the unknown DJ

there was an AM radio station that i found while i was walking home along the Delaware. after work, i’d go on the roof with my radio in the middle of the night and listen while i stared at the sky, watching it slowly morph, obscured just a little bit by the many giant pine trees in our neighborhood. the radio had a cheap mono speaker, but as you’d relax into the evening, the sounds of the flickering streetlights and the neighborhood crickets and frogs and mourning doves and the distant trains and eighteen wheelers along Route 13 would start to envelope you and become part of the music. 

one second it would be a tape someone found in a basement of some forgotten guy from Bristol singing his own songs in the ’30s. and then it would be a beat-up, fresh-from-the-thrift-store 78 of circus music, seemingly played at the wrong speed, and then it would be a Walkman recording of an old man telling his life story on a bench in front of a Caldor. an old lady reading a pie recipe from her kitchen in Pineville in the mid-1960s. one time, they played a recording of a guy smashing broken electric organs in a field in Ottsville while muttering to himself. 

you never knew what was coming next and they didn’t take much time to explain it once it came. 

putting on this station felt like waking up after a disorientingly long night of sleep, not knowing what time it was, what day it was, what your plans were, and what kind of weather was on the other side of your window. but you just couldn’t resist opening it up and finding out for yourself. 

when i was younger, i would play my songs in the tunnel underneath the train station, the abandoned off-ramps near Old Route 13. the old Woolworth’s store after it shut down but before they put good locks on it. the courtyard at the old Tyler estate. Indian Rock. the spiral stairwell with its great big echo. the old living room, beside the grandfather’s clock and the tapestries on the wall. 

i’d leave town to do odd jobs. taking pictures and whatever else i could find. along the way, i’d write down songs that i’d imagine playing on the little outdoor stage in the woods at Silver Lake or maybe a funky old theater. i didn’t know if anyone would ever want to hear these songs, but the process of making them up was so fun. sometimes it felt like they were coming from my own little AM station.

one night, i went up to the roof and worked up the nerve to call the AM station. the DJ asked me all about myself. something about it being the middle of the night opened me up. i spoke freely, straight from the heart, like i’d known him all my life. 

i’d hoped to be invited to sing some of my songs, but the DJ just kept asking me an endless succession of questions about myself. they became increasingly nonsensical and stream-of-consciousness, almost as if he was playing a game with himself to break his personal record of questions per interview.

halfway through one of his questions, there was a loud thump and he stopped speaking. before long, you could clearly hear him snoring into the microphone. 

not knowing if i would ever be invited to perform on the radio, i decided to start playing some of my tunes. i’d never felt so free. just flowing from one song to another, making up musical transitions as i went, telling stories, making up a song or two on the spot.

it started raining a few songs in, but i just went with it. my beat-up guitar had been through worse than that. i used to do the same thing late at night in New Hope, after everyone but the most serious drinkers had gone to sleep.

it must have been around 3 AM when i saw cigarette smoke wafting up from a rented house on the next block. maybe someone was listening.

i sang through the snores for about forty-five minutes and then hung up, never to make contact with the sleeping DJ again that night. but a week later, he called back and said his listeners wanted to hear more of my music and stories. 

the funny thing was that he didn’t seem to know my name and he never asked. i noticed, also, that he would always sign on with a different name. i thought my mind was playing tricks on me. no! he had a different identity for every broadcast!

he’d call almost every Sunday night. when introducing me, he’d encourage me with weird sayings like “sing strong enough to gather ghosts!” i never really knew what that meant, but i got the gist. 

much to my surprise, there were others listening to this obscure radio show in the middle of the night. i’d get letters from all around the listening area with questions about my stories and my songs. they’d mail me pictures and drawings of places i’d mentioned like the Humpty Dumpty garden. a 66-year-old man and a 23-year-old woman both sent me cassette tapes of music that they wrote after listening to me on the radio.

sometimes the DJ would make me read commercials to earn my keep (not that i was being paid). and even that was a little off. none of the products sounded real to me. sometimes it would be for local places i knew didn’t exist anymore, like O’Boyles Ice Cream or Pofolks or the Lincoln Highway’s famous airplane restaurant. he’d tell me the name of the sponsors and ask me to just riff about them. i’m not sure why i went along with it, but i guess i just appreciated having an audience.

sometimes i’d start singing a song and he’d hang up on me and start shouting stuff about “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU.” i’d call back the next week and sing my new song with more conviction. i don’t know if he was trying to, but he taught me about being in the moment. 

i often wonder what happened to that DJ.