There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.
Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks).
Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …
Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.
Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.
Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”
What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich.
Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.
There’s a friendly fellow blogger named Neil at Yeah, Another Bloggerwho was recently procuring new footwear after his five-year-old slippers imploded.
“I began to dislike them, and got really sick of the f*ckers when the sole of the right foot opted to decompose,” writes Neil, who went online and scored natty brown moccasins. The new ones “are comfortable, fit nice and snugly, and look damn good too,” he beams. “Yeah, I’m in slippers heaven.”
Lucky him. I’m in slippers hell. You should see these things, a pair of black, ignominiously dull Dockers I bought for $30 in January, the same month Neil hit the jackpot. How I’ve lived with these fugly things for six months, I do not know. The only proper description for them is “nursing home chic.” I instantly feel 92 when I slip them on, and I often reflexively wheeze, “Hand me my cane!”
The other day I could stand it no more. I was transfixed, staring at the stained, felt, cardboardy slippers, which look increasingly like the Frankenstein monster’s chunky black footwear. I shuffled around the house, arms extended, grunting like the creature, having a laugh. Until it was a groan and I realized these shoes had to go.
My brother sniggered when he sent me an email of a pair of slippers for sale at Etsy for $40. They look like classic Nike high-tops, but they are made of … knitted crochet. An array of slippers made of crochet to look like vintage sneakers, Converse to Jordans, dazzled me into a state of helplessness: I had to get a pair. So long nonagenarians, hello Nikes.
And this is what I bought, standard black Nike running shoe-style slippers (see more at Etsy for the full experience):
Now, these slipper-sneakers — sleakers — don’t have the standard rubber sole, so outdoor wearing is limited to quick trips. To preserve the delicate bottoms, I’ll be the guy jogging across hot coals, arms pumping, feet loping. Something like: I’m taking out the trash, that’s why I’m walking with such frazzled haste. Move, before I wreck my nifty new slippers!
Etsy, of course, is all about handmade and vintage crafts made by creative folks around the world. It’s all very personal, quirky and individualized — I often buy funny, singular birthday cards there — and prices can get steep. (A birthday card, with shipping, averages about $8.)
But artisanal slippers? Made of crochet? To look like old-school Adidas? I have to laugh-gasp at the idea. Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited about my crochet Nikes. They handily deck the Dockers.
All of a sudden, a flush of second thoughts. What if the shoes are shoddy, even hideous? Am I being unreasonably seduced by their novelty? Will I be laughed out of the house? I suppose I’ll just have to wait till the other slipper drops.
Long, luxuriant, disastrous, my hair hasn’t met scissors in five fluffy months. My last haircut was December 20, and I now look like an MLB pitcher, curls Rapunzeling out of a ball cap, or maybe a roadie for Metallica. Either way, the locks are a pox and I need, at minimum, a healthy trim, one that will take no fewer than two and a half hours. Or four. Or six. I could be in the chair through June.
That’s up to my barber, Miles, who works woolly wonders at Classic Man Cut & Shave, a hiply vintage-style barbershop paneled in wood, adorned with giant mirrors and lined with chubby leather hydraulic thrones. All that’s missing are crinkled copies of Sports Illustrated and Playboy and lollipops for the little ones invariably getting buzz cuts.
I don’t get a lollipop, because I eschew buzz cuts. Oddly, razor ‘dos are five dollars cheaper than scissor cuts here, which I surmise is because razor jobs are all sculpt and shave, using a swath-plowing electric doohickey, while scissor cuts require skill, finesse, a little effort, snip and snazz. In other words, my cut is more of an ordeal than yours.
Miles has my back. And hopefully my front and sides. I see him in a week, and, oh, will he be aghast. At the sight of me, I picture his meticulously groomed face registering fear and dread and an irrepressible urge to acquire a John Deere and a blowtorch.
It will not be pretty, this inexcusably belated trip to the barber. I can see the polished wood floors as he cuts, slowly carpeted in fleece and follicle, all because of my Covid fears, bald laziness and rash experimentation. I should really help him sweep up.
But no. Miles isn’t sweeping. He’s clipping away at my hirsute noggin, silently wondering what in the hell he can make of the mutinous mop. I hope he doesn’t get all clever on me. Haircuts jangle me enough; I don’t need any tonsorial flourishes. Put the razor down.
Miles once dubbed his venue a “cathedral of cuts” — for real — and it’s considering this sentiment that I will solemnly sit, firm and nervous, a watchful eye on the snipped hair tumbling down my shoulders, and do what one does in a cathedral: pray.
Oh, the quarantine is wonderful. I read, I write, I drum, I shop, I gaze at the floor. There’s my epitaph.
The shopping’s the perilous part, even though most of what I buy online are essentials I’d get at the store anyway: vitamins, shampoo, mountains of books — exhilarating. My purchases run in the $10-$20 range, except for the drum kit I mentioned in a prior post, which cost twice as much as my October ticket to Paris (that trip: never gonna happen).
Recently I went for another big-ticket item, if not super big-ticket. I bought some fashionable duds: expensive jeans, classy pants that, per historical weather patterns, I won’t be able to wear with a hint of comfort until late September. (For now I wear shorts. I do not like shorts. I look absurd in shorts.)
So I’ve sported the new jeans around the house, duly admiring them — the slim fit of the raw Japanese denim, the pleasing inky-blue hue, the so-called 4-way stretch, which means a dash of boingy material is stitched into the crunchy denim for optimum comfort, making unnecessary the small ordeal of “breaking in” fresh denim, which often requires rocks, whips and a blowtorch.
Buying stuff is a two-pronged sensation. It’s electrifying, scouring products, comparison shopping, finding gems, clicking “Place Order,” waiting for the arrival. Yet it’s all so fleeting. When it’s over, item delivered and in my hands, I die a little death, deflated, which is exactly when I should light up a post-coital cigarette.
But the more expensive items — the drums, the jeans, the cursed Paris flight (which was purchased in April) — resonate much more than, say, a three-pack of Colgate. Not because they’re pricier but because they are on a patently superior echelon, more novel, more enduring, more exciting. I love the drum set, I love the jeans, I love Paris.
None of it will save me. I shop, therefore I am — shrug. That’s claptrap, plain melodrama. At best I’m a half-hearted shopper in normal times, avoiding the antiseptic zombie shuffle of Muzak-y malls and largely being dragged numbly through shops and boutiques even in hip consumer hives like New York’s SoHo, an area I do like.
But stuff must be bought, from boxer briefs to Benadryl. And — why not — the occasional pair of rocking blue jeans. Yet the lockdown shouldn’t make us spendthrifts, but indeed the opposite: penny-pinchers. Dire times, etc. I’m working on that. Meanwhile, that sound you hear is me clicking my way down a rabbit hole of unbridled acquisition.
The raging pimple on my nose couldn’t take away from the raucous ecstasy of my nephew’s modest — but laughy, giggly, shrieky, slangy, sing-songy (“Dancing Queen”!) — fifteenth birthday party among a half-dozen friends in my brother’s cozy backyard this very hot day. That damn zit — I’ll squeeze it till fluids flow. Be gone. Because there is bawdy jokes to be told, games to be played, junk food to be gorged, gossip to be spread. (What’s that? You have a boyfriend!)
And so it went. Two giant picnic umbrellas popped open like vast bat wings. Three fat coolers lined the deck. Tostitos — all over the place. Ice cream, cupcakes, cookies, Sprite, cheap plastic toys, bubbles. And, god, the laughter and the squawks of rare tropical birds. A blast was being had.
I observed from afar, never getting close to these dangerous exotic animals. Instead: me, a mirror, a zit. Let’s go. (Gruesome details have been redacted by WordPress censors.)
In the mirror, I am reminded of the blooming, uncut hairdo I’m currently sporting. My last haircut was scheduled for April 3. It never happened thanks to quarantine. Do the math, they say, with a frat-boy sneer. I’ll do the math. The math says: shit.
I noted here that I bought a New York Times baseball cap to tame my anarchic locks. It’s working out nicely, I think. But summer will be a Rapunzel-ready efflorescence, fluffy, uncontainable tresses, suitors scaling them to reach me in my dank, lonesome tower.
So I’ve ordered two more caps, one that will reveal a sliver of my cultural tastes, though I’ve mentioned Metallica before here.
The second hat is more personal, a custom-made lark, which I will wear with unwavering nerdiness:
But this is really about my nephew’s big number 15. Not the pimple, not the hats. His birthday is actually tomorrow, June 7. To accommodate his besties, the party was thrown today. Plus, Saturday is always better than Sunday for a shindig.
In a rare aside, I asked my nephew how the get-together was going.
“Good,” he said, which is about the only answer he knows to feed lame adults who ask lame questions.
Like many people’s hair during these epic days of cyber-hibernation (cybernation?), when electronics provide disproportionate company, mine is doing its growing thing, filling out, fluffing, turning unruly and cruel and comical. It is mutating, rising like a very fine soufflé whipped up by a Michelin-star chef crossed with Vidal Sassoon.
A follicular brushfire is what we are on the verge of, and it needs to be extinguished before I’m mistaken for Angela Davis circa 1971. Obviously I cannot make a rendezvous with my hair technician — I do not reside in Georgia, thankfully — who I see once a month or so. I realize now in this moment of unsupervised hair — it plays in the street and gambols across the meadows without a leash — I could probably go longer between appointments without scaring the neighbor kids.
I worry. We are going to be locked up for a long time, indefinitely. Yet some facts. One: very few people will see me. Two: I’ll be able to join a Led Zeppelin tribute band.
A home cut is out of the question. Just see what we’ve done to the dog. Unfortunate home-cut stories on the web give me mental razor burn. I could do the simple buzzcut, but just typing that makes me quiver. It smacks of capitulation, semper fi, and Velcro.
There used to be an extraordinarily smart and funny satirical magazine called Spy. It published for 12 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I liked it so much I bought a Spy baseball cap, black with a yellow Spy logo. I wore that thing all the time, especially on bad hair days or lazy hair days.
And so, the cap. A lightbulb dinged above my haystack of hair and I started hunting for a quality, stylish baseball cap to conceal the coming tonsorial torrent. No actual baseball team or any sports-themed cap would do. If they made writer caps — I’d kill for a Philip Roth topper — I’d be in hat heaven.
Then I thought of publications I read devoutly, namely The New York Times and The New Yorker. Journalism merch is my catnip. I wore-out a vintage San Francisco Examiner t-shirt and, over some years, broke a set of Chicago Tribune tumblers. I still own a collection of newspaper coffee mugs, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle.
While noncommittally surfing the New York Times store the other day, mulling over handsome sweatshirts and t-shirts (all of them free advertising for the newspaper, I’m aware), I hit upon the black and grey logo baseball cap. A plush twill, it’s not exactly cheap; the price made me blink twice, hard. But I went for it.
‘Cause I’m going to need it. The hair, growing like bamboo with no machete in sight, will be its own entity by June. It’s already talking back to me, acting up, not doing its chores. The modest cap should do wonders to muffle, tame and smoosh the mutinous tumble.
Then of course a whole other nuisance will blossom: a little thing called hat head.
We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are, like Monet haystacks or Kieslowski films.”
— Megan O’Grady
Confession: Once upon a time, I was entranced by the poetry of Jim Morrison. Well, entranced is pushing it. I was interested in it, I liked it, I thought it was … neat-o.
At 17, I was spongey and vulnerable, easy prey for a bad poet with good hair who’d whisper sweet nothings (and I do mean nothings), like:
Did you have a good world when you died?/Enough to base a movie on?/I’m getting out of here./Where are you going?/To the other side of morning.
At a friend’s urging, I had just finished the cathartically lurid biography of Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive” (a sensational read, I’m telling you). It’s a thick mass market paperback and, as a budding rock ’n’ roller (I drummed for years, had hair down to here), I snarfed up Morrison’s simultaneously literary/glittery exploits, his Nietzschean excesses and his laughable self-crowning as the “Lizard King.” And of course his rockstar antics on- and offstage as the Dionysian frontman of The Doors. (Dead at 27. Long live the King!)
In retrospect, Jim Morrison was a ridiculous, even dangerous cultural icon, despite that nimbus of curls and his body’s perfect synergy with tight leather pants. He was heedless, abusive, narcissistic, a drug addict, pure outsize ego and unshackled id. I thought he was cool. I hung a poster of him in my college dorm room. Until I put away childish things — in the dumpster.
As journalist Megan O’Grady points out at the top of this post, “We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are.” And what are they? They run from the sentimental and the tacky to the precious and pretentious. It’s stuff we grow out of, intellectually and aesthetically, as we mature or plainly change.
(Such things are not to be confused with guilty pleasures, those so-bad-they’re-good objects: “a film, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite understanding that it is not generally held in high regard,” explains Wikipedia, that handy font of clickable sagacity. Did someone mention the 1965 schlockfest “Village of the Giants”? So delectably awful, so crazily unimpeachable.)
Some other things I’ve changed my mind about or sloughed off like so much dead skin:
— In my late teens and early 20s the paintings of Salvador Dalí mesmerized me — all that trippy dream razzle-dazzle, latticed beauty, gimcrack grandeur and overblown symbolism. Yet Dalí the man, P.T. Barnum with an easel and vaudeville villain’s mustache, was a showoff, charlatan and prankster — not the king of Surrealism, but its preening court jester. With cartoonish Freud-meets-frenzy, he sabotaged his art, which was ultimately hollow and self-aggrandizing and so often silly.
— As stated, I fell for Jim Morrison’s sophomoric poetry — and, almost as tragic, his band The Doors, which couldn’t afford a bass player so let Ray Manzarek fill the role with his corny, carnivalesque “keyboard bass.” I wish, like Morrison, I could blame whiskey and psychedelics for this troublesome stretch. Addled adolescence takes the rap.
— Oh, ’80s-era stone-washed jeans (before they inevitably got hip again). Whoever thought these were a good look (um, me) probably digs denim shorts. They scream John Hughes, “Dirty Dancing” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” More a shriek than a scream really.
— Early in my dubious hard rock heyday, I fell briefly under the spell of metal hair bands Ratt, Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. They were loud. They were flamboyant. They were L.A. bad boys. They spritzed gallons of Aqua Net on voluminous tresses. In the case of W.A.S.P., the singer drooled fake blood. (Gene Simmons should sue.) I can only snicker now, with a sour wince. I blush a mean shade of fake blood.
— How this happened, the cosmos will never tell, but during its bestselling peak I actually enjoyed Robert James Waller’s saccharine rural romance “The Bridges of Madison County” (I know). I eagerly recommended it to my mom. I think she finally decided not to strangle me in about 2011.
— It was adorable the first time, candied, cooing and so très French. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s twee 2001 romantic comic fantasy “Amélie“ is a juicy smooch of primary-color whimsy, lush style and steroidal art direction. Its star Audrey Tautou is a human gumdrop. When I watched the film again, all of these descriptives became detractions. It grated and cloyed. It was unfunny and charmless, smitten with its own labored cutes. And Tautou’s mincing protagonist was someone to be throttled, not adored. The pixie was now poison.
As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMartconvenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn.
Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)
Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.
Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.
Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.
There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.
Pretty much kaput, Halloween means just about nothing to me nowadays. The thrill is gone. The chill is gone. I’m not 7, dig.
Yet something about Halloween sticks, hovering like a blanket of graveyard fog. Each year I gladly inhale the occasion’s residual festive fumes, pumped in like so much giddy-making nitrous oxide. Hey, unlike zombies, I have a pulse.
Though costumes are long — and forever — doffed and I’ve retired the habit of sneaking morsels from the communal candy bowl (It’s for the kids, dammit!), I remain devoted to this perverse, very North American celebration of the gross, grim and ghoulish. (And, yeah, I lied: the Reese’s cups are mine.)
But I effectively don’t partake in the big-picture party, unless you count sometimes serving as the eve’s Doorbell Dork, doling out Snickers and Tootsie Pops, smiling like the village idiot on cue when a particular and rather mystifying catchphrase (starts with trick) is shrieked by decked-out kiddies (and a few shameless, straggling grown-ups who can only dream they’re getting a Kit-Kat from this finger-wagging candy dispenser).
It’s a festival of enforced flamboyance. Excess is enshrined. Generally sane people douse themselves in corn syrup blood. Sex is flaunted in racy micro-fashions: cats and maids and devils. It’s masks and makeup and Marvel; wigs, witches and wizards; Pokémon, pirates and pop stars (and, yes, Pop Tarts) — the palette is as infinite as it is infantilizing. The id comes out to romp.
In placid suburbia, lawn dioramas have grown ambitiously disgusting. I love the sinew-chewing zombies (with staticky sound effects), life-size, yoga-posed skeletons and tombstone-cluttered cemeteries, gnarled limbs popping out of the ground. I beseech you: gross me out.
It’s a bacchanal of fantasy and horror, whimsy and steroidal imagination. It’s pop cinema — slashers to superheroes — sprung to life. And it’s uniquely, wildly American (and, I hear, Canadian).
I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. As the locals tried to summon the spirit, they invariably botched the holiday, blundering with gauche costumes (er, blackface in Beirut and Paris) and feebly attended parties — strictly amateur hour, training wheels required.
Except when they’re not. Except when the night has been co-opted with the verve and vision matching the western prototype. All eyes on … Japan. It’s said that Japan has only been practicing Halloween in earnest for five years. But amateurs? Hardly.
The Japanese were born pros, built for Halloween. Nothing is lost in translation. Dress up and cosplay are daily mainstream occurrences. Stroll anytime through Tokyo’s Harajuku district for teen fashion so high, so rococo, it passes as a perpetual street costume party.
Which should make this year’s Halloween something special. I land in Tokyo on October 30, giving me less than 24 hours to steel for whatever that hyper-charged city has in store in the way of a woozy wingding.
Because there is no way I’m not wading into the most outrageous Halloween hotspots — like bustling, youthful Shibuya, where a million revelers are expected — to get the full Japanese treatment: anime and cosplay characters, J-horror ghosts and vampires, video-game avatars and the universal diet of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Power Rangers and other mega-brands. (Oddly, Where’s Waldo? seems to still be popular. I’ll look into it.)
This is what I wanna see, Halloween with kick (I’ll return with a full, bloody report):
So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.