Trader Joe’s and the Death of Froot Loops

tj

I visited the Temple this past weekend. We needed milk. “Oh, we LOVE Trader Joe’s!” someone hissed with enthusiasm by the unsalted peanut butter.  “Oh my god, it’s the best!” her friend rasped in concurrence. When the conversation turns to the tingly pleasure of the TJ’s shopping experience, the votes are nearly unanimous. Nearly. The loving and loveable oddballs who staff the swank grocery store are a blessing, and the product line manages to be all things to all people. My fellow shoppers are the problem, and they are a monster of Joe’s creation.

In 1954, Stanford Business School hotshot Joe Coulombe, the “Joe” in Trader Joe’s, got a job doing convenience store research for Rexall, the aspirin and suppository giant. Coulombe so wowed his new bosses they were soon suggesting their wunderkind consider creating a convenience store chain in California that mimicked Texas’ all-powerful 7-Eleven. Joe jumped at the idea, got financing from Adohr Milk Farms and began building his blitzkrieg of grocery-hipness by opening a bunch of mini-marts all over the state of CA. He called them Pronto markets, and they were a hit. When the company that had financed his Pronto rollout acquired 7-Eleven, though, the handwriting was on the wall.

Casting about for a market segment he could call his own, Joe stumbled onto an article in Scientific American that pointed out that 60% of Americans who qualified for college were going to college, at that time a heartening and newsworthy factoid. In that statistic Coulombe saw (and in fact invented) a new species of grocery consumer; the self-identifying wise-ass who purchased lowly boxes of Froot loops only grudgingly and aspired to a boutique grocery-buying experience beyond the reach of the unlettered masses. And it had to be cheap. Or as Coulombe himself once put it, ”Trader Joe’s is for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators and journalists,” to which he later pointedly added “ I didn’t say smarter. I said better educated.” Bless him. His odd idea took flight and the flattered smarty-pants set came running. TJ’s took off like a rocket, initially selling everything from cereal to ammunition –  a practice that ended with the shooting of Bobby Kennedy in ’68. In 1970, thanks to another Scientific American article (it could be argued that Trader Joe’s fans owe a debt of gratitude to Scientific American Magazine), Coulombe was introduced to “Green” thinking, and an unstoppable grocery cult was born.

On a recent trip to the Trader Joe’s on de la Vina I took several minutes to soak up the atmosphere. Santa Barbarans bustled purposefully through the glass doors with brightened, wide-eyed expressions, the TJ’s crew skipped jauntily about, radiant with what always looks like tightly contained joy. It was, per the norm, a little unnerving. And of course the workers run the sartorial gamut. I’ve never been in a Trader Joe’s anywhere whose crew didn’t boast the sort of mad personnel mix typified by Star Fleet’s HR Diversity Handbook; here a Vulcan, there a Scotsman, over there a busty speaker of Swahili with a salt shaker in her ear. Many of the cashiers at Trader Joe’s could be your favorite uncle or aunt, if your favorite uncle or aunt were inked from ankle to jawbone. Some of the workers stocking the shelves look like they could play bass for Arcade Fire. Though TJ’s is today owned by a German grocery conglomerate, it still operates from a simple premise: rebrand bar soap and waffles as swinging, irony-exuding emblems of cool that gratify the shopper with a stylized sense of self. It works. Hoo boy. It really works. But.

There is an implacable phantom angst haunting Trader Joe’s happy-go-lucky aisles, like the creepy come-hither twins in The Shining, but vegan and scarier. Despite the mediating karmic glow of the TJs crew, the place at rush hour is a parade of Tension Hippies, mate-seeking tofu enthusiasts, wildly pierced Salsa unpackers, and the occasional bewildered housewife looking desperately for Clorox with an “I’m Lost in the Funhouse!” expression of growing confusion and terror. Will the misplaced maven raise her hands to her face and scream, like Patricia Owens in The Fly? I’m waiting for the day. For those who have yet to partake of a Trader Joe’s outing (are there still such people in our fair state?), I offer this portrait of a pilgrimage to the de la Vina store.

The layout of the place is a Feng Shui mishap that begins in the parking lot, where an expanse of slanted parking spaces as snugly patterned as herringbone already puts you on edge. You first thread the needle to get into the de la Vina lot, and there begin worriedly seeking a spot for your little buggy as glandular luxury SUVs stalk the car park like a herd of bulbous predators, their chrome grillwork grimacing menacingly as they hugely maneuver the hairpin turns of the overstuffed little acre. You finally manage to dock your car into a suddenly available little slot and as you pull in there is the inevitable TJ’s customer in hemp chinos, slowing his walk to a theatrical crawl and glaring dead-faced at the empty air because he is angry to have had to slow his gait, angry at your oak-strangling internal combustion engine, and angry that his braided, faux-nativist ponytail went out of fashion with Billy Jack posters and One Tin Soldier lunchboxes.

Inside TJ’s the cool-looking diagonalized aisles create a spiritual and spatial confusion that has artfully tattooed shoppers bumping into each other with pursed lips and clenched/enlightened souls. You pause to look contemplatively at a box of orange lentils for more than 4 seconds, and a Progressive with lavishly pierced nasal flanges and those big ear discs will park behind you and start belting out an aura the color of spoiled bean curd. You feel the New rAge with your spidey sense and allow the pissed off spirit-pilgrim to pass by pressing your back against the reconstituted old-growth-forest-favoring single-ply toilet paper. The soul pioneer breathes out in the yoga practitioner’s version of a disgusted sigh and moves through without acknowledging you.

You go to make your purchase and while in line an overcaffeinated pixie with a bag of Free Trade Shade Grown Madagascar Decaf chirps a rolling 4-megaton blast of happytalk at you that within one withering minute has turned your rigid organic banana to a useless tumescent throwaway not fit for purchase. If there are happier or more loquacious shoppers anywhere they need to be restrained and tranquilized. You leave checkout and enter the narrow little exit aisle where more passive-aggressive maneuvering stands your remaining hair on end as you clip hopefully toward the door. You pick your way back to the car, more frozen expressions glimpsed through expensive windshields as those attempting to park suffer your affronting pedestrianism. You slowly pull your car out of the tiny parking space, receive more blank-faced Califorbearance as you painstakingly steer through the swarming lot with the fingertip-lightness of a vascular surgeon. You get home and heave a sigh of gratitude, and having lusted for a bowl of Cap’n Crunch for two hours discover you bought soy milk by mistake. You weep.

Published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel Vol 4/Issue 3/Feb 7-21, 2015

Aloha, Aloha

Aloha Gist maybe 1933

As I type this we’re in the sky over Minneapolis. A riveted tube the size of a supine office tower has just heaved itself into the air with the usual difficulties, my fellow passengers and I staring grimly forward as the fool machine, obeying the laws of physics but little else, shakes and rattles like a gigantic Chevy Vega. A rear-mounted engine buzzes like an enormous electric razor just outside the paper-thin fuselage. Is it supposed to sound like that? etc. It’s all but certain the enormous winged rocket will come roaringly apart 6 miles above the earth, hurling vertical stabilizers, mach trim actuators, and other expensive union-built junk across the night sky in a moonlit flume of flightless debris. The first seconds of the disaster will offer a sudden pleasing sense of extra legroom to the passengers and some will stretch and sigh with gratitude even as they begin their descent to ground, the quaint cosmetic seat belts lashing them to plummeting fabric.

Yes, you see that I am in truth a nervous flyer. This is an idiotic way to travel. Period. I do not want to Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth, in the words of that flight-celebrating pilot of yore. I like the bonds of Earth, the surlier the better. But I’m traveling with my mother and it is as it should be. We’re headed east, to Washington D.C., to move her back in with Bob, from whom she’s been separated for some 20 years, since his passing. She carried on with mixed success without him, 14 of them under my care. Following a brief denouement of spirit-breaking difficulty, she passed in late May this year. Now we’re flying to Washington D.C., where Bob has a little home at Arlington National Cemetery, to which an addition is shortly to be made. And so the two lovebirds will be, in the immortal phrasing of Peaches and Herb, reunited. It feels so good.

Regular readers of these pages may remember my mom, Aloha Wing, she with the fiery spirit, ribald sense of humor, and tendency, in her Autumn years, to answer her apartment door with one foot bare and the other shoed and socked. She’d lived a smartass life. Following a mischief-driven childhood spent on army bases, she’d met my similarly smartass dad at an Air Force USO dance during wartime, they’d hitched in 1943 and hit the ground running. On an Air Force base in North Africa in 1968, as described in the aforementioned encomium, the timing was right for her to come to the smartass rescue of a neighbor on whom the Gaddafi regime was exerting pressure, and she and her smartass bff at the time, a fellow Air Force Wife named Stephanie, had thumbed their noses at Gaddafi in a daringly stupid smuggling scheme that could’ve gone very badly for both of them. From girlhood, when Aloha wasn’t actually in trouble she was looking for a way in. When her partner in laughter, Bob, passed in 1993, Aloha lost a bit of her mojo. Friends more or less stopped visiting, the weekend bridge meetings ground to a halt, the phone stopped ringing. Still, she maintained her acerbic sense of humor and continued to view each dawning day as an opportunity to seek the humor in things, however dark they might appear at a glance. Despite her continuing determined application of this lifelong positivity, after some years alone she began to drift. In 2000 my wife and I drove to Phoenix and loaded her belongings, a lifetime of accrued stuff, into the back of a rented moving truck.

In early May this year a couple of telling incidents, harbingers of a coming loss of bearing, obliged Aloha’s independent living apartment complex to issue her an eviction notice, lest their exposure to liability and litigation, the twin Horror L’s of contemporary culture, land them in court. Her obligatory move was the day I’d dreaded for all the 14 years she’d lived in Santa Barbara, having moved here from her longtime home in Phoenix. Aloha Wing, from the time of her girlhood an inventive and energetic troublemaker, would not, I’d guessed, survive a move to a ‘facility’ of the sort the eviction now commended. And I was right. Following an incredibly stressed three weeks of trying to ‘adapt’ to her new, necessarily more restrictive surroundings, roaming the property like a caged animal and waking in the night confused and yelling for rescue, mom was knocked mercifully senseless by a stroke, and passed two days later at Serenity House. My former non-stop live wire of a mom is now traveling with my wife and I as a quantity of ash and ground bone in a 4” x 6” x 8” plastic box. Our rituals ask of us certain things that we’re not able to capably explain. This crazy transfiguration, from beautiful mother and pal to this box of legally actionable powder – it’s a miracle more wondrous than that of the consecrated wafer which, when placed on the tongue, becomes the flesh of a brutalized carpenter. If this is my mother, if this stuff in the little plastic box is my Burt Bacharach-loving, toast-annihilating, blue-eyed mom, then the universe is an ash tray. She’s gone. Wow, is she ever gone. The quietude of the mute little plastic box proves it. She has never been so utterly quiet. Ever.

The gatekeepers of our great nation’s airline security apparatus are, at least on this day at LAX, a loopy throng of youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms; kids playing dress-up. The container bearing mom’s remains must be x-ray translucent because in today’s terror-war climate even the dead may be recruited to make more dead. Despite our fretting, our careful research and determination to have everything in order lest the authorities confiscate my mother, the louche TSA twenty-somethings in their ill-fitting uniforms at LAX do not seem overly concerned with the fragility of the occasion nor with the rigors of their own protocol. Their strange, over-elaborate badges look like they were bought with Frosted Flakes boxtops. It is strange, given what we are still told is the gravity of the threat, that the gatekeepers of our airline safety are these youngsters. The guy scanning our laboriously removed belts and shoes, our laptops and jackets and briefcases, is wearing large fake diamond ear studs and a close-cropped beard whose topiary exactitude draws interested stares from the passengers/terror suspects in their socks. Suddenly the stocky young lady in uniform to my right is yelling at me with real disdain. I’ve been distracted by her colleague’s beard. “LAPTOP IN ITS OWN BIN!! SIR? SIR? SIR! LAPTOP! IN! ITS! OWN! BIN!!”

When we’ve cleared the screening process and are putting on our shoes a tall overweight kid with slipping spectacles and a nervous grin picks up my mother and summons his supervisor. The young man who arrives assures us in murmuring tones that they want the keynote of the process to be respect. Aloha is hustled away and in the background I watch a group of the TSA curious gather in an interested clot and all look at the sealed plastic box, which is then run through another scanning machine of some kind. My understanding is that they may not open a container of crematory remains, and they do not. Following some chuckling, amused attempts to get the box back into the attractive canvas carrying bag the funeral home had provided for travel, my mom is returned to me. “We want to make sure that was respectful,” the well-meaning but haphazardly trained young guy says to me, somewhat nonsensically. “Thank you,” I reply. “We really appreciate it.”

My bohemian writer of a sister had come down from upstate New York some days before with her easy laugh and entertainingly elliptical viewpoint. She has spent her adult life experiencing and writing of the crazy moments that comprise the everyday, and here come a gang of such moments as one would capture in a treasure chest if that were possible. I know she is filing it all even as she lives it. My outwardly conservative and inwardly riotous brother and his similarly disguised wife Janet live about twenty minutes from Arlington National Cemetery in a forested neighborhood of brick houses and sloping lawns jeweled with morning dew this day. The area is rife with politicos and names from the headlines, those both above and below the fold. Dick Cheney lives nearby in a mansion with an actual turret. “I’ll bet it’s got a dungeon, too,” Judie astutely remarked one afternoon as we drove by it.

This morning we gather up mom’s red marbled urn and make for the car. She’d always loved red and we dismissed the various jars of stately gray slate and buffed metal, some of them looking like Track and Field trophies, or something you would store the Dead in. We wanted something less serious, something a little more festive; a polished stone party balloon. Something a future archaeologist would easily spot in the ruins and be happy to find. We’d inscribed the beautiful red jar with the single line of a tune mom had laughingly concocted over the kitchen sink in 1968, in Florida as we awaited our trip to dad’s final Air Force assignment at Wheelus AFB outside Tripoli. That single, deliberately corny line had long since been woven into family lore, and for 14 years my mom and I had often greeted each other by singing it together – our Masonic secret handshake.

In the omnipresent tense now, we leave my brother’s house and head for Arlington, piling into the car at 8am for a 10am interment, anticipating morning traffic. There is little to none and we arrive an hour or so early, make our way through Arlington’s gauntlet of uniformed guards and make for the admin building where our friends will gather to join us before we all convene graveside. Aloha passed on May 31 and it has taken the un-oiled and only fitfully tended machinery of government until October 10 to allow us to move her back in with my dad. As you approach Arlington via the George Washington Parkway, the Potomac and heavily wooded Roosevelt Island on your left, the Washington monument suddenly looms like a special effect, and there in the middle distance you glimpse the Lincoln Memorial, the distant Jefferson Memorial, the magisterial WWII Memorial and the still more distant Capitol Building, where overpaid do-nothings make daily mockery of the collective sacrifices of their forebears.

Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acre spread was established in 1864 as the Civil War was concluding, on land belonging to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Arlington Estate was on a hill, so the threat of frequent rains to the dead in their boxes would not be a problem, and the notion that the establishment of what was initially a repository for Civil War dead would simultaneously deny General Lee a place to live also made the site an attractive choice for the federal government of war-torn 1864. There are about 400,000 people buried there, soon to be about 400,001.

At this writing the airplane is beginning to buck and there is a change in the pitch of the engines. The laissez-faire cabbies in the cockpit have not seen fit to switch on the Fasten Seat-Belt sign, and the airplane is a squall of clicking as jittery passengers nevertheless follow their instincts and buckle up of their own slightly panicked accord. Just making note in case this laptop is found, perfectly preserved, in the wreckage.

A bespoke gentle giant named Rafael had been assigned to our family and the quietly genuine hulk of a man offered his condolences to each of us with a steady eye, grasping our forearms, and walked off to read the riot act to a colleague. As dear friends of my brother’s family had begun to arrive in the lobby of the building, the life-celebrating laughter had dialed up to about a nine. How mom would have loved this! People leaning into each other and laughing through tears, sometimes simple tears of hilarity. She’d done plenty of that in her 90 years. But the laughter had compelled an Arlington representative to stop by and admonish our group. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask your party to tone it down a little,” she’d said, to which my brother had evenly replied, “That is not going to happen.” Rafael had then disappeared and returned some minutes later. “Sir,” he says to my brother on returning, smiling mildly, “the matter has been put to rest.” Rafael then instructs all of us on the manner in which we are to proceed, as a group, to the burial site. I hand him my mom’s party urn and he ceremonially proffers it before us as we all exit the building, make for our cars and convoy behind his black, American-flagged lead vehicle.

At Arlington Memorial Cemetery spouses are buried alongside each other and share tombstones, each taking a flip side of the white marble marker. When we have all parked by Bob’s section, a young, impeccably uniformed and much-beribboned Air Force serviceman appears, walks in reverent cadence to Rafael’s car, turns 90 degrees on his heel, and retrieves mom’s urn from the back seat. I feel my heart hammering and in a sudden, unexpected, and nearly uncontainable gush of emotion I love this country and my mom with the burning fever of a Gray Flannel Establishment Square. Would that my other brother Patrick were here! How he would have been moved by this clipped and respectful and ceremonial series of gestures, he whose wild heart conceals in its innermost chambers a love of country and tradition and a nostalgia for another, more honor-bound epoch.  Love you, Pat.

We convene at the grave site under cloudy but politely withholding skies. Occasional commemorative gunfire can be heard at irregular intervals in the middle distance as other newly arrived guests take their places on the grounds and are seen off with honors.

My brother’s pastor speaks of the resurrection of the dead in casual and uplifting tones, and my nephew reads from a trembling sheet of paper of his love of his grandmother, his Tutu, with whom he shared the birthplace of Hawaii. Ryan paints in exacting, loving detail what his Tutu has meant to him, how his youthful swimming career and his regionally unbroken swimming records had been inspired by his Tutu’s late-in-life Senior Olympics epoch, during which time she blithely won 17 swimming gold medals against graying unfortunates in her age bracket. As Ryan speaks, struggling to avert a teary breakdown, my big brother, his dad, rises from his seat and joins him, placing a supporting arm across his shoulder and weeping too. What a sight. I’ll never ever forget it. Ryan soldiers on with difficulty, explaining how in her swim events Tutu never wanted to use the diving blocks in a swim event, opting to simply push off instead, and still managed to churn past the competition in the surrounding lanes despite having sauntered into a race into which her fellows had leapt with over-eager strength. Ryan’s keen observation is the perfect metaphor for mom! She conquered, like dad, quite casually and always in great humor, and always, always on her own terms. “In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello,” Ryan concludes with difficulty. “But it also means goodbye..”

It’s my turn and I stand before the assembled, give it a few seconds. I see in the corner of my eye the red party urn, my unmistakable mom; nevermore to swim or laugh or sneak into the Officers’ Club pool in the wee hours of a preteen morning, or later burn dinner to a foul-smelling crisp, or play a hand of bridge or strike a glamor pose for the camera. Where on Earth can all that largesse have gone? I count 5 and sing.

“One minute to Midnight, one minute to go – this moment must last us forever! Or will it be over? It’s all up to you!” I sing it with all my gladdened heart, my surprised brother and sister and dear Judie spontaneously joining in with broken voices from their seats, and in that screwy eternal moment I have it all. The delicious puzzled expressions in the back rows and in those standing behind them say What the hell is this? In the front row, though, my big brother and my big sister and my best pal Judie are grinning like wet-faced idiots.

Thank you for everything, Mom. Aloha.

Aloha Wing off to Wayne State circa 1940

I’ve Fallen to Earth and I Can’t Get Up

I've Fallen to Earth and I Can't Get Up

I turn in my seat to watch as they quietly enter the Arlington’s half-light in whispering twos, threes and fours, peering through the murk with a touching vulnerability, expressions brightening at the sight of friends, hands raised in greeting. The hushed army of once and future glam-slammers and barricade-stormers, they who would have turned the world on its head some 45 years ago, now furtively take their seats, apologizing for the inconvenience as they sidle past in their chinos and Chuck Taylors. They settle in and lean into each other, murmuring. The dusky Arlington cavern already has the hushed aspect of a church service. They’re here for Bowie, yeah. But there’s the luggage, too.

David Bowie Is. The omnipresent-tense of the film’s title suggests a quasi-religious experience, and the congregants approve. Bowie was (is) a special case; part accident, (large) part calculation, and part Divine timing, popping up like a jack-in-the-box and inserting himself and his message into that weird demilitarized zone between the 60s conflagration and the 70s blow dried confusion; between the exhausted Stones, the divorcing Beatles, the drowned Hendrix and the approaching polyester Me Generation steamroller. Just at the moment the fires were being doused and the broken masonry swept up in prep for James Taylor’s entrance (mustn’t get brick dust on those white trousers), here comes Bowie like an escapee, with One More Thing To Say. Dismantling the Establishment is for squares. Why overthrow the old order when you can find an elliptical orbit that obviates the need for any order at all?

The film itself was a strangely (not to say deceptively) promoted documentary, a tour of a celebrated Bowie exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an exhibit so freaking anticipated by a global public still starved for Bowie that it (the exhibit, you understand) is itself touring the world like a rock star, with stops in Toronto, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Chicago, Paris and Melbourne. David Bowie, at 67 and reportedly not in great health, has attained that level of cultural hegemony that allows his shirts to tour in his stead. In the movie two talking heads walk the movie audience through the exhibit’s Twelve Stations of the Cross, as it were, the gasping experts gesturing and talking earnestly at the camera. We see Bowie’s famous costumes (notably for this writer the psychedelic skin-tight tea cozy he wore in his watershed Top of the Pops performance of Starman in ‘72), his childhood ballpoint sketches and odd doodles that seem to suggest designs for movie sets and character creations.

Like most little kids with light bulbs for heads, little Davie Jones had big weird ideas and recorded them prolifically and energetically; unlike most kids he carried them into adulthood as action items. When, at 15 years old, Davie was mightily popped in the left eye by a schoolyard chum in a brief tussle over a girl they both liked, the die was cast. The eye was saved but the pupil paralyzed, an interesting oddity for the shaggy folk-Bowie of 1966, but an absolute badge of deep-space authenticity when he later invented Ziggy and let his addled wife dye his hair a color not found in nature. Unlike say, Perry Como (another estimable chameleon whose startling collection of cardigans could make his audience dizzy with dislocation and excitement), Bowie did not inhabit or typify his time; he infused it. Emerging from a decade that sought exaltation and strangeness, this eyebrow-free wraith with the mismatched pupils and strange, melodic gift wrote his own and our tickets.

So, yeah. We of course took along our 12-year-old daughter that night, grateful for the opportunity to introduce her to a more artistically nourishing time when pop stars could legitimately be thought to have come from outer space. You’re so lucky to be seeing this tonight, Stel! (she nods once, bored already. “How long will the movie last?”). Stella, though, has yet to be seduced into the Earbud Army, and to her credit nods off every night to a long Carpenters lullabye (whether or not the reader finds that a taste assault that trumps all others) – but today’s shuffling deaf-mutes, anesthetized teen and tween droids with wires hanging out of their ears, music blaring minutely in the middle of their wallpapered crania through hours and hours made mundane by the ceaseless, seamless soundtrack. They buy gum, cross the street, scroll their i-things, text their professed love, kiss, and occasionally talk to each other with skinny little Ariana Grande and the gasping Demi Lovato et al marauding through the middle of their heads like an earwig army. And the teeny songs songs tend toward that thrill-ride motif, the honking synth loops and hammerblow bass they blast at 1000 decibels as you try not to bark up your funnel cake on the mischaracterized Alpine Toboggan at Earl Warren. Our musical heroes in the Day were larger-than life avatars who scarcely seemed containable in ordinary rooms.

Bowie was like an androgynous reptile, Jim Morrison a radiant Dionysus in sterlizingly tight leather pants. Our daughter’s pop idols look like paperboys and kickball champions. Justin Bieber might be here to mow your lawn. You want to rush the stage and help these stadium-filling kids with their math homework. And they never leave the heads of our earbud-imprisoned kids. In the 70s (he dared venture) my audiophile friends and I would crowd into my friend Dave’s acoustically pristine bedroom, dim the lights and listen to Genesis’ Musical Box or One for the Vine at crystal-clear high volume, or Supertramp’s Hide in Your Shell. It was a special gathering – like going to temple or church, but without funny hats or those tiddly winks they put on your tongue. I challenge you to try dialing up a Supertramp song with your twelve-year-old in the room. “Daaaduh! Can I change the song!”

But…yeah. You reach a certain age and, as if by some hideous magic, hear your jawbone broadcasting stuff your own mom and dad used to say, and it makes you blush in terror. The effort not to sound like an historically predictable parent/philistine when remarking on the kids’ music choices – it can be tough. But our folks still take the cake! They weren’t possessed of the frightened self-awareness we wear like a postmodern millstone. They didn’t care if they sounded like Parents, they reveled in that, saying the dumbest summary things without hesitation.

One evening at the age of 16 or so I was listening to Elton’s anthemic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” on the living room stereo, in the days before my very own Zenith Allegro Home HiFi entered and transformed my life and drove me into my shuttered teen bedroom for good. Just as my dad entered the living room that evening, Elton was singing “frozen here…” (on the ladder of my life) , and my dad yelled “Frozen beer! What the hell?”

“Frozen here!” I shouted.

“I heard frozen beer!!” my dad yelled back. I knew immediately this lame shouting match was not the sort of telling generational schism that would feature on a PBS documentary about the dissolution of the American family. It was the only time I can recall our having raised our voices to each other. Yow. Rock and Roll.

Back in the Arlington a theater full of grown teens breathe deep the gathering gloom, to quote an old song. All those long teenage nights behind the locked bedroom door in our parents’ houses (our parents! our parents!), feeling the centrifugal energies of a world spinning like an idiot top. Did all that really happen? Why did my denim bell bottoms have so many zippers? Why did I let my hair puff out like that? Why did I have to borrow a shirt from John Videan for my senior portrait?

This Bowie evening is a rocket ride back to the whole of the teen whirlwind, where lead routinely turned to gold and the world could still surprise the shit out of us, could still drive us back to our locked grottoes to sort things out. I would stare wonderingly at my blacklight MC Escher poster, or spend hours lying in bed and listening to Sparks or Kate Bush or The Who’s Tommy with the lights out, the stereo painting almost tactile sonic pictures in the dark over the rumpled twin bed with its embarrassingly childish sheets and untested box spring, the bittersweetness of LPs stacked on a spindle.

 

*Jeff  writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where a  print version of this particular piece can be found this week.

SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 20/October 4-18

Atheists and Pantheists and Little Lambs Eat Ivy. Again.

Maypole!

Druids, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Nuwaubianists, Cthulhu acolytes and well-off Vatican habitués in ill-fitting silk: hello. And hi to you, herniated bronze-age nincompoops who assembled Stonehenge. Was it worth it? We don’t know what the hell it is.

Tanned, muscly Aztec priest with your heavy eyeliner, Marcel Marceau-anticipating pancake and over-serious tribal headdress: put down those sacrificial entrails and come down from your gore-littered ziggurat. Let’s have a word. Your worship has grown tiresome. How many still-beating virgin hearts can you gnaw in a week? You must be paying a fortune for floss. There is an easier way to venerate.

To paraphrase the Old Testament: it’s summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime in Santa Barbara California! Santa Barbara’s Summer Solstice Spiritual Heartwork and Drink Specials Celebration® has come staggering down the pike once more, and our relationship with Nature® is the better for it. First day of summer! The longest day (not to be confused with the 1944 coastal invasion of France) of the year! What the ancients used to call Midsummer and would celebrate with enormous bonfires and dances and chanting? You’re in! Gather up your healing bunches of St. John’s Wort, raise your arms to the stars and sun, embrace the season cycle and the circularity of it all. Let’s ring it in with a gaudy parade and send it packing with a terrific organic hangover. All that genuflecting before old-timey Titans in the clouds, multi-armed Vedantic yoga freaks, that laughing fat guy with the incense holes? So yesterday.

Santa Barbara at Solstice is the Way, The Truth, and The Lite. Paganism, venerable pre-Abrahamic obeisance to the natural order, is here thrown a party in which the celebrants are happy to raise a toast. To what they aren’t exactly sure. These are folks who think Wicca is the stuff lawn furniture is made of. No matter. Let us pray for two whole days and nights. This mammon-haunted burg shall become a New Church where the faithful feverishly worship the sun, the Earth and the trees, well drinks-two-for-one, Puff the Magic Whatnot, and the sun and the Earth. And the trees.

We Santa Barbarians have seen this before. Going on nearly 40 years now. What began as a gentle mime/artist/eccentric playfully celebrating his own birthday with pals by traipsing down State Street in a colorful show of self-congratulation (RIP, Michael Gonzales) has, in the well-meaning decades since, morphed into a self-loving juggernaut fraught with all the trappings of a metastasizing commercial enterprise.

On Solstice weekend, a reported 100,000 people pour in from all parts, nailing their lawn chairs to the Main Street curb in the wee hours before the big day, the better to be in the middle of the action when the parade comes broiling up the main drag with its balloon arches and scantily clad pan flute wielders and army of annoying bubble-blowing flower-children adults.

The parade’s terminus, beautiful Alameda Park, is so crowded with vendors that weekend you can barely make out the grass for all the electric cable. Stella and I were accosted in the early hours of vendor setup last year by a Goat’s Milk Soap purveyor intent on a sale. No, thank you, ma’am. If it squirts out of a goat, I won’t want to lather with it. Later in the day, the entrepreneurism was in full-flower at the park, Ra looking down in wonder. This in the midst of a Summer of Love mob of dancing, swirling babes in translucent rainbow-colored gauze, and the ingenious chameleon-like “Dockers and Izod” infiltrators who slipped unnoticed (they truly believe) into the melee, wearing confused grins and glad for once to be in Church.

And while the yearly parade themes change, the parade itself does not. Beverly Hillbillies theme! Peace theme! Sunshine theme! Affectionate Gargoyles theme! All the themes feature the same goldfish on bicycles and young ladies in chiffon batwings, flapping serenely down a main street thronged with the stoned, the stunned, the curious, and the hideously sunburned – our visitors from the Heartland who keep raising and then slowly lowering their cameras. Normally respectable orthopedic surgeons twirl down State street in papier-mâché tree outfits alongside besotted clerk-typists in loincloths, drill-teams of faux Amazons on roller skates, and kettle-drum beating, shirtless and worryingly crimson Hedge Fund managers in the first stages of heat-stroke dementia.

That tired-looking, older gentleman-hippie on stilts lumbers about ponderously for the umpteenth year in a row and is not yet pitched screaming into the roadside kiddies by stilt-loving termites. The high-priced DUI attorney (probably still on the clock) for once tipsily commingles with and does not attempt to prosecute the inebriated IT guy, both of them dressed ineptly as sunflowers: the Lion and the Lamb. Overtanned retirees, who fancy themselves “fit” and have the sort of hairy upper arms that make you throw away your ice cream cone, prance about in regrettable form-squeezing lycra – their sweaty, balding pates ringed with denuded wildflowers. It unnerves the children. Oh, the children, the children. They come for a parade and a little shower of tossed candy and instead have their innocence ripped from them by oldsters prancing in floral leggings, the septuagenarian’s unearthly, outthrust, collagen-plumped derrières looking like bargain styrofoam implants. Don’t look, baby! Turn your head to mommy, turn your head to mommy!

But then (speaking of Bringing Up the Rear) troubled hearts are made new again by the monstrously cheery, primary-colored, bobbling inflatable giants that more often than not signal the end of the Parade line every year, and which are invariably greeted with cheers and even more feverish, lumbar-tormenting gyrations. We have the brilliant and indefatigable wonder-worker Pali-X-Mano to thank for that; a lettered Hungarian artisan and Budapest’s gift to our twisted little Candyland for many many years now. His brilliant, happy creations have become emblematic of the very spirit of the celebration.

And it’s all for the love of Mother Earth, or Mother Nature, or that margarine in the 70s that used to invoke Mother Nature. There’s some Mother involved, okay? Flower-bedecked, bra-burning. We have come to worship Her. Gail? Sounds like Gail, I think. The communion wafer is a peyote button, the Blood of the Sacrament a hidden flask of warm Wild Turkey. The only sacrifice this religion requires is that of your pride as you toddle blindly into traffic owing to your sloppily aligned butterfly mask and the several pints of Guinness sloshing around in your happy, swollen thorax.

By the end of this two-day orgy of spiritual growth and graceless tipping over with painted arms a-waving for help, one can see the acolytes scattered about the twilit landscape like people dropped from a low-flying airplane; face-down, arms outstretched in a show-closing embrace of Gaea (that’s it!), supine, exalted. The fruits of faith.

Oh-How-We-Adore-It, this indescribable weekend of bedlam! Solstice in Santa Barbara! A freak! An anomaly! A disheveled clown cruising through your neighborhood at dusk on a Vespa! There are no truly apt analogies, and that’s as it should be. It is a yearly grand mal carnival that is wholly our own, completely SB, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. So, till next year, dear ones. Cast your bread upon the waters. Just aim away from my new shag carpet.

 

*Jeff  writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where a ravishing print version of this piece can be found.

SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 12/June 14-28. Page 6