I couldn’t manage to talk the guy down to ten dollars but I took it home
I was an upper-middle class child for basically the entirety of the five years of the 1990s in which I lived. The first car stereo I ever remember was the one in my Dad’s 2001 Chrysler Sebring, which had ample CD-player access (I don’t even think it came standard with a tape deck). My first Sony Boombox could play tapes, but I chose to play a CD copy of the Backstreet Boys’ “Black & Blue” on repeat. The only cassette I remember having access to during the dying days of cassettes as a pillar of music distribution was a copy of the Lion King soundtrack.
And yet, I have a fondness for them. The cassette tape, much like its cousin the VHS tape, the CRT Computer Monitor, and any news clipping describing the United States as “not currently at war”, was phased out of the zeitgeist right as I was forming my earliest memories. I knew about them, certainly, I knew that my parents had them and that I could feasibly play one in my Boombox. I even used them, I remember thinking I’d broken the tape player we used for some sort of instruction in my first grade classroom because I forgot to stop the tape before pressing the rewind button, letting loose a high-pitched backward cacophony from the little recorder’s speaker to a classroom full of terrified six year olds.
But I could have gone my whole life never having a real relationship with the cassette if I had wanted to. Cassettes exist in this liminal space of my personal history, like a house that I moved away from, I know they’re around, but few even mildly significant moments of my life involved them.
This liminality is why, well after their decline as a common form of music distribution, I’ve taken a real interest in cassettes. I love a nice cassette, I like its weight, the little clunk of dropping a tape into the deck, the real analog feeling of pressing down on the play button. I like finding niche tapes from weird artists, albums I would’ve otherwise never even thought about, and finding them for like 50 cents a piece. I wrote something on the subject during the fall of 2017.
Since the cross-country move, I’ve been basically cassette-less. I haven’t driven a car with a dedicated cassette deck since my Buick broke down three years ago, and I couldn’t fit my dedicated tape deck in my little Hyundai’s trunk when I drove it out to California. I kinda figured that the move would rid me of the need for cassettes.
But the itch returned on a sun-kissed night in the SDCCU Stadium parking lot. On the asphalt where Charger fans used to park and get in fistfights with Raider fans sat one Panasonic combination cassette player/recorder. Scratched to hell, looking very dingy, probably non-functioning, but a cassette player/recorder nonetheless. I asked the proprietor if it worked, he fished out its power cord, plugged it into a generator attached to his van, and demonstrated it, the Glen Miller Big Band tape within blaring from the speaker which sort of resembles the bit that heats up in a toaster oven to my Zillennial eyes.
I asked him if he’d take ten dollars for it. He said twelve. I explained to him that I only had a ten and a twenty on me. He shaved it down to eleven. I, again, explained to him that I only had a ten and a twenty on me. He said eleven was his final offer. I borrowed a dollar from my boy Mike and committed to the purchase.
Now, I am certain that there are cassette decks out there in the world which function at a rate far better than this one. I am certain there are those which function far worse than this one, potentially even not at all. And, sure, you might get “consistency” and “reliable functionality” in many other cassette decks, but you won’t get the exhilarating rush you get from my 11-dollar Panasonic. Every time I clunk down some tape in its gaping maw, there’s something different.
Maybe no sound comes out of the speakers despite the spindles moving! Maybe only a very faint noise comes through! Maybe a sound louder than anything I could’ve ever predicted to come from something smaller than a breadbox comes out! Maybe the tape slows to a crawl and it sounds like there’s some sort of unholy ritual happening within a copy of Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
Maybe this won’t be the answer to my cassette yearning. Actually, definitely this won’t be the answer to my cassette yearning, I don’t think I would put a tape I considered to be worth a damn in this player out of fear for the tape’s safety (and my own safety. I had a friend whose VCR caught fire once during a screening of Rugrats in Paris and I’m not gonna take that chance).
But ultimately, this is an object which I own now. And perhaps that’s enough for me.