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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Death of The NecroKonicon

I made the decision to retire the print and ebook versions of my book The NecroKonicon, also known to many as “the glossary.” It was a bittersweet decision, but it’s not something I want available anymore. I unpublished the online version of the glossary about ten years ago, which was a tough decision back then. The book seems a bit redundant at this point.

I had a lot of fun creating the glossary when I started it about fifteen years ago. I became obsessed with it when I started it, constantly thinking of new articles to add, new links to make. I dug through old photos, researched old names and places, and every time I got a topic just about done, I’d think of five others to write. Once it went online, I started getting a lot of feedback, too. People searching on old names or places would stumble across my articles. This was right as Wikipedia was starting, and way before Facebook, so sometimes my pages were the first or only hit on google.

The problem with the glossary was that I wanted to write about my memories, and I got a lot of input that my entries were “wrong” and people would endlessly mansplain what really should have been there. I remember getting in a huge, stupid argument in the comments section with some #BlueLivesMatter-type idiot about my entry about the IU Police Department, and no matter how many corrections or additions I made, he demanded that I rewrite it or take it down.

And some of it was legitimate – I took a lot of swipes in some of the inside jokes, and there were entries about ex-girlfriends and people I was no longer in touch with, and those could be seen as violations or whatever. I think the attitude towards this has changed in the last decade; I think if Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski were writing in 2017, they would be spending most of their time in a courtroom, getting sued by the people in their books.

But, part of the fun of the thing was the personal side of it. I think if I only wrote about old restaurants and stores and food items, it would not have had the same intrigue. Or it would have just been WIkipedia. I keep thinking of putting a “scrubbed” version of it online, installing some wiki software and porting over the old entries, maybe writing a bunch of new ones, but not about people, just about the nostalgia, the places and things. But, that’s a lot of time. And I’d constantly be correcting things, adding more, dealing with complaints, etc.

A lot of me doesn’t want to deal with nostalgia anymore. I waste a lot of time trying to think about things from 1990 or whatever, and I’d rather be creating new stuff, not rehashing old stuff. So that’s a big reason for discontinuing this. And the book didn’t sell anyway.

That said, I wish I could create something that had the same collaborative and dynamic aspect that The NecroKonicon did. It was a glorious waste of time, and brought a lot of people in. I got a lot of emails and comments, and it was a lot of fun working on it (until it wasn’t.) I wish I could find some other project like this, like a podcast or comic or an online site of some sort, and maybe at some point I will.

Until then, I’m supposed to be writing the next book, so I need to figure out what that means exactly.

 

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Distant summers

rabbit1-smallI realized the other day that the summer I fictionalized for my first book Summer Rain was twenty-five years ago. This should make me feel very old, except that it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. I was twenty-one then, and in my mind, I’m the same person as I was then, but I realize I’m more than twice as old, and half a country away from Bloomington, and that’s depressing to me, that it’s an entire lifetime in the past for me.

When I’m not in the middle of writing something interesting, I often slip into this heavy, nostalgic, introspective thing, and burn a lot of cycles thinking about things that are long gone, like my time in Bloomington, the year I spent going to school in South Bend, even the time I was in Denver ten years ago, which seems like eons ago to me now. I try to remember the order things happened, the details of people and places I’d forgotten, and dwell entirely too much on things that happened, conversations I can’t fix, things I can’t take back. It’s unnerving that this stuff sticks with me, especially since I want to create things that aren’t my life, live in fictional worlds that don’t have to do with me. But the pull is so strong in old nostalgia, I can’t escape it.

There’s a certain draw to this near-era nostalgia that is completely addictive. Trying to find old images or articles or pictures of places I used to live or things I used to own is as compulsive as pornography, endlessly searching for the next thing to release some dopamine in the brain, give a tiny touch of satisfaction. I don’t know what I’ll find that will ever make things complete. And the draw of it is that so little of the early 90s, of my early 90s, is searchable or archived on the internet. Yes, I can go find a copy of that Nirvana album or the movie Singles or whatever, but try to find one picture of the IUSB lunch room where I spent every day of the 1990-1991 school year, and it’s impossible. I wrote some articles for that school’s newspapers that I will never find, unless I physically drive there and dig through their library. But I’ll still search, and maybe find a picture that reminds me of a computer lab where I used to work, a hint of what it used to look like, two renovations ago, when it still had PC-XTs and dot-matrix printers.

I keep thinking about writing something about this era again, another book. I thought about this a lot when I was in Indiana in 2015, in August. I’d never spent any time back in Indiana during the summer months, only returning for winter holidays, when everything was frozen over. And that feeling of summer, the hot days and air conditioning, then the cool nights and the sounds of crickets and clear sky and stars overhead made me think so much of the summer of my teenaged years, and made me think, “I have to write another book about this.”

I’ve struggled a lot with a book about the summer between high school and college, a fictionalized version of that summer in 1989. I think there’s a lot to write about: first love, first betrayal, leaving home, the big unknown of what happens next, and the beginning of a little bug in my head that would later develop into a crippling depression. There were also many things I didn’t know about at the time — I sat in northern Indiana in this pivotal time, the end of the Eighties, when the American Dream was quietly being led to slaughter. I only knew of life in that industrial bubble, the conservative bible-belt-meets-rust-belt pocket. Indiana never fully recovered from the early 70s recession when the early 80s one hit, and I graduated just as an expansion was about to burst. I didn’t know any of this at the time, but in retrospect, it sets an interesting stage for all of my personal garbage going on then.

I’ve written bits of this in stories over the years, and my completed 2008 NaNoWriMo project was an attempt at this book, which was finished but scrapped. I don’t feel like I was really able to nail it, to capture the feelings or set up a compelling structure to fit to this backdrop. It’s something I’ve wanted to revisit, but there are a bunch of things stopping me.

First, I don’t know how feasible this creative nonfiction stuff is in the era of Facebook and Google. I don’t think I could write Summer Rain now, because of the fear that a fictionalized person would find themselves and be angry that I was being unflattering, even if what I wrote was changed or masked or altered so it wasn’t true. I think just the fear of that would make me self-censor myself enough that I couldn’t operate. This is also entirely true of family members. I can’t write a first-person fictional book and get into it about the protagonist’s family, for fear that my own family would read this and think it was about them. I think Bukowski said he had to wait until his old man was dead until he started working on Ham on Rye.

But there’s also the conflicting fear that the longer I wait to write this stuff, the more it will fall out of my head. I find my memories fading of this era, and like I said, the physical relics of it are lacking. I took more pictures of my food this week than I took of anything in 1992. I archive all of my email now, although I get maybe five messages a week that aren’t garbage; I have almost no email saved from back then. There is a very real chance that if I wait until I retire or whatever and then decide to write this book, there will be none of it left in my head whatsoever.

And the biggest fear is that all of this is worthless to anyone but me. Summer Rain was not a big seller. Looking back, I can name half a hundred things wrong with the structure, content, characters, cover, blah blah blah, but there’s a horrible truth in that people like a book when they can identify with the main character, and if the main character is me and I’m ultimately an unlikeable person, people won’t like the book. I sometimes thing the current wave of nineties nostalgia could make a book set in that era appealing to people, but there’s a certain confidence thing there that I have to wrestle with, and it’s easier to put it off and go write about zombies or coprophagia or whatever.

During that 2015 trip, I started thinking about a sequel to Summer Rain, slightly informed by the John Knowles book Peace Breaks Out, which was the not-as-successful follow-up to A Separate Peace. The idea was that I had to return to Indiana twenty-five years later for some reason — dead parent, old friend, whatever — and I would see the contrast in all the changes (and non-changes) in the post-industrial wasteland. And I’d revisit all the characters, and what happened to them over time. One of the big themes in SR was the fork-in-the-road things, trying to decide on which way to go in life while in college. And in that book, every character subconsciously has a direction they were aimed, and one could predict the endings: this guy’s never going to leave town; this girl is going to burn through three husbands in ten years; this guy’s going to be a CEO before he’s thirty; this guy’s going to be found dead in five years. And one of the things I wanted to do was show how the unexpected happened with all of them, for better or for worse. And some people I know are still hopelessly stuck in this old era, never having moved past their high school or college self (much worse than I have it, even) and some people probably never think about the past at all.  I don’t know where I’d go with a book like this, but it’s something stuck in my craw.

I probably won’t do any of this, and will probably come out with another book of twenty stories or a hundred fragments of flash fiction about UFOs and sodomy, and nobody will read it.

Anyway, twenty-five years. That is really screwing with my head.

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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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The Movies That Influenced The Memory Hunter

I wrote this new book, The Memory Hunter. It’s an absurdist cyberpunk book, a retro thing, and to make it absurd, I borrowed heavily from every imaginable trope in the cyberpunk genre. (You should go buy it.)

But to be honest, I haven’t read much cyberpunk. I mean, I love Snow Crash, and I’ve read a fair amount of Philip K. Dick’s work, which is sort of “granddaddy-of-cyberpunk” and predated the big 80s/90s movement headed by Gibson and others. What really moved me during the writing of this book was film. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, which was a time rich with high-concept science fiction blockbusters, the pre-CGI era of big-budget films about our inevitable near-future, which of course never happened.  But I loved that stuff, the action stars of the day, in a sound stage in Burbank done up to look like the surface of Mars.  I’d rent those movies from Blockbuster, and watch the VHS over and over in late-night marathons with my college buddies.

And I dreamed of a cyberpunk future, because I lived in what I thought was the start of it.  I used the Internet before there was a web, telnetting into BBSes and FTPing text zines like Phrack, reading all of the tales of hacking and connecting to faraway mainframes. I lusted after X Terminal workstations, and saw the GUI unix computers as the next step.  Soon, these graphical displays would become 3D, turn into headsets, and we’d all jack into this total immersion virtual reality.  The game Doom came out, and I knew it would happen soon. And then it didn’t.  The Web came out, and became commercial and dumb, and here we are, looking at stupid articles about 5 Ways To Lose Weight For The Holidays By Eating Blue Foods.

That’s why I wrote this book, so the dream would not be dead; it would be in an alternate reality.  And that reality is based on my memories of these old VHS classics.  Here’s my list.  I’ll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, so when you go buy my book the plot won’t be spoiled.

  • Blade Runner – The gold standard of noir-inspired cyberpunk. I honestly didn’t get into this PKD-based classic until much later. When I bought my first not-family-shared VCR right after college, this was one of the first VHS videos I purchased. I’ve read endless books on the making of it (Future Noir is the best one) and you can get wrapped up in the “Deckard is a replicant” thing.In this book, I borrowed a lot of the imagery of this movie, the futuristic yet beaten-up city, the constant rain, the neon lights and Japanese-inspired architecture.
    One of the tropes that Blade Runner used that I remember from the 80s was this idea that the Japanese were taking over the world, that they were flooding us with technology and buying up all of our real estate and would eventually run the planet.  It’s something prevalent in many 80s movies like Gung Ho, and almost every 80s comedy had a geeky Japanese guy who could barely speak English for humorous effect.  (Caddyshack, Revenge of the Nerds, etc.)There’s also a lot of plot borrowed from this movie, but in an indirect way.  Most noir movies follow a very similar Chandler-esque three-act plot, and use tropes like the fallen protagonist with a troubled past, the female love interest, the big switcharoo, and so on.Oh, and spinnercars.  You’ve gotta love a good hovercar.
  • Total Recall – “GET YOUR ASS TO MARS!”  Man, I loved this movie when it came out. I didn’t see it in theaters, but a friend had a copy recorded off of HBO, and after watching it once, I rented it and watched it constantly.  I popped in the DVD recently and wrote about it, and it didn’t hold up at all.  The technology was all wrong, the miniature models looked really bad, and the acting was super-corny.  But, I love all of that. I remember every little line that Ahnold said, the way the secondary characters acted. And you’ve got the PKD mojo again, with the script being (loosely) based on a story of his.I borrowed heavily from this movie.  The concept of memory implants is there, along with the idea of mining colonies on other planets worked by indentured servants who end up getting screwed up by their mega-corporate overlords.  I also stole the common PKD trope of robot-controlled cabs, and the evil Big Boss.  I also wanted to use some of the outdated technology in this movie, like video phones, CRT monitors, and dot matrix printers.
  • Johnny Mnemonic– This movie is so bad it’s good, even though it flopped so badly, it was the beginning of the end of the cyberpunk genre.  There were some capable actors that did poorly, some stunt-casting that didn’t work out (Henry Rollins, Ice T) and a bleak look at 2021 that’s now incredibly dated.The big trope I swiped from this movie was the visual look of The Net, the idea of putting on a headset and swiping your arms in the air to move around blocks of “data” or whatever, or travel down an Information Superhighway of vector graphics and neon grids.  I also borrowed the concept of memory couriering, carrying around data in an implant for later retrieval. And my book has IDES, a degenerative disease that slowly rots away implants, something similar to nerve attenuation syndrome in this movie.
  • Sneakers – I lovethis movie.  It’s probably one of my favorite films of all time, and I remember seeing it at least a half-dozen times in the theater. It’s not a cyberpunk movie, but it’s a good thriller with enough high-tech stuff in it that it really hit hard when I saw it back in 1992.I borrowed a lot of plot-based tropes from this. There’s once again the fallen hero scraping by in a bad job.  (“It’s a living” / “Not much of one”)  There’s the weirdo expert in the field.  The “calling the CIA and tracing the trace” bit, or at least the pacing and tension of that scene, is something I use in act three (and don’t want to spoil – go read the book.)  I also used a big switcheroo like they did.  And the concept of “who is the enemy, really?” is one I loved to use.
  • Honorable mentions – here are a few that either don’t have to do with cyberpunk or that weren’t something I watched back in the day, but that also inspired my plot:
    • The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep – I’m not a noir guy.  But after reading about Blade Runner, I knew I had to get back to the source, so I read and watched The Big Sleep, and then to figure out what Chandler ripped off, I read and watched The Maltese Falcon. My plot outline is so similar to Sleep, I probably shouldn’t publicly admit it. But almost any noir is.  I borrowed a lot of tropes here: detective in a crappy office, fallen from his old job; wise-ass secretary (but in my case, it’s an intelligent AI program); the case that’s too good to be true; the employer that turns on you; the damsel in distress; getting captured and beat up at the end of Act 2; it’s all there.  I prefer Chandler’s work because it’s a little more fuzzy around the edges and has some complexity.  (And don’t worry, this is the last genre book like this I’m writing, unless someone shows up with a huge check for the sequel.)
    • UHF – this Weird Al vehicle is a parody itself, but the evil boss is something I cribbed a bit.
    • RoboCop – A lot of people are going to see this one, and it’s a minor influence in the Prometheus story plot, which is totally different from what I’m doing.  Its near future is also a little more near than mine.  But the overarching OCP and a lot of the little sayings and slogans (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) got their stink all over my novel.

Anyway, that’s a good starting list. Hope you get a chance to check out the book – I need to go fall down a rabbit hole of old movies.

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Surge, Vault

One of the 200-some odd reasons my writing throughput and/or quality has dropped considerably in recent years (and I’m talking reasons in my head, not real, quantifiable reasons) is that Coca-Cola stopped bottling Surge soda. For those of you who don’t remember or never experienced it, Surge is/was a citrus soda that originally was called Urge in Norway, and was bottled there to compete with Mountain Dew. (Some Coke bottlers compete with Mountain Dew with Mello Yello, which is available in some markets, but not others.) Anyway, Seattle was a test market for Surge when it showed up in 1997, and once I tried it, I was hooked. Surge basically reminded me of a carbonated version of the Hi-C Ekto-cooler drink. It was more lime than lemon, with an unnatural bright green color, carbonation, and caffeine. It had a very unique taste, and wasn’t anything like its nearest competitor, Mountain Dew. I really liked it.

This was right after the time I quit caffeine entirely, but was going back on it again. I wouldn’t drink any Coke or anything else all day, except maybe the occasional Sprite. But on the weekends, when I was busy slamming away at the text for Rumored to Exist, I would go to Safeway, buy a 2-liter of Surge, and put it in the fridge, as my fuel for the next few days. I drank a lot of the stuff as I worked on the text, and I absolutely loved it.

Of course, when I moved to New York, I couldn’t find the shit anywhere. You already know the rant about how New York grocery stores don’t stock anything of variety, so I won’t repeat it. But I could not find Surge anywhere. Sometimes on a vacation, I’d get a taste. And I think the girl I dated in Cornell back in 2000 found a few bottles at a gas station upstate somewhere once. But after that, it was gone. And that pissed me off, because writers can get really locked into habits or triggers that can set off the hard-to-channel zone of writing. Some people have strange rituals. I used to start writing at the same time every night; others need a certain chair or pillow or snack or drink. Some need certain music; others require quiet. And for whatever reason, I got myself into a situation where I needed a certain type of sugar-water that a corporation test-marketed and then decided not to make anymore.

Well, good news, maybe. Coke has decided to come out with a new drink called Vault. There were a few ads during the superbowl, and they hinted at nationwide distribution in February. Now, I interpreted that as “distribution in every place with real grocery stores that aren’t run by the mafia, so fuck you New York”, and also wondered if the stuff really tasted like Surge, and if I’d get a chance to try it the next time that I went on vacation to a place with real grocery stores. But today, when we were at K-Mart, Sarah found that they actually had the stuff! I bought a couple of 20-ounce bottles, and gave it a try. It’s similar to Surge, although maybe a little more tart, and without as distinct of a green color as the original. The bottle looks different, of course, and you’d be amazed at how much different something appears to taste when it’s in a different bottle. But it’s pretty close. I like it.

I don’t know if I’ll be stocking our fridge with the stuff or not. My writing schedule and situation have been pretty off lately, and I don’t know if the magic elixer will suddenly have me pouring out words or not. I am in that process of thinking about what I will do before I start doing anything, and that’s frustrating and takes time. But it’s getting there.

Okay, I have to figure out a movie and a dinner and make them hobbling distance from each other so it will work out okay…

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