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The dangers of our C-level sustenance

I’m going off the grid for the next 10 days.

I will not answer your phone calls offering me great deals on Caribbean cruises.

I will not start each morning by scanning various web sites to take a measurement on how far we’ve fallen as a nation.

My Facebook and Twitter accounts will lie fallow, weeds sprouting between your gasps of disbelief over kitten videos and that photo of Donald Trump hugging the United States flag as if he were humping a Golden retriever.

Oh yeah, Trump doesn’t like dogs. Not exactly grounds for impeachment, but very telling in my book. I was at my doctor’s office a couple of days ago and in all honesty, if she had acted as crazy as Trump did during his CPAC speech last weekend, I would have run from the office. Two people I want to take their jobs seriously: The person who addresses my blood pressure issues, and the person who controls our country’s nuclear weapons.

And while I’m thinking about the doctor’s office, our waiting rooms need a literary update. People magazine is nothing but news of C-level celebrities and the occasional family that survived an encounter with a serial killer.

I refuse to subsist on C-level junk food. At least, for the next 10 days.

I will stop watching television for the next 10 days. Right now, as I’m typing this, I’m watching Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tell Congress that the Trump administration was not keeping immigrant children on our southern border in cages. No, she insists, those boxes made from wire fence with kids sleeping on concrete floors are “detention spaces that have existed for decades.”

I just need to get away. Even the arts, where I turn to for beauty and distraction, is no help. Last week, I went to the New York Times’ web site, and this was the first story I found under the heading Television:

Jussie Smollett Won’t Be on Final Episodes of ‘Empire’ Season.

And this was the first story under the heading Sports:

Patriots Owner Robert Kraft Charged in Florida Prostitution Investigation.

And this was the first story under the heading Music:

R. Kelly Charged With 10 Counts of Sexual Abuse in Chicago.

I will read two books over the next 10 days. A biography of Benjamin Franklin. And George Saunders’ novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Small fries with your hamberder

You’ve seen the photo. Donald Trump, with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln looming over him, posing for a photo op in the White House, its polished mahogany tables piled high with fast food. A buffet of the best to offer from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. Hamburgers and fries, their oils and fats cooling and congealing as they sit on their silver serving trays. All for the Clemson University football team, invited to the White House to celebrate its national championship.

And this is what they get. Big Macs. Or “hamberders,” as Trump called them in a tweet. One of the players said he thought it was a joke when he heard they would be served fast food during their visit to the White House. Another was caught on tape murmuring, “Our nutritionist must be having a fit.”

Also this week, My Friend Mike posted a link to a story on Rochester’s culinary signature, The Garbage Plate. Yet another story, written with a wink and a snicker, about the city’s alleged love affair with a plate piled with various combos of macaroni salad, home fries, baked beans, meat sauce, diced onions and hamburger patties or hots. Doused liberally with mustard or Frank’s hot sauce.

It’s not elitist to dismiss the Big Mac and the Garbage Plate as lesser cuisine. They have their purpose: At the 3 a.m. intersection of desperation and alcohol. But this otherwise overwhelming American infatuation with mediocrity is alarming. Why do we set the bar laughably low, yet still manage to trip over it?

In restaurants, supermarkets and banks, I see Americans wearing sweatpants. Not expensive-looking workout clothes, but baggy sweatpants with stains on them. I see people drinking cheap wine and smoking cigars rolled in tarpaper. People reading Fifty Shades of Grey and lining up for Adam Sandler movies. Garth Brooks bleating from rolled-down truck windows.

We can do better. Tapas 177, Rocco and Cure, those are restaurants worth seeking out. Rochester will get its first restaurant led by a Michelin-star chef when Richard Reddington opens Redd at the former 2 Vine in April. It’s not about the pretense. It’s about the search for excellence. The Cowboy Candy taco at The Silver Iguana on Winton Road. I’ll take a breakfast sandwich straight off the grill at Scott’s or Zimmerman’s at the Rochester Public Market over the Denny’s Lumberjack Slam.

How did we get here, to a point where we accept the uninspired? Look at Trump, with his Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and cold fries. He is a loud, arrogant, mean, ignorant, poor-spelling hypocritical lying man-child of entitlement. Racist, sexist, xenophobic and corrupt beyond measure. Creating policies that separate immigrants from their children, endorsing what Vladimir Putin tells him rather than believing his own intelligence agencies, shutting down the government that he’s supposed to manage. Going to war with the two institutions that threaten to expose him, the justice department and the media. Closing his eyes and ears to science and fact. Refusing to take responsibility for his own actions. It’s a Garbage Plate of public policy. You want small fries with that hamberder? Cooked up by the most hideous of Ugly Americans.

Is it the unanswerable question of what came first, the Kentucky Fried Chicken or the egg? Not really. If we had held ourselves to a higher standard yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess today.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

David Sedaris was right. Except for one thing.

David Sedaris wrote the final word on Christmas. Santaland Diaries. An essay, rife with snarky cynicism of the season. And sarcasm directed at Sedaris’ own sad-sack persona. Words drawn from his tenure as an elf working at the heels of a department-store Santa Claus.

There was just one thing missing.

As 2018 – a disaster of a year by all measurements – slinks off the calendar, tens of thousands of rental Santa Clauses have now returned to their regular lives. Me among them. Yes, I spent two hours as Santa at Record Archive one Saturday.

Like any adult, I would have preferred to play Krampus, the Central European goat demon who punishes bad children. And, in some versions of the story, eats them. But Dick Storms wanted to be Krampus, and he’s co-owner of Record Archive, so he got to be Krampus. Very few of us are ever in position to choose our own mythologies.

Santa’s throne was in the Archive’s Backroom Lounge. I sat in front of a Christmas tree as a college vocal group meandered through the huge store, singing a cappella versions of Christmas carols. The two young daughters of the Archive’s other co-owner, Alayna Alderman, were dressed as elves and luring other kids into sitting still for a few moments to get candy canes painted on their faces. The whole scene was short just a few Christmas images – say, orphans eating bowls of gruel – from having snow spontaneously fall from the ceiling.

I looked like a convincing Santa. It was my long beard, which is real, that got me the gig. Otherwise, Santa costumes are over-engineered to compensate for any operator shortcomings, the better to preserve the fantasy. Rented suits come with a slight odor of disinfectant, for which I am grateful. Or perhaps it is mothballs. Opting out of the fake beard may have been a mistake, because it hooks onto the white wig, keeping both in place. Without that strap, over the course of two hours I could feel my wig slowly slipping down the back of my head, taking my pointy cap with it. One of my co-workers came to the rescue when the white ball at the tip of the cap got stuck in the throne.

Santa’s suit is a heavy fabric, calling for suspenders to hold up his pants. He also straps on prodigious padding, much bigger than the vests worn by members of a SWAT team. Sitting under the hot Christmas lights for two hours, a holiday icon can cook to medium-well done. It’s a ridiculous get-up. Santa does not dress like a deliveryman who arrives at a house expecting to be greeted by a middle-aged woman wearing lingerie and smoking a cigarette.       

The Backroom Lounge quickly filled with celebration. The vocal group did “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or one of those relentless chestnuts, as customers sat at the bar examining the Taylor Swift albums in colored vinyl they’d just purchased for teenage daughters. If you haven’t been in a record store for a couple of years, it is true, everyone’s buying vinyl again.

And the kids came to Santa. Some were just months old, this was their first Santa. I had to make it a good one or their Christmases would be subliminally poisoned for the rest of their lives. The parents propped up the kid on my lap and took pictures. I didn’t drop one, and only one or two cried. Some were shy, and had to be coaxed by their parents. Some bounded up the two steps to my throne, hope-filled eyes shining like Ralphie in A Christmas Story asking Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Some had lists. Some kids seemed to freeze under the pressure and couldn’t name anything they wanted. Most limited it to one or two requests. I understood some of it. Lipstick and glitter eyeliner, OK. Some of the stuff, I had no idea what they were asking for. Toys driven by movie marketing, computer games with components generated from last year’s fighter aircraft. Doesn’t anyone want wagons anymore? My standard answer quickly became, “Of course, we have one of those in the warehouse.” I handed the kid a candy cane and called for the next one.

Midway through my shift, Alayna slipped me a plastic cup. Red wine. I was grateful. I don’t think any Santa gives a damn if he can’t pass a pee test.

As the shift wore on, the parents became emboldened and started to come up to my throne as well, to get their photo taken as they sat on Santa’s lap. I’m sure that 250-pound biker was showing his Santa photo all around town. And the candy cane I gave him.

Then I spotted Krampus making his way through the crowd, toward my throne, bleating like a goat. My shift was almost done. Just another 10 minutes, while Krampus and I posed together for photos. Then I walked to the break room. Pulled off my Santa suit and accessories, threw them in my Santa bag. And went back out, now unrecognized, to sit at the end of the bar and finish my plastic cup of wine.

Sedaris. I’d said he’d left out one thing, didn’t I?

I sat at the end of the bar, thinking about that one thing. It was one of the last kids who came to see Santa. I’d guess she was 8 or 9 years old.

I asked, “What do you want for Christmas?”

She looked shyly at the floor. “I want my family to be together.”

I stammered, as if I hadn’t heard correctly. “You want, uh…”

She looked right at me. “I want my family to be together.”

I assumed her parents had split up, were perhaps divorced. I wasn’t prepared for this.

“Your family loves you,” I said. “Sometimes it takes time for this stuff to work out. You’ll see. It’ll be OK.” I said a couple of other things as well. None of it was adequate. But she nodded. I handed her a candy cane, and watched her walk away.

Now, sitting at the bar, thinking of what should have been said, Santa’s eyes got a little weepy. He didn’t have anything in the warehouse for that kid.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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