Ceci n’est pas un Cheeseburger

When our French goddaughter was visiting recently, we wanted to show her some iconic Atlanta landmarks. She had been to the Aquarium and World of Coke; seen Centennial Olympic Park, the Margaret Mitchell House, Fox Theater, and MLK museum; she’d even eaten at a Waffle House and liked it. So, I figured we had to take her to The Varsity. Granted, I hadn’t eaten there since I was a kid, and my wife (being from California by way of Florida) had never set foot in the place.

But hey, locals rave about it to this day, so how bad could it be? It’s been there forever and was one of the few pregame fast food joints available to fathers and sons going to see Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets or Atlanta Braves games. Celebrities, president’s and president’s-to-be have all eaten there. The building was a cutting edge design when commissioned, and it still looks retro cool to this day. The sign and logo have that retro cool vibe as well. There’s the catchy “what’ll ya’ have!?” and ordering lingo that includes the gem: “naked dog walkin’.” I’ve even heard it was the largest-by-square-foot fast food place in the world at one time.

We were starving when we pulled into the lot, but I felt obligated to play tour guide to the newbies and offer a brief history. I pointed out the cool architecture, the carhops, and the size of the place. Our goddaughter Ines was impressed. We entered to a throng of people waiting to order and “what’ll ya have!?” being shouted over the din. Ines got a little intimidated by it all, so Alex ordered cheeseburgers, and onion rings for us. “What’s a frosted orange?” Alex asked me as the guy punched in our order. “It’s like a shake,” I said as she turned to add to the order, “but just get two, I’ll have a sip of yours.” Alex was looking at other people’s food coming out as she replied, “I think you’re going to want one.” To which I stupidly said “nah.” After many years together, I should know better and just take her advice.

When we got our food it looked like something from a public school cafeteria circa 1985. They may call it The Varsity, but the food is more JV, or peewee really. The bun was a smashed white bread of the cheapest kind. The cheese was still cold, and the thin burger disc (I couldn’t even call it a patty) was grey/brown in color and had those little grease bubbles that only appear on this type of meat. The onion rings didn’t look or taste much better. Ines wasn’t much to complain, but I swear I heard her mumble “ceci n’est pas une pipe” before digging in anyway.

Alex, after a few bites, took a sip of her frosted orange. “You can have my food, I’ll just enjoy my shake,” she said with a smile. I shrugged it off and gave it the old college try. About halfway through my onion rings, I noticed Ines had given up on her meal and was enjoying her shake as she looked at Atlanta’s skyline through The Varsity windows. I got up to order a frosted orange for myself and decided my wife was just as right about the shake as she is about most everything, and Ines was right about the cheeseburger not being a pipe– or a cheeseburger for that matter.

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Sounds of the City

The freeway hums 24/7 like a swarm of bees, dogs bark in staccato, and leaf blowers whine like mobs of Italian mopeds. Add an occasional helicopter chasing a criminal or circling a freeway accident, and this is the LA soundscape. Sure, you can drown it out with the ocean waves at the beach or maybe high up in the hills, but that’s just temporary for most.

When we moved from LA to Atlanta, we thought it would be more quiet, and it is in some ways- it’s not as 24/7 like LA- but Atlanta can have all those LA sounds and more; even in the outer suburbs where we are. We’ve got volleys of gunshots (probably deer hunters, but who really knows), dirt bikes and ATV’s roaming the woods, and the constant beep-beep-beep of construction crew vehicles creating new subdivisions and doing roadwork on seemingly every road in every direction.

Paris has its strange police sirens; Chicago has the noisy L-trains; and New York its Taxi horns (or did that go away with the advent of Uber?). If I were to pick one sound that stands out in Atlanta and its suburbs, it’s that beep-beep-beep. Even at the airport at 8am when you’re trying to calm down after fighting through traffic, parking shuttles, and TSA attitudes, you can’t escape the beep-beep-beep of airport carts.

Atlanta and LA have a lot in common: both are sprawling, car-centric places, with their own music, sports and entertainment scenes; both can be loud in their own ways. Hopefully, there’s just enough quiet to be found in either place for someone to remain sane. That, or I’ll just go deaf from the beep-beep-beeps—then my noise sensitivity won’t be an issue at all.

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Death of the Disco Kroger

I pulled into the parking lot in Buckhead after a long day with Alex hunting bargains at every Cost Plus World Market in Atlanta. This one was our final stop, right in the corner of a strip mall that I suddenly remembered from my youth. “This World Market used to be the hottest nightclub in Atlanta,” I told my wife. “No way?” she said, not quite able to imagine it. “The Limelight. It started out as a disco. They had giant speakers people danced on top of, and various rooms full of debauchery, a velvet rope, and valet parking right here in front,” I said as I pulled into a parking spot in the first row. “A friend of mine told me he woke up in his car here one morning with the sun shining in his eyes, not really knowing where he was or how he got there.” “That’s pathetic,” said Alex, who was possibly learning more about me and my old friends than she wanted.

Getting out of the car, I pointed to the large Kroger next door, “and that is the Disco Kroger.” Atlantan’s are known to nickname their Kroger’s: there’s also the Cruising Kroger, Hipster Kroger, Granny Kroger, even Murder Kroger.

Back in the Limelight’s heyday, the Disco Kroger was named because it was open 24-7, so people exiting the club would pop in for snacks or smokes or condoms or whatever a sweaty, ears-still-ringing, heart-still-pumping-to-the-beat-of-the-music kid needed at 3 in the morning.

Another friend of mine’s mother used to shop there late at night. Her advice to her son: “Nothing good happens after midnight. Only drunks and lunatics are out.” I’m not sure if she was the former or latter, but she had a point.

Walking into the World Market/Limelight we heard what sounded like Turkish instrumental music. Alex said only half joking, “I was kinda’ hoping they’d be playing disco.” There was an older employee sullenly stocking shelves. “He could use a little disco,” I murmured a little loudly. The man perked up when he heard this and smiled, so I asked him: “do you remember what used to be here?” “Do I! I was a regular!” he said; “still am, I guess.”

After a few crazy stories from his Limelight days, he informed us that this was all going to be gone soon anyway to make room for new office buildings or some-such thing. “That’s a shame,” I said, taking it all in. “How about the Disco Kroger? Will it stay?” “Probably not, they have a new spot just up the road.” “And the disco ball?” (Apparently the old disco ball from the Limelight was now in the Disco Kroger.) “No idea,” he answered, “but I hope someone keeps it. Boy, if that ball could talk…” he said, shaking his head wistfully as he went back to work.

The homogenization of Atlanta continues, but hey, the memories are stayin’ alive…. I’ve got a great idea for the new owners: Make the old disco ball the center-piece of the whole new development and call the place Disco Plaza! And hire the World Market guy to be a doyenne. Now that would help keep Atlanta quirky.

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Roswell GA not NM

When we moved from LA to Roswell, Georgia, our friends made jokes about hillbillies and aliens. They had the wrong Roswell of course: the only aliens in our Roswell are folks from other countries, like the Frenchman who started a gourmet market with his American wife; and as for hillbillies, they are further in the hills than this Atlanta suburb.

Roswell may not be our be-all end-all, but it has been a nice place to live. The main drag, Canton Street, is about one mile of franchise-free space. It has a unique walkable atmosphere with old houses and brick buildings made into restaurants, bars, art galleries and such. (Alex has some of her fine art photography in Roswell Provisions, the French market. You can see some of her photos here.)

On Canton Street there are always people walking from place to place, or lounging at outdoor tables. There’s an open-carry law, and not the gun kind, that lets you take your drinks with you as you stroll around. The area has even become a draw for the younger, hipper, city crowd. I met a girl in her early twenties at a business meeting who lived in the always desirable Buckhead. When I told her I lived in Roswell, I thought she’d say “that’s nice,” but instead replied, “oh, that’s so cool. We take Ubers up there all the time!”

We’ve found some hidden gems in the area as well. There’s an old mill that harnessed the power of an offshoot of the Chattahoochee river more than 150 years ago. The mill area has a covered bridge, trails and historic markers that lead to a dam. The dam creates a man-made waterfall. In summer kids swim under and even underneath the falling water. So far, the mill area hasn’t been lawyerized with protective fences and redundant signage, or monetized with parking and entrance fees.

There are examples of antebellum architecture in the handful of columned old founder’s homes that somehow survived Sherman’s fiery path. Bulloch Hall sits on probably the highest point in Roswell with a wide wraparound porch and sprawling grounds. Roosevelt’s mother lived here as a young girl. It’s a good place to have a picnic under the shade of its giant oak trees, or sit on a rocking chair on the porch and imagine you’re Rhett and Scarlett.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all old south antebellum either. Alex wouldn’t have moved here if there wasn’t easy access to a Costco, Trader Joe’s, Michael’s, or Jo-Ann’s. Places I’m sure Rhett would say he didn’t give a damn about, and then find himself following Scarlett around looking for fabric she could fasten into her next gown…just as long as he was able to have a mint julep on the porch when they got home.

We’ve found that Roswell has something for all the Rhett’s and Scarlett’s, LA expats, and even aliens and hillbillies.

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The Shadow of the Bear

High up in the hills of North Carolina there lives a bear. This bear only comes out for about two weeks, twice a year, and Alex and I were fortunate enough to see it’s shadow.

It was a glorious fall day in Highlands, NC. We woke up to leaves of orange, red, yellow and green. The cold in the air from the evening prior was just starting to warm. Wisps of steam floated off the water of a small lake east of town. We drove up a dirt and gravel road to a place called Sunset Rock. It wasn’t sunset so we had the place to ourselves. We looked out over all of Highlands and beyond. No bears here, which was a good thing.

A rusty old bridge over the Chattooga river was our next destination. We followed Horse Cove Road out of Highlands to yet another dirt and gravel mountain road. About a mile in, there were signs that said “Road Not Maintained by County” and “Hazardous Roads Ahead.” We own an SUV with 4-wheel-drive, but we had, for some dumb reason, taken our comfy sedan on this trip (probably because of the comfy part). But Alex was far from comfortable at this point and uttered some concern: “Uh, you think this is safe?” she asked. “We’ll find out,” I answered, hoping I’d be wise enough to know when the terrain was impassible for a sedan. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, this road was only wide enough for one car, but a two-way road.

We spent the next four miles going around potholes, praying a car would not come the other direction, and gasping at the drop-offs that alternated on either side of us. Of course, Alex had to get a picture. So we stopped in the middle of the road, she got out, and I rolled down the window to listen for any sign of danger… like the sound of a banjo, or worse yet dueling banjos. After all, we were in Deliverance country (the movie with Burt Reynolds).

Finally, we descended onto an actual paved road, though still only wide enough for one car. The bridge appeared soon after, and we pulled into a tiny turnout. We hiked down one side of the bridge to get a better view and take some pictures. The water was clear and there were rocks underneath that had been worn into smooth shapes by the fast-running current. Giant boulders were scattered around like a giant himself had left his toys out. I thought I heard the faint twang of a banjo floating in the wind, but it was probably my imagination.

We made our way out and into the small town of Cashiers, NC. We found a place with a lake and mountain view and took a canoe ride on the water that reflected the fall trees. The brush near the shore at one point was so thick you couldn’t see through it. As I maneuvered the canoe near the brush, so Alex could take a photo of the beauty surrounding us, we heard some rustling in the woods. Alex almost dropped her camera in the water. Then voices… only hikers, no bears.

On the way back to Highlands, we looked at the time. It was 5:00pm. Legend had it, that the bear would appear between 5:30 and 6pm in late October for a few short weeks. We were a little earlier than late October, but we thought “what the hell.” We found the spot and waited. Around 5:35 a small black dot appeared in the distance. At 5:45 it was a big black blob. By 6pm a fully formed black bear appeared in the distance. We were witnessing the shadow of the bear! A truly unique phenomenon where sun meets mountain and casts a gigantic shadow across black bear country, in the perfect form of a black bear.

A perfect way to end a perfect day…. Well almost. As we headed back to Highlands, Alex said: “this day went so well, I think we should buy a lottery ticket.” She must have been reading the real estate brochures we had picked up in town, because we’d have to win the lottery to buy a nice house with a view here… and I’d have to trade my guitar for a banjo.

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Southern Fried

Living in LA we had some of the best and most diverse food anywhere, and we are foodies so we were in heaven. In fact, Alex is such a good cook and home-stylist, that at one time I wanted to pitch a TV show called “Move Over Martha” with Alex as a younger, hipper Martha Stewart.

Moving to Atlanta, I’m sure Alex had her reservations (no pun intended) but she was quick to realize that Atlanta takes its food as seriously as any major city. Just like LA, it has trendy spots with the latest crazes, like farm-to-table; different ethnic areas with signs and menus in other languages; giant world markets like Buford Highway and Decatur Farmer’s, where regular Joes and Janes, and Joses and Juanas, can shop alongside chefs in double-breasted jackets and Crocs who are picking up last minute items for their evening menus. And of course Atlanta has southern food.

In LA, there are a few places that claim to serve southern, but they tend to lean more toward the soul aspect, or the southwest rather than southeast. Tex-Mex is good, but it’s not southern.

In Atlanta, they have southern down: They’ve got shrimp and grits; variations on anything fried, like the green tomato, and of course chicken. In LA, the meat aisle of most local grocery chains is probably half chicken, half beef. In Atlanta it is chicken 60-40, maybe 70-30.

There is great fried chicken at most good restaurants in Atlanta, like Table and Main in Roswell, but the local Kroger grocers have some that competes with all of these. The first time we ate Kroger fried chicken we were in the middle of our move, so an unfair advantage I know—Pizza Hut can almost taste gourmet after you’ve moved a thousand boxes and haven’t eaten all day—but the second and third time at Kroger was unbiasedly just as good. We were so impressed, we started using a soft ‘g’ when saying the name of the place to make it sound more fancy. “Where are you eating tonight?” our friends from LA would ask. “Krozhay,” we would say in our best French accent.

Who knows, maybe “Move over LA” will be my next TV show pitch?

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Pyramids & Fountains of Youth

I got a phone call from a friend I hadn’t heard from in awhile. He was an actor who had some success in the past. He was the lead in a short-lived TV show based on a movie from the ‘80’s, among other things, but I hadn’t seen him do too much lately. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t heard from him in awhile.

“I was hoping to get together to discuss some business,” he told me. My first clue should have been the vague nature of the call. The last time I got a call like this from an old friend, I ended up at a coffee shop looking at a cardboard cutout in the shape of a pyramid. The guy had placed this on the table between us, I suppose so he could explain the pyramid scheme he was trying to sell me on as literally as possible.

My actor friend, however, was a little more subtle. He wanted to come by our house to talk. He said he even had a little gift for me and my wife. “Who can turn down a gift?” I said. Famous last words.

He arrived with two small bags of what looked like toiletries. “Now, before you say anything, let me just tell you that I have tried this stuff myself and it really works.” This coming from a guy that looked like a younger Rob Lowe– even though they were both about the same age– made us drop our guise of cynicism ever so slightly. We had a nice dinner with our friend, and didn’t talk “business” the whole time. Only at the end of the evening as he was leaving, did the business come up again. “Listen, you guys try this out for a little while and let me know. I’m sure you’ll love it, but give it some time: It takes a few treatments to see any differences.”

In front of the bathroom mirror that night, Alex said “well, we may as well try this,” and she walked me through the thing. We scrubbed with one lotion, cleansed with another, and put a final sleeping mask on. I’ve got to admit it was kind of fun doing something together at our dual sinks instead of the usual brush, rinse and spit.

We went to bed with dreams of youth in our heads, but about 3am we were both wide awake. “Does your face itch and burn?” I asked. “It feels like I’ve been paper mache’d and lit on fire,” she shot back. “I’m getting this crap off my face,” I said as I quickly got out of bed. Alex followed and we spent the next 10 minutes rinsing with good old soap and water.

About a week later, my actor friend called. “So…?” he asked coyly (he was not a bad salesperson, I gave him that). “Well, I’ve got to be honest with you: We only used it for one night. The mask really itched and burned.” “Oh, man, I should have warned you about that, but that’s why I said to give it a week. It’s just your skin doing what it needs to do. Some people are more sensitive than others.” I didn’t know what to say to that, so I tried to change the subject. My friend, however, was just about to make his big pitch.

“Have you heard the term network marketing?” he asked. The cardboard pyramid flashed before my eyes. I’d fallen for it again. Get your friends to sell to their friends, and you’ll make money on the money they make, and so on and so on.

The next time someone calls me that I haven’t heard from in ages to discuss “business,” or invites me to their BBQ under the guise of “I’ve got some stuff I want to talk to you about,” or gives me something to “try out and let me know what you think,” I am going to walk the other way… Unless, of course, it’s the cure for the common cold, or something that turns down the volume automatically on commercials, or a silencer for leaf-blowers, or a button for your car that can turn a red light to green when there are no cars coming the other way. Now those are things I could sell people to sell.

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Discover Challenge: Outer Layers

via Discover Challenge: Outer Layers

What people do with the things they buy from us is beyond our control, and we don’t usually get the chance to see that future, but why pass up the opportunity? At least that’s what I tried to explain to my wife as we slowly passed the gentlemen’s club. “I don’t think so,” Alex said in her usual honest and to the point manner.

It all started at one of our garage sales. We had sweated to set this thing up the day before the sale, and sweated even more the day of. Alex had the garage looking like a pop-up boutique: Art was in one area, kitchen goods in another, clothes hung on rolling racks, and price tags adorned each item.

Around noon Alex went in to make us some lunch. A white Mercedes, circa 1990’s, pulled up the driveway, even though everyone else was parked on the street. An older man in overalls, beard, and baseball cap got out of the passenger side, a slightly younger woman with even younger breasts got out of the back seat; the driver stayed put. The old man walked over to the clothes racks and started to browse. I was finishing up with another customer, but heard him say to the woman “these’d be perfect for my girls.” A few minutes later, the old guy asks me “how much for all these clothes?” “Uh, I’d have to ask my wife,” I said, slightly unsure what to make of the whole thing.

I went inside. “Alex, somebody wants to buy all your clothes for his girls.” “Huh?” she asked. “I don’t know, it’s for his girls he said… maybe granddaughters, but he wants the whole rack.” “There’s probably a thousand dollars’ worth of clothes there,” Alex said as she walked out to the garage shaking her head in disbelief.

Alex was right, these were basically brand new, once-worn, clothes she had acquired when she was a young model in Miami: designer stuff, and unique items like a see-through raincoat with hood and matching umbrella. Not exactly what grandpa would by for grandchild, but hey, who’s to judge.

While Alex calculated, I tried to get more info from the guy and his female companion. “So you must have a lot of girls?” I asked. “A revolving door,” said his perky-breasted companion. The old man laughed, “I own a strip club.” And pointing to his companion, “this one used to be my headliner.” She made me blush with her response: “Now I’m his head-giver.”

Alex had to have heard all of this as she quickly chimed in with a total price. The old man didn’t flinch, and pulled out of his overall pockets a wad of cash that still reeked of perfumed strippers from the night prior. He then snapped his fingers and his driver got out of the Mercedes. “Grab all these clothes for me Clive,” said the old man. Clive, the henchman, grabbed not only the clothes but the hangars, which I could tell Alex wasn’t too happy about.

The minute they’d left our driveway, we looked at each other in silent astonishment. I broke the silence: “Can you imagine, there’s gonna’ be a Cinnamon, or Cayenne or some kind of spice wearing your clothes at the local strip club tonight?” “Taking off my clothes you mean,” Alex answered.

A few months later we found ourselves driving past the new home of all of Alex’s old modeling attire. “Aren’t you curious?” I asked as I gently applied the brake. “No,” Alex said. And that was that. I released the brake and we rolled on. Maybe it’s better not to know what things people do with the things that were once ours.

The Things That Were Once Ours

What people do with the things they buy from us is beyond our control, and we don’t usually get the chance to see that future, but why pass up the opportunity? At least that’s what I tried to explain to my wife as we slowly passed the gentlemen’s club. “I don’t think so,” Alex said in her usual honest and to the point manner.

It all started at one of our garage sales. We had sweated to set this thing up the day before the sale, and sweated even more the day of. Alex had the garage looking like a pop-up boutique: Art was in one area, kitchen goods in another, clothes hung on rolling racks, and price tags adorned each item.

Around noon Alex went in to make us lunch. A white Mercedes, circa 1990’s, pulled up the driveway, even though everyone else was parked on the street. An older man in overalls, beard, and baseball cap got out of the passenger side, a slightly younger woman with even younger breasts got out of the back seat; the driver stayed put. The old man walked over to the clothes racks and started to browse. I was finishing up with another customer, but heard him say to the woman “these’d be perfect for my girls.” A few minutes later, the old guy asks me “how much for all these clothes?” “Uh, I’d have to ask my wife,” I said, slightly unsure what to make of the whole thing.

I went inside. “Alex, somebody wants to buy all your clothes for his girls.” “Huh?” she asked. “I don’t know, it’s for his girls he said… maybe granddaughters, but he wants the whole rack.” “There’s probably a thousand dollars’ worth of clothes there,” Alex said as she walked out to the garage shaking her head in disbelief.

Alex was right, these were basically brand new, once-worn, clothes she had acquired when she was a young model in Miami: designer stuff, and unique items like a see-through raincoat with hood and matching umbrella. Not exactly what grandpa would by for grandchild, but hey, who’s to judge.

While Alex calculated, I tried to get more info from the guy and his female companion. “So you must have a lot of girls?” I asked. “A revolving door,” said his perky-breasted companion. The old man laughed, “I own a strip club.” And pointing to his companion, “this one used to be my headliner.” She made me blush with her response: “Now I’m his head-giver.”

Alex had to have heard all of this as she quickly chimed in with a total price. The old man didn’t flinch, and pulled out of his overall pockets a wad of cash that still reeked of perfumed strippers from the night prior. He then snapped his fingers and his driver got out of the Mercedes. “Grab all these clothes for me Clive,” said the old man. Clive, the henchman, grabbed not only the clothes but the hangars, which I could tell Alex wasn’t too happy about.

The minute they’d left our driveway, we looked at each other in silent astonishment. I broke the silence: “Can you imagine, there’s gonna’ be a Cinnamon, or Cayenne or some kind of spice wearing your clothes at the local strip club tonight?” “Taking off my clothes you mean,” Alex answered.

A few months later we found ourselves driving past the new home of all of Alex’s old modeling attire. “Aren’t you curious?” I asked as I gently applied the brake. “No,” Alex said. And that was that. I released the brake and we rolled on. Maybe it’s better not to know what things people do with the things that were once ours.

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The Never-ending Search for Good Cheap Wine

Our local stores must think we’re alcoholics. It’s not that they see us every day, it’s just that when Alex finds a great deal, she takes it. So instead of the normal one or two bottles of wine, we will sometimes roll up with a cart full.

This is great when you’re in the mood to chat with strangers, but not so much when you’re wearing a ball cap to hide the bed-head you haven’t put a comb through since the day prior. You kind of feel like a celebrity as people eye your goods and say things like: “How do I get on that invite list?!” “Just tell me where and when?!” or “I’m partying with you, Cowboy!”

The cashiers are a little more subtle. They’ll say, “this wine must be good,” which I’ll reply “well the price sure was.” Not that we buy two-buck Chuck either. We only binge-buy when there’s a $10 to $25-dollar bottle that’s, say, half-price.

Back in California we took it for granted that there would always be a good wine at a good price; here in Georgia it requires a more tactical approach. When we first moved to town, it was bleak. They didn’t even sell alcohol on Sundays in Georgia for the first couple years we were here. And the choices were either the local grocery store or the local liquor store. We thought when the large national chains came to town like Total Wine and More we’d be set, but that place comes with its own set of hurdles. They’ve got their brands they want to push, and they push them hard.

We used to get J Lohr chardonnay there and every time they saw us pick up a bottle, they would say “have you tried Oak Grove?” We had, and it wasn’t comparable, but they wouldn’t leave it alone. The margins must have been much better on the Oak Grove, but the taste sure wasn’t.

Costco is hit or miss as well. Granted they have some good consistent deals on wines like La Crema, but that’s a special occasion wine for us. The really good deals you see at Costco are usually a name you’ve never heard of, or can’t remember, and sold-out within a week. You go back in there and it’s like that wine never existed; even the employees don’t remember the name of it.

Hence the binge-buying and cart cat-calling. Now I know how J Lo must feel. I’d better start combing my hair before we go shopping again.

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