30 August 2007

Breakfast Blues

I've always been a breakfast eater. Even in college, I would trek to the cafeteria for a bowl of cereal before heading to class. (I also felt it was a way to ensure I was getting my money's worth out of the meal plan.) But the Mrs. and I are not particularly good at keeping the house stocked with food, so I ran out of suitable breakfast foods. The obvious solution is to stop and get something on the way to work, and since I usually stop for coffee anyway, this isn't too difficult to accomplish. Or so I thought.

[Side note: I always have coffee at home along with breakfast, but by the time I get to work I'm ready for more. When my office moved recently, we got a new coffee-making machine, the kind that uses the little individual cylinders that are pre-filled with coffee and a tiny filter. Unfortunately, this coffee tastes only slightly better than the vile, nasty stuff we used to have that came in individual pouches, so for the foreseeable future, I will have to continue to buy coffee on the way to work. If the T ever has the (unlikely) common sense to install cupholders on its vehicles, I will consider a travel cup, because I need one hand to hold on and the other to hold the newspaper.]

Today I decided I was in the mood for a treat, something along the lines of a pastry, a danish, a cinnamon roll, that sort of thing. That pretty much excludes Dunkin' Donuts. I love doughnuts, but I do not care for Dunkin's doughnuts, and while their muffins are decent, that wasn't what I was after today. So I headed for the Espresso Royale Cafe on Gainsborough Street in the vicinity of Symphony Hall, which is on my way to work and which has a very nice selection of baked goods. I'm particularly fond of the coffee cake they sell, which is served in nice, thick squares with a dollop of raspberry syrup (or something) and a drizzle of icing on top. Mmmm...

The folks at Espresso Royale make an excellent cup of coffee, and the goodies are yummy (I don't know if those are made on the premises or brought in from elsewhere). But they are, collectively, not exactly the fastest group of baristas I have encountered. I'm sure they're all very nice people, but this is Boston after all, the land of people with zero patience who are always in a hurry (myself included). I've been in there probably about forty times over the past three months, and the staff have a distinctly... leisurely way of going about their work. Add in the fact that the students are in the process of returning to the area, and you get a line ten deep that isn't showing any outward signs of moving.

I turned around and headed back to Huntington Ave. There's a Starbucks around the corner. I'm not a big fan of the Seattle leviathan for various reasons, but they do have these maple-frosted scones that I like. Of course, the line in Starbucks was even longer than the line in ERC, so that was the end of that idea. I ended up walking a couple of blocks up Huntington to the Au Bon Pain at Northeastern, where I got a gigantic tub of iced coffee (seriously, it's like a quart) for only $2 and a mediocre cinnamon scone. Now I guess I should start thinking about lunch...

28 August 2007

Gift, Interrupted

I love receiving gift cards, but it seems like the ones I get tend to be for stores where I don't find much I like these days. It's a terrible feeling to go into a store with a gift card to spend, look around for 20 minutes (making a second circuit to make sure you didn't miss anything), and not find a single thing you want to get.

I received a Banana Republic gift card from my brother, but I haven't bought anything from BR in probably a year or more. This is pretty much my fault, because he asks my mother what to get me, and my mother thinks I still like to shop there because I have not told her otherwise. Clearly I will need to do that before Christmas rolls around.

I saw a couple of things I did like, but I felt they were overpriced by at least 25%. I saw a couple of other things that I could have gotten but don't need, and I can't see the point of getting something that's just going to hang in the closet and get dusty. I could wait a couple months for some different merchandise to rotate in, but I'm not known for being a terribly patient person in general, and with gift cards, the thing might as well be leaking plutonium. (It's sad, I know.)

I know about the various sites where you can sell and trade gift cards, but they typically charge a fee, and you typically have to sell the card for at least 10% off its face value to get anyone to buy.

So I'm going to try a different approach. At work we have an intranet, and on it there is a craigslist-type bulletin board. Today I posted under Barter looking for someone who wants to swap gift cards, and we'll see if anyone is interested.

26 August 2007

The Right to Bare Arms?

Yesterday it was extremely hot (96 degrees) and very humid, so we spent most of the day holed up in the comfort of the house, and ventured out around 6:30 PM to get a birthday present for my brother and have dinner.

In line at the store, I noticed that there were two men of roughly my age ahead of me, one with a wife or girlfriend, the other with a young daughter. Also, both of them were wearing tank tops. I'm used to seeing this choice of clothing among young guys on the T, but on middle-aged guys it gives me pause. I'm not talking about being in shape; I'm talking about dignity. I don't own a tank top, but if I did, I would not wear it out in public. I feel that some items of clothing are appropriate for inside your house, and that's it, and tank tops are one of those items. Exposed armpits and hot, humid days--ugh, I don't even like thinking about it.

Later, at the restaurant, I saw another guy wearing a tank top. Now, shopping on route 1 on Saturday evening is one thing, but going out to dinner? We're not talking about the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton (oh wait, that got sold and is now called the Taj Boston), but we're not talking about the corner diner either. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, or just old, but when I go to a semi-nice restaurant, I don't expect to see male patrons wearing tank tops. Many restaurants used to have dress codes, but they have all but vanished due to the continued overcasualization of every aspect of public life in our society.

To be fair, I was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, cargo shorts, and fisherman sandals, so there are probably more than a few places I would have been turned away from back in the Rat Pack days. (Yes, I have been watching Mad Men, and yes, it does make me nostalgic for a time when men and women knew instinctively, or were taught, how to dress appropriately for any occasion.) The line between casual dining and upscale dining, and the differences in attire and behavior that go with it, pretty much no longer exists, and maybe that's the problem.

Every year around this time, the men's magazines start talking about how "this fall, men will be dressing up again!" But it seems like they're trying to convince themselves rather than their readers. Maybe some intrepid restauranteur needs to step up and be willing to reinstate a dress code and stick to it. You know how certain clubs have a rule about no sneakers or ball caps? No one seems to care much about that, except the occasional frat dude that gets turned away, and you can bet he'll either go home and change or remember how to dress when he comes back next time.

I would be willing to put on long pants, even on a 96-degree day in August, if I knew that it meant all the other patrons at that restaurant had to do the same thing, and if it would assure me I wouldn't have to see any men in tank tops.

21 August 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

At lunch today I went to the box office at the Berklee Performance Center to get tickets for the show by the awesome Montreal band Stars on October 19th (I highly recommend going to this show; the BPC site describes them as "beautiful, eloquent indie pop with a flair for the dramatic," and it's only $20, well worth it). As I negotiated the throngs of Berklee students clustered on the sidewalk along Mass. Ave. (is their school back in session already?), I pulled my eyeglass case out of my pocket to get ready to take off my sunglasses when I stepped inside.

As soon as I'd done this, I realized that I had carelessly allowed a $5 bill to slip out with it. I turned around to retrace my steps, and a young guy was already coming toward me with the bill in his outstretched hand. Naturally I thanked him, and then I thought, how refreshingly honest. He could have just put his shoe over it and I never would have found it. So thanks again, unknown Berklee dude. You restored my faith in humanity, at least for today.

18 August 2007

Behind the Wheel

Last night we were invited to a casual supper at a friend's house, so on the way there we stopped at the grocery store to pick up the requested beverage and snack. As we pulled into a parking space, we saw a very elderly woman being helped to her car with her groceries by a member of the store staff. She was stooped and it seemed that she could barely walk.

I went inside and got the needed items. When I went to pay, the kid bagging was the same one who had helped the woman outside, and he and the cashier were talking about her, how frail she was, how banged-up her car was. I hadn't noticed that when I'd gotten out of the car, but as he continued, he gestured out the window and said, "She's still out there."

I went outside and saw she was indeed still parked in the same spot, but her car was now running. She had the donut spare tire on her left front wheel, and when I passed to the other side, I could see that the passenger side of the car was scraped from end to end, as though she had driven it along the side of a building or something.

She drove away oh so slowly, and we ended up behind her heading out of the parking lot. The Mrs. said, "She probably shouldn't be driving. She could be dangerous to other people as well as herself." I didn't really have anything to add to that, other than to agree. It's unfortunate, but often true, that as we age our bodies fail us in various ways.

I wondered if she had children, and if so, if they had thought about how to deal with the situation. And if she doesn't have any children, or any other close relatives monitoring her health and well-being, then whose responsibility is it? Should we have called the police? What would we have said? "Yes, there's a woman on Salem St. that we suspect is driving while old."

16 August 2007

Bus Stop Musings

When you ride the T regularly, at some point you will be faced with the dilemma of having to choose between two different routes to the same destination, and woe is you if you make the wrong choice. T riders live in dread of making the wrong choice.

Today I went to do a couple of errands in the Prudential Center at lunch, and when I was ready to head back to work, I realized I could either take the 39 bus or the E line down Huntington Avenue to Brigham Circle. I tend to prefer taking the bus along this corridor, mostly because I find the stops to be situated more conveniently for my purposes; because it seems like the bus moves faster (even if it's only an illusion); and also because of my long-standing hatred of all things Green Line, going back to my BU days in the 80's, when I rode and loathed the B line.

So I opted to wait for the bus, which today was the wrong choice. As I stood watching for a 39 bus coming west down Huntington, three buses came from the other direction and made the turn onto Dalton Street within about two minutes of each other. This was a clear warning that I should go down into Prudential station and wait for an E train, because it was going to take at least 15 minutes for the first of those buses to make its way to Back Bay station, discharge its passengers, pick up new passengers, and make its way back around to where I was standing.

For some reason, this warning did not register in my brain. Perhaps I was addled by the heat, but I can't say for sure. (You'd think the heat would have been enough reason for me to opt not to stand around outside waiting for a bus.) I naively hoped that another bus was already on its way from Back Bay, but of course it wasn't.

When you're waiting around for 20 minutes or so, you have time to think about ways the T could do better. Like GPS. The buses are already equipped with it, but it's only used for the stop announcements. How idiotic is that? How hard could it be to come up with some sort of a readout on the bus stop sign posts that indicates how long until the next bus comes? Because, you know, that's information that might actually be useful to someone.

I went to London 20 years ago, and even back then the Tube stations had signs indicating how many minutes until the next train arrived, so I know it's technologically possible, but it would imply a level of accountability that the T is too gutless to undertake. Or they would say, "Oh, that would cost too much." And how much did the new fare collection system cost? The one that allows more fare evasion than before?

10 August 2007

Not Buying It

I know the blog posts have been a bit sparse lately, and there are a couple of reasons for that. In the torpor of August, everything seems to slow down, including my brain. The heat and humidity sap my energy, and I just haven't felt especially inspired or come up with any good topics lately. Also, I tend to do my posts during the workday, but I have a new project at work in addition to my regular stuff, making it a bit more difficult to steal time to blog on the employer's dime, as it were.

Our state is about to celebrate the joys of capitalism and potential indebtedness with the latest edition of its annual tax-free shopping weekends. You might think I would be excited, but I am not. As much of a shopper as I am, I'm not planning on buying anything this weekend, at least not anything that I wouldn't be buying anyway. Though the Mrs. and I have discussed some potential large purchases, there is no urgency around them. I've been giving some thought to getting a new computer, but it's not a necessity, and nothing else is pressing enough to entice us to whip out the plastic this weekend.

And really, that's probably a good thing. Sure, everybody loves saving money, but it's kind of irresponsible to go buy something just because you'll save a few bucks on sales tax. If you're a savvy enough shopper, you can probably find the item in question available somewhere (online, probably) at enough of a savings to equal or exceed the money you'd save by not paying sales tax. And most people are already in too much debt as it is.

(Wow, listen to me. I must be getting sensible in my old age. What a drag.)

I've also been thinking about the news reports that say the state loses in the neighborhood of $25 to $30 million in revenue by not collecting sales tax for these two days. That money could do a lot for our cash-strapped state government. I wonder how many shoppers will be thinking about that this weekend, or later on, when they might be deprived of some state program or service because there isn't enough money to fund it?

If you need something, you're going to buy it anyway, whether or not a tax break is involved. And many (probably most) Massachusetts shoppers know they can get a year-round tax holiday by investing in a tank of gas and heading over the border to tax-free New Hampshire for big-ticket purchases. Not everyone would agree that the trip is worth the time and gas money, but it is an option.

We're going to spend this weekend visiting our "country mice" friends out in the rural middle of the state, which will help us me resist the temptation to buy something big and shiny.

06 August 2007

Wave That Flag

Boy, it's such a comfort to know that the state of Oklahoma is doing its part to support freedom and sustain our American way of life by issuing "Global War on Terror" license plates. Perusing the list of other special plates available, I see they also have NRA and pro-life plates. What's next, "Secure Our Borders" plates?

(Courtesy of the SmartRoutes "On the Road" blog.)

04 August 2007

The Whole Thing

I had an interesting shopping experience the other night. We were in need of a few staple food items--coffee, cream, yogurt--and something to eat for supper. The Mrs. suggested going to Whole Foods because she likes their deli chicken salad, and with some fresh bread it would make a quick, easy meal. She also needed to stop at the Medford library, so after that we kept going through west Medford and Winchester to Woburn, where a new Whole Foods Market opened a year or so ago.

I had never shopped at Whole Foods. I'd been in a few of the stores over the years for various reasons, but I had never gone into one of their stores with the intention of doing any real food shopping for myself or my household. I guess I've always been content with being a mainstream grocery shopper, and Stop & Shop, Shaw's, or Foodmaster was always close enough and convenient enough for me. Also, while I'm aware of the issues surrounding food safety and the desire for food that is less processed, I've always felt that Whole Foods was overpriced, that part of what you're buying there is a lifestyle statement--I want the best, and I can afford it--that I don't identify with.

Over the past couple of years the chain has worked to undo the perception of being too expensive by introducing a line of private-label products, and by placing advertisement inserts in the newspaper showing that their prices are competitive with other grocery chains. But those inserts featured only a dozen or so items each week. and the prices on the rest of the items you'd likely need for your weekly shopping weren't necessarily as competitive.

Their produce is legendary, and yes, it's fantastic. But it's also pricey, and at this time of year, I'd much rather go to a local farmer's market. Nothing tastes as good as locally grown vegetables at their seasonal peak, and more farmers are embracing organic growing techniques. We also have a couple of very good farm stands Calareso's in Reading and Wilson Farms in Lexington, within a short drive, so the produce angle is pretty well covered, and as I think I've said before, I would rather support local farmers and businesses anyway.

Coffee is absolutely essential for me to start my day, and I have to give Whole Foods a thumbs-up for their selection. I saw packaged beans from a couple of local roasters, but what got my attention was the loose bean varieties and blends that are store-roasted. I chose a blend that had been roasted that very day. It was more expensive than the Peet's I've been getting at Stop & Shop, but I chose that out of convenience more than anything else, and I'm definitely willing to pay more for coffee if there's some clear advantage in freshness or quality.

There's a whole section of natural cosmetics that didn't really interest me, but the Mrs. could have stayed there all night until the store closed and they kicked her out.

Some of the store-brand items are a reasonably good deal, others not so much. You could certainly do most if not all of your weekly shopping at Whole Foods, but there's no question you would pay a lot more for it. To some people I guess it's worth it, but I'm also left with the feeling that there are those that do it more to show off than for any other reason, just as there are people who have to drive around in a Lexus when a Hyundai would serve their transportation needs just as well.

And the chicken salad? It was all right, but the chunks of chicken are way too big. It's harder to eat that way, that's all.