Saturday, November 30, 2013

Coming to America

Early this morning, after taking my in-laws to the Atlanta airport for their return trip to Boston, I was headed back north on I-85 when I decided to exit at Buford Highway in order to take a more direct route to my regular Saturday morning coffee stop in Norcross.  I have lived in Atlanta for over 30 years, and I've driven up and down Buford Highway many times, but I have to say that this trip left something of an impression on me.

For those of you who are not familiar with Atlanta, the important thing to know about Buford Highway is that it is the epicenter of what is locally called (and referred to on Interstate signs as) "International Village" due to its plethora of Hispanic, Latino and Asian restaurants, markets and services.  New places seem to spring up almost daily along this seven plus mile stretch of road, and many of these offer food which can't be found for hundreds of miles in any other direction.  It's fascinating, and I'm thinking that it's also one of the first stops for many newly arrived Atlantans.

As I exited at about 6:45 AM, it struck me that Buford Highway was effectively deserted, which offered me the opportunity to look around without having to worry about the normal heavy traffic.  In the early morning light, with so few people out and about, it was as if I had never driven this road before.  The first thing I noticed were marquees advertising English and math lessons.  That made sense, I thought, since there is undoubtedly a market for these services, and what better place to locate such signs than on this "first impression" road?  From time to time, I would see a person waiting at a bus stop or walking alone, and given the time and location, I assumed that most of these people were headed to work.  The signs along the road revealed the diverse nature of the community -- places like Little Saigon, Aloha Plaza, Pho 24 Noodle House, Taco Veloz, Tan Tan Bridal, and Los Compadres were packed in shoulder to shoulder.  

I began to think that even though Buford Highway may not be the most scenic stretch of road in the Southeast, it certainly gives us a window to the world, and driving along it in this unfamiliar early morning light made me think of what it might be like to be newly arrived in America.  We take so much for granted.  It's been years since many of us have had to start our lives over in an environment totally foreign to us -- moving from Little Rock is not the same experience as moving from Phnom Penh, leaving the family half a world away.

When I first moved to Atlanta, it was rare to see such a concentration of multiple ethnicities as exhibited along Buford Highway, and I for one am happy that our city can offer such opportunity to people from around the world.  I realize that as Americans, we are all over the board on immigration policy, but I'd like to think that when Manuel or Chia-Ling makes that first drive up Buford Highway, he or she feels a little more at home and maybe begins to think that dreams long sought after might come true.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tonsorial Tales

These days, my hair is easy to cut.  Due to its reduced length and thickness, I no longer require a styling salon, and it's been years since I've been to a traditional barber shop.  My childhood barber, Mr. Johnson, owned a tidy little corner shop at the corner of Homer Street and Rockwood Avenue in Memphis.  There were no appointments at Johnson's Barber Shop -- you just went in and sat down, pored over well-worn issues of Field & Stream, and waited until the next barber was available.  One afternoon as I was getting my hair cut, only four or five days into first grade, Mr. Johnson asked me if I had any girlfriends yet.  Not knowing any better, I told him that yes, I had six, and then I proceeded to give him their names.  This was, of course, a source of instant amusement to all the other customers in the shop.

The last time I visited a genuine barber shop was one morning in 2002, when I was vacationing in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  The barber shop owner cut my hair using a Flowbee, a vacuum-assisted clipper thingy.  He said he hadn't used it that much and asked if I would mind if he tried it out on me.  I said no, thinking that I was on vacation, after all, and I wouldn't run the risk of being seen by anyone I knew, at least for a few days.  After the first or second pass across my head with this mysterious device, he asked if a woman had cut my hair last, and when I said yes, he replied that "women do not know how to cut men's haar (sic)".  Since I always have my "haar" cut by women and quite like it that way, I did not agree with his assessment.  I didn't want to tell him that not only was my hair cut by a woman, but that my favorite stylist was actually a Persian woman. Heaven knows what dialogue that might have started.  However, the Alabama Flowbee experience is worthy of a blog post unto itself, and I digress.

One night not long ago, feeling that my hair, even with its reduced length and thickness, was becoming a bit too spiky, I headed to my neighborhood Great Clips for my standard cut.  Since I went in after 8:00 PM for the "special night rates", the place was fairly busy, and I had to wait about ten minutes, during which I whipped out my iPhone and worked in a few games of Words With Friends.  And then I heard my name called by a stylist who hadn't previously cut my hair.  For the sake of this post, I'll call her Tricia.

Tricia sported a big, broad smile.  She looked like a friendly lady, and right away, she asked me how my day had been.  I replied that it hadn't been bad, but that I was awfully tired for a Monday.  She said that she was too, and then she asked me what kind of cut I would like.  When I said "Number Four on the sides, and Number Five on top", she said, "Aww!  I could kiss you right here!"  And then she repeated herself.  In the world of tonsorial science, the Number Four/Five Clippers Combination is an easy one, and the lady in her chair before me had presented Tricia with fine, flyaway hair that required a careful scissor cut, so I guess my clipper trim was a relief.

I've found over the years that when you're getting your hair cut, you can discuss just about anything and everything, given the right stylist.  My own aunt Ida Mae was a hairdresser in a small town in Tennessee, and she ran her beauty shop out of her little house.  It seemed that no matter which room you ventured into, you couldn't escape the lively conversations taking place in the shop.  But this was always fascinating: I learned a lot about who was going where and with whom, whose particular congealed salad had run amiss, and who was wearing inappropriate clothing about town.

Back home that night, Great Clips Tricia was one of those people you could open up to.  She asked me where I worked, so I told her about my job, and about how after a day of looking at numbers, databases, and logic, it was nice to just talk about regular stuff.  So that we did.  She told me that she didn't like all this new music, that she was a child of the Eighties, and that the music being played nowadays gave her a headache.  We talked about music of the Seventies: The Stylistics, Stevie Wonder, and her favorite, Donna Summer.  Tricia said that she drove a cab at night and listened to Pandora, and that she had overflowed her free listening minutes and had no more Pandora until May.  Pandora was where she got all her Donna Summer.

And then we started talking about my growing up in Memphis, listening to so much good music back in the day.  Tricia said, "My girlfriend lives in Memphis, and I wanna go over there and get me some barbecue, but she ain't invitin' me yet."  I replied that this seemed unfair, which then led to a discussion of how Tricia's native North Carolina barbecue resembled that of Tennessee and how neither of us could find local barbecue that we really liked, or in Tricia's words, "I don't care what anybody is sayin', they ain't no good barbecue in Georgia at all."  I guess that regional taste for barbecue is like crab cakes to a Marylander -- authenticity is ultimately dependent upon geographic location.

When Tricia finished my haircut, in probably all of ten minutes, it was perfect...the best one I'd had in a while.  And what's more, in those ten minutes, I'd made a new friend.  Tricia was so incredibly pleasant, even working long hours at two jobs just to make ends meet.  I told her about a trip I was planning to Memphis in the next month, and that I'd be sure to raise a sandwich to her.  She said, "Please do that for me...raise that sandwich...for real."  I thought, you can count on that, Tricia.  Absolutely.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Spice of Life

"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing."
-- Mick Jagger

It all started back in 1979, when I visited an Indian restaurant for the first time.  It was a bone chilling late February afternoon in Chicago, and a group of us had gone to see our friend Sheila perform in a chamber music concert.  Afterward, we decided to walk to Bengal Lancer, a cozy Indian restaurant on Clark Street.  As soon as I entered the place, I was in nirvana.  There were two fireplaces, weathered wood floors, windows that looked down on a snow-covered Clark Street, and the most heavenly aromas I had ever experienced.  I started with a Pimm's Cup and ordered bhuna gosht for my entrée.  The food took quite a while to prepare, but when it arrived, I could not believe the intensity of the flavors and my resultant euphoria.  Truly, I thought, this was my endorphins kicking into overdrive.

Several years later, I would head with a group of work friends to North Peking Restaurant on Roswell Road in Atlanta every Monday at noon, where one of our crowd had discovered an incredibly spicy version of General Tsu's chicken.  What started as a small group of three eventually morphed into a crowd of at least ten who would head to North Peking every Monday for "Tsu's".  We did this for about three years running. When we became accustomed to the Tsu's, we started ordering "House Chicken", which was even hotter. That era accelerated my hot food craving and took it to another level.

Last year, the girls took me for my birthday dinner to a Thai restaurant in the Atlanta suburbs, where I ordered this chicken dish with the "Thai Hot" seasoning option.  This is something I ordinarily do, but this time, what came out was stupendously hot, yet flavorful.  The chef and owner, a fashionable lady named Tham, came out to our table and asked how we were enjoying our meal.  When I complimented her on the delicious dish I was having, she told me that she couldn't eat her own Thai Hot food because it was too spicy.  Then, her staff brought me a beautiful birthday dessert, and that just topped the whole thing off.  I can't wait to go back to that place, actually.

Back in the summer of 2002, we took the girls to Gulf Shores for a family vacation, and on our last evening there, my younger daughter Hannah and I decided to have a so-called "Hot Food Eating Contest".  We each ate about a half basket of hush puppies which we dipped in Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce. I thought the entire idea was admirable, and I totally enjoyed my dinner, that is, until we headed back to our condo, when I noticed that the underside of my left forearm was breaking out in a rash.  After a three-hour wait at the local hospital emergency room, I was sent home and told to take Benadryl.  Would I do the hush puppy/pepper thing again?  You betcha.

In 2007, a group of my Indian friends invited me to another Hot Food Eating Contest, this one at lunchtime, where I was to compete with my new friend Andrew to see who could eat the hottest food.  I did not know until we arrived at the restaurant that Andrew was from Malaysia.  When I heard that, I knew I might be out of my league, but nevertheless, Andrew and I managed to stay neck-and-neck throughout the meal, and we agreed afterward that the meal wasn't really all that hot.  One night a couple of years later, my friend Tarun, who hails from Hyderabad, told me over a plate of hot wings, "Rico, you eat hotter food than any white man I have ever known."  I took that as a supreme compliment.

It's not that I don't appreciate a delicately flavored dish; in fact, savoring those subtle nuances can be a delightful experience.  And I realize that hot food is not for everyone, yet I find it amusing when I hear people say how this or that hot dish will be so tough on their stomachs.  Human stomach acid is actually almost as strong as battery acid and can, in fact, eat through steel (see the pH chart above -- acids are at the top, with zero pH being the strongest).  Granted, the heat has to get past the taste buds, and truly, they're the gatekeepers when it comes to elective ingestion.  But the thing is, once you get used to eating hot food and the spike in endorphin release that it produces, you can find yourself hooked fairly easily.  After all, endorphins are natural opiates -- they produce a feeling of well-being.  And let's face facts: it's far more respectable to be addicted to spicy basil fried rice than to hang out in opium dens.

These days, Hannah and I still enjoy going out for hot food, and I guess that sometimes it's a contest of sorts, but actually, we just like the way it tastes, and besides, it's a great father-daughter bonding activity with a historical precedent.  I just make sure to check for rashes now and then, and I always know where we keep the Benadryl.  Bon appétit!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

My Life as a Secret Agent

I was a child of the Space Race.  Given that, I spent a significant part of my early youth wishing that I might someday become an astronaut.  But, like many of my peers, I soon realized that being launched into space was a rather remote possibility and decided early on that I needed a fallback occupation.  Thanks to TV and movies, a viable alternative soon materialized.

The dream of becoming a secret agent began to take shape sometime around 1965, shortly after the TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." premiered on NBC.  By this time, James Bond films had become wildly popular, and "U.N.C.L.E." became a great fill-in between Bond releases.  The show featured Robert Vaughn as the dashing Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as his sidekick Illya Kuryakin.  My fifth-grade compadres and I became obsessed with the show, and before long, we were scooping up all the themed toy spy kits available at Walgreen's or Grant's.  We didn't have big box stores then, or we would have cleaned them out as well.  Once we were all outfitted, as it were, with cap pistols, grenades, black attache cases, shiny silver membership cards, and special numbered identification badges, we were ready to roll.  In order to better synchronize our watches and our collective efforts, we formed a club.

The first order of business was to establish officers, and that we did without delay or contention.  Next, we recognized the need for encoded communications and therefore set about establishing a code book.  The master version of the code book consisted of a green binder which was strictly off limits to anyone not in the club.  It could, however, be clearly identified by the title on the front, "U.N.C.L.E. Club Code Book".  The Book was widely copied and distributed, although the original was closely guarded, and safekeeping was periodically rotated from agent to agent.  The Book was used to write notes which we would pass to one another surreptitiously during class, that is, until the existence of The Book was recognized by our teacher, Mrs. Swaim.  She confiscated it for a brief period early in the school year, during which time communications were severely impaired and the entire class was effectively left at the mercy of evildoers from the neighboring classes down the hall.  Many of them were suspected to be agents of THRUSH, the organization which was the enemy of U.N.C.L.E. on the TV series and, of course, bent on world domination.

My friend Kip, always a champion of innovation, made waves one day when he appeared in class with a special yellow ID card to replace the standard issue silver version.  It turned out that Kip had, unbeknownst to his fellow agents, written to NBC indicating his fondness for "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", and the network had in turn sent him some special tchotchke, including the heretofore unseen yellow card.  This in turn prompted the rest of us to contact NBC in kind, whereupon we all received yellow cards.  After a short transition period, the original silver cards were no longer in vogue, and indeed, we soon began to look askance at anyone who continued to carry the old card.

And at this point of the story, I must admit to bit of wrongdoing in the name of espionage.  For the last forty-seven years, I have kept this story relatively quiet, but now is the time to come clean.

One of my classmates, a rather easygoing fellow, had been a friend (insomuch as that is possible among pre-teen boys) for some time, but things had recently gone awry, and one day on the playground at recess, we got into a fight (yes, I know this is hard to believe, given my general good nature, but hey, I was eleven).  After we came back into the school, my opponent promptly reported the incident to Mrs. Swaim, who did not like me to begin with...she considered me a troublemaker of the highest order.  Anyway, the two of us were led into the "film room", ordinarily reserved for Disney short films on Friday afternoons but a detention center of sorts on other days.  Mrs. Swaim asked each of us in turn what had happened, and my adversary recounted the incident with cool, detached clarity.  When the teacher then asked me why I had provoked the fight (which was true, by the way), I replied that my classmate was "a THRUSH agent".  I actually said this.  When Mrs. Swaim looked confused, my opponent replied, "It's a TV show, Mrs. Swaim...he's talking about a TV show."  At this point, I truly felt like a spy left out in the cold.

The incident soon faded into memory, and in the manner of young boys, my adversary and I eventually became something resembling friends again.  But it seemed that the tide had turned, and that the vision of a life of espionage no longer held the same thrill for me.  Before long, The Book was confiscated for a longer period, and then, along came summer, and with it, the impending responsibilities of becoming a sixth grader, a rising junior high student.

And you know, now that I think about it, I'm not sure I would really have fit the mold of a secret agent anyway.  After all, living in places like Monaco, sporting a dashing wardrobe, and driving fast cars...maybe it wouldn't have been for me.  But then again, I wonder.  My passport needs some stamps.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Meet and Greet

I'm sure that since the beginning of time, people have attended meetings.  I'm almost certain that during the Paleolithic period, at the end of a successful day of hunting, all the Neanderthal peeps would gather around a fire (if it had been invented, that is) and meet about how best to divvy up the day's spoils.  And as with almost every meeting, I'm also sure that the participants left with new assignments.  Nothing has really changed in that regard.

What has changed is the technology employed to orchestrate and attend meetings.  We now schedule meetings using our email calendars or over the phone, but the result is the same: we all sit around and talk about what has happened, is happening, or needs to happen.  And just as in the olden days, we all come away with new assignments.  But there's one difference: in many of today's meetings, some people are not really "attending" the meeting.

Personally, being an employee of the information technology industry, I don't so much mind the people interaction aspect of meetings.  After all, when you've spent your entire day immersed in code and numbers, it's nice to see and talk to real people.  Without this, your left brain might completely conquer your right brain, turning it into a mass of number-crunching, logic-processing neurons.  But even so, there are times when meetings seem useless.  Consider, for a moment, those times when you spot your co-workers sitting around the meeting table with their laptops open, each engaged in some activity that has absolutely nothing to do with the meeting itself.  If this is the case, why have a meeting?

Some years ago, a friend told me that a rather pricey consultant, after working with his group for several weeks trying to find ways to improve processes and workflows, submitted an analysis of the company's strengths and shortcomings.  According to my friend, the consultant's report could be summarized in a single statement: every meeting should have an agenda.  An expensive price to pay, perhaps, but true.  Without some plan of action, a meeting is nothing more than a big greeting, and there's nothing wrong with greeting, except that our companies are paying us to do more than that.  Indeed, for some people, meetings have become something to be avoided.  In the words of writer Chris Bohjalian, "When Dante was designing his inner rings of hell, he wanted to make one of them nothing but meetings.  His publisher dissuaded him, explaining that no one would buy the book if they thought there were meetings."

I don't mind a good, productive meeting, and I'm a big fan of technology, but I have an idea.  Social media applications give us the opportunity to meet online to our hearts' content.  But during the work day, why don't we leave the laptops at our desks every now and then, fill our coffee cups or water bottles, then head into that next meeting with the purpose of listening to each other face-to-face?  Who knows?  We might actually enjoy ourselves and learn something in the process, that is, unless the meeting starts at 11:30...that's entirely too close to lunchtime.