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Journey through no-man’s land

The search for an indie rock album in suburban Massachusetts

Published: September 12, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


Like many students at our fair university, I was transplanted to Brandeis from faraway climes without any real knowledge of the community in which our campus resides. Treading the well-worn paths from school to Moody Street, Cambridge, and Boston gave me a distorted mental picture of the neighborhood. So I don’t think I’ll do those legions of fresh-faced first years a great injustice if I break the news to them before they have to learn it the hard way: suburban Massachusetts sucks.

Although I’ve attended Brandeis for over a year, I didn’t realize this dismal truth until two days ago. On Tuesday I embarked on a quest to purchase the new album, “The Stand Ins,” by Austin indie folk rockers, Okkervil River. I was determined to buy the disc on the day it was released, and only a physical CD from a real store would satiate my urge. Since I refused to make the trek into Cambridge or Boston, I decided to take the 70 bus to the Arsenal Mall in Watertown.

Right after my last class ended at 4:30, I trotted over to the gas station on the corner of South and Main Streets. I felt confident when the 70 bus pulled up to the curb after a ten minute wait. Growing up in South Florida, I was conditioned to fear a phenomenon known as “rush hour,” which occurred around 4:30-5:30 every weeknight as workers migrated home and clogged the roads with ungodly traffic. I had seen some evidence that this existed in the Waltham area through limited experiences crossing South Street on my way to the gym, but I found myself disconcerted by the lack of congestion that Tuesday night as the bus made its easterly trek along Main Street.

Most of my bus companions were middle class individuals riding a short distance home from work. Most seemed lost in thought or preoccupied with some mysterious burden. As the enigmatic Moody Street gave way to rows of chain restaurants, department stores and strip malls sliding past the windows like a poorly edited video loop, I couldn’t help but think of a line from an early Okkervil River song, “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks.” In that world weary piano ballad, front man Will Sheff croons, “The heart takes past Subway, past Stop and Shop, past Beal’s, and calls it ‘coming home.'” I had grown up in the suburbs, but I couldn’t help feel depressed by the landscape peppered with decaying corporate outposts and greenery manicured into submission.

The bus halted at nearly every street corner, and I couldn’t help but wonder why the passengers seemed to fear walking. Thanks to this halting rhythm, it took about thirty minutes to traverse the five miles between the gas station and the mall. When I arrived I felt more than a little underwhelmed by the structure, which looked like the architectural equivalent of the snooze button on my alarm clock.

I consulted the color-coded map inside, which guided me to FYE, the mall’s token audio-visual store. I didn’t see my album on the shelf, and when I asked the clerk behind the counter whether they had the disc I only received a snarky, “Oh, no. They’re on too small a label. Try Newbury Comics in Boston. That’s the only place I can think of that might have it.” Mind you, the band’s last album debuted at 62 on the Billboard 200 and sold 10,000 copies. I didn’t expect to find Okkervil River on the shelf next to Jessica Simpson (who released her new album the same day), but perhaps it was just as unreasonable to think that a corporate music chain would carry the album at all.

I headed to the food court to drown my sorrows in some greasy comestibles and settled for a couple slices of Sbarro’s pizza, rejecting the only other options, Burger King and Master Wok. If you value your gastrointestinal system you won’t make the same mistake. Nough said.

Next I tried the Best Buy across from the mall, but this proved an even less fruitful venture. The clerk’s look of utter confusion at my inquiry made FYE’s employee seem enlightening. After a lengthy computer database search revealed that the album did exist but would never see the fluorescent light of a Best Buy aisle, I decided to accept defeat.

Fate finally seemed to be conspiring in my favor when I left the store and picked up the 70 bus back toward Waltham. The journey back was relatively uneventful until I realized that the bus was about to turn onto the highway. I jumped up and asked the driver if he wasn’t going to stop on South Street. He either feigned ignorance for his own amusement or honestly had no idea where he was driving. After disembarking and praying for a few minutes that someone who knew where the hell they were going would whisk me back to my Waltham comfort zone, I managed to grab another Westbound bus. Our conversation went something like this:

“Hey, are you going to Main and South Street?”

“Um, I don’t know. Where you trying to go?”

“Well I’m trying to get back to Brandeis University but I can walk if you’re going to South Street.”

“I don’t know anything about Brandeis. I’ve never been by there. South Street, you say?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm…Is that near the Walgreens?”

Perhaps anecdotal evidence like the above incident proves nothing. Perhaps my frustration leads me to exaggerate. But I’d like to think that a bus driver whose route lies less than a mile away from our school yet who barely acknowledges its existence and navigates by Walgreens locations can tell us a great deal about the relative importance of our university in the community. Or perhaps it tells us more about the relative importance of those decaying corporate outposts.

As I slunk back to my dorm room I envisioned exactly what was coming next. I would open up my laptop, open up the iTunes music store, find the digital version of the album, download it for $9.99 and listen to it on repeat while nursing my Sbarro’s-wracked stomach. I also knew that I would never again make the same mistake. Sorry, Robert Frost, next time I’m hopping on the Crystal Shuttle taking the road most traveled from Brandeis straight to Boston.