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Nina In New York: On Whitney Houston And Growing Up

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(credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

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A young professional’s take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.
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By Nina Pajak

There are two songs that will always give me that goosebumpy, cringe-y, bittersweet feeling of nostalgia that makes you at once both tenderly reminiscent and uncomfortably trapped in a squirm-worthy flashback.

One is “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. No surprises there.

The other is “I Will Always Love you” by Whitney Houston.

Photos: Remembering Whitney Houston

Because of this, when I think of Whitney Houston, I think not only of all the other songs she sang which I’ve loved at different points in my life, but always and mostly of this:

I am standing in my friend’s driveway during a 5th grade graduation party. The Bodyguard had come out earlier that year, and though I was not allowed to watch the movie (yeah, yeah), I pretended I had because my little 10-year-old self had recently and abruptly been awoken to a rift among my classmates. There were, evidently, two types of people: those who were in, and those who were not. It was becoming apparent that I was in the latter group, for reasons I didn’t totally understand but suspected could not be helped by the fact that I’d gone to see Ferngully twice instead of The Bodyguard.

More from WFAN’s Jason Keidel: When Whitney Houston Sang To Us

It was getting to be that time when things were winding down, and we’d gathered in the driveway because some kids were waiting to be picked up. So there we all were, standing in that cul-de-sac in our oversized t-shirts and Umbro shorts, with juice-stained mouths and frizzy hair and braces and bangs and glasses and all those other impediments which ought to have been more effective social equalizers. Someone had a boombox, of course, and someone hit play on the blockbuster song of the summer, “I Will Always Love You.” At that first beat before the refrain, the entire lot of us threw our arms open and started belting out the lyrics, dramatically hugging one another and stumbling around like premature maudlin drunks. It was the perfect soundtrack to saying our goodbyes as the parents arrived to collect their warbling offspring.

I think that in the back of our minds, some small part of each of us knew that we weren’t just leaving a party. We were changing schools, changing crowds, changing identities. After that summer, we couldn’t all be friends—the writing was quite plainly on the wall. Already there were lines being drawn, parties to which not everyone was invited, pages in our autograph books (our school’s alternative to yearbooks) which would go unsigned by certain elite individuals. Even those who were aware of having mercifully floated to the top of the group were scared of what was to come, nervous they might lose their coveted status. Because I suspect that even they had no idea why they wound up where they did, and they were terrified that they might do something to ruin it all.

In my mind, that impromptu Whitney song session in that driveway was a standout moment, a few solid minutes (4:32, to be precise) when we were still all just silly, goofy children who could get carried away and sing at the top of our lungs in one another’s faces without worrying about what we looked like or whether we were doing something wrong.

It was a lovely, strange, terrible, naive, awkward scene suspended in midair, and it was all thanks to Whitney Houston and that irresistible voice.

That, and a headrush brought on by running around after too much soda and ice cream on a hot June day. The alchemy of childhood is complicated like that.

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Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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