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Vandal’s

July 24, 2012

When I heard that Vandal’s had opened, it began to sink in that consumerism might have finally and forever transcended itself to parody.

My clique and I stood out in the parking lot in a circle, all at once hesitant, eager, jaded, amused, and apathetic. Paired via couple, we were Ben and Jill, Billy and Willa, Gore and Flora, myself and Kat. The sun was high in the sky and it was so hot that the air itself seemed just shy of afire. The Vandal’s logo loomed over us in blood-and-guts red, with its baseball bat L and anarchy A’s.

“Do we really have to do this?” I let my lip curl with barely contained repulse.

Gore shrugged. We hesitated another moment, but I knew the group was committed. We had already used the gas to get here, and even I felt the lure of air conditioning. I led us across the lot to where the corporate graffiti defiled the art with cliché. All across the face of the wall were murals of Che Guevera and quotes from The Last Poets and clenched fists. Farther along were the words to Lennon’s “Imagine”, and etches of Gandhi and King. And so on. With a glance between ourselves and rolling eyes, we walked in.

Immediately, a faux-thug with a (faux) anarchy tattoo on his left forearm, wearing tight black pants with a wallet-chain, a sleeve-less shirt, a vest, and combat boots approached. His brow had a fake piercing and he wore a yin-yang earring in one ear and a peace sign in the other. His hair was artificially black, with some greysteel streaks, and looked like a video game preset. Obviously, I’m not objective, and I’m tired of pretending to be, so just keep that in mind from here on out.

The faux-thug greeted us with, “What’s up, welcome to Vandal’s, where ‘You Are The RevolutionTM.’ How many… seven, eight of you?” The faux-thug checked his watch and his clipboard. “The last group just left, so it’ll be at least twenty minute wait.”

I sighed slightly, but said that was fine and asked if we could pay now. I figured if I was going to throw money away I might as well get on with it. No, he said, you paid at the end.

He explained, “There are additional charges if you break something not part of the event, like shelves or whatever. But,” He added, sensing I was about to retort, “I can let you choose your Tools of Mass Destruction now. Just through here.” The faux-thug took a weird key off his lapel and unlocked a door, then ushered us through.

Ben and Billy went first with Jill and Willa, then Gore and Flora, then Kat, who squeezed my hand as she did so, saying with her eyes, “Just try to have fun.” I brushed it off and followed her in, and stopped short.

All around the room were melee weapons. They hung along all the walls, uninterrupted except by a small door. They were also lain about in relative order along low, plastic benches, and there were a lot of them. There were axes, shovels, swords, greatswords, maces, hammers, clubs, bats, batons, 2×4’s, golf clubs, pool cues, crowbars, pipes, sledgehammers, pick-axes, wrenches, staves, polearms, frying pans, as well as rather absurd ad-hocs and exotic particulars whose names I didn’t know.

I turned around and asked the faux-thug, “And how many do we get per person? Or is it per group?”

“Three per person, including replacements. Of course, you can add as many additional tools as you want up to ten for $10 per item.”

Jill asked, “How do we carry them all?”

“That’s the next room. Just pick what you want now and we’ll figure out the best vehicle fit for your group.” The faux-thug seemed bored. We turned to choosing.

Ben had, to no one’s great surprise, already chosen a katana and a bo staff. Billy picked up a baseball bat and gave it a couple swings, then set it down for a pipe. I turned my attention to Kat, who thrust out a crowbar and posed theatrically. She was clearly referencing an old video game series. I raised an eyebrow.

Kat grinned.

I walked up and down the walls, considering my options. I picked up Billy’s forgotten baseball bat, printed across with LOUISVILLE SLUGGER. Seems fitting, I thought, and proceeded to pick things I’d actually use if I were to vandalize some shit. I ended up with the bat, a sledgehammer, and a fire axe. Baseball, construction, fireman – definitely All-American.

As we all finished choosing, we stopped to see what the others had settled on.

Billy pointed at Ben with his pipe. Ben hadn’t chosen a third. “Aren’t you missing one?”

“This is all I need.”

Billy scoffed.

I turned to Kat. A frying pan, a golf club and —

“A pillow full of bricks?” I laughed out loud as she struggled to swing it.

The greeter, whose demeanor was so very unthuggish that I could not even think of him as faking it anymore, returned a few moments later and asked if we were ready to proceed to the next room. Enough of us nodded that he walked through us and opened the next door. As the others filed out, I couldn’t resist feeling hints of eagerness. It must be the boy in me, I thought wryly. I caught Kat smiling knowingly.

The next room was not unlike the parking garage of an old office building – wide open, low-hung, half-lit and grimy. The walls were stained with something dark and the floor was slightly sticky. Overhead and along the tops of walls crept pipes and vents.

I looked at Kat but spoke loudly enough for all. “The first rule of Fight Club… ” I trailed off for the laugh track.

The greeter handed us off to another staffer, this one a woman with a mullet and goth pants, etc. Our collective lack of esteem was almost palpable, but I tried to paint myself congenial.

She said, “If you’ll follow me, we can hook you up with a ride that fits your selection.” We followed her over to a chain-link fence. She opened it and turned to us.

“If you want to stick together, we have an ATV with a bed –”

“How fast does it go?” Ben laughed because it was Gore who said it and Gore was the one in our group who knew the most about cars, and the one who had wrecked the most.

“As fast as the go-karts.”

“Is that all you have?” I was surprised at my own entitlement.

“We also have shopping karts and gurneys.”

“Why do you have gurneys?”

The woman shrugged.

Kat said, “Do you have golf karts?” She was fidgeting thoughtfully with her golf club.

“We used to, but no one liked them.”

We looked around at each other.

Willa swayed self-consciously as she said, “I want a go-kart.”

I nodded in agreement and addressed the woman. “Can we each have a go-kart?”
“Two per kart.”

We split into couples, situated ourselves with our arsenals, and regrouped abreast in our karts just before a thick yellow line of caution.

“Now it feels like Mario.”

“You just want to hate this,” said Gore.

“Mario isn’t a bad thing… I’m just saying.”

Suddenly, the mulleted woman said something into her radio and the walls before us parted like the Red Sea (of Wal-Mart). Before I could quip to that effect, Gore floored his go-kart and peeled off. And when I say peeled off, I mean to say that the woman fibbed a little when she called them go-karts.

Ben and Billy followed suit. I grinned in spite of myself and took off after my friends.

Gore was already out of sight by the time Kat and I emerged into the warehouse proper. How to describe it? Imagine a warehouse store like Wal-Mart, but imagine that when the third-shifters stocked the shelves, they did so knowing that the next day they would begin by cleaning those same products off the floor. Imagine a stoned marketer, alone in his studio apartment at 1am, and imagine the light bulb popping into existence above his head. Imagine a world where the very act of rebellion is packaged.

Overhead were bright and broad florescents, and the floors were the sort one might expect – not quite gray and not quite brown, somewhat reflective, very smooth. All about there were witty displays depicting sales – “You break it, you buy it!”, “Break one, get one free!*”, “*Promotional Purposes Only.” There was spurious evidence of past vandals – an orange here, a few shards of something there. I noticed as we passed that one of the cash register’s numbers was cracked, hanging askew so well that it might have been intentional. Then again, I thought, it might have.

“Vandal’s,” I muttered as I turned and started down the cookie isle, “‘Come fuck our shit up.'”

Kat leaned out of the kart with her frying pan and impacted a stack of oreos with glee. One landed on my lap and I ate it and she laughed. I swerved to avoid Willa’s kart, which had entered the isle from the opposite side, and roared as Billy decapitated a cardboard version of a celebrity cartoon, his devilish cackle trailing with the tire squeels.

I slowed as I thought about where to go next.

Telepathically, Kat said, “Cereal isle.”

I chuckled and was just entering the relevant isle when I realized I was on the verge of having fun. Instantly, I was torn between two halves of my self. On one hand, there was indignation and righteousness, the irreverence for Gaia and the sheer decadence of the act. On the other, there was insignificance and futility, and the fun and the faith in life as a ride. There was duty and there was liberty. In a rush, I saw the billboards and the starving kids and the fast food and the civilian casualties – Cheerios bounced across the hood – and the spinning rims and the poverty and the potential and the reality. For the briefest of all the long moments, I let my foot off the pedal.

I accepted: I was as much a part of the problem as the rest. Besides, I’d already paid for it.

There was only one plausible reaction – might as well. The go-kart growled and swept us down the rest of the isle. I ducked as Kat lost her pillow amidst the fruity and chocolately animals, then skidded through the u-turn and rushed down the next one. I reached back and grabbed the baseball bat, juggled the wheel and the bat, and swung out at the rows of peanut butter as they passed. The shock was rough and the sound was satisfying. I reached out next in the chips and dip isle, and I reveled in the shower of potato crumbles.

By some coincidence, we all reconnected in the produce section between asparagus and mushrooms. All faces danced with restless eagerness as we waited for the others to initiate the next phase – and were delivered when three security officers spotted us. Obviously, they were actors, but they were black-clad with crop-cuts and helmets and nightsticks and our rogueish instincts took over. We all floored our pedals and wove dangerously in between each other in our efforts to escape.

One officer tried to grab at Willa’s kart but fell dramatically. The second went after us and the third I lost sight of. I admit I underestimated their dedication. The officer after us didn’t merely run around the fruit section like a zombie – he came at us over the fruit section. Narrowly avoiding capture, eyeing the officer stumbling to his feet behind us, for a moment I wondered if there was an ulterior motive in play. Was Vandal’s cunningly warning me against rebellion? Maybe the cops were going to capture us and that’s how it would end. A dark shadow wavered through me like a chill.

That said, our clique has a lofty sense of self and I knew we were all equally determined to evade that sort of defeat. Kat and I sped down past breads wheat, white, raisened and rolled, drifted until we were parallel to, then racing alongside, the pre-packaged meats. Bacon streaked by before the blanketed ground chuck and the rather fleshy chicken.

“Kat! Is there anyone behind us?” I caught the edges of her hair as her head spun.

“No!”

My victorious feeling abandoned me as ominous figures in black swung out like the jaws of a trap from an island of donuts and a door to the back, respectively. I slammed on the brakes like a fool — for of course they would have moved — but as it was I came to stop right in front of them. I glanced at Kat and she at me.

“Run!” I cried.

She and I both left the kart and our weapons in our desperation. I made it three steps and heard her shout. I looked back and stopped, my mind freezing. One of the cops had her by the arm. The other was walking towards me.

To be honest, my aptitude surprised even me.

I ran at the one officer as he advanced, dropped to my knees just out of his reach, slid past and under him, staggered my way up, onto and over the kart, rolling to myself steadiness with bat in hand. I regretted not choosing a staff and wondered how the others were doing. I became vaguely aware of distant battle shouts. No doubt Ben was giving them Hell.

The cop holding Kat gestured placatingly. “Easy there, killer, we’re just fucking with you.”

Of course, I knew that, still I realized I was brandishing a melee weapon at the fake cop as though I were about to engage him in a fight to the death. And, truth be told, I think I was. They must be crazy to allow people bladed weapons. I hoped Ben hadn’t done anything stupid. I let the bat drop to my side and I said, quietly, “Sorry. Can I have my girlfriend back?”

He let her go. Knowing her safe, a reckless and cruel part of me nearly surged forth with the bat in hand, but a more sober sensibility admitted I had already conceded and that to do otherwise would only add to my cowardice. Kat’s hand brushed my stomach as she returned to my side, but I felt shamed. It seemed that, inexplicably, the game had become real. The dark shadow passed through me again.

One of the officers picked up on my feeling and proceeded to make my fucking day. He ripped off his uniform and his plastic badge and turned his night stick on his fellow. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of traitors, but I felt like his treason was more like… waking up. Or that was part of his job. In any case, the defector set upon the other with a cry of “¡Viva la revolución!”

It was quite epic, and in the scuffle, Kat and I got back in the kart and went on our way.

We were nearing the back left of the warehouse and my favorite section – the beer section.

Kat was driving now. “Stop, stop, stop! Let’s see what they got.” I looked around. “Keep an eye out for security. What do you want?” Without waiting for an answer, I got out of the kart and briefly looked over the selection. I picked up a 40oz malt liquor and opened it, gingerly lifted it to my nose.

“Dammit all. I think it’s just water.” I tasted it to make sure. “Damn it!” I turned, picked up the bat, and slugged the beer.

“Troy! You’re getting glass on me!”

“Sorry! Sorry!” I lowered the bat and remarked, “You’d think they’d be liable for injuries, or something.”

“We waived those rights, remember? When Billy and Willa were over on Thursday?”

“Not really.” We’d been drinking when Billy showed us the reservation forms.

Just then, the oscillatory buzz of a go-kart reached us, followed by heavy footfalls and we both turned to see Gore and Flora’s kart come around the corner.

“Go, go, go! They’re right behind us!” Her shouts were heeded as I ran about the kart and jumped in the passenger seat with my bat yet in hand. The other kart reached us just as we were taking off and Gore shouted to us, “Did you grab any beer?”

“It was water!”

“Figures!”

I glanced behind as we emerged from the isle – “Wait! They’re not behind us!”

Both karts came to a stop and we heard not-so-distant boots do the same.

Half-whispering, I began, “We need to haul ass before — ”

It was, of course, too late. Three security officers, big-n-buff, all but jumped out from the corner, cornering us.

We were caught.

They walked towards us and our eyes dropped to their nightsticks. Surely an all-out brawl was against some sort of rule or law. Then again, private contracts were all-but the law. It occurred to me that if we couldn’t beat fake cops recreationally, we probably couldn’t lead a revolution of our own. The latter was a fantasy we all shared with the rest of the populace. Hence, Vandal’s.

I felt the rebellious, spiteful, contentious voice in me begin to speak. Run them over. Engage them. Pretend to surrender. Protect Kat. You’re clever. You and Gore can take them. The rest of me appreciated the sentiment, but did not consider the voice’s appraisal very reasonable. I glanced around for some way out of there. My eyes found a sign that read: “Vandal’s. Where You Are the RevolutionTM.”

I looked at Kat. She searched my eyes suspiciously. I couldn’t help a protest look of faux-innocence. I looked at Gore, saw the same defiance in his features as in mine.

One of the officers said to the others, “Did you hear something?” For a moment, all seven of us were equally silent, all ears. Something caught my eye —
“What the… ?” The officer’s voice was pure disbelief.

Above us, on top of the beer isle, there was a figure with a bo staff. I looked over at Gore and nodded. We both spun out of our seats to the back of the karts and snatched up weapons. At that exact moment, Ben leapt off the isle and landed lightly in between the three guards. Immediately, he struck out with his staff and there were thumps and grunts and padded crunches. I took the bat, saw Gore had a bokken. A bokken, by the way, is basically a wooden samurai sword and was a much better choice than a baseball bat. Troy, you damn fool.

“Good choice,” I told him, and we charged. The officers had somewhat subdued Ben, or at least disarmed him. One stood back, eyeing us, and another leaned against the shelf, arm to his stomach. The third had Ben from behind in a vice, arms around the waist. His own arms trapped, Ben’s legs kicked comically and futilely.

“Let – go – of me!” His voice spoke in struggles. I came in at one with a low blow to the side of the knee, and I saw Gore swinging from the left at the other. There was a crack, a couple shouts, and the officer holding Ben looked decidely torn on whether to let him go or not.

His decision was made for him when a kick from behind dropped the officer to a knee. An elbow from Ben sent him to the floor.

“STOP! STOP! What is WRONG with you guys?!” What halted our bloodlust was not the appeal to reason, but its voice. We all turned to face Flora, her face glittering with tears and horror. As Gore went to her, I moved my eyes slowly to Kat. There was something in them I had not seen before, something I still don’t dare to commit to paper.

I looked around, my breaths coming heavy. The officers sat or lay in various states of pain and defeat. Ben and Billy both looked chastised, but neither of their girlfriends were around.

I gestured wordlessly from one to the other with my bat and an inquiring look. Ben looked down and Billy said, not without shame or resentment, “They were taken.” I nodded once, and shivered.

The sound of engines, louder than those of the go-karts, heralded the coming of consequence. Soon, we were in the custody of over a dozen security – allegedly real officers this time – and some Vandal’s officials. They took us to a holding room in the back, where we were informed that we had broken the rules. A rather cross woman slid a paper across the table to us.

SEC. 14-37W: Violence against employees of VANDAL’S is considered a break of contract and will result in, depending upon severity, either immediate dismissal, a fine of no less than $500, or, if deemed appropriate, charges in a court of law.

“Are you charging us?”

“Yes.”

There was a mute but tangible feeling of dread that fell over us like rain. We sat in silence as the woman, flanked by fake cops with real power, told us of our coming miseries. We would be in jail for years for assault – and that was the best we could hope for. It would be attempted murder, if she could swing it.

I wanted to protest. I wanted to say that the damned contract was over seventy pages long and I hadn’t been about to read it for a place I didn’t even want to go to. No one in their right mind would read all that! I wanted to spit on either the paper or her. I wanted to pull a movie reference and give them the finger and demand a phone call. But I didn’t, because, I had to admit, we had lost perspective. It was a cheap thrill ride and we’d gotten lost in it somewhere.

So, I shrugged and said, “It was a really immersive experience.” To this, I expected outraged indignance or derision maybe, but I received —

A smile. The woman said, “Thank you. We at Vandal’s pride ourselves on an immersive and engaging experience for all our customers. Would you care to write that statement down as a testimonial?” We must have all looked back blankly, for she continued, “Didn’t you read the contract?”

“Well…”

She looked at Billy, then around at all of us. “You mean… none of you read it?” She looked down and rubbed her eyes with her fingers, then sent one of her fellows out of the room. For some reason I felt she, too, was acting. Her associate returned a few moments later with a sheet of paper. The woman slid it across to us.

I skimmed it until my eyes reached:

DISCLAIMER: SEC. 11-19 ARE STRICTLY PROMOTIONAL.

I looked up. “Look, I don’t get it. Are we in trouble or not?”

The woman smiled venomously. “Well, in Sec. 9B, it does state that any and all injuries sustained by employees of Vandal’s must be covered by either the customer or their insurance company, if that amount is greater than $500.”

I suddenly realized that Vandal’s was far more cunning than we’d – I’d – anticipated. Social conditioning. Though relieved, I recalled the fear and I swallowed my ego.

Kat interjected, “Are we being charged, or aren’t we?”

“No, as I said, we at Vandal’s believe in a holistic and immersive experience for all. Our employees are aware of the risks and are well compensated.”

“Wait, what if he had killed one of your guards?” Gore jerked a thumb towards Ben.

“Well, we blunt all our blades and all our security personnel are recruited from top security firms. Most have seen active duty in war zones but aged out. We at Vandal’s are honored to employ returning American heroes.” She nearly beamed before returning to seriousness. “That said, murder is above my pay grade. We would have to report that to the proper authorities. Of course, all our employees in such positions receive the very best life insurance.” She added, “We haven’t any deaths, yet, thank the Lord, and only one severe injury.”

I gestured helplessly. “You’ve been open for like.. two weeks.”

The woman smiled brightly. “So far, so good!”

I stared at her. “So, just to hear you say it: That part of the contract was just… part of your shtick?” Before she could reply, I added, “And not only that, but you do all this knowing people won’t read the contract?” She started again, but I said, “And the guards are private security contractors?” I paused again but she waited for me. I finished, “And this is all legal?”

“Yes.”

I shook my head. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

A few minutes later, we were reunited with Jill and Willa. Soon after that, after some paperwork regarding liability and payment plans, as well as some heated calls to insurance companies, we were allowed to go on our way. Our group walked out the back of the building into the bright sun, dazed and uncomfortable, unsure of what exactly had just happened.

Kat and I sat down carefully in the hot oven car. I looked over at her, and she at me, but there was something different about it. I averted my gaze for my lap, my hand resting on the keys as they sat in the ignition.

“Look, I – ” I began.

“Let’s just go.” I nodded and turned the keys. The car stumbled to life. As the radio followed suit, Kat reached over. I expected her to turn it off, tell me it was okay, that she felt as out of sorts as I did, that we were only human. Instead, she turned the music up to drown out the silence.

As we left the parking lot, I found I was sure of one thing. Whatever else, it was our humanity that had been vandalized.

Ah, whispered that voice in my head, but who was the culprit?

 

 

COVER ARTWORK BY KARA DAHLHEIMER

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