I started taking fiction writing classes at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in 2012 when I was dovetailing between careers and phases of my life.
It was before phrases like “narrative designer” and “video game writer” would become a regular part of my lexicon and even start to seep into the world outside of my tiny and insular industry that makes the punk scene seem cavernous in comparison.
It definitely put me on the right path to my journey towards the career and life I have now. Writers of all experience levels, career types, backgrounds, and ages were in Gotham classes not much unlike my accounting classes at Lehman College. I got to meet an interesting variety of people who wanted to write for numerous reasons but couldn’t afford to go to college or like me, would’ve liked to have studied writing, film, or other media but got scared of “useless degrees” resulting in mountains of debt with no decent jobs underneath the rubble.
Some were mid-career and dying to make a transition, and many were empty-nesters looking to fulfill dreams they couldn’t think of chasing until their kids were grown up with student loans of their own. But unlike the years of my life spent at Lehman and Hunter, we all showed up out of genuine passion opposed to capitalist necessity where we just bode our time. Whether we planned on making money with our words in some manner, or not.
But no matter which class section I took, one thing was always constant: the instructor would ask what inspired you to write, and there were always at least three people who said “Life itself!”
Seven years since my first Gotham workshop, I still think about this. What did they mean by “life itself”?
The very act of being alive, the human experience?
The serendipity of how things can just work out, or feel like the entire universe is against you?
The way that people can come in and out of your life?
Or did they really just mean irony?
I take it that these folks just never got to flex their creative and intuitive muscles out of never having those instincts nurtured, or perhaps feeling ashamed to do so since America forces you to be so defined by your fucking job. Ergo, they had a difficult time expressing themselves so saying “life itself” was just the best way they could answer the question. After all, a lot of my old writing is pretty cringe-worthy and it would be a while yet before I’d be paying the bills and subsidizing my indie developer dreams with rants and scribbles.
But not terribly long ago, I was in a thrift store where I saw a clock radio tucked between a rice cooker and a lamp that was clearly transferred between at least three generations and households.
Suddenly, I was transported back to my childhood home outside of Trenton and our wood-panel clock radio that sat atop a rack full of old magazines and newspapers no one ever read. It served as both a reminder if we were running late to school or work and a portal to an era gone by and an atmosphere that only lived in my imagination.
It seemed like my house was the only place AM radio still existed in the 90s. My mother permanently had the frequency set to a station with no decimal points in the number that played music which was already dated for the time let alone by today’s standards. To 9-year-old me, they could’ve been 100 years old for all I knew but it turned out that they were mostly from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not too far off from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Blue Cheer that my dad raised me on chronologically speaking, but they represented an entirely different world to the point that it took me years to discover the songs that played on WBUD did not actually come from this alternate universe. They were emissaries from a time that many people of a certain age remember as “when America was great” but were merely the rug over the strife that was swept out of sight. A tug-of-war between the oncoming social and sexual revolutions and demanding everything stay untouched from how it was in the 1950s.
I spent my childhood feeling like I lived in an Eastern European country in comparison to my classmates. With the exception of computers, which I was incredibly advanced with thanks to my dad frequently taking home the machines his department tossed and joining a club for computer tinkerers that he would take me to, almost everything else of ours was as if a TARDIS mated with a Crazy Eddie store then left the resulting abomination in a back alley behind the RCA building. As in the TV in my parents’ bedroom was a standard medium-sized box with a VCR, but if the channels came in fuzzy you had to use this antenna that was bolted to the floor like a stripper pole. It wasn’t just electronics either: the ugly house my parents bought because of its proximity to my father’s job and my mother’s fantasy of loading up an energy-hogging half-acre with the contents of the QVC outlet store to prove she was no longer poor, it was also a graveyard for umber sofabeds from 1976 and braided rugs inspired by the styles at Woodstock but bought on Canal Street that still make me look at earth tones with the same revulsion I reserve for finding roaches on dishes I just cleaned.
I was never able to tell what time period I was ever in, and the constant inflow of different music only heightened this feeling, especially since this was before we had Spotify, iPod shuffles, YouTube playlists, and so on where you could easily look up artist names, lyrics, release years, and genres and subgenres. Music also simply took up more of your headspace in real time. Simply buying a CD and taking in the liner notes and artwork was an experience.
But I knew more about The Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Petula Clark, and Glenn Miller among others than pop music of the day except for what I could steal glimpses of on Friday Night Videos, the rare occasion I went to another kid’s house, and when I got to see the world outside of the depressing prison of anachronism that my parents had unwittingly built. Ergo, it gave me an ardent love-hate relationship with music from this point in time that I still have today.
Part of me fucking hated songs like Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway” whether it was just the keys and vocal intonation of those songs that always made me feel lost and that I didn’t have control over anything, or simply associating them with being on constant repeat in my mother’s Chevy with the mold-green tacky leather seats that always torched my legs in the summer, as I’d bite back tears after she’d smack me for not wanting to touch my seatbelt because the buckles were practically barbecued through the back window. I’d go on to associate so many other songs of this time period and recording quality with that feeling of being trapped.
Then part of me would hear songs like Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” coming home from school on a gray spring afternoon, grateful to be away from my antagonistic classmates and teachers, and imagining I’d be back at home in New York experiencing the kind of forbidden love and dancing in the street like we saw in West Side Story. The outlet store rags my mother picked out would be no more. I’d don a dress with more layers than a Photoshop job that could rival one of Madonna’s designer duds while waltzing on air through El Barrio, or so the vision would go before the DJ came back on with the weather report. At any time between coming home from school and my father coming home for dinner, my mother would shut the radio off, snapping me back to the present with ever-pointless homework imminent, but stricken with this hungry but barren nostalgia for something I hadn’t experienced.
It would be another decade or two before I could easily look up these songs and find out their history and context. But in 1994, that clock radio perched next to the cramped bay window overlooking the kitchen table served as a portal to another universe. It was a portal I had no control over opening and closing, because you’d be in for a thrashing if you dared touch the frequency button in any way. Even if you begged to turn it off so you could focus on your homework since there was no other place to work, it didn’t happen. This vortex that was a mash-up of sock hops, wanting to spend the rest of your life with someone, pining for someone who broke your heart, or grooving on a Sunday afternoon was imposed on you whether you liked what you heard or didn’t. It didn’t shock me in the least that my parents seemed to represent the overly-vaunted ideal from this era, a mom who stays at home and a dad with a secure but boring job who’s home by 6 every night, but it was not a happy home like those TV shows of the time would have you believe.
The endless barrage of music from a time when people drank at different water fountains because of how much melanin our skin has and women didn’t have many career options aside from nurses and secretaries? It was like a down comforter I couldn’t take off the bed in the middle of winter. Sometimes it was pleasant and comforting, but most of the time I felt suffocated.
In addition to music that was a minimum of three decades old, the AM station also had personalities and announcers that even sounded like the ones I’d hear in 1940s and 1950s radio clips in high school history classes a couple years later. They also ran contests occasionally, as was in vogue for several decades, before podcasting and livestreams took the wheel.
My mother lived for these contests. As in the radio station was on speed dial beneath my grandparents’ home and my father’s office on the phone console’s list.
Most of the time I didn’t see it because I was at school or it was possible the contest would run when I was home, but didn’t. She’d hover over the phone as if it was 1969 again and most of America stopped what they were doing to find a TV and watch the moon landing. No phone calls with friends allowed. Not even for help with homework. Unless you’re bleeding and about to die and need to call 911, you’re not allowed on the phone during potential contest hours.
I knew from a fairly young age that I was uninterested in either of my parents’ life paths. The dysfunction in my household aside, the thought of never leaving the house or only leaving to go to the same job every day for decades — even if I was respected and well-paid at that job — erected this fatalistic and nihilistic barrier within me that would take years to eradicate. If I came home from school crying because the other kids tortured me as usual and the constant surveillance I was under only made it worse, my parents would sit there and tell me about how things would be so fantastic in some nebulous distant future when I’d be hanging out with like-minded people and having a great job while they’d be festering in the same place flipping burgers at Wendy’s. The internalized classism aside, they spent so much of my childhood hyping up the future while they were irrevocably stuck in the past.
The defining moment for this came when I happened to hear the radio contest take place when I got home.
The announcer excitedly belted that it was time to call in to win your concert tickets if you could name the song that just played.
My mother was someone who rarely got excited about anything, not even all the shit she’d buy at outlet malls in a vain attempt to remind herself that her poverty-stricken childhood in Brooklyn was behind her. This was a woman whose mood swings governed and gaslit everyone in the house daily, someone who knew how to transform jubilant occasions like birthdays, last days of school, bar/bat mitzvahs, and even vacations into a scornful saturnalia where all the joy of the moment was so quickly sucked out like dehydration after an IBS attack.
But suddenly, that monster perked up like one of the ponytailed cheerleaders in saddle shoes in those American Bandstand videos and lunged for the phone as though it was a matter of life and death.
Click. Click. Click.
The line is busy.
Click. Click. Click.
Line is still busy.
Click. Click. Click.
Tap the receiver and speed dial, tap the receiver and speed dial, redial, redial, redial.
A soft and frustrated “Fuck.”
It was just another weekday afternoon I was attempting to do my homework while old songs played, but I sat in disbelief at the murmur. It was night and day compared to the roaring I would be subject to for the stupidest and tiniest things.
It was right then that I knew I wanted more in life than what I was presented. To have more to live for than waiting for a radio station contest after spending the supposed best years of my life taking other people’s crap, doing homework, then swapping out homework for minimum wage, and having no one in my life but my nuclear family who only exist to be abused and gaslit.
Years later, I’d be perplexed by the obsession with this contest since it would be revealed that my father made pretty good money and it was the 1990s, this was before you had to hand over your firstborn just to pay the mortgage. My sister was so much older than me so I never had babysitters thus that cost wasn’t an issue, they couldn’t just buy a pair of concert tickets if they wanted to go out? She had no issue spending money on herself to the point that my sister and I wore discount store shoes that melted on the blacktop at school, my classmates’ cruel laughter searing harder than that piece of pavement. What difference was an event ticket once in a while?
Flash forward to the year 2000. Everyone lost their shit over Y2K being the end of the world, doomsday prepper supplies did record business, but nothing really happened except some software needed tweaks to tell computers it wasn’t 1900. I’m a sophomore in high school, and I come home from a crappy school day like any other except now I’m old and angry enough to start hitting back.
After almost a decade of religiously calling in, she won the fucking tickets.
It felt surreal. I’m almost two decades removed from my high school years and don’t recall most of those days, and don’t care to. They were a terrible time of my life as is true of millions of people, though my reasons for that are likely to be different than the average person’s. But I remember that day I came home and I’d never seen her so genuinely excited.
She won a pair of tickets to go see Pat Cooper at a comedy club somewhere off the turnpike, and the show was about a month later. Both my parents dressed up like I’d only seen them go all out for my numerous distant cousins’ bar/bat mitzvahs on Long Island, and raved about the show when they got home.
Then a month later, my mother was dead.
Something about it felt oddly poetic. Given that her death was unexpected, my sister and I conjectured years after she died that she actually knew she was going to go and lied to us about the prognosis so that she wouldn’t be hatefully remembered by the people she mistreated for years. Maybe this factored into her getting the tickets. Maybe she just finally got lucky and attained something she’d been chasing for eight years.
A concert, comedy show, or other event may seem like this ephemeral thing but can create lifelong memories and even identity, it’s more than just a ticket to be sold or given away. It was the last major thing my mother did before she died.
People chase their dream job or perhaps entrepreneurial or creative vision for eight years. At the time of writing, I did exactly that eight years ago: I met my business partner and embarked on a journey with him that led me to eventually form my own company after life (as well as the games industry and startup experience) changed both my politics and professional goals. Maybe they chase self-improvement, a romantic partner, or answers to the problems we face.
But no matter what, I knew I wanted to be out in the world instead of just hearing old songs on the radio. And to be clear, I’m not disparaging parents who stay home with their kids: I simply knew at age nine that I wanted more than what I saw, and still feel this way decades later.
I also knew I didn’t want to spend eight years chasing something that could be so markedly ephemeral, to the point I must constantly cocoon myself in reminders of this bygone era that really…wasn’t that great. Stop your hissing at me, Boomers, there’s shitty things about my era too, alright?
And I fear the same nostalgia trap has clasped around my own generation past the threshold of temptation, its rose-colored tendrils promising the dELiA*s clothing our mothers wouldn’t buy for us that are now available at Dolls Kill and my peers are opening pop-up dining establishments resembling The Max and Central Perk. I know, I’ve fallen for it myself to make up for lost time and what I couldn’t have or access throughout a childhood marred by abuse and the feeling that time had no meaning.
But as I looked at that clock radio in the thrift store, I got reminded of that portal that always opened when my mother turned on the radio, contest or no. Time only marched on the red digital clock face while the knob was perpetually stuck at this one AM station, feeling analogous for my life and family. Especially given that the dial’s position itself wasn’t stuck there, it was imposed the household.
Suddenly, I knew what those people meant by “life itself”.