Stockton: a true multipurpose city

I’ve been a frequent visitor to Stockton in recent months and I’ve found that this sometimes neglected gem of California’s Central Valley has a lot to offer if you’re looking for a true multipurpose retail experience.

Remember when “Food & Liquor” stores were new on the scene? Everybody shook their heads in wonderment and said “Gol, what a concept. Food. Liquor. Food and liquor. That’s, like, two thirds of your basic daily nutritional requirements, right?”

Businesses in Stockton, however, have kicked the 21st century into high gear by going the old “Food & Liquor” stores one better.

Just about anywhere you drive in Stockton, you’ll find retail businesses improving their commercial appeal by combining a variety of unlikely services and-or products for maximum appeal to people in the market for, er, lots of unrelated stuff.

I first noticed this somewhat unusual approach to marketing as I drove into town one morning and saw a restaurant advertising “Cocktails. Lunches. Dinners. Tattoos.”

Hey, it doesn’t get any better than this, amigos.

Pop in for a two-cocktail lunch, wolf down a pastrami sandwich and get a tattoo of a flaming skull with a rose in its teeth on your left hip while you’re waiting for dessert.

Maaaaan, talk about a power lunch…

A few days later, I was driving through greater downtown Stockton when I saw yet another multipurpose retail outlet offering happy hour handymen “Liquors – Hardware.”

This, my friends, is what home improvement is really all about.

Oh, sure, you can crawl under your house with a pipe wrench and a prayer in an attempt to fix some leaky plumbing, but that job’ll go a lot easier if you fortify yourself with a couple of brewskis before you enter the spider-infested darkness.

Face it, pal, once you get down there you probably won’t have the slightest idea of what you’re doing anyway, so you might as well do it in a relaxed state of mind.

And if you’re doing some much-needed roof repair, it goes without saying that you need the right tools and the right liquor.

Never, for example, try to reshingle your leaky roof while consuming Yukon Jack or Wild Turkey.

Stick with a well-chilled light beer or an insouciant little chardonnay.

Really. You’re hearing from the voice of experience here, fellow home-improvement fanatics.

Perhaps the most eye-catching multipurpose Stockton business I ran across, however, was the California Street Adult Video and Valentine Headquarters.

Is this a great combination or what?

I guess it’s no big secret that the fastest way to your girlfriend’s heart is presenting her with a colorfully wrapped adult video.

Next to tools, cocktails and tattoos, it’s hard to beat “Debbie Does Dallas” for thoughtful seasonal gift giving.

And this time when your sweetheart says, “Oooooooh, you shouldn’t have!” chances are she really means it…

Originally published March 2, 2003

Dead men and bonobos: a winning combination

If you purchase only one supermarket paperback global conspiracy murder mystery this spring, make sure it’s Sparkle Hayter’s “The Last Manly Man.”

Packed with action, romance, senseless violence and plenty of chimps, “The Last Manly Man” (2002, Penguin Books, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 260 pages) is a unique exercise in 21st century urban media adventure.

The story begins simply enough with the death of Robin Jean Hudson, an angst-ridden reporter for New York’s less-than-stellar All News Network.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), our heroine isn’t really deceased. Reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated. So have reports of the death of one Robert Huddon, a deputy secretary of state whose obituary tape has been mistakenly broadcast by the network in place of Robin’s prerecorded death notice.

(You’re following all of this, right?)

As readers may have guessed by now, Robin is having one of those lives, and her death is just the tip of the iceberg.

Before she failed to die, Robin was working on a vodka-fueled special report about “The Man of the Future.” She was hoping to put together a series dealing with how far the male has come over the eons, how he might evolve in the future and, most importantly, what it is that makes a man a man.

The project sounds straightforward enough, but it doesn’t take long for things to get complicated, starting with an elderly man in a brown suit who gives Robin his hat and an address moments before he’s swept away by a couple of mystery men in a limousine.

When Robin tries to return the old gent’s hat, her life slowly begins to unravel.

The address leads her to an animal rights organization that’s looking into the bizarre kidnapping of a dozen bonobo chimps. From there, it’s a short trip to a dead, nine-fingered French biochemist, a pistol-packing, blue-haired octogenarian vigilante and an eccentric millionaire whose house talks to him.

Romantic interests include Mike, an Irish cameraman whose personality fluctuates between sweet, sensitive poet and dark, brooding dog killer; and Gus, a guy who insists that he once had a pet salmon named Harry whom he used to take for long walks in a bucket.

To complicate matters, Robin seems to have a double named Miss Trix, who’s just gotten out of jail for selling bad heroin and using deaf-mute orphans from Guatemala to help with marketing.

Meanwhile, Robin’s also being pursued by a gang of thugs who keep asking her what she’s done with “Atom” or “Adam,” depending on which mealy-mouthed thug is asking.

I could tie this all up for you in one neat little package, but that would ruin all the fun of connecting the dots yourself and discovering what bonobo chimps, dead Frenchmen, Mr. Chicken, Miss Trix and Morton Mopwash have to do with a sexist plot to subvert an entire gender.

Is “The Last Manly Man” worth a trip to your favorite supermarket’s paperback aisle?



Originally published March 17, 2002

There’s no place like, er, home…

I recently had the pleasure of viewing one of those idyllic Thomas Kinkade creations, a luminous painting that depicted a typical “Hometown Morning” somewhere in the heart of America’s recent past.

Kinkade, the popular “Painter of Light,” had captured a truly charming scene – a quiet street lined by quaint cottages, a rustic church and sheltering trees. This was clearly a time and place where children and senior citizens could feel sheltered and safe – even from each other.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, it was woefully incomplete. I mean, there are home towns and then there are home towns. Every one of them is unique to someone’s concept of what home is all about, and my own home town had several very basic features that were sadly absent from Kinkade’s work.

I carefully examined “Hometown Morning,” but I could find neither hide nor hair of our town inebriate, a revered figure who was always up at dawn to begin his daily rounds of hospitable thirst emporiums.

No, he was not a target of ridicule or pity. If you saw the nattily dressed fellow teetering down the sidewalk in your direction, you nodded politely and knew that you were in the heart of your home town. In fact, depending upon the municipal mainstay’s direction of travel on any given sidewalk, you could also tell the time of day. He had a rather set routine…

Also missing was Prince, the home town mad dog. Prince was believed to have once been a military guard dog who was kicked out of the service for unnecessary roughness. The ill-tempered German shepherd lived in a big, dark house with a reclusive retiree nobody knew.

With the body of a timber wolf and the temperament of a Republican, he’d escape from his yard every other day and terrify the neighborhood by simply standing around with all his hair standing on end. He effortlessly foamed at the mouth and could spend an entire afternoon savagely barking at an inoffensive dandelion or a crack in the sidewalk.

“Come right home from school or Prince will chew your face off,” parents would cheerfully tell their offspring to prevent after-school dawdling.

Then there were the King boys. During the 15 or 20 minutes a week when Prince was safely chained to the rusted frame of a 1947 Buick, parents in my home town could still keep their children in line by warning them that they would “end up like the King boys” if they didn’t behave.

The King boys were three elementary school males who were routinely blamed for everything from liquor store holdups to aircraft hijackings.

If a 300-pound, 68-year-old gunman knocked over the First National Bank and managed to escape, some home town detective would nod sagely and opine, “Yup, those King boys are masters of disguise. They’re probably halfway to Jersey by now…”

If a winter storm flooded downtown streets, blew the roof off the library and sent power poles crashing to the ground, you can bet there would always be three or four red-faced residents shaking their fists in the air and demanding that somebody do something about those damned King boys.

I guess by now some of you can understand my dilemma – Kinkade paints a lovely picture, but if it doesn’t have a mad dog, some soused citizenry and a fifth-grade felon or two, is it really home? Ya gotta wonder…

Originally published on January 7, 2001

The sounds of silence? Not likely, amigos…

The hours before dawn are, perhaps, the most uncertain of times. Commonplace objects seem to merge with the gray, pre-dawn light and it’s not always clear what’s real.

There is one thing, however, I can always count on around 3 o’clock on any given morning – if the phone’s ringing, it’s my old ’60s sidekick, Sapper, calling to explain why karma runs sideways through interdimensional gaps of subjective reality.

(Sure, go ahead, read that last paragraph again – can’t hurt…)

Sapper, forever lost in the Age of Aquarius after ingesting some unidentified herbs near Bolinas in 1968, is always ready to share his thoughts with anyone he can reach on the telephone after midnight.

Last Tuesday morning, Sapper directed his telephonic excesses my way, calling from his tastefully deconstructed crash pad in the heart of Oregon and urgently confiding one of his deepest fears.

‘Hey, bro, you ever thought about how many weird people there are just wandering around out there where they could bump right into you an’ stuff?” he asked. “I mean really, really weird – Charlie-Manson-on-the-half-shell weird. You ever wonder about that?”

(Uh-huh – usually when the phone rings before sunrise…)

“It always gets to me when I’m standin’ in line somewhere and I know somebody is standin’ in line behind me and that person could be really, really weird – like a zombified Richard Nixon or somethin’ just breathin’ down my neck…” he continued in an urgent whisper.

Getting a word in edgewise was not yet an option, although I did manage a brief “Whuh…” before Sapper resumed.

“When yer in line somewhere, anybody can just step up behind ya, and chances are they’re crazier than a road lizard. Ya can’t really turn around and see just how weird they might be, because that’s, like, impolite in this society. So ya just gotta stand there and wonder when they’re gonna start swingin’ a dead cat at the back o’ yer head,” Sapper declared.

“An’ then they start makin’ all kindsa weird sounds. Ya ever notice that? Yer standin’ in line at the post office or movie theater or someplace an’ all the sudden the guy behind ya starts making sounds like ‘Glik-glik snnnrrrk’ Oh, man…”

(Glik-glik snnnrrrk?!)

“I mean, ya gotta wonder what’s goin’ on back there but ya don’t wanna look ’cause ya know yer gonna come face-to-face with some guy who looks like Rasputin clutching a quart of vodka in one hand an’ a rabid ferret in the other…” Sapper added.

“Of course, it’s even worse if ya can understand some of the sounds. Then yer hearin’ stuff like ‘Aha! Vengeance…Death…Cottage cheese! Lizard, lizard, lizard! Tanks in the wire!’ hissed at yer back,” Sapper said. “An’ the only thing worse than that, bro, is silence. Then yer sweatin’ it ’cause they’re back there starin’ at the back of yer neck an’ just gettin’ weirder an’ weirder without a sound. There’s no escape…”

Silence? No escape?

Ah, there’s where you’re wrong, old buddy. Escape is as easy as, say, dropping the telephone receiver into a handy wastebasket and burying it under a pillow. And a bedspread. And some old shirts. And a couple pairs of boots. And maybe a big ol’ recliner chair…

Originally published July 23, 2000

They don’t make ’em like they used to

I’ve spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business listening to endless diatribes from journalistic crustaceans complaining about how modern newsrooms are just too sissified.

Newsrooms have gotten soft and frilly and user-friendly and, er, clean. And so have their occupants, oldtimers have continually carped since shortly after the end of the Peloponnesian War.

“G’wan, willya lookit that, willya? Bwah!” they’ve groused year after year.

I’ve tried to reason with the old fellows. I’ve tried to ignore them. I’ve even tried to outtalk them (“G’wan, g’wan – shaddup, willya? Bwah!”). All to no avail.

Indoor plumbing is too damned fancy for most of these guys. So’s toothpaste…

Then, last week, something happened – I began to agree with them.

Trouble started with a simple question. While researching a story, I turned to my young newsroom cronies and politely asked the price of a pitcher of beer – nothing fancy, just average beer in an average pitcher at an average tavern.

Alas, I haven’t indulged in the foamy stuff myself ever since my liver threatened to get on the next bus for Reseda a few years back. Prices, I reasoned, must have changed over time.

I felt secure in the fact that I was in a newsroom, though, once recognized as a bastion of precision alcohol consumption. Surely my colleagues would know the cost of a pitcher of beer.

The faces were blank, the silence was deafening.

I might as well have asked for the price of a mail order bride in Ulaanbaatar.

“Uh, guys – Brewskis? Bud? Down the hatch? Pitcher? I’m sure we’re all familiar with the concept – mildly alcoholic beverage in a large container suitable as an offensive weapon under some circumstances?” I asked, my barely concealed sarcasm lost on the well-scrubbed young scribes.

Finally, one by one, they admitted that they either didn’t drink, only indulged in minuscule quantities of designer vodka or had decided to invest their beer money in no-load mutual funds.

“Beer? You mean that German stuff?” asked one goggle-eyed youngster. “My grandpa used to drink that.”

Marvelous. I’m sitting in the middle of a bona fide American newsroom in the greater San Francisco Bay Area – in the heart of S’lano County, fer gawd’s sakes – and nobody knows the price of beer.

Any one of these reporters probably could have told me the price of imported French brie, Italian mineral water or Swiss hair conditioner, but none of them had even a passing acquaintance with a simple pitcher of brew.

Not only was my story stalled, but I finally had to admit what my elders had been telling me for decades – they just don’t make newsrooms like they used to.

Eventually one red-eyed young fellow saved me by staggering through the newsroom and responding “Five or six bucks, depending on happy hour…” before slipping back into the night.

His knowledge and stalwart dedication to a fine old newspaper tradition are, of course, to be commended.

As for the rest of my alleged newspaper colleagues:

“G’wan, willya lookit that, willya? Bwah!”

Originally published May 21, 2000

And we wonder why the stock market nosedived

The increased use of clowns in the national marketplace has begun to make me just a little bit nervous.

They’ve quietly crept up on us until the proliferation of clowns in commercial promotions nationwide appears to have reached epidemic proportions in a relatively short time.

Once relegated to circuses, carnivals and advertising for such products as cotton candy and rubber noses, clowns are have begun appearing with alarming regularity in promotions for supermarkets, auto dealerships, liquor stores and even dental offices.

I first reported on this somewhat unsettling trend last fall when I and jolly party of hardy Solanoans were accosted by a group of clowns gathered around the restrooms of a large Placer County flea market.

Restroom clowns?

And they were only the beginning. Before long, it seemed that the white-faced, red-nosed jokers were turning up everywhere, somehow growing into one of the biggest and goofiest marketing tools of the 21st century.

Think about it, fellow consumers – just how much sense does all this clowning around really make?

Sure, clowns are colorful and silly and fun, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to want to buy a station wagon – or a fifth of bourbon – from one of them.

When my car is leaking an ominous stream of transmission fluid onto the pavement and making an ominous “ka-thunk, ka-whunk” sound, the last thing I want to see as I limp into an auto dealership is a grinning lunatic with gigantic shoes and a red fright wig. A cute balloon dachshund isn’t going to do much for my confidence, either.

It’s equally difficult to envision clowns as a symbol of success for liquor stores or supermarkets. Nobody wants to buy a can of chili from a guy with a big red nose only to find out that it’s really a can of compressed pink confetti – plooomph!

And things will only get worse if clowns start infesting liquor stores. Spring-loaded rubber snakes in bottles of Uncle Vanya’s Premium Portuguese Schnapps? Not a pretty picture, amigos.

The appearance of a clown logo on a dental complex I passed while motoring through Contra Costa County gave me even more cause for alarm.

Sorry, no matter how you look at it, clowns and dentistry just don’t mix. There’s something decidedly unnerving about waiting for a root canal while a pop-eyed guy with pink hair chases a basketball-sized inflatable bicuspid around the office with a big rubber mallet…

This kind of scenario could put an entirely different spin on the use of “laughing gas.”

What’s next, America – emergency room clowns, stock exchange clowns, airliner clowns?

“Hi, I’m Beppo and I’m going to be your pilot today. Right now we’re cruising at sea level because nobody’s lit the pilot light yet – honk-honk! – but once we get under way, me an’ my co-pilot, Roscoe the Rascally Rabbit, will be taking you to Miami to see the Grand Canyon and the Space Needle – honk-honk! – Dinner will be served just as soon as we catch that darned pig! Enjoy your – honk-honk! – flight . . . ”

Originally published April 23, 2000

Welcome to Dallas, double vision and all…

If you like your serial killer murder mysteries served up with a double shot of bourbon, a dash of bitterness and a chance for redemption, drop everything, head for the supermarket and get yourself a copy of Howard Swindle’s high octane paperback “Jitter Joint.”

This feisty Texas tome, complete with rich playboys, down-and-out homicide cops, lots of dead folks, giant cockroaches and the detox blues, is an obvious candidate for Best Alcoholic Supermarket Paperback Murder Mystery of 2000.

Take it from me, amigos, “Jitter Joint” (2000, St. Martin’s Press, $5.99, 260 pages) simply has no peer on today’s supermarket shelves.

I should also point out that Mr. Swindle’s two-fisted tale is “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING SYLVESTER STALLONE!”
(Hey, it says so on the cover …)

“Jitter Joint” is the sometimes disjointed story of veteran Dallas homicide detective Jeb Quinlin, a police officer with a lot of problems, most of which seem to emanate from the nearest thirst emporium.

He, er, drinks.

A lot …

And he’s just gotten an ultimatum from his estranged wife and his superior: Sober up or lose both his marriage and his badge.

After consulting with concerned colleagues over a judicious number of Wild Turkeys at the seedy Probable Cause tavern, Jeb saddles up and heads less-than-steadily for the Cedar Ridge Hospital Substance Abuse Unit, informally known as the “Jitter Joint.”

Does it take very long for things to start getting weird?

Not long at all …

The Detox Unit is filled with colorful characters, starting with the sadistic and confrontational Dr. Wellman Bergoff III who has just a bit of a problem with lipstick.

Then there’s Zoe Zowie, an alcoholic amphetamine fancier who tries to drown a fellow patient in a vat of steaming chicken a la king over a perceived slight during a therapy session. And a swimsuit model and a missile systems engineer and a computer software designer …

And then they start dying, one by one, each of them tagged with one of the Twelve Steps we chemically challenged folks follow to help us maintain our balance.

Man, talk about stress. Sobering up is tough enough, but when you’re a recovering alcoholic homicide detective and somebody starts methodically offing everybody on the ward, we’re talking some major anxiety.

And just to keep the mystery in our murder mystery, the best forensic minds in Dallas can’t seem to figure out exactly what is being used to drastically shorten the lives of Jeb Quinlin’s ward mates.

Before long, the police captain who was threatening to toss Quinlin off the force is telling him he’d better get to work and corral the phantom of the detox unit before any more lives are lost and the police department is left with a black eye.

Unfortunately, our industrious Twelve Step killer has already taken his act on the road and is leaving victims scattered throughout Dallas, dropping appropriately labeled bodies in mortuaries and topless bars with giddy abandon.

Is Quinlin up to the chase?

Are you?

The answer’s about four aisles over from the tortilla chips and bean dip. Just steer clear of the Wild Turkey, pilgrim …

Originally published April 09, 2000

Don’t bother lookin’ if this tractor’s cookin’….

The folks at the John Deere Research Lab are onto something that may revolutionize agriculture, warfare and, possibly, rural commuting.

According to a recent Associated Press report, the 168-year-old farm machinery concern has joined forces with researchers at Southern Illinois University to build a state-of-the-art stealth tractor.

Constructed from the same high tech composite material that’s used to make lightweight, hard-to-detect stealth warplanes for the armed services, the experimental tractors are being designed as a possible alternative to traditional steel and aluminum models.

Researchers say they’re not trying to develop a new military vehicle. They’re just looking for a lighter, cheaper and more durable piece of equipment to keep America’s lawns and fields under control. And that’s certainly a noble pursuit – noble but doomed. Take it from me, amigos, none of those puppies will ever see an Iowa corn field…

As soon as the Pentagon gets wind of this plucky little agricultural project and sees the military potential for stealth tractors, sinister black helicopters will come swooping down and spirit them off to a remote, top secret compound faster than you can say “Golllll…”

Let’s be realistic about this – stealth tractors might be somewhat useful on Uncle Zeb’s okra plantation, but they’d be superb for sneaking up on the skulking enemies of democracy and striking a resounding blow for freedom.

Even the least knowledgeable of strategists will tell you that military forces invariably go on the alert when they become aware of tanks racing across the border. Naval authorities are equally suspicious of unidentified destroyers prowling the harbor. And most governments are understandably wary of F-16s darting about the imperial palace.

But nobody expects trouble when they see a humble farm tractor or two rolling down the road in a cloud of dust piloted by grinning, gap-toothed guys in straw hats and tattered overalls.

(“Relax, they’re probably just here for the vodka harvest…”)

No matter where you’re from, it’s hard to suspect a red-faced guy in a checkered shirt who gives you a big “Howdy, neighbor!” as he rolls past, blithely spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the wind.

Admittedly, most farmers don’t hunt prairie dogs with light anti-tank weapons and M-16s, but by the time our slow-thinking enemies figure that out, we’ll have them surrounded.

The advent of the stealth tractor will prove, once and for all, that the steadfast military-industrial complex, so derided in the ’60s and ’70s, is still working hard for America.

And, by its very nature, the stealth tractor should be easily adaptable to peacetime applications. Once our citizen-soldier-farmers have defeated the minions of whatever godless dictatorship we’re fighting, they can bond with the common man, tilling the fields, trimming the golf course, planting acres of corn and lima beans for as far as the eye can see.

Succotash for everyone!

Hey, if this isn’t a win-win situation, I don’t know what is…

Originally published April 2, 2000