Monday, December 31, 2007

Honest-to-goodness Balls

I referred to Newark Mayor Cory Booker as a big baby some weeks ago because he demanded an apology from Canadian hockey broadcaster, Barry Melrose, who described the new hockey arena in Newark thusly: "Don't go outside if you have a wallet or anything else, because the area around the arena is just horrible."

Mayor Booker should have just let it slide, but I just wanted to say, for the record, that there's a good chance he's a decent bloke otherwise. He actually lives in Newark. He has lived in some lousy neighborhoods in Newark, to make a point about conditions in his city. And recently, as reported by the New York Times, and commented on by Old Mill Hill, over on The Front Stoop, Booker proves he has heart, dedication, and courage, because he showed up the other night at one of Newark's police stations, and not only asked why certain types of crimes continued to rise in Newark (like armed robberies, car theft, drug dealing...sound familiar??), but he also let police know that he'd be heading out on foot patrol with them, during the overnight shifts.

Damn! From a regular citizen point-of-view, that's pretty awesome! Cory Booker is my new hero! And hopefully, with his commitment to his city, he can prove Barry Melrose wrong, by insisting on improvements in the arena district.

In the last two weeks, Trenton has seen an unbelievable amount of attacks against regular people. We don't have many assaults in my neighborhood, but were stunned last week to hear about an armed robbery and beating a few blocks from our house. It happened out on Olden Avenue, not too far from a police camera, the middle school, a couple of small shops, and dozens and dozens of homes. I'd like to think there would have to be loads of witnesses, so that the victim can find some closure, and the rude, brazen perpetrator can meet justice. I hate to think that there's a dirtbag walking around our neighborhood preying on regular people, and I imagine if Mayor Douglas Palmer and Police Director Joseph Santiago (a former police director of Newark) took a more hands-on approach to policing, and brought back the foot patrols, constant attacks against people walking home would slow down.

Trenton has a problem with absentee landlords — those who let their properties fall apart around their tenants, and/or those who rent to knuckleheads without a care for the neighborhood — but the bigger problem might be that we have an absentee mayor and police director. They have not invested any of their own time or sweat to a real project in this city in some time, and instead, continue to rely on other out-of-towners, who probably care even less about the city than Palmer and Santiago, all the while the city crumbles.

For instance, council will likely open our purse again this week for Palmer's annointed gang "expert" Barry Colicelli, a former Newark police captain, handing over upward of $91,000 to this guy who says he can make our streets safer. Sometimes things get worse before they get better, but does this guy seem to be making things better here in the time we've been giving him piles of money? Does he really have a plan? The right to call himself "expert"? Colicelli lives in Brielle, but his job description does not require him to live in the city (like Santiago's does). But it's hard to imagine that someone who lives so far away geographically, and in a safe little boating community so completely different than our urban world, and who works only part-time for this city on a full-time problem, is really giving it 100%.

Since Trenton has gotten so good at spending its money on people from Newark, I'd rather see the city pay Newark Mayor's Cory Booker that $91,000 to provide his expertise to Trenton, because he at least understands the needs and fears of urban residents — because he actually is one — and also, because he's obviously the only official from Newark who has honest-to-goodness balls, instead of empty machismo.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Holidays a-glow with violence

There have been a rash of armed robberies, attacks, and home invasions this past week in Trenton that will keep me busy this Monday (Christmas Eve), working on the crime map, something I don't mind doing, though I do think the police department should be doing it. Unfortunately, on the city's website, the police department is still displaying the same damn map from 10/29 - 11/4, the week of the press conference, which came as a result of the Trentonian's Jack Knarr's illuminating story about how crimes are often downgraded and not reported in Trenton. At the press conference that week, the police promised better disclosure.

Ha. Good one.

At the press conference, the police acknowledged they waited too long to announce to the public that a man had tried to snatch a young girl in the west ward, this past fall, and would do their part to not wait that long again, in the case of possible crimes against children.

So today is Saturday, December 22, 2007. Glen and I read the paper this morning and discovered that a young girl was approached by a suspicious man on Monday. That would be Monday, December 17. The encounter took place in the North Ward, near Brunswick Avenue and Pine Street, in the morning, probably while the girl was on her way to school. In this country, with Amber Alerts, and Megan's Law, why the heck did our police department wait a whole school week to report it? Sure, there's a chance that this may be a simple case of a language barrier issue, and the guy had no malicious intent, but we just don't know. And now a whole week has gone by, and kids have been walking back and forth to school, right in the same area where this suspicious exchange took place.

There's a problem here in Trenton with parental responsibility, which puts children at further risk; and that parental abdication puts a strain on the rest of us (I'm not implying that the mother of the girl who was approached by the man on Brunswick Avenue is not involved with her daughter's life; I'm commenting on a general trend). However, in previous eras, everyone knew each other and looked out for each other's kids and so forth. Today, we must realize that the police and government officials can really only do so much (though they MUST be better about informing us about children in danger), and we need to step up to the plate again. We live in a more disconnected society, which is how thugs and knuckleheads and sickos are able to take advantage of us. No one deserves to be the victim of a crime — adult or child — but special attention must be given to those who do not have the ability to take care of themselves.

Fellow Blogger, Dan Tawnie has been writing a bit lately about the problems with kids left to raise themselves, and I think it's indicative of bigger problems everywhere. It's not just a Trenton problem, although when Trenton kids are left to raise themselves the consequences (at least from my seat here) are far more dire than in suburbia. In fact, I was poking around YouTube again this week, and found another Trenton video, in which a young, budding rapper, Chrome Crisis, tells us why, perhaps, Trenton kids are willing to take bigger risks:

I was a crack baby, so everything I get, I deserve.

Watch it here, if you'd like (note: foul language, etc.):

I'm not judging this particular young man, even though the foul language in his song seems completely casual and gratuitous (which probably paints me as old and uptight, although I like to swear myself sometimes). I mean, he looks okay, despite his rough start to life. But this video says a lot. Do grown crack babies have some biological/chemical deficiency in their make-up that make them feel this sense of entitlement? I don't think so. I think physically, they're probably no different from those of us who were not crack babies. The difference is the crack babies had mothers who were addicts, and those women did not get clean after their babies were born; they continued using and prostituting and stealing and moving from place to place, because of their addiction. Only now, they did it with a kid (or kids) in tow. So, these kids grew up without any positive role models, and did the best they could, under their shitty, shitty circumstances.

The YouTube videos with Trenton tags provide some tragic, disturbing insight into what is possibly an unwinnable battle of turning society around any time soon. We can't make people be good parents, we can't undo what those people did to their babies. I'm not sure we can convince kids their lives (and others' lives) are precious after their parents drilled into their heads that they were worthless. I hope I don't come off as a pompous ass, but I do think a lot of our community's problems are interrelated, and we can possibly make subtle differences that may help improve the overall cultural climate so that the next generation is not as screwed. Maybe take a walk to get a paper when the kids are going to school, and if we're home during the day, maybe we can do something outside when the kids head home from school as well. We need to take more responsibility for our own little corners of the world, and not wait for the government to come save us. At the same time, members of our government are elected and appointed officials who get paid with our tax money. If we are so damn lucky to have the best crime fighter in the world, Joseph Santiago, we need to let him know he NEEDS to start living up to that reputation: he needs to keep us informed, he needs to make sure all of our crime-fighting cameras are working consistently, and, for the love of god, he needs to stop saying, "crime is down," after all we have been through this year. We need an honest, direct leader who will help us sort out this mess as best as possible.

Maybe our efforts will help, even just a little bit. I hope.

In the meantime, Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 21, 2007


A statue of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington.

Not long ago, while Glen was at work, he heard a radio broadcast about a man named Harold Washington, who was the first black mayor of Chicago. Chicago marked the 20th anniversary of his death this past November.

The politics and climate of the city made his campaign difficult. In fact, he won by a mere 4% (many white democrats supported the republican candidate), and for a long while, he didn't have a majority backing him on council, so he ruled by veto. That changed over time: he was committed to treating everyone equally in Chicago, regardless of race. It was important to him that services were distributed evenly around the city. In fact, many of the white council members simply voted against everything the mayor introduced, even if hurt their own constituents. Washington reached out to those residents personally, to let them know their representatives voted against their road repairs and so forth, and asked for their support. He got it; he pushed for reform; he fought corrupt political patronage. He eventually won over some members of council, and he was easily reelected in the spring of 1987. An aside that touched me: he also looked after a colony of feral Monk Parakeets (an intelligent, social, talking species of parrot), who lived in the park across from his apartment. He died in office (while actually in his office), not long after he was reelected, in November 1987.

Glen came home after listening to the broadcast about Harold Washington, so impressed with what that man was able to accomplish in his short tenure as mayor. He set out to find it on the internet for me. In fact, he found two stories online, and we listened to them both.

In case you'd like to do the same, here are the links:
a short story on NPR
Glen found an episode of This American Life (based at WBEZ in Chicago), which originally aired the story in 1997, on the 10th anniversary of Washington's death; the producers followed up, and added a bit to the story for the 20th anniversary. This story is longer, about an hour, but it's really good.

I was able to listen to these stories just for their own merit, and marvel at a man who overcame a downright racist political machine in Chicago, and served so well, and left a legacy. Subsequent mayors of Chicago, to this day, have continued several of Washington's policies, and they learned, too, that white politicians could not take the black community for granted. Candidates knew they needed to take a stand on poverty, civil rights, and police brutality.

Afterward, it wasn't hard to compare and contrast Washington to Trenton's mayor, Doug Palmer. Our cities are different, but there are many striking similarities, too. Palmer is this city's first black mayor, elected not far in time from when Harold Washington was elected. Trenton, too, like it or not, has had racial issues. Maybe in his early days in office, Palmer was intent on reform, equality, and healing, but now, nearly 20 years later, looking back over his legacy, we see a gutted city: the businesses and restaurants central to Trenton's history, are all nearly gone. We see neighborhoods destroyed by crime, neglect, poverty. I know this is a much-debated issue, but in my opinion, instead of helping the people who were here, Palmer took other municipalities' RCA (Regional Contribution Agreement) money so those municipalities didn't have to provide any low-income housing. This concentrated poverty in Trenton, which kept the poor surrounded by more poor people. This is an abuse of the program; wasn't it designed to help the poor get ahead because the surrounding communities would inspire and uplift them? Instead, Palmer has exploited the loopholes, taken the RCA money, and built cheap, shoddy housing (while beautiful, historic buildings, e.g., the high school, are allowed to fall apart), and threw the disadvantaged to the wolves. This encouraged crime and disrupted the lives and livelihoods of the middle class and business owners. I'm not implying that the middle class or businesspeople have more of a right to enjoy life, but there's no good reason to concentrate suffering, either; I think the spirit of the RCA program was to help the poor, because they don't deserve that lot in life. So, many Trenton residents and business owners felt it would be better to move out than fight a losing battle. Perhaps Palmer forgot the man he was, the man who wanted to provide some good civil service? If that man ever existed. It's hard to tell, because now, he's a petty, self-serving, career politician who feels he can engage in cronyism, change the rules and ordinances willy-nilly, and sleep in house that is not even in this city, while the low-income housing falls apart, along with the communities who live there; and everyone else is dumbfounded.

I'm not saying that Chicago is all roses. And I'm not saying that Trenton is a lost cause. I'm not even saying that every problem in Trenton is the Mayor's fault. But it's amazing to see what one man was able to accomplish in Chicago — a much bigger city, with a bigger opposition — in five years. And because he left the city in better shape than how he found it, now Harold Washington's name is emblazoned on the grand public library in Chicago; he has a park named for him on the South Side of Chicago; the Harold Washington Memorial Parrot Defense Fund was set up to help care for the birds he loved, and to this day, people from all over the world come to Chicago, just to see those Monk Parakeets. There's a monument with his likeness on it at the Social Security Center in Chicago. A cultural center named for him is located in the city's Bronze district. There are dozens of other tributes to him all over that city, and I could list them all, but the point is that his biggest legacy is that his life has inspired and helped so many people.

I'm not saying that Doug Palmer's political contribution was null, and that when he's gone, there will be no monuments made in his honor, but right now, all I can see is maybe some crumbling building named for him, or his bronzed bust in some uninspiring structure which is underused anyway, because that's what we have in Trenton, thanks to Palmer. I bet he would have been better off if he got out of Trenton a long time ago. And the rest of us probably would have been better off as well.*

* I say that, knowing that his job is difficult, and that not every person is cut out for the position; I say that, knowing if he left, it's no guarantee things will improve right away. But things were bad enough even 5 years ago that it was worth taking the chance of losing him then.

A note about Monk Parakeets (pictured above): there is some controversy surrounding them. They're native to South America, but were introduced here, as pets. Some dumbasses let go of them, either on purpose or intentionally (not sure which is worse) and like the cats in my neighborhood, they multiplied. Somehow, despite their tropical roots, they're able to survive in chilly northern climates like Chicago, and Connecticut. Some people find their big stick nests to be unsightly, and there is some fear they will disrupt our own native species of birds and plants. Although, folks in Brooklyn have decided they like the Monk Parakeet better than pigeons, partially due to the fact that people, in general, hate pigeons, and don't hate cute green and yellow birds who can speak, and because pigeons will stay away from the parakeets, and because pigeon poop erodes old brownstone; the chemical composition of Monk Parakeet poop is harmless to old buildings.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pre-Christmas Mishmash

Ah, December. It may be simultaneously the most loved, and the most hated, depending on your age. As a kid, with a birthday in December, and a sister with a birthday in December, plus Christmas, it was a wall-to-wall party, and that was pretty awesome. Birthdays are less cool as I get older, and Christmas is frenetic, and this year, we celebrated "Fake Christmas" at my parents' house in Maryland this past weekend. Plus, both Glen and I are sick, and we had a pipe burst last week we figure, because that's when we noticed a bit of water in the basement, but we came to the wrong conclusions about the source. So now our living room, perhaps the only room most-of-the-way finished in this fixer-upper house, has a hole in the ceiling, and a hole down the entire length of the wall.

We are lucky, though. My brother-in-law, Rich, is a handyman, and he and his brother, Bob, were able to come over immediately yesterday, and fix the pipe, which looked to be about as old as the house (built circa 1914). It had a crack in it about four feet long. We hope that it just gave out due to age, because the other theories ("maybe it froze") are kind of scary.

To be fair, Rich and Bob did re-rock the holes in the ceiling and wall. And even though our living room is scarred, and it will require more renovation work, I must mention how elated we feel about using our bathroom to its fullest potential again, after just one day of it being out of commission. If you're able to shower, or move your bowels in private comfort, count your blessings. Indoor plumbing is a modern marvel!

So, then. Fake Christmas. My mother is opposed to that term, and out of respect, I did not actually say it aloud in her presence, after I found out it rattled her. The name came about courtesy of our neighbor, L, who has an interesting family. They started to celebrate "Fake Thanksgiving" and "Fake Christmas" on dates different from the actual holiday; that way if Cousin So-and-So got drunk and belligerent, real Christmas wasn't ruined for everyone. My family doesn't have all the same character types as L's, but someone is prone to either having the holiday ruined, or may cast a bit of darkness over the day for everyone else. Plus, there is the ongoing battle of Who Will Host Christmas. The combatants are my sister Jenny, and my mother. Now, my sister may not know this, because I'm really only formulating my thoughts now as I type away, but there is a certain bit of nostalgia about going to my parents' least there was when they lived in New Jersey! I'm a full-grown adult now, so I'm sorry if this sounds pathetic, but I'm still not over the fact they sold our childhood home in 1992, before any of us were fully-established adults. They proceeded to move further and further away, and Jenny wound up reasonably central, and has the most space, so we tended to congregate there for the family get-togethers. But I don't blame my mom for wanting to host Christmas; she always enjoyed putting up the stockings and bringing out the fancy plates and so forth. So we compromised this year, and had Fake Christmas in Chicken Shit, Maryland on 12/15, and Real Christmas will be at Jenny's place on Real Christmas Day, though I am unclear if my parents will be in attendance. Hopefully someone can fill me in.

So, Fake Christmas was far less eventful than the birthday party the week before, but was still interesting. Glen told my dad we'd bring him some fancy dirt to pack between his new slate walkway; brother-in-law Rich and Glen loaded up the back of my truck earlier in the week. Note: the truck is full-size and wonderful, but does not have a crew cab. Packing up the presents and coolers and clothing and everything else along with the fancy dirt in the back, was a drag. Plus, it was chilly on Saturday morning, so Glen had to use my hair dryer to loosen the tonneau cover, so it it would snap into place. Which took about, hmmm, two hours or so.

Rich and Jenny, you may recall, have a large number of children, and hence, require a very large vehicle to get the whole family around, at the same time. They have a monster Suburban, which decided to crap out not too far from Chicken Shit, Maryland. So my sister, Karen would be taking one child home with her, and we'd be taking another; that way the remaining three children and parents would fit in my parents' vehicle for the trip back to NJ. So a lot of the early part of the visit was spent working out those details, and the plan to remove the fancy dirt from the back of the truck, which happened a bit later that day.

I brought down a bunch of appetizers, and my mother made bacon rolls and pepperoni bread, which are just delicious, but totally decadent. Some quick recipes/preparation instructions, because even if you're just a part-time carnivore, you'll want this stuff at your parties:

Pepperoni Bread
Make or buy some bread dough
Roll it out like a pizza, about an 1/8 inch thick
Layer it with pepperoni
Top it with shredded mozzarella
Roll it back up
Let it sit/rise for about a half hour
Put it in the oven for about 20 minutes to a half hour, at about 350°
Pull it out when it's golden brown, and allow it to sit for a few minutes before serving

(Feel free to experiment. I've made it with spinach and feta, bacon and cheddar, fancy Italian hams/salami and provolone — but pepperoni is the best. I've also experimented with sesame seeds and egg glazes for the top, and corn meal on the bottom; that's all good, too. I also adapted this for a breakfast bread with cinnamon and brown sugar and butter...Glen's favorite, as long as I don't put nuts in it.)

You'll need to make a lot of pepperoni bread, and it's kind of frustrating, in that it's very time-consuming, and it is gone in a flash. I have to make several for Real Christmas, and I promised a whole one to my nephew Michael, all for himself, because I got him to give me one of his Christmas presents — a set of watercolor pencils from my mom — which my sister Karen then snagged from me in a trade for a cool handmade bowl. My mother hates the wheeling and dealing that happens after the gifts are opened, and I suppose it is totally inappropriate, but it's a lot of fun.

Oh, Bacon Rolls
Start out with
- a package of bacon, uncooked
- a can of condensed cream o' mushroom soup (you could use cream of celery soup, I suppose)
- a loaf of plain ole white bread

Cut the crusts off the bread and feed them to the birds, or your dog, or save them for stuffing or what-have-you
Flatten each piece of bread with your rolling pin
Spread a bit of condensed soup on each piece
Roll the bread up
Wrap a piece of bacon around it
Cut into halves or thirds
Keep on truckin' until you run out of bacon or bread or soup
**Freeze** until you're ready to cook them. I know it sounds crazy, but they cook a whole lot better if you freeze 'em first.
Pop them in the oven at about 400° or so, and cook until the bacon is done.
They are greasy and delicious!

Okay, back to our Fake Christmas. We ate up a lot of appetizers: cheese, and eggplant caponata, and crackers, and bacon rolls, and pepperoni bread. And then we opened our presents. Notably: my father gave Karen's boyfriend, Bryan, a Viagra baseball cap, which was pretty amusing. See the post below (Birthdays Gone Wild) in case you missed it; that will explain the Viagra thing, unfortunately.

Now, dinner had been discussed for months in advance, and my mother had her fancy plates out, but I'm guessing a poll was taken, and everyone was too full from appetizers, so we didn't have a meal. It happens, I guess. In the meantime, my nephew Michael, must have grabbed a cookie and soda and wandered off to the computer. Ours is a large, loud family, and I cannot blame the kid if he was distracted and/or called away, to say, help remove the fancy dirt from the back of the truck, since he's at that age where he may be pressed into duty.

A short time later, my mother found the half-eaten cookie and soda by the computer, and, well, more or less became focused to find out who did it.

"WHO DID THIS?!" Maggie shouted. "WHO LEAVES HALF-EATEN COOKIES AROUND THE HOUSE, FOR GOD'S SAKE? WHY? WHO?" We tried to convince her that perhaps the owner would return for his/her food shortly; it was a party after all, and food does get strewn about a bit. No harm done, after all.

Michael, I noticed, was very quiet.

My mother was not to be calmed. "WHO DID THIS?? WHO??"

Glen walked in and suggested that my father (Mike) call the forensics team. "They'll run the DNA, Mike, and will find the bastard who committed this horrible crime."

My mother stopped hunting for the guilty, at that point, but Glen didn't let up. A short time later: "Mike," Glen said, "Did you dust for fingerprints yet? Are we any closer to solving this crime?

A few hours later, we were back on the road, this time with Michael, who fessed up to leaving the cookie and soda by my mother's computer, but was too scared to admit it at the time; and who also watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from about 2 a.m. (when we got in) to about 6 a.m. when he passed out. I drove him home Sunday afternoon, and returned home, road-weary, and sick. Or sicker. Or sick again. I'm not sure.

Glen's been sick since some time before his sister, Clair's, visit earlier this month. I know it sounds terribly unsympathetic, and I suppose to a degree, I am terribly unsympathetic, but I swear, I'm not totally void of sympathy; I'm not a great nurse, and I have a hard time listening to people talk about their colds. I know I will pay for my crimes some day, and I suppose maybe I have, but I still have a hard time mustering sympathy for any pain that doesn't, say, bleed. Plus, to me, Glen had no symptoms at the time, except for a little tiny phlegmy sound deep in his lungs, which can happen to the best of us, after we've eaten dinner. Glen demonstrated his rattly lungs for us, and through the hysterical laughter, I managed to record it on my cell phone. I would like to post here, because it's pretty funny, but am not quite smart enough to post it; there's an insert video button, but apparently, I can't insert a sound of a rattly lung. If I can figure it out, I'll get it up, because I'd hate for you to miss out.

Poor Glen felt terrible, but instead of support, his wife, sister, and niece, went around all weekend, imitating the sound of his labored breath on my cell phone. One night, in desperation, he said to me:

"Why don't I have a wife and sister who will take me to the hospital?? Against my will?"
"What?" I asked.
"I want to be sicker than anyone ever has been before, just to prove to you I'm sick! And if you take me to the hospital against my will, it will show everyone how tough I am to not want to go, and also, how much you love me."

Clair showed her support by finding this YouTube video (warning: British accents):

So Glen was kind of bumming there wasn't much support, and then, a couple of days later, payback. I got sick, with symptoms, and Glen did too. Mostly we cough. And don't get much sleep. We start to feel better for a couple of days, and then blammo, we're consumptive again.

I suspect we'll live through it, through. There isn't much choice, since I owe Michael a pepperoni bread, and Glen's sister, Brenda is coming down after Christmas. But the cold is cutting into my free time; I feel like moping around, in my slippers and wrapped in a blankie, instead of blogging, so I hope to beat this thing soon (without going to the hospital against my will).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Birthdays Gone Wild

Warning: some adult topics, foul language, and potential blasphemy used by some of the people in tonight's post.

Politics here in Trenton are kind of tumultuous these days, and I would like to have gone to the city council meeting tonight, except I am saddled with a cold I can't quite shake, one that's keeping me coughing all night so that I cannot sleep. Right now, I probably don't need the extra excitement.

But I wonder what will happen tonight, if anything? I wonder how people can have so many different opinions? How can I agree with some people on this issue, but have totally opposing views on a different issue? Politics are complicated, and often divisive, and because of that, it's nice to retreat back into a good human interest story, because personal stories, too, are often complicated and divisive, but have the benefit of leaving you with a sense of smug superiority, because at least this time the complicated messiness didn't happen to you. In this time of political unrest, it was a small gift from above to read the story last week about the Birthday Party Gone Bad at Baldassari's, in which party attendees fought over who would take home the leftover chicken and birthday cake, which resulted in ELEVEN arrests. Eleven arrests! Over chicken and birthday cake! Awesome stuff!

I'm glad I can still chuckle about the Baldassari Birthday Brawl, when I have, too, celebrated a birthday this weekend with my family (my official date of birth is today, and I am 39, which is just ridiculous), that fell well outside the boundaries of what polite society would deem proper or normal. No one fought over the leftovers, and alas, no one got arrested; and maybe I should have some shame, or pride, or something, but I don't. Everyone in my family sees me walking around with the friggin' camera around my neck at every single event, and they all know I keep a blog. Some family members claim they are too busy to read my blog. Tsk tsk. The guilty parties in my story only have themselves to blame.

Some quick background:
My parents are Mike and Maggie
My sisters are Karen and Jenny
Karen is dating Bryan (name changed)
Jenny is married to Rich

Karen's birthday is December 10th, mine is the 11th; we tend to get together to celebrate each year.

My sisters and I were brought up Catholic, but my sister, Jenny became a Baptist when she got married.
Boyfriend Bryan was raised by Jehovah Witnesses, but says he's not a practicing member.

We all assembled at Jenny and Rich's house in the early afternoon on Saturday, and Karen and I opened our gifts. Most notably, I got a dozen Harry and David pears and 6 dozen cookies from my mother; a pair of comfy Ugg slippers/shoes from my sisters, and a lovely jewel-encrusted turtle from my sister Karen. Aaron took approximately 50 photos of the tree and his grandmother and Karen and Bryan. We then ordered pizza; the men went to pick it up, and they returned back with five pizzas and quite a few six-packs of beer.

My mother, Karen, Jenny, Bryan and I went to the dining room to eat our pizza, and even though I was having an enjoyable conversation with my niece, Megan, I noticed, peripherally, Boyfriend Bryan brought up politics, something I thought we all were taught not to do at a function like a birthday party, but Bryan does all the time, with abandon. Politically, for the record, I agree with him, and my sister Jenny doesn't. Nonetheless, I firmly believe he is out of line for coming into my sister's house and broadcasting his political views when he knows (for a fact) the owners of the house do not agree with him. I continued to chat with Megan, but in the background I heard "Clinton this," and "Clinton that," erupting from various bodies around me (which drives me up a friggin' wall, because they were talking about Bill, not even Hillary, who is at least part of current events; we are nearly SEVEN friggin' years away from the Clinton Days), and then, entirely without warning, Jenny and Bryan disagreed loudly about the details of an adulterous affair that two of their friends are having.

"YOU ARE LYING" my sister Jenny bellowed. And I believe her, because she's got her feet on the ground and a firm grasp of reality, and is not one prone to bellowing without good reason.


Everyone fell silent. Jenny left the room. Megan left the room. Karen left the room (but came back a minute or so later).

I was surprised that Bryan lived through the night after that.

Without skipping a beat, my mother said, "So, Bryan, I understand your mother is an artist. What type of art does she do?"

Now, a quick aside, my mother is an artist, and she says she's too busy to read my blog. So she may never know that I have written this, but I personally found it shocking that she asked Bryan about his mother's art, since my mother is singularly focused on her own artistic endeavors.

At this time, Karen came back into the room, and sat down.

Bryan said his mother works in oils.

My mother replied, dismissively, "Oh. I used to do oil. Oil is easy."
My mother has since mentioned that we "misconstrued" what she said, but I am not the only one who heard it; she said, "Oil is easy," a short, memorable sentence, uttered clearly, and directly, and was understood by everyone in the room. Karen and I tried to intervene, tried to do some damage control, but my mother brushed off these attempts.

Bryan look somewhat confounded, but handled the "oil is easy" comment well, and he forged on. "Oh. Okay. What type of art do you do, Maggie?"

And completely void of any emotion, my mother said, "I started out in oil, but moved on to watercolor. I am fascinated with watercolor."

I decided to find a child to hang out with, because it's far less uncomfortable listening to kids than it is to witness the awkward conversation of adults. As I was leaving the room, Bryan took my seat, which was closer to my mother's seat, and I heard him say, "Now Maggie, I heard you were going to write a letter to my boss? You aren't going to do that are you?" And he asked it completely without venom, completely non-confrontationally, with pure innocent curiosity. I really truly envy that ability; I don't think I would have been able to ask the question without it steeped in sarcasm or acid.

Another quick aside: It was completely wrong that my whole family knew that Bryan received a hefty bonus last month from his employer. He works for a public utility, and my mother, who now lives in Maryland, felt strongly that the hefty bonus should have been applied so that New Jersey residents would have lower utility bills. I don't disagree with her opinion; but I also know that if Glen came home with a bonus that hefty, even if he worked for a public utility, I'd be pretty freakin' happy. My mother said when she found out about Bryan's bonus, that she was going to write a letter to the utility to suggest the money should be used to lower costs for ratepayers.

Hence Bryan's question, "Now, Maggie, I heard you were going to write a letter to my boss..."

I heard my mother say, "No," as I went upstairs to admire the Millenium Falcon and USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) my ambitious nephews had constructed out of Legos.

A short time later, the fun continued in the living room, where we all settled for some chill-out time. I drifted in and out of the adult conversation, which may have been for the best. I heard from the couch near the staircase, Bryan, who is 35 I think, talk about how he tried Viagra. "Now, don't get me wrong, I don't NEED it, but I wanted to see what it would do." I looked up, and was distressed to see that he was speaking with my father, who luckily, is deaf in the ear closest to Bryan, but unfortunately, Bryan has very good delivery, and, in this instance, stood up in front of my father, and added a visual dimension to his story.

"That shit gets you HARD, Mike. REALLY hard." This is when he stood up, and pretended to be holding a piece of sheetrock in front of his genitals. "So hard, that I could have [thrust thrust thrust] drilled [thrust] a piece [thrust] of sheetrock [thrust] with [thrust] my [thrust] cock [slam!]!!"

I couldn't even look up, out of embarrassment. Did he really just say that to my father? the father of his girlfriend?

Later, Bryan told Glen and me a joke: "What has two thumbs and loves blow jobs?"
We looked at him, worried.
"THIS GUY!" he said, pointing his thumbs at himself.

The night wound down with Jenny announcing, in earnest, that she would like to enter a triathlon (FYI, I have never written that word before...why would I, as opposed to sports as I am, as is most of my family [save for hockey]; my spellchecker was going crazy, and I finally had to look it up...I thought there was another vowel between the h and the l), once she loses some more weight. She's lost about 25 pounds in the last couple of months and looks great.

Now, I'm all for setting big goals, so I took Jenny's announcement seriously, even though it is kind of astonishing that my baby sister, the one who hates the out-of-doors, would consider a triathlon, of all things, which takes place, for the most part, out-of-doors. My parents and Bryan were not inspired by Jenny's big dream, and instead cracked the point of having tears streaming down their faces. Karen, Glen, Rich, Jenny and I weren't laughing, and Jenny, who was still very pissed about Bryan's "your Baptist God" comment, says to me that it's so nice that at least my husband is supportive. Glen does like to be helpful, and he he soon started outlining the details of Jenny's training regimen, and how hard it would be, but he thinks she could do it, etc...

...and then infers that she'd be entering a Special Olympics triathlon. Everyone started to giggle uncomfortably at that point, and Jenny said to me, "Forget it, I hate him too."

...and Glen adds, as if to get in her good graces again, that he'll be riding in the car alongside her, urging her on, and offering her water, and then oh-so-helpfully adds, "I'll be sure to trip that mongo in front of you, so you'll at least be able to come in second to last place."

Then, we had cake and coffee, and it was decided that Glen and I would take the leftover pizza, and Jenny and Rich would keep the cake. There were no physical confrontations, and no one got arrested, but my 39th birthday party was still a memorable night. I was willing to share the story of my birthday party, first, as a distraction from politics, but also as a reminder it's just a matter of time before your own birthday party goes terribly, terribly awry.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Special! The Wednesday Funny 12/5/07

The Year in the Photo Booth

Glen and I each have a computer equipped with a built-in camera, which, I suppose relatively normal people might use for video conferencing or that sort of thing. The phone, to me, is a necessary evil, something I use to just say, "I am on my way," and that's it. So the idea of others being able to see me while I suffer through the conversation makes me shudder.

But all is not lost. Our computers came with a cute little program called Photo Booth. The program really serves no real, grown-up purpose, except perhaps to keep the nieces and nephews occupied so the adults can engage in adult conversation. But the thing of it is, it's really a compelling little program, and draws most of the adults back over to the computer to see what the kids are up to. On the surface, it just takes a simple photo of the subject, but once inside the controls, the user can change the lighting and the effects, so that you look like a sketch (I used that filter on my photo on my blog, on the lower right of the page), or a comic book image, or something out of Andy Warhol's collection; there are ethereal filters, and sepia filters, thermal filters, and a plain ole black and white conversion. If you explore further, you'll see you can twist and dent and twirl and fisheye yourself until the end of days. And that's usually what happens: each time one of the kids enters the Photo Booth, we wind up with nearly 100 hilarious photos. Each time.

I've been instructed to keep the kids' photos off the internet, unless they're blurred or twisted beyond recognition. So, with that stipulation in mind, here are some of the best twisty blurries of the last year.

I'm gonna back up into 2006 a teeny bit, because it seems I don't have many 2007 shots of Richie and Megan, two of my sister Jenny's children.

So here's Richie from last year (the uni-nostril rocks!):

And his sister Megan:

Then, this year, Michael took some good ones:

A couple of weeks later, Glen's sister Brenda came to visit:

And then came the visit from Glen's sister, Sheena, and her two children,
Margaret, and Thomas:

Jenny's youngest, Emma, even wanted in on the action (can you blame her?!):

Glen's sister Clair and her daughter, Cara, came for a visit recently, and Cara took these shots of herself holding Platooski (the gray and white cat) and Angus (the black cat), who were both too stupid to leave the room:

Cara took over 100 shots of herself this past weekend, and came up with some really good stuff. I wanted to be able to prove that she was a perfectly normal child, so I took this picture of her taking a picture of herself:

Aaron, my 6-year-old budding photographer nephew, spends more time than anyone "in the booth." First, a picture of him taking a picture of himself (as you can see again, poor Platooski just does not understand that he will be used as a model every time he watches over a child taking pictures of him/herself; and he was used as a model on that particular day, but Platooski wiggled so much that his pictures were not good enough to publish here, even by distorted Photo Booth standards):

Aaron takes a bit of time perusing all of the settings on the computer's camera
and winds up with some interesting shots:

By far, this one is my favorite:

The adults, save for Brenda, Glen, and me, tend to be camera-shy, so we don't have pictures of many of the adults. Also, Cara's brother Aidan didn't make it down to the Hood this year, and I know he would have loved the Photo Booth; Glen's nephew Hamish hasn't made it from LA; his other nephew, Brendan, is just a few weeks old; and the pictures of my sister Karen's son, Eric, are not distorted enough. But the year isn't over yet.

In the meantime, Happy Holidays!
(we're pretty big idiots, I know)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Pink money

It's that time of year when our Canadian family members make the long journey to the Hood for some Christmas shopping. This time, it's Glen's sister, Clair, and her daughter Cara, who are on their way (and should be arriving tonight), and what should make this trip particularly fruitful for them is that the Canadian dollar is stronger than the US dollar currently. Strength, however, does not equate to coolness. After all, the Queen of England is on a lot of their money, which is pink and other weird colors, and they have one and two dollar coins (the "loonie" and "toonie," respectively), instead of bills, and a two dollar anything is just weird.

Weird or not, Canada is more than okay by me. We we hope to be be receiving a shipment of butter tart shells, some Hostess Hickory Sticks (Glen's favorite, which are unavailable in the States, and happen to be the very first item in the chip area of the Canadian Favourites website (spellcheck, by the way, hates the Canadian/British spellings), and some Vachon Au Caramels (my nephew Aaron's favorite, which are unavailable here in the States, and happen to be the very first item on the Vachon website, possibly some Clodhoppers (everyone we give these to becomes addicted; they're nothing more than small blobs of chocolate covered graham cracker clusters, but WOW, they work), and we hope, some Pamplemousse, a pink grapefruit sparkling beverage which everyone in my family loves. The manufacturer recently overhauled the packaging (old packaging shown here), and it's been unavailable for months. Oh yeah, and I hope to get some Canadian/Niagara region wine, too. Duty-free at the shop at the border. This is my current fav:

In exchange, we'll probably be hitting all of the area thrift stores, as well as many other shops in the area. We hope to have dinner tonight at DeLorenzo's on Hamilton (walking distance), and lunch at Pete's Steakhouse on Sunday. Trenton has a lot to offer. Police Director Joseph Santiago's statement about quitting before he moves to Trenton is a huge insult, and does so much damage to our reputation, so hopefully Council will show him the door soon. But the fact Glen and I have people who will make the 9+ hour drive several times a year, without taxpayers footing the bill for their gas, speaks volumes, too. Hooray for Canadians!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"The Sin is Not to Try"

Landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) indiscriminately maim and kill people across Southeast Asia, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is calling on regional governments to redouble their efforts to clean up the devastating waste from decades of war.*

It's the little things in life that mean the most, no? Simple courtesies, respect, and politeness can begin to turn a bad situation around. If Police Director Joseph Santiago stopped saying "Crime is Down," and instead acknowledged the real fears of city residents, it would begin to bridge the terrible chasm that divides the non-criminals who live here.

Glen and I, along with a bunch of other city residents, sat through Santiago's mundane PowerPoint presentation last night, a presentation that included about 30 slides, two of which had some moving text bubbles; it was a presentation that would have been mediocre in 1997, and the director said he was committed to technology, bringing the department into the 21st century. He printed out the slides for council, so I'm hoping Jim Coston will put them on his website because projected onto the big screen in council chambers, the slides were just too small to read, and I have decent eyesight. The slideshow was really just very sad (and boring), especially since Director Santiago bragged about how he incorporated computers into the department when he took over in 2003. He also told us, "The sin is not to fail, the sin is not to try." Problem is, it's unclear what he's trying to do. But, for the record, Crime is Down.

It's just insulting to hear him say "crime is down, crime is down" over and over again, when those of us who live in the city know that we are living in a mine field. If we hole up in our homes, chances are we'll be safe (but it's no guarantee, is it?), but as soon as we step outside, we pray that we don't encounter an "unexploded ordnance" in a hoodie, brandishing a weapon in our direction. Property crimes may be down, but if we go to the store to pick up a sandwich, there's a better chance than ever that four thugs will pull a gun on us, take our sandwich and the remaining $3 we have in our pockets. It's deplorable to hear Santiago say, "crime is down, crime is down," when packs of knuckleheads beat the crap out of mentally handicapped people; carjack young mommies as they lift their precious cargo from their baby seats; and bludgeon to death senior citizens.

The discussion that followed the PowerPoint presentation was a delicious mix of stressful and exciting; I simultaneously found myself clenching, as if to prepare for a bomb to hit, and mouth open, in awe and delight. For starters, council was more or less unified! And more or less mad as hell!

Down the line, in the order in which they spoke:

Cordelia Staton wanted to know why more wasn't being done to combat drug dealing, since "drugs drive crime."

Manny Segura said, "The content of the presentation is not the reality," and went on to describe how he recently helped a crime victim, who ultimately got little help from the officers at the East Ward precinct. "The cooperation with the police is not seen like it was before," he said.

Gino Melone's statements were one of the highlights of the evening, for me. Sometimes I'm not sure where my councilman stands on particular issues, but last night, he did a superb job of not only reppin' the east side, but all of the city. He seemed outright pissed that Director Santiago has been unresponsive to council and citizen concerns, and wanted to know if the director would be sticking around for the public portion of the meeting (I was furiously taking notes at this point, and am just tickled with Santiago's response: "I'll deal with them," is what Santiago said. "I'll deal with them." Good stuff! Santiago was defensively agitated by Melone's statements, and counterattacked that he was available when Melone handed the phone to him on a weekend to talk to a person who had a plant stolen. What? Seemed that the director was grasping at straws.). Ultimately, Melone said he doesn't feel safe, doesn't feel safe for his young daughter, and will only take her to the park early in the morning when he knows no one is around.

Annette Lartigue's statements to Santiago smelled strongly of political posturing, and included intelligent but non-germane comments about the schools; and she suggested declaring official emergency in the city of Trenton; and she implored the director to crack down on packs of kids and loiterers. (This ultimately spawned a bit of conversation about civil liberties, and later, the overcrowded prisons, and the effectiveness of tougher laws, and so forth. Santiago expressed concern about the legalities of loitering laws** -- his department can't and shouldn't enforce potentially unconstitutional legislation; and yet his virtue about the law is ironic, considering his residency in Stirling, NJ, is a violation of a different law.) It was surprising she didn't ask Santiago directly about his residency, considering her position in the papers earlier this week.

Milford Bethea graciously declined to comment, to allow more time for Jim Coston and the public to speak.

Jim Coston said that he placed a call to Director Santiago in August; a call which was unreturned, so Coston asked that his comments, comprised of many yes/no questions, be seen as that returned phone call. This was also a highlight of the evening for me. Coston wanted to know if the new vehicles requested by the police department will stay within city limits, or if they'll regularly leave the city. Santiago responded, longwindedly, that he couldn't guarantee that the cars would stay in the city, but they would be put to good use fighting crime. Coston wanted to know if the position of communications director for the police department (a position ultimately filled by Santiago's friend Irv Bradley, who currently lives in Rahway), was made available to city residents before Bradley was hired. I was unclear on this answer; if anyone knows, let me know. Coston wanted to know if Irv Bradley was planning to move to Trenton, as required by law. According to Santiago, Bradley placed a deposit on a unit in the Broad Street Bank. Coston also brought up the issue of Santiago's residency outside of the city, and said that council should use its powers to remove Santiago if Santiago doesn't move to the city, and Palmer fails to act.

Council president Paul Pintella said that he knows where so many of the city's drug hot spots are, and has witnessed plenty middle-of-the-day open air deals, and wondered if the police saw this as well, and if so, why it's allowed to continue? He also said, inexplicably, given the power of his previous statements, that he'd give the director an "Eight, eight and a half" on a scale of one to 10, for his job performance; he didn't give a 10 because he needs Santiago "to keep reaching."

I wish council pressed Santiago more about the residency issue, though there is part of me that feels that we should be able to live where we want to live. But I also think following rules and laws and our job descriptions are not optional. If Santiago actually lived in this city — in fact, if we had more police officers living in this city — it would only help to improve the quality of life. Right now, we don't even have foot patrols (at least in our parts), and it feels that the department is very separated from the residents, and while all the officers I've encountered have been great, this separation doesn't allow officers to know who the real problematic people are, it makes it difficult for them to understand the nuances and rhythms in a neighborhood, and it make the residents less trustful of them.

While I can't really fully grasp why city council — as a body — has only been Mayor Palmer's rubber stamp and pocket book recently, instead of the representatives of the citizens, I was heartened to see their collective and individual reactions to Santiago's presentation, his lack of availability, and his lack of forthcoming with and/or understanding of the real public safety details in Trenton. I hope this isn't "too little too late," but rather marks a significant change on council, and if political aspirations provide some fuel for that, I've got no problem with it, as long as it helps to improve Trenton.

Director Santiago said, "What we're doing in Trenton is not being done anywhere else," and he said it in a way to indicate that his team is doing good stuff for the city, but he cited no sources, no crime-fighting models that other police agencies are using successfully. So after sleeping on it, I'm left with a feeling that he and his team of "experts" are just making stuff up as they go, and that's why it's not "being done anywhere else." They're making up new acronyms for old tactics that haven't been working, instead of looking at nearby and extremely functional New York City, a huge city with a record low in violent crime.

The public was invited to speak, and the comments were varied. There were some who found sympathy for Director Santiago, saying that Trenton's problems existed long before he came to office, and are indicative of poor parenting, and that's not the police department's fault. It's true, so I can't disagree with that, and at the same time, I cannot excuse Santiago's disregard for the details of his own job description, I cannot excuse the fact that the citizens of this city have been kept almost entirely in the dark about crime, and I cannot excuse his dismissive attitude. In fact, Glen and I noticed Santiago and Assistant Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez giggling during the public portion; he spent a good deal of time on his PDA during public comment as well. It was a long, heated meeting, and if Santiago wasn't at the center of it all, so what if he had a laugh or two, or sent some text messages to a family member or colleague? But he was the center of the meeting, and those actions do not inspire a sense of concern for the public, a public he is paid (very well) to serve. If you want, you can look up Santiago's salary (or any other public official's) here.

Some other public comments:
"Bulldoze Walnut Avenue and start over again."
"The police department needs more dogs. The criminals aren't afraid of us, or council, or the police, but they are afraid of dogs."
"Maybe we should stop having baby showers for young girls in the school cafeteria, and instead send them away, like we used to do."
"We need more black police officers."
"The black leadership has failed the youth in Trenton."
"Instead of calling me to attend your press conferences, call my next door neighbor" (referring to the mother of four miscreants).
"I'm tired of hearing about the rights of these kids. What about my rights?"

I didn't agree with every single comment, but I absolutely understand the frustration of the people who live in this city. One resident even suggested "taking matters into his own hands," to help improve his quality of life, and while I don't know what he implied specifically, I do know that regular citizens can do so much to effect change, and I hope we all keep talking about it, keep pressuring our officials to do right by us. We all share a degree of responsibility in the success of our community. Hopefully, we can see our way through the mine field one way or another without much more damage to life and limb.

*I'm not trying to make light of the landmine situation in Southeast Asia. It's tragic. Read more about it here.

**I'm certainly no fan of loitering thugs, in fact, I hate them. But I also understand that the social dynamics in this world make it very difficult for groups of teenagers and young adults of any color, but specifically black teenagers, to go hang out at the mall (for instance). And no offense to our fine history, there's just not that much for kids to do in this city, day after day, week after week (though I believe that to be a problem of all kids in all walks of life; they all feel there's nothing to do. But here in Trenton, there are fewer typical social outlets). The loitering laws in our country are unconstitutional, which, in theory, I understand. But in practical reality, it can be a freakin' drag when there are 8 thugs hanging out on the mailbox in front of your house. Santiago mentioned a way to combat this problem, legally, by invoking our right to public passage. Four or more people constitutes an obstruction of public passage, and apparently the police can act on this.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I was wrong,
and it's oh-so-right!

Sometimes it's great to be wrong.

Glen and I wanted to have breakfast this morning at Café Olé and were totally bummed out, but not entirely surprised, to find it closed today. We're hoping for the day when all of Trenton's restaurants are busy enough and the surrounding areas are thug-free enough to warrant them staying open late, and on both weekend days, and, especially, over holiday weekends.

So, we ate outside the city this morning, and it was good, but not the experience we had wanted. As we headed back toward home, we were thrilled to find the tamale lady outside of the Red, White, and Blue thrift store! I called my sister Jenny, who has not been able to get tamales off her brain since we first stumbled upon the tamale lady a few weeks ago. Jenny was so excited that she placed a hefty order and agreed to meet us back at our house within an hour to pick up the goods.

While the tamale seller was getting our order ready, I mentioned to her husband that I had thought his wife was only going to be selling her delicious food that one weekend, a few weeks ago. And told me that from now on, the tamales, and salads, and tacos and atole would be available — weather permitting — outside the Red, White, and Blue on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. AND, they'll be promoting tamale-love outside of the Selecto supermarket on Broad Street on Sundays.

How awesome is that?!

Jenny and two of her children, Aaron, and Emma, arrived a short time later, and even Emma, the baby, got in on the action: she grabbed a little taquito and made short work of it. We had a nice visit for a couple of hours (Emma got to play with the cats and Aaron got to take some photos), and then Jenny loaded up the kids and a huge bag of tamale-and-taquito goodness, which, I'm sure, other members of her family are enjoying right now.

So, I'm so happy to have been wrong about the tamale lady's availability. This approach to dining — that is, woman with large coolers and thermoses of food on the side of the road — may be a new trend. And, bonus: her hours of operation are no worse than many of the other food vendors in the area.

Now, go get some tamales!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


City council approved a contract last night that would provide wireless internet throughout the city, which, if the communications firm can uphold its end of the bargain, sounds pretty cool. But it won't affect my life too much because I have my own wifi already, and because when I leave the house, I need to get the hell away from my technology. If the city gets wifi, it probably won't affect too many other people in the city either, since they're either like me, and already have their own access, or they live below the poverty line. But I like the forward-thinkingness of this plan, because someday, maybe a huge percentage of the city's residents will not be too poor to own a computer.

It's easy to think about the individual people who make up city council. I know I do. A lot. But tonight, after a glass of wine, and knowing there are no deadlines for the next couple of days, I started to think about council as an organism, in and of itself. A living organism, like a cat. Or a squid. Or a wallaby. The Organism Council would be pretty high up on the food chain, but not at the top, only because there's too much chatter and noise going on inside of the collective head. Too much distraction. And right now, I feel a bit lower on the food chain too: relaxed from my wine, numb from a busy week of work and holiday preparation, and my reluctance to get used to the time change and all the darkness that comes along with it. Right now, all of that is causing me to debate with myself about whether I should tidy up the kitchen to get ready for tomorrow, or maybe have more wine and watch the hockey game with Glen, or have more wine and not watch the hockey game and blog instead. So, I sympathize with council, at least right now. I mean, I'm TIRED, I don't want to spend any more time in the kitchen. And, for whatever reason, that little tiny black thing on the TV screen in the other room is just way too hard to follow right now. And the wine tastes yummy and the glow of my computer is addictive!

There are a lot of things wrong with this city: our crime cameras are a joke; the only footage caught on camera is coming from regular citizens, and since there are only 37 of us with cameras, that's not saying much. Ordinances aren't getting enforced. The mayor is running off to the far corners of the country because of his "responsibilities" to the Conference of Mayors. There aren't enough cops on the street. Maybe crime is down, but it's still rampant. The city is like the state of my kitchen right now: a total freakin' disaster, but it's too overwhelming for me to think about for too long. So, I'm sitting here, writing...and drinking wine. I'm being productive, after all!

So, at least at this moment, I can understand why, when the city is such a mess, council would approve a contract for something that a) may not ever work properly, or b) won't be relevant until a few years has gone by. After all, the mere act of voting is progress, and that has to feel good, when so little progress is actually happening outside of council chambers.

I am gonna hate the mess in my kitchen tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hooray! Crime is Down!

The CQ Press Annual Safest/Most Dangerous Cities report is out, and Trenton has, at least on paper, seen some improvement. This story has been covered by the local newspapers, and my fellow bloggers have offered their thoughts about it too, so there's not much left to say. Except, to me, that report is irrelevant.

The numbers may show "improvement," but each of those numbers represents a horrible, life-altering event for real people, right here in our community. We can all chant "crime is down, crime is down" and come to believe it, just as the mystics chant "OM" and find inner peace, but violent crimes continue to happen all the time. Crime is Down, Crime is Down, but citizens are left to figure things out on their own based on the sounds of sirens and mothers wailing, and bits of crime scene tape left behind, outside their doors. Crime is Down, Crime is Down, but that doesn't bring back 84-year-old Jerry Eure, or 17-year-old MacKenzie Paul, two people whose lives were cut down too soon. Crime is down, crime is down, but two families in less than one week — the same week that report says Crime is Down in Trenton — have entirely new, gut-wrenching realities to accept. We have a problem with crime in Trenton.

Enough of the chants, and the reports, and the statistics, positive or negative. Let's get more policemen and women on the streets, now. Let's keep the citizens of Trenton informed so we can do our part, too.

By the way, the official Trenton Police Department crime map has still not been updated on the city's website. Crime is Down, so no need to post it?

Stalking the Tamale Lady

Quick note: I wanted to write this post as a means to encourage people to question their own ideas about immigrants, but I realize that we're all grown adults with our own opinions, based on our own life experiences, and I didn't want to come across as a pompous ass, so I'm going to let the story speak for itself, and just say that I've just found that if I'm friendly, the people I encounter, regardless of background, will generally be friendly in return. I've found that if I go out of my way to speak to someone else, they will generally do their best to communicate with me. In English. Even if English is not their first language. By saying that, I'm not condoning illegal immigration; I'm just saying that those of us born here could probably do a bit better job as ambassadors; and that while lousy, disrespectful people exist in all walks of life, most people are decent, and fully legal, and so happy to share their food.

My sister, Jenny, along with her kids, came out to Trenton two weeks ago to go thrift store shopping. This may sound like no big deal since thriftin' is something Glen and I do on a regular basis, and we always take our guests to our thrift haunts. But Jenny's got five kids, and a big, comfortable house, and generally has a "if you want to see me, come TO ME" attitude, which I'm happy to do, because she's awesome, and the kids are awesome, and they have a big comfortable house with plenty of room for me to sit. So, it was a bit of a victory to get her out of her big comfortable house, and into, of all places, The Hood, and to — no offense to anyone — some of the edgier neighborhoods, because that's where the thrift stores are.

That thrift haul was satisfactory. I found several more beautiful hand-crafted coffee mugs to add to my cabinet of other beautiful, hand-crafted, abandoned-at-thrift-stores-for-no good-reason-I-could-see coffee mugs; and Jenny found a lot of perfect quality, name-brand clothing for her multitude of children. But what made that visit remarkable was the presence of a Mexican woman in the parking lot, selling handmade tamales, taquitos, open-faced tacos, and ensalatas made with unfamiliar vegetables/vegetable combinations, and a warm, luscious drink called atole, which she made from rice and sweetened condensed milk* and garnished with a hit of cinnamon.

It was a chilly, damp day, and curiosity got the better of Jenny and some of her kids. Aaron and Megan are slightly more adventurous eaters than are the other kids, but I don't think Jenny or the kids would mind if I mentioned that they are more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of family. So, their interest in this — no offense to the chef — roadside/parking lot ethnic chow was a pleasant surprise. None of them had ever eaten anything like it. Within a few minutes, we had a plateful of each of the food items the Mexican woman was offering. The tamales were a huge hit, even with Aaron, who isn't so much picky as he is just plain never hungry (how I wish that for me!), but he really loved the little taquitos (taco rolls).

The Mexican woman and her husband, who was assisting her, were so helpful in explaining what was in each dish, and how it was made. They even gave us free salads and drinks — which may not sound like much — but these cups of atole were big, warm, celebratory beverages; a drink for the soul, as much as the body. The heat warmed my chilly hands and face, and filled my belly, and evoked for me thoughts of loved ones, and twinkling lights on a Christmas tree on a snowy night. I am an adventurous eater (as long as mayonnaise does not factor in prominently), but I have never had anything like atole; Megan loved it too. The salad was a jubilation in and of itself: it was striking purple, courtesy of the beets, and punctuated with jimaca and cabbage and green beans, and other vegetables I'd never know to combine (until now). And it was just simply fantastic.

So we ate on the side of the road, damp and cold, but voraciously.

Jenny asked me to ask the woman — because I have an ability to comprehend English of non-native speakers — where she'd be the next day. It turns out, she was planning to come back to the same spot on Saturday, and then on Sunday, she was planning to sell her deliciousness outside a south ward plaza on Lalor Avenue. I got the impression that this was a one-time weekend for the woman, and not her job, to make tamales (and more) and sell them on the side of the road, but for some reason, Jenny didn't believe me.

We ate well past the point of being full because the food was just so good, so appetizing that it was difficult to stop. But we eventually had empty plates, and so we drove away, thrilled to have stumbled across this bonanza, but sad, too, that we may never find anything like it again. We hit a few more thrift stores, and then called it a a day. As Jenny dropped me off, she asked how to get back to where the Mexican woman was selling her food, because she wanted to pick up some tamales for her husband. Turns out, though, by the time Jenny went through again, the woman and her tamales and humongous thermos of atole were gone; so gone, in fact, that no one would have ever known she was there.

Jenny and I talk nearly every day, and nearly every day last week, we talked longingly about the Mexican woman's tamales — which were the hit of last Friday for Jenny and two of her children. The tamales were exotic, and yet had all of the properties of some of our family's comfort foods. I scoured my international cookbooks and looked online for tamale recipes and Jenny and I discussed whether or not we should have a tamale night in the coming weeks. We both enjoy cooking, but we wondered if we can do this fine pre-Colombian tamale tradition any justice, as it's not part of our heritage; not that lack of heritage has stopped us before. We've both dabbled in cuisines of far reaches of the planet, quite successfully, but it was only after much research and many taste-testings. There's something ancient and almost mythical about the tamal (singular without the "e" from what I hear), that warrants further investigation before we start cooking. Understanding the history and tradition, I believe, will yield a more delicious item. (Read more about wonderful tamales here.)

Jenny agreed. She asked me if I had plans for this past Friday, because she wanted to come back over to find the Mexican woman, because she couldn't stop thinking about the tamales; she needed to sample more of them before she tried to make them on her own. Again, this is a big deal, because for my whole adult life, I have been the one to visit my family members. And since Glen and I moved to Trenton, we've been doing far more visiting than we had before.

I told Jenny that our chances of finding the woman selling tamales were nil, but Jenny wanted to try. We started out with a visit to the thrift store where we first found the woman. She wasn't there. We scored more clothing and hand-made mugs, so that was good. Jenny asked me how to get to the south ward shopping center the woman had mentioned; we went there, and didn't find her. We did find a really jam-packed second-hand store, so the ride over wasn't totally without purpose. We combed the side streets, stalking the tamale-maker. But it was over. We shared our feelings of loss and decided the best bet was to hit Tortuga's or Frontera's or whatever it's called, for Mexican food.

I'm referring to the establishment on the corner of Clinton and Beatty avenues, and using both names not because I'm trying to be a smart-ass, but because the sign says, at least as of Friday, "Tortuga's," but the menu says "Frontera's." I'm just not sure what the actual name is, and maybe the owners don't know either; regardless, it is pretty freakin' awesome. I debated whether or not to take Jenny to Chapala Dos, which is also delicious, and has the recent distinction of being the site where three people were run-over by an angry intoxicated guy. I chose Frontera's/Tortuga's not because I was worried we might get run over in front of Chapala's (more people DON'T get run over, every single day, you know?), or even because I was worried Jenny would come to her senses and wonder how the hell she wound up in Trenton, when she could be comfortable in her big house, with me over there, instead of at an establishment that was the site of horrific personal injury and some bad press, but simply because I had to choose one place or another, and I knew for a fact that Frontera's/Tortuga's offered tamales.

Aaron was not with us this trip; he was out with my other sister, Karen, who called us to see if we were successful in stalking the tamale-monger. Karen had tried to take Aaron to lunch, but he refused to eat, because he was hoping his mother would return with some food from the Mexican woman on the side of the road. That hit Jenny hard. She really wanted for herself a homemade tamale from that woman, but more importantly, she really hated to let Aaron down.

As we drove down Clinton Avenue, we saw a guy and a grill on the back of his pick-up truck, selling BBQ to what looked to be a very hungry crowd. Jenny was driving, and slowed almost to a stop, to debate whether or not to try roadside BBQ, knowing it was probably a one-time deal, like the woman selling tamales. With some regret, we decided to keep moving to Frontera's/Tortuga's, for the sole purpose (for Jenny) of consuming tamales, a new and exciting food which she wanted to learn more about.

Jenny ordered a combination platter, and received a tamale and a chile relleno, Now, a quick aside, the chile relleno is also relatively new to Jenny — back in April, we found ourselves in a family-style restaurant in Colorado, with a huge, diverse menu, and I had ordered the chile relleno, and she had ordered chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. I had to swap dishes with her — that's how much she loved the chile relleno. It is a delicious, though deadly food item: a mild poblano pepper (usually) is stuffed with cheese, and then — hallelujah! — deep freakin' fried.
One very fine-looking chile relleno.

I, too, got a chile relleno, because I had to. And even though it was stuffed with meat, in addition to cheese (Jenny was familiar with the cheese-only variety), I was very happy. Very, very happy. Frontera's/Tortuga's chicken is probably THE BEST I have ever had. Jenny was happy, overall, though she would have preferred to have found the woman on the side of the road. Megan, my niece, was with us, and she told the waiter that his was the best food she had ever had. The man serving us was so hospitable and gracious: he listened attentively to Jenny lament the failure to find the Mexican woman, which resulted in our visit to his establishment. She talked about how her young son, little skinny, uninspired-with-most-food items, Aaron, loved the little taco roll-ups sold by the woman on the side of the road. The man serving us said they didn't really have anything like it on his menu, but he would be glad to make us some to take home for Aaron. How cool is that? He came back a few minutes later with three beautiful, golden, deep-fried taco roll thingies, which I hope Aaron enjoyed later in the day.

Despite our different backgrounds and politics and philosophies on life, (most notably for me, within my own family) food allows us to bond, to find common ground. Jenny and I have been talking about this, partially because she and I are on completely different ends of the spectrum politically, and yet, when we really talk — often over food, or conversations that start out about food — we find we have way more in common that we would have thought. She suggested that maybe we're all getting used by politicians: we're getting pigeon-holed into one box, one side or another, based on a few issues; issues that allow us to demonize "the other side," but really, we're completely missing the big picture. We're forgetting our shared values, and we have a lot of them.

So, I'm hoping that Jenny will come out again soon, and we can drive around, to look for the tamale lady. We probably won't find her, but along the way, maybe we'll see that guy with his grill on Clinton Avenue again, or who knows, maybe we'll find someone with a giant deep fryer offering fish and chips on his porch?

* I've since read up on atole, and most recipes I found call for cornmeal, ground into a liquid, and warmed, with no dairy. I'm hoping to try that someday too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Remember this?

"When I got down here,
I started asking questions.
I asked about crime rates.
They didn't even know what they were.
Two years ago, they didn't even have
a daily crime report.

I asked if there were gangs in Trenton.
They said no."

~Joseph Santiago, Trenton Police Director, 2003

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The City's Crime Map

It's been a week since the police held a news conference to respond to Jack Knarr's story in the Trentonian about the department's underreporting of crime in the city. The police told the crowd (and the public, since the crowd was made up of reporters and civic leaders) that they would a) be more forthcoming when reporting crime, and b) make a weekly crime map available on the city's website. Oh yeah, they actually said that they HAD BEEN making a weekly crime map available, but we know that's not the case.

I'd forgive that, if they actually updated the crime map on the website. The term "weekly" is somewhat subjective, since there are seven days in a week, and I don't know which one of the seven marks the beginning or the ending of a weekly cycle for the police. But it's been more than a week, for any one of the days, and there's no new map on the city's website. We haven't forgotten about it.

We had a homicide in the West Ward this week; a family is devastated and a community is left reeling by the senseless murder of 84-year-old Jerry Eure, Sr. Also, the police department was very busy on Sunday with a variety of crimes. But the days leading up to Sunday, as well as the days before Mr. Eure's murder seemed to be quiet. At least nothing was reported in the papers. I suppose it could be that there were no significant crimes on those days — I certainly hope that's the case — but it just strikes me as suspicious, in light of the press conference, the lack of a new map on the city's website, and the reputation that some of our city leaders have as punitive and vindictive.

If I'm missing the boat on this, please let me know. In the meantime, if it was an oversight, I hope the city's crime map will be uploaded soon. Citizens who attend CPAC meetings get to see these maps, but only once a month. And because of work and family commitments, lack of transportation, and health issues, not everyone can attend, nor should they be required to. But the more information that's available to the public makes for better citizens. We need to know about the crime in Trenton, so we can do our part to make our neighborhoods better.