I Was A Teenage Douchebag
I worked in a record store for awhile, until I got fired for being a dick. “Being a dick” wasn’t on my termination papers. The official reason was maybe as ridiculous, though. Officially, I didn’t fit in. In fact, I didn’t fit in so hard, that my presence could no longer be borne. Goodbye Megan, hope to never see you!
Getting fired is hard. No matter what your age, if you didn’t engineer it (a la Office Space) getting fired is a pretty terrible blow to your self-worth, especially when fucking Julie is still misfiling paperwork, and singlehandedly destroying your genius merchandising. Fucking Julie. When I got fired, I didn’t quite know how to respond.
I said, “Ok,” and, “So am I supposed to finish my shift, or just like…”
“Just, like, go, Megan,” my manager said.
And then security escorted me out of the store. Brutal.
I hung onto that one for awhile. You don’t fit in. It seemed to me to be on the cusp of wrongful termination; certainly something I could feel righteous about. Every time I told the story it got a little more ridiculous. Every time I told it, my audience agreed a little more. (It might have been all the embellishing). You don’t fit in. Where did they get off? What my (unfortunate) audience didn’t ask—what I didn’t ask for a long time—is what it meant. You don’t fire a hardworking, top salesperson for not being a stepford retail monkey. You do fire her if she’s going full tilt against the grain, absolutely determined to be different. You fire her, and you keep that fucking Julie, who at least plays nicely with others.
At some point in high school I internalized the idea that there was a Man, and it was of utmost important that I not be like this Man, sell out to this Man, or even have a cup of coffee with this Man. This man was the enemy, and as a True Lover of True Music (TM), it was my sworn duty to dress shitty, talk smack about boy bands, and generally be difficult at all turns. This was my small contribution to the rebellion of real artists, in face of overwhelming corporate blah blah blah.
Getting a job in a record store was, obviously, the total fulfillment of my teenage hopes and dreams. But it was also a chance to make my workday a teachable moment: I could reach consumers before they made the soul-destroying decision to buy the entire back catalogue of Celine Dion concert DVDs, or NKOTB on vinyl, or a Ramones t-shirt before they’ve listened to everything from Ramones to ¡Adios_Amigos!. I could save them.
I went into that job with a mission.
My first day, my new coworkers greeted me brightly. I nodded at them with all the grim enthusiasm of a teenager who knows better. “Sup.”
The shift lead, a pretty girl with complicated braids, leaned forward, arms on the counter. She had about a million neon jelly bracelets. They were nice and all, but they weren’t indie. “So what do you listen to?,” she asked. “It’s like, the standard music store questionnaire: What’s your name, what’s your sign, who’s your musical soul mate?”
“Like, Death Cab, old school soul, Delta Blues.” I rattled off the names of bands I’d only discovered through hard work: trolling through page after page of snotty message board debates, YouTube comments, and the angriest of articles in Pitchfork et al. The kind of bands that nobody knew about, and even the fans weren’t really fans of. (Because they sucked). The kind of bands that sold ten records and then gave it up for heroin, or to become insurance adjustors.
“Oh,” she said, drawing back from me.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t know them. Most people don’t.”
“I guess.” She made a complicated gesture in my direction, half shrug, half follow me, all fuck you, and started my training.
I was a hard worker, a quick learner, and I could sell. I eventually made friends with much of the staff but I was always looking to assert my difference; my special knowledge of music and music culture. If the girls wanted to play Justin Timberlake, I’d groan, and groan, and eventually give in. If a customer came in looking for Shakira, I’d do a little head-tilt-grimace-smile, and turn their offence into an opportunity to guide them right (and up-sell).
After two months I was outselling and out merchandising everyone but two of the store’s most seasoned leads. I was making money while doing the work of god, and everything was beautiful. (And nothing hurt). And then I got fired.
I didn’t learn my lesson. Not then, anyway. It took me a few years to stop being indier than thou. It took me missing out on a promotion, and being humiliated by someone with real musical knowledge (which is, believe me, a story for another time). And it took a few years of living, to figure out what you don’t fit in really meant.
When you’re wrapped up in being indier than thou, or better than thou, (or geekier than thou), you only see the ways in which you’re right, they’re wrong, and you’re correcting their grave misapprehensions about life. The things—whatever the focus of your obsession—and the consuming of them take on a moral weight that pushes everything else out of focus. How you listen to music (on headphones, in the dark, without distractions), is who you are. What you listen to is your personality bedrock, the start and end of your worldview. Actually being a good person is less important than having good taste.
Let me break this down for you: I was an exceptional record store employee, except for how wrapped up in myself I was, and how determined I was to be a complete asshole. I didn’t fit in because I didn’t want to fit in; because that would mean selling out and giving in. I didn’t fit in because I was deliberately, consciously, a know it all jerk-ass who caused friction, and messed with the team dynamic. Ultimately I was fired because as entertaining as I might have been, and as hardworking as I was, nobody wants to work with a know it all jerk-ass. #lifelesson
The truth about fitting in is that it’s not so much a question of liking, or not liking, the same things… as it is about getting along. That’s how Julie (fucking Julie) got to stay on, when I was canned. Julie had the miraculous ability to relate to people as people, and not as plug-and-play cultural-regurgitation-robots. This was not an ability that teenage me had yet developed.
What you listen to, what you read (aesthetic judgements and matters of taste) matters—because art matters—but not nearly so much, not nearly so vitally as how you project who you are. While I was so worried about fitting in with exactly the right crowd (never the wrong ones, the uncool ones), and expanding my knowledge of who-the-fuck-cares-all-these-years-later, I was internalizing all the wrong ideas about how life works.
So here’s my gift to you: knowing a lot about a thing will get you nowhere, if you don’t have the personal generosity to sustain the connections and the relationships to get you to where your knowledge is useful.