Smoke Screen



I was trolling around Facebook yesterday and saw that there will be yet another series released, based on a movie from my childhood. Now, I’m all for nostalgia, but it seems that half the entertainment we get is recycled, remixed, and remade. Where’s the originality?!

When I was a kid, growing up in a metropolis with probably more channels than smaller towns and rural areas got, there was only a handful of programming for us to watch. TV actually WENT OFF after a while (though, as a young whippersnapper, I was never up to see when the jets began to fly and the American flag began to wave over the National Anthem). Likewise, there were two seasons when Hollywood tried introducing potential blockbuster movies: right around summer vacation and during the holidays.

Nowadays, there’s no chance to breathe or think without some TV series, a news show, or movie to keep you distracted. There are a gazillion channels on basic cable and satellite alone; not to mention all the premium channels and movie services (both of which have gotten smart and begun producing their own series).

When I flip the channels like a blank-staring drone, a line of drool dripping from my chin, I am greeted by a plethora of “reality TV.” How better to fill in the gaps than with barely-scripted temper tantrums thrown by supposed non-actors?

Ask yourself this: Why the hell are all the so-called “real housewives” (most of whom aren’t actually married and musicians so damn pissed?

I’ve deduced that our lives have become a cycle of never-ending entertainment (aka, mind-numbing programming that is programming US) that has us mesmerized by five different screens:

  1. The TV screen
  2. The silver screen
  3. The computer screen
  4. The cell phone screen

Consider that for a moment, if you can bear to step away to do so.

Ghetto Games and Penny Candy


Atari Joystick

I am of the firm belief that life was much simpler, back in the day. Imagine this: we subsisted on a diet mainly made up of junk food (our parents never knew we pretty much sold our souls at the neighborhood “candy house”), but it was rare that you ever saw a fat kid. That’s because of all the games we played, long before Atari 2600 (then called the “VCS”) made it into our living rooms. Here’s a quick list of games we played (which kept us OUTSIDE all day–something kids nowadays couldn’t even fathom!) and treats that kept us bouncing off the wall…


– It. No ball, no bat, no glove. Just a bunch of kids running around like chickens with our heads cut off, avoiding that unlucky bastard that just so happened to be, well, “IT”! 😉

– Double Dutch. Girls were SERIOUS about this. So much, in fact, that you could get your ass kicked for jumping in wrong and messing up the flow.

– Strike Out. Got a ball and bat, but only two folks and no playing field? So what?! Play in your backyard and lay waste to your neighbor’s new windows…again! :p

– Hopscotch. Make it to Sky Blue.

– Pitching Pennies. This truly WAS a ghetto game. The funniest thing is that, because we only had pennies, the penalty for losing was usually relegated to a swift kick in the ass. Literally.

– Superman. How the HELL I jumped off the second floor onto concrete and never broke a single bone STILL continues to boggle me.

– Rock Fight. Another game that needed nothing fancy. Just a bunch of rocks and a perfect aim. And, surprisingly, no one ever lost an eye.

– House and Doctor. I won’t even go into details, but if your kids are playing it, you’d better keep a VERY watchful eye out!!!

– New clubhouse. All you needed was the discarded box from a new appliance and an overactive imagination. We used to FIGHT over those empty boxes!!!


– Peppermint with a Dill Pickle. I’ve yet to figure out who came up with this combination, but the girls LOVED it.

– Wine Candies (aka, Jolly Ranchers).

– Boston Baked Beans.

– Cherry Clan.

– Red Hots.

– Hot Tamales.

– Now-and-Laters.

– Jolly Joes.

– Alexander the Grape.

– Mike and Ike.

What games and treats do you remember?

Because I Said So, Dammit!



Being a kid is rough. Relatively speaking, anyway. With only a few short years under the belt, it’s difficult to compare it to anything else. Parents dictate everything you do, where you go, and how long you can stay. They roll out a list of chores that are as long as football field and seriously limit your play time.

The toughest thing to hear is the reason why you are relegated to follow their rules: “Because I said so.”

End of discussion. Actually, there is no discussion. And baby, that’s just how it is!

However, when you finally grow to adulthood, you find out that childhood was a piece of cake. Yeah, parents seem like ogres but it’s not because they never wanted you to have fun; it was to protect your dumb ass for doing some really stupid things!

And their reasoning, which stonewalled any possible suggestion and shut down any inkling of protest, seemed to be something just shy of a death sentence: “Because I said so.”

When you get to be grown (which is not based so much on a particular age as it is the time when you completely relocate to a place of your own and remove your hand from your parents’ pockets), you may discover that the very words that seemed a verbal backhand is actually your salvation. Suddenly, there’s no one making you go to bed at a reasonable hour, eat your Brussels sprouts, or wake you up in time for work. It all operates as an act of your pure will: it’s because you said so.

I recently found my clothes fitting differently. I was straining to get into jeans that used to fit loosely and sucking in my gut while putting on my shirts. I looked fat in photos that had been snapped. Yeah, as an adult, I’ve always been a big guy, but this was damned ridiculous, and some radical changes had to be made.

I’d blamed my thickening gut on all sorts of stuff, mainly an ever-changing work schedule, which offered little stability with my personal time. It really wasn’t that; I had simply become a lazy ass.

There was nothing wrong with me, outside of my will. I ate the things I did, sidestepping healthier choices for sweets BECAUSE I SAID SO. Well, maybe because I didn’t say any differently. After all, it’s incredibly easy to sit around, popping bonbons into your fat mouth, watching mindless television shows, while having the nerve to bitch about change not happening.

I had settled. Settled into my life of mediocrity, occasionally doing something slightly above to ensure I still had a heart. The problem was, my heart was struggling to beat through a layer of fat. Too much good living, too much lazing about, and too much talking without putting things to action had taken place.

I looked into the mirror and my swollen midsection was testament to the fact that, instead of being hungry for the hustle and grind, instead of making and taking opportunity, I had settled into being just another goober. And, if you keep doing the things you’ve always done, you’ll continue to get the same damn things you always got.

It was time for radical change, because I willed myself to not be the run-in-the mill loser. It’s because I wanted something better for my family and for myself. It was time to be audacious and bold, not hiding behind excuses and complaints.

So, when I told my buddy I would start working out again with him, I was serious. Even though I’d gotten off work and dozed off briefly before he called, I had given my word. Though the bed felt so good and, after a hard day’s work, part of me felt I deserved a nap, I had a body to whip into shape.

I had a fuller, healthier life to live.

I had to rise above simply existing.

I had to step out of what my lazier self wanted to do by default.

I peeled my girth up off that bed, put on my workout gear, and told my partner I was on my way. And you know why? BECAUSE…I SAID SO, dammit!!!

Deez Nuts for President!


Deez Nuts for President

The presidential race is getting tight, with the two major candidates leaving voters to choose the lesser of two evils. Early on, this mysterious figure cast his bid for the Oval Office. It seemed a joke then but should be given some serious consideration, now. After all, what do we have to lose?!

DEEZ NUTS for President. DEEZ NUTS for life!

Expect Deez Nutz

An Ode to Cap’n Crunch, Crack Dealer of the Breakfast Cereal World


Cereal Triad

It’s Saturday morning. As a kid, my favorite thing was to get a huge bowl and watch cartoons. Of course, this was after fighting with my brother and sister over the prize in the box…

I grew up in a home where my mother did cruel and unusual things like buy bags of PUFFED RICE. There is NOTHING worse than eating a bowl of Styrofoam packing for breakfast! I think she was giggling off in the corner while we ate heaping spoonfuls, tears running down our little cheeks! Occasionally, she would splurge and get us Alpha Bits or Rice Krispies. We were completely deprived of anything Sir Captain of the Crunch had to offer.

One day, I finally moved OUT of that bleak dungeon. I ventured into the grocery store one Saturday evening and did something I’d wanted to do all my life: I purchased a box of Peanut Butter Crunch… And wound up eating the whole damned thing that night!!!

I’ve since given up sugary cereals for healthier stuff like granola, which I actually enjoy. However, every now and then, when I traipse down that cereal aisle, I can hear the Captain whispering to me like the crack dealer he is! I then take off running, often spilling the contents of my cart, trying to remember those painful months I spent in rehab, RIDDING myself of that man and all his sugary, sweet, delicious offerings!!!

THROWBACK * Chapter 1: Parnell’s Plight



And where were the flying cars, he wondered. Parnell watched people buzz along in their vehicles—cars that were likely to remain terrestrial for the next twenty years.

As a child in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the forward-thinking magazines he’d read, comic books he’d traded, and movies he’d seen promised a future that would allow modes of transit that defied gravity and wouldn’t pollute the environment. Hell, hybrids and electrics had finally come into vogue after the technology had been available for years.

There would be no vertical takeoffs from the tops of apartment buildings anytime soon.

He putted along in the van, cursing under his breath at the dense holiday weekend traffic. While everyone else was daydreaming of barbecues by the pool, Parnell trudged toward what would hopefully be his last emergency call of the day.

He loathed the stench of sewer gas and wondered how his life had come to snaking sinks and blowing shitters for a living. With the stop-and-go gridlock, the myriad of parts and fixtures stored in the back of the van rattled each time he tapped the squeaky brakes. He swore this was to remind him just how meaningless his life had turned out to be.

As if the incessant clanking of PVC pipes and elbow joints combined with creeping traffic weren’t enough, the vehicle’s air conditioning had long gone out. What was a heat index of 101 degrees outside became a merciless, rotisserie oven inside the rolling metallic prison. His name-tagged blue shirt adhered like a second skin, glued firmly in place by sweat.

Greg, his boss, wasn’t just a taskmaster, but also serious cheapskate. Parnell had first mentioned the AC back in April, long before the skyrocketing temps of summer had the chance to set in. But Greg didn’t see any benefit and promised to get it fixed after the new fiscal year turned over.

“The summer is forecast to be extremely hot and humid,” Parnell had muttered while staring at the carpeted floor in Greg’s office.

“Just drive with your windows down,” his manager snapped, irritated that the matter was even being discussed. Greg looked his employee square in the eye. “I promise I’ll get you straight, come October.”

Parnell watched as his boss licked his fingers and slicked back his mullet hairdo—something he often did whenever he was lying. Seeing that gesture, he knew the air in his van would never be fixed.

The phone rang and Greg had an official excuse to sidestep yet another empty conversation about AC repair. It was on to more pressing business—the kind that made money and didn’t subtract from the bottom line.

“That Sinking Feeling Plumbing,” he chimed cheerily, suddenly subtracting the asshole quotient from his voice, “How may we be of service?”

The work van was the oldest and cheapest in a fleet of ten. The other nine had their issues, but they all had electric windows and the air worked just fine. Parnell’s piece of crap was equipped with handles for the windows and the one on the driver’s side was broken. That meant he could let down the passenger’s side window for a bit of air but it made little difference.

Yet another thing Greg promised to get fixed.

Parnell stood on the showroom floor, staring at the waves of heat through the panoramic storefront window. He dreaded stepping out of the comfortable 75 degrees of the office back into the inferno.

Taking his mind off it, he perused the business logo that sat behind his boss’s desk. Though it had been designed to display two cheery plumber characters clearing a clogged drain, the name of the company resounded in Parnell’s head: That Sinking Feeling. Just like his life, just like the empty promises of repaired air conditioning…and flying cars.

“You’re in Yorktown,” Greg repeated into the phone, sounding courteous and unlike himself. “Yes, ma’am, we can get somebody on it.” He scribbled the lady’s address onto a piece of paper, ripped it off the pad and handed it to Parnell dismissively. Then he spun in the chair, turning his back and continuing his conversation. “He’s on his way now. Yes, ma’am. And a Happy Independence Day to you, too!”

When Greg turned back toward his unhappy employee, he wrinkled his nose at the fact that the underachiever hadn’t already left. He leaned forward in his seat and flatly said, “Busted toilet that overflowed in the upstairs bathroom and down into the AC vent.”

Of all things, it would come down to air conditioning. Parnell sighed.

“Do yourself a favor,” Greg yammered on, “Take the Monitor-Merrimack Tunnel to save some time. I guarantee the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is at a standstill.”

When the boss finished speaking, there was an uncomfortable silence lingering in the space between them. All Greg cared about was a representative from his company getting to Yorktown in a timely fashion and before the customer called another plumber.

“Why you still standing there?” he asked gruffly, turning his palms up. “Time’s a-wasting. Pick up any parts you need and get moving.”

Parnell held his breath, wanting to protest, but not able to bring himself to do it.

“Look,” Greg said, bringing his voice down a notch. “We’ll discuss getting your van fixed on Monday. Maybe I can get Todd to do a jerry rig and dump some Freon into the loop. That should at least get you through next week. Weatherman says we should be back into the lower 90’s by Wednesday, so that should be some relief.”

The plumber pursed his lips, muttered a defeated, “Okay,” and lumbered out toward the parking lot.

Marvel is Pimp Slapping DC at the Box Office: A Fan’s Perspective



Yeah, I know that to kick sand into the eye of the old gods is utter blasphemy. For that, I may burn in comic book Hades, but at least I’ll die holding onto my beliefs.

Marvel is DUSTING its rival, DC, at the box office. But then, this should be no big surprise, since Stan Lee and his merry band of comic creators have been doing it on the printed page for decades!

I, like most folks my age, grew up reading comic books like biblical scholars read the Word. For my buddies and I, comics were the currency of our young existence. We traded them, we drew characters from them, and hell, we even BELIEVED them to a certain degree!

However, just as I eventually grew to realize that McDonalds’ burgers were not as tasty as I thought they were (to their credit, Ray Kroc once stated they were more a real estate empire than a burger joint), I understood Marvel was the superior product.

DC came off like the titans of Greek mythology. Once they wore out their welcome, they were taken out by the Zeus and his pantheon of gods. However, accepting that they were the top dogs on Mount Olympus, they did not see a reason to evolve or take any other challengers seriously.

But they were wrong. Enter Marvel, which had once had other names, like Timely Comics. They started up their own pantheon during the WWII era. In its Golden Age, heroes like Captain America, the Human Torch (not Johnny Blaze of the Fantastic Four), and the Submariner (who was more an antihero) held major pull. They were pimp slapping the Axis Powers all over the place. Marvel’s work was current for the time, keeping the readers’ interest.

Meanwhile, DC had rested on their laurels. Their own trinity of heroes (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) were not attempting to relate to readers. They came off like deities instead of human beings.

Batman, of course, was their most interesting property, and would go on to have some great runs on the silver screen. Tim Burton freaked it, while Christopher Nolan would come along years later and revive the entire franchise. Let’s completely forget the old TV series that starred Adam West and Burt Ward, though. I guess we should also overlook the two Dark Knight movies from the original run that almost derailed the whole thing…

Stan Lee, who was the face of Marvel (ask yourself, who was the face of DC?), dreamed bigger and hoped for more. DC had the golden ticket with Warner Brothers, whereas Marvel was tied up in all kinds of legal crap. Prior to the Disney buyout, they had no exclusive movie studio to back them. Again, DC simply accepted that they could put out flicks whenever they wanted, while Marvel’s stuff was shelved (Roger Corman’s original outing for the Fantastic Four), released as inferior product having little to do with the source material (Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher), or suffered in development hell (James Cameron’s Spider-Man).

This is how it comes around like a Kung Fu flick. The hero, who has had his entire family or crew killed off and his girl captured, is beaten within an inch of his life. Left in the wilderness, he uses his anger as rocket fuel to improve his skills and plan his revenge.

That dish, best served cold, has DC coming off more as Vanilla Ice than Ice Cube.

Marvel came out SWINGING, though there were hits and misses. People often forget the success of the first Blade movie. Spider-Man was a blockbuster. Fantastic Four was alright, but was nowhere near as interesting as the comic. The first outing of X-Men was so-so. Of course, things would improve with the unveiling of The Avengers Initiative.

Watching all those characters come fleshed out on the big screen was something of a family reunion. With Marvel, we could identify with Peter Parker’s awkwardness and failure to get the girl. We could understand how Ben Grimm felt, since he was stuck looking like a pile of rocks.

DC, however, had failed to make the connection. Superman and Wonder Woman were practically gods. Batman was flawed, but he was a multi-gazillionaire playboy (Marvel would do this one better with Tony Stark’s funds and alcoholism). Robin was outright irritating. In all, their characters paled in comparison.

So, how can DC level the playing field? It might be too late, but it’s time for them to pull from other parts of their arsenal. I know I would LOVE to see Mister Miracle on the big screen. Until DC begins to feel the milk money they’re losing at the box office, they’ll simply continue on in the same way. And that’s sad, considering Suicide Squad was supposed to allow them to flip the script a bit.

The Magical Mystery of a Place Called OUTSIDE


Children, Jumping, Happy, Natural, Play, Tranquility

It’s funny how the words, “Junior, you should go outside,” is now interpreted as something shy of a death sentence. Back in the day, the opposite (“You know what, Junior, you keep your little butt in the house!”) could mean the end of a child’s existence.

Of course, a social network was once determined by how many friends a kid actually had. On a warm day, there wasn’t enough time to fit all of it in. We’d go from climbing trees, to playing in the park, to building clubhouses, to stupid skateboard tricks, to swimming, to acting like our favorite music groups (for me and my buddies, it was the Jackson 5, and there was a fight over who was going to be able to be Michael), to reading comic books, to… The possibilities were endless.

Heaven forbid we got a heavy rain and were stuck in the house all day! Granted, we could spend the afternoons trying disrupt our little sisters’ tea parties, drawing, and reading, but it wasn’t the same as being outdoors!

There was freedom to be found and a seemingly endless amount of adventures to be had.

The thing that was really cool for me was when my maternal grandparents relocated to the country. It was funny because, though we were just an hour away from home, it seemed like we were in some Mississippi backwater. The people were cordial, with drivers honking and waving to say hello.

My grandparents had once lived in the Deep South, so it was almost like a return to what they were used to. That also meant that children had no business being in the house on a nice day.

That was perfectly fine by me and my cousins. If we were lucky, we would be able to spend spring break or a couple of weeks of our summer vacations at our grandparents’ home. There were creeks to scope out, fishing to do, and long, long hikes until we got lost. It was a welcome change for a city boy like me.

When I was young, there were no cellular phones for the common family. Our parents instilled quite a bit of trust, usually not having a clue of which direction we headed on a beautiful day.

My brother, sister, and I would often walk all over Chicago’s South Side. Our mother might give us a dollar for bus fare, but we’d pocket it to purchase penny candy for our long strolls. We would even talk our friends into joining us.

The only rule was to be back home by dark. Even then, we would be allowed outside in a limited capacity.

I recall getting our first video game system: an Atari 2600. Though we were enamored with what we considered top-of-the-line graphics back then, we knew our allotment was typically an hour a day. We were fascinated by Pac Man (where the character only faced one direction, the maze never changed, and the game looked nothing like the arcade version) and Pong but our hearts were to be found in the parks, at the pools, near the lake, and popping wheelies on a side street with friends. Because outdoors was were the real magic existed.

Two Dollars and a Dream


Chicago Skyline with Faces

Broke is a state of mind. This is why it’s not hard to see a lottery winner go from millions of dollars to bankruptcy in 60 seconds. A poverty mindset is like having bad blood in the body: it has to be cleaned. Ever wonder why there are so many reality show “housewives” (most are just glorified mistresses who are not married to their counterparts) are filmed jumping over tables to fight in 4-star restaurants?

Though we grew up on Chicago’s rough-and-tumble South Side, my parents had a different mentality when it came to the status quo. In many ways, we were the same number and had some similarities to the characters on the show, Good Times. There was me, my sister, and my brother. Like J.J., I fancied myself an aspiring artist back then, too. Much like Florida Evans, my mother was a devout Christian; my father could be about as intimidating as James Evans, if not more so. He wasn’t above threatening all the neighborhood gangbangers against recruiting my brother and I. Also, like James, my dad was constantly reading something.

When the summers came, there were lots of opportunities to get into trouble. Many kids started the school year in September pregnant or having gotten someone pregnant; some kids never made it back to school at all.

We were allowed to play with our friends, go to the neighborhood pools, do stupid bicycle tricks (channeling Evel Knievel), and walk clear across the city, if we’d like. However, between summer camps and Vacation Bible School programs, my mother had an interesting way of switching things up: weekly trips to the Cultural Center or one of the museums.

My mother was the queen when it came to stretching a buck. She could pinch a penny until Lincoln began to cry uncle. Her talent was being crafty about exposing us to the world on a tight budget.

For starters, most of the museums were located downtown. The DuSable Museum bordered Hyde Park, not very far from one of our favorite places: the Museum of Science & Industry. We like it so much because, back then, it was always free admission and there were plenty of exhibits. The other museums had days when they offered free admission, as well.

However, the Cultural Center, which was in the heart of downtown, was always free. In addition to often having some sort of hoity-toity event or lecture, there was a plethora of books! During that time, the Center also doubled as the city’s Central Library, so it held more volumes than even the collection at the sprawling Carter G. Woodson Regional Library. For hours on end, I could peruse the massive shelves, sit and just read.

In order to encourage us to make a day of our adventure, my mother gave us two dollars each. The breakdown was simple. Before we left home, we had a nice breakfast. It cost 50 cent to ride the bus and train to get downtown and the same amount for our return trip. The extra dollar was for lunch. We had discovered a restaurant within a couple of blocks of the Center that sold a Chicago style hot dog and fries to go for our remaining four quarters. The trick was that you had to take your order to go, which suited us just fine. My siblings and I would beat the lunchtime rush, grab our food, and go to Grant Park for an hour. They had water fountains, so we had something to drink. Then we’d return to the Cultural Center to hang out some more.

The funny thing is, when we would return from one of our trips to a museum or library, most of our neighborhood pals were in awe. Those were places they’d heard of but had never gone. Eventually, we began talking their mothers into giving them a couple of dollars so they could accompany us.

It’s amazing how such a small investment allowed us exposure to a world outside of the dirt, grime, and crime we’d grown used to. Those two dollars purchased our tickets outside of poverty mindsets.

At Summer’s End


Streaming, Planes, Stripes, Flying, Sky, Cloud, Sunset

It was going to be hard to say goodbye to the longer, hotter days that were filled with one adventure after the next. He’d miss the lightning bugs announcing the evening’s reprieve from the merciless sun. There would be no more snow cones and sweet, icy treats to buy from ice cream trucks that prowled neighborhoods like crack dealers.

The nights had been like swimming through liquid heated just shy of its boiling point. Mosquitoes swooped in like predatory birds, almost large enough to pick up small children and spirit them away.

But he was too big for that, now.

Gone would be the days of water balloons and water gun fights. Drinking out of a gardening hose was a perfectly acceptable way to quench thirst while avoiding some impromptu chore at home. And though it was illegal, he’d miss the ritual of busting open of the corner fire hydrant. Neighborhood water pressure be damned, it was a great way to cool off.

Evel Knievel tricks would suddenly be out of vogue because what kids wanted to lie down on the cold autumn ground while their buddies took turns jumping their bikes?

He imagined the sand at the beach would soon be bearable and not so much like walking on blazing coals. However, who the heck wanted to go to the water when the temperature dropped and the leaves began to fall?

Summer days yielded themselves to all sorts of games, like softball, Monkey-in-the-Middle, hide-and-go-seek, and his favorite, Catch-a-Girl-Kiss-a-Girl. So what if some of those smooches yielded scowls and the occasional slap?

The excitement of secretly subsisting off of penny candy, sour pickles, potato chips, and pop (something mothers would flip out about, if only they knew) would soon dull to boring packed lunches at school.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like school, because he would be able to see his friends whom he had not in so long (three months seemed like forever). He just wasn’t crazy about the idea of trading afternoons poring over his comic book collection for crabby teachers and evenings filled with homework.

The neighborhood pool, where anything of value that wasn’t in your trunks was sure to be stolen, would close. It would be another nine months before he could meet his friends there, look forward to splashing the pretty girls, and doing stupid tricks off the diving board.

Labor Day was so close, he could smell it like approaching rain. School would be back in session the Tuesday after and suddenly, treehouses, tire swings, and bike rides from one end of town to the other would be a distant memory.

He squinted at the sun’s stunning protest as it dipped toward the horizon. Exploding in a brilliant death throe of bright orange. Cirrus clouds seemed barely there, floating above like pink phantoms. On that side of the sky, where the moon jealously awaited its turn, everything went from indigo to black, stars twinkling here and there.

He drew a deep breath, watching the streetlights buzz, knowing he had only a few minutes before making it home. He tucked his slingshot into his back pocket. Upon the exhalation, he sucked his teeth, not so much angry as he was disappointed.