Each envelope was like getting a singular piece of plunder from a pirate’s chest. Inside, a CD of live music, booted and burned from a concert at some exotic sounding venue like The Grotto, The M-Stop, or The Gem Theater. Christmas in your mailbox. Before music was uploaded into our consciousness or etched onto a strand of DNA, people shared it the old timey way—on CDs or cassettes handed off or dropped in the mail. Crude, perhaps, but it was the 90s and early years of the millennium when cable TV consisted of a mere 100 channels and kale was a fever dream of aging hippies.
I was gifted my first batch of booted music from a sweet, smart boy named Joe whom I met when I was a graduate student in D.C. He was an undergrad at one of the universities and we both worked at Barnes & Noble to earn some pocket scratch. Joe was a self-starter with a ton of natural hustle. He was the kind of kid who started a lemonade stand and within a week had added on a muffin table and a car wash. Despite being a part-time bookslinger, Joe was fast-tracked into “managing” the bargain book section. It was a not so elegant way of giving him more work and responsibilities with none of the pay increase. Capitalism! I dubbed him Bargain Joe. It stuck.
Sections apart with me on the third floor in Fiction and he on the first in Bargain, we struck up a loose friendship. Whenever I took what I called my “unofficial” thirty-minute break, I would slink around to visit my other friends working in their respective sections to goof around a little or a lot depending on volume of traffic in the store and how long I could get away with stretching my “unofficial” thirty.
One day I was trailing around after Bargain Joe blathering about nothing in particular, when the conversation turned toward music. Joe was from Long Island so I felt it only neighborly to bring up my passion/gently obsessive musical adoration for Billy Joel (judge not, haters). While he stacked thick copies of Alice in Wonderland and Oliver Twist (you know, while he did, like, his job),I sanctimoniously preached about the underappreciated genius of songs like “She’s Right On Time” and “This Night.” I don’t recall Joe sharing my level of engagement for the Piano Man, but I took his measured silence and non-committal interjections of “yeah, that’s cool” as proof enough of his musical fealty to New York’s living legend.
The following Monday I was in the break room when I heard a voice say, “Oh hey, I have something for you.” I turned to see Bargain Joe plop his backpack on the table. Fishing around in the large compartment, he pulled out a small, padded bundle and handed it to me.
“What’s this?” I asked, starting to unfold the package. There were two, double-sided plastic sheets, lined with pockets, the kind that fit into binders and were becoming popular to house your CD collection. I carefully opened up the sheets to find about a ten CDs tucked snugly in the pockets. Each one was labeled with black Sharpie: “Billy Joel Live from Philly;” “Billy Joel NY-1998;” “Billy Joel Madison Square Garden-1996 disc 1.” Bargain Joe not only knew the fastest way to scramble up the corporate retail ladder, he also had some tasty tech skills. This was no small thing in 1999 when the Internet was still a wild west frontier of dial-up connections and websites so code heavy that a simple banner could crash your entire computer.
“How…where…how?” I stammered, cradling the sheets as if they were sticks of dynamite. Lot’s of places, Joe explained trying to sound as if he were talking about the best way to wash dishes or get to the Washington Monument. Fan sites with message boards were the best places to find booted shows. People uploaded song files and then it was just a matter of opening them, saving them on your computer, in some cases compressing them into a different format that would enable you to burn them onto CDs, and oh, yeah, sifting through to find shows that had good sound quality. You know, that kind of thing. No biggie. Pretty easy stuff. Right.
I ran my hands over the smooth, cool plastic, and tried not to blush in front of this kind, hopeful boy who had just handed me the musical equivalent of a dozen red, long-stemmed roses. These kinds of overtures were foreign to me; I was rarely the girl on the receiving end of Lloyd Dobbler’s boom box. I threw my arms around him, thanking him; it was so many leagues above a mix tape, that crude, yet effective, Valentine slyly shared with someone you like. I couldn’t unsee him or what his gesture meant. But I couldn’t return it either, which made firing up those tasty discs and jamming my head against the stereo speaker to make out the stage chatter and catch the slightly muffled song intros very bitter sweet. I was moved, knowing that I was a steward for something that was more than just a bunch of live concerts. The music took on different significance, no longer just feeding my aural junky habit when it came to collecting and consuming my favorite artists. It would forever be a page in a bigger story.
Years later when the Internet became more burn and share friendly (at least for me), I would think of Joe as I traded shows, connecting with people all over the country– a few who I actually met and have become lifelong friends. I would uncap my Sharpie, carefully write out track lists, and imbibe the disc with a secret wish that the person would somehow know they were getting more than a concert; they were getting me.