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The Deal (2021 edition)

So. It’s time to write another post like this one from 2010. It’s not LinkedIn official yet, but I’m leaving my current job, and going to a new one. And that’s always a good way to rustle the various nostalgic bits of the brain, especially when as much time has passed as it has with the current employer.

I don’t like to cross the streams and won’t discuss the specifics of either job here. But the old gig is the one I started in September of 2010. And I did a previous tour with this company from 2001 to 2007. So that’s a grand total of almost sixteen and a half years of service between the two, which is insane.

This job started almost on a lark. I was working in Silicon Valley and doing the big commute and wasn’t entirely into my gig. Joel, my old boss, asked me if I wanted to come back. I said nah, I owned a house out here, wasn’t about to move back to New York. He said I could work remote. I said, okay let’s do this, and I was officially a full-time work-from-home worker, ten years before everyone else did the same.

There are two distinct eras to the job, and the nostalgia for the first half is much heavier. I really liked working on my old products, and loved working with Joel and the old crew. All of us who were there from the start-up days had basically gone to war together, and had an entire vocabulary of our own, plus total knowledge of what was where, how things worked, how to get stuff done. We were all introverts, and a decade before Slack became a thing, we all used an internal IRC server for air traffic control and general water cooler bullshitting. Nobody ever used the phone. I didn’t even have a phone; the company gave me one in the Palo Alto office, and then promptly gave my cube to someone else when I never came in. There was a lot of general insanity, a small company running within a giant one, but I really enjoyed that five year chunk of time.

I also liked that it was a strange virtual conduit back to my old life in New York. At that point, half of the team was still at our old office at Bleecker and Broadway, and the other half was up in Boston. But I worked in New York, from Oakland. I time-shifted three hours earlier to match their hours, and kept up with all of the gossip and the general zeitgeist of working for a New York company, even though I technically worked for a Palo Alto company. I went back to New York three times during that first few years, which was always a bizarre deja vu experience. Like the first time, I came into the office at 632, went right back to my old desk, and it had been vacant for the last three years. All of my old files were still in the filing cabinet. It was like I’d never left. And on another trip, I stayed at a hotel a few blocks from my last apartment. I’d walk the same exact route from the Lower East Side to the office, and it felt like I had traveled time back to 2006.

The parent company got bought out by venture cap, and everything shifted after that. Pretty much the entire team left. I got moved to another team in Palo Alto, and a new product, but I still had the old product. But we went through a big “push to cloud” where the old product was put out to pasture, and I spent much less time on it. I also started managing people, and working on this new cloud thing. I really missed my old team, and 2015 was an extremely depressing year for me.

I probably shouldn’t go into any details of the second half of my tenure. I started managing people, and loved doing that, up until the point when I had to start doing layoffs. That’s brutal, and the only thing worse than firing people who have been very loyal is getting invited to random meetings with HR and not knowing if it’s to fire people or to get fired yourself.

Anyway, don’t want to get into that stuff.

One of the things I have liked about my work situation is that the time-shifting means I have a few hours in the afternoon to write. And I pretty much floundered and was not consistent in my writing in the 00s, and figured I needed to focus and get more regular writing done after I took this gig. I’ve published twelve books in that time, and 30-some articles, plus everything written here and in other random places. I’m not sure what my work schedule will be like in the future, and I think I’m done with this constant grind of trying to publish a book every year.

The new job is in San Francisco, but given the situation, I’ll still be home until at least the fall, and I don’t think any of us are ever going to be back to five days a week in the office. (Famous last words.) The big weird thing about this job will be that I don’t switch desks. I’ll still be in my home office, have the same chair, same monitor, same keyboard. I’ll just be swapping out my old Lenovo for a new Mac. And what’s weird about that is it’s identical to the Mac I have at home.

What’s also strange is that in the pandemic, there’s no goodbye. I mean, no cake, no lunch, or anything else. I’m not big on goodbyes, and I’ve hated that I’ve have to force myself to end conversations this last week without saying “talk to you later.” But my boss is in the UK. My workers are in the midwest, the east, and India. My teams are scattered. There would be no lunch at Chotchkie’s and gift card to Starbucks, even if we were allowed to eat in restaurants. I just realized the other day that I have never physically met any of the people I currently manage. Sarah said the other day, “I feel so bad you talk about N__ and A__ every day and I never got to meet them!” And I said, “well, neither did I.”

Anyway. Old job ends on the 10th, and new one on the 15th. So I get a four-day weekend to FedEx computers back and clean out behind my desk to redo the cables and maybe sleep a bit. Then on to the next era. Should be fun.

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general

50

The place of my birth, fifty years ago.

I am 50 today.

FIFTY. HALF A CENTURY.

Shit.

I’ve covered the various anniversaries and big round numbers in other birthday posts. No need to rehash that. But 50 is very decidedly profound, and I don’t really know how to fully grok the celebration of half a hundred years since I popped out on a remote air force base in North Dakota.

Here’s a stupid memory, from 40 years ago. The last episode of the third season of Mork & Mindy was titled “Reflections and Regrets.” The b-story was about their downstairs neighbor Mr. Bickley turning 50. (He was played by character actor Tom Poston, who probably doesn’t ring any bells, but you’ve seen him on TV a million times.) Anyway, Mr. Bickley was turning 50, and was bummed out and talking about his regrets. The episode then unspooled in typical 80s sitcom fashion with everyone but Mindy talking about their regrets, and then the big season cliffhanger is that she kisses Mork. (If you really give a shit, here.) I have no idea why I remember this show, especially because I’ve never watch the reruns or bought the DVD or whatever.

Anyway, Bickley talks about his regrets and his sadness about being older. His three regrets he mentioned were never reading the entire bible, and never seeing the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. I don’t have much interest in reading the bible (I’ve written books longer than the King James), I found the Grand Canyon slightly unimpressive, and I guess I’ve driven over Niagara and bought some booze at the duty-free on the Canadian side, but didn’t stop and take the boat tour. Anyway, that got me thinking about two things: one is the regret thing, and second is that Mr. Bickley was allegedly fifty when I was a kid (to be fair, the actor was actually sixty in 1981) and in my head he was old, and now I’m old.

I think one of the reasons the big 5-0 messes with me is that it signifies the apex, the top of the hill. Statistically, my top of the hill probably passed a while ago, but looking at this big even number makes me think that everything in my life has been figured out, and there won’t be any big changes, just a coast downhill to retirement and then beyond. I’m not changing careers and becoming a plumber or a doctor. I’m probably not running any marathons. Having kids is probably out. If I went back to school, I’d be the weird old guy who retired and went to community college to learn about birds or whatever. It’s very defeatist, but that’s my first impression of all of this.

* * *

I don’t feel 50, is the thing. I know some days I joke about feeling 167, and I’ve got a collection of various minor problems that always annoy me. Despite my bad back and declining eyesight and trick knees, I still mentally feel the same as I did thirty years ago. I don’t feel like I ever magically became an adult, and I have this horrible imposter syndrome about that. I mean, I know things changed mentally over time. After reading through my old blog posts years ago, it amazed me how I used to give so much of a shit about things that I honestly do not care about at all. Like for some reason, I was borderline militant about Coca-Cola products, and now I can’t even remember the last time I drank an actual full-sugar Coke. I used to care a lot more about things like publishing and getting published, and I’m pretty much over that. So many corners have been rounded over time. But I do not feel like I’m an adult, and I strongly feel I should have squared this up a while ago.

I don’t think I look 50. It always surprises people when I tell them my age. I don’t dress old; I mean, it’s always jeans and a t-shirt, tennis shoes, leather jacket, pretty much the same gear I was wearing in 1994. I weigh more. The hair’s going fast. But other than weight fluctuations and different glasses and haircuts, I don’t look radically different. And while that’s a plus, it’s also weird to me because I would expect to look older in some way. Not aged, but more mature. Wearing shirts and ties and cardigans, maybe some dress shoes and a sweater. A pipe. I don’t know, but I feel like I’m not playing the part, and maybe that’s good or bad, who knows.

The bottom line is that I often feel out of time, out of place. Conversations that feel like they just happened were really 25 years ago. I smell a certain smell that reminds me of a restaurant I just went to, and I realize it closed decades ago, and it was scraped to the ground and replaced with a 40-story Amazon office. I feel like I have all the time in the world to figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up, and then I realize only ten seconds have passed since I was 40 and in ten more seconds, I’m going to be pushing 70. My oldest grandparent made it to 84. I’ve got to figure this out, fast.

* * *

I don’t really have any long-term plans. I always wanted to get out of debt, and I have. I wanted to save money and retire by the time I was 50, and that didn’t work. (Maybe 60.) I’ve always wanted to write, write more books, write better books, become known or famous or whatever for my writing. I keep writing, but I’m always chasing the One Big Book and it’s elusive. I have maybe a dozen people who read my books, so I’ve failed any mass popularity contest. Probably not a great goal to have tons of readers when people would rather watch ten-second videos of people getting punched in the nuts or whatever. One of my main regrets in life is becoming (somewhat) competent at an art form that involved writing thousand-page books right at the same time the national discourse was reduced to 140-character updates. I realize that chasing fame to achieve happiness is a futile exercise, and that people who I see as hugely famous haven’t achieved enough to fill that hole in their soul and then do bad things. So, I’ve tried to stop thinking about that. I still do, but I’m not as frantic about it as I was ten years ago when I thought I was going to become kindle famous if I somehow beat the algorithm or just found the right outlet to publish my short stories.

I guess my main complaint is that I’m burning a lot of cycles looking back. This whole mall nostalgia thing and whatever other mental illness I might have about looking at the past has severely limited my ability to think about the future. I have something wrong with me, something serotonin-related, where I spend forever googling for old pictures of long-gone haunts, trying to find people who were close friends in 1993 and are now either dead or busy with their grandkids in some far corner of a midwestern state. When I find a loose video of the Scottsdale Mall or an old picture of the Bloomington campus I’ve never seen before, I temporarily get a minor surge of chemicals in my head, but never enough to make me truly happy. So I have to keep digging, thinking that I’m just a google search away from finding a disposable camera’s pictures from thirty years ago that will completely flood my noggin with the neurotransmitters that will make it all better.

(Current events and politics are just like this. I find myself reading my home town newspaper not because I love my home town or because anything interesting is happening there, but because the commenters are so fucking off-base, my hatred for them causes a similar chemical surge in my brain, even though it angers me. I have absolutely no reason to read that newspaper. I honestly have no reason to ever step foot in that city again. But when I’m bored or down or whatever, I’ll click away. This has been the driving force of the grief and agony of the last four years, and I have no answers here, but I wish I did.)

There’s no end goal to this nostalgia madness. The memories in my head get more distant, and at the same time, more of this media falls out of the system, discussion boards vanishing, news sites getting paywalled and later bankrupted, google searches eroding. It’s a futile race to the bottom. Never mind that any nostalgia group or page is generally full of toxic people who fear the future and hate any kind of progress, because the distant memories of times that never existed bring them happiness, versus the panic of living in today’s world. And the more I descend into this, the more I realize I’m becoming this. And the bottom line is that I’m wasting tremendous amounts of time on this, when I could be doing almost anything else: learning a craft, studying something new, playing a game, taking a walk, doing anything.

And I think that’s really the key of this birthday. I need to make it a turning point, and stop wasting my time on this shit, and take advantage of the time I have to actually accomplish stuff. I don’t know what, and that’s the hard part. But something has to change.

* * *

This post has been such a downer, and I apologize. I need a way to land this, and as usual, I think it needs to be another big dumb list. So.

Here’s a list of 50 things I’ve accomplished so far in my first half-century:

  1. I made it to 50. Still have a pulse.
  2. I still have all of my limbs and digits.
  3. All of my teeth are still here (albeit with a lot of restoration, and minus the wisdom teeth).
  4. No surgeries, no long sicknesses, no major failures yet.
  5. I’ve avoided the C word, knock wood.
  6. No major legal trouble. No rap sheet.
  7. Happily married. Going on 14 years.
  8. Married only once.
  9. I’ve published 17 books. 1073852 words, 3649 pages.
  10. There’s at least that much written in this blog, and probably another two million in first drafts and uncollected nonsense. Maybe another million in almost thirty years of paper journals.
  11. Published elsewhere, all sorts of little zines and journals and whatnot. Nothing major but nothing too bad, either.
  12. I’ve kept this blog going for almost 25 years, from before the term blog was even invented.
  13. I’ve read a ridiculous amount over the years. I wish I had a way to track this. (No, not Goodreads.) I’ve probably read more during the pandemic than most people read in their lifetimes.
  14. Finished high school. Finished college.
  15. Won a scholarship that paid for a chunk of college, even though college was like 74 dollars when I went.
  16. I’ve more or less had a career for over 25 years. Moved from the most junior position possible making twelve bucks an hour to a position managing people and big things.
  17. I bought a house. (I’ve actually done that twice.) Also bought 40 acres of land I have no idea what I’ll ever do with.
  18. I’ve bought a new car twice. Nothing exciting – both Toyota compacts, and not the Corvettes and Camaros I imagined as a teen. If I bought a Corvette now, I’d probably spend all of my time worried about it getting stolen or doored.
  19. I’m out of debt except my mortgage. I think we owe about 20% of our house value, so that’s getting done.
  20. I’ve saved money. I wish I saved more, but I’m on the glide slope toward retirement, I think.
  21. Adopted two cats in 2007 which have been my stay-at-home coworkers and buddies and have changed my life for the better, even if they wake me up at three AM for breakfast.
  22. I’ve lived in seven states, ten cities. Never had to move back home, which is good. I know I bitch about the Seattle darkness and Denver altitude sickness and the New York garbage Augusts, but I’ve enjoyed different aspects of every place I’ve lived, and I’m glad for all of them.
  23. Visited 46 states. I love Hawaii. I (mostly) love Alaska. I’ve found something interesting about every state in between.
  24. I was on a rampage about going to Vegas two or three times a year, and did that forever. I don’t know how many times I’ve been, but I’ve seen a different Vegas each time over the last twenty years, enough to write a book about it and probably enough to write another (if that first book ever sold, which it didn’t. It’s in the UNLV library, though.)
  25. Drove across the country twice. Once I did the entire trip in 48 hours. The second time, I took two weeks.
  26. Including the US, I’ve been to seven countries. That’s a bit low, but I also didn’t get a passport until I was thirty-four.
  27. I stood on the ground exactly where the first atomic bomb was detonated.
  28. I’ve seen a lot of other cool stuff. Been in the USS Missouri. Top of the Empire State Building. Saw the Berlin Wall. Graceland. The Lincoln Monument. The original World Trade Center. 768 different malls. Etc.
  29. Threw my book into the Grand Canyon. (Take that, Mr. Bickley.)
  30. Jumped out of a plane.
  31. Flew a plane.
  32. Met various famous people and realized there’s nothing special to famous people. They’re just people. Even the Backstreet Boys.
  33. I’ve gone from my white-bread, fast-food past to eating a lot of great, weird, and amazing food. I still like a Taco Bell taco every now and again, but as a kid, I never imagined I’d be eating a boar’s tongue in an eighteen-course meal in Berlin.
  34. I’ve gotten to see a lot of the bands that I worshipped as a kid.
  35. Same with comedians.
  36. I wasn’t a sports fan for a long time, but I’m enough of a sports fan now that I’ll count things like going to Lambeau, going to a World Series, getting the seat right behind home plate, walking on the field at Dodger Stadium, and watching Brett Favre throw an 82-yard touchdown in overtime to defeat the Broncos in Denver. Taken a lot of sports pictures, and even had some of them published, so that was cool.
  37. I’ve formed giant collections of books and music and toys and electronics, but also realized that giant collections are more of a problem than a solution. (Or maybe a symptom.)
  38. I own a lot of signed books. But then around the time people started asking me to sign books, I realized how dumb it was.
  39. I think I’m at the point where if I wanted anything, as far as material things, I could get it, but I can’t think of anything I want. This is pretty good from a goal perspective, although it’s frustrating for people who need to shop for me for gifts. I think there’s an exception for boats and sports cars and such, but like I said, not sure what I’d do with either, and the Prius gets me to the store and back.
  40. I’ve completed a lot of short-term personal goals. In 2008, I lost a crazy amount of weight, going from like 250 to 168 or something. As of yesterday, I’ve meditated for a thousand days in a row. I’ve exercised every day for 1811 days. I’ve had long periods of writing every day, although I’ve been giving myself more time off on that every now and again.
  41. I survived a lot of bad things, like economic downturns, car crashes (just one, really), major blackouts, tornados, earthquakes, and 9/11. Maybe not mentally, but I physically made it okay.
  42. I logged into this big mainframe computer in 1989 which could send emails and messages and get files from this thing called the “internet” and have watched it grow and expand and get powerful and dumb and all-encompassing over the next thirty-some years.
  43. I also created a hyplan page on this thing called the WWW back in 1992, and got to ride the wave ever since.
  44. I’ve learned a lot about computers since first sitting down at an Apple II and doing the 10 PRINT “HELLO” thing. I always feel like I need to learn more, but I’ve been fortunate enough to see and experience a lot of key trends in computer history.
  45. I’ve met some great people along the way. I know I don’t see them as much as I’d like, but I have some great freands.
  46. I’ve also kept some very long friendships. I met my buddy Ray 36 years ago, and he still answers the phone half the time I call.
  47. I’ve had four nephews and a niece, and I’ve got to experience the oddity of holding a human being the size of a canned ham in your arms, and then two seconds later, they’re driving a car and are as old as you sometimes think you are.
  48. I don’t think losing relatives is a good thing, but I think knowing them up until the time you’ve lost them and having those experiences and feelings forever is keeping them alive in some way, and I’ve enjoyed doing that with every person who is now gone.
  49. A big of vaguebooking, but I’ve had a lot of various challenges physically or mentally, all of which seem stupid and distant now. At the time, none of them seemed stupid and were all incredibly all-encompassing and horrific. But I got past them and survived them.
  50. I’ve managed to think of fifty things for this list. This was harder than I thought, but I made it.

OK, all that writing really takes it out of an old guy. Apologies if this seemed too morose. Enjoy your January 20th, and hope there’s a lot more ahead from me.

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general

The Death of Flash

I logged into my Mac the other day, and got a popup for Adobe Flash. Over the last few decades, I’m used to these coming up every other week to annoy me about updating to the latest version. This time, it was almost sad, because it told me to uninstall the Flash plug-in completely.

I always had a mixed relationship with Flash, long before it was bought by Adobe and it was still Macromedia Flash. I think part of it was that it seemed to suddenly become the cool new way to develop content for the Windows desktop, with suboptimal capability on the Mac, and dodgy support on Linux, all authored in a proprietary studio that cost too much. I was a Linux-only user, at least at home, from 1992-2005, so that covers most of the salad days of Flash, and pushed it pretty much off my radar.

I actually spent the first part of that timeframe avoiding graphical browsers as a whole, only using Lynx or Emacs/W3 from home, which seems ridiculous now, but I had a slow modem and an even slower machine back then. When I did finally upgrade to slow DSL and an actual Pentium, I was the type of contrarian who did not want to add plugins, downloads, players, and other overhead to my machine. Also, as an early adopter of the web, I was aghast that people wanted to use Flash as a UI replacement inside the browser. There were sites that simply loaded up a .SWF file and opened it across the entire web browser window, presenting all of their own navigation and UI within the app. It seems like every crappy metal band did this in about 2004. I’m sure if you visited the Queensrÿche web site back then, it would have had a “front page” Flash file that animated a bunch of burning flames or dragons or something, along with blocky icons of their logo you had to click to actually see anything. On my Linux web browser, it would be a giant blank page with a broken-document icon in the middle, which I’d hopefully be able to click to get to Page 2, but sometimes that didn’t work, either.

Jump to much later, and Flash became center stage in the mobile wars. I worked on Windows Mobile and Android phones, which both (sort of) supported Flash. But I owned an iPhone, which didn’t. This was always a point of derision for Android fans, who would pull up some random statistic about how the 24 million people playing Bubble Blaster 7 would never buy the iPhone. Steve Jobs wrote an infamous open letter about this in 2010, about why Apple refused to support Flash. At that time, it seemed almost unfathomable that in a distant universe, nobody would be using Flash. But it was a horrible battery hog, and didn’t have a great story for working on mobile devices with a touch screen. And a big reason for that Jobs manifesto was that an iPhone Flash player would always be second-class, compared to the native Apple UI. The Windows player would be faster, work best, and have the most updates. Go further down the hill, and the Apple version of the player would have some subset of functionality, and everyone would bitch at Apple because Marble Monster 3 didn’t work on the iPhone.

I think Flash quickly fell by the wayside a few years into the 2010s, although I don’t know when. At some point, Safari either didn’t come with the plug-in and you had to install it, or maybe it was there but not turned on by default, and you could turn it on per use. iOS had an app store and real apps, and that was that. Windows Mobile died. After two or three years of Android users saying the iPhone would fail for not supporting Flash, Adobe killed Flash on Android in 2012. I haven’t actively thought about Flash for years, until I heard about the EOL.

There’s one random memory about Flash that makes me miss it. In the summer of 2007, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, attempting to maybe re-curve my career. The lack of tech writing jobs (in Denver, anyway) made me want to become a developer, but I couldn’t decide on a language or skill set. I was doing some Ruby on Rails for a friend’s company, but my wife worked for a marketing agency, and they doled out big chunks of cash to “interactive” firms who did web sites, usually with Flash. I can’t draw, but I knew enough JavaScript that I could figure out ActionScript, and assumed the rest of it was just finding the right book or tutorial or something.

I think I did buy the Dummies book at the Borders (RIP) in Stapleton and gave it a once-over with the 30-day trial of the software. The studio or whatever it was called was pretty straightforward, and I never developed any muscle memory for doing anything in Flash, but I was able to kick the tires and do the basic example projects. This quest pretty much ended at that point, and when I found a copy of Flash CS3 cost 700 bucks. But it was fun screwing around with a head-bouncing-around-the-screen demo and a pick-an-answer trivia game.

I still have a copy of those SWF files and it’s oddly nostalgic and bittersweet to see them now. Not because they’re useful or I regret not entering a career of being an interactive designer (or whatever), but because it reminds me of that summer, my first months in Denver, and everything else that happened in 2007.

Anyway, RIP Flash. Hopefully someone comes out with a good emulator ten years from now so all of the GenZ kids can remember Gem Shooter or whatever they played as a kid.

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general

Life and Death of the Pierre Moran Mall

I watched the Jasper Mall documentary a few weeks ago. It was interesting, but there was something bugging me about it, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. A few days later, I figured it out: Jasper reminds me a lot of Pierre Moran Mall in Elkhart, Indiana where I grew up, but in an alternate universe where PMM didn’t get torn down in 2006 and somehow lived on.

I should take a deep dive on Pierre Moran Mall and brain dump what I still remember, while I still remember it. There’s a good (old) page on Labelscar about the mall, but not much more. In fact, I think the third or fourth result in a google search is one of my pages about Concord Mall. And that’s a good summary for the mall: a strange afterthought to Concord, the less-known sibling, that has now completely vanished.

The basics, partly cribbed from Labelscar: Pierre Moran started as a strip mall, opened in 1958, a row of shops on Hively between Benham and Prairie, just south of downtown. An indoor mall was built right next to this strip in about 1970, with about 400,000-some square feet, including anchors Sears and two other department/softlines stores that varied over the years. (The number of anchors is vague and arguable, I’ll get into that later.) This was Elkhart’s first real mall.

I remember this mall as a little kid only because it predated the Concord Mall by a few years, and was the closest mall to us. I lived in Edwardsburg, Michigan (just north of Elkhart), and we sometimes shopped at a Kroger that was attached to the south end of the original strip. We also visited the GL Perry store, which anchored the other end of the strip.

GL Perry was a small chain of five-and-dime department stores. They had maybe eight locations around Michiana. (Details are sparse, here’s an article from when they closed in 1997.) They were a typical variety store like a Woolworth or Ben Franklin: clothes you wouldn’t want to wear if you were cool, hobby supplies, candy, toys, records, and some other staples and sundries. We used to go there a lot, although I don’t know what my parents bought there – maybe gardening supplies or something. I remember being particularly fixated on the toy aisle, and later the records. They also had a great Halloween section, which is where I got my Spider-Man get-up in October of 77. Most of the functionality of GLP was later superseded by K-Mart, but we ended up there a lot as kids. (The GL Perry was previously a Grant’s, but that was way before my time.)

A note or two on the name Pierre Moran. He was an American Indian leader, of the Potawattomie tribe. He sold his land to Dr. Havilah Beardsley in 1832 and it became downtown Elkhart. I vaguely remember learning about him as a kid: someone bit off the end of his nose in battle. He was part of the siege against the white man at Fort Wayne. Our Indiana History classes were probably not as neutral as they could have been, so I don’t know how much of that is true. (See here for a good article on it.) The acceptance and denial of Native Americans sort of ebbs and flows over time in this region, and I guess in the early 60s, someone thought it wise to name a mall (and a neighboring school) after Pierre Moran, which was good. But they also decorated the mall with various Indian statues and logos on signs, which were both straight-up early-70s mall decor, and probably a bit more than politically incorrect (although people in the local nostalgia groups would heartily disagree.) I remember the Indian decor when I was a little kid, but I think they were gone by the time I was a teenager in the mid-80s.

After the enclosed mall was built, the interior was more or less a T-shaped concourse. Floor tiles were a solid dark maroon/brown, with lots of dark wood, no skylights or grandiose architecture inside. The center had a couple of wooden benches and a few spider plants in planters, but no real conversation pits or incidental decoration to speak of, aside from a wooden Indian with a somewhat grotesque face. They later put a small fountain in the middle and lightened the place up slightly, but this was always a somewhat dark and foreboding mall. And that original strip of stores didn’t connect to the internal mall. I’ve seen strip-mall-to-mall conversions where they built a second strip so all of the old external entrances were now internal, with a roof over it. (Aka Northgate in Seattle.) But these old stores all faced out, disconnected. They did build an entrance right in the middle of that strip leading into the mall, and a drug store did have a side door going into the mall, but that’s it.

Because of this strange construction, the mall had a very patched-together arrangement to it. Most mall concourses have long lines of similarly-sized stores, rows of identical spots next to each other. You know how malls like this would sometimes have an oddball store at the end of a hall with the entrance facing the wrong way and the interior footprint in the shape of a strange truncated triangle instead of a square? Every single store at this mall looked like this. It didn’t feel like any two stores in Pierre Moran were the same size, or even close to the same size. It looked like someone collated together a mall from discarded stores left over from other mall construction, maybe adding another store every other week when they could afford it, with no overall plan for continuity. Every store had a different front. Every wood front was a different shade of wood, the planks angled in a different direction. Every chunk of brick facing was a different color, a different shape of brick. Every section of the concourse had a different height roof. The hallways were too wide, and the storefronts were too narrow. It was almost disorienting how it was put together, and the general feeling every time I went was there is nothing here. And that’s when it was fully occupied.

The Sears was decent, as far as Sears goes. I remember shopping there with my mom for Tuffskins and getting the tires changed on the car at their auto center once. I think I first played the Atari 2600 there, the “Tele Play” version that Sears OEMed. When their record department closed out in the early 80s, I remember sifting through the 4-for-a-dollar remaindered 8-Tracks, struggling to find four things worth buying. I also knew a few folks that worked there when I was a teenager, and would swing by to bother them.

Other stores I remember:

  • The aforementioned Hooks drug store, which was a local chain that eventually got bought by CVS.
  • A photocopying/printing place called Skinner the Printer.
  • A coin shop that sold comic books and baseball cards.
  • A sad arcade without many machines.
  • A somewhat Christian book/card store.
  • A place called The Cookie Jar that sold giant hot cookies and was pretty decent.
  • A Finish Line shoe store, one of the few nationally-branded stores inside the mall.
  • A shoe store called The Leather Banana.
  • A sewing supply store.
  • Various “interior decor” stores, if you were decorating a home in deep Appalachia in the 1930s.
  • A sit-down restaurant. When I was a kid it was called Meeting Place and was a general cafe sort of place old people went after church. After I’d left for college, it became a 50s-style diner called Ally Oops. It was basically like a Johnny Rockets, with the checkered floors and jukeboxes and sundaes and whatnot. People in Elkhart loved this place, but people in Elkhart judge food by portion size, price, and how unhealthy it is, so I was pretty indifferent.
  • The outside-facing strip had a Rent-A-Center, a really grim-looking liquor store, and a barber shop for old men that used a suck-cut and where I got the worst haircut of my life in 1988. Just a guess that there was probably a dry cleaner and a jewelry store that bought gold there, too.
  • Next to Sears, there was a branch of the Elkhart Public Library, and I went there a lot as a kid. Around 1989 or 1990, they moved that branch into a dedicated building, and it became a car parts place.

The TL;DR is that there were almost no national-brand stores in the mall. It was a lot of one-offs and local chains. There was never a great shift of new up-and-coming stores moving in (like University Park), or a big die-off when leases timed out (like Concord). It just sort of stayed the same, year by year, decade by decade.

Aside from Sears, one of the other anchors was Kline’s, a local clothing/department store, which then became a similar store called Ziesel’s. The other anchor was I think a Carson Prairie Scott when I was a kid. These didn’t interest me when I was a child because my mom bought my clothes for me. When I was old enough to buy my own clothes, the anchors at PMM didn’t interest me because it wasn’t 1947 and I didn’t want to dress like an octogenarian in high school.

The one cool store there was World Records. It was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall record store not much bigger than a bedroom, with maybe three or four racks of albums, a display of car stereos, and a wall of t-shirts. I don’t know why or how, but World was an excellent record store. Two mulleted guys working the register knew a ton about obscure metal, and would get in all sorts of weird imports and immediately turn me onto them. Back when everyone in my high school was obsessed with Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam or Milli Vanilli, this guy Rodney was selling me the Metallica Creeping Death/Jump in the Fire EP (UK import on Music for Nations, years before the US release) and talking my ear off about obscure Gary Moore solo albums. I think World Records was the only place in Elkhart County where one could get a Metallica shirt before the Black Album came out.

In about 1985, that C-P-S anchor turned into a Target. This was a pretty new chain for us in Indiana – Dayton-Hudson bought out Ayr-Way locations in Indiana and flipped them into new Target stores. I thought Target was awesome back then. It seemed much more bright and new and modern and 80s than a K-Mart or Wal-Mart. And they had a good mix of things I liked: music, video games, electronics, but also staples and candy and housewares-type things and whatnot. It seemed very un-Indiana to me at the time, which is silly now, but it was one of the only reasons I really went to that mall.

To cap off this random brain dump of stores, there are a few outparcels to mention. One is that there was a Hardee’s on the corner of Hively and Prairie. This was the old-school livery, brown and orange, and I think it may have been a Burger Chef before that. In the early 00s, this was torn down and the CVS moved from the mall to a freestanding building. There was also a Long John Silver by the Sears. An ever-changing bank that was primarily drive-through an ATMs hung onto the side of the GL Perry. It’s a Key Bank now, but I think it may have been a First National, and a few other brands over the years.

One other interesting one: there was a two-screen theater as a freestanding building near Sears. This was called the Holiday I and II. In the 80s, all of the movie theaters in Elkhart were owned by one man, Bill Miller. He also owned the Elco and Cinema I movie theaters downtown, the Holiday, the Concord I and II at Concord Mall, and the Encore 1-3 on Cassopolis Street. Bill Miller was killed at the Concord theater in 1987, shot by a disgruntled employee, apparently over the theft of concessions. By 1990, all of his theaters were sold to the GKC Theaters chain, and within a few years, all but the Encore would be closed. The Holiday was essentially split in half, with one half being a few fast food restaurants, one being a Subway. The other half became a Hollywood Video chain, which has since closed and been abandoned, and still has a vaporwave pink and teal interior you can see through the windows, forever trapped in 1993 regalia. [More on Bill Miller here.]

* * *

Two memories from the Holiday I+II. One, I saw Silence of the Lambs there on opening night. Two, I went to see Flatliners, and the late show was in the same auditorium as the early show of Young Guns 2. While we were there, a group of heavily-Aquanetted, acid-washed denim-wearing girls came in, thinking YG2 was on in the second time spot. They sat through an hour of Flatliners, loudly wondering where Christian Slater was and when Bon Jovi was going to make his appearance.

* * *

My time at Pierre Moran is divided into two phases. As a child, like I mentioned, we went to the Kroger, Sears, and GL Perry a lot. This was before I had any geospatial awareness and knew anything about the distance between us and various malls, and I only knew we went to this one less than others. And we seldom went inside the mall. The only times I remember, it was because some kind of craft fair or flea market or bazaar had sale stuff on card tables through the mall’s hallways. I wasn’t old enough to know better or shop elsewhere, and my only judgment was that aside from the toy aisle at GL Perry and the toy section in Sears, there was no toy store at the mall, while Concord and University Park had a KayBee Toys and a Walden Books that sold D&D stuff.

Also, my parents didn’t want to go to this mall that much, and I never understood why. It was just a silent “we don’t go to that mall” and I didn’t know why. I always thought it was just personal preference, but I figured out what “that mall” meant later.

* * *

When Pierre Moran was built, it was a pretty sleepy bucolic suburb south of Elkhart. Looking at a 1952 aerial, there’s at least a half-mile of farmland on every side of where the original strip mall was constructed. Very little housing was in that area, and the core of Elkhart’s population lived a mile or two north, in downtown Elkhart. But jumping to a 1967 aerial photo, most of the area surrounding the strip mall has been developed, with dense, serpentine roads snaking around artificial subdivisions of identical homes built on little token yards. Every house: exactly two bedrooms, exactly one bath, exactly 1000 square feet, on a yard that was exactly 10,000 square feet. A quick Zillow search shows this entire neighborhood being spun up in 1956-1957, probably right after the strip mall was added.

At this point, Pierre Moran was the suburb of Elkhart. And in the late 60s, the suburb pushed further south. In 1964, the Elkhart Housing Authority built Rosedale High-Rise, the first of EHA’s six public housing projects, about ten blocks north of Pierre Moran Mall. The older housing stock on the south side of Elkhart became more working-class as people fled further away for the suburbs.

Elkhart was and is predominantly white. I don’t know the census numbers from when I grew up, but in 2000, it was 71% white. Elkhart has seen an increase in Hispanic population since I left, mostly because of the large manufacturing base, and I wouldn’t doubt if that 71% was much higher when I was a kid. (Not to add fuel to this fire, but Goshen, the county seat just south of Elkhart, was a sundown town, with the Chamber of Commerce claiming it was 99.5% white-only as late as 1978.) Demographics of the area changed in the seventies and eighties, like they did in many Midwestern cities. The suburbs outside of the city grew with white exodus. Their school systems exploded with the new tax base. New malls (like Concord) signed sweetheart deals to grow tax-free, develop new super-stores, attract national brands, and pry away classic stores from the collapsing downtown district. The middle class fled the downtown. And malls like Pierre Moran were left behind. I’m not trying to spin some big revisionist history racial conspiracy theory about this. I’m not a historian. It’s just how it happened, or how I observed it to happen. As a little kid, I never noticed it. Now, it’s fairly obvious.

* * *

My family moved to Elkhart in 1978, when I was seven. We bought a tri-level in a subdivision a few miles south of Pierre Moran. The houses were about 50% bigger, the yards twice as big, and there were now four different floor plan templates to choose from for the nearly-identical dwellings. We had a new school. There was a big park nearby. Every neighbor had the typical 2.5 kids, all about my age, and it was a safe place to ride bikes all day and play sports and hang out.

I led a fairly sheltered childhood, and we almost never spent any time in downtown Elkhart. I have a strange gap in my personal history because of this. When I go to Facebook nostalgia groups, people talk about grocery stores and restaurants I never heard of. I don’t know anything about growing up in downtown Elkhart. I only knew the suburbs, our almost-new grade school, the Concord Mall.

The only thing I know about where we moved was it had “good schools.” After buying my first home 30-some years later, I found that “good schools” is code for something more than just having actual good schools.

* * *

After I got a car and a job in high school, I had a lot more freedom to see parts of the city I didn’t see before. It’s not like Elkhart is a giant metropolis – it was maybe 40,000 people then. But like I said, my parents never wandered much. We drove the same half-dozen routes every week, from our house to my relatives’ houses, to the same three stores, to the same school and church. With my own wheels, I got to explore a bit more. And even though I loved Concord Mall, I also worked there, and some days I needed to just go somewhere else.

I used to go to Pierre Moran every now and again mostly because of World Records, and then Target. My buddy Larry worked at that Kroger and we’d go harass him, and Tom Sample lived a few blocks up Prairie, and I was always there. It wasn’t much of a destination, though. Concord was the default; University Park was the place to go when you had a day to kill and you wanted to see other teenagers outside of your school’s ecosystem.

Pierre Moran was where you ended up. I remember my old friend Jim always wanted to go there because he was a recovering drug addict, and he said Pierre Moran was a mall so boring, you couldn’t even score drugs there. It was a place for old people to go to buy religious greeting cards, sewing supplies, and Dickies work clothes. It was an interesting novelty, but it was by no means cool.

In my second year of college, I lived at home and went to a regional branch of Indiana University. Because of this, I often drifted around town when everyone else was at work in the factories. I’d run errands – my drug store was the one in Pierre Moran – and wander around. So I’d often end up at Pierre Moran during the day. (Or late at night – the Hardee’s was open until like midnight, and I grabbed dinner there on the way home from school frequently.)

I think my love of dead malls developed greatly in that period. People think malls were all 167% busy in the early 90s, and that the dead mall is a recent development. If you’d ever been to a midwestern second-tier mall at 10:07 AM on a Tuesday in 1990, you know this wasn’t true. Malls were always empty on weekdays and mornings. I loved walking through a half-size mall that hadn’t been touched since 1974, the entire place to myself. It helped when the mall was such a bizarre place like Pierre Moran, where you couldn’t tell if it was light or dark or raining or snowing or January or July from inside, because there were no windows and it always looked dreary inside.

There’s something almost liberating about walking through every aisle of Target at eleven in the morning, seeing exactly zero shoppers, only the five or six stock clerks and cashiers working, and then spending an hour playing Tetris on the Game Boy display in electronics, without a single person talking to you. This imprinted something deep in my head that’s still there today. My friends hated that I always wanted to go to the mall back then. My friends who worked with me at the mall thought I was delusional when I spent my day off at a different mall wandering around, sometimes facing merchandise at a store I didn’t even work at out of instinct. Almost nobody understands why I still go to malls. But that’s something the Jasper Mall doc made me think about, that strange desolation and how it sparks the dopamine in my head. There’s a certain womb-like comfort I feel being in a gigantic hall of commerce, but being the only person there, like I was on the surface of the moon.

* * *

I never felt unsafe at Pierre Moran. I had a car stereo stolen a few blocks away, but it never felt like a gangland or an inner city slum or anything else. But that was the perception. My parents were always scared that I was hanging out near “The Projects.” Pierre Moran was the “other mall.” I never saw it, but there were always rumors about people getting carjacked, businesses getting stuck up, bank robberies and stolen cars. And just guessing, but maybe that’s what led to its downfall, its inability to attract more retailers: that rumor of unsafeness.

There was crime. Lots of shoplifting, thefts. High school students fighting each other, rumors of knives and guns. They added a police substation in the mall, which is never a good sign. It was a hotbed of cruising. (One of the only hits you can find on the mall is a listing of the bathroom on a cruising web site.) I don’t know if the level of crime or the perception of crime was higher, or maybe that the clientele of the only remaining stores was markedly more senior than the people who roamed the mall for fun.

There was a very high-profile murder in 1999 where a 19-year old African-American named Sasezley Richardson was killed by Jason Powell and Alex Witmer. Powell killed him in the Sears parking log as an initiation into the Aryan Brotherhood. This was in the papers for a long time, and was national news. Not to stir things up more, but killing a stranger to get into a white supremacist group was not considered a hate crime in an Indiana Supreme Court case. There’s a strong undercurrent in the city that I don’t even want to get into, but this was an obvious big issue.

* * *

I left Indiana in 1995, so other than the occasional visit, the final chapter of the mall was not on my radar. But it was typical: Target bugged out to build a larger-footprint store a few miles south of Concord Mall. The standard Target hypermart footprint was nothing like the aging 1985 store built in a 1970s shell of a department store. And there was a large no-mans-land between Elkhart and Goshen, where Wal-Mart plopped down a store and a handful of outparcel strip stores, then a Meijer followed, then Target. (This area’s siphoned off the majority of Concord Mall’s stores in recent years, but that’s another story.) The old Target became some kind of Mexican event hall that held rodeos and amateur wrestling shows on and off, but couldn’t attract another tenant.

Also, when you have local retailers, they’re owned by local people. And people get old, reach a certain age, they want to cash out and move to Florida or whatever. Or when retail models change, a national chain can funnel in money for a big remodel, spread the pain across hundreds of stores. A mom and pop can’t adapt.

At some point, they did that remodel with the new tiny fountain. Maybe this is when they removed all the remaining Indian stuff, I’m not sure. They also painted the brown awnings outside bright blue. None of this did too much.

There’s a dirty little secret about malls: they’re usually built as a tax dodge. Back in the Seventies, you could come to a town, ask for a tax break on developing a corn field into a mall under the premise of enhancing the neighboring subdivisions, and then your REIT could take twenty years of depreciation and write off their taxes. After the twenty years, your little town of 40,000 is trying to support two or four malls plus whatever Wal-Marts on the edge of the city are also prying loose the main-town merchants. That’s when the REIT dumps the mall on new owners for pennies on the dollar. The anchors signed sweetheart 99-year@$1/year leases in 1973 to prop up the small stores, so the mall has to double the rents on the mom-and-pops, and they’re now cash-hungry at the time when the mall needs a bunch of deferred maintenance and probably could use a facelift to trade the wooden Indians and brown tiles for a more vaporwave aesthetic, but half their stores are empty, and everyone would rather go to Wal-Mart and get everything in one stop for less. That’s when the jenga tower has all the bottom pieces pulled out from under it.

But, you could start over. Bulldoze everything, claim people want strip malls again, and reset the tax counter. De-mall. That’s what Pierre Moran did. No wait, it’s not Pierre Moran. It’s Woodland Crossing!

So here was the big plan in 2006: raze the entire interior of the mall, including the Target and the other anchor, which was last a US Factory Outlets, before they went under. Nuke the old Kroger. Keep the Sears, but seal off its mall entrance with a new set of exterior doors. Build a new Kroger, twice as big, along with a set of gas pumps. In a strange bit of irony, keep the original strip of stores, with some paint touch-ups, and add another row of small strip mall cubes of stores, so some cash-for-gold places and vape stores can make an occasional appearance.

You can guess how this went.

* * *

I visited Elkhart in 2018, and on Christmas Eve, I drove out to Pierre Moran Mall Woodland Crossing. It was cold as hell out, maybe in the teens. I parked my car in front of the Sears, at the entrance where I used to go with my parents to get my Garanimals and Toughskin jeans. The Sears closed the year before, going for over a decade in its decapitated state, before being killed off by Fast Eddie Lampert and his real-estate ponzi scheme gone wrong. Sears looked almost identical to the way it did in the Seventies. The labelscar above the door had both the faded remains of the old 70s logo and the newer 80s version.

If you look at the photo above, that large chunk of asphalt is where the entire mall once was. I was standing with the Sears behind me, so this stretch of parking lot is where the entire concourse and interior stores once stood. I walked across the large parking lot, and tried to visualize where the mall used to connect to the Sears, how the distant space by the new gas pumps used to be Target. The row of old stores still stood in the same place. You can see the new strip of stores in this shot. There was a health clinic, and the rest were 100% vacant. The Long John Silver was closed. The Subway was gone. The weirdo empty Hollywood Video was frozen in time. I didn’t go in the new Kroger.

I did hop into the Big Lots. It was a typical Big Lots, full of weird liquidation merchandise, the place where you’d go to find Crystal Pepsi or brands of candy bars that were released for a week in an Ohio test market and then pulled. But the store still suspiciously looked like the old GL Perry, but with different merchandise. The windows were in the same places. The floor had the same worn Sixties linoleum on it. I could still imagine flipping through the row of records by the front registers, walking up and down the aisles by the toys, smelling the sweet chemical stench of Miracle-Gro contrasting the odor of 50-pound bags of Alpo stacked by the back door that was no longer there. I bought a drink for the road, then walked back to my rental car in the cold.

The desolation around the completely empty parking lot was surreal. A different kind of weird than walking around as a kid, but still bleak and dismal. I have a distinct memory, a fragment, of sitting in that Sears parking lot in 1987, playing an Anthrax tape for a fellow dishwasher named John, doing absolutely nothing but killing time. Then, the mall seemed like it was falling apart, a late 60s dream of friendly family shopping gone bad, but a place to do nothing. Now, it felt like a mid-00s version of the a similar dream, with a giant parking area carefully planned and sculpted with dividers, landscape islands, and token trees, designed for cars that never came.

* * *

I spent a lot of time scouring the web for any photos of Pierre Moran Mall while writing this, and there are few. It died at the perfect era for it to never be remembered, because it lived in a pre-web world, and the mall barely knocked a site together right before it died. This is true for a lot of malls of this pedigree. Newspaper searches are fruitless, as newspapers themselves die and lock off old archives behind paywalls. (The Elkhart Truth is useless for any research because of this.) These malls, and a large chunk of a cities’ history, will be completely forgotten in a decade.

What caught me is that the few photos I could find were all of community events. For example, go to wayback and check out this page. There’s a few shots of what looks like a birthday party, and a coin fair. I found a few other loose pictures showing a karate demonstration, a local history booth, a book signing for a local author. One of the only videos I could find was an Elvis impersonator putting on a performance in front of the Target in 1993.

My very first memory of this mall, probably from 1975 or so, was going to an indoor “sidewalk sale” with tables set up in the hallways, local flea market vendors selling their wares. That stuff was always going on at Pierre Moran: car shows, swap meets, Easter egg hunts, Humane Society adopt-a-pet events, indoor trick-or-treating, church fund-raiser bazaars. Regardless of how “bad” the neighborhood or the mall was, there was always this sense of community in the events held there.

De-malling a mall like this basically strips away that community, distills the mall into just a row of boxes where people go in, go out, and that’s it. I think my big takeaway is that these things are vanishing, and it further contributes to where we are right now.

* * *

One footnote I’ll add to this: there is a “donut effect” of migration, where people move outward from the core of a city, then move further out, abandoning the old ring of suburbs. But in some places, the young and hip will move back into the center of the city and save it. You see this in a lot of bigger Midwestern cities, in places like Chicago or Indianapolis. This hasn’t happened in Elkhart at all, but in neighboring Goshen, this transformation has completely taken place. Goshen is practically an arts district now, with a restored historic downtown full of antique shops, book stores, a newly-restored classic theater, even an old-school butcher shop and natural grocery. It’s strange and amazing that the Goshen that I remember as dismal in 1990 is now more Williamsburg than Indiana. They’ve reinstalled that sense of community. So maybe there is some hope.

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general

2020 Dreams

So, about this year’s dreams.

Before 2020 went completely sideways, my friend Joel died. After that, he started showing up in my dreams, a lot. Like, an unhealthy amount. The dreams were nothing abnormal or psychotic; it either involved running into him at a party, or the company we used to work for somehow got re-formed and I had to move back to New York and work for him again. The dreams completely fed into my nostalgia obsession/problem, and whenever I woke up, I would know — I would assume — he was still alive. And then I would remember he wasn’t, and think maybe that was an alternate reality or some mistake was made and he was alive. And then the dreams got even more weird, because in the dream he would explain to me that he wasn’t dead, and it was a big prank or for tax purposes or I misunderstood the email or something.

(I realize there’s an easy psychological explanation for this, given the total lack of closure in his death. And duh, I should be talking to a therapist about this. I think everyone’s got bigger fish to fry at this moment.)

* * *

I don’t know exactly when the COVID dreams started. But I started having these intense dreams where I was walking around, like in the context of a normal weird dream, and then I would realize I didn’t have a mask on and suddenly needed one. It was like the typical “naked in front of class” terror dream, and fed into the same fear/paranoia/shame nerve.

I also would frequently have these dreams where someone was giving me COVID. Like I had this bizarre dream where I was competing in some kind of eco-challenge race through the desert with Joe Rogan. And every time he talked to me, he would lean in really close and spit would fly everywhere. And I woke up in a panic, trying to think if there was something I was supposed to overdose on to prevent the virus from catching, like eating a whole bottle of vitamins or drinking a gallon of Listerine.

I haven’t had the same nightmares I had during the SARS epidemic, though. They were based on a nightmare I had as a child. When I was a young kid, maybe four or five, I had a bad pneumonia or something that completely laid me out, and I had these insane fever dreams that everyone but me was dying of a mystery plague. Like I was watching the news, and the anchorman dropped dead, and bodies were piling up outside the house. And finally I was the only person alive, and the earth looked like the surface of the moon, and some alien Vincent Price-like voice or being was laughing at me. It’s one of my earliest memories, and that dream went back into heavy rotation when the SARS boom hit.

* * *

I have always had a lot of dreams about dead malls. Those still happen constantly. (Another big one is being back at IU, or some bizarro version of IU that has all new buildings, which I guess is IU now, since they’ve expanded everything in the last twenty years.)

My usual dead mall dreams — and these happen pretty much every third night or so — involve a strange composite mall. Like in my mind, the mall will be just outside of Queens, but it will remind me partly of Hilltop Mall in Richmond, mixed with some Factoria Square outside of Seattle, and maybe a dash of University Park in South Bend. There will always be vivid dashes of heavy deja vu around a particular store or sense memory, but when I wake, I’ll realize that there’s no way that mall exists at all.

This is also some weird sense of mourning, because I really miss these places and they don’t even exist. I have spent very little time at malls this year (obviously) and a lot of them probably won’t survive the plague, so I’ll miss them forever. So it’s fitting that they end up the backdrop of my bizarre nightmares.

* * *

Similar to the malls, I have a lot of dreams about Wards. These end up being two varieties. One is that Wards never went bankrupt, and they just closed the stores I knew about, and they had locations that still survived. The other is that some vulture cap company bought the name (which actually happened, but for online catalog purposes) and were somehow kickstarting a new retail presence. I’ve had many dreams where the old store #2258 in Elkhart has reopened, the existing Hobby Lobby shut down and the store converted back to its old glory, except it looks like a Sears with virtually no stock on the shelves.

In many of those dreams, I have a permutation of the “I forgot I had one more class to take to graduate” thing, and I’m somehow obligated to go back and work some shifts. (John said he gets the same thing with the Army, that a recruiter shows up at his house and says he didn’t finish his time thirty years ago and has to come back and do more.) In some of those dreams, my original coworkers are still there, although I’m certain that thirty years later, most of them are all dead. Sometimes I go back and I’m the only person who worked at the old Wards and that’s supposed to hold some cachet over the new people. (I have the same thing going on at my day job now.)

In last night’s version of this dream, I was back at the paint department, but as a manager. A weird little fact popped up in the dream that I’d almost completely forgotten. To mix paint, we had this big turntable thing with various pumps of pigment on it, and you would shoot specific amounts of each primary color into a can of base paint. This was all manual, no computers. We had a binder of formulas for the 863 premium colors and 768 standard colors. Each formula was something like 3-B, 6-C, 2Y-F. So you’d turn to the B color on the turntable, pull back the plunger three notches, shoot in that paint. Turn to C, six notches, go. The Y was significant, because that meant you pulled back the lever to its fullest extension, and gave it a full shot. I don’t remember the exact nomenclature or what the primary colors were, but I totally remember that Y.

* * *

I’ll occasionally have a full-on dream of a real mall, and it usually leaves me horribly depressed, and it’s almost always Concord Mall. I’ll leave you with a dream from a few weeks ago:

I was back at Concord Mall for a visit, and there was some major construction going on, like the whole fountain area was completely redone as this giant Rainforest Cafe-looking food court with a waterfall and a ton of mask-less people in it. I was a bit bummed most of the mall was all Simon-ized and bland, but then I found a semi-hidden staircase that went to a second floor that I never knew existed. The upstairs was basically a mirror of the first floor, with a duplicate of the shops below, but they were all in the 70s livery and configuration, mothballed and untouched for 40 years. I wandered an old JC Penney and everything had signs on it like it was a museum exhibition. I was then in the food court and met up with Kurt Vonnegut, who was talking about how he found an article on Dresden right before he wrote Slaughterhouse Five, and it was like the magical key that unlocked the whole novel in his head. He then gave me a mall directory from 1980 and said that was my key.

Categories
reviews

The Last Blockbuster

The other night, in a bit of irony, I watched the movie The Last Blockbuster by renting it on my Apple TV. It was a cute dose of nostalgia, talking about the last remaining store of the once-mighty video rental empire, out in Bend, Oregon.

As I started writing this, I realized I already wrote an article on The Death of Blockbuster last year, and hit pretty much all of my points there. The movie covers all of this, more or less, except they get Kevin Smith, Brian Posehn, and a few others to talk about it. I think they let corporate Blockbuster off a little easy here. People need to remember that Blockbuster was essentially the Amazon of the 90s, and decimated the mom-and-pop stores with their almost monopoly and tight ties with big studios. And if you wanted to rent weirdo disgusting zombie films with a lot of skin (17-year-old me, guilty) you couldn’t find them at Blockbuster.

One other thing that resonated with me is that Bend reminds me vaguely of Longview, Washington. It’s twice as big, but it’s got the same sort of small-town main street feel, with a few loose strands of suburb hanging off of it. They both sit on a river, with lots of evergreens and the mountains in the background. The reason this is nostalgic is that in 96, 97, I was dating a woman who lived in Longview, and every weekend I’d drive into town and we had the same ritual: pick up a pizza from Papa Murphy’s, go to the video store, walk the rows of films, pick out one or two we both like, and maybe one for me. Bend in 2020 distantly reminds me of Longview in 1996, and has the same cozy, sleepy feel to it. The documentary fixates a bit on the celebrity of the shop’s owner, as the last-Blockbuster cred went viral. But in the glimpses of how the family ran the business, it really reminded me of that past era.

I also have this stupid theory I haven’t entirely fleshed out that the total lack of empathy in this country is at least partly related to the death of retail and the lack of personal relationships in media consumption. I love buying all of my music instantly, but I also feel like I was more of a human being when I would interact with a salesperson on a weekly basis in a record store, when I had a relationship with someone that involved not just handing over a credit card, but talking to a human being about my likes and their advice and suggestions. I think with the beginning of the hypermart, consumers developed this lack of empathy and low-level depression from so many choices and so much homogenization and a lack of actual retail sales people. And in a perfect storm, retailers fed directly into it. It was perfect for the retailers because it meant they depended less on expensive human labor, just the line of cashiers at the front of the mega-store (and then they experimented with getting rid of them.) But also consumers felt a need to shop more and fill that hole in their soul. Now we all click endlessly on the Buy it Now button and feel worse and worse. This might be a dumb theory (I remember 30 years ago dealing with asshole customers aplenty) but maybe it’s something I need to pick in my head a bit.

Anyway, you can find the movie’s web site here: https://www.lastblockbustermovie.com. They will sell you the DVD and allegedly will be doing a limited-edition VHS, if you happen to still have a working deck.

Categories
general

COVAD-99

Ever since the COVID stuff started, I’ve had the term COVAD stuck in my head. There’s a reason for that. Let me explain.

So back in 1999, I moved to New York to freelance and write fiction and do that whole lifestyle, and it lasted about six months and I ended up at a full-time job at Juno Online that fall. Juno was that free email company, where they gave you a clunky Windows program and you got a free email address but had to look at ads in a little sidebar thing. When I got there, they also got into giving away a limited number of hours of free web browsing, or you could pay a little per month to get “unlimited” use.

At that point in time, 99.99% of internet users connected through a dial-up modem. Some dorms and campuses had ethernet; some offices, too. You could also pay a ton of money to get an ISDN connection at a screaming 128Kbps. Like most people, I used a 56K modem, which wasn’t blazing fast, but my first modem ever was 300bps, and I spent a few years of college on a 2400bps, so it didn’t seem that horrible. The busy signals were, though.

One of the first things I worked on at Juno was a new product called Juno Express. This was a Juno unlimited connection, but also included a broadband connection. Juno experimented with every type of broadband technology coming out at the turn of the century. We did trials with cable modems, satellite, microwave, various radio technologies, and something that ran through power lines to the home. But the one that stuck was DSL. And our DSL partner was called Covad Communications.

Prior to the late 90s, the only real way into a person’s house from a communication standpoint was the voice line. Modems worked by connecting to the voice line and converting digital communication into an audio signal, that screeching sound you heard when you connected a modem to the internet, if you were old enough to remember using a modem. That worked, but only up to a certain point, because of the inefficiency of cramming a wide digital signal over a relatively narrow pipe.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed this. Among the other things they deregulated, they made it so that an Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC) – the big phone companies like Bell Atlantic or Ameritech – had to allow any company the ability to share the local-loop access of the pieces of copper that tied a home to a telephone exchange. That meant a company like Covad could lease these lines and run their own digital internet service directly to your home.

Of course, the big phone companies didn’t make this easy. They dragged their feet and instituted byzantine processes for partners and did as much as possible to discourage this forced competition. Part of what made my documentation of Juno Express so messy was the complicated dance of getting the customer’s phone company and someone from Covad to both work with each other to get everything connected. Companies like Verizon weren’t going to just hand keys to Covad and say “knock yourself out.” Getting appointments was tedious, and sometimes they just wouldn’t show up, so you had to reschedule the following Covad appointment. It would take weeks and sometimes months to turn on a connection.

Once you got all of this sorted, you ended up with a DSL box in your house that had a 10 base T ethernet connection at about 768Kbps. But it was on 24 hours a day. No busy signals! And over ten times faster than a modem. Yes, my current connection is usually about 600Mbps, but just under 1Mbps was so insanely fast at that time. And not having to wait an hour to get past the busy signal at peak hours was a huge plus.

I seldom worked with anyone from Covad. But they had a sales rep who, when he was in New York, was always good for a high-end lunch. I remember getting a three-hour, all-expenses paid steak dinner for lunch at Sparks Steak House once. I think we spent thirty seconds discussing business, and it was “how’s business?/not bad/let’s get more drinks.” Other than that and the usual swag that showed up (I’m sure I had Covad mouse pads galore at the time, maybe a stress ball or some pens, too) I seldom had direct interaction with them, just deciphering their emails and adding to the docs.

When I moved into my own place in Astoria in 1999, I got DSL right after I got my keys, but I didn’t use Juno. Covad also got hooked up with Speakeasy, who I still had accounts with from my Seattle days. Speakeasy started as an internet cafe in Belltown, and I got a shell account there when I got to Seattle. For five bucks a month, I got an account on a SparcStation, the address jkonrath@speakeasy.org, and a few megs of web space. I kept that account for like ten years, but when I got to New York, they were doing dial-up access nationwide, which I used, until I got the DSL hookup. I later moved from the leased-line DSL, which used the second set of copper in my walls, to a shared-line setup, which ran on the same pair as my voice line, using DSL filters. I think that was maybe a 3Mbps connection.

I left Juno in the summer of 2001, right as they got bought by NetZero. I kept using Speakeasy/Covad until maybe 2005 when I moved in with Sarah. Oddly enough, Covad and Speakeasy were acquired and mashed together with MegaPath in a three-way merger in 2010. The Speakeasy cafe burned down in 2001. And now when you search on Covad, Google suggests Covid. So I’m not the only one confusing the two.

Categories
general

Desks, part two

A long time ago, I wrote a post here about my various desks over the years. (It’s at Desks, a viewport into the mind) I was digging around in some scans, and found a few more pictures to babble about. Why? As I said in part one, why not. I have an obsession with the workspaces of other writers, so I’m always taking a snapshot of mine.

Anyway, exhibit one is my desk from 1991-1993, sort of:

This is actually a view of my infamous 414 Mitchell apartment, as it was being torn down on the 4th of July weekend, 1993. So, the computer is gone. It’s hard to see, but to the left is a green card table. That was my computer table from probably when I was a teenager, up until that summer. I used to build model airplanes on it before that, so it was covered in Testor’s paint, in various camo colors. I don’t know what eventually happened to this table; I think it was still at my mom’s house shortly before she sold it.

The whole summer when Summer Rain took place, I had a DOS PC in a generic mid-tower case sitting on that table. Here’s it’s full of books and dishes, although I also see a copy of the Danzig 3 box set with the weird plastic HR Giger cover on there. Also check the genuine IBM PC 83-key keyboard against the wall, which is worth more than a few bucks on eBay these days. (No idea what I did with that – I think it was broken.) And of course, the horrible wood paneling. This apartment was $177 a month in the early 90s, and it shows.

Same year, next exhibit. Here’s the next iteration in 1993:

I worked at Montgomery Ward in the summer of 1993, and wanted to get a “real” computer desk for my next apartment. We sold these Sauder L-shaped desks which I thought were cool as hell at the time. This was before everyone had a PC in their house, so the computer hutch was still a somewhat new phenomenon. And this was before particle-board furniture got value-engineered to hell, so this was a pretty sturdy setup. I think it cost $150, minus my ten-percent employee discount.

This was in my room in my mom’s basement, shortly before returning to college that fall. More nice wood paneling, sporting a Type O Negative poster I got from my zine days. Other things I notice are the twelve-inch paperwhite VGA monitor I had for a few years, my Kenwood stereo and Panasonic speakers that followed me through college, and I see a bottle of Obsession cologne, from back when I actually thought that shit mattered.

This was my first real desk when I started writing later that year. I either sold it or gave it away when I left Bloomington in 1995.

Next up, here’s what Seattle looked like, circa 1998 or so:

The entire time I was in Seattle, I worked on my old kitchen table, which was too small in area and too high off the ground. I’d upgraded to this ViewSonic color monitor, which was far too deep for such a narrow table. (Remember when monitors were more than an inch thick?) Other interesting (or not) things include a self-inking stamp for Air in the Paragraph Line Zine outgoing mail, and I spy a box of Travan backup tapes, when I used to back up my Linux machine to tape for some damn reason. You can also see my emacs setup on the monitor, with eyestrain-relief pink colors. I used the emacs text editor to write everything up until 2011 or so.

Fast-forward a minute (see the older post for other desks in between these) and here’s my work desk in 2001 right before I set it up for the first time:

This was at my office at Bleecker and Broadway. We moved in there in August 2001, and I left in February 2007. I spent a lot of time at this damn desk in the early/mid-00s. The friend who just passed away was two cubes in front of this, so this pic is a little bittersweet. It was also taken a month before 9/11. Ugh.

When I went back to the company in 2010 and visited in December, the desk was vacant, so I got to set up and work there, which was bizarre. That filing cabinet was still there, and was locked. I still had the key. When I opened it, all of my files and printouts from the early 00s were still in there.

And to close, here’s a shot from last year, which is about current:

This is an Anthro cart I bought in 2010 when I started working from home. It’s not bad, although I wish I bought the one twice as wide, and maybe the matching filing cabinet. The only difference between this and 2020 is the Vanatoo speakers I just got. And the bass is usually in a stand. It’s also never this clean. This is both my work and home desk, so I spend far too much time here. It could use a bigger monitor. Maybe I should look into that next.

 

Categories
general

The inevitable stupid end-of-the-decade summary

So we’re twenty years into the 21st century tomorrow, and I still call it the 20th century half the time. Luckily, I never have to write paper checks anymore and put the year on them, right?

OK, so regardless of my feelings that I need to stop looking back in a haze of stupid nostalgia, here’s a summary of my last decade, more or less.

Writing

At the start of 2010, I more or less was not writing. I call the oughts my “lost decade” because after I published Rumored to Exist in 2002 (after having mostly wrote it in the 90s), I basically didn’t do anything. I dicked around with the zine, published a couple of non-fiction books, but that Third Book I wanted to do never happened, and I lost all momentum I had at the end of the century. And then when I moved to Silicon Valley in 2008, I completely stopped writing fiction, because I was spending three or four hours a day in traffic, and another dozen in an office.

That changed when I was given the opportunity to go back to my old job, albeit with their new post-acquisition overlords, but instead of New York, I could work remotely. So I did that, with the intent of getting serious about writing. I’m still at that job (and I don’t talk about it here, so I won’t) and it has allowed me to get a lot of work done.

I didn’t publish anything in 2010, but I did manage to get eleven books out in 2011-2019. I also placed 30 articles elsewhere. (Most of them were collected into books later.) I also was interviewed in eight long-form print interviews, and appeared on or recorded maybe a dozen podcasts. (All of this is summarized here: My Books and Stories) My goal, more or less, was a book per year. I hit that, although I ultimately wish I would’ve done less with collections and put out more novels.

For what it’s worth, I think my favorite book of the decade was Atmospheres. The best-selling book I wrote this decade was The Earworm Inception (probably because it was the cheapest.) The best-selling book total though was the new reissue of Rumored that went on the Kindle.

Blogging

I have now been blogging here for something like 22 years. Oddly enough, I have added 666 entries since January 2010. This is 667, so I screwed it all up.

My blog doesn’t make money and nobody reads it, so there’s not much to say about trends in the blogosphere with regard to what’s hosted on Rumored dot com. I started before the term blog was invented, and plodded on as the “Web Journal” fad of the late 90s came and went. I went unnoticed when the blog fad came in the early oughts and everyone got a one-and-done book deal before fucking off and deleting their blog. And I’ve weathered on as net-generations have found, enjoyed, and abandoned every social media platform out there.

My own personal opinion (and this isn’t a research paper) is that there were a lot of solid and entertaining blogs at the start of the 2010s, which were bringing in decent ad revenue and good traffic, and by 2019, all of that fell apart. I used to have a rotation of blogs I would read every day. The Awl shuttered due to diminishing ad prices. BoingBoing got stupid with sponsored stories, often for products they themselves decried in their actual stories. Gawker got bankrupted by a Hulk Hogan lawsuit. And plenty of blogs got sold, merged into other media conglomerates, or otherwise watered down stuff to the point of uselessness.

One of the biggest trends of the 2010s was chasing ad revenue with click journalism. It was the decade of the listicle, the years of the hundred-picture slideshow that opened every image in a new page with ads between every other one. Titles became tricky questions. “8 Unbelievable Things You Never Knew About Enemas!” The days of long-form blogs ended, and sensationalized headlines were the norm.

Three big things changed the way I personally read blogs. First, I used to use Google Reader to subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds for every blog I read. In 2013, Google discontinued reader. There were substitutes, like Feedly, but when the Google behemoth went away, people seemed to stop caring about RSS-centric publication. Google told us all to switch to the iGoogle home page tool, and then they cancelled that too. This meant there was no real centralized way to read your favorite stories and blogs.

Well, except for Facebook. Just as we got to the point where FB became the de facto standard for sharing stories, Zucc started screwing with the algorithm, holding links ransom unless the publishers paid money for them. As the algorithm hemorrhaged traffic from small sites, all other forms of propagation died. Facebook is now the worst way to tell the world about your blog articles (or new books you’ve published), except that it’s now the only way.

Other annoyances that make me think the 2010s are the year the internet died:

  • News sources going paywalled to (maybe justifiably) keep running after ad revenue vanished.
  • The war between sites with tons of shitty ads versus ad blockers.
  • Sites that have weaponized the use of pop-ups, pop-overs, pop-unders, and full-page ads that play video at top volume or try to convince me my Windows PC is infected with a virus when I’m reading on my iPhone.
  • GDPR – which may be well-intentioned, but unleashed an era of giant pop-up “we use cookies!” banners, “we’ve updated the terms of service” emails from every fucking page you’ve ever visited in your life, and the outright destruction of some sites like Klout and Google+. (Looking forward to what CCPA does next year…)
  • Google changing their search algorithm to try and stop link farms and clickbait, but making it essentially useless as a search engine for creative content.

Publishing

Ebooks have been around in some form for decades, and Kindle Direct Publishing started in 2007, but the 2010s were the Kindle gold rush. And the gold rush was a race to the bottom.

Unpopular opinion: I don’t read ebooks. I know people find them convenient, but I feel an inherent value in the design of a book, and holding it in my hand. I got a kindle in 2009, and I tried using it semi-exclusively for maybe six months, but I found that every book sort of ran into each other in my head and I remembered nothing from them, because I was always holding the same device and reading the same fonts and the same spacing. I did not retain any of the words in my head.

I can tell that opinion is unpopular based on my book sales. I sold roughly twice as many kindle books as print in the last ten years. I don’t make much money from either, and I don’t sell many books in the first place, but it’s clear other people like them, so I still publish them.

That said, it’s become a horrible race to the bottom. Amazon became the de facto monopoly of ebooks, although others tried and failed to create their own devices or sales channels. Amazon then more or less pushed the price of self-published ebooks to either 99 cents or $2.99 and locked out other vendors with various programs like KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited. They didn’t directly force people to use those prices, but try selling a book, even a thousand-page book, for $4.99 and see what happens.

(What’s funny about this is that Apple was sued and lost a price-fixing lawsuit, saying they tried to create a monopoly, when they currently own a single-digit percent of the market, and Amazon owns like 90% and has essentially fixed the price of of self-published books, and no lawsuit there. I’m simplifying here, but shit.)

Amazon also bought CreateSpace (in 2005) which had previously pushed out any other print-on-demand publishers (which all had their own problems anyway) with low pricing and tight integration with Amazon. Then they forced everyone to move to KDP for print in 2018, and (my conspiracy theory, not citable) did something to fundamentally break the sale of print books. My books that were previously available to ship that day now take 2-3 days, and I don’t know if it’s the algorithm (or that I suck) but my print book sales almost completely stopped in 2019.

Anyway, the general desire for page-flippers and the same mentality behind clickbait articles have made it very profitable to churn out short sequels and made it difficult to spend time crafting a long book that doesn’t immediately catch the attention on the first page. This is a much longer rant and I’ll shut up, but I feel like something fundamentally broke with publishing in the last ten years. And at any moment, Amazon is (my unsubstantiated conspiracy) going to start charging fees to publish books and will completely fuck self-publishing. So that will be fun.

Travel

I don’t even know how many miles I’ve flown in the last ten years. Let me see if I can do this from memory:

  • 2010: Vegas, Denver, New York, Milwaukee
  • 2011: Vegas, LA, Indiana, Milwaukee
  • 2012: London, Nuremberg, Berlin, Milwaukee, New York, Reno, Milwaukee again
  • 2013: LA, New York, Maui, Reno, Milwaukee, Indiana
  • 2014: Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Reno, Milwaukee
  • 2015: Las Vegas, Indiana, Maui, Indiana again, Milwaukee
  • 2016: Milwaukee, London, Nashville/Memphis, Milwaukee
  • 2017: Mendocino, Maui, Milwaukee
  • 2018: Anchorage, Milwaukee, Indiana
  • 2019: Las Vegas, Milwaukee

Travel’s gotten a bit light in the last few years because of my crazy work schedule. I’m about due for a big trip that doesn’t involve family and/or a funeral.

Other Stuff

I walked like 14,000 miles in the last ten years. Gained and lost hundreds of pounds, probably. I started the decade at like 170, and I’m now a touch above 200. In 2011 and 2013, I got back down below goal weight, but haven’t been close since, which is a bummer. Working from home is awesome except for the food thing. Maybe I’ll fix that next year.

No big predictions otherwise. I just finished a book, and I’m in the heavy postpartum depression from that, trying to figure out what to do. I’m going to keep writing. I should probably find another hobby to keep me busy when I’m not writing, but I know I’ll keep writing.

Categories
general

The Death of Blockbuster

Here’s an interesting long read over at Retail Dive on the death of Blockbuster Video:

Who Really Killed Blockbuster?

A couple of interesting (to me) takeaways. First, I like that this article gives all the details other than just saying “Netflix, duh” because that’s not what happened. The thing that annoys the hell out of me in death-of-malls or death-of-<store dying this week> is that they always say it’s Amazon, and it almost never is just Amazon. (I.e. venture cap choke-out run by a fervent Ayn Rand acolyte; tax scam by REIT not paying off anymore; etc.)

Like one of the factors the article mentions that most people forget: VHS tapes were damn expensive, and that was partially hidden to the consumer. Yes, you could buy a priced-to-own copy of Wayne’s World for twenty bucks during a certain limited sales cycle. But if you’ve had the good fortune of losing a copy of Apocalypse Now from a rental place, it probably cost you eighty bucks to replace it. They ran this two-tier pricing scheme for decades, and then when DVDs came out, the studios decided to go with low daily prices across the board, plus they flooded the channel at Wal-Mart and Target with cheap five-buck releases and multi-packs of their back catalog. That’s only one of the nails in the coffin, but that’s an interesting one.

The other thing, and this came up in discussion when I posted this article on FB, is that Blockbuster wasn’t that great of a place for customers anyway. There are a lot of folks nostalgic for the Nineties who were born in like 1998 and don’t remember how crappy some of it was, and Blockbuster was a good example. Like they were borderline predatory about their late fees, and good luck if you got sent to their collections department. They drove a lot of mom-and-pop rental places out of business. And their prices weren’t always great, compared to the non-chain places.

One of the things that always bugged me about Blockbuster was their family-friendly video selection. They were big on promoting mediocre big-budget movies and avoiding cult or obscure cinema. And they were incredibly vocal on not carrying anything beyond an R rating, or controversial movies. I went on a semi-boycott of Blockbuster for years because they refused to carry The Last Temptation of Christ. If you wanted obscure, it’s Not at The Block. If you need a copy of Day For Night, forget it. But they’d have plenty of copies of that new Will Smith movie.

Blockbuster was occasionally a necessary evil when I was in a small town. I really loved local rental stores that had obscure stuff, and of course you had to go to one of those places for the best horror movies. The clerks were always cool, the prices were lower, they didn’t give you as much of a hassle about membership, and sometimes you’d find weird stuff. Like there was a video place in downtown Bloomington — I wish I could remember the name. They never recycled out their old stock. Me and Larry used to go every week and find the most bizarre stuff, faded boxes that were completely forgotten. Like I remember never ever being able to find a copy of Johnny Got His Gun (probably because Metallica bought the rights to it and sat on them) and of course they had it. And I remember renting Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, the (bad) Canadian horror movie loosely based on Ed Gein, and it also had the short documentary Ed Gein: American Maniac slapped on the end of the VHS. It was a weird homemade doc consisting of blurry found footage, narrated by some dude in a basement recording on a Bell and Howell mono tape recorder stolen from an elementary school or something. It was awesome. (And it’s on YouTube!) You’d never, ever find that at Blockbuster.

That puts Blockbuster nostalgia in a weird place for me, much like Barnes and Noble. I’m a bit sad B&N is on the verge of shuttering, but back in the day, they were the chain to hate, because they pushed mom-and-pop stores out of business. (And deep analysis that I’m too lazy to do might show a story that independent booksellers were pushed out by someone else in the 80s/90s, like the rise of Ingram or the changes in book printing after NAFTA, or some damn thing.)

I visited one of the last Blockbusters in Anchorage a year and a half ago. (Yes it was the one with the Gladiator jockstrap. No, it wasn’t there yet when I visited.) It gave me a strange and sad feeling, not specifically because it was Blockbuster, but because it was a video store, period. It was all DVD, but wandering the aisles reminded me of the weekly exercise of going from A to Z on a Friday night to find what I’d watch.

That entire era is gone, replaced with a button on my TV remote that lets me scroll through thousands of titles. But something’s missing, with the lack of the Tarantino-esque clerk telling me what I really need to watch, and the tactile experience of pacing the aisles. We now have great convenience and instant access, but it is at a cost that’s hard to quantify, and it’s definitely felt by those who do remember.