I was scarfing down a Quiznos sub in the Denver International Airport when I found out.
An embarrassing streak of sunburn from days of solo hiking held the skin across my nose taut, and a backpack of dirty laundry sat at my feet. I was absentmindedly scrolling through playlists, trying to savor the exhaustion of travel, when a chorus of TVs playing CNN echoed the words “pandemic” through the eerily empty terminal. I didn’t know how, but it was clear in that moment that things were about to change forever. (It’s easy to say that now that they have.)
I winced as I began to dig through the emails that had accumulated in the past few days. Subject line after subject line began with a no-frills “CANCELED,” and an email from my boss at Radio K told me to start preparing to switch to fully remote broadcasting.
I’ve spent more hours doing college radio than in the building for my own major. I’ve taken naps in my windowless office before working long nights. I’ve cried over breakups in the musty vinyl closet. I’ve stayed up until dawn competing in elaborate Super Smash Bros tournaments. I’ve made lifelong friends and met my musical heroes in the same room. I put so much weight on the self college radio helped me find that the thought of leaving the station put a lump in my throat long before it inevitably happened. I’d already begun curating the mix of songs I’d play during my last shift and rehearsing my closing speech in the mirror. I was sure I’d cry. After all in-person DJs were called off indefinitely during my last semester at college, it took a couple days to hit me that I might have already broadcast my final moments on air.
In my head, a perfect finale to the hundreds of hours I had spent hunched over dusty jewel cases reading CD liner notes included a balance of the obscure and nostalgic, proof that I had done my due diligence and reached the pinnacle of music nerds. It would include stories of basement shows and crate-digging, about late-night drives and kitchen dance parties, all my favorite parts about the young adulthood I had been soundtracking weekly in that DJ booth. I anticipated the announcements I would make leading up to the big day, the way my friends and family would set aside a few minutes to help me say farewell to this beloved part of my collegiate years.
In so many ways, I held that final DJ shift as a sort of goodbye to the life I had built in school over the past four years. All the weight I had placed on this should-be-monumental ending hit my chest like an anvil when I realized I wouldn’t have the chance to enact my plans. Instead of a grand farewell, my last DJ shift had likely passed by on an ordinary Wednesday morning. I felt frivolous being upset about this objectively minor letdown in the scale of a global crisis, but it was one of the only things I could wrap my head around. I furrowed my brow and dug into my memory, and our station’s playlist archives, searching for any recollection I had of the unmemorable way my final moments on Radio K had unfolded.
I was nearly late to my last DJ shift. As much as I loved being on the air there’s a part of the weekly obligation that turns it into a chore in the midst of classes, work, and my ever-building list of responsibilities. It was the day after Super Tuesday and the primaries had my mind in a chaotic state, so walking into the station at 11 a.m. with a cold press (light ice, no room), I decided that was the day to find the old Coldplay CD in the back closet and spring “Yellow” on the unsuspecting alternative radio listeners. It felt good. I was cackling by myself within the comfortable CD-lined walls, posting videos of me shout-singing along to my Instagram story, completely assured that I would be back next week, like always, to do it again.
Playing Coldplay in the all-too-cool sacred college radio airwaves isn’t exactly prohibited, but it’s a sort of “smash glass to push button” type of tool only to be used in times of grave peril. The snarky subtweets and irritated phone calls might come, but for the DJ there’s a serene sort of pleasure in playing something that takes everyone out of their current moment, just for a second. There’s no rule, spoken or unspoken, that says you can only do this once in your DJ career, but in my mind that’s how it felt: a sort of holy ritual I was saving for when I needed it. In the midst of a capstone project, with prototypes to build and lab reports to write, surrounded by a tense political landscape, I knew that was the exact moment I needed to pull the trigger.
Of course, I didn’t know what was looming in the coming weeks when I was spinning on the stool next to the monitors giggling and singing, “look how they shine foooor you,” and I wouldn’t have gotten to live that moment if I had.
I’ve always tied myself up in ceremonial goodbyes, in curated playlists underscoring the ends of chapters and sentimental journal entries recording lessons learned. With the entire world switching course in a matter of days, none of us got to mythologize the endings of so many parts of our lives. That was hard for me to cope with until I started remembering moments like that, a private joke with myself and being blissfully immersed in 2000s alt-rock, that could only be lived if it felt like they were a passing frame in a story with the ending far out of sight.
This isn’t going to end with some uplifting one-liner about living every day like it’s your last, because for me and the gooey nostalgia I tie to every closing, that’s probably a little dramatic. I will say, though, that endings sometimes know how to write themselves better than we do, and I’m really glad that one did.