28 October 2006

Monsters of Falafel

I had planned to inaugurate my periodic random food coverage by discussing a bakery and its goodies, of which there are many above-average examples in my area. But lunch got in the way. Specifically, a place I go for lunch about once a week that made me decide it deserved to be my first food entry. I work in the Longwood Medical Area along with thousands of other people, and everyone has to eat. Sure, there's a McDonald's and a Subway, but these days folks often favor healthier and more diverse culinary choices.

Since 1979, a whole lot of them have been eating at Sami's Wrap & Roll. Originally Sami's operated out of a catering truck, then a stand on Longwood Avenue near Children's Hospital that was open around the clock (where I first encountered it, in the mid-1980s). The area's development eventually caused the stand to be moved to a spot just off Longwood near the corner of Avenue Louis Pasteur. Later they took a permanent indoor location in the food court of the Longwood Galleria building, but kept the stand open to better serve the area.

All the food at Sami's is first-rate, both healthy and delicious. But my favorite, the one I go back for again and again, is the "combo #1," falafel and tabooli (Sami's spelling). It's served with lettuce and tomato and tahini sauce. Couldn't be simpler, but the combination of those ingredients and flavors is nothing short of heavenly. And it's a big sandwich too, so it's really satisfying. The folks who work at Sami's are friendly, and they know people are busy so the food is served up quickly.

If you live or work in Boston, you owe it to yourself to try Sami's. If you do, you'll probably want to go back.

26 October 2006

Movin' On Up

The Mrs. and I moved several months ago, after living in the same place for almost 11 years. A lot of that was inertia: the rent was cheap and the apartment was comfortable and in a decent location. But it came at a price: an annoying, nosy, borderline-OCD landlord with too much time on her hands. And we couldn't have any pets. Mrs. SAR is quite the animal lover, and had been yearning for a pet to love for a long, long time.

I was the one who suggested it might be time to move. I liked the idea of having a dog, but I wasn't necessarily in a hurry. But beyond that reason, I was just tired of where we lived, and I thought a change of scenery would be good for us. I mean, when we moved there, Clinton was still in his first term, we weren't yet married, we didn't have cell phones--we didn't even have dial-up internet service.

Moving is a difficult enough undertaking, but finding the right place is just as trying a task, especially if you're renting and want to have a pet. Some property owners say their rentals are "pet-friendly" but don't really mean it. Some of them impose weight or size limits for dogs. Some of them want an additional security deposit. I don't necessarily think those things are unreasonable or unfair, but they make the process of finding a suitable home more difficult. We were lucky: we only looked at three apartments before we knew we'd found one we wanted to live in.

The first one was in a good location, but it was a cramped third-floor space, and everything was really old and worn. An adequate starving-grad-student place maybe, but not for us. The second, though in a somewhat less convenient location, was very clean and well-kept, but walking through the front door was like passing through a time portal: the entire apartment was straight out of the 1970s.

The dining room had pale green paneling and a classically baroque hanging light fixture; the bathroom had those tiny floor tiles and the old-style fluorescent light fixtures on either side of the mirror; but the kitchen was the worst. Gold-brown linoleum, brown paneling, and darker brown cabinets, topped by eye-searing yellow Formica countertops. Strangely, there was also a brand-new, gleaming black gas stove. The Mrs. summed it up by saying, "I couldn't stand having to get up and look at that every morning. I would just hate myself."

The guy had owned the place for a decade, and he obviously cared about the property, but I got the impression that he wasn't willing to forego a couple months' rent in order to renovate and modernize. But maybe I'm wrong; maybe he thought it was fine the way it was. The lesson we'd learned: if people don't bother to put pictures in their listings, there's usually a reason why. I have no doubt he found someone to rent the place. It just wasn't going to be us.

Then we went to see a place that did have some pictures in its listing. The owners had a baby, but no pets. They didn't seem too concerned about what sort of dog we might get. Their attitude toward a dog was basically, "Do what makes you happy, we trust you." That was refreshing. That, along with the fact that we really liked the apartment, was enough for us to make the decision. I said to my wife, "We can keep looking if you want, but I don't think we're going to find another place as nice as this one in the price range." We thought about it over the weekend, and submitted the application on Monday. Having found a place to live, we had to prepare to move, which meant contending with the accrual of stuff that comes with living in the same place for 11 years...

24 October 2006

Cold Comfort

You've probably already figured out that I do a fair bit of shopping at L.L. Bean. It's a New England thing; it's practically in the blood. At this time of year, people like me who live in the northern tier of the country start thinking about the coming winter, and about warmer clothing. I have a good parka for the serious winter weather, but around here you also need something for the in-between days. I have a field coat from Bean that I've had for years and love. It's a sort of weathered red, with a wool lining that is attached with buttons and can be removed (although I never removed the lining except when I needed to wash the coat). With appropriate layers, it's good down to about 40 degrees, maybe 35 if it's not windy. But it's cotton, so it's not much use if it's snowing hard or pouring.

Anyway, after many seasons of use, the cuffs of the thing have frayed to the point where I didn't feel right wearing it out in public anymore. I decided it was time to replace it. Bean stopped making the color a while back, and I don't care for any of the colors they're offering now, but I like the coat so much, I decided to try to find one in the same color on eBay. While it's true there's a ton of stuff on eBay, you can't always find exactly what you want. After a few weeks of fruitless auction browsing, I decided the color wasn't so important, and I would just buy one that was cheap and in good condition. I soon found one that was unworn, in a boring but innocuous khaki, that had no bids. I was able to get it for around $25 plus shipping, quite a bit less than the $120 they sell for new.

But I made a mistake. My old one was a tall, and I decided that wasn't important. I'm on the borderline between regular and tall, so I took a chance. But really, I should have known better, because I'd deliberately bought it in tall previously. Oddly enough, the length wasn't the problem; it was tolerable, but the overall fit was too tight through the shoulders and torso. It seems strange that that's what would be different, but with any more layers than just a shirt, I couldn't stand wearing the thing.

Later, when the new Bean store opened nearby (see "Cruel Shoes" below),
I went there and tried on both the regular and tall versions of the coat. The regular still felt wrong, but the surprise was that the tall was too big in those shoulder and torso areas; apparently they'd changed the cut at some point, and now neither one would work. I went back to eBay and bought a Woolrich coat, basically their version of the Bean garment. I took a chance, because I hadn't ever tried one on, and they aren't sold in many stores anyway, at least not around here. As it turned out, it fits just right, and I didn't even need a tall. As for the Bean coat, I'll probably try to resell it on eBay.

19 October 2006

Train in Vain

I thought it was time for me to talk about something other than clothing; I'm sure everyone who's bothering to read was getting pretty bored with my denim difficulties. You may have noticed that little string of non sequiturs above, under the title. All things I care about, all things I plan on covering here.

One of the defining facts of my life is that I am unable to drive. I've been extremely near-sighted since birth, and thus no DMV in its right mind would issue me a driver's license, and rightly so. So I depend on public transportation for most aspects of my daily life. In a good-sized city this is not so unusual; every morning I see hundreds of other people doing the same thing. But the major difference is, pretty much all of them have some degree of choice. You can choose to live outside the mass transit coverage area but drive to a train station. If you've bought something large online and the delivery requires a signature, you can have it sent to where you work and drive in to get it home. If you just don't want to deal with parking and insurance and all the other hassles of owning a car, you can rent one when you need one. But I can't do any of those things.

Now, I don't want to paint an inaccurate picture. I'm married, my wife has a car, and she does her share of driving on my behalf. But I've had to turn down jobs because they were inaccessible to me, and I've had my share of difficult, tedious, convoluted commutes. Since I graduated from college, everywhere I've lived has been an area that required taking the bus in addition to the subway, which adds layers of time and increases the likelihood of a delay somewhere along the way. My point is that, after more than two decades, I feel I'm thoroughly qualified to discuss (and criticize) the transit system I use every day, and going forward I intend to do that.

14 October 2006

Jean Therapy: Postscript

L.L. Bean now has "Adirondack Jeans" for $19.50, compared to their "Double L" jeans for $29.50. The main difference seems to be the weight of the fabric, and that they come in colors other than denim washes (though the colored ones are actually twill and not denim). I've looked at these in the store but have not tried them on, so it seems like in the interest of the public good, I should get a pair and try them out. More to come on this.

Jean Therapy, Part 3

Even if the jeans are a normal fit, other things can happen. One recent pair of jeans (I can't remember the brand) had such narrow leg openings, they had trouble fitting over a pair of work boots I wore a lot in the winter. When I bent over or crouched, the cuffs would catch and pull on the padded collars of the boots, then pop off them. When I stood up I would have to fix the cuffs while trying to bend down in such a way that I could create enough slack to prevent it from happening again, but the next time I had to bend, it started all over. If I didn't fix them, I looked like I didn't know how to get dressed properly. It wasn't much better with other shoes or sneakers; the legs would get stuck on tongues or heel tabs.

When you're trying to get dressed and out of the house on time on a daily basis, it's kind of ridiculous and annoying to have to think about what jeans can or can't be worn with what shoes or boots, and as a result I usually forgot. After a few rounds of that, I decided the solution was to
retire and donate those particular jeans, and I realized I would have to pay more attention to the leg opening in the future. But that didn't mean I would be buying any boot-cut jeans, because those tend to have leg openings that are much too wide, and they flop around.

I'm thinking It might be time to look into the custom-made services offered by Lands' End and other companies. But in the meantime I've found my new jeans. Don't laugh: Arizona Jean Co. from JCPenney. Their stores are much improved from a few years ago (though there's still some merchandise that's a little scary), and they've done a good job of developing house brands like Arizona. The denim fabric is sturdy and good quality, the fit doesn't pinch or chafe (when you work sitting on your ass all day, this is important), and if you hit a good sale you can probably get them for under $20 a pair. One of the three pairs I bought was only $15; the other two were $18.

11 October 2006

Jean Therapy, Part 2

So what do you do when you have to find a replacement for something you've used for a long time? I tried a bunch of different brands and wasn't happy with any of them. Along the way I ran across a Consumer Reports comparison that said Polo Jeans Co. jeans were among the most comfortable for adult men. I was intrigued by this, as at the time I thought it was just a cheapo line meant to give the brand some traction with younger guys in department stores.

Eventually I got around to trying on a pair, and I was pleasantly surprised. The relaxed fit became my jeans of choice. I even found them in Costco for some pittance, maybe $20. For several years everything was fine. Then they revamped their entire lineup of jeans: new names, new fits, new washes,
and my little bubble of jean comfort burst. Everything had that pre-destroyed look, with the whiskers and the tinting that made them look like they'd been dipped in motor oil (had they?). It meant I'd have to go through it all over again.

This is probably a good point in my demin saga to mention that I have no use for any of the super-expensive, high-fashion jeans. Aside from the ridiculous cost (last time I was in Bloomingdale's, they had a whole section of men's jeans selling for $150-$200, and I certainly have better things to do with that kind of money), they invariably have some ugly stitching on the pockets, and they're heavily faded and distressed to look like they've been dragged behind a combine harvester for a month or so. The idea of someone being paid, regardless of how much or how little, to attack jeans with a grinding wheel to artificially age them, so that a premium price can be charged, just makes me...wish I'd thought of it first.

Then there's the matter of fit. As you get older, you tend to lose the desire to have your jeans look like they were painted onto you, and of course all the fancy brands like Juicy Couture and 7 for All Mankind are cut snug and low-waisted. Great for Iggy Pop, not so great for average guys.
These jeans are fine if you work in a used CD store or tattoo parlor and need to look hip, but at my age I'm after something a tiny bit more respectable looking. And that's a big part of it: age. I'm not the target audience for these jeans, because I'm too old. Might as well just give up and go straight to the elastic-waist pants, as far as the marketers are concerned.

07 October 2006

Jean Therapy

Like a lot of people, I've spent a good chunk of my adult life in jeans. I've been fortunate in that for most of the past decade, I've had jobs where I could wear whatever I wanted (except for a couple of stints in places that required uniforms, but those were merely brief, involuntary departures from the master plan). So that meant jeans pretty much year-round, and shorts in the summer. As time has gone by, it's gotten much harder to find decent jeans. Some would say this is probably because I'm getting older, but the available product has changed as well.

Back in the day, it was Levi's, and only Levi's, for me. I remember at one point thinking to myself that I could not imagine wearing any jeans other than 501's for the rest of my life. But it was over 20 years ago when I had that thought, and as with a lot of other things, my feelings on the subject have changed. Button fly? Kind of a nuisance, especially when you really have to go.
I have been meaning to go to a store and try on a pair of 501's just to see if I would still want to wear them, but I haven't gotten around to it. (Might be good to do that for a future entry.)

I'd guess I haven't owned a pair of 501's since the early 90's, and I haven't owned any Levi's at all in about four years, since whenever it was they changed the pocket stitching and made that curly V much deeper. Go look and you'll see what I mean. I know, I know, it's absurdly trivial, but I don't like it; the old way was fine, and I don't see why they felt the need to change it.

But even before that happened, I'd been down on Levi's for a more important reason: their financial problems had caused them to shift more and more of their production out of the US. I wasn't happy about that (I do try to buy American when I can, but it isn't always easy), but the real issue for me was that the foreign-made Levi's, even the ones from Mexico, didn't fit as well as the US-made ones, and didn't wear as well either.

Having made the decision to give up on Levi's, I had to find some other jeans to wear. You wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but when you're used to something, it can be very difficult to find a satisfactory replacement. (In the future I'll be talking about this regarding non-clothing items.)

02 October 2006

Cruel Shoes

I decided to begin by talking about shoes, because it's a universal topic; everyone needs shoes, everyone has to deal with finding shoes they like and that fit properly. I have a hard time finding shoes. I don't just mean styles I like, though that is true. I also mean the right size. It's not that I have freakishly tiny or clownishly large feet; on average these days I wear an 11. But the key words in that sentence are "on average." At the moment I own shoes ranging from size 10 to 11.5. It wasn't always this way; at one time I always wore a 10.5, except for sneakers, which generally run a bit smaller than non-sneakers; those were always an 11. Somewhere about a decade ago I found (by accident, if I remember correctly) that wider shoes were more comfortable, so when possible I would buy a 10.5 E or EE. Of course not all styles are made in wide widths, so I learned that if I went up a half-size I could get some of the extra space of a wider shoe.

Then things started getting a little weird. I was thinking about getting some Pumas, so I went to a store to try them on. Turned out I needed an 11.5. I learned later that Pumas traditionally run even smaller than most other sneaker brands. About six months ago I purchased a pair of Double H harness boots from a web site. In my experience boots tend to run a little truer to size, so I ordered a 10.5 wide. Turned out they were too big; not the width, but the length. I exchanged them for a 10 wide and was happy. I decided it must have been because they're made in the US, where we like everything big.

(As an aside, this sort of problem is a very good reason to buy shoes from a site like Shoebuy. They pay shipping both ways, so that if something is too big, or too small, you don't have to go out of pocket to exchange it. That's called customer service, and Shoebuy gets it.)

But then about a month ago I bought a pair of loafers from L. L. Bean. I was excited because Bean opened a store in Burlington, MA, not far from where I live, which meant I could try on the shoes (without having to go all the way to Maine), rather than take a guess and risk having to exchange them. Of course, because the store had just opened, they did not yet have the specific style I wanted in stock. I was told if I ordered them through an operator from the store phone, I would get free shipping, so I did. Since they were available in wide, I decided to go with the 10.5 EE. And once again they were too big.

When we shop for shoes, I think we've come to expect them to run smaller than their designated numerical size, so it's still something of a surprise when they are in fact too large. But is it a good thing or not? Any online or mail order shoe purchase involves some risk, unless you're replacing shoes you already have with the exact same style, or are buying a brand whose sizing is always consistent, which is rare. It makes me wonder if there is any sort of standard for how shoes sizes are assigned. It seems like there should be, but the evidence in my closet says otherwise.