Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Where Have You Gone, Mr. Winegar?

I'm convinced that 95% of kids who grew up in south Davis County in the 1990's either wound up working at the Lagoon amusement park or Dick's Market, a small-town grocery in Centerville. Halfway through my junior year at Viewmont High School I joined the latter group, and for the next 21 months I strapped on a red apron for twenty hours a week, starting at the bargain-basement rate of $3.65 an hour.

It was a love-hate relationship.

On the one hand, bagging groceries was everything you would expect from a job at the age of sixteen: weekend-killing hours, sub-minimum wage pay, and the general sense that you were cut out for better things even though you didn't have an ounce of legitimate work experience.

At the same time, several of my longest and most cherished friendships were born in the crucible that was Dick's Market. Even if we weren't suffering as much as we liked to think, those long hours of bagging groceries and coming up with creative ways to avoid bagging groceries led to a camaraderie that has lasted for years after we stopped strapping on those dumb aprons.

Love it or hate it, Dick's Market was a culture unto itself, complete with class divisions, rivalries, romances, and its own distinct vernacular. We had our own basketball league (DMBA), led by our sport-goggled manager Craig Meads, that met to do battle on holiday mornings when the store was closed, where I channeled my pro-basketball dreams with guys like Mark Farmer and the Mikkelsen and Peterson brothers. We had the annual bagging contest, won by people who worked a lot harder at their job than I did. We had the case lot sale, Lagoon Day, and over everything, we had the myth of the big man himself, Dick Winegar, who I never actually saw in the flesh.

Dick's was an institution, and just over a week ago that institution pulled up its stakes and moved north.

By the time my parents moved to Bountiful when I was four, Dick's Market had already anchored the east end of Pages Lane for thirteen years, only a block from my house. The proximity offered easy access for my dad, who is legally blind and can't drive, and for the residents of the nearby Meadows, a retirement complex that sent a procession of little old ladies scampering back and forth along 400 east as they made the trek to Dick's for their groceries. It was a far cry from those urban neighborhoods where you could live your whole life within 100 yards of your front door, but Dick's was still the classic neighborhood grocery store. Working there almost felt like a rite of passage.

On July 18th, Dick's relocated a couple of miles up the road to Parrish Lane, taking over for the Fresh Market that was owned by the same parent company (Dick's was purchased by the Associated Foods chain back in 2002). While I don't know the exact circumstances, I've heard that ownership was unable to make the necessary expansions to the Pages Lane building to keep it competitive. Of course, now it gets to compete with the Target and Wal-Mart across the street.

Either way, Dick's is gone. Vacated for slightly more spacious pastures. Cleared out of the building that served as the backdrop for my high school years. Cleared out of the aisles where Justin Knighton and Heather Hayward met as baggers and left as man and wife. Cleared out of the front end of the store where Ben Stoneman and I would lasso each other with imaginary disco ropes, not far from the check stands where I used to kill time talking with Mike Bohman and Emily Scharffs and Steve Nelson. Cleared out of the bakery where I'd wander over with Brian Smith to see the bakery chick with the eyes that made "Time of the Season" start playing in our heads. Cleared out of the dry ice bin where Bret Ostler introduced himself by offering to buy all my old Star Wars toys. I hated that job, but it was one of the best jobs I ever had.

It felt a little bit like a betrayal, but I stopped by the new store last weekend. Wal-Mart was out of Otter Pops, and well, when I want my Otter Pops, I want my Otter Pops. There were all kinds of welcome signs, and a few familiar faces (I don't know how they handled the staff overlap between Dick's and the old Fresh Market...do I want to know?). It looked OK, but it felt like the next step in a corporate progression that started long ago. The self-checkout stands were nice.

My best hope is that the remnants of the old Winegar's clan will decide to reopen the place as a non-Associated Foods entity. My biggest worry is that someone will try to turn it into another fitness center. Or just leave it empty, like so many of the properties along Pages Lane.

To capture the moment, I swung by the old building Monday night to take its picture with a camera that probably cost more than I made the entire time I worked there. The credit union is still open, and so is the Ace Hardware, so the kids from Bangerter's farm will still have a place to go blow their weekly wages on candy. Maybe there's still hope that someone will step in and fire up the burners at that once-famous bakery.

Just as long as they hire girls with pretty eyes.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Orange Shag

Last weekend I helped my dad and brother-in-law pull 100 square feet of orange shag carpet out of a tiny room in my parents' basement as an old poster of Pierce Brosnan looked on. It felt like ending a chapter in my life. Several chapters, actually.

Growing up, there were five rooms in my parents' house that featured genuine 1970's shag carpeting. Downstairs in the TV room we had a bright red shag that strangely matched the dark brown wood paneling on the walls. I sat on the red shag next to my new friend Steve the day my family moved in when I was four. We watched a re-run of "Gilligan's Island." Now Steve is married with five daughters and a little boy.

Upstairs in the living room we had a bizarre multi-colored shag carpet, a combination of brown and orange and yellow that was remarkably adept at hiding the scars and stains of its high mileage. I think my parents actually kind of miss that one.

Two bedrooms were also equipped with shag: a yellowish shag in my sister's room, and a lavender shag in my parents'. The yellow shag was the first to go--many years ago my parents pulled it up to reveal a nice hardwood floor. The master bedroom was re-carpeted at the same time the living room shag was replaced.

The last holdout was that tiny room in the basement. For years it was referred to as the "toy room," because that was where my sister and I kept all our toys. That was where I lingered late into the evening one Friday night when I was eight, reading and drawing and waiting for the inevitable moment when my parents would realize I was up way past my bedtime and cast me upstairs to my doom. That moment never came, and I discovered that weekends were my opportunity to live out my true nature as a night owl.

Not long after that big event my parents moved their stereo into the toy room, and it became known as the "music room." With that large wooden cabinet in place against the east wall, flanked by those ancient speakers, I was ready to have one of the transcendent moments of my youth, when I squatted down on that shag carpet as a wide-eyed fourth grader and created my first mix tape out of my mom's Beatles albums.

I must have had a hundred sleepovers on that orange shag, and built a thousand forts on its weave. Most of the posters--like Pierce in his open-shirted Remington Steele glory--are still on the walls, and the south wall is still covered in that strange reflective wallpaper textured with those thin yellow and white stripes. But the orange shag is gone, shipped off to that magical home furnishings heaven where all non-ironic icons of the 1970's go to sing praises to Sherwood Schwartz and the Six-Million Dollar Man.

For the last year I've been on the housing market, searching through all sorts of 1950's-era ramblers and quaint cottages for some wood paneling I can call my own. Every time I step inside a new listing, I marvel at the oddities the previous owner has left behind--wallpaper with fairies and race cars, a collection of Mormon pop cassettes still in their shrink wrap, a bound collection of old 45's with a detailed log of artists and titles pasted into its front cover. By the time anyone walks through my parents' house, there probably won't be much left from my era, now that the flooring has all changed over and the walls have been repainted. But maybe we can make sure Pierce is still there to say hi for us.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Forever Young

If someone asked you for their autograph, what would you do? Would you laugh it off, assuming you had been mistaken for someone else? Would you just write your name, or include some kind of thoughtful message? If you included a message, what would it be?

This is the predicament I found myself in last June after playing a brief show for the students of the Legacy Prep charter school in North Salt Lake. On the strength of two previous performances, my band Thunderlips had been recruited to headline the kids' year-end assembly. We played two 20-minute sets, one for the K-3 kids, and another for the 4th through 6th graders.

Immediately after our first set I was approached by a young girl who had ripped her name tag from her desk.

"Can I get your autograph?" she asked, holding out a black marker.

This request would prove to be the first of many. Following our second set, kids from all over the school approached us with their yearbooks, pens and markers in hand, looking for some tangible evidence of what they had just experienced. As I wrote my name on yearbook after yearbook, feeling their awed stares as I scribbled, it was clear they had little understanding of who we really were.

"So do you guys perform, like, all over the world?" asked one kid.

"Um...not quite," I answered.

Whenever I meet a young child, I usually think about Ray Bradbury's experience as a twelve-year-old growing up in northern Illinois. After a mid-summer trip to the circus, the future author of "The Martian Chronicles" and "Dandelion Wine" approached a magician called Mr. Electrico in search of a mentor, and was rewarded with the inspired command to "live forever." Decades of fantasy and science fiction novels followed, all with the irrepressible fervor of youth pressed firmly between their pages.

Perhaps with that idea working deep on our subconscious, the band had decided to end our performance with a ramped-up version of one of the most iconic school dance songs from our youth: Alphaville's "Forever Young." In our previous performances, we'd played Neil Diamond's "America," and not wanting to repeat ourselves, we still wanted to offer up a tune that had a special meaning to us.

For the first part of the set, we rocked our way through a few favorites, like The Hives' "Hate to Say I Told You So" and the Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash." Then Cheetahman took his place at the keyboard and coaxed out the chords that used to trigger slow dance anxiety in our pre-teen hearts all those years ago.

Then, just as the first chorus hit its final note, I hit my crash cymbal and yanked the band into an accelerated beat. Our quickened pace got everyone to stop swaying back and forth and got them jumping up and down instead. Moments later, with the verses and a few choruses behind us, Thunderlips entered extended jam mode, with about half the student body leaping and screaming at our feet. But out a little farther into the gymnasium, the other half of the student body reacted differently, grabbing each other's shoulders and forming a daisy chain that danced and wound around the gym in a huge circle around the video camera I'd set up on a tripod at mid court. It was corny, but as I sat there behind my drum kit jamming away through a song so intrinsically connected to my youth, watching as the kids celebrated their last day of school in the prime of theirs, I felt like I was passing them a torch as the whole cosmos was coming together into harmony.

Of course, maybe that was just Cheetahman's voice modulator.

Later on, when all those kids came up to me looking for my autograph, it didn't seem right to just sign my name on all of their yearbooks. I had to write something else. Something meaningful. Something Ray Bradbury would have told them.

This is what I added:

"Stay young."

The cosmos came into harmony again four days later when the first man who truly inspired me to write passed away at the age of 91. Eight decades after their encounter, through hundreds of stories and thousands of touched hearts, Ray Bradbury had followed Mr. Electrico's instructions to the very end. And maybe thanks to a little performance in a North Salt Lake charter school, I helped to keep his charge alive.

The Thunderlips - Forever Young (Alphaville cover) from ToolBox on Vimeo.