The Death of Northgate

Bon Marche at Northgate, 1950 (Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)])

Looks like Northgate mall in Seattle is quickly winding down. The JC Penney already closed, and the Macy’s and Nordstrom are in the process of shutting their doors. The plan is to demolish the main stretch of the mall, leave some of the external “village” buildings that were tacked onto the front in the mid-00s, and then build an NHL practice facility and some housing. I hate being nostalgic about this place or any mall in general, and I have mixed feelings for a few reasons.

When I lived in Seattle from 1995 to 1999, Northgate was sort of my default mall. It wasn’t my favorite mall, and it wasn’t the best one in the area, but it was the closest to my house, and I ended up there at least once a week. When I first moved to Seattle, I stayed at my friend Bill’s place in Mountlake Terrace for a month, and took the bus down I-5 every day for work. And every day, we’d pass this sprawling shopping center, just off the highway. One thing I remember clearly is it had a giant two-screen movie theater on the north side, with a changing-letter marquee where the words were taller than me, advertising the movies Clueless and Apollo 13. So when I got a car and had some time on a weekend, it’s the first mall in Seattle I visited.

After I moved to First Hill, this mall was a straight shot up the highway for me. Hop on I-5, drive a hundred blocks, exit, done. Even though I worked next to the much smaller Factoria mall across the lake, I ended up driving to Northgate pretty much constantly. Between the Denny’s and a smaller local pancake place, I always had a default diner there too, so every Saturday was spent at this mall, more or less.

Northgate is arguably the first mall in America. There are like a half-dozen different malls that claim this, and I’m too lazy to research which one is right. But they built two strips of stores in 1950, then covered it with a “sky shield” and eventually sealed off the whole thing in the early 70s, making it an enclosed mall. They later built one of the first Nordstrom stores, the big two-screen theater, and the other anchors. Later additions while I was there in the late Nineties included a Toys R Us, a food court, and a general remodel. In the 00s, Simon did their usual “lifestyle addition” thing with a Potemkin village of outward-facing smaller anchors on the west side of the mall (one of them always being an Ulta Beauty), and removal of the theater (and the giant totem pole that was in front of it.) A Target and Best Buy went in across the street, and the surrounding landscape of the area has completely changed five times since I left. There were also various anchor and store flips in the last twenty years. I wasn’t there, you can look it up.

I honestly found the architecture and layout of Northgate to be a bit boring, and deceiving. It looks small, but it’s gigantic. When I lived there, they had four anchors, all of them softlines, which bored me. (JCP, Nordstrom, Lamonts, Bon Marche.) And the entire mall was a single hallway, a straight 1,500-foot shot with stores on either side. It didn’t have a winding floor plan, so it seemed smaller, but if you walked from anchor to anchor twice, that’s over a mile. It had no vintage charm, just high ceilings and faded white everywhere, like an airport concourse. It also had few stores where I really shopped. But I still ended up there a lot, and spent an insane amount of time walking up and down that long hallway, looking for… I don’t know what. The drab non-decor was replaced during the 97-98 remodel with fake-ass timber accents on the high ceilings that made it look like a ski lodge, which was all the vogue in the time in the PNW.

What attracted me, other than the proximity to my house, was that Simon malls all had this universal emotional antiseptic feeling to me. Wandering that place felt very similar to walking through College Mall in Bloomington, or University Park Mall in South Bend, even if they layout and the stores were different. Especially in my first year there, I was extraordinarily depressed, missed Bloomington a lot, knew almost nobody, didn’t know where anything was, didn’t have a TV, and was always broke. I later found other malls further out, and other stores to buy music and books and food. But it became a default place to mope around, walk a few laps, and then go home and try to write.

I didn’t buy stuff in that mall much. I only went to that movie theater a few times (I remember seeing Event Horizon there) and I used to pop in the B. Dalton every time I visited. Bon Marche had a Vans shoes section, and I’d buy a pair each year like clockwork. A Wizards of the Coast store was always worth a browse, even though I didn’t play D&D or Magic at the time. An office supply/craft store provided me with a lot of fancy pens I’d later lose. The mall had an attached drug store where I’d frequently load up on cold medicine, and a QFC grocery was good for a frozen dinner or two. After Toys R Us arrived, I’d pop in there for Nintendo 64 games. But more of my shopping was around the area, like the Silver Platter records just south of there.

Aside from the strange nostalgia for the place, and the fact that it will all be gone soon, is the fact that the coverage around the remodel sort of pisses me off. People in Seattle have always hated malls, it seems. They’ve always talked about how horrible Northgate was, even when it was a top-grossing mall. Now, the YIMBY crowd is super excited about the death of the mall, mostly because we’re all supposed to ride bicycles and something with a parking lot somehow triggers them. I don’t follow Seattle redevelopment news much, but we have our own vocal YIMBY contingent here, so I imagine the more-housing-at-any-cost crowd is celebrating the mall’s death enthusiastically. Seattle has 100% changed since I left, and I get it — cities change. Since I left, Amazon has hired more people than my home town has, period. So, housing crunch, people hate malls, yada yada, you already know the rest.

It’s been over twenty years since I saw that place, or any of Seattle. I still miss it, because it was such a key time in my life, my first four years out of college, which felt more like a decade. But it’s an extreme case of “you can never go back,” because so much of the city has changed.

Wish I had some old pictures of the place, but that was in the film era. I do have some pictures of my VW in the parking lot, and you can almost sort of see the east entrance of the mall in the background of one shot. I used one of the pictures for the third edition cover of Summer Rain, but you can’t see anything but the pavement in the zoomed-in shot. (And fun fact: the license plate in the pic is a photoshop job. And Indiana didn’t had front license plates in 1992, so that’s wrong, too.) Anyway…

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Teeth, SSF, etc.

For whatever reason, I recently went back and read Air in the Paragraph #5. (I need a better place for these to live, especially since Scribd has turned into a paid-service scam. I’ve temporarily put it here.) A lot of my writing from 1996 is pretty cringe-inducing, but I always liked this particular issue of the zine, because it was a seamless narrative from start to finish, with a solid through line that pulled you through the trip report, book reviews, writing news, and day-to-day stuff of the last month or two. This was just before I started an online journal, which later took the place of this for the day-to-day stuff. Now, I don’t do that, either. I should, but not a lot is going on outside of work.

I’ve had a bunch of dental malady stuff as of late. First, I can’t find a good dentist that takes my insurance in Oakland. The dentist I’ve had for the last five or six years isn’t that great, and sort of pawned me off on his new partner, who rushes through procedures and completely triggers my dental trauma anxiety, and is completely drill-happy. Last time I saw her, she immediately priced out two dozen things I needed done, so I walked. I went back to my old dentist in South San Francisco, who is much more low-tech, but very relaxing and low key, does good work, and has Saturday hours. It’s a drive to get there, but whatever. He also takes my insurance.

After a routine cleaning, he told me he’d have to root canal and crown one of my front-ish teeth. If you think of what tooth would be a vampire fang in a Dracula get-up, it’s the tooth immediately behind that on the bottom. This was, unfortunately, a three-step process. One Saturday, he tore off the top of the old tooth and started the root canal, then sent me home with a temp crown. Next week, he did a post buildup after more root canal work, and once again, temp crown. Then two weeks later, I got the replacement crown.

This essentially meant I could not eat solids for three weeks. That’s not entirely true, but the bulk of my diet was meal replacement shakes. I later found I could eat macaroni and cheese if I let it cool a bit, and I could eat various puddings and cheeses and whatnot. Oatmeal was problematic, because it was too grainy and had bits of nuts in it. Soup is sort of bullshit. Boiled eggs worked. Those shelf-stable pad thai noodles worked if I left off the toppings. At some point about a week and a half in, I sort of snapped, went to Burger King, and smashed a thing of chicken fries to a paste-like consistency and ate it without chewing. It was horrible. The whole thing was horrible. All I could think of was the time in LA when I had the tooth next to it on a temp crown, and on the first day, it popped off, and I spent two weeks fucking around with drug store adhesives, which only half-worked and lasted a day max and made me realize why everyone with false teeth is a grumpy piece of shit.

Anyway, the crown is back as of yesterday. Still a little nervous eating on it, and the gumline around it will take a few days, but it’s pretty solid. The only hard part will be paying  the bill, which will probably be like a grand after insurance.

(There’s also an AITPL connection in there, sort of – after I wrapped up that zine and started blogging online, I had a ton of dental work done. I have horrible teeth, go ahead and be classist and make fun of me now, but I survived a childhood of well water, an addiction to soda, and a long run on lithium, and that was the magic trifecta to fuck me up dentally. So the first time I had real dental insurance, I found a (crappy) dentist, and we went from 1 to 32, drilling and filling and bonding. It’s probably the reason I have such a high tolerance to novocaine these days. I usually need five or six shots to get any work done. Anyway.)

Another bit of nostalgia overload is that this dentist is located at the Tanforan Mall, in my old neighborhood where I lived from 2008-2009. I haven’t gone back there in a while, and even though I only lived there less than a year, there’s a really strong set of memories there. It was my first place in the Bay Area, and it was also the same apartment company as my place in LA, same exact buildings, same blueprints, pretty much the same apartment, but flipped the opposite way. Being in the area reminds me a lot of that era of working for Samsung, driving back and forth from SSF to San Jose every day, spending the weekends running errands around Tanforan. I had an old Weight Watchers meeting there; I saw a lot of movies at the big 20-screen at the small mall; I went to the drug store and the Blockbuster (RIP) and the Safeway and the Target and all the other routine stuff I could see in any other city, but for whatever reason, that layout triggers memories and makes me think and feel and blah blah blah.

Yesterday, it was insanely sunny and warm — maybe like 72 degrees — so I took a long walk before my appointment. There’s a movie theater there that died right before I moved there in 2008, and has been sitting vacant since then. It’s called Century Plaza 10, and it’s a weird little abandoned vaporwave slice of time. (Go google street view it.) There are palm trees out front, a big red movie sign that’s faded to a magenta-pink, and these domes at each corner, like a miniature Taj Mahal, minus the main dome. The first film shown there was Back to the Future, and the theater totally captures that 1985 vibe. The outside is very well preserved, but the inside is toxic, infested with black mold so dangerous. you’d need a full moon suit and respirator to survive. The whole area is mostly low-rise, office parks and big-box stores, gentle hills in the background. A lot of it hasn’t changed since I left (except the Arby’s with the old-school hat sign is gone) and it not only reminds me of then, but of the first time I visited the bay in 1996. (Another callback to AITPL, although I think that was issue 4.)

Anyway, nothing else going on but work. I’m trying to take a week off next month, and haven’t booked anything yet because I was expecting the plans to collapse. Should get on that.

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Holes

I’ve been back from Indiana for a while, but I’ve been thinking about something I can’t exactly shake, something I saw during my drives around old stomping grounds. This was further drilled into my head when my pal John Sheppard came out to Michiana for a day-long Konrath Reality Tour leading all through Elkhart, Mishawaka, and South Bend. As we drove around, and I pointed where things were, what used to be something else, I noticed a common theme: holes.

By holes, I mean a few things: abandoned properties, massively downsized operations, national-brand grocery stores that were now Mexican bingo halls only open a day a week, the endless regional-brand drug stores that are all a sad Dollar General now. There were also blighted properties, weather-beaten properties, faded and un-maintained properties. But beyond that, there were holes: Blighted properties that would never come back, or that had completely vanished, plowed under and destroyed, vacant lots that would probably remain vacant forever.

It was disheartening and depressing comparing the geography of my childhood in my mind to the current landscape and what still remained. For example, the area of Dunlap that was once the main drag when I was in high school is largely bulldozed and gone. The two-mile strip of US-33 from maybe CR-13 to Hively has lost a majority of its businesses. I’ve already covered Concord Mall a million times, but there’s that. Then there’s my old Taco Bell, sitting abandoned for years; the Arby’s next to it is a vacant lot; the tile place on the other side was torn down by the city because it was blighted. The Astrobowl bowling alley is leveled; the Shakey’s pizza is leveled. The Aldi’s grocery store was abandoned, then was briefly a Guatemalan fruit stand, but is now abandoned. The place next to it was I think a Goodwill; abandoned. Optical store, empty. Bank, empty. Martin’s grocery store, they started rehabbing it, hit asbestos and a leaky roof, and abandoned it half torn apart. Movie theater, abandoned. There’s a small strip mall that had a band instrument place and a furniture store; half the slots are empty, and it has a gold and pawn and a tattoo place. A long, long stretch of this highway was eminent domained to put in a US-20 bypass exit, and is eerily vacant, never redeveloped. This is all within two miles, and there are a lot of other parts of the city also pock-marked with similar holes.

I don’t want to get into a political argument about the wage situation or how Elkhart is being made great again by wage-labor jobs that will all vanish when gas hits four bucks a gallon again. That’s not the point; the point is, it seems like a lot of retail landmarks have vanished, and haven’t been replaced by anything. Some of this is because of Amazon, I’m sure. Some of it is Walmart killing off mom-and-pops. Same with big venture cap hostile takeovers to pick the old retail giants clean of any value and leave them for dead. (I’m talking about you, Sears.) Some of it is that the remaining nationals and regionals have moved to other locations, like the swath of businesses south of Elkhart, or the constant growth in Mishawaka and South Bend. There’s also the possible case that the area was just massively overdeveloped when I was a kid. In the pre-Reagan years, a good investment was developing real estate like malls and using accelerated depreciation to reap a greater tax deduction. (See also.) Elkhart may not have been a city big enough to support two malls, a vibrant downtown, and the suburban Dunlap retail corridor, all of which are gone now. (The two Walmarts are doing okay, though.)

Other reasons: a lot of gas stations of my youth are gone, scraped bare and vacant. That’s probably rusty underground tanks that were easier to abandon than clean up. A lot of these have also become used car lots, the u-work/u-drive type that quickly flip auction sale cars at predatory interest rates. But if it can’t become a car lot (or a church – lots of those there) it becomes a vacant lot. The same environmental issues are also an issue for rehabbing old architecture for new use. The Martin’s grocery store I mentioned is a prime example, and one that has happened many times. Asbestos, perpetually leaking roofs, piss-poor insulation and bad HVAC (try heating 100K square feet when it’s 45 below zero out, like this week), sinking and broken foundations that were laid on the cheap back during the construction boom. and just bad configuration and layout which would require more than just a full gut.

There’s also the “white flight donut” going on. In the Seventies, everyone left the inner city for the suburbs, where subdivisions were hastily built from plowed-up cornfields. (That’s where I spent my childhood.) When those quickly-assembled houses fell apart twenty or thirty years later and their owners retired, they moved further out into the country. In some American cities, when this happens, you get the “donut” effect, when the core downtown is gentrified by yuppies. (See also Chicago, or even Goshen.) This hasn’t happened in Elkhart, but the suburbs that were created when I was a kid aren’t as active as they used to be.

I recently read the book Obsolescence: An Architectural History by Daniel M. Abramson. It brought up this concept that I never really thought about, and is contrary to most of the old retail/dead mall/preservationist thought I see on various blogs. The thesis was that architecture has planned obsoleteness, just like that three-year-old phone of yours that won’t keep a charge anymore. There is an idea that a building or a house is built for forever, that it is a landmark that will last an eternity. But historically, starting in the Sixties, architects moved to a frame of thought that buildings had a shelf life. It was cheaper to make something that only lasted thirty years, and this also fit into the general tax code, as I mentioned above. But also, if you designed something trendy in 1961, it would be played out in 1991, and you’d level it and start over.

There’s two sides to this school of thought, and I’m sure this horrifies some people. Just the idea that something would be destroyed after one paid so much, both in money and ecological impact, would seem disturbing to some. But it’s something I think about a lot when I see these buildings that basically implode and vanish. There’s no money in rehabbing these buildings, replacing them with vibrant businesses. It’s more economically viable to leave them blighted. It’s a real paradigm change to think of housing and property to be a temporary investment, an expendable purchase, instead of something you buy forever. Most people can’t deal with the mental concept that a purchase like a phone or a car isn’t designed to last forever, so this school of thought is beyond them.

I guess the thing that’s sad to me is that it’s one thing to think that buildings become obsolete and should be replaced when their time is up. I see a lot of that here in Northern California, but here the movement is upward. Single-story houses are replaced by townhouses; single-floor stores are replaced by shopping centers. Old corporate headquarters buildings are torn down and replaced with modern ones that are several times the size. (See also my old office.) But the value of land here is so high, it’s a no-brainer, aside from the nostalgic component, to scrape an old building and replace it with a higher-grossing structure that can do more, hold more, make more money.

In Elkhart… that isn’t happening. Houses don’t get scraped like they do in Palo Alto. Commercial development doesn’t seem to be over the top. Maybe factories are expanding, but the retail corridors look vacant or underutilized. Like I said, there are probably numbers to counter that, but from what I saw, it was depressing. It makes me wonder what will still remain if I visit again in another ten or twenty years.

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End of 2018

I’ve been back from Indiana for a few days now. Been slightly sick, working on unpacking, cleaning, resetting, all the usual crap before I get back to work on Wednesday.

The trip was probably my longest visit to Indiana since I left in 1995. I was there from Friday night to the following Saturday morning, with all of it in Indiana (save a quick spin through Edwardsburg and an afternoon in Dowagiac.) I had family stuff pretty much every day, and we tried to find new and neat things to do during the week, museums and other things I’d never seen. But I also had a lot of time by myself, and the heavy nostalgia thing I mentioned in my last post was problematic.

As far as stuff to do, we went to the Studebaker museum, which I’d seen years ago, but has since moved to a new building they share with a South Bend history museum. Spent some time downtown and went to The Griffon, which is an old RPG/D&D game store I last went to in maybe 1990, and it’s great they are still up and running. Went to the old Orbit Records in its new location a few slots over, and the whole vinyl thing has kept them running. Ate at Tippecanoe Place, a giant mansion turned restaurant, which I last visited on the night of my senior prom. Dinner buffet on Christmas night at the new Four Winds casino in South Bend was solid. Didn’t play anything, and then my sister played a slot machine for like two minutes and won $260. Also visited the history museum in Dowagiac. And malls. Lots of malls.

John Sheppard came out for a day, and we did the whole Jon Konrath Reality Tour, visiting every place I lived and shopped and worked and whatever else back in the day. The highlight was stepping into a completely vacant Concord Mall, which was like breaking into a tomb that had been sealed shut a thousand years before.

We started off our day by visiting fellow writer Steve Lowe, who now owns and operates South Bend Brew Werks. Had a great lunch, took the tour of their brewing operations, and saw a great example of how downtown South Bend is on the upswing. At the end of the tour, we hit Bruno’s for a pizza after walking around University Park mall, which seems like it has doubled in size since I left, with almost no vacant stores and every single thing except JCP and Sears replaced by a higher-end chain. It was a stark contrast to Elkhart, where things have closed and not been replaced.

The rest of the trip was me going stir crazy, walking around the mall, wondering what would have happened if I never left Indiana, and wondering what there was to do except eat, watch TV, or spend money. Family stuff, I guess, but I have this conversation with myself every time I go back, and it never goes well. Anyway, I’m back home, away from the snow, so there’s that.

* * *

End of year crap – don’t really want to get into that. I quit Goodreads, so I can’t tell you how much I read. I did exercise every day, although my total distance walked wasn’t as high, and I ended up gaining almost six pounds over the year. So I need to work on that. All the usual new year new me crap. Stop reading news. Stop obsessing over nostalgia. Write more. Whatever.

This year will be tough on the nostalgia front, because it’s thirty years since I graduated high school. and there are lots of various anniversaries there for me to obsess over. I need to find some writing project to distract me from this crap. Maybe I’ll blog more, although I don’t know what I’ll write about. I have a project that’s maybe 80% done, but stalled. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. I have no idea.

OK, going out to dinner in a minute. I’ll probably be asleep by ten. Hope you all have a good new year.

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Hello from the former 219

Exactly thirty years ago, to the day, I was here.

It was Christmas Eve. We closed at five. I was telling people we had no Nintendos. I probably worked forty hours that week. I’d listened to the same four-hour loop of taped holiday Muzak at least ten times. Mariah Carey was still waiting tables, so no, that song wasn’t on.

Today, I poked around what’s left of the Concord Mall, trying to visualize exactly where this was. The Montgomery Ward where I worked is gone now, having closed 18 years ago. The above picture is what used to be a door and a set of windows going in to the Auto Express department. Take a quick right, and you’d see me at a Nixdorf cash register, telling someone that no, we had no Nintendos.

Most of automotive is now a dentist’s office. Two of the bays, all of my old department, and a good chunk of housewares is now a warehouse-type electronics/appliance store. I went inside, and compared the layout of the poles and roof inside to some pictures I had from 1988 and more or less figured out where my department was. The warehouse store was empty, a ghost town. I talked to the manager, asked him if he remembered the Wards there. He didn’t. I don’t think he was alive thirty years ago.

The rest of the store is now a Hobby Lobby. I nosed around there a bit. You cannot tell it used to be a Wards at all. The area that used to be Electric Avenue is filled with floral arrangement kits, and “live laugh love” placards. I think their bathrooms are in the same place as the ones by the customer service center in Wards. I looked into an open door that led to their warehouse area. It’s the same warehouse where I used to unload trucks at six in the morning back in 1993. Same gray paint. I painted that warehouse at one point.

The mall was absolutely deserted. Echoing Christmas music. Zombie apocalypse. Almost every store closed. I went on facebook live, started doing a tour. Three minutes later, a mall cop told me to stop. Oh well.

Santa was gone. The winter wonderland booth was already partly disassembled. Nobody was around. The mall closed at five. There is no way this mall will survive another year. It was supposed to be torn down in 2017. Maybe if the economy tanks and there’s no money to rebuild it, they’ll chain the doors shut and let it rot. I spent almost every hour of my time there for a formative decade of my childhood. Best case scenario, they will turn it into a storage facility. Maybe tear it down and build some soccer fields for the high school. They turned Pierre Moran into a strip mall, and when I was there today, every store except one was vacant. So no need for that.

I have been on such a heavy nostalgia trip, just wallowing in a horrible pit of memories. I drove by my old house today, saw my dead uncle’s house, cruised past my dad’s post-divorce single-wide trailer. I went to the dead Sears at what used to be Pierre Moran mall, stood in the parking lot where the mall once was, tried to figure out the layout of where things used to be. I went in the Big Lots that used to be the G.L. Perry department store where I’d buy Star Wars figures and Halloween costumes, where I first studied the Kiss Unmasked LP and wondered why the hell they took off their makeup. I went to the grocery store parking lot where my car blew up in 1991. They started remodeling the grocery, ran into asbestos, ran out of money, and abandoned it. There’s a lot of that around the area.

An old friend from New York messaged me this morning, and said she had stopped in Indiana to eat breakfast at a pancake place, asked me if I knew it. It was literally 1500 feet from where I was sitting. I ran over and talked to her for a few minutes. I think I last saw her in 2002. It was such a weird coincidental mindfuck. It was like walking into a K-Mart and seeing Iggy Pop and Gerald Ford playing Uno. It was a great surprise, but also fed into this weird nostalgia thing I’m far too deep into.

If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know I’m ripping this off from Don Draper, and I’ll steal it from the Apple thesaurus to make sure I don’t screw it up. The word nostalgia comes from from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. After living in a dozen cities, it’s sometimes hard to say where home really is. But put me in a car in Mishawaka and tell me to go to the Tastee-Freez in Dunlap, and I will make every turn from one to the other without thinking. There is a deep familiarity there, things burned into my head, both good and bad, that are the basis for so many parts of my life. And revisiting that brings some pain I can’t avoid, that I want to continually revisit. I don’t want to move back here; I never could. But I have some sick fascination with going back to those memories, even as the physical world that formed them crumbles.

I feel a great need to stop doing this. I should be thinking about what book I should be writing next, or what I should be doing with my career, not trying to think of every record store that was open in the 219 area code in 1992. This area isn’t even in the 219 area code anymore. And there are almost no record stores. And I don’t live here anymore. You can’t go back. Whatever. I’m mentally ill. I should meditate or jog or take up knitting. I don’t know.

That night, thirty years ago, I got a ride home with a girl I had a crush on, because the starter on my car was broke. The next day, my family went to Chicago, stayed with my favorite cousins. We went to a mall that night and I saw the movie The Naked Gun, going into it blind, not even knowing it was a comedy, which was perfect. We drove back to my cousin’s after midnight in his 5.0 Mustang, blasting the song “Fade to Black,” which is an awesome song to listen to in the middle of the night on a highway in a big city in a fast new car. I was amazed that we were in a place so big and so cool that they played Metallica on the radio, and knew that someday, I would have to leave small-town Indiana. I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to leave for college, start a journey that would eventually take me to the very end of that same highway, on the west coast, as far as I possibly could get from that point. That’s another story, another set of nostalgia points.

Anyway. It’s Christmas in 24 minutes. I have to Ambien out, see more family tomorrow. Hope your holiday is going well.

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Indiana, travel, suitcases, quarries

I’m taking off for Indiana tomorrow morning. Haven’t been back in three years; I’ll be staying for eight days, which might be too many, especially in the cold. I’m done with work until the second, so today is full of last-minute errands and packing and whatnot.

I had to replace my suitcase today, which broke a little while ago, and then our spare broke on Monday while S was packing it up. I ordered a new one on Amazon, paid for the one-day delivery, and of course it didn’t show up, and it got stuck in that weird limbo where the tracking was dead and I couldn’t pull up any info or cancel the order. The damn thing was coming from a warehouse fifteen miles away, and they couldn’t get it here in a week. I cancelled the order today, and went to the mall and bought another one.

The death of my old suitcase is bittersweet, because I got so much damn use out of it. It’s a Samsonite hard-shell case I got for Christmas in 1995. It’s covered in every imaginable sticker; any time a band or an author or a zine or whatever sent me something, I slapped it on there. It’s pretty much got a solid laminated layer of in-jokes and obscure products and old memes caked on the outside. I brought the thing on every vacation, dragging it to Hawaii a half-dozen times, every trip to Germany, and probably half the states in the union, from Alaska to Florida and many in between. It had a ton of wear and tear, but it took a fatal blow to a corner and broke all the way through. I’ll have to take some pics of all the stickers before the thing goes in the trash.

I went to the Sears at Sun Valley, thinking maybe I should help them out with the purchase of a replacement. I looked there, and then looked at Macy’s, and the same exact thing was like fifty bucks cheaper at Macy’s. Look forward to my “death of Sears” article in the next month or so, I guess.

* * *

Here’s a weird one about Indiana that is related to nothing: I heard reports about a month ago that the big quarry in Breaking Away has been filled in. There’s a picture of it circling around, a before and after, which is disturbing if the place has a nostalgic spot in your brain outside the movie itself.

I’ve been to the quarry twice: once in the spring of 1990, and again a year later. This guy Sam who lived across the hall from me in the dorms was trying to make it a regular quest we’d do every year, like a long-term thing from a buddy film, where it would be twenty years later, and we’d all be in our mid-life crises and hiking out to this hole in the ground to have a moment. But I think the group did it twice and that was it.

An explanation, for those who don’t know what I’m rambling on about: southern Indiana is full of limestone, a light-colored rock that is used in lots of big buildings. Most of the IU campus is made of limestone, and the veins of the stuff around Monroe county have been excavated for everything from the Pentagon to the National Cathedral to Yankee Stadium. So between Bloomington and Bedford, there are large tracts of rural land covered in deep rectangular holes like Tetris pieces dug into the earth and hauled across the country for architectural projects. Those holes fill with water, and are great places for kids to drink beer and jump in and swim. Like I said, they made a movie about this.

Our first trip down there was right before the end of the school year. I think five or six of us piled into two cars and drove south of town, following complicated third-hand directions that started with us ditching the vehicles on the old State Road 37 and hiking through various forests and climbing barbed-wire fences. Part of the allure and danger is the fact that these are still functional quarries, and are all private property, no trespassing. And in the pre-Google Maps days, even finding the places involved some work. People were, and still are very secretive about the locations of the quarries. In fact, there’s a listing on that Atlas Obscura site, and it has obfuscated vague instructions that are 100% wrong.

The particular quarry in the movie was called either Rooftop or Sanders quarry, or maybe it’s neither of those. There’s also Empire or Empire State quarry, which is supposedly where they got the limestone for the skyscraper of the same name. (Maybe that’s another quarry. Or maybe rooftop is the rock at the edge of Sanders. I googled it, and there’s conflicting info, so, whatever.) The quarry was a long, rectangular hole, maybe the size of a football field, with sixty-five foot walls on each side. It was in the middle of a wooded area, an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of nature and excavation. The water was nowhere near as clean as it was in the movie, and hundreds of empty amber and green bottles floated on the surface.

None of us were brave enough to try cliff diving. (Hell, I can’t even swim.) But we did run into a group of townies who were swimming. I’d brought an SLR film camera with me, and took a great shot of a dude with an epic mullet doing a backflip off the cliff and into the water, beer in hand. Thinking back, I have no idea how I hung out at the edge of this cliff. I used to work at heights in theater, but I’ve completely regressed and have a horrible fear of anything more than a step-stool these days.

The second visit wasn’t as exciting — it was raining, and we hacked through the woods anyway. Nobody was there, and it was pretty cool to see the place during a storm, the raindrops breaking apart the surface of the water twenty yards below us. But we didn’t see anyone, and didn’t stay long.

So I never partied there all summer like some kids did. But I did get a brief look at the place. And the thought of it being filled up and destroyed was a bit of a punch to the gut. Their rationale was simple: a number of people had been injured and even killed in the quarry, and it was a liability nightmare. And it’s private property, so that was that. Still, very sad.

Of course, as I say this, there are a million other old memories at IU that are gone or changed or obscured with new construction or whatever else. I haven’t been back there since 2011, and that was just for a few hours. I wish I could go down this week, but I’m overbooked as it is. And I’ll get my dose of crippling nostalgia up north anyway. I look forward to seeing the desolation of Concord Mall one last time.

I haven’t even started thinking about what camera gear goes with me, let alone packing up this new suitcase with clothes, so I better get on that.

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Toys R Us

I was not a Toys R Us kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Death of a Kmart

The news has been out for a bit about the bankruptcy filing of Sears Holdings, and the massive list of Sears and Kmart stores closing. In my area, it’s a bit odd, but the one in Stoneridge mall, an upscale mall that’s doing well, got the axe; the one in Hilltop mall, which is complete devastation, did not get closed. I think all the Sears stores I used to shop last century are gone, but that’s another post.

The closest Kmart to my house, which is in Pinole, is slated for closure. I’ve never shopped there, so I decided to head up there last week. It’s in a little shopping center just east of Hilltop mall, just down from a Target, and sort of hidden away on a lazy stretch of big-box stuff, like a Best Buy, a Lucky grocery, and across from a Sizzler that looks like it’s also circling the drain. (To be fair, most Sizzler restaurants have looked like that for decades, though.)

There are like three eras of Kmart for me. As a little kid, we were there almost every week with my mom. This was the Seventies, before Walmart, back in the days of blue light specials and the K Cafe, the place where I got all my Legos and Star Wars figures. I have very fond memories of that place. I can almost smell what the store in Elkhart smelled like, the mix of tru-green fertilizer in the garden center, syrupy cokes spilled on the floor of the cafe, and the heavy starched denim of Wrangler jeans. And I can still feel the wobble of the wire cart, the one with the broomstick affixed to one corner so you couldn’t push it out of the store.

I worked across the street at Taco Bell, and later just south at the Concord Mall. I bought my first CD player there. And in the days before Target and before Walmart, I bought a lot of stuff there. And that logo is the Kmart logo I always remember, the slanted red K and the minty blue letters for the mart. Those old-school stores all looked the same, too, with the low-slung rectangular marquee, no curves and styling, and the big, all-glass front.

Then there’s the Nineties era of Kmart. By the time I got to college, going to Kmart was not a necessity; it was ironic. I would go late at night with my friends when we wanted to remember childhood, and goof on how crappy things were there. And Icees and corn dogs. Kmart tried to change then, with the big red K and the white mart in script inside the K. Some became a Big Kmart, with the Big in blue, and a yellow swoop under it, in true Nineties graphical style. They also made those marquees big and round and lofty, tried to look less like an early Sixties grocery and more like an actual department store. They added more stuff to compete with Walmart and Target, groceries and drug stores and whatnot. I’d still pop in back when I was back in Elkhart. And when I got to New York, there were magically these Super K stores, which was a weird nostalgic throwback for me to visit. (More stories about those at some point, maybe.)

Then there’s the new Kmart. And I have no connection to this Kmart. None. It’s like brand necrophilia, like someone said, “let’s make a store shittier than Dollar General, and just as a goof, we’ll call it Kmart, and put a monochromatic logo designed by a five-year-old on the front.” A scattering of Craftsman crap, a random layout, and a general feeling that makes the old Seventies redneck Kmart look like a Nieman Marcus. There’s a Kmart out in Concord I occasionally go to on a goof, mostly because it’s a nice drive on the outskirts of Mt. Diablo. But when I’m inside, there’s no connection, nothing that reminds me of childhood, and definitely nothing I’d want to buy.

So, the Pinole store. It was total devastation. There were gaudy clearance signs everywhere, inside and out. It looked like any name-brand merchandise they may have had, was gone. Maybe it was bought up already; maybe it was sent back to the vendors for credit. Entire aisles were closed and taped off. People were throwing stuff on the floor everywhere. Kids were putting on halloween costumes, running through the store, ripping open toys, and throwing them on the ground, while their parents ignored them. The entire store smelled like shit. There were large signs by the layaway department that said ALL SALES FINAL, and others with the Sunday circular, saying WE ARE NOT A PARTICIPATING LOCATION.

I went through the clothes department, and everything was on the floor. It seriously looked worse than when I went to the Astor Place Kmart on the morning of 9/11 and every secretary in lower Manhattan was trying to buy tennis shoes so they could walk home without the subway running. I picked around for any jeans that might fit, and they had no Wranglers left; they had a knockoff brand called “Rustlers” or something. The smallest size was a 50-inch waist.

I took some pictures, and hurried out. Honestly, the whole thing threw me. The entire dead mall, death of retail thing is really getting to me. So many things are shuttering, so many pieces of my childhood are vanishing. And so much of the history will be lost, because it’s only being instagrammed, and in five years, instagram will be cratered and unarchived. It really bugs me, and makes me want to archive more, see more, take more pictures. But the more I do it, the more it depresses me.

The other thing is that the more I dig around in these online dead retail communities, the more I realize I hate 90% of the people in them. Nostalgia groups are the worst. I sometimes creep in this Elkhart group, and it’s nothing but borderline illiterate people bitching about Amazon and technology, and waxing nostalgic about garbage food that will kill them. And maybe I shouldn’t say that. But there’s part of me that thinks that being obsessed about this stuff is only like a degree removed from hoping that coal mining jobs come back, which isn’t going to happen.

There needs to be progress, and there needs to be a future. And in looking back, I feel like we built too many malls because they were a convenient tax dodge, and we bought too much junk that’s now filling our landfills because we were told we needed to buy more plastic from China. And I’m torn, because I can waste so much time looking at pictures of old stores and reading about old malls. It scratches an itch that will always need to be scratched. But it prevents me from doing anything creative, or moving forward with my life.

I’ve had this stupid idea in my head for years, about doing a combination glossary, wiki, and blog about the Nineties, about my experiences and the places I worked and shopped and visited. And I feel some need to do this, before I forget all of it entirely. But I’ve written books that took place in the Nineties, and I did that glossary book, and they were my worst-selling books, and not in my voice. (Not that any of my books are selling anymore. Jesus christ my book sales are morbid these days. Another topic.) So I know I could burn a lot of cycles on this, but I feel it would be wasted time. But here I am, still writing about it.

Also, it hasn’t started raining yet, but when it does, that means lots more time in malls. I’m also going to be in Elkhart in December, so I’ll get one long, last look at Concord before they tear it down. Anyway.

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More Film, and digiFilm

I got my first batch of film back from the shop the other day. I sent in six rolls, 36 exposures each, for a total of $76 for developing and a quick scan to CD.

The shots from this Vivitar I bought are tremendously weird. I mean, they look like they were all shot in like 1994. They have this weird, faded quality to them, a perfect vignetting, and just look old, way more than Hipstamatic or Instagram could make them. Like they all have this dreamlike, lo-fi quality to them, much more so than my old old 35mm gear does. The Vivitar has really good Series 1 glass, but a plastic body. It also has all-auto, no-adjustment shooting, but a modern motorized drive system to it. If it was just slightly smaller, it would be a perfect camera.

I wish I still had the original one. Or I wish I had an exact model number, another copy. This one is very similar, but not exact, which bugs me. But what’s weird is sometimes I forget it isn’t the same camera. I was walking around the Port of Oakland the other day with it, and thought how strange and nostalgic it was that the same camera I had for most of the Nineties was with me now, but then realized, it isn’t the same camera. That old camera went to a lot of strange places with me. It moved from Indiana to Seattle to New York. I have pictures from the Trinity test site where the first atomic explosion happened, from Vegas, from the Empire State Building, the Milwaukee Metalfest, Kent State, Bloomington, New Mexico, Boston, Disneyland, Washington DC, and hundreds of points in between.

Anyway, I dumped a few shots on Flickr here. That album also includes some old 120 film shots taken with a Diana F+.

Another topic: the Yashica digiFilm Y35. So a group in Hong Kong bought the Yashica name and did a kickstarter for a digital version of the old Electro 35 camera. The gimmick was that it was going to have this stuff called digiFilm, which was a little film canister you could swap out and change what kind of pictures it would take. Like you could switch to B&W, 1600, 6×6, whatever. You could also put a switch or button on the camera to do this, but they thought it would be a neat thing to make it “like” film. I thought it might be a fun toy, and the camera looked cool, so on a whim, I backed the Kickstarter.

Ugh, I hate Kickstarter. I’ve backed maybe a dozen things in the past, and maybe two have turned out okay. And I always feel like I get burned, and I always vow to never do it again, and then something comes up. And like clockwork, they met their goal, got their money, and then said, “Ok great! Now we’ll go design it!” and the wait began. There were a few sketchy updates, but it looked like this thing would never come to fruition.

Well, it showed up the other day. My verdict is that the camera is garbage. I think the appeal of the old Electro 35 was that it was metal and compact and had a certain tactile feel to it, like old rangefinders of that era. This camera is all plastic, and very cheap plastic. It’s light, and feels like one of those toy squirt guns in the shape of a camera you’d get from the Archie McPhee catalog. It has a non-operational film wind knob that’s molded into the top of the camera. The viewfinder has no optics, just a clear piece of plastic. The doors feel like they will break off in the next fifteen minutes.

The camera uses two AA batteries (not included) and an SD card (not included), plus the digiFilm thing, of which I received four. You then “wind” each shot with an advance lever, and press and hold a really cheap shutter button, and have to hold it and hold still for like a second and a half. The pictures look roughly like what my Windows Mobile cell phone took back in 2008. The B&W looks okay. The others, just use your iPhone and Hipstagram. It does marginally look okay from a distance. If I ever put my cameras on display on a shelf, it would look okay next to my Trip 35 and Canonet QL17. But, ugh. What a waste of money.

I’ve got another four rolls of film to shoot, and might stock up on more for the holidays. I should probably get some 120 film at some point and try that one again, too.

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New/Old Camera

So, in the “buying old crap I had twenty-five years ago and threw out at some point,” I found another Vivitar camera that is (almost) the same as the one I had from 1993 to about 2000.

I talked a bit about my history with analog film a few years ago, when I last fell down the analog film k-hole. I bought this Vivitar camera during the summer of 1993, after not having a camera at all for about three or four years. I was working at Montgomery Ward that summer (in addition to another full-time factory job) and had an employee discount, so I picked up the most camera I could get for about $100 at the photo counter in their Electric Avenue department at the Concord Mall.

That hundred bucks bought a 35mm point-and-shoot. It had a plastic body, but a decent Series 1 glass auto-focus lens. It was a power zoom, so it could zip from 38 to 70mm focal length with motorized control. The film load/wind was also motorized; you dropped in a film cartridge, closed the door, and the camera automatically sucked the film into the takeup reel. When you hit the end, it automatically rolled it back into the canister. The camera also had blue-teal accents to it, which was Nineties as fuck.

I bought this camera with the intention of documenting shows. It was the height of death metal and the zine scene, and I wanted something I could sneak into concerts. I was going to a lot of shows with Ray, and getting free passes to stuff to interview bands. In practice, I never got to take pictures at shows, because security was always really shitty about it, even when a record label gave me a photo pass. And this was a fairly worthless camera for taking pictures of bands, except maybe candid, backstage stuff at a close range with a lot of light.

Ultimately, I didn’t take that many pictures with this camera. I think maybe two dozen rolls went through it during those seven years. I took a trip across the country in 1995 and shot maybe six pictures total. A Disney trip in 1997 was about two rolls. The 1999 cross-country trip was another three, maybe. Getting a camcorder in 1996 reduced the amount of film I shot. Getting a digital camera at the end of 2000 relegated this thing to the back of the closet. I don’t know when I got rid of it; maybe when I moved in 2005.

Ironically, the most-seen photo from this camera is one you may be familiar with.

I was hunting for this camera online, and found this 5500PZ on eBay for seven bucks, including postage. When I got it, I realized it’s not exactly what I had. Mine was slightly thinner, with the zoom controls on the back, not the front. I’m sure it’s optically the same. But it bugs me that it’s not identical, and scanning through other eBay auctions, I can’t find the model that is exactly like mine. Maybe Vivitar sold some oddball model exclusively to Wards. Anyway, for seven bucks, close enough.

I put a battery in this one to test it. It uses a small lithium battery that was hard to find online. The zoom motor is much louder than I’d expected, and the zoom itself is not smooth and very slow. It’s not exactly the auto-focus that my new Canon has. I didn’t have any film in the house, so I ordered a few rolls, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve also gone back and started scanning some of the old photos I didn’t have scanned from this era 25 years ago. It’s a reminder how much of a pain in the ass film was. It also makes me think too much about exactly when and where photos were taken, since EXIF wouldn’t be invented for another half-decade. Trying to not get into too much of a nostalgia backslide, which leads to the regret that I didn’t take more pictures back then. But it’s understandable when I go to pay for film developing. Anyway.

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