“The Girl Who Carried the Record Player” by Tara Needham

Tara Emelye Needham, 2010 PSP participant, Patricia Hampl workshop

Tara Emelye Needham’s non-fiction has been published in Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry (“How to Ask A Feminist to Do the Dishes”) and Guts Magazine (“Characters of Finance”). Her poems have appeared in J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Belleville Park Pages and Barzakh, and the lyrics from her current musical project, The Chandler Estate, appeared in Apogee Magazine. As of September 2018, she will be residing in Ankara, Turkey.

I attended the Prague Summer Program in 2010 to study the personal essay with Trish Hampl. Our workshop was a wonderful coming together of women in all different stages of life, from writers in their early 20s to writers in their 60s.  For many of us, the weeks in Prague were a rare time and space to dedicate to our craft in the midst of other responsibilities: family, work, community, and so forth.

The “Girl Who Carried the Record Player” is a piece I wrote in stages after Prague.  It captures some of the productive tensions of finding art-work-life balance and creating time/space for writing, as well as exploring the differences between supporting others and sacrificing one’s self.  It benefitted from the insights gained from our superb teacher, Trish Hampl, about non-fiction as well as from the workshop experience as a whole.

The Girl who Carried the Record Player

In the second grade, Kerry Flanagan went from classroom to classroom on St Patrick’s Day to perform an Irish dance routine for the students.  I went with her.  My job was to carry the record player.

It was a portable one of some bulk— a brown, tweedy, square suitcase full of wires and sound.  I held it with two hands, leaning it on my thigh in order to propel it forward with each step of my leg. I was excited to go along and I felt special. At that age, the distance between me and the star was small—just a few classroom desks.  Before even crossing the threshold of each room, I would spy an electrical outlet, and diligently set up the player on a chair nearby. Then I would stand to the side, in the front near the door, not quite part of the class, not quite part of the performance, but in the delectable middle, belonging.

I used to tease Kerry with my impression of her dance, sticking my tongue out a bit in concentration like she did, pointing my toes and jumping.  She would laugh and offer a quick lesson on whatever step I approximated.  But she never offered an impression of my carrying of the record player, with two hands, leaning it against my leg.  Ours was not a reciprocal relationship.

Kerry would go on to be the star in all of our high school musicals.   She could dance (in styles other than traditional Irish step), sing in a nasal voice with great projection, and had an irrepressible onstage charisma.  She was suburban Long Island’s own little Bernadette Peters. In tenth grade, she got the lead in Little Shop of Horrors, portraying the down-on- her-luck bombshell Audrey, singing “Somewhere that’s Green,” the show’s dramatic spotlight solo, with a perfectly cultivated lisp.   I was in the play, too—a background dancer and chorus member. It was a step-up from the year before, when I played a table in our high school’s production of Leader of the Pack.

The following summer I attended a second-tier music camp to play violin and get away from the mall-beach-mall cycle of summers on Long Island.  A few weeks in, auditions were announced for solo acts in the variety show.  Come and try out with any song you want.  Bring the music.  Even though I was listening to the Cure and the Smiths, wearing a lot of black eyeliner, and compulsively writing letters to a brooding artist boy back home, I was drawn to that incomparable combination of music, sweat and spotlight that a solo promised.  I knew the intro monologue and lyrics to “Somewhere that’s Green” by heart. I had brought the song with me.

I searched out the audition room, as earnest and impassioned adolescent renditions of “If I were a Rich Man,” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” took over the basement of the music building after hours.  I was so scared.  So nervous.  Not because I did not think I could sing it.  I was more confused by my deep desire to do so. By age 15, I was well-practiced in the arts of self-doubt, so when an undeniable urge made itself known, I was cautious and suspicious, pensive and philosophical. Even if I could accept that I wanted this, it seemed audacious to ask for it. (Cue the Smiths: “Shyness is nice, but shyness will stop you…”) I was so close to walking away from the fluorescent lit room, but I handed over the music to the director and came in on cue: “A matchbox of our own, a fence of real chain link…”

My performance was a revelation.  I was the star of the show, of the whole summer.  The musical theater director built a special set for me:  a trash can overflowing on a little platform that rolled out, a little slice of Skid Row.  I sang perched atop the trashcan, first doing the monologue in my own version of the lisp, then singing the song with its crescendo and climax, and quiet whisper ending.  I wore a green, clingy dress that fit the part, brought out my hazel eyes, and announced my blossoming bosom to everyone including myself.  My newly acquired, late 80s Suzanne Vega bob haircut framed my face.  I was placed center stage for the group number.  I was voted “most unique” and “most interesting.” People told me I could have a career in singing if I wanted it.  My photo made it into the catalogue for the following summer. No one there had heard of Kerry Flanagan. And finally, someone was carrying the record player for me.

Needless to say, I was doubled-over weeping in the backseat as my parents drove me away from summer camp, knowing that with each mile closer to home, my fifteen minutes faded and were forgotten.  And I was right: by mid-autumn, I was miming cocktail party banter in Mame while Kerry had actual, audible lines and a starring role.

The record player was the start of a pattern: my life moves in cycles of carrying the record player or singing the song: from sitting quietly—though impatiently—while my first boyfriend noodled on guitars in Matt Umanov in NYC to teaching myself to play guitar and starting my own bands.  From writing and publishing my own ‘zine, to supporting small literary publishers as a professional arts administrator; from publishing my own poems to chauffeuring visiting writers to their readings as a graduate student. From tediously grading student papers to obsessively revising my own personal essays.

There are many possible explanations and ways to account for these cycles: some of the “big fish, small pond” variety and the reality of competition; others of my tendency to take myself out of the running because of fear of rejection and discomfort with my own ambition; and still more related to the necessity of earning a living, which I have tended to do in the realms of the arts and humanities, but in administrative or educational roles.  But even when my own artistic endeavors are coming to fruition, finding expression and even an audience, there is a part of me that more easily assumes the role of the girl who carries the record player.  Partly, its because I am good at it. Dependable, reliable, I set the stage so others can twirl, dance, write, sing and soar.  Even back then, I mistakenly thought of myself as Kerry’s understudy, but in reality, I was her manager, selected by my teacher because I was a straight-A student who could afford to miss the class time, would watch the routine respectfully, and bring back the record player —and Kerry— in one piece, without sneaking out for whatever reasons a second grader might sneak out.  I could handle “the talent.” But what about my own?

In the end, being close to art is not the same as making it.  Realizing that I have sometimes confused them is terrifying. And in making a living, particularly in the creative fields, the best parts of you can consistently go to bringing others’ projects and visions to fruition.   As I grow older, I am compelled to ask myself: do I want to be the girl who is carrying the record player, or the one dancing? The question goes beyond the necessary quid pro quo of being part of an artistic community, mutual support and recognition—which I firmly believe in.  You realize you simply must start carrying the record player for yourself, or something will be lost.

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