Say Goodbye to the Nineties

I was packing to leave my Brooklyn apartment for the new cohabitat in Manhattan. I don’t have a lot of stuff to begin with, but I was down to the ruthless last stages of pack vs. throw out, and I came across a plastic bag containing every mix tape given to me since 1998. Do people have tape players anymore? I had one in my station wagon, which was 14 years old, but I sold the car when I moved to the city.

There was “Music for My Emotional Friends,” from my elfin friend J, who became my compatriot one lonely winter in Louisville and took me in the next summer in exchange for weeding his garden, which I ruined. He had been doing impressions of a strange Turkish pen pal he had who left messages on his cell phone that went, “Hello J, I am Zana, I will talk to you late, emotional friend,” in an oblivious monotone, everything lost in the translation. J had a dusty, esoteric record collection, from which he lovingly made mix tapes during the violent summer rain storms Kentucky is famous for.

There was “Braille Dinosaur,” from A, the youngest curmudgeon I ever lived with, who moved, eventually, to Louisville. It was a perfectly calibrated compendium of sing-along-able indie rock, my salvation the summer I was a postal worker. The industrial din of the machines was so loud I could belt songs at the top of my lungs and no one could hear me.

There was the electroclash mix from cool A, 2002, when FischerSpooner and Adult. and Peaches and LadyTron were all the rage.

There was the Bob Dylan mix from JS, who I pined after for months.

“Nostalgia on Tape” was courtesy of D, made the night before she graduated, a year before me, which had the Velvet Underground, Sleater Kinney, Joni Mitchell, and a bunch of riot grrrl bands that sang her particular coming-of-age pathos.

There was “HotBlood,” a beautiful hip-hop tapestry from a boy I slept with on my 21st birthday, on vacation in San Francisco.

I threw them all away.

Tapes sound worse with time; their substance literally degrades after each playing. I wasn’t sure what I was holding onto by stashing them in hard-to-reach closets. I’ll keep the memory of the particular stretch of Route Nine in western Massachusetts that always reminds me of D and the Velvet Underground, the memory of feeling like Dancer in the Dark as I harmonized Built to Spill in front of a postal conveyor belt, the delight at receiving a mix tape from JS at all, which, admittedly, I rarely listened to. As I packed, I played the music (on a laptop) I loved to sing to when I was in college: the Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, Billy Bragg, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nada Surf, the Red House Painters. Bearing witness to the end of an era, the end of my plucky tenure as literary nomad, roommate, commuter. The end of sleeping alone, ever.

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