Armagideon Time

It had been a typical Monday thus far. I’d finished sorting out the previous weekend’s data dump and took care of any outstanding request tickets. All that remained was to ride out the rest of my shift before making the long drive back to Woburn.

Then my cell started buzzing, and its caller ID said it was the old man. Figuring it was another poorly timed request to buy him some smokes, I answered with my flattest “yeah, what do you want now?”

I got back “This is Trooper Redacted of the Massachusetts State Police. Your father was in a automobile accident.”

My dad’s 2009 Mustang had been in the shop during his turn toward the wretchedly bizarre. Lil Bro and I considered that a blessing, because he was in no condition to operate it. We’d also assumed he was in no condition to retrieve it from the service station, yet he’d managed to find a way.

He got a new inspection sticker. He bought some groceries. He stocked up on cigarettes. He had a bizarre episode where he started to drive on the sidewalk of South Boston’s “Sugarbowl” and plow through a bunch of trash cans, picnic tables, and park benches before getting boxed in by multiple police cruisers.

Nobody was injured (thank fucking providence), but the trooper decided the old man’s physical and mental condition warranted a trip to Boston Medical Center’s emergency room.

I spent the next hour alternating between rhetorically asking “what the fuck” to Maura while throwing my hands in the air and spamming Lil Bro via text and voice message. (The science-y place where he works is full of no-reception zones.) He finally returned my call after a long forty minutes. I filled him in on what little I knew, and we worked out a game plan while marveling at how stupid and lucky our sire had been.

The most pressing priority was dealing with my father’s cat, Peej. The old man had adopted him as a feral foster kitten and showered that sad-faced fluffball with all the unselfish devotion he’d withheld from his human children. Maura and I agreed to take him in for the duration, but that involved getting access to the old man’s apartment which involved getting my father’s keys. We had no idea if he had them in his personal effects or whether they were left in the wrecked Mustang.

We decided was the hospital was the best place to start.

Getting to BMC was a harrowing experience in city driving and garage parking, but it was a basket of puppies compared to the inside of the place. It had nothing to do with the physical condition of the place or the quality of the staff — it was a waking nightmare by virtue of being a big city emergency room. And there, on a bed between some partitioned curtains was my father, thrashing his skeletal limbs around and moaning.

Here’s a thing about the Weiss males: Our emotional utterances tend to sound like cartoon versions of the genuine article. My laugh, for example, is identical to Muttley’s hissing chuckle and Lil Bro’s fits of rage are straight out of a Donald Duck routine. It can make it difficult for folks to take us seriously when it happens, because it looks like we’re taking the piss instead of genuinely expressing ourselves.

We even respond that way to each other, which is why the old man’s agonized moans seemed oddly comical despite the horrifying context. It was the same sounds he used to utter during dad-joke bits when I was a kid. “Oooooooh, we’re all out of pudding, ooooooooh woe is me ooooooooh.”

His personal belongings were nowhere to be found and the few staffpeople we stopped for moment couldn’t give us an answer, either. Talking to the old man was no use. He didn’t recognize me and completely incoherent. He seemed worse off than my grandmother had been during her last few days, and I began to wonder if this was how it was going to end.

By the time the physician got around to speaking with us, I was in a state of existential panic. The old man was suffering from an infected bedsore, which was the likely cause of the hallucinations and odd behaviors. He was also in the vicinity of ninety pounds and severely undernourished. They were going to keep him for a few days and a case worker was going to review plans for going forward.

His possessions were bundled in a plastic bag stuffed under the covers by his feet. Turning out his grimy pockets netted six packs of Marlboros but no keys. The cat would have to wait.

I told Maura I just wanted to go back home, and so we did.

It’s a long-standing tradition in my family to offer help with the understanding that you will never be required to follow through with it. The gesture is symbolic, a substitute for more direct expressions of affection.

Other families say “I love you.” Mine says “Let me know if you need help with that thing.”

I told my dad I’d help him out because I was reeling from how ghastly he appeared and didn’t want to stick Lil Bro with the responsibility and stress-reverted to force of habit response patterns. The important thing was getting him to make a doctor’s appointment and pre-empting his protests. The rest would then sort itself out. (Another deep-seated family belief.)

At most, I thought I’d be on the hook for a couple of grocery and pet supply runs to be arranged at my convenience.

What I got was a series of increasingly bizarre calls at random times. Despite he claims about “cutting down,” the old man was still burning through multiple packs of smokes a day. No one else was willing to buy them for him, so he pestered me whenever he was running low. He wouldn’t do it directly, however. He’d call and babble about something or another before couching the request within a less objectionable one. “I’m running low on cat food for Peej…and could you pick me up some cigarettes, too?”

While his apartment was a couple miles from my place of work, that short distance ran a gauntlet of hazards which included the deadliest rotary in Boston and a narrow steep slope where stupid shits parked on both sides of the road. Never mind the fact I had to walk a half mile across a wind-blasted peninsula to get to my car, plus give up my breaktime during a stretch when my job was nothing but putting one fire out after another. Making the trip on a lazy Saturday morning was one thing. Doing it during rush hour while a snow squall raged around the Malibu was another.

And no matter how much I tried to make sure he was set up until the weekend, his Marlboro consumption would increase to ensure that I’d get another call two days after the previous one. The breaking point came when he wanted me to make a run on a Wednesday afternoon, after the winter darkness had already descended. I tried — and failed — to convince Maura (a far better city driver than I am) to come with me, and thus had to go it alone.

It was a nightmare from beginning to end, with my anger and anxiety reaching meltdown levels — which I then channeled into an ugly blow-up with Maura. After I regained a semblance of self-control and made what amends I could, I decided that pity and the fumes of filial obligation only went so far. Yet the more I stonewalled, the more absurd his demands became.

“Hey, where are you now?”

“Stuck in shit traffic on the northbound expressway before the tunnel, so the signal might drop soon.”

“Oh…so I guess you wouldn’t be able to pick me up a couple packs of smokes tonight.”

“No, that’s not going to happen.”

“Oh…okay…I see…hmmm… I guess I’ll think of something. It’s just that you offered.. Don’t trouble yourself.” Then an abrupt hang-up and — I swear — the sound of sad violin music.

While this multi-act epic of pass-agg behavior was unfolding between the old man and me, Lil Bro’s interactions with him had entered avant-garde territory. My father had started experiencing hallucinations where my dead mother or dead cousin or Lil Bro’s younger self would show up in his apartment. His retelling of the incidents would slip in between acknowledging they couldn’t be real and talking about them as if they were.

My father’s mother went a bit loopy in her later years (above and beyond the trauma caused by a stroke in her mid-forties) and his elder brother had begun to suffer severe cognitive impairment within the last decade or so. At the same time, my father was also spending most of his day in a pain-wracked state of semi-slumber and subsisting on junk food. On one of the cigarette runs, I found him in bed, surrounded by a dozen empty pudding cups and bottles of Coke.

The only way to know what was really going on was for the old man to see a doctor, which he insisted was in the process of happening “any day now.”

There was no way we could force the issue. In the end, we didn’t have to, because our father forced it upon himself.

Boot it up and start over

April 10th, 2019

After feeling a bit burnt out on Destiny 2, I decided to do another Fallout 4 playthough. This one was going to be a “pure” Minutemen run, where’d I’d ignore as much of the (lousy) main plot as possible and instead concentrate on organizing the scattered settlements of the post-war Commonwealth into something resembling an actual state.

I spent the last couple of weeks forging alliances, clearing out threats, rebuilding infrastructure, and providing security for my virtual citizens. As of last evening, I had fifteen settlements under my benevolent rule, all connected by specially equipped supply caravans. It had been quite a grind, but one I’d enjoyed undertaking…

…right up until the minute I decided to delete my save files and make a fresh go at it.

It’s an odd quirk of mine that goes at least as far back as the first Baldur’s Gate game, and maybe all the way to the Sega Genesis Shadowrun RPG. Hell, I could’ve been born with it, but it never had the opportunity to manifest until open-world sandbox games became a thing. Whatever the case may be, when it comes to these types of games, I prefer beginnings to endings or even “late-middlings.”

I love the process of guiding an in-game avatar from a fragile neophyte to the edges of being genuinely powerful. It’s a sweet spot where every loot drop or level gained is genuinely significant, and every encounter fraught with extreme peril. Improvised loadouts are the order of the day and cosmetic options are hard-won prizes. It’s also the part of the game when the possibilities truly feel limitless in terms of where and how to proceed.

Once the character transcends the upper boundary of that threshold, I start to get itchy. The narrative begins to assert itself in specific directions, I’ve settled on my character’s preferred look and set of gear, and the eagerness to wander gives way to “just get to the end, already.” Of the roughly hundred times I’ve started a new Baldur’s Gate II game, ninety have stopped at the asylum. The parts of the game leading up to that point were more entertaining than anything which followed them. That’s the most extreme example, but I’ve mirrored it scores of times in nearly every other Bioware and Bethesda offering, as well as Diablo III, No Man’s Sky Alpha Protocol, DC Universe Online, and the multiplayer free roam in Rockstar sandbox offerings.

Destiny and its sequel are only games of that type where I haven’t done it, mostly because there’s so little in the way of narrative variance and missed opportunities. It’s also a mark of pride that my main character dates back to the vanilla version of the first game. (And the limited facial customization means that I can’t really use “his nose looks off” as a pretext for deleting and starting fresh.)

I don’t think it’s a problem with my attention span, as much as a lack of interest in dominating content. It’s fun to seek out minor exploits or efficiencies when they actually matter, but I’d rather have a close call with some random raider sporting a pipe pistol than casually mow down a dozen super mutants with a legendary plasma rifle. For me, the real “endgame challenge” doesn’t involve difficulty but sustaining a sense of meaningfulness when your character has a meta-build solution for everything.

If nothing else, the process of putting together a collection of personally significant records has been an interesting exercise in mental inventory taking. Don’t let my writings fool you — for every memory recounted here in excruciating detail, countless others have utterly evaporated or only exist as cryptic scribbles in the margins of my psyche.

The haziness is thickest during those bouts of wheelspinning where I fell into a comfortable routine with little to distinguish one day/week/month from another. I prefer those circumstances to the non-stop shitshow of the past twelve months, but they don’t leave much in the way of distinguishing my 1994 from my 1996 from my 1998. Music, comics, and other popcult artifacts can help clarify timelines, though my retro tendencies still muddy those waters a great deal. Plus, there’s a lot of crap in those crates I simply cannot remember buying at all, much less when.

The point is that I can sift through a year like 1991 — which was pretty damn memorable — to compile a comprehensive list of the artists and albums which soundtracked that period for me, and still get blindsided by a “how the hell did I forget THAT” a few months later.

Such was the case with Frontier’s two volume compilation of Dangerhouse Records singles. I picked up both as secondhand cassettes shortly after their original release, mainly because old school punky shit was thin on the ground at the time and three bucks a pop was too good to pass up.

Despite its short existence and small number of releases, Dangerhouse was the preeminent label of the primordial LA and California punk scene — an eclectic roster of acts including X, The Dils, Black Randy (whose members ran the label), The Weirdos, The Avengers, and The Bags. Like the early Boston punk sound, it was more strange than spiky…and like the early Boston punk sound, it was completely eclipsed by the emergence of a meathead headcore movement that became synonymous for the local scene.

I listened to a lot (read: too much) hardcore and oi and other aggro punk subgenres my late teens, but it was kinda by default. Those — alongside stuff by the Pistols and Clash — were the only readily available punk releases during the back half of the Eighties and early Nineties. Everything else was out of print or commanded astronomical collectors’ market prices. You had to take what you could get back then, but I was always on the lookout for material outside those echo chambers.

I knew of X and The Bags from Decline of Western Civilization (a film which captured the LA scene’s shift from experimental oddness to aggressive noise). Their presence was enough to justify picking up the first Dangerhouse comp. It took a few listens to decide whether I liked it or not, but the comp and its follow-up went onto a long residency in my off-brand Walkman for half a year or so.

It fell off my radar because there weren’t many opportunities to follow up on what it revealed. I already had X’s debut album and a bootleg collection of Avengers studio tracks. Everything else was either inaccessibly out of print or a one-off release. With Punk and Disorderly or This Is Boston Not LA or The Oi of Sex, there were always new leads to chase, but the Dangerhouse comps existed in their own isolated pocket of history.

When I did finally remember the two collections and deem them worthy of my “essentials” list, there was still the question of whether or not they’d ever received a vinyl release. It tends to even money for 1991/1992 albums, even less for domestic market made-for-the-midlist albums. A little digging revealed they did not get a vinyl version on initial release, but did receive a half dozen LP reissues during the later Aughts.

I’m not really sure why, but I’m not complaining.

Of disbelief

April 8th, 2019

If nostalgia isn’t an outright lie, it’s a selective interpretation of the truth.

It’s easy to long for the past after the unpleasant bits have faded (or been willfully suppressed) from memory. Remove that tarnish and any period can seem like a Golden Age, which is a nonsense because I actually lived through such a mythic era…

…when the universe could sustain not one — but TWO — sets of novelty suspenders based on Robin Williams characters.

Sometime around the end of November, I got a text from my brother asking if I’d spoken with our dad recently. He was worried because he could barely understand a thing the old man said during their latest phone conversation, and thought something bigger might be going on.

I didn’t think too much of it. I was used to incoherence from my father, and assumed the muddled speech was the result of a three-pack-a-day over sixty years habit and his unwillingness to put in his dentures. Even when my brother mentioned the old man had been spending most of the day in bed, I wasn’t too concerned. He had a degenerative spinal injury (which netted him a hefty settlement from his former employer) and had made a big deal of his refusal to seek any form of pain management for it.

The last time I’d seen him in the flesh was at my grandmother’s funeral the previous May. I was a little taken aback by how frail he seemed, but it’s hard to gauge what that means when it’s a person you see maybe two or three times a year. None of us were getting any younger. Only a couple months before, I’d caught my brother staring at my head during a meeting about my grandmother’s estate, so I asked what the hell he was looking at. “I just never noticed how much gray hair you had.”

My dad’s health trajectory — shit back, shit lungs, shit self-care — had been pretty clear for years. During our road trip to Gettysburg in 2011, he told me he was a dead man walking although he “wasn’t in any rush.” Seeing it unfold was jarring, but mostly because the gaps between the frames of the time-lapse reel had grown wider.

The only thing that did make me pause was Lil Bro mentioning that my father had gotten slack about keeping up his apartment. That was entirely uncharacteristic of a man whose domestic routines were conducted with spartan precision. It wasn’t something that he’d abandon without reason, but I assumed it stemmed from his back pain. I proposed making a wellness check over the coming weekend, and Lil Bro set the date and time (to make sure our father was wearing pants when we got there, which was another ominous note I should’ve paid more attention to).

I hadn’t been to my father’s place since he’d moved into the basement apartment. I had no idea what to expect, but nothing could’ve prepared me for what I saw when I stepped into the place. Shades drawn, space heater going full bore, TV blasting some old western, tobacco residue so thick it coated every surface with a sticky brown sheen — and there on the bed was the old man looking like…

You ever see those photos of folks liberated from Nazi concentration camps? Specifically the ones where unfathomably skeletal human beings are lying upon cramped and filthy bunks? My father could’ve been ‘shopped into one of those scenes and nobody would’ve been able to tell the difference. His hair and beard had gone wild and his skin was a shade of gray I’d only seen before in nightmares. His head was propped up against the wall, surrounded by a halo of sebaceous discharge. A half-empty two-liter bottle of warm Coke rested on the nightstand, next to a half dozen empty packs of cigarettes and an overflowing ashtray.

Lil Bro started the conversation. “Hey, we came to pay you a visit.”

“Whuuh. Ho. Ahhh.” Nothing remotely approaching an understandable word.

My turn. “What’s up, old man? How are you feeling? Are your dentures in?”

Eventually he settled into a pattern of vaguely recognizable speech. “Feel like shit.” “I’m fine.” “Back hurts.” A lot of dismissive nods and hand gestures.

The only bedding he had was a filthy comforter over a bare mattress. Lil Bro had brought some sheets, but we decided to make a run to the Target in South Bay for a new comforter and blanket, as well as food and other household supplies.

“You see what I meant?” he asked on the drive to the shopping plaza.

“Yeah, I don’t know what to make of it.”

My phone rang. It was the old man, asking to pick him up a new spoon for eating cereal. I managed to understand every word this time.

“That’s a positive sign, at least.”

I dropped a hundred bucks at Target — a new comforter, a fleece throw, junk food, more Coke, the requested spoon, heat and eat meals, litter for the cat, denture paste, the works. It’s just money, and money can fix anything, right? We also hit the ATM with the old man’s bank card because he was running short of cash in hand.

The old man was a bit more lucid when we returned. He even managed to shift himself into a chair and armchair quarterback our efforts to change his bed. Lil Bro and I tried to work a tag team intervention routine into the conversation.

“You should talk to Boston elder services.”

“You really ought to get checked by a doctor.”

All of it met with an annoyed “I know, I know” and defensive tough guy posturing.

“Do you need anything else while we’re here?” I knew the answer before I finished asking it — some more packs of Marlboro Reds, five minutes after he bragged to us how little he smokes these days.

Lil Bro and I walked to the convenience store on the opposite slope of Dorchester Heights, taking a few minutes to check out the Revolutionary War memorial at the crest of the hill. We used the time to brainstorm a plan for going forward, but the options are limited. The old man is going to do what he wants to do, and he will lie through his teeth or push back if pressed on the matter.

My brother had run himself ragged dealing with my grandmother’s estate, and wasn’t keen on repeating the ordeal with a less cooperative individual. I knew it was my responsibility to step up, but I didn’t want the gig either. Maura’s mom’s health was failing. We were dealing with the bureaucratic rollercoaster surrounding the adoption. Both our day jobs had entered new and stressful territory.

There really wasn’t anything to do but punt. And talk some bullshit that would come back to bite me in the ass multiple times.

“Look, old man. I want you around to see your grandchild. You need to see a doctor and find something to manage the pain. You’re stronger than this.”

Queue the “yeah, yeah” chorus and “you think I like being like this?”

“And remember, I work just down the street, so if you ever need anything…”

Oh, how I learned to regret that offer in the coming months.

Strut the flap

April 4th, 2019

Come one, come all! Feast your eyes on the Only Bumflap That Matters!

As the ad — ganked from a 1980 issue of Smash Hits — states, this was merely one of an entire line of hindquarters drapery available for sale. If you were curious about which other artists were available for posterior display, here’s the full list:

The whole concept strikes me as absurd, yet I must confess the notion of parading around with Andy Partridge on my ass does possess a certain strange appeal.

The Boston Phoenix was a fixture in my life from the dawn of the Nineties through the start of the new millennium. The weekly tabloid was the Hub’s answer to the Village Voice, and part of a now-defunct regional media empire which also included Greater Boston’s flagship alt-radio station.

Every Thursday or Friday, a van would roll up to the front of the Quinn Administration Building and drop off bundles of the latest issue of “Boston After Dark” — a cosmetically re-badged version of the Phoenix distributed for free. The notion was that countless college student eyes would make up in advertising rates what the publisher lost in printing costs, and that logic was borne out in my case, at least.

The paper was my primary pipeline for discovering which acts were coming to town, which films were playing the local art-house circuit, and which new music releases were worth checking out. I can’t think of a single show I attended during those years that I wasn’t tipped off to via the Phoenix. The CD recommendations were a more scattershot affair, mainly because the types of music I listened to — Eighties style punk, postpunk, and new wave — had fallen out of favor and the associated acts had devolved into (mostly inaccurate) referential swipes at less favored contemporary artists.

That said, what gems I did managed to glean from the dross were utterly stunning. I picked up bis’ Social Dancing specifically because the (snide) review mentioned Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill’s involvement in it, and it became one of my all time favorite albums. It was where I got hepped to the existence of Fischerspooner, and had my interest hyper-piqued by a couple lines about a “Portland retro synth punk outfit” called The Epoxies…

Thanks to the ethically murky wonders of the era’s many file-share services I was able to pull a representative, low bit-rate track by the band and be utterly blown away by how amazing they were. I then played it for Maura, whose reaction bordered on a religious experience and rushed off to buy a copy of their debut album.

There had been a number of self-proclaimed attempts to recreate the sounds of futurist new wave pop since the stigma surrounding the Eighties had given way to nostalgia in the latter half of the Nineties. I checked out dozens in those years and found most (if not all) wanting in some form or another — too ironic, too self-conscious, too grunge-damaged, too boring. The Epoxies, however, had that Reagan Era je ne sais quoi in spades, right down to the obligatory atomic annihilation ditty.

Yet they were more than just a tribute act. They reminded me of The Pogues, in that their sound evokes the best aspects of the source material (traditional Irish music, sci-fi synthpop) but also transcends it. They sound like you always wanted the source material to sound…or misremembered how it actually sounded. Evoking the past while remaining in the now is a tough trick to pull off when it comes to retro, but The Epoxies did it seamlessly.

Mostly, Maura was just glad to find new music that she could get excited about. It’s why I’ll always think of the Epoxies as one of “her” bands, the way The Clash will always be “mine” even if she likes most of their songs. They were also an integral part of the soundtrack for that short-but-epic window between my starting to drive again (after a decade hiatus) and the move to the House on the Hillside. There was an Epoxies track on every mix CD-R I burned for automotive play and at least one on our wedding reception playlist, filled out with material from The Soviettes, The Minds, and other artists from that general punkpop school.

It ended as these things usually end, with an announcement on some website about the break-up, a disappointing semi-posthumous EP, and follow-up projects that you just can’t get into for some reason. At least it left behind a pair of stellar albums, which both occupied top slots on my list of “must have” LPs and still get at least a spin or two every week.

Drive, mon pied

April 2nd, 2019

It took three deep dives into the 1975 Sears Wish Book before I noticed it…

…but when I finally did, it nearly shorted out my nostalgia cortex.

I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you that those goofy race car slippers were one of Young Andrew’s most coveted possessions. Forget Tonka trucks or Hot Wheels playsets or injection-molded forts filled plastic army men — those slippers are the first thing I searched for under the tree on Christmas morning.

Why? I have no fucking clue. As a kid, I did tend to gravitate toward shit with numbers on it. Whether it was toy cars or a Huffy starter bike or the dozens of football-style shirts that filled my dresser, the presence of numeric badging guaranteed it would become a favorite of mine. Seeing the WGBH 2 Mobile in the wild after a Bicentennial parade was a bigger event than the birth of Lil Bro a few weeks later, and the large painted numbers marking the levels of the Museum of Science parking garage were more fascinating to me than any of the actual exhibits.

Maybe it was an early sign of a low level spectrum behavior or maybe my impressionable neural pathways were subjected to an excess of Sesame Street and other abstract-experimental edu shorts during their early Seventies salad years. All I know is that I loved those slippers as I have loved no other footwear before or since (with the possible exception of my first pair of tanker boots). When they weren’t getting dragged by my oddly shaped feet across mustard-hued carpeting or patterned linoleum, they were used by my pair of plush seal pals to stage soft toy drag races.

I can still remember exactly what they smelled like (the slippers, not the stuffed seals who had been puked on and imperfectly cleaned during multiple childhood illnesses): An intoxicating blend of vinyl out-gassing and artificial fibers. One managed to survive into my early adolescence by virtue of precipitating to the bottom of the toy chest containing our stuffed menagerie, only to get unceremoniously dumped during the family’s move to Hammond Square.

No slippers have been allowed on my feet since.

Highest ed

March 29th, 2019

The campus playset was part of a whole line of college-themed accessories for Barbie, and given ample page space in the 1964 Sears Wish Book.

I wish Mattel had pursued the concept through the entirely of Barbie’s college experience — Summer of Love Barbie, Berkeley Speed Freak Ken, Bad Acid Trip Barbie with Plush Sanatorium for her mysterious “year abroad,” Nixon Campaign Volunteer Skipper, Bearded Drop-Out Ken with Authentic Draft Evading Action, and Weather Underground Barbie with Home Bomb-making Kit and Federal Wanted Poster.

Y’know, to give the kids of America something they could really aspire towards.

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