random stuff

When Clothes Shopping Became Cool

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The Kids R Us in the Nassau Mall in Levittown, NY.  Image from siteride on Flickr.

Based on the commercials from the decade, I wonder if today’s youth is under the impression that the 1980s were just one protracted neon-lit dance number.  There are several commercials from the era that were obviously a product of an advertising executive’s viewing a six hour block of Staying Alive, Xanadu, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun while hoovering cocaine because it’s the only way that anyone would think that kids singing and dancing their way through thirty seconds of television like they were auditioning for Starlight Express was cool.  And ridiculous as that protracted sentence sounds, so many of us fell for it, even to the point where we would willingly go shopping for clothes.

 

Now, hitting the mall for clothes at some trendy store may have been a rite of passage for teenagers in the 1980s, but when you’re a kid, clothes shopping can be agony.  I am not going to go through all of the details of what I was put through as a child except to say that I still only trust one person enough to accompany me when it comes to buying clothes, and that is my wife.  Otherwise, I go clothes shopping completely by myself or not at all.  But for a brief period in the 1980s, this wasn’t the case and that’s because Kids R Us opened up across from the Toys R Us in Bay Shore.

Existing from 1983 until it eventually went defunct in 2004, Kids R Us was the Toys R Us corporation’s foray into children’s clothing retail.  This, according to a New York Times article I found from 1983, was already a very competitive market and Toys R Us was taking a big risk, especially since they were going up against huge department stores like Macy’s.  From what I could tell, it worked at first because they were able to undercut their competition by offering some popular brand names at lower prices, and they made the stores themselves attractive to kids.  The NYT describes one of the original Kids R Us stores in Paramus, New Jersey, as “a place that seemed to blend the essential elements of an upscale children’s clothing outlet and a suburban theme park.”

And that much was true–the color scheme of the store was bright with kid-friendly “cool” colors, there were at least a couple of distraction stations where you could play games or look in funhouse mirrors so that you forgot for a moment that you were there to try on clothes and had gotten sucked into those awesome dance numbers on the commercials:

When you watch this, you can see that it’s vibrant.  Moreover, if you listen to it, it sounds like so many of the other commercials of the 1980s–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the “Kids R Us” song from this commercial is the same tune as the “Coke Is It!” ads from around the same time.  This one even has a similar start to the one that I looked at a number of years ago in that it begins with set design.  But then … then … THEN … it gets SO FREAKIN’ COOL.

These images are everything that was awesome about the 1980s:  killer sax solos, wearing leotards 24-7 and Sha-Na-Na cosplay.  People, these clothes weren’t your siblings’ or older neighbor’s hand-me-downs.  Oh no.  These were the clothes that you knew were going to make you be seen on the first day of school–that is, until you actually wore them to school and realized that you looked like a total moron.

Popped Collar Kid

Unless, of course, you are this kid.  I mean, he pops his collar and doesn’t even need to ski the K-12.  He just is.  And I really don’t need to say much more than that.  This, guys, is the impossible benchmark of cool that you will never achieve.  Not back in 1985; not in 2018.

Weep for your lack.

Group Shot

Anyway, the commercial goes on to show more kids dancing and showing off the clothes–there’s even a couple of dressed-up nerdy-looking kids in there because there was always one parent who was always on the lookout for a new place to buy slacks–and we get to the big finale.  Said big finale?  A freeze-frame jumping group shot, the type that leads us kids to believe that shopping at Kids R Us will be this fun, this exciting, and that we will want our parents to bring us there right away.  The reality, of course, was that we would walk into the store while catching a glance of Toys R Us and would spend the next hour wondering why we weren’t getting any toys.  It was all a cruel joke perpetrated by the lies of Corporate America and our parents, who for at least a few years found clothes shopping to be a little easier.

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 92: VHiStory

Episode 92 Website CoverBlank VHS tapes. So many of us had them. So many of us still have them. But what happens when you unearth a pile of vaguely labeled blank tapes in your parents’ basement and you pop them into your VCR? Well, that’s exactly what I did. In this episode, I talk about my personal history with VCRs and VHS tapes as well as what I found in a pretty large pile of tapes that I grabbed on a trip to Long Island back in April. It’s an hour of me rambling about Seinfeld, Baywatch, holiday cartoon specials, and anything else I taped in the 1980s and 1990s.

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After the cut, a few links and extras from this episode …

(more…)

Fizzy Fuzzy Memories

So I’ve relived my experience with Coke II and it really made me remember one of the things I love about writing this blog–digging up those odd, random things in the culture that I remember and poking around to see if I can find out anything else about them.  I will, of course, confess that the only time I ever remember seeing Coke II other than the can I had back in 2005 was at random on the shelf of Grand Union while accompanying my dad on a quick grocery run back in the day.  But soda as a part of my childhood–or maybe even as a not-part of my childhood (if such a term exists)–sticks out in my mind and as I reread my old blog post, I started thinking about how well I remember some of the more off-brand or random varieties of soft drinks rather than say the countless gallons of Coke or Pepsi products that I’ve gulped down in my lifetime.  On the occasions where soda would make its way into the house–at parties, for instance–I distinctly remember labels beyond Coke and Pepsi.  And when we went somewhere, there was a whole different world of beverage.  Looking at my list, it wasn’t EPCOT’s “Club Cool” per se, but I still think it’s a decent assortment.

Mets RC Can

A 1986 Mets World Championship RC Cola can.  (Image Source:  eBay)

RC Cola:  I’ll start with a soda brand that is actually pretty old and still well known.  RC has been around since 1905 and should be up there with Coke or Pepsi, but I’ve always put it in a distant third place behind the other two despite its place in cola history–for example, RC was the first company to put soda in a can (and later in aluminum cans) and in 1958 would introduce the first-ever diet cola, Diet Rite.

And yet, I will always associate RC Cola with the Mets, who sold RC and Diet Rite at Shea Stadium in the 1980s.  I can picture ice-less cola full to the brim that was guaranteed to spill at least a little when you bought it from the guy walking up and down the steps of the upper deck.  Which, by the way, was a feat in itself because those steps were so steep that you practically needed a Sherpa to make it up to the top of the stadium.

In the years since, the Mets have changed their main cola–for a while it was Pepsi and I think now it’s Coca-Cola, but it’s been so many years since I have been to a Mets game that I’m not entirely sure if that’s true.  I’m honestly not sure I’ve had it since the 1980s or 1990s, even though the brand is still around and is currently owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple company, which touts it as a “favorite of cola drinkers throughout America.”

Fanta:  This is neither an obscure or random soda–in fact, Fanta’s various fruit flavors are still around and popular and the brand had a pretty visible ad campaign featuring a group of singing, dancing spokeswomen called The Fantanas in the early 2000s.

 

The history of the Fanta cola flavor is actually fascinating, as it was created in Germany in World War II to be used as a cola substitute since the Coca-Cola plants in Germany were largely cut off from America and therefore couldn’t get shipments of materials they needed to make the beverage.  This, of course, is information I discovered when writing this blog post and had no bearing on my various encounters with Fanta over the years.  My personal association with Fanta goes back to the 1980s and its orange soda and root beer flavors.  The orange soda, I recall, was one of those sodas that might have been on tap at a restaurant in place of Sunkist or Crush and since orange wasn’t my go-to flavor, I never paid much attention to it.

Fanta can

A 1980s-era can of Fanta, which I admit I never actually saw (Image source: eBay).

Root beer, however, was my primary concern whenever I was allowed to get soda at a restaurant.  I’d, of course, get a Coke if I had to, but whenever root beer was on the menu, I was there.  And very often, it was Fanta, especially if the establishment sold Coke products.  Sayville Pizza was one such place and I remember its brown, white, and blue logo being on the soda machine behind the main counter whenever my friends and I would ride our bikes up there to get two slices and a soda for lunch during the summer.   It wasn’t a particularly memorable flavor of root beer, and the Coca-Cola company would replace it with the more distinguishable Barq’s in the late 1990s, but I always think of this soda more than other root beers like A&W or Ramblin’ Root Beer (remember that?) because what it did was set the “default” taste for root beer in my mind (which probably explains why I don’t like Barq’s very much.

Hires Root BeerHires Root Beer:  Speaking of root beer, a brand that I drank a lot of when I was younger but I have specific memories of is Hires Root Beer.  This, like RC Cola and Fanta, has a much longer history than I expected and is, in fact, the second-longest produced soft drink in the United States.  It was originally created in Philadelphia but I actually always associate it with New England; specifically, I place it in New Hampshire and the years my family spent vacationing on Kezar Lake in North Sutton.  And while I am sure that my time at the lake and time visiting Weirs Beach and Lake Winnepesaukee is a blog post and podcast episode to rival Rob Kelly’s “Mountain Comics,” I will say that Hires was a pretty popular brand of root beer up there and I think that we had at least one or two pieces of merchandise–trinkets, magnets, pencil holders–with the logo on it because we had cashed in a billion arcade tickets from playing hours upon hours of skee-ball.

I don’t have much to say about the taste of Hires, except that I drank a lot of it whenever I went up there, probably because it tasted like Fanta or whatever I expected root beer to taste like.  But those weeks in the summer spent pumping quarters into arcade machines new and old and walking up to the local general store to buy baseball cards or Mad Magazines are always going to be associated with this one logo or can of soda.  It’s all another story for another time, but at least worth a mention here.

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Photo by Paxton Holley (via Flickr)

7-Up Gold:  Now we’re getting into something that really no longer exists.  7-Up Gold was an attempt by the “Uncola” to actually create a cola and it was a massive flop.  Only available in 1987 and 1988, the company, which had previously had success with Cherry 7-Up (a soda that I could have also put on this list), decided to completely go against what it bragged about in its ad campaigns from the early 1980s (not a cola, never had caffeine) and basically tried to clone Coke and Pepsi.  In a 1989 New York Times article, then 7-Up president Roger Easley said that “The product was misunderstood by the consumer.  People have a clear view of what 7-Up products should be — clear and crisp and clean, and no caffeine.  7-Up Gold is darker and does have caffeine, so it doesn’t fit the 7-Up image.”

The cola is described in the article as having actually come from the Dr. Pepper Company, which had merged with 7-Up in the previous year, as having a “reddish caramel hue” and a flavor that doesn’t necessarily taste like cola but “tastes something like ginger ale with a cinnamon-apple overtone and a caffeine kick.”  I honestly barely remember that, but I do remember being lured in by commercials like this:

For me, who was so uncool in 1988 that I thought this was cool, I was sold and wanted to try some.  I remember that my parents did cave at one point at bought at least one bottle of it for my birthday party in 1988 and I actually bragged to my friends that we had 7-Up Gold.  It’s no wonder I went straight to the bottom of the social ladder over the next few years.

Schweppes Raspberry Ginger Ale:  As I mentioned, soda was not something you got in my house when I was a kid, but my parents did sometimes grab ginger ale off of the shelf and that would be the drink of choice for my sister and I after we had finished our chocolate milk at dinner.  Yeah, nothing says dessert at my house in the 1980s more than Sealtest Ice Milk washed down with Raspberry Schweppes.

Now, Schweppes still makes the raspberry ginger ale, although John Cleese is no longer used in its advertisements.  I don’t really drink ginger ale at all, unless I’ve spent the day vomiting.  So this is one of those that definitely is left in the past and is probably key in why I went buck wild with drinking soda my freshman year of college.

C&C Cola:  Finally, there’s C&C Cola.  Headquartered in New Jersey and still in production today, C&C is one of those near-generic “off brand” sodas that makes its way onto store shelves next to store brand such as Master Choice and other off-brand colas like Cott and Shasta.  C&C, however, was one of those off-brand sodas that actually made a small dent in the northeast.  No, it couldn’t exactly compete with Coke or Pepsi, but it made enough of an effort to gain what it could in the 1980s with a wide variety of flavors as well as commercials:

For my parents, C&C was the soda you got when you were having big family parties.  My dad would drive up to Thrifty Beverage, which was our local beer and soda “distributor” (i.e., a huge warehouse of beer and soda that also had a retail space) and buy several flats of C&C in various flavors.  And by various, I mean various:  cola, diet cola, ginger ale, root beer, cream soda, lemon-line, black cherry, grape, and orange.  These were packaged very basically, with each flavor getting a different-colored can (i.e., lime green for lemon-lime, brown for root beer, orange for orange, tan for cream soda, grape for purple).  I think that over the course of that party, my sister and I would try to drink one of every single flavor; then, we’d try to stretch out the leftovers for days.

C&C is still around and still independently owned and operated out of New Jersey.  I don’t recall seeing any of the soda down here in Virginia (although my local blood bank has plenty of Shasta on hand), but a look at its website shows that it’s still making all of the flavors that I enjoyed when I was younger as well as several novelty flavors like cotton candy.

At present, my main soda of choice is Coke Zero and Brett isn’t much of a soda kid–he likes orange soda and a few other things but will usually go for HI-C or lemonade whenever we’re at a restaurant.  We also now live in a world where I can actually order a number of these sodas online–I don’t know if I would or if it would even be worth it, but I can.  Still, who knows random liquid my local grocery store will serve up in the future?

 

Looking for the Real Thing

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The full can of Coke II I purchased on eBay in 2005.

A quick note: this first appeared on my old blog, Inane Crap, back in 2005.

Soda has always fascinated me. I think it’s mainly because when I was a kid, I didn’t get to drink it very often. Aside from the occasional bottle of Schweppes raspberry ginger ale, all of the dinnertime drinks at my house consisted of chocolate milk and Tetley instant iced tea. Of course, that’s not as healthy as you think — it was whole milk, and Tetley iced tea mix is essentially brown-colored sugar water. That doesn’t mean that I completely missed out on drinking soda (I wasn’t raised by one of those nuts). It was, according to my parents “a treat” to have a bottle of Coke in the fridge, so whenever there was one present, my sister and I usually went to town.

My lack of carbonated elixir during my elementary school years meant that I kind of went hog wild drinking it in college, but it also meant that I more or less missed out on one of the most infamous screw ups of the 1980s. That is, I’m hard pressed to remember New Coke. I knew of it, of course, but being that I was eight years old when it debuted in 1985, I cannot recall how it tasted, even though it’s pretty likely that I had it at a family party or some other function. I’ve always been curious about its taste — after all, it was only on the market as Coke for a short time because the backlash upon its introduction was so negative, it made an anti-abortion rally look like an episode of Barney & Friends. Coke rescinded, rebranded, and reintroduced its original soda as Coca-Cola Classic in 1986 and New Coke became Coke II. It was available nationwide until the mid-1990s before being phased out in all but a few Midwestern states.

As I tend to be with most things that involve random foodstuffs, I’ve been wanting to try this cola for a very long time. I looked for it wherever I could, and even had a scout in Chicago try to track it down. Alas, that was all to no avail, and a few weeks ago, I discovered why. Coke has a 1-800 number that you can call with weird queries such as this, and one day while bored at work, I decided to give them a call and ask about Coke II. My operator was a very nice woman who seemed genuinely interested, and amused by my question. She put me on hold and a few minutes later, told me that unfortunately, Coke II was no longer manufactured. I thanked her and hung up, then turned to the Internet, where I quickly found a full can for purchase. $5.00 and a week later, a full can of Coke II that had expired in November 1996 was sitting on a shelf in my refrigerator, waiting for me to formulate a plan for drinking it.

Okay, I know how to drink a can of soda. But as I examined this artifact, with its red-white-and-blue design, lack of a “big mouth,” and bold italic “Coke II” logo, I realized that I had an important choice to make. I could crack open the can and go for it, or drag it out in some elaborate and unnecessary way.

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C2, which was discontinued in 2007. (image via Wikipedia)

Naturally, I went for the latter and decided to conduct an experiment — more specifically, a taste test. Armed with a couple of dollars, I went to a local convenience store and bought three bottles of soda. The first was Coca-Cola, which was an obvious choice, since it was the original cola formula (some Coke aficionados claim it’s not. I don’t care). The second was Pepsi. This was important because it’s the raison d’être for New Coke because back in the early 1980s, Coke lost to Pepsi in a nationwide taste test. Lastly, I purchased a bottle of C2, which had been introduced as a “low carb” cola during last year’s Atkins-induced societal meat sweats. It’s essentially the halfway point between Coke and Tab (which is a lab accident all its own), but since it apes the Coke II name, it kind of made sense to give it a try.

The first thing I evaluated was the sodas’ color and aroma. I would have gone with the packaging, but since Coke II was not available in a bottle back then, I felt that it was at a slight disadvantage. I opened each soda and poured a glass, sampling and smelling. Coke had a musky scent, kind of like Old Spice; and it had a color to match. What was interesting is that Coke also had the most violent bubbling out of all four. Pepsi’s color was brighter and the smell was sweeter. C2 and Coke II were very similar to their inspirations — C2 looked like Coke, while Coke II actually held its own as a Pepsi impersonator.

I did two distinct taste tests for each soda. The first was a straight sip. Like one does when he samples wine, I took in the bouquet of each glass and then sipped the soda, swirling it in my mouth before swallowing, and then cleared my palate with water. Coke tastes much like its scent. It’s heavy, thick and biting in a way that’s actually a bit indescribable, but I guess “licorice” would come pretty close. Similarly, C2 was heavy and lived up to its hype. In other words, it had the heavy, sugary taste and texture of Coke. But it also had a distinct aftertaste, which you’d probably associate more with Diet Coke. I don’t think they’re going to be replacing the much-beloved “silver bullet of cola” anytime soon, though.

When it came to Pepsi, I pretty much knew what to expect. It has a much sweeter taste and usually isn’t as heavy as Coke. However, there are few things in the world that are worse than warm Pepsi, especially when it goes flat and takes on the taste of orthodontic cement. I thankfully got my Pepsi down the hatch in time for it to be both cold and popping. It’s not my favorite cola at all, but it did serve as a nice prelude to what would be the ultimate taste test and the whole reason I got involved in this endeavor.

I cleansed my palate and took a nice-sized sip of Coke II. It was kind of thick and went down like maple syrup. It tasted like musty Pepsi, and I found myself making several faces of disgust.

But that wasn’t the end. After all, what is soda without a snack? I grabbed a box of reduced fat Cheez-Its and decided to test each soda’s snack food interaction abilities. To make this a not at all scientific process, I grabbed a handful of crackers and shoved them into my pie hole in a very Blutarsky-like fashion. After chewing for a few moments, I had a nice-sized bolus going and decided that was the moment at which to wash the Cheez-Its down. Coke added phlegm and didn’t help with swallowing. Pepsi was once again too sweet, but did break the bolus up quite nicely. C2 was exactly like coke and the aftertaste made me twitch, which can’t be a good sign. Finally, the Coke II was a great swallowing aid, but the musty taste made the crackers taste kind of aged. You know, like exposure to nine-year-old soda instantly made them stale or something.

Next was the chemistry portion of the test. When I was a little kid, I had this secret soda formula that I’d use whenever I was at Burger King. I’d start with a base of Coke and add Sprite, then orange soda. Every once in a while, I’d add a splash of root beer for some bite. Yeah, it was disgusting, but when you’re a kid, you’ll eat dirt. In the spirit of those grand experiments of my youth, I mixed all four sodas in one pint glass. The amounts were relatively equal. I mean, I didn’t measure or anything, but I did briefly count to three before I finished pouring. The color stayed the same, obviously, and the aroma was more Coke than Pepsi. Being that I was uncertain of how the various sugar compositions would blend and/or settle, I stirred the concoction with a spoon. Said spoon neither tarnished nor corroded, so I took that as a good sign. I let the fizz settle and then took a mighty swig.

Now, I don’t usually soak my dirty socks in water and then wring them out into a glass, but I’m sure that by mixing these sodas, I captured that particular taste better than anyone ever has. At first, all I could taste was Coke, and it was okay, but upon my second sip, I was instantly transported back to my high-school gym locker room, with my once-was-white-but-now-is-gray-because-I-never-washed-it T-shirt and obliterated Chuck Taylors. It was a strange kind of nostalgia that started pleasantly but ended in horror and me pouring the rest of the crap down the sink. Thankfully, I can still see clearly.

My final test was the most important, and that was endurance. No, I wasn’t going to leave all four sodas out in the hot sun for hours and see how they decomposed or anything like that. I was going to chug. This was the experiment that had the most human error associated with it, especially considering I’m not the best at chugging any sort of beverage. But I did my best and went to town on all four. Coke lasted 5 seconds and was followed up with a concise but loud belch, which was disappointing. Usually, Diet Coke makes me sound like Booger, and I was hoping for that from at least one of these sodas. The Pepsi was a second less and had a more baritone belch, but it was just as short. The closest I got to a Diet Coke belch was with the C2, which, after a 7-second chug, had me let fly with three voluminous notes that would make any pro proud.

I was able to chug Coke II the longest, for 8 seconds, and when I didn’t feel a belch, I went back for more, finishing the can a few moments later. No belch came after that, either, as I wanted to vomit so badly that all I could do was gag for about thirty seconds before crushing the can and then downing about a liter of water so I could taste something that wasn’t noxious.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 83: Festivus 2017!

Episode 83 Website CoverIt’s the most wonderful time of the year! Grab your aluminum poles and get ready to air your grievances and best each other in the feats of strength because it’s Festivus for the Rest of Us yet again! This year, I’m joined by Professor Alan of the Relatively Geeky Network. We air our grievances about popular culture in 2017 and then test our mettle in the feats of strength as we review Malibu Comics’ The Ferret #5 and #6!

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Below are some extras, including the cover to issue #1 (which was mentioned but not covered), issue #5’s cover with and without the polybag, the Skycap, and the DS9 ad I mentioned that kind of looks like it has Phil Jimenez art.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 82: A Universally Different Vacation

Episode 82 Website CoverTravel back to this past summer as my family and I talk about our trip to Universal Studios Orlando. First up, you’ll hear Brett tell me all about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter; then, Amanda and I give our impressions of the theme park.

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My Mustard Problem

McDonald's cheeseburgerI don’t really eat fast food, but a few weeks ago, I found myself having very little choice.  I was in a hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia and since I was attending a conference by day and doing a lot of work and a lot of writing at night, I stayed close to the hotel and wound up eating a lovely combination of Wendy’s, Subway, and McDonald’s for dinner.

The McDonald’s was a really new-looking building, but I am 100% sure that it is the same McDonald’s my family at at 30 years ago when we took our first trip to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens.  It was in a location that I remember clearly–way out on the highway near Busch Gardens, and one of the few places we could find where everyone was willing to eat something.  It was also where I first encountered mustard on a hamburger.

I don’t know how many people reading this will believe me, but I grew up without mustard being put on a hamburger.  Mustard, in my mind, was for hot dogs, and ketchup was for hamburgers.  So whatever my parents would take us to McDonald’s or Burger King, I’d get a hamburger and it would just have ketchup on it.  But whenever we went to a McDonald’s outside the tri-state area, there would be this weird yellow crap on the bun that made the burger taste weird and I hated it–so much that I am usre my sister and I didn’t want to eat the burgers, and then we discovered that we could mask the taste of mustard by putting a metric ton of extra ketchup on top of the mustard.

This would be the case of years afterward, and my wife found it incredibly odd that we would do this.  Looking back, it seems that when it comes to fast food, you actually have variation among condiments int he various regions of the country and even between different restaurants (I believe that some places put mayonnaise on their burgers), which is odd because I would think that the purpose of a fast food place would be to give you the same cheap culinary experience no matter where you go.

My relationship with fast food would wax and wane over the years–I sore off of it in 2002 or so after reading Fast Food Nation.  In the 15 years since, I’ve gone to McDonald’s literally three times, on occasions where I really have few to no other option.  It just honestly doesn’t seem worth it since I have gotten much better at cooking and have found better sources for quickly made food.

I still don’t put mustard on my hamburgers, though.