Eight or Twelve for a Penny: Columbia House Memories

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Some of my Columbia House bounty . . . I wish I could claim the cheesier titles were unsolicited selections of the month, but, alas, I cannot.

When I was a kid, I’d look over magazines and the Sunday paper, noting the¬†trappings of what I’d imagine would make a perfect adult life. The lighter side of me would dream of building a country estate based on model homes depicted in the real estate ads. I’d imagine driving home up a winding lane in a MG convertible, wearing some smart outfit from Penney’s in a mail-order only color, eager to set up the filet mignon for dinner. The part of me that secretly rooted for Darth Vader plotted what kind of vices I’d choose in later days, so I also dreamed of owning a penthouse where I’d smoke Benson and Hedges and sip Riunite while listening to a hoarde of albums from the Columbia Record and Tape Club.

I was able to forego the indulgence of nicotine and alcohol for several more years, but I fell prey to Columbia House as soon as I felt I could write my address as well as an adult would. When I was 12, I taped a penny to the order form, checked off the box that declared I was at least 18 years old and waited for my box of tunes. By the time I actually smoked a Benson and Hedges (which tasted like minty dust instead of something worthy of Remington Steele, by the way), I had signed up for the deal four times, at least once under an assumed name. I was able to pay for these tapes and CD’s first with allowance money and later with minimum wage pay until the recoil of this scheme would hit me: the forgotten selection of the month billed at full retail. A collection agency pursued my alias by the time I was 14.

This scheme did not portend a life of crime. I did an online search on this topic and discovered that this scam was so widespread that the company factored such losses into its business model.

I will close this post with a few links to some articles on Columbia House:

Puff, A Mystic

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I don’t know who owned the mystic I’d borrow and call Puff. His seasonal groomings told me he belonged to someone else. I once spotted him strolling through a neighborhood alley and thought that a man working on a truck called him Larry. Maybe that man was talking to another man offstage from the alley. Then again, Puff was a man’s man. He could have owned the name Larry easily.

Puff had enormous paws that could cover most of the palm of my hand. His gaze could hypnotize me into giving him Fancy Feast and a nap on my pillow or couch. My daughter and I loved nothing more than having him stay the night, and we’d fall asleep to the sound of his steady purr.

By the time my daughter started school, Puff’s visits began to dwindle. We’d take walks through the neighborhood to see if he’d become the back door man for another family. I took the photo above during one of his last visits, and in it he seems to be telling me that he’s found another woman but knows he’s made his mark on me.

My daughter and I still reminiscence about Puff. I hope he disappeared because he and his mysterious owner moved away.

He’d be an old man by now, but I’m sure he’s still full of love, charisma and machismo.

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Puff in his rusty summer glory

Mike on Broadway

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Dad in silhouette on Broadway

My dad has visited New York City several times. I tried to get him to bring the city to life by speaking of his times there, but he offered just one scene to represent the whole. He told me that he attended a Catholic Mass in the basement of a Brooklyn brownstone. On a mantel behind the altar, someone had left a copy of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and that album stood in its full 12″ glory for the entire service. Dad said that it seemed as if he was only one there who noticed it.

Several years ago, both my mom and dad planned to make a trip to New York, and I asked to go along. I was between jobs and hoped the trip would provide ample opportunities for street photography, which was a hobby of mine at the time. Once we were there, I was hardly able to stop long enough to take many pictures.

Reams of paper and miles of film have been devoted to capturing life in this city, but there is no substitute knowing what reality is like there. What kind of reality would produce the highest concentration on earth of those who live off their imaginations? The only way to know New York is to be there.

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Another photo I took on Broadway

Railroad Flight

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In Lima, Ohio

Usually I govern my driving with all sorts of rules to keep anxiety at bay. Don’t drive at night. Avoid left turns if at all possible. Parallel parking? No way. There is one traffic situation in which caution escapes me: a railroad crossing with no threat of a train passing anytime soon. Maybe it was all the Starsky and Hutch I watched in the 70’s, but I do like to make my car take flight on the tracks from time to time. When I get the oil changed on my car, the tires usually need rebalanced, too.

There are so many opportunities for flight in my city since it is littered with all kinds of railroad tracks. Once I was taking a coworker home and punctuated a speech on how terrified I am at driving in ice and snow by flying over the tracks. It was two months before the threat of snow that year, so I had plenty of bravery left in me. I did not premeditate this flight or its timing. My moments of absurdity can never be contrived.

My daring in these moments is a tribute of sorts to the role the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad played in my genesis. Both of my grandfathers and one of my great grandfathers worked for the B&O. My maternal great grandfather was a close friend and coworker to my paternal grandfather. My mom needed a ride home from work, so Great Grandpa called my future Grandpa and asked him if he knew anyone who could give Mom a ride on short notice. Dad was chosen to pick up Mom. They were married six months later.

I wonder if he flew over the railroad tracks in his GTO on the way to pick up Mom.

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At work on the B&O Railroad – second from left is my great grandpa William Clinton Oard, second from right is my grandpa Paul Sheets

Perfect Chi

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I’ve used at least a dozen different nicknames for my daughter. Most of them I use just between her and me, my way of writing some footnotes on her entry in the Book of Life. Once I accidentally used one such name in front of a friend, who asked me, “why do you call her Perfect Cheeks?”

I stated the obvious, “Because she has perfect cheeks.”

Her chi is perfect as well, so she is also my Perfect Chi.

She is perfect for me because she told me at age four that my shampoo smelled like a poison pen.

She is perfect when she pretends to be a Japanese man on Twitter, convincingly.

She was perfect on the bus trip to Ohio Caverns when her classmates were messaging on Nintendo DS and never guessed she was the one trolling them as Mr. Saturn.

She was perfect when she told me that David Bowie and some cats have heterochromia, not dichromatism.

She was perfect when she remembered during a power outage that Chris Griffin’s artist name on Family Guy was Cristobal.

I am blessed.

Summer’s End

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This evening as I was flying over country railroad tracks in my CR-V and listening to “Stonehenge” by Spinal Tap, I felt that I had slipped into one of those odd peak moments of life. Years from now, I will look back at this time and feel it was one of many encounters with effortless joy. I will know how strange it was that I thought I was already old. I have felt old, but old in a good way, since birth.

I’m also pleased that my hibiscus has rebloomed. That is enough for now.

Twinkle

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For the past couple years, I’ve thought that my daughter was on the verge of outgrowing her fascination with Halloween. This photo of her I took in a Halloween store over the weekend shows me that she hasn’t. If I could bottle that sense of awe and wonder and keep it forever, I would. I know that I will try to talk her into giving out candy at home instead of trick or treating. I figure that I will fail at persuading her that at age 14 she should sit back and give treats to all the little Minions, musclemen and princesses who will troll down our street on Halloween. She will trick or treat anyway, and I will be secretly relieved that she is still young enough to treasure all that candy.