Not Quite Just Like Heaven: The Fast Food Years

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All decked out and ready for some deep frying action.

JUNE, 1990. I was fresh out of high school when my hopes of becoming a Crew Leader went down in flames. It was a hot summer night, almost midnight, when the telltale beeping sound alerted our skeleton crew that someone had rolled up to the drive-thru menu. I was multitasking — stocking cups, wiping counters, trying to wrap things up so I could clock out and rendezvous with friends and cheap beer — and instinctively took the order over my headset: one side of onion rings. I instructed the customer to pull up to the window.

I bagged the order, added the mandated two packets of ketchup, and walked over to open drive-thru window. A long, bronze colored Cadillac awaited, and a man with gold necklaces and gold teeth handed me a twenty dollar bill. I brought his change, and he handed back a ten dollar bill and asked for different change. I provided it, and he handed some of those bills back to me and asked for still different change, all with a smile and soothing voice, with some pleasantries exchanged about the heat and how was my evening going anyway? The night manager stepped up and asked if everything was okay. I told him it was. I’d known all along what the guy in the Caddie was doing: the classic quick change scam. I counted out his final cash and handed him the onion rings, confident that my sharp wits and math skills had won the day. …

FIRST GRADE…The Greatest Adventure/Riddles in the Dark

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Think of Middle Park, not South Park, when you sing the adventure song.

JRR Tolkien’s literary classic, The Hobbit, reads like a novel but it’s actually a fictional memoir written by Mr. Bilbo Baggins himself: There and Back Again, a Hobbit’s Tale. I can picture Bilbo now as he sits by the crackling fire in Bag End, puffing pipe weed, dipping his quill in the inkwell and laying out the epic chronicle of a single year of his life and his modest role in some Middle Earth changing events — finding the One Ring, saving the Dwarves from giant spiders and asshole wood elves, even chatting with a dragon. …

Not New Age Crap/Bookstore Adventures

Album: Ry Cooder/Vishwa Bhatt: A Meeting by the River

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124 Pier Avenue back in the day.

1993: The building lined the sidewalk where Pier Avenue sloped rather steeply down to the Pacific Coast Highway, the crashing surf, and the Hermosa Beach pier. Any paint left clinging to the wooden exterior was well faded by a half century of ocean breezes and neglect, but the tall windows offered glimpses of the stories inside. A yellowed handwritten note tacked to the door read “DON’T LET THE CAT OUT” while another, newer note stated “HIRING QUALIFIED CANDIDATES.” I opened the creaky door — triggering the tinkle of a bell — walked up to the counter and asked a long haired fellow with thick glasses what the job qualifications were. His answer: “Read books.”

I’d been sleeping in the back of my potential girlfriend’s 1970 Volkswagen station wagon after catching a ride south with her from a run of Grateful Dead shows in Oakland. She was a punk rock girl turned runaway dreadlocked hippy (a more common trajectory at the time than you might imagine) who’d spent the last few months roaming the streets of Venice Beach and San Francisco with a fellow named Mushroom. She’d returned home a few weeks prior to her 18th birthday after spotting some MISSING signs with her photo on them. …

The Lonesome Whistle

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Gonna get some beach sand in those shoes.

There’s something otherworldly about a train. A mysterious power beyond ordinary horsepower. As a kid I would lay in my bed listening for the deep rumble of the midnight freights, a sound that I felt long before I could hear it. Then the whistle would echo across the frozen valley, a mournful cry in the night. It was a soothing sound. Often unnoticed but always there, 40,000 tons of steel hissing and clanking through town at ongoing intervals — like a clock tower striking the hour.

Some of my earliest memories involve trains. Or songs about trains anyway, first heard as my mother played the piano and channeled the Great American Songbook that lay at the core of her being. Her voice was as bright as the California sun shining through our dining room window, the songs were catchy, and soon I was asking if she could play Atchatookapeeka”…a three year old’s clumsy attempt at saying “Atchison Topeka”, as in the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe, a 1944 ode to a railroad of yore. …

Almost Joined a Cult

Album: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Deja Vu

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My stepfather Mark was from blue collar Wisconsin and he knew how to fix things. He could rebuild a transmission, rewire a home, weld a broken swing set, reupholster a vintage chair and generally build a car or a house from the ground up. He’d dropped out of high school around 1960 and, like many men of his generation, bounced around the country doing odd jobs, started and walked out on a family, and pursued the ever expanding personal freedoms of the era. He was a good guy at heart, but that goodness was often hidden by alcoholism and an existential anger. …


Album: Nirvana Bleach

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Long hair and guitars minus makeup and stretch pants…turned up to 11.

Not long ago, Taylor Swift put out an album entitled 1989. Why 1989? Because that’s the year she was born and this seemed symbolic to her as she used the album to transition herself from Nashville country star into a New York pop star. Don’t ask me how I know all that. Another reason was that she’d been listening to lots of music from that era, and was under the illusion that, probably because it was now 27 years old and therefore super vintage, the music from her birth year was actually good. To quote Ms. …


Journey Totally Changed My Life, Man!

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BC…Before Crinkled. And BBC: Before Barcode

May, 1982: Fourth grade was winding down, and a glorious Rocky Mountain spring was in full effect. Robins hopped among the buttercups and greening grass. Baseball gloves and BMX bikes had been dug out of storage. The snow and mud and cabin fever of another long winter were giving way to the hopeful duo of rushing creeks and croaking frogs. …

Family Spring Breaking Part One

Spring break was coming, and we were all set to go camping in southern Utah. Redrock! Canyonlands! Ancient ruins! But the weather wasn’t as warm as we hoped it would be. Lows in the 30’s and highs in the 50’s, and cloudy. Not the sunburny spring break weather we were craving, especially since we’d be in a tent.

So we changed plans and decided to head south to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks. Subterranean beauty! Limestone ramparts! Chihuahuan Desert! But the forecast for the region was updated to include “damaging winds”, something our towering family style dome tent might not survive. …

The long view and the ties that bind

It’s the middle of January, the very depths of winter, yet while most of the country is recovering from blizzards and the now infamous “Polar Vortex”, New Mexico remains mired in serious drought. Cold, but sunny and dry, good for nothing beyond an absurdly extended hiking season. Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time left for snow, and the desert southwest will eventually get some much needed moisture. The creeks will tumble over boulders. The acequias will water the crops. The forests won’t burn to a crisp. That’s what everyone keeps telling themselves. …

Hiking in the new year…

It’s been a cold and dry winter thus far, just like the Farmer’s Almanac predicted, so rather than dust the black widow webs off the skis and drag out all the Gore-Tex and mittens and fleece, I took a hike in the badlands. Or, as Marty Robbins once sang, the Badlands of New Mexico…southbound, down a canyon and out into the wide open Espanola Valley.

Nervously, I parked the car on a Bureau of Land Management road just off the highway. Nervously, because this area is a true rural ghetto with gangs and a flourishing drug trade, and near the highway so folks could see the car and anyone who might be breaking into it. If this sounds paranoid then think of this: Breaking Bad may have put New Mexico on the map as a place of meth, but in this part of the state heroin rules. Meth may be horrible, but heroin addiction is the worst of all, and folks will do anything to get the daily fix that keeps away the agony of withdrawal, including smash a car window to see if there might be something worth pawning inside. …

Chuck Fraser

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