Charles Dickens didn't live in Buffalo in 1985. Nonetheless: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Indecisive bastard, that Dickens.
Working in a record store was the best job I'd ever had. I'll pause now to allow everyone to reply with a passionate Duh. Other than writing--and even that might have been a maybe at that point in my life--this seemed to be what I was born to do. Hey, ya got that record...? Yessir, right over here. Do you know that Bob Dylan song that goes, "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend?" Yep, it's called "Positively 4th Street," it's on his Greatest Hits album; no, you can't return it if I'm wrong, but I'm not wrong. Watching a teenaged girl blush and giggle while asking if Animotion's "Obsession" was the 45 she was looking for, the one with that line, y'know...? ("What do you want me to be to make you sleep with me?," I replied helpfully in song; DON'T SAY THAT OUT LOUD! she protested, blushing even more.) Or the time a customer tried to return a 12" single of Madonna's "Into The Groove" because it was, like, Tears For Fears on the record instead of Madonna; not realizing it was a 45 rpm single, she'd played it at 33 1/3, slowing Ms. Ciccone's normally-chirpy vocals to the point she sounded like a mopey British guy instead. We shared a laugh, and I told her not to be embarrassed. No big deal, right? Here you go, ma'am. Thanks fer shoppin' at Cavages!
I was still trying to write, too. As noted waaaaay back in Part 1, I made my first freelance sale to Krause Publications with a history of the Batman TV series, published in the Summer 1985 issue of Comics Collector. I continued to write for Amazing Heroes. I tried my hand at more submissions to Creem magazine, to no avail. I wrote a short story, "Thicker Than Water," which I tried to sell to a sword & sorcery anthology book edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley; I missed the submission deadline, but it wouldn't have mattered--the story was abysmal (though the first few paragraphs were pretty good; I should salvage those and start over some day, ditching the rest of it). I wrote an unpublished script for an original superhero called The Electric Angel, intended for a fanzine published by Queen City Bookstore. I worked on a number of submissions to DC Comics; over the course of my time in Buffalo, my DC submissions included pitches for original characters--Captain Infinity, Lawman--and the occasional stab at existing DC properties (The Justice League of America in "The Trial Of Doctor Light!"). The only thing that warranted anything more than a perfunctory rejection slip (if that) from DC was a pitch for a character called The Trident, a World War II-era hero I envisioned as "what if Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had created a two-fisted black superhero in the '40s?" In a letter accompanying a bunch of rejected stuff returned to me by DC, I was informed that my plot outline for The Trident's origin story, "A Trident Glows In Brooklyn!," was being forwarded to the editor of DC's New Talent Showcase for further consideration--"can't promise anything," though. I never heard any more from DC about The Trident, so I'm sure it's still under consideration. Gotta be, right? Hope springs infernal!
And I was also doing a lot of artwork. As a kid, I wanted to become a comic book writer and artist, but my art didn't develop at the same pace my writing did. My eighth grade art teacher encouraged me; my ninth grade art teacher did not, and that was that. But I still have my mid-'80s sketch book, and I tell ya--there was something there. It was raw, undeveloped, and it's doubtful I could have ever done much with it. But I had some basic potential; with time and effort at an earlier age, maybe I could have honed that skill into something worthwhile.
|I was experimenting with swipes in my '85 sketches, trying to learn from the best. The bottom two Batman images are copies of Marshall Rogers, my favorite Batman artist. Main figure is probably original, with an idea dating back to my teen years.|
|That bad guy? He is so screwed...!|
I was 25. I felt like a kid again. Good times? Maybe.
Working in fast food is a peculiar experience, and everyone should do it at least once in his/her life. It can be more physically demanding than critics would concede; one needs to actually work if one expects fast food to be...well, fast. We need twelve regs! Twelve bun crowns in the warmer, twelve frozen, 1/10th of a pound frozen patties slapped on the grill, timer hit. First timer sounds, you sear the meat to the grill. Second timer sounds, you flip the burgers over and apply diced onions. Crowns come out of the warmer, heels go in, and you apply ketchup, mustard and pickle, while yelling out, "Cheese on twelve regs?" Cheese seven, please! Seven slices of cheese on seven almost-done patties, tray of buns now affixed next to the grill. Final timer sounds, patties come off the grill, two at a time, and meet their whitebread partners. Heels are removed from the warmer and are placed, in one movement, atop the finished burgers. The tray of twelve burgers is passed to the guy or gal calling bin. "Regs are up!" Thank you. And on to the next order.
Elapsed time: 90 seconds.
If you were working grill alone, as I usually was, you would also need to take care of the quarter-pounder grill, the Filet-O-Fish vat, the pie vat, and the Chicken McNuggets vat. Workers at the counter took care of the fries. You develop a rhythm. You work fast, but precisely--just like The Ramones! You clean as you go. If you have time to lean, you have time to clean! I'd been an assistant manager at McDonald's of Brockport years before, and had once considered making that my career. Now, I just wanted to work the grill and collect a paycheck. One busy night in '85, I saw that the cashiers were falling behind, so I snuck up to the counter, took one quick order, and then moved back to the grill to keep things moving. The manager on duty saw me, and said, Carl! You know how to work register?! "No, Bill," I replied firmly. "No. I don't. You didn't see that." I could have counted out the registers, done the books, and taken care of the ordering--I had experience in all of that--but now I just wanted to make some extra cash workin' the damned grill. Period.
My most memorable McDonald's shift was one summer night in 1985, as I stood at the grill fryin' up some Big Macs, and I heard a fight break out in the lobby. During my time in Buffalo, I'd have to say that fights were not an unusual occurrence. Like, at all. I ignored it--I was just the cook, man--until someone cried out, He's got a knife!
I grumbled and tossed aside my spatula, forsaking the Big Mac patties that I would have to discard in a few minutes. I saw the knife-wielder--big guy--already restrained by, I think, three other people, who were struggling to stop him. He still had the knife. I jumped behind him, put one hand behind his head and another around his neck, and started pounding his goddamned head against the counter, calmly but firmly telling him, "Let go of the fucking knife." Rhythmically! Like, "Let go [WHOMP!] of the fucking [WHOMP!] knife [WHOMP!]" A friend of the assailant tried to order me to let him go, to which I replied, "As soon [WHOMP!] as he lets go [WHOMP!] of the fucking [WHOMP!] knife." Police arrived, crowd dispersed, order restored, Big Macs ruined. Waste twelve regs, please? Thank you.
This McDonald's closed at...11 o'clock? Midnight? I forget. Bars in Buffalo were open until 4 am. Jimmy J's was literally right across the street from my McDonald's. So, after we finished closing, I would often join some of my co-workers for a beer or several. Although I was only 25, some of the girls at McDonald's thought I was a cute and engaging old guy. I bantered and joked, but kept 'em at arm's length. One of them joked that I was the only guy at McDonald's she hadn't slept with yet. I'm pretty sure she was kidding--I think--but I especially kept her at arm's length, just in case. I was married. I wanted to stay married.
|Dream on, old man--no fries for YOU!|
The downtown Cavages was...man, what can I say about this? Awright: the manager was selling drugs in the store, grass at least, maybe more. I knew it, my co-workers knew it, everybody knew it (except maybe--maybe--the cop who worked security for us every day). We all either looked the other way, or shrugged, or just accepted. Indifference is bliss. In retrospect, I guess I should have ratted him out. That was inconceivable to me at the time--who was I, Zal Yanovsky?--and I still can't really picture me doing that. But I'd have been better off in the long haul if I had.
|Don't blame me or the rest of the Spoonful, man--we just asked IF you believed in magic. Sucker.|
Bad times? I would have denied it at the time. Looking back, however....
It was a pretty wild 'n' wooly place to work. Some of the customers were crazy, all of the staff was loopy in some way (present company included), and the bar upstairs at the mall could count Cavages employees among its regular clientele, even during work hours. Call me a stick in the mud, or call me Ishmael, but I can honestly say that I never--never--worked a shift under the influence of anything stronger than Mountain Dew. I cannot honestly say that I never worked a shift hung over.
The most notable regular at Cavages was a colorful guy named Lou Biondi, aka Mad Louie, or Louie the Mad Vinyl Junkie. Mad Louie worked at City Hall or something, I think, but no one cared about that; no, Mad Louie was a legendary record fanatic, an irascible guy with whom I got along famously. He was thrilled that Cavages had someone like me workin' the retail shelves, someone who actually knew who The Chocolate Watchband were. This would eventually be another brick in my wall, dammit, but it was cool at the time. Mad Louie met his pal Bernie Kugel every day for lunch at the mall; Bernie was the leader of a swell garage band called The Mystic Eyes, and a good guy in his own right.
As much as I loved working in a record store, I knew I needed to make more money. McDonald's wasn't filling in the gap sufficiently, and the writing sure as hell wasn't paying any bills, so I started to look elsewhere. I somehow got an interview, and even a follow-up interview, with the local public television station for some kind of writing job. Because of my lack of any discernible experience, the woman I spoke with there was unsure about me, but reluctant to rule me out for the job. She saw...something in me, it seemed. I wasn't qualified. But maybe...maybe....
In the end, it didn't matter. I had to withdraw my application with the station; Cavages was promoting me. The circumstances of the promotion were troubling: the staff at Cavages' Thruway Mall location, where I'd worked before transferring to Main Place Mall, had been dismissed en masse, for reasons that seemed petty and insignificant. My best pal there, Fritz Van Leaven, had already been let go for even stupider, pickier reasons. Hey, was that some kind of warning shot that just singed my widow's peak? But I went along with it. I needed the money, I'd earned the promotion, and I was getting my own store. I quit McDonald's, and I apologized to the woman at PBS who'd been so nice to me. This ain't no Mudd Club, no CBGB's--I ain't got time for that now. I was managing a record store.
The best of times? The worst of times? Yeah. Both true, I fear. There were better times to come, but there were worse times coming, too.
WHEN The Road To GOLDMINE RETURNS: A Shaft. A Light.
You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby!