Going Grinch

In LA, we lived one neighborhood over from a place seasonally dubbed “Candy Cane Lane.” Come December, it’s a Christmas wonderland. Cars line up for miles to drive through. I couldn’t imagine buying a house there say in July with no clue, then December 1’st you open your front door to find yourself in Whoville.

Any other time of year, it looked like any other Valley neighborhood with ranch homes, two-story Spanish redos, and garage conversions… which is what always got me: Without garages (or basements for that matter- LA doesn’t do basements) where did they store all the Christmas stuff? There were thirty-foot Santa’s, autonomatronic elf shops, working trains, and lots of smoke and mirrors. And the amazing thing was that these people did the work mostly themselves. Granted, many of them either worked in the entertainment industry, or knew people who did, so getting all the smoke and mirrors was not that difficult.

Now that we are out here in the Atlanta suburbs, it looks beautiful this time of year. There are classy white bulbs following impossible-to-reach roof peaks, giant snowflakes lit up in giant maple trees, and icicle-lights dripping down many a house. But this stuff is done by professional lighting companies, not homeowners.

Our first year here, Alex said she wanted lights out front, so I put a horizontal strand above our front porch. “Can’t you get them to follow the shape of the house?” she asked after not being too impressed with my first offering. “Well, yeah, if I had a thirty-foot ladder, a helmet, and some climbing gear,” I only half-joked while looking up at our high-peaked roof. So, I did what I thought was the next best thing and wrapped our front trees with lights as high as I could (fortunately they were still young and relatively short trees). A few hours later I proudly showed off my work. “Nice,” Alex said, but I got a whiff of patronization. “Hey, we can’t all afford a lighting crew,” I said.

We used to make fun of Candy Cane Lane. It was tacky, but I kind of miss that “do-it-yourself” spirit. In fact, after realizing I’d never be able to keep up with the Jones’ out here, I asked Alex if we could go the opposite direction and steal a page from the Candy Cane Lane playbook. There was a family there who was either really fed up, or possibly Jewish and didn’t celebrate the holiday, who simply put a Grinch in their front window and lit it up with a spotlight so it was the only thing you saw at that house, sitting amongst all the crazy colored lights and moving giant objects of a Candy Cane Lane Christmas.

We bought a Grinch and everything, but Alex said no, not going to happen. I’m keeping the Grinch just in case she changes her mind though. Better shop for a good spotlight too.

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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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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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Craig’s List for Dummies

I’m not saying Georgia is dumber than any other state, but if Craig’s List was a bellwether, I’d have to assume as much. In California (specifically LA) we sold couches, tables, TV’s… all kinds of things on Craig’s List, and 9 times out of 10 it was a quick and easy proposition.

My wife Alex does the posting, so I know the ads are thorough and well organized—put it this way, she has worn out more than one label-maker since I’ve known her—but out here people still ask the craziest things.

We had a table top for sale and the lady asks “how tall is the table?” “Well, it has no legs” I said “so…” But I was thinking, “didn’t you read the ad or even look at the pictures?”

People call and ask the price of something or how big it is, when Alex always puts the price and dimensions right there in the short ad next to the pictures. It’s like they expect us to know all the measurements off the top of our heads, or have a tape measure at our hip at all times. Or re-read them the ad.

Here in Georgia they will ask if we can bring them the item like we’re Amazon or something. “Let me just send out one of my drones,” I’m tempted to say next time.

And I can’t tell you how many people have made appointments and not shown up, or called an hour after their appointment and said they were running late, but can we wait for them. “Sure, another hour of our day is worth the $10 you may or may not pay for that ceramic pot you already talked us down on,” I almost said one time.

“What is it with these people?” Alex asked. “They are dumb, lazy and inconsiderate. Not a good combination.” “The Trifecta!” I answered. “You can make up for dumb with hard work, or lazy with smarts, or inconsiderate with either.” “No,” Alex said wisely, “there’s no making up for inconsiderate.” And she was right.

Just be considerate folks. And put on some pants!

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Amateur Fireworks

I’ve seen fireworks in Boston Harbor from the roof of a harborside condo, in numerous east coast towns in the same night from a Manhattan-bound train, looking down the Pacific Coast from a bluff in Pacific Palisades, even from a posh Paris apartment overlooking the Seine and the Eiffel Tower.

So when our neighbor in Atlanta started his own show a few years ago, I was skeptical. Alex, however, was excited. “Hurry up, let’s go watch!” she exclaimed. I followed her reluctantly, but as soon as I walked onto our front porch I changed my tune. This was a professional-grade show, and we didn’t even have to brave any crowds or fight to find parking.

That was a few years ago, before fireworks were legal in Georgia. The kind of show my neighbor put on then was an anomaly. Now, it’s a warzone out there. And not just for the night of the holiday, but for the nights surrounding it, and random nights throughout the year. It’s so loud for so long, the ghosts of the Civil War are getting PTSD.

I guess it could be worse. Back in LA, my friend from Inglewood used to come up to our house in Woodland Hills on the 4th, not to watch our fireworks, but to get away from the Inglewood-style fireworks, which consisted mostly of shooting bullets in the air.

Alex and I talked about where we could go to get away from all the noise this year, and we really didn’t have an answer—the desert?

When we were young, a sparkler was fun and two sparklers double-fun. We graduated to the occasional firecracker or bottle-rocket. Those bigger M-80’s were an urban myth in my neighborhood.

Now you can pick up major fireworks just about anywhere in town: Target, Kroger, Costco…. I don’t know what direction we’re headed as a society, but I do think there’s an untapped market for earplugs out there. That, or quiet travel destinations.

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Vampires in Suburbia

Morning fog lingers around trunks of giant trees wearing robes of Kudzu. Heat and moisture creep into the day on cicada-winged notes. We intermittently drive through tunnels of greenery that hide the clouded blue sky above.

Another Atlanta summer, and we were on a mission to find fabric. Yes, I said fabric. Before Alex, I don’t think I had ever stepped into a fabric store: now I know Jo-Anne and Michael by their first names.

But Alex doesn’t just settle for retail, she’s a wholesale hound in the best sense of the word. She can find the source of just about anything, and somehow finagle a deal. Granted the minimum quantities can be a problem: We have had large pallets of various things delivered to our doorstep. And in LA, we had no basement or garage to help store these things. Our Atlanta house has both…. A blessing and a curse.

The heat of the summer had turned Alex’s attention to curtains. Blackout curtains to be exact. These are the double-paneled, heavy curtains with fabric on one side, and an opaque rubberized material on the other. They keep the sun and heat out, and create a dark room at night.

I almost forgot to mention, my wife’s a vampire; or at least she has the habits of one. She cannot sleep in a room that lets in any outside light. Now I have become light-sensitive as well. I guess you adapt to those around you? That, or she bit me.

We found the fabric store in Marietta. It was a little white southern house in the shadow of a gigantic billboard that looked bigger than the store itself. We parked under the billboard for shade. “Welcome to Marietta,” I said to Alex.

Inside, the sound was muffled by rolls and rolls of fabric, arranged by color. We passed pink girly prints and red brothel-looking material, light blue baby themes and darker blue nauticals, and found our way to the beige section. I know beige sounds boring but, probably Restoration Hardware influenced, it is our base color—that and grays.

Alex grabbed a pair of scissors from the end of a roll and started cutting the stuff right there in the aisle. “Uh, honey,” I said looking around, “are you supposed to be cutting up the inventory?” “This is a sample swatch. Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing,” she said. And I guess she was right: We walked out of there with enough sample swatches for a quilt, and no one seemed to blink.

Making curtains is more work than I thought. I mean just the math involved to make sure you get enough material to cover the job is hard enough for me, but then there’s the cutting and pinning of the material, the pleating, the sewing of course, and the hardware. Fortunately, Alex did everything but the hardware. I can handle hardware.

The first night with our new curtains, we slept like…vampires. We had no clue how late it was when we woke up the next morning until I pushed back the curtains and was almost blinded by the bright summer sun.

The next night before bed, Alex noticed me putting something in my nightstand. “What’s that?” she asked. “Sunglasses!” I said. “Welcome to the brood,” she replied with a smile.

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Grandma Didn’t Need a GPS

“I don’t know if I could navigate Atlanta without a GPS,” Alex said one day, exasperated by all the street name changes, street name similarities, redundancies, and lack of grids. “It’s the old wagon and ferry trails,” I said. “Ferry trails? Well, the tooth fairy couldn’t find her way around these trails without a GPS,” Alex joked.

I had learned to drive here, so for me it was no big deal getting around when Alex and I arrived from LA. When I was young, before I was even of legal age to drive here, I snuck out the car. It was a stick-shift and we lived at the top of a steep hill (goes to show you how much thought went into my decisions back then) but I made it back up that hill okay, and I don’t even think my parents noticed the extra mileage.

By the time I was 17 or so, I knew all the back roads and shortcuts. I could get from Sandy Springs to Druid Hills without hitting a freeway or nary a light. I kind of prided myself on taking the road less traveled. I didn’t know all the street names, but I knew the landmarks. There was the little corner grocery store in the middle of one of Buckhead’s finer neighborhoods—now just another large home. The Lark and the Dove restaurant—turned into a Ruth’s Chris corporate diner… I mean restaurant. There was La Paz and Al Zaps—which might still be around—but most of the old individually owned places are no more. Now the landmarks all blend in with each other… there’s the Starbucks, and the other Starbucks. The nail salon, and the other nail salon, and the other nail salon, infinitum….

There must not be many itches left to scratch out here, what with all the nail salons. Alex once tried to describe a place we’d been to by saying it was right near the nail place, then realized that could be any strip mall in a 60-mile radius. They all have them. And now they’re going up-scale in bigger and fancier locations with water features and names like Paris Spa, and Renaissance Nails.

I think I can appreciate a nice set of nails more than most men, but come on—how many of these places do we need? And if you’re getting the fake ones, I must say it’s obvious at a glance and even more obvious when they touch your skin.

I will always remember my grandma putting me to sleep as a child by gently running her nails up and down my forearms. I was in heaven then, under sheets and blankets softer than anywhere else I’d ever slept. And her nails? As real as she was.

Grandma didn’t use a GPS (not that she had the choice). I do now, even in Atlanta most of the time, I hate to admit. Every so often though, I like to shut it off and just find my way around like I used to when I was young: Tearing around hillside curves and down Northside Dr. in the middle lane of the interchangeable three lane road, punching it over a crest to catch some air, knowing full well there may be someone accidently coming the wrong way….

Fortunately, for my and everyone else’s safety, that last part’s only a memory. I can just imagine if Alex was with me—fingernails dug into the dashboard in white-knuckled fear. But, hey, at least she’d be able to find a nail salon to fix her up after she pried her fingers free—wouldn’t even need a GPS!Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 4.23.36 PM

Georgia’s Bavaria

This southeast experience being new to Alex, I decided to show her around some. It took us 15 years in LA to make our way to most of the drivable spots. I wasn’t sure we’d be in Atlanta that long, so we got started right away.

One of our first outings was to a town called Helen in the North Georgia mountains. “It’s a Bavarian themed town kind of like Solvang,” I told Alex. “Are we staying at the Windmill?” she joked, with a reference to the film Sideways.

Our neighbor friends had invited us to see Anna Ruby Falls just outside of Helen, then have lunch at a place on the river that cuts through town.

From the north Atlanta suburbs you take a two lane road further north, past horse farms, churches, little country antique shops, and more churches. We stopped at one of the country shops and got a bag of boiled peanuts from the fill-your-own-bag honor system out front. Walking in, our friend Bob put a whole shelled peanut in his mouth. “You hungry Bob?” I asked. “The whole thing’s edible,” he said, “plus it’s not bad for the digestion if you know what I mean.” I knew what he meant, and he was right, the shell was almost as soft as the inside peanut, but I didn’t like the idea of putting that outside shell in my mouth. I mean, that’s what keeps the dirt and shit off, right?

Inside the store there were antiques mixed with fine hand-made furniture; little southern knick-knacks next to bejeweled purse hangars; painted boards with sayings like “Kiss My Grits” sharing wall space with original fine-art; gourmet coffees and spices alongside Moon Pies and Goo-Goo Clusters; and trucker hats next to high-dollar haberdashery.

The path to Anna Ruby Falls wandered through towering pines and oaks. Sunlight danced around windblown leaves. The water from the falls blew a cool mist across the scene. We had a brief moment of complete peace… until a wave of humanity descended upon us: screaming kids, barking dogs, the whole nine. Even cigarette smoke from someone who obviously didn’t appreciate the smell of nature, or the people around them who did, and probably thought Smoky the Bear was a pot reference.

Back in town, we took in the whimsy of turrets and cross-beamed architecture; men in lederhosen and women in full St. Pauli Girl attire. We sampled different varieties of pretzel-based foods. We found the restaurant with a deck overlooking the river and settled in for Reuben sandwiches and beer. People floated past us below in inner-tubes as we ate.

“This town is completely packed for Octoberfest,” Jen said. “Not just October, but September leading up to the festival as well,” Bob offered. “You been?” I asked. “No, that’s amateur-hour, we’d rather be here when it’s quieter,” Bob said, just as a pack of Harley riders roared by with open throttles.

Back home, I asked Alex what she thought: “The falls were great, the town a little too Disney.” “Kinda’ like Solvang, right?” “A country Solvang,” she said– a gentler way of saying ‘redneck.’ I don’t think the rebel flag hanging above the Helen Square sign helped with her assessment.

And she was right—Solvang was in the Santa Ynez Valley after all: not far from the American Riviera of Santa Barbara and Montecito; home to mega-celebs like Oprah, Michael Douglas, and Steve Martin; and with top-notch wineries and restaurants.

But hey, Helen is not far from Atlanta. Home to mega-celebs like Tyler Perry, Usher, and… Jeff Foxworthy. And there are even wineries. Oh, and moonshine. Yes, there are moonshineries now (like wineries but with higher octane).

Maybe our next trip will be a wine tour of North Georgia…. We’ll bring a bottle of California cab just in case.

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Getting Past the Get-Up: Beggars, Thieves, Attention Seekers & Average Joes

“Neighborhood Alert! There’s a meth-addled child molester at the Target parking lot!” read the group email put out to our entire subdivision. We had to chuckle a little at the jump-to-judgment, since we had just been to that very Target and saw this so-called “meth molester.” He looked to be your run-of-the-mill beggar.

I guess in Atlanta’s northern burbs they don’t see too much of this, but back in LA it was a constant: There was the guy on Robertson with a giant boom-box who flailed around dancing like no-one was watching; the flute player at the Ralphs grocery parking lot off Topanga; the turban-wearing guy playing electric guitar on rollerblades at the Venice boardwalk (who was rumored to be an MIT grad with a well-paying job who just liked the attention); and the guy with the sign that read “No lie, need money to get high!”

Some of these folks were just putting it on, some were possibly dangerous and some were probably bat-shit crazy. How did they know the guy at the Atlanta Target was on meth anyway, and not just too many mocha frappuccinos? I mean this was a Target with a Starbucks inside. Or maybe he just got out of the dentist office next door (I’d been there myself once and could have used a little more laughing gas for that experience). Heck, maybe he just had a bad combination of perfectly legal prescriptions that day (a friend of ours once admitted to being on Ambien and wine, driving to the store in the middle of the night, buying food, and not  remembering a thing until she saw the grocery bags on the counter the next day).

The child molester statement was a lot more loaded. We found out later that the guy had approached the man’s daughter and said “hey little girl, do you have any change?” A little creepy, yes, but not quite 911-worthy.

I will admit it’s kind of nice not to be approached by dirty strangers so much, but there is a certain bohemian quality to the shopping experiences in LA that I sometimes miss.

The Target near us in LA had a guy that may or may not have been on the Target payroll, who always dressed like a cross between a Village People person and one of Janet Jackson’s rhythm nation—not sure if he had the same outfit for every day of the week, but this get-up never varied. The parking lot was his domain. He took empty abandoned carts to their proper place, and helped out customers from time to time. Alex and I pretty much ignored him, and giggled at his get-up.

One night I had just returned from a work trip and Alex led me outside for a poolside dinner. Our old table was newly surrounded by a large gazebo. There were pretty twinkle lights framing the whole scene. “How did you even get this into your car?” I said, astonished. “You know the Village People guy at Target?” she asked rhetorically. “He helped me load it. Turns out to be a real nice guy if you can get past the get-up.”

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Billy Bob’s Pine Nuts

2013 was a bad one if you were looking for pine nuts, or a job. I happened to be looking for both. This was still post recession-era America and we probably shouldn’t have even been adding the precious pine nut to our shopping list, but there are some things you just have to have.

My mom turned me on to pine nuts at an early age. Now, I wasn’t a picky eater or gourmand of any sort back then; you could put Mac N Cheese in front of me and dump a can of tuna fish on top and I’d be great. But one day we were at a salad bar, and my mom says “take the pine nuts honey, they’re expensive” and this I understood. Plus, they tasted good.

During the 2013 shortage, even our usual source, Costco, was out. They would usually have these tasty morsels in large containers (as Costco does) at a fraction of the cost of a small bag at our regular grocer.

We were hooked on these little nuts, not just for pesto, but roasted and tossed on top of French cut green beans, roasted and put on a fettuccini dish just before grating fresh parmesan on top, roasted and put on anything really.

We got so desperate, we asked Walmart if they had them. We were in the produce section and I saw a guy with a blue vest nearby. “Excuse me,” I said, “do you guys have any pine nuts?” As he turned around, I noticed his nametag read “Billy Bob.” “What nut?” Billy Bob responded. “Pine,” I said, “they usually come in a tiny little 2-ounce bag for about $10 a bag.” Billy Bob scratched his head and looked around. He saw another blue vest walking by and he stopped her. “Wanda, you know if we got pine nuts?” Wanda tried to be helpful by going through a list of nuts out loud. “We got peanuts, beer nuts, cashew nuts, pecan….” I knew we were getting nowhere slow, so I cut her off: “That’s okay, we’ll try somewhere else.”

But Billy Bob wasn’t giving up. He got on his walkie and put out an APB: “Any y’all know if we got pine nuts?” The responses were all over the place: “Pine Sol is on aisle 23; pine cones are seasonal; pine scent candles aisle 15.” And then a voice came over the store intercom, “we do not carry pine nuts.”

“Well, I guess, that’s that, thanks anyway” I said as we turned to leave. Billy Bob, however, wasn’t done. “For $5 an ounce, I can probably climb a few pine trees and get y’all some fresh ones,” he offered. I laughed and kept walking, but later realized he was probably not joking.

I imagined Billy Bob turning in his blue vest for the life of a farm-to-table pine nut grower and carving out a sign from one of his own pine trees: “Billy Bob’s Pine Nuts.” Of course he’d also sell boiled peanuts out of a trash barrel, and ice cold beer, like any good old boy would.

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