Friday, April 29, 2011

Mall or Nothing

(Story originally appeared in the 'Generation NeXt' section on May 19, 1996)

It's Friday night at Panama City Mall — the perfect time and place to observe the peculiar courtship rituals of the human teenager.

They circulate through mall corridors, falling in and out of gravitational alignment as heavenly bodies of varying attractions pass through their orbits.

At the archway entrance to the Pocket Change arcade, starry-eyed girls form a globular cluster. There's hair to note, belts to touch, fingers to point, whispers and squeals to share. It's a scene repeated in various forms throughout the mall tonight.

But when it comes down to basics, they're at the mall for only two reasons: phone numbers and guys.

OK, maybe that's only one reason.

"What are we doing tonight?" says Cindy Jacobson, 14. "Life!"

Cindy, a student at Merritt Brown Middle School, is going to Miracle Strip Amusement Park tomorrow. Fellow Brown Bear Kelly Heflin, 14, plans to lay out on the beach, as does Christina Jacobson, 15, a Mosley High School student. Stephanie Barfield, 17, "don't go to school," and she doesn't have any plans to speak of.

But tonight, they are of one mind.

"We come here every Friday," says Cindy. "To walk around, get phones numbers ..."

"Meet guys ..." says Stephanie.

"Play games, buy food, buy clothes, eat food ... " says Kelly.

"And spend money," says Christina.

Like test animals in a B.F. Skinner maze, these mall rats know their way around — and where to find their particular cheese.

They like the mall. Plenty to see, if you get their meaning.

But if they had their druthers, they'd be at a teen nightclub "like Club La Vela, except, like, for kids," Cindy says.


It's a common enough request.

Bay High School student Lisa Moses, 17, says she would like to find and frequent a teen dance club. Since the last one closed down some unknown time ago, she has had to hang out with her younger brothers — which is not altogether cool.

Ask some teenagers and they'll tell you: Bay County is a boring place to grow up.

(Just like everywhere else, but that's beside the point.)

"There's got to be some nighttime activities that are safe, fun and don't require a fake ID," groused a Mosley High School student recently. "And I mean fun — not bowling. All we've got is parking lots or the clay pits. There's nowhere to go."

Nowhere, that is, once you eliminate any number of team sports, Goofy Golf, go-cart tracks, Skeeball, bungee-jumping, the beach and related water activities. And we won't even go into the myriad of church-organized time-killers.

But that's not what she meant, of course. She wants a place to hang, to schmooze, to socialize. To network, gossip, dis. To be or not to be.

And all of it out of the glaring electric lights and watchful eyes of disapproving adults. That's what they do in the parking lots. And, perhaps with more freedom to abuse alcohol, that's what goes on at the clay pits.

But that's not for everybody.

Some older teens frequent the downtown streets of Panama City on Tuesday and Thursday nights — skateboarding on the sidewalks of McKenzie Park, kicking hackey-sack in the street across from Panama Java, and smoking on the steps of the gazebo.

"You gotta be a freak to hang out there. Alternative," says Janna, 16, flashing green eyes and even greener fingernails.

But even they would rather be someplace else — just about any place else.

"If you build it, they will come," says Raymond Moses, 16, a Bay High student and Lisa Moses' brother.

Originally from Newark, N.J., Raymond found Panama City "hard to adapt to." But don't get him wrong: He now says P.C. is a "nice small town." He feels safer here, less worried about the hardships of city life.

But bored.

Raymond would like somebody to build a go-cart track in town (the one in Springfield was torn down, and Lisa says it's hard to get a ride to the beach sometimes). Raymond says he'd be happy to cruise the halls of a mall closer to his home in Callaway, too.

"I go out to the mall sometimes to chill out, play games, stay out of trouble, get away from the whole school-and-homework thing," Raymond says. "Plus, I have an after-school job, so it's nice to relax."


As the evening wears on at the mall, trolling for boys continues — and the bait is still fresh.

Lisa Bellamy, 14, and her friend Jordan Dunleavy, 13, both attend Merritt Brown Middle School. Lisa's mom and dad dropped them off at the mall to spend "the whole day" — or at least a few hours. So what will they do all that time?

"Try to pick up guys, and see how many phone numbers we can get," Lisa says.

"She got one already," says Jordan. "Well — she gave one out.

As they talk, a trio of boys walk past, dangerously close behind them. Lisa's eyes grow suddenly large and she arches forward when one of the guys pokes her spine with a finger. Jordan playfully shoves her off balance.

Jordan says the two often play arcade games — but "just to flirt."

Flirt — while blasting aliens and radioactive zombies in Area 51?

Charm eligible guys — while kick-boxing Street Fighters?

"Yes," says Lisa — all eyes and innocence. "It's a way to meet guys."

Courtship is, after all, purportedly the be-all and end-all of teenagerdom. It certainly dominates these girls' plans for the rest of the evening — at least, until Mom and Dad return.

Their mission, spoken in unison:

"Go follow those guys that just went by."

(Posting this to put my upcoming Sunday column in perspective.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ava Gardner / Amanda Palmer

Have you ever noticed that you never see them in the same place at the same time?
I'm just sayin'.

So far, April is the coolest month

T.S. Eliot would have us believe that April is the cruelest month. I would argue that, despite the illnesses visited on the family this month. So far, April has been a pretty good one, all things considered.

This month I …

… Hovered over a man getting tattoos at a local shop in order to shoot video of the process. The artist asked me if I had any tattoos (I don’t) and if I ever considered getting one (I have). If I ever lose my wedding ring again, I’ll probably get one tattooed to my finger.

It would hurt, I’m assured, but my wife is OK with that.

… Took off my shoes and socks, and rolled up my pants legs so I could wade in the surf and take photos of skimboarders along the shoreline behind Sharky’s. One young skimmer’s dad told me how he and his friends made their own boards when they were kids: cut out a shape in plywood; soak the wood in water, place it on blocks with a heavy block in the middle to bend it, and let it dry; coat it in varnish.

You could see the past come alive in his eyes when he watched his daughter skimming.

… Had lunch at Bayou Joe’s with a couple of writer friends. We talked about craft and our experiences at bookish events while boats docked and diners filled the tables. A group of women asked me to take their photo, and I backed to the edge of the dock to try to fit the whole table in the frame.

“Just take one more step back,” one of them suggested.

… Patted the hide of a pony as a trainer led it out on the grass at Frank Brown Park. Then I shook a 10-year-old’s hand and listened to her talk about competitive riding. She double-looped the reins in her tiny hands and slipped her flip-flops into stirrups.

What she really wanted to do, she said, was visit the beach.

… Talked to the only female at a collectible card tournament held at a local comic book emporium. Most of the boys were too shy — or distrustful of outsiders — to allow an interview. It was April Fools Day, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the games unfold. Or maybe there was a meta-level meaning there that I overlooked.

… Crashed a party at the Temple B’nai Israel in Panama City. (Not really; a couple of the organizers expected me.) Tables were arranged with the good dishes, and plates were set aside for the traditional lamb shank, bitter herbs, egg and other symbolic foods for the Seder celebration.

I hugged a man who was wearing a yarmulke, and that’s not something you get to do every day.


(This was my Undercurrents column for The News Herald on Sunday.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Praying for Strangers

In April 2010 my friend River Jordan (who, among other reasons I like her, has been known to support me in occasional “Star Trek” slap-fights on Twitter), sent me and others on her mailing list an odd request: “Would you care to join me in praying for a stranger every day for 30 days?”

It was an intriguing concept that grew out of her New Year’s resolution for 2009, she said. Facing the inevitability of her two sons deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan as the year began, River realized that she was praying selfishly for their safety. Instead, she resolved to pray daily for strangers.

She never intended to tell the strangers about her prayers, she said.

“But then something happened a few weeks into the year where I met a woman in a bus stop and felt I should tell her she was my special stranger that day,” River said in her letter. “Her amazing response is what led me to telling others.”

And although she’s a writer, she never intended to write a book about the experience. But her prayers opened her eyes to the personal stories of the strangers who crossed her path — and her husband, Owen, kept telling her she needed to be writing these stories down. Their stories became part of her story. The result is a memoir, “Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit” (Berkely Books, $24.95, 336 pages, ISBN 0425239640). It’s a quick read, with tales doled out in short, thought-provoking and inspirational chapters.

River, who grew up in Bay County, now lives in Nashville with Owen and their dog Titan. She is the author of novels “The Gin Girl,” “The Messenger of Magnolia Street,” “Saints in Limbo” and “The Miracle of Mercy Land.” She teaches and speaks around the country on “The Power of Story,” and produces and hosts “Clearstory Radio” on WRFN 107.1FM in Nashville.

“Praying for Strangers” is about how reaching out to people she had never met allowed River to examine forces at play in her own life, her heart and her motivations. What she discovered was life changing. She had planned to let the resolution die when the year ended, but it has demanded more of her.

More than a year later, she continues praying for strangers.

“This is not a conversion prayer, or a testimony time,” she explained. “It’s simply a beautiful way to connect with another human being on a personal, spiritual level. No one has ever been upset with me or called store security for me pausing and telling them that they stood out to me in a special way and that I was wishing them blessings and prayers for their good year.”


(This was my Sunday "Undercurrents" column for The News Herald.)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The beat goes on: Ten years later, Stan’s still bangin’

News Herald Photo by Robert Cooper
In the summer of 2001, a young man with a passion for urban music stopped by the office to promote his efforts. Stan Jones, 18, had recently graduated from Rutherford High School, and he was looking to break into the local music scene. I interviewed him for a story in the teen-focused “Generation NeXt” section.

Things didn’t work out according to his plan, but that’s not always a bad thing. Stan served in the U.S. Navy for six years, deployed overseas where he made loads of contacts with artists, promoters, musicians and venues. In Japan, he had his own radio show.

And when he left the service, he had a new plan.

“I wanted to come back to my hometown and connect my hometown to the rest of the world,” he said. “I could’ve gone anywhere else in the world, but I decided to come here and contribute to the development of the independent music scene — try to do it right.”

For a while he ran a small recording studio and worked with lots of independent local artists in a variety of musical genres. Then he got the idea to publish his own magazine focusing on urban music and independent performers. The third issue of “Bangin’ Bay” magazine hits shelves later this month in stores all over the Southeast.

“It’s taking off fast, but it’s still a hobby at this point,” he said in a conversation last week. “I think we just might be onto something. When you have a passion, you can work with people but don’t rely on them. You have to pursue your own passion.”

Now 28, Stan attends Gulf Coast Community College part time, and he travels a lot to attend musical events, conduct interviews and promote his magazine.

“It takes me to a lot of places and blends into the personal side,” he said. “You’ve got to balance it with a little fun in there. … I want to have a little fun in the bank too, definitely.”

He’s still working to promote local and regional artists, and to that end he organized the recent All-City Jam that featured several regional rap and R&B performers. A diverse roster of talent performed for hundreds that night, but it was a mixed success, he said.

“It was a packed house, a big turnout, but not the caliber of show I expected,” he said. “Each time, you want to get better, and you try to surround yourself with people who share your vision and support that. I set my standards really high.”

(This was my Undercurrents column for Sunday, April 3.)

Friday, April 01, 2011


I've been a bit busy recently. New responsibilities at work mean I'm out and about, interviewing, writing, making videos, etc. much more than in recent years.

I got flowers today along with a box of sugar cookies, courtesy of the Panama City Roller Derby, to thank me for a story and video I did this week. They also brought gifts to Jan (the Entertainer section editor, where the story ran in print) and Andrew (the photographer). It's nice to be recognized.

This week I was in a choir room at the United Methodist Church where I was doing a story and video about a blind singer who has a friend that helps her transcribe her sheet music into Braille. As I was leaving, I thanked the ladies for inviting me out, and the choir director stopped me. She took my hand and looked me in the eye and said, "Peace." Everyone laughed together.