Begging Bowl Blues

Back in 2010 I was a still freshly-minted New Yorker, still adjusting to my new life in the Big Apple. While I’d visited the city extensively in the eight or so years previous, this was now my home. Because of that I enjoyed something of a personal renaissance.

I have to admit here friends, before settling in NYC I was on a sad trajectory. I was entering my mid-thirties. My adventurous wanderings through popular culture had stagnated into keeping up with some favorite bands from the 80s and 90s like U2, Green Day, R.E.M., P.J. Harvey, Garbage, and Green Day. When I wasn’t listening to classic rock and alternative radio I was I was mostly listening to news stations and – shudder – talk radio.

The latter was a thankfully brief flirtation with the dark side of angry white middle-aged men who blamed “teh liberals” and “the immigrants” for every ill, not the least of which being a loser spending his day listening to talk radio. Though to be fair this was Canadian Talk Radio; a much friendlier, less-angry version of the stateside brethren. But I was a long way from the college-rock Lollapalooza-alternative music era of my youth.

It was, ironically, creating Mixtape that snapped me out of my reverie. I’ve written elsewhere but the basic gist was the discovery of my old comic book collection, old music magazines, and old boom-box in my mother’s basement that led me back down the memory path, listening to old mixtapes and thumbing through old magazines. I rediscovered the simple joys of music, and once settled into NYC, began digging into more contemporary artists who stoked those same feelings: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MGMT, Sleigh Bells, Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, and a little-known, little-remembered Fratellis side-project called Codeine Velvet Club.

Spearheaded by John Lawler with Scottish singer Lou Hickey, their first and only album was short, sweet, jazzy, poppy, melodic, and to the point (and featured a great cover of The Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection”). I’d love for you to listen to it but that’s going to be difficult outside of YouTube, and is sadly the point to this whole exercise in memory.

You can listen to the album here … but for how long is the real question

To listen to Codeine Velvet Club takes some effort. The album is long out of print and while you can stream it on YouTube you won’t find it on Spotify or Apple Music. You can’t even buy it on iTunes and while used copies are available through Amazon a “new” unopened copy will run you close to 60 bucks. That’s just one example; one album released fourteen years ago this very year. There are many more. More movies, more TV series, more albums and books unavailable and in many cases largely forgotten, all thanks to this Streaming Apocalypse. Thankfully I own a physical copy of Codeine Velvet Club. I can listen to it whenever I want to because I own a physical copy of it.

Back in November came the news that for the first time since streaming movies and TV became popular you couldn’t find a single James Bond movie on any streaming service. Fifty years of 007 just vanished with nobody along to pick up the slack (Apple TV currently has the streaming rights so it was just temporary as long as you’re an Apple subscriber that is). I myself was unconcerned as I already owned the complete 25-film Blu-Ray box set so could actually watch any of the Bond films anytime I wanted. But their temporary disappearance was troubling on multiple levels because this wasn’t some obscure arthouse film; this was Bond. James Bond.

Pictured: Bond, James Bond.

And yet after years of loyalty to the various streaming services I believe consumers have begun to wise up to the fact that ownership of physical media – books, music, movies – means to curate, not just to consume and they have begun to answer this with a drive back to physical media. 4K and Blu-Ray copies of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer sold out everywhere on its release in December. People are anticipating the 4K Blu-Ray release of Dune Part Two to accompany their copy of Part One. It was almost as if we suddenly re-discovered the pleasures of unwrapping a DVD or Blu-Ray box set of a favorite television or film series.

I’m not the buyer of physical media or indeed any media that I once was but I am shifting more to curation. Over Christmas I acquired Blu-Ray sets of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street film series, the complete 1978 Battlestar Galactica, the complete 1979-1980 Buck Rogers, the Criterion Collection’s remastered edition of Mean Streets, and the two Guillermo Del Toro films – Nightmare Alley and Pinocchio – I didn’t yet own but now do. They sit alongside my Blu-Rays of Star Trek (The Original TV and film Series), The Twilight Zone, and Planet of the Apes film series. I own the Despecialized Star Wars Trilogy, all the Bond and Mission Impossible films, and roughly five to six hundred other assorted DVDs and Blu-Rays spanning the early silent era to recent releases. Thanks to physical media I can watch both the theatrical and TV versions of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, numerous behind the scenes documentaries, commentaries, and special features, any time I feel like it and even without an internet connection.

Of course there’s my still growing collection of Movie Novelizations as well which while tapering off in recent years still stands as a curation of yesterday’s trash paperbacks with a projected short shelf-live now containing books over fifty years ole.

With comic books my reading has mostly shifted to digital as time and money demands more of both from me in other areas. Yet over the last three months I decided to seek out and acquire a complete run of Marvel’s The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones comic book series which ran from 1982-1985 and continued the narrative begun in theaters with Raiders of the Lost Ark, running 34. Back issues remained easy and inexpensive to acquire, but furthermore outside of some astronomically priced trade paperback collections released by Dark Horse Comics in 2008, the only way to read this series was by acquiring the actual individual issues.

Which I did …

Between physical media resurgent and people stepping back from streaming it’s almost enough to give one hope for the the media we love. Even the studios seem to be coming around to admitting that for all their investments in services HBO Max and Paramount Plus, that Netflix is still top dog and that it’s a lot easier (not to mention profitable) to license their films back out rather than keep them under lock and key on their own services which cost a lot to maintain. Just a quick perusal of Netflix and Amazon offerings in January displayed a bounty of DC Warner Superhero titles and giant shark movies that while I had absolutely no interest in actually watching were at least an option whereas before I should have had to subscribe to Max to watch.

Thankfully I have a library; my home library and the public one in our town. That library has an extensive movie collection I can borrow from on a whim, and a library borrow is usually more than enough to scratch a particular itch rather than buy a movie, watch it once, and let it gather dust on my shelf ever after. We’ve come a long way from the days of Blockbuster Video and Tower Records, Borders, Virgin, and Barnes & Noble (the last of which being the only game less standing and even their DVD/Blu-Ray section is a shade of what it once was). I doubt those lost behemoths are coming back, and physical media’s position in our fat-paced world remains precarious, but as long as they’re still producing I’m still buying.

As was the case with the video rental and sales era, there was a golden age of streaming but that age ended with Disney Plus, followed by Peacock, Max, Apple, and all the services cropping up. What once was limited to Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix is now spread out over a dozen rival services. To have access to everything streaming would cost you hundreds a month and you’d never have time to watch all of it (I have films in my Netflix queue I added years ago I still haven’t gotten around to – probably time to admit as much and delete them). We’ve come full circle back around to the 500 channel universe cable TV once promised less than ten years after abandoning it for streaming.

Now, there are some great free ad supported services like Tubi and Plex. I binged in old episodes of CHiPs, Miami Vice, Knight Rider, The A-Team and The Greatest American Hero, and fun lesser-known movies like Raise the Titanic, Southern Comfort, Rolling Thunder, Hell Night, Dreamscape, Strange Invaders, and a lot more. Thanks to PBS and my wife and I being supporters of our local affiliate we have access to a near complete library of documentary series on a variety of subjects. Frontline, Nova, Secrets of the Dead, the American Experience, and scads more.

Books? Obviously I still buy them, having devoted a fair amount of shelf-space to the Movie Paperback collection that carried me through the COVID era, but that too is winding down partially because the easiest “gets” have already been “got” and because I’m legitimately out of room to store them. That said there is nothing, nothing quite like a big bulky expensive book, like this massive Omnibus Edition of The Art of G.I. Joe, all 20 lbs, $150.00 of it:

Collecting things is my hobby, and a good hobby to have. Hobbies are good to have in general and you can tell the difference between those with and those without. The busybody condo association president or HOA member butting into everyone else’s business? No hobbies. The person glued to the daily outrage of their phones? No hobbies. Collecting books, movies, comics, toys, games and the like are a two-fold experience in both the acquisition but also the enjoyment of. I don’t think I’m ever as relaxed, as chill, as I am when stretched out on the sofa reading an actual book printed on actual paper.

That’s the other great factor in favor of physical media: it’s yours, and nobody can take it from you. With the plethora of special-interest groups out in the world agitating for and launching book bans targeting school libraries and public ones, it’s no paranoia to suspect at some point these “goose-stepping morons” (as derisively and accurately named by Henry Jones Sr.) might start gunning for what we watch as well. Not only external forces but internal ones as well. Disney made headlines last year when they began removing low-rated, low-performing original content (like their Willow series spinoff I was never able to find time to watch) from the service, leaving the people who hadn’t yet caught up with them adrift with no other means to watch other than sailing the high seas of Pirate Bay.

All of the above is very much on my mind for another reason as I work my way through the first draft of a narrative non-fiction book based on my popular Celluloid Heroes webseries. Over the course of its 140,000 or so words I take a deep dive into those bellwether GenX films that inspired me to become a storyteller myself. Some of these films are well known like Star Wars, The Goonies, E.T., Back to the Future, L.A. Confidential, The Matrix, and Avatar. Lesser known are films like Dragonslayer, Blue Thunder, La Bamba, Singles, Lone Star, The Limey, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Inside Llewyn Davis. To adequately research this book I couldn’t rely on the here today/gone tomorrow world of streaming; I had to draw from my collection of movies and, where lacking, purchase the physical copy of the movies I had yet to own (fortunately I’d say a good three-quarters of the films covered I already owned and the remainder were easy to pick up).

Frankly, the studios would love it if everyone ditched their physical media for streaming. They’d love for you to pay them ten to twenty dollars a month in perpetuity to have access to their respective libraries of films and exclusive streaming services as well. All the more reason to deny them that pound of flesh. Especially as we may be entering a golden age of physical media too, with the resurgence in remastered vinyl, 4K Hi-Def, an upswing in excellent behind the scenes features and more bells and whistles, like the near hour plus of deleted scenes that come with a very affordable version of Cameron Crowe’s grunge-era romantic comedy Singles. You won’t find that on streaming.

With a physical copy there are no ads. There are no disclaimers about content, no un-skippable notices informing you that Gone With The Wind, The Searchers, or even Blazing Saddles were the product of different times, and different mores. A physical movie will not be pulled from your library, and occasionally re-inserted minus offending scenes or minus politically “offensive” episodes, like Community’s infamous “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”.

Which was supposed to be offensive to point out why Dark Elf-face is wrong and … (sighs in irritation)

When art is owned by corporations that corporation decides how accessible it will be. Sometimes maliciously, often times pure indifference. There are many, MANY Canadian bands of my teenage-twenty something years whose music is nowhere to be found online outside of shoddy YouTube clips taped off Much Music thirty years before; National Velvet, Grasshopper, hHead, Glueleg, and many more I’ve forgotten about because they’re otherwise unavailable outside of used record and CD stores, themselves a dying breed.

For years I began to see my shelves laden with books and DVDs, my long-boxes of old comics stowed away in closets and storage spaces as something of a burden; the detritus of a life that’s seen many years, many cities, and many homes. There are e-books, e-comics, and streaming video; who needs physical media anyway? Well, as one who owns examples from all of the above that are out of print, out of circulation, not available to stream, and just plain rare, well, I like to think curating a collection of physical objects still has a place in this digital age. And because of that digital age where things can disappear at the click of a button, holding those objects closer feels more essential than ever.

I like owning things. I like my books, comics, vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, Lego sets, toys, and games. I enjoy having them around me, just like I enjoy being able to decide to pull Excalibur, Tombstone, No Time To Die, Ravenous, The Breakfast Club, The Irishman (thank-you Criterion), the “Space Vampire” episode of Buck Rogers, or binge watch Season One of The Twilight Zone by taking it down off the shelf. These things we own hold their own magic, their own alchemy. There’s still a little thrill I get when the DVD or Blu-Ray menu pops up on the screen and I select “Play” on the remote. In that moment I, not the studio, not the streamer am controlling the horizontal and the vertical. I am deciding what to watch, when to watch, and how to watch.

When was the last time any of us were able to say the same?

Infinite Content (or: Boredom: A Defense)

In January of 2000 I was sitting pretty high. RoboCop Prime Directives was nearing the end of its production cycle and I was living my life as a screenwriter with a bright future. I had money in the bank, I had just upgraded to a very nice apartment in a nice area of Toronto, and my Monday-to-Friday was occupied by writing. My weekends were movies and activities and hanging out with friends, at bars, at pool halls, or coffee shops. I’d even managed to pay back my student loans.

It was a much different life than the one I have today. Today I’m a husband and father; I live on a nice, tree-lined street in a prosperous suburb of one of New England’s larger cities. I still spend my days writing but those days are broken up by school drop-offs and pickups, chores and errands, and general day-to-day life stuff.

The world has changed. My world has changed. But one area where it has not changed, thankfully, is that I still allow myself the simple pleasures of being bored.

It’s why I gave up having a cell phone which makes me a rare beast in today’s connected world. I don’t like carrying any device on me, frankly, be it tablet or smartphone. I find them cumbersome, not for their size, shape, or weight, but for the burdens they carry; the expectation to be “Ponce de Leon, constantly on” (to paraphrase the Beastie Boys); that ever-present need to be online.

The Boys have never steered me wrong for I am a student of their teachings …

When was the last time you were bored? Nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to keep you occupied other than your own thoughts? When was the last time any of you just sat there with nothing to fill the empty space?

If you have a smartphone on your person, I’m guessing the answer is “never”. Thanks to the smartphone you have the internet and all its distractions. You browse websites, you scroll social media, you shop, you watch videos, you listen to music. You constantly allow something in to alleviate that boredom, am I right?

I have a little thought experiment for you. Picture a drinking glass. This is a metaphoric glass we carry with ourselves at all times that is neither half empty nor half-full. It just is. And there’s always something handy to pour into it; mostly basic day-to-day stuff like waking up, eating breakfast, starting work, all through the day until your head hits the pillow later that evening.

All of the above occupies roughly two-thirds of that glass. The rest is filled by whatever you want; a TV program, a movie, a video game, some reading or listening to music, a walk, dinner with friends, some hobby or regular activity, or just relaxing.

But more frequently, thanks to the ever-present smart-phone and its infinite content, a lot of us – too many if I must be honest – never get around to the other more fulfilling stuff -because the algorithm is constantly encouraging us to hit “refresh” and keep scrolling. We’ll sit there, phone in hand, and tell ourselves “just lemme look this one thing up” and the next thing we know hours have passed. Even when we put the phone down and go back to the movie or TV we were watching we feel it calling to us; not literally, but the chemistry of our brains is telling us it wants another hit of that sweet, sweet dopamine that we’ve become addicted to.

I see this on afternoon pickup, when I trek to my son’s school, passing the middle-schoolers on their way home, nearly all of them walking with heads stooped as they stare at their phones. Same as the high school students who once gathered outside and huddled in groups as they smoked cigarettes; now they congregate and huddle over their phones, trading one addiction for another, and both of them equally damaging for different reasons. But it’s not just “the youts” as Joe Pesci called them in My Cousin Vinny; I see it in the parents waiting outside for their kids, noses buried in their phones. I see it in people much older gathered for dinner at a restaurant, all of them staring at their phones in lieu of conversation. I see it in traffic when the light has changed to green and the driver of the car ahead of me doesn’t move because I can see his or her head in that downward tilt that communicates they’re texting or fiddling with a handheld device.

And while I get that Pandora’s Technology Box is never being closed, I think we as a people and a society are ruining much of what makes life special and unique and interesting; being bored. Allowing our minds to empty of thoughts and just be. That constant access to bright lights and information that never stops filling the void has killed our attention spans in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

We truly have no idea how bad this still new technology is for our brain; it is simply not evolved enough to ingest everything it provides us, but that tech has permeated our society so much that it’s virtually impossible to divorce ourselves for it. I don’t think we should necessarily divorce it completely, but boy oh boy we are living in some wild times; and I’m just talking about the internet, I won’t dilute the point by mentioning all sorts of other major issues we are facing these days.

It’s just as alarming to see how wholeheartedly everyone seems to have embraced this new normal. We’re encouraged to “download the app” to make our experience dining and shopping and living so much “easier”. Restaurants have started to do away with paper menus in favor of a QR code to provide the menu (and allow them to raise the prices on appetizers and entrees during peak dining times without having to print new menus), doctors’ offices want you to download the app that allows you constant access to your medical file (while allowing the same app to harvest your data, from the exercise trackers you use to the number of times you order fast food through another app).

It’s not all bad. Some of my favorite apps come through my local library; Hoopla (the e-book, audio-book, comic book reader app), the Kanopy streaming service, and Libby for e-borrows. I still prefer to do my reading on paper though; with a physical book in hand I’m less prone to pause my reading to see who just emailed. The tablet is powered down and shoved into the desk drawer, not to be unearthed until the following morning. From five in the evening to seven in the morning it stays there; my free time must truly be free for me to actually enjoy it. And if that means being bored, all the better.

I was lucky enough to grow up being bored. When I was bored I hopped on my bike and rode through the neighborhood looking for friends. Better yet was when I’d hear that knock at my door or ring of the doorbell and open the door to see some pals standing there asking if we just wanted to go hang out. When I was older with nothing to do I hopped in my car, threw twenty bucks into the tank, and cruised the streets of my town looking for someone or something to cross my path. Now it’s all done online; the invites, the evites, the rest of it. We are connected 24/7, but that constant connection is what’s driving us further apart.

Getting back to 2000 and the entire point of this essay. It was late in January and I was on a GO bus heading south from Barrie to Toronto after a birthday celebration. As the bus rumbled down Highway 400 we hit a pretty swift blizzard as is common in that part of the province; the “snow belt” they call it, though snow doesn’t fall as heavy or frequent as it did back then. So picture it; me in my seat in the darkened vehicle staring out the window into the night, seeing the snow, feeling the shudder and sway of the bus as it powered through. I had nothing to read, I had no smartphone to distract me because in those days the internet was a place you had to visit through a home computer or internet café. You didn’t carry it with you. It was like TV; another distraction, but one with an “off” switch.

So there I was, staring out the window, and my mind was wandering. The trek reminded me of the trips I used to take on the VIA train between Toronto and Brockville. I started thinking about trains, and suddenly an image popped into my head; two figures atop a train hurtling through a blizzard, fighting for their dear lives. The wind is howling; the snow is blinding. I continued to free-associate and ask questions. Who were they? Why were they fighting?

And my brain provided the answers; one was a big-game hunter in the Alan Quartermain mode. The other … was a vampire. A bloodsucking member of the un-dead. And they were not just fighting atop any old train; they’re fighting atop The Orient Express as it hurtled along ice-covered tracks through the Austrian Alps. The year was 1901, and this Great White Hunter was member of a team of Vampire Killers, dispatched to the wilds of Transylvania to locate a member of their organization who has gone missing ; a man named Abraham Van Helsing, foil of the legendary Count Dracula.

By the time I made it home I had the entire story in my head. I raced to my room, grabbed one of the big yellow legal-size notepads I always used (and still do) when sketching out a new idea, and drafted a three-page outline for a story I would first come to title The Fearless Vampire Slayers, then World War V, before settling on The Gentleman’s Guide to Hunting the Undead. I would spend the remainder of 2000 drafting that outline into a screenplay that while has never been produced was probably responsible for me landing more paying jobs than anything I’ve written before or since. It was one of those great, in some circles legendary, spec screenplays that opened doors and set me before many producers, all of whom requested to meet with me because they read that screenplay and said “this guy has talent”. It was as much a showcase for what I could do as a piece of evidence I still return to now as proof that I’m a good writer. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars worth of work just because of that screenplay, brainstormed as I sat on a darkened bus, stating out a window into the snow, with nothing other than my thoughts to distract me.

Now picture the same set of circumstances. Bus. Snow. Night. And a smartphone. Had smartphones been around back in those days and were I in possession of one, would I have still cooked up that idea? It’s possible, but I am doubtful. I think The Gentleman’s Guide came about solely because of those circumstances of the bus ride; the time of year, the weather, and the fact my brain was seeking something to fill it and finding nothing but my own imagination to fill it.

Here’s my controversial take; social media, smart phones, and the age of infinite content are bad for us and particularly for creative types; I would go further and say that you can’t truly be a great writer, painter, musician, sculptor, dancer, or actor if you allow these outside influences to dominate your day-to-day. So much of art and creation relies on you being in that physical or metaphoric room with the door closed. It relies on you making your creative decisions in a vacuum of your own understanding, your singular perspectives. When you’re doom-scrolling Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or X or whatever it’s called these days you’re letting other voices in to spoil the soup, so to speak. To create something certifiably you, you need to do it without influence or outside noise.

Let me be clear; I’m not talking about promotion and advertising your wares; that’s all a necessary part of the job assuming you want being an artist to be your job. But on the creative side, infinite content can become the death of that creativity. It’s art by algorithm; those invisible yet present forces that guide you by showing you want you want while also inflaming you by putting the things you dislike front and center to keep you captive to those algorithms. It connects in part to the current controversy over Chat-GPT and AI art; the end-result of a sort of Vampire Capitalism where everything must be monetized as cheaply and quickly as managed; a fatted calf for its exploiters to sink in its fangs and drain it dry.

Artists are needy people. We crave attention, preferably positive, but sometimes negative will do. We want to be acknowledged, we want to perceive ourselves and our voices to be important and respected. We crave that audience. But when the audience begins to guide our decisions as a creator pretty soon we’re creating for them, not for ourselves.  

There is a very current analog to this belief of mine that sprung up over the release of Martin Scorsese’s quite masterful three and a half hour epic Killers of the Flower Moon. “Too long, too boring, needed an intermission” people complained. Speaking as someone who was able to sit through Schindler’s List, The Return of the King, Oppenheimer, Magnolia, Avatar: The Way of Water, Seven Samurai, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without need of a bathroom break or to get up and stretch my legs, these criticisms of Flower Moon smack more of shortened attention spans than anything else. The people who can’t go more than thirty minutes without hitting pause at home to scroll through their phones (or who scroll absentmindedly through the movie) and act offended when you suggest they may have a mild tech addiction.

Yes it’s long but go to the bathroom before and you’ll be fine. Leave the phone in the car though.

Increasingly though I am not the only one who seems to be feeling this wariness. Many people I know in real life and online have begun to step away from this constant connectivity. They’re deactivating accounts, they’re deleting apps, they’re downgrading to more simple flip-phones that offer basic connectivity, texting, and no social media whatsoever. Some people have disappeared from online spaces entirely; people I had pleasant interactions with for many years who are now gone from my life. I don’t know where they are or how they’re doing, but I do wish them well anyway.

“There is a crack in everything; that’s where the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen sings in his song “Anthem”. And so my challenge to anyone reading this as we head into 2024 is the next time you need to go somewhere, either on a walk, a bike ride, or a trip to the grocery store or to go pick your kid up at school, leave the phone at home.

Going to a movie? A museum? A bar? Leave the device off. Engage directly with the world around you and you may be surprised to see people just out and about living their lives, and being much happier than the internet algorithm will try to tell you they actually are. See a remarkable sunset or cherry blossoms falling from a tree, or some remarkable cloud formation? Don’t fumble for your phone to snap a photo of it to share; see it, catalogue it, and file it away in your memories to crop up now and then without aid of a grainy photo that will never, ever be able to capture that moment. Be in that moment because those moments do not last, believe me.

If you’re a creative like me; resolve to create with the door closed, be it physical, metaphorical, or technological. You will find magic where you thought none existed, and you may just create something remarkable that you didn’t realize you were capable of.

Do all of this. Because it would be a tragedy to be at the end of your life looking back and seeing your memories of youth, of health, of love and being loved, all filtered through a smart-phone’s screen. This life only comes around once and to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.

I Think We’re Alone Now

The Carolina Circle Shopping Center opened in 1976. Situated in the northeastern section of Greensboro, North Carolina, it survived in one form or another until 2002. For the year and a bit that I lived in Greensboro from 1985 through summer of 1986 it was the mall I most frequented.

It had a bitchin’ arcade called Tilt…

This is the only picture I could find online, but it’s way in the back past the sullen teenage smoker

It had a great first-run movie theater…

Even when the movies weren’t so great …

It even had an indoor skating rink (the only one to be found in Greensboro at the time).

Later replaced by a Carousel…

It had book stores and record stores and toy stores and others not as appealing to a twelve going-on thirteen year-old. There was a Toys R Us and a K-Mart “out-parcel”, meaning outside the mall structure but close enough to jog across the parking lot to visit. There was even a restaurant and bar called Annabelle’s to draw in the adults. That’s right; adults used to go to the mall to meet up, have dinner and a few drinks, and then go see Schwarzenegger in Commando.

First Schwarzenegger flick I ever saw in a theatre.

It was a shopping mall; this much is clear and this much is true. But it was also a gathering place with a strong sense of community. There were concerts. There were magic shows. Santa’s Village was there for the holidays, Halloween décor ruled the roost in October, the Easter Bunny made his customary appearance as well.

There was shopping, yes, but you could easily spend several hours there without the expectation of shopping for anything other than a slice of pizza, a New York Seltzer, a few rounds of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom game at the arcade, and a screening of Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, and Robert Downey, Jr.

You could do all of the above on less than $20 dollars, I might add, and still have money left over to drop on a new G.I. Joe figure or two…

Heaven …

The most memorable visits to the Circle would have been that summer of 1986 when my buddy Mark visited from Toronto for two weeks. I’m certain we went several times as he was blown away by how cool the malls in North Carolina were. And while I hated the year I lived in Greensboro I will still admit that in the summer, the off-school weekends, it wasn’t so bad. My mother would drive us over, I’d arrange to call when we were ready for pick-up, and we’d just go off and explore the place. Unaccompanied, unencumbered by deadlines and time limits. When we’d exhausted all the mall had to offer I’d use my last remaining quarter to call home and fifteen minutes later (we lived close by) the family Pontiac 6000 STE would roll into the lot and we’d head home.

It was a ritual Mark and I knew well. Back when I still lived in Toronto it wasn’t uncommon for my mother or Mark’s to drive us and another friend or two over to the Scarborough Town Center or Fairview Mall to do pretty much the same thing. Get food, see a movie, hit the toy and music stores (Scarborough Town Center also had a bitchin’ hobby store – The Hobby Hut – which was always well-stocked and always overpriced) and if there was an arcade, play video games. We’d spend hours there, and the malls encouraged us to. Not by saying “hey, it’s okay to hang out here and have fun without shopping for something” but not not saying it either.

When I moved to Brockville and eventually got my license, my friends and I made Kingston’s Cataraqui Town Center our preferred mall for movie-going and general goofing off. It was a 45 or so minute drive down the highway and whenever a new movie was playing there that wasn’t at our local cinema, we’d convoyed down the 401, grab tickets for the show a couple hours early then just wander the concourse, grab dinner at the food court, and browse the shops before convening at the theatre to see Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Point Break, or Predator 2.

Ottawa had (and still has) its downtown Rideau Center, and on school trips to the museums, Parliament Hill, or the National Arts Centre, between arrival and whatever we were there for, we’d be allowed a couple of hours of free time at the Rideau to do whatever we wanted.

Then came Toronto and Film School. The Ryerson Campus was and to this day lies just north and east of the Yonge-Dundas intersection; Toronto’s version of Times Square. The Eaton Centre sits at that intersection and in that first year living in Toronto at the Ryerson residence, meant one of Canada’s largest shopping centers was a short walk away. And again, that ritual of browsing the shops, wandering the concourse, grabbing a bit in one of the food courts, then heading to the Eaton Center’s 18 (!) screen multiplex to take in a show, became one of those regular rituals for my film school buddies and I. 

The 2000s were not good times to be a mall. Towns and mid-size cities, seeing how the big suburban malls had decimated their downtowns, incentivized retailers with tax breaks to draw people back to the town square, where that social life of a city first began. The death of the mall was hastened with the rise of online shopping; Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target, and those big retail supercenters resting near highways replaced the experience of going to the mall. These were not an improvement.

In the Carolina Circle case it was a combination of many factors. The mall began to attract an unsavory element; gangs would brawl in the parking lot and sometimes in the shopping center itself, and the Montgomery Ward store became an infamous hangout, apparently, for gay men hoping to engage in some illicit behavior. Families stopped going as a result, and parents wouldn’t allow their teenage kids to venture there unaccompanied. The movie theater closed, the arcade followed, many of the big retailers left. Bye-bye Waldenbooks and Camelot Music. Bye-bye Montgomery Ward and Toys R’Us, bye-bye Belk and Ivy’s and Dillard’s. The big death knell sounded when Radio Shack – “The Shack” being the one retail outlet that never seemed to die – left; if a mall couldn’t sustain a Radio Shack you knew its days were done.

The Carolina Circle officially died in the early 2000s, closing in 2002 and demolished in 2005. The site is still there though; redeveloped into one of those complexes of box stores like Wal-Mart and Lowe’s

Pictured: “progress”

Thinking of the many shopping malls of my youth, the Carolina Circle stands out because it seemed to be a mall built for people to gather as much as it was a place to shop. It had the arcade, the rink, the theater, and the book, record, and toy stores. It had places to draw people in not necessarily to buy things but to just be there. It was a place to go where it was impossible to be bored. There was always something to do.

The Fairview Mall and Scarborough Town Center still stand but they’ve been heavily redesigned as well. Fewer record and book and toy stores. Smaller food courts. Nothing so grand as skating rinks and carousels and arcades. These “New Malls” don’t want people to just hang out; they want them to spend money, see to their business efficiently, and go home. Movie theaters were closed or moved to larger state-of-the-art facilities across expansive parking lots. You didn’t even need to go to the mall if you were going to the movies. As a result you didn’t spend your money in those malls either, hastening the departure of the cool, quirky, funky stores that existed solely to draw you in the first place like The It Store, SpyTech and Razz M’Tazz.

It was a different era, both for the stores and shopping opportunities available, but also for all the stuff we could do. If you had nothing going on, you could go to the mall and usually find something; a new book, a new cassette or CD, grab a burger or slice, and see a movie. When we got older and discovered girls the mall became the place we hung out to watch and be watched in return. Rain or shine the mall offered an escape from home and family, especially when your relationship with both was going through a rough patch. It was a meeting place; even the small Thousands Island Mall in Brockville’s north end was a place you could just wander through and be guaranteed to see someone you knew from school, either working there or like you just wandering.

I couldn’t find a vintage photo of the 1000 Islands Mall but fun fact anyway.

In this 2023 world of ours there’s a great deal of nostalgic longing for the mall experience especially from the generation born after their heyday. At the height of their popularity in the 80s and 90s though many wondered what the appeal of the mall was. Why wander through a sterile shopping environment of chain stores and restaurants? How was a mall better than shopping on your main street, with its shuttered shops, drunks and homeless, and beat cops telling you and your friends to “move along” while stern faced civic leaders and shop-keepers glared down their noses at you? Why?

Because they were fun. George A. Romero’s all-time classic Dawn of the Dead and its thematic derision towards consumer culture gave us the Monroeville Mall post-zombie apocalypse but even then Monroeville looked like a fun place pre-zombie; skating rink, cool elevators, wide expansive spaces big enough for a fleet of motorcycles to drive through. Grocery stores, arcades, fine dining spaces. We could spend the day at Monroeville, Carolina Circle, Cataraqui, and Fairview without buying a thing. We could go grab movie tickets, and have time to kill before showtime, and just wander around. Or after the movie we’d stay, grab dinner at Lime Rickey’s or Shopsy’s and just chillax.

Seen Dawn of the Dead enough times you can probably hear this image.

Today’s malls feel different. There are a couple of big ones not too far from where I live. One is kind of fun; it has a couple toy and collectible stores, it has a Lego store, it has a decent food court and it has a Dave & Buster’s. No bookstore though; which is a big detriment as far as I’m concerned. Yes I judge a mall on the basis of a bookstore being present or not.

Dear shopping malls: you have a bookstore, I WILL spend money there.

The one closer to me is the one I call the rich person mall. It’s one I rarely go to because it’s geared solely to the commerce, not the social. There’s no food court, there’s no theater, no books or toys and games; there’s no gathering place and as a result it’s kind of sterile. I rarely visit it unless there’s a specific reason. Maybe that’s by design; the rich like having their little enclaves the rest of the population steers away from, but you’d think a shopping mall would want people to shop there.

Malls are not what they used to be. They are now purely transactional spaces; places of commerce, full stop. You go, you shop, you get out. No loitering, no goofing off with friends. Where are your parents? Don’t make me call security. You aren’t a person in need of distraction, or entertainment, or even community; you are a carbon-based lifeform whose duty is to consume and if you’re not there to do that then you should be someplace else.

Some say good; that malls were bad and we should feel bad for liking them. Better they die out entirely and encourage people to shop closer to home, on Main Street, supporting those local businesses. But even doing so is a strictly commercial activity. You can’t sit on a bench outside for too long or people will think you’re up to something. There may be open air spaces with chairs and tables. The chairs are chained down; the tables and seating have a thirty minute limit. Spent long enough in one place someone will come up to you to beg for change, ask if you’ve accepted Jesus as your lord and savior, or suggest you move on. There are no more arcades because they always did attract an “unsavory element” and besides you have a phone; go play games on that, preferably at home but if not could you turn the noise down because those bleeps and beeps are bothering me.

Yes, because who wouldn’t prefer a silly little phone game to this?

There’s been a great deal of talk these days about the decline in what has been called the “Third Space”. The social clubs, the bowling alleys, the organizations that people used to go to be with other people, all in decline, and the ones that aren’t charge a premium for use. Malls used to be a Third Space but not anymore. We could spend the day just hanging out, going to the movies, playing video games, seeing friends. But nowadays with more of our socializing done online we’ve been breeding a generation that doesn’t know how to socialize in the real world, and the older generation too has lost that sense of community.

Know what you do see when you go to many malls now? Elderly people. The ones born in the 1930s,1940s, and now early 1950s. The ones who shopped at those malls when they were in their prime; parents with young children in tow. When the malls were a place you could go to meet up with a friend, to shop, have lunch, stroll and browse and just be someplace. As the mall became less central to commerce and the day-to-day the elderly seem to be the ones who still see it as a gathering place, to sit amongst hopefully happy memories and wonder where the time all went. The elderly who still congregate at the mall food court and seating do so because they too have nowhere else to go.

Bridlewood Mall in Scarborough, not far from my old neighborhood there. The top photo is from 1974 showing the cemetery where the mall is now; originally the village of L’Amoreaux. The cemetery is still there in as potent a metaphor for the state of the mall today as you will find anywhere.

Young people are even turning away from getting that rite of passage known as the Driver’s License. Good in a way, but also a little sad; pollution aside a car represented freedom when I was seventeen. It granted me an independence and my parents allowed me that freedom in part because through those earlier years of being dropped off at the mall or the movies, I always made sure to call when done, or just as often be outside the entrance to The Bay or Towers or Zellers at five sharp for pickup or else. Driving to Kingston with friends to see a movie didn’t require me to “check in” by phone; just that I be home no later than 11:30 or else. My parents even let me drive to Toronto to the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991, without my having any idea where I’d be staying that night, or any ballpark of when I’d be back the following day.

Irresponsible? Maybe, but freedoms such as these did prepare me for college life, more so than a lot of high school classes and prep work did. They encouraged me to be responsible, to be safe, to know how to manage my time even when it was the leisurely sort. But who cares about drivers licenses and access to a car now when you can either Uber or Lyft to a friend’s or have mom or dad drive? But what is more heartbreaking is what they’ll tell you when you ask them why. Why not get a license? Why not choose that freedom?

“Where can we go?” they reply. “There’s nothing at the mall for us to do except spend money we don’t have. There’s no clubs, no arcades; no places to hang out. If we do go, security tells us to move along. We’re treated as a nuisance, as a distraction, as possible thieves. We can watch movies online; we can connect with friends by phone or text. We don’t need to leave home to do any of that.”

And what do we adults say?

“Kids today spend all their time on their phones! They don’t go anywhere or do anything! When I was a kid I’d be out until the street lights were on. We’d go to the movies, to the mall, we’d cruise the street, we’d hang out. What’s wrong with kids these days?”

Yes, these are the same adults who’ll see a group of teenagers hanging out in public and presume they’re up to no good. Out come the phones, in come the cops.

The loss of the Third Place has been documented extensively, most notably so for me in Kristen Radtke’s excellent graphic novel Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. In her book, Radtke identifies loneliness as the challenge of our time because we are social animals; even the introverts. We all seek some form of connection; some one-on-one communication. And year-by-year we lose a bit more of that skill by using it less.

Yes, there is social media. there’s Facebook and Instagram and Twitter (or whatever they’re calling it this week). But I am not being the biggest fan of handing our daily interactions over to tech companies who exploit that loneliness purely so that can make money off of you. Social media is all about a binary yes or no interaction; and one where the negative far outweighs the positive, exposure-wise.

And that negativity permeates the day-to-day. Think of all those distracted drivers sitting at the light before you, head down, scrolling through the phone in their hands as the light turns green and people start getting impatient. Think of the teenagers gathered around the school entrance, huddled with their heads down, hooked on their phones the way their parents were hooked on cigarettes, trading one addiction for another. Think of every short-tempered, rude person you had the misfortune to deal with because thanks to their online push-button world any irritant or delay sparks rage and not patience and understanding.

I’ve long been fond of saying the brain is like any other muscle; if you don’t flex it now and then it will atrophy. That’s why we challenge ourselves with books, with learning, and, yes, in dealing with other people. Loneliness has an effect on our lives and life expectancy. People can die of loneliness. Loneliness takes a lot out of you and it’s dispiriting to find yourself in a world that seems determined to keep us isolated and lonely all so it can sell us things we don’t need but still buy if only to give our brains that little endorphin hit to keep us going.

I also worry about the people who allow themselves to be poisoned by an increasingly negative online discourse that keeps us isolated and angry by design. Therein lies a cautionary tale for us all because every moment we surrender to anger is one we never get to surrender to joy. What I see are people doing way more of the former than they do with the latter. Anger is addictive. Outrage too. And companies are making money off that anger.

The mall isn’t coming back; not the way they existed in the 70s through the 90s. It’s one of those passing eras that we kind of took for granted, like the video store and the arcade. Those places that were here one moment, and gone the next and over before we realized. The death of the Third Place continues to have lasting impact on us because we need physical spaces for commerce-free interactions.

It’s why I’ve long been a supporter of public libraries. To my mind public libraries are the best thing our society, flawed as it is, has given us. A place we can go without requirement of a door fee or expectation we’re going to spend money. A place we can take our children to story-time, where we can borrow armloads of books, where we can attend lectures and performances and seminars. Where we can just … talk to people, but quietly, please; the librarian told us to. Rain or shine, having a library may not be as exciting as the mall once was (and, frankly, might be again as more people realize the necessity of that Third Space), but it is a place where you can go and be seen and maybe feel a little less lonely.

And so let’s all pour one out for the great shopping malls of our youth, and for me in particular that long-gone Carolina Circle Mall, which for a time provided a refuge for a sad, lonely child not getting along very well with Greensboro. At that mall I felt a little happier, a little more comfortable. There were things to do, movies to see, games to play. It only exists now in my memories and the occasional dream where I’m walking the concourse, feeling that chill as the air temperature drop as I near the skating rink and the arcade just beyond it. I can hear the bleep of video games, I can smell buttered popcorn from the movie theater, and I can sometimes taste the Black Cherry New York Seltzer on my tongue.

But it’s a place I can only visit in dreams and that’s sad. We spend so much of our childhoods trying to run away from home and so much of our adult lives trying to run back but like so many things, once a place, a time, or a moment are gone they don’t return quite so easily …

The Summer Kids

Shermy prodded the small yellow bird with the muzzle of his rifle, turning it over and over until he found the hole in its breast. It was dead alright. It was dead because he killed it, and for a moment he felt about as low as anyone could get.

What had he been thinking

The little bird wasn’t doing anything to anybody; it was just building a nest. He had watched it for what must have been an hour, watching it arrive with a beak full of sticks, arrange them, flit off or more, return with more and arrange them. It was nearly finished by the time Shermy fetched his air rifle, loaded it and returned keeping its barrel trained on the nest resting in the tree branches. He had waited, as the mid-summer’s heat bore down on him, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead. And just when he wondered if something (like that mangy cat that lived next to Charlie’s place) had happened to that bird, it had returned, a blur of yellow against a deep blue sky dotted white cotton puff clouds. It had perched on the edge of its nest, its beak filled, its dark eyes searching for that perfect spot to place them when Shermy pulled the trigger. There was a loud POP and the bird had remained rigid for an almost comical moment. But then the twigs in its beak fell and the bird followed, landing with a soft THUD on the grass below.

Standing over the bird now, he lowered the gun as the weight of what he’d done fell on him. There it was –-

KA-POW! 

— and then it just wasn’t. A pellet through the chest, through the heart, and out the other side and it was over. The bird was dead before it hit the ground. The bird was dead before it realized it was dead.

At least that’s what Shermy told himself. But looking at that bird now, its black eyes fixed open and staring, he felt surprise that he managed to even pull the trigger. Before he would have chickened out, or the gun would misfire, or he wouldn’t have even thought about shooting it in the first place. But lately, he’d been having more thoughts like the one that guided him to his room and his rifle.

His entire life, Shermy felt like he was being guided by something else — something Great and Big like an invisible hand nudging him forward, guiding his actions, and even putting words in his mouth. But lately, it felt like that Great Big had moved on and forgotten about Shermy entirely. And ever since, Shermy’s thoughts had been his thoughts, that guiding hand nowhere to be seen.  That’s why the moment he squeezed the trigger of the air rifle was such a surprise; that it was Shermy’s doing and Shermy alone.

He planted the butt of the rifle on the ground and, using it as a crutch, leaned in close. He stared at the bird, and as its blank eyes stared back at his he realized he’d seen it before. But that was impossible; it was just a bird. Even now he could hear other yellow birds chirping, calling out to each other, calling to their lost friend. But he couldn’t shake the feeling he’d seen it, if not before, than one exactly like it, hanging around this neck of town like it belonged —

Realization struck him as surely as his pellet had struck the bird. He had seen it before over at Charlie’s house, mostly, in the back yard. Charlie’s beagle seemed to have a fixation on it; not to chase or bark at it but to pal around with. Walking by Charlie’s (which was pretty much all Shermy did these days) he’d see that bird perched atop the dog’s head, or on its nose, or on the roof of the red doghouse. It was weird, like they were somehow communicating silently.

It made Shermy think of a lot of things; of how much had changed and how much was still changing. He remembered a time before that bird, when that dog was just a dog, and he and Charlie were the best of friends. He remembered comic books, and snowball fights, and walks to school as leaves crunched underfoot. Mostly he remembered baseball; it was the whole point of enduring ten months of school, for those two perfect months of summer at the ball diamond. Even though they lost every game, it was still summer, and it was just him and Charlie.

But things had changed. Times had changed. Charlie had changed. Charlie had new friends; that loud-mouthed girl with the sandals and her four-eyed friend, that black kid from the other side of town, the kid who was always at piano lessons, and loud-mouthed Lucy and her kid brother. Even Charlie’s sister was in on the act. His sister!  Didn’t that just beat all?  What kind of kid wanted to pal around with his baby sister? 

Charlie, for one.  

Shermy poked at the bird with the barrel, almost desperate for it to wake up, to chatter at him with annoyance and take flight. But there was no way it was waking up. Tiny insects were already buzzing around that hole, searching for a way in, the same way Shermy had been searching for his way back. The bugs were meeting with more success than him.

It seemed like Charlie hadn’t had time for Shermy anymore. It had been ages since Charlie – just Charlie – and he played together. Sure there was still the baseball team, the team he was due to join in an hour or so. He still saw Charlie at the sandlot, but was really Charlie’s team, and that team had less and less to do with Shermy every time they played. The action was on the infield, with Charlie and Lucy and the rest, but Shermy hadn’t played infield for a long time. He used to be shortstop, the essential link in the team. Heck, the most important link in the team. But it was Charlie’s team, and when Charlie up and told him he wanted Shermy in the outfield, he had figured it was just a one-time thing. But it wasn’t short-term or one-time at all; it was permanent. And who did Charlie replace him with?  His dog!  A dog playing baseball!  And short-stop no less! 

What was happening?

It was like Charlie didn’t even want to win games anymore. Charlie would cry up to the sky, cursing it and whatever all-powerful being lived up there for making his life so miserable. Shermy too began wonder if Charlie was right that the world hated him; the same world that for some reason was nudging Shermy aside. Maybe the Great Big had moved on to push Charlie into situation after situation, to force him to cry skyward, all for some unknown amusement.

But then he thought about it harder and he began to wonder if the Great Big was just a story; a myth, an excuse for Charlie and others to blame their troubles on something other than themselves. More and more, he’d begun to suspect that Charlie was the cause of Charlie’s problems.

Shermy wondered what the time was, and wondered -– seriously wondered –- if he should even bother going to the game at all. What if he didn’t?  He could just not show up. That would show Charlie and Lucy and the rest what Shermy thought of all this and what he thought of them. They’d all be sorry for treating Shermy like yesterday’s news.

But deep down Shermy knew they wouldn’t notice at all. They’d stick someone else in right field and that would be it. Heck, in a month or less they’d have forgotten Shermy ever existed.

But the bird?  No way would they forget about it. They’d know something happened to it and they’d come looking for it. They’d find it there in Shermy’s yard and know what he’d done and then there’d be no way back in for him.

And despite everything, he realized he wanted back in; he wanted to play ball, even if it was only the outfield. He wanted to play with Charlie again, even if they were doomed to lose. He wanted to belong. But as he looked to the tiny yellow bird on the ground before him, the tiny flies buzzing around the hole, he knew that belonging would never happen. Not unless he got rid of the darn thing, and fast.

#

 “Whatcha doing, Shermy?”

Shermy gripped the spade and cursed silently. He was almost finished. The hole had been dug and all he had to do was drop the bird in, fill the hole, replace the grass and he’d be in the clear. Instead he quickly planted his foot on top of the bird’s body. Its tiny bones crunched beneath his shoe and he fought the urge to gag as he turned.

He knew it was Violet without having to turn around and look. He knew her voice, that petulant, demanding know-it-all tone. It seemed he’d always known her voice, just as he knew she’d be standing there, pony-tail bobbing as she spoke. And when he turned and saw Violet standing and talking, pony-tail bobbing, he didn’t hear anything. Violet talked at you, not to you, and over the years he’d come to learn to tune her out. It’s a trick Charlie taught him. “Just think of something else and pretty soon you’ll tune everything out,” Charlie had said sadly, and Charlie was right. Violet always talked too much for Shermy’s liking – sometimes him and Charlie would walk away from her only to look down the street to see her still talking, eyes closed, still gesturing, not knowing or not caring she was talking to herself. Oddly, Lucy had in recent years taken on more of Violet’s characteristics, to the degree that Violet seemed like a growing redundancy.

“I said, whatcha doing, Shermy?”  Violet demanded.

“Nothing,” he muttered.

“You’re digging a hole,” she said. “What for?”

“None of your business.”

Violet crossed her arms and sneered. “Whatcha digging, Shermy?  And don’t lie because I can tell when you’re lying. I can always tell.”

“Looking for pirate treasure,” he lied.

“I told you I could tell when you were lying,” she said. “There have never been pirates in this part of the country. If you’d said ‘Injun treasure’ or ‘cowboy treasure’ I might have believed you, but MWA MWA MWA …”

(If anybody could take a sentence and drag it kicking and screaming into a paragraph, it was Violet)

“BWA BWA BWA …”

Her voice sounded like a blaring trombone. Violet would make a good school teacher someday; she talked like one and acted like she knew everything.

“… MWA MWA MWA lying about it …”

He wondered where her friend Patty was. The two of them were inseparable. Maybe Violet couldn’t find Patty and that’s what had brought her to Shermy’s. Maybe Patty was already on her way, to sneer along with Violet. To sneer at Shermy –-

Hold on. Patty?

“PATTY!” he exclaimed, and somehow silenced Violet with his outburst. “That’s the loud girl’s name — the one with the big nose and the freckles!”

 He looked to Violet, whose eyes had widened. He just as quickly looked to the ground.  

“What is that you’re standing on?” Violet asked.

He looked back to her. “What?  I –- nothing.”

Violet gave him a nudge and he staggered, revealing the crushed yellow thing that was a bird not ten minutes before. She stared at it an uncomfortable long time. She didn’t speak; she just stared. Shermy kicked at the ground with the toe of his shoe, trying not to make it look like he was wiping the bottom of it on the grass. The crushed bird had begun to leak what looked like ink.

“What happened to it?” Violet asked, her voice a whisper. “And don’t lie, Shermy, ‘cuz I know when you’re lying.”

Shermy didn’t lie. He told her everything. He told her about watching the bird build its nest. He told her about the gun and despite his realization just what bird it was, and he told her what he’d hidden from himself. He knew what bird it was. He knew all along. That’s why he killed it.

“I just wanted it dead,” he said softly. “I wanted it dead because it reminded me that I didn’t matter anymore, that they’d rather spend time with it than with me – with us.”  He raised his eyes to meet Violet’s and expected to see disgust on her face. But what he saw was an expression he knew all too well; it was the one he wore almost daily now.

Resignation.

She wordlessly nudged the crushed bird with the tip of her saddle-shoe and sent it tumbling into the hole. Shermy pulled the spade from the ground and shoveled dirt in, and Violet replaced the divot of grass, stomping it flat with her foot.

“Should we plant a flower?” Shermy asked.

Violet shrugged. “Why?  It was just a stupid bird.”

#

Shermy put the spade away and collected his bike from the garage and he and Violet walked it to her place so she could get hers. Soon enough they were pedaling through the neighborhood that once felt like their entire world but now felt impossibly small. In many ways it was. Home, school, the lot where they played ball – that was it. There was camp two weeks every summer, but Shermy hadn’t gone this year, while Charlie and Lucy’s thumb-sucking brother and even Charlie’s dog had. He heard of the adventures they’d had; whispered among the neighborhood kids who weren’t there, like that weird kid with the name that was also a number. How they knew without having been there struck Shermy as odd, like they had read about it in the Sunday funnies. But that didn’t matter. What mattered that Charlie was there and the others were here, forgotten.

“Pedal faster!” Violet ordered.

Shermy followed her gaze and he saw why; it was that redhead, the one with the Naturally Curly Hair, sitting on the curb ahead. He knew it was Naturally Curly because she never failed to mention it was Naturally Curly. She had her cat draped across her lap, and Shermy couldn’t be sure it was alive or not; it just lay there, like it was boneless. Maybe it was just a toy, because it fell from her lap and lay motionless as she stood and called out to them, her words lost to the roar of wind in their ears. Shermy stole a glance back to see Naturally Curly crying after them, her mouth a black hole punched through her pale face, her hair red in the midday sun. The cat still lay where she dropped it. When Charlie used to talk about (moon over, really) a red headed girl Shermy had thought he meant that one, but Charlie didn’t. Even when the one he did like moved away he still wouldn’t shut up about her. Charlie even went to go find her once, but Shermy never heard whether he did or not. Even if he did, he returned as sullen as when he’d left.

A thought intruded. Charlie went away, to find her. He was gone for a whole day. But where did he go? And how did he get there? The fact he went meant there were other places to go, didn’t it? Did the Great Big just up and let him go? 

“It was just a stupid bird, Shermy,” Violet said.

“What?”

“You were thinking about it.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Then what were you thinking about?  And don’t lie, cuz –”

“Cuz you know when I’m lying.”  Shermy cast a sideways glance at Violet, her ponytail pointing straight behind her as the breeze buffeted it. “I was thinking, when did things change?” 

Violet looked at him, her dark eyes finding his, and he knew she had been thinking the same thing. “I dunno,” she said. “It used to be you and me, and Charlie and Patty were the only kids around. But then more kids started showing up. Some came and went, like that Charlotte Braun –”

“Ugh, her!”  Shermy’s memory of loud, obnoxious Charlotte Braun was still fresh; her piercing voice, her demanding tone. Good thing for them she focused on Charlie. Bad for Charlie. “Whatever happened to her?”

“She just wasn’t that fun,” Violet shrugged. “If she was fun, if she was more than just loud, she might have stayed. Funny thing is you and me are the only ones who remember her. Maybe Patty does, but it’s like she was, I dunno, erased?”

Violet pedaled faster and Shermy struggled to keep up. They were sailing past the houses now.

“She left, but others didn’t,” Violet continued, bitterness creeping into her voice. “They stayed — Lucy and her kid brother and Charlie’s kid sister, and the rest. They stayed and we stayed, but to Charlie they were like new toys, not old ones like us.”

Old toys, thought Shermy. Is that all they were?  Played out?  Stuck away in a box and forgotten?

“Maybe we’ve been around too long,” said Violet, slowing her bike. “Maybe we got taken for granted. Maybe …”

“Maybe the Great Big got tired of us.”

Violet frowned. “The Great Big?”

Shermy brought his bike to a stop beside hers.

“Maybe it’s our fault, for not being fun or interesting, and the Great Big got bored. Maybe we had our chance and blew it, like Charlotte Braun.”

Violet set her kickstand in place and climbed down.

“Maybe, she said.

#

When she opened the front door, Shermy saw that Patty was wearing the same checkered dress and matching bow in her shin length hair. The color of both varied each time he did see her, but that bow was always there and never changed even when her hair color did. Some days – usually Saturdays or Sundays – he remembered her hair being blonde or light red or light brown, but today it was light brown. That was Patty – always in a state of change. Not the other Patty – the big-nosed loudmouth who always wore sandals.

“What do you want?” she asked, hands petulant on her hips.

“We want you to come for a bike ride,” said Shermy.

“Why?”

“Are you doing anything else?”

“Who says I’m not?” Patty sneered. “I’m a very important person with very important things to do, don’t you know?” 

Shermy saw a bit of the other Patty – the big-nosed, sandaled one – in this one. It was almost like this Patty – their Patty – was a prototype of the one who would come along later. And once the new one was in place you didn’t need the old one anymore. He wondered which of Charlie’s new friends had replaced him and Violet. For a moment he thought it may be Lucy’s brother, the thumb-sucker always dragging that ratty old blanket with him.  

“So if you don’t mind, I’ll be closing this door now,” said Patty, making a half-hearted move to do just that.

“We do mind,” Violet interjected. “We say you were doing nothing and who knows you better than us?

“I’m very busy,” Patty said, arms crossed, face crosser.

“Busy doing what?” Violet asked.

“Busy doing …” Patty frowned. “Oh that’s very strange,” she said after a moment. “It’s on the tip of my tongue but …” She shook her head, like she’d just awoken from a daydream.

“You were going to go and get your bike,” said Violet, slowly. “You were going to get on it and you were going to ride. You’re going to do this, because it’s been too long since you did anything.”

Patty stared, and Shermy stared, and for a moment nobody said anything. Finally, Patty nodded with a confused look on her face and closed the door.

“Because it’s been too long since anybody had us do anything,” muttered Violet. “Isn’t that right, Shermy?

Shermy could only manage a nod.

#

They rode east, then north, then west, crisscrossing streets, up one and down the other, covering every inch, foot and square mile of their tiny neighborhood. Moving down identical street after identical street, everything took on a flat, lifeless quality, like the houses they passed were just simple drawings, with simple lines and simple colors. It was like the street and buildings were being hurriedly drawn just a few feet ahead of their bikes just to keep up with the illusion that everything was real and there.

They rode past the school where so much of their lives revolved. They thought of the annual Christmas Pageant, and how Charlie had directed it one year that suddenly seemed like every year. Shermy got to be a Shepherd, same as every year.

They rode past the old vacant lot where Violet and Patty made mud pies over and over again one summer. It was where they planned their parties that they pointedly didn’t invite Charlie to. They told him they weren’t inviting him, which struck Shermy as cruel, given they never actually threw any party.

They rode past the old farmhouse, where they held their yearly Halloween Party. Not far from that was a Pumpkin patch, where some whispered a strange visitor arrived every Halloween night, provided it was sincere enough.  

They rode past the field where a solitary tree stood. Charlie had lost no small number of kites to that tree. Charlie claimed it was a Kite Eating Tree, but that was just stupid. Still, even at this distance Shermy thought he could see a blue scrap of fabric nestled amidst the green, like the scraps from dinner.

They rode past so many places, each with a memory so vivid and colorful it was like they were living them all over again. Only those memories were just that — memories. There would be no new adventures, at least not ones with Charlie and Lucy and the rest. Not even the dog or that stupid bird. That part of their lives was over. Sure they’d still be around, lingering in the background, silent and watching but not participating, not like they used to.  

Shermy thought again about the Red Haired Girl – not the Naturally Curly one, but the one Charlie had mooned over for ages. The one he went to find. That meant there were other towns, with other neighborhoods and other kids. It meant there was somewhere other than the streets Shermy had always known. If Charlie could visit them, maybe Shermy could escape and find a new place with new kids.

They stopped at the foot of a gently rising hill and left their bikes there. They climbed, Shermy again in the lead, Patty and Violet following. The day was warm as always, but not too warm. Sunny, with cotton puffs of cloud hanging still in the sky. Shermy was so intent on the path and what he knew he’d see at the top of the hill he didn’t realize Patty was talking to them until he heard her say

“Summer kids,” she said. “That’s what we are, aren’t we?” 

Shermy slowed his pace so the girls could catch up. Soon enough they were walking in a row, in lock-step, pressing forward while Patty’s voice filled the air.

“When it’s summer, you see kids you never see in school. You don’t know where they are the rest of the time. Maybe they’re at some other school or maybe they go to ours and we never notice. Or maybe they’re just at home, waiting for the summer to come again so they can step outside. They’re here for a while, when the weather is warm and the days are long … but when fall comes and everyone goes back inside, they’re not invited. You may see them at Halloween or Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter or Arbor Day, but not like you do in the summer. You see them in the background, on a passing bus, or at a party; but not in the middle. Never in the middle. The middle is for other kids, not kids like –”

“Like us,” Shermy finished.

They marched in silence, the hill cresting just ahead. He could picture the view below it like it had been drawn on his memory, even though this was the first time he ever saw it from this vantage. Before he’d been in the middle of the action; now he was just watching.

Maybe this is what life was. Maybe this is what growing up meant. Maybe people didn’t end friendships over fights. Maybe people just grow up and grow apart. Maybe it was never anything as big as it is in books or on TV. Maybe real life just wasn’t like that.

Shermy reached the summit and stopped. He could see across the entire town, its low-rise homes, the school, and the corner stores. Further away he could even see what looked like skyscrapers rising from the downtown he never, ever saw. But he was more interested in what was going on below, at the sandlot, and the ball-diamond in the middle.

Charlie’s team was on the field. The team he should have been on but wasn’t. Charlie was on the pitcher’s mound, getting ready to throw out the first pitch. He saw Charlie’s dog again playing shortstop, and even at this distance he saw a small yellow bird with a tiny cap and glove fluttering above the dog. Had the bird been replaced so quickly, or had he killed another one entirely?  Again, Shermy didn’t care. He was surprised he didn’t care, and the tears he felt forming at the corners of his eyes were tears of relief.

He didn’t care.

He didn’t care that there was some other kid playing his position in the outfield. He didn’t care that he recognize the kid, and he didn’t care that he didn’t care. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders and taking flight and as he took a seat on the top of the hill and watched, knew everything was going to be all right.

 “Know what?” said Violet, sitting beside him. “I’m glad we’re not in the middle of things anymore. What kind of eight year-old needs that kind of pressure to be fun and interesting anyways?  I mean, look at them!”  She pointed down below and they followed just in time to see a fly ball descend and pop off Lucy’s head with a “BOINK” of a sound. They watched her teeter and fall, comical squiggles circling her unconscious form. “They’ll always be like that — they’ll never grow up. They’ll be back next summer, and the summer after that, and the summer after that one too. They’ll never change.”

“But what about us?” asked Patty, sitting beside them; “What do we do now?”

 We do whatever we want to now,” said Shermy. “Don’t you see?  The Great Big isn’t watching us anymore. It doesn’t care what we do or where we go or if we come back.”  He gestured with a disgusted nod of his head to the game below. “Let them play their stupid games. Let Charlie lose, again. Let them have their parties, their popcorn and toast dinners. They want to stay a bunch of stupid kids, let them. Me, I’m going to get back on my bike and ride, down the street, out of this neighborhood, all the way to the edge of town.” 

“And then?” asked Patty.

“And then I’ll just keep on going.”

Patty and Violet stared at him silent, their eyes as wide as saucers. His heart pounded heavier in his chest, as if it was as shocked by what he had just said as Patty and Violet. Shermy felt bile rise in his throat, like his words had. For a moment, but only a moment, he wished he hadn’t said that. He hoped they’d speak, tell him he was foolish, so he could back down, and just accept it. Accept everything.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Violet, finally.

Shermy stared back at her. She nodded, her pony-tail bobbing in agreement.

“We can come too, can’t we?” asked Patty.

“Of course,” said Shermy.

There was the hard crack of ball against bat, and a line drive knocked Charlie end over end, knocking his shoes, socks, and hat, yellow and black striped shirt off. He tumbled through the air and landed on the mound, lying there dazed.

A slow smile began to creep across Shermy’s face. Violet and Patty stared at him, their smiles soon joining his. He laughed, soft at first but getting louder. He laughed harder than he ever had, hands clenched to his sides, rolling over onto his back, the tears streaming down his cheeks. Patty joined him, and shortly after so too did Violet, and that the sound of their laughter filled the air and remained as the three climbed back down the hill, picked up their bikes and rode away.

And if the sound of that laughter reached the baseball diamond far below, no one could say.

THE END

— For Charles M. Schulz


Far, Far Away …

I’m up to my neck in revisions to two separate manuscripts, and a non-fiction book proposal at the moment so there won’t be any major updates this month or possibly next. But my new short story “THE SUMMER KIDS” will be available to read on this website on July 1st so mark the date.

In the meanwhile, here’s a quick breakdown of 3-Act structure using STAR WARS Lego sets for your reading and viewing pleasure:

ACT ONE: The Set-Up

ACT TWO: The Confrontation

ACT THREE: The Resolution

May the force be with you …