- It is winter here now, so it is 50-something, raining, and the sky is dark at noon. It will be like this until February. I know it sounds wonderful if you’re in freezing temps and a foot of snow, but this is when the SAD kicks in full-time. I dug out the verilux light and am hoping for the best.
- I am still trying to walk every day and keep the Apple Watch streak going, but this is hard now with the weather. Yesterday I walked up and down the length of our parking garage for 45 minutes, which was depressing.
- For whatever reason, I bought a Zoom H1 recorder the other day. I have been listening to a lot of ambient music using field sound, so I wanted to start recording more stuff while I was on walks or traveling. I do this to some extent with my iPhone, but it’s always too quiet with the built-in microphones. Also, iTunes changes where it syncs voice memos like every other week, so all of mine are scattered across like 17 folders now.
- Speaking of Apple, I tried out the new MacBook Pro the other day at the mall, and wasn’t entirely impressed. The new keyboard is okay for typing, but it looks really cheap. So does the touchbar, honestly. I think the previous MBPs had a very sleek, minimalist appearance, and the larger keys and the random things appearing on the touchbar make it look like a cheap plastic Compaq laptop you’d buy at Best Buy and half the keys would fall off in six months. I’m not terribly butt-hurt over the port situation — I’d just buy an external dock for everything. I am mostly concerned about how long I can wait for an upgrade, and what my options will be. (Buying a Windows laptop is not an option.)
- My current 2014 MBP is still problem-free, more or less, with no repairs or issues yet, knock wood. The battery is down to 91% of its engineered life, and that’s the main concern, because battery replacement is almost impossible on these things. I also wouldn’t mind an upgrade in storage size, because I have the 500Gb and it is almost full. I can go up to a 1TB, but that’s $600. I could also clean up my computer and move some crap to an external, but, lazy.
- I have been taking guitar lessons — not bass guitar, but guitar guitar. I am still horrible at it, and feel like I’m not learning very fast. I wish I would have done this when I was 16, so it was burned in now.
- I’m reading Gringos by Charles Portis right now. I’ve read every other book of his this year, aside from that collection of short stuff, which I have but couldn’t get into. Gringos is not his best work (that would be Masters of Atlantis) and it’s a little too similar to Dog of the South for me, but it’s still good, and has some great moments in it. Portis has this incredible ability to efficiently describe a person showing only their peculiarities in a minimalist way, and it’s always incredible to read. I’ll be sad when I’m done with this last book. He’s 82 and his last book was in 1991. I’m hoping he can knock one more out before taking off.
- Also fell down a brief k-hole on photographer Charles Gatewood. Re/Search has a mini-book with various interviews and profiles of him, which was a great read. (There were only 300 printed, so you might want to get on that.) Gatewood is an interesting guy who ran to Sweden in the 60s and learned his craft, then spent time in NY for a while before coming out to SF. You’ve probably seen his work, because he took a ton of the WS Burroughs photos in circulation. (They did a book together called Sidetripping.) I just got a used copy of his book People in Focus, which I’ll get into after the Portis.
- The Gatewood book made me really want to break out the new camera and do some street photography, but the Canon is not waterproof, and see earlier note on weather. I’m also always very itchy about bringing out gear and getting it stolen, so there’s that.
- I need to walk another 13 minutes, so off to the parking garage.
I had yesterday and today off, and I was bored of walking in my neighborhood, so I drove to the nearest mall, like an honest-to-satan mall mall, and not a bunch of stores next to each other with a fake city square in the middle of it.
The closest mall to me is in Pleasanton, about thirty minutes south/southeast of here. There’s a Westbrook mall in San Francisco, probably technically the same distance away, but it’s tucked into the city and not the same experience as being in a suburban freestanding mall.
Stoneridge Shopping Center is the perfect example of a healthy and well-operating Simon mall. It’s got about 160 stores and four anchors (JCPenney, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears), with almost no vacancies. It was originally designed by A. Alfred Taubman, and it has the same look and feel as some of his other malls. I’ve been to Short Hills mall in New Jersey and Cherry Creek mall in Denver, and the interior has the same feeling and flow to it.
Walking around this place is a real mindfuck for me. First, it resembles University Park mall’s exterior, the way JC Penney and its champagne-colored brick juts out from the mall proper and Macy’s is around the corner. The mall sits on an uneven parking area, the north side a level higher than the south, with stairsteps going down the evergreen-covered ridges. The mall sits in a bowl created by the Pleasanton ridge on the west horizon, and the 580 and 680 highways to the north and west. The exterior is decidedly Californian, and far more suburban than the rest of the Bay Area.
But walking the concourse inside — it’s very easy for me to get lost in the nostalgia of the place. It feels like a direct time machine to being in the late 90s in the Seattle area, shopping at Northgate, or Lloyd Center in Portland. And being there in the late morning, right before the Christmas holiday season, brings back old and strange memories for me, of stocking up new shipments when I worked at Wards, hauling out the lawn tractors for storage and setting up the Christmas trees.
There’s something hypnotic about the dead lull at about 11:00 on a weekday in a mall. It reminds me of the times I spent at IUSB, when I would skip class and drive to Scottsdale or University Park to hit the record stores and arcades. The only people there would be the career mall workers, the day shift people, along with a few geriatrics walking the loop, and maybe a mom or two with strollered kids. Everyone else was at work, at their jobs in the factories, and I would have the place to myself, like a post-apocalyptic movie. I like seeing a mall busy at night with holiday traffic, but having the place to myself always felt great.
Malls have a secret life few people see, like the hour before they open, when you see all the assistant managers walking to the bank with their locked up money pouches and drop boxes, stopping to get coffee, talking to the other lifers about the coming onslaught. I liked when I worked the 6AM truck unloading shift, and after unfucking 45 feet of furniture from the Franklin Park warehouse, I’d get a few minutes to go to the pretzel stand and get enough caffeine to finish the next trailer full of stereos and mattresses. Working in a mall paid nothing, even back in those peak mall days of the late 80s/early 90s, but it was a nice routine.
Now, finding a mall like this is a huge nostalgia trigger. I don’t really have anything I want to buy at a mall (other than pretzel dogs, which I really can’t have) but I really enjoy the walking, the people-watching, and the general atmosphere. And like I said, it’s a huge time machine that sends me back twenty years. It’s unfortunate, because malls are dead and dying, but when I get a change to spent an hour in one, it’s almost restorative to me. I know this isn’t very edgy and absurd and punk rock, but it’s a thing. I wish we had a place like this closer to my house. I should probably take more pictures before this one goes away.
I recently found this excellent Jon Ronson documentary about going through the boxes that Stanley Kubrick left behind. Check it out on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/78314194. The basic gist of it is Ronson was contacted by Kubrick’s assistant for a copy of a documentary of his, and before he got a chance to catch up with him, he passed away. Later, his estate let Ronson poke around, and he found thousands and thousands of archive boxes filled with notes and photos, raw research for most of his films after 2001.
This doc is forty-five minutes of mind-blowing thing after thing, and you expect it to top out, and it gets even better. Like there’s a scene where Kubrick is going back and forth with a box company to get a better storage box with the perfect lid. A few minutes later, Ronson finds film cans containing 18 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot during Full Metal Jacket. This is after a series of memos instructing his assistant to find a cat collar with a bell to scare away with birds, but with a breakaway feature to prevent the felines from getting stuck in a tree. (This eventually had to be specifically fabricated by his team.)
And then the stationery. Stanley used to hoard it. Paper, notebooks, pens, inks, drafting supplies. His assistant said he could probably start a stationery nostalgia museum. He would spend hours at a shop, always paying in cash so nobody would ask questions.
I have a huge stationery problem now. For years, I’ve been buying these Moleskine notebooks and go through one every year or so, writing a page or two a day. Last winter, I got some Field Notes notebooks, at a shop in the Public Market in Milwaukee. They were the ones for the state fair series, for Wisconsin, which had a certain kitsch value to me, and I’ve been keeping one in my pocket when I go to lunch, so I can jot down ideas.
Because I heard Draplin do his sphiel on Maron’s podcast, I decided to subscribe to Field Notes. You pay a lump sum and get a package four times a year, with whatever cool limited edition books they just came out with. They’re also good about shoving a bunch of extra stuff in there, discontinued booklets and pens and stickers and whatnot. It’s all made in Chicago, well-designed, and has a weird addictive quality to it.
The only problem is, I’m now sitting on two dozen blank notebooks, and only using a few of them a year. And I still have the urge to buy more every time I see their web site. There’s something so collectible about them, and there’s also this feeling of “I’m a writer, I need to write, this is justifiable” and it isn’t, but I will keep subscribing and buying the shit.
I had this problem when I was a kid. There was this store called Stationer’s in downtown Elkhart, and they sold absolutely every kind of pen, pencil, paper, and business supply. It obviously doesn’t exist anymore – big-box office supply stores barely operate anymore. But back when I was 12 or 13 and playing D&D, they had every kind of graph and hex paper imaginable, along with special erasers and felt-tip markers and anything else you needed as a dungeon master.
And I studied drafting earnestly as a teenager, thinking I would go to college and become a draftsman or architect. These were the days of actual paper-based drafting: t-squares, big tables, protractors and scale rulers. That meant supplies galore: wooden 6H and 2H and HB pencils with points you carefully filed down by hand; kneaded erasers; dust-it powder; metal erasing shields; fine-tipped ink pens; translucent sheets of paper. We got the first CAD systems toward the end of my high school drafting career, PS/2s with digital tablets, running VersaCAD. But those tactile supplies — I hoarded that shit, bought as much as I could, somehow holding some psychological connection between having the most stuff versus being able to do a good job.
The Kubrick thing makes me wish I had more space to collect this garbage, a thought that would freak out my wife. But now that we’re in a digital age, the hoarding has gone to my hard drive. I have sets of folders filled with old PDFs, scanned photos, saved web pages, text files. I like the idea that Kubrick spent every day, hours and hours sifting through this stuff assembled by assistants, looking for the next idea, doing pre-production on films that never got shot. As I fret over what’s next, I often think I need to do this, forget about rushing out the next book that nobody will read, and spend a decade looking at photos and researching things out.
Anyway, great documentary – go check it out on Vimeo, before it vanishes.
The new issue is edited by Gabby Arthur Brown and probably has a bunch of CHEMTRAIL shit in it, but it has a long list of contributors and they all look good.
It includes my story “The Form of the Honeycomb Cereal Sword” which is in my new book Vol. 13, which you should have already bought, but check that out too.
Here’s the URL on Amazon: http://amzn.to/2fcw9EL
I was interviewed by John Sheppard over at Paragraph Line. Check it out here:
If you’re into reading interviews with me, there’s a whole list of them on my books and stories page.
If you’re into tacos, you might want to check out this new place called “Taco Bell.” Very affordable and authentic Mexican food.
I keep thinking about the argument of writer versus author, and then saw this interesting news item about a scammer who made millions publishing junk ebooks on Amazon:
The summary is that a guy set up a small empire publishing hack e-books about homesteading, weight loss, vitamins, healthy lotions, and whatever Whole Foods-oriented how-to garbage would attract clicks. The scam used multiple fake authors and an army of fake customer accounts. He would then game the system with a network of fake reviews, and set the books for free and mass-download them to up the ratings. He carefully hid his tracks through the Tor network, and when a book got reported and banned, he would re-title it, and have another fake author release it with a new cover.
I think most writers have different reactions to this, but it’s a mix of two base thoughts: either “I waste all my time writing and publishing real books and some asshole publishing fake books on vegan child care is making tons of money gaming the system, this is bullshit” and “why am I not gaming the system, maybe not to this level of scamminess, but it sure would be nice to get some traffic.”
I think the best reaction to have, for me, and one that I don’t have, is something like “all of this is meaningless, and who cares how these scammers are destroying the industry, because I write to write, not to make a buck or get fame.” But it’s hard to think this way in a world where you have to pay to keep a roof over your head, and I think a lot of writers are somewhere on the spectrum of this being important, and make some ethical sacrifice towards this.
I’ve struggled with the “writer versus author” argument, and I feel like I need to invent a new set of terms, because these don’t seem quite right. But I think there’s a difference between people who write whatever they write because it is their passion or their lot in life, versus people who write to sell. That’s not to say genre writers who research what to write based on market trends can’t be passionate about their work, and people writing literary fiction can sell their work or modify it to meet market demands to some extent. It’s probably a spectrum, and writers make ethical or business decisions that push them in one direction or another on this range.
What makes me think about this is that the scammer in the article has made many decisions that are to the full-blown extreme of writing to sell. And when I read self-publishing help sites, all of these tactics about gaming the system are discussed to some extent. These sites talk about the importance of covers, how to title your work to get maximum reach, the use of pseudonyms, how to pick categories and add keywords and get reviews and whatever else. They are not as extreme as what this scammer did, but they are all things that aren’t related to writing, or the art of writing.
The thing that gets me is that this scammer chose books, but not because they enjoyed writing or making a connection with the reader at all. I’m not even sure if he actually wrote the books; he could have paid someone on Fiverr to do it. And it could have been anything other than books. The same tactics could have been used to sell nutritional supplements or baseball caps drop-shipped from China. And I sometimes feel that way with the other writers (authors, whatever) with which I share an Amazon bookstore. My books aren’t for mass-consumption, and sure, they don’t sell like a good vampire erotica series sells. But it makes me wonder if these other writers are more interested in marketing and selling than they are about writing. When the gold rush will end, will they will all move to selling insurance or lawn furniture or prepackaged meals online, or will they be writing book that make no money?
I wrote my novels before there was a kindle, before there was a self-publishing world. If Amazon disappeared tomorrow, I would keep writing, even if it meant going to Kinko’s and paying ten cents a page to give them to friends. It’s what I did back in the nineties, and it’s what I’d do again, if it came to that. Everything else shouldn’t matter. But it still creeps in my head, especially with a new book out, ready to face the world. This is something I struggle with, and I wish I didn’t.
Various thoughts, because I am too lazy to write a whole entry:
- Everything has music in Nashville. Like, if you go to get your oil changed, the 15-minute jiffy lube place is going to have a small stage with a bluegrass band playing on it, and they’re going to be totally pro. Every restaurant, hotel, gift store, bar, and tavern has performances. I don’t know the economics of being a musician in Nashville, but it felt like the last place in the world that still had a viable ecosystem for music.
- I know nothing about country music, and it’s horrible to say this, but it all sounds the same to me. I won’t say I hate it, but in general, I don’t like 95% of it. It was like Christmas music to me: when I first hear a Christmas song (in like fucking August) it offends and irritates me. By the 50th holiday song, I pretty much have it blocked out and don’t even realize it is playing. The country music was like that for me.
- We took the tour at the Ryman Auditorium, which confused me, because I thought the Grand Ole Opry was a place, not a show, and didn’t realize it had been at the Ryman forever. And then as we were taking the tour, I found out it’s not still at the Ryman. I should have at least skimmed Wikipedia on the plane before we landed.
- The Johnny Cash museum had a lot of interesting artifacts, but it’s a very basic museum, a square maze in an brick building. But his house burned down in 2007, so there’s no destination to park it at. It is a convenient location, though. And well curated.
- We walked around by all the bars and restaurants. There were a lot of bridesmaids walking around. They all looked identical.
- It was hot. Not Vegas last year hot, but in the low 90s and humid as hell, which probably made it worse.
- On Friday, we went to the Grand Ole Opry, which is in a large auditorium that looks like it was built at a ski lodge in Aspen in 1974. It’s out by a mega mall way east of town. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of hallowed history and Disney homogenization, because they have hundreds of shows a year of top-tier country acts, but the whole thing feels like it was prefab constructed at EPCOT center.
- The big draw the night we went was Carrie Underwood. Next was the actor who plays Deacon on the show Nashville. Lee Greenwood played the one song that I won’t even mention because it will get stuck in my head for four days, so google it. There was also some girl who was the runner-up on American Idle, and like a dozen other people.
- The show ran like clockwork. They had a warm-up person, then MCs, then opening acts, then middlers, then the big acts. Everyone played like two songs. Every band change was flawless. Every cue was hit exactly. They finished at exactly 00:00:00.000 past the hour. They got everyone out and turned it over for the next show. It ran like a Space Shuttle launch, and they do it something like 250 times a year. That was very impressive.
- The warm-up person and a few of the acts skewed slightly to the right in their banter. I think there was a requirement that you mentioned God or Jesus in your crowd work.
- They also plugged their big sponsors between all acts, which were Boot Barn and Cracker Barrel.
- Next day, we went to Franklin, which is a small town-square type place with lots of local shops, which reminded me of upstate New York towns, but with a bit more southern flare. Everyone was very nice. The place we had brunch had a stage, but no musicians playing at that moment. Lots of guitars on the walls, though.
- We went to Carnton Plantation, which is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. We took an hour-long tour, which was pretty phenomenal. The tour guide was far too into the history of the place, but that made it even better.
- We also went to the Parthenon, which is a full-size replica of the real one, built in Nashville for some damn reason a hundred years ago. There were food trucks. Oh, and a stage and bands.
- We went to a steakhouse for dinner, and when I went to the restroom, the muzak was Coltrane, which sort of freaked me out after hearing new-country everywhere we went.
- On our last night in Nashville, we went to The Bluebird Cafe, which has a long and rich history as an 80-some seat music club, and is now famous because Taylor Swift was discovered there and a fake version of it is always on the show Nashville. It is almost impossible to get tickets there now, which is a shame because you won’t see anyone “famous” but you will see some quality entertainment.
- The night we were there: singer/songwriters Dave Berg, Tony Arata, Craig Carothers, Annie Mosher. They all sat in the round, and went around the horn, each doing a solo number. This wasn’t even really country music, as much as it was very personal poetry set to acoustic guitar, and I really, really liked it.
- Sunday — drive to Memphis. We had a giant SUV, which was about the size of a Hummer, so it was like sitting on the couch, watching the countryside scroll past.
- We went straight to Graceland, for the big tour. We did not know this was Elvis week. It was packed, to say the least.
- Graceland is strange, because it’s in a really dumpy part of town, like by a Harley shop and a discount mall. I expected it to be a giant plantation like the one in Franklin, but it was just sort of crammed in a neighborhood like the kind of decay you’d find around an airport. (It is near the airport.)
- They now give you an iPad for the tour, which starts playing and showing various screens of info as you walk around. The tour is narrated by John Stamos.
- The Graceland mansion is not huge, and it isn’t really that extravagant. It is about ten thousand square feet, but it didn’t seem that big. If you subtracted all of the out-buildings, it felt like a very big house, but not a mansion.
- You can’t go upstairs. You can’t see The Toilet. You do get to go through the basement, with the infamous three TVs, and you see the jungle room on the back of the house, which is a Tiki seventies wonder.
- I admit I went for the kitsch factor, and found it all funny, but the somber mood and the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans is infectious, and after seeing so many gold records and old women who show up every year for decades, you can’t help but get swept up in all of it.
- The food at Graceland is horrific. There’s a cafe and I’m pretty sure they are just re-heating hamburgers and hot dogs from Sam’s Club in the same oil they started with in 1982.
- We stayed in a new hotel on Beale Street. It’s a heavily gentrified area, all brand new, and it could have been Denver or Seattle or San Diego’s downtown district. Beale itself had a lot of the same bar. A lot of town was closed on Sunday.
- We went to this hotel where they have ducks in the lobby fountain, and at 5:00, the ducks march into an elevator and up to the penthouse. I have no idea what the hell that’s about.
- We saw the Mississippi. There is also a Bass Pro Shop that is a 40-story tall pyramid.
- The Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot, has been preserved and restored to its 1968 livery, and is now a museum. It’s really surreal there. What’s also strange is that area all pretty much looks like 1968 still.
- Memphis was interesting, though. It’s probably got a weird, lost history that’s worth researching. There was also a lot I did not have time to see — I really wanted to go to the Gibson factory, and maybe catch a baseball game. There were also endless restaurant opportunities.
- After we got back, there was a news cycle of Elvis stuff, because of his death, and I spent far too much time reading about it. I still am, really.
I didn’t hear about this, and I saw it coming years ago, but the default mall of my childhood, the Concord Mall, is dead. I’ve written far too much about this mall in the past, but it’s time for me to drive in the last nail and ramble on about it a bit more, so here goes.
The basics: Concord Mall was built in 1972. At that time, it had two anchor stores, Montgomery Ward and Robertson’s. In 1976, they added a third anchor, JC Penney. The mall was a large T-shape, with a large fountain in the middle. Its current store count (total number, not occupancy) is about 60, although one reference I saw had it up to about 72 at its peak.
I’m about a year older than the mall, and my family moved to Edwardsburg, Michigan, which is right across the IN/MI line, around the time the mall was first built. I have no real memories of it until after the JC Penney was added. In 1978, we moved to Elkhart, about a mile from the mall. So it became my default destination for shopping and wandering around. There were two arcades, and a Kay-Bee toy store, plus the Walden Books sold enough D&D stuff to keep me occupied. There was a two-screen movie theater outside the mall, where I saw a lot of the films of my childhood. I remember fondly waiting in a giant line outside of there to see ET, which took several attempts, because it was sold out for weeks.
As a teenager, I also spent a lot of time there. They had a Musicland, which was lame, and a local record store called Super Sounds. They had a better selection there, and cool people behind the counter. I bought my first CD ever there (Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time) back when they were still sold in long cardboard boxes designed to fit in LP bins. They also had a Ticketmaster outlet, and I remember buying tickets to see Rush and Metallica there. And there was this metalhead guy Frank who worked there, who would sometimes turn me onto stuff. One time, he was listening to the advance release tape of some band that sounded like Rush, but way more metal. When I asked him about it, he popped out the copy and gave it to me. That was an advance tape of Dream Theater’s first release, When Dream and Day Unite, which I still have.
When I was a kid, I used to walk to the mall. I remember at some point, my parents forbade me from crossing US-33, which lay between my subdivision and the mall. But my friends and I discovered we could walk underneath a bridge where the road crossed Yellow Creek and get to the mall without technically walking across 33. Later, I had a bike, and then a car. The mall was a routine after-school hangout, although it didn’t have many places to eat. I still wasted a lot of time flipping through every record at Super Sounds, looking for anything on Megaforce records I may have somehow missed.
In my junior year, I became further entrenched when I got a job at the mall. I became a Master Paint Specialist at Montgomery Ward, making $3.65 an hour or commission, whichever was higher. I worked in the Four Seasons department, which also included toys, lawn mowers, snowblowers, lawn furniture, and other seasonal items. I was a part-timer, but after I fell into the groove of things, I was spending more and more non-work time hanging around the store, shooting the shit with other employees, joking with the guys in Automotive and trying (and failing miserably) to hit on the girls in housewares. During the summers before and after my senior year, I weaseled my way into as many hours as possible, working in almost every department. I unloaded trucks starting at 6AM, painted the entire store one summer, worked shifts in mens’ wear, and ran a Nixdorf register in virtually every department of the four “worlds” of the department store.
Working in the mall showed me an entirely different side of the facility. I would sometimes get there before it was open to the public, or when only the inner concourse was unlocked for the mall walkers, all the storefronts gated, with the lights shut off. I stayed after closing all the time, counting down registers and signing in cash and checks after the 9:00 announcements. I used to work a full day, a ten to nine, never going outside, using a 30-minute break to run to a pretzel stand to get a corn dog and fries as my only meal of the day. I still went to school, but I spent more time at the mall and my store than I did at home.
I knew everyone in my store, but also knew a lot of managers and regulars at every other store in the mall. It was a good experience for me, because I was ostracized and introverted as a kid, and didn’t get along with many people at my school, because I felt like an outsider. Given the choice, I would have hunkered down with an Apple II for all four years and ignored the people around me, and I did a fair amount of that. But when I worked at the store, the adults treated me as an adult, even when I was a dumb 17-year-old kid who only cared about Anthrax and Megadeth. I learned to interact with humans in a way I should have learned at school, but couldn’t, because I didn’t fit in there.
When I worked for Wards, I saw a few things happen that pointed to the huge wave that would eventually crest, the last big spike of growth in the mall industry:
- Right before I started there, our store was given a massive makeover. The old yellowing-white tile floors, walls, and ceilings bathed in fluorescent light went out. They moved to more modern-looking eighties-style decoration, with maroons and pastels and cobalts as accent colors, and Helvetica everywhere. I’m not saying it looked cool, but it looked very 1987. And it always pissed off old people. Instead of being a giant rectangle with straight up-and-down alleys like a grocery store, the layout was a very subtle labyrinth, designed by shopping habit researchers to optimize floor space and give psychologically-designed flows through the merchandise. This is a huge science right now, and we were at the forefront of it in 1987.
- That remodel also included modern point-of-sale systems. No more running a credit card through a carbon copy machine and looking up defunct numbers in a six-month-old booklet. Every terminal was wired to our credit agency, and inventories were also stored and updated in these then-modern PC-like machines. It was the beginning of an IT age in shopping. (And it was one that would – spoiler alert – eventually kill Wards – more on that in a minute.)
- The paper catalog was killed right when I arrived. This really pissed off the old people, because the Monkey Ward catalog had run continuously since the birth of Christ, and it was suddenly gone. Why? Cost/benefit analysis, and the need to expand the retail business into more profitable ventures, like consumer electronics. It wasn’t Aaron Monty Ward calling the shots with his gut feeling anymore; retail was being run by MBAs analyzing data in spreadsheets.
- Wards was divested from their corporate owner, Mobil Oil. In 1976, Mobil bought out Wards during the great Fourth Wave of mergers and acquisitions. When I was there, in 1988, there was a management-led leveraged buyout of the company (assisted by GE Capital, who retained half the company), for $3.8 billion. This was rich in the middle of the Fifth Wave of mergers and acquisitions, one that would set the stage for the eventual downfall of almost everyone.
OK, so back to this mall thing – I graduated high school in 1989, went off to college, and returned to work at Wards again two times, briefly: for about a week over the holiday in my first year of college, and then for most of the summer of 1993, unloading trucks from 6-10 AM.
A bit more background on the Michiana mall thing, too. There were four malls in the Elkhart/Mishawaka/South Bend area. Aside from Concord, Elkhart had Pierre Moran mall, which was in the bad part of town, and had Sears and Target as anchors, and a cool record store, but not much more. South Bend/Mishawaka had Scottsdale Mall, which was a double-decker with a much bigger Wards, a Target, and a fair amount of other stuff. The big one was University Park, right by Notre Dame, and it had everything.
So Peak Mall was about when I worked at Wards in 1993. First, Simon Property Group was formed in 1993, and they bought every mall they could find in this era. University Park is still a Simon mall; Concord was, and I’m not sure of the others. But this was a time when malls were apex predators of consumerism, after we’d gotten out of a recession, when personal consumption was up and continuing to grow. There was no online, and catalog business was dead. Wal-Mart and other big-box stores were just finding their footing. And after the big decade of the mall and establishment of mall culture, suddenly these large public companies were ready to double down and rush into a huge arms race of spending that appeared like it would have no end.
In my microcosm of these four malls, there were varying reactions. University Park, roughly twice as big as Concord, continued to grow, and expanded. (Also, oddly enough, all of its big-box competitors like Meijer and eateries like Red Lobster, Famous Dave’s and Olive Garden, popped up around the mall, but only seemed to make mall traffic surge.) Scottsdale, which was now poised on a new bypass road for US-20 and much easier to get to from Elkhart, expanded in this timeframe, adding a large multiplex and food court, plus redecorating. Pierre Moran painted their awnings blue. Concord added a new bathroom by the mall office, and waxed the floors once. (Also, don’t fuck with me about exact dates and changes here. I’m writing this from memory.)
I left Indiana in 1995, and only saw the four malls on the occasional Christmas visit home. But the bottom line is that shopping habits changed. People were more content going to Wal-Mart, and later buying everything online. All of the malls (except University Park) fell apart. Major tenants went bankrupt and weren’t replaced. Other big tenants with new overlords or strategies moved to nearby locales where they could build new stores with more optimal freestanding layouts, usually in neighboring townships or cities where tax dollars and incentives were to be had.
The wheels fell off of Montgomery Ward in the late 90s. They filed for bankruptcy in 1997, with GE grabbing ownership of the whole company. Three years later, they closed their doors. The simple answer here is Wal-Mart, with a touch of Target. But really, the quicksand was much deeper. Remember that IT thing I mentioned? Wards went through a massive IT retooling in the mid-90s, spent way too much money on it, and it didn’t work out. Also, remember when I said they got into more profitable things like consumer electronics? Well, the margins fell out on that stuff, and it wasn’t profitable anymore. You can dig further and argue about how Wards stores were not as well-placed as Sears, and that the management had some borderline racist tendency to buy into locations further out from urban centers. But it was basic math: sales were down, profit margins were smaller, and too much money was pumped into the bleeding company.
Scottsdale Mall in South Bend never recovered after its Wards closed in 2000. They also lost another major anchor, L.S. Ayres, and floundered headless for about four more years. It was then de-malled, the building bulldozed and turned into an array of freestanding big box stores. Pierre Moran suffered the same fate a few years later; its Target bugged out for a new Super Target in an unincorporated area outside the realm of higher city taxes between Goshen and Elkhart. Its Sears and a new Kroger were made freestanding, and most of the rest became a parking lot for some little storefronts that never found tenants. University Park grew like a monster, adding a giant food court area, a huge Barnes and Noble, and upgrading the interior, while upping the roster of premium stores. (An Apple Store! A Tesla charging station! Is this still Mishawaka?)
Concord Mall never entirely recovered, but it still struggled. The Wards was sliced into multiple stores, the largest being a Hobby Lobby. The big fountain in the center of the mall was removed. The Osco’s drug store in the mall left, and was replaced with a food court that only had one tenant, a Subway. Much of the mall’s interior never changed, the same tile and brown wood trim that was in the mall in the seventies. Some stores vanished because they vanished from every mall in America: Musicland died; Walden Books went bankrupt. KB Toys was Romneyed into bankruptcy by Bain Capital. I don’t know if Aladdin’s Castle or Time-Out arcades still exist as a legal entity, but they vanished from every mall I’ve seen, including Concord. Other stores just spiraled down into low-rent alternatives. Jewelry stores became dollar stores. Boutique clothing stores became televangelist churches. Music stores became storefronts with nothing but vending machines in them.
I was at the mall in August, and was amazed at how many of the stores were closed. JC Penney is still there, as is the Hobby Lobby and whatever department store is now in the Robertson’s spot. The only other remaining stores I can remember: Enzo’s pizza, GNC, Jo-Ann Fabrics, and that’s about it. I can see some of the remains of stores, like the Super Sounds location’s wood walls are still evident in the bakery currently there. But it’s like a ghost ship now, empty and sad.
The plan now is to de-mall Concord. They are spending $50 million bulldozing the building, leaving the anchors, and building some freestanding stores as a “community center.” There are no named anchors or new stores, and apparently nobody even told the tenants of the mall until it hit the news. This approach is laughable, because like I mentioned, both Scottsdale and Pierre Moran de-malled, and both of them are ghost towns of empty stores. More than half of Pierre Moran (now Woodland Crossing) is vacant. Scottsdale, now Erskine Village, was recently sold at a sheriff’s sale when the owner stopped making loan payments. And while Elkhart’s unemployment numbers are down at the moment, it’s an incredibly streaky economy of all industrial jobs related to the RV industry. The next time gas prices fluctuate, the entire region will be wiped out again, like it was in 07-08.
I think the saddest part of it all is that the community is gone now. It’s easier for people to sit in front of their big-screen and click on the Amazon web site, along with a weekly resupply run to Wal-Mart for BluRays and high-calorie frozen foods. Elkhart doesn’t even have movie theaters anymore, aside from the Encore 14 north of town, which has been falling apart for 20 years. It seems like life there is entirely encapsulated and isolated. I mean, I left the state for a reason, but it’s distressing to see the end-stage capitalism unspool and see the last remnants of my past vanish.
I feel silly clinging on to these memories, and need to stop, but this is the last gasp of it, so there you go.
I’m back from a week-long trip to London. Had a decent time, but caught a cold and flew back with it, which has rendered me deaf, voiceless, and stupid. Spent the weekend on NyQuil, trying to sleep it off, but I’m still not there yet.
The weather wasn’t entirely cooperative, but that meant more time in museums. A brief rundown:
- Science Museum – I actually went here twice. The Apollo 10 command module is the big draw, but there’s a lot of other technology, ranging from steam engines to space travel.
- Victoria and Albert Museum – Mostly sculpture, which doesn’t interest me, but it’s a huge museum, and about to get bigger.
- Tate Modern – Picked the exact wrong time to go. They have a brand new tower addition which will greatly expand their space; of course it opens two weeks after I’m there.
- Royal London Hospital Museum – A very small space in the basement of an old chapel, which is nestled away from the growing sprawl of the giant, modern hospital. I had to go for the John Merrick exhibit, though. There’s also some Jack the Ripper stuff there, too.
- Imperial War Museum – Went here in 2012, but they’ve since expanded, with a large WW1 space, which was interesting, as well as a bunch of “war on terror” bits and pieces.
- Handel & Hendrix Museum – Geo Handel’s pad was restored to 18th-century trim levels and made into a museum; turns out Jimi lived next door when he was in London, so they got his place done up in 60s regalia, too. It’s just a restored room and another room of pictures and other bits and bobs, but it was awesome to be standing in the room where he wrote all that great music.
- Bletchley Park/National Computing Museum – The big highlight. It’s an hour north of town on a high-speed train, but it’s one part Imitation Game, two parts computer hoarding. I’ve never seen so many Enigma machines in one place.
Other vague observations:
- The AT&T Passport service is highway robbery. $60 for 50-cents-a-minute roaming, 300MB of data, and use of WiFi hotspots. They make it sound like there were tons of great hotspots, and there were none near my hotel. (And my hotel WiFi was out, and $10/day if it had been running.) There’s a bizarre little program you have to run to get hotspots to work, and it will kill your battery. BT is now putting WiFi in their remaining phone booths, which is neat, but it only really works if you are ten feet away.
- The amount of supercars that are daily driven in London is astounding. The $440,000 Porsche Carrera GT is like a Toyota Camry there. You regularly see people parallel parking their Lamborghinis on the street. I saw some asshole who was driving a $1.7 million dollar Bugatti Veyron in the rain, and parked it on a cobblestone street, in a spot I would not have left my Prius. (And for the record, my Prius costs less than the price of a Veyron’s oil change.)
- South Kensington wasn’t a great place to stay. It’s right on transit, and there’s a Boots drug store and a Tesco market, but the food was either ultra low end or ultra high end, with no real in between. I copped out and ordered room service more than a few times because I was too frustrated with wandering around in the rain to find some place to eat.
- London’s a good place for introverts to vacation. Nobody will talk to you at all on a subway or in public. I had one cabbie that did talk to me, and the conversation was like Arsenal -> Nick Hornby -> The American movie version was stupid/fuck the Red Sox -> Uber is the death of mankind. But otherwise, people kept to themselves.
- There are some really tall people in London. Apropos of nothing here, just something I noticed.
- I had connecting flights in Dublin, and forgot that they are on the Euro, but England’s on the GBP, so there were three kinds of money in play. Also I never pay attention to coins, and by about day three, I had like a hundred dollars of change and scoliosis from all that weight on one side.
- Everything is ridiculously expensive, and even worse with the exchange rate. The only thing that was not: Tylenol with codeine. 24 tablets was £2.59, cheaper than regular Tylenol.
- English Breakfast is great, but I could not deal with eating it every day, and eventually just switched to Pop Tarts from Tesco.
- US Customs has gotten completely ridiculous at this point. Getting back into the US was basically more involved than visiting NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain facility in 1968 while dressed in a Ho Chi Minh costume with a fake bomb strapped to your stomach.
- Coke Zero is now available pretty much anywhere.
Pictures posted here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskxKfCMa – I didn’t have time to edit/caption everything, so if you see something you’re curious about, feel free to comment.
I’ve been having some odd problems with iCloud Music LIbrary and Apple Music. Here’s a description and walkthrough of the issue, partly so I won’t forget it in six months when something completely different doesn’t go sideways, and partly so there’s a record of it somewhere on google, because googling on stuff like “iTunes different version of song” only results in insane hyperbole having nothing to do with the issue.
(Also, take all of this with a grain of salt. This is my experience, and what I tested. Maybe I have the terms or usage screwed up. If so, please comment. Also a big warning: there are a bunch of edge cases that you can hit by screwing around with your settings, potentially destroying your entire music library. This isn’t a list of those. PLEASE do more reading and back up all your shit before you do anything.)
First – I subscribed to Apple Music. It’s like Apple’s version of Spotify; ten bucks a month, and you can stream a bunch of music without buying it, ad-free. It’s not the entire iTunes store’s contents; I don’t know if it’s a subset, or a different list, but it’s fairly comprehensive. There are also various curated playlists, which are neat, and I’ve found a lot of great new experimental music there. It’s all confusingly integrated into iTunes, and I have some complaints there (as does everyone else).
So at home, on the Mac, I’ve got 17,000-odd songs that I’ve either ripped from CD, bought from iTunes, or otherwise downloaded (cough). When I’m at home, I listen to those fine, and also have added some Apple Music playlists to “My Music” as it’s called in iTunes. I listen to the mix of those two when I have internet access, or just the ones on my physical machine when I don’t.
Second – the iPhone Situation. Back in the day, I kept no music on it at all, and carried around an 80GB iPod with a mirror of my collection on it. When the 64GB iPhone came out about five years ago, I started mirroring my entire collection to my phone. When that stopped fitting, I created a bunch of playlists and only synced those, to only sync stuff that was higher rated, recently played, recently added, etc. I also used to sync everything I purchased, but that got to be too much after a certain point. Right now, I sync about 2000 songs, 20GB of stuff. The partial collection sync works okay, although every once in a while, I’d get stuck without something I wanted to hear, but I’d live.
Now, about iCloud Music Library. The text next to this option is “Store your Apple Music songs and playlists in iCloud so you can access them from all of your devices.” The general idea is that you are pushing a master list of all tracks and playlists to the cloud. Then when you use the Music app on another device with that iCloud account login, you get a copy of those lists, and can then stream the songs from the cloud without having them on the device. In theory, I could sync no music to my phone, have zero bytes of music stored or synced, and just get everything from the sky.
There are really two things going on here, and it’s a very subtle difference that is not clearly explained. First case, let’s say I don’t have an album on my Mac. I never bought or ripped the Krokus album Headhunter. (Of course, this is a lie. I think I own 17 copies of this album.) But I found it in Apple Music, I liked it (who doesn’t) and I added it to My Music. What I’ve done is added a link to the album in Apple Music within the big list of songs and playlists in my library. I didn’t download it, though. But if iCloud Music Library is turned on in my Mac iTunes and on my iPhone, that link is added to my iCloud Music Library, and it’s synced to my phone. I can then stream the song “Eat the Rich” from my phone, and all is well (until I drive into a tunnel, or like 80% of Indiana.)
Second case: what also happens is that I am syncing the master list of all of my tracks and playlists to the cloud. So let’s say I ripped that copy of Headhunter from a CD back in 2002, and it’s been knocking around various music libraries on my computers since then. (Probably true.) And maybe I one-starred the song “White Din” because it’s a 90-second intro track of sound effects, and it’s stupid when it comes up when I’m driving around with my windows open stuck in traffic. So the file never gets synced to my iPhone, but it’s in my master list in iCloud. The song “Screaming In the Night” is synced and is physically on my iPhone, so that plays fine, even when I’m in a plane at 40,000 feet and don’t pay extortion prices for WiFi. But if I’m listening to the entire album (which is itself a list of the tracks, stored in this synced master list my phone got from iCloud) and it hits “White Din” it will stream that song for me.
(To also slightly complicate things: if you don’t have the physical song on your device, there is a way to download the Apple Music copy and have a cached version of a song you didn’t even buy on your phone, so you can play it without internet access. This is nifty, but it never ever works, because you will always forget to download that version, and the feature is half-buried and impossible to find or use, and you have to do it on a per-playlist basis.)
The second case is a nice-to-have. The first case, you have to turn the iCloud Music Library to see your Apple Music playlists. It appears to me that there’s some difference between Apple Music playlists and an iTunes playlist I’ve created by hand, because you can’t sync Apple Music playlists unless iCloud Music Library is turned on. I’d been adding all these neat playlists to my library, but couldn’t see them on my phone. So, I turned on iCloud Music Library, and that’s when my problems started.
(Yes, I’m a thousand words into this post, and just now getting to the problem.)
I noticed my playlists were getting weird. Like with this theoretical Krokus situation: I’d be syncing the entire album to my phone, from my own non-Apple Music playlist. Then I’d be out and about, and when the song “Headhunter” came up, instead of playing the studio version that’d I’d ripped from the 1983 album back in 2002, it would instead stream some shitty live version with only one original member recorded at a county fair in 2012. Or it would stream a horrific EDM dance remix by a DJ from Ireland who also happens to use the name Krokus and has a 38-minute trance number he also called “Headhunter.”
(This is a theoretical example; I don’t know if Krokus was having an issue. Here’s one that really happened though: I had the entire Queensryche album Empire synced to my phone, in a playlist of songs rated above a 3. The album was originally ripped by me from a CD. When the last song “Anybody Listening?” played on my phone, instead of using the synced studio version, it would instead stream a live version of the same song.)
My first attempt at trying to fix this: I renamed the track on my Mac, adding an “(r)” to the filename, thinking that would break the match. It did not. I don’t know why, but it still played the same fucking live song.
My second attempt: I turned off iCloud Music Library. I then told it to delete everything from the phone (which is fine, it’s all copies there) and re-sync. It went back to the way it was. I can’t play Apple Music playlists anymore, but all of my music is fine.
I don’t know why this happens, and I don’t fully understand it, but I’ve got a trip later this week with limited internet, so I’m not screwing with it any more.