by Barrie Jean Borich
THE MINDERS: “Hand-Me-Downs” (“Black Balloon” 7” single, Little Army / Elephant 6 Recording Co., 1998)
Reagan presided over the recovery, but Reaganomics as such did not work. … Arestrictive monetary policy exacerbated the downturn in 1981, plunging the U.S. economy into its worst recession since the 1930s. Inflation was lowered, but only at the cost of very high unemployment, thousands of business failures, a decline in the wages of skilled labor, and a redistribution of income from the lower middle class to the upper middle class and the rich. Military spending was increased at the expense of education, welfare assistance, environmental protection, community>development, and improved retirement payments. … The Reagan recovery of 1983 thus has little to do with the supply-side theories of 1981.…—Martin Carnoy and Manuel Castells, “After the Crisis?”World Policy Journal 1, no. 3 (1984)
[T]he supply-side theory was not a new economic theory at all but only new language and argument to conceal a hoary old Republican doctrine: give the taxcuts to the top brackets, the wealthiest individuals and largest enterprises, and let the good effects “trickle down” through the economy to reach everyone else.—William Greider, “The Education of David Stockman,”Atlantic Monthly, December 1981
In the spring of 1981, shortly before the onset of the painful recession, most Americans were optimistic about their economic future. A Gallup survey at the time found that 48% of the public believed the financial position of their household would be better in the next 12 months. … A year later, in September 1982, with the unemployment rate at 10.1%, most Americans were far from pleased with the state of the economy. A 54%-majority said Reagan’s policies had made their personal financial situation worse; just 34% said the policies had made their situation better.—Richard Auxier, “Reagan’s Recession,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2010
Just after John Hinckley, Jr., aimed his .22 caliber pistol at Ronald Reagan outside the Washington D.C. Hilton and fired six “Devastator” explosive bullets—one of which ricocheted off the president’s limousine and hit Reagan under the arm—I’d come home from school and was shooting baskets in the rain with my father. He’d recently installed a hoop and backboard to a wood frame he’d fashioned and bolted to the rotting roof of our garage, not far from the hole raccoons would soon chew through mossy composition shingles to raid the garbage festering inside. I was supposed to drag the trash cans curbside every Thursday morning, but often forgot, and let trash pile up in the garage instead, since it was also my task to collect it from the kitchen and the rest of the house and carry it out to the garage. The hoop didn’t stand a regulation ten feet, though that fact didn’t matter to me then, only to my more serious basketball-playing friends who came over in later years, and whose blocked shots and errant passes broke the windowpanes in the garage door—all of which my father eventually replaced, one by one, with squares of plywood.
Like that solution, our game was hardly elegant, nothing any purist would’ve admired: all flagrant fouls, hip checks, goaltending, and traveling, instead of head fakes and crossover dribbles, it had little in common with the sport I sometimes watched on TV. Rain-soaked and giddy, my father and I elbowed each other, pulled sleeves, trash-talked, laughed at missed jumpers. As I dribbled the basketball along our frost-heaved driveway and tried to get off a shot against my six-foot-two-inch father, I wore a navy blue hooded pullover sweatshirt on the chest of which, in white block capitals, was printed the word ANDOVER.
I attended not Phillips Academy Andover but May Street School, a small brick public elementary school with an asphalt playground. No one in my family had graduated from Phillips Andover. My mother, first in her family to earn a college degree, had matriculated at a good private university—where, years later, I taught undergraduates to write novels—until her father could no longer afford the tuition, and she’d finished her education at a state college. My father had enlisted in the Navy after high school, and then went to M.I.T., though he’d dropped out; on that rainy day in 1981, a few years remained before he’d complete his B.S. and M.B.A. degrees. The sweatshirt I wore had, until my father brought it home, gone unclaimed in a lost-and-found bin at the candlepin bowling alley my grandfather owned, and where my father sometimes worked between other jobs, or when he’d been laid off. The bowling alley stood in a nineteenth-century brick industrial complex across the train tracks at the edge of town, and I wonder now whether whoever abandoned the sweatshirt there was even the garment’s original owner. After I acquired it, someone explained Phillips Andover to me, though I had no understanding then of what the term prep school connoted, and even my active imagination could conjure only the barest version. I wore the sweatshirt the way I still wear most clothes—constantly—until I outgrew it, or lost it, or it fell apart in the wash. I liked that the single word it bore also held two words—and, over—but, to me, Andover named just another place I’d never been, though it seemed only a quick drive up the highway when I scrutinized maps as a way of wishing myself elsewhere. The sweatshirt felt comfortable in a house where my parents didn’t need a recently exiled president to tell them to turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater.
My mother opened the backdoor on its squeaky spring. “The president’s been shot,” she called out to us.
The B-side to one of several seven-inch singles the Minders released in quick succession during the late ’90s, “Hand-Me-Downs” is a pop song that’s anything but popular. It begins with a twangy four-note guitar riff, then jerks into the slapdash, fuzzy chords of some lost, post–British Invasion garage band. To cite the song’s breathy boy/girl harmonies, its jaunty bassline, its prominent tambourine, its peppy drum fills, and its backwards guitar solo may imply a mess, but this song has a purity and inevitability to its arrangements and structure. All the song’s elements are handed-down—its McCartneyesque sensibility, its unschooled Mamas and the Papas vocals, its crunchy Nuggets chords, its George Martin four-track experimentation, its AM-radio-friendly two-and-a-half-minute length: “I can’t tell, they all seem so familiar,” singer and guitarist Martyn Leaper admits in the first verse. If his voice sounded a little closer to Ray Davies’s, and the Kinks had had a female backup singer. … Still, the song is original in its filtered particulars, furious in its energies. You’ve probably never heard it, but you’ll recognize it when you do.
Lyrically, it’s unclear what is being handed down: “No, I won’t talk about it, and I won’t weep / Yes, I know all about it, everything indeed,” Leaper and Rebecca Cole sing in the bridge; in the chorus, they say either “I was never clean” or “I was never free,” before continuing: “flat broke at age nineteen—just behind, or so it seemed.”
I’ve always understood the song—one of only a few written by bassist Marc Willhite—as describing the speaker’s shame and sorrow about financial uncertainties he refuses to detail beyond a single, un-anteceded pronoun. That I read class into these vague lyrics says more about me than about the song. (And perhaps spending $800 on records in a month, as I’ve written about elsewhere, suggests no more than a vain attempt to catch up in my acquisition of cultural knowledge.) I wore many hand-me-down or otherwise inherited clothes as a kid, in part because of how quickly I outgrew them, in part because of family finances. Our cars were hand-me-downs, much of our furniture, most of my books. These facts were unexceptional: many of my friends wore hand-me-downs, too. All of us benefitted from the barter economy our mothers had developed—exchanging tokens for hours watching each other’s kids in the “babysitting co-op”; holiday cookie swaps; school carpools; rummage sales. Still, such mutual support couldn’t mask the direction explicit in the phrase “hand-me-downs,” which has always seemed imperative to how the locution reinforces class distinctions and underscores that we receive charity from some unknown benefactor above our own station—though in my case I often did know the slightly older kids whose pants I now wore. My pre-worn, faded, secondhand Levis signified something different than they did when, years later, I sold similar jeans at a premium to the college students slumming, as part of their Saturday afternoon field trips into my hometown, at the vintage clothing store I managed.
In my Massachusetts hometown: several liberal arts institutions, a technical university, a state college, a medical university, and various smaller and two-year colleges. A billboard on the interstate spur through our city once offered an insecure boast about the number of schools, as if drivers passing along that highway—which snakes through the city’s less glorious, less picturesque neighborhoods—might fail to appreciate some obvious equivalency between education and civic stature. (Municipal boosters also promoted our city, without detectable irony, as “The Paris of the Eighties” on T-shirts in that decade.) Most of the colleges stand among blocks of three-deckers where laborers at the city’s once-abundant factories lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; several of the colleges were founded by prominent local industrialists.
Despite a lifetime in—or at the fringes of—academia, I’ve always felt more town than gown. Even when, as a kid, I was made to understand that the colleges had been founded for my ostensible benefit, I couldn’t conceive how to access those benefits except through the most basic means of territory-staking. My friends and I played football on the schools’ vivid green fields, and then, when we splashed in a fountain to cool down, got kicked off campus by security guards who jotted down the fake names and addresses we provided them. I hopped a fence with a track teammate to run intervals on one institution’s expensive, rubberized, four-hundred-meter oval instead of training on the knee-wrecking asphalt loop where we raced. Later, I watched bands play at university bars, attended art films at the college cinema, infiltrated student parties: the sad, familiar tale of awkward attempts at social climbing.
My hometown itself seemed a hand-me-down, mentioned, if ever, as a second sister to Boston. We all suffered from an abiding inferiority complex. Industry built our city, and in the decades since those industries’ failures, departures, or buyouts, the city has displayed the anxiety and bitterness of the laid-off worker. We mythologize the “heroism” and “dignity” of hard work, and, despite years of evidence to the contrary, we still expect hard work to be rewarded. Our most popular forms of music have always been those that feature macho posturing (heavy metal, hip-hop) or that variety of mainstream rock that—lyrically, at least—asserts that luck or fate determines one’s place in the world, and that hard work and perseverance (or a magical roll of the dice: losing scratch tickets litter our parking lots) present the means of escape. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and those who “told it like it is” were revered during my youth, and to reject this music in favor of something other was to reject such values as well as the local culture that sustained them.
The city keeps getting passed down to new owners—commuters to Boston or Boston’s metro suburbs, these days—who try it on, realize it doesn’t really fit or look particularly good, but who have no better options. All of us who grew up there understand the feelings of being discarded, of being reluctantly inherited.
Hinckley’s bullet, flattened after its impact with the limousine, had torn through Reagan’s lung, surgeons at George Washington University Hospital discovered, and stopped an inch from the president’s heart and aorta. Reagan lost half the blood in his body from the wound but insisted on signing a bill (amending the Agricultural Act to prevent an increase in dairy price supports) during a breakfast meeting with his staff the next morning. “[D]espite some postoperative pain,” the New York Times reported, the president “was recuperating with remarkable speed.”
“‘I always heal fast,’ Mr. Reagan told a nurse,” the Times also reported.
Pop music, divorced from the literal derivation of its name now that most media appeal to various niche demographics and very little achieves popularity on a mass scale, becomes ineffable. Though I’d prefer a more expansive, less prescriptive definition of the term, John Darnielle offers the best explanation I’ve read, in his ’zine, Last Plane to Jakarta:
Real pop music should make you sick. It should make you regret that someone didn’t kill you dead the moment you first experienced real yearning. It should make you willing to sell everything you own for one last taste of your youth. Its lyrics should overcome their own clunkiness by sheer force of weight; they should avoid any semblance of contemplation or studiousness, and must rely heavily on the first-person present tense. The regret that its melodies instill in you should be so acutely painful as to make you want to double over, if you weren’t too busy whistling along. It should come gunning directly for your heart where it’s most vulnerable …
Darnielle defines pop as non-reflective, but I’d argue that the most affecting—the most yearning—pop songs, like “Hand-Me-Downs,” involve some degree of nostalgia or backward-glancing, and overlay the present with the past. Since pop music almost always arrives as a hand-me-down—we learn about songs or bands via friends’ recommendations, radio, word-of-mouth, MP3 blogs, podcasts—it inevitably seems conjoined with a specific historical context: the moment a song somehow became intertwined with our life. We rarely encounter music—do we ever?—without some mediation, some intervention: it is never ours alone, as much as we want it to be; we do not own it, no matter how much a song may “mean” to us, and those facts have, for me, always made the yearning more intense.
Ten years old, I didn’t care about Reagan’s physical recovery. (Several days after surgery, the president contracted a staph infection and suffered from a very high fever, though these facts were not reported at the time.) If I felt vulnerable, my concerns derived not from handguns but from trickledown economics. My father was home the Monday afternoon Reagan was shot because he was unemployed or working nights: one of a series of moments we found him unexpectedly watching television when we returned from school or absent when we sat down for supper: pancakes, maybe, since my sisters and I loved breakfast-for-dinner, though some part of us surely understood why our mother served them. My mother was home because, although she held various jobs and volunteer positions during my childhood, she too may have been unemployed—or because it was the year she slipped on some snow-covered steps, fell and hurt her back, and had to spend months in bed. I don’t always remember verifiable facts from those years, both because my parents withheld information from my sisters and me—out of shame, financial anxiety, our ages, or whatever other reason—and because, in the absence of that information, I occupied a world in which cause and effect operated differently than they appeared to do for other people, even my friends.
That same spring, a friend invited me to his birthday party; we’d all go home from school with him, play games, and eat pizza and cake. Because our car was in the shop the week before the party, or because my parents had no extra money that week, or both, my mother couldn’t take me to the toy store to pick out a birthday present. “Just be honest with him—tell him the car was getting fixed,” my mother said the morning of the party, but I walked to school empty-handed and wishing I could stay home sick. At lunch, as we all sat at a long folding table, I confessed to my friend that I’d have to bring him his present later in the week. “Car trouble,” I explained. He didn’t seem to care much. Another friend at the table admitted that his present would also be late. “Car trouble,” he repeated, and I felt an irrational hope that I could share my shame.
We walked down Reed Street with our friend after school—and, just before we arrived at his house, the mother of the kid who’d also claimed car trouble drove up to meet us. “Here,” she said, tossing what was clearly a gift-wrapped Nerf football out the window to her son, who caught it and handed it to the birthday boy. Then she drove off—the car was new; my friend’s father owned a successful pizza shop. I should have known he’d borrowed my excuse so that the obviousness of his gift could remain a surprise for a few more hours during the school day. Though I know my mother did take me to buy a present for my friend a day or two after the party, I can’t remember the gift: my entire memory of the party has been reduced to the vision of that five-dollar foam ball covered in wrapping paper—such a paltry thing, offered so easily.
“Hinckley stated that he is currently unemployed …”
—Federal Bureau of Investigation transcript, April 1, 1981, Exhibit CR81–306, File No. WFO 175–311
Even the phrase “hand-me-downs” is handed-down, a worn-out bequest from an era in which euphemisms protected one’s pride. “Vintage,” as in the clothing store I worked at, connotes the benefits of careful aging, though garments are in no way like wine or whisky. “Gently worn,” similar stores described their wares a few years later, though the collar stains and missing buttons suggested otherwise: and if one can easily replace a garment, why wear it gently?
As soon as the current recessive era began undoing families’ savings, house values, careers, and plans, the New York Times, describing “the efforts of fashion and beauty publicists to spin the economic downturn as an attractive retail trend,” “welcome[d] [us] to ‘recession chic’ and its personification, the ‘recessionista,’ the new name for the style maven on a budget.” Further Times reports noted the ways advertising acknowledged our diminished resources via a “sense that expensive purchases—even if consumers can afford them—have become gauche.” “Watching a $13 DVD on the living room sofa is celebrated as ‘the new movie night.’ A $59.99 bicycle is presented as ‘the new commute.’ There are similar salutes to people who eat in rather than dine out, cut their children’s hair and turn a backyard tent into ‘the new family room.’”
But thriftiness is rarely a marker of cool when it doesn’t involve choice, and the “trend toward frugality” or “austerity chic” the Times cited still ran in slender column inches surrounded by much larger advertisements for Cartier watches, AIG investments, Chanel handbags, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue furs, and Balvenie twelve-year-old scotch. Most of these articles seemed less concerned about making do than about making sure that one’s friends or co-workers didn’t see one as insensitive to others’ financial worries.
Most personal pop culture narratives—such as this one—elide the privilege encoded in loving descriptions of media-based memories: if I felt childhood shame from being unable to buy a friend a gift, then I grew up with far more than most. Of course the writer had the luxuries of money and time to acquire, accumulate, and ponder some consumer product: in my case, an LP not only costs me money but demands some forty minutes of my life to listen to both sides. Americans almost always feel comfortable discussing the money we have spent or will spend—especially when we can discuss prices in terms of the good deals we’ve bargained for or lucked into. The hand-me-down garment ought to establish one’s shrewd business savvy—the item of some value obtained for free—but whether because fashions in clothing change seasonally, and thus to attire oneself in the “wrong” sort of outfit marks one as outdated, or because of the physical intimacy between our bodies and our clothes, no one wants to shop at Goodwill except those who have to and college students seeking something cool amid the discards.
I distrust my memory enough that I checked historical weather data to ensure that rain did indeed fall on my old ZIP code the day of Reagan’s shooting—not out of some supposed essayistic obligation to objective truth, but simply to convince myself that my memories are accurate and real. “I” is always provisional and unstable, always invented as we go, always constructed from known and unknown influences, from our fantasies of whom we might be or become—as in the case of Hinckley, who, an hour before he left for the Washington Hilton, wrote to Jodie Foster: “At least you know that I’ll always love you. Jodie, I would abandon the idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever.” Or, as in the case of the Minders, who, with “Hand-Me-Downs,” took something discarded—something apparently no longer usable or fashionable: guitar-based ’60s pop, at a moment when many serious musicians and music fans were listening to the programmed wheezing and stuttering of machines—and transformed it. By recycling the primal riffs white British musicians recorded while trying to copy black American R&B musicians, and dousing it all in a literate, melancholic joy, they gave back to us something we’d almost forgotten.
The ways we clothe ourselves in what’s handed down to us reveal much about our fantasy selves, whether we wish to be prince or pauper. My ANDOVER sweatshirt may have offered me access, had I felt like role-playing, but, though even then I already enjoyed telling stories, I preferred to fantasize about various elsewheres than to pretend I’d lived in any of them: living my own life felt complicated enough.
Reagan was released from the hospital eleven days after the shooting. That August, he signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which, according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, “brought reductions in individual income tax rates, the expensing of depreciable property, incentives for small businesses and incentives for savings. So began the Reagan Recovery.”
For another year, the economy sputtered on, but, prompted by massive increases in military spending as well as greater consumer debt prompted by lower unemployment and lower interest rates, it rebounded in 1983. Still, many economists doubted the vitality of this upswing: “The recovery since 1983 has been widely acclaimed,” wrote Andre Gunder Frank in Economic and Political Weekly’s May 24, 1986 issue,
not the least by President Reagan himself, as having overcome the economic problems of the previous decade through renewed growth. Yet this claim—or hope—rests on shaky foundations. Domestically, the recovery is weakly sustained in the US by consumer spending and debt finance; and internationally the spread of the recession has been slow and uneven. … There is always a next recession as there have been four in the present world economic crisis since 1967 and over forty since the rise of industrial capitalism around 1800. … There are many reasons to believe that the next recession may well be deeper again than the previous one[;] … [n]one of the intervening recoveries overcame the accumulated legacies of the previous recessions, and the present recovery has substantially aggravated the structural and cyclical problems of the world economy.
Hand-me-downs, trickledown: I don’t recall much of the 1980s’ national wealth reaching my family during that decade. My grandparents—living comfortably enough off the income from my grandfather’s bowling alley—paid for a lot of the clothes and games and books my sisters and I owned, and probably many other things I had no knowledge of; we heated our home with wood that my father split and that I stacked and lugged inside; we almost never went out to dinner or to the movies; summer vacations, we camped in state parks or visited relatives. One weekend afternoon, my mother gone to the supermarket, I rummaged through the kitchen cupboards but found only bottles of salad dressing and soy sauce, foil-wrapped bouillon cubes, a tin of baking powder, dusty cans of California olives and condensed milk: my sisters and I had devoured the cookies, the crackers, the peanut butter, the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Before my mother could return with another week’s worth of groceries, I shook most of a jar of imitation bacon bits into my palm and crunched mouthfuls of those salty crisps.
During Reagan’s first term, I sensed that most of my friends lived lives like mine—lives in which money was an ongoing, ever-present concern; lives our parents might have described as “making do” or “getting by” though all of our needs and many of our wants were satisfied. Still, though I had no evidence beyond my sense of worry, our comfortable routines often felt precarious, our finances one step away from disaster, and anything might happen to disrupt them—like the wheel of our car falling off one night as we drove down the highway, my father hiking along the breakdown lane to call a tow truck, and hours passing while we waited in a McDonald’s for things to be sorted out so we could go home. At an early age, I learned not to count on much, especially things I wanted, and to recognize occasions for gratitude.
But by the time Reagan was re-elected, that shared experience of hardship seemed gone. Some families seemed to remain broke, while many others had somehow been elevated to a new standard of living: I watched ski lift tags accumulate on the zippers of kids’ winter coats; other kids returned from February vacation with tans and T-shirts that read “St. Croix” or “St. Maarten”; some kids left town all summer, gone to sports camps or beach houses. I didn’t want any of these things: I wanted the sense of ease these kids all seemed to share, an ability to inhabit themselves and to negotiate the world with a self-confidence that I imagined came from a financial safety net.
When Martyn Leaper and Rebecca Cole harmonize on the crucial lines in “Hand-Me Downs”—“No, I won’t talk about it, and I won’t weep / Yes, I know all about it, everything indeed”—I inevitably hear the anguish of diminished circumstance. I’ve usually felt too embarrassed to ever complain about the things I wanted but couldn’t afford, too ashamed to describe my guilt for wanting, too stupid for allowing myself to believe that buying something might bring me an otherwise unobtainable relief, too proud to talk about any of this. (“Feeling wonderful is better,” Leaper and Cole deadpan, just before the song’s final chord.) I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, in part because I often didn’t feel sorry for myself—and though I’ve always known I was far luckier than most in my upbringing, I’ve still always felt myself struggling to catch up to economic standards I’ve never fully understood: “just behind, or so it seemed.”
We’ve long since learned that the vast disparities in wealth that now exist in the United States began during the Reagan years; a few decades and a few economic recessions later, the idea of upward mobility appears to be a dream for many Americans. (Nicholas Kristof recently observed “three factoids” while discussing the Occupy Wall Street protests: “The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans”; “The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent”; “In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.”)
While Reagan campaigned for and won a second term on the strength of his economic record, I graduated junior high, and my father finished earning his own degrees. In a family snapshot, the two of us stand on the deck he built behind our house—him, in cap and gown and sunglasses, clutching his diploma; me, in a Duran Duran–inspired skinny electric blue tie, stuffing my hands in my pockets—following our near-concurrent graduations. Perhaps the billboard once enumerating our city’s higher-learning opportunities was accurate: my father did seem home less often when I returned from school, and some weekday mornings, when I woke up before my mother and sisters, he’d already left the house—gone to the health club and then to his new job. In 1985, he bought the first new car our family had owned in ten years.
One dusky fall evening, some neighborhood kids and I, just uphill from my house, straddled our bikes or balanced on a fire hydrant’s stubby arms as we talked. “Who’s that man at your house?” one of them asked me, pointing. I looked: a tall man, dressed in suit and tie, and carrying a briefcase, mounted the steps to our front door. For a second I didn’t recognize him myself.
“That’s my father,” I said.
Joshua Harmon is the author of Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie (awarded the 2010 Akron Poetry Prize) and two previous books, Scape (poems) and Quinnehtukqut (a novel), as well as a chapbook, The Poughkeepsiad. The Annotated Mixtape, a collection of essays, and History of Cold Seasons, a collection of short fiction, are both forthcoming from Dzanc Books. Current projects include Songs of Mars (a novel), Fantasia 1977 (nonfiction), and The Soft Path (poems).
This essay first appeared in MAKE #13 Exchange/Intercambio and was selected as a Notable for the 2013 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading.