Hot Topic

When I was in middle school, I had a hard time figuring out who I was. I began sixth grade still wearing clothes my mom had bought for me at who-even-knows-where (probably Wal-Mart and Marshall's). When I was made fun of one day for doing so, my overly-sensitive ass demanded to be taken to Old Navy, of all stores. I guess tech vests were in, or something. Just a few weeks later, I realized that Abercrombie was to Old Navy what Old Navy was to Wal-Mart, and spent the remainder of sixth grade shopping there and only there. Once the middle of seventh grade rolled around, I was both bored by Abercrombie and also capable of coming out of my shell a bit more. Maybe my musical tastes had evolved to a point where they could be somewhat distinguished from any other middle school kid's, but for whatever reason, I decided to toe the water in the "punk" scene. Studded belts, steel ball necklaces - you know, the works. My wardrobe was capped off by a budding collection of t-shirts featuring bands I was into at the time: New Found Glory, Midtown, Linkin Park, and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes were just a few of the gems I can recall. And where does a thirteen-year-old boy acquire studded belts, steel ball chokers, and pop-punk (at the time, strictly known as "punk") band tees? Why, Hot Topic, of course.

In hindsight, it's really strage how much my Abercrombie years and Hot Topic years overlapped. I don't think I've set foot in either of them since ninth grade, and would certainly be embarrassed to do so now. What's especially strange is that, amid my "finding myself" period, I wore both Abercrombie clothes and Hot Topic clothes with equal frequencies. I'd show up one day in a sweater and some nice khaki pants - "preppy" to the extreme, you know? And then the next day I'd come in with a studded belt peeking out from beneath a skin-tight Good Charlotte tee. Ugh. I don't think I could blame a single person for hating middle school me.

Let's contrast the two stores for a moment. Abercrombie kids were popular, rich, and cool. (I was none of these things - was I really just a sad, impressionable imitator? Probably, yes.) "Punk" kids on the other hand were into music and being themselves and just not giving a shit about the Abercrombie kids at all. (In hindsight, I probably fit into this category a lot better. Except for the "not giving a shit" part. In fact, I gave such a big shit, that I couldn't decide on any given day whether I wanted to dress in my Abercrombie stuff or my Hot Topic junk. Poseur? Absolutely.)

At any rate, in my delusional state of confusion over just who the hell I was, I frequented both stores. A lot. And I can say this about Hot Topic: it's full of wonderful people. (At least, it was eight years ago.) Abercrombie? Not so much. Just a bunch of self-important dicks and sluts whose only goal seemed to be to look better than the customer. Hot Topic, meanwhile, had some totally ugly people working at it. Acne-ridden, rail-thin, fat as whales, you name it. But they were some of the nicest and most helpful salesclerks I've ever been attended to by. They may have been "losers" in the middle school sense of life's heirarchy, but by and large, they were toally decent people.

The same cannot be said for every Hot Topic customer. Look, let's not beat around the bush; Hot Topic is for two kinds of people: middle school kids and weirdos. Alright, fine, maybe even the middle schoolers who shop there are weirdos. (But I got out! I made it away from that lifestyle, dammit.) South Park really nailed it a year or two ago when they depicted a bunch of pseudo-goth kids buying their Twilight paraphanalia at Hot Topic. I could go on and on at length about the number of piercings, amount of black latex, or excessive make-up that I've seen on some customers there. Instead, I'll finish this up with an anecdote about the Warlords.

The Warlords were a group of people who my friends and I met one time. I think it was in the middle of eighth grade. They were loitering around outside the entrance to Hot Topic. They were heavily pierced and tattooed. I have no idea, looking back, whether they were 14, 18, 25, or 37. Seriously. I just remember the way they greeted one another (or maybe just passed time? It's tough to say). Two guys would face one another, toe to toe, and stick their hands in each other's front pants pockets. They would then proceed to kick their shoes together a couple of times, withdraw their hands, and hold both hands up making "W" signs. To conclude, they'd loudly proclaim, "Warlords!" (This is why we came to call them the Warlords. I mean, is there even any other name, once you hear them do that?) Oh, and the shoe kicking looked all the more absurd because the guys wore heavy stomping boots with a slight heel and pants that flared out at the leg bottoms to more than a foot in diameter. The whole thing just looked so... foreign. It was incredible. Very polished and practiced, but still obscenely ridiculous. We saw maybe three or four different Warlord pairs greet one another in this manner before they finally yelled at us for staring (and laughing) at them.

I more or less stopped shopping at Hot Topic right after that. But it'll always have a special place in my heart, and hopefully, in my mall as well; when the mall here in my college town replaced its Hot Topic with some other generic "conformingly counterculture" music and apparel store, I must admit, I was at least a little bit disappointed. Even if only because it further reduced my probability of ever running into the Warlords again.


Sweets From Heaven

On the first floor of the mall, surrounded by higher-end fashion and accessory stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Aldo, and Zales Jewelers, there once existed a tiny little unassuming candy shop called Sweets From Heaven. It sold everything from Bottlecaps to gummi bears to chocolate-covered pretzels to M&M's. It was exactly like every Mom & Pop candy store in America, despite being part of a very small franchise, in that it sold candy by the pound and struggled to make a healthy profit distributing empty calories to an increasingly health-conscious consumer base. Exactly like every Mom & Pop candy store except for one very important difference: the people who ran the store were disgruntled assholes.

One day several years ago, while browsing around for some candy, I noticed an analog scale hanging in the back corner of the score. Having just learned about Newtonian physics and spring constants, I was intrigued enough by the scale to, well, play around with it a little bit. After weighing in my bag of candy at almost exactly one pound (I know, I know...) I put my hand in the center of the weighing tray and began to press down, ever so slowly, until the scale read one pound. The point of my mundane little "experiment" was to see whether or not pushing downward with a force of one pound felt the same as holding a pound of weight in my hand. But no sooner had I achieved one pound of force than a voice shouted - shouted - from the front of the room, "Sir! Do not touch that!" Immediately embarrassed, I withdrew my hand in shame. I didn't even know I'd been seen, let alone get yelled at for my admittedly silly curiosity-curing stunt. I turned quickly toward the front desk and saw a small and unhappy-looking older Indian man glaring straight back at me. Then, he proceeded to tell me, in the same loud and stern voice, that "That is not a toy!" It wasn't as if I'd done anything to warrant the mini-lecture. He asked me not to touch it, and I stopped touching it; there was no need to berate me in front of other customers after the fact. I must have been a high school junior at this point, fully grown and sporting a goatee. The last thing I wanted was the attention of several mothers and children in a candy store. Now, was I wrong for playing with the scale? It's tough to say. On the one hand, sure, I wasn't using it as it was meant to be used. But then, on the other hand, consider this. The scale's needle covered a 10-pound range of weights. In other words, it was capable of bearing (and measuring) a load of at least 10 pounds. I had applied a mere one pound of force to it.I was, in fact, doing less harm than anyone buying 2, 5, or even 10 pounds of candy. In fact, the scale's magnitude raised an alarming question on its own: Who buys five to ten pounds of candy? My one pound purchase seemed like a healthy snack by comparison. At any rate, my point is, the irate Indian gentleman was borderline warranted in telling me not to play with the scale. But once I obliged, sheepishly and instantly, what was the point of his semi-sarcastic statement that a tool was not a plaything? Whatever it was, it wasn't a good one. He just kind of felt like being an asshole.

Flash forward some indeterminable amount of time. I'm in the store, wondering whether I should get any of the store's homemade Raisinettes. To aid me with my decision, I try one. I pop it in my mouth, chew, savor, and swallow. I like it. I fill my baggie with half a pound's worth of them. Suddenly, another stern Indian-accented voice scolds me. "There are no free samples here, sir!" Now, this is patently absurd. I've just taken about two hundred homemade Raisinettes with the intent to pay for them, and I'm being guilt-tripped over the one I chose not to pay for. Where's the salesmanship? Where's the common sense? If I don't eat that Raisinette, I don't go on to buy two hundred; it's that simple. Yet here's a disgruntled and annoyed Indian man - a different one, by the way, than the scale protector - upset that he had to spend one Raisinette to make the profit for two hundred of them. Still, I don't even stand up for myself or the basic business principles that have proven themselves time and time again, and suddenly apologetic, I just kind of mutter out a quick, "oh sorry," pay up under the scrutiny of his icy glare, and leave. Why treat paying customers this way? (At least, 99.5%-paying customers.) Should a man be made to feel guilty for making sure that a no-name foodstuff doesn't taste terrible?

Okay. I'll accept responsibility for the previous two episodes; both could have been avoided had I been a model citizen instead of a curious customer. But this next one takes the cake. Late in its run, Sweets From Heaven offered a "spend $50, earn $5 off your next purchase" promotion. It was a textbook promotion that all of us have seen before and will see again, and it was executed in a very familiar cookie-cutter way. A hole-puncher was used for every $5 purchasing increment, with the idea being that after multiple visits and purchases, a customer could earn back $5 toward his or her next purchase. My girlfriend, the biggest fan of candy that I know of, had one of these cards. One day, with the card about half full of punch-outs, we went into Sweets From Heaven for her to buy several bags of Sour Patch Kids. I'll have you know that the person behind the cash register was not an older Indian gentleman. In fact, she was an older white lady. However, while she was racially and sexually different from the previous two storerunners I have mentioned, she, too, was certainly a disgruntled asshole. As my girlfriend was paying for her candy, she pulled out her promotional card. The lady behind the counter made a grand gesture of pulling her hands away from what she was doing and raising them up slightly, shaking her head, and saying "We don't do that anymore." When we inquired as to why not, she merely said, "Too many people were punching holes in the cards themselves." Then, her voice rising and her brow furrowing, she angrily added, "That's stealing!" When we politely swore to her that we were honest God-fearing customers who would never do such a thing, all she could muster up was, "That's what they all say." Really? So now we, like "they all," in her mind, were crooks. Cheapskates looking to scam a struggling candy shop out of five dollars. It hardly even seemed worth my time to deny it. But my girlfriend, thankfully, had a little too much pride to be taken in so indecently. (Also, it was her promotional card that was not being accepted.) After an awkward series of exchanges between the two of them, my girlfriend flattering and bargaining, and the lady accusing and distrusting, it was confirmed that, fine, the lady would honor the promotion - or at least, the process of continuing to punch holes in the card - and give my girlfriend the two or three punches she deserved.

We never got to find out whether my girlfriend's card would have been accepted once it was filled with punch-outs, as just when she got it to such a state, Sweets From Heaven went belly-up and disappeared from the mall altogether. There's another candy store there now, but its name is both too forgettable to recall at this time and too similar to "Sweets From Heaven" to matter anyway. In fact, the store is almost exactly the same as Sweets From Heaven, right down to the placement of different types of candy and the grumpy elderly managers. It seems like the only thing different about the place at all is that it is unaffiliated with the "spend $50, earn $5" deal that my girlfriend did all of her part to partake in. It's a shame, really. Dead in the center of a shopping mall, amid a smorgasbord of relentless American adult consumerism, a Wonka-esque haven for children exists, and it is the most joyless and soul-draining place in the entire building. What happened to these store clerks that made their lives so miserable? Why go into the any business - the candy business, of all businesses - if you can't forgive customers for small misdemeanors or go a day without accusing one of lying and stealing? Something must have happened, somewhere along the way, to these poor souls, and it must have been something terrible. In that respect, I feel sorry for them all. But I cannot say I'm sorry to see Sweets From Heaven gone from my mall; it's tough to miss a candy shop being run by disgruntled assholes.



I'm sure plenty of retail stores have weird policies like this one, but allow me to share my favorite thing about the Aldo at the mall. It has a visible sensor on the doorway, no doubt intended for tracking customer entrances and exits. A friend of mine who once worked at Aldo confided in me that tracking customers is only half the point of the sensors; the store judges its salespeople based on their own personal sales to customers ratios. The magic number, I was told, was one in seven. So, by walking into Aldo seven times and buying nothing, you're hurting a sales clerk's job security. My friend wasn't lying either, as I have certainly seen a store employee or two duck under the sensor bar on the way out of Aldo in my day. My girlfriend and I had a few fun times with this policy, and made sure to drop into Aldo every time we passed it for about a year or so, just to watch the salesperson squirm with frustration. In some of our more epic charades, we managed to cross the sensor laser to enter the store a total of six or seven times. I think our record was ten, three of which came from me standing just behind the entrance and doing an exaggerated beckoning gesture in which my arm pumped back and forth wildly. We stopped soon after that one, realizing that we were being nothing short of assholes.

Aldo sells a few bags and sunglasses, but primarily is a shoe store. I think they do indeed sell some men's footwear, but like any shoe store, it's the other gender they're focused on. They have some pretty bold and crazy shoes. Some of the more memorable ones I have seen in there include a series of brightly colored, wooden-soled, patent leather five-inch heels. Another pair that comes to mind was a white one of heels with large pink and green flowers adorning them. They have plenty of lower-key options as well, but my point is, a girl could really turn heads walking around in some of these. And yet, so rarely, in any wake of life, do I see such footwear. For all I - a straight guy - know, maybe these Aldo specimens are far too garish and outlandish for the average girl to wear or too hard to match an outfit with or something. But still, for a gender that has earned and embraced a reputation for loving footwear, the female sex has left me scratching my head at what they choose to sport on their feet more times than not for the past decade or so. Without further ado or remorse, join me as I venture into an area to which no grown man should ever go: a contemporary history of women's shoe trends.

Let's start in the late '90s. During this era, stiletto heels were nearly absent even in the most formal of settings thanks to a "chunky heel" trend where women young and old alike took to wearing shoes with heels at least an inch wide. What was the point? I understand that a high and thin heel can be pretty uncomfortable, but isn't that mostly due to the height, and the angle at which the foot is forced to maintain itself for hours on end? As someone who has never worn a high-heeled shoe, I guess I'm far from justified in making this statement, but it doesn't seem to me like the heel's width has that much impact on the comfortability of a shoe. Some, sure, but not much. So why ditch the long-established sexy stiletto for a clunky block heel? Also, i think "Mary Janes" - buckle shoes that young girls wear - made a big comeback during the '90s for older women. Again, why?

Moving on to 2003 or so, we see another terrible trend: the heeled flip-flop. Now, flip-flops are a monstrosity all of their own, but I'll get to that later. What killed me here was the self-contradiction of these shoes. When a short heel - a "kitten" heel, says Wikipedia - is added to a shoe, it is meant to give it a little bit of feminization. I do understand why a lot of girls wanted to make their flip-flops less unattractive. That's fine. But then, by adding a heel - even a little one - are you not making the flip-flop uncomfortable and slightly difficult to walk in? Isn't that the argument against heels in the first place? So now you're stuck with a shoe just slightly less frumpy and ugly than a standard flip-flop while sacrificing the shoe's sense of casual comfort. If you're going to lose a lot of practicality for a little bit of class, why not go just one step further and wear a real heeled shoe? Or how about a pair of sneakers or clogs or something that remains practical without looking butt-ugly? A pair of heels makes a sexy and classy sound when a woman comes walking down a hallway. Everyone's familiar with the click-click-click noise and the air of sophistication it brings to any atmosphere. Flip-flops, on the other hand, are named after the awful noise they make, snapping back and forth, slapping pavement and foot soles alternatively. The hybrid noise these awful kitten-heeled flip-flops make is a click followed by a sole slap. The whole ensemble reeks of a confused 16-year-old Supercuts employee who shops at Wal-Mart. Thankfully, these click-flops only seemed to last for one summer.

The same cannot be said about Ugg boots, which caught on sometime around the winter of 2004/2005 and haven't left since. Now, maybe it's because they've been here for so long, but I'll admit, at this point I'm more or less okay with these shoes in most cases. But I still think they defy women's fashion entirely. No woman prides herself for having big fat feet or large ankles with thick calves. Yet, that's the outline these "boots with the fur" create. I've seen girls squeeze into a nice slimming dress and then pair it with these cankle-makers far too many times to find it funny anymore. Especially toward the beginning of their popularity, when it seemed like few girls knew how to sport Uggs without looking dumb. Far too many pairs ended up salt-stained and discolored from rain and snow. They're not snowboots, ladies. They're $300 casual boots. Another classic gaffe was the Ugg-skirt combo. If it's warm enough to wear a skirt, it's probably too warm to warrant Uggs. These days though, it seems like most of the young women I see have found a way to make them look stylish. I'm way outside of my element here, but I'll venture that it's only when you play up the clunkiness of Uggs that they start to look decent. Tucking one's jeans into them and wearing a puffy vest, for example, makes for an "I look this way on purpose" style that I really can't find too much trouble with. Still, where have all the classy high-heeled boots, like the ones found all over Aldo, gone? There even exist plenty of furry animal-skin heeled boots, if you're looking to retain the style while adding some class. Sadly, it seems that from October to March, almost every girl in my generation would rather stick with the (apt) name brand: Ugg.

Finally, perhaps the worst trend to come out of left field in the women's footwear realm was, in my opinion, the flat. Now, flats have pretty much always been around. We've just always referred to them as grandma slippers. After all, until 2006, what non-senior-citizen was rocking ballet shoes in public? I just don't get it. If you're going to remove the heel from a shoe, why not just wear a socially acceptable non-heeled shoe such as a clog or a sneaker? I think part of my issue with flats was the whole fashion moment that they were part of. What I really couldn't stand were the leggings and skinny jeans that so often accompanied them. After all, a girl being casual in loose jeans and a t-shirt is committing no crime by wearing flats, in my mind. But all too often in college, I'd see girls coming "out" on the weekend donning skin tight pants and loose tops and then squeezing into these shapeless unattractive grandma slippers. The majority of the offenders were small, pale girls, many of whom I would stereotype as chain-smoking vegans with short hair and long bangs. You know the type. It's like, come on. You already look malnourished and not curvy - why accentuate your skeleton shape with tight pants and formless shoes? I remember when my girlfriend dared to try the look. With a large, knee-length gray sweater on, wrapped around her waist with a belt, she looked stunning from head to hips, but everything below that was a disaster. Just at her knees, where bare (or nylon-covered, if it was cold out) legs should have emerged from the dress, there was nothing but black legging fabric instead. These leggings ended above her ankles, and below them, horrible and shapeless black flats wrapped around her feet. She looked an odd mixture of far too young and far too old, what with the tights of a six-year old and the shoes of a seventy-year old. It was terrible, and she wasn't even making a fashion taboo; the sad part is, she was wearing the textbook trendy attire of the season. With a pair of tall boots on instead - even had they been Uggs - instead of the leggings-flats combo, she would have been dressed to kill. Instead, she looked ready to play in a sandbox.

I hate to come of like a fetishist here, but really, why the lack of love for the age-old classy and sexy standard for women's shoes, the high heel? I'm not buying the "uncomfortable" aspect as anything more than a partial excuse. My girlfriend, after buying her first pair of flats, told me that they were excruciatingly painful to wear. I'm also not feeling the "too formal" excuse. Sure, I don't think women should necessarily be wearing heels around the house or dorm, or going to class or the grocery store, or anything like that. But I've been to plenty of more-than-casual events and settings - such as offices, weddings, parties, and award ceremonies - where heel-wearing women are largely the minority. And the greatest shame of all is that instead, by and large, women are wearing the worst shoes imaginable - flip-flops.

The flip-flop is tacky and crude. It's literally nothing more than a foam or plastic sole secured on the foot by means of two straps that wrap around the front of the foot. They should be used as summertime slippers, and nothing more. And don't mistake me for being some sort of sexist; these rules apply to guys and flip-flops too. Going to the beach? Gotta run to the store real fast? Need something to wear on your feet while using a public shower? Fine. These are all valid reasons to wear flip-flops. In almost every other imaginable case, if you leave your house in flip-flops, you're underdressed. I mentioned that these rules apply to men as well as women, but the thing is, you hardly ever see a guy wearing flip-flops to his job, in the winter, or to an award ceremony or wedding. When you do, you judge him for the lazy slob that he is. And you should do the same to women. To do anything less would be to discriminate.

I have seen hundreds of girls wear flip-flops to class while there is still snow on the ground. I have seen scores of women wearing them while walking near or through the woods. A friend of mine even recently told me that he had hiked up an entire mountain with a group of people once, and that one of them was a girl in flip-flops. I see girls in flip-flops all over cities, zoos, and other areas that require heavy amounts of walking. Why is this? They're not even real shoes! There's a reason they can cost as little as $2 a pair. And pardon me for being pretentious, but even moderately-used flip-flops are absolutely disgusting. Ladies, nobody wants to see your blackened footprint forever embedded in your shoe. Given some of the tiny and simple bodily function related things that girls seem to get stressed and embarrassed about from time to time, I'm shocked that so few of them seem to find their blackened, sweaty, dirty footprints revolting in the least. Flip-flops don't even prevent your feet from getting dirty, and all too often I've seen a girl kick of a pair only to have completely brown, dirty soles.

Perhaps the worst part about young women and their obsession with flip-flops is that so few seem to realize how truly sloppy and unclassy it is to wear them. I work a desk job in a building where my fellow males and I are supposed to wear khakis, polos, and brown or black shoes. Some even go with a button-up shirt and a tie. Jeans and sneakers are on the lower end of permissible, but few wear them. Can you imagine how foolish I would look if I showed up to work one day in flip-flops? Yet all around me, female co-workers adorn these "shoes" with their otherwise appropriate skirts and shawls. It's absurd. It's just the height of non-professionalism. Now, I'm not saying they should suffer in discomfort and wear high heels or boots. But at the very least, would it really inconvenience them that much to put on, well, anything else at all? There are plenty of shoes that still slip on and off without looking and sounding so sloppy and tacky. Dare I say it - even grandma flats and Mary Janes are fine.

I've talked about women's footwear in the last several paragraphs more than any man should in an entire year, and yet, I'm still not done venting and ranting - we haven't even touched on gladiator sandals yet. Fortunately, there are plenty of other shoe stores in the mall, and I can easily come back to this tirade someday. For now, though, I think it's time to wrap up the Aldo entry as such: the only interesting thing about Aldo, aside from walking in and out of it several times for a lack of anything better to do, was the shoe selection on display. It was almost like a museum of sorts in that it and other stores are the only places you see high heels anymore. I suppose the easiest way for Aldo to make a sale for every seven customers would be to start selling cheap and crappy flip-flops. But they don't. And for that, I respect them. Just not enough not to fuck up their customer count every now and again.


American Eagle

Of all the "preppy" clothing stores in the mall, American Eagle is my favorite. I find their apparel both comfortable and practical. Furthermore, it's reasonably priced without feeling tacky or bland in the least. While I have plenty of complaints about most places I have shopped at, my biggest complaint about AE is that their sizes run too small. At 6-foot-2-and-a-half, I'm certainly a "large" man. But even back when I was as thin as a rail, an AE "L" never did fit me. An inch or so of my stomach or back became exposed when I bent over or lifted my arms while wearing one. Even today, the only XXL item I own is a jacket from American Eagle. It barely reaches below my belt. Clearly, it's not a girth, width, or snugness issue - American Eagle just plain makes its clothes too short for men of my height. Still, even when you know this, if an XXL jacket barely fits you, you feel pretty fat.

I entered ninth grade an inch or so shy of my current height, weighing just 153 pounds. I remember the exact number, to the pound. because such a big deal was made over, well, one pound. You see, at my eighth grade physical, I had weighed in at 154. One year later, having grown an inch, the doctor expected me to have put on a bit of weight as well. Instead, I had lost a pound. This was an issue. A big one. Apparently it indicated a loss of appetite, which in turn indicated depression, which in turn, yes, indicated suicide. The doctor spoke at length with me about teen suicide. I didn't feel too invested in the conversation, as I had never really felt the urge to die. But the doctor was adamant. "Gain some weight," she said, "or you're going to kill yourself." At least, that was the gist of it.

So I did exactly that. As a fifteen-year-old kid, I'm sure I was aided in my weight gaining project by, say, puberty and the natural order of all living things. I don't remember any specific benchmarks along the way, but suffice it to say I was around 185 by the end of eleventh grade, the ideal weight for me, I decided. Every year, the doctor said nothing about my weight gain, positive or negative. Every year, I continued to gain. Finally, sometime in college, there came a point where I said to myself, "Yikes, I'm getting kind of fat," and for the first time ever began to watch what I ate. It was kind of fun for a while, a novel little phase where I would enjoy counting calories, running, and seeing how much weight I could lose. During the summer after my sophomore year of college, I lost a good ten or so pounds, down to just under 215.

I stopped caring. I had managed to lose some weight without overhauling my lifestyle at all, and began my junior year without even considering my weight. That all changed during my winter break physical. I was aghast to learn that I had completely rebounded and now put up a robust 230 on the scales. Wow. And now here was the same doctor who just six years prior had told me "gain some weight, or you're gonna die," now telling me, "lose some weight, or you're gonna die." My transition from skinny kid to fat man was now complete, and it had happened so, so quickly.

I've never ballooned over 230 since then, but have never really gotten under 220 either. Instead, I've kind of floated around at 225, always trying to break 220 (and ultimately 210 or even 200) while only barely managing to prevent 230. It's tough, quite simply, to make significant progress when you have no diet and no exercise regimen. A sedentary lifestyle, when combined with 3,000 calories a day, is very inviting to obesity. According to the BMI standards, I'm overweight as long as I stay above 200 and obese if I ever hit 240. While it's easy for me now to laugh at the prospect of 240 and think, "I'd really need to let myself go for that to happen," history has proven that I can gain fifteen pounds in a couple of months without even noticing. So it's best to always aim to lose, I suppose. I may never realistically see the other side of 200 again, but the everlasting struggle toward it should keep me at least marginally healthy.

So thank you, American Eagle, for allowing your sizes to be red flags for the rest of us. We may not think we're getting bigger, but you'll always be right there to call us extra large when the rest of the apparel places deem us no bigger than medium-sized. Perhaps you're saving lives by raising size awareness. And even if you're not, well, thanks for the decent clothing.


Sarku Japan

I've eaten two or three chicken teriyaki meals at Sarku Japan without ever having ordered or paid for any of them. How, you may ask? One free sample at a time. I love Sarku Japan's chicken teriyaki, and I love that I can always get a bite or two of it for free. This brings up the age old question about whether or not the distribution of free samples helps or hurts a food brand's profit. On the one hand, if Sarku Japan stopped giving out free samples, I would certainly crack eventually and need to finally pay for my own plate full of juicy and heavily-sauced chicken. On the other hand, had Sarku Japan never given out free samples at all, I'd never have known chicken teriyaki could be so delicious. In fact, I never even knew what it really was until I was fourteen years old or so.

This is because the public school cafeterias in my hometown served what were called "teriyaki chicken dippers." They were essentially elongated misshapen grilled chicken nuggets encrusted with hardened sticky soy sauce. There was nothing to "dip" them into, except maybe for your milk, which a friend of mine recently referred to as "dishwater-colored." Indeed, the lunches offered at the elementary, middle, and high schools in my hometown are often tough to remember fondly.

While "teriyaki chicken dippers" were a misnomer, they had nothing on the "bacon burger." This dish contained neither bacon nor a traditional burger. It was a meat patty between two buns. Nobody knew what the meat was. I still don't know what the meat was. To say "mystery meat" is to use a very cliche cafeteria term, but quite honestly, there's nothing else I can even consider calling it. I guess it did sort of taste like bacon, but even that is a stretch. I will say with a little bit of shame that it was pretty tasty, especially for seasoned processed meat; sad as it makes me to admit it, I miss the non-bacon non-burger bacon burger.

Another great lunch name was "KFC-style chicken." Why not just call it fried chicken? It was terrible, overcooked, and dry, in stark contrast to actual KFC chicken, which is a wonderfully oily mess of delicious and greasy meat. At KFC, you crave the chicken skin; with KFC-style chicken, the skin was too hardened to chew, and tasteless anyway.

My personal favorite, comically speaking, was the lunch called "french toast sticks." This dish consisted of a hash brown triangle, a sausage patty, and a pair of french toast sticks. The sticks were good - so good, in fact, that I always wished the school had provided me with more than two. I would hardly consider anything less than eight to ten french toast sticks a meal. I understand the desire to combat childhood obesity, but two french toast sticks, an entree? That's a 150-calorie meal. So much for growing up big and strong. Then again, the sausage patty was so greasy that it may have been the focal point of the meal design. In one of my more successful childhood experiments I managed to use seven different napkins to absorb all of the grease from one sausage patty. Two alone were used just to wipe it down before the wringing could even begin.

I began this entry by noting that I have eaten two or three Sarku Japan meals without ever having paid for one. I'll now confess that in my twelve years of grade school, I ate about twenty meals I never paid for. Now, I consider myself an honest man, and have never stolen or shoplifted a thing in my life. Except from my school cafeteria. I would ask for "double nuggets" and eat one serving's worth in line waiting to pay. I would hold slices of pizza under my lunch tray while paying for what was on top of it. I would sneak a couple of milk cartons into my big front sweatshirt pocket. Never did I steal entire meals; I just sometimes found myself hungry enough to eat two while only having enough money on me for one. I would simply want just a little bit more food than I had paid for. It's just like taking a free sample from Sarku Japan with no intention of eating there.

So thank you, Sarku Japan. You account for that free post-meal morsel I get during all of my food court visits. No matter how many burgers, sandwiches, or milkshakes I've purchased and eaten, you're always there to give me just one bite more. Someday I will actually bite the bullet and purchase an entire meal from Sarku Japan in gratitude for all of those which I have already eaten, bite by bite, over the years.

But not yet. Not yet.


Dunkin' Donuts

Wherever life has taken me, Dunkin' Donuts has been there. As a little kid, I'd enjoy Munchkins whenever they were offered by parents, teachers, or classmates. When mowing my grandparents' lawn in middle school, I always had a Strawberry Coolatta in my hand. Attending varsity hockey games was a common senior year activity for me, and never did I go to one without a Dunkin' Donuts hot chocolate. Even today, as a non-morning person, I regularly need to down a DD french vanilla coffee, be it iced or hot, in order to make it to lunch time at work. I don't think I've gone more than a month without having something from Dunkin' Donuts in over ten years. A large factor in this could be that Dunkin' Donuts is everywhere. In my hometown, we have four of them. There's another one right down the street from where I work, and another one, of course, at the mall.

This has always baffled me. Why the mall? Dunkin' Donuts is famous for running like a well-oiled machine. There are lines out the door during the morning rush hour and the drive-through is routinely ten-plus cars deep. Yet, orders rarely, if ever, take more than thirty seconds to complete. This is fantastic for the morning rush hour. Dunkin' Donuts eateries are conveniently located near freeway exits and on the side of busy roads in general. Right along commuter paths. I suppose I've just never understood whose commute takes them through the mall. And DD is not just in the mall, but in the dead center of the mall. For an eatery whose slogan is "Get in, get out, get back to work," a location in the heart of a shopping mall seems illogical at best. Even more surprisingly, it's not in the food court, or even near it.

Dunkin' Donuts has always taken pride in its rapport with the blue collar working class. Cops, construction workers, and landscapers alike are constantly found in Dunkin' Donuts, mid-shift, picking up a box of joe or dozen donuts for their cohorts. The CEO of Dunkin' Donuts, when asked why he didn't make his stores more Wi-Fi capable like Starbucks, said that he didn't want a bunch of yuppies with laptops taking up the tables when tired highway workers needed to sit down for five minutes. It was a real "fuck you" to Starbucks and the collegiate, book-reading white collar crowd it attracts. I loved it.

Recently, Dunkin' Donuts has expanded its menu to include flatbread sandwiches and "breakfast pizzas." I don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, I've had some of these new items, and they're not half bad. But on the other, it seems like Dunkin' Donuts is soaring toward that threshold that separates fast food restaurants and specialty eateries. The DD I grew up with offered donuts and bagels to eat, and coffees and sugary concoctions to drink. The breakfast sandwich was always on the menu, but common courtesy always dictated that it should not be ordered when a long line was forming. After all, in order to "get in, get out, and get back to work," you can't be waiting in line for ten minutes while other people's sandwiches are being prepared. Now, I've seen this age-old rule broken more and more often. People, especially youngsters who don't know better, will order a pair of flatbread sandwiches and an egg white omelette, regardless of the current line's length. And that's not entirely their fault. It's Dunkin' Donuts, after all, that gives them the opportunity to do so.

A few years ago, at a Dunkin' Donuts just five minutes from work, I wanted to order a coffee. In front of me was a gaggle of middle school children, all of which placed an order for a full meal and specialty drink of some sort. Ten minutes in, the group was only half-done ordering. Finally one of them said, "let's let this guy go ahead of us." Too annoyed to be grateful to this girl, I did exactly that, and ordered and received my coffee in about twenty seconds. Efficiency is the name of the game. Instead, while waiting to use the bathroom to urinate I'd been held off by ten people who wanted to shower.

I fear for the future of Dunkin' Donuts. How many more sandwiches can they introduce before they're nothing more than a shitty Panera? How many fifteen-minute waits for coffee will it take for the average customer to start to consider alternatives? I understand the desire for expansion, but I can't really agree with the apparent business strategy of Dunkin' Donuts: attract new customers at any cost, including the old customers themselves. I think the business as a whole would have been much better off opening up another subsidiary for all of their sandwiches and pizzas, leaving the original franchise alone as a donuts, bagels, and coffee distributor. They could have called it the "Dunkin' Donuts Bakery" or something similarly straightforward. This would be a perfect thing to have in the mall. It would undeniably be more "restaurant" than "coffee shop," but that's already what DD is anyway. Instead, what we're seeing is a number of "Dunkin' Donuts Express" counters opening up in gas station convenience stores. Smaller venue, smaller menu. The problem is, these places still offer the sandwiches and pizzas, and the only menu-trimming that has been done is the removal of various types of donuts and bagels. It's more or less the opposite direction that I would like to see them head in.

If DD wants "America Runs on Dunkin" to continue to be the case, maybe steering clear of Wi-Fi isn't the only thing they should be doing. The general slowdown in service is a bigger issue in my mind. After all, I'm sure the typical construction worker would rather have speedy service than a place to sit. Did he come to Dunkin' Donuts in order to find a place to sit down, or in order to quickly pick up some tasty "fuel" for his coworkers? So much for "Get in, get out, get back to work."


Kay Jewelers

Around Christmastime when I was sixteen years old, my girlfriend had her eye on a bracelet at Kay's. The piece in question was a pink strap of leather (or maybe pseudo snakeskin) lined with two rows of pearls. The pearls were certainly not high-end by any means, and were probably those freshwater knock-offs from China. Still, they were pearls nonetheless. The bracelet had originally been priced at around $250 and had recently been marked down to the $150 neighborhood. My girlfriend wasn't asking for me to get it for her, by any stretch. She was well aware that at sixteen years of age I wasn't exactly rolling around in spare change and capable of shelling out hundreds. Still, I had no good gift ideas for her, and when the price dipped just below $100 a few days before Christmas, I sprang on the opportunity to exceed my budget and get my girlfriend the bracelet she wanted so very much. She really appreciated it and was very thankful, which is always awesome for a sixteen-year old kid. She wore the bracelet for a few months and went out with me for a few months beyond that. And that concludes the only experience I've had with Kay Jewelers.

But it does not conclude this entry. I have mentioned that I was not raking in money at this point in my life. Instead, I was making minimum wage at the worst job I have ever had. To understand the true cost of the bracelet, we must eliminate "money" as the middle man and consider that, taxes included, the bracelet had cost me about fifteen hours of work as a dishwasher at a place I will simply call Joe's. Joe's was an eatery I worked at for four months of my junior year of high school. Weekday shifts were three hours long and Saturday shifts were four hours. Since there were always two or three dishwashers employed at a time, a typical work week was six to ten hours. So there you have it. Thanks to two weeks of my terrible dishwasher stint, my girlfriend got to have an ornamented wrist when she wanted to. The cost of living.

When I took the job it sounded easy enough. Customers came in and got food, and I would wash all of their used plates and utensils. Left out of the description was the fact that two thirds of my time would be spent down in the basement washing preparation tools and machinery, cleaning bathrooms and ovens, sweeping floors, and taking out garbage. Even though I had absolutely no customer interaction, I was made to wear a company polo shirt. It was stained with bleach when given to me, and made of some of the cheapest and coarsest cotton I have ever felt. Combine coarse cotton chafing with hot dishwater steam for three hours a day, and you're only asking for skin damage. By the end of my four month stint at Joe's, my upper back was peppered with acne, pimples, and a general irritation.

Plenty of other things went wrong right off the bat. In my second week, I finished a shift and went to punch out only to learn that Joe, the owner, had punched me out an hour ago. "Oh! You're the new dishwasher," he said to me after a tense moment. "I was wondering whose charge number that was." I suppose without asking around for confirmation, he had settled on "nobody's." I was never reimbursed for the "extra" hour I had worked, even though it would have cost the place less than the price of their roast beef sandwich. Also, regardless of the fact that it is generally considered moral, legal, and right to pay an employee for his work. We decided that as a nation back in 1863, or so I had thought. About a month in, on a cold and rainy October day, my manager asked me to change the letters on a sign outside. I had never been asked to do such a thing, and was unprepared for any outdoor activity. Nonetheless, I did what I was told, pouring rain and all, and came back inside after twenty minutes only to have my boss say, "No, no, the other sign!"

The job was also not without its hazards. Several times at Joe's I ended up cutting my fingers on knives and tomato slicers. One of these times stands out because I was bleeding so badly that the dirty dishes were getting some blood on them. My supervisor had no bandages to solve this issue, but wouldn't let me keep washing dishes while bleeding, and wouldn't let me clock out early while he washed the last few dishes. Instead, I was made to put on several latex gloves on the same hand, cutting off nearly all circulation to it. Fortunately for Joe's, a lack of circulation means a lack of blood flow. When my shift ended and I took the gloves off, my hand was a deep red, and my cut finger a disgusting purple. Numbness subsided several hours later, only to give way to pain.

But that's they way thing's worked at Joe's. They were too small a place to have a company mission statement, but if they did, it probably would have been "Too hurt to work? Go fuck yourself." One day in November I got my wisdom teeth pulled. I was held out of school for four days. With work being of a much lower priority than school, I told my manager not to schedule me to work on these four days at least three times in the weeks leading up to my surgery. Sure enough, I was scheduled to work on the day I had my wisdom teeth pulled and also two days afterward. When I explained to him that I would be drugged down to a sleeping stupor after the surgery, he only said it wasn't his problem, and that I needed to find someone to take my shift. There were only three dishwashers at the time, and we had no interactions with each other as we all worked on separate days. Still, after introducing myself, I managed to get one of my two coworkers to cover both of these shifts for me. The catch was that I needed to take the day right between them, the day following my surgery. I did so, skipping my painkillers and dealing with agony in my mouth for three long hours.

But the wisdom tooth episode has nothing on the mono era. That November was not my body's healthiest month, as just a week after my oral surgery, after achieving a fever of 103 degrees, I was diagnosed with mononucleosis. You know, the textbook young adult disease that makes you really tired. After calling in sick with the aforementioned fever, I gave my manager the mono news the next day, leaving it up to him to decide whether or not to lighten my load. Alas, one of the other two dishwashers had hockey tryouts all week, and I was scheduled to work a record four days. All week, I could barely stay awake, let alone work, and was told at least three different times that I needed to "stop moping around" and clean dishes faster. It didn't help things that as we approached Thanksgiving and Christmastime, catering orders were coming in everywhere. My workload nearly doubled, but I was still expected to get things done in three hours, even with my mono. I would stay later and later while the sun set earlier and earlier, eventually reaching a point where I would emerge from the dank basement into total darkness outside, wet through my clothes in sub-freezing temperatures.

I was not scheduled to work for the entire week after Christmas. This was the greatest Christmas gift I could have received that year. I was told, historically, that this last week of the year was always a light week, and that, in general, things were not nearly as crazy from January to April as they were in the fall. Things were looking good. Fully recovered from mono and fresh off of Christmas and a week off from both school and work, I went into Joe's the following week with a new positive attitude, looking forward to the upcoming and comparably easy winter workload. I checked the schedule, only to find that I again was not on it. Amazing, but confusing. I asked around and was told by other employees that I would probably be getting fewer hours, post-holiday season, and that it wasn't uncommon to have a week off. But when I called to find out my hours for the following week, I was told that, again, I was not working. Yet I was promised that there was nothing to worry about and that my name was still on the scheduling grid. In mid-January, at the beginning of what would have been my fourth week off, a co-worker sought me out in school and asked me to cover his shift that afternoon. I accepted, happy to finally get back to working.

When I arrived for my first shift in nearly a month, smiling and eager and happy to have some hours again, my manager looked confused. "You're uh, you're not on the schedule today," he told me. I told him I was filling in for someone else. He seemed troubled to hear that news. "Well, I don't know if you're still in the system," he said. It began to dawn on me. I was no longer an employee here. I had been fired. Fired without ever being told about it. Fired so sneakily and suddenly that none of my coworkers had even known about it. Fired by this spineless man, standing before me, acting as if me showing up to work four weeks after having been fired was some kind of minor misunderstanding. "Yeah, you're no longer in the system," he said. What a politically correct way to terminate employment. "Didn't we send you some papers?" That lying coward. If "papers" had been sent, why was I greeted with "You're not scheduled to work today," as if I could have possibly thought I was still employed? Why the "let me check the schedule" fake out?

I called my mom and asked for a ride home, telling her I'd explain why I wasn't working later. I sat down in the middle of the empty dining area - at least I hadn't been lied to about how calm it was during the winter - and waited for my ride. Before long, the main cashier lady spoke up. She was the only person at Joe's who had ever cared about my life or said basic courteous things like, "I hope you feel better soon," about my wisdom teeth and mononucleosis. She asked me if I wanted a sandwich while I waited for my ride. I had never even had one in my four months there, and she was shocked to hear this. "Oh, you gotta have one then. They're really good," she said. I obliged, walked up to the counter, observed the menu, and finally decided upon the roast beef. She not only charged me, but charged me full price.

If I ever find myself with both the desire and the resources to open up a restaurant, I will do so right across the street from Joe's deli and resort to new lows in order to steal their customers. I will do this with no remorse whatsoever.

Anyway, Kay Jewelers seemed like a fine store, and I'd definitely shop there again.