(NOTE: The following essay was originally published in my newest book, Aerating The Mashed Potatoes. It’s loaded with exclusive essays like this one, and it can be purchased here.)
In the Fall of 1994, at the Marcus Cinema 10 in Oshkosh, my girlfriend and I saw Pulp Fiction, the greatest American film of the last 45 years (although Fargo came close). Since then, I’ve memorized every line of dialogue, hypothesized over the philosophies of each scene, and debated its significance with anyone who will listen. It’s my favorite movie ever; I watch it annually the way most people watch The Wizard Of Oz, each time discovering more reasons to justify wasting so much of my life on one particular piece of 90’s pop culture.
Of all the quotes and references Pulp Fiction gave us to mull over, the most interesting topic of discussion tends to center around the contents of a mysterious briefcase that Jules and Vincent (played by Sam Jackson and John Travolta) have retrieved for their mob boss Marsellus Wallace (played by Ving Rhames). The contents are never mentioned or shown; our only hint is the glowing golden light that emitted from the briefcase any time someone would open it. According to director Quentin Tarantino, his direction for the actors was to simply act as if they were gazing upon the “most beautiful thing they have ever seen.”
Now, in reality there was nothing in the briefcase but an orange light bulb, and Tarantino himself has admitted that the briefcase serves as nothing more than a plot device. Any theories about diamonds or gold bars (or the very soul of Marsellus Wallace) are merely in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you think should be in the briefcase is what should be, and I think that’s sort of beautiful.
From late 1994 to the early winter of 1996, I didn’t think much about the contents of the briefcase. I always assumed that it pertained somehow to the biblical themes of redemption and divine retribution so prevalent in Pulp Fiction. It was whatever you felt was the most beautiful thing in your world at that precise moment, and all I really hoped was that I’d have my own personal Golden Briefcase moment at some point in the near future.
And it happened.
I turned 14 in February of 1996, around the time when my mother permanently moved in with her boyfriend. They had been seeing each other for a couple of years prior (my folks divorced years earlier), but this was the point when they made the literal move and set up shop in a two bedroom duplex in Appleton, Wisconsin. My sister and I went where my mother went, which meant that we shared the extra bedroom for a few months while a new bedroom was built for me in the basement. It wasn’t ideal (frankly, nothing was at this point in my life), but we made due as our mother dealt with a transitional period. Money was tight, learning to live with a strange new man was awkward at times, and the disarray was exceptionally stressful on a kid with zero sanctuary.
Naturally, I busied myself. In the winter, I made money by shoveling the sidewalks and driveways attached to the row of duplexes on our street. This allowed me to have a bit of spending money for the nights I was able to hang out with my friends, and more importantly, it was money I didn’t have to ask my mom for. By March, however, most of the snow was gone, and so was my cash. I needed a new source of income, and I found it on the very night I was able to move into my new bedroom in the basement.
My mom’s boyfriend had been single for years prior to this relationship. He lived alone; the walls were decorated with stuffed deer and elk heads, and remnants of his bachelor self were still lurking around every corner. As I began setting up shop in the basement, I started eavesdropping on this man’s former life, digging through boxes in an attempt to figure out just who my mother was shacking up with. That’s when, buried deep within a storage crate hidden in an adjacent utility room, I found my mysterious, glowing briefcase:
A collection of no less than 100 copies of Playboy magazine, spanning back at least 15 full years.
To a 14-year-old boy in 1996, this was the Holy Grail. The Internet was still in an infancy stage at the time; porn was available, but the search engines were weak and the bulk of sites were a wasteland of nonsense. Furthermore, I was the only person I knew that was online, and the dial-up connection in Appleton was long-distance, which meant it would cost money I didn’t have. All it took was me racking up one $200 phone bill to have that privilege all but revoked.
Also like the Internet, nudity on television was just as difficult to procure. In a pre-DVR world, I vividly recall setting my alarm clock in order to watch (and tape) certain movies on HBO and Cinemax (teenage boys do desperate things). Infuriatingly, sometimes their rating system would be messed up, causing me to waste three hours watching a movie I thought would contain nudity, only to discover it did not. I would bet that I watched somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 films in the 1990’s that I had no intention of watching for any reason other than the uppercase letter ‘N’ that showed up in the pre-film breakdown. I unintentionally became a savant of turn-of-the-century cinema for no reason other than my raging hormones. It still comes in handy during Jeopardy!, though.
As I stood there, gazing at this crate of magazines, I knew what I had to do. Eighth grade boys are a greasy bundle of sexual frustration and uncertainty, and fortunately for me, this described nearly all of my close friends at the time. Friends who would have no problem buying these magazines from me at a competitive, yet unreasonably lofty price. I didn’t need my snow-shoveling job anymore; I was officially in the distribution business.
For the next few months, I sold dozens of magazines. The older ones went for anywhere from $5-$10, while some of the more special and sought-after copies went for upwards of $20. I was literally making hundreds of dollars from nearly every pre-pubescent guy in Winneconne Middle School.
The drawbacks were many. Each day, I would smuggle a handful of magazines into the school knowing full well that every day could be my last. Not only did I have to sneak these things past my mother (she drove me to school), but I also had to covertly get them to their recipient in a tasteful and discreet manner. All it would take is one unzipped backpack or brazen book-dumper to send me straight into my expulsion meeting with the superintendent.
In April, I took $150 worth of loot and entered a school-wide pool for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. My favorite team was Kentucky, so when they won it all, I instantly became the richest kid in school. I bought sodas and lunch for anyone who would ask. My CD collection multiplied exponentially thanks to the fine folks at BMG. Unlike most, I actually maintained membership to their mail-order club, purchasing such 1996 classics as Rage Against The Machine’s Evil Empire, 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, and Superdrag’s Regretfully Yours. I was living the high life; I had no competition in my business venture, and nobody had the guts to tell on me, for fear that the dozens of paying clientele would strap cement bricks to their feet and toss them into the Wolf River, never to be heard from again.
Life was good. I bought new shoes and pay-per-view boxing matches. I sucked Cheese Whiz straight out of the can. I slept soundly, knowing that I was single-handedly responsible for easing the frustrations of puberty for no less than 50 different people. My Golden Briefcase was paying off in fantastic ways. Unfortunately, I neglected to remember the fundamental theme of Turnabout in Pulp Fiction, which meant that karma was about to pay me a visit for my sinful, gluttonous ways.
The first thing that happened was that I ran out of magazines, which meant that my gravy train was coming to an inevitable halt. I still had hundreds of dollars in the ‘bank’ (an Airwalk shoebox), but I knew I needed to be more conservative now that my only source of income was a fleeting commodity. In a way, I was glad that it was over. My fear of getting caught was at critical mass, and my shifty behavior had to have been noticeable. I also kind of felt like a pig, even though I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it was Catholic guilt.
In order to stay responsible, I traded the snow shovel for a lawn mower, opting to mow the giant, shared backyard of the connected duplexes for the spring months. The mower was a monolithic contraption designed to manicure golf courses, and I was given the keys with no prior training or practice. I pretended I knew what I was doing, and on my first day, I ran over a baby tree directly in front of the tenant and 20 of his friends during a backyard barbecue. As bark and leaves spat out from every angle, they stared on in incredulous silence as I rumbled along and tried not to tip the entire thing over.
Finally, in late May, everything came to a sudden halt. I was once again fighting with the lawn mower, when I lost control and crashed through the picket fence separating the lawn from the highway. Both of my hands were off of the wheel as I careened through the oaken planks and into a steep ditch, disabling the mower before it had a chance to take me onto the busy road, where I would have assuredly been hit and killed in the weirdest accident in the history of Winnebago county (which is getting harder and harder to do). When I climbed out of the ditch, I didn’t even go back for the mower. I simply walked to my house, called the landlord on the phone and told him that I was quitting.
Regardless of the hobby I had been undertaking, the last few months had been trying for me. At its core, I saw an (admittedly bizarre) opportunity to make some money and leave my fiscally-strapped mother alone for awhile, and while I appreciated the additional income, I didn’t enjoy it for a second. I knew that I was in deep trouble because of the mower accident. I knew it was only a matter of time before it was discovered that the magazines were gone. I knew I had gotten myself into a huge mess, so by the time my mom and her boyfriend returned to the house, I was spilling my guts about everything before I even explained to them why there was a hole in the fence and a smoking lawnmower straddling the ditch by the highway.
For my punishment, I was forced to pay for the damages caused by the accident, which meant giving up every last penny I had earned bootlegging softcore pornography over the last few months. Dirty money, I figured; I didn’t mind seeing it go. I also took most of the CDs I bought and sold them to trade stores. For me, it was a cleansing opportunity, and most of them were terrible anyways. By the time summer rolled around, I was more or less back at square one. We were still broke, my grades and possessions were in disarray, but I felt like I was handling it a lot better than I was six months ago.
A crate full of Playboy magazines spoke to my id as a 14-year-old, and I found a way to exploit that. But more importantly, much like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, it represented the most beautiful thing I could think of. However, that thing wasn’t Jenny McCarthy or Anna Nicole Smith. It wasn’t money or material things. It wasn’t even reputation and notoriety. It was the one thing I needed more than anything.
For a few short months in 1996, it was Freedom.