Eminem – “Without Me”

When: Early morning, 31 May 2002
Where: Wilson Middle School
Who: Ben Acedo
Weather: Cool, foggy

I was an hour early just as usual, but the library was closed and on this day I wasn’t particularly interested to see Mr. Green in “Zero Period.” I hung around the front entrance mostly when I heard Ben Acedo on the stairs, singing this song. This was the day of the carnival. They brought rides in and everybody was excited, but I couldn’t connect. I just went off to watch Bubble Boy in one of the classrooms. I decided that when I left at 3:30, I would not come back. And the school was so terrible that my teachers all understood and let me go.

Next: Male bonding (or attempts thereof) and the Dewey Decimal System.

The Strokes – “Last Nite”

When: 19 April 2002
Where: Grayburn Road
Who: My Bubby
Weather: Hot, dry
Book: Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island

During Gym class my pants were stolen. That was par for the course at Wilson Middle School. The dean of discipline promised me that she would let me know if it turned up in the lost and found, which was somehow a normal response.

The next time I had gym, nothing of note really happened. Mr. Mills made me run laps, and when I was done I snuck over to an inexplicably placed stack of hay under some trees. It was pretty hot, so I just hung around there talking to one of the girls, Gabby, so called because her name was Gabriela and she had the gift of gab.

After a while, it occurred to my that my Bubby was waiting to pick me up on the street, and as the gate was unlocked I let myself out early. I’d never done anything like that before. Knowing I wouldn’t be caught, and that if I were it would never follow me, certainly made me feel like I could actually do it. Every other gate at the school was locked until 3:30, and everybody demanded that I accept this confusion.

I got out onto the back street and got into the car, turned the radio on. The song sounded old, different from what I’d been hearing for the past several months. But I liked it, it complemented the dryness and the heat as we pulled away.

My secret gate

Next: Jack Johnson makes me sleepy.

OutKast – “Ms. Jackson”

When: October 2001
Where: Del Mar Boulevard
Who: My mother
Weather: Cold, overcast

Rick Dees gets mad at a caller because she said “shit” on the radio as my mother pulls over to drop me off. I want to stop so I can finish listening to this song, but she has to go to work and pushes me out.

Next: Since when does Jennifer Lopez have N-word privileges?

U2 – “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”

My dad woke me up with a strange question: “You know the World Trade Center?”

I creakily replied yes. “It’s on fire.”

I rush out of bed and spend an hour in front of the TV. My mom was already gone, but she kept calling back. The Pentagon, Pennsylvania, then they were gone. The fact that America’s 2nd and 3rd tallest buildings, which had long replaced the Empire State Building as media shorthand for “New York,” just weren’t there. She worried that maybe I shouldn’t go to school. So many questions.

My Dad took me to middle school this one time; we were listening to NPR– a booming voice was calling out, slightly garbled, “We will topple your cities, destroy your churches and slaughter your children.” I get out, and the rest of the day was spent talking about what was going on. It was the second day of school.

My main teacher (and future political football), Ms. Jaeger, tried to keep us calm by playing some music. She seemed to have brought a mix CD, I don’t know why or when she prepared it, but this was the one song I remembered. The whole day was spent wondering: Who did this? They hit the Statue of Liberty? Where is the fifth plane? We kept waiting for a fifth plane to hit, the assumption that there was such a thing went hand in hand with the assumption that this would keep happening every day, and maybe they would start hitting schools. This was how we were going to live now.

On the way home I picked up one of those American flags for our car window.

“Why they hate us” never came into the picture. The first time I heard that question was on CNN, because from our perspective it didn’t matter. And if it happened now, it still wouldn’t.

Next: America’s musical depression gets worse, but the result isn’t all bad.

Blu Cantrell – “Hit ‘Em Up Style”

When: 1 September 2001
Where: Wilson Middle School
Who: My mother
Weather: Hot, dry

At a certain point developing this playlist, I realized a problem: I only had songs that I liked, or at least tolerated. The whole point of this project was to evoke an emotional connection to days past, to relive, almost like an index in the back of a book. And I realized I couldn’t do that if I didn’t include clear memories of songs I completely and absolutely hated. Not just the sound of her voice, but the mean-spiritedness of the lyrics. So I added it. And it made the playlist better.

At the time I tolerated “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” but it wore on me after hearing it for the first time. The second time we were here, pulling up to my fancy new middle school, a baccalaureate program! School didn’t start for nine more days; we were here to get my textbooks. It was hot in there, schools in Pasadena didn’t have air conditioning. We got in and got out, and it was only a matter of time before we had to hear Blu again.

Next: A day in the life, our sense of purpose, and the solemn descent into the darkness of the 2000s.