentage increase in earnings attributable to stripping Mr. Ells of 90% of his income, we would not be talking about raising the $7.25 minimum Federal wage to $10.10 per hour but to $7.34 per hour.

There are two other points we should consider.

The first is that should the Board enact the hypothetical pay plan I created and Mr. Ells agreed to work for a 90% smaller salary, it might occur to him to put forth only 10% of the effort that he previously expended in his job.

Instead of opening 100 new outlets this year, he might decide only to go ahead with 10 of those – if any at all.  After all, the company is doing very well so why rock the boat?  Why go through all the trouble of doing site surveys, negotiating leases, overseeing construction, purchasing equipment, interviewing and hiring and training employees and management, negotiating contracts with new wholesale grocers, conducting on-site audits to make sure that these new facilities were meeting high corporate standards?  Why indeed?  That would leave approximately 2700 prospective employees who might have been hired for jobs in the 90 restaurants that were never opened sitting home collecting unemployment – if it hasn’t run out.

The second point is that no one is forced to work at any job they don’t like or want.  In our current Obamaconomy that is more theoretical than real since this administration has not only not encouraged the creation of new businesses, but has done everything possible to make starting a new venture difficult if not impossible.  If we had a vibrant economy, a worker who was dissatisfied with his job could find another one – or even accept a second job if he were so motivated

So if we want to have a debate over the minimum wage, we should focus our attention not on “greedy CEO’s that want their employees to suffer” but to a government which has made sure that they will.  This may be one of the few times that I agree with the president when he said, “You didn’t do that.  Someone else was responsible.”  He’s right – it’s him.

HOW TO SETTLE THE MINIMUM WAGE DEBATE – ONCE AND FOR ALL

In today’s press conference, President Obama said Republican opposition to Obamacare is mean-spirited and stems from the core of the Republican philosophy which willfully tries to deprive thirty million Americans of health insurance.  In other words, they are nasty people who are selfish and have only their own interests at heart.

In contrast, that would lead one to believe that liberals who hold a diametrically opposed opinion are just the opposite – warm, caring, loving people who want the best for all of us.  Well, let’s run with that theory and see how it impacts one discussion that is currently on our radar screen – the Federal minimum wage.

The recent strikes by McDonald’s workers over their wages and the statements that the company itself has made “that they don’t know how people can support a family at the minimum wage rate of pay” have fueled this discussion.  Certain of our concerned liberal friends have suggested raising the Federal minimum wage from the present $7.25 per hour to as much as $12.50.  I believe these people are missing the point entirely.

The Federal guidelines prepared by HHS show that a household of four, (in the old days they described these as a family of four), would need an income of greater than $23,550 per year in order to avoid being classified at poverty level standing.  An increase in the minimum wage to $12.50 would put the bread winner at an income of only $26,000 per year – assuming a forty hour work week.  That is just 11% over the poverty level.

Is this the American dream that our liberal friends have in mind for our minimum wage workers?

If we really want to inspire people to get to work and feel fulfilled in their chosen vocation, I believe we need a greater incentive than barely exceeding the poverty level to get people on board.  Therefore, I suggest that we raise the Federal minimum wage to no less than $50.00 per hour.  And if we really want to make an impact then we should make it retroactive say back to 2009 when the Chump in Charge first took office.

Consider the benefits we would gain by doing this.

First, we would give incentives to people who currently can enjoy unemployment benefits for 99 weeks to get off their duffs and go out and look for work.  The savings in reducing the number of unemployed people might just pay for this program in and of itself.

Second, those pesky foreigners who are willing to work at low pay, taking the jobs that Americans spurn as being beneath them, would be put out of the market and would probably go home.  This will save us countless hours of loud and cacophonous debate over immigration reform which will probably be too confusing to listen to anyway and just might interfere with our schedule of viewing reality television.

Third, (and I admit this is my favorite), there wouldn’t be a single fast food restaurant left open in America which just might cause us all to learn how to cook more nutritious food and, in the end, would save us from the self-inflicted diseases which our poor food choices bring upon us – thus bailing out our healthcare system.

Who says that conservatives don’t have a full supply of largesse running through our veins?

(NOT SO) FAST FOOD

If everyone were like me there would be a lot of vacant buildings in America which are currently housing fast food outlets.  I eat out at these places five or six times a year at most.  Well, last night was one of those nights when I had become involved in a small project, time had slipped away, it was late and I was hungry.

I remembered that I still had a receipt from a breakfast I had purchased at Jack In The Box which offered me a 10% discount on a future purchase attached to the fridge with a kitchen magnet.  Best of all, it was good on any meal and there was no expiration date on the receipt.  As Jack In The Box is only a couple of miles from the house and I knew that they were open 24 hours a day for drive through, I took myself and my six month old receipt and drove over there.

I was sort of in the mood for a chicken of some kind sandwich.  It took me a few seconds to locate the “chicken section” on their menu display and then to eliminate the “nugget” selections.  That brought it down to a “Sourdough Bread Chicken Sandwich” or a “Western Chicken Sandwich.”  I had ordered a sandwich on their sourdough bread before and didn’t care for the consistency of the bread – so by default I leaned toward the Western Chicken.  And as I was in a mood for some fries I decided to order the “Combo” since they offered lemonade as a drink choice.

Confidently, I edged my car forward to the ordering station where the little screen greeted me with, “Welcome to Jack In The Box.”  Within seconds a young woman’s voice magically broadcast the same greeting and asked if she could take my order.  So I replied, “I’ll have the number nine combo with lemonade, please.”

“Do you want a small, medium or large?,” she queried.

This through me for a loop.  I wanted the number nine combo for $6.29 as listed on their menu.  I wasn’t sure what further choices I had to make.

A bit flustered, I repeated my request for the number nine combo with lemonade.

“Yes, but do you want a small, medium or large?”

“A small, medium or large what?,” I asked.

“Combo,” she replied.

I could see that we were caught in a circular conversation which was going nowhere.  So I asked her, “What kind of number nine combo do you get for $6.29?”

She answered, “A small.”

I said, “Fine, I’ll have that.”

“What do you want to drink?”

Despite the fact that I had told her I wanted lemonade twice before, I repeated it calmly a third time.  I could see light at the end of the tunnel.

A few seconds later my order appeared on the screen and the young woman asked me if she had my order correct.  Frankly, at that point I would have settled for a couple of tacos with a side order of jalapenos and no beverage because I was really getting hungry.  But I glanced up at the screen and noticed that she was charging me $6.49 for my number nine combo – not the $6.29 that was listed on the menu.

I pointed this out to her.

“The reason for the difference in price is that there is tax,” she said.

I was beginning to get a little steamed at the foolishness of this remark and the difficulty of placing the order in the first place.

“No, it’s not a matter of tax.  I understand that there is tax and that is clearly shown on your screen.  The problem is that your menu says a number nine combo costs $6.29 and you are charging me $6.49 for it.”

“That’s because of the tax.”

At that point a car pulled up behind me – another late night diner.  It was nearly midnight.

“Excuse me ma’am – it’s not a matter of tax.  I understand that there is tax.  What I’m trying to tell you is that your menu says that my order costs $6.29 before tax.  Your screen says my order costs $6.49 before tax.  That’s the problem.”

“Would you please pull up to the pickup window?”

I refused to move – my apologies to the driver behind me whom I inconvenienced.

Within a minute a nice young man wearing the ever-present headset with which people who have careers in “fast food” restaurants are born came out to resolve the issue.

“What seems to be the problem?”

I explained that the price for a number nine combo was $6.29 and I was being charged $6.49 for it.  That was the problem.

“That’s because there is tax.”

I was exhausted, very frustrated and feeling moderately homicidal at that response.  But I said, “Excuse me sir.  Look at your menu.  It says a number nine combo costs $6.29.  Now look at the first line of your screen.  Please note that it says a number nine combo costs $6.49.  Do you see the problem?”

I hoped that with the visual aid of both the menu and the screen in front of him we could finally resolve the issue.  And we did.

“Oh, that’s because the menu is ‘messed up’.”

I said, “Well, since I ordered from your ‘messed up’ menu, I expect to be charged the ‘messed up’ price.  So just adjust the screen to $6.29 plus tax, I’ll pick up my order and be on my way.”

“I can’t do that.  I don’t have the override code.”

At that point, ten minutes after starting to order, I had lost my appetite for a number nine combo or anything else on the Jack In The Box menu.

I said, “Well, thanks for trying to resolve the problem.  You have a good night.”  And I drove off.

When I got home I pulled some bacon and eggs out of the refrigerator and enjoyed them with an English muffin and some fig jam I had made a few months earlier.  It was a delightful meal and I put it together in little more time than I had spent at the window trying to get a dose of “fast food”.

After cleaning the dishes and pan I pulled the 10% discount receipt on a future Jack In The Box purchase from my pocket and put it back on the refrigerator with the magnet.  It’s not that I plan on using it.  But it will serve as a reminder of why I will not be using it.

They say that eating fast food regularly is not the best thing for your physical health.  I don’t know if that is true or not.

But I can certainly attest to the fact that trying to order it plays havoc with your mental well-being.

GOOD NEWS FOR SENIORS

If you don’t like pizza – well, you’re just un-American.  I’m a good and loyal American so it goes without saying that I not only like, I LOVE pizza.  Hot, cold, thin or thick crust – other than throwing pineapple and ham on it (or peanut butter), it’s almost impossible to ruin this all-American favorite.  (We did invent it didn’t we?)

Well if you’re thinking that under our ever-beneficent radical socialist leaders in Washington, seniors are going to be able to get all the pizza they can eat, I’m sorry to report that you’re wrong.  (At least for the moment – but who knows?)  No, I’m referring to new job opportunities which those who rely on walkers to perambulate may soon have available to them.

You see, there’s this law that passed called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a/k/a/ Obamacare).  And a mighty law it is indeed – as we’re only beginning to discover.  Fortunately, it doesn’t fully kick in for another year so that allows us time to think and pine and fret over its implications as they begin to further unfold.  But there are a few things about it which we do know.

(This includes those Democrats including my own former Congresswoman Shelley Berkley who recently failed to advance her career to the United States Senate and is now out of politics.  The good Congresswoman followed leader Pelosi’s advice and voted to pass the bill without bothering to read it.  Details, details.)  And, by the way there are a lot of details.

One of the details that we do know is that employers will be required to provide health insurance for all employees who earn less than $15 per hour.  If they fail to do so they will be subject to a fine of $2000 per employee.  But the cost of the insurance is likely to be at least five times as expensive as the fine.  So, in essence, the reasonable employer will make the choice between spending $2000 per year or $10,000 per year – and which number do you think she will select?

But, wait – there’s a way around this.  You see this only applies to those employees who are considered “full time” employees – that is to say that they work (or at least show up) for 30 hours or more a week.  (Whatever happened to the 40 hour work week?  I guess I owe myself a lot of back pay at an overtime rate!)

So, as an alternative, an employer can cut back on her full-time staff, reducing them to part-time status and thus skirt this provision of Obamacare.  Apparently when our esteemed Congress passed this bill and the President signed it into law, they overlooked this eventuality and the consequent reduction in income and standard of living that those whom the law is intended to benefit will undergo.  I guess it’s just another example of unintended consequences.

But in my musings, I have arrived at a solution which I would like to share with all those small business owners (and little pizzerias that I love to frequent).

HIRE THE ELEDERLY

You see, if we merely raid the retirement homes to find the able-bodied among our senior citizens, we can recruit them to work in our stores and businesses and avoid this provision of Obamacare since they already have insurance, Medicare.

And this works out well for our seniors.  Not only will it provide them with additional income that they need to compensate for the rising prices of food and gas (the kind you put in your vehicle) which are far outstripping the increase in their Social Security benefits but, since their doctors are now becoming veterinarians, there’s no need for them to worry about missing their appointments – since there won’t be any.

And this works out for the pizza-eating public as well.  I mean really, would you rather see some acne-pimpled teenager tossing the dough for your pizza, or some lovely silver-haired lady who reminds you of your grandmother?

“I’m here to pick up my extra large pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper and onion pizza, Grams.  Oh, wait.  Don’t strain yourself.  Let me help you lift that.”

THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WATER

If you are even one tenth as much an aficionado of great pizza as I you have no doubt your favorite version of this sublime delicacy.  Of course, growing up in New York, I still prefer the version that is produced there.  Even a bad New York pizza is better than a great pizza from anywhere else.

Living for many years in Chicago I became acclimated to the deep dish thick crust pizza that is the signature trademark of Uno’s and Due’s – started by an Irishman, Ike Sewell.  In fact I make a very good version of it.  It’s filling and satisfying and brings back memories of sitting in Ike’s restaurants with good friends and a pitcher of beer.

In Las Vegas there are a number of pizzerias all of which throw New York somewhere in their name to entice the unwary into thinking that they’re about to get the real McCoy.  Some of them do a reasonable impersonation of the genuine article.  They carry that off almost as successfully as I would doing an impersonation of Mae West.

A new pizzeria, Dom DeMarco’s came to town last fall.  It is only about a five mile drive from the house and people talked it up as the authentic thing – coming as they do from Brooklyn.  I stopped by one day and picked up a menu.  I thought it was pricey but ordered one the next night.  I got there ten minutes early as my salivary glands were in overdrive and found that my pizza beat me to the pick up station by some time.  There was no heat lamp so I had to reheat it when I got home and there were so few toppings I wondered if I had been given someone else’s order for a plain cheese.  All this for $28.00 for a 16” pizza.

I happened to mention this the next morning at the dog park and one of the other morning regulars said he had the same experience – no toppings and overpriced.  He also mentioned that when President Obama had been in town on a fundraiser he had ordered seven or eight pizzas for his entourage from Dom DeMarco’s.  Had I known that I would have realized that I was going to get gypped and not patronized the place.  I won’t make that mistake again.

I did find a pizzeria in North Las Vegas at Uncle Angelo’s Pizza Joint in Jerry’s Nugget Casino which is as close to the real New York experience as I have come.  When I ordered one I swooned.  Great crust, plentiful fresh toppings, excellent sauce, the right amount of cheese and baked to perfection.  A 17” pizza for $17 and that included a free pitcher of beer.   I was by myself so I passed on the beer and took home six wonderful slices to enjoy over the next three evenings.

So what is it about New York pizza that makes it different?  Everyone tells me that the secret ingredient is the water.  New York reportedly has some of the finest water flowing from the tap of any city in the country.  I can believe it – and I think the water has properties that go far beyond allowing for the creation of fantastic pizza.

I say this because I read a story the other day that former Rep. Anthony Wiener (D), NY is considering a return to politics, perhaps running for Mayor of New York City.  The former Congressional Representative resigned last year because of the flap over his posting semi-clad photos of himself on the internet.  He is apparently sitting on $4.5 million in campaign contributions which could be used to facilitate that bid.

Apparently the former congressman’s incipient career as a model for men’s undergarments didn’t work out.

I have a theory that New York City water increases libido and diminishes any sense of propriety.  It is possible that this may only affect politicians.  I have a call in to former Governor Eliot Spitzer to see if I can get some confirmation of this.  I will keep you posted as developments warrant.

Until then, I would suggest that politicians who either live in or are visiting the Big Apple take caution and make sure that they only consume water that has been bottled elsewhere.

There’s something in the water.

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ON BEING CHEAP

I was fortunate to come from a home that was loving and caring and generous.  I realize that is not an experience that all of us shared.  But it was my experience and it formulated the way I have tried to live my life.

When grandma cooked dinner for us – or for invited guests – there was always enough to serve at least three times the number of us gathered at the table.  She believed it would be shameful to send a guest away hungry – and she frequently prepared little bags of food for them to take home from the leftovers.  (I do not remember any of these guests ever refusing this gift).

Grandma’s ranking of people was simple.  If a guest said that he or she was full after only one generous plate, they probably fell to the bottom of the guest list.  A person who asked for seconds would definitely be invited back within a month.  A person who asked for thirds became a weekly regular.  It was a simple philosophy based on the satisfaction that grandma got from people who enjoyed her cooking.

Occasionally my father would take me to Schraft’s for an ice cream soda.  They made the best “black and whites” – vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup and club soda that I ever tasted.  It was a place where a lot of women would gather for a little social get-together – a sort of Marie Callender’s before they came on the scene.

It seemed to me that in order to eat at Schraft’s you had to be an accountant.  A typical table of four ladies would finish their lunch and divide up the check.  The conversation would go something like:

“Now, Constance you had the shrimp salad and they charged us extra because you requested toasted almonds.  Beatrice, you ordered your salad with Roquefort dressing and that was extra.”  And it would go on, each person’s bill itemized down to the last penny – and the tip computed exactly to the cent of the expected fifteen percent.

Although I was young I thought this was an incredible waste of time and effort – and it really exemplified penny-pinching at its highest level.  It drove me crazy.  Would any of these dowagers really have their lives impacted if they forked over thirty-seven cents more than was her fair share?  I resolved never to be like them.

Years later a group of eight of us would get together monthly for a dinner outing.  We would generally select a new restaurant to try out.  The “leader of the group”, I will call him Stanley and his wife Nanley would invariably order the least expensive item on the restaurant’s menu.  I could appreciate their need for frugality as they had three children and Stanley was going to night school to earn his law degree.

My life at Schraft’s flashed before my eyes once a month as Stanley would emulate the New York dowagers and would divide up the bill between the eight of us so that each paid his or her fair share based on what we had ordered.  I used to roll my eyes as the bill arrived and the division began.  (I always came equipped with a pocketful of change so that I didn’t have to worry about getting a few pennies back in change from Stanley).

This monthly dining ritual went on for several years.  One night we selected a new restaurant, Kon Tiki Ports.  It was a sort of quasi-Polynesian place with more ambiance than exciting cuisine.  As we reviewed the menu, Stanley and Nanley thought that the assorted appetizer offering, the restaurant’s “Pu Pu Platter” looked intriguing.  So they ordered that – and enjoyed it so much that they ordered a second one which they split between themselves.  They had the most expensive meal of the eight of us.

Well, the bill arrived and Stanley said, “Well, there are eight of us and the bill comes to thus and so much.  Let’s just divide it by eight.”   There were six of us who had waited in the wings for dozens of these dinners and with one voice we cried out, “Didn’t you and Nanley have two Pu Pu Platters?  We think we should divide the check up as we always have – based on what each of us ordered.”  Fairness prevailed and Stanley and Nanley paid for the entirety of their meal.

Eventually the group drifted apart.  Some moved out of Chicago – others found new interests – and I was too busy with work to continue our monthly dinners.  As the dinner outings were our main cohesive force I didn’t see or hear from many of the members of the group – and this included Stanley and Nanley.  We all went about our lives in our different directions.

There is a moral to this story.  Stanley did receive his law degree and began the practice of his chosen profession.  I knew this because he and Nanley threw a little party in celebration in their apartment, commemorating the event.  All those of us who were still in town were invited.

That was the last time we gathered socially – and other than running into one or the other of them on the street was really the last I knew of them.  \

Until one day …

I was driving to work one morning when the news came on the radio.  Stanley’s name was mentioned and I paused to listen to what was being said about him.  Apparently, he had been indicted for being the “bag man” for laundering money for a variety of politicians’ political campaigns.  (Subsequently, Stanley pled guilty and was sentenced to four years’ incarceration).

So it goes to prove that, “Crime doesn’t pay”.  And “cheap” pays even less.

THE HOT DOG STAND

When Giovanni came to America he had great hopes for making a wonderful life for himself in his new country.  He found employment working at a hot dog stand and was always one of the customers’ favorites to ask for service because of his good looks, winning smile and pleasant attitude. 

After several years, he met Rosa and they married.  In the course of time the couple had a son and a few years later twin girls.  The two of them spoke about Giovanni’s dream for himself and his family – that he would start his own hot dog business and make enough to send his children to college.  The two of them scrimped and saved and when Roberto their oldest was five, Giovanni opened his own business.

Giovanni had learned a lot from his former employer.  He knew who made the best hot dogs and the best buns, who sold the best restaurant equipment at the least expensive price – but most of all he learned that hard work was the key to business success.  So Giovanni determined to work even harder to make his new venture a profitable enterprise.

The stand was located right off the exit to an expressway in the city.  About a mile from the exit near his stand he paid to have a large billboard put up which said, “Giovanni’s Hot Dogs – the Best Hot Dogs In Town.  OPEN 24 HOURS A DAY.  Come and enjoy!”  (Exit one mile).

And the people came and came.  They liked Giovanni and they liked his hot dogs.  And they came 24 hours a day.  Giovanni and Rosa saved and saved and saved enough to send Roberto, who was a very bright boy, to Harvard where he graduated near the top of his class.  On graduation he was admitted to the Harvard Business School.  And then the recession came.

Even though Giovanni stayed open 24 hours a day as he always had, business began to decline.  He wasn’t hit as bad as so many others because hot dogs were still affordable and not really a luxury.

And then one day he opened his mail.  It was a letter from the City Department of Food Services.  They  wrote to inform him that a new ordinance had been passed.  Restaurants which were open past midnight, “shall pay a fee of Two thousand five hundred dollars per month.”  Giovanni didn’t understand why this should be but Roberto had just returned from a break at business school and he showed it to him.

Roberto called the department the next morning to find out the reasoning behind the new ordinance.  He spoke with the second chief assistant to the Director of the department – who passed him along to the third Assistant Director in charge of “vendor relations.”  This woman gave a very cogent explanation to Roberto.

“We have conducted numerous surveys and have found that in at least a few instances, restaurants which maintain late night schedules often are the preferred venue for gang activities and other un-desirables.  This, of course, means that we must have additional police patrols which costs the city money and we are merely passing this additional cost along to those restaurants as their fair share of paying for essential services.”

Roberto, who was studying governmental-business relationships understood the logic and passed the Assistant Director’s comments along to his father.  “It’s really only fair, pop.  You don’t want bad people hanging out around here so they need more police to make sure they stay away.”

Giovanni replied, “But we don’t have any bad kids around here.  I’ve never seen anyone I thought belonged to a gang.  These are good kids come in here, a lot of the time with their families.  What should I do?”

Roberto suggested that since the country was in a recession his father should close the stand – after all  – how many people came in for hot dogs after midnight.  That way he wouldn’t have to pay the fee (other than for the three months that it had been retroactively applied to businesses in the ordinance).

So Giovanni began closing at midnight.  This wasn’t all bad as he got to spend more time at home with Rosa and his two twin girls who were still living with them.  But his business began to decline.  Giovanni thought that this must have been due to the recession.

A few months went by and Giovanni received a certified letter in the mail.  It was from the office of the Corporation Counsel’s office.  Giovanni was being sued for “false advertising.”  The complaint stipulated that Giovanni had a billboard which purported that his business was open 24 hours a day.  The business in fact only operated between the hours of 8 a.m. and midnight.

Giovanni had forgotten about his large billboard on the side of the highway.  The city was proposing that a fine of $500 a day be imposed for each and every day that this criminal false advertising had been “perpetrated” on the public.  That would cost Giovanni at least $30,000 since he had changed his business hours to avoid having to pay the fee the other city department wanted to collect.

Roberto was back for another break from business school.  He read the complaint and promised his father that he would handle it for him.  The next day he went down to City Hall to speak with the Corporation Counsel.  The head of the department was on vacation but Roberto was able to speak with his Second Assistant Prosecutor in charge of fraud and bunko. 

This man agreed to withdraw the complaint if Giovanni paid the fine and removed his billboard.  He realized that would take a few days and came to an accord that there would be no further levies imposed as long as Giovanni had the sign removed within ten days.  Roberto left promising to explain this to his father.  He was sure that his dad would go along with the agreement he had negotiated.

Roberto went to his dad’s hot dog stand where as usual Giovanni was behind the counter.  As he stood waiting to speak to his father he heard a long-time customer ask, “Giovanni, are you alright?  You look a little worried.”

Giovanni replied, “No, Sammy I’m okay.  Just a little trouble with the city but my boy Roberto is going to take care of it for me.  You know he’s in Harvard Business School.”

Roberto explained what he had discussed down at City Hall.  His father said, “You mean you think I should pay the $30,000 fine and tear down my sign?  Why?”

His son explained that the city had its residents’ welfare at heart.  After all, Giovanni wouldn’t want to do anything fraudulent – and the sign obviously was inaccurate since the restaurant was now only open sixteen hours a day.  He went on to explain that fighting this in a court battle would not only take a lot of his time but he would have to pay the legal fees whether he won or lost.  He reminded his dad of the old expression, “You can’t fight City Hall.”

But Roberto also told his father that if he tore down the sign he would save the $500 a month that the billboard company was charging him.  Besides, after all the years in business his customers knew where he was.  Why should he spend money every month on advertising – especially in the middle of a recession?

So the sign came down and Giovanni paid the fine to the city.  The recession got worse and now it was beginning to have an effect not only on Giovanni’s business but on his health.  As his strength failed, Giovanni had to hire two people to do the work that he had formerly done by himself.  It was hard to find good help who lived up to his standards.

One day while Giovanni was at the hot dog stand a man came in from INS – the Federal agency which makes sure that employers only hire those who are qualified to work in the United States.  He asked to see the various forms that department required be completed to make sure that Giovanni’s employees were not illegal aliens.

Giovanni looked at this agent and asked him, “What do you mean by forms?  These are kids I have known for eight or nine years – kids from the neighborhood.”  The agent wasn’t impressed with this and in the absence of Giovanni’s being able to produce the requisite forms wrote up a citation.  If convicted, Giovanni could face a fine of up to $50,000 per undocumented worker.

That night Giovanni went home and after one of Rosa’s wonderful dinners he had a heart attack.  Rosa called 911 but by the time they responded, Giovanni had passed from this world.

Roberto served as the chief Pall Bearer for his father.  The funeral was well-attended as Giovanni had made many friends through his business over the years.

No one from the City Department of Food Services, the Corporation Counsel’s office or the INS came to pay their respects.

ON COMFORT FOOD

After last night’s disturbing rest and nightmare I decided that I would treat myself today to some comfort food.  I’ve found that nothing makes a nightmare go away so quickly as dousing oneself in some of those childhood foods which always helped me feel secure and safe.  Besides, I was entitled to be happy as there is a lot of that entitlement thing making the rounds.

At first I considered going to a place that offers a wonderful comfort food dinner – things like pot roast, fried chicken, meatloaf and turkey pot pie.  All of these make the top ten of my list of comfort foods.  But much to my surprise as I planned my excursion I consulted their menu on-line and found that these items are dinner only items.  Most of their luncheon menu was burgers and wraps – and while I like those that was not what I craved.

The very first item on my list of comfort foods is pizza.  Growing up in New York City I remember that after the stress of completing a school examination there was nothing more re-assuring while waiting for the results than stopping into the local pizzeria where slices or whole pies were available.  Ah, the wondrousness of New York City pizza.  I still miss it.

I guess we all think that the foods with which we grew up were prepared “the way” that they were supposed to be made.  For that reason I still think that New York City has the best pizza pies in the universe.

I have had hotly contested debates with friends and acquaintances from Boston or Connecticut or New Jersey, places where large waves of immigrant Italians lived and opened pizzerias who hold that their childhood pizzas are the best.  While we might disagree, we do generally accept the fact that it’s hard to find a good piece of pizza west of the Hudson River.  In the ten years I have lived in Las Vegas I have had no reason to alter that opinion.

I have tried practically all the pizzerias on the west side of town.  By pizzerias I am talking about independent stand-alone mom and pop stores.  I gave up on the chains years ago and update that antipathy about twice a decade.  I mean, things can change – but I haven’t found that there has been much improvement in the mass produced pizza industry.

Well, whether the crust was too soggy or too dry; the sauce was too plentiful or too sparse; too spicy or too bland; the sausage too greasy or too crumbly; too much or too little cheese; I haven’t found a pizza out here in which I could drown my need for comfort.

About a month ago someone mentioned that a new pizzeria, Dom DeMarco’s had come to town.  It was a New York pizzeria that had expanded west.  (Yeah, I’ve heard this song before).  So I decided to give it a try.

I later learned that President Obama, when he was in town, had ordered pizzas from this establishment.  Had I known that I wouldn’t have bothered with this new place.  I mean what do people from Hawaii or wherever who toss pineapple on pizza really know about the stuff?

But ensconced in my ignorance of this future event I went on-line and found their menu.  I thought that $30 for an 18” pizza with Pepperoni, Sausage, Meatballs and Ham was pretty pricey – but based on the rave reviews I had heard I decided to order it anyway.  (This was one of their “specials pizzas” but having it my way with the exclusion of several of these and the addition of others would have been yet more costly).

I called, placing my order for a 7:30 p.m. pickup.  I emphasized the time to make sure that the young lady who took my order could hear me over the noise in the background.  I arrived for my pickup at 7:20.

As I walked in I went to the front desk to see where I should pick up my pizza.  The young lady who came to meet me asked for my phone number.  (Yes, we’ve all been reduced to numbers of some sort or other).  Fortunately, I remembered it or I might have gone hungry.

She then reached under her front desk counter, pulled a box out and plopped it on the counter together with my bill.  As I lifted the box I noticed that the bottom was almost cold.  It certainly hadn’t just come piping hot out of the oven and I wondered when during the one and one-half hours from the time I had phoned in the order and arrived to pick it up it had actually been produced.  But I paid for it and eagerly took it to my car and then home.

Since the pizza was only lukewarm I put it in the oven which I had pre-heated before I left and tried to bring it back to life and warmth.  I pulled out the two slices I had decided to consume for dinner and was only moderately unimpressed.

The crust – perhaps as a result of being reheated was extremely dry.  The sauce, however, was excellent.  But the toppings were extremely sparse.  I couldn’t find a single piece that contained all four of the featured ingredients.  Alas, yet another failure in my never-ending quest to find a really good pizza west of Secaucus. 

As it happened during one of Gracie’s and my daily morning visits to the dog park, the little group that assembles regularly at 7 o’clock was having a conversation when the two of us came over to wish them a good morning.  The subject was an Italian restaurant which one of our morning group had started frequenting.

He went on to say that he had eaten three or four meals there and raved about the quality of the food, the excellence of the service and the affordability of his meal.  My ears perked up. 

“By any chance, Freddy,” I asked, “do they have pizza on the menu?”  He said the name of the place was “Uncle Angelo’s Pizza Joint.”  It was located in an independent casino in North Las Vegas called Jerry’s Nugget.  Obviously, they had pizza – but Freddy hadn’t tried it.

Today I decided to go there for luncheon.  I walked into the casino which people who have been here for many, many years tell me has been there forever.  It’s in what has become a sort of seedy and clearly impoverished area of North Las Vegas.

I quickly found Uncle Angelo’s and waited a moment or two to be seated.  The young lady who came to the front desk quickly whisked me to my seat asking whether I would prefer a table or a booth.

When I was seated she handed me the menu and took my drink order for an iced tea with lemon which she quickly brought back to me.  I reviewed the menu to get an overview of the fare but I quickly found the pizza I wanted.  It was a 20” “Nugget Special.”  (Obviously, I planned on bringing most of it home so that in the days following I could continue to be comforted).

The combination for this pizza included pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, onions, ham, black olives, mushrooms and fresh garlic.  When my server, Glenn came to the table to take my order, I asked if we could skip the black olives and do a little extra garlic on the pizza.  “Not a problem,” he replied.  I love olives of all descriptions – but generally I don’t care for them on pizza.

During the fifteen minutes I waited for my freshly made pizza to arrive I looked around the restaurant.  It was simply appointed with some nice Italian-style prints neatly framed on the walls.  The place was nicely lit and in the background some traditional Italian songs were being played.  This inevitably included some oldies but goodies that were recorded by Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.

I sipped on my iced tea taking in the place’s ambiance.  It was basic but comfortable.  Then Glenn came to the table and placed a large tray next to my table.  Could the arrival of my pizza be far behind?

A few minutes later, my monster pizza arrived on its metal tray and was placed next to my table.  Glen took the large pointed pizza spatula and made two incisions in this masterpiece which bubbled happily as it looked forward to comforting me.  He placed a slice on my oversized pizza plate and I began to eat. 

It was fantastic.  Great crust, great sauce, loaded with toppings and cheese and piping hot.  I tossed on some oregano and some crushed peppers.  I was in hog heaven.  I had found an incredibly great pizza!  I ate that slice and a second and a third (can you say “oink”) and Glenn boxed the remaining five pieces for me to take home.

When I got my bill I noticed that I hadn’t been charged for my beverage and I brought that to Glenn’s attention.  He told me that it was their policy that beverages were included in the price of the meal – which, incidentally, was $17.  This was $13 less expensive for a larger and far superior pie than the one I had gotten from Dom DeMarco’s.

I left Glenn a 25% tip and asked to speak to the manager – but he was unavailable.  I did call later to talk with him to let him know how impressed I was with the service, his restaurant and their pizza.  I know that he appreciated the compliment.  I will definitely spread the word about this fine establishment.  Well, I guess in writing this I have already started doing that.

I have a few more comfort meals coming out of this adventure and I have finally reached my goal of finding a great pizza out west.  Now that that is out of the way, I guess I’ll turn to my other goal which is to find the solution for finally achieving world peace.

It’s just a thought, but I wonder if we assembled all of the world’s leaders and sent them to have a meal at Uncle Angelo’s Pizza Joint it might just improve their attitudes. 

And in that, we could all take comfort.

HOW TO CONFUSE YOUR WAITER

While my executive search firm specialized in finding accounting and information technology people, we would occasionally get an assignment that was a little outside our normal expertise.  One such assignment was given us by a client who was looking for a Senior Labor Arbitrator.  After hearing their specifications we felt that we would be able to handle it and began our search.

In the course of recruiting for this position I happened to speak with a man in a similar position at U. S. Steel.  Although he was happy in his position he agreed to meet me for lunch and suggested that he might have some friends who would have an interest in the opening.  So a few days later we met.

Larry MacDougall and I absolutely clicked.  It was as though we had known each other for years and were the best of friends.  In the course of our conversation he shared his background with me.

He had started working for U. S. Steel right out of high school – in one of their foundries.  He came from a blue-collar family and was the third generation working for the company.

He saw where this work had led his father and grandfather – a life of labor with very little to show for it – and started attending college at night.  He earned his degree and a Masters in Labor Relations, got married and had three children with his lovely wife (a first generation American whose family had come from Iran).  He was a true American success story – one of which Horatio Alger would have been proud.

As it turned out, Larry had prepared a list of associates whom he recommended for the position and I was able to find a candidate from among them whom our client hired.  I called him to let him know and told him that I would enjoy his company if he would allow me to buy him lunch.  We agreed to try a new Chinese restaurant that had just opened and was conveniently located about half way between both our offices.

When we got to Leong Chi’s we found a very brightly lit establishment with an almost high-school cafeteria layout.  The place was busy and we had to wait a few minutes to be seated as we stood at the podium trying to avoid being run down by the restaurant’s very busy waiters.

Our waiter came to our table and handed us our menus and immediately asked if we were ready to order.   As we had no opportunity to see what they had to offer we asked him to give us a few minutes to decide – which caused him to look rather disappointed but he left us to our own devices for the two minutes he allowed us to read the Bill of Fare

Larry and I both ordered the “Chef’s Special Combination.”  This was Americanized-Chinese food raised to celestial heights.  The meal consisted of a large quantity of pork fried rice, an egg roll, two spare ribs and two fried butterflied shrimp.  We ordered a pot of jasmine tea to accompany our meal.  An unexpected accompaniment to the meal was that when it was served so was our check.  Can you say turn the tables as fast as possible?

Despite the rather hectic atmosphere and sense of urgency that the diners should “eat and get out” we enjoyed the food and began a ritual of returning every four or five weeks to have luncheon together.  We always both ordered the “Chef’s Special Combination” – and we alternated paying for our meal.  This went on for over five years until Larry and his family relocated to California.

We had been going to lunch at Leong Chi’s for over two years when at one of our meals Larry decided he had more of a taste for shrimp that day than for spare ribs.  When our waiter came to our table – (by now I think the staff recognized us as somewhat irregular regulars) – Larry ordered the Special Combination but asked, “Would it be possible to get that with three shrimp and only one sparerib?”

Our waiter said in his pronounced Chinese accent, “Special Combination come with one egg loll, two shlimp and two spale lib.”  Larry said that he knew that but was wondering whether they would be kind enough to make the substitution that he had requested.  Our waiter seemed very upset at this request.  “Only come one way with Special Combination.”

By now it was more of a challenge than a desire but Larry asked if our waiter would be kind enough to ask the chef if he could give him his Special Combination as requested.  Our waiter turned to me and asked if I knew what I wanted.  I said that I would have the Chef’s Special Combination.  He said, “Rike on menu – or you want diffelent way too?”  I said I would take it as is.

While he went to the kitchen, Larry and I joked that his request, if granted, would probably completely screw up Leong Chi’s whole inventory system – resulting in one too few butterflied shrimp and one too many spare ribs.  It could signal the collapse of their entire accounting system.

Our waiter returned carrying two plates of the Chef’s Special Combination.  Both had been prepared as originally listed on the menu.  He said, placing Larry’s plate in front of him with a sort of inglorious thud, “You eat – you rike it.  Chef say is good this way.”  Having delivered this lecture he left immediately – after dropping the check on our table.

I moved my plate over to Larry’s side of the table and we swapped one of my shrimp for one of his spare ribs thus resolving the problem.

Despite the way this was handled we continued to patronize the restaurant – although we planned on requesting a different waiter on our future visits.  However, that problem was taken care of for us.  On our next visit we didn’t see the waiter with whom we had this confrontation.

Larry and I speculated that we might have caused this man to have a nervous breakdown and that he might have found employment with the Post Office.  He probably didn’t realize that he was going to have to deal with packages of all different sizes in his new line of employment.  We hoped he would be able to cope with that.

As we sat there eating our meal we realized that we might have been responsible for the change in this man’s career path.  As a result we resolved that we would never again be responsible for causing such a life-changing event.

In the future when we dined at Leong Chi’s we always ordered our pot of jasmine tea and two Chef’s Special Combination luncheons – just the way they appeared on the menu.

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