I could have drowned in your CK One melancholy
and your cheap sunglasses nobody would buy at $30 a pop.
Each time you glided into my store
you asked me to watch your kiosk while you ran to the bathroom.
I wondered if you’d stop at Mrs. Field’s cookies
for yourself or that chick you met while wondering aimlessly
through Contempo Casuals.
Would she appreciate that cookie the way I would
and hold it as if it were the body of Christ?
Would she bring you a food court smoothie in return
and say, “Drink this in remembrance of me?”
Would she hide the disdain for the gel in your hair
the way I would?
I could have been more than the girl
who worked in the pet shop across the way.
All those nights I closed the place alone at only 16,
I could have been the one who got your favorite pizza toppings,
all the ones I hated, knowing I could pick them off
and drop them into your mouth like seedless grapes
from a Playmate cooler on the beach.
I could have been your Some Kind of Wonderful,
to your Eric Stoltz, only I would have biked
down that quiet street to make you run faster.
I could have been some other girl you’d forget
until it was time for you to watch someone die
or convince someone to move on, whichever came first.
My first job was in Eatontown, New Jersey’s Monmouth Mall, as was every other teenager in town. I worked at one of those pet novelty gift shops for people who marry their dogs and cats (no judgment). I’d often open the place up in the summer and regularly close it up by myself at night, which I’m sure was illegal, but hey, it was the 90’s. A lot of scary shit wasn’t happening yet. At least we never knew about it.
I loved working at a store in my Mecca otherwise known as my mall. I needed that opportunity because I wanted to avoid working at Burger King like the bubonic plague. Being elbows deep in burger grease and mop sink water never sat right with me, and I probably sound like the whitest, most entitled priss on the planet for thinking that way. (I did work in a couple of deli’s later in high school so at least give me some credit). Nobody knew that my biggest fear about working at Burger King was 1.) I would have to wait on classmates I despised, and 2.) I would have to count a lot of money and quickly, and I knew I would freeze up like a Push Pop, stick in the ass and all. I have what is now known as Dyscalculia. I don’t like numbers, they hate me, and I shamelessly add and subtract with my fingers – sometimes my toes if I’m wearing flip flops.
Working in a little gift shop in the mall was perfect because most sales were credit card transactions, and it was never busy enough for me to fumble making change. With that being said, the only thing that would make me want to be a teenager in the 21st century is that we don’t even need cash for vending machines anymore.
As a teen, I also had a thing for men much older than me. Working in the mall offered more of an opportunity to be around older guys. Guys I would never talk to anyway unless a friend was willing to embarrass me. Every night when I worked in that pet lover’s crack dispensary, I saw this guy who worked in the kiosk in front of my store. He unknowingly channeled John Cusack, but he had Keanu Reeves’ hair in the movie Parenthood. He had to have been well into his twenties at the time, and I knew I had a better chance of figuring out how to record a show on a VCR while watching something else.
Still, I wondered what it would be like to have coffee with him in a diner at 2 am, if I was allowed to stay out that late. I was used to being freakishly taller than a lot of guys my age, but this guy’s feet must have hung off the foot of his bed. I wanted to know if his lips tasted like Mountain Dew and Parliaments. There was no way he didn’t have a girlfriend, and she must have looked like Justine Bateman when she was on Family Ties. I hope after he finished selling sunglasses at the mall, he got a job in computers and maybe started a garage band that meets up for a bar gig once a year.
Regardless, Monmouth Mall today is on the verge of economic collapse, and there are many, who once called it home, trying to fight for it. Often the social media response is, “It’s just a mall.” But when the mall is where you had your best and worst bonding moments with your mother, if it’s where you went last minute shopping with your Dad on Christmas Eve, if it’s where you first got a job, first fell in love, got into and stayed out of trouble at the same time? Then the downfall of the mall era can feel like the Earth crashing into the sun.
All the Pretty Things
I have become the Lisa Frank rainbow
I will not escape.
These limbs, these lips, this mind
have been rebuilt using what’s left
of the papers, pencils, and shiny stickers
of too many yesterdays.
If you look closely, you can see the old games of M.A.S.H
in my eyes. Study my hands close enough,
you might still smell the Scratch & Sniffs I tried to salvage
from notebook covers, spelling tests,
and my heirloom jewelry box.
I may have a pink zebra print pencil or two in a box somewhere,
and one day I’ll use them to write my next unfinished book,
the one about a much smaller, inkless world,
or the one about the letters that write, fold, and send
themselves to the ones we forgot to love.
When I was young, I wasn’t the notebook, journal, pen, and pencil whore I am now. One huge binder, not a Trapper Keeper because Mom thought they wouldn’t be big enough, a few Bics, some folders, and a pencil pouch with the New Kids’ faces on them and I was good to go. My mother was into the simple practicality of school supplies. Mead, Ticonderoga, and black and white composition books filled our cart at K-Mart every late August. When I wanted the really girly stuff, like the colorful, sparkly, unicorn goodness of Lisa Frank products, I had to get grandma to take me to Jamesway.
Jamesway was similar to a K-Mart, Caldor, Ames, or Woolworth’s, and I believe it even had a luncheonette at one point. Maybe not, but I miss the whole concept of lunch counters in department stores. My parents met in one, so let’s just say if it wasn’t for the K-Mart snack bar that once existed in Dover, New Jersey, I wouldn’t be here writing this hodgepodge of nostalgia.
During my two week summer vacation visits with my grandparents, we frequented all the discount stores. When it came to school supplies, I made out like a bandit, and most of it ended up lost in the abyss that was my classroom desk cubby.
Jamesway was also the go-to:
- for oversized neon T-shirts with plastic clips and spandex shorts to match.
- for the Get in Shape, Girl! fitness sets that told 10 year old girls they should look like Olivia Newton John
- the Skip It or the Pogo Ball that meant certain death to a klutzy kid prone to skinned knees and head contusions
- or for preteen games like Girl Talk Dateline, Mall Madness, and Heartthrob. In reality, didn’t we all end up with the dorky Homers as opposed to the surfers or the hot ski instructors named Joel or Trent? And would we want it any other way? Those games, as fun as they were, sparked our delusions quite early.
When my grandmother died in 2011, I wrote a poem to put into her casket – a thank you of sorts that no one else could read, and I have no recollection as to what it said. Hopefully it mentioned all the New Kids stuff she’d win for me at carnivals and all the stickers she would buy me at whatever store we roamed – when all the other kids were hitting rocks on Slip n’ Slides and drinking from the hose.
I bet you never messed up an old lady’s sweater at Burger King
by pounding on a ketchup packet until it burst.
Did you have an arcade in town
where teenagers had sex on the pool tables?
I’m sure there wasn’t an old cemetery with shattered stones
behind your 7-Eleven, or did your town have a dark roller rink
hundreds of kids could have named Dad every other weekend?
Did you get to touch a piece of the Berlin Wall when it visited your mall?
I bet you never had a real Orange Julius.
Or a pizzeria run by real Italians, when the placemats
had maps of Italy on them instead of ads for dentists and lawyers.
I’m sure you didn’t bump into copious amounts of Ben Cooper masks
on Halloween night, nor did you have a homemade ice cream shop
that stayed open in snowstorms.
I wonder if you ever rode in your Dad’s Buick
during one of those storms because he wanted
a big cup of vanilla soft serve.
Cars aren’t built like tanks anymore.
Maybe towns are made the same way either.
Yes, when I was 6 or 7, my extremely underdeveloped mind decided to smash some ketchup packets, one of which broke open and made an abstract painting on some lady’s delicately knitted sweater. Mom was mortified and we apologized profusely, but the lady was so gracious and brushed it off. Thank God it was the 80’s.
The long forgotten cemetery in a small copse of woods was actually behind a Quick Chek, but I figured more readers could relate to 7-Eleven. A rumor spread for years about a man who hung himself in that cemetery. The noose snapped but the rope stay hung on the tree. When my friends and I would cut through those woods to get to the store, we’d spend several shaded minutes under those trees, trying to catch a glimpse of that rope. Cryptic as hell, I know, and I’m not sure if the story was true. Frankly, it’s nobody’s right to know. There was a time when we didn’t think we had a right to know everything. I just hope that no matter the outcome, that man found his peace, and if that rope did exist in those woods, I am happy no one ever found it.
Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, a tall slab of if came to town and stood markedly inside the mall, right near the entrance to Caldor. Small pieces of the concrete were sold in little plastic display cases, and my Dad quickly brought home a piece of history. Now, did a genuine piece of the Berlin Wall stand in front of the entrance to Caldor in Eatontown, NJ? Was a relic from one of the most significant events in contemporary history hanging out in front of a discount store where the working class went to buy cubic zirconia and Fruit of a Loom? I’ll leave that for you to decide. I’m not breaking my old man’s heart since he still has that little rock sitting in a curio to this day.
But this poem makes one thing for certain. Kids today are not getting the hometowns we grew up with. The arcades, the Caldors, the sweaty Ben Cooper masks, the local legends and myths, and the shortcuts through the woods to buy sodas and candy – all that seems to have dissipated and replaced with Candy Crush, No Trespassing signs, extinct department retailers that turn into seasonal Halloween stores, expensive escape rooms, and steel water bottles that sound like bombs being dropped when they fall to the floor.
What seemingly miniscule details from your hometown stand out to you the most? If you still live in your hometown, this should be a piece of cake. If you don’t, think about what landmarks are no longer standing, what annual events no longer happen, or what rumors, myths, or legends still hold on for the older generations?
The old Little People toys
sitting on the library shelf,
with their weary faces and colors,
watch me as if staring at a couple
who hate each other, fight
in the middle of a Walmart.
They see my new cars,
the disorganized rooms,
the second notices,
the grocery haul for the kids
who will never exist.
I question if they facepalm
themselves when I’m not looking.
Then I remember, thank God
they weren’t made with hands back then.
So I ignore the unfolded laundry piles
while eating Fruit Roll-Ups
and Dixie Cup ice creams with wooden spoons.
I look out the window
at all the street racing Hyundais passing by,
doing 40 in a 25, and remind those little
fading faces on the shelf that they’ve got it good
right where they’re at.
The old Little People actually belong to my packrat husband who I love so much more than Dixie Cups. But those toys reside on one of my bookshelves in our home, so they are also mine by default. I used to pester him all the time about not letting shit go – when in doubt, throw it out – or at least donate the stuff to kids who are going to question why the little dog doesn’t have legs or why Big Bird and Cookie Monster don’t have arms or mouths. When you’re a 40-something year old teacher in the 2020s, you find yourself explaining a lot of things that are beyond the kids’ comprehension. If you ever find yourself trying to describe a Sit and Spin, or Qbert, or Gobots to a kid today, remember to choose laughter over tears.
But I get it now. It’s important to hold on to pieces of your youth that helped shape who you are now. The smell, the look, or the feel of something long forgotten but then suddenly dug out from a cardboard box can provide a recharge you didn’t think you needed.
That one used to be the bad boy
you knew your father would hate.
That one kind of reminded your Mom
of a young Franki Vallie.
That’s the guy who can bench press a Buick,
but that guy would likely give you a puppy for your birthday.
That one could be in a biopic about the Rat Pack,
and that guy has a thing for wind and open button-downs.
He has eyes like water lily leaves in an autumn marsh.
Yet this guy would be the one who’d never take his time,
but once he has you, he’ll take all the time in the world.
That’s the guy whose name you knew you’d see alone
on a marquee covered in lights.
Everyone knew he’d be the one who would cancel a date
to take care of his mom.
This one has the voice heard only by God
and the girls who married him in front of their VCR’s.
That guy doesn’t wear helmets, makes his own rhymes,
and tells the critics where to go because opinions
are like the appendix, everyone has one at some point,
but its as useless as an ex-lover.
That’s the guy who puts the ten in “tenor”,
who sang his children to sleep,
and would never forget Valentine’s Day.
That’s the one who never wants to see you go.
He’s the guy who had to lose himself in lumber and soil
in order to find his place in the world.
That guy had to play the roles of soldier, cop,
a mentally unhinged man, all so he could bring back the time.
A time we all needed to rewind.