Distancing #14: Billy Breathes


Before I became an archivist, I worked with college students at The Cooper Union. When I heard about the college closures—which happened pretty early here in New York City, well before the public school closures—I saw their faces in my mind and felt kind of sick. The kids I knew are wonderful geniuses and genuinely good people, and a combination pandemic-recession–complete collapse of normalcy is an insane thing to happen while you’re in school, so young, just figuring out the world and your place in it.

And what a world to graduate into. Jesus. I was texting with some friends about this, because phones are how we socialize now, and recalled how much simpler things were back when we were college students, when the only things we had to worry about were grades and STDs. “…and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and people mailing anthrax and the genocide in Sudan,” David texted back. “And Katrina.”

Of course he’s right. The world was not and has never been uncomplicated, and once reminded of this I flashed back to protesting Bush’s reelection, cops arriving with rubber bullets, the shock of it all entering the sheltered life of a preacher’s daughter from northern Indiana. Still, my memories of college tend toward the rosy, and mostly what I recall is music. Saturday nights at concerts (oh god, whither concerts?), dancing with noodly abandon to jam bands, including and maybe most memorably Phish, because I went to school in Vermont and they would occasionally show up unannounced for a surprise set at Higher Ground and we would all kick up our bare and truly disgusting feet and lose our everloving minds.

Then there were cold Sunday afternoons in the dorms, wool socks and hoodies and hangovers, sprawled on the rug in Allison’s room, where we would listen to Billy Breathes—for my money a perfect album, regardless of what jam purists say about studio sessions—and do exactly nothing, so much nothing that the few small things we did do are emblazoned on my memory. She’d light a stick of Nag Champa and we’d watch ribbons of smoke spiral to the ceiling. If there was Carlo Rossi left over from the night before we’d sip genteelly from the jug, joking about hair of the dog. If we were feeling particularly peppy, we might doodle on the back pages of already-graded essays.

This quiet suspension of industry is actually not dissimilar to Sundays in quarantine, which I think might be why I recently started singing “Billy Breathes” to my eight-month-old, Winston, as he winds down for his naps. He tucks his head between my chin and chest and sucks his thumb and we sway together in the dark and I feel simultaneously very grown up and very young, eighteen in stockinged feet again, as time collapses around the melody of a song I haven’t listened to in a decade but to which I still know all the words.

— Mary Mann
Brooklyn, day 48

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