Toys R Us

I was not a Toys R Us kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Death of the Concord Mall, Redux

Almost two years ago, I wrote a long eulogy for the mall of my childhood: Death of the Concord Mall. This was after I heard of plans of the de-malling of the forty-something shopping center. Well, plans have changed. Here’s an update.

First, since I last wrote about this, more stores obviously closed. The christian book store that was there was part of a national chain that went under. The bizarro book store that took over the old Walden’s books folded. A BoRics hair place that still had the old logo on the sign has vanished. I haven’t kept track of whatever else, but today, just for kicks, I went to the mall web site and tallied up their directory list. (It’s a bit deceptive, because they list stores by category, and then list the same stores in multiple categories, to sort of hide that nothing is left.) Anyway, a 2015 planning document showed 62 total spaces and nine kiosks. The current tally is 29 total tenants (including kiosks). That includes a few dubious spots, like the “conference center” that’s really an abandoned jewelry store. And that includes the various half-baked stores, like the place that’s just a bouncy castle indoors.

Also, one of the anchors, a Carson’s store, is about to close. This store was originally a Robertson’s, which was a local department store chain. Back before my time, they had a sprawling multi-floor old-school department store in downtown South Bend, the kind with a beauty salon and a tea room on one floor, a place where people would register their china pattern before their wedding. Then they moved to the malls, and scaled back a bit. The store was bought during the mid/late 80s mall expansion bubble, and it changed to a Meis store. I never shopped there — I wasn’t wearing Izod shirts and sweaters — but I do remember they had an electronics department with gray-market Japanese gear, like Sony Walkman tape players much smaller than the ones normally sold in the US. They got bought again, and around the time I left Indiana in 1995, they became Elder-Beerman. They got bought by the Bon-Ton corporation in 2003, and renamed to Carson’s at some point. And shortly, they will be gone.

One odd memory of that store: it is probably one of the first times I was ever on an escalator. In contrast to the rest of the single-story mall, it has a voluminous first floor, with a second floor far above it, and a set of massive escalators connecting the two. Most of my childhood was in single-story buildings and malls and stores, and I can’t think of a single place where I would have encountered an escalator other than that store. So that’s weird.

Next up, that big fifty-million dollar project to demolish the mall and drop in a bunch of freestanding stores that was supposed to happen in 2017? Well, it didn’t. It never got further than a bunch of renderings and some “coming soon” signs at the mall. No tenants got on board, and no financing happened. They did move the old Martin’s supermarket to a new building just over from the old one, and started rehabbing the old building to move the JoAnn Fabrics there. But nothing else happened.

And now, the big news is that the mall is in receivership. The owners have stopped making payments on their bank loan, haven’t paid property taxes, and there are multiple liens on the property, meaning they probably aren’t paying bills. Jones Long Lasalle is the new receiver, and will continue running the mall for the time being. (Oddly enough, they also were the receiver at my local deadmall, Hilltop.) The bank has asked to foreclose on the property, which means it will likely go up for a sheriff’s sale. This happened at Erskine Village, the old de-malled Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, in 2016. It was bought back by the bank, and I have no idea what happened to it, except it’s still running. But it’s just a Target and a bunch of other random stores spread across a parking lot.

I have a feeling not much will happen with Concord. They won’t be able to attract new tenants; there are Walmarts and a Target nearby, and any possible stores are either in nearby strip mall shopping centers, or wouldn’t pull enough customers to be viable. Nobody will be able to fill the old Carson’s store. The JCPenney can’t be too far behind. The only other national chains in the mall are Claire’s (which is going bankrupt), GNC (which is about to go bankrupt), Champs, Spencer’s, and Kay Jewelry. (All three seem to go down with the ship in a dead mall.) There’s still Hobby Lobby, which is going strong. (Except on Sunday, because, Jesus.) My guess is that each store’s lease will time out, and they’ll board things up and let it sit for a decade, until they eventually tear it down. I’m sure the Hobby Lobby will be decoupled and live on. But what else can they do?

It’s so sad to me, because I spent so much time there as a kid, and have such vivid memories of the place. When I look at pictures of it now, the decor inside is exactly the same as when I worked there in 1993, when I was unloading trucks at the Wards store at six every morning. We’d work for four hours, and then I’d go out into the just-opened mall to grab a drink, and it would always be empty, just the mall walkers and the day shift of store managers getting their day started. This strange calm would be there, a vacancy, an odd quiet, when nobody was there. It contrasted so much with the hellish rushes we had at nights, on holidays, going into the holiday season. In those boom times, I would work twelve-hour shifts, long lines of people for the entire twelve hours, everyone on their late Eighties Greed-is-Good kick, maxing out their plastic to live the Reagan era of excess. And then when I was there in the day, in those early hours, there was so much tranquility and quiet, just hearing the sound of the central fountain echoing through the halls. It was so magical, yet so out of place. And now, when I go to these malls, it’s like that same feeling of calm, except all the potential is gone, all the shoppers have vanished, and all the stores are abandoned. For me, it’s like the quiet of a battlefield long after a war. It’s eerie, and it’s sad.

I have a lot of problems with nostalgia, and with memories, and with looking back. I think it becomes more painful as things like this vanish. I don’t want to go back; I never would want to live there again. But it still bothers me. I can’t explain it, but I can’t get past it.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens here, but it probably won’t be good.


KONCAST Episode 8: Joshua Citrak

In this episode, I talk to writer Joshua Citrak. He is the creator and co-host of the podcast Hangin’ With Old Lew.

We discuss: the Raiders and North Korean Juche; the nuclear war, wildfires, and hurricanes trifecta; the Elkhart connection; post-industrial Binghamton; the rise and fall of IBM America; the synergy between nuclear holocaust and evangelical churches; Vegas betting on earthquakes; fun and profit in outsourcing and Superfund sites; the Great Elkhart Garbage Fire; Apple and the eco brand; on getting the hell out of your home town; getting started writing; the internet gold rush and Cow Town; William S. Burroughs and post-apocalyptic writing; Pessoa, Johnson, and other writing influences; fiction vs. poetry; the Castro Writer’s Coop; Mike Daily; Jeffrey Dinsmore; shit-talking about shit-posting on social media; Jon Konrath the Facebook persona versus Jon Konrath the person; starting up Hangin’ With Old Lew; why podcasting is great; Facebook sharing is killing us all; the ROI numbers game; and why the 49ers suck.

Links from this episode:

Hangin’ With Old Lew: The Podcast:

Jon Konrath:

The Day After:

The Centralia Mine Fire:

Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet:

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son:

Kemble Scott: SoMa:

The Castro Writer’s Coop:

Kevin Sampsell – Creamy Bullets:

Click here to for more details on this new episode of The Koncast


bones and memories

I visited Indiana recently – actually, it wasn’t that recent, but I meant to write about it at the time, and now two months have passed. It was an interesting quick trip, for a few good and bad reasons, so I wanted to play catch-up and get a few words down on it.

I booked a quick solo trip at the beginning of August, partly because of my sister’s birthday, and partly because I had to cancel a family trip to Florida in the spring and felt bad about that. I got an out-on-Wednesday, back-on-Monday long weekend, which seemed to work well for me. Time was at a bit of a premium, but it’s a bit like visiting Vegas; a week is overkill, but a weekend is not enough.

Not to dwell on the bad, but here goes: first, I screwed up my rental car reservation. Arrived in Chicago, and had a car waiting for me in South Bend, when I really needed a car in Chicago to drive to South Bend. Second, on Friday, at about 5:00, one of my crowns came off. After much panic and calling a bunch of phone numbers, I found a dentist nearby who opened back up and glued the crown back in, which was awesome. I still ate mostly liquid for the rest of the trip, until I could get back home and have my dentist permanently glue in the tooth. Also, on the last day of the trip, I lost my credit card, and while at the airport waiting for a very late flight, I found out and had to cancel it. So that’s the bad.

I stayed in an extended stay hotel in Mishawaka, right near the University Park mall. It was on Main and Douglas, which was mostly vacant when I left Indiana, but since, a second main drag of big box stores and restaurants has started there, one big street over from the Grape Road arterial of the same sorts of big boxes. It’s always odd and nostalgic and weird for me to stay right by the mall where I spent so much time as a teen, but it’s a newer hotel, close to everything, and that works for me.

Every time I go back, it’s amazing to me that the default routes and streets and terrain immediately pop back into my head. A lot of Indiana hasn’t changed, or at least the “bones” have not. If you asked me to drive from UP mall to the IUSB campus, I could do it without thinking, just on muscle memory. Never mind that the IUSB campus has basically doubled, and every store in UP mall has changed hands, but the roads and turns are still the same.

Indiana does change, but on a very slow scale. I think people find a certain comfort in that, and it’s understandable. There are changes, and things fade and vanish, plus simple economics dictate amendments and revisions. Some chains die, and some mom-and-pop businesses go away with time, but new ones pop up. Sometimes things are completely bulldozed, like the Scottsdale and Pierre Moran malls, which were both torn down and “de-malled” into plazas of freestanding stores. But other things still have the same “bones” for better or for worse. Old first-generation Taco Bells get painted blue and turned into Chinese buffets. The UP mall got additions and food courts and new Barnes and Noble grafted onto its front, with the concourses updated and the tenants being bumped up in scale and stature. (Like the tiny Software Etc. is long gone, but across the way, there’s a giant new Apple store.) I walked the mall and tried to think of what was where, back in the day, but I couldn’t spot any one store that was the same, aside from the big Sears and JC Penney anchor stores.

Driving, though – driving from Mishawaka to Edwardsburg, Elkhart to Millersburg, those things all looked almost identical. The amber waves of grain were still amber waves of grain. A few were turned into new industrial parks or large retirement communities, but for the most part, it looked like Indiana had aged two California years in the last 25. And normally, a twenty-something me would have found this disgusting, that all of the state should get off their ass and progress at a rapid rate. But like I said, part of me sees the comfort in this, the idea that things wouldn’t change. I’ve always thought that many people in that area feared change, and I think there’s some truth in that. When I was 18, that pissed me off beyond end. As a 44-year-old, I could see why someone might like that.

Some things, though, have atrophied beyond belief. I went to the Concord Mall, which was a mile from my house, my default mall as a kid. When I was a teenager and worked in that mall, I practically lived there. I would go to the store and hang out even on my days off. Now, it looks like nothing has been done to the mall at all since the last time I punched out at the time clock in 1993. The Wards store where I worked is gone, converted into a Hobby Lobby that has locked itself off from the rest of the mall with huge glass doors. Almost every store in the mall has closed; most are covered in plywood. The old Osco’s drug store was converted to a food court, and every stall is currently empty, except for a single, lonely Subway sandwich shop. Some shops have these weird, temporary businesses in them, like a vacant store with a bouncy castle set up inside it, or the horribly sad dollar stores with nothing worth a dollar in them. There are multiple churches in the mall now; it seems like every business in Elkhart that goes bust turns into a church or a Mexican bodega. There was even a “church” that just beamed in the services from a megachurch in Kansas or Nebraska, and of course took your money. The mall itself was almost abandoned, nobody in sight, like an empty shopping center in a zombie movie. After seeing that, I made it a point to not do anything else in Elkhart, dredge up any more memories or see the old subdivision or school or anything else.

Not all of the region was that destitute, though. The UP mall was filled with customers, even on a weeknight. And I went to Goshen one day, and it was actually transformed from what I remember. Most of the main street was art galleries, and small mom-and-pop businesses, a wave of hipsterization running through there. In 1990, I had a girlfriend who lived on Main Street, and at that time, it was largely abandoned, boarded up and done. Now, there are these brewpubs and artisanal butcher shops and groceries, almost like something I’d see in the hippest part of a college town like Bloomington.

The thing that struck me the most was the feeling, the weather, the atmosphere. I haven’t visited Indiana outside of Christmas in years, decades. I think in the late 90s, I made a trip or two in October, and I drove through Indiana in April of 99, during my Seattle to New York move. But I don’t remember an August in Indiana probably since 1994, the year before I left. I’m very sensitive to temperatures and weather and the feeling of a place at a certain time of year, much more than I could ever describe it. And when I was there, the air held the same feeling as the summer before I first left for college, in 1989.

I so distinctly remember that summer, because it would be hot in the day, maybe in the 80s, but then at night, it would cool to the 60s. I was working days in a department store, just started dating someone, and we’d meet up at 9:00 every night, when the mall closed, to drive around aimlessly, stay up all night, go from Perkins to Bob Evans to Big Boy’s, making the loop of the few 24-hour places in Elkhart at that time. And I’d come home late at night, or early in the morning, and feel the summer’s humidity converted to a light mist, to dew on the grass. The summer had a certain freedom, of the end of high school, a brief period where I almost thought I had my life together and was leaving behind the shroud of depression that blanketed me throughout my four years there. But there was also the uncertainty and excitement and fear of packing up my entire life and moving it off to campus in a few short weeks.

Each day of the visit, I did the family stuff during the day, and it was good to see all of them. But then I’d return to the hotel, and either drive around by the mall, or walk at night, and just feel that weather, the cool evenings and the dew on my sneakers. (That’s another thing – there were no sidewalks by the hotel, and everyone was staring at me for walking, like wondering what happened that resulted in me not having a car.) Or I would sit in the hotel writing, with the windows open, feeling the air outside.

I spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever go back. There’s a part of me, as I plummet into The Crisis that has hit at this age, that wishes I had a three-bedroom ranch and a garage and a lawn and everything else, working on an old car or a boat or something. I know I could never live in Indiana because of the politics and money and career. And the crippling nostalgia of being back there would consume me. But it was interesting to see it for a moment.


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.


The Other Cairo and Internet Archaeology

I took the standard drive-to-Florida Disney vacation when I was twelve, and I’d been to a bunch of the plains states by then: Missouri, Iowa, the Dakotas, Wisconsin.  But in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, my dad took us on our first big trip out of the Midwest, this two-week journey to upstate New York.  And at the time, I was bored out of my mind, depressed about being away from my car for so long, obsessively reading the JC Whitney catalog in the hundred degree heat.  But we did a lot, saw a lot, and it’s one of those things I always plug into my mental wayback machine, trying to remember the little details or uncover something on the web that connects back to it.  I didn’t have a camera back then, and I never wrote anything, so it all seemed lost to me.  But thanks to the magic of google maps, I did manage to dig up some of that past.

We visited upstate New York because my stepmom’s family vacationed there.  It was the typical Italian-in-The-City migratory thing, where you rented out one of those little camps for a couple of weeks and sat around and played bocce ball and ate a lot and slept in little cabins.  We didn’t stay in the same compound as the rest of her family though; we rented basically like a motel room with an efficiency kitchen near the city of Cairo.  I remember Cairo as being just like all of those other little thousand-person Catskill hamlets, with a single main street and a general store and some other mom and pop places, like a pie store and an IGA grocery.  I drove around there in 2000, when I rented a jeep to bug out of the city for the weekend, but I couldn’t remember where anything was, and I think one of the main state roads running east-west got rerouted and widened, which threw off my mental landmarks even more.

I recently took a look on google maps, because Randy wrote about camping in Cairo.  Last I checked, the resolution on their upstate NY maps was roughly Commodore-64-grade, which wasn’t helpful.  But when nosing around, I found a little clue that zeroed me in to exactly where we stayed.

So, it’s July 1988, and I spent two days in the back of a pickup truck, sleeping on a mattress with all of our luggage, reading all of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books in one pass while watching Ohio and Pennsylvania scroll past me outside the truck cap’s plastic windows.  We got to Cairo, unloaded in this Bates-style motel, and spent a lot of time swimming, because it was always a hundred degrees and you could see the humidity.  The complex was a cluster of small buildings, each one with two units, on a horseshoe drive curved around a main house and an in-ground swimming pool.  Most of upstate New York like this is not in cities or towns, but just the occasional house off to the side of a heavily wooded road, which isn’t conducive to a teenager with no car who just wants to wander around parent-free.  On the first day, I hiked down the highway, my jambox on my shoulder, listening to Back in Black, and I walked about a mile to a gas station to buy a single Coke, which I then drank on the way home.  Of course, the whole voyage was a push, considering how much I sweated on that walk, but it was one of those journey-is-not-the-destination kind of walks.

The next day, I went to this restaurant to get a coke, and that’s my big clue on this search: the Stone Castle.  It’s now called The Stone Castle Inn, and it’s a, well, stone castle; a turret sitting off of this sleepy little road.  I walked over there one day and ordered a coke, but they had no to-go cups, so I sat in this heavy wood restaurant that I think used to serve German food, the prototypical German restaurant with high ceilings and a huge stone hearth and dark wood everywhere.  I guess the place has since been restored and is now an Irish pub, but more importantly, it is on Google Maps, and our place was right next door, so it zeroed me in and showed me I had been searching up and down state road 23, when I was supposed to be looking on state road 145.  If you go here, you can see that horseshoe drive, and the swimming pool to the northwest.  It’s even got a street view picture, although none of this is as high quality as if you aimed google maps at, say, Palo Alto.

If you go northwest on 145, you come to Hitchcock road.  We used to load into the pickup truck, and drive up that road to 32, which crossed Catskill Creek here.  When the motel pool got old, we’d swim in the river. It was blocked partially by a dam to the northwest, which formed this nice little pool with some falls that were perfect for inner tubes.  The water was always cool, crystal-clear, like swimming in bottled water.  I remember sitting on the beach by that water, talking to some older kids who wanted to know where we were from, and when I mentioned Indiana, they said “Bobby Knight, right?”  The one thing I learned on this trip was that Indiana, which was my entire universe at that point, only held a fraction of a fraction of a percent of peoples’ collective consciousness outside of that state.  I always – and still – marvel at what one or two random factoids people do know about the Hoosier state.  Back then it was Bobby Knight, David Letterman, and maybe band instruments like Selmer.  This was pre-Shawn Kemp, pre-kid stuck in a vending machine, pre-meth lab Indiana.  And those “older kids” were probably all of 19 or 20, which seemed like adults to me at the time.

The first time I ever flew was here too, at the Freehold Airport.  (here, here.)  We drove by here, and they had some deal where you could fly for 15 minutes for ten or twenty bucks, so me and my two sisters piled into this little Cessna and took off.  (It was probably this blue and white Cessna 150 shown on this page.) I loved airplanes, but had never been in one.  I got to sit in the front of the little VW-sized cockpit, and the pilot told me not to touch anything, because I had a yoke and a set of rudder pedals right in front of me. I remember so distinctly when those tricycle gear wheels pulled off the ground, watching the ground fall below us, and flying at a few thousand feet around the area.  The pilot asked where we were staying, and we flew over the motel, looked down at the creek and the bridge and the dam, saw little tiny people swimming and tubing in the water below.  It would be seven years until I got on a plane again, not out of any fear of flying, but just because I never had the money or reason for air travel.  But being in that little Cessna made me want to fly, made me spend way too much time kicking tires at airshows and screwing with crappy flight simulators on outdated Windows machines, wishing I could jump in a tiny plane and cruise around at two thousand feet, looking at the scenery.

I’ll have to do more digging to find out more about this place.  I remember we also went to Woodstock, the Zoom Flume water park, and Hunter Mountain.  But what I remember most is how those daytime activities, the little field trips to see old bridges or small towns, were punctuated by these longer periods of boredom and late-night depression.  I thought all of my melancholy feelings had to do with being in Indiana, being around the people in my school, but when I was a thousand miles away, I still felt them, and knew something was wrong.  I didn’t fully realize any of this until a few months later, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, trying to unravel all of the depression and confusion.  At the time, I just wondered about the strangeness around me, taking in all of this alien scenery of small town New York, listening to people talk about the muggings and rapes and crime of The City, not knowing that in just over a decade, I’d be living there, too.

Anyway, bottom line, google maps is a huge time suck, and take more digital pictures, while you have the chance.


Master of Reality

[Trying to type on an Apple bluetooth keyboard for the first time – man, this little thing is weird.  There seems to be a whole cult of people that like this thing more than any other keyboard in the world, but I’ll be damned if I can’t stop hitting the caps lock key by mistake every other word, making the entire paragraph look like some kind of Tea Party protest sign.]

Okay, so I was out on Saturday and after dinner at a somewhat forgettable Indian place on Piedmont, we were walking back to the car and saw this little newsstand store.  And it was an actual newsstand – a store about as big as a bedroom off of a side street, two walls filled with racks of magazines and newspapers.  The other wall had t-shirts, moleskine notebooks, zines, and other paraphernalia.  (Fourth wall: glass, mostly.)  It had some pithy, punny name, like “Issues” or something, but I forgot what.  Anyway, we went in and I looked for something to buy to support this guy, since there’s no way in hell he’s making loads of cash selling the occasional copy of High Times and operating a subsidized reading room for hipster doofuses.  I also wanted some proof that I wasn’t teleported back to the mid-90s, because it’s been forever since I’ve seen an independent newsstand that actually stocked non-Hearst, non-Conde Nast, non-News Corp, non-Time Warner publications.

I grabbed a zine (I forget what – I’ll look it up later) and headed to the cash register, but found a small pile of those 33 1/3 books on a shelf.  I may have mentioned these before, but Continuum publishes them, and they are a small pocket-sized book (maybe 4.5″x6.5″) and they are each numbered as part of a series, which gives them the same hoarder appeal as records.  Each title is about a particular album, and most of them are a small critical analysis or history of that particular record.  But the first one I got (Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice) was not about the Smiths album of the same name, but was instead this hundred-page fiction story about a miserable kid in high school, a sort of punk wannabe guy who goes to this crappy high school where there was a suicide, and his infatuation with this girl.  It reminded me a lot of John Sheppard’s Small Town Punk (the real first edition, not the rereleased cassette single version) and how it captured the angst of growing up in Reagan America and how punk was not a brand of hair dye you bought at the mall, but a type of disaffection you suffered when you weren’t a jock in high school.

Based on that book, I went to Amazon and clicked away and bought a bunch of the books, but then found out that most of them were just these stupid record collector/music critic wankers going on about how important a particular Led Zeppelin album was to the world, as if I gave a shit.  But Colin Meloy wrote one for the Replacements’ Let It Be that was about a kid from Montana that finds this album and it becomes a huge corner-turning event for him, and I really dug that book.  (And from the Amazon reviews, which I should have read in the first place, I guess a ton of people had the opposite reaction as me, and loved the musicophile books and had a serious WTF moment over the Meloy and Pernice books.)

So I got the Master of Reality book about the Black Sabbath album, written by John Darnielle.  This was written in two parts, the first as the journal of a kid who was locked up in a rehab psych ward, and the second as an extended letter to his old shrink, ten-odd years later.  The whole thing was interesting and touching and the hundred pages flew past pretty quick.  And there were two basic reverberations or takeaways from this.  The first is this urge for me to wrap up a 30-40000 word novella or short story or whatever from my various writing about either high school or college, and publish a really kick-ass small pocket book like this.  And the issue with this is the constant struggle I have right now with what to write, because I’m still stuck at this fork in the road with “straight” fiction like Summer Rain on one side, and “weird” fiction like Rumored on the other side.  It’s easier in some senses to write the “straight” stuff, but I feel like creatively, I have a lot more depth and ability with the other stuff.  So there’s a part of me that reads something like these 33 1/3 books, or Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned and recognizes a great need to cut the shit and not try to write some high school angst book and get back to reading Leyner and Federman and Burroughs and whatever else.

The other thing that this book hit was my childhood friendship with Jim Manges.  I’ve talked about Manges before, but this story reminded me so much of his backstory.  Manges did some time in Oaklawn, the local rehab place, and a lot of the long conversations I had with him in high school formed my opinion of the whole system.  Probably once or twice a semester, a kid would vanish from classes, and the rumor mill would start churning with the various stories about how he tried to kill himself or got hooked on whatever drug, and got sent off to dry out.  A heavy fundamentalist christian base in Elkhart was either the cart or the horse in the situation; a lot of kids with Jesus freak parents would rebel heavily, get into serious trouble with drugs or sex or crime or a combination of the three, and would end up either in juvie or rehab.  Or was it that the heavily religious would send their kids up the river over the slightest issue?  It’s hard to tell, but Manges was a little bit of both.

Jim’s parents used to pull the usual totalitarian stuff, like random room searches.  Like I remember one time he told me not to bring over a Van Halen record because his mom would throw a fit, due to that smoking angel album cover, “Running with the devil”, and the local televangelist’s regular special on what records of your kids’ to burn always mentioning Van Halen.  I mean, this was the particular record that contained keyboard parts at a time when keyboards were sacrilege to any hard rock/heavy metal fan, and now half of the songs on that album are played in elevators and dentist’s offices.  I also don’t need to go into too much detail about how his mom thought D&D was a gateway to hell, and we had to smuggle in our D20s and modules and lead figures if we ever wanted to play a few rounds of The Keep on the Borderlands. But, Jim also smoked when smoking was as off-limits as shooting heroin is now, and he used to always have porn, drugs, music, firecrackers, knives, and whatever else hidden in his room, so his mom’s searches were not completely unfounded.

But a big part of Jim – and this book – that I identified with was that rudderless drift through the unknown, being knocked around on all sides, from parents, other kids, teachers, crappy part-time jobs, and everything else in life.  From my point of view, everyone else around me had it together.  If they needed anything, from an Izod shirt to a 5.0 Mustang, they just asked their parents and they magically got it.  I assumed all of them would drift right through college with no effort, then come back and work for their family’s businesses or climb the corporate ladder that seemed to stretch up forever to unlimited wealth back in the pre-crash 80s.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I was supposed to do, and got fed nothing but contradictory messages from the authority figures at the top.  None of it made sense to me, and people like Jim – the misfits that clashed with authority – gave me some assurance that I wasn’t the only one screwed up.

I think Jim gave me the best piece of advice I ever got when I was maybe 16 or 17, and the “we need to talk” talks were mounting.  He told me “all I ever do is find some fixed point on a far wall, like the clock on the microwave, and just focus on that and let them talk until they feel like they’re done talking.  They’re like sharks looking for blood if you try to talk your way out of anything.”  That advice didn’t do much for him; I think he’s been in and out of prison three or four times now.  But I survived, so that’s something.

I gave up on the Apple keyboard a bit ago, though.  I think it will be nice for on the road, when I’ve only got the iPad.  But at home, the ergo keyboard rules supreme.  And speaking of being on the road, I have to go pack up and get ready to head back to New York tomorrow morning, for the first time since I left in 2007.  Should be interesting…

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Frozen Irish

Hello from a veyr frigid Northern Indiana. I am sitting in a Bruno’s pizza just north of Notre Dame, waiting on a pizza and sort of passively glancing at the fourth quarter of the Colts-Jets game. It is cold as hell here, I think in the teens, and I’ve done more ice and snow driving in the last 24 hours than I have in the last several years.  I spent a week in Milwaukee, and yesterday, drove through Chicago (with a stop in Chicago to have lunch with John Sheppard and Helen) and then zipped down the Indiana toll road to our hotel.  We’re now seeing my side of the family, and I’m also visiting various ghosts of decades ago.

The level of nostalgia isn’t as high as it has in the past.  I mean, I’ve been out of Indiana longer than I actually lived here.  And so many things have changed since I left.  Like I drove by University Park mall last night, and was astonished how much it has changed since the early 90s.  But I still see bits and pieces of the Michiana I knew way back when.  Elkhart was never a big city to me, and Chicago was my main urban center, but South Bend held wisps of big city to me, the way the downtown grid creeps between the couple of tall buildings.  Back in high school, I’d drive around South Bend, driving up Michigan and down Main, wishing I was in a real big city, in New York or Los Angeles.  And now that I’ve lived in both, it’s odd for me to be back here.

I also drove to Scottsdale Mall last night, which is no longer there.  It has been “de-malled”, torn down and replaced with Erskine Plaza, a collection of big block stores.  I can kindof see where some parts of the old mall used to be, the McDonald’s on Miami; the Kroger across the street from the mall.  But it’s weird to see the mall gone.  I never shopped there as my main choice, but when I went to IUSB, it was the closest mall, and I always ended up there on paydays.  It’s weird to be driving through a parking lot full of strip mall, knowing a giant two-story mall used to be there.

Not much else to report.  I’m coming off a cold and need some sleep…


Ten years of unhoosierdom

I was just thinking about this the other day, and I realized this weekend marks the ten year anniversary of when I packed up and shipped out of Indiana for Seattle. It’s a nice round number, which is the only reason I thought about it, but it is pretty weird. I guess ten years seems like an eternity to me, and it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I left. On the other hand, living in Seattle does seem like forever ago to me, and my whole time at 600 7th Ave and working at Spry seems like another lifetime.

I don’t really miss Indiana anymore, although there are bits of it that are interesting to me. I don’t think of it as a bad place anymore, and it’s not that I think of it as a big, evil Red state or anything. Indiana has conservative politics, but it’s a small place, so you can’t really not have conservative politics. It’s where people go when things are supposed to be small, or where old people go to live, and there’s not much you can change about that unless you double the tax base overnight, or leave and move to another state, and I can’t do the former, so I did the latter. Now, when I go back, the worst problem to me isn’t the Jesus people or the conservatives, it’s the people who bitch about them. It’s like a woman who bitches about her husband who beats her – if you don’t like it, leave. I know, you can’t always leave, and that’s not a great metaphor, but bitching about the backwardsness in Indiana is like bitching about the sun in Los Angeles.

Lots of other little flashbacks remind me of things, but it’s more about Seattle than Bloomington. We went to Newport mall out in Jersey city yesterday, and that little area right around the PATH train station looks so damn much like Bellvue or Redmond, the east side of Seattle. It’s all of those office commercial buildings with mirrored glass outsides that look like airport motels, plus the subtle roads and open skies. It looks just like the area surrounding the Bellvue Mall, the building I used to work at in Factoria, and all of the other stuff around I-405 in Seattleland. And sitting here in Sarah’s apartment, looking out toward the skyline from a few floors up with lots of sunlight from a couple of big windows, it almost reminds me of the time in my place in Seattle, except it’s not raining and there’s no Kingdome anymore. But sometimes the weather’s just right and it makes me think for a half second that I should go down to that ’94 Ford Escort and take a drive up I-5, and then I remember I made my last lease payment on that thing 7 years ago, and all I’m driving is a MetroCard these days.

Ten years… I still haven’t written up a suitable story for that cross-country drive. I wrote a story for this Bloomington short-story book that probably will never see the light of day, but it covers all of the events up to me leaving, and not the actual trip. I drove nonstop, by myself. I went through so fast, there was no real vision of a trip, as much as there was a huge blur. It rained a lot in part of Montana; I blew through all of South Dakota in the darkness. I stopped at Devil’s Tower at about 2AM, technically on the 4th of July. I don’t remember Wall Drugs, but I do remember a few other gas stations with slot machines and nothing else. I listened to every tape I packed at least five times. For every meal, I stopped at McDonald’s, because I didn’t want to hunt around for some other alternative 19 miles off of the off ramp. Montana was really shitty, 12 hours of uphill and curves, almost no roadstops, the few around were no more than barns with a single gas pump that was overpriced and so low-octane, you could safely drink it. Then I crossed into Idaho, and it was all downhill, all beautiful. I regret not taking the trip slower, spending some time and money exploring the nature, taking a few more pictures, relaxing for a couple of days before I reported for duty for my first real job. But I regret a lot of things, and I made it here, so who cares.

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Unfinished story about a wedding

[There are reasons why this is timely, which I will go into later. I always wished I had finished this, but I didn’t. But read what there is, and let me know what you think. This was, btw, written in 1996.]

I sat in my bed, listening to an old Shadowfax CD, watching the helicopters land on top of the hospital as the giant window of grey-blue sky slowly dissolved into black. I thought about the giant crane across the street, the spindly arm of faded steel that stood over the hospital construction site. It might make a decent photo, just this massive pillar of steel cross-beams, etched by a year of Seattle weather, reaching for the sky like God’s hand on the ceiling of the sistine chapel.

Before I got my camera, I played the future events in my head: I’d take a handful of photos, using a zoom, posing them in some artistic fashion. Then a few months would pass, I’d develop the film, and I’d wonder why the fuck I took 12 photos of the Seattle skyline with a tiny speck of a crane on the distant horizon.

I’ve been smart enough to stay away from taking pictures of sunsets, full moons, mountain ranges, and other giant spectacles of nature. You either need to see Mount Ranier for yourself, or sell your car to buy some large-format photo gear and high-end lenses to capture the moment.

Fares are low. Just fly to the mountains and check them out the real way. It’s worth the hundred bucks.

I’ve always been religious about writing three hours a night. I started this ritualistic scrawling when all of my friends moved away and I couldn’t deal with all of the shithead 19 year olds ruling the campus anymore. I hid in my room, or in the basement of the building where I worked, and etched journal pages in tiny black-ink print, a running dialog for what didn’t happen with other people anymore. I wrote because I didn’t have a girlfriend and didn’t want to deal with finding one. I wrote because I didn’t like TV and I didn’t like basketball games and I didn’t like frat parties and I didn’t have any other options in the disintegrating college town.

When I moved to Seattle, the nightly writing served a dual purpose. The advertized intent was to say I was a serious writer. I wrote books, novels, epics in my spare time. The day job – just a cover. Just a way to pay rent while I turned out the next great American masterpiece. Van Gogh’s brother gave him free pants, I worked at Spry. In a sense, the serious writing bit was true, or at least I wanted it to be.

On the other hand, the writing was still a way of eating my time when I had no other social tools in place. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know where things were, I didn’t know what was happening in this new and strange city. And I feared leaving the house for a few months, because every time I tried to find new stores or new clubs or new hangouts, I’d spend $80 in 14 minutes, or get a parking ticket because I didn’t know how to decipher the Seattle parking system. And I’d get lost, and spend half of the day learning the difference between 4th Ave and 4th Ave S. To avoid this, I’d just sit at home and write. And I turned out two full manuscripts and a lot of little stuff because of this.

But I haven’t been writing lately. When I get home from work, I sleep for 2 or 3 hours, then eat a TV dinner while reading my email. Then I watch the blue sky slowly fade to black outside the giant window my by bed. Sometimes I read, sometimes I don’t. I haven’t been latching onto big, complex books lately, so I read some Bukowski, or sometimes just zines or catalogs. Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes I enjoy the sound of nothing.

When I need to get out of the house, I take long drives with no destination. I just got back from one – I rolled down the windows, and wandered around lake Union, then up to the U-district and back again. Wind blows into the car, the darkness surrounding me, providing a sense of removal, a desolation almost required by my mood. The night contrasts the high-tech view of the city, the lights and steel and climbing buildings and concrete growing into the 21st century.

The last time I drove like this was two years ago. I got a Mustang when my friend Bill moved away. And that summer, everyone moved away. After June, I had an apartment to myself, and the silence engulfed me, almost too much. After a day of classes, writing, work, and everything else, I’d be sitting on my couch at 8 o’clock, staring at the wall, and go for a long drive to nowhere. It was the first time I had a car, and I enjoyed cruising the same streets over and over, breathing the summer air, wishing there was something more exciting than the small, empty college campus. Now, I do the same thing, but I’ve got enough terrain to get lost in, I can pick a direction and find things I’ve never seen before. And there’s more to see. But, it’s still a lonely, self-torturous exercise.

Tonight, I listened to a tape an ex-girlfriend made me three years ago, sappy and sentimental music she wanted me to hear when she was in Tampa and I was in Indiana. The music reminds me of her, her letters in perfect cursive on blue stationary, her precise phone calls every Saturday at 11am, her visits to my house when she was on campus, waking me up after her first three classes. It all depresses me – which is something I crave sometimes.

I savor my depression, or at least the mediocre, mid-line depression that fills in the empty spaces between exciting events and major crashes. I don’t like the depression following a breakup, a death, a loss, or an event that causes canyon-like holes of despair in my mental terrain. But when nothing’s happening, and life’s playing a test pattern on my soul, I soak in my own negative feelings about the past, and baste them with reminders and nostalgia. When I know I’m fucked up, I read old letters, e-mails, journals, and stories. I look at photos of people I’ll never see again and listen to old songs and smell old cologne I never wear because of the olfactory memories they carry. It doesn’t always bring the heavy, spine-scouring depression though. It’s just a heavy nostalgia, something more than yearbook photos but not dehabilitating. Just reminiscent.

So what’s the deal with the depression, the rut, the interruption this month? Two things have me off-kilter lately. The first has to do with my trip. And my trip starts with some background. Get yourself a drink first, this probably gets boring fast.

I’ve never been close to either of my parents. My preschool years were spent either alone or with my sister, on a house in the middle of nowhere in Michigan. I learned to read before I could remember, and constructed an airtight routine of endless books, crayon drawings, lego frontiers, and Star Wars figures. When we moved to Indiana, I never escaped these worlds, and instead of learning about girls and football in the public schools, I went to gifted school and learned about Apple computers, Steinbeck, Bradbury, Asimov, and Tolstoy. So when I was thirteen and my parents divorced, their custody antics were just interruptions in my BASIC programming and Dungeons and Dragons games. I had a complete, albeit isolated, world without much interaction from them.

There always were strings preventing a clean break though, items of conditionality that haunted my life over the last decade. Rent, tuition, books, cars, insurance, clothes, credit cards, and food all became chains, issues that kept either parent hacking at my freewill over the years. I tried to work jobs and take loans as much as possible, but some form of leash always kept me under their control.

When I moved to Seattle, however, most or all of the money issues dissolved. I started paying my own bills, and didn’t ask for any help. Times were tight after moving here, but one day I remember just realizing I was financially independant. After years of struggle and worry that I’d never be able to sever ties, I realized I had in fact cut all monentary relations from my elders.

Why am I babbling about this? Because without conditionality, and without that great emotional bond of closeness that some assholes share with their parents, I have no real reason to ever see mine again.

However, my parents “miss” me, or have been conditioned to have me around for holidays, as some sort of default bonding procedure. Last Christmas, I took a week of unpaid leave from my job and flew from Seattle to Elkhart (via Cincy) to see my folks. After suffering through being broke the whole time, messing up my bill schedule with the missing pay, flying in a storm in a tiny prop plane that was two steps less airworthy than the plane Buddy Holly died in, and dealing with the rush of holiday frenzy at the airports, I barely saw my parents. I didn’t see my dad at all, he was smart enough to evacuate to Florida for the winter. My mom was with her new boyfriend the whole time, so I saw her maybe twice the whole week. Carless and broke, I basically spent thousands of dollars to spend a week watching _Saved By the Bell_ reruns in the freezing, shitty climate of Northern Indiana. (_Saved By the Bell_ isn’t too bad once you’ve seen _Showgirls_, however.) After that incident, I pledged to never come home again, unless Ed McMahon accidentally delivered my check there and required me to show up and cash it.

Then my mom announced that she was getting married to this guy, and wanted me to visit for the wedding. She offered to pay for everything, so I agreed to come out for a weekend, nothing more. From this moment, my mind filled with fear.

Let me fill you in on the mom situation. Her dad died last July, which meant that she would inherit a bunch of money once his estate cleared probate court. With this financial security on the back burner, she divorced her second husband in October. In November, she started dating this new guy. Is he a doctor? A lawyer? An executive?

He’s a truck driver. A redneck, closed-minded, racist, homophobic, belt-buckle wearing, broken car-collecting, truck driver. My mom thinks he’s great. She wonders why I don’t call him my stepdad. Actually, she wonders why I don’t call her, period.

About the inheritance, the money isn’t an incredible amount; you couldn’t retire on it or even live like a hog for a long time with it. But you could pay off your house and your other bills and make some investments so you wouldn’t have to worry about when things break or when you want a vacation. If you gave me this dollar amount when I was 18, I would’ve thought about retiring and buying big houses and Rolls convertibles. Now, I’d divide it by my annual income and realize that it should be wisely invested after paying the bills. My mom thinks it’s a lot of cash. I’m expecting her to be broke in 10 years, asking me for her next house payment or something.

I didn’t approve of the marriage or her plans, but 5,000 frequent flier miles and a chance to see my friend Ray didn’t sound like too bad of a plan. I told her she had to get me a car, gave her my tux size, and a few weeks before the wedding, some tickets appeared in my mailbox. It was a done deal, I’d fly out on Thursday, July 11, and leave the next Sunday.

Fast forward to the day I leave. I haven’t talked to my mom in a week or confirmed any of the plans. All I know is that I have tickets to get to O’Hare airport in Chicago, and a reservation at Budget to get a car and drive into Elkhart (about 140 miles). I pack a single suitcase with my crap and her gift, a box of stuff from the Made in Washington store, and leave my car at SeaTac for the journey.

I’ve made a few changes to my itinerary that she doesn’t know about. First, I’ll be staying with my friend Ray instead of her. She’s got other guests from out of town staying at the house, I don’t have a bed there anymore and I don’t want to battle and stand in line for hours every time I want to use the bathroom. Plus there’s a different kind of insanity flowing at Ray’s place, that of death metal and godzilla films and zombies and all-night rap sessions about chicks and death and gore, not the insanity of wedding preparations and my mother verbally throttling us kids for not having the right socks to match our clothes or something. I also planned on making a few unplanned visits while I had the unlimited-mileage car. More on those in a bit.

Airports are pretty surreal at 2pm on a weekday. The people wandering the concourses are one of three types. The first is the RoboExecutive, dressed to kill, lugging one of everything from the Sharper Image, closing that important deal on the cell phone in the airport Burger King Express, elbowing past everyone else because, of course, they are IMPORTANT. Second type of person is the retired senior citizen, usually travelling in groups to places like Pasadena or Palm Springs. They’re incompatable with the power businessperson because they take forever to get on and off the plane, and spend most of their time loading up on high octane coffee and bran muffins right before takeoff so they can bitch and moan about being sick when you have to sit next to them. The third type of midday voyager is the 20 year old white trash looking woman with 4 unruly kids. I don’t know if they travel back to their parents to show off the kids or if they are really child smugglers in disguise. All I know is the kids usually inflict extreme terror and make the skies much less than friendly.

Today’s journey wasn’t too bad though. I ditched the Escort in short term parking, got asked a billion questions about my suitcase because of the RITUAL SACRIFICE stickers all over the side (hey, it’s simple to spot in the luggage conveyor), and even found a complete copy of USA Decay in the men’s crapper. I caught a bit of sleep on the plane, and got a great view of Montana and Idaho on the way out. Descending into Chicago, I saw the daylight and sunset behind me as we flew into darkness at about 9pm. It’s pretty weird to be in nightfall and still be able to look at the sun, and made it a bit depressing to lose 2 hours. But we landed fast, and I was once again in Illinois.

Chicago’s a great city. My entire family on my Mom’s side is there, and we made trips there every holiday to my grandparents’ place where there was always a giant gathering of dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives. Later in life, Chicago became the place to go for big concerts, cool shopping, and general rebellion, since it was only 100 miles away. It’s sad to think that my entire Chicago experience has been limited to the O’Hare airport. I usually got to the city about once a year for a big party or show when I was in school. Since I moved to Seattle, I was in Chicago 5 or 6 times, all of them layovers in the airport. It’s frustrating to be that close to all of the cool things you knew in a previous life, but unable to do anything because you’ve got to run 900 yards in 14 minutes to catch a plane.

O’Hare was busy, and I instantly got in my shitty yes sir/no sir mode to avoid getting mugged or ripped off. When I was at the rental car place, the guy at the counter said “Chill out, this is Chicago, not Beirut”. Same difference to me, buddy.

I got set up with a Mazda 626, and took the shuttle to the rental car field to pick up my ride. I wanted a foreign car because I knew that my mom’s fiancee was one of those “proud to buy American” types, and I wanted to get some Japanese wheels and spend the weekend talking about how much nicer they were than my Ford. Oh, and I didn’t want a Ford – I wasn’t about to rent an Escort. That’s like cheating on your middle-aged wife with another middle-aged housewife.

I put in a Jawbreaker tape, tore out of the lot into the night, and struggled with every aspect of the car. I couldn’t find the lights. Then I couldn’t adjust the seat, the lever was all backward. Then I couldn’t figure out the tilt wheel. The whole car was awkward and I had a lot of trouble doing all of this while going 70 on I190.

Then I wanted to rewind my tape. I hit the button, and nothing happened. I hit fast forward – nothing. I hit eject. No dice. I hit the radio and it shut off. After pulling into a gas station and closely inspecting the radio, I concluded it was fucked, and turned around.

The lady at the car place was nice enough to quickly swap me into another car – a Toyota Corolla. Air in the Paragraph Line readers who caught issue 3 might remember that I rented a Corolla when in San Jose, and had a pretty good experience. This car was even better. It was a 1996 with only 4000 miles, all options, and it still smelled like a brand spanking new vehicle. I swapped my stuff into the other car, and took off down the Skyway.

Chicago seemed much tamer and smaller than I had remembered. The daily driving in Seattle and other big cities made the whole thing more mundane. But it felt good to cruise the Loop in the new car, pushing on the express lanes while jamming to my Jawbreaker tape. I jacked the car up to what felt like 70 or 80, and was shocked when I looked down at the speedometer and saw it bouncing off the 110 mark on the far right. Even at this opened-out speed, there was no wind noise, no shudder – it felt like my new Escort at 30mph. My next stop of Griffith, Indiana, would be approaching pretty fast with this kind of speed, I thought, and the excitement built about seeing Jia again.

I met Jia in the seventh grade, in first hour algebra. Back then, we almost looked identical – thick glasses, reddish hair in a greasy bowl cut, and always in front of an Apple II or a Dungeons and Dragons game. We were friends all through school, but really grew tight in our last few years of high school. We spent a lot of time together, wandering the area and getting into some heavy discussions at times. I was Radar to his Hawkeye sometimes – he dated, partied, and seemed to integrate a bit better than me. But we still had similarities, our thoughts were uncannily similar most of the time.

He went to Purdue and I went to Indiana, and we’d manage to talk or see each other every 6 months or year. I was friends with his mom, who worked at the Walden Books by my mom’s house and was pretty cool (she gave me a copy of Dalton Trumbo’s _Johnny Got His Gun_, which is now one of my favorite books of all time). But about three years ago, I came home and found that his parents moved out of town, and we weren’t synched up with college addresses or phones. Then he graduated, I graduated, I moved, he probably moved… he was an MIA.

Thanks to, I found his number a few months ago. I called, and we talked for the first time in three years. I agreed to stop in and see him, and now I was cruising into Griffith, with a set of instructions on a post-it note, looking for his apartment.

Griffith is a large strip mall between Gary and Chicago, one of many Indiana cities that consists of only gas stations, Burger Kings, and urban sprawl. The apartment wasn’t hard to find, a typical modular place with 6 apartments per building, and a few dozen cloned buildings named after letters of the alphabet.

There weren’t any surprises with Jia – no little kids running around, no facial tattoos or green mohawk, he looked the same as usual. We sat and talked, watched MTV and shot the shit. It was strange, even after the years apart, how similar our lives were. He was a chemical engineer, and worked for a big steel company. It wasn’t something exciting, or any life-long love, but it paid the bills and the money was comfortable. I feel the same way about the technical writing stuff. I’d rather be writing fiction all day, fucking chicks in Paris, wandering streets in China, sleeping all day in Seattle – I didn’t wake up when I was 10 and say “Mommy! Someday I want to index computer manuals and take minutes at boring meetings!” I like my job, and it’s a good way to earn money, but it’s not leisure work or something I’d do as a hobby for no money. And once you make the money, you buy more shit, and get more debt, and even when you have three times as much a month, you’re still scraping by.

Jia didn’t get married either, and I think we both share the same frustrations about that whole subject. And he’s writing too, although he’s more of a poet. But we talked about the art, the idea of publishing books and knowing that someone might pick up your book and read it and totally identify with it, and how that creationism makes it all worthwhile.

Jia had to work the next day, and I had to meet up with Ray – it was already 1 in the morning after we talked for awhile. I wanted to take out my contacts, which were bothering the fuck out of me because I got a tiny droplet of salad dressing in them earlier. I dug through my backpack for my glasses and… couldn’t find them. I checked my suitcase and… no dice. No luck in the car either.

This sent me in extreme, leak-in-spacesuit-in-deep-space panic. I’m pretty fucking blind, and my contacts only last for about 12 hours at best before they dry and stop working. They were in hour 15 now, and with no glasses, there was no way I could make it into the weekend. And I couldn’t just get a set of replacement glasses at walmart or something – it took the glasses-in-an-hour place A WEEK to make my current pair.

After some quick calls (okay, they weren’t quick – I ended up in a phone tree for a while), I got to the people at the car place at O’Hare. I figured that when I got the 626, I dumped out my shit on the front seat and left the glasses there. A clerk went and checked, and they found the case, and I could pick them up any time at the 24 hour car return desk.

I called Ray and told him that I’d be a few hours late, and then soaked my lenses with solution to buy some more time from them. I said goodbye to Jia, and gave him a draft of my book and the back catalog of the zine. Next stop – O’Hare.

On the way out of Griffith, I realized that there was a Motel 6 right next to the highway that had historical significance to me. In my freshman year of college, I started dating a woman and we were going to Chicago for the weekend. We drove up, and then her car broke, so we ended up limping the thing to Griffith and spending a night in that Motel 6. I won’t go into why that motel has a certain significance to me, but I’m sure you can figure it out.

In my blur of a trip north, I somehow ended up on 294, which is a toll road wrapping around the south side of Chicago. That’s a bum deal for a few reasons – it costs about $1.60 to get to O’Hare and I only had about $35 on me for the whole weekend, it’s a closed course which means cops could easily prey on people or idiots could jam the whole thing up, and I wouldn’t see the city. But I highballed the stretch of road, keeping it above 90 for most of the venture. When the semis are going 80, you know it’s safe.

The same beautiful, young latino woman who helped me with the 626 to Corolla swap had my glasses. Whoever you were, thank you very much! An incredible relief swept my entire body when I popped the lenses and went back to glasses, like a splinter being removed. I said thanks 10 more times, and hit out for I-190.

The second trip through Chicago went by even faster. I locked into the express lanes with nobody around, and probably had the car at 120 for the entire stretch. With the first Beastie Boys album in the player, I jammed down the skyway at breakneck speed. It felt like being on a Grand Prix track, with concrete walls on either side of me and no openings. But this Grand Prix ran through Chicago, and the familiar skyline and lake and exits blurred past.

I dumped out to US20 after I crossed the Indiana state line. It was a pretty scary road, four lanes, undivided, with plenty of turnoffs and other turmoil. But it was free, and would be empty. I dug in, and cranked the car as much as possible, cautiously watching for other motorists or police. Ray and I used to take this road home from shows in Chicago, and I knew most of the landmarks and small towns. Somewhere near Michigan City, I had to stop for a train. Welcome to Indiana.

The voyage continued with no incident. I crossed the South Bend line and passed the Michiana Airport. 160 miles: 86 minutes. That included the train and a stop in bumblefuck, IN for a Coke. A new record for team Toyota.

I drove straight through downtown South Bend, bringing on a new range of flashbacks of my past. South Bend was the cool place to go in my junior and senior year, the city 20 miles from Elkhart that wasn’t spectacular, but wasn’t Elkhart. Driving downtown and past the Century Center reminded me of Friday nights when Jia and I went to the 24 hour porno shops on Michigan, when Tom and I hit the malls and shops and cruised in my old Camaro, hoping to find women that we never met, or driving with Ray or Larry to obscure friends’ houses or clubs or dives, driving a half an hour to meet someone who supposedly saw Metallica on the Ride the Lightning tour. The roads looked the same, felt the same as they did in 1989.

And the next part looked pretty damn similar to 1991, the year I was at IU South Bend, commuting to Elkhart via US33 every day. I curved eastward on this road, a route heavily burned into my mind from the year of commuting. Every night, after working my late computer lab shift at the school, I’d climb into my Turismo and zip down this amber-lit path through Mishawaka, driving the desolate streets of post-midnight michiana. Now, at 3:30 am, it looked the same, like I was going back to my mom’s house to sleep until the next day of skipping classes and playing Smash TV or Tetris with Ray all day, and hacking Modula-2 and helping idiots with WordPerfect 5.1 all night.

Within a few minutes, I descended into Elkhart, and shuttled over to Ray’s place. We pulled my luggage into the house, and I looked around at the changes since last Christmas. Ray lives in a house that his Grandmother used to live in. The basement is his mom’s business by day, and his band’s practice room by night. The upstairs is now his. When I went into the living room, unanswered mail lay strewn over every square inch of the room, in no particular order. Ray’s never been great about his mail, but there must’ve been a recent explosion or hostile takeover or something. A tip if you ever write Metal Curse magazine – don’t expect a reply in under 4 years. He’ll write back, but he’s currently answering mail from 1992.

Ray’s room was also taken over by CDs. Between the magazine, trading with other bands, working at a record store, and just spending a lot of money on CDs, Ray has several thousand CDs now, and several times more cassettes and demos. You may think I’m exaggerating or joking, but he seriously has several THOUSAND CDs. Like an entire wall, floor to ceiling. Like the entire stock of a small record store.

Ray and I didn’t have much catching up to do – we talk on the phone several times a week, and had just talked for a few hours the night before. But I told him the whole story about the contacts and the car and everything else while he tried to clear the living room floor of mail so I could sleep. After an hour of trip stories and making fun of the wedding, we hauled a spare mattress out of his basement, and I set up camp in the middle of a valley of mail. On all sides, Par Avoin envelopes from Scandanavian bands with names like _Inverted Bitch Fister_ engulfed me. We talked more and laid out weekend plans, until light started streaming through the windows and I freaked out because I had early morning plans with my mom. He gave me an alarm and told me his mom and the other people who worked in the basement would probably show up at 8:45 and most likely wake me up with their bustle and noise. I looked at my watch and didn’t feel too bad – that would give me 5 hours of sleep. Then I realized that I hadn’t reset my watch, and I’d only sleep for 3 hours. At least I fell asleep quick.

I actually woke in 2 hours, and couldn’t fall back to sleep because I was still in my clothes, sleeping in a hot room in a pile of mail that wouldn’t be opened until the year 2006. Sometimes in foreign surroundings, or when I have to wake up in under 4 hours, I wake up too early, even if I’m completely zoned out upon consciousness. And I was – I stumbled to the bathroom at took a shower, my head pounding with lack of sleep, my eyes welded shut. No contact lenses that morning, but I did manage a shave and some halfway humane clothes. I said a quick hello to Ray’s mom and the women who worked downstairs, and went back to the house.

Flashbacks abounded on the drive back to my mom’s, but most of my mind that was awake was blurred by the changes. Elkhart was never a mecca of culture, diversity, and change, but when I went to high school, it had its moments. Maybe I just sought out and found the remote crevices of the city that leaked tiny bits of coolness, or maybe I was hipper than I thought and created my own decent surroundings. At any rate, all of this was gone now. The tiny record stores, the familiar restaurants, the friends’ houses, the home turf all vanished. The Walmart-ification of the area caused it to look something like Orwell’s 1984 or something – gray and devoid of all life except for people driving to factories and renting videos and buying beer.

The subdivision looked the same, a bunch of identical houses, expensive cars, and yuppie motherfuckers all trying to bribe ChemLawn to make their front lawns greener. When I got to the house, I realized I didn’t have a key anymore. Both of my sisters’ cars were out front, so I banged on the door for 10 minutes, trying to get in. No answer. I took this as a sign that my mom wasn’t there to meet me, so I bolted.

I went back to Concord Mall. This mall was like the keystone of my existance for all of high school. I worked there, at Montgomery Ward, and spent 3 years almost living there. It was like Fast Times at Ridgemont High – I’d go out on my breaks into the mall, eat lunch, flirt with the girls at the different stores, go to Walden Books and talk to Jia’s mom, and hang out with the guys at the crappy record store. It wasn’t that I had a few fond memories there – my entire life happened there for 3 years, sad as it may seem. Christmas seasons of listening to the same muzak over and over, dealing with the customers, working all day in the summer, Friday nights alone in the paint department, fucking around with the girls in housewares and my friend Roger in Automotive. It sounds pathetic compared to my life now, but at the time, it was better than frying 100 pounds of french fries or cleaning toilets at a gas station.

The Concord Mall, like most other retail operations in Indiana, got driven south by the WalMart and Meijer stores. I walked the concourse and saw nothing but plywood over the old storefronts, with maybe one in ten stores actually still open. The old places I loved were all gone, only a few still standing. There wasn’t any tumbleweed blowing through the aisles, but it felt like there should be.

Being in my old store felt the worst. I went looking for my old manager Preston, just to say hi and tell him I was in town. My old department, the paint/wallpaper area, had completely vanished a few years ago – the walls were torn down, the paint racks and mixing equipment trashed, and the whole area filled with scratch and dent furniture. None of the familiar surroundings were there anymore. I also couldn’t find Preston. I did talk to a guy from Automotive who vaguely remembered me, but he seemed pretty vague about everything. It reminded me of my Christmas trip, the first time I returned from Seattle – I ran into about 4 or 5 people from high school, and none of them recognized me at all. They just politely said hi and nodded when I said I moved out west and started working. Maybe my ten year high school reunion will be a major waste of time.

I headed back to the house, and my sister Angie woke up and let me in. My mom left a giant list of stuff she was doing all day, and it didn’t look like we’d hook up at all. Plus the tux shop was closed until noon, which meant I could’ve slept 3 times as long. Great.

I went to the tux place and found my worst nightmares were pretty much dead-on with the rental. It had normal pants, a semi-normal shirt, some little black Amish-type of backless vest, and some kind of demented tie that looked like something Boss Hogg would wear, or maybe an extra from the film Gettysberg. The coat didn’t exactly fit, either – the shoulders were tailored all wrong. It felt like a suit right off the WalMart rack. At least I brought my own shoes, I planned on wearing either some nice leather Bass shoes, or a pair of combat boots. And I had a pin for the lapel that said “I Fuck Corpses”.

That’s where the story ends. With that, I must go finish dinner in my heat-less apartment.