The Heist

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When I was in junior high I would go with my mom to the grocery store, the purpose of which for me was to browse at the magazines. Hot Rod, Mad, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone were my windows to a world wider than the impoverished domain of my parents’ house in Pomona, CA, where my dad was a foreman at a local factory and my mom was a housewife.

We never traveled, went to the movies or even visited family, not very often. Man, we didn’t even have a color TV, just some old 19” black and white job. Still, we always had a roof over our heads and food, however meager, on the table.

Since I was an only child, my parents could devote what few resources they had to providing me a decent home. Nonetheless, because I was a rather precocious child, as I entered the threshold of my teens, I inevitably became aware of two things concurrently. First, I learned that there was a more exciting world of faraway places, where people made music, art, movies and literature. Second, I sensed my own changing mind and body, complete with an interest in and a yearning for what is now archaically called “the opposite sex.”

As for the magazines that I perused at my mom’s favorite grocery store, while much of what I looked at satisfied my thirst for glamorous and exciting images of rock stars, athletes and movie icons, eventually my explorations into print media ventured into more forbidden territory. Of particular interest were the pages of True Detective, True Crime and Real Detective. The beauty of these magazines was that they simultaneously satiated my appetite for sex and violence.

While ostensibly consuming stories about gangland hits, serial killers and jealous lovers gone homicidal, when I turned to the back pages my eyes widened at the low budget ads for XXX Rated fucking on 8mm film! If only I could purchase these things, not to mention a film projector. Wonder where you get one of those? Feeling the temptation of the flesh, I leered at these nameless women whose sultry looks mesmerized my inexperienced mind as I attempted to imagine what they looked like without those black bars covering their otherwise exposed breasts.

None of the girls and women who populated my world as a junior high school student looked anything like the ones represented in the pulp pages I held in my hands. But what did I know about anything? I had scarcely even touched a girl before. My so-called sexual awareness was nurtured by the soft-core porn that was , for better or worse, a normal part of American consumer society.

Speaking of which, at the top of the magazine rack was the most forbidden fruit of them all, Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. For a thirteen year old boy living in an era when “internet porn” wasn’t even on the horizon, the allure of these publications for “gentlemen,” 18 years and older, was almost maddening.

I didn’t have an older brother, nor did I know any older males who kept issues of these coveted magazines laying around. I had an uncle in Phoenix who, according to some of my male cousins, supposedly kept a copy of Penthouse underneath his bathroom floor mat. But a lot good that was doing me here, in my sexually frustrated pubescent existence. Obviously, I needed a plan. Detective magazines were no longer enough.

One of the advantages of the Stater Brothers market where I set my sites is the placement of the magazine rack. Unlike Alpha Beta, which kept its magazines in the main aisles (and its men’s magazines up at the registers), Stater Brothers displayed everything on this large multi-tiered rack at the front of the store, next to the carpet-cleaner rentals. All I had to do was snag one and make a beeline out the automated doors to my mom’s car.

Fortunately, as I plotted my next trip to the market with my mom, the weather had been rather cool, at least for southern California. Cool enough for my jean jacket, which I wore as my mom drove us in her ’71 Ford Falcon the two miles to do her weekly grocery shopping. The plan was simple, go about my usual browsing, during which I’d casually reach for this month’s playboy, hide it under my jacket, then go wait for my mom in the car. Brilliant!

Since grocery day was typically Saturday, after my dad got paid, the market was always bustling with shoppers. Every register had a long line of customers with shopping carts loaded to overflowing. As I scoped out the scene, everyone was too busy to pay attention to me.

Despite all of the “disadvantages” I enumerated earlier, one thing I definitely possessed regardless of my background was a sense of right and wrong. I could feel the adrenaline pumping as I prepared for the right moment to reach for the magazine I wanted. Eventually, I made my move.

As I held the Playboy in my hands, I waited a moment to see if any of the lady cashiers would yell at me to “put that back!” But nothing happened. Only the constant churning of the cash registers, mixed in with the chatter of shoppers, cashiers and bag boys. I then pressed the magazine against my chest, then slid it under my jacket, turned and left the store.

As I passed through the double doors exiting into the parking lot I walked stiffly and anxiously toward the passenger side of my mom’s Falcon. I thought that as soon as I’m sitting in that vehicle I’d be home free! Feeling myself farther and farther away from the site of my daring crime I got to my mom’s car, grabbed the door handle and, what? The door was locked! “When did she start locking her car?”

Once upon a time in California, hardly anyone locked their car doors, including my mom. However, a PSA had started running on TV for the past several weeks, which stated “Lock It Or Lose It!” Apparently, Californians were seeing a problem with car thieves and such.

In the tense moment I stood helplessly next to my mom’s car, I knew I couldn’t go back in the store. So, I tried to quickly think of what to tell my mom when she came out the market, pushing her cart, only to see me standing by her locked car, looking like an idiot.

“Hey guy, you gotta come back in the store.”

A look of “huh?” entered my face as I turned around at the unexpected voice.

“I saw you take that magazine.”

It was one of the bag boys.

“For reals?” I thought. “This wasn’t suppose to happen.”

I don’t remember saying anything to the young guy wearing the Stater Borthers apron who led me back through those double doors. However, I do remember seeing my mom standing in line as I reentered the premises.

“Oh, David! Why did you do that for?” my mom said full of anger and embarrassment.

By this point the store manager was on the scene, where he met me and the bag boy. At which point, he led me into the back room, through another set of double doors, which opened manually and were restricted to employees.

What I remember mostly is that I still had the Playboy tucked under my jacket when the manager asked to see what I’d taken. When he asked why I did it, my answer was a straightforward “because there’s no way you’re gonna sell this to me.” Other than that, I recall the manager taking down some background info, such as my name and address. All the while, my mom stood there with the same angry and mortified expression on her face she had standing in the checkout line. Also, there was a young girl, older than me, but still in her teens. Another store employee, judging by the attire. She never said a thing, just kept staring at me with a look of disappointment.

In the end, my master plan didn’t get me the magazine I wanted, not even close. All I got was the dubious pleasure of having to tell my dad what I’d done. However, as much of a temper as he had, I was surprised that he didn’t lose it. Instead, he came to talk to me “man-to-man” in my room, where he made sure I understood that not only was it wrong to steal, but also to publicly humiliate my mother like that. I felt ashamed. Between that and not getting my allowance for a couple of weeks pretty much made me think twice about trying that again anytime soon.

As for my desire to see an adult magazine, at school I happened to have a friend, Rodney, who hooked me up. He had an older brother who kept a stash of these things. When I asked if I could get one, he said, “Sure.” All I had to do was pay $2 and he would bring me the goods. However, since we were both eighth graders, this transaction obviously couldn’t take place on campus. The arrangement, then, was for me to give him the money and the next day he would hide a magazine underneath this giant, half-dead oak tree that was in the middle of a vacant lot that we both had to go through on our way to school. As promised, the magazine was there at the end of the day, which I snuck into my room and hid in my chest-of-drawers, where my thirteen-year-old mind was sure that my mom would never find it.

“Fire, Walk With Me”: David Lynch and the American Psyche

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[image credit: Twin Peaks, David Lynch, ABC Television]

As perfect as a great cup of black coffee, Twin Peaks debuted on American television screens on Sunday, April 8, 1990, when the pilot episode aired and soon captivated viewers with the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer.   Preceding Northern Exposure by a few months and The X Files by three years, David Lynch’s psycho-crime-mystery led the way at defining 1990s television as being populated with eccentrics, living quirky lives and surrounded by social dysfunction and political conspiracy.

Set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, supposedly Washington state, Twin Peaks is the kind of town that could actually exist anywhere in America. Anywhere, that is, where there’s a quiet community, replete with all the trappings of “small town America,” including people with dark secrets that they would presume to keep hidden. Unfortunately for the denizens of this logging community of 51,000 plus, Laura’s byzantine connections to many with reputations to maintain, not to mention business and fortunes to protect, has left them vulnerable and anxious in the wake of her murder. Making things all the worse is the investigative team of Sheriff Harry S Truman (played by Michael Ontkean) and FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the former the epitome of honest and dogged law enforcement, the latter the embodiment of criminological acuity and Tibetan mysticism.

Together they set off on an infinitely nuanced yet compelling journey into the shadowy world of everyone whom Laura ever knew in her short life. It is a world in which a one-armed man, “Log Lady” and a sheriff’s deputy named “Hawk” each play a critical role at unraveling the mystery that was Laura Palmer.

Artistically, Twin Peaks is on a spectrum of Lynch’s work that includes Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). These are stories that reveal an American society traumatized by its own excesses, in which law and order hides an irrepressible desire to rage at an affluent world where everything is consumable yet is completely bereft of meaning. Into that void is unleashed all of the hurt, envy, anger and disappointment that are an intrinsic part of the so-called American Dream.

For me, though, Twin Peaks defined my life in Tucson, AZ, where I had recently moved to from New York. I had a dumpy studio apartment at a joint called The Tucsonian, where I spent my Sunday evenings watching Agent Cooper pursue Laura’s killer with aplomb and a sense of humor, not raucous or sarcastic, but with the subtlety of a man who appreciates the complexities and absurdities of human nature. In the end, re-watching the entire series on Netflix, episode by episode, is like giving yourself a little present each day, like “a new shirt in a men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot, black, coffee.”

When Following Your Bliss Is the Absolutely Wrong Thing To Do

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[image credit: Freaks and Geeks, Apatow Productions, Dreamworks Television]

Remember when that elderly Spanish woman attempted to refurbish the antique fresco of Jesus and his disciples that adorned her neighborhood church? Remember the comically incompetent job she did and the worldwide media attention she garnered for her folly? That’s pretty much how my paintings looked to me as I gazed on their clumsy shapes many years after I created them as a teenager. However, despite being as sincerely done as the Spanish woman’s work, my attempt at wielding a brush never earned me any recognition, other than the plaudits of a loving mother. On the contrary, I was no more an artist than my aged Castilian counterpart. Yet, once upon a time I earnestly fantasized that my name and creations would be accorded a place in the pantheon of western art history, a heroic figure of light, color and form. Those dreams seem so long ago now.

I grew up thinking, or rather knowing, that I would be an artist. From early childhood I took immediate pleasure in spending my evenings drawing in pencil, filling page after page of the drawing tablets my mom purchased for me at Standard Brands Paint and Supplies. Needless to say, art was always my favorite class from elementary school to my senior year. Moreover, it was a pursuit that came with the praise and admiration of my friends, family and teachers. When I was in fifth and sixth grades, other kids even traded with me to get something I’d done in school. One guy wanted a Corvette hot rod, while one of the girls coveted a panda. In high school, I enjoyed the pride of selling a picture now and again, which I’d made with color pencils or pastels. My dream, though, was to do album covers like Roger Dean or maybe fantasy magazine covers like Boris Vallejo. Somehow I thought I could do this while simultaneously becoming the next Da Vinci-Picasso-Rivera sensation! What took me a longtime to learn, though, was the fact that I wasn’t nearly as talented as I imagined myself to be.

I had always struggled a bit with painting. Nonetheless, I thought that since I was a decent drawer, it meant that all I needed was practice. Paints were expensive, though, drawing pencils were cheap. So, my lack of experience with a palette and brush was largely due to resources, or the lack thereof. And forget about watercolors! I didn’t like those at all. So, then, what did I want? Oils. While I was happy enough with pencils and pastels, what I really wanted was to work in oil. After all, that’s what real painters use, right? At least, that’s how it looked whenever I went to either the Norton Simon Museum or the LA County Museum, not to mention the volumes of art history books I immersed myself in as much as possible. I even took private art lessons from a middle aged man in my neighborhood on Friday evenings, for $5 a session. Mr Wilson, I must admit, was more of an engineer than an artist. He worked for Lockheed, which I thought was pretty cool. However, his art, well, his art really wasn’t all that good. His lessons, though, were affordable and they got me out of the house. So, between these lessons, my high school art classes and my youthful delusions of grandeur, not to mention the encouragement of my friends and parents, my path seemed pretty clear to me.

But then I got the opportunity to take some classes at the local junior college. They were a part of some program for area high schools. Which classes I took were completely up to me. Naturally, I opted for some beginning painting classes. What I learned from my lessons with Mr Wilson, which I carried with me into these studio classes, was that I actually didn’t care for acrylics very much. During my junior college classes, in fact, I learned to absolutely loathe acrylics. They dried too quickly and they were difficult to alter when things went awry on your canvas, which happened frequently. “It’s like trying to paint with glue,” I said to one of my classmates. “Yeah,” he said, “they take some getting used to.”

Occasionally, we spent part of class posting our work across an empty wall of the studio, which was reserved for these mass reviews. Needless to say, there was a pretty wide range of styles and aptitudes. Our teacher, Mr Casey, a tall man with a red crew cut and a plump face, who looked more like a pharmacist to me than a painter, was always cordial and supportive of his students. Sometimes, I think he was at a loss for words when it came to some of the more, shall we say, artistically challenged works on display. Still, I can’t say I ever saw anyone walk away feeling discouraged, let alone humiliated.

So, then, how did I do? Well, grade-wise I did fine. I consistently held onto a B+ from the start to the end of the semester. Not the straight “A”s I was accustomed to from first grade on up, but still okay. Perhaps because I had some competency with drawing, I was able to get a halfway decent charcoal image on canvas, which helped. However, I never felt satisfied with my acrylic work. My colors always looked too flat and my shading and modeling were more comic book looking than I wanted. In fact, one attempt at creating a work that evoked a sense of depth of field was described by Mr Casey as looking “rather Disneyesque.” As far as I was concerned, everything I produced that semester looked rather Disneyesque. Unfortunately, Disney wasn’t what I was going for. Alas, Mr Casey’s comments made me feel more placated than accomplished.

While I took quiet comfort from feeling I had more skill than several of my classmates, I nonetheless felt absolutely amateurish with respect to the more talented members of my class. My aspirations for an artistic life were quickly receding into a perfectly triangulated linear perspective. In retrospect, it’s easy to say that I was too sensitive or that I gave up too easily. After all, I was a teenager and like your average teenager I was loaded with insecurities, inhibitions and a healthy dose of immaturity and inexperience. Still, I felt like Jason Segel in that episode of Freaks and Geeks, when Lindsay (played by Linda Cardellini) encourages Nick (played by Segel) to follow his dream of a career in music, only to totally suck at the audition! In my heart, I knew my painting was as good as Nick’s drumming, meaning not nearly as good as my daydreams led me to believe.

Looking now at those paintings I did in Mr Wilson’s garage, which my mom kept until the day she died, I can shake my head, feeling amused with myself and my lofty ambitions. Fortunately, I knew when to let go and move on to something else. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I found my true calling, which, unsurprisingly, had its own ups and downs. But I guess that’s the way life is, sometimes you think you’re the next Neal Peart, killing it on “Subdivisions” with your mega-360-degree-epic drum kit, then other times you sound like you’re bagging on garbage cans, can’t even keep a beat. Then, again, failures are their own blessings. Telling someone to “follow their dream” is a cliché, after all, a convention. And like most conventions, there’s a point when they begin to stifle growth and creativity. In which case, there are instances when the best part of your dream is when you wake up.

Monster, Know Thyself: The Everlasting Appeal of Abominations

Monster, Know Thyself: The Everlasting Appeal of Abominations

[photo credit: David Martínez]

While there are real monsters in the world as recounted in myth, history and science, which have been responsible for generations of upheaval, havoc and trauma, the “monsters” celebrated and enjoyed at events like Mad Monster Phoenix are more about entertainment than mayhem. From the pervasiveness of zombies to the nostalgia value of Elvira, The Munsters and Vincent Price, monsters have long had an appreciative audience in the American mainstream. We love to be scared in the way that roller coasters and haunted houses can get our adrenaline pumping in a nonthreatening way. As for why they are so appealing one could write a doctoral thesis on the subject, which won’t happen here. Instead, I’ll only say that I enjoy them as characters in film, television, art and literature because they appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities and my need to experience something that transports me out of the ordinary and quotidian. Monsters, to put it simply, are wondrous expressions of the psyche and imagination. They invoke a space around them in which the “abnormal” is necessary to understand the world that created them in the first place.