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She’s Listening to the Backstreet Boys

On Friday afternoon I took a non-purposeful yet nimble stroll on the bike path. After a week full of meetings, appointments, errands, and a nagging pile of work, how quenching to bask in the crisp autumnal daylight while listening to an instructional French-language podcast about helpful phrases to know when dropping off clothes at the dry cleaners (or “le pressing,” a delightful cognate) and enjoying my penultimate freedom Friday before my new full-time gig picks up.

I walked about 3 miles to the border of the town of Lexington before turning around. As I neared the Arlington High School, groups of teenagers began to pass me as they retreated from their school day — some grim faces, others festive, others utterly void. The path runs adjacent to the high school’s well-groomed athletic field, and a large section of the perimeter chain-link fence has been pried open to allow unofficial access to the grounds from the path. During and after school hours, students congregate here to do teenagery things like flirt, aggrandize, smoke, and plot to destroy their young lives before they have even started.

Ahead of me, a gaggle of teenagers sat perched on the railings on both sides of the path. It was mostly boys, dressed and groomed in a cool, casual, sloppy style. They struck me as smart kids; none of them were strikingly attractive, or large, or ugly, just pleasant-looking kids with normal-sized skulls and the understated mannerisms of future collegians. Yet the way that they flanked the path was odd and disconcerting, and a self-conscious reflex from my own youth kicked in as I approached them. Silly, I chided myself. Why should they take notice of a thirty-something woman with no aberrant physical traits who is just one of many recreational users of the bike path, passing by them as she minds her own business?

Why? Because they’re teenagers, emboldened by the proximity of their cutthroat high school, fresh from a day filled with bloodthirsty banter and contemptuous posturing, and just plain bored.

As I walked through the gauntlet, I felt eyes on me. Oh yeah, they could sense my unease: the too-rapid gait, the eyes trained on the ground. Someone had to seize this opportunity to comment wittily on this awkward adult, to exploit her weak fortitude, to funnel their angst into cowardly cruelty. Someone had to say something.

“She’s listening to the Backstreet Boys,” one brazen youth announced (which I clearly heard because, in fact, I was not listening to the Backstreet Boys. I was still listening to instructional French language podcasts on low volume so I would not get a headache from the farcical French enunciations.)

Hot rage flooded through my body as I plowed ahead on the path. The Backstreet Boys! I listen to a wide range of music, from hardcore punk to classical to traditional Indian to experimental rock to pop industrial to post-trip hop to lo-fi indie to new wave to cabaret to breakcore to big band to cock rock to French hip-hop. In fact, just about the only two things that I don’t listen to are country & western and the Backstreet Boys.

The middle finger on my left hand sprung erect, although I could not muster the requisite gumption to turn around and brandish it in the direction of my harasser. Impassioned retorts involving four-letter words rose to my lips, but they could not attain the necessary clearance from the rational part of my brain to be vocalized. After all, it wasn’t my race, gender, appearance, religion, or family that was being slandered. I can’t call a minor “you little f**k” because he grossly underestimated my presumed musical taste.

Still, the Backstreet Boys! Did he seriously judge me to have such a moronic undeveloped taste in music, or did he just have a bully’s instinct to know that I’d be severely perturbed by such an unjust smear? As I walked through the town center, I took stock of myself in the reflections of the store fronts. Sure, I’m sort of frumpy in my Adidas track pants and fleece sweatshirt, but did I look that… lame?

(I know… listening to French podcasts doesn’t exactly make me cool.)

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