“CAN I HELP YOU FIND ANYTHING?” the spry Newbury Comics salesman asked me.
“If I find it, I’ll let you know,” he said without missing a beat and marched off to shelve the latest release from yet another band I’d never heard of.
What was I doing here?
Let me back up. The idea of trying to be “hip” has been on my mind ever since I turned 47. Despite my nerdy backpack-wearing, laptop-carrying, latte-chugging lifestyle, I had begun suspecting I wasn’t the youngest person in the room anymore. My cultural sweet spot hovers somewhere between 1979 and 1999. Sure, I have a smart phone, and have built my obligatory social media identities, but I feel bumbling in my efforts to stay on top of technology. I don’t own a TV, so I miss out on the cult shows. The time when I’d endure long lines at clubs to see bands, even ones I’m oblivious to, was passing. I’m happy staying home and listening to my collection of obscure K-Tel records.
Also: People suddenly call me sir. As in: “Here’s your change, sir,” or “Let me just unlock that case where the teeth-whitening products are, sir.” Do the baggy jeans, cowboy shirts, and running shoes give off old-man cooties? Huh. As time marches forward, and I struggle to identify the latest band artistic icon, trending Internet meme, I wonder if I’ve fallen irrevocably behind.
After recoiling from the latest formal salutation, I decided to embark on a Middle Age Makeover. I concocted a quest to regain my musical, pop cultural, technological, and fashion mojo.
No, I wasn’t aching to squeeze into skinny jeans and get a tattoo nor was my goal to be a hipster. (Note: I’d already tried growing a mustache and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ironic slogans such as “Kill Your TV” and drawings of unicorns. Fail.) I just wanted to feel a little more hip, a little less obsolete.
“Music and passion were always in fashion.’’
— Barry Manilow, “Copacabana,’’ 1978
THAT’S HOW I FOUND MYSELF WANDERING THE MECCA OF POP CULTURAL DETRITUS, Newbury Comics. Thirty years ago, I used to come to this exact store in Harvard Square from my small New Hampshire town for a dose of urban culture. Would a return here be my cultural time machine, or an exercise in humiliation?
As thrash-punk blared on speakers, I marveled at the selection of fancy headphones, action figures, and DVDs of TV shows I’d never seen. I flipped through a rack of posters — from Minecraft and M.C. Escher to “Game of Thrones” and Pink Floyd — and hefted a copy of the “Necronomicon.” Maybe things hadn’t changed that much since 1983.
Then, passing on a Joy Division T-shirt for $19.99 (I concluded wearing it would ID me as simply out of touch, not retro-hip — was I right or not?), I noticed the huge aisle of LPs. Yes! Flipping through the C's, where Elvis Costello held his own against Converge and Crystal Stilts, I asked another sales clerk: How do older folks, like me, stay current with popular music?
“We do find older customers come and indiscriminately buy new releases,” she said, somewhat condescendingly. Indeed, I could have done just that — grabbed a Robin Thicke or Bon Iver CD and bolted. (Of course, the very decision to buy a CD brands me as an oldster.)
I left with a John Denver tribute album.
It was my friend Peter, my age but infinitely more attuned to pop culture, who bailed me out. I told him about feeling steamrolled by the volume of new bands, movies, comics, games.
“Whose pop culture do you mean?” he replied. Kiss 108? Arcade Fire? “Or what no one in a 10-mile radius would know? Alternative is now mainstream, the same way geek culture is.”
He suggested some music and pop culture sites like Pitchfork, The Quietus, Largehearted Boy, and Laughing Squid, and told me to seek out “curated portals” to help me sift through the dreck, just like DJs once did. A local curator? Weirdo Records in Central Square.
I booked it over there.
“There’s so much music out. No one’s keeping up,” said Angela Sawyer, owner of the minuscule shop. “No one can hear it all.” Even her.
Her admission immediately put me at ease. I told her I had an iTunes and Spotify account, but barely used them. I said I was stuck in a musical rut somewhere between Wilco and ELO, Spoon and the Bee Gees.
“I can get you to the next level,” she assured me. “For everyone, there’s a next great record for them.”
I left with this advice: “Don’t just acquire. Become friends with what you acquire.” I felt better already, and vowed to come back to buy an obscure collection of groovy Pakistani rock tunes from the 1960s and '70s. Music didn’t have to be new. It just had to be new to me.
“I’m the operator with my pocket calculator.’’
— Kraftwerk, “Pocket Calculator,’’ 1981
EVEN IF I WASN’T BINGE-WATCHING “BREAKING BAD,” I felt less clueless about pop culture. But whole realms of digital life still flummoxed me. Was there some new device, app, or social media tool that would keep me at the forefront of something? Anything.
“The more mature gentleman uses Twitter and Instagram and dabbles with Vine,” a tech-savvy friend told me, via Facebook. “Snapchat is so preteens and teens can sext each other, so best avoided. Facebook, alas, might as well be AARP as far as the young ’uns are concerned.”
AARP? What? Now I felt old. Where was my virtual fountain of youth? I asked around (via Facebook, of course). Some suggested the salve for my tech-anxiety might be Waze, a cool crowd-sourced traffic app that shows where cops are hiding, and faster routes through traffic jams. Or maybe a Nike FuelBand for my arm, to track and measure my daily exercise. Or new Samsung Galaxy Gear watch, to communicate like a “Star Trek” extra. Or Google Glass.
To help navigate all the options, I went to the MIT Media Lab in search of a tech guru.
“You’ve come here feeling out of synch. ‘What do I need to do to be “down with the kids”?’ ” said Stacie Slotnick, the Media Lab’s assistant director of digital communications. Like Sawyer at Weirdo Records, Slotnick echoed my anxiety. But here’s the thing: I didn’t need to keep up on the latest channel, be it Tumblr, Pinterest, Storify, Vine, or Reddit.
“In a year, it could all change,” she said. “What is your personal brand?”
I told her I am a writer. I wanted my Internet self to be witty, smart, and relevant, and connect with my audience. Who did I want to reach? Not “some 14-year-old using Snapchat,” right? True. I just needed to pick a couple channels like Twitter and Google+ and do it well.
“It’s not about having the most followers,” she reminded me. “It’s about being meaningful.”
That said, Slotnick did ask about my Twitter followers. Last count, 1,428. “That’s a lot for a person who is not Justin Bieber.” I may be obsessive, but I’m also shallow, and I took the compliment.
“Yo, I got myself a fanny pack / they were having a sale down at the Gap.’’
— Weird Al Yankovic, “White & Nerdy,’’ 2006
“WHAT’S YOUR PERSONALITY?” Emmi Sorokin asked me over the phone. “When you walk into a room, what impression do you want to make?”
For the last phase of my quest, my fashion makeover, I contacted Sorokin, founder of Boston-based It’s a Man’s World Image Consulting and author of the forthcoming “The Business Casual Survival Guide. She agreed to meet me at Uniform, a small men’s boutique in the South End.
“We can create looks for people,” said owner Gary Ritacco. “Kind of like Garanimals.” The man spoke my language.
“Ready for the magic to happen?” Sorokin said upon arrival. “We are changing lives today.”
As she snatched dozens of items off the racks, her blunt advice came fast and furious. My baggy jeans, T-shirt, and untucked button-down? “Old and tired.”
OK, what about this cap? “I feel like you’re delivering my paper.”
My trusty New Balance sneakers”? Wear them only “when you’re going off to die.” Ouch.
But the tough love felt right. Before long, she’d assembled three outfits from brands like Victorinox, Scotch & Soda, and John Varvatos (names as foreign to me as indie rock bands), and had me posing like a model during Paris fashion week.
“You’re just like Zoolander, but hotter.”
Why do some men dress so cluelessly?, I asked. “There’s no code to follow,” she said.
Hence, her four-point plan. 1) Correct fit: “Most men wear clothes one size too big.” 2) Right feel: clothing should match what you do (e.g. no western shirts for a marketing breakfast. Oops). 3) Layering: wear layers, such as a shirt, sweater, and jacket. And 4) Accessories: sunglasses, belt, bag. “The point isn’t to look trendy,” Sorokin added. “It’s look current.”
I walked out of Uniform with a new pair of slim (but not skinny) Levi’s. Perhaps not the most adventurous choice, but I’d be back.
As I reflected on my absurd little quest, I was reminded what I’d heard in Weirdo Records.
“If you start out as a teenager in New Hampshire and discover Newbury Comics — Whoa! The world is bigger than I thought,” Sawyer told me. “For a chunk of people, they’d like that to happen again when they’re all grown up.”
I didn’t have to lose sleep about missing the next big or even small thing like “Honey badger” or “What Does the Fox Say?” I could keep hoarding my vinyl, CDs, cassette tapes, and even 8 tracks, alongside my iTunes collection, as long as I learned a few new tricks.
What was this desire to be so à la mode all about? Coming to terms with getting older. I realized I didn’t want to be younger. Besides, I’d forgotten, I never was all that hip.