Smoke and malls and travel

It’s like day nine or ten of the extreme wildfire smoke-out here in the bay area. An air quality index (AQI) over 100 is bad bad and the point where you’re not supposed to go outside, and we’ve been well above 200 all week. The scene outside is post-apocalyptic, with dark gray skies, a weird gold color when the sun is out high, and everyone scurrying about in filter masks. Word is this will continue until it rains on Wednesday. It wasn’t this bad last year, but this makes me wonder if we’re going to have a once-in-a-lifetime fire every year from now on.

I’ve been super busy at the day job, so not leaving the house has dovetailed nicely with that. From Sunday until Friday, the only time I crossed the threshold of my front door was to quickly run downstairs and get my mail. So it felt surreal to actually go to the mall this weekend, drive on the highway and go do some shopping and walking and whatnot. I’ve been trying to walk in the apartment for exercise, which is horrible and doesn’t work well. Walking at the mall was like exercising the day after having the flu. It’s going to take some work to get back up to full speed here.

The malls are all at full swing for Christmas. Trees out, Santa working, decorations hung, pre-pre-black Friday sales. A few of the vacant stores have transformed into temporary quarters for seasonal pop-ups. I don’t know if people are shopping, or were just avoiding the smoke, but it’s been busy the last two weekend.

Also, there were a large number of Pokemon Go players. I didn’t know this was still a thing, but I’d see packs of kids wandering around, cell phones in front of them. I can’t tell if they are 14 or 24. I saw one girl with three different phones in front of her. At least they are moving, so that’s cool.

Sears is depressing. The one in Pleasanton is closing, and I walk through and circle around the Christmas section, and it’s such a punch to the gut. My department at Wards was Four Seasons, which transformed into the Christmas wonderland (or whatever), with toys and trees and lights and tinsel and all that good stuff. Snowblowers, too. So wandering the aisles lined with plastic trees and strands of lights is a weird time machine for me, bringing me back to 1988 again. That Sears is hiring temp help to close out the year and if it wasn’t 30 minutes away, I’d almost be tempted to apply, just to see how much Sears swag I could steal before the place went under. But then I remember I’m too busy with work and writing and whatever else, so yeah, no.

I did buy a Craftsman bottle opener today, though. I don’t really drink anything in bottles, and I have two toolboxes full of real Craftsman stuff, back when they were still made in America. But I felt some need to spend the seven bucks there.

Headed to Reno for the Thanksgiving break. Still headed to Indiana over Christmas. I have done zero planning for either trip, so maybe I should look into that. I’m still shooting a lot of film, so maybe I should figure out what cameras and film to bring, especially since I can’t really run to the drug store and buy a few rolls of Ektachrome while I’m gone.

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Toys R Us

I was not a Toys R Us kid.

No, I wasn’t one of those weird religious kids who weren’t allowed to play video games, and I didn’t have hippy parents who thought GI Joe was promoting war. TRU just wasn’t an option for my corner of Indiana.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, K-Mart was a big part of my childhood. The two K’s really — K-Mart and Kroger. This was before Target, before Wal-Mart, and those two stores were the bulk of my retail experience in the mid to late Seventies. I spent all my time in the toy aisle of K-Mart; I could probably still note its location on a store map, had the store not been gutted and turned into a Big R farm supply. I also did a lot of my toy gawking at a now-gone variety store called GL Perry’s, which was just down from the Kroger in the also-gone Pierre Moran mall. But it was a few years before I really got locked into a proper toy store for my Lego and Star Wars needs.

The Concord Mall didn’t have a Toys R Us, but did have a Kay-Bee toy store. I was definitely a Kay-Bee kid. They originally had a narrow little store just to the left of the anchor that was then Robertson’s, and was later Meis, Elder-Beerman, and most recently Carson’s, before dying. It later moved into a bigger location in the middle of one of the arm’s spokes.

In my mind, Kay-Bee was slightly more disorganized and second-rate compared to TRU. The aisles were narrower, the shelves were more floor-to-ceiling and packed tighter, and the front half of the store was this blue-carpeted dumping ground for pallets and bins of toys, with little walking space between them. All the video games were locked away in glass cases behind the front counter, which was counterintuitive to browsing them for hours. It didn’t have the flow or the larger footprint of a bigger, standalone TRU store. It was a bit of a mess, but wonderful as a kid.

Another thing is that in retrospect, they had a lot more discount/clearance stuff, oddball brands and closeouts. It was a bit of a dumping ground for weird brands on the way out. And I used to fixate on that stuff, both because it was weird, but because it had the magical yellow tag on it saying it was discounted, showing the old price slashed out in red, the perfect argument for convincing a parent that you needed to buy it. And these strange off-brand things are now impossible to find online.

One weird example I was thinking about: so there was this big market for third-party Atari joysticks back in the day. Atari used a common 9-pin connector on the 2600, and they used the same circuit on the Commodore 64. I was always on the lookout for a better controller, a cheaper solution for the C64, and Kay-Bee was the dumping ground for every small company that tried to get in on the video game craze and got burned when it crashed. I remember buying a pair of the garbage wireless 2600 joysticks when those got dumped on clearance. I also had a weird touchpad controller that was like a mix of an Intellivision disc-style stick and the Atari keypads used by Star Raiders and nothing else. It wasn’t that great, but I have some obsession for finding it online, and it’s impossible.

The other big example was that Kay-Bee was a big dumping ground for the liquidation of the Mattel Aquarius, which was my first computer. I’ve already written about this at length, but the bullet is that Mattel crashed and burned about fifteen minutes after they quick-released this underpowered, chicklet-keyboarded machine, and they started showing up at Kay-Bee for like a hundred bucks in a bundle with four games and joysticks and everything else. I got that for my thirteenth birthday, and that started a whole great career that led up to where I am now. (Not sure if that’s good or bad, but middle management at a software company is probably better than coal mining.)

Anyway, Kay-Bee became my default place to go in the mall. Any time there was Christmas money or extra allowance or a birthday coming up, I’d gravitate to that spot in the mall. And every obsession of my pre-teen world was there, almost like a cycle of things I fixated on as a kid. It went from Star Wars to GI Joe to model trains to model planes to D&D to video games. I know a lot of people talk or write about how music or punk rock saved their lives, but for me, in those years, it was everything in Kay-Bee. I don’t know what path, better or worse, I would have traversed if I had not spent the beginning of junior high memorizing the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but going to Kay-Bee (and to Walden Books) to pore over the collection of modules and figurines and dice was a major percentage of my time.

At a certain point, things changed, and the fixation went to the other wing of the mall, the one with the independent record store, Super Sounds. The toy store was somewhat forgotten. It changed its name at some point to KB, and the later, Mitt Romney and friends drove them into the ground, a story that would later repeat itself with TRU. I never shopped at Kay-Bee after a certain point, although sometimes out at College Mall, I’d duck into that location as a nostalgia trip. I remember Kay-Bee going under, but I was tuned out of the news for whatever reason, and never really mourned it in any way.

Much later, Toys R Us did come into focus for me, but it was a place to look for video games. I remember buying a Nintendo 64 there, at the one in Seattle at Northgate Mall, and I’d always check them out to see if they had any weird cartridges, in the pre-Amazon days when you could just look up every cartridge in the world and be a click away from owning it.

But Toys R Us never had that strong reverberation with me, that primal childhood pull, just because it was off my radar. I think Chicagoland had many locations, and there actually was one just north of University Park mall, but I never regularly went to UP until I started driving, and then the interest was in music (and girls, but nothing ever happened there).

I can relate to the same angst that people have about the TRU bankruptcy, and the various rumors about brand necrophilia, the stories that they might come out of bankruptcy court as a holiday pop-up, or a mini-store inside Target, or whatever. I went through this with Wards, which I really missed after working there for years. And some random mail-order place later bought their name and use it for this pickwick-like catalog of Chinese junk, which never sat well with me. Wards vanished quickly, and it’s impossible to find any traces of it anymore. I’m guessing the same will happen to TRU. Lots of people are taking pictures now, but they’re uploading them to cloud services that will also die or be killed. Try finding a picture you put on Kodak Gallery or MySpace ten years ago — that’s what will happen to all deadmall history in a decade.

There was a TRU in Emeryville, a few miles from my house, which is now becoming some sporting goods store. I took a few shots last weekend of the one out in Dublin, which is just sitting there. I’m always curious to see what will happen with these places, and what direction retail would go. I should archive more, but like I said, the more I get into this, the more depressing it gets.

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Film, travel, whatever

I’ve been shooting more and more film. I got back my second batch of 35mm last weekend. I have this Canonet GL17 GIII rangefinder that I bought in 2014 that I haven’t been using, because I have some intangible hang-up about it. Maybe it needs a different strap or it’s too hard for me to focus, or I don’t like having that many manual controls, but I haven’t used it much. I shot a roll in Walnut Creek, and it amazes me how crisp it can look. (See the picture in this post as an example.) I always think of film as having a more blurry or vague quality as compared to the exactness of digital, but that camera is so sharp, it is eerie. I’ll need to sort through these and post the best of them. There’s an album on my flickr for analog stuff here.

And yeah, looks like Flickr is changing. Their free accounts are being limited to 1000 photos, and some other goofy stuff. I’ve always paid for a Pro account, so no change here. I’m old. I have like 12,000 photos on Flickr, and I haven’t even really tried to publish everything I have on Lightroom, which has like three times that. I hope I can keep using Flickr for a while. I’d hate to have to dumb down my collection to fit some new Web 3.0 paradigm or whatever.

I shot a roll of 120 film in my Diana F+, and when I got it back, it was all screwed up. I have an instant back for that camera, and I forgot to take out the little diopter you put in front of the lens inside the camera. So all the pictures were way out of focus and had weird stuff at the edges. I fixed that, and shot a few more rolls. I also, in a fit of stupidity, bought a Holga camera too, which is possibly even worse than the Diana. Shot a roll of B&W in that. We’ll see how it goes.

I think one of the reasons I like film is because when I shoot in digital, I take a picture, and then look at it, and see if it worked, which takes me out of the moment of actually shooting. With film, I can’t see anything, so any incremental improvement I have to take with successive shots is still in the moment, and involves a certain amount of faith in my abilities. It also puts me in the moment with my surroundings, because if I’m walking, I’m looking at everything around me and looking for a perfect shot. I’m not walking and shooting everything around me. That sounds pretentious and precious, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about, especially as I dump more and more money into this.

I booked my winter holiday travel, and will be back in Indiana for a week. I don’t know any details, except that I’m staying in South Bend, and like everyone back there is dying or something. So that will be interesting. Looking forward to taking a few more pictures of Concord Mall before it is imploded or whatever happens there. (There are currently no redevelopment plans. There were, but that’s old news. See also previous post on this.)

Nothing else. Trying to lay low until the election is over, because everything is horrible.

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