A Tale of Two Stores

It is zero hour, and I’m trapped in Hell.  Not the fiery demon-haunted domain that the nuns would invoke when I pocketed a quarter from the sidewalk or considered the latest swimsuit calender, but the kind that involves screaming children and Christmas shoppers.  The Saturday before Christmas, Mom requires a few additional presents for her nieces and nephews.  Dad is rearranging furniture from one corner of the living room to another corner; Mom reconsiders the lighting and astrological signs and then asks said husband to slide said sofa or hope-chest fifty centimeters or five feet to the left.  I chose the better of two evils and depart for Toys ‘R Us.

One of the mysteries of the holidays that I’ve never fathomed is the proclivity of parents to tote their tots to the toy store days before Christmas.  To. Buy. Christmas.  Presents.  Just pull back the bloody curtain on Santa’s workshop, why don’t you?  While your at it, why not read the original ending of Anderson’s Little Mermaid: you know the one where Ariel turns into a murderous sociopath.

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Florida 2013: Cracker Barrel

I added a wordpress app to my Smartphone and decided to test drive this bad boy at St. Augustine’s Cracker Barrel (I’m a rebel like that), seeing that my Mom and sisters are visiting the local outlets and the intermitent Floridian deluges are stoppering any attempt to sightsee the city’s copious forts and gator farms. Soooo … I’m posting tons of photos over the next several weeks in part because Disney saps the life out of you but mostly because I’m rather lazy writer. Thus, if you’ve developed a healthy lassitude to the written word, enjoy! If not, well read War and Peace or better yet my other blog posts – some are even longer than a Russian novel so go crazy you kooky sesquipedalian.

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Every visit to Cracker Barrel deja vu haunts you. We ate at three of these places and the wild assortment of candy, talking toy tucans, and 'I love Granny' t-shirts look the same regardless of zip code.

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Mischief Managed

Lacey undergarment

One of the benefits of writing articles like this one is all the research I’m forced to do on the subject.

So times were pleasant for the people there

until finally one, a fiend out of hell,

began to work his evil in the world (Beowulf, ln 99- 101).

Bree’s eyes flickered with mischief as she handed the list over to me.  I had asked the girls to engender a list for Kohl’s, where Kev and I had planned to spend our morning for new running shoes and socks . . . yes, and the nearby Barnes & Noble for iced tea and the latest issue of Batman  — two birds, one stone.  We planned to depart for Disney at 3 AM Saturday morning, and the plastic frame surrounding the heel of my shoes had exploded from its fabric skin like an alien parasite and dug into my tendon.  World War II veterans would tell that survival requires protecting your feet at all times, and Disney like any other battlefield is no different, just more expensive.  Thus, after tossing my old traitorous pair to the dog (she loves new chew toys), Kev and I set out to the department store.  But not before consulting my sisters . . .

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Lizard-men Arise!

I refuse to give in to the Twitter-machine.  To me, the humorous, insightful, and sometimes insipid mini-comments that Twitter distributes to the world best serves . . . well, interesting people.  I mean, if you’re going to follow the day-to-day goings-on of anyone, only scientists (“Hey I cured cancer!”), entertainers  (“Hey, I have spoilers!”), or vain-glorious reality stars (“Hey, I have chemistry!”) could truly benefit.  Lifestyles of the poor and unemployed simply cannot compete.  Unless of course, they don’t feel particularly encumbered by ‘truth’ and ‘honesty.’  Then it’s a different story . . .

Left to my own devices while shopping with Mom and Katie, I occasionally shoot texts to my sister while stalking through the mall, watching people and staring into stores.  In this post-Borders and -Waldenbooks dystopia, I am left to buying a fruit shakes and browsing the gadgets in Brookstone — one of the last monuments to disposable income, where even a tabletop billiards table seems impossible to live without.

The texts simultaneously offer a creative output for my energies, while annoying my little sister who’s eager to hear from Leo, her boyfriend, about dinner: Continue reading

Of Fiends and Fountain Drinks

conquer3In these times of financial difficulties (i.e. “Hey! Where’d all my money go?”), lifestyle changes are expected.  Many of my cousins upon graduating high school have shied away from out-of-state education, investing in used cars, gas stations and morning commutes from home; others have ignored the traditional college altogether, seeking apprenticeships in trade schools, community colleges, or donning their suits or aprons in the work force.  In the Murphey house, with several of the siblings already in college, expenses have been tight: fewer meals outside the house, more carpooling, and no unauthorized visits to the bookstore . . . unless somehow linked to another far-more-necessary errand such as picking up the kids from practice or restocking our dwindling supply of breath mints.  You know . . . essential stuff.

Yet even my weekly rations of manga and short-story anthologies must be curbed.  Barnes and Nobel employees find me staring longingly at the latest Bestsellers like a twelve-year old at a pet store.  No one seems to mind me petting the spines, but when I start chatting up the authors many of whom have been dead for centuries, someone typically comes and asks me to leave.  This never halts my conversations but out in the parking lot, people seem to mind less.

As with most problems, money is the issue.  Therefore, in order to satisfy my bibliomania I’ve curtailed other less-necessary addictions like eating (half-portions), gaming (goodbye WoW), and education (graduated . . . finally).  One final expense remains: raspberry iced tea.

No force on earth, save its total destruction (thus rendering this whole argument moot), can sate my hourly need for half-way decent tea.  Other men have their Starbucks and Bud Light; I have my Lipton.  I cannot change this.  What I can do is try to cut down on the cost of my caffeine, thus saving capital for more pressing addictions: books and comics.

Thus I put my college math to work for me.  Borders like many cafés offers refills on a few of their beverages for a discounted price (50 cents or so, not including tax). Therefore my $2.40 iced tea with a refill actually decreases to about a buck and half.  As the number of refills gradually increases – assuming of course the serendipitous occasion of finding myself at the bookstore all day – the average cost per cup will decrease to about fifty cents.  My costly obsession with caffeinated beverages might actually provide a useful everyday application to my high school calculus and save me money in the process.  A rare treat indeed!

After all, apart from simple arithmetic and remembering how to spell ‘cat,’ how often can we honestly admit using those high school factoids oh so necessary for our mid-terms and pre-lunch pop quizzes?  Without the aid of Wikipedia, the name of the 30th president, conversion of meters to inches, and forty or so state capitals are long forgotten, buried under years of academic trivia, for use only during reruns of Jeopardy or boring parties.  Thus, it’s a real pleasure when I can apply these archaic mental-nuggets for use in my daily life.

Back to the calculus.  Stopping at a red light I formulated the following equation:

(2.40 + x(.50)) / (1+x)                                      x = being the # of refills consumed

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Naturally the more I drink, the less spent per cup, offering more capital to invest in novels, Japanese comics, and the like.

Last Tuesday gave me the chance to test my theory.  The boys’ graduation practice ran a little longer and so I found myself with another hour at Borders to snoop through the shelves and tempt myself to some new fiction.  I managed to refill my cup three times, and as you can see from the graph, decreased the cost of my drink to nearly a buck.  With each delicious sip, I managed to steal the wealth of corporate America through some legal loophole.  I felt empowered, heroic like that weary young man, who upon returning from war and torture abroad built his keep among the trees, thieving spoils from the wealthy and distributing it to the destitute.  The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Yet all great ideas have their flaws.  Mine revealed itself half-way through my third cup while gazing at a polar bear peeking from the cover of a travel anthology.  My body twitched.  My breathing faltered.  I tried desperately not to think of flowing water, but row after row displayed rushing rapids, majestic waterfalls, and winding Amazonian rivers.  Instinctively my feet rushed me to the bathroom until my brain kicked in, reminding me of my half-filled cup, my sole source for more tea and economic superiority.

Alone without a Wingman, my options were limited.  Cutting my losses did not seem feasible; I had at least two more cups of tea left in me and another half-hour before I needed to don my chauffeur’s cap again. Carrying the cup inside the restroom likewise proved unsavory.  Most bathrooms – public or otherwise – possess an unsanitary aura, a gastronomic No Man’s Land, at least for items which you might like to stick into your mouth minutes afterwards.  Crossing the lavatory threshold drink in hand to me is akin to washing the cup with toilet water.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Few other choices remained.  Relinquishing my plastic chalice on the small table set aside for unpaid merchandise, I went about my business quickly, aware that some conscientious employee might toss my cup. Or worse, defilement.  Literary souls inevitably breed oddity; it’s what makes us so interesting . . .  and dangerous. Immediately I checked the remaining dredges of iced tea for tampering: any unnoticed fingerprint marks, lipstick, or powdery residue – I imagine passing out among the audiobooks only to wake hours later in tub of ice with only one kidney.  Finding no traces, I returned to my browsing and another refill.

An hour and a half later, my cup full once again with tea, three books in hand, I strode to the counter for check out, confident that I had saved myself ten dollars at least of valuable income.  In celebration I added another ten-dollar manga volume to my arm.

Arriving at the counter, I smiled at the cashier, dropping my pile before her, half-wondering if she would be interested in the results of my little science project.

“Hey Miss, did you know that I reduced the cost of six iced teas to nearly fifty-cents per glass.  Whatcha think about that?”  Her eyes glisten.  Her cheeks blush.  Her hands grab hold of my shirt.  As our bodies disappear beneath the counter, the remaining customers shout in unison, “Get a room!”

Or not.

I set the books too close to the sub-counter magnet, which triggered several loud beeps somewhere near the register; the cashier stepped on something near the floor silencing the alarm. Several armed guards and German shepherds shuffle away, disappointed.  Meanwhile she stared at my pile and counted.

“You know,” she said, “if you pick up one more book you can get one of these free.”

“Huh?  What?”

“Buy four get the fifth free,” she said pointing to the various cardboard signs stapled to the shelves around the store.

“Really?!”

I affected some surprise at this, having spent nearly two hours at the bookstore without noticing the words ‘free’ and ‘books’ together.  Then with a quick look at the clock, I took off again towards the children’s lit.  Ten minutes.  If I grab another eight dollar book (the price of my less-expensive purchase), I’ll have essentially just robbed the store.  When people think of me, the word ‘badass’ rarely comes to mind.  Nonetheless, I felt like buying a belt-chain and not recycling my old Snapple bottles.  That’s right, tossing ‘em in with the plastic bags and used iTunes gift cards.  Hardcore . . .   Desperate times, they can bring out the worst in all of us.

Angels and Vampires

“OOOOOOH!” my cousin Kay squealed as she steps into Suncoast. “Look Murph, look! They have Twilight out! On DVD!”

"OOOOOH  . . . . can we get it?!"

"OOOOOH . . . . can we get it?!"

“Oh, can we get it! Please, please can weeee?” my sister, Bree, pleads while jumping ecstatically like a Olympic diver, each bounce a little higher than the next. Momentarily caught among a girls’ soccer troupe dribbling trash beneath foot court chairs, I manage to free myself from the human flow after a dozen fervent apologies: “I’m sorry, Miss,” “Sorry about your toe, er . . . foot there,” “Just trying to cross, um to the other side there, sir. Oops! Sorry, didn’t mean to wake him .  . Oh!  Well, she looks like you ma’am.” The sea of humanity parted, and after a nearly fatal brush with some pierced Goths, I safely jumped within the movie store where the two vampire-loving girls pleaded their case. A six-foot cardboard cut-out of Edward, the movie/book’s tragically-confused vampire, his pale moody face lurking above two excited pre-teens, secretly smiled at my as-of-yet-to-be-drained wallet.

Now much of what I’ve learned about women stems from a high concentration of Jane Austen novels, manga heroines, and shopping dates with my mother and sisters. This intense education has kneaded in me feelings of love, respect, and – above all – fear of the female sex, lest they decry my honor publicly or aerate my torso with shooting stars and katana blades. Long ago (age ten) while shopping for cocktail dresses with Mom, I learned the importance of communication. For example the question ‘Which dress do you like best?’ – despite better logic – has in fact a correct answer: one must choose but choose wisely. Katie instructed me on fashion, hair-styles, and proper use of slang (i.e. men in turtlenecks are forbidden to say ‘Down wit dat’); my sister-in-law, Tiff, advised me on honesty and other means in which guys find themselves in trouble. Then we have Bree, the youngest and admittedly the most dangerous of the bunch.   Hammett’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in miniature, Bree’s adorable face and heart-melting personality masks an insatiable hunger for power, fruit smoothies, and wallets everywhere.

Our excursion began on a blustery Saturday.  The first day of spring this year welcomed the East Coast with blue skies, no snow, and chilly climes that apparently scared most of Eastern Seaboard indoors to the malls. The parking lots seemed primed for holiday shopping as I steered Mom and the two girls along asphalt rivers, circling parked cars like a shark around the Amity tourists. A recent doctor’s visit had deigned that my nearsighted little sister needed glasses, and after suggesting some . . . helpful alternatives (Seriously eye-patches are so trendy), I was asked to drive Bree to the mall to purchase some child-sized specs.

After purchasing some smoothies, we strode over to LensCrafters.  Doctors nowadays have the irksome habit of asking the children instead of the parent for pertinent information . . . until the matter turns to the bill, that is. Ignoring Mom altogether, the opticians stared at Bree and asked her, where she lived, her age, and her phone number: everything but her name, which they managed to spell incorrectly. However, once the bill appeared on the computer, the good doctor miraculously remembered Mom’s presence, prompting for her credit card as Bree — sucking absently on a strawberry-banana smoothie — appeared in no hurry to empty her pockets of candy wrappers and loose change.  Kay pocketed a few free shade-shaped keychains.

The lens smithes would finish their work within the hour.  In the meantime, I took the girls to Suncoast, while Mom browsed in Macy’s. Unlike Best Buy, Suncoast hosts an expansive collection of titles, many of which are rare to non-existent among retail stores. Several anime titles now lost in Best Buy shelves can be found there if you’re willing to put up the money. A title that costs fifteen bucks at Walmart might cost ten or twenty dollars more here especially if you don’t own an annoying club card.

“Twenty-two bucks for this stupid movie?” I mutter. “No way. Tiff said it sucked [pardon the pun]. You girls ‘ave read the books anyway. Why . . .”

“Nuh uh,” Kay shakes her head, which slurping loudly on her own fruit shake. “It’s good. It’s really good.”

“Pretty pweease!” Bree puckers, a puppy-dog face. Deadly.

“No,” I mutter moving deeper into the store, needing to replenish my strength after such an attack. “We’ll rent it first.”

 . . . as I untangled myself from the grammatical morass.

. . . as I untangled myself from the grammatical morass.

The girls grumble behind me and then disappear into the stacks. After a moment’s pause at some old Bogart films, I find myself before the anime wall, an immense collection of overpriced DVDs and boxsets. While I consider the thirty dollar price tag on volume two of Baccano! the girls snuggle up to me once again.

“Hey Murph, how about Step Up 2!”

“No,” I answer resolutely, recalling the tagline to the street-dancing bi-epic: “It’s not where you’re from. It’s where you’re at.” Wonderful.

“We could buy the first movie,” Kay suggests, as I untangle myself from this grammatical morass. “After all it was the best.”

“But the second movie had that guy!”

“Oh my gosh, he was so cute!”

“I know!”

“Honestly, I cannot have a conversation with either one of you,” I mumble, while my fellow anime geeks scurry away from us, cradling their swag of gun-toting space cadets. The girls giggle and skip down another aisle, only to appear minutes later with Season Three of NCIS.

“Ok, how about this?” Bree asks, holding her thumb over the price tag. I reach to check the price. She pulls away.

“You have to promise to get it first,” she says.  A devil’s smile.

Honestly the girls love this show. Idolizing the tattooed forensic scientist Abby, they have already spent hours watching the second season – which I bought for Dad three Christmases ago –between reruns on the USA network. Frankly among the other acronymed forensic shows on TV today, NCIS does feature some amusing characters, and seeing that it beats the trite Nickelodeon and Disney Channel fare, why not buy another season for them? My will was cracking . . .

“What other seasons do they have?” I ask, walking over to the television section.

“Only this one and season two, which we have,” Kay says.

“Right, so here’s the deal,” Bree begins. “Since you won’t let us buy Twilight, you have to buy us NCIS. One or the other. No exceptions or else.”

“Or else what?”

“We’ll cry,” they say together.

“So?” I counter. “I’ve dealt with tantrums and tears before. Sean and Shannon used to erupt in the bookstores whenever I refused to buy them anything . . . what have you got?”

“We’re girls. When we cry, hearts break,” Kay smiles, feigning a miserable sniff. Bree pouts. My remaining strength – now just sticks and bricks – shatters into dust. End game.  KO.

Two ladies pass us and laugh.

“Hard sell, eh?” they giggle.

“Mercenaries to the end,” I whisper, picking up the NCIS DVDs.

ncisThe cashier talks me into renewing my Suncoast membership card. No threatening tears this time, merely a smile and the option of saving ten dollars off my purchase convince me to re-enlist.

Kay approaches as the cashier scans my DVDs. “I’m angry at Bree. She keeps making faces at me. Plus she won’t admit that the guy from Twilight is not ugly.”

“So . . . you fancy him?” I ask, teasing.

“Ewww, no,” Kay sneers, “He’s a horrible Edward, but he doesn’t look horrible . . . not like you or anything.” I was so glad that I had purchased the DVDs for them.

“Anyway, I hate her,” Kay huffs, curling her arms about her chest.

“Yeah, I agree,” interjects the cashier. “I had a little sister once too. They’re all annoying . . .”

“What’s going on?” Bree – the little sister in question – sings skipping up to us. “Hey, Murph, I saw Step Up one and two back there for only twenty bucks, can we get it? Kay, can’t watch it though, did you know she likes Edward?”

“Do not! Nuh uh, she’s lying!”

I shuffle the girls out before they could create a scene, or consider more ways to drain my wallet. Or the helpful cashier remembers that the Step Up dual pack is on sale. The male soul can suffer only so much. Loss of money is one thing; West Side dance war between rival dance studios on the street . . . well, I’d choose emo vampire love trysts over that any day.

Shopping Blues

The lights flashed and flickered into darkness as Mom finished her fifth catwalk down the aisle. I sighed yet again, noticeably upset that I had traded in a beautiful lightning storm for women’s shoes. As I understood it, Mom needed a third pair of Asics to replace her current “good pair” which she would wear down to Florida next week. Her original pair, though perfect for sporting around the house, could not be seen outside the house lest the world mock her for unclean running shoes.

The Plum shoe . . .My simple male logic, which clearly made no sense of the previous two sentences, decided to stare aimlessly about Kohl’s department store in the hopes of finding something pretty, shiny, or in lingerie. Finding only two of the three in the shoe department, I decided to return my attention to Mom, who had just finished fitting another pair of purple (the box said plum) shoes. She jumped off the bench and strode down the aisle again.

“How do you like them?” she asked.

“Um . . .” I always attempt honesty first. This seldom works but typically results in several funny awkward moments. “Actually I like them, better than those pink ones with the bland gray color.”

“Really?” Mom says in that tone which tells me I had just failed that test. “Because I really like the pink ones. They’re less noticeable.”

“But the purple ones have more room right?”

“Purple? What purple ones?”

“Plum,” I sigh. “The . . . plum shoes you have on.”

“Oh, yeah. They are more comfortable, but a little more expensive.”

“So what? Just buy them,” I advise. This is typical bored-guy logic at work here, the “if you like it, let’s get it and go” perspective that reminds her irritatingly of her husband.

“He’s always rushing me,” she would say and then wonder: “Why can’t you be more patient like when you were little?”

When I was growing up, I would love to go shopping with Mom. We would first visit the bookstore, where Mom would buy me some story or comic and then enter one of the major department stores to shop for the younger kids. There I would find myself a nice hidden nook, a nest among the children’s clothes to read in peace. Mom would spend hours looking at bibs, tiny plaid shorts, and one-piece overhauls with mooing cows, checking sale prices and muttering to herself how big all her children had become. Rarely did she shop for herself. Yet, when she did I would inevitably find myself a corner, gather several fashionable dresses and petite slacks discarded or dropped from their racks and nestle myself for a few hours of silent study.

Mom of course loved this. Not only did she have a shopping buddy who was willing to go with her, but this shopping buddy did not mind one bit whether she spent all day analyzing outfits and arguing prices. Nowadays however as I’ve grown in size some, escaping to a corner beneath women’s apparel to read, hoarding pillows of female apparel would earn me several bizarre stares and perhaps a police-escorted invitation to leave the store. Pervert!

Thus, I am left sitting in the shoe department, my book burning a hole in my pocket and watching my mother parade down the aisles in an assorted variety of Skittle-flavored running shoes. The truly ironic thing is that my style of shopping mimics Mom’s . . . that is, in the proper venue. Later this week, as we prepare for a long roadtrip south to Florida, she will come ask for a ride to the bookstore and a quick scan of their magazine department. The sound of her impatient “Are you done reading yet?” will be music to my ears.

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow