The post office is within walking distance of our house. It abuts the commuter rail depot near the end of the main street that makes up the brief downtown business area. The post office is little more than the size of a roomy New York studio apartment complete with the exposed brick, grimy linoleum, and persistent smell of moldering paper and cigarette smoke to match. There are two cramped counters sandwiched in by a bank of mailboxes. Each time I visit the post office, I can hear a radio turned down low from somewhere in the back. Every song replicates a generic, interchangeable three-chord hook: “Chantilly lace and a pretty face and a pony tail hanging down” and “Everyday it’s a getting closer, going faster than a roller coaster” and “He’s so fine (shoo-bop-bop) wish he were mine.” It’s a little like walking into Back to The Future’s Hill Valley of 1955–the sounds of “classic oldies.”
For a time when I was a kid, I fed myself a diet of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ben E. King, Buddy Holly, The Shirelles, and Little Richard. Of all the genres and styles of music a nine-year-old could happen upon, the “greatest hits of the 50s and 60s” was relatively odd and not in a she-might-secretly-be-a-savant kind of way, but more along the lines of making my mother socially anxious on my behalf. “Why don’t you call Melanie and see if she wants to go to the mall,” she’d say. It’s bad when a parent is enthusiastically advocating for unsupervised truancy. No thanks. I’d rather loiter around in the garage near my Dad while he labored over changing the oil in our ’79 Cutlass Ciera (i.e. drank beer in peace and quiet) and listened to the music that formed the soundtrack of his stupid and errant youth—The Big Bopper, The Drifters, Sam Cooke.
As a kid, I longed to be close to my Dad. He came of age in the era of Brando and Eisenhower where boys went to war or work and women changed diapers and asked their husbands for allowance. My brother, I thought, had it pretty easy. As the token male child, I saw he had a natural rapport with my Dad. They bonded over watching football games and building model planes. I, on the other hand, was an anthropological riddle. A girl. Barbies and Muppets and dolls with silky hair; an oil spill of plastic teacups and mixing bowls and fake food that belonged to my kitchen set coating the length of the living room. He kept his distance. I think he figured the convenient Ozzie and Harriet division of gender labor in the house—mom stayed home to raise us while he went off to his corporate job—would extend to the kids. I wasn’t buying it. My Dad had walls I was determined to breach. Music seemed like good ramming device to break through.
Music showed up early on in our house. My brother and my frame of musical reference came from our parents’ record collection, a potluck of tastes and sensibilities. There were several Peter, Paul, and Mary and Kingston Trio folk albums (the latter containing the song, “Tom Dooley,” a famous murder ballad about a man who kills a woman on a mountain. Play that one for your first grade friends. Instant popularity) alongside holiday albums and records from acapella groups. And then there was the one Herb Alperts Tijuana Brass album titled Whipped Cream and Other Delights. The cover featured a woman in a dress made of whip cream. She stared coyly out at the camera, a finger coated in whip cream raised to her slightly parted lips. No one being objectified or overtly sexualized here. Thanks 1960s!
The songs my Dad listened to on the oldies station were pretty straight forward both lyrically and musically. They rhymed. That was a big plus. The stories all seemed to revolve around a handful of simple scenarios–break-ups, make-ups, will you be mine, bad boys, bad girls, and the occasional song about a car. Simple cares, simple pleasures, simple times whispered the twang of each strum of the Telecaster. Even at age nine I saw the appeal. This was the 1980s; the threat of nuclear war with Russia—land of bootleg Beatles music and contraband blue jeans—hovered at the periphery of my kid consciousness. And because the radio station incessantly cycled through the same fifty or hundred artists and their respective hits, mastering the oldies catalogue was a snap.
“That’s Ritchie Valens, right?” I said to my Dad one day when he was in the garage. He had decided to devote the entire day to the critical task of emptying out and cleaning all of the jars holding his nails and screws. A dwindling six pack parked on the workbench. I was drawing on the edge of the driveway with chalk. He tossed a paper towel into the trash can. “That’s right pun’kin. How did you know that?” “Oh,” I answered trying to sound casual, “I remember hearing the guy say it on the radio last time they played that Donna Donna song.” My Dad laughed.
From then on, I set the pink and cream boombox cassette player/radio that sat on the dresser in my bedroom to the oldies station, listening to the “way back machine” as I got ready for school in the morning. While my friends fawned over Madonna and melted down for Michael Jackson, I was living in post-war America peering into the sunlight from that dock on the bay and perfecting my high falsetto to keep up with the Beach Boys in their “Little Deuce Coup.” I hardly cared that this allegiance to some pretty weak-ass music made me even more of a social outcast than I already was (Kingston Trio, remember?), it was worth the price of admission to have something to share with my Dad. I could ask him about a particular song or group, “Were the Everly Brothers really brothers?” and create a common language to bridge the awkward silences, lengthening by the day as I inched toward my tween years. To me, it felt like we shared something that was just ours.
One Saturday, my Dad was sitting at the picnic table on our screened-in porch reading a magazine. I just happened to decide it was a fine afternoon to sit at the picnic table with one of my Word Search books. The kitchen radio was tuned to the ever-reliable Oldies 103 station. The song “The Duke of Earl” began to play. The tune is a plodding, treacly ballad about a guy who calls himself The Duke of Earl, which is sung repeatedly as “Duke, duke, duke Duke of Earl duke, duke, Duke of Earl” to the point of feeling as if you’re being aurally waterboarded. There is no story to this song. It’s a man pledging his love to a woman who he promises will be his Duchess, the Duchess of Earl, he sings in case she missed the part about this whole dukedom business. I started giggling and rolling my eyes.
“This song is so dumb,” I said, mimicking the singer with his “doook doook doook dook of Earl doook doook” cadence. My Dad stopped reading and looked up. He wasn’t laughing. He stayed silent for a second.
“When I was twelve, my older brother and I took out our father’s car without him knowing. We went joyriding around for a few hours, ending up pretty far from home. Neither of us had licenses and couldn’t really drive. We were speeding through a small town when a cop pulled us over. After finding two kids out running around in a car that clearly they had no business being in, he told us to slowly follow him to a diner just up the road. We went inside and he made us tell him our father’s name and phone number. He called our father while we sat at the counter and waited, terrified, knowing how mad he was going to be. We were there for a few hours and the only song playing on the juke box the entire night was ‘The Duke of Earl.’ Every time I hear that song, I think of that night.”
I stayed quiet. This was the most my Dad had said to me in what seemed like my entire life span and definitely the most intimate thing he had ever shared. I didn’t want to blink for fear of shattering the moment.
“So, yeah, it’s a pretty dumb song,” he said with a brief smile, returning to his National Geographic.
I didn’t belong in my Dad’s personal 1950s Hill Valley. I saw that clearly. My Dad lived an entire lifetime before he met my mom and started a family. That younger self belonged in that diner, sitting next to his older brother sharing cold, silent fear that comes with imagining the punishment awaiting them while the dreadful “Duke of Earl” played on in the background. These songs were his memories, his history. I had tried to get to the present by channeling my way into the past and in the process had left myself suspended—to my friends I was the kid with the weird taste in music and to my family I was the weird kid who wasn’t an inch closer to her Dad than she had been before.
Some months after that day on the porch, I switched radio stations to a Top-40 station with a wacky, testosterone-fueled morning show. It was worth tolerating the mostly unfunny bits heavy on fart and boob-job jokes to hear music that was becoming the soundtrack to my adolescence—Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Elton John (wait, he was like, a guy, from also, like the 70s too and you’re telling me you think that his earlier stuff was, like, better?). I stared slack-jawed at the hair and eye-shadow and spandex and bulging areas underneath the spandex on full display in rock videos on MTV. Oh Donna, indeed. If my Dad thought anything about my foray into the music of his generation, he never brought it up. Nor did he seem very keen to find out more about the music that was helping me to find out who I was or who I thought I might be.
I shuffle forward in line at the post office, thumbing around on my phone, listening to the tinny guitars and janky piano eek out through the speakers of the cheap radio as if they were winding their way through a long tunnel. In a way they are; it’s a nostalgia wormhole that at least one of the two postal workers travels through every day. I’m guessing that the oldies station belongs to the slight man behind the counter who looks to be in his early-60s with the creased and leathered skin of a nicotine addict. Everyday he shows up for work, but the music plays and he goes somewhere else.
“Big hit for The Coasters,” I say as he swipes my debit card.
“The song on the radio, ‘Poison Ivy,’ one of the Coasters biggest hits, yeah?” He squints at me over his bi-focals.
“You’re a little too young to know that aren’t you?” I shrug.
“You never know,” I say, smiling as I take my receipt and head out the door into the day.