Monthly Archives: January 2013

Breakfast at the Cheapside Wharf

It’s a brief and predictable walk to get there, down Charles Street, across Fayette, left on Water. On the way, you pass the ubiquitous beacons of modern culinary commerce, including the oh-so-tempting Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner, beckoning you seductively to come inside to get your daily refined sugar and ground floor sweepings coffee fix.  (America’s Favorite Coffee!)  You’ve been told “America Runs on Dunkin’” so many times that you almost feel unpatriotic not going inside but, after inconspicuously side-glancing to check for the hidden Homeland Security “subversive eating” street surveillance cams, you successfully circumnavigate the hypnotically bubbly orange and pink DUNKIN’ DONUTS marquee and doggedly push forth toward this morning’s breakfast destination.

For a moment, you think you might have gone the wrong way, since Water Street turns into an alley just east of Light Street.  Just when you’re about to turn back, though, you spot the hand-scrawled placard indicating that the unmarked door ahead and to your right is, in fact, the magical portal to the place for which you’ve been searching:  The Cheapside Wharf.

Upon entering, you are immediately and warmly greeted by a stout and smiling woman who motions to you, from the tiny kitchen in the back, to belly up to the breakfast counter on one of the 10-or-so available stools.  Shortly she emerges, pencil and order slip in hand, and reminds you not to forget about the Seafood Omelet Special which, since it is printed at the very top of the ragged coffee, grease, and egg yolk stained menu, appears to have been the daily special for a very, very long time.  It also happens to be the most expensive item in the Cheapside lineup at $6.  The undercard includes everything you want for anachronistically low prices – 2 eggs for $1.50, French toast for $2, grits for $1.  Need endless cups of organic, fair trade coffee with your meal?  That’ll set you back $1.25.

The order slip, once completed, is walked roughly 7.5 feet from counter to kitchen and handed to the affable chef – the only other employee on hand this morning.  He immediately goes to work with the masterful multitasking capacity exclusive to those who have done their time as line cooks and, within a few short minutes, has your Seafood Omelet Special sizzling along with your sides of potatoes, bacon, and crab cakes (yes, you ordered crab cakes, too).  Your grits are boiling merrily nearby.  With the deliciously commingling cooking aromas filling your nostrils and your hot cup of coffee cradled gently in your hands, you turn at the sound of the swinging front door to see the delivery guy step inside carrying a giant plastic pallet holding about 30 bags of celery to accompany the 9 different kinds of chicken wings they make at the Cheapside.  Clearly a regular, he calls the cook out of the kitchen to jaw about Saturday’s Ravens vs. Broncos playoff game while scrolling through photos of his 1-year-old on his phone with your charming hostess.  His delivery made and conversations had, he then makes his exit – but not before shouting one last “GO RAVENS!” on his way out the door.

Your breakfast makes the 7.5-foot journey from kitchen to counter and is placed lovingly in front of you.  Fighting through your initial bout of too-many-choices-induced indecision, you hit the Special first (good choice), then rotate through heaping forkfuls of the rest, spiraling your way inward toward the center of the plate, jutting your spoon out to scoop the grits in rhythmic fashion, like the John Bonham of breakfasts working the ride cymbal.  In the middle of your greasy-spoon reverie another delivery guy arrives – this one with a towering pile of Wonderish-looking bread loaves which he proceeds to count out with both the cook and the hostess.  Obligatory Ravens-related bantering ensues before he departs with the standard (you have now figured out) “GO RAVENS!” salutation.

Before returning to his kitchen duties, the cook stops to ask you where you’re from and, to your reply, shares that he’s been there, but only in the airport.  A spirited discussion follows about whether or not you can really say you’ve “been somewhere” if you never left the airport.  He claims his ride on the tram between terminals has to count for something.  You say you’ll give him some credit for that, but you still don’t really think it counts.  In an attempt to shore up his argument, he also shares that he has a friend who teaches at the university in your town and is pleased at your excitement about this fact.  The hostess chimes in to ask how your food is and, in response to your enthusiastic assessment that the crab cakes, in particular, were amazing proceeds to tell you about a different restaurant that you HAVE to go to because they make the BEST crab cakes (“as big as baseballs!)  Then, plate cleaned, tab squared, you slide off your stool, head back out into the street, just now starting to become aware that you may have just had one of the best meals of your life.  And, though you can’t quite force the words “GO RAVENS!” to come out of your other-team-loving mouth, you do toss a hearty “THANKS SO MUCH!” their way before you go.

Though all of this might seem mundane and unimportant on the surface of it, there’s a deeper version of you who knows it’s not – who can feel the difference between this and the hundreds of other Egg McWhatevertheheckthatmeatisMuffin and “try our NEW WAKE-UP WRAP” breakfasts you’ve had in all kinds of cities around the country including this one.  You realize that what you just experienced could only have occurred in this particular city at this particular time.  Free from the spatial disassociation caused by the calculated sameness of chain franchise America, you can actually feel, taste, and hear where you are on the Google map.  You can truly know where you are in the world.

You walk back up through the streets of the city – this city – now squinting your eyes to make the billboards blur and all the familiar landmarks disappear.  Peeking under dirty awnings and searching dark alleys for hidden doorways, you never know what you’ll find.  It may not be the same thing twice.  It may not be what you already know or even what you ever wanted to know.  But, it will be real.  And that’s the beauty of it.

Being Joe Webb

My wife and I were in Phoenix for a wedding this past weekend but, belonging to the unlucky and unenviable class of humans known as “Vikings fans”, managed to find an appropriately townie, every-person’s-bar called the “Draw 10” off 202 in Tempe to watch the big Vikings vs. Packers playoff game.  We should have known from the moment we walked in the door and saw some guy wearing a throwback #84 Randy Moss jersey that the football gods were feeling ambivalent about our chances.  Just like Randy, you never know which version of our team will come out to play – the one that will dazzle us with superhuman acts of athleticism or the one that doesn’t feel like blocking on this particular night and only runs half its routes.  Over ogre-sized plates of unholy local concoctions like mac ‘n cheese with pork and green chilies slathered over the top, we cautiously assessed our chances as “not good, but it could happen.”  (As long-time Vikings fans, any faint flicker of optimism is quickly snuffed out by painful memories of things like Favre throwing a last-minute pick when ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS RUN 3 YARDS AND FALL DOWN TO SET UP THE GAME-WINNING FIELD GOAL.  SERIOUSLY?)

Adding to our anxiousness (of course, because they are EVERYWHERE) were two rabid Packers fans just down the bar from us, grunting and bellowing their predictably extensive list of reasons they lost the last game to us – none of which ever seem to have anything to do with how crappy they played, mind you.  Though they had executed the perfect game, it would seem from their analysis, the refs were both blind and involved in some widespread conspiracy, possibly funded by the Minnesota soybean industry, not only to eradicate Wisconsin cheese products from the face of the earth, but also to cheat the Packers out of another well-deserved victory.  In what I thought was a magnanimous gesture of reconciliation and goodwill, I tilted my colossal dish of cheesy mac in their general direction to signal my sympathy for their cause, but no dice.  These two were out for blood.

Beyond any conspiracy-fueled Cheesehead animosity, though, we did have some real cause for concern in the form of one Joe Webb, our backup quarterback who, despite having thrown exactly ZERO passes in a regular season game this year, was green-lighted just 90 minutes before the game due to Christian Ponder’s “sore elbow.” (Don’t get me started on this, please.  Despite his strong propensity to throw the ball to the other team, Favre once jammed his own dislocated finger back into the socket and went back into the game without missing a single play.  But yes, by all means Christian, take care of the owie on your elbow.)  Despite our concerns, though, we were buoyed by the commentator chatter about how Joe’s presence would open up the magical world of the “read option”, thus rendering the Packers defense utterly stupefied and unable to decide whether to rush the quarterback or to hang back and wait to be unceremoniously flattened by Adrian Peterson.  And there was Joe on the screen, looking ripped and confident, keeping it nice and loose for the prime-time cameras.  Could it be possible?  The first drive looked promising as Joe and AP one-two-punched their way down the field to a Blair Walsh field goal.  Maybe, we thought.  Just maybe.

Sadly, those 3 points were the last ones we would see until the waning moments of the 4th quarter and, by then, it was far too late to make up the 3 touchdown deficit we’d chalked up.  The Packers would have their sweet revenge and the Vikings would bolster their reputation as one of the chokiest teams in the NFL.  And then there was Joe Webb, who played one of the most epically terrible games in recent memory – the kind of game that, if you have an empathetic bone in your body, changed rapidly from frustrating to just plain uncomfortable, like watching your kid forget his lines in the school play.  He really couldn’t have been much worse.  He overthrew his receivers by 15 yards.  He tossed the ball straight up in the air in an attempt to avoid being sacked.  He dropped back in the pocket when he should have stepped up.  He got picked off.  He fumbled and groped his way through 4 quarters of truly, embarrassingly awful football.

As I was yelling “YOU SUCK, WEBB” at the TV screen for the 89th time, however, I started to feel a just a little bit bad.  I mean, here was a guy who hadn’t taken a single snap all season, now expected to lead a, let’s face it, mediocre-at-best team through the Wild Card (at Lambeau, no less) and into the playoffs.  It’s hard to understand that kind of pressure.  I’m sitting here on the plane ride back home to Minnesota while I write this, imagining the flight attendant coming over the speaker and saying something like: “The pilot just developed a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome.  Has anyone here ever used a flight simulator or played a video game where you had to fly an airplane?  If so, can you please come up to the cockpit?  We’re going to need you to land this thing.”

Before you get all mad at me, let me be the first to admit that it seems like a professional athlete making millions of dollars should be capable of actually playing the game for which he is getting (over) paid.  But, just for a moment, imagine yourself as a kid, playing in your backyard and being your own announcer while you try to throw your football through the tire swing…it’s 4th and goal, there’s only three seconds left on the clock.  A touchdown will send them to the Superbowl; anything else will send them home.  He takes the snap and drops back.  He’s got three receivers on the corners.  Here comes the blitz!  He spins and gets away!  He scrambles.  He throws.  TOUCHDOWN!  THE VIKINGS ARE GOING TO THE SUPERBOWL.  I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!!!

You know Joe did that, too, probably thousands of times, dreaming of getting his one shot on the big stage – his chance to be a hero.  When he finally did, he failed.  And not just by a hair either.  He completely and very publicly collapsed under the pressure.  In the annals of sports history, he won’t be celebrated as the most unlikely of heroes, but as a loser – someone who simply couldn’t hack it under the bright lights.  Or even worse, he won’t be remembered at all – relegated to statistical anonymity somewhere in the archived files of the ESPN sports supercomputer.

In other words, it can’t be easy being Joe Webb right now.

Somewhere between hurling insults at the television and finishing my beer, it occurred to me just how scary it can be to find ourselves suddenly thrown in the spotlight, from the first time we’re called on to solve a math problem in front of the class to that oh-so-awkward rejection by your crush at the junior high dance in front of all your friends.  I think a lot of us learn, early in life, to avoid additional opportunities for public embarrassment.  But in our efforts to do so, we also leave a lot of our bigger dreams untried and unfulfilled.  We learn to play small to avoid losing big.

According to Nielsen, Joe Webb crashed and burned in front of approximately 26 million people on Saturday night.  I suspect, after a tough off-season, he’ll be back at it again, chasing another chance to prove to the world that he’s a real football player.  It takes serious guts, regardless of the salary involved, to step back up and try again.  Most of us wouldn’t do it unless we knew we’d succeed.  But that’s not how we find out how strong we really are.  That’s not how we grow.

So, while most people want to be like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rogers, count me out.

I’m going to try to be more like Joe.

The Anatomy of American Tragedy

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – Plato

As I write this post on January 2, 2013, it has been exactly 19 days since the name “Sandy Hook” brought our lives to a grinding halt and our nation to its knees.  In those excruciatingly slow hours of shock and sadness, and in the days immediately following, we huddled close together in our homes and in our places of worship, made awfully and powerfully aware of the precious nature of what any of us could lose at any moment.  Our Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with passionate admonitions to “hug your children tonight” and to “pray for those affected by this tragedy.”  For a brief and fleeting period of time, all of us became a bit kinder and more empathetic – more willing to wear each other’s suffering as if it were our own.  This wasn’t new for us, of course.  We’d done it many times before.  We have become, by necessity, a nation that knows how to collectively grieve.

We are also, however, a nation entranced by news cycles.  Like our own internal circadian rhythms, they tell us when to wake up and when to sleep, when to pay attention to which details, and when to move on to the next thing.  They tell us that our shock should last about a day, followed by grief for 2 to 3 more, at least through the funeral footage.  Sprinkled throughout should be a healthy amount of morbid gawkerism around the specific nature of the act – the number of bullets, locations of wounds, where the blood was smeared, who had to walk through it on their way out of the school.  Add to that some jaw-droppingly inappropriate and breathtakingly insensitive interviews with six-year-olds about what the gunshots sounded like and how scared they were.  Temper the tabloid voyeurism with tales of heroes and children’s lives and selfless acts of bravery.  Paint the gunman as an unspeakable monster while, at the same time, run the obligatory “how could this have happened” investigative background story.  Then spend a few more days pouring over the top of the entire occurrence the shrill, eye-bulging commentaries of the left and the right about the appropriate political response and there you have it: The life and death of an American tragedy in the span of a single week.

To be fair, we haven’t totally forgotten about Sandy Hook just yet.  Several stories ran today about the children returning to school and being welcomed back by the familiar face of their formerly retired principal.  It isn’t that these stories aren’t still being written, it’s just that most of us have already stopped paying attention.  For evidential purposes, here is a brief, and by no means exhaustive, list of “top stories” that were either as widely or more widely read than the Sandy Hook story today:

“John Boehner Told Harry Reid ‘Go F— Yourself’ Outside Oval Office” (CNN)

“Wendy’s Moves Past ’99 Cents’ With New Value Menu” (Yahoo)

“Scientologists Alleged “Alien Space Cathedral’ Found” (Yahoo)

“A Look At Justin Bieber’s Non-Music News-Making” (AP)

“Newly Pregnant Kim Kardashian Does New Year’s Eve In A Sheer Dress.” (HuffPo)

“Christie Calls Boehner’s Sandy Decision ‘Disgusting’” (ABC)

“US Has More Internet-Connected Gadgets Than People” (NBC)

“Jennifer Lawrence Says Acting Is ‘Stupid’ (NBC)

Lest you think I’m making an argument for us all to dwell insipidly on Sandy Hook or any other horrific American tragedy, I assure you I am not.  What I am trying to expose is the insidious nature of false equivalencies in our mass-consumed media machine.  It isn’t that Sandy Hook needs to be the only news for weeks and months on end; it’s that we are losing our ability to differentiate its level of importance from any other “news” that gets heaped on top of it – and most of that other news is hardly news at all.

In another week or so, there will be no more Sandy Hook stories since there will be no circus-like courtroom hearing to sentence a dead gunman.  Just like the “fiscal cliff” and Hillary’s blood clot and Bieber’s thoughts on paparazzi-related legal reform, it will fade from our collective consciousness to be replaced by a million other stories produced by the never-ending news cycle.  The next time we hear the words “Sandy Hook” will be on December 14, 2013 when CNN and FOX and MSNBC wedge 30-second remembrances between spots about pregnant celebrities and the latest partisan stalemate.  Unless, of course, there’s another mass shooting between now and then which will, inevitably, be either “the worst mass shooting since Sandy Hook” or “even worse than Sandy Hook” or something along those lines, depending on the tally after the news networks race each other to count the bodies and get the first “confirmed dead” number on air.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that we’re better than this.  We know it, too.  In the face of national tragedy we become who we could be – kinder, more compassionate, more forgiving.  But we forget so soon.  We replace solidarity and empathy with judgment and division.  Instead of holding up love, we revel in dysfunction.  We trade who we could be for who we’ve become.

It shouldn’t take another Sandy Hook to bring us together.  We’ve got it in us to be those people everyday.  So, let the news cycles try to spin without us.  It’s our feet on the pedals after all.