random stuff

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 74: Well Everyone Else is Doin’ It …

Episode 74 Website CoverThey were cool, they were hip, they were the “in” thing, and they lasted all of three months.  They were fads.

Slap on a bracelet, flip a water bottle, hug your Beanie Babies tight and join me as I take a look at seven huge youth-driven fads (with some old people getting into it) from the mid-1980s until today.  I examine the background behind each, some of its effects, why they were often banned from schools, and how they died out.

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And just for fun, here are the seven fads featured with some footage (where possible)

Bottle Flipping

Silly Bandz

Silly Bands

Snopes article about “Sex Bracelets”

Tamagotchi

Beanie Babies

Pogs

Slap Bracelets

slap bracelets

A couple of articles on slap bracelets from The New York Times 

“Turning Profits Hand Over Wrist” (10/27/90)

“U.S. Consumer Panel Warns of Injury from Slap Bracelets” (10/30/90)

“Principal Puts a Halt to Slap Bracelet Fad” (10/11/90)

Garbage Pail Kids

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 70: It’s a Festivus Miracle!

episode-70-website-coverMany Christmases ago, Frank Costanza, fed up with the commercialism of Christmas and upset at how it caused him to reign blows upon another man who also wanted the same doll he was about to buy for his son, decided to create a new holiday–a Festivus for the rest of us.  In the spirit of Frank and this holiday, Michael Bailey joins me for a very special Festivus episode.

We begin by exploring the origins of Festivus, both through its appearance on Seinfeld and its real-life history …

And then carry on the traditions of the holiday with the airing of grievances, where we talk about what’s bothering us in pop culture this year as well as the feats of strength, wherein we take a look at the 1992-1993 Image Comics miniseries Brigade.

So get out the aluminum pole and get your family around the table so you can tell them all the ways you’ve disappointed them before they try to pin you because it’s time to celebrate!

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

When I Was a Toys R Us Kid

There is a saying that is cliche by now:  “You can’t go home again.”  Entire songs have been written based on this premise; hell, there’s an entire genre of movie that seems to center around the idea.  And to be honest, even though the phrase is a cliche, it has a ring of truth to it–which really is the case with every cliche–and I guess it’s the raison d’etre of nostalgia.

I personally haven’t had a lot of “you can’t go home again” moments in my adult life.  For the most part, I’m not as blind to the trappings of nostalgia and can even say that I very often go in to rewatching an old movie or TV series skeptical about whether or not it holds up after 20-30 years.  But the one time I did have a moment like that was when I stepped into a Toys R Us.

Anyone over the age of 30 probably clicked on that video and went “Oh yeah, I remember this commercial.”  I grabbed this specific one off of YouTube on purpose because this commercial, which first aired in 1982, was run and rerun endlessly throughout the decade and featured three kids who would grow up to become notable actors and actresses:  Jaleel White (who played Urkel), Jenny Lewis (lead singer of Rilo Kiley), and Lindsay Price (who would be a regular on the later seasons of Beverly Hills 90210).  In fact, that series of commercials was so famous that the now grown-up kids (except for Urkel) shot another one in the mid-’90s:

And having a Toys R Us near you was a big deal back in the 1980s because they weren’t as ubiquitous as, say, Target or Walmart stores are today.  Sayville eventually got its own Toys R Us (though it was technically in Holbrook at the Sun Vet Mall) in the 1990s, but when I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents had to haul it about twenty minutes west to Bay Shore to go there, which meant that a trip to the store was a special trip and not just a part of some weekly shopping routine.

I’m pretty sure that store is still standing, but it has undergone the change that so many Toys R Us stores have undergone in recent decades:  it is now two stores in one–a Toys R Us and a Babies R Us.  This is the case with my local store, in Charlottesville, and when Brett was a baby, Amanda and I made a number of trips to the Babies R Us store.  Occasionally, we would venture into the Toys R Us side of things and I have to say that I never got over the feeling of disappointment that I had upon seeing how much smaller Toys R Us was compared to the one in my memories.

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Most Toys R Us Stores look like this nowadays.

Oh sure, nothing is as big as you remember it being when you were a kid–hell, parts of Disney World seemed smaller to me when I was an adult compared to my childhood memories–but the reality versus my memory of walking into a Toys R Us was a disappointment because this was a store that my sister and I practically worshiped as kids, to the point where I had most the layout of the store memorized to the point where I can still picture it.

Think I’m kidding?  I drew the map below (on graph paper) from memory:

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You’ll notice that according to the map I drew, most of what I remember clearly was on the left side of the store, and that’s because things like action figures and playsets were separated according to whether or not they were “for boys” and “for girls.”  I don’t remember if the “boys” area was blue and the “girls” area was pink, to be honest–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the colors were neutral–but I do have to say that when I posted a picture of this map a few months ago to Twitter, someone tweeted at me, disappointed that the genders were separated in a toy store.  Now, I’m the last person to reinforce traditional gender roles, but I have to say that … well, this was a toy store in the Eighties and not my own creation; and if you think of it, the way the toys were separated by gender probably had more to do with moving the actual merchandise than upholding gender norms.  You could put She-Ra next to He-Man and she may have sold just as well; however, put a random “girl with a horse” doll next to G.I. Joe instead of next to She-Ra and Barbie and that toy will get overlooked.

Anyway, exploration into the sexual politics of Toys R Us in 1986 when viewed by Twitter in 2016 over,  because even looking at this map a few months after I drew it (and then finally got around to writing this post), I can still vividly picture the aisles themselves, and what pictures I have found of the interiors at old Toys R Us stores on sites like Plaid Stallions shows that my memories aren’t too far off.  When you walked into the store, you were greeted by seasonal things and party favors, and I remember this was the case for a number of similar toy stores of the era, such as Play World or Child World.  This is where you got your tablecloths, napkins, cups, and whatever cheap crap that your mom was going to put in a favor bag for kids to take home–not all parents caught on to the idea of buying a few Marvel three-packs and calling it a day, which is still one of the better party favor ideas I’ve ever experienced (even if I did wind up with an issue of Secret Wars II).  There’s a note here that said I once saw something related to Return of the Jedi in this aisle, which isn’t hard to believe because Return of the Jedi merchandise was everywhere back in the early 1980s, but I specifically remember seeing the ROTJ storybook in hardcover and kicking myself for getting the softcover version through the Scholastic book club.  Not because the hardcover was cooler or anything, but because I had the storybooks for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in hardcover and would have liked to have been consistent there.

Yes, even at the age of seven, I was anal-retentive about format.

Anyway, I don’t think I ever spent much time in the party favors section because the better stuff was just beyond the bathroom.  And yes, I knew where the bathroom was because I was that kid who always needed to go to the bathroom, so I always knew where the bathroom was.  Hell, I still do.

But after the bathroom was this corridor of board games and video games, with an enormous, seemingly never-ending wall of board games on your left and an alleyway of video games on your right.  The board games wall is significant in its vastness as well as the fact that I remember that Toys R Us carried every single edition of Trivial Pursuit that was on the category card that came with the game, even the versions that you were pretty sure actually didn’t exist or were available in some mythical toy store that carried every obscure thing and was located in a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Canada.

Same with the video games, which had one of the more odd purchasing procedures, one that was more like a trip to the video store than it was to to the toy store.  The actual games weren’t on display; instead, there were cards with the covers from the video game boxes and tickets attached to each of the cards.  If the game was in stock, you would take a ticket and bring it to the register, where you would pay for it, and then you would go to another counter where an employee–who was behind glass–would go and get the video game for you.

I’m pretty sure that this was a shoplifting prevention tactic in the days before the scanner would be set off if you tried to leave the store without paying for the video game, and they did have high potential for shoplifting because the cost of the average video game was incredibly high (so high, in fact, that the New York State attorney general filed a lawsuit against game companies and won).

Of course, not every single video game was actually in stock, and Toys R Us certainly had its fair share of peg warmer video games, so if gramma was looking for the copy of Dragon Warrior III that you wanted, she could pick up Home Alone for $19.95 when Dragon Warrior III was sold out (and honestly, Dragon Warrior III was always sold out).

Speaking of pegwarmers, the two or three aisle of action figures were the heart of any journey through Toys R Us for me back in the 1980s.  Of course, as the decade went on, the “spotlight” toys changed, but the setup was always the same–there was an endcap full of action figures and an aisle of vehicles and playsets.  If I was with my mom or dad and was allowed to get one action figure (vehicles were for Christmas and birthday lists), the decision was usually easy because I had memorized which figures I had and which figures I wanted; however, nothing compares to the soul-crushing paralysis that came when you walked into Toys R Us with your $20-$30 worth of birthday money and were allowed to get whatever toy you wanted.  Because that meant a vehicle was a possible purchase or you could get multiple action figures, and if you didn’t come into the store with a plan, you took longer to make a purchasing decision than the average jury takes to reach a verdict in a murder trial.  That sounds pithy, but it was a major decision because you had to think of how much you were going to play with the toy and whether or not it would affect your standings in some sort of unofficial toy arms race that you were having with your friends.

Further complicating this decision was the Aisle of Forgotten Toys, which was where Toys R Us stocked all of the second-rate and more obscure toy lines, such as Remco’s Warlord figures and the line of Dungeons and Dragons figures that came out in 1983-1984, or my favorite “Did anyone buy these” toy line, which was the here-and-gone-in-a-flash-now-costing-an-arm-and-a-leg-on-eBay Matchbox Robotech line.  I had the same desire to look at all of those toys back then as I do grabbing random war, romance, or horror comics from 50-cent bins today.  And I suppose if I had some foresight back in 1986 or so, I would have bought more than one of those figures so that I could keep it mint in its packaging and make a few bucks now … but as with everything in that regard, I had absolutely foresight and those toys were lost to various purges.

I stopped visiting Toys R Us sometime in junior high, around the time when the NES was phasing out and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to be getting an upgrade to my video game system.  But those times spent in the aisles of my childhood had lasting effects, from that feeling of paralysis when given money to spend on CDs to watching my son go through the same purchase paralysis with his own birthday money (accompanied by my own attempts to steer him away from purchasing worthless crap he’ll play with once and then let collect dust).  Which brings up another cliche … “The more things change …”

old-toys-r-us

An old-school Toys R Us store in Bloomington, Indiana.  Image taken from Flickr.

 

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 62: Yakkin’ Over Pancakes

Episode 62 Website CoverIt’s an all-star “live” episode as I get the chance to sit down with Professor Alan and Stella and then Stella herself and talk about topics random and geeky! Enjoy such conversations as the novels of Thomas Hardy, DC Rebirth, the Human League, Bat-splaining, and Mad Men. Plus, LISTENER FEEDBACK!!!

Show notes and pictures are available at Pop Culture Affidavit, which is also where you can see regular weekly blog entries about the randomness that is pop culture.

Here’s where to listen:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 55: Where Dreams Come True (Summer 2015 Part Two)

Episode 55 Website CoverThe summer 2015 recap continues with a Walt Disney World episode! Join me, Amanda, and Brett as we head to Orlando in July and cover past and present vacations, what we loved doing, what we loved to eat, and a little bit of Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure!

Here’s where to listen:

iTunes: Two True Freaks Presents Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Two True Freaks Presents: Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And now for some bonus material!

During the show, I talk about my past experiences at Walt Disney World and also read the section on the now-defunct EPCOT Center ride Horizons found in Walt Disney World: A Pictorial Souvenir, which was published in 1984 and I received either right before or during my first trip to Walt Disney World in 1985.  Below are some scans of the book for you all to enjoy.

First, the cover:

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The beginning of the section of The Magic Kingdom, featuring a gorgeous evening shot:

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Main Street, U.S.A.  I particularly like this page because of the perspective in the picture on the lower left.  You don’t get that view very often.  Plus, I have to admit that the lack of a crowd in the picture on the lower right is amusing:

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Two of the pages on Fantasyland.  I chose the first because of that gorgeous shot of Cinderella’s Castle with the purple sky behind it.  The second, I chose, because it has a picture of the skyway that ran over Fantasyland but closed in 1999 (fun fact: Disneyland had a similar skyway, which took you through the Matterhorn, which sounds awesome):

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A quick look at Tomorrowland, which is definitely one of the lands of the magic kingdom that changed the most since I was a kid.  I rode the Astro Orbiter for the very first time this year, although I have to admit that part of me wishes I’d ridden it back in the day when it had its classic look:

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The opening of the EPCOT Center section of the book, complete with the old EPCOT Center logo.  I own two vintage-style T-shirts with the logo:

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The two-page spread about the EPCOT Center attraction known as Horizons.  This is the section of the book I read on the air.  A little more history about Horizons:  it opened in 1983 and was part of the “phase II” of EPCOT construction/attractions.  It closed in 1994 but was reopened in December 1995 and then closed permanently in 1999.  The attraction was completely disassembled and demolished and is now the home of Mission: Space.  You can see some of the pieces of the Horizons ride on display in the lobby of Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream theater in Hollywood Studios.

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Another defunct ride in EPCOT is the GM-sponsored World of Motion.  This was one of the original EPCOT Center Future World rides before it closed in 1996.  The building still remains, as it was refurbished for what is now the Chevrolet-sponsored Test Track:

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CommuniCore is the original name for what is now known as Innoventions in EPCOT’s Future World.  The buildings haven’t changed in structure–they are still two half-circles right behind Spaceship Earth–and there are still restaurants and gift shops.  The original exhibits were more thematically linked to the various pavilions in Future World, but the Innoventions ones seem to be more of their own thing.  If I may editorialize for a moment, I hope something more interesting is done with Innoventions because while some of the exhibits and interactive games are pretty cool, it seems like there is a lot of wasted space in those buildings:

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The page on Canada in the World Showcase.  Because Canada is awesome, has one of my favorite gift shops in EPCOT, and there’s a guy playing a tuba:

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One of the souvenir guidebook’s pages on the Contemporary Resort hotel.  This one was always a personal favorite of mine, as I think it is with a lot of kids, because it’s the one that the monoral drives through.

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Here are some pages on Discovery Island, the now-closed zoological park that was part of the Walt Disney World resort until 1999.  And if you’re interested in more, here’s a link to a blog post by Shane Perez, who explored the closed facility in 2009:  The Photography of Shane Perez — Discovery Island:

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River Country was Walt Disney World’s first water park and operated seasonally until November 2001.  It was scheduled to reopen in 2002 but that never came to be and the park now sits abandoned:

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One of the other resorts that you could stay at in 1984 was the Golf Resort Hotel.  The property has since been sold off and from what I can tell is no longer part of the Walt Disney World resort; however, if you’d like a trip down memory lane, the blog Passport to Dreams has an excellent post about it from 2012:  Passport to Dreams–Return to the Golf Resort:

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Two other areas that have been around since the park’s earliest days in the 1970s are Lake Buena Vista and Walt Disney World Village.  I am not sure if Lake Buena Vista still functions as a resort the way it did back in the 1970s and 1980s, but you can still shop at the Walt Disney World Village.  Except they don’t call it the Walt Disney World Village anymore–it was renamed Disney Village Marketplace in 1989, Downtown Disney in 1997, and Disney Springs on September 29, 2015:

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Finally, a look ahead at what was coming to Walt Disney World in 1986, the new EPCOT Center Future World attraction known as The Living Seas:

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Modern Diner

1:43 a.m.
(Conversation on a Diner Napkin)

Rain falls to the sidewalk
beside a lonely crowded roadside diner,
where I’m wondering what it was about her
that could have stopped the world for so long.

The exact handwriting, shape of numbers–
lines a paper napkin
with her phone number
in faded gray pencil and that smudge
always a backdrop for conversation.

And smiling.

I remember smiling
and she did the same
even though the music stopped
and the words were erased
by the rain ticking off my umbrella
into the night.

I wrote that poem for a creative writing class. in the fall of 1997.  It’s not a particularly great poem, nor is it based on anything that actually happened or anyone I know.  I am pretty sure that the inspiration was more along the lines of an imaginary idea, a fictional story where two people enter a diner and one leaves heartbroken, the only thing left to show for it is something scribbled on a napkin–notes, a phone number, maybe something much deeper.  It didn’t matter.

But the geographical inspiration was very real.  Sitting on Main Street not too far from the intersection with Greene Avenue, the Sayville Modern Diner was just about everything you would expect from a restaurant with the word “diner” in its name–a greasy spoon filled with vinyl-covered booths, the sounds of silverware clanking on thick earthenware dishes, and the smells of a grill that had seen countless omelets and cheeseburgers.  It was not haute cuisine by any means and even though the menu was pretty extensive, any time I was in there, I ordered one of two things:  some sort of omelet with a toasted bagel, orange juice, and coffee; or a cheeseburger deluxe.  Well, that’s not 100% accurate because there were those times when I was feeling extra fancy and got a hot open turkey sandwich, but really it was those two items, which are diner standards.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996.  Taken from a 1997 calendar.  Photo by Pat Link.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996. Taken from a 1997 calendar. Photo by Pat Link.

While breakfast after midnight is something you can get in quite a number of places outside Long Island (I have a number of memories involving late-night runs to Denny’s outside of Baltimore), I have to say that there are few if any places without the word “diner” in their name that really know what a cheeseburger deluxe is.  And yes, there are better hamburgers out there, burgers with higher quality ingredients and all sorts of creative sauces.  I love those places, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about the simple perfection of a single patty on a bun served with fries, onion rings, and a pickle (with the option of topping it with lettuce, tomato, and onions).  You don’t need anything else.

Of course, the food at a place like the Modern Diner is not the reason you go to a place like the Modern Diner.  I’ve noticed that diner culture has been fetishized over the last few years because of the culinary hate crime that is Guy Fieri, but turn away from his shtick and walk into a diner and you find something incredibly genuine that cannot be mass-produced.  Oh, it’s been tried–I’m sure there are still a few Silver Diner restaurants left at local shopping malls, but that place felt more like bad theme park kitsch as opposed to an actual diner.

That’s because a real diner feels worn in.  It’s the type of place where you can go in, get a booth, and aside from getting food and refills, you can be ignored.  You can allow yourself to disappear into that booth as long as possible.  The Modern Diner, when I was a kid, had this brown and gold decor that clearly came from the 1970s and at some point in the Eighties, they remodeled with the same dull magenta color you’d find in your average doctor’s office waiting room.  I’m trying to remember if they remodeled one more time and for some reason keep picturing a seafoam green motif, but I’m not sure.  Decor aside, if I was with my friends, those booths were the entire world for an hour or two.

Sometimes, the conversations were memorable; most of the time they were complete mundane.  Looking back, I feel that time spent there was our part of a ritual that had existed since time immemorial.  You’d make plans to go out and no matter what you did that night, you’d wind up at the diner.  Billy Joel put Brenda and Eddie there.  Garry Marshall had The Fonz set up shop in the bathroom.  George Lucas had Steve Bolander drown his sorrows in a vinyl-cushioned booth.  Barry Levinson wrote an entire movie called Diner that remains one of the all-time great friendship films.  Even when I (badly) wrote teenage characters, I’d have them hang out at the greasy spoon, giving them a moment of pause in a hectic plot or providing a place where moments of truth were had.  They are moments of importance, or in the case of the poem above, moments that are fleeting.  It’s something that is easy to recognize yet tough to capture in exactly the right way.

The Monday before this post went live, the Sayville Modern Diner served its last meal.  The owner, a former classmate of mine, apparently decided to sell, leaving the diner to be turned into a sushi/Asian fusion restaurant.  While I hadn’t been there in nearly a decade, I can definitely say I will miss it, even though there are other diners in town and other diners on Long Island, meaning that the idea of the diner will continue even though this one has closed its doors.