This month’s Blogging for Books topic is to write about your close, personal relationship with a song. Here’s my entry:
In January of 1992, I was a mess. I was 23 years old, and I was living in my best friend’s mom’s basement, working at an expensive grocery store in the floral department. In the prior six months, I had broken up with a crazy boyfriend after he tried to throw me into a street and then sexually assault me. I had quit my regular job because I was suffering a massive depression. I gave up on life and moved in with my dad and my stepmother, which lasted all of two months before we got into a fight and they put me out. I guess it might have been the lowest moment of my life—it was certainly one of the lowest. I was not acting rationally.
One night, I got a call from a friend who was in the process of getting transferred from a job in NJ to a job in Santa Barbara, CA. She and a co-worker (who was also being transferred) were planning to make the drive together. There was one problem—she had just found out that her co-worker had only recently gotten his license, and had never driven a stick shift before. And of course, her car was a stick. She was calling to ask me if I would be willing to help her drive across the country. Without really thinking too hard about it, I said yes.
I wrangled two weeks of unpaid leave from my job, and packed up a duffle bag full of clothes and books. She picked me up on a wintry afternoon, and then we drove into Philly to pick up the co-worker. It’s odd, but even through I spent a week with that guy, I couldn’t remember his name to save my life right now. We headed west at about 3 in the afternoon, planning to spend the night somewhere west of Pittsburgh. These were the days before Mapquest, before Internet access—to plan our trip, we had a Rand McNally map of the country and some Triple A hotel books. All three of us were close to broke—they were in slightly better shape then me, as they had some money from their company for relocation—but we planned to stay in the cheapest motels, sharing one room for the three of us, and to eat road food almost exclusively. We planned a northern route through the Midwest, passing through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and planned to turn south once we hit St. Louis. We decided that we would stop once a day to do something touristy, but not plan that too much in advance—we did, however, plan our route through Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon, which my friend had never seen before.
There were two songs that played on the radio as we drove out of Philly: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Pearl Jam’s “Alive.” In early 1992, grunge was starting to spread through mainstream American culture for the first time, and those two songs were a wake-up call to me. I loved me some pop music as a teenager in the ‘80s, but the dance music of my adolescence didn’t speak to me in my young adulthood. I was depressed and angry, and I wanted a soundtrack for that anger, not a dancetrack.
So we drove through the Midwest, smoking cigarettes and telling each other our life stories. Looking back, it seems odd to think of myself as having a life story at 23—I hadn’t really done anything or been much of anywhere. But we had hours for talking, so talk we did—talk and listen to the radio, those were our only choices. And Pearl Jam and Nirvana followed us wherever we went. The third night, we got caught in a massive snowstorm, and had to pull off outside of East St. Louis to stay in a motel, far short of our planned stopping point. We stopped at all manner of truckstops and diners through Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. We briefly diverted from our planned route, so that we could drive on the old Route 66. We saw the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert too. We drove up the Rockies and down into Barstow, and it felt like really getting somewhere, like we were part of some vast Americana diaspora that had come West, young woman, over years and years. That last night as we drove into Santa Barbara I felt like I had never been so alive. And though I was sad that our trip was ending, that week of driving and smoking and talking and listening to “Alive” had given me a confidence that I’d lost over the last six months.
I stayed with an ex-boyfriend in LA for a few days, as he tried to convince me to move to LA to live with him, and then I got on the train to go home. It took me another three days to get there, and during that endless train ride, I decided to give California another shot. I didn’t end up moving to LA with my ex, but I did move to San Francisco in May of that year. And a lot of the good in my life right now resulted from that decision—my family, my husband, my job.
Today, whenever I hear “Alive” I am reminded of that trip, and am nostalgic for that time. It’s hard to believe that I could feel nostalgia for a time that in many ways was so awful. But I am nostalgic, not for the awfulness, but for the feeling of liberation when I finally broke free of it.