Room For A Square

An unlikely tale of me, John Mayer, and an earnest moment in time entailing two people being relentlessly true to themselves.

Outside of the 9:30 Club, U Street in Washington, DC — Sami (15), John Mayer (23), Brett (10)

If you’ve arrived here with urgency to get straight to “the good stuff,” you may go ahead and scroll down to the section entitled “It’s A School Night, Sam.” If you’re ready to take down an epic, I wholeheartedly welcome you to get comfortable and buckle up as we begin...

“You may ask yourself… well… how did I get here?”

Hi. My name is Sami, and apparently I’m a 30-year-old woman. While I fully realize this is an irrefutable biological fact, to me, this is also somewhat of an achievement.

I stand in disbelief I’ve somehow managed to carry myself into some basic and fundamental semblance of adulthood. I live happily in a beautiful metropolis; contribute to a job and work environment I love genuinely; and value the gift of freedom and flexibility to take my wonderment out on the road time to time with various groups of beloved, like-minded humans.

Alternately — this path’s been colored with confusion and loneliness, often left wondering which turn left me standing here in anxious contemplation while I glaze over another pregnancy announcement or social media marriage portmanteau among my peers.

I’ve come to realize that this shade of loneliness is an illusion. Personal pacing and status aside, at this age we’re all beautifully united by how we graze into “adulthood” imbued by all the best and worst of getting here in the first place.

I can only describe the feeling of turning 30 as reaching a certain precipice. You can look back in wonderment on the multitudes of lives you’ve already lived, but for the first time in this linear scheme, you could reach the point of having no idea what’s next, immediately or otherwise.

In this strange triple-decade time crisis, the greatest solace I’ve found is that when you have no idea where to go, you figure out how to arrive by taking a look back at what gets your legs to stand up in the first place.

The narrative of my 30 years on this earth so far has been characterized by near-toxic levels of serendipity, sentimentality, and gratitude — driven by a depth of knowledge and passion in pursuit of popular music that’s somehow served and fulfilled me beyond my wildest dreams.

I want to tell you about the night 15 years ago wherein all this potency converged for the first time — inarguably setting my entire life into motion thanks to the attention and utterly unwarranted kindness of a certain rising star.

Sunday, September 23, 2001

Hi. My name is Sami. I’m a 15-year-old sophomore in high school located just outside of Washington, DC — and I’m first in line waiting outside of the 9:30 Club to see John Mayer on his first headlining tour, backed by a full band. His major label debut Room For Squares dropped a mere five days earlier, and within those five days, I could already tell you every changed pace or production flare on the re-issued version of the LP and how it differed from the first time it was released on Aware Records in June 2001. Trust me, because I was one of the first 2000 people to study the initial roadmap — and when my parents came to pick me up from Pom Squad tryouts on a Friday afternoon with the hand-numbered, autographed first-edition CD already blaring from the speakers in their car, I screamed and sobbed so violently that the unboxing had been swiped out from under me, that my brain instantly erased the choreography I’d just been taught, and I straight up bailed. Teens. Ugh.

There are many details, moments, and memories of our collective and early-adopted “May-nia” (I just made that up, I realize it’s bad) that led up to this night — such as if you met me, or a friend of yours attended a session of Jew Camp with me that summer, chances are you received (and possibly still possess) a bootleg green-labeled CD-R titled “Everything to 2001” with all the “basics” and a lot of rarities afforded to me by detailed Napster dives — but I’d like to believe the above story is a pretty accurate (and admittedly aggressive) anecdote from our collective passion for the presence of this voice whose music truly, deeply spoke to us in the face of a post-millennium music industry dominated by the likes of Lou Perlman, and we ALL know how that turned out

September 23rd, 2001 was a school night. My parents dropped me and a handful of equally dedicated friends off an hour or two before doors opened so we could get our coveted spot front and center. Armed with a thoughtfully-decorated white binder and Home Alone Talkboy® tape recorder in a canvas messenger bag, I was a woman (in bat mitzvah terms) on a mission that would seem impossible to anyone else on the surface, but from the second it had hit me weeks before, never felt less than completely within my grasp.

You may ask yourself, “Why in the hell is this kid showing up to a rock show with school supplies and movie merch?” You see — I was part of a pilot program at my high school focusing on gifted students within Arts & Humanities, almost akin to a liberal arts college structure, but stationed within a public high school. It did wonders to balance out the D grade that went on my college transcripts in Chemistry, which roughly translates to D-oesn’t understand basic Chemistry for SHIT, literally at all whatsoever. In exchange for my left-brain ineptitude, I was fortunate to get early entry to AP English and History classes, participate in cultural salons instead of electives, and work on an adapted class schedule to accommodate the years-long build of an “SIP”– Senior Independent Project — a process that was not dissimilar to the creation and defense of a graduate school thesis. I was a toooootal fucking slacker in high school, guys…

The specialization began in English 10A-H for Honors and Humanities under the guidance of a woman named Barbara Levitt, remembered for her deathly allergy to perfume (YOU WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE THE CLASSROOM IF YOU ARE REMOTELY FRAGRANT) and recognized in hindsight as a stunningly accurate, fully-realized physical prototype for Barb from Stranger Things — except blonde.

In order to kickstart our path of academic affinity for Arts & Humanities, our first major assignment that semester was to interview someone whose job we’d maybe want to have one day in an Arts & Humanities field. All I remember, and I remember it vividly, was sitting in one of the lecture style classrooms at our high school in a completely different class, my best friend Emily sitting directly to my right, and the lightbulb going off above my stupid strawberry-blonde head a few days after we’d received the rubric.

“I’m not going to interview someone whose job I want to have — I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do since I was 10 years old, and I want to write for Rolling Stone. *GASP* … JOHN MAYER IS PLAYING THE 9:30 CLUB JUST BEFORE THIS ASSIGNMENT IS DUE.”

I didn’t know how I would pull this off, but it never felt impossible. Should I contact someone from management before? See if anyone on the message boards has an in? Maybe I should just write a random email or leave a comment to Scotty, Mayer’s very memorable tour manager who already sported a robust presence online creating the most charming tour diaries and catchphrases (“Out like the Kast,” anybody???). At a time where “social media” really didn’t exist, it was amazing to have someone within an artist’s camp breaking down that wall for, at that time, a voracious cult following. It was in vogue, conscious, and empathetic; as Mayer himself is often wont to be, time and time again.

It’s 7pm. The doors are opening, and the 9:30 Club has three doors that make up its main entrance. The farthest right door opens, and a few friends start taking their turn there. For some reason, I walk to the door in the middle instead. The second that I look up from retrieving my ticket from my bag and timidly hand it to Josh the Bouncer for entry, I lock eyes with the tall brown-haired figure walking out onto the street through the unopened entrance door immediately to my left.

“John? Hi… I don’t know if you remember me, but…”
“Oh hi! Yeah, you’re the girl whose birthday it was last time I was here.”
“Yeah! In June! Wow… I can’t believe you remember… um… [line starts to back up with humans behind me waiting to enter the venue]… I know this is a really strange thing to ask you but I have this assignment for school where I have to interview someone whose job I’d want to have one day, but I really just want to talk to you, if there’s any chance you’d have a few min–”
“That’s pretty cool–I’d love to. Just talk to Scotty, do you know Scotty?”
“I do…”
“Yeah, just find Scotty at the merch stand and tell him I talked to you, and he’ll take care of it after the show — cool?”
“Yes! Thank you! [Reaches for binder in bag]… I mean, I can show you proof and ev…”
“No, no worries, just chat with him and I’ll talk to you later.”

To this day, I still can’t fathom the fatefulness of this interaction, only bolstered by this dude’s memory and respect. What 23-year-old embarking on the national debut of a career shot straight from a cannon has time or concern to indulge the Almost Famous fantasies of a 15-year-old subverting the expectations of her academic deliverable in the first place? Even if the arrangement had completely fallen apart by later on in the night, by whatever circumstance, he somehow showed up out of the abyss in that moment. I asked. He said yes.

Cell phone-less, I threw my bag down with my friends on the barricade and ran upstairs speaking approximately one million miles a minute in simultaneous shock and validation to tell my family watching from the balcony what awaited me (and their patience) during the load-out.

It’s A School Night, Sam.

Hi. My name is Sami. I’m a 15-year-old sophomore in high school donning Abercrombie and Fitch and a dainty hemp choker I wove sometime last weekend, twiddling my thumbs and pacing around on an empty 9:30 Club floor. There’s no way John Mayer is like… actually about to talk with me right now.

The show was predictably “ahhhmeeeeziiiiing” for all of us to experience. There are arrivals where you can just tell the springboard is gathering downward pressure before shooting into mid-air. It was cool to share in this with an even-more extended community of people. Our secret was out, but not even close to a point of over-saturation or suffocation. It was all happening. It’s always “all been happening.”

As the stage was broken down, I finally caught Scotty’s eye, while a line from the floor to the balcony was growing on account of a Meet & Greet for anyone that bought a physical copy of Room For Squares that night. Once he came down to meet me, I thanked him again and began to walk in the direction to join the tail-end and wait for my turn. Instead, he said, “Oh no, come with me…” and we walked through a door, up a hidden staircase, to a dark corridor with a curtain separating the hall from the balcony where Mayer was seated signing autographs. Before I could even tear the curtain back, I got diverted yet again — “No, this way…” and was ushered into a hexagonal room with booths in each wall lined by purple neon lights. “Just hang here — it won’t be much longer.”

I wasn’t timid, but I certainly kept to myself as much as possible while chatting with his band mates and opener Matt Nathanson over your standard supermarket crudité platter.

I think at least another 45 minutes to an hour had gone by in waiting until he finally entered the room. I quietly said and waved hi, and may have even offered to forego the conversation since he’d just spent his immediate downtime small-talking hundreds of other people. It didn’t matter. For some reason, this dude was in it to win it right there with me.

Not a single person had heard the contents of the Talkboy® cassette tape for 15 years until earlier this week, when it was shipped to me across the country for a revisit on this weird-aversary. It’s unearthed piece-by-piece below, with endless thanks to the generosity of my beloved genius colleague Justin Thomas and a lost few days in pursuit of a cassette player (literally ANY CASSETTE PLAYER IN EXISTENCE) across Los Angeles.

What we have here is an ambitious teenager and a 23-year-old literally just entering the world’s stage, both equally stoked on their respective chance to dabble in their lifelong dreams, conversing with a totally unwarranted level of mutual respect.

More fascinating, it’s a truly genuine time capsule given Mayer’s profound growth, shifts in identity, and the instant skyrocket effect that ensued upon the release of Room For Squares.

What we also have is a set of parents waiting outside patiently in the car until about 2am with the “journalist’s” younger sister AND two friends whose parents mandated they return home HOURS ago. I’m still SO SORRY to you, Becky and Zia, to this day. I’m also inexplicably thankful to my parents and sister for somehow waiting out that situation gracefully on my idiot behalf. Our bell for first period was 6.5 hours away from ringing by the time we STARTED to chat — therefore you’ll hear a few intermittent rings from my dad to my mom’s phone, in my possession by now, so as to get me the hell out of there if need be. On the real, this conversation is pretty beautiful and insightful, but the phone interruptions are hands down the best parts of this entire thing.

Don’t worry, everyone — I have already pre-ordered my tombstone and it is emblazoned with the words “BUZZING ABOUT IT ON THE BOARDS.” Not only did I manage to utter the douchiest sentence in the history of the English language in front of my hero, but he couldn’t hear me so I had to repeat it TWO MORE TIMES for clarity. The comment was in reference to a song called “Everything Is Not Broken,” which Mayer had “Life of Pablo’d” — AKA released as a work in progress — for the indulgence of his super-engaged fan forum community. He outright asked me what I thought about it. I was taken aback by that. And now I shall die for it. LULLLLLLZZZZZZZZZ.
I can’t remember what was so funny after I asked this question, or why it was taken so literally. Also, the SECOND douchiest sentence in the English language is spoken in this passage, but it’s true, the dude DOES “dominate completely” on stage. It’s cool because his naiveté and reverence really start to show here.
Having spent a copious amount of time finally experiencing the traveling circus of tour culture from behind-the-scenes, I completely ‘get’ what he means about the road being unnatural, and the desire to make it your nature. Especially if you’re touring at van status.
Of course I was keen to take “No Such Thing” SUPER literally in that exact moment of my life, and of course in hindsight I completely see the difference in that versus the “emotional caricature” portrayed, which in fact makes it a lot deeper of a song. Also, sorry for striking the record where I said I wasn’t “publishing this [recording] or whatever.” You can also hear the exact moment it felt like he gave my dumb affected teenage soul a really big hug.
This is illuminating because: 1) what once felt like a far-off dream for this dude definitely happened, 2) the second name he throws into the hat is SO 2001 IT CANNOT BE WITHSTOOD, 3) Charlie Hunter was Mayer’s opening act on the Heavier Things tour in 2003, which I saw at DAR Constitution Hall — the same stage where one year later, our class ended our high school careers singing a medley that concluded with “Bigger Than My Body” at our graduation ceremony.
This was cool because you could see these influences begin to ripple into his growth — permanently.
This exchange should finally shut down the Dead naysayers once and for all — this dude is irrefutably imbued with humility and an appreciation of kindness, and this serves as proof it’s always existed.

We wrapped in a rush, and he still opted to walk me outside and return me to the car outside. My mom snapped a single photo and as I hopped into the backseat apologizing profusely, he leaned into the passenger seat window and told my parents I was more thoughtful and engaged than any professional writer he’d faced to that point, thanking ME for the experience. I just smiled, then tried my hardest to stay awake in solidarity with my poor exhausted friends while we rode home.

Unfortunately, the final product was the one thing we couldn’t find on this time machine treasure hunt. I wrote my English paper in the style of a colorful and exploratory Rolling Stone feature. A week later when I turned it in and presented it to a class of 28 people, I would say that at maximum, seven of those people were familiar with the person I’d spoken to. One of those people was most certainly not Barbara Levitt. She gave me a B–, mostly on account of not following directions. That’s rock and roll for you, I guess…

Hi. Are you still there? If you’ve made it this far, I sincerely wish I could reward you. It really means a lot to me. I swear I’m going to wrap this up now.

When you remove the cloudiness of tabloids and the last 15 years of hyper-elevated celebrity culture, you simply cannot deny that in the same 15 years (plus the 10 years of dedication to guitar exploration proceeding it), that John Mayer possesses the intent, acumen, and dynamism that defines a once-in-a-generation artist.

He set the bar amidst his distinct and very marketable set of musical peers, and remains virtually the only one to have won the respect of his elders while re-setting AND surpassing said bar time and time again — bravely and vulnerably addressing whatever has shifted or grown in his own life. Constantly chasing and mastering uncharted territory from outside his own comfort zone. That’s artistry. That’s the realest of the real.

15 years later, I’m still in disbelief. I may never come to find out why, but for some reason, John Mayer — the human, the artist, one in the same — made a small but significant bit of life-affirming room for this total fucking square.

Typically a person would conclude here by saying, “and I’ve never been the same since.” Except I think I have — and in fact, blossomed in full embrace of this passion and weird musical savant-hood — and that might just be what means the most.

To one John Mayer: if this reaches you — thank you for the sense you helped to make of our youth, soundtracking our growth in parallel with your own, and the layers you continue to add our foundations. Thank you for your persistent sincerity— even if it’s caused a shitstorm or two for you in the past. Thank you, THANK YOU, for latching onto whatever you saw in that overzealous teenager that night or any other night, and the tangible magic that continues to endure. You are forever “where the light is.”

PS. If you ever decide to revive the “tears” exercise from your “focus group” but replace “Daughters” with “Terrapin Station,” I have already lost that game several times over. You’re also sickeningly good at injecting life like a live wire into “Cassidy.” I don’t care what anyone says –we’re really lucky to have you on “the team.”