I remember in the months after September 11th, people were on edge.
Any sort of problem at an airport or loss of power and people would freak out and assume it was terrorism.
I remember the morning the Space Shuttle Columbia blew up, February 1, 2003, I got a call from my friend Aaron Burnett.
It was real early, I was still asleep, but I could hear the panic in his voice.
“Eric, it’s Aaron, the space shuttle blew up!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, that sucks,” was all I could think to say.
“They blew it up, those dirty motherfuckers blew it up!”
I wasn’t sure who the “dirty motherfuckers” were then, but I know now he meant terrorists.
Of course, this theory was quickly discounted. There isn’t a missile in the world that can shoot down an object traveling 12,500 miles an hour, 39 miles high in the sky, but whatever.
This was a big turning point for Aaron. When 9/11 had happened, he made all sorts of promises about how he was going to change his life.
I think with time, peoples’ memories of that day have faded. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years. Things have largely returned to normal, but for a while, it seemed as if it was true that it was “the day when everything changed”.
Aaron never really followed through on his promise to get a new job, one that made a difference in the world. He worked in reality television and I remember talking to him about what the world was going to be like now that everything had changed. He told me that nobody was going to bother watching stupid reality TV shows anymore. There were more important things on their minds.
Aaron typed up his resignation the night of September 11th and brought it in to work the next day, but when he arrived, it was business as usual, so he quickly stuck it in his pocket, never to be delivered.
We would tease Aaron about how he never followed through on anything, but that wasn’t really fair. A lot of people made all sorts of crazy declarations that day. We all sorta lost our minds, which is understandable, considering what happened.
I think if all my friends had followed through on half of what they said that day, 15 of them would be in a Marine unit, somewhere in Iraq right now.
Anyway, the space shuttle blowing up stood as a reminder for Aaron. A reminder of the changes he said he was going to make, but never did.
Over lunch, he told me it was, once again, time to change his life and that this time he was serious.
“I’m sure you are, Aaron,” I said, taking a bite of my burger.
“Listen, I know you guys think I’m full of shit, but I swear to you, I am ready to follow through now,” he articulated through a mouth full of fries.
As I watched him stuff his fat face, I felt sorry for him, because I knew that in his mind, what he was saying was true, but I also knew his promises to eat healthier, take more day trips and fly a kite in the park every third Sunday were just as unrealistic as him joining the Peace Corps.
Which is why I was quite surprised when he called me that night.
It was after midnight and when I answered my phone, I heard his voice triumphantly ring out, “I did it!”
What Aaron “did” was nothing he had mentioned that day at lunch. In fact, he hadn’t mentioned anything about it for at least 20 years.
Aaron had recaptured a piece of his childlike spirit.
I asked him what the hell this meant. He told me that after September 11th, the greatest loss we felt was the loss of America’s innocence.
I didn’t point out that families of the 3000+ dead might disagree with this, but he seemed pretty excited and I didn’t want to burst his bubble.
Anyway, Aaron felt that we all needed to do something that took us back to our childhoods, when things were simple and easy. He had thought this meant flying a kite in the park on every third Sunday, but when he was really honest with himself, there was something else that his ingenuous soul longed for.
“What?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Picture pages. C’mon, you remember Picture Pages? With Bill Cosby!” I’ve never gotten a phone call from a meth addict, but I’m sure that this was on a similar level of manic-ness and insanity.
I did vaguely remember Picture Pages. It was a show, aimed at the pre-school crowd in which Bill Cosby would teach lessons about spelling and math and stuff by drawing on a big pad of paper with a special magic marker.
I remember the marker made a weird noise when he used it. I don’t remember anything about innocence though.
Aaron told me that it was his favorite memory of childhood. He would get up early to watch Captain Kangaroo and he would play along with his very own Picture Pages at home, which arrived via subscription, which your parents paid for.
He would look forward to every Thursday afternoon, because that’s when the new Picture Pages would arrive. He would crack them open and imagine all the wonderful, magical things Bill Cosby would say and do, come Saturday morning.
When he was 11 and his mother told him he was too old for Picture Pages and canceled his subscription, Aaron was never quite the same.
I sat there in my bed, listening to Aaron enthuse about Picture Pages for God knows how long. I know I drifted in and out of sleep several times. When I finally told him I needed to go, it was 3 am.
Aaron jumped into his Picture Pages obsession with a fervor and intensity that most people reserve for something that isn’t totally retarded and gay.
In addition to securing his weekly subscription through 2009, he scoured eBay and the internet for back issues, wrote letters to Bill Cosby on a weekly basis and made his own Picture Pages Fan Club.
I have to admit, that as stupid as it was, Aaron really did seem a lot happier, now that he had his Picture Pages.
Which is why I set out to ruin it for him.
For this, I went back to the classics: the Mickey Finn.
In case this fact is lost on you, a “Mickey Finn” or “a Mickey”, is when you add the drug chloral hydrate to someone’s alcoholic drink.
It’s a really effective way to get someone unconscious.
Aaron’s birthday was just around the corner, which would be perfect, so I made a few calls to some local prostitutes I knew and the scheme was hatched.
Me and some buddies took Aaron to his favorite watering hole, which was the bar at the Woodland Hills TGI Fridays and lo and behold, when we got there, there were some really skanky women there who wanted to meet him!
They liked him so much, they invited themselves back to his apartment and since he was in no frame of mind to object, they all piled into his car and headed back to his place to party.
Of course, he was out within minutes of walking in the door and when he awoke, three days later, he was horrified to see all his Picture Pages stuff was gone.
If you steal someone’s car, they call their insurance company and get a new one. If you steal someone’s wallet, they call Visa and their money is put back in their account. If you steal someone’s innocence, there’s no replacing that.
Aaron was devastated. He called us, he called the cops, he called out to God.
Aaron had boxes and boxes of Picture Pages, all wrapped in clear, plastic, Mylar bags, like the kind nerds put comic books in.
When the VHS tape arrived at his doorstep, marked only with the words, “Play Me” on it, Aaron braced himself for the worst.
He shook as he watched his beloved Picture Pages individually removed from their bags and deliberately inserted into the industrial-grade shredder.
He screamed out in horror as the shreds were then taken to a farm, used to line the floor of a chicken coop and then defecated on by those filthy birds.
By the time the tape got to the part where the masked men scooped up the shit-covered remains of his Picture Pages, stuck them into a giant box addressed to Aaron and delivered it to UPS, he was just gently sobbing, rocking back and forth on the floor in the fetal position.
You can imagine what he must have felt when that very box arrived the next day.
He was drunk and unshaven, he looked like shit. Aaron had given up on life. In fact, he had begun planning out his suicide. Though, in all fairness, he was probably never going to go through with it.
His hands trembled as he slit open the tape that held the top flaps of the box together. He opened it and saw only packing peanuts at first, but as he dug deeper, he thought he must have been dreaming, because he found not the feces-smeared remains of his beloved Picture Pages, but rather the Mylar-wrapped, intact Picture Pages themselves!
He was about to jump for joy when his front door burst open and me and my buddies yelled “Surprise!” at the top of our lungs.
Aaron was startled, he had no idea what was happening, but he was so happy that his Picture Pages weren’t shredded, he didn’t seem to care.
We hugged and he cried. Then I cried. We all cried and hugged and hugged and cried.
My plan couldn’t have gone off more perfectly.
If you know me, you know I am a huge fan of the Michael Douglas/Sean Penn movie, “The Game”.
It has always been my dream to orchestrate an elaborate ruse, like the kind in the movie. One where things are not as they seem and at the end you learn a big lesson.
We had drugged Aaron and stolen his Picture Pages, this was true. But we had also purchased some shitty, scribbled-on Picture Pages from a guy in Tennessee. For 20 bucks, we got thousands of them. And these were the ones we had shredded.
On the video, you couldn’t really tell the difference. Even Aaron had been completely fooled. He laughed as we told him about all the work that had gone into my plan.
“Well buddy, now that it’s over, I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” I said, as I put my arm around my friend.
“I sure have. Innocence doesn’t live in the pages of one of your treasured childhood things,” he picked up one of his Picture Pages as he said this, “it lives in here, in your heart.”
“Well said, pal, well said,” I was feeling extremely pleased with myself.
Aaron sat down on the couch and leafed through the book, but something was wrong. He grabbed another, pulling it from the plastic and frantically going through the pages.
“No! No! No!” he screamed as he went through the box like a maniac.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked. Had we gotten some fingerprints on them when we were switching out the bags?
“You idiot!” he screamed at me. He got up and lunged at me, knocking us both to the floor.
As he tried his best to inflict damage upon me with his laughably weak, little girl arms, he revealed to us all that we had mixed up his Picture Pages with the scribbled-on ones I had gotten online.
“So what we shredded was your real ones?” I asked.
“Yes, you fucking moron!” he was crying now as he did his best to beat me up and I did my best not to laugh. “How could you mix them up?”
“I dunno, they all kinda look the same, I guess. Hey, get off me, I’m sick of this.” I pushed him off and stood up. As I dusted myself off, my buddies proceeded to kick the shit out of Aaron.
I could have stopped them, but I was pretty pissed off.
“Frankly, Aaron, you haven’t learned a damn thing. The point is, your Picture Pages don’t matter. That was the lesson. Your innocence lives in your heart, remember?”
“Help me… make them stop,” he pleaded, as he choked on his own blood.
His pleas fell on deaf ears, I was too disgusted to intervene.
Even now, as I write this, I feel the bitterness, I taste it in my mouth. I fear for the future. I fear that Aaron will one day be running the country, making important decisions and basing them on unimportant things; on material goods.
Well, not Aaron, because he’s a vegetable now, but someone like him.