The pay envelope.

The first purchase I ever made as a member of the working public was a cassette player. It was 1983, I was just about to turn fifteen, and I had a little brown envelope containing seventy-three dollars in cash that Carlo Petrucci handed me after my first week working at Pal Jack’s Pizza in Laurel. I was in Baltimore, visiting my grandmother, and we climbed into her turquoise Barracuda with sticky clear plastic seat covers embossed with little flowers that did absolutely nothing to stop those seat covers from clinging to your thighs like duct tape and headed up the street to Luskins.


She smoked menthol cigarettes, a glorious, magical symphony of scent that started with the scratch and the burst of phosphorous from the match, then the first curl of smoke, then the blue blue waves of atomized minty smoke with an edge like the very best cough drops. I held the pay packet, having held it the same way until it was soft with moisture from a clammy hand, and felt like I was riding a rocket to the future.

“You say that little tape recorder would fit into a vest pocket?”

“I don’t wear a vest, but it would if I did.”

“Joe-B, it’s the space age all around us, isn’t it?”

I just nodded. We pulled up in front of the Luskins on Erdman Avenue, and went into the cluttered mess of one of Baltimore’s oldest television retailers, run by Jack Luskin, the “cheapest guy in town,” if you believed the ad. I found the glass counter and there it was—an extraordinary bit of slightly glittery blue plastic that seemed at the time to be just miraculously tiny, almost impossible, really, to conceive.

I’d had a neat little portable reel-to-reel that used three inch reels and sounded pretty good, but used C batteries and lots of them, and I’d had an old-style Craig portable deck with a chrome gearshift instead of the usual piano keys, but I was on the verge of something even more amazing—

STEREO.

Can you imagine? It’ll sound just like you’re there, right there with the band.

That’s what I hear at home, with my father’s huge AKG cans on, dancing to Tina Turner’s version of “Come Together ” in the dark, watching the record album turn in the dim neon light of the stroboscope lamp.

The salesman let me hold it and it was heaven…heaven for real.

It was also $76 and change, which filled me with an utter, terrifying panic, but my grandmother stepped in with the difference.

“You gotta promise to let me listen to something wonderful on that one day, Joe-B, so I get a return on my investment.”

Grandmothers are all sort of magical, but mine, well—my grandmother got fired from the London Fog raincoat factory for being a witch, so I’ll grant you that yours is or was a lovely woman and say that mine was something else entirely. We drove off, with the little blue Toshiba in a box on my lap, and I thought I’d just start screaming with joy at any second, in the same way I felt the first time I realized I was truly, insanely, and annoyingly in love with another person.

The future…the future.

I can’t recollect a single conversation with anyone for a year after that. The headphones were omnipresent, filled with a soundtrack that just shapes a life, giving you the almost divine gift of editing, and a way to carve away the worst edges of the world and give voice to pain, to wonder, to longing, to anger, to—well, just all of it, everywhere.

I never did drugs, never drank, never smoked. I listened. The music was endless. I listened, I explored, I learned, and I luxuriated in lush realities that grow on the everyday world like fronds of seaweed clinging to the rocky seabed and waving gently in the currents.

Sometimes, I think I’m stunted, socially, from my years of climbing up those dangling headphone cords like a swami, climbing out of bullying, out of failure, out of disappointment and despair and frustration and the constant feeling of just not being good enough, but we all have our ways, and mine was to surf away from the worst of the world on stacks of sine waves.

You can go so far.

They say, these days, that it gets better, but I was lucky. Better was a few AAs away. There’s not much blue that Brazil ’66 couldn’t flush away, or enough crushing suburban boredom that couldn’t be beaten with a visit from your curious German uncle from Cologne, or loneliness that didn’t have a home in Brian Wilson’s voice.

I wonder who I’d be today if not for all the streamers of plastic tape coated with metallic oxides that crossed the heads on that first little blue plastic tape deck, and then all the others, ranging from the fine and fancy to the little cheap number I bought in a panic in Ireland after dropping my amazing AIWA from the outdoor stair off an airplane. I’ve had a lot of machines, broken a lot of tape, had my struggles, the struggles with a technology that isn’t quite the future, with plastic parts on plastic parts that break, infuriatingly, just when you need them most.

The moments, though, those certain moments—discovering what it was about Kate Bush on a long, long ride through the Carolinas, finding the incomparable richness of The Rite of Spring or the cavernous mathematical depth of the Brandenburg Concertos, or the wild energy of “King’s Lead Hat,” dancing alone at one in the morning on a mountainside in Western Maryland in the middle of youth leadership summer camp.

The moment, the long-delayed album from Kate, the way she’d made us wait when four years seemed so long, when I’d waited till the day and lurched into the record store in the basement of the student union at Maryland to get The Sensual World on cassette, running outside as I peeled off the plastic on the tape to get at the core of my desperation in the way you tear at a zipper, fumbling over a belt buckle when your face is burning hot with breathless desire. I got the tape slotted in, and jacked in to that perfect moment, to the title track and suddenly it’s raining and I’m walking up the little road below the student union awash in the sprinkling rain and I’m not sure, but I might even have been crying, so overwhelmed that I couldn’t help but just let my hands rise to my sides, like I could gather up the whole of the world right then, just walking and walking and walking in it.

The moment, later, listening to the Orb’s “Pomme Fritz,” a song that’s really your own little secret, because no one seemed to notice its coming or its passing, so it’s just you and that moment, walking in the woods on campus after your very last exam, with the trees and the sunlight and the little creek there and just…that…that place when you become the next person you’re going to be.

The moment, finding new truth in old favorites , aesthetic facts borne of age, loss, wisdom, and experience, and it’s a little solid-state machine now, something hooked up to another machine that I’d never have imagined all the way back in 1983, not even in my wildest feverish daydreams, and it’s still just the music and the moment of magical transcendence through the interaction of compression waves propagated in a gaseous medium, just science—so why do those voices and alien harmonies bring a lump in your throat? Does this music sound like the way your head works, like you wish people might understand?

Sometimes, it cannot be loud enough. I look out the windows, seeing there’s no one in the whole house, and throw down the AKGs, turning up that amp higher and higher until it’s a fucking earthquake, the one sound you can’t get from something in your pocket, and the dogs run for the bedroom while that wondrous bass from Aphex Twin’s “Milkman” rises and falls in the apartment like blue whales breaking through the floorboards, rolling black flanks cresting amid bullshit lyrics looping around the staticky swirls of glitch.

All the ecstatic proofs of Heinlein’s solipsistic pantheism, and you are alive in it all.

“Joe-B, why don’t you let me try that thing? You look so happy with those on.”

“Okay, let me find something for you,” I said, and rooted through the suitcase-sized cassette case I carried everywhere with me. She’s not one for rock and roll, and we’re happy enough to share our mutual love of Johnny Mathis on her flip-down portable hi-fi, and I pick out something that I think, on some level, what with her being part Indian princess from outer space and all (a subset of her genealogy she once confessed to me with a wicked wink), will be a good introduction to the world of stereo sound.

She’d come in on the tail of the comet that Twain departed on in 1910, and had never worn a pair of stereo headphones in her life, but she slipped them on, laid back on the sofa, and listened to all of Klaus Schulze’s Moondawn in one session, with me sitting at her feet, rereading my favorite stories from Ray Bradbury. I heard the tape click off, and she was perfectly still, hardly breathing, with the track of a tear down her temple.

I’ve killed my grandmother with German space music, I thought, but she sat up, wiped her eyes, took off the headphones, and laid them gently on her lap.

“Joe-B,” she said, almost in a whisper, “I’ve just taken the most beautiful journey. I thought I heard a pastor talking, and there were all sorts of electric butterflies and organ music, and then I flew.”

“You flew?”

“I flew up to heaven, and saw angels. That was wonderful, and we flew and flew and I settled down somewhere, and you know who I saw?”

“Who?”

“I saw Anne there. Gosh, Joe, it’s been so long. She says she’s very happy.”

She dabbed at her eye again, then laid my little blue plastic Toshiba at her side and headed into the kitchen to make dinner. I sat there, put my book down, and reached for the player, but I just took the tape out, put it in its little box, and slipped it into my cassette case. You never quite knew when to believe her, but that tape took on a sort of a weight after that, like it had picked up something along the way.

Every once in a while, I’ll queue up Moondawn and sit down for a nice, quiet listen, and I try real hard to hear my great Aunt Anne’s voice in there, or maybe even my grandmother’s, but it’s not there.

Not yet, at least.

©2010-2017 – Joe Belknap Wall

This story originally appeared in a slightly different form on Metafilter, a collective community of folks sharing the amazing world as we see it.