Thursday, March 8, 2018

Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

Yes, well, the ad did say ‘driver needed,’ but what we’re looking for now is someone who can drive and do the mixing.”


Yeah, mixing the dough for the bread.”

And when does the mixing shift start?”




Sure, I guess I’ll give it a try. I wouldn’t mind learning a little bit about the process.”

I stepped outside. The air, as usual, was mild, cold air coming down from the mountains, colliding with the temperate air from the ocean, but, outside the bakery, there was a definite haze of flour in the air. Unconsciously, I rubbed the palms of my hands on my pants to clean them off, got on my bike and rode the seven blocks back home.

How’d it go?”

Good, I guess. They seem to want to hire me, only they sorta’ sprang this mixing thing on me.”


Yeah. It’s production. Basically, the person who comes in the middle of the night to get things started. The shift starts at 3.”


Yeah. There didn’t seem to be any way around it. Basically, they told me if I wanted the job, I’d have to be available to do the mixing as well. Who knows, maybe it’ll be interesting?”

Yeah, but 3...”

I know. Listen, I didn’t really have a choice.”

I got the job and it started in a week. My first day, I had to be in at 4:30. I knew, eventually, I’d adjust to the early hours and then I’d have the whole afternoon off. I could go to the beach or ride my bike back into the forest. I could take more advantage of the natural beauty of the place. After living in a heat-scorched, shadeless, concrete and steel-built town in the tropics for the last year, I was ready for something less intense, a place I could go out, find a bench and be a natural part of. When it’s not raining, the Pacific Northwest provides some pretty peaceful refuges and I was looking forward to taking advantage of them. Revitalizing myself after being savaged by sweltering streets during the day and by unmuffled phalanxes of motorbikes screeching through the sleepless jungle night. I wanted to stop up my ears with cool ferns, nuzzle the loamy roots of the redwoods and relax.

Chirp, chirp chirp, squAAAAwk!” I’d set my alarm to ‘birdsong 1,” but the incongruity of such a lively aviary chorus with the black sky outside was more discordant than the standard alarm buzz would have been. My alarm was set for 3:45 and, knowing there was no other way, I rolled out of bed, into the freezing house and stumbled through the kitchen, fumbling at the oven knobs to start the water for coffee. I had just enough time to brew a thermos, stand next to the heater, take a few sips and get on my bike for the ride to work.

The dregs of the night were cold, like all the freezing sediment had collected at the bottom, as the last touches of starry darkness pulled back from the horizon, revealing a cerulean band at the top of the mountains. The bakery was already warm with the action of rising dough and bâtards fresh from the oven, cooling on the racks. I shuffled into place and began loading baguettes and boules for shipment. It was fast-paced and I kept getting in the way, but it wasn’t overwhelming. When everything was ready, we loaded the van racks, slammed the doors and drove south on the verge of the sand dunes. The boss was training me, but it was a sleepy hour and neither of us said anything as we drove along, slurped our coffee and watched the sky over the mountains blush with the rising dawn. The moisture rose in smoky streaks as if from small, isolated forest fires.

I trained on delivery driving for two weeks. At first, the routes seemed complex, but I knew eventually, I would remember them and my first day out alone, I did fine. Compared to my last delivery job, the tempo was much more relaxed. The obstacles of San Francisco hills, one-way streets and traffic had all been removed. There was also no strict time limit, so I didn’t feel like I had to rush. I was a little tired in the afternoons, more than I’d expected, but I managed to get a little done and I didn’t mind going to bed around 9. It was only a little earlier than my normal bedtime. In short, things were working out then, one day, the schedule changed, my driving shifts were gone. They’d all been replaced by ‘mixing’ shifts, five-in-a-row, all starting at the impossibly small hour of 3am.

Well, it’s not like I hadn’t been warned. The night before, I planned to hit the hay around 7, but I kept getting delayed by little things and by the time I got into bed, it was almost 8. Setting my alarm, I realized I only had about 6 hours to sleep if I wanted to get up and make coffee before leaving. Of course, knowing this only served to make sleep that much more elusive. I sought a peaceful position in vain and flopped back and forth until nine o’clock, obsessed with the idea of salvaging some sleep. I refused to open my eyes, no matter how inclined they were to disobey the order. I set myself in one position, no longer willing to indulge the idea that I might be more comfortable on my back or stomach. It was side or nothing. My fidelity worked, gradually, the lucidity drained from my thoughts, I lingered in a hypnogogic state for a moment and then passed into unconsciousness.

Tweet, tweet squAAwk!” At the alarm, I opened my eyes and the rarefied air of the middle of the night burned my corneas. I felt the sick alertness one feels upon being woken far too early. I scrambled up from a sleep that didn’t even seem to have sunk anywhere near as profound as REM. I switched off the alarm and started for the frigid kitchen. I felt raw and motionsick, like I’d stayed too long at the beach at day before. I stood before the gradually thawing stove, watching the leaden coils color and glow under the kettle. I drank my coffee feeling nothing. No warmth, texture or flavor, just a featureless substance, no different from the empty air around me. I put my jacket on, stepped out into the dark rain, brushed my bike seat off and set off, wincing, for the bakery.

The moon was up and the horizon was coal black to match the vault of sky overhead. The clouds covered the stars, daubed at the moon. The rain dripped down my hair, over my nose and splashed on my petulant lower lip. I squinted hard into the rain and rode faster. It was so late, some people hadn’t even gone to bed yet and second story windows glowed with the efforts of insomnia, televisions flickered, reading lamps shed their frowsy, citrus light.

The bakery was the only building in town with the door open. All the lights were blazing, music, something jammy, that sounded like the Grateful Dead, was flailing from the speakers. The coffee pot was cold. There was nothing to do but clock in and go hide in the bathroom. Two guys with beards, presumably the night bakers, eyed me, but did not respond to my greetings, probably unable to even hear me above the damn Jerry Garcia tribute and the dimensional divide (sleeping and waking) that separated us. It’s always an interesting thing when the night brings together those who have already slept and woken with those who haven’t yet gone to sleep. As such, it’s the only truly liminal time of the day, when people can be on either side of the Dateline.

I stood in the bathroom, trying to regain my poise for a while, hoping the beards would turn off the damn Phish, String Cheese or whatever the hell it was. I looked at myself in the mirror. I had the face of a scowling nonagenarian. My eyes, rimmed red, my face already dusted with flour. I thought about splashing myself with water, but, no, I was already too cold.

When I came out from hiding in the bathroom, the boss had already arrived. The beards switched off the yodeling guitars and the corny lyrics about riding trains and the bakery was blessedly quiet for a minute. I followed my boss over to two large mixing machines and six or seven five and ten-gallon buckets. She began to collect disparate clipboards, tubs, scoops, timers, graphs, scales and assorted papers from around the room. Each one almost hidden away in some nonsensical place. Binders appeared from under racks, papers appeared from drawers of scoops and scrapers, certain important papers were lying in plain sight on the mixing table. I wondered aloud if they were always to be found just, you know, sitting on the table like that. The answer was too complex to follow. It was as if a complex algorithm needed to be followed to determine where the papers would be at any given time, as for the clipboards, such instruments as sextets and astrolabes wouldn’t be unheard of to determine their location, it seemed.

When all these instruments were piled around the two massive mixing cauldrons, the boss began to combine them in the most opaque ways.

To make sour dough,” the boss began, yelling over the whirring of myriad fans and generators.You’ll need to do a leave of six. You can see that from this chart here, but that’s only because you have the temperature from a factor of six—“

How did you find that? I asked pointing to a number that had appeared as if by alchemy.

Here,” the boss said, pointing to a flour-dusted chart affixed to the wall, showing a 7X7 table of numbers, none of which seemed to have any bearing on what we were doing.

And why did we need that?” I hazarded, hoping another question, would clarify the first, but this only yielded another binder, holding leaves of paper so old and floury as to be nearly translucent. The boss pointed to another number which seemed all but imaginary. She looked at me to see if I understood, rather than dig myself any deeper, I nodded vaguely. “OK,” I said. But she called my bluff.
Do you know where that number came from? She asked.

I, uh, I think so.” I tried, but, no, this wasn’t a satisfactory answer and I was bombarded by three more pages, each again coming from a different part of the room and covered in tables of obscure numbers, none of them complete integers. No familiar Roman or even Greek characters to ascribe a value to any of them, just numbers upon numbers, as if, by sheer volume they had managed to accumulate some kind of meaning. I nodded, dizzily. “Ohh. OK.” I said and, thankfully, the demonstration continued.

The numbers and flour swirled around me. I started machines and stopped others, stirring obscure amounts of flour and water before adding other, even less certain amounts of salt, yeast and/or buckets of starter. Some of which, we’d made earlier. I knew I’d been there an hour and a half when I heard the drivers come in to pack up for their runs. As I listened to them pack, talk and joke, I became aware of a consuming envy. Soon, they would be climbing in their vans and driving off along the coast, needing only to roll down their windows to listen to the roar of the early morning surf and the susurrations of fog dripping through the redwoods. They’d stop into restaurants and supermarkets, trundling loaves and baguettes of sweet-smelling bread. Back in their vans, they’d eat day-old pastries and drink freshly brewed coffee and smile as the world rolled out like a tapestry beneath their delivery van wheels. All for the same rate of pay as I was making using a paint scraper to chip old dough off while, simultaneously preparing dry mixes for the night crew, mixing sweet dough and getting more fifty-pound flour bags from the store room and, any second now, that other mixer is going to stop and I’m going to have to weigh out that dough in 2 bins of 20.19 lbs, 1 bin of 9.48 lbs and three bins of 32.02, or, if there’s not enough for all three, two bins of 32.02 and one bin of ‘leave three,’ and then change the other bin to 17.55 to even things out. There were so many steps, sub-steps, sub-sub-steps and micro-steps, a dedicated statistician couldn’t have figured it all out.

You’d think with the myriad tasks, I would’ve been kept busy enough not to notice the clock, but somehow, I had just enough downtime between tasks to glance up at the moon-faced bastard from time to time and read his arduous report of the day’s progress. All the duties packed in together meant while I was doing ten things at once, I was also making little headway into my shift, despite all that I’d already accomplished. I vainly waited for a break in the monotonous, but complex labor. There was always something to do. Every time a task was completed, there was another which had already been put off too long, requiring immediate attention. My sore muscles cried out, while the convolutions of my brain eroded to a glistening smoothness to which no new information could stick. I labored, I listened to the instructions from the boss, but I thought of nothing. A draft horse would’ve paid better attention. I was a mule, working on and on, having even lost the hope of finishing some day. Meanwhile, the numbers, forms and charts continued to come into play with all the complexity of the assembly of a particle accelerator.

This laborious agony was occasionally broken up with spells of ‘shaping’ where the dough came out of a machine which separated it into 12 or 24 even pieces, it needed quick pre-shaping to proof. The shaping varied in complexity, but, no matter how simple, I was unable to do any of them correctly. Each time a hunk of dough came to me, I watched in horror as my inept hands twisted, yanked and pulled it into something that looked like it would’ve been better off going through the blades of a lawnmower. In my incapable hands, the dough was rendered, tough, unpliable and overly floured. Any one of my creations would’ve failed as a dog treat and, had they resembled something, probably would’ve best served as the lumpy Christmas ornaments children make with dough that are painted and shellacked. The rolls, which required nothing more than to be folded and tucked, somehow took on the shape of abominations, twisted, rolled and flattened out of proportion with anything edible. As if this wasn’t humiliating enough. My co-workers, continually tried to cheer me up by saying, with each aborted attempt, ‘this one looks better,’ or; ‘I think you’re getting the hang of it.’ All this after each boule, roll or bâtard came out looking like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I pleaded with my eyes, ‘please, spare me any further humiliation,’ but the worse my attempt, the brighter the praise. The ordeal was so embarrassing, I longed to return to my doughy cauldrons, mind-crippling numbers and 50-pound bags.

I never took a lunch and only once in the 8-hour day, did I have a moment to sit down and take a few devastated gulps of cold coffee. The shift ended abruptly, there was no wind-down. One minute, I was engaged in 13 separate tasks and the next, each was finished and the shift was over. I nodded my head in dim recognition of my manumission and stumbled out the door into the blinding afternoon sun.

I did this for three days and each day, my hints to management became more desperate. By the end, I was begging to be taken off this duty. Normally I’m a hard-worker. I take my job as it comes. The last time I did manual labor, I worked a few 12-hour days with nary a peep of complaint. At the end of the day, I had my beer and fell asleep in my dinner like a decent hard-working man, but this was too much. The terrifying possibility that I would be doing this work for weeks, months and even years made my head spin. Sure, maybe I’d get used to it, but what kind of person would I be if I did? Would I have room in my brain left for anything else after I’d taught myself how to do an impromptu leave-2 for a twelve divide of the sour dough? Probably not. And, as the day loomed closer when I’d be taken off training and left to my own devices, I grew more and more anxious. It was fugue in there. I couldn’t remember anything. At 3am, I stumbled into the bakery and waited to be told what to do, nothing registered; there was too much going on to write anything down and so many processes, I knew I’d have to write in shorthand to get any of it down, or else bring a video camera and review the tapes nightly. No, there was no use anticipating it. It was going to be an unparalleled disaster. None of the bread was going to roll out of the bakery that afternoon after my first shift alone. The delivery drivers were going to have to go without their aural bounty of sand, surf and glistening conifer. When my gnarled, unleavened and improperly mixed loaves came off the line, the entire staff was going to shudder and turn their heads away, refusing to touch or bag such abominations. Even the farmers who came to get the day-old stuff for their livestock weren’t going to want these things. Deep down, I nursed the hope that maybe then they’d see I’d hadn’t been exaggerating and take me off the mixing shift. In the meantime, I did what I could to keep my head above water.

After my third day of training, I had bashed my last baguette into a broken ouroboros when a coworker told me to find the manager and ask if I had any more work before taking off. I wearily climbed the stairs to the office, leaving floury footprints on the carpet. Flour-dusted, bone-weary and red-eyed, I must’ve cut a pathetic figure, so pathetic, in fact, the bosses looked up, took in the sight of my hunched frame and told me to come in Wednesday to check the schedule; they had decided to take me off mixing. I’d remain a driver and a driver alone. Luckily my exhaustion limited my celebration to the confines of decency. I wheezed an exultant ‘thank you’ and shuffled out into the daylight, a renewed man. Already, I could hear the Pacific mists rolling up from the beaches and snagging on the pampas grass and coastal pine along my delivery route where I would deliver the bread I now had an extraordinary appreciation for.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The First Day of Autumn

The summer before sixth grade, someone discovered that Angie Belotti had a trampoline in her backyard and that she didn’t mind if we used it. This came as a revelation because that was the same summer we ran out of stuff to do. I think every kid has a finite amount of things to do and discover before their childhood is over, like a very long scavenger hunt list. At three or four, the list of things you haven’t discovered is so long, you can’t turn around without hitting one. The world is an astounding mystery to you. How people manage to function in such a confusing landscape of fences, hose-bogged lawns, seamed sidewalks, worms, tennis shoe soles, paint cans and gravel driveways is thoroughly beyond your purview. How people are able to speed through this world without being distracted by all these snaring details is impossible to apprehend. But, as you get older, the shine begins to wear off. Finding the toys in the sandbox is no longer the treasure hunt it once was. Now, for fun, you start throwing and breaking things; the things themselves no longer being interesting enough, you need to manipulate them somehow, experiment on them, see how greatly they can be changed before they no longer resemble their original shape. Stories expand here from uncertain and linear narratives to great composite things that draw reference from multiple sources. You realize there’s an alternative to what you’ve come to understand as the truth and you experiment with the gray area around it, especially when it’s going to get you in trouble as it often seems to at this stage. Now we’re getting to the end of the list, and one day, after 11 or 12 years (probably earlier for girls) you pluck a certain kind of leaf from a certain kind of tree, twirl it between your fingers and that’s it. That was the last thing on your list. Oh sure, there are still all kinds of things you haven’t done, but finishing the list doesn’t mean trying everything that can be experienced, it’s only about compiling enough experience for reference. After it’s done, nothing will have that same shine, at least nothing quotidian.

My list ended the summer I bounced with the shaky, spring twang of Angie’s trampoline. My friends and I from the Four-Fourty Fields subdivision had spent half of our summer skulking among the decorative rocks in the landscaped median of Lexington Street, waiting for the last experience on our lists but being too indolent to really go out and look for it. It was obvious from their superior attitudes, that some kids in our group had already finished their lists. They had a way of acting much more bored than the rest of us and they talked about sex more, which became something of an addendum to their canceled lists. In the years to come, they would cling to sex, and later, I think, drugs, because, now that they were finished, they were terrified of what they’d seen on the other side: One long summer afternoon stretching out into eternity, just a smooth plane of time, nothing to break the monotony, tabula rasa, fill it as you will. Of course, this disillusionment was held up as an example of maturity which, come to think of it, is probably the reason why so many of us feign disinterest later in life as a coping mechanism: disillusionment, or the feigning of, was our first brush with maturity.

We were all there that afternoon, sitting on those rocks, digging between them, scratching one rock with another or riding our bikes around them. It was one of those days when no one seemed able to connect, intent as we were on getting to the end of our lists and ending our childhood, which, at 11 or 12, was about the least desirable thing one could be in possession of. We were all in our own little bubbles. That day, we would’ve been ready to jettison our childhood and go work in the Dickensian mill or the packing plant at a moment’s notice. Such was our mad desire, and no doubt the desire of those before us, to become an adult, or at least resemble one. The dull sun beat down through a skein of tangled storm clouds which were being burnt away before they could amass. Only their humidity reached us below. The light, as these clouds passed under the sun, continually revolved from clear to a flat nickel, the color and even distinct odor of that single coin your fingers continually stumble upon in your churchpants’ pocket. The ponderous uselessness of it being enough to inspire you to throw it away, but the value of the thing, low as it is, obviates this conclusion and you drop it back into your pocket, only to find it again a moment later. The sky cleared, shadows lengthened, the atmosphere lightened and then the sun would sink into another bank of cloud. It was like finding that intolerably gray nickel once again.

It felt like a Sunday, but usually on a Sunday, people would be out walking their dogs or something and, on this afternoon, no one seemed to be out; not a single Oldsmobile or Mercury drove down the street and we wheelied around with impunity, dredging our great mountain bike tires up from the street, peddling to keep the momentum and, invariably, crashing down a few seconds later: suburban kids always being terrible at wheelies for some reason, perhaps because they always have relatively new bikes, large enough to fit them, but too large for impressive wheelie-length.

This is boring,” someone yelled. And this began an argument over the possible places we could go. Carriage Hill, a hill with a few unfinished, large homes at the top with a solid 2-minute coast to the bottom was suggested as a destination, but everyone was too lazy to ride up the damn thing. Back along the little lake, where they were doing construction, someone had—strange that we didn’t know who—built a few bmx dirt jumps. We could go down there, but the idea was also vetoed. Now that the construction was going on, they yelled at you if you went down between the houses. No one wanted to deal with those pissed off construction workers, yelling with wide open mouths over the buzz of some unseen and constant saw. No one’s parents were going to let us in. The discussion began to flag, as we all sought for the last thing on our lists and found nothing but checked boxes. We were looking for something unknown in the impossibly familiar and it seemed hopeless. A rock was chucked at another rock, several others followed, thrown with a little more violence that was necessary.

Hey,” Brendan said. “Angie Belotti got a trampoline a few days ago. Let’s go over and see if she’ll let us jump!”

No one seemed to have anything against that idea. I wasn’t sure it sounded very fun, but for the sake of the group, I kept my thought to myself. I couldn’t see how jumping on a trampoline could be much different from just jumping up and down on the ground.

We picked up our Huffys and Schwinns with all their unnecessary springs, gears and handlebars and waterbottle holders (always empty) and pumped like crazy, rocking the bikes—no one having bothered to raise their seat as they grew—between our thighs and knees, standing up, exuberant with motion and purpose. Coming around the corner, we all attempted to skid, following the example of whoever was in front. We crashed into each other. We yelled at whoever crashed into us and ignored who we crashed into.

We sent one ambassador to Angie’s porch. We didn’t want to throw our chances by mobbing the place if her mom came to the door. Unwisely, we fanned out in an expectant row, in the street, just beyond the sidewalk. Standing there, holding our handlebars, we looked larger and more numerous than we actually were. No mom in her right mind would let us in her backyard in use the trampoline. Hoodlums that we were, we’d be sure to ruin it. We all knew we had no chance unless Angie, or maybe her older sister Annie, would be the one to come to the door. But at the very least, we were all a little more relaxed knowing there was no dad in the house. As 11 year-old boys, we all heartily disliked dads. They were only family members from whom you could never expect any cooperation. There was a certain amount of growling done between the young and old. The dads of the neighborhod all acted liked alpha males whose legitimacy was being challenged and, as such, they responded too fiercely or acted too aloof most of the time. While they were gone all week, we had free reign, but on the weekends when they obtrusively came home and puttered around in their yards and washed their cars we were banished to the streets and landscaped median strips of the neighborhood: the marginal territories. Stemming from their own experience, the dads of the neighborhood had long ago come to see us roving boys as adults. Why we weren’t working, as they had done at our age, made us incomprehensible to the dads and, thus, likely up to no good. Every generation probably matures a little later than the one which preceded it. Moms and grandparents seemed to understand this, but with the dads, it was like every time they saw that you were still carrying around a vestige of childhood, they just shook their heads and asked you to get your bike off their lawn. Angie’s mom was a single mom, so the driveway and backyard were, thankfully, dad-free, but still we looked around, fearful that a neighboring dad would see us encroaching on the paternal territories of lawn and porch and would tell us to move along, to come back when we had jobs or, at least, more responsibilities.

I think it was Brendan who went up to knock, while the rest of us waited, kicking and punching because we were in proximity to each other, squeezing our bike brakes, then letting them go with a satisfying ‘click’, rolling our tires back and forth, full of the kinetic energy of 11 year-olds, unable to stand still, using the timeout to tie up any errant shoelaces, practicing indifference.

The door opened and we were relieved to see Angie standing there, slightly shorter than her peers with a full and open face and luminous brown eyes, features that were all framed by short dark hair, which set her apart from the girls who needed long hair to promote their femininity.

Angie and Brendan talked in the doorway for a minute. At one point in the conversation, Brendan stepping to the side so that Angie could see who was out in the street, the answer to the question “who all’s with you?”--something girls tended to ask much more than boys, as if there was always some particular person they hoped would be in attendance. A strange question for boys who were usually happy just to hang out, unless they had recently been in a fight with someone.

The door closed and Angie disappeared inside. Brendan jumped down from the porch and walked back to us, his expression so blank that we all had to hurl the questions at him. ‘Wha’ happened? Wod shesay?’’

She’s coming around to open the gate.” He told us, smiling and, at that moment, she did. In a baggy t-shirt with a duck on it, cut-off jean shorts and no shoes. She opened the latch on the gate and, as one, we all ran ahead, dropping out bikes right there in the street only one kid, stopping to use his kickstand, knowing he did so at his own peril, as we always made fun of anything that expressed concern or fastidiousness, such as many boys do, there being something about it they find unnatural or effeminate.

Before the bikes had finished clattering to the ground, we were already all rolling around on the trampoline, shoving each other, nearly stomping on those that had fallen. Sure, the ground underneath my feet had changed, that was new to me, but it wasn’t an experience too alien to lack previous reference. I’d stepped on other, less-than-solid surfaces: ice, mud, mattress, the latter being somewhat similar. This was fun, but this wasn’t the last thing on my list. Someone’s elbow came up under my chin, I tripped over someone else and punched into the air as I fell, swearing. Pretty much everyone else seemed to be having the same experience: rolling around, trying to clear a little area for themselves, bouncing somewhere between disappointment and appreciation. This was just another distraction, nothing revelatory, then Angie came up to the side of the trampoline, I guess she’d been watching us flounder around.

Why don’t we all take turns. You can jump a lot higher that way.” She suggested. We came to a halt, contemplating the idea. Now, if someone from our group had suggested such heresy, we would’ve shoved him off the trampoline without a second thought, as saying something logical was frequently taken for wimpiness. It was different when a girl gave suggestions, especially one like Angie who never seemed surprised at the stupid things boys did; the type of girl who instinctively understood that boys were much less mature than girls. She didn’t condescend, she advised, gently, like someone on a totally different plane of existence. Her voice was bright and smiling and had that slightly hoarse quality some girls get which, adds distinction to their voice. Angie looked up at us, questioning with her humid girl-eyes, the autumn-brown iris like a diadem around the swirling black pupil. One-by-one, we moved to the edge of the trampoline and sat down. We agreed that Angie should have the first jump; it was her trampoline after all.

Ok,” she answered in her adult-voice, at once smiling and dry. She pulled herself up and began to bounce. We alternated between watching her and looking at our white gym-socked feet. I don’t think any of us had ever had a socially-acceptable opportunity to scrutinize the movements of a girl before. Up until that day, we’d ignored girls to the best of our ability, avoiding all interaction and certainly never just watching them when we could be slugging each other or running. Until that moment, I never could’ve preferred anything over the joy of running as fast as I could, but gradually, I became aware of the world outside my perception. That things could be seen and admired and bring the same joy that movement brought, was something I’d never considered. Watching (and trying not to watch) Angie’s feet kick out, her toes point, her curly hair frou frou, her braces flash, her neck turn, her shirt crumple and straighten, I felt as satisfied as if I was the one doing the jumping. It was as if, rather than showing us how to do it, she was doing it for us. We were like a circle of penitents, trying to comprehend the teachings of the master. We all waited patiently for her to finish, of course, the moment she did, there was a rush to fill the space, but, again at Angie’s coaxing, we all took our seats again, allowing one boy alone to jump.

I think I was third to jump and when I started off, I was a little self-conscious. My friends sat around me while, alone, I started an awkward movement. I felt very aware of my long, gangling limbs and my mop of hair which I was growing out to look like the popular soccer players. I had a ying-yang pendant, which jumped under my shirt and slapped my sternum with each bounce. What started as excessive self-awareness shifted into the satisfaction brought on by a good performance, like the feeling you get when you tell a joke that makes someone laugh really hard or your able to supply the teacher with an answer no one else knows. For me, as a mediocre student, these moments had been very rare. I was never the most popular, funniest or smartest kid in a room. I always had a sense of just being there, but at this moment, jumping on the trampoline, I had a feeling like I was someone special, like I looked how Angie looked, graceful and weightless, finding a flow in my movements like a dolphin, but in the sky. I bounced and went up among the shaded white pine branches. The air up there was cooler and green. I bounced so high, each time I fell back to the surface, I expected my legs to crumple under my weight, but each time they straightened and propelled me back above the reach of my friends while they all waited their turns. My hair swam, my limbs flexed, my toes pointed. I felt graceful, as I never had before and when someone called time, I returned to the surface world like a maple double samara, twirling down.

I sat there patiently, watching the others jump, appreciating their right to the happiness I had found, feeling a lucid contentment, participating and not participating. I understood, I could do both. I could jump or I could think about it; I could appreciate someone else doing the same thing. Up until then, I’d never found much to enjoy in something I wasn’t actively doing, but for the moment, it seemed as good as jumping myself, from the looks on their faces and their underwater hair, I could see everyone else having the same experience and empathy, which was the last thing on my list, allowed me to understand and enjoy their experience.

On my second jump, my ying-yang necklace came out from my shirt and I had to stuff it back into my collar to keep it from striking me on the forehead. When my turn was up, I sat down. While someone else started jumping, Angie scooted around the trampoline to where I was sitting and told me that she liked my necklace and, not knowing what to say, I told her that I liked her duck t-shirt. We agreed that ying-yangs were cool, and that the ones with colors other than black and white, like, for example, red and black, weren’t as cool, but finding no other common ground, our conversation ended quickly and Angie scooted back to her place to await her turn.

As the afternoon wore on, I began to fear its end as I’d never before feared the end of something. The gray light had finally burned off and the brilliance of a late afternoon in July shown through the lower branches of the white pines ringing Angie’s backyard. It was one of those events that had a chemistry. Each person’s participation was essential. If anyone had gotten up to go home, the whole day would’ve come crashing down. We knew this, and as we stayed on, we all grew slightly nervous least someone suddenly declare they had to go. But no one did and we jumped on into the last late hours of the afternoon, becoming agreeable with each other, continuing to take turns and even let others take slightly longer turns to try out new moves. Each of us got a ‘finishing move,’ one last, usually particularly complex or difficult move to try for at the end of our turn. Everyone encouraged everyone else to land a good finishing move and when anyone did, there was genuine applause.

Angie’s mom came home and didn’t clear us out right away, but from the sounds coming from the kitchen, we knew dinner wasn’t far away and, with it, the end of the best day of the summer. Sensing this, we sped up a little, trying our hardest to land flips or twisting moves we’d created, each of us cheering the others on, jumping and spinning as hard as we could, but not recklessly, controlled and without irritation if we couldn’t land it. By the time Angie’s mom announced dinner, most of us had landed the move we’d been trying, if anyone hadn’t, no one noticed or cared.

At the gate, Angie said goodbye to us and told us to come back again, that she’d had fun. We responded together that we’d also had fun and, very maturely, we thanked her for having us over. We walked out to the street and gently picked our bikes up from where we’d dropped them so quickly earlier that day, which seemed, now, of another time. Silently, we rode up the street, each of us still feeling the movement of the trampoline in our blood. Someone said they had to go and, though the rest of us stood on the corner, with our bike seats resting against our thighs, talking, we knew the day was over. Already, the streetlights were coming on and little siblings called out “Mom says it’s time to come home and eeeeeeeeeeeeat!”

We said goodbye and each rode his separate way. I have other memories of the days and the summers that followed, but, next to this day, none of them seem very important. While I rode home, I felt my ying-yang necklace bouncing off my sternum and I thought of Angie’s lucent irises, her soft cheekbones and her voice, like an early autumn breeze in August. I stopped my bike and looked at the necklace. I held the metal disk in the palm of my hand. It was one of my favorite possessions but I wished, more urgently than I’d ever wished anything, that I had some way to go back and give it to her. I’d be happier giving it to her than keeping it for myself. Before that afternoon on the trampoline, I wouldn’t have been capable of feeling that way. I tucked the necklace back into my shirt and continued home, floppy hair flying in the evening light, loose shirt rippling behind my back and glad for the long ride home to consider adulthood and it’s implications.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Mellow Gold

The parental advisory label, once affixed to cds and tapes with explicit lyrics, has become so ubiquitous as to not mean anything, a sort of logo making things looks ‘tough,’ ‘grimy’ or even ‘tuff.’ Outside this objective, it serves no purpose. In fact, it almost seems absurd that there was ever a time when the label was taken seriously, but indeed it once was, deadly serious, back when kids still had to buy media printed on paper, lasered on a disk or magnetized to a cassette tape. Back in this time, the purveyors of media felt, perhaps, because it was a tangible thing, themselves to be guards of morality and they readily kept anything marked ‘explicit’ away from children. I’m sure some of them did this out of a desire to keep their jobs, but, many more, I believe, simply reveled in the joys of being able to deny kids the entertainment they were after, even when the kids’ intentions were only to seek out preferable melodies, as they often were.

As far as I know, the PMRC, which launched the ‘parental advisory’ label, never had set criteria for evaluating music. Some albums escaped being labeled ‘explicit’ despite multiple dropping of ‘F’ bombs. A lot seemed to depend on how audible it was. I can recall hearing Pearl Jam’s Jeremy on the radio many time without the edit in the following:

Clearly I remember, picking on the boy/ seemed a harmless little fuck

Something in the way Eddie Vedder dropped his tone when he sang the word ‘fuck; made it acceptable enough to be played on the radio. Suffice to say, Pearl Jam’s Ten had no parental advisory label. Green Day’s Dookie was another album that used the word, multiple times in some songs, but, somehow escaped the cut, I think, due to the way it was sung.

Content too could not be judged objectively. Even after all the Walmart hype over force-editing Nirvana’s tune Rape Me. The album on which the song appeared In Utero carried no parental advisory label. Apparently such things required no need for parental consent, even some metal albums, with unspeakable topics somehow made it to shelves free from the unfortunate sticker. Probably because no one could understand the lyrics.

So while films had quantifiable ratings systems in place, a similar system was never established for music. Likewise, there was never any consensus for the sale of these albums marked ‘explicit.’ Some record stores didn’t care and sold anything to anyone—but even in the rare instance of such a place, it seemed some clerks were more conscientious than others and a place where a kid had been able to buy Ice Cube’s The Predator one day, may refuse to sell Enter the 36 Chambers the next. With such arbitrariness, I couldn’t help but to wonder if the clerks who didn’t want to sell were just being jerks. After all, was there any real punishment for sale of an ‘explicit’ album to a minor? Was there a law against it or was it just a record store policy to avoid problems with parents? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Especially as the more ‘family friendly’ music outlets (ie. the chain store in the malls) were much less inclined to sell ‘explicit’ records to minors. (It should be said here that ‘minor’ in this sense was often—bizarrely—defined as anyone under 16. Why ‘explicit’ records should be available two years earlier than ‘explicit’ films, again seemed completely arbitrary, but it was something everyone seemed to agree on).

As a kid with a dad who swore colorfully, I always thought the attempt to keep kids from listening to ‘explicit’ music hypocritical, especially if the efforts were limited to expletives rather than content (as was made, more or less, clear in the case of the Rape Me controversy). As far as my mom was concerned, the ‘parental advisory’ label meant the music was harmful to children and she was never going to be an accessory to that. But, on a nightly basis, I could hear the very words judged ‘harmful’ articulated in my home, presumably the safest environment for a child. I also thought it ridiculous that I could read these words all I wanted to. At ten years old, there was nothing in place to stop me from buying a copy of Naked Lunch—available at any bookstore, and reading it over and over.

The easiest way to thwart the ‘advisories’ was to go to K-Mart, which considered itself too morally upstanding to even stock explicit albums and they only sold clean or edited versions. If I was really desperate, which I was several times, I could go to K-Mart and get . I did this with Domino’s self-titled album and, yes with 36 Chambers of death, kid. I bought the neutered versions and, to this day, I still don’t know some of the lyrics. There’s an embarrassing gap in singalongs, especially when, without knowing it, I learned different radio-edit lyrics. Believe me, it raises eyebrows to this day when I sing:

Rolling down the street smoking, smoking/ sippin’ on gin and juice

If you remember, there was no ‘endo’ on the radio edit.

But K-mart had a limited selection. There were some albums, I was content to have dubbed on cassette but, back then, it was different owning the actual cd with the jewel case and the lyric book. It was how you demonstrated true appreciation for an artist’s product. One particular album was Beck’s Mellow Gold, which despite its irreverent and even goofy lyrics, still got slapped with a parental advisory because it had two songs with ‘fuck’ in the title—although not used in an explicit manner ie. not describing sex, not even remotely.

In 1994, the song Loser was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I loved everything about it. The rap-like delivery of the lyrics, the folksy guitar loop with a solid beat behind it, the seriousness for the absurd, the psychedelic, sitar-like lift of the chorus, it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I watched MTV, with my finger on the volume of the remote so I could turn it up if it came on. I checked the record stores as often as possible. Frustrated with the abundance of someone named Jeff Beck and the total lack of a Beck (I know this is hard to imagine now as Beck has a pretty big catalog). The first thing to appear was a cassette single of Loser which I duly handed over 1.99 for and listened to over and over. When the full-length, Mellow Gold appeared in stores, it drove me crazy. I coveted it, like nothing I’d ever coveted. The cover artwork was crazy, neon storm clouds and a skull with glowing eyes, robotic apparatus, the back showing Beck himself wearing goggles and looking beyond cool, just standing there next to songtitles like ‘Motherfuker’ [sic] and ‘Beercan’ [also, sic]. Damn I waned that cd, but, tragedy of tragedies (at least for a ten year-old), it had a ‘parental advisory’ label. I tried to buy it right there at Record Town in the mall and was roundly refused. If only it had been a few years later when the internet and downloads were perpetuating the downfall of tangible music and, it purveyor, the music store; I doubt very seriously that record stores bothered to screen anyone for sales when their place in the retail market was becoming more and more precarious, but this was 1994 and record stores were still the only way to get music. The end was right around the corner, but no one had any idea and the smug clerks laughed me out of the store when I tired to buy Mellow Gold, certain of their job security.

And, now, after this lengthy preamble, our story begins. After Record Town refused to sell Mellow Gold to me, I went immediately to Warehouse Records, which was my go-to for ‘parental advisory’ records. Most of the staff at Warehouse were younger and actually listened to a lot of the music they sold, unlike their mall counterparts who probably just went to the mall, stopped into any interesting store and filled out the application. The people at Record Town couldn’t answer any question without using their database computers. The employees of Warehouse never needed their computers. They knew exactly what was on the floor and what you’d need to order. So, I went into Warehouse, sure that they knew Mellow Gold wasn’t really a bad record—nothing like 2 Live Crew or Cannibal Corpse that might distort my tender notions of sexuality and/or violence. No, Beck just liked to toss out the f-word every so often, no different from the way people talked, really. But, to my dismay, the employee at Warehouse records didn’t see the situation as I did. The bastard even got out the little tool that freed the cd from its plastic security device and was worked on unlocking the greatest purchase I was ever going to make when he seemed to see that damn ‘parental advisory’ sticker for the first time. He stopped, looked down the counter at me, paused and snapped the cd back into its security device, shaking his head. “I can’t sell you this,” he declared, sounding slightly apologetic, “it’s got a parental advisory.” I put up a weak argument, but I knew he’d made up his mind, so my heart wasn’t in it and a moment later, I lurched out of the store, head down and walked down the alley to Kroger to meet my mom who’d gone grocery shopping. I remember it raining a gray and almost syrupy rain. It was March, but there were still dirty chunks of parking lot snow pushed up all over the place, covered with oily pebbles and the smashed parts of shopping carts the plowmen hadn’t bothered to move. It smelled like the pizza and sub place next to Warehouse had burned something.

I went back home and listened to my cassette single of Loser on repeat, wondering why my access to Beck’s creative genius had to be limited to one song. There was one more record store in town and it was a wildcard.

While the Mall boasted the national chain Record Town, the Crossing (the other mall) had Disc Jockey, which I’d never seen anywhere else. The vibe in Disc Jockey was weird. Record Town was corporate, with a vibe comparable to today’s Hard Rock Café, black carpet with the bright flecks music stores used to look glamourous back then, customized signage, neon lights sort of spangled around the place. Warehouse Records, by contrast, was a local chain that employed its products for decoration. Those huge concert posters they used to make were hung up all over the back wall with numbers so the employees could find it. The wall to the right was covered with t-shirt, many of them official concert shirts with tour dates and venues on the back. The shelves, or whatever you’d call ‘em, for cds were made out of particle board and had stickers for bands and record labels slapped all over them. Warehouse was an enthusiasts’ record store. Disc Jockey, for comparison, was way the hell out in left field. One woman who always seemed to be there had this permed hair, piled up ridiculously high. She gave the impression of someone who’d gotten a job and then, accordingly, changed her look to suit that job. Unfortunately, here we were, 1994, the height of grunge and she looked like Madonna from the Like a Prayer tour. In addition to this lady’s anachronistic hair, the place had this single wobbly line of pink neon running around the ceiling. The décor in Disc Jockey looked more like something you would’ve seen in a salon, ten years earlier, than a record store. The stuff they had pulled out on the end-caps was also baffling, a bunch of random artists displayed together like you were supposed to discern the vague connection between them. Onyx stood next to Michael Jackson’s Bad and the display was crowned with that Dwight Yoakam album with the clocks all over it. The name of the store, Disc Jockey, was also appallingly stupid. It was like calling a bookstore ‘librarian.’

The selection was alright, but what kept me from ever buying anything at Disc Jockey was the price. They must’ve had a hell of an overhead because their cds were always a good two dollars more expensive than anyone else’s and this is back when the standard price for a cd was 17.99. Damn. You had to save for weeks to get one of those things and you couldn’t even preview it. You just took the risk based on the one song you’d heard on the radio. That’s why it was so wonderful when you found a band whose entire album could be enjoyed. It was a sort of security, you knew the next album wouldn’t be so much of a gamble.

I wasn’t worried about blowing my money on Mellow Gold, I knew it was going to be great. I was so sure of it, I was even willing to throw away the two extra dollars at Disc Jockey to get it. Now, because it was so overpriced, I’d never even tried to buy a ‘parental advisory’ record at Disc Jockey. I had no idea what to expect, but I figured it’d be worth a shot, so the next weekend, when my mom needed to go to Phar-Mor in the Crossing, I went along with 22 bucks in my PacMan wallet.

My mom was always late meeting me in the mall, so I told her I’d just come back to Phar-Mor and find her when I was done. Strangely, setting out for Disc Jockey, I began to realize I was nervous, this was, ostensibly, my last chance to get this record and I knew that if I was denied sale again, I’d start to lose my nerve. If you wanted to buy something you weren’t supposed to, you had to be able to walk up to the counter carrying the item without the slightest trace of hesitancy. If you acted even remotely like you weren’t supposed to be doing something, adults picked up on it right away. If I couldn’t get the cd at Disc Jockey, I wasn’t ever going to get it.

The store was empty except for one other customer when I came in. The lady with the perm was at the counter. I tried to look casual and wandered around the store a little, flipping through the poster rack in the back and glancing at the ‘Rap’ section before heading over to the ‘B’s in ‘Pop/Rock’. They had a few copies of Mellow Gold (the album was quickly becoming popular, appearing in top ten lists all over the country, much to my continued agony). I started to pull the cd up from the entanglement of the plastic security devices, but, my eyes snagged on the ‘parental advisory.’ I looked at it and lost my nerve. They were never going to sell this to me. The label was just too bold. Then it occurred to me, ‘what if it was covered up?’ The price sticker, which was larger than the ‘advisory’ label, was, on some of the cds, partially obscuring the ‘advisory.’ I tested the price sticker, it started to peel off. I could just move it right over the ‘advisory,’ but as I peeled, the paper began to separate from the sticker. I tried the other side, but it was the same thing, the sticker wouldn’t lift clean off and that’s went it occurred to me, the ‘advisory’ label was, after all, just a sticker, I could just peel it off, like I’d done with the price tag. But, upon closer inspection, I was dismayed to find that, unlike the price sticker, the ‘advisory’ was under the plastic wrap. I considered for a few minutes and, undaunted, began to peel the cellophane off the cd.

This was one of those ideas, that starts simply and snowballs into something so unwieldy, it can’t even be recognized for its connection to the original plan. I had gone into Disc Jockey, planning to just take the cd to the counter and try my luck buying the thing and, now, here I was, slinking around the store, digging at the cellophane with my fingernail, trying to look interested in the classical section which was the farthest from the counter. Luckily, no one seemed to be paying attention. Each time I glanced around, the permed lady was busy putting the plastic security devices on a pile of cds. She didn’t even seem to notice I was in the store.

After what felt like half an hour of digging, the cellophane finally snagged and broke against the instance of my fingernail. Like pulling a tablecloth out from under a fully set table, I quickly jerked the wrapping off  and shoved it in with all the Stravinsky cds, then I set to work picking at the ‘advisory.’ Like the price sticker, it wouldn’t peel clean off, but I scraped off the fuzzy paper backing as best as I could and, as a coup de grace, I pulled the price sticker off the discarded cellophane and stuck it on the naked cover of the cd. It only half stuck, part of the price sticker torn, dirty and sticking up. I apprised the result of my labor: not bad, maybe it would be obvious that the cellophane was missing, but what the hell would the perm lady care? As long as I was buying the cd, I couldn’t see why she’d care about something so trivial as a missing cd cellophane.

I turned to the counter like I’d suddenly made up my mind to buy the cd I’d been carrying all over the store. I wasn’t nervous. Really, I was quite proud of the way I’d figured to circumnavigate the situation, so I was totally taken off-guard when I set the cd down and the perm immediately began to accuse me of removing the cellophane. I started to protest that it was like that and that I’d buy it anyway no probl—

“I saw you take this off! You pulled of the advisory label! That’s why you’ve been walking all around the store. That’s what you were doing!”

So all the while, she was furtively observing me. I hate when people do that sort of thing. Why can’t people just yell, ‘hey, kid, what are you up to over there by those Stravinsky cds?’ It would obviate so many lousy situations. She let me pull the cellophane off so she could yell at me, so she could have something interesting to do. As to how quickly she deduced my purpose, I have no idea. She certainly didn’t look that smart.

“Whatever.” I had no argument for the perm. I turned and walked out of the store and, in a fit a pique, I grabbed one of the circulars sitting at the entrance and held up the Beck ad on the cover. “There’s no ‘parental advisory’ for it here!” I yelled waving the ad, but I knew it was no good. She’d made up her mind. I turned and walked out.

I walked through the Crossing to Phar-Mor where there was a small CD selection. I checked for Mellow Gold, but they only had those discounted cds and tapes they sell at gas stations with the ‘nice price’ stickers on them.

I found my mom over by the Band-Aids, comparing two different boxes.

“Why don’t you get the ones with cartoon characters?” I asked her, feigning indifference. At heart, I was bummed. My last attempt for the cd had failed. “How much longer are you goin—”

“Ma’am, could I speak with you?” A man had suddenly appeared from behind my mom, interrupting me. I could tell from his actions (and address of ‘ma’am’) that he didn’t know her. Did he work for Phar-Mor? I had no idea who this guy was but I’d learned from experience whenever someone addressed my mom as ‘ma’am’ something bad was about to happen. The man took a few brisk steps away from me and talked to my mom, sotto voce. ‘What the hell was going on?’ I wondered.

At the end of their brief conference, the man turned and walked away and my mom turned to me. “That man told me you just tried to open a cd at the cd store and you pulled some sticker off from it. Is that true?”

Son-of-a-bitch followed me across the damn mall just to rat me out!

To this day, when I’m back in Jackson, I walk by the empty space at the Crossing where Disc Jockey used to be and smile. It’s been closed for close to two decades now, and I still smile. Phar-Mor’s gone, too, but I bare them no ill-will. Really, it’s all gone. The whole world that made that situation possible. There are no more music stores, no more ‘advisory’ labels, outside the one printed on shirts on facetiously over the mouths of stand-up comics on posters. The Crossing is still there, but the corridor that ran to Phar-Mor from Disc Jockey is gone. Warehouse is gone. Record Town is gone. Just the parking lots with their dirty piles of icy parking lot snow linger on through March, melting out the slag of landscaping stones, broken rearview mirrors and motor oil.

I did eventually pay Brendan 19 dollars for a copy of Mellow Gold that belonged to his neighbor a guy we called ‘Cd Kid’ for years after, although I don’t remember ever buying anything else he had.

Around the same time, I got a Discman for my birthday and I never went anywhere without taking Mellow Gold with me to listen to. All I had been through to get the damn cd made it sound so much better than I ever could’ve dreamed. To this day, when Loser comes on the radio, I turn it up, smile and wonder whatever happened to that lady with the perm and her rat of a counterpart.  

I have written this down because, as near as I can discern, this sort of shit doesn’t even happen to kids anymore.

Who knows if they’re better off.
Image result for mellow gold