24. shout at the devil 4

it's a nice day to start again (365-149)

vinyl. taken march, 2008
Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

Or: Why I will never work retail during Christmas again.

1983 was my first holiday retail experience. It was a baptism by fire, as I landed a job at the busiest record store at the busiest mall on Long Island. Record World, Roosevelt Field. On my first day - two days before Thanksgiving - I was handed the requisite blue vest, a name tag and a few whispered words of advice: don’t let them get to you. My co-workers were referring to the barrage of customers that were at the gated entrance to the store fifteen minutes before opening and still clinging to the cassette racks as we were trying to close. You have not seen a whirling dervish in action until you have seen someone hell bent on getting everything on their kid’s Christmas list.

I, however, was no wimp. I could handle any customer, any crowd, any cash register breakdown or old woman sobbing over the Julio Iglesias albums. I immediately volunteered to work the irons - the opening to closing shift - nearly every day. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, I would not have a day off, and most of the days would be the full shift.

In the beginning I had superhero powers. I never got tired from the long hours. I manned every spot in the store; the cash register, the cassette department, the imports. I spent time downstairs unpacking boxes upon boxes of shipments, sorting albums, slapping stickers on them and writing the title, artist and store # on the plastic sleeve of every record with a blue sharpie.

By the second week in December, I was spending more time on the floor, helping customers find exactly what they were looking for. During the holiday season, this usually consisted of frazzled mothers trying to remember exactly what it was their son or daughter had asked for. This resulted in a lot of guesswork, humming and/or singing. It also involved many loud gasps of horror when the mother matched the title of the record with the album on the display wall. So many dropped jaws and wide eyes as parents spied the cover to Quiet Riot’s Metal Health. That’s what my child is listening to? Oh My God! He’s a devil worshiper! I knew it!! Or Suicidal Tendencies? OH MY GOD MY BABY IS GOING TO KILL HIMSELF! If a parent annoyed me by asking me to “suggest something” for a kid I knew nothing about, I’d go to great lengths to find albums with the most horrific artwork, or the most offensive names. Yes m’am, I’m sure your son would just love a copy of Crippled Children Suck by the Meatmen!

The kids were just as bad. They would come in without a list, trying to buy music for their parents. Getting the title of a song out of them was like pulling teeth. How about if I sing it? Yea, sure kid. Sing away. They’d hum something undecipherable. I begged for lyrics. Just one or two would do. Uhh. Love. And umm…heart. I would lean in close to the kid and say sweetly, Well that narrows it down. To about 3,000 songs! Eventually I would convince the kid that the song he was humming was actually Frank Stallone’s Far From Over , knowing full well that I would be going to hell for inflicting such pain on an innocent person.

The closer it got to Christmas, the more of a frenzy people were in. They fought over the last copy of Synchronicity. They mobbed us when we opened a new box of Madonna cassettes. Every once in a while, I would have to step over some fur-coated, blue-haired grandma who fainted when she saw the larger-than-life cardboard cut-out of Julio. And I started to feel the result of all work and no play. I was tired, I was cranky and then I lost my voice.

My co-workers made signs for me to hold up so I could still help customers. Two days before Christmas, the only sign I needed to use was “Sorry. We are out of that title right now.” I faced the wrath of customers who, through no fault of mine, had waited until the very last minute to pick up Pyromania. I’d try to tell them that Dio’s Holy Diver was a much better choice, anyhow. I was a little punch drunk.

I listened to the complaints that the register lines were too long and the store was a mess and the floor people were rude. We had to chase customers out of the store ten minutes after closing and even as I was vacuuming and closing up cases they would say “Oh, are you closing?” I lost my patience and I lost my fixed greeting smile. No longer was it “Welcome to Record World, how may I help you,” but “What you really want to buy your kid is clothes. Go to The Gap and leave me alone.” By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I was was about one “Will buying Shout at the Devil for my kid turn him into a serial killer?” away from a workplace incident. The only thing that kept me from slicing someone’s neck open and watching them bleed out all over the Michael Jackson display was the happy hours at Houlihan’s. Dinner break meant a walk down to the other end of the mall for free bar food and as many dollar drinks as I could pound back in 45 minutes. Customers are so much nicer, smarter and better looking when seen through the haze of cheap alcohol. I was also more likely to point the blue haired women toward the Exploited or Iron Maiden, but I had to get my jollies somehow.

This was all played out to a soundtrack that was a little mini-war over the store stereo system where the Misfits’ Walk Among Us would get pulled off the turntable by the manager after one song, but she let the evil Huey Lewis’s Sports album play all the way through.

Had I known that the next year I would be doing the Record World Christmas stint again and would be subjected to the non-stop playing of Do They Know It’s Christmas, I might have appreciated Huey a little more.

I tortured myself through Christmas of ‘86 and decided that I was going to retire from retail after that. I could not handle another holiday season of bitchy parents and surly kids and girls screaming and drooling over New Kids on the Block albums. I had used my holiday bonuses and store discounts to accumulate a nice collection of imports and that almost - almost - offset whatever mental damage that job caused me.

Despite all that, I still refer to my term at Record World as the best damn job I ever had. Where else was I going to get reprimanded, yet lauded, for putting out a Dead Kennedys display on November 22?

I never did work retail again.

23. the 47 ronin 0

you will die by the tip of my sword today (365-121)

todd’s back, taken march, 2008
Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

It was a snowy night in December, 1702 when the greatest act of revenge in history was played out. On that night, 47 ronin (masterless samurai), avenged the death of their master, Lord Asano, two years after he was ordered to commit seppuku , or ritual suicide, for taking a swipe at one Lord Kira. Kira, by all counts, deserved the slashing that Asano gave him. But it wasn’t that supposed attempted murder of Kira that Asano was punished for, even though striking a man in anger was against the law; it was that he committed the act within the walls of the Shogun’s castle, which was a far worse crime in itself.

Such was the ritualistic world of the samurai. They lived by the Code of Bushido - literally the way of the Samurai. The code dictated concepts such as loyalty, honor and virtue.

It was that loyalty and honor that took the 47 samurai on a two year journey to avenge the death of their master, Lord Asano. The samurai, who were now ronin, had to leave their castle, as the law permitted the Shogun to take over Asano’s castle after he committed seppuku.

Several choices were available to the ronin. They could accept the law and surrender, they could fight and refuse to turn the castle over, or they could exact revenge by plotting to murder Kira, who the ronin felt was responsible for their master’s demise, but received no punishment from the Shogun.

Of course, they chose revenge. It would not have made such a riveting tale if they hadn’t. And the code they lived by basically bade them to avenge Asano’s death.

At first there were 59 ronin plotting to kill Kira. They laid low, pretending to be street merchants and even drunken gamblers to get information on Kira. Kira and his allies remained vigilant for most of that time, always on the lookout for the ronin, knowing full well that the samurai would want Kira dead.

For nearly two years the ronin waited and watched until Kira eventually let his guard down, thinking that the ronin were not coming for him after all.

Finally, the moment had come. On December 14, 1702, 47 of the 59 ronin (the 13 other ronin were sent back to their families) stormed Kira’s mansion. Account on this event vary; some say that in the ensuing fight, all of the ronin survived. Other accounts say that one ronin died in the battle.

For ninety minutes they fought and when it was over all of Kira’s men were either killed or they surrendered. Kira himself was found cowering in an outhouse. The ronin gave Kira a fair chance to die honorably, to commit committed seppuku, but Kira would not do it.

The ronin beheaded Kira and deposited his severed head at Lord Asano’s grave.

The Shogun Tsunayoshi - the same one who ordered Lord Assano to kill himself - was impressed with the loyalty of the ronin. But he had a samurai code to follow and could not let the ronin go without punishment for their acts. He ordered the ronin to execute themselves, which was a way to let them die with honor. They were buried next to their master, Lord Asano.

So, why do I tell you this story? I suppose there are lessons to be learned from it, but even on its own, it is a great tale. If there was a definitive moral to this, it would be that revenge is, indeed, a dish best served cold

22. you make me feel like dancing 2

you make me feel like dancing (365-146)

“you make me feel like dancing” march 28, 2008
Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

Anyhow, the story.

The year is 1978. I’m in high school, beginning of junior year. There’s me and three guys and we are best of friends. We go nowhere without each other, we make no convoluted plots to take over the world without all of us present. We move like stealth bombers in the night, all army jackets and dirty jeans and Genesis t shirts (before Phil Collins ruined the band, ok?) We are the cutting edge of a white-bred community, which really isn’t saying much, but we think we are the coolest people on the face of the earth. We listen to prog rock and punk rock and never pop rock or disco or, god forbid, Journey or Bruce Springsteen. We think guitar solos are passe but drum solos rock the house. We think Peter Gabriel is a genius and bands like Styx and Fleetwood Mac need to be silenced. We secretly listen to Van Halen but no one tells the other until years later, when we can laugh at David Lee Roth from the safe distance of many years.

We don’t hang out at the mall like the other kids. No, we hang out in Kevin’s room with the black lights and Emerson Lake & Palmer posters, or we hang out in Paul’s garage, with the drum set and the Ramones "Road to Ruin" playing over and over. Every once in a while though, we are drawn to the mall, because Record World owns us. It is the only reason to get on public transportation. It is the only reason to beg someone’s older brother for a ride. To buy records and look through the stacks of vinyl and pray that you will find some obscure punk rock album in the cut out bin for 99 cents, but all you can find is Heart and Blue Oyster Cult, and a 45 of Nazareth’s "Love Hurts" that you play 50 times in the next three days.

One of those weekends arrives when there’s nothing to do because Kevin’s mom won’t let us hang out in the house and Paul’s mother is having a garage sale so we can’t hang out there. We decide to hop the bus and go to the mall, where we will pool our money together to buy an album, and have enough left over to ask Kevin’s brother to buy us quarts of beer when we get home. Perfect day.

We get to the mall and the first thing we notice is there’s more security guards than usual. This is suburbia. There’s not much trouble at the mall. We figure there’s some kind of protest going on. You know how those college kids are, always protesting the fur or the man or whatever gets them out of the dorms. So we make our way through the mall, wanting to just get to the record store and get the hell out of there without encountering any cheerleaders or football players or giddy junior high girls that always try to pick up Tim. We are about two feet from the record store when we are stopped by a short, fat security guard and a velvet rope going across the length of the mall.

"You cannot get through this way. You must go around the other entrance to the mall and wait on line." The guard stands with his hand in his pocket, as if he is believing his own lie that he’s a real cop and there’s a gun hidden away there.
"Wait for what?" I ask him. "What’s the line for?" He rolls his eyes at me.
"The show. The concert." I can almost here the "Duh!" coming out of his mouth.
We look beyond the velvet ropes, past the throng of the most hideous looking group of middle aged women and giggling teenagers forming what looked like a huge conga line of patheticness. There’s an amplifier set up on each corner of the square the ropes have formed. There’s a makeshift stage in the middle, really just a few planks of wood. A concert. A show.
"So, who’s playing?" Kevin asks the guard. He rolls his eyes again.
"Only Leo Sayer!" He says this with pride and arrogance. As if we should have known that the most untalented white boy to ever grace pop music was playing in our very mall today.
"Leo Sayer," I say.
"Leo Sayer," The other three say.

We look at each other in the way that only friends who have performed sinister acts of rebellion together in the past can do. The look. The glance. The unspoken words that pass between us. The guard senses something going on. He looks us up and down, sees the clothes and the hair and the patches on the jackets and you can just about see the light bulb go on over his head.

"Hey! You’re not here to see Leo!"
"Duh," I say. "We’re here to buy some records. Can we go in?"
"No. Come back tomorrow. And don’t make any trouble. I know your kind."
"Sure," Tim says. "Sure. We’ll be on our way now. You take care, ok?" His words were the equivalent of patting the guy on the head.

We walk around the other side of the mall. We stake the place out, eyeing the set up of the amps and the positioning of the security guards. We synchronize our watches and hatch our plan and wait. We wait patiently. Fifteen minutes until Leo Sayer bounces on to the stage, white boy afro and squeaky voice, ready to rock the world with "You Make me Feel Like Dancing."

We must do this. In the name of good music. In the name of Peter Gabriel and Joey Ramone.

Five minutes til Leo.

Finally, we hear a squeal rise out from the crowd. The sound of 200 or more tone-deaf women swooning at the site of a guy who looks like the poster child for geeks. We assume our positions. We wish each other luck in our mission. It’s time.

Leo is escorted on to the wooden plank stage by his manager and two mall security guards. The women swoon. The music cues (this is the 70’s - he’s going to lip sync) - and we run in four opposite directions. Within thirty seconds we have done it. We have unplugged all of Leo’s speakers. The music stops. Leo is just about to "sing" the first words into the mic and everything goes dead. He’s mouthing words to dead air. Silence.

The security guard who spoke to us earlier spies me as I am walking away from the northeast amp. "IT"S THEM!," he shouts, pointing in my direction, and then swinging around to see Kevin running the other way. He points at him, at me, yelling at the other security guards, his face red and sweaty and alarmed. I’m having fits of laughter while I’m running, thinking that the guard is acting as if we just killed the president. I keep thinking about book depositories and grassy knolls and this too fat mall cop running after me because some disco pop boy had his amp unplugged.

The four of us meet outside at the bus shelter and we decide it’s too risky to wait another ten minutes for the bus to come so we start the long walk home, stopping every once in a while to roll around on the sidewalks in fits of laughter.

We get home, tell Kevin’s brother about what happened. He buys us beer and lets us drink it in his room. This is the big time. The older brother’s room. Cool. He tilts his quart of Miller toward us. “Rock and roll!”

Rock and roll.

21. to david, on his eight birthday 11

i am ninja, hear me roar

“i am ninja, hear me roar” march 17, 2008
Welcome to my new site. Please read the about page to see what this is all about. See also, the companion photo site, lyrical photography

I wrote this when my nephew David turned one. He’ll be eight this week. I’ve updated this story before, but this is the original version, written in 2001.

Several years ago, in the courthouse I work in (I was not working there yet at the time), an employee found the lifeless body of a newborn infant in a bathroom stall. One of the emergency workers who responded to the scene, Tim Jaccard, was so moved by the scene that he was motivated to start the AMT Children of Hope Foundation, a group which went on to found Safe Havens. Safe Havens are hospitals, private homes and houses of worship throughout Long Island that have drop-off points for women who have given birth, but for various reasons do not want to keep the babies. These are infants that may otherwise have been abandoned in restrooms or dumpsters, left for dead. Tim comes into this story again later.

My sister and her husband tried for many years to have a baby. When it became apparent that they were suffering from infertility, they sought medical help. They went through many tries at in-vitro fertilization, which is a physically and emotionally straining process. It never worked for them. They went through years of testing, experiments and physical procedures to try and conceive. They got to a point where they realized that it was just not going to happen for them. This is when they decided to try and adopt.

They first went to Catholic Charities, because my cousin adopted three children through them. They were turned down because my brother-in-law is Jewish. Never mind that they are financially stable, own their own home, can provide a stable, loving environment for a child, and promised to raise the child Catholic. It wasn’t good enough for them. Catholic Charities was a dead end.

They tried posting their number at colleges and on internet message boards made specifically for that purpose. Lots of phone calls, more dead ends.

One day my sister was talking to her friend Mary about her and her husband’s frustration. Turns out Mary is Tim Jaccard’s secretary. Mary put my sister in touch with Tim and the wheels began turning.

There were more dead ends at first. A young girl who decided to give her baby to someone else. A woman who, at the last minute, decided to keep her baby. That one was at Christmas time, and my sister had announced to us on Christmas Eve that they would be getting a baby. Two days later, the woman said no. And how can you be mad at that, really? She wanted to keep and raise her baby and that’s a good thing, despite the pain it brought to my family. My sister and her husband made the decision that they would not tell anyone the next time there was hope for a baby. They would wait until the baby was born, the papers were signed and then and only then would they spread the news.

Cut to last December. I was sitting at my desk at work, when my sister (who works with me) came into my office looking pale. She was shaking. She had just received a phone call from Tim. There was a baby boy, born on November 20th and the mother, an illegal immigrant who had just come here from Burma, did not want this baby. She was ready and willing to sign papers giving him up. My sister and her husband had known about this woman since the baby was born, but said nothing to any family member, remembering what happened the last time. But now she had to tell me because Tim said on the phone to be ready to be a mother in two days. Two days. After years of waiting and hoping and being disappointed, she had two days to get ready for a baby. She was to leave work immediately and head to to the woman’s apartment in Queens, where Tim was waiting for my sister and her husband to meet the mother. The mother wanted to see them first, to know who she was giving her baby up to. I walked my sister out to her car and wished her luck. As soon as she was gone, I broke a promise I made and called my mother.

Two hours later, my mother and I were in Target, spending a small fortune on baby supplies. Clothes, diapers, bottles and every accessory both useful and extravagant, were bought. By the time we got home, my father, who cannot keep a secret to save his life, had told every relative within shouting distance. Basically meaning everyone in town. Friends and family kept pulling up to the house, dropping off supplies. A bassinet. Enough diapers to last a month. More clothes, baby blankets, crib sheets. There were moments where we felt like we were jinxing the whole thing, pushing our luck, but we decided to test fate and stock up anyhow. Any woman who has ever had a child will tell you nine months is barely enough time to get everything ready. Imagine only having two days to prepare. We figured it was better to have this stuff ready for her than to have nothing ready at all, and have to run out that day to buy all the things they would need.

Sometime that night my sister called and said it was definite. The baby was theirs. He would be delivered to their home, by Tim, the next night. She still wouldn’t believe it, wouldn’t talk in definite tones until the baby was in her arms. Can you blame her?

The next day was a frenzy. There were still so many things to get, so many people to call. My sister was frantic, her husband was neurotic. By 9pm, there were 20 people, friends and family, sitting in their living room waiting for David. We had champagne ready. Finally, Tim pulled up at around 10pm. My sister freaked out and wouldn’t go to the door. She was afraid Tim would be standing there empty handed, come to bring the bad news that the woman had changed her mind. I looked out the window and saw Tim lifting a little baby out of a car seat. I shoved my sister towards the front door and told her to chill out. And Tim walked in, held out David, and put him in my sister’s waiting arms. There was not a dry eye in the house. My father was crying, the neighbors were crying. I thought my sister and her husband were both going to pass out. They held him and stared at him for the longest time and nobody moved, nobody talked. Finally, someone popped the cork on a champagne bottle and we all cheered. For the next hour, David was passed from person to person and we all stared in wonder at the baby we had waited so long for.

David is a year old now. Not a day goes by that I don’t look at him and think about the birth mother he has out there somewhere, and I wonder if she knows what she gave up. I look at his engaging smile and listen to his loud laugh and kiss his soft little cheeks and I wonder. I see my sister and her husband with their child and I am so happy for them, and so thankful that Tim Jaccard afforded them this opportunity, that this adorable child was not abandoned in a dumpster in the dark of night because the mother had no one to turn to.

So happy first birthday, David. You are a lucky boy. You had a selfless, caring birth mother who made a choice that was hard for her and right for you. And you ended up in the arms and hearts of two people who will give you a lifetime of love.

As an update: I first wrote this in 2001, on David’s birthday. He’s eight now, a funny, charming, mohawk wearing kid who is way too smart for his own good and loves Star Wars, karate, The New York Islanders and playing air guitar.

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