Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Boldly dining in forbidden food places

Schensul's boasts of being Kalamazoo's pride.
We need to start with the back of this week’s bad postcard to make the front even more special.

It humbly states: “SCHENSUL’S CAFETERIA, KALAMAZOO’S PRIDE, MICHIGAN’S FINEST. One of the nation’s best. This can truthfully be called one of America’s most outstanding cafeterias. Seating capacity 450. Five air conditioned Dining Rooms. Organ music noon and night. Unexcelled food. Service and sanitation to match beauty of surroundings. ‘A Must When In or Near Kalamazoo.’”

OK, that’s quite a build-up. 

As we know, I’m no one’s definition of a foodie. I’m very happy eating at Panera Bread, and Chili’s for those special occasions. But I’ve been in some very nice restaurants with some spectacular meals and even views.  Looking down on Navy Pier fireworks while dining on the top floor of Chicago’s Hancock Tower was an amazing experience.

So, with lines like “Michigan’s finest” and “one of the nation’s best” and “service and sanitation to match the beauty of surroundings,” we had high hopes for Schensul’s Cafeteria – until we flipped over the card to see the photo.

Holy letdown, Batman!

I do see that each table has its own ashtray. Imagine the smoky haze hanging over that room in the glow of a fake fireplace, shouting over the din of Gladys pounding polkas on the piano. Kind of sparsely decorated, too.

But apparently the place was pretty popular. I found references to it as a “legendary” cafeteria offering “mouth-watering meals and a genteel atmosphere.”

There are a couple legendary places in West Michigan that we've avoided in the 14 years we've lived here – Mr. Burger and Russ.’ My wife has vowed to never set foot in neither place. But she was out of town this week, and my daughter and I are bold.

Mr. Burger is sort of like a cafeteria in that you grab a tray and work down a line. We boldly entered once before, getting all the way up to the spot where you tell the cook what you want. We got cold feet. Caroline actually ran out.

This time, we stayed. I got pancakes despite it being after 9 p.m. and Caroline ordered a cheeseburger. I’m confident the décor hasn't changed in decades, and we were the youngest customers in the place by about 20 years.  The meal was filling, but small soda cups without the option of refills were a bit of a deal-breaker.

Next we took on Russ,’ which has several locations in West Michigan. Think of it as a Dutch-themed Denny’s.

The Holland location was famous of having “no-tip tables,” where you phoned your order in to the kitchen. You can insert a Dutch joke here. But since I'm likely to be walking in the Tulip Time parade for the first time this year, I shall refrain. It's a long parade, and I have no desire to be pelted with windmill cookies. In the hands of a skilled and outraged attendee, those things can be flung for both accuracy and distance, kind of like ninja stars.

We arrived at the 28th Street store after 9 p.m., noticing that the sign in the window indicated it was open until 10. We were only a few steps in when halted by the manager. “Sorry guys,” he said. “We’re still on our winter hours. We close at 9.”

Reality set in. We were just thrown out of Russ.’

This rivaled the great McSorley’s Incident of 1983, when my Vignette buddies and I were unceremoniously asked to leave the historic New York watering hole for ordering beers at the bar and taking them to our table, which, apparently is frowned upon. We decided that there was more value in getting thrown out of McSorley’s than actually staying.

We made another attempt at the Plainfield Road store on a different night. I was still dressed for work, and this frightened the hostess.

“I see you are dressed up. Is this some kind of occasion?” she asked with wide eyes.

We get asked that question when we make reservations at Reds on the River, and sometimes they bring over a special birthday or anniversary dessert. I wasn’t expecting that at Russ.’

“No, though we are celebrating our first time at Russ.’”

The hostess exhaled, and explained that when she saw a dressed-up dad and high school daughter, she feared there was some event at nearby Northview High, and that she was about to be hit with a large wave of parents and kids.

Nope. Just us.
I didn’t see any no-tip tables, but there was a waiting area that was larger than my dorm room.

The setting was pleasant. I didn't care for my meal – billed as something like a pulled-pork sandwich, but with turkey – but Caroline liked her fried shrimp. And we had a coupon.

I can’t say we’ll be heading back to either place. Maybe Schensul’s organ music noon and night might have helped. But Caroline and I are adventurous and Mr. Burger and Russ’ are no longer forbidden culinary mysteries.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Plenty of parking in St. Simons Island, Ga.

Hey, is that John Smoltz driving away?
I've been able to learn that St. Simons Island in Georgia is a beautiful coastal village with several interesting and historical features and, apparently, is the home to some famous people.

But all we learn from this week’s bad postcard is that there is plenty of parking.

The back cryptically reads: “SHOPPING CENTER And central point of activity St. Simons Island, Ga.”
No fair! That’s practically taunting us by offering so little information.

The photo reveals that our nameless shopping center does indeed seem to have some activity – and plenty of parking.

But we only see one store – a place called Maxwell’s. Maxwell’s must be a pretty cool store to draw this much traffic on such a nice day.  I have no idea what the store sold – it’s not there any more.

You’d think that a postcard called “SHOPPING CENTER” show us more places of commerce, but that’s just one of the problems.

It appears we have some cropping issues. I’m assuming the black car at the bottom is not parked but pulling away – the driver no doubt disappointed in the lack of shopping options. Or, the diver doesn't park well and stops anywhere, like some Michigan folks do when snow covers the yellow lines.

Or maybe he's just worried about being late for Rally Day.

We do see some nice trees and water well off in the distance.

But mostly, we get asphalt – lots of asphalt.

When the asphalt to stores and water and trees ratio leans heavily to the asphalt, it’s a sign of trouble.

I had to know more about this place with so much parking. Turns out St. Simons Island has some interesting history.

First, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, performed missionary work on the island. He was despondent and returned to England because he couldn't convert anyone, and wrote that islanders had more tortures from their environment than he could describe for hell.

I’m assuming he meant the summer temperatures and hurricanes and not the lack of shopping or abundance of parking.

Lumber form the island was used to make the USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” because cannonballs bounced off its oak planking.

The island was once cleared to make way for cotton plantations, known for its long fiber Sea Island Cotton.

Today, St. Simons Island is home to a number of prominent athletes including Michigan native John Smoltz and Adam Wainwright, he of the soul-crushing curveball that fooled Carlos Beltran for the final out of the 2006 NCLS. Apparently they mingle with former NFL star Jim Brown, a bunch of golfers and former governmental leaders and anchormen real -- Bob Schieffer – and imaginary – Ron Burgundy.  

Maybe just one of those guys can send us a newer postcard so we can see what store replaced Maxwell’s.

Here's some postcard stories from the MLive days.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: 'Jesus, Take the Wheel' and Rally Day risk-taking

Little Bobby in back knows this might not end well.
So this is what was considered “distracted driving” back in the 1960s.

This week’s bad postcard reminds us about “Rally Day,” which in my church has been the traditional end of summer and start of Sunday school.

There’s nothing printed on the back other than “A SPECIAL INVITATION” and a hand-written note trying to urge the DeVries family to Wesleyan Methodist  on Oct. 10, 1965. “We certainly want you to come,” our unsigned note reads.

I’m not too sure if this is the best way to lure a family into the pews.  Because I look at this and I see the start of one of those movies they show in driver education class to scare the snot out of a bunch of teenagers.

Let’s look at the issues here.

First and foremost, the car is in the middle of the road. We can speculate that is it moving, since no one is going to park in the middle of the street.

No one is wearing a seat belt. It’s not like they weren't available in 1965. The first U.S. patent for safety belts was filed in 1955 in nearby Mason, Mich. There’s a good chance that this car has them, and they’re tucked away under the seats.

Not only is Dad not looking ahead for oncoming traffic, he doesn't have any hands on the steering wheel at all! Hey, it's 10 and 2, Pops!

Sally and Johnny on the right, they’re apparently OK with this blatant recklessness. They’re waving happily as if there wasn't a station wagon about to turn the corner in front of them. Neither of them is holding on to anything, so they’ll probably fly the farthest.

Now, see Little Bobby? Notice how he’s separated himself from the others. He might be the youngest member of the family, but he’s the brains of this operation.

The look on his face tells us that Little Bobby isn't happy with any of this. Not one bit.

Everyone else is waving with gusto, but Little Bobby’s hand is up there kind of tentatively. 

We know by the loud orange shirt and dashing blue bow tie that he’s not shy. So he knows something horrible is about to happen. It's as if he know they're waving "Good-bye," not "Hello."

Little Bobby is holding on to the seat cushion of for dear life – as if that’s going to help. 

About the best he can do is break out into a verse of “Jesus, Take the Wheel”  because Pops has clearly abdicated his responsibility. Someone needs to get some help before everyone has the saddest Rally Day ever.

Let’s hope that next week’s homily is on the importance of driver safety.

And while the folks at Wesleyan Methodist might attract thrill-seekers with a dangerous scene like this, we Lutherans prefer thinks a little calmer. Our Rally Day postcards would show a potluck with four different kinds of Jell-O salad.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: "Behind the Music" and the impending breakup of the Om-pah-loom-pahs in Frankenmuth

Just looking at Hans, we know this band is on the verge of splintering.
This might look like a charming little musical scene. But I see trouble – big trouble – ahead for our tune smiths.

This week’s bad postcard takes us to Frankenmuth, which is a neat little place between Flint and Saginaw. I think the name is Bavarian for “near the outlet mall.”

The back has two separate descriptions for us.  The first: “The official Bavarian Festival Om-pah-pah Band entertaining visitors on Main Street. During the festival, held each year the second full week of June, we had approximately 24 different bands playing all dressed in lederhosen. Many visitors spend their time strolling down Main Street buying thousands of pounds of sausage, cheese, homemade foods, handicrafts and souvenirs.”

The second part: “FRANKENMUTH, MICHIGAN – where the gemuetlichkeit of Old Bavaria blends with the hospitality of New America. Located 6 minutes off I-75 expressway.”

Let’s get back to our Om-pah-loom-pahs.  This band is on the verge of a breakup, and this postcard is like an episode of “Behind the Music.” All the details are here, if you know where to look.

Notice Hans, the third guy on the left, with the trumpet. Do you see what’s out of place there? Everyone else in the band has a white plume and red socks.

But not Hans. No, he’s got white socks and a red plume.

Clearly, he’s already expressing what folks in the industry call “creative differences.”

Hans thinks he’s the star, and that people are flocking to Main Street to hear him and his trumpet. Well, they’re attracted by the sausage, cheese and handicrafts, too. But mostly they come to hear him.

The cracks are already apparent. Look at the resentful look from our drummer.  
Note the sneer of resent.

Slowly, Hans’ ego takes over.

First it’s the socks and plume. Then he’s demanding extended trumpet parts, you know, “to give the fans what they want.”

Finally, he shows up early to perform special solo trumpet performances near the Cheese Haus up the street.

This can go a number of ways.

We have the Stevie Nicks model, where Hans dresses like a witch and runs off for some solo albums with special guest appearances from Tom Petty, but stays connected with the Om-pah-loom-pahs. 

They give him his space because, well, he does attract groupies and some are willing to befriend a trombone player.

Or, you have the Phil Collins/Sting model, where Hans and his insufferable ego run off for some solo albums. 

Once Hans gets the taste of success and total creative control – and doesn't have to split proceeds seven ways – the band is pretty much toast. They’ll put out a few more albums, but there are whispers around the Cheese Mouse that Hans is saving his best material for his solo work. Save your money, tuba player. 

Hopefully there will be a high-profile reunion tour someday and everyone can get one more payday before going back to their new day jobs at Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland, or the Nike outlet, 

Or, sadly, there could be the Natalie Merchant/10,000 Maniacs model. The music is magical when the rest of the band can keep Hans’ ego in check. They bring out the best in each other. But Hans finally stomps off. The band tries to keep things going with a series of new trumpet players, but it’s not the same.

And Hans, well, there’s no one to tell him “no,” and he’s off doing things like incomprehensible concept albums and setting 100 poems to trumpet music as fewer and fewer people care.

Nobody wins.

By the way, "gemutlichkeit" means a situation that includes a cheerful mood, peace of mind, with connotation of belonging and social acceptance.

If only Hans embraced the spirit of "gemutlichkeit" and didn't stray from the Om-pah-loom-pas.Instead he's just another casualty of the Bavarian Festival lifestyle. Just wear the damn red socks, Hans. 

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Terrible tots terrorizing Traverse City and time-traveling U.S. Cellular Field

Terrible Tot terrorizing Traverse City!
 Kids can be dangerous. We know this from this week’s bad postcard, which can only be a scene from a Godzilla-like horror movie where the adorable-but-giant little girl walks through Traverse City, smashing and demolishing everything in her path.

Don’t let the smile fool you. That tot is in the middle of a reign of terror, turning beautiful Traverse City into large and smoldering piles of bricks, cherries and tourists. Note the Big Red Carnation of Destruction in her hand!

The back reads: “The Miniature City has returned. You can see 108 wooden buildings, real landmarks of Traverse City – some are 50 years old. The Miniature City building is located just across from Les Hatch Pontiac on U.S. 31 South.”


I know what happens next, because my wife loves monster movies. A bunch of normal-sized kids, at least one whom will be named Kenny, will somehow be allowed to tag along with scientists and once-skeptical-but-now-convinced top military brass as they find a way to either lure the dimpled and dangerous girl-monster back into Grand Traverse Bay – she is wearing a sailor suit – or freeze her solid and drop her off in the Upper Peninsula, where she won't thaw until late July.

My wife watches a lot of these monster movies, both the classics with guys in rubber suits and new ones that show on SyFy that offer past-their-prime actors battling computer-generated sharks/gators/aliens – a combination of them, if we are lucky.

Some, like “Jersey Shore Shark Attack” are good fun. But sometimes, well, I just have to call foul.

Let’s take this scene from “Alien Tornado,” which has been re-released as “TornadoWarning.”

The IMDB storyline: “Aliens invade the Earth using electromagnetic tornadoes as a weapon of mass destruction. Brilliant high school student with her father and blogger involved in the study of tornadoes struggling against time to prevent a huge disaster and defeat the conquest of the planet.”

OK, it’s more plausible than “Sharknado.” Seriously, of all the animals in the ocean, only the sharks are scooped up in the tornadoes?

And this movie was pretty good – blogger-heroes are a good start -- until one scene.

Our high school heroine, Kelly, was in Chicago at an outdoor café when she is alarmed to see tornadoes dropping down into U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. We see the ballpark destroyed and the scoreboard hurled into the sky.

Let’s list the problems, complete with screen captures.

First, there is no place on the South Side where someone can eat at an outdoor café and see the ballpark. In that neighborhood, getting to and from your car safely is part of the adventure. It’s better now, but still, there are no cafes.
There is no street cafe where you can see this. Also, note the iconic Comiskey scoreboard.
Note that Kelly was gazing upon U.S. Cellular Field in its post-renovation glory, painted black.

Then, we are presented with an aerial view of the tornadoes touching down in the infield. But wait! This is no longer the black, renovated version of the ballpark. It’s the original, light blue version! Big error!
We somehow traveled back in tome to pre-renovation U.S. Cellular Field. Again, note the scoreboard.
Then, the alien twister rips out the scoreboard. Is it the legendary White Sox scoreboard, with colorful pinwheels that spin and glow when a Sox player hits a home run? NO! It’s the legendary manual scoreboard from Wrigley Field, the famous home of the rival Chicago Cubs!
Yes, somehow the aliens turned the Sox scoreboard into the Wrigley Field scoreboard. 
For this to all make sense, The Cubs and White Sox would have agreed to somehow trade scoreboards and the twisters must be able to instantly transport us back in time to when U.S. Cellular Field was named Comiskey Park and painted blue.

If this time travel happened, did my epic booing of Derek Jeter ever occur?

Look, I can buy into a lot of things with these SyFy horror movies. I can understand Tiffany and Debbie Gibson battling mutant snakes and crocs -- and each other! -- and even New Jersey sharks leaping out of the water, swallowing Joey Fatone whole and landing back in the water. Could happen, though the idea of people paying to see Joey Fatone in concert is a big stretch.

But rampant ballpark misrepresentation destroys any ounce of credibility.

If the filmmakers are placing iconic scoreboards in the wrong stadiums, I’m going to have a hard time accepting that aliens have discovered how to direct tornadoes and use them as weapons to conquer Chicago and, presumably, northern Indiana, since it’s right there.

Movie ruined.

Let this be a lesson to future SyFy film producers. Do not mess with ballparks unless you get your details straight.

Now, a giant super-gator and flying sharks and a terrible tot from Traverse City teaming up to level Yankee Stadium right in the middle of the Derek Jeter farewell tour – I’d watch that.