Mix Tapes: The Buckle and The 8th Floor, 1997 (20 Years Later)

I am going to add to this entry now. When I first wrote it, I was thinking more about The Buckle and writing for a more general audience, even though I was already discussing really personal things. I just didn’t want to get into the details of my hospitalization that followed.

I just turned 44. It is now the twentieth anniversary of my week on the 8th floor of Toledo Hospital. The psych ward. I was there on my 24th birthday. Now, I want to write about it. It was an important part of becoming the person I am.

I recently got a 2002 RAV4 from my mother-in-law, and I have never loved a car so much. I have always wanted a small SUV, and she kept it well maintained, so even thought it has over 200,000 miles on it I feel it will continue for many more.

It also has a tape deck.

Earlier this year I bemoaned my lack of ability to play all my old mix tapes, which were like an art form for me. A friend had an extra boom box which she promptly delivered, and I imagined writing a new blog post for each new mix tape I rediscovered.  However, that never happened. The boom box sits in my room, with old dust and new dust.

A car tape deck though is a different matter. We all have to drive. I like to listen to music while I drive. I waited awhile and then, last week, I grabbed some tapes from my collection and popped the first one in, unlabeled, which turned out to be a taped-off-the-radio George Michael concert from the FAITH era and pieces of favorite albums (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and sadly, Boston). The tape survived being flipped and re-wound, and played well, so I listened to a couple more. I posted on Facebook about them.

A friend (one of those FB friends I’ve never met in person) commented how much he was enjoying my Tape Updates, and I thought again about possible blog posts. Facebook seems much easier, less time consuming. There is also the privacy of those for whom I made the original mixes to consider. But this particular tape, which was made just for me, Mix Tape #4 according to its Facebook post order, definitely needs its own blog entry, as it represents such a personal and important crossroads for me, along with its sister mix, “The 8th Floor,” made soon afterward.

The mix is called “Buckle Songs”.

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In February 1997, I quit my job at STAGE Stores Inc, which had been Uhlman’s Department Store until the sale / takeover. It was not nearly as enjoyable as Uhlman’s had been, particularly since, as an old fashioned Southern chain (one I learned during the presidential race of 2012 was owned by Mitt Romney), they told me I could no longer be manager of the Men’s Department. Because I’m a woman. And my fancy gold-plated five year badge with my full name and DEPARTMENT MANAGER on it was replaced by a cheap one with a sticker that said simply “E. Roberts.” No first names.

I’d also dated a co-worker with disastrous results (a man hired to work the Men’s Department!), and though he’d quit already, I had fallen hard for him and being back there was rough. I had graduated from college in December. I was ready to go. I spread applications to retail outlets all over BG and Toledo, because working retail was all I knew, and I liked it. Who called? The Buckle, a trendy clothing store at Franklin Park Mall, a 40 minute but very familiar drive north.

Because of my degree and experience I was hired to be a sales associate on track to become Assistant Manager. Tish, the manager, was very like other female bosses I’d had, though younger. She was sharply enthusiastic, and nerve-wracking. We were on commission. We were expected to “build on” sales, to not just help people find what they were looking for but also talk them into buying more. We were trained to look out for the types who were easiest to do this to. We got a 40% discount on clothes and could only wear what was purchased from the shop. My collection of Doc Marten boots and shoes, and Lucky Jeans, and thin, cheap, trendy tops would become monstrous. We’d all have “hold” piles and when paychecks were issued there was a long line to purchase. My sales were never high enough to begin the process of promotion to Assistant Manager, though I was a key holder, as I’d been at Uhlman’s / Stage. My migraines at this time were occasionally disruptive but I didn’t have to miss so much work that they were a real problem. I wouldn’t become chronic for ten more years, though I was definitely heavy episodic.

My relationships with my co-workers were pleasant, but I felt odd and out of place. Another key holder had dubbed The Buckle “The Meat Market of the Mall” as everyone who worked there was rather astonishingly good-looking, and easily classifiable into a “type.” My favorite co-worker was Jeff, my first flamboyantly gay friend, who was funny and sweet and danced like he was in a musical whenever “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Björk came on. There was the guy I had a crush on, Jake, who looked just like a Jake and was therefore not really my type at all. There was also Vinny, I think his name was, unless I just called him that in my head. He was sort of a combination of Keanu Reeves’ Ted and Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape, in retrospect. He had long shiny dark brown hair and loved the Wu-Tang Clan and tended toward the more “urban” line of Buckle clothes like JNCO jeans. The girls  were young and beautiful, from the one with long flowing wavy blonde hair to skinny, alternative types. [As I finished writing this the first time, I began to remember a more interesting and diverse staff (see update #1) but it is still true that everyone was exceptional in the looks department.] I had no idea where I fit into this schema. Since I’d been hired into management but stalled, I suspected I fit nowhere.

The best part of this job was, oddly, the music. We had lots of CD playlists to choose from, and they were all good, introducing me to some new things and re-affirming my love for The Beastie Boys, Björk, Liz Phair, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Beck. Some of them were more club oriented and therefore totally unfamiliar, and I was able to track down my favorites for the mix: “Whoever You Are” by Geggy Tah (“All I wanna do is to thank you, even though I don’t know who you are / You let me change lanes while I was driving in my car”) and “(C’mon Ride It) The Train” by Quad City DJs. When these songs came on we would dance and sing unabashedly. There were 1980s mixes as well, both alternative and dance styles. The Buckle, not a bar or wedding, was the first place I ever saw the “YMCA” dance being acted out. Working there felt more like working at a club, but instead of drinks people bought clothes, shoes, and belts. Despite the underlying competition of being on commission, we all got along pretty well, though the social and friendly environment was not extended for me outside the store as it probably was for the others, who were mostly one to five years younger. I was about to turn 24.

This was the time period of a major self-destructiveness on my part. My life, private and professional, was a mess. I had dumped Craig, my longterm on-and-off boyfriend, the previous fall for the last time to date Hazelwood, the guy from Stage, who  in turn had dumped me over the phone right after Christmas. The relationship with Craig had been a seven year tempest of fighting, reuniting, being unofficially engaged and then breaking up and getting back together, hanging out and hooking up without commitment, though every time, it felt like coming home. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and who to do it with. I thought I wanted to be with Craig, but I always thought that when we were apart. And I knew The Buckle wasn’t the right place for me but had no motivation to do anything about that. So I did stupid stuff like driving around the parking lot during lunch breaks with Vinny, in his car, blasting music while smoking weed and menthol cigarettes like that was our actual job before returning to work the rest of our shift. I let some stranger “pick me up” at the store, and dragged my friend and her boyfriend to his house, which was a glass and white monstrosity in northern Toledo at which he turned out to just be crashing. I remember there was weed spread all over the glass table in the living room, and I suspected there were other drugs tucked elsewhere. We smoked this weed. I went back by myself next time. The guy, Derrick, was a drifter with a temporary type job, but was actually pretty clean and cute and ended up not being a crazy asshole or rapist or killer; he didn’t slip Rohypnol in my drink, didn’t poison the food he made for me or get angry at my “everything but” reticence. In fact when I declined to see him again he seemed extremely crushed. I got lucky there. I also invited a random kid into my apartment when he knocked on the door looking for someone else, and smoked his weed too. I smoked so much weed belonging to strangers and near-strangers that it is astonishing I never stumbled upon any laced with anything. 

More emotionally significant than any of those encounters, I went to visit a good friend from college whom I’d always been desperately attracted to. It was mutual, but our timing had always been off and we had never dated. We consummated the five year intense flirtation very anti-climatically, but still I foolishly thought we would be together after that since we were both finally single. Which would mean we’d have lots of opportunities to improve on that score. But no. He said he considered it a logical progression of our friendship. And those migraines, he said. I don’t know if I can handle how sick you get. I told him that as far as I was concerned our “friendship” was over for good. To this day it remains my only true one night stand, which seems ironic to me because I loved him. I was devastated. My downward spiral got deeper and deeper.

I know this “risky behavior” is somewhat laughable. Even in the late 1990s it was known to everyone that marijuana is spectacularly safe. The promiscuity, though emotionally damaging, wasn’t physically dangerous as I only slept with Craig when he was in town and my “friend” and I knew both their histories and used protection. I didn’t snort cocaine off the glass table, I wasn’t shooting heroin. But for relatively cautious me, these risks felt huge, and I had the tantalizing spectre of my luck running out, the possibility always on my mind. I wanted it to run out. Because I was fucking miserable. And I needed a Deus ex Machina of an overdose or severe injury to derail me. I ended up derailing myself, but it was like a quiet, tipsy drive off a foggy road into a ditch rather than a plane crash.  Oh yeah, I drove home drunk from Toledo too, but that was a couple of months later, when I was working for Family Video in Sylvania. We used to go to a nearby dive bar afterward, where my newly tattooed young body was, it seemed, tantalizing to my middle-aged average male supervisors who enjoyed buying me jello shots. There, I was in transition, trying to re-build self esteem but letting myself be objectified, my tattoos not allowed to show at work, despite the “Adult” section behind a red curtain in the back. Family Video was the final frontier of my displacement and I’m glad I didn’t have to stay there too long with its 45 minute commute for $7.50 per devastatingly demoralizing hour. But the job was a necessary stop gap and again I was lucky that my remaining destructiveness didn’t cause permanent damage before my real life could begin that fall.

First, still at The Buckle as my birthday approached and a Back To School fashion show was being organized, I had to ask Jake to attend a party with me, have him say yes and then totally blow me off when the day came, after which I drove home in a thunderstorm sobbing and ended up in the cemetery, taking some pills and quitting The Buckle by phone from a hospital bed. I also arranged an interview at Family Video from the hospital.  Jake blowing me off was a last straw, the hiring of a new Assistant Manager another last straw, the memo we all received about a company issue called “Familyocity” where you cared about your co-workers too much to compete with them or fire them was the last last straw. Oh, and the fashion show that kind, handsome Brent put together that I was supposed to participate in with all the hot youth that I couldn’t actually bear to imagine. Me? Strutting down a catwalk in the middle of Franklin Park Mall? I was realizing NOPE fast. Brent was the only one to call the hospital to make sure I was okay. Brent, thank you. Jeff had already fled to work at Sufficient Grounds with Sarah, another favorite who was also someone I could have been friends with outside the Buckle world. I sincerely wish I had stayed in touch with both of them.

I actually visited two cemeteries that night after Jake blew me off. The first was where Craig’s first grade best friend was buried, though I couldn’t find his grave in the dark, even with the lightning’s occasional illumination. I moved on to the cemetery in town where I could find my own friend’s headstone with my eyes closed. She had died of leukemia five years before. I lay down on the wet grass, six feet above her forever 19 year old bones, wishing I had died instead, wanting to take her place, lightning streaking above through the swishing tree branches. The pouring rain obliterated my hysterical tears and I imagined disintegrating like the wicked witch, melting into the earth.  

When I remained stubbornly solid and conscious and waterlogged, desperation guided me to my parents’ house rather than my apartment which no longer felt like home, occupied as it was by my former best friend and her fiancé, a recent pairing which felt like a slap in the face. I only wanted to sleep for as long as possible, but did not take enough of the Fiorinal 3 capsules (a barbiturate/ codeine / caffeine compound to treat tension headaches) to even accomplish that. Six of the blue and yellow dolls only caused tremors and increased my misery and I was a bedraggled sopping fetal mess on the couch when Mom got up to get ready for her Sunday morning choir directing gig. 

In the emergency room, I talked to the psych person who was on call. I remember saying “My birthday is in a few days,” and I guess that along with the summary of my desperate disaster of a summer (entire year, really) convinced him that an inpatient stay might be called for, and I agreed, with what must have been relief. Take me out of my own hands, I imagine thinking.  No more choices. All of my decisions have been wrong. I imagine thinking on that Sunday morning, save my soul.

I maintain that my week-long stay in Toledo Hospital’s psychiatric unit was as interesting as any of the books or movies about the topic (thinking mainly of Girl, Interrupted and It’s Kind of a Funny Story). I kept a journal, and while I’d be hard pressed to find it right now, the writing and then the re-reading of it over the years caused it to be lodged much more permanently in my sieve of a memory than many events in my life.

Starting with being in the locked PIC ward (psychiatric intensive care) on suicide watch, everything being taken away from me, a small shatter proof double paned window. A bed. I was given Ativan and I slept. When I was transferred to the regular ward I had a room mate who named Nicole was a self-harming bipolar young woman, ugly black scabs on her skinny forearms. I remember her saying “You just gonna lie there all day? Come on, come to the common room with me.” And so I began to learn the mysterious, hyper-scheduled routine of the 8th floor, a hospital where you are not allowed to be in bed. A hospital with a smoking room, arts and crafts, exercise, group and individual therapy. 

The smoking room. At scheduled times we shuffled in, lit our cigarettes on special lighter things mounted on the wall, and chatted and gossiped. This is where real therapy took place, unsupervised. My dad brought me some Marlboro Light Menthols, my slow suicide of choice at that time. We lived for the smoking room. I learned that most of the other patients were bipolar and / or had attempted suicide. 

Highlights

    • In art therapy I painted a plaster dinosaur and a serenity prayer plaque. Our days started with a “morning stretch” before breakfast. I was always cold. For the first two days I had no migraine medication.

    • There was a large lady of color named Eugenia who was always concerned about the pieces of pie she hoarded in the shared fridge. She often accused “the teens” (in a separate ward) of sneaking in and taking them.  I never learned why she was there, but I loved her, and she became fond enough of me that before I left she gave me some of her clothes that she had gained too much weight to wear.

     • Group therapy was totally  ineffective. We often had counselors who were far younger than most of us, and worse, seemed to know less than we did. The condescension was hard to take. During one session, without deciding it beforehand, we all asked complicated questions in order to fluster the young man leading the session. Then, a short and funny patient named Deb jumped up and wrote two letters on the dry erase board with lines under them: P (patients) and S (staff). With a flourish, after the counselor had gotten particularly frustrated, she placed one hashmark under the P. She was keeping score! I remember it going on for far longer than you might expect. Then of course we were all sent to our rooms and threatened with some sort of punishment but we were SO proud of ourselves. That was the first time I thought This is like a movie and I’m living it. 

     • In another group session a patient fell off her chair and had a seizure. After it was clear the counselor wasn’t going to act, Deb got up and assisted the person while the counselor finally picked up the phone in a panic and dialed for help. I had begun to rely on Deb’s confident presence, which is why it was sad for me when one day she was missing. “She freaked out last night,” someone confided. “She has to get shock treatment today.” I didn’t see Deb again.

     • The day of my birthday, I received a lot of phone calls. These were announced over a paging system, and then you would go out to the phone “booth” in the common room. One call caused me to be late for a smoke break. After the attendant escorting me unlocked the door, I rushed in with my Marlboro between my fingers. I felt all eyes on me, some curious, some resentful. “YOU sure are getting a lot of calls.” Someone said. “Well…” I hadn’t wanted to make a big deal of it. I lit my cigarette from the wall and said, “It’s my birthday.” There was a beat of silence and then the room erupted. “WHAT?!”  “Happy Birthday!”  “No way!” “Why didn’t you tell us?” The next think I knew, someone had started the birthday song and everyone was singing. And their voices were surprisingly melodic. You haven’t lived until you’ve had Happy Birthday sung to you by twelve smoking nutcases. It is one of my favorite memories, not just of that week, but my entire life.

My psychiatrist decided to change my medication from Effexor to Zoloft. He listened patiently to everything I had been going through. When I mentioned something about my endometriosis (for which I’d had two surgeries and was taking a medication to put me into a false menopause), he inquired about my fertility. I told him I didn’t expect to be able to have children, that my first gynecologist had encouraged me to put off or skip college in order to have a baby as soon as possible. The psychiatrist was horrified. I felt so validated by that. He mentioned a therapist he wanted me to see, a psychologist who was also an RN named Virginia. I continued seeing her for years. She is the best therapist I have ever had and Dr. Mac (current psychologist) reminds me of her.

The mix I made right after getting out of the hospital is a nearly laughably typical late nineties depression mix with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Fiona Apple, Natalie Merchant, Depeche Mode, and the Cranberries. It took a number of months to put my shattered self back together. I found a tiny apartment in which I could live by myself with a huge skylight instead of windows; it was above a print shop which made it smell like ink. The smell didn’t bother me; in fact I loved it. Even today when I walk downtown past Wizard Graphics and the ink scent hits me, it fills me with calm. I also applied for a job at Grounds For Thought at my mother’s insistence, a coffee shop / used bookstore a block away from my new apartment, even though I didn’t feel cool enough to set foot in it, much less work there. But I was hired. The Buckle (a symbol for the more important events of graduating from college, being dumped and losing Craig) had broken me, and as the pieces started to fit back together, I became the me I would be for the rest of my life. I was poised on the edge of meeting John and all the people who would matter in the years to come. When I was promoted to full time Night Manager at Grounds in October of ’97  I was able to finally quit Family Video, where they were quietly disapproving and suspicious of my “moonlighting” at a coffee shop. I worked at Grounds for almost a decade, through meeting and dating John, getting married, getting pregnant and having X, and going chronic.

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My “Buckle Songs” mix contains mostly the happy, dancy music that made us squeal and start dancing in place no matter what we were doing when the songs came on. Some of the songs reflect my frenetic despair. There are a few songs from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, which was important to me at the time. It started with Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” from Pulp Fiction and ended with “Make It Home” by Julianna Hatfield, which had been in the Christmas My So-Called Life episode when Rickie was homeless. As I found more songs from our actual Buckle playlists I replaced throw-away songs with more authentic ones, so it was edited a few times over the next year, much like my actual evolving life. I got more tattoos. I grew up.

 

**Update: While listening to the Buckle mix while driving everyone to school (at three different times), a memory suddenly came back to me of another co-worker I’d totally forgotten about, a beautiful young woman of color who vividly called out the Presidents of the U.S.A. regarding the real meaning of their song “Peaches” and claimed joyfully that she was going to wear a t-shirt saying “KILL WHITEY” to get out of her impending jury duty.  I realized that the Buckle staff were much more diverse than I initially remembered, though undeniably everyone was very attractive. My friend Sarah, whom I’m recalling a little more clearly now, was a short, adorable ginger with a nose ring; not waify and blonde or heroin chic. This was the most unique group of people I ever worked with, which I sought to re-create when I began hiring at Grounds. And I still say I had the best Grounds Crew there ever was and ever will be again. 

***Update #2: The Buckle mix also seems to be telling me to hold on and be patient; that my real life, and even John, were right around the corner.

****Update #3: For one week near the end of summer, the girls attend Hogwarts camp. Last year while walking them through Diagon Alley, I heard a voice exclaim “Elizabeth?? Oh my gosh!!” She was in costume as a professor and head of house, and to be honest I still don’t really remember her, but she had been a co-worker of mine at The Buckle, 19 years before. “How ARE you? I married Todd, you know, the other keyholder? Our two kids are here. Are these yours?” Todd was the one who coined “Meat Market of the Mall.” I couldn’t believe this woman remembered me so clearly when I felt like such a lame imposter while working there. Their older son ended up being placed in X and Zo’s house. He and X got along SO WELL. They are both funny and random, and cute, and I loved watching them together last year and this year, 11 and 12 years old with no idea of their parents’ inauspicious joint past. Their friendship feels like the best kind of closure, the children being gemstones with their genesis in the summer of my rock bottom.

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