Her name was Carol. She was nicotine thin, a couple of years out of style in her Chic jeans, and a metalhead. In high school she would have been one of the beer drinking, pot smoking redneck girls who was always threatening to have her Camaro loving boyfriend kick my ass. But we were adults now, coworkers at Record Bar, so she made an effort.
“What kind of music you like, James?” she asked.
“Everything but opera and country,” I said.
“I heard that. You know these guys?” She handed me one of the tapes with which she was restocking the cassette wall.
“Never heard of them,” I said.
“That album is bad.”
“I don’t really like that hair metal shit.”
“You should listen to this,” she said. “These guys are tough.”
Carol was the first, but she wasn’t the last. We started selling quite a few tapes from the band I’d never heard of; in fact, I’d never heard of their label, Uzi Suicide. What the hell kind of name was that? What a bunch of poseurs.
I really didn’t get it. The singer sounded like he was straining to stay at the top of his upper register, his Ethel Merman vocals no match for songs about the reckless life and bad boys who don’t play rock and roll. The biggest sin was a cover of Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin” completely devoid of any blues or funk groove. These guys sucked.
That was my expert opinion of Live Like a Suicide, Guns N’ Roses’ debut EP.
Carol and I really had nothing in common. She was a smoke break kind of girl and I was a do my homework break kind of guy. She’s just another in the conga line of coworkers’ faces that stretches thirty years into my past: hundreds, if not thousands, of people with whom I never would have bothered if not for our matching name tags.
Coworkers are like family in that way: a few you love dearly and want to know forever, and others are just strangers sharing your lifeboat at that moment in time. They bob along with you as long as necessary, and then they drift away.
I would love to hear from my first boss, John, but I lost track of him not long after high school. There’s no one from my days scooping ice cream at a backroads convenience store with whom I’d like to get in touch. That job was like sharing a lifeboat with Richard Parker.
I’m still in contact with Matt, my good buddy and Hardee’s partner in crime. We don’t speak often, but when we do we pick up right where we left off. We haven’t lived near each other for 30 years, and I still consider him one of my closest friends.
Most of those other lifeboat occupants simply vanish from memory. During my tenure at Record Bar I probably worked with 25 people and I remember three: Mason, the manager; Carol, the girl who was right about Guns N’ Roses; and Mason’s assistant manager, Robbo.
Robbo and I attended art school together, though we never shared any classes. I saw him around SCAD now and then, usually with his buddy, Bob. Together Bob and Rob were as good as any classic comedy duo. Bob was almost a character, his humor a little louder and broader. You know how Jerry Lewis is both an Al Hirschfield caricature and a human? That was Bob.
Bob was in the spotlight, and Robbo was the guy who made everything funnier. He hung back, Dino cool, laughing along with everyone else until he saw his opening, and then he’d kill with exactly the right line.
He was the same at work, always playing just a little bit behind the beat, not interjecting himself into situations unless necessary. That’s a lot of ink to simply say that Robbo was laid back and quick-witted.
I can’t remember why we ended up standing next to my motorcycle one evening after work, but we did. We must have stood in the mall parking lot for two hours, talking art and Beatles and love and hope and sex and dreams. It was just one of those things: I knew by the end of that conversation that Robbo was family and not just another stranger in the lifeboat.
Jody was spending more of her time with Patty and Chris, so I started hanging out at Rob’s and Bob’s place, which was close to work. Bob’s brother lived there, too, along with the brother’s girlfriend. Theirs was the most fun apartment I ever visited. When I wasn’t digging through Robbo’s stacks or playing the brother’s guitar, we were playing one game or another, or watching one of the roommates’ ridiculous amateur films, or arguing about something even more ridiculous.
The arguments were never angry but always passionate, and they usually ended with an absurd declaration like, “Okay, I concede: Mickey Dolenz was the most brilliant drummer of his gener- nay, of any generation. No one has ever drummed with the genius of The Great Dolenz, and nobody ever will. You’re right and I’m wrong and I’m ashamed of my ignorance. Now will you please roll so that I can finish destroying you in Kamchatka?” Then everyone would laugh and the evening would keep rolling.
Carol lived near the mall, too, and she asked me to follow her home one evening. “I have some books I want to get rid of,” she said. “You like books, right?” Her apartment reeked of stale smoke. A long haired shirtless dude slouched on the couch. He didn’t look up from the television when we walked in.
“Sit down, James, and I’ll get them books,” Carol said, and as she walked down the hall she yelled, “Chris, you want me to fix you something?”
“Yeah,” Chris said, still staring at the television.
“You Carol’s boyfriend?” I asked.
“Chris, you want a sandwich?” Carol yelled.
“No, something hot.”
He was a good looking guy, the kind of dude who bought Live Like a Suicide; the kind of guy girls waited on for no apparent reason while he slumped on the couch like a bag of meat. We may as well have been from different planets.
I could have tried to make small talk about whatever was on television. I probably could have started a conversation about music, or how we both knew Carol, or what conditioner he used to keep his David Lee Roth mane soft and flowing. There were countless topics for small talk, but Carol called him Chris, so I said, “Hey, you know a girl named Jody?”
“Short girl? Blond hair?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just curious.” Carol handed me the books and I left. Chris’s dinner smelled delicious.