I’m going to listen to this record on headphones. The perfect album to accompany motion is one that is also best appreciated with left-right separation, with your brain acting as the literal division between. On vinyl, OK Computer has 4 sides, and I’m going to isolate my head inside one side a day for the next four days. Come on in:
Airbag. Paranoid Android. Subterranean Homesick Blues.
Southeast. Downtown. Northwest.
Later on we can talk about the era.
But first it starts with the sound of strings as though they’re being played by an electric guitar. Then the drums: the drummer who sounds like the most human machine ever built, a beat that demands action. Driving even in light moments. Sound. Things break clean when he sings.
In the bathroom, the light from the afternoon sun sneaks through the half-open blinds while I’m showering. It’s always a battle, with the blinds. The sparkling pattern of hot water downstreaming in sunslants is so alluring that I leave the blinds open, even though that means the people across the alley, the ones with the fence-gnawing dog, can see me naked. But really, who’s looking up to the fourth floor at three in the afternoon on a weekday in residential Portland, Oregon? Everyone’s at work.
In the walk-in closet, I stand naked and clean and survey the wreckage. On the left, tremendous piles of records, some stacked horizontally in flat piles — the bad way to store vinyl, says my former roommate Dave — and some neatly rowed against the wall. On the right, the CDs, probably about a thousand now. Not that I count. Book-ending the CDs are, appropriately, the books, in precarious stacks that bleed over into the vinyl’s territory. Way in the back of the closet are the clothes, thrown not folded, on a small collapsible bookshelf. I stare helplessly at the clothes. They look a little forlorn, as possessions go, not sure where they fit in. “Not today for you, guys,” I apologize, turn around, default to the ratty jeans lying crumpled on the floor. Threadbare tank top, cracked old belt, black chunky kicks—my uniform.
Back in the diffusing steam of the bathroom, I flip down the toilet lid and stand on it. Perched on top, you can balance with one foot on the toilet and one on the rim of the tub and just barely catch a cropped view in the mirror of the space between your hips and your shoulders. I suck in my stomach, I make it flush with the jeans. Lift up the shirt a little. Look. Check it out: Yup, still skinnier than before, still didn’t get fat again overnight. It’s always a battle, with the fear. The key is to hop down from the toilet seat before you exhale and the small cushion of flesh relaxes into its usual over-the-belt slump.
In the bedroom/living-room/kitchen, the alarm clock on the floor says, brilliantly, in digital Don’t-Ignore-Me-Young-Lady red: 3:37pm. Fuck.
Grab the to-go cup of coffee (cold but I’ll get more downtown), the cigarettes from the table, the water bottle in the messenger bag, the keys in my pocket with the lighter, the walkman in the bag, chapstick, pen. Glasses check, wallet check, key check, bus quarters, ready.
Door, slam, keys, top lock, bottom lock — and it’s all taken about two minutes too long.
Charge down the grungy hallway, smell the dollar-store incense air, and wince at the fluorescent green glow. Through the two fire doors, down the three flights of stairs, and as the front door slowly hinges shut, the light at the crosswalk turns red. Across the street, the #14 Hawthorne pulls up.
But if you run for it here, they sometimes stop for you.
Radiohead’s OK Computer wasn’t an album I particularly loved, or even owned, until 2000, three years after it came out. At the time I worked, mostly pulling the 4pm-midnight shift, at a large general-interest record store in downtown Portland. I had resisted OK Computer because everyone seemed to like it just a bit too much. I mistrusted it: too popular, in the way that things can seem too popular when you watch large groups of people mindlessly acquiring them all day long. But my coworker Kevin kept pressing it on me, telling me that this sound, as experienced through headphones, is going to change my worldview, dude, seriously, major label or not, these guys have something – and he finally brought in a dubbed cassette tape of it for me to tote around in my old Walkman with the lid falling off of it.
Kevin was right – I slipped on my headphones on the bus one afternoon on the way to work and I was immediately blown … out. By these sounds, this perfect messy new pop, a sad and epic and incredible production value that I’d somehow never appreciated on store stereo systems or in other un-isolated places I’d overheard it.
The album became the only one I kept on my person at all times, and when I upgraded to a CD walkman I gave Kevin back his tape and stole a scratched-up used copy of the disc from work. In these beginning months of Portland I was often too poor or claustrophobic to take the bus, and too young to remember that bicycles existed, so I was often in transport – walking and bussing around the small cloud-sheltered city. It was in transport that this album became the sound of me, moving, usually slowly, from one place in my new life to another.
On the bus I sit, clutching coffee and walkman and bag, next to a very large sweaty man who can’t really contain himself on his side of the seat. A thin, plain woman in a matching denim dress and hat gets on just before the Hawthorne bridge. She sits directly behind the driver. I look her up and down — she’s jittery, alternately glancing to the back of the bus and dipping her small hands into her large purse every few seconds, pulling out something, unwrapping, nibbling nervously on it. As the woman starts to speak to the driver, I turn down my walkman to listen in.
“OMIGOD! I can’t believe it! It’s like, the more I keep eating candy, the more candy there is! Omigod! It’s SO MUCH.”
She squeals and gasps, almost orgasmic. She smacks loudly as she chews her candy, returns to her purse, starts rifling through it, searching desperately for something. She looks back at the bus, at me, at the gutterpunk boys in the very back seat. Out again at the window, the river, the slice of the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He’s waiting.
“No I don’t think so No! SHIT! No, yeah, NO I paid okay I paid? I SWEAR. Oh fuck. Fuck. Just, just ― can I ride until 5th? We have to hurry, they might be here soon.”
In the rearview mirror, the driver gives a placating, dismissive nod. The Candy Woman is forgiven for not having a transfer.
I tighten my grip on my coffee, my Radiohead, my own wrist. The sign above my seat says, “Please Hold On.”
Light clouds over bridges fade into windows and houses, the world is flat and clean, the humans are broken and small and I am a long way from New York City.
When I arrived in Portland, I was fresh from a haze of college dropout years in New York and looking for somewhere quiet to rest before I could reckon with jumping back in to the manic affair that was my relationship with the City. But when I arrived, I found I didn’t know how to walk in this new and bright environment. The geography of cities that were not New York was not familiar. I hadn’t left the canyons and cramps of Manhattan in years, except directly, on airplanes. There were no people on the sidewalks dictating my pace, no subways beneath us rumbling at regular intervals. The buildings were short. From the distinctly Western houses, each separated from one another by space and sky, roses dripped over porches to litter lawns and sidewalks; even what they called “downtown” smelled like raindrops on flowers. I couldn’t smell a thing, I wanted to leave right away, I hoped I’d never leave.
It was quiet.
And in that quiet, I put music. I sold music. I carried music around. I put music on my head in the daytime and in my belly at night, pressing close to club stages as tightly as possible, waiting to feel it in my organs. So much music. Piles of music, like never before. And in that music, I learned again how to move.
I walked everywhere. My days were music videos, filmed in live tracking shots between my black foam headphones. The music I found in Portland moved my body, my senses, into a slower state. A visual reckoning that pushed out the havoc of survival that had become my dily rhythm in New York and allowed room for pacing myself. For working hard but not desperately. For stepping back for just a few yards to witness, from the outskirts of the Pacific Northwest, our great ongoing millennial folly. My body would move and change. I walked and I changed.
I was born again.
In the second half of your shift, you get in a rhythm, making your piles of takes and rejects and keeping the beat to the hum around you. You pick up the CD and a glance at the cover art instinctively dials up its artist, title, and salability from somewhere deep in the alphabet of your brain; you hold the jewel box by its topsides, between thumb and index finger; you swing the plastic cover open with a twist of the wrist; pop out the disc with your middle finger in the hole and your thumb on the rim; flip it over in a flash of reflective silver; tilt it beneath the light to scan for scratches; make the call; slam it back into its tray. You flip shut the lid with one hand, and relegate the thing to its proper stack: These we can’t use right now, These would be a quarter each, Two bucks for these ones, Four for the best. Cash and trade’s the same. Did you wanna look around first?
Somewhere in the middle there is a rush: An afternoon on a weekend, a whiny one needing help, or the dissonant crashbang of clutter,
Stop this noise, you think.
You think, When I am king you will be first against the wall.
Thom Yorke’s lyrics are, upon closer inspection, surprisingly literal.
Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t grate even when he whines. But he should be grating, after all; the fuzz and the layers this song is built on are worthy of their slight dissonance, like the clamor of that city you miss, like the way the sky clears only at night where you are, the way the crisp beats break clear in a chunky rock guitar hook, the sheer grunge of it all that makes the whining mean something.
Solos that don’t match mend themselves into angels singing, as clouds move over the valley of us, and then I was back at work.
Later, after closing up and doing the drawers and the trash and the checking of the alarm, Jeannie told me about her aliens. We watched the sky as dark as pine trees above us in her truck’s camper shell in a parking lot up some hill and I thought it seemed likely, up here. More than in California. The skies have a particular sheen and they are like angels and up here, in the northwest way, they can be singers.
The idea is, this is all the experience I go through in my head, deeming what you might just think of as a bus ride, or a day.