Thursday, July 14, 2011

Days in the Tower

Years ago, my hair was blue-black.

Don’t believe me? Look.

Let's move on now.

I’m not quite sure what happened. It was a period in my life that is a befuddled blur upon hindsight, like I'd been dosed with Rohypnol steadily and then hypnotized for 12 months. It was societal anaphylactic shock. Growing up in suburban Spring, Texas, where the most "culture" our town got was the grand opening of the new P. F. Changs in the fancy strip mall, the move from suburbia to the urban sprawl of the California Bay Area was distressing. Keep in mind, this was the same period of time when I felt it was necessary to have both a Facebook AND a MySpace.  It seems there were a lot of things working against the coherent thought process.

So I rebelled against everything and went desperately searching for the exact way to express my frustrations. I dyed my hair black. I pierced my eyebrow and then my lip, and I dressed in grungy black clothes. I plastered my college apartment walls with Anti-Flag, Bad Religion and Green Day posters and allowed my musical preferences to explain what exactly my deal was. And then I did the only other thing I could possibly do to solidify my new identity: I got a job at a record store.

Somewhere deep down inside, each of us has built an image of him or herself based on that first job. Everyone has that job, the one we get for any number of reasons, but it somehow defines who we are in that pivotal time of our lives. Everything revolved around that job. Not just my schedule and the way I dressed, the people I hung out with or the stuff I knew; no, more significantly than any of that, my job at Tower Records gave me the identity I was longing for after being uprooted from everything I believed to have understood. I was air dropped in the middle of a foreign environment, engulfed entirely in the “my work is my self” mindset so loved by these California city folk and so I did the only thing I could think to do: I dyed my hair. I dyed my hair, swallowed my anxiety, learned everything I needed to know about Bay Area rap music, and dived right in. Because when it’s sink or swim, I guess I figured if you look like a piranha, and talked like a piranha, then maybe the other piranha wouldn't pick your scales off one-by-one and then gut you. Maybe you'd just get to swim along with them. Maybe somehow you'd BECOME a piranha, too.

Before we get too far into this, let me be clear: I loved my job. I would still be gainfully employed by Tower, were it not for the failing music industry and short-sighted business strategy of its forefathers. I could wear whatever, I could say whatever, and at the end of the night, I would spent hours just hanging out with my co-workers voluntarily. We harassed each other over the loudspeaker, and I had perfected my countout sheet signature to a T. Everyone knew who’s indecipherable scribbled initials were who’s, and if you messed up, you’d hear about it right away. None of this corporate HR paperwork crap. If you didn’t do your job, Cristian would wake you up at 8 AM the next morning, scolding you in broken English and a smattering of Romanian swear words. That’s just how it was.

So I became the girl at the record store with the black hair and the sullen attitude. I learned how to make annoyed faces while sounding perfectly polite over the phone with customer’s asking for the new song “that they heard on the radio.” I learned how to play the “guess what song I just heard on the radio” game, and I even won a surprising number of times. I figured out a way to openly resent people to their faces without making them mad, and I finally understood just what it feels like when a complete stranger calls you a bitch in the middle of a crowded store. It feels a lot like losing the“have you heard that new song they’re playing on the radio?” game.

Life at Tower brought a lot of firsts. The first time I ever got asked out at work, therefore allowing me to mark “meet a boy at a record store” off from my bucketlist. I don’t remember his name, but he drove a white Acura Integra. And he was really tall. And something about San Diego. He either lived there, or knew a lot about it or something. Whatever. It didn’t last long. Story of my life, anyone? 

Tower Records was my first key holding job. Four or five months after I started, I got promoted to a supervisor position, and they gave me keys to the whole store.

Fun Fact: It takes approximately 2.5 seconds after receiving keys to a business for that kind of power to go right to a 19 year-old’s head.

Finally, I had power. I had authority. I could authorize returns and I could be left alone in the store. I mean, I was on my way to the top; I had keys for crying out loud! But with a moderate amount of power, comes some form of responsibility, and suddenly I was being held accountable for stuff I didn’t care about. My sweet job at the record store where I could talk about music and flirt with my blue-haired coworker, who’s name shall be withheld due to the intense embarrassment I feel for my inexplicable adoration of his punk ass, had turned into a real job.

And let’s not forget that while I was living the "High Fidelity" lifestyle at Tower as a full time shift supervisor, I was also a full time student down the street at Ex’pression College. I would get up at seven in the morning to be at school by nine, and then leave school by noon to work from noon to eight; then I would rush out to get back to school for a lab that lasted until midnight. And I would do this three times a week. In retrospect, I can see where people get off calling me a work-a-holic, but I still have no idea how I survived. Though if anyone is looking for a jumping off point to my addiction to redbull, I’d say that’s a safe bet. Redbull and cigarettes became a meal. It was an exhausting time. It was an unhealthy time. It was a regular Charles Dickens spinoff.

And the whole time I thought I was living the California dream.

And yet, this fairytale I convinced myself I was living has a tragic ending. Tower Records announced it was filing for bankruptcy in November of 2006, and my store was closed by Christmas. I remember the last night, standing in the empty aisles, staring down the rows and rows of vacant CD bays, and it was all so heartbreaking. The chapter of my life that was entirely mine, full of careless mistakes and personal triumphs was being ended before I was ready. It was a family, granted it was one brought together by a crooked manager to had been arrested in the middle of the store some time in April for grand theft totaling over $25,000, but whatever. Details, details. It was with the most sincere sorrow that we all parted ways. No more Ticketmaster calls. No more new release Tuesdays. No more “supervisor meetings” in the art room, which really just turned into a game of “hide from the clerks and do as little work as possible.” You know, I might know another reason the company failed.

So without a record store, it became increasingly difficult to be the record store girl. The piercings came out. It took four years, but my hair is no longer black. My Anti-Flag hoodie that I coveted so much during that time got one too many holes in it and finally hit the trash can. I turned 22 and realized that who I was as a person did not have to be inextricably tied to what I did for a living. I graduated college; I fell in love. I fell out of love and I left California. I finally accepted my deep-seated love for musicals and cheesy pop music, and I figured out that I could listen to both Katy Perry and Rancid without the universe imploding.

But even now, so many years later, after moving away and moving back, I still drive by the old Tower Records building in Emeryville and see those red-framed double doors and all of it rushes right back. The feeling of sweeping in through the glass doors, sunglasses on and stone expression. Punching in the code to the back room and the faces that would greet me. And then without fail, Rob would ask, "Oh Eleanor, what's upsetting you today?" 

And I was home. 

So now I have red hair.


Got it? Okay.

And honestly, I have no idea if these two girls would get along. Blue hair might find Red hair obnoxious for having too much product in her hair and too much Lady GaGa on her iPod. Red hair would absolutely recognize the sheer desperation that blue hair was hiding just behind all that black eye shadow, desperation to fit in while simultaneously standing out. Blue hair wouldn't be caught dead in a dress, and red hair hasn't worn a t-shirt in almost a year. But at least they could see eye to eye on one thing: 

On-sale mornings for Ticketmaster really suck.