The fastest reflexes modern technology has to offer. On-board computer-assisted memory. And a lifetime of on-the-street law enforcement programming. It is my great pleasure to present to you: Robocop.

The boy insisted for months that he wanted to be a robot for Halloween. His sister was a robot when she was his age. We looked at various robot images on the computer and he was most intrigued by Robocop. After I showed him the trailer, there was no convincing him otherwise. He was going to be Robocop. Which was good, because Detroit has a Cancer. That Cancer is Crime.

The original 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed Robocop is actually a pretty great movie. But I was at the bar with my friend and his female companion the other day talking about working on this costume and she was like, "Wait, who's Robocop?" Turns out she was born only a year before the movie came out, so maybe I need to set the stage here:

According to its Wikipedia entry, Robocop takes place in a terrifying "dystopian future, [where] the city of Detroit, Michigan is on the verge of collapse due to financial ruin and unchecked crime."

. . .
. . .

"The mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products enters into a contract with the city to run the police force while the company makes plans to destroy 'Old Detroit' to replace it with the utopia of Delta City." As part of OCP's plan to privatize the police force, they unveil the cyborg Robocop as a transition to the more sinister fully-robotic police force that will soon put Detroit's beleaguered public safety officers out of a job.

Robocop walks pretty slow and the technology running his systems seems about as sophisticated as what was inside a Sega Genesis, but he has a really powerful gun and the bad guys can shoot him all they want and he keeps coming. Basically, he's everything a little boy thinks is cool.

After the boy decided he wanted to be Robocop, I set about trying to figure out how to make a costume. I found a couple of adults online who had made themselves Robocop costumes, but there was a whiff of that Tron Guy about them and they described multiple trips to Home Depot. So I decided just to make it out of crap I had in my basement.

The helmet is an old bike helmet that didn't really fit him anymore, so I ripped out all the padding inside and glued on a piece of plastic I cut out from an old bucket to make the front visor part. The circles on the sides were orange-juice-container lids. The chest piece is made out of an empty laundry-detergent bottle and the back is made from milk jugs. The arms and legs are cobbled together out of 64-oz Trader Joe juice containers. I made the boots by gluing a bunch of plastic crap to his old rain boots. Then I painted everything metallic gray.

Underneath he's wearing a child-sized wetsuit that I won on eBay for $5.49 (plus $7 shipping). And that's all the money I spent on his costume. The other day we attended an early Halloween party, and later we walked around Detroit taking pictures in various locations that looked like a dystopian-future. Robocop was happy to keep riders of our futuristic public transit system, the People Mover monorail, safe from criminal elements:

Who dropped this pudding cup? That is a violation of Sec. 22-2-83 of the Detroit City Code, punishable as a civil infraction by a fine of up to $100. . . Ease up, there Robocop, have you seen this town?

On our walk back home, Robocop met up with some real police officers and had a confab about something. Crime-fighting, I guess:

Or maybe candy?

They even let him sit in the police car. He in awe during the whole encounter. Detroit's finest were there to help protect a movie or TV Show that was filming on that block. While we were talking, some Hollywood-type rushed over to take a picture of the kid with his camera phone. "I'm good friends with Peter Weller, the guy who played Robocop on the movie," he said. "He's gonna get a kick out of this." The guy proceeded to e-mail the photo to Weller, so chances are the real Robocop has seen my little Robocop. Then we headed back to the first precinct for some repairs (after such an eventful shift, the paint was peeling off the suit and parts were falling off). 

A few more cops came out to talk with us, joking that they were going to have to call their union because it looked like they were being replaced. "Don't worry," I said. "He's just a prototype."

And that's true. I still have a lot of work to do on this suit to get it Halloween-ready. This was just sort of a test run, but it was a pretty fun and epic father-and-son adventure. I should have a movie of him in the suit done by Halloween, and today the girl and I are going to go out to do a photo shoot in her Mama-made costume. Those should be up by Friday. So stay tuned for more Halloween fun.

October: Seen

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 21, 2010 |

Just a few photos from the past few weeks while I work on a proper new post.

October Stories

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 14, 2010 |

We were driving down a suburban street the other day on our way to an orchard and came across an older house that had been elaborately decorated for Halloween. Plywood boards had been "nailed" across glass windows as if to say the zombies are coming but they're not coming in without a fight. There was haphazard graveyard fencing set up, a few ragged styrofoam tombstones on the front lawn. I pointed and said to my kids, "Look at that spooky house!"


I slowed and pointed towards the phony spiderwebs on the porch, the mocked-up overgrowth and said, "Come on guys, don't you think that's scary?" The girl shrugged.

Of course it occurred to me then that raising these kids in a city that looks like the set of a horror film year round means the bar is raised at Halloween. Someone out on 32 Mile with a platinum card and unlimited access to those pop-up Halloween big boxes could never outdo what occurs naturally south of 8 Mile. We have a city with tens of thousands of haunted houses. During Halloween in Detroit it can be a challenge to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to spooky decorating, even if the Joneses left for West Bloomfield eight years ago.

* * * * *

I remember vividly being ten years old and watching Murder She Wrote on the 13-inch B&W Emerson that I worshiped in my bedroom. When the plot deviated from Jessica Fletcher's familiar meddling around Cable Cove to tell an honest-to-goodness ghost story, something about it terrified me so much I started screaming and my dad had to sprint up to my room to turn off the television, shaking his head, wondering (perhaps) what the hell's wrong with this kid? I'll tell you what was wrong: I believed in ghosts.

It is important for me to remember that moment. To remember how long I stared into the non-fiction books about ghosts I checked out from the public library.  The phantom faces aboard the SS Watertown. The wall writing and other goings on at the Borley Rectory. The Brown Lady at Raynham Hall. All this was proof. [And I'm not going to lie: the EVPs of the Mount Washington hotel ghost and the ghoul haunting the Bay Area Bugaboo store still give me the creeps]. Sometimes I forget how amazing it is to believe in the illogical enough to actually fear it. There's enough real stuff in the world to fear that I rarely feel any urge to go beyond it. But if you're lucky as a kid, being sheltered from those things allows you to believe in something more.

* * * * *

When I was in high school, my friend’s next-door neighbor died alone without heirs, and a realtor rented a dumpster and hired a bunch of Mexican guys to haul everything out of her house. We spent the next few days dumpster diving through the detritus of her life. “Look!” my friend shouted, holding up a three-pronged claw that could be manipulated by a handle at the end of an aluminum pole. “It’s her reaching claw!” (the same one she used to shake at us when we made her dog bark). He held it aloft and cackled like a crazed old woman. I found a box of photo albums and her handwritten journals and set them aside. Over the next few nights I read through her journal entries and thumbed through the photos. All we’d known about her was that she died alone on a cul-de-sac with only a barking Welsh Corgi to witness her final days. It turned out she was among the few women of her day to graduate from Harvard Law School, and she’d had a small law practice in our hometown. The photos showed her life in a sorority back when she wasn't much older than me, and later grand buildings and statues of learned men in Cambridge. Her leather-clad journals were an autopsy of youthful hope and determination, a chronology of familial schisms and unrequited loves, dissipating in reports of loneliness. They freaked me out.

The last journal was empty, and I used it for a cruel joke, creating a parody of her venerable verbiage for an epistolary horror story of demonic possession and murder along the lines of the crap I enjoyed reading at that time. It wasn't my finest hour, but you see: I was seventeen and stupid. My friends and I planned to plant that journal in an abandoned hotel that sat in a nearby ghost town as part of an elaborate Halloween scheme to scare some girls. I hid the journal under a floorboard in the closet of Room Thirteen, along with some of her photos from the 1930s. Someone else long before painted a pentagram on the floor and there was wax from dozens of melted candles. My friend Andy drew dismembered corpses and hanging bodies on the walls. We made hand prints all over the hallway and drizzled red paint down the stairs. One of the guys stayed behind while we went back to town to get the girls; he would follow us around and make creepy noises. As a finishing touch, Andy squatted above an old upholstered chair in the corner of one of the rooms and left a tremendous turd on the cushion. “Why’d you do that?” we asked, and he shrugged. "Keep out of Room Ten if you know what's good for you," he warned the guy who was staying. 

When Andy got home his father decided to ground him for something (and he probably deserved it), so he couldn’t come back with us after dark. This was fine with us. It bettered our odds (and at seventeen, friendship is easily sold out for the mere possibility of touching a warm, lace-covered boob). These were girls well out of my league willing to hang out with us for the promise of adventure. I found myself in the backseat next to a cute half-Cherokee girl who clutched my arm as I led everyone into the old hotel. We followed the trail of paint up to Room Thirteen and set up a Ouija board and manipulated it so "demons" were speaking to us. We went through the whole pantomime: the story of a woman used to live there and how she died, a tale that would be supported with actual evidence in the journal. I pretended to suddenly notice it tucked under one of the floorboards, saying, “Look guys, a diary!”

The girls all burst out laughing.

Andy, bitter in his punishment, had called one of the girls to warn her about the spectacle waiting for them out at the old hotel. When I realized they’d known it was bullshit all along I felt so deflated. I summoned the decency to call out to the guy lying in wait, but he didn’t answer. I called again, and we waited a few seconds in candlelit silence but he did not appear. Calling his name over and over, we wandered in and out of the musty old rooms but we couldn’t find him in any of them. We thought he might just be messing with us, but it went on too long for that. We searched the place with flashlights down to the wine cellar that still smelled of ancient vintages, and tensions rose again. This time it was real. It was the plot of a horror movie: the seduction plan gone awry. The laughter in Room Thirteen had lanced the suspense, only to set us up for the true horror awaiting us that night. A man with hookhand? An ivy-league spirit with a reaching claw? Who among us would be the next victim?

We never found him, so we walked back the car debating about calling the cops. Half a mile down the road, we saw a hooded figure in the headlights walking back to town. He’d been spooked by something while waiting for us, he said, so he took off running and never looked back. We were reckless, and stupid, and still young enough to believe our own ghost stories. As the half-Cherokee girl inched closer to make room for him in the back seat, I thought I might still have a chance. But one look at her face and I knew Andy had lied and told her I was the one who’d taken the dump in Room Ten.

* * * * *

I tell my children the story of a gargoyle who came to life and lives in the penthouse apartment of the David Broderick Tower. We have been spending a lot of time together walking around downtown lately, telling each other spooky stories about all the abandoned buildings as Halloween approaches. Yesterday, the boy said he saw this gargoyle and seconds later a news helicopter sped across the same sky and he was unfazed. Which seems less probable: a statue coming to life or a massive mechanical insect that hovers over actual doom? The abandoned Metropolitan building, with its massive radio antenna on top becomes Dr. Frankenstein's castle. The collapsing Wurlitzer building next door belongs to Dracula (according to my son, that's him next to the grasshopper):

Every abandoned skyscraper is occupied by hosts of ghouls and monsters. My daughter tells me there are no ghosts in buildings where people live, but they wait until all the people are gone to move in. The Book caryatids talk if you get close to them; a ghost named Priscilla lives on the 37th Floor of the tower. There are werewolves in the David Stott building. One building houses a ballroom where every night spirits come to dance and if you listen close enough, you can almost hear the strains of their spectral orchestra. The train station is haunted by a ghost waiting for her children to arrive on a train that will never come.

They know that their father has been alone inside almost all these buildings, in their minds a brave adventurer who's survived to tell them stories of what's within. Although the things I am actually afraid of would hardly interest them---the IRS, global economic collapse, muggers, tea partiers, car accidents, Cancer---with all this Gothic ambiance I am able to dredge up enough memories of staring at paranormal photographs and Angela Lansbury to tell a good scary story or two. I can almost remember what it must feel like to be them, to look up at those dark towers on a balmy October afternoon and believe just about anything could be inside. This is their city now, more than it will ever be mine. In their imaginations it can still be more than what it actually is: all cold and dead. I do not want to impair any of this with the more terrifying truth: that there is nothing inside those buildings, not even ghosts. Or the worst truth of all: there is no such thing.

More October Stories:

The shocking, true story of Cam's big shaft
Night of the Living Bed
Four Rooms
A recent outing of the Detroit Area Preschool Paranormal Society (DAPPS)

As the son of a special education teacher, I'm not unfamiliar with the rough road of political correctness anyone trying to write or talk about certain disabilities has tread over the last forty years. In fact, I'm pretty sure that last sentence was somehow politically incorrect. Still, I did a double take when I saw the title for this book on the shelf at the thrift store. Harriet Langsam Sobol doesn't pull any punches. You'll find none of that milquetoast talk about how Steven is "special" here. This might be the most depressing Nixon-Era black-and-white photo book I've found yet. It's somehow sadder than the one where the boy wants to keep his grandpa's corpse in his closet or the one where the dad makes his son shake the prosthetic limb of the guy down at the hardware store. I'm not sure if it's the gloomy 70s photography or the text itself. This stuff makes Sylvia Plath look like Shel Silverstein. If your goal was impressing upon readers the soul-crushing despair of having a developmentally-disabled sibling, Ms. Sobol, consider your book a success.

My name is Beth, and I'm eleven. I have a retarded brother, Steven. I like to play with my dog, Smokey.
He's mentally retarded. He's older than I am, but he acts like he's younger. He's even smaller than I am. His body doesn't seem to grow the way mind does. . . My mother explained "retarded" to me when I was very little. "Retarded" means you can't learn or understand things like everyone else. She said Steven's brain was damaged while he was being born, and that's why he can't do the things I can do. To see the rest of the book, click here.

I. Setting: Still-idling 1986 Olds Cutlass Ciera, strip mall parking lot, April 1998

Girl in passenger seat, redhead, will one day marry and witness painful egress of children (2) from her nether regions (on this day: silently hopeful of such a possibility in some distant future). Girl's head turns with key counter-clockwise as ignition halts: "I wish you'd dress a little nicer. . .You ought to stop buying all your clothes at that thrift store. You know who dresses nicely? Mark L-----."

[Mark L-----: girl's roommate's current boyfriend. Carefully-trimmed goatee. Cologne. Khaki pants, often cargo-style. Polo by Ralph Lauren shirts (embroidered horseman logo, prominent). Black Doc Marten oxfords, yellow stitching. Devilishly handsome. Suddenly hate him.]

My wardrobe: Same Check Your Head t-shirt I'd been wearing since 1993. Rustler blue jeans stolen from father's laundry pile, waist size 36 (actual waist: 31).  Boxer shorts (rear top inch visible, worse when bending over). Puma sneakers, ratty.

TJ Maxx receipt: One pair, Tommy Hilfiger khaki pants. Two Chaps-brand button-down shirts; One pair, linen trousers. Short-sleeved rayon Hawaiian shirt, muted earth-tone floral print.

Several months later: Visiting high school friend who's since moved to San Francisco, walking along Noe towards Duboce Park, wearing linen trousers and muted, earth-toned floral shirt. Aware of own scent, suspiciously turnip-wagonesque. Old friend speaks: "I really like your new style! Are those linen pants? Is that rayon?"

Several months later: Realization that newly-cosmopolitan friend was totally fucking with me.

Conclusion: Why even bother trying?

II. Consistently Vexing Sight, Repeated Many Dozens of Times During Following Decade

Old man, maybe seventy or eighty years. Brogues pining for a shine. Dark dress socks (hole in toe?). Rumpled flannel suit, two vents, thin lapels. Striped tie. Possibly a fedora. He doesn't need to tell you he's been dressing like this nearly every day since the Truman administration. The suit itself tells you that. You picture your grandfather's closet. You remember that photo of him as a teenager. The photos of your other grandfather at leisure, fishing. He looked better fishing than you do at a wedding. You and your whole generation have the dignity of baboons in heat.

III. E-mail Received From Stranger after Picture of Your Ass appears in Local Paper (Verbatim):

"Nice mandals."

IV. Physical Reaction to Walking in Park Slope, Brooklyn and Observing Dozens of 40-Something Tattooed Dads Dressed Like 20-Something Crackheads:


V. Snippet From Conversation With Law School Friend, Upon Divulging Current Status as Stay-at-home Dad

"I don't know, I don't think I could ever do that. I feel this need to have my kids see me in a suit every morning and come home every night to loosen my tie."†

Cue Spoon:

†[Nevermind that in today's business casual environments, most lawyers dress like they smell like Arby Sauce; I was moved to mandalgazing by my friend's words. Will my kids remember my sweat pants?

Conclusion: Even the most undignified professions deserve a uniform.

VI. The Only Solution: Dress Like Your Grandfather on a Fishing Trip

It took a long time to fully realize the lessons of the old man in the rumpled flannel suit. Fashion is really just a conspiracy between New York City elites and their allies in the Communist governments of China, Laos, and Vietnam to keep Madison Avenue afloat and hundreds of thousands of Asian sweatshop workers employed. At least that's the sort of thing my grandpa might say (he also said "Japs"). T-shirts are undergarments. Why are you wearing all those logos? Does Phil Knight pay you to wear that? Your clothes aren't going to make you cool. Hey sonny, when I was your age I already had three kids in high school and a case of the gout. Now get off my lawn.

Still, the old man in the rumpled flannel suit is a good reminder that if you're gonna get stuck in a look, it might as well be a look with some damn dignity. This summer I finally broke free from the cargo shorts and mandals. I finally solidified my SAHD uniform: I've started dressing like a grizzled old gold prospector. Like Ed from those old Bartles & Jaymes commercials. Or old Walter Matthau. Someday my kids will be able to say they saw their old man get up every morning and dress himself like an old man. I got rid of everything in my closet made by Commies. I bought a bunch of used American-made work shirts from Cheap Charlies. With buttons. And I suffered for it this summer. I rolled up my sleeves. I chucked the mandals. I wore wool socks under old-fashioned work boots every golldang ninety-degree day.

And oh man, you guys: I have never been so glad that fall is finally here.