Thursday, December 10, 2015

I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants

When I started this blog, I didn't intend to spend much time looking backwards at myself. I didn't think that appealed to me, with so much happening so fast right now, like the twins growing into little people before our eyes. Plus its not always easy looking at your younger self. Like Patti Smith said, "I haven't fucked much with the past, but I've fucked plenty with the future." But then last time in this space, I wrote a little about my bookstore days and briefly mentioned the catering job I took after that. That opened the door to revisit that time in my life so I tentatively followed the trail of memories a while longer. I thought back to what I was doing then; who I was. Keep in mind I hadn't thought much about most of this in a very long time, so I suppose what I'm recounting might be slightly altered from what really happened, due to time playing tricks with my memory. But in thinking about some of this stuff for the first time in ages, I was pleasantly surprised to see my younger self in ways I wasn't able to understand at the time. I wasn't as messed up as I thought I was, really, I was just growing up, like everyone else.

I'd decided not to return to the bookstore because a friend of mine was able to secure me a job at a catering house for the summer. I'd work long hours but make good money, much more than I could have made at the bookstore. After one night as a dishwasher, I was "promoted" to cater waiter. I had skills, clearly. Or they needed the help and I was a warm body with a brain in his head.

That summer between my sophomore and junior years of college was the closest I'd come to, at that point, of having a summer that resembled the ones in movies that my friends and I loved, like Dazed and Confused. I would work ten, twelve, or fourteen hour shifts at the catering gig, which was basically like partying all day because even though the work was honest and exhausting, the catering world was simply full of the craziest collection of nonconformists, delinquents, oddballs, and lovable losers I'd ever met. A perfect mix of college kids and catering biz pros. Working with them was always entertaining. When I wasn't working I was hanging out with my two best friends at the time, along with a rotating cast of other friends and acquaintances, some of whom I'd never see again after that summer. We'd meet up after work, no matter the hour, then head to someone's house or a party; there always seemed to be something happening somewhere. Some nights we just chilled and rented movies, or caught one at the theater—Heat being the film that blew our minds that summer. On off days from work we'd meet up on the basketball court and play for hours. Those were the best days, because after hoops we'd either head home to change and then make our way to the next party or on quieter nights gather to watch the NBA Playoffs. I spent several summers with those two good friends, then after college graduation we went our separate ways, with only two of us really keeping in touch, but only sporadically, and now mostly just through short bursts of text conversations, maybe once or twice a year, which is sad. But I still love them like brothers for what those times meant. It's strange how we share so many experiences with people at that age, and more often than not we simply find ourselves on diverging paths that rarely cross later. 

I started seeing someone that summer, a friend I'd known briefly a few years earlier. We liked each other then, but it never went anywhere. So, by our way of thinking, reconnecting at the start of the summer was clearly an act of serendipity (just typing this now makes me laugh out loud, but the drama of youth knows no subtlety). We never thought we'd run into each other again, so this was a second chance to see if we really were more than friends, and we'd have the summer to find out. So we hung out. Sometimes she'd tag along to whatever our slacker group was doing after work. And we talked on the phone. A lot. That's what you did back then. I vaguely remember one night, the two of us sitting on the hood of the car under a light in an empty parking lot, talking about life and not feeling old enough to have any control over it, but both of us wanting to change things about ourselves, somehow. Your standard frustrated youth stuff, really. Looking back on it now, I think we provided support for each another, more than anything. We both needed someone to lean on that summer, someone to talk to and to share adventures with, just someone we could each count on for a while. Getting out into the summer air was also all we really needed; that was our bond during those months. Which is probably why we didn't last long after summer was over. That and the fact that the real us couldn't compete with the idealized versions we had in our heads when summer started. We didn't end badly. We just sort of ended. When you're that age, some things aren't meant to last beyond summer. 

So when I think of those summers (let's say the range is boyhood up through my early to mid twenties), I tend to remember them all pretty positively overall, even though at the time I was too wrapped up in the immediacy of it all (things seem to move so rapidly at that age) to always realize things were really good. I know those summers also had their pedestrian moments, but mostly just the highlights remain in my memory, a memory that grows more faulty with each passing year. And of course the enemy of reason, nostalgia, plays a part in all of this. Those various summer moments really do play in my memory banks like scenes from a film or a novel. I think that's because only in youth are we so free of responsibility that we have the luxury to see our life as an epic summer coming-of-age story, starring us and everyone else in our orbit. It's a special kind of conceitedness only found in youth. And I think that's why those memories remain as scenes from a movie in our minds, all these years later.

The following are a few of the scenes from that summer, as I can still see them today, barely, through the fog of too many years gone by. Maybe someday I'll share memories from the summers that followed, like when I pined long distance for the love of my life: my future wife. But looking back can be challenging and draining. I might need to recharge before attempting this again. Stay tuned.


Like the kids in Dazed and Confused making Aerosmith tickets "the top priority of the summer," we had our own mid-'90s version of the concert quest. For us it was two shows: the HORDE Tour featuring dozens of bands, and Tom Petty on the Wildflowers tour. We never did get tickets to HORDE, so we had to sneak in. I can still see us, my friends and I, climbing up a foot bridge into the outdoor venue. Our last friend is caught with one leg over the bridge by security (so close!) and told to climb back down. The rest of us are left on the bridge looking down at him, feeling guilty and unsure of what to do, when someone behind us tosses an extra ticket over the bridge and it lands near our friend down below. We shout "There's an extra ticket!! Get it!!" And he dives into the scrum with several other kids. Soon after, he raises his hand out of the pile, ticket held aloft. Triumphant! Minutes later he's through the turnstiles and we all embrace like long-lost brothers. 

Driving home from the show, still charged from a day and night full of music, Pearl Jam's "Better Man" comes on the radio. Quietly at first, my friend who's driving starts singing along. Then I join him and I am not a singer but I'm compelled. Then our friend in the back joins in too. As the song builds and gets louder, so do we. When it's over we just smile at the spontaneity of the moment, no words need to be spoken. 

Driving, again, this time in someone's Jeep and away from the basketball courts towards something happening somewhere in the night. Better Than Ezra's "Good" is blasting on the radio and all of us crammed into the Jeep are singing along with the wind in our hair (so cliche, but true). 

While packing up from one of the too-many-to-count weddings we catered that summer wedding season, this one off-premise at a lake house, we realize a catering manager's car is stuck in the mud. She gets in the car and a bunch of us dig our feet into the mud pushing against the hood while she slams it into reverse, tires spinning, mud flinging. One of the waiters pushing to my right, realizing this is a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, starts talking in perfect imitation of KITT from Knight Rider: "Michael, I'm stuck, Michael. Help me, Michael. Please." The laughter makes it really difficult for us to get the car unstuck, but we eventually manage. 

Seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kill it, song after song. Twenty-five thousand people outside in the open air singing along (there was a lot of singing that summer, huh?) to "You Wreck Me" word for word, shouting extra loud with Petty during the lyrics "I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants/You be the girl at the high school dance." (We bought tickets to this one; no sneaking in necessary)

In the head bartender's car, listening to rock radio while driving back from another far-flung off-premise event (I should have named this post "Music and Cars"). The bartender must be twenty to twenty-five years older than the two college kids he's driving back. We both express surprise at his killer taste in music. Our expressions of amazement at his being cooler than we'd thought go on for while before he finally says, emphatically but with a smile on his face, "I have a pulse, guys! Jesus, I'm not dead yet!" Life lesson learned for two young punks: aging doesn't have to equal fossilization.

This one starts badly but ends well. I want to crawl into a hole and die one night while working an on-site wedding reception after the owner of the catering company decides to make an example of me in front of the guests at the table by grabbing the water pitcher away from me and demonstrating, loudly, how I should be pouring the water faster. Trust me, it's as absurd as it sounds. And this is really the only interaction I had with him all summer. He's a tyrant and I'm a fragile kid who prefers to avoid alpha-males anyway, so this is the last thing I need. One of the catering managers sees it happen and takes me aside to tell me it was nothing I did, that he's in a mood, and to just put it behind me because I'm doing fine. I'm grateful to her for the words because she doesn't have to do that for a summer cater waiter she'll likely never see again after August.

Hanging out one night with the group, with no plans beyond hitting the grocery store for some food, then crashing at someone's house to consume it all. We wander leisurely through the store, picking up food seemingly at random, finding it all amusing. To think, soon after this time, trips to the store for food would become complete drudgery, time spent rushing through, just throwing things in the cart so you can move on to the next item on the checklist of life that needs your attention. When you're young, you really do know how to live in the moment.

We're catering a senior prom and I'm struck by how far in my rear view mirror high school seems—and I'm only two years removed from it at this point! But the distance between who I was then and who I'm becoming is enormous. And this unnerves me a little bit, but mostly I'm just happy to be moving on, building towards something—even if I have no idea what that "something" is yet.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Tales from the Bookstore: Holiday Edition

While sifting through my books recently, and because it's the most wonderful time of year (please read that with the dripping sarcasm with which it was intended) I was reminded of my time working at a bookstore, during my college years. It was a Waldenbooks—remember those, kids? A dinosaur, now extinct, Waldenbooks was the bookstore of choice for most Americans in the 1980s and into the early to mid 1990s, with one located in nearly every decently populated town across the country. Most were in malls, like the one where I worked. At some point in the '90s, the superstores, and then Amazon, began dominating the market, and eventually the chain was liquidated. Wikipedia tells me it was in 2011, which blows my mind! I thought for sure they'd disappeared completely somewhere around 10-15 years ago. But my time at Waldenbooks in the 90s was during their heyday, when mall shoppers flocked there like a politician to a campaign fundraiser.

I spent countless hours working in one of these, trying not to get caught reading books in the science fiction section during my shifts.
The holiday season always reminds me of working at Waldenbooks because, and I kid you not, those weeks between Black Friday and Christmas were the most insane work experiences of my time there, and maybe of any job I've had since—scratch that, I worked in catering one summer and that has to take the cake (a future post will be needed to expound on that). People lose their minds during holiday shopping season. Even normally reasonable people devolve into the ape from the "dawn of man" scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and we the booksellers are the frail bones being bashed to bits. It's a lawless time of year in the wilds of the mall, when everyone fights to snag as much product (sorry, "gifts") as they can find in stores while trampling any living soul who dares get in their way. We were absolutely slammed during the holidays, and that alone made for a stressful day at work, but add to that the constant stream of insults being hurled at us by festive holiday shoppers, and then you have a recipe for disaster. That's when the staff at my particular Waldenbooks started to find ways to make our own fun, to get through the holidays in one piece. Like most retail teams, we were a motley crew, made up of college kids like me, a stray high schooler or two, young mothers trying to balance work with parenthood, and bookstore lifers who started working there with the intention of it being a stop along the way only to find themselves still there, still selling books, too many years later. Our assistant manager was a riot. He had an urban planning degree and clearly wasn't thrilled with not being able to find a job in his field, so his years in the mall bookstore trenches had sharpened his sarcasm to the point where it could cut a man in half, I saw him do it once. He was the master of the snarky remark, the quick under-his-breath dig, timed perfectly to elicit maximum laughter from me every time. Usually he saved these for the moments when customers were the most rude and obnoxious. I'm sure when I burst out laughing at the counter after one of his remarks, customers must have been wondering "What the hell is this stupid kid giggling at? And is this on sale or not?!?"

It Came From The Mall, or, any Black Friday anywhere, ever.

This was how we got ourselves through the holiday rush at the store. Were we immature? Of course we were! We were all in our teens or twenties and it was the late 20th century after all, so arrested development was de rigueur (still is, I hear). I think the oldest employees were likely in their late twenties, which at the time seemed so old and now seems so damn young. While their ages might have seemed so far off in the future for me at that time (what young kid doesn't think he'll never be that old?), their skewed approach to the ludicrousness of life—straight out of the John Cusack school of sardonic hard knocks, which was all the rage back then, kids—was a revelation to me. Here were adults—people who didn't live with their parents during school breaks!—seeing life for what it was (insane!) and finding some solace in the insanity by mocking it mercilessly. They, ladies and gentlemen, were some of my first real-life examples of a new way to be an adult. Their sideways perspectives on life dovetailed perfectly with my own, which showed me that I too could remain a misanthrope well into adulthood! Hooray! It wasn't just a childish stance to take, it was aspirational!

It's at this time that we take a break from the bookstore action to reflect on whether or not this particular life lesson was indeed the best one for young Michael to learn. Has it lead to a worldview that can be most generously described as optimistically pessimistic? Affirmative. Does that mean I don't always enjoy things with the same verve and naivety that I did before my teen years, when the misanthropy first got it's claws in me? Sure, that's fair. But only sometimes. And this is a big "but"—I do still enjoy things with just as much passion and enthusiasm as ever, even if sometimes it's tempered with cautious optimism. So, to sum up, I think we can say with righteous certainty that yes, indeed, this life lesson was worthy of absorbing. And thank you, fellow Waldenbooks employees, for imparting your wisdom on young me.

I hope what you're getting out of this is that we were being extremely childish in order to make dealing with insistently yammering and complaining customers just a tad bit more tolerable. But sometimes you need to be childish. Children are known for having  fun, aren't they?? And children love the holidays! Adults could stand to be more childish. And we were never rude, unless a customer really crossed a line, but even then it wasn't being rude, it was just being realistic. Also, I've made it sound like we had nothing but nomadic Huns rampaging through our store. That's obviously not true. Plenty of customers were sweet and unassuming. But the vocal minority of holiday shoppers made the largest impression on us. Mostly because of the dichotomy: here it is, the most wonderful time of year, and people are literally fighting over the last copy of the hot Christmas gift book. One shopper has one end of the book, the other shopper has the other end, and they are tugging it back and forth in what I can only describe as an unhinged game of tug-of-war. If I recall correctly, we stood behind the counter, mouths agape, watching silently because words failed us, until finally one shopper emerged victorious. You can't help but start to see the holidays as just the slightest bit absurd at that point. Happy @%#&ing holidays!