Sometimes you find yourself cornered by Destiny. Hemmed in at all sides with no choice except to submit to her will. Destiny, in this instance, looking very much like a store full of shiny tat.
You know the kind. The jeans are $50, the mirrors are decorated ironically, the music wafting into your ears is by someone you’ve never heard of but you’re pretty sure you should like. It’s a clothes store, but there’s a small corner of books that aren’t really meant to be read: photo books full of pictures of toilets in other countries; books of poems about how great your best friend is; biographies of people not old enough to have lived full lives. In another corner are the gadgets: vagina-shaped bottle openers; battery-powered pencil sharpeners in farm-animal shapes. You know where you have to shove the pencil. The cow lets out a long-suffering moan every time you approach.
This is the retail hell my son and I find ourselves in on a Saturday afternoon. We wanted nothing it sold, but it was shiny and the sun was heating up our skin to barbecue levels. I don’t know. We were just there. Fate. Destiny. Etc.
And he, my child, maybe 12 at the time, he wanders around this alien world. He picks up objects, asks me to identify the faces on the T-shirts (Lenin; Lennon; The Marxes, Groucho and Karl). He stops at a square box that puzzles him. It has a handle, a texture like a suitcase. It opens to show a disk and an arm. He is as lost as to its use as Lois Lane when she turns things over in her hands in the Fortress of Solitude.
“Dad, what’s this?”
The cool kids back away. Maybe my son has amnesia. Maybe he has learning difficulties. Damn it, what if he’s just not cool? They take no chances and hang back.
He’s my son and I love him, so I go straight to him. I look to see what he’s pointing at, his expression the exact same as when he’s wandering around a museum – what is that thing? People used to live like that?
“What’s it for, Dad?”
I follow his gaze to the weird suitcase thing and age a hundred years.
“You don’t know what that is?”
Innocent, naïve, he shakes his head.
“It’s a turntable,” I tell him. “A record player?”
He nods. He’s heard of that, maybe.
“How’s it work?”
Well, of course the store has vinyl. Rows and rows of cool 33 1/3s. I pick up a Marvin Gaye, hold it like a librarian at the British Library might hold a Tudor manuscript. I pull out the disk, let him see the grooves, the shine of the light on the black plastic. He’s mesmerized.
I talk him through the process: put the disk on the turntable, move the arm, put the needle (yes, it’s called a needle; no, it’s not the same as the one a doctor uses) onto the plastic. No, it doesn’t scratch it. Well, sometimes it does, that’s why you have to be careful. Yes, CDs and lasers probably are cooler in that respect. But if you could hear the sounds…the imperfect, warm sound coming out of these speakers. Then you’d understand.
“Should we buy one, Dad? If they’re that good…?”
No son. Dad has MP3s now.
Sometimes I would have no idea that I was getting older if my children didn’t have such a knack of demonstrating it for me.
Three years after I’d left the Old Country, the call came and I responded. Bought a ticket, packed a bag, got on a plane heading North East. Things can’t have changed that much, I figured in the way that people do when they’re going to be wrong. Things don’t fall apart in three years. People do, of course. How many of us will look old to each other now? I wondered as we flew over miles and miles of deep deep ocean. Who would be fatter, more wrinkled, balder, with thicker lenses and older clothes?
All of us.
It better not just be me.
My son spent 7 years of his life in the Old Country and wishes he could be going back with me. But high school beckons, promising to be more useful than a week of English TV and fried fish. Still, he says, I have to take pictures. Lots of pictures.
I explain, as if trying to persuade myself, that things will be pretty much the same as when we left.
“Wait 20 years, go back, and see what you remember,” I tell him.
Twenty years is unimaginable when you haven’t even lived fifteen.
“Take pictures,” he insists. “Lots of pictures.”
No problem. What should I take pictures of?
“The chip shop. The Tandoori. The Italian place we always went to.”
And these are the things that memories are made from, for him.
I bought a song from iTunes, and my family can’t understand why. It’s called “Patches” and it’s by Clarence Carter. All I know about Clarence Carter is that he sang a song called “Patches” – I’ve never wanted to know anything else about him. All I know about the song called “Patches” – other than every note, every word, every moment of melodramatic, sentimental perfection – is that I first heard it as a 7” record, borrowed from my dad’s collection.
In moments of stress, in the car by myself, coming home from work, “Patches” has made me cry.
It makes me miss a time, a place, and a sense of sharing that I rarely think about any more. But “Patches” takes me back there, right from the first note. It might be dark, terrible magic.
At 14, my son is still not too cool to listen to my music. We sit together choosing which of my songs should go on his iPod. Some he approves of, some he doesn’t (“Patches” does not make the cut), but he’s willing to share that moment of discovery, accepting that someone 26 years older might actually know something.
He’s an unusual child.
I try not to think that, 20 or more years from now, he could hear a Tom Waits song or a Radiohead song and remember me and maybe miss me.
His picture of me just fragments of songs, images, and half-forgotten conversations.