Sometimes you find Norm MacDonald. Sometimes he finds you.
As the sun went down, the strip mall was almost empty. Down at the corner, a one-legged man in a cowboy hat was angrily pounding a malfunctioning cash machine. “Way to go!” he kept telling it. I walked past him, went into the supermarket, and bought some bread. There was an old man behind me, and he was visibly drunk, balancing on one leg against his shopping cart. “Look, I know the names of two, maybe three of my grandchildren. I just really don’t care,” he volunteered to me shortly after I made eye contact. “And they don’t care, so what’s the problem? I give them nicknames and they think I’m clever. Everybody wins.”
You cross the railroad tracks, keep going about a mile, and it’s that little strip mall before the farms. If you see the gravel quarry, you’ve gone too far. It’s a noble strip mall, the sort of place that would begrudgingly survive an apocalypse. Beyond it you will find Oxycontin, nothing, a veteran’s cemetery, some farms, and then a lot more nothing. It’s served me well over the years as a place to buy cigarettes at 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve without fear of judgment, or park my truck and read without suspicious glances from passerby.
It’s quiet, tucked away, and invisible to tourists. Back in the day, it might have had a Hollywood Video and a bar instead of a liquor store. It’s one of those rural pockets of resistance where time stopped in the tail end of the Clinton administration, where you expect to see a copy of the Chronicle with the headline “O.J. Not Guilty.”
Now, I’ve had about 6 or 7 strangest-damn-things happen to me, and they’re always such small, private moments that I immediately wonder if they actually happened. Like finding a possum in the garage, or that time I saw a naked woman in the middle of an intersection, which doesn’t even count because it happened in Van Nuys.
My latest strangest-damn-thing had to do with Norm MacDonald. Norm MacDonald was my childhood comedy idol, and seeing him on tour was the only thing I remember about 2009. I was plagiarizing his “note to self” gag before I even hit puberty.
So I was heading back to my truck, and I stopped at an empty storefront that used to be a donut shop. It had been moderately defaced with uninspired graffiti. Beside it stood a decrepit old pay phone. And on its side, there it was.
The cover to Norm MacDonald’s 2011 stand-up special.
It was baffling. This is a place to get motor oil and cigarettes and watch the train go by. This is not a place where pop culture is supposed to seep in under any circumstances. Yet here was promotional material for a 3 year old comedy special that I’ve seen north of a dozen times. I half expected somebody to appear in a mask crudely modeled after my own face with the intention of murdering me. “Do you think Bill Hicks is overrated?” I’d hear as the cold steel of the gun pressed against the back of my head.
And there were more copies of the “Me Doing Stand-Up” cover. I saw four others: three on the walls and one on the side of a garbage can. I just stood there, baffled at the improbability of it all. There is nowhere in this county to acquire Norm MacDonald merchandise. That DVD is not in stores anymore. Somebody went out of their way to cut out the box art and tape it on that decommissioned pay phone.
This so profoundly shouldn’t be there. You just can’t imagine anyone putting it up. There is no compelling reason to say “I am going to put up old Norm MacDonald promotional material in a strip mall frequented largely by farmers, loners and hobos.” It shouldn’t be there. It shouldn’t be in the part of California where people put Bible verses on their garage doors and crosses on their trucks.
And over and over, questions ran through my head. Who was the other person in my town who owned Norm MacDonald memorabilia? How did that person know I frequent this raggedy strip mall? Why hasn’t that person taken the initiative to all-the-way murder me instead of just strongly suggesting it? And if it’s viral marketing, why the middle of nowhere in front of a store that’s been out of business for a year instead of major touring markets?
There was design to the placement, besides. This was not one lazily discarded DVD. It was 5 copies of the box art to a cult comedy special. If it was outside the Comedy Store, that’d be one thing. But this strip mall is just too far off the radar. In terms of sheer likelihood, it’d be like finding a Leonard Cohen LP in an Arizona drainage ditch. It’s something only a metafiction serial killer would do.
But never mind Norm MacDonald. This isn’t even about a celebrity – this is about space and time. This is about my childhood staring at me on the side of a broken pay phone 8 miles from where all those prisoners live. A twisted representation of all my nostalgia not 100 feet from where I once saw somebody steal a car. And somehow more shocking.
After awhile, I drove home for my camera, because wistful fever dreams and reality rarely overlap, and such things need documented. I hurried in, grabbed my camera, and went back to the strip mall, fully expecting the entire neighborhood to have vanished into dust, with a convenient sign indicating it all burned down 30 years ago. But thankfully, the unlikely apparition of Norm MacDonald was still there and I got proof. I should get it framed. It’d make a nice conversation piece.