random stuff

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 118: Generation X

Thirty years ago, Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a novel that would name the generation that came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. It told of disaffected, misanthropic, self-absorbed twentysomethings who didn’t seem to care about anything that was going on in the world. But was that really the case?

In this episode, I take a look at Coupland’s novel as well as Richard Linklater’s film Slacker; plus, I examine articles and books that attempted to define and explain Generation X and make some attempt to come to a conclusion about this group of people who are now middle aged.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some links for you ..

Time’s “Twentysomething” Article

Newsweek’s “Generalizations X” Article

Goodreads page for 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Fail?

IANXTC, the blog of Ian Williams, aka “Crasher” from 13th Gen

My 1994 high school student newspaper essay, “Generation X Is …”

Time’s “Me Me Me Generation” Article about Millennials

Joyce Maynard’s Essay “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”

73 Seconds

The Challenger at liftoff. Image from americainspace.com.

When my son was little, he liked to watch videos of the space shuttle taking off. They were exciting and short, perfect for the attention span of a three-year-old. But whenever we watched them, I would get anxious about a minute and a half after the launch when the camera angle switched to the underside of the shuttle as it flew diagonally away from the viewer. The anxiety would melt when the solid rocket boosters separated, because I knew that the launch had been completely normal.

It doesn’t take any real analysis to understand why that happened. Everyone in my generation has not only seen the Challenger explode, we each have our own very specific answer to the “Where were you?” question. Mine? I was in Miss Hubbard’s third grade classroom at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. We didn’t get to watch it live, and found out when Mrs. Nolan, our principal, came over the PA to tell us that the space shuttle carrying the teacher in space had blown up after takeoff. I’d never heard an adult sound so upset before and I can’t imagine how she managed to even stay that composed. Nobody said a word for at least a while and I can’t remember what our teacher said, just going home, turning on the television, and watching Peter Jennings narrate the shuttle taking off and exploding 73 seconds into its flight, leaving a huge ball of smoke in the clear Florida sky. The lack of sound after Mission Control’s “Go at throttle-up” made it more real than anything I’d seen in a movie, and while it scared me, I couldn’t stop watching.

Christa McAuliffe. Official NASA press photo.

The news played the footage more times than I can remember and 35 years later, I am struck by how we were all totally unprepared. Everyone who saw the Challenger explode live on television had been watching because something good was supposed to happen. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was being launched into space, nearly every child in the country — every member of a generation — was tuned into that event in some way. Unlike the way my parents’ generation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, which had a pallor of tragedy prior to its happening, this broke a generation’s trust in the world. The time after was surreal and confusing. President Reagan offered words of solace that we half understood and adults chastised us for not staying quiet enough while he did. And nobody wanted to be an astronaut anymore.

One of the best sources of solace came a little more than a month later when the Punky Brewster episode “Accidents Will Happen” aired on NBC. Filmed as a direct response to the Challenger disaster, it was a rare moment of responsibility on the part of a show, as the writers understood their influence on a young audience. We all understood how Punky felt when she comes home in tears after watching the Challenger explode on live television, and how she is completely inconsolable. It takes a heartwarming talk from an adult—in this case, it’s Buzz Aldrin—to help her realize this is something she’s allowed to be upset about but it shouldn’t stop her from pursuing dreams of going up into space or loving space travel. While not a cure for our sadness, it was a much-needed balm; Punky was our friend and if the adults in her world took the time to show they cared, then they cared and were thinking about us.

Later that year, we received Young Astronauts commemorative packets. These had 8×10 pictures of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, and the shuttle lifting off; two stickers with the Teacher in Space Program and the official mission logos; a letter from President Reagan; and a poster with a picture of the shuttle and the poem “A Salute to Our Heroes”. That poster hung on my bedroom wall for a few years and I even bought a Revell space shuttle model kit because I really wanted a space shuttle toy but couldn’t find one. It sat in its box for a few years before I made a poor attempt at putting it together. We had a moment of silence on the one-year anniversary, but then the Challenger faded from consciousness and conversations—that is, when we weren’t making tasteless jokes like “What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts”. We turned our attention to movies where humans were fighting aliens in space, and the shuttle program went into in limbo.

In the aftermath, NASA took a serious image hit, especially after hearings revealed that the explosion could have not only been prevented, but some engineers’ pleas about an impending disaster were ignored or dismissed. While at eight, I knew about the cause of the explosion—a failure of both O-ring seals on the right solid rocket booster—it wouldn’t be until college that I would attend a lecture given by Roger Boisjoly, one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who gave the warning. He went into detail about the engineering behind the rocket boosters, what was an ultimately fatal design flaw, and those efforts to warn management and NASA about the probability that the shuttle would explode. Having just watched the Clinton impeachment play out, I was fully aware at the capabilities of our government to cover things up, but I still wound up feeling almost exactly how I felt like the day of the disaster when I stood in the den watching television. The gravity of the situation was still abundantly clear.

The Space Shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

The shuttle program would be retired in 2011 and in 2013, my son and I went to see Discovery—the shuttle that in 1988 made the first successful launch after Challenger—at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Upon reaching its exhibit hall, I was floored by its enormity. Knowing that we could build something that huge and send it into orbit reminded me of what we are capable of, and as I walked around it, holding my son’s hand, I felt the same awe that he did, and was humbled knowing what our achievements cost.

Getting Rid of Cream of Wheat

Cream of Wheat

A box of Cream of Wheat in June 2020 as displayed on Target’s website.

Last year, I went to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and found myself really affected by an exhibit on advertising.  The point of the exhibit was to show how Native Americans have been used to sell products by simply surrounding you with those products.  Floor to ceiling and wall to wall in this exhibit were packages of everything from chewing tobacco to baking powder oil with a huge television screen playing a loop of Native Americans in scenes from movies, television shows, and commercials.  It was a lot to take in, but that was the brilliance of the presentation because going in, I didn’t realize how common Native American imagery is in our popular culture and advertising.

I bring this up in light of an announcement yesterday that Quaker Oats and PepsiCo will be doing way with both the mascot for and brand name of Aunt Jemima.  This brand has been an everyday representation of a racist stereotype since its inception in 1889, and while there was online backlash from racists, I also saw a number of people reacting the same way I did, which was “Good, it’s about time.”  Granted, I stopped buying Aunt Jemima products years ago  because I make my pancakes from scratch and prefer actual maple syrup.  It wasn’t hard for me to say “good riddance” because I didn’t have a relationship with the brand.

That’s not the story when it comes to Cream of Wheat, though.

Most people reading this are probably familiar with Cream of Wheat cereal, and if you’re not, it’s a porridge-type farina cereal that’s prepared similar to oatmeal.  You boil some water, put the dry cereal in the pot, stir it until it thickens, and add whatever you’d like.  My wife jokingly calls it “bland white crap” and yes, it pretty much is the cereal equivalent of a loaf of Wonder Bread.  It is also been something I have been eating since I was a toddler, is the first thing I ever learned to cook on a stove by myself, and is something I ate the other morning the same way I have been eating it for nearly 43 years.  I have a very personal attachment to this particular brand, and that’s a problem because it has a very racist mascot.

Above the logo on the front of the box is a Black chef holding a bowl of Cream of Wheat.  It seems innocuous–after all, a chef is simply presenting you with food–until you understand exactly who the character is.  Debuting on the brand’s original packaging in 1893, his name is Rastus, which was a derogatory term for African Americans at the time and would go on to be a name of a character used in minstrel shows.  In older Cream of Wheat advertisements, he is depicted as illiterate and knowing nothing about vitamins, just that Cream of Wheat was tasty and affordable.  It’s very much the male version of the “Mammy” stereotype that we have seen on Aunt Jemima bottles for years and yesterday, B&G, the company that owns the brand, announced that it is “initiating an immediate review of the Cream of Wheat brand packaging.”

Now, if you read that last paragraph and were surprised by that information or just now realized there was a Black chef on the front of the Cream of Wheat box, I would say you are not alone and that is one of the biggest problems here.  In fact, I’d been ignoring the image since I was a little kid, and as I have been thinking about it, I have come to realize the damage that even the most harmless-seeming imagery can do.

There are people with way more academic credentials who have studied and written about the psychology of advertising, and I imagine they can elucidate this idea better than I can in a 1000-word blog post, but as I watched racists come with their “SJW PC Cancel Culture” whining, I saw how images like Aunt Jemima and Rastus are just as dangerous as statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  They are symbols that normalize cultures of oppression and second-class citizenry for African Americans by subconsciously reinforcing the idea of white superiority.

White people would react to that statement by saying, “I’m not racist and don’t believe I am superior” and I believe they consciously think that, but that’s how normalization works when it comes to cultural and systemic racism.  Normalization is a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences*.  Since an image like Aunt Jemima has been tweaked over the years to be not as overtly racist, we can ignore its racist aspects and accept it as something that is just part of everyday life.  As a result, the racism is an ingrained quality, and it’s why we are seeing more and more calls to be anti-racist and think more deliberately about the oppression BIPOC face in our society and then take action to change or dismantle those systems of oppression.  When it comes to Cream of Wheat, this means refusing to buy more of the cereal until the mascot is done away with, and writing them to let them know (and while I was at it, telling them to re-brand Brer Rabbit Molasses).

Right about here is where a quote or a platitude would often be placed, but I think that would undermine the last several paragraphs.  What I would like to see is for this reckoning with our culture’s symbols to continue.  More White people need to educate ourselves about our history of racist branding and then and put pressure on those companies still using those images to change them.

*Borsheim-Black, Carlin and Sophia Tatiana Sargiganides, Letting Go of Literary Whiteness. Teachers College Press. 2019.

Pop Culture Affidavit 101: Retrospecticus

Episode 101 Website CoverIt’s the most self-indulgent, ultra-sized episode of Pop Culture Affidavit EVER!!!

Join me as I take a look back at the history of the blog and podcast; giving you its origin story; and respond to both emails and past blog comments on topics such movies, comics, music, and random stuff.  Then I share never-before-heard outtakes and conversations with Michael Bailey, Stella, Donovan Morgan Grant, and Andrew Leyland before Amanda joins me for a brand-new segment about music from 1997 and 1998.

Plus, I introduce and preview my newest miniseries, which premieres in November!

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Here’s where you can find all of the guest spots …

0:17:40 Michael Bailey and I talk about cast members from How I Got Into College and Summer School and then talk about the syndicated show Super Force.

0:42:00 Stella and I discuss our initial reactions to Alien Covenant.

1:16:05 Donovan Morgan Grant and I talk about Roboetch (in footage that did not make the final cut of our episode).

1:43:00 Andrew Leyland and I talk about Nineties music.

1:52:05 Amanda and I disuss music from 1997 and 1998.

After the cut, you’ll find links to posts mentioned in the episode as well as some extras:

(more…)

Brand Me! (My Favorite Non-Toy and Giveaway Merchandise)

So my son and I were at at our LCS this weekend and we took some time to sift through their selection of Funko Pop! figures.  We do this pretty regularly, and while we’re not hardcore collectors or anything, we do like seeing what the company is able to license and sometimes even buy them because we’re suckers for a brand. Then again, we all are and have been since my parents were little and could buy merchandise that tied into Howdy Doody and the George Reeves Superman television series. My generation, of course, took it a step further and spent the 1980s immersing ourselves in the franchises that made up our childhood, gobbling up not just toys but everything from trading cards and video games to the most random piece of merchandise that had a logo or character slapped on its side.

Not surprisingly, seeing these items posted by people on Twitter, in scans of old Sears catalogues, or up for sale on eBay gets me nostalgic and so I decided to sit down and talk about six non-toy merchandising tie-ins that I remember with serious fondness.

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The G.I. Joe Flashlight (image: yojoe.com)

1. The G.I. Joe Flashlight: I think this is the closest thing to a toy that is on this list, and I am including it because it was the first G.I. Joe item that I ever owned and was the second-coolest thing that I got for Christmas when I was five (the coolest thing being my General Lee Big Wheels). When the Joe line was revived in 1982 under the “Real American Hero” subtitle, Hasbro came out with a superior line of figures and vehicles. But as anyone who flipped through the Sears catalogue int he 1980s will tell you, there was also a slew of other stuff. A quick look at YoJoe.com shows that in 1982 alone there were 48 different products ranging from the typical sheets, pillows, cups, and beach towels to Colorforms, View Master reels, and Lite Brite sets.

But the coolest stuff was the merchandise that had you playing army as hardcore as possible. There were dog tags, pins that showed off your rank, a whistle, walkie talkies, a canteen, and even a mess kit. The official G.I. Joe flashlight was a real working flashlight that took the same batteries as the red Eveready in my parents’ closet, but unlike the Eveready, it was colored army green and was positioned “military style” so that you had to hold it vertically. It also had a belt clip so you could take it with you on secret missions, unlatching it when you needed to crawl around and look into tight spaces like the ventilation shafts of Cobra HQ or under your parents’ couch because you think that’s where Han Solo’s blaster got kicked.

2. Masters of the Universe Puffy Stickers. Quite possibly the greatest things that ever came out of a box of cereal were the puffy stickers featuring five Masters of the Universe characters in Rice Krispies. A quick look at this old commercial shows that they were: Battle Armor He-Man, Skeletor, Teela, Evil Lyn, and Orko.

These prizes were given away in the summer of 1984 and this is one of those instances in my life where my parents’ strict adherence to non-sugary cereals paid off. Basically, the only cereals allowed in my house were Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Chex, Kix, and Raisin Bran (yes, I know the raisins are coated in sugar, but it wasn’t Frosted Flakes, and my sister’s love for Pro Grain Cereal is a topic for another day). That meant that for the entire time the promo was active, I was eating boxes of the stuff just so that I could collect all five stickers. Of course, collecting them wasn’t easy because the box didn’t tell you what sticker was inside, so any time you opened up a fresh box, you ran the risk of getting yet another Orko sticker instead of the Skeletor sticker you so desperately needed.

My big get, by the way, was Evil Lyn because I negotiated that with my cousin Brian when we were staying at my grandma’s house and came across her sticker in the Rice Krispies box. I can’t remember what sort of bartering went on between us as seven year olds 35 years ago, but I remember feeling pretty psyched because I really liked Evil Lyn. Who wouldn’t? She’s second only to the Baroness when it comes to awesome 1980s cartoon villainesses.

Anyway, I am sure that if we wanted to back then, we could spend our allowance money on a sheet of Masters of the Universe puffy stickers at the local stationary store, but that would have kind of been like cheating. What made the stickers so special was the snap, crackle, and pop of the hunt.

Return of the Jedi Party Favor

Party favor bags from a galaxy far, far away.

3. Return of the Jedi Party Supplies. I can’t remember which birthday was my Return of the Jedi birthday. I turned six when the movie came out, and since the Star Wars franchise as a merchandising juggernaut by then, it’s very possible that I had an Jedi-themed party one month after it premiered in theaters. But it could have been the next year, considering how long Jedi stuck around in my life before it got replaced by Transformers.

Anyway, I have to say that a kid’s birthday party in 1984 was pretty much your friends coming over to your house for Carvel cake one afternoon and not your parents renting out an entire trampoline park for three hours on a Saturday, so a Jedi-themed birthday meant that mom and dad bought a bunch of cups, napkins, and plates that had the movie logo on it and that’s what you ate cake off of and drank punch out of after you ran around in the backyard for two hours. And hey, they might have even been feeling fancy and sprung for the paper tablecloth.

I think my parents did, anyway. Those supplies were easy to find and weren’t very expensive–they were always right by the entrance to Toys R Us and there were usually piles of them for sale at a decent price. Plus, they managed to get a Carvel cake with Darth Vader’s picture on it (back in the days before entertainment companies started cracking down on copyright) and they even wrapped the party favors–which I think were Star Wars coloring books–in Star Wars wrapping paper. I am sure there is a picture somewhere of said birthday party in an old family photo album and my mom has pictures of the cake or at least the cups and napkins in crowd shots, but just looking at an eBay listing has me feeling cool for being a Star wars party kid when I was young.

4. Masters of the Universe Plastic Cups. Another giveaway that really had us captivated was this Burger King promo from 1983.

These were plastic cups with original Masters of the Universe comic strips printed on the side. I don’t know if these comics were four separate stories or if they were four parts of one big story, but what I do know is that BK released one each week for four weeks in the fall of 1983 and my sister and I spent four weeks begging my parents to take us for burgers.

This wasn’t exactly a small feat in 1983. My parents had nothing against fast food, but going out to eat, even at Burger King, was definitely a “sometimes” type of thing, so to do it for four straight weeks to get a souvenir cup? That was pushing it. I mean, I was six years old and couldn’t care less about that because I stopped everything–even my umpteenth watching of Star Wars–when He-Man came on. I wanted those cups and would eat as many Whalers or Whoppers as I needed to.

Or just hamburgers. I was big on just the BK hamburgers. And the Italian chicken sandwich. Come to think of it, those cups may have been what started what became a pretty regular trip to the Burger King in Blue Point, especially after our weekly piano lessons. And I honestly don’t remember if I got all four cups–I think that I might have only wound up with two of them and they lasted a year or two before the comics peeled off and faded because of repeated trips through the dishwasher.

Voltron Lunch Box

The 1984 Voltron lunchbox.  Kind of makes me wish that I had it now.  I’d be the king of the break room.

5. Voltron Lunch Box. I blogged about Voltron years ago, but I still can’t get over how Voltron just sort of was there one day without prior notice. The cartoon dropped right around the beginning of second grade and beyond my insane quest to collect all of “Lionbot”, I rarely, if ever, saw much merchandise until probably the end of that school year and into the beginning of third grade when Panosh Place’s toy line came out and there was a lot more merchandise in the stores, including this.

Manufactured by Aladdin, who made a number of lunchboxes of mine back in the day, this was one of the plastic lunchboxes that were becoming more common as the Eighties wore on, replacing the metal ones that ended, I believe, with a Rambo lunchbox circa 1986-1987. The illustration on the front was straight from the cartoon and the thermos inside was a wraparound image of Voltron and the lion force. I never used the thermos, though, since I bought milk every day or packed a boxed Yoo-Hoo.

I treasured this thing. It was, quite possibly, the coolest lunchbox that I ever owned and I walked around the halls of Lincoln Avenue Elementary feeling so boss because I carried a much-coveted Voltron lunchbox. So you can imagine how terrible I felt when I left it somewhere and never saw it again. I think my parents were pretty annoyed because my absent-mindedness caused yet another thing they had to pay for to go missing, a motif throughout my childhood that also included jackets, a camera, and a mountain bike (which was stolen but I wound up taking the blame anyway).

Thankfully, the lunchbox was recovered. Sort of. I found one in the school’s lost and found but I knew it wasn’t mine because it had a thermos in it. Still, I had seen only one other kid with a Voltron lunchbox and thought that maybe he picked up mine by accident one day and what I was holding was his. Not having yet developed my social anxiety, I approached him at lunch one day and politely suggested that we had accidentally switched lunchboxes. He responded by yelling something at me–I can’t remember what it was but even at the age of eight, I knew that this kid lacked in basic social skills. My parents told me to keep the lunchbox, which I guess is technically dishonest, but it had been unclaimed, so Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and Princess Allura continued to protect my sandwiches.

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When the four puzzles were locked together to form the mural, they would look like this (although these are just the boxes put together).  Image: 3Djoes.com

6. The G.I. Joe Mural Puzzle Closing this out where we began, there is the most action-packed exercise in patience you will ever see or experience. According to YoJoe.com, this came out in 1985, but it was still available in stores as late as 1987 when i was at the height of my Joe fandom. And I wouldn’t have wanted it if my mom hadn’t dragged me to go clothes shopping with my sister at Swezey’s, a local department store that I still associate with off-brand clothing and mind-destroying ennui.

Anyway, Swezey’s had a random rack of accessories and pseudo-toys near the girls’ clothes (purses, pencil cases, some stuffed animals, games) and among all of it, I spotted a puzzle featuring G.I. Joe. It was a 221-piece puzzle that, as I saw on the box, could be linked to three other scenes to form a giant mural.

Now, badgering my parents to schlep to Burger King when I was six was one thing, so asking my mom to make special trips to buy puzzles was probably something else. Surprisingly, getting all four of these came easy because puzzles were always an approved form of entertainment–they were challenging, they kept you occupied for a long time, and they were done without the television being on. I can’t remember how long it took me to get all four puzzles, and I’m pretty sure that I paid for one of them with my birthday money one year, but I eventually did get them and assemble them and when the day came that I was ready to make the mural, I got ready to connect them, and … nothing.

To this day, I have no idea what I did wrong that prevented the giant awesome battle mural from coming together, as i stared at the directions on the box for several minutes, made multiple attempts to connect the puzzles, and ultimately said, “Forget it.” I am sure the puzzles were eventually donated to charity, so if I wanted to try one more time as an adult, I’d have to track them down at a thrift shop or on eBay.

Toys, comics, movies, and television shows will always be in the front of my mind whenever someone mentions Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Voltron, or anything else I was into as a kid. But what’s special about these things is that although they eventually faded away or were set aside for something new, when they were there, they shared a part of my life and became attached not just to entertainment nostalgia but memories of significant events as well as the everyday.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 99: Livin’ Well in 1999

Episode 99 Website CoverIt’s the second of two “milestone year” episodes as Amanda sits down with me once again for a talk about 1999!

Over the course of our (much shorter this time) conversation, we talk music, movies, and television, but also delve into news, politics and culture.  We’ll look at the rise of and importance of Millennials, Woodstock ’99, teen pop, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, Office Space, the dawn of the age of reality televisionWho Wants to Be A Millionaire?, the Food Network, and MTV’s Undressed, among other things.

Plus, we talk about what it was like to graduate from college in 1999 and how we somehow survived our early twenties, and we also talk about how the issues and serious events of 1999, such as Columbine and the Bill Clinton impeachment still affect our culture and politics today.

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Somewhere Else: Roy Rogers

A quick note:  This was originally written in December 2002 on my old site “Inane Crap” as part of an occasional series called “Somewhere Else”, which detailed random road trips and travels.  Since I mentioned this essay on the latest episode of the podcast, I decided to reprint it here.  It hasn’t been changed except for some proofreading edits.

-Tom

royrogers

The interior of the Roy Rogers at the Indian Castle Service Plaza on the New York State Thruway.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Soundtrack for this Trip:  Counting Crows, “Hard Candy” and Jimmy Eat World, “A Praise Chorus”

Somewhere else? Well yeah. The idea was that having a good part of the day to myself, I would take off for a while and journal my experience. I have spent a lot of time reading other people’s accounts of their travels and while I won’t be driving from one end of the country to the other any time soon, a day trip is just as good. Do you have an idea of somewhere I should go that’s not too far from where I am? Contact me.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002
11:00 a.m.: Sayville, New York

“I didn’t think that she returned it,
We left New York in a whirl …”

So I’ve promised that I would go to Best Buy with Nancy if she went on this little mini-road trip with me. After all, my parents are in need of a new universal remote, seeing that years of throwing the current one across the room at one another have caused it to stop working. Hey, I know I should have been less lazy throughout the years and maybe walked the remote over to the person on the other couch, but that’s a moot point now. Besides, shit happens.

Anyway, one of the great myths about Long Island is that there are no Roy Rogers restaurants, something anyone from the area will tell you with an authoritative tone, even though “Long Island” to them probably doesn’t extend east of Patchogue. I believed it myself for years, until last December when Amanda and I were driving to Smith Point and I passed the Roy Rogers in Shirley. It was kind of like a mirage, something I couldn’t believe was there, because I hadn’t been on William Floyd Parkway in Shirley for years, not since I used to go to the beach with my grandparents in their camper. The Roy Rogers was there then, and still is.

There used to be a lot more of these restaurants on Long Island, but I believe the corporate ownership of Roy Rogers’ changing hands over the last 10 or 15 years has led to their being eradicated throughout the northeast, with the exception of turnpike, thruway, and interstate rest stops, where the restaurant has taken on a very mythic role, at least for wayward Long Islanders like myself. In college, the highlight of driving home from Baltimore was stopping at a Roy’s and having a cheeseburger, fries, and two biscuits.

Of course, I’d end up stopping again further up the road because let’s face it–greasy buttermilk biscuits don’t necessarily make for good driving food. But that didn’t matter, because since the Roy’s at the corner of Johnson Avenue and Sunrise Highway closed and their burgers and biscuits became only available on the highway, the restaurant became a must-stop destination. I’m apt to say that Roy Rogers is the Howard Johnson’s of my generation–a fast fix, a good meal, and one that is slowly disappearing from our nation’s highways.

As we head down Sunrise Highway, I am also wondering if my first visit to a non-turnpike Roy Rogers in a few years isn’t going to be one of those bad nostalgia letdowns. I mean, I have great memories of Roy’s in Sayville from when I was in elementary school. Tom Hackett and I would get cheeseburgers and load them up with so many fixins that we could barely get our mouths around what we were calling “Buster Burgers.” We also once had a conversation about fried chicken–how we preferred breasts to legs–that probably could have been misinterpreted by anyone listening in if we weren’t 12 years old. So my question during this trip, of course, is will my memories of the place be soured by what is more than likely sub par fast food?

RoyRogers2

Foreground: my sister, eating a chicken sandwich.  Background:  my 1998 Honda Civic.

11:30 a.m., Shirley, New York

“Someone is going to ask you what it’s all about
Stick around, nostalgia won’t let you down.”

Of course, my sister finds it hilarious that I want to go to a Roy Rogers with her and take pictures of her eating a chicken sandwich. However, that’s because she’s one of maybe five people in this world who are as odd as I am. For the record, I get a cheeseburger but opted to take it plain because I am craving French fries more than I am craving burger. And I don’t go for the biscuits because being that this is the first fast food burger I’ve eaten since March of 2001, I don’t want to make myself too sick. Besides, I’m just here for the ambiance.

And what ambiance it is. The deep red and tan walls, the western-themed paintings, the garbage can with “Thanks” carved into its swinging door, the serve-yourself soda machine with Fanta root beer, and the fixins bar. Oh, the fixins bar. That’s what always made Roy Rogers so great, right? You could add as many pieces of lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions as you wanted, as well as ketchup, mayo, mustard, and horseradish. You could very well make the ultimate burger out of something that was probably two steps above the late, lamented Marriott Burger of my alma mater.

Nancy and I finish our food and head for westbound Sunrise Highway so we can stand in line at Best Buy for 10 minutes and run into one of our neighbors on the way through the parking lot. We return to Sayville at around 12:30, and considering we’ve gone shopping on Christmas Eve, that’s not too bad a trip and I can rest happily. Well, at least until I have the desire to go somewhere else.

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Requiem for a Pint

235px-americoneupdatedlogoRecently I discovered that I can no longer eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without serious digestive repercussions. I have never been lactose intolerant or had any other dietary restriction or need, but on a Friday night a few weeks ago after downing an entire pint of Americone Dream, I found myself planted on the toilet, praying for the sweet release of death.

As someone who has been trying to lose weight for some time, this discovery should be a welcome one–a craving for a pint of ice cream can now be quickly subdued by the reminder that I will spent a significant amount of time testing the limits of my house’s plumbing–but it kind of annoys and saddens me because I’ve been eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for more than 30 years. Whatever middle age is starting to do to my body in these days of sleep apnea, anxiety, and gout, has now claimed one of my favorite desserts.

Ice cream in general has had a constant presence in my life since I was little. My parents usually had a half-gallon of some sort of ice cream–Breyer’s, Edy’s, or the abomination known as Sealtest Ice Milk–in the freezer; birthday cakes were always from Carvel; and I spent many nights of my formative years eating sundaes at our local Friendly’s. But truly the only thing resembling a scoop shop in the greater Sayville area was the Baskin-Robbins on Sunrise Highway and Oakdale-Bohemia Road, a store too far away to reach by bike. The names Ben & Jerry were completely unknown to me until a family vacation in 1987.

Arctic Dreams Sign

The sign for Pizza Chef and Arctic Dreams in New London, New Hampshire c. 2011.  By then, the store had stopped serving Ben & Jerry’s and was serving Annabelle’s Ice Cream.  Image courtesy of Yelp.

Arctic Dreams was an independently owned ice cream shop in New London, New Hampshire, which is one of those small towns in new England that you pass by or drive through on your way to somewhere else. My parents rent a cabin on Kezar lake, which is just south of New London in North Sutton, a town that literally has one intersection, and at least a few times ever year we would head up to New London for a meal at Pizza Chef followed by ice cream at Arctic Dreams. It happened so often that it became a tradition, even though Pizza Chef was one of the few restaurants in New London where you could take a family of picky kids who could be real pains in the ass when it came to what was on the menu. Then again, very few kids aren’t pains in the ass about at least something.

arctic dreams inside

The Arctic Dreams menu/”flavor board”.  Image courtesy of Yelp.

Anyway, I can’t remember if the food at Pizza Chef was any good–the fact that a Google street view shot had it still open as of 2014 with the same 1980s-looking logo on the sign suggests they’ve been doing something right–but walking into Arctic Dreams that first time was a revelation. The place was cold (you could expect that from an ice cream shop) and instead of the constant hum and pull of soft serve machines I’d been used to from Carvel, there was a billboard-sized list of ice cream flavors and the smell of freshly made waffle cones. My ten-year-old mind was completely blown the moment I first stepped into the place and I just stood there for at least a full minute reading every flavor on that board until I eventually settled on what would become my all-time favorite scoop shop variety: vanilla chocolate chunk. No, not mint chocolate chunk, but vanilla ice cream with huge chunks of chocolate.

Even though I wanted a waffle cone stuffed full of ice cream, I was probably crabbed at to “just get a cup”–I was a notoriously sloppy eater and we could finish cups faster in order to beat the imaginary traffic back to the lake–the trips to Arctic Dreams were some of the best things about those vacations. Sure, there were trips to tourist destinations, days spent rowing and swimming in the late, and tours of the campus of Dartmouth College that were truly memorable, but even when I was at my most surly level of teenager, the ice cream was worth it.

pint-evol-blog-1

The Ben & Jerry’s pint in the mid-1980s.  Image courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s.

But I didn’t get to be planted on my toilet at midnight doing an impromptu ab workout while slowly realizing I did this to myself by visiting an ice cream place in New Hampshire in the mid-1980s. It was the pint, that package of goodness now ubiquitous to the supermarket that 30 years ago was a novelty. Ben & Jerry’s introduced their pints in 1980 and the packaging was so lo-fi, I would have believed it if you told me that they printed the labels by hand in the back of Arctic Dreams. A cartoon drawing of a guy making ice cream was on the front and you could tell what flavor you were buying by reaidng the lid, which also had a picture of Ben and Jerry. There was something special about the Ben & Jerry’s pint, just like their competitor, Haagen-Dazs, made their pints seem like indulgence beyond the basic bitch half gallons of Breyer’s chocolate and vanilla you were fishing out of an icebox at Waldbaum’s.

When I hit my twenties, that novelty wore off, and the pint was more or less a standard-issue single serving. Oh sure, the nutritional label on the pint says that a serving is half a cup and that meant that four people coud share that pint of Half-Baked who probably sat at home eating gallons of the stuff while playing three video games simultaneously and barking commands at his parents. So I made up for this childhood injustice by buying whatever the hell I wanted whenever the hell I wanted no matter how slow my metabolism got.

And you’d think that because Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever in 2000 and therefore became even more widely available, getting the right pint would be one of the easiest things in the world. I mean, it was if you weren’t picky, and there were times when I would choose the Helvetica that is Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (Ben & Jerry’s very first flavor, by the way, is vanilla, the Times New Roman of ice cream; the jury is still out on which flavor is comic sans). But then there were those times when I didn’t want just any ice cream and if I were to indulge a sweet tooth and take the calorie hit, I was going to do it at mach two with my hair on fire by wolfing down a pint of Brownie Batter.

The problem often was that not every place carried the same flavors and some of the more limited batches could only be found in a few select stores. At the height of my Ben & Jerry’s love, I had committed to memory exactly where I needed to go for what. For instance, the Harris Teeter in Pentagon City had vanilla caramel fudge but if I wanted a pint of Festivus (The Flavor for the Rest of Us), I had to drive to the Shoppers Food Warehouse at Potomac Yard. And I wanted some sort of limited edition batch that I actually read about in the news, I had to Indiana Jones it by constructing The Staff of Ra so I could figure out which Giant within a five-mile radius carried Marsha Marsha Marshmallow or something.

Of course, such quests had fleeting rewards and over the years, I got more interested in expanding my waistline via cookies and cake, which I’ll now have to stick to lest I turn my digestive tract into the very bowels of hell. Then again, you never know … I may want to dance with The Devil again.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 96: The Uncollecting

Episode 96 Website CoverHow much do we accumulate and hold onto?  How much of it do we actually need?  In this episode, I take you behind my new endeavor and new blog, “The Uncollecting”, which is “One Nerd’s Efforts to Let Things Go.”  I talk about what brought me to want to consume and get rid of what I haven’t read, watched, or listened to, and go over four pieces of related popular culture.  First, there is a 2007 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which features Oprah trying to help a woman who had been hoarding.  Second is the show Clean House, which aired on the Style Network in the 2000s. Third is Netflix’s Tidying Up. Finally, there is the recent “Potter’s House” series on the YouTube channel Curiosity Inc.

You can find The Uncollecting blog here:  The Uncollecting

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

As a bonus, here’s some of the materials I talk about on the episode:

A set of videos from The Oprah Winfrey Show highlighting a family torn apart by hoarding …

Style’s Clean House

Curiosity Inc.’s Potter’s House series …

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 95: Stayin’ Alive in 1995

Episode 95 Website CoverIt’s the first of two “milestone year” episodes where Amanda and I sit down and take a pretty thorough look at what was going on in a particular year of the 1990s. First up, 1995. Join us as we talk about where we were in our lives in ’95 and then run through the television shows, movies, and music of that year.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page