For a stuffy corporate environment catering to an upscale, older, well-off clientele, working at Barnes and Noble was a surprisingly useful tool in branching out my musical tastes. Honestly, until I moved to Texas, it was exactly what I wanted… relatively low stress with good people and product that mattered to me, even if corporate didn’t seem to understand literature, music, or even coffee past the dollar signs the bestsellers might rake in. Their music buyers, though, sometimes they’d get it right. The first time I heard The Shins was within those walls, for what that’s worth. Maybe it says a lot about how few films I watch that it wasn’t during Garden State instead, but there was something a bit more special having it soundtrack my actual life.
Time, of course, marches on. The local B&N is a shadow of its old self, and it’s probably only a matter of time before the old brick & mortars go the way of Borders. It’s sad on some levels, but as the years went by, whatever spirit held our store together has been lost, in part from good people leaving, but also in part due to corporate orders. Our old manager moved on to another location, as did so many of the people who made the store special, and the replacements fell lock-step in with a new focus of selling e-readers instead of books. This entry is about one of those people from those days of yore. We’ll call him Tim, because his name was Tim. Let’s kick it honestly here, k?
Tim was the assistant manager during my stint with the company. It was easy to see why he was management: he was fastidious, had worked with the company for well over a decade by the time I got there, and even had the perfect voice for the automated phone message. It didn’t take long to see why he was assistant either, though. He had a reputation for being high strung. When delegating work, he would often micromanage, making sure every last detail was stated. This was frustrating both for us workers and also for customers he handled, as he would often stay in business drone mode explaining their own returns and complaints and store policies in minute detail, in steady yet speedy speech, like the Micro Machines pitchman in the 80s, if he had smoked up and mellowed down to, say, 200 beats per minute. Needless to say, working concurrently with him was not a pleasure many people looked forward to.
Lest you think I am here to berate the man, however, there were rare times when he would come out for drinks after a long night, and we’d see a different person. He’d let just a bit of that over-analysis go, and he’d loosen up just enough that the real man, not the manager, shone through. In those moments you saw the family man caught between stresses at home and stresses at work. You saw the man for whom the job was important not just because he cared about it, but because of what it meant for that family, and there was a feeling that the persona he adopted full-sale at work grew out of a need to make sure he did not lose the position. Getting him in a social context where he was just another man, another equal despite his age compared to many of us who went out together more regularly, one started getting more hints as to the complexity of the man. For some of the long-timers, it was hard to separate the two. For me, it was these rare moments that made me feel for the guy. Whatever negatives his work side brought, I started to believe I understood what was underneath.
One night after closing we were talking music in the back room as I counted down my till. I was working in the music department regularly at the time, so I presume he saw it as a prime topic. Tonight, his opening gambit was Steve Burns. Before we go any further, yes, that Steve Burns. The guy the internet insists is dead every year. The guy who used to dork around on camera on Blue’s Clues. In some ways, it doesn’t surprise me that someone with children would have heard news about Steve’s music career. Tim knew his stuff, though, talking about his collaboration with Steve Drozd of the Flaming Lips, discussing the album in depth. Whatever the origin of finding the album, he truly loved it.
I loved it too. I had heard about it as it was being created from a friend, probably among the most hipper-than-thou people I’ve known in my life. At first it felt like an ironic joke. Of course we were excited, it’s the Blue’s Clues guy, that’s hilarious. Who wouldn’t want to hear it? And then you hear the people he’s working with, and see the pictures of him dancing in animal suits on stage with the Flaming Lips, and you start getting really curious. Eventually there were songs up to sample, and we were sold. If one listens to the shimmer of “Troposphere,” the best of it is on display. It’s a “sweet sounding song about science and love,” as Burns himself would have said on his site at the time. It’s nostalgic and confessional, and the guy who spent most of his fame singing about getting the mail and using his handy-dandy notebook (trademarked, I’m sure) turns out to be far more than just a competent songwriter. It’s beautiful, simple music, made for adults but never losing the child-like spark that must have made Steve a shoo-in for a spot on kids’ programming. It became a personal connection for us.
In the moment, I think it was a connection between Tim and I also, because as we spoke, I saw one more layer of a normally guarded and precise man. I saw a man, intentionally or not, holding on to his youth, his own hipness… by finding an artist that was still underground, making music that fit right in with the tastemakers’ tastes, he wasn’t just a dad, not just a retail manager, but he still had a spark of youth in him. He smiled and his eyes sparkled. It was a moment of beauty in another person, a human becoming even more than himself, and it was sad as well, because there was a feeling that there was something being clung to. We can’t really know everyone’s story, but right then I felt like I’d stumbled over part of the index. It made me curious to know more, but more than that, it seemed to explain a good deal. So many people get dulled out when they suddenly have to sacrifice their own individuality for a family, when they become the “dad” or “mom” role, instead of the individual, unique person they were. So many are crushed under dead-end, repetitive, underpaying retail jobs, to the point of becoming little more than a worker bee. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but in a moment I saw every bit of that in him, in seeing him try to transcend it, to regain that identity by having something he could introduce others to… something he could call his own.
There are a lot of people I wonder about that have become abstractions. People who I know, even if I meet them again, it will be in passing. I doubt I think about any, I mean really think, wonder, hope life has turned out better, than him. I doubt I’d ever know for sure even if we ended up working together again. The lesson seems to be more about understanding that we are more than we come across as. Sometimes that makes good-natured people become awful as we see what is truly beneath the surface. More often, though, I think it brings a bit more understanding to the misunderstood. Maybe lately they just haven’t been themselves.
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