M.J. Corey

The Thing Wayzata, Minnesota Had Over New York City

I never missed my hometown even a little bit, not even one occasional wince of nostalgia in even the worst of Manhattan moments, until my baby sister (who is in actuality an elegant sixteen-year-old studying for the PSATS, no baby) told me that Down in the Valley had closed.

“The only things you loved here are gone now,” she said, sounding nervous.

“That’s not true,” I told her, “Because you’re still there.”

For the first time ever, I missed the city that I had blamed for my high school misery, and almost as quickly as the feeling hit me, I heard a door slam shut for good. I missed Minnesota because now I knew for sure that I would never go back.

We moved to MN, a flat and cold place, when I was in 8th grade and already knew myself to be a kid who did not fit in. It was around this time — right when puberty was hitting and I loathed myself for being a girl — that I saw Jack White on MTV throwing himself around with his red guitar. I discovered rock n’ roll, the first of three things that saved my life.

Not long after, due to determined research, I found out that there was a CD store called Down in the Valley in Wayzata and best of all it was next door to my mother’s preferred grocery store. My mom didn’t like to take me places so I never left the house, hardly ever. Imagine cabin fever all day, every day, paired with the tender turmoil of being thirteen. Grocery shopping with her was the biggest outing. One day we drifted down gourmet aisles, and after rehearsing it in the car ride there, I spat out “Be right back.” I ran off, bracing myself for Down in the Valley.

Right when I opened the door, shrieking guitars shot out at me. Black metal was blasting. I’d never experienced anything so shameless; I was a gangly 8th grade weirdo with an apologetic smile perpetually glued onto my goofy face, and here was eardrum-splitting Goatwhore.

The guy manning the counter was enormous and bald and seemingly held together by piercings. I looked at him, afraid. The walls were painted black. The place smelled strange, smoky, and sweet, like how I’d imagined maybe drugs smelled. He looked back at me, a ring right through the center of his nose. I stood frozen, wearing a pink polka-dot mini skirt and a shirt that said “The White Stripes.” He burst into a colossal grin.

“Hi,” he said. “Nice shirt.” His name was Mike and I started going to Down in the Valley every week for three years.

At my tiny, moneyed high school I was always over-eager and usually felt stupid because no one liked me because I had a conspicuous, despicable disinterest in football and malls. But then after school at Down in the Valley, leaning against the counter to debate Bluesy Jack White vs. Garage Rock Jack White with Mike and all the other “rad dudes” who worked there, I was kind of cool. It turned out that I had space in my head to learn everything about Bob Dylan and The Ramones. It turned out that tough rock and roll guys were actually the easiest for me to talk to, and also that the smoke I had smelled was not drugs but incense.

When I was sixteen, I decided it was time to get a job. I was sick of being a mere fangirl. I ached to be an active member of society. I ached to feel part of it, whatever “it” was.

I asked Mike if I could work there. He said he didn’t know; I would have to ask P, the manager. In all of my years of hanging around Down in the Valley, I had never seen the manager. I’d assumed Mike was it. The next day I met P, a short guy who wore a samurai ponytail and an awkwardly positioned lip ring. He looked me up and down and said, “You’re hired” in the same breath.

I’d wear flannel tee shirts and converse sneakers. I loved closing shop, arranging our glistening CDs and vacuuming our black carpet. I got free demos, I got to pick which incense we burned, I got to use an authoritative voice when I told wide-eyed moms which latest album they should definitely get their stoner sons for Christmas. That deliciously purposeful feeling of putting in my hours and earning money back was something I fell asleep relishing.

Mike and I would loaf through six-hour shifts, looking out at the hot Minnesota summer sun hitting the stretch of bubbly parking lot from our dark haven, and he’d describe his Slipknot shrine to me and tell me about how much he adored his wife. He’d found a life that was perfect for him, and I was thinking maybe one day I would too, after all.

P started to schedule me on the days when he worked. P loved being a manager and he loved to run his tongue over his lip ring. On the days I’d wear skirts he’d have me climb up the ladder to fiddle with the DVDs. He’d stand below with his arms crossed to make sure I did it right, muttering sort of to himself about how he was my boss. In a fit of being an idiot sixteen–year-old it never occurred to me that I could say no. I took to crossing my arms over my chest and sulking, rage simmering so hotly that my insides burned.

One slow business day he asked if I was a virgin. To my retrospective dismay, I remember pausing and, looking at the floor, nodding my head. It was choking indignation and wincing self-disgust that I had never quite felt ever before, and the Great Self I had discovered began a new mutation into something else. Days later, nauseated by a comment about my “cute little ass,” I went to the back room where we had a secret bathroom and puked up dinner. I quit the job, hating myself for being a quitter but unable to stand it.

I missed Down in the Valley every day until I graduated, but because of P every day until I graduated was also spent reading Andrea Dworkin and Ariel Levy and Simone de Beauvoir. I discovered feminism, the second thing to save my life.

As graduation approached, I started to suspect that New York was the next step. I went to visit. The very second that I stepped out into the city — up from the lower level steps of Grand Central — I knew.

That ache that had followed me through high school suddenly came onto me again. The ache hit me in the jaw while I heard a taxi honk its horn for a deafening ten seconds straight. New York was the place to be if I wanted to be part of it, whatever “it” was. As hard faces pushed past me, the heavy bitterness left over from years of utter boredom and, even worse, utter confusion, it all washed away. I felt cleansed by the filthy air and New York was the third thing to save me.

During my early months in the city, when someone buying me a drink would ask where I was from, I’d do some theatrical embarrassment and say “Minnesota” with a sigh. They’d ask if it was hard to move here from Canada (as it turns out, not many people out East even know What Minnesota Is). I’d say something about “never looking back.”

But of course, I started to feel old in a whole new way very fast, and over time the poignancy of being here started to transform into the unflinching jadedness that New Yorkers talk about like it’s an inside joke. It helped when I figured out that in the city it’s kind of good for your image to have come from a bumfuck town or even just “the Midwest.”

I started to feel more distantly fond of the place I’d come from. Visits back were far and few between, but when they’d happen they were a blast because my sister and I would watch hour after hour of Curb Your Enthusiasm and bake cookies. I’d ask her how Down in the Valley was doing, and she’d say it was alright, the same, her friends were always scared to go in.

My sister called me to tell me. iTunes had won. The indie record store was going to become a pet shop. I was on my cell phone when I heard, dashing through Union Square and passing all the shops I’d bragged to people in Minnesota about. Suddenly I hated the corporate chains and stupid stuck up, high fashion boutiques. My ego broke for a second, hearing my baby sister’s voice.

I’d never visited; the plan had always been to visit the teen angst landmarks — the record store, my high school — after I’d really “made it,” after I felt sufficiently far enough away from the vulnerability I’d felt in those years. I was waiting for New York to make me just tough enough. Otherwise, I knew, I’d be too sentimental, and, worse, maybe then I’d miss my hometown. Now it was too late.

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M.J. COREY‘s creative nonfiction has been featured in Killing the Buddha, The Brooklyn Rail, and Shelf Life Magazine. She is a contributing writer to Make/Shift Magazine, guestofaguest.com, Autostraddle, Bend Over, and Tom Tom Magazine.

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