A New Local Bookstore

A new book store has opened in downtown Ann Arbor. Literati Bookstore, on the corner of E. Washington and S. Fourth is a cozy two-story shop with a selection that brings to mind the sections of Borders that weren’t devoted to genre fiction — back when Borders actually was a local store.

I did a double-take when I first noticed the open sign.

I did a double-take when I first noticed the open sign.

I didn’t have a lot of time to peruse the shelves, but I did get a sense for the sections. Fiction, children’s books, poetry, and books about media are upstairs, along with a small selection of magazines. Downstairs are humor, various types of history, biographies and reference. Crafts and religion are in there somewhere, I forget exactly where, and I’m certain that I’ve forgotten at least two categories — most likely from the basement.

The staff seemed very friendly, and they let me wander on my own after attracting my attention with a greeting. As an anxious sort, I appreciate that. It’s nice to know who I can ask for assistance but be trusted to ask when I need it.

There was a nice amount of customers milling around late in the lunch hour. Not crammed in, but enough to raise hope that there’s enough interest to keep the place open. Both registers were going, and for my part I purchased a copy of Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.”

(I have my fingers crossed that it will reveal Jack Kirby was a space god and Steve Ditko a pan-dimensional sorcerer. We all know Stan Lee sustained a papercut from a radioactive comic book.)

Anyway, I wish them well. With Literati and Aunt Agatha’s only a block apart, all we need now is a nearby source for new horror, science fiction, and fantasy!


Weapon of Foamy Destruction

Although an atheist I am a fervent practitioner of secular Christmas, so I like the opportunity to help spread some cheer. My office participates in Adopt-A-Family, which provides gifts for local families in need, and I always help out with that. Tags are put up for desired items: cash, gift certificates, grooming supplies, and maybe some fun things like a toy or kids’ movie.

This year I selected a tag for a Nerf gun and ammo. I stopped at Meijer on my drive home and gazed in wonder at the Nerf aisle. Such an array of spongy doom! Most of the awesome guns required batteries, which I thought would be needlessly cruel. I didn’t want to give a gift that would require a continuous stream of money to operate. With a little digging I found a nice, battery-free revolver.

The tag also specified extra ammo, so I looked at varying plastic bags filled with Nerf darts. Then I saw it, the most beautiful accessory I’d never imagined. It was a camo dart pouch (capacity of 100 darts!) that came with 50 darts. 50 camo darts! The packaging proclaimed this would be a boon to “your stealthiest missions”, and I immediately pictured a kid creeping down the street in full forest camo brandishing a bright orange Nerf revolver. Sneaky!

My smile was wide enough to threaten the structural integrity of my jaw.

Having accomplished my own stealthy mission, I set about raiding the movies on discount. This activity accounts for roughly 98% of my Meijer shopping.

As the cashier rang up my purchases, she suddenly asked to see my ID. She claimed it was because one the movies I was buying had an R rating, but I know that was just a cover. I’m pretty sure that super-stealthy dart pouch landed me on some ATF watch list. It’ll probably be worse for me if I explain it was for a minor.

Step Away From the Book Store

Hi. My name is Sean, and I’m a mass media addict.

I guess it started with taping movies off of cable. Having secured a film on the permanent archival format of a Beta cassette, I felt that I couldn’t let it slip out of my clutches. After all, now I could watch it again whenever I pleased! Media was finally at my convenience instead of at the whim of broadcasters! The collection of tapes grew quickly, and some I never did get around to watching even once. What mattered was that I could have.

Actually, it may have started before then, with comic books. On my mom’s side, I’m the youngest of my cousins. I don’t recommend being last in a generation, by the way; it’s the nuisance position. Even the kids table doesn’t want you. What I did get was everybody’s cast-offs, which for the purposes of this essay means comic books.

Comics from my kin accumulated at my grandma’s house, and when I tired of exploring the old hay barn and chicken coop I’d curl up with the stack of leftover comics. They were mostly from the Harvey line: Richie Rich, Casper, Little Lotta, and the rare Lil’ Devil which I loved most of all. Few of these had covers, and many were missing pages. I’m sure this helped fuel my desire to possess my own things.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that one room of our house is dedicated to the hoard. Somewhat hopefully, I call this room the library. There’s a pile of boxes in the center of the library, and I no longer recall what they contain. I can’t even get to them to find out; the rest of the floor is adrift in stacks of books that have been catalogued but await shelving. The walls are concealed behind boxes of DVDs. There’s a treacherous path that leads about three feet into the unstable mass of media. The door to this room cannot close.

So, yeah. I have a media addiction. At least I admit it, right? And I’ve already made strides in resolving to pare down the collection. The problem is that my compulsions keep interfering. First they demanded that I write a custom application to track media. Then I could enter everything, discover duplicates (hopefully only due to bundled packages…), track which I’ve read/watched/consumed, and mark which I’ve given away.

For months I picked away at this program. I’d make good progress and then get lost in other projects again. When I’d return to coding the damn thing, I’d inevitably discover that nothing worked anymore because some third-party library had been updated. The next week would be lost to cursing and bug-fixing, I’d add one more feature, and then I’d get lost in something else again.

After nearly a year of this, I realized that this process had gotten in the way of actual progress. I chucked the application and started transferring DVDs into binders. This went well until I finished with all the titles starting with ‘C’, at which point other projects captured my attention.

One of these was the ongoing effort to catalog all my books and make an initial pass at culling some for donations. I’ve already removed several bags of books that have been given away or donated to libraries. There are only a few shelves left to sort through, after which I plan to put up new shelves for the books that remain. Of course there are boxes of DVDs where I’d like to put the new shelves…

The biggest problem I have with the books is that there are a lot I don’t know if I’d read again because I’ve not read them in the first place. Currently there are just under a thousand unread books in the library, according to what I’ve entered at LibraryThing. This is only that low because I decided that I’d never read dozens of the books I’ve already donated.

Actually, that’s merely a big problem. The biggest problem is that I continue to bring new books into the house. I’ve slowed the pace considerably, mind you. On average I’m only buying 3-4 books and 1-2 movies a week. I’d like to turn that into an average for a month, but it’s better than when it was a daily average.

Netflix instant and the availability of ebooks is helping to some extent, as I can enjoy books and movies without bringing new material into the house. Ultimately, what I think will help more is that I’m growing more interested in doing things and creating. I’m writing more, thanks to this blog, and for the first time in years I’m working on a short story. I’ve written another comic and have plans do more. The musical dry spell is over, and I’m working on a holiday EP.

I don’t have time to consume media, because I’m too busy creating it. It’s starting to sink in. All of these things that fired my imagination threaten now to snuff out the expression of it. If it comes to a choice between making and having, I’ll choose making.

Just as soon as I get this room cleared out…

Banjo School

Note – all references to banjo parts are likely to be incorrect, because I know absolutely nothing about banjos. Kindly just nod and pretend that I know what I’m talking about.

There’s an antique store that we walk past on our work commute named Antelope Antiques & Coins. It’s in a basement space with a ground level window display. A fascinating array of objects rotate through this display: ventriloquist dummies, comic books, native carvings, typewriters, and everything that someone might once have loved.

Antique stores delight me with their odd wares and the occasional spark of joy that signals me take something home — after paying for it, of course. The stores also sadden me, so I don’t actually go in very often. A lot of the merchandise comes from estate sales, which makes the shops a sort of ossuary for the scattered belongings of the dead. In that vein though the remains have the potential to revive as part of a new life, so I suppose that it’s a bit less gruesome than I tend to imagine.

It’s certainly less ghoulish than pawn shops, which trade in the fallen dreams of the living.

What I mean to say is that it takes something special to make me descend those stairs and poke around amongst the artifacts. One evening last week, Wendi and I went down those stairs and came out with an 80-year-old banjo, give or take a decade.

Ling helps inspect the banjo. She notes that the distance between strings and frets grows alarmingly as the neck of the instrument approaches the body.

I don’t know which of us saw it in the display first. I noticed it but didn’t say anything. My birthday is approaching, and I’ve made a habit recently of discovering stringed instruments and convincing Wendi to count them as presents for upcoming events. This deprives her of the fun of looking for gifts, and it crowds my studio even further. And anyhow I focussed on ukes and mandos, which this was not.

Wendi exclaimed over the banjo, and we stopped to look at it. It was cool, but it was not on my list. Then she pointed out that it had only four strings. My greedy little eyes lit up. Four strings? Could this be a banjolele, a uke with the body of banjo? My resistance shattered, I readily agreed to go take a closer look.

A saleswoman fetched it from the window for me, and I started to inspect it. The neck was out of alignment, and the body cover looked dirty with age, but other than that it looked okay. I plucked a few strings and heard the sound bounce between the cover and the wooden back. That did it. I needed this 4-string banjo.

The resonating back of the banjo.

Once I got home I poked around on the internet to see if I could identify it. Still convinced it was a banjolele, it took a while for me to modify the searches enough to make any progress. The head had the word ‘Paramount’ etched off-center on it, and by focussing on that and ‘banjo’ with ‘4 strings’ I started get somewhere. Unfortunately I wound up on seemingly divergent paths.

There was a company called ‘Paramount’ that made banjos around the 1920s. There’s conflicting information about whether it started then or was an earlier company that had started in the 1890s under a different name. In either event, they put out 4-string tenor banjos with the ‘Paramount’ imprint for around 15 years in the period between the World Wars. The few pictures that I found didn’t match up, though.

Then I stumbled on a reference to “Paramount School” 4-string tenors. This was apparently a mail-order music lesson company that distributed banjos — although through sale, rental, or free with curriculum is unclear to me. Also unclear to me is how or if this is related to the instrument company. Paramount seems to be a respected brand, but Paramount School is dismissed as inferior.

What I do know is that the smudged letters underneath “Paramount” can be read as “SCHOOL”. I also know that I love the sound it makes and the mystery of its former life. Whatever its origin, this instrument has been kicking around for about 90 years. Was it played at gatherings? As part of an informal band? Or did its owners pick at it a little bit and give up?

Now it’s part of my motley collection. It’ll get a little TLC, and every so often I’ll ask it to teach me a little more about itself.

Highway 66 Revisited

On September 6th Tim and I headed for Vandergrift, Pennsylvania to attend Drive-In Super Monster-Rama, an event that features 8 classic drive-in horror movies over two nights. This would be our 3rd Monster-Rama, and we’d be meeting up with friends from Maryland and Nebraska to enjoy these excellent film prints.

This is part four of my trip diary, in which we rested a bit between Monster-Rama nights.


The thing about western Pennsylvania is that a straight road is as rare as a steak still on the cow. The reason for this is that two tectonic plates met there, and one threw up its metaphorical hands. Bits of ground jut up all over the place, and it’s easier to wrap roads around them than to make things level.

Perhaps this is why it felt like we spent considerable time on PA-66. Certainly much of Saturday was spent on this highway, driving around Vandergrift and North Apollo.

We started with an early afternoon brunch at the Yakkitty Yak diner in North Apollo. This is a 1950s-style aluminum diner that serves up filling meals with a no-nonsense directness. A help wanted sign flatly states that the ideal candidate has grey hair and no life. When we entered, a customer declared that the rest of us needed to teach Mike how to grow a beard. I haven’t satisfactorily completed that curriculum myself, and nobody else stepped up, so Mike’s on his own I reckon. Sorry, complete stranger!

Tim, Mike, Chad, and I ate heartily and planned our day. All of us agreed that we wanted a lazy afternoon to lead quietly into the second late night of films, especially as the afternoon had already begun. We drove back to Vandergrift (on PA-66, of course) and went book shopping.

Reads, Ink is a lovely used book store that took up residence in a house. The walls are all covered in books, which leaves a lot of nice open spaces through which customers may wander. There are comfy chairs everywhere, and you can buy coffee. It’s a very welcoming store, even if the pulp novels are relegated to the basement.

While there, we ran into George Reis. He put together the Monster-Rama, so it was neat to meet him. It’s unfortunate that we bluntly voiced our displeasure with “Son of Blob”, but we made up for it with our enthusiasm for the experience in general. I hope.

Feet firmly planted in mouths, we went back to the motel (which, along with the drive-in, is on PA-66). We had some time before dinner, but not enough that we felt comfortable heading to Pittsburgh for anything. Mike set up his movie player, and we all watched “The Raid: Redemption” while chatting aimlessly.

Then we strolled over to the attached bar for dinner. We were the only customers at the time, and Wanda came over with the waitress and talked with us while we ate. This is the sort of thing that I don’t really know how to deal with, but everyone in the area had been extremely friendly to us so I was almost used to it by then. I tried out my small talk, and if I was terrible at it nobody seemed to mind.

Maybe it was easier for me to interact since it would be a year before I came back. Whatever, it was a simple but good experience in behaving like a sane person. I’ll have to try it out closer to home.

But the hour was late, and we had four more movies to watch. It was time to get back on PA-66.

Things To Do In Pittsburg When You’re In Town To See Drive-In Movies

On September 6th Tim and I headed for Vandergrift, Pennsylvania to attend Drive-In Super Monster-Rama, an event that features 8 classic drive-in horror movies over two nights. This would be our 3rd Monster-Rama, and we’d be meeting up with friends from Maryland and Nebraska to enjoy these excellent film prints.

This is part two of my trip diary, in which we get to the drive-in in time.


Thursday night we met up with Scott and Jessica for dinner. They led us to Green Pepper, a Korean restaurant that was very good but oddly strict. For instance there could only be one check per table; and a note informed patrons that if separate checks were desired, the staff could help locate a restaurant that would do that sort of thing.

Nonetheless, it was a good meal. Also I got to see Scott try to eat an entire chicken in some manner of stew that boiled eternally.


All six of us met up at a King’s restaurant for brunch. On deciding to head in to Pittsburgh for the afternoon, we abandoned two of our vehicles in the parking lot and piled in Scott’s minivan.


The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh is largely concerned with geology, for some reason.


“This imitation Roman helmet was fully formed by natural forces.”


We had to approach the mounted zebra exhibit carefully, because we weren’t entirely certain when we’d run into glass. The display was a little too clever for the likes of us.


The Carnegie Museum of Art has so many chairs on display that we decided they were sculptures of Presidents.


Everything was fine until all five men of our group met up near the modern art. Then security was on us like white blood cells on Raquel Welch. We figured that we’d been mistaken as a small herd of large, clumsy bulls.

We declared Chad lead bull and lined up behind him.

Fortunately Jessica came back and we left before the guards found a red cape.


It was inevitable that we’d wind up in a book store at some point during our trip. The Caliban Book Shop was close to the Carnegie Museum complex, so that’s the one at which we wound up. The main store is a good collection of fiction and assorted non-fiction, and there’s a corner behind the register where a tiny record store lurks.

Tim found the secret door leading to the basement and disappeared through it. Mike, Chad, and I followed. I’m not entirely certain this lower floor existed in the same building (or dimension) as the main store. There were twists in the stairs that didn’t add up on later reflection, and the building materials changed significantly. The cashier readily took our money for the books we found down there, so it’s probably okay.

Not a single one of thought to tell the others where we went. Scott tried calling Tim to find him, but being in the dimension of pulp fiction Tim’s phone had no reception. Apparently he discovered some interesting stores while looking for us, but by the time we surfaced we were of a mind to head for Vandergrift. Chad and Mike needed to check into the roadhouse, and we all wanted real food before watching eight hours of movies.


Our window for real food was consumed trying to discover a route back to our cars in rush hour traffic. I’m afraid that it took me a while to overcome childhood lessons and assist, and then I was pathetically passive-aggressive about the whole thing. At least the incident spawned one of our go-to jokes for the week-end. Whenever someone on-screen was travelling or consulting a book, one of us would always assure the others that this road should be merging to 386 soon.

Review: Brick and Mortar Book Recommendation

I told you about that book I got at Aunt Agatha’s. You know, the one that Jamie recommended when I went in to sell a book. It was A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton. I’ve got an embarrassing amount of unread books, so at the time I put it on a nearby stack with a mental note to get to it soon. Since I had mentioned it in a blog entry, I thought I’d like to read it fairly soon and follow up with a review.

Not of the book — a review of the Jamie recommendation system.

Now that I’ve finally had the chance to read it, I am happy to report that the recommendation did well in all categories. Let’s break it down.

Customer data

Here’s what Jamie knew. I’d come in to sell back a mystery novel that I hadn’t liked. It had grabbed my attention with its setting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My stated objections centered on the lack of action and of general threat.

Additionally, he knew that I am a big fan of the Hard Case Crime line of new and reprinted noir. These include works by authors like Donald Westlake, Lester Dent, and Mickey Spillane. They tend to be violent, pile up the corpses, and involve a bit of enthusiastic back stabbing.

Alignment of book content

The first correlation of the book’s content to known user data is that the action of A Cold Day in Paradise centers in the Upper Peninsula. Specifically, the murders happen in and near Sault St. Marie, and the protagonist lives just a short drive away. Since the setting was what had attracted me to the book I’d returned, this is a strongly relevant component of the recommendation.

As for addressing my objections to the other book, Hamilton’s novel has a gun fight, a couple of brawls, a murderous stalker, and an extremely suspicious sheriff. This certainly addresses my desire for more action and danger. Here again the recommendation scores well.

Moreover, the book has a great pulp feel to it. The hero is fallible, a cop who retired because he froze and carries a bullet near his chest like a badge of shame. He’s afraid of guns and still has nightmares about the incident that ended his career and his partner’s life.

As a reader I wanted him to succeed, to conquer his fear and start living again. This is important to me. A plot is a series of events, but a character interacts with those events and struggles to gain even the smallest bit of control over them. That’s a story, and that’s what I’d returned the other book for lacking.


Jamie took my statements about the book I’d sold back, mixed them with knowledge of my purchase history, and made an accurate and effective recommendation of a book I would like.

“Well,” a convenient paper tiger may reply. “So what? Amazon does as much.”

Here is the difference.

While Amazon knows my book purchase history (and my item ratings, if I used that feature) it doesn’t know why I’ve bought them. Was it the writer? Genre? Appearance of a big damn spider? The word zombie in the title? When Amazon recommends something to me it’s based on algorithms comparing my recent purchases with the purchase histories of other users, playing the odds that people who buy enough similar items will have the same general taste.

It’s a good attempt, and honestly I find a lot of cool stuff based on these recs, but the price is having to sift through a lot of things that I don’t want at all. Sometimes it takes a few pages of recommendations to find something in which I’m vaguely interested.

Jamie got it in one try. I recommend his recommendations.

Spider Attack in the Fish Store

Okay. So there weren’t spiders, and they didn’t attack, but that’s what my brain thinks happened. It may as well be true. At least the part about what didn’t actually happen taking place in a fish store — that is undeniably true.

Wendi wanted to get some plants for a new tank she’s setting up, so we went to a fish store in Ypsilanti after work. While she picked out plants, I wandered the store looking at the fish and other underwater critters.

I wound up at staying at one tank for a few minutes, watching an electric blue crayfish drag and shovel gravel out of its nest. At one point, while it was dragging a particularly large piece, it lost its grip and the stone slid back down into its nest.

The crayfish stared at the escaped gravel, and I swear to you it sighed!

Feeling embarrassed for the crayfish, I moved on into the salt water tanks. Here’s where the neat stuff is: corals, urchins, anemones, and other bizarre life forms.

The paths through that section of the store are narrow, so I was almost touching the tanks as I peered into them. That’s where the spiders attacked. Rather, that’s where I was not in any danger from things that were not spiders.

I looked into the tank at the level of my upper chest and saw a spider. An underwater spider with a tiny body and spindly legs about 4-5 inches long. Immediately panic set in, and although my eyes calmly pointed out that the label identified this as an arrow crab, the portion of my brain responsible for spider identification mustered all available wiggens units.

Desperate to avert an outright panic, my eyes veered to the tank on the right, where they had previously noticed a nice, safe sea urchin. What could be scary about a ball? “Spider!” shrieked my brain, and the troops of wiggens coursing through my body echoed “spiders!”

Not only was there an arrow crab sharing space with the sea cucumber, but there was another one in the next tank after that. I’d have to squeeze past all three crabs (spiders) to get out!

By then there wasn’t any choice. My eyes had thrown in with my faulty spider-detector and the wiggens were rapidly seizing control of my limbs. They guided me swiftly to the cash register, where Wendi had just bought plants, tank goodies, and a few more platies.

She handed me the bag to carry to the car. I didn’t look inside. If there spiders in there, I didn’t want to know about it.

Selling a Mystery

I read a lot of crime fiction, and I’m fortunate enough to work close to a great local bookstore — Aunt Agatha’s New & Used Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books. Co-owner Jamie really knows his books, and his love for the genre is evident. I’ve had several conversations with him about books, movies, and everything noir; and he doesn’t generally display that glaze in the eyes that typically afflicts others when I speak.

I’ve been sorting through my collection of books and have donated several bags worth to libraries and raffles. After finishing a recently purchased mystery book and deciding that it wasn’t a keeper, it dawned on me that I could probably sell it to Jamie. I took it in to work with me to test this theory, and it sat on my desk for a month while mental notes about selling it piled up in my brain.

Finally on a warm, sunny afternoon I picked it up to go try my luck. Wendi went with me for the excuse to get outside. We walked into the mystery shop, and Jamie greeted us. I presented the book and announced that I’d come to sell it. He sized it up quickly and offered a dollar. That was a buck I didn’t have before, so I readily agreed.

Then he asked if I hadn’t liked the book. I admitted that it hadn’t really grabbed me. After the novelty of being set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had worn off, there really hadn’t been anything to hold my attention: murder, treachery, or the like. Jamie allowed that series didn’t have wide appeal, then as an aside mentioned that there was another series based in the UP that might be more my speed.

He walked over to a nearby shelf as he talked and deftly picked out a paperback without seeming to have looked for it. It was the first book in the series, and he thought it’d better suit my taste. Before I knew what was happening, I had paid $3.50 for the book (less the $1 credit) and was heading back to work.

Wendi glanced at my new book curiously. “What’s that?”

I stammered a bit. “He’s really good,” I finally confessed. She just shook her head and allowed that I at least hadn’t increased my book count.

Aunt Agatha’s can’t give the discounted prices that Amazon does, but I’ll happily spend a few extra bucks for recommendations based on actual knowledge.


March 15th marked the 192nd anniversary of Maine statehood — the perfect day to watch “The Mist” according to The League of Dead Films. For those who haven’t seen it, the film adapts a Stephen King story about an incursion of extra-dimensional beasties into Maine. The major set of the film is a supermarket, where survivors try to make sense of the peril and keep safe. Of course they also split into contentious factions, because that’s what always happens when the beasties come.
For me, the date meant that I’d finally be buying a new pair of boots. Not a very momentous event but a much-needed one. I had passed on several opportunities to perform the errand in a timely manner, and my boots had both split at the seams. The lining still held them together, so I could have worn them for another few weeks. However, the advent of the rainy season made for a soggy and potentially malodorous prospect.
Understand, it wasn’t cheapness that kept me wearing broken boots. The driving force, as in so much of my life, was routine. In high school a friend called me a nervous cat. He meant my general level of paranoia and anxiety, but I also rely on a high degree of predictability in my daily life. Like a nervous cat, when confronted with stimuli outside of the ordinary, my instinct is to retreat for safety.
Sadly, I do not fit underneath the sofa.
Thursday produced my best prospect for boot shopping; Wendi taught drawing that night, so we drove separately. I had both motive and opportunity, and so after work I drove to the east side of town with the intention of re-booting my feet.
A few drops of rain had fallen as I’d walked to the parking lot, and as I inched through downtown traffic tornado sirens went off. The sky grew dark. I kept driving toward the store. I’ve lived in this area for over 20 years. Tornado sirens wail all the time, rarely amounting to more than a stiff breeze and a little rain. Now and then, somewhere south or east of us, someone loses a shed. So there wasn’t much more on my mind than parking as close to the store as possible to minimize dampness.
Having accomplished that, I went into the shoe warehouse and quickly found the men’s shoe ghetto. It truly was a warehouse, with a metal ceiling at least 40 feet high and aisle upon aisle of goods. The stacks made little use of the space, being about four feet tall, but there were many long rows of shoes and boots for woman and children. To the left lurked a couple of rows for men, filled with an amazing variety of shoes that basically looked the same.
A quick check verified that the only boots currently offered were for hiking. There’s nothing wrong with a good pair of hiking boots, and I’ve worn a pair or two in my time, but I can’t handle laces. I’ve tried double knots, treble knots, special knot clasps; there is no power on this Earth that can make my shoes stay tied for more than an hour. It’s an odd super power, but if the need arises for my shoes to come untied to save the world I’ll answer the call. Until then, no laces.
I headed to the back of the warehouse, where the discontinued stock sat in quiet desperation. A scan for the shelves centered around my shoe size narrowed the selection, and I was just about to test some boots for fit when a saleswoman approached.
“Excuse me, sir. You’ll need to go back by the restrooms. There’s a tornado warning.”
I went meekly in the direction she’d indicated, and by the time that I thought to bring the boots with me I was trapped in the relative safety of the potty zone. Preventing me from leaving was the assumed authority of the shift manager, a woman barely over half my age and certainly under half my weight. Shoe-changing benches were brought in, and having been raised on syndicated episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” I held back so the women and children could claim them all. I saw another man standing down the hall, and we acknowledged each other somberly.
The staff sat on the floor near the door to the store proper. I hung out there myself so that I could keep on eye on the storm through the distant windows. It was dark, but not more so than I’d expect during an evening rainstorm.
At this point most of us felt that this was all a bit silly. We joked about getting a free car wash and traded stories of tornado preparedness lessons from grade school. One customer asked the manager at some length about the prospects for release. She was tall, lean, and wore a track suit, so my money was on her if she decided to make a break for it. Instead she sat just outside the safe area in mild protest.
For the moment, boredom and restlessness predominated. Also hunger, as the warning had preempted the dinner break of one saleswoman. Almost everybody pulled out cellphones or iPhones or Blackberries or tricorders of one brand or another, and they looked up the weather and issued reassuring reports that this would blow over quickly.
I didn’t join them, because I’d left everything in my car. My phone was safely tucked into its pocket on my backpack. I was stuck by these bathrooms with no way of telling Wendi what had happened or of playing spider solitaire.
When the downpour came so did relief. Here at last was the storm, which would produce some heavy rain for a few minutes before heading for Detroit. We’d been hanging out in the back for about a half an hour, and the warning would expire in fifteen minutes. The worst was over.
Then the storm revved up. Thunder sounded overhead, and the windows at the front of the warehouse bulged. An employee heard something in the stockroom. She and the manager checked it out but did not share their findings. Hail pounded the roof, filling the store with the sound of a drum corp striking their rims. The employee who’d sent me back here retreated to the women’s restroom. The manager followed her.
Now we could sneak out, but the desire had left us. The woman in the track suit pulled back to the doorway. All of the idle conversations stopped as we listened to the weather lash at our shelter. Reports came in of tornado damage to the northwest of town. One was sighted to the southwest. The warning was extended by another half hour.
I really began to wish for my phone. We live to the west, between the touchdown and the sighting. If I could reach our answering machine, I’d know that our house and pets were probably okay. I knew that Wendi would never knowingly head out into tornado weather — her instinct for survival is much stronger than my own — but I wanted to let her know that I was safe. Everyone around me had already made all their calls.
Something landed on the carpet about six feet from our doorway. A saleswoman cautiously left the safe area to investigate. She picked it up and stared at it, then tossed it into a nearby trash basket.
“Hail,” she explained on her return.
Several of us stared dumbly at the high ceiling. How had a single hailstone entered the store? There was no telltale drip from a hole in the roof.
Plap. There was another one, landing in the same spot.
Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a number of plausible theories about ventilation shafts and bouncing hailstones, but none of these very wise and rational people were in that hallway watching hail sporadically land between the rows of shoes. I was there, and I know that it was an extra-dimensional spider messing with our heads.
Fortunately, the storm passed and the dimensional rift closed before the beasties finished playing and started in on the killing and consuming. The warning ended, and we filtered out of the back hall and dispersed into the warehouse floor. I settled on a pair of half-boots, and the clerk gave me an additional 10% off for surviving the non-incident.
With the perspective granted by the intervening weeks, I’m grateful that nothing happened. It’s not as though I had wanted a tornado to toss us with the shoes like a salad, or be torn into digestible pieces by extra-dimensional horrors; it’s just that as a group we were completely unprepared to deal with a crisis.
There we were — a collection of 20-some people, most of whom were strangers. We represented a reasonable spectrum of ages and a minimum of three religions and four ethnicities. For an hour and a half we shared a confined space during an emergency under the direction of a young store manager with no actual authority over us or demonstrable experience. There were questions, but nobody rebelled. Everyone simply waited, without starting any trouble or creating divisions.
With that cooperative attitude, how could we have hoped to weather an actual emergency?