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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 27, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Web Spread, Hotel Glasses, Chocolates, Bank of America

It's amazing what circulates on the web now. Not that long ago, the web was just a brochure rack at best; now, you can do serious business online -- and you can get something spread through the world in moments.

For instance, this past weekend I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the President of the Mormon Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, passed away. Within minutes, we got a phone call from my assistant, who had heard the news because her daughter had seen it on FaceBook!

It took twenty minutes for us to confirm it from any official source -- but FaceBook had spread the word with incredible efficiency.

Of course, things only spread on the web when people care enough to pass them along. Some people consider this spam, but not me. When it comes to me from a trusted friend, then it counts as networking.

There are people who forward practically everything that comes into their email inbox, and I've learned to ignore them. I also know which of my friends send me "web weepers" -- those touching messages and heartwarming stories that always make me faintly ill.

I don't complain to the senders -- actually, I'd like to keep it a secret what a cynical old curmudgeon I've grown up to be. But I also don't pass their sweet, sappy little messages along. Sorry.

Of course, I also have gullible friends who get sucked into every hoax -- thank heaven for the sites that debunk them. I've been sucked into a couple myself, but I do check before sending things along.

Then there are the reliable ones. My cousin Mark, for instance, never sends me something unless it's either

1. Funny

2. Cool

3. Incredible

4. Bizarre

Kid Singer

For instance, Mark just send me a video of a seven-year-old kid singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a basketball game. I've listened to it three times now. At first I was sure the kid had to be lip-synching to someone else's voice, but no such thing. It's definitely him.

And it's not just that he's so young. It's also that he is really, seriously good. In about nine years or eleven -- is their cutoff 16 or 18? -- he'll take American Idol by storm. That is, if he doesn't already have four gold records from his child-singer career!

Here's the website -- go and watch him and listen for yourself:


Sometimes what comes into my mailbox isn't funny. Sometimes it's downright disturbing.

Dirty Glasses

I travel a lot, and stay in a lot of hotels, and I have always taken it for granted that between guests, the glasses in hotel rooms are taken to the dishwashing machine in the hotel restaurant and washed in sterilizingly hot water.

Then along comes a video from the news department of the Fox station in Atlanta, showing what their hidden camera reveals about the "washing" of hotel glasses.

How do you feel about drinking from a glass sprayed with glass cleaning fluid labeled "Do Not Drink!" and then rinsed out?

How about just rinsed?

How about rinsed by a maid wearing the same rubber gloves she wore when she "cleaned" the toilet?

Suddenly I think far more highly of hotels that put out individually wrapped plastic cups. They are now my friends. Because I will never, never drink from a hotel glass again.

Here's what just kills me about this: I have been so stupid! How many times have I passed maids' carts in the corridors? Hundreds, I assure you. I've even looked at them, looked at what they were carrying; I even noticed that they didn't have clean glasses being carried to the rooms or dirty ones being carried away!

I just assumed that someone else came around later and did the swapping of glasses.

But I've also been in my room working while it was being cleaned. I've been there all day. There was no guy who swapped glasses. The maid didn't take away any glasses. She didn't bring any glasses. What did I think was happening?

I was just ... trusting. In America, the land where any chemical that once killed a rat is banned, hotels wouldn't actually allow maids to simply rinse out glasses between guests! Would they?

Management has to know -- somebody has to have realized that glasses weren't being picked up from rooms and washed.

And it wasn't just cheap hotels -- it was some of the top-ranked ones as well.

Here are the two websites showing the complete videos. The second one is a followup to the first, so it repeats some material -- but goes on to make you sick.



Lingering Web Stories

Another good thing about the web is that stories don't all go away. Of course, this is annoying when you do a Google search and everything that comes up is from 2003 instead of the recent story you're hoping for. (And yes, I know you can sort your Google results by recency, but who remembers until it's already up there in a mess?)

But when you do want that story from 2003, there it is. At least on websites that can afford to pay to keep all the old information online.

For instance, after I wrote my review of David Gemmell's fantasy fiction, Calvin Dodge, a reader of this column, sent me a link:

It was a pleasure to know that I wasn't the only person to appreciate Gemmell. John J. Miller, writing for The Wall Street Journal online, knew a lot more information than I did and had read different books. So I'm glad to be able to send you to Miller's essay even though it's already "old news."

Especially because he tells you just how much of Gemmell's last book he really wrote (most of it), and what his wife had to go through to finish it.

And his recommendation of the Troy books was so good that I've now bought them and will read them soon.

The danger, though, is that old reviews linger on. For instance, how many people, searching for information about something I've reviewed, will read one of my raves -- but will not read the review where I tell how sad I am that quality has fallen off and I no longer recommend the thing?

I need to index my whole website so that if you get to one of my reviews, and I later rescind or modify it, you can see the updated information, too.

I'll do that in my spare time, Real Soon Now ...

Or ... here's an idea ... I'll hire some poor benighted high school student to do it for me as his miserable, underpaid summer job!

Wait. I already did that. Results soon to appear online. (Thanks, Daniel!)


If you're ever in Cambridge, in the vicinity of Harvard, looking for a serious meal, one of the most seductive choices is a hamburger joint called Bailey's. It has recommendations from all the Boston papers and magazines -- raves, really -- and the tourists are lined up outside even in 18-degree weather, waiting for a table.

When you get inside, you're likely to get seated at the same table with strangers -- that's how tightly the place gets packed.

I can't eat that way. Furthermore, the place smelled so rancid with a combination of sweaty people and nasty cooking grease that I thought that I'd accidentally stumbled into a cannibals' locker room. I was actually nauseated as they were showing me to my table.

First thought: I'll get used to the smell before the food comes.

Second thought: They're really going to expect me to bump elbows with strangers while eating?

Third thought: Where do Harvard professors eat? It can't be here.

Out the door we went, and on down the street, looking for someplace that allowed you to choose your own tablemates. We walked around quite a bit, but ended coming back to a restaurant only a few doors down from Bailey's: Grafton Street Pub and Grill (1230 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge (617) 497-0400).

I was only looking for a burger and shake, mind you. But between the door and our table I revised my expectations. The place had class. This restaurant was aiming high -- I would, too.

So my lunch consisted of an amazing warm-beet salad followed by fish and chips made from fresh cod. My wife had their excellent clam chowder (sort of a minimum requirement in the Boston area!) and a perfect chicken Caesar salad.

But that doesn't tell you how simply pleasant it was to eat there for lunch. Our waitress was charming and helpful and never kept us waiting. We liked the experience so much that the next night, after signing books for a few hours at Harvard Book Store (a wonderful independent, worthy competition for the nearby and more-famous Coop bookstore), my wife and daughter and I went back to Grafton Street Pub and Grill for dessert.

Well, they had dessert. After all, they had eaten dinner while I was signing, though their food was kind of miserable, causing them to leave the restaurant they had tried and go on to get a bit to eat a Au Bon Pain, a national good-food chain.

The trouble with dessert was that, alas, all their desserts had either alcohol (which my wife is allergic to) or chocolate (which our daughter detests) or both.

I'll never understand why chefs think that their desserts need to contain the same substances as their after-dinner drinks. If people want alcoholic beverages, they can buy them! But we serious dessert-eaters want food that tastes like itself instead of featuring liquors that always take over the flavor.

So they ended up having vanilla ice cream for their dessert. I had that too, of course, but since I hadn't had any dinner, I also tried their dinner appetizer of "devilled [sic] eggs (4 ways)." These looked like standard picnic deviled eggs -- you know, a split hard-boiled egg, the yolk removed, whipped with mayonnaise and spices, and then put back into the half-white.

Only each one had a different flavor, and the accompaniments that went with them -- especially the olive tapenade -- were wonderful.

I also had a cheeseburger on brioche bread.

I don't know why more restaurants and bakeries don't bring us brioche. This is, quite simply, the best bread ever made, and you can get it everywhere in France. But in America -- even in supposed French bakeries and restaurants -- it is nearly unfindable.

Grafton Street Pub and Grill had their hamburgers on brioche buns, and that's why I had to try one.

The result was amazing. I wish I had been hungrier. I knew after a few bites that I couldn't finish it. So ... I left behind the rest of the meat and finished the bread. Brioche is not to be wasted, my friends.

If you ever find yourself hungry while trapped in the vicinity of Harvard, this is the place.

Or ... if you have more time ... take a cab or a longish walk and go to Henrietta's Table at the Charles Hotel. I've reviewed this restaurant before, but because we were there on a Sunday, we went there for Sunday brunch and had a wonderful time.

Not only was the food good, but they sold vast quantities of organic chocolates made by Lake Champlain Chocolates.

Though we had a reservation, we were stuck waiting in line as tables were cleared out and put together for a large group. My wife and I were famished, having eaten nothing yet that day (and our reservation was for two p.m.). Standing by a display of chocolates was too much to bear.

So I bought a clear plastic box of assorted chocolate squares. There was milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and milk with almonds -- all delicious.

But for me the standout was their Dark Spicy Aztec. When you first taste it, you get a subtle cinnamon flavor; but after a few moments, the peppers kick in. Not hot enough to be uncomfortable, and never so strong as to overpower the chocolate. It was simply amazing. All of the Dark Spicy Aztec in that assortment was gone before our table was called.

You can get these online at http://www.lakechamplainchocolates.com. It's going to be one of the favorite bookmarks on my Mozilla Firefox browser.


I went to Bank of America on Pisgah Church Road with a friend from another country who needed an American checking account. We chose the bank for him because (a) they really do cover almost the entire United States, with branches everywhere, and (b) we've worked with their online banking with ample opportunities to compare it with other banks, and it's simply the most versatile, powerful online banking we've seen.

But online is one thing, and in-person is another. I don't actually handle any of our banking -- we've learned that when I mess with it, checks bounce and things go wrong, while my wife is so meticulous that any errors are invariably caused by the bank and not by her.

So I haven't actually opened a bank account of any kind in ... let's see ... twenty-five years. I was prepared for all kinds of bureaucratic runaround.

And so I was not surprised when at first the requirement of "two forms of i.d." looked like an insuperable barrier. My friend's passport was fine, of course, but the second form was going to be a problem. Any i.d. he had was not allowed; any kind they allowed, he didn't have.

But the "personal banker" who was helping us, Ashleigh Greene, would not give us "no" for an answer. She was resourceful and actually seemed to care that my friend get this account opened. Right then.

And sure enough, she found a way within the corporate rules, and the account was created. And along the way, chatting with my friend (mostly) and me (a little), I felt as though we had at least an ally, and maybe a friend, at the bank. While she did an excellent job of her official duties, she also let us know her as a human being.

She never made either of us feel stupid for the things we didn't know. There was never a hint of artificiality about her, either ("How are we today?"), or any of those fake-intimate terms of endearment that make me want to claw somebody's eyes out ("No, I am not your sweetie, thanks, and I will in fact beat you as thin as kleenex if you call me that again").

She was just helpful and real.

When I got home and told my wife how impressed I was, she said, "Yes, I've never had anything but good experiences like that at Bank of America." So maybe Ashleigh Greene's demeanor was corporate policy! But I really don't think you can fake that.

(This is not to say that at the other banks where we do business, people throw soup cans at our heads or jab us with pins. I'm merely calling attention to exceptional service and personal attention.)

Of course, it would have been even nicer if they automatically added a thousand dollars to my friend's account as a bonus. But that would be asking too much.

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