Thursday’s Thoughts: Big CDs, mixtapes & other mileposts


“The regular CDs are three dollars, and the big CDs are a dollar.”

I look at the kid who just spoke this bizarre sentence to me as I struggle to make sense of it. After a few seconds, I give up the fight. I squint my eyes and cock my head in the universal body language of someone being unabashedly bewildered.

“Whuh?” is all I can manage.

Only minutes earlier, I was flipping through the used CDs at the thrift store but couldn’t see any prices. So I tracked down this lanky, bored-looking kid who worked there–about junior prom age, give or take a semester–and asked him how much they were. That’s when the kid throws that sentence at me, and I strategically counter with my blank look of confusion.

So this is where he slows it down for the ostensibly dim-witted guy (me) and repeats, “The regular CDs. They are three dollars, sir. And the big CDs, you know, like from the ’70s? Those are one dollar each.”

Big CDs, mix tapes and other mileposts 2More squinting and cocking of the head. Finally, a light clicks on. “You mean records?” I practically shout, using my hands to show the circumference of a typical LP. Visual aids can only help here, I figure.

He nods enthusiastically as if to communicate, Good job! Now you’ve got it!

“The big CDs, yeah,” the kid affirms.

And here a question stands bolt upright in my mind and demands to be asked: Am I that really old, or are you really that clueless?

In a horrifying flash, it occurs to me there is a generation out there that isn’t even acquainted with the word “record” or probably won’t even know that you’re referring to something other than clothing when you say ‘vinyl.’ To these kids, CDs have always been around, and even now, are getting to be as antiquated as boom boxes, Walkmen or ear trumpets. And I doubt if all of them know what the letters C and D even stand for.

The first music I ever bought with own money (well, my kid sister and I pooled our birthday dough) was an 8-track compilation that we sent away for C.O.D. when we saw the ad on TV. It was called ’70s Gold, a tepid collection of mostly soft rock songs, and we really only wanted the thing because it contained Blondie’s infectious disco hit “Heart of Glass.” Since that was the first track on Program 3, once the song was finished, we had to fast forward all the way to the end to reset it and hear it again.

A mammoth pain? You betcha. But we loved that crazy, clunky 8-track because it was ours. To a couple of kids on the cusp of graduating from elementary school, it was more than an ugly cartridge with a bulky brown ribbon stretched across its head; it was a piece of treasure. (And note to thrift store kid: even though 8-tracks were pretty much done when the decade of the ‘80s was just a pup, I still knew what they were, for crying out loud.)

Nonetheless, that was the first and last 8-track I ever owned, but I bought plenty of records and cassettes in my ensuing formative years.

See, when I was in high school, we had to schlep to the record store and hope it had the album we wanted in stock. If not, we prayed it’d either be there next time or the spaced-out employee (trust me, they almost always were spacey) behind the counter would bother ordering it for us. God help us if it was an import, having to make the journey to our turntables all the way from somewhere across the ocean.

But here’s the thing. When we finally got it home, peeled back the cellophane, held it in our hands, and played it, we knew it was finally ours, and we truly prized it.

Nowadays, people are cheesed off if they have to wait longer than eight seconds from the time a song pops into their heads to the time it takes to locate it on the internet and play it–and they never even have to own the thing. Slow buffering is a colossal inconvenience, never mind having to order something from England or Germany.

See, even making mixtapes took time, creativity, effort, and energy. Believe it or not, up until a few years ago, I was still making them for my house parties. I knew the technology existed to burn CDs and put tunes on digital players and all that, but I personally didn’t possess said technology at the time nor did I really care. But I suppose you shouldn’t really go by a guy who still had a lime green rotary telephone and a manual typewriter while everyone else was beginning to communicate via video chats and texts. For the longest time, I had a foot firmly planted, ankle-deep, in the past. I have now taken baby steps to download, rip, stream, and burn, as even bushmen of the Kalahari do by now, I’m sure.

Yet after my thrift store epiphany, I promptly go home to dig out my records and cassette tapes, determined to donate them, burn them, drop them out of my fifth-story window, whatever. What is the point of keeping this apparently outdated clutter that I no longer need in my life? That afternoon’s revelation suddenly makes me feel about 109 years old. At least digital music doesn’t take up any space; it exists in the ether if you will. Plus, I reason with myself it’s just how things are now.

And if I’m to make the complete leap, I have to start somewhere sometime.

I yank open my closet door to find all my, uh, “big CDs” and tapes in a large plastic tub and start pulling each one out to shove into a big Hefty bag. The Jimi Hendrix cassette practically lived in my Chevy Impala tape deck when we cruised the beach as teenagers every Saturday night. The Joy Division LP was my gateway to alternative music and, consequently, an entirely new wardrobe, haircut, and lifestyle. The live Velvet Underground album with the torn cover that I bought in college when I lived away from home for the first time. The cassette of U2’s “Achtung Baby” that I took on my trip to Greece when I was 21 to visit family and see my aging grandmother one last time.

And at the bottom of the tub, like mini time capsules, sit the mixtapes I made through the years. I open the cases to a few and read my hand-written lists of songs that spanned many styles, decades, feelings, and emotions. Chuck Berry, R.E.M., Led Zeppelin, James Brown, David Bowie and the Smiths. Slow songs, fast songs, rockers, sad songs. They were all put together by a shy kid who started to connect with classmates through a mutual interest in classic rock. By a kid who brought them on a road trip to see the shuttle launch with some friends–among them a girl on whom he had a secret crush. By a kid who just wanted a set list of songs and lyrics to provide the perfect soundtrack for his world of angst and confusion, flirtation and romance, innocence and maturity.

I put all the records back in the tub, arranging them neatly, then stacked each tape with care and shut the door.

Outdated clutter doesn’t always live in the closet of your life. Sometimes, it is your life.

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