The second floor of the two-story house was my home during my senior year of college. 287 Brook Street. I remember the wide-planked floors, the dirt- and dust-filled crevices between each plank wide and deep enough to hold dimes and pennies, lint and once, a jack. The floor had once been inexpertly painted white (I may have been bored enough one evening to scrape dried drips of paint up and off it with the nail of my index finger), but so long ago that it was now more of a bluish gray. My bedroom floor tipped towards the bathroom. I slept on a futon, but I had no frame, so the futon lay right on the dusty, nasty floor. There was dust everywhere, my sporadic efforts at cleaning so unrewarding that by spring I'd long since given up trying, or caring. I didn't have much in the way of belongings, but I remember vividly a red Sony clock. The casing of the clock was a plastic cube, very eighties and so cutesy that I felt not so much that I should be embarrassed to own or display it but that the clock itself ought to feel a bit self-conscious.
Spring of 1989, it was, and a month away from my college graduation. I was making studious attempts to avoid thinking about graduation, because I had no idea what I was going to do afterward - no internship or job lined up, nothing. My college relationship was still in play, though I didn't know then that it shouldn't have been; someone really should have come along and snuffed it out. So I had some idea that I would be living with my boyfriend, but where we would live wasn't yet clear, and what I would do to sustain or entertain myself even less so.
It was one morning in April that I awoke to the DJ from the college radio station, which I'd programmed to be my alarm. It was a brilliant spring day, cloudless and already warm. The DJ announced that he was going to play a new song, which had been released in England in the fall. I was beginning to get dressed when the first notes of the song played. I froze. I looked at my silly radio clock as if I could see inside of it to the singer. Tracy Chapman was singing "Fast Car."
I remained motionless as I listened to the rest of the song, and I thought, "I will always remember hearing this for the first time." I wasn't wrong. The song seemed such a perfect anthem to accompany where I was in my life, panicked, the unknown racing towards me and I wanting nothing more than to turn and run away from it. Now I know that "Fast Car" is about so much more than, well, me, and it refers to circumstances that my twenty-one-year-old self knew nothing about. But see, the twenties are a narcissistic decade. So when I heard,
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
Me myself I got nothing to prove
... I thought Tracy Chapman had swooped down to 287 Brook Street and spied on me until she'd figured out the essence of me, all I feared despite a laissez-faire exterior. Not only all I feared: all I wanted, too. What I feared and what I wanted were really one and the same, another truth revealed to me only much later.
And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
Twenty-five years later, I am well aware that "Fast Car" is about a drunk of a father whose daughter ends up working as a checkout girl, living in a shelter, and then later reliving her childhood by choosing a husband who drinks too much and never sees his kids. Perhaps Tracy Chapman would be offended to learn that once I personalized her song the way I did. I can't know.
But in April of 1989, I did know that Tracy Chapman sang to me through the tinny, tiny speaker of my radio clock, and suddenly I was not as alone or unmoored as I had been feeling.
I did not find a job after graduation. The first post-college year was as hard for me as I'd predicted - possibly harder. I would not know for many years to come what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, whether I know that now is debatable.
There are defining moments in a life. These do not necessarily precede times of great change or progress, at least I don't think they have to do so. If you're experiencing something and overlaid atop the experience is the running thought that this is important, this is memorable, this is more than what it seems, there is a reason. Hearing "Fast Car" for the first time - and maybe after all it was less its lyrics than it was Chapman's deep, yearning, honest voice - I was comforted by the notion that a stranger could reach my core, hidden so long that even I was hard-pressed to recognize it. I could almost believe that everything was going to work out just fine in the end, for me, at least.
And you know, it has.