Sunday, June 12, 2011

ReLoad: A Collection of Short Fiction Pt. 2


So back in the early 90’s when Lisa and I left Cincinnati for Columbus in her parent’s hand me down Ford Mercury full of clothes, books, and toys; we didn’t really know what either of us wanted to do with ourselves.

Lisa had a degree, the drive-in had become something different, and my Navy obligations had become next to none now that I’d been relegated to inactive reserves. Time for a short hop before we made any big leaps or lasting commitments, anything a bold as ringing wedding bells or stabbing Greek toes into the swells of the Pacific tide on some slice of Oregon coastline beneath slate grey skies.

Lisa had had a roommate in the Oaken Roach Hotel tenant building in the gaslight Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati prior to my meeting her. That roommate had moved north to Columbus to marry her shining knight, take the fairy tale stroll beneath an arch of swords, a Society of Creative Anachronism dream come true. The knight, a fine paralegal in training and former pizza delivery guy named Tim, had parents into the upscale slumlord game, and for the exchange of room and board occupied one of the suites in a red brick tenant house two blocks off the considerable circumference of the University of Ohio, at that time the largest undergraduate body in the union (insert American obesity joke here) with eighty thousand undergrads alone. The University sprawled across the flat Ohio landscape like a veritable metropolis of classrooms, faculty offices, dorms, sports facilities, labs, parking lots, and student housing. Tim’s parent’s place sat on the last ring of extended campus, two rings out from the strip laden with student bookstores, bars, food venues, and retail outlets. We visit the couple when they were still engaged, not yet wedded. We drove up, had a peek at the upstairs apartment we might fancy relocating into, and either nodded at one another or shrugged. We had no master plan, why not let our friends suggest one for us?

A month later we were moving in, and so began the period of our lives that decided whether we were meant to remain in the mid west, or flee to the far shores of the west coast where both Lisa and I now have since forged our respective lives and families.

The tone had immediately been different. Lisa now had over an hour of six lane highway between herself and her parents. I’d been at geographical distance from my family aspects since high school, so that had less impact on me. If anything, the move seemed like a fresh start, all that much further from Kentucky and Tennessee. Lisa had her good friend living just downstairs, that helped. And her friend’s wedding on the horizon to distract worry about big questions like what to do when you’ve grown up, like the Twisted Sister video intro, respond at last to the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” Collective shrug. 

Tim and I became friends pretty much from first handshake, an infuriating thing now that I have no idea where he is or what he’s up too. No Facebook add friend notices, no Flickr messages, nada. Somewhere along the line well after Lisa and I decided to put Pet Shop Boys in the car’s cassette deck and “Go West”, Joanne and Tim fell out of their Princess and Shining Knight roles and confront the realities of their respective lives, their ambitions and interests, and found the overlap untenable. Happens, and why I’m not one to promote marriage early, not unless you’re one of the fortunate few with a crystal clear inkling of what you’d like to accomplish and the sorts of collaborative or biological alliances you’d like to make. Not pointing fingers either, Joanne and Tim made one another stronger until they couldn’t, and time came to move on. I’ve heard Joanne is doing well, a mother and wife, happy and bountiful. Hopefully wherever Tim is in the world, he’s equally satisfied and fortunate.

Tim and I both smoked, and I suspect that’s a big part of why we became pals. Every night he’d sit on the stoop to his apartment and smoke his pipe, and if I’d gotten home early enough or had the evening free, I’d come down to join him, chain smoke a few cigarettes and wax ever so eloquently about the world, life, and the myriad mysteries that waited in the wings to confound and concern men such as we. Rain or shine, snow or frost, humid or scorched Earth, we’d end up having a smoke together and talking about whatever. If one of us brought beers, or wine, or some honey mead, the conversation would extend until our partners noticed us missing or sleep cashed in chips demanding recompense.

I worked for a bit managing an art cinema, and I’d landed the job directly resultant of the fine job I did manning the front lobby desk for a 24 hour plus horror movie marathon, a gig I’d volunteered for and garnered admission for myself and my cohorts to the festival as a bonus. While I’ll write about that amazing marathon some other day, what I would mention is how Tim and my other pals and I had hit a grocery store en route to the theater to stock up on supplies. I bought water, pop, and candy, Jeff got sandwich fixings and non-perishables. Tim bought two roast chickens, what he called “Yard Birds.” Which he ate around 10 pm with no cutlery, his forearms were reflecting cinematic illuminations up to the elbows. Jeff and I both enjoyed a drum stick apiece. Tim shared like that.

When one of my hand me down boom boxes died, Tim had just the implement to put the poor beast out of its misery, a medieval style ax. I stood back and snapped photos to document the carnage. Not every day you see an anachronistic trained knight have a whack at modern technology.  A lot of the Columbus fighters I met were very technologically savvy by day, Cobalt programmers or builders of primordial PCs, one introduced me to Myst and bonus deleted footage on a Japanese laser disc player for films like Meet the Feebles and Aliens. Further, many of the fighters, concerned for safety, used very modern household items to pad up their suits and swords. Bins full of duct tape rolls were ubiquitous with SCA fighter related events. At Tim’s stagger when not falling down dunken bachelor’s party landed in the open late licensed basement of Bernie’s Bagels, a Scottish by claim fighter named Rob described at great length how he made a two layer kilt with segements of garden hose threaded between in rings to wear as field armor at Pennsic, which is for SCA fighters what Woodstock, Phish, and the Grateful Dead rolled up together amount to for hippies.

Never mind all the year old wenches looking to give virgin fighters, artisans, and roleplaying LARP groupies a memorable cherry popping. Never mind all the replica Predator, Klingon, and unwieldy (and utterly bloody unlikely) high fantasy weapons that show up on one end of the metal smith merchant tents. Never mind the smelly MUD addicts that get flustered should anyone accidently refer to them by their mundane name. Never mind all the ample cleavage, the flirting, the pomps and the circumstances. At any SCA event worth a failed savings throw, simple walk past the piles of fighter armor and gear, breath in deep that rich hockey bag aroma of burly man sweat, and know that under the hood, despite how goofy and make believe the rest of the SCA might appear or actually be, the fighters had their own fight club going well before Chuck Palahniuk came along. I mean, these cats train hard, they play hard, and when a tournament or battlefield is announced, they put on several kilos worth of gear and beat the sense of space and time out of one another.

I remember talking to a guy about how he’d begun making helmets for people with the tops of those tall propane cylinders like you see on the backs of trucks sometimes surrounded with hazard signage. Apparently he acquired used tank cheap and used a torch to cut the tops off. I never tried on one of his helmets, deciding a sport that required metal shielding of that magnitude a tad more dangerous than I felt ready to sign any disclaimers over.

During our extended layover in Columbus, I held a few jobs while Lisa, establishing something of a precedent, landed a lasting gig as a Customer Service Agent for the credit division of the corporate offices of the Limited, a company that also owned and operated a slew of mall mainstays, such as Lerner, Structure, Lane Bryant, Abercrombie Fitch, and Victoria Secret.

I worked as an assistant manager for a multiplex, picking up again with Loews at the bone end of a strip mall across the parking lot from a massive country western bar where men and women could be seen that appeared to view the film Urban Cowboy as a lesson to live by. Jocular men folk would climb out of monstrously overcompensating sorry about your penis sorts of sparkly new toy trucks, the sort Jello Biafra threw rocks at in Portland; bright rodeo contender shirts with tassels rustling in the breeze, moose-knuckle tight jeans, heel to toe noisily clomping along in immaculate never stepped on mud before high heeled sharp tipped toed roach in the corner killer boots laden with lavish patterns or etched in illustrations.

I once watched a TV documentary about a Japanese trend among office men types to flock to theme bars and venues, the more involved the costumes the better. Salary men would rent lockers in these places to house their signature costumes, couple months’ salaries committed to looking as authentically whatever as could be done. And not stuff like I might have expected, not anime themes or subjects as I might have expected, these corporate tower denizens were up to an entirely different sort of escapist cosplay (costume-play). These cats were getting into themes like Rockabilly, Wild West, and NY Mafia. A guy dressed immaculately like Clint Eastwood as through fresh from a set in Italy proudly presents the spurs on the backs of his boots to the camera for all of us to see. “Real, you see?” He pokes the elevated spur on the backside of his raised heel, his legs a backwards number 4, his jabbing gloved finger making the spiky wheel spin on its thin axel clenched between the metal prongs. “Cowboy wore!” He’s smiling as though feeling as proud for finding means to use four of the seven words of English he knows into one statement. The documentary spent most time in the cowboy themed joints, there were more than one, two in Tokyo alone. One had a mechanical bull to ride, the other had country and western karaoke. The joint in Kyoto had both.

The only real difference between the Wild West you be cowboy long time bars in old Nippon and Columbus, Ohio would be skin color. Sake and tequila turn salary men’s faces red. The faux farm boys in Columbus were one tanning bed away from their red necks. Places like SCA, Disneyland, and Suburban Strip Mall Country Bars exist to let people with crippled control over their so called lives dwell inside other realms where they can reclaim some control and neuter the bucking broncos of their impotent rage. Not a god damn thing wrong with any of that, just looks damn peculiar to someone like me that grew up around working farms, tractors, electric fences, cattle, agriculture, kids with barbed wire scars attached to stories that inevitable began with a description of how weather had them out of doors doing something athletic like sledding or biking and ended with a Great Escape entanglement with an unforgiving fence.

And I’m not one to claim a cowboy or farmer heritage, I grew up around them, but my working time began with helping my folks in an industrial kitchen and ended with yard work. I did spend a summer in Pennsylvania on a working beef and dairy ranch, I helped with the hay bailing drive near the end of the summer before returning to home and seventh grade. I had enough glancing exposure to appreciate how much work a farm or ranch is, why kids from those sorts of environments can be so tough. Yet also so confident, almost to the point of foolhardy. I could spot kids from farms and ranches from across the parade grounds in the Navy, and those were never the kids I ran afoul of or saw get into trouble. The suburban kids were entitled, the ghetto kids were defiant, the boondocks kids were saucer eyed and sheepish. Not all, no sir, just enough to spot a distinct trend. So I fell in with the eggheads and the farm / ranch kids. Figured should things really go pear shaped, that would be the company I’d best keep to survive.

My wife’s Dad grew up on a farm, a ranch, raised a prize winning 4H steer as a youth that command a good double dollar per pound than any other beast in the offering that season. Just hearing that story makes me want a steak. And want to learn more about sustainability, about raising what you consume, or failing that because you’re as clueless as to how as I am, at least only purchasing foods that came from accountable practices, animals that had good lives prior to ending up on your plate and in your belly. No hormones, no antibiotics, no fluffed up lab developed solutions to make more and faster for the already inexcusably obese North American average mean. But I digress.

Lindz’s dad Richard is a man that knows his way around the kitchen, and as much around the world. He crossed the same parade ground I did in San Diego when he graduated from bootcamp and went on to serve a full term in the Us Navy, rather than the passive aggressive reservist romp I land ahoy embarked upon. He working in South America, knew a business lunch involved drinking like Mad Men. He knows how to fish, to walk tall, to take a fall off a train bridge and live to tell the tale. To me, he’s a veritable Titan, and while most of my parents have met, I hope he’ll be able to meet Mike sometime soon. They have a lot in common, and maybe that’s why I dig Richard’s daughter so much, I get where her Dad is coming from, albeit vicariously.

After the assistant manager gig at the 12 plex, I took a job as manager for the Drexel, a three screen venue in Bexley, a strange little city within a city, an independent city smaller than Vancouver’s North Shore with Columbus wrapped around it like a hemorrhoids donut. I took what I’d learned for managing concessions inventory management from my mentors at the 12 plex and implement it at Drexel, working with the manager for the other two theaters to build a process, spreadsheets, and daily tally pages to track what sold, what didn’t, and help establish budgeting trends to make concessions the profit margin it’s supposed to be. Fun fact, theaters make next to nothing from the box office for a film unless the film hangs around forever or the theater shows second run prints. Most of what pays the bills comes from concessions, especially for a first run art cinema. Theaters like that hope and pray for the perfect storm of first run film that gets an Oscar nod and then hangs around for months. A first run film takes a sliding scale of box office proceeds, typically almost 100% for the first weekend, then 90% the following week, though depends on the time of year, scale of the film, and number of screens the film is being played on within the cinema, and the size of those screens / auditoriums versus the other films competing for attention at that time at that cinema. And how many known turkeys the theater will take on and promise screen time to for the option to get a heavy hitter, high hype cinematic experience.

The few months I managed that art theater, they landed Jane Chapman’s The Piano. Five months later, weekend groups of elderly Jewish women were still selling out the main house. Harvey Keitel has some hardcore fans in Bexley.

The owner of the Drexel was a nervous guy that spent a lot of time ducking insults from his artistically disposed, big ring sporting, foot taller wife with her Annie Lennox haircut and classic Disney aristocratic Cinderella’s step-mother disposition. He liked toys, particularly Marx toys, something I learned a lot about from him. His daughter had taken a fancy to learning about the old figures and playsets as well, though I believe their collaborative collective pursuits were completely incognito versus the wife / mom. The Franks were a smart couple, and Jeff did a lot to keep those theaters running, including hiring me for $435 a week to install that concession system, and to rip out their unused upstairs bathroom to install a concession storage area. I’m positive his wife ran the show, though, and the books. Possibly she'd caught on I’d been helping myself tiny bits of cash loans to buy smokes here and there along the way, my defiant sense of entitlement shoulder-devilling me into miscounting spoilage to skim probably about $50 bucks bonus off the books during my handful of months working there.

While my termination never mentioned anything about cash or books, and truth be told, they might never have noticed that, as I’m pretty sure the other manager had been fleecing them and my concessions tracking system had caught him red handed walking away with full days worth of proceeds. Accountability is a bitch, as is karma. And if not for the money, for the number of comic books I read while hiding up in the closet they'd had me repaint and turn into a manager's office, literally a closet, which had a spider infestation, one that persisted no matter how many spiders I Scotch taped to the wall as a warning to others. Come to think of it, perhaps all the spiders taped to to tiny closet office wall had something to do with my dismissal. Worst pint sized panic room office I've ever had to hide out in.

Jeff pulled me into an office upstairs in the office building adjacent to the theater where he and his wife ran operations and generally tried to avoid each other. I’d arrived dressed to work because now that the upstairs bathroom to concessions stock room conversion had finished the plan called next for making more ready storage cabinets down stairs by the lobby for storing candy and pre-popped bags of popcorn. Guess who gave them that idea? I’d shown up in shorts and a torn off sleeveless Abercrombie & Fitch flannel shirt, a style my highschool friends called “Prunk”, an amalgamation of preppie and punk. I’d entered the lobby to discover professional grade workmen gutting the wall across from the concession stand with the earnest zeal of cops looking for a body. I went upstairs to find out what was going on, since I’d asked for professional help previously for the bathroom conversion and been denied citing insufficient funds. Jeff looked alarmed, frequently looking over his shoulder to his wife, though never been quite sure if for reassurance or out of fear for her wrath. He dragged me into an office, explained to me that they were letting me go, but I wasn’t being fired, it was a mutual separation. Of course I left furious and called a lawyer. Turned out the first lawyer I called knew Jeff, they were friends. He then encouraged me to let it go, not because of his friendship, just because the money wouldn’t be worth what I’d be on the hook for asserting wrongful termination in a state that favors the owner operators, especially with the exceptions film theaters have. Did you know movie theaters don’t have to pay overtime? As part of the entertainment industry, theaters enjoy a lot of perks.

A short while later I interviewed with a place, and the guy I talked to on the phone said he’d called Drexel and talked to the owner, a woman, and she’d said a lot of awful things. I called another lawyer, one that didn’t know the Franks, and found out that in Ohio in the 90’s a former employer could pretty much launch a smear campaign before you could hope to challenge them for defamation of character. I sometimes wonder if the $50 bucks worth of faux spoilages I’d incurred, not a proud stunt by the way, might have given the other manager an out to place all of his inconsistencies squarely on me, despite my having absolutely no access to his box office or concession receipts, those theaters were on the other end of town.

The part that ended up sucking most is when the next 24 hour horror marathon came around a few months later, I didn’t feel comfortable going. I worried I’d be an ass if I ran into Jeff or his wife, and of course I would, even with those 300 plus seats I’d surely run into them at some point. So I made up an excuse and watched my friends make their costumes and get their groceries a day early to be better prepared, Tim his “yard birds” and Jeff his sack o’ Sugar Babies. Jeff had made himself a Clockwork Orange costume that included foam balls tucked under the sports cup cod piece, he was a dead ringer. They had a great time, I think I cried myself to sleep.

I ran into Jeff a couple years later at a toy show; during what had to have been the last few months Lisa and I had left in Columbus. He had a table full of Marx toys, his daughter sitting next to him. They looked miserable. All around them kids and man children bustled about craning and crunching around tables full of Star Wars, sci-fi, comics, super heroes, and MacFarlene. No one seemed to care about a table full of toys from the 30’s to 50’s. Except, apparently, me. And that day I surprised myself. He rose as I approached and we smiled and shoot, practically hugged like Lando greeting Han on the flight deck of the Bespin station. I waved to his daughter and exchanged pleasantries, had a look through the merchandise and recognized a couple pieces, and said so. I asked how the horror marathon had gone, he said well, he’d missed me there, and seemed truly sincere. Said a costumed couple got married halfway through, what a show. We waved goodbye as Lisa and I left, and though bewildered, I didn’t stop spontaneously smiling for the rest of the day. I am glad his wife hadn’t been there, that would’ve soured the positive energy of the unanticipated reconciliation, I suspect.

After the Drexel I worked with Lisa’s friend Joanne helping to unpack and open a massive store dedicated to bathrooms, bedrooms, and beyond. Once the store opened I knew I needed something new, and something not related to the low wage world of movie theaters. Lisa mentioned a job had opened up at her work, and soon I embarked on a career that would essentially change everything.

More soon.

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