What came first, the music or the misery?
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
I was 21 but I looked 14. During the school year I was stuck in college up in central Connecticut, another small town after the small town I’d grown up in. I felt trapped, like I had already outgrown my time there, but I didn’t know where else to go.
The internet had recently arrived. In the computer lab, I browsed nascent online journals. Used PINE to send emails. In the early days we still wrote emails like we wrote letters—and I’d written and received hundreds, maybe even thousands of letters by the time I was 20 years old—and I printed out these long, early emails from friends and saved them in a binder. They were my lifeline during the school year, where it felt like it was always winter.
Then there was summer in the city, with cheap smokes and cassette tapes on my Walkman. I wore platform sandals, T-shirt dresses, and stinky Vans. There were house parties in Brooklyn and Queens, running to PATH to catch the last train of the night, 2:35AM, to my parents’ house in Jersey. During the week I did temp jobs at anonymous, identical north Jersey office parks, where I’d word process and answer phones for $6.50 an hour. I had to wear business casual, but there was air conditioning, and the work was easy.
In these office parks, I felt like I’d gone undercover. I spent afternoons doing data entry for a construction company, faxing and shredding forms for a mortgage company, retyping a human resources manual for a software company. I was the perfect temp, invisible and seemingly harmless, though I walked out of every job with a backpack full of stolen office supplies. I didn’t have to buy a single Post-It pad or a pen for years.
One time I was hired to do transcription for a law firm, and when I got there I was handed a pile of yellow legal pads full of handwriting and asked to type them into a Word document. The first page described a man and a woman talking in a garden during a party. Was this was some kind of new, descriptive way of writing a legal brief that I’d never known about?
I kept typing. Several pages later, it was revealed that the woman was actually from another planet. I realized this was no legal brief. Instead, I’d been hired by a tax attorney to type out the science fiction novels he wrote on the company dime. There were lengthy scenes that detailed the legal systems of this other planet and digressions into the logistics of time travel.
The novel was really, really bad. But the job paid well, and I was a fast enough typist that my contract kept getting extended. I told the attorney I was a writer, too, although I’d never written anything near the amount of material he had, not even in my letters and emails. In a way, I was jealous of his dedication. I wanted to write a book, too.
On my last day in the office, he asked me, Do you think the novel can be published?
Sure, I said.
On weekends I crashed in the city with friends, in the crash pads they were crashing in, on the floor, couches, on futons. Once a boy invited me to his apartment and cooked me dinner, and I was amazed at the view from his building uptown, how you could see the Hudson from the living room window. He had real furniture. A dining room table. A real sofa that he’d bought new at an actual store. Now I’m 41 and I finally have a book, but I still don’t have a real sofa.