Friday, June 28, 2013

"Toy Story III" : The Schwartz Will Be With Us...Always

Salutations, Star Warriors!

In May of 1977, Star Wars impacted my childhood like an Imperial biker scout into an Endor tree.  I walked into the theater a normal, average, everyday kid and came out with my imagination cranked up to "11" with the knob broken off.

Much has been said about the deal George Lucas made with 20'th Century Fox in order to get Star Wars bankrolled.  The studio probably thought they were making out like banditos when they short-changed Lucas's director's fee in lieu of profit points and the film's merchandising rights.  Back then, the only movie that had made any substantial coin from tie-ins was Planet of the Apes.  I wonder if the Fox executives sat back and laughed at Lucas for what they must have though was a pretty noob move?

But the young visionary knew that toys based on his sprawling space saga had the potential to be big business.  Back in 1976, he asked Mego Corporation to produce a line of Star Wars action figures but he was immediately shot down.  This discarded offer was promptly picked by Kenner Products, a division of General Mills who were best known for producing such childhood classics as Spirograph, the Easy-Bake Oven and Play-Doh.

Along with everyone else on the planet, Kenner was taken completely by surprise when Star Wars suddenly become a world-wide cultural phenomenon.  In fact, they didn't even have the the capability to produce toys in time for the highly-prized 1977 Christmas season.  Their solution to this was as bizarre as it was ballsy: they ended up selling fans an empty box.


Included in the "Early Bird Certificate Package" was a pre-order document that you could fill out and send back to Kenner.  Then, in two to six months (!), you'd receive your first four Star Wars action figures in the mail.  During this agonizing wait, kids could bide their time by validating the enclosed Star Wars Fan Club Membership Cards, glue stickers to the family cat or stare wistfully at the full-color diorama included with the package.  Hey, what can I say, we had no Internet back then.

Somehow this whole "Early Bird" racket managed to pass me by.  In fact, I was oblivious to the concept of Star Wars merchandise until one fateful day when my parents were dragging me towards the exit of a Woolworths in Sydney Cape Breton in the Spring of 1978.  Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spied something in the distant toy department.  Back then I was so attuned to Star Wars imagery that I probably would have seen this display behind a foot-thick wall of lead: 

Back then, our knowledge of what was transpiring in the world was pretty much limited to the range of our own senses.  As a result, this was literally the very first time I'd ever laid eyes on Star Wars action figures.  Without any ado, I wriggled free of my parent's grip, ran over to the toys, stripped off all my clothes and then started rolling around in the display box naked.  

Pictured here are the first twelve Star Wars action figures released in the stores:  

From left to right and back to front: Stormtrooper, R2-D2, Darth Vader, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Jawa, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia Organa, C-3PO, Death Squad Commander and a Sandperson
After a bout of concentrated pan-handling, my folks let me pick out a few of them.  At the steep price of $1.88 a pop, they certainly couldn't afford to buy all of them for me, so I had to make a heart-rending decision right there on the spot.  Back then I was all about the GOOD GUYS so I think I ended up with Luke, R2-D2, C-3PO and Darth Vader.  

From that point on, every scrap of allowance money I managed to save was laid down at the altar of Kenner's Star Wars action figure toy line.  Between 1978 and 1982 I was the easiest kid on the planet to buy for.

"Whattaya want for Christmas / Easter / Groundhog Day?" relatives would ask me.

"Star Wars action figures!" I'd invariably reply.

"But I don't know which ones you have and don't have!" they'd protest.

"That's alright!" I'd chime back.  "You're always safe with Stormtroopers, Jawas and Sandpeople!  You can't have enough of those guys!"  

By the time my eighth birthday had come and gone that summer, I'd managed to collect every figure in that inaugural wave.  But then the good folks at Kenner decided to throw us kids a curve ball and began producing play sets and vehicles.  As such, I started to exchange child labor for the scratch required to purchase Luke Skywalker's signature Land Speeder:  

His X-Wing Fighter:

And the Creature Cantina ("Nagamaroo!"):

I wasn't the only Seventies kid who was obsessed with this stuff; our entire generation was buying Star Wars toys like rats on cocaine.  I wonder how long it took before the execs at Kenner realized that they had a Bantha-sized cash cow on their hands?  I imagine if was probably just seconds after receiving the sales figures for that first quarter of 1978.  After realizing how rich they now were, they probably turned to each other and said:

"Have you actually seen this friggin' movie?  I mean, there are literally f#ck-tons of freaky-deaky creatures just hangin' out in the background.  Sure, we made figures out of the main characters but what about that guy with the weird-shaped head in the space bar?  Make a doll outta him!  The kids'll go nuts!"

And, lo and behold, that's exactly what they did.  Here's the considerably more esoteric rogues gallery produced for the second wave of figures:

From left to right: Greedo, Death Star Droid, Boba Fett, Snaggletooth, Hammerhead, Luke Skywalker: X-Wing Pilot, R5-D4, Walrus Man and Power Droid.  

Now, did I care that these characters were more obscure?  Hells, no!  At first I was just jazzed that Luke Skywalker finally had some X-Wing appropriate-attire.  But after sustaining Luke, Leia and Han through endless adventures, my interest slowly started to turn towards the fringes of the Star Wars universe.  What was the deal with R5-D4's timely breakdown?  What planet did Hammerhead come from?  Pretty soon, the ill-fated Greedo was in the running as one of my favorite action figures.

That's when we began to realize that these characters could be more then just window dressing.  Via hours of creative play, we eventually assigned origins, motivations and back-stories to even the most obscure bit players.  Way before these guys had had canonical names and lore attached to them we were invited as kids to make up our own.  In retrospect, how could I possibly slight Kenner for that?

Besides, how many people can claim that some of their most cherished childhood toys were given to them for free?  Well, that was certainly the case for one of the most popular action figures of all time: Boba Fett.  Not many people know this, but the galaxy's most notorious bounty hunter didn't make his debut in The Empire Strikes Back.  Indeed, any true Star Wars fan worth his lightsaber knows that Fett was the only decent thing to emerge from that steaming pile of wookiee dung known as The Star Wars Holiday Special:

If you can look beyond the trippy animation courtesy of Nelvana, this groovy cartoon featured the voices of all the original cast as well as the first appearance of the galaxy's most unapologetic bad-ass.  Here Fett wantonly indulges in animal cruelty, bold-faced deception and acts of random violence.  And, most importantly, he doesn't sound like a f#@king Kiwi.

Kids could get Boba Fett for free just by mailing in four proof-of-purchase tabs from the back of any Star Wars action figure to Kenner!  Since I was fascinated by the sometimes-rare images on the front of the cards, I couldn't bear to throw any of them out.  As such, whenever Kenner proposed another one of their freebies, I always had a huge proof or purchase surplus at my disposal.

These free figure offers actually happened with alarming regularity.  In fact, here's a personal favorite of mine: "Bossk, Alien Bounty Hunter".  As a side note, WORST SECRET EVAR.


By then I had over twenty of these little plastic bastards and no place to store them.  Well, leave it to Kenner to sell you yet another empty box, this one designed to house all the crap that you'd already bought from them.  Pure evil genius.

Now, Kenner wasn't content just selling a hojillion three-and-three-quarter sized action figures.  They also produced a series of twelve-inch toys designed to compete with G.I. Joe and those super-heroic Megos.  Although this scale wasn't nearly as successful as their diminutive cousins, it did result in the creation of some of the best toys ever produced.  Unfortunately they were also kinda pricey and, as such, I only had Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader out of this line:

To this day I'd still murder me own Gran to get my hands on twelve inches worth of Boba Fett and / or the Stormtrooper.

Wow, that sounded terrible.  And on so many different levels.    

Just as a casual aside, if anyone out there wants to buy either of these guys for me as a birthday gift, I wouldn't object.  Seriously, go right ahead, you have my permission.  Fill yer boots.    

When The Empire Strikes Back exploded in theaters on May 21'st 1980 we officially entered the Golden Age of Star Wars mania.  In conjunction with the film's release, Kenner made sure to immortalize ten of the film's characters in "Wave D" of their action figure line:

Pictured from left to right: Han Solo (Hoth Outfit), Rebel Soldier (Hoth Battle Gear), FX-7, Imperial Stormtrooper (Hoth Battle Gear), Luke Skywalker (Bespin Fatigues), Leia Organa (Bespin Gown), Lando Calrissian, Bespin Guard, Bossk (Bounty Hunter), IG-88.  An early release Yoda was included with the Dagobah Play Set (see below).  

And with it came a virtual assault of Empire-related vehicles and playsets, such as the totally pimp Rebel Armored Snowspeeder:

The Twin-Pod Cloud Car:

The Tauntaun and Hoth Wampa:

Fett's Vette, Slave I:

The distinctly poultry-esque AT-ST Scout Walker:

And then there's Yoda's crib, included with the Dagobah Action Play Set:

I also managed to snare some of first film's toys this time around.  Thanks to my inexplicable fetish for Stormtroopers and giant lizards, the Patrol Dewback was a foregone conclusion:

I was also keen on the Death Star Space Station play set, which I'd coveted ever since it first appeared in the Consumer's Distributing Christmas catalog:

But in a stroke of good fortune, I got the Death Star Play Center instead.  It was a Sears Wish Book Exclusive back in 1980 and it's now regarded as one of the rarest and most valuable Star Wars collectibles in existence!

And then there was the greatest toy I ever owned: the mother-f#@king Millennium Falcon, yo!  Han Solo's legendary ship sent my imagination into hyperspace and resulted in countless hours of action and adventure!  

To populate all of these brave new vistas, Kenner cranked out nine new figures in 1981:

This assortment included Dengar, Imperial Commander, Rebel Commander, AT-AT Driver (a personal fav of mine), Ugnaught, wide-release Yoda, Leia (Hoth Outfit), Lobot, Han Solo (Bespin Outfit), and 2-1B.      

The following year nine more figures materialized including Hoth Battle Gear Luke Skywalker, AT-AT Commander, TIE Fighter Pilot, (Twin Pod) Cloud Car Pilot (OooOoo, exciting!), bounty hunters Zuckuss and 4-LOM, and a racially-diverse Bespin Security Guard.

Even as a ten year old kid I began to suspect that Kenner was starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel with some of these dubious choices.  For example, "R2-D2 with Sensorscope" was the exact same figure from the very first wave but with a little plastic vibrator that popped out of the top of his head.  Lame!

I started to become jaded, to the point where I didn't even bother to track down the C-3PO with Removable Limbs.  My twelve year old brain reasoned that if I really wanted that particular option I could just rip the arms and legs off of the old figure.

Regardless, these wonderful toys allowed me to pass the time while waiting for the release of Return of the Jedi.  But when the trilogy's final film appeared in theaters on May 25'th 1983, it actually fueled my growing Star Wars cynicism.  Compared to the first two movies, I thought Jedi was creatively fatigued, juvenile and kinda slap-dash.  Half way through the film I was silently hoping for an Ewok ethnic cleansing.

As a result, I didn't collect very many of the Jedi-era toys.  By that time I was thirteen years old and way more interested in heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons and girls, oblivious to the fact that these things were mutually exclusive as well.  I guess, at that stage, I was all Star Wars-ed out and thought that toys were best left behind in childhood.

But between 1978 and 1982 Kenner, Star Wars and I had a really good run.  It's funny how four short years can feel like an entire epoch to a kid.  Although some folks might look at all of this as an unholy marketing ploy, these great toys ensured that every day of my idyllic childhood was an exciting adventure in that Galaxy Far, Far Away...

EPIC MEMORIES:  In all estimation, Star Wars paraphernalia appears in at least 30% of my childhood photos.  Here a few select snaps from over the years:

Here I am hangin' with an omnipresent Stormtrooper and test-flying my new T.I.E. Fighter at my grandparent's house, Christmas 1978.

Star Wares on Christmas morning, circa 1980.  Note Snowspeeder, Dewback, Tauntaun, C-3PO model, ESB storybook and one very confused dog.  P.S. that big-ass red-wrapped box contained a certain highly-modified YT-1300 light freighter.  Subsequent photos document a distinct loss of shit on the part of yours truly and, as such, are not included here.  

The Wonder Awkward Years.  That hand-held Space Invaders game provided the briefest of diversions from Boba Fett's exploits and Luke's fulfilled promise to Yoda.  P.S. in my continuity, the Jedi Master never died.    

EPIC PHOTO CREDITSDisplay Box, Wave "A", Wave "B", Death Star Play Area, Wave "D", Wave "F".

FAILED TOY COMMERCIAL:  Hmmmmm, I wonder why they didn't make a "Horny Itchy" action figure complete with "Diahann Carroll Virtual Reality Porn Goggles"?  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Whoever Said "Getting There Is Half The Fun" Is On Crack

Felicitations, Fellow Fliers.

Exactly one year after my trip to Miami, I had an opportunity to go on my second work-related sales conference, this time to Orlando.  During this time I made sure to get my passport in order so I'd never have to deal with that particular nightmare again.  Unfortunately I was soon to find out the hard way that sporting an official passport was no guarantee that the trip would go smoothly. 

Here are some vintage diary excepts from that flight:

Wednesday, March 10'th 

Our flight is scheduled for 5 pm so I've been told to expect a pick-up anytime after 1 pm.  My crew finally rolls in at 2:30.  Mercifully, they have some Smirknoff Erce on da chill and instantly all is forgiven.  Knocked back a few while heading over the new bridge to Dartmouth.  Despite the fact that we're running behind schedule we doggedly stick to our plan of having an early supper at the Mic Mac Bar and Grill.  My concerns about our tardiness evaporate as I enjoy another Erce and devour a tasty club hizzouse sammich.    

We arrive at the airport late, around 4-ish.  While security hustles us through they neglect to give us a boarding pass for our connecting flight.

'Ask about it when you get to Toronto,' we're told.  

The flight to T.O. is unremarkable.  Listened to Dennis Leary's No Cure for Cancer to set the mood.  Between the chain-smoker's acerbic bombast and my concentrated intake of Smirknoff Erce, I find myself working on a Class One headache.  

When we get to T-dot we find out that we're not on the passenger manifest to Orlando.  They go on to tell us that the flight is overbooked and we've been downgraded to 'standby'.  Is this because we went through Halifax so late?  Probably, but it still doesn't explain why we're completely and totally abscent from the system.

An executive class attendant tries to set us up in the system manually but they're unable to procure seat assignments for us.  Can't say I'm surprised since they're trying to cram seven extra people with no valid reservation onto a plane bound for the Spring Break capitol of the world at the last minute. 

After recovering our bags and checking in again, we wait with baited breath as our seat-blessed co-workers board the plane.  We're forced to watch other standbys with 'priority' waltz through the gate ahead of us.  When our departure time comes and goes and our plane begins to roll away we begin to suspect that maybe, just maybe we aren't going to make this flight.  

Damn!!!  We were all so excited to get to Orlando a day early.  We coulda checked in, cleaned up, grabbed some drinks and hit the hot tub.


Instead we're given the option to fly from Toronto to New York City and then catch an early flight to Florida the following morning.  The really galling thing is that our luggage is now en route to Orlando without us.  Thank God I had the foresight to pack socks, underwear and my toofbrush in my carry-on.

We rush Amazing Race-style to our gate to try and catch the NYC flight.  The trip is brief but distinguished by three things:
  1. Headache now at least a Class 2.  In the past five hours it's faded and then roared back at least three times.
  2. Flying into one of the world's greatest cities at night is almost worth the misery.  I'm still stunned.  I can understand why Fritz Lang was inspired to make Metropolis after flying over Manhattan.  It's a sea of lights in every direction.  In quick succession I inventory the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the Empire State Building and Ground Zero during our approach.  It's downright awe-inspiring.
  3. Landing at LaGuardia Airport did little for my migraine.  For a moment there I thought we were gonna pitch on the top of a tenement building.  
The saga continues after we land.  At this stage in the game our "tickets" are nothing more then hand-scribbled notes.  A local Air Canada rep (who I can only describe as Woody Allen's older brother) is kind enough to arrange accommodations for us.  He tells us that if we have any chance of flying to Orlando tomorrow we need to be back at the airport by 7am sharp.  Unfortunately it's already 11:30 pm and we're tempted to just flake out somewhere in the terminal.

Despite it all, I'm kind of psyched to be in New York City.  A part of me wonders if we can get into Manhattan for some sightseeing but as time ticks by, hope for this quickly evaporates.      

We nearly die of exposure waiting for our shuttle to show up.  At one point in time "Sheckie" Allen refers to the driver as a 'mental midget'.  Eventually we end up at the Eden Park Best Western Hotel in Flushing, Queens: birth place of The Nanny, a.k.a. Fran Drescher.  Welp, so much for seeing something cool.

By the time we get to the hotel it's nearly midnight.  Exhausted and starving, we all gather in L____ and S____'s room to order Domino's Pizza and watch an episode of The 5'th Wheel (from the producers of Blind Date, dontcha know).  It's a downright enchanting evening.

K________ gets in touch with some local family members and invites them over.  Before they arrive she likens me to her nerdish nephew.  This is a fair cop, but I have to confess to being slightly put off when the guy shows up and vaguely resembles the Unibomber.

My own room is disconcerting.  Beyond the meat-locker like temperature, there are mirrors EVERYWHERE and the bathroom sells...things.  I finally crash around 2 pm but the unrelenting stream of traffic continuously barreling down the exchange right outside my window keeps me wide-eyed for most of the night.
Thursday March 11'th        
I mistakenly set my alarm for the time we're supposed to be on the shuttle to the airport.  Fortunately my sleep has been so shitty I wake up twenty minutes before the clock begins to blare.  This gives me just enough time to wash my face, shave, brush my teeth and change clothes.  I kick myself for not showering the night before since I'm already starting to feel a tad "ripe".

We finally get to the airport.  Incredibly the airline rep tells us that she has no record of Air Canada making any arrangement for us and sends us back down to their customer service desk.  Just before everyone darts off I ask if there's room on the plane and if we can at least reserve some seats.  She does this for us and we're finally rewarded with real, live legitimate tickets from Air Canada.  We quickly dash back and exchange these for boarding passes which, to our bleary eyes, look like Golden Tickets to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. 

Security at LaGuardia is the worst I've ever seen.  Shoes are removed, belts are whipped off, hats are doffed and anuses are probed.  The TSA agents don't even have the decency to return my boarding pass and passport after molesting me.  I'm almost struck dead with horror when I realize these two precious documents are missing, forcing me to double back and retrieve them.  

When we finally get through the gauntlet of security I celebrate by picking up a NYC t-shirt.  Hey, technically I was there!

I try to sleep on the flight to Orlando but it's virtually impossible.  I find it really hard to sleep on a plane; I always feel as if I'm going to miss something important.  Perish forbid if I don't get that free three-gram pack of stale pretzels that's comin' to me. 

Despite the trials and tribulations it's all worth it when we step off the plane into that gloriously warm and humid air.  Everything looks green and lush and the smell of tropical flora instantly revives our weary senses.  It's the complete and total antithesis of how things look back home.  It's like being transported to another planet.   

Although getting here has been pretty miserable but we all know that it's just a test.  In light of all the awesome experiences we'll probably have over the next three days, all this strife and misery will quickly boil down into nothing more substantial then an amusing story.  

To be continued...

EPIC GRUB  The Mic Mac Bar and Grill ain't fancy, but Dear God, it's good.   

EPIC LAUGHS  The first time I heard No Cure For Cancer I nearly died.  Literally.  I was driving at the time and laughing so hard I could barely see through the tears.

EPIC FLICK  Still one of the most startling visions of the future, Metropolis was light-years ahead of its time.   

PROFESSIONAL FAILURE  This is weird since TSA agents spend most of their time trying to strip passengers naked...

FAILURE TO REPRESENT  "Tastefully decorated rooms" my ass.  I sincerely hope they've renovated since then... 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Welcome To Miami!

Hello, Heat-Seekers!

All of the failure and frustration I went through in order to procure my identification turned out to be well worth it.  Miami was the antithesis of grey, dead, slushy Nova Scotia in March.  As soon as I stepped off the plane, the humidity, heat and florid air wrapped around me like an environmental Snuggie.  Everything was vibrant, beautiful and alive.

For the next three days I felt intoxicated.  Probably because I was intoxicated, but sleep deprivation and sensory overload certainly played a part in making the entire trip feel dream-like and surreal.  Keep in mind: our flight had left Halifax at 6:35 AM and didn't arrive in Ft. Lauderdale until 12:30 PM the following day.  To make matter worse, my trepidations about clearing U.S. customs without a passport coupled with my unbridled excitement ensured that I didn't sleep a wink the entire time.

Here's what I do remember about that incredible trip, sketched out bullet-point style to simulate my fractured memory:
  • We stayed at the Fontainebleau Hotel, one of the most historic structures on Miami Beach.  In addition to hosting such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, the hotel has featured prominently in movies like Scarface and T.V. shows like The Sopranos.  Most importantly, the Fontainebleau was the setting for James Bond's first run-in with arch-villain Goldfinger in the film of the same name.
  • It was a beautiful day when we arrived so instead of taking a nap like sensible people we immediately changed into our swim suits and ran down to the beach.  Just seconds after diving into the clear, blue, warm ocean one of my co-workers got hit in the head with a flying fish.  It scared the bejesus out of her and we all decided to play it safe and spend the rest of our time poolside.  
  • Speaking of "When Animals Attack", my boss at the time almost had a coronary when he was menaced at one point by a crazed...parrot.  
  • Mercifully, the only thing we were obliged to do that first day was attend a two-hour opening session hosted by the bigwigs which segued into an Opening Dinner and Cocktail Reception.  For the record, the phrase "complimentary bar" has a different meaning for Maritimers then it does for most other human beings on the planet.
  • In order to justify the obscene amount of money the company was spending on this conference, the second day consisted of eleven hours worth of sales highlights, vendor presentations, business development sessions and "MVP Awards".  The next two days cut this schedule down by half and ended around 1 PM, leaving the rest of our time free for decadent levels of sloth and wanton debauchery.  
  • The pro-company rallies we were forced to attend had all the propagandic power of a Leni Riefenstahl flick.  In order to effectively trumpet the endless Powerpoint slides which bragged about the annihilation and / or assimilation of our small-fry competition, we were given inflatable plastic tubes to bang together as noisemakers.  One particularly nauseating session about projected profits was capped off with the sacrilegious playing of "Only In Dreams" by Weezer.  Only corporate pinheads could possibly take a sweet, heartfelt song about wistful longing and heartbreak and turn it into a cynical ode to greed.  Not only did this seriously test my gag reflex, I actually thought about contacting Weezer to find out if they'd actually given their permission to use the song.  I decided not to because I would have dumped all of their CD's into the nearest landfill if they were actually complicit in this travesty.
  • As a anomalous cadre of boisterous Canadians, I'm pretty sure we were all universally regarded as uncouth, ignorant savages.  But we were also polite, cheery and friendly to a fault.  Eventually we were adopted by a sales rep who kept us in drinks for the entire weekend.  In retrospect, this guy kinda reminded me of Gil Gunderson from The Simpsons.  Every time we'd try to buy him a drink, he'd get pissed off and say "Hey, if I don't use up my expense account, I'll be in deep shit when I get back".  Funny thing is, I'm pretty sure that our company didn't even stock his company's product.
  • In the odd chance that we'd recommend their products to our customers, the vendors gave us an obscene amount of free swag.  I'm not gonna name names here but suffice to say that some members of our little entourage got so many free label makers they could have started up their own dot com business.  
  • To meet and mingle with our peers, we were randomly assigned to a table for the closing dinner.  Since I'd just been forced to transition from the customer service department within the same company I remember looking around at all the opulence and saying "Wow, I really wish they'd  do something like this for the good folks in customer service".  Well, as soon as the District Sales Manager I was seated with heard this he cleared his throat, looked down his nose at me and said: "Are you kidding?  Customer service wouldn't even have jobs if not for us!"  Needless to say, the resulting verbal donnybrook between us certainly made dinner an awkward affair.      
  • Speaking of food, every morning began with a tremendous free breakfast at the hotel, which some members of our group positively despised.  "I wish I could just go to McDonald's and get an Egg McMuffin," they lamented.  That's when I began to suspect that I was different from most people.    
  • After buying a $9.00 rum and coke at the Fontainebleau's bar (not a bad deal in today's inflation-ravaged economy) I was forced to down it in one gulp when everyone suddenly decided that they were going out.  As soon as I got outside I kicked myself for chugging down the precious beverage since people seemed to be walking around with open liquor everywhere.  
  • We had a blast strolling along Collins and Washington Avenue.  Amidst all of the evocative neon lights and Art Deco architecture, there was a constant parade of tricked-out vehicles and modified human bodies.  Every time I watch an episode of Dexter in which the title character is shown prowling around SoBe I can't help but blurt "I was there!"  Then I promptly shut up 'cuz apparently it's not cool to have experiences in common with a serial killer.   
  • My boss got embroiled in a knock-down, drag-out argument with the owner of an Italian restaurant over their inability to split up the bill.  During this fracas I tried to slide down my seat, crawl under the table and disappear into a crack in the sidewalk.
  • During our walkabout we encountered a street magician named "Amazing Adam" who wowed us with his David Blaine-like illusions.  On the back of his business card is a quote attributed to "Adam's Mom" which reads: "This guy is really special!".  Ah, Amazing Adam, where art thou now?  
  • After stumbling upon the South Beach home of the late fashion designer Gianni Versace we decided to pose for photos on the very same steps where he'd been gunned down by crazed spree-killer Andrew Cunanan.  Pretty ghoulish stuff, and I've been on a Jack the Ripper tour, fer Crissakes!    
  • When my boss tried to take a photo of a pimped-out car the owner ducked down in the front seat and yelled "Hey, man, I've got a warrant!"  
  • Based on a second hand rumor that "Matt Damon was going to be there", we hung out all night at an open-air bar somewhere on Pine Tree Drive.  Jason Bourne didn't show up but the bar itself was pretty rad. 
  • We found out that electrical storms in Miami are both Wagner-esque and omnipresent.  
  • When we got back to the hotel from downtown it was pretty late, around 1 AM.  Instead of going to bed like sensible people, we got into our swimsuits and bobbed around in the Fontainebleau's lagoon-like pool and grottos for two or three more hours.  
  • We finally decided to pack it in around 3 am.  As we made our trek back through the hotel's expansive and Babylonian hanging gardens we inadvertently stumbled upon a rather boisterous and acrobatic couple "pitching woo" in a hammock.  We tried to sneak by as discretely as possible but as soon as the guy spotted us he leapt off the hammock and scampered off into the underbrush.  Unfortunately the momentum caused by his vault instantly turned the hammock into a wicker centrifuge which spun the poor girl around two or three times before depositing her on the ground.  Dizzy and perhaps slightly tipsy, our girl bundled herself up, swayed to her feet and then stumbled off in search of her fleet-footed Lothario.              

Even though this event was centered around a corporate circle-jerk, it kicked off a life-long passion for travel that lingers with me to this very day.  And although I didn't have a lot in common with some of my co-workers it was an incredible bonding experience akin to my time living in residence.  Even today I still feel a close connection with these people.

And although I despise that company for what they represent and what they eventually did to us, I'm still eternally grateful for the opportunity.  Before everything started to fall apart, I was lucky enough to go on one more of these events, which turned out to be crazier then the first.

But that's a tale for another time.    

EPIC HOTEL  Here's the map of the Fontainebleau Hotel which was included in our orientation package.  Man, I sure wish I could pop into "Coconut Willie's" right now...

Here's the Fontainebleau in all her 60's glory, established in this famous helicopter shot at the beginning of Goldfinger:

E(PICS)  I didn't clean up too bad back then, huh?  Wow, I actually look vaguely respectable...

For some odd reason, I didn't have a camera with me, but here's a sample of the Fontainebleau's Shangri-La like pool area:

And here's a rare photo of me molesting one of the Fontainebleau's many dolphin fountains, taken apparently with George Eastman's prototype camera.  In case you're wondering, that's chocolate milk in that cup, BTW.

FAILED JOINT  This annoying-as-f#@k track got played way too many times before, during and after our trip.  Thank Vishnu I had the foresight to bring along my discman (!) and a copy of the Trainspotting soundtrack to cleanse the palate.