Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mutant Mags, Scarecrow Contests, and Split-Toe Ninja Boots

"When the air smells like smoke, and the twilights are orange and ash gray, my mind goes back to Green Town the place where I grew up." This is the nostalgic narration (think Christmas Story without the drollery) that opens Walt Disney's production of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Born and raised in the twenties, Bradbury's recollections of his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois (the real-life counterpart to Green Town) are a boy's eye view of a rural America long gone. It's the kind of place where everyone in town will stop work to attend a carnival.

Today is the second day of fall and, walking the two Main Street blocks from my apartment to the shop, I too am reminded of "the place where I grew up." That place was a five hundred acre horse ranch just outside a small Alabama town of God-fearing bird-doggers called Hurtsboro. The Will Halloway to my Jim Nightshade was a bespectacled wisp of a boy named Aaron, who, twenty-five years later, remains one my best friends (see the Summer of '81 post). Autumn, in particular Halloween, was an important time of year for he and I. In part, because of the Fall Festival, a series of gaming tents and vendor tables that the Methodist Cultural Commission pitched along Church Street every October.

My first year (and first fall) in Alabama (my family had moved there from NJ), Aaron and I created a Marvel Universe ripoff called Mutant Mag to sell at the fair. I was nine, he was eight. Aaron's Mom was an artist. She had converted the hunting cabin adjacent to their house into a studio and this is where we worked, coloring by hand (fussily at first, but then, as dawn drew near, carelessly) the books we had, earlier in the day, copied at the Hurtsboro Savings Bank, which boasted the one Xerox machine in town. Marvel Universe, if you remember, wasn't really a comic book at all, but rather a encyclopedia of the various heroes, villains, and lusus naturae that peopled the Marvel macrocosm. Each page had a robust full body portrait of a character along with an origin profile that ran in a journalistic column of copy down the side. It was here that Aaron and I learned words like "cabalistic," "behemoth," and "reprobate," along with phrases like "latent mutant attributes," all of which we incorporated (mostly incorrectly) into our own publication. We created robotic chimeras with names like Android Wolf and Turtle Cyborg. Thumbtack was a dwarf who could manipulate his ribs so they curved up out his back like porcupine quills; Dutch Dike was a guy who could "fill any hole" (the innuendo was quite beyond us). All the Marvel characters had aliases and, accordingly, so did ours: Sha Corona (I'm not kidding) was the secret identity of a man with a motorized saw blade that half-mooned from his helmet like a rooster crest; Gareth Grimshaw the aka of a dimension jumper known professionally as Limbo. We sold out of the stapled digests within an hour, feeding our fall folie de grandeur and filling a coffee can with dollar bills (which we spent on hot dogs and a festival game called Tic Tac Toss).

Not our scarecrow.

The next year, our objective was to win the newly minted Scarecrow Contest. Our scarecrow was complicated and had a decidedly knotty back story. Martial arts warrior, werewolf, vampire killer. Its face was a nylon ninja hood over top a plastic wolfman mask. Its chest was covered with "chain mail" made from linked, supposedly silver, Stars-of-David, which we meticulously snipped from sheets of roofing tin. Its hands were a pair of long red leather biker gloves that flared at the forearm. We fastened a sharpened chopstick to each of these, gluing metallic pen caps to the base (where stick met glove) to imitate the steel bushing on Wolverine's knuckles (Wolverine is a Marvel character with retractable claws).The chop sticks were ostensibly wooden stakes that extracted any time our scarecrow saw a vampire. It also wore split toe ninja boots which, of course, helped the scarecrow with rope climbing and wall walking.

Anyway. I don't think the judges got it. First prize went to a freckled, rusty headed girl named Elizabeth who had, according to the panel, "ingeniously utilized" a plastic milk jug as a head. We didn't even place.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SET 'EM UP, INDY: Snakebites & Temple of Doom Shooters with the Raiders Boys

Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and me cloaked in the volcanic vapors that frequently follow a quickly downed round of Dooms.

The weekend began with us doing shot pitchers of a withering Asbury Lane concoction aptly called The Temple of Doom, with Chris and Eric, two thirty-something guys from Mississippi who'd shot a now nationally known adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark when they were ten. I'd been wanting to see the fan film since reading the breathless 10 page article Vanity Fair wrote about them three years back and had joined forces with Juicy Jenn, the programmer for the the Lanes, a bowling alley-cum-rockabilly joint in Asbury Park. Jenn, who was premiering the film the night before our screening, agreed to pay their airfare if we would handle ground transportation and board the boys in Metuchen for the weekend. Shop friend Grace Shackney offered up her beautiful Victorian, which stands adjacent to the former home of the late John Ciardi(an illustrious poet whose fame can be best described by the fact that he appeared twice on Johnny Carson). Grace is the administrative director of Princeton's esteemed McCarter Theater and the boys stayed in the same 2nd story suite (two adjoining bedrooms with a shared bathroom) where Athol Fugard, acclaimed South African playwright/former overnight guest, had slept.

It was my first time at the Lanes, though Raconteur house band The Roadside Graves play there frequently and have always spoken highly of it (and indeed friend Dan, a.k.a. Carrot-Top, is the "chef" at their burger counter).

The retro pine-paneled lounge at the Lanes.

It's unquestionably a cool venue, but, while we filled The Refectory, our 165 seat theater, they struggled to find an audience for the film. Mosh pits and burlesque shows are more their style and I fear the typical Raiders fan may have been intimidated by the Lane's notoriety as a venue full of face ink and nipple barbells. Conversely, The Raconteur battles not its own reputation, but rather the square pedantic standing of bookshops in general. While we've certainly had our share of academic evenings (the poet Rachel Hadas, Al Gore's global-warming road show, theatrical readings from Umberto Eco novels, etc.), we've also hosted hardcore nights, sword swallowers, graffiti exhibitions, and are presently organizing an event that will feature Ian Mckaye, former front man for Fugazi and the seminal punk band Minor Threat. Even still, I have a feeling we'll forever be thought of as a bit button-down by all you kids with bull rings and ten gauge lobes. Oh well. Chris Strompolos and I in the feverish throes of a T.O.D. buzz.