So there I am, pushing my shopping cart doggedly along the cereal aisle, weighing the merits of calcium-fortified over maximum fiber and feeling every year of my advanced chronological age. And then, bam! Out of nowhere, it’s Little Eva on the supermarket speakers, doing the “Loco-Motion” like it’s 1962. “Jump up/Jump back/Well, I think you got the knack, whoa-oh.” The decades fall away and suddenly I’m improvising a bouncy little dance move in front of the Raisin Bran. For a risk-averse, play-by-the-rules Catholic school graduate, I’m a pretty good dancer. And at 5:30 p.m. on a bleak winter Tuesday, Little Eva is better than a B-12 shot.
I’ve got to believe that someone has done exhaustive market research about the effect of golden oldies on boomer shoppers. Does “Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman” cause us to tear up the grocery list and head straight for the prime rib and Häagen-Dazs? Transported by “He’s So Fine” to some long-ago spring formal, do we bypass the prune juice and make a beeline to the beer cooler?
I used to think that perfume was the most powerful trigger for memories. There was a time when a whiff of L’Air du Temps could deliver a whole chapter of my life, including detailed pictures of prom dresses and the phone numbers of old boyfriends. Nowadays, I’m leaning more towards auditory cues. The opening bars of “Soldier Boy” (“Oh, my little solider boy/I’ll be true to you”) take me directly to a darkened basement rec room circa 1964, a stack of 45s on the turntable and the smoke of forbidden cigarettes hanging in the air.
The Beatles were the soundtrack for my first love, a two year interval of agony and ecstasy played out to the tunes of “If I Fell” and “In My Life.” We drove around the New York suburbs listening to deejays Murray the K and Cousin Brucie and looking for undiscovered country lanes.” If I fell in love with you/Would you promise to be true?” It seemed to be summer all the time, except at the very end.
Marvin Gay and Percy Sledge are Charlottesville, Va., 1966, and a combo called “Virginia Creeper” belting out “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Midnight Hour.” The worn wooden floors of the fraternity house shake with the echo of bass and drums. Outside, the April night smells of boxwood hedges and spilled beer. “I know you’re gonna leave me/But I refuse to let you go.” I am 19. My date is 20. I have a new Lanz dress, matching Pappagallos, and no curfew. The world is full of endless possibility.
The Rolling Stones are New York City, the steamy August of 1967. I worked as a clerk in a Fifth Avenue department store by day and slept on the couch in my sister’s fourth floor walkup by night. The window fan blew hot air through the tiny apartment while Mick wailed from the portable stereo. “Don’t question why she needs to be so free/She’ll tell you it’s the only way to be.” And so it was, for a little while longer.
Little Eva fades out and The Supremes pipe up as I round the corner into condiments. “Haven’t I been good to you/Haven’t I been sweet to you?” I consider mayonnaise, fat-free or the real deal, tapping my foot in time to the music. Life is short. The tunes that defined us are bona fide oldies. Our children say “the ’60s” the way we used to say “the ’40s.”
Patsy Cline comes on as I head to the checkout line. “I fall to pieces/Each time I see you again.” I read somewhere that listening to too much country music can make you depressed, all those empty nights and love gone wrong. I don’t think it applies to rock and roll, though. Hearts may break, but there’s a beat. You can dance to it. Even when your back hurts, and your knees wobble. Even in the cereal aisle.