Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Time of Your Life

In high school I made mix tapes - obsessively. From the time I got my two-tape-deck-plus-CD-player boom box in tenth grade to the time I graduated high school, I probably made upwards of 50 mix tapes. Some I gave away, some were stolen, some I probably lost or left in friends' cars, but I still have quite a few of them in my possession. Below is just a small sampling:

PhotobucketSadly, I haven't had any way to play them for about 7 years. My stereo eventually died, and walkmen were thrown out in favor of discmen (and eventually the ipod). And no car I've owned since 2003 (RIP Rhino) has had a tape player. But I was never able to part with these tapes. I've moved them from my parents home, to college, back to my parents home, to my first apartment, to my second apartment and now to my first home. To me, the tapes are treasured artifacts of a specific, enjoyable time in my life. They all tell me something about me.

For some, it's as simple as an idea of the music I enjoyed at the time - see "Summer '99 Mix." For others, such as my "Mike Mix," it's a showcase of an emotional journey, in this case from my first serious relationship, lasting the entire year of 15. Still yet others represent my discovery of and first foray into genres previously unknown to me. My favorite example of this is the tape called, "History of Ska." Funnily enough, this tape was one that was made for me not by me. A fellow mixtape-o-phile, Ben, found out I didn't know anything about ska and wanted to make me a tape to serve as my introduction.

Let me just say a few words about Ben. I met Ben when I started working at Borders Books & Music my junior year in high school. I instantly developed a crush on him, and as most sixteen year old girls do, decided that this meant I was "in love" with him. My first introduction to Ben was the following exchange:

I am sitting in the staff break-room on my first day, with my manager Jack. I am being forced to watch the company video on sexual harassment. It is boring and I am aching for its end, or at least for an interesting distraction. Jack realizes this and actually apologizes for the fact that he must make me watch it. Ben walks into the break room. I think my jaw might have actually dropped. He had long hair, so dark it was almost black, and just greasy enough to give him a rocker edge, but not so greasy he looked like he'd never been introduced to a shower. He reminded me of Trent Reznor circa "Head Like a Hole." Today, he probably looks closer to Alan Rickman as Severus Snape (I'd imagine). A little soul patch, some baggy jeans and a t-shirt for Smashing Pumpkins completed the look that mesmerized sixteen year old Beth. He also had an unlit cigarette dangling precariously from his slightly parted lips.

Ben: JACK!
Jack: What's up?
Ben: Be my Prometheus!
(waits a beat or two for Jack to catch up)
Ben: ...and bring me fire!

Jack laughs, digs into his pocket for a lighter and tosses it to Ben. He then introduces me. I probably blush profusely. Later, when I'm at the register training with cashier Amy, I tell her how cool I think it is that we work with people who just randomly toss out references to Greek mythology. She doesn't get it, but I am no less pleased. Over the next few months, I continue to be enthralled by Ben's intelligence, sense of humor and non-conformist attitude. I am dying for him to ask me out, but I am afraid our three year age difference is a deterrent.

Back in the day, Borders used to sell CDs. I don't think they do anymore. They had these huge awful plastic cases around them, not just covering the CD, but with a little plastic outline protruding about 5 inches below the CD so they'd stand up in the deep magazine type shelves. Every time we sold a CD, we'd take the plastic case off and slip it over this five foot wooden stand designed to hold about a hundred of them. When it got full, someone would have to carry it back to the music section, empty it, and bring it back up front. I was cashiering and Ben had taken my CD rack to the back to empty. It was a slow day, and I noticed as he was returning to the front of the store, he was carrying the rack strangely. He had it resting across his broad shoulders and the back of his neck, and had tucked his arms around the edges so his hands rested underneath. He greeted me by saying, "So I was hanging out with Jesus the other day…" Just to make me laugh.

Despite these butterfly-inducing encounters that seemed to be friendly tinged with flirtation, Ben never asked me out. But he did make me a mix tape. And a lovingly crafted one at that. Taking 7 or 8 songs from each of the 'waves' of ska (original Jamaican, English tone, and third wave/protopunk) he traced the history of ska for me so I could see where the present day incarnation took its inspiration from. Not only did he take the time to type up the list of songs (something which, as evidenced above, I myself rarely bothered with preferring hand written for speed), but he even collected little copies of the bands logos and shrunk them to stick inside the case.

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To this day, this tape serves as a pleasant reminder of what it felt like at sixteen to have a hopeless, unrequited crush, and a great friendship. And of course, also to discover a totally new type of music. One time, in college, I lent the tape to a boyfriend of mine - Eric. He still had it when we broke up and I hounded him for months to return it, because it just meant that much to me. Thankfully, he eventually did.

In any case, all these long-winded recollections are just a pre-amble to the real point. My brother took a trip up to New Jersey this week for Passover. Given that my little Versa is in much better shape than the 1998 Buick LeSabre he just inherited from my mother, I offered him my car for the long journey. While initially I was bitter at the idea of having to drive around the 219,000-mile-deep bucket of bolts, there was a silver lining. It had a tape deck. ELATED to finally have an excuse to bust out my old mix tapes, I have been having a ball dipping into the deep wells of memory these tapes encompass. It's too bad that mixes seem to be overlooked these days as relics of a bygone era, now that we can access our entire music collection at the touch of a button. Perhaps I'll make one tonight, just for nostalgia's sake. :)


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