Wasting time with MAME

I’ve been wasting all of my free time lately reviewing CDs. I’m not sure why, because I don’t want to be in the business of having a bunch of crappy death metal bands emailing me their mp3s to review. But I have a lot of loose reviews around, and I wanted to write more long-form reviews and find a place to put them, and I’ve got it about figured out now. When I get more than about 7 reviews done, I’ll post a link. Anyway, that’s why I haven’t been writing here much. It’s far easier to write 1500 words on an old Metallica album than it is to try to come up with 500 words when nothing is going on that I want to write about, except maybe the weather. So, there you go.

But, the other day, I was digging around and found a bunch of ROMS to various stand-up arcade games I had from my old laptop. So I downloaded a MAME emulator program for the Mac, and started digging around all of these old games. I don’t know about you, but I played a lot of arcade games back in the day, and I don’t just mean the really popular Pac-Man/Donkey Kong/Centipede era. I found a lot of these games and played them, and they totally reminded me of my days in a Bally’s, wasting a couple dollars while at the mall. And video game brand loyalty is a huge thing, and it made me think about all of the different brands and games and the whole caste system of consoles, and who played what.

For example, there were certain games that I absolutely loved to play. Like there was the Star Wars vector game, the original Tetris, this Tetris plus enhancements called Bloxxed, and Roadblasters. If an arcade had all of those, it was excellent. If it had one or two of them, it was good. If an arcade (like that shitty one in Pierre Moran Mall, or maybe one in an airport or something) didn’t have any of those games, it sucked, and either I’d play nothing and go off to the Walden Books, or maybe drop a quarter on a sub-par game, just to see if maybe it was really okay. There were a lot of games that either I didn’t like or didn’t see the point of, like most of the three-button-attack quarter-eater types that came out later, or the driving games that didn’t have a good catch to them. I mean, for a buck in gas, I could drive around the parking lot of the mall in my real car and have more fun than half of the sloppy-controller stand-up drivers out there in the early 90s.

But different people liked different games, which always made it weird when you went with other people, because people always had different allegiances to different games. It’s weird, because now, decades later, I can still remember what friends liked what games, way more than I could remember their favorite beer or band or movie. And that would be cool, but sometimes, based on the games there, it would cause problems. Like, sometimes I’d go to the Bally’s in College Mall in Bloomington with Bill, and I’d inevitably buy into some “a shitload of tokens for $20” deal before I’d remember that they had absolutely no machines I liked. I mean, the best game on the list was a Ms. Pac Man, and I could play that for about six months on $20 of change, given that I wouldn’t die of boredom. But there was some game there that he loved, and he’d play it all day, even though I was either no good at it or hated it. So you have that. Another example is that Spaceport had some pretty esoteric game machines, so if you stopped in there with someone who just wanted to play the core Atari games, they’d be screwed.

Oh, at the lowest end of the totem pole were the situations where you only had one or two games, and you had to pick one. A classic example is when you’re with your family at Pizza Hut, and there are two games, and it’s either Bust-a-Move or Robocop, and neither one are very good, but you need something to do until the breadsticks arrive or something. This also applies to dorms with a couple of stray machines, or little arcades in laundromats or whatever.

Another game I didn’t get were the sports games, like the football, hockey, and whatnot. None of my friends played these, because I think you had to like the sport in question, and none of my friends were huge soccer fans. The only sports game that was the exception to the rule was Summer Games. This – I think it came out around the time of the 84 Olympics, but wasn’t a sponsored game or anything – it was all of the track and field events, like throwing discus and running around a track and soforth. But the thing is, to run, you had to slap two buttons really fast to get your dude to run or throw or something. And for some reason, that made it different; it wasn’t about your ability to know about NFL football. It was about how fast you could slap two buttons, and dammit, you knew you could do it faster than the other guy. The sport part was secondary – it could have been monster trucks or shooting dragons or anything else, as long as it was competitive and measured your ability to pretty buttons at light-speed. I knew a lot of people who were really into that, and you could always tell when someone was playing, because it sounded like someone was bitch-slapping a keyboard. And now we wonder why so many people have RSI.

The competitive games, or more likely the collaborative ones, are the things that have so much memory to me. I’ve already written many times about how me and Ray used to play Smash TV for hours, feeding many quarters into it. I think the first game like this I remember is the original Gauntlet. When I play this now, it reminds me of Adam Pletcher, who I knew from school, and who is now more known for working on the video game Descent and a million others. We played the game a couple times at the Aladdin’s Castle in the Concord Mall, although at that point, the game was so damn popular, all four slots would be full, and the second someone ran out of change, someone else would jump in. Games like this were great, and it’s amazing how shitty some of them are when you look at them now. There’s a Simpsons game that came out in 90 or so that was the same console as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and X-Men game. Then, the graphics were mind-numbing, but now, I cannot stop laughing my ass off the images are so blocky and bad. But being able to get two or three people on a machine to all kick ass hid the poor graphics somewhat.

One of the games that I played but didn’t entirely like at first was Golden Axe. The student union had a room with maybe six or eight game machines, all of them duds, and one of them was Golden Axe. I reluctantly played the side-scroller for a while, and it really grew on me. The animations weren’t bad, but the sound effects were horrible. (When I was playing the other day, Sarah said that the dying people’s screams sounded like some kind of Crunk rap.) It’s also a collective game, although I played by myself a lot. I got the ROM and actually finished the game, which I guess is easier when you’re pressing a button instead of feeding in a coin, but it brought back so many memories of wasting time at the IMU.

Anyway, just some vague thoughts. I think if I had a lot of time and could remember more of this, I could write some kind of book or at least a good essay on greater taxonomy of video games. But, I’ve got these music reviews to write…

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Back on the bike

I rode my bike to work today, for the first time in a while. When I originally bought it last spring, I planned to ride it every day, but I was thrown off by cold weather, hot weather, food poisoning, vacations, and a bunch of other lame excuses. But today, I made it. Of course, I cheated a bit. I’ve been spending more and more time at Sarah’s lately, because my apartment sucks, and I’ve been gradually moving over things. First, it started with an extra deodorant and toothbrush, then a few extra pairs of unmentionables and socks, and then I started leaving books and DVDs. Now I’m moving over stuff a gym bag at a time, and on Saturday we got a limo (no, you non-New Yorkers, not a 68-foot-long stretch Caddy with a wet bar and hot tub – here limo means “non-yellow cab”) and pulled over a few hundred pounds of stuff, including my bike. So, now I will try to ride more.

It’s in my favor that my door-to-door trip is about a mile. (Okay, 1.59 – thank you mapquest.) It’s also much easier for me to get the bike in an out of the place here, since the old place involved a dozen tight turns to get out of the door. There’s no bridge to contend with. And a horrific trip through midtown is no longer needed. But, I no longer have long passages of nothing in Queens, which is kindof nice, and I have a lot of pretty testy drivers and pedestrians on my trip through Chinatown. Most of the ride is of the heavy-defensive sort, with little in the way of long cruises. So that sucks, but it’s still fun. Bicycle is about the best way to get around Manhattan, if you’re up for it. After riding a bike, I really hate walking – it seems so slow and monotonous, especially after you can cruise down a long block in a matter of seconds.

I’m glad to be back on the bike, too. There’s a real difference between your time and personal space on a train versus driving or being on a bike. I’d really want to be in a car, where you can totally cocoon yourself from the world and just have totally private time to yourself. From the second I had a license and a set of keys, I totally enjoyed being able to just put in a tape and drive loops around nowhere, to the mall and back, out on the back roads, and to friends’ houses for no reason. I always bitch about it, and even at three bucks a gallon, I miss that freedom. That’s one of the biggest problems with living in New York. (I mean, aside from the smell.)

But before I had a car, I had a bike. And I spent ALL of my time riding somewhere, or nowhere. The same people who have a hard time imagining that I used to weigh a hundred pounds less than I currently do probably wouldn’t believe that I used to ride hundreds of miles a week. I was not competitive about it; I just liked to get out and explore. Northern Indiana was set up for it, since most of the outlying area was meshed by county roads a mile apart in each direction. That made it easy to keep track of mileage: you get on CR 17 and ride from CR 26 to CR 28, and that’s a mile. CR 30, another mile. I used to have this loop from my mom’s house to Bristol and then out almost to Nappanee and back, and it was just over 25 miles. I used to ride that pretty much every day, and I’d double it on Saturdays and Sundays.

This started back when I was 15. I bought a new 10-speed, and it wasn’t anything special, just some Huffy piece of shit or something. But every time I had a couple of bucks, I’d buy some gear for it, a new helmet, some gloves, whatever. No spandex. I rode all through the fall, and rode this St. Jude’s rideathon where you did laps of a church parking lot that was a quarter mile around. I brought a walkman, extra batteries, and about 50 tapes, and spent the whole afternoon doing the same stupid lap, over and over. This was the kind of thing where kids came and rode their BMX on training wheels and made 5 laps and everyone was all happy and the money went to The Kids or whatever, and I listened to like every Rush album to date in a row and ended up doing 50 miles.

I kept riding into the fall and through the winter, still going to Bristol every day. The cornfields went from amber to wispy brown and then fell into husks and broken stalks, and the cold made it harder to pedal, but I could do the 25 miles in my sleep at this point. I explored the back roads and took different routes, but they were all mostly the same, identical miles of farmland, with the occasional farmhouse. I had the roads to myself for the most point, except for the occasional car that blew past at sixty. I probably averaged about ten miles an hour, sometimes faster. I usually went out for about two hours, longer on the weekends.

I thought about a lot of stuff back then, which seems stupid, as I’m more than twice as old and I have way too much stuff to think about, to the point where I wonder if I need some prescription medication to possibly think about less. But back then, I somehow needed the time away from my family and away from friends and classmates to – I don’t know what. I mean, I listened to a lot of music, and I guess at that point in your life, your favorite bands require some great amount of dissemination, whereas now you listen to stuff just to have a sound in the background that sounds nice. But when you’re 15, that Rush album Subdivisions – it means something, because that’s you. And I’m sure I thought a lot about the opposite sex, and how I’d ever talk to girls, and all of that shit, and I wish I had a record of that, because it eventually all worked itself out, but I remember burning a lot of cycles thinking I was different and I’d somehow need to escape all of this. But I also spent a lot of time thinking about my first car, and maybe how cool it would be to ride my bike across the country, like maybe by strapping a bunch of racks to the front and rear and filling them up with bottled water and snickers bars and maybe some kind of tent so I could camp between stops. Now that I think about it, I have no idea what the fuck I thought about, but I spent a lot of time doing it.

And I still remember Indiana roads, and the kinds of roadways they had there. Most county roads were this asphalt, but they were old, and weren’t black, but maybe this greyish color, like a really overdone hamburger. The roads had a decent texture, like the kind of thing you could only mold out of plastic now. And those had a lot of cracks, and gravel in a bead on the side, and cars made this humming sound from ten miles back on this kind of road. When those got really old and fucked up, and they weren’t a main road that got a lot of use, the county would spray them down with this gluey tar and then dump a fine gravel on them. This kind of road totally sucked shit for a bike, because the underpainting of glue stuck to everything on your bike and was a horrible smelling petroleum product – it was like they just dumped out a bunch of engine oil, and then covered it with coarse sand. And that sand-gravel didn’t do much good on a bike with one inch wide wheels, either. Those roads sucked, and I always avoided them. The best were the main roads, like State Road 15, which were more concrete-like, and made from real asphalt, with a good surface that made you feel like you gained five miles an hour on it.

So I rode a lot. I think the last big thing I did was this 100K bike ride sponsored by WTRC, a local country station. It ended up being closer to 80 miles, and I think I rode it in eight hours. It was total hell, and it rained all day, with huge wind gusts. I remember turning into this really long stretch, and it had a totally killer headwind, and I was pretty much ready to just put down the bike, lay in the road, and hope someone would kill me. It was an okay ride though, and it was pretty weird because it went way north into Michigan and through Edwardsburg, and I saw all of these things that normally I’d just see when hanging out with my dad, like my uncle Don’s house, the golf course, and a bunch of other little landmarks. It was fun, and I wonder how I ever had the discipline to stick out eight hours of that shit, given that now I seldom have the discipline to make a sandwich.

Anyway, a year later, I got a car, I almost never rode the bike after. I brought it to Bloomington for a year, but almost never rode it. (Tip: do not wear toe clips in a college town.) I brought it back, had to ride to the mall when my car was broken, and got a flat. Left it at Concord Mall, and forgot about it until months later, when it was gone. Oh well.

Speaking of sandwich, I’ve been writing forever, and now I’m starving. I was going to put some kind of lofty conclusion on this tying together how much I like riding my bike now and all of that stuff above about how I used to ride my bike and think about stuff, but now I’m thinking about food instead, so you’ll need to put that one together on your own. Bon appetite.

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Tombs of rememberance

I love google. More specifically, I love searching the web, because way before I used google, it was all about AltaVista, and before that, I was using yahoo when it was still a machine on Stanford’s network. I love putting in people’s names, looking for old bands, searching on the places I’ve lived and the cars I’ve owned and the places I’ve worked. Some people might think this is a waste of time or sad, but it’s not like I’m non-interactively watching a screen that displays a fictional character’s life in half-hour intervals each week, and pretty much everybody does that.

I still remember clearly a day about five years ago, when Google Groups found an old Usenet archive on a dead machine, and launched it on the world. This might seem silly, to read a bunch of old posts by people arguing about whether or not Clinton inhaled, but the thing was, this archive contained MY POSTS! I plugged in my old email address and found hundreds of articles I wrote a decade before, going all the way back to 1990. It was like looking at the rings of an old tree to determine what seasons were festive or famine-ridden. Way back when, I posted a lot about the Space Shuttle and homemade explosives. Then I got into hacking and old computers. Then death metal and tastelessness. I found posts where I was selling old computer hardware; others where I reviewed then-new albums. Saying it was like a time machine would be an understatement. And now, I’m always looking for the high of learning something new like that, finding an old house on a satellite map or an old buddy with a new business or web page.

My latest diversion that I found on the web is a database served up by the Indiana Department of Corrections, that shows not only who is currently in the pen, but those who previously served time there, along with their infractions and sentences. I originally found this looking for my friend Jim, who may or may not be heading back to the state prison because he allegedly robbed a warehouse. But then I thought about it more, and started plugging in the names of everyone from my high school that, well, was on that career path. I quickly found at least three or four other guys who were in and out of prison for stuff like conversion, theft, breaking and entering, and battery. I emailed Larry and he gave me an armful of names to try, including our old assistant principal, who had some problems blowing below a .08 while driving. It was all very interesting, to see the people who fell off the map. I mean, in the high school reunion page, you see everyone registered who became a mommy and has to tell everyone, or those with good jobs, good degrees, and all of that. You don’t see the people who ended up working at Pizza Hut or whatever, and you don’t see the ones who call Pendleton their alma mater.

I still didn’t find out if Jim was guilty of that burglary charge. He was arrested at the end of May. That either means he got bailed out (not that likely) or he’s in Elkhart County Jail, waiting for his trial, which might not even happen this year, given the court system there. And man, from the looks of the system, it is meth central up there. Anyway, if anyone has any wise ideas on how to find out more, let me know.

This reminds me of one of the things I always wanted to research, but found many dead ends. I went to school with this guy named Greg Gunter. He is, apparently, dead. I say apparently because the Elkhart Truth has a piss-poor database, and I have no other way of checking. But supposedly, he got killed in an accident while riding his bike. What’s touchy about the situation is that Gunter was like the lowest member of the social pecking order at Concord. He came from a poor family, had greasy hair, some kind of speech impediment, and was into geek stuff like Dungeons and Dragons, but wasn’t a bright guy, either. All through junior high and high school, he was the whipping post for most of the guys, and he got beat up a lot and just took the punishment. He actually tried out for a lot of sports, and tried to become athletic, and play basketball and football, and I guess it says a lot to be involved in preppy-dominated sports like that when you’re the most hated kid in school.

I didn’t hate Greg, but I wasn’t his best friend either. He was in a lot of my drafting and architecture classes, despite the fact that he could not draw at all. In those classes, a lot of us always ragged on each other, and the whole thing was a lot of this who-isn’t-getting-laid and who-takes-it-in-the-ass sort of shit. Gunter said he wanted to be an architect, which sounded ludicrous to me, because I already knew most architecture programs were too hard, too expensive, and too competitive for me, and I knew how to draw. I didn’t come right out and say “you’re fucked, buddy”, but I did tell him as tactfully as possible that maybe he should get a backup plan in place.

And I think part of why I didn’t outright just haze the guy continuously was the fact that I didn’t want to be his friend, but I realized I had a lot more in common with him than I did with the jocko sport guys in school. I mean, I had this thing in high school where everyone thought I was some kind of kid genius, so it didn’t matter if I only weighed 110 pounds of bones and skin and couldn’t do a single chin-up, because someday I’d start the next Apple Computers or something. But Greg didn’t have that going for him, so he tried to become a jock, which I guess didn’t work that well either.

Anyway, there is no Greg Gunter tomb of remembrance on the web, and I couldn’t even find an obituary or anything else online, except one hit that the public library would have one, but I’d have to go there and waste a day hunting for it, and it probably doesn’t have a story of what happened or anything.

Blah, I have no ending for this. I’m going to go search the db to see how much of my shop class is behind bars.

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Junk yard

I was watching a show last night that’s about bad jobs – it usually involves someone removing feces from subways lined with rats bigger than dogs or something, so I never watch it. But last night, it was about guys working in a junkyard, which I thought was funny. Not ha-ha funny, but because it was the kind of intellectual porn aimed at blue-staters to show them how horrible life is out in the flyover zone. But to me, it brought back the vivid memories of the wrecking yard, a place I knew well from my teenage years.

Growing up, I did not drive a new Mercedes provided by my parents on my 16th birthday, and my idea of car service went beyond self-service gas. When I was 15, my stepdad bought this totaled Camaro for $300, and along the way, it eventually became my project. By the time I got my license, a lot of major work had been done, from brakes to tune-up to tires to a new interior. A month or two later, I bolted on a new exhaust from stem to stern, while trashing three socket wrench handles in the process of wrenching off rusted bolts. But one of the biggest things I needed to fix was a badly dented fender on the front passenger side, along with a cracked fiberglass nose. I couldn’t buy those parts from the local AutoQuest, so I had to make a trip to the junkyard.

The junkyard in Elkhart, or at least the one I went to, is out on CR 10, west of the Nappanee extension. It’s way up north of town, in an isolated corner of the county, by the regional airport. It’s also coincidentally by one of Elkhart’s several EPA superfund sites, the old Himco dump site, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’d never been there before, but my stepdad used to go out there back in the 60s and 70s when he was always working on muscle cars, and I think I made a call or two out to the place.

I planned a whole day around the fender swap, a Saturday, and awoke early to find a few inches of snow on the ground. That bummed me out, but I vowed to put on an extra layer of clothes, some old boots, and forge onward. Because I didn’t have a truck, I took out the passenger seat and carefully measured the existing fender to make sure I’d have enough room. I left early enough to head across town and get to the place just as the chain-link gates were opening. When I got there, I found a big prefab metal building with a run-down front office and a set of big garage bays that could probably fit a Peterbilt semi, if they cleared out all of the junk first.

I remember getting there, and the guy in charge told me where to head for the Camaros, to pick out a donor and then come get one of the guys to wrench off the parts for me. He set me loose in this labyrinth of dead vehicles, everything dusted with a powder of snow. The white padding muffled all of the sound around me, except the crunch of my feet on the dirt path. Most of the narrow roads within the yard were heavily rutted, and muddy and wet, since the temperature hadn’t been freezing for that long.

I found a row of F-body cars, Camaros and Firebirds, along a treeline. None of them were on tires anymore, and half of them were missing engines. I could imagine someone around town driving a piece of shit Chevelle, bragging “yeah, I got me a Z-28 motor in here” for each of the engineless cars. Some of the cars were smashed in the front; others had extensive rust damage in the rear panels. A few had smashed glass in spiderweb patterns that suggested a fatal collision.

To say that I’d spent a lot of time in my Camaro would be an understatement. I took apart and put back together so many pieces, spent Saturdays scrubbing the interior, running speaker cables under carpet, changing fluids that I’d just changed 100 miles ago, and dreaming about what parts I’d tear off and replace, when I had the cash. I memorized the Chilton’s guide for the car like it was scripture, and had a solid mental image of every part of the car, inside and out. So to look at all of these cars, at the minor differences from year to year, the missing chunks and damaged pieces, felt a little weird. It was like seeing a relative without a head, your house with the roof removed. But it was also exhilirating in a way, to think of buying a more tricked-out center console from a newer model, or a faster engine from a different car, or whatever else. Mostly it was weird to see all of these rows of cars, missing pieces, gently frosted over by that winter day.

I found a white ’77 with a front fender that looked good, and trudged back to the front gate. When I got there and said I found it, a guy that was maybe in his early 20s waved me over to the most motley car I’d ever seen, an old Suburban or some sort of pre-SUV truck, but with half of its parts missing. It had no hood, half of its glass gone, no front lights or bumpers, little interior, but the back held a set of welding tanks and a haphazard bucket of tools. The dude, who looked like Alice Cooper but no makeup or anything, told me to hop in, and we creaked across the lot. The truck rocked and swayed so much, the windshield was flexing and I was sure it would explode at any moment, but we got there.

It took the guy a few minutes, and I carefully watched what screws he took out to extricate the sheet metal from the old car. I also got a rear-view mirror for the side door (and unfortunately, broke it before I got it back on my car – oh well, five bucks.) The fender, still wet from the snow, just barely fit in the car, and I got a baggie full of hardware to bring with me for the transplant. It felt so weird, driving across town, listening to Iron Maiden or whatever I was into that week, with no passenger seat and a huge chunk of metal taking up half the cockpit.

There’s not much else to the story, except that it’s a bitch to work on old metal that’s rusty, with concealed little sheet metal screws in hard-to-reach areas. I had to take off the hood, and spent an hour or two playing the “I think all the screws are off but maybe there’s one more” game. I had a 5:00 shift to work that night, and almost entertained the idea of driving to work with no hood on, but I got everything set up, and made it to the mall in my red and also white car.

I went back a few more times for a few more cars, and I always liked the whole idea. Every car there tells a story, and it’s sad to see them dead like that, but it’s also cool to know they will be recycled, and other cars will live longer lives with all of the parts. It’s a weird little bit of midwestern culture, and a pleasant memory, even if more of my cars ended up in the junkyard than not.

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Procter and Gamble picnics

As always, I was playing around on google yesterday, trying to scouring my brain for a tiny clue to something from my childhood, to see if anyone more afflicted than myself had any related pages on the web. I’m not sure how I found the link, but I managed to find enough info to find a name, a town, and even some pictures, which is a victory in my book. Okay, here’s the story.

When I was a kid – probably in the late 70s/early 80s, I used to go to Procter and Gamble’s huge corporate picnic there, which was held at this place just outside of Chicago called Hillcrest Park. My grandfather and my aunt both worked for P&G, and it was a big deal for everyone to attend the picnic every year. To me and my sisters and all of the other cousins that were my age, this was the chance to ride rides and eat tons of ice cream and other junk food and have a lot of fun. At that time, we lived in Elkhart, which was a couple of hours east of Chicago, so this meant a trip to the big city, and a chance to hang out with all of my cousins, who were infinitely cooler than me.

Back then, P&G corporate was in Chicago, and I think they also made soap and other stuff there, because we’d go to the factory, and the place would smell horrid. The only other thing I remember about the factory was that they had an automat, which is another lost concept in American culture and a pretty nifty idea. Anyway, we never hung out there for long; they’d load us up into a bunch of chartered busses that drove us to the park.

The park was about 60 acres, so it was no King’s Island or anything, but they only did these corporate picnics, so it was just people from the company there. Inside, the grounds were wooded, with pavilions and picnic tables, and a couple of buildings, like a food court, and some restrooms. The elders usually sat around the pavilions and formed these enclaves, where people watched over the little kids and everyone’s stuff, as everyone else wandered around. My Grandpa worked for P&G basically his whole adult life, so he knew a lot of old-timers, and he’d wander around running into those guys and trading complaints about their latest health problems or whatever. My mom usually spent time with all of my aunts, her sisters, trading their stories or whatever. That left us kids to go on the rides, and to eat food.

One of the rides I remember more than others was the railroad. I was really into trains as a kid, and the train was also the ride that you could go on with adults and little kids. The park ran this narrow-gauge train with a real steam locomotive that chugged around the perimeter of the place, through the woods and around the fields. It gave you a good view of the whole park, and passed the sports grounds, which featured a huge outdoor pool that at any time was filled with about 10,000 kids. The train also looped back around and ran right next to the roller coaster before it came back to the station. It was always neat when the timing was right and you were chugging along and the coaster’s cars whipped past right next to you. The train was pretty slow and not exactly a thrill ride, but I always liked to ride it at least once per trip, just to get the lay of the land.

There were some other rides grouped right by the coaster, in a little promenade area. They had a merry-go-round (which we considered lame, but me and my cousins were all like 10-12 years old at the time, so you get that) and a whip-a-round type thing that was marginally fun once or twice, but repeat rides did not reap any rewards. A set of electric bumper cars, the kind with the scraper bar that went across the ceiling, were a fun opportunity for some bumps and always had a long line. There were a couple of coin-op games, a rifle game where you shot at various targets like a piano player, and maybe a skee-ball game. We never played those because I could never shake down the change from my mom and the cost wasn’t included in the picnic.

The big show was the roller coaster, called The Little Dipper. It was a wooden coaster, painted white, with a figure-8 pattern that pulled up 16 riders with a clicky chain and a creaky first hill that dropped off and gave a huge rush, even though now I found out the stats, and it’s only like a 20-foot drop that gets you up to what a car’s first gear does. But the Little Dipper was my first coaster ever, though, so I have fond memories of it. It was a little rough, but at the time it seemed like the fastest, most brutal thing ever. I was reluctant to ride it at first, but then I wanted to get back in line and ride it all afternoon. Once we did get there early enough that we got through the lines three or four times really fast before a crowd built up, and that was absolute paradise.

I have a lot of other good memories of that park, too. I think they had some kind of paper ticket system for the food, and we’d always end up eating an endless supply of hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream. P&G was pretty good to their people, and always had random drawings that somebody in our big extended family would always win, which consisted of huge bags of P&G products.

I was sad to hear this place closed, though! I always expected it to be long gone, because even back then, it was pretty weathered and beat. But I guess they pulled through until 2003, when less companies were spending the money on picnics, and that 60 acres of real estate was worth more than their draw. The rides were auctioned off, and I am glad to hear that the coaster made the transition to another park. I don’t know what happened to the other rides. Lemont, Illinois will now have a new warehouse, but that doesn’t really make up for losing the park.

I guess I’ve rode a lot of roller coasters since then, but that’s not why the memory stuck in my head. I guess it was a combination of the food (which probably wasn’t that good, come to think of it), seeing all of my cousins, being in Chicago, and just being able to see everything in the park. For whatever reason, this was like my Christmas in the summer, one of those things that really stuck with me.

Anyway, another distant memory solved by google. Now I need to find someone auctioning off another roller coaster like this one, so I can set it up out on my land in Colorado. Any ideas?

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Writing about work

I just read Stephen King’s On Writing, not because I’m a huge fan of his writing, but because I needed some kind of kick in the ass because of this writer’s block, and usually looking at some other writer’s process gives me a bit of a boost. The book is about 70% good and 30% “no shit, sherlock”, so I liked it in general. One thing that stuck with me was that he said people like to read about other people’s work. I guess that’s true, since a lot of the stuff I read online involves police blogs and ancient tales of inventing old computers and airline pilots and the like.

My current career probably isn’t that interesting, though. A blog full of details on how I edit pages and check them in to CVS wouldn’t exactly blow your skirt up. But I do enjoy writing about old jobs. And I’m always surprised that most people have never worked in a factory. Maybe it’s because I’m in a blue state, but most people I know here can’t even fathom the idea of working on an assembly line. Yet I grew up in Elkhart, Indiana, where almost everybody works an industrial job. Four of my summers (well, 3.5, really) were spent inside prefab corrugated steel buildings with concrete floors and high ceilings, wearing eye and ear protection, and doing the same thing over and over for eight or ten hours. I couldn’t bear to do it forever, but it was better than working at Taco Bell, and paid two or three times as much.

There’s not much to say about the work. I spent a half-summer before college silver plating clarinet keys. The next two summers were at two different factories belonging to the same company, making and packing plumbing fittings and faucets and stuff. The next summer, I temped a few places (UPS warehouse, a place that painted the boards that go into prefab Target bookcases), and then got a gig working a punch press at an RV factory. Factory work is mundane, but it isn’t that hard. The worst part of it is most of these box-packing jobs are at rate, meaning somebody has measured exactly how long it takes to do each movement, from picking up the box to putting on the sticker, to picking up a part, to putting it in the box, to sealing the box, to putting it on a skid and getting a forklift to take the skid of 768 boxes of 984 parts off to the truck. It’s almost always impossible to make rate, but if you go above it, you make more money. I never did. I was too lazy, and I couldn’t shut my mind off and move my hands in the exact way it had to happen without dropping a piece or fucking up a box label or something.

One time I DID make rate, actually. I had to take a hollow tube, maybe an inch around and a foot or two long, lock it in a special vise, and then drill a bunch of holes in it with a drill press. You had to stop halfway through, flip it over, and re-fasten it for another set of holes on the bottom. According to the rate schedule, you were supposed to raise the drill all the way up and go all the way back down between each hole. Fuck that! I didn’t back that drill up more than two microns each time I moved it to another hole, and was doing parts four times faster than rate. I worked on the machine for two and a half days, and made like 468% rate for like 20 hours. Every full-timer there was pissed as hell, and they shut down the machine and re-rated it. Next time I got on it, you couldn’t make rate if you were The Flash.

Most of the full-timers hated college kids. The first summer at the plumbing parts place, that was actually the factory where my dad worked. The people there were nice, in the sense that my dad worked there since I was an infant, so they remembered me from the company picnics and whatnot. But they didn’t get me. Instead of sitting around talking gossip or whatever, I usually brought a book to lunch, and almost every day, someone would asked me why I was reading. I remember reading the Richard Rhodes atomic bomb book that summer, and everyone kept asking me WHY I would read a book that was three inches thick. I don’t know, it’s not as if the people were bad in any way, they just had different goals. Everyone had to struggle to feed kids and pay bills and everything. People with some tenure bought pools or bass boats or fixed up old Mustangs or added to their houses. Some people put a kid through school, but some had their kids come in at 18 and start work on the line. I guess I got to see both sides of the story.

Anyway, some of this stuff came up while I was writing on this new book. I need to capture it a bit better sometime, although there’s no real plot to ten hours of wiring down saxophone keys to plating frames. I spent every hour of every day wishing I was back in school, back with friends, back with whoever I was dating at the time. I drank a lot of Cokes and took a lot of “allergy medicine” to make the hours pass faster, but I still took in a bit of the culture.

OK, I ate during the update today, and now I’m ready for a nap, but I’ve got to get back to work…

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Bloomington writing, Simms

I just checked to see how much I’ve written here this year versus last year, and it’s very sad. I think it’s mostly a lack of a good time to update. Way back in the old days, I used to write during and after lunch, which worked out pretty good. But now I never eat at my computer, and by the time I get back to my cube, I’m ready to pass out from the post-lunch blues. And I haven’t been writing at night much anymore, since I’ve had a huge case of something that makes writer’s block look like, um, I can’t think of a word because I can’t write. So now I will try to squeeze in a pre-dinner update, in an effort to use up some time that would normally be wasted on checking which Seinfeld rerun is playing on Fox.

I am trying to get moving with this book of short stories about Bloomington. I’m mostly in a note-taking, word-shuffling sort of mood, not a lot of real writing. I have maybe two or three stories that are unwritten, and 13 stories that are “done” but nowhere near readable, because they need some serious work. That’s about 77,000 words in those 13 stories, which officially qualifies as book-sized, but it’s a weird proposition. Each of the stories takes place over the six years I went to college, and they are all first-person, same fictional character, and so on, but they don’t all snap together like Lego to form a novel. But it’s a little more than just an anthology. It’s “themed” in a sense. I don’t know what you call it. But that’s what it is.

Some of the stories are good, but they aren’t stories as much as they are essays, or just descriptions of what happened over time. I want to change that a bit more and work in more tension and some elements to pull you through a bit. Like now, there’s a story called “Shift-F7”, which some of you may have read in an earlier version. It’s pretty much just a flat description of working as a tech geek in the computer labs on campus. But it lacks something, because it just goes through a day, a shift, and has some insets that describe the highs and the lows of dealing with customers. I am thinking of mashing this story up by taking the guy, and working in the fact that his girlfriend’s a total bitch that’s probably cheating on him, and he’s at the end of his rope with her, and he can’t totally prove that she’s sucking 37 dicks every time he leaves the house to go to work, but he’s close. Or maybe he’s paranoid. And then he’s given the perfect chance to cheat on HER. Should he? I don’t know, you’ll have to wait for me to write it. But I need some elements like that to pull the story a little, give you a reason to turn the pages.

I’ll share a little bit of writing with you. This is pretty rough, but if you know my old roommate Steve Simms, you’ll recognize it. It’s just a quick sketch, something I was using to come up with a character for a story. Anyway, enjoy.

Imagine you’re in a basement apartment, actually one of those half-basement apartments where the ground is at about armpit height and that makes a foot-deep ledge around every room, almost like the perfect place to put a little train track and run an HO-scale locomotive on constant repeat, except the shelf is filled with Frank Zappa LPs and Who box sets and uncataloged VHS tapes of _Twin Peaks_ episodes. And you’re on a huge sectional couch full of holes that looks like it’s done some time outdoors, and you’re trying to read a well-worn Leonard Maltin movie review book that’s a few years old. Only, you can’t read that well, because an entire band is assembled in this living room, minus the drums. And at a volume so loud that you must wonder what the neighbors are thinking is this mix of surf music and the Beatles and three PhDs of music theory geeking out and a little bit of them making fun of Jim Morrison all at the same time. Although CDs and tapes and computer manuals and vinyl cover almost every horizontal surface, there’s a guy across from you with a huge orange electric piano, probably the first one that Yamaha ever built, and the guy looks like David Hyde Pierce or some other kind of librarian sort, and he’s calmly playing away on this cheezomatic. And next to you on the couch is this strange guy that appeared from Texas the night before, someone who could be Chuck Yeager at age thirty, but wailing away on a white-on-black Strat like a blues man motherfucker. And standing in the middle of the room, swinging around a Fender P-bass and wailing away at the top of his lungs is this dude with that almost looks like Rick Rubin, with long black hair and a ZZ Top beard and a torn up shirt with a pot-belly underneath and a pair of birkenstocks. And that’s Simms. Steve Simms.

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