Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Nostalgia, brief

Once upon a time I had a pretty sweet, aimless life. I worked a bookshop, which paid my rent but barely allowed me much else. But I tripled my library and learned names that would impact me greatly. Names like Calvino, Borges, Faulkner, Eco, Winterson, Neruda. And I also learned the name Travis. Travis was a classmate of mine but I really only got to know the lad from the bookstore days. And the nights, which were even more interesting. One summer (and I can’t recall which, but I’m thinking it was 1996), Travis and I, along with the vanished Mike K., got drunk every single night. This was a good summer.

I had cares and concerns like all of us. I had just flopped at school, dropped out, been kicked out of an apartment by my former friends, been too long on the edge of a lot of bad mojo. My other friends in that flop house high-tailed it out of the city like a bunch of North Carolina crackers. I may have been mildly pissed at first but I came to understand that it was the best decision they could have made.

And I was broke. No steady work from June to December 31. Flat on my ass, as they say. I got the gig at the bookshop by means too ridiculous to retell, and I’ve told the tale too often. (Fucking hell, how’s that for some alliteration? Fried gold, baby! Even the T in “often” has a chime in it. This writing school thing is really working out. Maybe not, but fuck it, I’m proud of that little alliterative moment even if no one will pick up on it. Even if my current workshop threatens to kick so much of my ass I’ll go running toward a Comparative Literature program and sit back reading world lit like I would love to right now— being so immersed in José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night which is so good I can hardly believe it— and being disinclined to reread Milton and Pope.)

So I was broke no longer, having got the book gig, which meant being two shades light of broke. Travis and Mike K. and I drank the summer away and it mattered little that I was dead busted and barely living anywhere, unable to truly count on my four walls being mine for very long. This was the summer I learned to drink whiskey (scotch back then, bourbon these days). This was when I started writing a lot, which was still just fake and even more amateurish than one might expect—even more amateurish than this blog. And this is when I would listen to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden or De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate constantly. But the reason I recall all this today is because I heard Combustible Edison’s “The Millionaire’s Holiday” again and it immediately brought it all back. Travis and Mike K. had gone to see them at the legendary Lounge Acts. This was before I was officially in their good graces, which sucks as, in retrospect, I would have loved to be at that show. (Mike K. and I had some history, mostly good, though we were rivals over a girl briefly. That’ll quash any potential friendship.) Mike K. took it upon himself to buy I, Swinger because Mike K. bought every CD he could, especially if it resembled jazz. We were drinking Bloody Marys with extra Tabasco because I had a bad cold and Travis believed the concoction would help me feel better. We had just finished watching Night of the Iguana, one of Travis’ favorite films, and Mike K. put Combustible Edison on. Immediately I was delighted by the opening track, a cover of Nino Rota’s “Cadillac” from La Dolce Vita. Pretty cool way to start a CD. But the real pull was track two, “The Millionaire’s Holiday”. A very short song, melodic, fun, a song that advocates retro cocktail culture and being a “swinger if you dare.” And I don’t mean as in swing music, a fad I anticipated when I stocked up on Benny Goodman records four years earlier; a fad I completely rejected when I saw that fucking Vince Vaughn movie. No, there was not a swing moment like you’d see in Swing Kids, a vile film that can only have come from a deeply twisted mind. This was lounge music, exotica, the gloriously odd ‘50s sounds that white Americans liked to play during cocktail parties, music with a slight calypso vibe or some other vaguely ethnic trait. Music that made suburbanites feel urbane. My Gen-X ears might have found it playful and ironic at first, but the song has ceased being appreciated for those reasons and taken on a more lasting quality.

So I heard the song today and I remembered Travis drunk and dancing the shopping cart, Mike K. rejecting his Bloody Mary in favor of Rolling Rock and my own head swimming with flu germs and vodka, unsure whether I should try and seduce Mike’s roommate or let the poor girl be for once.

Then I moved in with Nick and Nikit, which sounds like a Nickelodeon program. Nick was a would-be hipster, always on the lookout for a sharper image, so much so that he traded his reliable, sensible Volkswagen for a beat up 1970-something Porsche that never worked well. He used to put on eye-liner and hit a club with his trendy young coworkers, all of which he lusted after, all of which went home with other men. He listened to bands like Pulp and Suede and a slew of other one-name Brit Pop acts. And he let me play Combustible Edison for him, which he then gobbled up greedily. I couldn’t get that record to stop playing. Nikit, my other roommate, was similarly taken with the band. If I contributed anything to that apartment, aside from a never-ending nicotine cloud, it was I, Swinger. The record became a soundtrack to our life on Southport and Altgeld. We even put it on the answering machine.

I was happy then. I had a nice apartment and I liked my roommates. Dubbed “Piss Drunk Vinny” by the lads, I had a reputation to maintain, and I did my best. I had a job at Mail Boxes, Etc., now the UPS Store, and that helped with the money the bookshop was only sort of providing. I had money and books coming in, so I was happy. Life was still aimless, but who needs aim when you have Dante and Boccaccio and Beckett and scotch?


Things are better. I don’t get drunk nightly. Barely at all these last few months. I have more work than I know what to do with. I have a muy loca niña, a gato who makes me smile, bills I can usually pay and a developing interest in a life with aim. This is good. But I can’t help but feel nostalgic today when listening to this ridiculous song. I am growing old. My biggest fear is not being a failure, it is being overly nostalgic. Like a goddamn baby boomer. Everything I never wanted to be.