Friday, February 28, 2014

No. 97 – Squonk

Performer: Genesis
Songwriters: Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford
Original Release: A Trick of the Tail
Year: 1976
Definitive Version: You’ll Love Us Live, 1980.

When I left off talking about the trip that Jin, Scott and I took to New Jersey to stay with Aunt Sally after Christmas in 1987 (good ol’ No. 582), we just had finished a dinner of epic conversational proportions.

So that meant it was time for the kids to move the conversation—and the champagne—out to the hot tub. By kids, I mean everyone under the age of 30. (Scott, at 16, was the only minor in the group.)

No one brought his or her swimsuit, so it was all freeball tubbing. Hey, we’re all family, here, right? That went for Tom’s hot live-in girlfriend at the time, or as Scott said later: “Welcome to the family.” The champagne and conversation continued to flow, and I might have ended up rolling around in the snow after a cousinly dare. (Full disclosure: Betsy did it first, so I wasn’t the only fool in the bunch.)

A couple days later, Sally took me, Jin and Scott into New York to see The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center, home of the Metropolitan Opera. This was mostly because of Jin, I think. I’d seen The Nutcracker years before, with Beth, but I was keen to see something at such a prestigious venue.

We took the train in, and the thing I remember most about that is that Scott, I think, brought along a game of philosophical questions he found. The one I remember was this: If you could take a pill that made you sleep only one hour a night with no physical effects but you had to give up half of everything you owned to get this pill, would you do it? My answer then was I probably would, and that answer has become certain even as my wealth has grown. Who wouldn’t want to add hours of free time to their day?

We had dinner in the city, although I’ve forgotten where. The ballet was OK. I guess I’m not enough of a fan of the real ballet to be able to discern quality distinctions. To me, the standout thing was the tree. At this performance, it was real—a 50 foot tall real Christmas tree for The Nutcracker. Can’t get any more New York than that.

We left for home on the 31st, and I felt gypped by that, because I was hoping I’d get a chance to see The Ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Tom and Betsy had plans anyway, so it was time. When we got home, Jin split apart to go to a party to which she had been invited. That left just me and Scott on the first New Year’s Eve I’d be without someone—Beth—in six years.

Mom had moved into a new condominium earlier that year. With me finished with school at Northwestern and anxiously awaiting word from Michigan City, Ind., regarding a job for which I interviewed just before Christmas, I was staying with her on what I hoped was a very temporary basis.

Neither Scott nor I wanted to hang out at Mom’s, so we decided to go out on our own. Well, Scott was 16 and didn’t look as old at 16 as I had, so we weren’t going to go anywhere where he might be carded. Instead, we drove to a nearby grocery store, where I bought a couple four-packs of wine coolers and then around the corner from Mom’s condominium complex to a park that had a parking lot off the main street and out of view of any cops.

There, we drank wine coolers and talked as we listened to Genesis on my car stereo and counted down the minutes to 1988. 1987 had been a tumultuous year to be sure. The big event, of course, was my breakup with Beth, but a lot of good things happened, too.

Although low-key, it ended up being one of my most memorable New Year’s Eves. It really was the first time I ever did any drinking with my brother but certainly not the last. In fact, in the next decade, several nights included being parked somewhere in Columbus with Genesis on the car stereo, including one particularly memorable one in 1993 or 1994. But that’s a story for another time.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

No. 98 – Immortality

Performer: Pearl Jam
Songwriter: Eddie Vedder
Original Release: Vitalogy
Year: 1994
Definitive Version: 10/5/00, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2001.

Laurie left Las Vegas in January 2007 on Monday, press conference day at CES (I said that she was there that day previously, good ol’ No. 281, but I was wrong), and it was just as well. The arrival of Paul and Jin from L.A. the day before led to a fun reunion that might have been a little too fun for Laurie and Paul.

I’ll spare you the details, but it was bad enough that Paul completely blew off CES, staying in bed most if not all of the day. As for Laurie, well, there was a panicked moment when she couldn’t find her drivers license, which meant she wouldn’t be able to fly home. I went to the bathroom and found the license on the floor next to the toilet … along with the rest of her purse. Don the Mai Tai bartender at the Imperial Palace wasn’t playing.

I felt pretty much the same way later that night. Jin and I met at the sports book at the Venetian to watch the start of Ohio State play in the National Championship against Florida. The place was packed with fans wearing scarlet and gray or orange and blue, and the place erupted when Ted Ginn ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. Wow, what a start!

Of course, Ohio State fans might as well have quit watching right then as Florida rolled them over. By the second half, we were on our way to dinner in the Excaliber, where she and Paul and my new little niece Bridget, stayed—my $10 bet ticket so much refuse.

After Laurie left, I could concentrate on work, such as it was. I referenced this a week or so ago, but it was insane. Before I went, I made a meeting schedule, where I visited a booth and spoke with representatives of various electronics manufacturers every half-hour from 9 in the morning, when the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center opened, to 5, when it closed.

I scheduled appointments in such a way that I went from the Central Hall to the South Hall second floor, to the Central Hall to the South Hall first floor. On the map, that looks like no big deal, but, in fact, it takes about 20 minutes amid a crowd to walk from one to the other, because the halls are so huge. By the end of the day, I was whipped to the point where even the booth babes weren't nearly as appealing as that chair over there …

My final day at CES was Thursday. After checking out from the IP and stowing my luggage for my afternoon flight, I went back to the LVCC one last time for media kit collecting, just grabbing everything I could pack in a single box and then shipping it back to my magazine for later sorting. Jin picked me up outside the IP just as she had Laurie a few days earlier for the flight home.

In a sense, I was ready to go home. That day, I felt mechanical—doing without thinking. I had been pushing it hard at work for the past eight months, and I was burned out. However, I wasn’t looking forward to my flight.

As I mentioned, the flight to Vegas had been a little hairy. Well, nothing I can do about it. I’ll just plug into my music and some computer work I can do to distract myself and get through it. (In truth, I’m less afraid when I fly by myself than when I fly with others. I guess I figure no one’s there to comfort me, so I have to buck up on my own.)

I ended up doing neither, because I sat next to a guy who was coming back from CES, like pretty much everyone else on the plane. He was feeling chatty, like pretty much everyone else on the plane, so we spent almost the entire four-hour flight talking about what we’d seen, what impressed us, how the thunder of the event had been stolen by Apple introducing this thing called the iPhone in California.

The flight was perfect … until we started our descent into Chicago.

It had been about a decade since I had flown into Midway Airport, and I had forgotten about how it seemed to be built in a wind tunnel. I was reminded of that as soon as we broke through the cloud cover. It wasn’t storming per se, but it was clouded over and windy as Hell. The plane began to shake … HARD.

The bouncing increased the closer to the ground we got. The pilots were fighting it, and the cabin grew increasingly silent with each bounce.

Just as we were coming in to land, the plane made the biggest bounce of the ride and then seemingly kept going. “We missed our window,” the guy next to me said as the engines kicked in again. Out the window—I was on the aisle—the rooftops of the neighborhood beneath us appeared no more than 200 feet below.

In that instant, I thought that my fear of flying was about to be validated: I thought the plane was about to go down, and we were all going to die.

I mean, we all ARE going to die—that’s the existential horror human beings face every day—but to me, the worst moment of dying when you aren’t ready for it is not the actual event itself but the realization that it’s about to happen. In other words, the fear of dying in a plane crash isn’t the crash itself—I’m pretty sure that in most cases, it’s over pretty instantly—it’s the recognition that it’s happening.

Now I thought I had reached that point. I imagined Laurie getting the word in the airport. That would have to be torturous.

It turns out that was a pointless exercise, obviously. I’m here. I’m telling you the story, so the plane didn’t go down. Instead we made probably the longest 1-minute circle around Midway as the pilot got another window—bouncing the entire time in the wind—before we came in and this time landed.

Then the pilots had to brake on one of the shortest runways of any major airport in the United States—with the help of every passenger applying his imaginary foot-pedal brake—lest we end up out on Central Avenue (which has happened before). We stopped and began the taxi.

Just like years before, a Southwest flight attendant came on the p.a. and said something like “OK, breathe, everyone,” and the cabin erupted in laughter and spontaneous applause. A guy across from me, a couple rows back captured what everyone else was thinking: “Four hours of calm followed by 15 minutes of sheer terror.” In the end, it felt like the opposite.

I was thankful to still be there, of course, but my face didn’t reflect it when I got off the plane. Laurie was waiting for me in baggage claim with a bouquet of flowers, just as I had picked her up a couple weeks before after Christmas (story to come). I barely acknowledged her presence.

Laurie wondered whether what she did was wrong, and although getting flowers felt a little embarrassing, it was more that I still was in shock. I recounted what just happened, and she said that explained why I looked as though I’d just seen a ghost. I thought I’d seen my own.

Not yet, not that day …

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

No. 99 – Money for Nothing

Performer: Dire Straits
Songwriters: Mark Knopfler, Sting
Original Release: Brothers in Arms
Year: 1985
Definitive Version: Live Aid, 1985. This version is why this song is in the top 100. Check it out and tell me why I’m wrong to think it’s better in every way from the original. Their Live Aid performance made me a Dire Straits fan.

When I said a week ago that my promotion in 2007 was the first promotion I received on the job, I didn’t include my time at Food World, because, technically, that wasn’t a promotion. It definitely was a step up, though.

Typically, when you started as a bagger at Food World, you were promoted to cashier if you were female or stocker if you were male. After my senior year at Wabash, when I couldn’t land an internship of any stripe to prepare for Northwestern, I went to Todd after my brief fling at being a knife salesman (good ol’ No. 621) seeking a job.

Todd said he had something for me, but instead of putting me on bagger duty again, he made me the assistant to the produce clerk. That meant a slight bump in pay to $3.85 an hour. Cool.

It also meant early arrival, as I’ve mentioned. On weekdays, which I worked four of the five days I was on the schedule, I went in at 6. On Sunday, when the store opened at 10, I’d go in at 8, which was a little easier. Depending on the day and the schedule, some days I was the only one in the store the first hour, before the head cashier and the butcher showed up.

Most of the time, I worked with Bob, who had been the produce clerk at Food World for as long as I could remember. Bob looked like a bootlegger from the Roaring Twenties and made tuneless whistles while he worked. He also worked hard and was glad to have the help, so we got along fine.

For the first two hours until the store opened, my job was to bring out the produce that we couldn’t leave out overnight due to a lack of refrigerated produce counters or spritzers (let alone 24-hour access)—the lettuce, green onions and such. I’d first grab a couple huge bags of ice from the beer cooler in the back and lay that out on the counters. Then, while Bob cut and rewrapped the lettuce in cellophane, I’d run trays out and stack up the produce neatly.

When that was done, it was time to reload any bins that were low, such as bananas and apples, and pull the pieces of fruit that had grown a little too long in the tooth. Some of those, like the bananas, Bob would rewrap and put out on the discount table for baking; others he’d just toss.

A bagger came in for when the store opened at 8, but from then until 10, I was always on call, so if it got busy, I’d have to help out up front. At 10, though, a second bagger came in, and I could hide in the back for the rest of the day, chatting with Bob or whoever else happened to be back there, with the radio on, and doing whatever needed to be done in the produce aisle.

I got two 15-minute breaks during my eight-hour shift, per union rules. Although I was encouraged to take one before the store opened, I tried to save them for after 10. This helped to make the afternoon go quicker. Besides, I usually wasn’t hungry before then.

One week that summer, Bob went on vacation, so I was in charge. That meant I had to do all the loading and wrapping and rewrapping, which made those days fly by. I also had to make out the produce order that week.

I guessed what we needed based on sales and my recollection of how fast things moved and filled it out to the best of my ability, but I was out of my element. Back then, I had no real concept of retail profit/loss and that produce can go bad quickly if it doesn’t sell. I bet the store lost money that week, because I ordered too many containers of, say, plums.

It was a fun summer job in all, particularly whenever a certain strawberry Scotch-Irish blonde would come in, sidle up to me in the produce aisle and ask whether I wanted to squeeze her tomatoes to make sure they were fresh. I suppose, in retrospect, I didn’t take the job as seriously as I should have, but I didn’t blow it off either. Working produce at Food World was my last “childhood” job before I jumped into the newspaper pool. To a certain extent, I miss it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

No. 100 – Available Light

Performer: Rush
Songwriters: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart
Original Release: Presto
Year: 1989
Definitive Version: None.

Originally, when I got to my top 100, I had planned to take to Twitter to publicize the list but also to learn the vagaries of Twitter for professional purposes. I decided against that, primarily because I could see nothing good come from me being on Twitter. If I need to learn it for work, I can, in probably an hour or so.

I also had thought about writing a bit more about each song, explaining why it belongs in my top 100. I decided against that, too, at least as a formulaic entry, because my list is just that—mine. It’s subjective to the point where my reasons for why, say, this song is No. 100 and not 102 or 98 are ridiculous. Besides, I don’t want to have to say, “I love its majestic fade …” and sound any more like a pretentious hack than I do already.

In the end, I would just say … if you like any of the bands that I list, don’t take my word for it. Find the actual song and give it a listen. Trust me: If you like Rush, you’ll like Available Light. It might be their most obscure song, and it doesn’t sound like anything else they’ve done—what other Rush song features a piano?—yet … it does. And what the hell, the majesty of Available Light’s fade is pretty uplifting, if I may don my Lester Bangs cap for a second.

When we last left this intrepid explorer in October 1990, he was taking in Murnane Field in Utica, N.Y., hot on the heels of his first visit to Cooperstown.

My next stop was Toronto, and I mean stop in the strictest sense of the word. Because of car trouble (good ol’ No. 597), I didn’t have enough time to actually spend the night in Toronto, which was just enough out of the way to make a longer visit unworkable.

So my first trip to Bob & Doug’s hometown essentially became a trip up the CN Tower. I paid both fares, so I could go to the second observation deck, the SkyPod, which at 1,467 feet was taller than the Sears Tower. I took a bunch of pics.

As daylight faded, I headed north on the 400 to Barrie and my final destination for the day in Collingwood. I’d never been to the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, and I wanted to check it out simply because I’d never seen it before.

Collingwood is a tiny town on the bay, and it reminded me a lot of the small towns in northern Michigan I knew and loved. After I checked in at my motel, I wanted to go out and hike around the town. The next day I’d knock around on the lake.

I went only as far as a nearby sandwich joint to get carryout for dinner, sitting on my motel bed as I watched a TV station that showed an odd amalgamation of U.S. and Canadian shows, including The Simpsons. Instead of hiking around Collingswood, I opened a box of Upper Deck baseball cards I’d bought before embarking on my trip.

The reason why my plans changed and I became a shut-in was simple: I was finished with being on vacation. I’d been excited to see the Hall of Fame, sure, and I loved wandering the countryside, driving through small towns and seeing things I’d never seen before, like Niagara Falls, but I suddenly was struck by the absurdity of it all.

My Cooperstown trip had been the second vacation I’d taken by myself (the first being Colorado Springs the year before), and it was the second vacation where I took a lot of photos and had a lot of stories to show and tell … no one. I mean, who whips out pictures of solo vacations? I can see it if it’s someplace exotic, like Rome, but Colorado Springs and Cooperstown? No way.

It had been two years since I’d had a real girlfriend, and I had no real prospects that this was going to change any time soon. I had no travel companion. I felt very isolated and alone. I felt very depressed. (And not getting a $10 Kevin Maas—definitely at the time—in my UD box didn’t help.)

I felt no better the next morning when I awoke, so instead of wandering around Lake Huron and then up in the thumb of Michigan, as I originally planned, I just drove straight home to Grand Blanc, a day early. It was a Friday, and I would have a couple days to myself before going back to work—all the better for sulking and playing Nintendo. I decided on that drive that I’d never take another solo vacation anywhere. (That vow, kind of, still holds as long as you don’t count trips to card shows or SABR conventions.)

While I unloaded my car, my phone rang. Probably a solicitor or someone else I didn’t want to talk to right then. I’d let the answering machine get it. I brought in my suitcase.

As I flopped the suitcase on my bed, the cheery voice at the other end of the line said, “Hey man! Just wanted to leave a message. So are the Reds going to do it tonight?”

Oh yeah, the playoffs. I’d listened to the Reds win Game 4 in Cooperstown to get one win away from the World Series, but then the Pirates won Game 5, and I’d kind of forgotten about it.

I picked up the phone as Dave was in midsentence. “Hello?” “Hey man … you’re HOME? I thought you weren’t getting in till tomorrow!?” I replied blankly that my plans had changed.

“Well, what are you doing over there when you could be over here watching the Reds win the pennant with me?”

I smiled. Yeah, that sounded real good to me, so I changed my plans for the second time that day.

We had pizza and beer (Dave had pop; I brought the beer) as he, Julie and I watched the Reds in fact win the National League pennant that night. My funk from earlier that day and the end of my latest vacation had dissipated, and a friend proved to me when I really was in need that he was a good friend, indeed.