Friday, April 20, 2018

NEVER FORGET the Fun-o-rama

Ah, it's that time of year again. In fact, it may be my favorite time of the year (aside from XMAS, of course, and also International Coffee Day Eve). Mid-April. The temperature outside has just gotten a liiiiiittle warmer. The grass is still moist outside from the snowmelt. There's the dank smell of muddiness in the air.

Last night, while driving, I had the car windows rolled down and I could hear the best sound there is in the world. It's the sound of those spring peepers, chirping away in swampy wetland, not too far off the main road. Oh, the sound of those peepers is the best sound in the world. The best.

Aside from being relaxing as anything, the peeper sounds also trigger a Pavlovian-like excitement deep inside my bodily cells. This excitement is undoubtedly rooted in my associating such sounds with April vacation.

Christmas vacation was always great and February vacation was okay, too, but April vacation trumped all of the three main school vacations. After all, it was the warmest of all vacations, you could sometimes even wear shorts, and you could watch the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day, go for hikes in the woods, maybe grab a cone at the local Bubbling Brook ice cream parlor (which had just recently opened its doors for the season), daylight savings time had come and gone, and the sun didn't fully set until almost eight-frigging-o'clock at night!


But warm weather, outdoor activities and ice cream cones were only a SMALL part of what made April vacation the bestest of vacations. When it came down to brass tacks, April vacation was the most anticipated of all school vacations because it meant one thing and one thing only:


The carnival was coming to town!

The "Billy Burr's Funorama" carnival, to be exact. For residents of Walpole, Massachusetts, this was the carnival of all carnivals, with games, food and plenty of rides...even upside down rides. When a carnival had upside down rides, you KNEW it was the real deal.


Indeed, Billy Burr's Funorama (no relation to the comedian Bill Burr in case you were wondering) would roll into town every year for April vacation and set up their "show" on Stone Field located behind Walpole's Town Hall. Stone Field was a Little League/Pop Warner field and Billy Burr's gang of vagabond carnies would arrive at the field on Saturday, assemble their respective amusement rides -- rusty bolt by rusty bolt -- and by Monday, Patriots Day, the carnival would be all ready to "amuse" the public with their rides.

I wish I knew exactly how many years the Billy Burr carnival came to Walpole, because I don't remember a time in my childhood when it didn't come, so I'm guessing at least the late-1980s to about 2007 or so? I would say it had a good 20-year run, though it may have even been longer than that. Not sure.

My earliest memories of the Funorama consisted of me begging my parents to take me to the carnival all April vacation long. By about Thursday or Friday, my mom or dad would finally cave and bring me there for a couple hours or so. No offense to my parents but my carnival experience with them was a tad on the dull side. No, not dull, that's too harsh. Let's instead say that it was a snooze-fest.

First of all, they would bring me to the carnival smack-dab in the middle of the day, around mid-to-late afternoon, and this was such a bad move because the carnival looked aesthetically terrible in the daylight. Not only were there no pretty lights but the rides looked faded in color, like they had been sitting in the sun far too long, weathered in parts and, in some cases, grimy.

Second of all, I had to go on all the kiddie rides. You know the ones; there was that "giant" (aka not-so-giant) super-slide you slid down on a potato sack. Then, there was the disorientating "mirror maze" that freaked the hell out of me. This was like a funhouse but it was all mirrors and you had to navigate yourself through what-seemed-like a labyrinth. This sounds like it would be easy but it wasn't always. And it made me feel very claustrophobic. Anxiety attacks were commonplace.

Then, of course, there were the bumper cars, a ride where you spent about 90% of your time either wedged in a corner or trapped between two other drivers who didn't know how to get their car to go in reverse. Also, the whole concept of the ride was awkward. You were trying to crash your car into complete strangers. As a child, I was conditioned to be a well-mannered boy and crashing into strangers made me uncomfortable.



As I got older, however, I grew tall enough to go on some of the more exciting rides...the most memorable of which was that Pirate Ship ride that swung back and forth like a pendulum. You know the one: if you sat in the way back of it, the ship would swing back and forth, get higher and higher, and then eventually it would go high enough so that you were vertical with the ground. The ride also gave you a funny tingling feeling in the 'down-there' area, not unlike climbing the rope in gym class.


Another ride that was equally amusing was the Rock and Roll. I suppose you would place this ride in the category of roller coaster (maybe?) but all it did was go in a circle, kind of like a spinning record player, go up and down a subtle incline, move in and out of a tunnel and it would go faster and faster as the ride progressed and then stop and go backwards halfway through. During the ride, rock and roll music blasted out of PA speakers and this music was DJ'd by a bandana-wearing, Keith Richards-looking carny stationed in a glass DJ booth. I believe this DJ even spoke into a microphone throughout the ride. He would say things like, "We're cranking up the speed, now! Let me see your hands in the air! Don't puke!"

As I grew even older, I graduated to the more adult rides and I also no longer needed to attend the carnival under adult supervision. I was a bit of a skater punk by this point in my life and my friends and I would spend much of April vacation skateboarding up at the Walpole High School's skate park with all its quarter pipes, launch ramps, fun boxes and what-have-you. After we got a good skate session in, we hopped on our skateboards, glided down Common Street to the center of town, hid our boards in a nearby bush and then hit up the carnival, skater-punk-style. 'Skater-punk-style' meant going on all the badass rides, the most adult of all the adult rides, the first of which was...


The Gravitron.




The Gravitron basically looked like a giant, UFO-like spaceship and, as a kid, it always looked so friggin' ominous from the outside. Upon entering, you would stand up against a matted wall and then you got "locked" inside. When the ride began, the ship would start spinning faster and faster and faster. The centrifugal force would make you start sticking to the wall, thus making it feel like you were literally losing gravity. You could crawl really high up onto the wall, flip yourself upside down and just hang out like that for the rest of the ride.

What I remember about the Gravitron the most was how it smelled inside, like a combination of stale puke and carny body odor. The latter aroma came from the sad-looking carny whose job was to sit in the non-spinning center of the Gravitron, running the ride and making sure the kids behaved themselves. He spent a small portion of the time messing with the Gravitron control panel, but throughout most of the ride he stared into space and looked despondent. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of thoughts went through his mind, or if he ever experienced motion sickness from watching kids spin around him all day. For the most part, I tried to pretend he wasn't there because he was a depressing presence and killed my carnival joy.


After the Gravitron, it was time for Super Loops, which was essentially a legit rollercoaster but it went upside down in one giant loop. Well, what would happen is the ride would start and the train-like cage you rode in would begin going back and forth along its track, kind of the like the aforementioned pirate ship ride. The train would get higher and higher each time it went back and forth and, eventually, you would stop at the top of the loop, completely upside down and, after that, you would go 'round the loop over and over again.



Looking at the pictures of Super Loops now, I'm amazed that I was so young and dumb enough to ever go on that thing. The ride was literally a giant, flimsy-looking loop of scrap metal supported by cables that ran from one side to the other. In other words, it didn't exactly look like a product of well-thought-out engineering. Also, consider the kind of people (i.e. carnies) who put these rides together; they weren't exactly the most trustworthy individuals on the planet, not that I'm carny-prejudiced or anything but, c'mon, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. I remember the man operating Super Loops looking like he had just gotten released from the State Pen! I'm honestly surprised nobody ever died on the thing...well, at least nobody ever died while it was in Walpole. As for anywhere else? Who knows. It's likely to have claimed the lives of several hundreds.

Now, Super Loops was badass and all, but it was NOTHING compared to the mother of all Billy Burr's Funorama carnival rides. This ride was for only the bravest of carnival-goers. You had to be fearless and you had to have a stomach made of iron. Of course, the ride I'm referring to is...


THE ZIPPER.


The Zipper basically looked like a giant caterpillar or maybe centipede. It went up high in the air, it spun on an axis, it went vertical, it went horizontal, it went upside down, and the 2-3 person cage you rode the ride in itself flipped upside down multiple times. It was a relentless ride. Just when you thought to yourself, "I can't take any more of this," you dropped into another intense free fall.

Oh, yes: the free fall. Those who have rode the Zipper must know what I'm talking about. There was one phase in the ride where your cage reached the highest point it could go and you dropped down into what-felt-like a true free fall from perhaps 70 feet up. This free fall would, indeed, give you the tingly 'down there' feeling and would then be followed by one or two or sometimes even three upside down flips in a row, depending on how you and your Zipper partner(s) shifted your bodyweight.


As a skater punk, I knew I needed to go on the Zipper and I knew I needed to go on it with the bravest of faces. It wasn't long into the ride, however, before the skater punk persona moved aside and allowed the screaming little girl inside me to reveal herself. That's right: the Zipper rocked my world...in a very scary way, yes, but, in the long run, it was the most exhilarating experience I'd ever had. At the time, I thought there was no bigger rush that you could get from anything in life. Of course, a couple years later, I went to Busch Gardens, rode Apollo's Chariot -- the rollercoaster Fabio notoriously got a bird-to-the-face on -- and quickly learned that there were larger rushes out there. And, then, a couple years after Busch Gardens, heroin came into my life and gave me a rush that made the Zipper and Apollo's Chariot seem like friggin' schoolyard merry-go-rounds.


Just kidding about the heroin.


But, yes, the Zipper gave me a rush like I had never experienced up until that point in my life. It was literally the king of all Billy Burr's carnival rides. I mean, this thing was so badass that it took a special, highly-trained carny to operate such a machine. I'm not sure he had to go to engineering school but he must've at least needed an 8th grade education. Unlike the other carnies who stared off into space and looked all zombie-like, the Zipper carny took pride in running his ride. He expressed this pride by wearing a faded-denim jacket with the Zipper logo patched on the back. In other words, the Zipper was his baby and he genuinely cared about giving carnival-goers the ride of their lives. He fed off of everyone's fear of his machine. He relished the sounds of all their screams!


In fact, it was probably the Zipper carny who possessed the most personality out of all the carnies. Well, this may not be true; that is, if you count the "barkers" as carnies.


The barkers? Yep, the barkers. I'm talking about the carnies who ran the rows upon rows of fun-filled carnival games. These barkers HAD to have personalities; otherwise they wouldn't seduce anyone into playing their (rigged) games and what carnival experience would be complete if nobody played those (rigged) carnival games? You know the ones; there was that shooting gallery game where you shot some sort of pebble gun at a piece of paper with a target. Then, there was a fishing game where you were given a magnetic rod and you tried to catch plastic frogs on lily pads that floated in a water tank. There was also a ring-toss-type-game but maybe I'm making that one up. Oh, and you had a game that tested how fast you could throw a baseball at a tarp with a catcher's mitt painted on it. And then, of course, you had that ubiquitous mallet game where you tested your strength and showed off to your girlfriend...


But my favorite game of all the games was always the basketball game where you would shoot a basketball into a net with a rim that was waaaaay below regulation in terms of its width. The rim was so narrow it would practically cough your friggin' ball right back out unless you got a perfect swish. This meant you had to be REALLY precise with your shooting. We're talking perfect shooter's wrinkle in the wrist. Flawless goose-neck-follow-through in your shot.


I spent a ridiculous amount of money at this basketball game and the biggest thing I ever won was a giant, furry, stuffed crayon. I probably spent $20 or $30 just to get this purple furry crayon that was probably made for about 30 cents with the blood and sweat of borderline-suicidal Chinese people. In retrospect, that's ridiculous. The fur wasn't even soft; it was kind of oily-feeling, like a carny had used it as a rag to wipe his hands on after setting up the oily parts of Super Loops. Or maybe the barker had used it as a napkin after eating a lunch of fried dough...

Oh man. Fried dough. So good. And the cotton candy. And the candy apples...the hotdogs, and the cheeseburgers. Carnival food was delish, even though it lacked nutrish. Get it? Lol.

I can bet what you're wondering right now: since Billy Burr's Funorama brought so much fun and joy to the hearts of so many carnival-goers, how is it that such a fun-filled carnival ever STOPPED coming to the town of Walpole?


Well, there are a couple theories behind this.


The town of Walpole's official excuse was that the carnival inflicted too much damage to the Stone Field that lied beneath it. In 2008, the field had supposedly just been re-seeded and town officials didn't want the carnival coming in and destroying the grass that they had just spent so much money on. Pretty lame, if you ask me. I mean, I had to miss out on my favorite carnival just so Little League and Pop Warner players had pretty green grass to play their sports on? Paleeeeeze. That's lame sauce, brother.


However, there are many Walpolians who claim that the "new seed" excuse was only the "official" reason for the carnival's disappearance, while the REAL reason was that the carnival, though fun and amusing for most, brought with it a lot of trouble.


Okay, it's true. Billy Burr's Funorama undeniably emitted a somewhat menacing vibe when it came to town and this energy did somehow manifest into trouble, pretty much every year that the carnival came around.


Part of this trouble came from the carnies themselves. Again, no offense to any carnival workers out there, but let's face it: most carnies are a unique breed. In fact, Billy Burr's carnies looked like they were from a different dimension altogether. They all had a burnt-out look to them. Sun-baked-potato-brown skin. Rotting teeth if they even had any chompers to begin with. Greasy hair. And a rotting soul. Okay, maybe 'rotting soul' is going too far or maybe I'm holding myself back in fear of being politically incorrect. No...no...NO! I'm going with rotting soul; I can't hold back the truth! I mean, I don't even remember those carnies ever uttering a single word, except for the Zipper carny, though that was more like a cackle as he got off on people's screams. For the most part, all the other carnies were silent. Eerie. Ghostly.


Not to go off on a tangent or anything (i.e. buckle up for a brief tangent), but the more I attended the carnival every year, the more I developed a fascination with the mysterious carnies. I wanted to know, where did these people come from? Did they travel with the carnival year-round? More importantly, where did they live while the carnival was in town?


I've heard two differing answers to the latter question, the first of which was that they lived in trailer homes. For a while, I thought this was true because there were several trailer homes parked in the municipal parking lot adjacent to where the carnival was. I was fascinated with this kind of lifestyle -- the vagabond lifestyle -- and it actually seemed very appealing to me. You could travel around America. Work at a carnival. Sleep in a trailer at night. It seemed adventurous. In fact, I figured that each carny must have hitched their respective ride to their trailer home and traveled from destination to destination. For example, the Gravitron carny would hitch around the Gravitron; the Super Loops carny would hitch around Super Loops; the Zipper carny would hitch around the Zipper. What I'm saying is that their respective ride was literally like their baby that they took from state to state, from sea to shining sea. Maybe they actually owned the ride themselves and Billy Burr rented them out. Yes, maybe they were all independent contractors and their ride was literally their bread maker. Or maybe some of the carnies leased the rides and the goal was to someday own them. Not that I've thought too much about this or anything...


However, in my later years, I heard that, contrary to my belief, the carnies did NOT sleep in the trailer homes but, instead, stayed in a nearby Walpole motel called The Boston View Motel. The Boston View Motel sounds like a luxury hotel but "Boston View" was a bit of an exaggeration because all you could see was the very tip of the Prudential building from about 26 miles away. Instead of five-star hospitality with wake-up calls and free continental breakfasts, The Boston View was more known as a place good for heroin deals, bed bugs and other $40-per-night shenanigans and, when I say "shenanigans", I'm not talking about pillow fights, people.


Anyway, I always preferred to believe that the carnies lived in the trailer homes as opposed to The Boston View motel. Trailer homes sounded more exciting to me. It was the more adventurous answer.


But where was I anyway? Oh, yes. The trouble. The carnies caused some trouble.


I guess what happened one year is that one of the carnies got in a fight with his girlfriend or wife. Some sort of domestic dispute. There was drinking involved. He hit or maybe even stabbed her. Okay, that's definitely NOT cool, brother...hitting and/or stabbing a woman is not cool, like, at all. But did that one isolated incident justify ending the carnival altogether? I mean, shit can happen. Right?


Well, okay, there was more trouble, unrelated to the carnies. See, the carnival attracted all sorts of undesirable characters from Walpole to Boston, back to Walpole and to Providence, and...um...back to Walpole again. Some of these people were not always nice people. There was drug use, some theft, and most hideously, there was loitering. Lots and lots of loitering. Loitering! Everywhere!


Let's just say the Walpole Police Department found themselves VERY busy during carnival week.

That's right: we're talking big trouble in little Walpole. I remember one year that Walpole planned on fighting Norwood in the dark field behind the carnival. From what I understood, this meant that members of Walpole High School (the Rebels) were due to fight members of Norwood High School (the Mustangs). And when I say "members", I mean as many members of each respective school as possible. It was due to be a big brawl.


Did the fight ever happen?


No idea.


Do fights like this still happen? Or perhaps the better question is, does this kind of venomous animosity still exist between rival towns, enough animosity to make both towns want to beat the crap out of each other in a huge brawl?


No idea about that either. I just thought I would mention it.


But, yes, TROUBLE, like the Cat Steven song says. The Billy Burr Funorama undoubtedly brought trouble to the town of Walpole. And, personally, I think it was this trouble that led Walpole Town Selectmen to make their final decision regarding the carnival's future:


"Know what?! Enough is enough! All this trouble is driving me bananas! The Billy Burr's Funorama is done! Finished! Adios!"


"But the citizens of Walpole will be upset! They love this carnival! You'll never win your re-election if you ruin their fun!"


"Then we must come up with a cover story. We must say that we've re-seeded Stone Field and we can't have it ruined."


"Brilliant! I'll personally write up the press release as soon as I run to the bathroom real quick. Too much coffee this morning. Haha."


"Haha. You're always good for a laugh, Thomas. I appreciate you."


Yes, I think that's exactly how it went down, folks. That's why the Billy Burr's Funorama doesn't come to town anymore. Fact.


Nevertheless, it was fun(orama) while it lasted. As a wise sage once said, you can take away the carnival, but you can't take away the memories.


I will personally NEVER forget Billy Burr's Funorama -- the excitement of the amusements, the fun of the games, the smells of the food, the noise of all the machinery, the sounds of screams heard from up close and far away -- nope, I will NEVER forget Billy Burr's Funorama. And I ask that you don't forget it, either. Say it with me now...

NEVER FORGET...the Fun-O-Rama.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall

For the past couple of weeks now, I've been spending an inappropriate amount of time in a certain mall that no happy man should ever spend much time in. A happy man should avoid this mall because this mall is, unfortunately, no longer a very happy place to be.

The reason why I've spent so much time in this mall of late is because a LensCrafters is located betwixt its walls. I needed new eyeglasses at this LensCrafters but, as it turns out, LensCrafters isn't as crafty at making glasses as it claims to be...especially when it comes to crafting "Progressive" (i.e. trifocal) lenses...hence why I've been going back and forth, getting my eyeglasses adjusted and readjusted, and consequently spending so much time in the mall that no longer makes people happy.

The mall I refer to is The Emerald Square Mall located in North Attleboro, MA.

The Emerald Square Mall (code name: 'The Emerald') used to be a happy place. Its heyday was the mid-1990s, before Amazon made Internet shopping the norm, and also before a nearby Outlet Mall (the "Wrentham Outlets") took away most of its business. In its prime, The Emerald was THE place to be. There were so many people, so much life, so much buzz, so many stores, places to eat...

But, today, it is a quiet and ghostly place. If you're lucky, you can get an occasional whiff of better days here and there, and by this I mean you occasionally smell just the right mix of Macy's cologne and Food Court that triggers memories of all the fun you once had within the mall's walls.

During my most recent trip to The Emerald, I had about an hour to kill while I waited for LensCrafters to adjust my eyeglasses. I dedicated a few minutes to study a mall directory that was located outside Sears on the third floor. Given the sheer size of the mall -- maybe about 100-150 yards long and three floors high -- I thought there would be stores galore. I was surprised, however, by how few stores seemed to be listed. For every one store, there were about two or three empty spaces, so lonely, just dying to be leased.

A photo I took of the ghostly mall atrium
while sitting on a bench outside Sears.
This was when I realized the era of the shopping mall -- let's call it The Mall Age -- is currently on the verge of extinction and The Emerald was like a dinosaur gasping for its last breaths of air.


Feeling depressed, I sat on a bench outside Sears and thought back to how many stores there used to be in the mall. The memories of these stores made me happier. There were so many good stores...so many favorites...so many good times...

Cue wavy lines and harp-like music to indicate I'm going back in time to reminisce:


T-Shirt City

Actual Beasties shirt from T-shirt City.

This was a store where you could get some of the coolest T-shirts around, including band T-shirts, the naughty "Co-Ed Naked" T-shirts and the even naughtier "Big Johnson" T-shirts. The coolest T-shirt I got here was my very first Beastie Boys T-shirt. It's in rough shape now but I still have it today!



Suncoast


Suncoast was strictly a movie store and the movies were very overpriced, but it was still a fun store to browse through. I believe I only bought a movie there once and that was because I had a gift certificate. This was during my film school days and I bought a French film by Alain Resnais called Night and Fog (you can't see or hear me, but I just sniffed when I said that to imply that I'm superior to you). It was a short, 30-minute film on a DVD but it cost me almost a full $20. Again, the store was overpriced but you could find almost anything there.



Brookstone


This was another store that was meant for browsing more than actual purchasing. You would basically go in the store, sit in one of those chairs that vibrates your buttocks, get your neck massaged by a contraption that looks like two chubby phalluses moving beneath cloth and then maybe listen to a machine that plays looped Amazon jungle ambience. After all that, you'd be on your way. Everything was expensive. Everything was unnecessary.


Hot Topic

This store still exists in the Emerald Square Mall today but it is nowhere as scary as it used to be. When it first opened in the 1990s, this store was BAD NEWS. It was a place where all the bad kids went to purchase their wardrobe, which included orange Slipknot prison jumpsuits and, if I remember correctly, even straight-jackets. The people who worked at Hot Topic had purple hair, fishnet stockings and, overall, looked like they were from another dimension.

Despite its reputation as being the store where the bad kids went, I found some awesome Beastie Boys shirts there and they also had good punk CDs, way in the back of the store, including but not limited to Punk-O-Rama volumes 1-10.


PacSun

Despite its Beastie Boys T-shirts and Punk CDs, Hot Topic was geared more towards the goth crowd so the store I identified with more was Pacific Sunwear (code name: PacSun). PacSun was for the skater and surf crowd. Throughout most of the 90s, I identified myself as a skater so I felt PacSun was the store where I was supposed to buy my clothes.

These were the days when wide-legged jeans were all the rage. I was all about the Bullhead skater jeans, never quite made it as far as the Jnco's, though the latter jeans were more Hot Topic apparel than PacSun. 

I also purchased many a Billabong T-shirt at PacSun and, well, mostly Billabong because I determined that the Billabong brand would be MY brand; you know, it was part of my identity. I never went for the Stussy, though there was a lot of Stussy at PacSun, as well as a lot of Element.


Record Town

Back in the earlier part of the 90s, Record Town was the only record store that you could find nearby so you were forced to pay for their overpriced cassettes and CDs. Later into the 90s, Newbury Comics (code name: "Newbs") started popping up in Boston suburbs so that eventually became the go-to place for CDs. But, before Newbury Comics, there was only Record Town.

Today, Record Town has mutated into a place called FYE. According to the mall directory I perused, FYE still exists inside the walls of The Emerald Square Mall but there is also a Newbury Comics so I don't understand why anybody in their right mind would ever go to FYE. I think it's mostly a trap for grandmothers looking to buy Christmas presents for their grandchildren. No offense, but grandmothers don't know any better. They see a record store called FYE, smack-dab in the middle of the ground mall floor, and they don't know that better options exist, like Newbury Comics, but they probably mistake that for a comic book store. FYE relies on the ignorance of grandmothers to stay in business.


Tape World

Tape World popped up some time in the early 90s, stuck around for a while but then I believe it was put out of business by Record Town. I liked Tape World. In fact, I purchased my very first CD there, which was Alice in Chains' EP Jar of Flies. This was right after I bought my very first CD player at Lechmere, which was a Boston-area department store chain, also located inside Emerald Square Mall, just a few stores down from Tape World.

Tape World had good prices, too. Why it went out of business I will never know but I surmise that location could have played a factor. The store was located way up on the 2nd or 3rd floor, while Record Town was located smack-dab in the center of the ground floor.


A 1980s photo of Tape World I found on the Internet.
Tape World was also a significantly smaller store, so I'm figuring they didn't have as large of a selection as Record Town. They likely didn't sell any movies either. They probably didn't even have posters and posters were essential, especially if you were at the mall with your friends. I mean, think about it folks: think about how many times you went to the mall with your friends, hit up the record store and then collectively spent a good ten minutes or so browsing through the posters. There would always be the gratuitous Animal House, John Belushi "College"-shirt poster, a handful of psychedelic, black-light-friendly posters, as well as a couple of scantily-clad Baywatch-babe posters that juiced up the hormones of teenage boys.

What I'm getting at here is that posters made all the difference at a record store, especially when your main customers were teens. Record Town had the posters. So that's where the teens would go to get their hormones boiling.


Plus, there's the aforementioned ignorant grandma factor.



Sears


Sears is still very much present at the Emerald Square Mall, but the store is struggling for sure. It's depressing walking through the third-floor tools department and you see idle Sears associates wandering around and they give you looks that say, "Please buy something or at least talk to me!"


I used to love Sears. In fact, I'm a big fan of the department store concept in general. Three whole floors with all these little quiet departments where you can kind of relax and browse. It's a good sanctuary to regroup when the stresses of mall shopping have gotten overwhelming.


I mostly loved Sears because of the electronics department and in this department they would have a Sega Genesis and/or a Super Nintendo where you could test out games that you wanted to buy. Well, you couldn't just test out any game; usually there was only one game and you had no choice but to play that one game.


For a while, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, playing video games in Sears was my favorite thing to do at the Emerald Square Mall. My parents would go to Sears to buy a new washing machine or lawnmower, I would find the electronics department and play Aladdin on the Sega Genesis for a good hour or so, or at least up until another kid came along, stood right behind me, breathed on my neck and made it obvious that he wanted to play.


Sears was where I first played the game Star Fox for Super Nintendo and I was completely blown away by this game. Star Fox featured some new 3-d super-chip technology or something, which is completely obsolete today, but I was so blown away by the game that I scraped together all my paper route money and, with the help of my brother's McDonald's earnings, we bought Star Fox.



J.C. Penney


I have no fond memories of J.C. Penny, with the exception of their Arizona-brand Jeans, a few pairs of which I did own. Or was it shorts? Yes, shorts. Then again, I didn't really like them. They were green and they made my legs look pale.


What I do remember about J.C. Penny, however, is this amusement ride thingy that used to be outside of the J.C. Penny, right in the beginning part of the inner mall atrium. This ride looked like a cross between a spaceship and a minivan. What I remember the most is that this machine always looked cooler from the outside than it ended up being from the inside. Basically, for a dollar or two, you would go inside the ride, sit in some chairs with safety belts, there is a movie screen up front and the ride simulated being on a roller coaster or in a race car.


I went on this simulator at least once or twice that I can remember. It wasn't all that good but the point is that going to the mall used to be an "event". You didn't just go shopping; you played video games in Sears, rode simulators outside J.C. Penney and ate food at the food court, which brings me to...



The Food Court


In its heyday, The Emerald Square Mall food court had a Burger King, a Sbarros, a Popeye's, a Panda Express (or something very similar) and usually a couple other places I can't remember. I would always get free samples of sweet 'n sour chicken from a Panda Express employee even though I knew full-well that I'd end up going to Burger King. I could always feel the sad Panda Express man's eyes on me as I walked away from him. "How could you do this?" they were saying. "I give you free chicken and you go to Burger King???"


When I was younger, going to the Food Court was a rare occurrence because I didn't have my own money to spend and my parents didn't want me eating junk food. When I grew older, however, I had plenty of paper route money to throw around and I would get Burger King every time I went to the mall. Sometimes I would switch things up a bit and go to Sbarro but it was usually Burger King for me. Never Panda Express, no matter how many times the sad Asian gave me free samples of sweet chicken.



Spencer Gifts


Directly across from the Food Court was the Spencer Gifts. This was an essential stop, especially if you were at the mall with your friends. The front of the store had black lights, lava lamps, interesting keychains, cheap jewelry, choker necklaces, funny coffee mugs and maybe a Magic 8-ball or two...


The BACK of the store had the "adult" card section where there would be funny greeting cards featuring morbidly obese women wearing nothing but string bikinis. In the pre-Internet age, this was the closest exposure I had to anything pornographic and I can't help but admit I was a little turned on.


In its later years, Spencer Gifts progressively got even naughtier. They ended up selling sex toys and vibrators. Fresh.



Auntie Anne's


I never thought I would ever be a pretzel guy, other than the crunchy kind that came in a bag at the supermarket. Big, soft pretzels? Never sounded appealing to me. Pass.


My sentiment changed, however, when I received a free sample of Auntie Anne's pretzels at the Emerald Square Mall. It was so delicious I couldn't believe what I was tasting. I subsequently spent the two or three dollars for a full pretzel and I never looked back. Boom. Instant pretzel guy.


Auntie Anne's pretzel stand, not located in the food court on the third floor but in the middle of the first floor, became a regular stop for me whenever I went to the mall. I always got the salted ones and they were so warm, soft, with just the right amount of buttery grease to them. So good.



Orange Julius


Believe it or not, I never once purchased anything at Orange Julius. So I have nothing to say about it here. You would think I would have a lot to say about this place because it was a mall staple in the 1980s and 1990s, but I have absolutely nothing to say about it. If you want to reminisce about Orange Julius, you're gonna have to go elsewhere because I'm not saying a word about it.



Walden Books


Honestly, I'm not one-hundred-percent positive if the Emerald Square ever had a Walden Books, but I know it had something that at least resembled a Walden Books, so I think I will go out on a limb and say it had a Walden Books, at least at some point. In the later years, the mall definitely had a "Borders Express", which was a mini-version of a Borders, but the point is that there was always a small bookstore in the mall with weird, carpeted flooring that had subtle inclines in the aisles. Does that sound familiar? Or am I making that up? All I know is that when I think of these bookstores I think of ramp-like flooring that felt hollow under your feet. I may be completely out of mind.


The only book I ever remember buying at the mall bookstore was How The Grinch Stole Christmas.



GNC/Health Food Store


I was raised in a health-food-store-kind-of-family. We spent MUCH time inside health food stores buying rice flour, rice crackers, rice chips, rice bread and, of course, rice cakes. One health food store at The Emerald sold delicious, all-natural cream sodas and my mom would usually buy one for me as a treat. I don't remember the name of this store but I do know it wasn't GNC.


As for GNC, this was almost a health food store but was geared more towards body-building. You could find a Powerbar in there or some Tiger Milk candy bars but, as far as I was concerned, GNC was useless to me, save for the digital scale you could weigh yourself on, usually located at the entrance of the store. This digital scale almost looked like a video game, so it was fun to step on and mess around with.



Mystery Store?


In the very early 1990s, there was a store that sold nothing but Nintendo games. It also had a dozen or so Nintendos in glass, trophy-like cases built within the store walls and you could test out a variety of games. If I remember correctly, you could switch games on these specialized NES systems with the push of a button. This store was always so crowded but I don't think it lasted too long, probably because the Super Nintendo came out and made the store irrelevant. In fact, I'm not even positive this store existed to begin with. It was such an awesome store and lasted for such a brief amount of time that I may have just dreamt it up.


If you know the name of this store, please let me know so I can know for sure that the store was real and then I can be a happier man.



Kay Bee Toys

Tiger bowling.

Since we're on the topic of video games, I would be remiss if I didn't give a shoutout to Kay Bee Toys, which is the store I bought most of my video games at in the 90s. I also bought my Game Boy there, along with many electronic Tiger-brand games, like bowling and baseball. You may be confused right now but, trust me, you remember Tiger Games: they were plastic, rectangular hand-held games, made beeping noises and ran on two AA batteries. Tiger, by the way, also made the Talkboy, that voice recorder machine toy featured in Home Alone 2.

Kay Bee Toys was noisy when you first walked in because there was usually a model-sized airplane flying in circles (attached via wire to the ceiling) and a little toy petting zoo with robotic pigs that walked by themselves, sat, waved their paws around and oinked.


The store also had an awesome G.I. Joe action figure section, which I loved to browse. It's weird thinking about how much joy a 3-4 inch plastic "action figure" could bring into a young boy's world. How did those figures stimulate me so? How did I find playing with them so fun? It's really quite amazing. You don't need much to amuse you when you're a kid. Give kids a plastic figure and their imagination does the rest. Incredible.



The WGBH Store


For a brief period of time, there was a WGBH store located in The Emerald. I believe this store later turned into the "Learning Smith" or maybe it was "Learning Smith" first and then turned into the WGHB Store. Either way, this store was meant to be an educational store and it also sold PBS-related merchandise.



Greg Lee's autograph.
I bought my very first computer game there. It was called Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, which was a super-fun game that tested your geography knowledge. Where in the World is Carmen San Diego was also a game show on PBS and the host of the show (Greg Lee) appeared in the store one day to sign autographs. I think I was sick at the time of his appearance so my brother went and got an autograph for me. I still have that autograph today and I cherish it with...well, not ALL of my heart but let's say about 75-percent of my heart. It is one of only three celebrity autographs I own, the other two being former Celtics Player Dee Brown and Misfits member Jerry Only.

The WGBH store was also the place where I bought Mr. Bean VHS's that each had two 30-minute episodes on them. Mr. Bean, if you're not in the know, was an awesome BBC show from the late 1980s starring British comedian Rowan Atkinson. When I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I was obsessed with Mr. Bean. I could not get enough of his silent, Chaplin-like comedy that was all gesture, body movement and facial expression.


---

More wavy lines and harp-like music to indicate I'm done reminiscing. 

I could go on and on about all the cool stores at The Emerald during its heyday, but we would be here sitting on this wooden bench outside Sears all friggin' day.

It's sad to think about how The Emerald Square Mall is basically dead and may never come back to life. But, as I've shown, The Emerald was fun during its heyday, and at least this heyday will exist as a memory...until I die...and I guess the rest of my generation dies...unless, of course, you subscribe to Einstein's theory about time being an illusion, which would make The Emerald's existence eternal...thus making nothing sad...because everything always exists...so why mourn the loss of something that always exists? Whoa.

Wait, where was I? Oh yes, I was just about to end things on a deep note. An even deeper note, I mean. Deeper than the previous paragraph. So here it is...

When The Emerald was first constructed in the late 1980s, there was a rumor floating around (no pun intended) that the mall was slowly sinking due to it having been built upon swampy wetland. Nobody knows whether these rumors were true but the metaphor couldn't be more appropriate:

Maybe The Emerald Square Mall was never 'meant' to last very long anyway. Maybe it was only meant to shine bright like an emerald stone, for a decade or so, give people like me all sorts of good memories, and then get swallowed up by the swamp...

...OF TIME.


Matt Burns is not a New York Times bestselling author but he predicts he will be in the future; thus, he’s confident in saying that he is, indeed, a New York Times bestselling author (it just hasn’t happened quite yet). Both his debut novel Johnny Cruise and his filmmaking memoir Garage Movie are now available on Amazon. Also available are his numerous Kindle singles, including his best-sellers Jungle F’ng Fever: My 30-Year Love Affair With Guns N’ Roses, My Raging Case of Beastie Fever, Three Days in Hollywood, I Used to be a Gamer and Bostonwood (find all his books HERE). More notably, he has been published in the Los Angeles-based literary magazine "Poetic Diversity".

Burns currently lives outside of Boston and makes films/videos in his spare time. Visit his website mattburnsproductions.com to learn more about him.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lyme-A-Vision

NOTE: This blog is the newest installment of my "Lymey" blog series (eventually to become a book) documenting my battle with and recovery from Lyme disease.

If I were to find a silver lining within my multi-month-long battle with Lyme disease, it would have to be that Lyme gave me an excuse to revisit my long-lost friend, the television, and all the wonderful shows it has to offer, particularly during the daytime hours. Indeed, not since I was a young child have I ever watched so much television. Throughout much of my illness, watching TV was the only activity I had the energy to do. Here are some of the shows and channels I discovered and also rediscovered:


1. Seinfeld


Seinfeld
was neither a new discovery of mine, nor was it a rediscovery. I've always watched copious re-runs of Seinfeld, but I watched all the more episodes while I was sick. There were a couple of reasons for this. Reason one: Seinfeld is a great show, probably my favorite show (or at least sitcom) of all time. Reason two: Seinfeld acted as a comfort blanket for me, especially during the times when I felt horrible. The silliness of the comedy lightened my heavy situation. Maybe the show also reminded me of better times when I wasn't sick. Or maybe it was simply something familiar that helped ground me and made me feel closer to life and, thus, further away from death. I'm not sure how to describe it, exactly, but the worse I felt, the more I wanted to watch Seinfeld. And I know there was a psychological reason behind this; I'm just having trouble articulating it.



2. MeTV


I had already been familiar with MeTV before I was sick but Lyme disease deepened my relationship with this retro-TV channel and also led me to discover even more treasures within its episode lineup. My most notable discovery was that MeTV had back-to-back episodes of Saved by the Bell, starting at 10am Sunday mornings and running until noon. In other words, that's two hours, four whole episodes of Saved by the Bell, each Sunday morning.


It's been more than six months now since Lyme disease sunk its claws into me and I've been watching Saved by the Bell every Sunday morning ever since. I friggin' LOVE Saved by the Bell and I practically know every single episode by heart. Like Seinfeld, Saved by the Bell has been another "comfort show" that helped me escape the miseries of Lyme disease. It's undoubtedly a goofy show and many of the jokes and/or situations make you cringe with discomfort due to the absolute cheesiness of it all but, let's face it, this was a funny, well-written show for what it was, which was a show for tweens and teens. Apparently, it was also good enough for grown men in their mid-30s as well. Or maybe I only enjoy it for nostalgic reasons. Not sure...


Saved by the Bell
is immediately followed by The Brady Bunch, which runs as back-to-back episodes for another couple hours on Sunday afternoons. Then, even later into the afternoon, there is The Facts of Life, Different Strokes, The Love Boat...the fun never stops on MeTV.


I consider MeTV to be a hidden treasure of Xfinity cable television because the channel number is located way up in the 900 boonies, not anywhere close to any of the "normal" TV stations like ABC, TBS, TNT, MTV etc. The 900 channel area truly is a no-man's-land but MeTV is only ONE of the hidden gems to be discovered...



3. Buzzr


BUZZR is another hidden treasure buried in the 900 channel tundra. It's a game show channel that only shows -- yes, you got it -- reruns of game shows, all day, every day. My introduction to Buzzr was via an episode of Family Feud, which I stumbled upon one evening while scanning through the 900 channels. It was an old episode of the family game show, from the late 1970s or early 1980s. Richard Dawson was the host or, as I like to call him, Mr. Kissy-Face (I guess his official nickname was the "Kissing Bandit"). I call him Mr. Kissy-Face because part of his hosting schtick was to kiss all the women on the lips before it was their turn to guess what the survey said. It didn't matter what age they were, either. Back then, this was considered part of Richard's charm. Today, most people would consider it creepy and, of course, no game show host would get away with being Mr. Kissy-Face what with the whole #metoo and #timesup movement that's going on. We've definitely made progress as a society but I can't help but admit that I want to see another Mr. Kissy-Face on TV. I know it just can't happen but, deep inside of me, I want to see another creepy game show host stealing kisses from all the ladies, old and young.


Mr. Kissy-Face Richard Dawson stealing kisses.
By the way, Richard Dawson, Mr. Kissy-Face himself, played a game show host villain in an awesome Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called THE RUNNING MAN (1987). He was absolutely fantastic, too. It was a stellar performance. I just thought I would mention that. No, I needed to mention that. Mr. Kissy-Face had range. Sadly, he died in 2012.


Anyway, Buzzr has since become a go-to TV channel for me. The channel as a whole gives off a very comfortable vibe. No, not comfortable: cozy. It makes you feel cozy. In fact, this is true for all the 900 channels, including MeTV, Decades, Laff, Buzzr and, golly, there's even a channel that has a full line-up of classic TV shows from the 1950s-1990s called Cozi TV. Coziness is what "they", the TV people, want you to find in the 900 no-man's land. It's such a different vibe from the prime-time channels what with their negative news and shallow TV content filled with sex and violence. I don't know about you, but when I'm sick, I want coziness. I want Munsters, Beverly Hillbillies, Lost In Space, Night Court, Empty Nest and, yes, I especially want Mr. Kissy-Face creeping out all the girls!


Ah, the 900 channels. It's like they exist in another dimension or some other time. They are for the sick, the injured and the old people. I love them. I can't get enough of them. God bless the 900 channels.



4. AMC - American Movie Classics


AMC often runs movie marathons on Friday afternoons. During my battle with Lyme disease, I watched Karate Kid Marathons, Rambo marathons and also National Lampoon Vacation marathons. 


Also, for some reason, AMC played the movie The Fugitive pretty much all the time. The Fugitive with Harrison Ford never gets old and, for whatever reason, it's a great movie to watch when you're sick. Again, maybe for me it's the "familiar" factor, since I have watched the movie probably a few dozen times since it was released in the early 1990s. Also, there was probably a nostalgic factor: i.e. this movie reminded me of better (non-sick) times. It was a security blanket I could cling onto while my world was crumbling beneath me.


Speaking of the nostalgic factor, while watching First Blood: Part Two (i.e. Rambo II), I suddenly found myself wanting to play with action figures. This wasn't a subtle desire, either. It was like a button was pushed inside me and I suddenly had an intense urge to go play with action figures. What I realized is that this was a Pavlovian-like response to the Rambo movie because, when I was young (around kindergarten area), I watched Rambo II obsessively and I recreated all the scenes with action figures, mostly G.I. Joe's, but also with a few official Rambo action figures as well. I hadn't watched Rambo II in years and it was amazing to see how my inner child immediately came out of hibernation and wanted to find action figures ASAP.


5. Freeform


I consider Freeform to be a freak phenomenon because it seems to show great movies all the time and it almost seems a little too good to be true. It used to be The Family Channel and I also learned that it is contractually bound to show a certain amount of religious programming in a given day. This is why, if you look at the programming schedule, you will see several hours blocked off as the "700 club" which is, I guess, religious programming.


In July, FreeForm played a Home Alone marathon that I enjoyed very much. It also played the movie Elf a little too much. When actual Christmas season came along, you could find National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation playing at least once a day.

One Saturday morning, I saw that Hook was on and, boy, that movie transported me way back to the 1990s. The music from Hook pressed a button deep inside me that almost made me cry. I longed for the 90s. I wanted my long-lost inner child back. In fact, that seemed to be a common theme throughout being sick: the longing for and, to some extent, the reawakening of my inner child.


6. The View

I had never watched The View before, mainly because, well, why would I unless I was sick? However, this was a show I stumbled upon towards the beginning of my Lyme illness and I watched it, mainly because I didn't have the energy to find anything better.

My thoughts regarding The View are as follows: the show is somewhat disturbing to me. Basically, it involves a handful of women, sitting at a desk, and they bash Trump for about an hour. The leader of this group is Whoopi Goldberg and is so anti-Trump that she can't even say his name; she just calls him "the new guy". Whoopi conveys an appearance of the wise old village elder but nothing I ever hear her say sounds very enlightening to me. Don't get me wrong: I loved Sister Act, but she is the leader of a group of women who program the minds of millions of people with their (one-sided) point of view. They usually have one Right-leaning woman vs. four other Left-leaning women, but even their Right-leaning woman is still very anti-Trump. It's all fine and well to be anti-Trump, pro-Trump, Left or Right-leaning etc., but The View's point-of-view is so one-sided that it doesn't get viewers to think freely with multi-sided opinions.

Plus, Whoopi is a product of our pseudo-intellectual culture where public figures like Oprah, Ellen, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz etc. are considered members of our intelligentsia, the "deep" thinkers whom we should listen to. I don't think they're deep thinkers and, for the most part, I don't find that they're usually worth listening to either.


7. People's Court

For the first two or three months of being sick, People's Court became part of my morning routine. This guilty-pleasure show is enjoyable because, for the most part, both the plaintiffs and defendants are low-life losers. Okay, there are some exceptions and I don't mean to be harsh but let's face it: the people on that show are, for the most part, low-life losers. Watching these low-life losers sue a tenant for a hundred-dollars-worth of unpaid rent or a cleaner for a 50-dollar-pair of shrunken slacks makes you feel better about yourself and your current lot in life. This is what I call the Jerry Springer phenomenon. Why is a show like Jerry Springer so popular? Because you watch the show and realize, man, my life's really not too bad after all. At least I'm better than those losers on that show.

Also, on an unrelated note, I had no idea that Harvey Levin was on People's Court. I only knew him from TMZ. In short, Harvey makes me nervous. He either has an unnatural amount of high energy, drinks lots of caffeine or snorts copious amounts of coke. His job on the show is to interview random people on the street outside the courthouse and I always feel nervous for those people because I know Harvey is looking for quick, succinct answers. I know I would freeze up, not know what to say, and Harvey would make me feel like an ass. This is why watching him do his interviews makes me nervous.


8. Jeopardy

I had watched Jeopardy before I was sick but it was more on the occasional side. Once I was sick, Jeopardy became a show I watched on a nightly basis. I felt that it helped keep my mind sharp while the Lyme disease was making my brain oh so foggy. It was always a relief to find that I could get many of the answers right because this meant that my mind was still, more or less, intact. There were times throughout the illness where I thought I was literally losing my mind. Jeopardy helped reassure me that my mind was still there and my brain hadn't been significantly damaged.

Also, I've come to the realization that Jeopardy may be one of the rare TV shows out there that is actually educational and good for you to watch. It's also one of the last shows out there that doesn't rely on fluff and razzle-dazzle to keep people watching. What I mean is that Jeopardy is mostly all-business. The show starts promptly at 7:30pm and they get right into answering questions after only a very brief introduction. After the first commercial break, Alex Trebek takes a few minutes to interview the guests but then it's right back into the questions and A LOT of questions are crammed into the 30-minute time slot.

In other words, Jeopardy doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator. It doesn't dumb us down. It doesn't insult our intelligence. No jazzy graphics, music or other special effects. Again, no fluff. It's perhaps the one last remaining classy TV show out there.


9. Full House

Like Saved by the Bell, Full House is another childhood favorite show of mine. More comfort TV. More familiarity. More nostalgia, etc.

Full House
was one of those shows with reruns that would be on TBS at, you know, 4:05 and 4:35 during the 1990s. I never knew why TBS did that, by the way, meaning why they started their shows five minutes past the hour/half-hour. Were they just trying to be unique? Was that part of their marketing strategy? "Hey, if we start our shows -- not at 4:00 -- but at 4:05, maybe more people will tune into our channel"?

Anyway, I rediscovered Full House on Nick at Nite. I believe there are (or at least were) back-to-back episodes from 9:00 to 11:00 at night. This may have changed of late because the Hallmark Channel recently acquired the rights to have Full House reruns on their channel. Which brings me to...


10. The Hallmark Channel

During the worst of times, I craved mindless (and, when I say mindless, I mean extremely mindless) entertainment and I must admit Hallmark movies sometimes provided the mindless, predictable escape I was looking for. What amazes me about the Hallmark channel is a) the volume of movies it pumps out all the time and b) the quality of these movies. Now, by "quality" I mean in terms of production value. The photography looks so bright, colorful and appealing to the eyes. It amazes me that so much money and effort is put into these movies that are really, at the end of the day, mindless wastes of time.

All right, maybe I'm being a little harsh but let's face it, folks: the writing is good and they can be a bit funny, but Hallmark movies are all cut out from the same cookie-cutter blueprint and you will never, ever gain anything from them whatsoever. These movies are two hours of beautiful photography but they are a letdown because we are are the same person after the movie as we were before the movie. In short, watching a Hallmark movie is a completely static experience.

I guess watching Hallmark movies is the equivalent of reading romance novels so I guess there's nothing wrong with that. I do find myself superficially entertained by many of the Hallmark movies but I also find it interesting to experience my innate desire to take something away from these movies when there is really nothing to be taken away. In fact, I almost get a headache watching The Hallmark Channel because my brain is trying so hard to take something, ANYTHING, away, but it never happens and that causes pain in my gulliver.



Read the previous installments to my "Lymey" blog series (in order) here: