Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Farewell, Columbia House!

Filmed Entertainment, the parent company of the Columbia House Record and Tape Club, filed for bankruptcy Monday. I owe my nascent music development to taking full advantage of Columbia House's "any 13 records for a penny" promotion and I'm sure I and scores of other kids put our parents' credit rating at risk by not reading the fine print.

Following is a story I wrote a few years back I performed at CHIRP Radio's "The First Time" reading series. It involves my mother, religion and Columbia House. Enjoy.


Like many people who came of age in the late 70s and early 80s, I took advantage of the Columbia House Record Club and their “12 albums for a penny” introductory offers. It was a cherry high that hooked you, like your first sip, puff, snort, or lick that had you begging for more. I had imagination and a resourcefulness that bordered on the criminal-uncanny for a 10-year-old-and soon sent in multiple sheets, pennies super-glued to them, with different names. I ordered records under Chuck Sudo, Charles Sudo, Sr., Sue Dough, Richard J. Daley, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Andy Gibb, Ace Frehley, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Frank N. Stein, Young Frankenstein, Benjamin Grimm, Bruce Banner, David Banner, The Incredible Hulk, Sheriff Lobo and, finally, simply CHUCK. (Spelled with a backward “k.”)

I hadn’t read the fine print thoroughly, however, and before long my mother asked “Captain Marvel” how he was going to pay for $300 in mail order record purchases. She decided I needed some discipline in my life but, instead of taking a brush or belt to my ass, she thought some religion was necessary.

Between 1974 and 1979, our home was a single parent household. When my mother wasn’t working to keep a roof over our heads, she turned to organized religion as a surrogate father, a means of discipline, and a babysitter when corporal punishment wasn’t enough. By the time I was 12, I had been baptized as a Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Lutheran, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Seventh Day Adventist Church of Christ and three different types of Baptists.

But the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana was the only church she knew of that had the capability to bus people to worship. This appealed to my mother greatly when she welcomed “Brother Jim” into our home in the winter of 1979, when the combination of the record house scam and my painting the faces of my KISS action figures with flesh colored model paint because “I wanted to know what KISS looked like without the makeup” proved too much for her to ignore.

Working class neighborhoods in Chicago, then as now, are fertile fields for members of the Northwest Indiana megachurch to offer their testimony and fill the pews. I’ve theorized over the years it’s because they specifically target families where English isn’t the primary language and the stressed-out heads of single parent homes. (They sure as hell aren’t pulling that shit in affluent neighborhoods.) Brother Jim had Mom at “We’ll bus him to church.” When he said that, Mom had a gleam in her eye as she thought about catching up on sleep, housekeeping, hanging with her girlfriends and maybe inviting gentlemen callers over without the possibility I would walk in on them.

Not wanting to seem like she was completely passing me off to the first warm body, Mom also attended church the first weekend and, satisfied I would be returned home in one (physical) piece, arranged for Brother Jim and his school bus to pick me up at 8 a.m. every Sunday. The church was an old department store converted into a house of worship in downtown Hammond and they bused in a melting pot laity in swarms. Mom’s constant switching of churches had given me a healthy skepticism for organized religion. The penchant of First Baptist Church members to dress themselves in the worst thrift store fashions and barber college hairstyles only strengthened my resistance.

Then there was the standard practice of missionaries like Brother Jim to speak in absolutes about something none of us will truly know about until we’re dead. He would sit beside me on rides to church and hand me Chick Cartoon tracts with titles like “The Choice,” “The Truth,” “Bad Bob” and “Back From the Dead” – as if they were suitable replacements the Batman comic books I kept in my backpack. The Chick Tracts, with their “accept Jesus or rot in Hell forever” options were certainly more violent in their depictions of Satan, the Lake of Fire and eternal torment. Whenever Brother Jim found me sneaking a peek at my comics, he would ask, “Why aren’t you reading your Bible? It’s the greatest story ever told.” Once I replied, “Have you read ‘The Laughing Fish?’ It’s the greatest Joker story ever told.”

Brother Jim would ask if I knew where I’d go when we died, which was a fucked-up thing to ask any kid under the age of 10. His favorite question, which he would use whenever he offered his testimony, was, “Did you know Hell is a million times hotter than the pilot light of your stove?”

Again, I was a bookish sort and the beginnings of the surly smartass I would become were evident even then. I would ask, “So it’s a constant one million, two thousand, four hundred degrees in Hell? Is it a dry heat?” Brother Jim would stammer, his eyes narrowing into beady embers of coal as he tried to resist the urge to smack the taste out of my mouth. He’d fashion a painful smile, almost like a rictus grin, to his face and say with a combination of arrogance and self-assuredness, “I know I’m not going to Hell. I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

“Pride is a deadly sin,” I interjected.

After church, there were games they would have us play on the bus rides back to Chicago, which were essentially fraternity hazings without the booze, drugs or date rape. Brother Jim would bring kids to the front of the bus to engage in nascent competitive eating contests. It seemed as though nothing was off limits in these competitions, but the staples always seemed to be baby food, worms, milk or soda chugging and goldfish. Not goldfish crackers. Goldfish. The objective was to eat until you had what competitive eaters nowadays call a “reversal of fortune.”With the Mexican and Puerto Rican kids who brought bottles of Malta El Sol champagne cola on the bus, there was always a reversal of fortune, especially if Brother Jim and his associates broke out the goldfish. When I pointed out to Brother Jim this was obvious gluttony, another cardinal sin, he gleefully dismissed my observation with, “But we’re doing this as soldiers of the Cross,” proving that anything can be excused if you crouch it in religion. “You’re eating these 15 jumbo goldfish until you puke in the name of Christ.”

Everyone had to participate eventually. It was after one of these eating contests a year into being buses every Sunday to Northwest Indiana like clockwork, as I was praying to the porcelain throne once I returned home, that Brother Jim, with my mother at his side, went through my record collection with the same zeal I did when I first put it together. His fingers worked down the crates and he would stop every third album or so and pull out one: my KISS records; my Cheap Trick records AC/DC’s “High Voltage,” Black Sabbath’s "Sabotage," Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions' “Armed Forces” and, curiously, Olivia Newton John’s "Totally Hot."

“Do You Know What ‘KISS’ Stands for, Chuck?” Brother Jim asked. Before I could answer, he replied “Knights in Satan’s Service.”

“And AC/DC stands for ‘After Christ, Devil Comes,’” he added.

I nodded at the direction of my Olivia Newton John record. “Why did you pull that one?” I asked.

“It's selling sex and demeaning to women,” Brother Jim said. “This woman is a painted slut.” 

This would be the only time in my life that the very safe and vanilla Olivia Newton John was referred to as a painted anything. The album cover for Totally Hot was Newton John in her “Bad Sandy” outfit from “Grease,” with the addition of a bandanna.

Brother Jim turned to my mother. “Shirley, with your permission, I’d like to bring these records to an event we have planned next week, during Sunday school.” She smiled at me and told Brother Jim, “I think we can accommodate that.”

My heart sank and I started to bawl like every bit of the 10-year-old I still was. Mom had the presence of mind to ask what the event was. Brother Jim’s rictus grin reappeared on his face as he patted me on the shoulder and said, “A record burning.” This caught Mom off guard and, as she looked at me snotting like a bull for the preservation of my ill-gotten booty, eyed Brother Jim the way I had for months. “It’ll be alright. You may think it’s only music, but you’ll thank me one day for ridding you of this sinful music,” he said.

As I waited for Brother Jim to tell me that dancing was an affront to God and possibly outlawed in Hammond, he started to gather the records he pulled from my collection into a tidy bundle.

My mother looked at this mind rapist, then me. Then she stopped Brother Jim and said, “we’ll have some records ready for you next week. I need some time to convince him this is the right thing to do.” She could have easily let him continue gathering his selections, the sting of my mail order larceny still fresh in her memory.

Brother Jim, recognizing he didn’t want to cross a mother bear, nodded, placed the records back and showed himself the door. I stopped blubbering and tried to thank Mom. Before I could utter anything, she whispered, “Not a word. How you conduct yourself the next seven days will determine if I give them those records.”

It wasn’t the opening I wanted, but it was enough for me to toe the line and behave as though the First Baptist Church’s teachings finally sank into my head. The day of the record burning arrived and, as the bus pulled in front of our home, mom handed me my backpack, in which I could feel the shape of album covers inside.

“Don’t open your backpack until it’s time to give the records to Brother Jim,” she said. I tried to hold in my emotions, but I couldn’t. Brother Jim tried his best to console me, but he came across like a snake oil salesman.

When we arrived in Hammond for Sunday school, the bonfire was already raging and I was instructed to get in line to offer my vinyl sacrifice. Brother Jim, probably sensing I would try to make a break for the bus, stayed at my side all the way until I reached the fire. It may not have been a million degrees hotter than a stove’s pilot light, but it was the epitome of Hell.

I reached the fire and Brother Jim said, “Okay, Chuck. Let her rip.” I unzipped my backpack, reach my hand inside and pulled out… my mother’s Carpenters and Donny and Marie records, and a vinyl copy of “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” I smiled and frisbied those pieces of shit right into the center of the bonfire. Jim was proud of me until he saw the Carpenters logo on the covers; then he realized my mother had granted clemency to my record collection. Although I’m sure he could have rationalized Karen Carpenter as impure somehow.

The bus ride back to Chicago was like riding on a cloud. We pulled up to our home, where Mom was waiting on the stoop with the man who would become my stepfather. Brother Jim told Mom I rose to the challenge like a man, but his face told a different story of a missionary who had victory snatched from his fingertips. He tried to confirm to pick me up the following Sunday, but Mom said, “I think we’re going to take a break next week.”

Brother Jim again didn’t try to overcome Mom’s objections and, if he did, the man at her side looked primed to stomp a mudhole in his ass and walk it dry. “I’ll call you in a couple of weeks, then,” he said.

He never did.

As the bus drove merged into Division Street traffic en route to the Kennedy expressway, the three of us sat on the stoop. The windows were open and I could hear the stereo drop a record on the turntable, as the power chords of Cheap Trick provided the music for the church’s unspoken retreat.


Sunday, August 09, 2015

One Step at a Time

The illustration above summarizes how I've been feeling lately. Recent months have brought about a ton of change professionally and personally; most of it has been painful but hopefully for the better. Some mornings it's a chore to answer the alarm. Others I'm up before sunrise seizing the day.

I've been seeing a therapist for over a year and a half and, after some initial reluctance, embraced the process of being honest with myself for at least one hour a week about my shortcomings, and how to change negative behavioral patterns. I initially hoped for a short and fast road toward self-improvement, like a single track velodrome race. Instead it's been like a touring bike ride, filled with familiar yet constantly changing topography, alternating periods of sagging in the saddle and rising to attack chunks of distance, and "a-ha" moments that are as humbling as they've been revelatory. 

It could be a mid-life crisis. I'm hoping it's lasting personal growth.

Mostly, I've been reminded of what already enriches my life: a circle of very good, longtime friends who provide support and hard truths in equal measure; a dog who's been my constant companion on this road, always there to rest her Berenstain Bears-shaped head on my knee whenever I feel low or filled with doubt; I continue to be proactive about improving my physical and emotional health; and I'm still blessed that I'm able to write for a living.

It always comes back to the writing process, one I've engaged in for as long as I can remember. Journalism is fulfilling but once the stories have been filed and my bills are paid I can still take a step back, open a word processing doc (or take pen to paper) and conjugate some nouns and verbs for myself. It can be healing to simply get the thoughts out of your system. For me, it helps cut through the fog in my head, center me for the daily tasks that don't go away, and serve as a reminder to take care of myself first and foremost. I've written here before I would not be a stranger to this arid corner of the Interwebs. Maybe a re-commitment to making this a garden is in order.

Stay tuned.