Sometime in junior high, it pains me not to know the exact date, I got my first stereo. It was really a record player with two speakers attached to it, but when I played those Beatles albums, I could hear all the lefts and rights. It came from JC Penny, and it was about as wonderful a way to be launched into adolescence as I could imagine. I already owned a few records, and I was playing them on the beast of a wooden cabinet that had once been my parents' home entertainment center. Once they moved up to the couch-sized console, the one that doubled as a side table during Thanksgiving dinner, that polished piece of furniture came to rest in my room.
Downstairs, my older brother was hard at work assembling the best possible component system by making regular trips to Team Electronics where stereo was a burgeoning industry. I looked at the controls I had at my disposal on my Penny's hardware: Volume, bass, treble, and balance. It was that last one that made me realize that sometimes John sang on one side and Paul on the other. And yet, when played together, they came into my bedroom as one sweet harmony at which I continue to marvel.
My stereo lived on a shelf above my bed, next to the models of Snoopy and the Red Baron. Next to the books about monster movies. Next to the ever-expanding collection of records. I held on to the adapter for playing forty-fives, because I knew that even if I grew too old to listen to singles as my older brother had, I wanted to be prepared. It never occurred to me to purchase the album on which Elvis' "In The Ghetto" could be found. That was an artifact of a moment in time. I didn't care to know what came before or after that song. It was the Elvis I owned.
I was becoming more adept at picking out tracks on my own records by carefully lowering the needle onto those smooth black pieces of vinyl. If there was a particular song I wanted to play for a friend, or quite often my mother, I would fire up the Penny's machine, lift the arm of the turntable and swing it over, hovering right above that thick groove that told me where to place that tiny diamond point. There were plenty of times when that operation went horribly wrong and the squonk that emitted from those cheesy speakers made everyone listening cringe, and I wished for the record gods to save me from having a ruined piece of plastic that would skip for evermore.
Occasionally, a slammed door or a thump on the wall would jostle my reverie, as that fear of a scratched record would have me up and staring at that revolving platter, inspecting it for anything that didn't look like factory pressed. It was not long until the Penny's stereo was not adequate for my needs. Acquiring my own components became the next rite of passage for me, as the Penny machine slipped down the chain to my younger brother, who found it as endlessly fascinating as I did, until it became apparent that real stereos didn't come from JC Penny.
Still, that was the audio equipment that set me on the path of excess, and for that I will always be thankful. And when I call out to my Google home assistant to play a song on Spotify, I can feel myself leaning down and squinting at that black circle.