It was the best haul you could imagine.
I was living in D.C., knee-deep in graduate school and had just opened my mailbox to find the usual stack of bills. I pulled them out and then noticed, sitting underneath them, a thin, black booklet from Columbia House Record and Tape Club. Finally, they had found me.
With no friends, a broken relationship and homesickness burning through me, I sat on my couch and looked through every page in the booklet. I looked at my cat, I looked out the window and realized it was time. Columbia was offering me 12 cassettes or eight CDs for a penny. And I had just a penny to spare.
It was one of those moments when you realize you’re grown up and, basically, can do whatever you want without your parents knowing about it. See, I’d long wanted to take advantage of Columbia’s juicy offer, but I came from a family where anything that required “shipping and handling” was met with such tight-faced skepticism Columbia might as well have been offering me candy from a van.
So, it was with some trepidation that I prepared my order. The booklet, you’ll remember, contained a sheet of stamps featuring album covers. So I gently ripped off the covers I wanted, licked the stamps and placed them neatly on the order form. I sent in my check (imagine) for $9.96 to Columbia — $9.95 plus that essential penny.
About a month later (imagine), there was a package waiting for me on the shelf beside the wall of mailboxes. It still felt kind of crazy that I had my own address and that it was in D.C., but I pushed away that surreality and happily tramped upstairs to my second-floor apartment.
I don’t remember opening the box, but I am certain it was with difficulty. Knowing me, I tried peeling back the tape first, before resorting to a pair of scissors split into splits. I simply did not have the box-opening skills I do now because, frankly, I did not receive packages. It was December 1997 and back then, the most exciting thing you could even get in the mail was birthday money from your aunts.
But when I got that package open, excitement is the only word to describe what I felt. All of that music. For a penny. This is how I got my first Fleetwood Mac CD. I got Steve Miller Band. Joe Cocker. The Guess Who. Janis Joplin. John Cougar. Neil Young. Van Morrison.
Keep in mind, I was 22 and it was 1997, the era of Lenny Kravitz, Will Smith, Third Eye Blind, Savage Garden, Chumbawamba. But nope. Apparently, I wasn’t interested in anything produced later than 1978. No one, god knows, had ever accused me of being cool and no one, for certain, was going to accuse me of being cool now based on my Columbia House selections.
But I was happy. So very, very happy. I have very few good memories of my time in graduate school, but I can say for certain that listening to Joni Mitchell over a bowl of ramen after a day of studying was one of the sweetest times for me. There is something about being single and alone in your 20s that, while rife with angst, is a time you spend the rest of your life always kind of wanting back.
About 12 hours after I opened my package, the anxiety kicked in. I knew Columbia would now automatically send me a CD every month and I would be responsible for returning it. I also knew I was obligated to buy two CDs at full price before I could cancel my membership.
In time, I learned I was not responsible enough to return the CDs I did not want in time, which is how I ended up with P.M. Dawn and Aqualung. But after that happened twice and I fulfilled my obligation, I was responsible enough to cut my ties with Columbia.
In the end, it was a victory; I’d gotten six CDs for free. Besides, receiving that giant haul in the middle of the day in the middle of a degree in the middle of a city that wasn’t mine was worth a mountain of pennies.