Fashion Revolution

“So what changes do you intend on making to my wardrobe?” I asked Fisch, who had invited me out to the mall for some lunch and a meterosexual shopping-spree. Apparently my current style of dress was insufficient for attracting members of the opposite sex, and renovating my wardrobe would prove the sole cure. Fisch — typically an extremely straight man with a slightly queer edge — revels in shopping for stuff like this.

“Dude, we’re not making a change,” my fashionable friend corrected me, as we weaved through a dense crowd of mall walkers. “We’re beginning a revolution.”

“At Macy’s?”

“Hey, you can have style without cost. Or at least that’s the way I roll.”

Fisch rolls in very odd places – cheap though they may be. My compatriot, a lawyer and an economist, strives for the paradoxical job of an honest politician and eventually the elected office of President of the United States.

“I am the best of the best,” Fisch told me once at the gym, while I lay collapsed choking on my lungs. “I choose to do it because no one else can, at least without sacrificing honor, integrity, and their soul.”

Honestly, anyone that seeks out that much responsibility must be a little crazy, which is why we get along rather well. Irishmen – according to Thomas Cahill, my mother, and my own familial observations – possess as much empathy for the insane and drunkards as they relish good humor and jibing authority. Therefore, Fisch and I, the politician and the writer, made for good company.

My Irish ancestors, poor farmers and scholars that they were, believed in retaining more of their money for food and books and less for Ralph Lauren. Thus, as we walked into Macy’s the knot in my stomach eased some. Living in a large family one never worries about having clothes; a simple phone call yields mountains of hand-me-down pants, sweaters, and shirts from various uncles and cousins. Why concern yourself with the latest styles when that same money could be invested in stories, games, or gadgets? Only the truly deranged would ever scribe socks or ties on their Christmas lists.

“We’re here to prove that with enough strategy, even geeks can dress well and still grab the girl in the end. Besides all that dorky stuff you like is cool now. Comic books, video games, anime . . . you wear that shit on your T-shirts, right?”

“I have a few shirts like that, yeah.” A dozen or two.

“Combine your dorky shirts with a wrinkled jacket and some faded jeans, and we’ll get you laid yet, Murphey.”

"Look, do you watch G4?"

"Look, do you watch G4?"

Somehow all this seemed quite dubious, and Fisch like any skilled salesman and politician, sensed this.

“Look, do you watch G4?” he asked passing through the malodorous air of the perfume department en route to the escalators.

“I’ve seen bits checking around,” I said lifting my dangling shoelaces above the teeth of escalators. “It’s like an MTV for gamers, right?”

“Yeah, well we want you lookin’ like the host of Attack of the Show. Dorky guy with hot girls. We want to stretch your current comfort zone just a bit, extend your boundaries.”

“Okay, sure,” I replied. “. . .extend my boundaries.” Sure, like China into Nepal.

“We’ll prove that you don’t have play lacrosse to get the hot girl, dude. This is going to be awesome.”

Did I mention that I hate shopping for clothes? One of the perks of working in a biochemistry lab – apart from liquid nitrogen and playing God – the informal dress always felt comfortable. Our bosses encouraged tact (i.e. no holes in the jeans or metal dog collars), long pants, and toed shoes, but otherwise Casual Friday lasted year-round. Clothing after all protected us, as much as gloves, goggles, and chemical showers, and experiments routinely got . . . messy. Safety classes advised that much of our clothing may become soiled, stained, or severely burned as a result of day-to-day research experiments. In some cases, such as if a jar of phenol accidentally spilt or soaked into our clothing, caution dictated that we remove our pants and shirt immediately and contact the emergency hotline (Phenol vapor acts an anesthetic as well as corrosive acid, and thus eat away at your skin without inflicting any pain. Retaining phenol-soaked clothes was like rubbing your body in Novacaine and then setting it on fire.). From these experiences, I developed little concern for my personal appearance and greater discretion in my choice of undergarments.

Back in high school, we never had much choice in our apparel either; slacks, dress shirt, tie, and jacket were the rule garnering these young men with the illusion of respectability. Yet except for the occasional joke tie that spun like a propeller or sang old Christmas tunes, no one cared about much less noticed our day-to-day wear. In college, I adopted the same dress, trading in my shirt, tie, and jacket for grey golf polos. It is thus that managed to live one-third of my life without a pair of jeans.

Thus, when Fisch called, I reasoned it was about time I bought a pair and at least to see how I liked them. Patrick bought his first pair just after meeting Tiff. I was buying my first pair with Fisch, discussing the revolution of geekdom and how clothes can secure my breed-ability.

“Videogames, comics and anime are popular and cool now,” Fisch said quickly, splicing through the jean rack. Geeks have accrued greater respect today . . . an attractive eccentricity, if you will, to members of the opposite sex.”

I told him that he had obviously not been to any anime convention.

“Outliers,” he said with a wave. “The point is that in the end, the geek, the dreamer, the visionary will succeed where the jocks and lax players have failed, hindered forever by their steroids and excessive keg stands. Meanwhile we’re ready to make history, much like Spartans against . . . ooo, this looks good. Try it on.”

“Didn’t the Spartans die?” I ask, fitting a white jacket from the sales rack tightly around my shoulders.

“Only in body,” Fisch said. “Nice, now we just have to secure some jeans and shirts then.”

“It looks nice,” I said cautiously. “But judging by these other guys around us. It’s not really everyday wear. I’m not really going to fit in.”

“So you only wear it on your date,” Fisch said. “Though why on earth would you want to blend in like everyone else is beyond me. You need to stand out, not enfold yourself into those ubiquitous banal trends of the masses. Lead for once . . .”

“Okay,” I said, considering if I had ventured outside my normal routine of late. Perhaps it was time for a change . . .

Not bad I said to myself.

Not bad, I said to myself.

At the end of the day, we bought two stripped shirts, a rumpled white jacket, and a pair of jeans. Leaving the store we walked out to the parking lot and talked about some old classmates and future girlfriends.

“I mean, seriously, dude,” I asked leaning against my car. “What are the chances? Clothes are one thing, but you know me and my odd hobbies . . .”

“Higher than you think, Murph,” Fisch said. “I have a friend, who’s a professional cheerleader. She plays frickin’ Everquest at home, probably into D&D too. A twelth-level elf warrior or some shit.”

“Well, Everquest is quite addictive . . . like crack for gamers.”

“Face it, man. You start dressin’ right, and they’ll be no stopping the mob of hot girls racin’ to tear those clothes off you.”

“Right, well . . . as exciting as that sounds – and it does – these clothes were not that cheap. Just warn the deluge to strip me slowly, ok?”

“Trust me, it works for that guy on G4. Look at the girls he works with. Tina Wood and that Oliva chick are hot!”

I returned home, clothes in tow. Quickly I stretched my jeans, shirts, and jacket across the bed to admire. Not bad, I said to myself. Maybe there is some sense to Fisch’s rantings: a chance to stretch my boundaries without totally sacrificing my identity. His words seemed honeyed with wisdom and audacity. I felt ready to step into a whole new era.

Quickly I strode over to the computer and typed in G4, eager for more ideas, more insights into this ‘cool geek’ persona. The following video flashed on my screen:

As the video ended, I strode over to the bed and threw my clothes unceremoniously into the Macy’s bag. Neither for revolution or girls, would I ever emulate that Kevin twit . . . regardless of his fashion-sense and breed-ability. In the end I just felt embarrassed to be a gamer.

Tossing on some shorts and an old T-shirt, I jumped on my bed with a few books, and my DS.  After a few levels of Zelda and a page or two of my latest One Piece manga, I fell asleep, dreaming of princesses, pirates, and Tina Wood

Lost in Wonderland, 2008

Over the years since Dasad and I first attended Otakon, the East Coast anime convention, my fascination with anime and manga has risen to new heights (or sunk to deeper depths) such that I can only ponder (and shudder) at where my interests will lead me next year. Curiosity provided impetus for our first visit; the following year, my love for stories and all things weird beckoned me back, a fact that still astounds Dasad today:

"Wait, you want to go back?"

"Wait, you want to go back?"

“Wait, you want to go back?” he wrote, ostensibly astounded after I pre-purchased tickets. “Why in the world would want to go back? Anime conventions are like social quicksand. Do you WANT to die alone and unloved?”

A little dramatic perhaps but I understand his concerns. Still normality never appealed to me, and so despite my impending destiny, I bought tickets again this year. Recently a few new anime series had captivated my imagination, and thus compelled me to seek out new DVDs, posters, and art books. Yet the real reason, my honest intent was to purchase an anime figure.

Buying an anime figure in the otaku community is akin to primal man’s first successful hunt or a wide receiver’s first touchdown: a rite of passage as well as a point of no return. Some otaku collect hundreds of figures, which they entomb in little glass cases or scatter around their workstations like protective spirits. Yet while owning hordes of figurines is a mark of honor in the anime community, everywhere else collectors are stapled as “thirty-year-old guys who plays with dolls.” Social quicksand indeed, conventions are more like a social black hole.

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Normality never really appealed to me . . .

Still normality never really appealed to me, and thus this year I convinced Dasad to join me yet again. As we stood in line, I think he still had trouble coping with this decision:

“Remind me again why I am here?”

Dasad and I stood at the end of a long line into the convention center. Dressed in normal street clothes, we actually felt outlandish among the various costumes, makeup, and hand-made wands donned by the rest of the conventioneers. The lady before us was applying copious layers of red face-paint on her boyfriend’s face and arms while adjusting her lank black wig and the sash of her red kimono. Hellboy and Hellgirl then sucked down a can of Red Bull and leaned against the building to cuddle. Dasad wrinkled his nose. The couple smelt of soggy gym socks.

We should have dressed up, I thought.

We should have dressed up.

We should have dressed up.

“Freaks,” Dasad muttered. “I mean, we just visited the anime convention last year. What purpose do we have in coming yet again?”

“Well,” I said, focusing my camera on a host of ninja piling from a nearby van. “Last year was a bit of a farce. Months of waiting which amounted to a measly four hours of convention time, hardly enough to catch music videos and browse the marketplace. This year, the family gave me the whole day off to geek out.”

“Fine for you maybe, but what am I doing here? Besides inhaling geek funk, oh terrific . . .” The couple apparently had kissed. When I saw the girl again, her face shined with smudged paint, like a lioness after dining on fresh zebra. Dasad and I changed lines.

“You’re here,” I said, snapping a few more photos of some tight-donned swordsmen, “Because you’re a good friend who rejoices in my happiness.”

“Nope,” Dasad mumbles as the swordsmen’s ten-foot carboard sword nearly skewers him. “Freak, get far away from me and take your freak-stick with you.”

“Ummm, let’s see . . . there is a chance that I might get assaulted and/or molested by freaks, and you would not be here to watch and/or laugh.” At this point, I realized that we were in the wrong line altogether. Pre-registered attendees could go right inside.

" . . . take your freak stick with you."

". . . and take your freak stick with you."

“As well as capture your humiliation for posterity,” Dasad considered. “Okay I can accept that. Your camera does take movies, right?”

“I think . . . it has that video camera switch. Hold on . . .” I snap a few photos of some greenish wizard holding a large gray bomb and hand the camera to Dasad. I have to give my friend credit; he possesses a true talent for taking quality shots, holding the camera like an expert marksman. Meanwhile I shoot on the run, like an 80’s action star. Almost one-hundred percent of the smeared and blurred shots I delete afterwards were my own.

“So what are you looking for today?” Dasad asks inspecting the camera. “What’s the agenda?”

“Um . . . well, last year we came home with lots of stuff. DVDs, box sets, posters . . .”

“Speak for yourself. I came home with a bad rash and five hours lost, which could have been better spent watching Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.”

“Well, this year I wanted to maybe buy some artbooks and maybe, if it’s not too expensive . . . a figure.”

“A figure?” Dasad said, suddenly smiling a broad Cheshire grin.

I have always had a fascination with carven figures and models – not that I myself am much adept at the art. When I was a mere tyke, Mom would collect David Winter houses, intricately carved Old World cottages, houses, and ruined castles. Never allowed to touch – lest my PB&J-smeared hands desecrate the artwork – I would nonetheless stare at them from behind glass doors. Now anime figures are equally detailed, and unlike my mother’s other collections, the childish Hummel figurines, do more than push wheelbarrows, plant flowers, and stare dumbfounded into space. Meanwhile, anime and video game characters can wield swords, mount spells, and look cute in bathing suits, hair billowing with the summer breeze. Moreover the transition from the 2D realm into three-dimensional statues fascinates me, and I wanted to commemorate this convention by buying my first figure.

"A figure?  Which one?"

"A specific figure? Which series?"

Nonetheless, this further descent into geekdom frightened me a bit. I have always been a moderate fan at best, picking and choosing my shows based on good-storytelling and interesting plot-lines, always ready to keep my obsession in check. Thus, purchasing a figure scared me some. Dasad of course knew this, and in order to relieve me of my fears, mocked me openly.

“Any specific figure? Which series? A sexy one? You, pervert you . . .”

“Umm . . .” I muttered, my face reddening. “No specific one in mind. Maybe Fate/Stay Night or Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya . . . or anyone that looks good.” Despite my mortification, the quest for the perfect figure had an opposite affect on Dasad, who at once seemed excited, ready and willing to humiliate me as I shopped.

The industrial plaza and its maze of venders regrettably were closed until eleven. Thus, we change direction and head for the art gallery and AMV contest. Navigating around the convention center is like finding oneself a rat in a maze. If you refuse to jump through the right hoops, you might find yourself lost, electrocuted, and a fire hazard.

“Whoa, that fuzzy Pikachu just shocked me,” Dasad shouts as we make our way through the crowds to the lower lobby.

“Wow,” I admired. “That’s quite a costume then. What do you think of the pageantry so far?”

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

"I can't even recognize half these characters."

“I can’t even recognize half these characters. The Dragonball and Naruto guys, sure. But what about that guy with the blue hair . . .”

“Gurren Lagann,” I said, taking a hurried picture. “Awesome show, the plot spans several years and considers the ramifications of changing the world and having to live with those changes.”

“ ‘kay, what about that one: the green haired girl in the straitjacket?”

“Umm . . . Code Geass, I think. New show, I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear it’s very popular in Japan now. The DVDs just came out this week so I’ll probably pick them up later today,” I said, now scanning the hallways and atriums for characters. Many I recognized but failing fluency in Japanese could not pronounce their names. “The kid with the guitar over there might be FLCL or Beck, I’m not sure. And the bunnygirl over there in her mom’s S&M clothes, well, I’m not quite sure what that is . . .”

We passed a large couple stretched out on a black couch. The husband rested his head in his wife’s lap; she slouched down in the sofa, eyes blurred over a magazine. I stopped to photograph a few cosplayers posing near the outdoor veranda.

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning,” Dasad whispered to me. “The convention opened at nine. Are they already exhausted?”

"I'm not quite sure what that is."

. . . the crowd's reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me.

“Parents,” I said. “They have a long day ahead of them.”

We strode down to the anime music videos (AMV) contest. In previous years, the AMV’s proved the highlight of the convention. Fans would combine technical artistry, fast-paced songs, and their favorite shows into a short four-minute music video. Very impressive all in all. Yet this year, most of the videos – particularly those categorized as romantic or sentimental – proved more soporific than sensational. I believe Dasad fell asleep through half the entries, which failed to maintain his interest – and mine.

Nonetheless, the crowd’s reaction to specific scenes and anime amaze me. In past years during a particularly intense or memorable moment the audience, the size of a small stadium, would shout, cheer and clap. I would smile, infected by the crowd’s energy and excitement. Even faced with a dull video, the love of the fans for the medium made the whole experience bearable and fun. At home my own excitement was often met with odd stares and rolled eyes; here I could love my hobby with abandon.

Moreover, I discovered that some songs even improve when coupled with a little animation:

Eventually the industry arena opened, and a tide of conventioneers slowly flooded the marketplace, settling to a steady current throughout the numerous stalls and booths. Anime markets are an example of chaos in bloom. Otaku love to buy things: figures, books, DVDs, posters, key chains, anything associated with their favorite series. As I mentioned they are fairly obsessive people, and as Dasad and I drifted through the stalls, we witnessed fans dancing, posing for pictures, congregating around videos, and some – shoplifters – escorted out by security.

Half-way into the arena we encountered a group of girls dancing, shifting their hips back and forth and flapping their hands near their heads like cat ears. Energetic synth music blared in the background.

“By all that is holy, what is that?” Dasad asks.

“Caramelldansen,” I said. “A Swedish song set to these two anime characters dancing . . . well, like these girls. It’s a very addictive song. If you listen once, you’ll never get tired of it.”

“I have no idea what is going on anymore.”

“Neither do I,” I laugh. “That’s all the fun.”

Nonetheless, despite the choreographed dancing and ensuing chaos, we found our way into a relatively unpopulated booth to begin our search.

“So what are we looking for?” Dasad asked, fingering a large robot I recognized from the series RahXephon.

“I’m not sure myself, but I have to display it at home with the kids so . . .”

“PG-13?”

“Nothing excessively graphic . . . oh and no robots. I hate giant robots.”

“Gotcha, how about this one? It says ‘Cast Off.’ Does it fire missiles or something?”

“No, that means her clothes come off.”

“Whoa, okay. So no.”

“No, I’m not into that stuff. And the family would never let me live it down if I bought it.”

“Fine, but I’m making note of it . . . just in case you change your mind. Oooh . . . this one is sexy. Hey Murphey, don’t you want a sexy figure? Why don’t we buy the one with the swimsuit?” Dasad has a wonderfully honest way of embarrassing me in public. Possessing no shame – but then who does at an anime convention – he will announce with great acumen what I am thinking but probably too embarrassed to speak aloud.

“Ooo . . . I like the one with the girl in the short school uniform. Hey dude, did you know you bend the box at just the right angle you can see up . . .”

“Let’s go over there,” I interrupt, my face as red as sunburn.

. . .  rising from the earth as if flying

. . . rising from the earth as if flying

After much searching, I finally find the figure I am seeking: a Belldandy figure from the anime “Oh My Goddess.” The statue is well-crafted, beautiful with flowing robes, hair, and ribbons, rising from the earth as if flying. Dasad simply shrugs and asks for my camera. He films my purchase, much to the concern of the old man behind the counter as if he fears my whole exchange will appear on Inside Edition later that night. His eyes dart from side to side, and anxiously he quickly slides my credit card while shoving the figure in my hands.

We walk off and I hurriedly stuff the figure into my backpack. “So I have less to carry,” I explained to Dasad.

“Sure, sure,” he said. “Don’t worry no one cares. Shove your shame into your backpack and let’s head out. I’m starving for burritos.”

We leave the industry arena, and hesitantly I look back. Given more time, I think I could have bought a bit more, but for the sake of my stomach, sanity, as well as my wallet, we depart. Until next year then . . . when I will try to convince Dasad to buy that schoolgirl figurine.

“Fat chance,” he said his mouth full of rice. Oh well, but then perhaps I have a good lead on Christmas gifts . . .

Lost in Wonderland: 2007

Last summer, after much nagging and badgering, I convinced Dasad to accompany me to an anime (Japanese animation) convention. Our individual takes on the whole scene differed greatly. Being more comfortable with spectacle and chaos, I found the bizarre melting pot of costumes, adolescent crowds, giant swords, and unhygienic otaku (Japanese for “obsessed fans”) intriguing. Dasad on the other hand . . . well, you’ll see.

The day began somewhat like this:

We enter the convention center and walk up the stairs to pick up our badges. I bounce along, ready to take in the landscape of cosplayers, eager to watch some shows and enter a few video game competitions. Dasad winces as a pair of black wings grazes his shoulders. “I wish I had brought my bottle of Febreeze,” he mutters loudly. A group of four girls and one guy dressed in short-skirted school uniforms giggle behind him. The guy titters in baritone.

. . . ready to take in the landscape . . .

. . . ready to take in the landscape . . .

“Oh come on,” I say, “It’s not that bad.”

“That one guy in the green spandex, smelled like piss.”

“The Rock Lee guy? Yeah, well, it’s probably just an old costume from last year,” I said ruffling through my bag for a schedule of events. “You stuff an old costume in the attic or basement with a few moth balls and it will accrue a . . . uh, certain pungency.”

“So will the human body if you live off Cheetoes and don’t wash it once a month . . .” Another cosplayer dressed in black leather and an odd assortment of chains and belts wrapped around his body passed carting a ten-foot cardboard sword and some serious B.O. Dasad wrinkled his nose. “Hey,” he muttered, “next time do us all a favor and tell your mom to buy soap, freak. With all the hot springs in Japan, you’d think that otaku would catch onto the concept of regular bathing.”

“Come on, don’t concern yourself with the occasional smelly cosplayer, dude,” I said smiling at another cosplayer in white leather and little else. She smiled back. No cross-dressing for this one. “Not everyone smells of month-old sweat.” Some smell of lilacs.

“Anyway, I found where they’re showing the music videos contest so let’s have fun today. Get excited.” I somewhat shouted this, but no one notices. If anything they look on approvingly. A seven-foot tall guy in a stuffed-tiger suit gave me a hearty thumbs-up and a long growl.

"Oh come on . . . it's not that bad."

"Oh come on . . . it's not that bad."

“I get any more excited and I’ll piss my pants too.”

“That’s the spirit. We’ll make you an otaku yet.” That comment incited a wave of revulsion which I purposely misinterpreted [ignored] as the shudder of pure joy. “Come on, I’ll buy you a green tea and some pocky stix.”

And so went the entire afternoon. Though Dasad never stood still long enough for a picture, some of his looks of shear disbelief would have sent you sprawling to the ground. I have to seriously thank him for putting up with me that day. The convention can be quite uncomfortable even at the best of times, particularly if you’re not in the scene much anymore, so thanks again, man. I truly appreciate it.

Musical Haunts

Lately songs have become lodged in my head, whispering lyrics as I sleep like the ghost of some blond pop diva.  I speak of course of Natasha Bedingfold’s “Pocketful of Sunshine,” one of the most addictive songs on the radio this year.  If you happen to hear its wispy synthetic prelude, careen off to the median and throw yourself from your car immediately (or turn down the volume), lest you subject your family and loved-ones to long off-key interludes of “Take me Awaaaay . . . to my secret plaaaace . . .”  Airborne infection occurs within seconds; normal healthy siblings will fall into chorus or dance after a single verse:

Natasha’s secret place apparently excludes non-beautiful people who cannot street dance — or look horrible in white.  Ryan meanwhile took most of family to see Neil Diamond Tuesday.  The average age of the audience included 30-year old men and 40-year old women, shaking and dancing to the rhythm of Neil’s blue jeans.   During one energetic song, we told by the row behind us to sit down and slump in our seats as we stood to dance.  Apparently the older curmudgeons, too old or lazy to stand and clap, felt angry at the prospect of paying eighty bucks to watch our porcine rears shake and obstruct the stage.  Some people enjoy to dance; other enjoy to sit quietly and listen.  Either is good, but for those that choose the latter, a $20 DVD succeeds much better than an $80 concert ticket.

Good Service Nowadays

“One ninety-four!”

“One ninety-four!”

The Panera Bread near the boys’ school is located in an old outlet center under construction. Golden bulldozers and backhoes decorate the parking lot, former Laundromats and Dollar Stores collapse into dust while steel skeletons of new stores emerge from their ashes, and hardhatted construction workers cut thick patchwork pieces from the asphalt like haberdashers into fresh fabric. Once finished, they trim the entire site, barricading the cut edges and broken piles with a neon-orange mesh. Driving through to as-of-yet untouched parking lot before Panera is akin to competing in an off-road obstacle course, skidding over uneven road and avoiding the sweeping necks of monstrous machines. Nevertheless, the ensuing chaos and haphazard construction does little to disrupt the flock of young businessmen and women, who congregate before Panera every morning.

I arrive at the bakery quarter of eight in the morning, after dropping the boys off at football practice, to grab a breakfast sandwich and some cold tea. The suits are all there, mingling outside the store and gossiping inside around coffee and bagels, bedecked like fashionable New York models. I order my food and within a few minutes they leave all at once, flying off to their jobs like startled pigeons migrating between park statues. The café empties and I am left with the Panera staff and an eclectic group of seniors. Most look either relieved for the return to silence or totally oblivious to the change at all.

The chef behind the counter calls my number, shoving a rolled up bag across the counter. Oblivious myself, I continue to sip iced tea and hum old tunes from the 40s, recalled from years of Bug Bunny cartoons:

“You musta been a beautiful baby, you musta been a beautiful child, when you were only startin’ to go to kindergarten I bet you drove the lil’ boys . . .”

“One ninety-four!”

“Right!” I shout and the chef glares at me simultaneously muttering “Have a nice day” with programmed absence.

Maybe my dress is not on par with the rest of the café’s patrons, but it is early on a Monday morning so I cut the guy some slack. Other encounters have not been so warm. Fast food cashiers for example never seem particularly energized. The low pay and long hours without thought probably does little to boost moral. Yet I wonder sometimes whether people work their jobs or whether people’s jobs work them. Sometimes it falls to the customer to galvanize those who serve him into action:

“WelcometoWendysmayItakeyourorder?”

Nothing about my cashier suggested anything but loathing toward me and the food consuming public as a whole. The family and I had stopped on the way down to Florida at combination gas station-Wendy’s-DairyQueen-market for food and ice cream. She – let’s call her Wendy – seemed like she wanted to kill herself and the most of humanity in one fell swoop. Her monosyllabic greeting slid from her mouth like a crash victim, slowly and with great pain. Normally I would have been taken aback. However, Wendy had mumbled the programmed welcome with such perfect fluidity and indifference that I paused before announcing my order, clearly impressed and thus resolute to pester her with cheerfulness.

“Hello, how are you today?”

“Fiiinnne . . .” she moans with a sigh. Success! Already I had struck a nerve.

“Could I get a . . . um, a chicken sandwich and . . .”

“Fried, spicy, grilled, or sautéed?”

“Oh . . . well, what would you recommend?”

At first, I get no response. Wendy glares at me incredulously. Clearly – and probably wisely too – she does not eat here. Nonetheless, she musters a response: “Um if you like spicy hot food and heartburn, get the spicy chicken. The sautéed chicken is greasy. Grilled is decent, and crispy, well . . .”

Here she paused and for a moment I spied a slight grin, mischievous and rebellious. “. . . is God-awful,” she whispers.

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh. “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh.  “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

Fast food cashiers by in large are like that, moaning and groaning like the titular characters in a George Romero zombie flick. Of course, I saw “SuperSize Me” too. If my job involved knowingly feeding the general populace fatty sauces and questionable meat, I would try to frighten away future customers far from our value meals. That reminds me, have you heard the new advertising for McDonalds’ chicken strips: now guaranteed with 100% real meat! Should we ask what kind of meat? Moreover, what exactly did I ingest several months ago? Was it animal, mineral, or vegetable? I do not envy any fast food worker, accosted with these heavy questions.

Fast food workers however are not the only ones afflicted with occupational depression. Take my recent encounter with the drink girl at the local golf course for example. Typically these maidens with their roving oases exude a pleasant cheerfulness, offering liquid hope to the heat-irradiated sportsman, yet this story involves a rare specimen. The girl seemed pleasant enough, if you ignored the bug-eyed sunglasses, petulant sarcasm, and Sunday-morning face of the late night drinker. As she drove near the green, my brother Shannon repositioned the flag and asked for a sandwich:

“Ummm . . . it’s eight o’clock in the morning,” she explained.

“Oh ok, well . . . thank you,” Shannon replied, taken aback. “But do you have any sandwiches?”

“No . . .” she sighed. “We have only few snacks and muffins. That’s it.”

“Iced tea for me,” I clamor after missing my putt.

“I’ll take a muffin,” Shannon’s friend, Chuck, says handing her a hundred dollar bill. For the next year or so, until he finishes his senior year at high school, Chuck is staying with us. The large bill represents the entirety of his spending money for the next six or so months. However, the girl clearly interprets his eagerness to pay for their drinks as futile attempt to flirt.

“I’m not impressed,” she responds, hurriedly passing him his change and driving off.

Clearly alcohol and early mornings mix as well as beer before liquor (never sicker). This alarming trend concerning those individuals in my life who prepare my food gives me pause. Luckily enough, I can always depend on those wonderful folks at my local bookstore cafe. After grabbing my daily egg sandwich at Panera, I read for a bit and then visit the book emporium before retrieving up the boys from practice. This has become a daily routine so much so that the baristas ready the iced tea as I walk in:

“Mornin’ Murph, your usual? Large iced tea again today?”

“You got it, Joel, but with a splash of raspberry syrup if you got any,” I respond, momentarily distracted by a large table of novels. “Buy 1, and purchase another for ½ off.” I remind myself to scour the titles before I leave.

“No problem, man,” Joel responds, energetically. “Scone? We just got a fresh batch of cinnamon and apple . . .”

“Well . . .” I love scones. “Oh, what the heck. Heat it up for me.” I sip my tea while Joel throws the triangular pastry into the oven.

“Did you manage to see any movies over the weekend?” Joel asks, as soon as the oven chimes. Of all the baristas who work at the café, Joel loves discussing comic books, movies, and all things geeky. Moreover, he is the epitome of the perfect barista: energetic, efficient, and friendly. I anticipate our morning discussions every day.

“I took my folks and a few of the siblings out to see “The Dark Knight” for the eighth time. Did you see it yet?”

Joel pauses and frowns. “Yeah, but I didn’t like it. The costume was all wrong, more like a SWAT gunmen than a superhero. They totally forgot about Harvey’s dual personalities, and I lost track of the characters after a while. It was all so confusing. I nearly walked out halfway through . . . Hey, dude, don’t you want your scone?!”

"I didn't like it."

"I didn't like it."

I gasp and mindlessly stagger out into stacks, my fanboy pride in tatters. No disillusioned fast food cashier could have hurt me more. Quickly, I buy a stack of novels, childrens’ lit, and five or so volumes of manga (Buy 4, Get the 5th Free) to ease my pain.

I take a long sip of iced tea to cleanse the bad taste from my mouth. Yes, it truly is a shame: the blended raspberry and the iced tea were delicious, perfectly delicious.

Running Man

One of my irrational dreams involves running, racing against time or escaping from evil forces set to some dramatic soundtrack.  Like the guy in that Bon Jovi video . . .

Or those chase scenes in Scooby Doo episodes . . .

Life should come with its own soundtrack sometimes.  Maybe if it did, I might feel inspired to search more ancient Egyptian tombs or visit New Jersey.

Of Comics and Creeps

A haven from reality

A haven from reality

Like its patrons, comic book shops come in all shapes and sizes. In the years since I fell in love with comic books and super heroes, my travels have carried me to many a comic shop, many of which proved to be brightly lit, clean, and otherwise respectable havens from the drudgeries of reality. Others, dark dens devoted to fandom, fit the stereotype all too well. In college Dasad and I spent our Friday nights walking the malls, wasting time in the arcades and the popular comic shop, Another Universe.

Unlike most shops, owned or operated privately, AU was a legitimate chain, specializing in comic books and other comic-inspired merchandise. No dingy obscure dungeon was this, but a well-kept store equipped with freshly paint, ordered shelves, employee uniforms, an immense collection of comics, graphic novels, and figurines, as well as a knowledgeable troop of female cashiers.

Anyone who has ever donned the robes of geekdom knows the horror of talking to girls about your hobby. This is true of any male obsession – even the more socially acceptable ones like sports. Their eyes gaze, lips part to utter an impatient sigh, your final comment on the latest Batman movie is ignored as she and her girlfriends drift away, laughter and the occasional quip echoing in their wake. Not so were the female members of the AU staff:

“Big Batman fan?” the pretty cashier asked, looking at me and smiling.

“Uh yeah, I was a long time ago, and only recently started collecting again.” Typical ambiguous answer, which I mastered long ago, allowing the female in question a polite but disinterested out: “Oh that’s nice” or “Well, good luck.”

Instead she responds, holding up my issue of Batman’s “The Killing Joke:” “This is an awesome book. Great storytelling. Have you read Waid and Ross’ ‘Kingdom Come?’ yet”

“No,” I respond, excitedly. “No, I bought it the other day, but haven’t got a chance to read it yet.”

“Go home tonight and read it. Then come back and tell me what you think. I loved Ross’ art, all painted, you know. Beautiful. Go read it. I want to hear what you think.”

I thought I had died and gone to heaven. A girl geek. A pretty girl geek. A pretty girl geek who wants to talk to me about geek stuff. Not since fire and the invention of movable type has man stumbled upon such a wonder.

Unfortunately the store was bought out by a larger company weeks later and subsequently shut down. Afterwards I found a shop closer, Alternate Worlds, less mainstream and hip, but with staying-power. No girls either, but in such establishments you become accustomed to the girls to geeks ratio (0:1) and simply end up buying more Japanese comics. Nonetheless, the owner proved to be a sweet forty-something Swedish immigrant, the quiet aunt-type, who though plainly ignorant of the hobby always kept the store bright and cheery. Here I did not find a comic store but a bookstore that sold comics, a comfortable place that refused to emulate someone’s parents’ basement.

However, not all comic stores are like these. The owners and cashiers, most regrettably and all too frequently, fall into the old stereotype. The worse offenders – by which I define those who truly seek to embarrass and oppress the customer – evolve over years of seclusion and obsession, like Gollum in his cave. For these reasons, while growing up comic-buying always felt a little sketchy. In high school and college, few guys my age bought comics, so the act of collecting or even reading felt much like sneaking through your father’s Playboy collection:

“Murphey, what are you doin’ in there?”

“N-nothing, Mom, j-just reading!”

“I hope that you’re readin’ Hemingway, if I find another Batman under your bed . . .”

“H-h-haha, funny Mom!”

So when the owner of the nearby Cosmic Galaxy (for some reason all comic stores on the East Coast gravitate toward corny space epithets) began deriding me on my purchases, you felt even worse about yourself and your habits. Many geeks are like that though; lacking interest in society-approved activities, they seek to master the minutia of their own niche and thus prove their worth by abusing the less-informed. Justifying their worth to the world, they attempt to degrade it. In my mind, a bully is still a bully, regardless of interest or appearance. Still, the engine of self-promotion and public humiliation powers most modern businesses, fan conventions, and scientific research, so I suppose it was a necessary – if painful – experience.

But back to our disgruntled worker:

"This arc is horrible . . ."

"This arc is pathetic . . ."

The local comic guy seems to emulate his tragic counterpart on the Simpsons: pale complexion, lank unwashed hair, condescending demeanor, and a tight blue T-shirt pox-marked with grease. His pot belly blocks the faint light from door as I stand before him, like an astronaut watching the planet eclipse the setting sun. His fingers glow orange, permanently stained by the entrails of countless cheese doodles. I cough politely, and he stands. Slowly. Waddling over to the register, he coughs and prepares himself for business, simultaneously cleaning his fingers and decorating his shirt in one swift move. I say hello. He nods, sipping grape soda from his over-sized Big Gulp. Purple droplets escape down his cheek, eventually collecting at his chin like a grotesque wart. He rubs away the residual pimple with the back of his hand, glaring at my purchases as if they displeased him.

“This arc is pathetic,” he says scanning my first issue.

“Huh?” I stumble, pausing at his condemnation.

“This story arc, the one you are buying, is pathetic. I hear Parker makes a deal with the devil here, some dues-ex-machina crap. Quesada is over-rated anyway. If you really like Spiderman, toss away everything written in the last twenty years – especially any title that begins with “Ultimate” – and devote yourself to Romita’s work of the early ‘70s.”

He passed me an old comic, wrapped in plastic. I felt like he was trying to pawn off some pot. The fading colors, heavy price tag, and cheese-doodle smears turned my stomach; I politely declined. Some people collect comics for individual issues, encasing prized books in plastic and then display them in locked case on their dressers next to yesterday’s change and that pyramid diorama from third grade. I am just in it for the stories. Owning rare individual copies – groundbreaking and valuable though they may be – seems pointless if I cannot read them.

The comic guy sniffs at my refusal, and then ignores all but my money. I sneak out, darting my eyes about the parking lot, an instinctive search for girls and anyone who might recognize me.

Most comic stores have that feel to them: hole-in-the-wall shops squeezed in between laundromats and liquor stores. One such institution near the lab where I worked felt more like an opium den than a bookstore. The shelves seemed handmade by unskilled hands. I reach for an old issue of Batman but happen upon a splinter instead. I nearly trip over someone. Bodies of potential customers lay strewn about the floor next to piles of discarded back issues, reading silently, lost in alien worlds. Death metal bands screamed from behind the counter, where the gaunt pierced lips of the emaciated clerk mouthed ambiguous lyrics. Any moment I imagined tear gas to crash through the windows while my face is pinned to the floor by some rookie cop, trained on old episodes of Starsky and Hutch.

“Listen . . .” I would shout, as steel cuffs bite into my wrists.

“Scum like you should just die. Tryin’ to sell this stuff to kids . . .”

“Hey the writing has really improved in the last thirty years. Have you ever read Gaiman’s ‘Sandman?’ ‘Kingdom Come?’ I hear they teach ‘Watchmen’ in college cl . . . ow!”

“I don’t want your excuses. ‘Sandman?’ Happy dust? Is that what they call it on the street now?”

As they haul me away, I suppose it good luck that no one caught me reading the Japanese comics . . . but that’s another story for another time.