I still remember the first mix tape I ever got. It was December 1992, I was in seventh grade and I was in serious puppy love with a blond-haired soccer player in my homeroom. Over Christmas break, he looked up my number in the school directory and called me to ask if I wanted to meet him at Brocato’s. I combed my hair, pulled a hot pink puffy sweater on over a salmon-colored turtleneck, tight-rolled my jeans, tied my Keds and set off down Bienville Street, excited and terrified.
I got there a few minutes before him and ordered a hot chocolate, which I was unable to drink because I had recently decided that consuming food or drink in front of boys was too embarrassing to even be contemplated. When he showed up, he sat down next to me and wordlessly, not even looking at me, shoved two festively wrapped packages in my direction.
I was shocked.
“Should I open them now, or wait till Christmas?” I managed, followed immediately by, “I don’t have anything for you, sorry. I didn’t know we were doing presents.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t care about presents. Open the small one now and the other one later.”
The small package contained a pair of beaded earrings that he had made himself, using skills acquired at church camp, and I immediately took out my signature earrings (a pencil in one ear and notebook in the other) and put his in. “Thanks,” I whispered, touched beyond words.
“I’m glad you like them,” he said. “Whew. I’m not nervous anymore. I’m going to have an éclair.”
And he ordered a huge éclair and shamelessly got chocolate on his face while I sat there staring awkwardly at my rapidly cooling cocoa. It was not the first time I’ve wished I were male instead of female.
When I got home, after parting from Ben with a clumsy but affectionate hug, I unwrapped the second gift and was delighted to find a homemade tape. It was a milestone, a rite of passage, and I knew it. I curled up on my bed, popped it into my Walkman and spent a very giddy 90 minutes listening to everything from Bad English’s “When I See You Smile” to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” with a lot of other late 1980s/early ’90s slow jams in between.
I got a lot of mix tapes in high school – some were romantic, like the ones my high school sweetheart made me for our “month-iversaries”; some were tokens of friendship, like the Tori Amos/Alanis Morissette tape my best friend made me sophomore year; and some were just inexplicable, like the Les Mis soundtrack, complete with hand-illustrated cover, given to me by the weird but well-meaning guy two lockers down. I still have a lot of these tapes and they are amazing time capsules, even if the music isn’t necessarily contemporary. (The songs on the tapes my boyfriend made me were by Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Billy Joel – but they take me right back to 1997.)
In college, I had a friend who made me mix tapes for every birthday, always including a song with the name Ruby in it because he knew that was the name I had picked out for my future daughter.
And my husband made me a lot of mix CDs during our courtship; I still smile fondly when I hear those songs, particularly the Avett Brothers’ “January Wedding,” which we later danced to at our own January wedding in 2012.
But the ultimate master of the mix tape is my dad. Over the years, he has made dozens of tapes for me. My favorite tape he ever made me arrived in the middle of a bleak Missouri February, when I really thought that I might die if spring didn’t hurry up and come. “Guess you’re missing Mardi Gras, kiddo,” he wrote. “Hope this helps.”
Full of classic New Orleans songs – not the obvious “Carnival Time” or “Mardi Gras Mambo,” but plenty of Professor Longhair, Marcia Ball and Dr. John – the tape was exactly the tonic I needed to get out of my mopey mood. I put it on, turned it up, made red beans and invited everyone I could think of to come over. It reminded me that I could keep New Orleans with me, even when it was 17 degrees outside.