Alley, downtown Mpls 011302
01. 28. 02
Wife was down with another cold, poor dear, so I took Gnat to Southdale to give Mommy a chance to nap. Sunday afternoon. The mall has been given another makeover - the original elegant 50s design is now long-lost, and a Gigaplex Movie Centre with an upscale food court - i.e., three hour waits mollified with liquor. The new addition combines 80s post-modern geegaws with a 70s color scheme, and the entire effect is horrible; from the air, I bet it looks like an amoeba with a Lego block stuck in a pseudopod. We killed time here and there, and I found myself in a store pawing through the sale shirts.

“Are you finding what you like in your size?” a clerk brayed. If her voice was any clue, she had been cheese grater in a previous life.

“I’m not finding anything I like, yet,” I said. “But if I do, I’ll ask.”

“Because I can check in the back,” she said. She was very aggressive about this little encounter; it was as if she was spraying me with fast hardening customer-service foam, attempting to immobilize me until a manager could arrive and see how well-served I had been.

I thought of the concept of The Back, that fabled space we customers never see. It reminded me that mall employees experience the mall in reverse - they arrive through secret tunnels, enter The Back, then enter the store itself; they open the doors and spend all day in the store. The exact opposite of the customer’s experience. That was one of the eye-opening scenes in Terminator 2 - Arnie striding through the hallways behind the mall stores, a world few had glimpsed or even considered. I had a sudden desire to explore the warrens and mole-holes of ancient Southdale - hide in some closet, and come out when all had gone and the mall was as dark and still as a tomb of ancient Egypt. Or was it ever dark? Did anyone close the place at night, turn off all the lights one at a time and watch the blackness march down the great hall?

It’s the journalist in me that asks these questions. Thankfully, I have managed to keep the journalist in me bound and gagged; otherwise I’d make calls and write stories about it.

Anyway, I found a shirt I liked, but it wasn’t the right size. The sticker said medium. We’d have to consult the fabled storehouses of The Back. But not if this shirt cost a bundle. . . I checked the tag, and lo: it was a small. It had been mislabeled. I took it up to the counter, and the same clerk walked over to take my money.

“It says medium, but it’s actually a small. If I hadn’t checked the label, I wouldn’t have bought it.”

The clerk looked at me. She said nothing. She had two possible responses:

1. Oh blow it our your ass, pops

2. Really! Why, you’re right. Good thing you checked! Eighteen dollars, please.

Either would have sufficed. But seemed peeved I had veered off the customer script, and went back to punching the cash register. I could read her mind: Oh pardon me! I’ll go check every shirt in the store so this never happens to you again! Given our previous conversation about size availability, her nonchalance was unnerving, and I almost issued some feeble protest - you ought to check them more carefully, whippersnapper! People could suffer size-related shirt thwart! Instead, feeling a strange surge of mutual ill-will rise like the sewage in the Death Star trash compactor, I just said the stupidest thing possible: “Does that happen often?”

“Someone must have put the wrong sticker on,” she said. We now loathed each other to the marrow. Everything was smiles and politeness, but I could tell that no matter how we had met, no matter where and when and in what situation, we would have quickly come to a point of simultaneous loathing for no reason we could really identify. Fascinating.

I had an equally pointless moment at Target the other day. I bought Gnat some Pooh Joos, as it’s known - small square bladders of sugar-water, each with their own straw. She feels very proud of herself when she can put the straw in the hole and get the nectar out. (Although we limit her to one a day, for obvious reasons; this morning she opened a cupboard, got out a box of Lucky Charms, picked out all the marshmallows and became so wired on sugar she actually flickered out of sight from time to time and could only be tracked around the room by listening for a faint fly-like buzz.) (Yes, it was my Lucky Charms. I love Lucky Charms. They’re magically delicious, and when they’re 2 bucks a box at the grocery store, I turn away from my usual fiber-rich Whole Wheat Bowel-Reeamers and indulge myself.) (And while we’re on the subject - at the grocery store I marvelled at the number of promotional tie-ins in the cereal world - nearly every heavily-sugared breakfast treat sported some sort of logo or character or AOL giveaway, to say nothing of the dedicated line of Simpsons cereals. I almost bought Sugar Pops just to get a small Dexter’s Laboratory sticker. When I was a tot, these things were rare - I remember but one, a free character from the Poohniverse, promoting the scratchily animated Disney cartoon. They were crudely molded, contained exactly one (1) color, and they had little notches to make them cling to your pencil. There simply wasn’t the variety of cross-overs between your entertainment world and your breakfast options, but for kids today it’s a seamless world of brand integration. I’m sure there are those who insist that it is a Horrible Thing that Gnat grasps a Pooh Joos box while watching Pooh, and that she is being subliminally trained to accept globalisation and brand hegemony, but, well, blow it out your ass, pops.)

That was an interestingly vulgar digression.

Anyway. Target. The Pooh Joos came in a pack of ten; I bought two. At the counter I noted that the plastic wrap around one pack was ripped, and indeed it was starting to come apart right there, which meant ten loose boxes in the bag by the time I got home.

“Could I have some tape for this?” I asked the checkout clerk.

“I DON’T HAVE ANY TAPE,” she said, startled. As was I.

I showed her how it was coming apart.


Well, I could see where this was going. “Then I guess I just won’t buy it,” I said.

“OKAY,” she said. And she waved it in front of the scanner.


But she also hit the button that summons help - a moment later a supervisor appeared. My tape needs were explained. The manager went off, and returned with a length of adhesive plastic, holding it out like a holy cloth to be draped over a bishop’s neck. Disaster averted. What sticks in my craw - and it’s a small seed, a few microns across - is how some clerks under 30 seem utterly unable to deal with the slightest deviance from the script; they lock up like an old sci-fi robot confronted with illogic, and have to be beamed into deep space.

End result: I am reminded, once again, that I am a dork to even notice these things, and that obviously life is sooo incredibly frictionless that I can tote up these minor indignities and expect applause. Criminey! Cut ‘em some slack, man.

So I felt at day’s end, when we picked up our take-out from the new Chinese restaurant in Southdale. I felt petty; I felt small. I tipped the guy who brought me the bag 20 percent, just out of penance. “Speak well of me in The Back,” I almost said, but he would have just given me That Stare. And I would have had to snatch the money back.


Busy night, so not much time here. Briefly:

1. At the grocery store today we went through the same routine: chose item, hand item to Gnat; Gnat studies item, then files it in the cart or dashes it to the ground. Today she pitched a head of lettuce with such force I expected Pele to dart around the corner and head-butt it back into the produce bin. While she was examining a can of curry paste, I made the mistake of reading the recipe on the back of a Vindaloo sauce-mix packet. It required five tablespoons of ghee. Now, I love Vindaloo; when I am in New York, I go directly to Jewel of India in midtown (yes, that one), order a Vindaloo, and tell the cooks to set phasers on kill. Halfway through the meal the waiter brings me another thick cloth napkin and silently retreats, leaving me to sweat in painful joy. I don’t care what sorrow I endure during or after; once a year I bow to the age-old tradition of the mortification of the flesh, subset “stomach lining.”

Ghee, according to the sauce-mix packet, is butter. My beloved vindaloo requires five tablespoons of butter.

Well. Once a year won’t kill me. And it’s given me a new oath: great gobs of Kali’s Ghee!

Anyway - I saw a table topped with King Cakes, and of course I bought one. They’re not very good around here, alas, because no one knows good King Cake. When I was in DC the boys from the LA bureau always secured a supply of King Cakes through the Mardi Gras days (French for “Ghee Tuesday”) and I came to love those wonderful confections. Since they were the Real Thing, brought directly from N’Awlins, they had small plastic baby Jesuses (Jesii?) embedded in their doughy redoubts. Whoever cracked a molar on the extruded holy infant was obliged to buy the next King Cake. In these litigious days, the store-bought cakes cannot hide the child lest someone choke and sue, so the package explains the tradition, says that a coin can be substituted for the plastic baby - and the coin is sitting ON TOP of the cake, meaning no one will be stupid enough to take that piece. It will sit there until the piece is fully invoved with writhing maggotry.

So tomorrow I will bring it to work, put it in a common area, mutter LAWYERS and stamp off scowling. Such a day-brighter, me. Such a ray of sunshine.

2. While shopping I pacified Gnat with my cell phone. It has buttons, and it is a phone, so she loves it. She punches numbers, puts it to her ear and says Hi! As my sister would say: for CUTE. Today she was chattering nonsense into the phone - and she laughed and said “hi mommy.” I looked at the readout; she’d pushed the buttons that speed-dialed my wife, who had of course picked up the phone - and found her daughter nattering away on the other end. I expect this happens a lot; we’re on the cell phone of some Scottsdale and San Francisco relatives, and a few times I’ve come home and found a five-minute nonsense monologue on the answering machine, complete with car noise and maternal remonstrations.

Still: for cute!

3. Part of Project Hard Copy means facing my previously published work, which takes a stiff drink and a squinty eye; it’s like looking at biopsies and not quite knowing how bad it really is. But occasionally I find some stuff I like. From a year ago:

Eminem raps about busting gay men’s heads; he gets Grammies. Ashcroft admits that his religious beliefs don’t sanction homosexuality, and he’s a hatemonger. Obviously, Bush appointees have to learn to rap - that’s the only way to shut up the critics. John! It’s not too late! Here’s your lyrics:

“If Falwell’s a movie than I am the sequel / I’ll give you a replay of seperate-but-equal / I be casting out cynics / blowin’ up clinics / letting Microsoft go so they can crush Linux / I be looking away when a gun law is broken / I’ll be happy when everyone’s children are smokin’ / They say God is love but my God ain’t been fooled / Gays go to hell. Unless they be home-schooled.”

He would have been confirmed in a second, if only for his authentic mode of expression.

I’ve also discovered some fragments from one of those novels that clutched its chest and died after 30 pages, and as I read along I thought A) hey, this isn’t horrible, and B) I’ve completely forgotten where the story was supposed to do. But then it came back to me. I think I’m going to make a run at this one again - it’s called “Mill City Blues,” a crime novel of Minneapolis in the 40s and 80s. (I persist in my misguided notion that a novel can occupy two time periods simultaneously.) The 40s stuff consists of chapters from a hard-boiled novel written about events that actually occured, and they allow me to write as badly as I can - let me rephrase that. They let me stuff a wet rag in the internal critic’s mouth, and write in a style not my own. Whatever that is.

4. Last weekend I finally caught up on “Enterprise.” The channel wasn’t carried by DirecTV, and setting up the antenna to tape them on the VCR was too annoying. It pitched me back fifty years, struggling with rabbit ears to combine three ghosts into one person, tiptoeing away from the set once reception was firm - only to watch the picture splinter into static again. So I begged the Dark Chef to tape some for me - and in the meantime, the channel popped up on DirecTV after all, so I Tivo’d the new ones. My expectations were really low - yes, the pilot had been good, but the pilots were always good. I didn’t expect anything remarkable from Berman and Braga, given the frustrating inadequacies of Voyager. For all its high points, it never came together, because the characters were never as good on screen as they were on paper in the original proposal. No one, to use the horrible term, grew, and they weren’t very interesting to begin with. There was never any doubt they’d get home, and never any doubt that it would be the last minutes of the last show. So we just had to wait for seven years, right along with them.

About Enterprise, I’ll just say this: pulse cannons vs. a moon crater. Yesss.

Okay, I’ll say more: this is just what I wanted. I’ve seen four of them now, and each has satisfied my deep geeky needs on every level. They prove my theory that the Vulcans are the French of interstellar space. The secondary characters are better than any show since the original one, and I mean the Southern guy, the Bitter British Guy, and the Bemused Doctor. I’m happy.


Watching Sesame Street, against my will. Animation sequence. A man and his dog are dancing to a record. The record player is an old Victrola, with the railway-spike needle and a big top-heavy sound-horn, or whatever they’re called. I’m thinking: why do the animators assume children will know what this is? Tots today don’t know Technics turntables, let alone the old consoles that let you stack records five deep (a shudder goes through the audiophile community at the very thought) let alone those portable 45 players with the nubby fabric over the speaker. Yes, children, speaker singular; no stereo, just glorious mono. For all I know the notion of discrete storage media may be obselete by the time my daughter hits her teens - music & video will be beamed from satellites and stored on unseen platters, and individual discs for individual artists will have the same relationship that piano rolls had to radio in the 20s. So why has this ancient image of a Victrola endured?

Maybe because of the old RCA logo, which had d a picture of Nipper listening quizzically to His Master’s Voice from an old Victrola; I remember those from childhood. In my grandparents’ attic there was an actual Victrola - as kids we blew off the caul of dust, cranked it up and listened to tinny Caruso warblings. But I would never expect the contraption to mean anything to kids today, and I’m not sure what the animators mean when they use it. I don’t think there’s any modern analogue, anything that will still be used in 70 years - technology not only moves too fast these days, it is retreating behind indistinguishable plastic boxes that give no visual clues as to their function.

Odd to think that five-year-olds today might actually recognize a Victrola, just from these oddly persistant examples.

Here’s another time-warp thought. In old Warner Bros. cartoons, Porky Pig is usually driving a Model T or some such jalopy - which, in contemporary terms, would be like someone driving a Pinto or a Pacer. Likewise, the old houses are always Victorian piles dripping with architectural geegaws, because that’s what the landscape looked like then. (There were few houses built in the 30s and early 40s, after all.) These images get frozen in a strange timeless zone that locks meaning to a particular picture. Today, all haunted houses are creaky Victorian wrecks, because those were the old abandoned houses in the days when these images were defined in TV and movies. Today the old houses of the previous half-century are tidy suburban ramblers, but thanks to the Brady Bunch and other such unforgiveably eternal shows, they stand for happy prosperous trouble-free childhood. Show a rambler in a thunderstorm, with flashes of light and crashing thunder, and no one thinks: ghosts. Horrible murder. A strange organ playing at night. If you set a TV show in a Victorian house whose owner had a Model T and played a Victrola, no one would think it odd - that’s just how old spooky eccentric people behave.

My point is . . . no point; I’m dead tired after a long day, and rambling. It’s just interesting how the media fixes certain characteristics in place, pins them like moths on a display board, and we all accept it, regardless of its connection to actual reality. We accept the pictures as symbols for a particular idea - the Victorian house is the haunted house, the Victrola is the record player, the flivver the conveyance for anal-retentive pigs. (In reality, Disco Stu is over 50.) On the other side of the TV screen, the deck of time gets dealt once. Whatever cards you have, you keep.

Okay, with nonsense like that, it’s really time to quit.

Well, one more point. Listened to the State of the Union speech, which according to the wise souls at Metafilter was an utter disaster. As one post put it:

Play by Play: War war war, money, war, pause for applause, war war, money money money, stammer, slip up, war money, money war, hey guys, lets not bicker and lets work together to do what I want, pause for applause, money, money, war, war, stammer, money money money, rhetoric, silly shtick, wash, rinse, repeat.

Bah. Who elected this fool?

Oh that's right, No one knows.

What a boring site mefi has become. Any post related to politics is usually filled by people who have boundless contempt for things they have not bothered to understand, and half of the remaining posts devolve into pissing contests over etiquette (ooh! A double post! Call 911! Ooh! A Front Page Post unworthy of the concept - thwow him to the gwound, wufly!) If you combined Noam Chomsky and Emily Post at age 22 and set them in front of a computer after their 89th consecutive dateless Saturday, you’d have a perfect example of the recent MeFi member. (Says an old-timer. Kids today!) They’re the people who sniff and roll their eyes when someone mentions “evil” in the form of paranoid dictatorial states, and then explode with horrified invective when the recording industry tries to take away their Napster. I would have said this with sadness a year ago - and to be fair, people have been lamenting MeFi’s decline since day one - but lately it seems the idea of a Community Blog has turned into a hallway full of headcrabs.

Ahhh, maybe it’s just me. I am grateful for the experiment; I salute its founder’s intentions and dedication, but it’s only good for links these days. And that, to answer a few emailers’ questions, is why I don’t post. If I wanted someone to pee on my shoes, I’d hang out at the bus station. I need a new homepage.



Target. Again. Mission: Pampers. First stop: the XBox aisle. Do they have the DVD adaptor? They do not. Frustrating, but expecting a store to always have diapers AND proprietary video-disc decoders is asking a lot. We move along to the toy aisle, and happy day: three new Simpsons dolls - er, collectible figurines. Hans Moleman, Edna Krabapple, and Cletus. (Some men will never buy a doll, but then again some folk’s’ll.) They also had one of the three bully kids, which I did not buy, one of the cops, which I did not buy, and Marge as a policewoman, which I also did not buy. I have one shelf for these things and it already looks as crowded as the stern of the Titanic five minutes before sinking. And it acts like it too: some mornings I note that a few characters have toppled off the shelf and fallen face-first on the floor. For a while it was Nelson; now it’s Frink who gets the heave-ho mmGLAVIN with the shoving and the plunging.

I toss them in the cart and continue on - and then a memory from the previous evening rises from the bourbony fumes in which it had laid itself to rest: I was watching TV, having come to the end of the third “New York” documentary DVD, and when I switched to the dish feed, lo & behold: Match Game. The full orange horror of the 70s on display. I cannot turn away. The panel: Peter Marshall from Hollywood Squares, a man I’d completely forgotten, and a fellow who looked like he’d been assembled from spare parts of other game show hosts. Brett Sommers, as usual, braying all the time so we don’t hear the pitiful cries of her liver; in the Charles Nelson Reilly seat, Dick Martin, reminding us that stars in the 70s did not necessarily submit to a regimen of dental realignment. In the Babe seat on the lower tier, Bonnie Franklin, on whom I had a massive crush in my pubescent days - although now her features look smeared and indistinct; it would be like making love to someone with a nylon stocking over her face. In the Richard Dawson seat, the clueless Bill Dana, and in the Non-Traditional Broad seat (usually occupied by the grinningly bitch Betty White, or the possibly-homer-sexual Fanny Flagg) sat . . . Edna Krabapple.

Everyone on the show was dead or ruined or long forgotten, but she remained - either a career-life-force vampiress who’d sucked them dry, or a fine talent who was lucky to stumble into the funniest show of the 90s, and did her best to do her best. And now I have her in extruded plastic format. Sweet!

In the Pampers department I decide to upsize Gnat’s waste-containment system from 4 to 5, knowing well this will cause my wife a pang of sorrow: my baby is growing up! I get some razors - the ridiculous three-blade things that nevertheless provide a closer shave than the face-hacking disposals I used last week; my God, there was more skin in the bowl than on the bone after a few days of those Bics. Note to self: do not buy razors from a company known primarily for pens, unless you want to write a complaining letter to the company using your blood for ink.

It was a cheap trip. Back to Jasperwood, with Gnat drowsing in her car seat; she fell asleep just as we got home, and I once again had to take her shoes and coat off as we walked through the tunnel, up three flights of stairs and down the hall - it’s like peeling a banana in the hand of a sleeping ape, without the screeching and face-shredding part if you wake up the ape. She slept; I had - huzzah - a rare interval of Time To Myself. I’d gotten up at the usual hour, attended her all morning, dropped her off at a friend’s for an hour and a half of play, then fled to the office to WORK REALLY QUICKLY. I had to write a letter detailing my magnificence for the annual contest entries - a third-person nominating letter that describes my work as though it bested Mencken on a daily basis. I hate these things. They are the height of immodesty. But. It must be done - even though I think my Pulitzer chances are rather slim in this war year; Friedman will get it, and everyone knows that. Any local columnist who wrote about the war from their desk in the middle of the country hasn’t a chance in hell, unless you wrote a reader-interactive column that blended Community Voices with trenchant observations on how life had changed . . . no, my letter wasn’t that lame.

I would like to win a Pulitzer; who wouldn’t? But I will content myself with my one award, from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, for best feature writing. I got a trip to Washington, and a check, and I sat on the dais in a tux, and got to attend a speech by the Prez (41), and was on a panel. In Washington! At the Marriott! Heady stuff then, and it would be equally sweet today, I suppose.

previous :: main menu : ::next