Posts Tagged ‘John Vorhaus’

Poole’s Paradise: Excerpt

by John Vorhaus

Poole's Paradise

0.  Waffles

“Shut up! At the end of the day, can you not just shut the hell up?”

He grinds a knee into my back and jams both guns against my head.

“Here’s the deal, Poole, final terms: Speak again and I will blow your brains through this floor. What do you think about that?”

I say nothing.

“No? Nothing to add to the conversation? No clever observations? No bon mots? Good. Let’s see how long you can hold it.”

Well, how long can I hold it?

Trouble is, the longer I stay silent, the more unstable the situation becomes, and unstable situations with guns have to make you nervous. Plus, this guy can be talked to. I know that. Chilling him out and keeping him chilled out have already saved my ass more than once. But now he’s taken away my weapon, because how can my mouth save my ass when the next word I utter will end me?

Unless the next word is waffles.

Waffles? It’s true, unbelievable but true. The word that can save my life is waffles. I don’t even have to speak it, only mouth it.

But I don’t rush into it, because this is another egg I can’t  unbreak, and if it goes wrong, then that’s game over for Poole. Just a minute ago, I’d said that I wouldn’t mind dying – the boast that got these two guns to my head in the first place. But is it true?

Can I save myself?

Dare I risk it?

No time to dither.

The situation is unstable.

But all it takes is a word…

1.  The Low Spark

I turned off the ceiling light and placed my trusty Koss Pro 4aa headphones over my ears. In an instant their thick foam cushions cancelled out the horrible gacky sounds of Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” coming from a stereo down the hall.

Disco, God help us. How fast did that catch on?

I lifted the smoked plastic lid of my manual play Pioneer turntable and carefully cued up Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” I cranked the volume on my Nikko 5050 receiver, lay back on my narrow bed and fired up a joint. Not for the first time – more like like every time – I tried to penetrate the lyrics of the song.

We were children once, playing with toys

and the thing that you’re hearing is only the sound

of the low spark of high heeled boys

What’s a high heeled boy anyway? What’s a low spark? A quiet revolution, maybe? Something that sneaks up on you and messes with you and you don’t even know. That’s what I need, I thought. I need to be lit by a low spark.

My roommate came in, Donny (occasional Donald, never Don) Dawkins. He turned on the light and stood over me wearing an expression of harsh disapproval. He was thickset: not fat, but chunky; what we used to call husky when I was a kid. A struggle of muttonchops framed his round face, along with an enormous Jewfro. He loved that big nimbus, thought it made him look cool beyond cool.

I thought it made him look like Angela Davis.

I lifted one ear cup and said, “What?”

He wagged his finger at me sternly. “Alexander Poole, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you are not to smoke marijuana in this room we share,” he paused, then added as I knew he would, “without sharing.” He plucked the remaining half a joint from my ashtray and lit it up, then went to my stereo. “What are we listening to? Wait, let me guess. Traffic?” He briskly unjacked my headphones and listened for a second to place the song. “I knew it. You are in such a rut. You’ve played this record every day since we got back to school. Let’s play some Led Zep.”

“And listen to Robert Plant screaming like he fell off a cliff? No, thank you.”

“Have it your way, but enough of this.” He lifted the turntable lid and pawed the tonearm off the LP.

“Hey, be careful with that.”

“Relax, Audio Joe, I know how to handle a record.” This he convincingly disproved by jamming the record into its sleeve and racking it among my LPs in some completely random place. He examined my albums with familiar disdain. “God, you have some lame taste.” I wasn’t insulted by this. That was just Dawk, how he was. He pulled out Countdown to Ecstasy and said with exaggerated relief, “Ah, Steely Dan, at last a band that doesn’t completely blow. You know they’re named after a dildo, right?”

“Which you only mention every time you say Steely Dan.”

“True. I beat a dead horse. By the way, speaking of dildos – ”

“Were we speaking of dildos?”

“Son, we don’t speak nearly enough about dildos. You know what I just figured out about them? What they represent?”

“No, tell me. What do dildos represent?”

“Horny women. For every dildo sold, there’s a women out there somewhere who wants to have sex. All we have to do is find them and convince them we’re better than a dildo.”

“Son,” I told Donny, “you’re going to have some trouble with that.”

“I’m telling you, this is big news. All this time we’ve been thinking of banging as something we want to do but chicks don’t. The dildos tell us we’re wrong.”

“’The dildos tell us we’re wrong,’ I could see that on a tee shirt.”

“And it would totally sell. But the question is, what are we to do with this monumental news? I will tell you: We are to take it out, son. This information, we are to take it to the world. To, specifically, the Rat, where I’m told there’s a honking blues band playing right now.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was planning to study.”

“Oh, was that before or after you listened to Low Farts for the jillionth time?”

“Shut up,” I said. “What’s the band?”

“Coincidentally, they’re called the Dildos.”

We jabbered back and forth for a moment, but the conclusion was foregone. I grabbed a sweatshirt and headed out into the night. You do that sometimes, just be a cork bobbing on the Sea of Dawkins. Interesting things can happen. Drunk things at least.

The search for the low spark could wait.

The dorm we lived in, Ira Lemke Hall, had been co-ed for a couple of years now, and I’d already learned that it’s not the nudity parade you might think. You get to watch a girl brush her teeth, big deal. That said, as Dawk and I walked out, we both looked back, as we both naturally would, for the girl who lived in a certain single on the second floor had been known to entertain gentlemen with the shade not drawn.

“No Layla,” sighed Dawk.

“No Layla,” I agreed.

We had no idea what her real name was. To us she would always be Layla, a rare, exotic bird we could label but never hope to catch.

In the topography of Cort College, where outlying hills of the Connecticut Berkshires turned everything into a gully or ridge, it often seemed like every building on campus was uphill from everywhere, even coming back. In the case of the Rathskeller, or Rat, in the basement of the James Cort Union, or U,  it was true. But the night had some bite to it and the uphill grind felt good.

The U was built into a hillside, and had the oddity of two ground-floor entrances, one on the west side, facing Memorial Plaza, and the other around back, two levels down. As we crossed the plaza we saw a scruffy dude standing there playing guitar and singing “Proud Mary.” He wore a beat leather cowboy hat, jeans and a pretty thin jacket. He played well enough and tried to put some soul into it, but you could tell he was mostly just cold. A German Shepherd lay at his feet, looking equally dolefully unwarm.

“Seen that guy before?” I asked Dawk after we passed.


“Weird he’s not playing for money.”

“Maybe it’s art.”

“’Proud Mary?’”

Dawk shrugged. “Cover art?”

We went inside, crossed to the back stairs, and dropped down to the Rat, near the back entrance. You always knew you were getting there before you got there, for the smell of stale beer and brutal cleanser never failed to greet you from below.

We got a pitcher and occupied a corner booth. This was the key to value at the Rat: think pitchers. The other key was Haffenreffer, the house beer and consistently cheaper than anything else. It tasted like pony sweat, but if you pounded it fast enough, eventually it would catch up to you.

I knew it had caught up to Dawk when he burst out of a contemplative silence with a loud, “Here’s one!”

“Here’s one what?”

“A thing. A thing I think I thought up. Listen,” he said intently, “boobytrap spelled backward is partyboob.”

“That is amazing,” I said. “I’m speechless at the amazingness of that.”

“As well you should be. Now you do one.”

“What? What are you talking about? I can’t just ‘do one.’ I’d have to be a freak like you.”

“As you like. But I don’t think the Beatles sat around all day saying, ‘Ooh, blimey, I can’t just do a bleedin’ song.’” He pouted out his lower lip. “’I don’t know ‘ow.’”

“Okay, first, that’s a terrible Liverpool accent. Never do that where people can hear.”

“And second?”



“You said first. What’s second?”

“What second? There’s no second. Shut up.”

I guess the ‘Reffer had caught up to me, too.

Dawkins sighed. “Still, though, that’d be cool.”


“To be the Beatles of something. You should do that.”

“Do what?”

“Be the Beatles of something. You’d be good at it.” He waved vaguely at our empty pitcher. “Start with that. Be the Beatles of that.”

I picked up the pitcher and headed for the bar. It wasn’t a long trip, but long enough to think a few things through.

So how do you get to be the Beatles of something anyhow? Can you even think about it if you’re stuck up here in the Berkshires (or Buttshires or Berserkshires, as Cort kids call them)? So easy not to. When winter comes down, maybe all you want to do is stay in. Do your homework, play some cards, drink some, smoke some, go to classes, go to concerts, hang out. Next thing you know it’s summer and you have nothing to show for your year. Understimulated, that’s what I was. And I let myself get away with it.

This girl from Upper Volta changed all that. She was a counselor at my same summer camp, on exchange, and she flat couldn’t believe some of the classes I’d taken freshman year. “Sex in Cinema?” she asked, incredulous. In her country, the chance to sit down with a book, any book, in any sort of school setting, was almost unheard of. “And you waste on Sex in Cinema,” she said. “If were mine, this opportunity, I would not waste.”

Thank you, buzz kill.

I spent half the rest of the summer freaking out over My Wasted Life and the other half trying to get into the girl from Upper Volta’s shorts, with limited success. Back home in late August I stayed up late in my family’s copious New Jersey nest, mulling this very business. I wrote poetry into it: mawkish, self-conscious; it had to be destroyed, and it was. But she got under my skin, that girl. She made me want something to show for my time. She made me want the low spark.

Whatever the hell that was.

I climbed onto a stool and clacked my empty pitcher down on the bar. “I seek purpose,” I announced to the bartender with some ceremony. “But I’ll settle for a pitcher of beer.”

This earned a snerk from the girl sitting next to me. I turned to her and said, “What?”

“Nothing,” she said. “It was just funny.”

And that began Melanie, or Mel, which lasted a breathless three weeks, and then fell apart over this: Mel’s gonna be her own gal. That’s her rule, she’s decided, and no one’s moving her off it. Besides which, this bombshell –  she’s pretty much sure she doesn’t like boys anymore.

The breakup happened in the dining hall, during dining. I was talking about the upcoming Mott The Hoople show, riffing on the strangeness of bands’ names. “Moby Grape. Vanilla Fudge. And what the hell’s a Hoople?”

She interrupted me abruptly, saying, “I’m not going to that show with you, Poole.”

“Why not? What are you, some kind of Hoople hater?”

“No; we won’t be dating by then.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m breaking up with you now.”

“What? Why?”

“It doesn’t make sense. We don’t make sense.” That sounded like something Mel would say. Because the thing about Mel was – the decidedly admirable thing – she was just so level-headed. The whole brief time we were together I couldn’t get over how together she was. She didn’t have to be entertained. She could hang out, just sit in a room and read or do sketches. She wasn’t wide-eyed. She was solid. And philosophical. But she hated distractions, and had determined that, nice as I was, that’s what I was. Consequently, we were ended. She figured it was better to tell me now before our Motts got all Hoopled. “Don’t take it too hard, Poole. Everything beautiful dies. We can still be friends.”

“Can we still fool around?”

“Oh, my God, are you really asking me that?”

“Well, why not? It’s been pretty great. At least I think it has.”


“Want me to sing your praises? I will.”

“Go on.”

I thought about our lovemaking for a moment. In truth, Mel was the first regular partner I’d had, and compared to the harried fumbles that came before, well… “Well, for one thing, you’re very matter-of-fact.”

Mel cracked up laughing. “Oh, man, this is rich. Keep it up, bub, I’m going to enjoy being your ex.”

“Never mind, forget I brought it up.”

“No, no, go ahead. Sell me on matter-of-fact.”

“Well, you’re just…you’re not self-conscious, you know? You do what you want. You don’t play games. You make sex work.”

“Oh, God!”

“Not like that. I mean function, work well. I’ve been with plenty of women who don’t.”


“Well, a few. Plus me, I don’t do sex well at all.”

“You’re getting the hang of it. You have a promising future.”

“Just not with you,” I said, hangdog.


“Well, there you go. I didn’t know that. I’ve never been broken up with before, not by someone I’m sleeping with. I don’t know the rules for exes. I do know what I want.”

“What’s that?”

“See you naked again.”

Melanie sighed. “Okay, Poole, here’s the real news.” That’s when she told me the thing about guys, about maybe being over them.

“How are you over guys?” I asked. Holy smoke, did I do that? Was I worse than a dildo?

“I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“I get it, I see. I have to tell you my dirty sexy secrets but you don’t have to share yours?”

Mel blinked. “No,” she said. “No, you’re right, that’s not fair. Okay, here’s the size of it. I always was a sexual girl. I wasn’t interested in boys, exactly, I just wanted my itch scratched. Boys were handy, boys were eager, and frankly the thought of girls never really crossed my mind. It wouldn’t, not where I grew up.” She paused for a moment, then went on. “So, I’ve been with boys. I’ve been with a couple of men. I didn’t like the men, they wanted to take control. The night you and I met, I made out with a girl for the first time.”

“At the Rat?”

“In the bathroom. In a stall. It was exciting. I wanted to go with her, but it seemed like such a radical change. I thought I’d give boys one last chance.”

“Which I blew.”

She took my hand. “You were fine. You’re a sweet dude, dude. You know how to be good to a person.”

“Great,” I said ruefully. “The man can show a lady a good time.”

“Not lady. Person. You’re good when you’re real, Alex. I think I would call it your strength.”

“So now what am I? Someone’s knight in shining armor?”

“No, man, someone’s lover. Real lover. You’ll find her. Just look for someone as real as you.”

“You’re real.”

“And I’m really looking forward to being your friend, but let’s not let the sex weird us out, huh? If we can do that, I think we’ll be okay.”

Just at that moment Dawkins blew in. He and Mel had become chums in these weeks. “What’s kickin’, kittens?” he asked.

“Melanie just told me she’s queer,” I said, then covered my mouth, mortified. “Was I not supposed to say that?”

“No, that’s you keeping it real,” said Mel. “And the technical term is lesbian, not queer.”

Dawkins nodded and said solemnly, “Like Alice B. Toklas.”

Mel slapped his head. “That’s all you’ve got? That’s the sum total of your knowledge on the subject of homosexuality? Dude, at least give me Stonewall.” She read his blank stare. “No? Okay, here’s your homework: Go read Alan Ginsburg and report back.”

“Hey, you’re not my teacher.”

“We’re all each other’s teachers, bub. Haven’t you figured that out?”


2.       Re-Grand Opening

I want to say this about Mel: She knew a thing or two about sex. Not everything, obviously, including where she stood, up to a point. That I happened to be that point was something I decided to take as a blessing, because now I too knew a thing or two about sex. Anyway, she made her choice and I couldn’t hold it against her.

So Saturday, November 2, 1974, found me reasonably mentally fit as I wandered around downtown Greenville, Connecticut, a backwater berg of no known note apart from having been home to Cort College these hundred years. It was a typical autumn day in southern New England, just cold and raw enough to call for my prized Poolian possession, a genuine army surplus coat with my own name – Poole – serendipitously stenciled on the pocket flap.

I had made my way to Waxx Traxx, a record store so woefully behind the times they were still flogging There Goes Rhymin’ Simon as a current release. Finding no new music to get excited about, I bought a Rolling Stone magazine with Evel Knievel on the cover and walked back out onto Canal Street, the angle-parked main drag vestige of Greenville’s past.

A few doors down a bright banner hung over a storefront, lettered with the words Re-Grand Opening, which, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make look right. Two big Peavey amps pumped Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” all over Canal Street. I recognized the store as Hill’s Hi-Fi, but you’d never hear Cream coming out of Hill’s. They were more of an Andy Williams joint, hawking the sort of big living room consoles your parents might buy, with built-in TV, speakers and a vile automatic record changer to violate your vinyl. Not cool. Not stereo at all.

Not there anymore. Not like it was. The  hokey old  hand-painted window treatments were gone, replaced with posters for all the top audio brands: Bose, Akai, Bang & Olufsen; JBL’s well-known Blown Away Guy sitting deep in his armchair, blasted by speakers so big and loud they blew his hair back.

A sign near the door read Campus Reps Wanted. No, really? In my experience, Greenville merchants treated Cort kids like lepers, like when you walked in it was assumed you were going to boost something. Now they’re looking for reps? What’s this, the Twilight Zone?

The store next door was a tailor shop of some kind, and the seamstress had stepped outside to glower at the racket coming from Hill’s. I guess Cream wasn’t quite to her taste.

But it sure was to mine.

I went in. The place had been completely revamped. All the crappy old consoles were gone, along with the 1950s fixtures and noisy ceiling fans. Everything was new and modern, ultra high tech, with charcoal carpet, black lacquer shelves and track lighting. In back I could see a small listening room with a couch and glass coffee table. Wow. When did Hill’s become this?

While the salesman was helping his customer, a pretty, skinny girl in a velour poncho and low-rise jeans, I checked out the stuff in the display case. Phono cartridges, needles, anti-static vinyl cleaning kits, a goodly selection. And blank tape, man, cases and cases of the good stuff, CrO2s, all brands, including the excellent BASF from Germany. I had been ordering cassettes through the Lafayette catalog but their prices sucked and they didn’t have BASF. If the prices on these babies were anywhere near decent, this was real news.

The salesman noticed me and called down the counter, “Be with you in a sec, sport. I’m just doing this lady.” The way he said “doing” made the girl react and look up, and she found him waiting with a wink. When he put her change in her hand, he lingered on her fingers until she got flustered and pulled them away. It was a fairly wolfish thing to do and I couldn’t tell if she minded or not. Both, it seemed. Her face was flushed as she walked out, but she was smiling, too. The salesman leered after her as he came around the counter to greet me.

I will tell you how I feel about leisure suits: I’m not a fan. This guy almost sold it, though. White web belt, elephant bells, chukka boots – it shouldn’t have worked but it did. He had kind of a feathered mod haircut, and wore blue-tinted glasses with wire frames. All in all, he looked pretty cool, although maybe a tad too trying-too-hard. “Now then,” he said. “What can I do you for, my man?”

“Nothing. I was just looking. I didn’t know you were here.”

“Well, here we are. You into stereo?”

“I guess.”

“Let me ask you a question. If you pumped full gain on a Marantz 2270 through a pair of small Panasonics, what kind of sound do you think you’d get?”

“None,” I said. “That amp would blow those speakers to smithereens.”

The salesman smiled and repeated, “My man.” He gave me some skin. “Wayne Collins.”

“Alex Poole.”

“Poole,” he said. “That’s crazy, you know, my mother’s maiden name is Poole.”

“Is that right?”

“Tell me, Poole, what are you rockin’ right now?”

“You mean what system?” He nodded. “Well, a Teac tape deck. A Nikko receiver. Pioneer turntable.”

“Which Teac?” he asked with some urgency.

“The 450.”

“Well, that’s a piece of shit, that’s got to go. You can keep the receiver for now – that Nikko’s a workhorse – we’ll see about the turntable later. What speakers?”

I said, “Harman Kardon,” and he furrowed his brow. “Is that a problem?”

“One thing at a time. Let me show you something over here.”

He guided me to a selection of cassette decks, all high-end, all completely gorgeous. I eyed them greedily and said, “These are great.”

“Oh, yeah, beautiful machines, all the latest brands. Onkyo, Sanyo, Aiwa. Sexy Japanese names. You’ve seen their ads, yeah?”


“Yeah. Know how expensive those ads are?”


“Crazy expensive. That’s why these cost so much.” He gave them a dismissive wave and led me to the next shelf over. “Now these decks here, they’re just as good, often they’re made in the very same factory, but they don’t cost nearly as much. Why? No sexy name andno money wasted on ads. But this one…” He indicated a deck that didn’t have a brand name, just a tiny logo of three lower-case letters: xyz. “This one here kicks your tired old Teac’s ass.”

He went to press play, but gestured for me to do it instead. “Light touch,” he whispered. I barely tapped the play button and down it went on a smoothly damped solenoid.

“Nice,” I said.

“Good ol’ xyz.”

He drew me back a step and positioned me between two column-style loudspeakers, also xyzs. As I listened to the Eagles’ “Take it Easy,” it became clear to me that for the thousand times I’d heard the song, I’d never really heard it before. So clean, so crisp, every note sharp and clear, distinct, carved out and served up in slices.

“Amazing separation,” I said.

“You ain’t heard nothing yet,” said Wayne. “Come on in back.” He led me into the listening room and blew me away with Houses of the Holy.

“Wow,” I said. “I’ve never heard Led Zeppelin sound this good. Or even good.”

“Thanks,” said Wayne. “You know, I designed this room myself.”

“You’re kidding. You bought Hill’s?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “Not me, man. But it did get bought. The whole chain, all over everywhere. I’m just doing the re-grand opening.”

“Is that correct? Re-grand opening? I thought it was grand re-opening.”

“Grammatically, maybe, but…caught your eye, didn’t it? Anyway, when I’m done here I’ll leave it to some other poor schlep to run this store, and move on to the next one.”

“What a cool job. You’re like a commando. You parachute in.”

“That’s right, I’m SWAT, baby. Stereo weapons and tactics. So what about you? Are you a Cort kid or a townie?”

“Cort kid. You know about that?”

“Oh, me and Greenville go way back. Believe it or not, I actually worked in this very store ten years ago. Yeah, I know all about the never ending town-gown feud, but don’t worry: to me you’re cool.” He sniffed. “Can I tell you something, Poole? I’ve got a problem with the xyzs.”

“What problem? They’re fantastic.”

“Yeah, I know. But my boss doesn’t like it when I push ‘em. He says it makes the other brands look bad, pisses off their distributors. Which is a shame because the xyz people, they like me a lot. They give me the best goods at the best price. I could sell you a whole xyz system – turntable, speakers, receiver, tape deck – for under three hundred bucks.”

“That’s incredible,” I said. “That’s such a good deal.”

“How much you think Cort kids would pay?”

“Four hundred, easy. Maybe more.”

“Okay, good. Now, suppose I gave you the territory. Cort College, all yours, exclusively. You spread the word about the brand, find people who appreciate its quality. I sell you a system for three or so. You sell it to whoever for whatever. It’s a win-win situation. Your friends get a terrific deal on great sound, and you make a few bucks. What do you think?”

“You want me to be a stereo salesman?”

“Not salesman. Campus rep. It’s why you came in, isn’t it? I assumed you saw my sign.”

“No, yeah, maybe, I don’t know. I guess.”

“That’s some decisive shit you’ve got going there, Poole. Maybe you’re not right for this.”

“No, I am. I think I could be.”

“Okay, we’ll give it a go. But remember, this is strictly through you. Nobody hears the words Hill’s Hi-Fi.”

“Understood,” I said.

And just like that I was a stereo salesman. Sorry, campus rep.

Dawk thought it was pretty funny, and wasted no time calling me a suit-and-tie guy and a sellout. I told him it was nothing like that. I’d put up some fliers, maybe go door to door in the dorms. No suit. No tie. Just a way to turn spare hours into loose change. Besides, if everyone’s my teacher, why shouldn’t I learn how to sell hi-fi?

Melanie saw it a different way. She was dating a girl now, and busy with classes, so she didn’t have much time to hang out. But we met the following Wednesday at the Magic Onion, a greasy little snack bar upstairs at the U, where you could score hot soup on a cold day and bad coffee anytime at all. When I told her about the xyzs, all she said was, “It sounds like a hustle to me.”

“What? You’re crazy.”

“A brand no one’s heard of? At prices too good to be true?”

“That’s overhead, low overhead.”

“Is that right?”

“It’s not a hustle. I heard the components. They sound great.”

“Yeah, because no one can make a stereo sound good in a stereo store.”

“Come on, Mel,” I said.

She must have heard something in my voice, because she backed off a bit. “Whatever, bub. I hope you sell a million zizzits or whatever.”

But she still tsked, and when she did, I said, “What? What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s just…sales, dude? Is that really what you want to do with your life?”

“Mel,” I said, “it’s just a gig. It won’t distract me when something better comes along. How’s your girlfriend, by the way?”

She said coldly, “That was dickish.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. But you hurt my feelings.”


“You called me a sales dude.”

“See? That’s my point. You know the job sucks.”

“It doesn’t suck. And it won’t define me.”

“And it’s not a hustle, don’t forget.”

“And it’s not a hustle.”

Mel got up to go. “You’re lucky I like you, Poole.” She left, and I sat mulling for a bit. You sell a decent product at a decent price to people who want it and can afford it, I thought, that’s not a hustle, that’s just sales. And by the way, what’s so bad about sales? I had, I decided, nothing to apologize for, not to Mel or anyone.

Just the same, when I Xeroxed up fliers that Friday, I handed them out in dorms other than hers.

I started out way up-campus in Francoeur Hall, where I posted my flier on the dorm bulletin board and started knocking on doors.

Within fifteen minutes I was profoundly depressed.

Most everyone I talked to either already owned a stereo or didn’t want one. Pretty soon I started to feel like a jerk for intruding on strangers, disturbing their studies, trying to convince them that they needed something they hadn’t given two thoughts to before I showed up.

Then I made my first sale, to some kid with big birthday money and not a clue about hi-fi, and that made me feel good. The kid needed good gear and there I was to fix him up. Not the low spark, perhaps, but not nothing. I was performing a service at least.

I admit it didn’t occur to me that my service would extend to delivering the gear, but for that I just commandeered Donnie’s car, a green-on-other-green 1965 Dodge Dart Swinger with a coat hanger aerial and an ironically intended NIXON sticker, pasted upside down on the rear bumper to read NOXIN. “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am,” was the motto of the car known formally as Jean-Paul Dartre and informally as the Sphincter. Since I didn’t drive a manual transmission, I had to commandeer Donnie as well, but that was no problem. I just bribed him with weed.

We loaded the components into the car and delivered them back on campus. Funny thing, though, when I was setting up the kid’s system (didn’t realize I’d have to do that, too) I noticed that the tape deck wasn’t exactly the model Wayne had shown me in the store. It didn’t have those sweet solenoid controls for one thing, and for another it looked, I don’t know, kind of ticky-tack. I thought there must be some kind of mistake, so afterward I had Dawk drive me back to Hill’s to ask.

Wayne was just closing up shop for the day. When I told him about the deck, he said, “Oh, that, yeah. That was a lat-qual call.”

“A what now?” asked Dawkins.

“A judgment to substitute a product of lateral quality,” he in a sense recited. “Equal quality. Lat-qual. Just as good, but different.”

“But it’s not what he bought,” I said.

“Maybe it’s better.”

“It looked kind of cheesy.”

“Alex, Alex, listen to me: The work you’re doing now, it’s a craft. There’s nuance to it, lots of stuff you haven’t heard about yet. You Cort kids, you’re book smart, but not always people smart.” He got a faraway look in his eye, as if struck by an idea. “You know what?” he said, “You just closed your first deal, and that calls for a celebration. My treat.”

He headed off down Canal Street and we fell in beside him. When I saw where he was headed, though, to a dive called the Gunnison Inn, I pulled up short. “We can’t go in there,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Wayne. “You’re legal, right? Drinking age, eighteen?”

“It’s not that,” I said. “The Gunnison’s a townie joint.”


“So Cort kids get hassled in there.”

“Yeah, well, working stiffs don’t,” said Wayne. “And that’s what you are now.” He threw his arms around us both and guided us inside. “Come on, ladies, no one’s getting hassled on my watch.”

It was just past five, and a thin after-work crowd sat in a lonely row at the bar, drinking shots and beers and paying no attention to the Hartford Whalers on TV. The place reeked of cigarettes and dishwater, but no one seemed the least inclined to harsh their mellow over us. They were stuck in the gloom, frozen, like statues. No, gargoyles.

Donnie and I found a four-top while Wayne went off to make a quick phone call. He came back with beer, long-neck Carling Black Labels. “First sale,” said Wayne. We toasted like the Three Musketeers. “You know why we do that?” he asked. “Clink bottles and such?”

“Superstition?” asked Dawk.

“No. It’s a sign of goodwill. Like shaking hands shows a stranger that you’re unarmed, when you touch bottles it’s as if to say, ‘I could, but choose not to, bash you over the head with this.’”

“Really?” asked Dawk.

Wayne fixed Dawk with his most sincere gaze. “Really,” he said. Then, a second later, he added, “Or not.”

“Wait? Which is it?”

“Why, it’s the truth. Or something I make sound like the truth. One or the other. Because, see, this is what I’m saying. This is the nuance. Master the nuance and you master the craft. In the case of the lat-call qual – ” He laughed self-consciously. “That’s hard to say. Maybe I should call it something else.”

“You made that up?” I asked. “It sounded official.”

“What, you mean like company policy or something? ‘In thus and such a circumstance you are authorized to make a lat-qual call’?”


“That’s nuance. The way I make it sound important is what makes it sound important. Then nobody questions it.”

“Like self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Exactly. Now you got it, man. You got the nuance.” I wasn’t entirely sure I did. “Dudes,” Wayne continued, “I’ll tell you a secret: If you can’t be right, be loud. If you’re loud enough long enough, you’ll appear to be right.”

“What, just by shouting your opinion?” asked Donnie.

“Stating it with conviction, yeah. Backing it up with authority. Fake authority if you have to. You guys write term papers?”

“Ugh, yes,” said Dawk.

“What’s the worst part?”

“Counting the words.”

Wayne said, “For me it was research. Such a waste of time, scouring the library to find scholarly authorities whose points of view matched mine. Bullshit, right? So I started making it up.”


“Quotes, sources, authors, books, the whole nine yards. Fake footnotes, fake bibliography. Never got caught, not once.”

“That’s pretty ballsy,” I said.

“Not really,” said Wayne. “I ‘stated with conviction,’ so no one had any doubt. Which brings us back to nuance.” He turned to Dawk and asked, “What was your name again?”

“Donnie Dawkins.”

“No shit? My mother’s maiden name is Dawkins.”

“No it isn’t,” I said. “You told me it was Poole.”

“I did. And how did that make you feel?”

“I don’t know, like we had some kind of connection?”

“Exactamundo. And that’s what called nuance.”

“It’s kind of called lying,” I said. “Isn’t it?”

“If you want to look at it through that narrow a filter. But let me ask you this: When you’re out trying to sell a stereo, what stands in your way?”

“All kinds of stuff. They don’t have the dough. Their parents won’t let them. They already have one and don’t need a new one.”

“They think they don’t need a new one. And if you tell ‘em they do, are you lying or just voicing a different opinion?”

“Opinion, I guess.”

“Opinion indeed. Look, guys, sales is nothing more than persuading someone that your opinion is right. But so is a lot of life. Getting a job. Getting a raise. If you want to sleep with a girl, but she doesn’t want to sleep with you, that’s a difference of opinion. How you navigate that difference determines whether or not you get laid.”

Wayne was feeling pretty up himself just then, and I guess he had reason to, because what he said made a perverse sort of sense, at least if you wanted to justify lying. The situation changed in a hurry, though, when a barrel-chested voice boomed, “Hello, Wayne,” and we all looked up to see this incredible mountain of a man, easily 6’3” or 6’4”, and easily filling to capacity his XXXL overalls. He had a big pumpkin head, jug handle ears and Popeye forearms, minus the anchor tattoos. When he clapped his massive hand around Wayne’s neck, it looked about as welcome there as a boa boa.

“Hey, Mouse,” said Wayne in a voice that sounded like it didn’t want trouble. “This here is Alex and Don. Alex, Don, this is Mouse.”

“Donnie,” said Donnie. “Not Don.”

Mouse looked us over. “Cort kids?” he asked.

“We go to Cort, yeah.”

“My sister dated a Cort kid.” He cracked his knuckles expressively. “That ended.” Then he rapped Wayne on the top of his head, kind of a humiliating gesture that Wayne suffered in unhappy silence. “Tonight, yeah, asshole?”

“I don’t think it can be tonight.”

Mouse bent down and brought his mouth close to Wayne’s ear. I thought he might bite it off. “Kip says tonight.”

Wayne stared at the table top. “I’ll do what I can.”

“Yeah you will.” Mouse stood up. He feinted a fist at Dawk’s face and Dawk almost flinched off his chair. “Cort kids,” chuckled Mouse. He lumbered out of the bar, causing seismic disturbance.

No one said anything for a while. We just sipped our beers. At last Dawkins said, “That’s quite a big fellow. I suppose he got his name from his size. Ironic intent and all that?”

“No,” said Wayne distractedly. “He once ate a mouse.”

“Is this more nuance?” I asked.

“No, it’s true. He ate a mouse. A live one. On a dare. Then he kicked the shit out of the guy who dared him.”

“Who was that?” asked Dawk. “Kip?”

“No. Not Kip.”

“Well, who’s Kip?”

“Not your concern.” Wayne stood up,  looking pretty stressed. “And be glad for that.” All his airs about craft and authority seemed to have been moused right out of him. “I have to go.”

He left. And then it was just the two of us, drinking in a townie bar like a couple of regular raggies – that’s what townies call themselves, but if you’re a Cort kid who says it, watch out. In the event, no one bothered us with our beers, or even our boldly bought second round.

For sure there’s this big rivalry or disdain between townies and us, one that goes way back, but there in the Gunnison I got that probably most townies didn’t give a rat’s ass about us. Too busy with their shots and beers, you know? Too busy living their lives. Still, Cort kids got hassled and messed with generally, that’s a fact.

I took a matchbook on the way out: red, with a drawing of a drunk clinging to a lamppost. My big Townie treasure. I stuck it in the pocket of my army jacket and felt some percent cool.

We dropped in on Mel.  She was now keeping company with this Kim, a waiflike wonder with dark, sad eyes who sat on a futon in Mel’s apartment and said little. We told Mel of our grand adventure in the Gunnison and speculated avidly about what mysterioso business could bring together a hipster like Wayne and a mayonnaise badass like Mouse.

“It’s probably drugs,” offered Dawk. “What else could it be?”

“It could be other things,” I said. “Stolen stereo? Wayne’s a stereo guy.”

“What do you care?” interjected Mel.


“It’s their concern, man, not yours. Leave it alone.”

Dawk said truculently, “What’s your problem, man?”

“You,” she said. “You two. The way you’re getting off on this. You’re all agog because you think shit’s going down.”

“Shit is going down,” Dawkins said. “It’s interesting.”


“Because it’s going down.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Christ, Mel,” said Dawk, “if Columbus had your attitude, he’d never have left Spain, and we’d all still be living in wigwams.”

“Your ignorance astounds me, fool.”

“Yeah? Well, for your information, the world doesn’t end at Campus East Gate. And townies don’t bite.” He snatched up his coat. “You coming, Poole?”

“I’ll be along.”

“Suit yourself.” He took off. I thought Mel was being unnecessarily harsh, but also she was right. We were agog; anyway, I was.

Mel, meanwhile, must’ve felt bad about going off on Dawk, for she said to me, “Guess I struck a nerve, huh?”

“We were just horsing around,” I said. “It’s fun to speculate.”

Mel looked at me and said sternly, “Poole, man, don’t be distracted by this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I see that light in your eye. You think this is exciting, this is that ‘real life’ you’re looking for.”

“I suppose. I admit it has my attention.”

“Well, that’s bullshit. You’ve got to stick your nose out of this right now. It’s bad enough you’re a salesman, now you want to be a thug?”

“I never said I wanted to be a thug.”

“I should hope not. You’re so much better than that.” She kissed my nose. “Go tell Donald I’m sorry. And stay out of trouble, you goof.” I guess that was my cue to leave, and also Kim’s cue to stand up and embrace Mel from behind. Mel turned to kiss her as they shut the door, and the sight of that unexpectedly floored me. I felt an ache I could barely contain, a desperate desire to be, like them, not alone.

Not fun.

Look, I knew Wayne was skeevy – you’d have to be a moron not to – but skeevy or not, wasn’t he still worth a look-see? And so what if he was a distraction? Couldn’t I use a distraction just then?

I felt like I could.

I walked myself into the night.

Poole’s Paradise is available now exclusively through

On The Road Again (Again)

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Well, Campers, I haven’t been overseas in almost 8 months and that’s kind of a record for — oops, I forgot my trip to Oslo in April. Okay, I haven’t been overseas in almost 4 months, which is no kind of record at all. This time I’m bound for Sao Paolo, Brazil, and I’m excited about this trip because this will add both a new country and a new continent to my resume. I will now have worked in 29 countries on 5, count ’em 5, continents. Ya-hey!

This is also an unusual trip because I’m going to do a job I’ve never done before: I’m tasked to breathe life into a cartoon mascot for a food company (can’t tell you more — would have to kill you). Well, I haven’t worked the advertising side of the street since I was 25, so this will be a real change of pace. Nor have I ever done exactly this sort of creative consulting gig before. So it’ll be “making it up as I go along” as usual. Doesn’t scare me. That’s how I roll.

As usual, I’ll be flying blind, arriving in a city I know virtually nothing about. A quick image scan on Google seems to indicate that the houses are pretty…

but the land is mostly magenta…

And covered with tall buildings.

But, one way or another, I imagine I’ll stumble along. I’ll only be there for 6 days, so no chance to chase my usual buzz of ultimate frisbee in foreign climes, and probably not poker as well. Ah, well. I’m hoping to get a little sight-seeing in, but frankly I won’t work too hard to arrange that. When you’re completely new to a place, everything is a sight to see, and even the most prosaic walk can be eye-opening. Well, I’m bringing my camera, so my prosaic walk can be eye-opening for you, too.

More later, -jv

Hooray Hooray the First of May

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

As my mother used to say (well, still says):

Hooray, hooray the first of May, outdoor shagging starts today. Only she doesn’t say shagging. Charming, mom, charming. Well, Mayday is probably not a big door where you are (alfresco fornication notwithstanding) but it’s a big deal in Norway, where it’s celebrated (as elsewhere) as a day of international workers’ rights. Most everyone has the day off. I, of course, did not. The irony of this is not lost on me. However, I did have time enough to catch the May Day parade, which went right by my hotel. There were people marching for every conceivable cause, from the rights of Palestinians to the right to smoke lots and lots of weed. And lots of people, including this kid, were marching for reasons I could not discern.

Perhaps he was showing his solidarity with Nike. I know not. Of course it was hard to know what anyone was marching for because their signs were in Norwegian (how rude!) but some of the marchers’ agendas were perfectly clear from context. These people, manifestly, were marching for the right of nurses to play drums.

And good for them, I say. Norway is a civilized country. If nurses can’t march and drum here, where can they?

Wish I had more pictures for you, but I had to leave the parade early, and go off to continue my ongoing quest to make the world safe for situation comedy. The work was the work, I won’t bore you with the details of that. Let’s just say that among the many reasons I love my job is that it introduces me to concepts I otherwise would never know anything about, including the plight of oppressed Norwegian drumming nurses. Set them free, say I. SET THEM FREE!

More later, -jv

The Warp and Woof of My Life

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Well, here I am back in Oslo, Norway, a place where I worked extensively in 1998 and 1999 — and haven’t seen since. I’m so glad to be back working here, though I don’t know if my presence represents a throwback to an earlier phase of my career or the reigniting of something that gave (and gives) me so much joy. Well, whatever. I’m just pleased — feeling blessed, actually — to be back here in this wonderful country, helping the makers of a very funny, very successful TV show do their job just a little bit better.

So that’s the warp of my life: traveling the world according to the now-venerable formula of exchanging knowledge for experience plus money. If I get to do this until I die, I shall be content.

Meanwhile, over there on the woof of my life, it looks like Lucy in the Sky is starting to gain some of the traction I hoped it would. Here’s a clip from a brand-new review:

Attention all Baby Boomers or BB wannabees: If you want to remember/learn about what really happened in the `60s and `70s with the Hippie Generation, “Lucy in the Sky” gives you a riveting, hilarious, honest, insightful look at what most of us teenagers went through during that time. Vorhaus has captured those feelings impeccably in Gene Steen, his intelligent, good-hearted, restless symbol of teen angst in a stereotypical Midwest suburban household. Gene thinks there is something to this hippie culture, but is not sure what until he experiences the freedom and risks of choosing his own path in life free from parental or societal restraint.

It goes on like that for a bit, and makes me think that, yeah, what I hoped to convey is getting conveyed.

And it tickles me no end that I write in a language where “woof” and “weave” can mean the same thing.

Here’s how the warp and woof intersect: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been using my teaching enterprises to support my writing endeavors. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been using my writing income to subsidize my overseas adventures. Years ago I made the profoundly lucky discover that “those who can do, do both,” and so long as I’m willing to accept a little personal schizophrenia (and why not? strong cloth requires both warp and woof) then I can continue to run pell-mell down these two interesting roads at once.

That’s it for now. Rainy Oslo beckons. (And EXPENSIVE Oslo: this place makes Moscow, Russia, look like Moscow, Idaho, but whatever). Photos may or may not be forthcoming, for I forgot and left my camera at home — and I hate the camera on my iPhone almost as much as I hate Siri.

More later, -jv

One Buff Chick

Monday, April 16th, 2012

That is one buff chick.

Can anyone guess the secret?


Friday, April 13th, 2012

So here I am in Madison, having a peak experience at the Writers Institute and bringing my usual mix of information, inspiration and bafflegab. Mostly, though, I’ve been keen to walk the streets of Madison, since the city plays a not-insignificant role in my new novel, LUCY IN THE SKY. There’s a point in that book when our hero, teen hippie-wannabe Gene Steen, makes his way to Madison at its counterculture height in 1969. Never having been here before, having only imagined the place and researched it via Wikipedia, Google Earth, and my own febrile imagination, I was curious about how the reality would match, or fail to match, my vision.

So I took myself out onto State Street, then as now the main shopping street and chief hangout for denizens of the nearby University of Wisconsin at Madison. The result was weirder than I expected. Even through the veil of 40+ years, it was clear that State Street had not lost its hippie roots. Evidence? These shots from the head shop Sunshine Daydream, which could easily have opened its doors in the sixties.

Of course there have been a few changes — witness this sign in the window of Sunshine Daydream:

Not sure there would have been quite the need for this “no guns” admonition back in ’69. Yet the spirit lives on.

As I strolled the streets I experienced an odd schizophrenia. I have never been here before, yet I knew for sure that I had been here, both in the 1969 of my imagining and in the real world of my writing desk, just about a year ago. I felt at once alien and quite at home. This feeling serves as a certain synecdoche (look it up) for my whole experience of writing the novel. I have described it as an emotional memoir — the story of the hippie wannabe I always wanted to be but never quite was. Until I walked State Street last night, I didn’t realize how fully I had achieved my goal of reliving a past I never had. This is the power that a writer enjoys, at least within the realm of his own head and heart. I was never here in 1969, yet thanks to the power of imagination, I got a chance to relive the experience for the first time, if that makes any kind of sense at all. Out on the street last night I experienced real nostalgia and real joy, and realized that, by a certain backdoor means, I had achieved an important goal for myself. I brought a time and place alive in my mind, in a way that I now know to but full, complete, and deeply satisfying. I’m going to school on this. The writer I will be from now on will strive to recreate this sense of abstract creation. I will make worlds, if for no other reason than that I may visit them.  And I don’t know, but do suspect, that this will make my future works more powerful, visceral and satisfying for my readers as well.

In past I have spent time in college towns and felt the familiar “bottom ache” (see LUCY for more on this concept) of lost youth and time gone by. Here and now I don’t feel those things. I need not long for something I wanted and never had, for, thanks to the experience of writing LUCY IN THE SKY, I feel like I had that something; I need not regret a road not taken, for now I’ve gone back and taken it, at least by roundabout and fictional means. To me that’s a win.

Yet as whimsy is still my stock in trade, I can’t close this post on that. Instead, I offer this cut-out from a warning sign at the UWM boathouse on Lake Mendota. It offers this sagacious advice:

Remember… hug the shoreline. There’s only hard paddling and dangerous water elsewhere. I do not consider these “words to live by.” I consider them words to reject utterly. To quote Bruce Springsteen, “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun, oh but Mama, that’s where the fun is.” Hug the shore? Screw that. I’m going where the hard paddling is.

More later, -jv

Oh, PS and inevitably, Check it out. You, too, can live in the past.

Bafflegab Books is Proud to Present…

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Here’s the logo for my new publishing company, BAFFLEGAB BOOKS.

Its first release, LUCY IN THE SKY, is available now at

For those of you who have followed my work from THE COMIC TOOLBOX through all those poker books to the “sunshine noir” mystery novels THE CALIFORNIA ROLL and THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY, you’re going to find LUCY a bit of a departure. It’s a coming-of-age tale set in Milwaukee in 1969, and it’s more of an authentic emotional journey than, you know, bafflegab. That said, if you like the way I put words on the page, you’re really gonna love LUCY. Here’s what she looks like.

And here’s where to go for an excerpt:

The novel is available in print, ebook and author-narrated audio. I’m especially pleased with the audio version of the work, because I think I brought a level of emotional texture to the read that a third-party reader would not. If you like taking your stories in through your ears, I definitely recommend grabbing LUCY in that form.

In whatever form you encounter her, I hope you enjoy her, and if you do, I hope you’ll post a short review at Amazon, so that others can find their way to the work, too. It’s “a trip and a half for young seekers and old geezers alike,” and with all due false modesty, I really think it rocks.

More later, -jv

Excerpt: Lucy in the Sky

by John Vorhaus


A coming-of-age tale set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1969, Lucy in the Sky lightly touches on such weighty issues as the meaning of life, the purpose of art and the existence of God. For those interested in answers to The Big Questions or just keen to revisit a simpler time, Lucy in the Sky promises a fun and compelling trip – and that’s trip in every sense of the word!

Gene Steen is an earnest, intelligent, truth-seeking teen stuck in a suburban cultural wasteland. He wants to be a hippie in the worst way, but hippies are scarce on the ground in the forlorn Midwest of Gene’s 15th year. Then, propitiously on the Summer Solstice, his life is turned upside down by the arrival of his lively, lovely, long-lost cousin Lucy. She’s hip beyond Gene’s wildest dreams and immediately takes him under her wing. Lucy teaches Gene that being a hippie isn’t about love beads and peace signs, but about the choices you make and the stands you take. Yet for all her airy insights into religion, philosophy and “the isness of it all,” Lucy harbors dark secrets – secrets that will soon put her on the run, with Gene by her side.

Lucy in the Sky resonates of such classics as Summer of ’42 and Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and invites the reader into a richly detailed vision of the ‘60s, as realized by sure-handed prose and authentic sense of place and time. With frank talk about sex and drugs, Lucy pulls no punches about the realities of the era, yet delivers an uplifting message about personal power and the path to enlightenment. A rewarding read for young seekers and old geezers alike.

So here comes an excerpt, y’all.

oil and sterno more like

This story is about the summer my cousin Lucy came to visit, and since she’s the star of the show you should hear how she sounds.

“The space program, Gene? The space program? They’ve got a lot of nerve calling this dinky neighborhood we live in space. Say they do put a man on the moon, so what? That’s just one flyspeck next to another flyspeck, you know? You can’t touch the infinite with rockets. You gotta go inside your mind, Gene, all the way down to your soul. Look at it. Live it. You’ll find out. It’s big as everything. Now there’s your space program.”

And she looks…amazing. Copper is her favorite color. She has copper hair, copper hairpins, copper earrings, bracelets, finger rings, thumb rings, toe rings, copper, copper, copper. Go Lucy, go with your copper. Go with your peasant skirts which wherever you got them it sure wasn’t Sears. Go with your chunky heels and funky sandals. Go with your lace leggings, oh my God. Go with your ankh necklace, and the other one, the leaded red cut crystal octagon that gives me Lucy times eight when I look through it, her halter top times eight when I look through it, no bra times eight when I look through it, oh God, Lucy, you cripple me, you slay me, you do.

She tilts down her copper sunglasses and I feel her eyes burning into me. I know she’s reading my mind. She knows I lust for her bust. My cousin! But if I know Lucy, she’d just say something like, “They’re only secondary sex characteristics, Gene. If it gives you pleasure to look, look.” ‘Cause that’s how she talks. She doesn’t talk, she blurts. Blurts!

She and my dad, though, cats and dogs.

Oil and Sterno, more like.

You know how you know when you’re always right? Me neither, but my dad does, and Lucy does, too, but they can’t both be right, that’d be like matter touching anti-matter and blooey! So blooey it is on Nixon and Vietnam, and blooey on civil rights. Blooey on short skirts and long hair. Blooey on pot versus booze. Blooey on Andy Williams versus the Who. Blooey on whether she should call him Uncle Carl or just Carl because Lucy finds honorifics ageist and  classist, whatever those words mean. Blooey even on football versus baseball (barbaric versus boring and I say they’re both wrong). Blooey on everything because if she says black he says white, and that’s how the two of them are now. She’s under his skin. It’s really interesting to watch.

She’s under my skin. Been there since day one. Summer Solstice. Longest day of the year.

groovy discounts

I’m horsing around in my treehouse with Gilbert, who’s not as dorky as his name sounds, in fact he’s pretty cool. He kypes his brother Wade’s Playboys and Rolling Stones and brings them to the treehouse. He likes the cartoons in Playboy, like this one of a Girl Scout showing her cones and saying, “Well, if you don’t want any cookies, how about a nice set of cupcakes?” I like the music reviews in the Stone. Neil Young played last week at the Troubadour on the Sunset Strip. Man, what I wouldn’t give to be on the Sunset Strip. Or even anywhere, because everybody knows this is nowhere, this treehouse in Milwaukee or even anywhere in Milwaukee. And also nowhen because while it might be the 1960s where Mr. Neil Young lives, it sure as fudge isn’t here, not while I’m still getting my hair cut by Luigi the homuncular barber, and my clothes come from, yep, Sears, and a big night out for the Steen clan is eating at the Jolly Pop Drive-In and seeing Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.

(And not while I’m still saying fudge instead of fuck. You know?)

So it’s Saturday, June 21, 1969, here at the corner of nowhere and nowhen, the first day of summer and the first day of summer vacation and less than a week until I turn fifteen. “Hair” by the Cowsills is playing on WOKY, the Mighty 92, on the bulky brown transistor radio I keep up here in the treehouse. Being almost fifteen, I’m almost too old for a treehouse, but I’m kind of calling it a clubhouse now, or even a redoubt, which is a word I learned for hideout or lair. I know words. I like learning them. Plus geography, geology, biology, psychology. I’ve always been a pretty good student, not because I’m trying to earn Brownie points, but just because I dig it. Though more and more these days I can’t help feeling like I’m learning the wrong stuff, the stuff that doesn’t matter. Where’s the stuff that does?

So lair. I’m in my lair. Listening to “Hair,” “Hair” in my lair. But keeping the volume down though, because Dad’s down there mowing the lawn and Dad doesn’t like rock and roll, though how the Cowsills are rock and roll I don’t know. I mean, they’re not exactly radical, are they? They even wear the same clothes, and in my opinion, no one can really be rock and roll if they wear the same clothes, not since the Beatles cut it out. But this nicety is lost on my dad. If it isn’t anciently old, it isn’t music to his ears. And it’s nonsense, what he listens to. I mean, granted, “Hey Jude don’t make it bad” is hardly Walt Whitman or even e.e. cummings, but on the other hand, “Flat foot floogie with a floy floy?” What the hell’s a floy floy?

Rolling Stone has a thing on when Jim Morrison flashed his wiener at this concert in Miami last winter. I would like to’ve been there. Not that I’d want to see the Lizard King’s wiener, but still.

It’s already hot, summer hot, but not humid like it’ll get. Come August I’ll be totally broasting, sleeping naked in my bedroom in the ovenlike upstairs of our house, with the windows open and the sheets thrown back and the ceiling fan squeaking loudly on its cruddy ball bearings and me wishing it would at least have the decency to suck up a mosquito or two. Now, though, it’s still okay. Hot for sure, but not oppressive, and the maple and oak trees up and down both sides of the street make pools of cool shade on the concrete slab sidewalks and the lush green lawns that front all the cream colored brick two-story homes.

My lair looks almost straight down on the street. If you wanted, you could chunk water balloons on the roofs of passing cars. Or heave ones at Dad as he mows, an act of D’Artagnian rebellion that would never in a million years have crossed my mind during these last five minutes of my life before Lucy arrives. Right now I’m let’s face it quite a square, a rebel without a clue. I don’t smoke dope or even coffin nails, or curse or shoplift, and I even still enjoy Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, though I know it’s not cool to admit it. I’m not cool, I admit it. I even have a very not cool name. Gene. Eugene Montgomery Steen.

I mean, come on.

But there’s a streak in me. Iconoclast, I guess you’d call it, or maybe just weirdo. Anyway, I like to do dumb things if I get the chance. Like, here was my school science project from last year: “How Stupid Are Science Projects?” It was a joke, because actually I like science, but serious too, because I did it like you’re supposed to, all scientific method and such. I took a survey, correlated the results and reported my conclusions, supported by pie charts, bar graphs and good ol’ Venn diagrams. I even had control questions like, “How stupid is Gomer Pyle?” (A hundred percent stupid, hence the control.) Sixteen percent of adults surveyed thought science projects were stupid. Ninety-three percent of kids did. I should have called it, “How Stupid Are Adults?” but anyway.

So I’m up in the air in my lair when I notice this VW microbus coming down the street. “Hey, Gilbert,” I say, “check it out. Hippie van at six o’clock.” I don’t know if six o’clock is actually the direction I’m looking, but I know from the TV show Twelve O’Clock High that twelve o’clock high is straight ahead and up, so I know it can’t be that. Maybe it’s six o’clock. Maybe it’s 7:23. Anyway, here comes this big beater of a van with a bumblebee black and yellow yin yang painted on the front, and trust me, hippie vans don’t roll down streets like mine every day, or even any day ever. So this is news.

Gilbert slides over and we peer down through the redoubt’s redwood rails at the microbus, which is riding low on bald tires and belching sooty uncombusted gas, and just couldn’t look more out of place in this neighborhood of Dodge Darts and Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers. But it catches my eye because it looks hippie and anything that looks hippie catches my eye these days, even the ads in the Milwaukee Sentinel which have lately started sticking flowers and peace signs into the graphics and offering “groovy discounts” on dinette sets. I know it’s bogus, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. I’m like a moth to a flame with hippie stuff because this is Milwaukee and when I tell you that flowers and peace signs in newspaper ads are about as hip as this place gets, I’m not exaggerating all that much. But I’m so hungry for it, man. I mean, imagine you’re a caveman eating raw mastodon and you hear that some other guys somewhere have been farting around with something called fire. You don’t know what fire is, but you hear it does awesome things to meat. You’d naturally want to try it. You’d crave to. That’s the way I feel. I’m a caveman living in a cultural cave and I’m getting sick to death of eating raw mastodon, which, yuck.

Then the van does something I’d never expect it to do, not in a million lifetimes. It stops right in front of my house. No vans like this ever stop in front of houses like mine. It might as well be a spaceship.

Well, in a sense you could say it is. It surely contains an alien.

maryjane virgin

The van knocks and pings as the driver driving it shuts it off. This draws Dad’s attention. He looks over at the microbus, but keeps pushing the push-mower because he’s a dog with a bone with that lawn, it’s his joy and pride. Last year when Milwaukee was considering banning phosphate in fertilizers, Dad stocked up. On that and DDT, too, which he filled a whole back room of his hardware store with, because he feels about bugs like he feels about crabgrass: Enemy! Die! Now he’s got enough banned pesticides to keep his lawn going through Armageddon, and that makes him happy.

What doesn’t make him happy is hippie vans parked at his curb and though he’s still got the  push-mower going whiska-whiska, he’s got an eye on the van, too, possibly sizing it up for a good dose of DDT just in case. Then the side door slides open, squeaking on rusty rollers, and a big, metal-frame backpack flies out and thuds on what they call the parkway, the strip of city grass between the sidewalk and curb (which Dad tends grudgingly because its city property and they should care for it but he’ll be, and I’m quoting here, “good Goddamned” if he’ll let any part of his cherished domain be an eyesore, you betcha).

The science project I didn’t do last year was “Does Heat Really Rise?” which my teacher, the dreaded Miss Buchanan, rejected because of course heat rises and she said I could do better than that if only I Applied Myself, which led to “How Stupid Are Science Projects?” which she even had to give me a good grade on because after all I did do the work. But heat does rise, this we know, and smells rise with it, which is why I smelled burning oil and the reek of brakes and cooked anti-freeze coming off the van, and then when the door opened something else that the news magazines like to describe as “sickly sweet,” but I think is more like sage gone bad.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Gilbert who, so far as I know, is a maryjane virgin like me, but we both spent enough time in the boys’ room in junior high to know the difference between cigarettes, which everybody smokes, and dope, which only the Afro-Americans and the drama kids smoke. I shushed Gilbert and we crouched down lower, because between the hippie van and the pot smell and the backpack flattening Dad’s precious Perennial Ryegrass (even if it was city property), I sensed that the situation could get edgy. Dad took a couple of steps toward the street, stopped, put his hands on his hips and just radiated disapproval. It’s easy to know when Dad’s angry, his shoulders scrunch. And he hates hippies like a cat hates baths.

I saw a foot first, then another, both wrapped in strappy sandals that crisscrossed the calves all the way up to the knees. Then came the hem of a calico sundress fluttering in the June breeze, and then the rest of her, all willowy arms, jangling bracelets, suede leather handbag and  giganzo lavender floppy felt hat. In a voice kind of husky but also sort of lilty, she said, “Thanks for the lift, dudes,” and blew some kisses back into the van. She closed the door behind her and the van labored off. Then she took off her hat and shook out her gorgeous unstoppable copper colored hair, letting it fly free.

Can you fall in love with the top of a head? I kind of think you can.

Gilbert gawks. I gawk. Dad gawks, but not in a good way as it dawns on him that for some utterly inexplicable reason, this chick thinks that wherever she’s going, she’s there. He steps forward to disabuse her of that notion PDQ. “Can I help you?” he says, which doesn’t sound at all like can I help you except if he means can I help you go away?

“Uncle Carl?” she asks, but from the way she says it, almost a squeal, you know she doesn’t think it’s a question. She beams him a smile you can see from space.

“Yes, I’m Carl. Who are you?”

The girl acts surprised. “What do you mean who am I? I’m your niece, Lucy.”

At this point she kind of dances past him and pirouettes around on the lawn, just happy to be out of the cramped confines of the microbus, I guess. We already know how Dad feels about his lawn, so he’s not likely liking this very much, but he likes it a whole lot less when she dances back to him, throws her arms around him and gives him a big hug and a wet smooch on the cheek. He recoils like she’s wrapped hot snakes around his neck. He doesn’t like to be touched. “Where’s Aunt Betsy?” Dad mutters something I can’t hear, and the girl says, “Great! I can’t wait to meet her!”

She bends over to pick up her backpack. I can see right down her dress.

I swear I see a nipple.

not a girl who misses much

I didn’t come down from my treehouse clubhouse redoubt hideout right away, because when I saw Lucy humping her backpack right across Dad’s lawn, and Dad huffing after her, totally leaving the lawn mower where it was, which was totally unlike him because you never know, you know, lawnmower thieves, I thought there might be some fireworks and like the sign says, “Have a safe and sane Fourth,” so I figured I was safer and saner up a tree. But then curiosity got the best of me, because who was this chick – this hippie chick! – and what was she doing at our house? And since I didn’t hear shouting or see things flying out windows, I thought I might safely do some recon. Just nonchalant, like. Like I’m just coming in for a Fresca after a sweaty morning of goofing around outside. I stop off in the garage and grab my baseball glove, an Eddie Matthews model I got for a birthday present last year, surely on discount for what’s the market for genuine Milwaukee Braves baseball gloves when the Betraves have moved to Atlanta? That’s the joke they told that summer, “Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee move to Atlanta.” It’s funny if you know that Schlitz calls itself the beer that made Milwaukee famous. Or you know what? No, not even then. But anyway funnier than, “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of town.”

Gilbert doesn’t want to come with me, partly, I think, to be alone in the treehouse with Little Annie Fanny.

Gilbert spanks it. I know he does.

So I walk around to the side of the house and go in through the back door, and here’s what I see in the kitchen: Mom standing at the counter, mixing a pitcher of frozen Minute Made lemonade, working that big wooden spoon to beat the band; Dad leaning against the Frigidaire, arms crossed, looking considerably irritated; my kid sister Katy sitting at the kitchen table, drawing, her legs swinging back and forth just off the floor; and this Lucy person wearing a very puzzled look, like maybe she just found out that Lake Michigan was made of lime Jell-O. “That’s odd,” she says. “That’s really, really, really weird. Are you sure you didn’t get my mom’s letter? It would’ve come from France.”

“This family doesn’t get mail from France,” says Dad, seriously glowery. I can already tell he’s not this chick’s biggest fan, and not because she tromped on his grass but just because she looks and acts the way she looks and acts, which you could sum up in just one word, free, which is pretty opposite to my severiously uptight father who has been known to wear ties on weekends. It’s like he already knows somehow that she’s gonna upset apple carts around here, and it doesn’t exactly take a Magic 8 Ball to see that signs point to yes.

“Now, Carl,” says Mom, using her wife-calms-the-husband voice. To Lucy she says, “What would the letter have said, dear?”

“No, you know what?” says Lucy, “This is gonna be awkward. I should just go.” She pushes her hair off her face. Her dozen bracelets slide down to her elbow.

My sister looks up from her crayons. “Tinkly,” says Katy. She’s eight.

At this point, Lucy notices me, or I would say lets herself notice me, because I’ve already been standing there for half a minute and she strikes me as not a girl who misses much (do do do do do do, oh yeah). She comes over and gives me a big hug, bigger and longer than the one she gave Dad. “You must be Gene,” she says. “I’m Lucy.”

I instantly have a boner, which lasts exactly as long as it takes to remember she’s my cousin.


The Jagged Pieces of My Sleep

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Thanks to Dr. Feelnothing, I got my hands on some Ambien for this trip, and so have been taking jet lag by brute force. It’s not a bad way to go — certainly healthier than Scotching myself into a stupor — but it has its disadvantages. For one thing, sleeping pill versus jet lag is a bit of a “clash of the titans” between a stubborn biological clock and the forces of forced unconsciousness, as a result of which, my sleep is a tattered, dream-splattered thing; brief, and not all that restful. Anyway, in the upshot, it’s not quite 6 AM in Sofia, but I’m up and at ’em already. Not complaining! Definitely not complaining. Between yesterday and today I discovered six new challenges of this job (the scope and timetable of it; the present lack of cast for the show; the present lack of set; the fact that I’m expected to teach a five-day, not a two-day, workshop) that excite me no end. Once again I’ve been thrown into the deep end, where the creatures are strange and the water is WARM!

On a note of personal discovery, I just love the found objects of the places I go. The first one presented it to me yesterday morning when I looked out upon daylight from my hotel room window for the first time, and saw this lovely bit:

And you know, it’s not the insects that concern me so much as the etcetera.

I have noted that the difference between myself and normal people is that they take pictures of people and I take pictures of things. What can I say? Things are so amusing!

Anyway, I have no shortage of homework. I have just reviewed the first episode of Married… with Children and noted all the cultural context issues, dated references, and lost-in-translation word plays that make adapting these scripts such a challenge. According to the contemplated production schedule, I only have 119 scripts to go. Fun!

Oh, and not content to do one job when three will do, I’ve just posted a new column on FISH BITES MAN, my soapbox at    You’ll find it at

If you’re liking these blog posts, be sure to tell your friends, foes, co-workers, dogs, members of Congress, whoever. Remember that whatever my text is, my subtext is always the same: Get them hooked on the drug that is John Vorhaus. Also available on facebook and on twitter @TrueFactBarFact.

More later,

– Johnny Jetlag

Ghosts of Sheremetyvo

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

It was a last minute flight change, one that didn’t entirely make sense to me, but instead of flying from LA to Bulgaria via London or Paris, I’ve transited through Moscow. Its lovely Sheremetyvo Airport I know so well from my frequent ins and outs through it over last winter and the winter before. The weather hasn’t changed here. Still crappy. Russian friendliness is unchanged. Still absent. And the smokers…OMG. If you’re reading this in America, I promise you, you haven’t been among smoke like this since your last trip to the 1980s. They have these “smoking areas” about every ten feet. Yes it’s a designated smoking zone, but no one has taught the smoke not to waft.  One must run a certain gauntlet. They should put the smokers behind glass. Where’s a damn smokequarium when you need one?

Anyway,  since I’m in Moscow, I thought I’d post my favorite pink pig picture, from my very first trip here in 2007.

I’m awfully glad to be just passing through this place. I have no real desire to work here again. Apart from its vast and overwhelming Russianness, I just a sucker for the unknown. That’s why I’m so excited to be going to Bulgaria. I mean, the place could suck, but I won’t know until I get there, and until I get there it’s like buried treasure in my mind. I mean, I know NOTHING about the place. There were some wars and crusades and such. The language looks much like Russian. The weather seems to be much like Moscow (oh boy). Apart from that… “I couldn’t find Bulgaria on a map of Bulgaria.” So I’m flying blind, which is just how I like to fly.

Speaking of flying, they seem to be calling my flight (though they’re calling it in Russian, so how do I know for sure?) Time to go run the gauntlet of the smoke.

More later, -jv