Sunday, February 24, 2013

Discovery, now in my underwear

Less than 2 months into my diatribous blog about this sure-to-be lifebranding year and I'm already re-riffing on riffs already riffed upon. But once again, I find myself mourning over a local small business closing: not just an indie record or bookstore but the mom & pop diners that are evaporating at an alarming place (there's nowhere to nosh after last call anymore except for drivethru fastfood) and now the big army/navy store in Tampa Bay is no more.

But is the army/navy just a holdover of my formerly alterno funky DIY vibe? Finding a decent pair of combat boots in any new city I moved to was always the top of my to-do, whether it was in an innocuous Tampa Bay stripmall or a rundown part of downtown Atlanta. New York City used to be lousy with army/navys and thrift shops - I still have a canvas military camera bag that was dyed a wild blue (everything was dyed back in the '80s. That's how we recycled and marked up).

I understand the concept around military surplus and how the plan to sell reasonably wellmade items to the general public has probably lost its curb appeal. Thrift stores continue to prosper, as everyone has more crap to unload than they can hoard. And, of course, their sad evil cousins -  pawn shops - are popping up like Amscots and We Buy Gold on every corner. Why does this sting so much more than it should, since the de-evolution of retail really shouldn't bother a postmodern guy like me, but I miss the days I would wander aimlessly on a Saturday, discovering new and exciting corners of a city. Rolling down to the Target through miles of endlessly under-construction Pinellas County roads does not suffice.

In the '80s I lived for a time across the East River from Manhattan in Astoria, Queens. The elevated subway ride was short and I'd look forward to solitary Saturdays exploring the city beyond (after thorough research through the arts section of that week's Village Voice). My train would plunge underneath the river and I'd find myself in a maze of steamy passageways until emerging into the bright light somewhere around Central Park South. I'd spend the entire day straddling Broadway block after block, numbered streets counting down to historic names by sunset. Along the way, I'd enjoy a huge bookstore or two (one off of Times Square specialized in nothing but plays and theatre books), sometimes standing in the discount theatre ticket line for a matinee that had no stars, just enthusiastic understudies. If not, I'd settle on an art film or - before the happiness of home video - what was known as a revival movie house. This was in the days before Disney gentrified 42nd Street, so I stayed away from the more sticky moviehouses until I got down to the Village later on in the day. In the meantime, there were little record shops on Carmine St. to explore and the holy mecca of Tower Records to wile away the time. A bookstore on 8th St near a Haagan-Dazs, a respite in Washington Square watching the skateboarders, another bookstore on Spring Street, maybe the endless shelves of the Strand. Along the way I got to partake the bounty of tiny Chinese kitchens, pizza by the slice, stalls on St. Mark's selling jewelry and sunglasses until ultimately joining a sleepy crowd and pool game at my favorite bar.

By the mid '90s I found myself living in Atlanta without a car, but easily finding a way to reinvent solitary Saturdays - although now with less independent stores and more chains. I still remained discerning, still experienced the excitement of the possibility of discovery. A Waxtree records, indie bookstore, and Junkman's Daughter in Little Five Points was an exotic destination some weeks; the MARTA up to Lenox Mall in Buckhead to catch a movie, hit the Tower Records, HMV, two-story Borders, and a veggie sandwich at California Pizza Kitchen on others. 

Today I spend solitary Saturdays right here in front of my Mac mini, perusing used books on Amazon, rediscovering old music on iTunes, streaming forgotten film on Netflix. It's not the same, certainly -  not by a longshot. Not merely the lack of exercise or a chance meeting when you turn the corner at just the right moment. There's nothing remotely romantic nor cutting edge about shopping in your underwear. I don't know what Saturdays were supposed to be when this time of my life rolled around. I do not know what everyone else does. I know something's lost when there's less reason to leave the house and find adventure. 

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