Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


Live Shots From The Austin Chronicle (1 of 5)

by Allen Varney

Publishers Clearing House Giveaway

Week of July 7, 1986; mailboxes nationwide

This latest ten-million-dollar giveaway surpasses its infamous predecessors in its demands upon the greedy contestant. We want the $250,000 check every year for life, and will settle for the Wellcraft sports cruiser, the Lincoln, the remodelled kitchen, the $5000 shopping spree, even the $1000 Instant Winner Award. But it gets harder and harder every summer to get at all that moolah: Publishers Clearing House, of Port Washington, New York, finds ever more serpentine ways to force us to tear, punch, insert, fill out, and examine all its cheesy little flyers for McCall's at $18.03 off cover price and Grit for only four payments of $2.99 each and free AM/FM clock radio with 25 issues of Time.

This year you have to tear out eight individual perforated squares from three separate sheets (not even counting the 127 magazines, each on its own little perforated stamp), lick that foul adhesive and stick the eight little stamps in eight separate locations, tear off and fill out the $1000 Instant Winner Drawings coupon, mark "X" on the little slip that tells them you want to stay on their mailing list, punch out a little stamp from the envelope ("Yes," "No," or, a genuinely inspired marketing stroke, "Maybe") and insert it in a slot on the return envelope, and -- finally! -- punch out one of the four numbered buttons on the return envelope flap to show how many magazines you're ordering. They'll give you the ten million, but by God they make you work for it.

The fiendish part comes -- at least it came for me, and if you're unwary it may catch you too -- when you've pasted, punched, inserted, and licked your little subscribing heart out, carefully arranging all the stickers in their places on the prize certificate, already savoring in your mind the bracing salt-tinged breeze across the helm of your sports cruiser, and only then you notice that this is the wrong certificate. This gaudy official-looking parchment is used only if you're ordering magazines; if you neglect all 127 bargains, you must instead use the spartan black-and-white slip which flutters -- ah, too late! -- from its hiding place inside the flyer about the 1986 Consumer Reports Buying Guide Issue, yours free on payment. And of course you can't pull up the little pasted stickers by then, so (brilliant!) you're naturally tempted to look at the magazines again, to try and find some cheap offer that lets you send the cursed thing in and make all the pasting and punching worthwhile. Hell, if you could afford the magazines you wouldn't be so interested in the prize money, would you?

These creatures are the subtlest beasts of the junk-mail field. Eventually they'll find a way to make me read the letter from Robert H. Treller, and that's when I'll throw in the sponge and just hit the Periodicals section at the library.

Tearjerker Gumballs

Candy Basket, Highland Mall, 9/1991

Not a new band, but candy for those who crave intense sensation. These brightly colored balls smell sharp from arm's length. Pop one in your mouth, and at once your tongue curdles, the lining of your mouth shrivels as though plunged into hydrochloric acid, your cheeks pull in, your throat tightens, you cannot swallow, your sinuses clear as though blown open with thermite, you breathe in short shallow gasps through the nose, you make mewling noises like a baby harp seal, your eyes widen and, yes, you may shed a tear. The feeling mounts, saliva floods in up to molar level and immediately turns corrosive, you try to spit the thing out and discover that your mouth is completely paralyzed. An eternity of intensity, twenty seconds perhaps, and at last, just as your intellect is degenerating to a cellular level and each individual taste bud is wondering Did I ask for this?, the coating wears off and you are chewing a gumball.

I don't know where these things are made nor what they're coated with, unless it is, in fact, some form of hydrochloric acid. The Candy Basket clerk, a young woman named Cecily who is far more slender than you'd expect ("I haven't been working here very long"), said the Tearjerker Gumballs are the sourest candies in the store. This was good news, because these things are already pushing the limits of some chemical weapons treaties.

Other candies in the same taste province include Sour Power (long elastic hollow strings in various flavors) and Sour Patch Kids, pungent sugar-coated chews that had no identifiable kid shape. "The way Gummi Bears look like bears, these look like Cabbage Patch Kids," Cecily said. Maybe the next big hit will be Gummi Rorschach Blots.

I like this store. Clear plastic bins hold 23 flavors of Jelly Bellies (out of a possible 40); Gummi Bears in two sizes, Gummi Worms, Bats, Dinosaurs, Rats, and striped, coiled Gummmi Snakes pre-packed one to the package; candy peas and carrots; also peppermint balls, hard candies, and two dozen different chocolate treats, for traditionalists who don't want simulacra of creatures or other foods; plus lots of plastic boxes and containers designed for gift presentations, a slick idea. And there are select mass-market packages, such as Nerds [see review in Chronicle Vol VIII/16, 12/16/88], Beeman's Blackjack Gum (now being discontinued after a 93-year span, Cecily told me), and Boogers, which boast on their logo, "New! STRETCHY!"

What really charmed me about this place: While I looked askance at some high prices, like five or seven bucks a pound for chocolate almonds, Cecily made a couple of sales of singlecandies, less than a dime apiece, including one orange Tearjerker Gumball (five cents). People often want just one piece to-go, she said. "And sometimes kids come in and all they have is ten or twenty cents. We don't mind; if they want candy, that's what we're here for."

I liked to think about a major mall store ringing up sales of seven or eight cents, like the old general stores that sold horehound and parrafin and liberty buttons. It sounds traditional -- decent. I've noticed that candy brings out the decency in people . . . unless you hit them unawares with a Tearjerker Gumball, I suppose.

Gross Candy

Candy Basket, 10/1993

"I saw Blackjack gum today!" said a friend. "I thought they'd stopped making it." Laggard that I am, I'd failed to report the news four months ago, that the maker of Beeman's, Blackjack, and Clove gum would go back to the factory for a short run this fall to satisfy pent-up demand for classic gums. I scooped all Austin on this story because of a highly placed inside source: Cecily, a candy store manager.

Visits with Cecily illuminate pop culture trends I'd never twig to otherwise. For instance, she said in June, "If it turns your tongue blue or makes you foam or does something disgusting, it's hot right now."

Cheery thought. The industry leader here, the pioneer that must excite the admiration of thoughtful observers, is apparently Mad Dawg Super Spew Bubble Chew. This ingenious amalgam of gum and sodium bicarbonate offers, as the wrapper informs us, fizzy frothy foamy fun. Ask yourself, is the day of fizzy frothy fun, to say nothing of foamy fun, not long overdue? Another of the same school of mouth-altering substances is a Mexican candy, Die Hard. Die Hard is not hard, but a powder (Radical Red Cherry or Blastin' Blue Raspberry) that turns your mouth an intense red or blue.

"Disgusting" is the candy trend that has seized our nation's headlines, but my attention wandered to the continuing evolution of sour. Oh god you wanna die, candy has gotten so sour. Tearjerker Gumballs made the beachheads in this fad, but now Tearjerkers are puny, they're outta here, get those weak wimpy sissyballs away from me. They sneer at Tearjerker Gumballs, the fans who now pucker on Warheads, an American repackaging of Taiwan's "Super Sour Lemon Candy." Diligent Warheads research has now brought within our grasp Watermelon and, continuing the new flavor trend, Blue Raspberry.

Space Worms, packaged in tasteful wax tubes with a grinning head you bite off, also come in cherry and blue raspberry. What market research prompted this new zeitgeist? Have people been mentioning for years, "Y'know, about now I could really go for a blue raspberry," and I missed it? I think not. Candy demonstrates in the tiniest, clearest, baldest way how corporate culture shapes our desires. What, you didn't want blue raspberry? Of course you wanted blue raspberry. The presence of all this blue raspberry candy obviously indicates a long unsatisfied demand.

Candy is the canary in our sociological coal mine. Faith Popcorn ought to look into this. Come to think of it, I haven't seen Cecily in four months. Better head to the mall and resume trend-watching.

Louis Black, Editor, Austin Chronicle

Dear Louis:

I regret that my "Gross Candy" Live Shot (Vol. XIII/10, 11/5/1993), however much incredulous admiration it may have excited across our city, gave obsolete information about the fast-moving retail candy industry.

My piece described in evocative and compelling detail the merits of foaming candy, mouth-coloring candy, and similar disgusting stuff. After sending you this essay I returned to visit the Candy Basket at Highland Mall following a four-month absence. There my inside informant, Cecily, said that the gross candy trend has long since peaked and subsided. Space Worms, Die Hard, and even -- yes -- Mad Dawg Super Spew Bubble Chew have vanished from the Candy Basket world-view. This confirms the Buddha's view that all conditioned things are impermanent, if you hadn't picked up on that already.

Now the Candy Basket is deeply into coffee candies and chocolate-covered espresso beans. It also caters to the nation's growing mania for collecting Pez dispensers. No, really. Cecily has sold through four gross of the four 1993 dispenser models, licensed Flintstones characters. Models from previous years still draw major interest, to the point that collectors kept tearing apart her Pez displays to get at scarce models. When you resort to tearing apart Pez displays, will you stop at anything? Cecily finally foiled the collectors by taking the dispensers out of their wrappers, destroying their collectibility. (Like comic book collectors who never sully their books by reading them, Pezites keep their dispensers wrapped. Given the taste of Pez, I can't argue.)

The Chronicle may have an upper threshold for candy coverage, but I had to update my obsolete information. "You don't want to send people in here for something we don't have any more," said Cecily, and her tone carried a hint of reproof.


Allen Varney

The Bagel Manufactory

2200 Guadalupe (1988)

I believe this trendy fast-food joint on the Drag presages life in the '90s. Not only because it strives for a consciously open, wholesome decor of glass and unstained wood; writes its menu on a blackboard; flaunts its inane name; displays slick, typeset, laminated plaques that boast of the bagels' fresh ingredients; and otherwise strives for yuppiehood. This coldly calculated informality, some marketing maven's Californication of a quintessentially New York food, will probably set the tone of our middle-class future. But that is not why The Bagel Manufactory evokes the 1990s.

My glimpse of the future came when I tried to order. Not decisive by nature, I looked down the long chalkboard list of Reuben bagels, beef and salami and turkey bagels, cheese and egg salad and tuna salad bagels, even the Pizza Bagel with pepperoni, and that choice was hard enough.

But once I gave my order, the counterperson blithely asked, "What kind of bagel?" On to another chalked list of plain, whole wheat, onion, garlic, poppy, sesame, pumpernickel, cinnamon raisin, strawberry, blueberry, banana nut, and, if you can believe it, jalapeno bagels. At this point I abandoned myself to the clerk's extensive bagel experience and let him decide. I couldn't muster courage to order cream cheese (plain, chives, olives, veggies, strawberry, apricot & peach, pineapple orange, walnut & raisin, and the kind with little lox bits).

No kidding: This is the future. Used to be, you could have any color Model T you wanted, as long as it was black, or any burger as long as it had everything on it. Gradually options have appeared. Soon, in the information society, we will get all foods, merchandise, and services customized to our tastes -- but what if we don't know our tastes yet? We have to decide everything ourselves, or trust to consultants.

Ripe with these thoughts, I strolled from the Manufactory to visit a friend in her office on the UT campus. She expressed frank skepticism of my prophecy. As we talked, she tried to make a photocopy. But the machine bewildered her; it had settings for tone, size, paper position, one- or two-sided copies, and feeding methods. While she disputed my point, she kept trying to make the copy she wanted. The moment was pregnant with symbolism.

Mark me, this bagel place augurs the forthcoming age of the infinitely flexible restaurant. Be ready.

Swan Lake -- Kirov Ballet

PBS, 6/17/1986

Anybody else watch this? The USSR's Kirov Ballet Company is touring over here for the first time in 22 years (nobody's defected yet, as I write). Their performance at Wolf Trap park near Washington, DC, was broadcast nationwide on public TV; seems to have been quite the deal, with Ronald Reagan himself doing the front announce and lots of politicos in attendance. KLRU (channel 18) inserted pledge breaks ruthlessly -- the true marker of a prestige entry in the fund-drive biz.

It would be fatuous to deny that ballet has a wide and long-lasting appeal, but I've never felt that appeal myself. Spindly anorectic chorines in tutus, hoisted and twisted by hunks in tights; the usual dozen leaps, spins, one-legged stands, and statuesque postures, all strung together in the usual ways; feathers flying all over the stage; and, of course, the obligatory standing ovations after each number, and twenty-two curtain calls after each act . . . all of it seems like a celebration that someone still has the guts to stage a ballet -- grace for its own sake -- applause feeding on itself.

Still, the Kirov performers carried off their gymnastic exercises faultlessly. The way they jump and land on tiptoe, these dames should have ankles as thick as flagpoles, but they're all unnaturally dainty. (Did you know that a ballerina's foot is laced with countless hairline fractures?) Tchaikovsky's score was well handled, though frequently drowned out by applause. And I suppose there's something to be said for any art form that can present, in dead seriousness, the story of a prince falling in love with a bird. (Potentially interesting parallels with the new movie Howard The Duck.)

Three razzberries for KLRU. Three times a year it trots out these big-deal programs, saying "You should support fine programming like this." Then the drive ends, the decent stuff goes back to cold storage, and we get another four months of tenth-run Jacques Cousteau documentaries, cheapjack cooking shows, and "Six-Gun Heroes." The syndrome has provoked among my friends a steely-eyed refusal to tune in the station under any circumstances. So I ask again, did anybody else watch this?

[KLRU has improved greatly since I wrote this. --AV]

Global Beer Experts Club

DoubleDave's Pizzaworks, 1926 E. Riverside

Reviewed by Allen Varney (a teetotaler)

"Do you ever worry that you aren't getting ahead? You enter contests or play games, but you never win. Well, put all that behind you because you can now become certified as a DoubleDave's Global Beer Expert. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS DRINK BEER. We have a list of 60 distinguished beers from 25 nations. Drink one of each to become an Expert."

This pizza restaurant's offbeat promotion offers an aggressively international worldview. Its approved beer list ranges beyond the usual North American and Western European entries to include exotic brews from Argentina, China (two), India, Japan (two), New Zealand, the Philippines (two), Trinidad, and "Pilsener El Salvador."

In these isolationist times this touch of the cosmopolitan is welcome. Since all Global Beer Experts get entered in a drawing for a London trip, you have an incentive to sample the cuisines -- if that's the word I want -- of many lands. Sure, you may feel comfortable with mundane Heineken (Netherlands) or Lowenbrau (Zurich Dark variety from Switzerland). But maybe you've been missing out by not sampling Nordic Wolf from Sweden, Young's Ram Rod or Old Peculier from Great Britain, or West Germany's EKU Hefe-Weizen Dunkel.

The fellow behind the counter, a bearded man who stays in shape by flipping dough through the air all day, said the promotion has been a success. Personally, he likes Tusker (Kenya) and Kirin (Japan), but many customers favor Mamba, an enormous bottle brought to us from Africa's Ivory Coast. In case you're wondering why they name a beer after the world's most poisonous snake, I'm told "mamba" is also the Swahili word for alligator; and indeed, that is one huge alligator on its label. See how beer promotes cultural awareness?

The contest rules are worth a look for comedy value. "Your GBE card is non-transferable. Sure, it would be nice to have a friend drink the Guiness Stout [Ireland], but there's a price you pay for everything." Accredited Beer Experts get their names on a plaque; one hardy customer, a "Global Beer Doctorate," is working on his fourth card.

You must complete your score card by last call, December 31, to make it into the drawing, so start guzzling. "ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS DRINK BEER."



So tell me, how do six fantasy heroes survive inside a giant Great Annelid as it tunnels 2300 miles from the caverns beneath the World's Spine to the ancient Nithian Empire? And then how do they escape and explore Koresh Teyd's Nightrage foundry inside a live volcano, staffed by fire and earth elementals, where he forges the anti-magical armor that he uses to bribe the Shadow Elves into harvesting the cocoons of the legendary feathered serpents? And how does he transform those into symbionts that force the Annelids to tunnel through the World-Shield separating the Known World from the Hollow World, thus fulfilling the evil scheme of Thanatos, Immortal of the Sphere of Entropy?

Any ideas?

I write roleplaying adventure modules -- you know, for Dungeons & Dragons and games like that. I'm glad to say the silly controversy, that stuff about Satanic influence and teen suicide, has died down. Searching for scapegoats, America's worried parents and headline-hunting evangelists have moved on to rap music and Robert Mapplethorpe exhibitions. In its wake TSR, Inc., of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, still publishes D&D; maybe 50 of us around the country still grind out D&D scenarios for something around a nickel a word. Think of them as story outlines with the main characters left unspecified; the game players pretend to be these characters. I've lost you, haven't I?

It's usually fun, I make a subsistence living, and I can sleep late. But having to come up with all these screwball plots -- man! Some of my fellow laborers spin storylines without effort, but I don't have that kind of brain, at least not alone. Still, put me alongside my onetime co-worker (and Chronicle film reviewer) Warren Spector, and the sparks fly and the ideas roll. It's -- what's the word? Catalysis, or synergy. Brainstorm!

I tell Warren what I have so far, typically a stew of rough notions, and what I need to make it work. He spouts the first idea that comes to mind, and I take it (usually) and run with it. We pass it between us like a couple of rugby players heading for the goal. There's a vibe that approaches telepathy. Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah! You know the feeling, right?

It's always worked, independent of circumstances, free of ego involvement and, occasionally, free of mutual respect. Even when we didn't want to look at each other, when we felt chained together like an unhappy vaudeville duo, we could brainstorm. But now Warren's busy at his job, and from behind my writer's block I'm staring at a steeplechase of deadlines. "Staring" is the wrong word, really; mainly I'm lying face down on the floor, groaning in frustration. ("How do you writers spend your days?") Friends offer to help, but you can't create chemistry.

I thought about a personals ad. Tough to word, you know? "SWM, 31, seeks imaginative, fantasy-minded adult deeply into roleplaying." I shrink to imagine the replies that'd bring from deep breathers all over town. If you're the type who would answer that ad, please don't.

But if you can suggest ways for six varied player characters of levels 7-9 to travel from the Fortress of Khufneh 100 miles straight up to Ashmorain, the Floating Continent, and devise interesting staging there for the encounter with the Queen Mother of the feathered serpents, and then send them out to the island kingdom of Dharsatra, where thuggee assassins wait in the Temple of Eight Sweet Winds to knife anyone who tries to invoke the Yantra of the Emerald River . . . give me a call. I'm in the book.

Live Shots index, File 2, File 3, File 4, File 5

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