Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cheap Eats

I’m the parent of a teenage girl. She’s naturally slim, and doesn’t have a huge appetite. But she plays in a garage band made up of teenage boys, and they do. They show up at our house at noon on weekends, make a horrible racket for about 5 hours, and go home. If someone brings a bag of potato chips, they’re gone in 10 minutes.

I feel guilty, because as the “host” of this activity, I feel that we ought to feed them. My wife argues that since we’re providing the rehearsal space, they should bring their own food. But when they do bring their own food, it’s potato chips. I try to talk to them about it, but they say that potato chips are fine. They just look bored if I try to bring up the subject of protein and vitamins.

So last week I gave in to my better nature and I made a big pot of “teenager food.” This is something I made up on the spot that is very easy and cheap, but far more nutritious than potato chips. It consists of the following ingredients:

2 boxes of macaroni and cheese (which requires 1/2 cup of milk and a stick of butter)
2 cans of chunk light tuna (you can use albacore, but it’s more expensive)
4 slices of bacon
1/2 of a green bell pepper or 1 onion
2 tablespoons of dried parsley

Pre-fry the bacon or nuke it in the microwave and cut it up into chunks. Dice the bell pepper. Make the macaroni and cheese according to the package directions, then throw in the tuna, the bacon, the bell pepper and the parsley and mix it thoroughly. Then put out some empty bowls and send a text message to the garage announcing that food is ready and get the hell out of the kitchen as a safety measure.

Feeds five ravenous teenage boys and one less ravenous teenage girl. Total cost? About 4 bucks. That’s less than 70 cents per teenager.

It got me thinking about cheap food, and I realized there’s two kinds of cheap food. There’s the kind that’s cheap because it’s plentiful, and there’s the kind that’s cheap because nobody wants it.

Last night I went to the movies. We have a “second run” theater in our neighborhood that charges $1.75 per ticket to see movies that have ended their primary run at the big Cineplex with the cushy seats. I like going there because I absolutely hate to spend $9 to see the mediocre crap that Hollywood churns out. Unfortunately, the second-run theater is kind of run-down, clearly operating on a shoestring budget.

The second run theater is like most movie theaters – they make their money on concessions. Popcorn is expensive, drinks are expensive, candy is expensive. But for some reason, hot dogs are only a dollar. Hot dogs can’t be more plentiful than popcorn, so why are they so cheap? Now you know why I don’t eat them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My Eyeballs

We all go through our lives not knowing what we don’t know. Some things we learn by education or experience. Some things we assume through extrapolation of what we do know (the “educated guess”). At some point, we decide we know enough to function. Nobody tries to know everything, and those who claim to know everything are treated with suspicion or outright derision. Except for religious leaders who claim to know everything, but are somehow treated with respect.


Anyway, I got a shock at my annual eye exam about six months ago. My doctor told me that the lenses of my eyes were beginning to yellow, which is perfectly normal at my age, but is considered a precursor to cataracts. She then went on to say that it was caused by exposure to sunlight.

Excuse me? Light is harmful to eyes? Isn’t that like water being harmful to fish? How could I go through my whole life without someone telling me this?

She said that I should consider wearing sunglasses. Now she tells me! If someone had said something when I was 12 years old, I would have been wearing sunglasses all my life.

The thing is, I have dark eyes and light doesn’t bother me. I always assumed that the people wearing sunglasses were people with light-colored eyes, who found strong sunlight bothersome or painful. Or they were trying to look cool. I went through a “trying to be cool” phase in the 80’s and got a pair of prescription aviator-style sunglasses. But they were expensive and I had to keep them in an uncool bulky case, and eventually I needed bifocals and gave up trying to be cool.

So in a panic, I ran out and got myself a pair of clip-on sunglasses. They work well, but because they don’t have that temple piece, I can’t just hook them over the neck of a t-shirt when I go indoors. The little clips don’t hold securely, and they’re always falling off. And there is no way I’m going to buy those stupid baseball-style flip-up clip-on sunglasses.

Anyway, they fell off while I was doing yard work, and I couldn’t find them. I had to go out and buy another pair. Today my daughter found the first pair in a planting bed, so now I have two pair. At this rate, I should have about 30 pair by the time I die, and the mortician will wonder how a man with so many pairs of sunglasses had developed such terrible cataracts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Alcohol and Candy: Market Research

On Saturday, I went to my local pool hall to practice. At that time of day, all of the tables were empty, but the parking lot was full of cars. The pool hall hosts a Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament every week, which accounted for the crowd. It doesn’t cost anything to play, but you’re expected to tip the dealer. I had been wondering about the economics of this activity, so I talked to the bartender.

“Who drinks more?” I asked, “Poker players or pool players?”

“Oh my God,” she answered. “Poker players. Way more.”

I confess I was surprised, because I had assumed that poker players would want to keep their wits sharp to defend their chip stack. And I was a bit upset, because I’m a pool player, and pool players like to think of themselves as hard-drinking, motorcycle-driving tough guys, even though most of us are white-collar professionals with minivans. And then, she said something that crushed me.

“Poker players drink the most,” she said. “Then dart players. Then pool players.”

Dart players? Seriously?

Anyway, I found this tidbit of information to be very interesting for two reasons. One, because it challenged my assumptions. Two, because the data came from direct observation.

I had a similar experience at work this week. Someone brought a gigantic bag of bite-size Mars candy bars. The bag contained Twix, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, Snickers, Butterfinger and Baby Ruth.

Someone opened the bag and dumped it on the lunch table in a big mound. Within a day, all of the Snickers, Butterfinger, Twix and Baby Ruth candy bars were gone. Over the next day, the Milky Way candy bars were slowly picked from the pile. There’s still a big pile of 3 Musketeers.

If I were the CEO of Mars Candy, I’d fire all of my marketing executives and just dump a pile of candy on a table somewhere to conduct my market research. Then I’d shut down production of 3 Musketeers, and let everyone at the Milky Way factory know that their jobs were on the line. Then I’d hop on my motorcycle and go out to play some Texas Hold ‘Em.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Used to Beige

Perhaps I’ve been living in the suburbs for too long. I've gotten used to all the beige. The drive to my new job is so visually stimulating, I’m worried that I’ll have an accident. There’s just so much to see, and I thought I’d share some more of it with you.

One of my favorite things in the world is incongruous pairings - like when two movie titles on a marquee turn out funny or suggestive. Here’s two billboards that make me chuckle:


As I mentioned before, there are a lot of hand-painted signs along my route.



And here’s a tattoo parlor with three graffiti-slathered limos parked out front.


This place with the flying saucer on the roof and the rockets on the side sells surplus hardware, electronics, tools, and salvage goods.


I like this sign from a no-nonsense used-car lot.


And this auto repair garage is run by Christians, if that matters to anyone.


Friday, April 3, 2009

The Repository of American Grief

There are a lot of pizza joints in Boston. For some reason, most of them are run by Greeks. Italian restaurants are run by Italians, and Lebanese own all of the gas stations. The cops are Irish, but so are the politicians and the bosses of organized crime.

Whenever I went out for pizza or to any other small family restaurant owned by Greeks or Italians, there was always one element of consistent d├ęcor: Somewhere on a wall I would spot a faded picture of President John F. Kennedy. It had been 10 years since his assassination, and most Bostonians had moved on emotionally. But the immigrants and their children remembered.

Now that I have a new commute, I’ve been noticing the restaurants along the way. In these neighborhoods, you don’t find Outback Steakhouse and Starbucks. All of the restaurants are small family operations, some with hand-lettered signs. One intrigues me. It has a large white sign out front, with two words in bold red print: “WINGS FISH.”

My wife and I had recently been disappointed by a restaurant that specialized in Buffalo chicken wings, so I decided to pick some up on the way home tonight for a trial run.

The place was tiny and cluttered, with stacks of old magazines, broken vending machines and a cracked linoleum floor. The owner was sign-happy. A large “TRASH” sign was taped to the trash can, in case you were confused or impaired by drug abuse. A small counter holding giant pump tanks of ketchup and mustard bore a huge “CONDIMENTS” sign.

The place was unexpectedly run by a Chinese man and his wife. He stood proudly at attention behind the dingy counter, neatly dressed and bearing a welcoming smile. I placed my order, which he wrote on a small piece of paper. Then he reached over to the cash register, where he had small half-inch pieces of cellophane tape stuck to the edge in a tidy row. He removed a piece of tape, stuck the order slip on it, and reached around the doorway into the kitchen, where he stuck the tape onto the prep counter for his wife.

I wandered around admiring the trashy ambiance, when I noticed one wall that was plastered with large color photographs of the World Trade Center towers back in their heyday. President Kennedy has been replaced by a new, powerful icon of grief and mourning for immigrant restaurateurs.

When my order was ready, the owner’s wife brought the box out to the counter, with my order slip stuck to it with the same piece of tape. The owner gently peeled off the slip, removed the slip from the tape, and then stuck the piece of tape back onto the cash register. It must take him three years to use a roll of tape. I guess the profit margins aren’t so great in the chicken wing business.

      NOTE: Some of you may have noticed the word "restaurateurs" in the second-to-last paragraph. For my entire adult life, I thought that word was spelled "restauranteurs." I was shocked when my spell-checker reprimanded me. This one ranks up there with "knowlegable" for unexpected spelling.