Stuff From Summer

It’s coming. The white death is near. It’s about to start snowing in a few hours. We’ve had a bitter cold winter so far, but no snow accumulation yet. This should be the first. In a little while, I’ll run to up to the store TO FUCKING PANIC, but I’m not sure if I’ll buy anything yet.

I don’t like snow. I don’t like coats. I don’t like heating bills. I don’t like dead trees. Winter? No sir, I don’t like it. On my computer, I’ve had this folder of pictures labeled “stuff from summer.” It’s a bunch of photos of stuff that I was going to do blog posts about over the summer, but for various reasons, I never did post any of it. I started browsing through the pictures, and I figured I might as well post this stuff.

First, I had wanted to do an ode to this snowball stand that was up the street, Shorty’s Ice Shack.

I’ve defined what a snowball is before on the blog, but it’s worth repeating: a snowball is not a snow cone or slushee or an overweight cat. A snowball is something else uniquely, and somewhat regional to Maryland. While a snow cone is made of a coarser, crushed ice and served in a cone, a snow ball is made of a soft snow-like shaved ice and always served in a Styrofoam cup.

Every summer, hundreds of little snowball stands appear in parking lots and on the side of the road, and every winter they shutter and disappear just as suddenly. The stands are usually run by middle-schoolers or old ladies, and this particular snowball stand, Shorty’s, was run by an old woman whom I can only assume is Shorty herself:

A true snowball stand will offer a ridiculous number of flavors, many of which taste exactly the same. At the beginning of summer, I’ll vow to try each flavor before it’s through, but by August, I end up sticking to the ones with cool names like Tiger’s Blood and Darth Vader. Besides, I’ll never try Cranberry, Wine Cooler, or Bubble Gum.

The character-named snowballs are the best, though they’re nothing special—just plain old flavors with glorified names. Batman and Darth Vader (usually a grape flavor) have been around since my childhood, but other characters come and go. Ah, the Shrek snowball, might have once been my beloved Ninja Turtles.

Snowballs are most perfect when they’re topped with a big goop of melted marshmallow. Ice, marshmallow, and red syrup. It’s actually a heavenly combination.

We used to try to make homemade snowballs. There are various methods like saving actual snow in the freezer and mixing with Kool-Aid, or cranking your damn arm off with the Snoopy Snowcone Maker. Why did we spend twenty hellish minutes grinding an ice cube with a plastic toy, anyway? Why not just use the blender? Seriously, why did we never think of that?

Oh well. Nothing beats going to the stand and getting a monster-sized styrofoam cup full of perfectly-crushed ice:

The girlfriend is here, holding the snowballs out reluctantly and stiffly, hurrying me to take the picture. She finds the picture-taking slightly embarrassing. We’re standing in the parking lot where Shorty’s is set up, a parking lot that also includes a store-front church and a Pizza and Wings carry-out shop. It’s another sticky hot summer night in Maryland, and a crowd has formed a line for the snowballs.

I take the picture several times. The camera is stupid and takes blurry pictures. That, and my hands are never quite steady. But I blame the camera anyway. Stupid. Let me just take one more. She thinks the people must be watching us. Then I decide to adjust the newly-given engagement ring on the girlfriend’s finger. “For the blog so that people will see the rock.” She thinks that’s tacky. She doesn’t want people to see her hands. She wants to know if she can stop holding the snowballs now. Let me just take one more.

**

Well, the next set of photos I came across is something I wasn’t sure whether I should even post. I’ve sat on this one since the summer, thinking about it. I wasn’t sure if I could pay the true respect I think it deserves. I also didn’t want it to feel icky or exploitive by posting it on the Internet.

But I want to try. This is a story about rock and roll, and all stories about rock and roll are about love. I figured that can’t be wrong.

Now, I’m a huge rock and roll fan—and I’m really just using that as an umbrella term to describe many genres and eras of music. I love doo wop, soul, Motown, the British Invasion, the girl groups, surf music, bubble gum, and all the bad solo releases and 80s miscues that came afterwards. I like everything. Except Billy Joel. I fucking hate Billy Joel.

Back in the 80s and 90s, I’m certain that the Baltimore/DC area was one of the best areas for music stores, both chain and indie. In the mall, there was Record Town, Waxy Maxy, and Sam Goody. That’s where I bought my first albums, when my parents drove me to the mall. I still remember picking up the cassette of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in Record Town, encased in the long plastic anti-theft cassette trap.

When I was a teenager, I started checking out the local indie shops like Record and Tape Traders or Waves, where I discovered my favorite artists’ back catalogs and import singles. And when I got to brave enough to drive into the city on my own, the best music store in the area was Soundgarden in Baltimore. These days, navigating busy Pratt and Broadway streets, parallel parking, and walking past junkies is a no-brainer—but when I was sixteen, it felt like Adventures In Babysitting-level stuff.

Soundgarden was worth it. The place was a rock-and-roll mecca with endless racks of used CDs to browse. The place smelled like incense and cigarettes, and the employees were intimidatingly post-ironically aloof. And of all the stores I’ve named, Soundgarden is the only one that still exists, thankfully. But I’m onto the employees’ aloofness, and I’m no longer intimidated. I do post-irony aloofness way better.

I also discovered vinyl as a teenager. Vinyl records felt true to me, and something about the sound of the records moved me in way that compact discs couldn’t. I wasn’t trying for a look or any of that post-ironic shit. This was just sincere love. Rock and roll is nothing if it’s not sincere. I loved music, those grimy old record sleeves, and talking with the wacko record store owners who sort of scared me—but I knew they loved this stuff just like me.

One of my favorite vinyl shops was a place called Ferndale Oldies, and the old lady that ran that place was as close to rock-and-roll as you could get. She was about one hundred years old with wild gray hair and make-up applied generously, brightly, and somehow perfectly. She had the best name, too—Margie Coffy. All day, she chain smoked and drank Diet Coke, playing country music and Elvis 45s on a plastic record player with a small crackling speaker.

Her husband had owned a TV repair shop, and she opened up her record shop in the back room. After he died, she took over both rooms selling the records she collected at flea markets and yard sales. I loved checking out her store every few weeks and chatting with her. The conversations were usually one-sided. She just kind of talked about whatever—old people stories. I nodded, breathed in the choking smell of Virginia Slims, and dug through the crates. And on that plastic player, a 45 turned and Tammy Wynette achingly sang, if you love him, oh be proud of him, ’cause after all he’s just a man, stand by your man.

I hadn’t been to her record store in years—at least a decade. My friend and I had a joke that we bought her out of all her good records, and it seemed she never got any new records in. To be completely honest, I figured she had probably died at some point. But over the summer, I began to get curious and decided to drive by and see if Ferndale Oldies was still there. It was.

Could it be? Was Margie still in there chain smoking and listening to Tammy? I pulled up in the lot. Everything looked just the way it had been. The sun-faded Supremes and Sonny Criss records still hung in the window. The old building was still crumbling and chipping, just like it had been in the late 90s.

I got out of the car and peered in the window. I could see the stacks of records were still in there, sitting in the crates. Pictures of Elvis and Ricky and Fats still hung on the wall. A bottle of Diet Coke sat on the desk.

But Margie wasn’t there, and the half-inch of dust on her desk made me think she hadn’t been there in a while.

I came home to Google it and found her obituary. She had died only a few months earlier.

It haunted me, this stuff still there. Elvis still there. But it also felt like Elvis had left the building in more than one way. I think about how most of the old record stores are gone, and I don’t know what to make of that. Kids like downloading stuff and buying it online now. It’s just what it is.

But since I’ve been thinking about summer, I think about how every year, there’s that moment when you discover that perfect summer record, that sound that somehow feels like a summer’s nights breeze. And it tastes like saltwater taffy and it smells like fresh cut grass. Sometime around mid-July it happens, you hear that sound that just encapsulates everything so far. It’s pretty awesome. Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street.

Thank you, Margie for the rock and roll.

**

Finally, in my folder of pictures, I came across some pictures of fireworks. I began thinking about how pictures of fireworks never turn out. I always snap the picture too soon or too late, never capturing the firework in full bloom. I wonder why I even bother to try and photograph them to begin with. Sure, they’re beautiful. But I’ve always liked the noises better. The gasps in the crowd, the booms in the sky. The lights are almost the afterthought as they twinkle down to earth.

It’s sort of like taking pictures of each animal at the zoo or every animatronic hippo at Disneyworld. Before digital cameras, we had to have our priorities straight. You had 27 snaps on a roll of film. Photographs were strictly for family members and funny poses in the monkey house. With digital cameras, pictures have become a little cheap. We used to rely on our brain for memories, but these days, technology can hold our memories for us. Our cameras indiscriminately and furiously snap away. I must remember this. I must remember this. I must remember this.

Remembering is a strange thing anyway. I never remember a single firework afterwards.

It’s funny because it’s not like it matters. There will be fireworks next summer. Next July, next street fair, next baseball game, next party where everyone has a couple drinks and pulls out the illegal bottle rocket. Individual fireworks probably aren’t meant to be remembered. And neither are animals at the zoo. All you ever see is their butts anyway.

But sometimes I try to tell myself to remember a certain firework. To pick one and claim it and keep it in my mind. The problem is, I never can. It fades from memory as quickly as the embers fall from the sky. Alright, I think. I’ll just take the next one. The next one. The next one. Let me just take one more.

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13 responses to “Stuff From Summer

  1. Thank you for sharing the story about the record store. With all the memories tied to it, I can see how it may have been troubling to share. But its one of those things that is so rare and not everyone gets to experience, something intimate and special and unusual. Things like that deserve remembering.

    I’m sorry you missed seeing her one last time, and I hope someone adopts her shop, or at least does something worthy for her merchandise. Much of it looks like it could be historically important by now.

  2. I had a Barbie snow cone maker. It was a giant pineapple that came with one of my Hawaiian Barbies. Just like the Snoopy one, it didn’t work. Your arm almost cranked off by the time you got half a cup of crushed ice. And then we’d flavor it with Kool-Aid or Ecto cooler once we’d used up the 2 flavor packets included. It ended up just being a disappointing cup of juice with small chunks of ice. Bummer.

  3. Thanks for reminding me of warm summer days – needed it today, with the snow. I’ll never forget Margie taking me to that back room to reveal that one special find (I was a little scared). We had the Snoopy snow cone maker too, I agree, too hard to crank. My favorite snow ball is chocolate w/ marshmellow!

  4. Great post. I especially enjoyed the Margie part. The way you described her almost perfectly matches my wife’s grandmother, who was one of my favorite people in the world. Nice way to warm up these chilly, suck-ass winter days.

  5. Snowballs, huh? When I lioved down in the Bronx we had “shaved ice”. The vendors(kind of like a hot dog cart) would have a big block of ice and shave a plastic cup full of it and pour your selected flavor over the top of the ice and fill the cup. They usually would charge a dollar and only had one size, but, damn they were good! Thanks for the warm thoughts.

  6. I have given your blog a “You make me SCREAM!!” blog award —

    http://wonderfulwonderblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/i-scream-you-scream.html

  7. haha…I just deleted a bunch of old fireworks pics. And for the previous story – Even though I think vinyl is great, I’m the type of guy who loves convenience and downloading songs from iTunes is the easiest way to get music and I absolutely love it!

  8. BTW for the record – no pun intended…here are my top choices for this “snowball” that you speak of

    bubble gum
    watermelon
    almond
    butterscotch
    cappuccino
    peppermint
    creamsicle
    btw wtf is egg custard? I guess I have a wildly different taste than you! lol. That wine cooler flavor DOES sound odd though. If it was a Bartles and James Wine Cooler than maybe I’d consider it!

  9. I was going to post some Billy Joel lyrics, but then I read about Margie Coffy, so now it feels like it’d be disrespectful. It feels kinda good knowing you’ll be keeping rock and roll alive after I’m gone.

  10. genebalk@gmail.com

    I lived in Baltimore in the 1990s and I used to go to Ferndale Oldies a lot. Some of the best 45s that I own I got there! I loved that it was arranged by label rather than artist–so cool. I remember Margie well and boy do I remember gagging on all that smoke! I have fond recollections of really fun conversations with her about music (I remember bonding with her over our love of Timi Yuro). She didn’t just like rock and country, she liked soul and R&B, too. She was cool and I figured with the way she smoked she must have passed, but it still made me very sad to read that she had. Thanks so much for this post.

  11. This is Tom from Chicago. I have 10 or so records from Margie that I bought in 1984, I play them on my radio station and podcast
    “Wideband Detector”.
    She was fantastic and I cannot forget anything about her.

    When she put on “Underwater” by the Frogmen and started dancing
    while popping her gum and smoking at the same time the whole world melted away and I was in Rock and Roll Heaven.

    NO ONE has ever been so good at recommending what I needed to hear.
    God bless Margie, and I can’t wait to see her in Rock and Roll Heaven
    some day.

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