Saturday, December 27, 2003

The tape game

On my most recent trip home to Nashville I filled my truck with a dozen or so boxes of things from childhood. This was it, the last bit of stuff I still had stored in the old homestead. Ereck can confirm that I have been in a throwing-out phase of late, and though it may seem strange to cart items 600 miles only to throw many of them away, that's what I did. I wanted to go through them first.

This evening I dealt with one of the most evocative boxes: the tape box. And these weren't just any old tapes--well, actually, they were exactly that: the tapes I never could bring myself to carry along to the various places I have lived as an adult. That is, this was the music I deemed not worth bothering with when I left home in 1989, at age 18. And it is, in many respects, a grim collection indeed. There is Phil Collins here. In fact, it is the Phil Collins tape I nicked from a Nashville record store while on a shoplifting spree with a friend in 1983. Adieu, reckless youth.

One striking thing about this collection is that a lot of it is music I tried out because someone I knew and liked was into it. But I guess I didn't care for it, which explains the presence here of the Smithereens, the Fine Young Cannibals, and the Sugarcubes (sorry, Ereck).

Of course, there also are tapes here of music I liked a lot, and still do. There is Elvis Costello here, and Police, and Who, and Beatles. I think these tapes stayed in Nashville because I had extra copies.

Many of these tapes remind me of particular events or people. I have here a Midnight Oil tape I bought the night I attended an astonishing concert by the socially conscious Australian rockers at the Cannery nightclub. The show blew me away; the tape, if I recall correctly, did not.

I'm also reminded of a road trip three buddies and I took to Seagrove, Florida the summer after 11th grade. This Thomas Dolby tape, The Flat Earth, was important to that trip.

Sigh. As Yogi Berra should have said if he didn't, nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

There also are strange things here, things I'm certain I never listened to. I'm not even sure how I ended up with a lot of these: INXS, the Church, the new age artist Kitaro.

I'm also reminded of the archival and artistic possibilities inherent in the cassette tape. Back in the day, it seems like all my friends had a boombox with a microphone, and we spent hours making recordings: sometimes of candid moments, sometimes of more elaborately planned productions.

In a similar vein, one tape from this batch (actually one I liberated from Nashville a few years ago) is of songs recorded from a hits radio station in Nashville ca. 1984, and between songs the taper, who sounds like a boy of about ten, recorded himself impersonating a local radio DJ: he identifies songs, announces call-in promotions, and relentlessly plugs his favorite radio station in a thick Middle Tennessee drawl.

Funny. In a post-cassette era, do kids still do stuff like this? Is it all about the camcorder? I have an MP3 player that can record up to nine hours with its built-in microphone. Would some kid out there use a device like this to emulate a set by his favorite Clear Channel personality?

At any rate, out of a couple hundred tapes in the box, I gave some to the thrift store, discarded even more, and kept five titles. Four are comedy:

Cheech & Chong, Wedding Album
Monty Python's Meaning of Life (original soundtrack recording)
The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"
Eddie Murphy, Comedian

And there's one music tape, by the obscure British New Romanticists Haircut 100: Pelican West, which features the early MTV staple "Love Plus One."

Friday, December 26, 2003

The lockout

In the spirit of Robin's blog about locking herself out of her apartment, here's an e-mail I wrote eight years ago (OMG, can it really be eight years ago?) about a time I locked myself out of my apartment on the South Side of Chicago. And the e-mail is to Robin, no less! I'm adding clarifications in brackets.

Date: Thu, 5 Oct 95 11:56:50 CDT
From: Kenneth Burns
Subject: I did an unfortunate thing last night

Hey Robin,

In the middle of the night, I calmly got of bed (still sleeping), walked to the door of my apartment (still sleeping), opened the door (still sleeping), walked out and shut it behind me (still sleeping), and began running up the stairs [my apartment door opened onto the second floor of a three-story stairwell]. About halfway up the stairs I finally woke up, said "D'oh!" (oh sure, you say d'oh, they all say d'oh), and realized what I had done: I had sleepwalked my way out of my apartment and locked the door behind me, and now I stood in my hallway wearing only my boxers and T-shirt.

I was an almost naked man with a problem.

Several waves of emotion swept over me. First came disorientation, as I continued waking up and trying to understand what had happened. Next came panic, as I lunged for the door and tugged fruitlessly at the knob. Then came more disorientation, as I tried to determine whether this surreal scene could actually be happening. Then came anger at my unconscious for doing this to me. Next came lack of resolve as I tried to consider my options.

My first notion was to try to wait it out. I wasn't sure what time it was, but for some reason I had in mind that it was around 4:00. I figured that I would just go to work when the time came, change into the spare set of clothes I keep there [the software firm where I worked was less than a block away and had a casual dress code, but I kept a suit there for client visits] and then deal with the problem of getting into my apartment. I wasn't pleased with all the ramifications of this plan, however. First of all, it would require that I camp out in the stairwell all night, and it was cold out there, and I wasn't clothed. It also meant that someone inevitably would find me out there the next morning, and I didn't particularly feel like explaining to my neighbors what had happened. What made me most uncomfortable, I think, was the image of the crossing guard at 55th and Cornell--the protector of children--and what her reaction might be upon seeing a nearly-naked man cross the street with her young charges.

Nevertheless, initially this seemed the best of the options I had available to me. The other, better, plan that next occurred to me was to go to someone's apartment, have them put me up for the rest of the night, and borrow clothes from them for the next day. However, this would have involved walking somewhere in Hyde Park, and I was of course clad only in my underwear. But I gave this serious thought. Of the people available for me to turn to, I most favored you and Dave, but each of these possibilities had problems. Dave represented the best solution, because he was closest, but I knew that when I showed up the doorman would need to ring Dave before I could go in. I wasn't worried so much about facing the doorman in my underwear, because when circumstances require it, lack of shame is not a problem for me. What I was most worried about was that Dave would be sleeping and might either not hear the phone or ignore it, as I sometimes do when sleeping. If I could have phoned him first I would have . . . but the only pay phone I knew of nearby was at Morry's [Delicatessen], and it is in their foyer, which is locked at night. I also could have woken up my neighbors and asked to use their phone, but I found that prospect too embarrassing to contemplate.

The other possibility was you, and I knew that with you I would at least have the freedom to lean on your buzzer until you let me in. But I somehow didn't relish the notion of walking all the way over to your building in my skivvies, and I knew it would be futile to try to get a cab, much less pay for one. [Robin lived a good mile and a half away, as opposed to Dave, who lived about two blocks away.]

And as I weighed these excursion plans, underlying my deliberations was the knowledge that at least my stairwell was relatively warm and dry. If I ventured out, there was a strong possibility that I would not be able to get back into even this barely-adequate haven. I had fashioned a way to keep the foyer doors open by sticking my neighbors' mail in the locks, but someone might enter or leave while I was away, and then I would be stuck. Figuring that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, I tried to get comfortable and prepare to wait the night out.

My neighbor across the way had apparently fallen asleep with her television on, and the CBS late-night news show blared out into the hall. Do you know the one I mean? It's on from about 2:00 to 5:00, I guess, and its format repeats every half hour--news, weather, and so on. As I tried to sleep, the day's news kept wafting in and out of my slumber: O.J...Pope...hurricane...forest fires...

I'm not sure how long I slept, but it was probably no longer than about fifteen minutes. When I woke up, I realized that it was utterly futile to try to continue this way all night, and I resolved to do something. I thought of my car, which I knew had a blanket in the trunk. I figured that on the off chance that the garage door had not latched properly, as sometimes happens, and that I had left one of my car doors unlocked, as I sometimes do, I could lie down in the car for the rest of the night and at least keep warm and avoid confronting my neighbors. I fixed the foyer doors and padded down the alley on my bare feet. The garage door was firmly locked (of all times for that to work!), so I was quickly forced to scuttle that plan. I wasn't nuts about it anyway, since it would still require encoutering a disapproving crossing guard come morning.

I went back to my station in front of my door and brainstormed. I returned to the idea of phoning Dave to make sure he could let me in, and I tried to think what phone I could use. I thought of the white phones. [Every block or so in my neighborhood was a white emergency phone with a direct connection to the University of Chicago police.] Did this represent a police emergency? And did I really like the idea of my plight's being broadcast to squadcars all over Hyde Park? No. I decided to leave the white phone as a last resort.

At this point a strange sense of resolve came over me, and I said to myself, "Ken, you've just got to go down to Dave's and pray that he answers the phone when the doorman rings up. If he doesn't answer, you've got to insist that the doorman keep ringing until he does answer. You will have shown up wearing nothing but undergarments, and it is cold outside. If that doesn't make the doorman realize that this is an emergency, nothing will."

(You have to realize that although I am telling this story as a funny one, which in retrospect it is, I was terrified. I don't know when I have felt more alone, helpless, and vulnerable.)

Determined, I fixed the foyer doors one last time and headed out into the night. As I made my way down 55th Street, I tried to be discreet yet dignified when cars passed me. This was somewhat difficult to do, as my penis kept peeking out from the little flap on my boxers. Fortunately I didn't meet anyone on the sidewalk.

When I arrived at the Park Shore, the doorman looked startled, probably as a result of the combination of the hour, my attire (or lack thereof), and my demeanor, which was despairing. But he rang Dave when I asked him to, and I praised Allah when Dave answered: "Uh hi, good morning Dave. There's a Ken down here to see you. One moment. [He looked at me.] What's your last name? Burns. OK." He hung up and waved me in.

As I got on the elevator, I began laughing hysterically as relief now washed over me. I wondered what on earth Dave could be thinking. He greeted me at the door, also clad in boxers and T-shirt, and I tried incoherently to explain why I was there. He looked at me blankly and then, almost wordlessly, handed me a blanket and a pillow and motioned me toward the couch. I lay awake for some minutes, still feeling panicky, but I finally drifted off, thanking God and Dave.

The next morning Dave lent me some clothes and we headed for work. I was rather inefficient [at my work tasks] this morning, because I of course didn't have my glasses [this was in the pre-LASIK days]. Anyway, the main focus of my morning's activies was to get in touch with the janitor so he could let me in. I finally did, and he told me to meet him over there. He was as stunned as everyone has been when I told him how I got locked out, and he asked me the same question everyone--colleagues, boss, and clients--has asked me when I told them what happened: "Have you ever done this before?" (The answer is no, I haven't sleepwalked since I was little.) With great satisfaction I entered my apartment, got cleaned up, and headed back to work.

Later Dave told me that his greatest concern before he greeted at the door was, I hope Ken doesn't mind that I'm in my boxers and T-shirt.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The insider

In an amusing development, the mayor of Madison asked me to be his Friendster friend. At the moment I am one of four mayoral friends. Another one is our own Bob.