Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sometimes prices accurately reflect worth...

Nope, this post is not about Christmas shopping. It's about groceries, yes, yet again. Here in this part of Florida, Publix is the go-to supermarket for most. But there is also Harvest Food & Outreach, a small garage-like building not far from Publix that offers groceries at bargain-basement prices--and you don't have to buy in army-sized bulk, either!

So what's the catch?

First, you have to be a member. No problem. Like Costco or BJ's, you just sign up on the spot. Unlike those two megastores, there is no fee. Quite the opposite. You must be needy, or struggling not to be needy. On the membership application, they ask you to check off which form of government assistance you receive--my friend, who already had his membership, falls under disability--or, if I remember correctly, whether you fall within 20% of the poverty line. What a nice non-profit organization, right?

Well, this is where the second catch comes in. Most of the products on the shelves are past their expiration dates, some well past. Or the boxes have tears in them, giving rise to the suspicion that enterprising rats and roaches may have succeeded in forcing entry. While some products looked like they were rejected for superficial reasons, like crushed corners, smooshed lids, dented cans, the burning question I had was: Is it safe to eat this?
I asked a clerk why it's okay to eat something months past its expiration date. She didn't really answer the question but instead said that most of the food came from Publix and Walmart and other groceries after the products had been on their shelves past those companies' policies. Ok, but what do the expiration dates mean if you can disregard them for months? She said if I ate anything and there was a problem with it, I could come return it. Thanks.

My marina friend saw no problem with eating past expiration dates. He said he got most of his food from Harvest Food, and he couldn't tell the difference. He loved the place! As we went down the aisle, and he threw box after box of old cereal in his cart, pointing out the incredible deal (3 for $4!), I felt compelled to throw a box in for myself out of sheer solidarity. Then I started to discreetly scour everything for unexpired products. Bingo! Here was one box of UHT milk that didn't expire until 2011; there was a can of pears in light syrup that was good til 2012; here was a huge selection of Nestle Crunch and Twix and Kit Kat bags that were good til...hey! it's 4 for $2!

I got into the spirit of it. Bargains abounded, unrotten food hidden amongst them. I steered well clear of the fully cooked (and long expired) pork loin in the fridge--ewwww--and picked out some Pringles that were only a couple months expired. Ok, I'd try it. In fact, expiration dates were probably baloney marketing. Yeah! Just get whatever you want!

I filled the cart, along with my marina friend. My part of the bill came out to a puny $20. For lots of stuff. Mostly junk food, I have to admit, that I wouldn't otherwise buy. Still, it felt like a great deal, and I thought, again, what a great organization. I was a tourist there, but for people like my marina friend who are on small, fixed incomes, this was a necessity.

Back on the boat, I unpacked everything and decided to look up why expiration dates exist. Unfortunately, the wifi signal I rely on was on strike, and I was quickly developing internet rage, so I gave up and decided to settle for empirical information. I would sample my goods.

Well, the pears in the dented can were yummy. A few had some discoloration, but whatever. Next, I opened the Nestle Crunch and gasped in horror. What's normally a smooth medium brown bar was a chalky crumbly white corpse of a chocolate bar. Eh, probably just presentation, right? I bit into it...and didn't taste chocolate, but something more like...pineapple? Ok, the chocolate had gone off. I opened the can of Pringles Zesty Ranch (or something like that). No crunch at all, taste indeterminable. Without crunch, what good is a potato chip? Then I poured myself a bowl of cereal: Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds (bought at Harvest Food) and lactose-free milk (already in the fridge, from Publix). A strange tinge of sourness but otherwise perfectly fine.

The next morning, I had another bowl of cereal, this time with the UHT milk I'd bought at Harvest Food, a brand I'd never heard of: Tabatchnik. A few hours later, I was sick and, as we used to say at work to explain without going into detail why someone couldn't come into the office, "I had a stomach thing." I looked around for the culprit and landed on the Tabatchnik milk. Curses! I turned against Harvest Food and started to think how messed up it was that they would sell potentially sickening food to poor people that the for-profit supermarkets had rejected! It was just like those lame supermarkets that don't let you take the shopping cart to the car! I had a whole rant and rave planned!

Then, when I went to console my tummy with some yogurt, I realized that the fridge was not as cold as it usually is. I looked at the electrics panel, and, sure enough, the switch for the fridge was parked somewhere between ON and OFF. Was the real culprit of my food poisoning the fridge? Everything inside was cool, not cold. Perhaps the lactose-free milk I'd had with my cereal the day before had become host to some nasty bacteria? The sour note of that bowl of cereal took on new significance. Or perhaps it was the UHT milk that had come off the same shelves as some very altered Nestle Crunch and Kit Kat? After all, more than 12 hours had gone by just fine after the first bowl of cereal, whereas only 1 or 2 had with the second one.

As much as I kind of wanted it to be the UHT milk, because selling rejected and cast-off goods from normal supermarkets to the needy just felt wrong somehow, it wasn't. It was my deadbeat fridge. Still, while I am willing to admit that there is some flexibility around "sell by" dates, since it turns out that  they indicate quality, not safety (p.s. the FDA requires expiration dates only on medicine and baby formula), I can't completely get rid of the feeling that products that aren't good enough for the non-needy shouldn't be considered good enough for the needy either. My friend might be okay with it (mind you, he loves bargains and shops at Publix and Albertson's for his fresh stuff), but as one needy woman puts it, Expired, castoff food is a slim form of charity.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quiet Weekend

I just finished watching the Alfred Hitchcock movie "North by Northwest." The first thing that struck me in the opening scenes (besides the supernaturally glossy, perfectly coiffed and curled hairdos) was that back in the 50s (and most of history, I guess), if you saw a woman in the street, you probably knew exactly what she did. She was a typist, secretary, receptionist, switchboard operator, mother, wife. Wow am I glad things have changed since then. It's pretty amazing, actually.

Before that, I ran into Mike, the Palin-loving, Obama-hating, the US-is-going-socialist guy I've become unlikely friends with here in the marina. He'd just brought his new kitten home from the ASPCA, so Susie and I went over to his dock to meet her. She was scrappy and hissed at me in my hands when Susie so much as looked at her. I gave her claws back to Mike, and we had a nice morning chat about sanding and oiling, the weather, cats and dogs, Christmas, Chinese buffet, and political asylum. It never ceases to amaze me how little politics matter sometimes, and how people you might otherwise call idiots are perfectly nice and funny and intelligent. I like to think that his political views aren't as fixed as he thinks they are (and I'm sure he's thinking the same about me--or that I'm a nice idiot), and that one day he'll realize that his views contradict truer parts of his character and could better reflect his way of interacting with the world. After all, with me, he's been nothing but easygoing and open. I don't mind that he's misguided, and he doesn't mind that I am either. Why should we when we both love thrift stores?

Here are some more pics of Susie enjoying the boat. Did I mention that I've trained her to go potty on the astroturf mat on deck?! YES!!!!! Cold windy nights just got a whole lot better. (Though, out of respect for her canine dignity, I have not taken any photos to prove the feat.)
Susie in the big park
Huh, I'm a hot happy dog...
I'm coming!
Mid-head shake...
I like having a deck.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dog Days in Vero Beach, FL

It's been several days back in Vero Beach, FL, which has become our home base for the month of December. Boat life has developed a new routine with a dog on board. There is the early morning dinghy ride to land for Susie's morning relief and exercise in the big off-leash park nearby. There is the late afternoon dinghy ride to land for Susie's afternoon relief and walk. And there is the pre-bedtime dinghy ride to land for Susie's evening relief and walk.

But we are not alone. There are, I am just noticing, plenty of other dog-owning sailors following the same routine. In fact, I've started mistaking dinghy passengers leaning forward, from a distance, for eager-to-pee dogs. After all, the dogs on boats here aren't just little westies and mini collies; there are big chocolate labs, Irish setters, and golden retrievers, too.

While it might seem out of place for a pit bull to be living on a sailboat, Susie has taken to her new home. She gets to bask in the sun when she wants, cool off in the cabin when the sun's too hot, run around the park to stretch her legs, and snuggle under the table when it's bedtime. All in all, she likes her new environment.
Susie looking at me like *I'* look strange...
Camera angle stretching Susie out
The same cannot be said for the Enterprise drop-off lady. A few days ago, I was getting a ride back to the marina after dropping off the rental car. The van pulled up, and I got in with another, elderly passenger. The driver, another senior lady, ordered us to put on our seatbelts, and away we went. The elderly passenger, undeterred by the driver's dour demeanor, began to chat with her. She was visiting Vero Beach for the holidays and wasn't it just lovely here!

Passenger: "I just love it here! There are all sorts of things to do, and everything is so convenient!"

Enterprise woman: "Really?"

Passenger: "Oh yes!"

Enterprise woman: "I'm from Palm Beach, so this seems boring to me."

Passenger: "Oh. Well, I'm rural, so everything seems exciting to me. But I guess if I were from Palm Beach..."

Enterprise woman: "And there are no men here..."

Passenger: "There *are* lots of women. (Pause) I have a family, though, so I guess I'm lucky..."

After we dropped off the elderly woman at a condo complex, I asked the Enterprise woman how long she'd been in Vero Beach. Ten years, but "I have a feeling something is going to change." She wasn't terribly unhappy here, though she knew she might sound it, but she complained that people in this area don't really like "different thinking people, forward-thinking people," like herself, a former macrobiotic chef.

I didn't ask her why she's stayed in Vero Beach for 10 years then, because that can be a very difficult question for anyone to answer. I just hope that her feeling about imminent change turns out to be right.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Susie in the Dinghy

Susie points the way back home. Relaxed ears!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Home Sweet Home

About a week ago, I flew up to New York to go pick up my dog Susie from the doggie camp where she was staying. I was planning to stay with her while she transitioned to living with my friend Tommy, whom she loves after spending most of my vacations with him. Sadly, as it turns out, personal circumstances in Tommy's life are such that it isn't ideal for Susie to stay with him just yet. So I canceled my return flight to Florida and rented a car for Susie and me. Three-day roadtrip!

I got online, plotted my nightly stops, reserved rooms at pet-friendly motels, and got ready to listen to lots of NPR. (Turns out that even NPR gets boring real fast. A small observation: the morning lady with the slow, twangy, wobbly voice is *obsessed* with Julian Assange and, I suspect, loves saying his last name.)

The first day was not so bad. The highlight was driving over the Verrazzano Bridge, seeing the great mouth of NY harbor and the ocean beyond and remembering Evan, Vanessa, and myself on the first day of our voyage! It was almost three months ago that we left Liberty Landing Marina and sailed under the bridge for the Jersey Shore. It felt like ages ago. I ended the night at the Sleep Inn at Stoney Creek, VA, which was a great place to stay with Susie. The check-in clerk was very friendly to both Susie and me, with treats for both human and canine. The hotel had a big grassy yard in the back where Susie ran out the kinks of lying still for 7 hours, on and off. The room was big and tidy, and the bathtub was clean. Free breakfast the next morning, too!

The second day was the pits. Covering the remainder of Virginia, all of North Carolina and South Carolina, and part of Georgia was exhausting. The drive was noteworthy only in that I got to reminisce a little every time I saw a name of a place we had sailed through: Chesapeake, Rappahannock, Cape Fear, Wilmington, Charleston, Beaufort. It was funny watching them zoom by, relatively speaking, after Evan and I had spent months passing through the very same places. They had seemed like such important and momentous arrivals, nothing like the whizz of a name on a green sign. On the ICW, we were also spared gun shop advertisements on the radio (not on NPR, obviously) and ubiquitous religious billboards. 

I slept my second night at the Travelodge in Richmond Hill, just outside Savannah, GA. This was a real motel...not a cheap or economical hotel. A motel. I loved it anyway, once I had the manager fix the curtain, the very end of which wouldn't latch onto the runner, exposing a sliver of my room to the general parking and highway public.

I watched part of Roadhouse, the hilarious part where Patrick Swayze does some sweaty tai chi in some redneck town. Shirtless, of course. And the part where Kelly Lynch, peroxide-blond hair starched out from her temples in true eighties style, watches him kick some goon ass before their first date.

I woke up in the morning to a bright sunny day behind my red curtain. I couldn't resist taking some pictures.

After taking pictures of the curtain and wall, I drove through the rest of Georgia and half of Florida. I was excited to get to Vero Beach. I realized that while the road trip had been fun in a retro kind of way--and convenient quick travel (three days to cover what Evan and I took months to do on the boat)--I had also had my fill of fast food and asshole drivers. When I arrived, I jumped out of the car, kissed Evan, and promptly introduced Susie to the dog community half a block away from the marina where we are moored. She was elated and made new friends in no time. The yellow life jacket I ordered for her had arrived. See?

Before today, Susie had only set foot on a boat once before, and that was a docked boat. But she has adjusted marvelously! I cut up a rubber mat into several pieces to put over the companionway stairs--she skitters down otherwise, banging head or hip first into the table--and, using dried chicken breast as incentive/reward, got her going up and down in perfect safety and style. I'm sure that the calm of boatlife, punctuated by regular visits to the dog field (and maybe swimming lessons in the creek?), will suit her.

I'm happy to be home, which feels that much more like home now that Susie is here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I'm Back! (Kinda)

The short Thanksgiving reunion with family in Paris was fun, hectic, magical, nostalgic, and *very* cold. It was below freezing most of the time, and it snowed! Not much stuck for longer than an afternoon, but, still, it was the first time I saw snow in Paris.

Paris was a little grimier than I'd left it in 2007, and there were more crazy vagabonds sleeping on the streets and scratching themselves in the subways, but some things were unchanged: every neighborhood had its optique (eyeglass boutique), soins esthetique (mini-spa), pharmacies, and agence immobilier (real estate agency). I was sad, however, to discover that the Vietnamese take-out near my old apartment was gone. The owner was one of my first neighborhood friends, keeping me company and talking my ear off while I blew on my pho.

Strangely, I didn't feel any sense of homesickness for my former life in Paris until I went to the grocery store. It was the rows of yogurts and Le Petit Marseillais soaps. And later, passing over the Gare du Nord late at night on the number 2 line of the metro: the sight of the trains resting on the rails like great silver serpents has always been one of my favorite things in Paris.

Now I'm back in Florida, and when in Florida, why not go to Disneyworld?

Disney charges $18.95 for a 5x7 print, so the above is my pic of the screen showing our shot. Keh keh keh. 

Soon I'm off to NY for a few days to take care of my dog until my friend Tommy can take over. I can't wait to see my Susie!!!