There it was, splayed out on the corner of 11th and A…
by Adam Bloom
Have you ever seen a 1000-CD case lying on the sidewalk? It's upsetting. It's like finding a corpse: someone made this, someone raised it, loved it, fed it, enriched it, and, in return, was enriched by it. And now it's lying here, unzipped, its contents spread over the sidewalk. When it happened to me over the weekend, I felt like the shmuck who finds the body at the beginning of Law and Order.
I did find an actual body on the sidewalk once, I think. I was walking home from work and saw a guy lying on his face. Nothing remarkable about that, except that I was at 11th and A, and you don't see that kind of thing much around there these days. Plus he seemed young — mid-twenties, maybe — and his clothes looked clean and relatively new. Also his neck and arms were bent at strange angles, like he was frozen in the middle of a bad Michael Jackson impression. As I passed I turned and saw that his eyes were open: pale green, and clouded over. I kept walking. In a few steps it hit me: was he dead? Did I just pass a corpse? Should I keep walking? Or, more to the point, should I stop walking? I heard sirens and looked up as a fire engine rounded the corner heading towards me. Someone was coming to deal with this guy, dead or not. I didn't even break stride — just walked home. But later I felt strange. Should I have felt or done something differently than what I had felt and done, which was nothing?
A year later, here was this CD collection, and for the CD collection, I stopped. It was a poetic corpse of a CD collection, lying open at about the middle page with a stream of unorganized CDs — the ones you don't bother to put in pockets and just cram inside the zipper — vomitted out of it.
I'm a child of the '90s. I remember what it meant to build a CD collection: spending hours at Sam Goody or FYE or Tower or some other vaguely intimidating mall record store buying albums one at a time for sixteen dollars a pop, reading the back of the jewel case for ten minutes, trying to decide if the band's other nine songs were as good as the one you heard on the radio, knowing they probably weren't, and buying it anyway. Building a collection took years and cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
And if you lost a whole case, you never recovered. Even if you could remember all the CDs you had lost, and even if you were willing to pay for new ones, it was back to Sam Goody, pawing through the supposedly alphabetized racks until you discovered that a new copy of a five-year-old album was still fourteen dollars. Plus, even if you replaced your CDs, the new ones weren't your CDs. You could get a new copy of Parliament's Tear the Roof Off: 1974 – 1980, but it wouldn't be the one with the scratch on the label of Disc Two that you listened to on the bus to all of your sophomore year away games after buying it over the summer from a used record store in Utah because a camp friend clued you in that all of Dre and Snoop's music was ripped from one legendary funk band. If you lost that, there was no getting it back.
So what could explain this collection of at least 500 CDs lying abandoned in the middle of the sidewalk? There were a few VHS tapes next to the CDs. I didn't even read the titles — VHS tapes suck — but seeing the tapes made me think that the CDs were part of a larger stuff-moving operation. I thought of two possibilities: either someone had been packing the car for Christmas and the CD collection had been mistakenly left behind, or the CDs had been collateral damage of a bad breakup, thrown out by an angry partner. I glanced at the CDs on the open page: two Pixies albums and two Portishead albums. Not bad.
I looked around. No one was on the block. Two girls were sitting on the stoop across the street, chatting. I kneeled over the CD case and began flipping pages until I came to the Forrest Gump soundtrack, a mid-'90s give-away — but right below it was a Feist CD. How did those two end up in the same case on the same page? And there were other surprises: four Jeff Buckley albums, Howlin' Wolf, Slim Harpo, Ibrahim Ferrer. Whose CD collection was this?
I stood up and decided to leave it. Someone might come back for it. I took a few steps and turned around. Someone might come back for it, but it was far likelier that a homeless person would either use the CDs to decorate a shopping cart or sell the whole collection for ten bucks. I turned back and stood over the CDs, vaguely aware that the girls across the street were noticing that I was being weird.
My pocket buzzed — a text from my fiancee: "Headache. My head feels poopy. I have a poop head 🙁 ." New York wears her out. She works too hard, she's sick of her job, and she wants us to move back to L.A., like I promised. We're moving next year. It's not that I don't see the upside — beaches, nicer home, a bunch of our friends already there — it's just that in L.A., you'd never find someone's entire CD collection on your walk home.
I leaned down and tried to zip the case, but the zipper stuck. I picked it up. If the girls across the street noticed, they didn't react. I walked home with the closed, unzipped case cradled across my arms like a wounded animal.
"I found someone's CD collection," I said, walking into the living room.
"Ughhhhh," said my fiancee, lying on the couch in the dark. Right — the headache.
"Are you gonna want food?" she asked. Ah, the dinner conversation: she's never hungry, I never know what I want. But tonight we had some raw chicken in the fridge that we had to use. I told her I was hungry. She said she would make fried chicken.
"Are you sure? The headache's not too bad?"
"No, it's okay — just come keep me company." I love fried chicken. My dad used to get it for us all the time as a kid. Then, for a long time, I never ate it. Now I eat it constantly. I think it's a response to stress. Like cinnamon toast. I used to eat cinnamon toast all the time as a kid, and then, after not eating it for years, I had an overwhelming need for it while studying for the bar exam. I would do a set of practice questions and then look at the answers: "So, how'd we do? …holy underwear! Okay… cinnamon-toast break." After the bar exam, I stopped eating it again.
She started frying chicken and I started unfolding the mystery of the CD collection.
Page 1: Abba, Gold; Ace of Base; the Tribe Called Quest Anthology and a burned CD labeled "Arcade Fire EP." But under the Arcade Fire CD was the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides. This was clearly a '90s collection, but what was Arcade Fire doing in there? I understand that people move on — we all moved on, but we got iPods. Why have Arcade Fire on CD at all?
Page 2: Some Beatles greatest-hits thing, and a reasonable assortment of Dylan — Another Side, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, all fundamentals. But also a copy of Before the Flood, a double CD live album recorded with the Band. Nice. Sorely lacking Bootleg Series 1-3, but not bad.
Then it got wacky: Blondie, Bjork, The Breeders, Bright Eyes, Beck, Blind Willie Johnson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, a bunch of Bowie, the Clash, Ella Fitzgerald, Mississippi Fred McDowell. Pretty impressive. And alphabetized.
"What do you think, baby?" I asked my fiancee. "Boy or girl?"
"I don't know," she said. "Put something on."
How to choose? I started flipping pages and found more blues. Do girls like blues? I love the blues, but it's pretty misogynistic. Not only are most of the singers men, but sooner or later even the nicest blues man will tell you that his woman stayed out all night so he shot her.
And there were other boy cues: Franz Ferdinand, a bunch of punk, a burned CD labeled "Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around." That's not Taco Bell-commercial or "Joaquin Phoenix is cute!" Johnny Cash. That's late Johnny Cash, dying of cancer, quoting Bible verses and growling about the end of the world.
I was stumped. What do you make of a collection that has Muddy Waters next to No Doubt, the first Raconteurs album next to three Rilo Kiley CDs, and a mix CD with a track list in a boy's handwriting that includes the Silver Jews, Johnathan Rice, and a bunch of Dolly Parton? Whose CD collection is this? Musician? Music student?
"Just pick something, baby," my fiancee said.
"I don't know some of this stuff," I said. "Like . . . 'Paris After Dark?'"
"You don't know Paris After Dark?" she said. "Put it on!"
A minute later we were ballroom dancing in the kitchen to a post-war recording of Charles Trenet singing "La Mer." Headache: gone. Man, this is a good CD collection. I dipped her a little too close to the range and her hair almost caught fire on the gas stove. We were better dancers when we were single.
The chicken was done, and I still hadn't figured out anything about the person who owned this collection. Boy? Girl? Inherited the collection from an older brother? Shared it with a girlfriend?
Finally, I crossed the gulf of empty pages in the middle to the back of the case: the classical-music CDs and… the mix CDs. Boom.
It was soon obvious that this collection belongs to Justine. Justine studied abroad in Germany (written in sharpie on a CD: "Gluckischer Geburtstag, Justine! [Heart], Jared / 'Hildegard Knef sings Cole Porter' "). Also, Justine is (was?) either very good friends with, or dating, a girl named Ellen.
My favorite mix CD in the collection is labeled, "Happy Birthday Justine! Love, Julia & Aaron." This is either a very nice gift from two people, or the most passive-aggressive mix-CD ever: "this is a gift from both of us… because we're together now… as in dating… so stop hitting on my…" Hard to finish that without knowing if Justine is gay.
So, Justine, I have your CD collection. It's a beautiful collection, and I can't believe you would abandon it on the sidewalk. If you want it back, please email me.