I’m taking a short break from my Pandemic Chronicles entries to indulge in some deep nostalgia, prompted by a Facebook ad touting the online revival of Tower Records, the one-time brick & mortar retail shrine for music lovers. The announcement immediately set me off on a time travel journey going back some 38 years.
Tower’s massive store on 4th Street and Broadway in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village appeared in 1983. In the early 1980s, Broadway was the dividing line between the Village proper and the “frontier” of the East Village. I was a law student at New York University back then, and the law school’s Mercer Street residence hall happened to be only a few minutes walk from Tower. Even though discretionary spending under my tight budget was mainly devoted to exploring New York’s many wonderful bookstores, Tower became a draw as well.
Of course, back then I had no real music set-up, not even a boom box. Throughout law school, my cassette Walkman was my stereo system. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me from periodic visits to Tower in search of music bargains. I was in awe of the selection. Imagine the endless rows of cassette tapes in every musical category!
I was hardly alone in recognizing Tower’s significance. In a 2016 piece for Medium, “When Tower Records was Church,” David Chiu waxed nostalgic about visits to Tower in the Village:
When you walked into the Tower Records store in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood back in the day, you just didn’t go in there to buy an album and then rush off to leave. To me, going to Tower was like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or attending a baseball game — it required a certain investment of time.
Sometimes it was the overall experience of being inside the store that mattered more than the purchases: the act of walking through the aisles and aisles of music, finding out what the new releases displayed out front, and hoping to meet an musician who was doing an in-store appearance. There was always a sense of anticipation as you went through Tower’s revolving doors underneath the the large sign displaying its distinctive italicized logo because you just didn’t know what you’d discover.
Sigh. The new Tower is online, and even though the variety may well exceed what the brick-and-mortar stores had to offer, it’s not the same. Similar to how I’m feeling about online booksellers and music & video streaming these days, what’s missing now is that wondrous sense of anticipation that came with entering a record store, bookstore, or video store, and making new discoveries. I can’t say that I’d trade in the vast warehouse of popular culture available to us today in return for that on-the-ground retail experience, but it’s a closer call than first meets the eye.
I had a feeling it might be this way. Back in March and April, when people in the know started sharing possible timelines for coronavirus treatments and vaccines, it quickly became obvious to me that we might be in this stay-at-home mode through the calendar year and perhaps going into 2021.
For many of us in higher education, this fall means teaching online. Last spring, when my university decided to teach remotely for the rest of the semester, we quickly had to adapt to this online environment, right as the emerging pandemic began to swirl around us.
Commencing an academic year in an online modality is a different kind of experience. There’s no opportunity to establish a face-to-face rapport, so we must do our best to create a positive classroom vibe with our faces on the screen. I’m very happy to report that my students have been engaged and interested in our Zoom classes so far, and that says a lot about their ability to adapt and to make the best of the situation.
Missing is the normal ritual of how the start of a school year parallels the shift from summer to fall. With the exception of my six years of full-time legal practice and an interim year between finishing college and entering law school, I’ve been living on a school or academic calendar continuously since kindergarten. I still keep my schedule and appointments in a hard copy annual planner that runs from July through June.
This fall will be different, however. Although the New England weather is already showing signs of cooling down, the fall will be more observed than experienced, because of the pandemic. As I’ve written in previous entries, Massachusetts (and Boston especially) has been a brutal hotspot for COVID-19, and it has taken a lot of self-discipline and painful sacrifice to bring down our infection rates. To avoid a recurrence of what we experienced during the spring, we will have to limit the degree to which we re-open.
All of which triggers a bit of soggy nostalgia for me. Thinking of grade school and childhood anticipation of the fall holidays, especially Halloween. And then there’s football (American, that is), with all the pageantry of the college game, and Sundays and Monday nights featuring the NFL. Add to that memories of fall semesters in college and law school, wondering what the coming year would bring. All of these memories are fueled by living in parts of the country — the Midwest and Northeast — where we have seasonal weather changes.
I’m grateful for technologies that allow for live interaction on the screen. This is truly “space age” stuff when viewed from my grade school days and our visions of what the future might bring. Nonetheless, it’s not the same. I do hope that next fall will be more reminiscent of days gone by.
A couple of weeks ago, our study abroad group from college met for a Zoom-enabled happy hour/mini-reunion. It was the latest gathering of our spring 1981 semester abroad cohort from Valparaiso University’s program in Cambridge, England.
I can think of no other chapter in my life that so instantly flips on my personal nostalgia channel. I’ve written about that special semester many times on this blog (such as here, “First-time sojourn across the pond”). Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
One of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities. Right now, it’s highly questionable whether their main campuses will even be open for residential classes in the fall, much less offering study abroad options. Even when those possibilities begin manifesting themselves again, a lot of students (and their parents) may understandably be hesitant to take the plunge.
I dearly hope that a combination of smart public health practices and new developments in medicine will control the ravages of this virus sooner than later. Saving lives, preserving health, and re-opening our economic and civic society are, of course, our main priorities. The return of life-changing opportunities to spend meaningful time in other parts of the world would be welcomed, too, along with a renewed sense of adventure to take advantage of them.
I know I’m hardly alone in spending more time watching television during this public health crisis. As I wrote a couple of a weeks ago, I’ve sharply reduced my watching of TV news, and that decision has held. Instead, I’ve been spending time with assorted series, especially highly-regarded police procedurals and historical dramas. Last night, however, I checked out the first episode of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part ESPN documentary series about the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, centering around the final championship season (1997-98) of its iconic, superstar guard, Michael Jordan.
The series is being televised in weekly installments, rather than being released in its entirety. That said, I already understand why “The Last Dance” is drawing accolades from sports writers and fans desperate to feed the beast while professional and college leagues are shut down due to the pandemic. (As further evidence, the just-completed National Football League annual draft of collegiate standouts earned its highest-ever ratings.) It’s a basketball junkie’s delight. If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you followed the great 1990s Bulls teams, then you’re in for a treat.
For me, “The Last Dance” is prompting a major nostalgia trip. The Jordan-era Bulls teams overlapped with important events and transitions in my life. Jordan first joined the Bulls for the 1984-85 season, which happened to cover my final year of law school at New York University. Even in New York, the sometimes snobby sports intelligentsia knew that this guy in Chicago was something special. Jordan immediately became one of the league’s best players. I began closely following his career and the fortunes of the Bulls from afar.
Alas, Jordan had joined a team in a deep state of mediocrity. The Bulls of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a pretty sad bunch. It would take several years of key player acquisitions and coaching changes — most notably star swingman Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson — before the team became a serious playoff contender. In fact, not until 1991 would the Bulls win their first NBA championship, the first of six during the halcyon 90s.
By then, I had been practicing law for six years in New York City, first as a Legal Aid lawyer, then as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State. But in 1991, my career was about to shift. I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level instructor in NYU’s Lawyering Program, an innovative legal skills curriculum for first-year law students, starting that fall. I was tremendously excited to be returning to my legal alma mater,as a faculty member, no less! I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of an academic career.
I would decamp from New York to Boston in 1994 to accept a tenure-track position at Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve remained since. My devotion to the Bulls followed me, and watching the team’s successes provided welcomed breaks from the demanding workload of a new assistant professor.
The academic calendar would provide greater flexibility in my own schedule, with added opportunities for travel. My fond memories of that team include visits to home in Indiana. My mom, of all folks, had become an ardent Bulls as well. We would watch games together in the TV room, cheering on what would become one of the sport’s legendary dynasties.
As a lifelong Chicago sports fan who puts those great Bulls teams on a pedestal, I look forward to watching the rest of “The Last Dance.” I’m sure it will continue to inspire nostalgic episodes as well. It’s all good, as we comb the memories of our lives during this challenging time.
At my go-to karaoke place in Boston, the main stage DJ is fond of playing clips of late 70s pop music in between numbers selected for performance. When things are a bit slow, he’ll even get up and croon a tune himself, and often he chooses songs from the late 70s. For me, naturally, this music sets off immediate bouts of nostalgia — in this case zeroing in on the year 1979.
Why 1979? Maybe it’s simply easy to think in terms of 20/30/40 years ago. But for me it’s more than that. Until recently, I never regarded that year as being a particularly momentous one in my life. Forty summers ago, I was a rising junior at Valparaiso University. Much of that summer was spent working as a retail clerk for a local drugstore chain, unloading trucks and stocking shelves with merchandise. In keeping with my proclaimed career goal of entering politics, I was very active in student government and local political campaigns. My plan was to finish up my B.A. (political science major, of course) and then to go to law school, a tried-and-true path to a political career.
Well, I would graduate with that poli sci major and head off to law school, but another set of significant experiences would come into play as well. In the spring of 1979, I interviewed for and obtained a departmental editor position with The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. Starting in the fall, I would be the paper’s academic affairs editor, responsible for the internal higher education beat at the university. That meant writing my own news and opinion articles, as well as assigning and editing articles for staff reporters.
I’ve actually saved the summer 1979 letter that our editor-in-chief sent to incoming department editors and staffers, in anticipation of our work that fall. A snapshot of it appears below. There’s a reason why I’ve held onto it for so long, and it’s not simply my pack rat mentality. You see, I vividly recall how much I was looking forward to that experience. I had never before worked on a student newspaper, but I had the writing bug. The Torch was a very good undergraduate student newspaper and was taken seriously by the faculty and administration. I was psyched to be a part of it.
Working on The Torch turned out to be a great, immersive experience, intellectually and personally. To the degree that I write clearly and cogently today, I credit the many dozens of articles I wrote and edited as helping to build that foundation. I spent many hours in the newspaper’s offices, and that time helped to forge a cadre of lifelong friendships. In addition, I now realize how covering VU’s higher ed scene helped to plant the seeds for my eventual pursuit of an academic career.
And of course, whether in The Torch offices or driving around in my beat-up 1968 Buick, the a.m. radio played those Top 40 pop songs, over and again. So yes, they do a number on me. In fact, I’m now feeding the nostalgia beast, having assembled a little play list of some of those songs from 1979 for my iPad. They’re like musical time machines.
Two years ago, I wrote a retrospective essay looking back at my college years for The Cresset, Valparaiso University’s journal of the arts, humanities, and public affairs. Titled “Homecoming at Middle Age,” you may freely access it here.
This weekend marks the closing of Durgin-Park, a Boston restaurant featuring classic Yankee-style cooking that has been around for over 190 years. In explaining their decision to close, owners cited the rising cost of doing business and competition from newer, trendier restaurants.
Durgin-Park is located in Faneuil Hall, a popular tourist location with shops, restaurants, and pubs. During Boston’s early history, this was a commercial seaport, market, and meeting place, and Durgin-Park served up many meals to those who toiled hard to make a living. Between Faneuil Hall’s period of commerce and its 1970s reincarnation as a tourist site, Durgin-Park continued on as a favorite local eatery.
The closing of Durgin-Park has been big news here in Boston, with much of the coverage sharing nostalgic reminiscing over meals, family gatherings, and visits to the city. Here’s the lede from a piece by Shannon Dooling of WBUR public radio:
Durgin-Park, the Faneuil Hall restaurant that dates back to the early 19th century, is slated to close its doors Saturday. Known for its traditional New England fare, and at times surly wait staff, patrons have been coming out in droves to show support, share memories and enjoy a final meal at the Boston institution.
Durgin-Park is part of my Boston history as well. In the spring of 1994, when I traveled from New York to Boston to search for an apartment in anticipation of my move later that summer, my long-time friends Don and Sharon Driscoll drove out from their home (then in Connecticut) to add a bit of sightseeing to the trip. Sharon was familiar with Durgin-Park from a childhood visit to Boston, and so we made it my first bonafide New England restaurant meal as a soon-to-be Bostonian.
Since then, I’ve taken many guests there, including friends and families visiting Boston on a vacation, as well as groups from academic conferences. The food was always hearty, plentiful, and delicious.
Some of the news reports about Durgin-Park’s closing allude to the possibility of a buyer stepping in to save the restaurant. I have no idea if this is simply wishful thinking. I do know that great cities make room for the new without jettisoning the best of the old. Durgin-Park certainly qualifies as the latter. If it is to serve its last meal this weekend, then it will be missed for years to come.
Tara Isabella Burton, in a feature for The Economist’s 1843 magazine last year, serves up a human interest story on an iconic Manhattan institution, the 24-hour diner:
Londoners have their pubs. Parisians have their cafés. New Yorkers have diners – altars to cheap coffee and mayo-spackled pastrami, where you can order a mug at dawn and stay until dusk, where you can hurl invective at the waiters and where they’ll hurl them right back. New Yorkers may be brusque, but at the diner counter, they’ll tell you every one of their secrets before the second cup of coffee.
. . . The diner, after all, is at once the result of New York’s loneliness and its solution. It’s a place where social rules among strangers – no eye contact, no smiling, especially no conversation – are suspended. The greatest diners, like Chelsea Square, are the 24-hour ones that cater to morning workers and midnight drunks, and to the people who find themselves in those sunrise spaces in between.
Yeah, it’s something of a clichéd piece, characterizing the NYC diner as a refuge for loners and eccentrics in a sort of romanticized, 1940s kind of way. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it, because it pushes my nostalgia buttons: The 24-hour diner ranks high among the institutions I miss most about living in New York City, where I lived from 1982 to 1994.
During that time, two such places were regular stops for me, the Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway and Astor Place. It’s no accident that both are in the heart of Greenwich Village, near the buildings of New York University, where I went to law school. The Washington Square Diner was a short walk from Hayden Hall, then the primary dorm for first-year law students. The Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger was close to the Mercer Street residence hall, where most second and third year law students lived.
When I visit New York, a meal at the Cozy is a required pilgrimage. I usually order the same thing: A cup of their incredible split pea soup with croutons and a delicious turkey burger. Some of the same guys who worked behind the counter in the 1980s are still there. I also make occasional visits to the Washington Square Diner, where their challah bread french toast remains one of my favorites.
For most of my life I have been a night owl type. Coming from northwest Indiana, the 24-hour city diner was a revelation to me. Good, basic comfort food at decent prices, available around the clock. Awesome!
I’ve been in Boston for some 24 years. While NYC is the city that never sleeps, Boston tends to go to bed early. Although there are many things I like about Boston, how wonderful it would be to see a bunch of 24-hour diners pop up. After all, sometimes a burger or plate of eggs at 2 a.m. just hits the spot.
As soon as I stepped out of my home today and felt the near-wintry chill against my face, I knew that I’d be paying a visit to the venerable Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston. You see, for some reason, I associate cold weather with books and bookstores, especially used bookstores. It’s like a Pavlovian response.
The Brattle just happens to be one of America’s truly historic bookshops, tracing its origins back to 1825. It is a treasure trove for those of all budgets. You can watch a short video about it here:
For this visit, I made two purchases: A hardcover edition of Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio (2002), and a beautiful Folio Society edition of Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008). Total tab? $20 plus tax. Darn good.
I also chatted briefly with Brattle’s proprietor, Kenneth Gloss. Along with local radio personality Jordan Rich, he does a regular podcast titled the “Brattlecast,” which can be accessed here. It’s a geek’s delight, full of Gloss’s stories about books, bookselling, and book collecting.
As to cold weather and bookstores: Maybe I simply regard winter as a perfect time to hunker down with some good books. Or perhaps in a past life I lived in London and frequented its quaint little bookshops, following in the footsteps of Dickens & Co. Boston is a fine match for all that. It remains a city where books, reading, and learning still count for a lot. It is steeped in history. And we have real seasons here, including some brutal winters.
In any event, bookstores continue to serve as places of discovery, enlightenment, and sanctuary to me. When the temperature starts dropping, I am drawn to them even more.
Even though I’ve been teaching for some 27 years, I don’t get overly enthused about semester breaks. They usually involve a fair amount of grading exams and papers, followed by catching up on other work tasks and getting ready for the next term’s classes. They’re all good, but they’re more of a respite from teaching than a break.
Nevertheless, as the weather gets colder here in Boston and classes come to an end, I do get especially nostalgic about two semester breaks that date back to my own student days.
The first was during my senior year (1980-81) at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Had I planned to spend my final semester of college on campus, I would’ve been at serious risk for developing a bad case of “senioritis” — i.e., playing out the home stretch of my undergraduate career without a lot of enthusiasm. However, I was about to spend my last collegiate semester at VU’s Cambridge, England study center. As I’ve written on this blog, it turned out to be a deeply formative experience.
Of course, I didn’t anticipate how life-changing that semester abroad would be as I completed my fall semester papers and final exams and then left my Brandt Hall dorm room for home. The nostalgia trip for me today is recalling how totally, utterly, completely clueless I was about the experience that awaited me.
In keeping with my procrastinating nature back then (less so today), my preparations for the trip were last minute and minimal. Honestly, I wasn’t even all that curious about England and Europe. I had signed up for the Cambridge semester largely because friends with whom I worked on the VU student newspaper were going. I also welcomed a change of scenery from our small town Indiana campus. (Of course, today I also get nostalgic about those days in Valparaiso. Click here for an essay I wrote, “Homecoming at Middle Age,” published in The Cresset, VU’s journal of the arts, literature, and public affairs.)
As a collegian, although I managed to maintain a certain confident front, in reality I was a jumble of ambition, insecurity, immaturity, and uncertainty over the future. I wouldn’t trade my current level of wisdom (umm, still a work in progress!) for said jumble of that stage of my life. However, it’s kind of neat to look back at that time with the gift of hindsight. As I pondered what to stuff into a suitcase and a backpack, I had no idea that the next five months would shape my personal culture, worldview, way of living, and base of friendships for a lifetime.
The second memorable semester break was during my third and final year of law school (1984-85) at New York University. I was in the job hunt, and my hope was to secure a public interest legal position in New York City for after graduation. During my short time in NYC, I had fallen in love with the city. New York of the 80s was a much grittier and affordable place than it is today. It was possible to enjoy the city on a tight budget. I badly wished to stay.
In addition, I was committed to working in the public interest field. During the previous summer, I was a summer associate at a large commercial law firm in Chicago. The money was great, and the firm treated its lawyers and staff with respect. But my heart wasn’t into corporate legal work, and so I would end up turning down the firm’s offer of a full-time associate attorney position for after graduation. Instead, I returned to the reasons that attracted me to law school in the first place, doing some type of public interest work in the non-profit or public sector.
I interviewed with a wide variety of public interest employers during the fall, and things started to develop during the semester break. During the break I received and accepted an offer for an attorney position from the New York City Legal Aid Society in downtown Manhattan. I was going to be a public interest lawyer in New York City, and I couldn’t have been happier about it! (The realities of paying rent and repaying student loans on a $20,000 salary would come later.) I recall spending a chunk of that break diving into my growing little collection of books about New York City, delighted that I would be staying in my adopted hometown.
Major junctures and events in our lives often don’t appear significant until we can look back at them via the rear-view mirror. Then they become part of our personal narratives. As mythologist Joseph Campbell observed, “when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another” (Diana K. Osbon, ed., A Joseph Campbell Companion, 1991). That’s how these two semester breaks fit into my story.
Both of these remembrances embrace a post-Second World War, American middle class ideal that has valued higher education as a stepping stone to a better life. I was not fully appreciative of these gifts back then, but I certainly am grateful for them today.
For middle class and working class folks in the U.S., the path to upward mobility that I enjoyed is narrowing sharply. The “college experience” of going away to school, while cobbling together enough money from financial aid, summer and part-time jobs, and parental assistance to make it relatively affordable, has too often given way to sky-high tuition and costs subsidized by significant student loan debt. Many students and their families are pursuing less pricey alternatives as a result, such as two-year colleges and distance learning programs.
Indeed, it may be that Generation Jones (born 1954 through 1965) was the last major cohort to have higher education opportunities that didn’t come with enormous price tags. That reality should inform our potential choices for charitable giving and at the ballot box. Those of us who work in higher education should also be advocates for reducing student debt. We need to ease the financial burdens of higher learning, so that more may have such life-changing experiences.
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.