Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy holidays? (unedited)

I'm not a big fan of the holiday shopping crowds, but there's something I dislike even more during the holiday season, an empty mall.

For the second consecutive season I made a cameo at Knollwood Mall in the days before Christmas. It's in the Twin Cities suburb of St. Louis Park, and it's home to the most bizarre mall around.

The good folks at have a page dedicated to Knollwood, even though the mall ain't dead yet. What I learned from the contributions at the site is that Knollwood was once a normal mall, with anchor stores, a four-screen movie theater and a thriving food court. It was big enough to have a McDonald's in the food court, evidently, and McDonald's doesn't open franchises on a whim, so there had to be good traffic in this mall once upon a time.

I have driven by this mall for more than a decade. It doesn't look like a mall, it looks like a glorified strip mall, but indeed, it is a mall.

Except that over the years a portion of the mall has been walled off to create stand alone stores that have no connection to other stores nearby.

There's still one major anchor store at one end of what's left of the mall. There's a Kohl's department store that indeed opens into a mall. I was never there back in the days of the food court and movie theater, but I've seen it worse than it is today. Although it's not as bad off as it once was, it's still empty.

There are chain stores in the mall, independent businesses and a few atypical mall businesses. There's a swim school in a portion of the mall, which means there's a swimming pool in the mall, and there's an Army recruiting office. There's also a decent size furniture store in the mall, which is surprising because you don't typically see furniture stores in malls.

Despite numerous businesses in the mall, there are signs that it isn't what it use to be. There are empty storefronts in the mall, which is not highly unusual in a mall, but there are several at Knollwood, and it's most obvious where there use to be lower level stores. There are escalators in the mall that go to a lower level, but there's a barricade in front of them. It's hard to tell how many storefronts are down there, but it doesn't seem to be many. Nonetheless, it's quite clear that several retail spaces have been abandoned.

Knollwood has tried to adapt to changing times. Reading the anecdotes, however, suggests its demise is a result of its own missteps.

Despite it all, you'd think Knollwood would draw a fair amount of shoppers during the holiday season, right? You'd be wrong.

Once again Knollwood has opened its hallways to crafts and merchandise vendors during the holidays. There are numerous vendors selling all sorts of things, from handmade goods to clothing, Beanie Babies to cheap jewelry. There are a couple dozen people hawking goods, and they're not confined to a tiny kiosk, they have big tables and displays for their goods. Despite it all, it's still eerily quiet in that mall.

What I can't figure out is how these people find it worth their time to spend hours a day at the mall for what has to be a small return. I don't care if the mall gives the space away to these vendors, if they're standing around doing nothing a few nights before Christmas, they're not making enough money to make it worth their trouble. I must be wrong, they have plenty of retail vagabonds filling the hallways again this year.

You'd think a quiet mall would be a blessing during the holiday season. But you'd be wrong. It's creepy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What If?

I was a comic book collector for about a decade, spanning my teenage years and most of college. Many of the books I collected were from Marvel Comics, home of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, to name a few.

One of the titles I'd buy occasionally was a book called "What If...?" Many issues featured a story that imagined how the Marvel universe would be different if a character had made a different choice, or the outcome of an event had turned out different than it had in the original story.

In 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow starred in "Sliding Doors," a film that followed Paltrow's character through two parallel stories. The difference between the two stories was based upon whether or not her character made it through the train doors as they were sliding closed. I saw it once many years ago, and it was entertaining. I don't remember it being spectacular, as it was rather predictable, but there wasn't anything wrong with it. It's not regarded as a cinematic classic, but few movies achieve that status. I should watch it again some day.

I often enjoy movies and stories about alternate realities, time travel or parallel worlds. It should come as no surprise that I'm a huge fan of the "Back to the Future" trilogy.

Most of us probably play the "what if" game with our own lives. We often wonder how our lives would be different if we did or didn't do something.

The one event I think about most often only affected my life indirectly, but it changed Roast Beef's life dramatically.

Roast Beef is a college friend who I haven't seen much in the past 10 years. I've referenced him occasionally in this blog, but it has been nearly two years since the last time I did so. Eleven years ago half the stories I told seemed to have a Roast Beef reference.

Here's the short version of my sliding door, all dates are approximate:

In the first months of 2000 I organized a small group gathering at the Mall of America comedy club on a Sunday night. I had a bunch of comp tickets for off nights at the club, and Sunday was considered one of those off nights. I organized the trip to see a comedy duo that used hypnosis as the premise of their act. I had been to one of their shows, gratis, the previous year, and it was entertaining. So going back to see them the next year seemed like a good idea.

The duo worked two consecutive weekends during their visit to Minnesota, and in 2000 I organized the trip for their final Sunday night show. That turned out to be a mistake. What I didn't realize was that the final show of their two-week stay was their "erotic show," and the erotic show was considered a special event, making the comp tickets worthless. My group decided we didn't want to pay $10 or $12 a head, whatever the cover charge was, and instead went to the nearby bars for a drink.

We started in the sports bar, playing darts, then went to a beach-themed dance bar for another drink. We ended up at a table next to two blonde women. As members of our group departed, Beef and I were the last guys sitting.

I got up to go to the restroom, and as I came back to our table Beef was chatting it up with the blonde women next to us. I wasn't the least bit surprised. He has always been a smooth operator.

The women were from the Detroit area. They were sisters, Dorothy and Peg, chaperoning a group of teens, Dorothy's daughter and her friends. Her daughter had turned 16, I think, and a shopping trip at Mall of America was her present. It was their last night in Minnesota and the sisters decided to leave the girls back at the hotel and visit the mall bars that night.

The younger sister, Peg, was separated from her husband, as I'd eventually learn. We ended up chatting with these sisters for quite a while, and I didn't worry too much about impressing two women from Michigan, two women who were older than us, married, with children, and living in Michigan.

I don't remember if I knew it that night, but Roast Beef got an e-mail address from one of the sisters. Through e-mail correspondence he began communicating with them. Now here's where I speed up the story. Again, dates are approximate.

In May 2000 Beef flew Peg to Minnesota for a weekend visit. I stopped hearing from him on a regular basis that summer, and when he didn't return my e-mail asking for his new home address, he didn't get an invite to my 30th birthday party in September. In October he was packing a U-Haul truck with his belongings and moving to Michigan, quitting a job he wasn't thrilled with and selling a new townhouse he moved into in April.

I talked to him periodically by phone, and he always talked about how things were going to work out for him and Peg. It was never a question of if, but how.

End of summer 2001 Beef and Peg got married in Indiana. They had a small, civil service in some small town. About a year later they held a formal ceremony here in Minnesota. Chip and I were both groomsmen.

Beef attempted to find a new career in Michigan, but struggled to do so. Their debts mounted and Beef got desperate. In his early 30s he enlisted in the Army.

But the day he was to leave for basic training his plans unraveled. The government claimed there was a discrepancy in his documentation. They claimed they didn't know he had four stepchildren that he wanted covered under his insurance benefits. He never ended up serving his country.

He had been working part-time at a hospital prior to his planned enlistment, and after the Army fell through, he wound up with a decent full-time gig at the hospital. But that didn't last long. He opted to take a job in Iraq, as a government contractor working for Halliburton, He left in early 2005, I think.

His first trip home from Iraq was during the Fourth of July holiday. Chip and I had visited him in Michigan a couple of times, and I had wanted to do so that summer, but I couldn't work it out. My last visit was in late 2004, as it would turn out.

Not long after Beef's summer break Peg decided she didn't want to be married to a guy who was working 12 hours a day, or more, seven days a week. He was expecting to net six figures during a year in Iraq, wiping away their debt and putting their family on solid ground. Peg changed her mind about Beef, allegedly. I never spoke to her once I learned of their separation, and I've only heard the story through Beef's filter. I've never pressed him about the details, and I've always sensed there were meaningful details he never shared with me.

So Beef, slightly devastated, made peace with his future. He negotiated a divorce agreement with Peg, assuming their collective debt and leaving a lot of his non-personal possessions with Peg. He decided to continue working in Iraq to eliminate the debt and build up a nice bankroll for his future. He spent more than four years working on a military base in the desert.

And during those years he met a woman from Washington, a woman who took a similar job as his and wound up working at the same base. I talked to Beef by phone in December 2007. He was planning to marry her in February 2008, on a beach in Hawaii. And he did.

But by the end of the summer he had the marriage annulled, while still working in Iraq. He decided that he had made a mistake. (Gee, do you think?)

He has finally left Iraq and is now living in Boston, allegedly. I haven't seen him since August 2008, and when he does make a cameo in Minnesota, I'm pretty much an afterthought.

I've heard from him a couple of times the past four months. He was in town at the end of this past summer, but I wasn't able to get together with him. He recently rejoined Facebook, but his profile is quite vague about his life.

Beef and I spent a lot of time together during our post-college years. and I've only scratched the surface of his life's story. He was engaged during 1994-95, but called it off. A few years later he lived with a girlfriend who tried to stick him with some of her debt. Another girlfriend moved into his townhouse after about five or six months of dating, and was a bit devastated when he ended their relationship in 1999.

What did you do on Christmas Eve 1999? Late that night I went over to the apartment where Roast Beef was temporarily living and played Nintendo with Beef and his younger brother until 4 a.m.

His family wasn't particularly close knit, and after getting together for dinner on the 24th, it was every sibling and parent for himself or herself on Christmas day. The two brothers spent Christmas day watching television and playing video games at the apartment. I was a part of that until 4 a.m. that morning, and then again Christmas night.

Little did I know how substantially Beef's life was to change in 2000. One of my best friends would soon be leaving Minnesota and on his way to being a footnote in my life 10 years later.

Peg may be wondering to this day how her life would be different had she and Dorothy opted to stay at the hotel that Sunday night instead of visit the Mall of America bars.

Beef may be wondering how his life would be different had our group decided to pay the cover charge and see the comedy hypnotists that night.

I, to this day, wonder how my life would have been different had Beef's life been different. Beef's life is my sliding door. How would our lives have been different had I not tried to organize what was supposed to be a free night of comedy at the Mall of America?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Blizzard of the century (unedited)

Combine the snow of the past 24 hours, and the cleanup afterward, and you have the making of a storm we'll be talking about here in Minnesota for decades.

In my adult life, there's one blizzard we keep going back to when we talk about the worst of the worst, the Halloween blizzard of 1991.

I was a college student in 1991. It was my fourth year in school, I had barely turned 21 and I was living off campus for the first time after three years in a dorm.

I did a lot of running during much of my college career. I ran laps around campus, and when I moved off campus, I sometimes ran to campus in order to run the same laps I had run in previous years. I went running early Halloween night in 1991, and I remember gingerly traveling down the snow-packed sidewalks, thinking back to Halloween 1990. During my Halloween 1991 run, there were few people out and about early that evening, snow was coming down, and it was a tough walk anywhere across campus.

The previous Halloween was much different. I went running early that evening, and it was rather mild for late October. People were in costume, roaming across campus in every direction. It was quite a site.

It snowed continuously Halloween night, as best as I recall, and I think I went to the bar that night. I vaguely remember walking back from the bars that Thursday night and marveling at the fact we had several inches of snow on Halloween.

It continued to snow overnight and there was plenty of accumulation during the day on Friday. I think the snow turned to freezing rain for a while. I swear I hiked to campus for my first class at 11 a.m. with an umbrella, that was covered with a layer of ice pellets by the time I got there. It never occurred to me that the storm was so bad many classes would be canceled that day. All three of mine were, I learned.

I don't remember much more about the storm. I walked to my job at the local hospital that Friday afternoon, which I'm sure was tough, but I must have made it, as I remember getting a ride home that night from a couple of high school girls I worked with. They were more than happy to give me a ride home, as they wanted me to buy malt liquor for them.

So I don't remember a lot about that blizzard, but the storm is historic. The Twin Cities received somewhere in the vicinity of 20 inches of snow, with reports claiming areas received two feet of snow. The fact I remember details from that storm are a testament to how significant it was.

Today the Twin Cities received 16-20 inches of snow, according to reports I heard today.

Weather terrorists pimped the storm as having the potential to match the Halloween blizzard, and they were right. Usually their terrorism oversells the end result, but not this time. We were clobbered all day Saturday. It started snowing late Friday night and kept coming down all day Saturday. It stopped by Saturday evening, but the winds picked up when the snow ended, not that it mattered. Snow had already drifted to heights easily topping two feet by the time the snow stopped falling from the sky.

The snow came on a Saturday, which kept many of us off the roads this morning. As the day progressed, things got worse, not better. Major retail centers announced they were closing early, which is no small concession given it was a Saturday two weeks before Christmas.

By Saturday afternoon the public busses were pulled off the streets because too many of them were getting stuck on city streets. Many plows were pulled off the streets as well since they couldn't keep up and visibility was poor. By that point the airport was shut down, to nobody's surprise.

Highways in the rural outstate areas are close every winter due to blizzard conditions. Those closures usually aren't that close to the Twin Cities, but on Saturday evening the interstate was closed for approximately 150 miles, beginning at the western Wisconsin border and heading east. That border is 45 minutes from my apartment. That's about as close as I've been to an interstate shutdown in this state, although technically it is in a neighboring state.

The timing of the storm is about as good as you can ask for in Minnesota. It started late on a Friday night, ended by Saturday evening and will allow for a day to dig out before we all go back to work on Monday. The dig out will take a couple of days to complete, and it will be subzero on Monday morning, but we'll be able to go back to life as we knew it last week, but with snowbanks that are waist high, or higher.

This storm wasn't the most crippling, thanks to its timing, but I am confident it is one we will remember for years to come.

Hard to believe winter is almost over.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Factually speaking #5

1. I am not rich by commonly accepted definitions, but I am thankful for what I have, and thankful that my life isn't any harder than it is.

2. I am my own worst enemy.

3. I do not own any gold jewelry, coins or lamé.

4. I am interviewing an owner of a "we buy your gold" business on Wednesday.

5. I have never purchased anything from a pawn shop, to the best of my recollection. Perhaps I did once and just don't remember doing it.

6. Pawn shops are perfect examples of what is wrong with society.

7. I own very little that a pawn shop would pay me $5 or more for.

8. I collected comic books in the 1980s, baseball cards too. It was better than spending my money on cigarettes, but almost all of my comics and cards are worthless to me, and worthless to most others, too.

9. Growing up my favorite baseball player was Carlton Fisk.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I still hate karaoke (unedited)

When something is fresh, new and exciting, people want in on it.

That's why karaoke was such a big deal when it burst on the American bar scene in the early 1990s. Everybody who ever wanted to sing in a band now had a chance to perform for a crowd of disinterested alcoholics, and you didn't even have to know the lyrics to do so!

For reasons I can't figure out, the fad didn't die. It's not the rage it once was, but bars continue to cater to singers who just never caught a break, as well as singers who have no business in front of a microphone.

Years ago I was visiting a buddy in the city where I worked for 2-1/2 years during the mid-1990s. We went to one of the better local watering holes one night, only to find it was karaoke night. This city was lacking for entertainment options most of the year, unless you lived for hunting, fishing and snowmobiling, so its inevitable that dozens of people filed through the bar that night, karaoke or not. (This brings to mind a whole other blog I have to be sure and get to in the near future. Memo to self: icebox Internet.)

Surveying the crowd that night, one thing became crystal clear, people don't really enjoy karaoke unless it's a member of their group performing, good or bad.

When somebody is belting out a tune, it's hard to have a conversation with anybody else in the bar, so whatever song the forlorn songstress is crooning inevitably dominates the room. As I surveyed tables throughout the bar, you'd think you were looking at prisoners sitting in their cells, waiting for the march down death row to the electric chair. Only those sitting at the table where Donny or Marie hailed from seemed to enjoy the song. It didn't matter if the singing was spectacular or painful, it was their friend or relative singing, that made it enjoyable.

That was one depressing scene.

Fast forward 10 years or more and I'm heading out to a Twin Cities restaurant on a Wednesday night. This restaurant has the token bar area, and on Wednesday nights the establishment favors the poor saps who mysteriously find their way into the bar with a night of karaoke. So why was I there?

I have worked at a haunted attraction for the past five Halloween seasons, and several of my co-workers from said establishment find their way to this bar for karaoke on Wednesday nights. Despite my distaste for karaoke, I bit the bullet for a night in order to get together with a handful of these folks. Since my girlfriend has abandoned me for nearly two weeks in order to travel west of the central time zone, I decided I should reward my loneliness and tempt my suicidal tendencies by enduring two-plus hours of karaoke.

The ringleader of the weekly gathering is a woman who use to live walking distance from this bar, and enjoys putting on a show for the crowd on a weekly basis. I don't know if she ever tried out for American Idol, but I would bet your left arm the thought has crossed her mind more than a dozen times.

I'm not sure if Sheila sings Evanescence songs because she kind of looks like lead singer Amy Lee or if she kind of looks like Amy Lee because she sings Evanescence songs. Either way I sense the crowd is favored to a couple of such tunes every single Wednesday night. Lucky me, I got to hear "Bring Me to Life" twice tonight. It's not a bad song, I'm just not into it, and Sheila represents the karaoke divas of the world. She can sing, and when she does, she overpowers the room. I don't know why that so easily irritates me, but it does. Sometimes you can tune out somebody you don't want to listen to, to a limited extent, but the Sheilas of the world are vocal gymnasts, and when they step up to the microphone, you're going to notice the vocal equivalent of the uneven parallel bars, you don't have a choice.

Did I want to kill myself when Sheila was singing? No, and given she is somebody I know, I actually appreciated it slightly. But I don't get hot or bothered when people sing songs I'm not interested in, and when their performance doubles as a Star Search audition, I'm less than excited, because they're never singing a song I really dig.

Besides Sheila there were several others who sang during my tenure at the bar, although the bar was rather empty. I was told this was an anomaly. One dude sang a couple of songs after I arrived, and he was horrid. Was he Bob Dylan's illegitimate child?

Another dude, he was a poor man's Marvin Gaye. The dude could carry the tunes without being overbearing. I appreciated his efforts.

A couple members of my group sang, with varying degrees of success. If they weren't part of my group, I would have been totally disinterested, however, and not impressed.

Despite all the things I dislike about karaoke, I have to admit I was entertained a few times tonight. Several members of my group did a competent job of singing "Bohemian Rhapsody," and Sheila did an impromptu duet of "Summer Nights'" with a guy who seemed to favor the 70s lounge tunes when it was his turn on the mic. Those were more fun than I expected. Another duet featuring two other members of my group was better than I expected, too. At the moment, the song escapes me.

No, nobody asked me to gouge my eyes out or set my hair on fire, it wasn't really that painful of an experience. And I vowed to return some Wednesday night this winter if Sheila agreed to sing a song I requested. (She either claims not to know pop songs from the 80s or says she only knows the chorus. She's too much of a diva to attempt to sing a song if she doesn't know the lyrics and melody by heart, evidently.)

I guess you could say I softened slightly when it comes to karaoke, I still contend karaoke is the entertainment of the criminally insane.

Factually speaking #4 (unedited)

I have a lot on my mind, but it is late and I'm not ready to begin a 30-minute writing exercise, so for now, facts will have to suffice.

1. If I could do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I'd be tempted to do it. I'm pondered this question quite often and wondered what that says about me. I think it makes me a lousy person.

2. I went to see one movie during the Thanksgiving weekend, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was the weekly retro flick at a nearby theater. I had seen it once in my life. I enjoyed it. I am certain I'll take in another retro flick this winter.

3. I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the big screen, by myself, at the budget theater, four months after it was released. I thought it was lame.

4. There is talk of a fifth Indiana Jones movie. I hope it happens, even if the last movie disappointed me.

5. I was born in Indiana.

6. I have never lived in Illinois, but my favorite sports teams are based in Chicago.

7. I'm not determined to live in Minnesota for the rest of my life, but I don't foresee moving any time soon.