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.



Hollister is a clothing company for teenagers that is "inspired by the Southern California lifestyle." It is an offshoot of Abercrombie & Fitch, and uses a "fictional background story" to place its establishment in 1922 Los Angeles instead of the actual flagship store's New York, 2000 location and date. By the time it appeared in our mall, I was in college, and thus I have never purchased anything from Hollister.

But I have been inside Hollister, and let me tell you, it is an experience unlike any other. For starters, every Hollister's storefront is done up to look like some sort of cabana on the beach. I understand using this design for a stand-alone store, but in a mall, surrounded by plain, ordinary, typical storefronts, a Hollister just comes across as clunky, over-the-top, and silly looking. Obnoxious, to a degree. A thatched roof comes out to cover the entrance to the store, which is already on a wooden porch a foot off the ground. The result is that the front doorway is just over six feet tall. Not exactly inviting for a guy of my height, in spite of Hollister's best efforts to make the place as alluring as possible - after all, height issues aside, who wouldn't be drawn to a surf shack in the middle of a mall fifty miles from the coast in the Northeastern United States?

Things only get more absurd once you get inside. The three words best used to describe the interior of the store would be crowded, dark, and loud. Let's start with crowded. In order to sufficiently place enough gimmicky props in the store to maintain the illusion of being a beachfront surf shack, Hollister limits itself to using about two thirds of the available floor space on actual merchandise. Factor in the clunky tables the clothing is displayed on, and you're looking at maybe two foot aisles between all of the clothing displays. I would be remiss not to mention that the store is not a wide open store either, but an array of small rooms. Why? I imagine the goal is to provide as many walls as possible so that one can have maximum exposure to beach shack decor, but all this actually does is disorient the shopping customers. Between some rooms, there are even hallways with no merchandise whatsoever. During my one venture inside Hollister, I soon found myself at what I thought was the back of the store, only to look to my left and see the front doorway.

But the disorientation is just as much due to the darkness. The store is essentially unlit. Each table of merchandise is under a dim limelight, making it tough to see what you're purchasing until your eyes adjust, and nearly impossible to see anything that isn't on one of these tables, such as the floor, walls, and other customers. It's a land of shadows and silhouettes. I can't think of a worse place to attempt clothing sales. The message I am getting, by reading between the lines, is that Hollister does not believe people will buy their clothing if they can see it. This is not a message an apparel store should be sending.

Don't worry though. You won't be seeing much in Hollister, but you'll be hearing plenty. This is because extremely loud music is piped in through speakers around the store. Alternative rock runs amok, which clearly adds to the beach shack imagery. After all, everyone knows that beaches are just rock concerts waiting to happen. Never mind that the beach's prime attraction characteristic is and always has been that it is a place to "get away from it all" and to "relax;" the catchy new single from the All-American Rejects is playing - what's not to love? But I digress - it's not just that Hollister plays loud music, or that it plays pop-punk music. It's that Hollister's company policy is to play music at 80-90 dB. That's absurdly, ridiculously loud. For those of you unfamiliar with the decibel scale, here's a simple comparison: 85 dB is ten times as loud as 65 dB, which is the decibel level at which the average American watches TV at home. It is more than twice as loud as 78 dB, which is the official point at which experts say permanent hearing loss can result from prolonged exposure to such noise levels. Do you think 20-40 hours a week counts as "prolonged?" Poor employees. Actually, because the company mandates such a high music volume, safety regulations in turn mandate that employees wear earplugs, at least part of the time, making conversations like this one commonplace:

EMPLOYEE (YELLING): Hi, welcome to Hollister! Can I help you find anything?
SHOPPER (YELLING): Yeah! Do you have any cargo shorts?

Finally, there is what is probably the most unfortunate part of Hollister: the live feed to Venice Beach. Yes, somewhere amid the limelights and punk rock and beach decor, Hollister has found a spot to place a television which broadcasts nothing but live footage of what's happening in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. This way, we inland New Englanders can finally, truly experience the much-hyped culture of California surfing, right here, on a plasma screen. The only problem with a live feed of a beach - and it's a big one - is that nothing ever happens on a beach. Waves come in, waves go back out, and every now and again there is a person walking a dog. Aside from that, nobody moves. Everyone just sits there, reading, sleeping, tanning. And who could blame them? They're on a Southern California beach! And thanks to Hollister, it's as if I am too. Only, you know, while physically remaining in a loud, dark, pseudo-cabana.

When leaving Hollister, please refrain from using one of the two dozen smaller doors that line the outer wall as actual exits. They are only there for decoration, despite being left ajar at all times. Perhaps they are really there so that the store can breathe a little. After all, the place is a strobe light away from being a night club for minors. Tough to imagine no one has ever passed out or seized inside one of them.

SHOPPER (YELLING): Help! My friend just fell over and now I can't even find her!



Chick-fil-A is the greatest fast food restaurant there is. They have everything you could ever possibly want from a fast food eatery. Delicious food. Impeccable service. All kinds of variety on the menu. Effective advertising. Healthy options. There really isn't a single negative thing I can say about Chick-fil-A, even when food spoilage is brought into the equation.

Once, I found a freckle-sized speck of mold on the bottom bun on my half-eaten Chick-fil-A sandwich. When I went up to the counter and asked only for a new bottom bun, the employee apologized profusely, gave me a whole new sandwich, refunded my money, and gave me a coupon for a future free sandwich. That's two and a half sandwiches for the price of zero. You don't see that kind of respect for the customer in many places, and you'd hardly expect to find it in a food court. Yet here is Chick-fil-A, a true standalone class act in the lowly realm of fast food joints. When I thanked the kid behind the counter, he refused to accept any thanks whatsoever, diligently promising that Chick-fil-A hated giving its customers moldy bread. As I walked away, I heard him yell back toward the kitchen, "We need to do a better job checking for mold on the buns!" Again, this was a freckle-sized speck of mold. Totally non-offensive and even consumable. This kid could not have been more than sixteen years old. He was certainly no manager; he was probably making less than seven bucks an hour. Yet here he was, representing the company he worked for in the most professional and apologetic way, sincerely upset that his employer had let down a customer. That's integrity.

And that's really what Chick-fil-A is all about. Not only is the food such a refreshing alternative to the food court norm - delicious, fresh, and healthy to boot - but so are the employees. They respond to every customer's "thank you" not with the standard "you're welcome" but with a smile and a "my pleasure." Once, my girlfriend made a late change to her order and added, out of habit, the word, "sorry." As in, "Oh, sorry, can I have no pickles on that?" The kid behind the counter - again, some fifteen-year-old - let her know very clearly that she should not have been sorry, that there was no need to apologize, and that it, of course, it was his pleasure to make that simple switch. It was almost too much.

Why all the focus on customer satisfaction? It's not just a great business move. It's a religious one. The founder of Chick-fil-A is a devout Southern Baptist, and his religious faith has played an enormous role in his restaurant's goals and policies. The company's mission statement is "to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A." The place is even closed every Sunday. If that sounds old-fashioned, it's because it is.

Religion is totally last millennium's thing. In an ever-increasingly secular and atheist society, a business run on Christian principles seems ludicrous, and certainly to some, offensive. It is easy to allow fundamentalist Christianity to scare and repel us. After all, how can we relate to people who don't believe in dinosaurs? It's very easy, then, especially today, to take the bad and leave the good when it comes to religion. Sure, bible-waving preachers from the deep South can be downright frightening, and it's always easy to shake our heads when various Midwestern townships ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. In our haste to ridicule those people seemingly blinded by faith, it is easy to forget about the inherent principles of Christianity and most religions in general. Benevolence, charity, neighborly love. Who does more community service than the religious? Who raises more funds for the impoverished and disabled? There are certainly a number of people out there blinded by faith, but true ignorance would be disregarding all of the contributions made to society by religious organizations.

As long as religion isn't being rammed down my throat, I'm completely tolerant of basically every kind of it. And Chick-fil-A isn't outwardly mining for faith in the least bit. There is no Baptist propaganda anywhere to be found. Their mascot isn't Jesus; it's a cow who cannot spell! If you didn't know Chick-fil-A was run by devout Christians, you'd never learn so by going there. I respect Chick-fil-A not for having religious morals, but for having them without forcing them upon anyone, least of all their customers. And more than anything, I respect Chick-fil-A for having outstanding food and service.

In a day and age where "religious" can be synonymous with "nutty, misinformed, and angry," it's refreshing to see that a company can use basic religious principles to succeed in a secular and capitalist world. Even if it means I need to go to Burger King for my chicken on Sundays.



When I first heard that the mall was getting a Sanrio store put in, I was a little disappointed. After all, we already had plenty of Asian food joints in the food court. I soon learned that Sanrio was not in fact an eatery - but only because I was falsely led to believe that it was an electronics company. Only recently did I realize that Sanrio is the company that brought the world Hello Kitty.

Is there a Hello Kitty comeback in progress? If so, why? I thought we, as a nation, were finally getting over Japanimation. Don't get me wrong; I respect that anime has an important place in both historical and contemporary Japanese society. I just don't understand why or how it's done so well over here in the States. The style is poorly animated, crudely drawn, and generally peppered with plot holes. These flaws are very much accepted in Japan for reasons that warrant an entirely separate discussion, but here in America, we like realistic and seamless animation, a certain level of detail, and coherent and well-organized story structures.

Still, it is undeniable that there exists a niche within American society in which anime is not only accepted but also the preferred form of storytelling. I know some people in this niche, and have been told (and made) at various times in my life to watch episodes of different animes. Having done so, I can safely say that, as with any genre, anime has its highs and lows. I wish I could make some recommendations, but honestly, I have seen so little anime, and committed even less of it to memory, that doing so would be leaping way beyond my area of expertise.

This has been a very weak entry, lacking both direction and substance. And for that, I apologize. However, in a way, it's oddly fitting, because direction and substance are sparse in anime. I guess my main problem in tackling this subject matter is that I have no idea what I am talking about when it comes to Hello Kitty and other American-embraced Japanese phenomena, but don't care enough to educate myself on such subjects. I am willfully ignorant. I wish I still thought Sanrio was a cell phone company.


New York & Company

New York & Company is a women's apparel retailer in the mall. There are at least a dozen such retailers, and none ever seem to go out of business. What makes this one noteworthy? To the untrained (man's) eye, nothing. Nothing at all. Half of these women's clothing stores could disappear without me even noticing. In fact, the only reason New York & Company stands out in my mind at all is a very painful memory.

I was at the mall with my girlfriend, and we were about to leave. On the way out, she noticed NY & Co. out of the corner of her eye and decided she needed to drop in really quickly. They must have been having some kind of sale; I see no other reason she would have needed to check it out, having already purchased some clothing from other stores. But, being a 21st century gentleman, I put up no fight and followed her into the store. I waited in diligence as she sauntered around the store taking various shirts off the racks, inspecting them precariously and hanging half of them back up. "Does this look cute?" she'd ask me once every few shirts. I nodded solemnly each time, long immune to having any opinion on generic women's tops no matter how hard I tried. My girlfriend ignored my obvious lack of enthusiasm for her choices and eventually was off to the fitting room.

Now, I had waited for her outside of fitting rooms before. The minutes crawl by and it's hard not to get a little bit bored. Usually I'm told to come inside the fitting room area and wait outside her stall to offer commentary on the various outfits she models. I guess even despite my blatant apathy toward her shopping, I still make a great person to bounce wardrobe ideas off of. Here at New York & Company though, I was not allowed inside the changing area. A short Asian lady held out her hand when I tried to enter and with a stern look on her face said, "You can't come in here." For whatever reason, and it was admittedly probably a good one such as "rape prevention," New York & Company had decided to forbid all men entry to their one fitting room area. Plenty of apparel stores use co-ed fitting rooms with the understanding that only one person can occupy any given stall at any given point. Did NY & Co. really think a man clearly accompanying a girlfriend would begin to molest other customers while being under employee surveillance the whole time? I know it's a women's clothing store, and a privately owned one at that, but their refusal to allow men inside a changing room must have been sexual discrimination to some degree. After all, what about transvestite shoppers? Had I approached the fitting room already wearing women's clothes and holding a few dresses in my hand, would I still have been denied entry? Still, ultimately, I did not care in the slightest about being man-hated on. In a way, I was relieved to have an excuse not to accompany my girlfriend to her fitting room. Now, I could stay outside and not feel obliged to create commentary on different pieces she was trying on.

I knew I was in trouble when she went in with ten shirts to try on. I was clearly in for a longer wait than usual. Still, "usual" was five to seven minutes. Worst case, this would be fifteen, I figured. Oh, how wrong I was. You can only check hockey scores on your cell phone for so long. You can only watch the same people walking around the store for so long without them noticing that a large bearded man keeps looking at them. Dirty looks peppered me as the minutes wore on, even though I'd made it my intention not to stare at anyone. I suppose it is only in the nature of the eyes to wander and zone out after enough time of standing and waiting, but I felt embarrassed and guilt-tripped by every cold glare nonetheless. The minutes wore on and on. I wondered if my girlfriend had passed out - jokingly at first, but eventually I could find no other rationale for her extra long stay in the fitting room.

She did finally emerge from the fitting room. The final tally? Forty-seven minutes. That's longer than an episode of any scripted drama series. That's longer than plenty of studio albums. That's 0.0001% of a long and healthy lifetime. I was too zoned out at the time to even give her a little guilt trip about it. The worst part? She didn't buy a single thing. I had just wasted nearly an hour waiting for her to finish playing dress-up. Terrible. Just terrible. There is not even a word to describe what it is like to waste away in boredom while being ashamed of your own gender. Perhaps the Germans have a specific word for such a concept, but I'll just have to make do without one. Simply terrible. Quite easily my most painful mall memory ever.

New York & Company: where 21st century gentlemen go to die, one millionth of a lifetime at a time.


Auntie Anne's

Auntie Anne's is not just a pretzel bakery. It is the premier pretzel bakery in all the land. Auntie Anne, bless her heart, just straight up makes delicious pretzels. Salty pretzels, sweet pretzels, all kinds of pretzels. Except for bad ones. I could try to describe them, but even the words in my vocabulary with the most powerful of connotations - delectable, scrumptious, exquisite, heavenly - fail to do them justice. I'll keep it succinct and say that the pretzels are buttery but not heavy, salty but not offensively so, and, above all, soft. The best pretzels on Earth.

My most gluttonous moment occurred during the consumption of one of Auntie Anne's treats. It was a cinnamon sugar pretzel - sweet instead of salty, but just as soft as the originals. This softness and my voracious appetite would combine to be my tongue's undoing. I was a few bites into the pretzel, just chomping away at a blazing speed. I have no recollection of intentionally trying to eat the pretzel as fast as was humanly possible, but my jaw was pumping up and down at no less than 2.5 hertz. Suddenly, there was a pain in my tongue unlike any I had ever felt before. I winced and stopped chewing. I ran to the nearest mall rest room and looked in the mirror. I had bitten directly through my tongue. There was no mistaking it. The right side of my tongue had managed to get in the way of my diligently working canine and that was that. An enormous black spot - a blood blister, I assume - formed that night and the thing took a few weeks to heal, my tongue extra sensitive all the while. It was a terrible experience, mostly because the second half of my cinnamon sugar pretzel was tainted by the taste of blood. Perhaps I should have gone with an original pretzel. The blood probably would have complemented a salty, buttery snack a bit better than it did my sweet and sugary one.

One night I was at the mall with a friend and we found ourselves standing in front of Auntie Anne's just as they were closing up. We perused the pretzels, pretzel sticks, pretzel bites, and other pretzel shapes behind the counter. My friend asked the girl behind the counter what was to become of these freshly baked treats in the coming minutes after closing time. We learned that they were to be thrown away. My friend, a business major, began to haggle. As we were clearly the last customers of the night, would it be cool if we just "took the pretzels off your hands?" he asked. She laughed along, but wasn't biting, saying it was against company policy to give food away. I was fine with this, but my friend wasn't done. "What if we were to meet you outside by the dumpster?" he asked. "You could even place the trash bag neatly on top of the dumpster, and we could take it out ourselves." I'm not even sure if he was being serious. Regardless, the employee still said no, and told us how they just dump all the remaining pretzels into the same trash that they use for the rest of their garbage. In a last ditch effort, my friend inquired about getting some sort of discount. The girl maintained that she couldn't give us one, but looked like she really did want to. She was either a model employee putting company policy before her own morals or just a really good actress. My friend had enough class not to keep going, and we decided to split a large thing of pretzel bites, full price and all.

As we walked away from Auntie Anne's, the girl behind the counter went right ahead and dumped everything into the trash. She wasn't bluffing. It pained me to see all that food just go to waste even more than it had pained me to bite right through my tongue a few years prior. Most bakeries I've been too, even the chains, are far more flexible when it comes to end-of-the-day sales. The local Dunkin' Donuts routinely sells stuff away at less than 50% after the sun goes down, and I've heard that places like Panera and Starbucks do the same. One Panera even donates all of the previous night's unsold bagels to a nearby soup kitchen every morning. After all, day old bagels beat nothing. They beat nothing by a lot.

I was brought up to abhor wasting food. "Cleaning" one's plate, vegetables and all, was always required by my parents in order to earn dessert. Somehow, this parental policy - finish everything you eat - manifested later on in life as a personal moral. I have no doubts that my aversion to throwing away more than a few scraps of food has led me to pack on some extra weight over the past few years, and its a habit I'm trying to get rid of. Still, I always feel a little bit of guilt when I throw away anything more than a pizza crust or the remnants of a taco or sandwich. After all, there are starving people in Africa, no matter how many Delia's shirts think otherwise. There are even starving people right here in America. Yet, right here in America, the local Auntie Anne's throws dozens of pretzels away every night. With over 300 locations nationwide, that's millions a year. The federal government, in order to subsidize farmers, buys surplus corn and burns it. Americans may be pretty good eaters, but we're even better wasters. It sucked that my friend and I had to pay full price for some snacks that were about to be discarded, but the true shame was that all of that food had been discarded at all.

Especially when the foodstuffs in question were the best pretzels on Earth.



If the mall is the place you go to when you need to purchase various types of things, Sears might as well be a mall all on its own. Only a lower-middle tier department store like Sears can get away with carrying both name brand clothes and auto parts. It's truly all-encompassing. Kitchen appliances, shoes, throw pillows - Sears has it all. I remember one time leaving Sears with a grill brush, some Dockers pants, and a season of South Park on DVD. Not a bad haul at all from a store that ranks just above Target in the American department store hierarchy. But this is far from my most lasting Sears memory.

That episode took place when I was ten years old. My mom had put me in an itchy sweater and my sisters in dresses and brought the three of us to Sears. At the time, they had a "portraits" department, and my mom was in the mood to get some professional pictures taken of her darling children without paying top dollar. So there we were. A few snapshots into my photoshoot, I began to feel a little bit light-headed. I voiced my complaints, but as a ten-year-old kid, had them shot down fairly quickly. As more and more pictures were taken, I became more and more restless and nauseous. The photographer claimed my discomfort was just due to the bright light and that I'd be done soon. I managed to last the entire session, but not a moment longer.

On the way out of the studio, emerging back into Sears proper, I keeled over and started vomiting. My spray covered a solid sixty-degree vertical arc, and I managed to project for a distance of several feet. No longer fit for consumer purchase was an entire rack of blouses immediately in front of me and a few wallets and checkbooks at the base of a stand a few feet farther back. My mother was mortified, the salespeople were apologetic, and the custodian who eventually came by to clean up the mess was enjoying a good-natured chuckle at the whole thing. It is worth noting that his arsenal consisted of a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels, and nothing more.

Sadly, that was only my second-most-infamous public display of vomiting. One fateful day in eighth grade, I came back from lunch feeling a little under the weather. It quickly worsened. My "language arts" class (that is what they called English in my hometown middle school, for whatever reason) was off to the "media center" (library) for a lesson on how to use books, or something. I must admit, I have no idea what the lesson was on, as I was hardly paying any attention to it, being that my stomach contents were ready to explode upward with great velocity. But I was a tough guy. I wanted to weather the storm. A little tummy ache was never supposed to derail a big bad eighth grader. Besides, after this library session and a math class and a bus ride, I'd be home free. No need to rush off to the nurse or the bathroom. Never mind that I wouldn't be in the clear for another ninety minutes, while my condition had been rapidly worsening. I was going to make it. I had to. I was, at thirteen years of age, a man, dammit.

What I really was, at thirteen years of age, was a dumbass. Would anyone have really cared if I had gone to the nurse's office? Of course not. But for whatever reason, I was determined not to. So there I sat, holding back vomit, forehead getting sweaty, trying to ignore a conversation going on behind me about kids eating chapstick (in my present state, a revolting concept indeed). With mere minutes to go before the class change, I finally could no longer take it. I stood up to head to the nurse's, but the mere act of standing was enough to send shockwaves through my shivering body. I got to the library's doorway and threw up in my mouth, cheeks puffing out and everything. I swallowed it back down, knowing that the nurse's office was just down the hallway, and pushed open the door.

Calamity. The hallway right outside the library was filled with a science class doing a loud experiment of some sort. "Hey there!" shouted a friend of mine at me, merrily. "Bluargh!" I responded. And just like that, I was no tough guy at all. This upchuck exceeded even my Sears Portraits one. There was vomit everywhere. I mean, everywhere. There was vomit all over the floor, creating a puddle that spanned the width of the hallway. A total roadblock for anyone who didn't want to get the retch on their Adidas sneakers. There was vomit on my New Found Glory shirt. There was vomit on some poor girl's locker, and far worse, due to the weird ventilation holes on the door, perhaps there was some vomit inside of it. Kids went nuts. Some shrieked. Some laughed. Some went silent. One screamed, "that's awesome!" pretty much immediately. A few ran to grab a teacher. One passerby was just absolutely roaring with a giggle fit as he held his nose and jumped over the spill while strolling down the hallway. I was thoroughly and utterly embarrassed. Vomit had conquered me in front of all of my classmates at a time when the pressure to be cool was at its height. I could easily have ducked out ten minutes prior, made it to the nurse's office with ease, and saved some face. But no. I had to try to outlast a stomach virus, and instead ended up making an absolute chunderdome out of the hallway. Plus, I graduated with the distinction of being the last kid in my grade to ralph in school. But hey, it could have been worse; I could have been one of the three kids who shit their pants in high school.

I guess I've kind of veered off subject, but what I'm trying to say is, Sears is an underrated store with a lot to offer.


Pardon the obnoxious capitalization in the title, but I strive for authenticity. Delia's, as it will henceforth be called since I do not have the patience to type "dELiA*s" every time I want to refer to it, sells clothing to young women. Their style is a fun and light-hearted one. They sell tie-dye tees with panda bears on them. One shirt features a giraffe in Kanye shades saying, "Sup?" A pair of tees, one with a brontosaurus silhouette and the other with that of a tyrannosaurus, say "Herbivore" and "Carnivore" respectively. In short, it's a very silly place.

In a way, it is refreshing to know that such a place exists in a teen fashion world seemingly dominated by the skimpy and the lewd. After a while, it gets old seeing jailbait parading around. One can only handle so many teens wearing sweatpants with "Juicy" written across their ass cheeks. It is a rare kind of man that can see an underage girl baring her cleavage and popping out of a tiny V-neck without feeling downright terrible about himself and his natural instincts. Delia's provides young girls with non-revealing, non-suggestive attire. Surely, it must be refreshing to see a girl wearing a shirt with a smiling caricature of Earth on it instead of the words "dripping wet" written across her prominent chest. Right?

Well, not exactly. Delia's merchandise has its own kind of problem. While most of it is innocuous enough - a dictionary saying "Word!" or a smiling piece of bread popping out of a toaster - a very decent-sized chunk of Delia's merchandise revolves around environmentalism and world peace. When you factor in a few shirts that feature solemn-faced Bob Marleys and Jimi Hendrices, which stand in contrast to the happy-go-lucky atmosphere the rest of the place exhibits, you begin to realize that Delia's is turning young girls into something far worse than tramps.

It pains me to see just how unabashedly naive much of the youth of America is about various realities such as, in general, the way the world works. We cannot simply "stop polluting." Pollution is an inevitable side effect of industry in general. Manufacturing requires both energy and physical change to raw materials; energy consumption and physical change result in waste and runoff. Even the process of recycling results in some pollution. We cannot simply "not make war." Humankind is wrought with the desire to compete, achieve, and retain. A group of poor and starving people will understandably go to any length to achieve the food and money they require for survival. And one third of the world is, yes, poor and starving. War and pollution are unpleasant, certainly. Few would argue against that much. But they are necessary evils. There is no way to eliminate or even significantly reduce either of them without radically changing our way of life. And this is something that the average 16-year old girl wearing a shirt that says "stop all the fighting!" is not yet capable of understanding.

One of the few times I have been in Delia's, waiting for my girlfriend outside of the fitting room, I saw a girl take a shirt off the rack featuring Africa superimposed on a peace sign. I'm sure the intent of both Delia's and the girl was to say, "hey, look at this shirt, I care about Africa," but for me the shirt just screamed ignorance. Africa is a continent riddled with disease, famine, and political instability. Slavery is still legal in certain countries there. Overpopulation would be an extreme issue, but due to the rampant AIDS, is only a minor one. Terrible, terrible people routinely take control of entire countries via military coups. Children are taken from their mothers' arms to be trained as soldiers. Men are torn limb from limb in front of their families. Hands and feet are removed with machetes. Civil wars are the norm and not the exception. Genocide occurs but goes largely unnoticed by the world at large. And yet, according to this girl and her Delia's shirt, peace in Africa is pretty doable. It's just that easy. How shamelessly condescending.

The majority of Delia's clothing - Snoopy using an umbrella because it is raining musical notes - is fine enough by me. But when it comes to choosing between a trollop and a hippie, I'd rather have young ladies' outfits save my imagination than Darfur. Peace in Africa, thanks to t-shirts? Come on. That's even sillier than a talking giraffe in Kanye shades.



I would describe myself as a "casual gamer." By that, I mean that I enjoy video games more than the average person, but do not spend the majority of my free indoor time playing them; my Xbox Live profile describes my "gamer zone" as recreational rather than "pro" or "underground," so you can take from that what you will. Anyway, as a guy who likes to play video games. I am often buying video games. Not just the new ones, but older ones that I never got around to playing at the time of their release for whatever reason. Now, the Internet is a great place to find used video games, but with the cost and delay of the shipping process, I sometimes seek alternative options. Fortunately, there are several used video game stores close by. Unfortunately, they are all GameStops.

The mall used to have a Babbages upstairs and an Electronics Boutique (later EB Games) downstairs. There was also a Funcoland across the street. Due to a series of buy-outs and mergers, each of these is now a GameStop. So now we have two identical stores in the mall and a third across the street. To me, this is stupid. To succeed at selling any type of media, you need a large library. Why split that library into three parts within the same region? It's endlessly frustrating. Sometimes, I'll show up at GameStop A looking for a game. When they don't have it, they tell me to check GameStops B and C. They won't even look up whether or not the game is in stock at either of the other locations. In this day and age, how can it be impossible to do this? Obviously, they just want me to spend more time in GameStop stores, as more time in stores means more potential for them to make a buck. This is company policy; GameStop employees are not bad people (several of my friends have found themselves working there at one point or another), but part of their job is to refuse to let me know if other area GameStops have something in stock. After all, encouraging customers to waste their time is the right thing to do if there's a profit. Sadly, this is hardly the only example of GameStop shitting on its customers.

Try to buy a new game at GameStop, and they'll pester you to get it used instead. Even when you explain that the game is a gift, they'll try to convince you that giving somebody a used present isn't an egregious faux pas. I once went to GameStop seeking a DS game for my sister's birthday. When I asked for it at the counter, I was handed a used cartridge. When I asked for a new one, I was given a different cartridge. When I asked the man behind the counter if he had any unopened, factory-sealed, "no way this has ever been used" versions of the game, and not just loose cartridges, he gave me a funny look and hesitated before asking if it really mattered. I cut my losses and went to Best Buy for the game.

Try to sell GameStop a game still sealed in cellophane, and they'll accuse you of having stolen it. It doesn't matter if the game hasn't been sold new in years. I once tried to sell back Max Payne 2, which I had purchased new for no more than $1.50 a year ago and never opened. They weren't having it.

GameStop's worst offense occurred when I went into one a couple years ago with a bag full of PS2 games I did not want. There were probably 15 to 20 in total. I just wanted to see if any would fetch more than $10 or so. I put the bag on the counter and asked, "Can I see how much these are worth?" The GameStop employee immediately began to ring the games up, one after the other, without telling me the value of any of them. A second employee started taking the games out of the cases and preparing them for markup. These games were still mine. They were still my property. All I had asked for were some price checks. Yet here was a decent-sized chunk of my gaming collection being processed for resale right before my eyes. Adding insult to larceny, the employee taking out the discs had been in the midst of a meal from Burger King. Chicken fry grease and all, hands just working the game cases. She even put her dipping sauce on top of one stack of my games, spilling a dollop or two right on the cover, not giving even the slightest shit. It was horrible. It was like watching somebody kick your dog without understanding that it is wrong to do so - you can't get mad at them for not knowing any better, but still, you're just crushed witnessing it. When the games had been tallied, the man behind the counter said, "Sixty-four dollars. You want cash or store credit?" I told him to hold on a minute. I wasn't sure I wanted to sell all these games, or even more than a few, for that matter. Many were old favorites, and to get rid of most of them for less than $5 seemed depressing. But the guy made a big deal out of the fact that they had already been scanned into the system. Instead of asking which ones I wanted to sell, he asked which ones I wanted to keep. In his mind, they belonged to GameStop now, and he was doing me a favor by letting me choose a few to keep. In the end, I sold about a dozen games for $44 or so - less than the price of one new one. The guy was upset I had taken so many back (really, kept so many, as "taking back" implies that they had left my possession in the first place), but I had still only sold 2 or 3 that I really wanted to part with. I felt taken advantage of. Violated, in a way. When I later recounted the story to my GameStop employee friend, asking why the guy wouldn't just tell me the prices of the games before attempting to steal them from me, he shrugged it off and said it was just company policy. Of course.

Of course GameStop wants to buy as many of your games as possible. Of course they want to sell you used ones instead of new ones. After all, fifty percent of GameStop's revenue comes from the sale of used games. Half! GameStop will buy your game for three dollars and sell it for seventeen. I understand that, obviously, the middle man needs to make a profit for any middle man to exist. But in this modern era, why does a middle man need to exist? Why do GameStop's customers allow it to make 400% profit on many used games? If I'm looking to buy and somebody else is looking to sell, let's meet halfway and make a $10 exchange. In the aforementioned scenario, we both save $7. With sites like Craigslist and eBay existing, how in the world does GameStop stay afloat when they're blatantly (seriously, they don't even try to hide it - they can't) marking up their used games by ten to twenty dollars apiece? I suppose the answer is the dreaded word "monopoly." Again, there used to be three different competing used game retailers in the area. Now there's just one three-headed monster. I swear, anyone could make a killing (for a little while) by just setting up their own used video game store nearby, provided they had a moderate catalogue. I'm not going to explore the legality or financial stability of it, but how could a small business not succeed by advertising "Used Games: We pay 150% what GameStop will on all games, and sell them for 2/3 the price!" or something somewhat similar?

I hate the way GameStop treats both its customers and its merchandise. I hate that people enable GameStop by trading with them for twenty cents on the dollar. I hate that GameStop has bought out virtually every competitor outside of the Internet. But I can't bring myself to hate GameStop. After all, where else can you stumble upon NHL Hitz 20-02 for $2.99?