Monthly Archives: June 2009

Living With Family

Ever since the financial meltdown last year I’ve seen a lot of down-on-their-luck stories on various news websites.  Not surprisingly, one of the stories that keeps coming up describes people who have lost their homes and are forced to move in with family members.  While I don’t doubt the difficulty of this situation or the heartbreak of losing a home, I’ve also begun to wonder if concentrating a large, extended family in one location is such a bad thing after all. 


Most people I know in the U.S. eventually strike out on their own.  For example, I left home when I was eighteen and though I didn’t become financially independent for a number of years, I also never moved back.  In fact the idea of moving back home and living with my parents is a little bit disturbing to me.  This pattern and mentality seem fairly typical.  Not only that, they seem to represent the desirable norm; its not hard to think of people (fictional or not) who live with their parents and are thusly looked down on.


Even if this is the standard pattern in the U.S. today, it isn’t as common in other parts of the world or in the past.  My first hand experiences in Brazil and Great Briton, as well as my understanding of history, lead me to believe that a more common worldwide (and historical) pattern is for people to live with or near their parents for generation after generation.  If that fact doesn’t necessarily change what we contemporary Americans want to do, it at least indicates that people can lead happy, fulfilling lives whether they strike out on their own or live close to home.


The question as I see it then, is if adults are better off living in larger family units or only with their partners (and children).  In my case, after having been conditioned all my life to look down on living with my family, I imagine it would be difficult to ever return home.  However, if we as a society began to look more critically at this idea and see its possible advantages I think we might  find that those advantages may outweigh any sacrifices.  Obviously living in larger numbers means less privacy, personal freedom, and personal space.  On the other hand it may also mean less loneliness, greater division of labor, and a stronger family culture.  It may just be possible that the pros of living with family outweigh the cons. 


Ultimately Americans seem to conceive of themselves in highly individualistic terms.  As long as we continue to think that way, any loss of individuality will seem like a disaster.  Having to give up the freedom of financial prosperity (and the homes that prosperity provides) will be a dehumanizing experience that robs people of their identity and makes them a burden on those around them.  (It’s no surprise, then, that many of the stories about the economic crisis have focused on the disruption that adult offspring cause in the lives of their parents, as well as the tendency to revert back to adolescent behavior once at home.)


However, I think that it’s possible to see ourselves not as detached individuals but as members of larger communities and/or families.  This probably won’t make losing a job or a home less painful, but it may mitigate the impact on people’s self-perception and the difficulty of living with family.  In other words, if we conceive of ourselves as members of a family or community first, and homeowners or professionals second, our identity will no longer be based on the caprice of the capitalist economy.  What’s more, if we start to think of ourselves in this way living with our families starts to seem like less of a set back and more of a return to our homelands and our heritage.   


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Local Location in Review: State Street in Orem

State Street in Orem is probably one of the ugliest places on Earth.  Or at least in Utah.  Despite recent efforts in many Utah cities to revitalize, Orem seems to be using State Street as a way to actively drive people away. 


State Street is lined with a lethal cocktail of seedy businesses, rundown buildings, and baffling congestion—all of which continue mile after mile.  Things like second-hand car stereo venders, a run down used vacuum store, nameless motels, unfinished construction, and seemingly innumerable used car dealerships would probably be bad enough.  Compounding the problem, however, is a massive seven lane road (including the center turn lane) with lights that have apparently been synchronized to ensure that people hit every red.  It’s almost as if the city was trying to flaunt their lack of interest in beautification. 


I’ve seen many ugly streets before, but what’s most troubling about State Street is the fact that it just keeps getting worse.  For years I’d been surprised at the random mix of dilapidated businesses.  Then, a few years ago two enormous buildings began construction.  At first I was excited by this development; if the buildings were oddly out of place, they at least represented an effort to bring something new and interesting to Orem.  Their mix of residential and commercial space also hinted at an exciting experiment in New Urban-esque development.  Of course, however, construction stalled and nothing has happened for well over a year.  Though there is an excellent pizzeria in one of them, neither of these buildings look finished and there seems to be no sign that they ever will be.  Just when I thought State Street couldn’t get any worse, it became home to two monolithic trash heaps. 


While State Street actually includes a surprising number of excellent businesses (like the nationally recognized Scooter Lounge and the Orem Library) many of these places are hard to find or lost altogether in the mix of nefarious-looking stores and flashing lights.  Seriously, things like huge jumbo-trons look tasteless in most places but in Orem they’re just plain trashy. 


If the recent financial meltdown wasn’t enough to show us the dangers of unregulated business, State Street in Orem should provide conclusive evidence.  Whatever or whoever allowed anyone to do anything they wanted on the street should be subjected to a rapid and relentless referendum (I don’t expect that to happen, but it should and I hope it does).  If Orem wants to live up to its self-declaired title of “Family City U.S.A.” something needs to change.  Otherwise it might be time to consider a more accurate name, like “Meth Lab City U.S.A.” 


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Community Identity Crisis

Sometimes cities have identity crises.  I’m sure it happens for a lot of reasons, though a common one might be colliding values exerted through businesses, buildings, and community activities. My current hometown, Provo, seems to be in the midst of just such a crisis.   


Earlier today Laura and I went looking for some drum equipment and decided to check the local pawnshops for deals.  While (surprisingly) there are pawnshops all over Provo, they’re actually concentrated on Center Street between 4th and 5th West (which is even more surprising to me).  Walking from store to store I couldn’t help but notice the kind of environment that prevailed on this block.  While I don’t like to disparage local enterprise, the area seemed dirty, run down, and seedy because of the kinds of businesses that it housed.  Of the three pawnshops, at least one (and maybe all) doubled as a payday loan business (the filthy dregs of capitalism, in my opinion).  The most legitimate businesses on the block were the City Limits bar (an inevitably marginalized place given Provo’s demographics) and a small restaurant that actually looked appealing but suffered from being wedged between two pawnshops that looked like overstuffed garages.  The block also had numerous vacant spaces, as is the case everywhere in town. 


As we walked around this block it occurred to me that the environment was distinctly one of “Old Provo.”  I don’t mean this in the sense of Provo back in its pioneer past.  Instead, the aesthetics and clientele of the area projected an image of Provo as small, not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, and in some cases rural.  I’m not exactly sure how long each individual business has been in operation, but somehow walking into a store and seeing rows and rows of guns and stuffed, dead animals doesn’t scream “big city.”     


Of course, that’s fine if that is the image that Provo collectively wants to project.  Indeed that is the image that the city projects, as this is the first block of “Historic Provo” after the freeway. However, ironically, the south side of this same block is also home to the Covey Center for the Arts.  This attractive new facility hosts plays, musical performances, art exhibits, and is a participant in Provo’s monthly gallery stroll.  By virtue of its newness, as well as its more cosmopolitan aims, I see it as representative of the “New Provo” image.  This New Provo is characterized by an effort to be both more urban and urbane.  It’s also evident both in the rapid expansion of the Provo arts scene, as well as in opening of other businesses like Guru’s or Mode Boutique.  Unlike the places I visited earlier today, these New Provo establishments target relatively affluent clientele, college students and the highly educated, and a younger middle class demographic. 


I don’t think that either one of these versions of Provo is inherently better than the other.  In reality, they reveal that different groups of people, with different values, live in the city. Personally, I’m attracted to (and participate in) New Provo events and businesses, though I’m well aware that the changes these businesses represent displace and inconvenience other people, many of whom have a more legitimate claim on the city than I do.  What I think is interesting however, is that as each half of this split imagines the city they probably don’t include the opposite side in what they envision.  As New Provo groups attempt to revitalize downtown and bring in more widely appealing businesses, for example,  they will inevitably displace those they consider “less desirable.”  On the other hand, as Old Provo businesses exert their right to exist they make themselves an impediment to the completion of New Provo’s image. 


Right now there is more than enough space for everyone in Provo’s financial district. (“Financial district” is of course a moniker used by New Provo.)  Indeed, I imagine that the city would be happy to fill their many vacant spaces with anything, New or Old.  However, in the long-run this issue will likely become more important.  If the population continues to increase and New Provo businesses are able to expand, different people will obviously have different ideas about how downtown should be used.  This may happen in five years, or in fifty, but there are clearly conflicting values on display in the city today and they will only become more apparent as they come into greater contact.  I have no idea what will happen, but maybe that’s what it means for a town to become a city. 

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Filed under Downtown, Provo

Shopping Cart Theft

This post is about Provo, UT, though I imagine these issues apply in other places as well.  


One of the things that always surprises me about Provo is the number of stray shopping carts strewn about the streets.  What surprises me even more is that I most often see these carts outside BYU student housing.  It’s puzzling to me why someone (especially a student) would steal a shopping cart.  Of course, the obvious excuse is that they don’t have any other way to get their groceries home.  Fair enough.  Yet, I know plenty of people who don’t have cars or bikes and who don’t steal shopping carts, so I have to consider other reasons.  Like maybe students south of BYU campus want their homes to look like a slum.  Perhaps they think grocery prices are too low and are trying to get them raised by stealing from stores.  Maybe they take some sort of pride in that oh so classy I’m-pushing-a-shopping-cart-down-the-street aesthetic.  In any case, stealing a shopping cart is inconsiderate, trashy, and negatively impacts the entire community. 


First, having shopping carts discarded all over the city looks terrible.  It surprises me that BYU students, the majority of whom come from suburban neighborhoods that have never seen a shopping cart, would be so cavalier about letting their homes look like a slum.  I don’t want to get into class issues here, but having stolen shopping carts (or anything stolen, for that matter) all over the place looks decidedly low-class, which I didn’t think was anyone’s desired image.  What’s more, if a problem like this persists long enough it can actually contribute to lowered property values, which in turn will do nothing to improve the conditions of already dilapidated student housing.    


Besides the trashy appearance of discarded shopping carts, this problem can also translate into higher grocery prices for everyone.  For example, if a grocery store loses too many shopping carts they may start requiring a deposit to use them, installing theft prevention technology, or doing any number of things to safeguard their property.  The money for these measures will almost certainly be raised through price increases, and nobody wants that.


One of the biggest problems is that this appears to largely be a student issue in Provo.  I’m willing to entertain the idea that it’s not students doing this, but the highest concentration of stolen carts is conspicuously in the student residential areas between 9th East and University Ave.  Ironically, many BYU students love to complain about Provo city policies.  However, how do we expect the city to treat us decently when “we” are actively trashing up the town?  Of course the city is antagonistic to students and wants to impose parking fees and the like; students aren’t just failing to contribute, they actively appear to be bringing the community down. 


I’m not entirely sure how to solve this problem, other than to raise awareness and outrage over it.  If more people realize it’s bothering others, hopefully whoever is taking the carts will stop.  We could also try returning the carts when we see them.  Ultimately, I know it’s not the majority of BYU students that do this, but it does reflect poorly on us all and frankly, I don’t want to be implicated in something that I find objectionable anyway.  


Filed under Provo

Sensuous Sandwich

For several years after I moved to Provo I’d see the wooden façade of Sensuous Sandwich on Center Street and wonder just what went on inside.  I liked the alliteration in the name, but I also wasn’t sure if I’d feel comfortable going inside, or that I wouldn’t need to take a shower afterward.  Fortunately I eventually got curious (and hungry) enough to try it out.  Since then, and after many visits, it has slowly become my favorite sandwich shop in all of Utah. 


Entering Sensuous Sandwich the first thing you notice is that the décor is sort of tacky-chic.  On my first visit I was actually surprised at the lack of visual cohesion.  The walls and tables are covered in random old comic strips, 1980s anti-drug posters (this is your brain on drugs…), and Polaroid’s of people who have eaten 24-inch sandwiches.  Combined with the florescent lighting, none of these things seemed to set the mood for a particularly comfortable meal.  On the other hand, the more times I visit the more I’m impressed with how much I like the ambiance.  It gives you enough to look at while not trying to use nostalgia to make up for mediocre food.  While lesser restaurants would suffer from doing the same, Sensuous Sandwich can afford it.  The décor also stands in stark contrast to the generic, market-researched trappings of larger chains.  When you go in, you feel like you’re a local in a local business.  You also get the feeling that an actual person put up all the posters and comics, and that they did so because they liked them, not because they thought it would sell more product. 


While the atmosphere of Sensuous Sandwich makes you feel like a local, the venue’s greatest asset is its food.  Like any small restaurant, the quality of eating experience depends significantly on what you get.  Obviously some sandwiches, while good, aren’t far-and-away better than what you can find elsewhere.  On the other hand, I’ve never had a sub even remotely as delicious as the “Spicy Enticer.”  With pastrami, pepperoni, Italian sausage, and your choice of trappings (just get everything and choose cream cheese), this sandwich may well give you coronary heart disease, but if it does you’ll never be happier about it.  I usually get the four or six inch sandwich, though it’s so good I routinely wish I could pack away more.  My other favorite is “The Tantalizer,” but with each sandwich there are numerous customizing options; order what you think you’ll like but don’t be afraid to experiment.  For example, I don’t usually like cream cheese, but I love it on the Spicy Enticer.  Like the décor the sandwiches aren’t fancy, but they’ll fill you up and, more importantly, they taste delicious.  Also, one of the best things about Sensuous Sandwich is that you pay by the inch.  Sandwiches start at $2.69 four inches and go up from there.  Generally, with those prices Sensuous Sandwich is also one of the most economic places you can eat. 


In the end Sensuous Sandwich is one of those places that make me sad I won’t always live in Provo.  For now however, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it’s one of Utah County’s best culinary treasures.  It’s small, local, and gritty enough to be unique, while also offering some of the best food you can find. 



Filed under Food, local, Provo

Local Location in Review: The Wash Hut

For a long time I lived only in places that had either washers and dryers in the apartment, or laundromats on site.  Now, however, I rent a small house in Provo, Utah, just off 9th East, and (cool as the house is) it has no laundry facilities.  Accordingly, Laura and I are required to do our laundry at local laundromats.  Most commonly, we patronize The Wash Hut on the corner of 5th East and 6th North.


As laundromats go, The Wash Hut is pretty decent.  It costs $1.50 to do a small load of laundry, and $2.50 for a large load.  Drying is $0.25 per ten minutes (usually, though there have been times when it was mysteriously more or less).  Though those prices seem like a rip-off to me, they are also comparable to and competitive with other laundromats in Provo, so they’re at least fair within the community.  Also, The Wash Hut is large and has enough washers and dryers that I’ve never had trouble getting my wash done, even at busy times.  It’s open Monday through Saturday, 7 AM -11 PM.      


Where the Wash Hut really excels is in all the extras it provides.  First, there is usually someone present, in the office, in case something goes wrong.  I’ve been to other facilities that seem like no one has come to clean up or do repairs since the 1990s.  In The Wash Hut’s case, everything is clean-ish and in working order.  While that might seem like the bare minimum for a decent laundromat, The Wash Hut also provides change machines, old arcade games, and free hangers.  While having some of these things (like the change machines) might seem like common sense, The Wash Hut’s strength is that they actually work. 


Probably the best thing about The Wash Hut is its free wireless Internet.  As I write this, for example, I am actually doing my laundry.  They have a protected network, but the password is posted on the office door.  Given the size and potential for relative anonymity at the facility, it might be my new favorite wi-fi hotspot.  (I actually hate going to cafes and stores to connect to the Internet.  It seems like they’re never big enough or don’t have a place to sit, or have a line of customers trying to read my emails out of the corners of their eyes.)


In the end, you probably don’t want to spend all day hanging out at The Wash Hut, but if you need to do your laundry, send an email, or play an arcade game, its not a bad place to be.  And while I wouldn’t recommend anything from the vending machines, if you choose to do your laundry at The Wash Hut you can rest assured that you clothes are getting clean and you won’t get mugged while waiting for them.


Filed under local, Provo

The Bombay House

Provo’s Bombay House is probably my favorite restaurant in the city.  So much so that it almost doesn’t seem worth writing a review, as so many people already love it and it has received a number of positive reviews from established critics.  However, as the Bombay House continually evolves its menu and Provo continues to experience a fair amount of population turnover, this is one restaurant worth revisiting.


The first time I ate at the Bombay House was surprisingly only a year ago.  It had been one of those restaurants I’d always heard about and meant to visit, but had never gotten around to going.  It was popular enough, I figured, that it would be around at least as long as I was.  While that’s probably true, my first visit—with some friends from school—made me kick myself for not visiting earlier.  If you’re in Provo, don’t make my mistake.  Try the Bombay House sooner rather than later.


Environment: Never having been to India I can’t say how “authentic” the décor of the restaurant is, though it certainly seems Indian.  It has low lighting, subdued earth tones, and colorful murals on the walls.  Most importantly, it offers a quite, romantic environment.  I’ve always been impressed, for example, with the hosts’ particular attention to seating that balances public and private space.  I never feel like I’m lost in a sea of busy patrons (like I do at, say, the Macaroni Grill), nor do I feel like I’m hidden away to the point of isolation.  When I’ve gone with Laura, we’ve always been given a romantic private booth.  On my most recent visit, in a large group, we were given a secluded but not sequestered area near the back of the restaurant.  The result is an experience that is quiet and intimate, but still lets you feel like you’re in the center of the action.


Food: If learning to choose the best items on a menu is a skill that takes years of practice, the Bombay House is the perfect training ground, as virtually everything is superb.  My particular favorites are the Lamb Mushroom and the Chicken Tikka Masala.  However, while I enjoy meat as much as anyone, the very best items are found on the vegetarian portion of the menu.  The Vegetable Coconut Kurma has a faintly sweet character and blends perfectly with the Peshawari Naan.  The Channa Raja, on the other hand, has a darker richness and is better complemented by the Garlic Naan.  However, if I had to choose one dish to eat over and over it would be the Paneer Masala (and indeed I have a hard time not simply eating it over and over).  With homemade cheese, garlic, tomatoes, onions and a bunch of other stuff, this dish offers a creamy sumptuousness that is both filling and immensely pleasurable.


Price:  I tend to over-order at the Bombay House.  Several visits ago I spent around forty dollars for two people (including the tip), but ended up with more than half the food in a take-out box at the end of the meal.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I enjoy having left over for a day or two, but a more accurate price range for two people is probably closer to twenty or thirty dollars.  Each dish generally comes in a small saucer (and is usually a sauce-like consistency), along with a pot of rice (usually shared between two people).  I’d recommend getting some sort of Naan (bread); it’s delicious and I prefer eating the dishes with Naan to eating them over rice.  The last time I ate at the Bombay House Laura and I shared a main course and got two orders of Naan (Peshawari and Garlic).  It left us full but not stuffed and came to just about twenty dollars with the tip.  Another dish would have put it up around thirty dollars, plus a little more for drinks (which, regrettably, we didn’t order that time). 


Conclusion: The Bombay House is a rare combination of romantic environment and delicious food.  Its prices are fair and the service well above average.  It offers the perfect place for a date, family, or just a group of friends.  So don’t wait like I did; try the Bombay House soon.  It’s located at 463 N University Ave, and is open 4 PM to  10 PM, Monday through Saturday.  

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Café Rio

I’m going to go ahead and make some people mad and say that Café Rio is a mediocre restaurant, at best, that substitutes quantity for quality and dupes people into buying food that would be better, cheaper, and more authentic elsewhere.  I know that many people love Café Rio and I don’t mean to upset you if you’re one of them.  But I really can’t figure out what so may people like about huge helpings of mediocrity. 


I’ve eaten at Café Rio four times that I can remember.  The first time was because everyone told me it was the greatest place in the world and I wanted to try it out.  After that, I’ve eaten there because I was with other people who wanted to go.  With each visit I’ve always expected to have my opinions reversed.  After all, how could so many people like a restaurant that has proven so average on my own visits?  Yet each time I visit I come away wondering why dish seems to be more or less the same, and how I couldn’t hear a single word anyone in my party was saying (because the dining area environment is similar to a commercial warehouse or manufacturing plant). 


I’ve eaten a bunch of things at Café Rio.  I’ve ordered at least four dishes, plus I’ve usually eaten some of Laura’s food when we’ve been there together.  I can’t say that any of these dishes were particularly bad.  In some cases they had a relatively good flavor.  On the other hand, not a single one was the least bit memorable.  What’s more, the portions are huge.  This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing; however, huge portions are often a warning signal that a restaurant is trying to hide something.  Keep in mind that it doesn’t cost very much to throw more beans and rice or lettuce (or most ingredients, for that matter) on a dish.  On the other hand, what does cost a lot more is hiring more capable chefs or buying more salient recipes.  Café Rio clearly went with the economic approach in this case.  That would be fine, except that I can go get filled up on Mexican food for a lot less at a place like Betos/Rancheritos.  Heck, I could probably even get more bang for my buck at Del Taco, and the flavor and authenticity of Del Taco is comparable to  Café Rio’s.  The problem, then, is that Café Rio’s prices lead me to believe that it will be better than typical Mexican fast food, when in fact it’s a little bit worse.


As I mentioned above, I’m not a fan Café Rio’s environment.  It has that commercialized, faux-ethnic atmosphere that seems to be pathetically screaming “we’re watered down for the mainstream American consumer.  You should eat here because we’re safe.”  That might be excusable, except that the décor is combined with what seems like an effort to make the restaurant as loud as possible.  Every time I’ve gone to Café Rio I’ve visited a different location, but in each one all I could hear was an annoying din that swallowed up all other noise.  Café Rio falls into that weird niche between fast food and sit-down restaurants, but oddly, its environment is worse than either.  While pedestrian Americana restaurants like Chilies, Applebee’s, Red Robin, etc. are vexingly generic and also offer mediocre food, at least I can carry on a conversation while I’m there. 


In the end, Café Rio will fill you up.  Then again, so will a lot places (Chuck-A-Rama, for example, which is of comparable quality to Café Rio).  I’ve also never been to an American city that didn’t have a better Mexican restaurant.  So the next time your out, try something different.  You might be surprised by what you find.  


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