||Saturday. Grocery store. The clerk is very young, and grins a little too much. In fact he grins all the time. Maybe he made a face and it stayed that way. The bagger is an old man. At the next checkout lane, the bagger is a young kid, and the fellow at the register has 50 years on him, minimum. Theres no rhyme or reason; who knows. I might well end up this way myself, given my love of the grocery store business. It would be fun to drive into town from the lake home once a week, hang my Armani suit in the back, put on the proud green smock and spend an afternoon framing and filling grocery bags.
I bought matches this trip. I never buy matches, but this time I did.
Gonna start a fire? says Old Man Bagger. Well, obviously, but hes having me on. I suspect he does this to every customer.
Its for the grill, I said. Why, if this heat wave continues, Ill have a BBQ out back.
Make mine a gin and tonic, he says, and I admire the way hes expertly skipped from arson to liquor - in my social circle, a BBQ usually involves a fine drink or two; he obviously makes the same connection.
Any particular brand?
Well, Tanqueray! he says, stuffing the lettuce in the bag. Hes done bagging. Allright, wheres your Cadillac?
Its on the other side of the highway, I said. Ive just met his merryment and raised him. We have a hike ahead of us.
Lets go! says Old Man Bagger. We step outside; the warm sun feels good, and we both comment on the mild & beautiful weather.
As for the matches, I said, I realized one of the problems with quitting smoking - you dont have matches around any more, so when you want to light a candle or the grill, youre out of luck.
You quit? Well, good for you. He pats my back. So youre sleeping better? Eating better?
Sleeping? No, but thats because we had a baby -
Wonderful! He gives me a big grin. Was it tough, quitting?
Never looked back. That was over a year ago, anyway.
You know - Were at my car now, and Im loading the groceries in the back. I have a few friends whove tried to quit, and its tough. Man, its tough.
You just have to sever the habit from the times when you liked to smoke, I said. That helps.
I suppose. . . . Say. My friends who have quit report an increased sensation in intercourse. Have you found that to be the case?
Okay, now Old Man Bagger is INSTANTLY CREEPY, and I muffle a cough. Cant say! I grin.
Well, have a good day!
He whistled as he headed back to bag another customer's groceries. Wonder how he worked sex into that conversation. I see y' bought some oysters! Say, is it true -
Whoa - I have 12 minutes to write this. Completely forgot. Busy writing the column tonight; one of those days with ten dozen obligations, and the poor old Bleat got neglected. At least I know what I wanted to write about: the Dead Folks Home.
I was driving home yesterday when I decided to go a few extra blocks around the creek, see if anything had come up for sale. It had. There was a squat nondescript house on a hill, Mission style. I parked, walked up, looked in: couldnt see much. Got a bad feeling, a sensation that said no, no, not this one. I was about to leave when the agent appeared; wed met before. At least I hope we had, because he called me by name. Perhaps he was Satan. You never know until the contracts come out. He invited me in; I stepped inside the house and smelled that deal-killing house aroma: old people.
Old sick people. Eau deCompose. The house was frozen in time, in an odd brown ugly time, too - it could have come from the Interior Desecrators site. Brown and gold furniture, lime green carpet. Everything in the kitchen was brown. There was a calendar hanging in the hallway; 1985. Ive noticed this about people - after a few decades, they just keep a calendar up because they like the picture. Or theyre just tired of time getting away from them, and theres a small satisfaction in nailing its hide to the wall.
The living room had a console organ, which was another hallmark of the grandpa demographic. A bookshelf was stuffed with authors whose days had long passed; a few spines sported 60s typefaces, and I was sure there was a Uris or a Drury in there somewhere. I went upstairs - honkin avocado bathroom. Tiny bedrooms. Everything was furnished, but no one lived here.
The Agent explained that the wife had passed away a few years ago, then the husband. It was an estate sale. Didnt say if the kids were selling it; couldnt tell if there were any kids at all. Theyd be about my age. They would have run up these stairs crying hot tears because theyd had a bad day at school, bounded down the same stairs on Christmas morning. (The tree went in the back of the living room by the organ; Im sure of that.)
It was selling for 400K - even for the creek, a little high, considering what youd have to do.
It has that smell, I told the agent. He agreed. And this, he said, was after a weekend of scrubbing with bleach.
I bade him well, told him to call if he found something else on the creek, and went home. Told my wife Id seen a house. Hardwood floors. Brand new kitchen in birch and stainless steel. Finished basement, built-ins, new master bath with jacuzzi, on the creek. Five hundred K.
In other words, a sad old shell thats a year and an acre of money from satisfying anyone.
But the view was wonderful. None of the trees outside of the window had been there when the house was built; none of the trees were there when the dead occupants first moved in. And the view had always been the same - a tapestry of wood and green leaves, each branch a stitch in a quilt that took a hundred years to make. You never see the finished product. There is no finished product to see.
I just picked up my key fob, pointed it at the Botany Bay, and clicked the LOCK button to see if the cars lights would flash. They did. Cool. I mention this only because Im seated at my desk in my second-floor studio, and the cars on the other side of the street. It makes a sharp little honk if I press it twice. I could sit here in the dark and unnerve pedestrians if I wished. But I dont.
I just want to go downstairs and watch TV, banal & pedestrian as that sounds. Permission to speak freely, sir? It has been a bitch-cracker of a day, and I have about as much desire to write as I - well, Im not even going to complete the analogy. So there. Finished one column this morning; composed the other on the way to work, and banged it out with a minimum of fuss and second guessing. Which might just well mean it really, really stinks. But well see. All I know is that the days nearly done, and Im still typing. This will be short again, Im afraid - Ive spent the nights free time scanning and writing material for the next installment of the 70s interior design site - I was under the impression Id finished it. I was wrong.
While I was making supper the classical station played the orchestral version of Toccata & Fugue by Bach - a piece that unfortunately has come to be associated with druggy Fantasia animation or evil lunatics-in-the-castle movies. Too bad. It was one of the first pieces of classical music that really grabbed my lapels and demanded attention - it has that dark majesty that appeals to the adolescent imagination. Its tragic and brooding, but its also nimble and fleet. It is full of doubt replaced by certainty, but its a certainty undermined by the very fact that it had entertained doubt in the first place.
What was Bach thinking? Where did this one come from? Its religious music, yes, but its an argument with God, not a love letter. The pure rational brilliance of the composition itself gives it an appeal that transcends Bachs own religious beliefs, but sometimes you have to remind yourself than a man wrote this, and that man had a reason.
Gnat was in her exersaucer as I made dinner and conducted the piece, and she watched with slight trepidation. I picked her up at the end and spun her around in the air as the last chords thundered down. She still wasnt convinced.
It made me think of that Bugs Bunny cartoon in which our wabbit goes up against an arrogant opera singer; at the end Bugs takes the stage with his ears back in a hairnet, and the musicians all think hes Stokowski. Leopold! they say as he passes.
There was a time in American pop culture when a cartoon could make a reference to a famous orchestral conductor and expect the audience to get it. Not because the audience was cultured, of course - but at least mass culture contained one showboating classical musical figure. Who do we have today to fill that role? John fargin Tesh?
A new wrinkle has been added to the days duties: I now walk Jasper in the morning. My wife used to do this, but it takes 20 minutes out of her rushed morning routine. Ill do it! I said. You sleep. Or linger over breakfast. Or take two showers. Whatever - I dont have to get up and feed Gnat in the middle of the night, so its a fair trade. So now I bundle up Gnat in a white little suit, strap her into the jogging stroller - behind which I will never, ever jog - and off we go with Jasper. Simple? Hah! I have to get the stroller from the porch, drag it through the house, set it up, strap her in, prop open three doors and push her out, nudge the stroller down the stairs, lock the wheels, close the doors, hook up Jasper, nudge the strollers down another set of stairs, and then were off. This morning she fell asleep before we hit the end of the block, so when we got home I had to repeat the above procedure in silence and leave the stroller sitting in the living room. None of this is logistically impossible, its just . . . all consuming, shall we say.
But. But. Soon itll all go faster. The snow, the weather, the ice and grit and crust and cold - they all add ten steps and ten minutes to anything baby-related. Come the spring Ill be able to fly out the door and head for the lake every morning, and oh: how I look forward to that. Its raining right now, and every drop is a fist in the face of these filthy floes that line the boulevards. Soon, the creek runs again. Soon, green grass. Soon, daffodils.
Soon, my taxes are due. But soon: sun. Shorts and short-sleeved shirts. In a week or two the roots start their own silent fugue beneath our feet. If they havent already.
Now its time to quit writing. And so I will.
The thaw had an unusual consequence today: a gigantic slab of compacted snow slid down the side of the roof, fell onto the sun porch roof and shattered four translucent panels, each of which was the size of a refridgerator door. That was one big floe. Poor Jasper - he would have been sitting on his sofa, head on the armrest, looking out the back, when all hell fell from the sky. I was almost cheered to see the destruction when I came home; the entire porch roof was a disaster, thanks to the shoddy work by that fargin criminal I hired two years ago. Hed scrimped on the thickness of the panels, bought cheaper material - probably earned himself an extra $100 for that, the stinking bastich.
He ended up going to jail for cheating a food shelf, for heavens sake. One of his subcontractors threatened me with a lien for unpaid work - oh, that was a merry little series of phone calls, let me tell you. I dont think that fellow had eyebrows or ear-hair left after we were finished. Im usually a mild fellow; it takes a lot to peeve me off. I dont collect grievances and nurse grudges - mostly because life has gone my way, I suppose; lets wait until I really hit the skids to see how nice a fellow I am. But that was the start of the New Me, the Me that hangs up on telemarketers and closes the door in the face of people who interrupt dinner to get a signature on a petition to ask China to stop construction on the Three Gorges Dam.
I still dont hang up directly on telemarketers. I listen through the first speil, and then I say no. Then they say something else, of course, and I ask: Can I hang up now? It flummoxes them. They usually say yes, because like Robocop remembering his precyborg days, they remember the dim distant past when they were fully human, and they realize t hat they cant say No, you cant hang up.
And yes, I was a telemarketer, twice. Two jobs. Lasted one day in each. I felt soiled. And 23 years later I can still recite the phone pitch for the Time-Life book. God help the people who do it every day for a year; theyll be babbling it as the embalmer stuffs their tongue down their throat.
Pop culture heaven tonight - I have a stack of graphic adventures to read. Okay, COMIC BOOKS. But one of them - Batman Gothic Noir - was suggested for a very interesting reason I'll disclose tomorrow; the other is a story by Ben Katchor, who did the Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer strip I loved so much; he did such a lovely job of evoking the New York of the 50s and 60s, the New York with actual factories and working wharves and luncheonettes where the countermen all looked like Milton Glaser or Vic Tayback. I'll have no time to read them all tonight, of course - but I'll go downstairs into my Lair, my underground HQ, and put them on the table with the copy of "Rear Window" and "From Russia With Love," both of which have been waiting quite a while for my attention. This is parenthood: it's not what you do for entertainment, it's what you fantasize about doing.
But I will never - I repeat, never - fall asleep in front of the TV. That is the way of the slothful. Power down, turn off the space heaters, walk upstairs shoulders squared, knowing I've successfully included a 27 minute multi-tasking entertainment period to the day.
Judge Judy, for example, goes by really quickly if you just FF to the verdict.
The baby was possessed this morning by some infernal incubus, or she channeled the spirit of Gene Simmons from Kiss. She began to stick her tongue out and wag it around in a most unbabylike fashion. I got it on tape, too; it was the sort of thing that makes you reach for the camcorder. If her head started revolving, Id have proof, and it wouldnt take so long to get permission for an exorcism.
You know, Im a typical bourgeois parent; I have a camcorder ready to go at all times. And Im not alone. There are millions like me. We ought to have miles of UFO sightings by now. Im losing my faith. The other night TiVo recorded an X-Files for me - a first season episode whose synop was almost touching: Mulder believes the government is covering up evidence of a flying saucer. You dont say.
Anyway. I got little Miss Wags-A-Lot into the crib for a nap. Just as she fell asleep: the phone rings. Telemarketer. He told me that he had a wonderful travel package for Branson. Wrong demographic, I said, and hung up. I get this call about once a year. Look: I dont want to go to Branson. I dont want your Asian fiddlers / I dont want your conepone Midlers / I dont want your withered hides / all lined up for Charlie Pride / They call him country but thats sheer effrontery / I dont want to GO TO BRANSON.
Sorry. Elvis Costello parody there. Yes, thats the secret to my success: snarky references to marginal artists. Marginal in the sense that the hoi polloi doesnt know who they are, anyway.
The definition of hoi polloi, incidentally, ought to be someone who doesnt know what it means, or that theyre in it - but then again, I used to think it meant the opposite of what it meant today. Thought it meant the elite. It means, of course, what H. L. called The Booboisie, all though I think they were a tad more boobish in his day than ours. Then again, they didnt have the XFL. But neither do we, when you look at the ratings. Im babbling
Not much in the way of movie entertainment this week. I rented Almost Famous, and was chagrined to read that an enhanced directors cut edition is en route. Well, shoot: what if I like the movie? Ill have to wait six months and see it again? Then I decided I probably wouldnt like it that much, anyway. I popped it in, sat down. Opening credit sequence featured an open drawer stuffed with the detritus of a rock critics life; in the corner of the drawer, a slender blue can of Ozium. I stopped the movie. Took out the disc. I thought: if he gets that detail right, hes going to get the entire 70s right, and I really need to see the directors cut.
Ozium. Wet-towel-under-the-door-crack-in-a-can. The smell of datelessness and prog rock.
Ended up watching Batman Returns, which Id not seen since I saw it in DC on its initial run. How Id looked forward to it, then. How Id been . . . conflicted. Now I see why: it sucks. It has its moments, and some great moments, but they're just candies in a big overcooked yeasty loaf. Yes, yes, yes, Michelle Pfeiphfher is a wonderful Catwoman, if you like whip-cracking dominatrixes, but you know what? I dont. Cruelty and pain just dont have the allure they hold for others, and its typical of the films smelly little soul that Im expected to go all ga-ga because shes trussed up in a squeaky rubber suit. Maybe I'm too practical, but I'm reasonably sure that anyone who wears such a suit is going to resemble a wrinkled smelly finger that's been wearing a day-old Bandaid after a long bath. I mean, theres that scene in which the Penguin sniffs her shoe - please. Please.
(If she'd been wearing spandex, well, now that would be different.
And then theres the clowns. You can tell when youre in a Tim Burton movie, because there are striped tents and clowns, and if there are striped tents and clowns, theres sure to be Danny Elfmans score oom-pah-oom-pahing away. You can sum up the entire score as Beetlejuices Big Adventure Returns - not a noticeable idea in the house. The sets all look like sets. The plot makes no sense, which always amuses me; how in the name of Kane can you possibly make a movie without knowing what its about? Mmm?
Annoying. Sure, Burton wanted to do something different. Wanted to upend the franchise, make an Ironic Comment on it, or something like that. Well, thanks for nothing. These movies stink because they dont believe in their own stories. Buckaroo Banzai: wonderful movie. Ludicrous, dated, slapdash, and everyones favorite, because it liked itself and it didnt talk down to its roots. Batman Returns had some great iconic shots - why, one might even call them heroic, but the film doesnt want you to have your heroes.
At the end - which, like all movies of this genre, drags on forever to its predictable conclusion - Batman pleads with Catwoman to come home with him. Were alike, he says, repeating the tiresome duality theme that runs through the movie, split right down the middle. Split? Hes split? Between what, a slightly obsessed crime-fighter and a completely obsessed crime fighter? This Batman is the least conflicted person in the movie.
Final note: in retrospect, you realize that the mad tycoon Max Schreck (yes, yes, I get the reference, meaningless as it is) runs a flippin DEPARTMENT STORE. This is a bit like finding out that Mr. Gimbel was the head of SPECTRE. Doesnt work. On the plus side: Christopher Walken was Schreck. He doesnt seem to be the actor the writers had in mind; lines that were perhaps meant to be delievered with oily bombast are given his standard clammy flat reading. He's just great.
I did, however, enjoy another Batman product the other day: Batman Gotham Noir, a one-shot from DC; I have it on good authority - namely, one of the people involved in the project - that the Ghost Ad section of this very site helped contribute to the books vibe, if I can use that Disco Stu word. Theyre very kind to say so.
If they ruin Spider-Man, Im coming after someone.
As long as Im holding tight on to my long-vanished childhood, heres a recent revelation. I was watching the original Trek the other night (I end up watching the filet of the series -most of season one and two - every five years or so; this time I started watching them again to see them on the widescreen TV, which is pretty nifty) and I could, of course, recite the dialogue before it was spoken. But I could also predict the music cues. The original Trek had a series of specific music cues. TNG had that mewling, yawning, bloated score that just moped around the show in the background. The Simpsons has specific music cues - the school, Mr. Burns, etc. They have less than a dozen, and everyones well known by everyone in the audience. Its a shame that more shows dont realize the effect that a small set of cues can have. The less music there is, and the more its repeated, the more you intuit its presence and meaning; the more it becomes an actual character.
Will they learn this lesson in the next Trek series? Probably not. I think of these things. They anger me. And then Im in the grocery store, and I mutter theyll ruin it just like they ruined Batman. Luckily, I have the Gnat with me. You can talk to yourself all the time if you have a baby with you. No one notices a thing.