28
Jul

I love diners.

It started years ago in Chicago. My not-yet-retired father enjoyed working so much that he would go into the office even on weekends. (Thankfully, that gene wasn’t passed on.) Proclaiming that he was working only a half-day, he would usually go in at 5a.m. and finish up around noon. If you do the math that constitutes a full day for most sane individuals, but my dad is definitely not part of that demographic. However, it did mean that he got off just in time for lunch with his favorite daughter! (Sorry, Mila.)

So began our weekly tradition of lunching it at a cozy little diner called Jk’s. Forget Denny’s or IHOP or any of those other chains that cater to the “it’s hip to be square” crowd. As much as I love the occasional Grand Slam, those aren’t authentic diners. I’m talking about the joints that haven’t changed their décor since 1978 and don’t plan to anytime soon; those restaurants where mom and dad are running the place, the son is cooking in the kitchen and the daughter is handling the cash register up front. This was Jk’s. Every time we came in, the kindly proprietor would welcome us with open arms and immediately guide us to one of their many worn-in vinyl booths. Another reason why this place rocked? We always got a booth! Score one for Jk’s.

The menu wasn’t exactly ripped from Spago, but I loved it anyway. The food came out fast and was always deliciously hot and greasy. Not to mention, free. (Thanks, Dad!) Plus, the same waitresses who had been working there for years served us each time with smiles and friendly small talk. They knew not only us, but also pretty much every other customer in the place. Everyone was a regular at Jk’s. Some for decades. Without fail, I was typically the youngest person there by a good twenty years, but I didn’t mind one bit. In fact, I preferred it that way.

Though the senior citizen set does get on my nerves from time to time. Their driving skills suck. They sometimes smell funny. (It’s true!) They love repeating the same story over and over again. (Ahem, Dad…) But get me in a diner and the old fogies are my best friends. Why? They’re so chill, man. Maybe it’s that replaced hip or cumbersome cane, but everything seems to move at a slower pace when you go to the right diner.

That said, I never thought I would find a place more beloved than my Jk’s until I experienced Carol’s Garden a few weeks ago. Carol’s Garden? I knew immediately that this place would be awesome – any joint with an old lady’s name in it is golden – and I was not disappointed. Warm welcome by the owner? Check. Booth seating? Check. Super old people? Check, check. I had never seen so many walkers, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks in one location outside of a hospital’s ICU, but these folks were going to have their pancakes come hell or high blood pressure. I was in diner heaven.

Without fail, every few minutes someone from the Great Depression would pass our booth with a caretaker in tow. What I noticed is that not only were they being lovingly watched over by that person, but also everyone at the restaurant greeted them with warmth and genuine kindness. Maybe this is why I love diners so much. Everyone is nice to everyone else. The staff is friendly, the customers are unusually complimentary and everybody is happy, which let’s face it, it a rarity anywhere else in today’s world. How many smiles do you see at the post office, DMV or airport? Plus, it’s reassuring to know that when I’m back in diapers one day, there’s at least one place I can go and have a comfy booth in which to sit. Chairs are hell on hemorrhoids.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

21
Jul

It’s always a drag when you do something embarrassing in public. Though once upon a time, you would suffer said humiliation for maybe a few minutes before life returned to normal. Nowadays, everyone and their mother (literally!) have an iPhone in hand 24/7, and hence the moment can be recorded and replayed ad nauseam on YouTube for all future generations to enjoy. Yet even when you’re with just a few friends or family, nobody enjoys falling over the coffee table or forgetting the “l” when explaining that the clock is slow. (True story.)

But at least your friends and family know you and hopefully realize you’re not an idiot all the time. They can contextualize your faux pas among the many other non-mortifying things you’ve done over the years. Though if that trip or Freudian slip occurs in front of a stranger, they have nothing else by which to judge you. As far as they can tell, you always walk around with a bat in the cave or your fly down. Head & Shoulders was right; you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

That said, not too long ago I was visiting my cousin in Michigan. It was lovely. The weather was perfect; the company was great; I was having a blast. To top it off, my cousin surprised me with a kayaking trip for a little bonding time, river style. I’d never been kayaking, but figured how hard could it be? I wasn’t worried.

Cindy, the very nice and cool owner of Rogue River Rentals, drove us to our starting point. Once there, she unloaded the gear while my cousin, who casually mentioned having kayaked “maybe once or twice” before, looked like a total pro. Without any guidance or prompting, she got in her kayak and pushed off from shore. That’s when I began to get a little nervous. How did she do that? Though in the spirit of not wanting to look like a moron, I remained silent. Cindy dragged my kayak to the water’s edge and told me to get in. Easy enough.

Then she told me to adjust the pedals. I had no idea what Cindy was talking about. “The foot pedals. You want to get your knees lower.” I couldn’t figure out how to shift them farther back into the kayak. This was not starting out well; cue the sweating. As both women silently stared at me for what seemed an eternity, I finally unlocked the damn pedals and the only thing left to do was shove off… Cindy gently pushed the kayak into the water. It all went downhill from there.

Sidenote: I’m one of those people who would never survive a natural disaster or zombie attack. Sounds morbid, but it’s true. The reason being that I don’t do anything when the unexpected happens. A few years back, we had a mild earthquake in the middle of the day while I was at work. I happened to be in one of the back offices when the tremors began. I remember staring at the walls, which seemed to be oscillating. It was fascinating to me. At one point, I though to myself, “Should I exit the building?” but I never moved a muscle. Apparently I lack both the fight and flight response.

Anyway, back to the kayak. I felt the push. I attempted to aid that push with some half-assed paddling. Then I felt the kayak tilting right. Instead of compensating left, I went right, too. Right into the river. I tipped over thirty seconds into our trip.

I was chin-high in water before I even understood what was happening. However, I knew enough to realize that I should be completely mortified. And I was. Not only was I soaked to the bone, but also my kayak was now sinking to the bottom of the riverbed. As one of my flip-flops was also floating down the river, I was too distracted to help Cindy wrangle the kayak. Poor Cindy. Even empty a kayak is heavy; filled with water, it was like dragging a dead body back to shore. Humiliated, I just watched as she struggled and finally got the thing on dry land.

All the while, both she and my cousin were asking if I was okay. Minus a few bruises, I was fine. Really it was my ego that was hurting. Normally I consider myself decent at the athletic stuff. I’ve never won a gold medal or anything, but I also was never the last picked for kickball in grade school. What the hell was my problem?

I didn’t care so much that my cousin had witnessed my mishap; she’s known me her whole life and has seen better and some worse. It was Cindy who concerned me. I met her all of ten minutes ago, and now I had just fallen into the river. Not because of some hidden rock under the waterline. Not because of some giant anaconda trying to squeeze the life out of me. I was just that bad at kayaking.

While Cindy drained the kayak, I tried to make light of the situation and joked that I was a huge klutz who did this kind of thing all the time. Not sure if that was the right tactic. I think I only worried her more that only one kayaker would be alive at the end of this trip. Odds are good she was comforted by the fact that both my cousin and me had signed liability releases back at her office.

Alas, the trip was a success, and I accrued zero more falls into the river. Though my suspicion that Cindy might have been nervous about me was confirmed upon our return to dry land. Still more than a hundred yards from shore, I could see a figure patiently watching and waiting for us. It was Cindy. Don’t know how long she had been there, but can’t say I really blamed her. “Yep, she thinks I’m an idiot,” I mused. She wouldn’t be the first.

Image: m_bartosch / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

14
Jul

Most women want to look effortlessly beautiful. It’s true. Yet few can actually walk out the door looking fabulous merely by pulling a comb through their hair and throwing on a pair of jeans; everyone else has a little more work to do, though no woman wants that primping and tweaking to be seen in public. A la The Great and Powerful Oz, that curtain is to remain closed at all times.

So not too long ago, I noticed that it was time to renew my driver’s license. As my address had changed, I couldn’t renew online, which saddened me on multiple levels. For one, I loathe the DMV. It’s all kinds of depressing. Whenever I’m forced to enter one of their offices, it feels like a date where I’m about to break things off with the guy. I’m tense and a little sweaty, but there’s no way out of it. Plus, when it’s all over, I can treat myself to a Starbucks and move on with my life.

Second, I already liked my current driver’s license photo. I look happy and super tan. Way tanner than I have ever been in actual life. I know for a fact that I wasn’t even close to being that tan. Believe it or not, not every day is a beach day in LA. Yet after analyzing several other CA-issued licenses, it is my firm belief that the DMV is working in cahoots with the California Travel and Tourism Commission, deliberately tanning all driver photographs to perpetuate the SoCal stereotype of sand, sun and fun. Very sneaky… and I don’t mind one bit. You should see my old Illinois license in comparison; I look like I was just exhumed from my casket.

Anyway, my first attempt to the DMV was aborted when informed that they don’t take credit cards. Whaaat? A second attempt was also cut short when I noticed the appointment line snaking around the block. Even more depressing than the DMV? Waiting two hours just to get inside the building. Yet upon my third attempt, the ball finally got rolling. I filled out my paperwork, passed the eye test – no glasses, ma! – and needed only to take that picture. The picture that would be my official proof of ID for the next five years of my life. That’s pretty serious stuff. Depending on that photograph, I may or may not get the body check when going through airport security. Depending on that photograph, I may or may not get that free second drink from the cute bartender. I find that even when you’re standing in front of someone looking fabulous, should they see a less than flattering driver’s license pic, it instantly drops your street cred. I wasn’t going to let that happen.

There are no mirrors at the DMV. However, I noticed that the two women operating the cameras were sitting inside this huge glass cubicle, a cubicle that gave off just enough of a reflection to substitute for a mirror. I glanced around to make sure no one was paying any attention and then slyly began to give my hair a once-over before getting in line. That’s when one of the camera chicks caught me in the act: “Excuse me, you’re too close to the camera. Your shadow’s gonna be in the picture.”

Dammit. Not only did this woman just call me out, but also she did it in front of a half-dozen strangers. Hot with embarrassment, I proceeded towards the line. That’s when another DMV chick stepped in: “Sheila, she isn’t botherin’ no one. She’s way on the other side of the glass. Let her fix herself if she wants to.” She then grabbed me by the elbow and led me back to the cubicle to finish my primping, but not if Sheila had anything to say about it.

“Her shadow isn’t gonna be in the photo, Liz?”

“No! Why would it be in the photo? You’re a good ten feet away and the camera’s pointing in the other direction.”

“Well, I dunno. Just thought she shouldn’t be so close.”

“Aw, let her fix her hair if she wants to. She isn’t doin’ nothin’.”

I was mortified. At this point, all picture taking had ceased while Sheila and Liz continued to debate whether or not I was ruining everyone else’s photos. The people in line looked none too happy with me, and I noticed that some of those sitting in the waiting area had turned around to better hear the conversation. Liz had a death grip my arm; there was no escaping this nightmare. Finally, she turned to me and said, “You go right on ahead, honey. Do what you need to do.”

What I needed to do was disappear. Liz walked away. Sheila resumed her work. Eyes to the floor, I briskly made my way to the back of the line. I couldn’t care less about how I looked anymore and just wanted to get the hell out of there. That lasted all of two minutes, though. Realizing that I was next in line to be photographed, my vanity resurfaced and I quickly whipped out the lip gloss one last time before flashing the most dazzling smile I had in my arsenal for the camera, all the while questioning whether or not the blouse I was wearing clashed with the curtain backdrop. Oh well.

Epilogue: The picture turned out all right, but somehow they messed up my address. Considering using that as an excuse for a second chance at a better photo. Fingers crossed it’s Sheila’s day off.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

07
Jul

Last month I spent some time traveling through the Midwest. It was great. Every morning, I would wake to a pressing itinerary of seeing loved ones and enjoying the day at whatever yummy restaurant or café chosen for our catch up session. Though I passed through many exotic locales such as Grand Rapids, Michigan and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I spent half my time in Chicago and would crash nightly at the home of my good friend, S. I’ve known S for about ten years now, and she’s one of those fantastic friends who graciously gives up her own bed for visiting guests and doesn’t get mad when they come home at midnight and want to chat even though she has to get up for work in six hours. Also, she lives in high-rise with a killer view of the city.

So one evening I was having dinner with another friend, D, at Hub 51. Great food. Even better mojitos. And creepy monitors in the ladies’ room that watch everyone in the restaurant. Yet after a delicious slice of icebox pie, I forgot about all that. I also forgot how late it was getting. I knew that S hadn’t been getting a lot of sleep the last couple of nights (I might be partly to blame for that); also, she was battling a cold. But I was having so much fun! Not wanting to be a total jerk, though, I texted that I would be home within the half-hour. No response.

I didn’t think much of it. Once I finally arrived at her place, or five blocks away – how I miss Chicago parking! – I called to give her a heads up. Because S lives in a high-rise, you can’t just walk in. It’s one of those fancy schmancy places where you get buzzed in. There’s even a very intimidating front desk dude who’s ready to pounce should you try to slip by with another resident. I rang S seven times. No answer.

Déjà vu.

About four years ago, the very same thing happened. I was again staying with S (that’s why I can’t be mad; she hosts me every time I come into town) and on one particular night, I found out the hard way that she is a crazy deep sleeper. That time, I managed to get into her building (different place) with some unsuspecting (or not caring if I was a serial killer) resident, but still couldn’t get inside her apartment. She had a studio, and though I could hear her phone ringing through the door each time I called – I could even hear her shifting in her sleep! – that girl would not wake up. I fear for her future children should there be a house fire or alien abduction. She was out cold. Given that I had come back to her place after midnight and perhaps deserved this taste of hell, I couldn’t pound on her door without waking the neighbors and causing a commotion. Thankfully, she finally woke up around 2am and found me in the fetal position in the hallway.

Fast-forward to last month. When S didn’t pick up on the fourth call, I had a pretty good idea of what was happening. At this point, it was once again the midnight hour, and I had a decision to make. Should I appeal to the better nature of the front desk dude to let me in, and even if he did take pity on me, then what? Once more pathetically wait in her hallway until she woke up? Plus, I had to use the bathroom again.

It’s an odd feeling to feel homeless in your own hometown. I went through my options… Should I call my family? The last thing I wanted to do was drive my ass out to the suburbs. Moreover, they were just as bad as S if not worse. My sister screens her calls in the middle of the day; no way was she going to pick up at midnight. And my parents still occasionally employ the tried and true tactic of unplugging the phone when they don’t care to be bothered. Given that they’re retired and really the only people calling are their daughters, I’m a tad offended but anyway… Even if I crashed with one of them, I would have to battle Ike traffic the next morning to ensure entry to S’s apartment before she left for work. No thank you.

So it came down to my friends in the city. Truth is, I could have called any of a dozen people and would have received an immediate “Sure, come on over!” Though exhausted by a day of fun and annoyed by this unexpected exile, I smiled. I haven’t been a resident of Chicago for more than six years, but realized that I would always have a home here. Not because of that brownstone I’ll one day have within walking distance of Wrigley (fingers crossed!), but because of the people I love.

It was late, though. All my friends are day job people whom I assumed were already sleeping. Except D. Given that I had left her merely twenty minutes ago, I figured she might still be awake. Plus, D’s another amazing friend who thinks only of others no matter the inconvenience to her. She’s like Jack in Titanic and would happily give up that life-saving piece of wood to some ungrateful rich chick only to freeze in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s just the kind of person she is. She’s also really good about answering her phone: “Sure, come on over!” When I arrived fifteen minutes later, already laid out on the couch were blankets, pillows and pajamas, including a Blackhawks tank top. It’s true; home is where the heart is.

Epilogue: At 2:30am, my phone rang. A frantic and still groggy S was calling: “Where are you? I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! Where are you? Are you on the street? Are you in your car? I’m so sorry!” I wasn’t mad, but allowed her to apologize a few dozen more times before going back to bed.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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