What came first, the music or the misery?
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
I sat between my parents in the front seat of our Chevy Wood Wagon as we headed home after a craft show at St. Joseph’s High. The year was 1985. Some things did not yet exist: Seatbelts for children in the front seat, digital stereos. Our 1983 Chevy Caprice did not have a cassette player in its stereo—that wouldn’t come until we got our next car, five years later—but there was a radio, at least, AM and FM, with five plastic buttons you could push to advance to pre-programmed stations. A stuffed potpourri strawberry that I made in Home Ec class dangled from the tuner knob.
The stations my parents listened to in the car were 101.1 WCBS (Oldies), 95.5 WPLJ (Power 95), and 106.7 WLTW (Lite Music, Less Talk). Power 95 played Lite-ish top 40: Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Whitney’s “Saving All My Love,” Laura Branigan’s “Self-Control.” Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” with its insistent keyboard arpeggio.
We had our own business. It started the previous summer with Cabbage Patch Kid clothes, which my mother sewed, “mother and daughter” matching outfits for girl and doll. Later, when Cabbage Patch Kids were no longer popular, she would make women’s clothing in garish geometric prints; we got the fabric discounted from family friends who owned a factory in Toronto.
It was the era of Kountry Krafts, with its cringe-inducing Ks, and one of our neighbors, an actual artist, made wooden teapots to hang from your kitchen walls, painted in Kountry pastels, and fabric stretched over wooden hoops in which she’d paint balloons, a child’s name.
We decided we could do it, too. My father, who worked in the evenings as a tae-kwon-do teacher—during the day he did quality assurance for the New York Telephone Company—brought home boxes of spare boards, cheap wood that his students used to practice kicking and punching.
In our basement, we used a jigsaw to cut the wood into teddy bears and teapots that said “Mom’s Office.” At the kitchen table, I sanded and painted. On weekends, at flea markets, in high school gyms, church basements, and parks in New Jersey towns I would never go to again, I offered craft show customers their personalized names on these wooden pieces, written in my collection of puffy paint pens. I wasn’t sure if people hesitated at having a nine-year-old draw on their purchased Kountry Krafts, but I liked to think that my handwriting was good enough.
Our business’s third specialty was golden trees, which we were not really gold but scrap metal, plastic, and spray-painted wire. Tiny plastic leaves hung from the wire branches through looped holes, and the metal base was also spray-painted and often chipped. They’d be given to us for free, boxes of them, from another family friend from Hong Kong with an import-export business. “Cheap shit,” my father would mutter, eyeing the boxes of trees lining our living room. I’d take them out of the boxes and shake them, bend the stiff trunks and branches, make them look more natural. Instead of evenly lined branches, some should be a little crooked, but just a little.
At craft fairs, we practiced the art of bullshit.
“Homemade,” my mother would tell customers.
They’d ooh and ahh, feeling the trees up as if they were 24K. “You mean you put all these little leaves through the wires by hand? Oh, wow!”
We sold them for 10 bucks a piece and thought we’d gotten the last laugh.
But we weren’t the only ones. Other craft show regulars sold “dough people”—flour and water and paste sculpted into snowman-like figures—spray painted nails bent into the letters of your name, pebbles with googly eyes. Homemade sachets, personalized wooden coat hangers in the shapes of footballs or baseball bats, sweatshirts that played “When the Saints Go Marching In” when you pressed them, and paperweights painted to say “Number One Grandpa” or “Favorite Teacher.”
At craft shows, I’d make the rounds of the tables and eat white people food: egg sandwiches, chili, square pizza. On the way home we’d go to the Fireplace on Route 17 and eat cheeseburgers, a special treat.
Flipping through cable that night, we stumbled onto the Home Shopping Network. A woman wearing a pink appliquéd sweatsuit onscreen lovingly caressed the firm body of a gold-leafed tree on a pedestal, glimmering in the spotlight.
“Buy your tree now,” she said, “because they’re going fast! Only $49.99!”
“Fifty dollars?” We cried, laughing. “Fifty dollars? That cheap shit?”