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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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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Death of a Kmart

The news has been out for a bit about the bankruptcy filing of Sears Holdings, and the massive list of Sears and Kmart stores closing. In my area, it’s a bit odd, but the one in Stoneridge mall, an upscale mall that’s doing well, got the axe; the one in Hilltop mall, which is complete devastation, did not get closed. I think all the Sears stores I used to shop last century are gone, but that’s another post.

The closest Kmart to my house, which is in Pinole, is slated for closure. I’ve never shopped there, so I decided to head up there last week. It’s in a little shopping center just east of Hilltop mall, just down from a Target, and sort of hidden away on a lazy stretch of big-box stuff, like a Best Buy, a Lucky grocery, and across from a Sizzler that looks like it’s also circling the drain. (To be fair, most Sizzler restaurants have looked like that for decades, though.)

There are like three eras of Kmart for me. As a little kid, we were there almost every week with my mom. This was the Seventies, before Walmart, back in the days of blue light specials and the K Cafe, the place where I got all my Legos and Star Wars figures. I have very fond memories of that place. I can almost smell what the store in Elkhart smelled like, the mix of tru-green fertilizer in the garden center, syrupy cokes spilled on the floor of the cafe, and the heavy starched denim of Wrangler jeans. And I can still feel the wobble of the wire cart, the one with the broomstick affixed to one corner so you couldn’t push it out of the store.

I worked across the street at Taco Bell, and later just south at the Concord Mall. I bought my first CD player there. And in the days before Target and before Walmart, I bought a lot of stuff there. And that logo is the Kmart logo I always remember, the slanted red K and the minty blue letters for the mart. Those old-school stores all looked the same, too, with the low-slung rectangular marquee, no curves and styling, and the big, all-glass front.

Then there’s the Nineties era of Kmart. By the time I got to college, going to Kmart was not a necessity; it was ironic. I would go late at night with my friends when we wanted to remember childhood, and goof on how crappy things were there. And Icees and corn dogs. Kmart tried to change then, with the big red K and the white mart in script inside the K. Some became a Big Kmart, with the Big in blue, and a yellow swoop under it, in true Nineties graphical style. They also made those marquees big and round and lofty, tried to look less like an early Sixties grocery and more like an actual department store. They added more stuff to compete with Walmart and Target, groceries and drug stores and whatnot. I’d still pop in back when I was back in Elkhart. And when I got to New York, there were magically these Super K stores, which was a weird nostalgic throwback for me to visit. (More stories about those at some point, maybe.)

Then there’s the new Kmart. And I have no connection to this Kmart. None. It’s like brand necrophilia, like someone said, “let’s make a store shittier than Dollar General, and just as a goof, we’ll call it Kmart, and put a monochromatic logo designed by a five-year-old on the front.” A scattering of Craftsman crap, a random layout, and a general feeling that makes the old Seventies redneck Kmart look like a Nieman Marcus. There’s a Kmart out in Concord I occasionally go to on a goof, mostly because it’s a nice drive on the outskirts of Mt. Diablo. But when I’m inside, there’s no connection, nothing that reminds me of childhood, and definitely nothing I’d want to buy.

So, the Pinole store. It was total devastation. There were gaudy clearance signs everywhere, inside and out. It looked like any name-brand merchandise they may have had, was gone. Maybe it was bought up already; maybe it was sent back to the vendors for credit. Entire aisles were closed and taped off. People were throwing stuff on the floor everywhere. Kids were putting on halloween costumes, running through the store, ripping open toys, and throwing them on the ground, while their parents ignored them. The entire store smelled like shit. There were large signs by the layaway department that said ALL SALES FINAL, and others with the Sunday circular, saying WE ARE NOT A PARTICIPATING LOCATION.

I went through the clothes department, and everything was on the floor. It seriously looked worse than when I went to the Astor Place Kmart on the morning of 9/11 and every secretary in lower Manhattan was trying to buy tennis shoes so they could walk home without the subway running. I picked around for any jeans that might fit, and they had no Wranglers left; they had a knockoff brand called “Rustlers” or something. The smallest size was a 50-inch waist.

I took some pictures, and hurried out. Honestly, the whole thing threw me. The entire dead mall, death of retail thing is really getting to me. So many things are shuttering, so many pieces of my childhood are vanishing. And so much of the history will be lost, because it’s only being instagrammed, and in five years, instagram will be cratered and unarchived. It really bugs me, and makes me want to archive more, see more, take more pictures. But the more I do it, the more it depresses me.

The other thing is that the more I dig around in these online dead retail communities, the more I realize I hate 90% of the people in them. Nostalgia groups are the worst. I sometimes creep in this Elkhart group, and it’s nothing but borderline illiterate people bitching about Amazon and technology, and waxing nostalgic about garbage food that will kill them. And maybe I shouldn’t say that. But there’s part of me that thinks that being obsessed about this stuff is only like a degree removed from hoping that coal mining jobs come back, which isn’t going to happen.

There needs to be progress, and there needs to be a future. And in looking back, I feel like we built too many malls because they were a convenient tax dodge, and we bought too much junk that’s now filling our landfills because we were told we needed to buy more plastic from China. And I’m torn, because I can waste so much time looking at pictures of old stores and reading about old malls. It scratches an itch that will always need to be scratched. But it prevents me from doing anything creative, or moving forward with my life.

I’ve had this stupid idea in my head for years, about doing a combination glossary, wiki, and blog about the Nineties, about my experiences and the places I worked and shopped and visited. And I feel some need to do this, before I forget all of it entirely. But I’ve written books that took place in the Nineties, and I did that glossary book, and they were my worst-selling books, and not in my voice. (Not that any of my books are selling anymore. Jesus christ my book sales are morbid these days. Another topic.) So I know I could burn a lot of cycles on this, but I feel it would be wasted time. But here I am, still writing about it.

Also, it hasn’t started raining yet, but when it does, that means lots more time in malls. I’m also going to be in Elkhart in December, so I’ll get one long, last look at Concord before they tear it down. Anyway.

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More Film, and digiFilm

I got my first batch of film back from the shop the other day. I sent in six rolls, 36 exposures each, for a total of $76 for developing and a quick scan to CD.

The shots from this Vivitar I bought are tremendously weird. I mean, they look like they were all shot in like 1994. They have this weird, faded quality to them, a perfect vignetting, and just look old, way more than Hipstamatic or Instagram could make them. Like they all have this dreamlike, lo-fi quality to them, much more so than my old old 35mm gear does. The Vivitar has really good Series 1 glass, but a plastic body. It also has all-auto, no-adjustment shooting, but a modern motorized drive system to it. If it was just slightly smaller, it would be a perfect camera.

I wish I still had the original one. Or I wish I had an exact model number, another copy. This one is very similar, but not exact, which bugs me. But what’s weird is sometimes I forget it isn’t the same camera. I was walking around the Port of Oakland the other day with it, and thought how strange and nostalgic it was that the same camera I had for most of the Nineties was with me now, but then realized, it isn’t the same camera. That old camera went to a lot of strange places with me. It moved from Indiana to Seattle to New York. I have pictures from the Trinity test site where the first atomic explosion happened, from Vegas, from the Empire State Building, the Milwaukee Metalfest, Kent State, Bloomington, New Mexico, Boston, Disneyland, Washington DC, and hundreds of points in between.

Anyway, I dumped a few shots on Flickr here. That album also includes some old 120 film shots taken with a Diana F+.

Another topic: the Yashica digiFilm Y35. So a group in Hong Kong bought the Yashica name and did a kickstarter for a digital version of the old Electro 35 camera. The gimmick was that it was going to have this stuff called digiFilm, which was a little film canister you could swap out and change what kind of pictures it would take. Like you could switch to B&W, 1600, 6×6, whatever. You could also put a switch or button on the camera to do this, but they thought it would be a neat thing to make it “like” film. I thought it might be a fun toy, and the camera looked cool, so on a whim, I backed the Kickstarter.

Ugh, I hate Kickstarter. I’ve backed maybe a dozen things in the past, and maybe two have turned out okay. And I always feel like I get burned, and I always vow to never do it again, and then something comes up. And like clockwork, they met their goal, got their money, and then said, “Ok great! Now we’ll go design it!” and the wait began. There were a few sketchy updates, but it looked like this thing would never come to fruition.

Well, it showed up the other day. My verdict is that the camera is garbage. I think the appeal of the old Electro 35 was that it was metal and compact and had a certain tactile feel to it, like old rangefinders of that era. This camera is all plastic, and very cheap plastic. It’s light, and feels like one of those toy squirt guns in the shape of a camera you’d get from the Archie McPhee catalog. It has a non-operational film wind knob that’s molded into the top of the camera. The viewfinder has no optics, just a clear piece of plastic. The doors feel like they will break off in the next fifteen minutes.

The camera uses two AA batteries (not included) and an SD card (not included), plus the digiFilm thing, of which I received four. You then “wind” each shot with an advance lever, and press and hold a really cheap shutter button, and have to hold it and hold still for like a second and a half. The pictures look roughly like what my Windows Mobile cell phone took back in 2008. The B&W looks okay. The others, just use your iPhone and Hipstagram. It does marginally look okay from a distance. If I ever put my cameras on display on a shelf, it would look okay next to my Trip 35 and Canonet QL17. But, ugh. What a waste of money.

I’ve got another four rolls of film to shoot, and might stock up on more for the holidays. I should probably get some 120 film at some point and try that one again, too.

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More Various Long Reads 9/18

I should probably find a better way to organize these link dumps (see previous), but I’m lazy. Anyway, here’s some more stuff I’ve been reading:

  • Lisp Machinery – A Lisp Machine resurrection blog – Lisp machines are a weird artifact of the Eighties race for AI, purpose-built big computers made just to run lisp programs. Here’s a guy that rescued three refrigerator-sized lisp machines and is trying to get them running again. I don’t know why, but I love stuff like this.
  • Planting a Seed in a Toxic Place with Roger Miret – I had a couple of Agnostic Front albums, and had a poster in my room for a while, but didn’t know much about frontman Roger Miret’s backstory in those pre-wikipedia days. Here’s an interesting read about this, in Psychology Today, of all places.
  • The Unknown Notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat – Just watched Sara Driver’s new doc, Boom For Real, which is more about the Lower East Side scene in the late Seventies than Basquiat himself, but was great, except now I’m going to fall down this wormhole for the next week or six. I just wish his estate would do a proper book of his various writing I could buy.
  • Chevy Chase can’t change – I wasn’t a fan of early SNL like others are, so I have no loyalties here, but this is a bittersweet read. Saw him on Norm Macdonald’s show, and was wondering what was up, so here it is.
  • Breathing New Life into Old Cameras – I previously mentioned I fell into this film thing again, and have been reading too much about how to fix old cameras. If you’re in the same boat, here’s a good starting point.
  • Forth: The Hacker’s Language – Forth was a weird language. I always knew about it, but never got into it, because it’s a pretty deep pool to jump into, second only to assembly language. I was reading about the Canon Cat computer, which used Forth, which led to this. Forth is also deeply related to the development of the Macintosh, thanks to the next read.
  • Jef Raskin – The father of the Macintosh computer, sort of. Raskin actually started as a tech writer, the head of Apple’s publications department, but had a lot of radical ideas about the future of the computer-human interface, which eventually led to the genesis of the Macintosh, and many clashes with Steve Jobs. (Two of the biggest things about the Mac, the 68K processor and the mouse, were things he was against.) Raskin later went to Canon and worked on the Canon Cat, which was a Forth-based word processor that never really took off.
  • How Jean Louis Gassée Changed the Mac’s Direction – Sorry for all the Mac archaeology links. My connection to this is I was trying to get a job at Be Incorporated and got into their developer program, but never bought a machine or got the job. (Probably for the best, given the outcome.)
  • The Crash at Sun Valley Mall – Not an economic crash, like most malls are seeing, but an Eastern Airlines puddle-jumper that flew through the roof of Macy’s back in 1985. I mall-walk this place (the other Concord Mall) so it’s interesting to see it in its vintage glory.
  • Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening – I should probably do this. I have way too much music. Luckily, Comcast gave me a DMCA takedown strike for torrenting this week, so I need to quit that, which will help. Everything’s on Apple Music though, and discogs is a problem, too.

Shameless plug: I have a new book. Please check it out.

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New/Old Camera

So, in the “buying old crap I had twenty-five years ago and threw out at some point,” I found another Vivitar camera that is (almost) the same as the one I had from 1993 to about 2000.

I talked a bit about my history with analog film a few years ago, when I last fell down the analog film k-hole. I bought this Vivitar camera during the summer of 1993, after not having a camera at all for about three or four years. I was working at Montgomery Ward that summer (in addition to another full-time factory job) and had an employee discount, so I picked up the most camera I could get for about $100 at the photo counter in their Electric Avenue department at the Concord Mall.

That hundred bucks bought a 35mm point-and-shoot. It had a plastic body, but a decent Series 1 glass auto-focus lens. It was a power zoom, so it could zip from 38 to 70mm focal length with motorized control. The film load/wind was also motorized; you dropped in a film cartridge, closed the door, and the camera automatically sucked the film into the takeup reel. When you hit the end, it automatically rolled it back into the canister. The camera also had blue-teal accents to it, which was Nineties as fuck.

I bought this camera with the intention of documenting shows. It was the height of death metal and the zine scene, and I wanted something I could sneak into concerts. I was going to a lot of shows with Ray, and getting free passes to stuff to interview bands. In practice, I never got to take pictures at shows, because security was always really shitty about it, even when a record label gave me a photo pass. And this was a fairly worthless camera for taking pictures of bands, except maybe candid, backstage stuff at a close range with a lot of light.

Ultimately, I didn’t take that many pictures with this camera. I think maybe two dozen rolls went through it during those seven years. I took a trip across the country in 1995 and shot maybe six pictures total. A Disney trip in 1997 was about two rolls. The 1999 cross-country trip was another three, maybe. Getting a camcorder in 1996 reduced the amount of film I shot. Getting a digital camera at the end of 2000 relegated this thing to the back of the closet. I don’t know when I got rid of it; maybe when I moved in 2005.

Ironically, the most-seen photo from this camera is one you may be familiar with.

I was hunting for this camera online, and found this 5500PZ on eBay for seven bucks, including postage. When I got it, I realized it’s not exactly what I had. Mine was slightly thinner, with the zoom controls on the back, not the front. I’m sure it’s optically the same. But it bugs me that it’s not identical, and scanning through other eBay auctions, I can’t find the model that is exactly like mine. Maybe Vivitar sold some oddball model exclusively to Wards. Anyway, for seven bucks, close enough.

I put a battery in this one to test it. It uses a small lithium battery that was hard to find online. The zoom motor is much louder than I’d expected, and the zoom itself is not smooth and very slow. It’s not exactly the auto-focus that my new Canon has. I didn’t have any film in the house, so I ordered a few rolls, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve also gone back and started scanning some of the old photos I didn’t have scanned from this era 25 years ago. It’s a reminder how much of a pain in the ass film was. It also makes me think too much about exactly when and where photos were taken, since EXIF wouldn’t be invented for another half-decade. Trying to not get into too much of a nostalgia backslide, which leads to the regret that I didn’t take more pictures back then. But it’s understandable when I go to pay for film developing. Anyway.

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