When Happening Upon a Cross Slope…

If you hike as frequently as TJ and I do, chances are you’ll find gutted threads of sediment erosion running downwards and parallel to a blazed trail. These are commonly called cross slopes.

These water bar types of gullies are natural depressions, often utilized by park systems as downhill drainage ditches for surface water runoffs. While effective against excessive sloughing, the dense and sometimes jungly vegetation and brushing create frequent impediments inside these fall lines I’ve jokingly referred to as backwoods half-pipes.

Instead of using berms of dirt or rock to cordon off one of these eroded, beat-down gullies, we see more parks letting nature take its course. You hit cross slopes on active trails more often than grade reversals, depending on the extremity of the system. If you’re not watching yourself, you’re likely to slip haphazardly into one of these grungy dips.

Suffice it to say, most hikers will take the literal high road above a gaping outslope and that’s often the case for TJ and I, depending how far out we’ve gone. Sometimes, though, if there is no discernable ivy, foot-snagging rocks, bisected tree limbs or worse, snakes, only a few miles into our hike, the giddy call to adventure may strike us.

This particular cross slope spilling next to the blue trail at Oregon Ridge, Maryland, was so stuffed with debris we swerved onto the safe course while going both up and down this system out of sheer fascination of it.

I’ve been in cross slopes so deep they were chest high on me, and I’m 5’9″. In those instances, I wanted to feel the engulfing sensation, reminding me on a smaller scale of the Tatooine pod racing canyon course in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The only price I paid was dirt-clogged hiking boots.

Encountering a cross slope on your path is representative of both a figurative and literal life choice. Often we’re called to query the unknown and perhaps take a curious, further step toward it, while others are often compelled to stay clear away. It comes down to a combination of personality and sensibility.

Taking a more philosophical stance, a well-developed cross slope is functional to Mother Earth’s perpetually-moving ecosystem, while a poorly maintained one can cause unnecessary backups and even gluts. Consider that a parable to our very own being.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Take the Secret Stairs in the House of Seven Gables

TJ and I recently had a spectacular trip to Salem, Massachusetts. While the emphasis of our journey was to learn more about the nefarious witch trials and to plunge our feet into the city’s esoteric culture, one spot captivated us more than the others.

I’m not talking about the lobsters we’d salivated over with each bite at Sea Level in the Pickering Wharf section. If you push on down Derby Street past the harbor inlet, the coffee shops and The Witches Brew pub, you’ll land at the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, more famously known as The House of Seven Gables. The multi-gabled home was the inspiration to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic supernatural novel of the same name, originally published in 1851.

If you’ve read the story, you know Hawthorne set his tale during the time of the Puritan-led witch trials, staged within the corrupt Court of Oyer and Terminer from 1692 to 1693. Hawthorne’s second cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, owned the home while he wrote the book. Their ancestors had connections to the trials which saw the arrest of more than 200 accused of witchcraft, 19 of those men and women hung and 81-year-old Giles Corey brutally pressed to death.

New England maritime merchant Captain John Turner built the timber-framed House of Seven Gables (branded as a National Historic District Landmark) in 1668. Turner’s descendants and future purchasers of the mansion added sections to the estate through its later owner, Captain Samuel Ingersoll, whose daughter, Susanna, inherited it upon his death in 1804. Expanding the property to include its namesake seven gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne frequently visited the Ingersoll-owned property while working in the Salem Custom House. The mansion was later lost by Captain Ingersoll’s adopted son, Horace Connolly.

Today, the House of Seven Gables is a popular tourist attraction for history, architecture and literary buffs alike. Philanthropist and preservationist Caroline Emmerton founded The House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, adjacent to the famed estate. The intent was to help immigrating people to the United States find work and shelter to get a one-up on their new lives. Even now, the House of Seven Gables grounds serve in the same function for new immigrants.

A tour of the mansion and garden grounds will take you through a recreation of colonial life during Salem’s maritime trading heyday and the groups are often packed. So why write about The House of Seven Gables as a road lesser traveled?

Be on the lookout if you take the tour for a surprise brick-fortified entryway that was seldom used even by the house’s flow of occupants. The narrow, spiraling passage is challenging, even for folks of yesteryear; perhaps even more so, given the layers of clothing men and women were heaped with during the 17th to 19th Centuries.

Your tour guide likely won’t give you advance notice. In fact, ours acted as if she herself had just discovered the slim, challenging ascension that leads to a tiny, sweltering attic room, also accessed by another, wider entry. The feigned dupe of this “discovery” by our tour guide whetted TJ’s and my appetite for adventure. Without hesitation and full permission, TJ led the charge into the unknown with me behind her. A few other people followed suit, but most of the tour group stayed with our guide and showed up to join us minutes later.

Taking the shoulder-hugging, attenuated stairwell felt briefly claustrophobic, and the surrounding view of bricks had me thinking more of Poe than Hawthorne, but it was a giddy experience nevertheless.

Use discretion depending upon your body type, but if you can hack and squeeze it, it’s well worth taking the secret stairwell at The House of Seven Gables.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

In Memory of the Saturday Morning Cartoon

I originally ran this piece in 2014 at an old blog of mine when my son was a lot younger and Spongebob Squarepants ruled the household t.v. once we got him past that painful, say-it-with-me building block schlock on Nick, Jr. Seven years ago since that post, sheesh, and the demise of Saturday morning cartooning had already become a sore spot with me. Yeah, I still miss ’em. The first time this ran was my number one hit-getter, so I figure a little dusting off and slight revision is in order…

Let’s face the facts; Saturday morning t.v. sucks these days. Hell, it’s nonexistent. Cartoona-persona non grata…

From as far back as the Fabulous Fifties, Saturday morning airwaves were ruled by kids.  While I never grew up with Captain Video, Captain Midnight, Howdy Doody, Kit Carson and Hopalong Cassidy, I was seldom not near the boob tube from 7:00 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings from the 1970s through the Nineties.  Only until Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network made ‘toons a 24-7 anytime fix as network sold out could I be broken of my Saturday morning animation habit.  These days, I’m on the go fairly early with TJ on Saturday mornings, though we often muse together how much we miss those goofy ‘toons of yesteryear.

During the Eighties after my parents had divorced, I would still get control of the t.v. when my dad picked me up for visitations and we stopped at my grandparents’ house.  It’s to my father and my late grandparents’ credit they stomached the morning onslaught of cartoons all those years, but my Saturday morning chemical dependency carried well into the first five or six years of my former married life.  I can remember refusing to budge from the living room on Saturdays until the WB and Fox cartoons were finished before moving on with our weekend plans.  It was no different than when I grew up during the Seventies, only leaving the house to go out and play with my friends once Fat Albert had concluded.  I wasn’t alone in that.  Just ask anyone from my generation.

Most of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons were superhero-related. If you know me, you’re probably saying, well duh.  As early as the syndicated re-runs of the 1960’s Spiderman show that carried throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, I was afflicted by the Saturday morning cartoon bug.  I knew the lyrics to the Spiderman show as did most young American boys my age.  Don’t ask us to sing “Little Drummer Boy,” though, as we were bound to screw that up, even with the gimme repeat words. 

Yet it’s not just superheroes which captivated me all those years, since Star Wars and Orioles baseball also dominated my life as a youngster.  I blew my weekly allowance on comic books and trading cards as far back as I can remember, yet no matter how bad a lot of the Saturday cartoons could be (and there were thrice the amount of turkeys as there were winners), those 4 to 5 hour blocks of time became my weekly drug.  That was, until I was introduced to kung-fu flicks and Ghost Host on late Saturday nights; then my world really opened up.  Of course, I’d loved Hong Kong Phooey first…

To reiterate, there are a ton of stinkers from Saturday morning lineups of the past. I could tee off a hundred excruciating, crappy cartoons like Shirt Tales, Snorks, Gilligan’s Planet, Super Mario World, Pokémon, Pac-Man, Digimon and Dink the Little Dinosaur.   But why go there? As we all know, the primary function of cartoons is to peddle toys.  Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling was inexcusable trash, but I watched it anyway since I inexplicably liked the WWF (now WWE, of course) back then as well, and lo, those bendable action figures came trailing to toy stores right behind the show. I had a Rowdy Roddy Piper figure. Junkyard Dog, too. No shame then. That came later, when echoes of Hulk Hogan’s corn-drag entrance theme “I am a Real American” gave me shudders instead of a pump-up.  

The Nineties represent the final threshold of goodness for Saturday morning cartoons.  Not everything the WB and Fox ushered out from the mid-Nineties to the early 2000s was spot-on, but there was a lot of good stuff that came and went without long of a chance to flourish, Silver Surfer, The Magician, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Jackie Chan Adventures, The Spectacular Spiderman, X-Men:  Evolution, What’s New, Scooby-Doo and Freakazoid! being some that come to mind. 

I know we all have to grow up sometime, but it’s been years since I’ve woken up on a Saturday, switched on the t.v., filled a bowl with cereal that’s terrible for you and only gotten up from the couch to visit the bathroom during commercial breaks.  Since adopting my son, cartoons have changed and I’ve long missed the opportunity to delegate that specific block of time of mindless animation consumption.  I can put on a DVD, sure, but it’s nowhere near the same.  Poor child, what fun he missed, but then again, he’s now hit the age where he’s sleeping off Grand Theft Auto hangovers on the weekends. He looks at me in complete stupefaction when I say we used to enjoy watching The Jetsons and Johnny Bravo re-runs. He thinks I’m lying when I say he used to get me to roll out “Ohhhhhh, mama” impersonations. It breaks my heart he doesn’t remember watching Jonny Quest with me. I think we watched the Frogmen episode an easy 30 times at his request.

Truly, a road lesser traveled if there ever was one, the sad death of Saturday morning cartoons. We might as well call it a road closure at this point.

That being said, here’s a little run through some of my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoons through the ages. Wish I could include Ahhh! Real Monsters, Ren & Stimpy, Samurai Jack, Gargoyles, Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, but those ran on all sorts of unpredictable days–and evenings–on Nick and Cartoon Network. Saturday brunch if you were lucky.

What kid doesn’t like Scooby Doo?  Along with The Simpsons and Looney Tunes, Scoob and the gang have filled decades with animated material and they just won’t quit.  We’ll forgive Hanna Barbera for the abominations that were Scrappy Doo and A Pup Named Scooby Doo. 

The greatest cartoons ever.  In my day, we were fed an hour and a half of these classics by CBS under The Bugs Bunny and Road Runner Show.  Overture…hit the lights…this is it… you know the rest if you were born before 1983.  Big raspberries go to ABC, who bought the rights to the Looney Tunes during the Nineties and then butchered the snot out of them in response to censorship pressure groups.  The cringe-worthiest of times.

What I like to think of the best cartoon to eat your cereal by, Boo Berry being my sugar-du-jour.  Superfriends is naïve and tame by today’s standards, and whoever did the coloring work should’ve been fired, since there’s at least one miscue per episode.  Still, we kids of the Seventies were young, we weren’t allowed to see anything truly explosive until Star Wars and this was the right way to come up in establishing good versus evil.  Considering what kids are raised on today, I almost weep where our well-intended (if silly in this show’s case) values have gone.

One thing I cherish about our Saturday morning programming is that we had cool stuff to watch in-between shows.  CBS had “In the News,” a modified, family-friendly look at world events back in the day that were more often than not, positive and full of inspiration.  ABC could have us zipping back from whatever station we might be on to catch Schoolhouse Rock to hopefully sing along to “Conjunction Junction,” “I’m Just a Bill,” “Interjections” or to count off by fives to “Ready Or Not, Here I Come.”  Schoolhouse Rock, like The Electric Company, defines my generation and together, I think the two are the best educational programs that have ever been conceived.

Hey hey hey…  Fat Albert broke the racial lines faster than the freedom fighters of the Sixties.  Despite his shocking shortcomings later in life, Bill Cosby managed to find a nonviolent way to cross over between races. It was to the point none of us white kids ever thought of Fat Albert and his friends as anything but teenaged boys coming up in a tough, Philly neighborhood.  They were learning life’s lessons that had nothing to do with disseminating skin pigmentation and we all learned them together.  We lived vicariously in that junkyard and thus, Fat Albert was for everyone. Nobody ever rocked tin cans and bedsprings harder.

Yeah, I admit it, don’t judge me.  I was a Smurf freak.  I suppose the equivalent nowadays is the Bronie (i.e. male fans of My Little Pony) but Smurfs somehow became transitory where it was cool for boys and girls to enjoy them, even if girls were the dominant target audience.  I didn’t care.  I thought the art was always magical and I wanted to know what it would be like to actually live in a house with a mushroom cap.  I still do, especially with the world of fae TJ has introduced me to. Those live action Smurf films, though?  As uttered sardonically in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I fart in their general direction.

Like Smurfs, Spiderman and His Amazing Friends was a big deal during the Eighties.  Both shows could often make you wince and groan at their stupidity, this one especially.  Yet, this unlikely alliance of Spiderman, Firestar and Iceman was progressive thinking for the early Eighties and with a number of other Marvel hero cameos later in the series, this was more often than not worth watching. Miss Lion was a sickeningly sweet ragamuffin mutt and Angelica Jones was subliminally hotter than her costumed alter ego.  Swarm and Video Man, though…oh, my sweet Lord…

I only played D&D for about a year on Fridays with some old friends of mine when it all came to a halt in favor of emptying bourbon bottles with pizza, Farscape, Lexx and hilarious drunken commentary thrown at Beastmaster.  Dungeons and Dragons, the Eighties cartoon, was that sleeper Saturday show many kids bailed on as the last program of the day.  It was a slow cooker, but the animation was phenomenal for its time and the action could erupt sometimes.  In its own class.

The always bodacious Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I’m still today fascinated how the first show from the Eighties became a pop culture sensation, considering Eastman and Laird’s original comic books were hardly for kids.  Looking at the Eighties show today, well, it bites the big one more often than not.  The Fox redux during the Nineties was spectacular until they marooned the Turtles in space.  The later Nickelodeon show was decent and nothing else since really matters. For nostalgic purposes and nothing else, I still dig the first series a lot.  I was working in a comic shop during this one’s long run and would read my employee-discounted funny books with this show on…after eating my cereal, of course.  This in my early 20s, just sayin’. I’d also dated a girl who had to put on a Raphael costume for a promotion at another job from yesteryear when this show was red-hot.  She once offered to do improper things to me with the costume on, and I’m hardly a prude, but yick.

Along with The Simpsons and Batman:  The Animated Series, Animaniacs was one of the greatest ‘toons of the Nineties and of all-time, in my opinion.  Nobody has the guts or patience to hurl a hundred one-liners in eight minute skits anymore, but Animaniacs did, and they could leave your sides throbbing from the relentless flurry of comedy.  The Great Wakkarotti.  Need I say more?  Also worth mentioning, spinoff Pinky and the Brain was genius on all sorts of levels and indirect spinoff Freakazoid! was the little engine that could, but got stalled by the powers that be…dubba dubba…

I’m lumping these together, since there was a Batman and Superman team-up show that merged after the successful run of Batman:  The Animated Series and Superman.  Individually, both heroes prospered in the Nineties with fantastic, hard-hitting shows.  Batman:  The Animated Series first started out on Sunday nights, then flocked to Saturdays and weekday afternoons.  I still have yet to see a superhero series that effectively merges noir with traditional heroing like Batman:  The Animated Series.  Superman’s show was almost as brilliant, never short on energy.  Together, they outclassed even X-Men, which did for well itself during the Nineties in its regular show and X-Men:  Evolution.  Let’s not forget Batman Beyond, which surpassed all expectations by putting an elderly Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon in the future to keep a rein over the young new Batdude, who wasn’t too shabby in his far-flung cyber adventures.

One of the first CGI animated shows to crop up, Reboot was exceptional with its fantastic imagery and it was shrewder than even Tron at bringing the computer world to life by using allegory and characterizations of central processing lingo.  I’m old school and prefer traditional animation, but Reboot captivated me and sold me on CGI (now the norm instead of the exception) along with Beast Wars, Action Man, Max Steel and Cybersix. 

The Transformers franchise can thank the electrifying Beast Wars and Beast Machines for holding the fort until the recent return to the classic robots in disguise format.  Both series were also testing grounds for the Transformers movie series in terms of seeing how far CGI could be fluidly morphed and pushed.  Frankly, I prefer the “Beast” shows, outmoded as they already appear in light of technological advances.  There was always a striving for purity between conflicting machina and the organic worlds they battled over.  These two series were hitting the green campaign trail long before that Gore guy.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The Forgotten Fortune Lady in Ocean City, Maryland

Clairvoyance is a touch-and-go phenomenon that requires an unspoken commitment between two parties, the central force summoned between them being called “belief.” Many of us have faith, or at least show a curiosity in the forecasting skills of mediums, oracles, seers, palm readers or those highly attuned with their magickal third eye. Nostradamus being one of the most revered visionaries in the history of humankind, we still find fascination and criticism in his ancient quatrains. On the flipside, the famous 16th Century witch, Ursula Southeil, aka Mother Shipton, and the more derogatory tag, “Hag Face,” was so feared and so accurate with her prophecies in England, she was thought to be the daughter of Satan himself.

The true essence of witchcraft actually rejects the idea of the devil, but try telling that to the insidious Court of Oyer and the Terminer in Salem, 1692. Before I delve too far into the maudlin or arcane, I am a believer in fate, much less clairvoyance. I am spiritually aligned to a belief system grounded not only in nature but lofted into the all-encompassing universe, ushered to by the God and Goddess–which is to speak collectively, not singularly. Soothsaying, or ESP, in more contemporary jargon, comes part and parcel. Thus I openly receive messages from the Lord and Lady, which are sent to me through my personal pantheon, and through communing with mortal followers bearing their gifts of second sighting.

Still being new to the path and merely a dabbler with my Thoth Tarot deck, I recently had a spot-on Tarot reading from a new friend, a more seasoned reader. Her card laying matched exactly what TJ had drawn for me a month ago. Rookie I may be, I even pulled similar cards in a draw-three session of my own. The Chariot card being the common denominator in all of these readings on my behalf, I take comfort knowing I am in firm control of my own destiny.

Which leads me into the realm of novelty and coin-operated fortune telling machines. If you’ve watched the movie Big with Tom Hanks, you’re already muttering the name of Zoltar as you read this. We’ve all, at one time or another, dropped the coin and half-excitedly, half-nervously waited to see what lies in wake for us after all the proverbial bells and whistles of the whimsical fortune telling machines have spun their would-be sorcery.

A fortune telling machine, especially a Zoltar, is a momentary diversion, offering a somewhat right, mostly off-center calling of one’s future. Often you read your fortune card, you laugh at what it got wrong, call what it got right mere coincidence, and toss it into the nearest trash can before moving on to whatever your immediate path calls to you to do.

Then again, sometimes you have to wonder… Can a set of grinding gears, surrounded by blaring arcade noise, actually be spot-on with what it’s trying to tell you?

Swallowed in a deep, dark spot near a cramped set of air hockey tables at Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, Maryland, is a relatively hidden gem most people never see. I quietly call her Esmeralda, but my mother, who introduced me to her years ago, simply calls her “THE Fortune Lady.” Emphasis on “THE,” like NFL players do when introducing themselves and their college alma maters. As in, the only one that matters.

My video game-addicted son has soured my long-ago love of arcades, but anytime I’m at the inlet in Ocean City, I’m usually compelled to take a walk into Marty’s Playland and visit my old, beat-up gypsy soothsayer. It’s as mandatory a stop as Thrasher’s Fries. If you’re been to Ocean City, Maryland, you know full-well what I mean.

Of course, the line of for Thrasher’s is always at a constant, while Esmeralda is always waiting for a nostalgic sap like me to come put into her action. In the way of arcade amusements, she is a refined relic of her time from the 1940s, though you see the maintenance done to restore her broken ceramic hand. She stares in silence at her card spread amongst other vintage Skeeball, Pokerino, Crane Digger and pinball machines, but once you feed the quarter, she elegantly glides her weathered hand in the same silence a few times until your fortune card drops. Backing up a moment, what actually costs a quarter to play in an arcade anymore?

Over the years, Esmeralda has been scary good in matching her “visions” to my life to the point I’ve exercised full, continuous suspension of disbelief. This is no novelty to me. Nor has it been to my mother, who has visited Esmeralda since she was a teenager herself generations ago.

Last year, I visited Ocean City by myself on an errand for my late father. Naturally, I ate my Thrasher’s before hitting Esmeralda. The fortune I drew that day predicted my exact path and chain of events leading to my reunion with TJ, who has since become my girlfriend. TJ, being a Wiccan priestess and a solid oracle reader in her own right, later obliged me with a visit to Esmeralda for fun, though I sensed her skepticism. Fair enough, however, you be the judge in the result of our trip to see THE Fortune Lady…

TJ drew the exact same fortune I did prior to us getting together. Now you can take the low road and say those fortune cards are a dime a dozen, printed up and stuffed into Esmeralda’s mechanical guts with zero cosmic power to it. I, personally, take the higher road…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

A Hilton Highballers Reunion, fiction by Ray Van Horn, Jr.

This story was originally written more than a year ago, featured at Reedsy. It was conceived from my mostly unpleasant time (about three years ago now) living in an old farm house, most definitely on a road lesser traveled. In this case, I came up with a rock ‘n roll theme, the focus being on a reunion between two former bandmates, long divided over personal issues. The more I got to thinking about this story, it dawned on me that a destination had been derived, metaphorically-speaking, from an intersection by two proverbial roads lesser traveled.

Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, but enjoy anyway!

A Hilton Highballers Reunion

By Ray Van Horn, Jr.

            “Matt Marcinko, how the hell are you, old friend…”

            Her echo rings around the frosted-over farm, more omnipresent than the slosh of diesel gurgling down the cylindrical oil tank receptacle next to the oblique metal storm doors seldom used when we’d lived here. I’m beat, my knuckles are red and raw from the morning chill.  My hands are chewed from the packing, purging, hauling and unpacking. I smell like the trucker’s zone at a Flying J. To the plus, the move shaved a full belt size off my waist this week. I let Kyle sleep in this morning because the poor kid’s been through a war, and not just staying up half the night playing that awful Fortnite game. Simulated stalking and shooting goes against what I stand for as a dad, but Kyle needed something to lash out with. He lost his mother. I lost my wife, and I want to lash out at something more tangible. Burning down this creaky, half-dead farm house with these canisters of diesel has crossed my mind three times already.

           “My God,” I say, nearly dropping the third of my four red plastic fuel containers. When I see her, I feel a rush of excitement restore my hands, along with the rest of me. “Bobbi Gibbs, wow.”

           “I’ve missed you, man,” she says, her hands plugged into her pockets, much as she ever did. It’s colder than that stupid metaphor about a witch’s anatomy, so I can’t really blame her.

           I set the gas can down, restraining myself, since I want to bolt over there and hug the snot out of Bobbi. I stay put at first. 

           “You must’ve read the news if you’re here, Bobbi. How am I? I’m a widower. Finally, something that beats the train wreck of our last tour.”

           She has on the same black leather jacket I last saw her in. We’re talking eleven years ago. Same dark wash to her jeans–it’s so Bobbi–though I’m sure those are a different brand and cut than the two pairs of high rise straight jeans she’d worn through thirty-two American cities on The Hilton Highballers’ final run. Even in this blasted mid-March freeze, Bobbi’s wearing crop sky highs. Her thighs and calves are a bit thicker than they used to be, stronger-looking, actually. She’s gotta be cold in those things, since my Nike sweats are thick, but no real defense against the bitter air. The slouch behind Bobbi’s plugged hands say she might be.

           Speaking of cropped, Bobbi’s trimmed her once-wavy black hair. More like taken most of the back off and swooped it all atop her head. It’s sorta punky and sorta brunette Captain Marvel. We’re both pushing fifty and that new do’s spotted her an extra decade.

           “I know,” she says, and once the gas can plunks to the frozen ground, she’s in my arms, crushing me in a hug meant to make up for the past decade-plus. I feel the first sense of warmth I’ve had this morning. Hell, in months.

           “I’m not gonna cry, because I’ve done enough of it already,” I mumble into Bobbi’s ear. “Seeing you makes me want to.”

           “That’s on me,” Bobbi whispers, even though the only ones who could possibly hear us is the sheep in the McGruder farm down in the valley, and my now-former landlord, Mr. Rill, whose homestead is about four hundred feet away. “I’m sorry I never answered your emails and texts. No excuses, I suck.”

           “Yeah, you do,” I joke, keeping my arms tightly around Bobbi. I feel one of her arms detach, however, and then a crack upon my butt.

           “Jerk,” Bobbi grunts at me with a laugh. “Don’t read anything into that, by the way.”

           “I wouldn’t dream of it,” I say, adding a chuckle of my own. “How’d you find me?”

           “Carl, who else?”  Bobbi drones, rolling up her eyes before letting go of me. “Worst publicist ever.”

           “The worst,” I reiterate. 

           “I can’t tell you how many times he’s green lit youngblood bloggers looking to do retro pieces on the band. Cookie cutter questions shot to me by email, can you stand it?  Anyway, after he told me where to find you, I told Carl he was fired.”

           “Again,” I add, and we blast out laughter that swirls all around the farm. I think even the penned up sheep hear us, as their muffled peals head right back at us from the valley.

           “Once I heard about Eva, well,” Bobbi says, sliding her hands back into her pockets. “I figured it was time I come out of hiding to see if you were holding up alright.”

           “Since it’s you and not my in-laws, co-workers or anyone I need to fake it to, I’m not alright, Bobbi.”

           “I’m so sorry, man. Ovarian cancer. Jesus, that’s brutal.” 

           “I thought our time as a band flew quickly,” I return, looking into Bobbi’s brown eyes and I just now see she’s wearing a Hilton Highballers tour shirt from 2001 beneath her leather jacket. It features an illustration of a half-downed glass of bourbon, poured neat, and a distorted reflection of my Gibson Sunburst Les Paul through the empty portion. I used to play more than half our sets with that Gibson, split between my Epiphone and Ibanez guitars. I point at her chest. “Wow, Bobbi, where’d you dig up that old relic? I thought we’d sold out that year.”  

           “I hoarded a handful. Roxy and I used to have a storage locker when we were together and I dug them out. You still take a large? I can bring you one.”

           “Sure, but you two broke up? I thought she’d been the one.”

           “Yeah, well, I never was good at relationships. You, of all people, know that.”

           I fall silent for a moment, not sure if I should let this potentially painful route as part of our reunion go where it’s bound to. Bobbi makes the decision for both of us.

           “I should’ve been more straightforward with you, Matt. You had a right to get mad.”

           “Dropping your bomb upon me at the Fayetteville Waffle House on the Precision tour made things a bit…”


           “Awkward,” I repeat with a laugh. “I haven’t eaten at a Waffle House since.”

           “I know, man, I know. Matt, I didn’t want to lose you as my guitarist, much less my friend. Everything else between us…I can’t help what happened.”

           “All of its time and place,” I tell her, and I mean it. Seeing Bobbi right now, sure, I’m thinking about the physical intimacies we’d shared, like holding onto each other in the top bunk of the bus and walking around cities, holding hands like a bona fide couple before gigs. We used to shops for books and albums together. We did museums. Bobbi and I wrote the entire Precision album together. Of course, there was the superbly spontaneous sex we’d have anywhere and everywhere. 

           All before she’d hopped the fence on me. 

           I want to tell Bobbi how I’d felt humiliated then, burned. The sneers from our bassist, Kim O’Dea and drummer Tommy Boula, hell, we’d earned them. When Bobbi made the abrupt decision to explore her changed-up sexuality, they’d treated it like a triumph, since we’d inadvertently created divided camps in the band. Kim and Tommy had a right to their entitlement and we’d all had the right to lay The Hilton Highballers down, even with Precision putting Gear Grind Records in the black and us enjoying a tidy four-way split of the road profits.

           “Right on,” Bobbi says, and I leave her off the hook.

           “So what’ve you been doing with yourself, Bobbi? I figure you would’ve been the most logical one amongst us to carry the torch.”

           “I did for a little bit,” she says, looking down the valley and nodding. I see something that looks sentimental stitching across her facade. “Yeah, I did the solo thing. Funny thing is, I thought you knew and were just staying away. So I did likewise.”

           “No, Bobbi,” I tell her, and I feel bad. “I’ve had no clue. I met Eva a few months after I left the band and well, she changed my life. I sold most of my hardware, though I still have my Seagull acoustic.”

           “Aww, say it ain’t so, Marcinko.”

           “Okay, so I jumped the shark. I married Eva and sold the guitars when she’d grown pregnant with Kyle. We needed the money and I was about to become a dad. I have no regrets other than my soulless job taking claims at the unemployment office. It’s been a depressing gig, but it’s paid the bills.”

           “Not enough to keep you out of this old haunt,” Bobbi says sarcastically. “Yeah, I’m judging.”

           “Let’s just say we fell on hard times before Eva got sick. The rent was cheap, but I won’t miss the window units blowing their fuses in the summer. I sure as hell won’t miss the aluminum roofs that played hell on our sleep many nights. This is a working soy bean farm on elevated ground, and the winds played a meaner drum over our heads than Tommy on his best day. Then there’s the mouse turds, snake skins and rat traps all over the attic.  If anything smells worse than this damn diesel, it’s the mothball slings I rigged all over the attic and the earth floor basement.” 

           “Makes me sick just hearing it,”  Bobbi mocks and I chuckle along with her. 

           “It’s been an odyssey.”

           “Well, the solo thing didn’t pan out for me as you can probably tell,” Bobbi says, shifting direction. “I guess it wasn’t really solo, since Roxy recorded Flowers and a Pill with me on Pro Tools seven years ago. She did the guitars and bass. I did the vocals, programming and drum machines. Obviously Carl didn’t give you the press release.”

           “No,” I say with an embarrassed grin.

           “He’s so fired. Anyway, I couldn’t land a label, so I sent the album to die at Bandcamp. When you tank on a freaking download site, that’s just an incentive to do what I did, which was become a real estate abstractor. The work’s cyclical to whatever the interest rates are doing. The fed just dropped them a quarter of a percent, so I’ve been hopping lately. I’ve learned to sock away what I can when business is hot. I mean, you see what our royalty checks from The Hilton Highballers’ catalog amounts to these days.”

           “Eva and I used to laugh at them. We actually burned the check for seventeen cents, it was so insulting.”

           “I shredded mine!” Bobbi chirps, and again we laugh. It feels terrific, like the old days. “Can’t believe they wasted the postage to send those out. Kim actually cashed hers, but man, I’d give anything to see what Tommy’s reaction was.”

           “I told Eva about what a hothead he was.”

           “How much did you tell her about the band days?”

           “A lot, actually. She used to gush all over our video for ‘Feelin’ the Fire,’ but it was so corporate.”

           “So not us,” Bobbi groans, with every right to.

           “She was fascinated by it all, so I gave her the war stories. She’d always wanted to meet you and Kim. Tommy, not so much.”

           “She had good taste. How much did you tell her about us?”

           “Only that we’d grown close on the road, and we’d been an item for a blink. I told Eva you were my closest friend and collaborator. I left the gory details private.”

           “Thank you. You know I love you, and I am so sorry for doing what I did to you, Matt. I meant everything we did together. I promise you I wasn’t posing it.”

           “You had a change of heart and you had to follow it,” I tell her, pushing away the momentary pain in recollection of that moment which drove us apart. “I’m not saying it was easy to get over. I was madder than hell at you for a while, but I get it now, Bobbi.” 

           “We’re still friends, I hope,” she says more than asks.

           “The hug said it all, I think.” 

           She smiles with a single, satisfied nod.

           “So, you seeing anyone right now?” 

           “Yeah, dude,” Bobbi says and I can see the relief washing over her. “I’ve dated a number of ladies, nothing serious, but there’s Adaya. She plays bass. We jam a little, we go drinking, there’s a little action here and there. Dude, Adaya’s a spitfire, she has such energy. She picks me up, keeps me young.”

           “Um, how much of an age difference are we talking, Bobbi?”

           “Don’t ask.”

           Bobbi and I used to have such a way with our bantering, we could just say whatever was on our minds without offending the other. I feel it coming back.

           “My heart’s not into it, though, you know what I mean?”

           “She’s not Roxy.”

           “Nobody is. Matt, we’re both getting up there, and I’m hurting thinking about losing everyone I’ve truly loved. You especially.”

           “Don’t tell me that’s why you’re here. You been pulling fouls from the other side of the plate and you’re ready to switch back.”

           “Eff you, Marcinko,” Bobbi snarls, but I know immediately it’s all pretend. It’s how we would’ve talked on the road, even before we’d hooked up. “Truthfully, I’m feeling dead inside. I don’t want any romance, because I’ve lost a part of myself that I want back. I want to write music, to sing again.” 

           “Then go for it, Bobbi. Don’t let Bandcamp dissuade you. We all have a framed gold record to brag on.”

           “You and I wrote some pretty stellar stuff together.”

           “We did,” I agree. “So what’re you saying, you wanna get the band back together? I mean, retro’s in these days, Bobbi, but I’m not sure the market’s ripe for a Hilton Highballers reunion. Did you talk to the other guys?”

           “No. I get together with Kim once a month for lunch, just girl talk, you know? We seldom bring up the band, since I can tell she’s burnt out from the music life. She’s got a nice husband, Rich, and two kids, the prototype Nuclear Fam. Tommy, you can just forget him period.”

           “I haven’t played in a few years,” I tell Bobbi and I see her hands squirming inside her pockets. The anticipation must be killing her, much as it probably felt working up the courage to come out here. “I stopped when Eva was first diagnosed. My life then was work, fatherhood and trying to keep my wife propped up in a losing battle.”

           “I wish I’d been a better friend to you through all that,” Bobbi says, and I see her pushing hard on her thighs inside her pockets.  She’s wracked.

           “You didn’t know,” I say, trying to relieve some of the guilt I see her tangling with. 

           “Ghosting you was a bitch move on my part, Matt, but I was pissed you’d left the band, pissed you’d left me. I was pissed you never came to my solo shows, nor reached out to me about the album. It dawned on me only recently, you didn’t know.”

“No, I didn’t,” I say, and I reach out to place a hand on her shoulder. “We’d drifted apart, and this became my life, not grit rock.”

“Female-fronted grit rock, the newbie journalists would call it,” Bobbi moans. 

“Right. Pretentious farts.”  

“We got a lot of miles between us, Marcinko. A lot of miles separately, too, but I’m here for you, if you need me.”    

“I do,” I say with all the warmth I can project.

Bobbi hugs me a second time. I remember what the body wrapped around mine had felt like all those years ago. Not much has changed and the familiarity is much needed. It’s not the sex I’m thinking about, but the nurturing, the support and the love we’d given each other then. I can feel her heartbeat moving fast and frantic. Funny enough, so is mine. 

“I’m working on a couple of songs that could use your edge,” she says after letting go once more. “I’m going for a pro-estrogen punk feel. You know, PJ Harvey without ripping the lady off.”

“Your new look warrants it.”

“Age 48 can kiss my ass,” Bobbi quips.

“Look, I’m a single dad now, so I’m limited in what I can do.”

“I understand, man. I was just hoping we could…”

“Let me finish,” I cut her off, grabbing both shoulders to quiet Bobbi down before I release them again. “Let me get this diesel dumped and you can follow me to my new place. We’ll have lunch, maybe a couple beers, and we’ll take it from there. You’re gonna have to occupy my kid while I shower, though. He’d love to meet you. He listens to our albums frequently and he says you’re a great singer.”

“Sounds amazing,” Bobbi tells me with the contentment she used to have whenever we took the stage as The Hilton Highballers. “But tell me, Matt, you planning to set this heap on fire? We go back a long time, but I’ll be damned if I’m going down with you for arson.”

“You ever live in an oil heated house?”

“Thank God, no.”

“Be thankful. Diesel’s pretty much what you’re paying for and I’ve been gouged enough by the oil company. Cheaper to honor the lease terms this way. I’m glad you came, Bobbi. This feels good.”

“If this goes anywhere, we get a new publicist, right?”

Trade Deadlines Often Spell the End of the Road for a Good Run

I’ve loved baseball since I was a little kid, though I was a less than stellar player until I got older. I love baseball as I do football and hockey and going to Cooperstown with TJ recently really amped my passion.

The game today is in its purest form, exhibited by amazing young talent like Judge, Freeman, Trout, Betts, Mullins, deGrom, Burnes, Soto, Guerrero, Jr., Tatis, the list goes on. If you love the game and don’t love Shohei Ohtani, go back to your own personal dugout and warm the bench.

What I love about baseball, however, comes plummeting down in the face of the trade deadline. I am not ignorant to the economics, player dependability and growth projection that goes into any sport, much less baseball. Especially with COVID laying waste to profits of most businesses, much less sports.

Yet I can’t help but be appalled and nauseated to watch the Washington Nationals begin to sell off veritably the franchise in the exact same manner as the Orioles did a few years back. Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson and 3-time Cy Young award winner, Max Scherzer, top tier talent, only the first to be traded away.

The Nats organization has already stated the whole team is negotiable outside of Juan Soto. The Nats have been back and forth in the win-loss column this season and have weathered enough injuries to prompt more fan groans and less “Whooos!” than Teddy Roosevelt getting tripped by Abe Lincoln in the home game tradition of the President’s Race. The message of this brutal selloff, however, says that if your team of quality, fan-enamored neo icons performs at or around .500, expect them to be put on the block. I supported the Nats with the O’s in recent years and I am pretty pissed seeing Mad Max, my favorite pitcher of the past two decades, get shipped off en masse with a full infantry of players their fan base long stayed loyal to. Scherzer and Turner now join the Dodgers, who operate similar to the New England Patriots, gobbling up last minute guns-for-hire to make a playoff push, then in many cases, cutting them loose after a year option.

Sports fans are fickle, yes, and rebuilds are miserable times to stomach, but like the Orioles, this is flat out betrayal of the contingency. It says the fans are as much of a commodity as the players. Just ask anyone still calling themselves a Miami Marlins fan. Soapboxing done. This year, I am an Ohtani backer.

How does this tie into the Roads Lesser Traveled theme? If Nationals Parks follows the same trend as Oriole Park at Camden Yards in light of the rebuild motif, let the stadium gates be your measure…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

It’s All In the Name: DikinDurt Distillery, Herkimer, NY

You might be familiar with the Herkimer Diamond, as in a double-terminated, transparent quartz crystal found most often found in ring settings. If you’re the adventurous type like we are, you don’t settle for a mere trip to Jared’s or Kay Jewelers. You take a six hour haul from Baltimore to Herkimer in beautiful upstate New York to nab that smoky quartz.

I asked TJ a few months back what she wanted to do for her birthday and her answer was to dig for her own treasures in the famous Herkimer mines. I’m an obliging man, in particular to my girlfriend, so that’s precisely what we did. We baked under the Herkimer sun for a few hours the first two days of our trip and we smashed up rock after rock, calling it “therapy.” In TJ’s case, she dug like a gopher with the gift of second sight while I tugged out mini boulders to clear her way. Being a newb to this action, it took me a while to find some actual crystals latched onto split-open calcite. My pantheon at one point gave me a knock upside the head from the universe for inadvertently tossing some god energy calcite to the side. By certain divine intervention, the next piece I smashed, lo, another calcite sample manifested with a split diamond. I’ve since offered the find to Ra and Anubis upon my dresser-altar. I’d also unearthed some ocean fossils which were a big hit amongst the Herkimer employees. TJ was the big winner, however, uncorking some actual diamonds deep in the dirt and through our relentless hammering. We’d both scored a lot of sparkly druzy pieces, which put us in a ripe mood for exploring the area’s liquid treasures.

Our trip was special for many reasons, not the least being a spectacular three-day stay at the Grand Colonial Bed and Breakfast inside the town of Herkimer. Itself a rare standout jewel in a weathered old town desperate for an all-around upgrade. TJ gave me a return obliging trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, then she took another one for the team at the Belgian-styled Ommegang Brewery. We imbibed New York-grown Moscato on the porch at the B&B, and we had a blissfully chill tasting at Pail Shop Vineyards. I grabbed a 12 mixed flavor pack of Saranac to bring home, itself an amusing story–though nowhere near as amusing as me busting the frames to my glasses after day two of digging, then putzing around with a dorky wad of black electrical tape holding them together.

The highlight of our regional alcohol excursions came with the discovery of DikinDurt Distillery. Perched on a hilly section a few miles on the outskirts of Herkimer, we were in a celebratory mood from TJ’s diamond score, and attracted by the roadside signs leading those thirstier than the average to some homemade moonshine. Like anyone else, no doubt, we snickered like high school kids, passing the name “DikinDurt” back and forth like we were getting one over on the principal of Herkimer High School. I wondered aloud if the proprietors had once dug for diamonds up their nethers to come up with such a riotous name. They do have a story to it, and I’ll leave it to you all to find out on your own while you nip on some of their Honey Buzz.

Old Smoky in Tennessee is, for many shine lovers, the one to beat, and those folks have an empire’s worth of whiskey tasting rooms you can lose yourself (especially your wallet) in. I’ll tell you something, though; Eric Boyer and Elizabeth Stack know what the heck they’re doing. They’re also some of the most down-to-earth folks either of us have ever met, inside a shine distillery or anywhere else. My biggest comment of the night came in the form of “This is a far cry from the old bootlegging days none of us were alive to attest to.”

We found DikinDurt after a schlep out to Utica and back for a satisfying drop into Babe’s at Harbor Point. Eric was entertaining family in his yard with a bonfire and without pause, he broke away to make us feel welcome. He had us swept into his homestead distillery as quickly as we’d arrived. In tow was his spirited (and spirit-filled), ginger-haired sister-in-law, who introduced herself as “Red.” Red might as well have a gold-plated nametag as DikinDurt’s CEO of Hospitality, she was so into promoting her family’s products. We readily trusted what we were served, seeing Red down sample shots with us and making sure we tried the distillery’s entire line. She and TJ became immediate friends and we were warmed twice over in a jiff from all of the samples. Red, of course, kept our guts hot by introducing us to mixer recipes you can find at DikinDurt’s website.

Though they were currently out of sellable bottles, Eric had us try DikinDurt’s oak, cinnamon and chili pepper answer to Fireball, Mohawk Valley Fire. Be your own judge, but I say DikinDurt wins out. Between the two of us, TJ and I took home blackberry and raspberry infused shine, as well the Toasted Maple shine (all ranging between 75-90 proof) and me being a bourbon fan, I was thrilled DikinDurt knocked a home run with their 85 proof, year aged, twice distilled bourbon. It became a mandatory addition to our booze-swelled take home bag. I even dug their corn-based “white lightning,” as we began to kick up a little party atmosphere notching a few “whewwwwwwww” impersonations in the key of George Jones.

The white lightning also came home with us a gift for my Pop as Eric, joined by Elizabeth, gave us a quick tour of the distilling area. We talked for an easy 10 minutes beyond the 20 we’d spent sampling shine. TJ and I were then invited to mark our home location on a United States map you can find behind the tasting bar, which DikinDurt uses to spotlight out-of-town visitors. We marveled at some of the markers planted by visitors who’d come from far out west. Eric asked me to snap a pic of Pop and I drinking on the white lighting and email it to him. You can’t help but appreciate people who not only take their craft seriously, they engage with their clientele to the point of making a long-term acquaintance.

Doing a little online recon, it’s nice to see DikinDurt has built itself a reputation locally and we were told by Eric and Elizabeth they’ve already outgrown their home-based operation. They look to possibly get off of their road lesser traveled and expand into the town of Herkimer itself. Who wouldn’t be coaxed by such a tongue-in-cheek, borderline raunchy name? Get your…ummm…. yeah, you know what I mean.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Well, I’ll Be Gosh-Durned…

Talk about your roads lesser traveled…

TJ and I went on an outing through Lancaster, Pennsylvania last weekend and not only did we choose a pub for lunch well off the beaten path within the city, we tripped across this old school, unintentionally whimsical sign on the restaurant side, where we were seated.

These you don’t see much of anymore in this day and age where vulgar lexicon is praised–nearly expected–more than shunned in this topsy-turvy society. It’s almost Twilight Zone-ish. Riotous when you consider we’d just come out of a meadery where we’d happily imbibed and thrown axes.

Nonetheless, we’d observed proper decorum in both environments. Our patronage at this pub was well-received and they even gave us the t.v. remote as we had the restaurant side all to ourselves. Compliments to the food, and props to both of our servers, especially our well-intended, blue-haired girl who bought me an extra beer because they didn’t stock the brew I’d requested.

Talk about old school, they allow smoking on the bar side of this establishment, but don’t you dare drop the f-bomb into your shepherd’s pie, just sayin’. For me, the anti-profanity sign was extra hilarious coming down from a Rick and Morty marathon hangover with my son…

Staving Off the Demise of the Record Shop

Remember that feeling? It wasn’t so long ago, though it feels like something just jerked the trapdoor open with a phantom snicker resembling that pesky canine pot-stirrer, Muttley. You just know David Bowie’s nattering ch-ch-ch-ch-changes from the other side, because change will have its way. Retail, COVID or no COVID, is especially susceptible to change. Much of that comes from fluctuating tastes, malleable trending cycles, product accessibility, pricing and above all, often unpredictable shifts in social mores. All vulnerable, all volatile and all with needful fine-tuning on a continuum.

People are fickle. Especially when you have a climate of abundance and a vast array of choices. I’ve always loved Devo’s “Freedom of Choice,” not just for its pounding groove and snappy riffs, but for Mark Mothersbaugh’s snide indictment, “Freedom of choice…is what you’ve got…from from choice…is what you want…” Now we’re talking all the way to 1980 when Devo dropped that gem, at the dawn of an explosive age of consumerism in what my generation refers to as “The Big ’80s.” America was transitioning out of a recession, gas shortages and the Iranian hostage crisis. New York City was in such a decline then it was mockingly referred to as “The Rotten Apple.”

Things changed then, and for the good. Reaganomics was spat upon by punk rock, but it did work. One of the decade’s brightest spots, commercially and in a fundamental social way, was the music store. Back then, it was vinyl and even the dreaded cassette format (shockingly making a nostalgic rebound to a demographic that wasn’t alive the first time to know better) that ruled the world, and the record shop was king. I mean, an entire film was made about the cultural (and especially subcultural) significance of the record store in 2000’s High Fidelity, and in the fabled “Trax Records” used earlier in 1986’s Pretty in Pink. No doubt your first exposure to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bathory, The Exploited, Can, Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, Afrika Bombaataa or Waylon Jennings came in one of these city-baked (or suburb, if that’s your case) music emporiums.

You no doubt have your favorite haunt from back in the day and you’re now drifting back in time with me, whether it’s to a mall-bound Camelot Music or Tape World, a super-size chain like Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore, or you went to your local hipster shop. Right now as I write this, I’m thinking of a bunch of out-of-print albums and rare imports nabbed at so many wonderful indie record shops I hit on assignment covering bands in Philly, Pittsburgh, New York and all around Jersey. I am still awed by Jack’s Music Shoppe in Red Bank, New Jersey, spotted directly across from Bill and Ted’s Secret Stash, i.e. the comic store used in AMC’s Comic Book Men. I promise you I went near-broke hitting those two places. Some of the record shops I’ve supported in my native Baltimore and D.C. metro region (most are gone) over the years are Record Theatre, Waxy Maxy’s, Music Machine, Record Connection, CDepot, An Die Musik, The Sound Garden and a long-standing local chain that gobbled a lot of my spare income and was eventually gobbled themselves by FYE, Record and Tape Traders.

Speaking of FYE, my son and I recently ventured to one of their last remaining stores which we’d frequented often in the past. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see their space now closed and barred inside a mall only holding on due to two department stores and a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Yet, the entertainment-oriented chain, if notoriously overpriced, had managed to survive in said mall for many years by cross-selling pop culture apparel and collectibles aside from mostly-mainstream CD, vinyl, DVD and Blu Ray releases. An FYE was very seldom the place you’d go to hunt down a Celtic Frost album, but in recent years, you could clean up on their buy two used get a third for a buck promotion that was always in full swing. Tres cool when you had a gift card to burn at one of their shops.

I felt a small twinge of melancholy when I saw the shock upon my kid’s face. When I stop and think about it, this particular FYE had been floating on borrowed time, even while huckstering Fortnite and Mortal Kombat action figures and coffee mugs splashed with contemporary horror and anime interests, all of which lure my son with the same enthusiasm he has for Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption games. To his delight and no comment needed on my end, we found the mall’s Game Stop unit still hanging around. As a card-carrying member of the Atari 2600 generation, I lament my lack of patience, much less interest in today’s cinematic if utterly soulless video game offerings.

For my hipper-than-thou compatriots from the music scene I once covered, the loss of a corporate-stylized FYE hardly compares to the closure of an independent record store. Yet, it’s fair to say the symbolic change in media consumerism has had an adverse effect on entertainment. It’s becoming far more fashionable to conveniently download and stream both music and film from your own t.v. or computer than going the old-fashioned route of driving to a record shop and taking the time to flip through vinyl jackets and CD cases. Yeah, back in the day you took a risk on an album carrying one or two boss beats and a lot of filler crap, but that gave you something to gripe about in line at the Front 242 gig and meet new, like-minded friends.

You may be too much of in a hurry to pull down that ear-popping jam you caught at the gym or on Sirius XM and drop it onto your hard drive or cell phone. You may feel the gas invested isn’t worth it. You may be a germophobe, as we still have plenty of those as the anti-pandemic masks begin to vanish, en masse. More than likely, you’ve just forgotten what it was like to pop in to a place where the staff most likely speaks your language, or can dig up the information for you, whether you’re hunting down Janis Joplin or the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack or the more obscure industrial-freako noise ensemble, Pigface. Sure, you can easily find any of them these days on eBay, Amazon, CD Universe or whatever online hub offers you the most comfort and convenience. Or you go to iTunes or get your kicks for free at YouTube if you want a right-here-right-now Dua Lipa fix.

Now admittedly, I’m no better than anyone else these days, so I’m not going to soapbox as to why you should be out there supporting record stores. We have the annual Record Store Day for that, as much a holiday for true audiophiles as Free Comic Book Day for that genre’s supporters. I consider myself attached to both, for the record (no pun intended).

What I will offer, here, is a road, these days lesser traveled, and for kicks, I went and took a trip down to The Sound Garden in Baltimore’s historic waterfront district, Fells Point. More supported by college drinking and weekend family outings, Fells Point has a unique charm, even with its tight quarters, narrow streets and axle-rattling cobblestones. The Sound Garden has long been one of my all-time favorite music stores, though I don’t get down like I used to. My life has changed, and I’ve been downsizing and economizing my personal space and my budget. My girlfriend, TJ, all but had cardiac arrest when she’d seen how much hard copy media I still had left after purging three quarters of what I used to. My recent move has been cathartic, and that’s included a sensible radicalization of my media. I too subscribe to t.v. streaming services like Disney Plus and HBO Max. I now have most of my albums digitally stashed on a thumb drive. TJ knows better than to try and get me to part with my Prince collection and film soundtracks, but my life, suffice it to say, looks far different than when I was writing in the music industry.

What resonated with me the most in my outing to Sound Garden last week, was how much I missed being in such an environment, and I cued up memories of all of my friends from the past. They seem like ghosts now. I remember how much fun we could have spending an hour and a half, browsing the same albums over and over again, buying some, skipping some, buying the ones we’d skipped a couple weeks later. We’d hover in the punk and metal sections like we owned them and we’d leaf through the underground ‘zines, looking for new bands and pen pals to write to. Always we’d get to know the staff. They’d try us with other genres while they had us loaf-abouts in-house and for me, especially, my all-around tastes were fostered in this fashion, making me more diverse, eclectic and well-versed. I routinely crossed genres in my articles and was often complimented by the artists and their promoters. It all goes back to being a record shop rat.

I know the days and times of patronage vary at a place like Sound Garden. Yet it was a rare and frankly bizarre thing this time where I calmly drifted into a wide-open parking lot around back, chuckling to myself how many times I’d had to squeeze and jockey myself into tight, diagonal formations. I found people taking pictures of the Sound Garden (like myself, of course), and I thought, “It feels like more like a museum than a store these days.” Most of those snapping pics just continued on their way, or turned around and pointed their cameras at the shops and restaurants across the way. It felt quaint instead of imperative.

It’s no secret an overwhelming percentage of the world’s population has moved on from CDs, DVDs and BluRays. It’s downright laughable and overwhelmingly sad to see what Wal Mart and Target’s entertainment sections look like anymore. They cater more to the gamers than the dreamers now. The resurgence of vinyl is why hard copy even sells anymore, and I get that. For me, there will never be a finer experience than sitting on the floor of my bedroom with the vinyl jacket to Iron Maiden’s Powerslave or the electrifying gatefolds to Kiss’ Alive II and Steppenwolf 7 in my lap while spinning their respective slabs on the turntable. It was intimate, as was being forced to take the extra seconds to flip the platter over and drop the stylus back into motion.

Intimate being the operative word here. Even the quicker method of insert and eject with a CD, there’s still that tangible, motion-filled process engaging the listener to the artist, with the invitation to scour the lyrics (if provided) while letting the vibe pulse into your ears, or to get lost in the artwork. You don’t get that physical, emotive experience casually surfing the console or streaming over the computer. Music consumption is far more gray and mundane these days, YET the lack of support given to enterprising record shops is just a part of the natural order, as mundane as that is to say.

Sound Garden has changed itself to accommodate the shifting tastes of its dwindling demographic. An entire half of the store is now dedicated to vinyl, which is where I found most people lurking and browsing. What used to be a vast portion of the store dedicated to CDs is now less than half that. The video section is large enough, but likewise pared down. The store deliciously whets your appetite with advertisements, replica concert posters and t-shirts and all of it IS still as eye-popping as it ever was. That part spoke to me, as much as the cardboard Prince from the cover of Art Official Age hanging over the checkout counter.

As did the young woman ringing me out, young enough to be my daughter. She was quick to recognize and compliment my Stax Records t-shirt and we had a brief discussion about the Memphis music scene and what her parents had seen and exposed her to. It did my heart a world of good, considering I have people in my own age bracket these days ask me what the vintage soul and funk label Stax even is. In its own hopeless way, a telling of the times…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.