By Nick Darbonne
I think a lot about the earth without people. It’s easy for me to imagine an unpopulated world when, past midnight, I sit in the DJ booth of our campus radio station. There’s no noise other than what I’m broadcasting. I can go outside and hear nothing, save for the continual sprinklers and the intermittent flick of my lighter as I chain smoke. Actually, I stopped smoking a while back. It was stupid.
The thing that’s always struck me about WPRK is how lived-in it looks. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever been to the basement of Mills and seen the walls of the office painted four different colors as stickers, posters, and assorted memorabilia accrued through the years cover an increasingly large area. The couches are dusty; they reek with the odor of years of sweat. Record labels used to send stickers bundled with promotional CDs; you can see presumably rare ones plastered on desks, promoting albums like Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner or Mogwai’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. They don’t send many these days.
I can never stop wondering about the people who’ve come before me. These things are proof they’ve existed. A sense of humor permeates the place; it has accumulated. Jokes now removed from their context are scattered about. There’s a cryptic phrase writ in Sharpie declaring “you are the cheese.” There’s a drawer taped shut. There’s another that warns the reader that if they were to open it, “serpents would end [their] life.” I don’t know who’s responsible for these; I don’t ever want to know.
There’s no use for this knowledge. I don’t question the people who come in or the people who work here. They all have their own stories and different levels of psychic tethering to the place. Some are too strong. They say they used to work here as students twenty years ago. They call in, visit, linger, stare; some still DJ. They’ll tell you about their glory days. But many more people are transients. They come in only to work or volunteer, and then they leave. The station has no pull for them. They haven’t left behind pieces of themselves. Why should they? Why would anyone want that?
I met a girl a while back when I volunteered. That was my initial pull. The station alienated me at the time because it was run primarily by one monolithic friend group. There was, however, the opportunity to listen to tons of music in order to help the music director with her Sisyphean task of labeling and writing comments on new releases—which was cool for a while. Since then, I’ve grown tired of just how much music is churned out by all these groups who try really hard to sound like that one band, only tweaking bits and pieces so no one thinks they’re unoriginal. Imitation’s the sincerest form of flattery and all, but can we at least be honest about it?
I first set foot in the station three years ago. It’s hard to believe that. I freak out a lot about the passage of time. Virtually everyone on staff at the time has left (the DJ continuity is a bit better, but not by much). There’s a photograph pinned to a board of what I assume to be the dorky staff of WPRK in the 90s. Henry Rollins stands in the center, a foreboding but calming presence. I’ve recently realized that punk rock is so important to me because of that calm. Amid the fury and emission of rage, there is peace. I don’t know if too many people feel that way anymore. It’s weird, because I didn’t like punk much until she came along. I think she carried more anger than I did. She opened me up to the anger I hid. She said my principal emotion was anger. She said a lot of other things that will not leave me, but that one is foremost. She was probably right.
I don’t think any of us expect to fall in love, or expect that when we do, it will last. Maybe serial daters expect to fall in love a lot. Or those of us raised on Disney films or romantic comedies. Or those of us who, for whatever reason, are eager to let slip those three jagged words that suck the air out of my lungs and paralyze me because it feels like they could hit a wall or fall into a void and never be recovered. “I love you” is hard to say, even though the words are simple. You can even learn to say it in every language by reading a travel guide. In case, you know, you fall in love with someone you’ve met at a Parisian café as you two struggle to verbally communicate.
There’s a phenomenon called “conditioned place preference.” It shows up in users of amphetamine, who develop attachment to places where they’ve taken the drug. Researchers like to mess around with rats and condition them to prefer certain places over others; it’s a Pavlovian kind of deal. If God is a scientist, I’m a rat.
It’s hard to recount all these details and not be overcome with emotion. Sometimes the feelings are so strong I can’t articulate them. I can scream, though. I think that’s where angry music comes from. It’s telling that you can’t convincingly transcribe a scream.
Even so, all the screaming won’t get across how it feels to watch time pass you by, or to watch people pass you by. We exist in this matrix of seemingly infinite space and seemingly linear time, but I still can’t escape some of the feelings I’d get when I spent time with her here. There’s a phenomenon called “conditioned place preference.” It shows up in users of amphetamine, who develop attachment to places where they’ve taken the drug. Researchers like to mess around with rats and condition them to prefer certain places over others; it’s a Pavlovian kind of deal. If God is a scientist, I’m a rat.
I bring her up because for a while after she ditched me, I’d expect her to show up whenever I was at the station. It was sort of paralyzing. Like me, she had ties to the place, but she took on a new life of sorts upon realizing someone else was a better fit for her. In a way, I idealized her new boyfriend. He was on the socially acceptable side of deranged; he harbored a casual coke habit that he used to enhance his social interactions and his day-to-day life. All the anti-drug bullshit you’re fed doesn’t take away the glamor and brazen live-fast-die-young spirit that fuels many an addict, even the functional ones. Especially the functional ones.
I’m leaving out the whole story. What’s important is that we weren’t fully compatible at that point in our lives. We left each other neither entirely guilty nor wholly blameless. I wasn’t initially willing to accept these gray areas. Worse still, nothing had prepared me for the permanence of memory and the oppressiveness of physical space. WPRK itself remains in constant flux while unchanging in nature, and my relationship with the space mirrored this: there were too many things I could not shake. They were the late night conversations the three of us had (her, her soon-to-be boyfriend, and me) about yearning and feeling stuck and movies that spoke and art that sang and our pasts. There was that one weekend when, barely knowing each other, we impulsively drove hours to the beach. There were his friends and his clients (because he was a dealer) and the girl he was actually in love with who was a struggling heroin addict (who seemed to never truly want him) and her manipulative boyfriend (who was to be reviled, though he was always nodding off and thus didn’t seem too bad) and there was some complaining and there was the acknowledgment that all this was temporary and that we wouldn’t be friends long and that we wouldn’t be in Orlando long and there were the oft-invoked tenets of Buddhism, which is sort of about understanding flux and the transient nature of all reality, which was an illusion anyway.
I know it’s all an illusion, but it feels real enough for me. I can’t begin to imagine the stories other people have had within the same space, within the multicolored walls and the mustiness, and possibly in the very same headspace as the perpetually confused, pensive mess that I was so long ago. Expect it to continue ad infinitum, unknown to the rest of the world, small workings creating our individual realities and making or crushing our dreams accordingly. I hope I don’t become one of the people who drops by the station to reminisce on a long-dead dream.
I’ve learned that the earth ages without us.