Please come back with me to Auckland, New Zealand, 1968.
Yes, a long time ago in a far off place.
My family and I had emigrated from California to New Zealand the year before, when I was fourteen-years-old. I confess I didn’t adapt to my new country very easily. I couldn’t fit in at school and was unhappy at home. I was a lonely kid who always had his head in a book.
It’s not easy being a teenager in a strange new country, and if there are any teenagers reading this you have my sympathy.
But what am I talking about?
No teenagers could possibly be reading this!
Anyway, after a miserable week of failure at school, I used to love going to Queen Street in downtown Auckland on a Friday night. Queen Street was the heart of Auckland, its biggest avenue, alive with people and motorcars, lined with shops and pubs and cinemas. On Friday the shops stayed open late (till 9pm, before closing for the weekend) and the bright lights of the city crackled and flashed with extra excitement! The streets of the city looked so beautiful at night, especially if it had rained (as it often had it seemed that first year), and the reflections glittered on the wet, hissing streets.
Sometimes on these Friday outings, feeling nostalgic and missing California, I would catch the electric trolleybus at the Civic Theatre and take it to Shortland Street. From there I’d walk around the corner to Wimpy’s for an “American-style” hamburger and a Coke.
Wimpy’s was the only burger place in town. It was an English imitation of an American “burger bar,” as the New Zealanders called it. I’d sit there, the garish Formica surfaces and tasteless flashing neon signs somewhat reminding me of America, sipping on my Coke and feeling homesick as only a little boy can, until I discovered the slice of beetroot in my hamburger.
I was from Los Angeles, where you ordered your drive-thru burgers from a clown and received them piping hot thirty-three seconds later.
With French fries and Cokes!
(None of this “chips” and “soft drinks” stuff.)And now I'm getting a burger contaminated with beetroot?
New Zealand. Even a hamburger dinner was strange and different here.
About halfway down Queen Street was Whitcoulls, the booksellers. This was the biggest bookshop in Auckland, so I never missed a chance to wander in and nose around.
Whitcoulls was heaven, for I’ve always been an avid reader. And guess what? Not a slice of beetroot anywhere to be seen! And by that I mean I felt comfortable in Whitcoulls and forgot I was a foreigner, that I was a strange boy in a strange down-under land.
Perhaps unlike hamburgers, books are books wherever you go.
There was a section at the back called ‘Performing Arts’ that I always headed for. I’d stand there reading about old movies or animation art until someone, usually with kindness, told me to buy something or please leave.
“Sorry,” I’d mumble, a little embarrassed. My schoolboy means would not permit of too many expensive books. I checked my watch. There was still one more stop I had to make. And I had to be there before they closed at 9PM.
Leaving Whitcoulls I would catch the trolleybus back up to the Civic and walk around the corner to the tiny newspaper kiosk and see if they had any new American magazines.
Especially my favorite, Mad Magazine.
The friendly woman who worked the place recognized me, for I showed up every Friday night. She sat huddled in her tiny kiosk, surrounded by newspapers and magazines winter or summer, a cigarette constantly dangling from the corner of her mouth.
“I’ve put one aside for you, ducky,” she’d say, reaching behind the counter and bringing it out. She was like a million years old, but very kind. They only got a limited number of Mads, and she usually put one aside for me when they came in.
She handed it to me, a smile creasing her wrinkled face.
“There ya go, lad,” she said kindly.
“Thank you,” I answered, handing her a few coins.
She turned to another customer while I glanced down at the prize in my hands.
Mad Magazine. All the way from America! I smiled to myself.
As usual, the cover showed the dimwitted visage of Alfred E. Newman, smiling idiotically out.
At this point perhaps you have expectations to hear me wax poetic over Mad Magazine?
Sorry to disappoint you, but I have a writer’s rule about not discussing books or magazines. Can you see how it relates to the rule I also have about not discussing movies?
I ask you because I’m not sure I see the connection any more, just wondering if you did. I made the rule up a long time ago, when I first started writing this blog.
An artist has got to consider the future, I figured.
If I’m not careful, no one will know what I’m talking about in eighty or a hundred years, when my blogs (collected together and published under the title of Hardly a Horse Kiss) have been translated into dozens of languages and even made into a few movies. (Two of which I would live to see. Of these my favorite was the pirated Chinese computer-animated version released in 2033, retitled Super Fantastic Horse Kissing Fun).
Oh yes! The future looks bright for the career of the late Rusty Pliers!
Especially when you consider my acclaimed-as-a-masterpiece literary tome Hold the Beetroot topped the NY Times bestseller list for eighty-seven straight weeks and is now on every high school student in America's required reading list.
Ha! Ha! Who said Rusty Pliers never got within a mile of an education?
I can see it all now. How I’ll be detested in my posthumous future, with resentful students forced to read Hold the Beetroot with one eye while battling horrible, undead, flesh eating Zombies with the other … for I have a rather pessimistic view of the middle future that’s a little hazy on mortality and biology and stuff like that.
I’m glad I won’t be alive to see it, or shouldn’t be unless they can’t perfect the software they’re designing right now in time to replace me after I die. In which case they’ll keep my brain alive in some sterile underground laboratory, probably stuck between the brains of Hunter S. Thompson and Walt Disney to keep those two from fighting. My poor brain prodded with electrodes and wires, hooked up to a supercomputer and forced to keep pumping out the masterpieces while serious young techno-geeks with clipboards, interning for the vast, faceless Multinational Publishing House that keeps me alive, wonder what Rusty Pliers was like when he had a body and could talk.
Back before flesh-eating Zombies roamed the land.
Yes it won’t all be beer and skittles for the late Rusty Pliers!
I don’t know why, but I take consolation from that fact.
Perhaps you do, too?
So you see, there’s a good reason for these little writer’s rules.
Have a nice week. See you Friday.