It's Gold Watch Time. By the time that you read this column, it will be just about exactly 30 years since I opened the very first Mile High Comics retail store. In the traditional view of American business employment practices (which I'll grant you are rapidly fading away...), once you've completed your third decade in a particular field of endeavor, it's time to retire. Before, however, I give you the wrong impression of my topic for this month's column, no, I have no intention of leaving the world of comics. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I am presently enjoying my work very, very much. Like most people who pass important milestones in their lives, however, this particular bridge that I am crossing has caused me to reflect upon exactly how I got here in the first place. Those internal musing have brought up more than a few memories of a life 30 years in the distant past that I thought that at least a few of you might find at least somewhat interesting, so that's the story that I'm going to relate to you in this particular column.
In early 1974 my life was miserable, at best. I was in my second year of studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, struggling in vain to fit into the preppy fraternity environment that then dominated the Business School's Finance Department. I was funding my schooling entirely through an Army ROTC scholarship, which paid for all my tuition fees, and books, but only granted me a monthly living allowance stipend of a meager $100. Despite my having unearthed a tiny room in a local rooming house that was only 8' X 15' (the room was so narrow that the bed had to be near the ceiling on an elevated platform...), my monthly rental cost still consumed 70% of my living allowance. That left me a sum total of $30 per month for food, clothing, medicine, etc. With no part time jobs available for starving college students during those recession-filled days, I had no choice but to try and make it through each month by severe economizing. Just as an example, I was able to buy food for the entire month by purchasing broken bags of lentils, beans, and rice from the discount cart in the back of our local grocery store, and then boiling them in a huge cooking pot with a single whole chicken. I then ate the resulting thick chicken stew seven days a week, three meals a day. That concoction gave me all the vitamins and protein that I needed to survive, but the taste sure got old after a while.
Adding to my misery during that period was the fact that I was suffering severely from depression. I inherited bipolar disorder from my mother, but I was never treated for its negative effects until about ten years ago, when I was in my late 30's. One cause of my depression in 1974 was the fact that I had to rely on the army to be in school. Not only did my liberal/libertarian political views not endear me to anyone else in my ROTC corps at the university, but I also knew full and well from watching the career of my stepfather (who spent 37 years in the army as a Master Sergeant) that the army could frequently be a capricious and heartless organization. Despite the lure of steady employment (and that promise of retiring on 3/4 pay after 30 years...), my heart was telling me that there was no way that I should stick with the army as a career. That put me in a real dilemma, however, as I was estranged from my parents, and had no other way to pay for my schooling. The deal with an ROTC scholarship at that time was that you could join for the first two years of your schooling with no obligation to serve in an active duty capacity in the military, but once you entered into the third year of your contract, you were then obligated for four years of active duty service, and two more years in the reserves. That being the case, I had to make the decision by the middle of May, 1974 to either stay in the army as a lifetime career, or leave the university.
In the end, I split the difference. I went to my ROTC Commanding Officer, and asked him for a one-year leave of absence. I explained that I was suffering from a great deal of internal conflict about whether or not to make the army a career, and needed some time to explore other options. Specifically, I told him that I was going to go on the road and sell comic books at comics conventions for the Summer, and see where that led me. To my extreme surprise, my request was granted. I left the Commanding Officer's office with a lightness in my step that I hadn't felt in many, many long months. For at least the next three months, I was free!
My next move was to contact my parents and to let them know that I was, as I had done the previous year, going to hitchhike around the country to comics shows. By this time, my mother had been released from the mental institution where she had been kept under lock and key for a substantial part of the first two years I spent in college. The doctors had created a Lithium/Tegretol/Valium cocktail for her that balanced her brain chemistry enough for her to be able to plan a four month long trip back to our home village, in Germany. When I told her about my plans to hitchhike around the country she became quite agitated at the thought of the risks, and insisted that I instead use her 1963 Chevy Impala sedan while she was in Germany. That generous offer on her part turned out to be a Godsend, as that old Chevy could be packed with 16 full frying chicken boxes (six in the trunk, six double stacked in the back seat, and four double stacked on the bench seat in the front). For those of you who don't remember such things, frying chicken boxes were the comics storage unit du jour all through the early 1970's. Long whites had yet to be invented, but these really strong waxed boxes with sturdy handles could easily hold two rows of 250 comics each. They were a beast to clean of clinging residual chicken fat, and you had to use copious amounts of baby powder to help keep down the remaining smell, but they were readily available for free on my grocery stores loading docks. Free was really important to me in those days, when even a single dollar could make the difference between eating, or going hungry.
The minute that finals were over, I hit the road toward my first show, which was a one-day affair put on at the downtown YMCA in Chicago. My working capital to start the trip was my $70 security deposit from my little room in the boardinghouse. after mailing money ahead for my table fee, and setting aside a gas/oil allowance, I then used most of my remaining money to fill the floor of the back seat with dented cans of food (beans, corn, peas, etc.) from the discount cart, and a couple loaves of day-old bread. Right from the beginning the first leg of my trip was an adventure. I stopped for the night in a small campground in central Nebraska, only to be awoken in the middle of the night by the hammering of a policeman's flashlight against the side window of the Impala. It had been raining steadily when I pulled in to park, but the rain had apparently picked up quite a bit after I went to sleep. As a result, the cop was there to tell me to pull out immediately, because the stream next to the campground was flooding. When I looked out the window, I was shocked to see that my car already had a 12" stream of water flowing around the tires! Since it was by that time already near dawn, I just pulled out onto I-80, and continued on my way to Chicago.
Once I arrived in the city, I drove to the YMCA. I had never been there before, and was quite surprised to discover that it was a small high rise of about twenty stories. What caused me great concern, however, was when I realized that this particularly YMCA (unlike the one in Denver...) was essentially a skid row flophouse. From the minute I walked in the door, I realized that I was being viewed as potential prey by many of the denizens. With the little hairs on the back on my neck standing straight on end, I rented a room, and then made a deal with one of the doormen to haul my comics up in the elevator to my room for $5. By the time I succeeded in stacking my 16 chicken boxes in my little room I was pretty freaked out. Each trip up the elevator had attracted more attention, and I could tell that wheels were spinning in the minds of some of the very bad guys hanging out in the lobby. Before you think me to simply be overly paranoid, bear in mind that I was by no means unfamiliar with the dangers of traveling alone, having hitchhiked over 10,000 miles during the previous two years. I had no other place to stay that night, however, so I quickly took a shower in the communal bathroom, and then barricaded myself in my seedy room by stacking my chicken boxes across the doorway. That night I also didn't get much sleep, as the center of that little high rise had a hollow core. The top floor had been reserved for women, which inspired many of the more aggressive males to climb up to the roof and shout obscene suggestions to the women in the floor below well into the night. When that didn't work, the drunks then amused themselves by throwing their empty wine bottles down the center of the building, just so they could hear the explosive echoing noise caused by their destruction reverberate upwards. Dante would have been overwhelmingly impressed by the sheer despair that permeated that high rise from Hell.
I awoke early the next morning to a bright and sunny day. After a quick shower, I went down to my car for some food. Having no money to pay for parking, I had slid the old Impala into a tiny spot under the El, a few blocks from the YMCA. The minute I opened the rear door, I knew something was wrong. Someone had been in my car! All the food had been moved, and a small polaroid camera that I had received as a gift just before leaving on my trip was gone. Bizarrely enough, however, my food and sleeping bag were still there, and the thief had locked all the doors for me. All facts considered, it could have been far worse.
Once I had eaten, I found the convention dealer's room. My memories of that particular evening are dim, but I do recall that it was a fairly nice little meeting room, and that enough fans came that day that I was able to gross about $125. That certainly paid my table fee of $10, my gas to the show (which was only 28.9 cents a gallon!) and the $12 cost of my room. Where my problems arose, however, were with the "friendly" bellman who had helped me with my comics the night before. While he had been happy to help me haul my comics down the elevator to the dealer's room for another $5 in the morning, his attitude totally changed when he hung around and saw money changing hands for old comics. When the show closed down all the other dealers left very quickly (duh...), and I found myself once again alone in the YMCA. This time, however, the bellman wanted $10 to move my comics back up to my room. With no other alternatives, I had no choice but to pay him. Having extorted that $10 from me on Sunday evening, the bellman followed the usual pattern, and upped his price to $20 to haul my comics down to the lobby on Monday morning.
With a sinking heart, I made a trip back to my car. If I was forced to pay the greedy bellman that $20 to move the boxes, my profits from the weekend would be gone. Two blocks from the YMCA, a solution dawned that proved to be not only very simple, but also turned out to provide a model for much future problem solving. On the way to where my car was parked was a small industrial supply company that featured a row of various styles and sizes of gleaming hand trucks in their small show window. Having never been in such a place in my life, I trepidatiously entered the dimly lit interior, and asked the gnarled old clerk how much they needed for their smallest model. Ten minutes later, for the same $20 which I would have had to pay the bellman, I walked out as the proud owner of a wonderful little green hand truck that could haul four chicken boxes at a time! I would pay the bellman no more!
Before I left that horrible YMCA, however, I had one more lesson to learn. When I arrived at the YMCA with my little hand truck, the bellman tried to stop me from taking it upstairs to my room. He claimed that "union rules" precluded anyone but hotel staff from using mechanical devices to move "luggage" in the elevators. Now up until that time, I mostly been a pretty laid back kid. I wasn't exactly timid, but following the path of least resistance had proven very worthwhile during my years spent in Army junior high schools and high schools. As I frequently discovered, pushing your luck with the kids who came from the abusive families that pervaded the Army at that time was a bad idea, as they would beat the tar out of you for simple amusement. In this case, however, I felt that I simply had no choice but to stand up for my rights, so I got into that bellman's face and told him in no uncertain terms that I was going to move my own comics. If he had a problem with that, he could try and get the hotel management to try and stop me. While he muttered threats against me under his breath as he walked away, he finally backed off and let me into the elevator. I had won my first battle!
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