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Pizza: A Love Story.

08.07.2012

The first pizza I can fully recall having the pleasure of ingesting was the shitty cafeteria slices we had in elementary school. That kind, and I’m sure you had if you attended poor public schools in the early nineties, which seemed more like a slice of white bread that was dropped into a puddle of liquid tomato product, slapped with a slice of government cheese and heated under a light bulb from an Easy Bake Oven two weeks prior to pizza day. It was a soggy, plastic mess of a meal which would make Italians cringe and caring mothers stick with sack lunches.

It was gross, to be sure.

But I loved it.

I looked forward to pizza day. I longed for it. It was the one thing keeping me awake through all the subjects that I never cared about, even as an year old kid. Thursday was the day they decided to christen as Pizza Day in my school. It felt like an eternity away on Monday. Tuesday I was in the abyss, thinking that maybe this week they forgot to order the pizza ingredients and that I would be forced to suffer another week of this shit. By Wednesday things began to look up because I could see the light. I woke on Thursday morning with zeal, knowing that this sorry excuse for a child’s nourishment was waiting for me at 11:30 sharp. I paid attention in the morning classes, thinking if maybe I did well in Science class they would let me go to the front of the line and I could get that really fresh piece. I was in heaven for twenty five minutes.

From there, my pizza memories go to a number of places. As a picky kid with an unexplainable food phobia, it wasn’t a picnic for my mother to get me to eat anything besides cheese sandwiches and cheese pizza. Even the cheese was often a sticking point for me, as I actually peeled it off my pizza until I was about eleven. It didn’t stop there.  I’ve never eaten red meat. I don’t think I would have eaten lasagna even if she bribed me with Power Rangers toys. Shit tasted weird to me, what can I say. (All of this lead to me being a health eater as an adult, so quit cryin’ ma).

I can’t be positive, but I’m pretty sure I’m only smiling because we just had pizza.

Eventually…

I lost my aversion to the melted cheese and shit was on! I was able to fully enjoy the subtle perfection of a plain cheese pizza. Gone were the days of scrapping it off and giving it to my brother to slurp down. There was no other food in the world. It was in these moments of culinary joy where I found the same bliss that Kevin McAllister found in Home Alone.

I’d volunteer to help my mom with the grocery shopping in hopes that she might take us out to the lunch of my choice, which was always Pizza Hut. Aficionados today be damned, that shit was delicious when I was a kid and I’ll still have it now I’m grown (admittedly I regret it afterwards.  And going to Pizza Hut as an adult just doesn’t have the same flair it did when I was a kid. Now I just feel like white trash. If the shoe fits…). I filled up those goddamn Book It! cards so fast they couldn’t keep up with me on the personal pans. I credit Pizza Hut with being the sole reason I became such an avid reader and then a writer.

Pizza subs, Pizza Hot Pockets, Pizza-flavored Pringles, Bagel Bites. I did not discriminate. But one day something happened. I knew that becoming a vegetarian and a healthy eater in general would one day over take the desire to eat at the Pizza Huts and the Domino’s of the world, I just didn’t want it to happen. I wanted to be healthy and eat greasy-ass pizza everyday. I wanted to have my pizza and eat it too. But, as all things do, that want ended and I stopped eating pizza with dairy cheese.

These days, its all fake cheese or cheeseless pizzas. And you know what? It’s still the best goddamn day of the week. Being an adult sucks in a major way compared to the days of greasy-pizza-fingers-on-the-Genesis-Controller, but I still feel like a million bucks when I eat pizza, just now it has toppings like vegetables and vegan cheese. I know that in one way or another, pizza and I will last forever.

I love you pizza.

Vegan Pizza Hut-style. Still crazy after all these years.

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How to Be Poor #3: Stay Warm in the Winter

01.23.2012

Turn on the stovetop for a quick pick me up.

Winter is the hardest season for poor folk for a number of reasons, the toughest being staying warm in the chattering cold.  That wind hitting your face, the chapped lips, the frozen toes.  Once the holidays are over, there’s really nothing to call a positive about the New Year winter.  There’s no baseball being played, no girls in their summer clothes, nothin’.  It can be easy to overcome the down sides if you have a nice warm furnace cranked up, a cuddle dog and a good book.  Thing is, and the reason I write these things, I don’t have a nice warm furnace, my landlord doesn’t allow dogs and I can’t find anything I want to read right now.

Just turn on the heat, right?  I would very much love to, but my furnace may as well be run by a small orphan from Oliver Twist tossing coal in an old soot covered basement.  I think the maintenance fees and room and board for an orphan would be cheaper than what Laclede Gas charges me.  You can get lucky by having your parents give you one of their space heaters, but the thing sparks when you plug it into the wall and throws a breaker.  Then you have to go find the fuse box in your swampy dungeon basement with the furnace from Home Alone scaring the shit out of you.

Hello Kevin!

Someone once mentioned that I should just turn my oven on for a while.  Really?  I think I’d rather be cold than let my place fill up with gas and kill us in our sleep.  That window plastic shit might work for you, but if I’m using my apartment as a template for these articles, then you probably have walls that seem to be insulated with Triscuit crackers so throwing some saran wrap on the windows probably isn’t going to do much good.  You can start a fire in the alley like a vagrant, and while starting fires is cool, most neighborhoods frown upon the act of doing so.  You can go hang out at St. Louis Bread Co with the rest of the crazy hobos that hang out there.  This is probably the best choice, but once the employees start recognizing you as one of the homeless guys, it’s a little disheartening.

So it looks like there really isn’t much we can do to escape the cold, huh?  Well, I guess your right.  There is one thing I’ve found in my studies that does work at least a little.  That is the infamous “Bum Coat”.  Drinking a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 keeps the homeless guys a few blocks away warm, why can’t it work for you?  Don’t act like your too good for the bum coat.  It’s really the only way to get through the harsh winter months.  So bundle up in your snuggie and wool socks and crack open a few beers!  You’ll get a little warmer or you just won’t be able to feel that you’re cold, because you’re drunk instead.  Don’t fret, spring will come and with it will be warm rooms and baseball seasons to watch.  Just don’t get frostbite first, because that is not baller.

Nothin' wrong with a Snuggie!

How to Be Poor #2: A Night on the Town

01.18.2012

Even the poor deserve a night out on the town. Spending the entire week going to your crappy job, coming home to your crappy apartment and not having much more to do than drink a couple beers and have a crappy sleep can really pile onto the depression that’s already rarin’ to crash down on you like a flying elbow drop from Randy Savage. Saturday rolls around and you and your squeeze want to maybe live it up a little, but some bad investments, lack of any real career oriented skills and/or a drinking problem has you still pinching pennies together. Well, my friends, you might not be able to attend that ball you’ve wanted to go to, but there are plenty of ways for a couple poor schmo’s to have a lovely evening in your fair city! The fair city in which I so meekly live in is St. Louis, so my guide will include some specific landmarks here and there, but I’m sure you can use your imagination and transplant something specific to your hometown.

The Importance of Paltry Nutrition

First thing you want to do is have a little lunch. I recommend something light because my guide will mostly consist of drinking alcohol because, as a rule, I like to party. If you’re looking for a day of fun sobriety go the fuckin’ art museum or something. Anyway, you don’t want to be too bogged down by a heavy lunch because you want to be light on your feet and have plenty of room for booze. You do want to keep in mind that drinking without food will inevitably lead to barfing, and no one wants to barf, so the trick is finding something that works for you that will put you somewhere in the middle. Now that you’re energized, wearing your best shirt, your old lady finally out of the bathroom and you’re ready to rock like a hurricane. Where to first? I highly recommend you start your afternoon with a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour, one of the highlights of free shit in the Gateway City.

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking, “Kind sir, brewery tours are boring as all get out and are only for old fogies. Why the brewery tour?”

I’ll tell you. While brewery tours are in fact one of the most boring things in the world, most of them give out complimentary beers at the end, which is something worth waiting for. This tour in particular even gives you the option of cutting out of the tour early to get your hands on those free barley pops!  They know what’s up.  So you can take the entire tour and be bored to death if that’s your thing, or if you’re like me and you’re only in it for the free swill, then you just head back to the tap room after they show you the Clydesdales. Two free beers for ten minutes of horse facts?  I’ll take that deal any day. Plus, you can sit in the comfy room they have set up and make fun of peoples’ haircuts or something. Always fun.

Mallards & Cheap Vodka

Now that you’ve scored you’re free starter beers, you have two good options. One, if you live in St. Louis, you go the zoo.  The St. Louis Zoo has free admission, cheapish beer and very high quality care given to the animals.  Do some research on your zoo; many have awful conditions for their animals, if you care about that. If the zoo option fits your bill, get your ass in there and look at the penguins! If you do not have a zoo, head to the nearest park in town, preferably the one with the best duck action. Tower Grove Park probably as the best in town. You grab some bread and feed the ducks and look like goddamn Rudolph Valentino to your gal. I mention the animal related events because girls love animals, and nothing makes for a good evening that having your old lady happy and not pissed off because you don’t have enough money to see the Ryan Gosling picture.

This particular duck is called James.

After the ducks and the girls are happy, you make your way to your favorite restaurant for a romantic dinner. Unless your favorite restaurant is Pizza Hut or something, then you need more help than I can provide. I recommend a dimly lit, laid back kind of joint. For two reasons, the romanticism of course, and the fact you’ll be bringing your own booze into the place. I didn’t mention that? OK, my bad, don’t forget to pack your flask. I go with vodka, as it blends well with most everything and it’s more inconspicuous that other spirits. Once again we may be getting into a question of morals. If you feel guilty then you can generously tip your waitress, as you should anyway, you dick. I recommend ordering a couple lemonades and then you wait for the opportune moment to spike ‘em with your sneaky booze, as we call it. Now it’s a party!

Onto the main course. The continue staying on the cheap side of things, you must consolidate your orders. This shouldn’t be any problem, because if you’re as poor as me, then your shame left the building a long time ago. Also, keep in mind that most restaurants’ orders these days are insanely over-portioned.  You always think you can handle the bigger size but you never can. Very wasteful thinking. We generally order a combo of French fries and a big salad to share.  When people see you sharing your food they think your just a sweet couple, their first though isn’t that your broke as shit. Plus, if you’ve been following my guide, you’ll be pretty drunk by now and you won’t really feel the hunger or shame anyway.

Wrap it up

The evening has progressed swimmingly. If you’ve followed my steps, you’ve spent no more than 25 clams, and if you’re lucky enough to be in walking distance to all of the night’s events, then you’re probably feeling pretty good. If you’re driving, obviously you should take it easy on the sneaky booze. To cap the night off you’ll want to find something fun to end on a high note. Our pastime of choice at this time of the night is going home and using our neighbor’s unsecured WIFI connection to stare at Lop-Eared Bunnies on Tumblr or Dave Chappelle clips on Youtube for a couple of hours while we drink boxed wine. If you’re not as lucky to have a neighbor who can’t figure out how to secure his internet, you get creative. I mean give me a break; I can only lead you so far before you need to start thinking for yourself.

How to Be Poor #1: Fine Dining

01.10.2012

Choices, Choices

Welcome to the first entry in a line of articles I’m calling, “How to Be Poor”!  I will be showing you how to be in your twenties, poorer than poor, and still have a pretty awesome time. A true guide to making lemonade. I feel I’m something of an authority in the subject, because for the most part, my lineage is full of poor bastards, but we know how to have fun with it.

First I will walk you through one way to get through the main problem you run into with a very thin wallet: food. After you pay rent on your crappy apartment and your insane gas bill there isn’t much wiggle room for other necessities, huh? You must be creative, as my dude Al Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Right? So forget the fact that you know you don’t have the means to eat what you really want to eat and use your imagination to make a similar treat for yourself. I think that makes sense.

Tonight’s Cuisine:  Pesto Pasta w/ Garlic Bread

Say you’re paycheck doesn’t come in until Friday night and it’s Thursday afternoon. You went ahead and spent the small remainder from your previous check on beer because someone on craigslist said they’d buy the television you posted for sale and you got excited. That person never showed up with the money that was supposed to buy the groceries on Wednesday. Now your girlfriend is pissed and you both are hungry. In a strikingly similar situation my girlfriend and I found ourselves in a couple of weeks ago, we were able to do some pretty serious MacGyver-ing with our paltry supplies.

We have four pieces of bread, a box of macaroni but no milk or butter and some various spices lying about the cupboard. In the right hands these are the makings of a fine cuisine. As it turns out, our poor, crafty hands are just the right hands. The old lady is a fine cook as well, she knows how to make macaroni tastes pretty damn good. But, our problem is the lack of milk or butter to make the cheese powder form into cheese liquid, right? Wrong. The next step in this process is where some people may find a hard time working themselves up to, as it may be construed as “wrong”, or maybe “illegal”. If you’re a religious person, or if you believe in Karma like I don’t, you may not be cut out for this.

What you need to do is go to the grocery store and find their bulk section. I recommend the larger chain operations and not your locally owned grocer, to lower your guilt meter. Grab a few pine nuts out of the bin, not even a half cup, then head to wherever they keep their basil. Put the leaf or paste or whatever form you find the basil in into the same hand as the few pine nuts. Then insert your hand into your pocket, dispensing them into the pocket and then walk out the door. It truly is as simple as that. Call me a bad guy for stealing, but it’s not like I’m stealing TV sets or iPods or candy from children, OK?  If you do feel like you need to even out your Karma, maybe try doing something nice for someone. I feel that recycling my plastics fully makes up for and then some for a few pine nuts.

Preparation

Depending on if you have the benefit of a wonderful cooking girlfriend, this is where you may retire to the living room to listen to Willie Nelson and wish you had more beer. But I paid attention to the preparation for the sake of my single duders out there. Step one, make the macaroni noodles. Don’t cook too long or they will be mushy and that sucks. Step two, remember to keep the pack of cheese powder from the box of mac n’ cheese, because the next time you do have the proper accessories to make the cheese sauce, you can double your cheese and have a turbo Mac n’ Cheese dish!

Step three, inherit a crappy old blender from a grandmother or aunt or from out by the dumpster. If these aren’t possibilities, you can use plain ol’ elbow grease and mash up the pine nuts and basil with a big wooden spoon or something. Ideally you would also have some olive oil to set it off completely, but you probably do not, so a little water is fine to loosen the shit up. Blend these ingredients to a paste, maybe throwing in a little black pepper or some garlic if that’s your thing. Mix sauce into noodles.Step four, make that garlic bread. Now, once again we are lacking butter, the central ingredient. That’s OK,  just toss some garlic or whatever spices you have on top of the bread and cook it in the oven. It’ll will taste fine without butter. Or if you’re lazy, toast your bread in the toaster and spread some of the leftover pesto sauce onto it.  Or if you’re extremely lazy, just eat the damn bread out the bag.

Step five, dig in! You’ll find that it taste more or less the same as it would with your preferred pasta noodles and ingredients. At least marginally similar. The important thing is, your belly’s full for the night. And you didn’t have to sell your TV yet, so now you can cap the dinner by retiring to the divan and watch your VHS copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Elvis Costello & the Imposters – Chicago Theatre – 5/15/2011

05.17.2011

I must preface this by saying that I have been an unabashed Costellophile for a good portion of my life, so Mr. MacManus could have walked onto the stage and coughed up blood for 15 minutes and I’d still say it didn’t sound too bad.  But, friends and neighbors, he did not do anything of the sort.  Instead, the limey bastard happily entertained the Midwesterners for two and half hours.

Elvis and his cohorts took the stage at a respectable 8:15.  Tearing immediately into a five song cocktail of table-setting Punk infused spirits.  A little Blood & Chocolate (“Hope You’re Happy Now” and “Uncomplicated”) and a little Stiff era buzz (“Mystery Dance” and “Radio, Radio”) makes for a perfect way to put a crowd in the right mood.  There’s no denying that Elvis has still got it, 30-plus years after being at the forefront of the Stiff Records Punk/Pub Rock wave.  The Punk attitude can last a long time, but the ability to perform it usually wears off.  Not this man and not his band.  Pete Thomas’ understated drums are the unsung hero of the Attractions/Imposters.  Steve Nieve’s keys were rightly cranked in the mix and Davey Faragher’s harmonies give the Imposters a far broader sound than their predecesors.

Between songs, Elvis’ banter was quick and really funny.  Retelling a story of his first flight to Chicago, where the plane went through turbulence and he had a fear of being known as “the Buddy Holly look alike who also died in a plane crash”.  My personal favorite quote of the night leading up to a classic song: “I wrote this while I was trying to rid the world of alchohol by drinking all of it”.  When the audience came up to participate, Elvis was charming and charismatic, sometimes cheating the wheel’s spin to land on a song he wanted to play: “It has a mind of its own!”.

The wheel songs had a great variety, with special Jackpot songs sets, such as “Girl” and “Time”.  We recieved both of these, with songs partaining to the words.  “Girl” gave us “This Years Girl” and “Girls Talk”, while “Time” gave us my favorite set of the night: “Strict Time”, a real surprising treat, “Man Out of Time”, “Next Time Round” and a nice little cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You’re out of time”.  I was a bit perplexed that “Sulky Girl” or “I Still Have that Other Girl” didn’t make the “Girl” List.  Guess beggers cant be choosers though.

There’s always a few certain songs you want to hear when you go to a show, knowing that you might get let down.  I mean, shoot, Elvis has attics full of songs, so I knew that hoping for “Satellite” or “Suit of Lights” may have been a fool’s game.  But man, this guy could fill set after set without a clunker.  You really can’t complain when you hear “Beyond Belief” and then a jazzed out version of the getting-tired “Pump it Up”, followed by a solo “Slow Drag With Josephine”, complete with a flubbed start that Elvis took like a true champ, or moving seemlessly into “Tracks of my Tears” during the fade of “Alison”.  The moment of the night for me personally had to be when they played “Rocking Horse Road”, an obscure little number that was THE song that got me into the man and his music.  Just a perfectly written song.  Sarah’s favorite moment coming when the band morphed “Peace Love and Understanding” into “Purple Rain” for a bridge.

Though it would have been fun to hear him dip a little more into the country or piano ballads in his repretoire, there really is nothing better than a good night of real rock and roll.  Elvis is still hip and still every bit a showman as he was decades ago.  The show let out, the jerk in front of us left unimpressed, proving my point about his personality.  We left more than impressed, stumbling back to the hotel where I gushed over the show we just watched.  I did the same all the way home and to everyone at work the next day.  I’ll be buying tickets to the St. Louis show for sure.

Marshall Crenshaw w/ the Bottle Rockets – Off Broadway. Saint Louis, MO – 1-21-11

01.22.2011

I knew very little of Marshall Crenshaw until a few months ago, when my good friend Tim threw me a record of his, thinking Id enjoy his pop troubadoring.  As it turns out, I did!  Being older than me and having grown up around the time of Crenshaw’s initial popularity, Tim thought it silly that I had never heard him before.  Having no prior knowledge, I was able to listen with fresh ears, not jaded by hits or singles, just liking the tunes.  I had also never had a chance to take in a show at Off Broadway, so two wins already.  And I got in free!  Bonus points.  The venue is great, if ever a chance comes up, you should definitely check it out.  It is equipped with a life size cardboard cut out of Billy Dee Williams, but sadly, no Busch Beer.  Small details though.

Opening the show and serving as Mr. Crenshaw’s backing band were the Bottle Rockets.  Honestly, I was never really into their records, found them a bit flat and dare I say, boring.  So I wasn’t expecting much.  I wasn’t even aware that Keith, the bass player, is the same Keith that tends at a bar here in Springfield, IL.  Shows how much I know.  Anyway, seeing this band play live really opened my eyes to how great their show is.   They really have their shit together.  Thats how I feel good country rock should be heard: drunk at the bar.  The band burned through a set that clocked in at a lean 35 minutes.  Brian Henneman’s vocals were clear and fluid, as were Keith Voegele’s amazing harmony back ups.  Listening to their latest release since the show, seems most of the set was comprised of songs from it, entitled Lean Forward.  Some early period songs riled up the hometown crowd, such as “Radar Gun” and “Indianapolis”.  My new personal favorite, “Welfare Music”, really sold the band for me.  After the set, the boys took a breather for a pleasantly short time and jumped back up to be the back up for Marshall Crenshaw’s back of solid pop rock. 

Never really thought Marshall’s songs would do well with a bar rock treatment, but I was mistaken:  they’re even better this way.  The Rockets really blended well with his songs, making it seem they’d been playing together for years.  Impressive, because this was the first show of the run. 

Marshall’s voice was a point of skepticism for me before hand, but again, my initial ideas were dashed, this time be the revelation that he sounded stellar.  Singer-songwriters seem to just get better, richer vocals as the years go by (see Elvis Costello).  Banter was sparse, save for a few weird quips here and there.  The fellers were having a great time though, evident by the big ol’ shit eatin’ grins they were all sporting.  The songs rolled out seamlessly, starting with “There Se Goes Again” and the fantastic “Mary-Anne”.  The set was a good 50/50 split of old stuff and new, even those of us who saw him play Buddy Holly in La Bamba were treated with “Cryin’ Waitin’ Hopin'” and of course we got “someday, someway”.  The crowd was 100% into the set, which was a treat because I had no prior knowledge of how many people respect this dude’s talent, which is immense.  The set came to a much to fast end, but ended funner still with Keith taking the lead for a cover of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” (who’s drummer joined the band the next night in Bloomington). 

The crowd dispersed and Marshall and the Rockets tore their own gear down, something that forever gains respect from me.  I vaguely remember shaking an extremely polite Marshall Crenshaw’s hand and telling him this and also my sadness of not hearing “Distance Between Me and You”, but I was drunk, you see.  Tim and I stumbled into the night, into quite the blizzard, and found a friend’s house nearby.  Dont drive drunk, safety first!  Do give Marshall a listen, I guarantee you will not be let down. (video isn’t mine, just another really cool guy at the show.  Thanks).

Concert Review: Alejandro Escovedo Live In Springfield, IL

09.19.2010

(This is a review I posted over at NoDepression.com, just thought I’d put it here too.)

I have never witnessed a very good show in my hometown. Sure, there’s the odd good punk band that comes through the all ages club and there are a couple of decent local bands (NIL8, and my friend is in a pretty killer Billy Joel tribute band, Silly Joel), but no one very close to mainstream popularity. That is if I don’t count the State Fair, it had Cheap Trick this year. Missed that too. Alejandro isn’t quite as well-known as Cheap Trick, but I was very excited and intrigued as to what it would be like to see him in my small city.

My issue with Springfield is not the city itself, the problem comes from its residents. You really just want to throw rocks at the general downtown bar crowd, and this bar (Bar None) is generally a hot bed for such folks. I didn’t want a legend like Alejandro to come here and witness stupidity incarnate. Alas, I was just paranoid, they kept their shit together for the night. I think because Alejandro Escovedo is THE coolest person in the world, as it has been stated before, he was able to quell the loudmouths early. After a touching story that introduced the quietest number of the night, said loudmouths were extinguished with him saying “You know, I don’t like to tell people to shut up, but shut up. I didnt drive all the way here to listen to you talk”. He was our best friend for the rest of the night.

The set was heavy on the newest record, Street Songs of Love, which sounded amazing live. I mean, amazing. “Tender Heart” was particularly house rocking, as was the single “Anchor”. Alejandro and his astonishing guitar partner, David Pluckingham, alternated between the heavy, nasty electrics and the pretty picking acoustics with constant success. The Sensitive Boys have to be the tightest backing band in the world, like a more modest E Street Band.

The first highlight of the night came with the first group of acoustic numbers. Alejandro told a very touching and funny story of his father and one of a good friend who passed recently to cancer. After the heartbreaking instrumental I mentioned earlier, the Boys went into a decidedly more dreamy version of “Rosalie”, my personal favorite off of the perfect Man Under the Influence. A very funny story prefaced “Down in the Bowery” which Alejandro wrote for his son.

When the heavy weapons were brought back out, Mr. Escovedo had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Not moving on until he was satisfied with the call and response to “Chelsea Hotel 78” or “Castanets”. The best moments of the set had to be “Always a Friend” and the insane “I Was Drunk”. I don’t know if i can say enough about that song. The set ended with the bands cover of “Beast of Burden” after which Alejandro and company walked outside of the little bar and talked to fans. I shook their hands, baffled by his humility. One of the artist for which I have so much respect for, I left with somehow much more.

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