Objects: The Ballad of White Lightning

A memoir of obsession

LightningIconDue to my own arrogance, poor decisions and surrounding myself with knuckleheads I had the pleasure of experiencing grinding poverty in my early twenties. The slow slog back to non-bum status had me working two jobs, the “real” one as an illustrator/graphic artist for Amtrak and to make the rent I worked evenings at the gym.


HoboI give this background to explain that for a good, long time I did not have what you would call “discretionary income”. Things like socks were considered big purchases, thanks to my brother-in-law my cars were in the $200 dollar range, I had a hand-me-down microwave which I tolerated it bursting into flames for a couple of weeks before I decided I was pushing my luck. And I was on a mission to  never be poor again. A few years passed, I was able to quit the gym, I became art director at the office. And I allowed myself to covet. But my instinct to extravagance remained tempered by fear of poverty, so I would often assign an “acceptable” price point for items and wait for the market to drive the price down.

The MacGuffin

FrankenstienTo understand my obsession, you must first understand my love of the 1930’s Universal Horror films. (Back in the olden days, there were only 5-ish TV channels, and as a kid you either grooved on some old-ass movies or you didn’t watch TV.) “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” were my jams (“Wolfman” to a lesser extent), the laboratory scenes in particular fascinated me with all the lightening effects – like those two knitting needle looking things with a string of lightening between them, god I loved that shit! Anyway, that stuck in my lizard brain, and in the early 90’s there started to be these nutty plasma globe magillas popping up. I needed one. I needed it like a dog needs to go out. The drawback was they were running like three-hundred bucks, and as bad as my plasma jones was, that was out of the question. In my mind, I could justify maybe $100, and that was pushing the edge of my Catholic-brainwashed frugality.

Journey into Madness

MacysMonths passed, the price refused to budge, I resigned myself to a lightning-free life. I had to make a run to New York Penn Station for reasons lost to the mists of time, and whatever the meeting was it wrapped up around 4:00 pm giving me about an hour to kill before I got on the Metroliner back to DC. It was Christmas time in New York, which is pretty cool no matter how you slice it, so I headed out of the station and across 7th Avenue and up to 34th Street where I saw Macy’s all decked out in holiday splendor. Having seen “Miracle on 34th Street” a million times, I couldn’t resist poking my head inside. Let me tell you, Macy’s at Christmas time ain’t for the weak of heart, but I was vibing on the energy and just sort of wandered the store. I recall I was on the second floor when I turned a corner and saw it, I saw White Lightening, on sale for $99.00, blood pumped behind my eyes. It was behind a counter, and there wasn’t a clerk in sight. I looked at my watch and I had fifteen minutes to get back to the station. Any later, and I’d be stuck on a regular train adding an hour to the trip, and that wasn’t going to happen.

RunningI spotted a clerk who looked like she was going on break, I bull-rushed her and the clear insanity in my eyes caused her to raise no objection and she agreed to help. She puttered around behind the counter, seemed confused, couldn’t find the Lightning. Eventually she came from the back with a box so big, that if I wasn’t being a crazy man, I would have thought twice about lugging home on a train. It was maybe two feet tall, a foot-and-a-half deep and heavy as a mofo. But rational thought had left me, I begged the woman to complete the transaction. I bolted for the door, a briefcase in one hand, my holy grail in the other banging into my leg with every rapid step. I broke the plane of Penn Station with five minutes to go, I hurtled schizophrenics and children to make the gate. In something I’ve only seen in movies, the train was pulling away as I hit the platform. I literally leapt onto a moving train with a box bigger than a baby, and the smug satisfaction of the damned.

There was no room in the overhead, so I cradled White Lightning in my lap for the hours home. The subway was packed like a bad night in Tokyo, I received ugly glances from fellow commuters poked by the sharp corners of White Lightning’s box. I didn’t care, I would soon be in the presence of glowing plasma contained within an Art Deco design that spoke to my childhood dreams of monsters and electricity. Exhausted, I staggered off the subway and to my apartment, the box rhythmically whomp-whomp-whomping off my thigh. I unlocked my door, dropped my briefcase and placed my treasure on the cargo chair in my living room. With great ceremony, I unsheathed the box from the bag, then slowly removed the Styrofoam sarcophagus from the box. I slowly pulled two large pieced apart to find them EMPTY! There was no White Lightning! Only a very heavy power converter nestled into the foam, I didn’t cry, but I didn’t smile either.


WhiteLightningLong story short, after an embarrassing phone conversation with a Macy’s representative who howled with laughter at my story, I was able to get my prize a couple of days later at the Pentagon City Macy’s.  Was it worth it? You bet your sweet ass it was. I spent many a winter evening drinking Cognac and running my fingers over the glass, the lightening jumping at my touch. The novelty wore off soon enough, but the child me never stopped loving it. It’s still with me in this room, I haven’t turned it on in years but for over two decades it’s been my mascot. Think I’ll give it a whirl after I post this, there’s never a bad time for some White Lightning.