Monday, 4 September 2017

Tower Records and the Analog Rain


Feeling stressed, overworked, not enough hours in the day, can’t seem to catch up? Welcome to the modern world!

When was the last time you read a book, went for a walk, gloried in a sunset, or bet on two flies inching up a wall?

On the other hand when did you last delete an email, reply to a text, flip through your Instagram, or check your online bank balance?

It’s a strange new relentless world we’ve tumbled into. I only became aware of its all-encompassing nature upon discovering an old phone-message book that lay abandoned in all its triplicate glory. 

I used to keep it by my landline but it had been banished to an overstuffed drawer; it was like a glimpse back into a less stressed life. The last entry was September 21st, 2003. And then nothing – just acres of blank pages!

I was startled by how legible my handwriting was. Now it often takes me minutes to decipher the words of a new song that I might have scribbled on a bar coaster or the back of an envelope. 

I used to carry a notebook for such jottings. I thought of searching for it, but I hadn’t checked my emails in over an hour.

It was then I remembered a particular night I returned to my apartment to find the light of my answering machine blinking. When I pressed “play” my mother spoke to me from across five time zones. 

She didn’t call often and there was nothing sensational in her news, just a meandering day-to-day account of my family’s doings back in Wexford. 

But oh, the casualness of that message, the “couldn’t care less as rain” nature of it!

If she was still alive she’d probably be texting or Facebooking me. She’d be far less unhurried though for even retired mothers nowadays are bombarded by communication in this age of anxious expectancy.

And then I remembered a long ago night at The Bottom Line when, I saw a guy called Tom Waits open for someone. No one paid him much attention – he seemed like some bum off the Bowery imitating Satchmo.

I happened to be standing by the public phone when he shuffled out after his set to make a call. He was short a couple of quarters and asked if I could help out. That was about all I had to my name after downing some Heinekens so I surrendered the coins somewhat reluctantly. 

When she finally picked up I heard him say, “Hi honey… I miss you badly.” There was a yearning to those simple words that I can still recall. I could tell he hadn’t heard her voice in a while.

He’d be bent over a glaring iPhone today in some 24/7 text dialogue, and “honey” would have to fish for his exquisite longing amongst the cold letters of her own digital screen.

If our damned devices would only knock us out at night we could dream about those we love; instead we sleep fitfully and drift through anxious days slipping ineffably further away from a time when we more valued face-to-face communication, awkward though that often was.

It was raining as I walked home past Tower Records on Broadway. I thought of going in and checking up on this Tom Waits – did he have an album out? Had he made an impression yet on the LP cowboys who patrolled the record racks, and knew everyone who was anyone before they even knew themselves.

But the rain felt good on my face and, anyway, I was missing my own “honey” far away. Things hadn’t been going well between us. Maybe there’d be a blinking light awaiting me on my answering machine.

I knew that was unlikely so I cursed Tom Waits for I had a burning urge to speak to her. If I’d only kept a quarter I could have called her collect from the phone booth on Second Avenue.

Would a modern cell phone have made any difference back then? I doubt it; all of the Apps in the digital universe can’t help when someone else’s mind is made up. And so I strolled on through the analog rain and walked right out of her life.

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