“Where is this place anyway?” Lala asked as I maneuvered the minivan down a muddy incline west of town. In a sense, my wife and I were traveling back in time. My father had shipped me most of the remaining vinyl records from my youth, and now I had to basically buy back my high school stereo from a guy who, on the phone, sounded a lot like Tommy Chong.
We ended up parked between a portable home and small shed.
“This doesn’t look right.” Lala pointed to a set of rabbit ears squatting on a cheap plastic folding chair, a cord snaking from the antennae into the thin crack between flimsy door and unsecured jamb. Before I could note the irony aloud, an older man dressed in black stepped outside, gray dreadlocks neatly coiled down his shoulders. He had the nervous demeanor of someone who had been on the receiving end of quite a few raids, so I tried not to overgreet him as I stepped out of my vehicle.
“Hey, man,” he said, and both Lala and I returned the salutation since we knew members of his generation didn’t care too much for the specific use of gendered pronouns. Even though he told us his name, I still thought of him as Tommy Chong. I half-expected him to say, “Dave’s not here, man,” just to mess with us.
Tommy led us into what some might call a foyer, if foyers were the size of elevators, housed inside storage units and used raw plywood for walls. I ventured to guess that the pungent herbs I smelled were the versatile kind—smoked, eaten or planted, didn’t much matter. Due to the narrow confines of the space, the three of us stood single file as if we were waiting in line for Foghat tickets.
“What you need?” is a question I’ve heard often in my life and, other than more personal space and a tank of oxygen, I wasn’t so sure. I mentioned I’d read about turntables that plugged directly into computers.
“Oh, God, man—you don’t want that,” Tommy said, deeply saddened by my lapsed faith. “You lose all the richness you get from vinyl. You really need to listen to comprehend where I’m coming from.” He had a stereo set up on a bunch of tiered file cabinets, so I handed him one of the many Beatles’ albums I had bought in the 1970s.
“Sgt. Peppers? Far out, man.” Once he placed the needle on the record, I understood what he meant. All those little pops and whispers I heard even before the chewy music started catapulted me back to my friend Stuart McKee’s house where I wanted to be Paul, he Ringo. Sound clothed me like an old poncho. I turned to look at Lala and she nodded. Look at us, I thought, hooked just like Sid and Nancy.
“This is just the low-end stuff,” Tommy said, and started listing the components necessary to do an album like mine justice. It reminded me of the conversation I’d had with my son London earlier that day when he’d asked what a stereo was, only my explanation was simpler and I didn’t smell like the inside of Snoop Dogg’s limo. After settling on a budget, Tommy slipped behind a piece of plywood and re-emerged with a Technics turntable, not unlike the one I had on cinder blocks in the room I snuck out of as a teenager. My reunion with an old piece of equipment went even better than my visit with Stuart McKee last year at a Chinese buffet outside Philadelphia. Tommy hooked us up with a receiver and a set of speakers that cosmetically weren’t much to look at but sounded a lot better than anything coming out of the MiPod generation of machines.
“Far out, man,” I said, handing Tommy his cash.
“Sure is,” he said right back.Robert Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.