By Dawn Wan
Heading into work one day, I boarded the Metro-North train bound for Manhattan. My head swirled with a host of random thoughts: remembering the bill I forgot to pay, ruefully; pondering what I might eat for a snack later on, delightedly; and contemplating my pesky co-workers that I would soon have to see, unfortunately.
Finding a suitable seat facing the Hudson River, I plopped down and slid towards the window, tossing my backpack next to me. I tilted my forehead against the cool tempered glass and stared out at the rolling Hudson River. Approaching was the Tappan Zee Bridge, standing resolutely, carrying the weight of a steady stream of traffic, like a resigned Hercules obediently fulfilling bridge duty.
I pulled out my iPod and stuck in my earbuds, selecting from the playlist Paul Mauriat’s classic instrumental version of the French song, Love is Blue. As soon as the familiar notes of the strings-intro cascaded into my ear canals, I was transported from the somber grey train I was sitting on to the colorful, noisy surroundings of my second grade classroom, where I fondly remember putting a found 45 rpm record on a mini portable record player. It was then that I discovered Love is Blue, a song that so delighted my senses that I played it over and over again, hypnotically listening to its enchanting melody until an annoyed classmate bumped me off the turntable. Now, some 30 years later riding the train to Manhattan and a world away from second grade, that song still captivates me and takes me back to that wondrous first introduction.
I moved on to another beloved song, Heartbeat City by The Cars. The signature spacey synthesizer sounds that open Ric Ocasek’s atmospheric love song wistfully brought me back to that wintry day in 2006 when I drove home my first brand-new car. I had been driving around an old beater, a dusty 4-cylinder Subaru that took its last gasp pretty much the minute I parked it on the dealership lot for trade-in.
That night, I took my new VW Rabbit out for a joy ride, and it was, fittingly, The Cars Greatest Hits that I popped into the CD player. The moon was out. The barren trees glistened. The windows, gleaming and spotless, reminded me of a cockpit and aroused in me a primal need to speed. Nowarmed with 5 powerful cylinders, I boostthe acceleration and the engine came roaring to life. Silver-lined hilltops raced past me. The syncopated yellow line blurred into a steady fuzzy one. Meanwhile, my then state-of-the- art stereo sound system bathed me with the sounds of Heartbeat City. Mindless euphoria surged within me, and like a lone eagle soaring over a vast canyon, I felt free.
I recalled another time when I felt that sense of freedom, 1988. The place: Tucson, Arizona. The summer: scorching hot. I was in search of a car, which back then, was to be my very first. My friend, Art, along for moral support, insisted I buy the ‘gently used’ Nissan Sentra manual transmission that we were perusing.
“It’s such a good deal!” he crowed.
“I don’t know how to drive a stick shift!” I cried.
He promised to teach me, so I bought it, literally and figuratively. After one brief lesson, however, Art promptly went away on a three-week vacation. Nevertheless, I was thrilled by my new mobility and, apparently, so was my employer, a photo lab chain, who immediately started scheduling me at every far-reaching lab in the city.
Since temperatures were in the triple digits, I naturally turned the air conditioning on full blast each time I got in my car to go to work. Without fail, my anemic vehicle would stall at any and every major intersection, inducing a cacophony of blaring car horns that would send me into a panicked frenzy. In those agitated moments, I would inadvertently alternate between pumping the gas and the brake pedal, while throwing the car into God- knows what gear. Needless to say, that never helped start the car.
After a calamitous series of stalls that would traumatize most people to the point of permanently giving up the wheel, I finally stumbled upon the realization that as bad as my driving was, the stalls were in large part due to my car’s feeble engine that sputtered in the face of simultaneously cruising and running the A/C.
Aha! No longer did I need to beat myself up for being such a lousy driver. After all, I did sort-of teach myself how to operate a stick, I reasoned. I just needed to ride with the air conditioning off. Of course, that meant I would have to travel with the windows wide open, lest I fry in the car like a hunk of cheese in the oven.
Cue the Double Gulp: the colossal drink available at your local 7-Eleven convenient store. For the unenlightened, the Double Gulp is not for the faint-of-heart. Oh no. At a whopping 64 ounces, this monster of a drink with its massive girth and sheer volume of ice and soda was made for the long haul, steadfastly providing the necessary stream of sugar, caffeine, and coldness to power a person for, oh, at least a few hours in the blistering Arizona sun. Only a desert denizen driving around with zero air conditioning in the peak of summer could truly appreciate a drink of such magnitude. I was that denizen.
Once accustomed to the sweltering heat blowing in on me and cooled by my ongoing series of chilly, perspiring Double Gulps, I relished the driving at last, even if it was just to get to and from work. No longer was I stalling - at least not as much.
Fortunately, the car still drove with the radio on! That summer, Red, Red Wine by UB40 dominated the airwaves, and even though the lyrics spoke of drowning one’s sorrows over unrequited love, its upbeat tone translated into my personal anthem of freedom. Victory was mine. Red, red wine! I had conquered the challenge of how to drive a stick, and now I was free to go wherever I pleased. Every time Red, Red Wine came on the radio, I blasted it through my crappy speakers: singing along, sipping my soda, sweating profusely, and celebrating my newly acquired independence.
I continued my reverie of darling songs until an unwitting jab to the arm from a newly arrived seatmate jarred me back to reality. I glanced around and glumly ascertained that we were almost to Manhattan.
Shortly thereafter, we entered the tunnel approaching Grand Central Station, and the sky’s brightness immediately turned black. In the stream of darkness, I realized that music was never the background of my life; it was the soundtrack. It is the soundtrack to most people’s lives- the lubricant that wets the transmission, even when we don’t know how to drive.
It occurred to me as I departed the stilled train, now parked in the station, that if we experienced occasions of sadness or any kind of unhappiness, that maybe if we listened to the songs that underscored those feelings, we could, not so much forget the sad, the bad, or the general wickedness of the world, but embrace them like we do a melancholic song that reminds us of bittersweet heartbreak, loss, or yearning for what might have been.
I continued my train of thought as the hectic sea of New Yorkers jostled me in the echoing corridors of Grand Central. I concluded that not only could we learn to accept these less-than-stellar moments, we could also learn how not to get stuck in them. It was simple. Just keep listening. Eventually, we’ll move past the bitter memories that poke painfully at our tender wounds and recall the splendid ones that summon our most exquisite experiences, such as when a found record electrifies a seven-year-old or a Volkswagen miraculously bolts like a jackrabbit, even with the air conditioning on. Indeed, life goes on… Our collection of experiences grows, and the jukebox of our lives becomes an ever-widening catalog.
And for the occasions when life throws us into a cataclysmic tailspin, thankfully, there’s the option of pressing ‘repeat.’