October 20, 2019

Snippets XVI: Nerds in Paradise


Here’s a New York Post Headline you may be seeing in the near future:

Convicted Felon Landlord Evicts Blind Man to Pay Legal Bills

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From “The Things You’ll Never See Again Without an Explosion of National Outrage” file:

            Every Fourth of July back in the Seventies, my parents, sister and I would make the five-hour drive to the small rural community in northwestern Wisconsin where my folks had grown up. Most of my extended family from both sides still lived in the general region, so it was always a bit of an unofficial family reunion. On the night of the Fourth there was a half-hour fireworks display in the town square, and everyone would show up with blankets, beer and sparklers, ready to “ooooh” and “aaaah” in unison. Earlier in the day all those same people had lined Main Street for the annual Fourth of July parade.

            The parade, which was pretty much the same every year, was made up of two marching bands, local farmers showing off their massive John Deere tractors, that year’s Miss Hammond riding in the back of a convertible and throwing candy toward the gutter, the local fire truck ringing its bell, and some other dignitaries throwing more candy.

            Marching alongside the parade was a loose-knit band of clowns in baggy suits, and some volunteer firemen. The firemen were all wearing their red fire hats and long gray fire coats, and their faces were thickly smeared with black grease.

            It was all mighty wholesome, as Norman Rockwell as you can get, right? But then at random and unexpected points along the half-mile parade route, one or more of the volunteer firemen would dart into the crowd, grab a woman, give her a mighty smooch, then rub his cheek against his chosen target’s, leaving a big grease smear before re-joining the parade. Like an Ash Wednesday cross on the forehead, the woman’s grease-smeared cheek would remain proudly unwashed for the rest of the day. Finding this all very odd when I was nine or ten, I asked my mom about it, and she told me it was an old tradition, that the firemen only chose women they found attractive. Nowadays the practice would of course result in sexual assault and forced touching charges, but at the time it was an ego boost to many an aging spinster who wore that grease stain as proud evidence that, if only for that one day, a volunteer fireman found her attractive.

*       *       *

Another new barber, this one named Mike, was cutting my hair. Some recent movie or another was showing on the mounted television to my right. Movies were a new offering, and a helluva lot better than that fucking Price is Right, which for a few years seemed to be on an endless loop in that barber shop. On the soundtrack to whatever movie it was, I could hear the growls of what I took to be a giant monster of some sort, and people pounding on a heavy metal door. Then there were some grinding machine sounds and dramatic music and some dialogue I couldn’t catch over the yapping of the other barber and his customer.

            “So what am I hearing?” I asked at last.

            “Some movie,” Mike the Barber said. “I forget the name of it. They’re out in space, and some guy’s trying to get back on the ship. They’re trying to save the earth. They’re all pretty much the same, these movies today—they’re out in space trying to save the earth, and some guy’s trying to get back on the ship.”

            It was as astute a summation of modern Hollywood as I’ve ever heard, and in the end Mike gave me my very first senior citizen discount.

*       *       *

Have I ever told the story about how I ended up marrying a drinking glass when I was seventeen. Green, she was, and beautiful. A really beautiful glass.

            Yeah, I’ll have to tell that story sometime.

*       *       *

It was Mckenzie’s worst Christmas Ever. McKenzie, my older niece, was born in 1985. When she was four and Christmas was rolling around, there was one thing she wanted more than anything else in the world. She’d recently seen E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the first time, and like every kid everywhere who saw that movie, she was smitten with that homely little alien creature. All she wanted that year was a stuffed E.T. doll, and the job of finding one fell to my dad.

            The problem with this task was that the movie had come out in 1982. It was now 1989, and E.T. mania had cooled dramatically. The stores were no longer packed with E.T. merchandise. There was no Amazon, no Internet, no geeky vintage toy collector sites and so no easy way to go online, find precisely whatever obscure crap you were looking for and, with a few clicks, have it mailed to you. No, back then it meant tireless searches of every toy store in town, big and small, hoping someone somewhere might have something that might fit the bill, or even know what the fuck you were asking of them.

            Historically, my dad was a master of these impossible search missions. Well, that year no one had any E.T. plush toys anymore, but in the end my dad did find one thing. It was a stuffed toy, and it was an alien. It just wasn’t E.T. In fact it was kind of creepy. It was flesh-colored and had a weird conical head and some kind of beak. It also had claws, though they were soft and fuzzy. But hey, she was just a kid, right? Maybe she wouldn’t know the difference. Tell her it’s E.T., and she’d believe it.

            I, meanwhile, was living the punk rock lifestyle in Philly, so before heading home for the holidays I picked her up the coolest thing ever. It was an original Ramones “Road to Ruin” tour t-shirt in mint condition. I figured being a kid she’d dig the bright colors and the cartoon renderings of the Ramones themselves. Plus it would automatically make her the hippest damn kid in pre-school. Helluva lot cooler than all those other loser four-year-olds in their Foghat and Bob Seger t-shirts.

            So on Christmas Eve, we all gathered in the basement of my parent’s house. There was a fire in the fireplace, a tree in the corner, and the whole family was there. We all had some egg nog, Tex Johnson was on the stereo, it was a perfect Norman Rockwell moment (if I may drop the reference a second time in one column).

            McKenzie, being the only real kid there, was the star of the show. Everyone gathered around while she opened her presents so we could see the glow of wonder and delight and surprise in her eyes as each present was revealed.

            Things were going quite well, and she was having a fine time of it, tearing off the colored paper and ripping open the boxes. Then she reached my present. She unwrapped it, looked at it briefly, then tossed it over her shoulder into the pile of discarded wrapping paper.

            “But that was an original Road to Ruin tour t-shirt!” I told her. “Don’t you want to be the hippest kid in pre-school?”

            “No,” she said, without looking at me. Her deep disappointment was palpable.

            My dad’s present, the E.T. doppelgänger, came next. This time when she unwrapped it, she gave it a look of disgust, then once more tossed it into the pile of torn wrapping paper.

            “What,” my dad asked, his own disappointment palpable. “Don’t you like it? It’s E.T.!”

            To this she only shook her head, looking at the floor. Then she took it one step further, by turning around and physically burying both presents under the other garbage, apparently in hopes they’d both be carried far away with the rest of the trash. My dad and I looked at each other, and shrugged. So much for trying.

            Postscript: My sister later made McKenzie put on the t-shirt and pose for a picture, which she then sent me. McKenzie never wore the shirt again. The fate of the stuffed alien is unknown.

*       *       *

As the old woman in front of me in line at the drug store was getting herself together to leave, the Russian checkout clerk rang me up. When the clerk told me the amount, the old woman stopped and turned.

            “Hey,” she snapped. “How come you charged me $15.77, and you only charged him $14.74?”

            There was a pause. Finally the clerk, a little confused, explained, “Um . . . Because you were buying different things?”

*       *       *

You may well hate your job, consider it the worst fucking job on earth, but you’ve got nothing on bread deliverymen. After years of careful observation, I can now confidently conclude bread deliverymen are the most miserable people on the planet.

*       *       *

It was around noon on a Sunday, and I was waiting to cross the Parkway. I was carrying yet another bag of cat litter home from the store.

            “Okay, honey,” said the elderly woman next to me as she tapped me lightly on the wrist with two fingers. “Ya got the light.”

            “Well, thank you very much,” I told her.

            As we began crossing the street, she said, “I’m gonna walk slow, just to make sure none of these people turn on you. They’re all crazy around here.”

            “Oh,” I said. “But then they’d just hit both of us.”

            “Oh. Honey, I don’t care. At this point and at my age? You couldn’t even imagine.”

            I liked this old lady. She reminded me of Thelma Ritter in Pick-Up on South Street. If you’re gonna have a temporary bodyguard, you can’t do much better than the passively suicidal.

*       *       *

I just finished listening to a three-disc set of Elvis recordings from the Sixties. I picked it up a few weeks ago, figuring among all the Elvis I had here, it was the one era not well represented. This was his Bad Elvis Movie period, so some of the tracks were embarrassing for both singer and listener alike (“Too Much Monkey Business”) and some were magnificent (“If I Can Dream,” which closed the ’68 Comeback Special). But along the way there were a whole bunch of songs made more famous by other people. He did signature songs by Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Glen Campbell, Jerry Reed and others, and as I listened it struck me. Great as he was, or at least could be, with the exception of his “Blue Suede Shoes,” I can’t think of a single instance in which an Elvis cover outshone the original. Unlike, say, John Cale or Zen for Primates or Killdozer or Ed Ames or The Residents, Elvis was incapable of making a cover song his own, of making you forget all about that original version. His rendition of “Always on My Mind” may be much better and more heartfelt than Willie Nelson’s, but if you mention the song today no one’s going to reflexively think of the Elvis version without going through Willie Nelson first. Which says something about Elvis.

*       *       *

We get used to things. Sometimes weird, creepy things. In fact we can get so used to weird, creepy things that we miss them when they’re gone.

            I was getting a little worried, as the ghost children who played in the alley next to my building were nowhere to be found this summer. For the past ten years they’ve been out there pretty much every day when the weather was decent, and sometimes when it wasn’t. Guess you don’t much worry about the weather when you’re a ghost. They never got any older, and they were always playing the same damned game of make-believe, where the little girl was the princess and the three boys had to save her.

            After the initial unease at realizing they never got older, always played the same game, and were therefore ghost children who’d been doing this since they were killed in that freak accident in the alley in 1947, I came to count on them. They were reassuring in a way. So that’s why I worried when I didn’t hear them at all this summer. The silence rising from the trash-strewn alley was far more disturbing and unnerving than their ghostly shrieks and yelps. What had happened? Where do ghost children go? Had they finally been led over into the light? Why do ghost children suddenly vanish?

            No one but Morgan and I had ever seen or heard them, so it wasn’t like I could ask any of the neighbors. The silence was starting to get to me.

            Then this afternoon they reappeared, or rematerialized, or whatever the hell ghost children do after a prolonged absence. The little ghost girl was on the decayed swing set again, shouting orders, and one of the ghost boys was bouncing a ball awkwardly off the alley wall.

            I couldn’t exactly call down from the window, “Hey! You ghost children down there! Where the hell have you been?” I’d just have to accept it, and feel some relief at having that bit of weird, inexplicable creepiness back in my life again.


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