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Archive for the ‘Nostalgia’ Category

1989It was the late ’80s. Every guy was trying to affect the Don Johnson look, every girl had hair bigger than life, and I was dealing with some serious acne and an identity crisis of my own. As a boy coming of age at the end of that glorious decade it was easy to find role models. They were everywhere: from the graffitied billboards, to the movie stars, to pretty much everyone I came in contact with.

But the ones who were always there for me were those on the small screen, where I could find them once a week when I needed them. Stars from shows like Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, and The Cosby Show showed me exactly what I needed to do, how I should behave, and what advice to follow so I could be a well-rounded human being. And they all did it in just a half hour every week.

The best part was that they weren’t real, but they were at the same time. I could imagine how it would be if I was friends with them, yet I never had to deal with their rejection. I could look up to them, but also judge them from afar, because they were royalty in a kingdom I would never visit.

savedcastMy favorite show back then was Saved By the Bell. It was so overwrought with stock characters and predictable storylines, but it was fun.. Saved By the Bell had it all:

  • The Jock
  • The Cheerleader
  • The Nerd
  • The Fashionista (who doubled as the token black character)
  • The Student Body President
  • Zack Morris

I really wanted to be Zack Morris (and not just because of his bitchin’ cell phone either). He could stop time at any point and offer commentary on his fellow characters. He had amazing blonde hair. He was the cool kid without being too cool, because he made a ton of mistakes and was forced to grow as a character in order to fix them. And the best thing about Zack Morris was the glint in his eye when he had just come up with one of his dastardly plans.

Zack was the king of the swagger, and to a pubescent boy in the late ’80s it was easy to try and imitate that. There was nothing Zack couldn’t do, no lengths to which Zack wouldn’t go, in order to get what he wanted. And yet he was still likeable. Yet he still had a group of friends who were loyal to him even after he had humiliated each and everyone of them at some point. He was redeemable because he was real, because his swagger didn’t make him a villain.

It made him one of us.

Sam

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lea-elite-cross-lb-800Growing up, I wanted a bunk bed. It didn’t matter that my room was no bigger than a postage stamp (somehow this was true in all three of the houses I lived in as a child), or maybe it was because of the diminutive size of my room, but regardless, I wanted that damn bunk bed.

I knew exactly which one I would get if I was allowed to have it, the one in dark wood with the fringe hanging down from the top bunk. You know the fringe, like a tassel on a graduation cap, but covering the entire bottom half of the top bunk and gnarly as all get out. I wanted the fancy bottom bunk that wasn’t even a bed, just a desk, or a space for a beanbag, or even the seventh circle of hell. I wasn’t particular.

And I would sleep up top, after climbing the seemingly endless stairs to get up there, past the boogeyman (who hung out in my closet), and whatever else would somehow materialize in my way to stop me from getting as high as I could in this world. I would often stand on my bed (carefully, so as not to cause it to creak and alert my mom to the precarious position I was in) and gaze down at the world from that perch, imagining I was in my top bunk.

If I had that bunk bed I was going to play space invaders, with my He-Men and G.I. Joe figurines as stand ins for Kirk and Spock. I was going to drape my blanket over my entire body and pretend I was invisible. I was going to rig up a rope ladder over the edge and pretend I was descending Rapunzel’s hair after being her spectacularly heroic savior. I had so many plans, but they all lived right there in my head and went no further.

Because there was absolutely no chance I would ever get that bunk bed. Because bunk beds were expensive, and I was lucky enough to have a twin size bed that hadn’t completely fallen apart. Because we lived in West Philly, and then Southwest Philly, and the move from one to the other wasn’t quite a step up in class. Because my mother had so many other things to worry about besides helping me play space invaders from the dangerous confines of the space at the top of my room.

But it didn’t stop me from dreaming, from imagining how it would have been. It didn’t stop me from creating whole worlds that I alone lived in, that no one else was privy to, and that revolved completely around me. I loved those times, and sometimes, late at night, I reminisce about all the things that would have happened if I had gotten that bunk bed. But I also think about how boring the reality of that dream would have been had I eventually gotten it.

Sometimes the imagination of the thing is so much more satisfying than the thing itself.

Sam

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afromanAt the absolute apex of my adolescence, I sported an afro for two years. It wasn’t some kind of fashion statement, or some kind of returning to my roots, or even an homage to Michael Jackson, circa 1979. It was instead a product of laziness and the procurement of two cheap picks at the dollar store in the summer of ’91.

The laziness kept me away from the barber shop, that and a misguided attempt at better handling my own meager finances. The cheap picks went along with the aforementioned misguided attempt; they were chunky, multi-colored plastic, but I thought they were the world. They allowed me to shape said afro into an enormous halo over me whenever I wanted, giving me my natural shade in the heat, and my protection from the rain as well.

I loved that afro because it gave me an identity I didn’t feel I had at the time. It gave me a persona when I had none to my name. It gave me an excuse to live. Then, on the coldest day of the year, in the wintry chill of 1993, I had that afro shaved off.

“You got a hat?” the barber asked me as I sat in his swivel chair.

“Not today I don’t,” I replied, realizing what he meant. Having that afro meant my head was never cold. I had lived in the warmth of its cocoon for so long I had forgotten what the harsh outside world was like.

“You’d better get one right away, if you still want me to shave it,” he said, gesturing out the window.

I looked that way for a moment, and on the corner out there on the street was a man selling all manner of items, from sunglasses to copied audio tapes, to beanies and pull down hats that somehow didn’t make me feel warm looking at them. He was doing a brisk business, though, because his product was cheap and he was a convenient business destination for brothers in the hood. And maybe the barber was getting some kind of kickback from recommending him to me.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, as another customer walked in, and a gust of chilly air followed him inside.

“Such a great head of hair,” the barber told me, and I could see he meant it. You see, in 1993 all the brothers were shaving their heads to be like Michael Jordan, either that or GI Jane, and I really think it was the former. So I was an anomaly, a throwback to a different age, and I think the barber appreciated that too much to just shave my afro without a word of advice first.

“Yeah, it just keeps up my overall body temperature,” I replied, my course set, my trajectory plotted in without chance of detour.

“Then yes sir, you need to get yourself a hat,” he repeated. “It’s cold out there.”

The buzz of the clippers drowned out my thoughts as, like Samson, my hair fell down all around me, hitting the floor in waves. It gathered at my feet, a veritable sea of black, curly hair, but I didn’t feel like my strength was ebbing as a result. Instead I felt lighter, more self-assured, like that butterfly rising from its self-imposed exile to spread its wings and fly.

See, I don’t think it was just time, that I was trying to “Be Like Mike” even though that craze was starting to peter out by then anyway. I think it was all about finally knowing who I was, and not needing a gimmick anymore to validate my existence. Yes, I knew it would be ice cold out there when I emerged from that barber shop, that it would feel like little ice needles were pricking my scalp, but I needed that feeling.

Now I’d give anything to have that afro again.

Sam

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478213335The girl at the Bagel Grove looks exactly like Amanda, or at least like Amanda when I knew her, 20 years ago, back when the world was fresh and new. The girl at the Bagel Grove looks fresh and new, as if she has been in a state of stasis for 20 years, as if she has been waiting for this day, and this time, to return. At the Bagel Grove in Utica, New York. I’m sure stranger things have happened.

Her nametag says “Kina,” and I’m wondering if the “i” is long or short, if she is long or short, if her name is her mantra, or if she prefers to be called “Key,” or “Ki” for short. She has a gap between her top two front teeth, just like Amanda, and I want to ask her if it affects her whistling ability. I don’t ask, but I want to. I tell her I want a garlic bagel with garlic and herb cream cheese, and she looks at me like I’ve grown two heads.

“I’m not kissing anyone in the next couple of hours,” I tell her, by way of explanation for the question her eyebrows asked.

“That’s still a pretty strong combination,” she tells me, and there is a lilt to her voice, like it’s normally an outside one but she has forced it to come inside, where she is.

The woman behind her laughs at that one, a joke, just one among many that I think the place hears during the course of an ordinary day. The Bagel Grove seems like one of those places, all cinnamon and ribaldry, baked together and warm to the touch. This other woman makes a joke about the Target shirt I am wearing, and I have a snappy comeback ready. This is not my first time. Kina smiles at the joke and hands me my change. I never realized I paid her.

I can’t help staring at her, even though I know I shouldn’t. I mean, Amanda really was my first love, and the resemblance is uncanny, especially for a girl who has such a mixed ancestry as this girl obviously does. I can see European descent in her eyes and skin, African in her nose and hair, a touch of something else in her bearing that I can’t quite place but that Amanda had as well. But Amanda would be 40 now, and this girl is only 21, at the most. I still can’t help staring.

“Toasted?” she asks, and I have no idea what she’s referencing. She points to the bagel in her hand, and I notice she isn’t wearing gloves, although they are nearby on the low counter. Amazingly enough, I don’t mind.

“Yes, please,” I answer, and I consciously try to stop staring. She will think I’m some kind of lunatic, not that I’m remembering a time long ago, and a girl long gone, lost to the overwhelming ether that has been life.

“Name?” she says, sharpie poised over the folded paper bag she is now holding, the bagel already in the toaster oven, forgotten for the moment as it browns.

“Sam,” I tell her, because it is my name, and because she did ask. She writes it down using stock letters, the “A” starting before the “S” finishes, which is not how Amanda wrote my name.

I blink, and the resemblance fades as quickly as it manifested when I walked in. The ghost of a girl I used to love fades along with it. I slide down the counter to wait for my bagel, humming to myself a tune I know by heart.

Sam

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6a12888bb450cb0e1caa447145add377“You grew up where?” he asked me, incredulity in his tone, head cocked to the side.

“Philadelphia,” I repeated, for the apparently hard of hearing barber, whose nametag proclaimed him BoCeephus.

“My cousin Dewey was born and raised in Philly,” BoCeephus said as he brushed off the tattered apron and placed it around my neck. “Went to school somewhere in North Philly. Don’t know the name. Had a good ball team. Not that he was on it or anything. Dewey had a trick knee. Never was good at sports.”

I knew his type, the kind who had connections everywhere and nowhere at the same time, the kind who had to make small talk even when waiting for the subway.  Yeah, I had known guys like that my whole life, whether they were Main Line or ghetto, old city or downtown. They were only different insomuch as they didn’t look the same. But once they opened their mouths all that came out was the name dropping because that’s all they knew.

“I think Dewey went to Fox Chase, or somewhere like that,” BoCeephus continued, and I’m sure he said something in between but I had totally tuned him out. It was easy to tune people like him out.

“I knew people from Fox Chase,” I responded, because I knew he would go on until I said something, and I wanted a good cut. Most guys I know will do basically anything for a good cut, and everyone told me this was the place to go. So I told him I knew people from Fox Chase, because who would know different?

He tightened the apron strings around my neck with surprisingly nimble fingers for a wizened man who had obviously seen more than a little in his time on earth. The barber shop was surprisingly empty, given the word of mouth that had brought me to the place, but the ambiance was bar none. The smell of aftershave in the air, the stray hairs on the tiled floor, all hearkened back to childhood Friday afternoons spent waiting for the perfect cut, a fade with two parts. My momma always said I had to have those two parts.

“Yah, the more I think about it the more I think Dewey went to Fox Chase,” said BoCeephus, a bit louder because he had turned on the clippers and they buzzed like angry bees. “Yes sir, that Dewey was a cut up too. Been dead since ninety-eight, though. Damn X mess everybody up. But yes sir, he was from Philly too. Been a long time since I thought of him.”

“Many people from Philly,” I replied, because I felt like he expected it of me, the clippers moving across my scalp all tingly, bringing back more memories.

“Got that right,” said BoCeephus, laughing, a deep-throated laugh that seemed to come up from the ground, gravel deep down. “But don’t get many folks from Philly here in Columbus. More likely Pittsburgh. Yah, this a big destination for folks trying to get out of Pittsburgh, but not so much Philly. No sir. What brings you out this way?”

“Work,” I said. “A man’s gotta work.”

“You can say that again,” responded BoCeephus. “You want a high fade or a low fade?”

“Take it high,” I told him, because that’s the way I used to always get it, and I was feeling nostalgic, with the place, and the man, and the aftershave. Even the conversation. If I closed my eyes I could imagine I was back on 45th and Walnut, back in my own hood.

“Oh, and two parts,” I added quickly at the end, surprising even myself. I hadn’t worn two parts since I was ten, since my mother died, since I stopped caring. But something deep in my subconscious must have spoken for me, and I didn’t correct it once it was out in the open air.

“Two parts it is,” BoCeephus said. And I knew he would do it right.

Sam

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13186

“I’m on my way. Driving at ninety down those country lanes, singing to ‘Tiny Dancer.’ And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real. We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill.” ~Ed Sheeran

the_castle_on_the_hill_by_estruda-dalq5st

It’s no surprise that I like to sing. Check out my youTube channel I’m about to take down, and you can hear for yourself how freeform it truly is — kind of like my dancing. More often than not I’ll be singing my song of the moment, whatever song has struck my fancy that day, that week, or that month. Generally it’s a song I play a lot in my car, but sometimes it’s random enough to be maddening even to me.

Currently that song is “Castle on the Hill,” by Ed Sheeran, a soaring anthem that tugs at both the heartstrings and my legendary sense of nostalgia at the same time. I love the whole album (Divide) but something about this one song brings me back to my childhood in a way that few songs not from that era have the ability to achieve. At least for me.

Which is funny because I don’t really have a relationship to look at in the same way as he remembers one of his earliest. I was pretty much strictly friend material to girls back in middle school, even though I would pour my heart out to them in poems I never sent, in songs I never sang, and in words I never said face to face either. It was this dichotomy between the me I wanted to be — strong and determined — and the me I couldn’t help being — fragile and tentative. Like oil and water, they didn’t mix.

So I sang to myself, but my song wasn’t “Tiny Dancer.” It was more often than not “Broken Wings,” or “Get Outta My Dreams,” songs of lost love or unrealized love that resonated with the teenage me much more than anything by Prince or those other guys who sounded like Prince. I was a bit quirkier, preferring “Motown Song” over more sensitive fare.

But that’s always been me, my songs of the moment somehow connected to me in ways only I could ever figure out at the time, then moving on to the next song when my emotions have moved on. I do miss those songs when they fade from my spotlight, though, when they’ve gone back to their regular places on their own albums, when they’ve drifted from my mind like so much snow blowing across the boulevard.

So right now it’s “Castle on the Hill,” and I nearly cry when I hit the chorus. Every single time I hit the chorus. Because it’s SO me right now, and the sun is setting over the hill. I’m just still waiting for my castle.

Sam

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“…and that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind. Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.” ~Better Than Ezra

remsplitI always wondered what “that R.E.M. song” was, which one from their vast catalog made such an impression on a young Kevin Griffin (lead singer of Better Than Ezra) that he immortalized it in his own song. The song is about the death of a young friend, who after graduation had a car wreck and died, the lyrics a poignant reminder of the brevity of life, and how quickly it can be taken from any of us.

With that in mind, I began to dig deep into what could possibly be the mystery R.E.M. song from the lyrics. It’s a good thing, then, that I own the entire R.E.M. catalogue, because it would take a hell of a lot of digging to arrive at the ultimate truth. For starters, here is the full list of the band’s songs that hit 3:26 – 3:34 on the scale (prior to 2001, when the Better Than Ezra song was written)…

Gardening At Night (3:30)
Disturbance At the Heron House (3:34)
Romance (3:27)
Good Advices (3:30)
Begin the Begin (3:28)
What If We Give It Away? (3:34)
I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (3:28)
Let Me In (3:28)
Moral Kiosk (3:31)
Perfect Circle (3:30)
Departure (3:30)
Low Desert (3:32)
Half a World Away (3:28)
Time After Time (3:34)

That’s an awful lot of songs, so I tried to break them down by lyrics, by which ones might be depressing. I realized as I was doing this that most of R.E.M.’s catalogue is full of depressing, sad songs. Kevin Griffin literally had his choice of songs to complement his own, just by the sheer volume of sad songs to choose from, even from this relatively small list.

For a very long time I thought the song he referenced was “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” from the Monster record. It fit nearly every aspect of a depressing song that would hearken back to a premature death. “I’m looking for an interruption. Do you believe? Some medicine for my headache. Hooray.” The only thing that didn’t fit was the length of the song, because while I thought my range was pretty good, the lyric of the song was “Three and a half minutes,” and if I was being literal that one would not fit.

In fact, the more I thought about it the more I thought the song I was looking for was exactly 3 minutes and 30 seconds, which left me with Departure, Perfect Circle, Good Advices, and my personal favorite, Gardening At Night. In fact, the lyrics of “Gardening At Night” are very compelling. “We fell up, not to see the sun. Gardening at night just didn’t grow. I see your money on the floor. I felt the pocket change. Though all the feelings that broke down that door just didn’t seem to be too real.” Something about the shifting reality, the yearning to do something that seems right but doesn’t have positive consequences, it clicked in me.

But that wasn’t it. Here is the full lyric of the verse from the Better Than Ezra song from earlier…

“And I know I wasn’t right, but it felt so good
And your mother didn’t mind, like I thought she would
And that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind
Three and a half minutes, felt like a lifetime.”

5b8a1cb234e9b2d7ba2ad332ab262588That part of the song has always hit me like a hammer to the gut, the idea of something feeling so good but not being right, of approval out of nowhere, not for the means to an end, but for the end itself. It’s almost like it is a eulogy, not for the person who has died, but instead for the enterprise itself, for being adventurous. That R.E.M. song felt like a lifetime because when it ends the glory of a life lived for adventure ends as well.

The song was “Perfect Circle,” by the way, the idea that life is indeed this circle. We are born to die, but in the space between the wails of birth and the silence of death we either truly live or we go through the motions. “Perfect Circle” is all about truly living, taking the moment and wringing every ounce of glory from it so we can live on the nostalgia of that moment for years to come.

“Pull your dress on and stay real close. Who might leave you where I left off? A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends…”

Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.

Sam

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