Saturday, July 22, 2006


Here’s another reason to shop local, or at least to stay away from buying online — and another one of those customer-service nightmares that seem to happen only to me (although I know that cannot be true). It’s also, finally, a warning for anyone buying from

I made that mistake and, following instructions on the back of my receipt, went to the Sears at CambridgeSide Galleria yesterday to return my online purchase, a swimsuit, and get my credit card reimbursed. The instructions were simple: Bring that credit card, the receipt, the swimsuit and packaging. No problem. The swimsuit never even came out of the packaging.

At Sears, though, I was told there was a problem. I was required to bring a printed e-mail holding a confirmation number — something not mentioned, obviously, on the return instructions on the receipt. I pointed this out more than a dozen times over the course of the next hour or so as I climbed the hierarchy of sales clerk, manager and, via telephone, Sears and representatives and their respective managers and managers’ managers.

The conversations all began with a Sears worker explaining that this e-mail — back home on my computer — was necessary to the reimbursement process. I would read them their own return instructions from the receipt sent me with the swimsuit. They would reply, “Yes, but we need the confirmation number on the e-mail.” I would repeat that the return instructions said nothing about this. They would reply, “Yes, but we need the confirmation number on the e-mail.” The warning about the return process is also visible on the Web site at some point, I was told, but this proves or resolves nothing. If Sears really wants an e-mail confirmation number, it can say so on its receipt instructions as well as online or in an e-mail.

After all, consider the process: I go to, find item, buy item, wait for item to arrive in the mail. When the item arrives on time, I have no reason to go looking back online or in my e-mail. When the item arrives with return instructions printed on the back of the receipt, I get a brand-new reason not to go looking back online or in my e-mail. If I had, isn’t it just as reasonable to conclude that the paper instructions are correct and the electronic wrong as it is to assume the electronic instructions are correct and the paper wrong?

“Yes, but,” they said, “we need the confirmation number on the e-mail.”

Finally, a Sears representative offered a way out: The store could give me a gift card for that amount.

This is retailers’ favorite way of dealing with complaints: “We’re sorry eating our product poisoned you, causing you a week of severe gastric distress. Here is a coupon for more of our product.” But I wasn’t eager to go shopping at Sears again. I insisted that a gift card was an inadequate and unacceptable response to my problem. Another impasse.

Finally, I asked if the store could cash out my gift card. The Sears representative on the telephone said yes, if the store agreed to — never mind that the store manager had called this representative looking for a solution to the impasse. But the store manager agreed to cash out the gift card. Problem solved, in much the same way Jack Nicholson almost got his wheat toast in “Five Easy Pieces,” by ordering a chicken salad sandwich with no chicken salad.

We went upstairs. The Sears manager processed the gift card and an immediate gift card reimbursement. She put the reimbursement, it turns out, on my credit card.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


In the words of the Zeitgeist Gallery’s Alan Nidle, “We live to fight another day.”

Last week’s hearing over whether the gallery can legally hold performances resulted in what sounds like, as Nidle described it, a very odd and dissatisfying compromise for everyone involved: The city says the Zeitgeist can go on doing what it wants for a year, but it will be monitored. At the end of the year, the city will decide what to do.

What’s interesting about this compromise is that Nidle doesn’t intend to do anything differently at the gallery, and the city knows it.

The gallery goes on irritating the city. The city goes on threatening the gallery. It’s something like the cartoon relationship between the sheepdog and the wolf who call off their life-and-death battle at the end of the workday.

Perhaps the decision makes sense considering only one gallery neighbor came to the hearing to complain that its performances were a bother — but not much of one. Usually, the neighbor returned home only after performances were over. Nidle thought the neighbor seemed like a pretty nice guy.

(This is something of a trend. Gus Rancatore, who is about to be pushed out of his Someday Cafe location in Davis Square, has pretty nice things to say about Peter Creyf, whose Mr. Crepe would be the replacement. It seems like only in the greater Cambridge area would business owners seem so phlegmatically resigned to acknowledge the finer points of the people ruining their lives — although in each case, these are just stalking horses. Nidle is really threatened by a voraciously officious, officiously voracious city government; Rancatore is falling victim to disingenuously rapacious, rapaciously disingenuous landlord Richard Fraiman.)

It’s unlikely to matter. By the time the city again takes up the matter of the Zeitgeist, the gallery will probably already be on the move to Central Square. Nidle has his eye on the old Skippy White’s space at 538 Massachusetts Ave., where he will add to an already vibrant square but hardly do himself a favor in the “I’m not a club” perception.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


There’s a hearing scheduled for 8:45 p.m. Thursday that could end, or save, performances at the Zeitgeist Gallery, a vital part of Cambridge’s art and music scene for a dozen years. A Cambridge zoning official, identified by a Zeitgeist supporter as Sean O’Grady, insists the gallery should have a $500 entertainment license and is known to be bringing forward at least one neighbor who opposes performance at the space. (“Today, O’Grady said there were other opponents,” said Rob Chalfen, maintainer of the gallery e-mail list.)

The contradiction is obvious: If an entertainment license resolves the problem for the city, what relevance do complaining neighbors have? Certainly people crabby over avant-garde sound pollution aren’t going to suddenly be satisfied knowing the din that’s suffered is backed by a $500 fee.

The city, it seems, is using the neighbors to make a point, which is that it demands money — the city’s vaunted fiscal responsibility run amok. It’s not dunning the spectacularly endowed Harvard University here, but a small art gallery that happens to think art isn’t just hung on walls.

And the gallery’s Alan Nidle doesn’t want to pay $500 for an entertainment license when he’s only asking donations from people attending, just as you can’t be running a bar if you only give away the booze (and pass the occasional hat). That argument may not hold back the city this time, although it has in the past, and the Zeitgeist may suffer for it.

At a reception to be held after the hearing, Chalfen said, “people can learn about the Zeitgeist’s alternate plan — to move to a nearby space that is both currently empty and zoned for what the city calls theater.”

The Zeitgeist has moved already this year, from space at 1353 Cambridge St. that is now the all-music Lily Pad, to 186 Hampshire St., which was the New Words Collective before that moved to 7 Temple St. A move may be the best thing for it, if it gets the city off its collective — or collectivist — back.

But for a city as boastful of its funk as it is of its fiscal power, this is an awfully grim approach to an enduring source of art and enlightenment, and it seems like part of an ominous trend.

The Brattle Theatre is only halfway to the $500,000 it needs to stay in Harvard Square after the end of the year; Toscanini’s is very likely losing its Davis Square Someday Cafe, and its Harvard Square location will be shut down while the landlord works on the host building — effectively cutting two-thirds of Toscanini’s revenue stream. This follows hard on the heels of the construction in front of Toscanini’s Central Square location that crippled business for weeks.

These are the businesses we need to support. I’ll be at work during the Zeitgeist hearing, damnit, but I hope to stop by the reception afterward to find out what’s going on.

The hearing is at the Senior Center, 806 Massachusetts Ave., across from City Hall in Central Square. The reception will be at the Zeitgeist, Chalfen said, “regardless of the outcome.”

Sunday, July 09, 2006


“Fashion” and “fascism” are not as unrelated as I thought — and this has nothing to do with the recent release of the film of “The Devil Wears Prada,” which recapitulates the lessons of high school (people can be mean, but less so if you dress like them) through the adventures of a comely naif working at a style magazine.

Nothing so photogenic here. I merely went looking for a swimsuit and discovered that, this year, the hem is down to the knees. This is apparently the result of a surfer influence, although it might as well come from gangstas or America’s increasing tendency toward obesity. Or all three. For some reason, every fashion trend we have is making men’s clothes baggier, possibly coalescing into an ideal of obese people surfing with Saturday Night Specials jammed down their shorts.

Shorts? Are they still called that, or are men actually wearing culottes now? It feels that silly.

Who are the fashion decision makers able to so completely lower an iron curtain — perhaps an Indian-sarong-style iron curtain, for an ethnic relaxed look — on the border between two years? While I continued wearing my ancient and anachronistic nylon Adidas shorts, wearing out their lining, the style went from ridiculously minimal in summer 2005 to absurdly maximal now. This is suspiciously Manichaean, as though the decision makers are testing the extent of their powers by jackknifing an entire nation of consumers through fashion changes so extreme that it suggests the ultimate fashion accessory is a look of bewilderment. (For consumers, that is. For models, it remains a look of surly vapidity).

It works, too, as I’ve been unable to find swimsuits that go down to midthigh, even online, just as I’ve found it impossible to buy a three-piece suit. I remember asking a fashion-forward friend about this years ago, only to have him laugh in my face — the concept so absurd, that I would look for something so out of style. What’s replaced three-piece suits are jackets that button all the way up to the sternum, and shoppers are supposed to believe that somehow this won’t look as stupid in a few years as the Nehru jacket does now; the three-piece suit, meanwhile, a staple of coolest-man-ever Cary Grant, is relegated to yuks associated with used-car salesmen and baby-blue crushed-velvet prom attire.

Style is timeless. It’s fashion that’s of the moment, susceptible to the whims of the mad and their manufacture of the frequently unwearable, the kind of stuff that is essentially radioactive: You can’t use it, you’re slightly ashamed of the one time you did use it, but it has an incredibly long shelf life. In short, it’s impractical and fails the test of common sense.

Gangsta wear, for instance, is based on the idea that the baggier the clothing, the more firepower can be hidden within. Divorced from the actual smuggling of weaponry and converted into fashion, you just get a lot of people wearing ill-fitting clothing that makes it difficult to move if, in fact, there’s some sort of situation in which they wished they’d brought a weapon. For many of us, we can’t wear it and embarrass ourselves if we do. Onto the shelf with it.

And gigantic swim trunks? They fail the common-sense test in a different way.

If Americans are so obsessed with being tanned, and find farmer tans so risible, it seems incomprehensible they are now embracing swim trunks that will leave them with gangsta tans. Knees will be a rich, prewrinkled brown, thighs will be like purest milk. Unless it is dictated, perhaps, that we must all adopt the swim trench coat and, as an accessory, the swim fedora by fashion police headquarters (where the fashion police gather to make bitter comments about fashion internal affairs and wonder if things would be better as a fashion state trooper or perhaps if they were promoted to fashion police administration).

Because fashion is art, designers and decision makers will always be able to apply the logic of art — there is none — to what they do, and this makes failing the test of common sense pointless, like complaining that a Dali or Picasso is illogical. But fashion is also big business, and that means there’s something else at work.

It’s the same thing behind the evolution of technology that has us revamping our music collections from vinyl to tape to CD to mp3 and our movie collections from reels to VHS to DVD to whatever’s next. And as soon as what we want to listen to, watch or wear becomes unusable, we’re trapped into committing to an entirely new lifestyle, forced into changing.

I just wanted a replacement swimsuit. Not to look like an idiot. Not to waste my time, nor to despair.

I wanted a swimsuit, not a Brownshirt.

Monday, July 03, 2006


True love lives just past the Interstate 93 tolls in New Hampshire, in the rest stop’s men’s toilet in the stall farthest from the door. It is there that some incurable romantic paused late last year to etch into the smoked-plastic toilet paper dispenser:


This raises questions. How long did it take? Was Dave traveling with Carrie at the time? Did Carrie wait impatiently, yell at Dave when he emerged, only to be abashed when he told her what had taken so long? Did Dave ever tell Carrie at all? Has Carrie ever seen Dave’s message of love for her? How did Carrie react? Did she say, “Aw, I love ya, ya big lug”? Did Carrie etch a similar message in the toilet paper dispenser in the women’s room? Are Dave and Carrie still together? Do they visit the rest stop often? And, last but not least: Is this not the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?