Mix Tapes: The Buckle and The 8th Floor, 1997

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 name tag with my full name 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 there 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 women 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 odd and uncomfortable for me. 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. 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 probably the music. We had long compact disc 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 dance 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 had dumped me over the phone right after Christmas. The longterm boyfriend relationship 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.

I know this “risky behavior” is somewhat laughable. Even in the late 1990s it was known to everyone that marijuana is spectacularly safe. I didn’t fuck any of these guys, 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 later, when I was working for Family Video in Sylvania, and we used to go to a nearby dive bar afterward, where my newly tattooed still young body was obviously 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, the “Adult” section behind a red curtain in the back. Family Video was the final frontier of my displacement.

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 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, who 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 wish we had stayed in touch.

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. The first step was applying for a job at Grounds For Thought, which was just downstairs from my apartment. 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 Thought 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.

 

**Next morning 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.