Category Archives: Life & Other Distractions

Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 2)

My plan was to rise very early and take a long solo walk around London’s West End before Shannon was up, and do the same the following morning. Jet lag and a very thick set of curtains foiled day one of this plan. I gaped at the time on my cell phone when I woke up in a dark room — 9:26!

We hustled down to the hotel restaurant, the delightfully-named Scoff & Banter, where they laid on an excellent full English breakfast that came with the price of the room and that, sadly, I was unable to take full advantage of. My digestive system has a tendency to shut down on vacations. I am almost never hungry for some reason. I nibbled a banger (insert your own joke here), a few strips of “streaky” bacon (i.e., typical American bacon, rather than the leaner, more ham-like British bacon), some toast and honey, and guzzled breakfast’s most important element for an intrepid traveler: coffee, here served in individual French presses. (We all know that whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” nonsense is propaganda peddled by those snake oil salesmen over at Kellogg’s.)

The hotel’s breakfast buffet mastered the concept of guacamole, but not the name:

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The British Museum is one of those places where everyone remarks that you never have enough time to see everything. “You need a whole day,” fellow tourists lament, but never themselves taking a whole day because there’s so much else to see and do in London. Well, we came to London ahead of the rest of the traveling party for the specific purpose of spending an entire day at the British Museum (plus going in for about ninety minutes the day before, working our way through the “Enlightenment” exhibition in the King’s Library.)

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Main entrance to the British Museum. Cam is representing the U.S. well in his Philadelphia 76ers shirt.

We walked across the spacious courtyard of the Museum and through its main entrance not longer after it opened at 10:00.

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British Museum, west wing

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British Museum, east wing

The location of the British Museum was originally that of Montagu House, a sprawling country estate typical of the English landed aristocracy, once considered the “grandest private residence constructed in London.” Built just outside the city to the specifications of the avaricious, unscrupulous 1st Duke of Montagu after an earlier home burned down in 1686, its south facade peered suspiciously over its wall at the new construction that pushed the boundaries of London ever closer. Its north face opened onto manicured gardens and rolling countryside.

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Montagu House, north side. (This would be the back of the current museum.)

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Montagu House, south side on Great Russell Street.

The British Museum started with Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), an Irish-born physician to the royals, naturalist, purported inventor of the original recipe for milk chocolate, and (luckily for us) obsessive collector. He was the thirteenth president, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton, of the Royal Society (this will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry). Upon his death, he willed the 71,000 items in his collection to the people of Britain (in return for a substantial payment to his heirs). Sloane’s bequeathment included historical artifacts, natural history specimens, and a wide variety of books and manuscripts.

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Sir Hans Sloane

After its official creation by an Act of Parliament in 1753, the British Museum originally considered a location at Buckingham House, but it was deemed by the museum’s first trustees to be a trifle too costly. (The “house” was renamed a “palace” in the early 1800s, and now has a very different function.) They decided to go with Montagu House, happily offered for sale at a bargain price by the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who was horrified to discover that his inherited estate was being rapidly surrounded by the scourge of middle-class suburbs. (He had already moved out a few years prior, and the house was a run-down burden. Also, the 2nd Duke of Montagu was the son-in-law of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. This will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry.)

The British Museum, housed within the walls of Montagu House, opened free of charge to “all studious and curious persons” in 1759. The Dog & Duck pub across the muddy road that would become Great Russell Street changed its name to the Museum Tavern three years later (see previous entry.)

It wasn’t long before the drafty old mansion proved inadequate to the Museum’s needs. Plans for new construction were approved as early as 1802, but it would be a lengthy process. The last vestiges of the old Montagu House were swept away by 1845, as a gigantic, Greek Revival-style “quadrangle” building (as seen in the photos above) was erected over the course of decades. The Museum as we see it today was largely complete and functional by 1857, filled to the brim with dozens of exhibition rooms known in museum-speak as “galleries.”

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To make room for the collection that grows to this day, all the natural history stuff was removed to its own museum in 1881. (We taxied past the cathedral-like Natural History Museum out in South Kensington on our way into town the previous day.)

Upon entering the museum building, we were first confronted with the Great Hall, in the center of which is the domed Reading Room…which is no longer a reading room at all.

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The Great Hall and Reading Room

Back in the day, you had to make a special application to use the Reading Room and gain access to the Museum’s labyrinthine collection of books and manuscripts. In 1997, the Museum’s print material was moved to the new British Library building just up the road. After a three-year remodel, the Reading Room was opened to the general public as a short-lived, much-reduced “information centre.” From 2007 to 2013, it was used as a space for special Museum exhibitions. With the completion of a separate special exhibition space in 2013, the Reading Room went empty and dormant, and so it remains. No one seems to know what to do with it at this point.

Just off the Great Hall is the ground floor east wing known as the King’s Library, the oldest part of the currently-existing Museum building, completed in 1828. Now labeled less-romantically as “Room 1,” it was built to house the 60,000+ book collection of King George III, donated to the Museum after his death by his son, George IV. Over 40 feet high and 300 feet long, this hall was a repository for the late King’s books until all books were shipped out in ‘97. It now houses a permanent themed exhibition called “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th Century,” detailing a time in the 1700s when “people — including the collectors who created the British Museum — used reason and first-hand observation of the world around them to understand it in new ways.” In essence, it chronicled the rise of the museum mentality — the mad scramble to collect interesting artifacts and put them under glass.

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Some of the items on display in the Enlightenment gallery include an ichthyosaur skull discovered by Mary Anning, the young girl who happened to be an expert paleontologist, case upon case of Greek red-figure pottery (more on that below), and a 17th-century medicine kit, containing various herbs and tinctures…and a few dried skinks.

Artifacts aside, I really just enjoyed being in the locale. The King’s Library was dim, quiet, mercifully cool (unlike the rest of the Museum’s galleries that day), with polished wood floors, busts on pedestals, old-fashioned glass-topped wooden display cases, and central columns of polished Aberdeen granite. It looked like the Platonic ideal of an “old-fashioned museum,” before they went all sleek and touch-screen. And there were still bookshelves lining the second-level walls to give the place a proper atmosphere, the books themselves on semi-permanent loan from the House of Commons library.

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The rest of the Museum was fairly crowded. I heard so many American accents it felt like I was back in the Smithsonian in D.C. There were at least seven different school groups touring the facility, including two or three “public school” (i.e., private school) groups in ties and blazers, calling each other by their last names in time-honored public school tradition. (“Hurry up, Jenkins!”)

The three of us then acquired our audio guide headphones and went our separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch in the surprisingly good Museum pizzeria, and splitting up again to finish out the afternoon. No one should go through a museum at someone else’s pace.

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I was surprised at how relatively few artifacts in the British Museum had to do with Britain itself. (“Relatively few” meaning a mere half-dozen or so galleries.) It really was a reflection of how obsessed early antiquarians and collectors were with the “classical” civilizations of Greece and Rome, and to a lesser extent, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The “Greeks in Italy” room was bigger than the entire medieval England section.

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A Roman mosaic from guess where? — Ephesus!

The entrance to the ground floor Egyptian galleries was dominated by the Rosetta Stone, acquired by the Museum in 1802. Arguably the most important archaeological find ever, the Rosetta Stone is a large slab of granodiorite (similar to granite) engraved with the same passage in three different languages — Greek, Demotic (letter-based Egyptian), and Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is noteworthy for providing the key to deciphering the formerly mysterious hieroglyphs, opening vast new vistas in the study of ancient Egypt. Written around 196 B.C. (the text was a political decree from Egyptian king Ptolemy V) and discovered by Napoleon’s troops in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta (now known as Rasid) in 1799, the Stone was a part of a larger stele that had been broken up and used as foundation filler for a medieval-era fort. The British acquired it as a spoil of war after defeating Napoleon. They chalked in the inscription (like you would with D&D dice), and coated it with protective wax, giving it the appearance of black basalt. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 1)

Despite the exotic-sounding name, this was never intended to be a “travel blog.” As a general rule, I don’t travel. I am a mostly-sedentary creature of habit. I don’t like chairs that aren’t mine, beds that aren’t mine, being thousands of miles away from my creaking, over-stuffed bookcases, or not knowing when my next cold beer is coming.

Blogging is by its very nature a self-indulgent exercise, reaching its nadir with the toxic spoor of the internet known as the “mommy blog.” Mommy blogs seem to be less about documenting activities with their dull, backward children and more about “look what an awesome mommy I am.” Travel blogs can fall into the same narcissistic reflecting pool — endless photos of meals, sunsets, and feet-on-the-beach. But well-done ones can be edifying, informative, and amusing, three things no mommy blog in the history of the universe has ever got within shouting distance of.

For the brief period of time that the Holy Bee of Ephesus will be prancing around in a “travel blog” costume, I will try to be those things, but probably not all of them at once. And there probably will be a few pictures of meals. In fact, there’s one below.

Also during this period, the Holy Bee will abandon its monthly posting cycle and go weekly. The accompanying photos are mostly my own (which explains their poor quality), except in situations where photography was not allowed, or whenever time or circumstance precluded me from snapping some shots. In these situations, I will shamelessly swipe pictures from the web or resort to screenshots of Google Street View.

So, what prompted me to clamber out of my chair, stuff an oversized suitcase full of socks and various medicated creams, and dust off my never-once-used passport?

A British Airways aircraft taxis past ot

Because the destination was to be Great Britain.

Growing up steeped in the Beatles and Monty Python, and countless other bits of British cultural ephemera, a U.K. trip was a siren song not to be resisted. Plus they speak pretty good English over there (certain parts of Cumbria excepted), so making myself understood would be only a limited challenge.

And I would not be fending for myself. It was a trip for the extended family, and had been in the planning stages for years. Like myself, my wife, Shannon, has chosen a career in teaching, and therefore lives with me on the edge of pauperdom. Her parents and brother, however, entered the world of business, and through their ingenuity and hard work, have all been very successful. One of the ways they celebrate that success is seeing the world, often taking any black-sheep educators that happen to be related by blood or marriage along with them. Before my time with them, my wife and in-laws have tromped across Machu Picchu, the Alps, New Zealand, and various European cities. But, oddly enough, never London. Shannon went there for a few brief days after college in 2002 (as a small part of a larger European trip), but the British Isles have remained for the most part un-visited. And since Shannon’s family by nature are doers and planners, I could simply be hauled along like luggage and not have to concern myself with the nuts and bolts of organization, apart from taking part in an occasional vote about where to eat. (Most luggage doesn’t whine that it needs a beer, but whatever.)

The only downside was that my older son Cade, 20, was working an internship and could not join us. Shannon, myself, and my younger son Cameron, 18, were already on summer break, so we set off a few days ahead of the rest to get a feel for London and take our time at the massive British Museum.

Having never flown anything but coach, traveling in business class was an unexpected luxury. The seats in business class are sort of self-contained pods that can be reclined fully into sleeping positions. Each pod is twinned with another pod to the side. If your pod buddy isn’t a spouse or a friend, a privacy divider can be raised. When the dividers are down and the seats are upright, everyone’s head and shoulders are visible. A woman in a tube top nearby kept startling me out of the corner of my eye because it looked like she was taking a bath. Pillows were provided, along with a sealed package full of blankets (three different thicknesses), a sleeping mask, earplugs, and socks. Cold champagne and hot towels were distributed before take-off.

(The seats themselves weren’t much wider or plusher than standard airplane seats. The true gift of business class is leg room, so I wouldn’t repeat the gaffe of my most recent airline excursion the previous month. As an 8th-grade teacher, I was one of the chaperones on the annual graduation trip to Disneyland. Getting two dozen self-absorbed, dim-witted, half-awake 14-year-olds through security and onto an early morning flight was its usual nightmare, and I was literally the last person to board as they were closing the jetway door. It was a completely full Southwest flight with first-come, first-serve seating, so there was one single middle seat left available. I was so frazzled and out-of-sorts, I thought I could squeeze in front of the older lady in the aisle seat, as if I were at the movies or a basketball game. Her distressed squeals as I practically climbed into her lap brought me to my senses. As far as most embarrassing moments, it barely cracks the top 20.)

And since we were flying British Airways, all the flight attendants were wonderfully, authentically British. They were crisp, efficient, and referred to us all as “luv” and “darling.” The plane safety lecture was presented via a video featuring British celebrities only vaguely recognizable to American eyes, but warmly familiar to the Anglophile Holy Bee. “It’s Steve Coogan! It’s Jim Broadbent!” I kept saying exultantly to Shannon. Gillian Anderson used her English accent. She is evidently bidialectal.

The 747 jumbo jet hauled itself aloft out of San Francisco International Airport a little after 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon. The time difference meant we would arrive at London Heathrow Airport in the late morning of Thursday.

The dinner menu was a little vague in places. One course was simply listed as a “fillet of beef.” Trying to get any scrap of further information, Shannon asked the nearest flight attendant how it was prepared. “We heat it up, luv,” shrugged the attendant and moved on. Shannon wisely went for another dish, and I had the beef. It was indeed a totally non-descript brick of beef-like matter, wholly impervious to my attempts to cut it with the doll-sized knife and fork. It was at least flavorful, and the smoked salmon appetizer, with a healthy dose of horseradish cream and lemon juice, made me rethink my usual aversion to oily fish.

After dinner, washed down by a couple of Tribute Cornish pale ales, I attempted to sleep. It was twilight outside the plane’s window, and the tracking info on my little video screen indicated we were entering Canadian airspace at an altitude of 38,000 feet and a speed of 660 miles per hour. The cabin had gone dark, passengers vanishing as they put their seats into sleep mode. The glow of dozens of personal video screens was the only illumination. I tossed and turned as we streaked through the sky over Ontario and Quebec, but sleep would not come. Every time I would begin to drift off, a jolt of turbulence caused the aircraft to shudder. After two and a half hours, I gave up and fired up my Kindle, completing most of of Kerrang! writer Mick Wall’s Guns N’ Roses band biography Last of the Giants. Convinced it was the middle of the night, I cracked the window shade and was stunned to see bright North Atlantic sunlight. I snapped it shut before it disturbed anyone. We were just south of Iceland, and it was morning in Europe.

By the time the rest of the plane was stirring and breakfast was being served we were over the west coast of Ireland. According to my flight tracker, we flew directly over the Skellig Islands, the picturesque but incredibly windy location that served as Ahch-To, site of the first Jedi temple and hideaway of Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  

As we passed over the main part of Ireland, I noted that anyone who describes it as “green” is pretty spot-on.

As will be mentioned several times, Britain was in the grip of a heat wave at the time of our visit. The modest air conditioning of Heathrow Airport couldn’t keep up, and as we crawled through the line to have our passports checked, sweat began to pool in the small of my back. We finally were determined to be not of the terrorist type, picked up our luggage, and breezed through a totally unmanned customs zone. A huge room full of scales and stainless-steel inspection tables echoed emptily as we strode towards the airport exit.

We grabbed a cab (a mini-van, not one of the traditional “black cabs”) and headed towards London on the M4. The cabbie, I noted, was dressed in a floral Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. All clothing items I left at home so I wouldn’t appear out of place. (Except for flip-flops, which I don’t own. Any grown man who wears flip-flops more than fifty feet from a swimming pool or other body of water should be fined. Any grown man who wears flip-flops with jeans should be executed by firing squad.) I took in my first view of a foreign country as it whizzed by our cab window. Not too different from home — car dealerships, big box stores, diversions for construction. The main difference was the style of traffic signs and the age of most of the buildings. Any random, anonymous building by the side of the motorway in suburban London was likely old enough to be an historical monument with a guided tour if it were in California.

As we got closer to London itself, the cabbie engaged us and began pointing out items of interest — and railing testily against the new bicycle lanes which he believed had destroyed the previously smooth flow of London traffic. The Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrod’s, the Ritz, and Piccadilly Circus all went by our cab’s windows as we alternately zipped insanely or crawled interminably through the districts of Knightsbridge and Mayfair towards our hotel. Being Americans, it wasn’t long before the cabbie asked us about Trump. We assured him that we thought Trump was a vile, bloated toad and a national embarrassment, and conversation continued amiably.

Just over an hour after leaving Heathrow, we arrived at our hotel in the Bloomsbury area of London. Taking an hour to go sixteen miles was something that would take some getting used to, but I believe there is something positive in having quaint, narrow roads and a lack of eight-lane freeways. Continue reading

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“Finest Kind” — The Holy Bee’s Martini Recipe

“The martini felt cool and clean…I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”  — Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

A couple of years back, I posted a recipe for my absolute favorite cocktail: the (double) old-fashioned. That is my drink for the end of the evening, my nightcap, the libation that sends the Holy Bee off to dreamland. But what about the opposite end of the evening? My just-getting-home, pre-dinner, five o’clock opener to cocktail hour is often the martini, which is soon celebrating its own day — National Martini Day on June 19th.

As long as there are bar snobs, there will be arguments over how to make a proper martini. Brand of gin, amount of vermouth, use of the shaker, garnishes, and just about any other finicky minutiae can be endlessly debated regarding this very simple beverage by the type of people who like to debate about that sort of thing. I’m not presenting this version as the “correct” way, only as my way.

My only hard, fast rule is that martinis are made with gin. I’m happy to sample any other variation, as long as that baseline is adhered to. 

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The original martini recipe from the 1800s may make a modern-day martini drinker gag, using sweet vermouth in a staggering 50-50 ratio with gin. A little later, sweet and dry vermouth were used in equal measure. According to my battered 1977 copy of Jones’ Bar Guide, sweet vermouth was considered an integral part of the martini until the 1930s, when it started becoming some kind of weird pissing contest about how “dry” you preferred it. A dry martini once referred to one made with dry vermouth to the exclusion of sweet. It later became code for a microscopic amount of dry vermouth. Even to the point of not including it at all — everyone’s heard of silly rituals like waving a vermouth bottle over the martini shaker, or bowing in the direction of Turin, Italy, where vermouth originated. All very amusing, but the result is simply a glass of cold gin, which is fine, but don’t call it a martini. 

Though when it comes down to it, I do like my martinis pretty dry, just because it’s what I’m used to, I suppose.

Gin at its essence is a clear, neutral spirit — basically, vodka. Unlike vodka, it gets a distinctive flavor from an infusion of juniper berries, and a variety of other aromatics proprietary to the individual gin manufacturers. (“Gin” is a shortened, Anglicized version of the Latin word for “juniper.”) Originating in Holland, gin jumped across the North Sea and became immensely popular in England. A little too popular, in fact. In 17th and 18th century England, gin was the drink of the lowest of the low classes, sold at a penny a mug in any of the almost 8,000 “gin houses” in London alone. Though it was called gin, by the end of the so-called “gin craze,” what was often consumed was nothing more than crude, sweetened grain alcohol. Referred to as “a mother’s ruin,” it was considered a massive social problem. The Gin Act of 1751 shut down a lot of cheap distilleries that couldn’t pay the exorbitant new tax. That and the development of more refined distillation methods (such as the column still) caused gin to be once again acceptable to classier folks. Cleanly-made, unsweetened “London dry gin,” the preferred variety for martinis, was born. In addition to juniper, the most common aromatics infused into London dry gin are citrus peel, coriander seeds, angelica root, orris root, and liquorice.

Vermouth is a fortified wine. Most dry French vermouths originate as a low-alcohol white wine, which is aged for awhile, then “fortified” with an additional infusion of a neutral grape spirit and aromatics. Originally used medicinally, vermouth became a popular aperitif, then, beginning in the mid-1800s, a widely-used ingredient in cocktails where it added flavor and character. The word derives from a French pronunciation of the German term for “wormwood.” Martini & Rossi and Gallo are the two most commonly found brands, and won’t hit you in the wallet like some of the fancier types. Since we’re working dry, we’re dealing with tiny amounts of the stuff, and it won’t make much difference. If you do invest in pricier vermouths, by all means treat yourself and up the amount you include in your martini by a considerable amount, for a more historically accurate take on the cocktail. And keep your nice vermouth refrigerated once you open the bottle. (The preference for super-dry may have stemmed from old, bad vermouth.)

Additionally, you don’t need really expensive gin to make a good martini, though if that sort of thing is important to you, knock yourself out. I can’t really taste the difference when it comes to clear spirits. (Except for Gran Legacy, the bottom-shelf gin carried by CVS drugstores, which tastes like the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag. I literally spit it out on the first sip, and poured the rest of the handle down the drain. That’s $8.99 I won’t get back.) A good middle-shelf London dry variety, like Beefeater or Gordon’s, will do the trick nicely. I’m using Gordon’s in these photos just because it was James Bond’s and Ernest Hemingway’s preferred brand, and the brand good old Charlie Allnut guzzled by the crate in The African Queen. So by God, it ought to good enough for the likes of you and me.

I used to make giant martinis in oversized glasses, until I was talked out of it by my brother-in-law (who is also a master of the rye Manhattan). He held up a 4-ounce martini glass and declared it the way to go.

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A 4-oz. martini glass, with some dice and chips for scale

“That’s tiny!” I objected. “I’ll finish that in twenty minutes.”

“So then you make another. That’s why they’re small. And that way they stay cold.”

I saw the light, shamefully remembering myself slopping around with a half-finished, hour-old, room temperature martini in a big glass. Never again. A warm martini should not be tolerated by anyone. Continue reading

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Video Store Memories

Sorry, misled voters of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Coal-mining jobs are not coming back in any appreciable amount. Never. Ever. And any presidential candidate of any party who tells you otherwise is playing you for a fool. But that’s the way of the world. Think of the poor harness and saddle makers when those Model T Fords started rolling off the assembly line. Shit outta luck. No one’s crossing the Atlantic on dirigibles anymore either, putting all those patriotic, hard-working dirigible technicians out of business. Industries die when times change. It’s a fact of life.

I can’t recall anyone carrying signs at political rallies when the humble video rental store circled the drain and gurgled out of existence not long ago. Maybe that’s because most video store employees are…excuse me, were…jaded Gen-X youngsters, not people with families to support and hoping for a pension after forty-five years of inhaling coal dust.

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Everyone knows the big video store chains. Blockbuster Video, with twelve locations still open nationwide as of this writing. Hollywood Video, which died screaming in 2010, never collecting the $23.00 I owed them for a way past-due return of I Love You, Beth Cooper. Less remembered are the independents, the hole-in-the-wall mom & pop places that sprang up all over, circa 1985. They occupied every third strip-mall storefront for a while, usually had a beaded curtain guarding access to untold triple-X delights in the “back room,” and were mostly forced out of existence a decade-and-a-half later by the aforementioned big chains and their corporate ubiquity. Even liquor stores and gas stations often had a small video rental section for awhile. But as the twin behemoths of Blockbuster and Hollywood scaled a mountain made up of the smoking corpses of their competitors, their time was running out, too. Streaming services became the order of the day, and with a little practice, even Grandma and Grandpa could pick a flick from Amazon Video without having to put on their orthopedic shoes and leave their house that smells of dishrags and old soup.

Physical media came with a lot of problems. VHS tapes could get mangled (or melted in a hot car). DVDs could get scratched. But streaming has its limitations, too. Your WiFi can get intermittent. It’s hard to casually browse. You have to actively seek out older movies to stream. You can no longer just randomly spot them on the shelves when you’re out with your friends in the video store, and then shame your friends into seeing them:

“Dude, you haven’t seen Mandingo? We are getting that shit and solving that problem TONIGHT.” So you would get Mandingo, maybe Big Trouble in Little China, and whatever the new release of the week was. And odds are, the rabid Mandingo fan would push to watch that one first, possibly to the total exclusion of the other movies, and to the enlightenment of all viewers.

In my multi-part look back at 90s music, I told a few stories about life behind the counter of a video store, but I didn’t go into the detail this vanished way of life deserves. I was an employee of First Run Video in Yuba City, California from August 1993 (age 18) to December 1995 (just turned 21). First Run was not a national chain, nor was it a standalone. It was a mini-chain, consisting of about six locations in the northern part of the Sacramento Valley. Redding. Red Bluff. Weaverville. Oroville, maybe? I know Yuba City was its southernmost location. I started there on its third or fourth day of operation.

I can find no web evidence of First Run Video. It closed its doors in 1999, I think. As far as the internet is concerned, it never existed. No archived local business articles or ads. No old storefront photos on Google Images. No bitmap image files of its logo (a medal that read “1st” with a forked blue prize ribbon dangling underneath). No YouTube video of its one local TV commercial (which featured the back of my head for .002 seconds). Except for those mentions on my own website, First Run Video is — in the truest sense — gone, even from the internet nostalgia machine.

So all we have left is my description of the place, drawn solely from twenty-plus-year-old memories. Take my hand, Gentle Reader, and I’ll guide you through it…

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A busy shopping center at a busy intersection. Anchored at one end by an Orchard Supply Hardware store, and at the other, a Bel Air grocery store. Just around the corner from Bel Air, facing the palm tree-lined side parking lot, is First Run Video…

It’s big for what it is. A lot of square footage. It seems like there’s an acre or more of alternating blue and white tiled floor. Walk in the double doors. On your left is the Children/Family video section, and the video games. On your right are all other genres. Lining the wall running across the back of the store, and curving around to the right, are the New Releases. If you walk straight ahead, you approach the counter where you receive your rented videos after you’d paid for them. There was a slot in that counter that would receive your returned videos. Above you are bright blue buzzing neon letters that spell out MOVIES. (I think. Maybe it said something else. All I know is that it was covered with a shitload of gnats and lacewings every summer.) But you pick up your movies later. Right now, pass by the Disneyland-style popcorn wagon (popcorn is gratis, but we only fire it up on weekends). Rows of little marquee light bulbs on both sides of the entrance lobby channel you to enter the rental floor to the right or left. Either way, you pass through our security gates. Metallic strips of tape stuck to each and every VHS cassette in the store will set those bad boys off, ensuring you don’t pilfer that copy of License To Drive. They’re also fun to stick on co-workers’ backs right before they leave for the day, so they can exit to the sound of a shrieking alarm system. (Best to pull that gag when the store is pretty empty.)

One employee, Doug, who bore a striking resemblance to the “Ogre” character from Revenge328ff3d500bd1af7297f0e2145245ead of the Nerds (but was much more good-natured) was actually simple enough to clean the dust out of an empty marquee light socket using his finger. The crack sound was audible, and Doug’s considerable bulk was sent sprawling. He later showed us the black fingernail and the spiderweb of reddened blood vessels that crept up his arm. Doug also once called in sick after falling off a local railroad bridge. He soon moved on to other opportunities.

The store shelves are not real shelves, they are those rubberized wire racks that you would normally find in a budget-line refrigerator. Light, movable, and above all, cheap. Apart from the Customer Service Counter (and the New Member Sign-Up table just to the side of it), everything in the store seems made out of these modular racks. Most people enter to the right, where they would encounter the New Member Sign-Up table with its stacks of membership info cards, and, for a blessedly short period, the “trailer machine.”

InnocentBlood-Warner1The trailer machine was a big console with a video screen, where customers could cue up a preview for an upcoming movie by pushing a button. If no one was around to push the button — and very few people exercised this option — the machine would simply cycle through all its trailers on a randomized loop. The problem was, the machine was loaded with far too few trailers, and each one would crop up every fifteen minutes or so. The first two lines of Sinatra’s “That Old Black Magic,” which opened the trailer of John Landis’ Innocent Blood, became permanently embedded in by frontal brain lobe after four months of hearing it every fifteen minutes of an eight-hour shift. The other problem was that no one ever showed up to change out the trailers. The movies featured went from “Upcoming” to “New Release” to “Saturday afternoon on TNT.” The machine was finally removed in the name of employee sanity.

If you’re like most people, you would head right for the New Release section against the back wall. The VHS boxes shrink-wrapped around styrofoam blocks would be the “display models.” Any actual copies of the movie we have on hand would be behind those. How many people bring the display box up to rent, and leave disappointed? More than I’d care to count, despite the myriad of signs around the store explaining the system. No such confusion in the main rental area, where the videos older than three months go to be pretty much never touched again. The box is cut down and slid into the clear sleeve of a traditional plastic VHS case, and the tape goes right inside. When their time comes, a copy or two of the former New Release is kept for this area (divided by genre), and the dozen or so others–the ones we could barely keep on the shelves for those heady first few weeks we had them–are kicked to our Used Movies To Buy section. When they inevitably fail to sell after a few more months, they are shipped off to some mysterious video graveyard.

New Releases rent for $2.99, and go fast. People with far too much time on their hands hover around, and snatch them as soon as we put them on the shelf. They ask us to go out to the parking lot and check the dropbox, even though it had just been checked twenty minutes ago. Luck plays a big part in going home with the hottest new movie…unless you are a comely young woman, then your odds go up substantially. We always keep one copy of all the New Releases in the “Pretty Girl Drawer” behind the counter. (“One just came in…I was holding it for myself, but you seem nice…” No employee discount for New Releases, either. Once they are in the old movie section, however, they are free for us, and we can and do bring them home by the carload.)

If you are lucky (or attractive) enough to get ahold of your coveted New Release, then you might turn your attention to our back catalog, which takes up the bulk of the real estate. They are subdivided into an exasperatingly pointless amount of sub-genres, as indicated by a color-coded sticker. Here’s what I remember: Action (green), Adventure (orange), Children (light blue), Classic (light brown), Comedy (yellow), Drama (gold), Family (dark blue), Horror (pink), Thriller (red), Romance (white), Sci Fi (purple), Western (dark brown). There may be more. Documentaries and foreign films are over by the Family section, and sport a layer of dust the thickness of a rabbit’s pelt. This is Yuba City, after all. Continue reading

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The Weirdest Thing I Ever Saw

We all watch stupid shit. Although terms like “golden age” and “peak TV” have been thrown around quite a bit in the last few years, referring to the acclaimed offerings of HBO, AMC, Netflix, et al., sometimes you just want to look at garbage. I’m sure there are people with advanced degrees and high-paying jobs who get through the day just to race home to their tastefully decorated domiciles to gorge on Real Housewives on their DVR.

Me? I’m hooked on paranormal shows. And thanks to the wealth of cable channels, I ghost-adventures_ep_magnolia-plantation.rend.hgtvcom.616.462can feed my addiction on a pretty much constant basis. It’s only a matter of time before there’s an all-paranormal channel. (Destination America comes close, but it’s been having audio problems the last few days. And I’m on my summer staycation! I’m almost ready to put a bullet through the screen, Elvis-style, because the sound keeps dropping when I’m trying to watch Monsters & Mysteries in America.) If there’s someone wandering around in an old abandoned hospital, turning the screen green with their infrared cameras, and asking each other “did you hear that?”…then I want to watch them doing it.

I don’t believe a second of it, of course. But that wasn’t always the case. Where did my abiding interest in this subject come from?

A much younger Holy Bee had quite a scholarly interest in the paranormal, and took it pretty seriously. Maybe because by studying it, I could control my fear of it. I was the kind of kid who always slept with his bedroom door open and the hall light on, when I wasn’t actually bringing my Garfield sleeping bag onto the floor of my parents’ bedroom after a particularly unsettling episode of In Search Of. ISO, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, was the first TV show to seriously investigate mysterious phenomena. Running from 1977 to 1982, it popped up in syndication on Sunday afternoons a lot. 

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My earliest recollection of a non-Halloween “true” ghost story was my grandmother relating a tale involving a friend or relative who late one night observed, through a bedroom window, a spectral woman roaming her front yard and gradually fading from sight. She wasn’t telling the story to entertain or frighten me. She was matter-of-factly telling it to someone else when she thought I was already asleep on the daybed in the living room. That did quite a number on me.

Another big subcategory of the paranormal is cryptozoology — “hidden animals.” Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, etc. My first major exposure to this was an old 1970s documentary Bigfoot: The Mysterious Monster, which I saw on TV while staying up way too late when I was about seven. Hosted and narrated by a Very Serious Peter Graves, it was full of dramatic recreations of Bigfoot encounters and presented everything as bona-fide fact. I knew I was watching re-enactments, but the Bigfoot costume that the special effects department created for that low-budget doc joined my grandmother’s front-yard ghost in my Nightmare File.

(For some reason, I had little to no interest in the third major area of the paranormal — UFOs.)

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The local library was about six blocks away from my house, and I pedaled my bike there a lot during summer vacations (scrupulously mashing the crosswalk button at the lone busy intersection that bisected the journey.) The children’s section was in the basement, and boasted powerful air-conditioning and several beanbag chairs. They also had a robust selection of paranormal books for kids like me, who ate this stuff up. It’s still a thriving realm of children’s publishing, if Amazon is anything to go by. Ghost stuff was in the 133 section of the Dewey Decimal System, cryptozoology in the random catch-all section of 001. A lot of them were by a guy named 51PhG2vKz9L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Daniel Cohen, who is probably responsible for many grade-school bookworms’ sleepless nights. When I exhausted the children’s section (which took awhile — I had no problem re-reading and re-re-reading), I ventured upstairs and nosed through the adult books on the topic. By the time I was thirteen, I had a subscription to the Time-Life book series Mysteries of the Unknown.

As I grew into my teens, this particular hobby went on the backburner, although I would still occasionally pick up a Hanz Holzer paperback. Continue reading

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Confessions Of A Hardcore Gamer*

*Not really.

But the engrossing, soul-consuming world of computer gaming is the reason I’mvault-boy taking forever to finish the multi-part series of blog entries I foolishly promised last month. In order to finish that series, there’s lots of stuff I have to read first, and who has time for reading boring old books when I can be crafting mods for my .308 combat rifle with the calibrated receiver, recoil compensated stock and reflex sight (nicknamed “Thunder”) or my laser rifle with the maximized capacitor, full stock, and beam focuser (“Lightning”)?

Or I can be magnanimously providing clean water options for tiny, post-apocalyptic survivor communities, or accepting assassination contracts on chem dealers preying on the inner cities, or protecting the settlers at Oberland Station from an onslaught of green-skinned Super Mutants and nefarious Raiders.

I should add that I also have a .50 sniper rifle with a night scope, a souped-up .10 mm pistol (“Cobra”), a .44 revolver that fires two projectiles with a single trigger pull (“Double-Down”), and a short-barreled, close-range shotgun that adds 10% plasma pulse damage with every hit (“Barker”). I can also build picket fences, practice taxidermy on horribly mutated wildlife, and select tasteful artwork for settlement walls, among a thousand other options.

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Yes, I am three weeks in to Fallout 4 (level 40 as of this writing), and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the incredibly intense, rich world the good folks over at Bethesda Softworks have concocted to gobble up every second of my free time. My formerly rewarding career is now merely the 8 hours a day in between Fallout 4 sessions. Family? One son is leaving soon for college, and the other is a sophomore in high school who spends most of his time in his room with the door firmly closed. My beautiful wife has her own obsessions (she is a chronic Candy Crusher and binge-watcher of various Netflix shows), so she doesn’t begrudge me mine. Books go unread on the end table (including the ones needed to complete the blog series). My TiVo has been on the fritz for almost two months, recording nothing, and I’ve barely noticed.

Funny thing is, I have had far less experience with video games than most people of my generation. For large chunks of my life, I’ve had no interest in video games whatsoever. But it’s been a long, multi-decade dance of seduction. Video games and I would flirt, move closer for awhile, then split apart for months or years, until I was drawn in again, and the process would repeat itself.

Pitfall!_CoverartUs Gen Xers were at the forefront of home gaming systems, not counting the archaic, late-70s Pong. (Pong was what Mom & Dad and older sister idly played in the downtime between our Kraft mac & cheese dinner and the latest episode of Alice.)

Like many others my age, I navigated Pitfall Harry over crocodile-infested ponds, and guided a weird, square-ish Pac Man around his maze, devouring dots with a loud “bonk”ing sound completely unlike the arcade version. This was 1983, or the “Summer of the Atari 2600.”

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I even had the infamous E.T. game, which we picked up for a dollar at a garage sale. Its reputation is well-deserved.

After the appeal of maneuvering indistinct blobs of pixels randomly around my TV wore off, video games and I parted ways for a long time.

Pac-Man_Atari_2600_GameplayThe original, iconic Nintendo Entertainment System hit store shelves when I was about eleven or twelve, and I suppose I could have had one if I wanted one, but I couldn’t care less. I thought of myself as above it all. I was reading Tolkein and Asimov and Vonnegut. I was an intellectual. Literally every single one of my friends had it, though, and I was often cajoled into joining them in a rousing round of Duck Hunt, silently seething every time that idiot dog giggled at me for missing both ducks. My eye-hand coordination was never (and still isn’t) anything to write home about, which is why I took no interest in sports, either. I just consoled myself with John Irving novels and the knowledge that I was superior.

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Except I wasn’t. I soon discovered some deeply-buried pleasure center in my brain stem was tickled by Tetris, which I played at a girlfriend’s house until falling blocks and 8-bit versions of Russian classical music played in my head as I was trying to fall asleep hours later.

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At a later girlfriend’s house (I was a senior in high school by this time), I discovered her younger sister (a sophomore) had an NES in her room. Big deal, right? You bet it was a big deal — I discovered this obscure little title called Super Mario Brothers, and it was all I wanted to do. I spent a wildly inappropriate amount of time in my girlfriend’s sister’s Super_Mario_Bros._(NA)bedroom.

The girlfriend was understandably concerned, and asked me a number of pointed, suspicious questions. But the fact that I only had eyes for bricks, mushrooms, turtles, and Italian plumbers emanated from every fiber of my being. She correctly concluded the situation was harmless, and the obsession would pass.

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Flash forward a year or so. The same girlfriend was now working a full-time job. I was bopping around community college and working part-time at a video store — that also rented video games. This was the early 1990s — the grand era of Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis. The girlfriend still lived with her parents and had nothing to spend her relatively massive paycheck on, so she bought me one of the new Super Nintendo systems, which we used to play one game and one game only — Super Mario Kart. (“Press ‘B’ To Start.”)

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This is where my lack of true video game interest rears its head again. I had free and total access to my store’s massive stock of rental games. I touched almost none of them. I did not care for any of the sports games. No NHL ‘94 or Madden NFL for me. I thought the super popular “fighting” games were especially ludicrous — the various Mortal Kombats and Street Fighters could all be thrown in the river as far as I was concerned. The early quest-based fantasy RPG games like Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past were just too visually primitive to hold my interest. I was anti-Sega for very good reasons that I have long since forgotten, so Sonic the Hedgehog remained a stranger. Continue reading

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More to come…

MoreToComeWatch this space. A new, multi-part saga is coming soon. But don’t get your hopes up, it’s a project that may be of interest solely to myself. And it’s one that other websites have already tackled, but the Holy Bee vows to do it better. (HINT: One might say that nobody does it better.)

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