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Amid haute cuisine and class struggle

12 Feb

oysters-rockefeller-52891-1

Last night I had Oysters Rockefeller. It was accompanied by green beans, a baked tomato and finger potatoes. Preceding that was chicken noodle soup and a salad of baby spinach, walnuts, goat cheese and dried cranberries. Dessert followed. This was dinner at the retirement home – not mine, my father’s.

 

The food was slightly better than usual because it was Birthday Night, the once-a-month event that celebrates all those born in that month. But even on regular nights, the meals are of high quality. Overall, the place is well-maintained, very clean and well-functioning. The staff is attentive and friendly.

 

Sitting in the dining hall, however, I realized my father was unlike nearly all the other people. He was of a different class. Even in old age, maybe especially in old age, this kind of thing comes through.

 

“Hey,” a man who had the look of a retired corporate executive shouted across several tables at my father when he was a newcomer. “You’ve got a hat on. Take off your hat!”

 

My father is bald and wears a hat to keep his head warm. He explained this to the man yelling at him and declined the directive to remove it. I don’t think the two have spoken since.

 

Dad has his friends at the home. All the Italians, plus the open, gregarious people who don’t think too much of themselves. Still, I’m certain few share his background.

 

european-immigrants-disembarking-everett

My father was born to immigrant parents. He worked in factories, served in World War II and afterward took a job with the United States Postal Service. He never made much money but late in life was approved for a 100 percent veterans disability pension (loss of hearing in one ear during the war). This was a boost to his income at a time when his expenses were low. Actually, he never did spend much money, but with this second pension he was able to save even more. He invested mostly in CDs and government bonds when inflation and interest rates were in double digits, and made good money when he sold a house originally purchased for $15,000.

 

So, unlike a lot of working men, this working man was able to afford a berth in a rather nice retirement home. By doing that, he has to put up with the kind of people who may have had servants and commanded a realm.

 

“I wouldn’t sit there,” a thin, small, patrician-looking woman told me on Birthday Night. I was trying to sit down with my father at “her” table. “Mildred will be coming soon and that’s where she sits.”

 

We sat anyway. The hostess had  placed us there, advising that Mildred would be seated at another table, and so the suggestion was ignored.

 

But it did not stop there.

 

When I asked my father what he was going to order, I spoke somewhat loudly into his hearing-aid assisted “good” ear.

 

“Please lower your voice, ,” the woman told me.

 

“I need to speak loud enough for him to hear,” I said.

 

“He can hear you,” she said dismissively. “And Mildred will be coming soon.”

 

When she spoke again of Mildred coming, I was tempted to call her an old bat. Before I could, the hostess came over and said, “If you are uncomfortable here, I can seat you at a different table.”

 

I took her up on that.

Walker

Officially, there are no assigned seats at this particular home.  But so many residents insist on sitting at the same place all the time, and with the same people, that things can get nasty. It could just be that old people are nasty, yet I sense past lives of entitlement influencing the forcefulness of these individuals. Most are dressed fairly well as they push their walkers about. Many women get their hair done regularly and accessorize with jewelry. My father, meanwhile, doesn’t care much about his appearance.

 

Overall, the class distinction here comes down to look and attitude, since there isn’t a lot of spending and few extra possessions. There’s a haughtiness in at least a strong minority of the residents. In some cases, it’s mean arrogance.

 

One night I brought my father back to the home after dinner at my house.

 

“It’s not quite seven,” I said. “You can get in on tonight’s poker game.”

 

He didn’t answer right away, then said, “I’m never going to play poker here again.” His face was full of hurt.

 

“Oh no,” I said. “What happened?”

 

“Four of us were playing in the game room. Nickle and dime. Everything was fine. Then I won four hands in a row and this guy, a very bitter man who always seems to be in a bad mood, says in a loud voice, ‘I’m not going to play with a cheater.’ He was referring to me.”

Minolta DSC

“What?” I had this ridiculous image of arthritic hands trying to deal a second, with cards flying everywhere.

“I thought maybe I didn’t hear him right or that he was kidding. But he repeated it. ‘I’m not playing with cheaters.’ I said something back and then I got up and left. That’s it. I’ll never play again.”

 

It was difficult for me to believe anyone in a retirement home could act this way over a game, but I guess I’m naïve. Anger and unhappiness, and perhaps paranoia, don’t disappear with age. Maybe they get worse.

 

My father’s accuser, whom he pointed out to me on a latter visit, had the appearance of a grumpy man in charge of something important who treats everyone around him poorly. It’s possible he was delusional, and that this was not about class, or feeling superior, or not trusting someone unlike you. Still, while eating dinner in the dining hall and looking over the patrons (they all look so similar), I had an idea.

 

Why not adopt the college model for retirement homes and diversify the population by offering scholarships?

diverse students

Colleges and universities see a homogeneous student population as a detriment to learning and understanding life. By working hard to diversify those who are admitted, higher ed administrators believe they improve the student experience.

 

The retirement home experience sure could use improvement. So why not take some affirmative action and offer elderly scholarships and admit people who otherwise would not even think of applying? It could become a whole new thing. Corporate sponsors could be found. In trying to recruit the residents, personnel from the home could attend retirement parties at factories and other places of blue collar employment. They could even go after people with special talents.

Shuffleboard

For example, a scholarship could be offered to a champion shuffled board player who could be entered in a new retirement home league and bring pride and glory to his particular home. Maybe there’s a bingo player out there who has developed a strategy that goes beyond chance. He or she would be an attractive find. Or, if there are any left, old vaudevillians could be recruited. They could entertain fellow residents in exchange for their scholarships.

 

In the beginning, the scholarship elderly would be looked upon as beneath those who pay full price. But I suspect – and hope – that with time they would be accepted and maybe even be able to sit at the table of their choice. Like at colleges, they would change the atmosphere, attitude and culture of retirement homes, bringing more tolerance and empathy.

 

And less grumpiness.

Less grumpy old person

I think this is worth a try. Now who will fund that first scholarship?

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Oh, Oh, Oh … Christ was a Jew!

25 Jan

Christ

A certain American president is dominating 90 percent of what we see, hear, and discuss, so I’ve decided to write about a somewhat anonymous but highly unusual person I’ll call Melvin.

 

Melvin was intelligent. He did his undergraduate work at MIT and was studying veterinary medicine when I roomed with him and another vet student at a large university. Melvin is difficult to describe. I like to think he was Andy Kaufman before Andy Kaufman was Andy Kaufman. His life was a performance, not on stage, just walking around. The difficulty with Melvin, like Andy, was understanding the purpose and meaning of his performances.

Andy_Kaufman

For example, I could hear Melvin in his room when he had women over. During climax, he would always shout, “Christ was a Jew!”

 

After a time, I asked why he said this. He probably was employing his distinctly odd sense of human when he answered, in complete deadpan, “What else would you possibly say?”

 

I always suspected he was mimicking a character from a William Burroughs novel or some equally obscure place.

 

As a vet student, Melvin studied much more than I did. One evening, I was in the living room of our campus townhouse entertaining two women friends. He had a test the next day and was upstairs with his books. He obviously needed a break, and he took one in performance mode.

 

Melvin came running down the steps, frantic, dressed in cutoff jeans, no shirt, no shocks, no shoes. It looked like he was sweating. He carried a beat up old guitar.

 

“I’m on in 10 minutes,” he said to the three of us in a panic, “and I can’t play a thing.”

 

Then he ran to a window, opened it and jumped out.

 

Andy Kaufman couldn’t have done better.

brokenglasses

But the best of his bits occurred when I and our third roommate walked him to a house where he was to meet a blind date. We wanted to see what she looked like and stood nearby as he knocked on her front door. When she opened it, we could see she had an exquisite body. It was rare and perfect in every way. She was not, however, attractive. My recollection is she had a slight resemblance to Richard Nixon.

 

Melvin looked at her and excused himself for a moment. He walked to the street and, with a rather demonstrative gesture, threw his glasses under the wheel of a passing car. Melvin then looked at me and the other roommate and said, in a tone of old movie contempt, “So long, suckers.”

 

He went back to the house, went inside, and wasn’t seen again for three days.

 

I’m certain that by the end of the three days the young woman who looked like Nixon knew almost certainly that Christ, indeed, was a Jew.

 

Now isn’t that better than Donald Trump?

Donald Trump

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

What is so attractive about the opposite of modesty?

9 Dec

Modesty miniskirt high school

 

I’d like to share some thoughts on a topic often considered inappropriate, even offensive. That topic is modesty.

 

Decades ago, modesty was a common word and part of a common discussion. It was considered a good quality, something advocated by parents, teachers and others who sought to guide and instruct.

 

Today, it has become a pejorative. The reasons for this include:

 

  • Our present adversarial relations with Muslims, whose women often wear headscarves and sometimes cover up completely.

 

  • The belief that to advocate for modesty is to imply that a female’s manner of dress is at fault for a man’s assault or victimization of her.

 

  • The fact that current styles make it almost impossible for women to dress modestly and be fashionable at the same time.

 

modesty-Hepburn

The modesty issue first confronted me in high school, in the 60s, when the miniskirt was popular. That tiny article of clothing made it difficult for a young woman to sit down without revealing much of herself. There was a lot of pulling at the skirt in an attempt to cover up, but this was mostly ineffective. I recall wondering if my female classmates knew what was in clear view. They must have. They must have seen each other. The exposure was so common that a male friend had a name for it. He called it “having your picture taken.”

 

I felt sorry and embarrassed for the women wearing these skirts, thinking how totally ashamed I would be if, for example, I were caught walking the halls with my zipper down. I wanted to say something but lacked the nerve.

 

Men in high school, frankly, seemed more modest than females. But to this day I don’t know why. The swimming coach at school once told me it was difficult to get men on the team because they had to wear those tiny Speedos, which showed masculine protrusions. This I understood. So why didn’t women have a similar concern with the miniskirt?

 

Out of high school and college and into an office environment, I had an unexpected and really surprised warning from an older male colleague about my own modesty. It was a hot summer day and I wore a short-sleeve shirt.

 

“That’s not professional,” he said. “You’re supposed to wear long sleeves. Always long sleeves. You don’t show your arms at work.”

Modesty minnie-driver

I had never heard this rule and took heed of his counsel. The next day also was hot, but I wore a long-sleeve shirt. In a meeting that day, I noticed the women were showing an assortment of arms, legs, shoulders, cleavage, even toes. Not fair, I thought, and questioned how this double standard came to be. Would the women in the office accept me if I were showing my chest or toes? I was certain they would not, and that everyone would believe I had lost my mind.

 

These little stories are not to suggest that modesty is alien to all women. I dated a woman once who, while not overtly modest, had a disdain for showy fashion and sexy clothes. Her common attire was jeans and a shirt. She wore a dress only when it was called for, and never used make up or styled her hair.

 

She made an exception at a Halloween party. As a costume, she put on heavy makeup, fixed her hair and wore a provocative dress. She looked totally different, very enticing. I raved about her appearance and told her to do it again sometime. As long as I knew her, she never did.

 

I respected and admired that.

Modesty

Earlier I mentioned Muslim women. Years ago, I had one as a friend. She was Indonesian. Pretty hip, fashionable and not at all religious. We were both living abroad in an international community. After a harsh winter, spring broke out to our great relief. On a warm bright day, I told my friend, “You know what I want to do? I want to make a picnic lunch, take a blanket outside and lay in the sun. Would you do that with me?”

 

She said she would, but after a minute on the blanket she got up and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I know you just want to enjoy the day and don’t mean anything by it. But I’m a Muslim woman and I can’t lay out on a blanket in public with a man. I just can’t.”

 

I assured her I understood. We packed up and went to a restaurant. I felt horrible for not realizing what I had asked her to do. I had been totally blind to it.

 

This might have been more about dignity than modesty, but the two actually meld.

Modesty-quote-dignity

Clearly, there is some trace of a belief that says modesty has its place and that it can be adopted by choice and without compromise or surrender of rights. With fashion the way it is today, with so many women going out confidently in pants that are nothing more than a second layer of skin, and at a time when so many men are being exposed as sexual predators and uninvited Lotharios, why doesn’t a modesty movement – a small one – take hold?

 

To help me better understand this, I need women to explain the issue to me, mainly why even a modest amount of modesty is moderately objectionable. So please comment here. More important, what is the strong attraction to modesty’s inverse?  Why the other extreme? That’s the even bigger question.

 

This is what has truly confounded me, ever since those high school days when young boys, uncaring about the dignity of their female friends, regularly got their pictures taken.

 

One final note. I know a man who became a woman. After the change, she seemed obsessed not by womanhood and all that it can and should be, but rather by the superficial — jewelry, clothing and appearance. Something there seemed missing or wrong.

 

Can it be the same with the modesty issue?

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

Is Democracy Sick?

14 Oct

 

With the Russians continuing to mess with us, it might be time to consider an alternative system of government. Perhaps Plato can guide us.

 

Does anyone remember John and Peter’s bar and the great Johnny’s Dance Band?

24 Mar

The Trump-man Show puts an end to the Sounds of Silence

5 Feb

Some condemn immigrants; many benefit from them

28 Nov

dim-sum-garden2

As a twist to what is current, I’m writing positively about immigrants.

 

Whether we acknowledge it or not, newcomers have always played a role in improving American’s special brand of capitalism. A recent innovation I stumbled upon involved food, a truck and a series of parking lots around the Philadelphia suburbs.

 

The participating entrepreneurs are Chinese and the heart of the operation is

a Chinese app called We Chat. This single app, available in English and Chinese, is something like Facebook but has been built out so it is many apps in one. It is used by millions of Chinese people around the world to do things for which Americans use multiple apps. Now it is being used to find and organizing markets for products.

 

Business people from Philadelphia’s Chinatown section use it to sell food products to people in the suburbs who might not want to drive into Chinatown. There are a number of groups doing this.  I’m not sure how many, but I know one sells just mushrooms, one vegetables, and one food from Xian province.

 

The seller I did business with was selling frozen dim sum products. They buy from wholesalers and sell in bulk, mostly on the weekends.

 

As the weekend approaches, We Chat is used to tell buyers what products are available in the upcoming delivery. Most important, they are informed of the the times the food truck will arrive and depart from each parking lot on the delivery circuit.

 

The customer orders using a phone and is given an order number.

 

The closest stop to my house is about 20 minutes away, and the truck would be there Sunday from 10:20 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. It’s a small window because the truck has to move on to the next lot and new customers, like a bus on a schedule. I arrived around 10:15, and saw an unmarked truck at the far end of the lot, away from a large shopping center. That was it.

 

The back of the truck was open and loaded with boxes labeled with numbers. There was a man inside.

 

On the ground was a woman with a clipboard.

 

“I’m number 56,” I told her.

 

shanghai-house-xiao-long-bao

I had ordered two 5-pound bags of something called Shanghai Xioa Rong Boa. In English they are called soup dumplings. These dumpling have become a big hit in several newer restaurants in Chinatown.

 

Not long ago, Chinatown in Philadelphia was a tired, weary, unexciting place. The restaurants were dirty and the menus hadn’t changed in years. Most, I believe, were owned by long-established Cantonese. Now, after a whole different wave of Chinese immigration, there is a new breed of entrepreneurs in Chinatown. They have opened stylish eateries with fresh, fun, unusual offerings. Some are inexpensive and have attracted large numbers of urban hipsters.

 

As a result of this renaissance, soup dumplings are found all over Chinatown. They come in several varieties. To properly enjoy them, you have to master the technique of eating them.

 

The soup dumpling exterior skin is made from dough. Inside is the filling, usually meat and soup. If you eat them wrong, you risk scolding your tongue on the hot soup, or exploding the dumpling and having soup cascade onto the table and your clothes.

 

One way to eat them is to use a Chinse soup spoon. Put the dumpling on the spoon and take a small, gentle bite of the skin. Let some of the hot soup leak out onto the spoon, where it can cool. In addition to cooling, this releases the pressure and prevents an explosion. Sip the cooled soup then, after a moment, bite fully into the dumpling or put the whole thing in your mouth.

 

At Dim Sum Garden on Race Street you can get an order of eight pork soup dumplings for $6.25. These are fresh, not frozen. You can even watch them being made. At the truck, a bag of 100 frozen dumplings is $20.

 

“Only two bags?” the woman outside the truck asked.

 

“Yes, just two.”

 

The man inside put my order in a plastic bag. From the looks of things, all the other orders were in larger boxes.

 

“And, I heard you get a free drink,” I said.

 

The man in the truck put a can of Sacred Lotus Leaf Herbal Tea in my bag. As required, I paid in cash.

 

The tea was from Fujian province in China but the frozen dumplings came from a factory in the Maspeth section of Queens, right near Brooklyn. The commercial neighborhood was established in the 17th century by Dutch and English settlers. I guess immigrants continue to operate strongly there. In fact, Queens – the home of President-elect Donald Trump – may be the most diverse town in all of America, maybe the planet.

queens

“There are 1 million immigrants and a mix that is perhaps unprecedented in this borough’s history,” said Joseph Salvo,  a demographer with the city Planning Department.

 

He said the population is almost equally divided among Asian and Hispanic groups from countries such as China, Guyana, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, India and Korea.

 

Either way, someone there in Maspeth was working a job that helped bring soup dumplings to my table, and people closer to my home have come up with a great and inventive alternative to food shopping in the city.

 

The whole thing seems pretty good, and my thanks go out to the immigrants – or sons and daughters of immigrants – whose hard work and clever approach made it happen. They were attracted to the U.S. because of our system. They learned it, and grew it, and allowed many to benefit from it.

 

Bon appetit! Or maybe I should say, hen hao chi!

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

 

 

 

 

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