Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Saturday, June 25, 2011


For about two years I was a stock boy at Ben Franklin, a store named after one of our nation's most kick-ass founding fathers. I have no idea what Mr. Franklin had to do with selling arts and craft supplies, but I suppose he needed something to do when he wasn't perfecting his electricity shooting kite or helping Paul Bunyan build the Grand Canyon.

One day I was told to stock the googly eyes, STAT. To those of you not in the craft business, googly eyes are...well, they're googly eyes. Little plastic moving eyes that you glue on stuff. Say you've got a pet rock or a sock puppet. You've painted, glued, crafted the hell out of it, and it looks pretty cool, but there's something missing, some spark of life, some vital essence not there. Glue some googly eyes on that sucker, and the Frankenstein feeling of creating life out of previously inert materials flows through your hands. And they all laughed at you at the university! The fools! They called you mad? You'll show them all! Arise, my sock puppet! Arise and taste the sweet breath of life!

So the things were not without their uses, but they weren't really a hot item. People would buy a pair when they needed them for a project, then the rest of the eyes would sit on the pegboard shelf, gathering dust and staring at you as you walked down the aisle.

"Make sure you bring everything out from the back," my manager said. "There's a sale in tomorrow's paper."

"Oh yeah?" I tried to give my question just the right amount of interested inflection, letting my boss know that I genuinely cared about the inner workings of Ben Franklin and the craft business in general. Meanwhile, I was trying to remember the lyrics from "Ace of Spades" and imagining what various cashiers would look like naked.

"Oh yeah," she said. "They're gonna be buying them up like crazy tomorrow. Look."

She showed me the advertisement. Googly eyes 50 cents.

"Wait. These eyes have been 50 cents since I started working here. And anybody that would care about our ads would know how much they are. These people are in here all the time."

"Just wait," she said.

Sure enough, the next morning the old folks came stampeding in at 10 on the dot, heading straight for the googly eyes(It was always exactly 10, because they'd start gathering outside the doors about 15 minutes earlier, their agitation increasing every minute they were locked away from their poly-fil, silk flowers and precious googly eyes. At 9:59 they'd start making exaggerated gestures towards their watches and at the digital bank sign across the street. These are the people, you would think, that won World War II and beat the Great Depression.).

I was up at the counter pretending to sweep and asked a lady why she bought 4 pairs of googly eyes.

"They're on sale," she exclaimed. "They're only 50 cents!"

"What are you gonna do with them?"

"I don't know...But they're on sale!"

Figuring this was one of those Spinal Tap "This one goes up to 11," moments, I wisely kept quiet and pondered the power of advertising.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Late Night Bonding

Nobody thought their parents understood them growing up. I was sure mine didn't. I'm still pretty sure of it. I often wonder what my parents thought of me, now that I'm probably the age they were when I was a teenager.

In return for free food and a place to stay (and a rather large assortment of Star Wars paraphernalia), I would act like doing yardwork was the equivalent of getting shipped to the Gulag, and the stuff I thought was cool (rock and roll, monsters, videogames, skateboarding, dirty movies on cable) must have seemed ridiculous at best, and at worst, a path to a life of laziness and loserdom.*

On my side, my parent's square habits like waking up early and doing yardwork and their extreme thriftiness was just as alien to me. I mean, who would want to do that crap when HBO is showing Emannuelle at 3:30 in the morning?

Naturally, I am now obsessed with yardwork, cheaper than Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve and generally wake up around 7 in the morning.

Things got better once I was in community college and still living at home. I was making close to straight As (with the exception of my math classes, which I had to retake like 30 times), had steady employment, and was generally fairly responsible.

I was on the newspaper staff, which was a pretty sweet gig. There were about 8 of us, and our advisor would stop in maybe three times a semester. We would hang out for hours in the newspaper office, eating food from the cafeteria, listening to the Pixies and Descendents, and bonding the way you do over old-school wax and X-Acto layout.

A friend on the staff had a crush on me which I was oblivious to, as I had the social skills of a circus bear and was fairly ugly, so the thought of someone of the opposite sex actually liking liking me after the end of my lengthy high school romance seemed about as likely as my flapping my arms and flying to the moon.

At one point, the two of us were driving around Siesta Key after blowing off our night biology class, something we did fairly often. We parked and walked on the beach in the dark. The water was glowing yellow-green with phosphorescence. Every crashed wave would leave a glowing, otherworldly hue. Naturally, we had to get out in there.

I can't remember what time of year it was, I just remember we were freezing, making out while hundreds of thousands of glowing algae turned the ocean around us into our personal light show.

Well, with nature turning on the romance like that, we had to go back to her house. After messing around for a while, I figured I needed to get home, as it was approaching 4 in the morning. I didn't actually have a curfew at the time, but this would probably be pushing it, and I still had a 20 minute drive home.

My clothes were wet, so I borrowed a pink sweatshirt with a beaver on it and wrapped up in a towel. I figured everyone would be long asleep at home, so who cared what I looked like?

I turn the key in the door and see my dad sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by a pile of bills, probably trying to figure out how he was going to manage to pay for all the food I was consuming.

"Where the hell have you been? Do you know what time it is?

"I ..."

Dad was taking in my getup. No shoes, feet and legs still glowing green from the ocean, and a yellow towel topped off with a pink beaver sweatshirt.

"Just...just go to bed," he said, laughing.

Strangely enough, "To Everything, Turn Turn" by the Byrds came on. My voice got whinier and I said, "And at that moment, I realized my dad and I weren't that different after all."

And that was the best episode of The Wonder Years ever.

* Guess I showed them, huh?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dumb

I had quite a few unofficial jobs before actually getting real employment bagging groceries. I'd do yardwork, clean gutters, paint, whatever the old folks in my neighborhood needed and were willing to pay for.

Lots of people hate that stuff, but I found it relaxing. I could be out there alone with nobody bothering me and I didn't have to talk to anyone, two things I've looked for in jobs and relationships ever since. Plus, I'd have to do the same stuff at home anyway, but I was getting actual money for my work, as opposed to the free room and board and love or whatever my parents paid me with. I also noticed that working for other people had an actual stopping time, which I found a welcome change from my parent's managerial style.

At some point my neighbors across the street recruited me for a babysitting gig which I snatched right up. I wouldn't be sweating in the sun, I'd get to watch cable and eat junk food for a few hours, and as a bonus I knew that these neighbors had a stack of vintage Playboys in the garage.

I show up, having memorized the night's pay channel's lineup, paying special attention to the words "strong sexual content," "nudity," "violence" or the wild card, "adult situations."

I should mention that the kid I was going to babysit was sort of weird. He grew up to be a weird teenager. He's probably a weird man right now.

At some point we're playing a Sesame Street board game. I let the kid win.

"Yay! I win!"

"Yep, you won."

"Now we have to play until you win."

This round I make short work of the kid, since he's like 4 and I was in a gifted class. I'm actually fairly distracted, thinking of that pizza in the kitchen I heated up that the kid only ate like three bites of which is calling my name. Those Playboys in the garage are also calling to me. Vintage or not, they still had naked ladies in them, and I figured I could check those out as an appetizer before exploring the night's cable offerings.

As I navigate Oscar into Gumdrop Mountain, the kid realizes I won and starts bawling. Like, turning red and getting that hyperventilating thing when kids are really going off.

"Hey, look," I say. "I was supposed to lose a turn! Looks like you won after all!"

"Jesus," I'm thinking. "Did his parents never allow him to lose? This kid's gonna be all sorts of screwed up. I don't remember pissing my pants when my dad won at Monopoly."

"Uh uh uh uh O O O OK. N..N..Now we have to play until you win."

I beat the kid again and he starts crying. I discover another loophole in the rules which meant he actually won, then we have to play until I win. This goes on for a while, all while I'm thinking about cold pizza, Playboys and all the nudity on cable TV that is going on without me.

After about 14 hours of this, the kid finally gets sleepy and is ready for bed. Awesome! As I'm stuffing cold pizza in my mouth, he comes into the kitchen and picks out a mop from the closet.

"My mom said I could sleep with this."

I didn't really think that was true, but screw it, the kid wants to sleep with a mop, who was I to judge? I'd wait til he fell asleep and return it to the closet with nobody being the wiser. The important thing is that the kid is finally heading for bed, meaning I could check out some Playboys and prime '80s pay cable in the hour or so I had before the parents came back.

I'm sitting on the couch eating warmed up pizza watching a particularly exciting Cinemax offering (I had given up on going out to the Playboy garage) when the kid wanders in dragging his mop.

"I can't sleep. Are my parents home yet?"

"No, they're not back yet. Hey, let's go back to bed, huh? Wouldn't that be fun?"

This goes on for the rest of the night, throwing me off my Cinemax viewing, and impeding my mop return.

The parents finally show up, and although they thought the mop thing was pretty funny, I was never called to babysit again, which was fine by me. Mowing was much less stressful.

Friday, June 3, 2011

So He's All Like, Practice, And I'm All Like, Whatever

We had a big jazz festival thing here last weekend. While not as exciting as Nerdfest, it had its moments. Plus, it was just nice to have food for sale out on the streets and to see people walking around Jacksonville’s usually deserted downtown.Seriously, walk around downtown on a weekend and you'll think you're the last person on Earth.

Even though I had to work, I managed to catch about 30 minutes of McCoy Tyner’s set. Tyner was about the only person I really didn’t want to miss, and from what I saw (only about 3 songs), he’s still in fine form.

Tyner played piano with John Coltrane from 1960 til 1965, meaning he played from "My Favorite Things" all the way up through “A Love Supreme,” leaving when Coltrane got too out there. According to the press release sent out by the festival, Tyner started his stint with Coltrane when he was 17 years old. 17. *Could you imagine that?

When I was 17 my only talent was the ability to fix the TV to get in the Playboy channel after my parents had gone to sleep and the ability to be a self-absorbed, creepy asshole.

That started me thinking about how I would have behaved, had I been in a world famous band that strove to challenge musical boundaries back when I was 17 (presuming I had somehow been granted musical ability by a radioactive spider bite or something).

I would imagine lots of blown off practices. Also, if you were to listen to the in studio excerpts from the box set, they'd sound like this:

"God, get off my back, I'll practice when I can, OK, Mr. Music Nazi!":

"I know we've got a show next weekend, but I already promised my friends we'd drive up to Tampa."

"I hate it here, and I hate your stupid band."

"Pfft. Yeah, that's real cool."

Luckily, not all people were as terrible as I was in my youth, and music was allowed to progress and flourish, all by keeping me far, far away from it.

*A quick jaunt over to Wikipedia and some basic arithmetic reveals that Tyner was actually in his early 20s when he joined Coltrane’s band, but the major point, that I was a terrible teenager still remains a matter of public record.