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I live in South Carolina. I have worked in downtown Columbia since May of 1990. It’s nuts to see that thirty years have passed since May 29th of that year. A lot has changed. I’ve gotten older, gotten married, raised two kids, released fourteen books and had over 200 stories published in various online and print publications. I’ve blown out my knee, had pneumonia, had a heart scare and a few other things that could be considered life altering events. I’ve lost many friends and some relatives to the eternal sleep. I’ve had some good times and I’ve had some bad times. That is the way of life.

On that Tuesday in 1990, my boss at the time, a young woman named Sheri who was not much older than my twenty years, told me, and I quote: “Go across the street and tell them you want a short, sweet blonde.”

I smiled because, in truth, I really did want a short, sweet blonde. Or, really, any blonde. But that is besides the point.

I left the office, went across the street and stepped into the little mom and pop cafe known as The Lunch Box (established in 1980). When I walked in, I saw two small tables with two chairs each, one directly to the left of the door and one directly in front of me along the wall. A glass refrigerator stood behind the table in front of me. Inside were various salads, banana pudding, and boiled eggs. To the left of the refrigerator was the entrance to the cooking area. That opening wasn’t but maybe thirty inches wide. A counter spanned from there and formed an L that ran the entire left side of the area just beyond the table directly to my left. 

Behind the counter was a short, round woman. Her name was Vickie. She was pleasant and funny, but also a no-nonsense woman. Making sandwiches was another woman, Eleanor. It turned out, they were sisters and they were the owners of The Lunch Box. Next to her was a young man named, Todd. 

I walked up to the counter. There was a young woman in front of me who had just ordered her food. Two people walked in after me and stood in line behind me. 

“Can I help you?” Vicki asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “I need a short, sweet blonde.”

The girl who ordered before me smiled, almost embarrassingly, for me. Vickie also smiled in amusement. I probably should have phrased my request differently. 

“A small coffee, with cream and sugar,” Vickie said and rung up my order. She gave me the coffee shortly after, and she was still smiling when she did so.

That was the first time I had stepped foot in The Lunch Box. Over the next twenty-nine years of my life, I would go there quite often for my breakfasts and lunches. I loved their chili cheeseburgers before switching to their hotdogs with chili and cheese and mustard, no onions, please. 

I got to know Eleanor and one of her sons. I became friends with Vickie and was even treated to her one of a kind creation, The Vickie Special. 

For almost forty years, The Lunch Box had been a mainstay on Lady Street in downtown Columbia. During that time period, Vickie passed away from cancer but Eleanor remained, running the place with a welcoming smile and a conversation. 

In early April of this year, as places all across the world were closing their doors temporarily due to the coronavirus, The Lunch Box did the same. I must admit, I was concerned that the doors would remained closed. 

Today, I walked to the post office on Marion Street. On the way back, I walked down Lady Street and went right by The Lunch Box. The front door had been busted out during the race riots in May. There was a piece of board where the glass had been. On the window to the left was a sign that simply said, Space Available.

I stood there for about thirty seconds looking at the sign. I shook my head, saddened by the absolute realization that The Lunch Box would not be coming back. I last ate a couple of hotdogs from there about a week before they closed the doors. This was a sad moment for me, and I’m sure many people in the area will be as saddened.

I think back to Vickie’s amused smile when I told her I was looking for a short, sweet blonde and I can’t help but feel a piece of my life—one thirty years in size—is now gone forever. I think about Eleanor and her asking how I was doing, then how my marriage was going, then how my kids were doing, then how my writing is going. I’m going to miss that place, it’s friendly atmosphere and people.

To Eleanor, to Vickie, to Todd, to all of those who have worked there and brought us good food that wasn’t expensive, as well as smiles and real conversations, thank you for all the great years you gave us. God bless you all. I’m sure I can speak for all of downtown Columbia, you will be missed greatly.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.


Time For A Change

There comes a time when things must change.  That goes hand and hand with the statement ‘all good things must come to an end.’  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe all good things must be altered in order to make things better.  Who knows?

Come on AJ, what are you getting at?

I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last few months as writer’s block set in and I couldn’t pen a grocery list (not that I would actually pen a grocery list—I’m hard to shop for).  I contemplated quitting writing.  Yes, I did.  But, writing is the one thing I truly enjoy doing, especially since my body no longer lets me play sports.

Since I started pursuing writing, I’ve done a lot to help folks.  Promoting people in the best way I can.  Sometimes… sometimes I do well at this.  Other times things don’t go quite the way I envision them.  It’s part of life.  I don’t have that golden touch where everything I do becomes successful. I do interviews and I enjoy them a lot—possibly more than anything other than the process of writing.  I help promote people’s work, their publishing’s, their accomplishments, their endeavors (like starting a new e-zine, for example).  It’s part of networking.

I like helping folks in this business we call writing.  I’ve said since the beginning, no one gets anywhere on their own.  And I believe this to be true.  Yes, writing is a solitary endeavor, but getting out there (can you see where I’m pointing?)… getting out there is so much harder when you do it on your own.  I know, I’ve tried…

That brings me to where I am at the moment in my ‘writing career.’  There are things I’ve come to realize that I’ve probably known all along, but ignored them.

First, let me say:  I’ve finally broken the writer’s block’s strangle hold on my creativity.  In about 15 days I wrote 8 short stories.  Okay, three of them were flash fiction, but the other five were flat out stories.  I think three of them border on very, very good.  And, no I don’t say that because they are my stories.  I’ve written over a thousand stories in the last six years, two novels as well and a handful of novellas, and I know over half of them suck…  I’m not bias.

This bout of writer’s block came on because of pressure that I put on myself to do something I honestly didn’t want to do at the time:  write a novel.  Everyone and their dead aunts suggested to me, boy you should write a novel.  So… I sat down with a great concept, did the research, mapped out the story (literally, I drew maps of where my characters needed to be and at what point in the story they needed to be there).  I even wrote an outline, detailing quite a bit of important information.  A month or so went by while I did all of this.  In that timeframe I didn’t write the first story. 

That was mistake number two.  Mistake number one was listening to everyone in the first place.

Mistake number three was focusing only on the novel itself.  I wrote the introduction, didn’t like it and rewrote it.  That version I liked much better.  Then I started in on the actual story, building the main character and the impending disaster that he would face later.  All was well in the world of AJ, the writer.

Until one day a short story popped into my head.

“Hi, AJ,” it said.  “I want you to write me.”

“Umm.. no,” I countered.  “I’m working on a novel right now.”

“Yes, but don’t you want to take a little break and work on me for a while.  You know, refresh the batteries a little?”

“No.  I want to work on the novel.”

“Have it your way.”

I don’t know about most writers, but when a story comes to me and tells me to write it, I should listen.  Why?  It won’t go away until I do.  It will badger me, keep me awake, make it hard to think about anything but it.  It’s kind of like love… But, in this case, the story did go away.  And it took with it my ability to write.  I sat down to continue the novel and I drew a blank.  I reread what I had written and hated it, even though I thought it was good before.

So, what did I do?  I scrapped what I had written (well, scrapped is a bit harsh, since I don’t delete anything I write) and started over.  About a thousand words in I drew another blank. 

The obligatory curse words were said, but the writing muse had gone to sleep or went on vacation or was on vacation asleep somewhere in Hawaii.  Who knows?  Maybe he was hanging out with Elvis and the missing folks from Atlantis.

For a couple of months I could not write.  I started Type AJ Negative my web presence.  This I have enjoyed.  Along with the blog, I created a new interview series titled Blood Donors.  Recently I started a small press spotlight as well.  I also help out at a few places, some very good publications that I love. 

Time slipped away and the months went by without as much as a crappy story written.  I spent several months editing.  No, it’s not the same.  I took a stab at something, mostly because folks were saying, hey AJ, you should do this or you should do that.  With my muse gone, I started to agree with these well intended folks.  The problem with that is they weren’t things I necessarily wanted to pursue.

Recently, one of those things fell through.  I was bummed, but the people were super nice about everything, so it wasn’t a bad experience at all.  It was still a disappointment and for a few days I pondered… 

So… where does that leave me?

A friend of mine, Brandon Rucker, the micro fiction editor over at Liquid Imagination, said something that made sense.  It was in the midst of the Great Writer’s Block of 2010.  I’m paraphrasing here, but I think you’ll get the meaning:  You sound burned out.  Maybe you should take a break, take a step back and analyze things a little.  Again, paraphrasing at the moment.

Take a step back?

Take a break?


Brandon’s on to something.

Maybe I shouldn’t necessarily take a break from writing.  After all, I’ve just recently found the touch again.  Eight stories in fifteen days.  Yeah, the muse is apparently back from the vacation.  But, did I drive him away the first time?  Did I tell Herbie (yeah, that’s his name:  H. Herbie Himperwheel III) to take a hike while I worked on other projects?  Did I, inadvertently, shut down my creative side?

Or maybe… maybe I focused so much on other stuff for other people that I forgot to focus a little bit on… me.

Toby Keith sang about it:

Yes, the video is cheesy, but…

A couple of years ago another friend of mine, Lincoln Crisler, asked me why I didn’t already have a short story collection out?  With all the stories I’ve written I could probably put out fifteen or twenty of them.  Well, honestly, at the time I didn’t have a very solid response.  The truth is I didn’t think I was ready to put one out.  I was still learning and—to be completely honest—when I read something I wrote back in 2008 or 2007 or before, I cringe.

Over the last five years I have pursued a few avenues to try and further my ‘writing career.’  Many of those avenues have turned out to be dead ends.  I’ve worked on my ability to write and most folks who know me know that nothing comes easy for me.  I learn slowly, but once I have it, it never leaves.  I like to experiment with different styles and wordings and I’m a slow build up kind of guy.  It leads to a better, more satisfying payoff for me.  Many editors don’t like the build up.  To quote Popeye, “I am what I am.”  Of course the way he said it was much cooler. 

What it boils down to is I need to start promoting me more.  I need to be more aggressive in my search for markets, for publishers.  I need to be more aggressive in how I submit and how I approach editors and publishers.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean pushy aggressive.  I just mean competitive aggressive.  When I played sports I did what I needed to do to get better, to beat my opponent, to win games that were supposedly unwinnable.  If I lost a game to someone or if my team lost to another team, we didn’t move on to another team with lesser talent.  No, we played that opponent again and again and again until we figured out how to beat them.  Then we moved on to harder teams.  The onus was on me, my team to get better.  That was the only way we could win—get better or quit and I’ve never been about quitting… 

I feel I am lagging behind; that I should be further along at this point than I am.  I am not where I think I should be. 

Back to the writer’s block for a second.  While struggling through writer’s block, I noticed how much time I spend with other projects.  Hmm…

For a full week, I put everyone else’s projects down.  I left them alone.  They could wait a week, right?  I sat down, cleared my mind and proceeded to write a short piece after seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  The floodgates opened.  Over the next few days I did what I used to do:  write.  Eight stories and I knew what I needed to do.

Starting in January I will not take on any new projects for a while.  I will still do interviews, solicited and unsolicited.  If you’ve never conducted one, you have no clue how interesting they can be and how many side notes take place throughout—things that don’t see the final cut in an interview.  Unless, of course, you are interviewing Steve Lowe and then all bets are off since most of the interview is wild and out there anyway.  I will still do the small press spotlight, as long as I can continue to get folks from the small presses to get me their information.  I’ve found this is somewhat like pulling teeth and I shouldn’t have to do that to help promote someone else…

I think, for a while I need to put me first.  You know, talk about me, me, me, me…

That means I’m going to have to drop a few projects I am on right now.  It’s sad.  It sucks, but, for me, it’s a necessary evil.  I’m going to set some realistic goals for myself for the next year.  That will be my focus. 

I’m sure someone out there will say, why are you telling us this crap?  Do you think that highly of yourself?  Umm… no.  That’s the problem.  I don’t think of myself the way I should and I don’t push myself the way I should.  In the grand scheme of things, I’m a guppy in the big ocean and most people won’t care one way or the other.  But, there is one person who does care:  me. 

It’s time to take the pressures of doing what folks think I should do and throw them aside.  It’s time I do what I think I should do, what I think is best for me.  It is what it is.  I think most folks will understand.  Those who don’t well… again, it is what it is.

Until later, I’m AJ and I’m out…