It happened early on in my “career” as part-owner of a record store. I was manning the counter, probably flipping through a magazine, when a customer came in. I tend to be pretty good at sizing up customers when they come through the door. (I know, I know, it's judgmental, but I've gotta do something to pass the time, right?) You can usually tell which people are going to be ecstatic about the fact that you've got a used LP copy of Jonathan Richman's “Rockin' and Romance” and who's going to walk in and say (loudly, and in your best yokel voice) “They still make records?!” (I take great pleasure in informing them that yes, they do still make vinyl records. In fact, we sell more of them than we do CDs. Sometimes, the good guys win, huh?)
This guy I had pegged as one of the latter. He was pretty disheveled, with greasy, unkempt hair hanging all over his head, big thick glasses, and a shirt that was half tucked in and half out. (Which, for my money, is the easiest way to tell when someone's a little crazy—If they can't manage their shirt, they probably can't manage the rest of their life. Trust me, this method is foolproof.)
Basically, this guy was the spitting image of Milton, the character from the movie Office Space. You know the guy—the one who didn't want his stapler taken away and eventually burned down the building. He even sounded like him. I figured he'd wander around a bit, get threatened by the fact that he didn't know a lot of the artists I had in stock, maybe indulge in a little token “People still buy records?” banter, and then leave, never to return. If only this had been the case. (But then, what would I write about this month?)
This was decidedly not the case. Milton (As we took to calling him, though his real name is Bill. It takes a Herculean effort on my part not to call him Milton in my day to day conversations with him.) started coming in about once a week, occasionally to purchase records (his favorite stuff coming from the ten cent 45 bins, though he loves CD singles as well and will purchase almost anything I have that is in that format.) but mostly to talk. I realized right away that something in ol' Milton's head was not right. He may be autistic, I'm not sure. He certainly doesn't seem to understand typical social graces, and he has absolutely no ability to grasp metaphor or figures of speech. You have to be very literal with him all the time or he will have absolutely no grasp of what you're saying. (For example: One day he came in to the store, visibly agitated, and demanded to know what Cheap Trick meant when they said that they were “Gonna Raise Hell” (From the song of the same name on the album Dream Police). He really had no idea what they meant, and he seemed genuinely frightened at the prospect of hell being raised. It took a while, but I finally managed to explain to him that “raising hell” is what you do when you're going to get really wild and crazy. He now uses this phrase in nearly every one of our conversations, as it is the only figure of speech he has been able to master thus far in his fifty-two years on the planet.)
I have this strange magnetism for people like this. Everywhere I work, I attract at least one very mentally disturbed individual who becomes my new best friend. I used to work at a gas station on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Michigan. (A topic which may be an entire series of columns in and of itself....) It was located a block from the trailer park where Iggy Pop grew up, and from said trailer park crawled the most drugged-out, mentally ill, deranged misfits you could hope to find this side of.....wherever people like that come from. (Florida, maybe; or Texas. It sure explains a lot about The Stooges...) My best buddy from the trailer park was a guy named Doug, who looked like a cross between Uncle Fester and Hitler. (With less teeth. I have no idea what the actual state of Hitler's teeth was, but I have to assume that he didn't drink a hundred ounces of Pepsi a day the way Doug did.) I worked the midnight shift, and he'd while away the early morning hours with me, telling me these bizarre stories that I assumed were dredged from his fertile imagination. One day I finally realized where he was getting this stuff. He was about halfway through a story about the time his fillings started picking up a radio station when I realized that the exact same thing happened on Gilligan's Island. I then realized that ALL of his stories were just shows he had watched on Nick at Night, with himself inserted as the main character. I knew he didn't live in a haunted mansion.... (He would also regale me with incredibly detailed stories about his sexual exploits. But...yeah. We're not gonna go there.)
Milton eventually discovered my weak spot for the mentally deranged, and knowing a captive audience when he saw it, started coming in every few days. (Something he does to this day, for the record.) He was always good for a few bizarre stories, many of them involving celebrities that he had written letters to. He apparently used to have quite the communication going with the Backstreet Boys, and Nick even called him on the phone once. (Showing what I know about pop culture, I thought this was that Nick Lachey guy, you know, the one who was married to Jessica Simpson. My friend Elise thought I was a complete idiot for this. Apparently, Nick Lachey was in 98 Degrees. I still don't know which Nick was in the Backstreet Boys.) Milton also used to write to Scott Baio, a relationship that culminated in Mr. Baio's father calling Milton on Christmas. Milton became so flustered that he hung up the phone on the elder Mr. Baio. He feels bad about this incident to this day, and has asked me repeatedly to apologize if I ever run into him. I have assured him that I will. (Why, you may ask, was Scott Baio's father calling Milton? I asked the same question. Milton believes that it was to offer him an acting job.)
It was about this time that I was introduced to “the letter.” You see, according to Milton, a few summers ago “some kid” came into his basement and stole a large portion of his 45s and some CD singles. (Milton really does love the single format, so much so that he'll buy nearly anything that is contained on a CD single or a 45. I have my theories as to why this is. He once told me that he is going to college for broadcasting. I think that he probably sits in his room pretending to be a DJ with all of his 45s. I don't have the heart to tell him about mp3s, let alone the fact that DJs don't get to pick what they play anymore. It would break his heart. He believes so strongly in the power of the DJ that once, when I couldn't name him the title of a particular Fuel song, (And I absolutely pride myself on my ability to name songs/albums/bands with only the slightest amount of information, even if I detest the artist.) (As I do in this particular case.) He could only name the group, and, despite me naming him every Fuel song I knew, he needed to hear it first, so he drove around to area radio stations and asked the Djs. (I am not making this up.)
This kid also apparently stole several of the seats to his van. Why anyone would steal seats to a van, but not the van itself, is beyond me. Van seats are not much use without, you know, an actual VAN to put them in. (And I can verify that Milton is still in possession of said van. Every time I'm on my way into the store to work a shift, I do a spot check for a dented-all-to-hell green van to see if I'm going to have to deal with his particular brand of insanity.)
Milton was understandably very upset about this incident (Those Loverboy 45s ARE hard to replace, after all...) and was even more incensed that the police weren't doing anything about it. (I know that I'll probably find very little sympathy for police officers on a punk rock website, but imagine being the officer who had to write THAT report.) He decided to write a letter to give to the police so that they could understand his position.
He had been telling me about this letter for several weeks, but I wasn't really paying attention. Then, one fateful day, I went in to work and there it was. He had brought it by so I could proofread it for him before he took it to the police department. I've never seen my partner at the store so happy. He was almost jumping up and down to show me this letter.
I recently had a conversation with a crust punk (something I generally try to avoid) about language, and how it can be limiting and not everything you are feeling/thinking/seeing can be expressed in English. (Or any language, for that matter) ((I was just glad not to be talking about anarchy or some other silly thing, for the record.)) This is how I feel about Milton's letter. You know when you see a really great work or art, and you find yourself unable to describe what you are feeling? Well, in some circles, (like those guys who collect Jandek records) Milton's letter would fall under the same category. It was simply amazing. Remember those old stories about Jack Kerouac, and how he hated editing, and that the first thing you write is always supposed to be the best? That's definitely the school Milton comes from. There is NO filter between what he thinks in his head and what comes out on paper. A sample from the letter:
I hate that what's going on in this house and know one knows' what's down in the basement.
The're and what's making me irate and I cannot believe it! It dose make me Demoralize me and that's discouraging. I know Somebody has been in the-and I know that's what get's me! Why? Would someone like a kid going to sabotage to do harm to me! Why”?-some-how like to have Subsequent do so; or his Friends and that I not and notice somebody like as I'm sure” been in the house here they some money wh—I'm in b—OUT-of my—wallet too! I should-of—Encounter this kid first—of—all, but after ear op-er-a-tion)operation (2)(3)three days later Jan '23 07 some time there were, noise foot steps going down. Which is to explain; when my brother was working on his car”.
I was doing my home work “hoping I catch them they took (2) two—or mre of mine Seats which goes in my van,” not to mansion my lunch box—records c.d.s) Compact Disc's & (c.d. Singlesarehard to replace or too ex-pan-sive-to put it all to-gather expansive-ly and promotions's pro.mo.tion.al pro.mo.t r) promoter as D.J. Discjockey (jok e) what I'm todo or when: and I didn't see enter this house: annyway? Somebody told him something' I've found a CLUE as a kloo)a foot print!
(Keep in mind that this was half typed and half hand-written. All spelling mistakes and curious punctuation are obviously in the original. This took forever to recreate.)
Truly amazing stuff, don't you think? Though my job was to proofread it, I didn't have the heart to change it. It was just too beautiful. However, I knew that I simply could not live without a copy of this letter. I had to think of a way to get one. When Milton came back to retrieve his letter and get my suggestions, an idea hit me. I asked him if he had another copy, knowing full well that he didn't. So I offered to take the letter home and make a photocopy “for his records.” This set off a long chain of confusion, because Milton doesn't understand that words can have two meanings. Whereas you and I would know that when I said “records” I meant your files, Milton thought I meant vinyl records. Which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever. I finally got my meaning across to him and was off to Kinko's. Standing over the copier machine, I was hit with another brilliant idea. Why make just one copy of this thing? Soon enough, I was headed home clutching a stack of papers, handing out this lunacy to anyone who would look. Finally, people believed my stories about the crazy guy coming in to my store all the time. (I'm a creative dude, but there's no way I could make this stuff up.) A framed copy now occupies a place of prominence in our home.
I returned Milton's copies and wished him well with the police. Of course, the police didn't take his letter seriously, so he did what any red-blooded American male would do when he's getting the runaround from the powers that be: he went to the media. Milton drove around to each television station in town and presented them with his letter, demanding to be on the evening news so he could expose the police and get his stuff back. Unfortunately, we have a very short-sighted media here in Lansing, and no one saw the immense humor potential in this human interest story.
Don't count Milton out though. He's appealing to a higher power. No, not the good Lord, just someone who works for him. On TV. Yes, that's right, Milton is writing a letter to Barry Watson, from the television show 7th Heaven. (For those who, like me, have never really watched this show, Barry Watson played the oldest child on the show - the one who became a doctor and married a Jewish girl or something like that.) Now, why Milton would think a minor actor like Barry Watson could really do anything to solve his problems, I don't know, but he assures me that as soon as Barry reads his letter, he and Scott Baio will be heading right to Lansing to solve this crime. (Because, apparently, all Hollywood actors know each other....And fight crimes together in their spare time.....)
I'll be sure to share a copy of that letter with y'all when it inevitably crosses my desk.