Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shopping in Hell

Kmart is a mausoleum of dead people listlessly wandering the aisles like monochrome zombies in an old horror flick. The cold sterility of each megastore is proof American corporations lack souls, or at the very least, smother all humanity from the shopping experience. The air reeks of plastic, a chemical aroma that stings your nostrils and burns your eyes under the bright halogen lights when you enter, as if a tanker filled with Benzene capsized on the highway.
People shamble, dazed and weary throughout the store: old fat trailer park women wearing too much eyeliner, hollow-eyed housefraus toting noisy children, Mexican women with talon-like fingernails and scruffy men wearing NASCAR caps and jerseys displaying the logos of their favorite NFL teams. They rustle through bins of mass-produced products whose prices are slashed half off; or fondle the clothing on hangars, or flipping through cleaning supplies or ravenously browsing the food aisles for packs of Twinkies or dog food.
Shopping at Kmart used to be a stigma; in school the middle class suburban kids would tease you if you bought your clothes there.
“Nice shirt. Is it a Kmart special?”
But in today’s economy, everyone is a de facto serf, a bottom-rung consumer worshiping at the temple of the big box store for salvation and bargains. Everyone is herded into the all-American flea market for kitty litter, underwear, mouthwash and candy bars.
The checkout is staffed by a plump middle-aged woman with a Midwestern beehive hair-do and horn-rimmed glasses that make her look like a refugee from a 1950s advertisement. She checks my purchase, a bundle of white athletic socks, and asks if I’d like to contribute a dollar to some worthy cause. I decline and she rings me up and bags my socks. The whole experience is very numbing and sterile. She gives me my receipt and tells me to go on a website and rate my shopping experience for a chance to win a $2,000 shopping spree.
Do I really want that? A chance to browse around the necropolis, amid the plastic boxes of DVDs, the cartons of cigarettes, the piles of fluffy towels and racks of kitchen appliances and implements. Would I want to wander the jungle of shirts, pants and outerwear with their low-hanging denim jeans and the hip-hop gangsta styles and an attitude that cocks the shotgun out the aluminum screen door and tells the salesman to get the fuck off my property?
Not everyplace can be Nordstrom’s or Macy’s. Kmart is the only show in town, and in this economy, it’s where everybody who doesn’t want to hoof it to the Hamilton Mall shops.
Before the economic downturn, we wandered like nomads into Bed, Bath & Beyond for a soapdish, or cruised into Best Buy for blank CDs. The anchor stores roamed the earth like mighty dinosaurs in healthier economic times, drawing smaller mom and pop shops to them like moths to a flame and everybody prospered.
Now the dinosaurs lie extinct and empty, vacant storefronts mar the landscape like the bleached bones of a dead horse in the Mojave Desert. The only ones left alive, the mammoth Kmarts, Walmarts and Targets that tower among the desiccated carcasses of failed businesses crippled by the harsh economy.
In a land of the dead, the mausoleum remains.
So we pinch our pennies and a once spoiled nation shops at Kmart, flipping through the National Enquirer and reading about celebrity scandals and gossip and dropping a Chunky bar with our bag of athletic socks and inhaling the plastic, manufactured sterility of America’s greatest shopping experience.
Where once we ate steak dinners, now we all devour McDonald's. The fast food giant's revenues increased as the economy grew more dismal. The middle class is turning into working class and learning to make money go farther by trimming luxuries. A colleague of mine said maybe the economic downturn is a good thing because it forces people to re-evaluate how they spend money. I contemplated this as I stopped at McDonald's following my Kmart shopping spree. As the beefy mediocrity of a Quarter Pounder with cheese slid down my throat leaving an aftertaste of onion and ketchup, I shed a tear at how fortunate I was to be living in such times of greatness, where the temples of finance were watched over so vigilantly and prosperity and progress bathed the country from coast to coast.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Great American Writer

New idea for a reality show: Instead of a show focusing on amateur singers, actors or desperate attempts at getting people laid, have a reality show featuring aspiring authors. The idea would be to take the writers, put them in cabins in the woods for a week, give them a theme to write about. During that time they meet socially and talk about themselves, the craft of writing and why they want to be published. Then, at the end of the week, have agents or publishers review their work. The winner gets a contract from a publishing house with a good royalty percentage.
While not as sexy as American Idol or as puerile as The Bachelor, the writer reality show would expose people to words and the writer's ambition. And if that doesn't work, add a Jacuzzi scene with a few hookers from Cathouse to liven things up.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Evening in Purgatory

We sat cross-legged on the floor of her apartment in Bloomfield, watching A Fish Called Wanda on the TV again. We've watched the same film over a dozen times before, ever since college when we were in the Smartfood popcorn and Gallo wine stage of our relationship, where weekends were nothing but Wanda and sex and pancakes at a local diner the next morning. Yet here we were, 15 years later watching Kevin Kline throttle John Cleese all over again with comic perfection. There's something about that movie that makes me laugh; the writing, the cast and the overall greatness of that comedy is like an elegant meal cooked and served with utter precision.
The Portuguese ribs and rice she bought from the takeaway down the street were quite filling, and the last splash of zinfandel trickled from the bottle and into her glass.
We laughed in unison as Kevin Kline's character Otto torments Michael Palin and threatens to swallow Palin's pet goldfish. We mouthed the dialog we've memorized.
Later she asked me if I'd like to move in with her. She volunteered to support me, to pay the bills and take care of me while I struggle at writing in New York. She has contacts and knows people. It would be difficult at first, a Sisyphean struggle of drudgery and head-pounding futility, yet if I persevered, I could carve a niche somewhere - in some literary market - in the Big Apple.
At first I balked. I was unsure and thought this woman was out of her head.
"No," she reassured me. "I'll take are of you. You don't have to worry about anything."
She could take care of me: she worked as a medical editor and pulled in over $60,000 annually compared to my salary as a local journalist of $100 and a bag of unsalted peanuts.
She would do this for me and I'd share her seven room apartment. We'd struggle, we'd argue, yet we'd be together.
"I'll take care of you. You don't have to worry about anything."

* * *

A year and a half later, I'm sitting at a dive bar in Somers Point. The pretty blonde bartender leans close and asks me what I'm having.
"Scotch on the rocks," I reply.
She pours me a Glenlivit and the amber whiskey swirls warm in my mouth, a toxic cleansing me, making me more alive.
"You wanna see a menu?" she asks.
"Not tonight," I say, and drink in her weary eyes. "I can take you away from this place, Jen."
"Really?" she said with a wry smile. "Where would you take me?"
"We'd go to California and make love on the beach in Big Sur. We'd see the waves crashing and see the moon bounce off the Pacific and nourish ourselves in the salt air."
"We have beaches and salt air here."
"True, but the Atlantic is different than the Pacific. The Pacific is wilder, more alive. it has a roguish temperament."
"Now I know you're drunk," Jen teased.
"Come on, don't you want to be free? You don't want to be cooped up in this place forever, serving beers to commercial fishermen and crabcakes to tourists from Philadelphia. There's a big world we can explore," I said, and swallowed another mouthful of Glenlivit.
Jen didn't know what to make of my proposal. When you're an attractive woman working in a dive bar, every guy hits on you. She's probably heard more bullshit pickup lines than a sorority girl on a Friday night. Yet Jen wasn't a prissy girl; she was working class all the way - a tough as nails, steely-eyed realist who gave her customers what they ordered and exchanged small talk like a bartender should.
Like any good bartender, Jen was trapped behind the bar and she listened to me spew my saga of unrequited love while the scotch flowed and Warren Zevon played on the jukebox.
"So why didn't you just go and live with her?" Jen asked as I wrapped up my story. "She loved you enough to want to support you."
I thought about it for a while as Warren sung "Searching for a Heart".
"I guess I choked," I finally said. "I was too afraid to take that chance."
Jen put her hand over mine tenderly, an empathetic gesture that told me she sympathized.
"You know, opportunities are like waves - you can ride the wave and see where it takes you or you can let the wave roll right past you," Jen said.
"Is that a surfing metaphor?" I asked glibly.
"I think you know what I mean," Jen said. "Nothing is certain in life and you don't always get another chance to ride the wave once it leaves."
"Now I am depressed," I muttered. "More whiskey, please."
Jen begrudgingly poured me another glass. The last thing she wanted to deal with was a mopey writer soused and about to have an epiphany.
"Why the whiskey kick?" she asked. "You never used to drink this stuff before."
"What's wrong with whiskey?"
"It's not exactly what the clientele drinks. Not unless you're 70."
"Ugh. Sarcasm." I said. "I expected more from you, wise sage."
"I'm just saying," Jen said "That's an unusual choice."
"Don't be hating because I'm different," I said.
Jen smiled.
"You used to drink soda, then Guinness, now Glenlivit."
"Next week I'll order a bottle of absinthe and a shotglass filled with heroin. I know. I'm getting worse," I said. "I can't help it. I need to self medicate in order to deal."
"That's pretty fucked up," Jen said.
"Welcome to the world of me," I said, and swallowed another satisfying, medicinal mouthful of scotch. "All pretentious writers drink scotch, are deeply self-loathing and have unprotected sex with strangers. In my case, two out of three ain't bad."
"Have you talked to this ex-girlfriend of yours?" Jen asked, combing her blonde hair away from her face with her fingers.
"Christ, no," I said. "We haven't spoken in over a year. She could be running an orphanage for Parsi children in Bangladesh for all I know."
"Why don't you talk to her?" Jen asked. "Drive to her apartment and talk to her."
"That's kinda stalkerish, don't you think? She might get a restraining order," I said.
"I think it's romantic that you would care enough to see her," Jen said.
"What do you think my name is, OJ?" I asked. "I won't stalk my ex-love and grovel."
"But you want to, right?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do."
The last call bell rang at the bar and Jen asked if I wanted anything else.
"No, I think I'm done," I said, and handed Jen a fistful of wadded bills. I tipped her extra for her wisdom and just hanging with me on a slow night.
She smiled and said, "Don't worry. Things usually happen for a reason. You might not see it now, but one day, it'll all make sense."
While I don't think Jen fully grasped existential truths of the universe, she was correct with this piece of fortune cookie wisdom. Not unlike a zen koan, her words rambled over and over in my head as I put on my jacket and left the bar, the night air unseasonably warm, the stars flickering and bright above me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Fifteen years ago, on April 8, 1994, an electrician discovered Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body. A shotgun blast to the head ended Cobain's life three days before, and in a somber suicide note the musician confessed he hadn't experienced joy in creating music for years. He was 27.
The Nirvana frontman was more than a grunge prophet for Gen-X; he embodied the soundtrack for apathetic youth who rejected the sellout and feel-good, self-absorbed hippy bliss of their parent’s generation.
Nirvana’s magnum opus, Nevermind, is the quintessential Gen-X anthem. From the first rhythmic savage licks of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, to the guitar solo amid a primitive drumbeat, you knew you were listening to something different, something special. And yet, with its watershed appearance that signaled a move away from the glamour rock of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nevermind didn’t seem all that revolutionary at the time. Looking back, it’s easy to understand the album and the band that produced it sounded like the grunge wave that emanated from Seattle at the time.

With the lights out it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
- Smells Like Teen Spirit

The sound, a syrupy blend of muddled chords and raspy-voiced lyrics appealed to the college age kids who played the CDs and tapes on their campus stereos. It was a mix of gloomy, raw lyrics and alternative music that diverged from the pop-infused mass-produced happy music clogging the mainstream. Bands like Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden served as commercial successes in this new style; plaid-wearing, scruffy-headed soothsayers of gloom, grimacing minstrels playing for an audience of self-loathing slackers riding the trust fund wave through college and slaving their way in the recession-dominated workforce of the early 1990s.
But Kurt Cobain, he was special. He became the unwilling spokesman for the music, a troubled troubadour with the soul of a wounded poet. Or maybe not.
Despite Nirvana’s commercial success and popularity, Cobain never lived to see the aftermath of the grunge era. Lost in a fog of booze and drugs, he went out the way many artists and writers choose to – by his own hand.
For Gen-Xers like myself, I can remember where I was when I heard Cobain committed suicide: sitting in my car in a supermarket parking lot in Haddonfield, NJ. The radio announcer played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after reading the story and I just thought, “Generation X now has its own John Lennon.”
Unlike Lennon, who embodied the Baby Boomers, Cobain wasn’t an attention whore or sellout. He didn’t shack up in bed for peace, didn’t burn his draft card or didn’t raise any sort of “awareness” through his music.

I’m not like them
But I can pretend
The sun is gone
But I have a light
The day is done
But I’m having fun
- Dumb
In Utero

Nirvana’s music was kick-ass, in-your-face grunge. Cobain didn’t worry if you understood it or not.
But his death trapped him in the minds of his fans, preserved him as a youthful unshaven, long-haired musician. Looking at photos of Cobain, he is who we were back then. He didn’t live to see Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution, the Monica Lewinsky jokes and the train wreck of the late 1990s. He wasn’t around to witness 9/11, the war in Iraq and the superficial silliness of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. What would he have thought of his music 15 years later? What would he be doing today?
Would he be like former Nirvana bandmate Dave Grohl, who formed Foo Fighters following Nirvana’s dissolution in 1994? Or would Nirvana still be kicking around, playing venues like the Wisconsin State Fair or Al Gore’s Live Earth concert?
But that’s all speculation. What’s real is that a bright talent, plagued by personal demons, perished 15 years ago, leaving behind his music and a cult of personality. For the generation of misfits and seekers still playing Nevermind and remembering our youth, we are grateful.

Come as you are, as you were,
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up
The choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend as an old memoria
- Come As You Are