The Center of Attention

Some day in the not-too-distant future Amazon’s drones will drop packages at our front door.  Every material thing we need is already a click of a mouse and a rush delivery away from being in our possession. I don’t mean to be the old man waggin’ his finger at technological or economic “progress,” but I do fear for one cherished American institution: The Mall.   It may be difficult to imagine a mall having an identity, or contributing to the culture of its’ community, but I’d like to give an ode (Eulogy?) to the Mall as we know it. I’d like to tell you the story of the Center Point Mall in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.  It’s a story familiar to a lot of small towns, with the same villain hatching their tried and true plan to push small business to extinction.  This is the story of how the hub of my hometown took a decades-long descent into nothingness.

Brought to you by Every Day Low Prices®.

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The Mall, similar to another American icon says, “Bring me your snotty teenagers, your elderly mall walkers, your poor huddled masses.” Like the Statue of Liberty, The Mall doesn’t discriminate; it brings people from all walks of life together and welcomes them with open arms.  If e-commerce kills the mall where will those mall walkers powerwalk?  Where will the rent-a-cop mall security guy get a funny hat, fake badge, and pretend job? Where will the latchkey kids hang out and spend their parents’ money?  Won’t anyone think of the children??  Our journey back in time begins some in the late 1980s, when your retail tour guide was just a boy.

Mall

Memories Museum

The Center Point Mall once stood a stone’s throw from the banks of the Wisconsin River just off Main Street.  Main Street, USA might as well have been the address. Our downtown had the same shit you’d find anywhere else, except it was our shit. Bill’s Pizza, which had the best thin crust pizza in town. Jim Laabs Music, which is where you went if you wanted some condescending asshole to sell you an overpriced guitar. The Mission Coffeehouse, where high school kids went to see “bands” and smoke cigarettes.  There was the county library, a few seedy tattoo parlors, and since it was Wisconsin, multiple ice cream stands and dozens of bars.

However, during my childhood, the number one attraction was the Center Point Mall.  A multiplex that multi-FLEXED on other malls.  Our mall was book-ended by Shopko on one side and JC Penny’s on the other.  They were connected by a corridor of a dozen or so stores, with a sad food court that sold sad fried food in the middle of it all.

I grew up in a blue collar family.  My parents worked at the paper mill, just a few miles away on the same Wisconsin River, so we lived pretty modestly.  We did most of our shopping at Shopko, but there was always one occasion where my mom would relax her frugal ways and splurge on us: back-to-school shopping.  It was a tradition every late August, from elementary education until the latter years of high school.

The day would always start at Shopko where we would get the 39 items on our school supply list.  Pencils: check. Crayons: check. New folders I never used: check. Backpack, erasers, notebooks: Check.  Protractor, great for making smiley faces.  Compass?  I don’t know how many times I thought about stabbing myself with the sharp end of that thing in Math class.  Once all the tedious shit was out of the way we would begin our trek through the mall to JC Penny’s.

Our Mall had very few mainstays in those 10 or 15 years, which looking back, was probably the first sign of the economic troubles ahead.  One of the first stores you passed after exiting Shopko was a Hallmark store.  I suppose they stuck around a while cuz everyone needs expensive cards, Christmas ornaments and other fragile knick knacks.  There was a Glamour Shots or Sears Portrait Studio that probably had it’s heyday in the Big Hair days of the 80s.  There was always a poor photographer there, desperately trying to make some crying toddler smile.

We had the chain sporting goods store, Foot Locker, and right across the way the local guy, Dave Koch Sports.  Dave Koch was probably my favorite place in the Mall, tho as far as I know, no one knew how to pronounce his name.  Was it Dave Cook, Dave Coach, or Dave COCK? I never really knew, and in all honesty I probably only had a handful of transactions there because the guy was an overpriced Kochsucker.  Dave Koch was where you went if you wanted to sell your baseball cards for 1/3 of their value, or buy an autographed 8×11 of the Green Bay Packers’ backup tight end for $100.  They also carried posters, seasonal sports gear and replica sports jerseys (more on those soon).

Just down from Dave Koch was the chain music store that always went under, only to be resuscitated by some new giant chain.  It went from Music Land, to SamGoody and then I think Tower, but none of ‘em ever had the staying power to survive the inevitable liquidation. I liked to imagine some greasy haired executive with a bad comb over, market research data in his hand, plotting out expansion sites on a map in his office thousands of miles away, and picture him saying “Damnit!  I’m telling you, the people of Stevens Point need a record store, and by god we’re gonna give it to em!!”  Besides everybody knew there was only one place in town to get music and that was from Randy at Radio Kaos right there on Main Street.  Randy had more music knowledge in one of his toenails than the fucks at Tower had.  No tears would be shed when the mall lost its’ music store for good, but it was another harbinger of things to come. It was merely one of many in a series of dominoes to fall.

Sadly the mall’s only toy store, K.B. Toys, folded by the time I turned 10 years old, but I still remember it fondly as the place for my G.I. Joes, Ghostbusters proton pack, and Starting Lineup sports figures.  I can still vividly recall this reoccurring dream I had as boy where 8 year old Ben is the only kid in the toy store and somehow I’ve been given Free Reign, like I won some all-you-can-shop contest.  I’m running through the aisles, ripping open toy packages, hugging stuffed animals and generally pissing my pants in pandemonium.  Waking up from that dream was the child equivalent of waking up from a wicked coke bender, with slightly less shame, but way more sadness.

One other memorable store that was part of the mall, but also had a window front on Main Street was the Tea Shoppe.  This place was a mix between a Hot Topic and head shop.  It’s where you went if you wanted a bean bag or papasan chair, those hanging beads people used in place of doors, or a rubber dick as a gag gift for a bachelorette party.  For my sister and me, the Tea Shoppe was the source of one of our biggest childhood addictions: STICKERS.  We filled up sticker albums like we were preserving some important fossil record for the Smithsonian.  Albums upon albums of fuzzy animals, funny stickers, cartoon characters and whatever the fuck else.  And let me tell you, we were sticker connoisseurs, with our absolute favorites being the “Scratch n Sniff” stickers.  We loved scratching stickers of cookies, flowers, pizza, and wafting in their fragrance.  Adding to the fun was the fact that about half the smells were accurate and the other half we determined smelled like farts.  We would always trick each other into smelling the ones that smelled like farts.  “Hey Becky, come here!!  This one smells EXACTLY like mom’s lasagna.”  PSYCHE!  Face full of fart fragrance.

We also had a Buckle, a jewelry store and a shoe store, but those places aren’t worth mentioning because they’re the same everywhere.   Those stores were Center Point Mall staples for quite some time tho, I think in part to give kids something to do.  You could always try the “Buckle Challenge.”

90′s Nostalgia

Finally, we would arrive at JC Penny, for our back-to-school clothes shopping.  I don’t know if it was the era, or the size of our town, but to us JCP was the high end clothing retailer in town.  I got my HIS jeans at Shopko for $15 until 6th grade, but my older sister Becky had to fit in at school so she got Levi’s from JCP for $35!  Crazy!  I had a cousin who went even one step further.  Levi’s, in what can only be considered marketing genius, created “Silvertabs.” Jeans that were $50, but instead of the red tag on standard 501 Levi’s jeans these had a silver fuckin tab.  Silvertabs were like the teenage equivalent of ballin’ watch or sports car.  It said you were lavish as hell; you (your parents) could waste $50 on jeans.  Vanity, thy name is Levi’s.

JCP also carried another personal favorite 90s trend: No Fear shirts.  No Fear shirts had their logo on the left breast and on the back would be some stupid fuckin cliché like “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of fight in the dog,” or “SECOND PLACE IS THE FIRST LOSER” in big, bold, badass font.  Again, my older sister was the privileged one who owned the No Fear gear before I was mature enough for such brilliant slogan wearing.  My jealous response to her trendiness was to raid her closet for her No Fear shirts, a task which I never once completed successfully, and subsequently got my ass reamed out.  no fearWhen I finally got my own No Fear shirt as a Christmas gift one winter they were already considered totally uncool for some time, and making matters worse was the slogan on my shirt.  It was black with red lettering, with the backside showing a tachometer and speedometer both redlining with the tagline “Runnin’ a little hot.” Everyone at school thought it was a NASCAR shirt, so after a couple experiences in public humiliation, the shirt was relegated to the back of my closet. A shameful reminder that you should be careful what you wish for.  (Thanks mom.  I love you)

My big sister didn’t get first dibs on every fashion trend tho.  JCP also carried replica basketball jerseys, which for a sports obsessed youth, was another big deal.  By the time I reached junior high, I probably had at least two weeks’ worth of jerseys in my closet.  I can still remember sprint walking into JCP, trying not to lose my shit, to check out what athlete’s jersey might be hanging on the walls.  The colors, logos, and stitching on the jerseys were a stimulus overload, and on more than one occasion probably gave me an excited boy boner.  (Sidenote: This wouldn’t be the first boner in my JCP experience.  My older cousin and I used to love looking up the mannequin’s dresses when we were just little shits.  Idk wtf we expected to see, but a plastic crotch was a pretty serious thrill for a 6 year old boy.  Well, until that lady in cosmetics reprimanded us. Cockblock.)

Since it was Wisconsin and winter spans roughly half the year, you also had to hit JCP for your pullover Starter jacket. (You want to click that link)  Not everyone could afford a Starter jacket.  There were knock-offs like Logo Athletic and Pro Player too, but those we’re for hacks.  Poor kids in their knock off jackets might as well wear a potato sack to school.  Better chance of surviving ostracizing at recess.

Obviously JC Penny was the exclusive home to these must-have fashions and was critical to the Center Point Mall’s success.  It anchored the west end of the mall for years, but its departure from the downtown area would ultimately be the deathblow for the Center Point Mall.  A final nail in the coffin that had long been sealed.

Enter the Villain

Here is where the plot becomes predictable. Where the evil giant stomps its foot down in Stevens Point, and leaves a crater still visible today.  Walmart opens. Small business dry up quicker than a dolphin thrown into a desert. No need for that chain music store in the mall, Walmart has cheaper CDs.  Hope you like your explicit lyrics scrubbed clean, brought to you by Every Day Low Prices®.

When Walmart rolls into town, it’s like finding out you have a terminal illness.  It’s only a matter of when, not if, your town’s culture, its uniqueness, its identity,  is stripped away and dies.   But Walmart doesn’t kill your city on its own; it’s just the first, biggest, most malignant tumor.  Walmart attracts other big boxes.  You get LOWE’s: Never Stop Improving!  So long local hardware stores.  Best Buy.  All you need to know about Best Buy is their logo is a fuckin price tag.  The parasitic chain restaurants aren’t far behind at this point.  Gotta have some place close by to stuff your face after all that money-savin! These shit holes literally kill our towns from the inside out.  Welcome, Chili’s, Red Robin, and the bane of all existence, Golden motherfucking Corral.  So long Blueberry Muffin, once voted the state’s best cinnamon rolls.  So long diners, restaurants, greasy spoons.  So long local flavor.

The Bitter End

The Center Point Mall received its death sentence too.  By the time I was a senior in high school, its desperate attempts to remain viable, to be part of the fabric of our community, included hosting our Winter Formal.  Some days when my friends and I were particularly bored, or high, or both, we would go walk through the Mall for a laugh or two.  The 4 or 5 of us probably made up a quarter of the people in the mall, including all employees.  It was really just Shopko and JC Penny’s with a long, well-lit hallway in between.  On more than one occasion we even snuck into the mall’s basement and explored it totally undetected.  It was like a graveyard of long forgotten store signs, displays, and racks.  It was a chilling reminder that, we too would one day perish, hopefully a little more gracefully.  (It was some pretty good weed)

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It was not a glamorous end for the mall.  For another decade the Center Point Mall persisted in that condition.  Like the elderly relative you can’t bring yourself to visit in the nursing home, it lived on as a shell of its once-proud self.   When JC Penny left town the mall’s health deteriorated further, clinging to life support with no vital activity.  Shopko and the remnants of JC Penny’s, separated by 220,000 square feet of unused commercial space.  The last step was to pull the plug, but no one in town could decide what to do.

People hotly debated the fate of the mall.  City Council meetings were held, open letters to the newspaper were written, and elected officials dreamt up all sorts of harebrained ideas. I remember someone saying they should turn it into a firing range, a gym, MORE FUCKING BARS.

The mall’s final purpose to its city was to act as a parking lot on weekends for all of the downtown bars, but even that became a point of contention when the mall’s managers tried to prevent/tow cars parking there.

mallfinal

They finally decided the fate of our mall a couple years ago, about 15 years after it last served any purpose to our city.  A good section of mall was demolished and they turned JC Penny’s into the tech school campus.  I don’t think it’s open yet, but I like to think one day these tech school graduates will close the loop and make damn fine Walmart employees.

*****

I left Stevens Point long ago and now reside in Minneapolis, exactly two miles from the Mall of America.  Unlike my hometown mall, the Mall of America is thriving.  This fucking monstrosity is actually expanding, with a $325 million dollar addition expected to be ready for August of 2015.   Part of the expansion includes a food hall.  (I bet it still tastes like shit.)

 malloa

Locals despise the MoA.  They say you can’t spend too much time there, or it’s a tourist trap, or a germ-haven. I’m not so pessimistic.  I see the Mall of America as our modern holy Mount Zion.  When Amazon’s drones gain sentience, turn our nuclear missiles on us, and bring about a nuclear winter, we can use it as our fortress.  When that day comes, you already know where to find me: I’ll be at JC Penny’s, picking out my winter jacket.

My Fantasy Football Retirement Speech

For the first time in nearly 15 years, I will NOT be playing fantasy football.  Call it sour grapes, call it giving up, but I just don’t see the fun in it any more.  To me, it’s jumped the shark.  Like a night of going out drinking at age 29, there isn’t anything that could happen that hasn’t happened before.  I’ve taken home the sexiest girl in the place (Tom Brady in his 48 touchdown, breakout season).  I brought home total dead fish that were all glitz, no glory.  I’m looking at YOU, Joseph Addai.  I discovered the sexy girl hanging out back by the pool table when I drafted Ray Rice as a rookie, a year too soon, and Tony Romo when he was Drew Bledsoe’s backup, only to see them go home with someone else the next year and stab me in the back.  Finally, I owned either Jamal Lewis or Cedric Benson or both (twice) every year for 4 years, refusing to back off on my love for turd RBs, until I won a title with them, proving you can make a nasty fuck buddy into a solid relationship at least once in your life.  But this story isn’t to brag about my genius, it’s to pay homage to the passing of a friend, to announce my retirement, and wish the other fantasy fuckheads out there a little luck before the season starts.

For many of my friends fantasy football begins now, the week before the season starts or maybe sometime in mid-August.  For me it became an obsession that began before training camp, before positions battles even heat up, somewhere in that dead zone after the NFL draft and before training camp opens. Sometime in June I would begin scouting depth charts, mock drafting and picking out sleepers, then revised those lists all summer.   But it wasn’t always this way.  There was once a time when hardly anyone I knew played fantasy football.

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I first learned of the mega-million dollar industry that is fantasy football at a magazine stand in a grocery store as a teen.  Way back before the advent of the Internet, I’d get my rocks off by picking up some printed materials about the upcoming season, whether it was football, baseball or occasionally basketball.  I picked out a magazine called “Lindy’s Football Preview” without noticing the word “fantasy” scribbled on top that meant it was a fantasy preview magazine.  I only bought it because it had Reggie White on the cover, a curious choice for a fantasy mag, and I couldn’t be more disappointed when I got home.  Pages upon pages of rankings of players and fake “auction” salaries.  I had no idea what the hell they were.  All I wanted were some team-by-team previews that talked about the big free agent moves and draft choices so I could rap about sports on the bus ride to school.  Disappointed, I chucked Lindy’s rag aside and wrote it off, not knowing it would soon become the keystone for my first fantasy league.

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Setting up a league wasn’t like what it is today, where your friends, coworkers, and family members are constantly recruiting people.  You go to work, and someone asshole in accounts payable you barely know wants you to get in.  It’s like that shitty drug dealer trying to sell you some really bunk shit.  “Hey man, its only $40 to get in.  You’d really be doing me a favor.  Come on, just get in.  It’ll be fun.”  Fantasy football is like crack for people now.  What else can turn perfectly decent men into stone cold zombies for 9 hours a day on Sundays? Face glazed over, staring at a computer screen or HD TV all damn day.   And the Monday after a heartbreaking loss?  Worst fucking withdrawal you can go through.  Don’t turn on ESPN, don’t open the newspaper, and don’t fucking talk to me about your team either, unless you lost too and want to commiserate.

Fantasy football can be a gateway drug too.  It might lead you to harder sports like fantasy baseball, fantasy hockey or god forbid fantasy NASCAR or golf.  Fantasy hockey is worthy of an intervention, fantasy NASCAR is like finding out a friend started snorting bath salts.  And it doesn’t always have to be about trying other sports.  Soon, just one fantasy football league isn’t enough.  You gotta join 2, then 3, soon you’re joining public leagues or second chance leagues just to get your god damn fix. I’ve done it myself.  I “cheated” on my steady fantasy league, shopped around for something better only to find it  repulsive.  Those weeks where you start a player in one and face him in another just feels dirty.  No possible outcome can make you happy.  I can’t even imagine the moral dilemmas faced by managers in three or more leagues.

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I’m not sure who’s idea it was, but somehow between me and my cousin Ryan we decided that fantasy football sounded interesting and we went about setting up a league.   Back when Ryan and I crafted our first football league no one knew what fantasy football was so we had to make all the rules, and then explain them to our friends.  Our first league was a four person league that later evolved to six.  We drafted players based on a salary we found in a magazine similar to that original Lindy’s magazine I discovered earlier.  A major problem was only so many players were listed in these magazines that were often printed in June, so we had to create a salary for free agents not listed.  We decided that unlisted FAs would have the same price tag as the lowest listed player.  This meant that annually there were huge steals to be had.  Someone stole Natrone Means (Think LaDanian Tomlinson before LT) and Randy Moss’s rookie seasons at bargain basement prices.  Inevitably our league would collapse by week 8, when someone would run away (it was rotisserie scoring only in our league) and everyone gave up. Part of this was due to how we set the league up, but part of it was because our league members were so weak.  Example: my cousin Ryan’s cousin Dave was so clueless he drafted “Jett James” every year while slamming all of my parents’ frozen pizzas and string cheese on draft night.

Those first couple years were painstaking for me as commissioner.  Back before leagues were online or you could set your lineup on your smart phone, I had to compete with Sunday morning mass to call all our managers and find out who they were starting.  Dave worked on a farm so he always had chores and never could come to the phone.  Besides setting lineups I had to score all the points from the box scores in the Monday newspaper (and Tuesday for the Monday night games). This process was more painful than ESPN’s coverage of RG3′s rehab or Tim Tebow coverage.  It fucking sucked.  Oh, and I’m sure I botched some of the scores too.  Sorry, but there were no “stat corrections” to follow mid-week.  It’s fun to reminisce about those times and romanticize the simplicity and stupidity of it all, but those meager beginnings gave rise to the fantasy we know today.  Fantasy that questions our Fanhood.  With the exception of Calvin Johnson I don’t think I’ve owned a player in the Packers’ division in years, but that doesn’t stop me from owning and rooting for players on teams I hate.  Dez Bryant, the Niners Defense, Big Fucking Ben.  Fantasy turns us all into traitors with no allegiance to anyone but our pretend teams.

It’s not all bad though.  I love the nicknames we created for guys.  Isaac Bruce was once the best WR in the league, but when he held on too long he became “Old Balls” Bruce.  The “Old Balls” handle was later applied to Joey Galloway and finally carried on by Santana Moss.  The team names were great too: Benny and the Jets, Texas Chainsaw Massaquoi, and the guy who named his team after Brett Favre each year.  One of my favorite fantasy terms/team names was “the Monday Night Miracle.”  Often you head into Monday needing some totally implausible outcome to happen, like Peyton Manning throwing 4 INTs, 5 FGs from your kicker or a third down back to find pay dirt multiple times.  I think my Monday Night Miracle might top them all though and I’d like to tell the story one more time before I ride off into the fantasy sunset.

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It was my freshman year of college, the third week of class and second week of the NFL season.  Titles aren’t won in week 2, but every win adds up, and in order to avoid losing interest in the season you gotta start off with a winning record.  I was playing one of my biggest rivals in the league, a guy I had went to high school with 7 years earlier, and who was the quarterback and captain of our football team that I played on back then.  The guy was a total bastard in high school and I couldn’t fucking stand him.  Not that I was a great high school defensive lineman, but he fucking sucked.  I think he made one good throw his entire senior year, and we mainly relied on the legs of our all-state running back, but that didn’t stop him from being a pompous asshole. Since it was only his first or second year in the league and I wanted to send him a message, that I was a powerhouse and he’d be my bitch, sort of a role reversal from high school.

However, going into MNF he had what seemed like an insurmountable lead, with the Colts defense left to play, facing noodle-armed Chad Pennington on his last legs.  My only player left to play was Ted fucking Ginn Junior, a former Ohio State Buckeye, perhaps my most hated college team.   Normally a Monday Night game between the Colts/Dolphins would be a Peyton Manning dick-suck-fest and by no means compelling TV.  But that’s the great part of fantasy football, it makes all the games relevant, even when you should be studying for school or spending time with your kids or whatever.  I was feeling lucky so I picked up a 12 pack of Newcastle after class, plopped down on the couch, opened up stattracker and watched a legend be born.

The regular stars showed up.  Manning threw for 300 yards and 2 TDs, including 170 yards to Dallas Clark. Ronnie Brown rushed for 130 yards and 2 TDs, while Ricky Williams stuffed has face with Cheetos on the sideline.  Chad Pennington didn’t absolutely shit the bed, he was sacked twice, fumbled once (recovered it), and threw one pick.  The story of the night was Ted Ginn.  Pennington dropped back to pass 31 times and sixteen… SIXTEEN of those targets went to Ginn.  He was fixated on Ginn like he was Jerry Rice in his heyday.  Ginn had stone hands though and only managed to catch 11 balls for 108 yards.  Still those 11 catches represented 1/3 of Ginn’s season production; as he went on to catch 27 more passes ALL SEASON.  I kept up with Ginn, drinking one Newcastle per catch.  Every FG the Dolphins scored lowered my opponents point total, while every catch Ginn amassed added to mine.

The game was up and back the whole way, with the Dolphins actually leading until Manning threw a go-ahead-touchdown to Pierre Garcon with 3 minutes left.  Now it was Pennington’s turn to answer.  As the former Jet drove the Phins down the field in the no huddle offense every drop back was crucial.  A sack, INT, or fumble and I’d be losing.  A 50% chance of Ginn target and catch would give me the lead.  Every play, this was the scenario as our score jumped up and back. I was screaming at the TV and my computer drunk on my brown ales.  First 2 plays of the drive were Ronnie Brown runs.  Third down: Ginn catch!  First down! Clutch! (Slams beer) Next play: Sack fumble!!  NOOOOOO I’M LOSING!!!!  Dolphins recover though, so there is still a chance!  Now it’s second and 19 and Pennington connects with Davone Bess for 18 yards!  Third and one: Pennington shows his veteran savvy with a sneak up the middle for 4 yards!  They’re now in Colts’ territory.  Pennington fires a couple more absolute LASERS (kidding) to Ginn and he actually catches them!  I’m winning again!! Thank you PPR! (Slams beer!!)

Ted FREAKING Ginn

Ted FREAKING Ginn

Time is running out and they gotta shoot for the end zone.  On one of two more targets to Ginn, Penninton delivers a perfect strike in the end zone, but the ass clown lets it bounce off his hands to the ground.  ESPN’s announcers eviscerate him, and Ginn is beside himself, but I am euphoric cuz I had finished all 12 Newcastles and the outcome looked in hand.  But wait, one last play and the Dolphins need a TD, so we all know where this is going…. Jump ball…..  and ANTOINE BETHEA COMES DOWN WITH IT!!! NOOOOOOO!!!!  Interception!!!  I wait for the score to refresh…. It does…. I win by one point, one Ted Ginn catch was the margin of victory.

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That game was what fantasy is all about at its finest.  I went to class with a hangover… if I even got out of bed at all, and that one win was what separated me from my high school quarterback for the final playoff spot, in the only championship season I had in 8 years in that league.  We still talked about if for years afterward at every draft and I’m certain I’m the only Ted Ginn Junior fan in the whole  world, or who remembers the outcome of that game so clearly, even though I chugged 12 beers.

Now though, the time has come for me to hang up the imaginary cleats and coach’s whistle.  I need a year to focus on my personal and professional life and fantasy just doesn’t fit into the time constraints any more.  I’m sure I’ll play again someday… it’s only a matter of time before I give into some asshole who relentlessly recruits me to join his league.  When that day comes, I hope Ginn is still in the league, so my team name, Ginn and Juice, will still be relevant.  Until then, I wish all the pretend football competitors luck in the upcoming season.  May all your players avoid the devastating injury, may you be the first in waiver priority always, and may all your Monday nights be Miracles.

Reflections on Winnebago

People come and people go,

How we were brought together, I do not know

 

Like a fresh mosquito bite, an unnamed desire begs to be scratched

 

An odd pair, we formed, forever mismatched

 

The days shorten, time moves too fast

The memories we made, how long will they last?

 

There was much you taught me

You always fought me

To get me to see

Things in me

I never saw before

You opened a door

For me to pass through

And as I did, I saw in you

What I should have seen all along

At least I realized it before I was gone

 

Days shorten, time moves too fast

Memories fade, now a part of my past

 

As I set course for a new direction, I lunge for my dreams

Go West, young man” was the only advice I needed, it seems

My eyes on the horizon, I gaze out in trepidation

Yet my heart flutters with anticipation

Destiny!  Prosperity! Intrigue Abound!

My feet floating more than a few feet off the ground

Even then I cannot help but think

That if we got together for one last drink

You could convince me to stay

To not run away

The days would grow long and not a minute would be wasted

You and I, together once more; my problems, we’d face it

 

Still the days grow shorter and cold

Time hastens, already I’m old

 

Time is of the essence

So I take with me the lessons

I’ll try not to forget

Or live with regret

But if ever I should wonder

That this is a blunder

I’ll look back at you and realize how far I’ve come

To the pain of separation, I’ll remain numb

So I’ll saunter on, committed to the pursuit

From the tree I reach, picking its fruit

 

The days pass by and it feels bittersweet

So happy I am that we got to meet

 

Wrong or right, Beginning or end? I ask the question

Confused, clouded, my head swirls with congestion

The desire is swelling, wanting to be itched.

It will not be ignored, to this dream, my future is hitched

 

Days pass

Time moves too fast

 

Time moves too fast

 

 

 

 

 

The Ambassador of Misfits

Junior high is a tough time in any young person’s life.  It’s that time in our lives when we’re still not old enough to drive a car, but still too cool to be seen with our parents in public. It’s a time when we ridicule our enemies, but cut our friends down even worse. Our bodies are changing awkwardly, and our behavior is inexplicable. It’s the time when some kids move from puppy love relationships to actually getting physical with members of the opposite sex.  It’s that time when we all struggle to fit in, still finding out who we are and what kind of people we will become.   Everyone is self-conscious, and even the ultra-rich or ultra-popular could be susceptible to ruin and shame if they slipped up in the preservation of self-image.

Although no one would ever confuse me with being rich or popular, I was fairly well-known since I was, even at that age, outspoken, really just an asshole, and I could get away with it because I was so much bigger than my peers. Long before I became the bold, alluring, bad-ass I am today; (pause for laughter) I was a fat, sloppy, teenager, seeking approval from everyone around me. I had a big mouth but an even bigger waistline, so I made myself an easy target, which would ensure that I would never be physical with the opposite sex and that I’d never fit in with the cool kids. Looking back, I gave both my friends and enemies plenty of ammunition to use as ridicule, but it wasn’t just my fault.  The teenager in me still blames my parents for a lot of the agony I endured as an adolescent.

******

The first source of blame I put on my parents’ shoulders is that they had an amazing benefits package through their paper mill, which meant I got the finest dental care.  How could having a brilliant, white smile be the source of pain?  Well in order for it to get that way I had to undergo so many unnecessary procedures, at the hands of my orthodontist, a man whose name was Dr. Kruel. I’m not sure if that was his birth name, or just a dental “stage name” he undertook because the guy played the part of a cruel asshole.  Dr. Kruel installed a metal spacer in the roof of my mouth, which helped straighten my teeth, but first created a large gap between my two front teeth, a gap large enough to make me look like a beaten up boxer, without the muscles or glory. After that Kruel recommended a retainer that I was supposed to wear at all times, and I mostly did, except for when I was accidental throwing it away every other day.  I’d leave it on my lunch tray, or my plate, then scrape it off into the garbage and have to go dumpster diving just to retrieve it.  Because at this point in my life nearly half my caloric intake was from the six or so Pepsis I drank a day, my retainer was brown, and starting to corrode from all the different acids found in soda.  You think this would have been a warning sign, to quit drinking soda, but my parents always made sure we had no less than eight cases of soda in our house at any one time.

By far the most memorable dental experience, and Kreul’s second favorite form of medieval torture, was the headgear he forced on me like I was “The Man in the Iron Mask.”  Fortunately, I only had to wear this catcher’s mask to bed at night, and never out in public, but that didn’t prevent it from single handily ruining my life for almost two years.  The mask had plastic pads that braced my forehead and chin.  The pads were connected by metal bars, which formed a jagged grill on the outside of my mouth.  I then latched four rubber bands from the outer grill to my retainer inside my mouth, and then tried to sleep in a way that didn’t fuck the whole process up, a nearly impossible task. The rubber bands ensured that my mouth would be agape all night, and nightly I woke up in a puddle of drool.  In the morning I’d have crusty saliva all over my face, causing my skin to break out like wild fire.  The plastic pads on my forehead and chin also irritated my skin, which meant that my rather normal looking face had become the Mount Saint Helens of acne explosions, a poster child for Neutrogena if there ever was one.  It was horrible, but it only went on for two years, and besides teens never pick on kids with acne at that age.

To remedy the acne my parents took me to a dermatologist.  I don’t remember his name, but he must have gone to the same school as Kreul, the school where they teach wannabe doctors how to humiliate teens.  This doctor prescribed an acne medication in the form of a balm I applied to my face twice a day.  The stuff could have burned genital warts of the devil’s dick because it felt like it was made from 90 percent bleach.  However, it wasn’t able to cure my acne, in fact the medication made things worse, because it burnt my face, causing my skin to crack, peel and flake away.  My face looked like those images of a lake that dries up, to reveal crazy series or irregular, cracked lines.

The final straw with “Doctor” Kruel came when I reached high school and I was up to my teeth in his bullshit.  A couple years earlier he decided it was in my sister’s best interest to have her jaw broken to reset her smile. My sister’s smile was far from gruesome; in fact she was rather pretty.  But seeing her in the hospital after the procedure and watching her eat through a straw for a few weeks was more than I needed to see to know Kruel had lost his damn mind.  So, when lacking in other ways to suck my parents’ dental plan for money, he recommended breaking my jaw as well, I realized enough was enough.  I got out of his dental chair, walked out of the office and never returned.  I don’t care how many cute Garfield postcards he sent in the mail, reminding me I was overdue a visit; I wasn’t going to be subjected to his delirious torture plans any more.  The mild overbite Kreul sought to remedy persists today, and contrary to his caveats I’m able to speak, to eat and to smile without puncturing holes in my mouth

******

The source of my shame. Our Thunderbird  didn't have a pretty lady or sunroof though

The source of my shame. Our Thunderbird didn’t have a pretty lady or sunroof though

The second thing my parents did to ensure I would be an outcast, shunned by the popular kids forever, was to buy a new car while I was in junior high.  Well, the car wouldn’t even have been considered new in the year I was born, as it rolled on the line in 1977, and I came into the world in 1983. It was our neighbor’s dowdy 1977 Ford Thunderbird, a car more out of style than bell bottoms. Judging from the smell of moth balls that lingered for years after, the previous owners must have had it in storage for some time before my dad bought it.  Actually, I’m not sure if he bought it or lost some sort of bar bet, because the thing was a monstrosity.  It was mostly burgundy with a tan roof and rims.  People joke about old cars being as big as boats but this thing was an aircraft carrier.  No exaggeration, I think we were attacked by Somali pirates at least once a week riding home from school.  When we drove it on the highway, we would have to stop at weigh stations because it had to weigh about 8000 pounds.

My dad would pick me up after football practice out front of the school, but I’d beg him to meet me a block… or six away.  My friends would laugh as we’d see the red and tan ship sailing into port, my dad’s arm proudly hanging out the window. Sometimes I’d have friends who needed a ride home, but upon seeing it, they too decided it would be best to get some exercise and just walk home.

The inside was the same tan color as the exterior trim and the vinyl seats were brutal in extreme temperatures.  In the summer your legs burnt if you wore shorts; in the winter you’d freeze if the car wasn’t preheated.  Regardless of temperature any exposed skin would cling to the seat and you needed a spatula to pry yourself free after long rides.  One of the few luxuries was that it came with AC, a feature we probably used three times a year.  My dad preferred to roll the windows down, and besides, running the AC meant being trapped inside with the odor of moth balls. Luckily I was just a few years away from a license and having my own car, but the damage was already inflicted on my social standing.

******

A third form of misery I dealt with as a teen in my parents’ house was that we didn’t have cable television until I reached junior high.  Actually since we lived out in the Styx there was no cable, we finally arrived when we got a shitty satellite. When we did finally get some premium channels going there was one program that I’d never miss: Monday night wrestling. This didn’t make me a complete lame ass, since wrestling was at its highest popularity in those days.   Muscle-bound men leaping around in their underwear, with shaved legs and chests would never be more enthralling than at the height of the WWE/WCW rivalry. A couple older friends who didn’t have cable would drive over, and we’d be engrossed by three hours of wrestling each week. My parents would let me occasionally order Pay Per View events and we’d get together 10 or 20 guys and hoot and holler over our favorite wrestlers.

Wrestling was always a hot topic at our lunch table in junior high.  The lunchroom again, represented a caste system similar to the bus we took to school.  There was a table for the jocks, druggies, rednecks nerds, minorities and handicapped kids.  Our table was a hodgepodge of kids who didn’t fit in anywhere else.  These were the kids who didn’t play the “cool” sports: wrestlers, linemen from the football team and perennial bench warmers.  We also had the skater kids who didn’t really skate, a couple of nerdy guys, a kid who was half Indian and a few kids who were known to spaz.  We’d spend the lunch hour ripping on each other, and occasionally things would get so bad that our group would break apart into smaller factions when grudges formed.  I’d like to think of myself as the Ambassador of Misfits.  I could bring everyone together, and on some days when I’d bring in a box of the best cinnamon rolls in town, I’d get us a place at the cool table with my former jock friends from grade school.

There was one kid, named Adam, however, that took his love for wrestling to extremely nerdy heights and eating lunch with him meant my friends and I were lame by association.  He owned every “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shirt ever made, and in the days when the internet was still a novel thing to all of us, he created a website dedicated to his favorite wrestler.  One day in class, Adam had a seizure and missed a couple days of school. We were relieved to hear he was ok, but wickedly we were relieved to not have him sit by us for a couple days.  When word quickly spread that during his seizure Adam lost control of his bladder, and pissed himself we knew it was going to be a delicate situation when he returned.  We speculated on how to handle it and my friend Jake summed things up best.  “If I pissed myself at school I’d change my name and move to another town.”  We laughed for days about that remark, but knew it was true; junior high was a tumultuous time, all that anyone wanted to do was survive without a catastrophic embarrassment.  Adam came back a couple days later but soon decided to ostracize himself from our group, which was probably the best for all of us.

austin

******

One final thing I can blame and thank my parents for is that they allowed me to dress however I chose, provided it fit within their budget.  I graduated from Shopko brand jeans to Levi’s during junior high.  I refused to wear any sports gear that wasn’t Nike or at least Reebok.  They bought me some killer Shawn Kemp and Jamal Mashburn basketball shoes, which helped place the focus on my abnormally huge feet, and off my greasy, disgusting face.  But there was one thing they’d buy for me that I’d regret almost instantly.

Around this time a clothing label known as FUBU rose in popularity among teens.  FUBU started in New York and was popular in the hip-hop community.  Most of their clothing was outfitted with the colors of gangs: red and black or navy blue, and was branded with the number “05,” which I never understood.  FUBU stood for “For Us By Us,” which meant that it was largely intended for African-Americans.  In my junior high this meant it was worn by the druggies, the gangsta wannabes, the kids who listened to ICP (a god awful bunch of white rapping clowns), and more sparingly the few minorities who could afford it.  I didn’t really know who I was at that time, so I decided I wanted in on this trend and my mom obliged, buying me a red FUBU hooded sweatshirt from the mall.

That night my older friends came over to watch wrestling and I could hardly contain my excitement.  When they asked what was causing me to be so wound up, I told them I was dying to wear my new hoody to school the next day, my popularity would soon be soaring through the roof.  They asked me to put in on and when I did their reaction was absolute horror, chastising me,  “NOOOOO!!!  You aren’t serious are you??  Do you know what kinds of kids wear those? No, Ben, NO!”  All I wanted was approval, and here my best friends were tearing me a new asshole.  I put the FUBU hoody back in the bag with the receipt; we returned it to the mall that week, and never spoke of the day when I almost became a Central Wisconsin hip-hop mogul.

By the time I graduated high school FUBU went under in America and focused solely on international markets.  Part of this is because everyone copied their style.  Wal-Mart rolled out similar clothing, but in place of the signature “05” they instead had “08” printed on them.  The kids who couldn’t afford to shop at the mall were blasted for wearing these knock-offs and there was no surer way to guarantee your low spot on the social totem pole, with the exception of pissing your pants at school. I’d like to think my buying the FUBU hoody also contributed to their demise.  Surely, that trend had jumped the shark when I brought it home from the mall and tried it on for my friends that night.

******

Looking at myself now, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same.  I still find myself driving piece of shit cars.  I still dress like a total clown some times. My friends and I still tear each other apart, worse than any enemy ever could.   One thing that has changed is I no longer have to deal with acne.  The other big change is that I don’t care what people think anymore.  I once read somewhere a quote that I can paraphrase to sum up my feelings on growing older as it pertains to the opinions of other people.  Before you turn 20 you care too much about what other people think.  When you hit 30, you no longer care what people think.  By the time you reach 40 you realized no one was thinking about you all along.

I find that fitting because we are all tied up in our own little worlds as teens, thinking the world revolves around us, when in reality, we’re all too busy to constantly notice everyone around us. No matter what age we are, we all strive to be accepted, but it’s self-acceptance as we age that tends to matter most.  These days I don’t care what people think, but when I find myself worrying about my friends’ opinions a little too much I grab my lunch and eat alone.

Unflinching Determination

Barry, the man in the window

Barry, the man in the window

I found myself pressed up against a wall of icy snow, hopelessly using a plastic shovel as a chisel.  I had been stuck in this driveway for over two hours and I was furious.  The heat coming off my head in anger could have melted any freshly falling snow. I was cussing and muttering under my breath, all while the owner of the house looked on from his living room.  When I would finish this job I’d hang up my boots and retire from this business forever, but right now, no matter how bad things got, I just couldn’t let Barry Alvarez down.

******

I don’t watch a lot of television but I hear there is a show with the worst jobs around.  Snow removal could easily head up that list because of its variety of ways of breaking your will.  First, there is the danger.  You get called into work in the wee hours of the morning, before anything else is plowed and before it even stops snowing.  I don’t know how many times I drove in white-out conditions, unable to see the road or three feet in front of me, just to get to work and make a few bucks.   Once you got to work you were there until every job got done.  Not just your jobs, but you were liable to help some other clown who might just be incompetent, who may have been drinking when he came in, or who was intentionally dragging ass so he had to do less.  This was a psychological kind of torment, made worse by the fact that weather is unpredictable.  If we got the forecast wrong and it started snowing again, every job you did before the new snowfall would have to be touched up before we could go home.  Inevitably this meant working as much as 20 hours in a row just to get everything completed.

There was also emotional pain.  Everyone yelled at you.  “Why don’t you come to my house first?  You missed a spot over there!   It’s not even done snowing yet, why are you here??  You tore up my grass!  I know another guy who can do this for a lot less money!  Your truck wakes me up at night.”  And on and on.  Everyone has a list of complaints and as much as you want to tell them to blow it out their ass, you can’t.  Hardly anyone ever thanks you, thanks you for risking your life, just so you can be there to clear their driveway and shovel aside their insults.

Physical pain is derived from not just the back breaking work, and long hours, but also the diet you take on as a snow removal expert.  Coffee and soda are the lifeblood of these workers.  If you can manage to unthaw your fingers in the three minutes between jobs you could inhale a cigarette.  When it finally came time to pause to eat, typically not for 7-8 hours into the night, your main course, your only real sustenance for the day, came from fast food joints and gas stations.   Throw in the fact that, as you plow, you’re constantly slamming into snow banks, at 15-20 mph just to move the snow, and your body really begins to take a beating.  All that junk you put in your body to stay awake begins to feel like a washing machine inside your belly, sloshing around, mixing, and waiting to pour out of you. Then take that washing machine and throw it down a flight of stairs, and that’s what it feels like to plow snow for a living.

******

A series of unfortunate circumstances led me to my place of misery in Coach Alvarez’s driveway.  First, it was the first big snow storm of 2007, about 6 inches of heavy, wet snow.  The kind of snow you can’t even push with a shovel because it just packs as you push. I had been working for this snow removal company for two winters, but it was my first night of driving a plow, as opposed to being the shovel bitch/snow blower operator for another plow guy.  Our company had a fleet of roughly 30-40 trucks that were sent out to plow residential and commercial properties.  Each truck consisted of a team of two or three guys, one driver who plowed; and the other one or two shoveled, salted sidewalks and pushed a snow blower.  If things went well the driveway would be finished just as the steps and sidewalk were cleared and we’d all hop in the pickup together and roll to the next house.

The route I was responsible for was located in Fitchburg, one of the more affluent suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin.  The mansions in this neighborhood were notorious for long, twisting driveways, many of them uphill. These houses also had big yards, which meant long sidewalks, and lots of stairs leading up to the front door of each extravagant house.  Many of the steps were made of large marble stone, which meant they could be both extremely slippery, but also uneven, which could be far more painful than a slip and fall.  If you ever shoveled snow for an extended period of time you know what I mean.  You’ll be cruising along, pushing a light dusting of snow when… WHAP… you hit a crack in the sidewalk and the wood handle from the shovel stabs you right in the guts.   Even worse, is when it hits you square in the balls.  When you’re doing this at home, you want to snap the shovel in half.  When you’re doing it for a living, you absorb the pain and remind yourself not to dig in too hard, and to position the handle above your crotch, so at least the pain is less severe next time.

Besides the snow being extremely heavy and thick, besides it being my first night plowing and being totally outmatched, I had one other issue complicating matters.  I was riding solo.  My boss took one of my two laborers away from me because some other people didn’t show up for work, and the one he left me with had a broken wrist.  About 90 minutes into our shift the kid was bawling, so I had to take him home, which led me to falling even further behind.  How he, or my employer, ever thought he could handle shoveling snow with one arm is beyond me, but this was pretty typical of the bullshit I dealt with, so I soldiered on into the night.

By the time I got to Barry’s driveway I was already fatigued  and pissed off.  I had completed about four of my thirty driveways in six hours, instead of the typical 30-40 minutes per job.  The first mistake I made at Barry’s house was that I got out of my truck and did the all the shoveling first, which took me close to an hour.  The second mistake involved where I pushed all the snow.  Barry’s driveway was uphill and slightly to the left.  To the right were a basketball hoop and some shrubbery that I could not push snow into.  On the lower left side was a set of boulders that formed a retention wall.  As I approached the top of his driveway there was his sidewalk that ran from the garage to his front door.  Instead of trying to push the snow over his boulder wall, and with my luck, risk knocking loose some immovable stones, I pushed all the snow in his driveway onto his sidewalk.

So there I sat with a four foot high, rock-hard wall of packed snow, blocking Barry’s sidewalk and garage.  I would have to shovel the entire sidewalk a second time, but first I’d have to break down this wall. It didn’t take long before I’d broken the aforementioned plastic shovel chopping at it. I kicked at it with my size 16 boots.  When my feet started to ache I chopped at it with the handle from my broken shovel.  When that proved to be futile I went back to kicking, clawing and punching the wall.  This is how East and West Germany must have felt, tearing down the Berlin Wall.  The whole time Barry stood in the window of his den, arms crossed in a black Wisconsin sweater.  After all my hard work, I thought for sure he was going to come out and offer me a scholarship to play football at UW.  Granted, I may have been a total fool for my role in getting into the predicament in the first place, but once there I fought for three hours in a manner that would make former #1 pick, Joe Thomas, proud.  Alas, there wasn’t even so much as a wave or nod from the house, as Barry stood there stoically. I packed up my truck and drove away, defeated.

Within the hour I met with my boss and told him I was going home for the night. I couldn’t take any more, and I never came back.  The last driveway I ever plowed was for Barry Alvarez.  But I did some soul-searching that night; I knew I wanted something more for myself than breaking my back for the next 40 years.  Within a year from that episode in Barry’s driveway, I was enrolled in my first college class, and was on my way to a better life.

******

Less than two years removed from that night I had another chance encounter with Big Barry.  My brother had taken an internship at a local news station and was able to cover Wisconsin Football as part of the job.  Since he knew I was a Wisconsin sports nut, he got an extra pass for me.  Together, we got to film football games from the sidelines, interview players afterward, and receive all the perks of being media members.  Part of that gig was attending Head Coach Bret Bielema’s press conference after the game, with all the real media members, and of course the man himself, Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, presided over the whole thing.

I stood just a few feet away from him, even closer than the night he watched me from his window, no doubt I was grinning like a fool.  I wanted to ask him if he remembered me.  I wanted to tell him how that night in his driveway pushed me to do more with my life.  I wanted to thank him for building such a fucked up driveway that it single-handily broke my will.  In the end, I didn’t do any of that.  I just stood there in silent reverence for the man.

******

Somewhere around that time Barry and a local Madison journalist penned Barry’s autobiography called “Don’t Flinch,” which was a phrase Coach Alvarez repeated to his players when he was the Rose Bowl winning coach at the University of Wisconsin.  Maybe that was why he stood there in his window watching me; he wanted to see if I would flinch.  I like to think I didn’t let him down.

The Young and the Reckless

A pic from one of our theme parties: Greasers v. Squares

A pic from one of our theme parties: Greasers v. Squares

It wasn’t quite the Summer of 2002 yet; I had just graduated from high school and had a solid job working 50 hours a week doing landscaping and mowing lawn.  It was the time of the year when graduation parties were going on every night, some more raucous than others, some more legal than others.  It was a late Sunday night, and I was hanging out at my good friend Jenny’s party while her parents were out of town, when the cops showed up to kill the party.  Everyone took off running.  We were in the garage drinking and smoking, so everyone became track stars and bolted for the back door, including myself, before I got two steps onto the lawn and realized I was one of the only people there who had not had a drink that night.  I wasn’t sober…. but I hadn’t been drinking, so I watched my friends high tail it into the bushes and neighbor’s yards and turned around to talk to the cops.  They weren’t in the mood to chase down kids so they wrote a ticket to Jenny, the host of the party, and went on their way.  My other friend Adam lived just down the road so I knew most everyone was fleeing there.  I spent the next two hours rounding up and giving all my drunk, frenzied friends a ride home.

It wasn’t a great big concern to me when I finally rolled up my parents’ driveway at 3am that I had to work at 7:30am, but what did concern me was the little, yellow light burning in the kitchen.  I know my old man was still up and a lecture would be in store.  At this point in our relationship things were pretty tense between me and my dad.  I had grown sick of his oppressive thumb and he had grown sick of my attitude and late nights.  As I walked in the door he barked to me, “This coming-home-at-3-in-the-morning-shit has to stop.”  He wasn’t going to ask for an explanation, he was the type to get right down to business.  However, I had an action plan of my own.

“Well, dad you won’t have to worry about me coming home late anymore, because I’m moving out.”

“Oh really, when?”

“This week.”

“Oh Ok, we’ll see about that.”

“Yep, we will see.”  I shut my bedroom door and went to bed.

Within days I’d be all moved out my parents’ house and into my new home for the summer.

******

The two guys I had moved in with were already evicted from another house just a couple weeks before landing in their new pad. I should have seen this as a warning sign, but I was desperate to escape dad’s watchful eye and they were desperate for a third person.   I had partied with them a couple times in high school, but I don’t think they would have considered me a good friend.  I knew the real reason they wanted me to move in was because I was making great money and would be able to pay my share of the bills.  It was a relationship that would be mutually beneficial for all parties involved.

The better half of my two new roommates was BJ.  BJ was also working long hours that summer, scouting fields for a local vegetable producer.  Our other roommate Shaun didn’t hold a job all summer, and he mostly paid the rent by selling drugs and stealing from his mom.  Because BJ and I were the only ones who worked we forged a unique bond, spending hour after hour on our front porch burning down smokes, whining about our jobs like we were 40 year old men.

BJ might have been the most wild, theatrical, eccentric individual I have even known, due in part to his ADHD.   When BJ was on his meds he could be pretty subdued, able to read a book, have a steady conversation or do some house work.  When off his meds it was his excuse to be an absolute loon, an unlit firecracker ready to shoot off in any direction. Since we lived on one of the busiest streets in the city, kitty corner from the town’s YMCA, we gained a lot of attention drinking on our porch, sometimes as many as 10 or 15 of us outside.  I’ll never forget the second week we lived together, BJ strutting down the sidewalk in only a pair of boxers, posing for, waving at and receiving catcalls from passersby.  Some things stay etched in your mind and in my mind BJ is always strutting, always roaring with laughter and always the epitome of youthfulness.

******

Our house wasn’t an absolute shit hole, but over the next couple months it would become a party palace for hundreds of our classmates.  I’d come home from a ten hour work day to find friends already getting high in my  bedroom , or other guys half loaded on my porch.  I’d shower, run off to the liquor store, procure booze and join them in getting lit.  After half a bottle of booze and a pack of smokes, I‘d drift off to sleep, to the sound of the bass bumping from Shaun’s stereo system below me. In the morning, there would be 10 people passed out in my living room, some I remember seeing the night before, some I had never seen before in my life.  We were like a big, drunk hostel for young vagabonds that entire summer, and we loved every minute of it.

The parties got much bigger on weekends.  Fueled by BJ’s concoction of “Sexual Punch” (basically Barton’s Vodka mixed with juice, served from a big Gatorade container) we burned through the night.  BJ’s punch was not for me, but I came to know the ingredients because I had the honor of buying half the city alcohol that summer.  There was a little liquor store in town called Charlie’s that never carded me, and boy did we abuse the hell out of that.  I don’t know how they didn’t catch on, or maybe they knew and didn’t want to refuse to sell to one of their best customers.  I remember one night where I made two trips to Charlie’s for over $80 worth of booze each time.  A feat made more impressive by the fact that everyone of us was bargain drinkers, slamming piss beer and terrible alcohol like the antidote for growing old was inside. I was in the midst of a five year love affair with Kessler Whiskey, and at one point that summer had convinced myself that the best chaser for shots of whiskey was, in fact, milk.  This myth was destroyed on a Friday payday when I set my goal to be drunk by nightfall, and after accomplishing the goal all too easily, woke up in a rancid puddle of regurgitated whiskey-milk.

******

Even when every night seemed more savage than the week before, and the three of us living there teetering on the verge of sleep-starved, alcohol-driven insanity, It’s not hard to pinpoint the crescendo of the summer.  Like many summers that followed, July 4th produced the climax of summer.  That weekend was marked with drama.  I was in a car accident where a motorcycle slammed into the back of my car, just blocks from our house, on the way to pick up couple hundred dollars’ worth of party favors.   But as always, BJ’s actions would steal the show.  On a Sunday night BJ ate some psychedelic mushrooms and hopped on a boat with the girl he was seeing to watch our town’s fireworks display down by the river.  He told us he had freaked out, dived out of the boat and swam for shore.  With BJ, if it was hard to believe it was probably true.  From there he and his friend Rob got in trouble stealing hot dogs from a local gas station.  I think it was, at the time, BJ’s 4th underage drinking ticket.  When he got back to our house he was still rolling madness, so he decided it would be a good time to shoot bottle rockets off our porch.

There was this old man in our town that drove a bright red, convertible Dodge Viper, which in Stevens Point meant he had to be a big fucking deal.   His ride had custom plates that read VIAGRA, which absent of explanation, I assumed were meant to let everyone know he was a giant hard-on.  Not two bottle rockets in to BJ’s outburst the guy picked the perfect time to ride by our house, because just as he did, BJ shot one right in front of this guy’s expensive ride.  The dude slammed on the breaks, and whipped it into reverse, screeching to a halt in front of our front porch.  As he did, BJ ran off into the house.

He screamed at us, “HEY!  What the fuck?!”  The three or four of us who remained on the porch were extremely apologetic for BJ’s recklessness.

“We’re sorry mister!  Our friend has had too much to drink and we’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again.  So sorry… please… it won’t happen again… yes it is an awesome car… so sorry!”

He had just about calmed down and was telling us he wasn’t going to call the cops, but we should all tone it down, when suddenly from inside the house, BJ erupted with a bombastic, “FUCK YOU!!” We all couldn’t help but laugh and shake our heads.  Mr. Viagra peeled off and 15 minutes later the cops were at our door, remarkably for the only time all summer, so we got off with only a stern lecture.

******

As summer drew to an end, the parties got more bitter.  There were always the uninvited guests to deal with.  People, including myself, got in fights and caused drama.  Eventually, a lot of our high school classmates would move away for college.  A few months into Fall, I swallowed my pride and moved back in with my parents.  BJ left for Minnesota and no one cared what happened to Shaun. We always had that summer though.  That summer of being young and reckless.

******

A couple years ago, I was saddened to hear that BJ passed away unexpectedly. Although his laughter, his mannerisms and his spirit could not be replicated; every now and then I’ll meet someone and see a little glimpse of BJ in them.  I think that’s part of getting older; I always meet people who remind me of someone else.  Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to make tighter connections as I age, to forge those incredible bonds, because I’m grasping at the past, to cling to those nights when we were forever young, where BJ’s spirit radiates in the night like the loudest, most magnificent firecracker of all.

Shine on Shaman.