July 21, 2019

Snippets 14: Ragnarok


Morgan and I were heading out to see a couple of old friends in Manhattan. It was a too-warm Sunday afternoon. Not wanting to show up empty-handed, on our way to the subway we stopped into a Lebanese bakery a couple of blocks away. Wed always wanted to try this place, and it seemed as good an excuse as any.

The little storefront operation was quiet, with three Lebanese women chatting among themselves as they scurried around behind the counter. After perusing the mysterious foreign pastry selection, I stepped up to tell someone what we wanted. I waited. Then waited some more.

Finally, one of the women, apparently unwilling to talk to a man, stepped to the back and brought out some poor schlub to take my order. I guess they kept him around to deal with their male customers. Only after I started telling him what we wanted did I realize I was talking to him through bullet-proof glass. Between the impeding glass, his lack of English and my lack of Lebanese, it took some doing and a lot of pointing, but we finally got what we wanted.

After he rang everything up, Morgan remembered that one of the people we were going to visit was horribly allergic to all corn products. We had no idea what had been used to make what we just bought, so slowly and clearly, I asked the schmo, Are these made with corn starch or corn syrup? Anything with corn?

He stared at me blankly. This, too, was going to take some doing. I tried again, gesturing toward the bag and asking, Any corn syrup in here?

He gave a sign of recognition and stepped to the back room, we figured to ask someone about ingredients. Maybe wed get this figured out after all. If they were made with corn syrup, wed need to come up with an alternate plan.

A moment later he returned with two small plastic condiment cups of corn syrup, and dropped them in the bag. He smiled.

I nodded, realizing the futility of it all, and handed over the cash. It was, after all, a very nice gesture on his part. He was trying.

We left the shop, and likely left him thinking these Americans are weird creatures, who use corn syrup as some kind of dipping sauce.

* * *

This is going somewhere, believe me. Just give it a second.

Being much obsessed with time, I find I go through on average one talking watch a year. I keep hitting that button to hear the rich British baritone announce the time every six minutes or so until the watch dies. The last three have all been the same model, which I liked a bunch. The analog face never, ever synched up with the voice, which made for some quiet comic relief whenever strangers noticed I was wearing an analog watch displaying the wildly incorrect time. Better still, it was a complete bastard to seta process involving three buttons, a ballpoint pen, and about forty-five minutes of my time. But that, too, was part of the attraction. When my last one died, I was shocked and grossed to find out that model was no longer available.

Okay, so I got a new kind. The big selling point was that it automatically set itself by way of the secret atomic ray emitted by the US Navy clock in Colorado. All I had to do to set it was leave it face down by a window at least six feet from any other electronic device, and fifteen minutes later it would be perfectly set down to the nanosecond. What the hell fun was that? And now what was I going to do with this box of old ballpoint pens? An even bigger downside was that it was digital. Always hated digital watches, but whatever. This is what was available.

To have the watch announce the time, all I had to do was hit the big round button on the watch face right above the digital display I couldnt see anyway. Given where it was positioned, this also meant the watch would announce the time whenever I bumped my wrist on something, and I bump my wrist a lot. Well, okay again, whatever, Id deal with it. It was all very simple.

Now (and this is getting someplace), apart from the auto set with that atomic ray, you also have the option to set the watch manually if you so choose. This, too, is very simple. So simple, in fact, as I found out my second day with the new talking watch, you can set it manually without even realizing it. I was dragging some trash outside and dropping it in the can when that British baritone suddenly announced, Sixteen.

Well that was a little odd. Sixteen isnt even a time. Thinking I was so focused on the trash that Id missed the hour, I hit the main button and the watch said, Seventeen. I hit it again and it said, eighteen.

Realizing I was now setting a watch I wasnt supposed to have to set, I began hitting the other tiny buttons around the perimeter of the watch until it seemed Id made it stop. I had no idea what Id done to trigger this in the first place, and whether or not all my fumbling and button-pushing had completely fucked everything up. The question now was, how to remedy what Id done by accident?

Given I couldnt read the little manual theyd sent along, I got online and started looking for the manual in digital form. Thats what Id done with my previous watches, just so Id have directions handy whenever I needed them. Given this new fucking thing was supposed to set itself, Id never bothered to do this beforehand. Finding the online instructions took some doing, as there are so many talking watches out there with very similar names, but they all require radically different procedures to set and unset and do whatever the hell else. About an hour later I at last found the proper website.

Keep in mind this is a product aimed specifically at the blind, right? The blind and the lazy. So after some scrabbling about on the home page I found the link for the manual, and downloaded it to my computer desktop.

Thats when I discovered the manual they offered took the form of . . . a DIAGRAM. Obviously I cannot see diagrams, and my screen reader cannot read diagrams. So the manual they provided was of absolutely no use to their standard customer base. Okay, so Id noticed there was another link on the page, which offered an instructional video. Videos are likewise beyond me now, but if you have a good instructor who knows he or she is dealing with the blind, it could be useful. All they need to do is talk their way through the procedure, explaining at each step what button theyre hitting, right? Simply offer up a lucid running commentary, and Ill be good to go. So I clicked on that button, only to discover the video was . . . SILENT.

Apart from the watch itself speaking the time at each step being demonstrated, not a word was uttered, so I imagine all it showed was a pair of hands manipulating the assorted buttons with no explanation or instruction whatsoever.

Lets return to the above sentence which noted this product was aimed specifically at the blind. For a moment I considered writing a strong letter of protest to someone, but then found the whole thing pretty damn funny. If it really was just a cruel joke on their part, it was one I could appreciate. Didnt help me fix the goddamn watch, but I did recognize the absurdity of it all.

Yes, well. So I shut the computer down, deciding I could live with a watch that was running four or five minutes fast for the next year, until I killed this one, too.

* * *

Heres a short list of things I regret:

1. I regret not being more of a shameless self-promoter. If I had been I might have sold enough books so that publishers would still be interested in putting them out. Whats more, as a shameless, glad-handing self-promoter, Id likely be getting more of those cushy, snazzy book intro and liner notes jobs that keep going to that fucking Jonathan Lethem instead. Of course if I had been a shameless self-promoter, I probably would have shot myself in the head a long time ago, shortly after recognizing I was a shameless self-promoter.

2. Although I did my share of drugs when I was younger, mostly speed and acid, I wish Id done more.

3. I regret not being more evil in general. And make that Evil with a capital E. I mean super villain evil, like those characters who swoop down on natural disasters to sell fake insurance policies to the survivors, or those people who deliberately sell medications they know to be addictive and deadly, or Jerry Lee Lewis. That wouldve been so cool, and Id be doing much better than I am now.

4. Combining 1 and 3 above, instead of becoming a writer all those years ago, I wish Id become the CEO of a major multinational corporation. That way, see, I could fuck up as outrageously as humanly possible, and still get paid tens of millions of dollars to simply go away.

5. Living as long as I have. Never thought it would happen, to be honest, and its kinda pointless.

6. More than anything I regret not taking that job doing commercial voiceovers for a line of adult diapers that was offered to me in 1996.

* * *

Do kids these days still collect beer cans? Was it a hobby exclusive to Wisconsin? I never collected beer cans, but when I was in fourth or fifth grade it seemed every other kid in town did. Some only had a dozen or so, but I knew kids who had hundreds, stacked up against the walls of their rooms. (For some reason stacking was the accepted way to present ones collection.) And they all seemed to take it as seriously as people who collected rare books or albums or glass animals.

Every one of these beer can collectors would proudly point out what made this Blatz can singular and distinct from these other Blatz cans, from a strange marking on the label to the configuration of the can bottom. I never understood it myself, and thinking back now I suspect most of them were just making up these unique details to justify having a bunch of empty beer cans in their room.

Anyway, Im just curious if this still goes on. I suspect not.

* * *

Few things give me more simple joy than passing a group of city workers tearing up the street while blasting Cheap Trick out of their truck.

* * *

On the night of April eighth, 1974, my dad and I were watching the Atlanta Braves game. We werent Atlanta Braves fans, or even big baseball fans. We were only watching the game that night because everyone in the goddamn country was watching the game that night. And we were all watching because we were waiting for Hank Aaron to hit his 715th home run, officially breaking Babe Ruths record.

My dad always felt it was important, and bless him for it, that I see historical events as they happened. Thats why he got me up in the middle of the night to watch the moon landing, and why he thought it was okay to skip school to watch the Watergate hearings.

Well, that night Hank Aaron hit the home run in question, and we never watched an Atlanta Braves game again.

The morning after the historic home run, my dad commented that he would be adding that days newspaper to his collection.

That was the first Id heard of this, but it seems for years my dad had been saving newspapers which marked seminal historic events like the JFK assassination and the moon landing.

Over the years Id ask about it and hed confirm it was in the basement someplace, but he never showed it to me. I dont think he was being secretive, I think there was always something else going on at the time. After the twin towers came down, I even sent him a stack of New York papers from the morning of September 12th to add to the collection.

Well, this most recent trip back to Green Bay, some six years after my dad died, the newspaper collection came up while my mom and I were talking. Turns out she was aware of it, too, knew exactly where it was, but had never seen it herself. So we decided to take a peek.

We went down to the chilly, dank and deeply shadowed storage area in the basement. I was expecting the collection to be little more than a dozen or so crumbling and yellowed newspaper front pages stuck in a cardboard box or big manila envelope. But after my mom moved a few boxes I learned the papers had been kept in a plastic storage bin that must have weighed fifty pounds. I lugged it upstairs to the kitchen table and we pried the lid off.

Instead of a dozen papers, there were over a hundred. Instead of just the front pages, in many cases hed kept the entire newspaper, complete with ads, comics, classifieds and sports sections. Instead of being tossed in there all willy-nilly, they were neatly arranged chronologically and separated by dividers which identified each category. More amazing still, instead of being yellowed and crumbling, the papers, dating back to 1945, were in pristine condition. You could open them and flip the pages as easily as you could with a paper you picked up that morning. It was amazing. We had no idea how seriously hed been taking all this.

My mom started lifting each section out and reading not only the headlines, but also a few scattered ads throughout the papers as she flipped through the pages. In 1963, for instance, you could get a mans woolen flannel shirt for fifteen cents and a head of lettuce for a dime. At least if you were in North Dakota.

The earliest was a St. Paul Pioneer Press announcing the death of Roosevelt in 1945. The Kennedy assassination earned the biggest section, with papers from Minnesota, Grand Forks, Milwaukee and a few other Midwestern cities tracing events from November 22nd through April of 1964. In 1965 hed saved a Grand Forks paper announcing the death of Winston Churchill. The moon landing and Hank Aaron came next, and thats when things started getting a little odd.

I noted there wasnt a word about Vietnam, but given my dad had been in Vietnam and had strong feelings about the war, I could almost understand. But there was nothing about Watergate, and in fact nary a peep about Nixon. Stranger still, he skipped both terms of the Reagan administration completely. After Hank Aaron we jump ahead to the first Gulf War (another big section), followed by the Clinton impeachment hearings (Dad was no fan of the Clintons), then to the 2000 election, then 9/11, then the new Gulf war, then the Obama administration (he was no fan of Obamas, either). And mixed in with all of it were categories devoted to Green Bay history, the Packers and the closing of the massive downtown shopping mall where he used to be security and maintenance director. Its a very strange mix of topics, but a revealing one. As excited as I was to see all that original coverage of Kennedy and Apollo 11, the rest told me something about the man I hadnt considered before. As meticulous as hed been in those early years, there was a twenty year stretch when he apparently didnt deem RFKs or MLKs assassinations, Nixons resignation, the assassination attempts on Ford and Reagan, the Iranian hostage situation, Iran-Contra or the collapse of the Soviet Union worth preserving. But after his open heart surgery, he picked up the collection again, focusing on events which, from my perspective anyway, hardly stacked up with the likes of JFK or Apollo 11. Things had also taken a decidedly political turn.

Im going to leave it at that. The significance of his turn to the political Right at that moment will mean little or nothing to those who never met him, but it means something to me that would take too long to explain.


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