I work primarily from home and have taken to listening to WERS, the local Boston station of Emerson College. Their tagline is “Discover and Rediscover,” which is absolutely true. I think of them as the updated WFNX. That alternative rock radio station of Boston was the soundtrack to my Boston life, from my arrival for college in 1983 until it was sold in 2012. On WERS, I get to hear the music of my young adulthood and new music. The Cult, the Cure, Pretenders, and U2 play next to Brandi Carli, Sam Fender, Leon Bridges, and Tame Impala. The mix of professional and student DJs get to pick their own music and are often the first ones playing music by new bands and helping them launch, just like FNX did. The station brings me a lot of joy — the music, the energy of the young ones, its nonprofit status holding the line against algorithm corporate radio. Unless the corporation is playing 80’s all the time. That’s completely different.
WERS doesn’t have commercials, but they do have sponsors, and one day the DJ read off a description of the sponsor for their evening show “The Secret Spot,” a blend of smooth R&B, vintage soul, and slow jams. I was only half listening until I heard “Empire Loan.”
My head whipped around and listened incredulously to some patter about the company being an “alternative to traditional financial management.”
“It’s a pawn shop!” I yelled out to the radio. And then I was transported back to a young adulthood far, far away…
I was barely 20 and dating an ex-con, “ex”-drug addict, chef 10 years older than me, and by “dating” I mean I was his piece on the side since he already had a live-in girlfriend. Yes, it’s pretty much a textbook case study in low self-esteem, and an A+ student goody two shoes throwing off the shackles of, well, sanity. Nothing says “I’m breaking free of society’s rules and expectations!” like getting caught up in a con man’s web of craziness. And it’s definitely way faster than reading a lot of books about racism, feminism, and self-awareness. Pah. Who has time for that when you could be hanging out in dive bars doing sambuca shots, dodging a suspicious girlfriend, visiting one of the last porn movie theaters in Boston’s now defunct Combat Zone, and shopping for jewelry at the then named Empire Pawn. Now they have a slick website with a customer service bot, for crying out loud. They proudly claim they started in 1985 in the “South End.” That’s swanky now thanks to gentrification, but in 1985? More like scary. They have 9 locations in New England and a charitable foundation. WTF? Charity for what? The down and out people who bring their stuff hoping for a little cash?
I got lost for a few moments in that weird place we older people sometimes visit and think, when did the world get so fucked up and upside down? Did that show “Pawn Stars” on the History channel in the 2010s really make the business more legitimate?
No fancy “alternative to traditional financial management” business then, it was a sketchy pawn shop in a seedy, sad part of town. It was also the place of last resort or the place of opportunity if you wanted to impress a clueless, young woman cheaply. The con man thought he could help smooth over the having a girlfriend thing by buying me jewelry. I wasn’t particularly materialistic, but I’d never had a real date or real jewelry, never mind a “boyfriend,” so I was all in for whatever that might entail. I didn’t really understand what the shop was until later. At the time, all my naïve/rebellious eyes could see were rings with real gold and jewels that the con man wanted to buy me. That must mean something good, right? Like he really likes me for me? I got 2 rings, both white gold, one with little rubies in a diamond shape with a small diamond chip in the center and one with twin circles of emeralds each with a diamond chip center. They were actually quite pretty, even if I didn’t understand the real price of them.
Fast forward past two predictably horrible years with this guy, when I was finally able to extricate myself from him — some people just can’t take no for an answer. Towards the end, the bastard broke into my house and stole my journals. I wished he’d taken back the jewelry instead. What the hell was I supposed to do with those rings now? The slightly older, slightly less naive me went back to the pawn shop, excuse me, Empire Loan, to unload them. I didn’t even care if I only got a little money, I just wanted the bad juju out of my life. Of course they were still in a sketchy part of town, so I recruited a few friends to come with me. Although if I could have been robbed of just the rings, that might have been a blessing in disguise. I presented the rings, explained that I had gotten them there and wanted to sell them back. The man behind the counter nicely declined. He verified that the gold and little stones were all real, they just weren’t worth enough. I was crestfallen, maybe even a little panicked. These rings were a heavy symbol of a really terrible time in my young life, I just wanted to get rid of them.
“My advice is to wear them and enjoy them,” said, trying to be kind. I wanted to scream at him that was impossible. As I walked out, I started to get irritated. They had accepted the rings at some point. So they were worth a “loan”: some person brought them in and got a loan, which he/she obviously never paid back, because the rings had been for sale. But they weren’t really worth anything beyond that. What the hell kind of place was this? Thank goodness I didn’t really need the money, well not in a desperate sort of way. I was still a broke college student, but I had enough to eat. If I couldn’t sell the rings to a sketchy place, how could I possibly get rid of them?
I didn’t. Like a lot of jewelry, those rings stayed tucked away in a box and moved with me multiple times, were with me during my marriage, and through my divorce. At one point I had the idea of asking a metal artist to rework them into something else, but that required research and effort, and it was easier to let them sit in a box. 30+ years later, they have become just some old jewelry I own. Out of sight, out of mind. Until I recently found them cleaning out my closet.
They were in an envelope of a defunct store that bought gold jewelry. The store closed before I had a chance to sell them. I had put the envelope in a backpack I no longer needed. When I found the rings again, the Empire Loan pitch was still fresh in my mind. It put me in a mood to get rid of the backpack and the rings in one fell swoop. The city collects and recycles textiles, so I tucked the envelope back into the bag, brought it to the recycling bin, and shoved it in. The website says each item is hand inspected. I’m hoping someone will get a happy surprise when they search the pockets. Or at the very least, a better surprise than many of the unpleasant things I’m sure they discover. Maybe someone will get to finally enjoy them. And maybe, if they don’t want to wear them, they can take them to Empire Loan and find an alternative to traditional financial management.