Feathers and Dustings
A summary of a mixed-tape from one lonely adult to a lonely teen across the country for all the right reasons.
This is about a mixed-tape that I received when I was 14. I wrote this piece for Nerdologues’ Blank Cassette series. Mixed-tapes were a huge part of my adolescence and even if the form has changed, the significance of them hasn’t. Mixes share a part of us with each other that only music can translate.
Mercury is in retrograde. I don’t put much stock into astrology, but a lot of my friends do. They talk about how this is the period for miscommunication and that leads to what feels like a disjointed period of everything going wrong. “So Mercury is in Gatorade,” I joke like a self-entertained dork. “All ’cause Mercury is moonwalking past the sun?” It turns out “Mercury in retrograde” is literally when the planet is revolving as it transitions in a way that looks backward to us. I can’t say with any certainty if more things go wrong or if we’re failing at finding each other, but with Mercury in retrograde people make excuses for their inability to connect. It seems like every day is an awkward attempt to connect hand-to-hand in a shitstorm of human failings — astrology be damned.
Mixed-tapes. Mixes on Spotify or YouTube. If I’m honest I’m not sure what 14-year-old me would do today, but in 1996 14-year-old me used cassette tapes. I hear cassette tapes are making a comeback. There’s a shelf in my living room against a wall holding a 50" plasma TV, 42" splitting axe, and a Joy Division poster that says “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The poster, like the tape, also hails from the nineties living among the vestiges of the aughts going into the aught-teens? Decades go by real fast till you can hardly believe something barely held together by electric tape and Krazy glue is from 1996.
Are there a lot of 14-year-olds who feel coherent? Do they know they belong in the world and what they’ll provide? I didn’t. Angry and rejected from home, city, school, and peers, and the loneliness was often unbearable. 32nd avenue and 201st street halfway in Bayside — where there is no bay — is between Bay Terrace and Flushing. Bay Terrace was by the bay overlooking the Whitestone Bridge and Utopia Parkway with a big shopping center that I’m told now has a Banana Republic and an Applebee’s. Flushing was once a historically Jewish neighborhood and is where Fran Drescher’s The Nanny is set, but not anymore. By 1996 it was predominantly Asian, with Korean Presbyterian churches replacing synagogues and noodle houses nestled between pizzerias; monolithic structures transitioning from decade to century, aging with communities coming in and out. I could relate to those mutable buildings better than the kids around me. Do a lot of 14-year-olds feel that way?
Modern intersectional feminism will talk about all the ways we identify as layers, cross-sections maybe, of how we’re affected by a system that would prefer we weren’t multi-faceted. 14-year-old Sharlene in 1996 Bayside, Queens called people gay and retarded as they called her dyke and wanted her in special ed classes. Dyslexic Sharlene with dyscalculia tested into the Bronx High School of Science and walked around with the acceptance letter to taunt kids who thought she was stupid. OJ Simpson wasn’t convicted and white kids told black kids to swim in milk. The Italian kids hated the Irish kids except when they were dissing on the Asian kids who sported khaki JNCOs and Manhattan Portage messenger bags ahead of the skateboarders who picked them up in a couple of years. Nobody made sense and everyone was fucked up.
The drone of a 56.6k modem connecting to a landline, dialing up a center in Queens, then Long Island, sometimes Brooklyn, but never New Jersey. Even the modem knew we didn’t voluntarily connect with New Jersey in this confused house filled with the dread of association.
Today people bemoan the dependency on social media. Those people will admit that social media has helped society in many ways, but there’s an emphasized fear on the dependency. There’s a fear the social media will erase the skills we have for connecting with people. I don’t think they’re comparable, but I grew up on AOL. Napster had just come out, and downloading a single MP3 took forever. My entire hard drive held 1GB. I think that’s like 50 songs today.
An ex-girlfriend of mine had introduced me to the Riot Grrrl chat room on AOL. We met at a mutual friend’s Halloween party where she was sandwiched between two friends on a couch. We talked a little, but I think I was too stoned to remember that part. What I remembered was a week later, when she was with the same friends in Washington Square Park. I had an extra ticket to see The Bouncing Souls at Tramp’s. Anti-flag and Blanks 77 were playing, too. I know we didn’t talk at the show. We chatted: not at length, without clarity, above booming speakers and boys from New Jersey singing about BMXes and records. Did I check her coat that night? I would check her coat today. After the show, I walked her to Union Square’s subway station. I watched her get on the N train that would take her down to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She introduced me to The Promise Ring and AOL. My first screen name was Rugmold.
After we broke up, her AOL friends quit being friends with me, so unofficially I was banned from the chatroom. Today she’s a reporter and editor at the New York Times and I follow her on Twitter. Sometimes I retweet her stories because they’re good and even a small sharing is hope for change. Is that an intersection?
I ended up recovering myself and spending most of my online time in Emo chat or punkrock. Those friends were my friends. My second screen name was Communist Spy. People ranged in age from 12 to 28. Well, the people I talked to had that age range. Almost none of them lived in NYC. Mary from Oi chat and sometimes Emo chat lived near me in Queens, and we’d go to shows together sometimes. She’d always sign off with, “Take care.” She said she always wanted her friends to know they were really in her thoughts.
By then I had dropped out of high school and lived with my best friend in a roach-infested apartment closer to the 7 train, off Kissena Boulevard in Flushing. I mostly quit spending time with friends from an actual school. I’d talk to and hang out with them if I was on the physical property of a school. I didn’t talk to them about problems at home. Cutting class and smoking cigarettes among parked cars was my escape from home.
Shana Barcohen was a friend from Emo chat. She was 23 at the time, friends with me and Alejandro. People came from all over into the chatroom, but the timezones naturally separated groups of people. Alejandro, Shana, and I were the insomniacs. We were set to Pacific Standard Time while the hardcore kids in Florida were soundly asleep in Orlando and Miami mostly. Even when the California kids were getting ready for bed, we were cracking jokes. Alejandro would ask if I’d heard the latest release from Dystopia. Oscar would talk about Braid. I’d talk about Saetia or You and I. We’d all make fun of The Get Up Kids or Saves The Day. “Thursday’s not lame,” I’d say. Chad would make fun of me for going to the Thursday show with Hot Rod Circuit. His screen name was Girls Butts. He was a photography major at Parsons.
Each of my friends from each of those chatrooms is someone I could talk about. Most of the mixed-tapes I still have are from this time in my life. Some could consider them anonymous avatars online instead of the people with real lives, but behind every screen name is a whole life complete with incomprehensibly complex flaws and virtues. In real life, I’ve invested parts of me that couldn’t be simply described.
Shana and I started talking over the phone. Before unlimited data and cellphones were pervasive, we used phone cards to bridge the cost of long distance calls. Our lives were made up of investing in long-distance friendships by the minute.
“I wish I could express my emotions so honestly like he can,” she spoke about Jeff Buckley. “Who’s he?” I asked.
I sang my teenage songs to her young adult ears, songs about how this girl broke my heart; how my parents were shitbags; how the school’s white guidance counselor told me that gays didn’t deserve civil rights because they’re inhuman unlike blacks; how Madeleine Albright was secretary of state and between her and Clinton was Desert Fox; and how NYU was erecting a building that would block out the sun from Washington Square Park — but listen to this story of how this girl broke my heart. No, a different girl, from before.
Maybe one hundred girls. Maybe one thousand women. Listen to me, and that teenage song evolved into a Tumblr post 20 years later. She’s in the Instagram posts and I’m in a relationship with her on Facebook, but we broke up so I’m deleting tags. No, I wasn’t subtweeting her, but maybe she’s in my Livejournal that’s being taken over by Russian pornographers.
Shana’s mix wasn’t emo, hardcore, or punk — not ska or riot grrrl either. It was the first time I heard Jeff Buckley or David Bowie. Jeremy Enigk from Sunny Day Real Estate’s solo project was not what I was used to. If you asked her about me, you’d probably get a more honest answer than if you knew me through a couple of years of my adulthood.
This was the first time an adult took interest in me without institutional obligation to do so. She never suggested I had potential. “You have potential” is the dreaded string of words every young delinquent hears as a damning prophecy of failure because it is a euphemism for “You are failing. I care about you and even I think you’re failing.” She cried quietly over the phone when I talked about my step-father, and she told me to be strong. I think it was to be strong. To be quiet and cry so someone else can cry without worry about you — that kind of strong. Sitting-by-your-side-and-making-space-for-you strong. The phone card was nine cents a minute to grow close, unlimited nights and weekends on a cellphone to grow up, and eventually losing touch through the social media paradigm.
I still have her tape. I listened to it so much as I traveled from town to town on the Greyhound where I avoided having to discover a real home. The tape itself began to warp — stopping and distorting in the same spots. The tape developed static as it I played it out and into arthritic decay through freshman year of college. Home became an abstract concept.
I’d lay on the floor of my dorm room. It was a double but emptied into a single room. My roommate with a schizo-affective disorder had a psychotic break. A boy she liked gave her valium and it reacted badly with her meds. I don’t know if she ever returned to SAIC, but she hadn’t while I was enrolled. I wish I could be who I am today for her. Her parents, dressed in the wealth of the Michigan car industry elite, collected her and I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t help her.
The songs don’t have single moments; they landed in a compilation of memories. “Hallelujah” was the song Marissa Cooper and Ryan Atwood shared on The OC, and the theme song for so many relationships. It found a home in women saying, “I prefer the Leonard Cohen version.” Lori Carson made up the unrequited backdrop of relationships gone awry from outside determinations of distance and futility. David Bowie was for the weird kids and the rape survivors — I’d talk with them at length about the way celebrating a predator and the art of a predator could be separated. Do we separate them? No, you come first. Survivors always come first regardless of an artist’s accomplishments. Shana’s friendship is still with me, and I’m a better person for it.
The songs come in and out with lyrics playing out live scenes in my life. Does every adult reflecting on their teenage years do this?
Experience isn’t cheap when it’s the company you keep with everything in its place — I’ve had it.
The heater is shaking cause the city is cold.
I’m losing track of our time. Hours alone stretching in kind with a luminous glows caught in the slow burn off here.
It must be the colors and the kids that keep me alive because the music is boring me to death.
Without these loud, soft moments tucked inside two-hundred and ninety-five feet of magnetized plastic film, I can’t make sense of this world. My friends are with me every time I listen to a mixed-tape.
Outside everything’s colder
Kids get older, friends get so far apart
Just hold on, to something, anything
Playlist: Feathers & Dustings
Available on Spotify
Dinah Washington — I’ll close my eyes
Elvis Costello — Indoor fireworks
Jeff Buckley — Morning theft
Mazzy Star — Rhymes of an hour
The Church — Under the milky way
David Bowie — Heroes
Cocteau Twins — Half gifts
Trente — Bizarre love triangle (by New Order)
Jeremy Enigk — Lewis hollow
Superdrag — September girls
Belly — The bees
Billy Bragg — The price I pay (demo)
Julie Doiron — He will forget
Hayden — Between us to hold
Jeff Buckley — Mojo pin
Jeff Buckley — Hallelujah
Nick Drake — Time of no reply
Lori Carson — Snow come down
Aimee Mann — I’ve had it
The Spinanes — Luminous
Cat Power — Colors and the kid
Ida — Coupons