His hair is a soft blonde, shaggy-it is starting to hang in his eyes, long curls twisting just above his sea blue eyes, and the room brightens when he smiles, giggles worth a lifetime of pleasure. Bouncing up to me a few weeks ago, “Daddy, can I have Pokémon cards?!” Sighing deeply, “Pokémon? They still make them?” Bruno shoves a muddied yellowed card in my face, “yeah, look—I found this on the playground. My friends play it, they are really cool. See dad?” and he shoves the bent card, complete with little kid footprint in my face. He grins, and somewhere a chunk of the universe’s ceiling becomes unhinged. “Sure, we can get you Pokémon cards.” He thrusts his hands up high in the sky, as if he just scored a World Cup goal, “YES!!! Pokémon!!!”
Growing up in the 1970’s was almost surreal as I look at faded blurred photos, it can as if even the memories are as bleached out as the pictures of a young me, wearing a long-sleeve yellow turtle neck, looking crookedly at the camera, a mischievous smile (the same that my Bruno holds the world captive with) anchored towards my brother who is laughing as the camera clicks. Behind us a hazy Christmas tree stands, a prop for our childhood and my father wearing black plastic framed glasses, a moustache and his arm around my mother, her long red hair reaching just below her shoulders. She eyes him nervously, no doubt wondering just how soon she can jettison herself from his madness. I collected comic books with my brother, my step-father David had let us read his, a large collection of early to late sixties Marvel titles, that no doubt would pay for my kids college education if we still had them. Early “Spider Man”, a nice run from the early twenties to the late 90’s, “The Incredible Hulk” most the early ones from #102 onward, “Fantastic Four, “Sub-Mariner”, “Thor” and “Silver Surfer.” We kept them in a small cardboard box, David was very kind and patience with us and we were told not to let them leave our rooms, be careful how we handled them and he would later buy us comics. This was 1975/76, a rough period in our lives, lots of movement both in the relationships my mother was involved in and geographically. From 1973 to 1976, we moved five times, after divorcing my father my mother moved us to an apartment in Athens, soon she married David and we moved to Youngstown where he got a job working in a steel-mill, not the quite the job a future PhD. professor at MIT had envisioned for himself. Soon though, David procured a job in Springs, New York where he worked as a scientist near Montauk–we lived just a skip from the ocean. From New York we moved to Newport News, Virginia and in Newport News we moved a few times. The commotion of moving was difficult to say the least especially for my older brother, who had a difficult time adjusting, we relied on each other. With our plastic green army men, Lincoln Logs, and especially comic books. We dug in deep with them, losing ourselves in the adventures of Peter Parker, who always seemed to doubt himself and for me, the Hulk as misunderstood anti-hero whom I identified with at that early age. Completely bewildered, Bruce Banner yearned for acceptance yet, because of his emotions and the state of the world, he could not. This was me, even as an eight year old.
Coming home, I was latch-key before there was a latch key from second grade onwards, if the sun wasn’t shining I would get a plate of cookies and a tall glass of Kool-Aid and head to my room. Pulling the box from the closet, sitting in front of the closet door–not even making it to the bed, sprawling out I would read the comics over and over. The slightly mildewed smell of the pages, a bit musty even the ink had its own smell. This was comfort. After moving to Athens with my father and my brother at the end of the 3rd grade, my brother started coming home with other comics with the same vintage as the ones we had in Virginia. He and Mark Schazenbach, would come home and lay them out, teasing me by locking me out of his room while they read the comic books. Eventually, the lead me to Haffa’s, a literally underground store in Athens that not only sold comics from $1 on up, but also just as importantly sold records. Soon, I would make Haffa’s my destination point, hanging out – and saving my weekly quarter allowance to buy both records and comics. Soon though, the competition for our affections increased as we discovered football and baseball cards, they were cheaper than comics and we bought and traded these constantly. This was the hey-day of rough and tumble football our favorite teams were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings, and soon we would have multiple cards of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, Fran Tarkington, Sammie White and Chuck Foreman. Taping them to our desk tops and carrying them in our back pockets, with nary a care that someday, people would collect these cards, handle them with gloves and diapering them in small plastic sleeves. This past summer, my brother stopped by my house on his way to Alabama and we finally divvied up the cards, passing them down to our own sons. Oddly, Bruno has no care for football as he has never played the game nor has he watched one on television, so the cards still sit in a box.
During my fourth grade year, “Star Wars” came out and soon the world was transformed especially for a ten year old. My mother would not allow us to see Star Wars as it was PG, but I was able to watch the movie by buying and trading Star Wars cards, soon stacks appeared all over the house. They came out in colored series, blue, then red and finally yellow, if you flipped them over and connected them it made a giant poster. Finally towards the end of the summer, my father took my brother and I to see it. The next summer, Jaws II & Battlestar Gallectica came out, and soon there were more stacks of cards cluttering the already cluttered house. Clutter upon clutter. A cluttering mess. All the while, we still bought comic books, but soon as I entered fifth and sixth grade my interest was more laser-sharp on music, all I wanted was records and soon I was hanging out after-school at Side-One Records which was above Haffa’s, on a daily basis.
The nineteen seventies was now coming to a close, the decade was birthed with bell-bottom pants, the blossoming of soft-rock, tinged with the optimism of the baby-boomer coming into their own, just below the surface though the snarling cauldron of greed, cynicism and the darkness of Nixon, Vietnam and racism boiled. For the most part, the children of the 70’s were protected by the innocence of PBS television: Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, then Saturday Morning Cartoons and whimsical movies starring a talking Volkswagen Beetle, or small dogs and as the decade wound down, the story of a coming of age man saving the universe with the help of a princess and smuggler. In small town Athens, before milk-carton kids and the immediate fear mongering of the internet, we chased each other around the neighborhood, our weapons of choice were nerf footballs, wiffle ball and vicious games of kick-the-can. Nobody locked their front doors, while parents only saw their offspring at dinner time. Cable television barely existed, late night Friday and Saturday nights were crammed with Double Chiller Theater’s or Fritz the Night Owl, my brother and I would make a fort of blankets and shovel sugar cereal into gaping mouths as Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price cracked open our minds with sinister cackles and tales of murder. Music had changed dramatically from those early feel-good am radio days of the early seventies to the closing racket of punk rock. The Boss Guitars, a pub-y rock garage band formed by Ohio University students played my eighth grade dance, they not only played originals but also covers and it was here that I witnessed the seed of punk rock in a live setting. Sporting slicked back hair, wore leather jackets, torn jeans and mutton-chops, they played the Clash as well as sixties soul, a small pit of stinky adolescence boys careened off each other while the band smiled at one another. John Denver and David Gates were miles away. Later members of band would form Cleveland’s Bongo’s Jungle Party, and write an ode to Prisonshake’s Doug Enkler, there is no way these men, who seemed so old to me then, would have an inkling the impact they would have on a smallish curly brown haired boy with crooked teeth and an imagination that could muster an entire world out of clods of dirt and a plastic water pistol
During that same time period, a new way of playing games began to gain traction, gone were the luck of the dice roles of Risk and Monopoly, and new way to play had infiltrated the minds of awkward young men around the county. “Dungeon’s and Dragons” invaded Athens Middle School in a swarm, transforming the be speckled kids of University staff from brainy analytical kids who sat passively on the sidelines of the gravel encrusted playground into Necromancers, wizards and battling elves with the role of multi-sided dice and stacks of hardcover books whose artwork appeared to be drawn by an 8th grader sitting in Geometry class. Soon D&D took over, even some of the jocks were playing but it was mostly played by a small group of us, I played with my best friend Eric and a few other kids, during lunch and over the weekends where we would settle into a spare study room at the University library. The entire day would float by as we battled our way through orcs, disgruntled kings and heaven forbid a snarling smoking dragon. My mother was poor, at the time we lived in cramped University housing, four of us pinched into a small two bedroom apartment on Mill Street. My sister slept on the couch or with my mother, my brother and I had metallic bunk-beds that was cold to the touch, only slightly more freezing in the winter months than the brown speckled linoleum floors; I couldn’t afford any of the books but in between drawing pictures of Cheap Trick, Rush record covers and action shots of Lynn Swann or Chuck Foreman I would draw the plans for a castle that our band of made-up warriors would investigate the coming weekend. This infatuation lasted two years, by the end of my eighth grade year, hormones had taken over as well as a growing desire to read as much as I possibly could all the while saving whatever coins and I could slap together to buy dollar records at Haffa’s. The wanting to lose myself in the imaginary world of dice had faded against the fantasy of unhooking lacey brassieres, guitars and in the printed word of Michael Moorcock, JRR Tolkien, and soon, Kurt Vonnegut and outrageous musical biographies with names like “No One Here Gets Out Alive”, “Up and Down with the Rolling Stones”” and “Hammer of the Gods.” Video games consisted of Pong or Tank, and while the early Atari systems came out, the covers of those early games were much more imaginative than the blocky, cumbersome graphics–there was no bother in playing these games as they looked nothing like the games in the arcade. By the time Nintendo came out, I was seventeen, getting blowjobs, sneaking into bars and seeing some of my favorite bands such as R.E.M., The Replacements and Lou Reed—I had no time for television games. At some point during this time period as many of us found our footing amid our later high school years, getting lost in the musical underground of the time, though the sharing of fanzines, college radio and of course, the center of the collective universe of music fans everywhere, the local record store, a new generation that was being raised on the much improved computer graphics of Nintendo tended to stay indoors and made the jump from video games into the expanding world of cards played with gaming cards. Magic and Pokémon spread their wings, while at the same time relegating Dungeon and Dragon’s to an afterthought, the teenagers who had spent countless hours rolling dice and pleading with an often-cruel and power-hungry dungeon master had now become adults. We were off to college, or jobs or yet into other subterranean worlds filled with like minded outcasts, shaking our collective asses to the spinning sounds of black vinyl records and holding the backside of the be-speckled blond haired girl who manned the counter at Kinko’s while screaming along with the Jad Fair, Steve Malkmous, Marcy Mays or the Lazy Cowgirls was much more fun than pretending you were a 16th level Neurotic Ranger. The pleasure was now fucking a real neurotic person, than being an imaginary one with a cape, sword, amulet or pouch with secret potions.
Several years ago I took my kids to the Laughing Ogre, the large comic book shop in Columbus, just up the road from our house. I had not been in comic book shop since buying Hate!, Cherry Pop-Tart and Eightball at Monkey’s Retreat the essential underground bookstore that operated next to Staches for nearly twenty years. Monkey’s not only sold comics but also adult magazines, underground publications like ReSearch, Forced Exposure and lots of paperbacks, it was one of those places that attracted not only the underside of High Street but also the certain type of person who has no problem crouching down on bended knees, rifling through dusty and musty old boxes for hours at a time, the sort of place which required a shower upon getting home. These stores were akin to flea markets or antique stores except the pursuits was intellectual curiosity, some brief present or future titillation, and perhaps the greatest motivator of all, escape. For many along High Street, Monkey’s Retreat was the person’s first introduction to Charles Bukowski, Robert Crumb, Lydia Lunch or the fascinating black and white photos of S&M, latex or homosexual literature. These were things that were not easily found in the local Little Professor bookstore. Laughing Ogre is a different sort of store, family and kid friendly with clean shelves, pristine book spines, large open tables to display the imaginative world of graphic novels and comic books. The days of sitting on a mucky floor, getting red eyes and blackened hands looking for the one Spider-Man comic that is has interrupted a run for twenty-seven in a row has disappeared as the underground has turned itself inside out-now my daughters favorite show is Comic Book Men, a reality show starring Kevin Smith and his side-kick staff who gently insult one another and customers, for many of us this was the sort of life we had lived for year, albeit not the shiny clean version on television.
The comic book shop is a destination for us, especially for my daughter who has an active imagination, relishes good story telling and can lose herself in a book for hours. She has met famous graphic novelists and I encourage her to ask questions, read as much as she can and to express herself as much as she can. Standing in the middle of life stepping forward while glancing back is a bizarre excursion, as the past can be brittle, cracked around the edges with the rush of minutes, hours, days weeks and years pouring over tangible memories that appear so real they can bring a gulp in the throat or a hearty chuckle, but in the end they are nothing—simple thoughts dissipating into the next moment, all the while I see the future for my children the wonderment they have, sudden rushes of emotions at the simple acts of holding a book, staring at Luke Skywalker with a light-saber in hand, overcome by the special effects that are cemented in my own head, the sound of a song transforms them, still as it transforms me.
“Daddy, when can we get Pokémon cards?” Bruno asks, as he leaps from one couch to another, curls flopping, arms swinging while the stereo blasts Superchunk’s “Crossed Wires.”
“We can go today, after soccer and guitar practice, I’m sure the Laughing Ogre has some.”
“Saskia, daddy said we could get Pokémon cards!!”
“Bruno, I don’t care about Pokémon, daddy can I get a new book–Raina Telgemeier has a new book,” replies Saskia dancing on the table, her slim body twisting and contorting, she appears to be having a seizure when she dances, she is that clumsy.
After guitar lesson we drive to the Laughing Ogre, the sun has managed to splash through the dullish Ohio sky, a veritable sidewalk of gray and bleakness that has tortured millions through the years, outside the traffic is bottled up as people try to escape into the sun, our neighborhood is filled with coffee shops, craft stores and restaurants. Bruno is jabbering non-stop, he spits out words as fast as a auctioneer, completely focused on one subject: Pokémon. The shop is filled with other families and their children, books and graphic novels are displayed on clean even shelves, the comic books are stacked side-by-side along the walls, glossy covers, signs announcing new releases. There are grown men and woman holding stacks of new comics in their hands, children bustle about and Saskia heads towards the Archie comics and grabs a copy of “Sisters”. Bruno sighs deeply, pulls on my shirt, “daaaad, ask about Pokémon!” “Do you want a comic book buddy?” He enjoys Popeye and Peanuts but has no interest today.
A small wisp of a woman sits behind the counter, she has a nose rings, a thin brown tee-shirt and a collection of silver brackets that rattle around her left wrist. She also self publishes her own comics, small press real-life sketches of the mundane and slow moving actions of the day, she smiles at us, “can I help you?” Bruno, fingers gripping the counter, “do you have Pokémon?!”
“yes, we have some Pokémon Manga’s over on the wall.”
“I’m sorry, he wants Pokémon cards, not the books.”
“Oh….I see….well, we don’t sell those” her voice now reduced a whisper, “I think the Soldiery in the back of the building has those, but I don’t know, I’ve never been in there.” Her nose wrinkles a bit, her eyes grow big, suddenly I get the feeling that I’m involved in a drug deal. “Oh, is that the gaming store?” I ask. “Yeah, I think they should have what you are looking for but, like I said I’ve never been there.”
Bruno, eyes exploding, as if they were replaced with resplendent blue crystal bowling balls, “can we go?!!” As I pay for Saskia’s book, the clerk winks and says, “good luck.”
Exiting we walk towards the back of the building, the entrance to the gaming store is basically off an alley, an almost dweebish speakeasy, against the brick wall outside the store we shuffle past a rouges gallery of misfits and techie types, one man is stuffing an oversized submarine sandwich into his mouth, his black tee-shirt with a bleached out image of a space-invader icon barely containing his girth, his beard filled with crumbs and droplets of mayonnaise, there are a few men holding tightly onto two-liter bottles of soda and tall energy drinks. Entering the store, the smell of awkwardness is palatable, with tables upon table of gamers, ranging in age from high school far into adult hood, the oil of acne pervades the air. I feel out of sorts. Saskia looks at me, and I return her smile, the walls are covered with fantasy posters and shelves are stacked high with role-playing, war, and fantasy games. One the counter is a stand of multi-sided dice, bringing back memories of D&D and my own long weekend afternoons stretched out as I battled made up dragons and evil forces in the library at Ohio University. We take a small walk around the shop, mostly the clientele are boys and men, layers of cards cover the tables, some of the players also appears to be playing video games while playing these other games. Games within games. I show Saskia a row of games she may like, there is a small section of historical games, the one I show her takes place in Victorian England, she looks at it, “I can ask my teacher at the gaming club if he comes here.” She is enjoying looking around, Bruno is transfixed, and we make our way to the counter.
Bruno, shy to a fault, his hands on my backside, sticking his fingers in my back pockets, he is suddenly my living shadow. Two young women are at the counter, timid and self-conscious, no doubt they would feel more comfortable if the counter was a drive through, “hey, do you have Pokémon cards?” I motion to Bruno, “he is really interested in Pokémon and he doesn’t have any.” The blonde girl, with brown framed glasses, small splotches of acne climbing her cheeks, quivers her lip, “ummm, you want Pokémon cards?” “Yeah, do you have those?” Biting her top lip, fiddles her fingers, “oh….do you know what kind you want?” I look at Bruno, “hey buddy, what kind do you want?” “daddy, I want Pokémon cards” speaks the shadow behind me. “He wants Pokémon.” She glances to her co-worker, her eyes shifting sideways, “hhmmmm, we have all kinds of Pokémon cards. Which ones do you want?” My mind throws up a little and quickly swallows it, “see, he’s never played before so I suppose the basic cards? Are there beginning cards?” The poor girl appears to faint inside, sighing, she explains, “here, we have these, there are all kinds” She places a small display box of shiny cards with bright colors and fanciful Japanese cartoon characters on it, “this is the newest series.” Bruno thumbs through them, pulls a pack out and we choose two. “Are there directions to these?” I ask and my questions goes unanswered, behind us, gamers are queuing up to purchase their own cards and candy bars. We pay and leave.
This becomes a weekly pattern, Bruno can’t read that well yet but he looks at the cards, carries them and talks about them incessantly. People move clumsily through life, protecting oneself from the world at large, building identities brick by brick, layers upon layers of ideas, wearing passions on tee-shirts, pins, decals, tattoos, music and even magical games played on thin cardboard cards. We bump in our own fragilities on a daily basis, for some even ordering a cup of coffee brings on brief seconds of anxiety, the internal mechanism of calm has never been calibrated correctly, at other times we joke through the waiting of the hours trying to find relief for our inner shakiness by making the world around us laugh. We escape, through fantasy, losing touch with the present through digital and imaginary avatars, standing alone is a frightening experience. Many years ago in a former life I was known for my propensity to drink, the logo of Anyway was “buy me a beer” and at one time, while I was on an episode of Al Franken’s Air America, somebody had written in on the feed, “hey, I only know one Bela in Columbus, and that has to be in” and later in the thread someone wrote, “if it was that Bela he was probably drunk.” That was my identify, I created it, through looking for something to help with whatever unease I had, it was created drink by drink, through years of practice until finally the disquiet within me had eaten me from the inside out. While I am closer to the terms of this lonely echo in my guts, I laugh continuously, making disparaging remarks about myself to melt the inner friction of others, and at the end of the day, I still rely on music to calm the white tipped waves of thought that never seem to settle. Hoping my kids find the same relief.