1. The New Job

May 13, 2010

There were fewer tattoos than you might expect. Fewer piercings as well. And the people who bore them appeared mostly in clusters, lounging around the front door of Plutonium Music—LPs and CDs, echoing the fashion of the street’s panhandlers and passersby. Tattoos were regimental dress for the guys at the music store’s front counter, like black leather, shaved or dyed heads, torn T-shirts, and an impassive face. Passing by them was like diving into a cold pool: the diver balanced on the edge of the pool, imagining the thrill of splashing water yet hesitating while the body, in cahoots with the part of the brain that wants comfort and ease, debated with the diver’s misguided impulses.

Rose, who was never one to dive into a cold pool, always found it difficult to come to work. Inside the store, there were small islands of calm, especially upstairs in Classical. It was just a matter of navigating past the hordes of tattooed young people, punching in at the time clock in the back storage room, and then making her way through the aisles and up the stairs.

Even though she had been working at Plutonium for four weeks, Rose had yet to find a route to Classical that was fast enough, and that wasn’t haunted by the specter of obstacles: absorbed shoppers, stacks of records in musty smelling covers, boxes of newly arrived CDs. She could not adjust to the light gray paint of the floor, the walls and the CD shelves, or the rock music blasting over the loudspeakers. But gray somehow was the right color for Plutonium: a post-apocalyptic drab—the perfect camouflage on an eerie foggy night, with smoke twisting up from burnt buildings.

Rose could not imagine why they had hired her in the first place, except perhaps that she had heard of Messiaen and knew that Leonard Bernstein was a composer as well as a conductor. Luckily, they hadn’t asked her any of the questions that shoppers seemed to ask her daily.

It might have been her age though. Everyone in Classical was forty or above, including the customers. On her first day working at Plutonium, her supervisor, Bob Winston—a tall, jittery, blond man with pale eyes behind spectacles—had told her, “Bruckner. No one under fifty … listening … only people over fifty … want to …” He paused as if about to jump into that icy pool mentioned above.

“Listen to Bruckner?” she finished.

“Right! … Yes!” his arms stretched out toward her as if he were presenting her on stage, even as his feet danced away from her. “Yes! Yes!”

Possibly, thought Rose turning away from the alarming Bob Winston to look at the racks of CDs that stretched away from her. If you were the methodical type, it might take you fifty years to get from the composers whose last names began with A all the way to Bruckner. Even forgetting the As, you might need that long to get through the prolific Bach and Beethoven and all their many interpreters. The logic was dodgy, but she couldn’t help feeling there was something to it.

Bob Winston and the managers might have been grateful to hire someone who wasn’t twenty, but Rose was simply shocked. Shocked that at the age of sixty she was sitting behind a counter in a gray-walled room, selling used CDs, and being paid just over minimum wage, when most of her working life she had earned many times that amount.

Is this what happens, she thought, that you become suddenly expendable? All the talents and skills that you develop over decades become irrelevant? Even though your energy and ability to think and reason (or even sympathize with the tattooed panhandlers who posted themselves around the Avenue) were at their most acute?

It wasn’t just the economy, which had been staggering toward some Parkinson-ridden demise for some years; Rose had to admit, depressingly, it was also her.

She had never been able to achieve that focus on the self that the ambitious and successful were so comfortable with, and which would have helped her secure her career as an artist. That uncanny ability to exalt one’s desires and talents over others. Nor was she able to project the air of authority that would have impressed her students when she was teaching, inspiring them to give her the highest evaluations, evaluations that might have ensured her teaching jobs.

Instead, she had led discussions with a series of non-sequitors, not quite as bad as the jittery Bob Winston, violinist and classical buyer for Plutonium “It’s a Blast” Music, but just as distracting, just as worrying to the listener.

Eventually her adjunct teaching jobs dried up, and the one teaching job that had remained hers for almost two decades, due to the sympathy of the department heads who were awed by her artistic skills despite her lack of classroom charisma, had collapsed, victim to the financial conniving of the school’s upper administration.

The college, born during the 70s, catered to those who could not function in a normal college, whether because of their rebellious attitude toward the establishment, an outspoken distrust of authority, or a lack of basic educational skills like the ability to read and understand or write and be understood.

The young people that the school welcomed made for a fractious student body and the upper administration, cut from the same cloth, made for fractious record keepers. Getting grades posted was a task and getting an actual physical diploma was beyond possibility. Finally, the college had collapsed like a black hole. Rose felt no loss, either for her students or teaching. But the school’s collapse had come at a bad time in her life. She bid farewell to retirement, or even the possibility of finding decent work.

It had been time to find a job. Happenstance, fate, kismet, whatever, had led Rose to Plutonium Music, hippest music store on the Avenue, and, she mused, she would continue here until happenstance led her elsewhere.

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