Friday, November 28 2003
setting: Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Today was a huge shopping day, not just for your typical "the flag makes more sense to me than the Constitution" Americans, but for us as well. There were excursions to please both Gretchen and myself. Our first outing took us to a store specializing in kitschy Jewish-related artifacts (including a very ugly "guy at a computer" menorah). This was mostly a recognizance mission so I could see what menorahs were being sold for. The most expensive one that wasn't made of silver was about $100, but none of them were handmade or could be viewed as anything but tastelessly-designed industrial products. From there we hit the fragrant Penzeys, a store that only sells spices. Next we went to Construction Junction, a non-profit organization that raises money by selling donated construction materials removed from demolition projects. It's housed in a large, mostly-unheated warehouse, and has shelves full of sinks, doors, windows, lighting fixtures, staircase bannisters, and at least one complete set of movie theatre seats. Most of the items are unpleasant reminders from the abandoned interior decoration schools of recent decades, but I managed to find a few small items worth buying, including two heavy steel window sash weights and rare copper pipe fittings. Gretchen meanwhile had found a bunch of carpet tiles she decided to donate to a Hudson Valley cat shelter. When the cashier heard that this was Gretchen's intention, she told her to help herself to another armload.
After that, most of the shopping was near Pittsburgh's downtown in a gentrifying industrial district known as "the Strip." Everybody was talking about how wonderful it was, but all I really noticed was how miserable the weather was being. A relentless cold rain fell as we scampered from store to store. I noted that the prices of things were much cheaper than I am normally accustomed to, but all I really wanted to do was go somewhere and take a hot, lingering bath. I wasn't in much of a mood to be impressed (as the others were being) by the Funky Puppy, the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, or Benkovitz Seafood, the place where we had a quick lunch comprised of fries, fish, or a combination of both.
I will say this: we weren't the only people braving the elements to participate in the biggest shopping day of the year. Pittsburgh breeds an especially tough customer. At Benkovitz in particular one had to admire the determination of the Pittsburgh shopper. There were only a few places to sit, so most people happily stood while they ate their fish sandwiches. We, however, were lucky and managed to commandeer one of Benkovitz's two tables. I was sitting there when I noticed a USA Today headline in a nearby newspaper machine announcing Bush's Turkey-day campaign whistlestop in Iraq. It gave me an opportunity to talk about what a cowardly "pussy" our president is in a voice loud enough for people at other tables to hear. I also mentioned the 20 minutes Bush continued reading a children's book after learning our country was under attack. That's a story that's just too fucked-up to make up.
The last store we visited was a kitchen supply store called Balcony. Gretchen told us that she literally felt herself beginning to drool as she walked in the door. This is where I finally tracked down a permanent coffee filter for my coffee pot, in which I've been using recycled disposable filters for weeks. When we got home, everyone was so exhausted that we all went off to take disco naps (that's what Gretchen called them back when she lived in Milwaukee).
I was worried that we'd be having some sort of traditional Shabbat dinner tonight, since that's what often happens when these folks get together on a Friday night. That's fine for them, but I've never once found it a pleasant experience, and nothing (short of illegal drugs or serious head trauma) is going to make me start enjoying it at this stage of my life. To think anything else is a delusion on the par with thinking your Phish-loving daughter has never smoked pot.
For some reason, though, I lucked out and our dinner was to be conducted as an entirely secular meal at an Italian restaurant. The restaurant was actually located in a huge shopping mall out in the far southwest suburbs of Pittsburgh, in a place picked because of its proximity to the residence of Jen's sister Gayle and her family.
Gretchen and I didn't have great expectations for a chain restaurant in a shopping mall, but this place actually managed to favorably impress us. It was called Buca Di Beppo and served mostly Sicilian "immigrant" food. Buca breaks a variety of restaurant conventions, beginning when you walk in the door. The first thing they did was take you on a tour of the kitchen (there was actually a family seated in a single booth back there, and I asked them if they were animatronic, but they were real and they were eating real food). Buca's dining rooms were built as a series of confusing labyrinths, all thickly decorated with random pictures whose relationship to Italy or Italian Americans weren't always clear. The strangest dining room was built around a massive circular table featuring a frighteningly kitschy bust of the Pope encased in a cube of lucite - just another place to set down a hot pan of pizza. Buca seemed like a difficult restaurant to franchise - its shtick would be considered too weird or ethnic in most of the country, and it would probably only do well in big cities in the Northeast or on the West Coast.
Portions at Buca are geared to families and are too large for any one person to eat. We ordered three or four to share, along with two pans of bread so richly appointed that they resembled pizza. I didn't want to be the table lush, but when our we only ordered a single 1.5 litre bottle of white wine for ten people (some of whom, including the 7 month pregnant Jen, were abstaining for no logical reason), I made some grumbling noises to Gretchen, who wondered why I hadn't spoken up. It was easy for her to wonder this, evidently not putting herself in my place in this situation. When this subject quickly turned into a table-wide subject of discussion, I dealt with it the best way I could imagine, saying, "I don't have any problem drinking this wine, I'm just worried somebody I know will come by and see me drinking white wine!" So we got a second, smaller bottle of red, which was served cold for some reason.
Unfortunately, all the doctors at our table (Gretchen's father, brother, and Gayle's husband) were clustered together, and this meant that they mostly talked about medical issues during the entirety of the meal.
After dinner, we all broke up into separate groups depending on whether we were going to Lowes or not. I decided to ride with Brian and my father-in-law when they went to Lowes, because I wanted to show Brian what he needed to get in order to do real soldering. He's a creative guy, particular when it comes to tiling. But he'd been trying to solder stray pieces of metal using a wimpy little soldering iron, and I insisted that he get himself a real butane torch. But when we got to Lowes, I had great difficulty in convincing him to get anything at all. I'd show him something like a pipe cutter (essential if you're going to work with copper) and he'd start hemming and hawing and acting like he didn't really want it after all. He was going to beg out of the whole butane buying exercise entirely, but somehow I convinced him to actually take the plunge. I can understand the desire not to clutter up one's life with too many things or (in this case) too many opportunities for artistic-expression. When you're a doctor it's hard enough to find free time without adding a whole new hobby. But he'd already tried to use a soldering iron to make something sculptural, and, aside from building card houses in a hurricane, that's the most unsatisfying waste of time I can imagine.
In the evening, while the others were sitting around the dining room table talking and eating leftover desserts, I kept going downstairs to a computer in the basement to burn the seven CDs of a Debian Linux installation I'd downloaded last night. I was taking advantage of Brian and Jen's DSL connection to do something that had proved essentially impossible over dialup. Unfortunately, the downstairs computer was one of those all-in-one eMachines designed to look like an early iMac. Brian had recently "upgraded" it to Windows XP, but in the process it had lost its ethernet capability and whatever drivers had once allowed it to operate an external CD burner. I have a feeling that Brian had initially bought this particular computer because he likes its tidy all-in-one design, the uncomplicated oneness that odd bits of metal have when they are somehow soldered together. Unfortunately, its compact design made expansion impossible. We were stuck, for example, with its pathetically slow ethernet port, one for which no Windows XP drivers appeared to exist. And with its single USB port, going back and forth between the cable modem and the CD burner required the manual swapping of cables.
For the second night in a row, Gretchen and I slept on the futon in the living room.
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