Never Break The Chain

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Chain…keeps us together
– Fleetwood Mac

Not too long ago, my nephew and two of my nieces were in the city, visiting the Gardner. As it’s a brief trolley ride down the street from my office, I arranged to meet them and their mother (my sister) for lunch…at UNO’s.

Now, I’m not going to lie and say that I’m one of those clean-eating/Whole30/Paleo/raw milk/only shop-around-the-perimeter-of-the-grocery-store types, because I absolutely am not. Mainly because I do believe that there is some Better Living Through Chemistry, principally in the form of Birthday Cake Oreos and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, even as I completely comprehend that my neocortex is being manipulated, by a whole bunch of stuff I can’t pronounce, into wanting more and more of this crap. But, seriously – have you had one of those Birthday Cake Oreos? Those things are frigging delicious.

But generally speaking, I eat pretty healthily, and when I do get lunch somewhere in the neighborhood, it’s typically sushi, Pho, or Persian. All from locally-owned-and-operated joints. But I figured that my nieces and nephew were not up to having their palates challenged that day, so UNO’s it was.

Next time I go there, I think I’ll just ask for a brick of lard and a salt lick, and save them the trouble of preparing my meal. Lord, the BLOAT. Heinous. I came back to the office and loudly announced that the next time I mentioned that I was going to eat at a chain restaurant, I was to be forcibly prevented from leaving the building. (Everyone kind of grunted, but it’s been busy around here lately so I’ll assume that someone will follow through, eventually.)

The truth of the matter is that I’m getting older, and I simply can’t eat like a 22-year-old stoner anymore. There was a time when I could toke up, eat a family-sized bag of Doritos while watching Ren & Stimpy, and be the none the worse for wear the next morning. THOSE DAYS ARE OVER.

This was going to be a post about how awful chain restaurants are. How every dish on their menu is a virtual Sodium Bomb, even the stuff with the little carrot icon or whatever denoting its appropriateness for them what are watching their figures. I was going to decry the décor of these places (you’re made to feel like you’re eating in someone’s barn, full of distressed Radio Flyer wagons and framed photos of Elvis and/or hockey players). I was really going to be an utter shit about the whole thing, until I sat down and realized how much these places are a part of my personal history.

I think back to my childhood, when the BIGGEST TREAT IN THE WORLD was when my dad took me to Ground Round, which in the 70s was known for having peanut shells all over the floor, sundaes served in tiny little plastic Red Sox hats, and a “treasure chest” full of cheap toys by the register. And while I don’t think this particular chain features these things anymore, I have to say that whenever I pass one, my inner 7-year-old goes APESHIT.

As I got older, family outings were at The 99. Merlot-colored leatherette booths under faux-Tiffany lamps. I knew that I could order the same thing, every time, and it would come out the same way, every time, and this was enormously comforting to me as an adolescent, when everything in my immediate orbit was fraught with uncertainty. I was bullied at school, there were myriad troubles at home, but my burger always arrived cooked exactly the way I wanted it, accompanied by just the right amount of scalding hot steak fries.

By the time I reached high school, the place to go was Bickford’s. I have no idea why. As chains went, Bickford’s was sort of a low-rent Denny’s (I’ll get into my relationship with that place later), but it was open late, and grumpily accommodated a table full of obnoxious, smarty-pants high schoolers such as myself and my friends, where we’d invariably leave a huge mess of dog-eared sugar packets and soggy straw wrappers. The morning after my senior prom? I was at Bickford’s. I didn’t actually GO to my prom, but I knew – somehow – that being at Bickford’s at 5:30 the next morning was going to make me feel better about the whole thing, and it did.

I distinctly remember the big deal that was the first Chili’s in the area. My friend Jude got a job there our senior year in high school. The night before it opened, every staff member was allowed to bring two guests to experience the Chili’s, um, experience. Jude brought me and Raziel. It should be noted that Raziel and I were deep into our Robert-Smith-meets-Lene-Lovich style of dressing at the time. We ordered fajitas (so exotic!) and enjoyed being stared at by Jude’s coworkers and their families.

I went to college in Florida. Central Florida. Pasco County. Not a Bickford’s to be had. But I quickly found friends who shared my penchant for spending ridiculous amounts of time in these places, and the Bickford’s equivalent in those days, and in that area, was the Village Inn in Dade City. I picked up a nasty pie-and-coffee habit there. God, I loved the Village Inn.

But I was not faithful, alas. My senior year in college I began a disastrous affair with the Denny’s on State Road 52 in San Antonio, Florida. I was in a production of The Odd Couple (the one that Neil Simon reconfigured for the ladies), and me and my bitches would hit the Denny’s EVERY SINGLE NIGHT after rehearsal. Always – I got the same thing: grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, fries, and a side of guacamole. And shit tons of coffee.

I won’t even get into my sordid history with the Waffle House.

I came back to the Boston area for graduate school. I mostly avoided these places because I didn’t want all my new, intellectual, flannel-clad friends to think I was tacky and uninformed, gustatorially-speaking. But occasionally I’d cave and wind up drinking at the bar in UNO’s after work (the very same UNO’s I was at a few weeks ago). Should I admit it? Kevin and I had our first kiss at that UNO’s. Oh god oh god oh god.

So, you see? I can’t hate on these places. I try not to eat at them, but I can’t hate on them. So many nights spent in them, giggling and crying and discussing. I am a product of my times, and of my environment. They dot the landscape of my psyche, their glowing signs rising high above the interstates of my very soul, late at night, when nothing else is open.

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“Borrowed Nostalgia”

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I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.

I always chuckle a little at that particular line in this LCD Soundsystem song.  “Borrowed nostalgia” is something I simultaneously embrace and abhor.

I was a little kid in the Seventies, which – as anyone who lived in the Seventies knows – was a decade in which everyone was nostalgic for the Fifties.  Happy DaysLaverne & Shirley.  Sha Na Na.  Grease.  I had done some mental calculating and came to the realization that my parents had been teenagers in the Fifties, and thus grilled them relentlessly on the veracity of the onslaught of wholesome, peppy imagery I was being fed throughout the mid-to-late-Seventies.  Did my mom own a poodle skirt?  Was my dad a greaser?  Did everyone sip milkshakes and listen to Elvis and sing “shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom” every time it was clear that some nice girl was about to lose her virginity to John Travolta?  I HAD QUESTIONS.

I had also developed a serious obsession with my parents’ record collection, and became a tiny Borscht Belt comic, rattling off Rusty Warren and Allen Sherman routines to the great amusement of, well, anyone over the age of 40.  My peers, on the other hand, viewed me with bewildered disdain.  I became convinced that I was “born at the wrong time,” and holed up in my bedroom, furiously studying up on old MGM movies and silent film star scandals.  Even now, I will SCHOOL y’all on any of this.

So I grew up with borrowed nostalgia.  I absolutely was nostalgic for a time in which I wasn’t even alive.  And this, of course, led me to wonder what people would be nostalgic for in the future.  I distinctly remember sitting on our front steps waiting for my mother to give me a ride to the Central Junior High School auditorium, dressed in what I believed to be the only “historically accurate” costume for our production of Bye Bye Birdie (a simple red sweater over a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and a Pendleton plaid skirt that my mother actually wore in high school, as opposed to the garish poodle skirts of my castmates, which I considered clownish).  I smoothed the green plaid skirt over my knees, and started to wonder what people would be nostalgic over in twenty years.  “Pinstripe jeans, probably,” I thought.

In my twenties, I was witness to a perverse collective need to throw “Seventies Parties,” where everyone decked themselves out in chest medallions, Danskin leotards, and stained polyester leisure suits picked up at Goodwill.  By the end of the night, everyone would be rank with sweat and sticky with spilled TAB.  And I thought, “Why does anyone want to remember this shit?

Now, Mad Men is all the rage, with everyone throwing classy cocktail parties and sporting slick, retro duds.  Yet I’m not as bothered by that, simply because those are the kinds of clothes that actually look good on me, although I do regard these get-togethers with a little side-eye, because if you’re really, truly paying attention to this show, all those cocktails are leading to nowhere good.  (Fuck’s sake, people – Don Draper is at the point now in the series where he HAS to have a drink in the morning, because if he doesn’t, he’ll have a seizure.  I digress.)

But when it comes to the decade in which I spent my formative years, I am ridiculously territorial.  A couple of years ago, my niece Caroline was going to an “Eighties Party” at a friend’s house, and was happily telling me about her outfit, which of course was a combination of all the WORST sartorial statements of that decade:  big hair, leg warmers, shoulder pads.  I wanted to tell her that not everyone dressed like that.  I myself favored giant plaid old guy shorts worn over long johns, paired with floral vests bedecked in vintage brooches.  Let me tell you – I was HOT.

I find myself putting a far more positive spin on that decade than I should.  I was, in the main, pretty miserable in the years between 1981 and 1988, for all kinds of reasons that I won’t get into right now.  But the music that acts as aural Prozac for me has always been music that came out during that time.  I have every damn 45 single I bought from ’81 on, and you’d best believe I still play them, ON A RECORD PLAYER, whenever I am in need of a psychic boost.

Kevin and I went to see Big Country a few weeks ago.

The current incarnation of this band includes members of Simple Minds and The Alarm.  As such, there was no goddamn way I was going to miss this show.

There are those that say that the bands we listened to in our youth have no business going out there and playing those songs for us.  They’re old, we’re old, it’s silly, it’s somehow…sad.  I disagree.  I’ve been to a lot of shows in the last 28 or so years.  The ones that rank the highest?  Bands on so-called “nostalgia/reunion” tours.  Bauhaus.  Gang of Four.  Adam Ant.  Big Country.

I was completely swept up in that show.  I cried, I hollered, and I bounced around in front like a happy puppy.  AND I GOT MY PICTURE TAKEN WITH DEREK FORBES.  DEREK FORBES.

994864_10153074664515085_752475421_nIt was everything that my 15-year-old self could have wanted:  I was wearing a dress from the Fifties, standing next to the former bass player from Simple Minds (who smelled really, really good, despite the fact that he was also really, really sweaty).  God.  DYING.

It’s nice to have nostalgia that’s purely mine.

Things Can Only Get Better…

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I was hanging out the other evening with a handful of some of my favorite people, among them my friends Jon and Craig.  They’ve been together – oh lord – for YEARS now…I think almost as long as Coombsie and I have been married.

I don’t even remember how this came up, exactly, but Craig and I were on the couch, and Jon was in our Big Fancy Grownup Mission-Style Leather Recliner™, when Craig said to me, “You know, 80s music is really like Prozac for Jon.”

“Oh, it’s true,” Jon piped up from the recliner, “Like this morning, I was in SUCH A BAD MOOD, and Craig knew to put on some Howard Jones and within an hour I was just DANCING AROUND THE HOUSE.”

I sat on this for a minute.  “My God.  You are SO RIGHT.  Because it’s TRUE.  At the end of a particularly trying day, I have to tell Coombsie, ‘No…NO…I CANNOT listen to college radio on the way home.  I cannot listen to the latest hipster music, or avant klezmer zydeco, or whatever they are playing on the college radio station right now.  I have had a DAY, Coombsie, and I need to listen to SOMETHING I KNOW.'”

When I was a kid, I liked listening to “oldies.”  I liked sitting in the back seat of my mom’s Pinto and grilling her on whatever song was playing.  Because it was the Seventies, and in the Seventies, everyone was obsessed with the Fifties, and I had done the math and realized that my parents were ALIVE BACK THEN.  So I was naturally curious if they sipped on milkshakes at Formica-topped counters while Elvis crooned in the background, like they showed on “Happy Days.”

My mom studied me in the rearview mirror.  “You want to hear my Elvis story?  Here’s my Elvis story.  It was around Christmas, and your dad and I were at some shitty bar, and the jukebox was stuck on ONE SONG.  ONE SONG, and that was ‘Blue Christmas.’  OVER AND OVER AGAIN.  Those whiny backing vocals.  JESUS CHRIST.  There was not enough liquor IN THE WORLD to make that song bearable.”

Still, I wondered about what I’d consider “oldies” when I was my mother’s age.  Already I had a sense of borrowed nostalgia, and the idea that certain songs could be comforting in some way.  And now I’m at the age where records I remember going out and buying for myself are being played on “oldies” stations.

And Craig is right.  He’s absolutely right.  That stuff soothes me like nothing else.

If you could pack this stuff into pill form, it would work wonders for some of us.  I mean, I’m not going to stop taking what I actually do have to take in pill form to keep me from doing something completely inappropriate in ANY context.  Let’s say that it’s part of a mental health regimen that’s just better for everyone involved.

…and we’re ALL safer for it.