Surge Redux

They relaunched Surge!

I guess I wrote about this years ago (see Surge, Vault) when they half-ass relaunched Surge as Vault about ten years ago.

I used to be extremely obsessed with different sodas. I also used to weigh 250 pounds and need thousands of dollars of dental work a year. Surge was like the apex of this addiction. Seattle was a test market for Surge back in the late 90s, and I got onboard in early 1997. Then I quit soda and caffeine entirely for most of that year, and stopped drinking it. But about a year later, I fell off the wagon, starting with the occasional soda during writing sessions.

In 1998, I was going hard on the Rumored to Exist manuscript, and trying to figure out exactly what rituals would put me in the right frame of mind to finish this insane book. Like I used to write starting exactly at 9 PM, and then stop at midnight and go to the 7-Eleven on the corner of 16th and Madison to get a Coke Slurpee. And I started chipping in on the Surge during writing sessions, and managed to get a decent (although disorganized) second draft of that book done before I left for New York.

There was no Surge in New York, and no 7-Elevens at that point in time, either. I would have occasional Surge sightings – one time I had rented a car for some reason, and drove on the Long Island Expressway way the hell out to Syosset or something, and stopped at a two-pump gas station with one cooler of sodas, and they had four cans, which I hoarded. And once when I was visiting my then-girlfriend at Cornell, I went to a Wendy’s that had it on tap. But by 2001 or so, it had entirely vanished from the region. And my writing dried up after I published Rumored in 2002, although one probably doesn’t have to do with the other, except in my head. Case in point: Vault came back in 2006, and I still didn’t get shit done.

So Surge is back now, although the distribution is still spotty and weird. I haven’t seen it in stores, but it popped up on Amazon Pantry while I was shopping for other stuff, so I bought a case. It was ridiculously expensive — $14 for a dozen 16-ounce cans — and I don’t know that I can even drink all of this. Back in the old days, I’d plow through it in a few nights. But now I’m logging every calorie I consume, and 230 empty calories is a pretty big hit. I also haven’t drank soda with sugar in it for almost ten years now, aside from a few odd occasions where nothing else was available. (Like I remember stopping at a beach cafe in rural Mexico a few years ago and buying a glass-bottled Pepsi, which was miraculous after spending a few hours off-roading on ATVs.) I haven’t drank any yet, and maybe I’ll only try a can or two.

The whole episode is a strange hit of nostalgia for me. It reminds me of Seattle, of the start of New York, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Rumored lately, how it was the perfect storm of weird writing and chaos. It also makes me think about the cyclical nature of these things, how Coca-Cola seems to be hitting these things every ten years on the dot, how they have these limited markets and test runs and special windows of time. There are times I’m heavily affected by how these things from recent history just vanish, how I can never go to Garcia’s Pizza again, or go to the University Park Mall Bally’s and play Smash TV. And then I’m thrown little bits of the stuff back, like a web page about a nostalgic item, an eBay auction for a Mattel Aquarius, a ROM so I can play a long-lost game on my Mac. They just rebooted New York Seltzer, which I thought for sure was long gone, and now I see the little squat glass bottles every time I go to my neighborhood diner.

I always wonder if we’re now in a hyper-accelerated version of a wayback machine, constant pings back to these limited-time-only items that are relaunched like a McRib as a cash grab. Or is this the same as when Fifties nostalgia hit hard in the Seventies? Will there be any satisfaction in a relaunch of an old product I missed, or will it be a pyrrhic victory, never bringing any real satisfaction? Maybe it even causes more distress, because I’ll get one little hint of a past that I think would make me happy (even though I know I wasn’t happy then) and it will give me a brief hit of dopamine and nothing else, making me want even more. We’ll see, I guess.

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Dead Mall: Hilltop Mall, Richmond, CA

31950485390_0a8dc04787_kThere’s a cruel irony in the fact that I’m now at the age where I need to old-man walk every day as per doctor’s orders, and I’d go to a mall and do the mall walking thing every day, but malls are all dying or dead. That — and the weather — is what brought me to Richmond yesterday, to see if the Hilltop Mall is feasible for my indoor pacing and maybe casual shopping purposes.

Richmond is about twenty minutes north of me, in the corner between San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay. It was a town that quickly grew during World War 2 because of the shipbuilding industry, and then slowly died out due to lack of industry and racial tensions after the war. It’s in a state of flux right now, an up-and-coming bedroom community for the bay area that’s seeing lots of townhouses and condos suddenly appear. I’m not that familiar with the area at all, and probably should be. The outer areas on the water are beautiful, and I’ve hiked in Point Pinole and checked out the ship museum at Marina Bay. But I’ve never explored the mall at Hilltop.

Hilltop Mall was built in 1976 by redeveloping what used to be a Chevron oil tank farm. It is a beautiful location, a circular peak almost like a cupola in the hills. It’s a two-story mall with 1.1 million square feet of retail space. (Indiana folks: for reference, UP mall is 922Ksqft.) It’s another Taubman-designed mall, similar to Stoneridge in Pleasanton. Anchors include Sears, Macy’s, JC Penney, and Wal-Mart.

The first thing I saw when arriving, the true sign of a dead mall, was the police satellite station and many conspicuous “if you see something, say something,” “lock up your belongings,” and “private property – we reserve the right to kick you out” signs. The exterior or the mall is very 1976, with few updates. It’s very heavy brick and tan-painted stucco and concrete. It reminds me of Concord Mall in that aspect. There’s also a thick ring of parking lot lining the rim of the mall, with the asphalt tarmac largely barren of cars. The outer perimeter is built up with tons of newish townhouses. There are almost no outbuildings and absolutely no chain restaurants on the outer perimeter of the mall.

The interior of the mall is extremely dated, and has every trademark of a Taubman mall that was probably lightly updated around 1990 during those peak mall years. It was bought by Simon in 2007, and pretty much left to die after that. There are high arched ceilings with lots of skylights, but the narrow fingers reaching from the main mall atrium to the parking lots are all dimly lit and filled with vacant stores.

And yes, there are vacancies. There are about 150 spaces in the mall, and probably about 90-some occupied. But a lot of the stores are low-traffic, low-rent places, low-end clothing stores, cheap wireless places with basically no stock, empty military recruiting stations. There was some sparse foot traffic on a January Saturday afternoon, but not a lot. I’ve seen malls much worse, but this was fairly bad. Hilltop is tucked away from the highway a bit, and there’s zero foot traffic from nearby towns or residences. There are no grocery stores or external fast food or banking that would pull in crowds. And there are few stores that would attract any people. There were a couple of shoe places. Not much more.

The mall’s bones are interesting. I like the high arched ceilings, and the flow of the upper floor concourse, which is classic Taubman design. But it was incredibly dated and in dire need of a refresh, or even basic maintenance. White ceilings were yellow, with brown water stains from roof leaks. Trim was frayed and missing. Light bulbs were either turned off or dead. And the floors were a disaster, the tile looking like an outdoor bathroom in an Arco gas station. The entire mall had the faint smell of mildewed carpet that should have ben torn out and replaced in 1979. It was far beyond dated. One interesting point is that the center of the mall has a large, colorful merry-go-round, and a spiral ramp to get between the two levels that looks straight out of a 80s sci-fi movie. Good photo potential there.

The anchors were all in rough shape. Sears is obviously on life support, but this one seemed even worse than normal. The Sears was added in 1990, and looks as if it was never updated. Macy’s was Macy’s. I used to think of the Federated-owned store as being top-of-the-heap high-end department store, but their merchandising looks cheap these days. JC Penney was okay, but it had a large vacant furniture store that looked as if it hadn’t sold a couch since the Reagan years.

The oddest thing was the Wal-Mart anchor. It used to be a Capwell’s back in the day, which morphed into Emporium, then was bought by Federated. Instead of running two Macy’s stores (like they do at other locations, like Stoneridge), they consolidated everything into the one Macy’s, and left the old anchor empty for years. Wal-Mart then took it over about ten years ago. It’s a really odd jury-rigged store, which looks like an old two-story LS Ayres from the seventies, with WMT signs hastily nailed onto the beige exterior. The upper floor mall entrance was blocked with painted plywood. It’s unusual to see a two-story Wal-Mart, or one that faces into a mall. I’m also used to seeing them in purpose-built structures that are all identical, and not crammed into a repurposed department store. The Wal-Mart had a fair amount of traffic, which was the good news. The bad news was it was the most randomly laid-out and sketchy looking store of theirs I’d ever seen. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, and I’m not that familiar with the stores, but this one was a parade of sadness.

The food situation was pretty bad. There was not a real food court, just a few piecemeal non-chain restaurants, like a Mongolian grill and a teriyaki place. Subway and BK, of course. I was starving, but left without eating, because I didn’t want to catch bacterial meningitis.

High point of the mall was their large 24-hour Fitness, which was practically full. Lots of new machines, every one in use. Thirty bucks a month.

Hilltop was bought by Simon in 2007 as a package deal, who bought every area mall from The Mills Corporation. Simon later defaulted on their loans in like 2012, and Jones Lang Lasalle manages it now. (I think it’s still owned by US Bank, representing the financiers of the original 2007 buyout.) Last year, they listed the mall for sale, and it will almost certainly get demolished for some mixed-use development. It’s the perfect place, close to the I-80, for a planned community with a fake town center and some light retail.

Anyway, got a good 30 minutes of walking in, and of course by the time I was done, the weather cleared and it was beautiful out. Here’s a quick Flickr album of a dozen pics snapped with my phone: https://flic.kr/s/aHskQsQ4P1

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Stoneridge

fullsizerender-3I 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.

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Death of the Concord Mall

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.

 

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Recent k-holes: maps

I’ve been falling down some horrible nostalgia k-holes as of late. Here’s an exercise you should never do: go find the toys and games and things that completely obsessed you at the age of about twelve, find the addresses of the corporate headquarters offices of their makers, and plug them into Google Maps. The total disconnect between what you envisioned as a child and what these places look like now are phenomenal.

I think there are a few reasons this fascinates me. One is, I never travelled much as a kid. Any preconceptions about any area outside of northern Indiana/southern Michigan or Chicago was either based on TV, or just a guess. I never had any spatial awareness for any other geographical areas of the country. When I was playing with Star Wars toys and somehow found out they were made in Cincinnati, in my head, that meant WKRP, and Les Nesmond’s domain was the same as where my Han Solo was injection-molded. Never mind that the show was a loose montage of stock footage for the establishing credits, and then some sets at CBS Television City in Los Angeles. (If you’re curious on this one, btw: http://www.kennercollector.com/2013/12/kenner-tour-of-cincinnati-kenner-street/)

Another thing that informed these thoughts is that these toys and things were everywhere, so I envisioned massive operations, Detroit-sized city-factories, pumping out GI Joes and Milton Bradley board games. In reality, most of these were small operations, with a few dozen people working on a couple of machines. I probably should have known this, given that my dad worked in a factory, except instead of Hot Wheels, it was pumping out PVC pipe fittings. But they could have just as easily swapped out the molds in their machines and injection-molded Atari joystick pieces or whatever else.

Here’s a couple of examples of these rabbit holes. One, I was into model railroads as a kid. It was a passing phase, somewhere between Legos and model airplanes. I was never that interested in the train aspect, more the scale model stuff, but I also enjoyed the electronics, and the track layouts. One of the big names back then was Atlas Model Railroad. When you got the pre-packaged oval-track train set on Christmas, it was a Tyco. (Or Lionel, if you were O-scale.) But when you went to Kay-Bee Toys or a local hobby shop, Atlas was the big ubiquitous brand of cheap add-on track, running gear, and other accessories. If you read the train magazines, they worshipped the expensive imported German trains, or scratch-built stuff, and eschewed the Atlas stuff because it was cheap or not as detailed. But I wasn’t a retired dentist and didn’t have the cash, so Atlas it was.

And although I bought a lot of their track, the big infatuation back then was their layout books. They published these paperback 8.5×11 blueprint books with a bunch of different track designs in them, things that would fit on various table sizes. The books were well-illustrated, lots of details, and most importantly, had parts lists of everything you needed to build and wire the setups. Of course, these were all intended to get you to go buy more Atlas stuff, and it worked, because I would make endless lists of part numbers and pieces I needed to buy with my allowance. I would get so lost in those books, even though I never fully built any of those layouts. I just enjoyed reading the blueprints for hours, dreaming about what I could build if I had an unlimited budget and way more space.

So, in my twelve-year-old head, I always thought about the Atlas headquarters when I saw the address in the corner of a package or book. They were in Hillside, New Jersey. New Jersey was right there by New York. And I’d seen Ghostbusters, so of course I knew exactly what that looked like. I envisioned the Atlas empire as being something like the Chrysler Building, a hundred or so floors of people packing up HO scale snap-track in yellow envelopes and shipping them off to the sixteen billion stores that sold the stuff. Well, not quite. First, I didn’t know back then that New Jersey wasn’t New York. It’s not twenty square miles of bedrock with massive skyscrapers; it’s thousands and thousands of square miles of warehouses and single-story homes and suburbs sprawled out in every direction.

So, plug in 378 Florence Ave, Hillside, NJ 07205 and you get an unassuming two-story brick building, about the size of a bowling alley. At first glance, it almost looks like a junior high school, and resembles half of the factories near where I grew up, with a single semi bay and a parking lot for a dozen and a half employees. It’s right off the I-78, around a bunch of postwar cape cod houses wrapped in vinyl siding, maybe two miles west of Newark Airport. I haven’t even thought about model railroading in decades; I’m sure they still do great stuff. But the reality of the company is such a disconnect from what I thought of as a kid.

Seeing this building and the surrounding neighborhood is such a strange look inside something hallowed from childhood, something I could never see in the pre-internet days. Sure, looking at a Google Maps photo sphere of Pyongyang, North Korea is astonishing and bizarre (another k-hole to fall down…) but slicing open a childhood memory like that and attaching a completely different context to it is oddly mind-blowing. I mean, I flew in and out of Newark many times; I took the PATH over to Jersey and walked around, drove a car through the suburbs and probably ate at the Taco Bell just around the block from that place. But it’s a weird words-colliding thing to think about that now.

Here’s another big one: D&D. Like most geeks, I was stuck on Dungeons and Dragons back in the day. (Unlike many people who now say they are geeks, this was when geeks were geeks and you’d get the shit beat out of you for being into stuff like D&D.) From maybe fifth to seventh grade, I was infatuated with all things TSR, and I was sure that Gary Gygax and crew hid out in some Tolkein-esque castle surrounded by thousands of acres of meadows and caves. Even the name Lake Geneva, the city in Wisconsin from which they hailed, sounded palatial, like its namesake in Switzerland. I remember once when we drove to the Wisconsin Dells from Chicago, and passed a sign for Lake Geneva on the 94, and I freaked out at the thought of being right there, near where my Monster Manual was originally penned.

TSR had a more rocky history past those days in the early 80s: the ousting of Gygax (see this), the ups and downs of board gaming (and the video game crash), and the eventual purchase of the failed company by Wizards of the Coast. I have no interest in WotC’s corporate offices in Renton, because that was way after my dreams ended. (In fact, I lived in Seattle at the same time they bought TSR. And plugging their Renton, WA address into maps shows me a building that looks almost exactly like every other software company in the 90s in Seattle.) So I had to do a little more digging, but I found more.

I won’t write you a whole history about TSR, because a lot of other people have. But from this article, I found that one of the headquarters was a building on Main and Broad that used to be called the Hotel Clair. The first floor had a game/hobby store run by Gygax, and the top two floors had creatives, designing away games and modules and books. This three-story brick building looks almost identical to most of the storefronts in downtown Elkhart where I grew up, or any other small city-square town in the Midwest. My mom worked as an interior decorator in a building like this; the other buildings had insurance salesmen and stationery stores and banks and dry cleaners. They did not seem like a place that would hold the mecca of all role-playing games of the 1980s.

TSR outgrew this space, and found a warehouse at 201 E Sheridan Springs Road. This looks even more like the factories I knew from growing up, two connected, low-slung buildings with a large parking lot in the front. The building next door’s current occupant is Wisconsin Precision Casting Company, which seems like it could be in either building. TSR wasn’t in some huge Disney-esque building in the shape of a dragon, but in an anonymous warehouse that could have held a plumbing supply company or a place that did fiberglass extrusions for the mobile home industry.

The TSR thing is odd to me, because the worlds created in each of these games and books and modules were, in my mind, as big as the world I was in sometimes. And to think about a bunch of people creating these things, one after another, was mind-blowing to my twelve-year-old self. There’s already the time distortion of youth that causes these things to be so much bigger. But these huge and infinite worlds were created by a few dozen people in hundreds of square feet of below-average commercial real estate in small town America. I felt like companies like TSR, or Commodore, or Coleco were on another planet, a thing much bigger than my small town. But in reality, it was pretty much the same place.

Not that much else to say about this, except that it’s a bottomless rabbit-hole. I don’t even want to start looking at where the original Atari 2600s were built. I’ll leave that as a homework assignment to the reader. (Hint: start reading here.)

 

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New Camera

I finally upgraded DSLRs last week. This was a nagging thing with a convoluted thought process, something like this:

  • I should save a ton of money and get a full-frame DSLR / that’s too much money to blow on someone who doesn’t take a thousand pictures a day.
  • I should upgrade to the newer version of the Rebel camera / that’s not that much of an upgrade, and I don’t use my DSLR that much, because of weight/size/fear of getting it damaged or stolen.
  • I should look into these mirrorless cameras like the Fuji or Sony, because so many people are ditching DSLRs for these / I can’t deal with an LCD screen viewfinder in the sun and with my eyesight, and I have a lot of Canon lenses I’d be junking.
  • I could buy the Canon EOS-M3 mirrorless with an eyepiece viewfinder, and it can use my lenses with an adaptor / I bought an EOS-M1 and it’s a huge regret.
  • I should just use my fucking iPhone and realize I’m not a photographer and nobody looks at this shit anyway.
  • Maybe I’d be a photographer if I bought a full-frame DSLR.
  • etc.

Pressing the issue: a bunch of amazon credit card points, an upcoming trip to London. So I gave up and bought the Canon Rebel T6i. My previous DSLR was the Canon Rebel XS, which I got on my birthday in 2010, and took about 11,000 pictures with in six years, which either seems insanely high or pretty low, depending your experience level. I got in at exactly the wrong time with the Rebel, right before they got high megapixel counts, fold-out screens, really good autofocus, and video. So the new camera is a pretty big step up.

Interesting things about this one: the new STM kit lens seems much faster autofocusing, and is way quieter. There is a flip-out video screen, which makes live-view shooting much easier. The screen is a capacitive-touch, so you can swipe and touch focus points, which is neat. There is built-in wifi, which I will never use. And there’s video, which is actually pretty decent, especially the autofocus.

Minor nits: the battery is a new, proprietary Canon one, with a chip in it, so third-party clone batteries don’t work properly. It will complain, and then the battery level gauge won’t work. This would be less of an issue if Canon batteries were not sixty bucks each.

I think the biggest thing is that despite the wiz-bang features, this feels like an incremental upgrade, like the pictures aren’t astounding; they’re just pictures of whatever I point it at. A new camera doesn’t change what’s around me, or my skill level. It’s still collecting light through the same lenses (and one new one) and aside from the various future-proofing stuff, it’s still my responsibility to put something interesting in front of the lens.

I brought the new gear to the Rockies-Giants game last week, shot a few hundred snaps, but wasn’t happy with any of it. I’ve taken so many pictures at AT&T that I’m bored of it, and although I had suite tickets and could get down to the dugout area, I was too late for batting practice. Weather was too cloudy too. I did like the game (Rockies won, ate a lot) but not a good photo op. I’m hoping to get some good work in while I’m in the UK, though.

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Dead Mall: Vallco Mall Cupertino

I had to go to Cupertino last week for a work bowling party thing. I followed the GPS to a Bowlmor, parked in a garage, and realized it was actually an anchor to a large mall. I had a few minutes to do a quick lap, and suddenly realized I’d chanced upon the most elusive dead mall situation: a huge mall that was in it’s final moment of end-stage death.

I’m fascinated by malls. It’s always bugged the hell out of friends that I travel a thousand miles to some new place and want to go to a mall and not buy anything, but it’s an unfortunate illness of mine, and I can’t escape it. I grew up going to malls, then I worked in one as a teenager, and spent all my time in a Montgomery Ward, or wandering the concourses during breaks. Even on days off, I’d go to work just to hang out. Or I’d drive to any of the other malls, to see the competition, and people-watch. It was the 80s, and malls were the biggest part of our cultural zeitgeist. Even in the 90s, I would find it almost meditative to go to College Mall in Bloomington or Northgate in Seattle and walk the loop, look at consumerism in action, and maybe get a pretzel or a book.

This all slowed down in the 00s. First, my default mall in New York was destroyed back in 2001, when a combined 220 stories of skyscraper fell on it. But aside from that, malls across the country crumbled. People shopped online; commerce went to big box stores; and the mighty anchor tenants all started to die. It became a quicksand situation where people stopped going to malls because there were fewer stores, and more stores closed because fewer people were going to malls. The massive indoor palaces were no longer updated, and when the seventies and eighties decor got too aged and the land underneath became too valuable, they were all “de-malled” and bulldozed under, usually to build a series of disconnected big-box stores or strip malls lacking the character or presence of a singular building with common areas.

I’d never been to Vallco Mall in Cupertino, but its history is similar to most. The mall was built in 1976, then expanded during the big boom in 1988. At its peak, it had about 200 stores, including five anchors: JC Penney, Macy’s, Sears, AMC, and Bowlmor. At one time, it also had an ice skating rink, and there are/were a variety of food options, hotels, and condos around the complex. I don’t have the full chronology, other than scattered news articles and a poorly-written Wikipedia article, but it appears it went through the standard lifecycle of a mall, including a long slide in the 00s, owner bankruptcy and buyout in the late 00s, more additions and seismic refitting, and various legal battles about expansion and condo-ing.

And now, the de-malling will begin. After much complicated legal wrangling, the plan is to destroy everything and build The Hills at Vallco, a two-billion dollar fake city square mixed-use monstrosity, with a huge green roof, expensive condos, an organic farmer’s market, upscale retailers, vegan yoga classes, green energy, and whatever catch phrase you can throw in to pull a more affluent demo. The interesting thing about all of this is that Vallco is in an incredibly prime location. It’s right next to the Apple corporate campus, in the heart of the 11th-wealthiest city in the country. In the past, Vallco was one of the only malls in the South Bay. Now, there are several, plus malls are a dying thing. I rag on the new plans, but the renderings do look nice, and it probably fits in better with the character of the town.

When I walked around last week though, the mall was absolutely heartbreaking. Of the 200-some stores, there were maybe a dozen still operational. It looked as if the mall was not renewing old leases, and letting them time out as they ended, so most of the residents were now gone, but there were a few stragglers remaining. Bowlmor was still alive, and the JC Penney was still fully operational, but both Macy’s and Sears had bugged out, and were completely stripped and boarded shut. There was a huge food court with maybe three dozen stalls, all empty except for a single taco place. A role-playing game place and a comic store were still fully operational, but completely devoid of customers. There was an indoor slot car racing place going, which is an oddity in 2016. But there wasn’t much else.

The mall had such an eerie, haunting feeling to it, though. The bones of the mall, the concourses and hallways and escalators, were all completely normal, running, clean, and decorated. But the style of the mall was very much 1993. Most malls got some injection of life around that time, expansion and facelifting, and it looks like they did this here, and it was frozen at time in the early Clinton years. Nobody was there when I visited at lunch time; I think I saw two geriatric mall walkers, and nobody else. It reminded me of being in a mall when I worked there, at 6AM before even the security guards were present, when everything was shut and locked and powered down. It very much gave me the feeling I wasn’t supposed to be there as a civilian, that I’d accidentally stumbled through a locked door and at any moment, a security guard would show up and usher me out. But everything was completely open for business, lights on, main doors unlocked.

The stores were another matter. Some were completely gone, the interiors torn out, bare to studs, the fronts taped shut, wrapped in plastic. Others were cleared out of all merchandise, but signage and racks still remained abandoned. And others looked like they closed for the evening a year ago, the night gates padlocked, but the store collecting dust, like something out of Chernobyl.

The whole thing was nostalgic and bittersweet and horrible. I’ve had a terrible problem with nostalgia recently, spending far too much time thinking about my own past in the 80s and 90s – not wanting to go back to that, but wanting to somehow explore it or write about it. It’s a terrible waste of time and bandwidth, and it’s honestly very emotionally painful. It’s a symptom of The Crisis, which I keep hinting at but haven’t been fully able to write about or wrap my head around. I almost mourn the feeling of having these communal things in my life, now that they are gone and we’re forever compartmentalized into our web browsers and tightly isolated social networking communities. I saw these monstrous commercial communities run from the inside out, and then they all suddenly vanished.

And it was so strange to stumble across one, trapped in amber like this. It wasn’t like when I go to a random midwestern mall that’s been beaten and fucked, all the prime retailers gone and the places left to cash-for-gold and dollar stores that bring in nothing, because the entire town has shifted in location and moved to far suburbs, leaving the mall to go to seed. Those have a feeling of desperation and real deer-in-headlights failure. This was much more surreal. I mean, this was a mall where a 16-screen AMC multiplex was just built in 2009 – like since I’ve arrived here – and it’s about to get torn down. It was like looking at a very late model car that had been totaled, like when you see pictures of a Lamborghini Aventador that has been flipped eight times. Parts of it were trapped in time at that high point of mall culture, and parts were already gone. It was a really hard thing to reconcile.

Anyway, more photos here. If you’re a local and want to check it out, do it immediately, because the place probably only has a few weeks left.

 

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The Watch

I got an Apple Watch this week – it was an anniversary present from my wife. I’ve vaguely wanted one, but wasn’t sure. I’ve used it for a day now, and it’s interesting in the same way all new Apple products are interesting to me.

I’ve had two different experiences with new Apple products: either it is a complete game-changer, or it doesn’t seem to offer anything, and over time, it slowly becomes apparent why it is valuable. A clear example of the latter is the Apple TV. We had a Roku box, and replaced it with the Apple TV. And at first, all I thought was “okay, more of the same.” It didn’t run apps, didn’t do anything special, and was pretty much the same thing, with a different UI and slightly different lineup. But then its value became slowly more apparent as I realized I could stream anything from my Mac into the living room, and use AirPlay to mirror over video from an iOS device.

Other things hit it out of the park. Switching from a big tower PC with Linux to a little Mac Mini in 2005 was a complete game-changer. Moving from a MiniDisc player to an iPod with every piece of music I owned was a complete paradigm shift. The move from a crap Windows Mobile phone to an iPhone in 2009 was a huge thing. I think any time I replaced something with an Apple equivalent device, it was a major positive change, and usually added functionality that greatly helped my productivity. Or, in most cases, it removed distractions that gave me much more time to focus on other things.

The iPad was a weird example, though. It didn’t replace anything; it was an odd supplement. It did take over using an old laptop when I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and made the passive second-screen experience much more fluid. It also took over using my main laptop on planes or during travel. But it ping-ponged between being too big to be a phone and too small to be a laptop. I tried bringing only it on small trips, using it as a writing machine with an external keyboard, and it never really hacked it. I also used it as an ebook reading machine, before I largely gave up on reading ebooks, because they are horrible and you really should read everything on paper. I love the iPad, but it’s stuck in this chasm between what I need and what I want.

That brings us to the watch. First, like any other Apple product, it is immaculately designed and engineered. The display is incredibly crisp and radiant. The lines of the case are smooth and minimalist. The way it sits on the wrist is not overly “techie” looking like a Pebble watch or other smart watches. It’s very sleek and smaller than my last watch, a Timex Expedition.

I’ve always worn watches. I never don’t wear one, including at night and in the shower. Since high school, it has been a changing cast of plastic waterproof Timexes and Casios, ranging from the most basic drug-store cheapies to a few more expensive G-Shock and Ironman models. My only real requirement of a watch is that I don’t need to think about it, that it is ultimately waterproof, unobtrusive, and has a battery that lasts a long time. I don’t care about fashion or gold or leather or any of the fetishistic Rolex-esque collectible qualities. I dislike analog watches, and I don’t care for wind-up or mechanical watches. If I have to have features, I want a date function, maybe a multiple-timezone thing, a very readable display, and a light is key.

I’ve wandered into the world of smart watches only in the earliest ideas of it. I did have a solar-powered G-Shock with altimeter, barometer, and all that jazz. It was okay, but did not charge well indoors, and I never went outdoors. I did a few different iterations of the Timex DataLink, which was interesting, but ultimately flawed. I generally like the look and feel of Timex, but it always seems they don’t test the UX of their watches, or they generally have 80% of the features I want, and the other 20% is sheer stupidity. And then when they break a year later, you have no way to replace a weird-shaped proprietary band or get them repaired, so they are ultimately disposable.

There are obvious issues with my demands that an Apple Watch won’t meet. It needs to be charged daily. There are Apple apologists who say you can maybe get two days out of it if you turn everything off and don’t actually use it, but get real — you need to charge it every day, for about 45 minutes or so. You could do this at night, but I like to have a watch on at night so I can read the time when I wake up at 2:37, and I’m interested in tracking sleep. I also can’t really wear the Apple Watch in the shower. You can, but it’s “splash resistant” and not “water resistant 5M” or whatever. Washing hands with it on is fine. It’s probably best to keep your wrist clean and avoid irritation, too. So I will try to kill two birds here and put it on the charger in the morning while I am getting ready, and let it charge while I’m in the shower. That’s a change in workflow, and I’m super anal-retentive about getting ready in the morning and do everything in the same exact order like I’m on the spectrum or something, because if I don’t follow a Rainman-esque procedure, I end up putting on deodorant four times and then only shaving half my face. So I need to get used to the new procedure.

The interface to the watch is interesting. It’s a new paradigm. When the iPhone came out, it took a page from the Palm Pilot playbook and made itself a subset of the Mac from which it synced, so you took only your essential data and mirrored it to your phone, along with its own Apps. This is different than the way Windows Mobile and now some Android phones work, with a different methodology, in that the phone is a PC, and the data is partitioned or divided between the two in some hodge-podge manner just like if you had two completely different PCs in your house. My friends who believe in the phone-as-PC are dumbfounded by the phone-as-subset paradigm, and think it is an indicator that the iPhone is “stupid” or “cobbled” because it can’t do everything a PC could. I see it as the opposite; a phone masquerading as a PC usually can’t do everything as well. The input and output methods on a phone aren’t the same as a PC, so you need to tailor the UI of the phone differently, to expect a touchscreen and fat fingers and less viewing area. You also want to keep a phone lightweight, so it requires less CPU and uses less battery. (This is more apparent on the tablet-as-full-PC paradigm, like the Surface. When you transfer an entire PC to a tablet, you also bring over all the parasitic overhead of an OS that has to be backward-compatible 20 years, so you have a disaster of a registry system, DLL hell, the requirement of a thousand background processes and virus scanning and obsolete drivers for floppy drives and line printers polluting your OS, and random PC LOAD LETTER errors or whatever the hell else you don’t want popping up in a Win 3.11-esque UI on your tiny touchscreen.)

So the Watch is a subset of a subset. It pairs with your iPhone and gives a glimpse of its data through a bluetooth tether, with a certain amount of computing working through its own CPU, memory, and network connectivity in the form of WiFi. I don’t know what the division is; this is hidden from the user. It’s fairly seamless; you put on the watch, tell your phone to pair with it, and after scanning a weird QR-like code on the watch face with your iPhone camera, it’s done. It is odd to think of this Russian dolls method of nesting, but that’s how it works, and it works.

I was worried the watch UI would not work out for me with my rapidly diminishing nearsightedness, but it seems fine. The big change is the haptic interface it uses to send notifications. This is more than just a single-frequency buzzer; it uses some kind of variable motor that can make notifications feel like a “tap” of different frequency to send things to you. Depending on the app, this can be quite effective. The issue is how to standardize this on apps, or have an app come up with a good idea of how to notify you. For example, the Apple Maps app uses different tapping to indicate when you should take a turn, which is pretty genius. I think there is a good possibility for an app that uses taps to do things like tell you running pace or notify you of different types of communication via a morse code-like tapping system, to change the need to look at things. I don’t know what yet, but the idea of a haptic sensor in such a prominent place (as opposed to a phone in a pocket) could mean something significant in the form of direct communication beyond the sense of sight.

Apps right now are limited, and it depends on what you want to use the watch for. There is essentially no good input device for the watch, aside from Siri. If you use Siri a lot now, this is very useful. I use Siri at least ten times every time I cook (I can’t do measurement conversions at all — sorry for failing you, grade-school math teachers) and having it on my watch is wonderful. If you make a lot of quick phone calls, having a speaker phone on your wrist where you can yell “call home” is very useful if you drive a lot. Frequent texts, in the form of “send a message to Joe saying I’m going to be ten minutes late” is helpful.

Many of the apps — especially the mail app — are in their primitive, first-stab level of functionality. When I was sitting in bed, it was useful to open mail, and immediately delete half the messages, which I always do. But as I was doing this, it reminded me of 1999, when I had my first Sprint PCS phone, a flat rubberized slab of butt-dialing goodness that had a tiny calculator screen to show you texts and what it thought was “mobile web,” a rough and dumb approximation of browsing the internet in the form of showing you the first 18 characters of a stripped-down web site after about a minute of loading. Reading my mail messages on this little screen made me think back to those early days of reading mails on the tiny square screen of a Nokia, with no adornment or spacing or anything, just bare words in a little LCD box. It looks better and smoother on the Watch, but in my mind it is a representation or reminder of that feeling of “this is our first go at this, but in ten years, this is going to be phenomenal.”

Some apps are silly, or plain dumb. Apps are not separately synced; an iOS app may or may not have an associated Watch app. When your phone app has a watch app, you get it when you sync. As an example, the Walgreen’s phone app has a Watch app, and all it does is remind you when to take your pills. That’s it. I could have used a Watch app that showed me my rewards balance, but no. Some apps are decent. Like the Yelp app is pretty good at giving you condensed choices. The Weight Watchers app is buggy as hell and largely useless. The MLB At Bat app seems to be well thought-out, but won’t even launch for me. I think this will get better as the new native apps API get out there. The possibility for good apps exist. Maybe now that they’ve sold a few billion dollars’ worth of watches, they will start to happen.

Built-in apps are good. I like the idea of controlling iTunes with my watch. The messaging apps are decent. I rarely text or use the phone because I’m an introvert shut-in with no friends, but if you talk to friends a lot, there’s a lot of usefulness there.

One of the main reasons I wanted the watch is to keep track of fitness and quantify that. The sensors for this are excellent, as is the activity monitor. I normally use a Fitbit to count steps/floors, and the Watch seems to count slightly lower, which is normal for a wrist-mounted counting device, I think. The heartbeat sensor is pretty good. The integration with Apple Health is awesome. I first used the exercise monitor feature on yesterday’s walk, and it was great to capture my heart rate changes during the usual fast-walk with hills. I also used the Sleep++ app to track sleep last night, and that worked well.

All in all, it’s an interesting device — I’d like to see how it works out in the long term, and find more uses for it with regard to the usual writing/research/data collecting/tasks workflow.

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You Can Never Go Back

I am home.  My last ten days: Oakland to Chicago to South Bend to North Liberty to South Bend to New Buffalo to South Bend to North Liberty to Elkhart to South Bend to Indianapolis to Bloomington to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Milwaukee to Chicago to Oakland.  I did all of this except the Oakland-Chicago flight in a bright mustard yellow Ford Fiesta, fighting with Ford Sync to try and get the voice control to play songs on my phone, most of it in the rain.  But the driving and the subcompact and the junky Ford transmission were the least of my worries.  My big problem was the ghosts.

I don’t go home much anymore.  I don’t even know where ‘home’ is; I’ve spent more time out of Indiana than I lived there.  Home is probably where the mortgage is, and Elkhart is nothing but a distant memory.  And when I go there, that’s what always gets me: the nostalgia, the distant memories of the time I spent in that little town, when it was my entire world, and the coasts and cities and states outside of the 46516 were nothing but fictional entities on a TV screen.

This trip was particularly hard, for some reason.  I’ve been trying to foster stronger friendships with old friends and family, because I feel like my life’s been on autopilot, and if I don’t put in the effort to see people, it’s suddenly twenty years later and they are all strangers to me.  But when I went back, it seemed like everyone was in some kind of crisis or despair. Everyone’s getting older; everything’s falling apart.  People are unemployed and underemployed and oversubscribed and overextended.  Nobody’s happy.  Everyone’s unable to move, and tells me I’m lucky I escaped.  And I did escape; I do have a job.  I’m mostly healthy, I’ve got a house and a wife and two cars in the garage and food in the fridge and cash in the bank.  But that doesn’t make me happy.  I’ve struggled a lot in the last year or two with what I should be doing, the big picture stuff, and I haven’t always been happy with the results.  So it makes me uncomfortable when others look to me as a person who’s “made it”, and I have no business telling them what they need to do to get out of their own rut.

When I do return to Indiana, I find it amazing that I drive places without even thinking about directions or maps or GPSes.  I think about going somewhere, a mall or store, and find myself driving there on autopilot.  I drove a lot of my old routes: the IUSB to Elkhart path I took every day for year; the River Manor to Concord Mall trip I drove a million times in the 80s and 90s; the south-bound US-31 jump across the middle of the state to Indianapolis to Bloomington I drove every holiday I came back from school.  As a whole, the state’s in sad shape.  So many businesses are closed, homes foreclosed, factories shut down, strip malls empty, old malls bulldozed.  Roads are potholed and unkempt.  Of course, every other abandoned movie theater or grocery store has become some kind of evangelical church, and those continue to thrive.  But I felt such an overwhelming sadness driving those same old routes and seeing total devastation.

I went to my old hangout, the Concord Mall, to see how it was doing.  I spent my childhood going to this four-spoked shopping center, walking the concourses and buying toys and records and books.  I later worked there, at Montgomery Ward, mixing paint and selling lawn mowers and Christmas trees.  Concord Mall has been utterly decimated.  I went a couple of days before Christmas, and I’ve seen more people in the mall back in the Eighties two hours before opening.  My old Wards store died ten years ago, and has been split into pieces, now a hobby shop for scrapbookers and packrats, a discount appliance store, and a family dentist.  Most of the stores are now gone; the Osco drug where I used to spend hours at the newsstand reading magazines got turned into a food court; every single stall is currently shuttered except for a Subway.  The Walden books where I got every book that influenced my writing as a teen is now a bizarro used book store with old, beaten religion books.  The MCL cafeteria Ray dragged me to almost every week is boarded shut.  Both record stores are gone.  The only surviving store was the GNC where my first girlfriend worked.  I think it does brisk business in energy drinks and herbal stimulants for the few remaining factory workers.

I went to my old house in River Manor, which was absolutely heartbreaking.  It was foreclosed upon a couple of months ago, and was devastated.  The big TV antenna tower was bent at a 30 degree angle and falling over, and the roof was covered with a blue tarp, probably with some kind of wind or storm damage.  Several of the windows were broken and boarded over; the screen door was ripped off of the front, and the patio door in the back was broken and boarded shut.  The grass died; trees were missing or dead and the landscaping was entirely fucked.  Doors and windows were secured with impromptu padlocks and riddled with legal postings from sheriffs and maintenance services.  I looked in the windows, while trying to remember any of my old teenaged egress methods that could have been used to gain entry, and the inside was filled with garbage, old boxes and trash, and storm damage.

I have no love for Elkhart, and absolutely no desire to return.  But part of me wished some REO website had the house listed for ten grand, just so I could either restore it (which would probably cost more than the hundred grand it’s “worth”) or bulldoze it and put it out of its misery.  I walked the perimeter and thought of a million memories, all of the hot summer afternoons I paced every step of the lawn with a mower; all of the times me and my sisters set up our kiddie pool or played with the dog or built snow forts in the winter.  I thought about the year I returned in college and lived in the basement, stuck between a life of return and escape.  I went to all of the places in the yard where we buried childhood pets, under trees that were no longer there.  I spent a decade and a half calling this white tri-level home, and now it looked like one of the abandoned buildings outside of Chernobyl.  The entire visit completely gutted me.

One of the mixed positives about the trip was going to University Park Mall.  We first went on a Sunday night, at about 9:00, and the place was absolutely packed.  The mall looks like it has doubled in size, not even including all of the outlying big box stores that appeared on the perimeter.  I walked the concourse, and examined all of the stores, which have been replaced with more upscale items.  The place even has an Apple store now, which amazed me.  When I was a teenager and first got a license, I made the pilgrimage to this mall whenever I could, going with Tom Sample just to dig through the import records at Camelot and maybe see girls that didn’t go to our high school.  Almost every single store has changed, but the hallways are still the same, and I took a few laps, just looking for any reminder of my past, something that hadn’t changed.

I thought a lot about what would have happened if I never left Indiana, if I graduated from IUSB and got some middle management job at a bank or insurance company and stayed behind.  I think I would have descended into this world of retail therapy, buying a house with a giant basement and buying every Star Wars collector item I could find at the mall.  It seems like everyone in Indiana retreats into this kind of womb of consumerism, filling a house with big screens and bigger collections of media or whatever else.  The whole time I was in town, I wanted to buy something, and didn’t know what.  I felt this low-level depression, and my first response was either to eat something, or go to Best Buy and get something rack-mounted with lots of watts and inputs that would make me think of something other than life.

I’m home now.  I feel like throwing out everything I own, keeping the computer and maybe a dozen books.  It is so good to sleep in my own bed and use my own shower.  But I still feel strange and bad and conflicted with the trip, and I don’t know how to reconcile that.

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Extreme Hoarding

Yesterday I caught about an episode and a half of this show Extreme Couponing and felt maybe 10% intrigue and 90% anxiety and terror.  If you haven’t seen the show, the basic rundown: they follow maybe two families a show, with some alpha-mom type that has giant binders filled with coupons that makes an attack run on a big grocery store, filling multiple carts with whatever items are on sale, and strategically using coupon-doubling days along with store loyalty programs, store coupons, manufacturer rebates, and whatever else is needed to drive the cost of a thousand dollars of items to something like twenty dollars.

Each episode also does a profile on the family, and they always have a house that is filled entirely with stockpiles of canned goods, every closet and spare room containing stacks and stacks of cereal boxes and paper towels.  They always show the couponer with piles of newspaper circulars, clipping away and stuffing things in whatever anal-retentive organizational solution the person uses for keeping straight what packaged goods are on sale that week.  At the store, they bark orders at the poor cashier, intermixed with reaction shots of other Kroger customers amazed at this woman buying 150 bottles of Excedrin because the five dollars off the four dollar item offsets the cost of the twenty pounds of cheese and 38 packs of hot dogs in carts four and five.

There is some intrigue in this.  I remember way back when I first got to Seattle in 1995, and I used to try to shop for as little as possible.  I’d been lowballed a bit on my salary at my first job, and I got stuck with a huge car payment and even more on insurance, and I was living in an expensive city (or more expensive than Indiana, anyway) and living alone.  I dig back through my old journals and see entries where it was 10 days until payday and I had $7 and a full tank of gas to last me until then.  And I didn’t know how to cook and didn’t know how to budget or shop or any of that.  So I’d get the Safeway circular in the mail – this was long before the explosion of loyalty cards – and I’d only buy the things in the little newsprint booklet, only get the items with coupons or deals.  And there was nothing more exhilarating than getting ten bags of groceries for something like $40.  Of course this was countered with the realization that I’d have to eat rice-a-roni for my next ten meals.

I still try to exploit these deals as much as I can, without going overboard.  I mean, I use my Amazon Visa card to buy damn near anything I can find, just to get the points.  And I only buy Coke when either Target or Safeway has the big sale on it, and then I buy ten cases at a time.  But I don’t have one of those plastic accordion files that’s sorted and color-coded and organized by aisle and expiration date.  I don’t even know where to get paper coupons now – do they still print newspapers?  I think I remember looking at one about ten years ago.

So this show is obviously fake.  I did a quick search, and all of the people on the various coupon sites call bullshit on the whole production.  Stores are tightening the reins on these double coupon days, and many of the offers have transaction limits or limits per customer that would prevent you of clearing out the entire Albertson’s of shake-and-bake in one swoop.  They show some of that on the show, with the people dividing up the purchases into different transactions, dragging along friends and spouses to ring up items in batches.  They showed this one lady breaking up her purchase into 18 different transactions, taking up about an hour of this cashier’s time.  I don’t know what bizarro world this person lived in, but in any of the places I’ve lived, that shit would get you a beat down.  No cashier is going to let you break up your 244 boxes of Uncle Ben’s into however many under-$50 purchases you need to fly under the radar without pulling out a blackjack and beating you in the head until you leave and pay full price for everything from now on.  And if a cashier doesn’t do it, I’m sure the person behind you will.  (And every fucking time I go to Safeway, I swear this person is in front of me.)

And I’m sure they also pick the families that have the biggest crazy-factor to them, the ones that will make the best reality TV.  God forbid they find some quiet, slightly Asberger’s introvert who has no goofy soundbites and won’t lose their shit when they find out the manufacturer’s coupon is limit-5.  They’re going to go with the loud, obnoxious woman who loses her shit in the freezer aisle when she finds out the Pack-and-Save doesn’t keep twelve dozen boxes of Gorton’s fish sticks in stock at all times.

Another thing not addressed is that many of the people spent all day, 30 or 40 hours a week, clipping coupons and strategizing these mass purchases.  And then they spend three or four hours at the store, and maybe another couple of hours packing the stuff away.  I don’t know how much your time is worth, but if someone told me I could spend an entire work week getting paper cuts and newsprint dust-induced asthma and the payoff would be a savings of a few hundred bucks, I’d pass.

Also consider storage costs; you’ve got some 2000-ish square foot house in the Midwest, and let’s say you are paying a grand a month in mortgage.  Turning a third of your house into a Costco is going to effectively cost you $300 a month in lost square footage.  Yes, you can whittle that down by calculating the tax savings on a mortgage, and you pay off the house in 30 years, blah blah blah.  But the cost of turning your spare bedroom into the back room of a Wal-Mart is not free.  And that goes for any of this hoarding shit – there’s a cost, either financial or psychological, to playing the “die with the most toys” game.  That line from Fight Club about your stuff owning you is true.

And there’s the health risk issue.  Feeding your family high-fat cold cuts and having a million calories of potato chips on a rack in your living room has to be unhealthy from a BMI standpoint.  Maybe half of the people on the show are of the rotund midwestern category, and given that fresh vegetables don’t have manufacturer’s coupons or mail-in rebates, I’m guessing these people are eating nothing but pure sodium and nitrites in the form of packaged and processed meals.  In one of the episodes I saw, this woman was filling her cart with cases of Maalox bottles, and I was thinking, “you probably wouldn’t need to take that much antacid if you ate something other than stockpiled Frito-Lay products for five meals a day.”

One of the things that disturbs me the most is that most of these families are religious, some extreme form of right-wing christianity.  They don’t advertise this in the most blatant of terms, but it’s something you can pick up quickly.  When a blonde-haired  family of ten from Idaho shows up and the soccer mom uses “oh my gosh” all the time, my Mormon indicator is flashing bright red.  There is this weird intersection between the highly evangelical and the “I’m going to get mine” crowd that seems more than just causal, and probably wasn’t what the authors of the New Testament had in mind when they laid down that whole meek inheriting the earth thing.  Jesus didn’t do the whole fishes and loaves thing to bring it all back to his house and fill the shelves in his basement for himself.

I’d absolutely love it if one of the people on the show filled their minivan with five thousand dollars worth of stuff, drove over to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and said “merry christmas” and left everything.  Instead, we get “I’ve got three years’ worth of Dinty Moore stored under my toddler’s bed!”  Ugh.

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