Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Firecracker shrimp

To this day my sister claims that she didn't almost burn down the house.

But I know better.

For a couple of years, back when I was a teenager and my sister was a pre-teen, we fell in love with shrimp chips. (If you've never had them, Chinese restaurants used to offer them, sometimes as an appetizer and sometimes gratis. They were colorful, deep fried chips that looked like colored styrofoam and tasted like shrimp. Very crunchy, very addictive.)

They came in a bag and looked like colorful, uneven poker chips. But drop them in boiling oil, and in seconds they puffed up into a delicious chip.

One day my sister put a pot of oil on the stove, cranked the burner to high, and walked out of the kitchen. Our stove took awhile to heat up, and she had other things to do.

About five minutes later I happened to walk past the kitchen. Flames were shooting out of the pot, licking at the bottom of the cabinet above the stove. For some reason there was a cookie sheet on the counter and I, thinking much more quickly than I normally did, put the sheet on top of the pot. The flames were instantly extinguished.

I began yelling at my sister. "You almost burned the house down. There were flames shooting out of the top of the pot of oil you put on the stove."

"I didn't put the pot there."

"We're the only two people in the house, and I didn't do it. That leaves only you."

She nervously glanced at the stove. "Don't tell Mom."

I glanced at the cabinet above the stove. The finish on the bottom was burnt and peeling, and the odor of smoke hung in the air. "I think she'll figure it out herself."

Needless to say, my mother never bought us shrimp chips again, and I haven't had one to this day. But there is no cabinet above our stove now, and I've been thinking...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Spy With My Little Eye

Although I've never been a private investigator, I was once spied on by one who was a great role model for what not to do.

And it wasn't even me he was supposed to be watching.

When my stepfather and his first wife were getting divorced, it got ugly for awhile. So ugly, in fact, that she had him followed by a private eye. (They later reconciled and remained friends until her death.) He and my mother, childhood friends who'd lost touch for 30 years and then reconnected, had recently started dating. (My stepfather and his first wife were no longer living together by then, and it was all over but the legal wrangling.)

She was in New York, we were in New Jersey, and when the soon-to-be-ex wanted to find out what my future stepfather was doing, she hired a PI firm in New York.

It was pretty easy to figure out what a car with New York plates was doing cruising our neighborhood all of the time.

My favorite incident was the time that, one evening, one of the PI's was parked across the street from our house. At night. Wearing sunglasses. I, who was the only one home that evening, happened to walk down the driveway to take out the trash, and spotted him. He spotted me at the same time, and quickly pulled up a newspaper to hide his face. Any chance he had of fooling me about his reason for being there was thwarted when I noticed the newspaper was upside down.

I walked up to his car and tapped on his window. He opened it, looking as innocent as a man in sunglasses at night time reading a newspaper upside down can look.

"Are you lost?" I inquired as brightly as a 16-year-old can inquire. "I know the area pretty well, and I can give you directions."

He mumbled something and started the car and began to pull away, though not before I noticed he had a gun in a shoulder holster peeking out from his coat.

I walked up the driveway and hid behind a bush. Sure enough, he pulled up again a few minutes later.

I eased back into the house and called the police, telling them that there was a man with a gun parked across the street from our house in a car with New York plates. Less than five minutes later, a police car pulled up behind my observer. Watching from the house I couldn't hear the conversation, but the PI was VERY animated and, it appeared, upset.

They both left in the police car for the police station where, as it turned out, the New York PI had no license to carry a gun in New Jersey. I later learned that the police took the gun and told the man that his boss could come down from New York to retrieve it at his convenience. They MAY have also suggested that he find a better place to park than our neighborhood.

Apparently he did, because I never saw him again. It's possible that his change of parking place coincided with a change in his employment status. But I'm just guessing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


A love I didn't even know about is, apparently, about to make me rich.

This morning I received an email with the subject line "My Beloved One." Although I like to think of myself as lovable — Don't we all? — no one has called me "beloved" in some time. Maybe never. I had to read this email.

Instantly, I was confused. The email was sent by Barr. Chinedu Anderson Esq. (KSM), on behalf of the late Scott Kennedy.

Which one considered me beloved? I was pretty sure I didn't know anyone named Chinedu; I'm quite sure I would have remembered that name. But the late Scott Kennedy, according to his esteemed barrister, left me $31.5 million in his will.

$31.5 million certainly says "beloved" to me.

But why did a person I didn't know leave me such a princely sum? According to Chinedu — by this point I felt we were on a first-name basis — "Scott Kennedy until his death was a very dedicated Christian who loved to give out."

This statement by the Chinster asked more questions than it answered. I, for one, am not a dedicated Christian, or any kind of Christian, at all, so it wasn't a spiritual linkage between the late Mr. Kennedy and myself. And what did he love to give out? Money, I suppose, but the email wasn't clear.

I read on. Mr. Kennedy's "great philanthropy earned him numerous awards during his lifetime," Chinny stated. I'd never heard of Mr. Kennedy or his awards until this morning, but I don't move in philanthropic circles, so this certainly is possible. I don't regularly read the obituaries, either, so Mr. Kennedy's demise could have easily slipped by me.

But why was I chosen to receive millions of dollars? Chinedu had an explanation for that as well: "this money is to support your activities and to help the poor and the needy."

I'm not poor and needy, though compared to someone who's handing out $31.5 million I suppose I would be. That sum would definitely support my activities, and even enable me to develop some new ones.

How could I claim this money? The instructions were simple: respond with my full name, telephone number, contact address/country, occupation, age, and "identity card or national drivers license."

Wait, wouldn't Scott Kennedy have known most, if not all, of this information about someone to whom he was leaving $31.5 million? And being American, I have no national drivers license or identity card, unless my social security card counts.

But why quibble when millions of dollars are at stake? I eagerly sent back my information. Under occupation I wrote, "waiting by the mailbox."


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fore-get It

When I was growing up my cousin's town had an annual Junk Day where folks could put out anything they didn't want for the trash men to pick up. This is why I've only played golf once.

On Junk Day my cousin Philip and I would roam around his town, looking for treasures others were throwing out. One year, when we were probably 12 or 13, we hit the jackpot. Or, rather, several jackpots.

In one person's trash we found an old, but still decent looking, golf club. A few doors down we found another. Within an hour we probably had a dozen clubs of various types and sizes. (We even found and took a couple of left-handed clubs, for goodness knows what reason.)

By the end of the afternoon we felt like we had enough different woods and irons — we didn't really know the differences, though they mostly had different numbers — along with a putter (we knew what that one was) to actually try to play.

Luckily, there was a Par 3 (some places might call it an Executive Course or a Pitch 'N Putt) course nearby. Off we went, with the clubs tied to our bicycles. We had no golf bag, but we had plenty of clubs.

At the course we ran into a problem: on busy days the owner insisted on groups of four players, and there were only two of us. Fortune smiled upon us, in the form of two guys, both in their early 20's, who were in the same predicament and were willing to go together as a foursome.

I don't remember them asking us if we'd ever played before, but they could probably tell by our fine collection of clubs that we were new to the game. As we approached the first hole we politely told them they could go first, thinking we could watch them and learn what to do.

At the first hole one of them set up his ball and swung. Hole in one. He was thrilled.

At the second hold the other one went first. He swung. Hole in one.

Philip and I looked at each other. Then we looked at our golf partners. "I don't think we're the right guys for you," Philip said. "You should play with someone better."

And we left. I haven't played golf since. I can't speak for Philip.

Friday, July 17, 2009

You auto see this

I like shopping for a new car, primarily because the potential for entertainment is often high.

The time I was shopping for a Mazda Miata was one of those times. Not because of the dealership where I eventually bought the car; that salesperson was honest, ethical and professional — but the one I visited after his, just to confirm that what I thought was a great deal was, in fact, a great deal.

I walked into the second dealership, at the time a combined Pontiac-Mazda dealership, late on a Saturday morning. I told the greeter at the desk I was interested in a Miata, and she turned me over to a salesperson. A very stereotypical salesperson, with a food stain on his shirt, a tie that had seen better days, and a hearty handshake.

I told him I didn't need a test drive, but I was buying a Miata that day, and already had a price from another dealer. He ushered me into his office, and I, not wanting to waste time, told him what dealership I'd already visited and what price I'd been given.

He gave me a lecture, in a somewhat fatherly, somewhat superior tone, about why the price that other dealership had given me wasn't really going to happen. He told me about what shysters they were, all of the tricks they were pulling to get me to buy, and a number of other criticisms that didn't at all match the actual treatment I'd received at the first dealership.

Then he told me he was going to talk to his sales manager "to get you a real deal" and disappeared.

I waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Finally, bored, I left his office and wandered down the only hallway to what turned out to be the sales manager's office.

I poked my head in the office. Inside was the man I presumed was the sales manager, along with several other salespeople, all watching a baseball game on TV. They looked up, slightly shocked and perturbed, when I appeared. My salesman was the most perturbed of all. "Have you had a chance to talk to the sales manager yet?" I inquired brightly. He waved me back to his office.

He hustled down the hall behind me, and we both sat. He, being overweight and, apparently out of shape, was a bit out of breath. "I was, uh (wheeze) ... the sales manager had to (wheeze) do some research."

Unless the sales manager was researching whether Mike Mussina would throw a fast-ball or a slider on a 3-2 pitch to a left hander, I doubted there was much research going on. Still, I listened with a straight face while the salesperson told me why HIS deal, which would have cost me $1,000 more than the deal I'd already been promised, was by far the better deal.

"They're liars!" he thundered, referring to the dealership I'd visited earlier. "They take advantage of people who don't know any better." Apparently, I was one of those people.

I stood up, thanked him for his time, told him I was going to take advantage of my better deal, shook his hand and left. His comment: "You'll see. You'll be back."

He was right about one thing: when I returned to the original dealership, the deal wasn't what I'd originally been offered. It was better.

When I'd visited the dealership initially, the salesperson had given me a price for the car ($1,000 over invoice, very fair at the time) while his used car manager had called around to various wholesalers to see what he could get for my old Honda. (The dealership didn't want my car for its own used car lot, and so was wholesaling it to someone else.) $2,500 was the best price the used car manager had received, my salesperson told me. I was happy, because Blue Book value was $2,200 at the time.

When I got back to the first dealership, my salesperson, Steve, greeted me with a smile. "Hey, after you left one of the other dealerships called back, and we can get $3,000 for your Honda."

"Really? Wow. Write it up."

Now, he could have done the deal and given me $2,500. I would have been happy and never known better. But he sweetened the deal by $500 because, I suppose, it was the ethical thing to do.

Since then I've bought two other cars from that dealership and referred it to two friends who both bought cars. Steve, unfortunately, is long gone.

So, less unfortunately, is the Pontiac-Mazda dealer. I wonder if the sales manager got to keep the TV.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Scam-A-Rama Ding Dong

Our oldest daughter, at the tender age of 15, is on the verge of having money. A lot of money.

Or so says a letter she just received today from a man in South Carolina (we're in Maryland).

The letter, which many, many folks have received, is a variation on the old chain letter scheme: send the seven people on a list some money, remove the top person's name, add your name to the bottom of the list, mail to a bunch of people (in this case 200) and wait for the money to roll in.

The letter promised that our daughter, currently making minimum wage as a restaurant hostess, would make $71,000, $250,000 or $800,000. (The letter was a little vague on the exact amount to expect, but in bold, capital letters it said the $800,000 was guaranteed. (It neglected to mention by whom.)

Skeptical? Well, don't be. The letter offered not one, not two, but three proofs:

Oprah Winfrey had tested this idea and it worked.
ABC's 20/20 had tested this idea and it worked.
A retired attorney had tested this idea and it worked. His unsigned letter — no name given — was part of the package.

I wonder just what sort of attorney he was.

For one thing, his punctuation and grammar are, shall we say, a bit creative. (He particularly likes to capitalize words randomly in the middle of sentences.) He also seems to be unaware that chain letters such as this are illegal, and have been for years.

I suspect he's also a little math challenged, since the letter he cites returns of $71,000, $250,000, $800,000 and $2,341,178 for a mere $3 investment. It doesn't take much of a mathematician to realize that, since none of these numbers are divisible by 3, either some folks don't mail $3, some folks can't count, or some folks are running a scam.

What are the odds?

My favorite part of the letter is this:

The attorney tells his client, who brought him the letter originally, that it is "100% legal." Apparently 100% isn't enough, because his client "then asked me to alter it to make it perfectly legal."

What's the difference between "100% legal" and "perfectly legal"? "I asked him to make one small change in the letter."

There are other letters included in the packet, along with helpful instructions, including the comment that stamps are sold at the Post Office. (Gotta spell everything out for some people, I guess.)

Don't know 200 people to whom you can mail this golden opportunity? Not to worry: information on a company that sells mailing lists is in the instructions, along with the company's phone number and the note that it accepts Mastercard and Visa.

So how did this stranger in South Carolina get our daughter's name? If he followed the instructions, he asked the mailing list company for names in this category: Opportunity Seekers.

Our daughter must be one, though I haven't seen her seek too many opportunities beyond attempting to make the track team and soccer team at school.

Sadly, her five-, six- or seven-figure income opportunity doesn't seem like it's going to happen any time soon. But her economic future isn't all bad.

Minimum wage goes up next week.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Silence is Golden

My first wife, for reasons I never understood, was fluent in sign language for the deaf. When we met I thought it was a fairly useless skill, but it turned out I was wrong.

One day we were riding the subway in New York (at the time we both lived in New Jersey, not far from Manhattan) and a group of teenagers got on our train. They were hooting and hollering and making a lot of noise, though not speaking actual words. The reason became quickly obvious: they were deaf.

As they carried on and the people in the car looked at them, they began signing to each other about how stupid and ugly all of us were. They criticized what everyone else in the subway car was wearing, reading, doing, etc. I turned to my wife. "You know what they're saying, don't you?" She nodded.

We continued on, as they finally got around to commenting in sign language about us. We sat silently. Then we arrived at our stop.

As the train doors opened and we stood to walk out, my wife signed to them: "You're right, there are stupid people on this train. Guess who?"

The looks on their faces were priceless.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sit down, stand up, fight, fight, fight

This past weekend I did a two-day walk to raise money for multiple sclerosis, and this year for the first time (at least in Maryland) the event included both walkers and bicycle riders.

The walkers went 50k, or 31 miles, over two days. The bike riders had a choice of routes, but most went 50-125 miles over two days.

At the awards ceremony after the event, the chapter president had no trouble telling which group was which.

"The walkers," he noted, "are sitting down. The bikers are standing up."

Sore legs or sore ass. It's always something.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Plus ça change...

If you've ever wondered how much times have changed in America, spend a few minutes with the 1925 yearbook from, in this case, Catonsville High School.

I have to admit this is the first time I've ever seen an ad for bloomers. (The "Man O' War Middy," sold with the boast "the sloped sides make it fit." Oh, it's "wholesome looking.") The portable steel garage was advertised with this provocative question: "Why own a car and walk halfway home?" Milk came from tuberculin tested cows. Grocery stores also sold animal feed, Hudson and Essex automobiles were available at excellent prices, and a private sanitarium was the place "for mental and nervous invalids (no alcoholics or drug addicts received)." Automobile insurance covered "you while operating, adjusting or cranking any automobile" (and if you were run over by an automobile as well). The premium? Five dollars a year. And who needed margarine when one could buy butterine?

The second best section of the book is split between the sections titled Noted Personages — students judged to be the Class Hercules, Class Romeo, Queen of the Ivories, Most Versatile (?) and other categories — and what are charmingly termed Class Statistics.

You might think statistics involves numbers. Well, not in 1925. The class statistics included: tallest boy, tallest girl, best boy athlete, best girl athlete, and shortest boy and girl.

Then come the categories that would never fly today: most thrilling Latin type (Herbert Rice, who hardly sounds Latin), most obliging girl (one can only imagine), biggest tease (ditto, though won by a boy that year), most backward in coming forward (different from quietest, most studious, most unobtrusive or meekest), and the list goes on. Elizabeth Rodgers had the most attractive dimples, though Cora Appler beat her out for prettiest eyes. Lula Cook was the class milliner — I'll wait while you look it up — and Albrecht Stude (great name for a band) was the most argumentative.

The best part, though, is the jokes and riddles. Even the names of the people speaking are great:

Miss K: Billy, give your oral composition.
Absent-minded Billy: I left it home.

Pedagogue: What would be the first thing you would do if you spilled acid on yourself?
Victim: Yell.

Some of the jokes require bits of knowledge that I never acquired in school — the composition of Glauber's Salts, for example, and the meaning of slang expressions such as "chewing the rag" (it means to ponder or meditate) — but one still has meaning today:

How to avoid falling hair: get out of the way.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New relationship, stat

More than once, I've found humor in a place you'd probably least expect it: the hospital emergency room.

Once when I was waiting my turn for a doctor (I had a broken finger, not so serious), a man was rushed in by an ambulance crew. It didn't take a medical expert to spot the problem. He had a hatchet in his head.

Surprisingly, he was both conscious and coherent. As they rushed him into an operating room, he was yelling about how his girlfriend had been the one to hit him in the head with a hatchet. His threat, yelled to everyone within earshot but clearly meant only for his absent girlfriend, was this: "the relationship is over, bitch!"

I guess so.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lessons Learned

When I was a kid, probably 7 or 8, my parents tried to teach me a lesson every parent has to teach at one point: behaving in the car.

In their case, I think the lesson wasn't the one they were expecting.

I had, apparently, been acting up or fussing about something. Whatever it was, my father said something like, "If you don't stop, I'm going to make you get out of the car."

I didn't, and he did.

Where we were was a commercial part of town — not a highway, exactly, but sort of a highway — with stores on either side. It was night time. My guess is the plan was to make me get out of the car, drive a short distance away, then come back and get me. I guess I was supposed to be so scared that I'd actually been left that I'd never misbehave in the car again.

Unfortunately, no one had given me the script, and I didn't play my part.

I can't remember what store my parents dropped me off in front of, but I remember vividly the one that was a couple of doors down: it sold boats and boating supplies. It looked interesting, so I walked over there.

Meanwhile, my parents drove off a little ways, turned around, and came back to hear the tearful apologies from their thoroughly chastened son.

Except I wasn't there. Nor was I in the store where they'd dropped me off. Or the one next to it.

When they finally found me, after half an hour of frantic searching, they had forgotten the lesson they were trying to teach. (I'm sure my lack of contrition and puzzlement at their frantic faces was part of the problem.)

The lesson I learned? Parents get really angry and upset when you look at boats.

I have yet to teach that lesson to my own children.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Bama

I haven't heard all of the legendary disk jockeys in America, but I've heard most of them: the great New York record spinners of the 1960s, on both the rock stations and the black stations. The 50s legends (though some only on recordings), such as Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack. Tom Wilson from L.A. The AM giants, including Murray the K and Cousin Brucie. The wild and profane, the demented and the scholarly.

The best ever, as far as I'm concerned, was occasionally rough, often unpolished, and as much a philosopher (albeit homespun) as a disk jockey.

That, of course, would be Jerry Washington, whose Blues Hour (actually three hours) on Washington's WPFW-FM was the only place to be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday.

Nicknamed The Bama (the term is a derogatory one denoting someone who is a country bumpkin, a hayseed, a yokel, which Washington most assuredly was not), Washington would break every rule of polished radio announcing: pauses for thought, repeating himself occasionally, correcting himself, sometimes long after the fact. But he combined a deep, deep knowledge and understanding of the blues with a sometimes ironic, sometimes hilarious, sometimes jaw-droppingly wise stream of philosophical observations, mostly about the relationships between men and women. Mostly about all of the things that can go wrong in those relationships, all of the things that can be misunderstood, all of the ways words and actions can be misinterpreted.

Like many Pacifica radio stations, WPFW was always hurting for money, its combination of jazz and left-leaning, Afro-centric talk and politics less than viable commercially. One year, feeling flush, I donated enough during the annual fund drive to qualify for the gifts of a Bama coffee mug and a cassette of some of his thoughts.

The coffee mug arrived within a couple of weeks. The cassette, despite several phone calls, was apparently never sent by the station's volunteer workers. I eventually gave up trying.

But about once a week or so I have my morning coffee in my Bama mug. It always tastes a little funky that day.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Do My Bidding

I once offered to do a project for free and was underbid.

The project was a pro bono project — I can't remember the client — and because it was a good group and a worthy cause, and it had been awhile since I'd done a pro bono project, I offered to do it for free.

The woman who'd contacted me thanked me. She told me I'd hear from her soon.

She called back a few days later to tell me she'd spoken to another writer. My thought: "And you're calling me to tell me this because...?"

The other writer, she said, had not only offered to do the project for free, but was going to make a donation to the organization.

In the same tone clients have when they say, "I found someone who will do it for less. Will you match their price?" she told me that she was sure I was a better writer, "but his offer was so generous," and she was going to have to "reluctantly" choose the other writer "unless you feel you can tweak your offer."

I believe "tweak" meant "send us a check."

I told her "free" was as low as I could go, but I was glad she'd found a more generous offer. I asked her to send a sample of what the other writer did (she didn't tell me who it was), because I was curious.

That was several years ago. I'm still waiting.

Hatred is a Virtue

"I Hate New Music: The Classic Rock Manifesto" by Dave Thompson isn't the longest rant I've ever read — almost any political book would top it —but at 224 pages it certainly is the longest smirk.

Thompson truly does hate just about everything recorded after 1976, finding punk, new wave, post punk, grunge, jam bands, and power pop to be nothing but recycled ideas. And synthesizers, he says, should be used only to make space and fart noises.

This is the book that the record store employees from the movie Clerks, with their smirking superiority, would have written, had they been capable of mustering the energy and the articulateness to do it.

Filled with in-jokes and too clever by half commentary — one would have to know, for example, that Eric Clapton wrote Layla about his infatuation with friend George Harrison's wife, and later stole said wife — to understand why it was so tacky for Clapton to play that song at a tribute concert for George following the former Beatle's death. One would have to share his distinction that 60's artists were "influenced" by their predecessors, while 80's musicians "copied" theirs.

I wish Thompson had taken his manifesto to the extreme and posited that the Beatles barely advanced Chuck Berry, and then it was all over. That, at least, would have been a defensible position.

Or not.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hop on the Bus

When I was 16 I spent a summer as a counselor at a day camp for underprivileged, inner city youths. (I had my car and my locker broken into more times than I can count, hut that's another story.)

One day a slightly older co-worker asked me if I wanted a ticket. To see the Rolling Stones. At Madison Square Garden. That night. Mick Jagger's birthday. For free. (This was the 1972 tour, when the Stones were still at their peak.)

He, for some reason, only had the one ticket, and his girlfriend was pissed that he didn't have two (to also take her) and that he was even THINKING about going himself. So I got lucky.

I lived in New Jersey, about 40 minutes outside Manhattan by bus, and went into the city regularly. After work my mother gave me a ride to the bus station, and off I went.

Stevie Wonder was the warm-up band, and he was incredible. The Stones were as well. But the best part of the concert was my seat mates.

Just before Wonder came onstage a large, very flashy black man and two black women sat in the three seats next to me. I realize now (but certainly didn't then) that he was a pimp, and the two women were his ... employees.

For some reason he took a liking to me, a skinny, long haired, suburban white kid. He offered me liquor from a flask (I declined) and then some "blow" (I didn't know what that was), but didn't seem to mind as I repeatedly turned him down.

One of the women was VERY affectionate with him during the show, while the other was eying me. As the concert was nearing its end, he started talking about what we should do after the show.

"Looks like Charisse (the name of the woman who was eying me) really likes you. After the show come back to our hotel for a little party."

I, having no idea what he was talking about, thought for a minute. "Oh, I can't," I told him. "The last bus leaves at 11:30."

"The last bus?" He was incredulous.

"Yeah, I took the bus here. I can't miss the last bus."

"Instead of coming with us you're gonna catch a bus?" Now he seemed amused.
He shook his head. Charisse giggled a little, as did the other woman.

The concert ended and we parted, me wondering what it had all been about (I'm a little less naive now) and he, no doubt, muttering "crazy white kids" under his breath.

To this day I consider it one of the best concerts I've ever attended. Even though, in retrospect, it appears that I might have missed the best part.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Roll the Dice

My wife's record as a gambler is enviable: she's never lost. At least in a casino.

Years ago we were vacationing in St. Martin, and arrived early for a dinner reservation in a restaurant whose building also housed a casino. With time to kill, my wife's curiosity led us into the casino.

It was tiny and amateurish, compared to American casinos, the equivalent of something you might build in your basement: two short rows of slot machines (maybe 20 in all), one roulette wheel, half a dozen tables for various games. My wife, intimidated by the tables and wheel, approached the slots. She asked how they worked, and I explained.

"Do we have time for me to try one?" "Sure, go ahead."

She inserted a coin and yanked the lever (these weren't the modern electronic machines). The wheels spun. She won nothing. She tried again. Nothing. She tried a third time.

Ding ding ding! Lights flashed, bells rang, and coins began to spill out of the machine and onto the floor, rolling and bouncing around us. My wife began giggling uncontrollably. "I won! I won!"

She gathered up her winnings, which were about $80. 

"What do we do now?" 

"We leave. You just won enough to pay for dinner." 

"But I want to play some more."

"Of course you do. And if you play long enough you'll give it all back. Trust me."

And off we went to dinner. It was all the more tasty for being paid for by gambling winnings. My wife has never been in a casino since and, apparently, hasn't missed it.

Last year for Christmas I bought her a one-year subscription to the lottery's Mega Millions, which meant that she was automatically entered into every drawing (twice a week) for a year. The Maryland Lottery sends you a letter if you've won a larger amount (I think over $1,000), but just adds up your smaller winnings and sends you a check for them at the end of the year.

Every day, of course, I'd run out to the mailbox to see if we'd received that $1,000+ letter. I mentally spent multimillion dollar prizes many times over.

One day there was a letter from the Maryland Lottery, which she eagerly ripped open. Inside was a check for her year's worth of winnings.

$18. We ate dinner at home.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sitting In Limbo

On Easter I gave a gift to a stranger that, I believe, made us both happy: she self righteously, me, well...

Two of our children were altar servers at 9 o'clock Mass on Easter morning, so my wife and I went. (I try to go to most of the Masses they serve.) For those who have never been to a Catholic Mass, there are a couple of occasions when the parishioners kneel.

Just as the service was starting, an older woman (70s, maybe) sat next to me. She looked rather severe.

All was fine until the first point during the service when parishioners kneeled. Not being Catholic, I didn't, but remained seated in the pew. She shot me a look.

The second time everyone else kneeled, I again remained seated. She glared at me. She said nothing, but her body language said it all.

I was going to lean over and whisper to her, "I'm Jewish," but I stopped myself. Clearly she was receiving some pleasure by being so disapproving. I was sure she was going to mention my actions (or lack of actions) to someone else later in the day. Who was I to deny her a "tsk, tsk" moment?

When the service ended she gave me one more look before scurrying away. I felt like a heathen. A happy, giving heathen.

I hope she sits next to me the next time I go.

Monday, April 13, 2009

'Tis better to give

Have you ever received a gift that seemed to be more for the giver than for you? This year I received several which semed suspiciojusly driven by self interest.

I only asked for two gifts, and received them both: a home made bookmark from one daughter, and a large ceramic mixing bowl (I'd broken my favorite one) from my wife.

My wife also inexplicably gave me some TV trays, so I could eat dinner while sitting in front of the TV I never watch. (I watch the least TV of anyone in the house by far.) A couple of years ago she gave me a breadmaker, which she used (and loved) sveral tims before I ever got around to doing anything with it. (Since it just broke I'm expecting another as a gift some time soon.)

I tend to receive gifts that the rest of the family wants, but since I really want very little it all works out. My brother-in-law was going to give me one of three books, and since he'd read two he gave me the other, assuming (correctly) that I'd lend it to him once I finished it.

One of my closest friends said he plans to give me some very nice cigars.

I don't smoke. He does.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


I occasionally get emails meant for another person with my name, who assume that my first initial and last name at Gmail is this other guy. (My name isn't very common.) Today I received the best email yet.

The subject line consisted of only three letters: "wtf." The opening sentence: "Whatup dude."

I knew right away the email wasn't meant for me.

My other me was wished well (apparently I'm leaving a job or a place, I couldn't tell which). I was asked how long it took me to get used to my CPAP machine, told about a traffic stop where the writer had avoided a ticket, and asked how my wife was doing. (Fine, thanks.)

I was asked if I felt antsy about leaving (no) and told I was missed and that my name was "invoked every time there is free food." I guess that's a compliment.

Then came the heavy stuff: "my unsolicited, uninformed opinion is that you may have a pill addiction and it could possibly be underlying a lot of your issues, at least since Yvonne."

Oh boy, am I in denial. I had no idea I had a bad pill habit. Nor can I quite recall Yvonne. Guess I was so wasted on pills I didn't get her name. Or something.

It gets better: "At the same time, I feel like a HUGE hypocrite telling you that because I really enjoyed the pills you gave me and I wish you were here to give me more."

Now, actually, I think he feels like a huge idiot for sending this email to the wrong person.

I can't wait to see who writes me next. I just get more interesting by the minute.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Good Deed

In the category of "no good deed shall go unpunished," I would place the time our oldest daughter lost her iPod in the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Then 13, she'd insisted on bringing her new iPod on a family trip to the aquarium, and as we were leaving she suddenly realized that she no longer had it. I retraced our entire path through the aquarium and checked with the lost and found. (It turned out the aquarium didn't always keep everything in its central lost and found, so I was directed to visit the guard station on each floor as well as the lost and found.)

No iPod anywhere. She was teary in the way that a 13-year-old girl can be. Our only hope was that the person who'd found her iPod was an honest soul, since her first name and phone number were engraved on the iPod.

The next day a man from Annapolis, about half an hour from us, had her iPod. I arranged to stop by his house that Saturday and retrieve it, repeatedly thanking him and telling him how relieved and happy our daughter would be.

That Saturday our son wanted to take a drive with me, so we went to Annapolis together. When we arrived at the address we'd been given no one was there, but a note on the door said the man who'd called us would be back in a minute.

He was, and after greeting us he went inside, got the iPod, and came back out.

That's where the trouble began. He began lecturing me about being careless, hiw lucky I was that he'd been the type of person who would call about and return lost property, and how the aquarium was no place to bring an iPod.

When he paused I repeated that the iPod was our daughter's, not mine, and that I was the wrong person to lecture. His response? He lectured me more. Our son, then 11, just stared at him. This guy was a Good Samaritan Maniac.

Finally he ran out of steam and we escaped. I lead footed it out of his neighborhood.

When we were halfway home our son, who'd been silent all this time, finally gave voice to what was on his mind. "Dad," he said. "It would have been easier just to buy a new iPod."


Monday, March 23, 2009

Say It Ain't So, Joe

Joe Vitale is, by almost any estimation, a terrific drummer. In the last 40 years he's played with Joe Walsh, Ted Nugent, the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Dan Fogelberg and many others. He's recorded three solo albums, produced or co-produced a few, and played in dozens of countries. He appears to be a very nice guy.

He has, however, produced a lackluster book, a story of life as a musician which was just released. Written and edited by his wife (it's an "as told to" book) and designed by his son, this is a real family affair. A big Italian family.  big Italian family that talks about how humble it is, how flattered it is and how many stories it has.

If you find stories about musicians falling asleep on sofas and being left behind on tour buses, guitarists mistakingly turning up fans rather than amplifiers and people drawing mustaches on pictures to be side splittingly hilarous, you'll love this book. But somehow, the funny stories Vitale keeps saying he's going to tell never materialize. Curiously, in 40 years of touring with rock bands Vitale never seems to have seen a single groupie or drug incident, never seen a performer give a sloppy performance while drunk or high, never seen anyone act less than professional.

Now that's funny.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


For those of you who haven't yet completed your Mother's Day shopping — I can't believe you've waited this long — this is the story of the best gift I ever gave my mother.

My mother, a first generation American, grew up in New York City (Queens, to be exact) during the Depression. She loved the theatre, but there was no money for something as frivolous as a theatre ticket. Most of the time, she'd join the crowd outside a Broadway theatre during intermission after the first act of a play and walk in, find an empty seat and watch the last half or two thirds of the show. She might not have been able to completely follow the plot, having missed the first act, but it was free. On the rare occasions when she was able to scrape together the money for a ticket, it was always for the cheapest seats farthest from the stage. The actors may have been tiny figures from her vantage point but at least she was there.

To my mother, the more well-to-do women in the expensive seats seemed like slightly exotic creatures. She was in awe of their greatest indulgence: even though these well dressed women were close to the stage, they still brought opera glasses to see. (For those unfamiliar, opera glasses are small, low powered, somewhat elegant binoculars.)

Those opera glasses became, to my mother, the symbol of the good life she hoped one day to attain.

Fast forward many years, to the point where I was in my late teens. By this time my mother was living a solidly middle class life. She and my stepfather, avid lovers of theatre, opera and the symphony, went to many shows a year,usually in the more expensive seats.

She could have easily afforded a pair of opera glasses, but never bought this indulgence for herself.

So one year, for her birthday, I did.

The look on her face when she opened the package was one I will never forget. Her eyes filled with tears and, I must admit, so did mine.

I don't think she's ever used her opera glasses, but she's kept them in a prominent spot on the shelves in their living room everywhere she's lived since then. When she dies, I'll give them to one of our daughters, whichever one I think will most appreciate them.

I'll tell our daughters the story of how their grandmother came to own such a magnificent, fancy, frivolous item as a pair of opera glasses. And I'll let them draw their own conclusions.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Separated at birth

Which one is Tony Kornheiser, ESPN and Monday Night Football commentator, and which one is me? Hint: I'm grayer but he's younger (and taller and richer).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


One of the very few heroes I have whom I've actually met died yesterday: Father Joseph Martin.

Father Martin, a Baltimore native, was a recovering alcoholic who developed a series of chalk talks based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and toured the world delivering his talks. Tapes and DVDs of his speeches have, no doubt, been seen by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. He also co-founded Father Martin's Ashley, a recovery center in Maryland.

I met Father Martin in July of 2003 while visiting someone at Ashley. He and I spoke for, at most, five minutes. In November of 2004 I saw him again. Not only did he remember me and my religion, but he also asked a question related to our 2003 conversation. In the 16 months between meetings he had, I'm sure, spoken to thousands of people. I was astonished that he remembered our five-minute conversation.

But that's not why he's my hero.

Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and a recovering alcoholic who was a patient at Ashley and served on its board, said he'd met "presidents, kings, popes and prime ministers, but Father Martin was the most powerful person I'd ever met." Why? Because he "had the power to change people, to make them better, to make them whole again."

Directly and indirectly Father Martin saved thousands of lives, and that's not hyperbole.

But that is why he's my hero.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Big wheel keep on turning

In the past two weeks I've been contacted by three people I never expected to hear from: my first wife, my last boss (who fired me) and a girl who, in high school, once threw up in my car.

Apparently the karmic wheel is turning in mysterious ways, though I can't imagine what I've done to deserve this.

For the record I bear none of these folks any ill will. My ex-wife was, and probably still is, a great person. We just weren't great together. We both recognized that fact and moved on. My former boos taught me a lot, and although I wasn't too happy about being fired — "shocked" would probably be a better term — it ultimately changed my life for the better.

And the woman who once threw up in my car, who found me on Facebook, had to remind me about that incident. I'd forgotten all about it, and I never liked that car anyway. (She, on the other hand, was a sweetheart then, and probably is today.)

Now, though, I'm thinking about all of the people who ever wronged me, or who I wronged. Every day is a potential Ghost of Christmases Past.

I'm afraid to check my email.

Higher School

During my sophomore year of high school, the school hired two gym — excuse me, physical education — teachers for the year, with the understanding that only one of them would be kept after that year.

One, a former Marine with a buzz cut, was close to being a fascist, and was astonished when any of us didn't share his enthusiasm for sweaty physical activity. (A passion, I'll point out, that he talked about but never appeared to partake in himself.) The other had longer hair and was much more laid back, occasionally cutting class short on hot days.

Unfortunately for most of the students, gym teacher #2's car was found abandoned along the side of the road, apparently after an accident. The police found a bag of marijuana in the car and, some time later, found the gym teacher. who'd fled after the accident.

You can guess which teacher received the contract for the following year.

That teacher, who insisted on being called "Coach" by the students, would have been surprised by what we called him behind his back: his name was Schlenker, but we referred to him as Canker.

"Clueless" might have been closer. He once asked us to form a semi-circle, and we dutifully sat in front of and beside him. He looked behind him and saw no one there. "Why isn't anyone behind me? he asked. Another day, when he was teaching the health unit, he asked us which would get a person cleaner, a shower or a bath. Our consensus was the shower, because laying in a bathtub meant soaking on one's own dirty water. With a gleam in his eye — the wily Coach had put one over on the students! — he informed us we were all wrong, wrong, wrong. A bath, he said, would get a person much cleaner. Why? Because after soaking in a bath one should drain the water and quickly rinse under the shower.

Our protest that his solution was neither a bath or a shower, but actually both, fell on deaf ears.

He also, during driver's ed, insisted that the gears on an automatic transmission car were Park-Neutral-Reverse-Drive. When I offered the observation that Neutral was, in fact, between Park and Reverse, he was so incensed that he sent me to the Principal's office.

It was the best day in gym class I ever had. No one ever had to exercise in the principal's office.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The Reno trip where I watched people get married — see post below — was notable for one other activity: breakfast with John Madden. There wasn't much breakfast, but there was plenty of Madden.

The event, which I guess I didn't mention earlier, was a convention for people in the coin-op (vending machines, video/pinball machines) industry. One of my stepbrothers was (and is) a video game guy, and he invited his brother and me to join him at his expense. We did. Most folks arrived Friday afternoon or evening, then were up late (or, in some cases, all night) gambling. Saturday morning was Breakfast with John Madden, and we were all excited to go.

Breakfast, as it turned out, meant sitting in a small theatre in the hotel while Madden spoke. Everyone stumbled in (the event was pretty early in the morning, as I recall), bleary-eyed and hungover. We all quickly discovered two problems: there was no coffee or liquids of any kind (and everyone was dehydrated) and "breakfast" was a small platter of stale Danish and muffins.

We all slumped in our seats, wishing for coffee and a nap. We got neither.

What we got was Madden, stomping around the stage like a man possessed, waving his arms and offering football stories and life's great lessons taught with sports metaphors.

Madden, apparently, feeds off the energy of his audience. We had none to give. His strategy: stomp more, wave more, get louder. The deeper we slumped into our seats, the more frenetic he became. All around the theatre, people cringed at his high volume assault.

Eventually, and mercifully, Madden reached the end of his speech. (Whether he'd plan to end it at that point or gave up on us I couldn't tell.) He left us with this:

"There are three kinds of people in this world: people who make it happen, people who watch it happen, and people who say, 'what happened?'"

I was pretty sure I knew what kind we all were.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pay to Play

I've had pretty good luck with ATMs over the years. In fact, they've been pretty profitable.

There was the time I withdrew $100 from my checking account using the ATM at the bank across the street from my office (not my bank) and according to the receipt my account had $30,000+ in it. This was off by at least a couple of zeros. I went in and asked our comptroller, who was a friend of mine, if I'd get in trouble if I withdrew that money and later claimed I thought it was mine. "Well," he said, "you'd have to show that you had a reasonable expectation of thinking that money was yours. Is $30,000 the average amount you have in your checking account?"

The answer was obvious. I left the money where it was. A few hours later when I checked my balance it was in the hundreds, where it belonged.

Another time, I walked up to an ATM, got out my card and noticed there was already a card in the slot. Apparently, someone had forgotten to take his card. I called the number on the back (it was the Navy Federal Credit Union — why do I remember that, of all things?) but it was in the evening and no one answered. Thinking I wanted him to get his card back, I figured I'd put it in the ATM, enter the wrong PIN a few times and the machine would keep his card. The bank employees would retrieve it (and, I thought, return it) in the morning.

I inserted his card and punched "1234" in as the PIN. "1234" turned out to be his PIN. I could have drained his account. In a panic, I cancelled the transaction, took out his card and cut it up. In retrospect, I should have noted his name and called his credit union the next day to tell them that he should change his PIN.

But the real profitable incident came a couple of years ago, when I stopped at a bank on my way to work at 8:50 to withdraw some cash. I asked for $40, but the machine gave me $140, though the receipt only showed $40. thinking I'd be honest, and noticing there were employees in the bank, I knocked on the locked door to return the extra $100. The employees pointed at the clock on the wall, to show me that the bank didn't open until 9. Insistent, I banged on the door and waved the $100 bill. The employees, no doubt thinking I wanted to complain that the ATM had shortchanged me, pointed at the clock equally insistently. I tried to mime that I wanted to give them the $100 bill, but apparently my miming skills weren't good enough. After trying for five minutes to give them back their money, I gave up. They didn't want their money? Fine, I'd keep it.

That bank is now out of business. Though I doubt my $100 exploit was the reason.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Wedding Bell Blues

The first time I was in Reno, Nevada, it took me about an hour to get bored playing blackjack (I'm not a big casino person). The hotel where we were staying had a small chapel in the basement, and I thought I'd wander down there an watch people get married every 15-20 minutes.

It was even better than I expected.

I watched for an hour and a half, and it was one train wreck after another. Couples who were so drunk they were (barely) holding each other up. People who couldn't count out the money to pay for the wedding. Grooms who remarked "That's a nice name" when they heard their bride's last name, apparently for the first time.

None of them had any business getting married.

During rare breaks in the action I chatted with the minister about his job. Did people have to demonstrate any mental competence, or knowledge of what they were doing? Did people have to be sober enough to know what day it was? The answer was no: if they had ID, were old enough and had the money, that was all the minister needed. I wondered if legally marrying people who could barely stand up bothered him in any way. (I'm not being judgmental; I was just curious.) It turned out he was okay with it.

What percentage of the people he married, I asked him, were likely to remember what they'd done when they woke up the next day? What percentage would roll over, look at the person beside them and say 'Who the hell are you?'

The minister didn't hazard a guess and, by this time, he was starting to show some irritation with my questions. I left.

Did I mention the chapel was decorated in an Elvis motif?

Should you ever find yourself in Nevada — I was only there because someone else was paying for it — I highly recommend a visit to the nearest hotel which includes a casino and a chapel. You won't be disappointed.

As an aside, I had two friends who were walking by a chapel in a hotel in Las Vegas (I think they were there for a convention) and she, frustrated that they'd been dating for a long time and he hadn't asked her to marry him, pulled him into the chapel. Twenty minutes later they were husband and wife. He was still dazed when he returned home and told me about it a week later.

They're divorced now.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Just finished Eric Clapton's recently published autobiography, and for a man whose made some interesting music the story of his life, at least in this telling, is flat. Boring, even. How someone who was called God by his followers and was at the center of both the 1960s rock scene and the world's first supergroup (Cream) could offer such an unemotional look at his life is a mystery.

Anecdotes? Few. Insights. Fewer. Throughout the book, Clapton seems disconnected, with surprisingly little to say about the music he plays or the people he's played with (other than compliments about almost everyone being "the best," which seems unlikely).

Like many of his mid career albums, this book is lazy and uninteresting. Too bad.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Crying Game

Up until Tuesday, there were only two times music has made me cry: Vladimir Horowitz's historic and emotion-filled Moscow concerts, when he returned to his homeland after decades being exiled from it, and Aaron Neville's version of "Ave Maria," my late mother-in-law's favorite song.

Now there's a third: when Aretha Franklin sang "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" at Barack Obama's inauguration. She hit the first few notes and the tears just started rolling down my cheeks. What that must have meant to her, growing up in a segregated Detroit, to be singing at the presidential inauguration of a black man. What that must have meant to her, to be invited to be a part of the ceremony at all.

Like Horowitz, whose performance was technically no better than competent, but whose performance was so emotional it overcame any technical flaws, the Queen of Soul was not in her best voice. (She later said the cold weather had affected her performance.) Her voice might not have been what it once was, but there was nothing wrong with her heart, and she was singing from her heart and nowhere else.

I'll take emotion over technical competence any time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hot Stuff

The other day one of our son's friends was at our house for dinner — we had tacos — and used to our children's lack of ability to eat spicy foods, I warned him when he picked up the bottle of hot sauce on the table.

"Joe," I said as he picked up the bottle and started shaking it onto his tacos. "Be careful, that sauce is hot."

"Oh, this one isn't so hot," he breezily replied. "I use it all the time."

The little SOB. (This is not a criticism of his mother, who is actually a kind and gentle woman.)

Now, I would have characterized the sauce he was using as medium hot. Our children won't go near it. It reminded me of the time I was eating dinner at a friend's house when I was 12 or so. My friend's father was a huge man — a former lineman in the Canadian Football League — and I was a skinny, pre-pubescent kid. My friend's Mom served chili and plopped a bottle of Tabasco sauce on the table. My friend's father, whose name was Marvin, grabbed the bottle and gave a couple of shakes over his bowl of chili. I, who have always liked spicy food, did the same.

No one else wanted any Tabasco sauce. Marvin glanced at me, then picked up the bottle and gave it a couple of more shakes over his chili. I tasted my chili and did the same.

Suddenly we were competing. He added more Tabasco sauce, took a bite of his chili, then a tiny sip of water from his glass. I did the same. Then we both did it again.

Beads of sweat were appearing on Marvin's forehead. I felt some on mine as well. Everyone else had stopped eating, watching this huge man and skinny kid attempt to act as if the blistering hot food they were consuming was as bland as cream of wheat.

There was only a little left in the Tabasco bottle. Marvin gave his food one more shake of it. I did the same and the bottle was empty. We both ate in silence, not drinking any water or attempting to look anything but cool. We were both wiping the sweat from our faces.

Finally, we finished and sat back. We both looked at our cool, tantalizing glasses of ice water. We smiled at each other, determined not to crack.

My insides were burning. Marvin must have been in as much pain as I was. Suddenly, there was an unspoken signal and we both grabbed our water glasses and drained them in one motion. We raced to the kitchen, refilled our glasses and drank, Again and again.

Finally, the flames were out. We staggered into the living room and Marvin, a man of few words, clapped me on the shoulder. Apparently I'd passed some sort of test.

I ate dinner many times after that at my friend's house. I noticed his mother never served chili again.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Short Stacks

For those of you in the Catonsville-Ellicott City-Columbia, here are some brief comments on a number of area restaurants.

I love Korean barbecue,though I'll be the first to admit that I don't understand it. I'm sure that I'mdoing it wrong, but I don't care. I've been to Shin Chon several times, and

almost always we're the only non Koreans, which has to be a good sign. ['ve
read reviews that say the servers speak excellent English, but that hasn't been
my experience at all. Ay questions about how to prepare or eat the food are met
with a shrug, and good luck flagging someone down if you want more water or
something else. But the food is excellent and if you order barbecue you'll get
plenty of it. Note to vegetarians: other Asian cuisines have much more to offer
you than Korean food does. Note to solo diners: barbecue is best enjoyed by
more than one person.

Oh, and be careful in this small, always packed parking lot: people drive like maniacs. Also, have
others have said, there is an excellent Vietnamese bakery next door. Save room.

Thai Heaven

Very good Thai food at reasonable prices. The dishes may not reach the heights of the best Thai
around, but for a midweek carry-out when you don't feel like cooking this is a
great option. Make sure you specify that you want your food spicy if you do,
because they'll tone down the spicy dishes a bit otherwise. Also, ask about the
specials when you call, because they always have some. My big complaint:
somehow my wife and I always want thai food on Sunday night, when Thai Heaven
is closed.

Taneytown Deli & Sandwich Shoppe

A menu with dozens and dozens of choices, including the usual and the unusual, in almost every
combination you can imagine. Cubs, subs, regular size, monster size, you name
it. Almost everything is excellent, though sometimes the quality control (such
as unripe tomatoes in the winter) is slightly lax. Although there is a small,
functional but relatively cheerless dining area, most folks are carrying out at
lunch time. Taken over by new owners a couple of years ago, and overall quality
has dropped a notch, but still the best sandwich shop around. If you get a
large order (my wife's school often orders for the teachers) double check your
order when picking it up: mistakes happen.

Sam's Bagels and More

Our kids love this place, and the list of bagel sandwiches offers something for everyone. But, in
the debate over bagels in Baltimore, I have to join the folks who don't care
for Sam's. I'm from the New York area, and these bagels, as my New York Jewish
mother would say disdainfully, are "rolls with holes." The first time
I walked into Sam's I asked if they sold bialys. "What are bialys?"
asked the woman behind the counter. Having said that, the place is clean and
bright, the employees are generally friendly, and if you don't know from bagels
you'll probably think Sam's version is just fine.

Mirchi Wok

For Indian food lovers who are ready to branch out a little, this is the place, with the usual Indian
fare and some interesting Indo-Chinese fusion. Luckily they don't mess with the
Indian breads, which I think are among the best in the world. Even luckier, if
you look at the menu and decide it isn't what you want, an excellent Indian
vegetarian restaurant owned by the same people (Mango Grove) is in the same

Noodles Corner

All sorts of Asian noodle dishes (and a few without noodles). Service isn't very warm but is very
fast and efficient, and prices are low. Some of the menu descriptions are
better sounding than the actual dishes, and you have to be insistent if you
want it spicy, but this restaurant has been a favorite of our family's for
years. Highly recommended.

Mongolian Grill

Imagine a salad bar of ingredients to be stir fried, rather than eaten with salad dressing, and you
have this place: fill a bowl of meat and vegetables, add any combination of
sauces you wish, then hand it to a cook who stir fries it on a super sized
grill/wok with long cooking chopsticks. And, like a salad bar, you can go back
again and again.

Two caveats: the sauces are nowhere near as spicy as you might think from the descriptions (even if you add much more than the recommended amount printed next to each, this is no place
for fire eaters) and the traditional sesame buns into which you stuff your
barbecue are missing (rice is the starch). It's a lot of fun, though, but I
wish they didn't water down the sauces for "American" tastebuds.

Little Spice

From the outside, it's an anonymous restaurant in an even more anonymous strip shopping center near the airport. But the food is inexpensive and a cut above the average Thai in
the area, with one caveat (which I'll get to in a minute). First, Little Spice has a great gimmick: choose your sauce and method of preparation, then choose your protein. Want the usual Thai basil dish made with beef or tofu instead of the chicken that most places serve? Done. It may not be 100% authentic, but it's a great idea. Vegetarians, in particular, will love the fact that any dish can be made with vegetables or tofu, rather than meat. The service is friendly and servers refill and check on you often. The only downside is that food is milder than average. If you want it hot, you need to say so, and if you want it authentically hot you need to convince them that you mean it. The symbols on the menu that indicate spiciness are meaningless. It's a small place, with little in the way of decor. But the prices are low and, just like Burger King, you can have it your way. It's packed at lunch, less so at dinner.

Great Sage

You know how expensive organic produce, cheese made from certified hormone-free milk and other "healthier" food is? Well, it's equally expensive on the plate. Meat would be cheaper. The food is good, but everything is $2-3 more than it should be. Service is a bit more casual than the price you're paying would lead to believe. The organic beer I tried was awful. On the flip side, any vegetarian/vegan friends you bring to this restaurant will be thrilled. At least if you're paying.

Thai Aroma

When this restaurant opened it was called Viet-Thai, and had two chefs (one Vietnamese and one Thai) and two menus (also one Vietnamese, one Thai). My wife could eat Pad Thai twice
a week, while I love Vietnamese food, so it was perfect. Sadly, the Vietnamese chef and menu disappeared — I don't know the full story — although a couple of Vietnamese appetizers remain on the current menu, which is otherwise all Thai. I'd say the food is better than average, though not the best Thai in Howard County (I think Bangkok Garden Garden and Bangkok Delight, both in Columbia, are better.) Prices are pretty reasonable.

Friendly's Ice Cream Shop (Catonsville)

Consistently some of the worst service anywhere, from employees who ignore you when you're waiting to be seated to servers who ignore you when you need something. Even our school PTA
rejected the offer from Friendly's to host a school fundraiser — when it was brought
up at a meting, everyone just groaned.

El Azteca

Nice mix of Tex-Mex and regional Mexican food. Large portions, very fast service. Always crowded, and for good reason. Nowhere near the food I've had when visiting family in Austin,
but the best I've found around here.

Catonsville Gourmet

Seemingly always crowded, tables a little small and a little close together, but the fish is impeccably fresh and treated well by the kitchen. Too expensive for us to go often, but worth it when we're in the mood for a "not dress up" splurge. Service is always good. (Not outstanding, but good.)

Grace Garden

Let me add to the chorus of folks praising this restaurant: it's the first real Chinese restaurant I've
found in this area. (I don't mean this to sound snobby, but there is a huge difference between American Chinese food and, well, Chinese Chinese food.) A friend who'd just returned from China (and been complaining about local Chinese food ever since) was beside himself with excitement. Be warned: even the foods marked spicy on the menu won't excite a real fire eater, some of the food is a little clumsy in a "homemade" way, and the place is a dump on the
outside, plain on the inside, and not in a neighborhood where I'd park an expensive car. (Luckily I don't have one.) The service is very friendly, the portions are large and the prices are reasonable. This isn't the Chinese restaurant of my dreams, but it comes closer than anywhere else I've been outside of a Chinatown somewhere (which, unfortunately, doesn't exist in

Einstein Brothers Bagels

I've been to the Ellicott City location of Einstein's Bagels a few times (generally because I
was meeting someone there) and the service has always been fast and friendly. The folks who work there are great. The bagels, unfortunately, are lousy: soft, puffy, bland. As my New York Jew mother would say, "rolls with holes." My 13-year-old son, however, loves the place. I think I've failed somehow. (My wife isn't Jewish; perhaps I can blame her.)