Tag Archives: COVID-19

Wheel Good People

3 Sep

Wheel good people: Riders can see solutions from astride bicycle seats, and really deliver

By Tom Meek

The Agassiz Baldwin Community’s Phoebe Sinclair talks Friday with volunteer riders in the Cambridge Bike Delivery Program. (Photo: Raina Fox)

Efforts to address challenges such as Covid-19 and racial division and to better the community are zooming along on two wheels, undeterred by the death of bicyclist Darryl Willis in Harvard Square on Aug. 18. One effort, the Cambridge Bike Delivery Program, was set up at the onset of the pandemic to address the needs of at-risk elders and others with limited means; another, the Cambridge Bike Give Back Program, was launched in response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on Memorial Day and subsequent Black Lives Matter activities.

The Cambridge Bike Delivery concept grew organically among members of the Cambridge Bike Safety Group – an amalgam of local cyclists without any real hierarchy, assembled with the mission of advocating for safe streets in Cambridge – to make home deliveries of meds and groceries to seniors from Skenderian Apothecary, Inman Pharmacy, Pemberton Farms Marketplace and other stores without a delivery services. The logistics “proved to be tougher than anticipated,” organizer Rebecca Neuman said. “We had over 300 cyclists, but it was hard to line people up on dates and times.” Outreach to the elderly became something of a challenge as well, and the effort waned. But Neuman struck up conversations with staff at the Agassiz Baldwin Community Center and Margaret Fuller House, in The Port neighborhood. The Margaret Fuller House runs its own food pantry program, while the Agassiz Baldwin Community Center has just become an outpost for the Cambridge Community Center food pantry. Both programs needed volunteers to deliver food to the vulnerable, so Neuman set up a signup portal to coordinate riders with deliveries on the days the food pantries got shipments.

A rider sets out Aug. 25 with a delivery for the Cambridge Bike Delivery Program. (Photo: Tom Meek)

For each provider there are a dozen to several dozen deliveries on any given pantry day, coming three to four times a week. Neuman, who puts in a few hours each week to keep it all flowing, tries to keep the matches surgical and lean. The loads for the Margaret Fuller House are about 10 to 20 pounds of vegetables per delivery, bulky and heavy loads for which most riders employ a tagalong trailer or large food delivery bag, coordinator and director of finance and operations Cory Haynes said. The hauls from Cambridge Community Services range from frozen foods to baby diapers; one delivery rider recalled having to deliver an ice cream cake during high, humid 80-degree weather.

For the Agassiz Baldwin Community Center and Margaret Fuller House, the venture has been a natural and helpful fit that should carry on post-coronavirus, and Neuman is looking for other ways to use the volunteer army of riders – possibly reenabling curbside composting, which was suspended by the city during the coronavirus lockdown. (Though the mention of odor and stench trailing behind a hard-pedaling cyclist had Neuman and Haynes scrunching up their noses over a Zoom call.)

Bike Give Back

Lonnell Wells, right, put together his Cambridge Bike Give Back program after consulting with friends in the community. (Photo: Lonnell Wells)

The Cambridge Bike Give Back program was started just over a month ago by Lonnell Wells and a collection of friends he calls his “community.” Wells, distraught after Floyd’s murder, looked inward and talked deeply with them about what could be done to fix the country. The giveback program is “Plan B,” Wells said – “something to do for the kid who doesn’t have the bike to ride with their friends, the ex-con who just got a job who doesn’t have the money to ride the T, and a way for people to exercise when you can’t go to the gym.” The process is simple: Wells has taken to social media to ask for “broken old bikes” that he and his team piece together and give to those in need; jubilant photos from pickups and drop-offs are easy to find on social media. At the time of our sit-down, Wells estimated the program had collected more than 30 broken bikes and given back 17.

Wells grew up in The Port – “Area 4,” as he still fondly calls it – and graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, but now lives in Chelsea, has a 10-year-old son and works as a chef at Boston University. He refers to his post-work scavenging expeditions to gather bike carcasses as “demon time.” For the bike assemblies, Wells host parties, for which he does what he does: cooks. Partial to Southern food, Wells likes to make collard greens and sticky chicken, which is thrown back in the skillet with hot sauce just before serving.

Wells did not go into details about Plan A. “Not enough time,” he said at our meeting. But he expressed gratitude to the bike community at large, which he described as supportive of his project. Bike groups are also active in Black Lives Matter organizing: There have been three 800-person Ride for Black Lives through Greater Boston, organized in part by Crimson BikesBoston Bike PartyBikes Not Bombs and Spoke House, at a time organizers would not risk more casual rides. U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley kicked off the ride this past Sunday; there are also weekly MIT-to-Arlington Black Lives Matter rides on Sundays.

The project and scope of the Give Back venture is sure to grow. On Sunday, the program hosts a barbecue at Greene-Rose Heritage Park on Harvard Street near the Fletcher Maynard School. The flyer lists family-friendly scavenger hunts, voter registration and free food.

Is it safe to see a film in a theater?

2 Sep

Kendall Square Cinemas has reopened quietly, with fare such as ‘Tenet’ for up to 25 in theater

By Tom Meek
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Two weeks ago, I penned a column about movie screens staying dark in Cambridge and Somerville because of the pandemic, even as AMC, ShowPlace Icon and other theater chains opened in and around Boston. Friday that all changed: the Landmark theater in Kendall Square had something of a stealth opening.

“Face masks at all times, limited seating and no concessions at this time, per state guidelines,” theater manager Howie Sandler said in an email. “Also we are cleaning throughout the day, and after each show we wipe down chairs. We have signs up all over the place stipulating masks and social distancing, and we have markers on the floor leading you to buy tickets.” (State guidelines actually allow prepackaged foods.)

The limited seating measures including every other row being blocked off in the bigger theaters, “and we ask folks to leave two chairs between them and another party. Smaller theaters have seats blocked off in each row to spread people out,” Sandler said. A maximum 25 people are allowed in the larger theaters, and 16 to 24 people in Kendall Square Cinemas’ three smaller ones.

For now, The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square remains closed to public screenings but is available for private rentals – most of which have been to couples, according to the “Brattle Film Podcast.” Apple Cinemas in Fresh Pond also remains closed, like the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square and Harvard Film Archive.

The Kendall Square theater is playing traditional arthouse fare such as “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and “Tesla,” but also Charlie Kaufman’s latest “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which caught me by surprise, as my press kit says it’s coming to Netflix on Sept. 4. What’s also interesting is that this week Landmark will open “Tenet,” the latest big-screen extravaganza from Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk,” “Inception”). It’s a shift for Landmark, though its sister theater Embassy Cinema in Waltham plays more mainstream box office fare.

Nolan’s film has been a sore point for critics; many say they won’t go to a theater yet and prefer to get screener links. No links were given out for “Tenet,” so if you didn’t go to theater-staged press screening, you did not see it. Some media outlets (including The Washington Post) won’t run reviews for theater-only releases; others (including The Boston Globe) that get screener links for theater-only releases will post a safety caveat. I’m still struggling with the “Do I review a film in the confines of my house and recommend it to you when you can only see it in the theater” conundrum. I missed the “Tenet” press screening due to a personal conflict, so if you see a review here from me, you’ll know I went to the theater just as you would. I have to say Sandler’s precautions at Kendall sound thorough – but it’s still an indoor space.

In response to this whole Covid-19, get-back-to-normal limbo, studios take different approaches. “Bill & Ted Face the Music” was released simultaneously theatrically and through online streaming (for $20). The live-action “Mulan” from Disney will be released this weekend on the conglomerate’s streaming platform Disney+ for $30.

Getting in two steel wheel in complicated times

31 May

Covid-19 makes bikes more important than ever; It also complicates everything about getting one

A line forms Saturday outside Ace Wheelworks between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

When gyms and parks were restricted and shuttered by the coronavirus shutdown, cycling saw a surge as a means of exercise, recreation and transportation – biking by definition has social distancing built into it, a sterling alternative to a crowded subway car where one good sneeze could have a devastating effect. As Massachusetts seeks to get back to normal, bikes will stay important for summer recreation and commuter options. Cambridge just announced a “Shared Streets” initiative to pair with Somerville, and over in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a “Healthy Streets” plan, safer paths encouraging new riders who were formerly deterred by the crush of regular motor vehicle traffic.

If you don’t have a bike and want to get on one, how do you do it with the Covid-19 restrictions still in place? One way is a bike share such as Blue Bikes, but most people will want the comfort and convenience of owning their own steel steed. Buying off Craigslist and the like is one option, but brings with it questions about bike size and other factors – including whether the bike was stolen. Bike stores offer professional advice and a better understanding of quality and cost, help for first-time buyers and assurance of help and service down the line.

Bike stores were deemed “essential” by Gov. Charlie Baker during the shutdown, and most in the Cambridge/Somerville area remained open. Now all are back online with the exception of Quad Bikes, which operates out of a Harvard-owned facility on Shepherd Street. During the stay-at-home mandate, maintenance and repairs were by curbside appointment, and it’ll be largely the same for the first phase of Baker’s four-phase return plan. One of the big challenges presented are hands-on sampling and test rides. Carice Reddien, owner of Bicycle Belle368 Beacon St., near Porter Square in Somerville, a specialist in cargo bikes, e-bikes and family-friendly extension bikes (and just reopened) said, “We’ve been doing socially distanced test rides outside the shop, and it seems to work.” Jason Paige, co-owner of Ace Wheelworks145 Elm St., between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville, whose shop was open for the duration, said, “We do a pretty thorough sales job on the phone, but the first time they ride it is when they pick it up curbside.” That model is flipped from before Covid-19, but Paige said the store has adopted a relaxed return and exchange policy to make shoppers more comfortable with a big purchase. “If you call with a price range and type of style, we’ll make something happen,” Paige said.

The bigger problem is supply and shipping in times of high demand. “Be patient,” Reddien said. “Supplies are low and shops are stretched thin trying to work in new and safe ways.” Paige said Wheelworks at one point had to stop taking orders over the phone because a salesperson would take an order only to have an online shopper beat them to the last SKU. (On the day that I wrote this, the website had a message saying “Sales temporarily suspended.”)

Other stores coming back are trying novel approaches to meet demand and their customer’s needs. Crimson Bikes, the Cannondale retailer at 1001 Massachusetts Ave., Mid-Cambridge, offers mobile visits to your home as well as curbside appointments; Cambridge Bicycle259 Massachusetts Ave., The Port, has something of what shop manager Josh Smith describes as an “Old West countertop service,” with accessories and helmets exhibited at the door for customers to review and try out. Cambridge Bicycle also offers limited test rides.

One thing all agreed on was that the shutdown has been both a boon for cycling. “More people now see cycling as a more attractive and viable thing,” Smith said. Paige said that he’s doing a lot more family sales, with overall sales in units notably up from last year, but accessory sales down. “Families are getting out and biking together,” he said. “That makes me emotional.”

The best way to buy a bike in these socially distancing times seems to start with online research, then a sales call before a scheduled test ride. And to remember, as Reddien said: “Be patient.”

The Brattle and COVID-19

18 May
The Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” a repertory staple, plays to an empty house at The Brattle Theatre, which closed its doors to the public March 14. (Photo: The Brattle Theatre)

A four-phase strategy for reopening Massachusetts businesses and public facilities was announced this week by Gov. Charlie Baker. The plan was vague on details and dates leading up to a final “new normal,” which is something like where we were before Covid-19 turned Boston into a hot zone, though Phase I presumably kicks off May 18. Just what that means and for whom seems to be a bit of a moving target. Among those with questions is the “gathering industry,” as Ivy Moylan, executive director of The Brattle Theatre, explained was how the Harvard Square repertory institution and other arts venues were tagging themselves since the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re hoping to heal and rebound and bring back the joy,” Brattle creative director Ned Hinkle said, “but not be too quick about it. The goal is to open as quickly as possible when it’s safe to do so.” The Brattle ran a survey of its members recently to gauge what “safe” means.

A smattering of drive-ins have opened around the country, and Universal released “Trolls World Tour” digitally (making more than $100 million in three weeks of digital release, something Hinkle says likely happened due to lack of competition) while art houses such as The Brattle and Somerville Theatre have been running Virtual Screening Room selections – smaller releases such as “Deerskin” and arthouse and foreign language classics with a portion of rental fees benefiting the theater you rent from.

“As a small business, we’re pretty agile,” Moylan said. “We could come back pretty quickly.” When shuttering March 14, The Brattle did not have to furlough its employees. “Most are part time,” Moylan said, “but when we shut down, they were our first priority. We want to protect them.” Moylan said at first the shutdown was terrifying, but as things went on managers realized going offline for a while and coming back was doable. “A couple of months,” she said. “A year would be hard.” The nonprofit theater has taken in a good sum through donations and has received Payroll Protection Program funding for its employees.

There’s also the dollars rolling in from the Virtual Screening Room. “It’s great,” Hinkle said, “but a good chunk of what we and theaters make is from concessions.” The Brattle during this time has also engaged filmgoers through virtual programing (movie lists, such as our Film Ahead section has morphed into), a podcast and Friday movie nights co-sponsored with the city.

Aside from slow openings, there’s another problem that will face mainstream theaters relying on the studio system for films, Hinkle said: a dearth of product. The latest James Bond (“No Time to Die”), the next two “Mission: Impossible” chapters, “A Quiet Place Part II” and the next “Wonder Woman” installment have all had their release dates pushed by months. The Brattle, on the other hand, which plays smaller releases and repertory fare, isn’t so reliant.

“We want to bring a rich experience back to our valued patrons,” Hinkle said, “people are hungry for that type of communal experience.” The looming question remains when.

 

The Bellmen

10 May

 

bellmen

“The Bellmen” is the kind of weak-kneed, cheeky comedy David Spade or Rob Schneider might have made a decade or so ago. It’s a lo-fi romp about a posse of misfit bellhops at a fancy Arizona resort that plays its thin premise loose and fast for sophomoric laughs; what deepens it are the inadvertently topical plot developments that involve hand sanitizer and a white person hijacking another’s heritage for their own gain.

The film centers on a boisterous, posturing hunk named Steve (Adam Ray), something of a throwback to the blow-dried salad days of Scott Baio and John Travolta. Steve’s proud and boastful of his station as bell captain, and a professed bellhop for life. His main ambitions besides quality service and landing a big tip are Kelly (Kelen Coleman, of “Big Little Lies”), the cute head concierge, and his frat boy hazing of new bellhops – if only Jerry Lewis could apply. People check in and people go, as the ribald bellmen bite their knuckles over statuesque check-ins while barely maintaining professional standards. Then there’s the big weekend where the hotel is filled with folks teeming to see a self-help spiritual guru named Gunther (Thomas Lennon, “Reno 911!”), who plays up his mystic Indian roots and arrives with a pair of comely attachés in bikinis who administer hand sanitizer liberally and regularly to a cult of wide-eyed worshipers. That hand cleanser, it turns out, does more than just sanitize: It opens your mind to the power of suggestion and loosens your purse strings. Steve smells something amiss, but he’s waived off as a goofball control freak to those slathered in the stuff.

Written and directed by Cameron Fife, extending a 2017 TV short, “Bellmen” runs freely with its shaggy dog underbelly of paradise concept, a genre for which “Caddyshack” (1980) remains the gold standard. The slack comedy notches its laughs mostly from Lennon’s slippery guru, who has an answer for everything from under a knowing, raised eyebrow, and his slinky twosome as they mind – and libido – control the masses with ease. The core story about Steve and Kelly’s budding romance never fully grabs, but Ray does get a solid opportunity to spread his comedic wings when his despondent Steve goes on a tequila bender south of the border. He’s holed up in one of those spare adobe dwellings you’d find in a Sergio Leone film, an unwanted houseguest of a señorita and her son who take pity on him but are also deeply annoyed by his drunken babbling and chest-beating bravado – which the language barrier serves only to deepen.

One can’t image Fife was tapped into the whole Covid-19 hand-sanitizer hoarding spectacle at the time of writing and filming. The timelines just don’t marry, which makes “Bellmen” both oddly timed and timely. It’s trite, innocuous fun. Just ring the bell and forget your bags.

Restaurants in the time of Covid-19

24 Apr

Season to Taste, Pagu mix it up after Covid-19, giving to-go meals the flavor of improvisation

Robert Harris prepares a to-go meal Tuesday at Season to Taste in North Cambridge. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Before the Covid-19 crisis, we were preparing to profile two semi-finalist James Beard best chefs from Camberville: Tracy Chang of Pagu and Carl Dooley, over at Table at Season to Taste (the other locals on the list, Seizi Imura of Cafe Sushi in Harvard Square and Cassie Piuma, serving up Turkish infused plates at Ana Sortun’s Sarma in Somerville, are repeat nominees). Both shut down before Gov. Charlie Baker’s St. Patrick’s Day mandate to close restaurants. But the ovens have remained hot, reflecting where we are and where we are going.

While Table at Season to Taste remains shuttered, chef-owner Robert Harris has continued to evolve catering at umbrella company Season to Taste. “I’ve got a plan to get us back to normal,” said Harris, who was on a ski trip in Colorado when the mandate came down. He returned to Cambridge to lay off 30 employees. Part of his plan is to make Season to Taste’s traditionally “bespoke” catering for corporate events, weddings and parties – with menus dictated by the client – into a Season to Go, a food pickup service at the 2447 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge, storefront. Continue reading