“Everybody cares, everybody understands
Yes, everybody cares about you
Yeah, and whether or not you want them to
It's a chemical embrace that kicks you in the head
To a pure synthetic sympathy that infuriates you totally
And a quiet lie that makes you want to scream and shout”
(Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands by Elliott Smith)
Welcome to Chicago, the capital of middle-class fucking America.
Here, it’s all grey skies, hiding your accent, mindless conversations about politics, and struggling to find your happy place .
I sometimes wonder if anyone even has a happy place anymore. Maybe kids; definitely not a hypothetical, stereotypical adult. Not me. Not by a long shot.
Happy places are for warmer lands, for people with futures and dreams. Me- my dream is to find a way to live in or above a record store. A bigger one with a studio space, sure, but still, a record store.
(Hang on, I love this part)
“When the routine bites hard and ambitions are low
And the resentment rides high, but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Then, love, love will tear us apart again”
Sidetracked, yet again. Sorry. Where was I?
Every single day here is the same- wake, walk, work, repeat. Occasionally, I’ll throw in something out of the ordinary into my routine, like consuming food not wrapped in paper or tin foil! Stunning concept, I know.
Sometimes, I interact with my fellow humans. Occasionally, I can do it without being a condescending jerk about people’s taste in music. If I’m working, you can basically guarantee I’ll be a bit of an… elitist. I’m working today. If I’m honest, I work pretty much every day. That’s just life as the owner of a small record store.
So, it’s Joy Division in my ears, and emblazoned across my chest. I clumsily pulled on my black “Unknown Pleasures” album cover shirt in the dark, ignoring the holes in the collar and bottom hem. I might regret the holey shirt decision later.
Here in Chicago, it’s all about layers. Joy Division shirt, beneath a dark blue and black flannel, beneath my ever-present olive drab military jacket with “Cole” on the name patch. You’ve gotta top things off with a real coat, capable of insulation and wind protection. Mine’s black, just like 87% of my wardrobe. Heavy combat boots I’m too lazy to lace barely stay in place on my feet. They’d probably stay on better if I didn’t trudge around everywhere like a Neanderthal. My hair’s a mess, just like me. Crazy windblown. I always look like I’m fresh out of bed or the shower, because I usually am. Such is life.
Hey, wanna know a secret?
When I’m alone, or bored, or just… me, I keep this running monologue going in my head. It’s almost like my life is a movie no one ever sees. Sometimes, I tell the story as it happens. Real-time commentary. Other times, it’s an escape, a coping mechanism. I can make everything a little better, shinier.
The wind rushes into a small gap in my jacket collar, and I fight a full body shiver. Shocking fact- it’s really fucking cold outside. The wind pushes me, and my few streetwalking comrades, down the street. We’re slipping along on snow-damp sidewalks, hopefully in the right direction.
I skipped out on a hat today. Rookie move. Instead, I’m hoping my hood and headphones stay over my ears, and somehow keep them warm. Wishful thinking? Maybe. It’s worth the cold sometimes though, to have the sound.
I can’t be without music. The sound that warms my ears, makes my feet move, gets my brain to fire, and do all that smart neuron shit. Music is everything I’ve ever known. It’s the beginning, the end, and every-damn-thing in between.
Music is all there is, and ever will be.
(Dramatic much, Cole?)
My hands burn as I stuff them into the pockets of my faded black jeans. Fruitless, but I hate coat pockets. And gloves. A real live moron, who lives in the land of ice and snow.
Ooh, good song!
(Note to self: force the crew to listen to Immigrant Song at work today.)
Been a while since we’ve spun Led Zeppelin III. Been a while since we’ve played any Led Zeppelin in the shop. May need to implement a rule to prevent this musical travesty in the future.
I didn’t realize the song changed on my phone, until the spoken word break of “No Love Lost” falls away to drums and cymbals, stealing my concentration. Joy Division feels too good to fully notice the subtleties sometimes. I just feel the drums, the guitar, the words. I feel them until there’s nothing left. Until there’s nothing left, unfelt.
(Is unfelt even a word? Note to self: Google the word unfelt later.)
“You've been seeing things
In darkness, not in learning
Hoping that the truth will pass”
Snow slips into a gap in my boots, and my skin burns with cold. My hands still ache, skin red, just burning . I curse the wind, the snow, every damn thing that makes the cold stick and stay.
Silence gives way to “Failures”.
“Wise words and sympathy,
Tell the story of our history.
New strength gives a real touch,
Sense and reason make it all too much”
I catch myself singing aloud, my voice dark in my head as the sound vibrates against my chilled skeleton.
(Stop. No one wants to hear that, Cole. Absolutely no one.)
My feet stop when my mouth does. I’m here.
Complete Music / Music Complete
Never trust a New Order fan to name your shop. The name will always be weird. Always. I should have gone with Novelty Music, or Substance Music or something… edgy? Better? Your call.
The door makes that annoying bell sound, and everyone inside stops. I can see my roommate Rosita physically tense. Jeremy shivers, before turning to greet me. I’d say he drew the short straw, but honestly, he greets because he’s the nice one.
“Hey, welcome to- oh, hi, Nic!”
He grins, eyes bright as I slide out of my coat and pull my headphones off of my ears. He tracks my movements as I stow my jacket away, before making easy eye contact.
“Hey, Jer. Ros, I see you survived your date.”
“You shut your stupid single mouth, Haught.”
“Woah. That good, huh? I mean it can’t be worse than...”
My voice drifts as my attention shifts to the music playing overhead. In my store.
“Is- is this fuckin’ Shiny Toy Guns, in my store?! Who in the hell bought this shit, on vinyl? Ros, did you order this? Please tell me you didn’t.”
“‘Course I did. I know how much you love ‘em.” she grins, and I can feel the sarcastic bite of the words dig into my skin.
“Fuck. You.” I stare, eyes dark, anger flooding into my system like an oncoming storm.
We’re better than Shiny Toy Guns here. Way better. I only play records like this when my best friend, Waverly, is in the store. I’d play any record for her, no matter how much it makes my jaw hurt from clenching it shut to avoid saying what’s actually in my head.
“Oh, baby, you wish I’d fuck you.” Rosita slides her finger along my shirt collar, making me shiver in disgust when she barely grazes the skin just above my collarbone. I shove her back, laughing loudly when my hands come in contact with her baseball shirt.
“A Gun N’ Roses shirt, Ros. Really? What are you, a hair band holdout? Don’t answer that. Just turn this ‘Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine’ wannabe bullshit off. Right. Fuckin’. Now.”
“Language, Nicky. You’re supposed to be a business professional.”
“The Music Tech and Business degrees on my wall say I’m pretty damn professional.”
“Yeah yeah. We get it, Nic, you went to college. All high and mighty, holier-than-thou, Nicky, going to THE Columbia College… right down the fuckin’ street.”
I sigh. She has a point. I’ve barely left the city in my thirty years of existence. I’ve always been a homebody, preferring to stay in my city I know above all else.
Chicago is… home. It’s seeped into my bloodstream, my pores, my lungs. I don’t think I could breathe in another city, not deeply. I couldn’t live without my hands constantly itching, and my fingers digging for more. More volume and noise, more cars and the “L”, more pizza and beer, more everything.
The door chimes. Jeremy greets quietly and smiles an oddly pained smile. Rosita steps out from behind the counter to help the tall man with the close-trimmed beard and horn-rimmed glasses.
We have a rule here- your type, your sale. We even have a sign and chart in the back.
- Jeremy takes the geeky guys.
- Rosita takes the hipsters, male, female, non-binary. If you can rock a scarf and horn rims, Rosita will make sure you find everything you need.
- I take… a lot of shit and not quite enough pay. Occasionally, a pretty girl who looks at Smiths records like freshly unearthed treasures.
Today though, I leave Shiny Toy Guns playing, volume turned down low. Why? Because I actually like the next song, Blown Away. The whole Season of Poison record is pretty good.
Rosita can never know.
The store’s slow. Of course, it is.
Kids don’t buy much vinyl these days. Not unless it’s Ed Sheeran or something. Adults are trying to catch up on trends and to learn the music their kids gush about at the dinner table. Or in the car, in front of the TV, wherever your family bonding takes place.
Record stores are dying. I know that, I’m painfully aware. They have been for years.
I just refuse to let mine die, to bury it, along with the ashes of my musical elitist dreams. It took a long damn time to make this place real. To fill the walls, shelves, bins, and bookcases I built with my own hands, with records and CDs. I even have some cassette tapes, for the really old school music buffs. You never know, right?
I want this to be someone else’s place , too. The place that makes them feel better, the place where they can finally breathe and feel like they’re a little closer to something like… home. I keep the shop open because it’s my place. It’s Jeremy and Rosita’s place, too. I just hope it feels like someone’s else’s place, too. One day.
I step into the back office and rifle through my personal record collection. My gaze falls on the shadowy, black and white album cover of Futures by Jimmy Eat World.
I carefully carry the record to the sound system we keep locked up, line up the needle with the correct groove, and start with the opening track. I’m of the opinion that no record should play in my store unless the whole thing can play through without skipping Track 2, or 3, or 7. No skips, or sudden scratches to try and move past a weaker song. If your album isn’t great as a whole, then I’ll save it for personal time and taste, or just buy the singles. I have a fair amount of EP’s and singles hidden around the store, for those records that don’t make the cut. Even more at home, along with my personal alphabetically, then chronologically organized record collection.
(Sidetracked earlier, off on a tangent now. Smooth, Haught.)
We have to lock the turntable away, so not just any dude with an opinion can drop an Iron and Wine record, and instantly bum out my entire store. We only resort to Iron and Wine, Nick Cave, and Bright Eyes to get people to leave.
Record Store Pro Tip- Always save the bummers for closing time. Or, just play Semisonic’s Closing Time. Whatever.
My crew, we play the same game every day. We debate the best song or record to get people to leave, and play the winner the last 10-30 minutes of the working day. If your pick works and gets people to head out on time, you win a prize.
Sometimes, it’s a pizza.
Sometimes, it’s a sticker or pin.
Sometimes, it’s a rare international import EP from an obscure band.
(Sometimes, it’s a hug. Everyone complains when the prize is a hug. Which sucks, because I’m super great at hugs! I think.)
Tonight’s bummer jam is chosen hours ahead of schedule: Whatever (Folk Song in C) by Elliott Smith.
It barely beat out Bitter Sweet Symphony by the Verve. I talked Rosita out of bittersweet nightmares with this point: “This isn’t a high school graduation, Ros. The nostalgia alone will keep people in the store. We gotta bum ‘em out, so they’ll go home.”
Jeremy nodded in agreement, looking away as his eyes drifted and locked onto the butt of a new male customer. I can’t help but shake my head. I work with two of the biggest dorks on the entire planet, for sure in the whole of the Chicago area.
The song changes to Just Tonight at the same moment the door chimes. Jeremy repeats his usual greeting, all while never moving to lift his gaze from the male butt that has completely entranced him. Rosita chuckles quietly, and starts to move out from behind the counter.
For the first time today, I’m feeling a pull to actually help my customers. It’s my shop, I should occasionally do my damn job.
I shake my head at her and slide out from behind the counter. As I approach the obviously deadset woman, I’m careful to make some noise, while simultaneously slapping my patented work smile onto my lips, knowing it’ll crater dimples into my cheeks.
“Hey there. Can I help ya find anything?”
I barely catch half-hearted words behind the curtain of brunette hair hiding her face from view as she leans over a carefully organized stack of CDs.
“Yeah, I guess. I’m looking for a CD.”
“Well then, you’ve come to the right place.” I make my smile wider, trying to garner her attention. “Do you know the band or the album title?”
“No. It was popular when I was younger. I remember the music video, and was hoping- Nope, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but this music is really awful. Can you change it to something… better?”
Record scratch (in my head).
I can hear Rosita hiss as she drags in a gasp of air between her teeth, and feel Jeremy’s eyes snap to my face. I can feel my jaw tighten, and the taste in my mouth goes metallic. No one has ever asked me to change the music in my own store. I don’t allow that, ever . Not in my car, not in my house, and sure as hell not in my store.
“I, uh… sure. Rosita, will you put on Echo & the Bunnymen, please?”
“S-sure thing, boss.”
I turn back to the customer, barely able to force the fake smile back on my face. Everything feels tight and false. I am just barely keeping it together, just trying to get this woman out of my store as soon as possible.
“There we go. So, you remember the music video. Can you describe it?”
“Men in leather jackets and pants. There are sheep and explosions, so Ireland? They’re in a lighthouse, and then a cave, and then on some rocks. The lead guy is in a yellow jacket. He sings about prayer and keeps holding his arms out like he’s Jesus on the cross or something.”
I choke back a laugh, trying to keep my face neutral. I know exactly what song she’s talking about.
“You mean With Arms Wide Open, by Creed?”
“Yes! I want to buy that. Do you have it?”
Jesus, people still listen to Creed. I can feel my grin mutate into something a little more sinister. This is going to be the highlight of my day. Operation Embarrass the Creed Fan is a go.
“We definitely don’t have anything by Creed, no. Tell ya what though, why don’t you head on down to the mall? Then, you can pick up the latest *NSYNC CD as a Creed companion record. You seem like a Dirty Pop kind of girl. I bet if you play the two CD’s simultaneously, a hellhole will open, and swallow up the whole damn city. ”
Her face morphs into one of barely controlled anger. Jackpot.
“Hey, before you go- do me a favor. While you’re at FYE, keep an eye out for boy bands on vinyl. If they have one, any of them, please come back and tell me. I’ll piss my pants laughing while I sink into the Hellmouth you’ve single-handedly created with your musical stupidity.”
The woman hisses at me, eyes now dark and angry. She’s stuttering, obviously struggling to find the most venomous thing she can shout at me. I contain the chuckle sitting just behind my teeth, instead keeping an exaggerated grin on my face.
“You asshole! My sister told me you’d help me! You’re supposed to be nice! The customer is always right! Why can’t you be nice, and actually help me?”
“Oh, I helped you a ton. The band is Creed, the song is With Arms Wide Open, the album is Human Clay. I can’t hand you a CD I don’t have though, and I refuse to order that crap. When you leave and inevitably never return, it’ll sit on my shelf for years. Hell, that CD will outlive the store, and me.”
“What is your problem? Are you one of those elitist butch girls, that has to rub your useless knowledge in everyone’s face?”
“Nope, I just have taste, and only carry options people with brains will buy. Who’s your sister, by the way?”
Three things happen at once: the door chimes, Waverly Earp steps into my store, and Lips Like Sugar starts playing in and over my head. Waverly walks toward me with an apologetic half-smile on her lips. More like-
“She floats like a swan
Grace on the water
Lips like sugar, lips like sugar
Just when you think you've caught her
She glides across the water”
“Waverly.” Saying her name makes me soften. It always does. I can feel the tension and smartass exterior I’ve been exhibiting melt away. The anger is gone, all but evaporated in an instant.
“This is your friend?! I thought you said she was nice! What the hell, Waverly?”
I can feel the moment Waverly reaches my side, her pinky sliding across the side of my fist-tight left hand. I can actually feel the moment her eyes graze my profile. I gladly give in to the wave of warmth that overtakes me as she quietly responds.
“Cole, meet my sister, Willa. Willa, Nicole.” Waverly is focusing on me now, turning her body toward me, and away from her fuming older sister. Her eyes are so soft, her gaze so gentle, that I feel a little unworthy, and out of place. “I assume she described the stupid music video, you knew the song instantly, and proceeded to make a series of smartass comments about her taste in late 90’s music?”
I laugh loudly. How can I not? Waverly knows me too well.
“She was a total asshole , that’s what happened. Why the hell did you send me here?”
“When you ask a stupid question, you deserve a smart ass answer, Willa. Plus, I’m having dinner with Cole later. Might as well hang out at the shop, head out with her after it closes.”
Willa throws her hands in the air, shoving past me as she stomps toward the door. Rosita giggles loudly behind the counter, Jeremy hasn’t moved an inch.
“Nice to meet you, Willa. Have fun at FYE!”
Waverly hip-checks me playfully, rolling her eyes as she steps forward and into my waiting arms for a hug. I can feel my chest warm at the contact, as I revel in the slight squeeze around my torso. I’ve missed the way this feels, having Waverly close. I sigh as she steps back, hand automatically taking mine, so she can absentmindedly play with my fingers.
“Hey ya, Wave. How was your class?”
“Hi back, Cole. Class, huh? You don’t wanna talk about completely embarrassing my sister first?”
“Wait, that was your sister?” I respond with feigned shock, easily taking the light slap to my chest in retaliation. “Not much to say. Her taste in music sucks. Why didn’t you just send her to FYE or something?”
“Come on, Cole. You know as well as me that Willa needed to be taken down a peg.”
“I, uh, think I accomplished that.”
Waverly laughs, and the sound fills the store. She lifts my hand, preparing to deploy her patented dramatic pullback move. I break her routine by lifting our entwined hands, and spinning her two times in an unexpected dance. She giggles as she spins, then slides back into me effortlessly, hands splayed open in full contact with my chest and collarbone.
I can see Rosita’s smirk out of the corner of my eye, her head shaking as she continues to stack CDs in their bins. Jeremy grins widely as he stocks the new vinyl, eyes occasionally flicking to meet mine.
They both know. They’ve always known that I have major feelings for Waverly, feelings I quietly hope she’ll one day return. Only Waverly can turn me around like this, melt me. She can make me change from a foul-mouthed record store owner to a lovesick puppy with one word, and that deadly moon-eyed grin. She’s always been able to, ever since we first met at Columbia College over a decade ago.
One day, maybe I can make her melt, too.
The song overhead changes to Elliott Smith, but it’s a different song than we’d agreed upon. Rosita went with Say Yes instead. I can feel my stomach drop as the acoustic guitar and vocals fill the room. Rosita catches my eye, and gives me the softest smile she’s capable of over Waverly’s shoulder.
“I’m in love with the world
Through the eyes of a girl
Who’s still around, the morning after”
“We’re closin’ soon. You still up for dinner and that art exhibit?”
“Course I am, Cole. I’ve been excited about it for days!”
“Good. That’s… good. I’ll just grab my coat. You need an extra scarf or anything?”
“Oh! Um, gloves and a scarf, yeah. I left mine at home.”
“No problem, be right back.”
I trudge to my office, trying to convince my heart to slide back down my esophagus, and into my chest where it belongs. My coat is laying across an old, overstuffed yellow chair in the corner. I pull it on messily, and fight internally to steady my anxious breaths. Waverly grins at me through the big office window as I slide open my bottom left desk drawer and pull out a pair of black fingerless gloves with a pull-down mitten covering, and a yellow and black striped scarf. I can see her eyes light up at the sight of my old scarf, which has become hers over the years.
Anything that Waverly wants, she gets.
I slide the drawer closed, flip off the overhead lights, and turn off the turntable carefully. The store feels strange without music playing. It’s a little like the silence after flipping the switch on a heart monitor; everything feels empty and wrong.
Jeremy and Rosita split up, one checking that the front door is locked, while the other turns off the rainbow-colored neon open sign. We say their quiet good nights and the pair head out the employee entrance.
Waverly is beside me before I can catch my breath, excitedly taking the gloves and scarf from my unsure hands. She slips into my clothes as if it’s second nature. In reality, it probably is. The mitten part is left open, so Waverly’s warm fingers can lace with mine. She whispers she’s ready into my jacket covered shouldre, yet I still shiver as if her lips have touched my exposed skin. Nodding wordlessly, I gently lead her out the back of my store.
As we walk down the street, hand in hand, Waverly swings our arms goofily and talks excitedly about the little Italian restaurant she’s been waiting to try. My heart pulls hard in my chest when I realize she’s been waiting for us to go together. Waiting for me.
As we walk hand in hand, I remind myself of my ancient, unspoken mantra:
Waverly isn’t yours
Waverly isn’t yours
Waverly isn’t yours
Waverly Earp doesn’t even belong to the universe.
She belongs to no one, least of all, me.
As we walk, as I fight to not live for the way her fingers feel laced with mine, I sing Elliott Smith in my head. I have to finish Say Yes, so it won’t haunt me. I can’t stand to leave a song unfinished.
“Crooked spin can’t come to rest
I’m damaged bad at best
She’ll decide what she wants
I’ll probably be the last to know
No one says until it shows, see how it is
They want you, or they don’t, say yes
I’m in love with the world
Through the eyes of a girl
Who’s still around, the morning after”