Confessions of a Perpetual New Kid by Katie Cortese
Confessions of a Perpetual New Kid
As opener Jordan Sparks airkissed the arena and we plunged into darkness, TD Banknorth Garden began to reverberate with several thousand high-pitched, sustained screams and whistles. Collectively, we were a space shuttle revving and revving and revving with no intention of taking off. When a white scrim dropped from ceiling to stage, the screams intensified, soaring to icepick-in-eardrum levels, growing wilder and more desperate as nine manly silhouettes snapped into focus against a light more brilliant than what survivors of near-death experiences claim waits for us at the end of it all. It was June of 2011 and, screaming myself, I forgot, briefly, how I had been lured into this mob of raving, hyperventilating, thirty-something women, and felt my own heartbeat quicken in the din. Tingles that could not be wiped or flicked away gathered in my fingertips as the curtain began to rise.
In 1991 my favorite accessory was a New Kids on the Block promotional button the size of a paint can lid featuring each group member in an iconic pose that expressed his personality—Danny Wood flashing a simian grin, Joey caught in the act of shrugging like the little brother they’d let tag along, Jordan sporting a pretty-boy perm back-to-back with brother Jonathan who pouted with pound puppy eyes, and Donnie. Oh Donnie Wahlberg in a rakishly tilted fedora and overalls with one strap hanging down. Oh Donnie Wahlberg, epitome of “Lovable Fuck-Up,” my bad boy with a heart of gold.
I was eleven the first year my heart beat only for the New Kids, and I wanted nothing more than a poster of Donnie to cover the stick-on stars over my twin bed. When Christmas finally lumbered around and my grandmother presented me with a close-up of Danny Wood, Mr. Monkey Man himself, I literally felt nauseous at the realization that Nonni couldn’t discriminate between beautiful, dangerous, muscled, misunderstood Donnie and the primate-featured Danny. Over the next year, my walls sprouted a second skin of New Kid homage. I kept a stack of their tapes next to my boom box and rotated regularly. It was first love, the sweetest kind, and I was sure when Jordan Knight sang that they’d love me forever, I’d love them back at least as long.
A year ago this past May, I traveled home to Boston to research my in-process historical novel. In between tours of the North End and battling downtown traffic, I stayed with my parents on Cape Cod and spent a free day at Nantasket Beach visiting an aunt recovering from heart valve replacement. It was then my cousin Lisa told me she had an extra ticket to the New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys reunion concert at the Boston Garden.
“They’re great seats,” she said. “Really close to the stage.”
She’d been planning on attending the concert with her mother, who has accompanied her to Michael Bublé and Josh Groban shows, and others of that school. My aunt is seventy-seven and needed a walker after surgery. Lisa was figuring the volume in the Garden alone, never mind the crotch-grabbing and rapid-fire thrusting, would probably put her back in the ICU.
“Sounds like a blast,” I told Lisa. It would be like hooking up with an old boyfriend—or five of them at once—minus the walk of shame.
As soon as Lisa and I hung up, I started spreading the word. “Yes, really,” I texted my friend Shannon. “New Kids and Backstreet Boys. My twelve-year-old self is so jealous.”
My husband laughed out loud when I told him. “It’s a free ticket,” I said. “Worth it on spectacle alone.” He remained doubtful, but he’d spent his adolescence catching up to the insurmountable coolness of an older brother whose love of jam bands was surpassed only by his passion for mailbox baseball. “You better just pray I don’t run away with Donnie Wahlberg,” I told my husband, 90% sure I was joking.
Growing up, my parents stacked on a high shelf all the VHS tapes I wasn’t allowed to watch. Good Morning, Vietnam. My Life as a Dog. Baby Boom. Empire of the Sun, and a dozen more. I wasn’t allowed any of Madonna’s coveted tapes (a special injustice since my favorite song at eight years old was “Papadam Peach”). Since my parents cut off the cable in sixth grade, the year before they enrolled me in Catholic school, I might never have fallen for the New Kids if my neighbors (a pair of sisters who both grew up to be models) hadn’t shown me the video to “Hangin’ Tough” one sunny summer afternoon. They were in the living room when I arrived, sitting Indian-style on the deep pile carpet, staring at the TV screen where five boys in torn jeans belted lyrics at a crowd of tear-stricken teenage girls. It was love at first “oh-oh-OH-oh-oh.”
I must have sung that song nonstop for the next two month until my mother tossed a VHS tape on my desk and said, “There, enjoy.” I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw Donnie’s half-mohawk, half-mullet on the cover. This was followed by the first time I’d ever in living memory been jealous of my mother. She managed to see a clip from the New Kids’ “Step by Step” video on a morning television show weeks before me. And she didn’t even appreciate it.
Compared to the videos on MTV today, the New Kids’ were as chaste as the Von Trapp Family Singers. No girls in booty shorts, no simulated sex unless you count their violent, fully-clothed dance-thrusts, the meaning of which it’s safe to say I didn’t understand. I wasn’t exactly ignorant of sex as a pre-teen (although I was convinced bellybuttons played a role. Why else would we have them, they’re so weird!). The thrusts just didn’t connect for me because I hadn’t come to associate love with sex yet, not at twelve, though I was sheltered and am probably in the minority here. I loved Donnie, oh yes, but I was satisfied by daydreams of handholding and close-lipped kisses and all the sweet things I imagined he’d say once we were safely married.
My love affair with NKOTB was short in the scheme of things—it only lasted from 1990 or so until 1992, when the group fell inexplicably out of favor with my friends. Soon after, a lead singer by the name of Gavin Rossdale would catch my roving eye and Grunge would swaddle me in its plaid shirts and baggy jeans. Call me fickle. Still, the New Kids left their mark on my heart. I’d never really forgotten them, or the fact that they were from Boston, where my parents were born and grew up, the city I where I rooted for the Red Sox and Celtics, ate family dinners at my grandparents’ house, visited museums, and bargain-shopped at Filene’s Basement and the Garment District. It was my city, too. Which gave us something in common.
In the summer of 2011, I’d found myself back in the state of my birth where I hadn’t lived for thirteen years, and they, too, were returning to the city that had raised them from and received them after obscurity. It was fitting that the three of us would reunite there: me, the New Kids, and my younger self. I didn’t know if I wanted to look at her too closely, though, or rather if she would approve of the me I became. As a child, I’d wanted to be everything from a nurse to the first female baseball player to a model (I’d laugh at myself about this one, except, look at the Donovan sisters) to an actress. Never a writer until college. I thought I’d be married with three babies by 25. Probably with Donnie’s babies. I’d also be rich (I hadn’t factored in student loans). To twelve-year-old me, my 31-year-old self seemed a failure. Still, I was bound by that cardinal rule: cousins don’t let cousins go to nostalgia concerts alone. I was locked in, for better or worse.
The night of the concert, we hung around North Station drinking Dunkin’ Donuts and watching the commuters in their shiny, working-person shoes while we waited to be let into the arena. When a cry went up in the station, I thought one of the Backstreet Boys had wandered into the terminal (oh right, they’d be at the concert, too), but it was only that the Red Sox had pulled off another win. I watched commuters hugging in the train station bar and soaked in all the Boston I could. In a few days I’d be back in Florida where people referred to me as a “Yankee” and I’d grow redfaced citing Babe Ruth and the curse before I realized they meant I’d grown up north of I-10. That still gets me every time. So it was good to be home, even briefly.
The stadium upstairs might as well have been a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I looked, mid-thirties white women mingled and giggled, most heavyset, dark-haired, wearing going-out-clothes a few years out of date. I saw myself everywhere. The few men in the crowd looked like they had lost a bet. It was hard to gauge everyone’s level of commitment. I wouldn’t have been able to justify buying a ticket in the first, frenzied wave. Tickets for anything but nosebleeds had not been cheap, according to my aunt, and the whole show sold out in a day. An overflow show scheduled for Fenway Park later that summer still had a few tickets left on StubHub ranging from $136 for ground-level to $12 in the highest bleacher row.
Our tickets were in the handicapped section since my aunt, had she been able to come, would have been using her walker. They turned out to be great seats in the Loge section one up from the first set of bleachers. The stage was maybe 100 feet away, plus there was a Jumbotron the size of an Olympic swimming pool to the left that would reveal every pixel of definition in the abs Donnie frequently bared (though his fedora stayed on as if glued to his bald spot).
To our left sat a girl a little younger than us secured to a wheelchair. On Lisa’s right a forty-two-year-old woman with a debilitating muscular disease sat next to her elderly father, both of whom were also in wheelchairs. Before the opening number, I overheard the woman next to Lisa say, “Not working, it’s so hard to meet people.” I watched the arena fill steadily around us. “Seriously,” I heard Lisa say. My cousin lives with her parents and took her college courses online. When she works out of the house it’s usually to clean homes, or ready summer places for re-occupation. Her parents are approaching their eighties. Her brother visits with his children a couple times a month. From what I can tell, Facebook is one of her primary means of socializing.
I can’t imagine how hard it must be for my cousin, and our seatmate, to meet people. Though my life is crowded with people and responsibilities, I struggle with loneliness daily. It seemed like too much of a downer to say what I was thinking, which is that no matter how many people surround us it will probably always be hard-bordering-on-impossible to meet kindred spirits. Most days I feel like a perpetual new kid on an unfamiliar block, longing for someone to ask my middle name, recognize the town I grew up in, understand my neurotic refusal to each lunch meat more than five days old, or share my secret passion for the work of Stephen King. It’s easy to exchange pleasantries with the pharmacy clerk, conference with a student, or nod to the jogger I pass walking my dogs, but it’s always a miracle to find someone who will take on the weight of your whole history and let you help bear the burden of theirs.
At this concert we were surrounded by thousands of women with at least one thing in common, but that did not make us friends. We had convened in this place on this night dressed up and smiling sheepishly or in full. We’d fill the place to capacity by the end of the night, scream as one, dance until our communal vibration could be felt in the loge’s metal handrails, and then, when the last encore ended, we’d all disperse back into the lives we’d come from, our connecting cords severed and cauterized so quickly we wouldn’t even feel it. For the next four hours, we’d be sisters in arms, a sorority of the past; tomorrow, strangers. But then, most of us hadn’t come to this event to meet new people. This concert was a place to meet ourselves, the girls we’d been, to call up the hopes we’d had shattered or realized or still tirelessly chased.
Any friendship forged in this place would be doomed to failure. We’d only have the past to talk about, like friends who reconnect after middle school to rehash recess antics and close cootie calls. Our old boyfriends strutted the stage before us celebrating their irrelevance to anything but the past. They’d never been great singers (except maybe for Joey, and Jordan’s falsetto), and their simple dance steps had never really impressed us. We’d been drawn instead into the still shots of their faces in BOP magazine, those grins or smirks or winks meant only for us. Or their abs. Yes, their abs drew us as much as anything. They’d only ever been mirrors reflecting impossible realities we knew better than to hope would come true.
I have a terrible memory. Robert Olen Butler says this is an excellent tool for fiction writers, because without a strict adherence to memory the writer can combine experience, imagination, and desire in constructive and spontaneous ways. I only remembered a few lines to a few NKOTB songs, or so I thought. The brain has an amazing capacity for storage, so I should have expected it when the words to “Please Don’t Go, Girl” came back in full.
The words appearing in my brain weren’t the biggest surprise, though. Along with the lyrics (“Please don’t go, girl. You would ruin my who-oo-ole world. You’re my best friend. You’re my love within”) came the specific emotion I’d used to feel when that song came on the radio. Wistful, I’ll call it. Except, what I felt in the TD Banknorth Garden was more like wistfulness for wistfulness. I was like an archaeologist who had dug up the bones of what wistful used to feel like. Did I get chills? Okay, yes, I also got chills. What of it?
“The Right Stuff” brought about a similar phenomenon, except the feeling was pure exuberance. The bones of the feeling, that is. I found though, sitting there with my cousin and our new temporary friends, that I couldn’t be cynical and nostalgic at the same time. I could either laugh at everything and text my husband pictures of Brian Littrel’s contorted features on the Jumbotron (I have one where it looks like he’s strangling himself with one hand), or I could stand up and dance (not to the Backstreet Boys, though, I do have standards). I didn’t seek out the concert, it sought me out, but now that I was there, I felt like someone had dragged up a chair to the movie of my past and was patting the seat. I could slouch in the chair and laugh at myself (and there is much to laugh at), or I could stand on the seat and thrust.
Everyone around us was on their feet except for our friends in the wheelchairs, but by the end of the night everyone was dancing. And when Donnie Wahlberg took off his shirt during what is possibly the worst song ever written (“My Cover Girl,” seriously, YouTube it), I screamed along with everyone else. Louder. I couldn’t hear myself in the roar of the crowd, but I knew it had to be there somewhere, my little voice, the twelve-year-old I can still turn into sometimes, the snooty highschooler I became, the theatre-major college student, the writer humbled by her own vast inexperience; we were all screaming, and so was everyone else. And when Donnie told us how good it was to be home in Boston (he’s Dorchester-born, after all), I screamed back. It was good to have him home again, good to be home, even for a little while.