Hello all, I’ve been doing a lot of 80’s, 90’s, Gen X nostalgia writing. Find me at idrankfromthegardenhose.com

A Kmart Story – when all other musings fail, write about a dying department store

I’m about to get off-the-chain sappy over a store famous for its blue light specials and kids’ shoes that fell apart after one venture through the mud — K-mart. Now, I’m not going to beg you to stay with me through this because at this time in the 21st century — the age of nosediving retail, overrated human interaction, inconvenient hard copies, and sacrificial privacy — you may be thinking why should anyone care about an obsolete department store that had a long, prosperous life? Time to sprinkle its ashes in the sea of Baby Boomer/Gen X nostalgia. But if you hear me out, you may look at classic retail Meccas from a different angle.

Recently, New Jersey news sources announced the closing of several more Sears and Kmart stores. Both retail outlets have been on the edge of collapse for years, falling into the depths of obscurity with other classics such as Toys R Us, Blockbuster Video, Caldor, and Crazy Eddies. The latest Kmart slated to close in April is in West Long Branch, seconds away from Eatontown, where I grew up.

Maybe it’s another bipolar-ish, midlife crisis thing, but I find myself to be remarkably depressed over this. The last Kmart I walked into was in West Orange in 2018. I think I needed a feminine product a-sap, and it was the cheapest place closest to my job at the time. Regardless, I can’t help but feel, yet again, a significant factor that contributed to my upbringing is being taken from me.

Trips to Kmart with my parents were some of the earliest bonding times I can remember at this point. Here is what I have. This is what the 2020’s are not going to take away from me.

I have the shopping trips when I would hide underneath the round clothing racks and annoy the hell out of my mother.

I have the kiddie pool I picked up with my Dad, how it barely fit in the back seat of his red Buick, how I sat underneath its blue plastic on the way home like it was a canopy keeping the sun from heating the faux white leather seats.

I have the school clothes that were put on layaway, the agony of waiting to wear them, the anguish over being made fun of because they came from K-mart.

Mom purchased random water guns and action figures for my brother and I just because we were significantly better behaved than most of the other kids in the store.

But I also have the time when I wandered too far away from my mother, cried for a cashier to call for her over the intercom, only to see her blonde, blue-eyed, porcelain face smiling at me seconds later. No matter what, she knew how to find and save us.

Kmart was a time for friends too. I’d go shopping with my friends and their mothers once in a while, and I’d stare in awe at their different shopping habits. For a brief amount of time, Kmart wasn’t synonymous with particular classes of people. Everyone shopped there. But much like the Walmarts of today, Kmart shoppers often made it clear where they stood in life by what they bought, how they shopped for it, and why they thought they needed it.

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman — “Kmart sucks.”

I have the kick-ass snack bar! Yes, Kmarts had snack bars at one point. I’m not 100% sure the snack bar was that great, but to this day, there are few things that give me more joy than eating bad food wrapped in foil or plastic. Plus, I relished every moment of dining out with my mother — no matter if it was day-old, K-mart hot dogs or gloriously glutoness diner food, Jersey represent!

I miss shopping with my grandmother and great-grandmother for dog food, paper goods, and pre-teen board games like “Girl Talk”. I miss when my grandmother conversed with cashiers like they were human beings. She noticed and embraced every layer of people that way.

I have the fact that my parents met on a blind “date” at the same Kmart in Dover. Actually, my grandmother and my dad worked together at one point, and grandma thought my dad would be interested in my mom. So she planned to take my mom shopping. They were to meet “by chance” at the entrance of the store, and my dad (being absolutely no different than most guys on this planet) did a drive-by to see if mom was worth getting out of the car. Well, you’re reading this, so you know how that went. He stole a couple sodas from the unattended snack bar, they sat at a booth, and the rest is history. That Kmart closed in the early 2000’s, and the building was torn down about a year ago. There’s a photo of the rose my dad tied to the fence surrounding the rubble.

Overall, stores, restaurants, parks, and neighborhoods shape who we are in a lot of ways. When we have to see them fall apart, another piece of a simpler time goes down with the steel and concrete. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to get back one more Kmart day with the family. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to get back a lot of things. For now, I will thank God that my non-existent short term memory will keep my long-term memory shining and spinning like those blue lights.

Looking for thoughts and feedback – fictional alternative school series.

So I am in the midst of working on a fictional series about the teachers and students of an alternative, special needs high school for at-risk teens, set in Northern, NJ. I am open to any suggestion, comments, and constructive criticism as long as it is, in fact, constructive. 

Overall, the intention is to have a strong sense of place – a blending of the peaceful, suburban, and rural areas of NJ and the concrete poverty and bleakness of the inner cities, which is not seen in these particular excerpts. The series will involve a lot of social commentary about education, racism and racial profiling, drugs, guns, gangs, teenage pregnancy, wage gaps, etc. A lot of humor and human stories will have to mix with the pain and conflicts between the adults and the children. There has to be the same tension within the circle of staff, inside and outside of the school, and in their home lives. 

Setting – a small school building that used to be a Catholic elementary school, shares property with a church, situated on the outskirts of a suburban, residential area. 

Other settings – rural Sussex county, Newark, parts of Essex county, Paterson, TBD

3rd person omniscient narrator

Excerpt 1

“Never underestimate what these kids can do, Ms. Chambers – the good and the bad. We’ve had kids who can pass advanced calc, and we’ve had kids who couldn’t tell you who we fought in the Vietnam War. We have kids who can write songs that are right up there with Tupac, and we have kids who can’t read their own court papers. We are the mixed grill of Special Education. Of course, sometimes we’re short a rib or two,” twirling her finger around her ear.

The moment Mac and Becca step into the art room, Carter is dancing on a uniquely-designed bench, but it looks more like he is mimicking the crane technique from The Karate Kid. The students stand on there own small benches laughing, dancing, or throwing various hand signs as rap music plays on a small stereo system. Mac turns the volume down to a minimum and everyone turns to look at their principal.

“Mr. Tinsdale, what the hell? Last time I checked this isn’t twerking class.” Mac bellows in a tone the others know isn’t serious so they laugh, except Rebecca, who’s not sure how to react to Mac’s nuances yet.

“My dear, Ms. Mac,” Carter jumps down from his stool and makes quick eye contact with Rebecca. His students begin gathering painting supplies from the numerous shelves in his room.

Holy shit, please tell me this is not the new VP. God, you are a cruel, cruel man.

“We’re just letting off some first-day steam before painting and wood burning the benches we built over the summer.”

“Please make sure they don’t burn down the building. You know I was this close,” Mac shows him an inch between her thumb and finger, “to getting rid of the kiln last year!”
“Angel was the dumb ass who put his Math book on top of the damn thing when it was on,” affirms a tall, male student with long dreads.

“Watch it, Moe. Don’t let me get into your rocket incident in Science class,” Mac quips, spurring on friendly jibing amongst the students.

“Hi, Carter Tinsdale,” holding out his hand to Rebecca which she takes, “and yes, I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“Pleasure,” Rebecca slightly rolls her eyes at his mischievous wink.

“Cart here is the resident smart-ass. But he coaches basketball and the kids seem to like him,” Mac snaps her fingers at one of the kids sitting on the windowsill. In response, the student jumps down immediately. She moves in to chat with a couple of girls in the class as they paint.

“See, now why would I want to teach anywhere else when I’m slapped with this much morale on a daily basis?” He grins at Rebecca who is not paying him much attention.

Rebecca glances at the bench Carter was standing on, noticing some obscure designs and random text burned into the distress-painted wood. She assumes it’s his own work.

“So what are they going to be doing exactly?” she asks, hoping to not sound too condescending but not caring too much at the same time.

“I’m calling the project “Sit On Your Goals”. And yes, the kids often change ‘sit’ to ‘shit’.” She doesn’t give him the most amused look. “After they paint their benches, they are going to use permanent marker to write out their goals for the Fall underneath. After that they are going to use the wood burning pens to create their own designs and add some quotes, lyrics, manifestos, hit lists, whatever.” Once again she ignores his attempt at humor.

“I see. Well, I look forward to reading the goals and objectives for the lesson. But I like the life skills aspect of the project,” she replies professionally. “Why only the Fall? What about the whole year?”

“It’s a tenuous enough task for our children to plan their weeks, even their days. It’s best to focus on the relative short term.” To Becca, it sounds like he is almost mocking her professional tone. She gives him a derisive, tight-lipped smile.

Of course, he is a jackass. Shocker.

“Ok Ms. Chambers let’s finish the tour. Carter, keep the damn music down. We’re not running an Atlantic City nightclub here.” Mac and Becca turn to leave.

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Chambers,” he calls out to her with exaggerated pleasantry as she leaves. She turns and waves as the classroom door shuts.

“God damn, that’s gonna be the new VP? She fine as hell! Coach, you better get on that!” a student named Valiant exclaims. Carter scoffs and rolls his eyes.

“Val, did you not notice the subzero temperature drop when they were in the room? For once it wasn’t coming from Ms. Mac.” Some of the students have a quick snicker then turn back to their projects after Carter signals to them to get back to work.

Yep, definitely a tight-ass…cute but frigid. Oh yeah, this is going to be a great year.

He smirks as he helps one of his students whose good hand is wrapped in a cast. Carter’s sketches cover the hard blue shell…

Excerpt 2

“Vocab test every Thursday? Misty, come on man. You buggin!” John-John exclaims, pushing his folder away and putting his head on his desk.

“Quit ya’ll complaining, you want to get out of the hood, stop talking like the hood,” asserts Tracy, Misty’s teaching assistant, always happy to add a little extra punch to her friend and colleague’s more subdued demeanor.

Misty walks in a slow circle around a group of student desks that are huddled into one large rectangle. She looks closely at each of her kids as she explains her reasoning for regular testing.

“Oh, my lovelies, my fabulous homeroom, my poster children for celibacy,” she claps her hands twice and puts on a beaming smile. “We are going to rock so much vocab that by the end of the year, you’ll be able to verbally shoot down any asshole who crosses your path without them knowing it. Trust me it feels phenomenal.” She gets a small, supportive chuckle from most of her students.

“What da fuck does celibacy mean?” asks Imani with a perplexed look on her face as she rubs her bulging stomach and fans herself with her folder.

“That, my dear, is exactly my point. And it means to not get married.”

“Word,” Sam responds, holding up his fist for Misty to bump.

Misty didn’t want to bring up the no sex part of celibacy in front of her pregnant, 15 year old student.

Too late.

Imani is a sharp, spirited girl, but she can turn on a dime. Misty snaps her fingers lightly in John-John’s ear making him pick up his head with a dramatic suck of his teeth. Every one of her homeroom students is a familiar face to Pacesetters’ one and only English teacher.

She glances at Sam Adams, rubbing his beard and trying to look studious and pretentious, letting out pensive “hmmms” as he reads the student contract attached to his work folder. He knows he’ll get a few laughs from his classmates for posing like an over privileged snob. Misty often gets a kick out of having a student named after her favorite lager despite Sam’s turmoil over having the same name as a president, and more significantly, a beer.

Takia, Misty’s 19 year old pistol, sifts through her assignments sitting in her folder. She is ready to start, writing her name on all of the papers and carefully studying her personal agenda for the first marking period.

“Woah, Mist. SAT prep? You know I’m too dumb for that shit. Can’t it wait till next marking period?” Takia gives her teacher an exaggerated look of panic.

“Nope. As the great William Butler Yeats said, “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; make it hot by striking.”

Christian rocks roughly back and forth in his seat, taps on the table, and gives an OK sign, telling her he likes the quote.

“I am glad you agree, Christian,” she grins and places her hands on his shoulders, applying pressure which helps soothe his tics. He pretends to hold a pencil and scribbles in the air, his way of asking if he should start the interest survey sitting in front of his folder’s To-Do side…

(much later in Book 1)

“Ladies, come on, we’re young and hot and in Atlantic City for God’s sake. Here we are sitting around like the damn Golden Girls. Let’s go to a club or something,” Reapplying her mascara, Tracy stands in front of the mirror in her Bally’s hotel room that she’s sharing with Rebecca. 

Misty lies on her side on Tracy’s bed, still wearing the black pencil skirt and tucked-in blue blouse she wore at dinner, reading one of Tracy’s Essence magazines. Rebecca sits on the loveseat with her MacBook on her lap, but she is hardly concentrating on her screen, chewing on her thumb nail and stewing over Carter’s remarks about how well she gels with Pacesetter’s population. 

Errr, what the absolute fuck? There is no way him and Misty came from the same womb.

Becca then remembers the recent passing of mom Tinsdale and quickly regrets her scathing thoughts.  

“So does that make me Bea Arthur, the bitter, divorced, but hilarious English teacher? At least tell me I have a way better rack than she did. May God rest her soul,” Misty blows a kiss towards the ceiling and returns her attention to the article she’s reading. 

“I can deal with being Blanche then,” Tracy hikes up her leg onto the dresser to wipe a smudge off her leather stiletto boots. 

“That would make Becca the Betty White of the group,” she quickly glances at her VP with a smirk. Rebecca is in a fog. 

“Helloooo…come down from Cloud 39, Rebecca Chambers. It’s 9 pm at Teacher’s Convention, nobody is supposed to be working right now,” Misty throws a decorative pillow at Becca which finally gets her attention. 

“Hmm, what are you guys saying?” Becca asks sleepily, releasing a dramatic yawn.   

The day of lecturing and small group interactions amongst educators took its toll on the Pacesetter women. Pool by day, bar hopping by night is a common misconception regarding teacher week in Atlantic City. Okay, so there is a fair amount of truth there. However, the teachers and administrators in attendance, who take the workshops seriously, get pummeled with new ideas and inspiration, at least enough to get them to Holiday Break.  

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Tracy gestures toward Becca, “Hell no, should we be ready to turn in for the night. Let’s go blow some Benjamins and get our drinks on,” Tracy smacks Misty on the butt before taking a long pair of silver earrings from the end table and putting them on with ease. 

“When you say Benjamins, you do mean money, right? Not dudes named Ben,” Misty winks at her friend who is now adjusting her boobs so they sit correctly in her form-fitting red dress. 

“Girl, shut up and get a move on. Becca, close that God forsaken computer before I beat you upside the head with it.” 

Becca sighs but does as she is told. She then looks down wearily at her appearance – her scuffed ballerina flats, lint-covered dress pants, and her white scoop neck T under her pink, long-sleeved button down, every button fastened except the one at the collar. Far from nightlife attire. She knows this even though she’s never been in a real club, at least not as a patron. She reaches for her hair and remembers that her pin-straight locks are tied in a messy ponytail. Ordinarily, she couldn’t care less about her appearance in these rare situations, but this feels somehow different. Misty and Tracy fit the scene in their form-fitting skirts, flawless makeup, and ample breasts peeking over their necklines revealing the perfect amount of cleavage. 

“You go ahead. I’m beat anyway. Business attire is all I brought with me, so I will NOT look as good as you guys.” Tracy and Misty look at each other confusedly then look at Rebecca who is now taking a pair of flannel pajamas out of her bag. 

“Bec, you are the youngest one in this room, and Tracy and I have already committed to getting you some D this weekend. So change into whatever you have that’s best and let Trace do your makeup.” 

“I do not need any D, Amanda, I am fine. Just go and have a good time,” Becca tries to be insistent as she begins unbuttoning her shirt to get changed into her PJ’s. “D means “dick” in this case, right?” she whispers. 

“Oh Lord in heaven,” Misty sighs.  

“Oh, gotta an idea! When I went shopping with Mac during our lunch hour I ran into H&M and picked up this dress for my niece. You and her are the exact same size, and you’ll look hot as hell in it,” Tracy digs into a shopping bag then holds up a daringly short dress with small off-the-shoulder sleeves. The inner lining is a peach color that can be seen through the overlaying black lace. 

“Tracy, I am not getting in that thing. Where the hell is the rest of it? There are bathing suits that cover more skin. Nope, nope, not doing it. Nope,” keeping a stern look, Becca waves her hands in front of her face and shakes her head like a child who doesn’t want to go to the doctor. 

“Bec, come on! Get the stick out of your ass. Okay fine, if you don’t want us to help you hook up, so be it. I was kidding anyway…kind of. Let’s just have a chill evening, and you will look incredible in that dress.” 

Rebecca sat heavily onto her bed and rubbed her temples. Misty and Tracy have become more than colleagues over the last two months. She considers them mentors and possibly her friends even though she is aware both of them still see her as a naive, fledgling square peg trying to fit into a round hole, and she’s convinced a great deal of that comes from Carter’s influence. Her go-to colleagues were fun to hang out with, and she doesn’t want to disappoint them, but at the same time, the last place she wants to be is a bar when she doesn’t have to be there for secondary income. Plus, there is no way she can afford to gamble. 

“Is this because my brother is an ass hat?” It’s as if Misty could hear Becca’s thoughts. 

“No! I would never let your brother’s pigheadedness determine what I do and don’t do,” trying to convince herself as well as them. 

“Yeah right,” Misty whispers to Tracy who rolls her eyes, “So then let’s do this. You need a night out just as much as we do. No pressure, I swear,” she holds up her right hand. 

The two women now look like it’s Christmas morning as they wait for their VP to make a decision. After a long pause, staring at her friends’ eager faces, she turns up a small smile and stands.

“Fine, whatever,” throwing up her hands in surrender.

They let out small cheers for their Vice Principal before Tracy digs out her overstuffed make-up bag from her suitcase.