Memories of my year in the middle.
For most of the year 2001, I was 15. My birthday is in November, and so I started every school year younger than everyone by design and smaller than everyone by genetics. This feigned youthfulness in comparison to my peers was something I was a little cocky about, even though it meant nothing. When I moved to college a couple of months shy of actually being 18, though, it meant something. It caught up with me. I was young and scared and socially anxious; I pressed play on my discman when I left my dorm room and wouldn’t hit stop until my professors began class. I went home every weekend.
In 2001, I didn’t know that would happen. In 2001, twenty years ago, when I was mostly 15, I couldn’t wait to get away to the city. This was the year that “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World was a big hit. Remember that their album Bleed American came out just two months before 9/11? I was 15 for 9/11. I was 15 when a girl one grade above came crying to my homeroom for her boyfriend because her dad worked in the towers. Her dad was dead, and she knew it. I’ve heard people pontificate in the twenty years since, “9/11—was it really that bad?” My most clear memory of that day was a teenage girl crying for her dead dad. My own dad was there among the wreckage the next day. The memory of it lingers in his lungs.
I processed the daze of the few weeks that followed by making a mix CD I listened to nonstop until passing it on to a friend who also needed to process. I don’t remember what songs were on it.
Being 15, 9/11, and the Jimmy Eat World song “The Middle” are all inextricable to me. The summer the album came out was the first summer I had a job, working at my mom’s office scanning orders from this health and beauty aids wholesaler on old computers running MS-DOS. I wore a red tank top once and a creepy guy from the warehouse told me it was a good color on me, ensuring I didn’t wear red again for over a decade. He also hypothesized that Jimmy Eat World was the world’s ugliest band and laughed when I said The Bends was still my favorite Radiohead album, though I saw them on tour for Amnesiac at Madison Square Garden on August 7, 2001.
It was the beginning of junior year that fall, when I’d have Dr. Clark for English and he would read from my short stories aloud and give double-checks to my word choices, like “abject.” I learned words like that from being obsessed with Radiohead, poring over liner notes and unauthorized books. In that same summer of 2001, I saw the video for “Going Inside” by John Frusciante and my mind ripped open once I found the album To Record Only Water for Ten Days at Record Stop, then on Portion Road in Ronkonkoma and staffed with people who intimidated the shit out of me. I started to like the Chili Peppers despite a decade of hate.
It was the summer of 2001 when I stopped wanting to eat at home. With money in my pocket from being paid $8.50 an hour off the books, all I wanted to buy were concert tickets and CDs and magazines and food from the diner, food from fast food joints, slices from Rocco’s because only I preferred DelFiore at that time. I wanted to eat out as a means of grasping the tiniest bit of autonomy. There was one week when I was offered 40 hours, and I was thrilled, thinking about all that I could buy with the money. My mom wasn’t happy about it, knowing I had my whole life ahead of me to work 40 hours a week. But for me then, it was novel, and all I had to gain were more of my little pleasures, my little escapes and means of creating myself—like the song “Know Your Onion” off Oh, Inverted World by The Shins says. That was another CD I bought myself in 2001.
I had a crush on a different person in the warehouse who once yelled at other guys who had been ogling me. A hero! There’s a notebook somewhere in the garage of the house I grew up in where I documented this crush in painstaking detail. I’d saved up money from my job to buy this journal, which had a hunter green suede cover. I’d coveted it at Borders but it was over $20, and my mom—who had already bought me countless notebooks, countless books, magazines, CDs, everything I ever wanted—said no. It sticks out for that reason and because it’s the first journal I ever actually filled up, from the summer of ’01 to meeting my first serious boyfriend in driver’s ed during the summer of ’02. I would eventually finish it up after seeing Motion City Soundtrack and Brand New at a mini-golf range, complaining that I had a stomachache because other girls were mean to me for wearing sandals. I hadn’t planned to get into the pit. I liked indie rock: standing, bobbing my head. I only danced alone in my room.
I was 15 and bad at math, even though I’d once been good enough at it to be a year ahead in terms of the state’s requirements. There just came a point at which it wouldn’t compute, and I made being bad at math part of my personality for years. It’s only recently I’ve found out it’s not true; I do arithmetic in my head quickly and easily. My dad would yell at me about my bad grades in geometry and precalculus in the car rides from my high school back home. These were 45-minute rides discussing only what I was bad at, and when I felt myself start to cry, like magic, “The Middle” would come on the radio. I would focus only on the song. Jim Adkins was singing to me. I was a little girl, and I was in what felt like the middle, waiting desperately to escape into an unknown future. Everything, everything will be just fine—simple words I needed someone to tell me, and only the radio was there.
The next spring I would be 16 and piled into the backseat of my friend Chris Miller’s red Saturn, seven people in a car meant for five. An acoustic version of “The Middle” came on and we all fell silent as Miller, as we called our bassoon-playing friend, dropped each of us off. It was a blissful teenage moment, all of us a little stupid and somehow aware of the transience of this particular kind of freedom—when a job and a paycheck meant only chicken fingers and concert tickets. We were still in the middle, but we knew that soon, we wouldn’t be. Melancholy. Bittersweet. All those Perks of Being a Wallflower words I’d absorbed when the book first came out. I’d read it repeatedly in 1999 at the end of eighth grade, and it formed all of my friendship hopes that distilled into this one moment in Chris Miller’s car as Jimmy Eat World played. I’ve never seen the movie; I don’t need to.
That summer, in 2002, I’d see David Bowie live and meet my first love, which would go on far too long. I’d have many more Perks of Being a Wallflower moments—good and painful. I can still have them, making new friends at 35.
But I didn’t know any of that in 2001, when the only thing that kept me going was this one song on the radio. I was and still am a magical thinker, so I never bought the CD. I needed the song to come to me when I needed it, to feel like some sort of spirit was looking out for me, sending me a message. Now I stream it, even though it’s a lot less romantic, and I still feel a wave of comfort when those first chords play. Hey, he sings, in the necessary bit of direct address that gives the song its power, don’t write yourself off yet. “Okay,” I reply in my head, twenty years on from my teenage anxieties, my fears. “I won’t.” I didn’t.
Here’s a playlist of my favorite songs from 2001. Put it on shuffle; make it a radio oracle. I’m also aware that Spotify is terrible, which is why I purchase albums, concert tickets, and merchandise as much as possible to support the artists I love.
This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Krystal Mack, an interdisciplinary artist and writer who uses food as her medium to explore her city of Baltimore, its Black foodways, and more. She’s the editor of PalatePALETTE and publishes work on her Patreon.
Starting this week, twice-monthly recipes for paid subscribers. Here is one for carrot-ginger cake with lemon aquafaba icing.
The presale of Food System Conversation T-shirts Volume 1 has come to a close, but there are a tiny number still available. They will ship sometime in the next month or two, depending upon how quickly the tees from EVERYBODY.WORLD arrive. It’s a limited run of just 100. Maybe we will do a Volume 2—sound off in the comments.
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I was on The Checkout with Errol Schweizer for a great conversation, as well as on The Athletic’s Culture Calculus, for which I had to think about protein. I don’t usually think about protein, but the hosts are really fun!
A galley of Kate Zambreno’s forthcoming To Write As If Already Dead!!!!!!!! Out tomorrow.
No one needs me to tell them to watch and read High on the Hog—the show hosted by Whetstone publisher Stephen Satterfield or the text by Dr. Jessica B. Harris—but I’ll just add to the chorus. The show enacts what I wrote about in “On Thinking,” which is that specificity isn’t a route to esoterica but toward truth. It’s only in specific narrative that we come to understand complex histories. Specificity is diversity.
Tostones. More blistered string beans with garlic powder and a drizzle of soy sauce. The above art cake, topped with blobs of lime and lemon curd.