Where Are All the Tropical Fish Stores?

I recently joined my wife in retirement (accompanied by a giant pent-up sigh of relief). Yesterday, as we felt our aging bones calcify by the minute, we discussed possible light employment options for household pin money.  She suggested part-time work for herself at a local arts and crafts shop.

“Great idea!” I said.  “I’ve thought about a used bookstore.  Or maybe a tropical fish store.”

Then I thought, “Wait a second…do those even exist anymore?”

I can’t recall seeing a store that specializes in tropical fish since, oh, “Afternoon Delight” was a hit song.  What in tarnation happened to them?

When I was a teenager I had a 10-gallon tropical fish tank in my bedroom.  It had an overhead hood light, a thick layer of pink and blue pebbles, artificial coral, assorted plastic plants, and a couple small ceramic structures, such as a sunken galleon or treasure chest.  I had the usual assortment of small, freshwater tropical fish, like black mollies, neon tetras, zebra danios, redtail sharks, guppies, angel fish, a coolie loach to scavenge for debris, and my pride and joy: a beautiful ruby-red male Siamese fighting fish (also known as a “betta”).

At one time I tried mating my fighter with a creamy pinkish female betta that I’d named “Rosy.”  My man got about halfway through blowing bubbles for the bubble nest—to hold the eggs that he would eventually squeeze out of her—then abruptly stopped.  I never figured out why.  I’m guessing he either found Rosy less sexy than I did, or maybe he was a latent homosexual.

I used to relish lying in bed at night near the glow of the tank, sleepily gazing at my fish as they swished through the water, the soft burbling sound of the water filter lulling me to sleep.

As much as I loved doling out affection to my fishies, I also enjoyed purchasing them.  Once, I found a store that had rare glass catfish, a translucent fish whose bones are visible.  One of the great mysteries of my youth was returning from vacation and finding that all of my glass cats had disappeared.  I’m assuming the other fish consumed them, slender bones and all, out of hunger, but spontaneous combustion is also a possibility.

My first job, not counting newspaper delivery (click here), was a summer job as afternoon clerk in a local tropical fish store.  I & J Tropical Fish was in a rundown building just north of Mansfield, Ohio on Ashland Road.  It was the perfect job for a lazy 17-year-old, because only a few customers ever visited.  And it was always the same people.

My main duties consisted of shaking flaky fish food into the tanks, occasionally cleaning them (a real chore), and guarding the cash register.  To alleviate the boredom, I smoked cigarettes that I stole from the pack that the morning clerk—a pregnant, married woman—stored under the register.  Since I was at the experimental age and it was only a few cigarettes here and there, I thankfully never developed a habit.

Being your typical confused and horny teenage boy, I also got my jollies in other ways.  Once when things were especially slow, I slipped into the dirty storage room in back and sat on the yellowed toilet with a Penthouse Magazine for reading material.  (I’m pretty sure it was the August 1976 issue.)  Right when I was approaching the climax of the story I was reading, I heard the entry door jingle.

“Hello?  Is anyone here?” I heard a woman inquire.

It took me several minutes to wrap up my business, make myself presentable, and scurry out front.  I’ll never know if she detected my cotton mouth or the beads of sweat on my forehead.  She probably did.

The owner of the store was a guy named Bob.  He was a family man, a bony guy with black hair, about 35 years old.  I think the “I” and the “J” were his kids’ initials.  I remember that he always had a concerned look.  Just before he hired me he gave me a pop quiz.

“What is another name for a Siamese fighting fish?” (Betta.)

“What happens if you put two male Siamese fighters together?” (They fight…duh.) 

Although I was usually alone, once in a while Bob drove into the gravel lot in his plush, customized, stereo-equipped van to check on me.  The first time he did this, about a week after I was hired, I actually had a customer.  Bob stood behind me while I handed the man his change.  With Bob over my right shoulder, silently observing the transaction, I was as nervous as he looked concerned. 

“Here you go,” the man said, as he surprised me by returning a five dollar bill. “You gave me too much change.”

After the man left, Bob waited about 30 seconds, allowing my head to fill with warm blood.  Then he spoke in a low, deliberate voice.  “You need to be very careful when you give customers their change.”  Uh, thanks, Bob. 

One time about a month after I started, my dad dropped in after work.  He was happy that I actually had employment, since it helped cover the repair expenses for the station wagon I’d recently wrecked.  Bob just happened to be there. 

“How’s the boy doing?” Dad asked Bob with unconcealed pride.

Bob stammered.  “Well, uh…he’s uh…he’s getting better and better!”

I’ve thought about why there are no tropical fish stores anymore.  Of course, it’s the same reason why there are no hamburger joints like Burger Chef, and why small farms are disappearing.  We live in a world of giant, generic conglomerates, and the “little guy” just can’t compete.  Maybe it started with McDonalds.  Later it was Wal-Mart.  Tyson.  Barnes and Noble.  Target.  Jiffy Lube.  PetSmart.  Petco.  Pet Supplies Plus.

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot—Joni Mitchell

I’ve often wondered, too, when exactly did I & J Tropical Fish go out of business?  I think the lot is occupied by a dive bar now.  The dilapidated building looked like it might have fronted a methamphetamine lab, and I do know that abuse of crystal meth later exploded in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Maybe the building caved in, or the health inspectors discovered the yellow toilet in back.  Or maybe Bob cashed in his meager chips and hauled his wife and kids and their purple super-van to Florida.

I didn’t care for Bob all that much.  Let’s just say, I can’t imagine him and me laughing over beers at Rocky’s Pub.  But he did after all give me my first real job.  So for that I say, “Thanks, Bob.” 

The Doobie Brothers: Born With it in Their Souls

Been wanting to write about this band for a while.  They recently began their 50th anniversary tour—postponed a year due to COVID—so it’s a good time to finally put pen to paper.

During the Doobies’ heyday when I was in high school and college, I liked them, but not enormously so.  Their music rang from AM and FM dials so often, and they appeared so frequently on TV shows like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, there was no need for me to spend money on their records.  I was also a rock music snob (even more so than today).  Oversaturation and commercial success had the little snob creature inside my ears forewarning me, “Nooo, Pete!  This band is too commercial!  Not dark enough.  Not hip enough for you.”

My rock music palette then was headed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Velvet Underground, and so on.  Heavy shit, man.

But time and tide have plastered a thin layer of duct tape over the snob creature’s mouth.  Like with Petticoat Junction, I take scant heed of relevancy, image, the charts, my peers’ judgment, or the opinions of critics like Robert Christgau.  As my WordPress compatriot Cincinnati Babyhead would say, their music takes me.  It grabs me.  And that’s what matters.  Remember the days when melody, harmony, musicianship, lyrics, and good vibes meant something?

Like the band Genesis, there are two eras in the Doobie Brothers’ history.  The first era was dominated by guitarist Tom Johnston, and the second by keyboardist Michael McDonald.  The cement that held both of them together was finger-style guitarist Patrick Simmons, the only member who’s been with the band its entire ride.  All three of these blokes are top-notch singers, songwriters, and musicians.  Now, really.  How many groups can boast that?

The Johnston period was characterized by pumping “chunka-chunka” guitar-based songs, whereas McDonald brought a smoother, blue-eyed soul sound to the group.  Both eras have their adherents.  While I prefer the Johnston era, there are a lot of McDonald-era songs I love as well.

The Doobies formed in San Jose, California in 1970.  Influenced by Haight-Ashbury legends Moby Grape, they started out as a foursome: Johnston, Simmons, drummer John Hartman, and bassist Dave Shogren.  Their big audience at the start were local bikers, and they took their name from a comment by a friend: “You guys smoke so much dope, you should call yourselves The Doobie Brothers.”  Laughter all around the hazy living room.  But the name stuck. 

Their self-titled debut album (1971) had some decent songs, especially “Nobody,” but the engineering and production were muffed, and the LP is all but forgotten today.  Shogren then quit, and the other three brought in two guys: bassist Tiran Porter and second drummer Michael Hossack.  This five-piece was taken under the wing of fledgling Warner Bros. producer Ted Templeman, who’d been with the minor West Coast group Harpers Bizarre.

Producer Ted Templeman

Toulouse Street (1972) was a major improvement over the debut, propelled by “Listen to the Music,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Jesus is Just Alright,” and one of my personal fave Doobies tunes, Simmons’ spooky “Toulouse Street.”  The band burned through the record charts and never looked back.

The next three Doobies albums continued the hit parade and seemed to get better and better: The Captain And Me (1973), What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits (1974), and arguably their artistic high point, Stampede (1975).  By the time of Stampede, drummer Hossack had been replaced by Keith Knudsen.  Also joining was ex-Steely Dan flash guitarist Jeff Baxter.

Around this time co-leader Johnston was getting burned out, and was suffering from a severe stomach ulcer.  Baxter recommended keyboardist Michael McDonald, whom he knew from the Dan, as a possible reinforcement.  Simmons heard McDonald sing.  His jaw dropped.  He then practically begged a wary Templeman to give him an audition. When Templeman finally heard McDonald sing an abbreviated version of “Takin’ it to The Streets,” his jaw dropped.  Both guys realized they had a chance to nab a Ray Charles-styled vocalist.  The fact he could also write hit songs was an accidental bonus.

McDonald and Simmons steered the band through the final four Doobies albums: Takin’ It To The Streets (1976), Livin’ On The Fault Line (1977), Minute By Minute (1978), and One Step Closer (1980).  While Tom Johnston had been the lynchpin of the Doobies sound early on, and written and sung most of their biggest songs, by the time of Fault Line he was pretty much in the shadows.  He officially left in ‘77.  The band then hit a commercial zenith with the thrice-platinum album Minute By Minute. But it was becoming slicker with each record, straying ever-closer to homogenous L.A. territory and further from its earthier Northern California roots.

Simmons realized how far the Doobies had drifted.  One night in ‘81 he called McDonald to say he was leaving the group that he’d begun with Johnston, that the music just wasn’t the same.  McDonald, being the decent man that he is, completely empathized with Simmons.  After only one rehearsal without Simmons, he and the others decided to retire the band.

But you can’t keep a good band down.  The Doobies did a Vietnam vets charity concert in 1987, which stimulated more get-togethers, and they haven’t stopped touring since 1993.  They’ve released six more albums since One Step Closer, including this year’s Liberté.  The core of the band today is Johnston, Simmons, and multi-instrumentalist John McFee, who joined in 1979 (see header photo).

The Doobies in 1977. L to R: Knudsen, Hartman, Johnston, Baxter, Simmons, McDonald, Porter

I had the good fortune of seeing the Doobies live in 1978, right when Minute By Minute was climbing the charts.  It was at my alma mater, Ohio University (no, not The Ohio State University).  They actually performed in my dormitory.  Seriously.  Our rooms were on the perimeter of a large circular assembly center that housed the basketball and graduation arena.  Although I didn’t have a ticket, a small group of us gathered in a darkened stairwell and broke through a locked door, then quickly blended with the crowd.  (I don’t advocate breaking and entering as a hobby.  But, shit.  With the fact that my digs were hosting the band?  And the money my parents and I were spending?)

Anyway, my two big memories were Simmons and Baxter sitting side-by-side on the edge of the stage, rocking and trading guitar licks; and the song “It Keeps You Runnin’” (from the Takin’ It album), with its hypnotic chorus…which altered my consciousness even more than it was already altered.  I was a Doobies convert that night.

By the way, the 50th Anniversary Tour will include not only Simmons and Johnston, but also McDonald and Little Feat ivory wizard Bill Payne.  Here’s the leadoff track from Stampede, the Simmons (music) and Johnston (lyrics) collaboration “Sweet Maxine,” which exemplifies the sound of early Doobies.  If this don’t get you either bopping or air-guitaring…well, you just weren’t born with it in your soul.

COVID-19 in Cartoon America

Watching “CBS Sunday Morning” this morning drove home a startling statistic: the United States ranks number 48 in the world for percentage of citizens who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I knew things were bad here.  A story on that same program revealed that the social media platform Facebook is, once again, under fire.  This time it’s for permitting the spread of misinformation on COVID-19—such as that the vaccine contains a microchip allowing the government to monitor us—that is leading directly to people’s deaths.

Researchers analyzing Facebook misinformation, not surprisingly, had their Facebook accounts shut down.  And Facebook, not surprisingly, declined a “Sunday Morning” request for an interview.

I’m far from being an admirer of Mark Zuckerberg, and I have a lot of issues with Facebook, despite being a moderate user.  But one thing Zuckerberg said hit me in the gut.  He implied maybe the problem isn’t so much Facebook, but America, since other countries are less inclined to get suckered by false information on social media platforms.  Ignoring his garbled English, he said “I think that there’s that’s something unique in our ecosystem here.”

My position is that, like other deadly pursuits such as tobacco use, hard drug experimentation, and irresponsible sex, if adults exercise their freedom of choice by choosing ideologically-driven rumors, conspiracy theories, and cartoon science, we shouldn’t bemoan any consequences befalling them.  The problem is, their “viral” stupidity have consequences for the rest of us.  And maybe there is something unique here in America that contributes to our embrace of lies and the lying liars that tell them.

What might this unique condition be?

I’ve always believed that education, not military or economic might, is the key to a population’s well-being.  However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that, while the U.S. scores high in upper secondary education (i.e. high school) graduation rates, it is below average in student reading, math, and science skills.  Per the OECD’s latest (2015) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 40 OECD-member nations. Just behind Latvia.

In other words, we’re spitting out high school graduates like assembly line widgets, but many of these widgets are flawed and mucking up the entire machine.

Certainly there are other factors in our embrace of polluted information: an inordinate (or perhaps warranted) distrust of government compared to other countries; a gaping ideological divide that drives the most fanatical ideologues toward irresponsible leaders and media outlets; deep-rooted cultural fears and prejudices.

But doesn’t education overcome much of the above?  Maybe not.

Just yesterday I learned that the father of one of our daughter’s friends tested positive for the coronavirus and is now resting not so comfortably in a hospital bed.  Of course, he’s unvaccinated.  Evidently he has, or perhaps had, a strong ideological opposition to vaccines (and evidently doesn’t care about spreading the virus to others).  His daughter, at one time livid with him for being so stubborn and selfish, is now wringing her hands with worry.  I don’t know his educational background, but his daughter attended one of the best and most expensive private schools in the city, so I’m assuming this guy has a college degree, or at minimum a high-school diploma.

And I have an old schoolmate who graduated with honors from high school, attended an Ivy League university, and who works in health care, yet who consistently lampoons the president’s Chief Medical Advisor and his attempts to educate Americans with scientific data on the coronavirus.

So maybe education isn’t a match for dogmatic ideology.  Or maybe American schools these days are less about knowledge and more about job training and income earning potential.  I don’t know. Does anyone?

Speaking of cartoons, where’s Mighty Mouse when you need him?