Sunday, April 29, 2012

Because Ayatollah you so

Reading the news these days can be very depressing. I myself, though, have been finding some of it very instructive. For instance, I can’t help but notice how a country called Iran has been throwing its weight around, making demands and making other countries step lightly in negotiations. How can this country, the 18th in size in the world, ever get its way? Simple: Its rulers say they have nuclear weapons—and we believe them.

I don’t happen to have a nuclear weapon. (Amazon doesn’t sell them with Free Super Saver shipping.) But neither do I dangle almosts and maybes in the faces of my various nemeses. Since my last birthday, I have something else that I consider far more personal than a nuclear bomb, which wouldn’t fit in the trunk of the Corolla anyway. And now that keeping up with the news has taught me I don’t even have to show a weapon to get my way, I realize it’s time to make my quiet declaration and take some control in my life.

Just think of the potential. Of course, my plan would work anytime I’m on a line in a store and the cashier decides to wait on his friend, who’s just walked in, before me. But that’s the easy stuff. I’m thinking more about our regular health-care provider, teamed up as usual with our insurance carrier. Do you recall the schoolyard game of salugi, in which two kids play catch with a hat, throwing it back and forth above the reach of the hat’s helpless owner? That’s what provider and carrier play today, only it isn’t a hat; it’s my wallet. Unrecorded co-pays, coverage allowed or disallowed depending on the mood of the agent…the list goes on.

Today, when we have a problem, Elena contacts them, tells them where they screwed up and sends receipts to back up what should be obvious. On rare occasion, I’ve called them. How much more productive I could be if, at the first sign of bureaucratic obstruction, I made a simple statement: “You don’t understand. You see, I have a chainsaw.” Call it my contribution to the health-care crisis. You’re welcome.

In my twisted mind, nearly everyone in the world has seen some version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or, at the very least, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. So by uttering those simple words, without even having to fire up the machine, I could benefit on a personal level from a strategy unfolding, so far successfully, on the international stage.

With son Andrew’s college years quickly approaching, I’m weighing my options—with a look back five years, to when daughter Katie was accepted at NYU.  Hoping to talk our way into the school’s raising her amount of financial aid to the level another school had offered, we walked up to what looked like a teller window. An officious young man, probably a grad student, looked down his nose at our handful of papers and flatly suggested that our firstborn go to that other school instead.

Were that exchange to occur today, we would not bring that handful of papers. I would only take along a photo of the chainsaw. I’d have shot it outdoors, with a ray of sunlight reflecting off a few sharpened teeth of its hungry blades. “Maybe this will change your mind,” I’d say. The temptation would be, if it were the same agent, to follow through on my threat whether or not we got the money.

Alas, there are limitations to this strategy. A chainsaw might not have its intended effect were I to announce it during, say, an IRS audit or a similar dispute with a government entity. People with real nuclear bombs, along with drones, F-22 Raptors and other instruments of death aren’t folks to threaten unless you’ve got comparable firepower.

There’s another limitation that I’ve saved for my most devoted readers who are reading to the end. My chainsaw is not one you’d have seen in those horror classics, or one with which you could compete in Maine’s Lumberjack Show. In fact, it’s a rather modest plug-in model from a brand better known for electric razors. Remember Victor Kiam? And if I were chasing you with it, anyone with legs could easily run out of reach of the extension cord. If you didn’t have legs, well, there’d be no point.

I know I can count on you. We’ll keep this to ourselves, won’t we? No putting my secret on the Internet or anything. But if you do, just remember one thing. I have…

Oh, never mind.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

‘And the fries are simply to die for…’

The Perratore household is all abuzz this month with the news that Andrew has made Vassar. I’ve so much to say to my son, so much wisdom to impart. Of course, being a normal, 21st-century 18-year-old, he’ll have to take off his headphones to hear it. Ignore the buzzing of texts on his cellphone, too, and put down that chicken parm and penne ala vodka sandwich for a minute…breakfast can wait.

Once I do get his attention, my first piece of sage advice applies to whatever he does during and after his college years: “To thine own self be true.” You know, one of those droll parental platitudes.

Not that it’s advice I followed from the get-go. Before I even open my mouth, I recall a column to which a few staffers of the Ridgewood Times contributed while I worked there as a college student. It was called “Feinschmecker,” a word the largely German population of that part of Queens knew to mean “gourmet” or “epicure.” It was a restaurant-review column…though one with a secret.

To anyone who understands the usual weekly newspaper, it was business as usual. The restaurants the column featured were advertisers. In exchange for a freebie meal for two—pretty cheap rates for a 500-word ad—the newspaper would run a review of the restaurant. And as that part of Queens is renowned the world over for its culinary fare, we at the paper knew before reading a word that the review would be glowing.

The first place I covered, my then-girlfriend Elena at my side (no jokes about cheap dates, please), was a local German haunt. We were served food I was having for the first time, such as Goulash Soup, Leberkäse a la Holstein and Kieler Rollmops, and I was expected to write about its quality with, ahem, authority. This from a kid who, given his druthers, was most likely to be found in the nearest McDonald’s or pizza place when it came time to chow down.

Anyway, I muddled through so with indecipherable gems such as “Yours is a virtual free-for-all of caviar atop Russian dressing over hard-boiled eggs on a bed of lettuce and tomato, all of which make fast friends when forked into your mouth.” To tell you the truth, I was very proud of myself for a different reason: When writing about the caviar, not once did I use the phrase “trout bait.”

My second assignment, at a more mainstream establishment on busy Queens Boulevard, took me to less charted waters. The owner himself seated us. And, as we looked at the menus—I “studied” it—he sat down at our table. “So…” our host began in a German accent that seemed to have thickened over the past minute, “you are der feinschmecker!”

I suddenly found myself in a surreal scene reminiscent of those World War II movies in which an American must bluff his way past a suspicious guard. Through a long silence, during which he wonders where he will be tortured and shot or merely shot, he holds his breath. But unlike those movies, I could not get away with merely chuckling and replying “Ja, ja!” To which he would laugh and reply, “Ja!” Followed by five minutes of back-and-forth “ja-ing,” with knowing smiles and nods—the meaning of which would mercifully escape me.

What I mostly wondered, though, was whether this man truly didn’t have the same wink-wink-nod-nod understanding of this food-for-praise arrangement. If I said the wrong thing, why, I could envision what came next—the owner throwing a napkin to the rustic stone floor, gauntlet-like, and hissing through clenched teeth, “You…are…no…feinschmecker. Get out of here, get out!”

So I winged it. “I guess so!” To which he told us the specials, recommended an entrée or two and went away.

After that escapade, I was only too happy to do a pizza place and restaurant for my third and last venture as a restaurant reviewer. Here, at least, I had genuine opinions.

We just took Andrew on another trip to his new college, and I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of the campus newspaper. I opened it randomly—to see a restaurant review. And I almost opened my mouth to utter the second piece of sage advice: Write restaurant reviews and get lots of free food!

But considering that he’s never truly had to pay for his own food, I don’t think that advice would go over well, either.