Friday, May 23, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, my brother Craig sent me an e-mail with the subject line, “Let me know if this is a crazy idea.” He had included a series of links to sites about writer/director Kevin Smith and locations he used in some of his movies. Craig wanted to check out some of these places, including Kevin Smith’s comic store, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, in Red Bank, NJ. Craig asked if I would be willing to play navigator on his little quest. Always up for a long road trip in search of places I’ve never been to before, I said sure.

In the fall of 1994, two movies came out that completely blew me away. One was Pulp Fiction; the other was Clerks. To me, both represented new visions from writer/directors who were of my generation. Pulp Fiction incorporated a visual style that reflected the comic books, low-budget exploitation films, and Hong Kong cinema that permeated the consciousness of many a geek who grew up in the 70s and 80s. Clerks was the stark, indie film showing what everyday life was like for middle-class young adults with no particular direction. The Look Back in Anger for the Gen-X crowd, only with a lot more dick jokes. I was really exhilarated to see both films, which to me were ushering in a new era of films aimed at my own sensibilities rather than my parents. For the rest of the 90s, I dutifully trudged out to see every Kevin Smith film, even finding Mallrats to have a certain charm.

By the 21st century, however, I have to say I cooled on Mr. Smith. My biggest issue with his movies was that, as he grew as a writer and attempted to tackle more challenging material, he was unwilling to let go of the sophomoric humor. Within the context of a Clerks or Mallrats, that sort of scatological and sexual material was hilarious, but in more serious films, it just got in the way. I would’ve loved Dogma so much more if Jay and Silent Bob had sat that one out, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, despite the fact that I’m am less of a Kevin Smith fan than Craig, I was still interested in joining his quest. So we set out from Baltimore on a long drive up the Jersey Turnpike. The day was one of those perfect spring days with temperatures in the low 60s, cool breezes, blue skies, and cotton-candy clouds. That is, except for the pop up storms that hit every half hour or so. You can see in the picture above how blue skies were in view even as we were getting pounded with rain.

After about three and a half hours of driving, we finally found our first stop: the Quik Stop Groceries store made famous in Clerks. Although the RST Video store is closed, the sign is still up and the videos sit neglected inside. My brother was downright giddy to see the place and hurried in while I took some pictures outside.

Shortly after taking this shot, some guy who looked like Jay came out of the store and got into that Camaro.

I took some shots inside to show how small the place is. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to film in those cramped confines. We asked the guy behind the counter if we could take these pictures and he said, “Sure. Fine.” He must get dopey tourists like us all the time.

After our quick stop at the Quik Stop, we took a short drive down to Red Bank. The town was actually more picturesque than it seemed in Chasing Amy. I took a shot of Jack’s Music Shop which was used in Chasing Amy not only as a music store, but as the entrance to the main characters’ studio and apartment.

Across the street is Smith’s comic store, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash. I hadn’t set foot in a comic store in about three years, so it was fun to reconnect with my old passion and marvel (no pun intended) at how much the comic scene has changed. I bought a copy of The
Invincible Iron Man #1, which appears to be a reboot of the series in light of the new movie. This book was a much more sophisticated production than the old Iron Man comics I remember, and the story was quite good. To soothe my culture shock, I purchased a trade paperback collection of old Avengers stories and a World’s Finest Comic from 1979. Craig bought some Kevin Smith movie memorabilia and later said that he saw the manager and Smith cast regular, Walter Flanagan, behind the counter. Somehow
, I only saw the guy who rang me up.

Our next stop was at the Broadway Diner on Monmouth Street to grab a late lunch and visit the restrooms. This was a true, actual, old fashioned diner that the North East is well known for. Most of the diners in Baltimore are newly built with modern fixtures intended to remind you of the 30s, 40s, or 50s, but actually remind you of nothing in particular. They’re a mish-mash of chrome and formica. The Broadway Diner in Red Bank retains its original look, which was created with a carefully planned design. This is the real deal. The food is good, honest diner fare as well.

Happily sated, we continued to wander around town, and I was quickly drawn toward the Hobby Masters building (their sign apparently came off, but the Toy Masters sign next door is still intact). This was a huge, two-story space filled with all manner of hobby gear. Since my main interest is in plastic models, I had to check out their large selection. I was thrilled to discover a model I’ve been searching for: The Voyager by Moebius. I’ve waiting most of my life for someone to put out a model based on the aircraft from the Fantastic Voyage animated series, and now I have one in my stubby fingers.

The afternoon was fading when Craig and I set out for home. My poor navigational skills sent us on a meandering trip back to the Garden State Parkway and eventually to the New Jersey Turnpike, but it gave us plenty of time to talk and unwind. Craig even had time to educate me on the virtue of Kevin Smith’s movies. With my interest piqued, I plan to take a second look at the movies I’ve already seen and catch up on some of his later films.

We made it back to Baltimore around 8:30. Despite the hours of driving, both of us were pretty energized. I snatched one last photo of Craig excitedly displaying his Mooby the Golden Calf hat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Just as my adult self has searched for the perfect single malt scotch, my childhood self searched for the ideal chocolate milk. It wasn’t a quest I was consciously aware of as a kid, but looking back on it, chocolate milk was just as much a preoccupation as G.I. Joes or The Three Stooges.

Since my mom discouraged us from eating sugary snacks and seldom kept any in the house, chocolate milk was one sweet treat that was readily available when I needed a quick sugar fix. Unfortunately, the only chocolate additive we had in the house was a sad, neglected can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup which sat in the back of the refrigerator covered in hardened brown drizzles. Before the nifty plastic squeezy bottles, the only way chocolate syrup could be purchased was in tin cans that you had to open with a can opener. Once those triangular holes were punched into the top, the syrup was exposed to all manner of odors and bacteria. My mom was clever enough to put one of those generic plastic lids on it that she found at the supermarket, so we weren’t subjected to hints of onion in our chocolate syrup, but no one every bothered to wipe off the gooey overflow after they were done with the can, so six months in, the once proud Hershey’s label was oozing with cocoa dribbles resembling a Hershey Park mascot with a head wound. Having to wrestle with that can and get sticky globs of chocolate on my fingers was sometimes not worth the effort for a lousy glass of chocolate milk.

Not to mention the fact that the stuff never dissolved properly. No matter how vigorously you stirred, the first few sips were mostly milk flavored, the last few sips were violently chocolatey, and half the syrup still clung tenaciously to the bottom of the glass. Not cool.

On the other hand, Nestles’ Quick powder looked invitingly clean and simple. You put a spoonful in the milk, you stirred a few times, and the powder dissolved completely. That looked like a great solution, plus they had that clever rabbit mascot imploring you to drink it slow, but then sucking it down in one gulp. That had to be terrific! My mom wasn’t so convinced, however. I just think she preferred Hershey’s chocolate over Nestles’. Both tasted fine to me. I was grading on neatness and efficiency.

In the late 60s and early 70s, PDQ Chocolate Mix was also heavily promoted. The cool part of PDQ was the fact that it came as little, coarse pellets that dissolved in milk. I really lobbied hard for this stuff, but Mom was again reluctant, this time because it was made by Ovaltine. At the time, I wasn’t sure what she had against Ovaltine, but I wanted to try this PDQ stuff. Eventually, she broke down and got me some. I can’t remember what it tasted like, but I really liked it, which made it all the more frustrating when I had to beg my mom for a new jar every time we ran out. She would usually say, “But we have Hershey’s syrup in the fridge.” Ugh.

By the time I was eight or nine, I became fascinated with old radio shows. My parents would often wax nostalgic about them, and we had an LP record with dozens of radio show intros on them. I really got excited when a local radio station started playing some of the shows, like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger, on Friday evenings, and I also discovered that my local library had some available on cassette. One radio serial I really loved was Captain Midnight, and he was sponsored by Ovaltine. The commercials for Ovaltine were so effective, I drooled for the stuff every time, even though I had never tasted it.

Finally, I asked my parents if we could get some. Their faces went gray as if I had suggested that we take up human sacrifice as a hobby. “Ooohh, I never liked that stuff as a kid,” my dad warned ominously. My mom readily agreed, “It sorta tasted like malted milk, but…” Her voice trailed off with a wince. Still, I had to find out for myself. Heck, Ovaltine made PDQ, right? With even greater reluctance than the PDQ purchases, my mom put a jar of Ovaltine in the shopping cart, immediately regretting this waste of her meager food budget. I was not deterred, however, and excitedly made myself a glass of Ovaltine before Mom had finished unbagging the groceries. Always listen to your parents, kids! It did taste like malt, but malt that was processed in an oil refinery. I can’t quite describe the odd chemical flavor it had, but I surely didn’t want to ever drink it again. Mom looked at me knowingly, and I accepted my guilt. I had made her waste money on a jar of Ovaltine that would sit in our pantry until my freshman year of college.

Although my parents were willing to keep powders and syrups around the house, they seldom wasted money on sugary drinks like bottled soda or Hi-C Fruit Drink. That’s why I was secretly jealous of the kids that could get Yoo-Hoo. I was mainly attracted to the bottle. Currently, they come in 9 oz. bottles, but my memory from the 70s was a shapelier 6 oz. bottle. Anyway, I really wanted to hold one of those sweaty little bottles in my hand and partake of its chocolately goodness. When I started receiving an allowance, I blew some of my precious coin on a Yoo-Hoo. My disappointment did not quite match the Ovaltine fiasco, but I was not pleased. My first reaction was that it tasted watered down, but it was more than that. I knew this was not real milk. This was some sort of non-dairy representation of milk, feebly flavored with an uninteresting chocolate-like substance. I still drank it on occasion, though, mainly so I could hold that sweaty bottle.

I guess it was all these chocolate milk disasters which led me to go cold turkey as a teenager. I can’t tell you the last time I tasted chocolate milk, and as much as I like chocolate, the thought of it does not appeal to me. Now single malt scotch, that’s another story…

Thursday, May 01, 2008


In the words of the Talking Heads, “I was born in a house with the television always on.” At least, that’s the way it felt to me. I awoke to cartoons, my mom watched games shows and “her stories” during the day while she did house work, I watched cartoons and Gilligan’s Island until my dad came home and we had dinner, and I finished up the day with prime time shows like Mod Squad, Laugh-In, and the Partridge Family. Television was my window to the world beyond my street in the boring suburbs. I even gleaned bits of information from the nightly news, like Viet Nam and Watergate. In 1973, Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted by the signing of the Paris Peace Accord which ended the Viet Nam War (sort of). Television was not merely entertainment for me; it was hardwired into my very being.

Small wonder that my normal play activities were conceptualized through a television perspective. I spent an awful lot of time playing alone as a kid, and I usually pretended to be performing a television show. It had to start at a specific time and run for an allotted period (usually 30 minutes since my short attention span rarely afforded me the ability to launch a 60-minute storyline). During the day, I acted out my shows in my front or back yard. The front yard was especially good because we had a tree there where I could act out my high-flying stunts. I could imagine myself as a pirate swinging from the mast of a creaky ship, or a maverick cop chasing a bad guy over the girders of an unfinished office building.

Not that all my shows were action dramas. I did sitcoms as well, often enlisting my puppets as comic foils with me playing the straight man. I had a show with Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, then switched to a different series with Charlie McCarthy, and eventually worked with my Will E. Talk ventriloquist dummy who I considered a close friend when I was 10 years old (but that’s for another session, Doctor).

One of my favorite early evening reruns during the 70s was Get Smart, so I created my own version of the sitcom and acted it out at 7 o’clock, right after WBFF- TV Channel 45 aired Get Smart at 6:30. There was a bumbling secret agent of course, but instead of having a female partner, my show had a young, hip sidekick. Eventually, I became so enamored with the cooler side kick that he ended up doing more on the show than the main character. Think of Fonzie on Happy Days. I finally gave in to my obsession and created a spin-off show for him; however, I quickly realized that he worked better as a side kick than as a front man. Think Fish after he spun off from Barney Miller. Since I couldn’t think of a way to bring him back to the original series, I lost interest in both and I stopped acting them out in my front yard. This was my version of cancellation.

As I grew older, the television fantasy took on more shape and texture. I named my fictional TV network the Intercontinental Broadcasting Company (IBC), which I swiped from Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. All my shows were simply reworkings of programs that I was currently interested in. My fascination with Columbo and Banacek morphed into a hybrid I called Banzo (don’t ask). When I read about this odd science fiction show in England called Dr. Who, I created a sort of rip-off called The Captain. My interest is Star Trek and M*A*S*H became a science fiction dramedy called Aurora. Basically, I merged the premise of a starship roaming around the galaxy with crew members modeled after Hawkeye, Radar, etc. I even envisioned a new Batman TV show reflecting the darker, more gritty version of the Dark Knight appearing in 70s comic books.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this fantasy play acting of mine continued until I was 14 years old. Of course, as I hit puberty, I could no longer run around outside acting goofy, so I limited my activities to the basement, or maybe in other parts of the house when family members weren’t around. I convinced myself that I was merely acting stories out which I would later write down. By age 12, I was convinced my only true skill was writing, so this play acting allowed me to work out stories before actually writing them down. Both The Captain and Aurora ended up as novels which I wrote at age 13 and 14 respectively.

A few months into my 15th year, I had to admit that my TV fantasy had to be put to an end like the rest of my childhood. The Intercontinental Broadcasting Company quietly went out of business around December 1978. I was no longer acting out shows, but my brain continued to think in terms of visual stories. In high school, I started writing screenplays. I still have some of those old handwritten manuscripts and cringe at the writing, but I am impressed that I was so obsessed with writing at such a young age. Now when I struggle to write even a simple blog entry, agonizing over every word, I yearn for a time when I could write so freely simply for the sheer enjoyment of creating stories. Just as I became self-conscious of my play acting as a teenager, I am now self-conscious about my writing as a middle-aged man.