Strangers bond over childhood nostalgia

Just last night, I was sitting in a cafe when — briefly, so quietly — I instinctively leaned forward in my seat to catch the faint melody of: Now this is a story all about how / My life got flipped, turned upside down / And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there / I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.

What came next was remarkable: conversation stopped, cups smacked onto tables, newspapers rustled and every head went searching — “Where, oh where, was it coming from?” A man in the corner, alarmed at the sound, whipped out his cell phone — ah, it was the ringtone! — and opened his conversation with, “You would not believe the looks I am getting right now …”

End of the story: He received a free latté and two numbers from decently attractive ladies. The second woman, a tall brunette, said to him as she punched her digits into his phone, “I loved Fresh Prince. God, who didn’t? Doesn’t listening to that theme song just make you so nostalgic?”

If I were to give my number out to every person who loved Fresh Prince, pickings would be aplenty. But she had one thing right: Nostalgia falls the heaviest on my consciousness when I hear the jumble of notes, whistles and words of a show’s opening credits. Regardless of the disappointing episode that follows or the pathetic cliffhanger that preceded it, the show’s theme song becomes a living tribute — not solely to the program itself, but to every afternoon or evening spent in front of the living room television.

Years from now when I hear the chipper keyboard of The Office, of course I’ll remember Jim’s irresistible lopsided smirk and Dwight’s Mussolini speech. But most of all, I’ll recall the weekly ritual of my group of friends cramming seven bodies onto one stiff, oddly stained couch when nothing seemed more hilarious than sitting at a desk of a failing paper company.

The moments of my life I remember best are the trivial ones — the mundane times that are so soaked in familiarity that I ache in their absence. Somehow, these moments are best captured through the brief opening credits of my favorite television shows, and I know I’m not alone when I say this. My college days will always ride that Scranton keyboard, summer will echo in my head like the lighthearted ba-ba-ba’s of How I Met Your Mother and the I’m No Superman of Scrubs will always evoke the senioritis that pervaded every blistering, wonderful day of my last year in high school.

But it runs deeper than glancing a few years back into my adolescence. These tunes manage to capture an essence of my childhood, the very joy and electric thrill I felt as a kid, naïve about life outside the ’burbs. Who can honestly hear the opening percussion of Boy Meets World and not feel like Corey racing down those stairs, eager and ready to meet the world head on?

Admit it. Raise that hand — you were Corey Matthews.

Whenever I’m placed in the potentially dangerous situation of strangers awkwardly fumbling for a conversation, I have a few lifelines ready. The fourth and last, the one I will share with you now, is the most reliable option I have come to perfect. Softly, but distinctly, in the deafening roar of silence, I will hum the opening theme to Doug. In nearly every instance, someone’s ears will perk and their eyes will rush towards mine and they will whisper, as if confiding a dirty secret, “I loved that show!” Nothing breaks the ice like reminiscing over the golden decade of the ’90s.

Do you remember chanting “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!” every day after school, thinking that Einstein had nothing on you? Or shouting “Hey!” with Arthur while he jumped from page to page? Or singing Gotta catch ‘em all! and really, really hoping that no one found out you had a stash of holographic Charizards? And whose heart doesn’t sigh just a little bit when a soft voice rings out, What would you do if I sang out of tune? To this day, my concept of love is forever idealized through those opening lyrics.

Wait, I think we just bonded.

The truth of the matter is these classic theme songs — and all the current day theme songs that will one day become classics — are common ground. They are the Holy Grail of icebreakers (and, apparently, of getting free coffee and dates for Saturday night) because they have the same effect on all of us, the same warm splash of nostalgia that lingers like rain on the bottom of your jeans.

So here’s how we resolve disputes in the world: Have every child ever born grow up watching the same shows. Determine your next significant other by the ringtone he or she has — I will date Reading Rainbow, but won’t touch Thundercats with a 9-inch stick. International conflicts? Over. Marriage? True love.

Ah, did I just save the world? And I say hey, (hey!) / What a wonderful kind of day…

Tiffany Yang is a junior majoring in comparative literature. Her column, “Alphabet Soup,” runs Wednesdays.