Bring me back…

When you are a 40-something special education teacher with depression and anxiety, you don’t get too many quiet moments to simply reflect and process. Occasionally, a seemingly obscure moment – whether it’s listening to a new or old song, watching a scene from an impactful movie, revisiting an episode of a classic sitcom, or a having a brief encounter with a stranger – this moment will come out of no where and remind you of what you once had, what you have now, and what you can still lose. This is especially true in this digital age where we allow our whole lives to be accessible. I had one of these moments this morning, and it hit me with its best shot. 

I woke up a half an hour before my alarm to go to the bathroom, and I cannot think of many things that are more infuriating, besides getting whipped with a Twizzler. So I figured it was not worth going back to sleep only to be ripped from my ten minutes of additional slumber. As I often do, I got back into bed and screwed around on my phone, trying desperately not to fall into a teasing sleep. I’ll often watch true crime videos on YouTube (why I do this in the dark when my anxiety-laced brain is incapable of any rational thought, I do not know), but sometimes I’ll listen to music and/or watch music videos. Several days before I received a notification about a brand new New Kids on the Block song and video, so I decided to check it out. 

Let me just pause by saying, without an ounce of shame, that I still love those handsome sons of bitches from Beantown. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was all about that scene – posters, magazines, books, buttons, a hat with the top cut off, I had a lot of stuff – my collection was nothing compared to all the girls who owned the dolls, bedsheets, shower curtains, trading cards, and marbles. Mom never let me go that crazy because as the wise woman she was, she knew the phase would pass. And it did. It just sort of happened. They disappeared. I disappeared into the 90’s world of flannel shirts, Doc Martens, dyed fire engine red hair, and grunge. 

It took about fourteen years for me to discover that they were back together, touring regularly, making new music, and establishing a following of young and old, male as well as female. Years ago, I worked with someone who told me about seeing the New Kids in concert, and I assumed it was a random reunion show and didn’t think much of it. Well, I certainly made an ass out of, just me. It’s not like they have an enormous following now that most of the boys are in their 50’s. But what they do have is almost like a secret society – chalk full of thirty and forty-something year old women – mothers, daughters, grandmothers, teachers, doctors, lawyers – all looking to preserve and embrace the shadows of a simpler time. These guys have also aged beautifully and are damn fun to watch too. The raging hormone factor certainly hasn’t gone away. But now the boys don’t have to worry about being overpowered by clouds of Aqua Net and the clutches of Lee Press On Nails.  

Going back to my morning, I popped in my ear buds, listened to the new song a couple of times, and was overcome with a bizarre fusion of joy, laughter, and pain – the joy and laughter for the crazy nostalgia the song triggered, and the anguish and tears for a time long passed. A time before unrealistic expectations, breakdowns, divorce, losing a parent, losing jobs, and losing sight of what really matters – fun, pure joy, family, friends, and nurturing your inner child. A time when life actually made sense for the most part. I found myself staring at the wall next to my bed, trying to figure out why a New Kids On the Block song was making me ball at 5 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday. I planned to write this in an attempt to figure out why, and I don’t have an answer. At least not a solid one. 

Do I have to seriously reevaluate my “now” to not be so profoundly affected by my “then”? Does this mean I would give up anything I have now in order to get one more day – one more day of Teen Beat magazines, bike rides in the mud, and Garbage Pail Kids? 

Would I give it all up for one more night at the roller skating rink or the mall? One more day shopping for high top sneakers, Baby Sitters Club books, and Trapper Keepers? Is there really nothing I wouldn’t let go of now for one more visit to Orange Julius with my Mom, or one more frolic at the town carnival with my grandmother? She won me a lot of New Kids posters playing those games back in the day. 

Maybe I would give up all of my “now” or maybe I wouldn’t. But one thing is for sure, I am honored and blessed to have lived in that time, and I am proud and thankful to be a 42 year old Blockhead. In general, I am eternally grateful for the throwbacks and the nostalgia that’s keeping me lifted when it seems like the Earth is going up in flames. May the blend of ecstatic and hellacious tears continue to put out many fires. So keep bringing it on boys.       

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.