Rogue Music Store seeking female for part-time cashier position, Thursdays and Fridays 12-8, Saturdays 12-6. $10 an hour. No experience necessary.
Craigslist, New York City, 2003. I was twenty-six, pursuing an artistic career, looking for a part-time job to supplement trust fund dividend income. At the time, it didn’t seem like I could live entirely off my trust. I had worked part-time jobs since I was a teenager, with the trust floating as an abstraction in the back of my mind, vague in its numbers and purpose beyond paying for my college education. Although I knew I didn’t need a full-time salary, my parents never said I didn’t have to work. The cashier position seemed like an easy job that would grant me time to pursue acting, singing and writing. I thought I might make some connections and learn something about the music industry.
Rogue Music Store was near Penn station, on the tenth floor of one of those dingy pre-war buildings missing the number thirteen in the elevator. The door had a cling-clangy bell that rang when I pushed it open. Everything about the store seemed to be stuck in the past of about twenty years ago. It smelled like cardboard and Lysol. A long counter extended along a wall to the left of the entrance, with a 1980s computer in the corner near the door. Cables hung from a peg board behind the counter, a backdrop for keyboards, vintage sampler machines, guitars, amps, microphones and drum sets. It was not a visually pleasing curation like at Sam Ash with alphabetically ordered sheet music and shiny new instruments on display stands. The place looked more like a musician’s basement or storage closet.
The owner, Dick Michaels, a wiry dude in his fifties, greeted me. He pointed to the computer, saying that’s where I would sit and input the invoices. I glanced at the screen; it was an obsolete DOS system with a flashing green cursor. In lieu of a cash register, a metal box sat on a shelf below the counter, underneath a decade-old corded phone with multiple speed dial buttons. The rag-tag appearance of the store made it hard to believe that Rogue had served many famous customers since they opened in 1983: Beastie Boys, Suzanne Vega, John Legend, David Bowie and P Diddy among them. Most celebrities did phone and online orders, but occasionally one would walk through the door, Dick said. He took me to the back, an area that was even more of a storage closet, where the repair department and accounting desk were located. It was a mess of dusty old office furniture, wire shelving, and less attractive equipment stacked precariously like Tetris.
A collage of magazine models on the side of a tall file cabinet caught my eye. Among Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret icons were some black and white nudes of a woman who looked familiar.
“That’s Madonna, before she got famous,” Dick said. “My friend was the photographer. Does it bother you?”
“No. I like it. I used to do nude modeling.”
He raised an eyebrow. We chatted for a few moments about photographers and models. “Any questions about the job?”
I asked him why they were specifically looking for a female to fill the position.
“As you can see, we’re all guys here. A female presence helps put the customers at ease.”
“That makes sense.” The next day he offered me the job.
It took months to get acclimated to the male-dominated old-school environment. Customers would ask me for cables, since I was the first person they saw when they walked in. I didn’t know the difference between an XLR and TRS, or male and female. I had no idea these things were gendered. I would often pick the one I thought they wanted, and if I was wrong, I laughed it off so they would think it was just a silly mistake. I didn’t want to reinforce the stereotype that women are stupid about music technology. When I wasn’t pretending to know what they were talking about, I referred them to the salesguys, who were all musicians. Clay was the only one who seemed to take the job seriously, like a career. He was the most non-musician in his blue jeans and button down shirts, with a pencil behind his ear. He was usually busy on his feet, and got angry when his co-workers were fooling around too much. Big Ed sat behind the counter most of the time, chewing Nicorette. He was no slacker, but he moved slowly, swaying from side to side like an elephant. He ran a weekly blues jam in the city. He was convinced that American musicians are treated far better in Europe, where he toured several times with his band. If he lived in France, he probably wouldn’t have had to work at a place like Rogue. The other main hard-working salesguy was Brent, a bear-like drummer from New Zealand with a sweet disposition. He was dating a woman with two daughters who he didn’t seem too crazy about. He needed a green card. Then there was Luis, a colorful Latino who was close to my age and the only employee besides Bruce, the accountant, who wasn’t a musician. Unlike the white guys who were either bald or sported short 90s haircuts, Luis was stylishly bohemian with his long wavy black hair. He often wore sunglasses inside, cargo pants, and dashiki tops. I was never sure exactly what his job was. He brought in deliveries, managed the phone, pushed a broom around. I think he was a weed dealer. Several times a day, he went out to meet people in the hall just outside the elevator. When there was a lull, he leaned back in the chair near the cash box, either dozing or drumming his fingers on the counter. When he answered the phone, he said, “Rogue,” with the tone of “I don’t give a fuck.”
I was less social with the guys stationed on the other side of the store, but we were all connected through the intercom. The phone intercom was used to transmit practical information such as “Repair department, line two”, but it was also a microphone for comedy. Greatest hits: quotes from Alec Baldwin’s schweddy balls skit on SNL, Bruce’s reports on the size and smell of his turds, references to the Asian “massage” parlor downstairs, fart jokes, penis jokes, dumb blonde jokes, gay jokes. I was not a fan of these jokes, but I didn’t complain. My co-workers never harassed or insulted me personally. I took advantage of the spotlight the intercom provided. I sang or delivered in various accents whatever message needed to be relayed. I prided myself on being “one of the guys” without stooping to their level.
When the jokes got really gross, sometimes Ed would say, “Hey, there’s a lady in the room.”
Someone would pipe back, “You or Stephanie?”
I wondered what they said when I wasn’t there.
The benefits of working at Rogue outweighed the lowbrow atmosphere. I got paid by the hour, in cash, so it didn’t matter if I was late. I could take forty-five minutes for lunch. Once I got the hang of the anachronistic data entry system, I could do it on auto-pilot. It was fun to recognize a musician’s name on an invoice. Sometimes when I answered the phone, I had no idea I was speaking to a famous hip-hop or rap artist until one of the guys told me. During slow hours, I read the Village Voice or a book, or worked on memorizing song lyrics for my cabaret show. I bought a Shure 55 Elvis mic at cost. I got to know my co-workers. Ed referred to his girlfriend as “my old lady” and addressed every woman, myself included, as “Dahlin”. More than once I was eating a salad from Whole Foods, and Ed, who had a heart condition, commented, “That looks healthy, dahlin.”
“Want some? I don’t think I’ll finish it.”
“Nah. I can’t eat too many veggies. Gotta stay off the carbs.”
He told me that music saved him from drugs and gang violence in his native Brooklyn. Brent enchanted me with stories of New Zealand. Bruce told me he and his wife would go to bars separately, pretending they didn’t know each other, then pick each other up, a practice I admired. Luis shared his passion for detoxing, which was especially interesting given that he appeared stoned a lot of the time. One day he bounded in with a liter soda bottle filled with a mysterious amber liquid that he sipped throughout the day. He was doing the Master Cleanse.
Then there was Armen, head of the repair department. He was rude to everyone and had questionable business practices like overcharging customers, claiming equipment was never dropped off, charging to repair new damage that happened while the equipment was in his care, insulting people and hanging up on them. Dick put up with him because it was hard to find a good gear repair person, even in New York City. Eventually Armen was fired, and a few weeks later he opened his own repair shop in a storefront next to the Rogue building. The other repair guy was great, but he couldn’t handle all the work on his own. Rogue needed a new repair department head fast. Enter Lockwood.
Oh Lockwood. He was as intense and mysterious as his name. Not too tall, skinny, bad posture, ghostly pale, the face of a poet. He wore the same black T-shirt or turtleneck, black jeans and combat boots every day that I worked. Ed and Brent also wore black every day, so maybe that was a musician thing. Lockwood had a way of leaning in and holding eye contact when speaking to someone, giving the impression that he was completely present with their needs, like a good maître d. When he did that with me, I could tell he was interested in more than my ability to communicate about repairs. He passed by me frequently whenever he went outside to smoke, often stopping to chat. I became hyper-aware of how I looked, not just in my choice of outfit or make-up, but how I casually draped my legs over the stained office chair, or how I stood leaning over the Village Voice sex ads with my ass jutting out toward the screeching Dot-Matrix printer. After about a month of casual flirting, my thoughts were full of him. I decided to write a repair tag: SCS5000 - Parts are in need of attention. Knobs and holes are broken and require intensive repair. I handed it to him and he nodded in thanks, not bothering to read it. Later, when he passed by the counter, he leaned in, flashed a smirky smile and said, “Your repair is at the top of my list.”
Next time I went to the back to use the bathroom, I cornered him near some teetering amps. We kissed and melted into each other as our dingy surroundings disappeared. No one else was in sight. I reached down to feel the bulge pressing against me. There was probably some dialogue like, “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while…” and “I’m so hot for you.” I told him I had a boyfriend and that we had an open relationship. He seemed fine with this information. We made a plan for a date.
After dinner, we went to his place. He was reluctant, but I couldn’t take him to mine since I lived with my boyfriend, and although we considered a hotel, it didn’t feel quite right.
Lockwood lived in a basement somewhere between Rogue and the lower east side; the exact location eludes me now. It was some kind of illegal sublet, windowless with no actual bathroom. He told me he showered at a gym. A toilet sat on a platform in the middle of the space, befitting the euphemism “throne”, although there was nothing royal about it. No makeshift walls, not even a screen or curtain. One actual wall operated as a kitchen, with an industrial sink, coffee maker, hot plate, toaster oven, and mini-fridge. He slept on a futon tucked into a separate area next to tall wire shelves of musical gear. He was essentially living in an extension of Rogue.
Regardless, he was a gentlemanly host, taking my coat and offering me tea. When I had to use the toilet, he turned away. We fucked on his futon. He had an enormous cock. I thought about men who act like they have big dicks, showing off their fancy cars and stereo systems, using their stuffed wallets to get away with being pricks. Even if Lockwood were rich, I don’t believe he would’ve acted that way. I now understood why he was so confident in the way he moved through the world, in spite of being forty-four, broke, and unknown.
Lockwood became the focus of my job. The curl of his lip and artistic randomness of his hair inspired fantasies of him watching me perform. In these fantasies, I sang directly at him, while we exchanged looks of mutual acknowledgment that the lyrics were telling our story. The mindless data entry and ornery customers didn’t bother me as much because I was so high on our trysts. We decided it was best to stay undercover, knowing the Rogue status quo of giving shit for anything sexual. Even so, we continued to flirt and sneak kisses and gropes in the back.
On his futon, I felt like a goddess. We smoked pot and laughed about everything. He shared his music with me: unmelodic electronic songs with demonic whispering. If I hadn’t known the composer, I would’ve dismissed these ominous tracks as not to my taste. But he was so passionate when he spoke about his creative process and intentions, I couldn’t help but be seduced. The contrast between his light way of moving through the world and the dark content of his creativity turned me on. I never slept over, because my boyfriend and I had agreed we would always come back to our apartment after dates with other people, but the hours I spent in Lockwood’s cave felt timeless, as if the walls of gear and exposed toilet were part of a theatrical set for a play about forbidden romance. What meaningful connections would the audience make between a care package from his mom containing lotion and snacks, his small chivalrous gestures, and his dream to open his own repair shop and have his music in movies? His dreams seemed plausible in that shadowy space where our bodies collided in the desire to feel wanted and alive. Lockwood accepted my open and honest approach to relationships. My boyfriend had wanted to be exclusive, and in the end, our don’t ask, don’t tell arrangement masked a faltering connection. I craved freedom in the form of lovers who could crack open aspects of me that monogamy constrained.
I told him about Craig, who worked at Rogue before Lockwood was hired. Craig, who was about my age, had a needy girlfriend who called a lot. He would pick up and say, “Hey Baby,” but he was usually sullen and angry, disappearing in his baggy gray sweatpants. They would fight on the phone, and he would often hang up on her. I think they broke up a few times while I was working. One time she called on a day when Craig was out. No one knew why he was out as he didn’t call in sick or communicate another reason for missing work. Later that day, or perhaps it was the following day, we learned he had committed suicide. I didn’t know Craig well, nor did I particularly like him, but I understood depression and felt disturbed that he chose to end his life. In retrospect, I recognized the signs. In all the hours Craig spent at his job, none of us really knew him. In all the hours I spent at Rogue, Lockwood was the only employee who knew about the darkness of my early twenties, when I overdosed on an antidepressant and spent three days in a psych hospital. He offered compassion, then told me about some mental illness in his family, but he didn’t seem burdened. I wondered how he could be so cheerful, living in a basement with no windows, bathtub or shower. Maybe he harbored some darkness he didn’t want me to see.
Toward the end of my time at Rogue, I showed up later and later for work. I was supposed to be there at noon, but often strolled in closer to one. Although there were no external consequences, I felt bad about my lateness, a habit that haunted me with shame for most of my life. It haunted me like the privilege that made me question why I took this job and why I was still doing it. Sure, it gave me a sense of accountability and structure while pursuing my passions, but did I actually need this two hundred dollars a week? My infatuation with Lockwood helped me forget those doubts. Not even he knew I probably had access to more money than all the Rogue guys combined, yet I had convinced myself I was just another struggling artist with a day job.
As I tired of Rogue, the high of my secret affair began to wane. Like an adolescent, I wanted the other guys to know about us, so I could see myself through another lens of titillation, and enjoy the attention. Eventually we stopped hiding our feelings for each other, and sure enough, juvenile references to our relationship passed through the intercom. . . Lockwood and Stephanie sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g…As I started to feel stirrings of love for Lockwood, I envisioned doing things with him that I had done with others I had loved, like travel. When I told him I wanted to go to Brazil and Thailand and visit Europe again, he reciprocated my enthusiasm.
“I would love to travel with you,” I said.
“I would love to,” he said. “But I don’t have a passport and I don’t think I can afford to go anywhere.”
My fantasy of Lockwood started to deflate like a balloon with a tiny hole. In order to travel with him, I would have had to play the role of sugar mama, even though he was seventeen years older than me. The bohemian romance of his bat cave, one black outfit and smoky exhales began to fade. During that time, my grandfather had gifted each of his grandchildren a six-figure check. Buying an apartment was the first thing that entered my mind when I received this gift. I found a real estate agent and visited apartments while I was still working at Rogue. I told Lockwood but kept the financial details vague. Telling the truth about my privilege meant I would have to face it myself. For the co-op application process, my father the trustee provided a breakdown of my dividends. When I saw the concrete numbers, I realized I had enough passive income to live on. Maybe I wasn’t so different from the actress Claire Danes, who came into the store one day and handed me her American Express gold card to buy something for her musician boyfriend. And yet, she had what I wanted so much more than another check from my grandfather: artistic success and recognition of her talent – validation my family never provided.
I wanted to quit Rogue and reevaluate my career, maybe go to grad school for writing. The relationship with my boyfriend was collapsing. I had to get out of his apartment as soon as possible. One co-op board denied me because they didn’t trust my trust fund. In their eyes, I was a recipe for unpaid maintenance and reckless behavior. The next time I was up against a board, my agent recommended that I keep my music store job to show that I had earned income. When they asked about it, I assured them I would continue to work there. I was accepted into the building. Not long after I moved into my new apartment, I quit Rogue. I had Lockwood over to christen the place. I think we fucked on some blankets on the floor. I fantasized we were artists in a garret even though the oak floors were finished and the walls were painted in pastels. The next time he came over, I had a bed and some furniture. He used my shower. I started to hate his smoker’s breath. The taste of spit on his cock. His dead-end devotion. It was all so incongruous.
I don’t remember how we broke up. I think I called him less and less often until I stopped calling. I might’ve told him I was re-focusing on my boyfriend now that we were no longer living together. He disappeared without protest or passion. Our connection had no chance of surviving outside the container of Rogue. Do we all have a better chance of surviving when we’re not pretending? For a long time I wanted to feel like I was part of the multitude, working for a living like my parents did before they no longer needed to. I wanted to struggle for tangible reasons, or at least be near those who struggled, to avoid confronting the senselessness of my failures, or worse, my own faults. I had privilege, financial security, a beautiful apartment that I owned. What right did I have to complain? Lockwood didn’t, at least not to me. I could get by on the notion that I was like him and most other artists, when I shared apartments. Even the one-bedroom I had rented for a few years on my own before I moved in with the boyfriend was justifiable. I didn’t want to deal with people wondering why I was working a part-time ten dollar an hour job with zero career advancement if I owned a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. It was easier to talk about Rogue as an odd job of my mysterious past. How I reveled in the archaic weirdness of the place. The bell that jangled every time the door opened. The green cursor. The blinking red light on the phone when someone was on hold. The screeching sound of the printer. The punch clock in the back. The dust.