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It's Nelly's World

The Past Comes Through the Air to My Radio

alec vanderboom


Before I moved to this region ("this region" being not the chair in front of my computer, although I do actually live there; I mean upstate New York), for many years the soundtrack to my daily life was, in part, whatever kooky brilliance WFMU threw at the wall until some of it stuck. And in another part it was the lonely wind soughing through a twenty-five-acre red pine plantation, which incredibly enough I appeared to own. I had two homes then, city and country. At the latter, there was no radio reception in the car, and only spotty numbers in the house, so I was always desperately draping the wires of the T-antenna over various pieces of furniture in order to conjure the spirits of NPR. Otherwise, we'd have to make do with only the glossy riches of "nature"--that wind; the coyotes at night and our own dogs' returning howl; and (ohmygoodness) silence. But here--here, odd pieces of my past started returning to me via the radio dial.

There I was, 90 miles up the Hudson, and the first night I plugged in the kitchen boombox and started spinning the dial, feeling a bit lonely and displaced and homesick for the city that had been my first real home away from the homeland, and suddenly I hear a familiar voice. It is as if my mother has materialized in my kitchen. But not mother, exactly; rather, it is the postulated ideal mother, in the form of a mellifluous, disembodied voice of an announcer from WQXR, New York City's commercial classical station. I thought she must have reached across all the miles to me, me alone. Maybe this was a ghost station, and I was hearing something that had gotten loose from time and had been floating out in the ether until my radio grabbed it and pulled it down inside my new house. Or maybe some fluke of the weather was allowing me to remain connected over a great emptiness of space to the place I left behind.

It was eerie, standing there and hearing it. As if something out there knew I needed an aural bridge to travel across to permit me to return to the place I both did and did not want to leave. This kindness of the airwaves.

Later, I found out that there was a relay station nearby, and the signal I thought was from the city, direct to me alone as an otherworldly gift, was there for all. No mystery, just concrete.

But before that happened, I found something else on that little purple machine. Another part of me, cut loose and all but forgotten, floating around in the old air of my personal past. WVKR! How had I failed to notice that we had moved back to the vicinity of some of my most powerful happiness? (I admit it, college was wonderful, the great awakening it was promised to be.) Now I was living not far from Poughkeepsie again, though I was far from the girl who knew so little when she went there, decades ago, and now knew so much. As well as so little. (So it goes.) Now I tune in this station whenever I want, and there's a little frisson every time I do. Because geography is as fractured, as strange, for me as the separate selves that are apparently stored within. To visit the past in the present: oh, such a weird joy.



[composed with the help of a 2006 organic Redwood Valley Petite Syrah]