Lightning Crashes

Internet deprivation has once again driven me to people-gaze at Panera Bread. Last night with the sound of thunder and a few rogue sparks, our modem fried: circuit boards blackened, wires caramelized. The sequence of events that followed our bandwidth’s demise is akin to the first radio broadcast of Wells’ “War of the Worlds:”

FLASH!  BOOM!

FLASH! BOOM!

FLASH!

BOOM!

Zap!

Pop!

Fzzzzzz . . .

Screaming . . .

“Murph, the internet died!”

“No Internet? Son of a &%$@! What about my &#%$ exam tomorrow?!”

“Wait, that means Xbox Live is down too . . .”

“What no Call of Duty? No COD?!”

More screaming ensues. Fire, flames, flood . . . The dead rising from their graves . . . Dogs and cats living together . . .

You get the point. Needless to say the fam is quite indisposed at the moment. Shut off as we are from the digital world, it’s like we’ve gone back in time to the early 80s or worse, the 70s. Shudder. My job as the house’s IT specialist (Ha!) is to carry out any necessary or immediate digital transactions in their stead. I scribe a list or two, much like a digital grocery list, and venture off into the world to search for potential WiFi hotspots . . . hopefully one with food too.

This morning as storms slide silently across the sky, butting up against one another with the grace and violence of rival hockey teams, I shuffled out into the rain, seeking potential hotspots like early man sought the warmth of campfires. Nowadays even the supermarket offers WiFi access beckoning laptop owners with Starbucks coffee and a buy-one-get-one-free deal on eggs. After some deliberation (having skipped breakfast, an omelet sounded good), I drove to Panera, deciding against the much preferred local booksellers in exchange for Panera Bread’s above-average iced tea and a WiFi connection without the fifteen dollar access fee.

Luckily they were still serving breakfast.

One egg sandwich (Wahoo!) and a half-a-gallon of unsweetened tea later, I settled in my chair and examined my fellow customers while my laptop blinks and buzzes to life. The bakery was veritably empty (the din of my laptop’s start menu sounded like a foghorn), only a dozen or so old women and men spending their retirement munching on Asiago-baked bagels and reading the latest Patricia Cornwell.

tread_ellipticalsStretching my legs toward the fire I noticed . . . did I mention there was a fire? No? Ah well, much like those found in a ski lodge (or at least those ski lodges I’ve seen on television), the fireplace sat in the middle of the room, encased in iron and mesh and formed the lower portion of one of the bakery’s supporting pillars. Three soccer moms had also cuddled up beside the gas-powered furnace, warming water-soaked feet and discussing the benefits of various exercise equipment:

Woman in Sneakers: “Look, you don’t understand. Everyone says the Elliptical feels better on the knees, but you have to work twice as hard to even feel tired.”

Woman with Floral Purse: “But a treadmill is just running. You can do that anywhere.”

Sneakers: “Not in thirty-degree weather you can’t.”

Woman with One Eyebrow: “Martha’s husband, Bill, nearly died on a treadmill just last year. Alice, you remember.”

Sneakers: “He was close to eighty though.”

Eyebrow: “Six children, nine grandchildren . . . shame.”

Pause.

Purse: “Alice, how much did you pay for your Elliptical again?”

I tuned out the eavesdropped conversation as the women discussed prices, department sales, and their children’s third quarter grades. My attention returned to my email. One of my classmates had written to me, eagerly asking if I passed my Comprehensive Exams. Over the past semester after a poor showing during the first round of exams (I got a little too creative with my essays and failed – I promise to write more on that debacle later; professors despite popular opinions do not appreciate thematic subtlety.), my professor worked with me to help shape my writing into something more straightforward, indifferent, and blunt like a fill-in-the-blank quiz. Another fail and I’d be forced to shell out more tuition for another round of classes. No one wanted that – least of all me.

Master's Degree . . . Wahoo!

Master's Degree . . . Wahoo!

I had anticipated the exam results in another week or so; thus, with beating heart, I filtered through the last day’s mail, avoiding several Victoria’s Secret ads and a 40% off Borders coupon – save those for later. A quick scan of my inbox found the desired email. Praise be . . . I passed my Comprehensive Exam. Masters Degree! Another letter or so behind my name. Another piece of paper . . . Wahoo!

In celebration I consumed a tomato and mozzarella Panini and another large iced tea – ‘cause that’s how I roll. Immediately I signed onto Gmail and told Dasad, who after happily congratulated me, waited a few seconds before popping the dreaded question:

“So now what?”

The question seemed to hover in the air for several precious minutes, while I attempted futilely to understand what he meant. No dice. Instead I watched an old lady in pink sweats and matching headband refill her coffee before responding.

“Wait . . . Huh?”

“Job-wise, what’s the plan now? Library? Some office somewhere? That government job you talked about? What?”

“I-I don’t know,” I typed, including the stammer for effect. Don’t get me wrong. The question presented itself each and every day for the past twenty-years or so, but finding myself with little to no resources to adequately answer it, I proceeded to procrastinate my response, putting any serious thought until school ended, until I graduated college, until I finished my research, until I got my Masters. Now I began to wonder if I could push the decision back until I got married, but realized the wait would be too long even by my standards.

Still the books don’t buy themselves. Writers are more numerous than PhDs; the market is saturated as any blogger can admit. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeking an ideal job, and instead find something stable . . .

Still stability was never my thing; I approach jobs like a nomad considers borders. One comes to relish the absence of routines, tomorrow’s unexpected creation or journey. As Weezer sings (da da da . . . sucking up to Bob, growing old and hoping there’s a God) too many of us live merely to extend existence, cradle to the grave with my hand on the snooze alarm.  And that doesn’t sound very appealing either . . .

Still one must grow up sometime – in theory. I suppose that I’m still looking for that perfect middle ground . . .

“Well,” Dasad writes. “Personally I think you’ll get bored at a library. Too much repetition, you know? Not enough reading or at least discussion about reading.”

“Yeah . . . You wouldn’t happen to have any positions like that at your place, eh? Storytime leader for the IT consultants?”

“Would there be nap time and snacks?”

“Sure.” After all everyone loves cookies and sleep.

“Will look into it,” Dasad writes following up with a smiley face. “Just nothing too fantasy-based. If I can’t stomach Tolkien, any lesser master will send me retching . . .”

“You kiddin’? Nothing but O’Henry for this soon-to-be-unemployed student.”

“Ha,” Dasad laughs. “Tales of hobos and tramps, eh?”

“We all have our heroes. Poets, writers, and academia-addicts like me need to extract inspiration from somewhere. Why not the wandering minstrel or out-of-work vagabond? As long as it gives me story-fodder and time to write, right? Maybe I’ll consider teaching for a while too. At least then I’ll have my summers off . . .”

“Bum, why not just work for the government?”

“And eschew my last ounce of dignity?” I laughed taking my last sip of iced tea. “Even gypsies have their pride . . .”

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else. — James Barrie

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.

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.