He was a conscientious B student and trusted office aide, which was he how he found himself responsible for restocking the Coke and snack machines during sixth period. He took the keys from the office, opened the machines, marked on a scrap of paper how many Cokes and Sprites and Snickers, etc. were needed from the stock room, then brought the drink and snack cases out on a dolly and readied the machines for the day’s extracurriculars: basketball practice, cheer, maybe a dance he wouldn’t go to. The final step was emptying the machines of the flattened ones and fives. He stuffed these greasy green stacks into a blue bank-deposit bag and returned it and the keys to the office. The paper on which he recorded what was removed from the stock room was folded up in his pocket to be discarded later.
After school he rode the bus home and did his homework, the little TV in his room tuned, as always, to MTV. There was Yo! MTV Raps in the afternoon and Headbangers Ball and—his favorite—120 Minutes, at night. Somewhere in this period he earned his permit and was occasionally asked by his mother to run into town for something or other from Wal-Mart, and he’d use the opportunity to spend a few precious minutes in Ear-X-Tacy, browsing the Alternative section’s CD longboxes. Though it was only half the size of an LP sleeve, for someone born too late to have ever owned an LP the CD longbox afforded a pleasing visual on the front. And a track listing and maybe a second image on the back. Some were works of art! Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo habitual! Pray, what wonders besides the track he’d seen/heard on 120 Minutes did this CD hold? But he had nothing to put in Ear-X-Tacy’s coffers!
That’s when he began skimming from the vending machine deposits. He started by swiping a five; he could always say he must have dropped it. The next day, nothing was said to him, so he took a handful of ones. Again, no one noticed. With the skimmed cash he bought Nirvana’s Nevermind. The longbox seemed to shimmer in his hand, what with the water all down its front side. He brought it home, gently removed it from its longbox, inserted it in the living room stereo, and listened to it in headphones straight through, twice. Yes, the entire album, twice; it sustained him!
Pause, Reader of Today, and imagine yourself as a teenager in suburbia in 1992, oblivious to the ease with which you would one day leisurely pull up videos on your smartphone and download songs, by means legal or otherwise, in mere seconds. Our boy in 1992 humbled himself before the altar of MTV to receive three-minute visions from musical prophets: St. Cornell. Morrissey the Celibate. Rollins, High Priest of Loneliness. And the Messiah: Cobain. And when their missives came, all else be damned, you had to pay attention.
Our boy absorbed their missives and felt called to study their sacred texts known as albums, to hear the deep tracks and CD bonus cuts, to be a true disciple of the prophets. This is how he found himself listening to an ill-gotten Nirvana CD on a winter’s day in the Year of our Lord 1992. He skimmed more and bought more CDs and taped the longboxes to the walls of his room, and in his temple he lay ruining his hearing with the Discman he’d bought, also with skimmed money.
All of this is preface; what’s important is what he did with his riches that spring (and it was riches; between lunch periods and practices and games, no one was going ‘round hungry). In the freak kids at the back of the bus, he recognized the moshers in the Nirvana and Sonic Youth videos. He’d always sat in a no-man’s land between the debauched back rows and the straights at the front of the bus, positioned so he could hear the dirty jokes, which he sometimes was brave enough to turn around and laugh at, cautiously stepping into the freaks’ turf. When he got the Discman, he started listening to it on the bus in the hopes that one of them would tap him on the shoulder and ask what he was playing. Maybe the clean-cut one who told the filthiest jokes would ask and, being duly impressed that it was Bleach, sponsor him into the group. But when the tap came, it was the red-headed wispy-mustached ringleader, and all he said was Lemme listen. Was his Discman getting stolen? Oh, irony! No, the ringleader just wanted a listen. After one track he gave it back and said Whaddaya think, is it as good as Nevermind? You wanna borrow it and see? Then our boy had a thought that made itself into speech before he could check it: Go ahead. You can have it. Really? Yeah. The rest of the gang got interested. I’ve been getting these for nothing, really, he said. I empty the vending machines at school, and I keep a little of the money each day. Nobody notices. It’s like the basketball team and drama club are paying for these. He flashed them a few other CDs that were tucked in his backpack. Well, said the clean-cut one, I buy a Coke and some Captain’s Wafers every day, so where’s mine?
So he started skimming a little more and buying more CDs and at least once a week on the morning bus ride, he’d open his backpack to pull out a half-dozen longboxes, a brick of alternative rock. The ringleader grabbed them from his hand to take first pick. I LOVE THESE LONGBOXES!
He was now one of the freak kids at the back of the bus, which meant trading jokes and barbs and talking new videos and deep tracks every morning and afternoon for half-an-hour and saying Eat shit to the rest of the gang when it was your stop. The Friday before spring break, since none of them were headed to sunnier places, he was told they were round-robining at each other’s houses and he should join them. So he rode his bike to one of their houses each afternoon, where they listened to CDs while playing Super Nintendo, ashed cigarettes into empty Coke cans, and talked about girls. He hosted, too, supplying his freak friends with endless Cokes and chips. His longbox temple was full of parishioners, and he felt blessed and thanked his prophets and the fortunes of the vending machines.
Being away from the routine of the machines, however, allowed a niggling worry to grow—a worry that his luck was about to give, that someone had finally done some accounting and would finger him at any moment. But when he returned, he wasn’t pulled from Biology to an interrogation. Still, he was reticent to skim even a dollar for the first couple of weeks backs. His friends started asking when their next longbox was coming.
So he started skimming again, but afraid of being noticed—surely the discrepancy would catch someone’s attention—he supplemented with an occasional bill or two lifted from his mother’s wallet. Still, he made fewer gifts to his freak friends, and explained away the slowdown in production by saying that some of the new stuff coming out just wasn’t worth it. Sellouts.
In this way, he made it to the end of the year. And was never caught! His gifts of longboxes did not earn him any contact with the freak kids that summer, which was disappointing, but his time with them had loosened him up a bit, and junior year he made new friends and didn’t spend so much time on his own, in front of MTV, though he stayed tuned for new missives from the alternative rock prophets.
This is still preface, perhaps: Our boy survived high school, spent four uneventful years at a state school, got married, had a son whom he didn’t spend as much time with as he would’ve liked (all very “Cat’s in the Cradle”) before his divorce, and now saw even less. He was at Wal-Mart choosing something for his son’s seventh birthday. He picked up a set of Legos and had to catch his breath; the long, rectangular box in his hand telescoped a sensation from a quarter-century ago: a half dozen CD longboxes about to be paid to the freak kids for their friendship. Was he doing it again? Was he buying his kid’s love? He was!
His ex’s protests be damned! He would go to his kid’s birthday party. A boy needs his father. Everyone knows that.
He bought the Legos anyway. No sense in punishing the child for the sins of the father.
Patrick Nevins can be followed on Twitter @Patrick_Nevins.