Marley’s Ghost

A Christmas Story by Brad Abraham

Bottle or draft?

Heading home for the holidays huh? Must be one of those last-minute types, you know? Well, after the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve is the busiest travel time of the year, didja know that? Yeah I figured. You work retail, you work counter or minimum wage you’re lucky to get any part of Christmas Eve off. Hard work, retail. What? Nah, never worked retail. Been bartending about as long as I’ve been able to drink.

Legally, I mean.

Me? Nah, I don’t mind working Christmas Eve. I’m a straight shot up the A after work. Bennett Avenue at 187th. You? Ah, the 33 to West Caldwell. Close but not close enough, huh? Heading home or a visit?

Home. Yeah, home’s nice. Mine’s nothing much; a 1-bedroom in a pre-war. But my ma lives in the same building, I lived there myself most of my life. Nothing quite like home. What’s the saying? ‘Home is where they have to take you in’?

You looking forward to Christmas?

Nah, I don’t think it’s that weird a question. Some do, a surpising number don’t. Some just like the time off. Some don’t. For some Christmas is just bad memory after bad memory. That’s what happens when you get older I guess. Old regrets, old hurts; they pile up. Old memories too; there isn’t a Christmas day where I don’t think of my father, how things might have been were he still around you know? I doubt you’ll find a child who doesn’t look forward to Christmas morning, coming downstairs or out of their bedroom to see the tree lit up, see those presents underneath it. But those children, something happens to them along the way to adulthood. Something changes …

What? Oh, it’s nothing. Just gathering wool.

Penny for my thoughts? Aaah, it’s quiet now. Why not? Just remembering a time about ten years or so back. There was a couple a guys occupying that stool and the one next to you. The younger feller looked pretty slick, you know, the business suit, the satchel, the small roller suitcase packed with clothes for a few days away. The older fella, he was a little rough around the edges. Fifty years maybe but he looked older. Know how that is? Some people don’t seem to age, others seem to do nothing but age? He was blue around the collar. You could tell by lookin’ at him. You can tell a lot about people when you’re a bartender.

Oh, it’s five even.

You want to run a tab? No worries.

Right, those two guys. The two of them warming their seats waiting for their respective bus and train to wherever. Both quiet; the old fella was nursing a soda pop. The young fella had a Heineken. That’s another thing about bartenders; we remember the drinks, not the names. So I’ll just call them that; old fella and young fella. It was a lull in traffic, you see, and the place was a little quiet. Too quiet. Like a funeral, not Christmas Eve. So I asked them both the same thing; “you fellas looking forward to Christmas?”

And the young fella, he snorted and said to me …

“Fuck Christmas. No offence but, you know, fuck it.”

I pinched out a smile. You got all types at the Locksmith, just across the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 44th. Bridge and Tunnel, Hell’s Kitchen locals. People coming, people going. People with a few minutes and a few brain cells in surplus they want to kill.

Anyway, “Fuck Christmas” right?

“Kinda harsh,” the old fella said.

“Not if you’ve had the Christmases I’ve had,” young fella replied. “I haven’t celebrated Christmas in … well, it’s been a while, you know? I mean, I’m going to spend the day at my girlfriend’s parents’ place with her, but that’s just couple stuff. I don’t wanna sound like Scrooge, but Christmas is a – what did he call it? – humbug? Yeah. Humbug.”

“How come? If you don’t mind me asking,” the old fella said.

I expected the young fella to say “actually I do mind, gramps” and that woulda been the end of it. The young guy looked to be a Wall Street type even though he probably worked Midtown. Maybe he was working his way down to Wall Street, I dunno. You know the type; the office drone who eats his takeout lunch at his desk and drinks after work.

I expected the brush-off, but the young fella had a couple Heinekens in him by this point, so his tongue was sufficiently lubricated and he must have figured what the hell why not because he looked to the old fella and told him and by extension me …

“Christmas was always a chore. A burden. Every year, the source of some drama. First was my mom and dad bitching about presents; dad worked his ass off back then and mom made sure to spend as much of that money as she could as soon as it came in. Birthdays, Easter, visits, you name it. Gift, gift gift. So every year it was “too many presents, too much money.” He didn’t grow up with a lot, I gathered even back then. He was a workoholic, did well for himself, but we grew up like we were still poor. To him Christmas was an extravagence. Too muchof one. Maybe because his Christmases were so miserable, I don’t know, we never talked about it. Then there was the whole back and forth over where Christmas Day was spent. Dad was from Pennsylvania. Philly area. So for him, Christmas Day meant up early, gifts unwrapped, then piling into the car for the ninety-minute drive to his folks’ place out in Buck’s County. A ninety-minute drive that always took twice that.

“My ma, she was from Mystic. Nice place. Christmasy that time of year. So every year it was another fight, this time over where we spent Christmas Day; with her family or his. Just alternate, right? Dad’s family one year, Mom’s the next; alternate them so the next year it’s the reverse order. Easy? Wrong. My grandma – Dad’s ma – was never well. Always some ailment – she was in a car accident in her teens, she broke her back and was bedridden for like a year. Never really recovered from it. Then she got older and got sicker, and we’d be told every Christmas that this one may be her last. I heard that as far back as when I was eight. She passed when I was 21. Thirteen years of fighting, of arguing. And she just kept hanging on. Part of me wonders if it wasn’t some power move my dad used against my mom. Maybe he just, like, made it up, you know?”

“So that’s why?” the old fella asked.

The young fella just laughed. Not the mirthful “you made a funny” laugh; no, this was the “I laugh because I don’t want to cry” type.

“My man, that’s just the prelude,” he said. “Me and Christmas were on shaky ground well before the Christmas day that It happened. Another Heinie for me, and for my friend here …”

“Just a Pepsi,” the old fella said.

I got them their drinks while young fella continued his journey into the past.

“By the time I hit my late twenties, mom had divorced dad, who moved back to the Philly area. King of Prussia. You know, the big mall? Anyway she left Bay Ridge and moved back to Connecticut. So from that point on, the fight became about who spent Christmas Day where and when. “You were at your father’s on Christmas Day last year, it’s my turn,” and all that bullshit. I was and remain car-less so I have a two hour train ride in either direction to look forward to.

The young fella took his fresh Heineken and raised it to the old fella.

“Friend, nothing sours you on Christmas like holiday travel. Seeing that line for the train or bus or wherever. The tired faces, the arm-loads of presents and foil-covered casserole dishes. Getting to the train and finding it standing room only as far as Newark, maybe further. Makes you want to just say eff it, crack open a Swanson’s Turkey TV dinner and watch A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life at home.

“Which one?” The old fella asked.

“What?”

“Which Christmas Carol? Assuming that’s your choice.”

“Wha? Oh, the British one with that guy Alastair Simms.

“Sim.”

“Wha?”

“Alastair Sim. That’s my favorite.”

“Yeah, mine too. The George C. Scott one they did for TV is pretty good too. Actually, one year I watched like five or six versions of that story. Each of them is a little different. Never read the book though. Maybe I should.”

“You know, sorry for interrupting,” the old fella said, “but old movies like A Christmas Cartol, well, they’re ghost stories aren’t they? Meaning all the people on-camera, on-screen, abd behind the scenes, they’re all dead now right? Heck, even something like King Kong or Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Time marches on, Fay Wray, Bogey and Bergman, Orson Welles, all gone in the physical world. But you wanna see their ghosts, watch their movies.”

That’s alright, I was finished my story, the young fella looked like he wanted to say, but he didn’t. Instead he took another sip of beer, cleared his throat, and continued on his journey.

“Every year Christmas was a choice, and a hard one because it just felt like what it always was. That tug-o-war. Not even the decision to alternate helped. Like they were still fighting in divorce court five years on. That’s the one thing  they don’t tell you about your parents divorce; doesn’t matter how old you are when they split – it’s always like when you’re a little kid watching them yell at each other.”

The young fella slammed down nearly half of his beer before continuing. Not just whetting his whistle but drowning it in the tub, if you get me.

“This year in particular it was Dad’s turn to have me on Christmas Day. He’d remarried by this point; some divorcee and her two teenagers. Unbelievable! The guy was on the road half the year when me and my brother were still at home, never around, and suddenly he’s all ‘got a new family, new stepmother, new step-siblingss, oh and I’m leaving your ma for her.’ Like we – my brother and me – we were just a dress rehearsal. My brother bounced to California around that time, He hasn’t been back. Not to ma’s, not to dad’s. Like he divorced them. But I digress.

“I’d been working a few years out of college. Making good money, though for New York you have to stretch things, obviously. Anyway this year in particular we’d  had a good year, got a nice bonus and figured, “eff it” I’ll be generous. I’ll be Alastair Sim as Scrooge after being visited by the three ghosts. Step-sibling number one got an iPad. Number two got a laptop for school. Step-mom got this expensive perfume she liked – champagne taste on a beer budget, that one – and dad got a nice Rolling Stones box set of CDs. He was something of an audio – audiofill –

“Audiophile,” the older fella offered.

“Anyway I dropped well over a couple grand on gifts but I figured, hey, why not be Santa Claus for once. I didn’t dress up or anything like that but the sentiment remains.”

The young fella sipped his beer. That was when I knew he was building to the point.

“I trek out there to King of Prussia. Had to take a cab from the train station in Philly. I get out there, into the boonies, the tree’s decorated to the nines, and the underside was loaded with presents. At least they waited for me, right? I settled in, figured it was good to be, well, not home, but somewhere close enough, you know?

“It’s Christmas Day so they waited for me before opening gifts. The ones I brought were unwrapped, like wolves ripping into a kill. Then they work their way through the rest of the pile. One for dad, one for step-mom, one for step-brother, one for step-sister, lather rinse repeat. I’m sitting there drinking Eggnog and waiting for something to be handed to me … but it never happens. So I figure, they musta got me something big and will bring it out after the smaller stuff’s done. But the smaller stuff gets done, all the gifts are unwrapped, and step-mother says “I should get dinner started”.

“I’m sitting there, wondering if this is some joke. Like they’re having me on. So after a few moments I say “aren’t we forgetting something?” And they’re all “what?” And I’m all “do I get a Christmas present?”

“And they all look at each other, like they’re waiting for someone else to tell me.

“Finally my dad does. He says well, it’s been a lean year, not a lot of money to spread around, and we figured you have this big well-paying job in NYC and you really don’t need anything you couldn’t buy yourself so …”

“Step-mom pipes up that they didn’t think I’d be there on Christmas Day, that they thought it was my mom’s turn to have me. Even though this had all been arranged weeks before.

“I just sat there, stunned. Like, I get lean years but nothing? Not even a card and a box of Russel Stover? And before you say “Christmas is all about the spirit of giving not receiving” can you really look me in the eye and say getting nothing from your own family after dropping two large on them is the fucking Christmas Spirit?

The young fella slammed down the rest of his drink. You could see he’d upset himself all over again by this story. And still, he kept going.

“Dinner was dinner, but even before dessert I knew I wasn’t going to stay. I make ready to call a cab to take me back to Philly. I’ll ride the goddamn Chinatown bus if I have to I just want to get outta there. But my dad says “no I can drive you.” Not “please, stay, we’ll make it up to you” just “I’ll get my coat.”

Neither of us says a word the drive into Philly. Just the Rolling Stones on the car CD player. At least he was enjoying his gift, right? It wasn’t until a few blocks from the train station he pulls into a supermarket, tells me he needs to grab something. He goes in, and comes out like five minutes later seemingly empty-handed. But when he gets back into the car he hands me this card sealed in an envelope. He mutters something like “It was just a joke. Didn’t mean any harm. Open it on the bus ride back.”

I open it on the bus ride back and I know full and well what he did. Went straight to the gift card section; every grocery store had one around Christmas. He grabbed a card, then hit up one of those independent ATMs, ate the processing fees … and withdrew two hundred dollars that he stuffed into the card. He didn’t even sign it. Just handed it to me and told me to open it on the bus.

I still had it with me when I got back to the Port Authority. I had it with me when I trudged down to the subway for the ride back out to Bay Ridge. I never left the neighborhood. But at the entrance to the subway I see this homeless guy sitting there by the doors, I can’t tell if he’s white, black, whatever. His head’s down, he’s bundled up because that entranceway is cold. And without thinking anything of it I drop the card and the money into his little begging bowl, hat, cup, cardboard box, whatever it was and wish him Merry Christmas.”     

The young fella considered ordering another drink, but checked the time and opted out.

“That was the last time I visited my dad at Christmastime. He died the following spring. Heart attack while shoveling snow. One of those late snowfalls that’s all wet and heavy? He laid out there in the driveway for a couple of hours before they found him. Step-mom and kids – you know, the hale, hearty teenagers who should have been shoveling the snow and not him – got the house. He left it to me, you know, but she lawyered up, saying they would be out on the street without it, even though that was a lie. Dad was insured, well over a million dollars. She didn’t have to worry about money – not if she pried her ass off the couch and got a damn job. Heck, back then you could buy a house in King of Prussia or Phoenixville for under half that. No, she just wanted it, and was willing to pay a lawyer big bucks to fight me on it. I didn’t give her the satisfaction. She wanted it, she got it. I don’t know what she’s doing now. Don’t know if she’s alive or dead. Don’t much care to be honest.”

The young fella looked to the older one and shrugged

“You wanted to know why? Now you do.”

The old fella had sat silent through the tail end of the story. Just sipping his Pepsi and listening. Like he knew what this young fella really wanted wasn’t a beer, but an ear. Like all that bitterness was a snake-bite you had to lance to drain the poison out of. The older fella was a good listener. He probably caught parts of the story I didn’t as I tended bar. But finally, he set his drink down, pivoted in his seat, and then told us his story;

“I’m not a drinker. Not anymore.” The older fella raised his Pepsi, as if pinning a period to the end of that statement. “I used to be but that was a long time ago. It started with drinks after work, then drinks at home. I’d have a scotch and soda, you know to ‘take the edge off the day’? Then it was just scotch and it wasn’t just after five in the afternoon. I was a handyman. Pickup truck with my company name on the side, nice split-level in Mamaroneck. My wife, my daughter, and me. Just the three of us. Life was good. Everybody needed a handyman back then. Everybody still does. People these days. They don’t know how to build things or fix things. They know how to order things online that arrive already built, or maybe, maybe they’ll hire someone to assemble it. I was good with my hands. Still am. I built additions to homes, I built tree houses for the kids – all up to code too; I didn’t scrimp or cut corners when it came to kids.”

The older fella gazed distant, into the mirror behind the counter.

“I was good with my hands. I know I said that before but it’s important.”

He held out his left hand. Held it flat. It’s steady as a rock.

“See? Thing is, over time, the more and more I drank which was by then an all-day thing, the more unsteady these hands got. I’d show up to work late, I’d take longer to do basic work, I’d make mistakes. I charged by the job, not the hour, so they couldn’t claim I was stretching a task out, but every mistake I’d have to go back on my own time and make the fix for free. Heck, I once put a door to a shower stall in upside-down and backwards. I started getting a reputation, which in a town the size of Mamaroneck is like a Mark of Cain. You don’t want a rep for being a drunk. You’d think I mighta realized this when I’d show up to do an estimate on a job and see these housewives and wrinkling their noses because it was ten in the a.m. and I already stank of beer.”

“Anyway, things went downhill. I had put in a downstairs bathroom, I didn’t connect a pipe correctly, and toilet water drained under the basement floor. Smelled awful by all accounts, not that I did the fix. They hired a different crew, had them come in, rip the floor up, clear out the piss and shit, and reconnect everything proper before redoing the whole job. They handed me the bill. I didn’t have that kinda money, so they took me to court and I was ordered to repay them for my shoddy work. So pretty much I’m working for them now. Meanwhile all my bills are piling up. Second notice. Third notice. Then the bill collectors start calling, threatening. Then I fell behind on my truck payments …”

The old fella sat there, fuming silently for a moment. He gazed at the back of the counter, where we kept all the expensive hooch. Hooch still a word people use? Anyway, those Johnny Walkers and Jim Beams and Jack Daniels all must have looked like old friends. Like he wanted to get reacquainted with them that Christmas Eve near the Port Authority. But he didn’t, bless him. I may sling drinks for a living, but what I don’t want to do is help someone fall off the wagon. But, as the old fella himself would say, I digress.

“You know, I know when people are driving around the burbs or wherever and see those trucks parked at the curb, guys with lawnmowers and leaf-blowers going to work on the yard of some mansion and think they’re just blue-collar grunts. They don’t realize how much money it takes to be a grunt. Finance a truck, finance your equipment, pay your crew, manage your expenses, pay business taxes. You do all of that … until you don’t. I lost the truck, I lost my business, I pissed it all away down the toilet because amidst all of this I kept on drinking. And drinking. And drinking. When my wife, rest her, asked for a divorce, I drank. When our daughter had to abandon hopes and dreams of the Ivy League to go to a community college, I drank. And when my wife put our house up for sale – I’d transferred ownership to her so the banks couldn’t take it – I kept on drinking. She sold the place and moved away, so did my daughter. I was alone, just me and my habit. Oh sure, I got some money from the sale of the house – my wife took pity on me and slipped me a nice under-the-table sum, but that went fast. I rented a room in New Rochelle, near the train station, so I could at least get into the city for the work I knew would be there. A buddy of mine was working construction. He set me up on a non-union crew, and I figured well, it’s money, it’s under-the-table, I can get myself back on track, back in the money-making game.”

The old fella sighed. We all knew what was coming before he said it.

“Well, travelling back and forth was tiring. Up at five, on the train at six, on-site at seven. Ten, twelve hours of hard labor, then the seven o’clock train, home by eight, drinking until ten. Sometimes I’d grab a drink before the train, and I’d fall asleep on the ride home and end up in New Haven and have to backtrack. When I’d punch out at the construction site – I never missed a shift by the way – I’d find some bar near the train station and put a few away more and more. Sometimes more than a few. Sometimes so many I’d miss my train and figure I might as well stay, find some all-night place like a diner to keep warm until I could start work the next day. That’s what I did, day in, day out until I stopped going to work altogether. Stopped paying rent on my tiny room and got evicted. Pretty much just wandered these streets, begging for change, begging for food.

“You ever want to know what it’s like being a ghost minus the inconvenience of dying? Become one of the walking dead. The homeless. The people you see there whop are there and aren’t. The ones that become invisible the more you see ‘em. Like Jacob Marley, you know? A Christmas Carol? Lugging those chains around, desperate to escape purgatory. That’s what homelessness is; purgatory. A place between this world and the next. But I digress …

“Anyway I ended up sheltering myself at the Port Authority. During the winter months especially. The holidays. All the Christmas Decorations up, families trekking  through to see Times Square and the Macy’s Parade. Some would see me, take pity on me, flip me a buck and change now and then. Most would just avoid me. That was my life. I had memories of my old one. Christmases past, when I was a little boy. The love of my parents, the warmth of knowing you had a home, and were safe. All so goddamn far away. You see a homeless person, you don’t see the person they were. Just the one they are. You don’t see the rejection, the loss, the one bad day that became a year of them. You don’t see the hurt.

“So one Christmas I’m there at the Port Authority. I’m wiped out. Really feeling rough. I hadn’t made much money that day. I was so hungry, not to mention thirsty. I woulda killed for a drink. Even a soda pop. And I’m so out of it I don’t even notice someone’s dropped something into my little begging box.

“‘Merry Christmas’ they say. I don’t see their face. All I see is a Christmas Card, and something inside it.

The old fella turned to the young fella, who looked all different shades of pale.

“There was two hundred dollars in that card. It’s a Christmas Miracle to a guy like me. I take the money and hold it tight and think it’s a figment of my imagination. That it’s just going to evaporate. But it doesn’t. I get to my feet; I got big plans for this money. Get some food, get a drink, maybe find someplace warm to sleep. Have a bath, Heck, a hot shower would do wonders just to claw back a little bit of the person I was in the before times.

“It’s when I’m walking past the ticket windows for the Greyhound that I see the departure board. Hyde Park. That’s where my daughter lived. Still does. After college she decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America. Now she’s head chef at one of the fancier inns up there. The type of place George Washington once stopped at. That kind of fancy. I see the board, I think of her, how I haven’t seen her since her graduation. I was so proud then even though she looked like she wished I was anywhere but there. She was right too; I was an embarrassment, and I knew it.

“But Christmas, it’s a time for miracles, isn’t it?

“I went to the Duane Reade. I got some of that dry shampoo stuff and a cheap electric razor, some deodorant. I couldn’t do anything about my clothes but some cologne masked the worst of it. I went to one of the bathrooms, shaved, and cleaned myself up as best I could, then I went to the Greyhound desk and bought a ticket. One-way to Hyde Park.

“I waited at the bus depot there until Christmas Morning, rehearsing what I was going to say. She was the only one in Hyde Park with my last name; this was back when phone books were a thing. I found her house, all lit up for Christmas. Car’s in the driveway, I’m on the steps. I ring the bell. There’s a thudding of footsteps and the door opens … and a little boy peers out.

“Jesus, he looks so much like his mother, that kid.

“He says hello. I say hello back, and ask if his mother’s home.

“Then I look up and see her. She’s staring at me, like, well, like I’m a ghost. And I guess in a way I was. People don’t have to die to become ghosts, you know. They can just be bad memories, past hurts in the flesh. You don’t have to die to be lost. But I digress …

“We stare at each other. I don’t expect her to invite me in. All I do is tell her I came to wish her a Merry Christmas. I tell her that I’m sorry for everything that happened. Everything I did. Everything we’d lost. The home in Mamaroneck, the business, her mother. All of it.

“She doesn’t say anything, she just stares.”

“I turn to leave. I know it’s gonna be a long wait to get back to the city, it being Christmas Day and all, but I have some money left. Maybe there’s a diner I can grab some hot chow. There’s always some place open Christmas Day, right? So I’m about to start walking but she tells me to stop. I feel her hand on my shoulder. And she tells me –

The old fella pinches his lips together. Something catches in his throat.

“She tells me she forgives me. She tells me not to despair. She tells me to look at his house, to look at my – my grandson. She tells me she has a good life. Not an easy one, but a good one. She says ‘dad, you can mourn the life you lost, or the one you didn’t quite get, but you can still rejoice in the one you have. All those little joys that make it worth living.’  

“Okay maybe she didn’t say it exactly like that. It was a few years back, but age and memory are elastic. They stretch as far as they need to.

“So someone else comes to the door- her husband. A good guy. A financial planner, as it happened, but I found that out later. He pieced it all together just with a look, and said “is your father going to join us for Christmas dinner?” She asks me, and like Scrooge visiting his nephew and apologizing for being so cold, so distant, so many years blaming his nephew for causing the death of his beloved sister Fan …” The old fella smiles.“The Alastair Simm Scrooge, obviously.”

“I stay for dinner. They fix up the guest bedroom and I stay the night. Her husband gives me some old clothes of his and they rightfully toss my grubby stuff in the trash. I get a hot bath, I clean up, I stay the week. Talking to her husband about my troubles he says he can help, and he does. I work out a way to pay back what I owe, I get the rest forgiven. It takes some time but I break out of purgatory into what waits afterward; salvation.

“I think that’s what Christmas is about, actually; forgiveness. Forgiving your mistakes, forgiving those moments where you were weak.

“Anyway, I got clean, I sobered up. I haven’t touched a drop since then. I live in Poughkeepsie now, just south of Hyde Park. I’m a handyman again. Making decent money. Decent enough that every Christmas Eve I take the train down here, do some shopping for my daughter and son-in-law and grandson, and to pay a little visit to the Port Authority to see where my Christmas Miracle happened. I pop in here, I have a soda. Maybe a couple. Then I walk down to Penn to catch my train home.

“Life is … it’s good. Not great, not perfect, but enough. I used to think there were no fresh starts, no do-overs. But what do I know? I’m just a handyman from Poughkeepsie.”

The old fella pushed back his stool, and dropped a twenty on the counter-top for the eight dollars in soft drinks he’d consumed. He didn’t say anything else to me, to the young fella. He just wished us both a Merry Christmas, gathered up the bag of Christmas gifts he’d been toting, and exited out onto eighth avenue to begin the walk down to 34th street.

The young fella, he didn’t say anything and I didn’t prompt him to. The old fella didn’t come out and say “you were that Christmas Angel”. He didn’t need to. Heck, for all I knew he could have made the whole thing up on the fly just so this young fella might not feel so bad about Christmas and the holidays. So he wouldn’t feel like Christmas was the cause of his every bad memory. So he wouldn’t go through the years being bitter and angry and lonely this time of year.

But I don’t think he made it up. You tend bar long enough, you get a finely tuned sense of who’s a bullshitter and who’s telling god’s own truth.

The young fella settled his tab, left a nice tip. He didn’t say anything. Just nodded his thanks.

“Merry Christmas,” I called after him as he left.

“You too,” he replied.

Then he was gone.

I never saw the young fella again. He was a one-off. Maybe he got that promotion and made his way down to Wall Street proper. Maybe he and his girlfriend tied the knot and he moved outta the city, outta Bay Ridge or wherever he hung his hat and never found much occasion to hit the Midtown West portion of Manhattan.

The old fella? You know, I did see him a couple times after that, always on Christmas Eve. He’d pop in with his bag of presents, he’d order his soda, we’d small-talk but nothing like that night. Then one Christmas Eve about six years back he stopped coming. I don’t know what happened. Maybe he found a new place, maybe he decided the trips to New York on Christmas Eve were too much, given you can pretty much order everything online these days anyway. Maybe he died. I dunno.

I know, I know, you’re looking for a lesson, a punch line, a moral to the story. I don’t have one to be honest. I could suggest some. That one person’s misfortune can be another’s saving grace. That even a small act of kindness can change the fate of the world.

But I like to think about what that old fella had said about forgiveness. That sometimes the person you need to most forgive is yourself.

You know, it kinda makes me think about A Christmas Carol.

Not the Alastair Simm version or the George C. Scott one. I mean the book. The Dickens novel. I read it every year, you know? It’s my little Christmas tradition. When I clock outta here tonight and head home, while the rest of my building is blasting Bachata and Reggaeton, I’ll sit in my chair in my room by my window with a hot chocolate and I’ll read about Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Old Fezziwig and poor tragic Fan. But I think about Jacob Marley the most. The ghost who comes to Scrooge wrapped in chains, doomed to wander the earth in limbo as penance? His crimes? Just being greedy and selfish and not caring for his fellow man; like a lot of people out there. He comes to Scrooge and pleads to him to find the good in himself, to spare him the same fate.

We all carry chains, friend. You, me. We can’t see them but they’re there. Maybe that’s what Christmas is about. Breaking those chains. Forgiving yourself. See, that’s why I think Marley, he’s the true hero of A Christmas Carol. He’s the one who saves Ebenezer Scrooge and, maybe, frees his own soul from purgatory. One act of selflessness. Of kindness. Kindess can change the world, my friend. It may be the only thing that does.

Yeah, that time. Heading out? Oh, that’s too generous, all you had was a –

You’re the boss, boss. Thanks!

And hey …

Merry Christmas, huh?

©2021 Brad Abraham – All rights reserved.

Achtung Birthday

[So this is a little different update-wise, as what follows is a revised and updated version of  a two-part piece I first wrote back in 2010. Nobody in their right mind will want to delve back 11 years into the past to find them, so what we have below is a combined and revised piece about one of my favorite albums of all time, which turned 30 this past week.]

30 years ago this very week (November 18th for those keeping count) I ducked out of school on my lunch break, drove to the local record store, and bought this:

I have a confession to make – I am a U2 fan. I realize that’s an un-cool statement to make, given that U2 are not cool by the normal standard. The only thing cool about U2 is to viscerally hate their pompous, earnest stadium rock (the same grief Coldplay gets – and another band I quite like, so there). Somehow, Radiohead gets a pass because they’re all arty and serious, but their fans are the biggest shitheads around and worse than people who constantly berate you for buying a Mac instead of a PC, because these things supposedly matter. But I am a U2 fan; I have all their albums, saw them in concert several times, and even liked Songs of Innocence, the free album they released in 2014 that everyone else seems to hate despite it being a pretty solid collection of songs.

This all has to do, I realize, with the age I discovered them.

I discovered them in 1987 when The Joshua Tree was released and you couldn’t walk the street without tripping over “With or Without You.”  For an impressionable early teenager, the great thing about U2 was that they weren’t what was clogging the airwaves at the time – Bon Jovi and Warrant and “Unskinny Bop” – they were serious, they had a conscience, they were all about Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 16: Photo of U2; L-R: The Edge, Bono (waving flag), Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr performing live on The Tube TV Show (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

Another reason I responded to them was, by this point, I was still the “new kid” at my school and at my new hometown. We’d moved in August 1986 and while I made friends, I still felt like something of an outsider. And as so much of The Joshua Tree is about alienation, and fear, and desire, it was like handing a glass of ice water to a man dying of thirst. So I dug U2, but not in a huge way. I didn’t get The Joshua Tree until Christmas 1987 (on Vinyl), and had to make a cassette copy to listen to on my walkman. Of course, the U2 steamroller had just got going when they dropped Rattle and Hum – the album and the movie, and went from “cool, serious band” to “overexposed” in a heartbeat. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theater, and as it was my first exposure to the band in something of a live setting, my appreciation for them deepened. The only concerts I’d been to by that point were Jan and Dean, Donny and Marie Osmond, and a pre-Private Dancer Tina Turner, so seeing Bono’s ego projected larger than life was a sight to behold. But more important, the theater sound system was the best stereo one could imagine – the walls were shaking. Needless to say after the experience I was a full-on fan, no longer just a casual one. I bought up their back catalog and nearly wore the cassettes out. The fact that R&H is not a good album by U2 (or anyone else’s) standards is beside the point – it was the right album, and the right movie, at the right time. I was a fan now, and I anxiously awaited their next album.

And waited. And waited. And waited …

B0W1XG Iconic graffiti on Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery

1988 became 1989, which became 1990 and then 1991 and there was no sign of a new album. Unlike this internet age where you have that information at your fingertips (true or rumored), in the early 1990s you either read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, or you heard nothing. One advantage of the wait was I filled the gap by discovering other bands who would become as important to me as U2 – Midnight Oil, INXS, REM, The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, and many more. Summer 1991 saw the first Lollapalooza festival, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and by September the Pixies released Trompe Le Monde, and Nirvana released Nevermind.

Think of that: 1987 was The Joshua Tree, Bon Jovi, Warrant and Unskinny Bop; 4 years later was Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza and Nirvana. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was on the way out, and still nothing new from U2. A lot can change in four years, but an even bigger change was coming.

In late September of 1991 I picked up the newest issue of Rolling Stone (with Guns n’ Roses on the cover – remember Use Your Illusion?). And in the news section there was a small blurb about U2’s new studio album being readied for release. The title was Achtung Baby, with the first single “The Fly” set for release in October.

I thought it was a joke. Really? They’re calling it Achtung Baby? They’re releasing a song called The Fly? This, from the band behind the painfully earnest Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum? It had to be a misprint. They couldn’t be serious.

Could they?

I began to wonder … by now I was well into the left of the dial music that was slowly sweeping across the land. By the time AB dropped on November 19, 1991, would I even be interested? Would I even care? This was not a new phenomenon; in years since I’ve fallen in love and then out of love with lots of bands. Some were just brief affairs of an album or two, some lasted years before fizzling entirely. Some I still listen to and buy their new releases, but it still feels like a sense of duty more than something I genuinely want to hear.

Late October, “The Fly” was released. I didn’t so much hear it as see the tail end of the video on Much Music when I got home from school. It was a good 30 seconds before I realized it was even U2. Bono was wearing these goofy wrap-around shades; The Edge was wearing his soon to be ubiquitous knit cap and (gasp) bell bottoms. This wasn’t the U2 of The Joshua Tree, and the music wasn’t like anything U2 had done before. I was intrigued, but after the low-fi sonic assault of Nevermind, this slick, studio stuff seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

There was still a month before releaseon a trip to the record store to grab Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, I happened upon a cassette single (a.k.a. “cassingle”) for The Fly.

I picked it up too and on the way home gave The Fly a listen.  I listened to it several times, along with an included remix, and an instrumental track they did for a Royal Shakespeare Co. production of A Clockwork Orange.  It was all very … different, but as is the case with anything, the more you listen, the more it tends to grow on you. So everything was in flux come November 21 when I left school at lunch to hit the record store. You see, this was THE DAY Achtung Baby hit shelves. To risk restating the experience of buying it, click HERE if you haven’t already. Done? Good.

When I walked into the record store, the owner was playing what I would later learn was “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” but I was all eyes at that point, and not ears. I looked for the new release rack and finally found what I was looking for. It took me a minute, because the first thing you notice about Achtung Baby is its cover.

It was off-putting, coming from a band who had up to that point selected a single image for their cover art:

So right away it didn’t look like U2, but that didn’t discourage me, obviously, because I threw down for the cassette copy, as I didn’t own a CD player at this point, yet had a Walkman, a boom box and a car stereo with tape deck. I paid for it, declined the bag, and ripped the cellophane off the case on the way back to my car. I slid behind the wheel, fired it up and popped in Achtung Baby. The test signal rolled first and I set levels, and then, music …

ZOO STATION

When it started, it sounded like my stereo speakers were broken, and it wasn’t until Bono started singing that I realized that was the entire point. Given the last U2 song released was the melodic All I Want Is You (well, that and a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day” from the Red Hot + Blue compilation), it was music from a different planet, but still very much U2. I really wasn’t crazy about it to be honest, but now I can’t imagine the album without it.

EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING

Now this was more like the U2 I knew – a sweeping rock anthem, blending the old and the new. The “rhythm and blues” influence of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum was gone, and it harkened back to The Unforgettable Fire in its “European feel” but by this point it was clear that AB was a totally different beast.

ONE

Here we go. Some songs take several listens to “get” but “One” was one I got the moment I heard it, and is probably their best known, best loved song. It’s apparently a popular song at weddings too, which blows my mind because if you listen to the lyrics, you realize pretty damn quickly it’s not a love song. With lyrics like “You ask me to enter/ but then you make me crawl/ and I can’t keep holding on / when all you got is hurt,” it is ironic their most popular song is also their most misunderstood. It’s hard to think of this era in music and with U2 to be “Classic Rock” but One is a classic and now recognized in roch circles as one of thegreatest songs ever written. Even people who hate U2 will couple that hatred with the admission that “One” is pretty good.

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus, told from Iscariot’s perspective, but for me, it seemed to speak to what I was going through at that time in my life; an on-again-off-again relationship with a girl who was much more into me than I was into her, being stupidly into someone else who I had no chance with. And by the time I realized I had made a big mistake it was too late. She’d moved on, and told me it would be the end of the world before she reconsidered.

WHO’S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES

A nice salve after the bitterness of the previous tunes, it’s one of the lesser tunes on the album, at least for me. I think it is for U2 also, given how the fact it was a single, it really isn’t remembered. It’s the closest to a Joshua Tree-era tune on the album and stands out for it.

SO CRUEL

For some strange reason, the song that becomes before the side break on pretty much every U2 album becomes my favorite on that album, and So Cruel fits that bill. It’s simple and melodic, and sets up the two songs that follow. One of the things we lost with the rise of the CD is that “act break,” the song that holds its spell on you as you flip the cassette or album over; something to linger while you wait for the next track. So Cruel still does that.

THE FLY

If you hear any U2 on the radio these days, The Fly is going to be one of them. No 90s compilation or playlist is complete with this roaring beast of distorted guitars and distorted voice. It was U2’s firs new music in three years and it sounded unlike anything they’d ever done. I didn’t realize at the time how this song and that video would be the blueprint for what was to follow. U2 had long wanted to “redefine” the concert experience and what the subsequently pulled off did just that and that influence can be seen and felt to this very day.

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

The first time I listened to Mysterious Ways, I didn’t like it. It was too “dance” too “House”, and as a self-import and, self-involved 18 year old, those things were just wrong. Now, it’s my favorite song on the album after So Cruel, and best played loud. Go figure.

TRYING TO THROW YOUR ARMS AROUND THE WORLD

To this day, every time I hear it, I think of a very particular scene; me, driving the streets of my town after dark. It’s winter, the ground is covered with snow and every street feels abandoned. There are no people out and fewer cars, but the music coming from the stereo is warm and soothing.

ULTRAVIOLET (LIGHT MY WAY)

There’s a scene in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed by a stroke, is remembering a trip he took with a mistress, and as we segue into the flashback, the first strings of Ultraviolet can be heard, before BLASTING into the big intro. The image, of the mistress from behind as she sits in the passenger seat of a convertible, her hair whipping in the wind, is now forever associated with this song, but it remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. U2 resurrected it from limbo for U2 360 tour as an encore, as a throw to their fans, who by all accounts were thrilled to see some lesser-known known songs make the playlist.

ACROBAT

Its refrain of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” has become my personal mantra. They try their best, and sometimes it looks like they’ll win, but I always bounce back and am still here when so many of them have gone.

LOVE IS BLINDNESS

The somber closing to a joyous and yet bitter collection of songs. A downbeat song they closed shows on their tour with and didn’t diminish the high everyone felt coming out of it.

So despite Nirvana and Pearl Jam, RHCP, Ministry, Soundgarden and countless others occupying the sonic landscape of 1991 – surely the last great year in music we’ve seen – AB remained lodged in my tape deck for months, it seems, and remains my favorite “winter album” — yes Achtung Baby makes me think of snow and chilly air. A lot of stuff happened in those remaining weeks of 1991 and AB was the soundtrack to it. Hell, when I started college the following fall it was still out there, still playing in record stores, still blasting from dorm rooms – albums had a longevity then that they don’t have now. In fact, in the 30 years since then I don’t think I ever stopped listening to it.

In March 1992 I got to realize a dream of the previous five years and saw U2 on their now legendary Zoo TV tour. I cut afternoon classes and drove the three hours with three friends, spent a good part of the day wandering the city near the venue, and got to see The Pixies (my still-favorite band, and people behind what was and remains my all-time favorite album, 1990s’ Bossanova) open for U2.

I was at this show, though sadly not this close to stage.

It was, of course, an amazing show and an amazing experience – but I realized much later that seeing U2 live represented the climactic moment of my love for that band. I’m still a fan, and will be until I die, even though they’re not the pinnacle of my musical taste like they were. Seeing Zoo TV was the conclusion of that period of my life, which was changing quickly. I graduated High School three months later, I moved away to College five months after that (and ended up living down the street from where I saw U2 barely half a year before). I saw them again in August of that year, and then thirteen years passed before I saw them once more, on their Vertigo Tour, general admission, right up front. That was the last time I them perform, live, because nothing could top that experience outside of being their personal guest or something.

People change and music changes, and 30 years can seem like 30 years, and can also seem like just last week or last year. The agonizing wait for an album is gone – music gets leaked, officially or unofficially – in the case of Songs of Innocence it can appear, wanted or not, in your iTunes downloads.

I’m a U2 fan, but will probably never be as into U2 as I was in 1988-1992 and probably will never be into any band that much again. Music obsession is a young man’s game and it has to be, because that music will be with you for the rest of your  life. When Generation X hits retirement age, rest homes across the world will have Grunge nights, and arguments will break out in the lunch room over the merits of Nirvana over Pearl Jam, just like High School with more wrinkles, more grey hair and less of it. The rec room will be filled with the music of Ministry and Nine Inch nails, and especially U2. I’Il still listen to Achtung Baby regularly, like Doolittle, like Nevermind, like so many other albums that stood the test of time. And, like every memory I have of that year and time of my life, I’ll never stop listening to it.


1991

Thirty years. How can it have been thirty years?

There are milestone years in your life. The years that stand out above all the others. I’ve lived many years, and could pick a good half-dozen or so that stand out. But near the top of that list, 1991 remains that year for me. Musically. Culturally. Personally. It was a time when it felt like I and my generation – Generation X – were coming into our own. Where the movie and music creators we discovered and came to admire were borne of the same age as we were. The same experiences. It wasn’t 1960s or 1970s pop culture redux. It was our culture, our identity. It was U2, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, Depeche Mode, The Stone Roses, The Pixies, and a bunch of new bands from Seattle called Pearl Jam and Nirvana (we already knew Soundgarden, but bands like Mudhoney, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream and more were discovered at the same time). I’d been dipping my toe in the college and alternative rock pool since 1987 but 1991 was the year I plunged in.

Ask anyone at all connected with the music and culture of Generation X but 1991 remains THE year for all of that. It truly felt like the flood gates had opened. Don’t believe me? The Pixies’ Trompe le Monde, Nirvana’s Nevermind, The Cult’s Sanctuary, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic were all released on the same day. Seven days earlier, Guns N’ Roses released Use Your Illusion I and II, and Hole released Pretty on the Inside. Both Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were already in stores, and the autumn would see the releases of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and U2’s Achtung Baby.

Oh, and Michael Jackson released an album that, while it outsold pretty much all of the above, felt like a relic from a different era. The 80s effectively ended the summer of 1991. Generation X was moving to the forefront, the culture was moving on, and if you were in your teens and early 20s, you were riding that wave.

Very few of my teenage years were memorable, or happy for that matter. Frankly the 90s weren’t all that great either – 1990-1994 were pretty good overall. 1995 through 1998 were shit, and 1999 was great professionally, lousy personally. While my career did eventually take flight, it was amidst a great deal of personal turmoil of the type that really prevented me from enjoying my life even when “great things” were happening. But I feel if I could hop into the Wayback Machine, or hit 88 mph in my DeLorean and travel back in time to relive just one year of my younger life, it would probably be 1991. It was the year that felt different even then. It felt like things were changing, and that the future looked a lot brighter than the past (remember that feeling? Pepperidge Farm remembers). That feeling was 30 years ago.

What both fascinates and troubles me is that 1991’s memories remain fresh, a lot more so than ones from 2011 or 2001 for that matter (outside of 9/11 what does any of us really remember from 2001 anyway?). I remember the Carribean Cruise I went on in March of 1991. I remember my summer job at our small-town local newspaper, of volunteering at the local cable access station to burnish my reel, I remember the first Lollapalooza tour, and seeing so many great bands in their prime. I remember helping my still best buddy move into his college apartment an hour’s drive from my town. I remember beginning my final year of high school. I remember My Own Private Idaho, The Commitments, The Fisher King, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, JFK and Cape Fear.

This wasn’t one of them. Seriously. The Commitments is awesome.

The thing they don’t tell you about aging is that generally you feel like the same person inside that you were when you were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Older and wiser, hopefully, but not so different. So much of my teenage years remains on immediate recall, largely thanks to the music I still listen to. While I do keep up with some contemporary artists – Coldplay, Haim, The Kills, The Weeknd – my heart belongs to the past, and to the music I grew up with. It’s not just music though; it’s a salve that helps me weather the present. If I close my eyes and listen to “In Bloom” and “Alive” and even “Blaze of Glory” , for a brief moment I’m back in the 80s and 90s. Even music from artists I never much cared for – I’m looking at you Richard Marx, Pseudo Echo and Icehouse – I still have fond memories accompanying.

1991 has been on my mind a lot, lately, thanks to the rebirth of Mixtape as a TV series I’m developing with Little Engine TV. We’re still in the early stages but there have been some encouraging developments as of late. Nothing I can reveal right now obviously. The general concensus we’ve been getting overall has been that we’re in the right time to start looking back at the 90s, those celebrated but largely forgotten early years of the decade when it seemed the world was changing for the better, an upward climb out of the morass of the 80s. That time in your life when everything good and just seems within reach.

But what is it about 1991 that holds on to me? I had better years. 1992 was right around the corner; an even more pivitol year for me. If there’s one 1991 memory I carry with me, it may be this. November 29, 1991; that was when me and a bunch of HS friends trekked to the local-ish university to see a little band from Boston play on what would be their then final tour.

The Pixies were, and remain my favorite band. Long-time readers of this blog will know that. 1990’s Bossanova remains my favorite album of all time, not because it’s the best Pixies album but because it was the right album at the right time for me. Seeing them in concert was a life goa, and in late 1991 I got my chance.

Anyway, the show. It was tight, hot, raucous. And loud. Boy was it loud. There’s something about live music that reaches deeper than recorded or video. A concert is a gathering of members of the same tribe. Everybody who travels to a concert from whatever location is joining a temporary movement. All united by a love of a band and their music. our case was no different. This concert was about an hour’s drive from our small-town yet we all made that trek. We mingled with people who had driven further, and some who lived nearby (said concert was at one of the local universities). The show was, of course, amazing. But at one point near the end we were all gathered in a group watching the band and I tore my gaze away from the stage to just look at the people I was at the concertwith. Janet, Ana, Charles, Matt, Anthony, Andy, Nathalie, Elliott, Moira, Esme, Katja. All of them. And I reflected even then that in a little less than a year those faces would be memories and nothing more. They had their lives, I had mine, and our paths would likely never cross again. For the most part that held true, even in this connected world of ours. I’m one of a seemingly few people not on Facebook so I have no idea what became of most of them. There’s a couple I keep up with now but the rest are just more memories; faces in a dusty yearbook, if that.

And it makes me think of a similar concert that fell nearly 13 years later to the day – November 24, 2004 to be exact – on the Pixies’ first of many reunion tours. A decade older, playing the “hits” despite never really having a “hit” when they were together in the first place (which should give us all pause to consider what makes a “hit” anyway). I went with a friend, just the two of us, and we had a great time. The band was on point, the crowd raucous. But standing there in that cavernous hall I wondered if any of the people I saw them with in 1991 were there too. I wondered how their lives were going, how they’d turned out. Were they happy? Were they in a good place. Did they remember me?

I never got an answer; if any were there our paths did not cross. After the show we all cleared out back to our cars and began the journey back to the present, back to our 2004 lives. Back to home. But that question, unanswered as it was in 2004, did find one in 2008, when I first got the idea for a comic book series called Mixtape. Mixtape changed my life; I stopped telling stories for others and started telling them for myself. Mixtape opened doors I didn’t realize were even there. It led to Magicians Impossible and all the other successes to follow. And those successes, right to the present with the Mixtape series, all can trace their lineage back to that special year.

The fact 1991 was 30 years ago reminds me that the once far-away year of 2050 is closer than 1991. Where will I be 29 years from now? Will I even be here? Will I even be here next year? I don’t know. None of us does. The last 30 years has taken away friends and family, teachers, classmates and colleagues. Nothing is guaranteed to us; not even tomorrow. I think that’s what makes the past the past, and why our thoughts return to days of yore; because it’s safe, because it’s known. Yet, through the things we loved – the movies, the music, the memories – those days still there. We know how the past ends. The future is frightening because none of us knows what the next day will bring. Looking at the state of the world today, the prognosis is not terribly positive. Sometimes in my darker moments I ponder whether or not I want to see another day, given the road ahead looks pretty dire.

But I keep at it. I keep plugging awy at work and at life, though as written about elsewhere the hard truth remains that while I still enjoy writing I don’t really enjoy being a “writer” and all that being a writer entails; promotion, appearances, the public side of it. So henceforth I am giving up on being a writer and focusing instead on writing. On showing up and doing the work. On being there for my family and for myself. That’s the big takeaway from 1991. That those years pass you by so fast and suddenly you’ve lived a lifetime without realizing it. It makes you want to cherish the days yet to come, because some day they’ll all be done.

Better Things

Well, it’s late September, and another summer has come and gone. The West Coast baked under record temperatures, and those of us on the Eastern Seaboard dubbed it the Wet Coast. I spent much of the summer working with Little Engine on our TV series adaptation of my Mixtape comic series, and are now in the process of taking it out to market.

To answer THAT question first: no, I don’t know when Mixtape the series will become a reality. I don’t know if it will become a reality. But come what may I am intensely proud of the work we’ve done and continue to do on it. There are a total of five completely new Mixtape stories in the world right now (sort of) and one way or another we’ll get them out there. For now though we just have to hold tight.


So that was my Summer 2021. In part … because the other notable thing that happened was my unplanned deep-dive into a decades old comic strip you may have heard of.

If you’re a person of a certain age, FBoFW was probably better known as “your mom’s favorite comic strip” because Lynn Johnston’s talent was finding familiar in the familiar everyday of middle-class life. Family vacations, making friends and losing them, grocery shopping, Halloween and Christmas, first jobs, first loves, starting college, finding true loves, true purpose. Stories also abounded about child abuse, workplace harassments, the death of parents and pets. All told with humor, grace, and honesty. 

FBoFW wasn’t afraid to be unabashedly Canadian either. The Patterson’s were a Canadian family. They celebrated Canada Day, the kids played hockey, mail came through Canada Post. School choir trips were to Ottawa, eldest son Michael attended Western University in London, Ontario. Family visits to Winnipeg and Vancouver occurred multiple times over the series. They bought their milk in plastic bags. That was at the insistence of Johnston, by the way, despite the urging of her syndicate who did press her on many occasions to “dial back” the Canadian stuff because apparently American readers only want to read about America. This is something that I, a writer who cut his professional teeth in Canada found imposed upon him more times that not. The hero of my next novel happens to be Canadian and that will not change.  

Yes, Canadian milk comes in bags. From Becker’s.


I spent the latter half of June and most of July rereading the strip, all collected in five columns (and counting) of IDW’s hardcover The Complete For better or For Worse. I actually read the five on Hoopla, the free digital comics app available through many public library systems in the US (not sure about Canada though). Reading (and in some cases re-reading) strips I was first exposed to in the daily and weekend newspaper (or clipped from said newspapers and adorning our refrigerator at home) was an experience not unlike time travel. Because FBoFW was identifiable for its time, 1979 is very much 1979, and 1995 (where the reprints are currently up to) very much feels like a mid-90s setting. FBoFW depicts the pre-internet, pre-millennial, pre-social-media era of the last two decades of the 20th century better than any movie or TV show I know of. Reading FBoFW as a parent now has been an even bigger eye-opener, seeing the behaviors of my now six year-old mirrored in the antics of a comic strip family that first occurred nearly forty years ago. 

It was that aspect, more than any other, that really brought home why I think FBoFW was a success, and still endures. FBoFW is a story that at its most basic is a story about the general decency and the inherent goodness of people. The conflicts are gentle ones, the aggrieved parties down to misunderstandings or an “off” day. Lynn did tackle bigger issues – and was in fact nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a story about a teenager’s coming out – I think it’s helpful to remember that decency and kindness rules the way. It’s good to divorce yourself from online chatter, outrage, comments, social media, algorithms designed to keep you engaged by keeping you in a state of anger against someone else. Not to say those forces aren’t out there, but in the end what do we as human beings want? To be loved. To be happy. To get through life.


FBoFW still runs in papers. When Johnston “retired” the strip in 2008 she opted to go back to the beginning and run the series from the beginning, all over again, updating it for more modern times. But the aesthetic is still there; that honesty, that gentleness of living your life. Some might complain that the world of FBoFW is too gentle, too nice, too “Canadian white middle-class” that doesn’t tackle Real Issues about Modern Life.*

But that’s … kind of the point. That’s what makes a story timeless, not tethered to a place in time. If FBoFW had gone all-in on criticism of Mulroney and Reagan, of the Free Trade Accords and Meech Lake, it wouldn’t have been as successful, as beloved as it is now. Part of the problem with the current wired social media don’t read the comments world of ours is it’s convinced those holders of minority opinions that theirs is, in fact, the majority. 

*A criticism that’s quite off base too. Johnston’s Pulitzer-nominated coming out of Michael’s friend Lawrence led to cancellations and angry letters, but given the choice Johnston said she would do it all over again. A late-run story with daughter Elizabeth teaching school in a First Nations community enlisted the aid of Anishinabek Nation elders to make sure she got the details just right. These efforts, I might add, at a time when it was not fashionable to tell stories of LGBTQ acceptance (the aformentioned coming-out story was inspired in part by the murder of one of Johnston’s close gay friends), or address the severely underfunded and neglected northern communities of Canada. And while the focus was on the typically white Canadian Pattersons, their world was occupied by beloved friends, family, teachers, and neighbors of all ethnic and minority status (not to mention featuring one of the first disabled recurring characters in any comic strip).


It’s fitting that I found myself rediscovering FBoFW while up to my neck in Mixtape again, which was the other pleasant part of the summer that was. Mixtape shares some similarity in FboFW; that fly-on-the-wall real-time progression. Rediscovering a world I first created in 2010 but hadn’t visited in some time, it was nice to get back to that familiarity, to see some old friends and rediscover some new ones. Mixtape TV is a much more expansive project than the comic, will our five mains of Jim, Siobhan, Lorelei, Terry, and Noel joined by a collection of new faces, new characters. I hope you all will get to meet Benny and Marco, Beth and Jenny, Steve and the many more populating that world. 

Living where we do, my family and I, I see a lot of ourselves in FBoFW. Our concerns, while vast and indeed global, still take a back-seat to the daily grind of making sure we’re fed and housed, that our child is cared for and knows above all he is loved by his mom and dad. That we can make a greater difference in our community, our few square blocks of suburbia, than anywhere else. They say think globally and act locally, and I think FBoFW was able to do both. By focusing on the trials, travails, joys, and sorrows of a typical family we were all able to see a little bit of ourselves and feel just a little less alone in this mad world. 

I’m finding as I get older that memories do fade over time, but more specifically memories of memories fade faster. Things that were much easier to recall ten years ago aren’t so much now. I’ve been finding this especially regarding Mixtape. When I began the comic series the events portrayed in it were barely twenty years old. Now they’re closer to thirty. And while I could mourn that loss of memory and passage of time I realize that you don’t so much lose memories as you fill that space with new ones. New experiences, new joys; fatherhood in particular has occupied space once taken up by memories of parties and dating, high school, college, the years that followed. I know in years to come those memories will fade, but hopefully what they’ll be replaced with will be even better. And if not, well, life is to be lived for better, for worse, and all between.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer (or, What I Do When I Don’t Have To Write)


I don’t.

Seriously.

If I don’t have to work I’m not going to work and if I don’t have to write I won’t write. This is as it should be but frequently isn’t. Because writers aren’t supposed to have time off. No, they must always be writing at all times. Holidays and vacations and time off is for less stressful occupations like brain surgeon or construction worker or drivers of trucks laden with dynamite up treacherous mountain roads. 

I prefer roads laden with cafes, preferably French ones

The “you must always be writing” BS is the type of BS you get fed when you’re young, the whole “you’re supposed to be tired and stressed out and miserable 24/7 bullshit” that just allows you to be exploited and abused by the people who engage your services. What’s that? You planned a weekend away at the cottage or cabin? We’ll guess what? Surprise weekend rewrite!

This was the life I lived the first five or so years of my professional career. Like Ponce de Leon I was Constantly On. Weekdays, weekends, holidays. Always. On. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, I told myself; a truly toxic attitude to have in all walks of life. You don’t sleep when you’re dead, you’re dead when you’re dead. And what do you leave behind, honestly? If you were by any small margin considered a success all you did was make other people wealthier than you ever were. 

On that note when the producers of the Mixtape series (whom I’ve known almost thirty years and are one of the rare positive working experiences I’ve had in the last 22) said it would take a bit to get back to me on the latest draft of the pilot and another episode, I said “great, I was hoping to spend next week at the pool anyway” and left it at that. And that’s what I did. 

I’ve come a long way, baby. One show I worked on a while back was based out of LA so they would always call unannounced to give notes when I was sitting down to dinner on the east coast. It got so annoying and predictive that after the first two times I stopped answering. Let them go to voice mail and deal with it the next day. Did they fire me? No. Did they start scheduling calls like normal people do? Yes. 

Now the only times I willingly visit LA is for vacations

“But Brad”, you say. “If you’re not Constantly On you can bet there’s going to be younger, hungrier writers waiting in the wings. If you make yourself unavailable they’ll just hire those young and hungrier writers.” To which I reply; “You’re absolutely right, and with time and experience those hungry young’uns learn the same lessons I did; that being a successful writer is as much about not writing as it is putting butt in chair and hammering the keys. It’s about the books you read, the movies you watch, the museums and art galleries you visit, the travels you take. It’s about hiking mountain trails, getting lost in strange new cities, it’s about surviving a week in a country where English is not the primary language. It’s about experience. Experiences make you a better writer and an all-around better human being.”

So I say eff it, take that holiday. Give yourself the week off. If they have a problem with it, if they threaten to fire you or hire someone to replace you they’re telling you in advance that they value your work so little that they’re already planning to screw you over anyway so eff them first. 

It says a lot that nearly a quarter century into this business I still find it difficult to unplug from work. Finishing a project nevere really means finishing it; there’s a part of it that will rattle about in your brain for weeks, if not months later (I.e. that second draft of the novel I finished writing in early April that I hope I can resume working on in September).

But it’s not as difficult to turn things off now as it used to be. I think fear of losing the plot threads keeps you anxious, and that isn’t always a bad thing. Until it becomes anxiety and you run risk of burning yourself out. I did that once early in my career and once I emerged from that spiral I vowed never again would I sacrifice health and well-being for work. I set a Monday-Friday schedule, I took my weekends off – I didn’t even turn the computer on – and found that not only did my work not suffer, it actually improved.

What also improved my word; getting far, far away from it. Like, Stockholm-far.

In the professional trenches you’re going to find no shortage of people who will engage in some kind of power play with you, just to see how much shit you’ll take from them. In my experience it’s always helped to be friendly and upbeat positive, yet establish boundaries. They want to talk; schedule it. They want work in progress pages; tell them a flat out no. You don’t want to be abrasive, but you don’t want to be a pushover either, pausing your dinner to take notes and have discussions. My computer shuts off at five in the afternoon every weekday. Earlier if I can manage it. I don’t p[ower it up until 8am the next morning. Anything that pops up after business hours can wait until business hours resume. 

The point I’m making here is for all you writers aspiring and otherwise out there in meatspace; you do yourself a greater service by not being available at any waking moment. Not answering the phone or email puts you in a power position. Answer them on their schedule they’ll expect it always. Make them wait they’ll get used to it.

I’m getting older, with hopefully many more healthy, productive years before me. Yet on the day I lie on my deathbed looking back on my life I’ll be really, really pissed off if all I remember is the work, the deadlines, the toxic years of needing to be Constantly On. Nobody goes to the grave wishing they’d worked more or earned more; I don’t need to be at the end of my life to realize that either.

Oslo at dusk: a hell of a lot more beautiful than staring at a screen.

What’s most important in life is to be happy, most would agree. But the things that make you happy can – and should – change. You should never settle for the road more traveled because it’s familiar—especially if something, someone, or a group of someones no longer serve you on that path. I turned a huge corner when I realized I didn’t need to work myself to the bone to be happy. I didn’t need to always produce or Always Be Closing. Hustle is important but at a certain point you reach a place where the return on that hustle diminishes to the degree where you’re just grinding metal. And while I can say, honestly, I don’t work as hard or as much as I used to, I feel I work better overall because of that.

So on that note I’m hopefully getting back into more regular updating this website again. Not because I feel I have to but because I want to and because I like to. We’re moving ever forward with the Mixtape TV series development, I have the aforementioned novel to resume work on, and there’s stil the matter of the week-long vacation coming up at the end of this month. I’ll also be launching my much-delayed newsletter this fall, so keep watching this space.