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A Season on the Drink

Here’s an article I wrote which was published in the July issue of The Ryder magazine. You can also see the article as it was published with photos and layout and stuff. What follows is the slightly longer text I submitted, without editorial cuts, and with a few relevant links. Consider this a rough-draft preview from a forthcoming book, still several years down the road and more of a dream than a reality.

J&B on the ROX: A Season on the Drink

We weren’t students. Oh, we’d been to school. But while our former classmates moved on, and moved away from the big university, we stayed, and discovered there was a city here too.

We had our degrees, but we didn’t use them. We were supremely unmotivated to participate in the superficial consumer culture we saw all around us. Automobiles, shopping malls and television? There had to be more to life than this.

We were privileged to enjoy a good education, but too alienated to reap the economic benefits. Besides which, the job market sucked, the economy was still in recession, and the experts said our generation would never own our own homes. Sound familiar?

So we got jobs rather than careers. Easy jobs, or at least jobs that were easy to get. Preferably part-time. McJobs, we called them. They didn’t pay well, but we didn’t need much, just enough to pay rent on some cheap fleabag apartment. Food could be acquired from the dumpsters behind our favorite restaurants. With luck, we’d have enough cash left over for some recreational drugs and art supplies.

They called us slackers, and that felt about right. We were not living up to the expectations of our parents or society in general, and we didn’t care. We were way more ambitious than that. We wanted something more important than a big salary or decent health insurance. It seemed like half the people we knew were musicians, artists, actors, filmmakers, writers, engaged in one crazy project or another, to say nothing of the mystics and the mental cases and the drug-dealers. It was like that circle of friends in 1960s Munich as depicted by Edgar Reitz in Die Zweite Heimat. What, you’ve never seen it? You should.

It was 1992. I’d been out of school for a couple years. I was working part-time as a telemarketer. I was writing a novel. And some short stories. And some poetry. And drawing illustrations for the alternative weekly. And rehearsing with a rap rock band. And making videos. Occasionally I’d collaborate with friends on weird nonsensical pranks.

One of my chief co-conspirators was Joe. We’d lived in the same dorm in the late 80s, where I’d taped him for a short video titled “Joe’s Turd.” He had a high forehead, a ferociously keen intellect, and a friendly downhome Kentucky manner. A classically trained percussionist, he’d majored in Anthropology, graduated with a 3.97 GPA, and was working as a service bartender at Mark Pi’s China Gate. He’d just started a zine called The Smiling Dog, named after the supposed precursor to canine vomit. I introduced him to some new psychedelic drugs, and he introduced me to Carmina Burana. Perhaps most importantly, he had a VHS-C video camera.

On a warm evening in late May, as we sat on the sidewalk outside his rental on Cottage Grove, we talked about putting some videos on local access television. (I’d learned the ropes at the local station, having been assigned community service there after a couple run-ins with the law.) The lure of pumping video into the living rooms of the general public was too strong to resist. But we needed a concept. Hmmm. Joe and Bart. J and B. The initials suggested the famous scotch. Joe had amassed a quantity of booze, probably stolen from work. What about a mixed drink cooking show? In an instant we saw the potential for a repeatable, extendible format, which could afford endless variation. Most local access productions were one-off affairs, but we could do a regular show, a weekly show. Who needed a budget? We were struck by the sheer audacity of the proposition.

We shot our first episode on the first of day of June, in the basement of Joe’s house, featuring three drinks: a Whisky on the Rocks, a Long Island Iced Tea, and an Amaretto Sour. We talked about all manner of topics, especially about how little money we made.

On July 7, the program debuted on television, in the 11 p.m. Tuesday timeslot that we’d hold for years to come. In our circle of friends, only one person actually had cable, so we had a party at his house. We sold tickets for it, to cover the cost of the drinks, which we made and served to our audience, just over a dozen people, as the program aired. A synchronized performance. We had to hustle to pull it off, and we didn’t even get a chance to watch the show ourselves, but that was probably just as well. Those first few primordial shows were like the basement in which they were shot — dark, rough-hewn, and kind of stinky.

Public access television has an “anything goes” reputation, but we found the limits pretty quickly. As early as our fifth episode, we attempted to show a photo that depicted the act of coprophagia. (Look it up if you must. I sure ain’t gonna tell you.) We thought it was strange and interesting that such images could be acquired via the university’s VAX system. This was 1992; the internet was well-established but known to few. Any judge would have ruled that photo obscene, and we might have gotten ourselves in big trouble if it had been allowed to run. But it was not. This was our first encounter with censorship, but not the last.

I did all the editing for the show at the station. One day I arrived an hour early by mistake, and ended up sitting on a bench on Kirkwood, waiting for the library to open. It was a fortuitous error, as an old acquaintance rolled up in her car just then. I’d met Christy years before at a summer job, proofreading at a branch office of the CBS/Columbia House Record & Tape Club. She was a genuine townie, having lived in the local area all her life. She’d been playing softball that morning, and had taken one on the chin, so she looked like she had bloody goatee. We had brunch together at the Village Deli, and I was surprised to discover that she was working on a public access show of her own: The Christy Paxson Show.

In a college town, August is the time to play musical houses as leases expire and students return for another academic cycle. Joe and I moved in together to a second-story walk-up a little further from campus. Joe later described the place thusly: “It was utterly run-down, desperately in need of repairs, and seemed to even tilt to one side, although that may only have been a drug-induced illusion.” This was where our production began in earnest.

I’d just been dumped by my girlfriend of two years, who moved on to grad school in Tucson without me. I hardly found time to shed any tears. Besides keeping busy with the television show and everything else, I was renewing my acquaintance with Christy. I thought she was fun, funny, sexy, cool. I never dreamed we would fall in love. It was all documented on television.

Christy first appeared on our program in episode #8 that August, demonstrating an unexpected talent for squirting water between her teeth on the ceiling of our attic. She became a regular part of the show. Our friend Mary Frances, who was bunking at our house between leases, discovered an image of the pope in the soap scum in our bath tub, so she became part of the show. Everyone in our circle of friends eventually became part of the show. In September our camera operator, Andrew, fell from his bicycle and suffered a life-changing injury. He’d broken his spine. We visited him in the hospital and taped episode #10. Slowly, it became less about two drunken idiots ranting in front of a camera, and more about a community. And why not? Armed with a small, handheld camcorder, there was no reason to confine ourselves to a “studio” mentality. Our attic made a poor studio anyhow. We started to get out of the house and videotape in the streets.

Rooftop Group Shot

And yet, despite all the foment: It didn’t feel like a movement, though some of us yearned for a common cause. I know I did. And I was not alone. A group of a dozen of us who were interested in promulgating revolutionary thought and action began meeting to discuss strategy. We called ourselves the Have Fun Club. Our philosophy might best have been described as a sort of idealistic hedonism. We wanted people to wake up, rise up, shake off their chains, and live a little. We were convinced this could and would happen, that society was ready for this, if only situations could be arranged that broke the routine, that got people thinking about the possibilities.

(It was the same idea that had motivated me to run across campus naked a few years earlier. Getting arrested didn’t quite teach me the lesson.)

To that end we created subversive flyers, with slogans appropriated from the Situationist International. We posted them around town, and we plotted. We schemed. We kicked around ideas for some grand stunt that would galvanize the city. Our dreams of disrupting traffic or staging a fake nuclear accident at the mall were too complicated to bring to fruition. We ended up organizing a parade. We billed it as “a celebration of freaks, failures, queers, anarcha-feminists, nerds, proponents of choice, proponents of change, the Cultural Elite, skate punks, ascetics, neo-hippies, drug-crazed frisbee-thowing nudists, and other alien beings.” We called it the Festival of Fools.

In truth, our preparation amounted to little more than printing a flyer and making a trip to Big Lots for blow-pops and hula hoops. We had no idea if anyone would show up. Probably not. But by fortuitous coincidence, a three-day “anarchist picnic” was in town, reaching its climax on that same day, October 4th, 1992. A contingent of freaks arrived and turned our parade from abject failure into raging success. Without a permit, we took over Kirkwood Avenue, and marched from the square to Dunn Meadow, chanting nonsense slogans and waving incoherent placards. As one protestor bellowed: “We will never again stand for the same thing twice!”

The revolution was not accomplished, but it was televised. The Festival of Fools became episode #11. Of course we videotaped it. We videotaped everything.

In November there was an election, so we made a show about that. In December the cold winter weather set in, so we made a show about that.

People would ask, “What’s the show about?” We had a hard time answering. The project seemed to continually expand and evolve and envelope everything around us. One day we defrosted our freezer, and that became an episode of television, and we realized anything was possible.

Our production standards were appallingly low, but we were making a show unlike anything else on TV, something that seemed to stop channel surfers dead. Though we hardly believed it ourselves, people were watching. Lots of people. We began to discover just how many when we ran into trouble with the censors.

We intended to provoke, but we were genuinely surprised each time we ran into such barriers. It happened again, and again. The most notable instances came in early 1993, in episodes #22 and #24. Both involved nudity — male genitalia, real in one case, fake in another. Despite my arrest record, I still didn’t think the naked human body was so problematic. We were pretty sure these segments were legal, but they ran afoul of the station’s “community standards” clause.

Rather than blacking out the segments, we opted to have the episodes held back for consideration by the Monroe County Public Library. In the meantime, we broadcast a looping text message in our regular time slot, which explained the situation and encouraged viewers to write to us.

And write they did. Our mailbox was stuffed for the next few weeks. Suddenly we became aware that we had an audience. Soon there were stories about us in the local newspapers, and we discovered the intoxicating effects of corporate media coverage, which we would come to crave in time.

The library board eventually gave our contested content the thumbs-down. At that point, we gave up, blacked out the segments, and had done with it. The whole thing seemed too silly to fight, despite the deluge of letters that urged us to do just that.

Ultimately, though, maybe we did win. Our struggles pushed the library to formalize its policy. Later, they designated the public access station as a “dedicated constitutional forum.” If it’s protected by the First Amendment, it can be shown on the public access channel.

The hoopla and the positive feedback energized us. We began to produce with a regional and global audience in mind. It took us a lot longer to develop distribution networks, so that people outside Monroe County could see our program.

Meanwhile, we’d been hurtling through a weekly production schedule for the better part of a year. We all realized we needed a break, or we’d burn out. We decided to wrap things up with episode #32 and call it a season. The title of that season finale says it all: “Mom, Dad, I’m Getting Married.” Strange as it may seem, this really was how I announced my engagement to my parents.

Our adventures continued in subsequent seasons. Christy and I did indeed get married, on television of course. Joe and I smoked herb in front of the Monroe County Courthouse. We put our video online, ten years before YouTube — the first television show on the internet. We even got a chance to interview the last exorcist ordained by the Vatican.

The show has dealt with many of the ups and downs of our lives, including the flooding of New Orleans, the death of friends and family members, and the birth of children. Though circumstances have scattered our crew far and wide, through it all, we’ve tried to stay true to the community we knew in Bloomington and the spirit of ’92.

Bonus: These are some quotes I suggested might run along with the article, but which were not in fact used.

Life is more than going to the mall and buying what the TV tells you to buy — “Another Nothing,” Operation: Cliff Clavin

God does not love slackers. — C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

This misalignment for very small angles is accommodated in slack, and no adverse life consequences are exhibited. As soon as the slack is exhausted, the intended deflection is resisted and [we] experience unintended loading. Life is reduced below prediction levels. — Standard Handbook of Machine Design, Joseph Shigley

You think the appeal of this studentine ghetto will wear down and off as you reach predicted maturity. — “To the Graduating Class” by Martin Action

My mom thinks I’m lazy, my dad thinks I’m weak — “Slacker,” Abstract Fresco

Published inBloomingtonROX


  1. Max Max

    This absolutely should be a book. On top of everything else, rox captured (captures) a time and place. It’s part cultural study. Dug this one.

  2. Chris Chris

    Visited Bloomington again after a long hiatus in NOLA and was pleased to find the article. It made the trip up there a perfect circle.

  3. Garvey Garvey

    Great article! A book seems so…limited, though. How about something more creative, something multimedia?

    BTW, this piece would be nice “liner notes” for the DVD box set.

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