Sayville

Raiders!, Teen Movie Dreams and The Legend of Kung Fool

Raiders posterI can’t get the image of Eric Zala begging his boss for another day off out of my head.  It happens about two-thirds of the way through 2015’s Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, which chronicles his efforts to reunite his childhood friends–Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb–so they can recreate the aistrip scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones fights a Nazi brute and wins when said brute is chopped up by a plane’s propeller.  It’s the only scene that he and his friends never filmed when they were teenagers and put together a shot-for-shot adaptation of the movie.  At this point in the film, Eric is woefully behind schedule due to constant rain storms, and we hear his boss, Alex, berating him for wanting just one more day off and he sits in his trailer looking like a kid who is being chastized.

For a split second, my thoughts line up with the frustration that’s boiling over to anger coming from Alex–this guy is middle-aged, has a wife and kids, and his responsibilities to them should take priority over this project.  Yeah, it’s cool that he got enough Kickstarter funding to put all of this together, but shouldn’t he just grow up already?  But then Alex gives Eric the day off, and Eric’s wife comforts him by telling him that what is important is that he is doing something that makes him happy.  It’s the moment in the film that puts me not only back on board with him but makes me actively root for him to finish because I’m thinking of myself, my friends, and my own abandoned cinematic efforts.

I was bitten by the “filmmaking bug” at an early age, evidenced by how I put down “movie director” as the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question on my first grade class survey.  I’d been watching Star Wars on a loop for at least the past year, and while I played on the playground as Luke Skywalker, I wanted to be George Lucas.  And while my interests when it came to play would travel through various iconic 1980s toy lines, the creative streak never left–I wrote short stories, thought of ideas for movies, and my friend Tom and I even conceived a Miami Vice-esque comic book series called Drugbust that got as far as a plot outline, a few cover sketches and a finished splash page.  It was enough to keep my young imagination active and sated, at least until Christmas of 1987 when my dad bought the family a video camera.

panasonic omnimovie ad

A print ad for the Panisconic Omnimovie camcorder circa late 1987/early 1988.

Retailing for somewhere close to $1000 (based on crack research–I found an ad for a similar model that had a price of $898), the Panasonic Omimovie camcorder was not a small purchase by any means.  It signaled that you had the money to blow on such an expensive toy, and was a literally hefty purchase, as this was a shoulder-mounted camcorder that took full-sized VHS tapes.  I’d learned how to use one the previous summer as part of an enrichment class called “video volunteers” and I’d like to think that’s maybe why my dad let my friends and I use it almost right away–although he did tell us that it “had a drop ratio of zero” as a way to remind us to be careful.  To this day, I have no idea if he was using any of that terminology correctly, but the message did get across.

At first, we made music videos, the best of which was a two-hour concert video by our fake band, The Terminators. Tom, my sister, and I would use G.I. Joe airplanes (specifically, the Sky Striker and the Cobra Night Raven) as guitars and a croquet mallet as a microphone with a stand while lip syncing to Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and other hits of the mid-Eighties, getting the song onto the tape by placing the camera on the washing machine and putting my boom box next to it.  That tape featured a lot of Tom playing guitar and looking cool in a denim jacket and spiked hair, me melodramatically singing while wearing military camo pants and a Naval Academy sweatshirt, my sister looking happy that she wasn’t chased out of the room, and several shots of someone running toward the camera to turn it off so that we could cue up the next song.  We made a few more and then gave up fun with the video camera because the novelty wore off, until the eighth grade, which is when I attempted something more ambitious:  a feature film called Kung Fool & Company.

I can’t recall where the title or the character name came from, although I’m pretty sure it is because we watched Big Trouble in Little China so many times, but between that and the number of hyper-violent action flicks we were renting on a regular basis, I had enough to write a full-length screenplay about our hero going on a full-fledged revenge spree after his best friend is killed by the mafia.  It had roles for a number of my friends, and when I finished it, I roped them into helping me out, even though none of us had any idea of how we were going to shoot a gritty action flick in our quiet suburb.  I guess we thought we’d figure that out later.

We shot an opening credits sequence and two scenes.  The opening credits were handwritten on paper and filmed by placing them on a small easel, then zooming in to try and avoid getting my hand in the shot while I removed each page (and even then, you probably could have seen my fingers) while music I’d taped off of the Ninja Gaiden II video game played behind me on the same boom box used for our basement concert.  That, by the way, put the budget at the $1.99 it cost for me to rent the video game, a cost that would not get any higher.

The two scenes were the first two scenes of the screenplay, because it wouldn’t be until a few years later that I learned that movies were shot out of sequence, and even if I did know that I didn’t have access to editing equipment.  In scene one, my friend Rich played a mob boss who killed the best friend character, who was played by my friend John.  We shot the scene at the desk in my bedroom during the day and created atmosphere by turning all of the lights off and letting the sunlight shine through the red curtains, something I think was Rich’s idea and that we were all proud of because it seemed really cinematic when we were watching it back.  The second scene was not as cool–it was me as the future Kung Fool standing at my friend’s grave, which was really a cutting board placed in my parents’ backyard flower bed, and vowing vengeance.  I remember that the music we were playing drowned me out so much you couldn’t hear my lines.

I think we were supposed to shoot a training scene that would have taken place in a foreign country like Japan or China, but how we figured that we would duplicate that at a place where we could go to on our bikes is lost on me because we never shot the scene and abandoned the project in favor of whatever was going on in the world of professional wrestling at the time.  We would eventually get our first taste of shows like Saturday Night Live and In Living Color and shoot comedy sketches and return to actual attempts at music videos, and in between ninth and tenth grades, my friend Chris and I did complete a short film about cops busting drug dealers when I visited him in Florida for a week, this time with songs off of the Classic Queen compilation album providing the soundtrack.

At the heart of Raiders! is a story between three childhood friends, and shooting the airstrip scene is as much a reunion and patching up of a broken friendship as it is about getting the shot.  Eric, Chris, Jayson have a lot of baggage between them, with Jayson feeling like he was pushed out of the project before it was finished, and the friendship between Eric and Chris deteriorating by the end of high school and beyond.  As we see how they were able to not only finish the film but rent out a movie theater to show it (with local news coverage to boot), we see the tension between them grow and Eric’s social ineptitude along with Chris’s inner demons more or less destroy it.

I personally didn’t have any epic fallout with the friends involved in any of our movies–some of us stayed friends all the way through the end of high school while others just drifted to other groups.  I’m sure I was a dick to a few of them or them to me at one point or another, but it was obviously not enough for me to recall how.  It was just the drift that comes with getting older.  Plus, as we went through high school, my interest in films shifted to Eighties movies and I pretty much spent the back half of my teen years setting George Lucas aside for Cameron Crowe, with Say Anything … as my Raiders.  And I got my chance at that in the form of a humanities class project during the spring of my senior year.

I’d taken creative writing during the fall semester and that’s where I wrote a story about having the chance to kiss a girl but never actually taking it.  While structured as fiction, it was based on a moment where, after hanging out with my next door neighbor Elizabeth (on whom I had a massive crush–and no, that’s not her real name), we were saying goodnight and there was one of those moments with a tension-filled pause.  You know, the ones that have some sort of music swell or pop song in the background of the movie because the audience is being told to wait for a great kiss.  Sadly, this was reality, no music was playing, and I simply said goodnight and walked home.

Now, reality says and would later confirm that I actually had no shot–she’d friendzoned me pretty much from the moment we met–and while I still pined, I managed to muster up what maturity I had to not pursue her, because it was cool to have a friend.  But the moment became a great idea for a story and that got turned into a short film that I was not only able to shoot, but shoot out of sequence and edit using our high school’s video editing booth.

The premise of the story is that we see a couple on a date and it’s being narrated via the guy’s inner monologue, a monologue that starts off with the voice of a coach and then devolves into frustrated and angry yelling at our main character.  In the film, I played both guy and narrator, with the date scenes being shot at a nearby park and the narration in my basement using the same washing machine-as-tripod setup that I employed for lip syncing several years prior.  Originally, the girl in the story was going to be played by my then-girlfriend, but she didn’t want to be on camera (in retrospect, I don’t blame her) and my sister was supposed to be the cinematographer.  They switched places and when I showed the completed film in class, this made one of the girls in my class incredibly uncomfortable–even though, you know, no on-screen kiss happened.

That was the last time I used the camera to shoot, unless you count my senior prom, when my friends and I managed to commandeer it and take it with us to the dance after my parents were done shooting the pre-prom stuff.  I’d go on to make a college choice that was regrettable in some ways, as while I do think I learned how to be a better writer, I often found myself overreaching in my efforts to seem “literary” in class while the stuff I really wanted to write was relegated to my student newspaper column or short story and novel drafts that got tucked away on my hard drive and taken out only when I didn’t have schoolwork.  I don’t have the tapes anymore, either–they were taped over or thrown away years ago (well, except for the prom video).

So I watched Raiders!  and found myself surprised that I wasn’t filled with any sort of midlife crisis anger or regret about not standing my ground and pursuing the creative endeavors that anyone around me would have called distractions.  If anything, I rooted for Eric and his friends, sharing in the hopeful glee that they managed to still have the sense of wonder that so many of us often lose to cynicism.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 110: Smile

Episode 110 Website CoverWith 1.5 million copies in print, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile is one of the most successful graphic novels of all time. So, in this episode, I take a look at it and not only give it a good review, but also talk about how a graphic novel that’s meant for middle school girls could possibly relate to me, a 43-year-old guy.

Plus … listener feedback!

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

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Some bonus stuff after the cut …

(more…)

A New Year’s Eve on the Brink

When you trade in nostalgia, the idea of a milestone anniversary for something you cherished in your formative years is constantly on your mind.  Since starting this blog, I have watched the 20th, 25th, 30th, and even 40th anniversaries of pieces of popular culture that were personal milestones come and go.  Some, I have celebrated; others, I have acknowledged but decided not to cover because the idea of constantly chasing such anniversaries sounds exhausting.

That being said, today marks 30 years since New Year’s Eve 1988.  Nothing significant happened exactly on this day, but when I was thinking about what to write for my annual New Year’s Eve post, the thought of the 1988-1989 school year kept popping into my head and the more and more I thought about it, I discovered that in hindsight, this was a year that was more important than I once thought, both personally and culturally.

Why?  Well, for a number of reasons (and not just mathematically), 1988 was the beginning of the end of what we commonly celebrate as the 1980s and as we moved into 1989, we would see our culture shift into that odd post-1980s hangover that was the pre-Nevermind early 1990s.  It was, as the title of this post suggests, a time when we were on the brink.  The Cold War was ending, we were heading toward a new decade, I was hitting puberty, and there were other societal shifts that we as a culture were both seeing and wouldn’t realize were there until they were over (or in my case, 30 years later).

So, to take us out of 2018, here is my list of … Eight Significant Things about 1988-1989. (more…)

Origin Story Episode Seventeen

Origin Story Episode 17 Website CoverThe “Joes captured behind the Iron Curtain” storyline continues as Outback, the one who got away, escapes and fights his way across the border in G.I. Joe Special Missions #6.  As always, I take a look at the comic and give it a review.  Then, I spend time talking about the Stephen King novels published in 1987, especially his fantasy story The Eyes of the Dragon.

NOTE:  There were some technical issues with the audio and I may sound a little digitized and underwater.  Hopefully, I will resolve those issues by the next episode.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

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G.I._Joe_Special_Missions_Vol_1_6

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.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 50: The Weirdest Year of Your Life

Episode 50 Website CoverIt’s the 50th episode of Pop Culture Affidavit! For this special episode, I take a look back twenty years to the year I graduated from high school. Along the way, I look at how senior year of high school is represented in movies. It includes stops at, among other things, American Pie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Can’t Buy Me Love, and Paper Towns as well as a host of personal memories about my own senior year of high school (which ended on June 25, 1995). Was high school the best time of my life? Was it a waking nightmare? Was it a little bit of both? You’ll have to listen to find out.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

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Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

 

Musical Biography or Archaeology?

The cover I made for "Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends," which I originally burned onto two CDs.  The idea for the cover came from a  timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

The cover I made for “Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends,” which I originally burned onto two CDs. The idea for the cover came from a timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but following up a song by The Weepies called “Can’t Go Back Now” with “Summer, Highland Falls” is kind of a definite statement.  The latter’s first lines are, “They say these are not the best of times/they’re the only times I’ve ever known.”  While I can’t confirm this, I am pretty sure I wrote that in a friend’s yearbook at the end of my senior year (or at least I was thinking of it).  It has always been one of my favorite songs and at the time I graduated high school, it fully encapsulated what I was feeling.

I’m pretty sure that is why it wound up on a playlist I made back in 2010 called “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends.”  Silly as it sounds, I put it together because at the time, I was fifteen years away from that day in late June of 1995 and the mix tape, at the time I was a teenager, was my preferred form of artistic expression.  if you were a girl I was dating (or a friend on whom I was crushing), you more than likely wound up with a 120-minute Maxell normal bias cassette that may or may not have had a custom label created using Arts & Letters, an ancient Windows 3.0 graphic design program.  Now, I’m not sure how many of those girls kept my tapes.  My wife did, but I think that’s because she never emptied them out of her car (a car, by the way, that I now drive to work every day).  But the old girlfriend whose relationship with me ended in utter disaster?  She probably torched them all the moment after I gave her one final goodbye over the phone (not my idea, mind you; she forced my hand).  And some of those other girls?  Part of me hopes that a copy of “The Last Worthless Mix Tape” is floating out there, playing in the old tape deck of someone who is feeling sentimental.

Which brings me to this five-year-old playlist that’s still on my iPod.  Like I said, I was hitting the fifteen-year mark and was feeling sentimental, so I began dragging and dropping songs into a playlist.  The phrase “long-lost friend” had been bouncing around my head for a while as had the idea of my having led a past life, or everyone I know having led a past life.  Because when you think about it, the people you are around on a daily basis have stories that are bigger than the one they have with you.  Or maybe I just notice this because it’s the curse of the writer’s mentality.  But the idea that everyone is interesting in a way, that there is always something to find out about them, is fascinating.

It seems completely pretentious to me try and encapsulate that in a mix, and looking at the song list, it probably could be at least five songs shorter.  It still would fit on a 120-minute cassette, but there are too many anthemic songs of youthful defiance (“We’ll Inherit The Earth,” “Death or Glory”) or aging punk anthems (“Scattered,” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) and the middle drags on through some very slow and soft folk pieces that don’t hold up (“See You Later, See You Soon,” “This is Me”).  But it was good enough to earn “permanent playlist” status.  Either that, or I was just too lazy to delete it, which is probably the more likely explanation as to why it has spent five years on my iPod.

Mix tapes seem to be this thing that is a part of my youth, whereas playlists are something you throw together because you want to listen to a variety of songs, often with the same rhythm or tone.  I make workout playlists (admittedly, I probably should start working out more often), Christmas music playlists, dinner music playlists, and even a breakfast playlist that is filled with French jazz and other brunchy music.  It’s all very adult because it serves a practical purpose, an extension of the tapes called “Tom’s Crap” that I used to make so that I had something to listen to on my Walkman or in my car.  Part of me shrugs at this, but part of me is saddened.

There was a point in my life where everything had meaning.  If I gave you a tape, it was because I wanted to say something or introduce you to something.  And no matter how crappy that tape was–and trust me, some of those tapes were crappy–I thought it was important.  “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends” was an attempt at making something important like that and also an attempt to hold on to the self-importance that comes with “meaning,” as if I am attempting to dispute the statement that Ally Sheedy so boldly makes in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

At seventeen, I believed her; at 37, I’ve come to realize she’s wrong.  You simply turn your focus elsewhere.  Adulthood is priorities and responsibility.  It’s not that I don’t want to sit and contemplate an entire album for an hour; it’s just that I don’t always have the time.  My geeking out happens amidst a flurry of multitasking and when I do get those moments to contemplate, I usually fall asleep in front of the television.

I’ve heard Billy Joel explain the meaning of “Summer, Highland Falls” as hitting that point in his life where he was starting to see the world for what its complexities.  Much of that playlist, if you look at several of the songs, is a similar contemplation but I don’t know if I was contemplating graduating high school as much as I was coming to terms with the onset of middle age.  At seventeen, I would have never put “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne on a mix tape (granted, I’m pretty sure that “Running on Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby” were the only Jackson Browne songs I knew), nor would I have considered Paul Simon essential listening.  If I was being contemplative or sentimental, I would have chosen 10,000 Maniacs, but mostly I would have gone for the bombast of Queen.

To be honest, I have thought about making a Twenty Years On mix.  I can’t decide if I would go for nostalgia or reflection, though.  Twenty years kind of dictates that I should throw together a collection of the Pearl Jam, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel that I listened to in a Big Chill soundtrack sort of way.  Being reflective would be more of what I did five years ago, which might be belaboring the point.

“Summer, Highland Falls” ends with a few lines that have always stuck with me:

How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness or euphoria

It’s a final statement worth a close examination.  If it is, as he says, the a moment of realizing that you’re getting older, it’s a perfect expression of that realization.  There’s no violent anger here, just acceptance and resignation.  Perhaps, even, there’s a bit of maturity.  Place this in the larger context of, say, looking at one’s own adulthood or having a moment of forced nostalgia like the anniversary of graduating high school, and the same ambiguity exists.  The bloom comes off the rose pretty easily when you really start thinking about all of it; thankfully, there are mix tapes, CDs, and playlists to help guide the way.

We Wrote the Book on Savings

consumers catalog

The cover of the fall 1991-1992 Consumers catalog. The company stayed in business until the mid-1990s, although my local store was gone by then.

I think that I am at the point in my life where I don’t get upset if I go to the store and something is out of stock.  Oh sure, it’s a minor inconvenience and the solution usually leads to me getting in the car and driving to another, similar store down the road.  But when you are a kid, this is a hard lesson to learn.  You don’t have a car and you don’t know much about the stores in your area beyond what you have seen whenever your parents have taken you, so showing up to TSS only to find out that the action figure you wanted was completely sold out can be absolutely devastating, even if it provides you with much-needed lessons about how you’re not always able to get what you want instantly.  Now, I’m sure that if you ask a number of people in my generation how they learned this lesson, they’ll tell you a variation on the same story–they wanted a toy, they asked mom or dad to take them to the store to get it, it wasn’t there.  Or they may say one word:  “Consumers.”

Consumers was a catalog-based store that was founded in Canada as Consumers Distributing in 1957 and expanded over the course of a couple of decades, adding stores and then buying out other, similar retail outlets, something that helped them to pop up with more frequency during the 1980s.  The idea behind the store was similar to its main competitor, Service Merchandise:  the company published a catalog and then anyone who wanted to buy something from the catalog would head to the local retail outlet–usually at a mall–and pick it up.

That is, if they actually had anything.

The G.I. Joe page of a 1980s Consumers catalog. Photo courtesy of YoJoe.com

The arrival of the Consumers catalog twice a year was an event.  My friends and I would grab it out of the mail and skip right to the toys and games section.  Open before us was a display of everything we ever wanted, from G.I. Joe figures and vehicles to every Nintendo game that we’d ever seen advertised anywhere.  Plus, the prices were much better than what you would get at Toys R Us–not that Toys R Us was overpriced or anything, but any time you can say, “Hey Mom!  The Legend of Zelda is only $45 and not $60!  Can we get it?” you have a better shot at getting what you wanted.

That is, if your parents were completely gullible, which mine were not, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  Unfortunately for those who actually got this ploy to work, going to Consumers was usually a bust because they would head to the store, find the item on display, give the cashier a ticket and most of the time discover that said item was currently out of stock.  According to the Wikipedia page on the store, this led to the company creating what was then an innovative inventory checking system, where they were able to look up the item you wanted on the inventory of every store in the area, which is something that we take for granted in today’s retail world.

But the prevailing perception was that most of the merchandise at Consumers was non-existent and as much as the company tried to change that, I don’t think it really helped.  It also didn’t help that the Consumers store in the Sayville area was in the Sun Vet Mall, a mall that was closer than any of the malls in the area but was clearly third-tier, especially when compared to the South Shore Mall and Smith Haven Mall, which had big-name department stores.  Sure, Sun Vet had The Gap, which was convenient when I was in junior high and high school, but its anchors were a Rickel Home Center and a PathMark, so it didn’t exactly scream “Galleria” if you know what I mean.

The Consumers store was located in the corner of the mall near the Gap and McCrory, both of which have since left, and whereas the other malls always were bustling, Sun Vet always seemed half dead and while the mall’s pizzeria was excellent and Sun Vet Coin and Stamp always was good for a few back issues, you only went there if you absolutely had to or if you were like me and my friend Jeremy, who would ride there on our bikes when we were teenagers simply because we had very little else to do.  Whereas Service Merchandise would be a huge store that was part of a brand new shopping center down the road, Consumers was shoved into that corner and while the first few catalogs would get people there, the store was pretty dead within a year or two, especially as we’d taken to dragging our parents back to Toys R Us or anywhere else where we knew that would have what we wanted in stock.

So in a way, it was a learning experience about being more strategic in begging for toys and other stuff as well as being more patient, and perhaps that is why so many of us are more intelligent these days about where we shop.

My mutant power activated the day I was left “Far Behind”

CandleboxThere’s a running joke that Michael Bailey (of Views From the Longbox fame) and I have going about us having “the same childhood”–being close in age and having grown up being able to watch a lot of the same TV channels, he and I have a lot of shared experiences when it comes to entertainment from the 1980s and 1990s.  What makes this coincidence possibly more weird than funny, however, is that we both have the same mutant power.  Both Mike and I have the ability to remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we first saw a particular movie, heard a certain song, read a certain comic book, or encountered a number of other pieces of popular culture.  I can take it one step further and tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when my mutant power manifested itself.  It was the day after Thanksgiving in 1994 and I was in my friend Vanessa’s kitchen.  My girlfriend was breaking up with me over the phone and in the background of our conversation was Candlebox’s “Far Behind.”

Written as a tribute to Andrew Wood, the late singer of the seminal Seattle band Mother Love Bone, “Far Behind” is arguably the most well-known song off of Candlebox’s 1993 self-titled album.  It was released on January 25, 1994 and peaked at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100, although it’s important to note that it was on the charts for most of the year and by the end of November 1994 was still in the top 40, having dropped to #35.  But chart position for rock in 1994 wasn’t terribly important to those of us who were living on a steady diet of any band that we thought was quality in the wake of the coming of Nirvana and Pearl Jam during my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and since Candlebox sounded similar to Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, I heard songs like “You” (their first single) and “Far Behind” and picked up the album.

I honestly had no idea that this was a tribute song.  In fact, I had no idea who Andrew Wood was back in 1994 and my only experience with Mother Love Bone was the song “Chole Dancer/Crown of Thorns,” which was on the Singles soundtrack.  I figured it was a typical-for-the-era breakup song/torch song, and to be honest, the events surrounding the day after Thanksgiving 1994 definitely contributed to that, especially since I took that moment very hard and it would take the better part of a year for she and I to get around to being friends without “We had once gone out and you broke up with me and I’m still pissed” being the elephant in the room.  And that had more than anything to do with my immaturity–even though we only went out for a couple of weeks, she was the first girl I’d ever really dated and therefore this was my first real breakup.  So “Far Behind” became its theme song and every time I heard itI’d picture myself hanging out with Vanessa, who was home on break from college, calling up the girlfriend, and hearing her awkwardly ramble her way through a breakup that ended with “Well, I think we should just be friends.”  It got to the point where it was like I was following some sort of masochistic ritual, and when I signed her yearbook that June I drove home the point by quoting the opening lines: “Well maybe I didn’t mean to treat you bad, but I did it anyway.”  Because, you know, I was a senior in high school but when it came to girls I sometimes felt like I was still in junior high.

Despite all that, she and I are still friends and in a weird sort of way, this is a belated thank-you note to her because most importantly, that breakup was where memories of certain events or people in my life really began to be associated with something in popular culture and I began to think along the lines of “I remember when I first saw/heard this.”  I hadn’t listened to “Far Behind” in nearly twenty years before watching the video on YouTube–a video I had, by the way, never seen before because I didn’t have cable in high school, and one that is so very Nineties (seriously, the empty pool, the color scheme, the guy walking around aimlessly, the outfits … this isn’t a music video, it’s an artifact in a Nineties museum)–and that’s not because of my memories but more because of my changing tastes in music (unlike Live’s Throwing Copper which I refused to listen to for years because of a girl and now refuse to listen to because Live simply sucks).  Hearing it now, I can still see the wood paneling in Vanessa’s house and remember our conversations about David Letterman before picking up her phone and having that conversation and having my stomach drop, a moment that at the time was painful but eventually became almost bittersweet because of its normalcy and innocence.

Memories That Overshadow Movies

Just because we're both hideous doesn't mean we'll be compatible.

Just because we’re both hideous doesn’t mean we’ll be compatible.

About five years ago, I was showing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to a room full of high school seniors. We got to the scene where the monster (Robert DeNiro), who is now at the point where he has Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) by the throat and is forcing the good doctor to make him a bride from the tattered remains of Helena Bonham Carter. The Bride of Frankenstein, so to speak, emerges from the 19th-Century life-giving apparatus and Victor and the monster begin calling to her, telling her to come to each of them as if she’s a puppy trying to choose between two owners.

I went on to ask my students about how Hollywood is forever getting Frankenstein completely wrong as I thought about how I missed how bad this movie was back when I saw it in the theater in 1994. After all, by putting the name of the author above the title–a trend that eventually died out after William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet because … Shakespeare Wrote Romeo & Juliet? Thanks for telling me, Baz–Kenneth Branagh’s film purported to be the definitive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel. And to a point, it actually works out pretty well–bride-dog moments aside, the basic structure of the plot is there–but in many areas it falls flat and that’s why I was wondering why I liked it when I was seventeen. Then I realized that like a few of my entertainment choices in the mid-1990s, this story begins with the phrase: “You see, there was this girl …”

While I know it shouldn’t, being on a date drastically changes your perspective on the film you’re watching. The night I went to see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was on my first official date with a girl I had been friends with for a couple of years, but we’d been hanging out a lot and that prompted me to do the math: our hanging out together + she knowing that I liked her = she might actually want to go out with me. This wouldn’t mean very much to your average seventeen-year-old boy, but I wasn’t exactly your average seventeen-year-old boy. I had spent the majority of my adolesence being painfully awkward around girls, acting immature and not knowing what to say. The more attracted I was to a girl, the worse that awkwardness was, and that is probably the reason I didn’t go on a single date until that night in November to see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So I spent most of the movie not concentrating on the film but trying to figure out how to properly behave so that the date went well and by the end of the night I could … well, I guess the experession “get to first base” would apply. In the blur of Branagh, Bonham Carter, DeNiro and Aidan Quinn (I remember his part because she squeed when she saw him), I worked on trying to find the right moment to put my arm around her, followed by trying to figure out a tactful way of taking my arm away when it started to go numb. It was ten times tougher than the calculus class I had every first period.

Not to brag, but I was successful. Okay, it’s not much of a brag because we walked from the movie theater to the corner near both of our houses and I spent what might have only been two minutes but felt like ten awkwardly and nervously chuckling and making small talk until I finally made a move and kissed her good night. It wasn’t my first kiss–that had come the previous summer when I was away in Europe–but it was my first “date” kiss, the first kiss that had the potential to lead to something more than a goodbye and a half-assed attempt at writing letters to one another for the first month after I got home. Never in my life had so much depended on one very chaste kiss at the end of the night; never in my life had a moment been so charmingly small town that they don’t even write those types of moments anymore.

I haven’t watched Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in its entirety since that moment in my classroom five years ago; I’ve been more or less permanently teaching sophomores since then and high-concept, high-budget horror from the 1990s isn’t as interesting to me as low-budget schlock from the 1980s. And I guess I’ll keep it that way because for once I don’t mind having a memory overshadow a movie.