Monday, July 21, 2008

Will there be cookies?

I've had it with interminable, pointless business meetings. I'm not talking about the ones where there's an actual problem that needs to be solved. I'm talking about the ones where one person is so frightened of being held accountable for a decision he came to independently that he has to get a half dozen people involved. These are the meetings where the talk goes on and on and there's usually a need for a follow-up meeting -- at which no decision will be made.

If you've worked in corporate America, you know what I mean. They're the meetings where the "team" is supposed to come up with a recommendation, but it's useless because no-one in attendance has the power or budget to make any real decisions.

Sometimes you just have to suck it up and attend. Other times you can try to come up with a reason to skip it. It usually helps if you can invoke the name of someone important who conveniently needs your attention at just the time the meeting is being held. But sometimes when you get the invitation, you can't quite tell if the topic is legit or bogus.

I've decided that from now on, I'm using my own criteria to decide which meetings are truly necessary.

Will there be cookies?

This is an infinitely fantastic criterion. With corporate budgets being cut to the bone, the chance of there being refreshments is remote. If the person is desperate enough to have you there, he'll make the accommodation, at which point you can up the ante: Will there be Pepperidge Farm cookies? I really like those Milanos.

No? Oh, well, I'll have to catch up with you later.

It's a no-lose situation. Maybe people get you the Milanos, and they think you're crazy, but heck, you have good cookies to distract you during the meeting.

An aside: at my last job, there was one week in which I only had two meetings. I thought I'd gotten away with something until around 4 p.m. that Friday, when I got stuck in an elevator. For 15 minutes, I was stuck between the ninth and tenth floors, waiting for maintenance to open the doors for me. I came to realize: if you didn't have enough meetings in a given week, they'd force you to have one with yourself.

And no, there were no cookies.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Never fear...

The porkroll and cheese sandwich has returned to the Asbury Park boardwalk. I grabbed one at Mayfair this afternoon.

Just beware of the five dollar soda.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

I hope I get it...

Another weekend jaunt had me on the train to New York with no set destination in mind. I let my gut draw me to the Theater District. I'd figure out what show to see when I got there.

It had been a while since I'd seen a Broadway show. I think the last time was in September 2001, when my friend Ingrid took me to see Chicago for my birthday. Just three weeks after the attacks, New York felt very fragile, and the usually mundane hop into Manhattan felt like an act of bravery.

Regardless of the circumstances, stepping into a Broadway theater always brings nostalgia and a sense of unrealized ambition to me. For a time in adolescence, I'd wanted to be a stage actress, and I can't help but identify a little with the actors, singers and dancers in the shows. How incredible must they feel, to have realized their dreams!

These days, there seems to be a wealth of good shows to choose from, and with the revival of A Chorus Line closing in five weeks, it seemed like the logical choice. Despite the legendary 15-year run of the original production and the supposed parallel to my own ambitions at the time, I hadn't seen it.

The opening minutes of the show's audition scenario brought me back to a forgotten episode of my life. My junior high school acting-fever days coincided with the first few years of the show's original run, and my friend Heather shared my desire to be on stage. She was an avid Backstage reader, especially the back pages where the open call notices were printed.

One night she called me to report that A Chorus Line was having an open call that weekend, Actors Equity card not necessary. Did I want to go with her? The New York bus stopped on her corner and went almost directly to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, just a few blocks from Times Square and the audition studio. It was that easy.

Every concern I brought up was answered: Uh, I can't dance. "That's okay, they show you the steps before the audition. You can follow everyone else." Don't you need a resume and a headshot? "You were in the Summer Music School production of Oklahoma! That counts for something! And you can bring your yearbook picture." Well, okay, let me see if I can go.

My mom blew a gasket when I asked. She'd denied many more reasonable requests; this one was the Triple Crown winner of the bad judgement derby.
  • Take the bus with your friend from school? (I don't know her mother -- she must be evil!)
  • To the Port Authority? (and this was before it was cleaned up)
  • Walk through Times Square? (This was Travis Bickle's Times Square, not Disney's)
Needless to say, I didn't go, even though Heather suggested ways we could get to the city and back without Mom knowing. After some initial pouting, I wasn't all that broken up about it. It just didn't make sense to me to audition for a singing/dancing role I didn't have the skills for. I knew what I was good at, and I knew my limitations.

My memory is a bit hazy, but I'm pretty sure that Heather went. Naturally she didn't get a part -- she was only 14 and didn't have the singing or the dancing -- but I give her credit for getting that far. Sometimes you do have to go for it.

Myself, I'd rather have the character shoes and the headshot first, thanks.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Visiting the Big House

Too much to do, too little time. Too much time, can't think of what to do.

Past several days, I've been off from work, doing one of those lovely "staycations" (a.k.a. 'holi-stays'). I could have swallowed hard and spent a ton of money on an airline ticket to elsewhere, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Instead, I decided to stick close to home and do some day trips, go down the shore, make a trip into the city.

Today I came up blank. The weather’s been changeable since Friday, so the beach was out. I considered a trip to Salem and maybe Shellpile, but I just wasn’t up for it. I needed to go somewhere, so I checked my file.

I keep two folders of places, things and stuff that looks interesting. One is a literal folder, for stuff I clip from the newspaper. The other is a virtual folder of bookmarks in Internet Explorer. Today the paper file didn’t cut it, so I checked online and found Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Eastern State is one of those great, scary places that's notorious among the cult of urban explorers. Built in the 1820s as a model penitentiary on the outskirts of Philadelphia, it stands fortress-like, with castle turrets and thick, thick walls. Eventually it became overcrowded and run down, even as the city grew outward to envelop it. More than 100 inmates escaped over the 150 years the prison was in operation, which, surely, was a major factor in the decision to shut it down. It was home, however briefly, to men and women, both obscure and famous, like Al Capone and Willie Sutton. (Capone's reconstructed, plushly-furnished cell is shown at the end of the video below.)

The initial concept was that each prisoner would have his or her own small cell and an adjoining outdoor 'exercise' area; they would see no-one, allowing time for significant contemplation of the wrongdoing that put them there. Cells were organized along cellblocks that intersected at a central point, like the legs of a spider. As the prison grew to accommodate a growing number of criminals, the individual exercise yards were eliminated in favor of new cells, and prisoners were doubled up.

Today, the prison is dungeonlike in atmosphere: a sea of peeling paint, falling-down plaster and dripping leachate from holes in the roof. During my visit, a sudden burst of rain reverberated through the cellblocks, making the already humid atmosphere even clammier. It's hard to believe that just 40 years ago, it was heated, wired for light and had running water... and that there was paint and plaster on the walls to make it habitable.

A few of the cellblocks are open for wandering, while others are closed, but you can poke your nose in from the central area or from the outside yard. Some of the cells are open to walk into. They're all pretty much the same and are all pretty creepy. One cellblock is specifically noted as being haunted. Grrrreaat.

There's also a sampling of art installed around the prison -- a Guantanamo cell set up in a cell, time lapse video of light entering and leaving a hallway, and 19 ghost cats. They're the specters of a colony of felines that took the place following its abandonment. And it's a game to find them around the grounds, adding a bit of whimsy to a scary place. The truly odd thing is that they all have contented little smiles on their faces. Never imagined that the Cheshire Cat would be staying at the Graybar Hotel.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Huzzah! Huzzah!

July 4 is one of my favorite holidays. No matter how screwed up government is these days, and no matter how frustrated I may be by current events, I'm a patriot, and I relish the chance to celebrate it. It's amazing to think about the chances our forebears took in rebelling against the great superpower of the 18th century. It's even more amazing to think that they prevailed.

Not far away from me is the Morristown National Historic Park, one of many "George Washington slept here" places in New Jersey. Valley Forge gets the press for misery, but Morristown was the site of two epic winter encampments of the Continental Army. Valley Forge had disease, but at least it was relatively warm. Morristown had disease plus persistent, sub-freezing weather and feet (yes - FEET) of snow, blowing through the flimsy soldier tents and hastily-constructed log huts. Washington and some aides stayed at the home of the sympathetic Jacob Ford, closer to the Morristown Green.

Every July 4, the Ford Mansion hosts a reading of the Declaration of Independence and a musket salute from the Jersey Blues - the third New Jersey Regiment. Far from a solemn event, the reading takes on a raucous tone, with the reenactors encouraging audience members to shout huzzahs and heckle King George during the airing of grievances. There's nothing quite like hearing the words of 1776 punctuated with a clearly 21st century "no he di-in't!" Everyone has a good time, and in the process, we all get a better view into an event and people we thought we'd already known so well.

What gets me every time is the accuracy of John Adams' vision of what the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing would be like. He told his wife Abigail that Independence Day "should be commemorated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forever more." It's a day for fun, for celebrating what it means not to be oppressed. The pursuit of freedom.

And he was sure it would happen -- that America wouldn't be a flash in the pan. The following years would be challenging for him and for the country, but it's the belief that got him through it. And even with all of the crap that happens here -- a lot of it self-perpetuated -- that confidence is at the core of what America is. And it's what has to give us the courage to continue to hold ourselves and each other accountable to the vision.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Didn't see it coming...

Every loyal Springsteen fan knows the line from Fourth of July Asbury Park (Sandy) -- 'The cops finally busted Madam Marie for telling fortunes better than they do..." Doubtless, a lot of the people who come from far and wide to make the Stone Pony pilgrimage and take some photos of her small Temple of Knowledge on the boardwalk. Hours were sporadic, but visitors were invited to call her; she was more than willing to come over and open up shop. I was tempted a few times, myself, but never did.

Marie Castello died Tuesday at the age of 93. According to an obituary published in the Asbury Park Press and distributed in an e-mail by the folks at Weird NJ, she hadn't been sick, just wasn't feeling well lately.

While she'd closed the Temple during the boardwalk's extreme low period in the '90s, she continued to predict good things for Asbury's comeback. After yet another set of would-be saviors went belly-up in '94, she told the Star-Ledger: "I most certainly knew the developers were going to come to a bad end, but I stayed here because this is the beautifullest boardwalk in the world. Sure I could have warned people in town, but who's gonna listen to me? But I'll tell you this: Asbury Park is gonna come back bigger, I mean much, much bigger than even before and it's gonna happen in the next three years. Trust me, I know these things."

Her timeline was more than a little off, but maybe she's right, and maybe the Castellos will be able to get their share. When I was down there last weekend, I noticed they'd hung a new red and white striped awning on her Temple of Knowledge. Apparently her great-granddaughter has taken up the family business. The joint venture partners who are renovating the boardwalk buildings lowered the Convention Hall flag to half staff, so you can be sure they won't be taking down her shack anytime soon.

Requiat in pace, Madam Marie.