place: montgomery county courthouse, montgomery, alabama,
time: c. 1990
Welcome to the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building in historic downtown Montgomery, Alabama. Is it in the heart of the historic district? Write-ups about places frequently pin destinations as being in the heart of a larger location, which stirs up questions about land anatomy and whether other destinations could be located in the pancreas or the spleen of a town. Maybe the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building is in the cerebral cortex of Alabama’s capitol city, this mid-century marvel being home to the county’s public records archive. If someone bought property, got married, died, or applied for a fishing license within county boundaries, there’s a record of it here. For folks who want to learn about Montgomery County’s own land anatomy, this is the prime destination.
The courthouse is not a tourist attraction. It’s not even a courthouse in the sense that TV and film present it — where defenders defend, prosecutors prosecute, and judges dole out justice. In 1990, Montgomery County has two courthouses — one for all the courtroom theatrics and life-altering verdicts and this one, which is now devoted primarily to matters involving Probate Court and Circuit Court, the least sexy of all the courts. Here, the Judge of Probate presides over matters like estates and property disputes while the Circuit Court judges deal with cases concerning family matters or ordinance violations. Nobody comes here unless absolutely necessary, like to pay overdue property taxes or get hitched before the baby comes or to sit quietly while their parent who can’t afford child care completes a records search for work. Anyone who might have a fascination with archives and public records and the stories that can be pieced together from the county’s roughly 200-year history will find the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building to be a blessed treasure. They’ll also find that most of those stories, much like the meandering tales of a neglected grandparent stuck in a care home, are about long-dead strangers and places that used to exist but have been replaced by other places.
In theory, Montgomery needs two courthouses to keep up with the Baby Boomers and their growing needs for property ownership and law interpretations. This city is always expanding and has already outgrown three courthouse buildings. The city-block wide structure that looms before us is the third county courthouse, and the second to be built into this hillside of S. Lawrence St. Before becoming a model of functional modernity dedicated to preservation and progress in 1957, the Montgomery County Courthouse was a stately Greek Revival repository for records and justice featuring prominent Doric columns and a tower potentially overlooking the Alabama River and other points of interest circa the earliest 20th century for anyone permitted access for seeing such sights. That was the 1894 expansion from a modest 1854 two-storey build of similar design, sans the observational tower. Presumably, the cost and availability of materials prompted the decision makers to demolish what might’ve been a handsome landmark and replace it with something far less iconic yet perfectly serviceable. But in a place where history has unfolded, refolded, and then folded over onto itself, the actual details have gotten lost in the creases. We are left with postcards from the past and the ironic amusement over the dearth of archival material covering the place constructed to hold archives.
After the new four-storey courthouse was built in 1987, just up the hill from here, this courthouse underwent interior renovations and improvements. For a couple years, all of the Courts were squeezed into the freshly-constructed justice centre. The new courthouse is all function and no form and brutally plain. One might wonder if it’s providing some hint as to the sort of justice one might expect from a towering beige square. The concurrent changes to their workplace and the Coca-Cola formula disgruntled some employees, who groused about working inside a giant photocopier that only stocked New Coke in its vending machines. When the renovations were complete, probate staff were eager to get back to Courthouse Classic and their morning Coca-Cola Classic.
The exterior of the Classic Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building — or the Annex as it’s supposed to be known — remains relatively unchanged in 1990, save for the addition of a two-storey brown polished stone portico at the S. Lawrence St. entrance. The original combination of eggshell-tinged aluminum panelling and rosy brown stone walls with concrete breeze block insets has weathered the cultural and literal storms with minimal impact. Compare the Washington Ave. entrance today with photos from the 1960s and the only discernible difference is the models of cars parked along the street.
The steps leading up to the sheriff’s department entrance on Washington Ave are exactly as they were on March 17, 1965, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the demonstrators from that day’s voters’ rights march from Jackson Street Baptist Church over the resulting negotiations and discussions with city and county officials regarding police brutality against the Black protesters. In 1990, there’s little reference to this moment. The county employees who worked here 25 years ago, who may have been privy to behind the scenes actions or just witnessed one of the most prominent civil rights leader of the time passing through the corridors, have either long retired or feel no inclination to gush about that rainy Wednesday afternoon when Dr. King came to the courthouse in pursuit of justice and equality.
A glossy tourist brochure claims that Montgomery has the “distinction of being the birthplace of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.” However dubious the claims of origin, the town tries to use both events to its advantage. So far, the monuments and tributes to the Confederacy vastly outnumber those for Civil Rights. It will be years before there’s a historical marker dedicated to the voters’ rights marches and the state’s first sit-in by the Black students from Alabama State and museums devoted to presenting the efforts of Rosa Parks and fellow champions of Black equality.
There is one historical marker on the corner of Washington Ave. and S. Lawrence St., which provides a little insight into Montgomery’s origin story. According to the embossed sign, Montgomery county was established in 1816, three years prior to Alabama’s official statehood and first entry into the Union, from lands forcibly ceded by Creek Indian Nation in 1814. The sign has omitted “forcibly,” presumably for spacing reasons. The historical marker goes on to share the fun fact that Montgomery County and the city of Montgomery are named for two entirely different men named Montgomery. For future reference, Montgomery County is named for Major Lemuel P. Montgomery, notable as the first officer killed in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the Creek War in 1814 — oh, the same war where Andrew Jackson pushed a bunch of Indigenous people off their land? Major Lemuel also has a bronze statue erected in front of the New Courthouse. The City of Montgomery is named for Major General Richard Montgomery, who died in 1775 during an unsuccessful attempt with Colonel Benedict Arnold to attack and capture Quebec City in Lower Canada. Ah. Well. Things are starting to make sense.
All you wanted to do was get your new car tags? Okay. Let’s go inside.
The entrance on S. Lawrence St. leads straight into the second floor of the Annex. The belly of bureaucracy. This is where the magic happens — if the filing and processing of license applications is still considered magic. Rumour has it that some real witches work here. Well, even Southern hospitality is pushed to its limits for county clerks who face daily the general public’s demonstration of all the various ways to incorrectly complete a form.
From the foyer, visitors choose their own adventure. Turn left to either take the elevators up to the third floor Circuit Court or down to the first floor to the Sheriff’s Department. Proceed further down the hall to reach the Tax Assessor and Tax Collector offices, the Judge of Probate’s office, and other assorted Probate offices. Straight ahead from the foyer leads you to the Tags, Automobile Registration, and License offices. But our destination is to the right — Probate Records and Recording Division, the department devoted to storing all the open secrets about how this ill-gotten land has been dissected and divvied up through history.
Through the glass double doors we arrive at the launching point for all public records investigations. At first glance, it’s hard to believe this unassuming open-plan office would be the place to find out whether Tommy Shaw of Styx owns any real property in Montgomery. While that information might be in the computer database, the Records Room staff are unlikely to help you search for it. They generally discourage amateur sleuths looking to while away a rainy Thursday with unofficial requests, not that many walk in with such intents. Most visitors come looking for parcel maps to settle disputes with their next door neighbours regarding stuff like property lines for fence erections and fallen tree possession.
Before the renovations, the Records Room was starting to show its age with migraine-inducing banana-tinted walls and avocado-tinged file cabinets and pumpkin-dyed desk chairs. The paint chipping off the edges of the cold metal desks and the wood laminate curling up along the undersides of chair armrests gave the space a worn and tired look. Concentration was frequently imperilled by heels clacking along the speckled linoleum floor, the clanging brrrrngs of rotary dial telephones, the clinking of phone receivers returned to their cradles, and the constant droning of the overhead fluorescents. The staff have returned to an altogether different environment — soothing slate gray walls, upholstered burgundy swivel chairs with adjustable height, molded black plastic and imitation granite laminate surfaces promising a modern, more sophisticated atmosphere. The department is now decidedly more peaceful with wall-to-wall neutral gray Berber carpeting mutes the sounds of oppressive footwear, multi-line push button phones issue gentle brrps and bzzts, and the overhead lighting hums along quietly with the soothing tones of Firefall and Bruce Hornsby on FM soft rock radio. Sometimes the radio is tuned to the local country station to remind everyone that we’re still in the gallbladder of the Deep South.
The office is divided into two zones — Recording and Records. Along the north side of the room, with the row of windows overlooking Washington Ave., sits the County Records Supervisor and her staff, hard at work behind their counter, organizing and preparing all the newly-arrived paperwork for imaging and entering into the massive archives. Every day, new deeds and mortgages arrive all signed, dated, and notarized by all the necessary parties from just-closed property purchases. While families and newlyweds are excitedly moving houses, the recording staff are wearily moving giant stacks of documents into slightly smaller stacks to be stamped, scanned, and squirrelled away in file cabinets, file boxes, and file rooms down in the basement. Posted in a couple of spots around the department are signs noting the most current searchable record date, usually two or three months back from the day’s date. Supposing today is June 14, 1990, the most recent record you could find in the system would be from April. This can fluctuate as vacations and holidays and general malaise empties the desks behind the Recording counter.
On the south side of the room, there’s a selection of record books and assorted technology dedicated to accessing copies of records. When the courthouse first opened its doors in 1957, all of the records were analog. The most sophisticated technology was the Remington typewriter. The Records Room was nearly floor to ceiling with ancient hardbound tomes which were set on roller shelves — multiple rows of what looks like rubber-coated steel toilet paper holders — an innovative design alternative to regular solid shelving which would buckle under the weight. To find when a specific deed was recorded, staff had to pull these books out and flip through delicate pages of records handwritten in the cursive du jour, deciphering the penmanship of yore for confirmation which William E. Jones was the grantor of a property sold on February 7, 1945. If anyone needed a copy of that deed from 1945, staff would then run the original typed document through the electric Thermofax. Time and technology marched on and the Records Rooms added microfiche readers, then computer terminals, then microfiche printers and photocopiers and facsimile machines. The collection of hardbound record books has been reduced to a couple of short stacks along the western wall, the oldest volumes relocated to make room for faster, more accessible means of data searching. This side of the Records Room is now a living display of the Evolution of 20th Century Record Keeping Technology.
The most advanced piece of whizbangery here and now, set along the eastern wall between the north and south divisions, is an automated Kardex Lextriever. This oversized beige monstrosity houses every record in Montgomery County’s history that has been imaged onto microfiche. It’s a large electric storage system with a vertical carousel that whirrs noisily whenever the clerk runs it to retrieve a microfiche for viewing over on the microfiche reader. It is the tenth or seventeenth wonder of the world and a joy to behold for those who are easily joyed by automated storage systems.
Two rows of padded cubicles separate the five computer terminals and five microfiche readers into cozy workstations for researchers. On one side, the small DEC computer screens glow monochrome green with a quaint 25-line display that shows five search results at once. Searching for John H. Smith and his wife Bessie can mean pressing the forward arrow on the clunky keyboard dozens of times before getting a promising lead. The second row of cubbies house the desktop microfiche readers, where tiny pictures of documents like deed warranties and marriage certificates are magnified to near-readable point size. Despite signs posted reminding users to turn them off after use, one machine is always left on, its bulb illuminating the glass tray that holds the microform in place. Once a month, whichever reader has been left on unattended longest gets a “out of order” Post-it stuck to the screen. How much longer will microfiche reader bulbs be manufactured as we approach the turn of the millennium and proliferation of holographic technology?
Hunkering over the computers, squinting into the microfiches, furiously scribbling cryptic notes onto yellow legal pads are the professional researchers come to find out who owns what, when they got it, and how they’re paying for it. They’re hired by lawyers and lenders on behalf of homebuyers to get the lowdown on the home sellers. Many researchers are tasked with travelling around various parts of the state, visiting different county courthouses and completing their reports — known around the biz as title abstracts or title examinations. They jockey for their turns at the one multi-line business phone available to visitors. They beg the department’s staff across the room to use the fax machine behind their counter so they can get rushed reports back to their clients by lunch or end of business day. They fill out stacks of orange index cards to request microfiche of records relevant to their property searches. Sometimes they dash off to other departments around the courthouse, frantically filling in details about tax payments and divorces and property liens.
If this seems like a workplace without dramatic tension, rest assured there is plenty of interpersonal conflict simmering for those who thrive in such environs. Unbeknownst to casual visitors — the researchers who pop in a couple times a month or so, there’s an undercurrent of resentment amongst the researchers and abstractors who work exclusively in Montgomery county. For reasons unknowns, the Records Room maintains permanent desks for two real property abstract firms. One could argue that Montgomery Abstract and State Abstract are the area’s oldest title research companies, dating back to the early 1900s and 1880s respectively, and therefore deserve the privileged workspace. Another might joke that some of those abstract companies’ employees are so old they were recording land parcels during the Confederacy. But they don’t argue or joke. They resort to petty possessiveness over the use of a telephone and subtle bribery to encourage the Kardex clerk to prioritize pulling one’s microfilm over another’s. Many of the career researchers in the room, perhaps unsurprisingly, have worked for one or both of the ancient abstract companies over the decades. Close co-workers become distant colleagues while trying to keep track of property transfers as lots get lumped together and split apart by the whims of wealthy developers and landowners. The one table allotted to all the rest of the transient researchers becomes a dumping ground for briefcases and leatherette folios and unattended offspring. Ultimately, these stories do nothing to advance the plot, only serving to make the workday uncomfortable.
Most days pass without incident. Abstractors and researchers do lunch together in the snack bar and gossip about the latest in the Don Martin/C&C Land Corporation mortgage scandal or the new subdivisions being dug up out past Eastdale Mall. Their assignments covering residential properties are completed without issues. Couriers deliver a fresh stack of new deeds and mortgages from around the county to be sorted and filed. People buy houses, people live in houses a while, people sell houses. “Ventura Highway” strains to be heard on the radio over the whirring carousel of microfiche.
The majority of homeowners lead boring lives, doing the occasional refinancing on their mortgages, getting divorced and remarried only a couple of times but always updating their wills. Title searches for hire usually only track the last 30–50 years of a property and its owners, but sometimes those years can have some real twists and snags. Willie Jones’ ex-wife appears to have filed a claim against his property. John Smith bought his sister Temperance a house but 20 years later, John’s dead and his wife Bessie wants to sell Temperance’s house. James Williams has outstanding UCC liens against his business, which might complicate the sale of the McMansion he and his wife built a couple years ago out Pike Road.
Rarely does a property have as ridiculous a tale as the place that some people insist on calling the first White House of the Confederacy. The place originated in the 1830s on the corner of Lee St. and Bibb St. as a Federal-style townhouse built by William Sayre — that’s great-uncle to Zelda Sayre “Mrs. F. Scott” Fitzgerald and uncle to Alabama Supreme Court Judge Anthony Sayre, author of the 1893 Sayre Act, which sought to disenfranchise Black voters. When William Sayre moved on in the 1850s, the property passed through the hands of several owners before landing in possession of Colonel Edmond Harrison who in turn leased it out to the new Confederate government. From February to May of 1861, the Confederate president and his wife stayed in the house, entertaining the “important people” of the day. After three months, the Davis family skedaddled up to Richmond, VA. The “Jeff Davis house” was passed along through two more owners, ending up in the hands of Archibald Tyson, plantation owner and enslaver of 300+ Black people. Tyson’s daughter inherited what he called “the Bibb house” in 1874 but, since she lived in Georgia, the house fell into disrepair. Before it could be rightfully demolished, a determined organization of Confederate descendants spent years trying to negotiate with Sallie Render to buy the property and restore the house. Mrs. Render died and her heirs finally agreed in 1918 to sell the house — but not the increasingly valuable land. The whole house was relocated from its original lot to a bit of prime real estate across the street from the state capitol building, in the heart of the Confederate monument district. Since 1921, the house has operated as a museum commemorating those three months of fancy parties for posh racists and is one of the top field trip destinations for area fourth graders. Maybe the Union was too forgiving?
Despite the fascinating deep dives one can do into any one property history, the researchers and abstractors restrict their findings to what has the most immediate impact, to answer only the question of whether a property sale can go through as planned. There’s no time to ruminate on one particular property, to speculate about the chain of events that led to someone’s five federal tax liens and three judgments, to empathize with the folks who were conned into a mortgage scam, or to feel remorse about how all this land was obtained in the first place. Researchers don’t point out houses on their commute and reveal the secrets they uncovered about the owners.
Nobody comes to the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building unless absolutely necessary. Nobody comes to downtown Montgomery anymore. The county as it is drawn is large and still mostly underdeveloped and white landowners happily play pioneer forging new towns with big box stores and shiny new subdivisions just off the Interstate. Look at the maps in the Records Room’s plat books and it’s easy to track the white exodus from the city’s centre over the last forty years. White residents head to new neighbours to escape the reminders of history and the reality of the city’s makeup, leaving behind the monuments to be gawked at by grade schoolers and out-of-state tourists. Montgomery’s transit system is under-served and underused as residents stubbornly pivot to car-dependent living. All the department stores have migrated eastward to the popular malls and shopping centres sprawling around the suburbs. Two hundred years from now, Montgomery may have two historic downtowns, ten courthouses, and be in a completely different country. Whatever happens, there’ll probably be record of it on a microfiche.
place: orlando vineland premium outlet
time: c. 2004
At the end of the line for the I-Ride Trolley, we reach our destination for the day. Here we are at the Orlando Premium Outlet, just off International Drive and Interstate 4. Look across the parking lot and wave to the tourists speeding along en route to the Walt Disney World resort area. Or maybe they're headed to Old Town in Kissimmee. Or they missed an exit and are meant to be speeding along to Cocoa Beach to embark on a Caribbean cruise. Two of those cars just missed the exit to come to this very outlet mall. If only they'd taken the Trolley.
Despite being local to the area, we arrive here by the I-Ride Trolley, which stops not too far from my apartment complex. It's a bright green vehicle outfitted with wooden seating and brass handrails for a quaint olde tyme atmosphere. The onboard radio is often tuned into the local lite jazz station or popular hits station, depending on the season. The trolley is designed for tourist use, sticking to the main tourist drag. With a multi-day pass, visitors can hop on and off the trolley while doing a tacky tourist trap crawl. It supposedly reduces traffic in the area but the road is still congested with frustrated workers trying to get from one resort job to the other stuck behind lost visitors in rental cars trying to figure out the air-con controls while scootching over two lanes of traffic to turn left onto Sand Lake Road. But the traffic lurches by as the trolley driver stops to pick up scads of tourists, each with their own unique and wrong way to swipe their multi-day pass through the card reader. This strip is not the place to come for a relaxing summer holiday.
The Orlando Premium Outlet mall mustn't be confused with the Belz Factory Outlet mall, all the way at the north end of International Drive, the other end of the line for the I-Ride Trolley. The Factory Outlet is a hodgepodge of buildings out of the 1970s touting discount merchandise from popular brands. It's situated in the over-developed discount tourist district, home to budget motels, gaudy souvenir shops, and dinky amusement parks where divorced dads bring their kids when they can't make good on their Mickey Mouse promises. Come to Orlando for the thrill rides, stay for the rag tag assortment of irregular overstock and factory reject garments. Shopping is a form of amusement, right?
That's why we are here at the Orlando Premium Outlet, for sheer amusement on a sunny Wednesday morning. This posh outdoor mall calls itself an outlet but the emphasis is really on the “premium.” The single-storey peach stucco buildings with pitched red gable roofs are in keeping with the Spanish Colonial Revival styles of some of the neighbouring resorts. And why not? Shopping on vacation should feel like a vacation. Seems dumb to go to a regular mall like the one back home, with its droopy potted plants and regional anchor stores. This is a browsing oasis with giant palm trees growing straight from the ground and stretching almost as high as the open-air roof that provides protection along the pathways from the inevitable two o'clock rainstorms. Large tiled fountains in the courtyards glimmering with reclaimed water and foreign coins — the exchange rate on wishes is not very good here. Multiple strands of warm white string lights define open walkways, offering necessary illumination from dusk to closing. Decorative towers are adorned with large three-dimensional logos of everyone's favourite international luxury brands. Right next door is the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, several doors up is Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. For Catholics in the year 2004 AD who love shopping and rodeos, there's hardly any need to venture beyond this little nook of Lake Buena Vista. Theme park what?
We start our visit at around 11am on a mid-autumn Wednesday. In a world where everyone lives for the weekend and loves the nightlife, midday of the midweek is the golden time for going places and avoiding people. Living in a tourist heavy area, it’s rare having a place completely to oneself. But if you were completely alone, who would ring up your purchases?
Sometimes we come here for a change in scenery. Today we are here on a quest. There is an object I've been remiss in purchasing and my existence feels hollow without it. I do not know what that object is but when I clap eyes on it, I will know at once that it is divine providence delivering me to the one thing to fill the void in my heart, closet, or bathroom counter. I know tagging along on someone's shopping quest can get dull, especially when the quest and destination are undefined. What are we looking for? Can we search together in an efficient way that gets this task done quicker and without tears? Do I have to stick around or can I wander off and maybe listen to the beefcake harpist playing along with his CDs out in front of the Food Court? I understand. I've been the sidekick on many retail quests only to empty-handed and sometimes in tears.Which is why today, as with most days, I do most of my shopping alone. You may skip ahead to the Food Court or take a seat on one of the empty metal benches exposed to the Central Florida elements or withdraw entirely as I know that you are somewhere in a time and place inaccessible to this time and place. If you are furtively peering around for another member of our party to arrive, please put your eyes and mind at ease. Let us try to enjoy the journey, together and separately, and at our own paces.
I've come to this attractive outdoor mall without a list of necessities. Often, going on any shopping errand with specific products in mind results in definite disappointment when the elusive thing is nowhere to be found in anyone's dusty stockroom. Anyway, what if the stores *have* stocked something brand new that we've not even seen on TV? We must keep our minds and eyes open to possibilities. And besides, this premium outlet mall is not designed for necessities. This is a place for indulging impulses and pretending we've done a deal, as if we are cliché TV sitcom wives from the 1950s.
"A mink stole for $300?!" our husbands exclaim.
"Why yes, but it's normally marked $850, so it's a bargain. Practically a steal!" we reply, employing the sound logic of Gracie Allen.
"I'll say!" he Burns, fumingly.
Look at us gabbing in front of the mall map when we could be browsing. What an impressive directory of designer fashions! Prada! Coach! Tommy Hilfiger! Juicy Couture! Izod! I've seen all of these things mentioned on television! This must be very exciting for people who care about such things. Ooh — they've got Tommy Bahama for all your vacation dad needs. An Ann Taylor boutique for your mom. And two Sunglass Hut, convenient for when you’ve lost the pair you just bought at the other one.
Where should we begin? I suppose we could consult the mall map to plot our route. The Orlando Premium Outlet is laid out in a gentle spiral circuit, with a shortcut through the Food Court building. Speedy shoppers can do a quick loop around the main circuit while sanguine shoppers can do a sort of figure eight around the property. Or we can start at the beginning of the side path that hooks into the main circuit and wind our way around. The prospect of walking the entire length of the mall sounds exhausting and it would be were we the types to pop in and out of every shop, carefully inspecting all the merchandise around every rack and up and down every aisle. Felicitously, we are not the types. In fact, we can altogether skip the Gymboree Outlet and OshKosh B'gosh, as our quest does not — and never does — involve children. We'll bypass the men's shoe shops as well as we've not reached the era of peak novelty sock and men's shoes, like ladies' lingerie, should be purchased based on knowledge and not guesstimation.
Since our primary goal is to waste time, the best place to accomplish that goal is in the nondescript CD/DVD outlet store. Let's shift into browse mode as we move along the aisles, flipping through the mixture of classic and contemporary greatest hits albums, the click-clicking of the CD jewel cases that are alphabetized but not categorized. Never have Debussy and the Doors been in such close proximity. Have that, hate that, like that, don't know that, should know that, $24.99 for *that*?! Music — a soothing balm for any existential crisis! Perhaps our quest is to find a CD that will be muse and catalyst for the future, providing motivation and fulfillment in 12 breezy tracks. Hmm, who did that song from that movie? Maybe that was a cover of an old standard. Which recording would I want? Do they have soundtracks here? Yes — but not from that movie. Am I sure that was the movie I'm thinking of? Let's go check out the DVDs; maybe I'll recognize the cover. Boy, there's a lot of frat boy comedies and action flicks here. Somewhere lives a 24-year-old guy who is really pleased with his collection of DVDs of movies that air every weekend on TBS. Do you think this Bruce Willis completionist is peeved that he can't find the boxset of Moonlighting or does he not even care? Oh, here are a bunch of old movies from the 1930s. A collection of the Thin Man movies for $4.99. Well, there's a deal! Five episodes of the Jerry Lewis show for $1.99. Seems fair. How many episodes could one tolerate of Jerry Lewis anyway? But no sign of the movie I'm looking for. Oops, disappointment is creeping in and this is only the first store. It is the only CD/DVD store at this mall, and our sole chance to fill our void with music. Unless Starbucks has some jazz CDs on display.
It's time to move on before discouragement settles. Forcing a search mid-browse is almost as bad as arriving with intent. Back out on Plaza de la Luna — the mall is divided on the map into six different colour-coded zones. Useful perhaps if you need to return the replacement pair of RayBans you bought at the Sunglass Hut in Plaza de Las Fuentes when you find the original pair you bought earlier at the Sunglass Hut in Plaza de Las Palmas tucked in your new Kate Spade handbag.
Coming up is a long stretch of stores dedicated to denim and footwear and, because this is 2004, denim footwear. One could spend hours cozied up in a changing room in the designer denim outlet wriggling in and out of all the jean styles to find the right pair. Bootcut, flare, skinny, boyfriend, farmer, mom, button-fly, distressed — I'm distressed just thinking about it. Denim is not on the agenda today.
Footwear similarly gets the boot. How does such a vital wardrobe component so often fail in form and function? All I want is a comfortable, versatile shoe that doesn't fall apart when it gets manhandled through airport security. Instead, it's a battle over gender and age — strappy stilettos or tasselled loafers, heels or sneakers, motorcycle boots or platform sandals or non-slip slip-ons. Settling on ladies' footwear — what's the most fashionable style to get toe blisters: Moccasin, mule, or Mary Jane? My kingdom for a personal shopping concierge.
How about a pair of hip, unisex sneakers from the sports shoe store? Look at all the possible colour combinations they've managed to get onto one shoe! Rhinestone Reebox! Limited edition Nike with a diamond-studded swoosh! Glow-in-the-dark Adidas!You've seen one gaudy shoe, you've seen 'em all. Or perhaps more kindly, I haven't learned how to appreciate modern casual footwear. Ah, so much for staying open to possibilities.
Perhaps Le Gourmet Chef is stocked with some delicious distractions. The kitchenware outlet is one of several stores here that betrays the cool vacation shopping vibe. Towards the front of the store, Le Gourmet Chef has displays for upscale whiz-bang kitchen gadgetry — portable barbecue grills, stainless steel cappuccino machines, novelty cotton candy machines, popcorn poppers, choppers, grinders, waffle irons. Hardly anything a traveller might deem a relevant keepsake worth loading into the luggage and hauling onto the flight home. On the other hand, a cotton candy machine is slightly more practical than an oversized Goofy hat ludicrously adorned with Mickey Mouse ears that hang on the heads of weary, seared tourists awaiting their flight home. The deeper we get into Le Gourmet Chef, the closer we inch towards necessities one might seek out for the kitchenettes in vacation homes and hotel suites, the measuring cups and spatulas and potholders. Ooh! — whimsical cocktail napkins and magnets printed with witticisms about wives and housework and the appropriate time for imbibing spirits. My own unopened package of Dorothy Parker cocktail napkins has been collecting dust alongside my martini glasses since they were given to me many months ago. In the rear of the store, there are aisles of gourmet foodstuffs that exist solely to stock gourmet kitchen stores and maybe Frasier Crane's pantry. The products range from taro crisps to carob brownie mix to extra virgin olive oil in packaging featuring script lettering and illustrations of European architecture with brand names like Haute Gourmand and Petit Manger. What do you give the person who has everything? Some weird-ass food from a novelty gourmet outlet store. Duh.
We circle back towards the front of the store and at last we light on Le Gourmet Chef's raison d'être. Atop one shelving unit is a display of open jars alongside pretzels and crackers for easy sampling. Take a taste of Stonewall Kitchen's apple butter, sun-dried tomato salsa, cranberry relish, fig tapenade or pesto Genovese. Apple butter makes a solid argument for coming home with me, but I remain unconvinced that $8.95 is a reasonable price for something that I will either consume in its entirety once we're home or leave to join the Dorothy Parker napkins under that cozy blanket of dust.
As we continue along Plaza de Las Palmas to Plaza de Las Flores, we pass some fellow browsers on their own quests, likely for bargains on suitcases or souvenirs. Or perhaps looking for a cheap way to pass the final days of their vacation, having run out of theme park money. All of us, the aimless wanderers and purpose-filled shoppers alike, betray the ambience that the developers had in mind for this mall. The adverts for Orlando Premium Outlets feature what I imagine to be their target demographic — well-heeled 30-something housewives with chic bob hairdos in cardigan sets and crisp capri pants, accessorized with sensible rattan sandals and matching handbags, going for a leisurely shop while their husbands putter around the nearby golf course. Instead, it's a confused jumble of frumpy tourists in ill-fitting shorts and sundresses, sweaty strands of hair matted to their necks and foreheads, skin pinking from too much fun in the sun, looking to escape the oppressive October heat. But maybe this is just typical for a Wednesday. Maybe the weekends attract the snazzy jet-setters who came into Orlando on a whim and need to pick up some Versace and Armani before jetting down to the islands.
The centre of the pathways are lined with palm trees, benches, and assorted kiosks. We mustn't make eye contact with the kiosk operators, lest we become the stars of our own personal infomercial. The kiosk operators are smooth and charming and eager to make those sales. It's tempting, on days like this, to engage with them. A little idle chitchat seems harmless. Quick as you can say howdy, the kioskers are squirting lotion onto your arm and rubbing it in while extolling the many benefits of this product and the whole line. Tired from your travels? The kiosker offers to ease those tensions with a wire head massager. But what if one of these kiosks holds the object of my indeterminate desire?
A spoiler alert, dear friend — we rarely find that elusive life-improving thingamajig. I thought it unfair to leave that tension looming over us, now at the halfway point of our journey. What are we looking for? Are we going to find it? Will dramatic complications ever arise? I'm afraid you're left holding the purse whilst I pontificate about the Happy Bunny character inside this Claire's Accessories.
Say, what's that cacophony of aromas clambering over one another to assault our nasal passages? It's Perfumania, one of several fragrance shops cluttered with bottles of designer perfumes and aerosol cans of Designer Imposters. Spritz a little, dab a little, cough a little, gag a little. Wouldn't you like to smell like Exotic Waterfall? How about Orlando — a blend of sandalwood and jasmine, vanilla musk and tonka beans, orange blossoms and coconut shrimp? You, too, can smell like a star with body fragrances by Britney and J. Lo and Luciano Pavarotti. Where do these celebs find the time to make music and concoct signature scents when I can barely make my own dinner?
Shall we see what all the fuss is about over these luxury designer brands? The legitimate merits of the designers and their labels were never explained to me, down in the lower class of society. What is it about Ralph Lauren's shirts that makes them more desirable than the ones at Target? I heard something about quality stitching on a fancy handbag once. How long can we browse the Ralph Lauren outlet store before peeking at a price tag or being asked if we need assistance? Forty-five seconds. The floor walker was giving me the side-eye so I took at gander at the tag for what turned out to be a $75 orange-and-pink-striped golf shirt. Seventy-five dollars. For a shirt designated for golfing. If it is $75 at the outlet mall, what was the original suggested retail price? Arguably, one could get more use out of mink stole — or at least be able to pawn it for divorce-in-Reno money. To disguise my shock and outrage, I'll nudge at some of the other shirts on the rack. I'm not a classless rube who cannot afford these clothes; the clothes simply bore and displease me. Why, $75 is mere pocket change! Let us leave this place, having learned nothing about the appeal of highfalutin' designers. Au revoir, Ralph Lauren. And good riddance.
The Food Court in Plaza del Sol sounds like it should have upscale Latin and Mediterranean cuisine. Not even a Taco Bell. The Food Court eschews the "premium" premise with fast food fare that aims to sate the families and the unadventurous with sandwiches and burgers and pizza. At least it's cheap. The air conditioned building offers ample seating. Somehow, though, every empty table is adjacent to tables filled with young families and small children in various stages of tantrums. You would be livid too if you'd travelled hundreds of miles from home and were promised a meeting with your favourite animated star of the big and small screen only to be stuck at the mall while Mommy shops. Doesn't she go shopping enough at home? They don't have Dior at Mommy's regular mall, Timmy.
The A&W is the only eatery with its own dine-in booth seating. On a blistering autumn Wednesday, it is suspiciously, yet thankfully, gloriously empty. We can guiltlessly claim a booth far from the squalling tots, reflect on our findings and chart the course for the remainder of the day over root beer and burgers. What would this burger be like with apple butter, I wonder. Someday, some enterprising chef type will put apple butter and pretzel sticks on a burger and sell it for $21 at their gastrolounge and the foodies will rejoice over this innovation of mixing sweet with savoury with salty crunchiness.
The combination of air conditioning, 1960s rock 'n' roll playing on the sound system, the onion rings in their deep fried slimy glory, and the free refills on diet root beer have quieted that low hum of vague dissatisfaction and disgruntlement of the morning. With a bonus refill of sweet carbonation to propel us, we can continue our tour. There are still Yankee Candles to smell and ironic t-shirts to read and souvenirs to check out for the folks back home. We must, as the Pleasure Island billboards say, "Carpe P.M."
If it's mid-afternoon and no rain showers rolling in, the strapping blonde harpist sets up his amplified harps to provide some lite entertainment for the wandering travellers. Women with no ordinary interest in classical new age music gather round to watch this hunky high class busker rock out on his harp, accompanied by his own CDs. After his brief performance, a few new groupies converge on his merch table to buy his album and get a little face time before their sour-faced hubbies pull them away to "get on the road to beat the traffic." The ladies go home with a new fantasy and a CD that will go unlistened in their car console. The international award-winning harpist lives to pluck another day.
A warm autumn breeze rustles the palm trees. Two little lizards scramble up the shady side of a decorative concrete planter.
We have not yet considered fashions in our pursuit of fulfillment. Fashion trendsetters understand the gnawing sense of incompletion, and they prey on it. Check out the hottest hemlines! Cool seasonal colour palettes! Don't miss the latest in ladies' accessories! Get preppy with plaid and pearls! Go from day to night with this reversible wrap dress and matching clutch purse! Skinny scarves! Sunglasses with tiny purple lenses! How about a belt to go with that dress you never wear? An argyle cardigan in case you need a sleeve? Pantyhose!
The Orlando Premium Outlet mall has, scattered amongst the upscale luxe boutiques, several cheap 'n' cheerful clothing outlets. We could burn a few calories in the changing room with an armload of lightweight polyester and spandex — one-shoulder tops, ruffled sundresses, beaded blouses with plunging necklines, sequin miniskirts, sheer crop tops, and low-rider bellbottoms — the stuff of party girls and hoochie mamas. Who wants to confirm that form-fitting doesn't mean form-flattering? Who needs to waste time worrying about muffin top and camel toe — arguably the worst vaudeville team in the Orpheum Circuit? We could follow up with a frump fest at Dressbarn, trying on floral church dresses and skirt suits on the off-chance we want to pop into the Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine before heading home. I cannot even handle Wet Seal and its perky teen girl energy.
Rounding the corner towards Plaza de Las Luces, we'll admire the Brooks Brothers window display full of headless mannequins suited up for a big day at the courthouse or in their corner offices plotting how to take over the world and sacrifice human rights to serve their economy. How dare they be so dapper yet so dastardly, with their matching socks and pocket squares, tiny embroidered whales swimming along on their neckties, and cheeky addition of a knit sweater vest to the suit to soften their image like Republicans gabbing it up with late night liberal comedy show hosts. "We're all friends and everything is fine," the tiny whales sing.
"Has this ever happened to you?" cries out the display television from the As Seen on TV outlet. A million plastic containers avalanche onto a flailing lady's head. A man settles into a recliner with a platter of chips and salsa and dumps the contents onto his lap and floor. A man becomes exasperated with chopping celery. Surely, there will be some gadget or gizmo that promises solve one of my life's little annoyances. Like little Timmy, wide-eyed with hope and anticipation over seeing his favourite Disney character in the three o'clock parade, I'm eagerly eyeing the shelves for the products from my favourite late night infomercials. Come on, Magic Bullet! How about the great Hairdini? Wonder Steamer? Keep on wondering. My kingdom for Time-Life's Dean Martin Roasts on DVD! Denied. Just a bunch of coin sorters and Pocket Sockets, novelty singing fish, and a topical breast enhancement cream whose packaging leaves me doubtful of its ability to improve my bust and my takes on current events.
The blue cloudless sky is beautiful and brutal in the mall’s exposed courtyards. Quickly, let’s round the corner and take cover from the white hot sun under the roof of Plaza de Las Fuentes.
The afternoon heat is beginning to take its toll on the aged shoppers and the benches have filled up with grandmothers waiting for their families, elderly men waiting for their wives outside the Hanes outlet while she scores a deal on some new undershirts for him, lady retirees who just met chatting away about their children and the weather as if they've been friends for years. One of the dangers of sitting next to a stranger on a bench is the threat of striking up polite conversation and being on the receiving end of their full life story.
We're nearing the end of our circuit. The stores are starting to look the same. Can I be sure that this Sunglass Hut is not the same one from earlier?
What is that glimmering ahead of us? The Swarovski outlet embodying the true spirit of the Premium Outlet mall by teetering along the line between tasteful and tacky. Glass cabinets in the window display shelves of prismatic crystal figurines. Birds and teddy bears and frog princes stare out with their soulless black beady eyes. Intricate crystal replicas of international landmarks shimmer under the built-in LED spotlights. Three variations Mickey Mouse statuettes remind us where we are, just in case Cinderella's crystal castle and carriage and glass slipper were too subtle. The rest of the store is dedicated to the kind of sparkling jewellery and accessories one might pair with evening gowns and mink stoles and the kind of customers for whom $250 for crystal-encrusted sunglasses is a sensible bargain. Sayonara, Swarovski.
As we prepare to leave the Orlando Premium Outlet mall empty-handed, let us respect the tradition of local attractions and exit through the gift shop. Although it's not feasible to actually exit the mall via the Character Warehouse, it is near enough to the exit that we can justify a quick looky-loo before turning tail and climbing aboard the I-Ride Trolley. The Character Warehouse feels more like the Museum of Theme Park Souvenirs. The dated trinkets and t-shirts look like they were unearthed from a time capsule with the original price tags still attached. Postcard racks are filled with faded pictures of orange groves and alligators and Orlando skyline helicopter shots from 1982. The magnet display is overrun with the wooden map of Florida with the thermometer that was on everyone's grandma's fridge in the 1970s. The SeaWorld "department" has Shamu buckets and beach towels and killer whale plushies. The t-shirt racks alternate between stiff tees with "Orlando" or "Florida" embroidered on the front, flimsy tees printed with parody logos mostly unrelated to any of the attractions, and shirts featuring familiar characters with near-imperceptible flaws that rendered them just different enough to avoid licensing fees. This is the place visitors come when they had so much fun doing thrills and sights they forgot to buy presents for people back home. This is the stuff you get for acquaintances and distant relatives who always ask if you brought anything back for them. This is where broke divorced dads buy presents for their kids to make up for not going to the actual parks.
Okay, one last obligatory spin on the keychain rack at the counter to play the personalized keychain name game. There are four different styles — Tiny Sunshine State license plate, carved wooden letters, a metal die-cut flamingo standing on a base when the name is printed in Helvetica. The rules for stocking personalized keychains are unclear. Were the racks loaded with "Mark" and "Jenny" and "Mary" and "John," we could presume they were sticking with safe, basic names. Do they go by the census? Order by the previous year's personalized keychain sales? Who decides to stock "Catherine" and "Kathy" and "Katie" and "Kathryn" but not "Katha—" wait. This wooden block has been carved to spell K A T H A R I N E. Audible gasp. It's a Mary Queen of the Universe miracle. Quest completed.
Yes, now, finally, we can take our leave of this place. My tiny trophy purchased and securing my keys, we mark this day trip down as a success. On the trolley ride home, I’ll retrace our steps, rewriting events so that it feels serendipitous and inevitable, me finding myself on a random keychain rack in the last stop of the day. What are the odds?
The clouds are rolling in. The afternoon showers are late today. Do you have an umbrella?
It is now ten minutes until the end of the world. Or, to be more precise, it is nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds until the end of human civilization as it had come to be known over the course of some less than one hundred years. Should a Future loom ahead for the distant descendants of the 21st century, and should a curious set emerge to act as humanity’s new historians, the most vocal amongst them may debate whether the people of the year of Our Lord two thousand and twenty-one brought miseries willfully upon themselves.
Prior to the final nine minutes and fifty-three seconds before the end of ‘mankind and itx modern conveniences, the 21st century was a time on contradictions and extremes. At moments it seemed that anything was possible — anyone could be President, sharks could be tornadoes, feature films could be viewed on wrist watches, and the USB cord could be plugged in the correct way on the first try. The possibility for everything to be wonderful was always just out of reach and one-third of the people roaming the planet were straight-up garbage. The Futures that had been promised to generations were almost totally in the Past. Battles were waged daily between the 1% and the 99% in the bloody battlefields of American malls. Western civilization was divided into sub-cultures and micro-cultures defined by fashion and fandoms. Stories overwhelmed the newsfeeds of Millennials destroying the traditions and industries beloved by their Boomer parents, whose homes they could never quite afford to move from. Most everyone had pocket-sized computers with access to the total of human knowledge and the ability to find the answer to any question, from “who was that guy in that thing” to “how is babby formed” to “am i the asshole”, and repeatedly chose to remain ignorant in what hystoryanx will determine was pure spite. Had the technology survived to communicate with the ghosts of the greatest intellectual minds — if the technology had been indeed developed and subsequently frightened the inventors and participants with its accuracy so much that it needed to be destroyed — they would have been understandably outraged by the grotesque misuse of the whiz-bang gadgets afforded to the general public.
Chuck Dickens would agree that two thousand and twenty-one was really not all that different from one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five, what with all the wisdom and foolishness and hope and despair and belief and incredulity and everything and nothing, and most of all the times.
The fate of the world as it was known up to a mere nine minutes and forty-seven seconds ago is in the clammy hands of a demented man-child, the leader of the once-free world who sought power and glory without responsibility, who has chosen to trigger global nuclear war rather than surrender his title and position. America, once poised for some definition of greatness, prospers only from death. The land of opportunity, now the land of the opportunistic. America leads the world in causing cancer and in the most cases of untreated and untreatable cancers. Pseudoscientists work tirelessly to invent new cancers, while armchair doctors peddle costly unproven cures. President Failson counts this among his greatest achievements. One need not consult a Magic 8-ball, much less the pocket computer’s encyclopedic knowledge to know that all signs point to yes, he is the asshole.
At t-minus three minutes and forty-five seconds, a captive global audience will be tuned in to hear the inspirational peace anthem from infamous pop musician and unlikely hero Bingeable Dramedy. That modern society should collapse to the sounds of a young white male making one last plea for world peace seems a bit too apropos and thereby absolutely fitting. It remains to be seem whether The Ballad of Bingeable Dramedy is worthy of a lengthy word count or if he can be forgiven for being a white male protagonist in a world full of characters promisingly to be infinitely more interesting and diverse. How did this classically-trained keytarist and one of the leaders of the Northeastern neo-folx music scene go from playing cat cafés and bark mitzvahs to having the privilege of potentially being the last voice everyone on the planet hears before possible total nuclear annihilation?
In these turbulent and unpresidented times, Bingeable Dramedy is not the hero we need at nine minutes and forty-one seconds ’til the end of the world, but he might just be the white male protagonist we deserve.
Frankenstein’s creature performs a stand-up routine.
CAST: FM - an awkward, possibly grotesque man with discoloured skin, dressed in modern stand-up comedian wardrobe
SETTING: The stage of a comedy club
FM enters and approaches the stand-up microphone with a stiff gait, shielding his eyes from the bright stage lights. He picks up the microphone, growls a few times, and clears his throat.
FM: Hiya, folks. How's everybody doing out there? Are you ready to have a good time? All right, we've got a great show for you tonight, we've scared up some really terrific entertainment. Before we get started, can I tell you about something that’s bugging me? I went to my doctor today and told him, "Doc, I haven't been feeling myself lately." He said, "Well, who have you been feeling?" I said, "Doctor, I've got a ringing in my ears" He said, "Don't answer!" I said, "I think I broke my arm in three places." He said, "Stop going to those places." Finally, the doctor says "We need to perform surgery on your hand." I say, "Will I be able to play the piano after?" He says, "I don't see why not." And I say, "Well, I couldn't play before."
(reacts to audience groans by groaning himself)
Ugh, I'm a monster, I know. I was so ugly when I was born, Doctor Frankenstein slapped himself. I asked "Doc, why can’t I have the skin of a 20 year old." He said "I was afraid you'd stretch it out." I know what you're thinking, I look like a cross between Richard Nixon and the Elephant Man. You know what? I am!
(pointing to different parts of his body)
A priest, a monk, and a rabbi were in a boat... So, I'm walking down the street, this fella comes up to me and says "You've got the same nose as a guy I knew in the Navy." I said, "Maybe I do. When did he die?" I've been told I've got the heart of an investment banker, the lungs of a coal miner, the liver of an Irish bartender. It's a miracle I'm still walking around.
I told my doctor I was lonely, asked what I should do to attracts girls. He suggested I join a rock band, but I don't have an ear for music. The doctor says I've got a face only a mother could love, but I haven't got a mother. I met one girl who really carried a torch for me. The trouble is, so did the giant mob behind her. I couldn't believe my luck when a girl invited me over for a romantic candlelight dinner. We had a good time for a while but it wound up being murder for her. The doctor finally took pity on me, built for me a beautiful bride... and then he built her mother. My bride has it all — the legs of a supermodel, the face of an angel, the brains of a neurosurgeon, and the shoulders of an NFL linebacker. My bride dresses to kill. Unfortunately, she cooks the same way. What’s more exasperating than a bride who can cook and won’t, is a bride who can’t cook and will.
Not many couples can say they were made for each other and mean it. Sadly, the only thing my bride and I have in common is that we were married on the same day. I knew she was Miss Right, I just didn’t know her name was Always. My bride has a split personality, and I hate both of them. My bride was afraid of the dark — until she saw me naked; now she's afraid of the light. I wouldn’t say my bride is cold, but every time she opens her mouth, a little light comes on inside. I told my bride I was seeing a psychiatrist; then she told me that she's seeing a psychiatrist, two plumbers, and a bartender. My bride’s not too smart; I told her our kids were spoiled… she said, “All kids smell that way.” You’ve been a great audience! Up next, we've got a guy who's a real scream.
End of scene. Blackout.
This is a love letter.
I mean, I guess this is a love letter. But it's not the sort of love letter one typically thinks of when one thinks of "love letters." It might not be Webster's definition of love letter. Even our personal definitions of love and letter may differ.
Wait. Hold on. Before you start deliberating whether to use my heart as a trampoline, hear me out.
With global disaster looming, large-scale crises and tragedies happening on a daily basis and the impending end of the world, it seems prudent to reach out to loved ones in some meaningful way sooner rather than later. It shouldn't take an apocalypse to prompt personal correspondence, just as it shouldn't take a capitalistic holiday to motivate people to send gifts or treat others with kindness. In our hectic everyday lives, with our jobs and side hustles and sundry family activities, we've forced to pick our leisurely pursuits based on how easily they fit into the quiet pockets of the days. It's far less demanding to binge a podcast in a blanket fort than it is to meet up for brunch with friends across town. It's rare that anyone sends more than a quick email to check in with anyone without following up with the need of a favour. On the train to work today, I could've caught up on the backlog of electronic correspondence since 1998, read any of the Facebook messages accumulated in the last five years, and responded to a friend's "sup" text from two weeks ago. Instead, I stared out the window and then skimmed four tweet threads dedicated to theories about '90s sitcom spin-offs.
Anyway, here I am, taking time out of my very hectic life at the end of the world to write a declaration of my love for you. A declaration that seems unnecessary. I suspect you know that I love you. At the very least, you must suspect something, based on the frequency of our social media interactions alone. I feel that I could have lived the rest of my life without blatantly expressing what must be obvious fact and to which you may reply, "Well, duh."
In an ideal world, I could just scribble “I love you” on a scrap of paper and pass it to you and that would be enough. If free love still existed, you’d need only respond with “Right on, man” and we'd go about our lives. But ours is not an ideal world. When the idea that love could be distributed cost-free and double as its own reward couldn't be successfully monetized, the liberation of love was short-lived. We've instead been conditioned to feel anxiety whenever this four-letter word is introduced between two people, to believe that saying "I love you" to someone outside of your bloodline means the relationship must advance or change course in some way.
Now that I have invoked that three-word phrase, what social contract have I unwittingly entered us into? What does it mean and what do we do about it? The declaration of love is often accompanied by the expectation of reciprocation, or a detailed explanation of why the declared love cannot be reciprocated. Please rest assured, there is no need for that here. I don’t feel that my love is unrequited. It need not be requited. I am quite content with my... quited love for you. I confess there will be a twinge of embarrassment should you say that you consider me nothing more than the most distant of acquaintances. Even then, I should not regret my revelation. I love you and you are a person deserving of love, in whatever form it takes.
Whatever form does it take? My heart pounds, my stomach flutters, my pulse quickens as I search for the words that convey my feelings accurately. How can I quantify my love in a way that isn't intimidating or off-putting? What kind of love do I feel? Romantic? Platonic? Some as yet uncategorized -ic? I just did a Google search to look for a Buzzfeed quiz that could help me define it. Did you know there are seven types of love, apparently? I'm not sure any one type defines my love for you. It's probably on the cusp of several types or perhaps in the centre of a complex Venn diagram. Perhaps I could define my love for you with a colour from the overlap within the diagram. I think it's somewhere in the purple family. Violet seems too common. Lavender and Lilac seem too lightweight. It's a deeper, richer hue, I think, with an exotic sounding name, like Mauveine or Purpureus or Byzantium.
My Aubergine love is one that does not demand impossible tasks or commit them. I have not constructed a bespoke pedestal for you to perch atop so that I might do whatever one does for people on pedestals. It is far beyond my power to feng shui the universe in order to demonstrate my love or to encourage you to reciprocate. I don't think my love for you is strong enough to move earthly or heavenly bodies to woo and win you. In fact, I'm disinclined to pitch woo of any sort. Any fantastic notions of riding off into the sunset together on a motorcycle or yacht as Michael McDonald sings over our end credits must be quashed. I've no plans to rent one of these romantic escapade vehicles with grand intentions to sweep you away. Love stories rarely start with the yacht whisking our romantic leads away to embark on their new lives together. We always catch them at the end of a troubled tale and presume they've got two tickets to Paradise just across the bay from Happily Ever After. If the two of us set sail on the sea of love, we'd have so much real life, un-cinematic baggage to sort out and all the upending and rearranging of lives that is messy and unpleasant and full of risks.
So, I don't love you enough to embarrass myself with expensive gestures or to complicate our otherwise comfortable, separate lives. I could knit you a hat or perhaps some socks. Do you need wooly socks that feel like someone is always hugging your feet?
It is true that many people toss love around carelessly, casually upselling their feelings for celebrities and superhero movies and pumpkin spice lattes and sun-dried tomatoes. Could I be guilty of this semantic bleaching, using "love" as a tidy shorthand for what is likely more accurate, but decidedly awkward and cringeworthy? Have I said "I love you" when what I really mean is--
I have a fondness for you.
I feel warmth towards you.
I have great admiration and affection for you.
I hold you in high esteem.
I cherish our bond.
I enjoy your company.
I relish our interactions.
Yuck, right? None of these are things you’d like to see scribbled on a bar napkin, much less printed as spoken by an anthropomorphic pimento-loaf cupid on some vintage novelty Valentine’s Day card.
I didn't say this is a good love letter.
But, I do love you.
I'm sorry. It is crass to unpack my feelings for you to you. Perhaps it would've been better had I just tweeted you a couple of heart emojis and a nonthreatening Homestar Runner GIF.
I could not tell you why, or when, or what you did to provoke such strong emotions in your favour? I can't tell you how to replicate that process for someone whose love you seek? It probably wasn't one isolatable incidence, but countless insignificant moments—a dozen little acts of kindnesses, glances, gestures, and jokes inflated to absurd significance.
In idle moments, I might analyze our shared moments, looking for signs that you love me back—an intentional grazing of hands, eye contact we might've held for a beat longer than usual, a reluctance to part company, or a meaningful string of internet-based graphics. As if our friendship were a Magic Eye picture, I stare at it, into it, through it until I see the sailboat of our mutual admiration.
I wonder what kind of love, if any, you might have for me? How many types of love? Do our loves exist on separate planes, never to intersect? Or would our Venn diagrams mesh perfectly? I shouldn't speculate. You are entitled to whatever is in your heart, even if that is the platonic goodwill we should carry for all creatures throughout the universe.
Oh, but, what if, in professing my feeling for you while trying to free you from the obligation to reciprocate or respond, I have unwittingly broken your heart? Was it foolish of me to not consider that you might possess a greater love for me? And, by attempting to minimize the intensity of my feelings, made you feel it necessary to minimize your own feelings?
Damn the poets and damn the advertisers and damn the movies and music and literature and chocolate boxes and damn the Church and the State and the human body and all its involuntary reactions to stimuli and damn the atom for making love so damned difficult to convey.
All I really wanted to do was to express my positive feelings for you, here at what could be the end of the world as we know it. I just wanted you to know that, even at one of the darkest points in human history or your own personal history, someone is rooting for you to be safe and comfortable, that someone has been affected for the better by your existence, that someone out here does love you.
Hiya, friend. You say you lost your job today and all your side hustles went bust and your phone battery is at 23% and it's only 9:45 in the morning because your charger cord is on the fritz and it's the third replacement you've bought this month and your avocado is half rotten and the pit is lodged pretty deep into the half that's still green and your gluten-free toast is burnt and someone in your building keeps taking your Amazon packages so you've placed the same order for shampoo and double-A batteries five times while your dandruff flakes all over your pillow and your smoke alarm goes off every 25 seconds because the batteries ran out three weeks ago and you can't reach the ceiling to stop the alarm because your boyfriend stole your stepladder when he left last month to move in with a girl he met through a Google document.
Is that what's troublin' you, bub?
Raise your blanket over your head and take a nap for awhile
You deserve rest and self-care is important
Keep calm and try again tomorrow!
How ya doin', fella? You say there was another mass murder committed by a white man and you tried calling your senator about it but he was out hunting with an international oil tycoon and you went to the doctor for a cough and he wrote you a prescription but when you got to the pharmacy, they only had brand name capsules and your drug plan just covers generic and your rent keeps rising and so do the oceans and all your mutual acquaintances muted you on Twitter and you tuned into a free live streaming of a rare concert by your favourite band but the feed buffered for an hour an a half so you missed the show while everyone on social media said it was the best-ever performance by the group and the recording can only be borrowed for $5.99 on a service that isn't available in your country and you backed a project on Kickstarter that promised to ship out perks to donors but it's been six months and you haven't received the perks and the company doesn't share progress updates anymore and you tried emailing but the letters keep bouncing back and you just cracked the screen on your smartphone the day after the warranty expired.
Is that what's on your mind, sport?
Pull your socks up high and join a protest march
You'll see that everyone's pissed off
And they'll never give up either!
Hey, pal. You say your car ran outta gas and the digital dashboard has been on the fritz so you didn't know your tank was empty and the car stopped in the middle of nowhere during a big rainstorm and you can't get any reception on your phone but that's okay because you forgot to pay your bill when your reminder app stopped reminding you after a big update and the phone service was shut off and the nearest pay phone is three miles back but you don't even know if pay phones still work and the gas station is just a mile away but you're boycotting the brand because of their unethical treatment of indigenous women and baby seals and your girlfriend's crying because her latest selfie only got 12 likes and you start to walk toward the gas station when an 18-wheeler comes whizzing by through a large puddle and you get soaked and a raccoon comes by and steals the gas can right out of your hand and the radio announces that the president just launched nuclear weapons and you're not sure if you have enough La Croix at home to get through the apocalypse.
Is that what's got you glum, chum?
Lift your chin up and take a look at the sky
And you'll say... yeah, shit's fucked.
A professor delivers a lecture on the origin of a mysterious symbol. Over the course of his lecture, he compulsively draws more and more of the symbol on available media and surfaces.
PROFESSOR - late 30s/early 40s, dressed in pyjamas with a tweedy blazer/sports coat and tortoiseshell glasses, which he is constantly trying to push back up his nose, regardless of actual slippage.
SECURITY GUARD - blue collar, gruff but sympathetic. he's encountered the professor giving previous lectures before.
PROFESSOR enters with a stack of papers and books, sets them on the table. He looks out to the audience and studies them briefly, pushes glasses up on nose. After a moment, he goes to chalkboard (or whiteboard) and draws the pointy S on a chalkboard.
Alternatively, after sizing up the audience, he pulls a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolds it and holds it up with the Pointy S drawing facing outward towards the audience.
PROFESSOR: Can anyone tell me what this is? Anyone? No one?
(takes place behind lectern and bangs his fist on the top) Nobody knows!
Despite decades, if not centuries of its existence, it seems no one on the face of the Earth knows what this symbol is, where it came from, or what it means. No human throughout history has been willing to take credit for the invention of this ... pointy S-like thing that inexplicably manifests itself on school notebooks and overpasses, washroom stalls and garage doors, scrawled large across faded billboards for menthol cigarettes and carved deep into the tabletops at dive bars and wooden railings of remote parklands.
I recall my days as a young lad, idly sketching this very shape in the margins of my composition book, alongside my classmates who were likewise doodling, as our teachers droned on about ancient cultures, mathematical equations, and scientific theories. We hadn’t a clue where it came from, but it looked cool, so we decorated book covers and binders with it for years until, one day…we didn't. As mysteriously as it entered our prepubescent lives, it vanished from our doodle repertoire and our minds. A few months ago, the memories came rushing back when I noticed Kevin, my nine-year-old nephew drawing on the cover of his notebook the same Pointy S that I'd done 30-odd years before. Oh, I thought, was this actually from a once trendy thing that’s circled round again as trends and television shows are wont to do. My curiosity piqued, I inquired where he’d gotten the notion to draw it. My nephew responded with a most eloquent "dunnuh."
Well! As an adjunct Professor of Arcane Marginalia at the University of Margaritaville, I couldn't let this mystifying matter drop. I’ve spent countless hours poring over historic tomes, reviewing ancient symbols and alphabets, scanning design manuals for wordmarks that might match this character. I’ve interrogated fellow colleagues and former classmates. I’ve consulted experts—historians, typographers, mathematicians, and psychic advisors. I’ve scoured the internet, reading dozens of articles and message boards and countless Subreddit threads. My findings have revealed that everyone recognizes the doodle itself and confesses to copying it onto their own notebooks between the ages of eight and eleven, but they don’t know anything about it. Most people suppose it's a phase unique to their own childhood, dating back to the mid-1960s, and perhaps they were out sick on the day the doodle was introduced. With no recorded historical significance and no documented point of origin, it’s as if the proliferation of pointy esses emblazoned on edifices was perpetrated by stealthy, street-tough fairies with gossamer wings and leather jackets, armed with spray paint and jackknives, working under cover of night to spread their mysterious message for children to see on their commute to school, with no discernible purpose than to serve as an unspoken tradition passed on through schoolchildren, crossing genders, classes, races, and nationalities. At this moment, young Martians and Venusians could be doodling it in notebook margins during boring lectures alongside their crude drawings of that grotesque Mrs. Jefferson emitting a large quantity of stink lines from her bottom.
Those lacking curiosity reckon the Pointy S is an asemic morpheme, a mere simple doodle, just an alternative to your run-of-the-mill cube requiring no skill or thought when mindlessly doodling through boring lectures or while on hold with customer service, so, of course it's attractive to children and I’m overthinking things again and this is why I’ll never find love. Excuse me for being intrigued by what is possibly the greatest phenomenon of the 20th century, Marsha!
(scribbling on paper or whiteboard as he speaks) Look, most doodles can be identified. Here's a square. Oh, look, now it's a cube. Here's a circle. Now it's a smiley face. Now it's Mr. Sunshine piercing heat rays into some nearby clouds. Here's some doodly little hearts for the girls out there. (winks at no one in particular) Let's add some stars here...oooh, shooting stars. Ah! Here's Mr. Chad to tell us “Kilroy was here." (holds up a detailed drawing of an alien) Here's Zorbert, an intergalactic acquaintance of mine who comes round to get me into or out of harebrained schemes. (draws a bunch of arrows pointing to the other doodles) We've got easily identifiable doodles coming out of our yin yangs! (draws a yin yang)
But this—what is this figure? A profane hieroglyphic? Rogue Aztec graffiti? A symbol for an abandoned form of currency? A doodle from da Vinci's discarded bar napkin?
Sure, it's easy to do—just draw two equidistant sets of three parallel lines, then join them diagonally from left to right, then cap off at the top and bottom with pointy bits. Put it all together and what've you got? A Pointy S. But why? And why does it mostly appeal to young children for such a brief window of time?
A lot of people presume the Pointy S is inspired by a logo from a popular heavy metal band or superhero or skateboard company. These presumptions can be easily debunked with a simple side-by-side comparison of the S to these logos. For every six suppositions that the Pointy S is some sort of logo, one person counters that it must be a gang sign, a theory loosely based on a lone observation of the symbol tucked amongst some roadside graffiti and the notion that all graffiti must be gang-related. This myth is generally favoured by authority figures, who are always keen to attribute things they don't understand to gangs.
For years, apparently, the Pointy S has been misattributed to the Stüssy brand. So prevalent is this myth that the Pointy S is generally identified by the misnomer Stüssy S.
(holds up a print out of the Stüssy logo) However, a simple web image search brings up the official Stüssy logo in its variations since the company's formation in the 1980s and not one is identical to the Pointy S. Despite this contrary evidence, a surprising majority of people who correspond on Internet forums are willing to blithely accept this and go about their lives. Close enough, they say. I say even if you justify that the Pointy S is based in part on this one particular S, you still haven't rationalized why it is pointy on either end.
Now, there is one plausible theory suggesting this symbol originated as a puzzle in a 1950s issue of Scholastic magazine, one of those teasers—“use these six lines to draw an S". Of course, there is no recorded evidence of this mid-century ephemera and the question remains—where did this variation of the letter S originate? Who, in 1950s America, was drawing esses with straight lines? When the modern S had been beautifully simplified to one smooth curvy line, who's mission was it to make it so very complex and pointy?
My colleague in the university's Pseudohistory department theorizes the symbol was first observed in the margins of the 1965 edition of a Harcourt Brace science textbook, put forth as part of a grand experiment in unconscious perception by the textbook publisher and used in conjunction subliminal messages inserted into educational filmstrips. The experiment was designed to measure how susceptible students were to subliminal stimuli and their response. For example, would students subjected to a viewing of The Great Scramfoozler of Zoo pick up on suggestive messaging to doodle the Pointy S whilst learning about public way-finding? Eventually, my colleague surmises, the Pointy S was adopted independent of Harcourt Brace and was passed on organically by students via textbooks and any surface onto which a child could make a tiny mark of rebellion.
We may never know the true progenitor of the Pointy S. Many of you will return to your homes tonight, satisfied to believe the disproved explanation that the Pointy S is the Stüssy logo. “Meh, works for me,” you’ll say to your spouse. “Banksy probably added those pointy bits to make a creative statement. That professor was clearly mad for suggesting it could be anything else. Marsha was right to kick him out. Why would anyone dedicate their lives to examining the minutiae of Marginalia anyway? They're just doodles for fuck's sake! Starving children in Africa don't even have the strength to draw circles in the sand, much less esses of any angularity. Well, why are you so willing to accept easily debunked theories?! You could have so much fun devising your own outlandish theories and flinging them hither and yon across the Internet.
My own theory starts in the margins where the Pointy S is typically found. It was first discovered as a drollery lifted from an ancient illuminated manuscript, the handiwork of a sneaky 11-year-old monk's apprentice making reference to the popular Medieval rune-based card game Crazy Aetts. In its original form, the Pointy S was turned horizontally, resembling a sort of rustic infinity symbol. It was turned to its more recognizable vertical aspect when adapted for Lord Cumberland Lovelady's North Sherbetshire League of Vagrants in the late 18th century. Ooh! Another possibility could be a rudimentary take on the section sign (§), that obscure yet ubiquitous symbol scattered about in legal documents. If I could refer you to section 3 of Kevin's grade three mathematics textbook, I think you'll find the Pointy S--
SECURITY GUARD enters
SECURITY GUARD: Alright, Professor, time to go. It's snack time.
PROFESSOR: But I was giving a lecture to these people--
SECURITY GUARD: Sure you were, buddy. Come on.
SECURITY GUARD moves to guide PROFESSOR away.
PROFESSOR: All of my theories— And the pointy-ness--
SECURITY GUARD: Yeah, yeah.
(notices all the esses drawn by the professor) Say, that's the Stüssy logo, ain't it? We used to draw that at school. Ha!
PROFESSOR whimpers and sobs as he's escorted away.
I am now sitting in a small beige room. The room's only contents are me and this gray chair. In front of me is the only door to the room and a numeric keypad mounted on the wall beside it. There are no windows and no vents. The fluorescent overhead lighting fixture is mounted to a solid white ceiling. The flooring looks some kind of institutional linoleum. There are no mirrors or clocks or artwork, no magazines, pamphlets, instructions, or signs.
I don't know how I got here.
The last thing I remember is lying in a hospital bed, with the faint din and chatter of hospital staff and passers-by in the background and the louder blips and whirs of machines seemingly attached to my person.
I am not in a hospital gown now, just my regular clothes. I think these are my regular clothes. I've worn this sweater before but these shoes look different. Did I buy these shoes? They seem like shoes I would buy. I like them, anyway. This is the watch my mother gave me three birthdays ago. Is this the time? Hmm. The hands aren't moving. Either this watch has died or I have!
What is this room? Is this a waiting room? Am I waiting to be discharged from the hospital? Those must've been some really good drugs for me to not remember getting up and dressed and coming into this room. How long have I been here? It feels like I have been waiting a while and no one has come in here to get me. Without a clock, I don't know if I've sitting here ten minutes or ten days. It can't be ten days because I've not gotten hungry or sleepy or the need for a toilet yet. When was the last time I ate something? I don't recall.
It feels very small for a waiting room, more like an elevator or a fully enclosed cubicle. Maybe it's an isolation booth. Why do I need to be isolated from everything except this chair?
Maybe I should just try the door. Why didn't I do that in the first place? Politeness, I guess? I don't want to push my way through if they sat me in here for a particular reason and I was still too drugged up to understand. I didn't understand most of why I was in the hospital anyway. However, this wait seems excessive, even by excessive medical wait time standards. Boy, I wish I could remember something. What if I was abducted from the hospital and brought here and certain danger lurks beyond that door? What lurks here but certain boredom?
I go to the door. It's locked. Is it locked or stuck? Locked. What if I turn the knob the other—nope. Maybe I'm too weak to open the door. I'll knock.
I'll knock louder.
What are the odds that I can guess the code for this keypad? Is it a three-digit code? Five? Four? I punch in all the obvious numerical password variations. Nope. I punch in every PIN code I've ever had. The handle doesn't budge.
Maybe this is one of those psych evaluation tests to see how long a person is willing to wait in a room or to what lengths someone will go to escape the room. I don't see any potential escape routes. If the ceiling were panelled, I could try to hoist myself up and see if that led anywhere. Or if there were air ducts, I could wriggle through those tunnels to...wherever air ducts go. Whoever designed this room certainly outsmarted me.
I try my birthdate on the keypad. The door unlocks. Finally.
On the other side of the door is a hospital room, different from the one I was in before. It smells of cigarettes and ammonia. My mother is asleep in the bed, with a newborn in a hospital crib next to her. She looks so young, so peaceful—my mother, that is. Babies naturally look young, except when they look like wrinkly old men. I move to take a closer look at this tiny, wrinkly old newborn—is this me? I examine the name band around the baby's ankle. She has my name. She looks like my baby pictures.
I stand here for—oh, look, a clock—twenty minutes attempting to process this experience. Maybe the drugs haven't worn off yet.
I don't want to disturb my mother, on any of the levels on which this would be disturbing. Maybe someone beyond her door has answers for me. I open the door to leave her room, to explore the rest of the hospital, but when I walk through the doorway, I am returned to my isolation booth.
Do I try to go back? Can I try punching in a different date? Do I know any other dates? My mother's birthday! Doesn't work. Dad's birthday! Nope. Lincoln's assassination! No...but I don't even know that I know when that was. Try some far off date in the future. No go. How about...my sixth birthday? Bingo!
I leave the beige room and enter my family's mauve and powder blue living room, where we're opening my birthday presents. No one acknowledges my entrance or notices as I walk around and sit on the piano bench next to Uncle Charles. I must be invisible. Time travel and invisibility? Why? Maybe this is a dream, one of those semi-conscious dreams where I can control some events but then the staircase turns into a dragon or something. Hey, this is the year I got my Dolly Pops and my Care Bear lunchbox! I wonder what my old bedroom would look like to me now. Still unobserved by the party revellers, I walk down the hallway to my childhood bedroom, turn the doorknob and...back to the tiny beige room.
So, I can travel through time, but only within my own timeline, where I am then invisible. If I try to pass through any door, it puts me back in this room. Isn't it time for some administrative sprite or anthropomorphic woodland creature to give me instructions or hints or a ridiculous riddle to solve to guide me to my purpose for being here?
I should try to find out how I got here. I punch in the day I went into the hospital. No good. Drat. I try every day before that to no avail until, at last, a day three months earlier. The door unlocks but I don't leave. What am I trying to do? If I'm not able return to the last day that I think I can recall, am I likely to find answers from any other time? If I am invisible, how do I try to catch my own attention, to warn myself about...whatever this is? "Oh, hey, Self. I'm us from the Future and something happens where I can come and speak to you—what? Are we dead? Is this a joke? Is it a dream? I don't know either! Anyway, stay vigilant and take extra care around March 2015."
Even if I could proffer a warning, could I do anything to change the course of events that led me here? What needs to be changed and how do I do that? Or, do I wind up here anyway? Is the thing that put me here a fixed point in my life, a kind of heat-seeking missile that will track me down and impact me, regardless of my lifestyle, dietary, or religious augmentations? The rules of time travel have never made sense to me.
Seriously, a guidebook or knowledgable elf would be very helpful right now. Where is that quirky guardian spirit whose ethereal career advancement depends on my escaping this magical isolation time travel booth?
If no one will answer my questions, I have to seek out the answers myself. Can I communicate with anyone? Can I touch things? Can I bring back mementos and liven up my little room here? Figuring that I have infinite time, and with no clues to the consequences of my actions, I start a series of experiments.
I go to my early childhood, back to my first bedroom. While my younger self sleeps, I search for clues and test the scope of my abilities with little impact on my timeline. I learn how to move things. While my toddler self plays with our stuffed animals, I confirm that I have no physical presence. No one can hear me speak. Or scream. I go to my friend Lindsay’s thirteenth birthday party, where we played with her Ouija board in an effort to ask ghosts whether certain boys liked us. No matter how much ghostly ruckus I make, I cannot rouse myself or the other teenage girls. Lindsay stubbornly rejects my Ouija message that Kevin likes Kendra. If I can't prevent her heartbreak when Kevin takes Kendra to the Homecoming Dance three weeks later, what are the odds that I can keep myself from becoming an invisible time-traveling spirit?
I return to my old bedroom to practice moving furniture when I notice my father's copy of his Morse Code handbook on my nightstand. When I was 10 or 11, he tried teaching me the Morse alphabet and key phrases so that we could communicate with each other or I could signal for help. I wish he were here with me now. Does he have his own little beige room?
I try to shadow myself for long intervals. Sometimes we go for days at a time and I can travel with myself across the house, across town, across state lines. Eventually we walk through a door and I wind up back in my tiny empty room.
Maybe these are my memories. Maybe I'm not really travelling through time but just through my own memories. But what am I supposed to do? Do I revisit my own highlights? Do I relive the bad moments to discover what I thought were the worst experiences weren't so bad after all? I've been so preoccupied with looking for answers, I haven't really paid attention to the actual events I was popping into. What if I'm meant only to observe, not interfere with events? Maybe I'm supposed to have a grand epiphany that will upgrade my dreary accommodations.
If these are my memories, maybe I'm not travelling at all. Maybe I'm in a coma and I lost those last three months of memories to trauma. What else have I lost? How long have I been here? Is it really so bad here? I am not in pain, I'm not cold or hungry or constipated or sleepy, I'm not even lonely. Do I really want to find a way back to paying bills and long lines at the grocery store and heartbreak and backaches and adult acne? Don't I want to go back to chocolate chip cookies and bacon and hot showers and cold beer and the smell of fresh laundry and stale farts and laughter and feeling?
This is a pointless game. What if there is no back?
My kingdom for a sensible cricket in spats and a top hat to sing a song right about now.
I go to the door and punch in my father's dying day. I know that I'll be sitting with him in hospice, holding his hand and telling him the banalities of that day's errands. I'm not sure why I chose this day, except one more desperate attempt to answer my questions before I resign myself to my little gray chair in my little beige room to sit, possibly forever. I watch my Earthly self tap Morse Code into our father's hand. I recognize it as a secret phrase he taught me. He tries to return the sentiment, but his hands are weak and slow.
Eventually my father drifts into a deeper sleep and my Earthly self nods off. This is the time to take a risk. I grab a spoon from his dinner tray and tap our secret phrase onto the wall. I hear it repeated over on the bedside table. It doesn't seem to come from anyone visibly present in the room. I try it again. It repeats. This is the most excitement I've experienced in, well, who knows.
I tap frantically on the wall.
I have so many questions! Is this real? Where are you? I can't see you either!
I want to hug him! I want to speak! I tap and tell him all about my room and the time travel and the...what does this mean...if we're both here?
He taps back about his own room, which is the same as mine. He says he started by visiting all of his happiest memories—me, my mother, our holidays, Sunday dinners with his parents—and then looked for ways to move on. He tells me that he still hasn't figured anything out and that this is the first time he's had communication with anyone. He says he's been losing memories. This is only day he can access now.
We chat as best we can, for as long as we can. I tell him everything that's happened to me in the five years, minus three months, since he died. Soon, his body flatlines and the nurses flood in and in all the commotion, we lose each other again.
I return to my room. My cubicle. My isolation chamber.
I think about my happiest memories and which ones I'll revisit. The happiest moments never seem to be the big events, like graduations and weddings and birthdays. It's going for ice cream and stopping to watch a neighbourhood baseball game. It's a weekend nap with the cats snuggled up beside me. It's going for a walk at sunset on a cool July evening and your favourite song comes on the radio. But these are not moments you can type into a keypad and visit whenever you want. I don't remember the date.
In a fit of nostalgia, a craving for the hard rock of my youth to ease my current frustrations, I punch in a random day from my moody teenage days. The door doesn't budge. I try it again. I try the day before, the day after. Have the rules changed? I punch in my college graduation. No good. Have I already forgotten the date I graduated? I try my 21st birthday. The door still won't open. Am I already losing my memories? It doesn't feel like I've been here long enough.
I sit and I wait. It's really not so bad in here.
Suddenly, a buzzer. The door opens and a bright light floods in.
A couple discusses a development that could impact their relationship.
Girlfriend - early 30s, wearing bulky cardigan with pockets and big glasses on chain around neck, wardrobe and mannerisms that would befit an elderly man
Boyfriend - early 30s, youthful casual dress, contrast from girlfriend's attire
Boyfriend enters and joins his Girlfriend at cafe table.
Sorry I'm late, I just got your text. What's wrong?
Oh, nothing's wrong.
But you have something important to tell me?
(pauses, unsure how to break the news, then announces excitedly)
I'm a Grandpa!
I'm a Grandpa.
I don't know what that means. Do you have some family that I don't know about?
Well, uh, did you adopt someone who has kids?
Of course not.
I guess I don't understand.
As you know, I recently had a big birthday and that got me asking myself a lot of questions. Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What do I see for my future? I have done a lot of soul searching, trying to determine my place in the world, in society, and I've finally found it.
(still trying to process the concept)
So...you want to be a grandfather? How's that gonna work? How will that affect us? Are you transitioning? Oh god! I don't know what to say without sounding insensitive. What can I say? Am I allowed to ask questions? Now I have so many questions!
Calm down. Obviously I'm not a literal grandfather. I'm simply self-identifying as a Grandpa because that's the lifestyle that most comfortably defines me.
Why not be a grandmother? You could take up knitting? Or baking!
Ugh, knitting. I need a new hobby at my age? Grandmothers are expected to be warm and compassionate and cuddly. Grandpas have no responsibilities. They don't have to tolerate children. They don't have to tolerate anything! They can be racist and make insensitive, off-colour remarks and people think it's adorable. They can dress comfortably. They can tell terrible jokes—I love terrible jokes! As a grandpa, I can play chess in the park in the middle of the afternoon. I can watch the old dubya-dubya two pictures on television.
Well, you are kind of racist and you do love movies about Nazis.
I don't love the Nazis. I love pictures about beating the Nazis.
Still, a lady grandfather? That’s not how nature works. Don’t you think it’s a bit…privileged of you to self-identify in a masculine way. If you weren’t a white woman, you wouldn’t be able to pull this off.
How dare you! I'm blazing a trail for people of all kinds to be able to live openly as Grandpas.
This is too weird.
If you can't handle this, I got a full bag of Werther's Originals and the boxset of Matlock at home, so...
(starts to leave)
No, it's not you. Well, it's you a little bit. It's just...this is not the first time a woman has had a personal identity awakening with me.
Something about dating me triggers an epiphany about a woman's sense of self, I guess? My first girlfriend turned into a Mermaid. My girlfriend at university determined she was a Juggalo. One woman realized she was a Brony. Another became a nudist...that wasn't so bad except she was sushi chef. One girlfriend left me for one of her characters in The Sims game and married him last year...they just adopted Tamagotchi triplets. And my last girlfriend self-identified as a sloth—the animal not the sin.
They all sound adorable.
What happened to normal women?!
That's not a thing.
Lady Grandpa isn't a thing!
Lemme tell you something—this culture is so obsessed with youth. Forty is the new twenty, sixty is the new middle-aged, and thirty-five is barely legal. "Adult" means something dirty and "Mature" means you're over the hill. No one wants to be old and yet our bodies continue to age. I'm watching the Generation X get gray and wrinkly and frail. My disaffected heroes are now afflicted with aches and pains, thinking about life insurance and walk-in tubs. The whole aging population gets lumped together under the zippy label "Zoomer" because no one can really retire and active 70-year-old bristle at being called elderly. Where do I fit in? I'm gonna grow old before I'm allowed to grow up. I've gotta go buy my pants at Forever 21 to play along with society's charade and maintaining a facade of youth. I didn't like being a teenager the first time, why should I fight to hold onto a part of life that I don't identify with simply because society romanticizes it? In my day, old people were allowed to be old. They weren't relevant anymore, but they could sit down and wear loose-fitting pants and soak their teeth in peace. By the time I am legitimately elderly, we'll be having going to rave parties in the all-purpose room in the nursing home and watching Brett and Blaine pop wheelies on their Rascals. Look how vibrant and active we all are! Age is just a number! Ignore the cracking of my crumbling bones—that just means I'm still alive! Why does the grocery store sound like a night club?! We didn't start the fire but maybe we should consider putting it out soon because the smoke is clouding sensible thinking. Youth may well be wasted on the young but comfort is wasted on the old.
Yep. you're a Grandpa, alright.
So? Where does that leave us?
Well, nothing's really changed has it?
Still me. Just a more comfortable me.
I do want you to be comfortable. You know I've never really gone for the heavy eye make-up and the stilettos and the hair products. It all looks like an awful lot of work.
This is what I'm saying.
And nothing else would change? You're not gonna make me call you by some old-man name like Morty or Elmer?
Someday you'll be an old man, Kyle.
You wanna go back to my place and I'll read The Princess Bride to you again?
Will there be kissing?
It's not inconceivable.
As you wish.
Girlfriend offers Boyfriend a hard candy. He takes it and unwraps it as the couple exits together.
My earliest memory is me at age three on a Saturday morning, alone in the living room, spinning around or whatever shenanigans a solo three-year-old can get into that would lead to breaking a lamp during the commercial break for Laverne & Shirley in the Army.
My second earliest memory is a short time later, watching our VHS recording of the CBS broadcast of The Muppet Movie, again alone in the living room, getting into whatever mischief that would lead to my lodging a pencil eraser in my left nostril during the Steve Martin scene. I waited until the end of the film before telling my mother because she specifically told me not to bother her with anything. And I figured I could still breathe out of the other nostril. I may have snuck into the kitchen to get pepper. Y’know, for sneezing. Because cartoons told me that was a thing.
I remember watching Teresa Brewer perform “Music, Music, Music” on The Muppet Show while my mother put the last of my father’s belongings—his rattiest of underpants, his favourite kitchenware—in a box for him to pick up the next time he came to town. We were watching Charles in Charge when the moving truck took our furniture from the house we lived in to the small apartment where I would share a bedroom with my mother.
A lot of my memories feature television as a supporting character. My memories are cluttered with theme songs and commercial jingles, catchphrases and clip shows. I could tell you all about how televised content influenced me, inspired me, and impacted my development as a human being. Well, duh. How could it not? Television was no mere household appliance—it was a member of our dysfunctional clan. It was almost always on. Get up in the morning and watch TV. Get home, have dinner while watching TV. Do homework while watching TV. Pull baby teeth while watching TV. Got the flu? Stay home and watch Phil Donahue.
I was always sent to another room to watch TV, usually because my family was watching something on our other TV. Television was not a treat. It wasn’t a privilege to be snatched away. To deprive me of TV would’ve meant that my caretakers would have to deprive themselves—and actually watch me instead. Television was a staple in our media consumption diet, in a time before media consumption was a household concept. Our daily viewing surpassed the weekly average. If we weren’t a Nielsen family, we should’ve been.
Television was my babysitter. Television was my teacher. Television was my best friend and constant companion. Television was my lifeline. Television taught me how to read, how to write, how to talk. It taught me how to live and love. It taught me about all the possible embarrassing scenarios one might encounter at dinner parties and big city offices. It taught me that if only I looked a certain way and used specific products, I could lead a glamorous, dramatic life. Television taught me how to be a detached observer of human behaviour.
You may imagine a small child sitting cross-legged on the floor, mouth agape, eyes wide staring up at a glowing set in a darkened room. This was not me. Ever the multi-tasker, I was colouring, building things, breaking lamps, turning my Little People hospital upside down and letting the Little People dolls carry on as if that was a completely normal orientation for a medical facility. Oftentimes, I would sit on my mother's bed with my back to the tv and enact stories with my stuffed animals. There was an ongoing love triangle between Kermit, Miss Piggy, and a large koala, with an was occasional disruption by slutty Rainbow Brite.
Television was freedom. In the era before parental controls, I was granted full command of the dial—such responsibility to bestow on someone still in their single digits. As cable was still in its childhood as well, my choices were often limited to what could be picked up by VHF and rabbit ears. Ted Turner and the Public Broadcasting Service provided enough compelling content to limit my exposure to static noise around the rest of the dial. My mornings would start in darkness, watching pre-1950s Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes and Time-Life commercials for nostalgic album compilations—amassing my knowledge of Classic Hollywood actors and five-second snippets of the biggest Swing and Doo Wop hits. If The Price Is Right was on, it was time for lunch. If the soap operas were on, it was time for me to light somewhere and hush so the grown-ups could watch their stories. Sharing a room with my mother meant my lullabies were the themes to The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. Other kids had Saturday morning cartoons while I had Monday Night Movie, Sunday afternoon wilderness shows, Must See TV Thursday, TGIF, Afterschool Special, daytime game shows, very special episodes and the Weather Channel.
It didn't have to be good, it just had to be on.
My mother never told me what I could watch. I never asked permission. We would occasionally discuss things I'd seen and she would gently tell me which things were not really appropriate for little girls. Our chats about The Patty Duke Show would meander as my mother reminisced about going to a neighbour's to watch television as not everyone could afford their own TV sets yet. TV programs were black and white because the world was black and white, she'd tell me. The broadcast day was significantly shorter, there were three stations and half of them were fuzzy, and she lost both her husbands because she didn't have Donna Reed's domestic flair or Annette Funicello's bosoms.
At my grandmother’s apartment, I would hunker down near her 13” black and white set to watch The Monkees and Gidget as she whiled away the hours shelling peas and drinking PBR and talking about the impending end times. She, along with the visiting biddies in her Bible study group, loved to scold me for sitting too close to the television because it would ruin my eyes. They also scolded me for holding books too close to my face when I was reading. It never occurred to any of these people that my eyes were already ruined and the effect was not their theoretical cause.
For my ninth birthday, I was given a 4” portable TV/radio so that I could watch television anywhere, as long as I had eight C batteries and headphones. During school breaks, I would sit in my mother’s office and watch I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. During tornado watches (or if I was feeling a bit lonely), I would bring my little TV and my potholder loom into our living/dining room and do my crafts while watching Degrassi or Night Court or Amen while my mother sat a few feet away and watched some hourlong dramas on the big TV.
With my prolonged exposure to screens, how odd it was to go to someone else’s house and find that the television was not on. Children, if any were present, were sent outdoors. Women gathered and gabbed in the kitchen or maybe the fancy sitting room. In social circles where Bible studies were more prevalent than viewing parties, television was considered to be man's domain. Only when menfolk were present did the TV come alive, usually to blare some sports program or a western or maybe a rerun of The A-Team. I was not permitted outdoors with the dirt and the bugs, so I had to endure bitchy kitchen gossip or, more frequently, John Wayne whooping it up with Dallas Cowboys or something. Thankfully, I had a book. Okay, it was a Charles in Charge novelization I'd borrowed from my sister.
Time passed, life went on, networks stopped concluding their broadcast day with the national anthem and started filling the dead air with Time-Life infomercials. We all got slightly bigger television sets and expanded cable packages. Fifty-seven channels and nothing’s on but we’ll settle for the background noise because it’s better than facing reality.
If I wanted to justify my family's dependence on television, I would reckon it was used as a deterrent, not only to discourage familial interaction but to dissuade outsiders from preying on an all-female household. Given our backwards state, is it really so far-fetched that someone could believe the blue glow of the television bouncing off our drawn curtains indicated a masculine presence? Maybe not if they could see we were watching Falcon Crest.
Televisions are everywhere now—sports bars, Chinese restaurants, coffee shops, shopping mall food courts, and highway rest areas. We're all staring at screens for a significant portion of our day. We've got programs on demand and a 24-hour news cycle to prevent us from spending too much time with our own neuroses (while probably creating more). For all the choices at my fingertips, I still turn to public television and Turner-based networks.
What will we do if we're suddenly and indefinitely cut off from electricity and can no longer watch TV? Will we revert to the antiquated practice of gathering round the family piano to sing the old standards? Do we know any of the old standards? Do we even have any standards left? Will Time-Life sell us the sheet music?