Norman’s Outburst.

I remember exactly the hour that I abandoned my childhood dream of becoming a Biology teacher, because it began as the most boring hour of my life thus far and ended with Norman’s famous outburst. It was double ‘A’ Level Biology on a muggy Thursday afternoon at my local junior college. The usual suspects were all there, we’d spent an hour or two at lunch time drinking in the Red Lion. We wanted to continue drinking and just like we did every week, almost said, ‘to hell with it’. But we believed we had to get our ‘A’ levels or we’d more than likely be stuck in crap jobs for the rest of our lives. It was this thought and this thought alone that dragged us back across the big, soggy common field and up to our white, airless room for one hundred minutes of the Krebs Cycle.


It was the Krebs Cycle that finally killed it for me really. All through school Biology had been my best subject. Not an attentive student at the best of times, biology and geometry were the only subjects in which I excelled. Biology: big friendly organs with clearly delineated functions all working together to keep us going. The science of life; what could be more fascinating than that? Terrific! Thinks the young me, I’m not going to be wringing my hands thinking about what I’m going to do with my life. I’ll stick with this easy subject that I enjoy and end up teaching it to kids like me who also enjoy it; Lovely.  But ‘A’ level Biology isn’t like ‘O’ level Biology. ‘A’ level Biology is essentially Chemistry and Chemistry is hard, and so boring.

We piled in, hot, beery and sleepy and sprawled on the desks waiting for the teacher to show. There was me and Rob and Martin was there too. Martin was a few years older, twenty-two or maybe even twenty-three! He was a messy red head, doughy but handsome with pale skin and clammy hands. He dressed always in layers of faded, threadbare cotton. With his famous, voluminous, day-glow orange Marxism Today newspaper sack slung over his shoulder with Kicking Against the Pricks scrawled across it in black marker. Martin was a committed Socialist and had been approached by the other committed Socialist, (our Psychology teacher) who was always trying to get Martin to mail pamphlets and vote and stuff like that. Martin was the one who knew all about the Beats, The Velvet Underground & Camus; things that sounded really great. He’d grown up in a Council House and was the most exotic person I knew.

“Look buy Lust for Life.” Martin was saying now. “It’s an A plus plus album, Bowie produced. It’s only four quid right and if you don’t like it, I’ll buy it off you.”

“Ok, fair enough.”

“And get Half Man/Half Biscuit as well.”

“I’m not getting Half Man/Half Biscuit, its shit, I’ve heard it.”

“Shit? They’re the last absolutely genuine..”

As he’s extolling the virtues of Half Man/Half Biscuit, I’m in a chair and Martin is on a table, in front and slightly above me. His legs are open and there’s a rip in the crotch of his trousers. I can’t help noticing he’s wearing baggy, hairy, flesh-colored underpants. Then I make a face like Stan Laurel gradually assimilating a new piece of difficult information. “Ah! Those are not underpants.’

Norman walks in. He’d been in the pub too, but not really with us. “Hello chaps.” he says in his usual nasally, patronizing tone.

“Norman.” We all reply.

Norman wanted to get into the Royal Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot, a fighter pilot. This was his dream, his passion, he wanted it more than anything, but it was never going to happen. To put it simply – he wasn’t smart enough. But Norman did have the persona of an RAF pilot down pat. He had the smart, clipped tones of a well-heeled, upper-middle class airman.  His back was ramrod straight, shoulders thrust back and rigid, he had a short back and sides with a big mop of black, fly boy hair up on top and of course a soft, tan, leather flyer’s jacket with applets’ and a flap for the hat and everything. All that was missing was the pencil moustache; missing perhaps because he didn’t want to draw attention to the big nose and his two, quite prominent, front teeth, which gave him a bit of a rodenty look.

Norman was not well liked, because although he was personable enough, he looked down his nose at us, condescended along class lines; as if he were an enlisted officer and we were just rowdy squaddies. He treated us like clueless no-hopers, when it has him that had applied and failed again and again. But he wouldn’t give up. It was the RAF or bust for Norman. We couldn’t even tease him, as ridiculous as he was; there was no point of entry for our sarcasm or ridicule. He was always unruffled by any kind of ribbing we gave him, his time with us was simply a means to an end, there was nothing going to stand between him and his dream. Our opinion meant less than nothing. He was, in the end, too bizarre to tease. He couldn’t even be niggled over the fact that he never had a girlfriend, although he had systematically asked and been turned down by every girl we knew and a bunch that we didn’t. “Nice girl, too bad, her loss”. As crazy as he was, I guess we had to reluctantly admire Norman’s great British, stiff upper lip. In a weird way, he was the real thing, but this bogus calm, this pathological conviction that he would one day be joining the RAF… Well, the center could not hold; success was impossible. The first crack was about to appear.

The week before, Martin had let it drop casually, “His dads a plumber you know?”

“F#@k off! His dad’s an accountant or something isn’t he?”

“No, he’s a plumber. They live on Bogton Road.”

“But what about the accent? Did he go to public school?”

“No, he went to school round here. It’s all bollocks, it’s all just an affectation. He’s nuts.”

“Wow.” Was all I could say.

guinessHow did Norman get like this? Well, my guess would be that at some point during his formative years, ill with the Measles or the Mumps and home from school on a dreary Wednesday. His parents must have stuck him in front of the TV with an eider-down and a jug of orange squash. Two PM on BBC 2 and the feverish Norman is staring at the wobbly intro to a classic British war film, The Battle of Britain or The Dam Busters, one of those where young men casually embark on suicide missions for king and country, “Chocks away Ginger!” The life of a brave pilot during wartime really appeals to Norman’s addled brain. ‘This is what I want to be when I grow up.’ Norman – chip set.

The teacher shows up five minutes early and apologizes for being late. She’s a tall, thin woman from some foreign, commonwealth country. Her florid blouse is buttoned to the neck, there’s a brooch, her perm sprayed to within an inch of its life. She gets stuck right in and after sixty seconds I feel like I’ve already been there for half an hour. The only person listening is the kid who will end up going to Oxford; the nutty guy that trots out long, un-solicited passages from Shakespeare. His hair is so black and his skin so pale that when he shaves, his face is blue. He looks like a dog that had to be shaved for an operation. Blueface is down with the Krebs Cycle today, he gets it. The teacher is jazzed that he gets it and now they’re both excited. I don’t get it. It’s impossible to understand. I’m never going to understand and I don’t want to hear about it anymore! My whole career plan is going up in smoke. How did this subject get so crap, so fast?

An hour later and we are only halfway through. I’m literally counting the seconds on the clock above the teacher’s rigid hair. Finally I feel myself drifting. I’ve abandoned all hope of understanding the Krebs Cycle and just have to count on it not coming up in the final exam. The room is too warm and the beer is working on us. I glance around and see that more than half of the class, Norman included, are drowsing in their seats. Ms. Rigid’s voice is becoming a drone, as if she’s murmuring now in Farsi. A fat, lazy bee comes in through the window and then goes back out again. In the distance I can hear the giant lawn mower, trundling up and down, the smell of fresh cut grass reaches us, so nice. Wait! The tone of her voice just changed, she’s asked the class a question. Must concentrate, something polynucleotide what?

Here it comes, bubbling up through Norman in his semi-conscious state, and the answer is; “GONADS!” The word is flung out of him like a rock belched from Krakatoa. “Gonads!” he shouts, in his perfect, golden age of British Cinema accent. A little hasty – I have to be first! A bit ecstatic – I’ve got it right! Wholly without his usual composure, Norman, half asleep, has just yelled out, ‘Gonads!’ by mistake during a quiet class on respiration. Startled fully awake, I look at Rob, I see shock on his face too. We stare at each other. ‘Gonads?’ Rob mouths the word for me to confirm. I nod and I can see the beginning of a massive grin breaking across his face. I start with a chuckle, how is this possible? This is priceless. Oh my God. I can’t believe it. ‘Gonads’ – how perfect. Laughing harder now I glance over at Martin who, instead of sharing in the glee, has decided to milk the situation perfectly and is simply nodding slowly with a look of concern and gravitas – sad, but of course we knew this day would come. nutsAll laughing eyes are tuned in Norman’s direction, could he have been joking? Was he serious? No; he was half asleep, even better! How bizarre! What kind of crazy, dirty, confused little dream had Norman been having? And just conscious enough so that the teacher’s question had worked its way in and just out of it enough to yell out the answer without any checks and balances in play.

The teacher looks put out for only a second. “No.” she says, which should have been doubly hilarious but because of who she is, it sucks the laughter out of the room and Blueface immediately trots out the correct answer. I finally join the others watching Norman. He’s trying, not very hard, to smile. He looks confused, he’s trembling. There’s a light sheen of sweat on his face, he looks both vulnerable and hateful the dual emotions of humiliation and contempt play around his quivering mouth. Is it possible that he’d simply glimpsed Martin’s nut sack as he entered the classroom? Were these the Gonads that crept into Norman’s subconscious, or did something very private just spill out in a very public setting? He was usually so careful, so restrained, almost wholesome – this would taint.

The class settles down and an hour later it finally grinds to a close. Afterwards in the student union café, there is an endless, hysterical analysis of Norman’s outburst. We go over it again and again, like the Zapruder Film, looking for clues.”Of all the things he could have yelled.” Say’s Rob, ”He yelled gonads not pyruvate, the right answer by the way, not help or mother but Gonads!”

We tried to imagine what his little waking dream must have been about. What was the question he heard? Maybe a game show, with a Diana Dors/Betty Grable type of USO broad cooing: “Ok boys, I want fingers stroking the buzzers for this last question; now we know it starts with the letter G, that should narrow it down for you. We’ve got a dead heat remember so the hunk who answers correctly now, wins and becomes a fully trained RAF officer and will almost certainly ravish me and go on to save hundreds of British lives and be decorated by the Queen herself in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace, with cucumber sandwiches and free gold bars to take home afterwards. OK then; ‘Every brave RAF fighter pilot must have a sturdy pair of these in his cockpit before takeoff.”

The real question is probably lost to us now but the answer was definitely wrong. Norman would never be wearing the goggles of an RAF man, I believe he eventually followed his father into the plumbing trade. I barely managed to get a passing grade in ‘A’ level Biology and soon enough I escaped, flying out of that white, airless room forever.

Posted in dream states, humor, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Kindle: The New Slush Pile

It used to be that if you couldn’t get your novel published it was because you probably couldn’t write very well. Discerning editors at the big publishing houses stood between you and the reading public, wading through and rejecting the trite, the clunky and the just plain bad manuscripts, in favour of novels with depth, nuance, rich themes & vivid characters. They were looking for good novels in other words; ambitious, thought-provoking novels that might win an award or two. But later as things started to ‘thin out’  (minds & sales for instance) they were on the lookout for more commercial fare, something that might be really popular, something that might pay a few bills.

Now back then, if Ted down the hall was absolutely determined to get his novel, “Who Wants My Orange?” out there and the publishers were not biting, he might turn to vanity publishing. Pay out-of-pocket for an ISBN and a few thousand copies and then get out there & really beat the sidewalk, getting booksellers interested and pushing Orange towards his public. This just never worked. Now though some time has passed and Ted, having failed once again to interest a publisher in his new novel, “I Want My Orange Back!” can simply throw it up on Amazon for a Kindle download. With a few keywords & some blurb, Ted’s sequel gets dangled in front of thousands of perspective buyers. They can read the first page and for dollar or two, what the hell, they might give it a try. Hey and you know what? I want My Orange Back! really resonates with some readers. It sells.

Now imagine there are thousands of people like Ted, writers who don’t even bother to submit query letters to publishers any more because it’s an uphill struggle and they know that publishers no longer promote their new releases anyway – that’s become the author’s job. So they might as well just go ahead and float their baby on Amazon & see what happens. Most of them sink but some of them fly. Now imagine you’re a publisher, are you going to wade into that massive, stinky slush pile looking for the next Girl With An Orange Tattoo or are you going to log on to Amazon and see which ‘unpublished’ authors are actually selling? Yeah you’re right. Why pay a comparative lit grad to trawl through all that paper when you have the public’s pulse right at your fingertips? “Get me Ted’s number, we’ll offer him X$$ for his Orange and get it on the shelves for Christmas.” So from the publishers perspective Amazon functions as this huge test audience. The public gets what it wants the publishers get a paper bestseller and everyone’s happy. Apart from your old timey discerning editor who becomes a quaint anachronism, ends up working in Starbucks, bemoaning the absence of weighty, dense, rich, themed novels to a divorced woman who comes in everyday for a spiced latte and ends up picking his brain because she’s writing a huge, really good novel which the world needs to read and she’s going to upload it but he wants to agent it & get back in the game and they fall in love and they fight and her son is a recovering alcoholic and his daughter is gay and his ex-wife sees that he’s more driven than he has been in years & she starts sniffing around…. This is great – get me a pen – this is going to blow up on Kindle… Yes I’m going to upload to Kindle. Why the hell not? I have a draw full of top shelf material that those fools couldn’t appreciate. Finally the recognition I deserve is just a few clicks away. Hahahahaha. Watch This Space!

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Attack of the Killer Cyclists

I’m on my bike, hacking up the endless incline of Broadway in Hamilton Heights. It’s over 90 degrees and I’m slick with sweat, the heat baking off the moving engine blocks around me feels unbearable. My heart is beating faster than it has in years. There are people screaming across the Mall to each other, car alarms, horns and stereos are all blaring, lucky people are dancing in the spray of open fire hydrants. Groups of ripped, tough looking hispanic guys in brilliant white wife-beaters are hanging in front of the News&Smoke stores. Overdressed homeless dudes are staggering along raving to no one in particular. I reach a plateau and manage to pick up some speed. Suddenly there’s a huge Whamp sound to my left and one of those massive black Chrysler Escapades just kneels down in front of me like a felled Elk. Glass flies past my head in bullet time, wires and engine guts spill out on the street, behind me I hear something land, whatever hit the Chrysler hit it hard enough to spend some time in the air. People are yelling, “Oh shit!” I’ve stopped peddling, too shocked to feel any fear I roll quietly through the carnage untouched. Looking up I see a hundred heads turned in my direction. I don’t look back but I do start peddling again. Commuting on a bike certainly isn’t dull. This is the moment when I decide to give in and buy a helmet.

V.I Lenin on holiday in Torquay circa 1907

These days New Yorkers are deeply ambivalent about bicycles. In an era when we are striving to be green it makes sence to encourage the proliferation of two-wheeled engineless transport in Manhattan, more and more people are using bikes but the green lanes were a mistake, bad for traffic and deadly to ride on and the behaviour of some cyclists is causing consternation, tourists are alarmed and the police have started cracking down on those that violate the laws. I got a ticket, for riding my bike in the park. It seems I’m not responsible enough to slow down when pedestrians are present. I can’t be trusted to use good judgement and therefore I must adhere to the blanket rule. I must dismount. There are those cyclists out there who do not slow down, who do not exercise common sence and present a deadly threat to small children and the elderly. The same over zealous, selfish, speed demons that ignore all lights and zip past your nose on the cross walk, causing you to leap in the air with fright, drop your Fairway bag and shriek, “Maniac!” These are the people who have brought down the draconian laws and given cyclists a bad rep. Who are they?

I assumed my ticket was just a way to generate cash for the city, I figured I was simply getting fleeced. But no. No fine but a mandatory court date! All part of the Quality of Life measures instituted years ago to clean up Times Square. So I found myself, after many hours in the courthouse, a consultation with a court appointed attorney & time in front of the judge in a room with seven Public Urinators, taking a class on why it’s not cool to take a leak between two cars at 3AM on a Saturday night, or ride your bike in the park when there’s no human being within fifty feet of you, (apart from a cop on a bike). Such a colossal waste of time, money and resources it makes you want to weep, especially in light of all the education cuts going on in the city right now. Just fine me! For God’s sake and put the money to good use. Hello! How about a public restroom in Times Square?

There are several types of cyclist we see daily in Manhattan. You have, of course, the delivery guys. Middle aged Chinese dudes in button downs and soft pants, sitting side-saddle on those steam punk machines that whisper along under their own mysterious power, no peddling needed. These guys are chill. Smoking their Parliament 100s, floating along calmly like wax paper boats on the old Yangtze River. Then you have your Mexican delivery guy. You’ve made the call for food and soon you hear that THRAANG sound, he’s wrapping his massive chain around the traffic sign outside your building and you start to salivate. These chronically bemused young men ride heavy, poorly maintained mountain bikes, done up with tape, done up with rubber, black, filthy & often lightless & breakless as well. Don’t forget the bike messengers, those original fearless riders of NYC. These tattooed nihilists, with their separated shoulders and missing teeth don’t need breaks either, they favor track bikes, fixed gear/fixed wheel. They ride ergonomically perfect machines, like McLuhan said, simply an extension of the rider’s lean and grubby body, everything superfluous has been removed, even sometimes, the seat! Before e-signitures these danger junkies used to face down the very worst of midtown traffic. Where are they now?

I want one

Then you have the hipsters, twenty something guys with ironic facial hair that want to, or have already moved to Brooklyn – also on track bikes, ah but nothing grubby here, these are beautiful pieces of equipment, sleek and spare with one expensive logo of spectacular simplicity. I give you – The Moth, The Guvnor et al – bikes engineered for simplicity, elegance and fun. The faithful will tell you that this is the best way to zip downtown to catch a free concert (at speed) period.

And of course you have your regular people. Men and women from all walks of life who just like to get around on a bike. Any comfy old bike will do, “It has a basket for my groceries!” They live longer than most and save a fortune on cab fare. Sensible and no posturing here whatsoever.

Last on my list and on yours too I hope, are the ones I like to call Power Rangers, you’ve seen them, zooming past in packs of ten on a Saturday morning in their wonderfully tight, spandex, citrus fruit costumes. They yell out to each other in a special code worked out before hand, the ones in front can deploy one of these code words if they sence danger ahead. There are also specialized hand signals, the same kind that your little guy in Modern Warfare might use if he were sneaking up to a rebel occupied barn in Chechnya. I think they’re mostly guys in their early thirties who work in midtown. There’s usually a token girl too. Office life can be dull and its good to blow off some steam, get pumped and go for it on the weekends with your buds. If some entrepreneurial genius had opened a chain of spas offering classes in authentic Grecian wrestling, he could have attracted so many of these guys, all you need is some oil, a hessian loincloth and some good old american male aggression and you’re away. But cycling gives these young lions the chance to display their wealth and taste. These corporate Power Rangers have some serious equipment between their legs! A super light, beautifully engineered 24 speed, like a Pinarello or a Litespeed, can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the special fire-retardant costume, the tap shoes, butt pads, and your Even Flow, air slicing helmet.

Do I have an axe to grind here? Well I was tooling along on my bike, heading home through the park, going the ‘wrong’ way, doing about six mph, up yet another incline and suddenly at the top of the hill, high above me, exploding through spears of sunlight comes Team Gonad! They’re moving at incredible speed, their helmets are blinding, they seem possessed with a special demon energy, angry and in charge, they’re bearing down on me & I start to panic, my front tire wobbles, “STAY STRAIGHT! MOTHERFUCKER!! STAY STRAIGHT!!” I’m barely moving. “STAY STRAIGHT! MOTHERFUCKER!! STAY STRAIGHT!!” I’ve clearly violated this guy’s rules, I can see that he thinks he’s in real danger here, that my sick recklessness has brought him face-to-face with death, but that he’s faced death before and that he faced death down with courage and the loving fraternity of his crew. He flies past. “Asshole!” yells the token girl as she flies past, zip “Tool!’ Zip “Cock!” Zip “Weiner head!” Zip. I’m seeing a pattern here.

It’s probably not the power rangers that scare old people & knock down children. (It’s probably unsupervised children and other old people. Or tourists on their neon painted, white-walled, cruiser rentals.) But I’m guessing head on collisions are quite common and probably deadly at 30 MPH. Is it necessary, or even legal to go 30 MPH in the park? It seems that each cyclist has his or her own ideas on what rules should apply when you’re on your bike. Am I going to stop at a red light when I can see there’s nothing coming from any direction? No. Do I ride on the sidewalk? No? And it bugs me when others do it. Do I have lights? Of course! Do I dismount in the park when it says dismount? No, I think I’ll continue to use my good judgement there. Will I pee between two parked cars at 3AM in Times Square on a Saturday night? Well not if I can find two Pinarellos.

CODA: The “Cyclists Must Dismount!” sign has been taken down and replaced with a sign that reads; “Cyclist Must Use Sound Judgement!” Sweet vindication but I still have a one month probationary period left.

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Oh My God, It’s.. A Case of Mistaken Identity.

Doppelganger  1: a ghostly counterpart of a living person.  2: a double 3: an alter ego

For years now, since I was a teenager in fact, I have regularly been mistaken for other people. Not in the way that someone says ‘hi’, thinking you’re a pal but immediately realizes their mistake, says ‘oh sorry’, and walks away a bit embarrassed. More in the way that they’re absolutely convinced its you, or rather not me, and then blown away by the likeness. Sometimes its famous people, someone the mistaken has never met. Sometimes it’s a relative, friend or acquaintance but the reaction is always the same, either shock or incredulity.

This first time it happened, someone I knew fairly well told me I’d been really drunk the pervious evening and hadn’t even bothered to say hi to them. When I said I hadn’t been out last night, they simply didn’t belive me. They thought I was just being a dick, trying to be funny and failing because clearly it had been me. A few similar incidents occurred and I realized it must be one guy and I wondered if he was aware of me in the way that I was aware of him and also, how he felt about his looks.

    I finally spotted him after a year or so of second-hand sightings. He was on the opposite side of the street going in the other direction. He stopped & I stopped. We looked. Yeah, I had to admit he looked a lot like me, not like looking in the mirror but close enough so that a friend could be fooled at a distance. I felt a bit hostile to him naturally, this guy could not hold his liquor (but then neither could I really) and he had a stupid haircut, (admittedly quite similar to my own stupid haircut). I walked on and so did he. I felt that, of the two of us, I carried ‘our’ look better than he did. I hoped he’d managed to pick up a few fashion pointers. I never saw him again and nether did anyone else that I knew. So, strange, whatever. I thought no more of it and then a few years later I was in a smallish Tescos in Bispham, doing some shopping with my Mum. An explosion of sound in the frozen food aisle, “Oh my God! It’s him!” this lady was pointing at me, late middle age, specs, blue mac. I looked behind me, nothing but vinegar and baking soda. Now she had lunged across the tops of the freezers, with a package of Soreen clenched in one hand, she was trying to get closer. She loved me, I was the first TV star she had seen in the flesh. She wanted to touch me. Looking around at the few other shoppers on her side of the freezer barrier she yelled ecstatically, “It’s him! From Knott’s Landing!” And I found myself saying, “No no, it’s not him. I live around here, I’m not on TV. I’ve never seen Knott’s Landing. As if I might have been watched the show slavishly and was consciously modelling myself on the actor in question.” Hey but why exactly would a TV ‘star’ be contemplating the purchase of a Frey Bentos frozen lasagna in a Bispham Tescos? Well maybe in her mind he might be Les Dawson’s house guest. A friend of Ena Sharples perhaps, everyone knows she lives in Cleveleys. She was convinced, she didn’t believe me at first but in the end she moved off, understandably disappointed. “Why didn’t you give her your autograph?” said my Mum, “She’s have been none-the-wiser, it would’ve made her happy.”

    Skip another few years and I’m walking into a bar with a mate of mine, not a bar I’d ever been into before. Immediately I was hailed by a bunch of fairly tasty looking (handy with fists, good in a fight) guys. Bloody hell, it’s Soandso Soandso, how are yer mate? Great fight last month! You put Rodriquez away ay?! Have a drink.” This time I was a welterweight, not the champ yet but well on my way to the title. What was I doing in The Grapes? “No, no. It’s not me.” Silence. Umbridge. Oh! Not good enough for the likes of us are ya? They were annoyed but they knew I could fight, they’d seen me fight and just by the play of my shoulders and my alert, coiled readiness, they understood that they could only push me only so far without getting a slap. They could see I wanted to be left alone to have a quiet drink, but they gently persisted and finally I relented, “Go on then, I’ll have a pint of bitter.” But then I was in a mess because I knew absolutely nothing about boxing. How did I beat Rodriguez? They wanted to know. ‘I just kept swinging and exploited his weaknesses’. My chances against Kenton next month? “Well I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. That’s all I’m going to say,” PAUSE  “I’m taking him down lads! Alright fellas. Take care now. Cheers, so long.” That was strange.” said my friend when we got outside.”Yeah but I got a free pint out of it.” “You could have had more than one, could have had a few.”  “Yeah, but I have to fight Kenton next month, remember?”

  After that it started happening more often. When I was working in pubs, families would gape and tell me how much I looked like an uncle or a brother, they’d pull me out from behind the bar and have me join them for a group photo, me filling in for the missing relative or friend who’d be so amazed when he (thankfully, never a she) saw the snap. I’d get stopped all the time by strangers who just had to tell me how much I looked like… Then I was skateboarding down Broadway once and a small gaggle of heavyset, female tourists pointed at me and screamed, clutching at each other – they thought I was a famous comedian turned game show host.  It went on and on and in the end I just accepted it. It’s happening again, I’d say to myself and just go with it & try not to appear blaze` & spoil their fun and amazement. My theory is that I just have one of those faces, a certain hard type of face that isn’t all that common but when you do occasionally see it, it’s distinctive and readily identifiable, like the Sharpia.

 I could see a labrador bumping into a sherpai and at first glance saying, “Oh yes! I know you. Distinctive face.” But then a bit of a sniff around the bum and,  “Ah but no! Different sharpai!”

The last time it happened was a few months ago. “Oh my! You look just like _____. You know who I’m talking about right? You know who he is, right? The boxing manager? Wow you wouldn’t belive it.” ‘No, yeah. I believe it.’ Ay-yi-yi, too old and too fat to make it as a fake welterweight these days now its the guy managing the welterweight. As I age, so do my doubles of course but I’ve never been told I look like someone who died. When that starts happening, when they’re seeing ghosts, I’ll be able to add Terror to the reactions of shock and incredulity and my experience as a doppelgänger will be complete.

Next Week – Bikes in NYC

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The crap you have to deal with in retail

   Warning – this post is gross & not for the squeamish.

   They say that ex-cons can spot another ex-con straight away, something about the way they move; guarded, alert & wary. The same is true of the retail manager, I can spot one a mile away, they radiate a bone weary diplomacy and tend to have an aura of resigned, terminal patience about them. Plus they’re the ones sitting down. They don’t tell you about what will happen to your feet when you become a retail manager; feet pummeled, feet beaten, feet screaming like you walked a mile over thinly spaced marbles. Retail managers love to talk about foot pain and the relief of foot pain – salts, baths, foam vs gel insoles. Suffice it to say you do a lot of walking in a big store. But the foot pain is insignificant when placed alongside the colossal pain in the A that is the Difficult Customer. Sure there are plenty of happy customers, some cool customers and even a few slippery customers but the difficult customer requires you to display a superhuman level of self-control as you mimic the zen approach that only the truly great managers possess. This is my job, you tell yourself, the rest is merely tedious but dealing with this ringpiece right now, is what you’re getting paid for. For example, there are women of a certain age and a certain tax bracket that like to work out their frustration, stress and incipient anger by tearing a strip off of retail clerks. Who for $8.00 an hour usually turn around and say, ‘F**k You Lady!’ This is where your skills are needed, this is where your empathetic nods and concerned, knitted brow comes in handy.

I talked to one female manager who treated it as a game, a skill. “What’s the shortest time it’s going to take me to turn a customer who is livid, literally spitting mad and get them out of the store happy, smiling and planning to return.” “Wow! I’m usually thinking, where can I dispose of the body?” “Then you don’t belong in retail, quit now or you’ll be dead by fifty.”

As well as aching feet & angry woman you have crushing boredom to deal with plus the embarrassing roleplay with your subordinates. For instance trying to get them jazzed about a mind-numbing, repetitive job a cheap robot will be doing in a few years. So retail can be bad enough without the endemic but lesser known problem of dealing with other people’s crap and by crap, I mean poo.

chocolate log       People poo in stores. Some can’t help it but others do it on purpose. They think it’s funny. I was talking to a guy who, against his better judgement, let three girls into his large store just before closing at eleven at night. They were young asian-american girls, dressed provocatively, off clubbing. “Oh Please, please! We really need to use your bathroom.” Cute girls. Nice girls. They disappeared upstairs and in the end-of-day madness he forgot all about them. They came giggling down the stairs fifteen minutes later and he unlocked the doors and let them out. They hit the sidewalk laughing madly and disappeared. “When she passed me, this one girl, I noticed she had shit on her fingers.” Shit! I said. “Yeah and I thought, now that’s odd and then I got this sinking feeling, something about the way they were laughing, they seemed nervous when they realized they were locked in. I headed up to the bathroom with a maintenance guy.” It turns out the girls needed to use the bathroom to paint a huge, geometric wall mural. In brown. “It was everywhere, everywhere. I don’t think there was one tile untouched.”  ‘My God’ says I, ‘What did you do?” “I left the maintenance guy to it. I don’t get paid enough to deal with shit like that. He didn’t seem as shocked as you might think. He said it happens a lot.’  Shit happens in retail, a lot. After a few seconds of rueful contemplation my friend, like Dragnet, says, “I think the girls were high on Mescaline.” ‘Wow, what made you think that?  “Just something about the patterns they drew and the look in their eyes. If felt like Mesc.” I left it there. Retail is like the French Foreign Legion, you’re working now and we don’t ask questions about your past.

     This invaluable piece of retail equipment is called The Spinner, clothing stores use them to display cashmere sweaters, blouses and the like. It will be familiar to you. Many times you have stood there spinning to find your size or a style that appeals to you. You may have pulled something off to take a closer look or to buy but have you ever parted the clothes and taken a peek inside? Well beware because, yes, you guessed it, people like to poo in there. Another friend, another store, the kind that sells brand name clothes cheaply. They might be imperfect, ugly, or in strange sizes and I’m just talking about the staff now, the clothes are a bit off kilter too; jeans with a 50 inch waist and 16 inch legs, the Spiderman print MooMoo you’ve always wanted, the six fingered glove. Also men’s grooming kits for $3.99 & massive crap watches, you get the idea, you know the store. Well they had an outbreak and they couldn’t catch the scoundrel. Some fiendish defecator or possibly a gang had targeted the spinners. It’s quiet and private in there, your chances of getting caught are slim unless you start laughing, whistle, rustle your newspaper or fart too loudly. The Spinner Poo is another one of those great mysteries I like to ponder in the slower parts of my day. Is it the thrill? Is it thrilling to shit in a spinner? Is it for a dare? Or are they simply caught short? Damn, there’s a line outside the restroom, I’ll just nip in here, no one will notice me. Could it possibly be a sexual thing? It started as a joke but became an obsession! Do they take toilet tissue in there with them? Well, I guess a cashmere sleeve is soft, strong and very, very long. My friend tells be that no person or person’s have as yet been apprehended in connection with the defilement of the spinners. It’s sporadic, now. I like to imagine the store manager, trudging wearily into her office with a sore face from grinning at angry customers, finally getting a few minutes to herself. Putting her aching feet up on the desk, with a Twix and a coffee, leafing though some dumb memo. Then an excited retail clerk dashes in, “It’s happened again..” ‘Oh God.’ Which brings me perfectly to my own personal experience of dealing with crap in retail, I’m really dying to share but I see we’ve gone long, so I’ll have to hold it in till later.

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Betty Blu Ray.

When’s the last time you walked out of a movie theatre feeling like you hadn’t been ripped off? Am I the only person whose mind wasn’t bent or blown by Inception? Ellen was there to walk you through it after all. $20+ with the stale popcorn to watch someone fold Paris in half, I can do that with a post card. Stale popcorn/stale movies, I couldn’t even drag myself to see Black Swan. Anyway, I was walking down Bank Hey Street in Blackpool about 25 years ago and I thought I’d have a bit of a bob about in HMV, (which was a large, high street store that used to sell music CDs, videos and INXS posters. (Or Heather Locklear posters if you were in the US)). And there, stacked up on an endcap, was a French movie called Betty Blue, in french!  I was immediately drawn to the (award-winning) poster.

     ‘They’re taking a bit of a gamble putting a movie with subtitles on a big display aren’t they?’ I thought to myself. ‘This is Blackpool after all, not Leeds. It looks really good though. What’s it all about? 37 degrees centigrade in the morning? That must be really hot then.’ I didn’t know too much about celsius or French Movies and they were asking some astronomical price like 12 quid for it – all my drinking money for the week basically. But, I bought it anyway.

There are only a few movies that I’ve watched over and over again. The Graduate, Annie Hall, Withnail and I & Betty Blue. It turns out that it was a fantastic movie, containing everything that the British secretly love about the French but hate the French too much to admit; Healthy uninhibited sex, smoking cigarettes with panache and attacking rude people with sharp metal objects. Betty Blue has all of this in spades, as well as – something else the Brits can envy – extended periods of sunshine, in fact, most of the movie takes place in a cinematically perfect sunrise or sunset, with skies like blood oranges on sapphire.

So I get it home, thinking how cool all my friends are going to think I am owning a French Film and everything and how they’re all going to want to borrow it and stuff. I slap it in and not knowing what to expect and the opening scene turns out to be two people on a bed, on the other side of a room, doing it. Now this isn’t the kind of slow mo, filtered, closed eyed, fake ecstasy, hollywood sex that we’re all familiar with. This is two people, who’ve only been seeing each other for a week, completely in sync, lost in the moment and making love ‘for real’. Then the camera slowly, slowly starts approaching the bed and you feel like an intruder, recognising that yes, this is exactly what it’s like and well, you kind of want to give them some privacy but of course, you can’t look away.

Zorg is pushing 30 and cooling his heels in a dead-end job, but he has a nice pad and works in the sunshine and seems happy enough, but a few years ago he wrote a crazy, kinetic splat of a novel that the world surely needs to read, but right now it’s just stuck in a closet. Enter Betty, a young, sexually charged, whack job who crash lands in his life, discovers his novel & literally burns his house down to get him moving again. And off they go, to Paris and beyond, having increasingly crazy adventures and meeting weird and weirder folk as Zorg gets closer to a book deal and Betty slowly succumbs to absolute madness.

The great thing about this movie, apart from the way it looks, is that it’s a true tragi-comic masterpiece; it’s really funny, slapstick, wacky, bizarre and also really sad; wonderful free spirited girl who’d do anything to keep her guy, can’t help loosing her mind. Beatrice Dalle, one suspects, could not act her way out of a paper bag, (although she did play a convincing blind person in A Night on Earth) but in this movie she doesn’t have to, she just is Betty and the fact that her acting is bad, somehow makes her all the more a believable as a loony. Jean-Hugues Anglade as Zorg, is fantastic as always  (remember him in that very ‘dark’ very ‘cool’ french film Killing Zoe? One of those second-rate, indy movies shoehorned into your life because you enjoyed Pulp Fiction?) Anglade is a gifted comic but also endearing and unintentionally cool. His penis also has a large part in the film and almost deserves a separate credit for it’s hair-raising stunt work. ‘Zorg, put some undies on for God’s sake! That oven is on, you know?’ But what really makes the movie are the minor characters that Zorg and Betty bounce off. Director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, makes all them all so relateable and so lovable with, or even because, of their foibles. He treats these strange people with such compassion and tells their stories with such humour, that after the movie is done – and there is no a happy ending here –  you have a sence still, of all these flawed, fragile but essentially kind people, just trying to get on with it but stumbling under all that wonderfully unnecessary, french, philosophical baggage. You have to own this movie, don’t rent or stream it, don’t borrow it either. Buy it and watch it whenever you’re feeling Blue.

Now available on Blu Ray; Betty Blue always looked great and having seen it so many times, seeing it now, it feels like I’m watching a Pixar movie, maybe too great and the deleted scenes that showed up in the Director’s Cut a few years ago are not here and it doesn’t really matter, Zorg robs a bank! Betty abducts a child! Two hours is plenty. Your heart couldn’t take much more.

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This Old Thing?

One of the greatest drawbacks of working in the same store for many years is watching robust middle-aged customers become frail old customers. Where they were once relaxed and affable, willing to hang out and bullshit for a while they now seem distracted, anxious & eager to get home. They used to talk about their kids in college, they now mention health concerns. As terrifying as this is, in a way it makes me appreciate life a bit more because I can see what’s coming down the pike. There’s one guy in particular that serves as an hour-glass for me, an uncomfortable reminder of my own inexorable decline. I would have first seen him about fifteen years ago, an effeminate, fiftyish, guy with a moustache. Slender, ginger, great posture, squared shoulders, a slight build but well muscled, not graceful but with a certain rigid poise, a former dancer, I’d always guessed with precise movements; a rapid walker. A strange guy, he’d come in with just one or two newish books to sell and really give a good hard haggle to get the best deal he could. Nothing wrong with that but he did ‘exasperation’ a little too well to make it a pleasant transaction. Not friendly or unfriendly but, ‘harried’ is probably the best word. He acted like a guy who might have been in a bit of a tight spot, a little upset, put upon; desperation was creeping in. He must have lived close by because you’d see him a lot. He came in one night and asked for a pair of nail scissors (?) There are so many nuts day-to-day in any NY neighborhood but this guy stood out because of the gaudy bath towel he always wore wrapped around his head.

The rest of his outfit was normal; pale blue, skin-tight jeans, white t-shirt, sneakers, so far so good. If he was wearing a crazy outfit the bath towel wouldn’t be quite so jarring but as it was, capping out this fairly pedestrian get up, it just smacked of insanity. It wasn’t a plain bath towel but a deep green, thick, lush, bath towel, with a heavily embroidered flower motif in royal blue. A luxury towel that could only have been manufactured in the late eighties and its wrapped around his head Carmen Miranda style, as if he’s a lady just out of the bath, but he’s a fully dressed man and he’s walking down Broadway.  Why? Why! It’s one of those mysteries that niggle and gnaw at you. Why a bath towel? If it has to be a towel, why not a plain towel? Why a towel at all? What’s wrong with a hat? Whatever the need, surely a hat would suffice in this situation? Does it come off? What’s under there? What’s his take on it? What would his reasoning be?  “Well why don’t you just ask him?” someone said. “No. No no no.” I say, “You ask him!”   Does the towel have significance? Does it have sentimental value? He’s not doing it to irritate or provoke, I’m sure of that. Why though? Why is he wearing a bath towel on his head?

We came up with the ingenious nick name of Towel Head Man to describe him, as in; “Towel Head Man came in last night and bought a dollar book with twenty nickels.” I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him sprinting down the street one day screaming with laughter, chased by a couple of wheezing guys in scrubs and facemasks, but he didn’t ever escape and the towel never came off and I saw him today. He’s quite frail now, stooped and shuffling, no poise, no muscle mass, his skin is sallow and loose, his mouth hangs agape, he peers around but seems more out of it these days, is he muttering? And yes of course its the same towel & its deterioration is shocking. It’s up there 365 days a year & it’s starting to get threadbare, lost is its luster, no longer plush nor vibrant. This formally luxuriant headdress is faded now, not as alarming as it was in its audacious prime. No longer vivid and neither is he and (if I can remember bright towel) neither am I. But for me, after all these years, the mystery remains acute. Why? Why not change the towel? Get a new towel! A new towel, a new you! Hmm, the towel wasn’t ever changed, this must mean something. It’s a clue. Of course a native New Yorker wouldn’t care, “Who cares? He’s Nuts!” That’s all you need to know. But I do so want to know. Why don’t I just ask him? Surely I wouldn’t be the first to have done so. “Hey, what’s with the towel?” “Excuse me sir, can you tell me a little bit about your towel?” What would he tell me?     “It belonged to an Aunt.”  “It keeps my head warm.”  “It’s Dior!”   “What towel?”   “Mind your own business!”

I realize now, after this much time has passed, that no answer could satisfy me. Tied up with this towel are larger questions for me about aging and habit, foibles and blind spots, about the vast differences between people who are all supposed to be essentially the same, about communication, indifference and life in a megalopolis. We all have our towel obsessions; these beguiling aberrations that throw us for a loop because we cannot understand or explain them. And of course, we all have our own towels too.  What’s my towel and why won’t anyone call me on it?

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While Riding On A Train Going West..

At the end of last week’s post  (Vinyl is back. No really!)  I was trying to figure out why New York teens and young adults were embracing vinyl again after all these years. Just to recap; vinyl sales started bubbling under a few years ago and then made a significant leap in 2010. Thanks in large part to young New Yorker’s.

I was in Urban Outfitters the other day, (there’s nowhere else to buy jeans on the UWS anymore OK? And no, I wasn’t the oldest person in there.) and they have a table, the front table, the important table, the eye-catching, ‘right when you walk in’ table and it’s just loaded with retro ‘stuff’. Bulky retro cameras, maybe a Lava Lamp and some Trolls, I’m not really sure, but they do have portable turntables! And if you pitch your eyes left they have vinyl too! Freewheelin, Thriller etc. I guess I’d known this and had forgotten, but now it’s right there upfront and they’re like $23.00! Twenty three dollars for an album! And literally a stones throw (although, maybe not a Rolling Stones throw) from our Record Store.  To be fair, these albums are brand new and nice heavy pressings to boot. But still, clearly the kids aren’t buying new vinyl because it’s cheap.  So why are they buying it?

The clue’s in the retro table; kids love records because they’re fun, tactile fun. They’re fun to play with, they’re fun to use, fun to browse through, fun to scrutinise with your buddy. Remember all those great discoveries? Must Be Played At Maximum Volume. A New Phase Beatles Album, Some V.U, White Light Returned With Thanks and who the hell is Small Z? Find the Beatles upside down on the John Wesley Harding cover. Take blury on blury Dylan, walk him ten feet over there and shake him, Dylan comes clear! Yes, Fun! Fun to have and keep or trade with your friends. Fun to fling around and scribble on. Fun to buy!

Sure, as the audiophiles never get tired of telling us, with a good system and a good cartridge, vinyl just sounds better than anything else available. That wide, rich, infinite, analog sound. As (long time, now deseased record store manager) Raymond Donnell put it; that wonderful “Bloom & Resonance.”  No self-respecting opera buff would enjoy Tosca on anything but the good old phonograph.  But these beautiful young people don’t know that, they’ve been listening to muffled music on their i-pods since they were little kids. The i-pod is a solitary thing anyway it’s not a social thing and once you’ve lost your library a few times, many just say, ‘to hell with this!’

The bottom line, is that kids want to hang out, have fun and talk about music and having and sharing an LP collection is still the best way to do that. The young people in New York figured this out first because hey, this is New York and there’s still a lot of vinyl out there somewhere, you just have to dig.

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Vinyl is Back! No, Really.

    A few years ago now, just after i-pods became ubiquitous and just before all the CD stores closed, the music press, various blogs, industry mags and audiophile publications were trumpeting the return of Vinyl LPs. Records are back! In a big way! They were quick to point out though, that overall, vinyl sales still represented only a tiny percentage of music sales, about .33 1/3% but still, this small slice was set to double in size, like a microscopic replicating gamete, into a slightly less tiny, overall percentage of music sales. Great, I thought. This is fantastic news, because I own half a record store. Maybe the place will finally turn a profit.

used records NYC

On November 26 1922 after six years poking around in the Valley of Kings and running out of money and support, archeologist Howard Carter, came to a plaster wall at the bottom of recently excavated staircase. His search was at an end. He had finally found the door to the Pharoah’s tomb. As the diggers broke through, Carter, trembling slightly, stepped into a chamber which no human being had set foot in for more than three thousand years. Inside, complete silence, utter stillness reigned, not a speck of dust in motion the treasures within, untouched for three millennia. Unfortunately, Carter’s sensations on the threshold of King Tut’s tomb were not wholly dissimilar to those of anyone visiting the record store on a Wednesday afternoon in a post sub-prime world. Ah, but that was then! The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Hough announced today that New York teenagers have sparked a worldwide renaissance trend in LP record sales. Records now account for almost one percent of new music sales. Used vinyl sales of course are harder to gauge but recently we have seen a marked upswing in record sales. There were thousands of web searches for, “Used Records NYC,” this month and so many unexpected visits to our website that it actually crashed. Do websites still do that? There were hundreds of Chucky Taylor clad feet tromping through the isles to get to Dylan, Hendrix, Led Zep the Floyd and of course The Stones. I was so happy to be informed of this! Thank You Jesus! Thank You Lord!

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Stockholm Syndrome or the Feel of the Real

Riding the A Train in the morning I look around (as many booksellers do) and try to gauge the ratio of e-readers to print books. Most mornings it’s about 50/50, some mornings it seems to be mostly books and on the mornings when despair sets in – I see nothing but Kindles, i-pads and Nooks. But our customers like to be supportive. They come in and regale me with a broad range of anti ER complaints, so many complaints that I find myself daydreaming that I’m a bemused cartoon bookseller in a Dr. Seuss hardcover: Bellows Marilyn O’Fend; “They Just Won’t Bend!” Morris McFenddum; “Impossible To Lend Em!” The Beastly Pedendum from the back streets of Hendon, creeps in and whispers; “Too Easy to Spend Them.” Well, you get the idea. When this gets old I switch to the untimely deaths in Gorey; Lucy Sneed dropped hers in the bath. Mordecai Granger left his in the sun, young bloater Gunter Humbert, squashed his with his bum.

The number one complaint seems to be, The Feel. “No no, I like the feel of a real book.” They say. And I reply to all these complaints, “Oh yeah, yeah absolutely.”  I agree 100%. I do. I love the physicality of books, I love the feel of them. How they look, how they’re constructed how they resist or submit in your hands. How on earth are you going to browse them online? A little 2D image, a tag line, a blurb. It’s like online dating; Well yeah, I like wine and a movie too but what do you smell like?

     Yes I have a self-righteous little angel on my shoulder, smugly tweeting all these wonderful and accurate complaints about ‘lame’ ERs. But wait! What’s this? A little devil on the other shoulder? Even me? I, who have everything to lose and seemingly nothing to gain by the rise of the machines? With the terror comes doubt? Well you have a room full of books already, what about space? What about for like quick reads, like mysteries and stuff? Things you can just rip through and don’t want to keep? “Shut Your Fu**ing Mouth! Right Now!” Yells little angel. “I’m going to tear your Fu**ing Head Off!”   You know and they’re like cheap, stuff that’s just out you can like get it right away, you don’t have to go anywhere, it just downloads in seconds. “Zip it! Zip IT! You freakin Bastard! I’m gonna come over there, I swear to God and I’m gonna… ” Little angel is pissed but he doesn’t have to worry really because although he’s an advocate, little devil just isn’t the kind of guy that can actually be bothered to go out and buy an ER and mess around with it. He just wants to pick out a book, break the spine, get his nose right in there, take a deep breath and just read the f***ing thing already..

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