Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Hustler with Heart

There are four basic types of people who live in Trenton:

The Sociopaths:
for example:
The guy who rides around in his tricked-out former cop car with the music so loud that our windows rattle.
Julian, and others like him.
Drug dealers and 'hos.
The assholes who ride ATVs on city streets with impunity.

The Self-Serving Pricks:
for example:
Paul Pintella.
Annette Lartigue.
I'd say Doug Palmer, too, but can't, since he doesn't technically live in Trenton.

The crazy people
for example:
The non-criminal, and often civic-minded element, who will, I hope, prevail in making Trenton a better place to live.

The entrepreneurs
In my neighborhood, this includes/included:
Martin, the jack of all trades
Bill, our former neighbor, always looking for a fast buck
Mr. F, the good guy, I suspect, who is currently laid off, who does yard work to make ends meet.

Because of my time constraints, and inspired by yesterday's not-so-crippling snow storm, let us focus on The Entrepreneurs. I write about the other groups a heck of a lot anyway.

In my neighborhood, it is not uncommon to see a skinny guy on a bike, holding a rake in one hand, and dragging a lawn mower behind the bike with his other. Most of these guys are crackheads, but it doesn't make their bicycling skills any less impressive. I never learned to ride no-handed, and have the scars to prove it. We once saw a guy who fashioned a red wagon to the back of his bike and was able to haul more landscaping stuff, like a chain saw and buckets around with him, all the while hauling a lawn mower and holding a rake in his other hands.

Because of their willingness to work, and ability to ride a bicycle as least as well as Lance Armstrong, I can't say these entrepreneurs are the bane of my existence. But they still drive me crazy. We have a small city yard — perhaps bigger than some, by city standards, but still way smaller than any other yard I've had — and the first few weeks we lived here, we were bomb-freakin-barded by (mostly) crackheads and other dudes with other addiction issues, who wanted to take care of our lawn, trim our hedges, etc. I decided very quickly we needed to kill the grass. It took a few years, and we still have some work cut out for us, but in the few years we've been here, we've installed a patio in the backyard, and planted ground cover all over the front lawn. I've been trying, with limited success, due to poor soil quality and lousy northern exposure, to nurture an English-style garden along the side of the house.

We've been here a few years, and because of our almost low maintenance yard, and because I am often outside in the warm months hacking at stuff, hauling rocks, and scheming, the entrepreneurs generally leave me be. During the cold months, we do see these business-minded crackheads trudging through the snow with their shovels; they occasionally ride their bikes through it, depending on the quality of the cold stuff, to get to a job. We don't get that much snow and ice here, and when we do, my Canadian husband is all over it. So, the army of snow removers generally marches on by our house. That didn't happen yesterday, due to the timing of the storm, and when Glen needed to be at work.

I would have gladly shoveled, but couldn't responsibly, since I'm not sure what I'd do with Matthew, who pretty much refuses to sleep, while I shoveled. Also, I was dog-sitting yesterday, and Steve and his new girlfriend were racing hilariously all over the house, and I didn't want to leave them unsupervised for even 5 minutes. So the snow shoveling teams began knocking on my door around 9:30.

We are not entirely sure if we have been handling this kind of situation correctly, but in general, we almost always refuse the help, politely. Even though these guys offer to work for an insanely low rate of pay (yesterday, one guy offered to shovel for $10: we live on a corner and have two entrances, to boot), we just don't want drug addicts — even those who will work honestly — coming around our house. In other neighborhoods, kids would be offering to mow the lawn and shovel the walks, and that's all fine and good; but it's just kinda wrong when adults (with crack addictions) offer. Giving the job to them does not really build a neighborhood. Where I came from, if I needed a bit of help moving a piece of furniture, or changing a tire, for instance, a neighbor would come out and help, just because it was the right thing to do. This seldom happens in our neighborhood, unfortunately, without someone extending a hand for a buck. And we resent it.

A guy who used to live nearby us, Bill, always came around looking for work: "I'll help you unload your car for $3," he'd say. And we gave him some work, because we knew he needed it. Bill used to knock on our door asking if he could shovel for $3, after only a light flurry. Glen would explain that he was from Canada, and he enjoyed shoveling, and so, Bill would ask to borrow the shovel, so he could ask other neighbors if he could shovel their walks for coin. In between, he'd knock on the door and ask for 67¢, most likely, because he learned that no one will give him 67¢; if he's lucky, he'll get a whole dollar. We weren't terribly sad to see Bill move away.

And then there was Martin. Oh, Martin. He was a pro at riding a bike while hauling a trailer behind him. But, man, he was pushy, and abrasive. The former owner of our house left his nasty king-sized bed behind, but was nice enough to bring it out to the backyard first. One afternoon, I called the city to arrange for a pick up, and started to drag it around to the alley. Martin cornered me, and explained he was a hustler, but "a hustler with heart," and he'd remove the mattress for me, for $20. I refused, and said I could have it dragged around back in a few minutes, and the city was coming for it, all for free; and, he couldn't tell me where he'd plan to dump it. He kept insisting, and I kept refusing; it was the beginning of a contentious relationship.

One Saturday, after we had only been in the house for a few days, Martin knocked on the door, hedge trimmers and rake in hand. He had the bad luck of facing Glen. He made things worse for himself by uttering the phase, "Let's get this place cleaned up." Which implied messiness; which, to be honest, it was...this place felt like home, and had so much gorgeous structure, but in many areas, was a flat-out disaster of debris and overgrown vegetation. Glen did not, however, need to hear it from Martin. Glen kicked him off the porch.

Martin continued to try to sell us on his home improvement skills, but without luck. He did manage to wrangle one neighbor into allowing him to scrape paint off the front of the house; a job he started, but never finished, since our neighbor paid him too early. Another neighbor allowed him to mow her lawn, but she had to stay outside and watch him like a hawk the whole time; and she, too, learned not to pay him too soon. A random passerby had a flat tire, and Martin was there, offering to help for $10. He built a little rampy thing out of some scrap wood he found in the alley, and when the tire was changed, left the rampy thing in the street, and then promptly bought some crack off of the knuckleheads up the street, and smoked it behind our garage.

Martin came around offering to shovel: "The snow won't clear itself!" he'd say. Last year, he was implicated in a rash of burglaries in nearby Villa Park, and based on the endless supply and breadth of tools at his disposal, maybe there was some truth in it. We won't know, though, because Martin was struck by a car on East State Street a few months ago, and he died.

The Trentonian's ever-sensitive Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman wrote an article about the accident that claimed Martin's life, describing in vivid detail how he died, and what he looked like as he did so. Rahman never mentioned where Martin lived, or who he left behind, or what he did with his life; and in Rahman's defense, maybe it was because Martin lived on the streets of the East Ward. Maybe he had no family, and hustling for crack money isn't exactly a living in polite society.

The lack of respect and decency toward Martin in Rahman's article has stayed with me over the last few months. Young Sulaiman certainly isn't singularly guilty of not caring a heck of a lot about society's misfits. Greater society does not respect people like Martin, either; he fell through the cracks. Martin failed miserably by normal standards, and life failed him, in return. My teeth clenched every time I saw Martin circling around the block on his bike; I resented he used the back of our garage as his spot to get high. I wished he'd just go away, without ever giving any thought to what that meant.

Martin died a horrible death on a warm night on East State Street. I missed Martin yesterday, all bundled up on his bike, wielding what was likely a stolen shovel. I think Martin meant well. I think. He was probably complicated, like most of us. Now, he's gone, permanently, and at least three other drug-addicted looking guys have filled the void he left. They, too, probably mean well, for the most part, but will probably attempt to do drugs behind my garage, as well. Despite their horrible lives, they are human. They may be a nuisance, begging for work, but at least they're trying. If our neighbors offered to help one another, you know, out of the goodness in their hearts, I'm fairly convinced there would be far fewer people in Martin's situation. People like that do matter. And the more we pay the hustlers to shovel our walkways — or what's more likely here, NOT even bothering to shovel — while we stay inside and don't get to know one another, the more the cycle perpetuates.

I am guilty of this, too. It's complicated, isn't it?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Only in America/Only in Trenton

Paul Pintella Civic Association amuses and disgusts

I did some freelance book design a few years ago for a dude I'll call Caleb, who lived in America's west, who owned a small publishing business. Over the course of the business relationship, I learned that his spelling and grammar were more atrocious than that of the average book publisher, but he was smart enough to rely heavily on his computer's spellchecker. Things didn't work out so well when he wrote handwritten missives, but hey, no one's perfect, right?

Glen and I had the pleasure of meeting Caleb when he drove east to visit family (in Kentucky), and he'd never been to the northeast, so he "swung by" for a visit. We're probably too damn nice to begin with, but we also wanted to show the guy a good time so the work would keep coming. We took him to Philly; we took him to New York City. Will filled him up with awesome pizza, cheesesteaks, and bagels, since he had never had any of that. I suppose if you've never tried something, you don't know what you're missing, and perhaps, you get used to the slop you've been eating. It's one thing to so sadly feel that way, but another entirely when you feel compelled to brag about it. So Caleb, of course, could make better pizza in his cake pan in his trailer at home, and could get a better steak sandwich at the gas station at his town's corner. He was unimpressed with the Empire State building, claiming it was "just a building." The views from where he's from, of course, were far more spectacular, and the natural formations more majestic than any of the monuments to humanity's ability to create, here in the northeast.

I hate to be indelicate, but this is just too good to not mention. Caleb bitched about the humidity that mild weekend in May when he "swung by," and it caused him far more difficulty than he was used to in the little boy's room. What Caleb did after a spell in the restroom has become legend to us, part of our story as a couple. The bathroom was right off the kitchen, and Glen and I were simultaneously prepping a meal and tidying up, when the odor hit; Glen inhaled it first, and apparently, it burned his nostrils, trachea, and lungs. Glen is a fairly protective guy, and so he quietly, but urgently, ushered me out of the kitchen and into the living room. "Thank God you didn't have to smell that," he whispered to me. "I think I'm gonna be sick!"

So I read a magazine for what felt like an hour; Glen, always helpful when interpreting the blow-by-blow of events, periodically popped his head in to let me know about the smells and sounds coming from the other room. Finally, Caleb entered the living room, covered in sweat, face blotchy red and white. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, uttered a belabored "whew," and collapsed in a heap into our couch. This is probably too much information, but to this day, Glen and I often wipe our brow, say "whew," and fall into the couch after we've been to the bathroom, because it's just great fun, good memories.

Anyway, after Caleb finally left, we had dinner with one of Glen's Canadian friends, and the two of them talked at great length about America, the land of opportunity, even for morons. After all, how is it possible for an ungrateful, rude, and kinda stupid dude to run a small, but successful BOOK PUBLISHING company? "Only in America," Glen and his friend kept saying.

We do live in quite the country if a guy like that could live his dream and conduct a reasonably successful business. We also live in quite the city if a dude like Paul Pintella could actually think to run for mayor. It's quite the feat, of course, that he's not only won a seat on city council for several terms, but that his colleagues on city council actually made him -- he of little patience for the masses -- council president, too. Only in Trenton!

My life has been spiraling slightly out of control over the last couple of months, with everything running together, and my days and nights getting confused. But now that the holidays are over, I feel maybe I'll be able to establish some new routines; I hope, anyway. I'd like to blog more regularly, about more than just my screwy life. But I see I'm late to the party about Paul Pintella's sparkly new website, where apparently he is more than just the asshole who, in one of the mysteries of the universe, sits on city council and plans to run for mayor; but is also a civic association unto himself. I read about it first on The Ruins of Trenton (thanks, Greg!). Paul Pintella Civic Association fills me with conflicting emotions of amusement and disgust. Only in Trenton!

Just as Caleb shouldn't be running a book publishing business — and, for the record, doesn't anymore, since his, uh, personal style has finally impeded long-term success — Paul Pintella, Civic Association and individual, has had a good run, and it's time for it/him to fade away. I'd like to help him become but a (bad) memory in Trenton's (sad) past, and while my life right now won't allow me the flexibility to jump right on, I'm more than happy to bring up the rear.

Much of the site is "coming soon," and I am on the edge of my seat, in that weird place of delight and dismay, waiting for everything to be finished. In the meantime, I am elated to see the AskPaul section of his site is operational. I, for one, plan to ask him a lot of questions, and urge you to do the same. Here are my questions today:

  1. You've been known to be a bit grouchy with community members during the public portion of city council meetings. Do you plan to uphold this tradition if, in the unlikely event, you are elected mayor?
  2. Will your posse be as big as Doug's? Please elaborate. How many bodyguards? Drivers? Assistants? Lawyers? Habidashers?
  3. Where's the money?
  4. Will you promise to leave politics if not elected? Please?
  5. Will you link to my blog?
  6. Who do you hate more, Sporty Joe or Paul Harris?
  7. Is Doug's ass smooth or pimply?

Pintella claims he's putting the people first, but his rude and abrasive history with the people, prove otherwise. He's had a good run, and it's time to get some new blood involved with city politics. It's time to stop saying, "only in Trenton." If we can't get a joke of a politician like Paul out of our politics, well, then, the joke's on us.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Happy Hood Year

It seems we've developed a bit of a fun tradition: Glen's sister Brenda, often with her boyfriend, Jeff, whom we affectionately call "Jolene," come on down for New Year's Eve in the hood. I think it's because they're excited by the risk of getting shot, which could happen anywhere, but it's probably more likely to happen in Trenton than in their hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. And this year, with two murders within a few feet of each other, right on my block, they'll be able to return to Canada and say they spent New Year's Eve on the East Side, amid a hard rain, and lived to tell about it. And this year was no disappointment. There was quite a bit of gunfire — a symphony of it — in fact, all around us, as we heralded in the New Year. I left the TV because I couldn't bear to see Dick Clark (or his cohorts) this year, though Glen thoughtfully recorded it, so I could watch it when I was up for it. And I did watch, the next day, and am still unsure of what to Dick a role model for stroke survivors, or is he a big scary downer on one of the most celebratory nights of the year? I don't know, but I can say Ryan Seacrest and that Pickle Chick, who were also hosting the countdown, are surely the reason the whole freakin' world hates the United States. I felt dirtier for watching a bit of them. Anyway, I didn't want to spend my last minutes of 2008 with conflicting emotions and unsettling visuals, and the desire to kill some entertainers. So I went to the bedroom to feed my baby, in the hopes of happier, more appreciative feelings. I listened to the gunfire all the while. Back in the day, we ran around banging pots and pans when the countdown finished, but now I'm finally keepin' it real!

The next morning, over our homemade Belgian waffles, Brenda mentioned that there was more gunfire in the South Ward, a few years back, when we celebrated with Manolo and Bernd. Maybe. Maybe not. My emotions are likely getting in the way of any sort of objective assessment. It's a hard to compare gunfire here with gunfire at Bernd's, when I have a pretty good idea of which ass hammers on my street are firing their guns (again?). Maybe Bernd can weigh in and let us know how much gunfire they got this year, and if he knows who the shooters are, too.

We spent New Year's Day with my sister, Karen, at her place, watching the outdoor hockey game on TV, the Winter Classic. This year, it was Chicago and Detroit, and I hear it was a good game, but I couldn't tell you what happened because I have a hard time following that little puck, and also, for the second year running, the performer Seal held a concert "On Ice," immediately following the game, and right or wrong, this is what sticks with me. This year was just a repeat of last year, and I can't believe it actually aired again. I admit, I do like watching figure skating, if it's on — I won't go out of my way — and, you know, Seal is okay, too. But the combination is tragically lame, especially since the shebang is sponsored by an applesauce company. Like applesauce has anything to do with Seal or figure skating; it must have been the best the organizers could do. For the record, I'm ashamed I even know it was on again this year, and even more ashamed I can tell you the name of the applesauce sponsor. No gunplay, at least.

We made plans to make up for the lack of firearms by heading to my dad's place in Maryland the following day; the guys (except Baby Matthew and Steve the dog) headed off to a gun range, and shot things for about 5 hours. It must have been tremendously good times because Glen, my man who enjoys telling stories and offering his commentary about even the most mundane, like Kleenex and Tombstone pizza, had virtually nothing to say. "We sat down in chairs and shot at the targets. We took turns. It was very orderly," is all he had to say. They came home with pizza, from Delmar Pizza, which rivals just about any pizza I've ever had, and, get this – there was a lot more conversation about the pizza than about the guns. Maybe shootin' guns is just something men do, and don't talk about? Perhaps they especially don't talk about it with people who spent the day in their jammy bottoms watching Brady Bunch reruns and eating M&Ms?

So the last week for me has been filled with a lot of guns, some illegal (I'm guessing), and some legal, and I'm wondering if city officials might keep a better watch for this. Who knows, it might help solve (and deter) crime, leaving the good guys with more time to practice shooting at the firing range, or sitting around watching Brady Bunch reruns in their jammy bottoms.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Waffled Bread

Glen has a thing for kitchen appliances. I admire this in him, because we have been able to make some really cool, very specific chow with his appliances. But I can't lie: kitchen appliances take up a shitload of real estate in our already tiny city kitchen, and they compete for the prepping space (like chopping and rolling, for instance), and cleaning their nooks and crannies is daunting, especially since many kitchen appliances cannot be immersed in water.

These are just some of our (primarily Glen's) appliances.

I'm not put off about the appliances enough to complain too much, though; but I think in the next few weeks, a reorganization is completely in order to better accommodate all the gadgets; Glen bought me a waffle maker for Christmas, so the reorg is more necessary now than ever before.

When it comes to kitchen appliances, Glen does not screw around. He's been lucky enough to find many killer appliances at the thrift store, but when that doesn't happen, he has no problem throwing down serious coin for the right device. And I'm sure this was the case with my new waffle maker, the KitchenAid Pro Line. There's a gauge on the thing that looks like it came out of a high-performance vehicle, for crying out loud, and the iron is on a spindle, so you can cook two large Belgian waffles in just a few short minutes. Because of the counter space issue, I have been thinking over the last week or so of what else I can cook in this waffle iron so it can earn a permanent spot on my counter.

My model is black-n-chrome, rather than all chrome, but this gives you an cooks waffles in both the upper and lower chambers.

Get ready for lift-off!

I am, of course, looking forward to making plenty of regular waffles, to eat at breakfast, or to serve with chicken. I have not yet had chicken and waffles, but I'm a big fan of chicken and biscuits with honey, and can easily take the next step to waffles. I also want to try savory waffles, and have been looking around for enticing recipes (I found one utilizing some cornmeal and cheddar cheese that I may try later in the week). Making waffles will certainly help me use up some more flour that Glen picked up recently, so again, feel free to send along any recipes you may have.

I had been thinking along the lines of using the waffle iron as a panini press, but we, of course, already have one of them. A very sweet model, too. I started thinking about biscuit dough in the waffle iron, biscuits being one of my favorite foods and all, and my mind naturally turned toward bread. I'm told that Indian bakers slap thin naan bread dough against the side of the oven, and when it falls off, it's done. Bread dough, when thin, doesn't take long to cook. So, I set out today to use it to bake (iron?) bread.

One of the few appliances I brought into the relationship with Glen was my Welbilt Bread Maker; my mom got it for me in 1993. I use it primarily to do the hard work of bread making — the kneading — and then I take it out, and plop the dough in a normal bread pan, or I roll it to make my family's near-famous pepperoni bread. So, this morning, I allowed the bread maker to prep the dough, and when it was ready, I experimented. Since I no longer have enough space to work with a rolling pin, I worked manually with the dough, balled, on a plate. At first I spreading them thin and made them as round as possible, and placing them just so on the waffle griddle. The results were fine. But it occurred to me that I probably didn't have to work so hard to flatten the dough, since the machine could do that, and since yeast bread and quick bread (like waffles) undergo different chemical reactions when exposed to heat, I gave up the idea of trying to make perfect waffle-shaped loaves. So, I began placing small fistfuls of dough in the center of the griddle, and pressing it closed. The results were some lovely, though haphazardly shaped, loaves of bread that I will serve tonight with a hearty tomato soup and salad.

Yummy waffled bread

In case you're wondering, I'm using a fairly straightforward white dough recipe that lends itself to many applications. I got it from my sister, Jenny, and it's below, in case you want to try it.

4 1/4 cup flour (I used bread flour)
1 3/4 cup water (room temperature)
2 1/4 teaspoon yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt

If you're familiar with baking bread by hand, you'll probably know what to do next. I find this part of bread making to be kind of finicky, which is why I'm glad to have the machine. I toss everything into my bread machine, put it on the kneading cycle, and in about an hour, I've got some lovely dough to work with. Anyway, try it, even if you don't use it to make waffles.