Holes

I’ve been back from Indiana for a while, but I’ve been thinking about something I can’t exactly shake, something I saw during my drives around old stomping grounds. This was further drilled into my head when my pal John Sheppard came out to Michiana for a day-long Konrath Reality Tour leading all through Elkhart, Mishawaka, and South Bend. As we drove around, and I pointed where things were, what used to be something else, I noticed a common theme: holes.

By holes, I mean a few things: abandoned properties, massively downsized operations, national-brand grocery stores that were now Mexican bingo halls only open a day a week, the endless regional-brand drug stores that are all a sad Dollar General now. There were also blighted properties, weather-beaten properties, faded and un-maintained properties. But beyond that, there were holes: Blighted properties that would never come back, or that had completely vanished, plowed under and destroyed, vacant lots that would probably remain vacant forever.

It was disheartening and depressing comparing the geography of my childhood in my mind to the current landscape and what still remained. For example, the area of Dunlap that was once the main drag when I was in high school is largely bulldozed and gone. The two-mile strip of US-33 from maybe CR-13 to Hively has lost a majority of its businesses. I’ve already covered Concord Mall a million times, but there’s that. Then there’s my old Taco Bell, sitting abandoned for years; the Arby’s next to it is a vacant lot; the tile place on the other side was torn down by the city because it was blighted. The Astrobowl bowling alley is leveled; the Shakey’s pizza is leveled. The Aldi’s grocery store was abandoned, then was briefly a Guatemalan fruit stand, but is now abandoned. The place next to it was I think a Goodwill; abandoned. Optical store, empty. Bank, empty. Martin’s grocery store, they started rehabbing it, hit asbestos and a leaky roof, and abandoned it half torn apart. Movie theater, abandoned. There’s a small strip mall that had a band instrument place and a furniture store; half the slots are empty, and it has a gold and pawn and a tattoo place. A long, long stretch of this highway was eminent domained to put in a US-20 bypass exit, and is eerily vacant, never redeveloped. This is all within two miles, and there are a lot of other parts of the city also pock-marked with similar holes.

I don’t want to get into a political argument about the wage situation or how Elkhart is being made great again by wage-labor jobs that will all vanish when gas hits four bucks a gallon again. That’s not the point; the point is, it seems like a lot of retail landmarks have vanished, and haven’t been replaced by anything. Some of this is because of Amazon, I’m sure. Some of it is Walmart killing off mom-and-pops. Same with big venture cap hostile takeovers to pick the old retail giants clean of any value and leave them for dead. (I’m talking about you, Sears.) Some of it is that the remaining nationals and regionals have moved to other locations, like the swath of businesses south of Elkhart, or the constant growth in Mishawaka and South Bend. There’s also the possible case that the area was just massively overdeveloped when I was a kid. In the pre-Reagan years, a good investment was developing real estate like malls and using accelerated depreciation to reap a greater tax deduction. (See also.) Elkhart may not have been a city big enough to support two malls, a vibrant downtown, and the suburban Dunlap retail corridor, all of which are gone now. (The two Walmarts are doing okay, though.)

Other reasons: a lot of gas stations of my youth are gone, scraped bare and vacant. That’s probably rusty underground tanks that were easier to abandon than clean up. A lot of these have also become used car lots, the u-work/u-drive type that quickly flip auction sale cars at predatory interest rates. But if it can’t become a car lot (or a church – lots of those there) it becomes a vacant lot. The same environmental issues are also an issue for rehabbing old architecture for new use. The Martin’s grocery store I mentioned is a prime example, and one that has happened many times. Asbestos, perpetually leaking roofs, piss-poor insulation and bad HVAC (try heating 100K square feet when it’s 45 below zero out, like this week), sinking and broken foundations that were laid on the cheap back during the construction boom. and just bad configuration and layout which would require more than just a full gut.

There’s also the “white flight donut” going on. In the Seventies, everyone left the inner city for the suburbs, where subdivisions were hastily built from plowed-up cornfields. (That’s where I spent my childhood.) When those quickly-assembled houses fell apart twenty or thirty years later and their owners retired, they moved further out into the country. In some American cities, when this happens, you get the “donut” effect, when the core downtown is gentrified by yuppies. (See also Chicago, or even Goshen.) This hasn’t happened in Elkhart, but the suburbs that were created when I was a kid aren’t as active as they used to be.

I recently read the book Obsolescence: An Architectural History by Daniel M. Abramson. It brought up this concept that I never really thought about, and is contrary to most of the old retail/dead mall/preservationist thought I see on various blogs. The thesis was that architecture has planned obsoleteness, just like that three-year-old phone of yours that won’t keep a charge anymore. There is an idea that a building or a house is built for forever, that it is a landmark that will last an eternity. But historically, starting in the Sixties, architects moved to a frame of thought that buildings had a shelf life. It was cheaper to make something that only lasted thirty years, and this also fit into the general tax code, as I mentioned above. But also, if you designed something trendy in 1961, it would be played out in 1991, and you’d level it and start over.

There’s two sides to this school of thought, and I’m sure this horrifies some people. Just the idea that something would be destroyed after one paid so much, both in money and ecological impact, would seem disturbing to some. But it’s something I think about a lot when I see these buildings that basically implode and vanish. There’s no money in rehabbing these buildings, replacing them with vibrant businesses. It’s more economically viable to leave them blighted. It’s a real paradigm change to think of housing and property to be a temporary investment, an expendable purchase, instead of something you buy forever. Most people can’t deal with the mental concept that a purchase like a phone or a car isn’t designed to last forever, so this school of thought is beyond them.

I guess the thing that’s sad to me is that it’s one thing to think that buildings become obsolete and should be replaced when their time is up. I see a lot of that here in Northern California, but here the movement is upward. Single-story houses are replaced by townhouses; single-floor stores are replaced by shopping centers. Old corporate headquarters buildings are torn down and replaced with modern ones that are several times the size. (See also my old office.) But the value of land here is so high, it’s a no-brainer, aside from the nostalgic component, to scrape an old building and replace it with a higher-grossing structure that can do more, hold more, make more money.

In Elkhart… that isn’t happening. Houses don’t get scraped like they do in Palo Alto. Commercial development doesn’t seem to be over the top. Maybe factories are expanding, but the retail corridors look vacant or underutilized. Like I said, there are probably numbers to counter that, but from what I saw, it was depressing. It makes me wonder what will still remain if I visit again in another ten or twenty years.

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48

Today, I turn 48.

48 is a weird one, because it’s an even thirty years from when I turned eighteen. I’ve written about that birthday before, so I’ll spare you, but one thing is that it’s very vivid to me, and seems like it was a few years ago. And it was three decades ago. There are retired NFL quarterbacks who had full careers who were born after that date. (Current Eagles QB Nick Foles was born on my 18th birthday, to the day.) I think my primary care physician was born after that date. Taylor Swift was born almost a year after then. I’m old.

I imagine that the 1989 to 2019 nice-round-number nostalgia trap is going to catch me on a lot of events this year. It’s when I graduated high school, started college, and the summer between was — well, I wrote a book about it, which will never see the light of day, but a lot went on. And I’d like to not sit around and ruminate about that all year, especially because I’m also being hit with the heavy feeling that 50 is just around the corner, and there’s a lot that I haven’t done.

And none of this “bucket list” is a “bucket list” I could define, like I’m in a stupid Rom-Com movie. I’ve already seen the Grand Canyon and went skydiving and all that crap. And I’m never going to visit Mars or even fly in a supersonic plane. Other than retirement and survival, there isn’t anything on that list that’s quantifiable. All of the dread hanging over me on this one is in the form of qualitative things that are hard to measure or change: write, do more, get better, do something other than work, sleep, and eat. But it’s all a quality thing, not quantity. And it’s always hard to move in that direction. And sure, drink more water, be mindful, eat less, exercise, whatever. But there’s a struggle there, and it’s not something I’ve been able to crack.

Nothing too exciting going on today, which is good. Avoiding horrible events on 1/20 is pretty much all I ask these days. (I am writing this the day before, though, so there’s always a chance of a nuclear war or a dead relative on Sunday, which means I’ll have to edit this.) No Vegas this year, no renting of fast cars or jumping out of planes or buying new guitars. I am doing another superfloat in the sensory deprivation tank again, which has become a bit of an annual tradition now. I think the exact minute of my birth, I’ll be back in the womb again, and that’s always a nice reset. Nice dinner for the evening, and I get Monday off too, so maybe I can write.

Man, that Nick Foles thing is really bugging me. Now I need to root for the Eagles this year. I mean, if I even give a fuck about football, which I don’t. Anyway, 47 down, time to start 48.

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Searching for distraction

I know people lament how much time people waste on the internet. But as a person who has been here since the beginning, I disagree. I remember being able to really get lost in the internet, and it seems like the quick-twitch, low-effort content currently populating the social media-driven internet doesn’t do much for me. I think there’s value in getting lost on the internet. You just have to get the right kind of lost.

I remember in the late Nineties and early Zeroes, wasting serious time swimming through long-form internet sites. When blogs were journals and weren’t commercialized or commoditized, a small group of people were doing interesting things, endless experiments with actual writing. I know I’ve bitched about this before, in my endless “blogging is dead”/”is blogging dead” diatribes. But I really miss reading things like these, that would compulsively suck me in for hours. There was nothing like finding someone’s crazy travel site, or a project blog about restoring an old car or building a weird house, then spending hours plowing through the entries from start to finish.

Maybe this is still going on, but the problem is I can’t find it. And maybe that’s part of the problem. This article describes this struggle well: Searching the creative internet.

I’ve noticed that searching is pretty much dead these days. I mean, I use google constantly, but something is fundamentally broken in its algorithm. And I’m not just complaining about the fact that I have a million words of text on this site that draws zero heat from search engines these days. (That could also be for a lot of other reasons, like it stretches back twenty years, or that I’m boring and inconsistent in what I write about, and not cool.) But there’s also the issue that most searches bring up nothing but corporate crap, and anything interesting, independent, or worthwhile is buried.

The linked article mentions Disney, but here’s another example. I had a Camaro as a kid. I wish I could rebuild one now, but the boomers have driven up prices, I don’t own a garage, and I’m lazy. But, I could see burning an evening reading a long-form blog about someone else restoring a Camaro. So, enter “Camaro” in google search, and what do you get? Page after page of official GM spam landing pages, car dealerships, third-party “Used Camaro Near Me” sites that just redirect you to car dealership pages (after opening a thousand pop-ups), and Chevy press releases dumped on big car magazines. Searching on “camaro project” gets less of the corporate media, but mostly just sale sites and eBay listings. (Not even real listings – just links that go to ebay and search on “camaro project.”)

And sure, the first problem is I don’t know how to use google, and I’m supposed to be searching on some gigantic regular expression that excludes corporate sites and blah blah blah. That’s not the point. I want to find cool stuff about my search term, and 80% of the web has become robot zombie garbage that automated scripts and SEO wonks have spun up to sell affiliate ads.

I guess the solution to this is to read blogs that point to this stuff, but that gets into the “blogs are dead” thing. I think Facebook and Twitter are supposed to have replaced blogs, but they aren’t aggregating the kind of content I want to see. I think the commercialization of things drives what we see, and this is what we now get: divisive news stories and click-bait advertisement disguised as stories.

I’m not sure what the solution is. I’m trying to dig deeper to find things of interest, and investing more time going off the beaten path. And I’d like to blog more about it, and encourage others to do the same. But something’s missing here, and I’m not sure what, or how to fix it.

 

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2018 Summary

I keep attempting to write a nice, lofty post about the great things that happened in 2018, but it was a shit year, by any metric. So, I’ll keep this short, with a nice little list of accomplishments and appearances:

  • Although published on 12/31/17, my book Help Me Find My Car Keys and We Can Drive Out! was sort of a 2018 thing. It was a fun release and a few people got the joke, although many also didn’t. It was nominated for a Wonderland award in the first round, but I’m not a Bizarro writer and much like high school, I’m not cool or popular, so it didn’t make it to the second round.
  • Joshua Citrak had me on the Do Better podcast.
  • I wrote an introduction for Jeff O’Brien’s book Butt Stuff. I didn’t get to read the book first, but I wrote an introduction, so there’s that.
  • My familiar picture was used as a boss character in a video game called Heckpoint.
  • I published Book of Dreams, my 15th book.
  • That book put me above one million published words. (Excluding stories and online junk. And this blog.)
  • I helped (minimally) John Sheppard publish his book Doug Liberty Presents Bandit the Dancing Raccoon.

For quantifiables: the activity line was pretty close to last year: 2,522,801 steps, 3779 floors, 1,190.62 miles. Weight is up, and I don’t want to get into that. Definitely cannot go into how much money I lost in the stock market this year. (I’m never retiring, it looks like.) I took 2634 photos, which is up from 1914 last year, but I think my highest year was 3900 in 2010. I think 500-some of those were analog though, which is a new record. I always need to exercise more, and take more pictures.

I don’t do resolutions, but I have the usual goals: write more, exercise more, blog more, don’t watch the news, don’t spend money. You?

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End of 2018

I’ve been back from Indiana for a few days now. Been slightly sick, working on unpacking, cleaning, resetting, all the usual crap before I get back to work on Wednesday.

The trip was probably my longest visit to Indiana since I left in 1995. I was there from Friday night to the following Saturday morning, with all of it in Indiana (save a quick spin through Edwardsburg and an afternoon in Dowagiac.) I had family stuff pretty much every day, and we tried to find new and neat things to do during the week, museums and other things I’d never seen. But I also had a lot of time by myself, and the heavy nostalgia thing I mentioned in my last post was problematic.

As far as stuff to do, we went to the Studebaker museum, which I’d seen years ago, but has since moved to a new building they share with a South Bend history museum. Spent some time downtown and went to The Griffon, which is an old RPG/D&D game store I last went to in maybe 1990, and it’s great they are still up and running. Went to the old Orbit Records in its new location a few slots over, and the whole vinyl thing has kept them running. Ate at Tippecanoe Place, a giant mansion turned restaurant, which I last visited on the night of my senior prom. Dinner buffet on Christmas night at the new Four Winds casino in South Bend was solid. Didn’t play anything, and then my sister played a slot machine for like two minutes and won $260. Also visited the history museum in Dowagiac. And malls. Lots of malls.

John Sheppard came out for a day, and we did the whole Jon Konrath Reality Tour, visiting every place I lived and shopped and worked and whatever else back in the day. The highlight was stepping into a completely vacant Concord Mall, which was like breaking into a tomb that had been sealed shut a thousand years before.

We started off our day by visiting fellow writer Steve Lowe, who now owns and operates South Bend Brew Werks. Had a great lunch, took the tour of their brewing operations, and saw a great example of how downtown South Bend is on the upswing. At the end of the tour, we hit Bruno’s for a pizza after walking around University Park mall, which seems like it has doubled in size since I left, with almost no vacant stores and every single thing except JCP and Sears replaced by a higher-end chain. It was a stark contrast to Elkhart, where things have closed and not been replaced.

The rest of the trip was me going stir crazy, walking around the mall, wondering what would have happened if I never left Indiana, and wondering what there was to do except eat, watch TV, or spend money. Family stuff, I guess, but I have this conversation with myself every time I go back, and it never goes well. Anyway, I’m back home, away from the snow, so there’s that.

* * *

End of year crap – don’t really want to get into that. I quit Goodreads, so I can’t tell you how much I read. I did exercise every day, although my total distance walked wasn’t as high, and I ended up gaining almost six pounds over the year. So I need to work on that. All the usual new year new me crap. Stop reading news. Stop obsessing over nostalgia. Write more. Whatever.

This year will be tough on the nostalgia front, because it’s thirty years since I graduated high school. and there are lots of various anniversaries there for me to obsess over. I need to find some writing project to distract me from this crap. Maybe I’ll blog more, although I don’t know what I’ll write about. I have a project that’s maybe 80% done, but stalled. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. I have no idea.

OK, going out to dinner in a minute. I’ll probably be asleep by ten. Hope you all have a good new year.

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Hello from the former 219

Exactly thirty years ago, to the day, I was here.

It was Christmas Eve. We closed at five. I was telling people we had no Nintendos. I probably worked forty hours that week. I’d listened to the same four-hour loop of taped holiday Muzak at least ten times. Mariah Carey was still waiting tables, so no, that song wasn’t on.

Today, I poked around what’s left of the Concord Mall, trying to visualize exactly where this was. The Montgomery Ward where I worked is gone now, having closed 18 years ago. The above picture is what used to be a door and a set of windows going in to the Auto Express department. Take a quick right, and you’d see me at a Nixdorf cash register, telling someone that no, we had no Nintendos.

Most of automotive is now a dentist’s office. Two of the bays, all of my old department, and a good chunk of housewares is now a warehouse-type electronics/appliance store. I went inside, and compared the layout of the poles and roof inside to some pictures I had from 1988 and more or less figured out where my department was. The warehouse store was empty, a ghost town. I talked to the manager, asked him if he remembered the Wards there. He didn’t. I don’t think he was alive thirty years ago.

The rest of the store is now a Hobby Lobby. I nosed around there a bit. You cannot tell it used to be a Wards at all. The area that used to be Electric Avenue is filled with floral arrangement kits, and “live laugh love” placards. I think their bathrooms are in the same place as the ones by the customer service center in Wards. I looked into an open door that led to their warehouse area. It’s the same warehouse where I used to unload trucks at six in the morning back in 1993. Same gray paint. I painted that warehouse at one point.

The mall was absolutely deserted. Echoing Christmas music. Zombie apocalypse. Almost every store closed. I went on facebook live, started doing a tour. Three minutes later, a mall cop told me to stop. Oh well.

Santa was gone. The winter wonderland booth was already partly disassembled. Nobody was around. The mall closed at five. There is no way this mall will survive another year. It was supposed to be torn down in 2017. Maybe if the economy tanks and there’s no money to rebuild it, they’ll chain the doors shut and let it rot. I spent almost every hour of my time there for a formative decade of my childhood. Best case scenario, they will turn it into a storage facility. Maybe tear it down and build some soccer fields for the high school. They turned Pierre Moran into a strip mall, and when I was there today, every store except one was vacant. So no need for that.

I have been on such a heavy nostalgia trip, just wallowing in a horrible pit of memories. I drove by my old house today, saw my dead uncle’s house, cruised past my dad’s post-divorce single-wide trailer. I went to the dead Sears at what used to be Pierre Moran mall, stood in the parking lot where the mall once was, tried to figure out the layout of where things used to be. I went in the Big Lots that used to be the G.L. Perry department store where I’d buy Star Wars figures and Halloween costumes, where I first studied the Kiss Unmasked LP and wondered why the hell they took off their makeup. I went to the grocery store parking lot where my car blew up in 1991. They started remodeling the grocery, ran into asbestos, ran out of money, and abandoned it. There’s a lot of that around the area.

An old friend from New York messaged me this morning, and said she had stopped in Indiana to eat breakfast at a pancake place, asked me if I knew it. It was literally 1500 feet from where I was sitting. I ran over and talked to her for a few minutes. I think I last saw her in 2002. It was such a weird coincidental mindfuck. It was like walking into a K-Mart and seeing Iggy Pop and Gerald Ford playing Uno. It was a great surprise, but also fed into this weird nostalgia thing I’m far too deep into.

If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know I’m ripping this off from Don Draper, and I’ll steal it from the Apple thesaurus to make sure I don’t screw it up. The word nostalgia comes from from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. After living in a dozen cities, it’s sometimes hard to say where home really is. But put me in a car in Mishawaka and tell me to go to the Tastee-Freez in Dunlap, and I will make every turn from one to the other without thinking. There is a deep familiarity there, things burned into my head, both good and bad, that are the basis for so many parts of my life. And revisiting that brings some pain I can’t avoid, that I want to continually revisit. I don’t want to move back here; I never could. But I have some sick fascination with going back to those memories, even as the physical world that formed them crumbles.

I feel a great need to stop doing this. I should be thinking about what book I should be writing next, or what I should be doing with my career, not trying to think of every record store that was open in the 219 area code in 1992. This area isn’t even in the 219 area code anymore. And there are almost no record stores. And I don’t live here anymore. You can’t go back. Whatever. I’m mentally ill. I should meditate or jog or take up knitting. I don’t know.

That night, thirty years ago, I got a ride home with a girl I had a crush on, because the starter on my car was broke. The next day, my family went to Chicago, stayed with my favorite cousins. We went to a mall that night and I saw the movie The Naked Gun, going into it blind, not even knowing it was a comedy, which was perfect. We drove back to my cousin’s after midnight in his 5.0 Mustang, blasting the song “Fade to Black,” which is an awesome song to listen to in the middle of the night on a highway in a big city in a fast new car. I was amazed that we were in a place so big and so cool that they played Metallica on the radio, and knew that someday, I would have to leave small-town Indiana. I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to leave for college, start a journey that would eventually take me to the very end of that same highway, on the west coast, as far as I possibly could get from that point. That’s another story, another set of nostalgia points.

Anyway. It’s Christmas in 24 minutes. I have to Ambien out, see more family tomorrow. Hope your holiday is going well.

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Indiana, travel, suitcases, quarries

I’m taking off for Indiana tomorrow morning. Haven’t been back in three years; I’ll be staying for eight days, which might be too many, especially in the cold. I’m done with work until the second, so today is full of last-minute errands and packing and whatnot.

I had to replace my suitcase today, which broke a little while ago, and then our spare broke on Monday while S was packing it up. I ordered a new one on Amazon, paid for the one-day delivery, and of course it didn’t show up, and it got stuck in that weird limbo where the tracking was dead and I couldn’t pull up any info or cancel the order. The damn thing was coming from a warehouse fifteen miles away, and they couldn’t get it here in a week. I cancelled the order today, and went to the mall and bought another one.

The death of my old suitcase is bittersweet, because I got so much damn use out of it. It’s a Samsonite hard-shell case I got for Christmas in 1995. It’s covered in every imaginable sticker; any time a band or an author or a zine or whatever sent me something, I slapped it on there. It’s pretty much got a solid laminated layer of in-jokes and obscure products and old memes caked on the outside. I brought the thing on every vacation, dragging it to Hawaii a half-dozen times, every trip to Germany, and probably half the states in the union, from Alaska to Florida and many in between. It had a ton of wear and tear, but it took a fatal blow to a corner and broke all the way through. I’ll have to take some pics of all the stickers before the thing goes in the trash.

I went to the Sears at Sun Valley, thinking maybe I should help them out with the purchase of a replacement. I looked there, and then looked at Macy’s, and the same exact thing was like fifty bucks cheaper at Macy’s. Look forward to my “death of Sears” article in the next month or so, I guess.

* * *

Here’s a weird one about Indiana that is related to nothing: I heard reports about a month ago that the big quarry in Breaking Away has been filled in. There’s a picture of it circling around, a before and after, which is disturbing if the place has a nostalgic spot in your brain outside the movie itself.

I’ve been to the quarry twice: once in the spring of 1990, and again a year later. This guy Sam who lived across the hall from me in the dorms was trying to make it a regular quest we’d do every year, like a long-term thing from a buddy film, where it would be twenty years later, and we’d all be in our mid-life crises and hiking out to this hole in the ground to have a moment. But I think the group did it twice and that was it.

An explanation, for those who don’t know what I’m rambling on about: southern Indiana is full of limestone, a light-colored rock that is used in lots of big buildings. Most of the IU campus is made of limestone, and the veins of the stuff around Monroe county have been excavated for everything from the Pentagon to the National Cathedral to Yankee Stadium. So between Bloomington and Bedford, there are large tracts of rural land covered in deep rectangular holes like Tetris pieces dug into the earth and hauled across the country for architectural projects. Those holes fill with water, and are great places for kids to drink beer and jump in and swim. Like I said, they made a movie about this.

Our first trip down there was right before the end of the school year. I think five or six of us piled into two cars and drove south of town, following complicated third-hand directions that started with us ditching the vehicles on the old State Road 37 and hiking through various forests and climbing barbed-wire fences. Part of the allure and danger is the fact that these are still functional quarries, and are all private property, no trespassing. And in the pre-Google Maps days, even finding the places involved some work. People were, and still are very secretive about the locations of the quarries. In fact, there’s a listing on that Atlas Obscura site, and it has obfuscated vague instructions that are 100% wrong.

The particular quarry in the movie was called either Rooftop or Sanders quarry, or maybe it’s neither of those. There’s also Empire or Empire State quarry, which is supposedly where they got the limestone for the skyscraper of the same name. (Maybe that’s another quarry. Or maybe rooftop is the rock at the edge of Sanders. I googled it, and there’s conflicting info, so, whatever.) The quarry was a long, rectangular hole, maybe the size of a football field, with sixty-five foot walls on each side. It was in the middle of a wooded area, an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of nature and excavation. The water was nowhere near as clean as it was in the movie, and hundreds of empty amber and green bottles floated on the surface.

None of us were brave enough to try cliff diving. (Hell, I can’t even swim.) But we did run into a group of townies who were swimming. I’d brought an SLR film camera with me, and took a great shot of a dude with an epic mullet doing a backflip off the cliff and into the water, beer in hand. Thinking back, I have no idea how I hung out at the edge of this cliff. I used to work at heights in theater, but I’ve completely regressed and have a horrible fear of anything more than a step-stool these days.

The second visit wasn’t as exciting — it was raining, and we hacked through the woods anyway. Nobody was there, and it was pretty cool to see the place during a storm, the raindrops breaking apart the surface of the water twenty yards below us. But we didn’t see anyone, and didn’t stay long.

So I never partied there all summer like some kids did. But I did get a brief look at the place. And the thought of it being filled up and destroyed was a bit of a punch to the gut. Their rationale was simple: a number of people had been injured and even killed in the quarry, and it was a liability nightmare. And it’s private property, so that was that. Still, very sad.

Of course, as I say this, there are a million other old memories at IU that are gone or changed or obscured with new construction or whatever else. I haven’t been back there since 2011, and that was just for a few hours. I wish I could go down this week, but I’m overbooked as it is. And I’ll get my dose of crippling nostalgia up north anyway. I look forward to seeing the desolation of Concord Mall one last time.

I haven’t even started thinking about what camera gear goes with me, let alone packing up this new suitcase with clothes, so I better get on that.

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John’s book, Reno, Air, Kubrick

First of all, John Sheppard has a new book out called Doug Liberty Presents Bandit the Dancing Raccoon. Go get it.

Got back from Reno on Saturday. It was a quick trip, not much to report. We usually stay at the Siena, but it has since been bought by Marriott and had the casino removed. I don’t know how this is from a business perspective, but the new renovations were nice, and the casino is now smoke-free, which is a huge plus. They had a Johnny Rockets, which is not there anymore, and that’s a bummer. The casino area itself was turned into a bocce ball court, with a big bar, ping-pong tables, and some other small games like skee-ball and whatnot.

I brought the little Vivitar camera and shot a roll of film, and half a roll of Tri-X B&W on the drive home. I wish I would have had more time and more cameras, because the old casinos and storefronts of Reno would look incredible on film. Maybe next time.

Horrible sinus stuff in the dry air and altitude. Spent most of the trip worried that on the drive home, there would be mandatory chain enforcement, and I don’t have chains and have never drove with them. So I spent all of Black Friday trying to buy a set of chains, and ended up going to like four different places and ultimately getting gouged on a set of chains I didn’t need to use.

Of course I ended up at a mall. Did a quick lap of Meadowood, an old Taubman that was acquired by Simon along the way, remodeled since I’d last been there, in about 2013. Had a decent Penneys, dual Macy’s, a Dick’s Sporting Goods, and a dead Sears. They have a new food court with a dozen places in it. It’s got the Taubman mall skylights in it, the Simon Mall stark and bleak whiteness (which I sort of like, but groovy Seventies brick is cool, too). It wasn’t terribly busy for a Black Friday. At least I was able to park semi-close to an entrance and do a lap inside without getting stuck behind people.

It started pouring rain as we left, so the air quality massively improved, almost instantly. The AQI was like 274 and it went down to like 3 overnight. Air in Reno was great, and it’s been decent here since I’ve been back, although it’s starting to rain now, so outdoor walking season may be over.

I have the week off (allegedly, I’m waiting for a panicked cell phone call at any moment) and I originally planned on watching every Stanley Kubrick movie in order.  I got up to The Killing and ran out of steam. I need to get some writing done, and can’t kill entire days going through three-and-a-half hour long epics from the Sixties. Maybe next time.

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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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