Me and Bobby Miller | The Smart Set

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Everybody needs an oldies station. 

WKBJ was equal parts doo-wop and PG hijinks, faceless friend to commuters from Saugerties to Secaucus. It was the late ’90s, when Neil Diamond and the Beach Boys jostled for room in the nostalgia car. Bobby Miller was the manic maestro behind the wheel. 

Favored by parents and Earth Science teachers, WKBJ was sappy static to my high school friends. The personal favorite of parents and Earth Science teachers, I was WKBJ’s demographic-smashing fan.  

I blame my mother, who raised me on records and exuberance. Saturday mornings were for housecleaning and Beatles, Neils Young and Diamond, knee-slappin’ Creedence and velveteen Carole King. The Hair soundtrack threw me to the floor in laughter, and Laura Nyro made me cry. By the time the dust was swept, and the house smelled like lemon, my ears were full of friendship. 

It was easy to trust my Mom’s friends. She had always been my best everything. Where cooler peers diligently separated from their parents, I sheltered shamelessly in her warmth.  

I had been the sleepover child who slipped into bed at 10 p.m. sharp, informing incredulous little girls that I was on the “honor system” with my mother.  

I could not fathom rebellion, not when our life was a two-woman revolution. We were invincible joy as long as we were together.  

The world scowled, slipping dirges under the door. Chronic illness pounded the piano and snapped my flute in two. We would find our tambourines.  

My parents’ marriage buckled, but I was not to give up on love songs. 

“We dance while the music is playing,” my mother reminded me, keeping vigil through turgid blood sugars and torn pages. We chased fairies through canyons. She wrote poems that remade the meadow. She read my fitful prose with mercy’s eyes. 

Why would I change this station? I welcomed friends’ disbelief. Alright, then, I was abnormal. This couldn’t scare me, the left-handed, diabetic-only child. I had my mother and my God and all the Neils and elves. The music was playing.  

WKBJ played me off the stage of high school, soundtracking my tears on the hour-long drive to Vassar. I had wanted this since seventh grade, dreamed of this Poughkeepsie castle where women and writers and weird persons thrived aloud. The dream came true, and I came apart at the seams. 

My mother wrapped me in a 2,500-piece blanket she had quilted that summer. “You belong here. You are strong.” I heard the cello tremble under her Brooklyn brass. “We will talk every day. We’re always together. You’re an hour from home. This is a beautiful beginning. The music is playing.” 

It’s difficult to dance while blubbering beneath your quilt, but I tried. I square danced with fire-eyed Isaac, and my blood sugar crashed so violently I needed a sleeve of glucose tablets.  

I learned quickly not to mention my mother. I learned not to mention Jesus. I learned that I remained abnormal, an aghast earnest virgin on a rocking campus. I had a single room but felt monitored, my R.A. chiding me for keeping my door closed. 

I asked my mother if I could go to community college.  

“Absolutely not. You will find your way. I’m here for you, but you will make this work.” 

I didn’t believe her, but I didn’t have any records of my own. I would have to live in this groove.  

Something shifted.  

Alright, then, I was an oddity. I woke before the dorm and slept before the comedy troupe came out. I bought myself a radio the size of a sandwich and fumbled for 97.7. I started each terrifying day with a Red Delicious apple, vanilla tea, and Bobby Miller’s terrible jokes. 

Bobby was feral and fatherly, never vulgar but always sounding in danger of being electrocuted. “My GOD!” he wailed after “Stand by Me.” “Take my life! I can’t feel all my feelings at 5:45!” 

“I’m feelin’ good, like a rockin’ jock should!” he would exult in response to nothing whatsoever. “Poughkeepsie, you’re beautiful!” 

Bobby could give a 10-minute monologue on why lint is funny, then play a song that felt like survival with a bridge. He was fond of Poughkeepsie and morning, the fat chipmunk in his backyard and the “foxy lady” who gave the basketball report. I had no idea what he looked like but knew he was not sitting still.  

He exasperated station manager and DJ Brian Benson, the straight man who audibly scoured Help Wanted ads for other radio stations. “Bobby, I need to do the news. Bobby, we have to go to break. Bobby. BOBBY.” 

Brian could no more tame Bobby than my mother could calm me. 

“I had an egg sandwich this morning!” Bobby bragged over the insurance ad. “Today is Boris Yeltsin’s birthday. Let’s play him a song! Somebody call with a Yeltsin song!”  

“BOBBY.” 

I was not on Bobby and Brian’s radar, a grieving Vassar robin born too late. But I was brave in the ways of weirdness, and I started picking up the phone. 

First, it was just to request songs, “Montego Bay” on a frosty morning or “Good Vibrations” when the fog would not lift.  

Soon I was answering Bobby’s questions, playing his games. On Dan Quayle’s birthday, I suggested he play “ABC,” and he did. I told him my favorite cheese. I told him my favorite Beatle. I told him more than I realized, just by calling constantly. 

Bobby was no fool, hearing 18 in my voice. “Where are you calling from, kid?” 

“Poughkeepsie.” I hesitated. “Vassar.” 

“Vassar? VASSAR! VASSAR! Brian! We got a Vassar girl!” 

Even Brian cocked an ear. “I didn’t think college students listened to, um, us.” 

“They don’t! Vassar! Vassar girl! Angie from Vassar! What are you doing listening to WKBJ?” 

I was gripping a lifeline to sweetness and safety, but that wouldn’t play well. “Well, I love oldies.” My own earnestness jabbed me in the ribs like a riff. “And I love you guys.” 

“ANGIE FROM VASSAR LOVES US!” I think Bobby was actually electrocuted. 

“Angie from Vassar” became a tertiary character in the WKBJ cosmos, and I came up with reasons to call. I fell asleep giggling with beats and ideas. I rambled around campus with friends in my ears. I felt clean and courageous, the strength of old Saturday mornings and new Mondays turning Poughkeepsie into home.  

My mother was enchanted, telling everyone she knew to listen to Bobby Miller between 4-7 a.m. in case I called. We had just begun. 

The records spun behind my eyes. I was grief-blind to most of Vassar’s strengths, but I knew their internship program was second to none. They empowered students to write their own way, following passion and pizzazz anywhere the mind made melody.  

I approached my anthropology professor with a proposal: a study in the power of local radio. Why did people call into dizzy jockeys with questions and answers? Why were disembodied voices an incarnation of comfort? 

Dr. Thomas was all for it. “Call ’em. Set it up. You can make this work.” 

I called after Bobby and Brian had handed off the station for the day, milky-voiced Beth taking over from 8 to 12.  

Brian instantly recognized my voice. “Ang!”  

“Brian!” I was surprisingly free of fear. “Hey … what would you and Bobby think of having me as an intern?” 

They were incredulous. “Angie from Vassar wants to intern with us? Hey, Bobby!” 

“MY GOD!” 

They both got on the line, and I got scared. What was I doing? What might happen if their voices turned into humans, that species with which I was never quite at home?  

I pecked out an introduction to my thesis, “You’ve Got a Friend.”  

Three weeks later, at 3:45 on a Monday morning, I staggered into the First Class Taxi. This was Poughkeepsie, where taxis are minivans driven by recent arrivals from Jamaica and Trinidad. Wayne the driver introduced himself, then spent the next 15 minutes introducing me to Jesus.  

“I spoke with him this morning!” I promised. 

“Praise God!” Wayne clapped his hands. 

“MY GOD!” Bobby Miller greeted me at the door to WKBJ, WMMJ, and WJRP’s shared station. “You really are a Vassar girl!” 

And he really was feral and fatherly, wriggling with bewilderment. “Am I whatcha expected?” He patted his own head. “I’ve got a face for radio. Phil Collins meets Prince Valiant, ammiright?” This was not entirely inaccurate.  

Brian lumbered out, younger than expected and twice as kind. “Angie from Vassar. Wow.”  

Riffs were exchanged and headphones fitted. The weather guy, resembling a cannellini bean, arrived to inspect me, and “Foxy Lady,” 50 and soft as her sweatshirt, was instantly protective. 

I knew I was a novelty item, and I wore it like a January sunflower. Alright, I was abnormal, 18 going on 60, homesick and brazen, my mother’s daughter spinning on the turntable.  

Bobby’s pinwheel eyes sparkled. “We’re gonna have a good time, you know.” 

It was the only understatement I ever heard him make. 

My thesis began writing itself, section headings singing. “Morning has Broken.” “Here Comes the Sun.” “Lovely Day.” “Yakety Yak.” 

For the next six weeks, my days began with a Red Delicious at 3:30, ready for my Jamaican Jesus chariot to deliver me to four hours of frenzy. In a rainbow of T-shirts three times too big, Bobby Miller bounced like a beach ball, turning on my microphone when it suited him, kicking me off my axis with questions and cheer. 

“Give me a song for a hideous Tuesday!” he demanded, kingly. 

“Bob Dylan, Forever Young!” Any answer, shouted with enough chaos, was correct. 

Bobby asked about my Mom, on and off air. “She’s a shrink, huh?” 

“School psychologist.” 

“Can she fix Brian?” 

“She’s still working on me.” 

“She’s your best friend, huh?” 

“Totally.” I was comfortable with Bobby. 

“That’s a blessing, Angie.” 

He loved the Mets and egg sandwiches and, actually, Brian. He asked me to explain anthropology to the audience and told them I was the smartest person he knew. He turned off my microphone when I got too excited. We talked over each other, exuberances jousting until his blue eyes vanished into laughter. 

Bobby could never quite believe that he got to do this every morning. The voltage in his joy could save Poughkeepsie. 

I saw Bobby angry on exactly one occasion. Brian had repeatedly warned me about the “zoo crew” across the hall, WMMJ’s classic rock deejays. “Not bad guys,” he sighed, “but … not our kinda guys.” 

Keith, ego draped in greasy blond spaghetti, had already announced “Brian’s got a hot intern!” My own ego was too fragile to find this anything but flattering, the word “hot” never having been applied to me. Underweight and afflicted with a pixie cut that made me look like the dying Fantine in Les Miserables, I gratefully settled for “cute.” 

But Keith became a constant. Filling Bobby’s coffee mug one morning, I smelled spaghetti behind me.  

“Hey, Vassar girl. MMR has a question for you.” 

“Okay.” I stood up straighter. 

“Are you Greek?” 

“Huh?” 

“Are you Greek? Some of the guys say you look Greek.” 

“What? No. A quarter Italian, but…” 

“Well, you look Greek.” 

I felt naked. “OK.” 

“Also.” Keith stretched his arms overhead. “We wanna interview you sometime.” 

Bobby did not love this idea, but agreed, so long as he could supervise. It did not go well. 

“We gotta Vassar girl here today,” Keith proclaimed to slithering multitudes on air. “Angie from Vassar! Angie from Vassar hangs out with Bobby Miller. I don’t know what she sees in the guy.” 

“I love oldies.” 

“Ooooooooldies. That’s why you loooooooove Bobby Miller. Hey Angie, are you a smart girl?” 

“Uh…” 

“Vassar, you must be a genius. You must have been valedictorian.” 

“I wasn’t.” Bobby was not smiling. 

“Well then,” Keith leaned in, “you must have done the valedictorian.” 

“That’s enough.” Angry Bobby returned me home across the hall faster than my taxi driver could proclaim the Gospel. That was the last time the zoo crew rattled their cage at me. They would make it into my thesis, too: “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to my Right.” 

Bobby decided that I would need some sort of legacy and began recording me unaware. My mother was the one who first heard the results. 

“Angie, you’re in one of the station’s ads.” 

“What?!” 

Sure enough, my birdy voice randomly blared “ABSOLUTELY!” at the end of WKBJ’s hourly time check. To my knowledge, this is still the case twenty-three years later. 

I heard my mother question Bobby’s intentions on exactly one occasion. She was listening one morning when I wasn’t at the station, and Bobby played my “Forever Young,” noting, “it’s Angie from Vassar’s favorite song.” He followed it with Neil Diamond purring “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon.” I called it a coincidence. My mother called it something else. I put it out of my head. 

Besides, the semester was coming to a crescendo, and the 3:30s were running out while my tears were running dry. My mother was dating, and I was having Saturday breakfasts with Isaac. Bobby Miller had one more song on the turntable. 

“You must,” he decreed with princely pomp, “accompany me —” his accent turned vaguely British — “to the Poughkeepsie Galleria.” 

I would follow Bobby Miller many places. 

“Why?” 

Brian was embarrassed. “The annual Bobby Miller Egg Drop.” 

It sounded innocent enough, but the reality was horrid. Every April, Bobby would present himself like a gladiator to the mall’s center court. For five dollars, anyone could have the putrid privilege of throwing raw eggs at him.  

I was sickened and homesick. “Why would you let them do this to you?” 

He told me it was hilarious, it was tradition, it was for charity. I told him I didn’t think I could watch. 

“But I need you there! Someone needs to stop Brian from buying all the eggs.” 

They padded him with hockey gear, but it was as awful as you might imagine. Bobby was a voice of valiant joy for this town. Why would his listeners, his people, his friends, do such a thing? Was I abnormal to hate this? Did they not know what they had in Bobby Miller? 

I looked up and saw Bobby exhausted, covered in yolk as he kept churning out one-liners. I looked down and scribbled thesis notes on the cost of humor. “Tears of a Clown.”  

I kept scribbling. There was one more thing I had to do.  

I thought it would be the concluding chapter of my thesis, but it turned into a gift for Bobby. I was nervous around him on exactly one occasion, handing him the pink envelope with my offering. “I hope you like it.” 

“I hope it’s Brian’s resignation letter.” 

It was “Me and Bobby Miller,” my apocryphal rewrite of Janis Joplin. 

Bobby was never comfortable around me again.  

It would take me months to stop grieving his sudden turn, and years to understand it. Incorrigibly earnest, I’d written what I thought was a tribute, a paean to our friendship and all the ways he felt like home. The lyrics mentioned my mother, for heaven’s sake. 

But there’s considerable static between heaven and earth, and innocence is an oddity. We are all dancing as best we can, to the music we can hear, and we step on each other’s toes and end up with scrambled eggs dripping down our chins.  

That’s why we need oldies stations. 

Nostalgia has a million verses, and homesickness plays every demographic. I know now that I was abnormally blessed with my mother’s melody, abnormally late to hear the gravel in the world’s voice, abnormally grateful to find strength and song in strange quarters. 

My Vassar friends, no less than I, lived with tambourines tucked under their arms and aches over their airwaves. Bobby and Brian and Foxy Lady and even Keith were chasing the safety that comes in and out like snow.  

I will keep my egg-stained Vassar hoodie as long as I live. 

I still tune into everyone I’ve loved. I believe I get to keep them all.

I finished my thesis under the heading, “Stand by Me.”

Until the day when all turns to song, we dance while the music is playing.•

Source images courtesy of marekbidzinski, Mariusz Blach, U2M Brand, moi, Alessandro Grandini, and Ivan via stock.adobe.com.



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