JUNE 1999 Part 3
Unaccountably, unforgivably cool. Feels more like the first of October. Walked to the hardware store this afternoon to buy a can of primer paint, and I took Jasper Dog along. He is such a smart dog - by which I mean he does not romp through every new experience with a yowsah-whee-ha, here we are mood; in new contexts, he seems to understand that we are now someplace that he does not understand. The hardware store, being one of those true Neighborhood Institutions, had a supply of dog treats just for moments like these. Once he’d had a crunchy delight, everything changed: this was GREAT. He put his paws on the counter and said HELLO BIG TREAT GIVERS.

Again, the perfect metaphor for human existence, for our place in the galaxy. We are all dogs in a big shop filled with devices, the technology and purpose of which we cannot begin to imagine. There are things out there as inscrutable to humans as spray-paint, sandpaper and batteries are to a dog. But there is the tether to a benevolent boss, the unexpected boon, the unfamiliar mystery of this room, the open door through which flows familiar aromas. And the dog lives his life according to indisputable certainties - home, food, play, toy, scratchy itchy spot to be scratched and itched, the smell of things that smell as they should smell, the irresolvable mystery of things that smell like they shouldn’t, sleep.

It’s the damnedest thing. I taught the dog to give silent barks when he gets a treat - he opens his mouth and his tongue comes out, and it’s almost like communion. Almost? Like? Is. I know some people who would be offended at the comparison, but thank God I know more who would understand completely. You cannot presume to know the mind of God, or what He was thinking when He made man in His image - what, does the creator of the universe have an appendix? - but if man made a lesser form in his own image, it would be the dog.

Anyway, I bought the paint. Spread out all the moldings and sprayed them in the garage. Waited a while, then painted them - whereupon I discovered that half the moldings are 1/8 inch shorter than the others. Meaning, back to Home Depot, back to the hardware store, more priming, more painting.

If I was half the god Jasper thinks I am, I could provide new wood with a wave of my hand, just I conjure morning bounty from the Cold Box of Food. But I am only mortal.

Dammit Jim, I’m a corpse, not an actor: that’s how my friend the Dark Chef broke the news. Given his myriad catastrophic health problems - the man has seen the black blade of the Reaper pass over his head a few times, only to bounce back with his cheer and spirit redoubled - I thought he was referring to himself. But he was talking about Bones, McCoy, DeForest Kelly.

This was not a death that took the Trek world by surprise, since everyone knew he was frail, riven by the moral fissure for many years. I think he was a smoker, one of those unfiltered fellows, in which case 79 is an accomplishment, and we salute him. I remember reading some article - TV Guide, perhaps, an interview done during the original Star Trek years; he was grinning in his living room with that sardonic smile (it was not a warm smile, but you knew the man behind it was kinder than the smile suggested. Some people have great smiles that mask their personality; his didn’t seem to do his personality justice. But I may be wrong.) Anyway, he was sitting in his living room, surrounded by ghastly modern art, wearing a neck scarf, wife beside him, talking about his passion: roses. He said the usual kind words about the fans and the show, and the reader - however devout - must have known he being kind, since the stars of these shows never quite grasp the object of the fan’s devotion with the same fervor as the fan. They’re like these odd gods who have a dim idea that a religion has been organized around them. They appreciate the attention, they like the offerings, but please, let’s not sacrifice any goats.

When Star Trek went off the air I was bereft: this was the end. And I watched for all appearances of the actors on other shows. Bones did a Friday night drama a few months after Trek went off, and of course I watched it. You expected him to be, well, him; you wanted the actor to acknowledge his old character, inhabit it again. In fact you invested in the actor characteristics and qualities he didn’t have. That’s natural when you’re a kid, I suppose; you know grown-ups are all acting, but they’re acting roles in which they believe, roles that say something true about their essential character. As a kid one of my favorite shows was “My World and Welcome To It,” based on the work of James Thurber. I invested William Windom with all the Thurber qualities I gleaned from the books. (I missed the most essential Thurberian qualities, since I was only 12.) That Windom should intersect with Trek in my favorite all-time episode - well, you could ask for no more. (To this day when I see that episode, something in the back of my head says “this is the episode where Thurber is driven mad by a giant steel cornucopia.”) Likewise Bones. As an adult, you feel for these fellows, typecast forever, but acting is a job; jobs mean money; Trek wasn’t just the wagon train to the stars, but the gravy train to the bank. DeForrest Kelley was in six movies that made a lot of money, and was loved by millions for one role only. Every ordinary good actor should be so lucky.

This is the point where people drag out their own memory of meeting the fellow. I met him in Washington, DC at the press conference for the Smithsonian Trek exhibit. He was frail then. He grinned broadly, a crooked old grin that now fit his ruined what-the-hell face. The only thing I said to him was “thank you,” because really, when you edit the fan’s fervor down to its hottest essence, that’s what it should be about. It’s not about how much we love them - they know that, and if they’re smart it probably frightens them a little. It’s about what they did that made us love them. Thanks.

I’ve no doubt that the Zipper - the electronic news ticker in Times Square - said “STAR TREK BONES DEAD AT 79.” In 70 years, will it announce the expiration of the kid who played the Darth-to-be in Episode One? For that matter, would it announce the death of Riker in 40 years? No; DeForrest Kelley had a certain critical-mass celebrity that might not be possible nowadays. His character was forged in the days of network hegemony, and stayed around long enough to exploit every new iteration of mass media. This is an odd point in cultural history: every single demographic bracket is split up, catered to, cossetted, reinforced.

But everyone knows who Bones McCoy was.

I was watching TV with the headphones on, and I could still hear it:
chrp!

I paused the tape, listened; nothing. Must have been on the tape, then. Back to the show.

chrp!

Okay, that time I heard it. Took off the headphones, waited, waited . . .

chrp!

Was it the ice maker? No, it groans. Groans like the damned, like an old man going up the stairs, creaking and moaning as it struggles to excrete another rack of cubes. Sometimes it screeches when it’s refilling. Of course, the other day I’d heard something ticking in the back of the fridge, as if the expiration date was backed up by a small explosive. I’d like that; it would save you the trouble of wondering whether something was still good. The item would give you a day’s grace period, then: bang.

chrp!

I knew that sound; it was familiar. Of course! The basement smoke detector. The low-battery sound. It was located at the top of the stairs, and I knew better than to try and fix it then - you have to stand on tiptoe and lean out over the stairs, and I knew I’d end up at the bottom of the stairs, neck broken, unable to cry out, listening all night to the mocking robot bird at the top of the flight:

chrp!

The sound is just loud enough so that it will drive you mad once you know it’s there, and it’s timed so that it goes off one second after you’ve forgotten about it. If it chrped at a faster tempo, you’d fix it, now; if it chrped any slower, you’d ignore it in perpetuity. I went to bed. Upstairs, with the door closed, I could hear it:

chrp!

When my wife came home tonight and heard the sound, she asked: what is that? I heard it this morning, too.

Of course, I feigned ignorance. Don’t know what you’re talking about, honey. Could it be the ice maker? I played dumb through a few cycles; I even timed it so I was clanking a coffee cup, or moving a chair as the sound went off. But she knew she was hearing something. Whenever you try to convince someone they’re going mad, you just convince them you’re stupid. After five or six chrps I admitted I heard it, and went to fix it. Like all smoke detectors, it is designed so it can never be opened without breaking it. No twist-off top, no easy-release lid - you have to use the jaws of life to open the damn things, and then you shower your face with a stream of loose radioactive particles. Argh. But I fixed it, which is to say I disconnected it. It chrps no more.

Tonight, of course, we’ll have a fire.

Which I would welcome, really. Today wasn’t cold or rainy; it was cold AND rainy. Big difference. June 15th, and I’m wearing a jacket at 7 PM. Made a nice hot comfort meal of turkey Manwiches (warning! contains no man.) (Wonder if it’s Menschwich in Germany) then settled down for an evening of various projects, the enormity of which drained all enthusiasm from my bones. Then a thought occurred: relax. Enjoy. So I called up a couple of computer demos; one was Messiah: Requiem or Requiem: Messiah. More accurate: Demo: Stinks. Any demo that starts you off in the sewers get an instant yawn from me. I’m tired of sewers. Kingpin was the same: within five minutes of playing the game, you were sloshing through liquid crap. The weapons on this game are lousy; no punch. People attack me, and when I reply with a grenade the game informs me I have attacked an innocent person. This matters, since I am playing a heavily-armed angel. Well, if they attacked, they weren’t innocent. The game locked up for the usual inexplicable reasons, and after a few restarts I gave it up. Tried Worms, another demo; it only made me feel old. Bright cartoony scrolling graphics, gargantuan menus. I had no idea what I was doing, and what’s more, had no desire to learn. Quit. I played a little Half-Life until that program crashed a few times, finally resetting the screen size and then taking down the entire computer with it. Sigh.

Somewhere in this city is an old man sitting at a card table in a cheap apartment, a glass of Mogen David at his side, radio on, a Pall Mall idling in an ashtray, a cat winding around his ankles. The old man’s playing solitaire. He’s been playing it for an hour. He’ll be playing it for another hour, maybe two. The cards aren’t his friend, but they aren’t his enemy, either; they take, they give, they play along. They’re old and worn, and if he thought about it he’d admit to himself that he knows that one with the bent corner is the Jack of Spades, but he tried not to think about it. When he shuffles them they all fit together like two old hands, soft and warm, the fingers interlacing with ancient ease. They also make a sound like a nice ripe bean-fart, a sound with which he is familiar these days. No one to complain if he lifts a cheek. No one around at all, except the cat, and the cat doesn’t care either.

Perhaps this fellow looks out the window and sees someone coming up the street, a young kid - the streetlight glints in his eyebrow piercings, maybe. He thinks about the world this kid has before him, all these computers and such - why, you can talk to the other side of the world. They got machines that’ll play solitaire with you all night, even make music when you win. A kid has youth, health, libido, smart boxes that’ll keep you entertained when there’s no one around. Imagine that.

Then he shuffles the cards again for another hand. And of course the cards comply.


After tonight’s grapple with the machines, I know one thing:

You don’t know how much I envy that old man.

I got the novel writing itch last night, and this time I think I have something. So if there are short Bleats or no Bleats, that’s why. I get novel-writing urges all the time, but I usually take a deep breath and let them pass, because there’s usually no point to it. None. Comic novels don’t sell unless you are a marquee name, and there’s only about two of those, and even those don’t sell all that well. This leaves genre novels, like mysteries, and I have no desire to write a serial-killer book; they bore me. Straight detective novels are fun, but it’s not my style. Nevertheless I got an idea for a mystery, and I trust this one. Why not set a murder mystery in Fargo, North Dakota? I thought, and no compelling reason surfaced. It took about 30 seconds before the real kicker for the story hit me, and then I nearly clicked my heels. Reason: I GOT NAZIS. Yee hah. I read a story a while ago in the Fargo Forum about a contingent of Nazi POWs who spent the war in a Fargo camp, doing farm labor. Bingo. Hallelujah. You can’t go wrong with Nazis; they sell books. So how do we bring this historical fact into the present, connect it to a murder, and drag in the main character?

Well, I know that too, and for once it’s not contrived. For once the mechanics of plot don’t seem like I’m grinding the gears and hammering square pegs into round holes. So every night I’m just going to peck away at this thing and see what happens. It may deflate upon contact tonight; we’ll see. But this one might work.

Selling it is another matter, but you can’t have everything.

Got a stern strong desire for Indian food today; all day I thought of the microwavable Chicken Biryani in the freezer, waiting, waiting. I had microwavable kofta and some other murky stuff, waiting, singing to me sweetly: come home, come eat. I love Indian food above all others, and even though this is microwavable, it’s good. Well, it’s acceptable. Also expensive, and usually pretty dry. But it’s . . . fast. Anyway: I wanted it, but I knew there was only one entree in the freezer; needed another for my wife. After work I drove to Lund’s, where they sell it. They didn’t have any. Hmm. Well, let’s go to the other Lund’s, then . . . en route, I thought: I need naan bread. Isn’t there a Mideastern bakery over by Nicollet? So I drove into deepest Richfield until I ran out of road, then turned around and drove back. Stopped at a Cub - one of those clangorous prole-food distribution centers - on the chance they’d have the Indian entrees. What was I thinking? What? They had ten kinds of french fries and 40 different frozen pizzas, but no Indian food. It’s a corporate decision, no doubt: ixnay on the rupee chow, we need seven varieties of self-rising crust.

Back in the car. Driving to the other Lund’s, I recalled a conversation I overheard in the grocery store the previous day: a rep for Jack’s Pizza (perhaps one of the most flaccidly named pies out there; in a world of DiGiorno and Freschetta, what does JACK’S say? Says there’s a guy named Jack who has a friend in the pepperoni business) was standing by the freezer with a trainee. The Rep pointed to the display of Red Baron pizzas (also a bad name - to me, unhappy Kraut air-slayer does not = tasty Italian meals) and noting how the Baron only had two varieties in the case.
This was bad, he said. It suggested there wasn’t much going on with Red Baron pizza. Customers could detect the stench of failure, of disuse and abandonment. No longer a going concern, the Baron; no one wanted to eat LOSER PIZZA.

I’m paraphrasing.

Went to the other Lunds, bought the Indian entree. On the way home I realized that tomorrow, being a column day, would be a better day for a microwave supper, and I really should grill that marinated chicken tonight. Make some rice. Toss a salad. I had time today and wouldn’t have time tomorrow.

So I did. Never did find the bread or the bakery, either. And as I bit into supper, I thought: what made me think I’d find Indian bread at a Mideastern bakery?

“An Oriental bakery, maybe,” my wife said.

“No, India isn’t the Orient. A subcontinent bakery.”

Minneapolis, of course, has no such thing. Had a Sri Lankan deli for a week or two, but they learned their lesson.

How long have I been working on the basement? Four months? Six? Tonight I moved some of the rubbishy furniture to the garage, which earned me a cocked eyebrow from my wife: ah, we’re going from having a rubbishy basement to a rubbishy garage, she said. No, I replied: the basement will still be rubbishy. But I needed to clear things out for the Ma Bell Men, who will be installing a phone line downstairs next week. And I need to paint the floor. And put up the molding, which cannot be done until the floor is painted. I still have to spend some time on detail work, brushing up some corners, spackling the gaping holes around the outlets. There are some days I stand in the basement and I see it all, I see the desk and the pinball machine and the motel chair and the shelf with all the retro nicknackery aligned just so, and it seems imminent; other days it seems impossible; all of the time it seems, well, redundant: I already have a room, upstairs, with shelfs and knickknacks. It’s like I’m building a satellite museum.

Actually, it’s intended as a future playroom for Ifanderwen, our child. (So named because there’s no guarantee we will conceive; I’m used to saying If And Or When We Have Children, so I’m just calling sprout #1 Ifanderwen.) This means I have to make a decision, now. I bought a batch of wood for the molding, and discovered - after I’d painted it, of course - that one ten-foot section is 1/4 inch shorter than the rest. I can get around this if I install the heating units flush against the wall, and run the molding on either side. This strikes me as a bad idea, since one day the heaters will die, and I’d have to take them out, leaving me with gaps in the molding. But it also means that future tots might roll against the heaters and injure themselves. So I can either go back for more wood, prime, paint, cut, install, or make do with the materials on hand.

The latter, being easy, is what I will probably do.

I’m pathetic.

It felt like summer today, which is good, since it is. And true to form, all the bad weather of the last month was instantly forgotten. Took a walk to Dog Heaven, found no dogs; well, found one. A small button-eyed Scottie. She must have given off That Scent, because Jasper got the Phantom Humps - his hips take over his brain, and he does an impression of an accordion being vigorously pumped. It’s the strangest thing. He can’t control it, and just veers off in whatever direction he was facing when the Phantoms began. This time he humped himself right into a small American flag stuck on the boulevard, and for a moment I thought he would perform an act of unpatriotic sacrilege.

Got another copy of Brill’s Content in the mail today, and sure enough, it had content by Brill. And a host of other pieces that really ought to interest me, but don’t. I don’t trust it. Its patina of scrupulous disclosure bores me, its attempts to be breezy feel like a musty wind from the institutional hindquarters of the Old Media, and it’s chock full of the usual suspects - Trillin, Katz, et. al. And it has its own biases, which it doesn’t recognize, because it can’t distinguish its own conventional wisdom from the truth. It’s concerned, right-thinking, correct, earnest, concerned, and it goes in the trash after one brisk read. The very logo shows the problem: it’s the word CONTENT in serif type, peeled back to reveal the word underneath, which is CONTENT in sans-serif.

Anyway, my subscription lapsed, but they sent another issue in a plastic bag with a big cardboard page: Look what you would have missed! It said. Well, we’ll all miss it when it dies, which will be in about 8 months, I believe.

Also RIP: DIVX. Yay! Good to see an asinine concept get gutted in the marketplace. They didn’t get the fundamental problem: when people buy something, when they own it, they don’t want to have to pay to use it again. Plus, people just can’t get used to throwing away CDs, unless they say AOL on them. And even then you hesitate. But it would have worked with VCR tapes. People are used to tossing videotapes; they’re cheap, they’re ubiquitous. If they’d sold videotapes that need never be returned, because they would self-erase after you broke the seal, they would have made millions. No more returns.

Also also RIP: half the stores in City Center. This is an interesting case, and it’s not good news in the short run. City Center is an urban mall in downtown Minneapolis, and the Limited Co. just yanked five stores. I’d been expecting it. As a keen student of retail trends, I always noted that their big flagship stores were empty most of the time, and usually stuffed with crap. The entire chain is in trouble, closing down stores all over the country, but this decision drops a huge chunk of open retail space into City Center. Question: can the closing of stores that no one patronized hurt the rest of the complex? Yes. It’s a retail variant of the broken-windows syndrome. Soaped-up windows and FOR LEASE signs spook people. They suggest that whatever was happening here isn’t happening anymore and might well be happening somewhere else. After all, the Nankin, a venerable vendor of greasy, MSG-laden salty Chinese food, the last survivor of the chow-mein palaces that dotted downtown, closed a while ago in City Center. Monkey Wards City Center store cratered last year when they shut down most of their units. Portents?

In the long term, no. The churn in that business is incredible - the Montgomery Wards store occupied the space that used to be occupied by Carson Pirie Scott, which bought the Donaldson’s store that occupied that space, which was built on the site of the old Grant, Kresge and Three Sisters stores. They’re all gone.

I just wish they’d hang around a little longer.


You know, I’ve written a lot today, so I don’t know why I’m doing this. It’s not as if there’s anything that particularly needs saying, even given the level of microscopic inconsequentiality that I usually exhibit. So: enough. Have a fine weekend.

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