The B-Sides by Joseph Brodsky
There’s this girl who works a few shifts a week with me here. Generally, she likes taking the middle of the assembly line- you don’t have to talk to people as much. After a while, you can even start to guess what type of salsa each customer is going to go for. Upscale woman slumming it for a quick lunch? Medium and mild combo. Malnourished looking white dude? Hot, and extra if possible. Any male over 50? Mild, and they’ll look upset about it. Rachel can look and mime asking, can mime listening, but she’s always got her ear buds in. She’s always shifting slightly as she moves and stands - if you know to look for it, she’s rocking a little bachata, a little two step, micro-twerking her way towards the register, where I work.
It’s the music that’s going to make her want me.
You know how some people have moves? They put the moves on people. Like they have some massive flowchart running right in the base of their brain, right where the spinal cord keeps running current to and from the rest of their bodies. They shift tone, posture, come up with the right lines, know how to touch just light or just heavy enough to say, “come to bed with me”.
I don’t have that. I’ve got move. Singular. It’s not a bad move, come to that. It used to work pretty well, and I’ve still got it.
What I do-- what I have-- is the exceptional ability to create and craft a mixtape.
Picture a violin, like a Stradivarius or something. No, picture making love. I do it all the time. That smile when I take your credit card? When I have to deal with your friend who thinks now is the right time to use all those nickels he’s found? Guess what, it’s not from the pleasure of your company. I may be smiling at you with some dead eyed grin, but only because all the life in me is being shunted towards my peripherals. She dances, if you know what to look for, and I do for all I’m worth. I’ve been in the food service industry for over twenty years. Don’t you judge me. We all take our sustenance where we can find it.
In any case, picture either one, a violin or being in bed with someone you find irresistible.
I don’t play any instruments, but one of those fundamental bits of human knowledge that we all know is that the secret in how you play is knowing when to go light, and when to go hard.
You give me twelve to fourteen tracks of your time, and I’ll leave you breathless.
I’m trying to find the right tracks for Rachel. It’s turned into the long game, I’ll admit it. It’s proving harder than I thought it would be.
She’s kind of a scene kid, or whatever they’re called these days. All these not-quite-warring tribes, all their boundaries that I’m not sure exist anymore. I get it though. Anyone else who might’ve grown up in the eighties wouldn’t be able to stay on top of it like I do, but I spent my time skipping between all those crazy, stupid groups we had. You wanted to talk to a punk, a rocker, one of those weird American kids trying to make the British Mod thing stick? I was the guy you talked to. It’s coming in handy now. I’ve been listening to all our customers, taking notes when the college ones come in, generally while everyone else in the world is working. If someone comes in stoned at 11:15 looking for a burrito, I pay careful attention. It’s paying off. I speak vegan and thrash now. I can translate ethical normcore into casual hip-hop head talk.
I mean, I’m pretty sure most of it is bullshit, but I want to be able to talk to this girl. I’m not some heartless predator, although me being assistant manager here could certainly lend that impression. But maybe the reason they promoted me was because they sensed some deeper nobility of purpose in me, some hidden aptitude to do things the right way. It’s the same urge towards light that keeps drawing my eyes to Rachel.
I’m not stupid. I know how this looks. Yeah, look at the dude on the wrong side of 40, moonstruck over the 19 year old. Look at his divorce. Look at his parents, drag racing each other to the end of Highway Dementia. Look, there’s his lack of purpose, giggling and sneaking behind the humongous lump of whatever drives sad, pervy older men to their sad schemes.
All I would have to do is play you a tape, and you’d understand. You wouldn’t judge me anymore. You’d see me. You’d close your eyes, listen, and then you’d really see me.
Every girl I ever got was from a mixtape. I’d always put on something smooth to start, something fun but not too bouncy. Maybe with a little political message behind it to let her know I had some depth, that I thought about things. Generally something by U2, if they were in at the moment. Then a little something kind of self-deprecatingly romantic, tempered with an unavoidable undertone of sincerity. Billy Idol was my man. And I’d keep raising the temperature, pulling back every third or fourth track, teasing them, driving them wild. Maybe to inject a little personality in there I’d throw in an NWA track, for a laugh. There’s no fun being with someone you can’t laugh with. And then that last track. All out romance- the power ballad. My kill move. It never failed.
I was a reverb Romeo, a dance pop Don Juan. I was loved.
I met my wife in ’94. Cassettes were still being sold, but I could see they were going the way of the dinosaur and the Soviets. I probably shouldn’t have married her, as I knew even in the beginning that once you stripped away the sex we couldn’t stand each other, but I couldn’t face being alone. She was supposed to have been my last triumph. To the victor go the spoils, and all that. Right up until she threw it at me, our mixtape used to rest in this little Lucite box that we put right on top of our dresser, next to our wedding photo.
That was around the time I got fired from McDonald’s as well. I’d been a manager in full, and doing pretty well for myself. But there was an issue with one of the women who worked there. Words like “stalking” and “scary” were thrown around, but they hurt less than the Lucite did.
After all, it’s easy to be a critic. Especially a music critic. Have you ever read Pitchfork?
I’ve been reading it a bunch, actually. Eavesdropping on the college kids isn’t enough. I’ve been studying. Rachel probably needs someone well read who she can talk to.
I’m actually not bitter about working my way up to assistant manager here, when I was full management in the past. The past is past, but more importantly, I get to take home my paycheck. Almost everyone here is paying off an art degree or something, except the two of us. I think it’s one of the reasons why this is going to work. We’re cut from the same cloth.
Rachel started work right after I got there. She’s not that much older than my daughter, but they could be a different species for all I care. Cindy takes after her mother; there’s not much there inside. If two people gave her a mixtape, she’d probably fall for the idiot who opened his with Whitesnake. “Here I Go Again”, indeed.
Rachel’s always going to raves, or whatever they’re called now. Loft parties in Bushwick. Gloom dances. Silent Discos, whatever the hell those are. Probably something ironic. She’s vibrant, like that. I always catch glimpses of what she’s texting reflected in the underside of the sneeze guard. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been sure to keep it pristine. This girl haslife.
When I started dreaming about her, I knew I had to try to have her. I didn’t feel guilty, although I expected to: I had nothing in my life I loved or even felt, really, so it was almost axiomatic that I’d chase after the bit of color suddenly blooming. I started listening to the radio, scanning all the usual stations for songs I thought matched her personality.
I gave her a CD a week later. I’d put a lot of thought into it. I’d read a lot of Pitchfork. It had told me how wrong I was about what was on the radio, which I’d hoped put me way ahead of the game. I could still dance this number.
“The fuck is this, Ralphie?” she asked playfully.
I told her it was a mix for a silent disco. I told her I was a DJ. Technically, both true.
She laughed, and I was elated, but then she told me that she had nothing to play it on. No optical drives anywhere, which sound like they should work with graphics but are in fact for CD’s. She told me about MP3’s, and MP4’s, and MP5, who might actually be a rapper but could also just be her fucking with me. I get that. Women test you, you have to laugh.
I bought a flash drive that night on my way home. I couldn’t believe how much data it held, how something so small could feel so vacuous. It could have held every single song I’ve ever loved, and every picture ever taken of every girl I’ve ever loved, and had room to spare. A kid behind me in line was talking to his friends about how he’d filled one up with porn, and I felt faint at the thought of that much anything.
I put 12 songs on it. At times I felt like a museum curator, aware of all the white space around the few sparse works of art in his gallery, adjusting and manipulating the lighting around the negative space to make the exhibit pop that much more. I made it ironic, flat, self-aware and insipid, full of jangling Middle Eastern sounds over Casio keyboard beats and Asian girls rapping about cartoons. But I threw in just enough real music to make it seem like I was in on the joke, that I still knew and recognized and heeded the feelings everyone still had to crave deep down. Passion, lust, excitement. Life.
The next time she laughed, I was less elated. Rachel had moved on to Soundcloud, to Grooveshark, to Spotify all in the space of the two weeks I’d spent on stocking up my little flash drive.
I saw her point when I lost the drive on my way home.
I found out her screen name, or user name, whatever, on these websites from another coworker, Jaron. Jaron is piece of shit who just wants to fuck Rachel. I pretended to help him game plan his own musical flirtation, but I sabotaged him. I may have been gone for a while, but I’ve read enough Pitchfork that I know everyone is sick of Kanye’s shit already. Not even ironically.
I spent a full month planning my next move. I had to. The miles of music stretched out before me, binding me into a paralytic state. There was so much! So much music! None of it needed any commitment. You didn’t have to buy anything; you didn’t have to own any of it. You could change who you were, musically speaking, in an instant. There was more than I, or ten of me, could listen to in a lifetime. Ten lifetimes. And no songs seemed to matter anymore than any others, to say nothing of the decline of the thematic album.
Also, for most of them you needed to access them via Facebook, and I didn’t have the balls to friend Rachel yet, as I didn’t know how to limited profile my ex-wife or my manager yet.
And what this girl listened to! I watched what she played, and I felt her world pour into mine. New sounds I’d never heard, new takes and vantage points on what I’d thought were the same old emotions. I couldn’t help being fascinated watching Rachel change just a little bit more every day. I felt like we were growing together. Her playlist “nights to get hammered/fuck/cry by” was a scrolling, endless masterpiece of tripfunk and post-post-postpunk. Just hitting play made me feel things I’d thought were long gone.
And then, Rachel vanished. No more Jamaican crunk-rock from Chicago, or the twins from Canarsie she’d just discovered who screamed in badly spoken French about the war in Iraq and Cronuts. Her playlists stood untapped, her play button unpressed.
She didn’t vanish in real life, though. She still came to work; I just felt so distant from her. I didn’t know who she was anymore. How could I make a mix for someone who I couldn’t access?
I asked her about it. Sidelong, of course. Like I was asking for Jaron, the scavenging little shit.
“I’m all up on that vinyl shit now”, she said.
“It matters more. It’s like it lasts for forever, except when you listen to it. Did you know every time you listen to an album, you destroy it a little more? I feel like that’s sort of my jam now.”
I don’t know how to find someone to make me a custom vinyl album. Not with my kid, my ex-wife, my parents, my burrito line, management checking backgrounds again. Not now.
But I can wait, and I will wait. I’ve been around long enough to recognize that some things come right back around. I’ve been magnetized, played to death, discarded, unwound, and now I have been put right again. And if I wait long enough, if I’m lucky enough, talented enough, someone might hit the rewind button.
© Joseph Brodsky, 2014
Joseph Brodsky is a Russian Jew from Brooklyn and New Jersey who can’t play piano or chess to save his life. If obscenity charges were still a thing, he’d be serving a life sentence somewhere, but they aren't, so he isn't. He is a licensed shrink, amateur grappler, and constant prose/screenwriter, who is always looking to collaborate and create with people. He has beautiful eyes.
The B-Sides was read by Everett Goldner on 6th August 2014