Tights and Pinstripes

We drove up to New York on Saturday for the penultimate game at Yankee Stadium before its imminent demolition over the next year. Pat in particular wished to visit the “house that Babe built” once in his life, despite the fact that none of us are huge Yankee fans. I for one – though not a huge baseball fan – regaled in the history, excitement, and chance to discover something new and unique. Moreover, my reading of late has included the works of Sherlock Holmes and Bendis’ Ultimate Spiderman so I reveled in the big city atmosphere while occasionally gazing out the windows, hoping to uncover scenes from my comics.

"This is where Daredevil haunts . . ."

"Hells Kitchen! This is where Daredevil haunts . . ."

“Oh hey guys,” I said as we passed through the Lincoln Tunnel. “Hell’s Kitchen. This is where Daredevil haunts in the comics. Hey, can you imagine jumping between these rooftops?” Such is the nature of my neurosis. We turned onto 42nd Street, and my eyes scanned the sky for cathedral towers, a favorite backdrop for cover artists.

Ironically, instead of mass sighing and eye rolls, everyone just nodded staring at the huge towers eclipsing our SUV. Bree even whispered: “Rooftop to rooftop . . . That’s incredible!”

Clearly the big city impressed us all. New York in particular has the capacity to overwhelm even the most urbane traveler. Denver, Boston, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago. In my travels all these cities never possessed the oppressive claustrophobia of a New York City street. The maze of towers and monuments enveloped our SUV, swallowing us within the chaos on Times Square, and even eclipsing the sun. Country bumpkins that we were, we did not notice, still amazed by the size, scale, and flashing marquees.

After much consternation and scratching of heads, we found the hotel: the Helmsley. Apparently the previous owner of this hotel created quite a stir several years back by bequeathing all her fortune to her pet dog, leaving nothing for her friends and relatives. In the country, we were accustomed to treating our pets with a side of eggs or some ketchup and pickles. Somehow with all my pet allergies, it seemed fitting that we should choose a hotel once owned by a dog.

Piling out of the SUV, we greeted Tiff and Pat who driven separately – far from impatient fathers.

“How was your trip?” Pat asked, helping me carry the luggage to the bellboy.

“Awkward,” I responded. “Dad grumbled at every toll booth along the Jersey Pike.”

“Because he did not have EZ-Pass?” Pat asked with a smile.

“Yeah, in his fury, he even promised that ‘next year I will not happen again’ as if the toll booths had killed his favorite dog or something. He even screamed at the toll booth guy near the Lincoln Tunnel . . .”

“I did not,” Dad interjected, rifling through his bag for the hotel confirmation. “The light was still red. He did not change the stupid thing to green.”

“You called him an asshole, after he told you to pull forward,” I laughed. “And you really kindly lingered on that last syllable too. Asshoooole!”

“Well,” Dad smiled. “He was.”

Thus, now checked into our rooms and well-versed in New York vernacular, we set off to the baseball game, deciding to rent a van instead of hopping the subway to the Bronx. This proved to be an excellent choice, not only because we happened to avoid the crowding ebb and flow of people arriving and leaving the stadium. Manny, our driver, took us along the East River route; we passed speeding boats, Roosevelt Island, and hanging tram cars, which I recalled from a movie several years back.

"Remember that scene?"

“Hey, those are the trams that the Green Goblin cut in the first Spider-man movie. Remember that scene, guys? Osborn gave Peter the choice between saving the tram full of people and Mary Jane! This must be the Queensboro Bridge. Bendis used it for a similar scene in Ultimate Spider-man. Now that is cool.”

“Was that the one where that blonde girl died in the comics?” Ryan asked.

“No, that was the George Washington Bridge, I think. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. The death of Gwen Stacy. Spider-man shoots his webs to catch her when the Goblin throws her off, and Spidey accidentally snaps her neck . . .”

Tiff interrupts our geek-spasm with an exaggerated sigh, while Pat quizzes Manny about the new Yankee stadium. Apparently the general debate among New Yorkers – according to Manny – is whether the new stadium merits the destruction of what, to many, is a national landmark: the house that Babe built. Moreover, ticket prices will inevitably rise to cover the cost, yet Manny confirms the rumor that the stadium will actually hold less seats. Thus, he wonders, what purpose does it serve?

Dad, Pat, and Manny talked animatedly as we neared the stadium. I vaguely listened to the sports-related conversation and instead stared out the window surveying the landscape across the river for more comic book-related memorials.

. . . my creative writing teacher made us read Boys of Summer . . .

. . . my creative writing teacher asked us to read Boys of Summer . . .

Yankee Stadium possessed no known references to my knowledge in comic book lore, so the game and stadium encompassed most of my attention. Back in high school, my creative writing teacher asked us to read Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, who worked as a sports reporter during the Golden Age of baseball, covering the rise and fall of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Despite a meager interest in sports, the book and its excellent writing held my attention, as Kahn communicates a great love of the game and its history. Yankee Stadium is – or I suppose, was – one of the last of the old stadiums to die, demolished for a shinier tech-loving generation. Thus, it was a thrill to experience the history before it devolves into a parking garage.

The shame and feeling of loss was easily shared by many, though not easily communicated. One young protester circled around the stadium holding aloft a sign, which read HISTORY, then crossed out in red (like the Ghostbusters sign). To me, the message was clear, but not everyone seemed to get the point:

“Look at dis moron. Hey, ya knucklehead,” shouted a deeply accented voice from behind me. “Explain yourself!”

"When's da last time Baltimore won a World Series?"

"When's da last time da Orioles ever won a World Series?"

Donning his orange and black Oriole jersey, Ryan chatted happily with a Yankee fan, seated beside him. The pair exchanged bets about the outlook of the game, while Ryan defended his team from the catcalls.

“When’s da last time da Orioles ever won a World Series,” someone shouted down.

“ ’83,” Ryan shouted back.

“Baltimore sucks!” another shouted.

“We know,” Ryan replied back with a smile. The Yankee fans were quite confused by this point, and we heard fewer comments from then on. “What can I say? It’s the truth,” Ryan said with a shrug.

After the game (Yankees: 1, Orioles:0), Manny drove us back to the hotel, where had an early dinner before catching “The Little Mermaid” near Broadway and 48th. Bree had loved the show as a kid. Heck, I fell in love with Ariel myself when the show first arrived in theaters – the first of many relationships with fictional characters.

The next morning Mom promised to take her to the American Doll store to fix Emily, her doll, which Kevin had scratched with a penny a few months back, much to his delight. Bree had her revenge by screaming, smacking him with the remote control, kicking him when he fell, and then concluding her assault by sobbing to Mom. Kevin not only suffered Bree’s blows but got punished as well. Girl Power indeed.

Thus after the show, my little sister as well as the rest of us were in high spirits, if a bit exhausted. Walking in New York City is an odd experience for us bumpkins, where back home a trip to the nearby grocery store ordains a five-mile drive. In the city most either walked or took a cab. On a Saturday night the whole city seems to empty the offices and apartment complexes for the streets. One must learn to tread carefully to avoid drowning in the masses. Countless years of training amid the lines and avenues of Disney World had prepared us for these moments, however, and we traversed Broadway and Times Square without losing anyone. Some might have stayed to shop or walk the sights and sounds, but ironically the chaos and congestion were a bit overwhelming, even to the fam, who are used to traveling in packs. The lights and ads hovered over us, simultaneously beating and blinding with gaudy brilliance. Claustrophia had sunk in, and I longed to return to sanctity of our small hotel room.

. . . trying in vain to spy cloaked figures, daring vigilantes, or giant webs.

. . . trying in vain to spy cloaked figures, daring vigilantes, or giant webs.

I could understand why city life could be quite lonely. All the grandeur and splendor – both real and imagined – induces a fair bit of indifference. I found greater comfort away from the chaos, among the silence and darkness of the side streets, trickling down from the skyscrapers and bubbling up from the sewers. In these areas, we found the true charm of citylife. We skirted Bryant Park, now alit with candles, music, and old men chatting quietly among the trees. A wedding reception echoed deep within a hotel lobby, fashionably dressed bridesmaids sipped champagne on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, I stared at the high towers and tiered rooftops, trying in vain to spy cloaked figures, daring vigilantes, or giant webs.

That night I slept restlessly. The terrors of the big city would be welcome bedfellows compared to my brother Kevin, who so shifted and wiggled dominion over our shared double that once or twice I considered stealing the bedspread and camping out on the floor. Thankfully morning arrived quickly, waking us with the shrill siren of a phone call from next door. It was six o’clock, Dad chimed. Time to dress and ready ourselves for mass.

Once on our road trip a few years ago, Dasad and I almost had a falling out over Sunday mass. Mom had called the night before reminding me about mass as we passed through Missouri, and that if I failed to receive my sacrament on this trip, I would surely burn in Hell for all Eternity, perpetually ripped to shreds by gore-crows, mummified in molten chains, and forced to watch Real World reruns while all the demons, devils, and politicians take turns poking me with large pointy sticks. My own perspective of the afterlife is a tad more . . . liberal, of course; however, even God’s wrath is slightly less intimidating than my mother’s, so I agreed to find mass somewhere.

Unfortunately, the earliest mass the next morning began at eight and lasted nearly an hour, which put us off schedule to meet a few of Dasad’s cousins in Tulsa. This of course irritated my friend a bit, and things looked grim until we talked over coffee, burritos, and enchiladas later – male-bonding food. Dasad explained that his family will sometimes skip Sunday mass during vacations. After all not every city or town possesses a Catholic church, and vacations – thick with activities and itineraries – often do not allot much leisure time. I understood, citing my doubts that God took roll like a homeroom teacher, passing out gold stars for perfect attendance. No, my fears stemmed principally from a strict Irish Catholic mother, whose fury at such heathen dereliction could give all the devils, demons and politicians with their pointy sticks a run for their money.

We could not offer even that excuse.

The whole cathedral evokes feelings of respect and mystery too – particularly early in the morning.

Now in New York City with St. Patrick’s Cathedral just a few blocks down from the Helmsley Hotel, we could not offer even the faintest excuse. Thus, we woke grumbling at six and shuffled out into the now empty city for seven o’clock mass. If you have never seen it, St. Patrick’s is an awesome cathedral. Entering the pews you feel as if you are journeying back in time. The dull lighting flickers like candles, creating deep shadows and enclaves along the walls. The statues and ornaments of the gothic architecture simply drips off the walls and dance in the faux candlelight. The whole cathedral evokes feelings of respect and mystery too – particularly early in the morning. The mass last only about a half hour, and the priest’s homily was short and succinct. After touring the grounds a bit – I did not dare take pictures – we left and completed our Sunday ritual with a visit to Starbucks.

Sipping my pumpkin-flavored coffee, I spied out the peaks of the old cathedral, another favorite spot for comic artists. The city was calm now, and although it did not feel any less claustrophobic, early Sunday morning some of the chaos of the previous night had ebbed away, sunken back into the sewers or drifting off into the high towers and belfries. After packing, I walked Mom and Bree to the American Girl Store to buy some clothes and fix her damaged doll. We left soon afterwards, offering our goodbyes en route to the city that has spawn so many stories.

Around lunchtime we stopped at gas oasis for food and drinks. Gazing at the vast array of peanuts and almonds in the gift shop, Kevin sleepily asked Dad where we were.

“New Joisy,” he replied with a comical accent.

“Excuse me,” spoke up a girl, standing nearby, her hand reaching for gum drops. “But that’s how they speak in North Jersey. This is South Jersey. We do not talk like that. Just so you know . . .”

Her voice carried a slight edge of annoyance with it, as if we had insulted her. Dad said nothing, choosing instead to walk away. Apparently amid the toll booths, shouting Yankee fans, and crowds we had failed to insult anyone until arriving in South Jersey. Criminals and snide comments beware! Learn to fear the linguistic vigilantes of South 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.