By Kristen Grayewski
I am nearly 30 and I should know better. I should know better yet I withdraw 40 pounds from a cashpoint outside my workplace, walk briskly to the train station, and catch a train to Cardiff, alone.
The woman queuing in front of me for train tickets looks like an Amanda. She tells her friends she got free tickets for tonight’s show through work and is going “for a laugh”—that last part being most important, thrown in to suggest she’s not serious about what she’s about to witness, would be ashamed if she were going for any reason other than comedic value. I’m sad for her and her need to appear disenchanted.
Standing on the platform, waiting, I think about the subway trains in black and white that clacked in time to the synthesized heartbeat at the start of the video for my always-favorite New Kids song, “Please Don’t Go, Girl.” I used to watch their videos on a VHS tape, studying the curious slant to their baseball caps and the height of their slouched socks, how the girls who appeared to be their music video objects of affection would pout a little and smolder while riding the Tilt-A-Whirl, how blue were Joe’s eyes, how pure his M.J.-lite falsetto. Joe went by Joey then and even though he was 16 when the song was recorded, he could pass for eleven. I was six, and I had chosen him; I was a Joe girl, and that was that.
I sit near probably-Amanda on the train and she talks about the shoes she went to check out on her lunch hour (strappy), her dream wedding dress (mermaid cut), and her skin (breaking out because she’s using foundation again). She’s carefully applying mascara while she speaks and I think, defensively, You’re not going to meet them, you know.
I met Joe once when I was 16 and he made his first attempt at a solo comeback with the album Stay the Same. He was playing my hometown’s outdoor summer music festival and the local radio station B104 was giving away tickets to the 104th caller. My friend Jenine actually got through—teenage squeals ripped down the phone line, through the boombox—and, since we were both Joe girls, there was no doubt who she would bring along. Not only did her prize include tickets, but the opportunity to meet him at a pre-show party. The “party” was in the back room of a burger restaurant and when it came time for us to approach him, I was mostly speechless. Face-to-face with the eyes that I’d seen frozen and enthusiastic in countless publicity shots and Teen Beats, I only just managed to ask him to sign his New Kids doll, and he did—right across the plastic pecs with a sharpie. It might have been worth some money, too, if I hadn’t already drawn purple marker underwear over its vague groin when I was six.
I leave the train and start walking in what I think is the direction of the arena. There are some construction detours and I find myself lost on a side street, not sure which way to go. Echoes of high heel clip-clops lead me to the arena steps.
Inside, the DJ’s first tune is, predictably, “Here Come the Girls.” Even the toilets are prepared for the occasion: the former men’s room has an image of a skirted woman and the word FEMALE stuck to its door with tape. Tonight, no ladies wait. Back in the crowd, it’s nearly an hour and a half before they come on and already someone to my left is crying. I can’t tell why exactly, but I guess it has something to do with anticipation and childhood dreams realized and the Block being occupied again after all these years.
I’ve only cried once because of the New Kids. I must’ve been about five because that year—1988—was the year Hangin’ Tough exploded and the Kids’ faces could be found on most UPC-ed items imaginable from pillow shams to buttons the size of bread plates. I was in the supermarket magazine aisle with my dad and I was pushing out tears because he didn’t want to buy me an NKOTB-special Bop. He didn’t see what I did in the pretty, vest-wearing Prince Charmings on the cover. I can’t remember if the tears were enough.
There’s a sensation in my throat now, a bit like a gargle. I consider suppressing it, this curdle of a scream, and I almost do, but when the women around me start in, a sort of yelp escapes. Jordan, Jon, Donnie, Danny, and Joe descend the steel stairs onto the stage, and my yelp sustains itself and crescendos against my will. For the first time, I think I understand the black-and-white screaming females in old Elvis footage.
From just a few songs in, it’s clear that the Man Kids are not about to veer from their long-successful formula:
Joe, still milking his blue eyes, though now with matching necktie.
Jordan, still hitting high notes like he could’ve been a Stylistic.
Danny, still breakdancing in the background.
Jon, still graceful as a log.
Donnie, still magnetically attracted to his crotch.
They dance, we dance. I take some photos that turn out blurry from my shaking hands. Watching them now, I realize they don’t play any instruments and I realize “Hangin’ Tough” and “The Right Stuff” are pretty much the same song with “oh”s sung in different time (oh-oh oh oh-oh vs. ooooh ooooh ooooh OH oh) and different signature dance moves (thumbs in belt loop hip shuffle vs. hands waving back and forth)—but who cares? For a few hours, I feel incapable of criticism. They do their old songs, we remember the words, and a couple thousand Welsh women and I remember what it was to feel young and in love with a romantic ideal and we laugh. By the time Joe grapevines forward in the spotlight to sing a many-octaves-lower version of “Please Don’t Go, Girl,” we’re singing to each other, loud and tunelessly, to the girl-selves we imagined he sang the song to then and the girls we really were and the women-girls we are.
By the time they transition to their newer material, I realize if I were on the lookout for things to criticize, there’s certainly ammunition. Joe seems to want to be Sinatra now—wearing a trilby and flaunting his Broadway pipes and Dancing with the Stars moves. Jordan, with something to prove, lets his shirt blow off while rubbing his chest and singing into a wind machine. Donnie picks up a pair of leopard-skin panties and sniffs them. Another Kid asks, “What’s the verdict?” and he responds, “Delicious.”
They disappear from stage unannounced and an inexplicable “In Memoriam” montage video starts playing up front. We watch, slightly confused at the unexpected downer, until there’s a lone scream from the back and a mini-stampede. They’re now on a platform with a piano at the back of the arena floor, about ten feet from me. There’s pushing. A graying man gets hysterical. A lady next to me says something to her friend about considering taking her top off, but just in time they play their Sergeant Pepper piano number “Tonight” and the girlfriends link arms and sway instead.
Back up front, Donnie goes into a diatribe on sexiness: “Cardiff...I gotta tell ya: you got the most beautiful ladies we’ve seen on the whole tour. And we got all types here tonight—blondes, brunettes, red heads, short, tall, skinny, curvy, choc-o-late, caramel...” Even though we know Donnie says that to all the girls and he’s kind of a perv, our groupthink makes us cheer.
I have to leave before they finish the encore so I can make the last train home. I notice two women my age on the train, chatting about how the Kids looked and sounded, and, in my post-show high, I slough off my introversion and join in. We decide our childhood idols held-up well. Sure, sex has entered into their show more—the choreographed air humps, the knicker sniffing, the horny new songs—but we were there for innocent reasons: to see what happened to our first loves. No, it wasn’t about the boys so much as the sharing of them.
The girl in the denim vest says, “Remember Jordan’s rat tail? I had one of those! I think I thought that if I had the same haircut, he would want to marry me.” Our laughs are interrupted by a male voice thrown in our general direction.
“Are you talking about the New Kids on the Block?” He spits their name like an obscenity, cocks his eyebrow.
We let his disdain hang in the air.
The train clacks forward. Carriage door opens, closes.
We angle our knees together, across the aisle. Keep talking, cue the chorus.
Kristen Grayewski is from Bethlehem, PA and now lives in Bristol, UK. She earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from The Ohio State University and her writing on music has appeared in various now-defunct zines and local weeklies.