Sunday September 2, 2012
Riding the Fast Car
Tracy Chapman’s song evokes sad memories, even as it brings hope for a brighter future.
MY father used to listen to the radio right before he went to sleep. He would set it on snooze mode, for it to turn off after an hour. He loved the oldies – Elvis, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel. Night after night, he would drift off to sleep listening to these tunes and as he did, so did I.
Amid all these gems, there was a particular song which stood out for me: Fast Car by Tracy Chapman. I don’t know if it was the easy rhythm or her unique voice that caught my attention. Maybe it was the underlying melancholy of the melody and lyrics – deep emotions that my 10-year-old self couldn’t consciously comprehend, but which might have resonated subconsciously.
Either way, years passed before I heard that song again. Dad passed away, and my mother took to listening to her collection of Richard Cliff’s music which, she said, reminded her of Dad. And strangely enough, by chance or fate, I never heard Fast Car again although Mum still occasionally listened to the radio.
I’m 19 now. I have put my past, my childhood behind me. But one night, while at a friend’s house in Seattle, Washington, the United States, I was suddenly inspired to listen to that Chapman song again.
It was the middle of the night and my friends were almost asleep. I have no idea what made me do it, but I did it anyway: I grabbed my laptop, ran out to the living room and looked up the song.
It felt good to hear it again. I felt kind of … happy, actually. But as I listened, it occurred to me that although I’d heard it so many times in my childhood, I didn’t actually know the words. So I looked up the lyrics, and out came a tale of generational poverty, big dreams and unfulfilled hopes.
And my past came rushing back.
“You got a fast car/ I want a ticket to anywhere.”
When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time dreaming about getting out. No, not just out of the house, or away from my parents, but about leaving my lower middle-class situation. We got by – it wasn’t as if I had to constantly worry about my next meal – but money was tight. Mum worked hard, and so did Dad. But there was never enough – never enough to pay off all the debts, never enough for anything other than the necessities.
“You see my old man’s got a problem/ He lives with the bottle that’s the way it is.”
The problem was that even though the money my parents brought in would have been more than enough for a comfortable existence, Dad had a gambling habit, which he developed during the last few years of his life. He disappeared for days at a time – you knew he would be at the casino if he just got his pay cheque.
“My mama went off and left him/ She wanted more from life than he could give.”
His disappearing acts frustrated Mum. I’m not sure which was worse: his absence, or the tense arguments that would erupt upon his return. He knew that it wasn’t fair to lose not only his, but her hard-earned money so recklessly, but he did it anyway.
Remarkably, Mum never left. Maybe I played a part, but I think it was the memories of happy days gone by – the days when Dad was still loving and uncorrupted by the taint of gambling – that made her stay. And I cherish her for that.
“I know things will get better/ You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted.”
My childhood years were largely unhappy towards the end. Yet, I harboured this dream of improving my life. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to study in America. I knew that the only way that would ever happen was if I made it happen myself.
Things are better now. I studied hard, got a scholarship and here I am in Northwestern University. Dad’s passing left Mum and me with a small but helpful inheritance, so our financial situation is slightly better now.
I think Mum still misses Dad, but she tries to not let it show. I do too, especially when the days are gloomy, just like they were when he died.
There are still many things left to improve. I’m still just a student, and there is no guarantee that I won’t end up like the narrator in Chapman’s song, stuck in poverty with an alcoholic husband despite her hopes to the contrary.
“City lights lay out before us/ And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder/ And I had a feeling that I belonged.”
And that night in Seattle, I had a feeling that I could be someone.
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