Celluloid Heroes Part V: All Out Of Bubblegum

[This is part five in an ongoing series titled Celluloid Heroes. You may read parts One, Two, Three, and Four at the links]

The Parkedale Cinema in Brockville, Ontario was one of those small, independent theaters that today is a rare beast if not already extinct. The 90s and early 2000s killed many of the independents. When the bigger chains like AMC and Regal in the US, Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon in Canada consolidated and built new movie palaces boasting surround sound, stadium seating, and twelve dollar bags of popcorn the little guys just couldn’t compete. In my case once my friends and I reached driving range and had access to a car we’d choose make the trek to nearby Kingston forty-five minutes down the highway to see a movie at the Cataraqui Town Center or Princess Street Cinema rather than at the Parkedale. The seats were more comfortable, the sound was state of the art, and we had much greater selection than a single cinema with two screens could veer offer us.

But despite its remoteness the Parkedale was somewhat tuned into the movie going scene, doing their best to grab new releases whenever they came out, and especially if they were teen oriented. Some movies arrived there on opening day, like A Nightmare on Elm Street Part IV: The Dream Warriors, which I saw twice that weekend, not because it was any good but because, and let’s be honest here, there wasn’t much else going on that weekend. Others like Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, and much later on, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgement Day arrived well after me and my other friends had driven to Kingston and the good theaters to see both. Some I desperately wanted to see, like Robocop, Do The Right Thing, Wild At Heart, and Drugstore Cowboy, never arrived at all. And if you missed it in the theater you had no choice but to wait for the video release six-to-nine months later.

The Parkedale was, as they say, a crap-shoot. You never knew what would be playing there until the Thursday edition of The Brockville Recorder & Times arrived and you could read the listings. If it was something good or at least interesting you made your plans. And so it was on November 4, 1988 when my high school pal Casey said “there’s a Roddy Piper movie playing at the Parkdale and we’re going.”

The movie, of course, was They Live. “John Carpenter’s They Live” to be more precise, as Carpenter directed and wrote the film (the latter role under the pseudonym “Frank Armitage”) based on a 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock In The Morning” by Ray Nelson. And while my assorted group of friends who took our seats at the Parkedale was likely there for WWF legend Rowdy Roddy Piper whooping’ ass, for me They Live was all about the man behind the camera. And the movie that unfolded before our amazed eyes was far from the “dumb sci-fi film” critics then accused it of being, and even our fifteen year-old brains could see that – even without the sunglasses.

I was of course all-in because it was Carpenter and I was well-versed in his films by that point. They Live wasn’t the first John Carpenter movie I ever saw; that would have been Starman in 1984, followed by The Thing, which I caught a surprisingly unedited version of on a “free HBO weekend” in 1986. I certainly knew his name, thanks to many newspaper and TV ads dubbing a film as being “from the mind of John Carpenter.” And frankly, it must be said that few filmmakers have ever had as impressive a run of films as Carpenter. I would certainly put his ten years’ filmography beginning with 1978’s Halloween and ending with 1988’s They Live up against any other filmmaker’s oeuvre. I caught all of his movies on video, and Carpenter, like David Cronenberg is one of those filmmakers I fell in love with because of video because I could watch The Fog and The Brood, Prince of Darkness and The Dead Zone over and over again. Home video opened up the world of film to a kid born too late and growing up too young to experience these darker, edgier films in the theater. Home video was my real education in film and filmmaking as it was for my entire generation.

To dismiss Carpenter as an overrated yet undeniably talented journeyman would mean to dismiss The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, and Prince of Darkness among those two landmarks. And who in their right mind could do that? Carpenter was one of those names that stirred the loins of the sci-fi-fantasy-horror fan so much so when someone just said “Carpenter, Craven, and Cronenberg” we knew they meant John, Wes, and David. Carpenter’s work remains a singular experience; tense, terse suspenseful, action-punctuated but never driven works that reflect his highly unique world-view.

The French consider Carpenter one of the great auteurs of cinema, and they’re not wrong. Just look at a Carpenter film and you’ll be able to tell who was behind the camera. His stately widescreen compositions, distinctive electronic scores, his reparatory company of familiar faces from Kurt Russell, Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance, to character actors like Peter Jason, Darwin Jostin, Nancy Loomis and, of course, the incomparable George “Buck” Flower. Carpenter’s characters all perform the impressive feat of being actual people, and not archetypes. People who drink, smoke, curse, and belch. Ones who don’t observe and comment on what they are facing with post-modern ironic detachment. A Carpenter world is one where the system is broken, where the rules no longer apply, where we truly are on our own.

Carpenter’s best films are all about that breakdown in order, from with the decrepit, malfunctioning starship Dark Star, the under-assault Precinct 13, and Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night. We see that world-view continue through the spectral, vengeful visitors of The Fog, the apocalyptic winner-takes-all landscape of Escape From New York, and the demonic force residing at the heart of Prince of Darkness. Even the comical Big Trouble In Little China portrays a world of magic residing alongside normal everyday San Francisco. In Carpenter Land the police and government are your enemy, money is your god, and you will not be saved.

As we discovered in Carpenter’s 1987 feature Prince of Darkness …

As They Live began to a percussive strum of music by Carpenter and collaborator Alan Howarth, we meet John Nada (Piper), drifting into Los Angeles with a backpack slung over his shoulder, seeking work. Far from the promised land, the California of Los Angeles recalls that of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”; a place of dreams and not much else. This is certainly by design, as the laconic, taciturn Nada shares more than a few similarities with the soft-spoken Tom Joad. He’s a working man. A laborer. Someone who came from a nice middle-class world, with a job, and presumably a family at some point. Then Reagan happened, and you will not find a more scathing indictment of Reagan America this side of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street not to mention the actual street. The America of They Live uncannily resembles the America of today, with homeless addicts wandering the streets, with tent cities springing up at the edges of gleaming metropolises, with legions of working poor and homeless putting in a hard day of labor and returning home to their cars and trucks, if they’re so lucky to even have wheels. You can call it “Nightmerica” but it is very real, and already with us, like we’ve been living in the sequel They Live never received.

The creeping dread of life in the 80s of Reagan America for many was certainly obfuscated by the Cold War rhetoric. As hard as life was for the less than affluent, at least it wasn’t the Soviet Union, we were told. “Go to Russia if you don’t like it” we were also told. Bruce Springsteen may have been onto something when he sang Born In the USA; a “patriotic” song that, if you pay attention to the lyrics, is anything but. And Reagan up and co-opted it for his 1984 campaign for re-election.

Like Predator the enemy of They Live is at first unseen, but we all know it’s there. We can’t avoid it in the trash-strewn streets, the homeless camps being bulldozed, the LAPD kitted out in riot gear and helmets making them recall the Stormtroopers of Star Wars. Perhaps the biggest kick in the reveal that this world is being run by Alien Yuppies, essentially, is our reaction of “of course it is!” But Carpenter doesn’t let us off that easily. Yes, these unnamed aliens are here to terraform our planet, producing greenhouse gasses to make our world into one of theirs, and make money along the way. But they couldn’t do it without human cooperation and collaborators. George “Buck” Flower’s unnamed drifter and Meg Foster’s TV news executive Holly willingly aid the aliens for personal gain, but so too do the possibly unknowing police, government officials, and everyday citizens, turning a blind eye to the injustices all around them as long as their 401K remains solid and the values of their suburban homes appreciate. Even in “Commie-fornia” cash is king and wealth rules all.

They Live remains prophetic especially in an early scene where Nada and Frank (Keith David) are talking after work, reminiscing of how life used to be. They know something is rotten in the state of California because it’s rotten everywhere. Frank has family in Detroit; Nada has been riding the rails ever-westward all the way to Los Angeles and finds there’s no more America to go to. This is the wandering class of Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland wrapped up in the guise of a “dumb” sci-fi film that’s anything but. The two sit there at the edge of the encampment housing many of the working poor and gaze out on the glittering skyline of downtown Los Angeles. Frank is skeptical; as a black man from the mean streets of Detroit he can’t afford Nada’s laconic optimism.

“The whole deal’s like some kind of crazy game,” he tells Nada. “They put you at the starting line; the name of the game is ‘Make it through life.’ Only everybody is out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time.”

But Nada still has hope. He still if he works hard, keeps his head down, that his fortunes will turn. “I believe in America,” he says, “I follow the rules. Everybody has got their own hard times these days.” To Nada the American Dream still holds merit. That it still holds promise. That you just need to get off your butt and do something. And we want to believe him. The movies have long taught us the American Dream is the gift afforded all who draw breath on American – and Canadian – soil. The two countries are so intertwined culturally that to grow up Canadian meant also to grow up on American television and music and music videos. Canada’s motto of “Peace, Order, and Good Government” doesn’t have the same ring as “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” but they both speak to the same truth that yes these things are possible, but not necessarily for everyone.

They Live is about finding out the American Dream is a lie. That we’re the ones dreaming of a better tomorrow that will not come. It takes strange television broadcasts in the realm of Brian O’Blivion’s in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – a film that shares more than just a few similarities with Carpenter’s film – and a pair of sunglasses that allow the wearer to literally see the truth staring them in the face for Nada and us to finally wake up. Wandering awe-struck down a busy Los Angeles street he gazes at billboards with ominous messages like “Obey” and “Consume” and “Watch Television”. Radar dishes broadcast signals repeating the same word over again; “sleep.” And he sees aliens. Bug-eyed, blue-skinned skulls in yuppie suits. Going about their day browsing the news stand and shopping at the grocery store. Living their version of the American Dream. Now Nada can see them … and they can see him too.

They Live uses a simple genre story to expose a much darker truth. That the aliens are already here and they own stock. They exist purely to profit off the misery of the weak and powerless. Those “powerless” – the downtrodden, the homeless, the desperate – are ready now to fight back. But to do so they need others to see what they do. That the reality of their situation is not what it seems.

They Live’s most infamous sequence – that six minutes alleyway brawl between Nada and Frank over a pair of those sunglasses that allows the wearer to see – underlines that theme. The two men beat the living hell out of each other, battering each other near senseless until Nada’s victory comes only because he and Frank are too exhausted to fight any longer and he slips the glasses onto his opponent’s face. Nada, who used to believe if he worked hard that life would reward him, has seen the big lie that Frank wants to hide from. Despite all his cynicism deep down Frank believes in America and in its promise. But this is Carpenter Land and help is not coming for any of us.

The fight, as over-the-top as it is because when you have Roddy Piper and Keith David you go to Movie jail if you don’t use them effectively serves multiple purposes like any great scene does. It’s these two stubborn, ideologically opposed men – the cynic and the optimist – reversing roles and neither backing down as they tussle. It’s a turning point in the story but also in their character’s journeys. Nada believed in the American Dream before exposing its lie. Frank believed in the game being rigged from the starting line and now has to face the even more horrifying truth that he’s been right all along. That the game is rigged … so now what?

Naturally they join the underground rebellion to fight back. It’s a boilerplate Hollywood ramping up of the story. They arm themselves, they find allies, they are, to paraphrase Nada’s and They Live’s most quoted line, ready to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and they’re all out of bubblegum.” But this is a John Carpenter film. Hope is not in the cards. The rebellion is crushed, Nada and Frank infiltrate the aliens’ broadcast center and are both of them betrayed, but not before Nada destroys their transmitter, terminating the signal that obfuscates the aliens and their messages from an unsuspecting human populace, giving them and by extension the world a final, parting middle finger.

With the transmitter destroyed, the people emerge from their technologically induced dream-state and the movie ends with a final darkly funny joke which I won’t spoil here. But we don’t know what happens next. If it was a typical Hollywood ending the humans would rise up, and take their planet back in a rah-rah display of jingoism and might as right. But this is Carpenter Land and the more likely result would be “yes, aliens, but will overthrowing them affect my investments?”

They Live was a total romp for my friends and I; the perfect film for fifteen year-olds everywhere. On exiting the Parkedale a brisk hundred or so minutes later all of us thought we’d seen one of the great sci-fi films. They Live was a modest hit, earning $13 million off its $3 million budget and earning even more on home video and my friends and I likely contributed to that haul because when They Live hit home video the following year we rented it, made popcorn and gathered the troops to watch it, either for the first time or, like us, again.

We didn’t realize then that They Live would be Carpenter’s swan-song; not as a filmmaker but rather one finely attuned to what life in the 80s was rapidly becoming. Not that he stopped making movies until some time later; in the 21st century he made two more – Ghosts of Mars and The Ward and a couple of “Masters of Horror” TV episodes before calling it a day. But his post-They Live output felt less essential, less prescient as the 80s became the 1990s. Memoirs of an Invisible Man and his remake of Village of the Damned did not impress, and while I myself hold a very soft of spots In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires, given a choice I’d rather be watching The Fog or Escape From New York.

Yet again we cannot deny They Live’s power. It took thirty years or so for the world to open its eyes, to wake up and find ourselves living in the world John Carpenter warned us about; a world where we work longer hours for less pay and a future that looks increasingly bleak.

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 –-


— 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)


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.


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.


“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.


“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.


— 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 …

Build High

It’s hard to believe three years ago we were living in a much different world.

This is no exaggeration, for life in 2023 is a lot different than it was on March 13, 2020 when the first of the Covid lockdowns began. A world before masks, before social distancing, before Zoom meetings, before antivaxxers and trucker convoys all became part of the lexicon.

Or, as Galadriel said in the beginning of The Lord of The Rings;

The world has changed.

I see it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.

Much that once was is lost.

For none now live who remember it.

Well, that last bit may not be completely true, but it’s hard to recall a time before all that happened actually happened. Even going to the movies has changed. I have been back in theaters, but nowhere near the frequency I used to. Going through last year’s receipts for taxes revealed to me that after seeing Top Gun: Maverick in early July of 2022, the next time my butt planted itself in a movie theater seat was to see Avatar: The Way Of Water on December 31st of the same year. That’s roughly six months time in-between movie showings.

Spoiler: I liked it!

I used to go to the movies once a week, more or less. Sometimes more than that.

So that changed.

And it seems change just keeps on coming. Rapid change. Everyone in my business is talking about AI and Chat GPT rendering huge swaths of the creative business unemployable. But while I do worry somewhat, until an AI is capable of yanking the pencil out of my hand* and writing something that doesn’t sound like it was written by a computer I can comfortably hold the line.**

*Though if I were say an editor, an agent, or a development executive I would be VERY worried.

**and if you really want to know what I think about CHAT GPT/AI, let me just say the general rule of thumb for me is if Silicon Valley tech bros backed by their hedge fund vampire overlords are for it, it’s bad for you and should be avoided at all costs.

At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote this popular entry on this website about how to cope with working from home. The rules I outlined were pretty succinct. I’d also add that part of what helped me successfully navigate the pandemic with only a few rough anxiety-filled months in total, was following those rules … and one other thing …

That’s right; I’m going to talk about Lego.

Specifically what this modular brick building system taught me about life.

It began, interestingly enough, with this set;

It was a Christmas gift given to me in 2017 – the last Christmas I spent in NYC. It promptly went into the closet because I told myself I didn’t have time to build this set, and nowhere to display it where a toddler couldn’t reach it and thusly return a 1,969 piece set back to its component parts. I received it at Christmas 2017. It accompanied us from New York to New England in 2018 and remained in the closet storage space until March 2022 when I saw it there, confronted myself with the fact I wasn’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon because everything was closed, and decided there was no time like then and there to start building the thing.

It was probably the most fun I’d had sticking little bricks together.

It took about two weeks to build. I didn’t rush things. I opened one bag of pieces a day (12 bags in total – this thing is huge). And at first it barely resembled its finished product. But as I sat there piecing white and black bricks together I entered what I would call a Zen state. Maybe not Zen but I reflected on the past, on my life. My trip to Cape Canaveral to see the Challenger on its launch pad less than a month before it exploded shortly after takeoff in January 1986. Two separate trips to Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama. I think of repeated viewings of The Right Stuff. I thought of a lot of things and when the rocket was constructed and put on display I had been well and directly bitten by the Lego bug.

It happened slowly from there. We spied a Hogwarts Express set on sale at Target and as our child was very much into trains back then, decided to buy it and assemble it for him, and thus provide him with countless hours of playtime. More sets followed; mostly for him, some for my wife, some for me. Lego City trains and construction equipment, Jurassic Park and Jurassic World sets, a Lego Creator London Double Decker Bus, multiple Star Wars sets, and so on …

I think a line was crossed when, after the lockdowns had subsided and we were at one of the local malls, after browsing their Lego store for a bit, I ended up spur-of-the-moment-ing a purchase of this nice Batman 1966 set:

But what has all of this Lego building taught me?

That it all starts with one piece connected to the other. It can be the first two pieces of a 200 piece set or the first two of a 2000 piece set.

That’s probably my favorite part of the journey with every set I’ve built. However big or small the set is, it all begins the same way; that first small step.

Like any writing project, home improvement project, like any task to complete that sometimes seems unsurmountable, it all begins with that first connection. Small wonder my favorite parting is frequently the first page or so, when it’s just beginning to roll forward.

It also has taught me a lesson more people could stand to learn.

Here’s an example. At the beginning of the previous month, Lego released this;

In case you don’t know, this is Rivendell, the Elvish refuge from The Hobbit and LOTR. One of my favorite books, possibly my favorite movie trilogy (sorry Star Wars). It’s beautiful. 15 minifigs, impressive design, interiors and exterior. Detailed in every way you could imagine. An iconic location from one of the great novels of the 20th century.

It’s also $500.00


I can go admire it in the box at the store, but I can’t spend that much on a set. Not that I don’t have the money; I don’t have the space either.

And you know what? That’s okay.

Life is frequently about not getting things you want. You can be upset by that fact but believe it or not it’s actually a good thing. It’s not unjust or unfair, it simply is what it is.

I’ve been down this road before. A couple years ago my Lego holy grail was this Star Wars set, the Mos Eisley Cantina.

It was a more reasonable amount of money, but again, space considerations killed that dream. Sure I could buy it, I could build it, but where would I put it?

Of course if I had a much larger home I would have the space for Mos Eisley, and Rivendell, and maybe this Titanic set. But I’d also have higher monthly costs, for heat, for electricity, property taxes, mortgage, all the adult stuff.

I’ve since scaled back on my Lego builds, preferring smaller sets, like this nifty Aston Martin DB5 from No Time To Die that includes a Daniel Craig as James Bond minifig.

Though I did splurge for this BTTF DeLorean time machine for sentimental reasons. If you’ve read my Celluloid Heroes series you’ll know why. If not you can do so here.

In the end, while we can all aspire to greater things, I think far too few of us appreciate what we do have. You can complain about the cost of Lego sets. Or you can just find something in your budge (that Aston Martin cost only $22.00).

It’s like steak; tasty, but expensive and really, maybe not being able to afford it every day or week is a good thing. Healthier too. My anxiety has dropped substantially and I credit both Lego and appreciating the smaller things in life to be a factor.

Building Lego also taught me some lessons about work. Well, maybe not taught but certainly reinforced. For if a Lego set begins with one brick connected to another, so too does writing begin with that first word, then the next, connecting letters and words to sentences and paragraphs and thoughts and ideas.

Writing takes a long time to do, and a lot longer to get right. but a little patience and perseverance goes a long way. Sometimes the only way.

Our journey through this life proceeds in one direction; forward. How you spend that journey is up to you. But if there’s anything the pandemic, that Lego, that life has taught me it’s that the view ahead of you looks a lot more appealing than the road you’ve travelled. Behind you is accomplishment; before you is the promise of something else. Something new. 

So what are you waiting for? Get building!