by Lisa Peet
I’m driving down the Major Deegan Expressway from Tarrytown, back of the Volvo piled high with black trash bags. I’ve been cleaning out my mother’s garage; if we can get rid of everything stored there by the end of the summer, we won’t have to renew the lease. There’s a lot of stuff, though, and the furtive nature of the work is discomfiting. She doesn’t even know we sold her car, and would be angry and unhappy to find out, even though she hasn’t been allowed to drive for years. The sewing kit with its tiny compartments full of sequins and buttons, the collection of ancient just-in-case batteries, the dried-up tubes of paint arranged by color—all these things I bag up. The sketchbooks, though, and the rolls of drawings, I have to set aside and leave for another day. I just can’t. So I throw everything else in the station wagon, breathe deep, and head for home, turning up the music as loud as I can stand it so I can’t even hear myself sing.
It’s a great mix tape, from around 1995, heavy on the surf and R&B with bits of garage, power pop, and punk rock thrown in. I know the lineup like I know my own phone number. And yes—here, as I swing past the turnoff for Elmsford and the Saw Mill River Parkway, between the Animals and the Isley Brothers, is the Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road”; this will cure what ails me.
But then, a funny thing… I’ve listened to this song many hundreds of times since it came out nearly 30 years ago. Maybe thousands. But apparently I never thought much about the words, because on this particular summer afternoon, singing along to drown out my own thoughts, the lyrics surprise me.
The middle of the road
is trying to find me
I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me.
And I think, Shit, wait a minute. She’s talking about being middle-aged?
And yes, it would seem that she is. Even though what Chrissie Hynde actually says is, “I’ve got a kid / I’m 33,” I imagine that must be close to 50 in hot-chick front-woman years. I’m not exactly sure what I thought “Middle of the Road” referred to all that time, even though I’m a relatively dedicated lyrics parser. If I have to be brutally honest, I’ll admit that I mostly pictured her standing, literally, in the middle of a road—a stretch of highway much like the one I’m driving, but empty—wailing on her Telecaster in her skinny black pants, her band at a respectful distance behind. I never once thought the song was about getting old, not for a minute. But there it is.
I’ve been listening, lately, to a lot of mix tapes. Two summers ago we bought the ’99 Volvo wagon from a guy who claimed to have gotten it from a little old lady, and I don’t doubt him. For one thing, the car had barely over 90,000 miles on it, and for another, the entire sound system consisted of a tape deck. I put in a CD player right away, but I find myself using it much less than I’d imagined. I can listen to CDs, and the music on them, anywhere. But how often do I get the chance, not to mention the reason, to play all those old cassette tapes?
Not often enough, as it turns out. I’m talking handcrafted mixes here, the real deal: obsessive little works of musical curation arranged around a particular theme, painstakingly timed for perfect segues, neatly labeled, and slipcased in trimmed and scored postcards collected for just that purpose. Oh, I was obsessive. But they were labors of love, these tapes, not for anyone in particular but for everyone. We played them for each other, in our cars, at work; “I made a new tape,” I’d say, “I’ll bring it when I come over.”
What kills me is how great they sound now. Not in terms of quality, of course, but look: I’m playing them over factory model speakers in a 14-year-old car, so sound quality is a relative term. The music, though. Maybe I’ve gotten sentimental, or my taste has calcified. But driving around, cranking these old tunes, has been making me almost medicinally happy. They’re 90-minute youth infusions; Botox for my soul. That my soul needs infusing at all is another matter entirely.
Bloom celebrates 40 as the age when many writers, and creative types in general, come into their own. It’s a bit of a random number, spotlighted both as a backlash to the buzz of “Under 30” and to give the number some genuine love of its own. But I was never afraid of 40. My vibrant late bloomer of a mother instructed me well, and from an early age I had it drummed into my head that a woman is at the height of her powers—and her beauty—at 40. I bought into the idea completely, and it was so. Forty came and went for me with hardly a ripple. And indeed, that fifth decade saw me flourish creatively and personally; mom was right.
Fifty, on the other hand, is fucking with my head.
I was a hipster back in the day. That’s painful to type; the word is so derisive in my mind now. And I would never have used it then. But I was in the right place at the right time, a ravenous artsy kid in downtown Manhattan desperate for some kind of community to bounce off of, and there it was. It’s not as if I was looking for a movement to join, or even a fashion statement to adopt—I had always been this way, ready to rumble since I hit adolescence. I despised the hypocrisy and ordinariness and snobbery saturating the preppy New Jersey town where I grew up; I was hungry for experience, altered states, and companionship, listening to college radio late at night and dreaming of coming to New York. I was a Lou Reed song waiting to happen. I signed the lease on my first apartment, a ratty sixth-floor walkup on a terrible block in the East Village, the week after I graduated high school.
And oh, those were fun times: the music, the friends, the quarts of Ballantine Ale, the dogeared paperbacks we passed around, the haircuts. This was back when you could still get a beer can thrown at you from a moving car for looking like a punk, but before the mohawk-and-flannel-shirt look automatically signaled “panhandling junkie” or “slumming kid from the suburbs.” I embraced it all, and life was good. Eventually motherhood would take some of the rougher edges off my lifestyle, but even through the long learning curve of domesticity, I was still, essentially, the person I had always been—same values, same disdain for conformity, same inclination to take the hard road because the easy one was for everybody else.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret a single turn I’ve taken, and I’ve never had the sensation of what Cheryl Strayed, in her Dear Sugar column, called “ghost ships”—the pale visions of choices we might have made, ships that could have carried us, that we watch slide by in the night. My gut has steered me well, and I’m mostly of the opinion that whatever got me to this moment in time must have been the right thing.
But lately I’ve been wondering what choices I might have now had I done things just a little differently then—if I had worked harder in college and gone to see fewer bands; if I hadn’t been so scornful of any job that required me to wear panty hose; if I had been just a bit less anti-material. Because I’m feeling the pinch these days—on an existential, if not concrete, level. I own my own home, drive a working car, and have plenty to eat, but the feeling of limited options is real nonetheless: I don’t travel; I don’t buy clothes or shoes until something else has worn out; I’ve never had someone else clean my house; I don’t own a piece of furniture that’s not a hand-me-down, scavenged off the street, falling apart, or from IKEA; I’ve never bought a new car; I’ve never had a manicure. And—maybe less petty—I don’t get to retire, ever. That’s why I’m just now finishing up grad school; this MLS is a last-ditch attempt to ensure some form of steady employment where I can settle in, grow old, and eventually die at my desk.
Or, if I’m going to follow family tradition, eventually be kindly but firmly escorted out by security after I’ve sat down at someone else’s desk a few too many times.
My father had the first of many small strokes at 60, and not long after was forced to take early retirement from his position as a professor of anthropology at Rutgers. He died of renal failure and complications from diabetes six months short of his 70th birthday, blind, wheelchair-bound, and utterly childlike. My mother is dreamily adrift out on the sea of dementia. Once an artist, a reader, a passionate autodidact with a wicked sense of humor, she’s now a pleasantly dotty old lady who chatters in sweepingly self-absorbed circles and requires round-the-clock care. I am, of course, deeply glad that she’s happy, at least at this stage, and that I live close by. But at some point every time I see her, no matter how pleasant a visit, the thought always comes unbidden: Oh please, no. Not this.
It’s so much easier to laugh about the horror of middle of the road as a condition, not a place. Not the fact that I now have more years under my belt than I have left, but the way those years have softened me, worn down those exhilaratingly sharp angles on all of us. How, when we went to see Patti Smith a few years ago, the audience was wall-to-wall fleece and crocs; how she spat on the floor because you could probably get sued for spitting into the audience these days. I can rail against that all I like, and I do. But it’s the end of the road that, as I enter my sixth decade, has been on my mind.
I have no role models for aging well. Mom was right about 40, and if you ask her how she likes 85, she’ll tell you it’s “Just wonderful! Everyone is so good to me!” I don’t recall her having any advice for me about 50, though; I believe I’m on my own with this one. For a long time I thought the worst that could happen to me was losing my edge, whatever that might have been. But after this last birthday I’m having different ideas about what stands to be lost, and what’s worth being afraid of. Which, as it turns out, is a lot.
It seems the middle of the road has found me after all, despite all efforts to the contrary. When I wasn’t paying attention, I morphed into a vaguely studious middle-aged vegetarian bookworm, who once a week puts her tote bags in the station wagon and drives to Fairway for organic white peaches and great shaggy bunches of kale. My 20-year-old self is laughing, somewhere. But if there’s one realization turning 50 has brought me, it’s that the middle of the road is not the worst place to find myself; not by a long shot. There’s plenty to fear up ahead, and I feel it.
Which is what the volume knob and the gas pedal are for. And mix tapes, and the Pretenders; Chrissie Hynde is singing:
In the middle of the road
You see the darndest things
And off we go.
Bonus Track: Middle of the Road Mixtape Playlist, c. 1995
The Ventures, “Honky Tonk Parts 1 and 2”
Chuck Berry, “Too Much Monkey Business”
Ike & Tina Turner, “Ooh Poo Pa Doo”
The Standells, “Dirty Water”
The Dragsters, “Do the Clam”
Aretha Franklin, “Are You Sure”
The Persuasions, “Baby, What You Want Me to Do/Bright Lights, Big City”
The Ventures, “Ram-Bunk-Shush”
The Barbarians, “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl”
The Bootles, “I’ll Let You Hold My Hand”
The Supremes, “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”
The Rubinoos, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”
Randy Newman, “There’s a Party at My House”
Del Shannon, “Cry Myself to Sleep”
Chuck Berry, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”
Joe Turner, “Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop”
The Ventures, “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”
Joey Miserable & the Worms, “No Soul”
The Chymes, “Quite a Reputation”
The Animals, “Boom Boom”
The Pretenders, “Middle of the Road”
The Isley Brothers, “It’s Your Thing”
Chuck Berry, “Sweet Little Rock & Roller”
The Dragsters, “Radio Surf”
The Beat, “Work-a-Day World”
The Human Beinz, “Nobody but Me”
Freddy Cannon, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”
The Marvelettes, “Too Many Fish in the Sea”
Holly & the Italians, “Tell that Girl to Shut Up”
Joe Jones, “You Talk Too Much”
Z.Z. Hill, “It’s a Hang-Up Baby”
The Kinks, “I Took My Baby Home”
Irma Thomas, “Somebody Told You”
The Ventures, “Soul Twist”
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.